Sometimes after a very long Monday, you ask the laptop, “what’s the shortest, dumbest movie we’ve got,” and the laptop says how about that Marx Brothers movie that you can never remember if you’ve seen or not because it has the same title as a Howard Hawks movie you’ve definitely seen, and you go “sure okay.”

Appropriate title for a movie that’s just a bunch of fooling around. The Four Marx Brothers – even Zeppo, who is properly integrated with the others for once – stowaway on a ship, then anarchy ensues. A couple of warring gangsters are aboard, so the guys split alliances and mess with everyone. There’s plenty of music, and Thelma Todd of Horse Feathers (who would die suspiciously before she was 30), and a gangster’s daughter whom Zeppo likes. There’s a character named Alkie Briggs (Harry Woods, who played the coward Robert Ford in one of the first Jesse James movies) which makes me wish I wrote movies just so I could reuse the name Alkie. And I forget exactly why Harpo had Maurice Chevalier’s passport.

Groucho and Thelma take a break from the action:

Barbara Stanwyck is great as ever, and maybe the movie itself isn’t great, but it’s something we didn’t think ever existed. You hear that the 1930’s pre-codes were edgy, and you see Mae West‘s bawdy humor, but you never expect to see Barbara – pushed by a Nietzsche-quoting crank – to screw her way up the ladder of a bank, finally getting the president to marry her and inspiring two suicides along the way.

Barbara has mixed feelings watching her dad burn up:

Predicting another of her movies, eight years early:

Barbara’s dad Robert Barrat is a crabby bartender, pimping out his daughter until his stillhouse explodes with him inside, so Lily (heh) moves to the city with her buddy Theresa Harris (of Thunderbolt and I Walked With a Zombie) in tow. She doesn’t actually advance her career, because women in banks were secretaries, but she starts as secretary to lowly John Wayne in the filing department and quickly becomes secretary to men higher up the organization. There’s leering Mr. Brody, then the upright guy who tries to get her fired Mr. Stevens (Donald Cook), then his crazy-haired boss Carter aka Fuzzy Wuzzy (Henry Kolker, Katharine Hepburn’s dad in Holiday), and finally the fancy young president (George Brent), who she sideways-seduces by pretending to be reformed and uncorruptable. In the end she either finds her president-husband dead in his office, or she’s so happy he’s still alive that she renounces her riches – your choice.

Barbara ignoring John Wayne:

Cozying up to Brody (Douglass Dumbrille of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town):

With wild scarf, sleeves, and Donald Cook:

Small-town Carole Lombard (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is misdiagnosed with radium poisoning by her incompetent doctor Charles Winninger (The Sun Shines Bright). It seems most old movies have newspaper reporters as main characters, and most are big-city reporters crashing some quaint small town for a story, and this movie is no exception. Frederic March (who I absolutely cannot recognize, even though he starred in Design for Living and I Married a Witch and The Best Years of Our Lives) is that reporter, sent by chief Oliver Stone (really!, played by Walter Connolly, last seen in 5th Ave Girl).

Wellman must’ve put his energy into the oscar-winning A Star Is Born from the same year, cuz this one just spins its wheels. Lombard is cute, and it’s got not-bad color for the 1930’s.

Peter Labuza on Letterboxd:

Hecht’s best films (the Hawks comedies, though it’s also in his Hitchcock thrillers) are built on the fact that every line/action is hit on a very specific beat, a sort of rhythm that demands a not necessarily limited visual/performative delivery, but one that requires it all to be in step with those beats. Wellman instead lets the thing run with a loose rhythm more apt for his style, less editing and more long takes that give the actors breathing room – a good idea but the wrong script for a world where everyone is a cartoon.

That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.


Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)

City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.

Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:

In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.


Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)

Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.

In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.

Kristin Thompson:

Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”


Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)

Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.


Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)

New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.


Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)

Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.


A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)

More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.

How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?


Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)

Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”

Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”

Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.


Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)

Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.


An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)

Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.


Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)

Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.

I’m trying to decide which Sokurov movie(s) to watch in preparation for Francofonia opening in theaters, and this description of Whispering Pages catches my eye:

With this film, Alexander Sokurov “leafs through the pages” of a classic work of Russian prose. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment supplies this work with its ideological theme and the historical setting, but [not] its plot. The novel’s events and familiar characters are simply not mentioned. If anything, they are represented in an “inverse perspective,” where proximity is united with remoteness, beginning with end, the present with the absent.

At the same time I’m watching animated shorts, this week by Piotr Dumala, leading up to his half-hour Crime & Punishment, which the IMDB reviewers agree has beautiful illustration with no discernible story. I don’t even know the story of Crime & Punishment myself, so rather than read the book, or even its wikipedia entry, I thought I’d start with a more narrative movie version, holding a small Crime & Punishment Marathon. But I forgot, one shouldn’t count on 1935 Production Code Hollywood for stories of moral ambiguity.

Lorre, the moment after the crime:

Some Sternbergian-lit close-ups and nice shadow play, but overall it’s a talky studio picture with clunky dialogue, not what I would’ve figured the great Sternberg made between The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman. I think his heart wasn’t in it.

Peter Lorre’s Raskolnikov graduates with top honors, and writes an acclaimed article about criminal psychology, but then as now, writing acclaimed articles doesn’t pay the bills. Nearly destitute, he knocks off a pawnbroker and steals some stuff, but flees the scene before getting anything of real value. Rask decides since he’s a crime expert he can’t get caught, so he puffs himself up and offers help solving the crime to chief inspector Edward Arnold (a Capra regular who’s very good here, given the time and space to do his own thing). Emboldened, Rask marches into a publishing house and demands a large advance to write new work, which he receives, and begins throwing money around. Though Rask is becoming megalomanic, he’s still pretty incompetent in the real world, and his growing guilt plus the poor religious girl Sonya who he met at the pawn shop the day of the crime set him straight, and he turns himself in with a look of humble enlightenment.

All in English with a few odd references to Russia (rubles, Siberian prisons) to remind viewers of the story’s global-lit origins. Also a whole side plot about Rask’s sister Antonya, who’s going to marry a rich buffoon (Gene Lockhart, Crachit in the Reginald Owen A Christmas Carol) until Rask gets wealthy and chases the man off – and a nosy fellow named Grilov who knows the sister and overhears Rask, who is generally bad at covering his tracks, speaking about the crime.

Lockhart at center, with the while Rask family:

I assumed the Bible-carrying Sonya convincing Rask to turn himself in was a Hollywood addition, but after the major discrepancies between this and the Kaurismaki version I finally read the novel’s wikipedia plot summary and the Christian repentance comes from the book. Some other interesting wiki tidbits: “His motivation [to kill] comes from the overwhelming sense that he is predetermined to kill the old woman by some power outside of himself.” In this film, the motivation seems like pure desperation, and his delusions of outside powers begin afterward. “He also kills [the pawnbroker’s] half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime.” Here it’s a couple of dudes, and Rask runs from them in a panic. Lorre (“the celebrated European star,” as he’s introduced in the opening titles) was between appearances in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent, and this movie could’ve used more Hitchcock – or even more Sternberg.

A too-young Joel McCrea is out with his rich white yachting buddies when he decides to stay behind on a tropical island with the hot girl he met, who he soon learns is scheduled to be sacrificed to a volcano. Seems like this movie inspired both Joe vs. the Volcano and The Thin Red Line.

Ridiculous movie, but at least Dolores del Rio is good – and does some nude swimming.

Ballet Mecanique (1924, Léger & Murphy)

Every camera and editing trick known to man (at the time), in a rhythmic collage of pleasingly odd images. Plucky string music by Paul Mercer on this version.

The women (woman?) of Ballet Mecanique:


Combat de boxe (1927, Charles Dekeukeleire)

Someone allowed a filmmaker to shoot a sold-out boxing match, not knowing Dekeukeleire was a lunatic obsessed with film reversal and superimposition who would shoot anything but a standard angle on the action. Who did the great soundtrack, all pulsing sound effects and breathing? Dekeukeleire was a Belgian film pioneer, made two other influential avant-garde films in the late 1920’s according to wikipedia.

The boxer uses ghost mode:


Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell)

Cornell’s re-edit of East of Borneo, which appears to be a somnambulist jungle picture, highlighting the scenes of star Rose Hobart. Oh wait, he has slowed the film to silent speed, that’s why it looks so dreamy. The not-exactly-fitting-the-mood soundtrack is from a record called Holiday In Brazil.

Cornell’s first film, and his most famous. Reportedly during the premiere screening Salvador Dali attacked the film projector in a rage, claiming the film had been stolen from his dreams. I watched a whole program of Cornell shorts at Eyedrum in the pre-blog era, but hadn’t seen this one before.

Rose chats with a monkey:

B. Frye in Senses of Cinema:

Rose Hobart was only one of several mythologized actresses who populated Cornell’s hermetic world. Many of his boxes were homages to the actresses that formed his pantheon: Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, among others. In Rose Hobart, Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film itself into a sort of box. She moves her hands, shifts her gaze, gestures briefly, smiles enigmatically, perhaps steps slightly to the side, and little more. The world appears as a sort of strange theatre, staged for her alone.


Betty Boop for President (1932, Dave Fleischer)

Okay, what? That is a cynical view of government for the 1930’s. Betty does caricatures of I’m not sure who, and appears to be a communist. Her opponent is Mr. Nobody, who gets booed by his crowd. After she’s elected, her victory parade fades into a giant beer mug, implying the entire film has been a drunken fantasy.


Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933, Dave Fleischer)

Bimbo and Koko are incompetent, cat-tormenting mad scientists obsessed with their next door neighbor Betty. They accidentally create a Chemical Frankenstein who pursues her before being turned into a flower by her perfume. Insane and wonderful. Nice variation on the ol’ blackface Al Jolson gag.

Koko on fire:


Carmen (1933, Lotte Reiniger)

I don’t watch much opera, so don’t know the plot of Carmen. It seems she lures some fancy man to her sexy lair, then steals his clothes and sells them, buying herself a new outfit. But she fails to impress an even fancier man, the famous bullfighter, so she heads into the ring, dodging the first man who is now trying to murder her, and dances with the bull. Is that the general idea? Oh yeah, Wikipedia says that’s pretty much it, except the first man ends up killing her. The first of Reiniger’s silhouette films I’ve seen and it’s just wonderful.


Papageno (1935, Lotte Reiniger)

More opera… guess I never wrote up the Julie Taymor theater version of The Magic Flute we saw last year. It wasn’t a proper Taymor film like Midsummer but a live-televised version of her play. Anyway we both enjoyed. I wouldn’t have figured the carefree singing bird catcher Papageno for a spinoff film, but that’s what we’ve got here, set to the Mozart music. Papageno’s a real hero in this one, fighting off a giant snake that attacks his girlfriend Papagena by harnessing his bird-friends’ powers, like an avian Aquaman. She escapes on an ostrich, is gone for a half minute, which is too long for ‘geno, who attempts suicide, saved by a flock of parrots. Definitely best part is the ending, while the reunited lovers are singing to each other and the birds start rolling in eggs hatching baby Papageni.

Parrots!

There’s a lot of kissing and disrobing in these movies – guess you could get away with sexier stuff in silhouette animation than using actors in the 1930’s.

Making out in the trees:

About to catch an escape-ostrich outta here:

A pretty good Cukor movie made in between really great Cukor movies. For some reason I can’t ever get into movies about rich courtesans in ill health who can’t decide between their callous rich suitor or their young and energetic, devout but poor suitor.

Stars Greta Garbo, who I’ve rarely seen in movies and doesn’t make much of a distinctive impression, in one of her final films. We’ll have to watch Queen Christina or Grand Hotel sometime to see what the hubbub is about. Henry Daniell (The Suspect, Witness for the Prosecution) is the boring old baron and Nebraskan Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe, Three Comrades, the 1935 Magnificent Obsession) is young and in love.

Based on the Alexandre Dumas novel, which has been adapted a million times, because apparently audiences love courtesans. The Theda Bara version is presumed lost. Others starred Norma Talmadge, Pola Negri or Rudolph Valentino. Isabelle Huppert and Bruno Ganz appeared together. Ben Kingsley played Colin Firth’s dad. Raymond Bernard made a version. Fortunately, the Antonioni film The Lady Without Camelias is an entirely different story.

Weirdly, for one of the best romantic comedies of all time, I had much trouble remembering this a couple weeks later and had to look up the TCM synopsis – unlike The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday and High Society and What a Way to Go!, which I recalled as well as I ever do. So I’d better watch this again sometime.

Anyway, heiress Claudette Colbert (between Lubitsch films The Smiling Lieutenant and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife) is on the run from her overdetermined life and meets chivalrous Clark Gable on the bus. He’s a reporter who agrees to help her if he gets an exclusive story – shades of Roman Holiday – but unlike that movie, this is one of the madcap screwball comedies where writing out the plot would take longer than rewatching the movie – the gist being that the two of them fall gradually in love after spending much travel time together, and she finally flees her society wedding to stay with Gable.

Unhappy bride:

Criterion ad copy: “The first film to accomplish the very rare feat of sweeping all five major Oscar categories (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay), It Happened One Night is among the most gracefully constructed and edited films of the early sound era, packed with clever situations and gags that have entered the Hollywood comedy pantheon and featuring two actors at the top of their game.”

S. Winer:

That first autobus ride is clearly an alien experience for the heiress, who has until this point remained unaware of the greater world around her. At first, she is uncomfortable with her fellow passengers, but eventually she joins them in song and then feels sympathetic pain for the plight of a mother and son who don’t have enough to eat. (Explicitly here, and implicitly throughout the film, Capra is making a brave choice for a romantic comedy by telling us that this is no movie fairyland but very real Depression America — where buses might serve those who could no longer afford cars and hitchhiking those who could afford neither.)

F. Nehme:

In what must be the movie’s most famous scene (although it has a lot of competition), Pete demonstrates, at length and with a fantastic amount of condescension, the proper way to hitchhike: “It’s all in the thumb.” Ellie, splendidly deadpan, watches an entire traffic jam’s worth of cars zip by Pete and his magic thumb, then slinks over and lifts her hem to reveal one of the loveliest legs in movie history. Cut to slamming brakes, then the couple in the rumble seat of a car. But here’s the thing: The man who has stopped (played by Alan Hale) turns out to be a road thief, bent on stealing their remaining suitcase. For all Ellie’s triumph, the creep was looking for a mark, and probably would have stopped in any event.