The Movies Begin, discs 1 & 2

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we? And what better place to start than with a Kino collection called The Movies Begin?


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin Porter)

Stunts, explosions, color, brutal murders, thievery, daring escapes – and dancing! Bandits rob the train of its lockbox loot and all its passengers of their wallets, then escape on horseback. Local bunch of ruffians is alerted to the crime and rides off to kill the perpetrators. All this in ten minutes – more economical than the Sean Connery remake.

One of the more famous shots (haha “shots”) in cinema:

Fire in a Burlesque Theater (1904)

Either this was ineptly framed or I’m seeing a cropped version, because there aren’t nearly enough burlesque dancers with smoke inhalation on display here.

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905)

Hefty Jeffy helps her out… then faints. Was this a comedy?

Spoiler alert:

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

A woman removes her costume – but the good part is done behind a screen. The title was better than the feature, making this the A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence of its time.

Troubles of a Manager of a Burlesque Show (1904)

Troubles because the women are angry at the crappy clothes he expects them to wear, and they flee and throw things when he tries to molest them.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905, Edwin Porter)

So many lost films in history, and this dam thing survives. Hilarious title for a movie without any jokes in it, making this The Ridiculous Six of its time.

The Golden Beetle (1907, Segundo de Chomón)

Ornate, hand-colored, dangerous-looking Meliesian disappearing act. I think a man tries throwing a golden beetle in the fire, and she torments him with showers of sparks before burning him to death. This is great.

Rough Sea at Dover (1895, Birt Acres)

Two shots of the rough sea. Were any other 1895 movies more than one shot long?

Come Along Do! (1898, RW Paul)

Supposedly the first film to feature action carried over from one shot to the next. But I watched it twice, and it appears to be only one shot. Is there an invisible Birdman-like cut in there somewhere? Or did I get the descriptions of the previous two films mixed up? Anyway, two drinkers on a bench outside some mysterious establishment with an “Art Section” and “Refreshments” opt for the art section.

Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903, RW Paul)

Cabs being horse-drawn at the time, a guy stumbles into the street, is trampled to death, then mysteriously recovers and runs off. I’ve seen guys transformed via editing into scarecrow dummies then thrown off trains in The Great Train Robbery, but this one does a good job transforming the dummy back into a guy.

A Chess Dispute (1903, RW Paul)

There is a violent dispute over a game of chess. Mostly this dispute is waged just under the camera’s view, thrown punches and bottles and clothing flying up into frame.

Buy Your Own Cherries (1904, RW Paul)

Awful brute man causes a drunken scene at a bar, then another at his home, then after a quick visit to church he’s wonderful and generous. Extra long at four minutes. Paul also produced the great The ? Motorist, which I had credited to director Walter Booth.

The Miller and the Sweep (1898, GA Smith)

Just a silly half-minute fight/chase in front of an operating windmill. But it’s a really nice shot of the windmill.

Let Me Dream Again (1900, GA Smith)

Happy couple at a party wake up as grumpy old couple in bed… so the movie’s title is the punchline. Smith invented the pull out-of-focus to indicate shift from dream to reality.

Sick Kitten (1903, GA Smith)

Kino says Smith invented the POV shot, and the idea of breaking a scene down into shots from different angles, which he does here. Kids dressed as grownups feed a kitty from a spoon. As is true today, cat films were incredibly popular back then, so this is a remake of his 1901 cat film which had worn out from overduplication.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, GA Smith)

Train goes into tunnel, GA Smith and wife have a quick smooth, train back out of tunnel.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, Bamforth & Co)

A remake! Two different people kiss in a different tunnel (the train shot from different angles than Smith used), in a cabin with worse production design.

A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903, Frank Mottershaw)

Action thriller with multiple shots and locations, reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery. Kino says some plot action in the silent doesn’t make sense because the showman was supposed to provide benshi narration during the screening.

A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903, William Haggar)

Men with guns chase men with nets. Oh damn wait, the poachers have guns too, and blast at least three of the pursuers. Poaching was deadly serious business. Just a big chase scene, really.

Attack on a China Mission (1901, James Williamson)

A man’s house is attacked, he defends with rifle, then more groups keep arriving and I’m not sure what side they’re on. Kino says it’s a reenactment of the Boxer Uprising, which must have been a confusing uprising. Kino says JW was famous for moving action across multiple shots, mainly during chase films, which sounds like what everyone was famous for in 1901.

An Interesting Story (1905, James Williamson)

Mustache man pours coffee in his hat, injures the maid, wrecks some children’s fun, and keeps running into things because he won’t put down his book (just like kids today with their cellular telephones). Satisfying conclusion as he gets run over by a steamroller, but some passing bicyclists inflate him, using the ol’ dummy-replacement trick last seen in Extraordinary Cab Accident.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903, Thomas Edison & Edwin S. Porter)

Never forget, no matter what his achievements in human history, Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant for fun and profit.

Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer (2015, Jack Walsh)

Lovely event by The Ross. Went out to dinner with director and cinematographer, and it occurred to me towards the end to feel guilty to be celebrating with the filmmakers of a documentary I’m probably not going to like. Docs about artists tend not to be very artistic themselves, and talking-head interview movies seem pointless to watch in theaters. So I was expecting another Altman, but this doc was great. Yvonne had a fascinating life, and the movie does a good job following it, showing groovy clips of dance routines and films, and not playing the “then this happened, then that happened” narrator games. Yvonne had breast cancer and got a mastectomy, then would stand in classic shirtless male-model poses. Later in the Q&A someone asked if she had breast cancer and I thought “of course she did,” but I guess the movie didn’t explicitly state this, just expected you to follow the stories. This counted as the U.S. theatrical premiere – that’s for a regular week-long release, since it played festivals already.

Screening Room: Yvonne Rainer (1977)

To prep for the Yvonne doc, I watched most of this TV special, in which the great Robert Gardner interviews Yvonne about her film Kristina Talking Pictures, showing about a half hour of it. Local film critic Deac Rossell joined the conversation, and the two men seemed very anxious to talk about film technique, leaving Yvonne to mostly smile in the background – a shame, since I watched this to hear what she’d have to say. I was most uninterested in the film itself at first, with its typically dry, amateur acting, but then I started to notice the unconvincing actors were discussing unconvincing acting in films, and towards the end of the episode the clips played with sync sound in a cool way. So I still haven’t seen a full Yvonne Rainer film, but I know a lot more about her.

Kristina Talking Pictures:

Yvonne:

The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)

Endless, rambling bio-pic about a theater producer who always planned bigger shows than he could afford, with enthusiasm that proved contagious to financial backers. Semi-falsely billed as a William Powell/Myrna Loy movie, since she plays his second wife, appearing in the last half hour of the three-hour movie. Good scenes (especially the lavish musical numbers) and acting, but the story is bloated with details from Ziegfeld’s life that just aren’t necessary to the plot or character, starting with an opening scene with his father and a little girl (who returns hours/years later to dance in one of his shows, but so what).

Powell was between The Thin Man and its first sequel. He runs a circus act with strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton of two Thin Man movies), then marries his star Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning back-to-back oscars with this and The Good Earth) after moving to Broadway shows. Anna carries her whole show, but Ziegfeld wants to do something bigger (he gives the impression of having a short attention span), so he starts the Follies, a musical comedy variety show that changes every year. Some ups, some downs, he seems washed up then opens four Broadway hits at the same time, then falls broke/sick/dead when the market crashes.

Myrna Loy’s character is Billie Burke, the good witch of The Wizard of Oz, and Frank Morgan (Ziegfeld’s main friend/rival) played The Wizard himself. Surprisingly, Will Rogers was dead and that was a Will Rogers impersonator in his scene.

Written by one of Ziegfeld’s main show writers. Won best picture and actress (Luise Rainer). Frank Capra, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dodsworth took the rest. Got a semi-sequel in Ziegfeld Girl, also by Robert “Ziegfeld” Leonard with Busby Berkeley (it’s shorter, with Judy Garland = probably a better movie), and the music and comedy revue Ziegfeld Follies, featuring Powell as the dead Ziegfeld.

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

A singing, dancing musical fantasy taking place in the mind of a lead character confined to a hospital bed, who doubles the filmmaker’s own hospital illness/fantasies. But enough about The Singing Detective

Bob Fosse ended up in hospital trying to obsessively re-edit his film Lenny while launching his musical Chicago, and Fosse’s stand-in Roy Scheider (the guy in Jaws whom I disliked less than Richard Dreyfuss) is in a similar fix, plus he’s juggling too many drugs and women, including ex-wife Leland Palmer (that’s the actress’s real name, also of Ken Russell’s Valentino) and dream-girl Jessica Lange. Inspired by 8 1/2, Scheider always surrounded by women in his profession and home life.

Lost the big oscars to Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, but still won a bunch, including editing, which it deserved. Most impressive part of the movie is the dance scenes, which include the camera and editing as part of the dance.

N. Murray:

Joe’s great curse is that he knows everything can be improved with more time and effort — himself included. More than once in the movie, he shows his work to someone who’s exasperated with him for all the time he’s taking and all the money he’s spending, and in each case, they shake their heads, annoyed to have to admit that all his fussing has made the finished product more brilliant. A skeptic might say this is Fosse congratulating himself, but it’s really more of an explanation. It’s impossible to create something as lasting as All That Jazz without doing a lot of personal and collateral damage.

Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)

This was fun. I suppose I can forgive The Squid and the Whale now. Greta Gerwig (best known as the first victim in House of the Devil) wants to be a famous dancer, will never be a famous dancer, is kind of unsufferable but cute enough that you forgive her. A better movie than Monsters University about childhood dreams and hard work not entirely working out. Katy cringed a lot during the most Baumbachesque scene, an ultra-awkward dinner conversation, while I was busy trying to figure why Dean & Britta were in the scene.

Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)

Dance doc based on the choreography of Pina Bausch, who died unexpectedly a week before filming was to begin. It ends up feeling like a memorial instead, the dance scenes interspersed with non-synched voiceover/closeup segments with each major dancer saying something about Pina.

Katy wanted more narrative and background, but the movie is purely interested in the dances, which are outstanding and look awesome in 3D. Highlights: “Cafe Muller,” in which Pina runs across a room full of chairs while a guy quickly clears her path, a couple climbing through chairs while a third guy precariously stacks them (Pina was into chairs), a solo sadness ballet at an empty factory, a rainy moon-rock scene with gondola-like floor slides, and dances in active locations (by a busy street, on a monorail).

Royal Wedding (1951, Stanley Donen)

Katy found some rare free time to watch a movie (she was sick), so we watched another Fred Astaire musical (our sixth). SHOCKtober will resume shortly.

For once, Fred Astaire’s costar isn’t his romantic partner but his sister. Fred was in his 50’s, looking slightly rough in close-up but having lost no charm, and sister Jane Powell was only 32, of course. The two are dancing partners in a hit show in New York – he’s the consummate professional and she’s always out with a different guy. Their agent books them a gig in London (supposedly it’s the same show, but prefiguring The Band Wagon, none of the music numbers we see from it seem vaguely related to each other) and they each find true love. Jane Powell recognizes a kindred spirit in royal womanizer Peter Lawford (who costarred in Easter Parade with Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948, the same year Jane Powell starred in A Date With Judy), and Astaire meets pretty redhead Sarah Churchill (who wasn’t in a ton of movies, but guess whose daughter she was). And they live happily et cetera.

Of course the group/duo dances are very nice, but Astaire kills it in the solo segments. He does two of his most famous and elegant dances – one on the walls and ceiling (even after I explained, Katy still can’t figure how he did this), and one ingeniously with a coat rack as his partner, a clear influence on David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. For her own solo numbers, Powell sings. And I did not have to turn to IMDB to know that she’s a big fan of Jeanette MacDonald, the piercing Snow White soprano of Monte Carlo and Love Me Tonight. Powell isn’t as horribly shrill, and recording equipment was of higher quality in 1951, but it’s still not my favorite vocal style.

Young director Stanley Donen’s next musical would be Singin’ in the Rain, and this was the first movie by writer Alan Jay Lerner, who’d write Gigi and My Fair Lady. Sarah’s bartender dad is Irishman Albert Sharpe, who returned in Lerner’s Brigadoon. Keenan Wynn seemed awfully proud of himself, but was frankly stupid as both the couple’s New York agent Irving, and his twin brother in England, Edgar. He would improve into the 60’s, appearing in Dr. Strangelove and Point Blank, before falling to the depths of Laserblast and Parts: The Clonus Horror.

Month of 121 Shorts: Silent/Early Cinema 2

Methuselah (1927, Jean Painlevé)
The title character is a dog-masked shoe-obsessed megalomaniac. Painlevé himself plays Hamlet, and surrealist poet Antonin Artaud found time to appear in this between Abel Gance’s Napoleon and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Doesn’t really make sense on its own – five filmed episodes that were projected during a stage play, strung together here with a stereotypical silent-film piano score.

The Vampire (1945, Jean Painlevé)
Portrait of the South American vampire bat set to happy jazz. They put a bat and a guinea pig in a cage and let the one eat the other. Don’t think I’ll be showing this one to Katy.

Bluebeard (1938, Jean Painlevé)
An opera version of Bluebeard, comically told with awesome and elaborate claymation.

The High Sign (1921, Keaton & Cline)
Buster steals a cop’s gun, runs a shooting gallery, becomes a rich guy’s bodyguard and becomes the same guy’s hired killer. Gags involving ropes and dogs and a house full of traps – one of BK’s funniest and most complicated shorts. So many film scraches I thought it was supposed to be raining. Features Al St. John (the clown who would one day be known as Fuzzy Q. Jones in a hundred westerns) and the gigantic Joe Roberts.
image

One Week (1920, Keaton & Cline)
Opens with the same calendar we just saw in The High Sign and Buster getting married… nice transition from the last movie except that it’s a different girl. The one in which he builds a house. More acrobatic stunts than the previous movie – the two make a good pairing. Ooh, a meta camera gag and some near-nudity. I think more work went into this than all of Go West.
image

A Wild Roomer (1927, Charley Bowers)
Charley (who not-so-subtly calls himself an “unknown genius” in the intertitles) makes a God Machine which creates self-aware puppets.
image

Actually I’m not sure what that was about, besides being an extended stop-motion demonstration – the machine is supposed to take care of all your household chores. As with both of the other Bowers films I’ve watched recently, he has unquestionably made an excellent machine, so the conflict comes from the complications from having to show it off to others (in this case a cranky saboteur uncle with an inheritance at stake).
image

Zooming in further one finds… a baby exterminator??
image

Fatal Footsteps (1926, Charley Bowers)
“If there were a tax on idiots, Tom would send his dad to the poorhouse.” Well that makes up for the “unknown genius” line. Charley is trying to learn the Charleston to win a contest in the very house where the Anti-Dancing League (motto: “mind thy neighbor’s business”) is meeting. Just when I thought it was gonna be that simple, he invents some mechanical dancing shoes – stop-motion ensues. The shoes get mistakenly worn by Charley’s relative who offends his fellow Leaguers, then Charley wins (and escapes) the contest.
image

Even fish are learning the Charleston:
image

Haunted Spooks (1920, Hal Roach/Alfred Goulding)
The girl is first introduced kissing baby birds, so she’s got my sympathy.
image

Her grandfather dies – she gets the house and inheritance if she lives in it for a year with her husband – but she has no husband! I thought I’d be in for 25 minutes of haunted-house hijinks, but the husband problem has to be solved first (Harold Lloyd is rejected by his rich dream girl, picked up by our girl’s lawyer while attempting to commit suicide) so we don’t get to the house until minute 17. After introducing some superstitious-negro stereotypes, the girl’s crooked uncle proceeds to “haunt” the house to drive her away and steal the inheritance.
image

image

Cute movie, but what I liked best were the illustrated intertitles.
image

Chess Fever (1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Fever has gripped the whole town. Chess breaks up a relationship, drives two people to attempted suicide, then happily reunites them. I guess from important-sounding Pudovkin, with his grim-looking video covers, I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but this was light (despite all the suicide) and wonderful. Wikipedia says it includes documentary footage of the 1925 Moscow chess tournament.
image

Charleston (1927, Jean Renoir)
A scientist from central Africa (a white guy in blackface and a tuxedo) flies in his aircraft (a marble on a string) to post-apocalyptic Paris, runs into a sexy Euro-girl and her pet monkey. The girl (Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s wife) teaches him the Charleston, filmed in cool slow-motion. Maybe this wasn’t as surreal in ’27 as it is today. The first (credited on IMDB anyway) film produced by Pierre Braunberger, who would go from Renoir to Resnais/Rivete/Rouch to Truffaut/Godard to Shuji Terayama.
image

The Little Match Girl (1928, Jean Renoir)
New year’s eve, a poor girl (Catherine Hessling again) can’t sell any matches, starves/freezes to death on the street after hallucinating a better life. The first Renoir film I’ve seen with stop-motion (there’s only a tiny bit) but not the first to focus on clockwork machines. Also reverse and slow-motion and a horse race through the clouds – much more ambitious than Charleston. In her fantasy she plays at the toy store, shrunk to toy size herself, and meets a handsome soldier who looks suspiciously like the handsome cop who was nice to her in the snowy street. It’s all fun and games until Death comes and wrestles her from the soldier. Both these shorts were shot by Jean Bachelet, who would be cinematographer on three separate films of The Sad Sack including Renoir’s.
image

Hellzapoppin’ (1941, H.C. Potter)

“It’s a great script – feel how much it weighs.”

Seeing how it’s Academy Awards season, I’ve been watching bizarrely oscar-related movies… first Susan Slept Here was narrated by an oscar statue, and now this one, the only movie to be nominated by accident. It seems a song called “Pig Foot Pete” appeared in an Abbott and Costello movie with the same singer (Martha Raye) and songwriters who worked on this movie, which probably accounts for the never-properly-explained discrepancy of “Pig Foot Pete” getting Hellzapoppin’ awarded an oscar nomination. It’s all beside the point, since nothing stood a chance against the song White Christmas from Holiday Inn.

The story involves mistaken identity, Martha Raye (Monsieur Verdoux) running after Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey) because she believes he’s an eligible millionaire, while he tries to score Jane Frazee – but the movie (based on a fourth-wall-smashing hit broadway play) is really just an excuse for popular comics Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson to riff on everything around them, including the film itself. Goofy-looking Hugh Herbert (whose “hoo-hoo-hoo!” laugh supposedly inspired the creation of Daffy Duck) of Footlight Parade, Sh! The Octopus and The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, also wanders about making jokes.

Chic and Ole – don’t ask me which is which:
image

Movies like this (and there aren’t many movies like this) make the phrase “screwball comedy” seem inappropriately applied to such relatively calm, normal films as Bringing Up Baby. Surely the Marx Brothers movies were an influence. I’d like to think that Frank Tashlin, who was working in cartoons at the time this came out, was heavily influenced by its high-energy cartoony gags and unhinged self-reflexivity. Some of the jokes (many of the jokes!) are very bad, but you’ve gotta forgive them because overall the movie is too amusingly nuts to dislike.

Frankenstein’s Monster, about to helpfully toss Martha Raye:
image

Kevin Lee: “The show-stopper is the much celebrated Lindy Hop sequence involving several Black domestic servants who without warning launch into the most jaw-dropping swing number captured on film.”

Here’s the precursor to that swing number, which is indeed jaw-dropping:
image

Director Potter would work with all the biggest stars in his other films, and eventually make a sequel to this year’s biggest oscar-winner Mrs. Miniver.

Pretty girls are roasted on a spit in hell – the movie opens with this!
image

The legal battle of Olsen vs. Johnson vs. Universal Pictures has led to the commercial unavailability of their work for so long that if it finally came out now, in sparkling restored deluxe DVD editions, nobody much would care since they are barely remembered. Good job there, guys.

Martha mooning after Mischa Auer:
image

NY Times called it “an anarchic collection of unfunny gags,” but then, they also spelled “alittle” as one word.

Once and future stooge Shemp Howard is the film projectionist. I love how he, not the cameraman, can change the framing of the movie by panning to follow women in swimsuits.
image