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

It took me two or three years to finally watch The Golden Coach and then I loved it to pieces, so anticipation was unreasonably high for this one. At first it’s just another Renoir movie, light and magnificent even when being grim and serious, but as the plot threads started to mirror those of The Golden Coach (woman deciding between three lovers) it built to a similarly wonderful ending. So no, not up to Golden Coach standards, but close!

Jean Gabin:
image

This was Renoir’s big return to France, his first French movie since the distrastrously received Rules of the Game, so he made a nationalistic crowd-pleaser with lots of dancing girls, just to be safe. In the late 1800’s, Jean Gabin (fresh off Touchez pas au grisbi) is having financial trouble with his high-class variety theater, decides to buy a new place and revive the low-class can-can dance as a popular middle-class spectacle. Calls it the Moulin Rouge, ho ho. Recruits and trains non-dancers including washwoman Nini and gathers old favorite companions including hot-tempered star dancer (and part-time girlfriend) Lola, famous whistler Roberto, and singing assistant Casimir, and gains financial assistance from a visiting prince.

Trouble: Nini is fooling around with Gabin, also has longtime boyfriend Paolo, and is also being courted by the prince. Paolo tells her it’s over if she dances the cancan in public, and she breaks up with the prince (leading to his suicide attempt), so she tries to stick with Gabin, under the condition that he see no other girl but her. His reaction:
image

So now, boyfriendless, she throws herself joyously into the dance, choosing art over a steady love life, the same ending as The Golden Coach but in exhuberant dance instead of a solemn speech. Wonderful! Can’t believe Katy didn’t want to watch this back when I kept suggesting it in the apartment. Anyway, I’ll gladly watch again when she changes her mind.

Color and sound and costumes are all brilliant. Acting is usually great, and when it’s not, Renoir keeps things moving fast enough that you can’t tell. I was surprised when Gabin wakes up in bed with Lola – I’d forgotten that you could do that in 1950’s Europe. His scene at the end is great, sitting backstage tapping his foot, imagining the action on stage, knowing all the steps and smiling without having to see. The Criterion essay (or did I read it somewhere else?) points out that this scene lets us know that he choreographed the dance and practiced it with the girls over and over without showing us the actual practices… very effective.

Françoise Arnoul (Nini) had previously appeared in Antonioni’s “I Vinti”, is still acting today
image

María Félix (jealous Lola) was a huge star in Mexico. Giani Esposito (the prince) starred six years later in Rivette’s Paris nous appartient.
image

Franco Pastorino (Paolo) died a few years later, only appearing in one more film.
image

This is the earliest Michel Piccoli appearance I’m likely to see (his earlier films are quite obscure). That’s him in the blue.
image

Cameo by Edith Piaf:
image

Katy wanted to close out 1930’s Month with something Great, an acknowledged classic, something she is supposed to have seen but hasn’t, so I picked the one-time Greatest Film of All Time, Rules of the Game.

An amazing looking film indeed, with some fabulous, intricate staging. Some character, actor and plot notes before I forget them yet again:

image

from left to right:
1 Andre the pilot (Roland Tautain, played “the sailor” in Lang’s Liliom) just completed some impressively long news-making flight in order to impress Christine.
2 Octave (Jean Renoir, in his final role as a film actor. He wouldn’t make another film in France until The Golden Coach 14 years later). Friend to all, father figure and wannabe-lover to Christine, a short-lived fantasy. He turns darker (along with everything else) towards the end, realizing he’s a comic figure leeching off his rich friends, goes off to make a belated attempt to be self-sufficient.
3 Robert (Marcel Dalio, had appeared in Renoir’s Grand Illusion and would later have smallish parts in films by Hawks, Fuller (China Gate), Huston and Wyler), very rich but insecure, likes noisy mechanical inventions, has a gorgeous wife in Christine but also a long-standing affair (which he is trying to break off) with Genevieve (Mila Parély, would play one of Belle’s selfish sisters in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast).
4 Austrian Christine (played by Austrian Nora Gregor, had been a star in the 20’s and 30’s, starring in Carl Dreyer’s Michael, killed herself ten years after Rules of the Game only having appeared in one movie since), a bit naive, thinks she belongs with Robert and that Andre is just a friend, until she catches Robert with Genevieve and it shakes her up.

image

Robert (right) with his “double”, Marceau the poacher (Julien Carette, my favorite actor in the group. He also appeared in the previous three Renoir films, later died from smoking in bed). Marceau wants respectability, gets hired by Robert as an indoor servant, but that doesn’t work out so well, goes off on his own at the end.

image

Christine again (left) with servant/friend Lisette (Paulette Dubost, was in Truffaut’s The Last Metro forty years later, also a couple by Max Ophuls in the 50’s), who is more devoted to Christine and her own position than she is to husband Edouard Schumacher (below). She’s Christine’s lower-class double, married to one man but wanting another.

image

Gaston Modot (Edouard) had been in films since 1909 and would keep it up till the 60’s, appearing in one of Renoir’s final films The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (and previously in Elena and Her Men, Grand Illusion and a couple others), also The Lovers and Children of Paradise. Even cooler, he played the main guy in L’Age d’Or. Edouard is jealous for his wife for good reason, since she’s happy to flirt with Marceau. He blasts through the house with his shotgun aiming for Marceau, later teams up with Marceau and aims for Octave, whom he suspects of hooking up with Lisette in the greenhouse. But due to costume changes he doesn’t realize it’s Andre with Christine in the greenhouse, and Edouard kills Andre.


Katy was disappointed, and disputes it being the greatest film of all time. Personally it’s only my third-favorite of the six Renoir films I’ve seen. I do love it, but I wonder about the best-film-ever label (recently surpassed by the new Batman on the all-time lists, actually), so let’s go to the DVD extras.

Ah, my old nemesis P.Bog reads the commentary, but it was written by Alexander Sesonske.

Renoir called it “a frivolous story” shot to avoid talking about the war… about “a rich, complex society where we are dancing on a volcano.”

Of André Jurieux’s radio speech in the opening scene: “His angry charge of disloyalty violates the rules of the game from the very start.”

Critics cried that Renoir cast an Austrian actress and a French jew to represent the French aristocracy.

“In a society of sharp class distinctions, Octave appears as a classless character.”

Plot shows two matched sets of husband/wife/lover/mistress and interceding friend:
1. Robert/Christine/Andre/Genevieve – Octave
2. Edouard/Lisette/Marceau/Christine(?) – and maybe Octave again.

Initially “The servants seem more sensitive to impropriety than their masters.”

“Those who know Renoir films may recognize a familiar figure, for Marceau is the incarnation of that nature god or pan figure who often graces those films from Tire-au-flanc in 1928 on. In a world where nothing is natural, it only appropriate that the nature god should appear as a little poacher in disguise and be pursued with deadly intent by a gamekeeper… But his influence remains the same. When he appears, erotic influences stir in human hearts. That these impulses are destructive rather than creative becomes one more Renoir comment on the corruption of this world.”

“Don’t waste your time in the so-called real life.”

image

One of my new favorite movies! Rivette must’ve dug this one, being about theatrical performances bleeding into real life, with characters and camera always behind and in front of screens and fences, sheets and curtains.

An Italian theater company arrives “in a Spanish colony of Latin America” in the early 1700’s and attempt to build a theater and make a living amongst locals who care more about bullfighting. Camilla, the lead actress of the group (Anna Magnani in an amazing, vibrant performance) entertains the affections of three fans: the local star bullfighter, the viceroy (who offers her the titular coach) and troupe member Felipe, who wants to settle down in the wilds of America. With the threat of duels, revolution, prison and worse, Camilla contrives a way out, donating her coach to the church and retreating back behind the curtain, letting all three men off the hook. Movie (this version of it, anyway) is in English, with a wild mix of accents.

In interview, Renoir says he was highly concerned with color (it is brilliant – see shot above), with Anna’s wonderful acting, with being able to change the script and with playing around with the nature of acting, on the stage and in real life.

Renoir: “My principal collaborator on this film was the late Antonio Vivaldi. I wrote the script while listening to records of his music, and his wit and sense of drama led me on to developments in the best tradition of the Italian theater.”

image

Andrew Sarris: “To claim, as reviewers at the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures.”

Andre Bazin: “Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This approach accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention from his aims. The style is added to the script like rich paint liberally added to a line drawing…”

J. Rosenbaum: “As Bazin suggests, the actors are employed as if they were different kinds of paint, freely spilling over the initial designs, but it’s worth adding that the colors are employed on occasion as if they were actors – a splash of yellow or blue in an incidental decor carrying all the allure of a memorable extra.”

Rosenbaum again:

All three films are comic period fantasies in dazzling color, offering a kind of continuous, bustling choreography in which shifting power relations between upper and lower classes and between spectators and performers literally turn the world into a kind of theater. In this respect, they might be said to offer more abstract and less politically anchored versions of the films Renoir made during the thirties. Unlike their predecessors, they’re deliberately removed from real life. And given the sense of political as well as the personal defeat that came with the war and his departure from France, followed by a lengthy period of living in exile, they’re unable to hide a subtle aftertaste of regret lurking behind all that gaiety – a sense that utopia can only be found, if at all, on a soundstage, not in the Popular Front that once meant so much to Renoir. This sadness only occasionally rises to the surface, as in the memorable exchanges between actors Camilla and Don Antonio at the very end: “Felipe, Ramon, the viceroy… disappeared.” “Now they are part of the audience. Do you miss them?” “A little.”

Scorsese says there were versions in Italian and French, and that the ending (which looks like it came from a degraded print) was newly restored in the 90’s.

Don Antonio, leader of the actors group, played by Odoardo Spadaro of Divorce, Italian Style:
image

Rome’s Cinecitta studio was equipped for sync sound recording in the 50’s? You wouldn’t know it from the Italian movies I’ve seen.

A few comic reminders that we’re in the 18th century: “Tomorrow papa is being bled with leeches, the day after I have my purge.”

Cameo by French actor Jean Debucourt as the bishop, of Epstein’s silent Fall of the House of Usher, Cocteau’s Eagle With Two Heads and Max Ophüls’ Madame de…

The three men, below from left to right:
– Ramon the bullfighter – Riccardo Rioli, whose film acting career began the year before, and ended the year after with a small part in a Mankiewicz picture.
– The Viceroy – Scottish Duncan Lamont, charming in this, later in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quatermass and the Pit.
– Felipe: American Paul Campbell, who was a beef-and-cheesy enough actor to get himself cast in The Deadly Mantis. He lived long enough to have seen the MST3K version – here’s hoping he did.

image

The great Anna Magnani plays Camilla. Star of Mamma Roma, Bellissima and Rome, Open City, she also beat out Kate Hepburn and three other Americans for the 1955 Oscar for The Rose Tattoo.
image

“Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”

Postcolonial Wednesday, part one. I loved everything about the movie, but Katy didn’t like it because of its colonialist politics.

Based on a Rumer Godden novel, and she was on set during filming. Harriet is a young aspiring poet, who thinks she knows all about India… neighbor Valerie is the daughter of a rich American… and neighbor Melanie is half-Indian with an American father (Mr. John) trying to maintain both her American and Indian heritage. One day Captain John shows up and they all fall for him, though Melania tries to hide it. Oh and Harriet’s little brother Bogey has an unhealthy (and eventually fatal) interest in animals, especially poisonous snakes.

A gorgeous movie, looked great on the big screen. Life/death/love/loss themes throughout, all loosely tied (by Harriet more than by the Indians) to the river. The dream sequence told by Melanie (featuring two Indian gods and some dancing) is so great it even impressed Katy. Renoir movies make me feel more alive.

Harriet’s father, Esmond Knight, was in some Powell/Pressburger movies. Most of the other actors were in plenty of other films, except the nanny “Nan” who was in one more IMDB-credited movie… and Harriet, who never was in another movie, and died from cancer in 1967. Her real dad, a comic movie star in the early 30’s, died three weeks later.

CONTEXT: Jean Renoir made The River semi-independently in India after his Hollywood period (Woman on the Beach, Diary of a Chambermaid, etc) and right before his return to France with the celebrated Coach / Cancan / Elena trio. Came out around the same time as Statues Also DieSamuel Fuller was getting started… Bunuel’s Olvidados, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest… some good sci-fi was out in the States… Fritz Lang was making House by the River and Clash by Night and Ophuls had “Madame de…” and “Le Plaisir“.

Jean Gabin is Pepel, lifelong thief, lives in a shifty boarding house, likes his girlfriend’s sister. Girlfriend’s dad owns the place but doesn’t enjoy it one bit. Along comes Louis Jouvet as The Baron, or ex-Baron, as he’s fired from his post for unpaid gambling debts as soon as he’s introduced. Pepel met the Baron after breaking into his house, and they become good friends at the boarding house. But life is hard: the resident poet kills himself and Pepel gets into trouble when the old man dies in a fight. But in the end, Pepel gets off easily, wanders into the sunset with his new girlfriend, and the Baron stays behind.

image missing

image missing

Leave it to Renoir to turn a bitter, harsh reality-check on the “lower depths” of humanity into actually a pretty upbeat and hopeful movie, if you look at it a certain way. Enjoyed it pretty well… more than La Bete Humanine for the most part. Will wait for further comment till I see the Kurosawa version. Katy did not watch it, but I’m sure she wanted to.

image missing

image missing