Friday, August 8, 2008

The Devil Dancer, The Magic Flame and George Barnes... kinda

George Barnes, right, with George Pal on the set of War of the Worlds (1953).

George Barnes, born October 16th, 1892, began work as a cinematographer at the age of 26, becoming a mainstay at Thomas H. Ince Studios, doing work for 14 of the studio's 107 films. After the studio's closing in 1920, he hopped around between studios, doing work on all different types of film, and became a highly demanded cinematographer for Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, and Leo McCarey.

In 1929, George Barnes was the first man to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In the early days of the Academy, someone could get nominated for multiple works within that year. In the very first Academy Awards, George Barnes was nominated for three. Two of them where The Devil Dancer (1927) and The Magic Flame (1927).

Sadly, both these films are unavailabe.

Fred Niblo
STARRING: Gilda Gray, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong
NOMINATED FOR: Best Cinematography (George Barnes)

According to TCM, here's the plot:

"Takla, a white orphan brought up and kept captive in a Himalayan monastery, is rescued by Althestan, an adventurous Englishman who falls in love with her. His sister, displeased with her brother's choice, arranges to have Takla kidnaped. Althestan searches for her and eventually finds her with a troupe of itinerant Muslim entertainers."

Not much more info exists beyond that. It's thought that this film is lost for good, along with 80-90% of the output during the silent era. Film preservation wasn't really on anyone's mind back in the 1920s. And what of The Magic Flame?

Henry King
STARRING: Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky, Agostino Borgato
NOMINATED FOR: Best Cinematography (George Barnes)

Well, it fairs a tad bit better, but don't expect to ever see it. Only five of the original eleven reels exist, and they're stored in the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House Archives. Here's the plot via TCM:

"Bianca, the aerial star of Baretti's circus, loves Tito, the clown, and resents the advances of the handsome Crown Prince of Illyria, who poses as Count Cassati. The prince pursues the wife of a neighboring squire and kills her husband when he discovers them together. Maddened by Bianca's refusals, the prince lures her to his hotel with a forged letter, but she drops from the window, using her gymnastic skill to escape. Tito comes to her aid and in a struggle with the prince casts him from the window into the sea. Bearing a striking resemblance to the prince, Tito assumes his identity and thus evades prosecution. Believing Tito to have been killed by the prince, Bianca leaves the circus to seek vengeance. During the coronation, she is about to assassinate the "prince" when he reveals his identity, and together they escape to the circus."

Vilma Banky as Bianca in The Magic Flame (1927)

Here's a copy of the New York Times review of the film that goes into more detail, via a Vilma Bank fansite.
And if you want to go even MORE into detail, here's a novilization of the film, translated from a French magazine.

Now, that's just frustrating, to have so many clues to what this film was like and not being able to see it. Eh, who knows, maybe the other six reels will show up someday. Look at what happened with Metropolis.

Now, it seems unfair to leave it at that, so to make up for these two lost treasures, we'll look at two other films made by George Barnes made shortly before the Academy Awards took place.

THE EAGLE (1925)
Clarence Brown
STARRING: Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Bánky, Louise Dresser

For many, The Eagle was the comeback of young star Rudolph Valentino, who would become one of film's first heartthrobs until his untimely death in 1926 at the age of 31. In this film, he stars as Vladimir Dubrovsky, a soldier in the Russian army who goes rogue in order to don a mask, take the name "The Black Eagle" and get revenge at the man who stole his father's home. It's sort of a new take on the whole Robin Hood/Zorro thing, only the Black Eagle has a mask shaped like a bird.

But we're not here to talk about the film itself, we're here to look at the cinematography. There's a lot of great technical stuff going here. For one, we get several chase scene with some solid early tracking shots, with things both moving away from the camera...

...And to the camera...

...Most of these are impressive for their time. Bumpy, but they work. However, these are just teasers for THE tracking shot of the movie. In one scene, Kyrilla (the baddie) is having a huge feast with all his baddie buddies. We cut to Kyrilla at one end of the table...

..and we start pulling back...

...and we pull back...

...and we pull back...

...and we pull back...


These days, we'd put a camera on a crane for this kind of tracking shot. Back in 1925, they had to construct a special table that came apart to let the camera through! I don't know how much of that was George Barnes' work, but it's a great effect and my favorite shot of the entire film.

Something I noticed about George Barnes films, at least the ones I've seen before, is that he loves closeup of hands. Don't ask me why.

Well he loved his hands, Barnes didn't seem have too many closeups of the face in this film. The photo of The Eagle in his mask above is the closest he ever got to a face in the film. Here's the second closest:

In fact, our hero is more often then not seen at a distance.

This, I think, is mostly director Clarence Brown's idea, because in our next George Barnes/Rudolph Valentino film, there are closeups galore.

George Fitzmaurice
STARRING: Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Bánky, George Fawcett

A sequel to 1921's The Sheik, this film follows the Ahmed, the Sheik's son (Valentino) as he tries to woo (and then rape(like father like son)) a young dancer. Like I mentioned, there are a lot more closeups, in part because Valentino had really hit the big time at this point, and you can't NOT have closeups of the latest sex symbol. It's also in part that many of the actors in this film have very expressive faces. For example, Montagu Love has one of the best bad guy faces of the silent era.

But that face isn't nearly as creepy as Karl Dane's. If someone had made a Batman movie during the silent era, Karl Dane would play the Joker.

And to think, his character is one of the GOOD GUYS!

The entire film takes place in the desert, and George Barnes does a good job showing the emptiness of it.

Things take a different tone when we get to set shots. In one scene, Ahmed and the dancer are hanging around a ruined building. Unknown to them, the baddies are slowly creeping in from the shadows. These darker shots are very effective, but almost seem like they belong in another movie. They're almost Fritz Lang-ish.

Oh, did I mention that Valentino plays two roles? He plays both Ahmed and Ahmed's father, the original Sheik. There's one scene near the end where the two cross paths, and we get some nifty old school split screening.

It's an effect we've seen dozens of times before now, but I can imagine it was pretty neat back in 26. Still, pretty old school, it's not like their physical interacting or anythiOH MY GOD HE JUST REACHED OUT AND TOUCHED HIMSELF!!!

The effect is actually kind of obvious in motion, but it's still a gutsy move that most people wouldn't try today.

Oh, as for hands?

Yeah, it's got them.

So, there you have it, two films for two films lost. Don't worry, we haven't seen the last of George Barnes.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

May 16, 1929

Time Magazine, People section, May. 27, 1929:

"Names make news." Last week the following names made the following news:

John Pierpont Morgan, yachtsman, has made his last voyage on his huge, black-hulled Corsair. Last week the Corsair beat United Cigar Store Tycoon George J. Whalen's Warrior across the Atlantic. In Manhattan the Corsair's officers announced that she would be turned over to the U. S. Geodetic Survey. Mr. Morgan will not stop yachting. A two-million-dollar successor to the Corsair is being built in Bath, Me.

In 1929, my great-grandfather was living with his family in a mud hut out in the Mojave Desert. They owned a car, but it didn't work. Legend says Great-Grand spent a long time tinkering with it, even inventing a new part that wouldn't require you to crank the car to start it. I've seen pictures of this device, it's real. Had Great-Grand decided to patent it, we might be billionares.

John Coolidge once bought a saxophone for $230, tooted it in the White House. His father objected. Son John sold the horn. Last week one Arnold Zahn of Brookline, Mass., obtained what was represented as being the Coolidge saxophone, at a Boston pawnshop, for $15.

While we never got rich, his tinkering did start a chain reaction that resulted in a whole bunch of mechanics. He got a job as a mechanic, and all his sons became mechanics. My Dad and his brothers all became mechanics. Never owned a shop, mind you. That would have been too ambitious for my relatives. They liked to play it safe.

Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, grandson of the onetime Kaiser, lately engaged to German Cinemactress Lili Damita, is listed as "Louis Ferdinand," student-laborer, in the Ford assembly plant in Los Angeles. He eats his lunches from paper bags. Last week he said he liked his job. Said he: "I'm just goofy—you understand that?—about it, although I do not know what my parents will do when they find out."

My Dad, however, didn't care about passing it on. He didn't want his kids to be trapped by family tradition. If I had a question about cars, he'd tell me, he'd show me the insides and talked about how they worked, but only if I asked. He never went "Here, take this screwdriver and come with me."

William Marion Jardine of Washington & Kansas, onetime Secretary of Agriculture, was last week elected board chairman of Investment Corp. of North America, succeeding the late Lyman B. Kendall.

And I still don't really care about cars. I never ooed and awed over the classic hotrods and the latest in minivan technology. I'm happy as can be with my beat-up 80s Taurus. And as a kid, the mechanics of it all just bored me to death.

Mrs. Harry Ford Sinclair neared a nervous breakdown last week, was taken from Washington to a sanatorium at Battle Creek, Mich.

No. What I was interested in was movies.

Edsel Ford dug the first turf last week for a new Ford plant in Degenham, Essex, England. So manfully dug he that he bent his silver spade. The factory, to be finished in less than three years, will employ 15,000, make 300,000 Fords yearly.

The most I ever wanted to know about cars was how they got the time machine to fly in Back to the Future Part II.

Edward Gordon Craig, famed British stage designer, son of the late Actress Ellen Terry, announced last week that next fall he would make an extensive U. S. lecture tour. His last U. S. visit was in 1885.

I made my first movie at the age of five. It was five minutes long and was a mock news report about things going on around the house. I later made fan-scripts for episodes of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and did comics adaptions of my favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons. My favorite movie was Escape From Witch Mountain.

Thomas Tunney, Manhattan detective, brother of retired fisticuffer James Joseph ("Gene") Tunney, went last week to squelch a conference of policy game promoters, scuffled with a large Negro, wrested a revolver from his hand.

When I was 12, I experimented with stop-motion. I did several one-man Christmas plays (Please don't ask how I made Frosty The Snowman into a one-man play. That was a nightmare) and I got other kids from around town to do plays with me too. I shot most of my family's vacation videos with a huge clunky VHS camera that weighed ten pounds. My favorite movie was Jurassic Park.

James Joseph ("Gene") Tunney, has been twanging a harp during his stay on the Adriatic isle of Brioni. Last week he was in no mood for twanging. Reason: it was reported that Mrs. Tunney, convalescent from an appendicitis operation (TIME, May 20) must soon undergo another for stomach trouble.

In high school, my senior project was a documentary on the private life of teachers. I also did docs for science class on the stages of matter and of the different types of rocks. My favorite movie was Memento.

At Yale's annual Tap Day (senior society elections), held last week, the first man chosen by Scroll & Key was Woodruff R. Tappen, junior varsity stroke oar, tapped by Paul Mellon, son of the Secretary of the Treasury. The seventh man chosen by Skull & Bones was Waldo W. Green, football captain-elect, tapped by George Harris Crile, son of Dr. George W. Crile, famed Cleveland physician whose clinic was last week a scene of catastrophe (see p. 15).

I took one film school class. We watched the South Park movie. My favorite movie was The 400 Blows.

Paul Louis Charles Claudel, poet, novelist, French Ambassador to the U.S., spoke in Manhattan last week to the Catholic Actors Guild. Said he: "I am sure [you] are all good Catholics and very good actors. As for myself, if I try to be a good Catholic I am not at all sure to be a good actor on that very catholic scene of Washington diplomacy, where ambassadors have to play their part in a kind of international revue and all-day performance before a tolerant but slightly bored public."

I'm currently making a documentary on the churchs around town. My favorite movie is F For Fake.

The late Melville Elijah Stone, longtime Associated Press General Manager, gave, like the late great John Wanamaker, most of his money to his family before he died. Last week, it was announced he left an estate of "not more than $2,000."

And now, god help me, I'm watching every movie possible that was nominated for an Academy Award.

Douglas Fairbanks, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presided in Los Angeles last week when the Academy's annual prizes were awarded. Among the winners : Acting — Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven) ; Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh, The Last Command) ; Directing — Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven) ; Engineering Effects — Roy Pomeroy (Wings) ; Outstanding Picture — Paramount Famous Lasky Corp. (Wings). Charles Chaplin was specially rewarded for being writer, actor, director, producer of The Circus.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Oscarvations: Mission Statement

Like it or not, Hollywood has been the largest, most important force in the world of films. Not necessarily the location itself, nor the studios or the filmmakers stationed there. The closest thing to what Hollywood is now is what NASA once was. It has become an idea, an idea that drives both filmmakers and film viewers, an idea that says "there are frontiers on the silver screen, and we want you to discover them."

...Wow, sorry, got a little sappy, don't know what came over me. Anyway, the crowning jewel of the Hollywood system is the Academy Awards, beginning in 1928. Once you get beyond the politics and the showbiz, the Awards are like little time capsules, a glimpse into what movies where watched and who was making them back in the day. Perhaps, by observing the Academy Awards in order, we can observe the growing and ever-changing state of the Hollywood system.

So, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to watch every possible movie nominated for an Oscar, and record my observations. These aren't all going to be simple movie reviews. I'll focus mostly on the things these films were nominated. For example, when I get to The Bourne Ultimatum, I'm most likely not going to focus on the story or the acting, but for the things it was nominated for, the editing and sound. This should hopefully give us a good idea as to WHAT and WHO was valued in film making during these times.

Now, I should point out that, for these early years, a lot of the films are unavailable in any format. Whenever this is the case, I'll do the best I can to make it up. For example, for the 1st Academy Awards, two of the films George Barnes was nominated for for cinematography, The Devil Dancer and The Magic Flame, no longer exist, so instead, I'll focus on other films the Barnes worked on at the time to give us an idea on what we missed. Or maybe I'll come up with a better idea and do that. We'll see.

So, Oscarvations will ultimately be a collection of my thoughts as I work my way through these films. Some of the reviews will be long, some will be short. Some may be played straight, some may be offbeat, and some may not even talk about the movie at all. I'll I know is, I got 80 years of movies to watch, and many more coming, so I better get at it.