Monday, February 23, 2009

Janet Gaynor Triple Feature Part 2: 7th Heaven

7th Heaven (1927)
Frank Borzage
STARRING: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard
WON: Best Director, Dramatic Picture (Frank Borzage)
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Gaynor)
Best Writing, Adaptation (Benjamin Glazer)
NOMINATED FOR: Best Art Direction (Harry Oliver)
Best Picture, Production

I didn't like Street Angel. The first half of the film had little to do with the second half, and it's dated politics didn't help much. Lead actress Janet Gaynor was good with what she had, but she didn't have much.

So now, we go back in time, with 7th Heaven. It has most of the same cast and crew. The same director, the same two lead actors, the same studio, and a year less experience for all of them. You could say that I was dubious going into it.


Whereas Street Angel moved too quickly through it's timeline and gave us little character development, 7th Heaven takes it's time and allows our characters to simmer. Whereas Street Angel pulls the old "love at first sight" trope, 7th Heaven allow the characters to fall for each other naturally. Whereas Street Angel's main character found love despite her disposition, 7th Heaven's main character found love by overcoming her disposition.

It's just an all-around better movie, and it's hard to believe that Street Angel is its follow up.

Our film opens in Paris, on the cusp of World War I. We're introduced to Chico, played by Charles Farrell, a city sewer cleaner who dreams of moving up the next rung in the ladder: from sewer cleaner to street cleaner.

This begins the theme of people striving to move up. In Chico's case, literally, from deep underneath to the city to it's streets, where he can be seen and his work more appreciated. Diane, played by Janet Gaynor, is also striving, but her journey is emotional, not literal.

Diane lives under the whip of her older sister, Nana, both Paris prostitutes. Diane is an honest and good girl, but she doesn't have any guts. She won't stand up for herself, and she won't take the necessary steps to pull herself out of her hellhole.

A long-lost uncle shows up, and agrees to take the two girls away with him if they've been "good." Diane can't lie, and the uncle leaves with a huff. Nana is furious, and chases her out into the street and nearly beats her to death. Fortunately, Chico happens to be working right underneath them, so he climbs out and chases Nana off.

As much of a bitch as she was, Nana was Diane's only grounding, and without her, Diane finds herself adrift emotionally. There's no goals to strive for, nothing to look forward to. These scenes of Diane sitting there, her eyes blank, her face expressionless, are juxtaposed by Chico and his coworkers eating their lunch, talking big and mighty and talking down to Diane's profession. Diane attempts suicide, but Chico prevents it.

Chico is an atheist, and loud about it. He gave God several shots to make his dreams come true, to give him the street cleaning job and to give him a blond-haired wife, and God was silent on both of them. And if he doesn't grant wishes, there's just not much point in believing him, right? (For the record, I'm an atheist, and this film makes a far better case against it then any Christian I've talked to)

This conversation catches the ear of a wandering priest, who just happens to have the power to give Chico his street cleaning job! At almost the same time, Nana returns with the police, accusing Diane of prostitution, but Chico, out of his character, steps in and claims Diane as his wife. The police says that they'll send an officer to Chico's place to confirm this. Chico finds he has no choice but to let this... woman stay at his place for the next few days.

So Chico takes Diane to his apartment. As a dreamer of big things, he naturally tries to live as close to the stars are possible. In the film's most famous scene, we watch, without any cuts, Chico and Diane ascend seven flights of stairs, straight up.

Inside his apartment, up in the sky, in his element, Chico begins to transform for the audience from something of a loud mouth to just a big guy with big dreams that he wants to share with everyone. In a bit of irony, he almost begins to sound like a passionate preacher.

There's a wide wooden plank between his apartment and his next door neighbor's, with the street down below. Chico begs Diane to cross with him, showing her that if she wants to escape her trap, she needs courage. Diane would rather just sit by the large window, look at the stars and listen to Chico talk.

Janet Gaynor is just wonderful in this. Her character is allowed to naturally grow and progress, and Gaynor makes it work wonderfully. There's an immediacy about her. You always know what she's feeling and what she's thinking by just her eyes alone.

She does these cute little twitch movements to express a build up of emotion. With any other actress, this would look corny, but I don't know, Gaynor controls it just right that it works perfectly. Things get so emotional that there are times in the film where you just want to jump into the movie and hug her in happiness, like in the scene where Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him even after the cop leaves.

It really is wonderful. So, the two become a couple, and their journey towards the stars become one. Diane gains confidence and a strong will. Eventually, she can cross the plank without fear.

There's a lot more to this film, including a third act taking place on the battlefields of WWI, but I'll stop the review here. That's the task of the reviewer I guess, to decide how information to give and how much to leave for the viewer to discover for themselves. And I DO guess, I've only been trying to "writing about movies" thing for a few months now, and I still have a lot to learn. But I'll figure it out as I go along. And, maybe these reviews will lead me to the place I want to go.

After all, even us that don't believe in God look to the heavens.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Janet Gaynor Triple Feature Part 1: Street Angel

"Naturally, I was thrilled but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn't mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I'm sure I'd have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks."
-Janet Gaynor

As I've gone throughout the nominees and winners of the first Academy Awards, I haven't made a big deal about "firsts." In this context, being first doesn't mean anything. Had the awards been given out a year earlier or a year later, the "firsts" would be different but the movies and performances would have been the same.

However, there was one unique aspect to the first Academy Awards. Actors were nominated not for one specific role, but for their entire output during a certain period of time, in this case 1927 through 1928. Emil Jannings did not just win for one role that year, in The Last Command, he also won for The Way of the Flesh. It makes the award itself feel more special

This special feeling seems to have come back for a one-time-only reunion tour, as Kate Winslet has been getting bunches and bunches of awards for her entire 2008 output. Regardless of what you (and I) actually think about the actual films, Revolutionary Road or The Reader, it's hard to think of another time an actress as pulled such a one-two punch.

Janet Gaynor pulled a one-two-three punch. She's half-Goro.

Janet Gaynor released three huge successful films in that 27/28 time period, and was awarded for all three of them. Were they deserved? Was the award really given for the combined output of her films, or was it given for one performance and the rest just added to the nomination for technical reasons? The only way to really tell is to watch all three.

Street Angel (1928)
Frank Borzage
STARRING: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guido Trento
WON: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Gaynor) (1st Academy Awards)
NOMINATED FOR: Best Cinematography (Ernest Palmer) (2nd Academy Awards)
Best Art Direction (Harry Oliver) (2nd Academy Awards)

Yeah, you read that right. For some technical reason I haven't been able to pinpoint yet, Street Angel was nominated in two different Academy Awards. There isn't much to say beyond that.

Our film opens in 19th century Naples, though we spend very little time focusing on it, or anywhere else for that matter. Spending hardly three minutes to set up setting and mood, we go straight to our main character, Angela (which is kind of a groaner of a name-title connection).

Angela's mother is deathly sick and Angela can't afford medicine. Gaynor plays Angela with the right amount of youthful confusion and worry. In fact, I'll say this right out, Gaynor plays all of her roles in this film with the right amount of ingredients without doing the whole "this is a silent film so I have to do greater gestures and exaggerate expressions" style of acting. It's pretty rare to find pitch-perfect acting without either dialogue or wide gestures.

I say "all her roles" because even though Gaynor technically plays the same character throughout the film, there are large leaps in time and the audience is not allowed to see any real character growth. So every time we come back to Angela, she's a completely different character. I'll explain more as we go along.

So Angela, desperate for money, becomes a "street angel," a prostitute. A really bad one, too. Inexperienced at just about everything, Angela fails several times, and after trying to steal some food, she's captured by the police and sent to court.

I want to point out this shot in the court scene, in which all the men in the room dwarf little Angela. The camera remains at eye level to the men in the court, so the only thing we can see of Angela is from the eyes up. It's a kind of cleverness you don't see too often these days.

So, Angela is sentenced to a year in the workhouse, but manages to escape. Returning to her home to find her mother dead, she ends up fleeing to a circus that's passing through, and convinced the ringleader to allow her to join.

Time passes, and we meet Angela again, doing balancing tricks for the traveling performers, stunts with stilts and all that. We're not told how much time as passed, but Angela is completely different now, with loads of confidence and a bratty attitude. Remember, all we know is that her mother died and she joined the circus, we are never given any clues as to why Angela ended up like this. It's a completely different character.

Which, again, Gaynor plays perfectly, and she isn't to blame for these clunky character transitions at all.

Angela meets starving artist Gino (played by Charles Farrell), who falls in love with her and pleads that he paint a portrait of her. Angela grudgingly agrees. Gino paints, and Angela is impressed, but not smitten.

A few weeks later, Angela takes a fall and breaks her ankle, forcing her to leave the show. She and Gino leave for Naples, and the two fall in love.

Again, we have a really dramatic shift in character. By a mere broken ankle, Angela is transformed into a snot-nosed brat into a loving, playful partner.

This transition is even worse. At least last time there was a significant amount of off-screen time for Angela to change. Here, one broken ankle and she's a completely different person. AGAIN, no fault to Gaynor, she keeps playing the role pitch perfect.

Finally, a third into the movie, we have a characterization of Angela that sticks. The rest of the movie is her spending her days with Gino, both madly in love with each other, trying to make the rent.

I kind of wished we started the film at this point, since all the circuses and dead mothers amounted to almost nothing. It's OK to make a movie about two people in love, you don't always need Giant Dramatic Events.

The final half of the film is great, if a bit out-of-date in this post-PC world. Angela's past finally catches up to her and the police officer that originally arrested her catches up with her. Gees, it's been years and her crime wasn't that serious to begin with, that's dedication to his work.

The officer does allow Angela one more hour with Gino though. This is the best part of the film, as Angela tries to come up with a way to tell Gino, but they both just end up drunk and goof off for an hour.

So, Angela goes to jail and Gino wanders around aimlessly, not knowing where's she's gone, assuming she's run off. Time passes. A woman shares a cell with Angela, and when this woman's time is up, she finds Gino and tells him that his girl is locked up and was once a former prostitute. Oh sure, a prostitute for only about twenty minutes, and just to save her mother when all other options had run out, but still, former prostitute. And then we learn that Gino HATES prostitutes.

Eventually, Angela and Gino cross paths again, but it's not a happy reunion, but a violent one.

Again, the film suffers from some poor characterizations in the first half, but Janet Gaynor did the best with what she was given. Let's see if she can keep it up for part two of our triple feature.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Harold Lloyd and Speedy

Speedy (1928)
Ted Wilde
STARRING: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff
NOMINATED FOR: Best Director, Comedy Picture

Harold Lloyd often seems to get the bronze medal in the great "who was the greatest silent comedian" debate, with Chaplin and Keaton duking it out for the gold. Of the Lloyd films I've seen, I can sort of see why. Lloyd was the least "silenty" of the three. His stunts, even prior to his accident in 1919 that resulted in the lose of two of his fingers, were rarely as big as his contemporaries. Which is not to say he wasn't athletic. He was fast and had great balance, but his films seemed to have many more smaller, simpler gags.

Harold Lloyd's films also don't hit the same emotional heights that most of Chaplin's films (I'll keep my opinion of Keaton to myself for the time being). They tend to be more popcorn entertainment then anything else, but nobody can popcorn entertain better then Harold Lloyd.

Speedy was both Harold Lloyd's last silent film as well as his only film to get an Oscar nomination. There actually isn't much to talk about, because going into the film in any great detail would just be listing gags, and comedies work best when you don't know what's happening. This film does have one great value to it that I will touch upon, a value that probably makes this one of the most important films for historians that I've looked at so far.

This film IS New York City!

No silent film I've seen thus far shows the Big Apple in the 1920s in so much detail. Most of Harold Lloyd's films were shot in LA, but the exception of a few pickup shots, Speedy was shot entirely on location in NYC. They used mostly hidden cameras to film, and they went everywhere. Uptown, downtown, even into the subways, and what we get are a lot of little details, such as the combination scale-and-fortune-telling machine at the entrance of the subway, or the drive-in horse-shoers, or my favorite:

An updated play-by-play score board in a shop window. One shop owner gets updates over the phone while another operates lights and symbols to show what's going on in the game. This was prior to television, and radio hadn't gotten in to the whole sports broadcasting thing yet, so this was one of the main ways of getting the scores.

Baseball and the Yankees are huge cultural things in Speedy. Everyone in the film, as just everyone in that time period, is a big fan of the game, and their schedules are determined by the game schedules. Lloyd's character only gets jobs if there's an easy way to get updates on the game. A lot of the film acts as a love letter to the game and to the team, and it all peaks when Babe Ruth himself makes a cameo.

And this is big-but-athletic Babe Ruth, not old-and-a-bit-dumpy Babe Ruth you see in all the sound clips. At one point, Lloyd's character becomes a cab driver, and by pure chance ends up picking up Ruth to take to Yankee Stadium. Lloyd is so overwhelmed that he can barely pay attention to the road, and keeps glancing over to sing Ruth praises. Ruth's reaction is priceless.

The centerpiece of the film is a trip to 1920s Coney Island, which may well have been the most dangerous place in the world!

To be honest, if I ended up going back in time to the 1920s, I'd stay as far away from amusement park rides as possible.

Well, except the spinning disk. I've always wanted to try the spinning disk.

These moments of where old school New York really shine through are what make the movie for me, more so then any of the gags and storyline. And they're good gags and story lines, don't get me wrong, this is a very enjoyable if simple film. But when you get me nostalgic for a time that even my GRANDPA wasn't around for, then you got something special going on.

Plus, Harold Lloyd flips himself off.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cooper, Schoedsack and Chang

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)
Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
STARRING: Kru, Chantui, Bimbo the Monkey
NOMINATED FOR: Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production

I've been having a hard time coming up with a proper opening for this review. I first started writing a history of documentary films, then tried defining documentary films, but it wasn't coming out the way I wanted. When I think about it, I realize that what I was trying to do was to find some justification for Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness. The fact is, Chang is not a documentary, and for that fact more then anything else, I didn't like it.

It's not like directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack didn't know it's not a documentary. They advertised it as a "jungle melodrama" and never once claimed it as actual fact. Almost all the events in the film are staged, those not being just filler shots of monkeys running around trees. This idea of staged foreign drama found it's start in Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North from 1922, in which Flaherty filmed actual Eskimos performing more ancient forms of fishing and hunting (for example, the film showed Eskimos using spears, when they would normally use guns).

Chang is only slightly better. It too uses locals to recreate events, but the events are ones that could actually happen at that time period, but were staged for the film. Now, this in itself is not my problem, particularly since it's not officially advertised as a documentary.

My main problem is all the fucking animal killing.

I know, I know, "it was a different time," a pre-"no animal was harmed during the making of his film" time. It would be another twelve years before the American Humane Association became involved in the film business. I accept this, and I can still recognize the impact of the film, but none of that doesn't mean I have to like it. I also recognize the impact of The Birth of a Nation, but I'll be damned if I have to like that racist piece of shit.

Ok, Chang ain't The Birth of a Nation bad.

The film takes place in Siam (now Thailand), where a group of natives live a dangerous kill-or-be-killed life in the jungle. The film likens it to to the covered wagon migrations of the United States, promoting a Western man-vs-nature tone throughout the film. Our main character is Kru (played by an actual man named Kru), a humble jungle citizen. He lives with his wife and his three children (his actual children, though not his actual wife) in a small, almost-suburban jungle house.

They even have a family pet, Bimbo the monkey, who's easily the best character of the film.

His has more dialogue then any other character in the film, thanks to the intertitles. His character is greedy and cowardly and funny, starting a tradition of comedy relief animal sidekicks you know find in just about every film made by Disney.

However, the film doesn't focus a great deal on the family life. The majority of it fallows Kru and his fellow villagers as they deal with a series of dangerous jungle animals, the king of which being the "bloodthirsty" tiger.

The film presents the carnivores in this film almost in an evil light, to further heighten the drama. Steve Irwin would not approve. The tiger, while the most dangerous animal in the film, was a rare creator for the filmmakers to encounter, so the majority of the film was focused on leopards.

Leopards are the stormtroopers of this film: they never stop showing up, and they never stop dying.

In the middle of the film, the villagers set up a large number of traps for the leopards, ranging from pitfalls to snares to nets.

These are all fine and good, but they all pale in comparison to THE DEATH SLAB!


Fortunately, we never see any animal get trapped by that thing in the film. We do see plenty of leopards and tigers get caught in the other traps though, which result in the villagers running up and shooting the animals to death. We see the bullet impacts, we see the animal's death twitches, and I have to stop the film for a while.

It's this point where the film not being a for-real documentary becomes a problem. If this had merely been the recording of actual events, then I could say nothing about it except "welp, dem's the breaks." But the events are staged and the animals killed for entertainment. You could say that the events would have happened on their own, but that just makes it worse. If these things would have happened on their own, then why the hell couldn't Cooper and Schoedsack not film them HAPPENING ON THEIR OWN!?!

I think I've said my piece.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Charles Chaplin and The Circus

Charles Chaplin
STARRING: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia
WON: Honorary Award (Charles Chaplin, for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus)

The Circus is an oft-ignored entry in Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp canon. Released between two of Chaplin's most successful and talked-about films, The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), it's easy to miss it. It's not even mentioned in Chaplin's official biography.

Yet, for everyone interested in Chaplin, this is much more of a required viewing then any either of the films that sandwich it. Out of all the Chaplin films I've seen (which is fewer then I care to admit), The Circus is the most personal of his works, the Tramp mirroring Chaplin's own hardships and ambitions.

Chaplin grew up in the music halls of London, which shared many elements of the classic circus. Clowns, mostly. In fact, most classic clown gags were formed in the music halls, and had become stale by 1928. Chaplin was more then aware of this, so unlike the clowns in The Crowd, nobody laughs at these clowns' old gags, and the clowns ain't laughing either.

Chaplin created a purpose for himself: to take apart the old gags he learned in those music halls and rejuvenate them into something new.

Though a series of misunderstanding and chase scenes, the Tramp ends up running into the circus and starts messing up the acts, but the crowd loves it. The ringleader offers the Tramp a job, and he goes through a series of auditions performing classic gags, but can't pull them off.

One of the old gags is called the "William Tell gag," in which an archer attempts to shoot an apple off his partner's head, but the partner keeps taking bites out of the apple and unbalancing it. It's an old, old gag. It fact, it was filmed as far back as 1900.

Chaplin began playing with this gag long before The Circus, including filming (but not finishing) a version ten years earlier with the bow replaced with a colt 45.

Chaplin finally returned to the gag, but instead of replacing the weapon, he replaced the fruit.

And with that, an old gag was made anew.

Chaplin not only revised old gags with the film, but also revised old Chaplin. The Circus has a similar plot to that of his 1916 short film The Vagabond. Both have the Tramp falling for a woman under the control of an abusive father figure.

And in both films, the girl eventually falls in love with a dark handsome stranger, much to the Tramp's dismay.

I can't say for sure, but I imagine that all this looking back was tough for Chaplin at the time. Remember when I said the film wasn't mentioned in his official biography? That's because it was one of the most difficult movies Chaplin ever made. First, a large storm destroyed part of the set. Then, chemical treatment destroyed the first two weeks worth of film and they had to start all over again. Then a fire broke out and destroyed the entire set. This photo was taken that day:

Things only got worse. Through the production of the film, Chaplin was going through a bitter and very public divorce with his second wife Lita Grey. Fearing that his film would be taken away from him, Chaplin shut down production for almost a year and hid the film negatives. And finally, to top it all off, there were claims of back taxes by the IRS.

In many ways, this makes the centerpiece of the film, where the Tramp is forced to perform in a high wire act, all the more metaphorical.

When the act begins, the Tramp is wearing a harness and is in full control. However, after losing the harness and then being attacked by a pack of monkeys, the Tramp is in a pretty spot.

But he never falls off the wire! It's almost too perfect of a representation of Chaplin's turbulent months working on the film.

The film was award the first "Honorary Award" at the Academy Awards. It was originally up for an acting and directing award too, but the Academy pulled him from the competition and gave him his own special award instead. I'm not sure why exactly. Maybe they thought it'd be too unfair for the other nominees? Maybe they thought there'd be a public uproar if Chaplin didn't win the awards? Or maybe they really saw the importance that The Circus was to Chaplin's filmography.

Whatever the case, Chaplin deserved this special award.