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Silent Partner & Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog


Buster Keaton

     You might recall I wrote several reviews on short subjects coming from Hal Roach Studios a few months back when TCM was playing tribute to the influential production company. Among those were some Screen Directors Playhouse episodes. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to clearing the final two from my DVR, so here they are:

     George Marshall was the director behind The Silent Partner, a comedy about a silent movie star long forgotten. When told that the silent actor would be played by a great from those days of film, my first thought went to Buster Keaton, and I was correct. Unlike many of his silent-era counterparts, Keaton continued his career into talkies, although he can usually be spotted in supporting or cameo roles.

     The story for this episode is a bit haphazard. Keaton, as ex-actor Kelsey Dutton, is seated at the counter in a mostly empty bar where a handful of characters are either very interested in watching on TV the Academy Award ceremony taking place across the street, or not at all. Being honored during that night’s ceremony, hosted by Bob Hope as himself, is director Arthur Vale (Joe E. Brown), who cannot help but give credit for his career to Dutton. We are entreated to a flashback when Dutton unknowingly barges onto the set of Vale’s film to rescue a woman in a smoking building. The action proceeds in typical silent comedy style and Vale hires the man as a star. Returning to present day, the Oscar broadcast next features a short film the team made. Dutton is a janitor at a saloon and is in love with the singer atop a piano who inherits a large sack of money. Cowboy robbers show up however, and wrestle with the woman and Dutton, who is continually kicked in the rear by a horse.

     The present-day patrons at the bar soon realize they are in the company of the man on the screen and one woman (Zasu Pitts) calls Vale to notify him of his silent partner’s whereabouts. Vale arrives at the bar and takes his pal to the Oscar stage.

     Less interesting was Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, directed by H.C. Potter. The story was crafted based on a mantra of publishers at the time (and maybe still today). Publishers knew that any story about medicine, animals or Abraham Lincoln were surefire best sellers, so naturally, a story called “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” would be the epitome of a hot story. Unfortunately, I struggled to stay awake.

     Charles Bickford plays Dr. Stone to Robert Ryan‘s President Lincoln. The doctor attends to the political leader who is low of spirits and perhaps ailing in other ways. He is ordered strict rest, but cannot seem to keep away from the various documents he insists on reading. On his way home one night, Dr. Stone obtains a golden retriever puppy and delivers it to Lincoln as a birthday present. The pup, while having the president chasing it all over his bed, has a grand effect on the man’s health and attitude. Later the dog subdues an entire room of politicians and the doctor declares that the dog has done a service to the United States.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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Sunrise (1927)

     After much procrastination, I finally decided this weekend that I had the necessary energy and focus to sit down with a silent film. I was drawn to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans because it was directed by F.W. Murnau, who is famous for The Last Laugh  (a silent starring Emil Jannings that features only one intertitle near the film’s close) and Nosferatu among others made in his homeland of Germany.

     I was pleasantly surprised to find Sunrise a rather riveting silent film. The story is of “the man” (George O’Brien) and “the wife” (Janet Gaynor) and the meddling of “the woman from the city” (Margaret Livingston). The man, a farmer, has been drawn away from his wife by the exotic city woman who has made an extended stay of her visit in the country. Desiring to be together, the urban lady convinces the man to do away with his wife so they can live in the metropolis . “Couldn’t she get … drowned?” the vixen asks, initially prompting an violent outburst from the man.

     The man lures his wife onto a boat trip where he plans to topple the vessel. In a highly dramatic and frightening moment, the man stands in the boat, hands in a pre-strangle stance, as his wife leans backwards in utter horror, able to read all too well the intention on his face. The man, however, does not go through with the plot and instead rows them to land on the opposite side of the lake. The wife flees onto a trolley, but the man follows her as she exits into the city and wanders about totally distraught. The man is trying to win her over, now finding he loves his wife, but the woman is dismayed at discovering the man she thought loved her, and again insists as much, intended to murder her. Eventually, after sitting in on a wedding, the two rekindle their feelings and head out for a glorious day on the town.

     Rowing back across the lake by moonlight –a second honeymoon– all seems perfect for the couple until a dreadful storm picks up. The winds and rain obstruct the vessel from reaching home and it appears as though the man’s original plot to stage an accidental drowning might bring itself to fruition. He had stashed two bundles of bulrushes in the boat to buoy himself to safety under the original plan, but instead ties them to his wife. SPOILER ALERT After the storm we find the man clinging to a rock on the shore, and he immediately sends for a rescue party. The woman from the city is woken by the commotion and watches the search from a tree, thinking her lover has done just as he was assigned. After finding loose, floating bulrushes, the man assumes the worst and makes his way to the city lady, whom he begins to strangle. In time to stop him is the news that the wife has been found and is alive.

     Sunrise is a rather surprising story about the ups and downs –the sunrises and sunsets– all humans endure. I was certainly duped at the start into thinking this would be a movie about a murder and whatever consequences or regrets would follow it. Instead, the man transforms himself from the monster towering menacingly over his intended victim, to the supremely doting husband. The acting is fantastic as one both trembles at the terror the wife exudes and the evil the man does during that moment when he considers offing her. The two actors do an equally outstanding job of conveying the extreme affection they feel towards one another later on, illustrating polar extremes of emotion.

     The movie features a unique “soundtrack.” There is no spoken dialogue, but sound effects mimicking train whistles, pig oinks and even legitimate crowd commotion at a carnival give the impression one is watching a talkie. Murnau never made a talking picture, and Sunrise would be the first Fox picture with a recorded soundtrack.

     Murnau came to America specifically to film Sunrise, but at the time it was not a box office success, so the director was given less freedom on future works and would not climb to the same acclaim in the U.S. that he had earned in Germany. Still, the film won the first and only Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Film,” which was handed out during the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Murnau would make a total of only 21 films before dying in a car accident at age 42.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

Hitchcock Blogathon #5: The Lodger

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The Lodger (1926)

     Hitchcock got his career in films started as soon as the medium existed in England, it seems. He started as an intertitle designer, did some assisting on pictures and then moved on to directing. The Lodger is if not his best silent film at least the director’s favorite. It is often false noted as his first movie, but is in fact the first film on which he had choice of stories. Hitchcock always aimed to remake the film when he was in Hollywood but was never able to bring the dream to fruition. Ultimately, it was The Man Who Knew Too Much that was re-adapted and made as an American movie. Somewhat tragically, The Lodger was remade in 1944 but by another director. That version would have a grimmer ending from the original, but featured George Sanders as the detective, an actor Hitchcock himself might have selected for the role had he been behind the remake.

     It tells the story of a serial murderer in London (in the vogue of Jack the Ripper) who kills young, blonde women Tuesday nights. After the 17th murder, a mysterious stranger arrives at the home of young, blonde model Daisy and her family, who are renting a room. When the stranger goes out late on a Tuesday night, the mother begins to suspect he is “The Avenger”, as the killer calls himself. The audience, too, has no doubt from his first appearance that the lodger is indeed the killer. We also see the man plotting out the locations of the murders. Daisy, who is dating a detective, starts to fall for the lodger and to the horror of her parents goes on a date with him on a Tuesday night. Upon their return to the house, and while making out in the boarder’s room, the detective arrives with a warrant to search the place. He finds a valise containing a gun and the map of murders. They put the man “in bracelets” but he escapes and Daisy meets him later to hear his side of things. He is not actually the murderer and has a plausible explanation for his actions, but the public has condemned him and hunt him down. The most famous scene from The Lodger is when the wrongly accused man hangs by the handcuffs from a fence while a mob beats him nearly to death. He is rescued by the police who know of his innocence  because the killer was caught red handed just prior.

     The Lodger not only illustrates Hitchcock’s mettle with suspense but also offers a glimpse into his artistic future. Shots such as one using a mirror to show the subject are commonplace now, but that early on is somewhat inventive. He also uses shadows to his advantage that are even noticeable in this faded restoration.

     The Lodger would mark the start of several Hitchcock techniques to recur in his future work. It contains a wrong-man approach, a fixation on blondes and casting-against-type in the lead role. Ivor Novello was a musical sensation at the time who had made only a couple prior films. He was a heart-throb, so to cast him as a killer was appealing to Hitchcock. Novello’s popularity with women, however, had officials in the front office calling for his character to be cleared by film’s end. The original novel on which the story is based had the lodger as the killer who evades police and disappears into the night. Hitchcock was forced to come up with an alternate ending, as studio execs would often do throughout his career.

The MacGuffin: This was too early in his career to expect a MacGuffin.

Where’s Hitch: Three minutes into the movie he sits at a desk in the newsroom. Near the end he is among the crowd of people watching the arrest but is difficult to spot.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

Preparing for the Hitchcock Blogathon

As you know, tomorrow marks the big day when I intend to post what now is a total of 13 reviews on Hitchcock movies between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. I received some great input by readers for which movies to consider and plan to incorporate them all. Although I have yet to establish a time schedule or determine which movies I will be watching in full Monday, I can at least give you a preview of what I know so far.

I plan to have a widget at the top of the left column on the blog that features the latest comments to my posts. I figure this would be a good way to kind of show whatever ongoing conversation you might contribute, so keep an eye out for that, and to add to it just click the comments link at the bottom of the posts. Also, follow me on Twitter if you want to be notified as soon as the posts are published.

The first post at 8 a.m. will be on The Lady Vanishes, which is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association Hitchcock Blogathon taking place that day with participation from at least 20 other blogs. You can check out all the other posts Monday at the CMBA homesite. After that, I know I plan to watch Rope, Marnie and Foreign Correspondent during the day, with three others I have yet to fully decide. I also scored a VHS (what?!) copy of Juno and the Paycock from the library, which will be the only movie new to me that will be reviewed, provided my VCR still works. Otherwise, the following movies are on the docket for posting every hour on the hour sometime Monday:

  1. The Lady Vanishes
  2. Rebecca
  3. Psycho
  4. Under Capricorn
  5. Notorious
  6. Rear Window
  7. North By Northwest
  8. Lifeboat
  9. The Lodger
  10. Juno and the Paycock
  11. Rope
  12. Marnie
  13. Foreign Correspondent

Thank you to everyone who provided input and encouragement. I am a bit stressed at present about getting it all done Monday, but  I have faith.

The Red Balloon

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The Red Balloon (1956)

     Although intended as a quick, fun film for kids, Le Ballon Rouge made a huge splash when released in 1956. Almost entirely absent of dialogue, Director Albert Lamorisse filmed his six-year-old son, Pascal Lamorisse, and the largest, shiniest red balloon I have ever seen as the two “become friends.”

     The 34-minute short film involves young Pascal claiming a balloon he finds tethered to a railing and carrying it along with him for the day. When he returns home after school, his mother discharges the thing out the window, but the red balloon floats there until Pascal brings it back inside. The next day, after telling his friend to obey him, the balloon follows Pascal about without his needing to hold it. Other kids try to grab the toy or destroy it but the seemingly sentient object evades them.

     A story about such a fragile object as a balloon carries with it the destiny of a tragic ending — surely it will either pop or float off into the atmosphere. But although the life of the red balloon does not persist, the story brings with it possibly the most joyous ending imaginable. The entire brief work is marked by the simplicity of childhood. Le Ballon Rouge conveys innocence, love, and friendship as the boy cares for his newfound companion. He leads it home skipping from one stranger’s umbrella to the next, always shielding the red ball from the rain. He disciplines it when retrieving the toy from a flirtation with a girl’s blue balloon. And the balloon returns the favor by tormenting the school disciplinarian who locks up Pascal for a day.

     The film makes a great watch for children because what young person would not want a toy to follow him around? The simplicity and childlike wonder of the movie also appealed to adults, however.  Le Ballon Rouge won a number of awards including the American Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Lamorisse also went on to make a sequel, Stowaway in the Sky, featuring 10-year-old Pascal who stows away in a hot air balloon.

What to Watch: TCM Moguls and Movie Stars

I am pretty excited about a documentary series Turner Classic Movies is doing starting Nov. 1. “A History of Hollywood: Moguls and Movie Stars” is a seven-part series of one-hour shows airing at 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday (repeat) that chronicles aspects of film from the very beginning up to the 1960s. First up is “Peepshow Pioneers” and will cover Edison the Lumiere Brothers and everything you learn about in Intro to Film. Haven’t taken that course? You better check this out.

TCM is also airing related movies on these same days, I believe, so check their schedule for some rare airings.

Moguls and Movie Stars

Feature: Halloween Flicks to Watch

We are fewer than two weeks out from my favorite holiday, so I think it is about time I bring up some upcoming, halloween-appropriate showings on Turner Classic Movies. Essentially what I have done below is gone through the TCM lineup and noted the one’s I’ve seen, which has caused me to realize I am not as well versed in classic horror as I thought. Ryan would be the authority on horror films past and present. In fact, we recently enjoyed Die! Die! My Darling from an old TCM recording, so look for a review of that next.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Up first is Arsenic and Old Lace. I know what you’re thinking: That’s a comedy, you fool. You would be correct, but it is a comedy full of poison, insanity, and best of all murder! Ryan would certainly name Arsenic and Old Lace as his favorite Cary Grant movie, and oddly, in the numerous times we have watched this one, I have only maybe once made it through without falling to sleep. That is not, of course, to say this flick is dull. Far from it! I use it as my benchmark for Grant’s screwball comedy phase. To sum it up, Grant’s two old aunts like to invite lonely men to their table for tea and arsenic before burying them in the basement. Add in another relative who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and uses the stairs to reenact the charge on San Juan Hill, and you’ve got a rip-roaring good time as Grant tries to save his family from prison.
The feature is set for 11:45 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20.

Nosferatu (1922)

TCM has Nosferatu planned for this weekend. I will admit this one also found me falling to sleep, but Ryan owns it, so it must be good, right? It is a 1922 silent picture is from one of Germany’s most well-known directors, F. W. Murnau, and follows a woman who tries to end a vampires plague of death. I like to think of this as the original Dracula movie, and is in fact an adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. What I have witnessed of this film are some fantastically creepy and visually impressive moments. The monster himself is the stuff nightmares are made of and the style of filming — German Expressionism — I always find appealing in its uniqueness.
Look for it at noon Sunday, Oct. 24.

Rebecca (1940)

I am always delighted to talk about Alfred Hitchcock, and 1940’s Best Picture winner receives nothing but my praise. Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film produced in the U.S. and the director managed to find considerable freedom on this one because producer David O. Selznick was too distracted with Gone with the Wind to crack down on Hitch’s creative vision as he would on later works. Rebecca takes black and white cinema to new heights. It is a visually very impressive piece with great undertones that managed — in Hitchcock’s special way — to slip past the censors. In this rather creepy tale we have a young woman who marries a wealthy man whose first wife’s death remains a mystery to the “new Mrs. DeWinter” (the character doesn’t have a first name). I even considered naming this blog after the DeWinter mansion: Manderley.
Expect it at 10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 28.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

I never considered Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  a horror film until Columbus’ summer movie series featured it as a late night thriller. I suppose a rat for dinner is rather disturbing. Being the only picture Hollywood rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford actually did together, it illustrates severely the two most differing characteristics between the duo: Bette Davis is talented and Joan Crawford aged well. Davis was frightening looking enough in her old age but as a former child star who never coped with her loss of fame, she really puts Crawford through the psycho wringer. Crawford certainly comes off as a sympathetic character despite what I would say is a reversal of the roles in real life.
Check it out at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30.

Cat People (1942)

This next one is pretty much a joke. Cat People was the film for Simone Simon, who would go on to make a sequel to the mediocre flick. As I recall it, a beautiful young woman comes into a man’s life but she has a strange affinity for cats. I believe she might later turn into a panther, but the most important thing to remember about this flick is that it is good for a laugh.
Laugh along at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30.

Freaks (1932)

On the last day of the month and the official Halloween holiday, TCM brings us a movie that has typically been considered a horror film, but that really evokes only sympathy from my perspective. Freaks came out in 1932 and features a cast full of “circus freaks” including conjoined twins, a “human torso”, and dwarfs (including one of the lollipop gang in The Wizard of Oz). The film takes place in a circus setting where the strong man and what I’m remembering as a trapeze woman are the only “normal” of the crew. Those normal folk eventually incur the wrath of the freaks. Perhaps what people find frightening about this one is the potential to be attacked by deformed individuals.
Get Freaked at 6:15 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 31.

Man with the Movie Camera


Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

     This post marks a first for this blog in several regards. Not only is Man with the Movie Camera a foreign film, but it is also a silent picture and one I am categorizing as “documentary”. I watched this flick with Ryan last night in order to help him study for his world cinema class, and interestingly had not watched it when I took that or any other film course at Ohio State University. The movie is self-admittedly an experiment in editing by which the filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, sought to evoke emotion and craft meaning through the way images were cut together.

     The problem with Movie Camera is it is incredibly dull to the average viewer. Only an hour in length, it sure seems to endure the normal length of a feature film. Being a soviet flick from 1929, its motives also include a comparison between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, which of course is lost on today’s American viewer. Just as Sergei Eisenstein did with Battleship Potemkin four years earlier, so too does Vertov seek to send almost subliminal messages by cutting together two images that by themselves mean nothing but connected offer insight. But just as I failed to grasp anything extraordinary in the historic Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin,  so too was I unable to understand the meaning in Movie Camera.

     I think part of the dilemma lies in my upbringing in a time when movies are commonplace. Movie Camera was released not long after film’s start, and such experiments with editing had not been conducted. Today, we regularly see montage of this type, so without a historic context, I am unable to derive any significance from the way this film is put together.

     Man with the Movie Camera is not for the average viewer. Although it could garner a Gasser rating from me if considered exclusively in the context of a film class, it drops one lower because I could never justify telling a peer this is an OK film. It is a hard sit with no dialogue and no plot and likely can only be enjoyed if the viewer watches it as an educational tool.

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