Friday, June 21, 2013
When he was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich for a career retrospective book on his career, Bogdanovich chose the title "The Last Pioneer" to describe his place in cinema history. When he was discussed in the auteurist bible, Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema", he was written about in glowing terms, endorsed by Sarris as "the last of the old masters" and pondering if there was "much more to be said" about his oeuvre. Over the years, his reputation continues to build into a kind of feverish cult, known as "Dwaniacs", reaching an apex with the recent MoMA series, a new book by Frederic Lombardi, and a recently published 460-page dossier containing essays by multiple academic authors shouting praises for his work. Does Allan Dwan warrant all of this attention as an unsung auteur deserving of attention from scholars and film fans alike? In a word, no. For all of his technical innovations in the silent era, and proposals of recurring themes involving family and paternity throughout his work, Dwan has a handful of good, not great, films scattered in-between thoroughly average and in some cases well below average films. As the MoMA series continued, I struggled to get excited about discovering new facets of Dwan as a filmmaker as various examples of his fragmented career with multiple studios unfolded in the grand Theater 1 of the museum. But with each new film, I became further convinced of his mediocrity. This is part one of several blog entries that will attempt to cover the series in its entirety. Who knows? Perhaps by the conclusion of the series, I will have turned over a new leaf and be shouting for the re-evaluation of Dwan from the rooftops of the city. But with the first week done and gone, I am now dragging my feet to future Dwan screenings. Frankly, in terms of B-list directors, I'd be more interested in a Lew Landers retrospective. Now there is a director in need of renewed scholarly attention.
Dwan became a director purely by accident. Trekking out to a California location for the film company he was working as a story man for and discovering the director had abandoned the production, he stepped in and basically never stopped. The earliest film in the MoMA series, The Mother of the Ranch (1911), is little more than a short entertainment with a capsule story brought to life by a seemingly non-professional cast. Dwan would shoot an incredible number of these for the company Flying A throughout the teens. In this interesting trifle, a man leaves his mother to make his fortune in the west, but finds it easier to be a cattle rustler and is killed for his trouble. She arrives out west looking for him, but is told he died a hero and then adopted by the seven cowboys who tracked him and killed him...The End. Subsequent shorts made for Flying A, including Calamity Jane's Ward, Man's Calling, and The Thief's Wife (all 1912), were also screened in the series, but I decided to bypass them. In doing so, I did miss a 45-minute incomplete version of 1917's The Fighting Odds, shot for the Goldwyn Company before it morphed with Metro Studios and Louis B. Mayer to form M-G-M. An audience member reviewed the film negatively on IMDB.
And then there was David Harum (1915), one of the dullest and most forgettable films of this early silent era, courtesy of Adolph Zukor's Famous Players, before it morphed into Paramount Pictures. It is also the only surviving film of the many Dwan made for the studio. The "famous player" here is the esteemed and lavishly billed William H. Crane, a popular stage actor lured to the movies by one of Zukor's lucrative studio contracts. He recreates his stage success of the title character, a jovial banker in a small town who is apparently the nicest guy on earth. Harum figures into the chemistry-free romance between a young man he hires as his right hand man and a young New York socialite he lures to the sticks to be a schoolteacher. There are two needlessly confusing conflicts involving stolen money (of course the Snidely Whiplash employee is to blame) and a widow's overdue mortgage, and very little else to be seen in terms of film form, style, and content. Auteurists make note of the first use of the dolly shot in cinema, but this adds mere historic value to a film that is otherwise not worth sitting through. Most of Dwan's photography is, as it would remain for most of his silent work, made up of simple camera set-ups and and long single takes, indistinguishable from the many other directors of that era. The sole point of interest is second male lead Harold Lockwood, a handsome and talented actor who died in 1918 at 31 during a nationwide flu epidemic. He so closely resembles Mark Blum, who played Rosanna Arquette's clueless husband in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), that one could swear they're related. They were both even born in Newark, NJ.
With a receding hairline and a double chin, it's tough to imagine Douglas Fairbanks as box office dynamite in the teens and into the 1920s. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Al Jolson, and that is not terribly flattering. But what he lacks in matinee idol looks, he makes up for with admirable athleticism, performing his own stunts with much derring-do. It is for this reason Fairbanks is still fondly remembered today; a number of MoMA audience members applauded wildly when his name and face appeared on-screen. He made 11 films with Dwan, and four of them were included in the series.
After his split with Fairbanks and moving back to the east coast, where he felt more comfortable working, Dwan teamed for the first time with Gloria Swanson, an actress he would make eight films with (only four survive today). Their debut collaboration, Zaza (1923), is based on both a novel and play of the same name. Classic film fans may acknowledge the 1938 version starring Claudette Colbert, which might be an improvement over this one. The title character, a thoroughly unpleasant and vain showgirl in a popular cabaret, performs on-stage by dangling over the audience on a giant swing, throwing flowers onto the men sitting underneath her. That is the extent of her act, but she aspires to sing on the Paris stage. She competes for audience approval with Florianne (Mary Thurman, who practically steals the movie), who seeks vengeance for Zaza's catty backstage violence by cutting the rope on her swing, leading to an accident that puts our "heroine" out of commission for a spell. During that time, she falls in love with a Parisian businessman (the far too old H.B. Warner) who hides a secret that threatens to tear them apart forever. Dwan's photography is far more assured and versatile here after years of trial and error; his mobile camera on Zaza's swing is quite a sight. But the narrative of the film is the problem here. Zaza is such a nasty character that we don't much care for her happiness. She is always a sight to behold, in outrageous costumes and plentiful jewelry in the shape of the letter "Z". Swanson always had a hard veneer to her on-screen persona, projecting something cold and unapproachable in almost every character she played. Her performance here is also in stark contrast to the women around her, all of whom emote in styles that still seem contemporary and not at all dated. Thurman in particular is wonderful as Florianne, the frienemy who becomes a very important figure as the story progresses, and the tragic Yvonne Hughes (strangled at age 50), as Zaza's maid, comic character actress Lucille La Verne, as Zaza's elderly female caretaker, and the barely-billed actress who plays the other woman (credited in a title card in the film, but apparently nowhere else in print) make more of a vivid impression than the film's star. Over time, Swanson's acting would improve. By the sound era, particularly in 1933's Perfect Understanding, she was miles ahead of her work here. The screening was blessed with a glorious live accompaniment by Ben Model.
Dwan reunited with Fairbanks for The Iron Mask (1929), an early attempt to wade in the waters of sound filmmaking for both director and star. Fairbanks, looking younger than in many of his previous films, stars as D'Artagnan, the wild and carefree Musketeer from the pen of Dumas, and a character he had previously played in both Modern Musketeer and Fred Niblo's The Three Musketeers (1921). This version of Dumas' "The Man in the Iron Mask" is not without its charms, but looks and feels far older than it is, more in keeping with the style and storytelling of the early 1920s and not Hollywood's new sound era. That said, the film benefits from very good pacing and editing, enhancing the suspense and excitement to be found in the action sequences (including an early scene with a knife-wielding Milady de Winter). The sole sound scenes occur when Fairbanks, in character, addresses the audience directly, speaking in prose through badly matched dubbing. Believe it or not, the musketeer Aramis is played by Eugene Pallette, soon to be a familiar rotund character actor in 1930s films, most notably as Friar Tuck in Curtiz' The Adventures of Robin Hood and the beleaguered family patriarch in La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936). Adolphe Menjou, another familiar face in sound cinema, shows no sign of his later talent in his campy, over-the-top portrayal of Louis XIII. The version screened at MoMA is incomplete at 96 minutes, but is still longer than the version on Netflix, which is a 72-minute re-release version from 1952, including Fairbanks' two sound addresses to the audience but replacing the title cards with new narration by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
As Dwan entered the sound era, he, like many of his contemporaries, struggled with the new technology and it took a few hiccups before he got back up to speed. Man to Man (1930) is one of those hiccups. Burdened with a lackluster cast, with a leading man as talented as Evie Harris in "Asteroid!", and a not quite compelling story, Dwan is on autopilot for this First National-Vitaphone quickie programmer. It wouldn't be until at least 1931-32 that First National's 60-70-minute-long wonders, distributed by Warner Brothers, would really deliver the goods, with directors like William Wellman and Mervyn LeRoy providing reliable and consistent direction. Until then, audiences were stuck with garbage like this. College campus golden boy Michael Bolton (stop that snickering!), played by deadly dull Phillips Holmes, loses his run for class president when it is discovered his father has been convicted of murdering the man who killed his brother. The one scene of potential excitement is never shown, in a classic low-budget move. Michael returns home to his small town home, where he begins working at a bank; 18 years later, dear old dad is let out for good behavior and tries to rebuild his life by opening a barber shop in town. There's a romance between Michael and saccharine blonde Lucille Powers, a juvenile mystery involving stolen money, and a half-hearted resolution between father and son. Classic film junkies may want to see Dwight Frye in an early sound role, appropriately enough as the villain of the piece, but they might also be discomforted by the black stereotype comic relief. Only Grant Mitchell, as the jailbird father returning home to make good, makes a lasting impression among the cast, with a very strong performance that kept him in character roles throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His resume is filled with noteworthy credits, including the currently-lost Convention City (1933). Silent director-turned-actor George F. Marion isn't half-bad as the bank manager, either.
Chances (1931) is another hiccup, also shot for First National and still saddled with a disappointing cast and a strictly by-the-numbers wartime romance plot. Brothers Tom and Jack, both soldiers in the British Army during WWI, are torn apart by their love for a beautiful woman they've known since childhood. Historical value can be found in the fact that Dwan was paired with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. here, the son of his frequent leading man. Fairbanks Sr., for all of his unorthodox movie star looks, at least had charm and a gimmick to entice people into theaters in the silent era. Fairbanks, Jr., however, despite being more handsome than his father, lacked almost all of his charisma, and his movie career never really took off to the heights his legacy might have anticipated. Decades later, he is best-known as Mr. Joan Crawford from 1929-1933 (including during production of this quickie). Rose Hobart, a poor man's Norma Shearer, is a disappointing romantic interest, though dashing Brit Anthony Bushell, resembling a less smug George Sanders, does a more than capable job as the cuckolded brother. Character actor par excellence Tyrell Davis, whose pursed lips and tightly clipped mustache were a fixture in 1930s films, is memorable as a mincing family friend. The WWI battle sequences are pale imitations of those found in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the previous year's Best Picture Oscar winner, but Dwan shows some flair for action photography and editing, enlivening the last act of the film considerably. And the final scene of the film is surprisingly moving and downright dreary, even with its proposed "happy ending". Not a complete waste of time, but also not at all indicative of a developing auteur at work.
During his duration as a contract director for 20th Century-Fox, Dwan directed two of Shirley Temple's most noteworthy films, Heidi (1937) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), neither of which are included in the series (for shame). In-between came One Mile from Heaven (1937), a 67-minute programmer with a B-list cast and a storyline that would feel more at home in the pre-Code era, and probably would have been better handled at a studio like Warner Brothers by a director like LeRoy. Claire Trevor, a decade before her Oscar win for Key Largo (1945), plays 'Tex', a tough-talking newspaperwoman a few years before 'Hildy Johnson' in His Girl Friday (1940). Anxious for a story, and sent on a wild goose chase by her male reporter competitors, she pursues a human interest piece after discovering a white girl, appropriately named Sunny, with a black mother, Flora, living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Quelle horreur! The publicity of the story inspires the juvenile authorities to investigate, but just when it seems the case is open and shut, a wrinkle appears in the person of an ex-con with the truth about who little Sunny is. The shining moments of the film are in the press room scenes, with Trevor holding her own surrounded by a trio of conniving numbskulls, and demonstrating that Trevor deserved to go on to the better projects ahead of her. She remains one of the studio era's most underrated actresses, and is the biggest reason to see this film. Child actress Joan Carroll, proposed by Fox as a Shirley Temple heir apparent, is nowhere near as talented or appealing as the studio's primary breadwinner, and her career was short-lived, though she must have learned a few acting tricks over the years since this film because she is superb in Gregory La Cava's Primrose Path (1940). [Now there is an auteur who needs a MoMA series!] Making an incredible entrance, tap-dancing on the city sidewalks and beckoning all the children of the black neighborhood to come running to see his moves, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is a scene-stealer as a neighborhood cop with a love for hoofing. That said, some of his "Amos 'n Andy" dialogue is grating, and the same goes for Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a neighborhood store owner. Fredi Washington, so artificial in the original Imitation of Life (1934), has vastly improved in her acting skills, though this would be her last film of a very brief career. Considering the racial politics seen here, and her future as a civil rights activist, it's perhaps not that surprising that she chose to exit the business after this one. And that is the biggest problem with the film, and perhaps why it's so obscure today. While it's not as offensive as other key examples of politically incorrect Hollywood cinema, the resolution to the dilemma here is an uneasy one, putting the black characters in their place (the domestic caregiver role) and championing white saviors in solving social ills. Bill Robinson's response to the final judgment in the case is particularly unsavory. I sat in stunned disbelief as the film ended, negating all of the seemingly positive steps the film was making towards some sense of equality. As a social and historical artifact, I have to recommend One Mile from Heaven (1937) as an example of how the studios addressed race issues during this time. Eagle-eyed film fans will enjoy seeing Leonard Kibrick, an Our Gang alum, as a mouthy juvenile delinquent, and Lon Chaney, Jr., a few years before he became immortalized as The Wolf Man (1941), as a helpful cop at the policeman's ball.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Bruce Springsteen puts it best in 20 Feet from Stardom: "It's a bit of a walk...that walk to the front is complicated." The intricacies of the music industry and its politics, especially revolving around gender and race, are revealed to be the complications Springsteen, among others, readily acknowledges in this marvelous documentary sure to be adored by anyone with an ounce of affection for music. The "stars" of the film (I use the term loosely because additional voices are given equal attention) are Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, with an "introducing" credit given to Judith Hill. Love really needs no introduction; her work with Phil Spector, among others, is legendary, and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is a holiday standard. Clayton is arguably best-known for her work on the Rolling Stones' brilliant "Gimme Shelter", and she has worked with just about everybody in the business since starting as a Raelette for Ray Charles. Fischer began as a back-up singer for Luther Vandross, becoming a celebrated background vocalist through the 1980s and 1990s, even winning a Grammy for her solo work...before fading into the background soon after. Hill, who shot to stardom in a most unorthodox way (singing at Michael Jackson's televised memorial service), yearns for a solo career, in stark contrast to Fischer, who is perfectly content staying out of the spotlight. Hill's problem may be that her sultry voice, coupled with her song-writing and piano-playing, is reminiscent of Alicia Keys, a figure the music industry might feel they only need one of. But this unique new talent will hopefully break out after this film. She clearly deserves our attention.
Director Morgan Neville takes us on a journey through these four women's lives and careers, stopping along the way to give us sample after sample of their stellar vocal abilities. Love is someone I've never considered a back-up singer, as she had solo hits and has been considered a music icon for a while now. Her story of singing back-up for singers as diverse as Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Frank Sinatra before producer Phil Spector locked her into a decade-long contract, casting her as the ghost voice for the successful girl group The Crystals, reaches a frustrating climax when she is forced to clean houses to make ends meet. [She did escape from Spector's grasp to do uncredited vocal work on a wide variety of records. Her voice turns up in the oddest places throughout the 1960s.] Clayton, a self-confessed diva, still has a powerhouse voice today, and describes her dedication to succeeding as a star, but failing at almost every turn, as if fate had other plans for her. Fischer, with plentiful gold records and awards, seems content to stay in the background, singing for Sting and the Stones, but her voice is that of a star.
Also discussed as in-depthly as the film's "stars" is Ikette Claudia Lannear, the inspiration for the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar" and who appeared in a 1974 issue of Playboy. A whole documentary on the revolving door aspect of the Ikettes, a trio whose members include future songwriter Jo Armstead, the divine P.P. Arnold, Shelly Clark (soon to join The Honey Cone), the late great Pat Powdrill, both Brenda and Patrice Holloway, and a number of other talented, vivacious ladies, would be a great idea. Lannear remembers her friendship with Mick Jagger and working with Ike and Tina, as well as Joe Cocker on "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and George Harrison on "The Concert for Bangladesh", but soon after her attempt at a solo recording career, her opportunities dried up and she ran from the industry with her tail between her legs. However, her story comes to a satisfying conclusion, which can be said for all of the women spotlighted here.
There are moments in this film that made me get emotionally choked up simply out of my joy for the music of the past. Love, reuniting with original Blossoms Fanita James and Jean King, still alive and singing as if no time had passed at all... Merry Clayton listening to her voice, isolated, singing the best and most memorable part of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (Mick Jagger pops up to give his memories of the last-minute recording session)... Clayton in a rare, blistering TV appearance on "The Music Scene", singing "Southern Man", giving it all her all, while talking head interview subjects, including Clayton, come up empty when searching for excuses why her solo career went nowhere (her solo albums are glorious, seek them out)... the Waters Family sitting around their dining room table and recounting their vast credits, breaking into impromptu harmonizing of some of their most familiar back-up vocals. These are small scenes with the emotional weight of dramatic monologues. Revisiting music history has rarely been captured so beautifully.
Classic pop, soul and R&B fans will be elated to see Gloria Jones of "Tainted Love" fame, Love's sister Edna Wright of the best 70s girl group, The Honey Cone (may her singing sister Syreeta rest in peace), classic Raelette Mable John, Susaye Greene of the 70s incarnation (and dare I say superior line-up) of the Supremes, Rose Stone of Sly and his Family, and bubbly Tata Vega, whose voice you may recognize from The Color Purple soundtrack (she was Margaret Avery's singing double). We even meet David Lasley, a male back-up singer who worked with everyone from Sister Sledge to Luther Vandross. Speaking of Vandross, we learn of his origins as a back-up singer on David Bowie's "Young Americans". The film makes a strong argument for these legendary men and women actually being the driving force behind the success of many of the singles they appeared on. And when you consider the hooks of these songs, it doesn't seem so far-fetched. The famed choruses of songs like "Sweet Home Alabama", "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Love the One You're With", and "What'd I Say" are so catchy and well-loved because of the vibrant voices behind the lead singer. The next time you listen to one of your favorite songs, pay close attention to the background vocals, and wonder what their story is...and why they haven't graduated to the front of the stage.
And now for some music. First, Darlene Love with the Blossoms singing with Tom Jones on his variety show in 1971. Second, Merry Clayton's tremendous cover of "Southern Man". Third, Lisa Fischer taking over for Clayton on "Gimme Shelter" with the Stones in 1995. Fourth, Claudia Lennear performing "Let It Be" with the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Approaching the French New Wave 50-plus years after it began, it might be helpful to categorize the movement's noted directors for newcomers to their work. Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette made arguably the most challenging films of the movement, where Jean-Luc Godard's feel as experimental and innovative as they did then, providing different challenges to their viewers. Claude Chabrol's feel the most accessible for today's viewers, but Francois Truffaut's just might be the most pleasurable to watch of all his contemporaries. More than the others, he wears his love of all things cinema boldly on his sleeve, making his work endlessly fascinating and enjoyable upon repeat viewings. His cinematic opening act, The 400 Blows (1959), takes a simple autobiographical story and infuses it with unexpected depth and intelligence, and it would just get better from here.
Antoine Doinel is a troublemaker, passing bikini-clad centerfolds in class, skipping school to run through the streets of Paris, and generally being a poor student and son, at least in the eyes of his elders. Inspired by Truffaut's troubled childhood and dedicated to late film criticism legend Andre Bazin (credited with saving Truffaut from a life wasted through crime and poor decisions), 400 Blows stacks the cards completely in favor of Antoine. His parents are ill-equipped to handle a son they can barely conceal they don't want, his teachers berate him and discourage him from improving himself, and his sole moments of solace are spent with best friend Rene (based on a real-life life-long friend of Truffaut). Antoine's most joyous experiences take place in wide, free spaces, otherwise he is confined to a claustrophobic apartment as his home, a dull classroom, or a literal cage, seen in the film's final act. This containment of youthful exuberance, rejected completely in the finale, is the real enemy of the piece, as Truffaut's camera follows Antoine's long, excited run through the country, setting his hero free and creating a New Wave masterpiece in the process.
Compare 400 Blows with Godard's Breathless from the same year. Godard demonstrates his love of film by breaking it into pieces to see how it works and not really caring to put it back together again, creating a different kind of film language. Truffaut's love of film flows throughout the narrative, which is also more focused and detailed than Godard's work. There are moments in 400 Blows where Truffaut's camera gazes longingly at the joy of looking: the audience POV juxtaposed with Antoine's POV in the whirling gravity-defying ride, the multiple reactions and emotions on the faces of young children watching a puppet show. It is during these scenes when we might remember that Truffaut's background in film criticism, and the pleasure he received from viewing films from his favorite American directors as well as other European visionaries like de Sica and Rossellini is reflected beautifully in the faces of his characters.
The last third of the film, dealing with Antoine's punishment for his actions, feels anti-climactic, but perhaps precisely because we have identified with his youthful devil-may-care behavior and are reminded vividly of that moment when one stops being a child and has to be an adult. Such coming-of-age lessons, in film as in real life, are rarely happy ones. The practically non-ending feels appropriate, and Truffaut would follow Antoine Doinel in three subsequent films and one short film, his alter ego always played by maturing child actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. The kid became a star for a reason. He is simply superb, a natural talent. Special note must also be made of the wonderful score, part of which recently appeared to great effect in Noam Baumbach's Frances Ha.