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Today is a big day, the centenary of James Stewart – 100 years since his birth on 20 May 1908. In many ways he is a difficult star to define. Known for his ‘everyman’ persona he also proved to be an actor of unusual intensity. Witness the desperation found in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Naked Spur (1953) and Vertigo (1958).
A particular favourite of mine, I hope to look more closely at James Stewart and his films in upcoming posts as way of celebration.
Seeing as we’ve all seen his Capra and Hitchcock films over and over again, I would suggest watching these five films to celebrate Jimmy:
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Winchester ’73 (1950)
The Man From Laramie (1955)
Strategic Air Command (1955)
The FBI Story (1959)
Let me know what you think. Which five would you pick to celebrate the work of James Stewart?
For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, there is a mysterious little film online that is well worth a look. The prologue suggests that Martin Scorsese adapted three pages of an unpublished Hitchcock screenplay into a complete short film. He believes that if it is to be made then it must be made how Hitchcock would have made it back then.
The result is actually very impressive. The film slickly mimics the Hitchcock style and almost seems to answer the call of ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to.’
The film is ultimately a reworking of the Royal Albert Hall scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) but there are many references to other films to be found. I spotted North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), and Rear Window (1954). I’m sure there are many more in there, and please leave a comment to let me know if you find any more.
Click here and enjoy the movie:
Only recently had Criterion announced upcoming titles on Blu-Ray, and now it looks like Masters of Cinema has also. The only title so far to have been announced is Mad Detective (Sun taam, Hong Kong: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai, 2007). Although a recent title, the Masters of Cinema are known for their very rare titles, many silent and many from around the world.
If you don’t know the Masters of Cinema which is a UK label, they produce world-class editions including incredible prints of obscure titles and are highly recommended. Check out their great catalogue here.
I predict an exciting time for lovers of silent, world and classic Hollywood cinema – it looks like there may just be something in Blu-Ray for us too…
The Classic Film Show isn’t only about Hollywood. It’s probably fair to say that we do not watch as many British films as we should so it’s great to see three obscure Ealing Studios titles being resurrected on DVD. Of the four I have only seen Pink String and Sealing Wax which I remember being enjoyably melodramatic and set in a very Victorian England.
I have a particular fondness for Ealing movies. Partly because that is where I come from – indeed the studios are ten minutes from here – but have always loved films such as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit and especially The Ladykillers.
Here is some info on the movies from the Optimum website:
San Demetrio, London follows the compelling true story of a crew of British seaman who in 1940 were forced to abandon ship after being torpedoed by German forces. Having been set adrift in their lifeboat for twenty four hours the crew of the San Demetrio must come to a fateful decision: to either withstand the harsh, deadly and fatal conditions of an unrelenting November Atlantic or risk re-boarding the hazardous, flaming decks of the San Demetrio with it’s highly explosive cargo of 12,000 tonnes of aviation fuel in an attempt to sail it back home to safety of the British coast.
Directed by Charles Frend (The Cruel Sea, Scott Of The Antarctic and TV shows The Man In A Suitcase and Dangerman) and written by Robert Hamer (School For Scoundrels, Kind Hearts And Coronets), San Demetrio, London is brimming with dramatic tension and is a gripping, inspiring testament to the rarely acknowledged bravery of the merchant navy during the second world war.
From the director of Scott Of The Antarctic, The Cruel Sea and San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend) comes the whimsical, heart warming comedy Johnny Frenchman.
Veteran theatre comedian Tom Walls plays the Harbour Master in a small Cornish fishing village whose constant run ins with a French fish poacher, played by Francoise Rosay, often leave him outwitted and sworn to revenge. To make matters worse the French poacher’s son, played by Paul Dupuis, is starting to make romantic advances towards the harbour master’s young, impressionable, beautiful blonde daughter, played by Patricia Roc. But as the threat of Nazi Germany rears its ugly head, common adversaries suddenly realise that the future of the village depends on them putting their differences aside and joining forces to fight the good fight.
Johnny Frenchman follows in the comedic traditions of the ever reliable Ealing Studios and includes a cast that features genuine Cornish villagers and actual members of The French Resistance.
In 1890’s Brighton the young son of a puritanical chemist longs to escape the repressive environment of his family life and the overbearing restraints of his cruel, pious father. Eventually finding refuge in a local tavern he his immediately attracted to the sordid glamour of the drinking classes and the gritty world that they inhabit. He also finds himself becoming infatuated with the tavern’s landlady, which will inadvertently lead to him being drawn into a plot to kill her abusive husband.
Directed by Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts And Coronets, San Demetrio, London and School For Scoundrels) , Pink String And Sealing Wax stars Googie Withers (The Lady Vanishes), Mervyn Johns (Dead Of Night) and Gordon Jackson (Whisky Galore, The Quatermass Experiment) in a film that cleverly entwines the dynamics of a thriller with biting social commentary and a multi-layered plot structure that contrasts the parallels of the British class system.
Richly comic, tensely dramatic, romantically moving – THE SQUARE RING looks beyond the stadium lights of 1950s boxing and into the lives of the men who fight for fame and fortune – and the women who fight to hold them.
Featuring an enviable British cast including Carry On stalwerts Bill Owen and Sid James (Carry On Sargeant, Carry on Nurse), and a touching performance from a young Joan Collins (Dynasty, Fear in the Night), THE SQUARE RING is an Ealing classic not to be missed.
If the internet was your only source of film information, you would be led to believe that the only films that exist are those in production, upcoming or currently on release. Visit the pages of sites such as Cinematical.com, Rope of Silicon and Empire Online and here are the kinds of questions being posed: ‘Is a Good Videogame Adaptation Possible?’ or ‘Does Speed Racer Miss the Mark With Kids?’
Fine, these are popular sites concerned with popular cinema. Yet these sites not only have huge readerships, their articles are also circulated around the internet via an ever-complex network of links. These can take the form of news aggregators, fan blogs, message boards, and other large-scale film sites. The problem is that these articles swamp the internet and circulate limited perspectives on film history.
My concern is with how these sites deal with, question and write about film history. The short answer is that many of them do not write explicitly about film history. That in itself is quite telling of an apathy towards looking at older cinema and where today’s films have come from. Then there are history articles, but in many cases they seem limited in how far back they are prepared to go.
I want to point out one article I came across entitled ‘The Greatest Five Seconds in Movie History’ which is just one of hundreds that could be discussed here. The title itself is similar to many others online that use attention-grabbing terms such as ‘The Greatest’, ‘In History’, and ‘All-Time’. It turns out that these five seconds are to be found in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Darth Vadar reveals to Luke Skywalker, ‘I am your father’.
On the effects of the original Star Wars (1977) on audiences, the author writes: ‘Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, mouths agape, in like wonderment during the cantina scene. A Jew and a Muslim were both enthralled by the awesome sight and voice of Darth Vader. Young people and old gripped their chairs on the roller-coaster ride culminating in the exhilarating destruction of the Death Star…STAR WARS had, in effect, engendered a cinematic community that wasn’t bound by borders or ideologies or even culture.’
On the basis of this article it would seem as though world peace had briefly been solved in 1977. The author suggests that: ‘That sentence changed movies and by extension, America, forever.’
If The Empire Strikes Back were such an international hit, why would it only change America and not other parts of the world? This points to the dominating American perspective on cinema to be found on the internet, but this can also clearly be found in printed film histories.
The ‘All-Time’ of the title is quickly discovered to be mere hyperbole. Instead we find a lack of perspective where the idea of All-Time hits the 1970s and stops abruptly.
Empire Online is the online extension of the British magazine that I used to read when I was younger. I distinctly remember articles on The Godfather (1972), Scorsese and Star Wars. Its retrospective articles would often largely point to the 1970s and that seemed to be the limit of its memory. Needless to say may of its writers grew up during that period, which seemed to fuel the hyper coverage of the Star Wars films on re-release.
But then again Empire is a magazine for the public and articles on older cinema do not sell. It also is manipulated by the industry: when five stars are awarded to the big Summer films, you can’t help but suspect that this is merely an extension of studio marketing.
There are certain topics that sell well online: comic book films, superheros, video game adaptations, and movie lists (Top 10 Villains, Top 10 Explosions, etc.). These articles get hundreds, if not thousands, of hits a day and a continuous stream of comments. Maybe there is no room for articles on older cinema?
But surely there are many viewers out there who want to know more about all kinds of cinema but just cannot find the resources to do so.
So what are the alternatives? For starters I would head for Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog and stay subscribed. Renowned film scholars of works such as Classical Hollywood Cinema and Film History, theirs is perhaps the most insightful film writing online.
Film history is so rich, vast and exciting that it can be frustrating when online writing only deals with a fraction of that period. I often wonder why there isn’t a greater urgency to find out more about what came before. Surely this would give viewers and writers a more mature understanding of the films they see today.
The 2nd Fashion in Film Festival kicks off tomorrow in London, spreading itself across the BFI Southbank, ICA, Ciné Lumière and Tate Modern.
The scope is large and imaginative. Below are some highlights for me (from the online catalogue), though there is a lot of more recent titles which also look very interesting including a remake of The Red Shoes from South Korea.
Note in particular the illustrated lecture by the brilliant academic writer Tom Gunning and the UK Premiere of a Czech silent, The Kidnapping of Fux Banker (1923). It also includes one of my particular favourites, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) starring the exquisite Gene Tierney. It’s also great to see silents make such a prominent appearance.
|Silent Film’s Thieves, Jewel Robberies and Cases of the Lost Glove
Introduced by Christel Tsilibaris.
Sunday 18 May, 17.00, Ciné lumière
A Man With White Gloves (L’homme aux gants blancs)
The Gentleman Thief (aka Max Leads Them a Novel Chase ; Le voleur mondain)
Nick Winter and the Case of the Famous Hotel (Nick Winter et l’affaire du Célébric Hôtel )
The Pearl (La Perle)
|The Kidnapping of Fux Banker (Únos bankére Fuxe)
Czech Republic 1923. Dir Karl Anton.
With Anny Ondra, Karel Lamac. 75 min. 35mm.
New musical accompaniment by DJ Charles Kriel and “funny face”.
Introduced by Marketa Uhlirova.
Sunday 25 May, 18.20, BFI Southbank NFT1
UK 1925. Dir Graham Cutts.
With Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans. 80min. 35mm.
Saturday 24 May 17:45, BFI Southbank NFT1
|Asphalt (Der Polizeiwachtmeister und die Diamantenelse)
Germany 1929. Dir Joe May.
With Betty Amann, Gustav Fröhlich. 94 min. 35mm.
With live piano accompaniment.
Sunday 25 May, 15.30, BFI Southbank NFT1
|Desire OASIS Gala screening
USA 1936. Dir Frank Borzage.
With Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper. 89 min. 35mm.
Saturday 17 May, 20:30, Ciné lumière
|The Lodger : A Story of the London Fog
UK 1927. Dir Alfred Hitchcock.
With Ivor Novello, June. 98 min. 35mm.
Introduced by Alice Rawsthorn.
With live musical accompaniment.
Tuesday 13 May, 18.30, BFI Southbank NFT1
|Leave Her to Heaven
USA 1945. Dir John M. Stahl.
With Gene Tierney. 105 min. 35mm.
Monday 19 May, 18.20, BFI Southbank NFT2
This will hopefully be the very first of many posts to come on early film, one of my particular interests.
It seems to me that few are aware of the pleasures of early film. The term ‘early film’ refers to the earliest films, from around 1894 until around 1907 at which point films shifted towards a the more explicitly narrative cinema.
Early films are distinctly different to the narrative feature films in obvious ways: namely they’re far shorter, contain far fewer shots, and many are factual. At least silent feature films resemble the fiction films we are used to of today. As a result early films tend not to be dealt with in broad film histories (particularly online), and as I’ll probably end up mentioning over and over on this site, many people seem to believe that cinema began with either A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Great Train Robbery (1903) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).
These fragments of film can seem to come out of the blue, a tiny window on somewhere in the world. One common reaction is that these films are ‘primitive’, almost naive, in their form. ‘Why have a single shot when we now know that films are meant to be made up of many shots? If they only knew then what we know now.’
One aspect of films that many do not take into account is how they were exhibited. For many, films should ‘hold up’ as singular entities that should ‘work’ regardless of the year in which they are being watched. Therefore if they do not work today, they do not ‘work’ at all. Early films, many of which today can be comprehended with absolute clarity, were shown in a programme of other films, and often other kinds of acts. Moving pictures would have played on a music hall programme amidst live acts, for instance. Therefore these films were not intended to be watched in isolation.
There is often great imagination in these films, which consisted of trick films with spectacular special effects or actualities documenting life and movement. The earliest films consisted of a single shot, as in the film above, View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898). One of the earliest multi-shot films was G.A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel from 1899. The technological constraint of only being able to shoot using a single strip of film was not viewed as a constraint to early filmmakers but rather a mere fact of their trade. This ‘limitation’ to creative variations, such as in the phantom ride above, and to a visual economy that was ultimately succinct aesthetically intriguing. The single shot also resulted in early films having a distinct temporal difference to edited fiction feature films, namely that they linger, play out in real time, and in many ways do not seem to begin or end, they just happen.
Many people do not realise that cinema began as early as it did and that there indeed were Victorian films. These films can still be a pleasurable shock in the vivid window they present to us of our world over 110 years ago.
I plucked the film above from the BFI’s YouTube collection. Indeed it’s one of the films I have written about for the BFI’s Screenonline here. Also check out my mini-essay on the ‘phantom ride‘, of which this is a great example, here.
If only you were watching it on a big screen rather than through the fog of pixels.
Some very exciting news. I just received a message from Criterion announcing that they will be releasing titles in Blu-Ray, and that we will see them on shelves in October.
Criterion have revealed that, ‘These new editions will feature glorious high-definition picture and sound, all the supplemental content of the DVD releases, and they will be priced to match our standard-def editions.’
And here are their first titles:
The Third Man
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Last Emperor
The 400 Blows
The Complete Monterey Pop
For All Mankind
The Wages of Fear
It will be interesting to discover how far these Blu-Ray editions from Criterion, who are of course known for their high standards in image quality, enhance the viewing experience of films of varying ages. I am optimistic that the result may very well be worth the wait.
There is currently no information on their site here, but I will keep you posted on any further developments.
A very exciting 2-disc DVD has just been released: La Roue (1927), a monumental silent directed by Abel Gance. I saw this film on the big screen and at that time it ran at four hours, but this new restoration seems to come in even longer at four and a half.
It revolves around a steam train engineer and the infant girl he saves from a train wreck, evolving into a complex and delicate drama. While containing some devastating and kinetic imagery, particularly around steam engines, it ultimately is one of the most memorable silent film experiences out there. Finally I get to see it again.
Directed by Abel Gance whose Napoleon (1927) is legendary, this is highly recommended. It is published by Flicker Alley, who has emerged as a great new distributor of rare silents on DVD. Check it out at their website.
Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.
There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:
The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)
During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.
Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.
One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.
His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.
One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.
In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed.
The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.
A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.