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Movie Crash Course: The Big Parade

I feel like this is the Ur-War Movie.  Released seven years after Armistice in France after World War I, The Big Parade is noted for being the first film to depict the First World War from the average GI’s perspective; but it also reminded me of all of the tropes from “war movies” that by now feel so familiar.

Each half of the movie has a very different tone as well, with all of the comedy happening in the first bit.  Our hero is Jimmy, a young man of wealth who has little ambition for work. But when war is declared, his sweetheart gushes about how handsome he’d look in uniform, and he enlists.

Soon he is in France, rubbing shoulders with lower-class men and coping with Army life – mess halls, washing clothes in a stream, shoveling manure in a barn. At least he’s making friends with a couple of fellow soldiers, and romancing the pretty daughter at the farm where his squad has been stationed.

While he’s wooing the natives, his buddies are getting into their own hijinks – rigging up showers out of barrels and collanders, raiding local wine cellars, and getting into a contest of rank.

Then about midway through, Jimmy’s squad is sent to the front lines, and the tone of the film dramatically shifts, with the zany army hijinks giving way to daring army bravery.  Our three heroes cover each other during gunfire, march into battle, and huddle in foxholes, sharing a dwindling supply of cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

There are noble sacrifices, tragic deaths, last-ditch rescue efforts – and the realization that the rag-tag misfits have become brothers of a sort.  There’s even the tragic love story, with Jimmy realizing he has to choose between his girl back home in the States and the spunky French girl he has fallen for.

…I feel like I’ve seen elements of this film in everything from Stripes to Full Metal Jacket to Heartbreak Ridge. Unfortunately, for most of the war half that worked to the film’s detriment with me; I’ve seen bits of plenty of John Wayne films, and all the accompanying moments of heroic noble wartime sacrifice, so the second half mostly felt formulaic.  The romance between Jimmy and the French girl Melisande seems pretty forced as well – one minute she’s punching him for getting a little too handsy during a walk, but the next minute she’s kissing him.  ….I dunno.

That said – there are still some charming and arresting moments. Jimmy quickly learns that his own French is abysmal, and so is Melisande’s English, which presents a challenge. So during one of their “dates”, he settles for a wordless bonding activity – introducing her to bubble gum.

Even earlier, before they even meet, Jimmy snares a barrel to hack into a shower, and can only think to carry it home by putting it over his head and trying to peer through the bunghole. He runs into Melisande on the way – literally – and she clowns around with him a bit.

And there are serious moments too. A later scene sees Jimmy in a wartime hospital – and as he surveys the room from his bed, alongside the other soldiers with bandaged legs and arms and heads, there is one man he sees, flailing desperately, who has been tied down to the bed. It’s a moment that may have softened the actual effects of shell-shock, but that the film acknowledged it at all was a surprise.

On the battlefield, too, was a scene that was indescribably eerie. Jimmy’s squad has been sent into a forest filled with snipers, in an effort to flush them out.  The squad spreads out, with Jimmy and his two buddies alongside each other – and as they march, guns at the ready and looking about nervously, every few seconds someone from the row behind them just falls over, a victim of the sniper. There’s no comment on it, Jimmy and his crew flinch briefly, but that’s it. It’s really eerie.

The Big Parade won big at the box office, with audiences flocking to see a dramatization of what they’d just lived through just a few years prior. The unflinching look at war’s impact also caught the eye of producers of tthe later movie All Quiet On The Western Front, who reportedly were inspired by the film.

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Movie Crash Coures: Seven Chances

So last night I had three options for films-to-watch – one on DVD, and two online.  While trying to decide which one to watch, I realized one was a Buster Keaton film and then it was no contest.

Here, Keaton plays junior broker Jimmy Shannon – a partner in a brokerage firm that’s about to go bankrupt.  But – what luck! – a lawyer arrives with the news that an aging relative has just died and left Jimmy several million dollars in his will, on one condition: he must be married by 7 pm on the evening of his 27th birthday.  And it just so happens that Jimmy’s 27th birthday is that same day.  Fortunately, he’s been summoning the courage to pop the question to his sweetheart Mary anyway, and he rushes over to propose to her.  But when she finds out the mercenary motivation, an offended Mary dumps him.

Jimmy is left reeling, but his partner Billy Meekin is by now rallied to the cause, going to greater and greater lengths to get his partner hitched – first dragging him off to their country club to try his luck with the seven ladies visiting that afternoon, and ultimately placing a “Calling All Brides!” ad in the paper.  But meanwhile, a repentant Mary sends a message to Jimmy giving him another chance and asking him to show up at her house that evening, preacher in tow.  Will Jimmy get that message in time? Will he end up with one of the seven women at the club?  Or, perhaps, with one of the 100-plus women at the church?….

Actually, the bulk of the film doesn’t deal with any of that – it’s an extended chase scene, with Keaton going to greater and greater lengths to escape a stampede of angry women in white dresses, tangling along the way with turtles, bees, streetcars, boats, cranes, canyons, bricks, and such, in a scene that comes across like a merry fever-dream combination of the Pamplona bulls, the boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a sale at a David’s Bridal outlet.

Keaton actually didn’t want to make the film at first. It was based on a stage play from 1916, and one of Keaton’s frequent producers, Joseph Schenck, was convinced it would make a good film adaptation. Keaton hadn’t liked the play, though, and kept putting him off – until he got into debt with Schenck and agreed to the film to help settle the debt.  He even tried to convince Schenck to change the ending, suggesting they fade out in the middle of the chase scene.  (Schenck said no.)

The one thing that finally cheered Keaton up was when an audience at a test screening unexpectedly burst out laughing when Keaton’s character, fleeing down the side of a mountain, dislodged a couple of rocks and then had to dodge them as they rolled after him.  It had been a happy accident at the time of filming – but Keaton had to admit it was funny.  So he expanded the sequence with several more minutes of himself fleeing from ever-bigger rocks (fake ones, of course) cut into the action.  Keaton still wasn’t crazy about the film, but the rock sequence, he liked.

Keaton does find space for other bits of schtick throughout the paper-thin plot – from the exact nature of his proposals to the various women at the country club, to a war of wills with a hat-check girl.

Disappointingly, some of the gags come at the expense of the women themselves – there are a few instances where Keaton recoils in horror from a woman who is either too old or too fat, and in one uneasy moment, he is on a street and about to tap the shoulder of a passing woman and make his offer, but at the last minute he sees that she is African-American and he flees in panic.  That kind of thing was par for the course in 1926, unfortunately.

Surprisingly, I also learned that this film has had a modern remake – Seven Chances was actually the basis for 1999’s The Bachelor, with Chris O’Donnell and Renee Zellweger.  From the looks of the trailer, they kept things like the basic plot and the bride chase, but forgot to put in Keaton’s charisma.

….You may notice a change in my habit of relaying the entire plot of a film – I’ve had it pointed out that that may not be exactly fair to y’all wanting to watch things yourselves.  It’s actually an old habit from some of my theater review writing days, and I’m going to try to get rid of that crutch now.

Movie Crash Course: The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is another film I’m not going to describe the action for.  However, in this case it’s because whether you know it or not, you’ve already seen a lot of this film.

The plot is a comparatively gentle adventure story, with Chaplin as a novice prospector (and one woefully underdressed for Alaska’s winter).  At the start of the film he’s bumbling his way through the tundra, gets caught in a storm and takes shelter in another prospector’s cabin. His host is “Black Larsen,” a criminal who tries to throw him out into the storm; but another prospector, “Big Jim,” also stops by seeking shelter and teams up with our hero to get Black Larsen to let them stay.  When food runs out, they draw lots to choose a hunter for the group; Black Larsen is chosen, but instead of finding food he finds Big Jim’s claim, and decides to lie in wait there.  Fortunately the others manage to save themselves by shooting and cooking a bear.

After the storm, the pair part ways; Big Jim returns to his claim, where Black Larsen tries to kill him and steal the loot. Larsen falls off a cliff in the process, but Jim has still gotten a nasty enough blow that he develops amnesia.

Meanwhile, our little Prospector has abandoned gold prospecting and drifts into a frontier town, trying to figure out what to do with himself. He quickly falls in love with Georgia, a dance hall girl there, spending most of the second act trying to woo her; she writes him off in favor of Jack, a flashier guy in town, and she and her buddies tease him by stringing him along. But gradually, his gentlemanly ways start to win her over.

But before our hero can declare his intentions, Big Jim runs into him – and his memory is jogged enough that he remembers he’d had a sizeable claim, at a spot near the cabin where he’d stayed with our hero.  He drags our hero away to help him find the cabin, promising they’ll split the proceeds.  After a daring expedition, they find the gold.

The last scene sees our hero and Big Jim triumphantly sailing back to the continental US, newly rich. Our hero still misses Georgia, however. But conveniently, she is on the same ship, regretting her treatment of our hero. They run into each other, she’s swept off her feet by his charm and riches and they live happily ever after.

But that’s the plot.  What you’re going to remember instead, what Chaplin was best known for, is the schtick.  In fact, if you were to make a list of Chaplin’s best-known “bits”, most of them are actually in this one film.

Cooking a boot?  It’s in here.

Trying to stay upright in a tilting house?  It’s in here.

A hungry companion hallucinating that he’s a chicken? It’s in here.

The roll dance?  Yup.

…Watching these films was my first real encounter with both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, even though I’ve been hearing about them both all my life. I also kind of got the sense that there was a sort of rivalry between them; just like how you’re either a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person, or you’re either a fan of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.  Or you’re Team Edward or Team Jacob.

Similarly, you were either a Charlie Chaplin person, or you were a Buster Keaton person.  And having finally watched them both, I think I’m Team Keaton.  I appreciated Chaplin’s schtick, and it was fun to watch, but his comedy seems more…sweet, rather than zany.  There’s a layer of sentiment that kept me from losing myself in a full-out belly laugh the way Keaton did.

That said, though, there was a bit midway through the film that I actually watched twice simply for the picture it made.  It’s a scene when Chaplin first comes upon the dance hall; a song strikes up and everyone else in the room starts dancing, but Chaplin is left alone.  And for several seconds he is simply standing in the foreground, watching the dancers all alone, his back to us.

I couldn’t tell you why, but I found this moment strikingly and hauntingly beautiful.

 

Movie Crash Course: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Name it quick, without looking it up: who made the first full-length animated feature film?  I bet you said “Walt Disney” – and a week ago, so would I.  But we would be wrong.  This film pre-dates Disney’s Steamboat Willie by two years, and was made by the German artist Lotte Reiniger – and even better, she was working mostly alone, using a camera and animation technique she invented herself.

Usually I talk about the film a lot when I post these reviews, but Reiniger’s story deserves to take precedence this time.  As a girl in turn-of-the-century Berlin, she was fascinated by Balinese shadow puppets and Chinese paper silhouette art, to the point that she made a puppet theater and put on shows for family and friends.  Then film caught her eye as a teenager, and she started thinking of ways to combine film with her shadow puppetry.

Reiniger started working with a theater company owned by Max Reinhardt, an early German filmmaker.  She had no theatrical aspirations, but Reinhardt’s work in film drew Reiniger’s eye.  She ended up working closely with company member Paul Wegener, another actor-turned-filmmaker; Wegener first called on her to create silhouettes for the title cards for his films, then asked her to try coming up with a way to animate the mice for a film about the Pied Piper.  She used her cut-paper puppets for the mice, and was almost immediately invited to join the Institut für Kulturforschung (Institute for Cultural Research), a new animation studio.  There, she made shorter films – many of which played to sold-out houses, even though they were only a few minutes long – and did some advertising work as well.

Animated films were traditionally short in the early days of cinema – largely because of the painstaking work needed to produce them, but also simply because of tradition.  Animated films were the appetizer before the main pictures, little throwaway cartoons meant as a quick laugh.  In fact, the only reason that Reiniger ended up doing a full-length film was because a colleague, spooked by Germany’s economic inflation, panicked one day and bought up a huge stash of raw film before it got too expensive; then, when he calmed down and saw how much film he had, he realized he should probably do something with it.  He approached Reiniger suggesting a full-length animation, but the amount of work it would entail gave her pause – as did doubts about whether animation could sustain a full-length story.  After some thought, however, she agreed, and started work on Prince Achmed.

Reiniger came up with an animation table that used layers of panes of glass set into a hole in the table; different layers of glass had different cut-out images on them.  The most “active” elements were all on the top pane, so it could be easily lifted up for the cutouts to be changed.  A light underneath the glass projected the shadows, and a regular camera fixed in place above the glass captured each frame. For the smoothest animation, Reiniger had to capture six frames per second.  The film took two years to complete.

But my word it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is a gumbo of plot points taken from the Arabian Nights collection of folktales.  Our hero, Prince Achmed, is the son of the Caliph, tricked into a ride on the back of a magic flying horse conjured up by an evil magician.  By the time Achmed figures out how to land he’s been spirited away to the land of “Wak-Wak”, where he cavorts with a series of temple maidens before meeting Peri Banu, their princess.

But then Peri Banu gets kidnapped by a Chinese emperor and the horse gets stolen, and Achmed must come up with a way to save her – enlisting the help of a witch living inside a volcano, and meeting Aladdin in the process.  The witch has a grudge against the magician who started all the fuss so she’s more than happy to help.

And just like with all fairy tales, there’s a happy ending, with Peri Banu rescued and the magician vanquished.  Even Aladdin gets rewarded, falling in love with Achmed’s sister.

Reiniger’s cutouts are amazingly intricate; there are lace details, patterened screens, hydra-headed beasts, shifting leaves and feathers, and sparkling stars throughout.

Even the motion – sometimes it’s just a little finger or a rolling eyeball, but it manages to come across with expression.

After it was completed, Prince Achmed got held up a further year waiting for a distributor; but was a smash success when it was finally released in 1927.  Reiniger was able to make a second similarly-animated film based on the Doctor Dolittle novels, and then tried her hand at directing a live-action film (about a shadow puppet troupe).  However, her live-action film was just finishing production right when sound films were gaining in popularity, so Reiniger had to pull the actors back in to loop in their dialogue; this delayed release of the film, and the actors’ skill in dubbing apparently wasn’t very good.

Reiniger’s luck kept on a downswing during the 1930s, as she and her husband desperately tried to relocate out of Germany to escape the Third Reich.  Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get a permanent residency visa anywhere, so she and her husband kept relocating from country to country, moving to whereever they could get a temporary visa and staying there until the visa expired.  Nevertheless, Reiniger made twelve more films in this period.  Ultimately she had to return to Berlin in 1944 to care for her elderly mother.  Fortunately Hitler’s regieme left her personal liberty intact, but creatively, Reiniger was stuck making propaganda films for the Third Reich until war’s end. Finally, in 1949, Reiniger got a visa to resettle in London, where she made a series of animations for the BBC in the 1950s.  Ultimately she returned to Berlin, where she died in 1981.

She’s not that well known here; but animators definitely know of her. Her animation technique is a precursor to the cel-based stop-motion technique used by studios throughout the 20th century.  The opening of Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia features Mickey Mouse silhouetted against a colored background, in homage to Reiniger’s design style.

More recently, the character “Prince Achmed” in Disney’s Aladdin may have also been a nod to Reiniger’s work.

Finally, Reiniger is also a name amongst puppeteers.  When I spoke with a puppeteer acquaintance, he reminded me that there was a Google doodle recently that paid homage to Reiniger, done in her style.

Movie Crash Course: Battleship Potemkin

At the end of the day, I am an amateur filmgoer; Battleship Potemkin made me realize some of the problems with that.  I have a few more things to say about that, but we’ll table them to the end of this review.

Battleship Potemkin, from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (he also did Strike), was one of cinema’s first “historical dramatization” films and is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece.  Eisenstein staged the account of the mutiny of a Russian battleship twenty years prior and further turned it into a rallying cry for the then-new Bolshevik cause.

The events of the mutiny are pretty faithfully captured here. In 1905, Russia was deep in a lengthy war with Japan, and the morale of the Russian navy was at an ebb.  Most of the experienced sailors and officers were being rushed to battle, leaving the home front to be maintained by raw recruits and more problematic officers. Resources were also short; and on the Potemkin, this lead to the ship’s cooks having to try to serve meat that was well past the point of spoiling.  One night, when the chef served a borscht made with meat the crew had already seen was maggot-ridden, they all boycotted dinner, resorting to tinned sardines from the ship’s store and bread they’d saved from breakfast. At wit’s end, the ship’s captain made a great show of singling out a group of the men who’d skipped the borscht and preparing to “shoot them for insubordination”. Crewman Grigory Vakulinchuk spoke up, rallying the others to revolt, and the men took over, killing seven of the superior officers in the process (sadly, Vakulinchuk died in the scuffle as well).

The Potemkin went on to Odessa, then gripped by a general strike, in an effort to drum up solidarity.  The Cossack army urged the crew of the Potemkin to help them break up the strike; but the crew’s sentiments ran the other way, and they actually ended up escalating the tension, when their funeral for Vakulinchuk started a political protest instead. The Cossack army tried to capture the sailors; the Potemkin retaliated by trying (and failing) to shell a theater where the military was holding an emergency strategy meeting. Two other ships were called in to rein in the Potemkin, but their crews ended up siding with the mutineers.  Ultimately, the Potemkin sailed on to Romania, where the men defected and the ship was sunk.

The film covers the events of the mutiny up to the point where the other ships refuse to stop the Potemkin. It’s surprisingly short – just an hour and fifteen minutes – but packs a lot in, with a detailed staging of the on-deck revolt and the demonstrations in Odessa following Vakulinchuk’s funeral. The Odessa scenes are famous to the point of notoriety among film scholars; in a lengthy montage, a merciless line of Cossack soldiers marches down a staircase, relentlessly shooting at the fleeing rioters. And Eisenstein takes pains to show us the effects – a child is trampled to death.  A woman is clubbed in the face, breaking her glasses. A mother pushing a baby carriage is shot, and the carriage rolls uncontrollably down the steps.  There was no such massacre, however; this is one instance where Eisenstein tweaks the truth a bit.  He also has the Potemkin succeed in destroying the Odessa Opera House.  But this too becomes an eye-catching, if brief, montage; just before each shell hits, Eisenstein shows quick clips of some of the statuary surrounding it; heroically-posed men, and snarling lions. In this staging, however, it looks like the statues are recoiling in fear before being blown up.  In fact, these two scenes are considered by several critics to be the birth of the “montage” film technique.

….And this is why I’ve started to re-think a bit about my approach to these films.  I had been hearing all my life about Battleship Potemkin, about what a pinnacle of achievement it is, how highly it’s been acclaimed; I’d heard that the Odessa steps sequence has been copied and parodied in everything from The Godfather to Revenge of The Sith to Brazil, and even one of the Naked Gun movies spoofed it.

And all that hype had built the film up in my head to the point that after watching it, my overwhelming reaction was “that’s it?”   I knew intellectually that the cinematography was supposed to be groundbreaking, but aside from a couple of standout scenes – the lion statues, a woman on the Odessa steps surrounded by the shadows of the Cossacks – I didn’t really notice things.  And I feel like I should have done.  I had the chance to catch details, but I hadn’t been schooled in what to look for, and I missed them.

Mind you, I believe equally as strongly that we don’t all need to go to film school to appreciate film.  The bulk of Eisenstein’s original audience hadn’t (hell, film school probably didn’t even exist), nor did the bulk of D. W. Griffith’s audiences or Cecil B. DeMille’s, and neither have the bulk of Stanley Kubrick’s or Martin Scorcese’s or Steven Spielberg’s or Terry Gilliam’s.  The average person hasn’t gone to film school.  Ultimately, the point of film is to entertain people.  It is not made exclusively for scholars, it is made for regular yutzes like me.

I just as strongly believe that it is okay to not like a film that the critics have lauded.  I’ve seen people fall into this trap in the theater world; there are shows and directors and artists who are critical darlings, and I’ve seen entire scenes crop up around them with fans flocking to their shows because of the cool factor.  But when you press the fans for details about why they like the shows, they can only breathlessly tell you that it’s because of the artist.  They have nothing to say about the show itself.  Liking a thing just because of its reputation smacks a little too much of the cargo cult to me; if you don’t like something, that’s an entirely valid reaction, even if Roger Ebert loved it.  Not everyone likes everything, and that is okay.  (Hell, Roger Ebert apparently didn’t like The Usual Suspects, which baffles me.)

So up to this point I’ve had no problem saying if I didn’t like something, and I’ve had no problem speaking from the regular-yutz perspective. I started this project to learn about film, after all – I admit up front I didn’t know anything.  But this has made me realize I need to maybe up the “learning” angle just a bit.

As luck would have it, I know a literature professor who’s just now starting his school year. He just made a Facebook post about the first day of a new class he has, “Intro to Cinema”; he said the first class was about getting students to be aware of and “read” this exact kind of detail; “to move what we all perceive subconsciously to a conscious level.”  I’m a little too broke for a college course, and his campus is a bit too far away; but like I said, I don’t need a full course anyway, necessarily.  But he has agreed to shoot me a copy of the syllabus, so I can take a couple steps closer and open my eyes a bit wider.

Movie Crash Course: Greed

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Oh, I didn’t want to watch this…Greed was a 1924 Erich Von Stroheim epic, which was cut down from its original nine-hour running time to being just shy of two hours after the studio intervened. The missing seven hours of footage had been assumed lost, but film historians have found enough still photos and shooting scripts that they have edited together a sort-of thing that gives a flavor of Von Stroheim’s vision, and clocks in at four hours.  Classic masterwork or not, four hours is a long time to dedicate to a movie without a break.

But this turned out to be…not bad.  Dammit.

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Based on an 1899 novel, Greed is the story of MacTeague (the film never reveals his first name), a big galoot of a guy working in a California gold mine. His parents are also in the same mining town – his mother is a cook in the mine’s kitchen, and his father is a lush. Mom MacTeague fears her son is destined for the same path as her father, so when a traveling frontier dentist comes to town, she begs the dentist to take her son on as an apprentice. MacTeague stays with the dentist for five years, until his mother finally dies, leaving him a modest inheritance of $250; he uses it to settle down in San Francisco, buy his own storefront and start his own practice.  For the next few years, business is modest, but steady, with MacTeague mostly serving the people in the boarding house where he lives and on his street, including a guy named Marcus, who becomes one of his good buddies.

Then one day, Marcus brings his girlfriend Trina by; it seems they’d been on a merry-go-round at a carnival and Trina broke her tooth, so Marcus brought her to his buddy MacTeague to fix it.  MacTeague agrees, but is also instantly smitten with Trina.

Trina, however, just wants her tooth fixed at that point. She’s nervous about being “permanently disfigured”, and to calm her nerves while she waits for him to work on her, she buys a lottery ticket from the odd-job woman working at the boarding house.

But MacTeague devotes himself to helping her, seeing her daily for a solid two weeks in an effort to design the perfect replacement crown for her; he also falls even more in love with her, and finally confesses his feelings to Marcus.  Marcus is initially jealous when MacTeague tells him, of course, but after a couple minutes admits that he’s not the best for Trina and gives MacTeague his blessing to go after her, even offering to introduce MacTeague to Trina’s family.

Trina and her family welcome MacTeague; she’s happy with her tooth, first, but she soon warms to MacTeague the man as well.  But after several months, she is still reluctant to marry him.

But then – the long-forgotten lottery ticket pays off. Trina discovers – she has won five thousand dollars!  As she shares the news with MacTeague, Marcus, and the rest of the gang, she wonders aloud what she will do with the money.  “Why don’t you and MacTeague get married with it?” someone proposes.

And so they do.

Initially all is rosy – Trina buys MacTeague a big gold-plated tooth to hang in his storefront as an eye-catching ad, and MacTeague in turn presents her with a loveable pair of pet canaries.

Marcus does grumble a bit about the couple – Trina’s new fortune has been giving him seller’s remorse for giving her up – but he keeps his peace for a while, finally moving out to the country to start a ranch, he says.

But that’s not the only hiccup in the new marriage. For all her wealth, Trina seems strangely miserly. She invests the full five thousand in her uncle’s storefront for safekeeping, and hoards any other money the couple gets, stowing it away in her hope chest and taking it out only to admire and polish it.

But then the California state dentist’s board – tipped off by a jealous Marcus – sends MacTeague a cease-and-desist letter. He’s not an accredited dentist, they decree, and so he must stop his practice immediately.

Times get hard for the couple. They sell off almost all they own and move into a cheap flophouse, MacTeague doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Trina becomes even more fanatic about saving money.  MacTeague, suspicious she’s keeping money from him, harrangues her for it, and once gets into such a fit of rage that he tortures her by biting her fingers until she gives him some of her hoard.

Finally, Trina comes home from grocery shopping one day to find that MacTeague has broken into her hope chest and stolen her savings, totalling $450 by then.  She searches his usual haunts, but he’s nowhere to be found. And then the bitten fingers – which Trina has been trying to nurse – turn so infected they need to be amputated. Abandoned, robbed, and an amputee, Trina gives up on MacTeague and strikes out on her own.  She gets a job as the cleaning lady at a local elementary school, sleeping in the back room. Once she’s settled there, she visits her uncle and takes back her five thousand-dollar investment; although she doesn’t want it to spend. Instead, she literally sleeps with it.

MacTeague, who’s finally spent through her $450, tracks her down and begs her to take him back. She refuses. She also refuses his request for some money for a meal. Then a desperate MacTeague breaks in, beats her to death and steals the five thousand, leaving San Francisco for good.

At first he takes up his old job in the mine again, but fear of the law sends him further afield, to give prospecting a try. As luck would have it, he end up near the same town where Marcus now runs a ranch; Marcus sees the “Man Wanted” posters going up in town and eagerly joins the posse heading off in search of MacTeague, eager for revenge.

The posse follows his trail to Death Valley, realizing that he’s set off into the valley alone. The others prepare to ride around and meet him on the other side, but a crazed Marcus heads into the valley to confront him. In their ensuing struggle, they manage to kill both their horses and spill all their water; but Marcus still demands MacTeague give him the five thousand dollars. MacTeague finally clubs him to death.

However – with his last breath, Marcus manages to slip a pair of handcuffs he’s carrying onto MacTeague’s other arm, cuffing the two men together.  MacTeague realizes he’s now stuck there in the desert with him, with no water and no hope of rescue. The spilled money lies out of reach, as does the canteen.  The only thing he can reach is the cage with Trina’s canaries, which he has tenderly kept with him; he opens the cage and sets free the canaries, but they succumb to the heat and fall to the ground right away, dying just as MacTeague soon will.

The end.

So, it was okay.  Von Stroheim stays behind the camera this time; I wasn’t as impressed with his performace in the last thing he directed, so him staying away was a welcome development.  But his attention to detail and his commitment to vermissilitude were still there, and probably did him in; for the Death Valley scenes, Von Stroheim insisted on shooting in Death Valley, at great risk to the health of his actors and the functionality of the equipment (he had to wrap iced towels around the camera during shooting to offset the extreme heat).  So Von Stroheim was already on thin ice when he brought his original cut to the studio heads.

The nine-hour version he showed them was only ever screened for those men, that one time. Von Stroheim reportedly sat in the front row, staring straight ahead at the camera, subtly shaming them into watching the whole thing uninterrupted along with him; he didn’t include any breaks for bathroom runs, meals, or anything. It was too much – the studio insisted that they would be making cuts, and that was that.  Von Stroheim objected strenuously, and the studio insisted just as strenuously; at one point Von Stroheim got into a fist fight with Louis Mayer, the head of MGM, over the cuts.

But cut things they did.  And, based on what I saw restored, I would be inclined to agree with half of it.  …I actually should speak to how the restoration I saw worked first: the actual cut footage had long since been destroyed, but historians found some of Von Stroheim’s notes about what some of the missing title cards would have been, as well as some corresponding still photos.  Those both have been edited back into the four-hour version of the film – lengthy takes of the still shots interspersed with the title cards, sometimes with a close-up on key details from the image.  It’s a bit jarring at first, but I got used to it quickly.

The biggest cuts were made in two sub-plots Von Stroheim intended to show as parallel stories of how other couples handled money; first, with the odd-job woman who sells Trina the lottery ticket. For the first part of the film she’s a poor dreamer, making up stories about how her family once owned a solid gold dinner service just to cheer herself up. Another fellow in the boarding house marries her, then asks whether she knows where the set is.  He keeps after her about how she should track the set down so they can have it; but when she keeps refusing, he finally kills her.  The other subplot concerns a pair of elderly boarders in the boarding house – the veterinarian Dr. Gilpin, and the elderly Miss Baker, who have been living in rooms next door to each other and admiring each other from afar. Near the film’s end, Dr. Gilpin comes into his own five thousand dollar windfall, and proposes to Miss Baker; she’s unconcerned about the money, though, and just wants him. They use the money to install a door in the wall between their rooms, and then marry. The story of Dr. Gilpin and Miss Baker is sweet, but honestly I wouldn’t have missed it.

The performances in the main story are compelling enough, though, that I do regret some of the cuts to that story; Trina’s family is an especially quirky lot, a family of German immigrants with three lively little kids and a papa who likes to lead them on mock “parades” to get them into line.  It may be a little unnecessary – but in one of the early scenes, when MacTeague is first meeting her family, it’s a charming lot of detail, winning the hard-luck MacTeague over into a whole new idea for how his life could be.  It’s part of what makes him fall for her – and adds to the poignancy when their rmoance, which did start out so well, gets corrupted by greed.

Movie Crash Course: Phantom Of The Opera

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Y’know, I really don’t have a lot to say about this one.

That is not a reflection of the quality of the film, mind you. Lon Chaney is suitably creepy as the Phantom – and not entirely because he looks creepy, either. However, while watching it, I struggled throughout to avoud thinking of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  I’ve never even seen the Webber show – but if you spend three years in drama school surrounded by musical theater buffs, “Music Of The Night” becomes a permanent part of your inner monologue.

One way the film distinguishes itself is in tone; Webber’s musical was more of a tragic swooning romance, while the film places it firmly in the gothic-horror camp.  (Compare and contrast – above his how the 1925 film looks, and below is how Webber’s unmasked Phantom looks.)

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The basic plot is the same in both cases, though. Christine, an up-and-coming singer, is the understudy for the prima donna at Paris’ opera. She gets a chance to go on one night – unbeknownst to her, it is because the managers have received an anonymous note threatening the lead. She aces the performance and wins the additional admiration of Raoul, a former childhood friend now seeing her in a more romantic light. Christine turns him down, though, claiming that she has pledged herself to her career and to the “Spirit of Music”, the mysterious disembodied voice who has been tutoring her at the opera.

Christine makes a second appearance, after which the “Spirit of Music” promises to reveal himself to her – all she has to do is step through a secret door that has been secretly hiding in her dressing room all this time….when Christine does so, she finds not the angelic sprite she has been imagining, but a masked dude who has been living inside the walls.

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He claims that the whole plan – posing as the Angel of Music, tutoring her, getting her on the stage – was because he was in love with her.  He brings her to his home – a nook of Paris’ cavernous sewers, which he has lavishly decorated – and promises her continued riches and fame along with his devotion if she’ll only be his.

Oh, there’s just one other condition – she must never see him unmasked. However, after only a day, Christine sneaks up behind him while he plays the organ – and tugs off the mask.

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The livid Phantom insists that now instead of persuading her to marry him, he’s now going to force her.  Christine begs for one last appearance on the opera stage, though, and the Phantom relents, warning her that she can’t talk to anyone else outside of the show.  And he’ll be watching!….

And he is watching, when Christine sets up a meeting with Raoul, telling him everything and begging him to come to her rescue.  She returns to the Phantom’s Lair, and Raoul teams up with the police to fight their way past a series of bizarre booby traps the Phantom has set for his guests. Finally they come to Christine’s rescue, and an angry mob throws the Phantom to his death in the Seine.

Interestingly, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom adaptation wasn’t the only thing I thought of while watching this. In the sequence when Christine is first exploring the Phantom’s lair, I found myself thinking of the film V for Vendettawhen the masked man “V” first brings young Evie to his underground “Shadow Gallery”.

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There are actually some similarities, if you think about it – both the Phantom and V have taken young women under their protection, both have lavish underground lairs, both have an appreciation for fine art, and both are disfigured men hiding behind masks. However, V’s goal is more of a sort of boot camp – he’s recognized a bit of a kindred spirit in Evie, and is hoping to train her; he also promises her that she can leave after a year. The Phantom is hoping for a longer-term arrangement – a wife.

And somehow that bit feels creepiest of all.  It’s an element that’s softened a bit in Webber’s musical, and his version shows Christine relenting a bit; but still, the Phantom’s whole argument is, “I’ve done all of these things for you because I’m obsessed with you, so that means you have to love me back.” Forget the makeup, forget the booby traps – that argument was the scariest thing the Phantom did in this film.