Monthly Archives: July 2011

Wednesday, August 3rd: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” at the Portage Theater

Join us the Wednesday, August 3rd for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

August 3rd, 2011
Robert Wise • 1951
Klaatu, an extraterrestrial played by Michael Rennie, and a robot named Gort land in Washington D.C. to warn mankind that if it doesn’t become a peaceful race it will destroy itself. In usual fashion, the US military locks Klaatu up while Gort stays home and makes sure DC tourists keep off their saucer. While The Day the Earth Stood Still is among the first science fiction films to be taken seriously be the movie-going press, it also has the unique honor (according to Colin Powell) of inspiring Ronald Reagan to discuss uniting against an alien invasion when meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. There’s also a religious subtext (Gort as Jesus), model trains, a wonderful performance by Patricia Neal as the straight lady, and one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores. (JA)
92 min • Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation • 35mm
Print from Criterion Pictures USA, special thanks to Brian Block.
Serial: Daredevils of Red Circle S.O.S. (William Witney and John English, 1939) 16mm

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In Which Walter Huston’s Vacation is Ruined, and Joan Crawford Never Had Much of a Vacation to Begin With (1932)

A recent service call at the Portage led us to the service manuals for the early 1930s Western Electric Soundheads currently installed in the cinema, which included the list price, no less than $34,000. This is in 1934 dollars, and given that the only way film could be run at the time (and the only way a respectable repertory house runs film now) was on a two projector changeover system, the cost of the sound heads alone was at the time just under $70,000. This didn’t include the cost of installing the machinery. The manual reminds the exhibitor that though the cost might seem a bit high, Western Electric was offering the best sound reproduction possible. (They were right, of course, the design on those sound heads is very similar to those used in theaters today, about eighty years later as we look at the end of 35mm distribution as an industry standard, and the ones installed at the Portage are still running flawlessly.)

Exhibitors running expensive sound systems in 1932 – and regardless of what system they were using it never would have been cheap – were no doubt quite frustrated with Rain. Most exhibitors, critics, and audiences were at least unimpressed with the film, Variety called it a mistake, and Joan Crawford hated her performance, but the most impressive thing about Rain is the sound of Lewis Milestone recklessly destroying the sound mix with an onslaught of engineered thunderstorms. The dialog is never unintelligible (it helps that everyone is yelling at each other) but every scream and every murmur is abrasive and often downright frightening. Continue reading

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Wednesdsay, July 27th: “Rain” at the Portage Theater

Join us this Wednesday, July 27th for RAIN
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

July 27th, 2011
Lewis Milestone • 1932
The second of two Joan Crawford pictures on our calender, here she plays Sadie Thompson, a prostitute boarding on an unspecified South Sea island. Walter Huston is a temporarily-marooned preacher who aspires to save her. A loud (there literally isn’t a moment in Rain that doesn’t have water bashing against the windows of the film’s interiors), messy, and frightening piece of quasi-evangelical quasi-propaganda by the great Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page), Rain anticipates some of the eerie poetry of the work of Edgar Ulmer and Val Lewton, but its bizarre heavy handedness and sense of utter chaos probably brings it closer to ninety minutes in one of the lowermost levels of Hell than any comparable piece of cinema. It’s hard to tell whether Rain is an overly earnest piece of propaganda or a mindless exploitation film, but either way it has some of the most intense sequences in pre-Code cinema. (JA)
94 min • United Artists • 16mm
Print from the Radio Cinema Film Archive

Cartoon: Alona on the Sarong Seas (Izzy Sparber, 1942) 16mm
Serial: Daredevils of Red Circle: The Flooded Mine (William Witney and John English, 1939) 16mm

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Around L’Atalante

L’Atalante is a movie of an unfocused and diffuse eroticism. The sexual energy officially arises from newlyweds Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté, but is in no way contained by them. The lust we breathe in every frame of L’Atalante is not entirely about feelings between people, and perhaps only partially, dimly about that; when trying to summon the experience of Jean Vigo’s only feature, a complete account must locate and acknowledge a similar feeling between people and animals, people and things, things and things. The ‘between’ might even be more important than the subjects it joins; this is a movie about air, both the heavy mist that greets the bargemates as night stumbles into morning and, more fancifully, the shared space that these creatures inhabit, that is created out of their union. In one of the most celebrated sequences, this is literally true: Parlo and Dasté simultaneously will into existence an imaginary, common plane when sleeping in separate beds miles apart. As they fondle themselves singly, aloneness falls away at the feet of an unnamed kingdom.

Where are we in L’Atalante? Shot on location and in studio, the footage from each is seamlessly blended together in a movie where the seams are otherwise ever present. (Even on repeat viewing, no cut ever falls quite where we anticipate—the camera veers off somewhere when expected grammar dictates a cut and the rhythm is eternally, infernally loopy.) It’s a movie that proceeds from a dream of a romantic, impossibly sophisticated Paris and rudely reminds us of pickpockets, hunger, cold, and confusion in the selfsame city—and yet the deprivations of the latter in no way impugn, or even interrupt, the validity of the former. It’s a movie that respects the fantasies of young hicks for whom the enticements of a garbled radio signal are genuine refinements. It takes great pleasure in realizing that sphere. And yet the bowels of the eponymous ship are unquestionably denser than the world outside, littered with objects that grow more mysterious as they’re explained. It’s the inverse of Noah’s Ark—Michel Simon has been charged with preserving the rude treasures of civilization while the species itself is left to drown. His collection is also, what with its alternative and artifactual sense of history, a clear ancestor of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. (The profusion of cats also suggests a parallel to Julian’s old screening room and I suspect those with little tolerance for kittens tumbling out of every crevice and corner will have even less patience for L’Atalante.) Continue reading

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Wednesday, July 20th: “L’Atalante” at the Portage Theater

Join us this Wednesday, July 20th for L’ATALANTE
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket

July 20th, 2011
Jean Vigo • 1934
Cinephiles have long bemoaned the early death—at 29, of tuberculosis— of Jean Vigo, but why mourn the infinite possibility of films not made when his only feature, the inexhaustible L’Atalante, suggests infinity itself ? From a slender premise—newlyweds Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté adapt to life on a barge, which they must share with salty sailor Michel Simon and his legion of cats—Vigo fashions a tremendously affecting account of what it means to live with another person. Between the siren call of the radio, the lovely Maurice Jaubert score, the highly eccentric and unaccountable editorial rhythm, and, above all, Simon’s unintelligible grumble of a performance, L’Atalante is a sorry, disreputable excuse for a talkie and the film that most bracingly consolidates the noisy promise of the sound cinema, single-handedly justifying the death of the silents. (Its only competition in that respect, the Fleischer Brothers’ Popeye the Sailor, is also a fitting cousin.) Mutilated by its distributor (while Vigo was dying!) to impossibly evince a more commercial movie, L’Atalante has since been restored and elevated to an uneasy perch in film history, saddled with the responsibility of representing something more than its anarchic and casual self. (KW)
85 min • Gaumont • 35mm

From the collection of the University of Chicago Film Studies Center, Permission Janus
Special thanks to Julia Gibbs and Brian Belovarac

Serial: Daredevils of Red Circle: 30 Seconds to Live (William Witney & John English, 1939) 16mm
Cartoon: Popeye the Sailor: Mutiny Ain’t Nice (Dave Fleischer, 1938) 16mm

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Ten Million Naked, Suffering Souls: Dante’s Inferno

There are some who insist that the studios must surrender—or make otherwise available—the entirety of their libraries. Whether by streaming or manufactured-on-demand discs, there are completists who want every Tim Holt western, the whole Mexican Spitfire series, all the Harman-Ising cartoons, a box set of Fox’s first season of Cinemascope releases, and anything that could be half-seriously classified film noir. Everyone has predilections and bless those with the patience and enthusiasm to husk through what even partisans must admit is a lot of chafe. They make the discoveries for the rest of us.

Hardcore auteurists function in the same way, talking up an unseen Joseph M. Newman or Allan Dwan as if every 64-minute excavation is a revelation. Mention of an extraordinary tracking shot in an otherwise undistinguished programmer or a faint echo of a situation from an earlier film is usually enough. Strictly speaking, this is all true and valid, but one cannot help but feel that the bar for revelation is sometimes set awfully low. Continue reading

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Wednesday, July 13th: “Dante’s Inferno” at the Portage

Join us this Wednesday, July 13th for DANTE’S INFERNO
The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
Learn more about the film over on the blog.

July 13th, 2011
Harry Lachman • 1935
Don’t let the title fool you. This crackling 1930s gem touches on Dante but is mostly a thoroughly American examination of capitalism, carnivals, religion, spectacle, love, and luxury—a preachment yarn in the richest and most literal terms imaginable. Spencer Tracy stars as an unemployed schlub who quickly insinuates himself with Henry B. Walthall’s downtrodden concessionaire. Walthall has his own ramshackle Hades exhibit, but Tracy has a born barker’s panache for selling the sizzle. But soon Tracy’s business shrewdness collides with Walthall’s devout intent, especially when the market calls for a bigger, spiffier inferno. Can a man rule the fairground and save his soul at the same time? Claire Trevor co-stars as Walthall’s daughter and Tracy’s squeeze, but no star shines brighter than the ten-minute tour of hell’s depths, carried off with real post-Code nudity and staggering art direction that seemingly marshaled every resource (and then some) at Fox’s disposal. Director Harry Lachman (who entered the industry through the sidelong avenue of post-Impressionist painting!) is largely an unknown entity, but if Dante’s Inferno is not his masterpiece, then the rest must be excavated immediately. Unseen in any theater anywhere in America since LaSalle Bank Cinema’s 2001 screening! (KW)
89 min • Fox Film Corporation • 16mm
Print from Criterion Pictures USA, special thanks to Brian Block
Serial: Daredevils of Red Circle: The Ray of Death (William Witney and John English, 1939)
Cartoon: Red Hot Mama (Dave Fleischer, 1934) 16mm

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Native Son – Shot in Buenos Aires, Restored in Dayton

I first became interested in the film version of Native Son when I was reading over a list of films that the Library of Congress had preserved in 2004. Amidst countless Vitaphone shorts, the original Superman serial, and silent features from forgotten and one-off production companies like Davis Distributing Division, Paralta Plays, Inc., Arrow Film Corp., and Ivan Films, Inc., there was also Native Son, seemingly removed from the others by time and space. As I read up on the film, it just became more interesting—an independent production that starred the author of the landmark novel, shot not in America but Argentina. Even Oscar Micheaux, ever-marginal, never had to make a film in exile.

Contemporary accounts of the film throw the nature of that exile into relief.  The book had already been adapted for the stage in 1941 by no less than Orson Welles; actor Canada Lee was cast as Bigger Thomas and the play went on to a long run. It proved popular enough to entice Hollywood. Even MGM, the studio with the sensibility farthest afield from Wright’s, expressed interest. Wright eventually turned down a $50,000 offer for the screen rights, fearing that the film would desecrate the book. (He was undoubtedly right: talk centered on a white-cast version with assorted cuts to appease Southern exhibitors.)

Renewed talks for a screen version began at a Parisian café, where director Pierre Chenal, producer Jaime Prades, and Argentina Sono Films head Artillo Mentasti convinced Wright that an unexpurgated rendition could be filmed in Argentina, which had also seen long runs of the stage production (in Spanish, with a white cast). Believing that Argentina was anything but a US client state, and thus indifferent to the potential consequences of an incendiary picture of American race relations, Wright set up shop at Sono Film. Continue reading

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