Monthly Archives: January 2012

Forty Years of Film Preservation: A Conversation with David Shepard

This week we’ll be screening So’s Your Old Man, one of the finest examples of the elegant craft that characterizes Paramount Pictures’ silent output. Along with Universal Studios, they’re celebrating their one-hundredth anniversary this year. These days that means reissuing library chestnuts on spiffy new Blu-ray editions, but this level of attention to corporate heritage is a rather recent development.

Archivists like to talk about ‘the bad old days,’ when films were disposable, purely commercial propositions. Destruction of film history was business as usual. It was old nitrate prints, after all, that provided the pyrotechnics when Selznick burned Atlanta all over again for Gone with the Wind. The only way to guarantee the survival of a film was to spirit it away to the Museum of Modern Art. Left to their own devices, old movies would probably wind up as targets for jeers on early TV programs like Fractured Flickers.

And yet the truth is a tad more complex. All the studios (and, to be fair, the archives as well) have mixed records of conservation and preservation, a fact that makes present-day restorations all the more difficult. The case of Paramount is illustrative. Their 1929-1949 library (with a handful of exceptions) had been sold to MCA, though the prints themselves stayed on the studio lot. Their silent library sat there too—they had the right to exploit those films anew, but the market for silent films was limited. The silent material was eventually donated to the Library of Congress through a deal brokered by a young American Film Institute employee named David Shepard. Continue reading

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2011 in Review, Part II: Challenges

Earlier this month we offered a review of the seismic shifts in exhibition that characterized the last year. This week we offer a personal assessment of the films themselves.

Moviegoing is most exasperating at the end of the year. The anointed awards contenders trickle out and carry with them a sense of obligation. I wind up seeing things not because I want to see them, exactly, but because I can’t bring myself to concede the conversation, however trumped-up and market-driven that conversation may be. Nevertheless, everyone has to draw the line somewhere. I can’t summon anything but apathy for The Iron Lady or Albert Nobbs. And if my understanding of cinema is impoverished by skipping Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I can live with that, too. (I wouldn’t want any part in a cinema where Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was axiomatic.) Criticism, in general, would be better if we dropped the mantle of objectivity and laid out these prejudices up front.

Expectations are pernicious things. The first time I saw The Tree of Life, I came in with sky-high expectations and left bewildered, actively irritated by its structure, its implicit claims to importance, its unexamined masculinity, its daffy spirituality. I couldn’t imagine sitting through it again (I wouldn’t want any part in a cinema where …), but I did just that the next week with a friend, who had more or less the same reaction I did the first time. But my own experience with it changed considerably: the jangled bits and pieces began to reveal larger structures, flash-forwards registered as such, the arbitrary became deliberate and deeply felt. And, more importantly, the major thing it describes—slowly outgrowing pre-digested notions of family and recognizing the profound injustice of an inherited order—emerged with painful clarity. That Malick records this acid disenchantment while simultaneously positing this very straight model of a mid-century Texas family as a plausible epicenter of the universe (or, more democratically, just as capable of unraveling its cosmic mysteries as anyone else) makes The Tree of Life a maddening, infinitely volatile object. (I’m afraid to see it a third time; in any case, I’ve come to prefer The Future, in which Miranda July deals with many similar issues on a more modest scale. It also describes a specific generational listlessness about the current recession with great acuteness.) Continue reading

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W. C. Fields in So’s Your Old Man in a Beautiful Library of Congress Restoration – This Wednesday at the Portage

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

February 1st
Directed by Gregory La Cava • 1926
With live organ accompaniment by Jay Warren
W. C. Fields’s trademark persona is so tightly tethered to his slow-burning, frowzily alcoholic verbal delivery that it’s near impossible to imagine him as a silent comic. So’s Your Old Man proves this prejudice deliciously wrongheaded. (Even Fields’s own 1935 talkie remake, You’re Telling Me!, pales beside the original.) Samuel Bisbee (Fields) is a henpecked, inebriated inventor whose latest marvel—the shatterproof windshield—fails to dazzle Detroit. Returning home from the disastrous demonstration, Bisbee learns that he can’t even kill himself properly. Luckily, he meets a beguiling princess (Alice Joyce) on the train back and bumbles his way into becoming a town treasure. Sharply directed by the expert La Cava, So’s Your Old Man is one of the few comedies most readily described as lovely. An early example of Paramount’s house style in full bloom, it even makes suburban New Jersey look picturesque. (KW)
67 min • Paramount Pictures • 35mm preserved by the Library of Congress
Short: “His Wooden Wedding” (Leo McCarey, 1925) – 16mm

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The Living Newspaper: …one third of a nation… from Stage to Screen

In 1939, sociologist Margaret Farrand Thorp called the movies “the vampire art” and it’s not difficult to see where she’s coming from. With Hollywood at the height of its powers (economic, cultural, political), everything bowed before the movies. They cannibalized and superseded competing media with finesse. Screen rights to big novels were snatched up before publication. (And the movie version prompted new tie-ups, like Photoplay Editions of the book adorned with production stills.) Unexpected successes were dealt with, too. Studios raced to buy them up, even if screen potential was dubious or non-existent. (So what if the option was never exercised? Always better to stay ahead of the competition, either way.) Thorp’s most staggering example of this mentality is Dale Carnegie’s runaway best-selling self-helper How to Win Friends and Influence People, optioned by an unnamed studio.

As far as I can tell, the cinematic How to Win Friends never got past (or got to?) the development stage. But one equally improbable contemporary made it to the screen, albeit with severe alterations applied both before and after the cameras rolled.

…one third of a nation… was not the first Living Newspaper produced by the Federal Theater Project, but it was unquestionably the most successful of the Works Progress Administration-sponsored plays. Opening on 17 January 1938 at New York’s Adelphi Theater, it ran for nine months and was seen by well over 200,000 people. Local versions played ten other cities with comparable success. In short, …one third of a nation… was, on paper, a dream of a pre-sold property, instantly recognizable to moviegoers all over country. (It helped, too, that the play made headlines even in cities where it wasn’t performed; early in the New York run, a charge of Communist influence was lobbed by a trio of Democratic Senators whose floor speeches were quoted verbatim in the script.)

The premise of the Living Newspaper was simple: marry politically-committed theater and ultra-current broadsheet, with other popular entertainment—radio, newsreel, public lecture—thrown in where possible. The plays were kaleidoscopic, favoring black-out sketches and abrupt shifts in time, space, and scenery over more traditional dramatic virtues. Joseph Manning described a typical scene from one of the earlier Newspapers, Highlights of 1935, in the pages of New Theatre:

The curtain opens on a bunch of scared young girls and reveals the lengths to which small New Jersey towns will go to keep America safe for the exploited open shop. The episode ends with another piece of testimony acted out. One of the young ladies finds her pay is short. She goes to the office girl. She’s right. Her pay is short. But wait— that’s the book for the NRA code inspector. According to the book she gets paid by, the miserable wage she got is all she had coming. No climax. The critics call it anticlimax. The boys of the fourth estate who edit the Living Newspaper are just telling a story for what it is worth. The scene may lack the customary punch expected at the end of a dramatic sketch. Anyone viewing it, though, should be able to see why labor needs some legal protection. Continue reading

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New Deal Cinema: …one third of a nation…

This Wednesday at the Portage

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

January 25
Directed by Dudley Murphy • 1939
…one third of a nation… is a forgotten emblem of socially progressive, Popular Front entertainment. (Its title even derives from an FDR speech.) The original play by Arthur Arent for the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project displayed a heavily experimental and didactic bent—a ‘Living Newspaper’ about slum conditions, complete with editorial content, statistics, and dramatic journalism. The film version retains only a few of the play’s devices— most notably the dialogue spoken by the tenement itself (!)—while remaining a compassionate condemnation of urban decay. There is a bit of romance added. Slum girl Sylvia Sidney and New York scion Leif Erikson meet-cute in the worst possible way: her tenement is burning down; he arrives on the scene to help and, ever the absentee landlord, doesn’t even realize the building is his property. (Bronx-born Sidney had already become Hollywood’s first choice for tarnished/glamorous parts in vaguely liberal, socially engaged projects such as Street Scene, Fury, You Only Live Once, and Dead End.) Sidney’s younger brother (future director Sidney Lumet, at 14) begs Erikson to tear down the rat trap and takes matters into his own grubby hands when necessary. An independent production shot at Astoria Studios on Long Island (itself something of a tenement), …one third of a nation… is another chapter in the fascinating career of Dudley Murphy (Ballet mécanique, The Emperor Jones). Originally released by Paramount but long since in the public domain, this important artifact has fittingly been returned to circulation by the Library of Congress. (KW)
79 min • Dudley Murphy Productions • 35mm preserved by the Library of Congress
Short: W. C. Fields in “The Fatal Glass of Beer” (1933, Clyde Bruckman) – 35mm

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This Wednesday at the Portage

2011 in Review, Part I: Confusions

You might get the impression from the films we program at the Northwest Chicago Film Society that we aren’t especially interested in new cinema. Actually, though, we don’t show films from the 1930s to retreat into an uncomplicated past, to shut ourselves off from the present. If anything, we’re often interested in these films for the way they challenge our complacency about received history (of cinema and of society) and the trite frameworks that homogenize cultural experience.

To that end, we have a lot to say about this year’s movies, too.

Just what it meant to go to the movies in 2011 is hardly straight-forward. The irreversible shift from 35mm projection to wholly digital presentations continued apace, with digital penetration breaking fifty percent of American screens sometime in the first half of 2011. We have much to say about the digital conversion and its ideological implications elsewhere, but let’s focus on its most salient results. Continue reading

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Turn the Key Softly: Super Rare British Cinema
This Wednesday at the Portage

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

January 18th
Directed by Jack Lee • 1953
A simple, melancholy picture about three women who get out of Holloway Prison on the same day in rainy, somber London. Yvonne Mitchell landed in jail because of her low-life thief of a boyfriend, Joan Collins is a prostitute hoping for a better life, and Kathleen Harrison is an elderly woman with a weakness for shoplifting. Were it made a few years later, Turn the Key Softly might have been impossibly grim. Instead it’s a film as delicate and honest as any Powell and Pressburger production, made right before England’s cycle of Angry Young Man films turned the industry into something much more dark and hopeless. The gorgeous inner city location photography—from cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, better known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey—is reason enough to come, but it also balances lives of poverty, loneliness, old age, and occasional optimism and hope in a way that feels very tangible without being excessive or cliché. (JA)
81 min • General Film Distributors • 35mm from the Radio Cinema Film Archive
Short: “At the Stroke of Twelve” (1941, Jean Negulesco) from Warner’s “Broadway Brevity” – 35mm

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This Wednesday at the Portage

The End of The Village Voice and the Future of Film Criticism?

By now we’re sure you’ve heard that the Village Voice has laid off J. Hoberman, senior film critic since 1988 and a regular Voice contributor since 1977. This is a devastating decision, but not entirely an unexpected one. After all, the Voice has also blithely sacked Robert Christgau, Nat Hentoff, and a number of other A-list writers in recent years.

All appearances to the contrary, Hoberman’s writing remains a paramount influence on what we do at the Northwest Chicago Film Society—how we think about movies, what we emphasize when we write about them, the specific cultural contours that inform our discussions. But the thought of a Hoberman tribute in this space would amount to a kind of premature eulogy—there’s vanished light but also light that we vanish. Surely Hoberman’s prodigious output will continue; this past year, in addition to his Village Voice column, he began a website (a premonition of platforms to come?) and published his latest book, An Army of Phantoms. Continue reading

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Better than Bogart? George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe in The Brasher Doubloon This Wednesday at the Portage

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30 – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.


January 11th
Directed by John Brahm • 1947
The kind of unpretentious, squirrely filmmaking characteristic of 20th Century-Fox productions of the late ‘40s, this Raymond Chandler adaptation (released overseas under the novel’s original title The High Window) stars George Montgomery as a private investigator hired to find a rare coin stolen from domineering widow Florence Bates. Montgomery cautiously seduces Bate’s secretary Nancy Guild (who introduces the film’s tag line “some women can’t stand cats—with me it’s men!”) and eventually gets to the bottom of things, but not before being bludgeoned by a gang of sleazeballs hired by Bate’s lout of a son (Conrad Janis). Mysteriously unavailable on DVD or VHS and absent from television or theatrical screenings for several years, this is B-movie filmmaking at its swiftest and most likable. (JA)

72 min • 20th Century-Fox • 35mm from Criterion Pictures USA

Short: “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” (James Parrott, 1930) • 16mm print from the Chicago Film Archives!

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Sullivan’s Travels: A Very Serious Film, Not to Be Taken Too Seriously

Most every account of Sullivan’s Travels describes the movie as being something between autobiography and artist’s testament. It’s easy to see why: the central character, John L. Sullivan, is a comedy director whose string of uncomplicated hits has pleased the studio but left the man deeply unsatisfied. Sullivan sets out to make his first serious movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a raw examination of uncomfortable times.  And likewise laugh maestro Sturges carves out a new and grim register—a socially conscious contemporary portrait. (With a little sex in it.)

Everyone assures Sullivan that he underrates comedy; only a highly paid Hollywood professional would be so aloof to think that the common man prefers a dash of humanly-scaled cinema-soot to a good chuckle. By the end of Sullivan’s Travels, we may as well concede the point, too: a Pluto cartoon (and a very unfunny one, at that) earns pride of place in a rural black church, with no competing tract in sight. I may falter sometimes, Sturges seems to be saying, I may fall prey to Social Significance now and again, but I don’t doubt that comedy is king. Don’t you doubt it either—I’m doing my part, in my way.

It’s a testament to the complexity and craft of Sullivan’s Travels that this clean, somewhat self-aggrandizing thesis falls far short in describing what’s going on here. Sturges hardly practices what he preaches; one doesn’t leave Sullivan’s Travels complaining about all the hobo stuff and longing for an extra reel of slapstick. (Indeed, the latter sequences rival “Playful Pluto” in provoking a non-reaction among modern audiences. As Otis Ferguson aptly noted in his mixed review of Sullivan’s Travels, “when [Sturges] wants fun in a swimming pool, no less than four people have to fall or be pushed in.”)

Sullivan is also rather an inapt surrogate for Sturges. Much as he would later complain of his scripts being insensitively treated by other directors in the decade before he commanded the megaphone himself, Sturges’s 1930s output in no way resembles Sullivan’s Hay Hay in the Hayloft or Ants in Your Plants of 1939. (For what it’s worth, it was Preston Black accorded the unenviable reins of the Three Stooges’ 1936 two-reeler “Ants in the Pantry,” depths to which Sturges never sank.) Indeed, Sturges received sole credit and a percentage of the gross on The Power and the Glory and got the chance to adapt Ferenc Molnár for The Good Fairy. His two scripts eventually realized by Mitchell Leisen, Easy Living and Remember the Night, are elegant classics with adult concerns undiluted by lowbrow concessions. Continue reading

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