Friday, January 31, 2014

Underworld (1927)

UNDERWORLD         B                    
USA  (80 mi)  1927  d:  Josef von Sternberg

Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, using strong contrasts between darkness and light, von Sternberg often transcended his contemporaries in terms of sheer visual style, creating a visual lushness that figures most prominently in establishing atmospheric mood, where nearly all his films use mist, fog, and contrasts between shadows and light to set the tone for his films, where he was such a master of lighting that he was the only director of his day to earn membership in the American Society of Cinematographers. Though born in Vienna to humble origins, von Sternberg lived most of his childhood in New York City raised by his Jewish Orthodox father Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army.  After dropping out of high school, having difficulty with the English language, he set out determined to learn on his own, finding work repairing sprocket holes and cleaning movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general.  He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I before earning his first credit as an assistant director on THE MYSTERY OF THE YELLOW RIBBON (1919), directed by Emile Chautard.  In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on the British film BY DIVINE RIGHT (1923), where he picked up the aristocratic title of “von” in the listed credits at the suggestion of actor Elliott Dexter, before gaining the notice of studio executives with the surprise success of his independently produced directorial debut in THE SALVATION HUNTERS (1925), a starkly poetic tale of poverty and depression that he made in three weeks for $4900, where the grim naturalism was hissed at during its premiere before later being hailed as a masterpiece by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, becoming a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.  MGM refused to release his next picture, THE EXQUISITE SINNER (1925), which was eventually lost, while his third film THE SEA GULL (1926) was destroyed by producer Chaplin as a tax write-off.  Finding himself an assistant director at Paramount, he was called in to help fix Frank Lloyd’s CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), reshooting about half the film in three days, mostly at night when the actors were available, after which he was allowed to make UNDERWORLD, with a script written by Ben Hecht.  Paramount then shelved the film, with Hecht asking to have his name removed from the credits, before a New York theater needed a last minute movie to screen, and the film created an instant sensation, exclusively by word of mouth, where the theater had to stay open all night showing it.  Often credited as the first Hollywood gangster film, actor George Bancroft became a star, while Ben Hecht won an Oscar.      

Von Sternberg brought a distinctly European style to American studios, blending German Expressionism with elaborately exotic production design, creating sensuous images with a frank eroticism, becoming something of a visual poet with an obsession for lighting and detail, known for the slow pace of his films, with their long dissolves and strange narrative twists, an aesthetic that evolved from the Silent era.  He believed that the story didn’t matter, but trusted instead the artificial aspects of cinema, preferring illusion to reality, where he wanted control over all the elements, not just the photography and editing, but every inflection and movement of the actors, working closely with costume designers and set designers, providing his own sketches before hearing their ideas, never designing sets, but introducing props to “improve” them, where the peak of his creativity are his films from 1930 – 1935.  In a book review of John Baxter’s Von Sternberg, Book Review: Von Sternberg -, Scott Eyman from The Wall Street Journal describes von Sternberg:

He was a man who kept large, aggressive dogs, who avoided direct eye contact, who presented his opinions as incontrovertible fact and who treated everyone with unconcealed disdain or contempt.  On the set, he had a blackboard; if crew members or actors wanted to talk to him, they had to write their names on the blackboard, and he’d schedule an appointment.  “The only way to succeed,” he once said, “is to make people hate you.  That way they remember you.”

UNDERWORLD generated a series of Prohibition-era Hollywood gangster films that followed, like Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (1930), James Cagney in PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and Paul Muni in SCARFACE (1932), films that became synonymous with the myth of American individualism, featuring outlaws who liked to flout authority, becoming sympathetic heroes struggling to survive.  But von Sternberg had little interest in the behind-the-scenes world of organized crime, preferring to focus instead on the particular characteristics of several of the characters, expressed through a visual mastery of storytelling where he infuses wry humor in the title card commentary of onscreen events.  As the audience is introduced to George Bancroft as bankrobber unparalleled “Bull” Weed, the bank behind him explodes as the title card claims he’s taking out a “personal loan.”  Staring at him as he steps out of the bank is none other than “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook), a man down on his luck who has hit the bottle, so Weed kidnaps him to guarantee his silence.  Wensel claims he might be a drunk, but he’s not a squealer, promising to be “silent as a Rolls Royce.”  Taken by his scrappy nature, Weed keeps him on as his right-hand man, getting him cleaned up and off the sauce, buying him some clothes, aided by his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent), who, you guessed it, is always dressed in feathers.  Wensel never forgets her kindness while remaining loyal to his boss.  This love triangle essentially forms the basis of the story.     

Evelyn Brent’s Feathers is an interesting prelude to the later iconic works with Marlene Dietrich, who made seven films with von Sternberg, including some of the most dazzling films of the era, where Dietrich was his greatest model, someone he dressed in sequins and feathers and stunning evening gowns, even a tuxedo, where in close up, with the right lighting, he could create an image of ravishing beauty.  Brent, by contrast, is more subdued and the film more conventional, especially at the outset, where it takes awhile for the young director to find his patented style, yet Feathers likes what she sees in her cleaned-up project to remake Wensel into a well-dressed gentleman, a lawyer when he’s not drunk, where his calm reserve offers a contrast to the demented laughter heard from Weed, yet in a typical von Sternberg theme, both feel guilty for succumbing to their forbidden sexual desires.  We can catch a whiff of Dietrich’s masculine tone when a bored Feathers tells Wensel, “C’mon, let’s drift.”  The film is pre-Code and has its share of erotically charged come-ons, but perhaps the central sequence of the film is an all-night gangster’s ball, where one night a year all the criminals declare a truce from one another and have a rollicking, alcohol-driven affair, where they all buy votes to have their girls named Queen of the Ball.  It’s a rather grotesque affair, edited with a montage of close ups showing inebriated individuals, each uglier than the last, where emotional and physical violence erupt amid a storm of confetti and streamers.  Feathers makes eyes for Wensel under the careful watch of Weed, but the one that gets riled up is Weed’s arch enemy Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler).  Leave it to Ben Hecht to name a character after the then-banned book Ulysses.  Mulligan makes his move on Feathers once Weed is collapsed drunk, but he’s awakened in time to catch him in the act of raping Feathers, shooting him on the spot.  Using an economy of means, von Sternberg shows the arrest, sentencing, and jailing of Weed in just a few short scenes, but he escapes before his execution, vowing to get his revenge, where all he’s heard about while sitting in jail is how Feathers and Rolls Royce have become an item.  The finale, however, the notorious chase sequence, has an interesting existential tone about it which is unlike most gangster dramas.  Nonetheless, this hard-boiled gangster drama is an early indication of themes with a visual stylization that would ultimately become film noir. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


IT                     A-            
USA  (72 mi)  1927  d:  Clarence Badger      co-director:  Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)

Sweet Santa, give me him.                 —Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow) 

This is exactly the kind of Cinderella story that makes movie romance a myth, where a working class girl can grab a millionaire if she’s lucky enough, a prince in shining armor, just like in all the fairy tales.  This could easily be the Hollywood prototype for this kind of picture, and it’s one of the best of the genre featuring what is arguably the best female performance of the Silent era, none other than Clara Bow, where the film turned her into the biggest female movie star of the late 20’s.  And deservedly so, as she carries the entire picture on her shoulders, where her feminine guile and wit and sparkling personality with a multitude of sexual charm makes her one of the most appealing figures on film, where she is so continually mischievous and delightful that she renews the passion and inspiration for going to the movies.  Clara Bow grew up in a childhood of poverty, violence, and mental illness, living in a Brooklyn tenement with a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic and sexually abusive father.  She became an actress at age 16, after winning Motion Picture Magazine’s “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1921.  Though delivered on a cheap, Coney Island tin-type, her image was enough to convince the magazine’s judges that she was special, so as the grand prize winner they awarded her a bit part in a small film BEYOND THE RAINBOW (1922), where her part was eventually cut.  Clara Bow loved the movies and loved acting, though she interestingly never had a chance to practice the craft except in front of her mirror.  Her mother compared actresses to whores and threatened to kill Clara in her sleep once she found out about the contest.  This meant the 16-year-old, singled out immediately for her innate talent, artistic maturity and range, never had a career on stage. And without substantial stage training, she brought none of the trappings of stage acting to the silver screen.  The results were stunning, Clara Bow - She's Got It YouTube (2:45). 

Bow eventually signed with B.P. Schulberg’s Preferred Pictures in 1923 churning out low-budget films, where the following year she was one of 13 women chosen as a Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) Baby Star, chosen for their talent and promise as a potential motion picture star, which gained the attention of Schulberg's former partner Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures.  Largely due to Clara Bow pictures, Schulberg and Zukor merged to form one of the largest studios in Hollywood, but it was the smash hit movie IT (1927) that made her Paramount's number one star and the most famous name in Hollywood.  Described by critic David Thomson as “the first mass-market sex symbol,” it’s also important to point out that this is one of the most deliciously entertaining films of the Silent era, yet there’s no Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or any of the other great Silent comics, instead it’s a romantic comedy that still flourishes nearly ninety years later on the magnificence of its star performer, whose charismatic personality exudes a kind of contemporary allure that is nothing less than refreshing, as she’s completely in step with modern times.  What’s perhaps more ironic is the cheesy premise upon which this story rests, as the title comes from one of the characters thumbing through a 1927 Cosmopolitan magazine and coming across an article written by Elinor Glyn (who makes a cameo appearance) describing “It” as a kind of alluring sex appeal, described as “that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force,” or described earlier by Rudyard Kipling in his 1904 story Mrs. Bathurst, who may have introduced “It” by describing the sensation, “Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.”  Unbelievably, this picture was considered lost for many years, but a nitrate copy was found in Prague in the 1960’s, and by 2001 it was selected into the Library of Congress National Film Registry.  

The director Clarence Badger was famous for making over a dozen films with Will Rogers from 1919 to 1922, but nothing that reached the success of this picture, becoming ill during filming where Josef von Sternberg directed some scenes during his absence.  Though expressed through title cards, much of the witty dialogue in the picture predates what would eventually lead to the screwball comedy of the 30’s, where it’s the irrepressible spirit of the women that tends to catch the more reserved upper class gents off guard, where Bow as Betty Lou is not so much a sex kitten as an adorably sweet working class girl with spunk, the kind of woman audiences can identify with as she’s just one of the girls, but her cutie-pie beauty and down to earth manner are a remarkable combination, where her aggressively flirtatious style “is” part of what’s so funny, seen early on as she’s working behind the counter at Waltham’s department store and sees the dashing young store owner’s son, Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno) and exclaims humorously “Sweet Santa, give me him.”  From that moment on she devises a plan to make that man her husband, just to prove a point to the other working girls that it can be done.  While the odds are against her, she gets a lucky break when Monty (William Austin), a kind of frat brother best friend of Cyrus (where they often meet “at the club”), is the one thumbing through Cosmopolitan magazine and starts searching the store for “It” girls, believing he’s finally found her with Betty Lou, offering her a ride home in his car.  She graciously accepts, but not in his car, preferring her own, and hops onto a heavily packed commuter bus, eventually agreeing to a dinner date, but only if it’s at the elegant Ritz, as she overhears that’s where Cyrus and his pampered socialite girlfiend Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) are dining.  While the film is a choreography of misdirection and funny sight gags, it’s all led by Betty Lou’s tenacious drive to capture her boss’s interest, failing miserably at first, but not to be deterred, by continually placing herself in his path, she eventually catches his eye. 

Starting with the right dress to wear, with the help of her cash-strapped girlfriend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) who’s out of work and raising a baby alone, they literally cut into her work dress a plunging neckline while she’s still wearing it, Clara Bow Dresses for Dinner YouTube (6:07), converting it into an elegant look by evening, though by the time they reach the Ritz, the head waiter notices her work shoes, showing the various class layers she has to overcome just to be presentable.  And while she’s obviously using Monty to get to Cyrus, the portrayal of Monty is interesting, as while he’s charmingly polite, he’s more than likely gay, calling himself “Old fruit” in the mirror at one point, where his sexual neutrality allows the audience to accept this little opportunist game Betty is playing.  Monty is a good sport, often used to comic effect, and eventually aids Betty in her romantic ambitions.  By the time she finally gets her boss’s attention, Cyrus doesn’t seem to mind when he finds out she works for him, as what she offers is pure, unadulterated fun, an obvious class contrast and a poke at the idyll pleasures of the rich as being boring and pretentious.  When they finally go out on a date, she wants to go to Coney Island, filling up on hot dogs, laughing at the rides and funny mirrors, and literally having a ball at the good times to be had in an amusement park.  Happiness takes Cyrus by storm, clearly an unexpected pleasure, but when he tries to kiss her good night, she gives him a slap to protect her moral virtue and hurries out of the car, but is seen looking at him longingly out the window of her room afterwards.  While there’s an interesting diversion when the morally self-righteous welfare women, taking a zealously high-minded approach, come to take Molly’s baby away, creating quite a scene on the street below, where they send in a reporter to get the story, who is none other than Gary Cooper in one of his earliest (and last uncredited) roles.  Betty is able to make them go away only by claiming the baby as her own, which creates headlines, but also causes the morally principled Cyrus to have second thoughts, as he can’t be seen with a “fallen woman.”  This all sets up the free-wheeling finale on Cyrus’s yacht, where Monty helps stow Betty aboard as his supposed date, where after becoming the life of the party by playing her ukulele and clearing up a string of misunderstandings, the two literally take the plunge, lovers at last.  While Bow was only 21 when this movie was filmed, the advent of talking pictures all but ended her career, and while she made a few unsuccessful talking pictures, her stardom came to an abrupt end at the tender age of 25.     

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Red Hollywood

RED HOLLYWOOD              B                      
USA  (118 mi)  1996, re-edited  2013  d:  Thomas Andersen   co-director:  Noël Burch

Whatever he tries to do is wrong. Because it has to be wrong. Because the situation is such that whatever you do is wrong. All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime. I mean, quote-unquote, morally speaking. At least that's what I used to think. Now I'm convinced. 
—Abraham Polonsky, speaking about his film Force of Evil (1948), from Red Hollywood, 1995

After all, politics is justified only by success, although the only battles worth fighting are the ones for lost causes.     —Abraham Polonsky, Red Hollywood, 1995

Thom Andersen is interestingly a Chicagoan who attended Berkeley in the early 60’s before attending the USC Film School, becoming a film programmer at the LA Film Forum, the maker of a few experimental documentary films, comprised primarily of found images and video clips, while now he teaches film theory and history at the California Institute of the Arts.  Andersen is perhaps best known for his highly acclaimed film documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a video essay that explores the way the city of Los Angeles has been presented in the movies, consisting entirely of clips from other films.  But he’s also known for his 1985 essay Red Hollywood, which documents, among other things, actor John Garfield’s involvement with the political left and the Hollywood blacklist.  It’s out of that essay that he discovered two blacklisted Hollywood directors still living in Europe, John Berry and Cy Endfield, both former employees of Orson Welles and both named as subversives before the HUAC committee.  Berry served time in prison in 1947 for defying the committee, before ironically directing the short documentary that denounces McCarthyism, THE HOLLYWOOD TEN (1950), currently available on Criterion, while decades later he directed one of the first mainstream black films, CLAUDINE (1974), while Endfield drew the committee’s interest with his harrowing indictment of mob rule in THE SOUND OF FURY (1950), which the committee labeled “un-American.”  Based on their extensive knowledge of the era, and the assistance of Noël Burch who was living in France, Andersen expanded his essay into a book published in France, Les communistes de Hollywood: autre chose que des martyrs (The Hollywood Communists — Something Other Than Martyrs).  This collective effort led to the film, another insightful essay, restored and re-edited seventeen years later in 2013, documenting the influence of communists and political leftists, mostly actors, screenwriters, or directors in the 30’s and 40’s until the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the postwar 40’s and early 50’s took a particular interest in rooting out communism from the movie industry, forcing people to name names and smear reputations, eventually creating a Hollywood blacklisting that prevented certain individuals from working in the motion picture business for over a decade.    

Using clips from 53 films, where with just a few exceptions, most all are unfamiliar and have not dented the cultural landscape.  What’s immediately interesting is the mainstream Hollywood format in nearly all of them, where what’s unusual is the attempt to place any social content into the storyline.  Seen in hindsight, the impact is negligible, hardly worth the fuss, as social content since the Vietnam War era of the 60’s has routinely been infused into quality films, where it takes an academic scrutiny like this to even uncover similarities between these earlier films.  Narrated by Billy Woodberry, the film is divided into seven sections—myths, war, class, sexes, hate, crime, and death—analyzing the impact in each area, with the directors laying out their objective, “The victims of the Hollywood blacklist have been canonized as martyrs, but their film work in Hollywood is still largely denigrated or ignored.  Red Hollywood considers this work to demonstrate how the communists of Hollywood were sometimes able to express their ideas in the films they wrote and directed.”  Much like Douglas Sirk in the 50’s, these artists were largely operating under the surface, as with a few exceptions, they were implementing complex ideas into ordinary mainstream films that felt standard in every other sense.  Historically, one must recall that leftist ideas and the influence of the Communist Party in America were outgrowths of the Great Depression, resulting in one of the great class struggles in our nation’s history.  As is pointed out here, “In the 30’s, class solidarity was still an ideal.  The homeless were not yet the excluded,” where in that era the idea of helping others in need was commonplace and ingrained into the fabric of society.  Similarly, speaking about communism and the Russian revolution was not altogether frowned upon, as historically it was still a work in progress, where even Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is based upon his own personal experience joining the communist partisans fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and shortly afterwards Russia became our World War II ally fighting against fascism in Nazi Germany.  It was only after the war that communism became a dirty word, as by then Stalin had all but disregarded any pretense of a worker’s revolution, becoming a totalitarian police state exterminating millions of Russians while sending others to the gulags of Siberia. 

America experienced its own Cold War policy here at home by portraying about 150 people in the entertainment business as communists or anti-American subversives, creating a decade-long blacklist, including the infamous Hollywood Ten, where the humor of the day was Billy Wilder’s famous quip, “Of the ten, two had talent, the others were just unfriendly.”  Thankfully, this films gets under the surface to explore who these men really are, as some are interviewed, where they have a chance to explain what their agenda was in the making of these films, and mostly it was simply to raise the level of awareness about social issues that had not yet been explored.  While communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson is seen defying the HUAC inquiry in 1947, Henry Fonda is seen in a similar moral quandary about the Spanish civil war in a film written by Lawson, BLOCKADE (1938).  Ayn Rand testifies before the committee as an expert on Russian history and culture, where she alleges all the smiling faces in SONG OF RUSSIA (1943) are an outrage, as nobody smiles in Russia (this is her expertise, really), especially on their way to work in the fields.  Actually the film does bear a simplistic similarity to Disney movies, specifically SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and the song “Whistle While You Work.” Former communist screenwriter Paul Jarrico explains the idea behind the film was essentially American war propaganda, since it put our wartime ally in a good light, a postwar reconstruction observation that “we’re all in this together.”  Another communist screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten, (one of the two with talent, apparently), co-wrote the breezy comedy WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), featuring Katherine Hepburn in full feminist mode, where she’s so skilled at simultaneously balancing various social functions and events, that she’s seen as the international woman of the year, that is until Spencer Tracy, with just a scowl or a frown, expresses Lardner’s dissatisfaction at how she’s so continually busy and impressively on the move that she doesn’t have time left to be a woman anymore.  While many of the clips are hilarious, such as how Russian women behind the Iron Curtain are portrayed as so tough and invincible that men cower in their presence, but then we see a short written by Albert Maltz (another one of the Hollywood Ten) with Frank Sinatra in 1945 conveying a postwar message of religious tolerance to a bunch of bullying kids by singing to them “The House I Live In, That’s America to Me,” The House I live in with Frank Sinatra - YouTube (10:16, though the sequence starts at 2:45), a theme echoed later in this film with Paul Robeson singing the same song over the closing credits.  

There are some revelations here, where we learn that fellow communist screenwriters Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker helped write HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932), considered the only Hollywood film of the 30’s to treat a strike sympathetically.  Perhaps the most impressive example of blacklisted artists working together is the film Salt of the Earth (1954), based on an actual 1950 miner’s strike, revealing the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers who fought to obtain wage parity with the Anglo workers in the same jobs, considered years ahead if its time as an indictment of both racism and sexism, as it was the miner’s wives that eventually took to the picket lines.  Written, directed, and produced by members of the original Hollywood Ten, financed in part by the actual union involved, it was called communist propaganda by The Hollywood Reporter and was investigated by the FBI.  The film was voted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.  The subject of crime offered many of the best quotes, where heard in the narration over a clip of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), “The crime movie had often been a privileged genre for social commentary, from both left and right.  The right portrayed crime as a symptom of social disintegration, the left presented it as a form of capitalist accumulation.”  Former communist Abraham Polonsky, director of Force of Evil (1948), a masterpiece of the film noir genre, humorously suggests “All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime.  I mean, quote-unquote, morally speaking.  At least that’s what I used to think.  Now I’m convinced.”  The film starred John Garfield, an actor synonymous with gritty, hard-nosed, and working-class characters, having grown up in poverty in the streets of New York during the Depression.  And while his wife was a communist, there’s no indication Garfield was ever a member, nonetheless the HUAC committee hounded Garfield to his death, as after his original testimony, he learned they were reviewing his testimony for possible perjury charges, where he died of a heart attack, allegedly aggravated by the stress of the blacklisting, at the age of 39.  This followed the news of fellow actor, Canada Lee, as both were part of Lee Strasberg’s New York Group Theatre and were named by director Elia Kazan as Communist Party members in his testimony before the committee, with both actors dying shortly after being added to the blacklist.  Despite its good intentions, even after viewing the film we know just as little about many of the featured artists, as the focus is entirely upon their work, and not the artists themselves.  As a result, the anti-Semitic current running against many of these men during their lifetimes is omitted from the film.  Nonetheless, it is uniquely interesting to find evidence of such progressive thought from little known movies of the 30’s and 40’s.