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The Universal monster flicks were special favorites, and so were the animation classics of the Fleischer Studio, Warner Bros., and Disney. As I grew older I came to appreciate the likes of Jimmy Cagney, Mae West, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Charles Laughton, and a whole slew of Hollywood luminaries and character actors, not to mention the great directors and screenwriters (Hitchcock, Welles, Sturges, Lubitsch, Wilder, and, you know, all the usual suspects). Still, I always seem to come back to my favorites from the silent era.
At age 21 I moved to New York City and managed to arrive in time for the heyday of the city's cinema revival house era. I often saw movies at the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum, the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Regency, the Biograph, the Carnegie Hall Cinema, the Metro, Theatre 80 St. Mark's, and the good ol' skanky Thalia. (Not the current establishment by that name, I mean the old Thalia with the sticky floor.) Most of those places are gone now, with the notable exceptions of MoMA and Film Forum, but there are still a number of good venues for classic films, including the Walter Reade Theatre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Most of my IMDb essays are devoted to silent films, but I've also included favorites from the early talkie era and onward into the 1940s. Generally speaking, and especially where the more "recent" titles are concerned, I tend to gravitate towards obscure titles that haven't gotten much attention. Why write a review of, say, Citizen Kane when hundreds of others have already done so, but hardly anyone has posted a review of The Romance of Digestion, Prosperity Blues, or Love Nest on Wheels? But who knows, maybe I'll get around to Kane one of these days . . .
Incidentally, I like some new movies too, but when you've got thousands of people writing about current releases I don't see any need to add my two cents' worth.
Toodles, Tom and Trouble (1915)
Honey, a dog ran off with our kid
This brief silent comedy, produced by the Thanhauser Film Co. of New Rochelle NY, will appeal to buffs who enjoy a dark comic premise. Although this same premise could be played, with minor tweaks, as a melodrama or even a tragedy, the filmmakers who created Toodles, Tom and Trouble took a wildly cartoon-y, high energy approach to the project, so that even when the situation takes a nightmarish turn towards the end, the effect is somehow funny rather than grim.
The set-up is rather elaborate and, it must be said, not exactly credible. Tom is asked by his wife to take their baby ("Toodles") to the park while she and her friends go shopping. Plainly he's not happy about it; after his wife has departed he even shakes his fist at the baby. But he complies. Once in the park however, Tom sees someone he knows, sets the baby aside on a bench, and goes to chat with his friend, leaving the baby unattended. Soon thereafter, a gentleman comes along, finds the baby, becomes concerned, and carries her away, looking for the parents. Moments later, a little girl with a baby doll wanders off from her nursemaid, sits down on the same bench, and places her doll precisely where Baby Toodles was resting. When the girl is called back by the nursemaid, she leaves her doll behind. And wouldn't you know, Tom happens to glance back just as a dog comes along, snatches up the doll, and runs off with it. Of course, Tom is horrified.
And that's our set-up: a "baby switch," dependent on several rather unlikely coincidences. (For instance, the doll is wrapped in a blanket identical to the one in which Toodles is wrapped.) But as long as you're willing to suspend disbelief and roll with it, you can enjoy what follows. Tom, naturally enough, believes Toodles has been seized by the dog, and gives chase. The dog, reversing the Rin-Tin-Tin style 'heroic canine' behavior we expect in movies, goes out of his way to put the baby in one dangerous situation after another.
Early on, the dog simply drops the doll in the middle of a street, just as a car is coming. At this point we're treated to some rudimentary animation, as the oncoming car appears to sail over the dog and baby. As a punch-line, the car's headlights sprout human eyes, which wink at the camera. (Of course, this dreamlike gag signals viewers that we shouldn't take any of this film's events too seriously.) Meanwhile, as Tom chases after the dog, the man who found Toodles approaches various people to ask if this might be their baby. But most of the action concerns poor Tom, who dashes this way and that, while for some unknown reason the determined pooch doggedly tries to destroy the doll.
What eventually happens to the dog would be horrible in real life, but here it's presented in such an outlandish, over-the-top fashion we can't take it to heart. (And clearly, no harm came to the actual dog seen in the film.) Let it suffice to say that Tom is reunited with Baby Toodles, the baby is returned to his mother, and order is restored. We hope Tom has learned a thing or two about childcare duties. And for those of us viewing this short, so many years after it was produced, Toodles, Tom and Trouble may still provide some chuckles and a jolt or two.
The Transformation of Mike (1912)
In which Mike is reformedor so we hopeby a good woman
Once you've watched a lot of early silent dramas you notice certain themes which recur on a regular basis. A popular motif in nickelodeon days was that of the criminal who reforms and chooses a better mode of life, usually thanks to the love of a good woman who believes in him. This plot turns up often, especially in the Westerns of William S. Hart (and others), as well as in contemporary crime stories. By the mid-1910s the reformation trope was so familiar it was ripe for spoofing; Charlie Chaplin utilized it in his two-reel comedy 'Police,' which was itself a reworking of His Regeneration, a serious drama starring Broncho Billy Anderson in which Chaplin had appeared in a cameo role.
D. W. Griffith's short drama The Transformation of Mike, made for the American Biograph Company in 1912, uses the theme in a straightforward fashion. Familiar leading man Wilfred Lucas, who also wrote the scenario, plays Mike, a young man who takes a room in a tenement. He encounters a young woman (Blanche Sweet) who lives in the same building with her father and brother. Despite their modest lodgings Blanche's father is fairly prosperous, and he makes the mistake of flashing a wad of bills in a tavern. Mike notices the man's money, but is unaware that he's Blanche's father.
Later, when Mike sees Blanche at a neighborhood party, he invites her to dance with him. Her friends warn her away, however; it seems he has a reputation as a dubious character. She refuses him and dances with a bland young fellow instead. Mike brusquely cuts in and orders the other man away. Blanche is offended by this, and steadfastly refuses to dance with him. They argue, and we get the sense that, despite his anger, Mike rather admires her spirit.
Soon afterward, back at the tenement, Mike breaks into the apartment where the prosperous man lives, ties him up, and robs him. Blanche and her brother, in the next room, react fearfully and take cover; the boy escapes in a dumbwaiter and alerts the police. And then Mike and Blanche see each other, and Mike realizes he's robbing her father. He's shocked of course, and so is she. (Talk about awkward!) They talk it over briefly, and Mike is ashamed. When the police arrive, Blanche helps him escape, and it's implied he'll go straight and become a better person. We never find out whether Mike is truly "transformed," so the ending is ambiguous, but hopeful.
The Transformation of Mike tells its tale in a direct and uncluttered fashion, and is performed with the earnest intensity we associate with the Biograph players. One unusual aspect of this film is that an unedited print exists; that is, a reel of the original rushes, as they appeared before Griffith edited them into the finished product. While it's common knowledge that movies are usually filmed out of sequence, it's nonetheless interesting to see how the director and his crew organized this raw material. For instance, all the scenes at the top of the tenement stairs were filmed back to back; and then, all the scenes at the bottom of the stairs were done the same way. Various characters come and go, the police dash in and out, etc. It looks like a jumble, but of course, by 1912 Griffith had become quite expert at assembling these random pieces of film into a perfectly coherent and satisfying whole. The Transformation of Mike, in its finished form, stands as a good example of what made Griffith's Biograph output the top dramatic short films of the era.
The Old Actor (1912)
Simple, straightforward and touching
When director D.W. Griffith tackled social issues in the short dramas he made for the Biograph company, he often turned his attention to the plight of older people. One of his best known such films asked in its title, with disarming directness, What Shall We Do with Our Old? That film's leading man, W. Chrystie Miller, an actor born in 1843, appropriately takes the lead in this short, The Old Actor, in the title role.
Miller plays an aging stage performer named Brant. When first seen, he is rehearsing his latest role at home, before his wife and daughter (played respectively by Kate Bruce and Mary Pickford). But when he arrives at the theater he's told that a younger actor has been hired to take his role, specifically because Brant is considered too old for the part. His daughter, meanwhile, is in the midst of a courtship with a young man. When Brant returns home he's unable to tell his family the bad news, in part because his daughter is so happy.
Earlier, when he was on his way to rehearsal, Brant had passed a beggar and given him a coin. Brant happens to be passing again when the unfortunate man collapses. He helps the beggar back to his shabby apartment where the man dies. Soon, unable to find work, Brant has an idea. He approaches the beggar's widow, buys the man's ragged clothes from her, and proceeds to "play" the manand beg for change in his former location. This novel plan for raising ready cash causes Brant painful embarrassment when his daughter and her suitor happen by. Without offering any spoilers about the ending I can say that Brant's unhappy situation is resolved in a way that is both credible and gratifying.
This is not one of Griffith's better known Biograph shorts, but it's satisfying in its quiet, low-key way. Often I find that a second viewing of these brief dramas reveals small but telling details, those moments that help put the story across with full emotional impact. Here, for instance, while Mary's young suitor is present her behavior is restrained, and we're not certain whether she likes him or not, but the moment he leaves she grins broadly, tosses her hat in the air and catches itand we know, very well, that she likes him! It's a little detail, but by underscoring her happiness we understand why her father, returning home soon afterward, just can't bear to tell his family that he's lost his job. These subtle dramatic touches remind us why Griffith and his troupe at Biograph were considered the best in the business during their heyday.
Josh's Suicide (1911)
"Now for a joy ride, by gum!"
This very brief comedy, directed for the American Biograph Company by Mack Sennett, offers a rudimentary version of the sort of marital farce the director would develop further, embellish, and perfect. At Biograph Sennett had been granted his own comedy unit, and his work on shorts such as this one would eventually lead to his departure, along with several of his key players, and the founding of his legendary fun factory Keystone the following year.
Our featured comic in this short is Fred Mace, one of Sennett's early stars. His Josh is a rustic character who provokes friction with his wife Matilda, when she hosts a party and he shows up in his ragged work clothes. Ordered out, he loses his temper and decides to go on a spree. Before doing so, he leaves her a note that implies he has taken his life. Instead, he takes a train to New York City, and goes on a sight-seeing tour with a pair of young lovelies. Matildawho does not appear to be especially grief stricken at the loss of her husbandalso decides, meanwhile, to go to NYC with a young admirer. Needless to say, the paths of Josh and Matilda soon cross.
The plot is very much the sort of thing that would later serve as a blueprint for Keystone stars such as Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, etc. In this early incarnation the comedy is fairly low-key, compared to the sort of wild slapstick eruptions that would become a Sennett specialty. When Josh and Matilda encounter each other on a double-decker bus the ensuing fireworks are rather mild, although it's a safe bet this short must have amused viewers in 1911.
Josh's Suicide is a recent rediscovery, and it has been beautifully restored. Happily, the film is complete and picture quality is excellent. Perhaps the most interesting element for today's viewers is the travelogue aspect. Josh's spree in the big city offers us images of the old Pennsylvania Station, Grant's Tomb, the shops of Fifth Avenuevisible in a beautifully composed shot from the top of a double-decker busand the New York Public Library, seen here the very year it opened. Unless someone invents a "Wayback Machine," this is the closest any of us are going to come to seeing what the world of the early 20th century actually looked like.
Wilful Peggy (1910)
A diamond in the rough
Mary Pickford got her start in pictures in 1909 at the Biograph studio, where she worked for legendary director D.W. Griffith in dozens of short films, in all kinds of roles. When this comedy 'Wilful Peggy' was made in 1910, Pickford's name was still unknown to the general public. She was just another up-and-coming actress at Biograph, not a star, and had not yet developed a familiar screen persona or settled on favorite themes for her vehicles. And yet, looking back with hindsight, we can find in this short some of the key ingredients that would contribute to Mary's phenomenal popularity, and become familiar motifs in her great feature-length vehicles.
Wilful Peggy is set in 18th century Ireland, and from the first scene it is plain that this was a place and time when social distinctions were of crucial importance. Henry Walthall is the Lord of the Manor, a middle-aged and unmarried aristocrat, perhaps a widower. He finds Peggy (Mary Pickford), a lower-class barmaid, asleep before the tavern where she works, awakens her gruffly and demands service. But instead of deferring to him she is angry and uncooperative, that is, until he doffs his hat and is polite to her. After that she's all smiles, and the Lord is plainly smitten with this attractive "rough diamond." Later, when a young man from the village tries to kiss Peggy, she gives him a brisk beating. The Lord witnesses this from a concealed place, and is thoroughly won over. He proposes marriage. Peggy's mother is delighted, but her daughter is startled and dismayed by this turn of events, in part because of the age difference between herself and her suitor, but more importantly because of their sharply dissimilar social status. Nonetheless she gives in, and they are wed.
Soon we find that "the peasant bride" must struggle to adjust to her new position in society. She's uncomfortable wearing finery, and when the Lord's servants bow to her she's embarrassed. Peggy's unhappiness reaches a peak at a posh garden party when she falls over while attempting to curtsy, provoking mean-spirited laughter from her husband's friends. She stomps out in a huff. At this point she's approached by the Lord's nephew, who fancies her. He proposes that she don male attire and accompany him to an inn for some carousing, and, "in the spirit of deviltry," she agrees to go. Once they're alone at the inn, he attacks her. Her husband, meanwhile, rides to the rescue, but arrives to find that Peggy can take care of herself; in fact, she has given his lecherous nephew a furious thrashing!
As the plot summary may suggest, Wilful Peggy is a light-hearted comedy, and yet in the course of its brief running time it touches upon some serious themes. From Peggy's point of view, acute discomfort with her new husband's exalted station in life is no laughing matter, nor is her humiliation at the garden party. The Lord is amused at her audacity and finds the trait attractive, but his attitude is somewhat patronizing, and we have to wonder how happy or healthy such a marriage could ever be. However, this short was created only to entertain, not to provoke any troubling thoughts about class distinctions. Mary is adorable, and it's easy to see why she quickly became an audience favorite. Like the Lord of the Manor, we admire her for her pluck, and for the fact that she does not kowtow to her social superiors. In the prime of her career Pickford would explore culture clash issues in several of her great feature films, such as Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, Stella Maris, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. This short comedy plays like an early, abbreviated edition of the material she would develop to perfection in later years. It also serves as a reminder of how succinctly and clearly director D. W. Griffith and his crew at Biograph could tell their stories, as they adeptly convey a great deal of information in a few quick shots. Wilful Peggy is miles ahead of most other films of its period, and still entertaining today.
Three Women (1924)
Melodrama, with the Lubitsch Touch
Over the years I've enjoyed a number of the silent features Ernst Lubitsch directed in Hollywood. His 1920s output includes some dazzling gems, such as Lady Windermere's Fan, The Marriage Circle, and So This is Paris. But until recently I'd never seen Three Women, a film that seldom receives public screenings, and isn't available in any format suitable for home viewing. This past weekend a rare print was shown at NYC's Film Forum, with live piano accompaniment provided by Steve Sterner, and it proved to be an engrossing, entertaining drama. Three Women bears the hallmarks of its director's famous style, yet at the same time its story ventures into a darker and more melodramatic realm.
This is the story of Mabel Wilton (played by stage veteran Pauline Frederick), a wealthy widow of a certain age who is worried about the relentless passage of time. When we first meet her she's nervously weighing herself on a bathroom scale, and is distressed at the results. Actually she's a perfectly attractive middle-aged lady, but the fact that her daughter is now a college undergradand has just reached her 18th birthdayis a disturbing reminder of her own advancing age. Daughter Jeanne (May McAvoy) yearns for a closer relationship with her mother, and can't understand why Mabel pushes her away. Into this uneasy mother-daughter relationship steps the disreputable Mr. Lamont (Lew Cody), a slick but shady businessman, a "womanizer" and spendthrift who struggles to keep his many creditors at bay. When he's introduced to Mrs. Wilton at a society ball Lamont coolly sizes her up, and this is conveyed to us in a very Lubitsch-like fashion: with a series of closeups noting the lady's jewels and expensive trinkets. That's all this guy can see.
Lamont approaches Mrs. Wilton to discuss a business deal, but before long his sales pitch turns into a courtship. In the midst of their affair Lamont meets Jeanne, and swiftly pivots to her instead. She's flattered, and feels lonely due to her mother's neglect; this, despite the attentions of a nice young medical student from college who is devoted to her. Unwisely, Jeanne agrees to marry Lamont. Her mother is initially shocked and hurt, naturally enough, but comes to accept the relationship. All too soon, however, Lamont is seeing another woman, Harriet (Marie Prevost), the third woman of the title. Tensions escalate into heated conflict and sudden death.
As even a brief synopsis suggests, we're not in typical Lubitsch territory here, story-wise. The first half of Three Women plays very much like a characteristic Lubitsch comedy-drama, complete with those stylish "touches" we associate with his work, such as the witty sight gags which convey the characters' true feelings, sometimes at odds with their outward show of behavior. A good example of an emblematic directorial technique comes when the young medical student Fred Colman (Pierre Gendron) is indecisive about giving Jeanne the gift of a bracelet. He hesitates, delays, decides to give her the bracelet, then changes his mindand this is all conveyed with close shots of his hand reaching for his jacket pocket, where we know the bracelet rests. Very cinematic, and very much in the Lubitsch tradition. But the film's final scenes, especially the trial, with its tense build-up to the jury's verdict, feel quite different from this director's usual fare. A moralistic theme is introduced and emphasized, suggesting that Mabel Wilton deserves punishment for being a frivolous, negligent mother. This motif may come as a surprise to anyone expecting more continental-style sophistication along the lines of, say, The Marriage Circle.
In sum, I found Three Women well-made and interesting, if not on par with the best silent era work by this director. I especially admired the strong and sympathetic performance by Pauline Frederick, while Lew Cody is, as usual, a first-rate scoundrel; he really cornered the market in those roles in the '20s. He's such a cad, you have to wonder why an urbane lady of the world such as Mabel Wilton doesn't spot him for what he is more quickly. Maybe she should have gone to the movies more often!
Corporal Kate (1926)
Maybe you should have stuck with your day jobs, ladies
At the beginning of 1925 director Cecil B. DeMille was at loose ends, having recently been forced out of Paramount, a company he helped create. He chose to become an independent producer, formed his own production company, and proceeded to release feature films through a company called Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). He personally directed some of these films, while assigning a slate of program pictures to contract directors. Corporal Kate is an example of a programmer DeMille produced but did not direct, a B picture with solid production values but without top stars. It's moderately entertaining, but not entirely satisfying over all, as both the story and the leading players leave something to be desired.
This is the tale of two women who go to warso, right off the bat, it's unusual. Kate Jones (played by Vera Reynolds) and Becky Finklestein (Julia Faye) are manicurists when America enters the Great War. They're patriotic and want to do their part, so they sign up to go overseas and entertain the troops with their song and dance routine. Are they any good? Nope, barely passable. While the soldiers may be starved for entertainmentor simply the sight of attractive young womenthey're not terribly impressed with Kate and Becky's act.
However, the plucky duo make the best of it. Stationed in a small French village the girls are forced to lodge in a stable, and only after cleaning out a space formerly inhabited by pigs. When a soldier named Clark Jackson (Kenneth Thomson) comes to Kate's rescue in a dangerous situation she initially resists his charms, but he's persistent. They enter into a wartime romance. Becky also loves 'Jake," as she calls him, though he regards her only as a friend and is oblivious to her true feelings. The romantic triangle is complicated further when Evelyn, a lady from Clark's past, arrives on the scene, now working as a Red Cross nurse. Like him, she is well born and wealthy, and her presence points up the social divide between Clark and the two working class girls who have fallen for him.
Kate perceives Evelyn as a rival for Clark's affections, unaware that Evelyn is interested in someone else, a flier she plans to marry. Just as her jealousy towards Evelyn reaches a fever pitch, the war intervenes: the village is shelled by the Germans. Becky is mortally wounded, and, as she lies dying, calls for "Jake." He comes to her side, insistsat Kate's behestthat he loved her all along, and kisses her as she dies. Kate is also gravely wounded. Evelyn survives unharmed, but receives word that her fiancée has been killed. After the battle we find that Kate, who is now recovering in a military hospital, has resumed entertaining the troops as a solo act. She's reunited with Clark just as word comes that the Armistice has been signed.
As this synopsis should make clear, what's striking about the scenario of Corporal Kate are its sharp shifts in tone. It starts as a comedy, then becomes a romantic melodrama, and, in the climactic section, abruptly turns into a grim saga of warfare and tragedy. The combat sequences are well handled, and offer the film's strongest and most memorable scenes. But in the end we're left with an oddity that feels like three very disparate two-reel shorts patched together into an unwieldy feature. I'm not convinced that even DeMille, had he directed, could have smoothly handled the sharp transitions. It doesn't help that the lead players simply aren't charismatic enough to carry the show. In the title role Vera Reynolds is pleasant but little more. (If this had been an A-picture, Clara Bow would have been ideal.) Kenneth Thomson, as her sweetheart, doesn't make much of an impression either. (Imagine Buddy Rogers in the role.) Julia Faye, as Becky, comes off best by default. (Rather like an understudy for Marie Prevost.) We're left with the impression that PDC lacked a strong bench of players, and thus the producers of Corporal Kate were compelled to use second-stringers. Variety's critic Sime Silverman summed it up succinctly: "Not a big time picture."
PDC itself did not survive the silent era. Despite a handful of hits such as The King of Kings, there were too many flops in the company's ledgers. By the summer of 1928 DeMille had been forced out of his own production company. Corporal Kate, which was one of PDC's flops, survives as an example of this short-lived company's bread-and-butter product. It's mildly entertaining, offbeat and interesting in some respects, but today it largely serves as a prime example of why Cecil B. DeMille's independent production company was, ultimately, a failure.
Now We're in the Air (1927)
Two rowdy comics meet Our Miss Brooks
In the late 1920s, at the peak of her Hollywood film career, Louise Brooks was one of many promising starlets being groomed for bigger things. She was under contract to Paramount, and worked with a number of the studio's prominent stars, including W.C. Fields, Richard Arlen, Evelyn Brent, Adolphe Menjou, and William Powell. Meanwhile she worked for a number of the era's top directors, including Malcolm St. Clair, James Cruze, Howard Hawks and William Wellman. Behind the scenes Brooks was considered somewhat temperamental, but no more so than many of her colleagues. Her future looked bright. And yet, just as talkies hit Hollywood, throwing everything into a state of uncertainty, she abruptly departed for Europe where she appeared in two films in Berlin for director G. W. Pabst, and an additional feature in France. When she returned to a very changed Hollywood in 1931 Brooks was unable to restart her career, and never again appeared in a lead role in a quality production. At the age of 25 she was regarded as a has-been.
Starting in the 1950s Brooks began to forge a new career for herself as an essayist, working closely with James Card at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Ironically, the three European films that had seemed to kill her career at its peak earned her an exalted reputation among film buffs in this period; those films, along with her essays, gave her a lofty new status as an iconic star of the Roaring Twenties that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier.
Frustratingly, many of the films Brooks made during her brief Paramount heyday remain missing. This includeduntil recentlyall four features in which she appeared in 1927, a key year in her career. It's a big deal for fans when "new" footage of Louise Brooks is discovered, and, happily, this occurred last year, when portions of the 1927 comedy feature Now We're in the Air were found in an archive in Prague.
Now We're in the Air was a vehicle for Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton, who had become a popular team with Behind the Front (1926), a hit comedy set during the First World War. Eight years had passed since the Armistice that ended the fighting, and it seemed audiences would now accept military-themed lightweight slapstick. Beery & Hatton had followed up their big success with sequels: first, We're in the Navy Now, and then Now We're in the Air; which brings us to the footage discovered in Prague. This feature originally consisted of six reels, and ran a little over an hour. The material newly found derives from Reels 2, 3, and 5, and runs about twenty-three minutes. The segments are choppy and lack context, but nonetheless give us a fair idea of the feature's tone.
According to a contemporary review of this film I found in Variety, Wally & Ray have signed up for the Air Force accidentally, while trying to get their hands on their Scottish grandfather's inheritance. None of this plot exposition is to be found in the newly recovered footage, however. The first portion that survives consists of a rowdy sequence at an airfield in France, where Wally & Ray struggle with a parachute. They wind up on a target range, and can't seem to understand that they're in danger. The tone of the slapstick reminded me of a later team: Abbott & Costello, struggling to deal with WWII military life in Buck Privates.
Next, Wally & Ray are at a circus, and this is where we meet Louise Brooks. She works as a performer, and has a nice entrance, stepping out of her trailer wearing a fetching black tutu. According to plot synopses of the film Brooks appeared in a dual role, as twins; one of her characters is sympathetic to the French cause while the other favors the Germans, but in the surviving footage we see only the French Louise, at the circus. She interacts sympathetically with Wally & Ray. (We also see actor Malcolm Waite, best remembered as Charlie Chaplin's nemesis in The Gold Rush, once again in an unsympathetic role.) Soon, our heroes find themselves in an observation balloon that goes astray, and they sail through the air across enemy lines while Louise watches from the ground in dismayand that's the last we see of her, to our own dismay. In the final sequence, Wally & Ray board a plane and try to return to friendly territory. Their scenes in the air, perhaps influenced by the recent success of 'Wings,' were impressively filmed.
Needless to say, the recovered portion of Now We're in the Air gives us only a taste of the complete feature, although it does give us a sense of the film's comic style. The aforementioned review in Variety mentions another "highly indelicate" scene, still missing, in which Wally & Ray hide in a prop cow costume, one of those vaudeville style two-man outfits, and then have to avoid being milked by a near-sighted soldier. The critic calls the sequence "fun that poises perilously balanced between vulgarity and robust amusement." Sounds pretty funny to me, and in keeping with the material that has miraculously turned up. I do wish that more of the Louise Brooks scenes had been recovered, but perhaps it's best to express appreciation for what we have rather than what's still missing. One third of Now We're in the Air is a whole lot better than nothing.
Lil' Ainjil (1936)
Amazing: a Krazy Kat cartoon that actually resembles the comic strip!
George Herriman created his Krazy Kat comic strip around 1910, soon hit his stride, and then kept drawing the strip right up until his death in 1944. While it was never as popular as such contemporaries as the Katzenjammer Kids or Barney Google, the strip always had a dedicated following, thanks largely to Herriman's wild imagination, his unique brand of whimsy, and his facility for language. Attempts to adapt Krazy Kat to the screen began as early as 1916, under the auspices of Herriman's employer William Randolph Hearst. In some of the early efforts (such as The Great Cheese Robbery) the animators made an effort to capture the style of the source material, but as time went by the screen versions had less and less to do with the newsprint version. By the early '30s, the title character had been reduced to a feline version of Mickey Mouse, the strip's surreal desert landscape disappeared, and Herriman's other characters vanished.
Producer Charles Mintz of Columbia Pictures was responsible for the '30s shorts. Like any other series some entries are better than others, but none of them had anything to do with Herriman until 1936, when Lil' Ainjil was released. This cartoon represented a departure from the usual output, a fresh attempt to return to the actual, quirky source material. The androgynous Krazy Kat of this cartoon looks like the elfin figure from the strip, while the other characters, such as Offissa Pup, Ignatz Mouse, and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk the Duck, have been revived. Most noticeable of all, the backgrounds in this cartoon closely resemble the desert mesas of Herriman's Coconino County.
It would be nice to say that Lil' Ainjil is a great cartoon, a forgotten classic, but somehow it doesn't quite work. It kicks off an a promising note, as Offisa Pup and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk march along in tandem, and Pup announces in song that he represents the forces of law and order here in Coconino. The backgrounds certainly look right, and Pup's distinctive voice is provided by raspy Billy Costello, best remembered for voicing Popeye in his early Fleischer cartoon appearances. Krazy Kat enters and dances crazily; her voice identifies her as female. Before long, she's poking her head through a hole in a carnival booth, and Ignatz Mouse is pummeling her with bricks fired Gatling gun style. When Pup intervenes, Ignatz disguises himself with a beard and pretends to collect alms for the Christmas fund. The mouse winds up in the familiar jailhouse of Coconino County.
So far so good; we do seem to be in Herriman's world, at least. But at this point the filmmakers apparently ran out of gas, or inspiration, and brought in a villain figure wearing an eye-patch, a knock-off of Mickey Mouse's perennial nemesis Pegleg Pete. It was decided we required a "plot," so a halfhearted story about this bad guy was concocted. It doesn't amount to much. In the end he's thwarted, Krazy gets clobbered with another brick, and Offisa Pup chases Ignatz away. The End.
It appears that animator Isadore Klein was the driving force behind this cartoon, the one who suggested following the style of the strip more closely. In a later interview he indicated that he was disappointed with the final product. No follow-ups were made. The Powers That Be at the studio must have figured it wasn't worth the effort, and in Columbia's subsequent "Krazy Kat" cartoons the title character resumed his generic, Mickey Mouse-like antics. Perhaps that was inevitable. George Herriman's style was unique, and so unusual it would be practically impossible to translate to the world of animation, rather like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Lil' Ainjil is a valiant attempt to do so, and a respectable one. But if you want the real Krazy Kat, the place to look is on the page, not on the screen.
The Peace Conference (1935)
"We're a happy family"? If only!
Here's an oddity, a genuinely weird animated short from the Columbia Studio that plays like an editorial cartoon come to life. The Peace Conference is an entry in the studio's so-called Krazy Kat series, although it has nothing in common with the legendary George Herriman comic strip of the same name; the title character looks like a feline version of Mickey Mouse, and the humor and tone are not at all like the strip. But forget about THAT Krazy Kat; what makes this film interesting is its unusual content, and what it says about the attitudes of the era when it was made.
Headlines announce: WORLD LEADERS MEET, DISCUSS PLANS FOR WORLD PEACE. Our setting is a classical style building, place unspecified, where delegates gather. Doves perch above the doorway, and chirp hopefully. Everyone who enters has to stop off at the security desk and hand over any artillery. (Like Fats Waller says: "Check your weapons at the door.") Inside, delegates mingle in one room while world leaders sit at a table in another. This part is interesting: some countries are represented by national symbols, such as Uncle Sam for the U.S. and John Bull for England, while other countries are represented by figures who resemble commonly accepted stereotypes of their nationality: a Frenchman, an Italian, a Russian, etc. But India is represented by Mahatma Gandhi, while Germany, curiously, is represented by a guy who looks like President Paul Von Hindenburg, which is especially odd because he died in August of 1934, several months before this cartoon was released. (He was succeeded by Hitler, so perhaps the animators chose to avoid representing the latter.) Everyone seems to get along just fine, in fact they harmonize on a song with the chorus "We're a happy family!"
Trouble erupts, however, when the delegates begin arguing and punching each other. That's when our hero Krazy Kat shows up, driving a tank no less, and crashes through the doorway. But he doesn't employ violence; like the Beatles in the much later animated film Yellow Submarine, he subdues the meanies with music. He fires cannon balls at them with labels such as CROONER TUNES, HOT MUSIC, etc. When the first of these bombs explodes, Bing Crosby pops out and croons "Boo-boo-boo, boo-boo- boo" at the fighters, which subdues them. (I swear I'm not making this up.) And when things start to get rowdy in the room where the world leaders meet, Krazy Kat fires another missile and jazz man Ted Lewis pops out. He plays his clarinet, and quickly restores order.
So all is well in the world, temporarily anyway. But out in the cosmos, Mars, God of War, looks on displeased at all this peacemaking. He comes down to earth, sharpens his sword, and insists that everyone must resume fighting. Krazy redoubles his efforts, yet initially things look bleak: Mars swats away Bing and Rudy Vallee as it they were mosquitoes. Eventually however, Krazy utilizes his super-weapon: the entire Paul Whiteman Orchestra, led by the hefty Mr. Whiteman himself. They pin Mars to the ground, play him some sweet music, and peace is triumphant.
That's all, folks! The Peace Conference is a fascinating document of a time when fear of another world war was in the air, and for good reason. Sadly, we all know how that turned out. I only wish Krazy Kat or somebody, anybodycould have come to our rescue in reality.