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Roll Over Caruso and Tell George Cohan the News, 10 July 2014

This is one of the weakest episodes of SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE, which seems astonishing given that Zoe Akins scripted and Frank Borzage directed.

Really, it comes down to an excuse to play selections of Caruso recordings. This is a reasonable, even fine thing to have, but ninety percent of it is shot cheaply with Sandy Descher as a young Quaker girl and Lotfi Mansouri as Caruso in a private rail car and most of that time seems to consist of a repeated one-shot of Miss Descher gazing raptly -- at Caruso while he sings.

Nonetheless there is a bit of subtext to this short. The little Quaker girl plays Caruso opera records at home and one of Caruso's numbers is his cover of George M. Cohan's "Over There". There was an era when American culture had not fractured irredeemably; while one person's taste might be for opera and another's for Cohan, it would be viewed as a matter of taste and a well-rounded individual would be on at least nodding acquaintance with each. The 1950s, which we mock nowadays for its stultifying conformity was the last era when that consensus held, when you might see a new Bugs Bunny movie which used a Rossini opera as its starting point. Then Rock and Roll arose and culture wars began. We are all poorer for it.

That doesn't make this particularly worth watching. However, you can find Caruso recordings for sale on Itune. He did sing with the voice of an angel.

Hitting the Ground Running, 9 July 2014

Griffith needed a job. American Biograph needed a director, since theirs was leaving. Griffith took the job on the understanding that if it didn't work out, there would be no hard feelings. He would still get work as an actor. So for a month or two he co-directed films with Wallace MacCutcheon Jr., who taught him everything he knew; thereupon Griffith bullied the entire industry into doing things his way.

In this one we can see the errors of the old style: huge acting, boring, unmoving compositions and primitive editing. The chase that takes up more than half of this one-reel drama might have been lifted from 1904's "How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the 'New York Herald' Personal Columns".

Despite this, there is a seed of things to come; Mack Sennett is on hand, as is Edward Dillon and a couple of other members of what would become Griffith's staff of actors and directors. Bitzer and Marvin are handling the cameras. Finally, there is the dramatic race to rescue the victim from the hands of the dastardly villain. It would become the core of Griffith's storytelling.

Here, though, it's badly handled. Well, it was only Griffith's fourth film and his first month.

Stage Slapstick, 8 July 2014

Several builders encounter a fat police officer and proceed to torment him with bags of cement and water pumps in this filmed stage act directed by Alice Guy.

It's certainly not new. There's a listing for a Melies film called "The Clumsy Mason" from 1898. Alas, it seems to be among the missing. It was also, undoubtedly, a lot shorter than the two minutes this effort takes. Looking at it, we see a polished stage act that has been repeated many times; I saw a version of it inserted in a Joan Davis comedy from about 1945 -- sorry, I can't recall the title.

This sort of slapstick would evolve into film slapstick and into live performances at rodeos and Catskill hotels. It's interesting to see an early step in its history.

Possessed by the Green Fairy, 8 July 2014

Absinthe has long had a reputation as a hallucinogenic drink, which is why it was outlawed for many years in France. It was a favorite of the successors of Charles Baudelaire and looking back, it seems that its reputation is due to association with people who celebrated all sorts of bizarre and dangerous behavior.

In this one, a long-haired young man -- clearly an acolyte of Baudeilaire -- sits down at a table at a café and orders an absinthe. A family sits next to him. As soon as the young man takes his first sip, he attacks the people next to him. Clearly absinthe is not only a dangerous thing to drink; it is also fast-acting!

The Serpentine Dance: An Early Film Genre, 8 July 2014

That's probably not Loie Fuller performing in this short actuality directed by Alice Guy, even though she was in Paris at the time. The Lumieres had shot a version of this the previous year and that was not Miss Fuller either. She had invented this free-form performance in a swirling costume and Edison had shot a movie of Annabella doing her version in 1895.

You could call it an early film genre. Put "Serpentine Dance" into the search field at the IMDb and you'll pick up ten titles, not including the one I'm discussing now, from 1895 through 1912. It's understandable. This is pretty much a pure study in human movement. What better subject for a motion picture? Still, as it does nothing that others of the genre don't also do, it's difficult to assign it more than an "OK".

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Figaro!, 7 July 2014

Giuseppe De Luca ably performs the famous aria from "The Barber of Seville". in this early Vitaphone short. The version broadcast on Turner Classic Movies shows signs of being a poor copy of the film elements, but the sound elements are quite good, with only slight hiss and a bit of hollowness in the recording. Although the elements appear to track almost perfectly, there are several occasions when De Luca's mouth moves and there is no voice, leading me to suspect that this was not the original soundtrack, but a record made about the same time.

The camera work is minimal. The camera sits still and De Luca moves a bit, remaining in optimal range. There was little camera movement in these early pieces because of the difficulty of moving the sound equipment. They were intended to show off the sound process more than the work being filmed, prestige pieces rather than films. Still, they are important records of the state of the art at this stage, not only of movies, but of opera.

Goodbye, Uncle Fudd, 6 July 2014

Elmer J. Fudd's last major role in a Termite Terrace short is poor one. Hal Smith voices him, without any of the fruitiness that Arthur Q. Bryan put into the role for decades; the script isn't about him and the look of the cartoon is that scritchy look that DePatie-Freleng used when Warner Brother's decided they had made a mistake ending cartoon production four years later. It's ugly and pointless and the entire production seems to have a yellow wash over the print.

Other than that, it's mediocre. It's not about Elmer, but about Rocky Lion, Warner's reaction to one of Hanna-Barbera's better characters, Snagglepuss, It's hunting season and Rocky is trying to avoid being killed. The gags are all right, but between Hal Smith's Fudd and the annoying art, it's of no more than historical interest. It's an unfortunate end for a major character who had first been mentioned a quarter of a century earlier in a Tashlin cartoon.

Tweety & Sylvester: 3% Better than Coyote and the Roadrunner, 4 July 2014

In many ways, there is little difference between Friz Freleng's Tweety & Sylvester cartoons and Chuck Jones' Roadrunner & Coyote movies. In each, the predator is trying desperately to capture and eat the bird.

Of course, the two directors' methodology were different. Jones was a more psychological director -- if that sounds weird when talking about cartoons, sorry -- while Freleng cared only about the gags and their timing. The Coyote's techniques for capturing the Roadrunner grew increasingly grandiose and complicated, requiring the industrial might of Acme, while Sylvester relied on relatively low-tech anvils and generic balloons.

In terms of comedy construction, then, we can conclude that Jones' techniques were like Buster Keaton's, with his immense gags; and Freleng's were like Charlie Chaplin's. Which was better? Purely a matter of taste. Mine runs towards Keaton -- but it also prefers Freleng's series to Jones.

This is a pretty good entry in the series. Enjoy.

Buck Private, 3 July 2014

Incompetent waiter Shemp Howard ruins Detmar Poppen's rendez-vous with Louise Squire. The next day he reports for training in the National Guard, thinking it will be a vacation. Guess who his commanding officer is? I am not terribly fond of Shemp Howard's comedy persona as a loud-mouthed, twitchy bumbler, but for those of you who are, this will be a very funny short subject. Although it is a Vitagraph short directed by Roach veteran Lloyd French, it is a Shemp movie all the way, from its big knock-about pratfalls to its loud sound effects -- listening to it, one would think it was something out of Jules White's shorts department at Columbia.

Going to the Dogs, 3 July 2014

Scrappy and Oopie sneak a cat into a dog show and later enter a Saint Bernard in this fine Sid Marcus entry in the series.

The Scrappy cartoons were often more bizarre than funny and in this one, the strangely slow timing of the second sequence makes it both bizarre and funny. The character design of the humans suggests they are caricatures of celebrities of the period, although I can't identify any of them.

Even though the Marcus Scrappies were no where near as good as the earlier ones directed by Dick Huemer, this one is good throughout. The erratic nature of the series and its general unavailability may have resulted in a lack of interest, but this one may help turn that around.

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