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A Lost Lady (1934)
5/10
White High Heels Not Recommended for Gardening
22 July 2017
When book author Willa Cather saw this film she immediately banned all adaptations of her work, screen or otherwise, and more than forty years passed before another was attempted. It is easy to see why once you compare her novel with this soapy love yarn -- there is practically no connection in story, or tone. I loved the cast in this picture and there were parts that moved even unsentimental me; it was nice to see Frank Morgan play a role so far from his most celebrated turn as the avuncular, but sexless Wizard of Oz. Here Morgan is a mature man that is used to holding his passions in check, but sets himself up in a situation that brings him disillusioned loneliness and self-doubt. Barbara Stanwyck is ravishing in every frame of the movie, and she has to be, as she's set up as being a girl so beautiful that no man can resist her. But then we have the scene with Barbara working in the garden in white high-heeled shoes and a bright, floral print dress and we begin to wonder -- "What's up with that?" Do we have to keep propping up this concept of her as perpetually dressed for a cocktail party in order reinforce this idea of her irresistible beauty? Lyle Talbot, God love him, puts his all into the minor part of Nial, and that's what got me interested in looking up Cather's book. Actually, Nial is the major character in the novel, so Talbot's reduced role is a demotion indeed. It can be an enjoyable picture if you concentrate on the performances and not worry about where the story is going; the pacing in the first half is swift, and builds interest. But if you look at it through the lens of somehow representing the work of Willa Cather, then this version of "A Lost Lady" falls flat on its ass. Apparently the now lost silent version was closer to its source.
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5/10
A Romance Centered on an Non-existent Irish Custom
19 June 2016
Despite what is given here, the title is truly "The Bride's Play" and it refers to an odd custom, probably fictional, where an Irish bride circulates among the men in the wedding party and asks them if any one of them is her "true love." Although it is her twelfth starring role, it is still an early film for Marion Davies, who plays Aileen Barrett, a beauteous and captivating Irish Colleen and daughter to a local squire of means. She is protected and doted upon by the local men, including Sir Fergus Cassidy (Wyndham Standing) though he elects to keep his deeper interest in her a private matter. In convent school Aileen runs into trouble through sharing with other students the purple poetry of popular, but second-rate, versifier Bulmer Meade (Carl Miller). One day, after her father has died, Meade comes to town and immediately devotes his energies to winning Aileen's heart. After much persistence, Meade finally succeeds, but then he's done with her and disappears. Sir Fergus finally makes his interest known, and the heartbroken girl is happy to learn the truth; they agree to marry. But before the wedding begins, an old wife (Julia Hurley) relates her old wives' tale about Sir Fergus' ancestor, who had lost his bride to her old lover during "the bride's play" some eight centuries before, leading some to doubt as to the outcome of the new union to be. For such a simple story, Cosmopolitan really pulled out the stops on this one; the sets and costume are eye-popping, and so is some of the cinematography. Moreover, "The Bride's Play" survives in a gorgeous 35 mm print; thankfully so, as so few of Davies' early pictures now exist. However, the direction is make work and there are some notably dull stretches in the picture. Perhaps Cosmopolitan felt that they weren't getting their money's worth with director George Terwilliger, whose last major studio production this was before he slipped into states' rights features and poverty row fare. Davies' best years -- and best films -- were still ahead of her, but for Terwilliger "The Bride's Play" was the end of the road. It's impressive in spots, and Davies is genuinely lovely as is the Irish setting in addition to the charming, if slight, tale told. Owing to it's occasionally leaden pacing, some measure of patience brought to "The Bride's Play" will pay off though there are definitely better vehicles for Marion Davies than this one.
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9/10
Cinema! You know; the place where the people read the titles out loud.
17 June 2016
Tiffany Pictures is often judged by its last couple years' output, typified as specializing in ultra-cheap, stilted and slow moving talkies. In the silent era, however, their product is indistinguishable budget-wise from every other studio save M-G-M. Tiffany in the 1920s was more comparable to a studio like early Columbia Pictures; making quality features on less money than the majors. Director Louis Gasnier -- early shepherd of Max Linder and director of both "The Perils of Pauline" and "Reefer Madness" -- likewise has his detractors despite a large and respectable output mostly lost to us. One Gasnier film that is not lost, however, is "That Model from Paris," which survives in two 28 mm prints; one at the Library of Congress, the other in Canada. It stars Marceline Day, a radiant cutie of the first order in what has got to be one of her finest and most characteristic roles. She is Jane Miller, a shopworn angel with nothing to wear, working as a cashier in an apparel store who gets free theater tickets from the boss in a rare moment of charity. She unwittingly goes to the show in a dress borrowed without permission and wins her discharge from the drudgery of her position, though also her source of livelihood. By chance, she is hired as a model by slime-ball Morgan Grant (Ward Crane) who nonetheless maintains some slimy designs on her, not to mention a hidden lien on her new career. Jane is engaged to fill in for a no-show French fashion model and to keep her secret intact she is instructed to answer every question with one word -- "no." This leads to some very funny situations when she falls in love with Robert Richmond (Bert Lytell), a senior partner in the firm that she is representing and a seemingly incurable playboy; he finds that he just cannot stay away from "That Model from Paris" -- who is really not from Paris, and only says "no." At first glance, Lytell comes off like a poor man's Neil Hamilton, but as the film progresses you begin to feel for his character, as you definitely do for Day's; she is bright, very pretty and graceful and her big, emotive eyes help to tell the story as much as any other element in the picture. Director Gasnier had his own struggle with the English language which he was never able to master, and you can see that he was sympathetic to Jane's plight; having to feign exclusive competence in a language that she didn't understand. As a silent movie, "That Model from Paris" is entirely successful in conveying a conflict that is rooted in dialogue. Though he was not credited, director Robert Florey once claimed "That Model from Paris" as his first film, and this is entirely possible, as Gasnier preferred to work with a second director who wasn't always named. As a Frenchman, Florey would have been an obvious, and useful, candidate for the job. Whether or not "That Model from Paris" is the result of one or two minds, the finished film plays seamlessly, and the pacing is near perfect. I saw the Library of Congress print projected from a clattering pair of vintage 28 mm machines, and while it looked fine, the LC print has some amount of damage typical to 28 mm prints. As 28 mm was a safety film format we are not in immediate danger of losing "That Model of Paris" to decomposition, but it is such a fine film that one may hope that it is moved up in the preservation queue; it serves as a corrective to the various critical brickbats hurled at its studio and director, and is a captivating, smart and highly entertaining experience -- it is hard not to praise it enough.
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4/10
Blind! Blind! Blind!
16 June 2016
Richard Bransby (Charles A. Stevenson) heads a successful firm where he employs both Hugh Brook (Robert Barrat) and Stephen Pryde (Philip Merivale) in its South African division; Brook is a former soldier who is the apple of the eye of Bransby's daughter, Helen (Lucy Cotton). Pryde, however, is jealous of Brook, and also desires to win Helen's hand; moreover he is embezzling the company of thousands of dollars and doctoring the books to make it look as though Brook - - a known gambler -- is the culprit. One night, it all comes out, and Brook gallantly breaks his engagement with Helen and pledges that he will not return until he clears his name. Bransby is on to Pryde, though, and forces him to sign a confession to his dirty deeds. However, it all proves a bit too much for the aging industrialist, who expires that evening, leaving the confession in a book which is duly shelved away. Lucy is skeptical about the paranormal, and yet finds herself receptive to what seems to be posthumous messages from her father, reaching out to her from the beyond. After a year or so, and during a time when Pryde is pressuring Helen into what will surely be a loveless marriage, all of the principals converge at the house. Helen and Pryde are both interested in finding the book, but neither of them can remember which one it was. Based on a play which was moderately popular in its time, "Whispering Shadows" sounds much more interesting than it actually is. It is not a horror film, but sort of a supernatural mystery story with no detective afoot. Merivale looks like a young David Letterman who never smiles and has a square head; some of his anxious expressions as his fortunes flag here and there are comical, and are not meant to be. Cotton is attractive in the same way that Francelia Billington was, and while one realizes that in some scenes she is supposed to be in some kind of a supernatural trance, a fair amount of it just seems like bad acting. The search for the book is interminably long, to the extent that one wants to stand up, point to the bookcase, and say, "It's THAT one!" It is, nevertheless, a very early film about the paranormal, and the audience I saw it with was patient with it and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. "Whispering Shadows" is a very rare movie; it survives in a single 28 mm print at the Library of Congress, and was hardly shown at all upon its first release. It also marked the final screen appearance for Lucy Cotton.
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Money Mad (1908)
4/10
A Baby Step Forward, but Little Else
20 February 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"Money Mad" was also a popular stage play by Steele Mackaye that debuted in 1880; with elaborate scenery, it was a meditation on the theme of "the love of money is the root of all evil" with numerous characters and situations. Although doubtlessly familiar with the property, D.W. Griffith had neither time nor budget to do justice to Mackaye's five-act panorama in this one-reel subject, and probably only worked from the most basic idea of it, if at all. But the title "Money Mad" would've struck a chord with his viewers, recalling the popular Mackaye play. One of the other reviewers here errs when he calls Inslee's character "a homeless man;" he has a home where he lives in squalor, but prefers to beg on the streets than to pursue an honest living and hoards the money that he accumulates or steals. The version I saw had not a single subtitle, nor even the front title, a condition that afflicts many Biographs that survive only in paper prints, filed sometimes before the titles were made, or containing flash titles only. In some cases, it can be difficult to tell exactly what is going on; that the miser is exchanging his ill-gotten cash at the bank for gold coin rather than making a deposit is unclear, and a title would have filled us in. There are two remarkable sequences; the first -- a scene where the miser is followed back to his squat by two Italian bandits from the bank -- indulges in some primitive cross-cutting and appears to modern eyes as a dress rehearsal for a far more famous scene in Griffith's later "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" (1912). The conflagration set up by the candle knocked over by the greedy old hag fills the whole frame with smoke so thick one wonders how Billy Bitzer kept the camera rolling in the face of it; this ends the brief subject with an abstract image, and a sense of total obliteration. Otherwise, Griffith's "Money Mad" is a broad morality tale with no sympathetic characters, still somewhat grounded in typical conventions of the stage.
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6/10
Irreverent and Provocative Though Not Perfect
7 January 2016
Fred Allen made a living hurling brickbats and biting the hands that fed him, and one may surmise that his only starring role in a major motion picture would push the envelope. "It's in the Bag" does so, sometimes with breathtaking efficiency -- it's like a whole different world opened up in this film apart from typical 1940s screwball comedy, a negative, street smart and cynical attitude more in line with the comedic tone of later eras. But if you want to laugh, you might do better with a more typical screwball comedy of the period than with "It's in the Bag," as its episodic and composite construction as a film doesn't maintain a consistent level of hilarity, and parts of it are more confusing than funny. Fred Allen is terrific, and one wishes he'd been more interested in appearing in films, though his best work is unquestionably found in his radio programs; his deadpan mug, though, is effective in movies even though he had "a great face for radio." Binnie Barnes, Robert Benchley, John Carradine and William Bendix all stand out in this piece, and in the main "It's in the Bag" is definitely worth seeing at least once for its value as a dark, non-conformist alternative to American film comedies of the 1940s. However, it's a little too long, has too many moving parts and Fred Allen seems aware of that, stating in his ad-libbed annotation of the opening credit for producer Jack Skirball, "It's his picture."
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1/10
When Vipers Strike, They Go Uphill
7 August 2015
Stage actor Wallace "Wally" McCutcheon was briefly pressed into service to cover for his ailing father as a director at Biograph. While in a sense we can be grateful for McCutcheon's failure in this task, as it opened up the opportunity for D.W. Griffith to undertake film direction for the first time, Griffith had to oblige the hapless Wally through helping out on a few of the latter's projects before he finally got his walking papers. "The Black Viper" may have been based on a true crime story from the newspapers: The Viper -- a hooligan and possibly a "black hand" -- waits outside a factory at quitting time for the workers to depart. He puts the make on the last woman out, and she rebuffs him, so he knocks her to the ground. Another gentleman rushes up, subdues the Viper, and escorts the lady on her way. The Viper shakes his fist at them, vowing to get even -- we assume, as there is not a single title card in the film, though with a Biograph of this date coming solely from a paper print, the titles may have been lost.

The Viper gathers a couple of friends, and the three sneak up on the lady and her beau in a horse drawn wagon, which they use to abduct the hero. She rushes to a police station to summon three detectives, and all rush after the bad guys. They begin to haul their quarry up the side of a steep cliff, casting stones from above to discourage the would-be rescuers, who find shelter under a stone protruding from the cliff wall. Once up top, the Viper and his crew plan to dispose of their victim by placing him in an empty house and setting it ablaze. But he gets loose inside the house, and the struggle continues up on the roof as the building begins to burn.

Even for 1908 standards, this is an extremely bad film; while the settings are all exteriors and are interesting in themselves, there are so many ways in which the film could also be interesting, and it is not so. Practically everything is in long shot, and action is so poorly plotted that often you cannot tell how many players are in a scene; not so good when your're only working with a cast of eight. Since there are three detectives, why couldn't they have spared one to go around to the other side of the bluff and meet the bad guys at the top? Why did the bad guys send away their wagon? Likewise, they could've taken it up the other side to the house and saved themselves a lot of misery. The detectives and lady friend do make it to the top within seconds of the villains, so why are they absent from all of the action which follows? The elder Wallace McCutcheon was a specialist at making chase films, and perhaps this was something he'd had on the drawing board when he took ill. Gene Gauntier and actress Kate Bruce have left reliable testimony as to just how incompetent "Wally" McCutcheon was as director. "The Black Viper" is yet another testimony to his un- talent; in this case, D.W. Griffith was just along for the ride.
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8/10
"Fighting Blood": Great early Western, not History and not Zane Grey
7 August 2015
"Sioux" could apply, in the old school context, to any Native Americans living in "the Dakota Hills" where this film is set, and they are the faceless villains in this story. The good guys are a frontier family led by an elderly Civil War veteran, Ezra Tuttle (George Nichols), who drills his large family in military fashion day after day. Tuttle's oldest son (Robert Harron) tires of the endless military routine and goes A.W.O.L., much to the consternation of his father, in order to visit his sweetheart. Not long after the boy and girl part, the aforementioned Sioux attack, and the family take their places within the cabin to fend off the invaders. There is gun smoke aplenty, some obscuring the audience view, yet both Indians and defenders bite the dust in high numbers. The boy gets separated from his sweetheart's family and manages to repel an attack from two particularly persistent Indians. Once free to do so, he collects the Cavalry in hopes of saving his family, battling on valiantly in their tiny cabin as it fills up with smoke and fire.

The attribution of this story to Zane Grey is puzzling; he never wrote a novel called "Fighting Blood," and indeed hadn't even published "Riders of the Puple Sage" when this film made its bow in 1911. The adult western novel was still then an infant; Owen Wister's "The Virginian" -- widely regarded as the first in its genre -- had only appeared in 1903. "Fighting Blood" was filmed during one of the Biograph Company's annual junkets to Southern California in search of sun and scenery, and most likely Griffith wrote this scenario himself or bought it from a local author. He may have cribbed some elements for its story from one of the many dime novels about the Sioux Wars or from a popular stage play that dealt with an Indian attack; there were many of those also, at the time. The character of Tuttle may have been modeled after Griffith's own father, Colonel "Roaring Jake" Griffith, an old Civil War soldier that died in 1885. But, if so, one thing that Griffith didn't right was that the main Sioux resistance was over by 1878, not affording much of a chance for his Civil War veteran to grow old. Given the son's age, the earliest these events could've happened would be the mid-1880s, when Indian attacks of this scale were not occurring in the Dakotas.

For 1911, "Fighting Blood" is impressive in every way except that the camera never gets close enough to the actors to provide much in the way of facial expressions, though Harron manages to make an impression. The two actors most often credited with this property are Mae Marsh and Lionel Barrymore but, unless Barrymore is playing an Indian, then neither of them are in it. Griffith is reaching for bigger things here, and it is amazing that he and cinematographer Billy Bitzer are able to get so much action into a one-reel subject. Griffith also maintains interest by focusing on the smallest of the children and giving them a little screen time, which adds levity to what would be a rather grim subject. This was made only eight years after "The Great Train Robbery" and there is a dazzling array of shots, complex cross-cutting and dangerous looking stunts to be found in its eleven minutes. There is little doubt that fledgling Western film-makers -- such as Francis Ford and Thomas Ince -- also saw it, as the techniques used here surfaced in their films as well. "Fighting Blood" is a critically important, and still very early, film western as long as you don't mistake it for anything that really happened. Or for Zane Grey.
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Blonde Cobra (1963)
6/10
Why Shave When I Cannot Think of a Reason for Living?
1 April 2014
What we now see as "Blonde Cobra" actually began as two films being made simultaneously in 1959-60, shot and directed by Bob Fleischner and starring Jack Smith. These projects have been described as "horror- comedy" and were short circuited by an accident that destroyed the raw film stock set aside to complete them. Fleischner later handed the remaining footage over to Ken Jacobs to see if Jacobs could do anything with it. Jacobs recorded Smith improvising monologues on tape and stretched the film with black leader in order to let Smith's recorded ramblings run their course. In a sense, the soundtrack is one of the most innovative aspects of "Blonde Cobra," with its mixture of radio news, old 78s, records played at the wrong speed and Smith's wild commentary. This was further accented by the use of a live radio at certain points in screenings of "Blonde Cobra" that is totally lost when the film is seen on the web. That "Blonde Cobra" took so long to finish diluted its impact somewhat, as by the time it was finally shown, "Flaming Creatures" and other, similar films were already playing in New York.

P. Adams Sitney in the first edition of "Visionary Film" and some others wrote in glowing terms about "Blonde Cobra" and it is true that repeated viewings of the subject can reveal different interpretations of what it may mean; it is very friendly to intellectual analysis as it is an intellectual film, albeit one that on the surface does not seem very seriously intended. Fleischner's footage is part horror movie and part home movie, and the narration provided by Smith is a mixture of sad childhood memories and fantastic sexual routines that take the project into an entirely different direction. Smith felt that Jacobs had made it "too dark" -- although separately he thanked Jacobs for completing it -- but the material as Jacobs received it comes from a very dark and tragic place, an aesthetic of boredom, decline and a longing to get back things that cannot be had among a group of impoverished young people who completely reject conventional morality, or even what is perceived as reality.

While some of the early writers on "Blonde Cobra" seem to overstate its case a bit -- it is not a masterpiece in the class of "Flaming Creatures" or Jacobs' "Star Spangled to Death" -- a fair amount of the web-based writing about it takes the opposite tack, condemning the film as unwatchable, uncomfortable, boring; a case of the emperor having no clothes. Look, there's no "emperor" here; Jacobs, Fleischner and Smith were not looking to entertain you or to fulfill your expectations as to what may constitute a movie in a basic sense. These filmmakers had no interest whatsoever in making commercial motion pictures or participating the in same game, with its rules, awards and criteria, as other kinds of movies. They were living a different kind of life from the rest of people around 1960 and looking for a way, in film, to express it. And despite being an outsider to this world, Jacobs found, in a structural sense, a new kind of film language to express it in, an approach that bypassed the usual relation of shots to slates to rushes to editing in favor of a kind of loose assemblage more akin to documentary film making. "Blonde Cobra" is what it is, and it isn't out there to impress you, though if you watch it more than once you have a better chance of "getting it" than if you struggle to the end of it, one time, or abandon it midway.
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4/10
Temperence Drama Based on a Popular Play
4 January 2014
"What Drink Did" is a temperance melodrama loosely based on the play, "Ten Nights in a Bar-room" which was familiar to anyone who set foot into a theater in 1909. Griffith had probably played in it somewhere along the line; if you were an actor in American stock companies in the late nineteenth century, you could hardly avoid this property. Even at the time, the story was considered a little dated and ludicrous, and the play itself was over fifty years old in 1909. So Griffith attempts to find ways to bring it into the realm of the believable; "the fatal glass of beer" is drank, not the tavern, but at work, with Mr. Lucas' (David Miles) co-workers egging him on. A bullet stands in for what was an empty beer stein thrown in the original play. There is some elementary crosscutting between Lucas, raising h-e-double-toothpicks in the tavern, and his worried spouse (Florence Lawrence) and her children (Gladys Egan, Adele De Garde). It is the plucky, courageous De Garde who gives the most memorable performance in the film; her eyes project genuine sadness and disappointment, and she gamely places her arm over her face to simulate crying in a gesture familiar to audiences of that day. The grown ups, however, are handled as cardboard caricatures, and while the plan to transmit what was an hour-long affair on the stage into 13 minutes on film works, one senses a thinly veiled contempt for its source; even in 1909, Griffith handled actors with more sensitivity, and here just going through the motions.

By virtue of the crosscutting employed, Billy Bitzer's crisp, well composed photography and De Garde's performance, "What Drink Did" is still better than average for an American, dramatic 1909 one-reeler. But it is far from being in the class of the best Griffith Biographs of that year, as it is mainly a prosaic attempt by Griffith to knock his way through a familiar property, keep it to one reel, and to have it out on schedule. I saw it with a Pic-tur-music score that matched the film okay in the first half, but fit it hardly at all in the second. So that element didn't do it any favors.
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7/10
Pioneering Part-Talkie from Hungary
2 January 2014
"Csak egy kislány van a világon" (roughly "The Only Girl There is in the World") is sometimes referred to as the first Hungarian sound film, but in truth it is a part-talkie. Nevertheless, it has a superb, Romany-styled music score by Károly Stephanides that is nothing like what would have been done had this film only come down to us as a silent, and a contemporary soundtrack had been made for it. It survives only in a Serbian version cut down from its original length by 22 minutes, and the one I saw was missing another 14; the continuity was especially choppy in the last chapter. But it still told the tale: Two former POWs, Gyõrgy (Pál Jávo) and Miklós (Gusztáv Vándory), return on foot to their native town and are greeted by their families. Gyõrgy falls in love with Katinka (Marta Eggerth), a lovely local girl that Miklós already had deep feelings for. At a celebration later that day, Gyõrgy and Katinka become engaged. Gyõrgy travels by train to the city where he gets entangled with a vamp (Mercedes Zombory), and when he returns to the village the vamp is in tow, leading to all kinds of complications of the heart.

"Csak egy kislány van a világon" is mainly notable as it represents the film debut of Hungarian actress Marta Eggerth, who would soon become the top star of Central European operetta films and musicals; Katinka is her only non-speaking part. Eggerth is radiantly beautiful throughout and demonstrates dramatic ability far beyond the norm for a 17-year old actress. Mercedes Zombary, in her only film role, is alluring, appropriately sexy and uncaring as the "other woman," and the two male leads handle their roles adequately if a little melodramatically. However, director Béla Gaál gets the most out of meager resources and makes what may have been a great picture here -- "may have been" as so much of it is missing. There are Russian-styled montage sequences that are ambitious and visually striking, and the overall feel of the film is rather like the style of MGM in the late silent period, but with natural settings in place of MGM's typical, studio-bound artificiality. The sense of Hungarian-ness in the film is palpable, with the bows of fiddles darting across the screen, the rhythmic pace of Gypsy music wrapping around the action and the mixture of modern and traditional dress. Despite some slow passages and ellipses in the story caused by missing footage, "Csak egy kislány van a világon" is an inspired effort with some genuinely great things in it. Director Gaál would go, with considerable success, into comedies in the 1930s, but would end his days, regrettably, in either the Dachau Concentration Camp or at the hands of Nazis on a Budapest street, depending on which account one accepts.
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4/10
58 Minutes of Confusion
23 November 2013
"Ten Minutes to Live" was one of the first Oscar Micheaux films to emerge in modern times; it was first discovered by AFI in the 1970s. At that time, very little else of Micheaux was known to exist, and at the time no modern film scholar had seen anything like it, nor was it generally known that anything like it had been made at all. At the time, "Ten Minutes to Live" seemed so unique and out of the ordinary that such critical notices as were written tended to be charitable. Nevertheless, those who then saw the one, terribly battered print of "Ten Minutes to Live" weren't sure what Micheaux was up to; whether it was some kind of art film or some species of genre that they did not recognize. Fast forward four decades and we know a lot about Micheaux and the kinds of films that he made, and "Ten Minutes to Live," in that context, has suffered badly. It is clear now that the film is a failed narrative; in fact, two narratives drawn from an alleged short story collection entitled "Harlem After Midnight." The tales are called "The Faker" and "The Killer" and the front title promises three stories, but the film delivers only two. Perhaps Micheaux' later film "Harlem After Midnight" constitutes the third story not shown here. In any event, Micheaux never published these stories and it is difficult to make out from this film what exactly the narrative was.

Time has not brought us a better print, and the one we have shows the telltale intrusions of censorship. In the first story, a fellow who claims to be a wealthy producer or something-or-other turns on the charm with several women. He tells one singer he can only pay her $3.25 a day to appear in a talking picture, and that appears to have been about the daily budget that Micheaux had to make "Ten Minutes to Live." There are so many ellipses and shortcuts that you can hardly tell a story is being told at all, and in the first part it so frequently interrupted by vaudeville acts and cutaways to non-speaking characters that you wonder who is actually participating in the tale told. The dancing, though, is all excellent, if not always shot to the best advantage, and in one scene the girls are crammed into a space so tight that they can barely move. Donald Heywood and his hard-working band are definitely an asset to the picture, even when their music is cut into little bits and shards, or interleaved with snatches of Beethoven symphonies. It is not completely foolproof, however; at one point a musician loses his music off the stand, and in yet another the whole band loses it place in the music, with the violinist diligently leading them back to the head.

Despite the front title card's assertion that this is an "All Talking" picture, the second story, "The Killer," is strictly a part-talkie, and plays for most of its length silent. One wonders if this was something Micheaux had made earlier as a silent and merely added to "Ten Minutes to Live" with a few talking scenes added. Overall, as a film it is far more interesting than the first part and contains several beautiful visual touches, but these are mostly in the silent filmed sections. Once the sound returns, conversation is heard while a character, ostensibly in hiding, is seen overhearing and reacting to it -- for a very long time.

While "Ten Minutes to Live" is not Micheaux' best effort by a long shot, it is also not his worst, and it would be his weirdest if "Swing!" didn't exist. If you approach it as a kind of arty affair and enjoy the dancing and music, you still might get something out of it. If you try to follow "Ten Minutes to Live" as a conventional story, however, you will get hopelessly lost. Not all actors are credited, and some are here credited incorrectly; some appear to be playing more than one part in the story, and there are lots of silent-style subtitles and letters to make things all the more mystifying.
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8/10
A Portrait of Prague from Before the War
21 October 2013
"Bezucelná procházka" (Aimless Walk) is Alexander Hammid's first film, and it is credited with ushering in the Slovak avant-garde of the 1930s, which flourished up until the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Made with very modest resources -- barely more than the camera, and a single actor -- the film commences in the city center and the camera boards a streetcar, following its dynamism to the outskirts of the city. A young man in a suit and hat becomes apparent; he looks at a woman on the train briefly before getting off at a remote, industrial spot somewhere along the Vltava River. He spends a lazy day there among other young people who are sleeping in various spots along the ground as men work on a construction project. The camera picks up dilapidated old buildings, muddy spots underfoot and other random images, and yet this section has an unquestionably documentary feel. Viewers familiar with the far more famous Deren-Hammid "Meshes of the Afternoon" will note some continuity here in certain shots and preferences of framing. The editing is quite dynamic for much of this silent short film, and while it lacks a story structure -- it is truly "aimless" as indicated in the title -- it is beautifully shot and composed, and connects the disparate realms of motion picture and fine art photography. The version I saw, prepared for German television, had a fine piano score by composer Joachim Barenz.
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6/10
These Are the Products of Industrial Britain
5 September 2013
The 21-minute "Industrial Britain" was originally planned as a picture running more than twice that length, but director Robert Flaherty was taken off this project mid-production and the footage given over to others within the Empire Marketing Board to sort out and finish; ultimately the footage was shaped into five different films. The only credit on the film is "Grierson -- Flaherty" so obviously John Grierson still saw the value of placing Flaherty's name on the finished film. But we cannot know what Flaherty really had in mind for this project as he made no script and did not edit the footage as he would have seen fit. No matter what his intentions, "Industrial Britain" still became the basic seed from which the distinctive British documentary was germinated. The visuals that Flaherty supplied were much stronger than what the EMB was used to and the editing -- achieved mostly by Edgar Anstey -- matched the footage up real well to an anonymously written, stentorian narration which celebrates the ingenuity of British industry. There is a special emphasis on highly skilled craftsmen and the notable absence of ordinary workers -- we go down into the mines but we do not see miners; instead we see a swinging pick ax shearing off coal. Although British documentarians ultimately rejected the romantic attitude that Flaherty used to sell a story, they learned from "Industrial Britain" that filming a documentary is more than just point and shoot -- it is also a matter of exploration, investigation and discovery. Many 21st century viewers will find it's tone dull and stodgy, being overused to the now outdated sub-genre that this picture very much helped to usher in. However, the photography is brilliantly composed, and to some extent the cutting rises to the occasion. "Industrial Britain" remains a significant milestone in the development of documentary style in the UK, despite the fact that its maker had no input into the finished product.
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5/10
Happy is Work Ethic Challenged
25 May 2013
"The Spider and the Fly" comes very near the end of the Bray/International Film Service series of Happy Hooligan cartoons. Very few of these subjects have survived; this one was directed by Bill Nolan, who later became Walter Lantz' chief collaborator at the Universal unit Lantz led. In it, Gloomy Gus is chopping away at some wood while Happy saws a log of his own. Gus attempts to compel Happy to get off his lazy duff, but Happy is distracted by a spider who spins him a ladder to heaven. Turns out St. Peter expects work too, so off Happy goes to the alternative, and this leads to the very short subjects' best scenes -- Happy plunging through the earth, meeting with the Prince of Darkness, etc. Nolan's animation is primitive, but fluid -- it's not quick and dirty. But it is easier to see a confluence between Lantz' work of the time and that of Lantz' own studio than this; it almost feels like an Out of the Inkwell short, which it isn't. It is, however, highly enjoyable, despite some continuity gaps that suggest missing scenes.
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8/10
Scorching Jazz Short Made by a Film Composer
24 May 2013
Victor Young did not lead a touring big band, nor did he play dances or other public kinds of engagements. After a stint with the Russo-Fio Rito Orchestra in the 1920s and some time spent as a freelance arranger Young went straight into the recording studios, and on radio, as a leader. Young had been based in Hollywood some years at the time "Hold That Tiger" was made by Soundies Distributing Corp. and was already scoring motion pictures -- one of his last scores, for "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) would ultimately win him immortality, and not a minute too soon. That's one among several reasons that "Hold That Tiger" is surprising; the band, and Young's chart, is on fire, but the band itself never played a ballroom. These fellows were strictly radio broadcast musicians and also provided backups to singers on records made in Decca's West Coast studio. This short was directed by Reginald Le Borg who put his best effort into it; the rapid cutting and specific camera angles and movements used almost references Soviet montage, but it is all clearly keyed to the instrumental detail in Young's arrangement. The piece itself is designed for visual effect as much as musical; the film is meant to be as visually "hot" as the music, even though intended for viewing on a tiny Panoram screen. In short, "Hold That Tiger" didn't need to be as good as it is; Young and Le Borg did their homework to make it so.
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Luffar-Petter (1922)
2/10
Garbo's First Role, and First Embarrassment
22 May 2013
"Luffar-Petter" (Peter the Tramp) survives only in a ten-minute fragment and is notable only as it contains Greta Garbo's first appearance in an acting role. It is not her first film; Garbo appeared in some department store advertising films as a model before this. It was directed by, and starred, prominent Swedish actor Erik Petschler who ran both a film school and his own production company. In older literature relating to Garbo, "Luffar-Petter" is referred to as a comedy short, but this is a misinterpretation of the extant footage; Swedish censorship records show that the original film ran 75 minutes and was a drama. Petschler played two roles; that of the title character Peter the Tramp and as Erik Silverjälm ("Eric Silver-Helmet"), a prominent official within the fire department. Garbo plays one of his three daughters; in one scene, as Silverjälm, he is watching the three girls while his other character, Peter the Tramp, steals his belongings.

The extant ten-minute sequence may be part of a workprint towards the finished film, which is lost; it has no intertitles, but also no slates, a couple of flash frames and some jumpy edits, suggesting that at some point this raw material was cleaned up. There are two takes of a scene where Petschler, as Silverjälm, is greeted warmly by Garbo, who jumps up into his arms. Afterward, they enjoy tea and crumpets at the girls' campsite, and it irises out. The footage, which mainly consists of Garbo and her two sisters going out on a boat, establishing a campsite and playing in the water, is beautifully filmed by photographer Oscar Norberg. But the scenes with the three girls are not very well directed, and suggests second unit, or student, work; the girls prance around, stand in the water and we are not sure what they are doing -- and perhaps, neither were they. While the sequence is clearly in imitation of Mack Sennett bathing beauty subjects it does not play as comedy so much as a lighthearted moment within a more serious endeavor.

Possibly the reason this material was conserved at all was that it was a more extended look at the sequence that Garbo was in; certainly in the finished film it would have played shorter. Garbo is the most attractive of the three girls and also the most resourceful; she pilots the motorboat that they ride in and also appears to be building the campfire that they use to cook their fish. Nevertheless, Garbo herself must have been devastated that this film survived only in this way, shorn of its context and playing like provincial, inferior comedy.
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Cat Food (1969)
8/10
Cat Eats Fish in a Painterly Study
12 May 2013
I'm not sure which picture the earlier reviewer of this film saw, but it was NOT "Cat Food" (1969) by Canadian experimental filmmaker Joyce Wieland. Wieland's film is silent, filmed in bright, sumptuous color and contains no narration whatsoever. A large, well-fed, healthy cat slowly and deftly takes apart and eats a series of fresh fish with its claws, teeth and whiskers, and there is no more story to Wieland's "Cat Food" than that. But the story, as such, is not why you watch; Wieland's interest in utilizing film to explore simple, everyday sensations and the fine details in them is what makes this "fine art," rather than documentary. As opposed to Deren-Hammid's "The Private Life of a Cat" (1950) which explored a cat's life in a comprehensive way, "Cat Food" focuses on this single action, and the effect of it is a little reminiscent of Chaim Soutine's loving paintings of his own dinner, usually a rooster denuded down to the bones and sinew. Wieland uses film as an analog for painting, though her film is not static and even includes bursts of single frames here and there to vary the cinematic interest.
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7/10
An Epic New York Fantasy, Forever Unfinished
10 May 2013
"The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" is a high art underground film made on a super-low budget, silent, and in black and white. Filmmaker Ron Rice announced it as a three-hour epic, but the longest cut of the footage works out to 108 minutes and that was not achieved until 20 years after the film was made. It was shown at least once during Ron Rice's lifetime, in a rough cut made for fund raising purposes. According to star (and part backer) Taylor Mead, Rice subsequently ran off with the money to Mexico. Indeed, on a brief return to New York, Rice shot, edited and synchronized the short film "Chumlum" and did not return to "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" before he died in Mexico later in 1964. Shortly after his death, a 70-minute version was assembled and this was the cut distributed through 1981. In 1982, Taylor Mead completed the film as much as it could be, resulting in a considerably longer, 108-minute version, but the earlier cut is still around and to some extent is easier to see.

Ironically, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" is somewhat in the same boat as "The Magnificent Ambersons" as it is a very good film with some great things in it, and perhaps it would be a great film if its maker hadn't abandoned it. The Atom Man (Taylor Mead) is less than an atom; a nothing -- a pitiful, neurotic male who lives in a series of fantasies, none of which pan out for him. The Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan) is a beautiful, regal African-American woman with a taste for young white guys; she is confident and wholly capable of interacting with the outside world. The Atom Man is her servant, and despite the title, there is relatively little interaction between them -- their exploits are shown separately and such encounters as they have are relatively brief and awkward. In her dreams, The Queen of Sheba seems to wish that the Atom Man would get his act together enough so that he could accompany her on her daily rounds of the museums and other cultural attractions she likes, but he is clearly hopeless. Taylor Mead gives his usual 110 percent and this early role may have been his personal best -- with Rice, Mead had the freedom to make up his own part, and the Atom Man was exceptionally suitable to his gifts. Winifred Bryan is so charming, enchanting and sexy that one regrets that she appeared so seldom in films. Rice clearly had a strong eye and was quick on the uptake even within his improvisational style of filmmaking; there are shots in "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" that French cinema verité filmmakers would die for. What edits Rice himself made that remain in the film demonstrate a symbolic flow that connect disparate things together and plays with time. That much of the movie stands as it does, hinging on principal photography and basic action, is kind of a pity, as the little bit of montage remaining from Rice's hand really picks it up. The film would be easier to follow if Rice had managed to devise a more convincing setting for the Queen of Sheba's boudoir -- little more than a bed in front of a "wall" which is simply a sheet thrown over a board with a magazine pinned to it as a "picture." At one point, this comes tumbling down, though the extreme cheapness of this feature is part of its charm. However, in terms of demolishing conventional storytelling and providing a viable, freewheeling alternative to it, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" must be regarded as Rice's signature achievement, despite its unfinished state. Jack Smith appears briefly as one of the Queen's suitors and Rice also appears in a scene that has the flavor of an outtake; perhaps it was kept in his memory, but one wonders if the film might not be a little stronger without it. Both Mead and Bryan are convincing as a kind of mythic super-people, and this is the one scene that seems to break that spell somewhat.
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Dance Hall (1929)
2/10
The Sound Editors Must Have Had Too Much to Drink at the Dance Hall the Night Before
24 March 2013
"Dance Hall" simply has the worst match of sound to picture I've ever seen in any era. There are all kinds of speculation here as to why it is so off, but speculate no more. The solution is simply that whomever cut this picture used the wrong takes of soundtrack to go with the visual. This is confirmed by the scene where Arthur Lake, as Tommy, dances with his mother, played by Margaret Seddon; as they dance, Lake speaks a line which goes unheard, followed by a line spoken by Seddon in response which falls roughly in the right place. The editor picked a visual take where Lake spoke the line and matched it to one where he didn't, however, Seddon did not forget her line like Lake did, and it comes in nearly where it should. And scenes like this abound in "Dance Hall;" even sequences that are matched to correct takes are a little off in the synchronization department. From this standpoint alone, "Dance Hall" is a train wreck.

Someone stated that you could re-synchronize it, but it wouldn't be worth it. Actually, even if you worked with a set of surviving discs, you still couldn't sync it properly because they used the wrong takes; the audio, for the most part, does not fit the action on screen. I still feel a restoration would be worthwhile just to help us understand what the dialog is in the first place. Some scenes are very, very hard to understand, and a lot of the dialog is swallowed up in limiting; the soundtrack is littered with pops and the sounds of splice marks. However, even with an improved soundtrack, it might not improve the picture, at least by much. It's Viña Delmar's first story credit, and not one destined to win her any Oscar nominations, as "The Awful Truth" did. "Dance Hall" is pretty bad in the story sense alone; Tommy and Gracie (Olive Borden) are broke ballroom dancers, and Tommy is pretty keen on Gracie, but her emotional world is thrown into a tailspin when she is wood by no-good jerk-wad pilot Ted (Ralph Emerson). And that short summary almost gives away the whole story.

Arthur Lake -- who plays the whole first scene without his pants [!] --is trapped in the kind of miserable juvenile role that Humphrey Bogart was often saddled with in his days on Broadway. Lake is wasted; as Dagwood Bumstead he was a kind of a comic genius, but here he is trying to play Tommy as a lovable boob and only succeeds at making him a boob. And it is not through inexperience; Lake had already been in dozens of pictures. Olive Borden is lovely as Gracie, but the part -- well -- it's vapid. Redoutable supporting actors Seddon and Joseph Cawthorn play stock characters and seem anxious to move on to the next picture, whatever it is. Visually, the direction, camera-work and cutting is strong for an early talkie; the dance hall set is attractive and authentic, and the dance music is charming and catchy. But the total package plays like a weak comedy that doesn't have any gags in it. Everyone connected with it -- including producer William LeBaron, who ultimately produced such classic comedies as "It's a Gift," "Peach-A-Reno" and took home the Best Picture Oscar for "Cimarron" a couple of years later -- must have been embarrassed beyond description by "Dance Hall."

It is unlikely "Dance Hall" was made as a silent as there are few fades, actors do not "wait" for imagined title cards to pop up, or otherwise stall the action as is sometimes seen in talkies made both ways. If you had the means to fix it, however -- all of the original soundtrack, including the right takes -- you would probably remove the element that is the most interesting thing about "Dance Hall." If you were teaching a film class and wanted to show the students how important sound editors are, and how a bad one could really screw up a picture, then this is the perfect vehicle for that.
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5/10
McKimson's Directorial Debut a Late Entry into the War Effort
7 March 2013
Robert McKimson had worked as a dependable animator and model design specialist at the Warner Bros. cartoon unit for a full fifteen years before receiving his first directorial assignment, "The Return of Mr. Hook." Mr. Hook appeared in three very short black and white cartoons and one color item made for the U.S. Navy; he was created by Hank Ketcham, later of "Dennis the Menace" fame. Hook was a thinly disguised version of the Army's Private Snafu, with a piggish, turned up nose being the major difference in his appearance. In this outing, he explains to his fellow sailors -- who are in the midst of gambling -- his post-war plans and illustrates how buying war bonds play into an integral part of his dreams for the future.

McKimson probably got the go ahead for this project as the war was seen as ending relatively soon, and the Navy needed this one in a hurry. His boss, Frank Tashlin, was up to his own nose in projects already and, indeed, McKimson would not direct again until he overtook the unit in the wake of Tashlin's departure the following year. McKimson's first job at direction once he assumed control was to finish "Daffy Doodles," a cartoon that Tashlin had started, and likewise "The Return of Mr. Hook" follows very closely in Tashlin's footsteps, particularly in the breathless middle section where Hook reunites with his sweetheart, buys furnishings for their home, marries her and settles down to start a family in just over two minutes' screen time.

The most effective sequence in the cartoon is the montage when the end of war is declared; the battleships race back from the Pacific theater to the US and Hook propels himself past the crowd -- and the burlesque house -- to the tailor's to transition back into civilian life. Hook's character -- voiced by "Dagwood" actor Arthur Lake -- is presented as an everyman, but actually comes off as kind of a jerk. There is a nod to the spicy humor employed in Private Snafu and designed to strike the funny-bones of hardened military men, but "The Return of Mr. Hook" stops short of the coarser, "freeze the nuts off a jeep" similes employed in U.S. Army subjects. Nevertheless, it is the message, rather than the humor, that is driving this picture, and it succeeds effectively in that, though for a seaman stationed on an aircraft carrier or battleship out in the Pacific all those many months, the card game may have seemed more attractive.
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Aqua Duck (1963)
4/10
Daffy -- and the Termite Terrace Studio -- Out in the Desert
7 March 2013
In his book, "Of Mice and Magic," Leonard Maltin cites "Aqua Duck" as an example of the nadir of the Warner Bros. animation studio. Indeed, it is very late; released in September 1963, not long before Warners closed its studio proper and began to outsource such work to another, employing the very same people that they had previously retained. However, even the quality of this short is miles above anything done by the DePatie-Freling unit in the later 1960s. Daffy is out in the desert, succumbing to dehydration, and manages to excavate a large gold nugget in the course of his search for water. Being a "greedy little duck," he rebuffs repeated attempts by a silent pack-rat to offer him water in exchange for the nugget. It's essentially a one man show for Daffy, and in its use of spare, desert backgrounds, "Aqua Duck" tries to recapture some of the effect, and magic, of "Duck Amuck" with a more conventional storyline derived from the tradition of the Western.

Although the finished product employs nowhere near the level of creativity of "Duck Amuck," it works well enough to at least fit in with Daffy's other output; he doesn't do anything we wouldn't expect him to do, and he does not play off the pack-rat as unnecessarily mean as he does with Speedy Gonzales in DePatie-Freling subjects. The music score, by William Lava, is dedicated rather than generic, and while it does not employ the humorous synchronicity of a Stalling-Franklyn score it doesn't get in the way either. Mel Blanc only has to play one character, and the timing is a little rushed as in later Daffy Duck cartoons, but not nearly as badly.

While "Aqua Duck" is less than deserving of its terrible reputation, that doesn't mean that it is altogether free from the brush of failure that rather obviously paints later Daffy Duck subjects. It's just a matter of the Warner Bros. animation studio, with resources growing short, attempting to achieve something convincing and characteristic of its product while waiting to learn of its fate. In a way, "Aqua Duck" can be seen as a metaphor for what the Warners' unit was going through at the time, in the same manner as so many of their other cartoons have that sort of self-confessional tone. In this case, though, they are trying find a way to make some rain, which, for the studio, never came.
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The Astroduck (1966)
2/10
Daffy Duck Takes a Vacation to Mexico, and to Misery
6 March 2013
"The Astroduck" is merely the seventh installment in a series of what would prove nineteen DePatie-Freling produced cartoons featuring the wholly unnecessary combination of Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales. To do it once, and to realize that it doesn't really work, would have been acceptable, but then to go on and repeat that failed experiment eighteen more times?

Cartoon researcher Jerry Beck has suggested as answer to the perennial question "Which is the worst Looney Tune?" to choose from any of these mid-60s titles, and indeed, most are so worthless that it is hard to say that one is necessarily worse than another. However, it strikes this reviewer that "The Astroduck" is especially miserable; the set up is interminable and more than two minutes roll by before we are even treated to a single gag. Once going, they are gags of a very limited kind, largely centered around those ubiquitous dynamite sticks that usually blow up predator rather than prey, and as CBS removed the final outcome of these scenes through censorship in latter-day Bugs-Daffy reruns it hardly made a subject like "The Astroduck" worth watching at all. In the opening scenes, Speedy warns Daffy "You don't understand; you come into this country and..." -- he is cut off -- as if he is informing both Daffy and us about something significant to the cartoon's plot. But whatever it was, it must not have mattered too much, because we never come back to it.

Mel Blanc earns his paycheck and delivers the voice acting with his usual aplomb, though the timing is a tad fast so he isn't able to give his characterizations the nuances that they deserve. The layouts are cheap looking and only slightly better than Flintstones quality artwork. An especially tiresome entry in the sorry Daffy-Speedy canon.
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6/10
We'll Understand It By and By
19 January 2013
The Durango Kid (Charles Starrett) rides into the town of Dusty Gulch to find helpless homesteaders being run off of their property. He finds an ally in a preacher (Tex Harding) who is determined stand up for the homesteaders against a greedy saloon owner and loan shark, Blaze Howard (John Calvert), whose plan is to take over all of their land. Durango's alter ego Steve Ranson also has a personal interest in seeing the land grabber go to justice as he was involved in killing his brother, a formal Marshal of the town. Among Durango's buddies are Bob Wills and the whole of his Texas Playboys; Bob Wills even has a part, though he mostly just stands there and smiles.

Directed by second unit man Vernon Keays, who went into direction for a spell in the mid-1940s, "Lawless Empire" is well edited and reasonably well made, though gaffes of various kinds abound, not the least of which is that Bob Wills' high stepping, jazzy music does not coordinate in the least with the circa 1870 time frame suggested in the opening titles. The music is all terrific, and there is quite a bit of it; the story stands still while Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys play their numbers complete. "Lawless Empire" tremendously entertaining, and I only took it one point off a "7" simply because it lacks suspense; you know that the Marshall and the Durango Kid are one and the same very early on, and that the bad guys -- neither large in number, particularly bright or very tough -- have a hard row to hoe to win this one. One the bad guys, Duke (Ethan Laidlaw), wins points for both being the most threatening and yet most sympathetic of the men on Blaze Howard's team. Dub Taylor is on board to bring comic relief, and his stunt gags are pretty good, but overall there is plenty of action and music to make this one worth its oats. Just not much in the way of surprise.
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7/10
Mozzhukhin's Valiant Struggle for his own Soul
6 January 2013
Luigi Pirandello had long resisted a film adaptation of his popular 1904 novel "Il Fu Mattia Pascal" because he disliked the compromises that routinely cropped up when his properties moved to the big screen. He was justified; an American poverty-row studio would have taken this book and made it into a neat 70-minute drama and changed the hero from a philosopher/dreamer into someone who had a real job, like an architect. Marcel L'Herbiér's Albatros unit was finally chosen when Pirandello decided to relent, precisely due to L'Herbiér's refusal to compromise; although his films generated great controversy, some were commercial successes and all trod a thin line between art filmmaking and conventional story arcs. Ironically, judging from his earlier productions, "Feu Mathias Pascal" was an example of L'Herbiér playing it relatively safe; there are no wild outbursts of montage nor cameras on a swing, though at least three tiny vestiges of his more experimental approach crop up in this lengthy, three-hour film. However, the style of "Feu Mathias Pascal" is still advanced, and it remains very modern in feel, especially as shown with Timothy Brock's very fine score for the 2009 restoration.

Ivan Mozzhukhin, a major star of the French silent cinema of the 1920s, plays the role of Mathias Pascal. A deep thinker and scion of an aristocratic family that is declining and on the ropes, Pascal loses his estate, yet remains idealistic, marries, and has a baby daughter. His mother and the child die on the same day, and after a period of mourning he flees to Monte Carlo, where he luckily restores much of his personal fortune. Learning that he is considered dead back in his home town, he goes onto forge a new life, but is pestered both by the stress of being in hiding and the ineffectual nature of his not being who he says he is. The story has numerous substrata, and L'Herbier includes them all, with Mozzhukhin's expressive countenance and comic physicality holding it together. Mozzhukin is wonderful in the role, and does a fine job throughout; other standout performances include Michel Simon, in his film debut, as Mozzhukhin's occasional buddy and Pierre Batcheff as a juvenile thief. L'Herbier has a problem turning the corner on plot points: the first sequence demonstrating the conflict between Pascal and his mother-in-law seems to go on for an eternity. Experienced eyes know that this cannot be a major aspect of the tale told, and it isn't, but L'Herbier treats it like it is. There are a lot of long takes on Mozzhukhin, just thinking; we know what he's thinking, but it doesn't build tension. Also, L'Herbier's cutters were kind of cavalier about matching action; one character is seen leaving the scene three times. Despite such shortcomings, "Feu Mathias Pascal" is major landmark in French cinema in several ways; it is a high-water mark in both Mozzhukhin's career and in Pirandello adaptations, and it was the most commercially successful of all L'Herbier's films, which must have pleased him because he clearly designed it as a solid, commercial feature. Alberto Calvacanti and Lazare Meerson designed the sets, and despite the radical difference in approach the two styles shake hands, not to mention the splendid location shooting in Monte Carlo, Rome and San Gimignano. Careful eyes will note what Luis Buñuel took away from "Feu Mathias Pascal," particularly in the Roman sequence, which coincidentally involves Pierre Batcheff's character.
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