- The month begins with the end of a three-day run for Lawrence of Arabia, which should look wonderful with the Castro’s new 4K projector. August 30-September 1.
- Not surprisingly, Robin Williams gets two double bills (the first two Sundays of the month, plus another mid-week appearance). The movies are Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and The World According to Garp.
- If…, a favorite from my youth, plays Wednesday, 9/10 on a double bill with The Chocolate War. I guess that works, but everyone who went to the movies in the 70s knows that If… belongs on a double bill with O Lucky Man, which is sort of a sequel.
- The very next day, they’re screening the wonderful Dog Day Afternoon, with something called The Dog. Maybe they should bring in Rin Tin Tin.
- Antonioni’s great study of pollution and madness, Red Desert, plays a double bill with Mickey One on Wednesday, September 24.
- My favorite Samuel Fuller flick, Pickup on South Street, plays Sunday, 9/28, with Park Row and something called A Fuller Life.
- Stepping into early October, we have Jaws 3-D. I’ve never seen it, and like all of the Jaws sequels, it has a horrible reputation. They shot it in 3D (very rare in those days) because back then calling a movie Title of a Past Hit 3 was considered a confession that it was a really lousy picture.
- Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot
Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.
Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.
The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."
As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.
And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.
Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.
Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.
But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.
To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.
We get another day this year of massive silent movie overload. It’s coming September 20, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes over the Castro for their first Silent Autumn event. According to a festival press release, "We’ve moved our annual winter event to fall ," although September in my book counts more like late summer.
The program leans toward the well-loved and famous rather than the curious and obscure. The three features will be The Son of the Sheik (1:00), The General (7:00), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (9:00). If you know anything about silent films, you’re probably already familiar with these titles.
But just because you know the titles doesn’t mean you’ve experienced them with a good print, live music, and an enthusiastic audience.
Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made The General. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting, mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death, and hired thousands of extras. He filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up. The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.
I’ve seen The General many times theatrically–most recently at the Oakland Paramount. I’ve even seen it–at the Castro many years ago–with the Alloy Orchestra, who will accompany it at the Autumn event. I don’t recall much about their score, but it didn’t move me as much as some other General scores, such as Carl Davis’ and Christoph Bull’s.
The Alloy Orchestra will also accompany The Son of the Sheik. I’ve only seen this one once, about 40 years ago, at Hollywood’s fabled Silent Movie Theater. They screened it with a needle-drop score, rather than with live accompaniment. I look forward to seeing it properly. (I might prepare for it by seeing The Sheik first.)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped launch the German expressionist movement, and it’s about as expressionistic as they come. It’s quite possibly the weirdest horror film I’ve ever seen. Donald Sosin will accompany.
In addition to these features, this one-day festival will include two collections of shorts. Both will be accompanied by Sosin.
The first, Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (11:00am), is exactly what the name implies. Remembered primarily for their talkies, Laurel and Hardy were also the last great stars of silent comedy; their characters gelled and their fame rose just before sound came in. The website only lists two titles: Two Tars (which I haven’t seen) and Big Business (which I love). They’ll probably screen one or two others; I’m hoping for Liberty and/or The Battle of the Century.
The second collection of shorts will be A Night At the Cinema In 1914 (3:30). Put together by the British Film Institute, this collection of 14 shorts recreates the experience of watching a typical English movie-going experience from the dawn of World War I.
I know where I’m going to be September 20.
Racism clouds old Hollywood movies. Even films intended in their time to be progressive and tolerant can look shockingly bigoted today. Consider Charlie Chan at the Opera, which the Stanford will screen Thursday and Friday.
And that’s just the beginning. The theater will screen Charlie Chan mysteries every Thursday and Friday through October 10, each double-billed with a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. Most of these pictures were cheap B movies, running little more than an hour and intended to fill out the bottom half of a double bill.
The Stanford gives the series a good start this week with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the aforementioned Charlie Chan at the Opera. I consider Adventures the best of the Rathbone/Bruce series. Opera–the only Charlie Chan movie I’ve yet seen–has a high reputation amongst fans of the series.
I want to talk primarily about Chan, but I’ll cover Holmes at the end of this article.
Charlie Chan at the Opera
Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. He first appeared in novels, then made the leap to movies.
Charlie Chan at the Opera’s racism can shock modern movie-goers. The title character, an Asian, is played by the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. His yellow-face makeup looks ridiculous, and he speaks with a Chinese accent that wouldn’t fool a cow. His stilted English dialog contains such gems as “Murderer always return to scene of crime,” “Be so kind to explain,” and “Confucius say ‘Luck happy combination of foolish accident.'”
And yet, I can’t condemn the film entirely. Taken in context of its time (1936), it offers a surprisingly positive view of Chinese Americans.
After all, Chan is the hero. He’s not a Fu Manchu-type yellow horde villain. Nor is he a helpless victim or sidekick. He’s always the smartest, wisest, and most ethical person in the room.
Chan isn’t a sidekick, but he has one–his son Lee, played by actual Asian-American Keye Luke. Luke gives Lee Chan the slightest of Chinese accents, and plays him as a fashionable American young man of his time. He speaks in the youth vernacular of the 1930s. Although Chan famously refers to Lee as “Number One Son” (although I didn’t catch that phrase in Opera), Lee calls the detective not “honorable father,” but “Pop.” Or even “Gee, Pop.”
The result is a parent/child relationship that would have looked very familiar to a great many American families of the 1930s–including that of my light-skinned, blonde-haired mother. Immigrant parents struggled with the English language and kept one foot in the customs of the old country, while their American-raised kids assimilated into the surrounding culture. This is still happening now, of course, but was happening in greater numbers back then.
Charlie Chan at the Opera has a Lestrade character–the bumbling detective who gets everything wrong. But two things make this conventional mystery character particularly interesting. First, he’s played by the wonderful William Demarest, who would light up so much of Preston Sturges’ work in the next decade. Second, he’s a bigot who doesn’t like taking orders from “chop suey.” With this character, the film strongly suggests that bigotry and stupidity go hand and hand.
Aside from its racial undercurrent, Charlie Chan at the Opera succeeds in being exactly what it was intended to be–an unexceptional but entertaining short mystery feature. The presence of Demarest, and even more so of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic, raises Opera above other such movies.
I’d give it a C+.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
No racial issues in this film…unless, of course, you think about the fact that everyone in it is white. But I’ve covered that issue already.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s the last of the series shot on a decent budget and the last one made at 20th Century-Fox.
It’s also set in Victorian times, which seems obvious today but was somewhat daring back then. As far as I know, every Sherlock Holmes movie made before Adventures’ predecessor, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was updated to the present. But Fox made Hound and Adventures as period pieces. At the time, this may have felt like setting a James Bond flick in the 1950s (which would actually be pretty cool).
Officially based on William Gillette’s 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes, but very much an original story, Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against arch-villain Professor Moriarty (George Zucco). Holmes and Moriarty enjoy an interesting relationship in this film. They appear to admire and even like each other, even though they know that one of them must eventually destroy the other.
The soundstage recreation of 19th-century London provides atmosphere, as do the supporting characters. And even though we’re told who the villain is from the start, it’s still a lot of fun. Besides, it has Ida Lupino.
Fox decided not to continue the series. But after Pearl Harbor, Universal picked it up again, updating the stories to the present so that Holmes could track down Nazi spies–although in most of these movies he goes after conventional criminals. Universal made 12 pictures before Rathbone called it quits in 1946. These movies were quickly written and quickly shot, and suffer from huge plot holes. But they’re all reasonably fun. None of them come up to the quality of the two Fox pictures.