Rare Lubitsch in New York

I’m in New York City right now, visiting my son and daughter-in-law. This evening, we went to an art house cinema I didn’t know existed to see a Ernst Lubitsch film I had never heard of.

The theater is the Antohology Flm Archives in lower Manhatan. The movie was Broken Lullaby, also known as The Man I Killed–the name on the 35 print screened.

Like the Pacific Film Archive near home, the AFA is a non-profit that doesn’t sell food and frowns on your taking it into the theater. And like the PFA, it organizes its calendar around series. One series, Essential Cinema, is in theory the basic, common classics, although much of what they include here are pretty obscure. Other series in the current schedule includes New York’s Chinatown on Screen, a Richard Fleischer retrospective, and In the Flesh: Porn Noir (’70s porn with a noir twist).

Broken Lullaby was part of Auteurs Gone Wild–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style. Probably the best-known films in the group are Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong.

Broken Lullaby, made at Paramount in 1932, was not your usual sparklingly amoral Lubitsch comedy, but a serious anti-war melodrama set immediately after the end of World War 1. A young French veteran (Phillips Holmes), deeply guilty about killing a German soldier on the battlefield, seeks out the man’s family to apoligize. But once there, his courage fails him and he lies about his connection to their son. He also falls in love with his victim’s fiance.

Unfortunately, the very good-looking Holmes’ acting chops weren’t up to the part. He overplayed to the point of deep annoyance. Top-billed Lionel Barrymore, as the dead man’s father, plays his role beautifully, as does the rest of the cast.

Lubitsch and the four credited writers manage to avoid every cliche that they seemed to be headed towards. The ending is moving, emotionally complex, ambigious, unexpected, and perfect.

The film contains one great Lubitsch touch sequence–a montage that follow a rumor throughout the neighborhood.

i’m glad I caught it, and I hope someone in the Bay Area decides to screen it.

 

What’s Screening: March 28 – April 3

Yet another identity film festival, Czech That Film (yes, that’s really the festival’s name), runs Sunday through Wednesday. On that same Wednesday, the Sonoma Film Festival opens its own five-day run. And then, on Thursday, the Food & Farm Film Fest opens.

And if you’re not going to a festival, you can check out any of these:

A- La Pointe Courte, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. Ever admire an artist for their daring, original work, and then discover who they stole it from? I experienced that revelation over and over again while watching Agnès Varda’s first feature–arguably imagethe first film of the French New Wave. Set in a small, somewhat impoverished fishing village, it introduces us to fishermen worried about government health inspectors, a family with the very sick child, a teenage girl with an over-protective father, and young lovers visiting the man’s childhood home. Varda shows an instinct for camera setup that rivals John Ford’s. Read more at Friday Night at the PFA. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema.

A Sweet Smell of Success, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Burt Lancaster risked his career to produce this exploration of the seamy side of fame. He plays New York gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker–a truly repellent and imagedespicable person who happily bathes in the adulation and fear of the people around him. Tonight’s main victim: a whinny Broadway press agent  desperate to get his client into Hunsecker’s column(Tony Curtis in a great performance). In addition to everything else, Hunsecker–who’s based loosely on the actual Walter Winchell–has a rather too-close relationship with his kid sister. From a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman.

A+ Some Like It Hot, New Parkway, Sunday, 3:00. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review.

A+ The Third Man, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in thirdmanimpoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes.

A Young Frankenstein, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:50. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks hadyoungfrank talent. And he showed it off beautifully in this sweet-natured, 1974 parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Fronkenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature. Part of the series Jokers Wild: American Comedy, 1960–1989.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving Oz a B+.Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

C+ Le Week-End, Magick Lantern, Friday through Sunday. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.This dark and depressing imagedrama about a marriage in horrible decline has several very good scenes (even some funny ones) and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character. But it suffers from an overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight. A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows. Read my full review.

Comedy and Popularity: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray

It might be possible to watch Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman, without laughing, or without hoping that the protagonist will win the popularity he so deeply wants. But it wouldn’t be easy. Every shot in this film is brilliantly designed to make you either laugh or care–or both.

Lloyd’s "glasses" character truly came into his own in The Freshman. He’s more than just the brash, clever, ambitious, and opportunistic young American of Safety Last. Here "Harold Lamb" is a naïve college freshman, caught in the tide of peer pressure, desperately wanting to be liked and admired by his fellow students. In his determination to become popular, he unknowingly becomes the class clown. Everyone pretends to like him, but they’re all laughing behind his back.

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How can you watch a story like that and not be moved? This kid has spunk to spare. Even when his ineptitude makes a mess of things, his spirit and fortitude seem admirable.

What’s more, the movie is peppered with brilliant, extended comic sequences–although none top the climax of Lloyd’s Safety Last. Silent comedy, which don’t have to pause for the laughter to die down so that the audience hear the next line, could build one gag on top of another, producing an unstoppable locomotive of laughter. Lloyd was one of the masters of this technique.

Consider the Fall Frolic sequence. Harold is hosting the big party. It’s clearly hurting him financially, but he springs for a tailor-made tuxedo. Unfortunately, the tailor is subject to fainting spells, and has only managed to baste the tux –it’s not properly sewn together. So we have Harold trying to be the life of the party while his guests are secretly laughing at him, his suit is coming apart, and an elderly tailor is sneaking around, trying to fix the disintegrating tux without being seen–and without fainting.

And all the while, the local working girl who loves him looks on, far more aware than Harold of his real status. And his real worth.

I’m not sure if Jobyna Ralston was the best of Lloyd’s leading ladies, or simply the one who was there when Lloyd reached his artistic maturity. She’s not as funny as Mildred Davis, who after Safety Last gave up a career as his on-screen ingénue to become his real-life wife. But Ralston’s on-screen persona seemed both pure and worldly, sexy and motherly. She could deliver a "believe in yourself" pep talk that would save the day–even in a silent movie.

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I suppose I should explain why I called this film "Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman," even though the directing credit goes to Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd produced the film, and had complete control. Historians pretty much agree that Lloyd, who never took a directing credit, was the leader of the collaborative team that made his films.

The auteur is not always the director.

First Impression    

imageThis unusually thick three-disc set comes in a cardboard slipcover. The fold-out container inside has a cover designed as the Tate College 1925 yearbook.

Inside, on the left, are two DVDs stacked together. You have to remove disc 1 to access disc 2. On the right, a single Blu-ray disc contains the same content as the DVDs–looking and sounding better, of course.

Also in the box is a thin booklet dominated by an article by Stephen Winer, "Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!" Mostly, this article puts the movie in its’ 1925 context. The booklet also has an "About the Transfer" page and disc credits.

How It Looks

This is one of the best transfers of a silent film I’ve yet seen–for the most part clear and sharp as a tack. Whether the image is pure black-and-white or tinted (the tints are based on instructions that came with the negative), it’s a beauty to behold.

I thought I saw, very briefly, some nitrate deterioration. It went by so fast I’m not entirely sure. (And no, I didn’t go back and look for it. I was enjoying the film too much.)

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How It Sounds

This version comes with a new chamber orchestra score composed and conducted by my favorite silent film accompanist, Carl Davis. Like his Safely Last score, this one is heavily flavored with jazz–appropriate for Lloyd, whose work is so much of the jazz age.

I love Davis’ work, but he made a serious mistake here. The music in the climactic football game was too subdued. It’s an exciting scene that deserves exciting music.

The score is presented in two-track stereo, uncompressed PCM. It sounds great.

Much as I love this score, I wish they had also included Robert Israel’s score from the previous Warner Brother’s release (part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 2). That one, too, is excellent. With silent films, the more scores, the merrier.

And the Extras

No wonder the DVD version comes on two discs. There’s a lot of stuff here.

  • Commentary by film historian Richard Bann, archivist Richard Correll, and critic Leonard Maltin. A bit of a disappointment, especially when you consider how well these three men know the subject. While their talk contains some social and historical insights, the three (who were recorded together) spend too much time explaining what’s onscreen and just enjoying the movie. This extra track is also on the above-mentioned Warner Brothers release.
  • Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life: 30 minutes. In 1966, Lloyd combined a re-edited version of The Freshman with an introduction and some narrated clips from his other films, and called the cobbled-together feature Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.  This excerpt contains everything in Funny Side of Life except The Freshman. Its only real interest is in seeing how Lloyd marketed his films to a new generation.
  • Short films: I’ve always preferred Lloyd in features than in shorts. Here are the three shorts included in this package:
    • The Marathon: 14 minutes. This early 1919 one-reeler doesn’t provide many laughs. It’s also one of the most racist silent comedies I’ve seen, and that’s saying lot. Piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
    • An Eastern Westerner: (27 minutes). This cute 1920 western parody is easily the best of the three, with a climax that seems to parody Birth of a Nation. Carl Davis’ wonderful score adds to the merriment.
    • High and Dizzy: (27 minutes). Harold gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Another Carl Davis score.
  • Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll: 40 minutes. Our leading silent film historian and Lloyd’s personal archivist discuss their own initial Lloyd experiences, both in terms of falling in love with his films and getting to know him personally. Interesting and enjoyable.
  • Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus:
    16 minutes. John Bengson, who’s written three books on silent comedy locations, discusses where The Freshman was shot.
  • Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute: 29 minutes. In 1964, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts honored Lloyd in a gala event. On stage, Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and one-time Lloyd collaborator Delmer Daves ask him about his career. They’re all relaxed and friendly. And Lloyd talks extensively about his work. The best extra on the disc.
  • What’s My Line: (7 minutes) Lloyd appears as the mystery guest in this 1953 TV game show clip. Inconsequential, but fun.

Criterion’s release of The Freshman, containing both DVDs and Blu-ray, go on sale today.

TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

What’s Screening: March 21 – 27

The only local film festival this week is CAMMFest, which closes on Sunday.

C+ Le Week-End, Albany, Embarcadero, Guild, Kabuki, Rafael, opens Friday. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.This dark and depressing imagedrama about a marriage in horrible decline has several very good scenes (even some funny ones) and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character. But it suffers from an overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight. A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows. Read my full review.

King of Comedy, Castro, Tuesday. I haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s meditation on celebrity and its wannabes imagefor a long time, so I’m reluctant to give it a grade. But if I gave it one, it would probably be an A. Robert De Niro plays a frustrated, delusional, and hopelessly-inexperienced comic who kidnaps a popular TV talk show host (Jerry Lewis), hoping that it will bring him his big chance. Sandra Bernhard gives a wonderful turn as his accomplice. On a double bill with Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me.

A One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:30. Ken Kesey’s novel offered a perfect opportunity for Milos Forman to explore his favorite imagetopics: totalitarianism and rebellion. What’s Nurse Rachet’s insane asylum ward but a dictatorship in miniature? While the movie belongs to Jack Nicholson (one of many Oscar winners), the entire cast is letter perfect. In fact, supporting players like Danny De Vito and Christopher Lloyd hardly seem the unknowns they were in 1975. Part of the series More Than Fantasy: In Memoriam, Saul Zaentz (1921–2014).

B- Muppets Take Manhattan, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. By the mid-80s, Jim Henson’s Muppet franchise was beginning to fray around the edges–a victim of its imageown seemingly unstoppable success. The basic formula–felt puppets interacting with movie stars and other real people–was beginning to get a bit tiresome. But enough of the jokes land properly to make it a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half, especially with kids. It also contains a ridiculously obvious plug for Henson’s then-upcoming kiddie TV show, Muppet Babies.

B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Rafael, Monday, 12:00 noon, free. A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22,image with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Sunday. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or nbnwNotorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Silver Streak, which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

C The Sound of Music, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough for light entertainment, yet lacking the substance necessary for anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture-postcard sort of way. It’s also a very long movie to start at 9:00 on a weeknight.

A Dallas Buyers Club, Kabuki, opens Friday. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was image_thumb3supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself and a whole lot of other people alive for a long time. Yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, but one that acknowledges an inevitable, early death. In the supporting cast, Jared Leto stands out as a dying transvestite.

The Castro in April

I just checked the Castro‘s Coming Soon page to see what’s playing in April. The information is limited, but it has some intriguing offerings.

Sing-Along Beauty and the Beast: For a split second, I thought this might be Jean Cocteau’s post-war masterpiece, which would be odd since that one isn’t a musical. On the other hand, Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to accompany the movie, so perhaps the audience is expected to sing along with that. Or, far more likely, it’s the Disney version.

Harold Ramis Tribute: Over two days, you can see Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation (I assume that’s the National Lampoon movie), Stripes, and Animal House. Of course, I could see Groundhog Day over and over again.

Palm Sunday spectacular: On April 13, you can see Ben-Hur, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Resurrection. I have no idea which movie called "Resurrection" they’re showing, but I doubt it’s Alien: Resurrection or Tupac: Resurrection. Whatever version it will be, putting Ben-Hur on a triple bill will test anyone’s faith.

Sorcerer: I’ve never seen this remake of Wages  of Fear, but I’ve heard good things about it. I understand it’s recently undergone a major restoration.

Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

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What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

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