David Thomson and The Last Tycoon

I attended the opening of David Thomson’s series at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday night. He talked for nearly an hour, but it felt like 20 minutes–a terrific speaker! He ranged fro the nature of movies, our reactions to them, Hollywood, and the bottom line of making a film that works: The viewers “have to want to know what happens next.” He brought out props, got volunteers from the audience, and recreated a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel The Last Tycoon.

He described an experiment he tried when he was in film school. He went into the editing room, assembled a reel from other students’ discards (which he didn’t even bother to look at), than projected it for an audience, who promptly fell into a debate about the work. The moral? “We can’t resist finding meaning.”

An Englishman who has lived in San Francisco for many years, he discussed what he saw as a fundamental difference between the European and American attitudes about life. Americans, he said (and I’m not using quotes because I failed to take notes at this point), believe they deserve to be happy. And it’s that expectation that leads to our preference for melodrama.

At the end of his talk, he warned us that that night’s movie, The Last Tycoon (the reason for recreating a scene from the book) was “far and away the worst film the series.” He wasn’t kidding. If his series was titled “10 Hollywood features picked at random,” The Last Tycoon might still have been the worst. Based on Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, which was itself based on the life of Irving Thalberg, this movie about movies just sits there, totally lifeless and uninvolving. At times I had to fight back the temptation to go Mystery Science Theater on it and provide my own sarcastic commentary.

To put it another way, The Last Tycoon is an excellent argument against film preservation.

Seriously, this movie is solid proof that a project can look great on paper and be a complete disaster on film. It should have been great. Screenplay by Harold Pinter, adopted from a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by Elia Kazan. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Staring Robert De Niro, with support from Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, John Carradine, and other greats.

On the other hand, De Niro’s love interest was a beautiful, unknown, and utterly talentless non-entity named Ingrid Boulting. She couldn’t act, she had no charisma, and beyond her physical attributes she had no sex appeal. This woman was completely incapable of doing for the camera what she was probably doing to the producer.

Upcoming Films of Note

Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 retelling of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague is one of the most tantalizing might-have-beens in movie history. Stroheim’s first cut ran about eight hours. He cut it down to about four, which was still unacceptable to studio head Irving Thalberg (the inspiration for The Last Tycoon). The film, as released, runs about two (it’s impossible to give accurate running times for silent films, as there was no set projection speed at that time) in a cut that Stroheim disowned. The result is a strong, disturbing movie. But what was the original like?

In 1999, we finally got a partial answer. Turner Classic Movies restored the film to something like the original conception, using Stroheim’s script and still photos of the now-lost scenes. This version, which isn’t available on film or DVD, is quite simply amazing–an absolute must for anyone who cares about American silent film. That it works so well despite often being more of a slide show than a motion picture makes the lost original all the more impressive.

Unfortunately, Thursday night’s showing at the Pacific Film Archive is the shorter, 1924 release. Judith Rosenberg will be accompanying the movie on piano.

The Crowd and Sunrise
The day after Greed, the Archive is showing two of the greatest American silent dramas ever made. The Crowd, especially, is a mind-blower–a wonderful, yet very sad look at the underbelly of the American dream. Hollywood loves movies about people who seek fame and fortune, reach for that brass ring, and win it in joyful victory. The Crowd shows something far more common: someone who wants fame and fortune, but never really quite realizes that that ring is beyond his grasp.

The Crowd opened in 1928, the year that sound moved from a fad to the inevitable. But when you compare The Crowd to a 1928 talkie like Lights of New York, you have to wonder why sound won.

Once again, Judith Rosenberg will accompany the movie on piano.

Other Recommendations

  • The Noir City festival continues at the Balboa.

  • Tonight, also as part of the David Thomson festival, the Archive will be showing two very funny screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey and Sullivan’s Travels.

  • Ray and The Incredibles continue their run downstairs at the Parkway–two great films but a strange double bill. This is a good way to see them cheap.
  • Except Tuesday, when the Parkway will be showing Time Bandits for free. They’re still showing The Incredibles that night, meaning you can see two great family films in an adult-only environment.
  • The Red Vic is showing two of Kurosawa’s best, Rashomon tonight and Sanjuro tomorrow night.