A+ List: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (also Lone Star & My Darling Clementine)

Has there ever been an ingénue with a more perfectly comical name than Trudy Kockenlocker? Or a code-era Hollywood movie that so deftly outwitted the censors of its time? There are funnier movies than The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but not many, and none this funny that flew in the face of traditional morality with as much glee.

With its deft mixture of physical and verbal comedy, and its daring break from the conventions of its day, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek earns a spot on my A+
, where I honor the great films that I have loved for decades.

But before we get to Trudy Kockenlocker’s dilemma, I’d like to name two other A+ movies that I’ve already written about:

  • Lone Star: John Sayles’ portrait of a small Texas town
    turned 20 last month, and I’ve just added it to this list. I discuss it in this Fandor Keyframe article.
  • My Darling Clementine: You can read my Blu-ray review.

Now, back to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

To truly understand the miracle of this movie, you should know a bit about the restrictions Hollywood filmmakers had to contend with in 1944. Amongst many other limitations, you could not show a woman visibly pregnant. You could not even use the word pregnant. And that unmentionable condition could only be the natural result of a marriage license.

Those rules went into effect in 1934. But the reality of World War II added more restrictions. You had to celebrate patriotism, and could not show the American military in anything but a positive light.

Despite these restrictions, writer/director Preston Sturges created a comedy about a small-town teenage girl who goes out partying with a whole platoon, and comes home pregnant. And he did it without breaking any of the rules. For instance, Trudy vaguely remembers that she got married on her night with the boys–even though she can’t remember her husband’s name or face.

Even crazier, the story works as a parody of the Christmas story. Trudy, like Mary, is a virgin who gets impregnated by an unseen entity. She has to leave town. And when she finally gives birth–during the Christmas season, no less–she gives birth to a miracle. Of course, since it’s a Preston Sturges movie, it’s a very funny miracle.

If you’re going to have fun with the Christmas story, you need a Joseph, and Sturges created the perfect comic Joseph in Norval Jones, and found the perfect actor to play him in comedian Eddie Bracken. Rejected by the draft board, Norval is the loser without a uniform that no one wants. Bracken, a homely fellow who could never be a straight leading man, gives him a jittery fear of almost everything, but a sense of gallantry that inevitably wins you over.

Norval is hopelessly in love with Trudy, and she uses him horribly. When she becomes pregnant, he’s the obvious fall guy. And a fall guy is an important thing to have when the girl’s father is the town’s short-tempered constable.

That short-tempered constable is played by William Demarest–the brightest gem in Sturges’ regular repertory company of comic supporting actors. Specializing in playing cranky men with little education, his characters tended to be rough, gruff, and suspicious. His performance as Trudy’s father is one of his best–tough and bossy, but completely unable to control his daughters.

Speaking of those daughters, Betty Hutton rocketed to stardom through her performance as Trudy. She’s impulsive, confused, and terrified. Even after she realizes that she loves Norval (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming), she’s overwhelmed with fear. And she carries her end of the comic dialog with the perfectly-timed training of the professional she was.

Diana Lynn plays Trudy’s younger but smarter sister with ironic detachment. She has many of the film’s best punchlines, usually at her father’s expense. He’s not always sure that he’s been insulted.

The laughs are nearly constant, and well varied between dialog and slapstick. Rapid-fire comic dialog was one of Sturges’ strengths, and in many scenes you have to listen closely to get all the gags. And the physical comedy is just as impressive. Demarest was in his 50s when he shot The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, yet he takes several impressive and always funny pratfalls that most people wouldn’t do at 30. Bracken could fall almost as well, and in one great moment walks through a screen door.

From 1940 through ’44, Sturges wrote and directed some of the funniest, most daring, and sexy comedies to come out of Hollywood’s factories. I’ve already told you about The Lady EveThe Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is even better. To my mind, it’s his masterpiece.

And Paramount, which owns the film, has made it available for free on its  Paramount Vault Youtube channel.

This article was altered hours after it was posted. I corrected the headline, and added the final paragraph about streaming the movie.

A+ List: The world ends with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of laughs in Criterion’s Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, manages to terrify the audience, hold them in suspense, and trick them into rooting for people about to cause Armageddon, all the while generating side-splitting laughter.

As the darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove earns its place on my A+ list, To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, that I personally loved for decades. In the case of Strangelove, I decided to promote it from A to A+ while preparing this review.

Considering the film’s Cold War roots, it’s amazing how well Dr. Strangelove stands up. When it was made in 1963 (it opened early in ’64), the USA and the USSR were in a nuclear game of chicken that could have wiped out humanity in hours. Not only were they competing to make more and bigger bombs; they were creating faster hair triggers for instant retaliation.

Dr. Strangelove rides on this fear. The psychotic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) decides on his own to start World War III, and thus orders his pilots to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. No one else knows the code that will recall the planes. The military and political leaders–who set up the system that allowed Ripper to destroy the world–are too busy fighting amongst themselves to help much.

And that’s what makes Dr. Strangelove relevant in 2016. We still live in a world run by egotistical incompetents who will quite likely destroy civilization.

It helps that Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker, and this story in particular played to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Since it’s a broad farce with no room for empathy, Kubrick’s coldness doesn’t hurt the story. And yet Kubrick and his writing collaborators Terry Southern and Peter George (who also wrote the serious novel on which the film was based) manage to create suspense.

Without a likeable protagonist to root for, there’s nothing Hitchcockian about Dr. Strangelove ‘s suspense. You can’t really care what happens to the characters on the screen. But you’re worried for yourself, your friends, and your family. These will be the victims should the dolts onscreen fail to stop a nuclear war.

And yet, at the climax, Kubrick briefly tricks us into rooting for the very people whose success will wipe us out.

None of this would have worked without the humor. (Kubrick started the script as a drama, then decided to make it a farce.) Much of the comedy is so subtle you might miss it, such as the binder labelled World Targets in Megadeaths. Others are broad, such as George C. Scott’s mid-sentence pratfall. (Kubrick filmed a pie fight but left it on the cutting room floor.) As President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellers gives one of cinema’s great comic monologues. It’s a phone call, and we don’t hear the voice on the other end of the line. But how do you explain an accidental nuclear attack to a drunk Russian Premiere named Kissov?

Dr. Strangelove brims with silly yet appropriate names. There’s General Buck Turgidson (Scott), Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers), and Major King Kong (originally to be played by Peter Sellers, but replaced at the last minute with a very funny Slim Pickens).

Kubrick appropriately described Dr. Strangelove as a “nightmare comedy.” I wish he’d made more of them.

How It Looks

Gilbert Taylor shot Dr. Strangelove in black and white–in the last years before color became completely ubiquitous. He used the medium boldly, with very deep blacks and shining whites. The images look like a cross between film noir and a really bad acid trip.

Columbia’s 4K restoration, the same one used for theatrical DCP projection, catches that grey scale, and shows plenty of grain. Criterion’s 1080p transfer to Blu-ray looks great.

How It Sounds

Criterion’s disc offers two versions of the soundtrack. The default, and the one I recommend, is the original mono, presented here as a 24-bit, uncompressed LPCM single track. It sounds excellent.

And then there’s the new 5.1 surround mix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As near as I could tell, it still sounded like mono.

And the Extras

Pretty much all Criterion discs come packaged with some sort of pamphlet, poster, or booklet. But for Dr. Strangelove, they really went to town. If you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t get the jokes in the paper-based extras:

  • The Top Secret Code R envelope contains:
  • A “TOP SECRET” memo, printed to look like a 60’s-style typewriter. The contents of this memo is an essay by David Bromwich about Kubrick, the cold war, and Dr. Strangelove.
  • A teeny, tiny little book titled Holy Bible & Russian Phrases. And yes, it contains some English-to-Russian phrases, but no holy scripture. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, along with About the Restoration. All in absurdly tiny print.
  • A 20-page booklet filled with a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern about the making of the movie. Amongst other things, it gives a thorough and possibly accurate description of the lost pie fight. Also included: cheesecake photos of Tracy Reed (the only woman in the cast) as Miss Foreign Affairs.

“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

The disc has 14 supplemental videos, which come to about 3½ hours of additional viewing. Many of them are interesting, but they soon become repetitive.

  • Stanley Kubrick: 1080p, 3 minutes. Excerpts from physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein’s 1966 audio interview with the filmmaker. Illustrated with slides.
  • Mick Broderick: 1080p, 19 minutes. Film scholar Broderick discusses Kubrick’s move from director to producer/director with Dr. Strangelove. New.
  • The Art of Stanley Kubrick: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 14 minutes. Made in 2000. A documentary on Kubrick’s career up through Strangelove.
  • Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike: 1080p; 12 minutes. In this new doc, the film’s camera operators talk about working with Kubrick.
  • Inside “Dr. Strangelove”: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 46 minutes. This 2000 documentary on the making of the film is by far the best of the extras.
  • Richard Daniels: 1080p, 14 minutes. Richard Daniels of the Stanley Kubrick Archive tells us about the letters, memos, drawings, etc. around Dr. Strangelove, and what they tell us about the making of the film. New.
  • David George: 1080p; 11 minutes. David George, son of author Peter George, talks about his father and the writing of Dr. Strangelove. Among other things, he says that the final film follows the plot of his father’s book very closely. New.
  • No Fighting in the War Room: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 30 minutes. This 2004 documentary examines the Cold War and the dangers, then and now, of nuclear war. Interview subjects include Robert McNamera, Roger Ebert, and Spike Lee. Very good.
  • Best Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 18 minutes. From 2004. Roger Ebert, Michael Palin and others talk about Peter Sellers’ genius, with an emphasis on Dr. Strangelove.
  • Rodney Hill: 1080p; 17 minutes. Film scholar Hill tries unsuccessfully to put Dr. Strangelove into a Joseph Campbell/heroes-and-myth context. New.
  • George C: Scott and Peter Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 7 minutes. From 1963. As part of the film’s marketing, Scott and Sellers were filmed answering unasked questions. Later, TV newscasters would read the questions to give the illusion of a real interview. Since we have to wait as they pretend to listen to questions, it’s kind of boring.
  • Today: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 4 minutes. From a 1980 TV interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Short and unenlightening.
  • Exhibitor’s Trailer: 1080p; 17 minutes. Simultaneously fascinating and boring. Apparently, the movie was marketed to theaters with unedited takes–and not the takes used in the final cut–while a dull-voiced narrator explains the plot in detail. It’s those alternate takes that make it fascinating.
  • Theatrical Trailer: 1080p; 3 minutes. An utterly bizarre and entertaining trailer.

The Criterion Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, June 28.

The New Buster Keaton Shorts Collection on Blu-ray

How can anyone describe the beauty, grace, and breathtaking hilarity of Buster Keaton in his silent film prime? An actor, an acrobat, and a brilliant filmmaker, he spent the 1920s making some of the funniest and technically sophisticated comedies ever preserved on film.

Since I can’t describe him, here’s a highlight reel of some of his best gags. But remember, they’re funnier in context—and with better music and clearer image quality.

On Tuesday, Kino released the new Buster Keaton Shorts Collection Blu-ray set, put together by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg–one of the world’s heroes in silent film restoration and preservation. It contains new restorations and 13 shorts that have never before been available on Blu-ray.

I reviewed a previous Buster Keaton Shorts collection back in 2011.

The 13 newly-added shorts are not, strictly speaking, Buster Keaton movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and starred in these two-reel comedies. Keaton was just part of the team. While not in Keaton’s league, Arbuckle was an astonishingly agile performer for a man of his girth. He took graceful pratfalls, jumped over fences with ease, and could juggle like a demon. Put him behind a kitchen counter with cups and knives, and he’s brilliant.

But he’s not reliably brilliant. His early shorts, such as His Wedding Night, get dull. And Keaton rarely takes the center of the screen. But he got better as he made these shorts–or perhaps he just learned to depend on Keaton. As the shorts progress, they get funnier, and Keaton becomes more prevalent.

One strange thing about the Arbuckle-Keaton films: Keaton smiles in them. That always strikes me as wrong.

The 19 shorts that Keaton made as auteur and star don’t show that sort of slow growth. By his second short, One Week (actually the first released), he’s brilliant—way above Arbuckle at his best. Even the lesser works, such as The High Sign, The Scarecrow, and The Paleface, provide amazing stunts, imaginative filmmaking, and plenty of laughs. The greats, which include Cops, The Boat, and my personal favorite, The Goat, can reasonably be called masterpieces.

One warning: Like a lot of silent comedies, these movies occasionally use racist gags that are shocking by today’s standards. Consider them troubling artifacts of their time.

This set contains five discs—two of Arbuckle films and three of Keaton’s. The five discs fit into one slim package.

Reconstructions & Rediscoveries

Lobster Films spent considerable time and money reconstructing these films. Many a problematic jump cut has been filled in with found footage.

Disc Five contains French and American versions of Keaton’s The Blacksmith. The American version starts with a parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Village Blacksmith—gags that would be lost on non-English speakers. The French version has a risqué silhouette scene.

My Wife’s Relations, also a Keaton short, has an alternative ending, shown on a split screen side-by-side with the one shown for decades. I prefer the newly-discovered one.

And then there’s the original ending of Coney Island, separated from the rest of the movie because of an extremely racist gag. A new title card tells us that “The original ending of Coney Island was removed from the film by the 1920s, probably because it was considered racially offensive,” and goes on to say that “it should not be included in contemporary presentations of the film.”

That’s an odd statement. Very few people with influence objected to racist humor in those days. And there are many equally racist gags throughout the collection and elsewhere. In fact, the same gag turns up in Keaton’s Seven Chances.

How It Looks

Before opening the box, I imagined digitally-repaired, pristine images. I was disappointed. Most of these films are damaged beyond help…or beyond Lobster’s budget.

I compared a few scenes in this new release to their counterparts in the previous Keaton Shorts collection. I saw only a few significant improvements. My Wife’s Relations looks particularly good, with at least one big scratch in the old version that wasn’t in the new one.

How It Sounds

For this collection, Kino and Lobster used the talents of some of today’s major silent film accompaniment stars. These include Robert Israel, Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Timothy Brock, and the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The music is presented in two-track stereo uncompressed PCM. So far (I haven’t watched all of the Keaton’s yet), I haven’t heard anything I didn’t like.

The musical credits come at the end of each film. Some movies have an alternative piano score. This pianist isn’t credited.

And the Extras

In addition to the five discs, the package contains a 28-page booklet. Here you’ll find essays on the Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration and on Keaton’s solo work. Also included: a description and credits of each movie, and an article by Serge Bromberg’s article on the various versions of The Blacksmith.

About the Restoration: 7 minutes. Serge Bromberg talks very fast in French, making it difficult to follow the subtitles while looking at what he’s describing. By the second or third time you watch it, you’ll be able to learn something.

Life with Buster Keaton: 3 minutes. This short film of Keaton’s Cleopatra dance routine (also performed in the Arbuckle film, The Cook) was made in 1951 for international markets. Yes, it’s very funny.

What’s missing? The previous release contained 15 video essays—almost one for every short in the package. Most of them were entertaining and informative. But they’re not included in this version–a real shame.

Friday at the PFA

I caught two very different films, from two very different series, at the Pacific Film Archive Friday night. Both films were shown without an introduction.

Bachelor’s Affairs

This was the second screening of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016 series, and the first in that series that I was able to attend.

Before the feature, we were treated to a Vitaphone short from 1929, Me and the Boys. Like all early Vitaphone shorts, it was basically a vaudeville act performed in a movie studio—in this case, a song. I found it moderately entertaining. The print was tinted yellow; like the silents they helped replace, Vitaphone pictures were often tinted. The preservation was clearly made from a print that suffered a lot of nitrate decomposition.

The feature looked much better. And while I wouldn’t list this 1932 marriage farce among the great pre-code comedies, it was fun. Adolphe Menjou starred as a middle-aged millionaire who unwisely marries a young blonde who’s being pushed into the marriage by her older sister. She wants to party and, we assume, sleep with younger men. He’s too old for this lifestyle. Meanwhile, his secretary really loves him.

The rumba dance sequence was very funny, and most of it proved entertaining. And at 64 minutes, it was pleasingly short. I give it a B.

Like everything in this UCLA series, the film is screened in 35mm instead of off of a DCP. These films have only been preserved, not restored. Preserving a film is still an analog, film-based process. You make a new negative from the best source you have. Restoration, where you try to make the best-possible recreation of the film, has become a digital process and with good reason.

These films either don’t need a full restoration (Bachelor’s Affairs certainly didn’t), or aren’t important enough for the expense (probably the case with Me and the Boys).

The Wrong Move

I’m beginning to see why the PFA called this series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. This is the second film in the series that I’ve caught, and it’s the second road movie.

The Wrong Move is a more even film than Kings of the Road. It lacks the brilliant scenes that made Kings so memorable. On the other hand, at 103 minutes, it didn’t sag in places like the other film did.

The film looks at a temporary family that creates itself on the road. It’s told through the eyes of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler). He wants to be a writer, but he worries that he’s too emotionally remote to be a good one. And he’s probably right. He’s a pretty cold guy.

He sets out to see Germany on train, and becomes the nucleus of a group of travelers. There’s the former Nazi officer filled with guilt (Hans Christian Blech), the teenage girl who never talks and develops a crush on Wilhelm (Nastassja Kinski in her first screen role), a beautiful blonde who might be an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and the bad poet comedy relief (Peter Kern). They travel together for a while, and then go their separate ways.

These people interact with each other in some intriguing ways, but they learn very little on the trip. I give this one a B, too.

As with everything in this series, The Wrong Move recently received a 4K digital restoration. It was screened off a DCP.

More on the new PFA Theater

Before the first film, I walked up to the back of the theater, and took some photos:

Ascerbic comedy Jane Austin in Love & Friendship

A Period comedy
Written by Whit Stillman, based on Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan

Directed by Whit Stillman

Pretty much everything is played for laughs in this adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s least known works. Nowhere near as romantic as most Austen adaptations, it centers on a manipulative horror of a human being–truly a woman you love to hate. Not that the movie is misanthropic; most of the characters are likeable. But Lady Susan Vernon (a wonderful Kate Beckinsale) is evil, scheming, and thoroughly horrendous. And from the audience’s point of view, tremendously entertaining.

At first glance, Lady Susan is a worldly, virtuous, proper and loving widow. But anyone not blinded by her charms can figure out in two minutes that she’s a sociopath. She’s the sort of person who travels with a lower-class “friend” whom she treats as a servant. By using the word friend, she can argue that paying her traveling companion would be just rude.

The film is set in the late 18th century, soon after the American Revolution. The main characters are all aristocrats, although some of them have more money than others. Lady Susan doesn’t have a lot, and hopes that either she or her teenage daughter can marry someone wealthy.

As one is to expect from a Jane Austen story, the family relationships get complicated. Without going into detail, Lady Susan digs her claws into the handsome young brother of her sister-in-law, while trying to arrange for her daughter to marry a rich idiot that the daughter (a remarkably decent person considering her mother) despises.

That rich idiot, Sir Charles, can’t enter the screen without the audience breaking into laughter. Completely oblivious to everything, he speaks with an unintentional surrealism that leaves everyone baffled. When he discusses the twelve commandments, and is told that there are only ten, he seems quite relieved, wondering which two he can stop following. Tom Bennett’s performance in this role is one of the great comic idiots. I’d love to see a whole movie built around this upper-class twit.

But Love & Friendship is funny even without Sir Charles, and displays a fine sense of absurdity throughout. Characters are all introduced with onscreen text giving us their names, their relationship to other characters, and occasionally comments on their looks or personality. When a character reads a letter out loud, the words appear on the screen, often one word at a time. Somehow, this enhances the comic timing.

Love & Friendship gives you a great villainess, a fun story, and a lot of laughs. It’s the sort of film that would’ve make a big commercial hit before superheroes took over Hollywood.

New Zealand comedy & the horrors of war: Sunday at SFIFF

Passover kept me away from the movies on Friday and Saturday, so Sunday became my first regular day at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

Here’s what I saw:

B Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I caught this one at the New Mission‘s theater 5. The auditorium is short and wide; not the best configuration for a movie theater. I sat in the front row, which was too close even for me. Most of the second row was reserved.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the second feature I’ve seen directed by Taika Waititi. Like the previous one, What We Do in the Shadows, it started out wonderful and very funny, but wore out its welcome before it finally came to an end. The last half hour was often a pain to watch.

Unlike the silly, farcical Shadows, Wilderpeople had a real, almost believable story. My concerns for the characters helped make the weak last act a bit more bearable.

The story concerns a troubled boy (Julian Dennison) sent to a new foster home in the very rural outback (the film is set in New Zealand). The boy begins to warm up to his new foster mother (Rima Te Wiata), and even to her very unfriendly husband (Sam Neill). After the foster mother dies, the boy runs away, and his reluctant foster father goes after him. Soon the government creates a dragnet to catch these two escapees from civilization. Needless to say, they bond.

They supposedly spend some five months in the woods, hiding from the authorities and eating what they can find. But their clothes show few signs of wear and tear, and they don’t appear to lose any weight.

Despite these unbelievable elements, the movie is funny, sentimental, and touching. But it also overstays its welcome.

This was the last screening of Hunt for the Wilderpeople at the festival. As far as I know, it will not get an American release at any time in the future.

A- Shadow World

This screened in the New Mission‘s big, beautiful theater 1.

This extremely troubling documentary argues–very convincingly–that our globe’s current state of never-ending war exists solely for the profit of arms dealers and the politicians they bribe–Bush, Cheney, Obama, Clinton, Thatcher, and Blair among them. Effectively, they’re all war criminals.

Based on Andrew Feinstein’s non-fiction book, it starts with images of World War I (“The war to end all war”), but stays primarily in the experiences of the last 35 years. Feinstein wrote the screenplay, as well, and worked closely with director Johan Grimonprez.

It’s powerful, clearly one-sided, and very persuasive. But it sometimes seemed scattered and random, as if the filmmakers were trying to cram too much information into 94 minutes.

After the film, Feinstein and Grimonprez came on stage to answer questions from both the Festival’s Rachel Rosen and the audience. Feinstein did most of the talking; probably because unlike Grimonprez, he’s a native English speaker.

Some highlights:

  • I looked for a director. Many wanted to do a story about my research. They wanted a story of the trauma I went through. I tried to argue that this wasn’t about me, it was about the issues.
  • This world is so much about privatization. The pinnacle of what shouldn’t be privatized is war. And it’s being privatized.
  • I’ll never publish anything or say anything in public that I wasn’t absolutely sure of. Yohan wasn’t that concerned with that. it created an artistic tension.
  • Here’s a trade that accounts for 40% of all of the corruption in the world.
  • I’m working on a crime thriller on this subject to get to a whole different audience.

You have two more chances to see Shadow World at the festival:

Friday at the PFA

Friday night, I finally got around to visiting the Pacific Film Archive‘s new theater in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been busy.

The theater is lovely, with the raised seats common in new multiplexes. The screen, I would guess, about the same size as in the previous theater.

The acoustics sounded very good, but since the first film was a silent with non-amplified piano accompaniment, and the second was in mono, I didn’t really get a chance to experience the new Meyer Sound system at its best.

Now, onto the movies:

Le lion des Mogols

This was the last screening in a series on the films of Jean Epstein. I’m not familiar with his work, and Le lion des Mogols only impressed me occasionally.

This 1924 French silent starts like an exotic epic, in the visual style of Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (also from 1924). An intertitle tells us we’re in Tibet, but it looks like an Art Director’s fever dream of the exotic East around 1000 AD.

The heroic prince (Ivan Mozzhukhin) saves a virgin about to be deflowered by the evil Grand Khan, and then has to run for his life. I wasn’t quite sure if this early part was meant to be funny.

Our hero has to run for his life, and he runs right into the 20th century and a romance with a movie star.

As you can probably guess, the story is a real mess–a melodrama that sometimes feels like a comedy, that gets most of its laughs at moments that I wasn’t sure were intentional.

But the movie had moments of brilliance and daring in the camera work and editing. Its best moment happens in a scene where the hero drinks in excess in a nightclub. In one shot, half the screen was in focus and other half wasn’t. suggesting hero was too drunk to focus his eyes properly.

But a few good scenes, one great scene, and a lot of bad scenes don’t completely add up. I give it a C+.

The archival 35mm print looked a bit washed out and showed nitrate decomposition. Without a very expensive digital restoration, I doubt it will ever look better than this. The print had French intertitles, and the PFA digitally projected English subtitles below them.

Judith Rosenberg did her usual excellent job on the piano.

Our Man in Havana

This was a popular film, and the theater was nearly full.

There’s a good reason. Our Man in Havana is one of the best espionage comedies to come out of the cold war.

Like Ninochka, this 1960 movie was out of date before it was released. An opening title card tells us that it’s set in the recent past, “before the recent revolution.”

Alec Guinness stars as Wormold (no one calls him by his first name), an English shopkeeper in Havana, trying desperately to make ends meet–a difficult task with his shopaholic teenage daughter. When he’s offered a very lucrative job by British secret intelligence, he takes it strictly for the money.

He’s supposed to recruit and oversee a team of spies, but he has no idea how to do it. He joins a country club and tries to make contact with possible recruits, but his attempts come off as homosexual advances. Then, on the advice of his best friend (Burl Ives), he starts making things up. He creates a fictitious team and starts reporting bogus information.

Of course his bosses back in London (led by a very funny Ralph Richardson) believe everything he reports. They’re all idiots.

The film was shot in that very short period between Castro’s revolution and Cuba’s isolation from the West. The new rulers must have approved of Graham Greene’s script (based on his novel). It shows the previous government as cruel, corrupt, and evil. The great TV comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a high-ranking police officer known to torture people in between attempts to woo Wormold’s daughter.

Looking at it today, Our Man in Havana seems to predict the Cuban missile crisis. Wormold’s biggest lie involves alleged secret weapons in the Cuban hills, spotted by an airplane pilot.

The movie isn’t all laughs. The serious moments include the death of a major character. But it’s usually funny and always a good story. I give it a B+.

Our Man in Havana, made by Columbia Pictures, was shot in Cinemascope, at a time when every studio except Twentieth Century-Fox was switching over the Panavision. Sony has just restored the film in 4K. The PFA screened it off a DCP, and it looked and sounded terrific.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers