Movie Reviews - 1920s postsSaturday June 18, 2016
Movie Review: The General (1926)
Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?
I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.
But the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.
But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”
I know. Don’t extrapolate.
Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.
Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.
Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.
A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”
And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:
It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.
Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.
I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.
Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.
But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?
Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me.
Movie Review: The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
Williams and Grey get ready for their close-up.
Last Monday, at the Paramount in Seattle, as part of “Silent Movie Mondays,” I saw a movie few people have ever seen.
It's called “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” and no worries if you haven't heard of it. It was produced by the Biograph Company in 1913, and starred Bert Williams, a West Indian vaudeville performer who is considered the first black star (headlining shows on Broadway, for example, at a time of the KKK and lynchings in the South), but it was never released. And it would've disappeared completely if, in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art hadn't bought 900 cans of film that the bankrupt Biograph company was planning to destroy. “Lime Kiln” was among those reels; MOMA didn't know what it had until recently.
And why do we care? Because it's the first feature-length film with a mostly African-American cast. Williams is in blackface but no one else is. And as fraught as the concept of blackface is, within the confines of the film it feels like another comic mask—like Chaplin's moustache or Keaton's stone face. In the film, it doesn't feel racially derogatory. He's our clown, as Chaplin was. Indeed, one of the startling aspects of the film is how typically “silent film” it is. How long before we got another cinematic portrait of the African-American community that was this positive? Or this neutral? I'm guessing decades.
The plot is fairly simple. Williams is one of three men trying to court a girl, played by the super-stylish Odessa Warren Grey, and things begin to turn in his favor when he inadvertently drops a jug of gin down a well, tainting the water. He then labels the well “Gin Spring” and sells it, or something, and comes into cash. Then he escorts Ms. Grey through the fair, onto the rides (including an early 20th century Merry-Go-Round with brass ring), and to the big dance, where, I believe, he's revealed as a charlatan. No matter. He still gets the girl. The movie ends at her gate with a big kiss. Multiple versions of a big kiss, actually. Spike Lee would be proud.
If I sound shaky on some of the details it's because no title cards were ever created for the film, and no script was found. The curators at MOMA, including Ron Magliozzi who toured with the film, went so far as to hire lip readers to figure out what was being spoken. Most it was unhelpful ad-libbing. (After the screening, I asked Magliozzi what was being said, and he mentioned that in some scenes, such as when the rivals all show up at Ms. Grey's gate, they're actually swearing: “What the fuck are you doing here!” etc. Makes one wonder how R-rated silent films might actually be. Surely a good future project for someone.)
Even without the title cards, though, you pretty much know what's going on. Indeed, their lack probably helps the film, since we do get title cards in the Bert Williams short, “Natural Born Gambler,” which precedes “Lime Kiln,” and they're rendered in the usual, minstrel-y fashion of the time: “de debbil” for “the devil.” To me, the title cards are more problematic than the blackface, which in some ways emphasizes Williams humanity rather than detracting from it. So it's probably a net positive that “Lime Kiln” doesn't have the cards. It allows the story to be the story.
The most commented-upon aspect of the film is the cakewalk at the big dance. It feels like the first episode of “Soul Train” ever recorded:
After our screening, there was a discussion, moderated by Seattle Theater Group's marketing director Vivian Williams, and featuring Magliozzi; Teddie Gibson, who composed a score for the film and played on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ; and Dr. Louis Chude-Sokei, a UW professor who's written a book about Williams, “The Last 'Darky,'” which I would love to read someday when I don't have a stack of books to get through. I've sat through a lot of these Q&As, and they're usually death, but this one was great. It had history, disagreement, discussion, insight. I wanted it to keep going.
So why was the film never released? Magliozzi suggests that once “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, and became a huge hit, and the KKK reformed and everything, it didn't seem like a good idea. But that would mean they kept it in the can for two years? Did they do that with silent films? I'm guessing there's a different answer—one we'll probably never know.
Movie Review: Headin' Home (1920)
Did Bernard Malamud ever see this film? He was born in 1914, the movie came out in 1920, so it’s possible. Maybe it made an impression. Maybe it lodged in his unconscious.
I initially assumed that “Headin’ Home“ was made in the flush after Babe Ruth’s 54-homerun season that made him a national sensation, but it was actually made after the 1919 season, when he first set the single-season record with 29 homeruns.That was enough of a big deal to make the film. Then he doubled his big deal to 54 homers as the film was released on Sept. 19, 1920. OK, he was actually stuck on 49 that day. The New York Times even talked about a slump the “Mauling Monarch” (a Ruth nickname I’d never heard before) was going through, and opined that Babe’s 50th “is still in the incubator, and it looks as if it wouldn’t be hatched for a while yet.” Four days to be exact. He hit 50 and 51 on Sept. 24.
In the movie, Ruth plays “Babe,” a misunderstood but well-meaning country bumpkin from the small town of Haverlock. He lives with his mother, or “maw” (Margaret Seddon), his foster-sister Pigtails (Frances Victory, her only film), and their dog Herman. Simon Tobin (James A. Marcus), a banker, owns most everything in town, and he’s got a daughter, Mildred (Ruth Taylor), who’s pretty, and there’s a dog catcher and a local baseball team. The dog catcher is always after Herman and shakes his fist when he doesn’t catch him; the local baseball team is managed by the local barber, who’s Italian, eats garlic, argues with his wife, and doesn’t let Babe play. Instead, he and Simon hire a ringer, Harry Knight (William Sheer, his last film), who turns out to be both a rival for Mildred’s affections and a crook. He’s embezzling money from Tobin’s bank.
In the big game, Babe winds up playing for the visiting town, Highland (shades of the Highlanders, the Yankees’ original name), and in the 9th inning of a 14-14 tie, hits a towering homerun that breaks the window of a church five blocks away. Hero at last! Well, not quite. For this, the town almost lynches him. Then he winds up in New York and becomes a star, so they forgive everything. He marries Mildred after rescuing her from the clutches of Harry Knight, who winds up selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium. Haw haw on him. The End.
Two things are immediately interesting about “Headin’ Home.” The first is the title cards. Written by future Hearst journalist and humor columnist Arthur “Bugs” Baer, they are both archly homespun (dropped g’s, colloquialisms) and filled with sophisticated puns. It’s said, for example, that Ruth “made the Nation of Leagues forget the League of Nations,” while Haverlock is “a little egg and hamlet in the sticks.” Other examples:
SLIDESHOW: TITLE CARDS
SLIDESHOW: I like the phony attribution to Darwin. Not sure if the unspoken joke is ”brain“ or something a little more risque for 1920.
An example of the small-town colloqualisms.
The puns. They get out of hand. I can't even decipher this one. Anyone?
A good line. Initially I thought these attributions were Haverlock residents but Ricca Allen was a film star at the time.
A week after the movie was released, several White Sox players confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series and the White Sox would never be the same.
More interesting, though, is whether “Headin’ Home” influenced the greatest fictional baseball story of all time, “The Natural,” published in 1952.
The first time we see Babe, he’s chopping down a tree. He spends half the movie whittling this tree into a bat, which he uses in the big game to hit his five-block homerun. He doesn’t call it Wonderboy, but right before he hits it, he looks over at Mildred in the stands. She doesn’t stand but she’s definitely urging him on. She’s the lady in white.
Again, who knows if Malamud even saw this thing (and if you know, let me know), but it’s interesting to contemplate. Maybe boys creating bats out of trees were already part of the early, Bunyanesque mythos of baseball that Malamud simply tapped into.
Ruth was hardly the first baseball player to star in a movie—Ty Cobb and Christy Matthewson had starred in some shorts: “Somewhere in Georgia” (1917) and “Matty’s Decision” (1914), respectively—but he was probably the first baseball player to star in a feature-length movie. “Headin’ Home” is five reels and 73 minutes long. Too long, to be honest. It wanders, it ignores Ruth’s rise in baseball, it makes villains of characters only to make victims of them (Si’s son, chiefly, whom Ruth rescues from a “vamp” in the final reel). It got good notices, even in The New York Times, but today it’s mostly interesting as a historical document. But in that it’s pretty interesting.
You know who’s interesting? Babe Ruth. He’s probably the best actor in the movie. You might even call him a natural.
SLIDESHOW: HEADIN' HOME
SLIDESHOW: The movie starts with all the fans in their straw hats filing into Yankee Stadium to see the Babe. And here he is. So young! And he was: probably 25 when this was filmed, with—believe it or not—only 49 career homers. That year he would add 54 more. Then he was off and running.
Paul Bunyanesque, no?
For the first half of the movie he carries this bat everywhere, whittling it into shape. Shades of ”The Natural.“
His history was a bit fudged, of course. He's portrayed as a big sweet boy from a small town, with a sister named Pigtails and a dog named Herman.
Plus a ma. Called ”maw.“ Ruth's own mother died when he was 12. Five years earlier, unable to handle her son, she put him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys: part orphanage, part reform school. He learned baseball there.
The big game. Ruth has gone over to the other side, Highland, as he went over to the other side in real life: the Highlanders.
Look at his physique. Look at that waistline. This is why it was wrong to get John Goodman to play a young Babe.
The lady in white.
Babe and Wonderboy.
Afterwards, Knight attacks Mildred, but ...
Babe comes to the rescue. Not through the window but through the door.
Among the final shots: Babe in his element at the Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium, ”the House that Ruth Built," would debut three years later. *FIN*
Movie Review: The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)
In the Mariners heyday in the mid-1990s, when the Seattle newspapers would print just about anything Mariners related, I remember a short piece about the players and guns: how many they owned, etc. Baseball players tend to be a conservative lot, and many of them are country boys, so there were quite a few hunting rifles mentioned. Most ballplayers are rich, too, at least at the MLB level, and so a few of these guys had guns for protection. Except one: Randy Johnson—he of the 99 mph fastball. He said he didn’t have a gun in his house; he just kept a bucket of baseballs by his bed. If someone broke in ...
“The Ball Player and the Bandit,” a 1912 one-reeler directed by Francis Ford, John’s older brother, anticipated the Big Unit by about 80 years.
Harry Burns (Harold Lockwood) is a good pitcher with a university team whose uncle comes into a bad way financially and can no longer send him to school. He suggests Harry go west to find work.
It’s the usual fish-out-of-water scenario. He shows up in a suit, clutching a handkerchief, sneezing at the dust, and with an aversion to guns. All the cowhands give him looks. He gets a job as an accountant, but even the little Annie Oakley there (Helen Case, looking a bit like Carol Kane) pokes fun at him. He stifles some of this abuse by winning a fistfight with a rival, but he’s still not completely trusted. He doesn’t like guns? The hell?
But he’s still trusted enough to pick up the payroll in town. Unfortunately, he’s followed by the titular bandit—as well as the girl, who pretends to be a masked robber. Even as she’s quickly revealed by Harry, the bandit appears, dressed in black, gun drawn, and grabs the payroll. Then he feels in Harry’s pockets to remove him of his guns. Except there are none. He only finds a baseball, which Harry’s old coach had just sent to him. Laughing, he drops it and leaves. At which point Harry picks up the baseball and beans the bandit in the back of the head. He and the girl truss him up, bring him back, Harry’s the hero.
It’s not much of a story. But it is fun to come across a Hollywood movie that doesn’t glorify guns the way 99% of Hollywood movies do. Add it to the list, including “Destry Rides Again,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Superman and the Mole Men,” and ... and ....
Movie Review: His Last Game (1909)
The story is pretty simple. Choctaw has a big game against Jimtown, and they count on their star pitcher, Native American Bill Going, to lead the way. But gamblers enter the scene to fix the game. They try to bribe Bill with money. After about 10 seconds of melodramatic temptation, he turns them down. So they offer booze. Same deal. Finally, they attempt to get him drunk anyway by fixing him the era’s version of a roofie. But he outsmarts them, switches drinks, and then throws the booze-filled drink into the gambler’s face. A fight breaks out and the gambler draws a gun. It’s wrested away from him and he’s shot and killed. For this, Bill Going is led away by the authorities for murder. Well, “authorities.” “Swift western justice” the title card proclaims, and we next see him in front of an open grave, with the sheriff and a firing squad nearby.
But wait! A letter!
If Bill Going wins this game, there’s new evidence in his favor and I demand a REPREEVE.
Signed by 604 of Arizona’s best cityzens an Yuba Bill, Sherif
Why is this new evidence going to surface only if he wins the game? Stop asking questions.
So the Choctaw chief stands in for Bill, who rides back to town, wins the game, and is about to celebrate with his teammates when he remembers the chief. Then he rides back and stands before the open grave. He asks for, and is granted, a pipe for a last smoke.
But wait! The Chief puts his ear to the ground and hears a coming horse! Maybe it’s a reprieve! No matter. The sheriff, standing behind Bill, signals for the firing squad to fire. They do, and Bill slumps into the grave ... just as, oh no, a man rides up with Bill’s reprieve! So sad!
C’mon, it was 1909. What do you expect—“Casablanca”?
People were obviously still learning the camera—or baseball—back then, as they tried to fit everything into the small frame. As a result, the ump stays off to the left rather than crouching behind the catcher, and it looks to be maybe 10 feet—rather than 90—between bases. Worse, when the catcher and ump aren’t in the frame, you have almost nothing in the foreground. Yet they didn’t move the camera for those shots. So the bottom third of the screen contains nothing while the top two-thirds contains everything—including a lot of characters who essentially have their heads cut off. It’s as if your grandmother photographed the movie on vacation.
IMDb is a bit sparse on the details behind the production, and Wikipedia is worse: only an Italian entry—so I’m not sure who made it or why or why they chose Native Americans. Did they think, “Hey, let’s mix westerns with baseball”? Or was the prevalence of Native Americans in early baseball—including Charles “Chief” Bender, a future Hall of Famer—a factor?
Italian Wiki claims that Harry Solter, a silent film director with several dozen credits, directed the thing, but IMDb simply leaves the credit blank. At the least, we know it was produced by Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America (IMP), which, in 1912, merged with several other production companies to form Universal Pictures, which is still one of Hollywood’s “Big Six” studios, having produced, among others, “The Sting,” “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Bridesmaids.” Laemmle’s first big success was “Hiawatha,” based on “The Song of ...” so maybe that’s the reason for the Native American focus.
“His Last Game” isn’t quite the first baseball story on film—that would probably be Edison’s “How the Office Boy Saw the Game” from 1906—but it is interesting as an historic artifact. Should we be surprised by its fairly positive portrayal of American Indians? Not according to Dave Kehr, who, in his review of “Reel Baseball: Baseball Films of the Silent Era,” writes, “The pro-Indian stance is quite typical for westerns, which have been caricatured for years as racist and genocidal, though I have yet to find an early one in which those sentiments were not placed in the mouths of villains.”
SLIDESHOW: No, the ump's not checking out the catcher's butt; he's just trying to not block the frame. And that thing over to the right? About five steps away? That's first base. They were cramming everything into the frame because the camera didn't move back then; there are only four camera angles in the entire movie. The bigger problem with that is this ...
... You take away anything in the foreground (like catcher and ump) and you get shots cropped by your grandmother during her trip to Wyoming.
The story: Gamblers try to bribe Bill Going into throwing the big game but he refuses. One of the gamblers winds up shot, dead, and Bill is slated to be executed for the crime.
But first win the big game, will ya? He does. Another foreground-empty shot.
This one is nicely framed: Bill enjoys a final smoke before the firing squad, while the Indian chief listens to a coming horse, which the Sheriff can't see.
Everyone is shocked, shocked by the death of Bill Going. But at least he won the big game. *FIN*