The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). 114 minutes. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti (as Joan of Arc), Eugène Silvain (as Évêque Pierre Cauchon), André Berley (as Jean d’Estivet), and Antonin Artaud (as Jean Massieu). Cinematography by Rudolph Maté.
In honor of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I am writing about a silent film that has disturbed me more than any other film, silent or otherwise, that I have seen in a long time. It is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. In response to the film’s intense emotional focus, Roger Ebert wrote, “Perhaps the secret of Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, ‘What is this story really about?’ And after he answered that question, he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.” Ebert does not explicitly tell us what that answer is, but I have an idea. Dreyer has made a movie that is about a horrifying … Read the rest
The Great Ziegfeld (1936). 185 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring William Powell (as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), Luise Rainer (as Anna Held), Myrna Loy (as Billie Burke), and Frank Morgan (as Billings).
If you enjoy the movies of the 1930s, it would be wrong for you not to see The Great Ziegfeld at some point. It is bloated, to be sure, and many of its historical and biographical details are inaccurate, but it was financially one of the most successful films of its decade, and among its many honors, it was the first musical for which a performer won an Academy Award (Luise Rainer for Best Actress; the movie also won for Best Picture). It features many phenomenal musical numbers, including the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” in which performers dance and sing on a slowly turning wedding cake-like set. The “Pretty Girl” sequence alone reportedly cost $220,000 to make at the time (close to $3.75 … Read the rest
After my previous unsuccessful attempt to see the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (1954) at a Bay Area theater, I was delighted to learn that the very same movie would be screened in late April at the Paramount Theater, the glorious art deco movie palace in downtown Oakland. The screening began at 8:00pm, but the theater opened at 7:00pm. Believe me, anyone who sees a movie at the Paramount as part of their classic film series will want to get there early as there’s so much to see. People start lining up on the street at about 6:30pm, but the theater seats many thousands of people and the screen is one of the largest anywhere, so those who come later are in no danger of missing out on a good seat.
You will, however, want to enter the theater at 7:00pm so that you can tour the gorgeous, multi-floor structure at your leisure, gape in awe at the sublime … Read the rest
Freaks (1932). 62 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Harry Earles (as Hans), Daisy Earles (as Frieda), Olga Baclanova (as Cleopatra), Henry Victor (as Hercules), Wallace Ford (as Phroso), and Leila Hyams (as Venus).
It is hard to know what exactly to say about Tod Browning’s Freaks. Some people have called it an early exploitation film, and others have called it a horror film. Perhaps the New York Times reviewer who wrote about the movie in 1932 put it best when he said, “The only thing that can be said definitely for ‘Freaks’ is that it is not for children. Bad dreams lie that way.”
The movie is about a circus and in particular its freak show, but until the final moments of the film, we never see anyone actually perform. The cast is divided into freaks and non-freaks (and I use those terms, which I realize may be offensive to some, only because they are the language of … Read the rest
Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935). 98 minutes. Directed by Busby Berkeley. Starring Dick Powell (as Dick Curtis), Adolphe Menjou (as Nicolai Nicoleff), Gloria Stuart (as Ann Prentiss), Alice Brady (as Mathilda Prentiss), and Hugh Herbert (as T. Mosely Thorpe III). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
One might be tempted to say that the plot of this film exists mainly to support the lavish, geometrically obsessed Busby Berkeley musical numbers presented at the film’s conclusion. Such a reading, however, would marginalize all of the lampooning of class and extravagance that takes place over the course of the majority of the film. What happens before the musical numbers is truly wonderful, a great showcase of scheming and greed that is delivered from an entirely playful perspective.
Nearly everyone in Gold Diggers of 1935 is after someone else’s money. Almost all of the characters scheme to enrich their wallets and widen their pockets—some maliciously (for example, Mosely’s stenographer blackmails … Read the rest
The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). 92 minutes. Directed by William Keighley. Starring James Cagney (as Steve Collins), Bette Davis (as Joan Winfield), Eugene Pallette (as Lucius Winfield), and Harry Davenport (as “Pop” Tolliver).
The Bride Came C.O.D. is reminiscent of two other films that I have reviewed recently. Like von Stroheim’s Greed, it was filmed in Death Valley when temperatures were high. Like It Happened One Night, it features a wealthy heiress who wants to marry a dashing celebrity of whom her father disapproves, and the plot involves her displacement and an elaborate hunt to locate her.
By the early 1940s, Bette Davis and James Cagney were looking for new material. Cagney had flourished playing gangster characters in movies such as The Public Enemy, and Davis had had great success in melodramas such as Jezebel and Of Human Bondage, but both actors thought a comedy was necessary to move their careers in fresh directions. What they … Read the rest
Easter Parade (1948). 103 minutes. Directed by Charles Walters. Starring Judy Garland (as Hannah Brown), Fred Astaire (as Don Hewes), Ann Miller (as Nadine Hale), and Peter Lawford (as Jonathan Harrow III). Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
Easter Parade contains some of stars Fred Astaire’s and Judy Garland’s most beloved routines, including the title song (sung at the film’s conclusion), “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and “We’re a Couple of Swells,” the latter of which became an important part of Garland’s concert repertoire. The film takes place over the course of a year in New York, from the Easter of 1912 to the Easter of 1913. Singer and dancer Don Hewes (played by Astaire) has been abandoned by his accomplished partner, Nadine Hale (played by Ann Miller), and stumbling into a cabaret at night, Hewes tells his friend Jonathan Harrow (played by Peter Lawford) that he can make any of the girls performing in that venue into a world-class … Read the rest
I learned that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) was coming to a theater near my Bay Area residence as part of a nationwide special screening of the film in digital format organized by Turner Classic Movies. A friend and I made time to trek out to the matinee screening on March 25. Oh, dear reader: that afternoon was such a sad commentary on the modern theater-going experience. I distinctly got the feeling that no one was working hard to maintain the gargantuan multiplex that was showing the film. The machine that printed the tickets necessary for admission broke as the clerk was attempting to use it. The manager was called over but could not fix it. It was determined that we would simply be let in to the multiplex and sent to our theater, ticketless, but the staff could not determine through the computer which theater Rear Window was playing in. Phones were produced in an attempt to find the … Read the rest
M (1931). 110 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert), Gustaf Gründgens (as The Safecracker), and Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Karl Lohmann).
It has often been pointed out that M is a terrific example of a film that bridges the silent and talkie periods. M was German director Fritz Lang’s first talkie, and it makes use of sound in a very interesting way. For many early filmmakers, their first ventures into sound became opportunities to show off the new technology by using sound constantly and extravagantly — hence the large number of musicals in the early days of sound films. Lang’s M was different, though, in that it actually contained many evocative, intensely silent passages and, at other times, very carefully and strategically used sound. For example, early in the film, we come to know that young Elsie Beckman (played by Inge Landgut) has disappeared for good when we spy her balloon silently trapped in the … Read the rest
Duck Soup (1933). 68 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Groucho Marx (as Rufus T. Firefly), Chico Marx (as Chicolini), Harpo Marx (as Pinky), Zeppo Marx (as Bob Roland), and Margaret Dumont (as Mrs. Teasdale). Screenplay, music, and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.
If aliens landed on earth tomorrow, and the American Film Institute gave them a copy of Duck Soup to watch as a way of helping them to understand the history of American film culture, I think that these hypothetical aliens would enjoy it, but it might cause them to be perplexed. If we had to explain to the aliens why Duck Soup is funny, then we might be perplexed. Duck Soup is funny — in fact, it’s hilarious. It is the movie, after all, that in a supremely life-affirming moment convinces Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters not to commit suicide, and it is widely considered to be the Marx Brothers’ finest film. … Read the rest