Mysteries of Lisbon – 2, 2010
This is the first real showcase in the series for Stan Laurel. He was pretty good in Duck Soup, but he and Oliver Hardy were together in almost every scene there and in was their interactions that made it work. They both appear in this film, and again have some great comic moments together, but Laurel is also given a solo showcase where he gets to display the physical comedy talents that made him a star in the first place.
The film is a star vehicle for Priscilla Dean, a major star at Universal in the late-teens and early 20s who had faded into two reelers for Roach by 1927. Laurel and Hardy are the next billed, followed by Herbert Rawlinson, an actor whose career began before World War I and ended with Ed Wood in the 1950s. It’s a fairly typical farce scenario where Priscilla hires Laurel’s paint salesman to help her make her husband (Rawlinson) jealous. Hardy plays the butler who takes an immediate dislike to Laurel. Most of the comedy is built around Laurel mistaken a family friend for the husband, and thus doing all his flirting when the husband isn’t looking. The highlight scene for Laurel is when he’s asked about his latest novel (he’s posing as a famous author) and he demonstrates the story of Samson and Delilah. Laurel started out in British music halls (he was for a time Charlie Chaplin’s understudy, when Chaplin toured America for the first time, Laurel was part of his troupe) and he here gets to display a Chaplinesque pantomime skill, an ability I didn’t know he had before watching these movies. I assumed his genius was more for the construction of anarchic comedy sequence, slow burns to chaos, but he shows here a real talent for the more balletic forms of comedy as well.
The first-ever on-screen pairing of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, though they were not yet an official comedy team. The Roach Studio was at the time shuffling its various actors through all kinds of permutations, and it was apparently Leo McCarey who saw the potential of the Laurel & Hardy combination. McCarey was the supervising director of this film, and though he’s most famous for his talking films like The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow, An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Marys and the Marx Brothers classic that borrows the title of this short, he was very influential in silent comedy at Roach, working with Our Gang and Charley Chase in addition to Laurel & Hardy as a writer, director and “supervising director”.
It was in the latter role that McCarey worked on this film, based on a play by Laurel’s father, Arthur J. Jefferson. Stan and Ollie play a pair of tramps on the run from park rangers who want to draft them to help fight a raging forest fire. They flee into an empty mansion (the owner is on vacation) and set up residence, only to be forced to pose as owner and butler when prospective sub-letees arrive to tour the place. When the real owner, a blustery madman of a hunter who looks like a psychotic Teddy Roosevelt, shows up, chaos reigns. Eventually, the boys end up at the fire, whipped into the air by an overpowering fire hose in a brief, beautiful image of freedom and karmic punishment.
The composer biopic is an increasingly infrequent subset of a genre that wins many Oscars and garners little critical respect. Increasingly infrequent as the audience for classical music dwindles of course: the rock/pop biopic is alive and well, from the highs of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There to the lows of Ray and Walk the Line. The last composer biopic I recall gaining a lot of attention was the thoroughly mediocre Gary Oldman-as-Beethoven film, Immortal Beloved. The undisputed king of the genre remains Amadeus, a remarkable film considering the fact that it is both a biopic and a Best Picture winner and really, really good, all at the same time (and also the subject of a blogathon, starting today).
Back in the day, though, mass audiences actually listened to classical music, and Hollywood dutifully provided fanciful life stories for famous composers in films that function as solid greatest hits collections as well as Best Actor Oscar bait. The two films I watched this week, Charles Vidor’s Chopin film A Song to Remember and Julien Duvivier’s The Great Waltz, about Johann Strauss II are even better than that, though their relation to actual history is dubious, as is to be expected in this genre.
A Song to Remember anticipates Amadeus‘s trick of telling the story of the genius at its center through a secondary character, in this case, Chopin’s teacher Professor Elsner, played by Paul Muni (Scarface himself). The film begins with Chopin (Cornell Wilde, Oscar nominee, with the excellent José Iturbi, the quest object of Anchors Aweigh, playing the piano parts) as a young man in Poland playing the piano and committed to radical anti-Russian politics (as it was more often than not in its history, Poland was then being ruled by a foreign power). At a big recital at a rich nobleman’s house (Chopin performs right after Paganini, giving us an early example of that wonderful biopic tradition: playing the spot-the-famous-person game), Chopin angrily denounces the new Russian governor-general.
Fleeing the Tsarist thugs, Chopin and Elsner take off for Paris where, Chopin quickly makes friends with Franz Liszt and George Sand. Liszt is a fellow pianist-composer, and the first person other than Elsner to recognize Chopin’s genius. His first concert in Paris goes poorly as Chopin learns just before going on that some of his revolutionary comrades have been tortured to death for helping him escape. He breaks down in the midst of the recital, angrily pounding a fragment of his “Heroic” Polonaise before storming off-stage. Fortunately, Liszt and Sand arrange a second chance for him to impress the Paris intelligentsia, inspiring a lovely sequence where they tell the audience Liszt will perform, but only with all the lights doused. We see the snooty audience carried away by the beautiful playing, only to have Liszt walk in with a candelabra and reveal that the lowly Chopin was the performer all along.
So far, this is all conventional rise-of-the-artist territory, but the film takes a turn in the second half. Chopin and Sand run away together, first to her country castle, then to Majorca. Sand convinces him that he’s better off with her, composing music and not interacting with other human beings, especially not the poor freedom-seeking Polish people. As played by Merle Oberon, she’s a vampiric figure, sucking the life out of Chopin while at the same time espousing a Randian contempt for the masses and belief in the superiority of the artist. We see Chopin’s degeneration, first spiritual, then physical, over time from the perspective of Elsner, his abandoned mentor, reduced to living and teaching piano in a cheap hovel and hoping Chopin return to sanity, his friend and teacher and his political commitments. But though these characters, Sand and Elsner, are opposing forces fighting for Chopin’s soul, both are complicated figures. Elsner is blinded by pride and self-righteousness from taking any practical action to confront Chopin and Sand, in a characterization striking in its sympathy for the villain, is shown to have very real reasons behind her hard philosophy, reasons rooted in the patriarchal system that forced her to adopt a man’s name to make any headway in the literary world. Her struggle has twisted her into a strident individualist, but we see the causality correctly: she’s the villain not because she’s independent (as is the way many liberated women are portrayed as evil throughout film history, up to and including our own time), but because the struggle to make herself independent has twisted her into a villain. The fault lies not with independence, but with the system that limited her in the first place. We are therefore able to embrace her feminism while denouncing the objectivist ideology she cloaks it in. She’s lost her compassion, but not her humanity. Such nuanced figures aren’t often to be found in contemporary Hollywood films, where we’re more likely to get a simple caricature like the nagging wet-blanket girlfriend/housewife holding the hero back from doing the thing that makes him interesting (see for example, every sports movie ever).
Eventually, Elsner convinces Chopin to recommit himself to his people and he embarks on a big European tour. But his health is failing and, as Sand predicted, the passion with which he throws himself into his performances makes it worse. He’s literally playing himself to death, but heroically so because his music, and the revenue it generates, is being funneled to the revolutionary struggle back home. That the film was made and released in the midst of World War II crystalizes the ideology of struggle and sacrifice at its propagandistic heart. Like most of the best biopics, it’s not a film about its subject, but a film about an idea that it uses the life of the subject to illustrate.
The Great Waltz provides entirely different kinds of pleasures, however. Though a reviewer at imdb has an interesting theory that the film is an allegory for the Nazi annexation of Austria, which was on-going at the time of the film’s release in 1938, I’d have to say that political concerns are far from the main attraction of the film. Plot-wise, it marries a traditional rise-to-greatness narrative with a love triangle plot. Young Strauss, a banker, gets fired for writing waltzes when he should be working. He gets his friend’s together and forms an orchestra, the first performance of which is sparsely attended (only his fiancee and family) until a group of rich swells swirling around opera star Carla Donner (real-life opera star Miliza Korjus, Oscar-nominated) shows up. Suddenly, the Viennese people in the nearby square take notice of Strauss’s music and the hall soon overflows with eager dancers. Overnight, Strauss has become a smashing success, the mid-19th century version of Lennon-McCartney, cranking out wildly popular tune after tune, in turn transforming the waltz from a scandalous, low form of dance to the music of the Austrian soul.
All of this, like in A Song to Remember, is played against the backdrop of revolution. Strauss is a big supporter of the Austrian democracy movement (he wrote the march they march to). During a protest, he and Donner are forced to flee together into the Vienna Woods, where they compose “Tales from the Vienna Woods” in the film’s most famous and brilliant sequence. The two are riding a carriage in the early morning, and we hear through Strauss’s ears as the sounds of the woods (farmers singing at work, birds chirping, the horse’s hooves clomping) are transformed by his genius; how Strauss harmonizes the everyday sound of the world and makes it sing. This sequence at the heart of the film concludes with Strauss and Donner falling in love (his now wife now also forgotten) and dancing a delierious waltz around a pavilion at the center of the woods (Duvivier uses a nice high angle to capture the dizzying romance of a high speed waltz, the most glorious and cinematic of ballroom dances) while at the same time it is announced that the revolution is won and an new Emperor is in power (how an Emperor fulfills a democratic revolution is left unclear, I don’t recall the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a particularly democratic institution).
The last third of the film is not quite as perfect as the middle section, but it does provide an excellent showcase for Luise Rainer, the ostensible star of the film, as Strauss’s wife Poldi. Strauss and Donner have been carrying on their affair more or less in public during preparation for her starring role in his Imperially-commisioned opera, “Die Fledermaus”. Donner’s lover, Lionel Atwill as Count Hohenfried, visits Poldi and inspires her to fight for her husband, she’d been loving him too much to call him out on his infidelity. She runs to the opera and, after seeing him and Donner happily together, wishes them well on their future endeavors. This effectively guilts Strauss into remaining home with his wife, though his love for Donner lives on in the spirit of the Blue Danube. These scenes wouldn’t work nearly as well without Rainer’s performance, tight-lipped and stiff-jawed, she barely moves her mouth as she speaks, breathy and intense as if she really believes every ridiculous thing she is given to say like it was as much an expression of her soul as Chopin’s music was of his.
In the end, The Great Waltz is less serious, less of a “good film” than A Song to Remember, but I suspect it’s the one that will stick longer in my memory. A Song to Remember has the fascinating figure of Oberon’s George Sand tearing apart the neat edges of its formulas, and the powerhouse playing of José Iturbi pounding the Polonaise into your brain, but the Vienna Woods sequences of The Great Waltz reach for something far greater than ideology. They get to the core of the power and beauty of music, and do so in a way that is only possible in film.
The most delightful film yet, this is another Glenn Tryon vehicle, though it does also feature both Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, albeit not in the same scene. This was their second time appearing in the same film, the first was way back in 1921. Tryon plays a young man sent to Hollywood to pay a bill (or his family loses the farm or something). Blinded by movie-love, he assumes the bank robbery he witnesses is in fact a movie set and ends up in a hotel having switched clothes with the crook and on the run from the law. He gets tangled up with Hardy, playing the hotel detective (changing clothes again into the detective’s wife’s outfit, leading to accusations of adultery for poor Hardy). Laurel is unrecognizable behind a big bushy mustache in a brief scene as a hotel guest whose bed is invaded by interlopers. Janet Gaynor apparently appears as a hotel guest, but I didn’t catch her.
1. The Great Train Robbery – Along with A Trip to the Moon, the most famous of the early, early silent films, and generally credited as the first film Western and the greatest film by pioneer director Edwin S. Porter. The story couldn’t be simpler: bandits hold up a train, a posse is formed, the bad guys are killed in a shootout. The film’s most audacious moment is its last, a non-diegetic medium shot of a bandit firing his gun directly into the camera, one of the most oft-imitated images in film, you can see it reenacted again and again, from Sylvia Sydney in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets to Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But that’s not its only canny use of developing technique. There’s a subtle double exposure composite shot in the opening scene and again on the train, some actual camera movement (short tilts and pans in the woods) and cross-cutting of the kind that would form the basis of modern continuity editing. Compare George Méliès’s tableaux style where the entirety of a scene plays out in one shot, then the next scene takes place in another location, later in time. Porter instead cuts within a location within a scene and between actions at different locations occurring at the same time. This system, which allows for much more dynamic and diverse story-telling possibilities than the Méliès system, was refined over the next few years and forms the foundation of all modern editing.
2. The Kingdom of Fairies – Even more ambitious in scope and design than A Trip to the Moon, this is the ultimate in Méliès epics. At every level of production, the film is stunning. The story is pretty basic: princess is kidnapped by evil witch, prince journeys to the rescue, lots of magic items and fancy movie tricks ensue (including some breath-taking and hilarious underwater scenes). It’s not as much a step forward as it is a consolidation of the advances Méliès had already made over the previous years (double exposure, multi-plane set design, stop-motion effects, fanciful costumes and tinting, etc). So while it isn’t the cinematic milestone that The Great Train Robbery is, it is still absolutely gorgeous.
3. The Infernal Cakewalk – George Méliès and a bunch of demonic girls dancing, in hell. The short the proves that not only does the Devil have all the best tunes, he’s a slick dancer as well. Some great special effects, including Satan’s Detachable Limbs and some flying fireballs. I like to think this is what John Lithgow was imagining when he banned dancing in his town.
4. Jupiter’s Thunderballs – A hilarious Méliès take on the Greek/Roman gods, with Jupiter using a fancy thunderbolt wand to create some Muses, dance with the pretty girls, turn the thunderbolts into an umbrella, turn the girls into statues, then blow everyone up, along with himself. Literally fantastic, with the best title of the year.
5. The Life of an American Fireman – The title pretty much says it all. Edwin Porter shows the life of firemen, from resting at the station (thinking of home in a comic strip-inspired thought balloon) to sliding down a pole and fighting a fire. The most interesting thing here as that Porter hadn’t quite settled on the kind of continuity editing that we still use today, and that he utilizes in The Great Train Robbery). Instead, he shows the entirety of the action from inside the burning apartment, then cuts back in time, where we see the same action from the street outside the building. It wouldn’t take long for Porter to abandon this experiment in favor of intercutting between scenes along a consistent timeline, using editing to move through space rather than time, but this experiment is an interesting dead-end.
6. What Happened in the Tunnel – A cute little joke film from Edwin Porter for the Edison company. Nothing special, only a little racist, I guess.