The Laurel & Hardy Project #4: Duck Soup

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.

Two Composers: On A Song to Remember and The Great Waltz

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 Laurel & Hardy Project #3: 45 Minutes from Hollywood

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.

1903

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.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #2: Along Came Auntie

The second film in the set again features only Oliver Hardy, though Stan Laurel is credited as a writer.  The film stars Glenn Tryon, who’d I’d never heard of but who managed to have a long, if undistinguished career in Hollywood as an actor, writer, director and producer.  Vivian Oakland plays a divorced woman who takes her first husband (Hardy) in as a border to raise some extra money.  When her wealthy aunt, who doesn’t know about Oakland’s divorce, and is strongly opposed to divorce on principle, comes to visit, Oakland and Hardy must pretend to be married (with her second husband (Tryon) posing as the border) in order to not jeopardize her inheritance.  Slapstick ensues, with much foolishness and each of the male leads dressing up as each other and Oakland at various times.  Hardy himself is a blast, at his best as a violently energetic musician, but Tryon and Oakland are pretty bland and the film as a whole is pretty rote, despite the weird potential of its premise.

The Week in Rankings

A rundown of the films I’ve seen recently along with their yearly rankings on The Big List:

City Streets – 10, 1931

They Died With Their Boots On – 16, 1941
The Constant Nymph – 12, 1943
So Long at the Fair – 14, 1950
Young Bess – 17, 1953

Nostalgia for the Light – 23, 2010
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – 39, 2010

The Adjustment Bureau – 2011
Attack the Block – 2011

Captain America – 2011
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2011
Thor – 2011
The Artist – 2011

War Horse – 2011

On War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s movie about a horse who goes to war is as pretty as it is preposterous.  It’s gotten positive reviews from a wide array of critics, including some very good ones, and a Best Picture nomination.  It’s better than I thought it was going to be; given the advertising I had pretty low expectations.  It just looked like the most overbearing schmaltzy nonsense, but I should have remembered that even the worst Spielberg films at least look great.  This is going to end up sounding more negative than I really feel about the film, mostly because I just don’t understand the arguments being used to in favor of its greatness.  I thought it was fine, a lovely, silly movie.  Better than Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Ron Howard’s Far and Away, but somewhere in that area.

One thing that constantly pops up in reviews of the film is that it is a harkening back to an older style of filmmaking, often dropping names like Ford, Lean, Borzage and Capra and genres like melodrama, but I don’t really understand what is so old fashioned about it.  There are shots that recall Gone with the Wind and The Quiet Man, but that’s not what people are referring to, and anyways the film is more Spielbergian in visual style than anything else (and he remains a composer of lovely, often striking images and excellent editor, this film would play brilliantly with the sound turned off).  The film’s sentimentality can’t be what is old fashioned about it, because sentimental films get made every year, and it seems to me that the kind of sentimentality it presents, a very obviously constructed and manipulative kind of sentimentality, is more a product of modern cynicism than anything else, that and the obligatorily overbearing John Williams score.  This kind of broad emotionality has long been a major part of Spielberg’s work, but I’d say it’s a lot more effectively done in films like ET or Empire of the Sun, which are grounded in a real world filled with unusual and complex characters, than this one which exists in a kind of theoretical movie-world filled with cartoons. 

I’m frankly flabbergasted by any comparisons with John Ford, who never made a film whose characters and relationships were this lacking in nuance.  Franks Borzage and Capra make a little more sense, but in their films the emotions grow organically out of the characters and their specific spiritual/political belief systems, whereas in War Horse every sequence is built instead around the emotional note Spielberg wants to hammer into you.  Compare the construction of a Borzage film like Street Angel or Seventh Heaven, built around small-scale character interactions that slowly build to an ecstatic spiritual release, one that, despite its unreality is made believable by the solidity of the characters and their relationship with each other, to the construction of War Horse, which leaps from emotion to emotion with no time for character development in between.  This is partly a byproduct of the film’s episodic nature, but even the central relationship of the film, the one that bookends and unbalances it, the relationship between Albie the English Farmboy and Joey the Horse begins at 11 and never modulates, never deepens.  Instead, the characters we get are pure types: precocious but sickly girl, kindly grandfather, naive kids, cruel German and all kinds of horse-lovers: melancholy rich officers, kind-hearted fat man, determinedly insouciant Englishmen, etc.  It’s telling that the most authentic, believable relationship in the film, and one of the loveliest same-sex partnerships I’ve seen in awhile, is between two horses.


Bilge Ebiri makes a decent case for the movie over at his blog and I buy what he’s saying up to a point, especially as regards the film’s ending, which he seems to think is a lot less happy than the way most people seem to be reading it.  It’s telling, though, that his case for the film is almost entirely based on its visual style, the way the film builds its story of war from the bucolic beauty of the 19th Century to the mechanized horror of the 20th.  In this reading, the ending, with its enflamed sky and characters as silhouettes (a striking homage to the end of the first half of Gone with the Wind) is not so much a vision of redemption and triumph, but of a world consumed by fire, reducing humanity (but not the horse) to shadows.  I can ignore a lot in a film in favor of a few great moments like this, and while War Horse does have several moments as great as any in any film this year, there’s just too much nonsense to overcome for me to really consider it a great movie.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #1: Thundering Fleas

The first film in the boxset is an Our Gang short from July of 1926.  The first several films in the set predate the beginning of the true Laurel & Hardy partnership (that’s coming up in film #16, Putting Pants on Phillip), and this one doesn’t feature Stan Laurel at all.  It’s included because Oliver Hardy has a small part as a cop.  Hardy had a lot of roles like this, appearing in over 250 movies, before becoming a star.  Unlike vaudeville and music hall veterans like Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel, Hardy wasn’t a trained comic actor.  He was a movie fan who got into the business as a movie theatre worker (usher, projectionist, manager) then got a job as a grip and script clerk and eventually as an on-screen actor.  He started at a small studio based in Jacksonville, Florida in 1913, at a time when Hollywood hadn’t quite yet established itself as the movie capital of the country.  He later made films for studios in new York before moving to Los Angeles in 1917.  After freelancing for a year, he spent 1918-1923 working for Vitagraph and began working for Hal Roach in 1924.  Roach was one of the most successful comedy producers in history, producing films by Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Will Rogers and Harry Langdon, among others.  It was at the Roach Studios that Laurel & Hardy became a team and they stayed there until 1940.  All the films I’ll be covering in this set, as far as I can tell, were made at Roach.

This Our Gang film is a good example of the kind of supporting roles Hardy would play before his breakthrough with Laurel.  The plot involves the kids hanging out before a wedding, when one of them wanders off with his dog and watches a flea circus.  The fleas jump on the dog and make their escape, causing itchiness in all the humans the kid and dog come across.  Hardy plays a local cop who gets a flea infestation, takes his pants off to shake the fleas out then has his pants stolen.  After painting his long underwear black, he chases down the kids to get his pants back.  The fleas then invade the wedding and hilarity ensues.  It’s totally silly and surprisingly charming, and it integrates animation pretty well with closeups of the fleas riding bicycles and wearing hats and such.

The Laurel & Hardy Project

Around 5:30 AM a couple months ago, I caught a showing of the Laurel & Hardy short Two Tars on TCM and absolutely loved it.  The guys play a couple of sailors who cause a great deal of destruction at a traffic jam for no particular reason other than the pure joy of creating chaos.  This struck a chord with my newborn-addled mind and, after some helpful advice from this davekehr.com thread (where a commenter provides this brilliant explanation of the boys to his young daughter: “They’re both dumb, but the fat one thinks he’s smart”), I went and bought this massive Laurel & Hardy boxset from amazon.uk.  It’s bigger than the American DVD collection as it includes their silent films as well as their talkies.  My task then, is to watch all the film in the set, in chronological order and write about them here.  This is the list of the films, along with disc number and release date as provided by a helpful commenter at the amazon site, with links to the reviews added as I write them:

1. Thundering Fleas (21) 04.07.1926 
2. Along Came Auntie (9) 25.07.1926 
3. 45 Minutes from Hollywood (12) 26.12.1926 
4. Duck Soup (12) 13.03.1927 
5. Slipping Wives (10) 03.04.1927 
6. Jewish Prudence (21) 08.05.1927 
7. Love ‘Em and Weep (8) 12.06.1927 
8. Fluttering Hearts (21) 19.06.1927 
9. Why Girls Love Sailors (16) 17.07.1927 
10. With Love and Hisses (7) 28.08.1927 
11. Sugar Daddies (8) 10.09.1927 
12. Sailors, Beware! (16) 25.09.1927 
13. The Second Hundred Years (12) 08.10.1927 
14. Call of the Cuckoo (12) 15.10.1927 
15. Do Detectives Think? (20) 20.11.1927 
16. Putting Pants on Philip (15) 03.12.1927 
17. The Battle of the Century (19) 31.12.1927 
18. Leave ‘Em Laughing (2) 28.01.1928 
19. Flying Elephants (17) 12.02.1928 
20. The Finishing Touch (14) 25.02.1928 
21. From Soup to Nuts (1) 24.03.1928 
22. You’re Darn Tootin’ (11) 21.04.1928 
23. Their Purple Moment (13) 19.05.1928 
24. Should Married Men Go Home? (7) 08.09.1928 
25. Early to Bed (8) 06.10.1928 
26. Two Tars (16) 03.11.1928 
27. Habeas Corpus (20) 01.12.1928 
28. We Faw Down (13) 29.12.1928 
29. Liberty (20) 26.01.1929 
30. Wrong Again (20) 23.02.1929 
31. That’s My Wife (9) 23.03.1929 
32. Big Business (12) 20.04.1929 
33. Unaccustomed As We Are (7) 04.05.1929 
34. Double Whoopee (14) 18.05.1929 
35. Berth Marks (6) 01.06.1929 
36. Men O’War (16) 29.06.1929 
37. Perfect Day (2) 10.08.1929 
38. They Go Boom! (2) 21.09.1929 
39. Bacon Grabbers (20) 19.10.1929 
40. The Hoose-Gow (19) 16.11.1929 
41. Angora Love (20) 14.12.1929 
42. Night Owls (12) 04.01.1930 
43. Blotto (18) 08.02.1930 
44. Brats (5/21) 22.03.1930 
45. Below Zero (11) 26.04.1930 
46. Hog Wild (14) 31.05.1930 
47. The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (6) 06.09.1930 
48. Another Fine Mess (1) 29.11.1930 
49. Be Big! (18) 07.02.1931 
50. Chickens Come Home (8) 21.02.1931 
51. Laughing Gravy (10) 04.04.1931 
52. Our Wife (4) 16.05.1931 
53. Come Clean (8) 19.09.1931 
54. Pardon Us (19) 15.10.1931 
55. One Good Turn (3) 31.10.1931 
56. Beau Hunks (4) 12.12.1931 
57. On the Loose (9) 26.12.1931 
58. Helpmates (4) 23.01.1932 
59. Any Old Port! (16) 05.03.1932 
60. The Music Box (14) 16.04.1932 
61. The Chimp (17) 21.05.1932 
62. County Hospital (2) 25.06.1932 
63. Scram! (12) 10.09.1932 
64. Pack Up Your Troubles (15) 17.09.1932 
65. Their First Mistake (15) 05.11.1932 
66. Towed in a Hole (16) 31.12.1932 
67. Twice Two (5) 25.02.1933 
68. Me and My Pal (4) 22.04.1933 
69. The Midnight Patrol (20) 03.08.1933 
70. Busy Bodies (14) 07.10.1933 
71. Dirty Work (14) 25.11.1933 
72. Sons of the Desert (13) 29.12.1933 
73. Oliver the Eighth (6) 13.01.1934 
74. Going Bye-Bye! (20) 23.06.1934 
75. Them Thar Hills (2) 21.07.1934 
76. The Live Ghost (16) 08.12.1934 
77. Tit for Tat (2) 05.01.1935 
78. The Fixer Uppers (10) 09.02.1935 
79. Thicker Than Water (3) 16.03.1935 
80. The Bohemian Girl (9) 14.02.1936 
81. On the Wrong Trek (13) 18.04.1936 
82. Our Relations (5) 30.10.1936 
83. Way Out West (3) 16.04.1937 
84. Swiss Miss (17) 20.05.1938 
85. Block-Heads (7) 19.08.1938 
86. A Chump at Oxford (1) 25.01.1940 
87. Saps at Sea (11) 29.04.1940 

On The Artist

It’d be really easy to get all worked up about how bad this is, how it distorts not only the aesthetics of silent cinema but history itself in order to tell a pretty simple (yet still largely nonsensical) story, about how the decontextualization of of pastiches like this are indicative of the modern world’s haphazard approach to history, of the elevation of ignorance to a virtue in the name of an all-out assault on elitist experts who have the temerity to know things about things.

I could complain that the movie seems to have been moved forward in time two years for the sole reason that the director seems to think it’d be funny for the lead’s final silent film to be released the same day as the stock market crash.  By 1927, when the film begins, talking pictures were widely seen as inevitable.  Certainly by 1929, when the lead declares them a passing fad, they were an inescapable, established fact.  Less egregious is the film’s closing tap dance number, scored to a “Sing, Sing, Sing” style Swing number in 1932, a few years before one could reasonably expect to hear Swing music, certainly outside a Harlem club.  I could also get worked up about the fact that the only sung song in the film is “Pennies from Heaven” , a wonderful song from 1936.  The weirdest thing about the film is that it exists entirely in its own universe: there’s never any mention of any actual films, people, studios, music, anything.  It doesn’t take place in our world, but one of those vaguely real counterfactual places you get in an essay by a terrible history student.

Lots of people get worked up about the Vertigo music used in the film’s dramatic climax.  Kim Novak got worked up about it and used the word “rape”.  The music is jarring, it doesn’t fit the mood of the scene, though it would if the film was going in a different direction entirely, a more specific Hitchcock kind of thing where the girl is a creepy stalker or something.  It would be less jarring if the rest of the score was made up of references to other movie scores, but the rest of it is just stuff that sounds vaguely like older movie scores, not the thing itself.  That stuff could bother me as well, but I’d be more upset about the resolution of the scene, which goes for the tasteless Spielberg fakeout where you think something terrible is going to happen but it turns out to be a joke instead (think the shower scene in Schindler’s List).

I could get worked up about the total lack of motivation for the main character, that he deals with the transition to sound in a wholly irrational way for no apparent reason.  He doesn’t have an obstacle to overcome, his career flounders because he refuses to make sound movies.  But there’s no reason for that.  We’re not told he has a weird voice or thick accent, which was the main reason many silent film actors couldn’t make the transition.  The film just assumes that silent stars couldn’t be talking stars, which is simply false (one of the film’s in-jokes is a quote of the famous Greta Garbo line “I want to be alone” so obviously the filmmakers are aware that there were actors who were big in both silents and talkies).  A possible motivation might be an Erich von Stroheim-style ego meltdown, that he is an “Artist” who refuses to compromise his art with sound and creates a giant flop that ruins his name in Hollywood.  This appears to be the approach, but we see no artistry at all in the guy’s films.  They appear to be nothing but silly (anachronistic, as this wasn’t a genre at the time, but apparently a reference to the director and star’s OSS movies) spy movies (at one point we see footage of Fairbanks’s Zorro with our hero clumsily spliced in, but making him a Fairbanks figure doesn’t do much for the uncompromising artist angle (Fairbanks’s decline had to do with middle age and bad movies, not an unwillingness to adapt the purity of his vision (which he never really had to begin with))).

Anyway, I could get all worked up about all of that, but there’s really no reason to.  It’s a light, at times effervescent film with some really wonderful moments (the Borzage-referencing jacket scene is one of the loveliest things I’ve seen in quite awhile) and what appears to be a genuine affection for film history.  It’s a pleasant, cute film with some charming actors and a talented dog and to call it any less than that is to judge it as something it’s not intended to be.  There’s no reason to get worked up about it because there’s no reason to take it that seriously.  No one takes it seriously, right?  Right?