Entries in silent films (24)
Cinema, our favorite artform, may have already celebrated its Centennial year but Movie Stars (our favorite part of the artform if we're being honest) were invented later. Lillian Gish, the honorary mother of screen acting if not quite "the first movie star", and her sister Dorothy Gish starred in their first D.W. Griffith short An Unseen Enemy a full one hundred years ago... or one hundred and one depending on where you get your silent film info.
Not all pictures are worth a thousand words but if you wanna double down, make sure to include pretty girls.
The one-reeler -- which thankfully survived when so many films of its day didn't -- is about two sisters (Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish) who are grieving the loss of their recently deceased father. Their brother liquidates their estate and suddenly the sisters are flush with cash -- boy does that wrap up their mourning process; they're giddy by the two minute mark! But mo money, mo problems. If someone has a lot of cash, someone else will want it and soon the cinema's first sibling darlings are under attack.
The short and an awesome Lillian Gish anecdote after the jump...
Hey everybody. Michael C here fresh from seeing one of the legends of the cinema sing and dance his way through his life story.
At one point during Chaplin, The Musical which opens tonight on Broadway, a troop of Little Tramps march on stage to perform a chorus line version of the classic dinner roll dance from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. It was at this point that I began to suspect that the show had not quite licked the problem of how to adapt the life and times of the silent film genius to the Great White Way.
Trying to cram anybody’s life into a coherent story structure is always going to be a daunting task. Chaplin, The Musical attempts to compensate for the familiarity of their approach with heaping helpings of Broadway razzle-dazzle. And while there is an undeniable thrill to watching performers executing in real time the kind of stunt work that Chaplin would take dozens of takes to perfect, it isn’t nearly enough to distract from the fact that we are once again being pulled through the same old biopic paces.
Robert Downey Jr.’s uncanny screen performance in the title role was the main selling point of Richard Attenborough’s disappointing Chaplin (1992), and the same could be said of Rob McClure’s work as Sir Charles on stage. McClure is splendidly effective when performing Chaplin-esque pantomime during Charlie’s pre-fame days and manages to convincingly evoke the enormous appeal of the Little Tramp. His recreation of that most famous of movie characters holds up even when a giant screen is produced on stage to incorporate the actor into some of Chaplin’s most famous images. Yet McClure’s efforts are never able to gather momentum as Chaplin, The Musical proceeds haphazardly from event to event, in the familiar fashion of unfocused biopics. From Chaplin's series of young gold-digging brides to the controversy over his outspoken leftist politics. From his struggle to adjust to the advent of sound to the torment of dealing with his institutionalized mother, who acts as the story’s Rosebud, the motivation behind all his choices artistic and personal. Chaplin often veers dangerously close to Walk Hard territory in moments like the one where Mack Sennett commands Chaplin to go from onscreen novice to comedic genius literally overnight or be fired.
Chaplin could have compensated for its well-worn material with some dynamic musical numbers, but unfortunately the songs by Christopher Curtis- though enjoyable enough while being performed – evaporate from memory upon reentering brightness of Times Square. It’s difficult to recall any song specific to Charlie Chaplin. Rather, we get generic showbiz material and love ballads that could be from a dozen other Hollywood stories.
That said, it's hard to imagine a Chaplin fan isn’t going to have some fun at this show, despite all its flaws. The choreography by Warren Carlyle, fresh off his smashing work on Follies, is consistently inventive and the set decoration and costumes do a nice job evoking the black and white world of Chaplin’s films. Most important of all, the creative team succeed in expressing their deep love of the subject, even as one wishes they had endeavored to find a fresher approach. As tiresome as all the movie to stage adaptations have become I can’t help but think they would’ve had more success simply making a musical version of Modern Times or City Lights. As it stands, Chaplin, The Musical fails to conquer that central question that faces all biographies, be they musicals, movies or otherwise: Why isn’t the viewer’s time better spent experiencing the work which made the subject famous in the first place?
This week's "Best Shot" selection iss Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924), a 44 minute silent comedy. Silent comedies were often so swoony with romantic plots that I always want to call them melodramedies or maybe romantic slapsticomedy. Rom-Slapstick? The film opens with a title card that warns us against multi-tasking.
There is an old proverb which says: Don't try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both."
That's an awfully funny thing to warn us against in a Buster Keaton film. The innovative entertainer was equal parts director, actor, star, stuntman and screenwriter. And he excelled at all of them.
The movie projectionist hero of Sherlock Jr isn't the great detective he'd like to imagine himself to be -- the crime at the heart of the movie has to be solved by another -- but that's what the movies are for, providing him with sweet escape until real life does come to rescue him. In a way, Sherlock Jr, is like the inverse of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in that our movie lover hero enters the screen to fantasize about being his idol rather than a screen idol entering the real world for the heroine who fantasizes.
It's impossible to imagine the craft we've lost nowadays given that everything is computerized and visual effects are easier than ever. I have no idea how Buster enters and exits the movie screen with such panache and believability but for perhaps a trick of lighting. And even more impressive is the elaborate stunt sequences. Though this is "Best Shot" rather than "Best Setpiece" old movies don't differentiate between the two as much since there are so fewer cuts. So for my Best Shot I had to select the sequence / shot that made me laugh the hardest, even though out of context it's completely terrifying:
The Projectionist has been riding on the handlebars of his friends bike and has yet to realize that his friend has long since been knocked off. After a series of hilariously close encounters and dangerous obstacles besetting a mostly obviously hero, we get a title card that can't possibly be actual dialogue (given that no other characters are in the frame) so I like to think of it as a projection of what we the audience are feeling.
I thought you'd never make it."
Immediately after that, Buster goes careening towards a moving train that never once looks like a rear projection and it's only then that he himself becomes terrified and covers his eyes. His long delayed terror is part of the joke as is the covering of his eyes (so heroic!) and the train is the coup de grâce. After the narrow miss (Did he really do this? If so he was certifiable!) he keeps on covering his eyes and finally realizes that no one is controlling the bike. A beautiful extended joke and a thrilling bit of cinema.
And the Projectionist is still not out of the woods because Buster Keaton never rests; the multi-hyphenate multi-tasking genius is too busy doing everything at once... and doing justice to all of them.
More 'Best Shot' entries for your reading pleasure. Support movie-loving blogs that care about movies beyond their opening weekends!
Coco Hits NY proves its tough to escape the debate of Chaplin vs. Keaton
The Family Berzurcher details why Keaton is so often compared to Jacques Tati and the heart and brains behind the gags
The Entertainment Junkie "it's a miracle Keaton's characters make it to the end of the films"
Awww, the Movies the black and white rose of ... sherlock?
Film Actually 'low key by today's standards' but it has everything: chase scenes, explosions, stunts, and more...
Antagony & Ecstasy once wrote about this in his film school days!
Okinawa Assault would anyone insure Keaton today with his daredevil stunts?
Pussy Goes Grrr "Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction"
Amiresque on Keaton's perfect movie face
Against the Hype a choreographic delight...
Encore's World Escapism!
Armchair Audience it's hard to capture a best shot in this fast moving Keaton vehicle
Next week on "Best Shot":
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) on the cusp of Gene Kelly's Centennial Week. It'll be a biggie so please join us Wednesday night, August 15th and select your favorite shot in the film many believe is the greatest musical of all time.
We're celebrating Gene Kelly from now through the end of August. 100th anniversaries for all time favorite movie stars don't come around so often, you know, so we Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance! Gottttaaaa Dannnccce! ♫
There's a lot to parse within the BFI's Sight & Sound poll, a once a decade event in which the [air quotes] greatest films of all time [/end air quotes] are named. Given that the results are a product of accumulation of individual opinions, I enlisted Team Film Experience for a variety of voices to respond to it and you can see their quotes below. The list is a critic friendly and far more international affair than other famous mainstream rankings like AFI's Top 100. How did they determine the rank? According to Nick James 1000 critics, academics, writers, cinephiles, and directors were polled as to what ten films they considered The Greatest Ever, whether great meant "historical significance", "artistry" or something more personal to them. 846 top-ten lists were received which means we would like to volunteer to replace any of the 164 invitees who couldn't be bothered next time!
Every entry on a top ten list received one vote so rank didn't matter, nor should it, given that once you're in the upper echelons of achievement it's like splitting hairs. Or, since we're talking about Vertigo, judging who has the best bunhead.
As you've already heard, Alfred Hitchcock's discomfiting chilly double-identity thriller VERTIGO (1958) tossed the discomfitting chilly and ever triumphant CITIZEN KANE (1941) from its bell tower. Is it lonely at the top? Sure thing. [The list and what Team Experience had to say after the jump]