The Speediest Film Ever Made?: THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1932) were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Trial of Vivienne Ware will screen in our Fox Restorations from MoMA series on Saturday, February 11 at 7 p.m., followed at 8:15 p.m. by 6 Hours to Live.

The Trial of Vivienne Ware is the product of a long line of both real-world events and multi-media tie-ins: two actual murder trials inspired multiple radio broadcasts, two novels based on those airings, and at least five films (one, an unofficial remake of this film, Just Off Broadway [Fox, 1942]).

Hal Erickson summarizes “All this was prologue for Fox Films’ motion picture adaptation of The Trial of Vivienne Ware, directed by William K. Howard and released on April 29, 1932. Lifting elements from both of his novels, Kenneth Ellis collaborated on the script with Philip Klein and Barry Conners. The result is one of the most exhilarating murder mysteries ever made, its 56-minute running time packed with enough material for at least three movies. Joan Bennet stars as Vivienne, with Donald Cook as her defense attorney (and loyal sweetheart) John  Sutherland, Jameson Thomas as the ill-fated Fenwicke, and Lillian Bond as Dolores Divine.”

There is a general consensus amongst reviewers (both past and present) of The Trial of Vivienne Ware— the film is fast. TCM states on its website that this is “Possibly the speediest film ever made.” MoMA dubs the film’s speech style “machine-gun dialogue.” Others point to the innovative and repeated use of whip pans, a method of cinematography which relies on a quick swivel of the camera on the head of the tripod, rapidly moving from one line of action to another. Still others note the unique storytelling methods taken up by the filmmakers, including multiple flashbacks as well as a radio-inspired blow-by-blow narration (provided by Zasu Pitts).

Beyond Ware’s innovative use of stylistic techniques (sound, cinematography, and narration in the still-early sound era in Hollywood), the film also proved unique in the story it told. According to a New York Times reviewer in 1932: “It is nothing new for film producers to play fast and loose with court-room procedure in their shadow stories, but in ‘The Trial of Vivienne Ware,’ the feature now at the Roxy, the tactics employed are such that they make the liberties taken in other productions seem relatively restrained. In one scene of this current murder trial a dagger is flung across the court room at a woman witness, and later a man is fatally shot while testifying.”

In 1930, after hearing about the successful radio broadcast of an actual courtroom trial in Denmark, editor Edmund D. Coblentz (New York American), decided to enlist a writer to create a similarly serialized, fictional trial to be aired in the U.S. The result was The Trial of Vivienne Ware, a six-night serial program aired on New York’s NBC-Blue affiliate WJZ. The program was part of a multi-media promotional tie-in— each morning, after a segment of the trial had been broadcast on the radio, listeners could read a recap of the proceedings and were encouraged to submit a conclusion for the narrative (for a cash prize).

The script for this program had been heavily influenced by an American true-crime story— the Thaw-White trial of 1906. Harry Kendall Thaw was the son and heir to the fortune of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. On June 25, 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw murdered renowned architect Stanford White, who had sexually assaulted Thaw's wife, model/chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. The trial is notable for the proliferation of yellow journalism and sensationalist reporting surrounding the case, which was met with counter arguments by the wealthy Thaw publicity machine. Indeed, only one week after the murder, a nickelodeon film, Rooftop Murder, was released, rushed into production by Thomas Edison. After one hung jury, Harry Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Later, the Thaw-White case was worked into the historical tapestry of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime and the 1981 Milos Forman film adaptation. The trial also inspired the 1956 Fox movie, The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, and the story was modernized by Claude Chabrol for his French drama, A Girl Cut in Two (2008).

As a side-note, several later reviewers have called attention to Joan Bennett’s hair color in this film. She was a natural blonde (as seen here) and later became a brunette. More importantly, Bennett was under contract to Fox Film Corporation at this time and received top-billing on her pictures. Only a year after making Ware, Bennett would move to RKO to play Amy in Little Women (1933), alongside Katherine Hepburn and Frances Dee.

Adventures in 3-D Sound: Re-opening the HOUSE OF WAX

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the sound design in House of Wax (1953) was written by Eric Dienstfrey, doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His dissertation traces the development of surround sound technologies from 1930 to 1959.  His research has been published in Film History and Music and the Moving Image. A restored 3-D and stereo DCP of House of Wax will screen as part of our Cinematheque in 3-D! series on Saturday, January 28 at 5:30 p.m., preceded by the Three Stooges in Spooks.

By Eric Dienstfrey

Warners’ 1953 horror classic House of Wax arguably features some of the most memorable and enjoyable stereoscopic effects produced during Hollywood’s “golden age” of 3-D.  At times the effects recall the primitive aesthetics of earlier forays into stereoscopic technology, such as the carnival barker who slaps his paddle ball into the audience.  At other times the effects are almost laughable, such as the brawl during the film’s climax wherein characters thrust their fists toward the camera and not toward their opponents.  Even more notable, director André De Toth wore an eye-patch when making House of Wax, and was therefore unable to experience the very three-dimensional sensations that have come to define the film’s place in motion picture history.

Less well known, however, is the film’s contribution to stereophonic sound.  Despite contemporary histories—which generally suggest that surround-sound designs are relatively new cinematic phenomena—Hollywood had been implementing and codifying various forms of multi-channel audio since the transition to recorded sound in the late 1920s.  And House of Wax is one of the more fascinating of these stereophonic experiments.

When the film premiered at New York’s Paramount Theatre on April 10th, 1953, it boasted a new four-channel (and five-track) sound system co-developed by Warners and RCA and branded WarnerPhonic Sound.  This stereo configuration consisted of three loudspeakers behind the screen (in a left, center, and right orientation) and a “rear-effects” channel for the many loudspeakers situated on the rear and side walls of the auditorium.  The system also included a monophonic down-mix of the entire four-channel sound design.  This back-up track was present just in case the complicated stereo technology broke down during screenings.

WarnerPhonic stereo offered an inventive conception of motion picture sound reproduction in an era when terms like “high fidelity” and “acoustical realism” were still being defined.  More, it forced filmmakers to answer the following questions: Which sounds should play from the left, right, and surround channels, and how should these sounds function within the film’s story?  Most editors and mixers working in Hollywood at the time felt that extra audio channels were best suited for musical effects, specifically those effects that enhanced the reproduction of orchestral scores.  Nonetheless, Warners’ sound department—led by veteran rerecording mixer George Groves—had another idea in mind.  Instead of using the extra stereo channels for just music, Warners used them to play thrill-inducing sound effects.  These effects included the screams of distressed damsels and the crackling of a burning wax figurines.  In a sense, the surround-sound mix for House of Wax constructed the extra channels to accentuate the emotional drama during scenes when onscreen characters endure life-threatening peril.

Perhaps the most famous of these scenes is during the film’s second reel, when the man in the black cape throws one of his victims down an elevator shaft.  The crack of the victim’s spine as it snaps in two not only plays from the front channels, but from the rear loudspeakers.  In other words, Warners treated the film’s surround-sound effects to work in concert with its three-dimensional visuals: the terrifying images startled the audiences from the front, and the surround sounds continued to assault them from behind.

The release of House of Wax became a thrilling sensory experience for many filmgoers who were lucky enough to attend WarnerPhonic screenings.  And such screenings were not just limited to New York.  Following its initial premiere, the film and its sound system toured throughout much of the United States.  When it played in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the city manager even dubbed the event “Stereophonic 3D Day” in honor of the film’s aesthetic achievements.  But such excitement was short-lived, for the sound system was deemed economically impractical throughout the industry.  It required three strips of film to play simultaneously: two strips for the stereoscopic image, and one additional strip that housed the left, center, and right stereo channels (the rear-effects and mono channels were each housed on the two strips containing the picture tracks).  The use of three filmstrips not only increased distribution costs, in many cities it also demanded more projectionists, thus raising each theater’s overhead.

By the Fall of 1953, and after only a handful of titles were released in this new surround-sound format, Warners ended its WarnerPhonic operations.  All of the studio’s future stereo releases would be distributed onto four-track CinemaScope prints, a format that necessitated only one filmstrip to house a widescreen image and multi-channel sound design.  Subsequent runs of House of Wax would play for audiences in mono, with some reports soon suggesting that the original four-channel mix was lost.

The sound design you will hear at the UW Cinematheque on Saturday is sadly not the original 1953 WarnerPhonic stereo design, but its 1992 restoration.  The newer mix was conducted at Chace Audio, a postproduction facility in Burbank that specializes in up-mixing Hollywood releases for contemporary audio formats.  House of Wax’s four-channel sound design was specifically up-mixed for Dolby Stereo, the leading home video format at the time the restoration was completed.  In order to create their mix, Chace engineers spread the film’s surviving monophonic track across Dolby’s left and right audio channels.  Chace then recorded new sounds to help simulate many of the directional effects that audiences would have heard in 1953.  Pay particular attention to the footsteps as the mystery man stalks Sue (Phyllis Kirk) through New York’s foggy streets, as these are some of the best simulations of how Warners sound department originally mixed the scene for stereo (as advertised).

Fortunately for us, the film’s rear effects channel was archived along with the film’s mono mix.  This act of preservation provided Chace the opportunity to use the original effects track during its 1992 restoration.  And due to Dolby Stereo’s incorporation of matrix encoding, you will be able to hear many of the film’s most salient surround-sound effects play from the rear loudspeakers as they did in 1953.

But I won’t tell you when these acoustical surprises occur.  That would ruin the fun!

J.J. Murphy's Favorites of 2016

Friday, January 6th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By J.J. Murphy

Hamel Family Distinguished Chair in Communication Arts

Director, UW Cinematheque

Favorite Films of 2016:

1. DRUNK aka DRINK (1965, Andy Warhol)

2. MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins)

3. AMERICAN HONEY (Andrea Arnold)

4. CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt)

5. TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade)

6. THE WITNESS (James Solomon)

7. LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle)

8. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan)

9. SPRING NIGHT, SUMMER NIGHT (1967, Joseph L. Anderson)

10. ACTOR MARTINEZ (Nathan Silver and Mike Ott)

Ben Reiser's Favorites of 2016

Thursday, January 5th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By Ben Reiser

Programmer & Accounts Manager, UW Cinematheque

Festival Coordinator, Wisconsin Film Festival

Movies I’m Really Glad I Saw in 2016:

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)

Arabian Nights (2015, Miguel Gomes)

Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015, Oz Perkins)

Don’t Breathe (2016, Fede Alvarez)

Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton)

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, Asghar Farhadi)

Frank and the Wondercat (2015, Tony Massil, Pablo Alvarez-Mesa)

Heaven’s Gate (1980, Michael Cimino)

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

Hell or High Water (2016, Daved Mackenzie)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waikiki)

Hush (2016, Mike Flanagan)

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016, Edward Zwick)

La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)

The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

Moana (2016, John Musker, Ron Clements)

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015, Rodrigo Pia)

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)

Morris From America (2016, Chad Hartigan)

The Mother and the Whore (1974, Jean Eustache)

The Neon Demon (2016, Nicholas Winding Refn)

The Other Side (2015, Roberto Minervini)

Presenting Princess Shaw (2015, Ido Haar)

The Revenant (2015, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

Rules Don’t Apply (2016, Warren Beatty)

Sing (2016, Garth Jennings)

Sing Street (2016, John Carney)

Sunset Song (2015, Terence Davies)

Sweet Charity (1969, Bob Fosse)

Tharlo (2015, Pema Tseden)

To Each His Own (1946, Mitchell Leisen)

Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)

The Witch (2016, Robert Eggers)

Matt St. John's Favorites of 2016

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By Matt St. John

Project Assistant, UW Cinematheque

20 favorite new-to-me films of 2016:

1. MOANA (2016, John Musker, Ron Clement

2. MOONLIGHT (2016, Barry Jenkins)

3. IN TRANSIT (2015, Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, Benjamin Wu)

4. LITTLE SISTER (2016, Zach Clark)

5. THE LOVE WITCH (2016, Anna Biller)

6. AMERICAN HONEY (2016, Andrea Arnold)

7. DIE HARD (1988, John McTiernan)

8. ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (2016,  Michal Marczak)

9. NO HOME MOVIE (2015, Chantal Akerman)

10. DON’T BREATHE (2016, Fede Alvarez)

11. CERTAIN WOMEN (2016, Kelly Reichardt)

12. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (2016, Ezra Edelman)

13. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)

14. ARRIVAL (2016, Denis Villenueve)

15. LITTLE VERA (1988, Vasili Pichul)

16. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

17. BASIC INSTINCT (1992, Paul Verhoeven)

18. FLOTEL EUROPA (2015, Vladimir Tomic)

19. LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

20. THE OTHER SIDE (2015, Roberto Minervini)

Mike King's Favorites of 2016

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By Mike King

Programmer & Chief Projectionist, UW Cinematheque

Senior Programmer, Wisconsin Film Festival

Top ten films to play Madison in 2016:

ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015, Miguel Gomes)

CERTAIN WOMEN (2016, Kelly Reichardt)

CHEVALIER (2015, Athina Rachel Tsangari)

I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY (2016, Feng Xiaogang)

JACKIE (2016, Pablo Larraín)

LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

THE LOBSTER (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)

MUSTANG (2015, Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

OUR LITTLE SISTER (2015, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (2015, Hong Sang-soo)

Jim Healy's Favorite Movies of 2016

Monday, January 2nd, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, Director of Programming, UW Cinematheque & Wisconsin Film Festival

Between January 1 and December 31 in 2016, I managed to view 634 feature films that I had never seen before. My list of favorites contains recent releases and other movies from throughout cinema history. I encourage you to see as many as you can.

My very favorites, in alphabetical order:

ALLIED (2016, Robert Zemeckis)

THE BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

BLONDE CRAZY (1932, Roy del Ruth)

DON’T BREATHE (2016, Fede Alvarez)

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

FINDING DORY (2016, Andrew Stanton)

LA HORSE (1970, Pierre Granier-Deferre)

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016, Taika Waititi)

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016, Travis Knight)

LA LA LAND (2016, Damien Chazelle)

MOANA (2016, John Musker, Ron Clements)

NORTH WEST FRONTIER (FLAME OVER INDIA, 1959, J. Lee Thompson)

PATTES BLANCHE (1949, Jean Gremillon)

RAWHIDE (1951, Henry Hathaway)

SAMMY GOING SOUTH (1963, Alexander Mackendrick)

SING (2016, Garth Jennings)

THE WELL (1951, Leo Popkin & Russell Rouse)

TO EACH HIS OWN (1946, Mitchell Leisen)

ZOOTOPIA (2016, Rich Moore, Byron Howard)

 

I also got a lot of pleasure out of the following movies, in alphabetical order:

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932, Michael Curtiz)

A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1958, Douglas Sirk)

AFRAID TO TALK (1932, Edward L. Cahn)

ALICE IN THE CITIES (1974, Wim Wenders)

ARRIVAL (2016, Denis Villenueve)

AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY (2016, Jeff Feuerzeig)

L'AVENIR/THINGS TO COME (2016, Mia Hansen-Love)

BACHELOR’S AFFAIRS (1932, Alfred Werker)

BACK STREET (1932, John M. Stahl)

BACKGROUND TO DANGER (1943, Raoul Walsh)

BIG CITY BLUES (1931, Mervyn LeRoy)

THE BIG BROADCAST (1932, Frank Tuttle)

THE BIG RACKET (1976, Enzo G. Castellari)

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934, John Francis Dillon)

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016, Ang Lee)

BITE THE BULLET (1975, Richard Brooks)

BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS (1933, Roy Del Ruth)

CAN HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS (1969, Anthony Newley)

IL CAPPOTTO (1952, Alberto Lattuada)

CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935, Michael Curtiz)

CAROL (2015, Todd Haynes)

CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933, William A. Wellman)

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932, Marcel Varnel & Wm. Cameron Menzies)

THE CHASE (1946, Arthur Ripley)

THE CINEMA TRAVELERS (2016, Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya)

COLOSSAL (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)

COPS AND ROBBERS (1973, Aram Avakian)

DANTE’S INFERNO (1935, Harry Lachman)

DE PALMA (2015, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

DEATH IN SARAJEVO (2016, Danis Tanovic)

DEVIL AND THE DEEP (1932, Marion Gering)

DIARY OF A MADMAN (1963, Reginald Le Borg)

DIE NIBELUNGEN: KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE (1924, Fritz Lang)

DIE NIBELUNGEN: SIEGFRIED (1924, Fritz Lang)

DOGS (2016, Bogdan Mirica)

DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1999, Bruce Beresford)

DRAGON LORD (1982, Jackie Chan)

DRUM (1976, Steve Carver)

THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933, Stuart Walker)

THE FIRST LEGION (1951, Douglas Sirk)

EL NORTE (1983, Gregory Nava)

EUROPE ’51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini)

EVER IN MY HEART (1933, Archie Mayo)

EX-LADY (1933, Robert Florey)

FALBALAS (1945, Jacques Becker)

FENCES (2016, Denzel Washington)

LES FILS DE JOSEPH (2016, Eugene Green)

FIRST GIRL I LOVED (2016, Kerem Sanga)

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016, Stephen Frears)

FLYING DEUCES (1939, A. Edward Sutherland)

FRONT PAGE WOMAN (1935, Michael Curtiz)

THE GLASS WEB (1954, Jack Arnold)

GOLDSTONE (2016, Ivan Sen)

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016, Mel Gibson)

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016, David Mackenzie)

A HEN IN THE WIND (1948, Yasujiro Ozu)

HER MAN (1930, Tay Garnett)

HER SISTER’S SECRET (1946, Edgar G. Ulmer)

HI, NELLIE! (1934, Mervyn LeRoy)

HOTEL DU NORD (1938, Marcel Carné)

A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931, William Wyler)

I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE (2016, Osgood Perkins)

I SELL ANYTHING (1934, Robert Florey)

I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016, Ken Loach)

ILLEGITIM (2016, Adrian Sitaru)

THE INTERN (2015, Nancy Meyers)

JULIETA (2016, Pedro Almodóvar)

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND THE TENNESSEE KIDS (2016, Jonathan Demme)

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (1933, James Whale)

KUNG FU PANDA 3 (2016, Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh)

THE LAST CHANCE (1945, Leopoldo Lindtberg)

LAUGHTER IN HELL (1933, Edward L. Cahn)

LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963, Ralph Nelson)

LITTLE MEN (2016, Ira Sachs)

LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976, Ruggero Deodato)

LA MAIN AU DIABLE (1943, Maurice Tourneur)

THE LOVE WITCH (2016, Anna Biller)

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016, Antoine Fuqua)

MALONE (1987, Harley Cokliss)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

MANDY (1952, Alexander Mackendrick)

MARCH OR DIE (1977, Dick Richards)

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940, Rouben Mamoulian)

MELODIE EN SOUS-SOL (1963, Henri Verneuil)

MELODY TIME (1948, Clyde Geronimi, et al)

MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968, Thomas Gutierrez Alea)

MERCENAIRE (2016, Sacha Wolff)

MESSAGE FROM THE KING (2016, Fabrice Du Welz)

MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL (2016, Spike Lee)

MILANO ROVENTE (1973, Umberto Lenzi)

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016, Tim Burton)

MOONLIGHT (2016, Barry Jenkins)

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (2016, Chad Hartigan)

LA MORTE RISALE A IERI SERA (1970, Duccio Tessari)

MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (1975, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

MR. BILLION (1977, Jonathan Kaplan)

MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970, John Waters)

MUSTANG (2015, Deniz Gamze Urguven)

THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955, Andrew L. Stone)

NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER (1980, Robert Butler)

NO SAD SONGS FOR ME (1950, Rudolph Mate)

OJ: MADE IN AMERICA (2016, Ezra Edelman)

OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943, Vincent Sherman)

L’OMBRE DES FEMMES (2015, Philippe Garrel)

PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951, Curtis Bernhardt)

PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (2016, John Lee)

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991, Stuart Gordon)

PORK CHOP HILL (1959, Lewis Milestone)

LA PROVINCIALE (1953, Mario Soldati)

QUEEN OF KATWE (2016, Mira Nair)

THE REVENANT (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US (1932, Alfred E. Green)

RUBY GENTRY (1952, King Vidor)

RULES DON’T APPLY (2016, Warren Beatty)

THE SATAN BUG (1965, John Sturges)

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934, Harold Young)

SCUM (1979, Alan Clarke)

THE SEA WOLF (1941, Michael Curtiz)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016, Chris Renaud)

THE SHALLOWS (2016, Jaume Collet-Serra)

SI MUERO ANTES DE DESPERTAR (1952, C.H. Christensen)

SIGNORE E SIGNORI (1966, Pietro Germi)

SING STREET (2016, John Carney)

SOLO SUNNY (1980, Konrad Wolf)

LES SORCIERES DE SALEM (1957, Raymond Rouleau)

STELLA DALLAS (1925, Henry King)

THE STRANGER'S HAND (1954, Mario Soldati)

THE STUDENT (2016, Kiril Serebrennikov)

SUGAR CANE ALLEY (1983, Euzhan Palcy)

SULLY (2016, Clint Eastwood)

SWEET CHARITY (1969, Bob Fosse)

TICKLED (2016, David Farrier, Dylan Reeve)

TRUE CONFESSION (1937, Wesley Ruggles)

UN CARNET DU BAL (1937, Julien Duvivier)

UNDER THE SHADOW (2016, Babak Anvari)

THE WAYWARD BUS (1957, Victor Vicas)

WEINER (2016, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

WHEN LADIES MEET (1933, Harry Beaumont)

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS (1986, Jimmy Murakami)

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (2015, Michael Moore)

THE WITNESS (2015, James Solomon)

XMEN: APOCALYPSE (2016, Bryan Singer)

THE YOUNG MASTER (1980, Jackie Chan)

THE SNAKE PIT: Prestige, Paternal Psychoanalysis and Performance

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1948 drama The Snake Pit  was written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm archival print of The Snake Pit will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on December 4 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Megan Boyd

It is not mere coincidence that 20th Century Fox’s unsettling film, The Snake Pit, was released the same year as the monumental Paramount decision. Even before the Paramount decision ordered studios to divest themselves of their theaters, 1940s films like The Snake Pit were rendered possible by shifting production practices and power relations between studios, directors and performers throughout the decade. Directors and performers were able to obtain some influence within the studio system, and the 1940s would be marked by these developments—developments that would allow personnel to explore controversial ‘prestige’ themes and for performers such as Oliva de Havilland to have more control over their projects.

Even before the Paramount decision in 1948, studios like Fox had already been shifting from central producers to a package-unit system that granted certain producers, directors and performers a certain amount of independence during their working process. This encouragement of certain directors and performers, particularly those associated with A pictures, to pursue riskier but more ‘artistic’ projects was partially in response to the lessening of B-level production in the 1940s. Studios now had to compete with one another primarily with A films and thus, there was increased competition to make the A projects distinctive from those of other studios. At Fox, Daryl Zanuck produced a series of ‘social problem’ projects that might have previously been considered box office poison. The Snake Pit’s use of psychoanalysis and Olivia de Havilland’s performance both demonstrate critical shifts in film content engendered by this more permissive atmosphere.

Following the critical acclaim and award onslaught for Zanuck’s Academy Award-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), an indictment of anti-Semitism, Zanuck went on to produce The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit was based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical novel, which described a woman’s mental breakdown and experiences within a mental institution. While The Snake Pit is often examined within the context of Zanuck’s social problem films, the content of the film correlates more directly with a rising interest in psychoanalysis in 1940s American cinema. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit both benefits and suffers from its 1940s cultural context. By this decade, Sigmund Freud’s notions of psychoanalysis, particularly in regards to social repression and women’s hysteria, had acquired a significant pop cultural cache. Filmmakers frequently explored character psychology, sexual repression and problematic familial relations, seen in films such as King’s Row (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Locket (1946) or Mourning Becomes Electra (1947).  As in many of these other film efforts (with the exception of Spellbound), the female mind is presented as a fragile, problematic site to be investigated.  While Ward’s novel was much more critical of mental institutions as a whole and openly addressed some of the restrictive elements of marriage that led her to her breakdown, the film adaptation, as with Gentleman’s Agreement and some of Zanuck’s other social problem films, rewrites the institutional problem as an individualized problem—often localizing blame for social injustices on female characters. For instance, many of the dislikable male nurses from the book are removed and replaced with cruel, female nurses, who are given extended sequences in the film where they are shown tying protagonist Virginia in a straight jacket or speaking harshly to other patients. The blame for Virginia’s condition is assigned in flashbacks to the cold, callous nature of her mother, which forced her to become unnaturally fixated on her father. These childhood concerns are attributed as the source of Virginia’s inability to let her husband touch her. This maternal source of Mary’s breakdown differs from the blame placed on marital discord and stifling domesticity present throughout Ward’s autobiography. Finally, while the character Virginia is equally critical of her male doctors in the book, Virginia’s male doctor in the film is portrayed as a sympathetic savior—the only one willing to treat Virginia like a human being. In the book, Virginia critiques, “I do not like thee, Dr. Kik. I think you are rather silly.” This is quite a contrast from Virginia’s reliance on Dr. Kik and male diagnosis in the film, where she instantly accepts his judgment with responses such as, “It’s funny…everything you’ve said makes sense. I feel as though I know it.” The troubles of mental and marital institutions then, are reassigned to ‘nasty’ women—the callousness of the institutions’ nurses, Virginia’s mother and Virginia’s own frigidity.

Despite the troubling nature of the film’s recasting of institutional problems, the film presents Olivia de Havilland in a memorable performance. De Havilland’s treatment by film scholars often seems to reflect her treatment by characters in her films; she is never a source of fascination or fixation, but rather, acknowledged as dependable and competent. Yet de Havilland’s double Academy Award-winning career, particularly in the 1940s, was nothing short of remarkable. Though de Havilland began her career in sweet, ingénue roles, such as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) or Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), she transformed her career (partially thanks to a lawsuit against Warner Brothers that encouraged more freedom of choice in actors’ selection of screen roles) by specializing in plain or somewhat unsympathetic characters that are underestimated by those around them. These were the crowing achievements of her career—not the seductive or glamorous roles embodied by many of the 1940s female stars, from Rita Hayworth to Betty Grable.

De Havilland’s performance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939) provided a blueprint for many of her memorable 1940s screen performances, including The Snake Pit. De Havilland performs Melanie largely as a sweet, liltingly voiced character, almost too gentle for this world—until she begins to create key vocal shifts in moments of surprising grit. The audience is almost taken aback when, having gotten used to the contrast between Melanie’s sweetness and Scarlett’s spirit, Scarlett has shot a Northern soldier and Melanie emerges from her room to pronounce in a low, husky voice (while holding a sword), “Scarlett, you killed him. Good. I’m glad you killed him.” This ability to shift abruptly from lilting to harsh vocal tones remained a key staple throughout de Havilland’s most acclaimed performances. De Havilland incorporates this in The Snake Pit as we see the contrast between early moments of happiness between Virginia and her husband and Virginia’s later jarring screeches and cynical, dry narration in the mental institution. The performance contrasts are perhaps most effectively employed in de Havilland’s Academy Award-winning appearance the following year in The Heiress (1949), in which the audience watches de Havilland’s plain, naïve protagonist gradually shift to a bitter, stronger woman determined to teach her former, fortune-hunting suitor a lesson. That de Havilland could remain such a star in the 1940s, when her Academy Award nominated performances contain such a lack of romance—even bordering on the grotesque—is particularly worthy of note in a decade not often seen as opportunity-laden for female film performers.

Please enjoy The Snake Pit, both for its place within a radically shifting 1940s film industry and for Olivia de Havilland’s unusual position amongst Hollywood screen heroines.

Please Give to the Cinematheque Today!

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

"Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody' else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day.

The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people."


Roger Ebert
        
As we approach the end of 2016, we hope you can reflect on how the UW Cinematheque has enriched your life this year.

This year, the Cinematheque has presented nearly 150 screenings and programs, all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South. Our selections have included series devoted to 1960s musicals, new restorations from UCLA, new cinema from Mexico, Italian restorations, French tough guy actors, one-shot directors, and heroines of anime. Plus, retrospectives that paid homage to acclaimed international directors like Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, and Brian De Palma, as well as centennial celebrations for the great movie stars Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland. We welcomed speakers and artists like writer/director Andrew Bergman, UW Professor and author David Bordwell, filmmakers Peter Flynn and Ted Nakamura, and Robert Ryan biographer J.R. Jones. We brought you the first and, in some cases, only area theatrical screenings of such acclaimed new movies as Hitchcock-Truffaut;Miguel Gomes' epic Arabian Nights; Chantal Akerman's final work, No Home Movie; Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader; Roberto Minervini's The Other Side; and coming up in December, Lewis Klahr's mesmerizing Sixty Six.

The equipment in our projection booth at the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, allows us to maintain the highest standards of digital and 35mm film exhibition. Our venues remain a rarefied regular exhibitor of films shown in their beautiful, original 35mm format.

Our upcoming January-May calendar will begin with an exciting four-day series of programs in 3-D, presented with temporarily installed special equipment. Other early 2016 series will focus on Fox film restorations from the New York's Museum of Modern Art collection; the music of John Williams; and the avant-garde masterworks of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. You can also look forward to a healthy offering of new international cinema in our Premiere Showcase selections and other series!

Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, but we still rely on donations from our audiences to keep our technical facilities up-to-date. Please help us in providing the Cinematheque with the most exciting film programming in the region by clicking here and making a donation today to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund.

See you at the Cinematheque!

Jim Healy, Director of Programming

Exit Shakespeare: STRANGE BREW

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Dave Thomas' & Rick Moranis' Strange Brew (1983) was written be Leo Rubinkowski, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Strange Brew will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, November 17 at 6 p.m.. The screening is one of two adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet presented in conjunction with the Chazen's presentation of the First Shakespeare Folio through December 11.

By Leo Rubinkowski

Here’s the short version:

Last week, Hamlet (1948): “Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
This week, Strange Brew (1983): “Take off, you hoser!”

If you don’t like it, take off, eh!

Here’s the long version:

From their first appearance in 1980 as hosts of SCTV’s fictional talk-show segment “Great White North,” the McKenzies were defined by genial irreverence. At the time, SCTV’s half-hour broadcasts to Canadian audiences included two extra minutes of programming compared to the broadcasts syndicated for NBC affiliates in the United States. Seeing an opportunity for cultural outreach, the Canadian Broadcasting Company required that SCTV devote the time to uniquely “Canadian content.” Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas complied by inventing Bob and Doug, respectively, avatars of the Canadian spirit who spent their time frying back-bacon, drinking beer, eating jelly donuts, and discussing issues of national significance (like how to fit a mouse into a beer bottle).

The McKenzie sketches were bare-bones—two actors improvising two-minute bits back-to-back-to-back for an hour with a single cameraman after the rest of SCTV’s crew had left for the night—but they proved wildly popular, both at home and south of the border. (When SCTV occasionally ran short, network affiliates in the US made up the difference by running the longer Canadian version with the McKenzie bits.) In 1981, Moranis and Thomas released a comedy album as their alter-egos titled “The Great White North,” which charted in the US and Canada and earned the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album in 1983. A feature film seemed like a reasonable next step.

(Enter Shakespeare.)

At a glance, Strange Brew is very obviously based on Hamlet. (Why else would we have paired the two for a Cinematheque series?) In place of the Danish royal family’s estate, Elsinore, we get Elsinore Brewery. Rather than King Hamlet’s murder by his brother Claudius, who usurps his throne and steals his wife, Uncle Claude takes over the family brewery as a lackey of Brewmeister Smith, who murdered John Elsinore (Claude’s brother) to keep him from exposing a plan to take over the world through tainted beer. Instead of Hamlet and Ophelia, who both end up very dead, Pam Elsinore and one-time hockey great Jean LeRose save the day while very much alive. Finally, the comic relief: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original, and the McKenzies here. (Is there a Hosehead-Laertes connection I’ve missed? Oh! I forgot the play-within-the play, which is reproduced in minute detail as The Mutants of 2051 AD.)

If the correspondences look cursory, and if any perceived homages feel indelicate, that’s because they are. Taking Dave Thomas at his word, he and Rick Moranis faced a pair of problems in developing the McKenzies for the big screen, and Shakespeare solved both problems. First, their executive producer at SCTV had threatened to sue the pair for breach of contract if they wrote a movie using their “Great White North” characters, so they handed off the initial script-writing duties to Steve De Jarnatt. Second, Bob and Doug were products of improvisation; neither Moranis nor Thomas was fully prepared to develop a 90-minute script for two characters who spent their lives on a couch. Rather than leave De Jarnatt with nothing, though, they offered him Hamlet, saying “Why don’t you play with that structure. That’s at least a story that works.”

And that’s about as far as Shakespeare influenced Strange Brew (at least as far as I can tell).

(Exit Shakespeare.)

With a script in hand, Moranis and Thomas had no trouble securing a distribution deal with MGM. At the same time, the two actually rewrote a good deal of the script, because they felt that their improvisational style hadn’t been adequately reproduced in the first draft. What could they add to Shakespeare? Basically anything that entertains despite (or because of) its cartoonish absurdity. Some portions of the script toward the end were re-worked (apparently, Hosehead couldn’t fly in the first go-around), but Dave Thomas points primarily to the first half of the film, when he said: "…the opening of the movie, if you look at it texturally, is quite different than the back half. The back half really locks into the story of the evil Brewmeister trying to take over the world, whereas [in] the beginning of the movie Bob and Doug present a little sci-fi with Rick as Charlton Heston at the end of the world…picking up a miniature Statue of Liberty and…then we’re in a movie theater watching our own movie and we release moths, cause a riot, and end up having to run out of our own movie premiere. The script was far more bizarre and conceptual in the beginning than it ended up being at the end. If we had been able to rewrite the whole thing, we would have made the whole thing like that probably, but we weren’t sure how far we could go with the studio."

When Strange Brew hit North American screens in late August 1983, Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it “a movie that’s barely there,” assuring her readers that the cost of admission “could buy enough beer for an experience at least as memorable as this one.” With all due respect to Maslin, she must not have been watching in the preferred 3-B. While allowing that the plot isn’t exactly air-tight (“Tunnel to the brewery? Take off! How convenient!”) and acknowledging that it lacks the emotional and psychological force of, say, The Merchant of Venice, viewers should also keep in mind that this isn’t Shakespeare. A better point of comparison, in fact, is offered right in the film: cartoons. In MGM’s Tom & Jerry shorts (to say nothing of the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes libraries owned by Warner Bros.), basic rules of logic don’t apply. The same goes for the universe inhabited by Bob and Doug; critical comparisons to the real world (or to basic standards of dramatic narrative) just get in the way. It’s easier to suspend expectations and be perpetually surprised at the antics of these two lovable goofballs and at the inarguable novelty of their adventures.

Oh! Beauty!

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