BLACK BOOK: The Paradoxical Pleasures of the War Thriller

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006) were written by Luke Holmaas, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Black Book from the archives at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts will screen on Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Free admission.

By Luke Holmaas

In a variety of ways, Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film Black Book (Zwartboek) functioned as a return of sorts for the famed Dutch filmmaker. It was the first film in nearly two decades made in his native country and language, following a lengthy sojourn in Hollywood as the simultaneously celebrated and reviled filmmaker of RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and more. Likewise, it also returned Verhoeven to the World War II setting of his 1977 Dutch masterpiece Soldier of Orange and reunited him with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven’s frequent collaborator in his early Dutch films (including Soldier of Orange).

Black Book works to highlight both sides of Verhoeven’s directorial persona: the acclaimed, internationally successful Dutch filmmaker as well as a Hollywood trash auteur. Beyond the reunion with Soeteman, Black Book also returns to the mixture of grand spectacle and uneasiness about Holland’s role in the war and Nazi occupation that animated much of Soldier of Orange, a mixture that is drawn from both Verhoeven’s own childhood memories of the war (which he once described as “like big special effects in the sky”) and his experiences of growing up in a postwar Holland rebuilding and coming to grips with (or perhaps failing to) its own wartime traumas. Verhoeven’s experience as a big-budget Hollywood filmmaker surely helped him on Black Book, which, at over $20 million, was the most expensive Dutch film ever made at the time, necessitating a labyrinthine network of financing and 23 separate producers to get it off the ground. The slick storytelling, full of twists and turns, not to mention the requisite Verhoeven trademark of gratuitous (or is it?) sex and violence, propels it forward through its nearly two and a half hour runtime.

Following the travails of Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Dutch TV veteran and future Game of Thrones actress Carice van Houten) as she struggles to hide her identity and survive in 1944 occupied Holland, Black Book is rife with all of the narrow escapes, disguises, and double-crosses one would expect from a WWII resistance thriller. Perhaps more surprising, though, is the patina of moral ambiguity that permeates the film. Specifically, the film openly questions the mythology of the Dutch resistance to the Nazis, from Rachel’s central affair with SS officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), frequently a far more sympathetic character than the anti-Semitic resistance fighters who send her to spy on him, to the postwar humiliation she suffers at the hands of the very citizens she helped to free from the Nazis. Such moral ambiguity likewise served to divide critical response to the film, with Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter and the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane both roasting the film for treating its historical subject too lightly (Lane claiming it to be “trash pretending to serve the cause of history”) while the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum heaped praise on the film, the latter calling it “a bracing rebuke to Schindler’s List” in its willingness to engage with the moral complexities and uncertainties of history surrounding the war, local responses to Nazi occupation, and the Holocaust more broadly.

Of course, such a sharply divided reaction was nothing new for Verhoeven, who had both been accused of creating morally reprehensible trash and had been praised for producing smartly subversive satire throughout his career, from early works such as 1973’s Turkish Delight (itself something of a rebuke of the 1970 American smash Love Story) and, especially, in relation to his high-profile Hollywood work, notably Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. And while Black Book’s box office success was likewise mixed ($27 million worldwide on its $20+ million budget), its paradoxical pleasures continue to shine through. In particular, van Houten’s triumphant, bravura lead performance stands out against the excesses of the film’s more outré villain, as does the pulpy plot and prurient sexuality against moments of shocking violence. With the horrors of the Holocaust lurking in the shadows throughout, the film amounts to a darkly cynical vision.

In many ways, then, Black Book seems to sum up all of the myriad ambiguities and confusions we can (and perhaps should) have about the war-time thriller as a popular cinematic genre in general. Looking at it from this perspective, A.V. Club reviewer Noel Murray seems to put it best in his review of the film: “Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck.”

Bringing THE ROAD BACK Back

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on James Whale's The Road Back were written by Lydia Rice, Exhibits and Data Manager at University of Wisconsin Press. A 35mm print of The Road Back, restored by the Library of Congress in association with UCLA Film & Television Archive, Universal Studios, and The Film Foundation, will screen in our "It's A Universal Picture" series on Sunday, April 14 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Library of Congress at the Academy Film Archive.

By Lydia Rice

Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front was a critical and financial hit for Universal Studios in 1930, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. But its grimy and depressing portrayal of World War I, explicit pacifist message, and focus on dispirited and cynical German troops (traits it shared with its source novel by Erich Maria Remarque) did not endear it to the rising Nazi party when it first premiered, in slightly edited form, in Germany. Brownshirts greeted multiple screenings with rioting in and outside theaters, their tactics ranging from releasing mice and smoke bombs to attacking theater patrons. The chaos that resulted led to the film being pulled from circulation in Germany.

Despite its reception abroad, Universal held onto the rights of Remarque’s spiritual sequel, The Road Back, bought when it was just a title and an idea in 1929, two years before it was published. Beginning where its predecessor ended, in the trenches, The Road Back follows a group of young German soldiers from the closing days of the war, through their attempts to adjust to civilian life in a country that is economically, politically, and morally unstable.

In 1931, the project was given to director James Whale, who, like Remarque, was a World War I veteran. However, the estimated high production cost of The Road Back in the midst of the Great Depression and a year of losses for Universal caused the script to be shelved. In the meantime, Whale would go on to direct, among other films, By Candlelight (1933) and Show Boat (1936), both which were shown at the Cinematheque earlier this year.

The Road Back was dusted off in 1936, in the hope that it could be as financially and critically successful as its predecessor. By then, the Nazis were in power, and banned works that challenged their ideology and politics. At the time, few Hollywood films acknowledged the rise of fascism and militarism abroad, for fear of losing revenue in international markets.

The Road Back was moved into production with little difficulty; however, problems arose when filming started. For the opening scenes in the trenches, a large outdoor set was built, with an enormous matte backdrop and tracks for a camera crane. Soon after filming commenced, the cast and crew were at the mercy of rain and fog. Shooting was pushed back further when Whale got the flu and the original cinematographer was fired when his alcoholism interfered with the production. The most tragic event occurred during the setting up of the battle scene, when an extra died in a freak accident caused by an explosive. When filming wrapped, the movie was almost $200,000 over budget and 19 days over schedule.

But the biggest uproar connected to this ill-fated production originated outside the studio. Dr. Georg Gyssling, a Nazi official and German Consul in Los Ageless, sent letters to 60 cast members, warning that any future films of theirs would not be shown in Germany. A Nazi official threatening the cast of a Hollywood production was nothing to scoff at, and there was swift and vocal backlash from Hollywood, the Anti-Nazi League, and the State Department.

Before The Road Back’s New York premiere, Whale shot footage that moved the battle scene from before the signing of the Armistice to afterwards, and removed two scenes to shorten the runtime. But after a mostly tepid reviews and a downturn in sales, Universal president Robert Cochrane and executive vice-president Charles R. Rogers took advantage of Whale filming another movie at a different studio, and imposed their own alterations before The Road Back’s next release, in Los Angeles.  A different director was brought in to reshoot two key scenes. A more conventional love scene replaced a sorrowful one, where returned soldier Ernst (John ‘Dusty’ King) and his sweetheart Elsa (Jean Rouverol) confronted the gulf in their relationship caused by the war.

The other major alteration was the ending. Originally far more politically charged, it featured Ernst and his former comrade Ludwig (Richard Cromwell) sadly watching a group of young boys taking part in military exercises. This was the closest the movie came to referencing the rising militarization of Germany. It was replaced by an ending that was far more conventionally romantic. It still acknowledges and condemns the current armament, but it  doesn’t single out any particular country.

Though commonly assumed to be another last minute addition, the comedic scenes featuring Willy (Andy Devine) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville, the only actor to reprise his role in All Quiet on the Western Front) were part of Whale’s original cut. Other scenes were trimmed, or removed entirely, shortening the runtime from 105 to 100 minutes.

The Daily Variety claimed that, like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back had been reedited for German distribution. Universal did still have holdings in Germany, and perhaps they did hope they could distribute the film there. But the studio denied that the reedits were for that specific market; Cochrane claimed he felt the material could be improved with more love scenes. A comprehensible reaction from a producer, since this was a serious, down-beat anti-war movie that wouldn’t sell well in Europe, and wouldn’t be too appealing for Americans living through the Great Depression.

The Road Back did make some money, and got positive (if half-hearted) reviews, but it did not reach the commercial or critical heights of All Quiet on the Western Front, though like its predecessor, it was banned in Germany. It didn’t decimate Whale’s career, but it was the beginning of a decline in influence. For most of his subsequent films, Whale contended with less creative control, lower budgets, and fewer profits; he did not make another feature after 1941. In 1939, The Road Back was re-released, with added footage that made it more explicitly anti-Nazi, and included a montage featuring an actor playing Hitler. For a while, it was the only print in circulation. This restoration is similar to the studio-altered 1937 Los Angeles release, but it remains the closest approximation of Whale’s original intent.

Detours, Distractions...Life!: Andrew Bujalski's FUNNY HA HA

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha were written by Ben Donahue of WUD Film. A 35mm print of Funny Ha Ha will screen on Thursday, March 28 at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Andrew Bujalski will be present to introduce the screening and participate in a post-film discussion. Bujalski will also be present for a screening of his movie Computer Chess on March 29 and a special showing of Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley on March 30. Admission is free for all screenings!

By Ben Donahue

“Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important" (John Cassavetes).

It would probably be impossible, or at least morally reprehensible, to discuss the Mumblecore movement without mentioning what film pioneer John Cassavetes did for American independent cinema. His stories weren’t about death or violence, but about the lives of people—real people. And it is this sentiment that is perhaps the most important influence Cassavetes had on the artists who followed him. The Mumblecore movement is a direct descendent of the low-budget American style of cinéma vérité that Cassavetes pioneered, which can in turn be traced back to the French New Wave. Aesthetically, Mumblecore, French New Wave, and the works of Cassavetes all feature low-budgets, non-actors, seemingly improvised dialogue, and on location shooting. These similarities may link the different groupings of films on a surface level, but it’s the dedication to telling stories about real people simply living that truly unites them all.

Sometimes referred to as “Slackavetes,” Mumblecore incorporated Cassavetes’ commitment to telling purely human stories with the meandering and purposeless twentysomethings who loitered around in Richard Linklater’s 1990 film, Slacker. Twelve years after Slacker, a 27-year-old Bostonian by the name of Andrew Bujalski would release his film Funny Ha Ha, which was both Bujalski’s first feature-length film as well as arguably the first film in the Mumblecore genre.

Funny Ha Ha follows Marnie, a young twentysomething played by Kate Dollenmayer, as she tries to balance her relationships, her own self-improvement, and her search for a fulfilling career. The film’s languid and plodding storytelling mirrors Marnie’s own confusion and lack of direction. She wallows in self-pity and misreads just about every social cue that is thrown at her. Her character could have easily been a sardonic comment on post-college graduates in the beginning of the 21st century, unbearably awkward as she is. But as much as Marnie can be seen as self-destructive and at fault for all of her problems, Bujalski’s delicate writing and Dollenmayer’s entirely honest performance help us not only relate to but also empathize with Marnie.

Amidst a maze of detours and distractions, Marnie slowly but surely makes incremental progress. She ruptures relations with old friends and formulates new ones. Through a painful process of trial and error, it appears that Marnie might just be on the right track to discovering who she is, and what it is she wants out of life. Thanks to Dollenmayer’s performance, Marnie becomes a subtle heroine of the modern world. After all the awkward conversations, dead-end jobs, and failed relationships, Marnie emerges on the other side still standing. It’s admirable how much Bujalski makes us laugh with Marnie and her friends and not at them, and how he is able to relate the melancholic malaise of an entire generation to people both older and younger.

Ultimately, Funny Ha Ha isn’t a story about one girl. It isn’t a story about love or heartbreak. Funny Ha Ha is simply a story about people: about Marnie, about Marnie’s friend, and about every young college grad with no idea what to do next. The focus isn’t on these people’s struggles and their failures, but rather, it’s focused broadly on their lives: every victory and defeat, every up and down.

Funny Ha Ha was Bujalski’s first film, and it was the first film in what would soon become a major movement throughout independent American cinema. With his 2005 film, Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski solidified himself as a leading voice in Mumblecore, which would grow and influence many current filmmakers, including Greta Gerwig to cite one example. Mumblecore reflected very accurately the mundane, awkward, and sometimes painful nature of living, but if Funny Ha Ha has anything to say, it is that we have to be able to find the humor in our life. Laughter heals all wounds, especially when you’re laughing with someone else.

THE BLACK CAT: From Caligari to Hitler in One Lurid Package

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) were written by Luke Holmaas, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Black Cat will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "It's a Universal Picture" series on Sunday, March 3, at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Luke Holmaas

The Black Cat is a film that stands as a study in contrasts. Among other things, the film is notable today for being the first of eight pairings of horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and for Heinz Roemheld's influential, near-constant score. An anomalous foray into major studio production (albeit at the mini-major studio Universal) for legendary B-movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat was also an anomaly within the context of Universal’s famed 1930s horror productions. Although made on a shorter shooting schedule (a mere fifteen days) and for a $91,000 budget that amounted to only one-third and one-quarter the amount allocated to the earlier Universal classics Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) respectively, The Black Cat was a major financial success for the studio. It wound up as Universal’s biggest box office hit of 1934 in spite of both its extremely tenuous connection to the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name (Ulmer confirms that the Poe connection was kept simply to draw interest to the film) and decidedly mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter characterized it as lacking thrills as Karloff and Lugosi “fight it out … for the mugging championship of the picture," while the San Francisco Examiner praised it as “the most cultured horror film” they had ever seen. Nevertheless, bad blood between studio head Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Ulmer developed over the film’s atypical use of music, and was soon to be exacerbated by Ulmer's affair with Shirley Alexander, the wife of Laemmle's beloved nephew Max. This meant that Ulmer would never receive a chance to follow up on the film's success at Universal, instead being “exiled” to the world of low-to-no budget Yiddish films and Poverty Row quickies for which he would later be best known.

While the idea of Ulmer continuing to work for major studios offers a tantalizing alternate history, what The Black Cat does provide us with is a singular film in its own right: a dreamlike, metaphysical, horror-thriller that blends early twentieth-century European avant-garde design with odd flourishes of campy humor, refined perversion, and unsettling brutality. The film’s story seems eerily like the plight of contemporaneous American audiences encountering the film for the first time: an American couple, Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new wife Joan (Julie Bishop), encounter war-scarred psychiatrist Dr. Werdegast (Lugosi), who is seeking revenge on Satan-worshiping war criminal Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) in his Hungarian castle. Drenched in continental European culture, from the Expressionist and Bauhaus-inspired designs within Poelzig’s castle to the strains of Brahms, Bach, Liszt, and Schubert (among others) on the soundtrack, The Black Cat also offers a rare glimpse of a Hollywood horror film deeply invested in the traumatic aftermath of World War I. The story, with the lingering traumatic effects on the lives of the war's survivors (both Werdegast and Poelzig) and the stark and striking production design (that looks back to the immediate postwar German avant-garde and also forward to the fascist architecture of World War II Germany) work together to keep the war’s legacy in our minds.

The film’s striking artistic achievement and unique atmosphere is due in no small part to the contributions of numerous European-inspired artists. From the Old World charms of the British Karloff and the Hungarian Lugosi to the contributions by British-born art director Charles D. Hall and the Milwaukee-born, but Berlin-educated, composer Heinz Roemheld, The Black Cat offers a perfect mixture of lurid American and refined European horror. And although contemporary reviewers were often more likely to dismiss the film as unsatisfying in the horror department (with Picture Play Magazine declaring the film to contain no terror, not even in the film’s climactic flaying scene), The Black Cat has continued to cast its uniquely unsettling mood for audiences in the decades since. The cable channel Bravo named the aforementioned flaying scene as one its “100 Scariest Movie Moments” in 2013 and film critic J. Hoberman made the memorable assertion that the film connects Germanic culture “from Caligari to Hitler in one lurid package" (a reference to Siegfried Kracauer's groundbreaking 1947 study of interwar German film and its impact on society). A beguiling fever dream of horror, war, and art, The Black Cat still manages to create a unique thrall for all those who fall under its spell.

Screenings Resume at 4070 Vilas

Thursday, February 21st, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Beginning Friday, February 22, UW Cinematheque screenings will resume at 4070 Vilas Hall with a new 4K restoration of I am Cuba. On Saturday, February 23, we will present a 35mm print of Jacques Becker's Casque D'or, also at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. The lecture from visiting scholar Steve Ryfle and screening of The Learning Tree on Thursday, February 21, as well as the Sunday, February 24 screening of Afraid to Talk, will both take place at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Avenue, as originally announced.

CHANGE OF VENUE - 2/15-2/16

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to ongoing repairs at Vilas Hall, our screenings of Vampires in Havana on Friday, February 15 and our double feature of Jacques Becker's Edouard et Caroline and Antoine et Antoinette on Saturday, February 16 have moved from 4070 Vilas (821 University) to our other regular venue at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Avenue. The double feature of William Wyler's A House Divided and Her First Mate will take place at the Chazen on Sunday, February 17 as originally announced.

VAMPIRES IN HAVANA: Gleefully Tawdry Marxism

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

The following notes on Juan Padrón's 1985 animated horror-comedy Vampires in Havana, were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts will screen in our annual series supported by the UW's Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies program (LACIS) on Friday, February 15 at 7 p.m. The screening, originally scheduled to take place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas, has been relocated across the street to the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Avenue.

By Tim Brayton

There really is no preparing for Vampires in Havana, the third animated feature made by Juan Padrón (the only significant animation director in Cuba at any point during the 1970s and 1980s). It’s easy enough to consider the film’s obviously-impoverished aesthetic, and compare it to the Saturday morning cartoons of Hanna-Barbera or other similarly cash-strapped American studios. For it does resemble such work more than slightly. Or we could look at the music culture that forms the film’s setting, not to mention its non-stop fascination with sex, and see it as a descendant of the urban American underground animation of creative radicals like Ralph Bakshi, director of the notorious X-rated cartoon Fritz the Cat.

But for all that such comparisons might give us a handle on Vampires in Havana as an object, they don’t get us very far. It’s best not to try too hard contextualize this film in American animation at all. This is a Cuban film through and through, starting with its historical setting in the early 1930s, near the end of Gerardo Machado’s tenure as dictator. Despite all of the sex and vampirism that course through the film, the narrative focus remains squarely on Machado’s tyranny and the efforts by an amateur group of revolutionaries to oppose his regime. The radicalism inherent to underground animation is thus politically-oriented in a way that it isn’t always with the American and European films that share the simple aesthetic of Vampires in Havana. Even its status as simply a dirty cartoon, with substantial female nudity and naughty-minded visual gags, is complicated by revolutionary politics: much of the sexual humor in the film hinges on the main character’s dalliances with Machado’s wife.

Of course the more prominent political message in the film derives from its titular monsters. Undying fiends, descended from the European aristocracy, that survive by sucking the very blood out of defenseless working humans? One hardly has to look deep at all to see why vampires are a perfect subject for Latin American Marxist satire. Vampires in Havana goes further than this by positing two different vampire populations: besides the conservative European branch of the species, there’s also a burly, rough-and-tumble American vampire mafia, based in Capone-era Chicago. This narrative positions the Cuban vampire hero Pepito as standing against not just native-born exploitation, but against competing foreign influences trying to dictate his future – exactly the state in which Cuba found itself in the decades before the 1950s revolution.

The combination of revolutionary history and silly-looking cartoon characters undoubtedly makes for a baffling viewing experience. During the film’s brief appearance in U.S. theaters in 1987, The New York Times (one of the only outlets to take notice of the film at all) ran a review trying to determine if the “bright colors and brash spirits” on display made this a highly inappropriate film for children, or a highly infantile film for adults, before ambivalently concluding, “the 14- to 16-year-old crowd may not get the anticapitalist message, but they might be tickled by the fangs.” Three decades later, with cartoons for grown-ups having become an established genre, it’s a bit easier to appreciate the film’s goofy approach to serious subject matter. Even so, this is a particularly simplified style, one that’s more The Flintstones than The Simpsons, and the intrusion of sex and violence into such a lighthearted aesthetic remains startling. Impressively, unlike the more openly gritty and grotesque American underground animation of the 1970s, the Saturday morning cartoon cheeriness of Vampires in Havana has allowed it to retain something of the original appeal of underground animation. There is a real sense of the film managing to get away with something subversive here, turning the corny visual gags and caricatured designs typical of children’s cartoons into something hard-edged and more than a little perverse.

This is exactly how it wants to be. Vampires in Havana isn’t trying to be a goofy comedy about wacky animated monsters, nor a mere satire of greedy capitalists and politicians. It is a vigorous celebration of armed revolution. It is unmistakably a propaganda piece, treating Pepito as a slapstick heroic figure: his resistance to Machado is treated as self-evidently admirable even when he comically messes it up, and his defiant act of sticking it to the foreign vampire powers is treated as a giddy, rah-rah climax. The film doesn’t argue for the righteousness of Pepito and his friends, so much as it takes them for granted. In the context of such a straightforward call to mock the bourgeois and their sense of propriety, this dirty vulgar treatment of a kids’ television animation aesthetic is just one more bit of aggressive radicalism. It’s an approach that insists on being snotty and shocking rather than sophisticated and intellectual: in the finest tradition of underground animation around the world, this is first and foremost looking to shock the squares, and doing so with good taste would be almost entirely beside the point. And good taste is certainly something this gleefully tawdry comedy avoids completely.

Micheaux's Ingenuity: WITHIN OUR GATES

Wednesday, February 6th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates were written by Erica Moulton, PhD student in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. Within Our Gates will have a special screening in honor of Black History Month on Thursday, February 7 at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Erica Moulton

Within Our Gates, Oscar Micheaux’s second feature film, is as powerful a refutation to the racism of Hollywood depictions of African Americans as any film produced in the early years of cinema. It is a well-disputed myth that there were no black filmmakers and producers at the beginning of the twentieth-century. William A. Foster founded the Foster Photoplay Company in 1910 based out of Chicago, Noble and George P. Johnson were producing films with their Lincoln Motion Picture Company between 1916 and 1921, and the Frederick Douglass Company operated out of Jersey City, New Jersey from 1916 to 1919. These companies (and many others) faced serious obstacles to production and distribution, including limited financial resources and restricted access to screening venues, but a rich output of films produced by black filmmakers, starring all-black casts, for black audiences flourished nonetheless.

Even within this culture of filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux was something of an outsider. After working as a Pullman porter, a homesteader, and a novelist, Micheaux directed his first silent feature, an adaptation of his own novel called The Homesteader in 1919. The film was the first production from his recently formed Micheaux Book and Film Company, and it is unfortunately lost, leaving Within Our Gates as the earliest available evidence of Micheaux’s considerable output. He directed 40 films over a 30-year career, eventually making the transition to sound in 1931 with Darktown Revue and The Exile. Although many of Micheaux’s films are thought to be lost, his legacy is now cemented as integral to the cannon of early American filmmakers and his ingenuity as a storyteller is finally being recognized.

His films that survive are visually arresting and full of distinct characters that serve both as mouthpieces for Micheaux’s messages of racial uplift while also standing on their own as rare examples in early cinema of black characters entirely in possession of their humanity. Within Our Gates features stage and screen actress Evelyn Preer as a Boston schoolteacher Sylvia, whose tragic backstory is told in a series of flashbacks in the latter half of the film. The main story positions her between the city and the countryside, as her newfound love, Dr. Conrad Drebert, is in Boston but her duties as an educator continually beckon her back to Piney Woods, Mississippi.

Micheaux’s films often have a strong moralistic bent, but that doesn’t stop him from occasionally reveling in the illicit goings-on of the Boston criminal underbelly. One of these Bostonian lawbreakers is Red, whose illegal poker game provides the set up for some of Micheaux’s most exciting camerawork and editing. In this early scene, Micheaux structures a series of insert shots revealing the criminal’s method of cheating, all while expertly building the tension between the players as one of them slowly realizes he is being duped. The scene culminates with a shoot-out that takes place partially in darkness. Throughout the entire scene, Micheaux is also completely at ease cross-cutting between the poker game and the unaware Sylvia, who sleeps peacefully at her cousin’s boarding house. When one of the men escapes to the boarding house after the shoot-out, Sylvia proclaims that she dreamed she saw him shoot a man. Amazingly, Micheaux structures the cross-cutting both to express parallel action, but also to potentially suggest that the poker game be interpreted as taking place in Sylvia’s head! Micheaux was long interested in dreams and premonitions, so these moments of ambiguity are common, though still no less shocking, in his films.

Arthur Jafa, the prominent black cinematographer on projects like Julie Dash’s Daughter of the Dust and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, speaks of Micheaux’s ability to exist outside the norms created in Hollywood in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle (a fantastic book recently published in paperback by Indiana University Press). Jafa insists “that there is nothing arbitrary about Micheaux’s work, that it displays the most lucid kind of coherency. I think he was actually in the process of developing something equal to the aesthetic coherency of jazz.” Within Our Gates is endemic of Micheaux’s idiosyncratic style, particularly in the last act which reveals the tragedy that befell Sylvia prior to her arriving in Boston. Her story hinges on two acts of unspeakable violence, the lynching of Sylvia’s adopted family by a white mob and the attempted rape of Sylvia by a wealthy white landowner who turns out to be her biological father.

The unflinching presentation of these horrific acts led censors to ban the film in theaters or demand that Micheaux make cuts. When it was eventually released in Chicago in 1920, local aldermen feared the film would inspire riots. In Louisiana, the police were tipped off about the film, prompting them to visit the local picture houses, essentially ensuring it was not screened in any southern theater. In other cities, black theater owners and audiences rejected the film on the grounds that its depiction of a lynching was too painful to endure. Lincoln Motion Picture Company-owner George Johnson wrote to Micheaux telling him that many audiences simply walked out of the screenings in Omaha. Micheaux avoided making films as overtly political in the future, but he continued telling stories that challenged and entertained audiences for the next twenty years.

Oscar Micheaux was, above all else, an expert storyteller, able to marshal the expressive qualities of cinema to tell intricate stories that are often equal parts entertaining, thrilling and horrifying. In responding to Johnson’s comments about Within Our Gates, Micheaux wrote about his tendency to mix politics and storytelling, explaining, “It is true that our people do not care—nor the other races for that matter, for propaganda as much as they do for all story...I discovered that the first night Within Our Gates was shown. Still, I favor a strong story at all times, since I believe that every story should leave an impression.”


Wednesday, February 6th, 2019
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to ongoing repairs at Vilas Hall, our screenings of Birds of Passage on Friday, February 8 and Rendezvous en Juillet on Saturday, February 9, have moved from 4070 Vilas to our other regular venue at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Avenue. Our screenings of Within Our Gates and Ladies Must Love will take place at the Chazen as originally announced.

BACK STREET: The Case of John M. Stahl

Thursday, January 31st, 2019
Posted by Zachary Zahos
Irene Dunne and John Boles in BACK STREET

These notes on John M. Stahl's Back Street were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW–Madison. A 35mm print of Back Street will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen Universal series on Sunday, February 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium. Free admission!

By Zachary Zahos

Long neglected or dismissed by critics, John M. Stahl (1886–1950) has enjoyed renewed attention as of late. The inclusion of two timeless Stahl films, Back Street (1932) and Seed (1931), in UW-Cinematheque’s series of Carl Laemmle Jr.-era Universal Studios pictures follows a flurry of well-received repertory bookings across North America and Europe. In its larger Universal series from 2016, the Museum of Modern Art rounded out the aforementioned two melodramas with Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933), forming what curator Dave Kehr called “an informal trilogy of mature, morally ambivalent films about adultery.” I attended those three MoMA screenings, and virtually no other cinematic experience can compare: none match my sense of discovery, my intense emotional identification with the films’ protagonists, or my mystification as to how Stahl’s spare style ultimately achieves these transcendent effects.

That was 2016, a couple months before I moved to Madison to become a graduate student. I have since, to put it mildly, observed the circulation of Stahl’s films with interest. Last year, for example, Italy’s premiere classic film festivals mounted major, parallel Stahl retrospectives: Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna showcased a generous sample of his sound films, while the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrangled his exceedingly rare surviving work from 1917-1926. These efforts have challenged Stahl’s reputation as merely the “capable craftsman” behind Gene Tierney thriller Leave Her to Heaven (1945), according to TCM; or “the one who made the first versions of Sirk’s masterpieces” like Imitation of Life (1934, Stahl; 1959, Sirk), as critic Yann Tobin once ruefully put it. While these retrospectives have found room for generic outliers—like his wistfully romantic war film Immortal Sergeant (1943), starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara—Stahl’s mastery of melodrama has emerged as the big takeaway, for some.

I say “for some,” because a select handful of scholars and critics have long been hip to Stahl’s genius. Many can be found in The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, a new collection of essays by eminent scholars—UW-Madison’s Professor Lea Jacobs among them. Of Stahl’s melodramas, Back Street specifically has long served as one of the most fruitful case studies: for Jacobs, in her book The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (1991) and other articles; for historian and former UW Prof. Tino Balio, in his book Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (1995); and for feminist critic Molly Haskell, in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974).

Back Street’s enduring appeal lies in part in the simplicity of its plot, adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel, and the eternal currents running beneath it. Middle-class beauty Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) and upper-middle-class salesman Walter Saxel (John Boles) fall in love, but a missed concert rendezvous precludes their marriage. Years later, they meet again, by which point Walter has married a wealthier woman. Still infatuated with one another, Ray agrees to be Walter’s mistress, and the subsequent action shows very little of the happiness they presumably shared. Instead, Ray passes most of her days alone, holed up in the “back street” apartment Walter bought for her. When doting childhood friend Kurt (George Meeker), who has since become a rich car manufacturer, re-enters her life, Ray faces another fork in the road. In my experience, her decision—disclosed through a bold narrative ellipsis, one of many—elicits an audible reaction from the audience.

The research of Jacobs and Balio has revealed how Back Street, despite its underseen status today, was subject to agonizing censorship debates upon and well after its 1932 release. Colonel Jason S. Joy, head of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), distrusted Laemmle Jr. for “lapses in taste” at a time when enforcement of the Production Code was patchy at best. Industry overseers anticipated a backlash, and they got one: Catholic newspapers excoriated the film for teaching “false principles of morality,” and the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it two years later. Grappling with the counterintuitive logic of censors and conservative audiences, Jacobs surmises that the hostility toward the film was because of how tender and “subdued” Ray and Walter’s extramarital relationship is, and not in spite of it. If Ray behaved in a more licentious and selfish manner, the thinking goes, she could be more easily stigmatized. Instead, under Stahl’s direction, Dunne scaled back her performance, investing intelligence, independence, and lovesick melancholy into her actions and pauses.

For Haskell, Dunne’s brilliance, Stahl’s “sublime” direction, and the specifics of the scenario launch this Back Street miles above Universal’s two later remakes of Hurst’s novel. Dismissing the “inane” 1961 David Miller adaptation, starring John Gavin and Susan Hayward, Haskell notes how Ray’s socioeconomic upgrade from susceptible young everywoman to “globe-trotting fashion executive” undercuts “the closed system of decisions and consequences on which middle-class tragedy depends.” Contrasting Stahl’s film to the 1941 Robert Stevenson version, which starred Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, Haskell observes, “The idea of a woman ‘giving up all’ for Charles Boyer is a lot easier on the pride than the idea of ‘giving up all’ for John Boles. But then, Boyer’s delicacy and intelligence make it impossible to believe him capable of the insensitive behavior toward a woman that one can believe of Boles.”

Indeed, while Boles has a mediocre reputation as an actor, he excelled as the dashing narcissist—parts he also played in Seed and Only Yesterday. The final scenes in Back Street make Walter the most sympathetic of the three scoundrels Boles played for Stahl. Cinematographer Karl Freund (of The Last Laugh fame) deserves ample credit here, for lighting Boles and Dunne with shards of bright, drifting light at key moments. But the magic of the whole enterprise belongs to Stahl, who matched a sure hand with unadulterated empathy, defying critics, censors, and fellow craftsmen to this day.