Monday, November 9th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1969) was written by James Steffen, Ph.D., the Film and Media Studies Librarian at Emory University and author of The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). Steffen will introduce a screening of the film at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 13 in 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be followed by a talk about the film and its restoration.

The 2014 restoration is by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, in association with the National Cinema Centre of Armenia and Gosfilmofond of Russia. Restoration funding provided by the Material World Charitable Foundation and The Film Foundation.

By James Steffen

Martin Scorsese, a longtime admirer of Parajanov’s work and the driving force behind this restoration, wrote in the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival catalog: “Watching Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, or Sayat Nova, is like opening a door and walking into another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed. On a very basic level, it’s a biography of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, but before all else it’s a cinematic experience, and you come away remembering images, repeated expressive movements, costumes, objects, compositions, colors.”

The Color of Pomegranates offers a poetic fantasy on the life and poetry of Sayat-Nova, the pen name for Arutin Sayadyan (ca. 1712-1795), an Armenian poet-troubadour (ashugh) whose songs are still commonly performed today. During the 1960s, Sayat-Nova was officially celebrated in the Soviet Union both as a great Armenian national poet and as a symbol of the brotherhood of the peoples of the Transcaucasus, since he wrote in three languages: Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian. For Parajanov, the film represented a kind of homecoming to his birthplace of Tbilisi and his ethnic Armenian roots. Up to this point, he had worked exclusively in Ukraine after completing his diploma at the VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow.

The basic plot outline more or less follows popular biographical legend: Sayat-Nova’s education in the Sanahin monastery in northern Armenia; his childhood in Tbilisi as the son of carpet-weavers; his youth as an ashugh; his service as a court poet to King Irakli II; his scandalous love for Princess Anna; his retreat to the Haghpat monastery; and his martyrdom during the sacking of Tbilisi by the troops of the Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan. Along the way Parajanov introduces striking, at times baffling visual metaphors, surreal dream-visions, and an undercurrent of bawdy humor. Despite these provocations, the film expresses a profound reverence for the peoples of the Transcaucasus, their historical travails, and their deeply spiritual creative vision.

Parajanov explained his approach in a 1969 interview for the annual Soviet film almanac Ekran: “We want to show the world in which the ashugh [Sayat-Nova] lived, the sources that nourished his poetry, and for that reason national architecture, folk art, nature, daily life, and music will play a large role in the film’s pictorial decisions. We are recounting the epoch, the people, their passions and thoughts through the conventional, but unusually precise language of things. Handicrafts, clothing, rugs, ornaments, fabrics, the furniture in their living quarters – these are the elements. From these the material look of the epoch arises.”

In fact, this fascination with handcrafted objects is a key trait of Parajanov’s mature filmmaking style. Although viewers tend to remember his international breakthrough Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) for its vertiginous camerawork, already a significant portion of that film consists of still life compositions and tableaux. In The Color of Pomegranates Parajanov explicitly invokes medieval Armenian and Persian miniature painting in the film’s deliberately flattened pictorial style. Combined with the film’s startling jump cuts, Méliès-style magic tricks, and richly textured, collage-like soundtrack, it creates an aesthetic that is at once austere and achingly sensual.

The film survives in two distinct versions. This restored version represents the original 1969 Armenian theatrical release, which ran at 77 minutes under the title Nran guyne (“The Color of Pomegranates”) and had Armenian language-credits and intertitles. Although this is the version which Parajanov signed off for release, it was the product of a protracted battle with various censorship bodies and other officials, among them the Communist Party of Armenia, who felt that the film took too many liberties with Sayat-Nova’s life. Alexei Romanov, the chair of Goskino, the USSR state film committee, further complained that the film failed to teach Soviet audiences about “the real life journey of the great poet of Transcaucasia and his place in the development of Armenian national culture.” As a result, not only was the film’s title changed from Sayat Nova, but all of the references to Sayat-Nova were removed from the chapter titles and likely from portions of the soundtrack as well. The new chapter titles, written by the popular Armenian novelist Hrant Matevosyan, are poetically evocative but hardly help situate the viewer in the proceedings.

The more widely known version, intended for Soviet-wide and later international distribution, was reedited by the filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich and runs at 73 minutes, with entirely new Russian-language credits and chapter titles. Yutkevich had reviewed the original script for Goskino, admired the film, and wanted to overcome the impasse with Romanov, who had permitted distribution only within Armenia. Mainly Yutkevich attempted to simplify the presentation, but he also rearranged some shots to make the film more ideologically palatable and removed some of its patently bizarre imagery. For many years it was the only version available anywhere, though Yutkevich deserves credit for enabling the film to be seen. Despite its challenges and compromises, the Armenian release version gives us a more direct line into Parajanov’s mind.

THE LUSTY MEN: Never a Cowboy That Couldn't Be Throwed

Thursday, October 29th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (1952) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D. candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A recently struck 35mm print of The Lusty Men, courtesy of The Film Foundation and the Academy Film Archive, will screen at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 1, at the Chazen Museum of Art. This screening is part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen "35mm Forever!" series.

By Jonah Horwitz

The Lusty Men was made by a dying film studio under chaotic conditions. Having passed through at least seven screenwriters and four titles, it still survives as one of director Nicholas Ray's most graceful and lyrical films—a subtle, melancholic exploration of machismo and its discontents.

The film’s origins go back to a 1946 Life magazine profile of Bob Crosby, "King of the Cowboys" by Claude Stanush. "Wild Horse Bob" was a 26-year veteran and the greatest champion of the North American rodeo circuit. Crosby paid for his "reckless" and "savage" performances with a series of gruesome injuries, leaving his right leg—which he delighted in showing off—"little more than an atrophied shank." At age 49, Crosby was a "paunchy, creaking champion well past his prime," but still competed in as many events as his insurance policy allowed.

Film producer Jerry Wald spotted the Life article, purchased the rights, and charged Stanush with preparing a film on Crosby’s life. He paired the Texan journalist with the more experienced New York novelist David Dotort. Their treatment had mutated by late 1950 into "Cowpoke," a semidocumentary look at the peripatetic milieu of rodeo cowboys, supplemented with a raft of research notes on their folkways: dialect, eating habits, mating rituals, and death drives.

Meanwhile, Wald left Warner Bros. (where he had produced a long series of successful films, including Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage, and Flamingo Road) for RKO. The studio’s new owner, millionaire Howard Hughes, lured Wald and partner Norman Krasna with a promise that they would make 60 films in five and a half years—with full creative control. Wald and Krasna brought with them a shelf of unproduced screenplays, including "Cowpoke."

However, Hughes proved a troublesome studio boss. When he wasn’t meddling in casting decisions, titles, budgets, and ad campaigns, he went incommunicado, taking months to respond to memos and approve scripts. As a result, output at RKO—already troubled before Hughes’s takeover—slowed to a crawl. The hurry-up-and-wait production of The Lusty Men exemplifies this dysfunction. When Hughes finally got around to "Cowpoke," he insisted on a change of title—to "Rough Company"—and that Stanush and Dotort’s discursive treatment be beat into more conventional dramatic shape. For this job Wald sought the services of Horace McCoy, a distinguished novelist (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) and screenwriter (Gentleman Jim) who specialized—per Wald’s secretary’s notes—in "masculine relationships." McCoy borrowed a stock situation, familiar from 1938’s Test Pilot among other films, involving tough men in dangerous occupations: a world-weary former daredevil takes an increasingly cocky upstart under his wing. The former became Jeff McCloud, a down-on-his-luck former champion with a few busted ribs and a yearning for stability; the latter, Wes Merritt, a cowhand whose first taste of the arena proves addicting.

Wald invited Nicholas Ray, a RKO contract director fresh off of the eccentric noir On Dangerous Ground, to helm the film. Within weeks, Ray was travelling with a small crew to the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon to shoot documentary footage of bull riding, bronco busting, and trick roping. Ray also made crucial casting decisions, hiring Robert Mitchum to play Jeff—winning out over Wald’s concerns that the beefy star would "sleepwalk" through his part—and Arthur Kennedy for Wes.

By November 1951, McCoy had submitted only two-thirds of a script, and things became frantic. Hughes announced another title change—to "This Man Is Mine"—and a major addition to the cast: Susan Hayward, the star of Smash-Up (and invariably described as "tempestuous"), would play Wes’s wife Louise. Hayward would get top billing over Mitchum and Kennedy, and her part—anemic in McCoy’s draft—had to be expanded posthaste, the narrative reshaped from a two-hander into an understated triangle. What’s more, Hayward was on loan from 20th Century-Fox and was available for only a few short weeks before she would be whisked away to Africa to shoot Fox’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro—meaning the film would have to start shooting very soon, with or without a final written act.

Finding himself unwilling or unable to write a convincing female part, McCoy dropped out. (He soon cannibalized his own script for another rodeo film, Universal's Bronco Buster, which was completed and released before RKO had wrapped The Lusty Men.) Wald then corralled a series of experienced screenwriters—Krasna, Niven Busch, Alfred Hayes—to complete the screenplay. New scenes—some of them based on ideas supplied by Ray and Mitchum—were being dictated as late as December 17. Even after filming began, Hayward insisted on rewrites. Wald brought Andrew Solt to the set to touch up her dialogue.

Although in later years Ray would boast that The Lusty Men was largely improvised, there was a full script by the time shooting began, two days after Christmas 1951. Despite being the work of many hands, the story has a thematic coherence that resonated with both Ray and Mitchum. Ray declared that The Lusty Men "is not a Western." Indeed the film takes place long after the closing of the frontier, but its preoccupation with a rugged masculinity—unsettled, risk-taking, competitive—and its opposition between roaming and settling down echoes that of countless period Westerns. What Ray, the cast, and the many screenwriters brought to the archetypal plot and familiar theme was a behavioral nuance and sociological specificity. The dialogue is full of quotable found metaphors and droll aphorisms. Asked if he's "a thinkin' man," McCloud responds, "Oh, I can get in out of the rain."

Like his character, Mitchum was skilled at projecting tough-guy indifference, often protesting to appreciative interviewers that his job was merely one of memorizing lines and hitting marks. He later claimed—as would Kennedy—to have been bewildered by the lengthy discussions of motivation that the Method-trained Ray would indulge in preparing for scenes. But Ray surmised that Mitchum's persona was largely a defense mechanism; he worked closely with Mitchum and brought him to identify with his character, and the project became an unusually personal one for Mitchum. He had spent much of the Depression years wandering himself, and could sympathize with what Ray observed was the "great American search" of the postwar years: "People who want a home of their own." Mitchum's performance—possibly his best—is distinguished by delicate shades of dissimulation and guarded revelation. His Jeff wears the easy confidence of a proven champ and lothario, and his first passes at Hayward’s Louise are thoughtless, almost reflexive. But unlike the eager Wes, Jeff is all too aware of the hazards of his profession. His inchoate longings for a place to rest—the film begins with him returning to the homestead of his childhood, a scene restaged in Wim Wenders's 1976 Kings of the Road—gradually find expression in a desire for Wes’s wife, a desire born of empathy. Louise, the child of migrant farm workers, picked Wes as her best hope for a stable home life precisely for those qualities—modesty of ambition, consistency of character—that his shot at rodeo glory has tempted him to betray. Jeff will ultimately sacrifice himself to see this hope restored.

Unlike Mitchum, Hayward didn’t warm to Ray’s cryptic ministrations, feeling excluded from the conspiratorial rapport between co-star and director. It’s possible that something of that annoyance inflected her portrayal of Louise, who spends much of the film rolling her eyes and lashing out at the two man-children she is stuck with. Hayward’s star persona was of a driven woman calamitously undone by undependable men; here, the men remain undependable, but Louise has a self-possession that allows, for once, a measured triumph.

Hayward shot most of her scenes on studio lots in California, and when her loan period was up, Ray and his male stars went on the move, shooting at a number of rodeos: Tucson, San Angelo, Pendleton again. Mitchum and Kennedy insisted on riding bulls themselves, and these shots were later intermingled with the documentary footage made in the fall. Filming completed just before Valentine’s Day 1952. Wald was uncertain of the downbeat ending, and offered Ray a bonus to shoot a new, happier—but entirely implausible—one in April. The film was privately screened with this new ending, and everyone except Wald was duly chagrined; the producer eventually relented. But even after Ray and editor Ralph Dawson had finished a cut of the film, Hughes dithered, largely because he no longer liked the title he had chosen back in November. Handed a list of alternatives, he circled "The Lusty Men" and finally approved the film for release.

The Lusty Men made it to theaters in October 1952. It was given unusually wide distribution for the era, opening simultaneously in numerous cities and abetted by an innovative national television advertising campaign. Critics were very kind but box office was modest. The posters and trailers—not to mention the title—promised an action spectacle that the film didn't deliver. In France, where Ray had been gathering a reputation as a maverick auteur, it received a rapturous review by Jacques Rivette in Cahiers du cinéma. Rivette praised Ray’s "search for a certain breadth of modern gesture and an anxiety about life, a perpetual disquiet that is paralleled in the characters; and . . . his taste for paroxysm, which imparts something of the feverish and impermanent to the most tranquil of moments."

And RKO? The same month that The Lusty Men was released, Wald and Krasna parted ways with the studio, having made only five films in two years—many fewer than anyone had anticipated. Hughes was forced out of RKO around the same time. Production at the studio was temporarily halted as the new owners sought to make emergency repairs to the studio’s leaking hull. It didn’t take; RKO released its last picture in 1957, leaving behind a legacy of many glorious films, The Lusty Men not the least among them.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS: Vivisection, Panther Women, and the Studio System

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1932 Paramount horror classic The Island of Lost Souls was written by Derek Long, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A recently struck 35mm print of The Island of Lost Souls will screen on Sunday, October 25 as part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever" series. The screening begins at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art's auditorium.

By Derek Long

The so-called “pre-code” period is one of those well-known and much-loved eras in American cinema. In the years between the transition to sound and Joseph Breen’s Production Code enforcement crackdown of mid-1934, Hollywood cinema frequently featured explicit representations of sex, violence, drug use, homosexuality, and other “morally questionable” content, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1960s. This leeway produced some of the finest films in American cinema, from gritty crime dramas like Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Ernst Lubitsch’s frank and hilarious sex comedies.

Yet hidden among the gems of Hollywood cinema circa 1929-34 are some of the most bizarre, eccentric, and frankly disturbing films ever produced by the major studios. Island of Lost Souls is one of the best of the many weird films of 1932—a year that saw other horror features like Doctor X, White Zombie (coming to the Cinematheque in a new restoration in early 2016), and Murders in the Rue Morgue, but also harder-to-categorize films like Kongo, Chandu the Magician, and of course, Tod Browning’s Freaks (probably still the best weird film of 1932).

Many elements separate Island of Lost Souls from its fellow oddballs, but to start it’s probably worth pointing out that it’s one of the only films classical Hollywood ever produced about vivisection. This was enough to get it banned not only in the UK—where the Board of Film Censors refused to certify it for twenty-five years—but also in Sweden, Denmark, and other countries. For that, of course, the film largely has H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau to thank. Lost Souls remains the best adaptation of Wells’ novel, which tells the tale of Edward Prendick, a man shipwrecked on the private island of a mad scientist who creates human-animal hybrids through vivisection—in short, the kind of story Joe Breen would never have allowed into production in the first place. While there are important deviations, Lost Souls is largely faithful to Wells’ work, at least in broad narrative strokes and in spirit. The film wisely preserves many of the most compelling of Wells’ flourishes, from the Sayer of the Law’s phrase “Are we not men?” (made legendary thanks to Devo) to the “House of Pain,” where Dr. Moreau performs his grotesque acts of montage (and yes, Badgers, the name of that hip-hop group to which you sometimes Jump Around is a reference to the Wells novel).

While horror fans usually associate the early thirties with Universal’s classics, Lost Souls reminds us that Carl Laemmle, Jr. had no monopoly on the genre. Paramount, then in the midst of receivership, produced the film as a standard programmer, but as Variety reported, the studio took a fairly active interest in its production and marketing. Paramount originally assigned the film to Norman Taurog, but apparently decided that his approach to the material did not inject enough humor (!). Consequently, Erle Kenton, a Mack Sennett veteran, was made director. And it apparently worked—at least for L.G. Tewksbury, manager of the Stonington Opera House in Maine, who described the film in a report for his fellow exhibitors as “Weird, but with plenty of comedy relief” (one wonders if Tewksbury was laughing through gritted teeth). Indeed, in true studio form, Paramount’s marketing framed the picture as having something for everyone, with a healthy dose of sex in addition to horror thrills: “He took them from his mad menagerie…nights were horrible with the screams of tortured beasts…from his House of Pain they came remade…Pig-men…Wolf-women…thoughtful Human Apes, and his masterpiece—the Panther Woman—throbbing to the hot flush of love.”

This lurid copy was no accident; Lota the Panther Woman was the centerpiece of Paramount’s marketing campaign for the film. In July 1932, the studio held a highly-publicized nationwide talent contest to cast Lota, with screen tests to be held in the studio’s own Publix theaters. Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. De Mille, Rouben Mamoulian, and Norman Taurog were the ostensible judges, with the winner to receive a five-week contract with Paramount at $200 per week. The winner, out of an alleged 60,000 applicants, was Chicago dental hygienist Kathleen Burke, who went on to appear in a number of Paramount films through the rest of the 30s.

Nevertheless, the film’s gruesomeness was just too much for many viewers. While modern audiences may chuckle at the very idea of Lost Souls being horrific enough to ban, we would do well to remember that at the time this film was released, it was effectively torture porn—the Hostel or Saw of its day. Combine that with Paramount’s muscular booking policies, and we might be less surprised to learn that some small-town exhibitors despised the film. S. H. Rich, of the Rich Theatre in Montpelier, Idaho, wrote Motion Picture Herald, “In my opinion the poorest picture from Paramount this season. The makeup of the characters are terrible. How anyone can enjoy this is beyond me. No excuse for making a production of this kind.” Said Michigan exhibitor C. W. Bennett: “Just plain terrible. Impossible story, and characters made up to look horrible. Many women held their hands over their eyes and the rest walked out.” Of course, one wonders how much such appraisals actually helped the film—after all, who wouldn’t want to see the movie described by one Nebraska exhibitor thusly: “Three cheers for the foreign countries who have banned this picture, and shame on us for allowing this to be shown anywhere. Words fail me. Maybe by combining Esperanto, Volopuk, Zahlensproche and a few others I could describe it, and if that won’t, ‘putrid’ will. It actually sickened some of our patrons.”

Contemporary audiences may have been chilled mostly by the beast-men—and Bela Lugosi’s eyes as the Sayer of the Law are just as captivating as Dracula’s—but for my money, this film belongs to Charles Laughton’s whip-wielding, mustachioed Moreau. Laughton’s performance is matched by the unmistakable aesthetics of early-30s studio filmmaking; Moreau’s icy, repeated query to the beast-men—“What is the law?”—is answered not only by Lugosi’s words, but by the grunts, snarls, and screams of the film’s stark, score-less soundtrack (Lost Souls was made at the height of the pre-wall-to-wall scoring era ushered in by Max Steiner’s music for King Kong). The cinematography of Karl Struss, who had lensed F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise just five years earlier, creates on Moreau’s island a world of shimmering, technically-masterful menace—witness the pond light reflected onto a rim-lit Parker (Richard Arlen) and Lota as they embrace, or the classic low-angle expressionism of the lights illuminating Moreau and his assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) as they vivisect some poor soul.

Thus, Island of Lost Souls represents the combination of two irresistible aesthetic traditions: the technical virtuosity of Hollywood filmmaking, and the imagination of H.G. Wells. While the film may have lost some of its power to literally sicken audiences, there’s no doubt that it continues to spook the beast in all of us.

A Musical Phoenix: The Resurrection of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Thursday, October 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was written by Leo Rubinkowski, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Phantom will screen on Sunday, October 18 at 2 p.m., as part of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Leo Rubinkowski

Where my experience with the movies is concerned, the debt I owe my father is substantial. At some indistinct point in my youth, for example, he had the good sense to sit me down and show me Phantom of the Paradise. At the time, I wasn’t well-watched or well-read enough to fully appreciate the strange mélange of references to gothic horror, the music industry, and canonical cinema, but I knew that Phantom was the kind of movie I cared for deeply. Time and experience have only sharpened that love, providing some of the ideas and words necessary to describe and appraise this 1974 oddity’s strange élan and its hold over me.

Speaking for myself, one of the primary pleasures of viewing Phantom of the Paradise is teasing out the various influences and references that pervade Brian De Palma’s script and direction. The most obvious are Gaston Leroux’s 1909 print serial, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the tale of Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the latter two cases, De Palma restricts himself to the shared plot point of a deal with the devil (for “worldly experience and power” and youth, respectively). In the first case, though, more particular comparisons exist. Between 1925 and 1962, Universal released three versions of the Phantom story, and De Palma seems to draw most from the 1962 version, produced by Hammer Films. In that film, as in Phantom of the Paradise, the title character is thoroughly a victim of circumstance and others’ treachery, whereas the Phantoms portrayed by the iconic Lon Chaney (in 1925) and by Claude Rains (in 1943) more clearly verge on the obsessive, the violent, and even the insane. For example, in the 1925 adaptation, the Phantom is apparently deformed from birth, and in 1943, he suffers his injuries while taking murderous revenge. By contrast, both the 1962 and 1974 Phantoms wound themselves by accident while trying to sabotage the publication of their stolen compositions. Plot points aside, however, the fact that Phantom of the Paradise used Leroux’s storyline at all was enough for Universal to accuse the film’s production company, Harbor Productions, and its producer, Edward R. Pressman, of copyright infringement. According to Variety, Universal eventually settled out of court, reportedly for an upfront payment and “substantial participation in the film.”

If Phantom of the Paradise draws the general shape of its story from gothic horror, its comedic tone owes as much to popular music. Beef (Garrit Graham) — the proto-metal glam rocker enlisted by Swan (Paul Williams) to open The Paradise — exemplifies this facet, serving mainly as the butt of jokes about prima donna excess and rock and roll’s emphasis on masculinity. Often, the swipes are broad — Beef’s lisp, mannerisms, and general attitude recall those of Roger De Bris in The Producers — but there are smaller touches that reward the careful viewer; for instance, pay attention to the photos on Beef’s vanity mirror. De Palma extracts slightly more subtle comedy from Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Harold Oblong, whose performances as The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums, and The Undead simultaneously parody 25 years of pop music stereotypes while showing off the musical range and performative versatility of the musicians themselves.

Equally humorous, but perhaps more difficult to spot because of their specificity, are Phantom’s visual jokes and references to popular cinema. The “Upholstery” number is a fine example: the split screen effect is surely drawn from Sisters, De Palma’s previous film, and the situation of a bomb suspensefully ticking away in a car trunk comes straight out of Welles’ Touch of Evil. In Beef and his back-up band, The Undead, De Palma finds occasion to evoke German Expressionist cinema, specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Perhaps the most obvious film reference involves one of De Palma’s favorite points of contact, Alfred Hitchcock, in a loving and lovingly goofy parody of Psycho’s iconic shower scene.

Considering the light tone with which it deploys references and observes influences, as well as the general quality of De Palma’s writing and direction, more than one reviewer anticipated success for Phantom. Variety, in particular, expected the movie to attract both “teenyboppers” and “older filmgoers who can enjoy the inside sophistication.” Six months later, however, the trade called Phantom one of the “fabulous [box office] flops of 1974.” Budgeted at a reported $1.3 million, picked up for distribution by Twentieth Century-Fox for $2 million, and promoted in New York with a $70,000 campaign, the film had earned just $1 million or so in national rentals by the end of April 1975, and returns from a re-issue in 1976 appear to have been similarly poor.

Phantom of the Paradise was not a universal failure, though. North of the border, in Winnipeg, the picture ran a stunning 62 weeks after debuting on December 26, 1974, or so the Canadian Press reported in 2005 on the occasion of the city’s first Phantompalooza. Other unofficial sources cite more conservative run lengths, but all agree that Winnipeg’s support for the movie was unexpected and impressive. (Phantompalooza ran annually for two more years.) The obvious question, as one Winnipeg blogger asks, is “Why Winnipeg?” but I prefer to ask, “Why nowhere else?”

Certainly, the mechanics of Phantom of the Paradise’s long-term (lack of) popularity must be complex, but I can’t help thinking that part of the reason is that it isn’t a transportable musical. By this, I mean that its songs — arguably the most memorable narrative elements of any musical — don’t convey the story adequately on their own. As a backstage musical, in which songs are clearly distinguished as performances within the narrative, Phantom contains few musical performances that explicitly or directly express character motivations or plot. So while the songs do deal with thematic content — “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye” looks ahead to Winslow’s (William Finley) self-sacrifice for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), for instance —which of them would I sing to re-capture the experiences of the Phantom committing suicide, Winslow stumbling away from Death Records after his injury, or the Phantom racing to Phoenix’s rescue? As appropriate as gothic organ, violins, and piano are to moments like these, my humming skills are not up to the challenge. With musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mary Poppins, or The Sound of Music, we can sing the story back to ourselves, feeling invested and involved. Perhaps this lack of sing-ability partially explains why Phantom has not enjoyed the popularity it deserves.

As it goes, though, the Phantom’s music is for Phoenix; only she can sing it. At least we have the good fortune to listen.

Visions of Heaven, Visions of Hell: Derek Long on THE DANTE QUARTET & L'INFERNO

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Stan Brakhage's The Dante Quartet (1987) and L'Inferno (1911) was written by Derek Long, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. 35mm prints of both films will screen in a special Cinematheque program on Saturday, October 17, at 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas. Hall. The program will include a special introduction by Professors Patrick Rumble and Jelena Todorović from the Department of French and Italian. L'Inferno will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

By Derek Long

There’s something appropriately purgatorial about the fact that these two Dante-inspired films, which together total seventy-five minutes of screen time, took a grand total of nine years to produce. Even more impressively, Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet, leading off the program, accounts for six of those years.

Brakhage’s film, though only eight minutes long, retains the epic scope of Dante’s poetry while distilling it into pure visual abstraction. This may be because each part of the film’s titular quartet—Hell Itself, Hell Spit Flexion, Purgation, and existence is song—evokes Dante’s literal journeys in the Divina Commedia. And yet, one suspects there is more to it than that. Brakhage’s hand-painted technique shows what might happen if Dante were able to transcend his own sense, as related in Paradiso, that his human eyes only permit him to see a particular, limited version of the afterlife. In the later sections of the Quartet, Brakhage invokes this ambiguity of human vision by painting on photographed (rather than clear) film stock, creating brief flashes of the familiar. These images remind us of Dante’s ascension to the Empyrean, the purely luminous abode of God: they are “shadowy prefaces of their truth; not that these things are lacking in themselves; the defect lies in you, whose sight is not yet that sublime” (Paradiso, Canto XXX: 78-81, trans. Allen Mandelbaum).

In contrast to Brakhage’s expressionism, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro’s 1911 approach in L’Inferno is one of cultish, literalist reverence for some of the most familiar visual representations of Dante’s masterpiece. Each of the film’s fifty-four scenes is a faithful (and occasionally precise) transposition of Gustave Doré’s famous wood-engraved illustrations for his 1861 edition of Inferno. Far from falling into academicism, however, the film renders Doré’s scenes with the aid of impressive visual effects and lavish production values. From the sophisticated matte techniques undergirding the film’s depiction of the “infernal hurricane” blowing the souls of the Lustful, to the winged costumes of the Malebranche, to the double-exposed transformation of the Thieves into reptiles, L’Inferno remains the most technically masterful and visually resplendent film adaptation of Dante’s works.

As poet and translator John P. Welle has noted, L’Inferno was produced at Milano Films at the height of a Dante mania in the Italian film industry; between 1908 and 1912, “no fewer than eleven films based on the Divine Comedy, on Dante’s life, and on figures and scenes of Dantean inspiration” were produced. What set the film apart, however, was the sheer scale of its production. L’Inferno is often cited as Italian cinema’s first feature-length film. In 1911, when L’Inferno was released, the typical film seen by a mass audience (in Italy and elsewhere) rarely exceeded 300 meters—a screening time of about fifteen minutes—and was combined with several other films to form a mixed program. In America, studios like Biograph and Vitagraph could churn out such films every five days for less than $1,000 each. By contrast, L’Inferno spanned 1,200 meters and took three years to produce, at an astounding cost of more than 100,000 lire. It was so long and so big that it could be—indeed had to be—the sole film on a theater’s program, which also meant that it tended to be screened in high-class theatrical and opera venues at inflated ticket prices. According to Welle, L’Inferno’s lighthearted marketing campaign even made reference to these prices in a parody of several verses from Inferno. Virgil’s original line, “Li parenti miei furon Lombardi” (My parents were Lombards, Canto I: 68), is instead given to Dante himself—and a footnote helpfully explains that the poet is trying to establish his family relationship to the film’s producer, Gustavo Lombardo, so that he can get out of paying for a ticket.

L’Inferno wasn’t simply the first Italian feature; it was a superproduction that combined the literary cult of Dante, the supreme production ambitions of the Italian film industry, and cinema’s struggle for cultural legitimacy. When the film reached the United States in the fall of 1911, ads for Pliny Craft’s Monopol Film Company—which held the distribution rights for L’Inferno in the New York metropolitan market—sold the film as “A picture that is destined to establish motography as one of the fine arts…preserving all the dignity and reverence of the original poem and paintings.” The idea of the film as an authentic, faithful literary adaptation was the lynchpin of its success, and further enabled its distribution as a special feature. Indeed, L’Inferno set off an entire cycle of colossal Italian literary-historical films that would be distributed throughout the world, including Quo Vadis (Enrico Guazzoni, 1912), Antony and Cleopatra (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913), and Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914). These films had an important effect on American filmmaking; their release in the United States by distributors like Craft and George Kleine helped to spur on the American industry’s production of features in the mid-1910s, from companies like Famous Players, Mutual, and Triangle.

L’Inferno had reverberations in American film history well past the 1910s; the film’s relative explicitness in its depiction of suffering souls in Hell ensured that it was frequently repurposed in other works, often as the starkest imaginable vision of the infernal regions. The American avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger famously used footage from L’Inferno in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), his ode to Alastair Crowley and Thelema, but the film had been excerpted some eighteen years previously in exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper’s appropriately-titled Hell-A-vision (1936), which dwelled, unsurprisingly, on the nude depictions of the damned. Spencer Williams’ under-seen race film Go Down, Death! (1944) faced censorship problems as a result of the same.

In any case, both of these films showcase unforgettable visions of Dante’s afterlife, from the spiritual apprehensions of Brakhage’s pure abstraction to the terrifyingly visceral quality of Doré’s illustrations put to film. These visions remain among the best cinematic adaptations of the Divina Commedia, a work approaching its seven hundredth anniversary. While we have only had one century to appreciate L’Inferno, it will doubtless continue to haunt us.

Just Added: SPOTLIGHT screening

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a special free preview screening of the new film Spotlight. After its premiere screenings at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last month, the critically acclaimed Spotlight has been much-discussed as a year-end awards-contender. The screening will take place, Wednsday, October 28, 7 p.m., at the Marquee Theater at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton Street. Spotlight is co-presented by the Cinematheque and WUD Film.

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight tells the riveting true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that would rock the city and cause a crisis in one of the world’s oldest and most trusted institutions. When the newspaper’s tenacious “Spotlight” team of reporters delve into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston's religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent, The Visitor), Spotlight is a tense investigative thriller, tracing the steps to one of the biggest crime stories in modern times. No passes required. Seating is limited and provided on a first-come, first-seated basis.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. We anticipate a full-house. Please arrive early!

Spotlight opens in theaters in November.


Wednesday, October 28, 7 p.m.


Marquee Theater at Union South
1308 W. Dayton Street
Madison, WI 53715

Admission free. Seating limited.

Official Spotlight website:
WUD Film Website:

The Self-Made Anna May Wong

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the career of Anna May Wong was written by Cinematheque Staff Member Amanda McQueen. A double feature of the Wong vehicles Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 11 beginning at 2 p.m. This screening is a co-presentation of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever!" series and Madison's Asian-American Media Spotlight.

By Amanda McQueen

In her profile of Anna May Wong for Hollywood Magazine in January 1938, columnist Louise Leung concluded of the actress, "If anyone can claim to be self-made, she can." Indeed, as the first Chinese American film star, she had to be. Multi-lingual, fashion forward, politically engaged, witty, and often outspoken against the limited roles offered to people of color, Wong worked tirelessly within a system that did little to help her succeed. And although Hollywood never made her a true leading lady, her hard work and talent – evident even in low-budget features like Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and Dangerous to Know (1938) – nevertheless made her an icon.

Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong) grew up alongside Hollywood and spent her childhood infatuated with the movies. In 1921, after working for a few years as an extra, she dropped out of school to pursue acting full time. Although she worked steadily through the 1920s, anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from kissing an actor of another race on screen, and she was mostly relegated to stereotyped supporting roles, like that of the treacherous Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924). In 1928, frustrated by this lack of opportunity, Wong left for Europe, where films like Piccadilly (UK 1929) and The Flame of Love (UK 1930, aka Road to Dishonour) – her first talkie, which she recorded in English, French, and German – made her an international star.

When Paramount offered her a contract in 1931, Wong returned to Hollywood, hoping to capitalize on the prestige she had built in Europe. However, despite strong performances in big-budget films like Shanghai Express (1932), she remained only a featured player. Adding insult to injury, studios often considered Wong for a part, only to give it to a white actor in "yellow face"; for example, the female lead in MGM's adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth (1937), which Wong had long coveted, went to German-born Luise Rainer. So although she continued to act in Hollywood, Wong frequently returned to the stage and Europe in search of better opportunities, and in 1936 – after the Good Earth disappointment – she spent nine months touring China.

In 1937, Paramount offered Wong a new contract (she had been dropped as a cost-cutting measure some years before), initiating what she called the "Third Beginning" of her film career. This time, the studio placed her in B films, where she posed less of a financial risk, but where she also found more freedom to promote positive portrayals of Chinese characters. The first of these films was Daughter of Shanghai, in which she played Lan Ying Lin, a young woman who teams up with Detective Kim Lee (Philip Ahn) to investigate her father's murder and halt a smuggling ring. Written by Gladys Unger and Garnett Weston, the film was partly an attempt to capitalize on the contemporary vogue for Chinese themes, but it was also designed to give Wong an active and sympathetic character. "I like my part in this picture better than any I've had before," she explained to Hollywood Magazine, "because this picture gives the Chinese a break." She similarly told Modern Screen, "I feel that the real Chinese should be shown to the audiences of the world, if only to correct false impressions of the past. And so, with this thought in mind, I was happy to appear in 'Daughter of Shanghai.'" Paramount also touted the fact that the Chinese consul in LA had approved the screenplay; this was a significant change for Wong, whose previous films had been criticized and banned by the Chinese Nationalist government for their "disgraceful" depictions of Chinese womanhood. For these reasons, then, as the Library of Congress explained upon selecting it for preservation, "Daughter of Shanghai was more truly Wong's personal vehicle than any other of her films."

Wong then immediately went to work on another B thriller, Dangerous to Know, in which she played Madam Lan Ying, a gangster's mistress. The film was an adaptation of On the Spot, a play by prolific English writer Edgar Wallace, and Wong had in fact played the same role in both the London and Broadway stage versions back in 1930, just before her return to Hollywood. (Incidentally, Dangerous to Know also served as promotion for Paramount's upcoming The Big Broadcast of 1938 by prominently featuring the song "Thanks for the Memory.")

Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know both performed well at the domestic box office, but because they were B films – each shot in about a month by low-budget specialist Robert Florey in late-1937 – neither received much critical attention. Variety concluded of the former, for example, that it wasn't "half bad" for a "frankly second-rate offering," while the New York Times dismissed the latter as a "second-rate melodrama, hardly worthy of the talents of its generally capable cast." In Europe, however, where Wong was still a big name, both films garnered much better reviews. Evidencing her continued popularity in Germany, Dangerous to Know even received a stamp of approval from the Nazi Ministry of Culture.

Wong continued to appear in low-to-mid-budget films through the 1940s – including a few anti-Japanese propaganda films – and then moved into television, where she briefly starred in her own series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951). In 1960, with the offer of a significant role in Universal's adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Flower Drum Song (1961), which boasted an all-Asian cast, Wong seemed poised for another Hollywood comeback. However, when her health – damaged by years of drinking and smoking – took a turn for the worse, she had to withdraw from the project, and she died of a heart attack in February 1961.

While some have criticized Anna May Wong for being complicit with Hollywood's stereotyping of Asian characters, others – including the Asian-American Artists Foundation and the Asian Fashion Designers – have heralded her as a pioneering figure. In films like Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know, Anna May Wong demonstrates her undeniable talent, style, and tenacity, making it clear why Kay Francis would name her as one of the "8 Most Fascinating People in Hollywood" for Modern Screen. "I believe that she, more than any woman in pictures, has made the best of her opportunities," Francis explained. "Her problems were peculiarly complicated, but she wasn't daunted in the least."

LUMIÈRE D’ÉTÉ: Cinema under Occupation

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean Grémillon's Lumiere D’Ètè ("Summer Light", 1943) were written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. Marking the conclusion of our Jean Grémillon series, a 35mm print of Lumiere D’Ètè will screen in the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, October 3 at 7 p.m.

By Jonah Horwitz

Lumière d’éte is an unusual movie made in unusual conditions. Although often described as the second of Grémillon's films made under the Occupation, it was really his first, as Remorques, released in late 1941, was written and shot largely before the fall of France in summer 1940.

The German invasion scattered French filmmakers around the country—and the globe. Some went to California, others to Great Britain. But many found themselves in a kind of internal exile. One sizable colony of film professionals gradually established itself in Provence, on the Côte d’Azur (then part of Vichy France and ruled by Marshall Pétain). Some members of this colony were banned from making films as a result of their left-wing associations. Others, like art director Alexander Trauner, were Jews. Their presence—and their participation in filmmaking—was a kind of open secret. Tolerated by the local police and protected by well-connected producers, they spent much of the Occupation in a milieu that, according to film historian Colin Crisp, mingled a "surface tranquility, continuing professional involvements, and the ever-present possibility of death." Members of this colony formed a professional society, with close ties to the Resistance, in order to help organize film production in the French Riviera. By legend, some directors organized location shoots as pretexts for clandestine rendezvous.

Lumière d’été’s screenwriter Jacques Prévert was something like the sponsor of a group of filmmakers at Tourrette-sur-Loup. When he was working on a film, he could get work for his colleagues—even those, like Trauner, whose names could not appear in the credits. (On Lumière d’été, Trauner’s friend, the artist Max Douy, was named instead.) Prévert, whose last prewar project had been Remorques, spent the first year of the occupation working on two scripts, for Les Visiteurs du Soir ("Night Visitors") and Lumière d’été; the former became a much-admired film as directed by Marcel Carné (1942).

Lumière d’été’s producer, André Paulvé, was well placed to help organize production in the Côte d’Azur. He was based in Nice, and since 1939 had enjoyed a coproduction arrangement with northern Italian financiers, under the name La Société cinematographique mediterranéenne d'exploitation ("The Mediterranean Film Distribution Company"). Paulvé was responsible for several notable French films of the Occupation period: not only Visiteurs du soir and Lumière d’été but also the first films by Jean Delannoy, who would become a major figure of the postwar "tradition of quality."

Prévert wrote Lumière d’été with Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, the stars of Remorques, in mind. But by the time filming could begin, both were in California. Two relatively minor actors, Madeleine Robinson and Georges Marchal, were instead cast. After Paulvé hired Grémillon, the latter hired his favorite actress, Madeleine Renaud. At this point in her career, Renaud—a celebrated stage actor and member of the Comédie Française—was fed up with filmmaking and was reluctant to appear in any films but Grémillon's.

Lumière d’été is set in the French Alps. There, Patrice (Paul Bernard), a manipulative aristocrat, owns a lavish chateau. His lover, Cricri (Renaud), runs a nearby inn. Julien (Marchal) is the chief of the workers at a nearby mine. The plot is set in motion when Cricri invites Roland (Pierre Brasseur), a troubled young artist from Paris, to the inn. Roland’s partner, Michèle (Robinson), arrives first, and Patrice immediately sets his sights upon her. Eventually, Roland arrives—as a shell of a man, demoralized by the critical and public rejection of his work. While fending off the overtures of Patrice, Michèle is drawn to Julien. The film proceeds by a series of seductions and repulsions, insinuations and bold declarations. The romantic intrigues are resolved, violently, at a masked ball at Partice’s chateau.

Lumière d’été contrasts the decadence and moral decay of the elites, personified by Patrice and abetted by Cricri, with the efficacy and bravery of the working class, embodied in Julien. Michèle is the in-between figure who must choose sides. The film is rather stranger than this schematic description suggests, however. This strangeness resides in the strikingly non-naturalistic quality of the cinematography, sound design, and lighting; the melodramatic shifts in characters’ desires and actions, which seem to operate outside of conventional psychology; and in the theatrical, sometimes mannerist performances (Brasseur’s in particular). As many critics have noted, the film seems to take place in a fever-dream.

The film incudes stylistic flourishes that recall Grémillon’s origins in the silent cinema. The montages of mine workers, rhythmically edited like the scenes of the ship’s engine in Remorques, suggest Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in their odd angles and complex layering of smoke, fog, and diffused light. In its use of subjective sound, Lumière d’été recalls Grémillon’s La petite Lise. However, the new re-recording technology introduced to the French film industry by the Germans enabled Grémillon and his recordist Robert Ivonnet to manipulate the film’s sonic texture in a more virtuosic, and less obviously disruptive, way than in the earlier film.

Although the tone of the two films is markedly different, there are many elements in Lumière d'été that suggest Prévert and Grémillon were inspired in part by Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939). Philippe Roger enumerates the borrowings in a piece on Grémillon's film: characters representing different elements of society converge on a country estate; a failed artist (Roland in Lumière d'été, Octave in La Règle du jeu); a hunting party; the presence of music boxes. Other parallels would require spoilers, but will be evident to those who watch both films.

As with La Règle du jeu, the isolated location and the emblematic characters have prompted critics to read Lumière d'été as an allegory of French society. And many have indeed viewed it as a Resistance parable, promising a victory of the common man over elites who have brought civilization to ruin. Geneviève Sellier views the film as a deliberate attack on Pétainist ideology, depicting rural France not as a wellspring of positive national values but as a site of moral rot. Cited as evidence for these interpretations is the fact that Paul Morand, an anti-Semite who oversaw film censorship for the Vichy regime, had tried to ban the film. Morand saw in Lumière d’été an echo of the "poetic realism" that Prévert had pioneered in the 1930s—a style they associated not only with the left-wing Popular Front but with a pessimism and sense of futility the Pétain regime blamed for France’s defeat.

It’s common practice for critics to treat any and all art produced under difficult and censorious conditions as allegories—subversive attacks on the powers-that-be. This temptation has been especially great for postwar French critics and directors reflecting on the Occupation period; who wouldn’t want to demonstrate that a film you admire—or a film you made—carried a coded message against the oppressors? In this fashion, nearly every major film of the era—up to and including Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeau ("The Raven"), which was mercilessly attacked by the Resistance press as being "anti-French"—has been rehabilitated as anti-Fascist. This revisionism has the added benefit of making the Vichy censors look like dupes.

The readings of Lumière d’été as a "film of the Resistance" can seem willful. The celebration of the working man, and the jaundiced portrayal of the wealthy, is a commonplace of melodrama. Indeed, the glorification of the "average Frenchman" was a part of Pétainist ideology. At least one critic, Raymond Borde, has attacked Lumière d’été as being essentially consonant with the values of the Vichy regime. (For a sensitive English-language interpretation of Grémillon’s Occupation films as films of the Resistance, see Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay "Bravery in Hiding": Here I should probably note that Lumière d'été was not banned (contrary to many English-language sources). Morand was overruled by Louis-Émile Galey, Vichy’s official liaison to the film industry, and the film was widely seen. Colin Crisp notes that its happy ending—which contrasts sharply with the tragic endings of Prévert’s 1930s films—might have been the deciding factor. Galey may also have been concerned not to waste the investment made in the film in a time of scarcity, or even worried about offending Paulvé’s Italian partners. Morand was forced to resign over the affair and ended up as Vichy’s ambassador to Switzerland—not a bad place to wait out the war.

As for Grémillon himself? His longstanding association with both trade unionism and socialism made it easy to credit his Occupation films as harboring covert Resistance messages. Less sympathetic critics pointed out that he had made several films at the German studio UFA in the mid-late 1930s. Gueule d’amour (1937) and L’Étrange Monsieur Victor (1938) were shot largely in Berlin, well into the National Socialist period. But such co-productions had been a mainstay of European cinema since the early 1920s, and other filmmakers with left-wing commitments had similarly participated in UFA productions.

In truth, it’s just not possible to read Grémillon’s ideological commitments—or even his relationship to the day-to-day reality of Occupation—into his features. His second and last Occupation feature, Le Ciel est à vous ("The Sky Is Yours," 1944), has if anything an even more ambiguous relationship to its historical moment than Lumière d’été. After the war, Grémillon sought to make a number of historical dramas, among them a feature about the Paris Commune, that better expressed his political views. But he wasn’t able to get any of those projects off the ground. His three postwar narrative films are all melodramas, far removed from any topical associations.

L’ÉTRANGE MONSIEUR VICTOR: Tenderness and Cruelty

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Jean Grémillon's L'Étrange Monsieur Victor (The Strange Monsieur Victor, 1938) were written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Monsieur Victor will screen in the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, September 26 at 7 p.m.

By Jonah Horwitz

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is the second film in the UW Cinematheque’s series to represent its director Jean Grémillon in what might be called his "mature" phase, spanning 1937 to 1951. During this time, he worked in established genres within France’s star system and largely sublimated his experimental impulses in a sophisticated classical style. This was also the period of his greatest commercial success and critical renown.

After several early-1930s commercial failures (all combining melodramatic plotlines with outré style), Grémillon was essentially unemployable in the French film industry. From 1932 to 1934, he made several short films and a feature in Spain. Grémillon’s redemption came in late 1934, when he met Raoul Ploquin, then head of French-language production for the German film powerhouse UFA. Ploquin entrusted Grémillon to take charge of a film-operetta, Valse royale ("Royal Waltz," 1935)—the French version of the German film Königswalzer. This assignment led to his next film, Pattes de mouche ("Scrawl," 1936), an adaptation of a 19th-century theatrical play. Neither of these films was especially successful, but their adherence to generic formulae at least proved—above all, to Ploquin—that Grémillon was a director he could trust with bigger stars and bigger budgets.

That trust paid off with Gueule d’amour (literally "Lover Lips," but frequently translated as "Lady Killer"), which reunited Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin, luminous stars of Pépé le Moko. Gueule was the last of three masterpieces from 1937—after Pépé and La grande Illusion—to establish Gabin’s classic persona of a world-weary, working-class anti-hero undone (or nearly) by sentiment. Gueule d’amour is no less adventurous than Grémillon’s early sound features, but his experimental impulses are channelled into a confident, classical style. The film’s shifts in tone and its establishment of mood are achieved subtly and delicately. The sonic disjunctures and startling images of La petite Lise and Daïnah la métisse appear sparingly in Grémillon’s later features, which compensate for this "lack" with a richness of texture and elaborately evolving narratives.

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor ("The Strange Mr. Victor") was Grémillon’s first film after Gueule d’amour, and it shows how his "mature" style can express complex shadings of character. As with Grémillon’s other UFA productions, the interiors were shot in a Berlin studio and exteriors on location—in this case Toulon in southern France. Grémillon again worked with the great screenwriter Charles Spaak, who had previously written La petite Lise and Gueule d’amour (among many other great French films of the 1930s). The star—and the film is very much a star vehicle—was Raimu. Born Jule Auguste Muraire in Toulon, Raimu was an admired stage actor who had achieved international fame for starring in a series of films adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s plays: Marius, Fanny, and César (1931–36). Raimu was strongly associated with southern France and viewed as a somewhat "rugged" type, although as Mr. Victor he’s playing partially against type.

Note: those opposed to spoilers might wish to skip the remainder of this piece until after they’ve seen the film. However, I’ve tried to keep mum on the most surprising plot developments.

L’Étrange Monsieur Victor has a dynamite set-up: Mr. Victor, a successful merchant, happily-married new father, and pillar of his Toulon neighborhood, moonlights as a fence for a gang of robbers. This opposition—between bourgeois respectability and crime, or what we might call "family values" and pure avarice—is deepened as the film goes on. Mr. Victor kills an accomplice who threatens to blackmail the gang, and allows an innocent shoemaker (Pierre Blanchar) to go to prison for the murder. Later, the shoemaker breaks free and returns to Toulon, seeking the help of none other than Mr. Victor, whom he does not know to be the true culprit. From this point the movie—which earlier has qualities of a both a noir and a farce—becomes a chamber drama, among Mr. Victor, his wife (Remorques's Madeleine Renaud), and the shoemaker.

The most distinctive aspect of L’Étrange Monsieur Victor is likely the filmmakers’ unwillingness to establish who Mr. Victor "really" is: loving family man or cold-blooded murderer. He is, disturbingly, both. Sellier describes how the film’s moral contradictions were developed by Spaak and Grémillon across several drafts of the script. In earlier versions, Mr. Victor shows remorse for his crime; indeed, in one draft he leaves a full confession on his deathbed. Interim versions attempt to mitigate the awfulness of his crime. These gestures to a conventional moralism were gradually stripped away, and Sellier observes that in the final draft, Victor’s "mix of generosity and cynicism" is never reconciled. He remains capable of the greatest tenderness and the greatest cruelty. Raimu’s remarkable achievement is to make both seem plausibly the work of the same man. Arguably, the relative seamlessness of Grémillon’s style aids this portrayal; a more aggressive, disruptive display of technique might have unnecessarily underlined Mr. Victor’s contradictions.

As with Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), it’s tempting to interpret the characterizations in L’Étrange Monsieur Victor as anticipating the horrors of World War II. Certainly, the theme of bourgeois respectability harboring the basest impulses would become painfully relevant in years to come. But I’m not sure we need to credit Grémillon and Spaak with clairvoyance to appreciate the audacity of the film’s conception and the seductiveness of its style.

The Ziegfeld of the German Musical Comedy Stage: Erik Charell and CARAVAN

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay about Erik Charell's Caravan was written by Cinematheque Staff Member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Caravan, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, will screen in the Cinematheque's "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, September 20, at 2 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In September 1934, Fox Film Corporation placed an advertisement in Variety celebrating the "Genius" of director Erik Charell. The full-page ad praised Charell's work on the musical Caravan – scheduled for release by Fox later that month – and claimed that his "Daring Originality [and] soaring imagination are reflected in every scene." "Above All," the ad concluded, Charell's first Hollywood film was something "new and significant that will be studied in every studio . . . and welcomed by a public that has been begging for a newer, truer use of the motion picture." Despite Fox's valiant promotional efforts, however, Caravan was a critical and commercial failure, ending Charell's Hollywood career as soon as it began. Today, it is being rediscovered as a major piece of Hollywood entertainment of the 1930s.

Born Erich Karl Löwenberg, Erik Charell first came to prominence as a professional dancer in Berlin, where he was often compared to Vaslav Najinski. In the 1920s – following a stint touring Europe with his own ballet company – he and his brother took over management of Berlin's Großes Schauspielhaus, and Charell started directing musical revues and operettas. Influenced by what he'd witnessed on a trip to New York, he became interested in blending German operetta with more "exotic" elements – such as jazz and Ziegfeld-style dancing girls –and his revues became famous for pushing the limits of sex, nudity, and homoeroticism on stage. Charell then turned to modernized, jazz adaptations of classic operettas, such as The Mikado and Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), before collaborating with composer Ralph Benatzky on a trilogy of original works. Im weißen Rößl (The White Horse Inn) (1930) became the most successful of these three operettas: Charell himself staged productions of it in London (1931), Paris (1932), and New York (1936); it has been adapted to film multiple times, most recently in 2013; and it continues to be revived to this day.

The popularity of Charell's operettas brought him to the attention of the German film studio Ufa, and he was hired to direct Der Kongreß tanzt (The Congress Dances) (1931), a lavish operetta with music by Werner Richard Heymann and set design by Ernst Stern, who helped define the Expressionist aesthetic. The film became an international hit. The New York Times dubbed Charell the "Ziegfeld of the German musical comedy stage" and Variety, although doubtful that the film's plot would have significant interest for American audiences, nevertheless believed that its impressive visual style would "draw more than passing attention from Hollywood." That attention came in the form of a job offer from Fox, and Charell headed to California.

Based on an original story by Hungarian journalist Melchior Lengyel – who also wrote the stories on which Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) were based – Caravan is similar in tone to Ernst Lubitsch's Paramount operettas starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The plot concerns Countess Wilma (Loretta Young), who, under threat of losing her inheritance, pays the gypsy fiddler Latzi (Charles Boyer) to become her husband. However, complications arise with the romantic interferences of Lieutenant von Tokay (Phillips Holmes) and the gypsy girl Timka (Jean Parker). A French-language version, also directed by Charell, was made at the same time. Boyer, who was better known in France than America – Caravan was his first starring role in a Hollywood picture – again played Latzi, but the rest of the cast was replaced by popular European actors. 

Fox saw Caravan as a follow-up to Der Kongreß tanzt, and so also brought over Heymann to write the music – in collaboration with Tin Pan Alley lyricist Gus Kahn – and Stern to handle the art design. Moreover, as part of a larger industry push to bombard the struggling film market with high-quality product, Fox planned Caravan as a "super-special," setting the budget at over $1 million, touting the film's "mass effects involving thousands of people," and promising a "Spectacle of such sheer beauty that nothing ever done on the screen can compare with it." A key part of this spectacle-centered promotion emphasized the unique contributions of Charell as director. In June 1934, for example, Fox advertised that they had secured "Europe's prize long-run producer (his hits run for years!)" and had "backed him to the limit" with all the resources the studio could supply.

But Caravan fell far short of Fox's high expectations. Reviews were almost entirely unfavorable. The New York Times found the musical "an exceptionally tedious enterprise," while Variety thought it "heavy-handed, cumbersome and overloaded with a crazy kaleidoscope of mass production." Audiences seem to have agreed, and Caravan performed poorly at the box office, with many theaters pulling the film after only a few days. The French version didn't fare much better.

In the wake of Caravan’s failure, other Hollywood producers cancelled their projects with Charell. And with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Ufa, too, had severed ties with the Jewish director. So Charell returned to the stage, mounting the Broadway production of The White Horse Inn (1936) to much success, and experimenting with a jazz operetta version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Charell's Swingin' the Dream (1939) featured music by Jimmy van Heusen and Benny Goodman, choreography by Agnes DeMille, and performances by Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Butterfly McQueen, and Count Basie. Unfortunately, it closed after only 13 shows. After the war, Charell returned to Germany and musical theater, but his film work was limited to producing adaptations of two of his operettas: Im weißen Rößl (1952), starring Johannes Heesters, and Feuerwerk (Fireworks) (1954), starring Lilli Palmer and a young Romy Schneider.

Caravan's disappointing performance is perhaps responsible for its near-disappearance over the past 80 years. Yet the musical's recent restoration, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art's nitrate collection, seems to be bringing about a new appreciation for Charell's directorial skill. Indeed, even upon the film's initial release, reviewers admitted that Caravan possessed "photographic charm" and that "Charell is a master at camera supervision." Employing cranes, tracks, and possibly the proto-Steadicam "Velocilator," Charell makes Caravan – in the words of critic R. Emmet Sweeney – a "perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the gypsies like a fellow reveler." Also boasting innovative editing, a supporting cast of superb character actors, and, of course, the lovely Loretta Young and the dashing Charles Boyer, Caravan is being hailed as a major cinematic re-discovery.