Archive for April, 2011

The Kid Brother by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2011 by mchoffman

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“Nineteen twenty seven was a good year for silent comedy. It saw the release of Buster Keaton’s The General, a film considered to be not only his masterpiece, but one of the greatest American films ever made. But 1927 also saw the release of what has been acknowledged as Harold Lloyd’s best, and his own personal favorite of all his films, The Kid Brother. Though its reputation has increased over the years since Harold’s death in 1971, it’s still relatively obscure by popular standards. That’s a shame because an argument could be made that tonight’s film is the highlight of the whole program. It’s certainly my favorite in the series…” — beginning of my introduction to The Kid Brother

This entry is more of a postgame analysis than a detailed examination of the film, but I want to record my impressions of the evening while they are still fresh…

Except for Speedy, which was screened off-site at the Pickwick Theatre, tonight’s showing of Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother brought in the largest attendance thus far for the Park Ridge Public Library’s “Legends of Laughter” film series. The only thing better than getting a full house is the sound of kids laughing and experiencing their first silent movie. Actually, we had all age groups tonight, and it was the best reaction to any film I’ve played. (The place went bananas when “Chicago” the monkey tried to steal the show.) Hearing people applaud at the right moments made it all worthwhile.

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We began the evening early at 6:20 with Harold’s short film, Just Neighbors (1919), followed by two featurettes entitled “Greenacres” (about Harold’s famous estate) and “Harold’s Hollywood: Then and Now” (with Annette D’Agostino Lloyd as our tour guide). After the greeting at 7 PM, I played Harold’s one-reeler The Non-Stop Kid (1918). The talk that followed on the feature presentation was not as long as the previous week’s. Besides the fact that I don’t want to be known as the non-stop talking kid, I did not want to reveal too many secrets of a film I knew most had not seen before.

Harold Lloyd is proving to be the biggest surprise for those who are experiencing his films for the first time. I think part of the draw is that Harold is one of us. Based on his characterizations– as well as the documentaries I’ve played, which familiarize us with the Lloyd family– people feel closer to Harold… I think Buster Keaton remains a mystery to some and an unfathomable puzzle, and Chaplin is on some other plane of genius altogether, but people seem to feel more of a personal bond with Harold. He brought the common touch.

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There’s that wonderful moment in The Kid Brother when Harold Hickory climbs the tree in the hope of getting a better look at Mary (Jobyna Ralston), the girl from the medicine show, as she descends down the hill. He climbs higher and higher in order to watch her and call out to her. Thanks to Walter Lundin’s brilliant elevation of the camera, the scene is one of the most memorable in the film. It’s one moment of  many that makes me emotional in a way no other comedy has. The communal environment of the audience brings it out even more. The ending of City Lights comes to mind, of course, but for me, there are more sustained moments of emotional and cinematic beauty in The Kid Brother. It was heartening to see that I was not alone in feeling this. Shortly after this wonderful moment in the film, one of our loyal regulars turned around and whispered to me, “This is good!”

Another of our regulars came up to me after the show and said that now this one was her favorite of Lloyd’s. (With each one we play she has a new favorite! This tells you how well his films are going over.) I designed the program so that we would see his best in the second half of the series. Our first Harold film in March, Safety Last, is a great film and received a wonderful reaction of its own, but Harold was more than a daredevil comic known for hanging off a clock.

Harold nevertheless managed to work in some daredevil thrills in The Kid Brother

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My friends sometimes ask me who my favorite is, and I prefer not to give a definite answer because all three Legends are so unique. I’m always rather vague about it. I admire Chaplin’s poetry in pantomime, and Keaton– the most silent of the clowns– was a genius with the camera. People know Chaplin and Keaton, and as long as movies are playing on screens fans will debate the merits of their legacies. But moviegoers need to become more aware of the full spectrum of our comedy heritage– specifically, the heritage Harold Lloyd has left us.  I asked my audience to always remember Harold and films like The Kid Brother

One patron thought his films should be shown in school. Considering what kids are being shown today, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. The Kid Brother is clean and decent and just plain good. It’s filled with what author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd called a “warm beauty” which, in my eyes, reflects back off the screen. But on a technical level as well, how it is shot and constructed, it should be taught in film school.  There are few films we can call perfect, but The Kid Brother is one of them. It’s a distinctly American masterpiece.

A full house!
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Your program host (center) with two generations of movie fans: The Kilroys.
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Chinatown After Dark: Exploring Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2011 by mchoffman

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“It was easier to sit down and talk, and to make up verbal quips, to get dialogue, instead of visual action and ocular business, gags, as we used to call them. The spoken word seemed to be much simpler to get their laughs from, and much cheaper. They could make a picture for much less, because visual comedy is expensive. It takes timing. It takes spacing. It takes rehearsal to bring it off correctly. And, as time went on, comedians seemed to lose the art, or the knack you might call it, of doing pantomime. It just became a different school of thought.” ~ Harold Lloyd, 1959

Last Wednesday, April 20th, TCM honored Harold Lloyd’s 118th birthday by playing some of his films. Fortunately, one of them was the rarely-seen Welcome Danger (1929), a film not available on dvd in the United States. It may never be released in this country as there is a dwindling demand for these films. I had never seen it before, but now that I have, I can tell you it’s one of the strangest Harold Lloyd films. You would never think that a movie depicting a charming idyll of Harold mooning over a girl (with a cow-phobia) in the film’s prologue would eventually lead to a climax with Harold locked in a room and about to be beaten and whipped by a hulking black henchman (played by Blue Washington). Storywise, the film is insane (in a good way), but it’s of special interest to historians for what is beyond the plot points. Welcome Danger reveals the process of bridging the gap between silence and sound.

For those who know nothing of its creation, Welcome Danger was the film Harold made immediately after his great success, Speedy (1928). It was completed as a silent film. However, one evening before the film’s release (it was in its final editing stage), Harold was walking down a street in Los Angeles when he passed the Million Dollar Theatre and stopped to take note of an interesting phenomenon. He heard the audience inside responding enthusiastically to what was being aurally projected back at them. He went in and saw that audiences were laughing at the most mundane sounds being heard in the short subject that was playing– bacon sizzling, that sort of thing. It was at this moment that Harold had a creative epiphany about what the value of sound effects could mean; he decided to release Welcome Danger as his first sound film. With his own finances, he rebooted and retooled it by shooting  new scenes with sound (with Clyde Bruckman directing) and then redubbing the completed portions (which had been earlier shot by Mal St. Clair). These sections of the film are partially out of sync.

Harold plays a rather preoccupied botanist named Harold Bledsoe who is on his way by train to San Francisco.  After being stranded while picking flower specimens from a tree, he comes upon Billie Lee (Barbara Kent) and her little brother on the road. She is having car trouble and is in the process of making repairs– or attempting to anyway– when Harold shows up in need of a ride. In her cap and overalls, she passes herself off as a man– there’s a reason she pursues this masquerade, but let’s not get too involved with this summary.

Welcome Danger would probably lay an egg with modern audiences who crave sensory overkill, but at least it has the lovely Barbara Kent in it! (A replacement for Mary McAllister, who was the original lead in the silent version, Kent would go on to co-star with Harold in his next film, Feet First.)

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Other writers have commented on how unlikeable Harold is at the start of this film because of his (mis)treatment of  “Billie.”  Harold was certainly a better comic than this,  so it is disconcerting to see him play a jerk. It’s hard to imagine audiences laughing at these verbal put-downs, but maybe they weren’t meant to. This was Harold’s way of establishing his character’s flaws early. But the problem is that there is a total disconnect between him and us. Unlike his silent films, we are no longer seeing ourselves in him– at least for the early part of the movie. The only thing that can be said in defense of this abusive introduction is that Harold doesn’t realize Billie is a she. (But you wouldn’t talk to anyone the way he talks to her.) One passing shot of her mischievous smile tells us she is playing along with it. She even instigated his animosity by insulting the girl in the picture with whom he is so infatuated. (The girl in the cherished photo is in fact Billie.)

Their relationship is very sweet. Slow-moving perhaps, but still moving with its rural background. Kent’s character is one of those uncomplicated movie heroines  who can love a man unconditionally, running after his departing train as though she were a loyal puppy. You know she will say yes… if he can just get the question out. We like Barbara Kent in this movie, but we don’t understand why she likes Harold as much as she does. We miss the carefully-structured romances of Jobyna Ralston in films like The Kid Brother.

In San Francisco we discover that the police department has been stymied by the nefarious “Dragon,”  a villain of the underworld who has a stranglehold on Chinatown. Harold’s father had been the police chief there  years ago, so the current brain trust has the bright idea that perhaps Harold is a chip off his dad’s block; his services are recruited after a good first impression. Since Harold didn’t seem to notice Billie’s obvious femininity earlier in the film, we wonder what kind of sharp detective he’d make. In addition, Harold had never heard of the science of fingerprinting. He makes up for it by obsessively fingerprinting all the cops in the station.

Quite by accident, Harold discovers the opium trade when a plant pot he had absconded with breaks. Finding a carton of dope inside, the Chinese doctor, who had been attending to Billie’s brother (and who also is an enemy of The Dragon), goes off to see what he can find out. He vanishes, but Harold goes in search of him. Harold’s sidekick is Clancy, the wide-eyed, slow-talking traffic cop (played by the wonderful Noah Young) who had earlier been run over by Harold and Billie. (The two men had been paired together earlier in1921’s A Sailor-Made Man in which they had rescued Mildred Davis from the Maharajah.)

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric sequence in a labyrinth involving wall panels and secret passageways. The two find themselves running from dozens of Chinese. It’s not the most subtle brand of humor with most of the action involving characters getting hit over the head with boards. And there’s the candle-on-a-moving-turtle gag. (It never fails!) It might be tedious to some, but I liked this sequence. The music and lighting add to the “haunted house”-type thrills. Listen carefully and you’ll recognize the Alfred Hitchcock theme, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” in the score. The incidental music was arranged by C. Bakaleinikoff.

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Harold incorporates a funny gag here where his match goes out and the screen goes totally black: the joke being that now we have sound but no picture. However, Harold milks this device a little too much with the match continuously going out.

Had the film ended after this first brawl, it would’ve been a huge disappointment. But true to form, Harold extends the action for a topper– and another confrontation with The Dragon.

Back at the station, the police have turned on Harold. He is only a laughingstock. They don’t believe anything he has to say. The scene recalls a moment in The Freshman in which Harold realizes he is the joke of the campus. And like that earlier film, Harold must now prove himself worthy…

The original silent version that was first previewed no doubt would’ve been a better film because it would’ve moved faster without the awkward dialogue to root characters in place. Welcome Danger is by no means a bad film. Harold never made a bad movie. It’s actually technically superior to many early talkies. (The notable exceptions at the time were films like Applause and The Love Parade.) It’s just not as funny as Movie Crazy (his best talkie), or as interesting as The Cat’s Paw, which also used the Chinatown theme. Welcome Danger has its pluses including a great cast of supporting actors.

Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton plays Thorne, an outraged civic leader who is really The Dragon. (It’s never a mystery, folks. Early in the film it’s revealed to us.) Edgar Kennedy, the master of the slow burn, plays the desk sergeant (his character did not appear in the silent version), and the aforementioned Noah Young provides the comic relief in support of our main comic.

The real problem with Welcome Danger is that it is a stylistic mess– neither silent nor a true sound picture. It’s a hybrid, a crossover, a bridge between two worlds of comedy. And the reality of the sound world detracts from the comedy. It’s funnier seeing Harold riding an out-of-control cow backwards in silence than it is hearing him yell for help on it. It’s funnier seeing guys get conked over the head in silent films than hearing the harsh violence of the actual sound effect. The magic silence was its own world, and it did not always translate into the reality of the talking motion picture.

The film is clearly interested in sound, and in fact opens with a train roaring towards the camera. Had audiences seen this image 30 years earlier they would’ve jumped out of their seats for fear the train would run them over. Such was the impact of moving pictures. But now in 1929, it was the sound of the image that made audiences startled. For the first time, they could hear the whistle of the train and all the ordinary sounds of the real world. The opening scene with Harold in the train car is a catalog of aural effects, and each interaction with a passenger presents us with the sounds of everyday life, such as a baby crying. Audiences were curious to finally hear these familiar sounds. Curiosity is what made Welcome Danger his most commercially successful film.

There are even a couple inter-titles that recall the silent film technique. “And so, chop suey to the left of him– laundries to the right of him– into the midst of Chinatown strode Harold Bledsoe.”

The first cut that Harold initially previewed was almost 3 hours. The response was enthusiastic, but then the more times he cut it down the worse it got. He finally got it down to just under two hours– still too long by comedy standards– before converting it into the film we know today. Nevertheless, the foreign market– as well as American theatres not yet equiped for sound– did get the silent version of the film.

In Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd writes, “Mind you, the original, complete silent version is not known to survive to this day, but fragments do– the original picture negative was missing the first reel, but the dupe picture negative was used to fill in that missing reel and other segments. These fragments comprise a mock ‘restored silent version’ that has screened in some archive theatres. Actually, on August 13, 2008, UCLA’s film archive screened both versions of Welcome Danger– the silent and the sound– on the same evening. The response to the ‘new’ silent has been overwhelming– mirroring the curiosity and enthusiasm of 1929 audiences. According to UCLA film archive preservationist Jere Guldin, ‘After we screened it, I believe it played for five days at the Film Forum [in New York]. They sold out the shows every day.'”

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This UCLA version quoted above was mostly a mute print of the talking Welcome Danger with intertitles. There are some key differences between them. However, it is important to stress that the St. Clair version does not exist.

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For more rare images, including stills from the deleted scenes of the silent version, please visit our photo gallery in the Legends of Laughter movie group on Facebook.

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City Lights by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2011 by mchoffman

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City Lights is more than a movie; it’s a special place that reminds us of our humanity and the poetry of cinema. It’s a place many today have never seen, and that’s a shame because eighty years after its premiere the brilliance of City Lights has not dimmed. It’s the film that summarizes all the elements of performance that define Chaplin and show off his great range: the graceful pantomime, the acrobatics, and the pathos punctuated by the gentle touch of slapstick.

It is a simple story of lost souls who find each other in an instable world: the gentleman tramp who aids a blind flower girl. Its simplicity in structure masks the fact that this was Chaplin’s most difficult film, taking over two years to complete. The end result is a film that fits together as easily as a jigsaw puzzle; the pieces could not have fit any other way. Chaplin’s original idea was to tell a story of a blind clown. He kept this theme of blindness through the various story incarnations, but he always had a sense of the story’s final destination. Having a blind girl as the heroine recalls The Strong Man from 1926. This is considered Harry Langdon’s best film, which was directed by Frank Capra. Langdon has often been considered the fourth genius of silent comedy.

Chaplin cast Chicago socialite and recent divorcee Virginia Cherrill in the role of the flower girl. According to one version, he had met her ringside at a prizefight. Cherrill had no previous acting experience, and it is possible this deficiency actually helped her to be convincing in the role and to appear blind without seeming to over-act. Chaplin’s advice to her was simply to look at him but “to look inwardly and not to see me.” Their working relationship, however, was strained from the beginning. Perhaps it was her boredom derived from production delays and inactivity, but she never fueled his enthusiasm. Things deteriorated when Virginia asked to leave the set for a hair appointment. Chaplin fired her immediately.

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She was not the only one to have been fired from this production. Australian artist Henry Clive had originally been cast as the suicidal millionaire, but when he refused to jump into the pool on the third day of filming he was let go and replaced by Harry Myers, who is terrific in the role. Charlie replaced Virginia with his Gold Rush co-star, Georgia Hale. (There is a fascinating screen test of Hale which can be found on the dvd.) But the reality for Chaplin was that too much of City Lights had already been completed with Virginia. He was forced to bring her back after he acquiesced to her new contract demands.

Chaplin had said that he worked himself up into what he called a neurotic state of wanting perfection. Most likely the stress and anxiety of making a silent movie in the sound era brought about this state. Charlie’s first meeting with the flower girl was shot over 300 times, marking what would become a Guinness World Record for retakes. In Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “He would not hesitate to retake a scene if he felt she was holding a flower improperly, if the timing of her movement was off, if she was not completely concentrating on the scene, or even if she spoke the line of dialogue, ‘flower, sir?’—which no one would hear in the finished film—incorrectly.”

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A silent movie in 1931 was an anachronism, but Chaplin felt there was no way he should make his most famous character speak. Before sound shattered the silence around him, the Little Tramp had become a universal figure recognized in every culture. Speaking would’ve robbed him of his connection to a large section of the global audience. The Tramp never did speak dialogue, and when forced to finally utter something in Modern Times, Chaplin found a clever way around it.  

When the sound revolution came, many of the early talkies were stagey and visually-dull affairs. Films had lost their cinematic technique. But City Lights—a deliberate, conscious throwback to the world of silent cinema—could speak to us with the power of the image. The fabled city of the Little Tramp and the flower girl was a world where emotion could be conveyed through the power of pantomime. “Everything I do is a dance,” Chaplin had said of his process. “I think in terms of dance. I think more so in City Lights. The blind girl—beautiful dance there. I call it a dance. Just purely pantomime.” Charlie Chaplin was cinema’s greatest mime and a wizard of storytelling who knew how to reach every culture in the world.

Chaplin had, in his own unique way, turned slapstick itself into a dance. It is a style of filmmaking removed from the broad knockabout most people associate with silent comedies. There are no Keystone Kops in Legends of Laughter. No pie fights. Nothing of that sort. Those early, primitive images in the comedy timeline are best left for the archeologists of cinema. My goal has been to show audiences only the high points of the silent film tradition.

City Lights does have a musical score composed by Chaplin himself as well as an interesting use of synchronized sound effects, most notably the use of kazoos to speak for the politicians in the opening scene. It’s been suggested that this was Chaplin’s dig at movie dialogue. He shows us the irrelevance of words. Fittingly, they are coming out of the mouths of politicians. Modern audiences are trained to accept sound and the spoken word. They need it as badly as they do color, but these elements are no guarantees of a better film. Sound and color enhance reality, but the silent clowns existed in a world of exaggeration.

Few films of its time had the freedom of movement and pace of City Lights. Faster and more exciting than anything around it, the film moves with an ease and grace in which every scene is loaded with ingenious gags. Every scene is inspired– none more so than the final moments.  

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The final sequence is one of the great emotional scenes of cinema. I stress emotional rather than cinematic. It’s a very simple camera set-up and it’s easy to spot the continuity errors—a viewer will notice how the flower Chaplin is holding seems to move as we cut back and forth between him and the girl. But all that is irrelevant because it is a moment of great emotional power—the power of performance—and that to Chaplin had always been more important than any technical incongruities.

In later years Chaplin said, “I had one close-up once, in City Lights, just the last scene. One could have gone overboard… I was looking more at her and interested in her, and I detached myself in a way that gives a beautiful sensation. I’m not acting… almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking, studying her reactions and being slightly embarrassed about it. And it came off. It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

We don’t even need the inter-titles to understand it because it’s all there visually. Critic James Agee, the author of the essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” said of the film’s ending, “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

A viewer recently commented to me that she thought the music in this final scene was too sad, too sombre for a “happy” ending. Though it’s the ending we had hoped for, can the Tramp ever really find happiness and love– or will he forever be on that road alone? Chaplin was too smart a filmmaker to use music cues that would hit audiences over the head. There is a reason this moment is so iconic the way it is, and the music– in keeping with the tone of the earlier themes– makes it so.

This past Saturday Chaplin would’ve been 122 years old. Perhaps I should say he is 122 because he is still with us now—still living on the screen like the immortal he is. He is still making news, we are still learning about him, and he is still inspiring us with the magic silence of City Lights.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 by mchoffman

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NOTE: For those who have wondered what the Film Historian talks about on Thursday nights, here is a transcript of an introduction. This one is on Steamboat Bill, Jr., which was screened tonight at the Park Ridge Public Library. To those who couldn’t make it out, I hope these spoken comments will motivate you to check out this amazing film. It’s one of my favorites because of the terrific cast, beautiful photography, and unforgettable gags. Fans instantly recall the iconic moments of the house falling down over Buster– which actually received an applause tonight!– but also the subtler moments which I feel rank with the best of Chaplin, such as Buster’s pantomime of a jailbreak during “The Prisoner’s Song.”

Before I begin, I want to point out that even though there is no charge to see these films here at the library, we are nevertheless paying a significant licensing fee in order to present them here for you. The Reader Services department needed help to make this series a reality, so I just want to acknowledge Dick DuSold who is the head of the “Friends of the Library” here in Park Ridge. The Friends generously contributed funds to this series, so if any of you know Dick personally, be sure to pass along a thank you to him…

“From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire—rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself—is there,” wrote Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns. “The porkpie hat sits evenly astride his head, a companion so faithful that it floats patiently on the water long after Buster is presumed drowned, knowing that when he does surface he will surface directly under it. The girl stands beside him, stupid as can be, ready to help move a house that has been built on the wrong lot by propping it up with an automobile jack. The elements with which he is at odds and in which he is so much at home—wind, water, the natural geometry of a universe God made and washed His hands of—already swirl, pivot, fold and unfold about him, defying his efforts to nail them together with a hammer and then, as the hammer flies from his hand, politely fusing them for him. The brush he needs, if he is going to paint a hook on which to hang his hat, is available. So is a subway to take him directly to the North Pole. Peculiar as he is, Keaton arrives on the scene so placidly intact that it is impossible to chart him as a process, he can only be pored over as a map.”

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Tonight’s film features one of the most peculiar and original of all screen comedians: Buster Keaton. Steamboat Bill, Jr. showcases those unreal qualities about him while at the same time presenting us with real-life moments that shaped his comic world. His early life reads like a fantastic, American tall tale. Such was the life of The Great Stone Face.

When Buster was an infant, living in a boardinghouse, he had been sucked out of a window by an approaching cyclone. The definitive Keaton biographer, Rudi Blesh, wrote, “Before Joe and Myra were halfway up the stairs, their son was sailing high over trees and houses, too amazed to be afraid, and then coasting down a slow-relaxing ramp of air to land gently in the very center of an empty street”– four blocks away.

Silent film historian Jeffrey Vance tells of an equally hair-raising experience. In Buster Keaton Remembered, he writes, “As a seven-year-old boy in vaudeville Buster was fascinated with a ventriloquist’s dummy named Red Top; he even wanted to kidnap it as his playmate. The ventriloquist, named Trovollo, who owned Red Top discovered Buster’s plan to abduct his dummy after an evening show and sneaked back into the theatre just before Buster arrived. As Buster reached for Red Top in the dark and empty theatre, Trovollo, hiding behind Red Top, brought the dummy to life. Red Top shot up and yelled, ‘Don’t touch me, boy, or I’ll tell your old man!’ Scared out of his wits, Buster ran out of the theatre as fast as he could.”

Remember these particular moments as you are watching the film tonight. Movies are never created in a vacuum. They can be taken from real life. Buster’s adventures and experiences both in life and on stage shaped his comedic vision and informed films like Steamboat Bill, Jr

I love this artwork… even though there is no angry whale in the movie.

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Mark Twain meets Romeo and Juliet is one way– albeit, superficial– of describing the movie’s story. Buster plays the weakling son of a crusty riverboat captain (wonderfully played by Ernest Torrence) and falls in love with the daughter of his father’s rival. The character Kitty King was played by Marion Byron; she was only 16 years old at the time. As a bit of trivia, Byron could not swim, so in the scene where she’s in the water, that’s actually Buster Keaton’s sister, Louise, doubling for her.

The film features one of his most famous gags in which a building falls over him as he stands unaware in the street. (You saw a smaller-scale version of it earlier in his two-reeler One Week.) “The clearance of that window,” Buster had said, “was exactly three inches over my head and past each shoulder. And the front of the building—I’m not kidding—weighed two tons. It had to be built heavy and rigid in order not to bend or twist in that wind.” (The wind Keaton is referring to came from a half dozen airplane propellers that were used as wind machines in order to create the illusion of a hurricane.)

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It was a stunt so dangerous his own director, Chuck Reisner, wasn’t even on set to see it filmed. The cameraman had to look away. It was done in one take. “You don’t do those things twice,” Buster said. In later years, he remarked that he must’ve been mad at the time or he would never have attempted it. Some have speculated that he was in fact depressed because of a disintegrating marriage to Natalie Talmadge. Whatever his motives for putting his life on the line, it remains one of the most iconic images of visual humor showing not only Buster’s brilliance as a daring comedian but also his genius as a civil engineer!

Originally, the story was about a flood. However, then—as now—a comedy involving a flood would be a risky venture. So the climax was changed to a cyclone. Keaton got around this by moving the sets into the water instead of the water rising up to the sets. The whole cyclone sequence has a dreamlike quality that harkens back to Buster’s early childhood memories.

As a footnote, there was an alternate ending of this film made in which Buster Keaton smiles, but the preview audience was so against it the scene was removed. “Even the ash can groaned when we dumped it there,” Buster had said.   

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Besides being a brilliant Keaton film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonderful piece of Americana with its nostalgic recreation of paddlewheels and life on the Mississippi. Yet, the film was a commercial disappointment. The more disconcerting news for Buster, however, was the realization that his longtime partnership with independent producer Joseph Schenk had ended. Schenck was taking a full-time job at United Artists, so he convinced Buster to sign at MGM, where Joe’s brother worked. “My brother Nick will take care of you like his own son,” Buster was told. Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd advised Keaton not to do it. Signing with MGM would become, in Keaton’s words, “the biggest mistake” of his life. And we’ll talk more about that when I show The Cameraman on May 12th.

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So enjoy tonight’s film with the knowledge that this was Keaton’s last independent production before becoming part of the studio system in which films were made on a conveyor belt—not by creative impulse. Keaton’s halcyon days as a filmmaker had come to an end.

One final note, last week I said a few words about my process as a programmer, but it’s not just about selecting what films to show, it’s which versions of them to present. Tonight, we will be playing a fairly new dvd release from Kino– and we’ll be playing it with an organ score. What music accompanies a film is always important. I remember when Kino initially released Sherlock, Jr. it had what I thought was a terrible, modern score using a guitar, and there was this weird James Bond-like cue during the chase. It was just awful, so I am very glad they are re-releasing these films on dvd with alternate scores.

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The Campaign For Harold by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2011 by mchoffman

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“It smells like rain!” ~Harold Lloyd, Speedy

Over 300 people came out Sunday night to experience Harold Lloyd’s last silent movie, Speedy (1928) at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, IL. Since the night ended with a standing ovation both for the film and for our organist, Jay Warren, we must say that the evening was a resounding success.

Besides the feature– a beautiful 35mm print courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Foundation– we also showed Harold’s 1921 “thrill picture,” Never Weaken.

The line went down the block for Speedy!

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Unlike other shows that might play during the week, this audience was captivated by the two films. Theatregoers were quiet with suspense but laughed when the buildup paid off.  There were no kids running around, no people answering their cell calls. For two hours, we had gone back to how it should always be. The audience appreciated the authenticity of this first-class presentaion–not just the actual film print itself (no digital projection)–but the live organ accompaniment as well. The organ is truly the voice of the film, and we were fortunate to have the incomparable Jay Warren of the Silent Film Society of Chicago speaking at the controls of the Wurlitzer– an amazing instrument that gets all too little use these days.

This one show had been a year in the making, and along the way, behind the scenes, I’ve done everything I could to get younger people involved. Not only did I see kids there in attendance– some of whom were seeing their first silent movie ever– but guys were bringing their dates. People, especially the patrons at the Park Ridge Public Library, have been routinely exposed to the name Harold Lloyd. Whether it was in the library newsletter or in the local paper or in the omnipresent Speedy postcard, the name Harold Lloyd was being seen.

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Click here for the official poster!

I was promoting Harold as though he were running for mayor (almost like his character in 1934’s The Cat’s Paw)– and I’m sure there are more than a few residents of Park Ridge right now who wish that could’ve been a possibility! Our grass roots campaign, which began on the ground, took to the airwaves on the 9th of April when “Those Were the Days” (90.9 FM) radio host Steve Darnall mentioned the Park Ridge Public Library and the “Legends of Laughter” film series. The following day we were honored to have Steve as our special guest. He met with fans of old-time radio before, between, and after our films. (The current issue of his “Nostalgia Digest” features my cover story on actor Dick Powell.)

With radio host Steve Darnall.

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It was important for me to meet with the 300+ friends of cinema because without their help the silent film tradition dies in the community. When I briefly addressed the audience from the stage, I wanted to stress how important it was that this tradition continue.

The Pickwick Theatre is an amazing 1400-seat palace that dates back to the year Speedy premiered. It was fascinating to actually operate the antique wall of levers backstage that control the lights– and equally impressive to climb the atmospheric spiral staircase that leads up to the projection booth. It’s the kind of building the Phantom of the Opera might haunt. It’s all very old, and I can’t imagine the upkeep, but it is indeed a landmark and a treasure, and we are grateful to the present owners that this beautiful art deco building has been preserved in our community.

Matthew Hoffman (right) greeting a theatregoer.

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When the show was over, I returned to the deco lobby to individually thank these wonderful people for their support. The film experience is about sacrifice, and some of these people came from far off to join us. With no excuses, they went the extra mile. They were not scared away by dire weather forecasts predicting hail and thunderstorms and wind gusts. Not a drop of rain fell on Sunday night. Maybe… maybe someone was watching over us during those few hours of showtime. Things could not have gone more smoothly.

Jay Warren speaking to a fan.

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It wasn’t just about attending a screening of a film you may or may not have seen before. (Great films like this are meant to be seen repeatedly.) On Sunday night, it was about supporting the Park Ridge Public Library. It was about supporting the Silent Film Society of Chicago. It was about supporting the people who worked hard to put this all together. And, most importantly, it was about supporting Harold Lloyd… and my friends did.

Thank you to all who made the evening possible.

And thank you, Harold.

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“Where’s the Funny Man?” by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2011 by mchoffman

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Over thirty years after his death, information is still coming in on the life of Charlie Chaplin. At the end of February of this year, there was a two-part radio broadcast on the BBC called “The Chaplin Archive.” It included a tour of Chaplin’s home in Switzerland with journalist Matthew Sweet and Chaplin’s son, Michael. One of the revelations that emerged was a letter Chaplin had kept locked away in a chest in his bedroom. Years after his death, when the letter was discovered and read by his daughter, it seemed to suggest an alternate family history. (Keep in mind that a birth certificate had never been found, but biographers have always placed his birth in a poor section of London.) This letter, if true, would change what historians know of cinema’s first immortal. A new chapter begins in the afterlife of Charlie Chaplin…

It was written in the 1970s by a man named Jack Hill, who introduced himself as a cousin of Charlie’s and whose father, J.J. Hill, had worked in a circus. This was at a time when Charlie’s mother, Hannah (whose maiden name was Hill), had danced in the same traveling circus. In the letter, Hill told Charlie he was a “little liar” but did not fault him for the dishonesty of his autobiography; he could not have known his origin. Hill claimed that Charlie had been born in a tent with a roaming caravan of gypsies in a place called the “Black Patch” in Smethwick. Charlie was, in fact, the nephew of a Gypsy Queen. His own mother traveled much in these circles, and in later years, Charlie himself commented on having some gypsy blood in him.

We don’t know if this story is true—perhaps the Chaplin family has an agenda to promote their archives with “new” information for news agencies like the BBC– but there is that element of possibility. We may never know for sure where Chaplin was born, but it is significant that he did keep this particular letter locked away. Perhaps he believed in what Jack Hill had revealed.

If Chaplin had in fact been born in a traveling caravan—one that featured both a menagerie of animals and an early form of the cinema—it makes The Circus seem almost inevitable. Cinema’s greatest clown makes a comedy about life in a circus. There is an element of autobiography at work in the film—not so much about his origins, but rather a revelation of what Chaplin the man was going through inside at this time. His character walked the tightrope he himself was walking in real life.

The Circus, which is the main attraction at the Park Ridge Public Library on March 31st, was a project that was almost left unfinished. During the production, the great circus tent that had been erected was damaged by a raging wind. Difficult scenes of Charlie walking the tightrope had to be re-shot because of faulty laboratory work that scratched the film. A fire destroyed the set. The government and the IRS went after him for unpaid taxes. Chaplin went through a very public divorce with Lita Grey that became a sideshow. It was so bitter her lawyers tried to seize his assets at the studio. Anticipating this, Chaplin had taken his cans of uncut film to New York where he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. The final mishap came later when production resumed. The circus wagons that appear in the final scene were stolen by a freshman class to be used for a bonfire. The students were arrested and the wagons were retrieved, but Chaplin did not press charges.

There were many trials during this production, and one image poignantly summed up his anguish. Cameraman Rollie Totheroh was able to capture some haunting still shots of Chaplin sitting amidst the fire-ravaged set.

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Charlie Chaplin never mentioned this film in his autobiography because the memories of it were apparently too painful. Yet, in his later years he did return to it. In his old age, he recorded a theme song for its re-release in 1969. The song was called “Swing High Little Girl.”

On its surface, The Circus is the story of a little fellow who aids and then falls in love with a bareback rider. But it is also a movie about the consciousness of trying to be funny. Ironic that the man most associated with comedy in American should make a film about a character who fails to be funny when he is expected to be. The Circus is also built on themes from his earlier films like The Vagabond, which had Charlie as a musician saving a girl from gypsies—only to lose her to a young artist.

But the genesis behind The Circus came from a nightmare idea—the image of the Tramp walking a tightrope, being in a high place. Losing his pants while being overrun by monkeys added to what was essentially a comic thrill premise. (Not the last time the silent comics will use monkeys to get laughs in this series.) It’s this same nightmare quality that made Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! so memorable for audiences. Recall Lloyd being besieged by pigeons in the earlier film while he made his climb up the building. And like the Lloyd film, effective camera placement here created the illusion of height. Chaplin learned to walk a tightrope for the film and made 700 takes of the scene, which was the first sequence he shot in the production.

Harry Crocker, who plays Rex the tightrope walker, remembered, “It was characteristic of Chaplin that he determined to shoot the tightrope scenes on an actual tightrope stretched thirty-seven feet above the sawdust between two giant tent poles. This necessitated the building of a series of platforms beneath the rope in case of a spill. Giant parallels were constructed for the cameras.”

Chaplin also learned to work with a couple lions—one more docile than the other. Two hundred takes were made with them. The panic that on Chaplin’s face was more than just acting.

The film also stars the 18 year old Merna Kennedy—a native of Kankakee, Illinois, and a dancer he had been introduced to through his wife, Lita. Merna plays the circus rider who is victimized by her abusive stepfather, the ringmaster of the circus. This would be her most famous film. She would retire from the screen in 1934 after marrying dance choreographer Busby Berkeley. She died from a heart attack in 1944 at the age of 36.

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The final master shot, one of almost mythic beauty, can be read as a metaphor for the melancholy in his own life. The shooting of this scene was recorded by an unidentified reporter. The moment reveals something of Chaplin’s process as a filmmaker:

“Daylight breaks,” the reporter writes. “The morning is cold. Cracklings echo from a dozen fires. It is an unusual Californian crispness. Cars begin to arrive. The roar of exhausts signals their coming. There is an extra-loud rumbling. The big blue limousine comes to a stop. The Circus must be finished. Everyone is on time. Cameras are set up. Now the sun is holding things up. Why doesn’t it hurry and come up over the mountains? It is long shadows the Tramp wants.

“Six o’clock and half the morning wasted. The edge of the circus ring is too dark. It doesn’t look natural. The Tramp refuses to work artificially. Men start to perspire again. Thirty minutes later the soft voice speaks, ‘Fine! That’s fine. Let’s shoot!’

“Cameras grind. Circus wagons move across the vast stretch of open space. There is a beautiful haze in the background. The horses and the wagon wheels cause clouds of dust. The picture is gorgeous. No artist would be believed should he paint it. Twenty times the scene is taken.

“The cameras move in close to the ring. Carefully the operators measure the distance. From the lens to the Tramp. He is alone in the center of the ring.

“He rehearses. Then action for camera. Eighty feet. The business is done again. And again! And again! Fifty persons are looking on. All members of the company. There are few eyes that are not moist. Most of them know the story. They knew the meaning of this final ‘shot.’

“‘How was that?’ came inquiring from the Tramp. Fifty heads nodded in affirmation. ‘Then we’ll take it again; just once more,’ spoke the man in the baggy pants and derby hat and misfit coat and dreadnought shoes. The sun was getting high. The long shadows became shorter and shorter. ‘Call it a day,’ said the Tramp, ‘we’ll be here again tomorrow at four.’”

The image that resulted is a rare instance where Chaplin, a man of the theatre, embraced the cinematic possibilities of the medium.

Silent film author Jeffrey Vance summed it up when he wrote that “the finale of The Circus, like the ending of City Lights, transcends the mere implication of heart to the sublime suggestion of soul.”     

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The film would win Chaplin a Special Academy Award in 1928 for acting, writing, producing and directing.     
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Though I am playing only four of Chaplin’s features in this series, audiences will be seeing them in sequential order. They can chart the progression of this architect of cinema. The Circus is an underrated film in that it gets lost in the shuffle between The Gold Rush and City Lights. It is filled with wonderful routines of physical comedy– the aforemetioned high-wire act–and brilliant set pieces that remain timeless with a theatre audience. One of my favorite moments is the hall of mirrors sequence that leads to Charlie impersonating a clock figurine. For the silent film enthusiast, there’s even a wonderful scene that takes place in a café which Chaplin cut out. Viewers can find this deleted scene in the 1983 documentary Unknown Chaplin.

The release of The Jazz Singer in the fall of 1927 had revolutionized motion pictures by the time The Circus was released in January 1928. The question then was could Chaplin’s Little Tramp, a character who had always conveyed emotion through the universal language of pantomime, survive beyond the silent era? How would Chaplin respond to this filmmaking challenge? Could he break the sound barrier with his next film—or would he defiantly remain silent?

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