Dude, #youSawTheArtist

Now that The Artist has won the Best Picture Oscar, I’ve been asked by numerous people to recommend other silent films.  People treat me as if I speak a foreign language and that perhaps I can teach them the secret to unlocking it.  In a way, this is really true, because silent film uses a different filmic syntax, and it’s one that has to be learned with repeated viewings.  Silent film technique is not primitive… it is quite advanced, in fact, but it is fundamentally different from the techniques we use today. That’s why it can seem a little silly if you are not used to it.

Most of the people who ask me about silent films are younger folks who are just discovering silents.  I hope this will dispel the myth that I somehow dislike younger people or “newbies,” which is definitely not the case.  The entire goal of the Dr. Film show is to be able to include films and shorts that will appeal to a broad audience, from newbies to dyed-in-the-wool film geeks.

What I don’t like, and will continue not to like, is the persistent cultural idea that there were only five films made before Star Wars, which seems to be the oldest film most people will watch.  I refer to these as the “Holy Quintet” of classic films. (See the end of this article for the list of the “Holy Quintet,” just in case you’re wondering.)

Silent films suffer even more in popular culture, They were often copied poorly, causing them to have that blown-out over-white look, and they were often transferred at speeds that were completely incorrect.  This only hurts the whole of silent film, because originally all the prints were lovely and they were all projected at reasonable speeds.

Most articles that I see trot out the same few silent films, often with a dismissive swish that these are flickery and sped-up, not understanding the basic idea of what silents were about.

If you’ve been reading about The Artist, then you’ve seen these articles, too.  Everyone wants you to see Sunrise, Passion of Joan of Arc, City Lights, Metropolis, and Intolerance.  These are becoming the clichéd “see these after you’ve seen The Artist” list.

The problem that I have with this list is that they are not terribly accessible.  Not in a strict sense of availability–these films can all be found on video, and often downloaded.  The problem is that these are not films I’d recommend for newbies.  It’s the equivalent of handing Beowulf to a kid who’s just finished Green Eggs and Ham.  Sure, Beowulf is great, but the poor kid is probably going to be put off a lot of literature because this is just too much for him.

All of the films in the “see these after you’ve seen The Artist” list are films I’ve seen, and one of the things that they share is that they tend to be rather broad-sweeping epics.  They tackle big issues, they’re big and ponderous, and they’re “arty.”  There’s nothing wrong with that–I like these pictures–but I fear that the won’t play well for viewers who are new to the medium.  Worse still, these are all films that demand a great deal of concentration and play infinitely better on a large screen with an audience.  I’ve got to face the fact that I need to hook new viewers by finding films that will play well on an iPhone. Then I slowly must convince them that the theatrical experience is far superior especially for silents!

I need  to emphasize once again that silents are fundamentally different from talkies.  You can watch Transformers 3 and walk into the kitchen, come back, and you’ve heard all the explosions and dialogue that you need to follow the story.  We can’t do that with silents.  If you miss two or three minutes, then you may be lost.  More importantly, there are things we can do in talkies that we can’t do in silents, but there are things that we can do in silents that we can’t do in talkies.

Ben Model frequently points out (and accurately), that one of the things we can do in silents is to have large, noisy objects sneak up behind the protagonist while he is unaware of them.  In Buster Keaton pictures, this is often a train.  When Buster’s back is to the train, even if we can see it, we’re somehow able to believe that Buster can’t hear it.  We don’t hear it either.  Once he sees it, then he is aware of its existence.  Sight is the only sense we have in a silent film.

The other thing that many have already gleaned from me is that I tend to veer off the mainstream, so I figure that you can find all the big, epic silents you need.  I’ve prepared a list of ten silent films that I hope will encourage you to see more.

These are not what I think are the ten best silent films.  I hate lists like that.  These are not my favorite silent films.  I hate lists like that.  These are not even what I consider a balanced overview of what silent films represented.  I’m not sure I could do that with just ten.

Here are the criteria I used–

  • The film must be available in some way on video or for download.
  • The film should be something that helps showcase the uniqueness of silent film.  It should either be something difficult to make as a talkie or something that was never attempted again for other reasons.
  • Big photographic epics that play well on big screens should be avoided.  Tight comedies or dramas play better on small screens.
  • Let’s have some fun and pick films that most others skip over and don’t mention.

The list, in random order, not by quality.

  1. Sherlock Junior (1924) with Buster Keaton.  I didn’t want to pick The General, because everyone will pick it, and because it’s a little too epic for new viewers.  Still, Keaton has a special timeless quality about him that appeals across generations.  This film is action-packed, and it contains a delightful sequence in which Keaton walks into a movie screen.  Again, it couldn’t be made as a talkie, because the “film” he walks into is bizarrely disjointed and would contain wildly disparate sounds to destroy the illusion.  Sherlock is probably not Keaton’s best film, but it is a film I think would appeal to a broad audience.
  2. The Mark of Zorro (1920).  I have to include a Douglas Fairbanks title in this list in order not to feel inordinately guilty.  Thief of Baghdad needs to be seen on a big screen, but Zorro is a blast no matter how you see it.  I’m not going to recount the Zorro legend to you, because you should already know it.  Fairbanks plays him brilliantly.  He was a force of nature, an unstoppable guy who seemed to embody the term “irrational exuberance.”  Fairbanks was not afraid to break all the rules of filmmaking and storytelling, either.  The last 20 minutes of so of Zorro is a non-stop chase.  It’s too long, it stops the film cold in its tracks, and it does nothing to forward the story at all.  I loved every second of it and would never cut a single frame. Fairbanks makes it work.
  3. Films of Max Davidson.  Available only as a German DVD, mostly due to rights issues and because Americans don’t like the idea of Max in general, these films are gems.  Max had his own series of short films under producer Hal Roach in the late 1920s.  He could hardly have misfired with the help he had available: many of the shorts were directed by young comedy genius Leo McCarey and photographed by budding genius director George Stevens.  Still, Max is one of the great comic performers, if only because he reactsso well.  Max’s reaction shots are a model of how a comic can and should stretch a funny situation for maximum laughs.One example I can give of Max’s brilliance is in Pass the Gravy (1928).  This is truly one of the funniest short films ever made by anyone at any time.  And it basically has one jokestretched out for almost 20 minutes.  I can even tell you the joke without giving anything away!  Max’s character is a stereotypical little Jewish guy from the 1920s, complete with beard, cheapness, etc.  He generally has an idiot son who commits some sort of mischief.  In this one, the son accidentally kills the neighbor’s prize rooster, Brigham.  The son then cooks it, leaving the FIRST PRIZE band highly visible on the rooster’s leg.  The family serves it up to the neighbor in hopes to mend the discord between the two families.  Max doesn’t understand what’s happened, but the rest of the family does, and they desperately try to explain the problem in pantomime so that the neighbor doesn’t find out.  It’s a work of genius.Should Second Husbands Come First? manages to top this in terms of sheer political incorrectness.  Money-grubbing Max is trying to marry a rich widow, much to the dismay of her two sons.  They concoct a scheme to break up the wedding: one son dresses up as a shamed woman, holding a young child “she” claims to be Max’s illegitimate son.  The boys could only find a black baby for their shenanigans, so they powdered all the visible parts.  Mortified at the events, Max’s cheap friends quickly take back all their wedding gifts.  The baby’s pants fall off, revealing a posterior of the incorrect tone.  The ruse is exposed, and Max demands all the presents be returned.  Yes, folks, in the space of 45 seconds we have two Jewish jokes, a black joke, and a butt joke.Hal Roach felt these were all OK because they were not of a vicious nature and everyone was subject to the humor in these films.  I tend to think he was right, but there are still people who think these films should be banned.  Maybe they should be banned, but you should see them first, because they are truly hilarious.
  4. Grass and Chang.  These two groundbreaking documentaries are about as fascinating as movies get.  I don’t want to tell you too much about them, because they have to be seen to be believed.  The thing to bear in mind while seeing them is that they were made by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who later made King Kong (1933).  You start to realize in watching these films just how much Cooper borrowed from his real-life experiences when making Kong, and you see a glimpse of native life (and wildlife) in Asia that was not captured any other way.  There are probably more tigers killed in Chang than exist worldwide today!  Beautiful photography, intense editing, fascinating action sequences.  Yes, they’re violent, not for young children.  Yes, they’re hoked up for maximum effect.  That doesn’t stop them from being landmark films.  As a side note, it’s important to realize that Cooper was basically the real-life (and smart) equivalent of Forrest Gump.  Almost every major event in the 20th Century had Cooper’s involvement: he was a WWI aviator, POW, anti-Communist, pioneer in the aviation industry, documentary filmmaker, studio head, major investor in Technicolor, major backer of David Selznick and John Ford, WWII hero, major investor in Cinerama, and several other things.  Amazing films, amazing man.
  5. The films of Charley Bowers.  I don’t know what to say about this guy.  He’s unique in all of cinema.  Was he smoking something?  Probably.  Bowers’ blend of stop-motion and live-action was pioneering and mind-blowing.  Sadly, most of his films were lost for many years, and many have only been rediscovered in the last decade or so.  Bowers’ comic character was sort of a combination of Chaplin and Keaton with a bizarre inventive streak thrown in.  Bowers casually showed elephants walking into the Capitol in Washington DC, with effects as convincing as any today.  In one film he invented a solution that could graft anything onto living plants.  A desperate farmer, overrun with vicious mice (bearing machine guns), hired Bowers to eradicate the pests.  Bowers solved the problem by harvesting cat-tails, grafting them onto plants, at which point live cats sprout from the plants!  This is all shown on screen in full view.  Bowers’ stop-motion happened simultaneously with Willis O’Brien’s work.  While Bowers never animates dinosaurs, he meshes live action with stop motion in brilliant ways that O’Brien never tried.  O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen rarely moved their camera during animation, but Bowers gleefully pulls back from a closeup to longshot, effectively animating both camera and model.  Bowers is one of the great rediscoveries of the past twenty years, the kind of rediscovery that keeps collectors like me digging for more lost films.
  6. The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish.  Swedish director Victor Seastrom (aka Sjöstrom) was a great innovator in silent cinema who returned to his native land and eventually acted in Bergman films.  This one is one of his best and most effective.  Again, it’s simple.  Gish is an innocent young woman stuck in a small shack in the desert.  She’s been stuck with crass, unfeeling relatives in a hot, desolate landscape.  Her isolation is something we can feel intensely, and we can understand her starting to go slightly mad in the environment.  In self-defense, she kills a man who was making improper advances, then buries him.  A wild windstorm ensues, blowing up the dry sand all around the shack.  The man is uncovered and flails around outside at the windows.  Is he really dead?  Gish has to deal with a range of emotions and a terrifying situation.  It’s a brilliant film, not screened enough.
  7. The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney.  This is a film that doesn’t lend itself to description.  I love running it for audiences, because it starts off a bit silly, drawing titters, and then moves into territory that has people cringing by the last reel.  Director Tod Browning  has been roundly trashed in popular criticism in the last decade or so.  Well, whether like Dracula or not, this is a great film.  Chaney plays an armless circus performer who throws knives with his feet, at lovely young Joan Crawford.  Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Chaney actually has arms, using them to steal and murder after hours.  Alas, Crawford sees his form, identifying his unusual double thumb, as he commits a murder.  Chaney has a brilliant idea: he bribes a doctor to remove his arms, thereby making certain that he can never be identified for his crime.  Chaney’s performance in some of the later scenes is remarkable.
  8. The Kid (1921) with Charlie Chaplin.  I have to include a Chaplin film, and everyone is going to tell you to see City Lights or The Gold Rush.  Those may be more important films, but The Kid is very accessible, very well acted, and filmically very important: it was the first major comedy feature picture.  Certainly, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) is also a feature (just squeaking by the time requirement), but The Kid is far more advanced structurally.  It paved the way for comedies and comedy-dramas for years to come.  Jackie Coogan is a wonderful child performer, and Chaplin exploits him perfectly.  Chaplin’s mastery of both film direction and geography meshed with his sensitive portrayal combines to make this a great film.
  9. The Patsy (1928).  Marion Davies is one of the most maligned talents in cinema.  Citizen Kane unfairly portrayed her as a talentless hack, something that Orson Welles regretted in interviews for years.  Her long-time lover, William Randolph Hearst, often threw Davies in costume dramas, a genre for which she was ill-suited.  When left to her own devices, Davies was an ace comedienne, able to make a charming performance from even the frothiest script.  In this film, as the forgotten “good girl” in the family, Davies loses all the cute men to her sister.  Thinking she needs a better personality, Davies impersonates Pola Negri, Lillian Gish, and Mae Murray.  (Don’t worry, it’s funny even if you don’t know the people she’s imitating).  Davies is a delight to watch in her attempts to win the favor of a young man– a man also being pursued by her sister.  Throw in sterling work by Marie Dressler as the mother, and this is a howl from start to finish.
  10. Destiny (1921).  I know the pundits are going to say Murnau, Murnau, Murnau!  To you I say, Lang, Lang, Lang!  Murnau is more pretentious and arty than Lang, and Lang,  (when he’s not being long-winded and preachy), is more accessible.  This, to me, is his best film.  A young woman, Lil Dagover (also the female lead in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is distressed when her lover leaves with a stranger and does not return.  The stranger is Death, and his garden wall is impenetrable.  Eventually, Death agrees to a challenge: if she can defeat him and save just one of three men from his fate, then Death will reunite the lovers.  This concept has been ripped off a zillion times, from The Seventh Seal to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.  Sadly, the surviving prints of this film aren’t the greatest, so I’m a little hesitant to recommend it on that level, but I hope viewers will find its simple story so compelling that it overcomes the deterioration of poor copying.

I know that I’m going to get brickbats hurled at me because of these choices.  What?  No Harold Lloyd?  No DW Griffith?  No deMille?  No Arbuckle?  No Ince?  No William Desmond Taylor?  No Louise Brooks?  No Colleen Moore?  No Valentino?  No Napoleon?

Well, this is the problem with lists.  You note that I produced more than ten examples of people omitted from this silly list.  I hope that these films will pique your interest and challenge you to watch more silent films.  I hope it will encourage you to patronize some of the revival theaters and film conventions that trot out many rare films that can only be seen on the big screen.

(And OK, you made it this far.  The holy quintet of classic films are as follows:  Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and Gone With the Wind.  I actually had a theater manager tell me that he’d just like to have a theater running a different one of those five films every week because they’d all do good business.  So much for challenging your audience a little!)

Charade’s Stone Unturned

I wrote this for a special screening of Charade (1963) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Charade (1963) is one of those films that has almost everything going for it.  The cast is littered with Academy Award winners: Audrey Hepburn, George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau.  Costume designer Hubert de Givenchy and composer Henry Mancini also brought home Oscars. Cary Grant and director Stanley Donen both deserved them many times and eventually got honorary ones.

Many of these are household names today, at least in households with a few film fans.  At the showing on Feb 17th for the Winter Nights Festival, Sandy McLendon will be discussing Givenchy and his fashions.

There is another, less-known, but vitally important contributor to Charade, and he was also an Oscar winner.  Writer Peter Stone’s screenplay is a work of art.  The plot is fairly commonplace: five soldiers stole a stash of gold from the US government in WWII.  One of them stole all of it, and, years later, the rest are ready to kill each other to get it.

This could be the basis for a predictable episode of Columbo, but instead Stone keeps the audience guessing throughout.  One of his best tricks is to sprinkle the plot development in small doses throughout the film.  For years, writers have struggled with this problem.  When too much plot (often called exposition) is discussed early in the film, then the audience is bored, the pace grinds to a halt, and there is no mystery to unravel for a long period of time.

The James Bond films long ago threw in the towel on this problem, having the character M explain the mission to Bond in a customary long scene early in the film.  In his Austin Powers films, creator Mike Myers parodied this practice by calling his M character Basil Exposition, since that was really his job.  

Stone does no such thing in Charade.  Indeed, the first shot in the film is of a dead body being thrown from a train.  It is some time before we realize that this body had been the husband of Regina Lampert (Hepburn).

Slowly, we find out, in small hints, that he was one of the WWII soldiers, and we meet the other men who are after the money.  Her trouble, which the audience shares, is that everyone has a stake in the game, so that means everyone is lying to everyone else.

The audience has to listen carefully to everyone to decide which clues are lies and which lies are clues.  The plot twist at the end is so carefully set up that many audiences, unfamiliar with the film, will gasp when the killer is exposed.  And afterward, there is still one more twist.

This is a difficult task for the screenwriter.  Sometimes, he can turn in a story with great dialogue and characters, but the killer’s identity is completely transparent.  Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) has this problem.  Despite the fact that Cary Grant and Grace Kelly have a delightfully funny romantic interplay, there is no mystery in the film at all.  The plot hinges on the identity of a jewel robber imitating Grant’s style, and the ultimate revelation is so obvious that most viewers had long since guessed it.

On the other side of the coin, the mystery can be too complex.  When the writer tries too hard, the limits of plausibility are stretched, and sometimes the entire plot structure becomes laughable because there are simply too many twists.  This failing comes out strongly in The Dark Hour (1936), which has a final scene with two characters both confessing to the same killing, piling on twist after twist, until no one can believe either of them.

Stone was able to balance the need for mystery and plausibility, but he was also a master at witty dialogue and plot developments.  Cary Grant helped get him the job for Father Goose (1965), which, as a wacky comedy, was a change of pace for both men.  Stone won the Oscar for the screenplay, saying this in his acceptance speech: “My thanks to Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people.”  Stone went on to write the book for the stage musical 1776, which was made into a film in 1972 and continues to be revived today.  His chief task was to create a sense of tension in a story that had an ending the audience knew beforehand: it was required to end with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Stone kept the audience wondering how the committed but obnoxious John Adams could get Congress to adopt the Declaration, with endless obstacles, interpersonal problems, and political hassles in his way. 

A few years later, Stone wrote a suspenseful screenplay for The Taking of Pelham 123.  As in Charade, Stone was able to create an intricate web of characters carrying out a complex plot, while at every point it was completely plausible.  It is no surprise that both Charade and Pelham 123 have been remade, although neither film compares favorably with its original.

In later years, Stone turned increasingly to stage work.  He was working steadily until his death in 2003, with two shows that premiered after his death.  Another writer helped finish his adaptation for the musical Death Takes a Holiday, which opened last year and is currently playing off-Broadway.

Hollywood is a place that usually ignores the importance of good writing, even though every actor and director will admit that a good film starts with a good script.  Peter Stone’s work was consistently excellent.  He created a legacy of classics, revivals, and remakes that continues to dazzle audiences.

An Artist is Born Singin’ in the Rain

I’ve been bombarded with questions about The Artist.  Everyone I see asks me about it.  I felt that I had to give it a look, and a fair chance, before answering.

Before I go on too far, let me say that I’ve seen zillions of silent films.  I know how they are supposed to look and feel.  I am a harsh judge of movies that get history dreadfully wrong and don’t seem to care about it.  I have been a vocal critic of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for many years.  Sure, it has great singing and dancing in it, but it gets the feel of the era entirely wrong, and it puts “history” out there that is completely and utterly bogus.  I wince every time I see the movie.

I went to see Hugo a while back, in a nice theater, in 3D, and it underwhelmed me.  This ties in with The Artist, because Hugo is another film that is set in that same period, the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Hugo did a delightful job recreating the period.  Ben Kingsley is brilliant.  The effects are great.  Most of the history is fairly good, although it’s been warped for ease of storytelling.  Ultimately, for me, it didn’t say enough about the magic of movies and had a tedious, predictable sub-plot with the station inspector.  The sub-plot felt like it had been ripped from the film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and we all had to wait for this plot element’s resolution before getting back to the main action.  Mostly enjoyable, but not a film I’d call a classic.

Many films that are set in this period get the history so far wrong that I want to throw things at the screen.  I generally don’t have to do this, because some moron in the front row is already doing it by the time I find my motivation level rising.  Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp film from a couple of years ago, was particularly offensive.  The filmmaking techniques were right out of Michael Bay: cut-cut-cut editing, mushy shot-on-video camerawork, never a tripod or steady shot.  Depp’s Dillinger robs palatial block-wide banks in rural Indiana–located in towns that are still just barely dots on the map.  Not only does it get the facts wrong, but it gets the feel wrong.  Public Enemies plays like teenager’s first feature-length video on YouTube.  We might have been impressed that a teen could pull off such a feat, but we’re embarrassed that talented professionals would allow their names to be attached to such a lousy film.

I’m inclined to give a movie a break if it tends to get the feel right.  Some are better than others.  The Sting is so accurate that it sometimes feels colorized.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? plays fast and loose with the facts, but when it gets down to brass tacks, the film feels authentically 1930s.  I recommend both movies.  I hesitantly recommend Hugo, too, although with some reservations.

And on to The Artist.  This film has pretensions you can cut with a butcher knife.  Not only does it attempt to recreate the 1920s/30s, but it is also presented in black and white, in the 1930s aspect ratio, and, most importantly, as a silent film.  It’s tough to make a silent film these days.  First, modern audiences aren’t used to the dramatic techniques used in them, so sometimes they’ll draw an unintentional laugh.  Second, a lot of things have changed in the intervening years, so it becomes a technical challenge.

Does it work?  Yes, it mostly does.  The plot is fairly pedestrian, basically a retooling of A Star is Born, but that plot was old in 1937.  George Valentin, a major silent star, played by Jean Dujardin, is a little careless in his personal life, has an alienated wife, and meets Peppy Miller, a rising young flapper, played by Bérénice Bejo.  As sound comes in, he is increasingly unable to maintain his status, while Peppy goes on to major success.

The film progresses and we see Valentin’s downfall as we see Peppy rise to greater and greater heights, up until, well, you oughta see the movie.

Dujardin turns in an excellent performance.  He manages to capture the swagger of Douglas Fairbanks with a bit of the continental charm of Ricardo Cortez.  It works well within the context of the film.  Bejo is not quite as good, although still commendable.  She just seems a bit too bubbly at times.  Also at hand are reliables like James Cromwell as the long-suffering chauffeur/butler, and John Goodman as the studio chief.  They are nothing short of great, but then I would expect nothing else from them.

Director Michel Hazanavicius does a great job recreating the style of the times.  Not too many closeups, which we love to use today, slower editing pace, and he even undercranks the film just a hair to give it that late 20s feel.  It works.  He matches the style of intertitles and even recreates the 1920s fonts very well.  (You knew I was picky.)

I just wish it had been more, somehow.  I suppose that it should be enough that Hazanavicius has recreated the period well enough that he’s made a run-of-the-mill late silent picture.  If you’re hoping for a truly great silent picture, a drama like Sunrise, a love story like Lonesome, then, well, it isn’t here.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but I can tell you that I’ve been to conventions to watch day-long silent film marathons, and The Artist would not be a huge standout.  It would get good reviews, a few smiles, and we’d move on.

There are myriad little nitpicks, from the unblimped Mitchell cameras to the 2000’ film cans, to the way the nitrate doesn’t burn fast enough, to… well, OK, you get the point.  More severe are problems later in the picture.  Peppy Miller seems to be in 1920s flapper attire, short skirts and all, way too far into the 1930s.  The climactic sequence uses a music style that almost sounds like big band music from the early 1940s, which isn’t right, either.  The cutting is actually too slow, and there is a tendency to dwell on to actors speaking without cutting to an intertitle, which would not have been done at the time.  But I nitpick.

The single greatest failure of the film, to my mind, is a plot point.  Goodman’s studio boss calls Dujardin into his office and basically fires him, saying that the movies need to flush out all the old silent actors and replace them all with new ones.


Sure, there were silent actors who didn’t make it far into the sound era.  A lot of leading ladies got older, were married and retired.  Lon Chaney died.  John Gilbert was an alcoholic and was probably blackballed by Louis Mayer.  Douglas Fairbanks found sound films dull to make.  Chaplin took time to adapt to sound.  But there were so many others who starred both in silent and sound films, many who didn’t even seem to notice the bump…

Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, WC Fields, Ronald Colman, Ricardo Cortez, Gary Cooper, Warner Oland, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young all sailed through the transition.  Even though comedy didn’t flourish in the 1930s as it did in the 1920s, still stars like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Vernon Dent, and many others, at least found work.  Harold Lloyd was especially prosperous in the sound era.  Keaton’s downfall came not with the advent of sound, but rather with his contract moving to MGM, and even with his boozing and bad films, he still worked steadily through the 1930s.

The idea that stars were summarily flushed out of the system for talkie stars is just wrong.  There were a few stars with unsuitable voices, which is an idea that was blown way out of proportion with Singin’ in the Rain.  Raymond Griffith had a vocal injury and couldn’t speak above a whisper.  Sound films didn’t quite end his career, but it was close.  Karl Dane had a very thick accent and had trouble in sound films, as did Anny Ondra, whose voice was dubbed in Blackmail (1929)In general, even those actors with relatively thick accents still did well: Bela Lugosi, Charles Boyer, and Paul Lukas come to mind quickly.

This is why the biggest flaw in The Artist is the goofy idea that a studio would summarily drop a big, moneymaking star who simply had yet to make a talking film.  I can’t think of a single time that happened.  Perhaps someone can correct my memory.  Movies are, and always have been, about making money, not about art.  If the star makes money for them, they’ll put up with about anything.  As soon as they stop making money, they’re out.  Do you honestly think that studios would have put up with the drug-addicted, temperamental Judy Garland had she not been brilliant and profitable?

No one should ever get their history from movies made about movies.  For some reason, films are neglected art and film history seems particularly unimportant.  I have no idea why, but you’re more likely to get a good reconstruction of a Napoleonic campaign than a talking film from 1931.

***Special Side Note***

Kim Novak has gone on record complaining bitterly about the use of music from Vertigo (1958) during the climactic section of The Artist.  Her remarks were pointed and used a rape metaphor.  Novak has been accused of looking to get her name in the papers again, and of being overly sensitive.   The music is used to back up a particularly poignant scene, and no one ever did poignant like Bernard Herrmann, the composer of Vertigo’s score.  Several people have said that it doesn’t really matter, because the music is from an old film anyway, and, after all, who would notice?

Here are my two cents’ worth:  Who would notice?  Gee whiz, guys, you are making a movie and targeting fans of older films.  Don’t you think it would be obvious?  Vertigo isn’t just some old movie… it’s an all-time classic, and it’s one of the greatest film scores ever written.  People know it.  A lot of people know it.  Don’t believe me—believe Google.  Perhaps Ms. Novak is a little extreme in her wording, but she has a good point.  If I were writing a symphony, I could easily lift the last few minutes from a Beethoven symphony.  It might work well, and it would be perfectly legal.  But why would I do that?

Artistically, it’s a bad call.  It immediately took me out of the film.  The rest of the score, by Ludovic Bource, is quite excellent at imitating the style of the period.  He even does a pretty good job of foreshadowing the quote from Vertigo.  But it still doesn’t match.  Vertigo is 1950s Herrmann, not 1920s pop.  It’s great, it mostly works, but it’s intrusive.  I would have been happier with an ending by Bource.  I think he could have done it justice.  (For an illuminating answer as to why Bource didn’t have his music in this scene, please check Bruce Calvert’s comment below.  I didn’t know about it before publishing this.)

I am not going to jump on the bandwagon criticizing Novak.  She is not stupid, and she is not a publicity hound.  The use of Vertigo music in The Artist is strictly legal and above board, but I don’t think it works with the film.  Vertigo is Vertigo and I think it would have better been left alone.

All that said, The Artist is still a fun film, and a great cinematic experiment.

The Lost Weekend With Buster

I’m going to apologize in advance for this departing from my usual blog format.  I normally like to do reviews or some sort of film thing, but this is mostly about me.  Still, it’s about film preservation, and I think it’s a worthy thing to discuss.

I’d been aware for some time that Kino/Lorber was producing a new Blu-Ray edition of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925).  It’s certainly not Keaton’s best feature, not by any measure, but it’s a nice picture, and I loved it.  It still has one of my favorite Keaton moments in it: Chased by scads of women who lust after his potential fortune, Keaton has accidentally started a rockslide in order to get away from them.  The women outsmart him and get to the bottom of the valley before he can, while the rockslide gets progressively worse.  Keaton looks up at the rocks, and down at the women, and he’s flummoxed.  He scratches his head as he wonders which fate is worse.  It’s quick, understated, but it’s pure Keaton.  William K. Everson often stated that Keaton seemed to be a visitor from another realm, confused and unaware of our rules and conventions.  This little moment sums that up for me.

But that’s a digression.  The key point is the Seven Chances had a Technicolor opening sequence.  It’s in two-color Technicolor from early in the days of the process, back when it was fairly unstable.  Some years earlier, I’d toyed with restoring the color from Kino’s previous edition, and I had come up with some curves in Photoshop that got the color back to some semblance of the way it used to look.  I had the file sitting dormant on my hard drive.

My friend, film historian Bruce Lawton, has been consulting with Kino on some of their new Buster Keaton Blu-Ray releases.  He’d let the producer of the new disc, Bret Wood, know about the work I’d done on it.  I knew that it had been delayed and pushed forward a number of times.  I also knew that if they could do the restoration in-house, that they probably would, because that would be easier and cheaper.  That was all great.

Finally, Bruce told me that they were making little headway with the color sequence.  Bret sent me some notes and FedExed me the opening sequence at HD resolution from the material preserved at Library of Congress.

Let me back up and tell you that this was at the beginning of October 2011, the 7th to be exact.  I’ll also tell you that I don’t work in film exclusively: I’m also a computer consultant, with a degree in Electrical Engineering.  On the morning of the 7th, I had gotten a call that a client of mine had had some printers fail on him, and I was obligated to spend the afternoon fixing them.  The package from Bret arrived sometime in the afternoon.

Now, October is a crazy time for me.  Everyone wants me to do Halloween movies, and this year was no exception.  I generally run all over my home state of Indiana doing shows.  I also consult and project with the Heartland Film Festival, and that was due to start on the 13th.  I’d also promised my supportive girlfriend that we were going to go off for 2-3 days, a long-delayed break from a hectic schedule.

And then the package arrived…

Well, I had the file, and notes on what I’d done.  How hard could it be?  I was obligated to go out for our local art celebration that night, but not before I’d snatched a quick look at the new files.

Instantly I realized why this was a problem.  The material that I’d recalibrated those years back was from a different print.  The new one was faded beyond use.  I could get only a very little color out of it.  I went off to our artist party and pondered it.

I was about to give up on the whole thing.  I thought that there probably was no hope for it.

Then I remembered something.  It was from my engineering training.  When American video was defined, it was designed to be compatible with older black and white TV.  The color was designed to be overlaid on a standard black and white image.  If I could take only the filtered color from the old print and overlay it on the new print, then it might do what we need!

Immediately I knew that this would be a lot of work.  My girlfriend and I had been holding out hope that I might be able to do a belated one-day trip, but as this whole thing progressed, I realized that it probably wouldn’t happen.  I knew I’d be lucky to get it done at all!

If you’re about to skip to the end, fearing this is an article with charts, graphs, and math, then fear not!  (I’ve been asked previously to keep this blog a math-free zone.)  I find this to be a human interest story, and I’ve taken as much technical material out of this as I can.  All that’s left is the bare bones to get the story across!  If you’d like to read a slightly more technical version, please refer to the Nitrateville interview I did recently. You can also feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I knew what the calculations would be.  I got Kino’s new video file, located the same frame in my older file, and I realigned the color by hand.  Frankly, I was amazed.  It looked better than the old restoration I had tried, because the new print was so much sharper.

But that was ONE FRAME.  The whole thing is 4440 frames! (I just looked it up, so there.) Bret had already told me that Kino had to have this on Monday the 10th.

How could I possibly do this in such a short time?  I had to think about it.

Bruce got my sample frame, and was very enthused about the prospect of resurrecting the sequence. But now I had to figure out how to automate it.  I decided to go to bed and get a little sleep.

When I awoke, I tried several different programs to try to automate this process.  Nothing worked too well.  Frankly, the amount of computation was pretty severe, and it slowed my computer down quite a bit (I have a very fast home-brew computer… remember I’m an engineer.)

I worked on it all day with varying degrees of success.  Nothing was very promising.  Most of the ideas I had involved processes that would simply take longer to run than the time I had left.

By Saturday night, I just about gave up on the whole thing.  I fell asleep at about 3am, upset and dejected.

I woke up Sunday morning to find that my computer had locked up and, despite the fact that I had carefully saved everything, I still needed 2-3 hours to get back to where I’d been.  I figured out a better method, but it required me hand-clicking the mouse over every frame, 4440 times.

I couldn’t look at the restoration while I was doing it, so I clicked away and discovered the whole thing was horribly misaligned.  Well, this takes about 3 hours just to run, so off for another shot.

Round two was much better, but still not usable.  Three more hours.  Round three worked pretty well, but the alignment between the sources drifted a little as it progressed, so it was necessary to readjust at about the halfway point. Another ninety minutes.  Time was tight.

Round three and a half: alignment was finally decent, and color fairly good.

It was now late Sunday night.  I had not left the house or showered in over two days.

I finally had a pretty good color version, but I had to get it to Bret, and it was 700MB (very very large)!  I set it for overnight upload, and I hoped they could get it in time.  By Monday morning, I had another idea for a slight update, which I did.  It arrived by Monday afternoon.  I know that my results were further corrected in Kino’s color suite, but I only had time to send what I had!

Bruce and Ken Gordon finished recording their commentary, which Bruce then feverishly edited and uploaded for Bret, and so ended a long weekend.  Wrong.  Bret was excited enough about my results on the color sequence that he wanted me to record a commentary for it.  By this time, I was in the midst of 16+ hour days at the Heartland Film Festival, so I came home, recorded a little, and tried again.  I hope it sounds okay.  I fear I sounded like a horrid idiot, but I was wiped out!  I slept very hard in November… trust me!

Now, why did I do this?  For the money?  For the glory?  Hah, hardly.

I had a moment of insight on that Friday night that I’ll share with you.  I realized (as did Bruce) that I might be the only person in the world who could and would do this restoration.  I know that sounds pompous, but it really isn’t.  My girlfriend remembers discussing this with me and encouraging me to go on with the project.  She felt so strongly that I should pursue this that she was willing to give up the vacation.    It needed someone familiar with early Technicolor, a competent computer user, a guy who knows how complex non-linear color filtering works, and someone who cared enough to lose a complete weekend doing it.

I thought that there might not be another person who could do this, and I feared that if I didn’t do it, then it might never be done.

That’s why I had a lost weekend with Buster.  Bruce and Bret wanted him to shine in color once again.  So did I.

Thanks to Kino/Lorber for permission to use these images and to Bruce Lawton for finding the rare stills.

The Fame of Kane

I get a little tired of people telling me that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made.  Don’t get me wrong; I love the film, but calling it the “greatest ever” seems a little hard to swallow.  I’ve seen a lot of Welles films, but certainly not all of them… I have to tell you that I don’t even think Kane is the best Orson Welles film.  I tend to like Touch of Evil better.  It seems a much more relaxed and confident film to me.

(For the record, I’m frequently interviewed by people who ask me variations on this… “What is your favorite film?”  “What’s the greatest film ever made?”  I don’t have an answer for this.  The greatest film ever made, and my favorite, is moldering in a can somewhere, waiting for me to find it.  I have a real weakness for auteurish films by obscure people like Max Davidson, Warren William, or Charley Bowers.)

Citizen Kane could hardly have been a bad movie if it tried.  Welles was a first-time director, but he was given a great cinematographer (Gregg Toland), a great composer (Bernard Herrmann), a great editor (Robert Wise), a great co-screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) and a great cast.  He was protected from studio interference by contract and they adhered to it.

RKO in the early 40s was a really great place to make a movie.  I often cite William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) as another film done at the same studio at about the same time, that is also a great film.  Both Welles and Dieterle were influenced by German expressionism, with the editor, composer, and studio brass the same for both films. (I would be remiss not to point out the scene at 47:05 when we first see Simone Simon.  I will only say that I’d have worked on this film for free.)

Some of these same people went on to do other great pictures at RKO.  Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, moved up to the director’s chair, and worked for producer Val Lewton.  Lewton headed up a B-unit there that made twelve amazing pictures, largely free of studio interference, between 1942 and 1946.  Lewton was allowed to make pretty much anything he wanted so long as he used the studio’s title, which led him to make a film like Curse of the Cat People (1944)–basically a sentimental Christmas story with a ghost in it.

I realize that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of RKO as a studio that left artists alone.  I do remember what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons, but that was an unfortunate anomaly that was not typical of RKO’s behavior at the time.  In fact, Robert Wise, who was responsible for the studio-backed recutting of Ambersons, was embarrassed and defensive about it even as late 1995 when he was grilled about it at Cinecon.

But as I get back to Kane, I see a film with Welles being extra ambitious to make an artsy film that would get people talking.  He succeeded, but as a result, Kane is not exactly subtle.  The direction calls attention to itself at nearly every opportunity.  Flashy editing, flashy photography, dramatic lighting… it’s all there.  This doesn’t make Kane a bad film–far from it–but I find that Welles matured as a director and did more confident, more cinematic work later in his career.

The legend around Citizen Kane is that Welles did his very best work for his first film, and that everything he did afterward was a step down.

I don’t believe that.  Welles was highly idiosyncratic, and he had a reputation of being “difficult.”  He tended to offend studio people and they tended not to hire him for a second picture.  This meant that it became progressively more difficult for him to get work as a director, and he had to resort to using technical people who were less than the stellar crowd he got on Kane.

That’s easy to say, because the crew for Kane is among the best ever assembled for a movie.  Almost any other crew would be a step down.

Welles was unable to make great films from lousy budgets, but he managed to do good, solid work with much smaller budgets.  The Lady from Shanghai (1947), made for skin-flint Harry Cohn, still has a lush Wellesian feel, especially when we compare it to other films made at Columbia during this period.

When I watch Citizen Kane, I note that Welles seems to be relying heavily on advice from his cinematographer, Gregg Toland.  Kane is very much a photographer’s film, and that’s fine by Welles, who loved heavy Expressionist lighting.  But there comes a point at which I feel Welles is using Toland almost as a crutch.

Toland was tinkering with special lenses that let distant objects and closer objects stay in simultaneous focus.  Normally directors use different lenses, focus on the character speaking, and then rely on the editor to combine disparate shots of actors in the cutting room.  This practice is rough on inexperienced actors, because they are frequently not talking to another person, but rather to a bank of lights and a camera lens.

Watch this scene from Citizen Kane.

This is all one continuous shot, with no edits, which is pretty amazing.  The actors are all in focus at once, so that they can speak and react to each other.  It’s great from an acting standpoint, and we have nothing but respect for Toland at being able to set up shots like this.

Ultimately, though, Welles has used technical bravura to forward his thinking, and it’s stage-bound.  The scene plays like a well-lit, well-acted stage scene, which is basically what it is.  There isn’t much that is terribly cinematic about it.

Compare this to the opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)

This is also a continuous shot with no edits, but notice that Welles is thinking differently.  Characters come in and out of frame, cars move, lighting shifts.  It’s not a stage scene; it could never be a stage scene.  Welles still doesn’t like the cut-cut-cut editing mentality, but he’s made a quantum leap forward in how to implement it successfully in a movie.

It is fair to say that Welles never made another movie as slick as Citizen Kane is. I think Welles is judged unfairly by film fans.  I doubt that anyone in the history of film ever had a deal as sweet as the one he got for Kane.  That his later films can’t live up to that isn’t his fault.  I think he did grow and mature as a director, but casual viewers get so lost in the flair of “Rosebud” that they miss his other accomplishments.

The “greatest film ever made” is a highly subjective thing.  It makes people angry and combative.  I find the AFI lists of greatest films consistently annoying, because they omit so many films that I love in a rush to get to the most popular ones.  If you want to say Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, then that’s OK for you.  I’m here to say that it probably isn’t his best work as a director.  Many people don’t like the film because it’s so flashy.  I understand that too.

I respect individual taste on what constitutes a great film—just so long as “great film” and “Adam Sandler” don’t go together.

Our Man and Cavanna

I am frequently fascinated to discover the diversity of supporting players employed by WC Fields (“our man” in this title.)  Fields liked to portray himself as a misanthrope of the highest order, but I think this is a great facade he put on to disguise the fact that he was a softhearted sentimentalist.

There’s been a lot written on Fields, much of it by people more qualified than I am, including Fields’ grandson, Ron.  Simon Louvish has a theory that Fields became the characters he played.  I can’t say; I wasn’t there.  I can only look at some of the incidentals and comment on what they show me.

I’m not the first one to notice that Fields used some supporting performers over and over again, and he was immensely loyal to them.  Irving Bacon appears with him nine times!  Lew Kelly seven times. Bill Wolfe seven times. Elise Cavanna five times.  Jan Duggan five times.   Alison Skipworth four times.  Grady Sutton four times.  Dell Henderson four times.  Kathleen Howard three times.  Oscar Apfel three times. Clarence Wilson three times. Franklin Pangborn three times.

Some of this could easily be explained by the fact that Fields worked with contract players at studios.  They might assign who would work with Fields on a particular picture.  That doesn’t explain all of it, though.  Irving Bacon worked with Fields in nine pictures by four studios.  Elise Cavanna’s meager five appearances with Fields are in both the silent and sound era and follow Fields from the Astoria studios in NY (where his silents were shot) to the Paramount Studios in Hollywood (where his talkies were shot).

The only conclusion that I can reach is that WC considered these people great friends and he must have lobbied to get them work.  Most of them did other picture work, but many will list a Fields picture as their first work.  Ron Fields documents WC trying to get Grady Sutton for The Bank Dick when Universal complained that there were other actors who would be just as good in the part.

Some of these are brilliant, eclectic people, just as WC was himself.  He seemed to attract genius-level people to him, and they stayed in his orbit for years.

One of these geniuses was Elise Cavanna.  She was often seen hanging out in Fields pictures, but she’s probably best remembered as the “lady rassler” patient in The Dentist (1932).  As Fields attempts to pull her tooth, she recoils in pain and wraps her legs around Fields, getting her feet stuck in his pockets as he pulls her around the room.  (This scene was censored when Raymond Rohauer reissued the film in 1949, but restored in subsequent prints.)

Tall and lithe, Cavanna could never be described as beautiful, but she was certainly striking, with a memorable presence. She was one of those people who did a lot of different things in her life.  Like Fields, she was born in Philadelphia, but it’s likely they met when she was doing the Ziegfeld Follies with him. Many sources claim she studied dance with Isadora Duncan in the early 1920s.  I’ve not been able to verify that she did, although apparently she did dance in the Follies for a while.  The popular story is that Cavanna studied with Duncan in Germany, but it could also have been at Isadora’s school in Paris. We know that Cavanna spoke French, given the fact that she translated captions for a book of drawings by artist Jean Charlot.

Cavanna was a strict vegetarian, and wrote a book about low-fat cooking.  Fields laughed at her about this, saying that that healthy living was useless since you were only going to die anyway.  For those few who might not know, Fields‘ lifestyle was distinctly unhealthy.  Ironically, he lived to be 66, while Cavanna only made it to the age of 61.

Most importantly, however, Elise Cavanna was a major artist, mostly in abstracts, and she still has a large following. She illustrated other books, including a hand-signed edition of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a volume called Have We an American Art?, and a number of others.

Her work is difficult to track down, and her complex personal life makes the task even more difficult.  Married three times, she generally painted using her maiden name, Seeds, although sometimes she just used her first name.  But she also worked under her married names: Elise Cavanna (first marriage), Elise Armitage (second marriage), and Elise Welton (third marriage).

One of her most-seen paintings is not abstract at all: it is a mural at the post office in Oceanside, California.  There is an entire website dedicated California New Deal projects. I’m going to reproduce the picture here because I fear that the original website may go away.  The site is cool, so please visit it and have a look for yourself.

The photo comes from this page: http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu/map/view.php?&l=615#pic819

Like many of Fields’ frequent co-stars, Cavanna stopped working with Fields after his illness in 1936-7.  Most of them had regular work in other film series or had other interests.  Cavanna’s film work trickled down to almost nothing, and she focused more on her art.  She closed out her acting career in the same way she’d started it: with Ziegfeld.  She appeared in an uncredited bit (like most of her other roles) in The Ziegfeld Follies (1945).  Cavanna was one of the few original Ziegfeld people to appear in the film.  By the time it was made, the greats like Will Rogers and Bert Williams were gone.  Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn were busy on the radio.  And Fields was just plain too ill to do it.

I’m sure that there is more info out there on Cavanna waiting to be unearthed.  She deserves her own web page and a good catalogue of her artworks.   At least one more mural may still survive in Los Angeles, but I have been unable to find it.  I’d also love to see photos of her at art openings.  She apparently dyed her hair purple during the 1940s, at a time when such things were not done, even in Hollywood.

Stay tuned for more mini-bios of Fields’ co-stars.

(Thanks to Bruce Lawton and Glory-June Greiff for research help on this article.)

News Flash: I Don’t Hate Everything Digital

I keep getting asked this question, so I suppose I have to answer it.

“Why is it that you hate everything digital?”

Here’s the short answer:  I don’t.  What follows is the longer answer.

Before I start, I know that I’ll be called on the carpet as a luddite, anti-digital idiot.  This is inaccurate.  The Dr. Film pilot was shot and edited digitally, right on a hard drive… only a few seconds of it was ever on digital tape.  My background is in Electrical Engineering, and I used to write digital imaging programs that would make your eyes glaze over.  I welcome digital technology, but I use film, too.  They both have strengths and weaknesses, and I think that throwing out film is a mistake.

I can best describe my reaction to the digital revolution with an analogy.  A good friend of mine once refused to go to a fast-food Mexican restaurant with me.  “I hate that stuff,” he said.  A few months later, he suggested going to a Mexican restaurant.  “I thought you hated that stuff,” I said.

“No,” he said.  “I just hate cheap Mexican food, especially when it’s passed off as the real thing.”

I was just in attendance at a premiere showing of a DVD.  This was supposed to be a high-class, dress-up affair.  The projection was inexcusable.  It was set the way that 95% of all DVD projectors are set, with maximum brightness, so that the white levels bloom and clip, leaving anything bright looking like either hopelessly angelic or like a rejected effect from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I sat calmly and gritted my teeth as I watched the projector’s brightness overload.  Fortunately, most of the footage was shot indoors, because all of the outdoor stuff looked awful.  It made me sit and stew for an hour as I watched a good documentary be marred by guy who set up the projector and didn’t know what he was doing.

This is the digital that I do hate, and I hate it not because it’s digital, but because it looks bad.  We’re sold this bunkum about its being state-of-the-art, and yet it would look better on a TV screen. Now, mind you, I’m talking about a standard-resolution DVD, not a Blu-Ray.  And I am in a good position to complain because I have run film in that very venue and it looked a whale of a lot better than their presentation did tonight.

I’ll make a few points here and then back away:

  1. Standard-resolution DVDs aren’t intended for large screen projection and seldom look good unless projected on the very best equipment.  It’s easy to mis-adjust the projectors and blow out the whites on it.  They have just 525 lines of resolution.  (Sorry about the math, but more lines = sharper picture.  That’s all you need to know.)
  2. Projected Blu-Ray (1080 lines) can look very good, and if it was sourced from good materials (usually film elements), it can look better than many 16mm prints and some 35mm prints.
  3. Many proud Blu-Ray owners tell me that their images are always better (or at least as good) as 35mm film. I can’t argue with your perception.  What I will do is cite a measurable statistic: Blu-Ray uses 1080 lines.  In theaters, the high-end digital projectors that will replace 35mm film are 4000 lines (actually 4096 in most cases, but let’s not haggle).  That’s right.  Cost-conscious Hollywood studios think they need 4000 lines to replace 35mm.  Don’t you think they would all use cheaper 1080-line Blu-ray projection if they thought they could get by with it?

Even though it’s demonstrably not true, people tell me that a standard DVD is “just as good as film.”  I heard those very words this weekend.

People are serving me Taco Bell projection and telling me it’s just as good as authentic Mexican.  It isn’t.  Good digital is fine.  Third-rate digital is not only annoying, but it also makes good films look bad.

If good digital is out there, then why do I tirelessly advocate film? Well, for starters, a lot of really great material isn’t on Blu-Ray, DVD, or 4000-line digital.  Much of it never will be.  I also think projected film has a beautiful, rich quality missing in all but the best digital presentations.  If you’re careful and picky about prints (and few are pickier than I am), then you can find nice, sharp materials that are sometimes better than what was used as a source for the DVDs.

Much of the point of the Dr. Film show is to give people an opportunity to see rare materials that are not easy to find in the marketplace.  My live shows are intended as way to see rare films in a theatrical venue, with an audience, as they were intended to be seen.

I am fully aware that film projection will eventually go the way of the steam engine.  It won’t be as fast as some say, because most movies are still shot on 35mm, and archival preservation still takes place on 35mm.  I don’t mind being compared with a guy who fixes a steam engine.  Diesel engines have no romance.  I think we need to be able to see movies shown on film for as long as we can.  I am not in a rush, as most places are, to throw out all my film and replace it with digital copies (partly because I can’t!)

I know lots of theaters that are gleefully ripping out their 35mm projectors and then running only third-rate DVDs, mis-adjusted, at sizes never intended for that use.  They all say the same thing:  “It’s just as good.”  I will continue to rail against this, because it’s wrong.

It isn’t “just as good.”  It isn’t even good.  In the mad rush to get cheaper and easier projection, we’ve thrown quality out the window.  I hope I’m not the only one who notices it.

Come Back, Mr. Cooper! Come Back!

This has been roiling around in the back of my brain for a long time.  Showmanship in movies is dead, and yet the one thing that needs to return to movies is showmanship.  Hollywood has decided that the only people who see movies are 15-year-old boys who like to see explosions and special effects.  Production values, story, presentation, acting, etc… they don’t matter.

Don’t believe me?  Andy Hendrickson, a Disney executive, admitted it last month.

This reminds me of Merian C. Cooper, who went through draft after draft of the screenplay to King Kong until he got it exactly the way he wanted it.  When Cinerama came in, it was Cooper who insisted that it be done right.  He knew that Cinerama was so cool that he built it up with a deliberately-too-long intro with Lowell Thomas.  He knew if he kept it going long enough, the audience would be wondering what Cinerama was and why it was so interesting.  It worked.  The opening shots of the roller coaster are still breathtaking.

This is Cinerama blew out all records and was the top grossing film of 1952.  This was at a time when TV was killing movies, or so they said.  Cooper was enough of a showman to make it work.

Sadly, those days are gone.  Even as late as the 1970s, we occasionally had “road shows” in which the studios allowed only one theater to run a particular film that was shown carefully and well.  There was but one theater running Star Wars when it came out in Indianapolis in the 1970s, and it ran there for a year.  It was run properly; it was an event.  If you wanted to see it, then you’d see it there.

Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, 2001, and many others were given deluxe road-show treatments.  Columbia revived the practice briefly when Lawrence was restored in 1989, making that an event as well.  It worked, and people came out to see it.

Movies are never an event anymore.  They are a commodity.  Where once you could go into a clean theater and see a movie run by a trained projectionist, today we have an untrained teenager starting a projector he doesn’t understand, in the midst of an unclean theater, ripped screen, and people chattering endlessly on cell phones.

Focus?  Sometimes.  Framing?  Usually.  Oh, and you tell me that the digital revolution will make things better, eliminating the untrained projectionist?  Nope.  Whereas the old projectors were workhorses and would run continuously for years, the new digital ones are so persnickety that vapors of popcorn oil cause them to start projecting with a green cast and then shut down.

Hollywood has figured out that there seems to be an endless hunger for movies, and they turn out more and more of them with dumber and dumber plots.  The idea is that no one sees films in a theater anymore, and that films need to be made for multiple viewings on handheld devices and small-screen friendly.

So if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean 40 times at home, you might figure out the plot.  Oh, rapture.  But heaven help you if you see it just once in a theater.

There’s an old saying that applies here.  “Some people know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”  Hollywood is doing the same thing.  They are making more and more movies with less and less money, fewer and fewer viewers per film.  The day will come when everyone has free films with zero quality.

This shouldn’t be.

Hollywood is digging its own grave.  They are killing off theatrical exhibition by killing off the reasons why people go to movies.  They’ve been doing it for years.  When fewer people started going to movies, their response was to raise ticket prices.  The theater owners had to get by on less money.  Do you know why you pay more than $5 for a small popcorn?  That’s because the theater owner pays 90+ percent of the ticket money back to the studio for a new release.

The studios also got the cute idea of making exclusive contracts for movies.  You’d have to sign up for a particular title for six weeks.  If it was a dud, then you were stuck with it.  Theater owners made multiplexes so they were able to shuffle duds off to small screens in the back and get the good titles in the bigger houses.

Single-screen theaters died.  They couldn’t compete.

Once they had multiplexes, they got automation.  One projectionist could run 15 screens.  There once was a day when the projectionist had to be there during the entire film, so that if something went wrong, he’d see it immediately.  Now, we’re lucky if he has time to get there within 15 minutes.  With digital projection, there’s no one up there at all, and the guy who can fix it is probably in the next county.  Heaven help you if the lamp blows.  Come back next week.

All of this cost-cutting is also throat-cutting.  Corporations assume people are stupid and will put up with anything.  They’re not.  People realize they’re getting a sub-standard product and they don’t show up.

This is the long-standing contradiction that is Hollywood.  There’s a disconnect between art and commerce.  Art is stagnant if you do the same things over and over again.  But commerce encourages sameness.  When you can make the same thing repeatedly, you can make it cheaper and more efficiently.

So art is suffering these days because commerce is winning.  What Hollywood hasn’t figured out is that people respond to the art.

Movies aren’t like McDonald’s, no matter how much we’d like to make them like that.  When you’re out driving at midnight, tired and hungry, you can always stop at McDonald’s, and you know what you’re getting.  It tastes the same no matter where you go.  It’s almost comforting in a way, even though it’s not something you would want to do all the time.

On the flip side, movies are boring if they’re too repetitive.  Clint Eastwood says that every year he’s asked to do another Dirty Harry movie, and yet he’s now 80.  That doesn’t matter, they say.  People will come to see it.  And Clint won’t do it because he knows it wouldn’t be any good.

The other quality vs. showmanship battle that I fight is over DVD, or even worse, downloaded movies.  I’ll say it now: if you can avoid it, then you should never show DVDs on a big screen.  They’re not designed for that.  Blu-ray is better but still not very good.  Hollywood is using projectors better than blu-ray on all of the digital setups, so even they understand that they can’t get by with it.

But I work with a lot of small theaters who want to cut costs.  They’ll tell me that they have no money, and ask what I can do to help.  I bring in good prints of uncopyrighted movies, things I’ve collected over the years, and I introduce the films.

Usually I can bring in a decent crowd for a special event movie.   Seeing this, a few places have gotten the idea to cut me out of it.  Let’s not pay that guy for good prints.  Let’s not pay him to tell people why this film is interesting.  I can buy a DVD or download something free from archive.org and then we can run something for free.

No one shows up, and it confuses them.

Anyone can buy a DVD or download from archive.org.  It’s no longer an an event, nothing special.  People are smart to see through that and don’t show up.

I do see glimmers of hope on the horizon.  Kevin Smith, of all people, has seen that doing road shows, with cast members in attendance, is probably a good tactic.  His new film, Red State, is doing city-by-city shows.  Ticket prices are higher, and he’s taken criticism for it, but he’s sticking with it.

I think that, if theatrical exhibition is going to survive, then it will be with higher quality shows that are special events.  Kevin Smith is on to something.

Another failing is the persistent idea that only 15-year-old boys show up to movies.  Well, when we tailor all movies to 15-year-olds, then that’s who shows up.  Teenagers are an automatic audience for movies, because they want to leave the house.  You want to attract an older audience?   There’s one out there.

Here’s how you do it…

  1. Enact a “no cell phone” policy in theaters and stick to it.
  2. Hire an usher for every theater who has the ability to force noisemakers to leave.
  3. Movies that have a plot are your friends.  Bring them back.  That doesn’t mean boring, but it means they have to make sense.
  4. Stars are your friends.  Build up stars and hire people who can act.  Stars are not people who show up a lot on TMZ.  Johnny Depp opens movies because he’s a good actor.  Jason Statham is simply a guy who can take a beating during the course of an action film.
  5. Clean the theaters after each showing.
  6. Partner with local restaurants so that folks can get out, have dinner, and see a movie.

People don’t see movies anymore because it’s too much work, and they perceive it as too expensive.  Make it easier for them to do it, and make it worth their while, and they’ll show up.

What this world needs is more showmen like Merian C. Cooper.  What this world needs less is more cynical businessmen like Andy Hendrickson.

Thinking like Cooper will save the movies.  Thinking like Hendrickson will kill them.