Cinema at a Crossroads

I think we’re seeing the death of classic cinema. I really do. You’ve heard me rant about this before. We’re seeing that the only 5 great films that everyone wants to see are Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Wizard of Oz. After that, the Godfather films are OK, and then Cinema begins with Star Wars.

I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know what can be done. One of the main arguments, which I absolutely hate, is that these movies are no longer culturally relevant and are such relics of the past that they should no longer be seen, because no one cares. Nor should they care. The 5 movies listed above (I refer to them as the Holy Quintet) are exceptions because they have passed the cultural litmus test of history.

I hate that.  I know I said that, but I wanted to accentuate that I hate it.

You can argue that TCM keeps cinema alive, and to an extent, they do. But they only keep some cinema alive, and they only have 24 hours a day. I have also complained, with some validity, that they show Casablanca too much, whereas they could show a lot of other stuff and do classic cinema a lot more service.

But then if I owned Casablanca, I’d show it a lot, too. It’s a fine picture, but it’s got to bear the burden of representing most films made before 1977.

There’s a vast array of silents (TCM only shows silents 4 times a month, at midnight on Sundays), B pictures, cartoons, serials, short comedies, and such that never get seen. That never will be seen. Stuff that’s fun, entertaining, and would even, dare I say it, “educate” people. The collectors have some, the archives have some, and the studios have some.

There’s always I don’t like it. 90% of it is junk with terrible compression rates and bad quality. It fosters the idea that all old movies look bad. Then there’s YouTube, which, well, is pretty much the same. That’s not to mention the fact that piracy on both sites is rampant. I had to alert Kino to a site that was bootlegging Seven Chances with Bruce Lawton’s commentary and my color restoration on it. YouTube took it down, but the same guy got a new address and put it right back up. He put ads in it.

But it’s free!

Netflix isn’t the answer. Why? Because increasingly it takes movies (and I mean even recent ones) off the server and replaces them with binge-watching TV shows. They started off kinda cool, but died away quickly.

I had a lot of hope for Filmstruck (and, full disclosure, I was working on a deal to supply them with some silents and other materials), but AT&T killed it. Why? It wasn’t making enough money. (And, yes, that means that the deal is off.)

You see, no one sees classic films.

So no one watches classic films.

So no one buys Filmstruck.

So AT&T cancels it.

The saving grace about TCM is that it was stipulated in the sale to Warners that TCM had to stay on the air as a commercial-free classic film network. And that keeps it on.

This is causing me to want to ramp up a service that I’ve wanted to do for some years. I think of it as a public service, because it would provide a venue for NON-SUCKY transfers of films that TCM doesn’t show, which, let’s be honest, is about 80% of everything.

And I know you’ve heard me talk about this before, too. But I back-burnered it because I was busy with other projects, like Little Orphant Annie and King of the Kongo and the Milan High School games.

TCM has kind of the right idea with its educational program advocating The Essentials (again, full disclosure: I don’t have cable, but I travel extensively [I have a collection of half-used hotel soaps to prove it] so I see them on the road fairly often.) But I see TCM as almost a graduate-school of film with the very top echelon of films. They don’t offer a lot of things that people don’t know anymore.

What were the major studios? What’s a cartoon? What’s a serial? How were they shown? Why did these get made? When did color start? Did silents always have music? These are questions that people ask constantly.

How do I know? I hear these questions all the time. People are interested. I’d love to have a streaming service that housed forums where historians talked about things like this. It’s not out there. It’s going away.

I used to complain that when I worked at classic film houses, they would run all fifties all the time. Then, the boomers got old and stopped coming, and we skipped the 60s and 70s, so it’s all 80s all the time. One place I know shows Ferris Bueller and The Goonies several times a year. They say it’s “hipster-friendly.” But the hipsters don’t know any older films, so why the heck would they come to see them? A lot of them don’t have cable, and so they only see bad quality on YouTube, if they even have knowledge enough to search for it.

I would have started my streaming service a couple of years ago, but I had another problem. I do a lot of tech, but I can’t do it all myself, and I have a tech guy who needs paid. I have a grant writer who is trying to move into other things and won’t return my calls or emails, so basically I have to find another grant writer or be rude and obnoxious to the one I have.

This project is too big for just me; I’d love to have it as a cooperative among film collectors, archives and even studios that will play nice (accent on the play nice.)

But I need $ to get it going, and it’s a chunk too big for Kickstarter. I’d like this to be a public interest 501c3, because, increasingly, I believe that classic film is being culturally neglected and needs a champion out there to make it accessible. I’d like to have a free section and a paid downloads section.

Actually I have a pretty detailed plan for it, if I could just get anyone to care. I’m notoriously bad at marketing (as I’ve pointed out many times), but I really think we’re at a time when culturally we NEED something like this.

Or else it will go away. Like Filmstruck did.

Anyone got any ideas? Let me know. My email is up at top, and the comments will be open for a while, plus you can always start a discussion in the Dr. Film group.

I have a lot of failed, or to put it charitably, incompletely successful projects (if you don’t believe me, I have 400 copies of Little Orphant Annie to sell you), but I don’t want this to be one of them.

Howard’s Blend

Do you recognize this woman?  She was a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera, and she had her jaw broken by Barbara Stanwyck.

And yet you probably don’t know her for any of those things.

The woman in this photo is Kathleen Howard (1884-1956), who is best remembered today as probably the most memorable in a string of “shrewish wives” depicted in WC Fields films.  Like Fields regular Elise Cavanna, who I wrote about last year, Howard moved seamlessly between major careers.  She was renowned in each one, but each was different enough that many people don’t realize that she was the same Kathleen Howard.

Howard’s performances in three of Fields’ films, You’re Telling Me (1934), It’s a Gift (1934), and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) are nothing short of brilliant.  It’s easy to descend into just a bitchy, clichéd performance as a Fields wife, but Howard transcends that.  She’s given the characters a back story, and you can feel the frustrations in her life that have made her into the person she is.  That said, she is also supremely awful to Fields, in ways that have him cringing in fear.  Howard is human but still horrible.

Back in the pre-internet days, we’d look at Howard’s filmography and see that she seemed to burst on the scene in 1934 with a supporting performance in Death Takes a Holiday.  But where was she before that?  Most stage actors dabbled in silent film and had a few credits before gaining fame in talkies.

But Kathleen Howard never made a silent film.  She was busy singing.  As a child, she wanted to be a singer, but everyone told her that could never happen.  That didn’t stop her.  She worked her way to the top as a contralto at the Metropolitan Opera.

She even wrote a highly entertaining book about it.  It’s called Confessions of an Opera Singer, and you can read it here.  Interestingly, her story parallels Edie Adams’ story (which Adams also chronicled in a book).  Both were told that they couldn’t make it as singers, that almost no one really did, that women couldn’t handle their own careers, etc.  And both were determined to make it anyway, which they did.

Howard was popular enough outside the opera house to be a recording star, and it’s actually fairly easy to hear her singing in the late teens and early twenties.  Here are some.

But the best parts are for young singers, and Howard got a little old for it by the mid-1920s, so she switched gears.  She became the fashion editor for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar.  This was no third-rate magazine; it was one of the best in the business, and Howard wrote many articles while managing the other contributors.  (This also parallels Edie Adams somewhat, since Edie became her own fashion designer in the 1960s.)  You can see the cover of one of her Harper’s issues here.

Then, abruptly, in 1934, she offered her talents to Hollywood.  This may sound like a leap of faith, but as an opera performer, one is also doing a great deal of acting, so she was not without considerable experience.

Again, I don’t like to link to YouTube clips that violate copyright, and I didn’t post this one, but in this case, I really think you need to see Howard in action.  This is the porch scene from It’s a Gift (1934), which is one of the funniest scenes in one of the funniest films ever made.  If you don’t agree with me, then you’re wrong.  I’m not even going to argue with you about it.

People like Howard fascinate me because they’ve had successful careers in varied fields.  I tend to be unsuccessful at everything I attempt, and yet Kathleen Howard was at the top three different times.  I love her blend of careers and the way she just seemed to move effortlessly among them.  Sometimes performers are inactive for years at a stretch while they regroup and try something different.  Not Howard.  She was in there and working.

Howard was just another of the brilliant people who surrounded WC Fields.  Contrary to his public image, I am more and more seeing Fields a loyal friend who helped out other actors.  Howard and Elise Cavanna were both great performers who did multiple roles.

Another guy I keep spotting in Fields pictures, sometimes just in the briefest walk-on part, is Lew Kelly.  I’d love to have a whole write-up on him, but I just don’t have enough information, so I’ll hijack this posting a little for him.

Kelly (1879-1944) was a vaudeville headliner who traveled the world as Professor Dope, a character that apparently made fun of drug addicts (this was very popular in the teens.)  By the 1920s, his career had more or less dried up, but he became a popular utility player for many comedians in the 1930s.

Kelly appeared with Wheeler and Woolsey, multiple shorts with the Three Stooges, but he’s in seven films with WC Fields from 1932-35, often in uncredited bit parts.  Kelly was one of those guys who could just be pointed into the scene and would give a good performance every time.

What does all this add up to?  Not much, I suppose.  It gives a little context to history.  I see some of these films and wonder who some of those people were in their “real” life.  I keep finding that the answers are really fascinating to me, and I hope they are to some of you, too.


I had some fascinating off-line chatter on this topic.  Dr. Philip Carli sent a nice followup in a response that I’ll include in the text here.  Also, David Heighway discovered a nice picture of Howard in Götterdämmerung that I just had to post.  Here are both of these followups.


It should be mentioned that Howard was the leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera in the teens alongside the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink; both women were among the very few of their period to achieve popular celebrity in that voice, and indeed both singers had extremely wide ranges, reaching well up into the mezzo-soprano range as well as into the low alto register. Judging from her few Pathé and Edison recordings, she was one of the great ones, but her career was awkwardly placed on each side of WWI so her career was largely split between Germany and the US. Although contralto parts are often secondary and frequently “women of a certain age” parts, Howard’s vocal and acting range was wide enough that she sang the title roles in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen with great success in Europe, and she looked pretty sexy in both parts, judging from contemporary photographs. She also created at least one notable operatic role, that of the greedy and pompous aunt, Zita (originally named “La Vecchia”, or “the old lady”), in Puccini’s only outright comedy, the one-act Gianni Schicci, which had its world premiere at the Met on 14 December 1918 with the celebrated baritone Giuseppe de Luca in the title part and American soprano Florence Easton as Lauretta (who sings “O mio babbino caro”, one of Puccini’s most famous arias); music critic James Huneker praised Howard’s comic performance as “the horrid hag” in his New York Times review the next day, unwittingly predicting the way her acting career would go with Fields.

Heighway’s photo:



Ray Bradbury Meets the Man of 1,000 Faces

When I was a kid, growing up and watching movies on TV, I read about Lon Chaney Sr., in the magazines of Forrest J. Ackerman.  Ackerman (1916-2008) was a great friend of Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen.  As of Mr. Bradbury’s death today, Harryhausen (1920- ) becomes the last survivor of the long-lived group.

Ackerman always praised Lon Chaney and claimed he was a special actor, whose like is not to be seen today.  Even as a nine-year-old, I wanted to see more of his films.  In those days, most of Chaney’s pictures were impossible to see.  If you were very lucky, you might see a chewed-up print of The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was unlikely that you’d see any of the other ones.

As video came to the world, I got a slow trickling of Lon Chaney movies.  I was a teenager at the time.  I was mesmerized by him.  What an actor.  Ackerman was right.

Then, many years later, I attended a lecture at Butler University with Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury, two authors who could hardly be more disparate, but were both typecast (if one may use that word for an author) as “science fiction guys.”  This, as Harlan Ellison would tell you, is considered by the literati to be one small step up from porno authors and men’s room attendants.

Adams came on and was enchanting.  He read excerpts from his Hitchhikers’ Guide books, and some other things.  He was a natural-born actor, able to put a spin on his work like no performers I had ever seen before.  I loved every moment of what he did, and since he died not long after, I’m glad I got the chance to see him in person.

Then Bradbury came on.

By this time in his life, had had a stroke, and was stuck in a wheelchair.  His speech was somewhat impaired.  His ability to move one hand seemed to be a little strained.

I realize that everyone will focus on Mr. Bradbury’s literary accomplishments, which are legion, in celebrating his life.  I don’t want to take anything away from that at all, because I love Bradbury’s work.  But there was another side to him, as a lover of film, and since this is a film blog, that’s what I want to cover here.

Bradbury called films “wonderful” and “magical,” and he wanted nothing to do with the idea that they were somehow low-class art.  He’d worked on many films himself, including the underrated Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Moby Dick (1956).  He did a fantastic impression of director John Huston when he spoke of the making of that picture.

He went on to talk about his favorite star when he was growing up.  Born in 1920, Bradbury was an impressionable child just as Lon Chaney was becoming a big star.  In those days, it was fairly easy to see movies reissued, so even as a youngster, he was able to see most of Chaney’s big pictures in reissue.

Chaney, he said, was able to reach into his soul and find something in some of these characters that was human and touching, despite how horrible they often were.  Bradbury often teared up a bit when talking of Chaney’s work, and how emotional it made him.

Of course, most of the audience had no idea what he was talking about.  After all, Chaney has been dead since 1930, and he only made one talking picture.  Even today, a good bit of his silent material is difficult to see and a fair chunk doesn’t survive at all.  But I had seen it!   I knew exactly what he meant.

One of the things that always annoys me in an interviewer is when they ask me, “Can you name an actor today who is like this silent star we’re discussing?”  Well, no.  Lon Chaney was unique in cinema.  There was no one ever like him, and there likely never will be again.  Despite the fact that some of his movies were clichéd and hammy, with hare-brained plots and weak direction, Chaney was always able to wring something worthwhile out of them.

He was so good at certain things that he got tagged with them and had to do them over and over again.  Weird, contortionist makeup?  He was great at it.  Playing disabled characters with deformities?  No one better.  Ethnic types?  Chaney’s your man.  And the thing that tied them together: No one, no one ever, was able to convey the emotions of traumatic disappointment and utter heartbreak like Chaney did.  One facial expression.  You felt his pain.  The man was a genius.

It was almost a given that Chaney didn’t get the girl at the end of the picture, but he sure tried and it killed him (sometimes literally) that someone else ended up with his love.  I often find that some of Chaney’s best performances are in his most conventional parts, like Tell It to the Marines (1926) or While the City Sleeps (1928).  But Chaney could still play convincingly through thick makeup.  Even a fairly conventional picture like Shadows (1922) features Chaney playing an 80-year-old Chinese laundryman.  It is hard to see the 39-year-old Chaney in the part.  After a few minutes, we simply believe he is that character.

As I continued to listen to Bradbury, it occurred to me that much of his work was colored in the same way that Chaney’s had been.  No, not science fiction, not horror, not claptrap.  Chaney was all about emotion. Often it was about a alienated person who didn’t really fit in with the rest of society.  Bradbury’s work was too.

I remembered that in high school we’d been assigned to read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.   I know that the “English teacher mentality” taught that 1984 was a timeless classic.  I felt at the time that Fahrenheit 451 was much more interesting, because it had passion that I never felt at all in Orwell’s novel.  Bradbury’s characters deeply loved a history that society was taking away, so much that they were willing to die in order to preserve it.

It was a very Lon Chaney sort of idea.

Bradbury was moved to tears again as he recounted Chaney’s untimely death in 1930, and how it affected him personally.  This man, his hero, was dead!  It could even happen to someone like Lon Chaney!  It made the ten-year-old boy shudder at both Chaney’s mortality and his own.

We are fortunate that Bradbury lived over 90 years, just as we are unfortunate that Chaney never reached 50.  Tonight I celebrate the legacy of both men.  I hope somewhere, somehow, The Man of 1000 Faces gets to meet the creator of The Illustrated Man.

As a postscript: I have seen an artist’s picture, which I cannot find, of Death laying the final mask on Lon Chaney’s face.  I can think of no better image to include here.

Post postscript: (added 8/26/12).  Michael Blake found the picture, which I am including here.


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.