Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fragments (Flicker Alley, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I turned on a couple of fascinating items from Turner Classic Movies they were showing in tribute to the Telluride Film Festival — which happened over the Labor Day weekend and which got off to a sour start when Aretha Franklin successfully won a court injunction preventing them from showing a documentary about the making of her 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace (just why Aretha is so upset about the making of this movie remains a mystery — the makers of the film tried to contact her to arrange for her to see it, but she refused to respond and instead successfully, at least so far, sued to suppress the film) — including one called Fragments, a 2011 compilation from the silent-film revival company Flicker Alley of bits and pieces from movies that are otherwise completely lost. The film opens with one of the most tantalizing segments — the few surviving seconds from the 1917 Fox film Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, who made over 40 films, only two of which survive — her debut, A Fool There Was (1915), and a 1926 Hal Roach three-reel comedy parodying her. Henri Langlois, director of the Cinemathéque Française in Paris until he was forced out as collateral damage from the student protests in 1968 (card-carrying Leftist Jean-Luc Godard started a petition drive to help him save his job, but it didn’t work), claimed he had a complete print of Cleopatra in his archive but never actually screened it, and it was not found when new management took over and inventoried the collection.

The show was mostly hosted by two archivists, Michael Pogorzelski of the Academy Film Archive and Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress, and one of Pogorzelski’s assistants, Heather Linville, who recalled coming up with a silent trailer for the early-talkie On Trial (1928) from Warner Bros. when her aunt, who had picked up a film can at a flea market without inquiring as to its contents, bought it and gave it to her. (On Trial is one of the “lost” films that isn’t entirely unknown because Warners did a “B” remake in 1939, and that version still exists.) After the tantalizing glimpse of Bara’s Cleopatra (though her gestures are too obviously phony to think that the complete film would be much to look at — and Bara herself, who lived until 1963 and was interviewed several times about her career in her later years, said the movie of hers she would most want to see rediscovered was Kathleen Mavourneen, a 1920 production in which she played a woman revolutionary in Ireland and was the film she thought established her credentials as an actress and not just a “vamp”) the two Michaels (one of whom pronounced the “t” in “often,” one of whom didn’t) explained the concept of “paper prints” and how they accidentally led to the preservation of many early films that would otherwise not exist. Until 1912 U.S. copyright law did not allow movies to be copyrighted, but still photos could be — so producers would print film negatives onto long strips of photographic paper and copyright them as photographs. One of the pioneering studios, Biograph — a member of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Trust and the only Trust company that made movies as good as the ones coming from the burgeoning “indie” sector (thanks to their star director, a young man named D. W. Griffith) — went to the trouble of printing their entire 10-minute one-reelers on paper for copyright purposes, with the result that virtually all of Griffith’s Biograph films survive, but Vitagraph (another Trust company) decided to save money and just print a few key scenes — so the Fragments program showed only the surviving bits of four Vitagraph one-reelers from 1908: What One Small Boy Can Do, The Viking’s Daughter, Too Much Champagne, and Turning the Tables: Or, Waiting on the Waiter. 

These bits challenge the usual assumption in movie history that, aside from Griffith’s Biograph films, the Trust companies’ output was an aesthetic wasteland and only the “indies” (which eventually became the parent companies of the later majors — including Paramount, Universal, Fox and the constituents of MGM) made good films in the early years. Too Much Champagne is a dazzling movie, with excellent special effects for 1908, in which the hero, hallucinating under the effects of overindulgence in alcohol, imagines himself being chased by giant lobsters and seeing miniature people cavorting on his dinner table. After that the show presented the surviving reel of the pioneering “flapper” movie Flaming Youth (1923), starring Colleen Moore (though not quite as pioneering as the narration here indicates because three years before the short-lived Olive Thomas had made a similar movie, The Flapper, and thanks to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its pioneering film preservation program in the 1930’s, headed by Iris Barry, The Flapper does survive “complete”) and bits of two 1928 vehicles for Clara Bow: Red Hair (preceded by what appears to be a color test in which Bow’s red hair is clearly visible in the pioneering two-strip Technicolor process) and Three Weekends. Bow is one of those people whose career has been so shrouded in scandal and legend (too many otherwise scrupulous film historians, including William H. Mann in his William Haines biography Wisecracker, are still repeating the lies her embezzling assistant, Daisy DeVoe, made up about Bow’s sex life as if they were true), but the films of hers I’ve seen, including It (1927), The Wild Party (1929 — her first talkie and the film for which director Dorothy Arzner invented the mike boom), and especially Call Her Savage (1932, an unexpected masterpiece of the so-called “pre-Code” era), indicate she was an underrated actress with a far greater range than the rambunctious “flapper” image she cultivated in the late 1920’s. The Fragments show also includes a trailer for a lost Bow film, Rough House Rosie (1927), based on a stage play, in which the titles explain that Bow plays a woman who got her men by roughing them up — and there’s one great worm-turning sequence in which Bow, faced with a would-be boyfriend who’s manhandling her, takes her revenge by walloping him with a left hook to the cheek. Way to go, girl!

After that Fragments showed some legendary male stars of the silent screen in films otherwise lost, including two clips from Emil Jannings’ 1928 vehicle The Way of All Flesh which was one of the two films that won Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor (the first year they gave the award not for a specific film but your entire body of work that year), in which he plays a concert violinist who falls from grace and ends up a homeless bum, and in the sequences we see he passes by a concert hall promoting an appearance by a violinist with the same name — his now-adult son, who thinks his father is already dead. He scrapes enough money to buy a ticket to watch his son perform, and as his encore the son plays Brahms’ “Cradle Song” and explains that his dad taught it to him when he was a boy. Later dad comes to his son’s home on Christmas Eve (pianist Michael D. Mortilla — I couldn’t help but joke about his last name, “Ah, a dead Mexican flatbread!” — underscores this with a minor-key rewrite of “Silent Night”), lies and says he’s doing O.K., accepts the handout his son proffers him and goes off again into the night as the Paramount end credit comes up. It was pretty clear that Jannings’ vehicles followed much the same pattern that had been established in his German-made international hits The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1925) — a man who takes a dramatic tumble down the status ladder and suffers — most of his U.S. films followed that story arc and he returned to it again when he came back to Germany for The Blue Angel (1930), in which his performance as the ruined professor was overshadowed by Marlene Dietrich’s as the cabaret entertainer who ruined him. They also showed a rambunctious modern-dress comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. called He Comes Up Smiling, in which he’s a bank employee assigned to look after the bank president’s pet canary — of course the canary flies away and Fairbanks has to chase it all over New York City until he finally catches it near a homeless man called “The Professor,” who urges him to let the bird go — which he does, even though he knows that’s going to cost him his job and he’ll have to join the homeless guy in a life outside.

Finally they presented the familiar clip from The Miracle Man (1919), which though the whole movie is lost was preserved in a 1930’s documentary showing clips from some of Paramount’s silents, and which has been seen in virtually every documentary about Lon Chaney, Sr. because it was his star-making role. He plays an actor who specializes in posing as a cripple as part of a scheme to build up a country faith-healer — only after seeing Chaney straighten out his body and walk, a crippled kid in the audience himself gets up and walks, and the audience hails the faith-healer as the real deal. The Mikes then showed a mini-tribute to director John Ford via a trailer for an otherwise-lost part-talkie from 1929 called Strong Boy, starring Victor McLaglen (who would later star in Ford’s first Academy Award winner, The Informer), and the final reel of an insanely over-the-top melodrama from 1922 called The Village Blacksmith. To the Mikes this represented “a director at the peak of his powers”; to me it represented a director who started  at 11 and had reached about 15 by the time the extant reel begins and was up to 20 when it ended. It’s hard to believe that within four years Ford would make the brilliant, subtle masterpiece Three Bad Men! Afterwards they showed a clip from an interview with Diana Serra Cary, a.k.a. “Baby Peggy,” under which she was a child star at Universal in the early 1920’s — sometimes cast as the girl she was, sometimes (judging from a still of her in overall and boy’s cap) as a boy — in which she reminisced about the fire scene in her 1923 film The Darling of New York (which Universal released as a “Jewel,” indicating it was one of their top-budgeted “A” films) just before the fire was shown. She said they actually burned down a building to get the scene and the director carefully instructed her to bypass the windows and get out through the door, because they weren’t planning to burn the door — only by the time she got to the door, the fire had already heated the doorknob and she had to figure out another way to get out. She also recalled the net she had to jump in, not a plastic mesh like the ones we have today but a layer of thick canvas with a pillow in the middle which she was instructed to aim herself towards as she fell. The actress playing her mother was also trapped in the building and had to jump into the net, and when she’s finally pulled out of the net it’s not altogether clear from the extant footage whether she’s supposed to be alive or dead.

Then they showed footage from three silent comedies: Accidental Accidents (1926), a Hal Roach production featuring Charley Chase (t/n Charley Parrott — he often directed his own films, taking his directorial credit as “Parrott” and his acting credit as “Chase,” and his brother James Parrott was also a Roach director), whose career did survive into the 1930’s, though after sound came in he steered his style away from slapstick and towards what later became TV-style situation comedy; There He Goes (1924), a production from the Mermaid branch of Educational Pictures (which did not make educational pictures) starring someone named Lige Conley, who used the tousled hair and gestures of Charlie Chaplin but played at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale and in this film played a guy who, at the urging of his girlfriend’s father, has to win a race driving a horse carriage to be allowed to marry her; and one clip we have seen before, the remaining two minutes featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy from the 1930 two-strip Technicolor MGM musical The Rogue Song (the star was Lawrence Tibbett, but none of Tibbett’s footage from the film seems to exist). After that they showed the final reel (less the still-missing last minute) of the big-budget 1929 musical Gold Diggers on Broadway (featuring Nick Lucas introducing the song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and sounding an awful lot like Tiny Tim in his 1967 cover), which we’d seen before as a bonus item on the DVD release of Gold Diggers of 1937, and then a feature which the Mikes called “Not Coming Attractions,” original trailers from otherwise lost films including the 1928 Warners On Trial; another Colleen Moore vehicle, Happiness Ahead (1928 — Warners recycled the title for a Dick Powell musical in 1934 but I don’t know if it’s the same story); A Lover’s Oath, a 1925 MGM vehicle for Ramon Novarro (who looks like an even more blatant imitation of Valentino than he usually did); Paramount’s 1926 film of The Great Gatsby; Rough House Rosie with Clara Bow, mentioned above; The American Venus, a 1926 exploitation vehicle from Paramount starring that year’s Miss America winner, Fay Lanphier; Beau Sabreur, Paramount’s adaptation of Percival Christopher Wren’s sequel to Beau Geste (starring Gary Cooper 13 years before he would play Ronald Colman’s role in a sound remake of the original Beau Geste; the third book in Wren’s trilogy, Beau Ideal, would be filmed by RKO in 1931 and that film survives); and Polly of the Follies, a Constance Talmadge vehicle from 1922 based on a Broadway play and written by John Emerson and Anita Loos.

By far the most interesting of these final trailers was the one for The Great Gatsby, which starred Warner Baxter (another actor who did successfully make the silent-to-sound transition) as Gatsby, Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan, Neil Hamilton as Nick Carraway (the first of two on-screen Nicks who would later play law-enforcement officials on TV: he was Police Commissioner Gordon in the 1960’s Batman series and Sam Waterston, who played Nick in the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, played assistant district attorney Jack McCoy on Law and Order) and Georgia Hale presumably as Myrtle Wilson. Of course it’s fascinating to see how director Herbert Brenon dramatized Gatsby’s legendary parties while the 1920’s were still in progress! The Mikes had earlier said that some silent-era directors are unjustly forgotten because so few of their films survive, but they didn’t mention any examples — the director they did cite was John Ford, who kept working until 1966, won five Academy Awards (more than any other director) and is hardly neglected or forgotten in film history (even though some of his best films — Three Bad Men, Pilgrimage, The Prisoner of Shark Island — have fallen through the cracks of film history). Herbert Brenon may be the paradigmatic example of a silent director who’s underrated because we have so few of his films to judge him by; as best as we can see from this trailer, The Great Gatsby is probably an excellent movie (the versions we do have seem to fall short of the potential of the novel in one way or another, though part of that is because the actor who would have been perfect for Gatsby, Cary Grant, never got to play him) — just as Brenon’s Peter Pan, which was long thought lost but did turn up, turned out to be a great movie, full of darkness and hints of burgeoning sexuality that have been lost in the Disney-ized and Broadway-fied versions of Sir James M. Barrie’s original play we’ve got since.