Go West (1925): Keaton & His Cow

320px-Keaton_Go_West_1925“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley

I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.

Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.

A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.

So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.

The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.

I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.

The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.

She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.

He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.

Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.

The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.

It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.

I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.

In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.

Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.

4/5 Stars

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928): Buster Keaton The Human Tumbleweed

steamboat bill jr.

Whatever your thoughts on silent movies, be it based on misinformation, overt loathing, or verging on utter veneration, one has to admit there’s something to the simplicity of these films. And by simplicity, I’m referring to the construction of their stories. They rarely seem to get bogged down by detail. In fact, one could argue they’re at their best on this relatively basic plane. If you’re skeptical, you can call them tropes, maybe archetypes. Regardless, they tap into something universal, even primal.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a prime case study for what I’m considering. It’s a riverboat tale setting up a conflict between two families overlaid by a Romeo & Juliet romance and spiced up all together by its secret weapon and the main attraction: Buster Keaton.

The shoddy but well-loved Stonewall Jackson is another relic of the Confederacy, not unlike Keaton’s prized train in The General. In this case, it’s run by a grizzled veteran of the waters who is about to be pushed out by steep competition. His rival, too, is symbolic as the industrial-era magnate taking over the waterways to go with his hotels and other ancillary attractions. There’s also nothing subtle about his name: King.

The next development is about as absurd as you can get. The steamboat’s captain gets word his son is arriving from boarding school to assist him. He hasn’t seen the lad since infancy and expects a big strapping fellow — not unlike himself. Set up by a prolonged “white carnation gag” full of misidentification, he winds up with timid, squat Buster Keaton to call son. This shrinking schoolboy is a far cry from what he hoped for, and he’s a bit begrudging.

Their ensuing trip to a hat store not only records the contemporary culture’s affinity for a different brand of headwear but also manages to sneak in a nod to Keaton’s ubiquitous pork pie. He slips it off quickly as if afraid someone might recognize him and cause him to break character.

The paces to follow are not surprising. His beautiful and vivacious school chum is the daughter of King. They hold a puppy-like love for one another even as their fathers continue to feud. Just to make ourselves clear, none of this matters all that much.

steamboat bill jr. 2

The secret to Keaton is his innate understanding of the visual gag that could make his brand of comedy funny and, as a result, his stoic everyman too. Stretched out on a plank between two boats — trying to cloak himself in darkness — there’s a shot of King’s boat, and we know they will be lurching forward as they tug at the ropes. He’s going to end up in the drink.

But of course, that doesn’t happen. At least not immediately — his weight perfectly balanced so he juts out on the board like a cantilever, seemingly oblivious of how close he came. So unaware in fact, he tumbles in seconds later. It plays with our perceptions in the most fundamental ways. With irony at his disposal, he milks the laugh and makes it something more compelling and lasting, even to the point of its foregone conclusion.

Later, he raids the rival riverboat in pursuit of his love as his father’s own pride and joy is subsequently decommissioned. His feud with King is exacerbated, and he gets slammed with time in the clink for defying the law.

All these beats are again mundane. They don’t tell us much nor surprise our expectations. Fortuitously, inclement weather comes and Keaton is once more provided a whirling dervish of natural disasters to carry him away in the throes of comedy. Again, this all continues functioning in spite of the story.

Because I’ve dealt with typhoons before first hand — umbrellas upturned in an instant — but this is ridiculous. It defies logic, mass, and normal feats of human ingenuity, but those are the riches of the moviemaking industry and Keaton’s comedy, as facades of entire buildings topple around the human tumbleweed.

He’s whisked away on hovering beds, which might as well be a transplanted flying carpet from Arabian Nights, leading into one of his most iconic and death-defying setups. Again, the visual has primacy, and it works on principles as old as time. We crave security. We fear harm and dismemberment. In all his pluckiness, Keaton takes them on and somehow prevails.

There are a couple moments where it’s like he’s literally suspended in air, fighting against the wind to stand upright, until he’s forced to split the difference. Also, true to form, he uses what feels like a few vaudevillian sleights of hand, supplied by curtains, trapped doors, and a nack for all things physical.

What I admire about Keaton is how he manages to do things that still take the breath away even if only for an instant. He is a bit of a magician and yet he lets us in on the tricks, and he lets the audience take part in them with him — to think we know more than him — and then he proceeds to still pull one over on us.

Even if his character is unwitting, somehow his body and he, as an entity, always seem to know just the right step or movement; it’s just idiosyncratic enough to work in the scenario so he comes out on the other side all in one piece.

When he finally takes command of the ship hopping to and fro, scurrying there, yanking this cord here, it feels like Buster Keaton at the height of his powers, and it shows how this scrawny little guy could be so resourceful on his feet.

Mind you, it’s not just a matter of our story’s hero coming into his own, but it’s a practical expression of the actor’s own prowess — he is an unswerving force of nature packed into what might seem to be a slight frame. He really and truly is a marvel. Because “The Great (Wet) Stone Face” transcends Steamboat Bill Jr. In fact, he is Steamboat Bill Jr. The movie as well as the man.

4.5/5 Stars

Our Dancing Daughters (1928): Joan Crawford Ascending

Our Dancing Daughters is an inflection point of silent film for the very fact it stands out for setting Joan Crawford up to be in incandescent star for generations to come. She calls upon her flapper talents and bouncy effervescence fully embodying the jazz age through the character of “Dangerous” Diana Medford.

Between glitzy wardrobing and the Charleston, she exerts herself as a first-rate girl about town. Because she, like everyone else of her age demographic, is out to have a good time, dance with boys, and partake of everything else youth affords. Although it is still a silent, the added benefit of a synchronized soundtrack imbues the party scenes with life to go along with Crawford’s infectious hoofing as the balloons fall all around them. 

Di’s doting friend Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) is having her own romantic tribulations, based on the searing baggage of a past love affair, now impinging on her present. Meanwhile, her greatest rival, Ann (Anita Page), a conniving opportunistic with a mother cut out of the same cloth, continues to jockey for the most advantageous romantic partner. Page is an unholy riot giving the part her all as the duplicitous gold digger who turns into a raucous and rebellious drunk. She more than holds her own as a foil and the film’s primary villain.

This is great, but we still have to contend with all the various trysts and dalliances taking place; what do they matter? All the talk of merrymaking and marrying rich gets kind of monotonous. The picture’s premise feels quite flat and it may be an added effect of antiquity.

Another complaint is how so many of the male co-stars blend together aside from John Mack Brown. They’re a generally innocuous bunch of ne’er do wells. Why are we supposed to be drawn to any of them? However, even as other elements feel staid and pat to go with the passage of time — the ending included — Crawford still manages to draw the eye. 

This prevailing curiosity feels genuine and not simply an academic appreciation from a historical distance. She engages when the movie doesn’t always manage to do so. It’s not merely about looks or fashion. These are only cursory traits. But can we all agree that those great big expressive of hers were made to be in movies?

Thank heavens we have Joan Crawford and her heroine to bolster Our Dancing Daughters. It begins with garnering a certain reputation. The charm drips off of her, or better yet, it flies, landing like pixie dust on all her beaus and the audiences out in the theater seats. Crawford as a persona is coming to the fore and becoming fully apparent. She might not be the proverbial Clara Bow “It Girl,” but there’s a similar infectious magnetism even sensuality to her, bursting off the screen.

Thus, when she catches the eye of a Mr. Blaine (Brown), an eligible, very rich, young bachelor, people take note; they snicker. Diana the Dangerous is at work. But for all her reputation, Di is really a very sympathetic, vulnerable girl. It’s like Hollywood (or maybe the entire country) had not yet been burdened with the cynical inclinations of the Great Depression.

They have yet to see utter destitution or debauchery a la Baby Face or Red-Headed Woman. In 1928, women in the movies still dream of the right man, they marry for love, and the heroic ones are bound to get their hearts broken. This is so crucial to Diana. She’s hardly as superficial as we would assume.

She falls more and more for Ben only for him to make a major faux pas by going for Annikins and her false showing of pious propriety. She’s anything but. Whereas Di’s totally out there and inherently honest. And what does it get her? Heartbreak. Because Crawford has youthful good intentions, open to being wounded, and she’s more than susceptible to it.

She begins her career on this surprisingly sympathetic note, heartbroken by a man, and forced to come to terms with it. But she plays it sincerely, where all the frivolity evaporates when it really matters, and when it begins to hurt the most. This is the key to the movie. It starts to mean something. We realize why we are watching. 

As her sceen life merged with her personal legacy, I’m not sure I always considered or ever imagined Joan Crawford to be a terribly sympathetic figure. She was larger-than-life, yes, but I rarely felt connected with her. At this early juncture in her career, she more than proved her mettle as a “good girl,” and when it’s done well, there’s nothing wrong with being good. In a world that’s unfair and harsh, it gives us stories fraught with genuine weight. There would still be time enough for Joan to grow scales. She was a resilient one to be sure. She had to be.

3.5/5 Stars

The Unknown (1927): Silent Cinema Out on The Big Top

As someone always trying to steep myself in more and more silent cinema, I still have much to contend with when it comes to the careers of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. However, from everything I can gather, The Unknown is a wonderful melding of their talents, Browning drawing on his penchant for the outcasts of humanity and his own past on the carnival circuit.

Meanwhile, though he would die in 1930, up until that point, Chaney really was a standout in the fledgling movie industry for how he approached the acting profession. He was the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because he went against the prevailing current — the desire to promote an image — and he succeeded by promoting many. He was the era’s beloved chameleon. The Unknown is little different.

It’s a story of old Madrid. The tale is set in a gypsy circus and involves an armless knife thrower (Chaney) and the love of his life: his boss’s daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford). At first, it seems like an immediate oxymoron. Sure enough, we see Alonzo the Armless doing his art with the dexterity of his feet. It’s the marvel of the movies watching it play out in front of us as the ringmaster’s daughter plays his daring assistant.

But once the crowds are gone and after hours we come to understand some of the other dynamics behind the Big Top. Nanon is a young woman with an almost obsessive fear of men. She trembles when the male performers in the company try to lay their hands on her. She’s left with this lingering fear and an aversion to their very touch.

It goes beyond a mere sense of harassment, verging on an elemental level at the very core of her being. It becomes the film’s primary metaphor and sadly this metaphor maintains its relevance almost a full century later. In one summative line, she cries out: “Men. The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands of all of them.” Her distaste is stated quite plainly.  

That’s part of the reason she has a special place in her heart for Alonzo, being vulnerable and kind to him because, with his physical disability, he cannot take advantage of her.

Chaney does so much to make the reality of his character’s disability supremely evident. There’s actually some sense of the suspension of disbelief. It’s a habit of movie magic and the subsequently projected illusions, we want to see how they do it.

Is it possible to see true signs of Lon Chaney’s able body? And yet The Unknown shocks us by stripping away everything. Behind closed doors, he loses his normal attire and gains a pair of arms because you see, he’s not actually armless. 

It’s not just part of his act. He’s pulling it over on everyone in the troupe aside from his closest confidante Cojo (John George). He discloses to him, There’s is nothing I will not do to own her!” Because he too secretly has his sights on Nanon, wanting to have her for his own through this act of sophistry. 

Like the best silent cinema, The Unknown feels so emphatically poetic, where the characters represent more than themselves. They shed the mere realms of reality to speak to something far more, at times, both terrifying and tender. Suddenly, the movie morphs, building into a wicked tale of irony. I wouldn’t think of divulging all of it here, although such sordid things like murder, amputation, and blackmail abound.

Also, be prepared for the finale. The world is literally being ripped apart at the seams, and it becomes the film’s gloriously chaotic crescendo back out on the circus Big Top. The carnival strong man, Malabar the Mighty ( Norman Kerry), Nanon’s suitor, looks to show off his feats of strength; they are rapturously in love. Joan Crawford snaps a whip from the platform up above as she rallies the horses galloping on their giant treadmills. Alonzo looks on poised for revenge against his romantic rival. 

It conjures up indelible images of performed chaos leaving a starling impression even after all these years. If nothing else, it proves silent cinema is far from rote, often brimming with all sorts of memorable even perverse bits of storytelling. The Unknown’s overall impact is not to be taken lightly. 

Viewers would do well to seek it out if only as an act of appreciation of Browning, Chaney, or Crawford. The picture, in its current form, is missing some of its original exposition, but what a fantastic relic it is. However, it’s far from a museum piece. It feels fiercely alive even after all these years. I did take some issue with the cut I’ve seen if only because of the typically off-putting soundtrack that feels too modern and incongruous to make me truly appreciate what is on-screen. 

But the title cards have a pleasant lyricism to them accentuating the story’s dramatic situation so we can fully appreciate its implications. Likewise, Joan Crawford, as a recognizable entity, isn’t fully flourished into her full-bodied image of stardom even as glimpses of her emerging persona flash upon the screen. However, it’s absolutely a testament to why Lon Chaney was a revered talent of the silent generation right up until the end of his life. 

4/5 Stars

Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Cocoanuts (1929)

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“Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales?” ~ Kay Francis, Chico, and Groucho.

The Marx Brothers were modern comedians. Out of Groucho Marx alone, there are numerous comics spawned and basking in his incomparable shadow. When certain jokes come out you can all but tip your hat to him. But also Chico and Harpo had their own personas and they worked with each other to simultaneously set up different bits and turn those bits into pandemonium that have overtaken the world with laughter over and over again.

And that’s not over one film or with one studio but over a whole host of projects. For all I know, Harpo Marx went through life mute (I Love Lucy cameos don’t tell me any different) and Chico really did use that accent of his. Even Groucho who was arguably the most visible thanks to You Bet Your Life, What’s My Line, and memorable Dick Cavett interviews, though he lost the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, still maintained much the same witty image his entire life.

Playing purely the numbers game most comedy teams are duos. Think of most of the great ones. But the Marx Brothers had three and even four when Zeppo was around. They were all family. So when this well-oiled mechanism of chaos is released it really does a number on people. They were known for overwhelming producers in real life with their antics and they do precisely the same thing to each individual audience member who watches them onscreen — at least the ones who don’t mind being railroaded a little. That is their lasting impact.

The fact Cocoanuts was their first film and from the 1920s makes more an impression on my mind. Because talking pictures hadn’t been around for all that long. Sure, some of their gags could have been retroactively transferred to the silent cinema but in many ways, the talkies suited them just fine. After all, they were a vaudeville act and The Cocoanuts was a success on the stage before it was a film. Even during filming, they were already at work on their latest production Animal Crackers (which would again become a film the following year).

Where does that leave us? Looking at The Cocoanuts today, it definitely is stagey because well, it came from a stage play. Furthermore, it’s a rather odd combination having Irving Berlin and The Marx Brothers names attached to the film. Given the main attraction, there’s probably too much singing anyways although the overhead shots soon accredited to Busby Berkeley are quite prominent here.

If we turn our attention to the opening moment, Groucho is on the staircase of the Hotel de Cocoanut giving his restless bellboys some wise words full of crap about money. Meanwhile, a seductive woman (Kay Francis) and her suitor look to steal the priceless necklace of one of the few vacationers (Margaret Dumont) and pin the crime on someone else for their own nefarious purposes. This might not be a criticism you hear often but there’s too much plot and not enough Marx Brothers.

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Let’s cut right to the best gags. There’s the adjoining room & slamming door gag which provides one of the most pointed moments where the boys are all working seamlessly together to promote chaos on celluloid.

Groucho and Chico have one of their bits over a map and linguistic disconnect that Groucho riddles with his puns and Chico then decimates with his miscomprehension of English vernacular (Most famously Viaduct becomes Why a duck?). Watch it if you don’t understand what that means. In Marx Brothers terms it’s probably poetry in motion.

There’s an auction, termed a big swindle by Groucho but even with Chico’s involvement in the chicanery, for some unknowable reason, they don’t seem to be making any money. Finally, Groucho and Harpo play Tic Tac Toe on a man’s chest and act boorish at a dinner party before running off for the plot’s real finale. Let’s face it. The picture ended right when they left the stage.

The improv and dynamic nature of the Brothers given their vaudeville roots makes me realize just how much their shows would have been blessed by repeated performances and the heat of the moment. Though we can’t have that luxury at least we have this film to remember those hoodlums who elevated the art form of anarchy and wisecracking to new heights.

3.5/5 Stars

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail_1929_Poster.jpgIn one sense Blackmail proves to be a landmark in simple film history terms but it’s also a surprisingly frank picture that Hitchcock injects with his flourishing technical skills. It’s of the utmost importance to cinema itself because it literally stands at the crossroads of silent and talking pictures and holds the distinction of being one of Britain’s first talkies.

So close did it ride the lines, in fact, that two versions were released. It was initially supposed to be a full-fledged silent until it was requested that Hitchcock update the production to follow the tides of the times.

Far from being hampered by the transition, Hitch takes everything in stride and delivers a story that is pure cinema. It means simply that the film functions as a visual narrative. Still partially silent, yet using dialogue, and utilizing all the tools at his disposal to develop the greatest impact to reach his audience.

The story is simple really, about a young woman named Alice (Anny Ondra, future wife of German boxing icon Max Schmeling) who’s having a bit of a rough time with her boyfriend who’s on the police force. Still, she’s trying to make it work but another man has taken her fancy. He’s an artist and he uses the excuse of showing her his work as a pretense to get her up in his room. We all have an inclination of what might happen next. She’s taken advantage of and Alice has no recourse but to defend herself.

A conniving low-level conman is looking for an easy bit of blackmail and the policeman goes to great lengths to protect his girl but she herself is struggling with her guilt with what happened. Her nerves cannot take the constant strain because she was never meant for such circumstances. She’s hardly a bad person. In fact, she has no reason to feel remorse because, in the film’s candid portrayal of the artist’s less than honorable intentions, it’s easy to sympathize with Alice.

What makes the picture extraordinarily refreshing is that Hitch never relies too heavily on dialogue although it was the newest technology. He seems to already have an intuitive sense of how it can be used in cadence with the moving image. He can still make a film that for sequences is much like a silent picture and far from detracting from the story he is developing it further. It only serves to bring out more of the story whether it be the atmosphere or certain amounts of character development.

The local gossip chattering on and on about the murder and how she would never use a knife no matter the provocation but we are also privy to the young woman’s reaction shots as the word “knife” reverberates through her consciousness. Even in that moment, the dialogue underlines her inherent guilt and the further moral dilemma she has been put in.

Hitchcock’s already resorting to using memorable locales, in this case, The British Museum to make his chase sequences pop with character. You might say this is even an obvious precursor to Vertigo (1958) with a chase sequence that takes off across the rooftops of the museum.

But the ending comes with a bit of fateful luck that’s simultaneously darkly comic in quintessential Hitchcock fashion. It’s the perfect punctuation on a film that spun on an unfortunate split second altercation and it just as easily fell back on track with another such moment of good fortune. It’s the director’s way of teasing his audience in a sense and he’s very good at it — mingling murder with wit.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog (1927)

The_Lodger_1927_Poster.jpgWhat’s striking about Alfred Hitchcock is the sheer breadth of his work and how his career managed to take him in so many directions as he continued to evolve and experiment with his craft from silent pictures, to talkies, then Hollywood, and all the way into the modern blockbuster age. And yet the very expansiveness of his oeuvre begs the question, where to begin with it all? Certainly, his lineup of masterpieces in the 1950s are a must.

But of his early silent pictures, The Lodger is the film that Hitchcock himself noted was really the beginning of his filmography as we know it and within its frames, there are some telling signs of an artist coming to grips with his craft.

His subject matter here is a bit of a Jack the Ripper-type tale set in London. A rash of murders has overtaken the town as coincidentally a new tenant with suspicious tendencies moves into the room of a local family. Their daughter does her best to make him feel welcome but her macho boyfriend, a member of the local police force, is skeptical of the competition. Especially since circumstance seems to point to the lodger’s guilt. So in this central conflict, we have a bit of the innocent man motif that Hitch would scrutinize and continue to tweak again and again.

Hitchcock already shows an immense aptitude for visual experimentation, utilizing his mise en scene in fascinating ways.  He makes great use of staircases whether he only shows a man’s hand as it slides along the banister or he sets up crucial moments along the expanses of the stairwell, characters slowly descending toward us being representative of innumerable tension.

We also unwittingly have one of Hitch’s first documented cameos and his assistant director on the picture is none other than his soon-to-be wife and lifelong collaborator, Alma Reville. That connection alone makes this production crucial to Hitchcock’s future career.

It’s easy to make the assertion that Hitchcock remained in the most basic sense a silent filmmaker his entire career and if we can count F.W. Murnau as one of his major influences from his time in Germany, you have that same sense of visuals over dialogue or even title cards. Some of his greatest scenes are in fact nearly silent. The crop dusting chase in North by Northwest (1959) or Norman Bates discarding the evidence in Psycho (1960) both spring to mind.

Though the parameters set up by the studio and expectations of his audience meant his leading man could not be found to be guilty, Hitch still manages to make the scenario as interesting as he possibly could — even if the degree of moral ambiguity wasn’t quite to his liking.

Consequently, in many ways, The Lodger also manages to be one of Hitchcock’s most tenderly romantic films. Because while his pictures have romance and passion they are more often than not subverted by the macabre, sensuality, or that notable dry wit. But here, the love story seems generally sincere.

Because there are tinges of true heartbreak here and the circumstances that bring the two lovers together are imbued with emotional consequence. Even the intricacies of a flashback and genuine interactions between two people who exude a certain chemistry make up for any overly theatrical moments courtesy of the tenderhearted heartthrob Ivor Novello.

But as he generally had a knack for doing Hitchcock also knows how to squeeze the most out of his ending sequences with the most satisfying spectacle. In this case, although the police have exonerated their suspect, the mob is after him and he flees them only to get caught on the iron works of a fence, his handcuffs leaving him dangling, vulnerable to the onslaught of humanity. He hangs there pitifully, at their mercy, a near Christ-like figure.

Perhaps the outcome was not quite what he wanted but the burgeoning master still manages a true Hitchcockian ending worthy of remembrance alongside some of his more championed pictures.

3.5/5 Stars

 

7th Heaven (1927)

Seventh_Heaven_19277th Heaven is one of those films that revels in classical storytelling where the drama is rich and deep; the score hits all the crescendos and fills them in with the sweetest of notes that are both beautiful and moving. The love scenes are rapturous in a way that makes us hold romance in a higher esteem than we did previously and the horrors of war abhorrently brutalize the world like never before. These are the kind of themes as old as storytelling itself.

Director Frank Borzage would play with these same themes time and time again. I say this with every film of his but it’s so inevitably true. There’s no denying it in any frame within his work. It’s just there and yet in Seventh Heaven, he delivers bar-none his greatest, most extraordinary outcome of his entire career, which must only be seen to be believed.

There has never been such an angelic, more serene and innocent face than Janet Gaynor’s or at least you’d be hard-pressed to find one. I became acquainted with her in F.W. Murnau’s masterful parable of love, Sunrise (1927), but here she is equally demure, reflecting all the many qualities of the most ingenuous of beings.

In this particular scenario, her life is horrible, lived out in utter poverty in France and what’s worse, she is abused and whipped by her tyrannical sister. For a silent film, it feels fairly graphic, and there’s little restraint in showing the sister’s uninhibited rage.

But Diane does find herself a savior or rather he finds her. His name is Chico a sewer worker who is promoted to being a street cleaner. Despite his lowly beginnings, his aspirations are high, constantly geared towards the stars, and he really is a strapping even remarkable fellow, if not simply for the fact that he believes in himself.

Though his most telling trait is his anger toward the Bon Dieu — The Good Lord — or in our common terms, God. As he sees it, he gave the Almighty a chance and look what it got him. Absolutely zilch. That’s why he’s an atheist. God owes him 10 francs.

However, in an individual moment of integrity, he speaks up on Diane’s behalf, taking some of her burden upon himself and claiming to be her husband. The act of charity is not lost on her. She’s grateful but now he’s in a bind. If the detectives call on him and find him unmarried, it’s the hoosegow for him. But being the generally sympathetic spirit that she is, Diane follows him back to his home and agrees to stand-in as his wife for a time. He, in turn, is grateful.

Soon he shares a little bit of his rooftop heaven with her along with some faux-marital bliss where they begin to truly enjoy each other’s company. In this mutually beneficial relationship, they find more than mere altruism. It’s in these interludes where true romance begins to bud between them.

It’s in this heaven above the chaos of the world where they begin to fall in love — it’s a reverie that picks them up and carries them away on clouds of peace, comfort, and contentment. Never before have we seen Diane so at ease and never before have we seen Chico so overjoyed.

But once more war tears apart the hearts of those in love. It’s most overtly reflected in the two scores that battle for supremacy. The passionate love theme playing over their embraces full of kisses and then the shrill call-to-arms playing down on the streets as men march off to battle. It’s the melodious juxtaposed with the harsh. That which is mellifluous clashing with these markers of chaos. Chico is finally called into battle but he is not going to leave his love without making a promise even if it’s in words alone.

Marriage once more is cast in this spiritual light ordained by God and some people would agree that it most certainly is but Borzage seems to take it nearly a step further in that it becomes its own religion — once more this rapturous experience to be undertaken as a form of worship. It’s accentuated by the fact that every day without fail at precisely 11 o’clock they both talk to each other, communing together, rather like a prayer, managing to keep them together wherever they might be from the trenches to the munition factory. Their universal union remains forever intact.

The war sequences are utter chaos for the sheer mass of humanity that is mobilized with dust whirling around, cars zooming down the road, and guns pointed in all directions. It’s a fairly impressive showing of cinematic tumult.

But the film’s ending is a sheer miracle of bright-eyed brilliance — a moment of resurrection that’s so powerful — only felt in a few other films so evocatively. Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) being one of the few examples that comes to mind although presently more titles elude me.

Seventh Heaven ends on yet another spiritual note much as it began. In these final moments, the epiphany is not only a miraculous apotheosis of sorts but the stirring realization that in this narrative the Bon Dieu was always working dynamically in Chico’s life — just not in the ways that he was expecting.

Every time he questioned God’s Will he was met with some sort of answer. One could bring into question if this is, in fact, a “Christian” film but it brings in a multitude of religious themes and readily positions itself as another impassioned depiction of love of the highest order as revealed by Frank Borzage.

4.5/5 Stars