Friday, May 25, 2018


 R. F. K. Scott and his band of explorers
in The Great White Silence

The Great White Silence is documentary filmmaker Herbert Ponting's film shot during the British Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913, where the crew of that ship embarked on a voyage of discovery to the South Pole. This film is certainly of historical importance just for  footage of the journey itself and also just by being one of the first major documentary films (Would make a fine double feature with Nanook of the North). It has also become noteworthy in recent years because of the restoration of the film by the British Film Institute.

The film itself is one of triumph of tragedy,

The triumph is the journey itself. These stout, hardy men of the Terra Nova play hard (boxing bouts and getting sporty haircuts) and work hard (You try to sail to the South Pole!). They encounter icebergs larger than the eye can see and many other natural wonders. The boys even have time for skiing and football! We see seals, penguins, whales and other creatures of the sea, all set to celluloid by the intrepid Mr. Ponting.  It's a success right? They're going to make it, right?

That brings us to the tragedy, which is really the heart of the film. The main band of five, led by Captain R. F. Scott have to make their way all the way to the South Pole on the icy surface of Antarctica. The hazardous journey does indeed culminate at the South Pole...but only for the men to discover when they arrive that they were barely beaten there by a crew of Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen, who apparently found a short cut to the pole! (Damn Norwegians!) So much for planting the Union Jack! (But they do it anyway...God Save the Queen!)

That was disappointing...only it was about to get worse. The band had to make it all the way back to the boat under conditions that were brutal. They persevered and came close, but sadly, conditions that made travel eventually impossible overtook the crew and they never made it back. Captain Scott and most of his crew were eventually found frozen in their tent by a search party.

Scott became a posthumous national hero in Great Britain.

The United States Research Station of the South Pole is named the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, recognizing both crews of discovery.

March of the Penguins, 1911
in The Great White Silence

Sunday, May 20, 2018


The world's a stage
in The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums

For (Director Kenji) Mizoguchi, the business of the artist is the conversion of life into the perfection and precision of art, and the business of cinema is both the conversion of life into art and the reverse conversion of art into the "living" vitality of cinema-Gerald Mast, A Short History of Movies

Synopsis: Kiku isn't that hot as an actor, though he gives it is best. It's tough having a famous actor father and trying to follow in his footsteps (see the career of John Wilkes Booth). However, the family won't come right out and say to him that his acting is really not too good. Otuku, the wet nurse for the family is the one person who levels to Kiku about his thespian deficiencies. Otuku is quickly forced to leave the family when it is discovered she let the cat out of the bag, but a grateful Kiku tracks her down and wishes to marry her largely because she's the only one that has been honest with him. (This situation reminds me of the time in Gomer Pyle, USMC, when Gomer Pyle is the only one to to tell pretty Lou Ann Poovie that she can't sing, and Luann eventually falls for Gomer for his honesty...but I digress.)

Otuku and Kiku eventually wind up together, but experience their share of problems...emotional and financial. The couple are forced to part...but Kiku rejoins his family troupe (with the secret intervention of Otuku) and becomes a good and respected Kabuki actor!

Kiku and Otuku are finally given permission to marry with the blessing of the family, only it is now too late. Otuku is about to die and Kiku's moment of artistic triumph is scarred by heartbreak.

A tragic story whose highlight to me is the inner working and turmoil of the traveling acting troupe. (See also In the Bleak Midwinter, Children of Paradise or The Seventh Seal or many versions of Hamlet for other films with acting troupe stories within the main story).

Lou Ann Poovie is shocked when Gomer Pyle
tells her she can't sing!

But she falls for the big lug anyway

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess

The plot of this stark, sad film involves a young mother (and prostitute) who tries to do whatever she can for her young child. She is met with opposition from all corners, including her possessive pimp and an education system that rejects the child because of his mother's reputation.

It is a good film and one that at least offers a glimmer of hope at the end, but is still a largely sad ride to go on.

I try to judge films without overthinking about the actual life of one of the film's participants, but that's a little hard to do in The Goddess and the star Ruan Lingyu, who plays the mother in the film. Lingyu was one of the most popular stars of China during this time, but her life was ultimately as tragic as the heroine in the film, as Ruan committed suicide in 1935 at the age of twenty-four.

Her story was recounted in the 1992 Stanley Kwan film Center Stage (another 1001 Films entry), which I will try to get to soon.

Ruan Lingyu

Thursday, May 10, 2018


"With his silent productions, J'Accuse, La Roue, and Napoleon, he (Abel Gance) made a fuller use of the medium than anyone else."-Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By

"What is marvelous about Napoleon and La Roue is the narrative enthusiasm, the sweeping exposition of events, and the way the images reveal interior feelings through dynamic editing."-David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film

I knew about Abel Gance's Napoleon, but I had no knowledge of his epic drama La Roue (The Wheel).

But it really is a masterpiece of early cinema...the production design, the use of editing and dramatic storytelling.

And plotwise, it features a doomed romance...make that two doomed romances...make that three.

Of course, the fact that the plot borders on incest may be a little uncomfortable for some...

But there are trains...Lots and lots of trains!

And what about Severin-Mars, the star of the movie who is listed as dying in 1921...two years before the release of La Roue? Not even a Wikipedia article about the man?

I think he should at least warrant a Wikipedia article....Maybe I'll write one.

And a special mention to the engineer's loyal dog Toby. I had to at least mention Toby.

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go-Watching the Wheels, John Lennon

Saturday, May 5, 2018


Seeta Devi loves a man with an addiction
in A Throw of Dice
"Beautiful though the scenes of India are in Throw of Dice, a Hindu silent film now at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, this present offering is not comparable with that fine pictorial achievement Shiraz, the poetic tale of the Taj Mahal." -New York Times Review, January 6, 1930.
I had never heard of the movie Shiraz mentioned in the above review, but by the rave Shiraz received there and the fact that the British film Institute recently restored it made me think that the 1001 list may have chosen the wrong Franz Osten film.

That being said, it was interesting to see A Throw of Dice. It has great costumes, a cast of hundreds and lots of elephants. It is interesting that such a grand setting is basically wrapped around the simple story of two kings vying for the love of a beautiful woman. One of the kings is ruthless and the other has a gambling problem that the other king is willing to exploit for his own end. The fact that this silent epic was released after talking pictures had been established may have prevented it from being a greater success. -C. Cox, 1001: A Film Odyssey

Fast foward to 2008 after, A Thrown of Dice-
“There’s hardly a frame in the 1929 film  A Throw of Dice  that doesn’t provide a surge of visual pleasure. Produced by the German director Franz Osten and the Bengali lawyer and crusading nationalist Himansu Rai, the movie itself seems poised between two cultures, balancing the highly developed technique of German silent filmmaking and the rich iconography of Indian tradition. Jungles and palaces, elephants and tigers, princes in silk and servants in rags were photographed on location in Rajasthan and presented with the meticulous lighting, enveloping depth effects and rhythmic editing patterns of the Weimar cinema at its height.”-Dave Kehr, New York Times, July 15, 2008

Well, it only took about eighty years, but it looks like The Times finally got around to giving the movie a positive review! 

And next time I'm in New York, I definitely got to see see what is playing at The Fifty-Fifth Street Playhouse!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


Could the suitor to the princess really be nothing but a common thief?
Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad

"It is an entrancing picture, wholesome and beautiful, deliberate but compelling, a feat of motion picture art which has never been equaled and one which itself will enthrall people time and again. You can see this film and look forward to seeing it a second time."-New York Times, March 19, 1924.
I can certainly see why this fanciful updating of the Arabian nights was such a hit with audiences in 1924. It starred the biggest action star of the era (Douglas Fairbanks) and is epic in presentation, but never forgets to be fun. The plot of the film involves Fairbanks as the thief in the title, who seeks to amend his ways when he falls for the princess of Bagdad. The film features such later staples of films as magic carpets, invisibility cloaks, a battle against some pretty scary spiders and other monsters and an elaborate competition against rival suitors. It might be difficult for modern audiences to view The Thief of Bagdad without thinking of similarities between this and Disney's Aladdin. At least it was for me.

Yes, it is true that 1924 special effects aren't going to hold up that well, but I think the effects are pretty fun even now and work well within the framework of the story. If you tend to get bored with silent film dramas, this one may be a good one to watch to try to shake yourself out of it.-C. Cox, 1001: A Film Odyssey

The thief (Fairbanks) and the Princess (Julanne Johnston) 
discover a whole new world on their magic carpet in
The Thief of Bagdad