The Sunday Intertitles: Fight or Flight

Pordenone Silent Film Festival is a joy. Unfortunately I’ve only been once, with NATAN, but this year the festival is online — not the same thing, I know, but the price is extraordinarily reasonable, less than 10 euros for the whole show, which runs until the 10th with two shows daily. Sign up!

Day one brought us travelogues of different places and times, fulfilling our thwarted desire to stretch our legs a bit during this here pandemic. There were scenes of Egypt (above), Krakow, New York, Paris, and a fantasy travelogue about a flying house, which would be the very thing right now.

Sadly the escapade ends with the house buffeted by a thunderstorm, then set ablaze by a volcano, then exploding and crashing, so I guess that’s why we haven’t heard more of the intrepid Vendebout and Courandair.

The evening show was PENROD AND SAM, a Booth Tarkington adaptation that eschewed plot for a series of expressive sketches, varying between comedy and tragedy, depicting the adventures of two boys, their dog, their gang, and various rivals.

The dog Duke was played with great skill and sensitivity by the dog Cameo, a movie veteran with, like director William Beaudine, Mary Pickford films in his CV. Although I think they missed a trick and his character should have been called Tooth Barkington.

All the kids are great. The adults or quasi-adults include Rockliffe Fellowes (charmless kindly bootlegger in the Marx Bros’ MONKEY BUSINESS) and Mary Philbin, but are fine. We weren’t as enamoured of these scamps as the film would like — they are bullies and cheats, and that’s just the good guys. And the adults sometimes behave implausibly to make stuff happen for the slender narrative, although that’s a sensation that feels kind of accurate to childhood experience.

The treatment of race, as the programme notes pointed out, is unusually lacking in horrible stereotyping. In a standard bit of business when someone is accidentally ensheeted and appears as a ghost, it’s one of the Black kids who CAUSES the fright, rather than being a wide-eyed victim. And the scenes of flirtation between a Black boy and girl are charming and really unusual. Generally speaking there’s humour without mockery. The Black kids are ragged and uneducated, it’s true, but they’re part of the gang, and though they’re not leaders, they appear equal with the rest.

The film’s attitude to perfect gentleman Georgie Bassett is much more troubling. He wears glasses and (horrors!) a wrist watch, so is not equipped for tumbling out of trees with the rest. He’s played by the skilful Master Newton Hall with much fey fussiness, and while the movie-makers probably don’t quite see him as an incipient pink menace, he’s clearly condemned as a sissy, someone too eager to be an adult, someone who will make everything less cool by his very presence.

The film is nevertheless charming until its abrupt conclusion: since the movie isn’t interested in reforming its enemy boys, no full resolution is possible, and ultimately there’s a sense that nothing is accomplished. But maybe that’s part of what the film is aiming for — with no narrative progression or character development, it can conjure the illusion of a golden boyhood that will go on forever.

Director William Beaudine very nearly did go on forever: his career began with some short screenplays in 1913, he started directing features in 1915. In 1943 he made THE APE MAN (his best-known title per the IMDb), so his career would seem to be in serious trouble… but he kept going, without anybody particularly appreciating him, until BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA in 1966 (last movie) and Lassie in ’69 (for TV). He died in 1970, but that didn’t stop him, as he had several posthumous releases including two features carved from episodes of The Green Hornet he had directed years previously and which had now acquired new value due to the demise of Bruce Lee. His career seems to attest to a Great Truth of Hollywood — if you just keep plugging away for fifty-six years… you might get a film festival screening of something you made during your first decade, fifty years after you’re dead.

9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitles: Fight or Flight”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    The “sissy” kids were more sycophants to the adult oppressors than anything else, often rewarded with nicer clothes and cooler toys. They also tended to be rich.

    Now and again a sissy boy would prove to be OK, having adventures with the reg’lar kids or taking on a legit bully. Street cred came with a black eye, a tattered Buster Brown suit and an amateur haircut that gave his mother the vapors.

    Sissy boys could also be little wolves, luring the gang’s sweethearts for rides in store-bought kiddie cars or dazzling them with high-class affectations. The gang would compete with dog-powered vehicles and Al Falfa in concert.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Also: The colorful Traveltalks shorts are all available from Warner Archive, with a lot of them scattered around the Internet. They were, with fleeting exceptions, shot silent and then fitted with music and narration.

    They were made before, during, and after the war (the war was passingly referenced, and for the duration the films stuck to North and South America). The narration is all over the map for accuracy, sensitivity, and sanity. The cartoon cliche “And so we bid a fond farewell” originated here.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    In Booth Tarkington’s fictions, Black characters often act as social touchstones, stripping away the protagonist’s pretensions, eg. Hattie McDaniel exposing the sham of Hepburn’s dinner in ALICE ADAMS.

  4. It’d be interesting to know if the Penrod novels do something similar. Here, since it’s a First National film, it’s the usual carnival of affectionate (but dodgy) stereotypes, though as noted, it’s largely benign and there are some unusual scenes of romance for the Black kids.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Cinema’s greatest “Sissy Boy” is George Amberson Minafer in Orson Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s masterpiece “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

    “Penrod and Sam” were adapted to “On Moonlight Bay” — a Doris Day vehicle of incalculable import to Jonathan Rosenbaum. Read his “Moving Places.”

  6. chris schneider Says:

    As far as William Beaudine is concerned … HER BODYGUARD (1933) sounds promising in a racy, Paramount sort of way. I *have* seen INCIDENT (1949), which is efficient if a tad generic (like its title). Very typical of late-‘40s low-budget crime dramas. I think that, in passing, one sees a marquee for RED RIVER. Gangsters with nicknames like “Slats” and “Knuckles.”

  7. Sounds good. I seem to recall that Three Wise Girls is good spicy fun. QUITE different from Three Smart Girls. Make Me a Star is sort of interesting, and of course there’s the Fields vehicle The Old-Fashioned Way.

    For some reason I’ve yet to see On Moonlight Bay. I must!

  8. bensondonald Says:

    “Make Me a Star” is a stunningly depressing comedy, based on the chestnut of the would-be dramatic actor being so awful he becomes a comedy star. Red Skelton did a remake using the play’s original title, “Merton of the Movies”, with barely a trace of MMAS’s cringe and pathos. Someday will have to find the play and see which way it leans.

  9. Yes, even Paramount’s zoom lens doesn’t elevate that one’s mood.

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