Archive for The Patriot

The 4th of July Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by dcairns

Happy Americaday!

I thought I’d look at DW Griffith’s AMERICA, as it seemed like both a good source of intertitles and a good patriotic American movie. After watching five minutes of it, however, I revised my plans and thought I’d look at it while drunk. One large vodka and tonic later (I’m a total lightweight), I thought I’d stop looking at it and write this.

I’ve long had a theory that Americans don’t like movies about the American Revolution. Actually, that’s not a theory, it’s a fact — from AMERICA to High Hudson’s wretched REVOLUTION to Mel “Mr Sensitive” Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, films dealing with this conflict have proved, slightly weirdly, even less popular than those detailing the current middle eastern embroilments. OK, so my actual theory is that Americans don’t respond to those films because they’re bored of hearing about the subject in school. At least the Civil War has a tang of controversy about it, especially if Griffith is the one revising the history. And if the filmmaker isn’t a bona fide racist nut, then you have the entertainment value of watching them tiptoe on eggshells for fear of offending the red states.

But my theory collapses slightly in the face of the fact that AMERICA, like Hudson’s snore-o-rama epic and Gibson’s British-as-Nazis exercise in bellowing understatement, is quite a weak film. Of course, my copy comes from the Killiam collection and hence has a weird voice-over declaiming woodenly all over it, which enhances the flavour of the history class which imbues the  proceedings. So that doesn’t help. But the movie is dramatically leaden and devoid of the passion which animates BIRTH OF A NATION, which at least had on it’s side the fact that Griffith was anxious to convince his audience of something. Here, universal agreement is guaranteed from the outset. Though ironically, this version is a restoration of a film available for years only in a “British” version, produced by Griffith for UK distribution, which omitted the more severe attacks on George IV III and the Brits. Typical of Griffith, a man who made anti-war films in peacetime and propaganda films in wartime. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others.”

So no theory of scholastic overkill is needed to explain AMERICA’s failure at the box office. Still, on a kitsch level I enjoyed the way George Washington was introduced as a periwig rising majestically over the back of an armchair. Such reticence reminds me of the treatment of Christ in BEN HUR, or the way some Indian audiences were reluctant to see Gandhi played by a flesh-and-blood actor. One concerned citizen wrote to Sir Richard Attenborough suggesting that the great-souled one might be portrayed by a moving light. Sir Dickie did not follow this thoughtful advice: “I’m afraid I wrote back saying I’m making GANDHI, not bloody Tinkerbell.”

Later in the movie, David Wark Griffith overcomes the scattershot schoolroom approach of the opening mass of expoz, and gets a bit of drama going by falling back on old tricks. Not content with an entire nation of dandified fops to traduce, Dave forges a satanic bond between the Brits and the American Indians. You can sense his confidence growing once he has a proper crew of dusky-hued rapists as bad guys. The climax shamelessly reruns the eleventh-hour rescue from BIRTH, with redskins insread of blackskins. Wicked Captain Walter Butler (a nubile Lionel Barrymore) is shown cavorting with half-dressed Indian gals who kiss his boots in fawning ecstasy. It’s fascinating how reactionary rage can be stoked by scenes of taboo sexuality, forming a seething cocktail of anger and erotic response…

All of which seems an entirely appropriate way to celebrate today. Doesn’t it?

Lost and Gone

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by dcairns

I sort of miscounted and the film preservation blogathon For the love of Film ends today, but I have a few mini-posts left. I shall issue them over the coming week, since I don’t have time to write other things to keep the blog going this week if I posted them all today. But this is the important one — trailers for lost movies. These little peripheral pieces are all that survives of the original films — or almost (see below).

I don’t know anything about IN THE DAYS OF DANIEL BOONE, but it looks pretty spiffy. What I call an epic!

THE SILENT FLYER also stars a bunch of no-name actors, at least for modern viewers, but it’s canine star is the biggest challenger to Rin Tin Tin, a handsome hound called Silver Streak, who starred in his own rival set of movies in parallel with Rinty’s career. The knock-off dog looks pretty good, although we don’t see him filling a canteen or unlacing his booties, as Rinty does in CLASH OF THE WOLVES. But the makers compensate for their Alsatian protagonist’s lack of versatility with a string of Thrilling Action Climaxes —

See! The Fistfight with a FatMan!

See! The sleighride to mayhem!

See! The rather nifty ice-yacht! Seriously, I want one. Wait, the blew it up? Aw nuts.

THE AMERICAN VENUS opens with a series of recommended vital statistics, proving that body fascism is not a new phenomenon, and that it even predates the other kind. It’s Louise Brooks’s first credited role, and this is all we have of it. Also Esther Ralston, who was very big, and who also starred in a Von Sternberg lost film, THE CASE OF LENA SMITH (a tiny fragment of this one survives). Maybe if these films survived, Esther would be a bigger name today.

I’ve seen a very funny interview with ER where she goes on at length about how Dorothy Arzner had her doing lots of “inappropriate” sexy stuff in TEN MODERN COMMANDMENTS. This in a documentary called THE SILENT FEMINISTS.

“Filmed on the same sweeping scale as BEAU GESTE –” the trailer for BEAU SABREUR wants to tell us that it’s basically exactly the same film, but can’t quite work up the courage. VERY early Gary Cooper, plus fellow Sternberg people William Powell (who had a clause placed in his contract after making THE LAST COMMAND, stipulating that he would never be asked to work with Josef Von S. again) and Evelyn Brent. The director is given as “John Waters,” but we shouldn’t expect to see Gary Cooper eating dog shit or William Powell getting raped by a crustacean. Different guy. Somehow Waters the 1st got sidelined into 2nd unit work later in life, contributing to DAVID COPPERFIELD, NINOTCHKA, THE BIG COUNTRY… Gary Cooper meanwhile went on to even greater stardom as a talking star, even taking the lead in a legit version of BEAU GESTE (directed by William Wellman, who made a star out of Coop by casting him in WINGS just a year before this missing minor masterwork).

Saving the best for last — THE PATRIOT is one of many lost Lubitsch films, including even a few Hollywood ones. But this one stars Emil Jannings! The trailer is fantastically useful and interesting, as well as heart-breaking, because it shows a more active and probing camera style, likely influenced by Murnau and THE LAST LAUGH, and unlike what we see in other Lubitsch films.

This is the movie that’s a weeny bit less lost than the others. Because there’s a good chance you’ve seen bits of it — as stock footage in Sternberg’s THE SCARLET EMPRESS. Sternberg writes that Lubitsch not only wasn’t aware of the swiped material, but in his capacity as Paramount boss (a job Uncle Lube didn’t last in for long), he castigated Sternberg for spending so much on these extravagant crowd scenes. Sternberg, perverse in all things, did not point out the source of the material. He also liked Lubitsch, but never told him this. (All this info comes from Sternberg’s magnificent autobio, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. You are free to disbelieve it.)

The one thing I’m left wondering though is whether the spectacular torture montage at the start of EMPRESS is original, or from THE PATRIOT, or from elsewhere? It’s an eye-popping sequence of explicit sadistic pornography, astonishing even by pre-code standards, and the temptation naturally is to attribute it to Sternberg, but I’m really not sure.

That’s Maria Riva, Dietrich’s real daughter, and biographer, playing her as a young girl (why does her accent change from American to German when she grows up? Futile to ask questions of this kind). and the harness she has to wear for a year is (a) part of the film’s continuous equine imagery, a sly reference to Catherine the Great’s rumoured demise in the throes of passion with a stallion, and (b) autobiography, as you can learn in Sternberg’s book. His arms were tied to his sides for a year, he says, to stop him scratching the flea bites on his scalp.

“Hear and see THE PATRIOT — and know how great a motion picture can be.”

But we CAN’T.

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The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]