Archive for Universal

The Sunday Intertitle: Der Mute Tot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2017 by dcairns

BEFORE there was Our Gang/The Little Rascals, it would seem, and before Chaplin’s THE KID, Mack Sennett tried his hand at packaging his own child-based Keystone Komedies. And no, I have no idea why the middle kid above is dressed as a Russian serf.

Three-year-old Paul Jacobs was discovered when a small boy was needed for a short, and he proved so adept that the studio started constructing stories around him. LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH was released in 1914, the first of a few one-reelers centering on “the Keystone kids.” But the whole idea got derailed when Ford Sterling was tempted away by Uncle Carl Laemmle to create his own short comedy unit at Universal, an ill-starred enterprise which ultimately led nowhere as Laemmle slashed the budgets as soon as the first few films proved underwhelming at the B.O. Little Paul/Billy had gone with Sterling (the turncoat!) and so his promising career fizzled before he lost his baby teeth.

Info comes from Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue & Terry Brewer. If you already have Simon Louvish’s Sennett bio, you need this to complete your Keystone library.

Sennett evidently remembered those bumpkin sketches in which a hayseed goes to the theatre and doesn’t realise it’s make-believe. See also the American tourist in Montmartre witnessing an Apache dance. In this case, the sprog is getting exercised over a PUPPET SHOW. He should know better, at his age.

I saw LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH on one of those DVDs that LOOKS kind of fancy owing to the covers being lovely period posters, but features fuzzy and milky and poorly-encoded transfers. Still, I pronounce the film pretty good for Keystone. The narrative is coherent and it’s not too busy, probably because the kids needed direction and couldn’t be turned loose like Sennett’s usual army of competitive pie-throwers. Since this is a Keystone film, it takes place in a nightmare world of cruelty, exploitation and violence. Since the characters in this case are kids , this seems more realistic than usual. The only token adults are a lone mom, an ice-cream vendor and a stray kop — identified by the IMDb as a svelte Edgar Kennedy in a cookie-duster mustache. I’m not convinced it’s him.

Young Mr. Jacobs is no Jackie Coogan, but who is? He’s still an adept and sympathetic performer (albeit with a slight tendency to glance off-camera for direction). The plot has bigger boys deprive him of the dime he was given to buy ice cream, so they can set up a tent show using puppets they purchase with the swag. Billy/Paul steals the B.O. takings and buys himself all the ice cream in the world. Amusingly, ice cream in 1914 was served in cardboard boxes and you ate it with your hands, apparently. Filthy business.

As is the Punch & Judy show put on by the pint-sized heavies, a wildly inappropriate melodrama featuring a lecherous “pay-the-rent” type villain in a top hat, with some serious consent issues. When the rapey glove puppet has been defeated, hero and heroine embrace and sink out of view, which also seems kind of adult for this audience. Still, they have to learn sometime.

Matt Stone & Trey Parker’s Weinstein documentary.

The emotional audience scenes — quite realistic, since the director no doubt could stand behind the camera and excite genuine reactions — makes this film a doddering ancestor of Herz Frank’s TEN MINUTES OLDER.

A happy ending sees Little Billy in possession of the full box office take and gorging himself to a state of terminal brain-freeze on all the ice-cream in the world.

Dirty Little Billy.

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Universal Truths

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2017 by dcairns

A rare misprint in the Il Cinema Ritrovato program had a Sirk masterpiece listed as ALL HEAVENS ALLOWED, which seems like a nice, tolerant approach. I don’t have any set photos from that, but two other Sirks also screen in Bologna are represented. MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is above and below.

Shock Jane Wyman appearance. You don’t usually see the stars, or anyone else, in these things. Maybe Sirk sets were so relaxed the actors just naturally didn’t want to get up and move. Jane looks pretty tranquil. Still, you never see Rock Hudson.

Here’s two from Sirk’s lesser-known THUNDER ON THE HILL. Should I see it? I bet I should. I had convinced myself I actually had seen it, but I think between SUMMER STORM and THE FIRST LEGION, which I can barely remember, I neglected it.

Some sets just look bland and generic, some seem intriguing and characterful but you can’t recall the movie using them. But this staircase from WRITTEN ON THE WIND is pretty iconic if you’ve seen the movie. That’s a staircase just made for staggering down. Seeing it like this has an uncanny quality because, unlike in the movie where it’s as much a part of the Technicolor fantasy as Lauren Bacall or Robert Stack, here it’s more like a workplace for technicians and actors. A place you could walk into, wearing your own clothes.

A Bologna moment: they projected an original Technicolor print of WRITTEN, and at one point the projector gave a hiccup and the image jounced UP, to reveal not the heads of the actors poking up from the bottom of the screen, but simply MORE IMAGE. Because Sirk was forced to compose for both widescreen and boxy TV, and shoot “open-matte” so that the top of and bottom of the squareish TV frame exist, but are masked out during cinema projection (normally). If you’ve ever seen the 1:1.33 TV ratio version, you may have found it rather distant, since Sirk was forced to basically compose wider than he preferred. This was kind of a momentary peek behind the curtain — and so are these stills, in a different way.

Holy shit, it’s Dorothy Malone! Unless it’s her stand-in. Plus a corner of what could be Rock Hudson, or Rock Hudson’s stand-in (AKA Fake Rock). Looks like Sirk’s sets really were relaxed, happy places. A film scholar once told me that he couldn’t answer my questions about how funny Sirk intended his films to be but that the important thing was, he was certain Sirk was a GREAT GUY. This struck me as weird and unsatisfactory (but pleasingly idiosyncratic). If we found out something bad about Sirk, would his films cease to be any good? What I would offer as an alternative would be that maybe Sirk channelled his work through the finest, noblest part of his personality.

No more set photos left! But more gratefully received.

The Monster Talks!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 22, 2017 by dcairns

Jack Pierce from David Cairns on Vimeo.

A find! From S. Sylvan Simon’s 1937 short subject, HOLLYWOOD SCREEN TEST, a glimpse of makeup maestro Jack Pierce at work. I’d seen photos, I think maybe I’d seen moving picture film of Pierce (Boris Karloff makeup test? The green one?) But I’d never heard him talk.

Delightful to see that Pierce’s character, as presented here anyway, is just what I’d heard — you might say “irascible.”