Flicker Alley--7 Great Flicks From Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology

In the weeks since I participated in the Flicker Alley giveaway for the three disc DVD/Blu-ray set Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology, I've spent a lot of time watching and rewatching the films in this set. Considering there are twenty-five varied entries here, from full-length films and shorts to one legendary outburst from a Dorothy Arzner flick, it's impressive to me how many of them I appreciate not just objectively, but on a personal level.

The overall message here: women do not have a single unifying characteristic as filmmakers except their sex. Their contributions to cinema have been diverse, sometimes pioneering and often worthy of celebration. They created magic in the early years of the industry and they should have been able to do so in larger numbers in the years to follow. Hopefully that will eventually be corrected in our current industry, though it cannot happen fast enough. In the meantime, there are these films to remind us of the great talents in our cinematic past.

There's a lot to unpack in this set, so I thought I'd share some of the titles that stood out for me in this amazing anthology:

Une Histoire Roulante (1906), Alice Guy-Blaché

This short consists of about two minutes of a man inside a barrel, rolling out of control over people, a high railway bridge and anything else unfortunate enough to be in his path. It feels like the birth of screen slapstick.

Suspense (1913), Lois Weber

If Guy-Blaché can be given credit for bringing physical comedy to the screen, Weber should get her laurels for creating a cinematic language for suspense films. This tensely-paced short about a young mother who is terrorized by a home-invading tramp is still terrifying over one hundred years after its debut.

La Souriante Mme. Beaudet (1922), Germaine Dulac

Combining the brutal slap of reality with a dream world of fevered speculation, this tale of a woman who despises her crude, controlling husband is both harsh and beautiful. Presenting feminist before there was a word for it, Dulac bravely presents a vision of female defiance.

The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927), Olga Preobrazhenskaia

A devastating film of heartbreaking labor, physical abuse, loyalty and lack thereof, among a group of rural women. This Soviet drama is also visually beautiful, with magically composed location photography and an intimate eye on the customs and social life of these hard living people.

The Stolen Heart (1934), Lotte Reiniger

Reiniger specialized in silhouette animation, using stop motion and cut-outs to give life to fairy tales, fables and operas. I've always been amazed how much emotion she can illicit from these cut outs, using the simplest motion and designs. Here a village is terrorized by a sort of demon who steals their musical instruments. The instruments have their own ideas though and do not accept captivity away from their owners.

A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff

Set to Modest Mussorgsky's menacing titular composition, this animated short was made using pinscreen animation. This method, for which Parker became celebrated, uses a screen in which movable pins are inserted to make different patterns. The designs, and the way they are filmed to capture different shadow effects, are unlike any other form of film animation. Here the effect is creepy and fantastical, fitting perfectly with the score.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Maya Deren

In her most famous work, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren creates a work of beauty and haunting uncertainty. She stars in this exploration of the power of a definitive moment and how it can expand into an obsession.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the collection for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: James Garner and Lee Remick in The Wheeler Dealers (1963)

Movie sexism in the sixties is often a difficult terrain to travel, no matter how much the filmmakers think they have empowered their female lead, there is inevitably a man behind any happy ending. I found much of this nature cringe about in The Wheeler Dealers, but James Garner and Lee Remick are ridiculously sexy in the lead roles and they are supported by an amusing supporting cast. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this good-looking, cheerful film is entertaining despite itself.

Remick is Molly Thatcher, a stock analyst who her boss (Jim Backus) would like to unload, but only if he can't be blamed for a sexist firing. He saddles her with selling stock at a firm he deems to be worthless, anticipating her failure. He is foiled by wealthy client Henry Tyroon who becomes infatuated with Molly and decides to help her find the value in this supposedly dying company.

Molly appreciates the help, but resists Henry, and her strong attraction to this charming supposed Texan. Turned off by the way he feels the need to control, or even buy, everything she struggles to focus on her career. She is also constantly diverted by his folksy millionaire friends, played with corny gusto by Chill Wills, Phil Harris and Charles Watts who seem harmless, but can get serious when it comes to meddling. In a pair of sly supporting roles Louis Nye and John Astin add their own complications.

There's plenty here that is pleasant to see and hear: novel situations, beautiful costumes, great performances, good zingers. Somehow not much of it sticks though. It isn't exactly shallow or lacking substance; there are some decent jabs at sexism (though it still riles me that Ms. Remick wasn't given the power to save herself), business and the absurdities of rampant capitalism. Despite the appeal of Remick and Garner they have only so-so chemistry; would this have been more memorable with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the leads? Was there ever enough at stake here to create the proper tension? Garner in his prime is enough of a draw for me, but there's something a bit too by-the-numbers about this high quality, but not quite distinctive flick.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Review--Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Filmmaker Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) drifts through the past with bittersweet grace. To attempt to describe it as a documentary is to limit the extent of its creativity. It does document the ebb and flow of life in a Yukon Territory gold rush town, but with a paint brush instead of a pencil.

The film tells two parallel stories: that of the busy and dramatically fluid history of Dawson City and of the cache of hundreds nitrate films discovered beneath the town's hockey rink. Battered excerpts from these silent discoveries, many of them thought long lost, are juxtaposed with the images of the town as it grew, thrived and faded through the years.

Dawson City is essentially a silent film, which is fitting given the vintage of the reclaimed nitrate. With Alex Somers' low-key, elegiac score as background, film clips and moving shots of photos from the town's past are allowed to speak for themselves, with text added as necessary to fill in the details. The collage of images fill in pieces of the story at a languid pace, matching the times it describes.

The town was home to many famous faces over the years, including some who would find fame in Hollywood. Theater owner Sid Grauman was a newsboy there and Marjorie Rambeaux, William Desmond and writer Wilson Mizner all had their impact on Dawson as well. There's even a photo of Charlie Chaplin, there to do location filming for The Gold Rush (1925).

Taking in the whole story of the Dawson film discovery evokes simultaneous feelings of delight and loss. The town was the end of the road for hundreds of silent films during the early days of the industry. It was expensive to ship prints and studios didn't want the battered reels once they had completed their run.

So the films were stored, until they took up too much space. Then hundreds of them were thrown in the river, while another massive pile was burned. Miraculously, over 500 more reels were saved when they were used to fill in the town swimming pool, so that putting a temporary top over it would no longer be necessary for hockey season.

There the films were preserved for decades, and many of the townspeople knew they were there, unaware of their value. Sometimes bits of nitrate would poke out of the ice and kids would set them on fire for fun. The importance of what lay under the ice was not fully understood until they were discovered by an outside party who felt such a stash deserved a better fate.

I haven't seen Morrison's 2002 tribute to the beauty of decomposing film, Decasia, but I hear fans of that film will appreciate a similar style here. This is a must see for anyone interested in film restoration and recovery. It is a mesmerizing, mysterious and deliberate work.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Killer Tree Rampage in From Hell it Came (1957)

He was buried with seeds and came back as a tree monster!

How to describe From Hell it Came (1957)? It stars an angry, creakily mobile tree. The mood: a little Wizard of Oz (1939), a lot of Robot Monster (1953) and a hint of zombie and Godzilla radiation action. That's a start, but it's better for the sanity if you don't try too hard to analyze a movie about a demonic tree. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, reportedly due to huge customer demand.

In the opening scene, tribal prince Kimo (Gregg Palmer) is executed by order of his tribal chief on a South Seas island, supposedly because he has killed a tribesman with modern medicine. In fact the chief has poisoned the man to discredit the research scientists on the island attending to the ill so that he can maintain his power. Forsaken by his wife and the tribespeople as well, before he is stabbed in the heart Kimo swears he will come back from the depths of hell to have his revenge.

While there's plenty of racism and half-hearted attempts at hula dancing in this sequence, it would be a lot more offensive if the chief didn't talk like a dude hanging around a street corner in Brooklyn. It plays like a Z-grade noir where everyone picked up the wrong costume and stumbled onto the island set.

Kimo is buried, and a new drama unfolds elsewhere on the island. Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) arrives to join the research scientists, who have been studying the effects of radioactive fallout blown to the island from a atomic explosion in a small lab. There she is immediately pawed by old acquaintance Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews), who is using the sexual harassment ploy to break down her resistance to marrying him. The good doctor is missing an opportunity in Mrs. Mae Kilgore (Linda Watkins), widow of the trading post operator, and cheerfully willing to submit to an examination.

While on a walk, Terry and Bill come upon Kimo's grave, and notice a tree with an angry face growing out of it. With no thought as to whether tampering with this odd growth is a good idea, the scientists bring the tree to the lab, where they find it has a beating heart and is oozing green goo from a knife wound. Then, in their absence, the radioactive timber comes to life and trashes the lab before escaping. Unfortunately we don't get to witness this destruction.

A friendly native tells the scientists that this isn't the first time a tree haunted with an angry spirit has gone on a violent rampage. They even have a name for it: Tobanga. While they discuss the then clearly questionable practice of burying bodies with seeds, Tobanga goes on a murderous rampage, snatching up his unfaithful wife and killing the chief.

Once you actually see the tree in action, it becomes clear why we didn't get to see it destroy the lab; it can barely move its split trunk "legs" and doesn't appear able to raise its tree branch "arms" either. In fact, much like in Robot Monster, this creature is so clumsy, slow and lacking in flexibility that it is baffling that anyone could be killed by it. To escape it, all you need to do is walk away, slowly. But these are the people continuing to plant seeds with bodies, even after all the attacks and uprooting angry-looking trees without hesitation. Walking away is plausibly a challenge for the residents of this island.

When Tobanga dumps his wife in quicksand, she not only has failed to walk away, but once in the muck she seems to be doing her best to sink under the surface. With hardly a struggle, she slowly slides into the sludge, until she sticks a bit and tucks her arm in so that she'll go all the way under.

The tree itself is a work of 'B' movie brilliance: expressionless, almost completely inflexible, but fascinating because never before, or likely never again, has there been a screen monster quite like this one. It is one of the most bizarre of the sci-fi monsters and watching it waddle around gives this stinker of a movie much of its entertainment value. Add to this a cast of amusingly inept dimwits and a leading lady who screams more like an angry monkey than a human being, and you might not have a classic, but a memorable experience nevertheless.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) at the Triple Door

Last night at the Triple Door I enjoyed my final archival screening of the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), starring John Barrymore and accompanied by the Austin, Texas-based combo The Invincible Czars.

The Barrymore films I tend to watch are from his ravaged years in the thirties, where he was still great, but not at his best, so whenever I get the opportunity to see him in his Don Juan, dashing prime, I often find myself surprised by how alive he was only a decade before. As Jekyll and Hyde he is lively and grotesque, full of mischievous energy and dangerous appetites. Like Orson Welles, you can tell how much he delights in transforming himself physically, glorying in his false nose, prosthetic fingers and horrifying skull dome, all things which could look ridiculous on a less adept performer.

This adaptation of the classic novel is not as explicitly racy as the pre-code take with Fredric March, but Barrymore makes his lascivious intentions quite clear. In some respect his Hyde's horrific behavior is not so far removed from that of Jekyll in his natural state; both are obsessed with their needs and oblivious to the damage they cause in pursuing them. It's just that one lays claim to morals and knows how to behave in high society.

It's an intense, efficiently paced film with a gut-churning forward momentum. Danger always seems imminent, giving you the feeling of trying to step on the brakes in order to relieve the unease. I think it is one of Barrymore's finest performances, because he was given the freedom to explore the extremes of these dual personalities and embrace the ugliness the actor always seemed to see within himself.

I've always believed that a silent movie score and those who perform it should not draw attention away from the film. For the most part I still feel like the music should be so intertwined with the film that you essentially forget that the musician(s) are there. However, I found myself feeling more flexible on the matter after watching this performance.

The Invincible Czars have created an unpredictable, engaging score and I enjoyed the spectacle of their performance as much as I appreciated the film. I was able to take in both, side-by-side, without feeling like I'd sacrificed much of the cinematic experience. Instead of accompaniment, it almost felt like an enhancement. I think in many cases, approaching music this way can be disrespectful to the film, but with the right title, tone and musicians, I now see how it can work.

Part of the appeal of the score was that it smoothly melded nostalgia with more modern sounds. Drifting, moody themes from composers like Satie and Debussy were woven into the band's own compositions, which focused on capturing the feel of the film in a visceral way. Manic laughter, hissing and repetitive vocalizing helped to draw out the horror on the screen.

It was an interesting experience, and a concept that could only succeed with a careful combination of elements, but it did here.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Ruan Lingyu Enchants in Love and Duty (1931)

Love and Duty (1931) is heartwrenching and it is long, so there were both sniffles and snores in the packed SIFF Uptown theater last night. The Chinese film, directed by the celebrated Wancang Bu was a hit in China upon its release, but was long thought to be lost, until a print was found in Uruguay. Now it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to a 2014 restoration. While I knew all this going into the film, I was most excited about finally getting a chance to see the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, who has been called the "Chinese Greta Garbo." I was so mesmerized by her in the trailer for the film that I thought it would be amazing to see the entire production.

Of course, Ruan is not like Garbo. You don't become a huge star by being like anyone else. On the big screen though, she has the same effect as the Swedish Sphinx. Her presence inspires a similar stunned feeling as if you are being held completely captive by her. She's got this smile that makes you feel goofy with affection and a way of making you love her even when she is cruel. Ruan brings you into her orbit.

The actress ages from her teen years to advanced middle age in Love and Duty, and you never feel a hint of artifice. None of those uncomfortably glamorous "teenagers" like you might see in the early scenes of a classic Hollywood film. In the beginning she captures the essence of youth, a mix of entitlement and high spirits. Then, she telegraphs the changes of marriage and motherhood with only a simple costume and hairstyle adjustment to aid her. She is hardened and disappointed in her arranged marriage, yet giddily in love with her children. The most stunning transformation she makes is to her later years, where even terrible, and terribly unnecessary tooth blacking doesn't undermine the stunning completeness of her transformation. When people who knew her in her youth don't recognize her, you believe it.

SIFF board member Richie Meyer introduced the film. He said that it was made at the height of the classic period of Shanghai period. That quality was evident, from the settings and costumes to the skill of the director and performers. It is a melodramatic story, meant to wrench emotion from its audience, but it is so well made, and its stars are so engaging, that you don't mind being manipulated.

After his comments, Meyer announced that the 95-year-old Chinese actress Qin Yi was in attendance. She was married to Ruan's charming co-star Yan Jin from 1947 until his death in 1983. Yi was also at the festival to promote The Beautiful Kokonor Lake, a film which she wrote, produced and starred in. That fact does not seem so surprising when you get a look at Yi, who definitely has no interest in acting her age. Aided by a translator, she shared memories of her husband and the industry, at one point looking at the audience and saying, "thank you for not forgetting." It was such an honor to see her.
Qin Yi and Jin Yan in 1947
While Love and Duty can drag, I never lost my interest. There are a lot of familiar beats to the plot, and you know the heroine will pay for her sins, but the uniformly fascinating cast keeps you engaged. Yan and Ruan star as lovers who meet as students, and are separated by her arranged marriage, but who cannot resist each other. Ruan leaves her family to pursue true love and from then on is constantly punished for it. That said, there are moments of transcendent joy in her life, moments she wouldn't have within her marriage, which leave you wondering if the suffering was worth it all.

The scenes of Yan and Ruan enjoying their blossoming romance are the best in the film. This isn't a hot and heavy affair, these two adore each other. Their chemistry reminded me of Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in Love Affair (1939) and their similarly scandalous romance. You want so much to see them thrive, despite the fact that they cause so much pain. It isn't as if the society they live in is full of innocents.

Fresh from the San Francisco Film Festival, Donald Sosin was on hand to provide keyboard accompaniment to the film. I am a huge fan of Mr. Sosin, and felt that this was a particularly great performance because he was able to so subtly match the mood of the film. It has been interesting to see him ripen as an artist in his appearances at SIFF over the past few years.

On an interesting side note, in a few scenes I was surprised to see Ruan wearing earrings that appeared to have swastikas on them. I figured there had to be another meaning to the symbol than that for which it is notorious. What I hadn't noticed was that the symbol was turned in a different direction than the Nazi version, which co-opted the original Sanskrit symbol. Apparently it is used on maps to mark Buddhist temples, which has caused enough distress for foreigners that some have suggested discontinuing its use. I was not able to find a specific meaning for the symbol in the Buddhist religion; it seems that mystery is intentional.

This film is one of several that Richie Meyer, an expert in Chinese cinema, has brought to SIFF. He also wrote an interesting book about the brief life of Ruan Lingyu, which was what piqued my interest in seeing the actress on screen.

You can learn more about the book here.

Here are my reviews of other Chinese films presented at SIFF:

The Big Road (1935)

Cave of the Spider Women (1927)

The Song of the Fisherman (1934)

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford Charm in The Rounders (1965)

Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda star as a pair of bronco riders who have gone soft in the brains, but still have hopes of making their fortune in the modern Western, The Rounders (1965), now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Ford and Fonda are Ben Jones and Howdy Lewis. They make their living breaking wild horses, often for Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills), who seems to be in the habit of talking the pair into things they know better than to do. Despite their attempts to outwit him, they appear to also find themselves frequently in debt to their employer.

Love tricks Ben and Howdy into accepting an especially wild steed, which they can't sell, and so end up putting in competition at a rodeo. At first it seems the two have finally found a way to make more than a few dollars a head, but life continues to be more complex than they can fathom.

The stars play their own neat trick of making you think they've got a great script to work with. Ford and Fonda were seasoned performers at this point in their careers. They were settled in their bones and seemingly at ease with any nugget of dialogue. So their banter is easy and amusing, and you would maybe conclude clever, but it's really these two overcoming a lot of lackluster chatter with the shine of their personalities.

Stunning locations, most of them in Arizona's Coconino National Forest do much to enhance that star power. With bright blue sky and rock formations so vivid they look manufactured, there's no getting used to this magnificent setting. I often got distracted from the action because I was gazing at the scenery.

This film isn't much of a place for the ladies. As a pair of shallow strippers the cowboys meet, Sue Ane Langdon and Hope Holiday are no more than empty-headed punchlines. As a pair of farm girls Kathleen Freeman and Joan Freeman seem to exist only to fawn over the much older Fonda and Ford.

With cutesie music straining to cue laughs and long scenes that flat line on talk about moonshine, this flick is not anyone's best moment. It is ultimately entertaining because of the easygoing charm of its stars and that gorgeous scenery.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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