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New DVDs: Douglas Fairbanks

The independent DVD publisher Flicker Alley has been the source of some of the most interesting and carefully produced editions of silent movies in the marketplace today, and the company’s new box set, Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer, is perhaps the company’s finest so far. The five disc collection includes ten features and one short, tracing Fairbanks’s development from his first films for Triangle (“His Picture in the Papers,” 1916) though his first costume swashbuckler, the 1920 “The Mark of Zorro.” Fairbanks was perhaps the first star to emerge from the new feature-length format that developed around 1912, taking advantage of the longer running times to develop his character — a bright young American, fired up by athletic energy and a sense of self-determination — beyond the broadly drawn, burlesque figures of the one and two-reel comedies of the nickelodeon era. The centerpiece of the collection is Allan Dwan’s 1917 “A Modern Musketeer,” a film thought to exist only in an incomplete form until the missing reels were discovered in the collection of the Danish Film Institute. Newly restored, and with a first rate score by Rodney Sauer’s Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra, the film turns out to be another thrilling demonstration of Dwan’s early mastery of continuity editing, which by this point had surpassed Griffith’s. My review for the New York Times is here.

279 comments to New DVDs: Douglas Fairbanks

  • Jim Gerow

    Wow, FILMING OTHELLO on youtube. I haven’t seen it since it played at the Public Theater some time in the 80s. Let’s hope Beatrice Welles doesn’t find out about this.

    As for silent films, I like what Kent said in introducing a screening of Sternberg’s LAST COMMAND recently, “Let’s hear it for 1928.” I would add THE LODGER, SEVEN CHANCES, UNDERWORLD and LONESOME off the top of my head to what’s already been mentioned, and put in a word for one of Ozu’s lesser-known silents, the fascinating genre film DRAGNET GIRL.

  • Kent Jones

    Jim, DRAGNET GIRL and WOMAN OF TOKYO are both extraordinary films.

    Dave, I now realize that the ending of CASTAWAY you describe is the only one I ever saw. I had no idea that he’d cut it.

    Stephen, I have not looked at CONTACT again. I remember it as an extremely flawed but haunting film. I too am a big fan of AFTERGLOW, a beautifully loose-limbed and soulful movie.

  • Stephen Cone

    Kent, I too have been haunted by CONTACT, especially coming from a background as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, but this latest viewing I felt like Jodie Foster almost single-handedly derailed the film with her performance. She’s trying so hard, working so hard at being noble, at telegraphing her struggle, and when you can see the effort – and with her you see it often – it’s really problematic, for me at least. But the final moment on the cliff, along with similarly introspective moments, is very moving.

    Come to think of it, there is something very similar about the way her body shakes ever so vulnerably in the ship and Hanks being thrown about the plane. Man and machine.

    I missed Dave’s comment on that original CAST AWAY ending (isn’t it two words in the credits? I remember the words fading up separately). Adds to my belief that that movie was something of a fluke for Hollywood. I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall during some of those exchanges, which surely must’ve included comments like, “Okay, we’ll let you not have music the first hour if there’s a smiling volley ball.”

    Or maybe not.

    In any case, no music or dialogue for long stretches, a boldly detached final half hour and he doesn’t get the girl, and may or may not get another one. Wonderful.

    Dave, I always enjoy your writing on Zemeckis but have never come across a full-length appreciation, if there ever was one (which I seem to think there was – Film Comment archives?). Is one available? I’m hot and cold on him, but do find him a fascinating creative (and technological) artist.

  • CONTACT is notable as a recent film that recognizes the central role that science, technology, and scientific thinking play in all our lives. It’s not perfect – but it’s a fascinating film experience.

  • Tony Williams

    Thank you all for silent “food for thought.” I believe the Boiograph shorts may be better than most Griffith but have thought of BROKEN BLOSSOMS to begin with. His features do represent an “acquired taste”. The Harold Lloyd films look good and I shall now move on to the DVD Murnau, Borzage and Fox thread that has just opened for more stimulation.

    I would have given this issue more thought in Summer but I was incredibly busy so must reflect further during the Winter Break.

    Thank you all again.

  • Dave, that is a great Godard quote (“Whenever a great film becomes popular, it’s because of a misunderstanding.”). It’s an idea I’ve been trying to express with regard to THE SOPRANOS and, perhaps, MAD MEN.

    But, there’s always the possibility of the counter-counter-reading. For about half of Sirk’s run at Universal I think he fails at his deconstructionism for one reason or another — Lana Turner’s performance and the soapy script in “Imitation of Life,” for instance, or the fact that “There’s Always Tomorrow” becomes genuinely poignant at a certain point. In those cases, I’d agree with an audience that “misinterprets” the films as sentimental.

    Brian, I like your Oscar Wilde quote, too. Why is cynicism preferable to sentiment? Because it’s closer to life, of course! At least, life the way I see it. I have a cinephile friend who prefers MGM musicals to film noir and, I mean, it’s barely possible for us to communicate.

  • John M

    Dave, if memory serves, the ending Zemeckis ended up with for CASTAWAY did include that attractive Texas sculptor in a pickup truck. But she then left him, sort of re-engergized, at a crossroads, to find his way. In this particular instance, the director cuts the cake both ways: Hanks is at a crossroads, but has just met a very attractive fall-back option. So we the audience don’t feel too worried when the credits roll.

    I’ve really enjoyed seeing Zemeckis’s films on the big screen, but when I catch them again later on cable, something always seems off. CONTACT was kind of a thrill when I saw it on a massive scale, but when I saw it years later, it was hard to get past all the cringe-inducing scenes involving Matthew McConaughey and his Buddhist-Evangelical-Secular-Astrophysicist Guru character. I agree with Stephen that, sadly, that one just doesn’t hold up.

    Maybe you wrote it somewhere in this thread, Dave, but where could I find your article on Zemeckis? I’d love to read it.

  • Brian Dauth

    Stephen: Sentiment is necessary as an urge to look at/hold onto the past (in all its variety) and personal/cultural ideologies. Realism/cynicism is needed to look at the present situation.

    Sentiment minus the leavening of realism/cyncism devolves into sentimentality. Realism/cyncism without the balance of sentiment decays into misanthropy.

    For me, great aesthetic experiences interweave and balance the two, and I would call up Billy Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID as the first witness for the defence.

  • Interesting … but, you say misanthropy like it’s a bad thing.

    KISS ME STUPID is one of my favorite movies, too.

  • Brian Dauth

    Stephen: But can misanthropy ever be fabulous? If not, can something never capable of fabulousity ever be a good thing?

    The scene in the trailer between Polly the Pistol and Zelda Spooner is the perfect mix of sentiment and realism that Wilder pulls off like no one else when he is at his best (of course, the entire movie leading up to that moment is sweetly/exactingly modulated and serves as the perfect preamble to that moment).

  • My magnum opus on Zemeckis was in Film Comment circa December, 1994, but I’ve written quite a bit on him over the years. The ending of “Cast Away,” with or without the sculptress, stands as fairly typical of Zemeckis: the hero, having finally completed his quest or realized his deepest desire, is left standing alone, empty handed and spectacularly unfulfilled. The edge of “Contact” comes from RZ’s consistent undermining of the New Age values espoused by the McConaughey character, whom RZ dislikes just as much as you do, John. From the first act, in which we find that the long-awaited message from an alien intelligence is in fact an Adolph Hitler speech that has been bouncing around the universe, to the climax when it turns out that all of the Foster character’s cosmic longing is only the result of a childhood neurosis (in other words, that “outer space” is only projection of inner space), the film consistently undercuts the mysticism espoused by the McConaughey character as well as so much recent science-fiction (in the cinema, at least).

    When “The Polar Express” came out, a reviewer for a major daily jumped all over it because she thought the North Pole finale looked like a Leni Riefenstahl film — as if Zemeckis weren’t perfectly aware of that! His films are invariably more complex, knotty, and self-contradictory than most critics give him credit for, eager as they are to stuff him into tidy genre categories. And if there is one thing that the history of American film criticism should teach us, it’s not to underestimate genre directors. Believe it or not, Bob Zemeckis has actually seen “Triumph of the Will,” too.

  • James L. Neibaur

    This thread’s various tangents have been most interesting. I never gave Zemeckis a lot of attention. I know he is Eddie Deezen’s favorite director, and I have found many of the films entertaining, but some of the comments here have inspired me to give a few of his films a second (or third) look. I like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and was superficially amused by the Back To The Future series (especially the third one), but the substance so clearly observed by so many of you had escaped me. Yes indeed, a most interesting thread.

  • alex hicks

    Mike Ghrost,

    No essential silent films by Pabst?

  • Alex Hicks,
    I am so ignorant about Pabst. Have only seen Pandora’s Box, which I did not enjoy.
    By the way, the list was entitled “Suggestions”. Bet there are hundreds of silent film masterpieces I’ve never seen. Wish other people would make systematic suggestions about the silent era. Jonathan Rosenbaum has a major list of his favorite 1000 movies; it’s terrific.
    Wish ALL film historians would do the same.

  • James L. Neibaur

    at Mike Grost’s request — suggestions of essential silent films to consider for an introductory course on the era:

    beginnings to 1920
    The Great Train Robbery (Porter)
    Le Voyage dans la lune (Melies)
    Musketeers of Pig Alley (Griffith)
    Kid Auto Races at Venice (Chaplin)
    Gertie the Dinosaur (McKay)
    Traffic in Souls (George Loane Tucker)
    Strekoza i muravey (Starewicz)
    An Arizona Wooing (Tom Mix)
    The Bell Boy (Arbuckle)
    Broken Blossoms (Griffith)

    Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Weine)
    The Kid (Chaplin)
    Potemkin (Eisenstein)
    Der Letze Mann (Murnau)
    Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
    The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
    The Black Pirate (Parker)
    The Strong Man (Capra)
    Mat (Pudovkin)
    The General (Keaton)
    The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde)
    Underworld (von Sternberg)
    Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (Pabst)
    La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Dreyer)
    The Crowd (Vidor)
    Spione (Lang)
    Plane Crazy (Disney/Iwerks)
    Big Business (Horne, McCarey)

  • Alex Hicks

    On silents: Mike, James L. Neibaire suggest just the Pabst I most like, Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney. (I do like Lulu though, so are tatse might well differ on Pabts.)

    On Zemeckes: Dave, how much do you think last two depend on 3-D – indeed, IMAX 3-D? I” a big Polar express fan from seeing it in IMAX 3-D, but found the film pretty, well generally flat on TV. I was eager to se “Beowulf” in I IMAX 3-D but haven’t been keen on arrnanginga non-3-D viewing. Of course, saying a film “depends” on 3-D may seem like a slight (as well as poor diction); but I do recall “Polar Express” in IMAX 3-D as a GREAT experience in formal cinematic excitement — as exhileratiNG in its way as I always find, say, Potempkin and Ivan the Terrible.

  • Tony Williams

    Thanks James, but one must remember the 15 week structure of a semester and (as JP recognized) what films would be appreciated by a young audience who have never seen silent films before (let alone b/w) so that they can move on to more challenging works as well as understand the Victorian morality in WAY DOWN EAST? As enthusiasts, we must remember that most students do not have our historical background and viewing tradition, so these mundane pedagogical issues need to be considered.

    To add to this thread’s “tangent” qualities, I must now admit I saw GREASE 2 last night after deciding to explore challenging uncharted territory.

    No, “I contradict myself” as Burton says in BITTER VICTORY. I was fatigued by grading papers so wished for some light relief.

    However, I was pleasantly surprised. The choreography was great and the subversiveness of “Reproduction” where horrified teacher Tab Hunter reacted against the heterosexual nuances of this musical number he would certainly not regard as “gay” provided much enjoyment as well as the over-the-top performance of Adrian Zmed as leader of the T-Birds who was much better than Travolta. Add to the brew, the patriotic musical number of seduction in the bomb shelter, the great Eve Arden, cute Didi Conn, and the relegation of awful Eddie Deezen to just a few shots, and one has a marginalized work perhaps much better than the original apart from the last 15 minutes where everyone became swamped in over-excessive choreography.

    Anyway, here are my thoughts as I briefly escape from grading and perhaps later face a cinematic penance tonight by watching Dryer in atonement for my “guilty pleasure.”

  • James L. Neibaur

    Tony —
    These were merely general suggestions among silents you might consider, not structured for a 15 session course. I have had good success with most of them in similar classes.

    How you can you call my buddy “awful” ??

  • Tony Williams

    Your “buddy” grates on me in the same way Jerry Lewis grates on most audiences and I like Jerry. Eddie in 1941 was just too much for me to take.

  • James,

    This is a fascinating list.
    I’ve never seen:
    Traffic in Souls (George Loane Tucker)
    Strekoza i muravey (Starewicz)
    An Arizona Wooing (Tom Mix)
    The Bell Boy (Arbuckle)
    The Black Pirate (Parker)
    Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (Pabst)
    Plane Crazy (Disney/Iwerks)
    Big Business (Horne, McCarey)

    Winsor McCay was a great comic strip artist, with Little Nemo in Slumberland. But I’ve never been able to enjoy his animated films. They are not offensive – but I just can’t get into them. I know much less about animation than most of the scholars on this site.
    These film suggestions offer a lot to explore.

    Your generous comments on Grease 2 are really appreciated. It’s a very charming film, and you are being a real gentleman to say so! The choreography really is wonderful: a real visual treat.

    To both of you,
    I like Eddie Deezen!

  • James L. Neibaur

    I just read Jerry Lewis is finally getting an Oscar this February. Please do not call me a sissy for weeping as a type this.

    Eddie Deezen is one of my best friends, actually. I hear from him almost daily. And in real life he is remarkably like the characters he plays. Terrific person.

    Mike —
    Traffic deals with the white slavery market, which is pretty heady for a 1913 production. Strekoza i muravey is a Russian animated short that is quite ahead of its time. My inclusion of McKay is representative of early animation, when it was so terribly primitive. Pictures that move was fascinating enough, but imagine how people reacted to a line drawing that moved. Plane Crazy is, I think, Disney’s finest animated short of the silent era. Jeanne Ney is my candidate for quintessential Pabst. The Bell Boy is filled with brilliant comic visuals, especially the remarkable barber sequence where Arbuckle turns a customer into Abraham Lincoln, Kaiser Wilhelm, and General Grant by cutting his hair and beard in different ways. The Black Pirate is not only Fairbanks at his best, but a good example of color cinema during its infancy. I think Arizona Wooing, a short subject, is a solid, compact silent western that is a portent for the genre. And Big Business is Laurel and Hardy at their most wonderfully destructive.

    I have to catch up with Grease 2.

  • Tony Williams

    This is great news about Jerry. It is long overdue.

    As for Eddie, you may be right but I think he is an acquired taste and I admit that I do not have the required cinematic gourmet sensibility.

  • Kent Jones

    James, PLANE CRAZY is the first Mickey Mouse film. It’s preceded by all the Alice shorts.

  • James L. Neibaur

    Kent —
    Yeah, I know. I called it the finest (not the first) of Disney’s animated silent shorts, as I think it better than the Alice series.

  • Kent Jones

    Sorry James, my mistake. THE BARN DANCE and THE SKELETON DANCE are both pretty good too, I think. So, for that matter, is STEAMBOAT WILLIE.

  • James L. Neibaur

    Agree on all counts, Kent. I think of the early color talkies I may like The Band Concert best. But for silents, there is so much historical significance to Plane Crazy, and it is so filled with wild ideas, I would have to choose that for an introductory course on silent era cinema.

  • Kent Jones

    THE BAND CONCERT is just out of this world.

  • I’m very fond of two-color Technicolor too. That’s partly the reason that such features as THE TOLL OF THE SEA and REDSKIN are on my list. The two-color scene with Bebe Daniels in THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL (De Mille) is also the best part of that movie, IMHO. TCM also shows an interesting two-color live-action short, THE FLAG. My detective hero gets involved in a two-color racing film, in one of my mystery short stories (it’s available for free on my web site). The story is called BANNING THE BLUES. In the movie, the hero drives a red race car, his rival a green car…

    On Arbuckle: have only seen a few of his shorts. THE GARAGE and AT CONEY ISLAND are fun. His comeback feature, THE RED MILL, is shown on TCM. It is unexpectedly graceful and fresh.

    On Pudovkin: He is clearly talented. But the best film seen here purely as a movie, STORM OVER ASIA, suffers from bigotry against Buddhists. You know me: I just can’t swallow this sort of stuff. We need a film that is cinematically as good as STORM, but which is prejudice-free. More research…

  • James L. Neibaur

    Mike –
    For the Arbuckle films from that period (for his own Comique productions) I would recommend MOONSHINE along with the afore-mentioned THE BELL BOY. However this is Arbuckle’s strongest period, and there is something significant in each of the films he made during this time (1917-1919), not the least of which is Buster Keaton’s apprenticeship in screen comedy. There is also a really good book about the films Arbuckle and Keaton made together (!)

    Prejudicial elements in older films can indeed be disturbing, but taken within their historical context, also worthy of deeper discussion as to the period in which they were made.