New DVDs 8-12-2008

Was Reginald Barker a great director? So much of his work has been lost that we’ll probably never know, but on the limited basis of “The Wrath of the Gods” (1914), “The Coward” (1915), “Civilization” (1916) and now, the excellent new edition of “The Italian” (1915) from Flicker Alley, there’s plenty of evidence that he was a formal innovator of considerable talent, who advanced the art significantly during the first years of the feature film. The Flicker Alley disc, “Perils of the New Land,” also contains George Leone Tucker’s interesting but artless “Traffic in Souls,” one of the very first American features (1913) and a selection of Edison shorts centered on New York City and its police department, turned out in tunics and armed with billy clubs. Further details here.

40 comments to New DVDs 8-12-2008

  • Enjoyed this article very much.
    Was startled to hear about all the science and technology in TRAFFIC IN SOULS. This came from an era (1909-1920), in which Scientific Detective detective stories were the rage. These prose mystery stories featured Great Scientist sleuths, who’d use the latest gizmos to unravel crimes that were themselves science based. The authors of the American tales were largely left-leaning, and provided ferocious critiques of business, government, society and corruption in their stories – as well as remarkable inside looks at industry. Some of the key authors were Arthur B. Reeve, Samuel Hopkins Adams, MacHarg & Balmer.
    Tracking down movie equivalents has (before Dave Kehr’s article) proved elusive. Reeve’s sleuth, the one time ultra-famous Craig Kennedy, appeared in the EXPLOITS OF ELAINE serials Reeve scripted around 1915. Kennedy was a Columbia University prof whose lab was bigger that MIT and Carnegie Mellon combined… Kennedy was played on screen by Broadway star Arnold Daly. Daly would soon also appear in a series of 1915 films about detective Ashton-Kirk, who was one of the first of the “genius amateur detectives who work with the police”, anticipating Lord Peter Wimsey, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Hildegarde Withers, Mr. and Mrs. North and all the rest. Have not been able to track down any of these Craig Kennedy or Ashton-Kirk movies.
    Scientific detective stories get a big boost in th eearly 1930’s with Lang’s M and TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. Soon, William Dieterle in Hollywood will make the little known FROM HEADQUARTERS (1933), with police labs, Hollerith machines for punch card databases, etc. And labs will be all over the semi-documentaries of the late 1940’s: HE WALKED BY NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT. The last two are from Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis will shoot through magnifying glasses in labs, for some memorable shots in THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and THE RIFLEMAN episode, THE BULLET.
    Today the TV series NUMB3RS features a mathematician who uses math to solve crimes each week.
    Scientific detection is one of the most important aspects of mystery fiction history. Many of the early prose works are now available for free from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere on the web. I will try to link my name to my article on scientific sleuths, which has many such download links.

  • jwarthen

    Thanks for a peek at that poster, which the color-less TIMES couldn’t show us. “Six Reels of Thrilling Realities” hints of the dereliction that moves present-day cinephiles to embrace the tv-based likes of “The Wire”

  • “Thrilling realities” and “a photo-drama of today” could be mottoes of the Scientific Detection stories of the era. They emphasized an inside look into all business, government and social institutions. Many of these portraits are still vividly uncanny and detailed. “The Man Higher Up” by MacHarg and Balmer looks corruption at the New York City Docks, and has the first use of the lie-detector in fiction. (Shades of Joseph H. Lewis’ THE BIG COMBO, and his episode of THE DETECTIVES TV series, THE HIDING PLACE, both of which also feature lie-detectors.) And the heroine of “The Man Higher Up” drives her “neat little electric coupe” around New York City. Who killed the electric car, indeed?
    Not to mention the looks inside political campaigns in Reeve’s “The Campaign Grafter”.

  • Helen

    Very interesting review. On Barker as formal innovator, his The Bargain, a 1914 William Hart western, has a memorable near 360 degree pan around the interior of a saloon. It also opens with an unusual and striking credit sequence where each principal actor is filmed full-figure in formalwear followed by a dissolve to the actor “in character,” costumed and striking a pose.

    Traffic In Souls seems a particularly fruitful text for teasing out contemporary social anxieties. There is the direct expose of urban police corruption, the indirect critique of wealthy industrialists through the stand-in of the capitalist villain masquerading as reformer, and the displaced fears about women’s changing social roles in the ‘white slavery’ plotline.

  • Thanks for the information on “The Bargain,” Helen. I haven’t seen it but I will definitely make a point to — that 360 pan is more extreme than anything in “The Italian” but the film still shows amazing visual resourcefulness, including a shot in which the main character walks into a tighter and tighter close-up to portray his anger and frustration. “The Italian” also opens with a striking framing device, showing the actor, George Beban, out of character and looking comfortably middle class, as he curls up on a couch to read a novel titled “The Italian,” and credited to the perpetually credit-hogging Thomas Ince.

  • In reference to the past discussion on cinephilia, David Bordwell has a few things to say: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2662

  • Oh, god, that Bordwell piece is depressing in so many ways.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Depressing because it has a lot of truth in it.

  • Depressing? It struck me as rather droll and affectionate. Am I missing something? (Potentially bad question, I know…)

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘that Bordwell piece is depressing in so many ways.’

    Not so depressing to me. Cinephilia is like many fan subculture, but it’s for the intellectual, and intellectual is usually proud person who doesn’t like to admit to that kind of behavior.

    The human being is bonbu in Japanese, foolish being of blind passions, blind because he can other people has them but not himself.

    Fans of other things have worse behavior, soccer fans get drunk have the big fight, that doesn’t happen with the cinephile.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    In 1920, Barker directed the first film version of Pierre Louys’s famous novel (and play) “La Femme et le pantin,” starring Geraldine Farrar as Concha (forty years later Brigitte Bardot essayed the role in Duvivier’s silly remake).The Sternberg and Bunuel versions are of course masterpieces but it would be interesting to see Barker’s should it resurface some day. It was a Diva Production (Farrar’s own outfit) for Goldwyn distribution and Barker directed five or six of those starring the producer-star.Strange and sad that all of those films have disappeared.

  • Depressing because Bordwell’s seemingly endless variants on petty cinephilic one-upmanship are so familiar and unflattering.

  • Brad Stevens

    Just read that Bordwell piece. Holy hell! Finding out that a serious (if very limited) cinema scholar has started writing the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the ‘Stuff White People Like’ website is beyond depressing. I’m tempted to say that Bordwell is turning into the poor man’s David Thomson…except that the poor man already has David Thomson.

  • Randy Byers

    Speaking of Reginald Barker, has anybody seen the Alpha Video DVD of The Moonstone? Their DVDs are often terrible, but occasionally they’re at least acceptable.

  • Junko wrote: “Fans of other things have worse behavior, soccer fans get drunk have the big fight, that doesn’t happen with the cinephile.”

    Years ago, at a screening of Argento films I was attending, I watched a fellow cinephile pour his large cup of soda on top of an audience member who would not stop snickering after being asked to stop. The applause was deafening.

  • Oh come now, Bordwell’s piece isn’t nearly so vacuous as your average Thomson “look what I just figured out!” thumbsucker. No, it’s not particularly nourishing either, but it’s not really meant to be. I took it as Bordwell’s own variant on what they used to call a “casual piece” at The New Yorker. Are serious scholars not permitted to do that sort of thing?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I watched a fellow cinephile pour his large cup of soda on top of an audience member who would not stop snickering after being asked to stop.’

    Yes, this can happen but not in Japan because drinks isn’t allowed in the theater, food either. Different custom.

    At UCLA screening of MORROCCO one man told other audience member ‘Shut up’ because that audience member was snickering too much. But there wasn’t the fist fight.

    At festival screening sometimes I’ve heard the audience member say something loud to the movie or filmmaker. Once I heard someone say to filmmaker ‘Assassin of the cinema’. Anyway, rude behavior at screening can be by anybody so hard to tell if it was the cinephile.

  • Junko wrote: “At UCLA screening of MORROCCO one man told other audience member ‘Shut up’ because that audience member was snickering too much. But there wasn’t the fist fight.”

    The most absurd story I ever heard about a fist fight during a movie was when two friends of mine went to see the 3-D version of “Kiss Me Kate” at, I beleive, the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. Apparently an audience member kicked over a cup of Coke belonging to the person next to him during a dance number. The guy responded by kicking over the soda of the offending party. Both of them then got up from their seats and began to punch one another, all while my friend sat behind them with his 3-D glasses on! My friends said it was the best 3-D they had ever seen.

    Tom Gunning told me that he was once watching films at a grind house in NYC and overheard the following: “hey man, I am sorry I pissed on your wife!”

    Finally, at a theater I was managing in Florida, a 90 year old woman died during the end credits of “My Dog Skip”. She said she liked the movie and then sudenly collapsed.

    No more theater going stories, I promise.

  • correction: The guy responded by kicking over the soda of the offending party. Both of them then got up from their seats and began to punch one another, all while my friends sat behind them with their 3-D glasses on! My friends said it was the best 3-D they had ever seen.

  • Ben

    That Bordwell piece is funny! And it’s meant to be amusing. Can’t a scholar have some fun too?

  • David Boxwell

    Any actual HOMICIDAL cineMANIACS on record?

  • You may be through with theater-going stories, Michael Worall, but not me…oh, wait, I’ve only really got the one.

    Plaza Theater, Paterson New Jersey, Fall of 1980. I’ve finally convinced my girlfriend to come with me to my local movie theater to see “Humanoids From the Deep.” Midway through the picture, a knife fight breaks out a couple of rows ahead of us. Amidst the ostentatious but hardly lethal slashings, many profane imprecations are heard. Midway through the brawl, one of the participants pauses, and, with complete sincerity, says to my girlfriend, “Scuse the language, miss.”

  • Mr. Kenny, are you trying to one-up me?! ;)

  • Herman Scobie

    The day MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE opened in Manhattan, my wife and I were waiting in a long ticket-holders’ line on the upper west side. A gentleman became angry because the screening was sold out and began hitting a theater employee. Five minutes after we were seated, said gentleman casually strolled down the aisle. Have never figured out how he made it in.

  • Joe

    About 10 or so years ago, I attended an advance screening of “The Five Heartbeats” which had the most unusual audience. Half appeared to be lesbians and the other half male body builders. A baby was in the audience, cooing – you know, making baby sounds – and at first, everyone thought it was sweet. But 20 minutes into the film, people were yelling, “Get that kid out of here!” Finally, a hulking guy got up, with said baby under his arm like a sack of flour, and walked up the aisle, cursing the audience. As he passed me, I was foolish enough to say, “I think you’re doing the right thing.” I thought I was giving him a vote of confidence. He disagreed. He asked if someone “would hold my kid while I take care of this guy.” Someone in the audience actually volunteered. Just as he was about to hit me, the security people in the back of the theater intervened and pulled him away. But that didn’t stop his buddy, who appeared out of nowhere and punched me in the mouth. To my ever astonishment, I instinctively swung back. Can’t remember if I hit him. Even more astonishing, I didn’t lose any teeth. Afterward, my wife reminded me that I got off lucky. “People are crazy,” she said. “He could have had a knife or guy.” Now, I keep quite during any movie disturbance. And much to my chagrin, “The Five Heartbeats” is burned in my brain – forever.

  • Joe

    “He could have had a knife or guy” in previous post should, of course, read, “He could have had a knife or gun.”

  • Brad Stevens

    I recall attending a screening of James B Harris’ excellent COP (1987). At one point in the film, James Woods is seen having sex with a woman in the latter’s kitchen. As soon as this scene begins, a guy sitting maybe 4 or 5 seats away from me starts going “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh”. He keeps this up until the scene ends, then abruptly stops. Later in the film, another sex scene begins, and the guy starts doing his “uh-oh” routine again. He sounded just like Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN (which wouldn’t be released until the following year). I sat through the rest of the film dreading the appearance of another sex scene, but fortunately that was it.

  • Joe, I rather like the idea that he could have had “a guy.” I dunno why. Brad, that sounds like pretty much the creepiest thing ever.

  • jbryant

    Joe – that guy hit you harder than you thought: The Five Heartbeats opened 17 years ago. :)

    I liked that movie actually; I even bought the soundtrack. Got the DVD, too, but I haven’t watched it yet. So I don’t know if those 17 years have been kind.

  • Joe

    jbryant– 17 years! Jeez. That long ago. As one ages, one has the tendency to forget certain years and compress time. Nevertheless, I still say “ouch!” whenever I think of that film. I had to sit through it twice. Given the first performances was interrupted, Fox screened again the next day for me, forcing me to relive every moment.

  • Helen and Dave Kehr’s observations about credits, character transformations and framing devices in “The Bargain” and “The Italian” give rise to reflection. Barker made an early talkie of George M. Cohan’s stage play “Seven Keys to Baldpate”. One does not want to “spoil” this work’s numerous plot surprises, but it is one of the most Pirandellian of all plays, in its strange treatment of its characters, and in the framing devices it uses. Perhaps this is what attracted Barker to the material.

  • Have just read the umpteenth article calling “The Dark Knight” a “superhero” movie. As a comic book historian, am registering dissent. Batman is NOT a superhero. He has no superpowers. He is an ordinary human being, who uses technological gimmicks to fight crime. The same is mainly true of Spiderman, Ironman, and other current Hollywood crazes. Batman is more properly classified as a “costumed crime fighter”. There are quite a few of these in comic book history. They wear masks and have secret identities – but no have no superpowers. Green Arrow, Air Wave and the left-wing 1940’s hero The Whip are probably the best.
    My two favorites of current comic book movies, “Superman Returns” and “Fantastic Four”, are genuine superheroes. So was the short-lived 1980’s TV series “Misfits of Science”. But mainly, current Hollywood has little interest in most of the real superheroes. Superhero comic books have a rich, vast cultural legacy. Actual comic books are full of imaginative, creative stories. Little of this is reaching the multiplex. One wishes this cultural heritage were better understood and loved.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Actual comic books are full of imaginative, creative stories. Little of this is reaching the multiplex. One wishes this cultural heritage were better understood and loved.’

    A little bit different in Japan. Being comic book expert you must know about manga. Manga is read by everyone, special manga for different reader. Manga can be bought from vending machine even because so popular.

    There’s the two movie series LONE WOLF AND CUB and was also the TV show. Obayashi Nobuhiko made 30 volume manga SHIMAIZAKA (1985) in one movie. Many movies and TV shows from manga exist.

    Japan has the special manga culture like in America (in Europe too?), but different from America because everyone of all kinds reads manga, but in America seems mainly the young man and teenager reads comic book.

  • My favorite Japanese manga (long Japanese comic books for general readers) is “Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President”, by Kaiji Kawaguchi. This describes an imaginary version of the 2000 US presidential race, in which a Japanese-American senator runs for office. It is fascinating, and would be enjoyed, one suspects, by everyone on this discussion. It is a bit long (2000 pages) but fast paced.
    Friends tell me that The Kindaichi Case Files (Kinda’ichi Shōnen no Jikenbo) is an excellent detective manga. I keep meaning to track down and read this. It has reportedly sold over 60 million volumes in Japan, and adapted into both live action and animated (anime) TV series and movies.
    Comics are enormously diverse. They are aesthetically very rich. Not everyone is happy with the painfully limited approach of some recent Hollywood comic book movies.

  • Junko wrote: “There’s the two movie series LONE WOLF AND CUB”

    Many Americans, including myself, were introduced to LONE WOLF AND CUB via SHOGUN ASSASSIN which was actually two of the LONE WOLF films edited into one feature and was, of course, dubbed. The mini-series “Shogun” was very popular on American TV, so Roger Corman seized an opportunity and thus the film was born.

    I have one seen two entries of the LONE WOLF AND CUB series, which I found to be very dull and talky between the attractions.

  • ahhh, “one” should read “only”

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I have one seen two entries of the LONE WOLF AND CUB series, which I found to be very dull and talky between the attractions.’

    Yes, the series was not so interesting but I mention because it’s well known in the West. One or two movies was a little interesting to see, but manga was more visual than movies.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘My favorite Japanese manga (long Japanese comic books for general readers) is “Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President”, by Kaiji Kawaguchi. This describes an imaginary version of the 2000 US presidential race, in which a Japanese-American senator runs for office. It is fascinating, and would be enjoyed, one suspects, by everyone on this discussion.’

    I think so too. This is good series of much interest.

    ‘Friends tell me that The Kindaichi Case Files (Kinda’ichi Shōnen no Jikenbo) is an excellent detective manga. I keep meaning to track down and read this. It has reportedly sold over 60 million volumes in Japan, and adapted into both live action and animated (anime) TV series and movies.’

    Some movies of Det. Kina’ichi was directed by Ichikawa Kon that should be seen in the West. Next Ichikawa retrospective curator should ask for some of these movies to be shown. INUGAMIKE NO ICHIZOKU first version should be seen, also remake because it’s his last film.

  • Junko, thanks for confirming that the LONE WOLF series is not so interesting. Since I had only seen two, I thought perhaps I may have seen weaker contributions to the series and should have taken a further look.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Surviving remnants of George Loane Tucker’s films also include brief fragments from “The Miracle Man” (1919)that show Lon Chaney vividly portraying a fake cripple in a faith healing scam — a key piece of work in his development into the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” This material appears on Kino’s DVD of “The Penalty.”