The Dwan Patrol

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I’ll be attending Il Cinema Ritrovato, the wonderful archival festival sponsored by the Cineteca di Bologna, from Friday, June 28 to Sunday, July 7, where I’m helping out with the programming and presentation of a tidy little Allan Dwan series (if I do say so myself). We’ll be showing films from all of Dwan’s several major periods, from a collection of his early one-reelers on Sat., June 29 at 6:30, to Dwan’s final film, the 1961 “Most Dangerous Man Alive,” on Sat., July 6, at 6:15 pm. I’m looking forward to meeting old friends (hello, Antti!) and making new ones, so please introduce yourself if you’re attending. One particular highlight for me will be the discussion with Kevin Brownlow on Monday at 4:15, which is bound to be full of personal insights into Dwan’s life and work from the film historian who knew him best.

Meanwhile, the massive, multi-lingual Dwan dossier edited by David Phelps and Gina Telaroli for the online publication Lumiere is available as a free PDF download here. The 460 pages of goodness include essays by Michael Henry Wilson, Bill Krohn, Jean-Loup Bourget, Chris Fujiwara, R. Emmet Sweeney, Farran Nehme, Maxime Renaudin, Cullen Gallagher, Fernando F. Croce, Daniel Kasman, Joe McElhaney, Christoph Huber, my own self and many others. With Frederic Lombardi’s scrupulously researched biography, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios“>”Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios” appearing earlier this year, 2013 is turning out to be a watershed moment for Dwan studies. After decades of neglect, this amazingly prolific and unshakably personal filmmaker is finally being ushered into the ranks of the foremost American directors.

For folks in the New York area, the extensive Dwan series that Charles Silver has curated for MoMA continues through July 8. On Tues., July 2 at 4 pm, Frederic Lombardi will introduce one of Dwan’s most accomplished and moving films, the Republic musical “Sweethearts on Parade” (my piece on it is included in the Lumiere collection); unfortunately, because no good prints of this Trucolor production survive (and Paramount’s promised restoration has not yet appeared), the film will be shown in a black and white 16-millimeter print, which is hardly the best way to see it but that the way the world is right now. A panel discussion of Dwan’s work follows at 7 pm, featuring Mr. Lombardi and Ms. Telaroli, as well as the film historian (and personal friend of Dwan) Howard Mandelbaum, and the critic Cullen Gallagher.

Young and Innocent

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The BFI’s package of nine newly restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock began its US tour at the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and will shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinematek from July 29 through July 3, before moving on to other venues and, eventually, home video. For the most part, these are movies that have been seen, if at all, in variously compromised public domain editions in the US, but the BFI, backed by a massive, public fund-raising campaign linked to the 2012 London Olympics, has greatly improved on the standard versions by collating the best material from collections around the world.

Hitchcock’s first completed feature, “The Pleasure Garden” (1925), seems much more accomplished now that 20 minutes of footage has been added to the old Rohauer print; “The Manxman” (1929) looks stunning in this new version taken from the original nitrate negative (the only camera negative that appears to survive on any of Hitchcock’s silents). Color tints have been restored to “The Lodger” (1926), and a discreet digital touch-up has been applied to everything else. The only film that still looks dodgy is “Easy Virtue” (1927), which seems to survive only in 16-millimeter “show-at-home” prints.

I have an overview of the series here, in the New York Times. I suspect that a lot of casual film buffs who attend the series expecting to see his trademark thrillers are going to be disappointed by everything apart from “The Lodger” and “Blackmail” (1929), but the interest for the hardcore Hitchcockian the interest of these films lies precisely in how the demonstrate the range of material that Hitchcock explored, before he settled on the thriller as the best vehicle for the themes he wanted to explore and the manner in which he wanted to explore them. The genres covered here range from schoolboy misadventures (the 1927 “Downhill,” which seemed to me immeasurably richer than I remembered it from my last viewing several decades ago) to tony stage dramas (“Easy Virtue” is based on a West End hit by Noel Coward). Stylistically, the films reflect the well-documented influence of Murnau and Lang (“The Lodger”), but suggest that Hitchcock, an early and dedicated member of the seminal London Film Society, was also playing close attention to the Soviet montage boys (“The Lodger” opens with a city symphony sequence that seems to anticipate “Man with a Movie Camera”) and even the French Impressionists (the poetic realism of “The Manxman” would seem to owe something to Jean Epstein’s 1923 “Coeur Fidele”).

And yet, for all their variations, the films of the “Hitchcock 9″ are firmly centered on the director’s characteristic themes and personal imagery. “The Pleasure Garden,” for example, opens with a swirl of Hitchcock motifs — spirals and staircases, showgirls and spyglasses — while “Champagne” (1928, and the subject of the French poster reproduced above) offers, on an entirely differently level, the popular British comedienne Betty Balfour as an early draft of Tippi Hedren’s destructively headstrong heiress in “The Birds.” Thrillers or not, these films are the foundations of Hitchcock’s art — one of the richest bodies of work of the 20th century.

Plus, at no extra charge, a look at Ernst Lubtisch’s “The Merry Widow.”

High and Dizzy

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The Criterion Collection has taken over the Harold Lloyd library from New Line (and what was it ever doing with them in the first place?), which means these magnificent films will be back in circulation in state-of-the-art digital editions. First up, of course, is Lloyd’s most famous film, “Safety Last,” a movie that vastly profits from the increased detail of Blu-ray: those vistas from the top of the department store now seem to extend to Sacramento.

The disc, reviewed here, contains a healthy selection of extras, including new digital restorations of the short films “Take a Chance” (1918), “Young Mr. Jazz” (1919) and “His Royal Slyness” (1920), and a terrific documentary piece, “Locations and Effects,” in which the silent film historian John Bengtson and the visual effects specialist Craig Barron revisit the locations for the film and reconstruct the methods Lloyd used to create his vertiginous effects, all in the camera. (John has a typically fascinating post on a Hollywood alley that appears in both “Safety Last!” and “Cops” on his blog, Silent Locations.) And topping off the Criterion disc is “Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius,” the 1985 documentary that Kevin Brownlow and David Gill made for Thames Television.

If you live on the East Coast, you’ve no doubt had the pleasure of hearing the pianist Ben Model accompany silent films at MOMA and other area institutions. A silent film collector himself, Ben has just issued, with help from a Kickstarter campaign, a DVD containing some unique silent comedies that have survived only through 16-millimeter prints made for home movie enthusiasts. Titled “Accidentally Preserved,” the disc is available through Amazon and features films with Wallace Lupino, Monte Collins, Billy Franey, Cliff Bowes and other overlooked figures, as well as a terrific Fleischer “Out of the Inkwell” cartoon called “Mechanical Doll.” The program notes are by the silent films scholar Steve Massa and can be perused here; Steve also has a new book covering even more neglected silent comics, appositely titled Lame Brains and Lunatics

Strange Bedfellows

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The wonderful complexity of midcentury American culture is highlighted in this week’s New York Times column, with reviews of two star vehicles. Edward Ludwig’s 1948 “Wake of the Red Witch” often gets overlooked in the amazing run of movies — “Fort Apache,” “Red River,” “Sands of Iwo Jima” — that transformed John Wayne from pleasant leading man to major star, and while it doesn’t have the stature of those masterworks by Ford, Hawks and Dwan, it does have some haunting, fantastical qualities that represent a road not taken by Wayne. Ludwig, whose amazing, late “The Gun Hawk” recently turned up from Warner Archive, remains a perfect Subject for Further Research, with a long, varied and highly uneven body of work that has probably not yet yielded up all its glories.

In the shadow of Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” it’s easy to dismiss Liberace’s one failed shot at movie stardom, the 1955 “Sincerely Yours,” as pure camp. But, as directed by the infinitely resourceful Gordon Douglas, the film is actually a thoughtful attempt to translate Liberace’s appeal to the big screen. A remake of the 1932 George Arliss vehicle “The Man Who Played God,” from a script by Irving Wallace, the film turns its star’s otherwise undramatizable sexuality into something like a supernatural attribute, an undefined difference that allows him to sit apart from the common run of humanity, peering down through binoculars from his Fifth Avenue penthouse at the huddled masses in Central Park, and intervening when necessary to straighten out their lives. He’s like a benevolent version of James Stewart’s judgmental Jeff Jeffries in “Rear Window,” rewarding virtue rather than punishing transgressions, here captured in a new widescreen transfer from Warner Archives.

Just the Fox, Ma’am

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Fox Cinema Archives, the MOD program launched by Fox last year, continues to confound, frustrate and, every once in a while, come up with some surprisingly first rate work. My New York Times column this week takes a look at some recent releases from Fox’s very mixed bag; once again, the quality of the transfers ranges from the execrable (“Meet Me after the Show”) to the excellent (“The Model and the Marriage Broker”), while there’s no apparent logic behind the titles chosen for release. And why the studio that imposed CinemaScope in the 1950s should be the last company still releasing widescreen films in pan-and-scan remains a mystery beyond my modest powers of comprehension.

I haven’t been able to look at everything they’ve put out, though, so if folks have some discoveries to share (or titles particularly to be shunned), I’d love to hear about them. What Fox films would you like to see coming out in this program? What comes to mind for me right away, because I’ve been working on Allan Dwan for a few months now, are Dwan’s late 30s films for Fox’s B-unit, which include at least one perfect entertainment (the 1936
“Fifteen Maiden Lane”) and a pretty strong melodrama that weds Dwan’s fascination with parentage to an audacious racial theme (the 1937 “One Mile from Heaven”).

Sam’s Club

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He’s not one of my guys, but those who love Sam Peckinpah love him very very much, and for those folks there is good news this week in the form of editions of two of his early films. VCI Entertainment has released Cary Roan’s restoration of Peckinpah’s first feature, the 1961 “Deadly Companions,” in a widescreen version that is remarkably acceptable in the context of all the hideous home video versions this public domain title has suffered over the years. And Twilight Time has issued a double-disc Blu-ray that contains both the 122 minute American theatrical release version of Peckinpah’s 1965 “Major Dundee” and the 136 minute “extended version” that Sony released in 2005. While neither of these cuts are Peckinpah’s (he was thrown off the film, by the producer Jerry Bresler, before the editing stage), the longer version does make a bit more narrative sense, while adding a taste of the graphic violence that would make Peckinpah’s career with “The Wild Bunch” four years later. (For a history of the two versions, and a detailed comparison between them, see Glenn Erickson’s essay at DVD Talk.) My New York Times review is here.

These are the two westerns in which Peckinpah seems to be most directly addressing John Ford — using a star (Maureen O’Hara) and a cinematographer (William H. Clothier) associated with Ford for “Deadly Companions” (though it was presumably the film’s producer, O’Hara’s brother Charles B. Fitzsimons, who determined the cast and crew), and borrowing significant themes and plot elements from “Fort Apache” for “Major Dundee.” But where Ford is about foundation myths, Peckinpah is almost entirely concerned with apocalyptic finales. These two films belong to the bright beginning of a too brief career, but already Peckinpah seems to be rushing toward the cemetery.

Etaix Redux

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In the US, the most familiar work of Pierre Etaix is probably the poster he designed (boy, dog, umbrella) for Jacques Tati’s 1958 “Mon Oncle,” a film for which Etaix also served as sketch artist and assistant director. His own films — five theatrical features and a handful of shorts — languished in legal complications for years, until they were restored and returned to circulation in 2010.

A new box set from the Criterion Collection gathers this material in convenient form, with a generously illustrated booklet that includes program notes by David Cairns. My New York Times review is here.

It’s a diverse and surprising body of work, concentrated less on the panoramic vision of Tati than on minute and meticulously executed visual gags. The influence of Buster Keaton seems particularly strong in his first two (and apparently most commercially successful) features, “The Suitor” (1962) and “Yo Yo” (1965); the 1966 anthology of shorts, “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” abandons the timeless, silent clown quality of the earlier work in favor of a more painful comedy of irritation and interruption set in a contemporary France that weirdly anticipates Godard’s 1967 “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Weekend.” “Le Grand Amour” (1969) looks forward to Blake Edwards’s later comedies of sexual humilation, while the 1971 “Land of Milk and Honey” — the most radical and difficult to digest of Etaix’s films — is a dyspeptic documentary on a France falling back into coarse consumerism after the upheavals of ’68. Reportedly greeted with universal distaste, the film effectively ended Etaix’s career in theatrical film.

Still missing are a couple of intriguing outliers, “L’age de Monsieur est avance,” a 1987 television film that pays homage to Sacha Guitry, and “J’ecris dans l’espace,” an essay film on the development of the semaphore, produced in 1989 in an early version of the IMAX process. But there is more than enough here to establish Etaix as another of the French cinema’s grand eccentrics, and a figure who merits more thorough investigation.

Way Down South

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From Olive Films this week, two extraordinary movies about race and politics in the 1950s, as filtered through the American south of the early twentieth century by John Ford in “The Sun Shines Bright” (1953) and Samuel Fuller through the lens of what was then the French Indochinese war and would soon become our very own Vietnam in “China Gate” (1957). My New York Times review is here.

These are the usual no-frills discs from Olive, though the company has taken the care to obtain a hi-def transfer of Ford’s original 100 minute cut of “Sun Shines,” which turned up unexpectedly some years ago. The old, 90-minute version is still floating around YouTube, and the differences are apparent from the first shot. The film now begins with Stepin Fetchit falling asleep as he fishes from the end of a pier, establishing a slow, dreamy rhythm that Ford sustains quite beautifully as the plot begins to unfold on three different levels. The film concludes with three ceremonial processions that resolve the plot strands while dissolving them into myth — a wonderful example of Ford’s growing indifference, in his postwar work, to classical narrative structure and the perceived need for closure.

And “China Gate,” long the most elusive of Fuller’s films of the 1950s, now comes to us in the beauty of black-and-white CinemaScope, for the first time since, I believe, the 16-millimeter days. There is much more to say about this brave, confounding, breathlessly urgent film than I had room for in my column, and I know of at least two regulars on this site who are able to say it much better than I can.

Tristana’s Return

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Missing in action since, if I recall correctly, a Criterion Laserdisc back in the paleolithic era, Luis Bunuel’s 1970 masterpiece “Tristana” has reappeared on Blu-ray, in a solid new transfer from the Cohen Film Collection. Apart from a brief dream sequence, it’s a film devoid of any overtly “surrealist” touches, yet every frame achieves a subtly insinuating strangeness — an almost too-perfect clarity that results from Bunuel’s classically balanced compositions, restrained color palate, and impassively even pacing. It may be my favorite of Bunuel’s films, but why choose when there is so much to admire in his magnificent late period, including his final film, the 1977 “That Obscure Object of Desire,” which has also resurfaced in a new disc from Studio Canal/Lionsgate.

I didn’t have space to get into this question in my New York Times review, but this “Tristana” comes with an ending slightly different from the one I recall — although that ending is included as well, as an extra sourced from what looks like an older video master. The movie still ends with a little flurry of flashbacks recapitulating the story, but instead of continuing all the way back to the first sequence of the film, it now ends with a quick fade out as Don Lope (Fernando Rey) leads his young ward (Catherine Deneuve) to bed for the first time. Is there a Bunuel scholar in the house who can account for this alteration? I think I prefer the more symmetrical ending I remember from the 70s, but I’d be most curious to know the history here.

Ziegfeld Boys

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It’s hard to believe that a comedy team with 21 features to their credit could be so completely forgotten, but such is the cast with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. In the early 30s, they were probably RKO’s biggest stars after King Kong — a couple of song and dance men whose partnership was formed, not through years on the vaudeville circuit as one might assume, but when Florenz Ziegfeld cast them together in the hit Broadway musical “Rio Rita.”

At first, they appeared in nonsense comedies in the Marx Brothers/Smith and Dale tradition, a couple of which — “Half Shot at Sunrise” and “Hook Line and Sinker” (both 1930) have been rescued from public domain hell and made available for the first time in watchable copies in a new box set, pithily titled “Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collecton,” from Warner Archive.

The great comedy director William A. Seiter found a naturalistic context for their characters with the 1931 “Caught Plastered,” which is part of this set and its undoubted highlight; he continued with the team through two equally entertaining films, “Peach-O-Reno” (1931) and “Diplomaniacs” (1933), which Warners has already released in stand-alone editions.

The six other films in the new collection are “Cracked Nuts” (Edward F. Cline, 1931), “Hold ‘Em Jail” (Norman Taurog, 1932), “Hips, Hips, Hooray!” (Mark Sandrich, 1934), “The Nitwits” (George Stevens, 1935), “Mummy’s Boys” (Fred Guiol, 1936) and “High Flyers” (Cline, 1937). The quality of the work falls off toward the end, a consequence of dwindling budgets and Woolsey’s poor health (he died of kidney failure in 1938), but the good stuff is good indeed. A review here, in the New York Times.