Buster Keaton makes me think of my Dad. When I was growing up, my Dad and I watched a lot of classic movies together. Most were “talkies” but there were some silent films as well and they all starred one man, Buster Keaton. I remember watching THE GENERAL and listening to my Dad read the dialogue screens aloud. As the years went on and I started watching more movies on my own, I started to move away from silent films. I enjoyed the rapid fire dialogue and the witty scripts, my love of words taking hold. But whenever there was a Buster Keaton movie on, I paused and watched if only for a few minutes. Buster pulled me in and kept me stuck. So, when TCM spent Monday night celebrating silent films it was inevitable that I would be watching at least one movie that evening. That one film was SEVEN CHANCES from 1925, directed by and starring Buster Keaton.
James Shannon aka Jimmy is a simple man. He only desires one thing, and that is to tell Mary (played by Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her. But try as he might, seasons come and go and Jimmy still cannot profess his love. Jimmy spends his days working as a banker with his friend and partner, played by T. Roy Barnes. One morning a man (played by Snitz Edwards) comes to their office asking to speak with Jimmy. Fearing that the man is coming to serve him with a court summons, Jimmy refuses to speak with him and goes off with his partner to the country club. The man follows them there and finally manages to get Jimmy’s attention. Instead of trying to serve a summons, the man is a lawyer trying to bestow an inheritance! It seems that Jimmy’s uncle has died and left him…seven million dollars! There is one condition however, Jimmy must be married by seven o’clock the evening of his twenty-seventh birthday. And today is his birthday!
At last Jimmy has something to offer to Mary and off he rushes to propose. Once he arrives at Mary’s house however, Jimmy becomes nervous and needs to take a few moments to practice what he will say. While he prepares, Mary comes up behind him and overhears everything. “Mary, will you marry me?”, Jimmy asks the air. “Yes.”, replies Mary much to Jimmy’s shock. The two love birds sit together in almost wedded bliss and Jimmy declares that they will be married today. When Mary wonders why the rush, he tells her about his inheritance. And all he has to do, he says, is marry some girl. Oh, Jimmy. Mary, greatly offended, calls off the engagement and goes into the house. Jimmy sadly returns to his office to inform the lawyer and his partner that Mary has refused him. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, at this moment Mary’s mother is convincing her to give Jimmy a chance to explain himself. Mary agrees and telephones Jimmy’s office, asking to be put through to him. The phone in Jimmy’s office has been lifted off the hook accidentally, so Mary is able to hear as the lawyer and Jimmy’s partner attempt to convince him to marry someone else. But there is no other girl for Jimmy and he says as much. Upon hearing this Mary hangs up the phone and calling to her hired man, sends Jimmy a message warning him again marrying anyone else. She ends by saying that she “believes she will be home all day”.
Jimmy meanwhile has given in to the idea of marrying someone else and resignedly goes off to the country club, accompanied by his partner and the lawyer. The three of them make a list of eligible women and go around the country club, proposing as they go. Jimmy is rejected at every turn and time is starting to run out. Be at the church by 5 o’clock, his partner tells him, and the bride will be there no matter what! So saying, the lawyer and Jimmy’s partner leave and head off to the newspaper. There they place a story, explaining all about Jimmy and his inheritance. All he needs is a bride, the paper declares, show up at the church at 5 o’clock and the money is yours. Surely this will do the trick! This leads to one of the most famous scenes from Buster Keaton’s films and a climax that Buster Keaton himself, recreated in his final starring role alongside Jimmy Durante in WHAT – NO BEER?.
Buster Keaton was such an interesting performer and talent. He taught himself about cameras and camerawork by first opening up the camera and seeing what made everything tick, and secondly watching his friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle work behind the camera. He directed, wrote, and starred in his own films, and ran his own film production company. According to interviews he never came up with the middle part of a movie when writing the script. He and his crew would start with the beginning and the end, and work out the middle during production. Gags and stunts were worked out on paper, and often improvised. Not only creative, he was incredibly athletic. Just look at him run! My husband, while watching with me last night, remarked that he couldn’t be running that fast and that the film speed must be increased. But no, that was all Buster Keaton.
Silent movies aren’t always popular. Buster Keaton remarked that with the dawn of talkies came a desire for “verbal gags”, jokes from the dialogue rather than the action. It was here Buster struggled to make a transition from silent film star to movie star. Through personal issues, poor casting, bad film choices by MGM, and too much studio interference, Buster Keaton’s film career dwindled. He eventually worked in films by writing gags for the likes of The Three Stooges, and Red Skelton. Often entire bits were lifted from Buster’s silent films and placed into the newer “talkies”. For a time Buster Keaton and his silent films were forgotten, but thankfully they were rediscovered and are in circulation again today. In fact, it seems that as movies progress we are starting to move back towards an emphasis on physical comedy rather than verbal gags.
Buster Keaton will always hold a special place in my heart and I will always pause in my day to watch him do what he does best. SEVEN CHANCES is still an incredibly fun and funny movie, and the stunts are all the more impressive for knowing that it is all Buster! So, thanks Dad and thanks Buster.
Recently I came across a blog post written by the fantastic Vanessa over at bawler.blogspot.com. Her post, which can be found here, is about the solitary nature of being a classic film fan. It extends into all aspects of your social life, including your romantic entanglements as Vanessa describes. Her post got me thinking…and inspired me to write one of my own.
I have always been a fan of classic films, even before I knew that they were classic films. I grew up watching THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and THE GREAT ESCAPE with my Dad. My sister and I watched THE WIZARD OF OZ so many times there are parts of the VHS tape that are worn down. I loved MR. HOBBES TAKES A VACATION, THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS, and the “Road Movies” from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby from the time I was ten years old. I still remember the summer I was fourteen and had just finished reading GONE WITH THE WIND. What better way to celebrate than by going to see the film as it was re-released in theaters? I have always been watching classic films. It was just a part of who I was. So imagine my surprise when I found out that most people my age didn’t share my passion. Imagine my shock when, after telling one of my friends that I liked “old movies”, she responded “Oh, you mean from like 1980?”.
It was the same story whenever I tried to talk classic films with people my own age. They usually said something along the lines of, “I don’t like black and white movies” or “Old movies are boring”. Boring?! How could they say that? Hadn’t they ever seen the sword fights in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD? Steve McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE? The madcap antics of BRINGING UP BABY? The quick patter of any of the “Road Movies”? SOME LIKE IT HOT?! It didn’t matter. No matter what I said or examples I gave, my friends usually just shrugged and changed the subject. Forget getting a boyfriend who liked classic films, I couldn’t even get a friend to watch one with me! So, I spent my time watching classic movies either alone or with my family. And it was fine, really lovely actually, spending that time and sharing those films.
But after reading Vanessa’s post, I started thinking about it again. You see, I have a son. He isn’t old enough to watch movies with me yet, but I am hoping that he will grow up to share Mom’s passion for classic films. I am already planning a ROBIN HOOD viewing party. I also have a husband who, though initially resistant, has started to watch movies with me and even enjoy them. I know that he liked Daphne in SOME LIKE IT HOT, and after watching TO BE OR NOT TO BE he declared his favorite part to be “The part when they were in Poland” which I take to mean that he liked the whole movie. But I still have no friends my own age who share my love of classic film. The only people who have ever looked at me with surprise and recognition when I start talking about Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, or William Powell are well above my age bracket. Why is that? Why don’t more young people love these movies? I don’t mind talking to someone’s grandma or great uncle about why THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is so great (answer, because it is!), but there is a part of me that would really love to have a friend my own age to go to lunch with and discuss who was the better son in the Charlie Chan series (my vote is for number one son).
I have some theories. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that most classic film fans have a love of reading. Not just reading, not just HUNGER GAMES and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, not just a quick skim of a magazine or an iPhone screen, but READING reading. The kind of reading that means Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, and even G.R.R. Martin. The kind of reading that goes everywhere with you, on the train, at lunch, even to the shower. The majority of classic film fans that I have come across seem to have a love of reading and books. I count myself among them. I have shelves and shelves of classic films on DVD, and piles and piles of books. Along with a love of classic films, I have always had a love of reading and books. And this is another thing that most of my friends don’t share. Let’s be honest, the majority of people today don’t read that much. For most people in their thirties or younger reading isn’t a pleasure activity, its homework. But classic films are far more literate than the popular films made today. Of course every once in a while a movie is made today with witty dialogue and a complex story. But the majority of films, the ones that make the most money, are not on the same literate scale as THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Could this be a reason? Could classic films be considered “too hard” to be enjoyable? Or is it something less intellectual? Is it something as simple as the world has changed? Looking at what is considered important in today’s culture, looking at what is of value to the majority of the younger population, looking at what is considered “cool”, it doesn’t seem to mesh up with the values, standards, and stories put forward in these classic films. With so much emphasis placed on being cool and accepted, no wonder most younger people reject classic movies. But my Dad used to say that certain books and movie were like candy, easy and enjoyable but not that fulfilling. And while I enjoy having candy every now and then, who doesn’t, I really prefer to have something that I can sink my teeth and my brain into.
So Vanessa, if you are reading this, I am a thirty year old classic film fan who loves to read…let’s be friends! 🙂
I have a thing for pre-code movies. I find them incredibly interesting nuggets of life put to film, showing just what life was to the people living it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the wittiness and subtlety that came along with the Hayes Production Code (a necessity in order to get the point across without alerting the censors) but there is something about pre-code movies that is compelling and just makes me want to dive in and watch! It also doesn’t hurt that they are usually around an hour in length, which when you are trying to squeeze in some viewing time while your baby is napping (And I am!), is perfect. And boy howdy do they pack a lot in to an hour!
About a month ago Turner Classic Movies (TCM) ran a spotlight on pre-code movies. Every Friday for a month was filled with 24 hours of pre-code movies, which needless to say also filled my DVR. As is the plight of most classic film fans with DVRs, you end up recording more movies than you can reasonably get to in a short amount of time. Here I am, a bit after the fact, finally making my way through and it is from my DVR that I found my next film. From 1933 and directed by William Wellman, it is HEROES FOR SALE and it is not only available on the first FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD collection from Turner Classic Movies but you can also watch it in high definition on Warner Archive Instant right now!
We start in the trenches of World War I. An American soldier is receiving orders from his commanding officer for a secret mission. Roger, played by Gordon Wescott, is told that he must take a group of men out of the trenches and into enemy territory with the purpose of capturing a German soldier. It is basically a suicide mission and Roger knows it. When the time comes to venture out Roger is paired with another soldier named Tom, played by Richard Barthelmess. Roger and Tom make it across the battlefield to the German trenches while the rest of the group perishes. At the critical moment Roger refuses to go any further, giving in to his fear and panic. Tom goes ahead alone and captures a German soldier but, when he returns to Roger with his captive, he is hit in the back by an exploding shell. He urges Roger to take the prisoner back to camp as he is done for. Roger hesitates but does so when it appears that Tom is dead. Back in the American camp, Roger is hailed as a hero for his bravery and cunning. Out on the battlefield German soldiers come across Tom, who is not as dead as everyone thought he was. Tom is taken back to the German camp and operated on.
Armistice Day comes and Tom is returned to America via an exchange of prisoners. Before he leaves, the German doctor who has been caring for him gives Tom a box of morphine pills. Tom, it seems, is in terrible and constant pain from the injuries to his back and the doctor tells him to take a pill whenever he feels that he can longer stand the pain. On the ship back to America Tom runs in to Roger, who has been promoted and given many medals for his heroism. Roger tells Tom that he never meant for it to happen this way but it is too far gone now. He is ashamed but is fearful that Tom will tell their superiors the truth about that night among the trenches. Tom says that he won’t but Roger still feels guilty and he gets Tom a job at his father’s bank. However, Tom is not working out as an employee. The pain in his back is terrible and so, his morphine habit has increased. He can barely concentrate on his work and makes mistakes all the time. Roger’s father wants to fire him but Roger keeps fighting to give Tom another chance. One day, Tom is almost going crazy with pain and is waiting for his dealer to come through with more pills. But the price of morphine has increased and Tom can’t pay. Though tempted to steal from his employer, Tom ultimately goes to his doctor to plead for morphine. Tom’s doctor refuses to give him morphine and actually reports Tom to authorities for drug addiction. Tom is taken away and committed, leaving his elderly mother behind.
Almost two years later Tom is cured, but his mother has died, he has lost his job, and he is left with nothing. In his search for a place to live, Tom travels to Chicago where he meets Mary (played by Aline MacMahon), a young woman who runs a small food counter with her father. Mary and her father not only run a place for people to come, eat, and rest when they have nothing, but they also rent rooms. Tom rents their last flat, living across the hall from Max (played by Robert Barrat), and the lovely Ruth (played by Loretta Young). Max is an eccentric German inventor who is also “a Red” per Ruth. Ruth is a sweet young woman who works as a local laundry. Tom is smitten with Ruth immediately and also gets a job at the laundry as a driver.
Time passes and Tom is doing very well at the laundry. When his boss finds out that Tom has come up with a system to actually increase his clientele, when other drivers are having their routes diminished, he promotes him. Tom is now working as the second in command at the laundry and has enough money to marry Ruth. Later on, Tom and Ruth are married and expecting their first child. Max bursts in and tells Tom that he has invented a machine that will revolutionize the laundry industry, not only increasing productivity but decreasing the amount of time the employees need to work. Tom agrees to take the idea to the factory workers, getting their support and monetary support before going to his boss. The new machines are to be installed but with the condition that no workers will be fired from their current jobs. The boss agrees, and also offers to buy out the employees for double what they initially paid for their share in the new machines. Everything is going well, the machines are working, Tom and Ruth have a lovely son named Bill, and everyone is happy. And then the boss of the laundry has a heart attack and dies. Now the laundry is taken over by a large corporation, who do not honor the agreement entered into by the previous boss. The majority of employees are fired and they blame Tom. The Great Depression is beginning and these men and women have no job, no money, no food, and nothing to lose. In their fury a mob forms and heads off to the laundry to destroy the very machines that have taken their livelihood. Tom, fearing that these people will be killed and knowing that this rioting will do nothing to help, hurries off to try to stop them. Ruth meanwhile speeds towards the chaos, looking for her husband and fearing for his safety. From there, tragedy ensues and Tom is swept up in it, persecution, the Red Squad, and the Great Depression.
This film doesn’t have a happy ending, but it has an ending. I found this a truly fascinating film because it was made as the Great Depression was happening. Everything that happened to Tom had really taken place only a few years before this film was made. Interestingly, William Wellman used real hobos and laundry workers as extras in his scenes, perhaps to add authenticity or perhaps to give these people jobs when they were so desperately needed. Loretta Young is quite luminous as the young bride, and Aline MacMahon is both funny and tragic as Mary. Richard Barthelmess portrays Tom as a man trying to be honorable and true, in spite of his circumstances. But he also allows Tom to have moments of anger, which I think is more realistic given Tom’s experiences as well as his painful war wounds both mental and physical.
While some people might think that this film is a product of its time, I think that it still has a place in modern society. On the anniversary of the release of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES it is important to note that while World War II undoubtedly changed the lives of the men and women affected by it, World War I changed the world forever. And just as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES examined how men returning from war re-entered the ordinary world, HEROES FOR SALE does this as well with one difference. Men returning from World War II found a world that, while different and strange, was prospering economically. The men who returned from World War I soon found themselves faced with poverty and joblessness as the Great Depression took hold. And here is where I think that this film still holds importance in today’s society. In a time where we still talk about the plight of veterans, where we don’t have adequate health care systems for them, where many veterans are homeless or unemployed, can we really say that much has changed?
I have been a fan of the Warner Archive since the beginning. The idea of a treasury of rare, unknown, and hard to find movies available for purchase as made-to-order DVDs was a glorious treat to a classic film fan and collector. Recently, I have discovered their fantastic podcast to which I have quickly become addicted. Through the podcast I have found more classic films to buy and add to my collection (Thanks George, DW, and Matt!), as well as the new streaming video on demand (SVOD) service aka WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT. I am currently trying my free month trial but I am sure that I will be continuing my subscription well after. It is from the WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT service that we find our next film…from Warner Brothers in 1940, BROTHER ORCHID.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie but I decided that any film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart was definitely worth a look! Edward G. Robinson stars as Johnny Sarto, the boss of a racketeering gang. After becoming disgusted with the gangland underworld, Johnny decides to quit the racketeering business and travel to Europe in search of “class”. Jack Buck, played by Humphrey Bogart, is Johnny’s second in command who takes over the gang upon Johnny’s departure. Johnny also has a devoted girlfriend named Flo, played by Ann Sothern, who wants nothing more than to travel with Johnny and to be his wife. But that isn’t the sort of class that Johnny is going for, so before he leaves he sets Flo up with a position as a hat check girl at a night club.
Over the next five years Johnny travels all over Europe, spending money on all the finest things and getting fleeced in the process. At the end of it all he is broke with nothing to show for it. There is nothing left to do but to return to the big city from whence he came and reclaim his position as a gangland kingpin. Upon his return everything seems normal, his boys are all happy to see him and they even bought him his favorite orchids to celebrate. But all is not as it seems, as Johnny soon finds out. While he was gone, Jack Buck has taken over and is proving himself to be a ruthless gangster and “business man”. Jack gives Johnny the heave-ho and a warning, don’t come back.
Johnny goes to find Flo, only to discover that she has become a rich nightclub owner. Flo is also being pursued by a polite, charming, and sweet cowboy named Clarence, played by Ralph Bellamy. Still in love with Johnny after all these years, Flo vows to help Johnny get back on top (with Clarence’s help, of course).
Johnny starts to rebuild his crew and sets about to compete with Jack Buck, who has recently entered the “protection business”. Flo is still hoping to become Mrs. Johnny Sarto but the time is never right. One night Johnny can’t make their date because of his dealings with Jack Buck and his gang. He calls Flo to tell her, explaining that everything he is doing is so that he can get enough class to marry her. Flo, feeling guilty for making Johnny work so hard and doing nothing herself, decides to help. She decides that she will go to Jack Buck personally, and set up a meeting between him and Johnny. To her surprise, Jack is completely willing to meet with Johnny to talk over their “misunderstanding”…but couldn’t they have the meeting far out of town? All Flo has to do is get Johnny there, but not let him know that Jack will be there too. Flo agrees, but has Clarence go along with her for protection.
The night of the big meeting arrives and Flo gets Johnny to the rendezvous with him none the wiser to her real intent. Clarence sits outside in a parked car, waiting for any trouble. Jack arrives and signals Flo away from the table, and outside someone knocks out Clarence. Once Flo leaves the table, Jack approaches and presses a gun to Johnny’s back. They take a walk outside, where Johnny sees Flo. Believing that he has been betrayed, Johnny is put into a car with Jack’s men and taken away. The idea is to get rid of Johnny, but he manages to escape from his would be assassins but not before being shot. Wounded and exhausted, Johnny ends up at…a monastery of flower selling brothers who soon have a run in with Jack Buck’s protection services.
Based on a story written by Richard Connell for COLLIER’S MAGAZINE in 1938, BROTHER ORCHID is a really fun and funny film. It was not one that I had heard of, but one that I really enjoyed! Directed by Lloyd Bacon with a screen play by Earl Baldwin (and contributions from Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley), this film is a gangster movie making fun of gangster movies. Edward G. Robinson seems to be having a great time, even appearing to poke fun at himself and his famous role as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR.
Speaking of Edward G. Robinson, I admit I often think of him as his roles as gangsters and villains such as LITTLE CAESAR and KEY LARGO. But after watching this film, I have a much deeper appreciation for him as an actor and a greater desire to see him in some of his other roles. Edward G. Robinson never seems too cartoony or over the top. There is a genuineness in his acting, even when he is not the best man in the room, that makes him endlessly watchable and completely relatable. I will definitely be seeking out more of his films!
This movie doesn’t end the way you might expect, but I felt that the ending made sense to the story and to the character of Johnny Sarto. The message of the story isn’t all that different, a man trying to find “class” or worth in the world, but how we get there is clever and a little surprising. All in all, this is a unique and enjoyable film that deserves to be more well known than it is.
“To be or not to be…that is the question”
That is also where all the trouble starts. Every six months or so BARNES AND NOBLE BOOKSELLERS conspires with THE CRITERION COLLECTION to make me spend my money and buy far more DVDs and Blu Rays than I intend to. The Criterion sale puts these titles, that previously were on the higher end of my price range, into the extremely tempting how-can-you-not-buy-twenty area of 50% off. So, of course…I buy twenty. This time one of my purchases was one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movies, TO BE OR NOT TO BE.
The movie stars Jack Benny as that great, great, Polish actor Joseph Tura, and Carole Lombard stars as his wife, Maria Tura. Joseph and Maria Tura are actors in Warsaw, Poland right at the beginning of what would become World War II. Joseph is a bit of a prima donna, and his wife is becoming frustrated with his lack of attention and respect for her. The theatre troupe is currently performing HAMLET while rehearsing for a new play meant to give a realistic representation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. One night, during the evening performance of HAMLET, Maria invites an admirer back to her dressing room. Her admirer is a very handsome young airman, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, whom she instructs to leave the audience to visit her when Hamlet starts his famous speech. Naturally, complications ensue but just when you might be inclined to think that this is going to be just another romantic comedy the Nazis invade Poland. Literally.
From there TO BE OR NOT TO BE turns into a darkly funny movie dealing with World War II, spies, gun fights, intricate ploys and costumes, fake beards, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. If you have not seen this movie I won’t go any further into details about the plot, except to strongly recommend that you see it. If you have seen this movie, I will say that it looks gorgeous on Blu Ray from Criterion and it certainly a film that deserves a place in any classic movie collection.
This film was made at a time when America was not yet involved with the growing global conflict that was World War II. Hitler and his Nazi regime where out in the world wreaking havoc but Americans had not yet experienced the war first hand. This would change of course, because by the time the movie was released Hitler would be moving across Europe, Pearl Harbor would be bombed, and one of the movie’s stars would be killed in a plane crash. This was the final film of Carole Lombard, who died on January 16, 1942 when her plane crashed returning from a trip to sell war bonds. She was 33 years old. She had taken the part of Maria despite strenuous objections from her husband, Clark Gable, and she would go on to say that the making of this film was the happiest time of her career.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE was not terribly successful at its release, but over the years it has grown in appreciation and was named one of the fifty best comedies by Premiere magazine in 2006. It was remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks, with himself and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles.
For me, while the 1983 version is good and has some great moments, the 1942 version is the one that I prefer. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny are perfectly cast, and the entire ensemble is amazing! There is also something daring and pointed about this film that the 1983 version can’t replicate. This movie was made as World War II was happening. It was made at a time when most Americans didn’t seem too concerned over Adolf Hitler and his regime, and yet here was Ernst Lubitsch making a film that really seemed to be saying “Hello? I think we need to start paying attention over here!” The film is undeniably funny, smart, and extremely well made. But it is also a look into a moment in time that would not come again…the moment where America still believed that there would only ever be one World War.