A Strange Interlude…But Not for Long!

Things might be a little quiet around the blog for about a week or so because I will be moving house at the end of this week!  Which means that my TV, my DVDs and Blu Rays, and my cable will be in limbo for a few days and so I probably won’t be posting too much until after Easter.  But never fear…I shall return!

I have two posts scheduled to go up on April 2nd for the Pre-Code Blogathon so keep an eye out for those!  I will also be around on Twitter so feel free to check in on me from time to time as I attempt to unpack everything!

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Two New Blogathons and a Thank You!

I will be taking part in two more blogathons in April and May, but before we get to that I want to say Thank You!  I recently was admitted into the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) and I am completely thrilled!  New members are admitted on the votes of current members so a great big THANK YOU to all current members!  It is a terrific association and many great blogs are members so be sure to check them out!

Now on to the blogathons!  I will be taking part in the CMBA’s Spring Blogathon themed the Fabulous Films of the 30s!  I have decided to do a post on THE AWFUL TRUTH and there are many other fantastic posts planned so be sure to keep an eye out for that!

This May 16th is National Classic Movie Day and what better way to celebrate than with a blogathon?  This time it is a blogathon devoted to celebrating our favorite classic films hosted by  Classic Film and TV Cafe.  I will be writing about my favorite movie of all time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY!

Stayed tuned for all the fun and enjoy!

Classics From Criterion: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an out of work reporter who finds himself outside of the offices of the Sun Bulletin in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His car has just been towed and Chuck decides to rush into the offices and ask for the editor.  He makes his pitch, calling himself a $250 a week reporter who can be had for $50, but his brand of shock journalism is not the editor, Jacob Boot’s, cup of tea.  However, Boot agrees to give Chuck a job provided that he remains honest and sober which Chuck agrees to.  Chuck acknowledges that his past rough and brutish behavior has cost him several high-powered jobs but he is confident that his next big break is just around the corner.  Until it comes around all he has to do is wait and keep his nose clean.

One year passes and Chuck is still working at the Sun Bulletin and is becoming increasingly disgusted with his lot.  He is itching for a good juicy story, the sort that will get him back on top, but the best he can get is an assignment to cover the local rattlesnake hunt.  Chuck drives towards town along with cub reporter/photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) but soon stops for gas at a small trading post.  Herbie goes in to find an older woman weeping and praying in the backroom and soon police sirens can be heard.  While he and Chuck are wondering what is going on a young blonde woman approaches asking for a ride.  Her name is Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and she is the wife of Leo Minosa, who is the owner of the trading post.  Leo was exploring a nearby cave and is now trapped in a cave-in.  Lorraine is bringing him blankets and a thermos of coffee and Chuck offers to drive her the rest of the way.  Once at the cave Chuck hears that it is a sacred cave to the Native Americans, called the Cave of the Seven Vultures.  Sensing a chance at a story, Chuck pushes his way past the sheriff’s deputy and enters the cave ostensibly to bring Leo the blankets and coffee.

Once underground Chuck soon finds Leo, trapped under the mud and rubble but otherwise upbeat.  He is certain that he will be out soon and he is more than happy to let Chuck take his picture.  He is especially thrilled when Chuck says that he will publish a story about Leo in the paper along with the photograph.  Chuck returns to the trading post where he rents a room from Lorraine and then calls Boot.  He tells Boot that he has the front page story and begins typing up the story.  While talking to Lorraine, Chuck learns that she and Leo were married soon after Leo was discharged from the military.  Lorraine quickly became unhappy and disillusioned with their life and is now taking her chance to leave Leo while she can.  Chuck nows how this will hurt his story so he tries to shame Lorraine into staying but to no avail.  The only thing that stops Lorraine is when Chuck tells her that this story will bring customers from all over the country to her tiny store.  The prospect of increased profit is too enticing to Lorraine and she agrees to stay.

The trading post is soon besieged by tourists, all anxious to get a glimpse at the human tragedy that is unfolding.  Lorraine begins charging for admission to the site, against the wishes of her father-in-law, and presses her mother-in-law into service to help with the rush of customers at the trading post.  Chuck learns from the local physician, who has just been down to see Leo, that the trapped man is healthy and could probably last a week underground.  With this in mind Chuck goes to see the Sheriff with a proposal.  Knowing that the Sheriff is crooked and up for re-election Chuck suggests that they prolong the rescue effort, taking a whole week by drilling down from the top of the mountain rather than shoring up the loose walls and going in from the side (which would take only sixteen hours), so that the Sheriff can use the event to bolster is re-election campaign.  In exchange for his quiet and cooperation, the sheriff will guarantee Chuck exclusive access to the story.  The Sheriff agrees and uses his position to force the construction foreman to go along with the plan.  Chuck tells Herbie that they are quitting the Sun Bulletin now that they have a big enough story to write their own ticket with.

That night Lorraine comes to see Chuck and flush with her recent success tries to flirt with him. Chuck responds by slapping her and reminding her that she is supposed to be playing the grieving wife.  The next day the drilling begins and more reporters show up but they are to be disappointed.  When they question why they are being denied access to the story while Chuck is allowed free rein, the Sheriff responds that he has deputized Chuck and no one else can have access to the cave for safety reasons.  Meanwhile down below, Chuck is talking with Leo again.  Leo declares that Chuck is his best friend, which Chuck has little reaction to, and tells him about a present he has bought for Lorraine for their upcoming anniversary.  Back at the trading post Chuck is confronted by his old boss, Mr. Boot.  Boot has figured out Chuck’s angle and condemns his “below the belt” journalism.  Chuck could not care less especially as the editor of a major New York paper is on the phone, having just agreed to hire Chuck to cover the story.  Things could not be going better for Chuck.  He has exclusive access to the story of the century, Leo thinks of him as a friend and confidante, the tourists have turned the outside into a literal carnival and the money is rolling in, and oh yeah he is having an affair with Lorraine.  But at the next visit inside the cave with another day or so to go before the drills reach Leo, the doctor delivers terrible news.  Leo has developed pneumonia from laying in the cave for the past five days and won’t survive more than twelve hours.

This film did not do well when it was first released.  In fact the profits were so poor that Paramount not only changed the title to THE BIG CARNIVAL, without Wilder’s knowledge, but also subtracted the losses from the profits of Wilder’s next film, STALAG 17.  It is a very modern film, one that feels even more relevant today than it might have in 1951.  It is also a very uncomfortable and uncompromising look at the darker ambitions and urges of people, as such it isn’t too surprising that audiences didn’t take to the film.

The most significant point of the film is the manipulation of events by Chuck Tatum, his unwavering and uncompromising desire to control the unfolding story in order to keep his exclusive.  His single-minded behavior doesn’t take into account any one else, not Leo, not Lorraine, not Herbie, not the Sheriff, and not the thousands of people coming to see the spectacle.  He prevents the workers from digging Leo out sooner in order to prolong the story to keep readers interested and to bolster his fame and desirability to other newspapers.  He keeps Lorraine from leaving to keep the family life looking pristine.  He feeds Leo’s parents false hope and accepts their kindness all because he wants the story.  Of course Chuck is not alone in using Leo’s situation for his own personal gain.  Lorraine hates Leo but loves money so she stays on at the trading post and even starts charging for admission.  The Sheriff wants re-election and so agrees to force the miners to dig Leo out slower as well as giving Chuck exclusive access.  Even the construction foreman wants to keep his new job and so agrees to dig Leo out using a method he knows is unnecessarily slow.  Every person in a position to help Leo, to keep him from being trapped longer than needed, every single one of them fails to because of their own selfish reasons.

And what of the crowd of people gathering outside the cave?  The cave, which before was revered as sacred to the Native Americans and considered a pit stop by tourists, now is attracting thousands of men, women, and children.  They gather to sing songs about Leo, to take pictures, to ride carnival rides, and buy hamburgers.  They tell their children to pay attention as this is “educational”, which it is though not for the reasons they might think.  Chuck and the others certainly have a major part in what is happening but these people do as well.  Who buys the papers that Chuck writes for?  Who elects the Sheriff?  Who pays Lorraine the money she asks for, even as the price of admission creeps higher and higher?  While we have to confront the selfishness of Chuck, his callousness and puppet-mastery, we also have to confront the fact that people love to watch a car wreck.  How can it be that no one thinks it in bad taste to buy hot dogs and ice cream outside of a cave where a man is fighting for his life?  How can it be that a human tragedy such as this becomes a sideshow?  Since when does a human life equate increased revenue?

Wilder’s film is a startling and shocking look at the darker side of men and their desires.  The film never hides the truth of the matter, rather forcing us to confront it.  Little wonder then, that this film was not popular when it first came out.  The issues presented within are relevant at all times but in this time of social media, when everyone has a camera and can be an ersatz reporter, they are even more so.  The questions it raises are even more important now than in 1951.  Who is writing the news?  Who benefits from the news?  When is a life more valuable than a profit?  We like to think we know the answers to these questions and we like to pretend that they are easy.  But ACE IN THE HOLE shows that is not always the case.

Join Us for a #JudexParty!

Last night I joined several film fans on Twitter, including Fritzi of Movies Silently and Andy of Journeys in Darkness and Light, to take part in the very first #JudexParty!  What is a #JudexParty you might ask?  Well, it is only the most fun you can have on a Wednesday night or any night!

The man, the myth, the fabulous cape wearer…Judex!

In case you don’t know, JUDEX is a twelve part French serial made in 1916 telling the tale of mysterious vigilante Judex (or Judge) and his quest for revenge against the corrupt banker Favraux.  At least that is the story so far because we are only two episodes in.  The best description I have heard so far is, “Imagine if Victor Hugo wrote Batman”.  Sounds pretty awesome right?

So now that you are tempted let me be the first to invite you to join our #JudexParty!  We will be live tweeting the next two episodes (which will be Episode 2 and Episode 3) of the serial on Wednesday, March 25th at 6:30PM PST/9:30PM EST.  If you want to catch up before the next viewing (we have watched the Prologue and Episode 1 so far) you can watch JUDEX streaming on Fandor or treat yourself to your own copy from Flicker Alley!  You can also read Fritzi’s fabulous review here!

Come on…join us…you know you want to…

Then stop by and tweet along with us next Wednesday using #JudexParty.  You owe it to yourself and here is some of what you are missing if you don’t!

Movies Silently ‏
Hello, I am here to care for the child & am not a fortune hunter at all.
So… where do you keep your cash? #JudexParty

Now Voyaging ‏
Someone please make me a t-shirt that says A VAGABOND OF DESTINY #JudexParty

Movies Silently ‏
That’s a very passive-aggressive confrontation.  “You ruined my life! I shall write you a stern note!” #JudexParty

Andy 
#JudexParty “I don’t even want revenge” as he reaches for his throat!

Andy  
#JudexParty Boy, Diana just oozes evil. I think it’s the tie..

Now Voyaging ‏
“Hi I’m Roger and I’ll be your jailer this evening” #JudexParty

Michael Kuzmanovski 
“Hey sis, your piano teacher is hot.” #JudexParty

Movies Silently ‏
“She won’t date you? Kidnap her!” This is his solution to everything. “Can’t pay your water bill? Kidnap the mailman!”#JudexParty

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE CITADEL (1938)

Have you ever had a movie just suck you in?  You sit down, not intending on watching a movie, and all of a sudden two hours have gone by and you are left wondering what happened.  That happened to me yesterday, while TCM was airing a Robert Donat birthday tribute and I sat down to take a short break after lunch.  I watched the end of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (a fantastic movie by the way) and fully intended to get up and do something else when THE CITADEL came on.

Andrew Mason (Robert Donat) is a Scottish born idealistic new physician, who has recently come to work in a Welsh mining town as apprentice to a Dr. Page.  Life is not wholly pleasant for Andrew as the town is sorely lacking in updated medical supplies, rife with superstitious townsfolk, and Dr. Page’s wife is a pain.  She forces Andrew to work for almost no money and gives him a tiny room to live in.  The townsfolk are initially standoffish of the new doctor but once Andrew saves an apparently still-born baby, they warm to him and make him into a hero, much to Mrs. Page’s dismay.  It is around this time that Andrew makes friends with Denny (Ralph Richardson), a fellow doctor who likes his drink a little too much, and meets the local school teacher Christine Barlow (Rosalind Russell).  Denny is attracted to Christine but is too shy to approach her romantically.

Andrew soon hears about a nearby town in need of a new doctor and he eagerly applies for the post.  The committee is willing to hire him but they are only offering the position to married men.  Andrew quickly says that he is engaged to be married, once he gets a position of course, and the committee offer him the job.  Andrew accepts and then goes to find Christine.  He tells her about his problem and how he needs to find a wife.  Christine tells him to go and tell the committee that there are no problems with his application and the two are soon married.  Both soon realize that they are in love and being their life together.  In their new home Andrew begins making waves by not being anything like the old town doctor, namely by not giving the patients what they want without a medical reason.  He also realizes that many of the miners are affected by a mysterious lung ailment.  He begins to do research, helped by Christine, and soon comes to the realization that the miners are contracting tuberculosis due to the dust in the mines.  He sets about writing a paper to submit to medical journals and is soon attracting the attention of fellow physicians for his forward thinking and advances.

But the townspeople are becoming suspicious of Andrew for just those reasons and they soon take action.  One morning, Christine comes rushing into Andrew’s office to tell him that all their work has been destroyed by a mob who rushed into their home.  Angered and hurt, Andrew resigns his position and takes Christine to London.  There Andrew sets up a practice and hopes to soon be caring for more appreciative clientele.  Unfortunately this is not to be and Andrew is soon left selling his own possessions in order to make ends meet, and piercing the ears of less than fashionable women.  One day Andrew and Christine go out to lunch at a local Italian restaurant, run by Mrs. Orlando and her daughter Anna.  Mrs. Orlando treats the couple kindly, having been their only friend during their time in London, and Anna shows them her new dance steps.  Lunch is scarcely begun though when Andrew is summoned to a local department store where a young woman appears to be having a seizure.  Andrew clears the room and helps the woman onto the couch.  When she starts screaming and crying again, Andrew slaps her as he has realized that she is simply putting on an act and not having a seizure at all.

The young woman’s name is Toppy Leroy (Penelope Dudley Ward), one of the richest women in London, and she asks Andrew to see her home where she offers him a drink to celebrate.  Andrew declines and heads for the elevator where he runs into Dr. Lawford (Rex Harrison), an old medical school friend.  Lawford invites Andrew to come and see some patients with him at a fashionable nursing home.  Andrew agrees and is soon caught up in the world of high-end private practice.  His days are full of golf outings and consultations which require no great medical effort on his part. Christine is suspicious about the sudden influx of cash for little work, but Andrew dismisses her worries.  In fact, Andrew has become more and more distant lately and has even begun having an affair with Toppy.  Christine is worried about Andrew and so, when he asks where she would like to go to lunch one day, takes him back to Mrs. Orlando’s kitchen.  On their way there the couple runs into Denny and the three go to lunch, where they find Mrs. Orlando but no Anna.  She tells them that Anna is sick with a lung disease but Andrew barely acknowledges this.

Denny begins to tell Andrew his new plans for an affordable care clinic for the people in the small villages and asks Andrew to come and work with him.  Andrew turns him down and asks Denny where he will get his money from, especially if he will care for people for free.  Denny is disenchanted by the changes he sees in Andrew, and though he has managed to stay sober for some time, goes out drinking.  He returns later that day, thoroughly soused, and tells Andrew exactly what he thinks of him before turning and hurrying out into the street.  Christine looks out the window in their apartment and sees an automobile accident occur.  Horrified she realizes that it is Denny who has been struck and Andrew runs to the scene.

This movie was nominated for four Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  Once again, King Vidor takes a story of ordinary people and makes it into something extraordinary.  I literally could not turn this movie off and had to sit there and watch it all the way through.  The story is so well done, so absorbing, but also so real and affecting.  The story of a medical man struggling to keep his ideals and scientific curiosity in a field where money and social-climbing are becoming more the norm definitely hit home for me, a former nurse.

Rosalind Russell is wonderful in this film, quite different from we are used to seeing her.  So often in her roles, Rosalind Russell is just a little edgier, tougher, louder, brasher, and more energetic than other leading ladies.  But this film really gives her a chance to be a more reserved and gentle character, to portray a woman who loves her husband deeply and quietly and much more realistically than is usually shown.  But the one who really steals this movie is Robert Donat.

I have loved Robert Donat since I first saw him in THE 39 STEPS.  There was a special quality about him that was so different from most other leading men, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  But I think after watching THE CITADEL I might have a better idea.  I think it is because he is kind.  There is an element of kindness and humbleness to him that comes through in so many of his performances, and it does again here.  Andrew is a kind man, who even when he becomes angry and speaks forcefully will still remember to say “Thank you for letting me speak” and “Good day”.  He is idealistic without being naive, his excitement and desire to help and heal people coming through without seeming to be contrived.  And that is what makes his fall into the superficial world of fashionable private practice all the more devastating.  To see a man who had such ideals fall so far away from that which he once held dear, shows so clearly how badly his trust and his heart must have been betrayed by the actions of the fearful townspeople.  As I said before, there is a kindness to Robert Donat and a humbleness that makes him so watchable and so wonderful.  He is an actor that suffered greatly from anxiety and shyness, perhaps so much so that it ended his career and possibly his life far too soon.  This film is a true testament to the great talent of an actor who deserves to be known not only for his career but his spirit and soul, because when Robert Donat acts that is what he gives each and every time.


If you want to learn more about Robert Donat, Meredith over at Vitaphone Dreamer has written a fantastic profile of him!  Also, there is an entire site devoted to Robert Donat so definitely go and check it out.

Watching With Warner: THE SEA HAWK (1924)

Thanks to my recent participation in the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently fame, I have been bitten by the silent film bug.  Before this my experience with silent films was more towards Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but thanks to suggestions from Fritzi herself (yes, she is real!) I have been taking a look at some more serious offerings.  And so when I saw a post about THE SEA HAWK, I knew that this was a movie that I needed to check out.

Chances are that if you have seen THE SEA HAWK you most likely saw the 1940 version with Errol Flynn.  This offering from director Frank Lloyd, who would go one to direct MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, too often is relegated to an afterthought or a bit of historical background.  That is a shame because this film not only adheres more closely to the original story of THE SEA HAWK, but also is just as exciting and full of buckles to be swashed as the later version.  Not only that but there are some spectacular full-sized ships used in thrilling ship to ship battles, the footage of which was re-used at Warner Brothers for years to come.

In the quiet Cornwall countryside, Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is enjoying his retirement thanks to a commendation from Queen Elizabeth I.  As one of her majesty’s privateers, Oliver was part of the fight that finally defeated the Spanish Armada and is now planning on marrying his sweetheart.  His intended is Rosamond Godolphin (Enid Bennett), the sister of Peter Godolphin (Wallace Mac Donald) and under the guardianship of Sir John Killigrew (Mark MacDermott).  Unfortunately for Olivier, John Killigrew is none too pleased with the notion of the fair Rosamond marrying, as he words it, a pirate!  He has sent Peter over to tell Oliver just that but Oliver, taking offense at being called a pirate, storms off to speak with John himself.  However, Oliver’s idea of talking is to challenge John to a duel and promptly slice him to ribbons.  He considers this letting John off with a warning and is about to leave when Rosamond appears.  When Oliver tries to explain that he was defending his besmirched honor, as if thrashing a man with a sword disproves the point of him being a ruthless pirate, Rosamond pleads with him to come to her the next time he wishes to use his sword in anger.  Not wanting to hurt Rosamond, Oliver agrees and the couple embrace.

sea hawk 3

Oliver and Rosamond are happy for a time, until their respective brothers begin to make trouble.  It seems like Oliver’s half-brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes) and Rosamond’s brother Peter are both enamored of the same woman.  She is a matron whose, as the intertitles describe, “conscience is elastic and husband is – old” so naturally she has no problem stringing both men along.  This is fine for a little while but then a half drunk Peter discovers Lionel embracing his lady-love and storms off in a huff.  Lionel is also angry at having been played for a fool and breaks things off with the matron, who is left alone and wondering what happened to all her pretty young men?  Peter rides into town and begins horse whipping Oliver, demanding that he send Lionel to him.  Oliver is quite understandably less than pleased with this and rides off after Peter, intent on giving him a thrashing of his own.  But partway out-of-town Oliver remembers Rosamond’s words and turns his horse’s head back to the way he came.  Some time later Peter finds Lionel and provokes him into a fight, which in turn leads to Lionel killing Peter in self-defense.  Horrified at what he has done and bleeding from his wounds, Peter gathers his things and hurries back to Oliver’s house where his brother is wondering what has become of him.  Lionel confesses what has happened but worries because no one saw the fight that he will be convicted of murder.  Oliver promises to help his brother and to protect him.

Morning dawns and with it comes the discovery of Peter’s body.  Worse yet, the ugly rumor is circulating that Oliver is the one that killed him and that rumor has reached Rosamond.  It seems that a trail of blood lead from the corpse back to Oliver’s front door and Rosamond is convinced that the man she loves has killed her brother.  Oliver is hurt that Rosamond could believe such a thing of him, especially since she asked him to promise to come to her before acting in haste.  However, he has a plan to prove his innocence and asks the local justice to come and inspect his body for fresh wounds.  When none are found the justice makes out an affidavit which will prove Oliver’s innocence in the crime.  But as Oliver seems calmer and calmer in the face of these accusations, Lionel seems more and more panicked.  He is afraid that by proving his innocence Oliver will end up casting blame on him.  But if Oliver were to disappear…

sea hawk 4

Lionel makes his way to a local pub and meets with Captain Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) of the Sparrow, and offers him a great deal of money (and a jeweled ring) to shanghai his dear brother.  Jasper does just that and when they are far enough out to sea he sends for Oliver.  Taking off his chains Jasper presents Oliver with a proposition.  Pay him a lot of money and he will deposit him safely back on English shores.  Oliver demands to know who betrayed him and is horrified to learn that it is his own brother who has done the deed.  Promising to pay Jasper double, Oliver is ready to storm out onto the deck when a call comes out that a Spanish ship is bearing down on them.  Outmatched and outgunned, the tiny Sparrow and her crew have no choice but to surrender.  Now a prisoner of Spain, Oliver finds himself chained to an oar and lashed daily.  Six months pass and Oliver has become hardened of both mind and body, disillusioned by the un-Christian attitudes of the Spanish.

sea hawk 1

Oliver’s oar-mate is Yusuf (Albert Prisco), an Algerian of some prominence and nephew of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers (Frank Currier) a famed corsair.  It just so happens that Yusuf’s uncle is right around the bend and the Spanish ship is soon under attack.  The Algerians defeat the Spanish, but Yusuf is killed in the action.  Disgusted by the cruel treatment of the Spanish, Oliver joins Asad-ed-Din’s forces and soon becomes one of the most feared pirates, called The Sea Hawk.  After many years of sailing and defeating Spanish ships, The Sea Hawk and his crew happen upon The Sparrow and take her and her crew prisoner.  Down in the hold they discover Jasper, a prisoner of Spain all this time.  Oliver takes this chance to get a message back to England using Jasper as courier.

After first retrieving the affidavit from its hiding place in Oliver’s estate, Jasper goes to see Rosamond.  He attempts to present the documents to her but Rosamond, ever forgiving and level-headed, throws them into the fire unread.  Jasper accuses Lionel of being the one who killed Peter but is thrown out on his ear for his trouble.  Jasper returns Oliver and delivers the bad news with one addition.  Rosamond and Lionel will be married within the month.  Jasper decides that with crew, his ship, and his new set of skills, it is time to return to England and settle old scores.  First stop will be the wedding of Lionel and Rosamond because who doesn’t love a wedding crasher?

sea hawk 2

I really enjoyed this film and found myself caught up in the action.  The sea battles are worthy of anything made today, and are actually all the more impressive for the lack of CGI and the use of real full-sized ships.  The story itself is exciting and thrilling with only a few moments that tend to lag a bit.  For me, the love story was a little bit like an afterthought in some places and there was a moment or two where I wondered how much Rosamond could care for Oliver if she was so willing to believe the worst of him?  What ever happened to stand by your man?  Still, Enid Bennett is quite lovely and give a good performance as the lady love though perhaps she could have used a few more scenes to flesh out her character?  She and Milton Stills have a good chemistry which makes her inner turmoil of whether or not to completely hate Oliver more believable.

There is also a nice examination of culture and character, the pious Spanish and English often coming off as judgmental and cruel, while the Algerians are shown with little stereotyping and as throughly devout.  It is a good backdrop in which to question the truth of men’s characters and ambitions.  Being made in 1924 you can almost feel the excitement of the filmmakers in the chance to portray such exotic and foreign places, as well as historical times.  The costumes and scenery are lush and beautifully done, looking far more authentic than many films made today.

This is my first time seeing Milton Sills and I am now a full-fledged fan, happily inducted into the club thanks to Fritzi.  He plays the part of Oliver as a man of conflicts but also with heart and passion.  He flip-flops between loyalties and cultures without coming off as wishy-washy or indecisive.  The character of Sir Oliver Tressilian is one of a man of differences that are each fighting to find their place in his character.  Is he a pirate or a gentleman?  A warrior or a lord?  A lover or a man bent on revenge?  With everything that happens to him you can’t help but sympathize with his constantly shifting perspectives and loyalties, after all how can he be expected to settle on one thing or another when everything he holds dear and trusts in is taken away when he needs it most?  Milton Sills is not a name that is terribly well-known today which is a shame because he is such a terrific actor.  His pure energy comes out of the screen and carries us along, veering expertly between a hero and a villain.  Yes, there are some moments of overly emotional acting but those are few and far between, and for the most part Sills puts on a performance that made me want to see more of his films.  Unfortunately, Sills died at the early age of forty-eight of a heart attack, and very few of his films have survived and made the transition to home video.  The Warner Archive has done a great job in restoring THE SEA HAWK and added a terrific score to go along with it, making it a perfect introduction to an actor who deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: BED AND SOFA (1927)

This post is a part of the Russian in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Fritzi from Movies Silently and Flicker Alley.  Check out all the posts here!

I will be honest, when I first agreed to participate in this blogathon I was at a bit of a loss.  I wasn’t sure what sort of movie I wanted to write about since my exposure to Russian films is somewhat limited, though I have seen THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.  Still I decided to take the plunge and try something completely out of my classic film comfort zone, choosing a Russian silent film that I had never heard of before called BED AND SOFA.

Bed and Sofa 6

First some backstory and historical context of the film.  BED AND SOFA, also called TRETYA MESHCHANSKAYA, was directed by Abram Room (1894-1976) in the final years of the New Economic Policy in Russia.  In the same way that the Hayes Code changed what Hollywood could and could not make films about, so too did Socialist Realism change the face of Russian cinema when it became state policy in 1934.  Before the new rules came into effect some filmmakers, including Room, made films that examined the lives of the common people of Russia without holding to the party line.  However, unlike many of his counterparts, Room decided to make a film with three leads rather than focusing on the common masses.

Room was born in what is now Vilniuse, Lithuania and after studying medicine and psychiatry, served in the Red Army as a medical officer during the Russian Civil War.  He also did amateur theater work and from 1914-1917 directed the Students Theater of the Institute of Psyco-Neurology.  In 1923 he was invited to join the Theater of the Revolution and became director of the State Film School.  A pupil of Lev Kuhleshov, Room began working as an assistant director on films in 1924.  In making BED AND SOFA, Room intended to make a film that not only spoke out against abortion on demand and the sexual freedom that had come about during the revolution years, but one that also explored the social problems of urban life during the final years of the New Economic Policy.  BED AND SOFA met with much criticism and negativity from the government when it opened, and we will soon see why.

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Morning has come to Moscow and all throughout the city people are stirring.  On Third Meshchanskaia Street the sunlight is peeking into a small apartment, where the cat is waking up.  The cat climbs up onto the small bed and wakes up one of the two people sleeping in it.  Kolia (Nikolai Batalov) stirs and stretches in his bed, then picks up the cat and uses it to wake up his wife Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova).  Liuda gets up and begins to get things ready for the day as her husband washes up.  She prepares breakfast and makes the bed, while her husband eats and reads the party newspaper.  Kolia prepares to go to his job as a construction foreman but not before telling his wife, “Today is Saturday.  Don’t forget to wash the floors!”  Romance is not dead.  After he leaves, Liuda goes to clear the table and snorts “Husband!”.  At this moment a train is hurrying into the city, carrying Volodia (Vladimir Fogel) a printer in search of work.  When he arrives he is told that before he can get a job he must first find a place to live.  Unable to find any vacancies, Volodia wanders through the city until he reaches the square where the Bolshoy Theater is being constructed.  He sits down on a bench and settles down to nap, unaware that Kolia is working high above him.

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Back at the apartment Liuda is setting the table for dinner, using Soviet Screen film magazine as inspiration for the centerpiece.  She goes to her cramped corner where her vanity and clothes are, and begins to change when a strange man enters the apartment.  Shocked, she tells Volodia to get out of their private apartment before her husband laughingly appears.  Kolia and Volodia are old army buddies who met on the square, and Kolia has invited him to live with them.  The already cramped apartment becomes even more claustrophobic but Volodia turns out to be a somewhat ideal houseguest.  He soon gets a job at the party newspaper as a printer and even helps with some household chores, as well as bringing Liuda gifts of her favorite film magazines and a radio.

Two months pass and Kolia comes home in a rush, having just been told that he must go out of town on a business trip.  While Liuda packs, Volodia tells Kolia that he doesn’t feel comfortable staying in the apartment while he is away.  “People will talk a lot of rubbish!” he says but Kolia laughs him off.  He isn’t worried about Liuda he says, “No man can take her from me!”  Liuda looks up at that, offended at the assumption.  While Kolia is away the sexual tension between Liuda and Volodia, which until now has been unspoken, becomes much more obvious culminating during a day out of the apartment.  Volodia takes Liuda out for a flight over Moscow, much to her giddy delight, and to a movie for the first time in longer than she can remember.  Back at the apartment Volodia becomes bolder telling Liuda how attractive she is.  Unsure how to respond, Liuda goes to the table to tell her fortune with playing cards and Volodia offers to do a reading for her.  When it comes time to reveal what is in her heart the card is a jack of diamonds, while Liuda is represented by the queen of hearts.  Exchanging knowing glances, Volodia places the two cards on top of each other.

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The two begin sleeping with each other and Liuda is happily sewing a button back on Volodia’s shirt when who should come home, but Kolia.  He has brought home fruit for Liuda to make jam with.  When he notices that the calendar hasn’t moved since he left he laughingly asks, “What did time stand still for you while I was away?”  Dinner that night is decidedly awkward, especially when Kolia begins to notice Liuda’s attractiveness as well.  Volodia reveals the affair to him and Kolia storms out of the apartment, going to spend the night at his office.  The next day he returns to get some belongings before going back out into the rain.  Liuda calls him back and offers to have him stay in the apartment since the couch is now free.

The three begin to live in some sort of domestic harmony.  Kolia and Volodia spend evenings playing checkers and drinking tea, much to Liuda’s frustration and annoyance.  However, Volodia has now taken on the role of husband complete with the bad attitude.  One day Liuda attempts to leave the apartment when Volodia blocks her way and locks the door, angrily asking if she is waiting for Kolia to return.  He then goes to sleep on the couch, taking the key to the door with him.  When Kolia does come home Volodia rolls over and does not unlock the door, causing Kolia to climb in through a window.  Liuda kindly comes over and offers him some tea which he gratefully accepts.  Liuda then brings him back to bed with her, starting an affair with both men.  Soon the inevitable happens and Liuda becomes pregnant.  Since neither man can be certain who is the father, they both insist that she has an abortion.

Spoiler Warning…I am going to talk about the ending of this movie because I feel that it is important in order to have an intelligent discussion about this movie.  If you don’t want to know what happens now is the time to duck out.

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Liuda sadly goes to the abortion clinic where she finds herself in the waiting room along with a prostitute, as well as a young girl with her mother.  While waiting to be called into the back room she looks out of the window and sees a young boy playing with a doll.  Then looking down she finds herself face to face with a little baby.  She is smiling at the child when the nurse comes out and calls the next patient back.  Liuda looks up and an older woman tells her “It’s your turn next!”  It is at this moment that Liuda makes her decision and gathers her things, quickly leaving the clinic.  When Kolia and Volodia come to see what has happened, the nurse tells them that Liuda never got the abortion and left before anything could happen.

In the apartment, Liuda gathers her belongings and takes down her picture from the wall.  She calls the landlord in and tells him that she is leaving.  When he offers to give her money she refuses, telling him that she can take care of herself and go to work.  He wishes her good-luck and Liuda leaves the small apartment.  The two men return home to find Liuda’s note on the table, in which she says “I will never return to your Third Meshchanskaia Street”.  Volodia tells Kolia that they are scoundrels and the two sit down, one on the bed and one on the sofa.  Kolia asks “Well, should we have some tea?” and Volodia wonders, “Is there any jam left?”  Far away a train races along the tracks, carrying with it Liuda who looks out the window with a small smile. The train hurries on and crosses the bridge leaving Moscow behind.

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Not surprisingly, this film met with resistance when it was first released.  It was called “an apology for adultery”, a “Western European adulterous romance”, and “psychopathological”.  Not only did it not have any place in it for the communist party or the collective, but it also had three “negative” main characters.  Kolia is a good worker but at one point he refuses to go to a party meeting because it is “boring”, while Volodia just looks neurotic (a sad irony as the actor playing him, Vladimir Fogel, struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1929).  Liuda spends most of the film being a passive burden to society, not working or contributing and spending all day reading frivolous magazines, and she only comes to a more productive end point because she wants to further her “petty bourgeois” individualism.  Not only that but the film has no positive example of the good communist proletarian.  Thanks to all of this controversy this film was not widely shown for many years and became forgotten until the 1970s when it was rediscovered.  Now regarded as a small masterpiece and example of European silent cinema, this film is a widely discussed and analyzed one.  Room himself stated that everything in the apartment is there for a reason and has it’s own significance, which doubtless leads to multiple viewings.  I know that I watched this film twice and saw many things that I had missed the first time around.

One point that always leads to much discussion is the ending.  The argument is whether it is a happy or a sad one.  Those who take the optimistic side argue that the ending is a happy one because Liuda has finally escaped the dominance of the two men and is now making her own way in the world, having claimed her independence.  The other side of the argument is that it is actually a sad ending because Liuda is abandoning her family without ever finding her real place or role within it.  I tend to side more with the happy ending crowd but not for the reasons that they put forth.

To me, this is a happy ending for Liuda because she has finally found and claimed her purpose.  Hear me out on this.  Liuda spends almost the entire film inside the apartment.  She is not allowed to leave and therefore not allowed to work.  It is clearly the desire of the men in her life that she not work and be available to them whenever they need her.  She spends her days reading magazines, doing chores, and trying to find a place to put her clothes.  Liuda is not the typical good proletarian wife, contributing to the home and society, and she enjoys the more frivolous things.  And yet she is frustrated and restless because she has no real purpose in life more than to be there to make her husband breakfast, clear the table, and scrub the floors.  There is only one thing that she can control in her life and that is her body.  Even though Kolia and Volodia prevent her from leaving the apartment, at no point during the entire film does anyone ever force themselves on her.  So in that respect she has a small amount of control.  And maybe this is why she starts the affair with Volodia.  He is the polar opposite, even physically, to her husband and when he takes her for a day out she gets a taste of what life could be.  Instead of sitting by the window watching people come and go, she might at last find a man who will take her out and allow her to do more with her life.  And since the only thing she can control is who she sleeps with, she turns to Volodia and rejects her husband.  When it becomes clear that Volodia is taking on his new role more seriously than she thought he would, she turns back to Kolia looking for something that she thought she had seen in his friend but is now lost.  When the moment comes that it is discovered that she is pregnant, what happens?  The two men make the decision and tell her to get an abortion.  She never says she wants to get one, she never says she does not want the baby but the decision is taken away from her.  While in the clinic she sees the young boy and the baby, and comes to a realization.  This is the moment that she takes control of her life and this is the moment that she finds her purpose.  She will keep the baby and in doing so she makes her life not about the two men in the little apartment, not even about her own desires.  It would be different if she had had the abortion and then left the two men, but she doesn’t.  She keeps the baby thereby making her new purpose in life to provide for herself and her unborn child.  She turns down the landlord’s offer of money, telling him that she will take care of herself by working.  It is not insignificant that in her note she refers to it as YOUR Third Meshchanskaia Street.  The apartment and the street are the world and domain of Kolia and Volodia, so she must leave to make her own world.  So, yes I do think it is a happy ending but not because she has gotten free of the oppression of men or at least not just because of that.  I think that it is a happy ending because she has found her purpose and she is going forth to claim it.

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Another point of discussion is the reaction of the men.  Some people take it as initial annoyance that she has left, followed by gleeful return to their old bachelor ways.  It didn’t strike me in that way, rather it is more a stunned reaction.  They are shocked to find out that she hasn’t gone through with the abortion and even more so to find that she has left.  I think they realize their part in causing her to leave, and even feel a bit badly about asking her to get an abortion in the first place.  They go to the one part of the apartment that is or was hers, the vanity, but she has gone and her picture is taken down and all they can do is look at themselves in her mirror.  To me the bit of dialogue at the end about tea and jam is less of a “thank God she is gone” reaction and more of a “well, what do we do now?”  Without her there they are at a loose end and not sure how to act, so they just go back to their old behaviors and their old sleeping arrangements.  Regardless of which side of the ending you fall on, this movie certainly proves one thing.  The issues of women’s rights, social independence, relationships between men and women, and sexual freedoms are not new or modern ones but are in fact as old as civilization.

I could spend pages and pages talking about this film.  I loved it and I am so glad that I got a chance to see it.  The acting is by far some of the most natural that I have seen on film.  The pure delight and excitement on the face of Lyudmila Semyonova during the scene in the airplane is so real that I wondered if this was in fact her first plane ride.  There are moments where it feels like the camera has just been left rolling in the home of these three people and we are simply witnessing their private moments.  The film itself looks beautiful and the score is wonderful, Flicker Alley has obviously done a careful and loving job in making the disk.  A copy of this film is being offered as a prize from Flicker Alley to celebrate this blogathon, making the person who wins it a very lucky person indeed!


Full Disclosure: Special thanks to Kimberly Bastin of Flicker Alley for providing me with a screener copy of the movie for this blogathon!  And thanks to Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently for not only putting me in touch with Ms. Bastin, but also for holding this fabulous blogathon!