Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Burn the Old Films

Appreciation for classic films is rapidly diminishing.  The greatest and most frustrating reason is that classic films have become incompatible with modern day political correctness.  This is the clear message delivered by the new guard of film critics that have come into prominence on the Internet.  This group is increasingly hostile to old films, which they believe promote evil notions and need to be relegated as quickly as possible to the nearest dustbin.  The more fanatical ones are eager to build a great bonfire with every old film they can find so that they can be rid of this pernicious material once and for all.

I was never more aware of the looming threat of massive film burnings until I encountered the outrage over NBC's recent revival of the 1954 musical "Peter Pan."  Internet critics immediately amassed in full force against the project because any theatrical property that is sixty years old has to be insensitive, intolerant and wrongheaded.  Salon's Sonia Saraiya didn't mince words.  She condemned the "Peter Pan" story for one great problem - it was "overwhelmingly white."  She said that the story, which was adapted from a 1904 London play, could not help but reflect the "social norms of a bunch of long-dead white Brits." She thought that it would best serve society if this old white man's story was forgotten altogether.  "Why on earth did NBC decide to do this show?" she asked.  She advocated for children’s fables to be "unpacked and retold to include more female and minority perspectives."  Her comments reflect an opinion held by the "us vs. them" types in her community that female and minority perspectives are the true and only driving force in today's culture. 

It is racist and stupid to complain that "Peter Pan" is overwhelmingly white just as it would be racist and stupid to complain that The Seven Samurai is overwhelmingly Japanese.  This is the person who wrote the original "Peter Pan" novel and play.

He is, as you can see, a white man.  He did, as one would expect, provide the perspective of a white man.  Why should that be wrong?  Saraiya comes across as more than a little racist.  The writer's racism has turned up in other articles.  She expressed a clear aversion to white people in her review of HBO's The Leftovers, which provoked a response from the Washington Free Beacon.  Last month, Saraiya let it be know that she dislikes Christmas films in which angels walk around on earth "mostly to set white people up in small-town romances." 

When the "Peter Pan" musical was originally staged in 1954, director Jerome Robbin emphasized the comical aspects of the story's Indian characters.  Activist critics who now look back on this production deem its portrayal of Indians as intolerably offensive.  I would call these critics oversensitive, but this would suggest that they have actual compassion for Indians.  The truth is that, when these people note the violations listed in their official political correctness handbook, they are acting as coldly as a traffic cop who cites a regulation for a broken taillight.  For all their sound and fury, they lack a true emotional attachment to the many rules that they espouse.  The protests have become nothing more than the cranky noises of privileged people who have no real problems in life.  I can no more see an Indian being threatened by Neverland's Indian princess, Tiger Lily, than I can see myself, as an Italian American, being threatened by Chico Marx. 

The notion that "Peter Pan" is a threat to Saraiya and others gives you some sense of the kind of people we’re talking about here.   Didn't President Obama say something like that about North Korea's overheated opposition to Sony's The Interview

Let me lay out the specific complaints against "Peter Pan."  Willa Paskin of Slate was offended that the Indians in the musical wore loincloths.  Presumably, it was her concern that the loincloths made the Indians look primitive.  But Indians did, in fact, wear loincloths.  Besides, Peter Pan doesn't look any more ready for modern civilization dressed in his green breeches.  Many critics were offended that the Indians said "ugh."  But evidence exists that Indians did say "ugh."  Detractors expressed their displeasure that Sondra Lee, the actress who so wonderfully portrayed Tiger Lily, was blonde.  But these Indians were never intended to be seen as fully realized, authentic Indians.

Having Indian characters say "how" and "ugh" is seen by the sensitive folk as demeaning because it reduces Indians to monosyllabic savages.  Eva Gruber, author of Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness, believes this limited vocabulary "denies Native people communicative abilities."  As a child, I assumed that the Indians had no reason to speak fluently to a white man because the white man did not understand their language.  I perceived Indians as savage because they scalped people.  Tiger Lily, who does not scalp a single person, is sweet and lovely and not at all savage. 

I resent being told that I am evil if I enjoy this musical number.  If loving you is wrong, Sondra, I don't want to be right.

It was mostly Indians featured in comedy films that said "ugh" and "how."  These characters drew laughs in interactions with Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges, and Ma And Pa Kettle.  The stereotypical Indian was further exaggerated in cartoons, including a 1938 Popeye cartoon called Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh.  If we banned all of the films that have Indians speaking crude English, we would be getting rid of a significant portion of our film history.  And for what?  No one, not even a six-year-old child, can take this Hollywood Indian-speak seriously. 

This is not to say that "how" and "ugh" did not have legitimate origins in American history.  Several American Indian tribes, including the Muskogee, Creek, Seminole, Omaha and Sioux, used "how" to express affirmation or assent.  The word was spelled in a variety of ways, including ho, hau, hvo, howo and haugh.  The last spelling was used a number of times in James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel "The Last of the Mohicans."  The bestselling novel popularized the word.  It is similar to what happened to a line of dialogue included in Charles Dickens' novel "Great Expectations."  Very British Joe Gargery is so happy to see his old friend Pip that he cries out, "Pip, Pip, old chap!"  This innocuous remark became a stock phrase used by comedians to caricature old British gentleman.  No one is safe from the satirist's daggers.

Some have said that, over time, Fenimore's "haugh" got transformed into "ugh."  But this is not necessarily true.  The word "ugh" may have been another separate word used by Indians.  Michael Johnston Kenan, who assisted U.S. treaty commissioners at Broken Arrow in the Creek Nation, made mention of the word in his writings.  He wrote, "I was particularly surprized by the simultaneous — & clearly, expressed responses or guttural ‘ugh’s, of the entire Council.  This appeared to be the word of assent or approval that every member uttered, as the speakers rounded or clinched as it were, their statements or inferences — It was as much as ‘yes’ — ‘that’s so’, or their equivalent meaning."

As a boy, "Pan" creator J. M. Barrie was influenced by boys' adventure novels, including "The Last of the Mohicans" and R. M. Ballantyne's "The Coral Island."  The latter novel detailed the story of three boys shipwrecked on a South Pacific island.  While trying to stay alive on the island, the boys endure dangerous encounters with pirates and cannibals.  Adventure novels of this sort inspired role-playing games among boys.

These clamorous critics either don't understand or don't approve of boys' fantasy stories.  But that's all that "Peter Pan" really is.  A popular theory exists that the fairies who brought Peter to Neverland created the various inhabitants of the island as playmates to the rambunctious little boy.  This is the reason that the characters are something out of a little boy's imagination - Indians, mermaids and pirates.  This supports the notion that the Indians are not authentic Indians.  What would authentic Indians be doing on Neverland island?  The Atlantic's Sarah Laskow wrote, "This was the cast of characters that populated turn-of-the-century playtime in Britain, and in the play, as one New York Times reviewer wrote in 1905, 'Mr. Barrie presents not the pirate or Indian of grown-up fiction but the creations seen by childish eyes.'"  The upcoming feature film Pan will make it clear that these Indians are fantasy characters.  Laskow described the new natives' dress as "a sort of outlandishly bright array of pinks, purples, browns and bright blues that manages to be fantastic enough that no one would ever confuse this tribe with an American Indian tribe." 

We keep being told by the media that the white man is becoming extinct and that his views are no longer relevant.  It follows in this line of thinking that all of the literature created by white men must become extinct as well.  The only chance that this work has to survive is if it manages, in some way, to be disguised or transformed.  This brings us back to the media's focus on the perspectives of women and minorities.  Many critics were delighted that NBC's "Peter Pan" included what they saw as gay subtext.  Saraiya approved of Walken "mincing up a storm during the dance numbers."  Paskin wrote, "[A]s people on Twitter had endless fun pointing out, there was the homoerotic subtext of the Lost Boys (who share one bathtub) and the very muscular pirates, who dance with each other in pantaloons.  Even the ticking crocodile, played by a person in a purple spandex suit, was suggestively slinky."  Saraiya was intrigued by the fact that the young women in the play "want[ed] sex" from a male character portrayed by a female actor (although she was bothered by the fact that this sexual attraction was, in her words, "depressingly unintentional").

The idea of a gay Captain Hook is appealing because the work of old white men cannot, in any way, be allowed to survive in old white man form.  James Bond is the creation of another old white Brit, Ian Fleming.  An Internet campaign called for Sony to install a black actor, Idris Elba, as the next Bond so that Bond could continue to be relevant.

Of course, the politically correct will get their black Bond and later complain that the image of a black man shooting guns and screwing women is racist. A Strong Female Character was created in the form of Modesty Blaise, a comic strip heroine who was designed to be a female James Bond. But, recently, a scientist was called sexist for appearing on television in a shirt that featured a Blaise-inspired design.

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't with this group, which proves that their complaints are just a lot of noise.  I once owned a shirt with an illustration of hula girls. I suppose that makes me racist and sexist.

I was sickened by something that I read in an Internet forum.  A young man complained that the only people he knew who voted for Mitt Romney was his grandfather and his grandfather's friends.  He said that he couldn't wait for old people to die.  He was so fanatically opposed to the Republican Party that he wished his Republican grandfather would die.  If a young person is so eager to bury his grandfather, how easy would it be for him to bury the books and films that have kept his grandfather amused?  Political zealots are the new religious zealots.  Man needs a grand belief system as much as he needs air to breathe.  It is man's greatest curse to be plagued by that terrible question, "What does it all mean?"  Turn away from Judaism or Christianity and something else is bound to take its place.

The enthusiasts of gender politics have upended the traditional action film to give female characters a piece of the action.  It is an artistic issue as well as a money issue.  Where did this start?

Feminists have long expressed their adoration of bad-ass female warriors, including Ripley, Xena and Buffy, and they demanded more of the same from filmmakers. The filmmakers, as they are wont to do, complied with the demand by turning out multiple carbon copies of these characters.  But now the feminists are unhappy.

Tasha Robinson wrote about a "cultural push" to, in her words, "get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films."  The "cultural push" that Robinson talks about has in fact been an aggressive, no-holds-barred campaign to force change through pressure, manipulation and intimidation.  It is, in the very least, a cultural shove.  The most forced and stupid scene in the Strong Female Character category appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

But Robinson takes issue with the Strong Female Character that is seen in so many films today.  She sees this type of character as a simplistic marketing device rather than a meaningful character.  She finds that the film companies are giving audiences "the Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character."  She quotes a number of other critics who have taken up this cause. 

That's the problem when something becomes a trope.  All that a trope is, in the end, is a simplistic marketing device.  Give the people what they like and they'll come back for more.  But who is at fault for this?  This shallow, politically correct cut-out character known as the Strong Female Character only exists due to the protests of feminists.  No one likes these characters.  It's what happens when you mix political argument with art and entertainment.  It is a bag of salt poured into a cake mix.  The fact that the feminists who protested these characters into existence now want to protest these characters out of existence makes my head spin.  Protests do not produce characters.  Protests do not produce art.  Protests produce appeasements.  And, now, what do appeasements produce?  More protests.

For the record, men don't want the leading lady of a film to be, as Robinson suggests, a "sex toy."  People who go to sit in a movie theatre want to be told a good story and a good story is not possible without well-developed characters.  Every character, whether major or minor, usually needs to have purpose and identity for a film to be effective.  It is great when a filmmaker creates the illusion that every character in his film, no matter how minor, has a real and full life outside the scope of the scene.  Personally, I enjoy when the haggard film noir hero stops at a luncheonette and says to the man who runs the place, "Hi, Charlie, how's the kids?"  Then, Charlie says something funny about his son or daughter.  Let's call it the S.Z. Sakall Principle.  If the luncheonette owner must have an inner life, you can be assured that the leading lady should have one, too. 

Robinson said that she is concerned with the way that women are portrayed today in mainstream films, but what she meant by the examples of films that she provided was that she was concerned with the way that women are portrayed in mainstream action films.  But, admittedly, women have traditionally played a less substantial role in the action film.  It's just the nature of the story.  In action films, conflicts are externalized, physical threats are prevalent, and muscular solutions are required.  Robinson touches on this point, but she ultimately rejects it.  She demands inclusion and equality for women in action films as if it is a Constitutional right.  Oddly, this issue does touch on the matter of equal pay because action films are the blockbuster films.  This is where women in the film industry can make big money.  If women cannot play key roles in the production of action films, then it could have a drastic affect on the money they earn compared to the money that their male colleagues earn.  That argument would make total sense except for the fact that the traditional elements of storytelling have nothing to do with back-end revenue. 

Robinson identified the true Strong Female Character as "someone with her own identity, agenda, and story purpose."  But she also acknowledged that storytelling involves a hero's journey.  This is, in the end, a personal journey that requires a hero to assume responsibility to resolve an important conflict in their life.  In a film with a male action hero, it can create an unwanted distraction to allow the wife or girlfriend to have her own agenda. 

Action films have for the last hundred years been male-oriented entertainment.  Action films and now video games stand in place of the boys' adventure novels that Barrie had loved so dearly in his childhood.  But, wrongly, boys are no longer allowed to have their adventure stories.  They are not allowed their own private space to indulge their desires and fantasies.  These women insist on an aggressive expansion into this male-dominated territory.  This has become, in this cultural war, a form of Lebensraum.  When CGI gets good enough, they will alter The Dirty Dozen to substitute Trini López with a buffed-up Reese Witherspoon.

Society has long made it a man's job to prove his strength and capability to prospective mates.  For centuries, a man was burdened with the responsibility to be provider and protector and the stories that he read were designed to provide him with the inspiration and direction that he needed to take on these difficult roles.  It has also been argued that video games can provide young men with a catharsis for their natural aggressive impulses.  It is fine if women do not like these games because women are not supposed to like these games.  These games are not for them.

Can a woman find the same release and direction when she watches an action film or a violent video game?  Manohla Dargis of The New York Times remembered a time in the 1970s "when my sisters, mom and I would convene in front of the television to watch Wonder Woman fighting for our rights in her satin tights, as the goofy theme song put it."  She added, "I don’t remember much about the show, but I do know that the vision of this strong woman triumphing with flowing hair and bulletproof bracelets delighted us."  I don't know if this story convinces me that a six-year-old girl can become enthralled watching an old John Wayne war movie.  The Duke's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) was specifically designed to appeal to boys and men.

It would have seemed ridiculous at the time if the film's leading lady, Adele Mara, proved her strength by punching out Forrest Tucker.

What is happening with these action films is a lot like what has been happening with video games.  Take a look at the GamerGate controversy, a feminist conspiracy to destroy the male-dominated world of the gamers.  The logic of feminists was, plainly, that video games in their current form promote violence and sexism and this meant that video games must be destroyed.  Journalists went on a campaign to insult and shame gamers for their preferences in entertainment.  Milo Yiannopoulos, an Associate Editor at Breitbart London, brought up emails that were leaked to him from a secret mailing list called GameJournoPros.  He wrote,
The emails proved that dozens of senior journalists from competing publications were colluding — as in the JournoList scandal in 2010 — to push political and “social engineering” agendas in their coverage and blackball writers who tried to speak out about corruption in the press.

This was the proof that gamers had been waiting for: the gaming press really was rotten, as they had suspected for years.  For a decade, games journalists had been insulting their own audience with lofty put-downs and boring them to death with earnest political treatises.  The GameJournoPros disclosure provided momentum for GamerGate, which became a full-scale consumer revolt against malpractice in the games press and a rejection of that vindictive, politicised coverage.

Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Look closely [at Gamergate] and you can see all the promise of our hyperconnected society devolving into a shrill cacophony of endless infighting.  What a waste of an era."

The publishing field is dominated by women.  But this field is treated differently.  No one monitors the publishing field to assure diversification.  No one criticizes a female agent or a female editor who makes it clear in submissions guidelines that they will not consider male-oriented novels.  Why?

It should be made clear that women in no way had a bad year in films.  A woman's perspective was provided in several acclaimed films, including Wild, Still Alice, Obvious Child, Big Eyes, and Two Days, One Night.  The women in these films acted admirably in resolving serious personal problems.  What did men get?  They got the dark Birdman and the darker Nightcrawler.  If this is a competition (which I don't see it as), women are winning.

Classic films are now defined mostly by their treatment of women and minorities.  These new critics are unable to review Swing Time (1936) without devoting a large portion of the review to discussing a blackface number performed by Fred Astaire.  Film critic Alex Cranz titled his review of the film "Swing Time: A Gorgeous Film Complicated By Racism."  So, now, someone going on the Internet to learn about Astaire will come away thinking that Astaire was an old racist who went around high-stepping in blackface.  The Dissolve's Matthew Dessem claimed that Buster Keaton's The Playhouse could not be particularly beloved today because it featured a blackface routine.  Personally, I refuse to be shamed into disliking Keaton because he performed a blackface routine.

Movie Morlocks, a blog sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, is designed for classic movie lovers.  I expect to come to this blog to get away from the classic film haters.  But, the other day, I was taken aback by a review of Bachelor Mother (1939) written by Movie Morlocks' Susan Doll.  The plot of Bachelor Mother involves a salesgirl (Ginger Rogers) who sees an abandoned baby on the steps of an orphanage and acts quickly to take the baby inside the orphanage before it can roll down the steps.  The problem is that, once she takes possession of the baby, she can't get anyone to believe that the baby is not her's.  Doll took time out of her review to make the following qualification: "As much as I love Ginger Rogers, and as accepting as I am of old-school gender politics from the Golden Age, there are scenes in this film that make me cringe."  Doll was outraged that none of the other characters were willing to listen to what this woman had to say.  She found herself unable to laugh at a film in which a woman was so powerless.  Is this really a serious complaint?  No one listens to what Cary Grant has to say in Arsenic and Old Lace.  No one listens to what Eddie Bracken has to say in Hail, the Conquering Hero.  This is something that happens in a farce.  I could not watch a classic film sitting next to someone who is periodically cringing and spouting off their views about "gender politics."  The cringers are worse than the haters.

A film doesn't even need to be seventy years old to be dumped into the dustbin along with all of the other films deemed by these critics as unpleasantly outdated.  In 2014, the staff of The Dissolve had a roundtable discussion about The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).  The group generally admitted that they found nothing discomforting about the film when it was originally released in 2005, but they had very different feelings about the film now that they came to examine it "nine years after the fact."  Nathan Rabin insisted, "[T]here are a lot of things in 40-Year-Old Virgin that are just plain offensive from the standpoint of 2014."  Rabin indicated that, to see the film "through the prism of 2014 identity politics and cultural sensitivity," it felt like a "period piece."  He pointed out particular scenes that would not "[make] the final cut in 2014."  He said that, because "the culture has evolved and become more sensitive," a film that he thought was "sweet [and] fundamentally gentle" in 2005 now came across to him as abrasive.  Scott Tobias suggested that, because we are living in a "much more culturally sensitive time," we cannot look back at a film from a bygone era without opening "cans of worms."  Of course, the idea that 2005 is a bygone era indicates that the world is changing faster than we can absorb it, which cannot be a good thing.  A culture that undergoes rapid and severe fluctuations cannot possibly sustain a legacy as evocative as motion pictures, which delivers a wide variety of ideas and messages.  What I find discomforting is the idea that, after nine years, a popular comedy film could be subjected to a radical reassessment and ultimately be abandoned for the alleged vice of regressive humor.  Tobias made reference to the "cultural-thinkpiece apparatus" that is in place today.  These are the torch-bearing fanatics that want to burn old films. 

Be assured that, as society becomes more sensitive, dialogue and situations that are inoffensive today will be offensive tomorrow.  Buy a DVD to a film made twenty years ago.  Listen to the director's commentary and count the number of times the director says, "We couldn't do that today."  The leading man grabs the leading lady around her shoulders and, while the woman squirms in his grip, he thrusts himself forward and roughly kisses her.  Despite her initial resistance, the woman becomes pleasantly excited and kisses the man back passionately.  "We'd be killed if we did something like that today," says the director.  The  sexual politics of the eighties gave way to the sexual politics of the nineties, which gave way to the sexual politics of the new millennium, and so on and so forth.  And who knows what sexual politics will be a few years from now?  Art needs to be immune from constant social upheaval.

Political correctness affects a wide range of films.  How about film noir?  No way, Bogart smokes too much.

How about the musicals?  This M-G-M musical, Neptune's Daughter (1949), is now taboo because it features a musical number that is, in the words of one critic, "date-rapey."

You show them a film and they will find something wrong with it.

Some old people are no better, believing that any film that is made today must be crap, but at least old people avoid the films that displease them rather than engage in a bitter campaign of censorship.

Reference Sources

Cranz, Alex.  "Swing Time: A Gorgeous Film Complicated By Racism."  FemPop (March 1, 2012).  http://www.fempop.com/2012/03/01/swing-time-a-gorgeous-film-complicated-by-racism/.

Dargis, Manohla.  "In Hollywood, It’s a Men’s, Men’s, Men’s World."  The New York Times (December 24, 2014).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/28/movies/in-hollywood-its-a-mens-mens-mens-world.html?_r=0.

Dessem, Matthew.  "The Gag Man."  The Dissolve (April 24, 2014 ).  http://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/531-the-gag-man/.

Doll, Susan.  "Christmas with Ginger Rogers."  Movie Morlocks (December 22, 2014).  http://moviemorlocks.com/2014/12/22/christmas-with-ginger-rogers/.

Koski G., Rabin N., Robinson T. and Tobias S.  "Sex, improv, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin."  The Dissolve (July 30, 2014).  https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/682-sex-improv-and-the-40-year-old-virgin/.

Laskow, Sarah.  "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe."  Smithsonian Magazine (December 2, 2014).  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/racist-history-peter-pan-indian-tribe-180953500/.

Lepore, Meredith.  "Is Publishing The Most Competitive Industry for Women?"  The Grindstone (April 12, 2012).  http://www.thegrindstone.com/2012/04/12/office-politics/is-publishing-the-most-competitive-industry-for-women-111/.

Paskin, Willa.  "Peter Pan Live! Was So Bad and Also So, So Good." Slate (December 5, 2014).  http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/05/peter_pan_live_on_nbc_starring_allison_williams_and_christopher_walken_reviewed.html.

Robinson, Tasha.  "We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome."  The Dissolve (June 16, 2014).  http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/.

Saraiya, Sonia.  "From 'A Royal Christmas' to 'Merry Inkmas': Your guide to the hellscape of Christmas-themed programming."  Salon (December 14, 2014).  http://www.salon.com/2014/12/14/merry_holidays_or_whatever_your_guide_to_the_hellscape_of_christmas_programming/.

Saraiya, Sonia.  "The boggling mixed signals of 'Peter Pan Live!': Why on earth did NBC decide to do this show?"  Salon (December 5, 2014).  http://www.salon.com/2014/12/05/the_boggling_mixed_signals_of_peter_pan_live_why_on_earth_did_nbc_decide_to_stage_this_show/.

Schwyzer, Hugo.  "Why the 'End' of White Men Is Actually Good for White Men."  Jezebel (November 13, 2012).  http://jezebel.com/5960099/why-the-end-of-white-men-is-good-for-actually-good-for-white-men.

Yiannopoulos, Milo.  "I'm Writing a Book about #GamerGate."  Breitbart London (December 15, 2014).  http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-London/2014/12/15/I-m-writing-a-book-about-GamerGate.

Thoughts on a Few Films of 2014

This was an exceptionally good year in film.  My favorite film was Boyhood, which many  critics have put at the top of their lists.  Today, I would like to draw attention to other quality films of the year that have not gotten as much attention.

Two Days, One Night was one of the best films of the year.  The plot was simple and direct.  A factory worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), is recovering from a debilitating episode of depression.  Factory managers have told Sandra's co-workers that, if they allow them to eliminate Sandra's job, they could provide them with a substantial cash bonus.  Sandra now has 36 hours to lobby her co-workers to vote on her behalf to preserve her job.  She must rise above feelings of sadness and self-doubt to find inside of herself self-respect, confidence and determination.  She must fight for what she believes is right to avoid becoming a victim.

This year, an excellent film program could be created with The One I Love, Honeymoon and Coherence.  The theme that these films share is clear.  These are three trippy horror indies that deliver shock and dread by combining the dangers of a cabin-in-the-woods horror film with the tensions of a marital breakup film.  The films feature troubled couples who are not sure that they know each other as well as they thought.  How well does any husband or wife know the person lying next to them at night?  Several classic horror films, including Rebecca (1940) and Rosemary's Baby (1968), explored the dread, the treachery and the paranoia of marriage.  The same premise also made Gone Girl a worldwide success this year.

No time for a triple feature?  A pair of films that could be matched for an intriguing double bill is Cheap Thrills and 13 Sins.  Both films present desperate people who are willing to endure escalating dares and degradations for a big cash payoff.  These dark-humored films are nasty, bloody versions of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  To be honest, the nastiest and gore of these films would normally be too much for me (and I did in fact fast-forward through the more violent scenes), but the dilemmas were engrossing and the characters were sympathetic.

It is rare that I could become so engrossed in a film that I wasn't bothered by the excess blood.  Yet, it happened again with The Rover, which features a grim and brutal loner (Guy Pearce) traveling through a post-apocalyptic Australian outback to recover his stolen car.  His cold, single-minded pursuit of the car thieves is much like Lee Marvin's cold, single-minded pursuit of his traitorous confederates in Point Blank (1967).  The Rover could have been titled Point Blank: The Apocalypse Edition.  Pearce is so single-minded that no other reasonable thought can find space in his head, which at times makes him come across as a comically brutal oaf.

This was, in general, a good year for trippy low-budget films.  Other notable films in this category are Open Grave and Predestination.

I am usually unmoved by big-budget CGI action films, but this year I found myself captivated by Dawn of Planet of the Apes.  Great story, great characters, and great special effects.

This year was full of surprises for me.  Nothing was more surprising than the number of new feature comedies that made me laugh this year.  For the last few years, I have been grateful if I found one or two films that made me laugh.  This year, I found nine!  Let me provide a roll call.   

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Leggo Movie

St. Vincent

Land Ho!

Trailer Park Boys: Don't Legalize It

Dead Snow 2

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Knights of Badassdom


The best documentary that I saw this year was Finding Vivian Maier, which presents a fascinating portrait of an immensely mysterious and immensely talented street photographer whose abundant work (over 100,000 photographs filling up several storage lockers) wasn't discovered until shortly after her death.

It was a good year.  I hope that this trend continues through 2015.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Musings on André Deed

The Fashionable Sport (Gli sport alla moda) (1910)

I offer today's blog post as a tribute to André Deed, who is the first comedian spotlighted in my book Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I continue to be fascinated by Deed, who may be the most unjustly overlooked performer in the history of film comedy.  Just the fact that he was the industry's first comedy star should grant him prominent status in film history.  But few people are aware of Deed or are willing to acknowledge his significance.

Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano (1916)
Not long after Deed made his film debut, a decidedly different comedian established himself as Deed's most formidable rival.  That comedian was the irrepressible Max Linder.  Deed and Linder were the yin and yang of early film comedy.  But, at first, Linder did not seem as influential as Deed, who spawned far more imitators than Linder.  There was, however, a good reason for that.  Linder derived comedy from his distinct charm and personality.  How could anyone really be Max Linder except for Max Linder himself?  Deed played a bungling idiot who created destruction wherever he went.  That was an easier formula to replicate.

Foolshead, Telegraph Boy (Cretinetti fattorino telegrafico) (1911)

The first two American comedy stars were modeled after Deed and Linder.  Essanay designed Ben Turpin to be the American Deed.  Turpin performed Deed's sort of foolish antics in several films, including The Crazy Barber (1909) and The Energetic Street Cleaner (1909).  Biograph designed John Cumpson to be the American Max Linder.  The first official film in Cumpson's "Mr. Jones" series, Mr. Jones at the Ball (1909), was a remake of Linder's Mon pantalon est décousu (1908). 

Deed, a protégé of Georges Méliès, is the missing link between Méliès and Mack Sennett.  He achieved popularity with camera-trick gags and slapstick chases.  An early success for Deed was The Wig Chase (1906), which was written by André Heuzé.  This film, which was about a woman's wig floating away with balloons and a mob of people climbing up the Eiffel Tower to retrieve it, established an effective formula of fantastic comic anarchy for the comedian.  Heuzé later applied the same formula to The Runaway Horse (1908), a highly successful comedy that was quickly remade by Biograph as The Curtain Pole (1909).  The Biograph film starred Mack Sennett as Monsieur Dupont, who was made up to  resemble a grotesque version of the dapper Linder.  This funny and energetic film set Sennett on a path that would eventually lead the young filmmaker to launch the Keystone studio. 

Let's look at a few stills from Deed's films.

This is a still from the 1910 comedy Foolshead, Victim of His Honesty (originally released in Italy under the title Cretinetti vittima della sua onesta).  In the film, Deed finds a handbag on the street and attempts to turn it in as lost property at a police station.  Unfortunately, the police have little interest in the handbag and compel Deed to wait among a menacing rogue's gallery.

Foolshead, Victim of His Honesty (Cretinetti vittima della sua onesta)

This is a still from the 1911 comedy Foolshead, Lady of Company (released originally in Italy under the title Cretinetti dama di compagnia).  The plot was not the comedian's most original.  A wealthy man will not allow Deed into his home to spend time with his daughter, which drives the young woman into a state of melancholy.  The father is determined to cure his dispirited daughter of her loneliness.  He dispatches a note to an employment agency to provide his daughter with a lady companion.  However, the daughter intercepts the note and notifies Deed that they can be reunited if he comes to her home disguised as the skirted companion.

Foolshead, Lady of Company (Cretinetti dama di compagnia)

Here are further stills from this period.

 Foolshead's Christmas (Come fu Che l'ingordigia rovino il Natalie di Cretinetti) (1910)

Foolshead Marries Against His Will (Cretinetti sposo suo malgrado) (1910)

The Fashionable Sport (Gli sport alla moda) (1910) 

Foolshead Receives (Cretinetti riceve) (1910)

Foolshead as a Porter (Cretinetti facchino) (1910)

Foolshead, Volunteer of the Red Cross  (Cretinetti volontario della Croce Rossa) (1910)

Two Girls Are in Love with Foolshead (Le due innamorate di Cretinetti) (1911)

Foolshead, Wrangler for Love (Cretinetti attaccabrighe per amore) (1911)


By 1914, Deed's films were no longer being exhibited in the United States.  The success of the Keystone comedies prompted Hollywood studios to accelerate the production of comedy films and American exhibitors were more than content to occupy their programs with this new homegrown product. 
At this time, Deed made an effort to grow up on screen.  He went from playing an aimless, childish idiot to playing an uptight, obsessive bourgeois gentleman.  This type of character is on display in the 1914 comedy Boireau enragé fumeur.  Deed feels compelled to smoke cigars incessantly, but his fiancé insists that he refrain from smoking during a visit to her parents' home.  Deed, no matter how hard he tries, cannot resist smoking.  He puffs furiously on a cigar whenever no one is looking and, every time that he is suddenly confronted by his fiancé or her parents, he acts quickly to find someplace to hide the cigar.  At one point, he hides a cigar under his hat, which causes smoke to emit from the top of his head.  He later drops a cigar down the boot of another guest, which burns the poor fellow's foot. 

Obsessive behavior is also on display in Le Rocking-chair de Boireau (1914).  Deed expects to relax in a rocking chair during a transatlantic voyage on a luxury cruise ship.  Unfortunately, he finds himself repeatedly dislodged from the chair through a variety of mishaps and disagreements.  Still, he cannot be dissuaded from enjoying a nap in the cozy rocker.  At one point, he wrests the chair away from a woman and runs off with his prized possession rather than give it up.  His dizzying race around the ship causes a great deal of disruption for other passengers.  The quartermaster is furious when he finally captures Deed.  Without a hint of mercy, he shuts the undesirable passenger and his chair into a barrel, which he proceeds to toss overboard.  The film ends with Deed quietly napping in the chair on the sandy shores of a tropical island.

The comedian's style in one-reel comedies had been frantic, but he managed to relax his style to a slight extent when he graduated to two-reel comedies.  One of his two-reel comedies was the 1915 film Fear of Zeppelins (originally released in Italy under the title La paura degli aeromobili nemici).  By this time, the German military was making extensive use of Zeppelins in bombing raids on the Allied Powers.  Deed, who saw nothing wrong with transforming widespread panic into riotous humor, devised a plot based on the Zeppelin threat.  Deed starts out in the film as a joyful groom, but his joy turns to fear when he comes across a poster warning of a potential Zeppelin attack.  While guests prepare for the wedding dinner, Deed gathers buckets of water to put out any fires that might be caused by the bombs.  Not sure that he has collected enough water in the buckets, he fills a bathtub with water and pushes the bathtub into the middle of the dining room.  The dinner is interrupted by a horde of delivery men who, on Deed's instructions, have brought sandbags to fortify the building against a bomb blast.  A member of the wedding party is upset by these disruptions and gets into a shoving match with Deed.  A melee erupts as others become caught up in the battle.  As people clobber each other with the sandbags, the sandbags split open and spill sand onto the banquet.

Later, when Deed carries his bride over the threshold of the wedding suite, he must maneuver around an obstacle course of water-filled buckets and basins to get her to the bed.  Before he has a chance to kiss his bride, he hears a cab driver honking his car horn, which he mistakes for an air raid alarm.  He panics believing that the city is now, for sure, under attack by Zeppelins.  He desperately persists to follow the instructions in a Zeppelin defense flier, but everything he does brings about further havoc for himself, his bride and his guests.

Deed's ability to refine his style was put to the test when, in 1916, he produced a 4-reel feature called Cretinetti and the Brazilian's riding boots (originally released in Italy under the title Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano).  The film is lost today, but production stills suggest that the film was punctuated by the comedian's usual frantic action.  The film provided Deed with a formidable adversary, Bartolomeo Pagano.

Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano (1916)

Pagano was a muscular action star who, at the time, was appearing as a Hercules-like hero, Maciste, in an immensely popular sword-and-sandal series.  It was, in a way, a circus routine - strongman versus clown.  Other films had shown that no good could come from trifling with Pagano.

Film historian Gino Moliterno reported in his book The A to Z of Italian Cinema that Cretinetti and the Brazilian's riding boots turned out to be "extremely popular" in Italy.  Here are additional images from the film.


Deed was overshadowed by the many comedians that followed him, but he was a funny and inventive filmmaker who inspired a number of popular comedians.  His direct influence can be found in the work of Buster Keaton and Larry Semon.  Any destructive bungler in films owes a debt to Deed.  It is to give Deed appropriate recognition that I have persistently written about him in books and articles.  Deed will be a prominent subject in my forthcoming book on the history of the manchild comedian, I Won't Grow Up!.

The photos featured in this article were taken from the digital online photo archive of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema.

Also, I have added strangely intriguing photos from Una strana avventura di Cretinetti (1911) to a previous article, "The Surreal and the Satirical: Early European Comedy Cinema."  Click here.

You can read more about Deed in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.

Let Us Die Together (Moriamo assieme!) (1910)