Tag Archives: Orson Welles

On two silent film stars; One remembered for all the wrong reasons and one forgotten for all the right reasons.

I watched two silent films yesterday, the 1919 melodrama Dollars and Sense, starring the now forgotten Madge Kennedy, and the 1927 comedy The Fair Co-Ed starring former Official Pre-War Actress of the Day, Marion Davies.

First up the Madge Kennedy experience. I’m a recent emigree to Toronto (from Calgary if you must know), and one of the great benefits of living here is the lively film community. Between the wonderful repertory programmes put together by the Cinematheque Ontario and the Toronto Film Society, and the repertory and indy showings at Bloor Cinema, Toronto is a a grand place to be a film buff. This says nothing of the odd one-off screenings that take place around the city, which is how I happened to see Dollars and Sense.

The Music Hall (formerly the Century, and Allan-Danforth theatre) celebrated it’s 90th anniversary (90 years, wow is there anything that old in Calgary?) yesterday and to commemorate it, they had a plaque ceremony and arranged a special screening of this Madge Kennedy film (the reasoning being that the theatre opened with the Madge Kennedy film Through The Wrong Door, which I presume is lost), replete with live accompaniment. I was very excited to see my first silent with live music, as I’ve been told it’s the pinnacle of cinematic experience. Well it didn’t disappoint, despite some significant technical problems and well the film itself.

As for the technical problems, well the film was screened using a DVD made from the Library of Congress print, and the first 25 minutes of the film featured a ton of skips, and freezing of the DVD, which was frustrating. I felt really bad for the musicians who did there best to try and play along, but gosh there must be no worse feeling than to be so helpless on stage. Thankfully the tickets were only a buck, so no one could feel rightfully cheated, and after a brief intermission to address the technical difficulties, things ran smoothly the rest of the way. The audience of 750 strong was very forgiving as well which turned what could have been a downright disappointment into a memorable night.

As for the film itself, well it’s your standard well-worn (even by 1919 standards) melodrama of a woman (Madge Kennedy) torn between the poor baker that she loves (Kenneth Harlan) and the sleazy but well-off theatrical manager (Willard Louis) who can provide a means to an end. In this case it’s the bakery/bread line that Harlan struggles to keep afloat during a prolonged illness. Kennedy offers herself to Louis in order to ensure the survival of Harlan’s business. The direction by Harry Beaumont is dutiful but uninspired, and there’s nothing to suggest that this film was anything other than a mediocrity, even in its own time. Perhaps the only noteworthy thing about the film is the twist ending (I hate to spoil it, but you’re never going to see the film, so whatever). Louis who for most of the picture, appears lechorous (complete with beady eyes and smarmy demeanor), ends up being the saviour, as it is revealed that he has orchestrated a wedding ceremony for Harlan and Kennedy, rather than making Kennedy his kept woman. It was a twist that elicited gasps and applause from the audience including myself, as I was full on expecting your typical slug ’em in the jaw fistfight with Kennedy’s honor at stake.

Despite the meh quality of the film, it was a lot of fun watching a film in such an environment, and thankfully people were into it. I’d love to have the chance to watch a film with 750 foks on a regular basis.

As for Kennedy, well best as I can tell she was a minor star in the late 10’s-early 20’s for Samuel Goldwyn (soon to be MGM), who later turned character actress working steadily into the 70’s. I’d had never heard of her before last night, and although she has about 6 or 7 existing silent films, none have votes on imdb, and they don’t appear to have a following either. If her performance in Dollars and Sense is any indication, she’s not a particularly memorable performer, she shows a bit of personality, but she  isn’t particularly striking. She was also the victim of the transition from the much more Victorian-esque 1910’s to the Roaring 20’s. With a year or two, Kennedy’s look was completely dated, and I see no evidence that she made much of an adaptation.

So with that I’m thinking she’s not well remembered for a reason…she wasn’t particularly memorable.

Now for the complete opposite, the divinely talented, well remembered, but criminally misinterpeted Marion Davies.

I will admit full out that I am a Marion Davies booster, I think she’s fabulous, to use 1920’s parlance: she’s the bees-knees. She’s a great looking gal and a brilliant comedienne, one those rare actresses who mixes beauty with a knack for self-effacing comedy. In essence she didn’t take herself too seriously. Imagine if Jenny McCarthy didn’t suck, and you’d have something close to Marion, a stunning gal who’s willing to play the fool.

Sadly (at least for me), her reputation and career has been irrevocably linked to her long-time affair with the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, and the fictional depiction of Hearst in Orson WellesCitizen Kane. In the Welles’ film, Kane falls for a shrill, untalented but good hearted chorus girl named Susan Alexander, whom he builds an opera house for and tries to turn into a star…with spectacularly bad results. Alexander is a dismal failure despite Kane’s best attempts at promotion.

Despite the fact that Susan Alexander is in fact a composite character based on multiple sources, Davies has long been seen as the primary source. This would not be a problem, were it not for the iconic nature of Kane, and the belief by some folk that it is the greatest film ever made. This combined with the belief that Kane is Hearst has lead many people to assume the film is essentially a biography, so therefore Susan Alexander must be Davies. The problem with this is the fact that Alexander is portrayed as a talentless idiot, whereas Davies was in fact a marvellous and very bright performer. But the legend has been built up over the years, that Davies was nothing but a prop for Hearst, as he built her up in his newspapers, financed her movies, and in essence fabricated her career.

The story becomes increasingly fascinating because so much of it is true, Hearst did use his newspapers to promote her, and he did provide lavish budgets for her films, he in essence did try his damnedest to make her a star. But a funny thing happened…she became a star on her own merits. By the mid 1920’s Davies was one of the top stars at MGM, her films made money, and they were often very good. She made bonafide classics like Show People and The Patsy, and a bunch of fun vehicles like The Red Mill and The Cardboard Lover. Not to mention that her career spanned well into the talkie era, as her last film was in 1936 when she 40. She had a movie career that spanned over 20 years. You can’t have that much success through sheer hype and publicity.

But nonetheless the legacy of Hearst and Kane overshadows her considerable talents. Thankfully in recent years with the advent of Turner Classic Movies, her films are becoming more accessible, and she’s even had several released on DVD through the Warner’s Archives. I think as more people see her work, the myth will be diminished, and hopefully die its rightful death.

Now onto The Fair Co-Ed, of which I managed to pick up a copy of dubious origin recently (it appears to be a camcorder dub from a screening).

Marion stars as a conceded college freshman who in trying to woo Johnny Mack Brown, manages to become a basketball star and piss off just about everyone. She does this by being catty, petulant, and smug…gleefully boasting about her list of beaus, refusing to pass the ball to her romantic rival, Jane Winton, and showing off at every turn. The film is pretty much a William Haines vehicle, with Marion playing the typical Haines role of the spoiled athlete who alienates everyone (except the loyal sidekick), quits the team, but has a change of heart…just in time to win the big game. The plot is threadbare and totally formulaic, but Davies is just so great to watch that it ends up being a hoot. Maybe it’s because I’m a dude, but I find Marion’s cocky schtick friggin’ adorable, where Haines’ bit can be pretty grating.

The opening sequence is an odd one, where it is revealed that the students at Bingham University are banned from using automobiles, and so as a means of protest they ride all sorts of ridiculous contraptions to campus, ranging from Brown’s chariot, to a 4-person bike, to some sort of wagon-dealie. The sequence ends up with the crotchety Dean (who says stuff like this and this) vowing never to give in.

There’s also a pep rally sequence that features a massive bonfire and a bizarre tribute ceremony…that may or may not involve human sacrifice…as a means to appease the basketball gods and pave the way for a Bingham victory. This is the climactic scene where Marion begins to realize how many people she’s pissed off, as she is the recipient of a whopping 3 Raspberries!

The final big game sequence is quite fascinating primarily due to the depiction of basketball circa 1927. The game is absolutely chaotic with every player rushing for the ball, and the game looking more like a rugby match than anything. I thought it was interesting how there was jump ball after every basket, and that during a climactic foul shot, Marion only gets one shot rather than the customary two. I thought it was also fascinating how women’s sports was treated without condescension (although the competition aspect plays second fiddle to the love story) and that there was not evidence of a men’s team. Everyone was supportive of the team because it was from their college. An unexpected depiction for 1927.

Anyway Marion wins the day by making the climactic basket…which causes at least one spectator to fall to his death. She also gets her man.

Fun stuff, that will hopefully be restored and see the light of day via TCM.

May the force be with you.

57. Pather Pachali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

This is one of the greatest directorial debuts ever, along with Orson WellesCitizen Kane, and Rouben Mamoulian‘s Applause (which is criminally underrated, and really I will look for any excuse to mention it). Just a wonderful film.

Just a simply great film, the first of the Apu Trilogy, which rivals the Star Wars Trilogy as the greatest movie trilogy I can think. Lord of the Rings can go suck a duck.

It’s interesting that the movie was shot on an extremely low budget, oh let’s say 80 rupees or so, and didn’t have a script, and yet turned out fantastic. I think it’s a mix of a wonderful talent in Satyajit Ray, and serendipitous good fortune.

The story follows Apu, a young Indian boy growing up in poverty with an older sister who is quite rebellious, a father who dreams of being a writer, a headstrong grandma, and a mother trying to keep it all together. Man that sounds like a movie blurb.

All that really happens is tragedy, but it’s powerful, and never melodramatic. It’s also somehow inspiring that people carry on with strength and conviction and belief. It’s also wonderfully shot in black and white.

I wish I could have found the original poster art. I bet 1950’s Indian film posters are the shit.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film 9/10. It’s great, the sequels are great, and Satyajit Ray is great. Watch this film.

Stop the downloading. I’m a computer.

36. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

So when I first started working on “the list” in October, I was helped immensely by the Calgary Public Library and their rather decent collection of DVDs(including many from the Criterion Collection). I would go there almost daily and grab whatever was on the list and sign it out. Eventually I exhausted that, and started placing DVDs on hold to pick up later. This was a great set-up, because it was cheap and convenient, and despite some notable omissions: they don’t have “Jaws“, I was able to find some obscure things like “Sherman’s March“, and a bunch of Criterion stuff. Eventually I more or less exhausted the DVD collection of the library in regards to the list.

This lead me to try the Rogers Online DVD rental. Because most video stores suck, and I couldn’t bring myself to go downtown to one of the 2 independent video stores in my city, I went with online rentals. I had actually been with them about a year ago, when I was obsessively watching whatever baseball films I could find, and they worked quite well. They have great selection, and the turnover rate was quite good.

But alas the second time around with the Rogers Video Online rental was pretty disappointing. If you have movies in your online queue that are popular, as many of the movies on the list are, you don’t get them right away, you get sent what’s available, so some DVDs you have to wait for. This is pretty bad when renting DVD sets. I got the 2nd DVD of the fabulous French serial “Les Vampires” about a week before the first, so I had to wait until watching. This is problematic because you are only allowed to have a certain amount of DVDs at any given time(depending on the plan you chose, mine was 3 at a time).

So basically I would watch the DVDs quickly and hunger for more. The other significant problem, was that the mailing time seemed to slow dramatically during the 8 months between when I was originally signed up, and when I re-joined. Given that I was unemployed for several months and watching movies from “the list “voraciously, the waiting time really cramped my style.

This leads me to the wonders of region-coded DVDs. In perusing the Rogers Online catalogue, I discovered that many of the films on “the list” were either not on DVD, or not available on DVD in North America(known as Region 1 in DVD lingo). Most famously American classics like “The Magnificent Ambersons“, “The African Queen“, and “Greed” are not available on DVD in North America(Greed is only on VHS). “The African Queen” won best picture at the Oscars and yet still does not have a North American release. That just seems retarded to me. I get why many key foreign films wouldn’t have Region 1 releases, but Hollywood classics? Really?

So this fact put me in a dilemma. Do I buy a bunch of movies in Region 2, 3, 4 without having seen them? Or is there another way. Luckily my brother gave me an all-region DVD player before he moved, so I had some options. But nonetheless I don’t like buying movies without having seen them, because they might suck. Given the significant number of films not easily available, I made the choice to start downloading films and/or watching them online(youtube actually has quite a bit of stuff). It’s convenient and inexpensive and allows me to have a reasonable shot at completing the list.

And the very first film I downloaded was “The Magnificent Ambersons”.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film a 7/10. It’s got Joe Cotten which is always I plus, and it looks really nice. I just didn’t get what the hub-bub(my new favorite colloquialism) was about. It just didn’t feel all that substantial. Not a bad follow-up to Citizen Kane, but it seemed quite pedestrian in comparison.

I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid.

23. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Up until like 2 days ago, I thought Carol Reed was a girl. He is not.

My dad told me that people used to tell him he looked like Joseph Cotten. So now that’s all I can think of when I see Joseph Cotten.

I like when I my dad tells me that kind of thing. It reminds that he was once young like me.  It’s a nice reminder that who he is now is not necessarily what he once was. He used to be young and idealistic and adventurous, traveling the world by ship, and marching in union rallies, and working for various left wing organizations. Hell he was even deported for protesting a nuclear site.

And it’s not that I am lamenting his loss of idealism, he didn’t go from being a commie to a fascist or anything. He still votes NDP, and believes health care is a right and not a privilege. It’s simply that he is old and cynical now, and I am quite simply afraid that I will one day be those things to.

On filmaffinity.com I rated the film a 9/10. Great setting in post-war Europe, great atmosphere, Joe Cotten being awesome, Orson Welles being non-fat, and tremendous final scene. Just good stuff all-around.

Soylent Green is Tacos!

22. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

My favorite Welles film.

The film is probably most famous for it’s opening scene, which is just one long unedited take that lasts about 15 minutes. I am not sure if Welles was the first to really try and do a long unedited take with elaborate camera movements, but he does it really well, and deserves credit. It’s also the inspiration for one of my favorite music videos Xzibit‘s “What U See Is What You Get“.

Chuck Heston plays a Mexican cop(really?) who looks like Johnny Drama, like I am talking a dead ringer. It’s pretty trippy actually. Orson Welles plays a fat guy, now that’s what I call acting.

I think Welles is pretty amazing as a corrupt and powerful cop. He is just so evil, like so evil you would want to throw a shoe at him. Major-league heel if I ever seen one. That combined with his grotesque appearance just makes the film for me. Heston is ok as the good guy, and he is pretty restrained here which is nice to see. I am pretty indifferent to Chuck, but generally I find he takes away from the films he is in just through his hammishness. Think of it in wrestling terms where you have a an incredible heel making a mediocre babyface look like a million bucks. Welles is just so hateable that you end up liking Heston despite his weak accent. The best example I can think of is the Chris Jericho vs Dean Malenko feud, in which Jericho’s over-the-top crybaby routine got so over that Dean Malenko(a talented but uncharismatic wrestler) got over huge as face without having to do anything really.

Welles is just so slimy as he arranges for Heston’s wife to be kidnapped, raped, and drugged all to protect himself from being exposed as horribly corrupt. Normally I cheer for heels, but in this case Welles is just so evil you really want to see him done in.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film a 9/10, simply because it’s awesome in pretty much every way. Watch this film.

Hello New World.

1. Citizen Kane (1939, Orson Welles)

I first saw this film about 5 years ago in an intro film class I took at Mount Royal College. My response then was that I liked all the Simpsons references. I mean I could appreciate the technical qualities and all but I didn’t really get the hype so to speak. I did write a paper on it though, charmingly titled “Xanadu, There Were Monkeys There.” I think it got a B+.

Before re-watching the film last week, I was going to write that it may be a great film and all, but I don’t know anyone that actually likes it. But upon re-watching it with I guess more experience and my recently developed appreciation for classic Hollywood and Joseph Cotten, I genuinely dug the shit out of it.

The use of “Rosebud” is so simple but so ingenious. Everything that happens in the film can be traced back to an innocuous object that gets about a minute of screen time. But at the same time everything feels very natural in that the search for “Rosebud” isn’t really the focus of the story, but rather the means by which the story can be told. It’s just so well done, and I think that’s the greatness of the film. Visually the movie is great with tremendous set design, and great camera work, but it’s the restraint that Welles shows in keeping “Rosebud” in the background of the film that stands as his greatest accomplishment.

Plus it has those Simpsons references. I read a quote once from Matt Groening that pointed out that you could probably re-make Citizen Kane entirely using clips from “The Simpsons“.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film a 9/10, meaning that it’s eminently re-watchable and grabbed me on an emotional level(which generally means I was talking to the tv, saying stuff like “that shit is tight” or leaves me feeling gangsta). I try and save 10’s for stuff that makes me wistful, contemplative, makes me cry or makes me wish I was in the film. Yes I am girly like that.