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Mickey’s Movies (FBO, 1928)

Mickeys Movies screenshot 1Mickey’s Movies (FBO, 1928)
Directed by Earl Montgomery
Starring Mickey Rooney

Back when Mickey Rooney died, I intended to watch Mickey’s Movies (1928). I knew I had a nice print of the film, but when I went to find it, it simply wasn’t there. That was the point I realized the film collection had grown too large to remain unorganized and uncatalogued (at that point, it was something like 450 titles). It spurred me to smarten-up in that regard, but even after systematically going through every reel, Mickey’s Movies continued to elude me. It wasn’t until about six weeks ago that it reappeared. It wasn’t hiding anywhere unusual — it was just mixed in among some other 16mm two-reelers — and for the life of me, I can’t explain how it escaped noticed for so long.

I’ve said before about the two reel comedies that Educational put out, that they’re really one reel of actual story and another of pure filler. Mickey’s Movies is quite similar in that regard, but it at least makes some effort to mix the two together.

The Mickey McGuire series was one of the countless Our Gang rip-offs floating around in the late ‘20s. Its star, Mickey McGuire (Mickey Rooney), is the leader of a gang of poor kids who get into various comic scrapes.

Mickeys Movies screenshot 2Mickey’s Movies begins with a nigh-incomprehensible jumble of scenes that veer wildly from building a clubhouse to fishing to some kind of kid-run carnival to puppies chasing chickens. In isolation, all the components more or less make sense, but don’t ask me to explain how one relates to another. About five minutes in, we arrive at the meat of the film:

Mickey and the gang stumble upon a movie shoot. The Superba Film Company are taking a western scene, the villain and the hero are fighting, and the director — Mr. Von Sonatime — is not having it. “Rotten!! Terrible!! Awful!!” he screams as he throws his hat to the ground. A PA follows him with a steady supply of fresh hats.

Superba seems to have requisitioned the Scorpion Club (the Mickey gang’s hideout) as a dressing room. This will not do. Mickey sets the guard dog on the film company and chases them into the lake. After appointing himself as the new director, Mickey begins shooting the film himself, adopting the same mannerisms of Von Sonatime, including hat-tossing.

After a good ten minutes of well-plotted action, the film begins to dip back into random nonsense, but at least now it’s all thematically connected to filmmaking. Little Chocolate (Hannah Washington), Mickey’s right-hand gal, has been assigned to hat duty. As Mickey goes through more and more hats, she has to find some way of keeping Mickeys Movies screenshot 3up. At the end, she’s got a hat Gatling gun from somewhere that buries Mickey in hats and brings the film to a close.

If edited down to one reel, I would whole-heartedly recommend Mickey’s Movies. I don’t, as a rule, go in for kid comedies, but this one at least was cute and entertaining. But the random additional footage mixed in really drags it down. If, from market demands, you simply had to pad it out to two reels, I think I prefer Educational’s method of front-loading all the filler in the first reel and letting the second reel stand on its own.

When I pulled up this film’s IMDb page, I saw that it got a review from the late, great F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre. MacIntyre was a divisive figure. His shtick was to find lost films (or what he thought were lost films) on IMDb and write reviews of them, claiming to have seen them through various secret and slightly nefarious channels. His reviews, in reality, were based on contemporary plot synopses, publicity stills, and his own healthy imagination. Some saw him as nothing more than a liar, while others appreciated his work as a kind of performance art. I liked him, but I suppose it helps that I always knew it was pretend. A deeply disturbed person in real life, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, Mickey’s Movies

My rating: Meh.

Oh, Mama! (Educational, 1928)

Oh Mama screenshotOh, Mama! (Educational, 1928)
Directed by Jules White
Starring Jack Miller

Henry Hooper (Jack Miller) is on vacation, but his wife (Lucille Hutton) doesn’t intend for him to be idle. She insists he help with the spring cleaning, which he is loath to do. Failing to rouse him from bed herself, she sends her son (Jackie Levine) after Henry. The boy is Henry’s stepson and the two don’t appear to have any great fondness for one another.

Following that setup, there’s not much more story to speak of. The gags are divided between tired housekeeping-themed slapstick and Henry trying and failing to catch and spank the boy. They could really be put into any order – there’s precious little connecting one scene to the next. I’m writing this within an hour of having seen the film, and not a single gag stands out in my mind as being worth mentioning in particular. Needless to say, none were at all funny.

Oh, Mama! (1928) is a terrible film. My recommendation is to not waste your time on it.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

The Fall of the House of Usher screenshotThe Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Directed by Melville Webber and James Sibley Watson, Jr.
Starring Herbert Stern, Hildegarde Watson, and Melville Webber

Although silent films were certainly no strangers to special effects, for much of the silent era, the feasibility of creating a film requiring heavy use of optical effects was hampered by the fact that those effects had to be done in camera. Distortions required the scene to be shot with special lenses. Superimpositions required double-exposing the film. Split-screens and composite shots required double exposures with carefully cut mattes or elaborate semi-silvered mirror arrangements. Everything had to go perfectly, because mistakes couldn’t be fixed in postproduction – there effectively was no postproduction.

Relatively high-speed, fine-grain film and optical printing – which started with simplistic, homemade devices, but wasn’t widely implemented until commercial printers became available in the late 1920s – changed that. An optical printer is essentially a synchronized projector and camera and allows for previously filmed footage to be re-shot a frame at a time. What this meant for the special effects film was that the actors performing their parts could be shot straight, quickly and easily, and the effects didn’t have to be worried about until after filming was complete, with all the time in the world to plan them and all the attempts needed to get them right.

Melville Webber and James Sibley Watson, Jr., neither of whom were filmmakers nor had any experience with filmmaking but were intrigued by the avant-garde films coming out of Germany, decided to try their hand at experimental cinema in 1928 with The Fall of the House of Usher. Reportedly, they chose to adapt that particular Poe story because they hadn’t read it in years and only remembered the plot in the broadest terms, so they wouldn’t constrained by a fixed narrative.

Optical printers were available by 1928, and Webber and Watson would soon acquire one, but they did not yet have it for Usher. Truth be told, they had extremely little that wasn’t borrowed or made of cardboard. All of Usher’s effects were done the old fashioned way – in camera – which is all the more remarkable as almost every single shot in the film is piled high with complicated effects work. In addition to the usual anamorphic and multifaceted lenses and double-exposures, some shots were composited by double-packing the camera with already developed film in front of the unexposed film. I don’t even know what to call that – in camera contact printing? I’m shocked the camera movement was able to hold both layers of film steady. I have a silent-era camera, and granted it’s 88 years old and not in the best of repair, but it has a hard enough time keeping a single layer steady.

The film is Expressionist as all hell, to the point that the plot is incidental to the emotional drive of the images. The influence of Murnau and Wiene is plainly evident in the cinematography and set design. There are no titles, save for at the start and some superimposed animated sound effects (“beat”, “crack”, “ripped”, “scream”, “shatter”).

The characters are Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, a traveller, and disembodied, black-gloved hands. Roderick and Madeline are at dinner, where Madeline is served a coffin by the hands. She faints and sleepwalks to the crypt, where she apparently dies in an open coffin. Roderick nails the lid closed and goes back upstairs to sleep, but is haunted by visions of his sister’s corpse coming to get him. The traveller reads from a book, but Roderick keeps hearing sounds coming from downstairs. Madeline breaks out of the coffin, transformed into a shambling, sunken-eyed, almost vampiric thing. She ascends the stairs, bursts into the room, and falls on Roderick. The house begins to collapse. The traveller escapes just in time to see it fall entirely into the water. The film ends with the moon setting over where the house once stood.

The picture invites interpretation, so strap in for my amateur analysis: Coffins and especially stairs are frequent motifs in the images. The coffin represents finality as much as it does death, and the stairs suggest a single destination or building to an inevitable outcome. There’s a parallel between Roderick’s hammer strokes and of zombie-Madeline’s steps, and a contrast between the hammer’s fall to the ground and the traveller’s hat oddly floating up from the ground. The two siblings are closely connected and Roderick’s efforts to distance himself from his sister are self-defeating – note that the pages of the book are being turned backward. Also note that, despite the traveller reading from it, the book is blank – the Ushers are too far removed, too engrossed in each other to comprehend outsiders.

Enough of that. Did I like the film? Yes, I appreciate the technical skill that went into it, admire the two men who managed to create it without the knowhow and with next to no budget, and I find the final work entrancing. A hearty recommendation.

My rating: I like it.

A Woman of Affairs (MGM, 1928)

A Woman of Affairs posterA Woman of Affairs (MGM, 1928)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

What with it being a book about adultery, abortion, venereal disease, and homosexuality, Michael Arlen’s controversial 1924 novel The Green Hat was an odd choice for a screen adaptation. A Woman of Affairs (1928) does its best to sanitize the story and it changes some significant details that both lessen its impact and make the mystery rather farfetched (more on that later), but it couldn’t completely bowdlerize it.

I chose this to be the third installment in my series of reviews of gay-themed silents because of the Jeffry character (called Gerald in the novel – everyone’s got a new name in the film). He’s quite a long way from the laughing sissy stock character of The Soilers. He’s a morose, withdrawing young man, given to drink, whose only joy in life seems to be a man named David.

 

Since childhood, Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) had been in love with Neville Holderness (John Gilbert). Neville loves Diana as well, but his father, Sir Morton (Hobart Bosworth), thoroughly disapproves of the Merricks and does everything in his power to keep the two apart. Sir Morton secures a job in Egypt for Neville and hopes that, in the two years he’s away, he’ll have moved on from Diana.

Neville isn’t Diana’s only admirer. David Furness (John Mack Brown), star of the rowing team, thrills to be near her, just as Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) thrills to be near him. Jeffry’s reliance on alcohol, always an issue for him, becomes more pronounced when David’s attention is monopolized by his sister.

It seems Diana couldn’t wait and she marries David while Neville is in Egypt. On their honeymoon in Deauville, two men appear at their hotel room door demanding to see David. One holds a pair of handcuffs. On seeing them, David leaps to his death from the window. At the inquest, Dr. Hugh Trevelyan (Lewis Stone), David’s doctor and an old friend of the Merricks, wants to declare it an accident, but Jeffry, drunk and highly agitated, forces Diana to admit that it was suicide. She won’t say why he killed himself, only that he did so “for decency”.

The film continues from there. Sir Morton, interpreting Diana’s words to mean that David killed himself for her decency, suggests that she not return to England. She stays on the Continent, moving from one affair to another with a countless number of men. Neville marries the acceptable Constance (Dorothy Sebastian), although he never loses his love for Diana. Jeffry shuts himself up in his apartment and slowly drinks himself to death.

 

The book is not ambiguous and makes Gerald’s motivation clear, but in the movie, Jeffry’s love of David is more subtextual. A less observant watcher may see it as simple idolization (David was the star of the rowing team, etc.) and be left to think that Jeffry wildly overreacts to David’s marriage to Diana and subsequent death, but an observant one will see it – it is there. For example, I’ve mentioned Jeffry’s drinking when separated from David, but notice how the exact same scene is repeated later in the film when Neville leaves Diana to return to his lie of a marriage.

The movie’s changes and glossing-over of details do make some segments perplexing to someone unfamiliar with the source. Diana is hospitalized for some sudden and mysterious malady – it goes unsaid that she’s recovering from an abortion; she became pregnant the night she allowed herself to “fall” with Neville. Dr. Trevelyan knows the reason for David’s suicide and keeps it a secret for Diana’s sake. Why? I won’t spoil either the book or movie, but it’s very clear why he knows in the former, but not at all in the latter. Changing David’s reason from being a personal to a public vice also asks the question why it didn’t come up at the inquest – even if Diana kept quiet about the two men who came to their room, surely they were seen by others at the hotel.

Compared to Garbo’s other silents, A Woman of Affairs isn’t that well remembered. The story definitely has its faults, but what can’t be denied is that it’s beautifully shot. Clarence Brown was mostly thought of as a “woman’s film” (a contemporary term roughly analogous to today’s “chick flicks”) director and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a filmmaker. I especially love his long tracking shots, which he makes frequent use of here.

As I said, it isn’t a flawless work nor would I call it Garbo’s best, but with some reservation, I’d recommend A Woman of Affairs. I would suggest reading The Green Hat first, though.

My rating: I like it.

Metropolis (Paramount, 1928)

Metropolis PosterMetropolis (Paramount, 1928)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Adapted by Channing Pollock
Starring Gustav Fröhlich and Brigitte Helm

If you’re reading this at all, you must have at least a passing interested in silent cinema, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the story of Metropolis (1927). We know about the Berlin premiere version that was presumed lost decades ago. We know about the reconstruction attempts that began in the 1980s and culminated with the then-definitive Kino version in 2002. We know about the discovery of a nearly complete print of the film in Argentina that, in 2010, allowed us to see the premier version again for the first time in 80 years. But if you’re like me, you may not know much about what happened between 1927 and 1984.

The international release of Metropolis was handled by a company called Parufamet, a joint venture of UFA in Germany and Paramount and MGM in America. Paramount was to be the American distributor. UFA, who produced the original film, gave Paramount (through Parufamet) carte blanche to re-edit the film to make it more profitable in America. They hired a playwright named Channing Pollock to make the necessary changes. Pollock’s Metropolis premiered in America in 1928 and between that date and the first reconstruction, if someone said that they had seen Metropolis, it was Pollock’s version that they were referring to.

I’m not going to talk about Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis. There would be no point – I’m sure you’ve seen the recent 2010 reconstruction and probably one or two of the others as well. But in a curious reversal of history, if someone today said that they had seen Metropolis, they’re never referring to the Pollock version. That’s the film I’m going to review.

 

The first two acts of the film are spent weaving a Christ allegory around Eric Masterman (Freder Frederson in the original – Gustav Fröhlich), a man metaphorically borne of Mary (Maria – Brigitte Helm) and come as a savior to the workers of Metropolis. It manages this to good effect, even repurposing the scene where Freder takes over for 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) on the V-machine as a metaphorical crucifixion. It tries to carry it forward into the final act, but frankly, Pollock’s film kind of falls apart after the introduction of the Machine Man, or “Efficiency” as they name it.

I suppose now is a good time to bring up Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Of all the characters, Rotwang is the most changed in Pollock’s edit. In the original film, Rotwang’s reason for creating the Machine Man is to bring his lost-love Hel back to life. He’s motivated by a deep-seated hatred for Joh Frederson, the man he lost Hel to and the man he blames for her death, as she died giving birth to Frederson’s son, Freder. When he gives the Machine Man the likeness of Maria, he does so to trick Joh. Joh thinks he’s helping him to quash the worker’s nascent uprising, but the Machine Man really obeys only Rotwang and he intends to use it to spur the workers into open rebellion and crush Joh’s city.

In Pollock’s film, Rotwang is working with John Masterman (Alfred Abel) in creating a soulless and untiring race of machine men to replace the workers of Metropolis, and Efficiency is their prototype. The soullessness part is John’s idea. John sees himself as a god (and, taking the allegory Pollock has so carefully constructed around Eric to its natural conclusion, he sort of is) and wants to remake man in his own image of the perfect worker. Rotwang warns that a man without a soul can have no loyalty to his creator and will quickly turn on him, which is just what Efficiency does.

It wasn’t a bad idea on Pollock’s part, and it could have worked had he been writing the script for a new movie, but limited to just the scenes available in the original Metropolis, there isn’t the necessary footage to convey what Pollock is trying to say and the third act feels cobbled together in a way that the first two acts didn’t.

What surprised me most about Pollock’s Metropolis isn’t what was changed but what wasn’t. I had always heard that the reason Paramount didn’t simply release the original film was because they feared its Marxist themes wouldn’t play in America, but if that’s true, then Pollock failed spectacularly with his edit. Pollock’s injection of religion does nothing to diminish the overarching class struggle between the proletariat “hands” of the workers’ city and the bourgeois “brains” of Metropolis. If anything, his Christ allegory emphasizes the film’s socialist message – Pollock’s Eric is no Supply Side Jesus. It strikes me that Paramount was less concerned with the film’s politics than it was with its length (Pollock’s version is a good half-hour shorter) and accessibility (it goes out of its way to explain visual metaphors like the Moloch machine where the original had more faith in the audience’s intelligence).

I confess that, before sitting down to watch it, I was unprepared to like to Pollock’s Metropolis, but it very nearly won me over. Had it not collapsed in on itself by the end, I would have said that, while it was a very different film from Fritz Lang’s vision, it more than accomplished its goal. But with the almost incoherent third act, it lost whatever praise I could have given it. It exists as a curiosity that a fan of the “real” Metropolis may be interested to see, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a first-time viewer.

My rating: Meh.

You may also be interested in the novel the film is based on, which I read and wrote about on my other blog.

Daughters of Eve (Cine-Art, 1928?)

Daughters of Eve (Cine-Art, 1928?)

Daughters of Eve was made by Cine-Art Featurettes, who were most known for producing… ahem… “gentlemen’s entertainment”, but unlike other films of theirs that I’m aware of, there is no nudity in Daughters of Eve.

Quite short – only a split reel – and without any real plot, it posits that throughout history man has been a slave to woman and then it shows a series of brief vignettes illustrating its claim. It starts at the dawn of time with Adam and Eve, moves into the Stone Age, to Ancient Greece, to the time of the Borigas, Colonial America, Victorian England, the vamps of the 1910s, the flappers of the present day, and it finally ends with an idea of what the not-too-distant future may hold.

None of these vignettes feature much more than a woman walking by in period-appropriate dress and capturing a man’s attention. Each is preceded by an intertitle introducing the setting and date. The titles are in rhyme and at least make an attempt at humor. Despite it obviously just being a setup to parade attractive women passed the camera, the film comes across as more playful than erotic.

Judging by the clothes, hair, and cars, I’d say it’s from the late ‘20s. The edge code on the film dates it to 1928 and that’s probably within a year or two of when it was shot.

Is it a good film? That’s a difficult question. If you were expecting the usual Cine-Art softcore porn, you’d be disappointed. If you were expecting an entirely aboveboard short comedy, it really isn’t funny. I suppose my difficulty in rating Daughters of Eve stems from my not knowing exactly what it is or what it’s trying to be. The absurd future getups alone are worth something, so I can’t say it’s all bad. I’ll have to say…

My rating: Meh.