Top Ten Movies Of The 1930s, Part II

Continuing with Part 2 of my fairly-definitive list of the top ten movies of the 1930s. Here’s where we left off:

10. A Night At The Opera
9. Freaks
8. Gone With The Wind
7. Pepe Le Moko
6. The Grand Illusion.

Read Part I here.

And we keep going:

5. The Thin Man. “Thin Man” came out in 1934, the same year as “It Happened One Night.” These two movies were the first, I think, to figure out the language and the cadence of comedy on film—in the talkie era, that is—so the modern movie-comedy era really begins here.

That’s neither here nor there, of course—as I said last time, I’m not really so concerned with a movie’s place in film history. Rather, “Thin Man” makes this list because it’s just so damn funny. You’ve never seen witty banter until you’ve seen William Powell and Myrna Loy. It’s not quite as gender-progressive as its reputation suggests: Nick Charles is definitely The Detective here, and Nora is definitely The Detective’s Wife (and in one instance Nick tricks Nora into a cab uptown so he can get his work done undistracted). But as equals in intellect, in wit and in marriage, Nick and Nora are one of the great pairs in movie history.

“It says you were shot four times in the tabloids.”
“It’s a lie. He never got anywhere near my tabloids!”

4. M. Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, a cautionary tale about mob justice in the context of rising German fascism, “M” presents a bleak world where a sadistic child murderer is somehow the most sympathetic character in the room. You want to see him get his just desserts, sure—but there’s something very obviously wrong about the way it happens…

Peter Lorre’s performance as the nameless killer is legendary, but he’s only one of many classic antiheroes who came out around this time: James Cagney as Tom Powers in “Public Enemy,” Boris Karloff as the monster in “Frankenstein,” Bela Lugosi as “Dracula,” Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in “Scarface,” and Edward G. Robinson as Rico in “Little Caesar.” The early 1930s was a very troubling time. (Incidentally, Robinson’s performance is my favorite of the bunch. Edward G. Robinson was good in everything.)

Watch “M” here.

3. Holiday. I’m of two minds on Cary Grant. There are two kinds of Cary Grant screwball comedy: the ones where he hams it up like Jim Carrey on steroids (“Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Bringing Up Baby”) and the ones where he keeps his hamminess in check enough to come off as a believable character (“His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Holiday”). For some reason the former tend to have the better reputation, but good Lord I can’t stand Cary Grant in those movies. “Bringing Up Baby” is awful. Awful.

Okay, rant over.

I love Cary Grant, though, when he acts like a real person. I went into “Holiday” not expecting much—it’s the other 1938 Grant/Hepburn screwball comedy; “Bringing Up Baby” is much better-known—but I loved it from the word go. The happily poor Grant falls in love with a rich socialite, thinking her money hasn’t gone to her head—only to find that it has. Her sister, on the other hand…

Katharine Hepburn is so good in this movie it’s incredible. She’s so relaxed in her role, you’ll think she’s improvising—and her character is so likable you never want to see her off screen. (That character, Linda Seton, was actually based on a real-life heiress-who-threw-it-all-away-to-live-a-life-of-adventure. I was so happy when I found that out.)

True story about “Holiday”: as soon as I finished watching it, I went back to the beginning and watched it all over again.

2. The Wizard of Oz. It’s hard to rank this movie. “The Wizard of Oz” is so iconic, so completely entrenched in American culture, that we can’t really see it as a movie anymore. It’s a two-hour stream of famous images and famous quotes, and between “The Wiz” and “Wicked” and “Dark Side of the Moon” we’ve examined and reexamined them all from just about every conceivable angle. In that sense—with the possible exception of “Star Wars”—there’s no other film like it. It’s literally incomparable.

But on this list, it’s got to go somewhere in my top three. When I’m judging movies, I look for three things: a movie has to make me cry, or laugh, or think. And when I’m ranking movies, I look for rewatch value: would I watch this movie again? And again? And again? If so, it goes higher on the list. Well, there aren’t very many movies that I’d gladly watch repeatedly, and really only three from the 30s—“Holiday,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and the flick at the top of this list. So there we go.

Fun game: take one week and keep track of the number of “Wizard of Oz” references you see out there, just casually dropped into conversations and commercials and TV shows and everything else in pop culture. It really is impossible to understand this country unless you’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” first.

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To the point where even a “Star Wars” reference turns into a “Wizard of Oz” reference, sooner or later.

1. Modern Times. I mentioned at the start of last column that this list was going to be a collection of B-sides. Everybody likes “Duck Soup,” but I prefer “Night at the Opera.” Everybody likes “Bringing Up Baby,” but I prefer “Holiday.” (Even “Grand Illusion” is a bit of a B-side: as 1930s French class dramas go, people tend to go with “The Rules of the Game.”) Same goes here: Charlie Chaplin released two movies in the 1930s, “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” and while they’re both highly acclaimed, I think more people prefer “City Lights” by a slight margin.

Not me. Not sure why, but “City Lights” is actually my least favorite of Chaplin’s silent features. (It’s still very good—I just don’t like it as much as the others.) “Modern Times,” though, is a different story. The first 15 minutes is sheer genius on film: hilarious chaos as a working man—the Tramp with an actual job!—gets eaten alive (literally) by technology and machinery. That’s the highlight—capped by the iconic image of Chaplin being run through the gears—but the rest of the movie is stellar too. Like all of Chaplin’s stuff, it’s actually a very depressing movie—two characters struggling desperately to avoid starving to death in a harsh world that dehumanizes and disrespects the individual (in this case, the world of modern technology and modern capitalism)—but Chaplin uses humor, uproarious humor, to make the cry of anger easier to accept, the bitter pill of outrage easier to swallow. “Modern Times” came out in 1936, as the very last gasp of the silent-movie era—in fact “City Lights” was a last gasp too, and Chaplin released that one in 1931. But as it happened, the last movie of the silent era turned out to be the best.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Not that “Modern Times” is a silent movie, per se. Sound actually plays a huge role here, and there is some (minimal) dialogue. (All of it comes out of machines, incidentally: the boss talks to Chaplin through an early TV screen; a salesman makes his pitch via record player.)

And of course there’s the ending, arguably the most brilliant moment in movie history—when the Tramp, now working as a waiter in a busy restaurant, is called upon to sing. It was the first time Chaplin had spoken on screen in one of his own movies, and for many filmgoers it was going to be the first time they’d ever heard his voice. “Chaplin speaks!” It was huge. The whole movie builds up to it. (Remember Chaplin had been the biggest movie star in the world for about 20 years by this point. Imagine George Clooney never saying a word in his movies and rarely speaking in public, and you have a pretty good idea. Hell, we get excited whenever we hear Teller speak.)

But of course it’s a Chaplin comedy, so naturally the Tramp loses the lyrics right before he goes on stage—and proceeds to improvise in complete gibberish.

And that was Chaplin speaking. Perfect.

“Modern Times” is one of those rare movies that makes me laugh, cry, and think. Not even a question that it’s my favorite ’30s film; it may be in my all-time top ten.

So there you have it. (Honorable mention, by the way, goes to “Little Caesar,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Stagecoach,” “Ninotchka,” and “The Rules of the Game.” If this were a top 15 list, those would be the extra five.) Which movies did I miss? Comment below!

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/top-ten-movies-of-the-1930s-part-ii/

Top Ten Movies Of The 1930s, Part I

Still catching up from being a day behind. I’ll get back to the more substantive stuff in a couple days.

As you may remember from a previous blog, I’m something of a movie buff—and recently I’ve embarked on a project to knock out all the movies on my “I want to see” list that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Working chronologically, I’m almost all the way through the 1960s—so now I’m going back and making my definitive list of the best (read: my favorite) movies from each decade.

A couple weeks ago, I posted my countdown for the 1910s and 20s. And since I need to write two columns today to catch up to my promised blog-a-day pace, what better time than now to keep it going with:

Aaron’s Probably Definitive, Entirely Subjective List Of The Ten Best Movies Of The 1930s, Or: Why B-Sides Are Sometimes Better Than A-Sides.

Without further ado:

10. A Night at the Opera. The earliest comedies of the talkie era didn’t quite have their timing down yet: they were mostly transfers from the stage, so they still had ‘stage’ timing, which isn’t quite the same. (Watch a few comedies from the early 30s: you’ll see a lot of unnecessary pauses after jokes, as the actors wait for the unseen audience to stop laughing before moving on.)

The Marx Brothers were brilliant comedians and film pioneers—but being pioneers, they were also guinea pigs, so you can see the language of comedy movies still working itself out in their films. (Same for Laurel and Hardy, incidentally.) That working-out process keeps the Marx Brothers further down on my list than they otherwise might be—but their best movies still hold up pretty well, decades later.

Most people single out “Duck Soup” as their best—that’s the A-side—but sadly I don’t like it as much as I should: I know the anarchy is the point, but there’s a level of anarchy beyond which I start to get turned off. (I also don’t love “Blazing Saddles.”) But “A Night at the Opera” is just as potent, just as funny, and just as gleefully skewering—what better place than an opera for Margaret Dumont?—while keeping its chaos in control. “A Day at the Races” is equally good, but I’ll give the nod to “Opera” if only for the stateroom scene.

30s movie 1

This is what the Blue Zone really looks like on game day.

Incidentally: the Marx Brothers were film greats, but the stage was their real element—so while it’s rare these days, if you ever get a chance to see a Marx show on stage, don’t pass it up. “A Night in the Ukraine” is a 1979 musical written in the Marx Brothers style; it’s a knockoff, but it’s still brilliant. I once saw “Ukraine” put on by a bunch of high schoolers in Michigan—still one of my favorite theater experiences to this day, and it was a high-school production.

9. Freaks. Tod Browning also made “Dracula,” but this is his masterpiece. It’s also one of the first movies ever to subvert the old notion that Ugly has to be Evil and Beautiful has to be Good. Here, the gorgeous blond and the strapping strongman are the scheming villains, and we end up rooting for a team of folks straight out of the uncanny valley. It works all the more effectively because “Freaks” really does sincerely care about and respect its characters—much more so than, say, “The Wizard of Oz” sincerely respects the Munchkins.

It’s a bit more complex, too, because “Freaks” really goes beyond good and evil here. The ‘freaks’ are themselves a bit vicious as well: the famous “one of us” scene is pretty creepy, and the justice they exact on the bad guys is so sadistic (albeit poetic) that you can’t be entirely comfortable with it and still feel good about yourself in the morning.

Watch it here.

8. Gone With The Wind. Another colossal achievement that’s tarnished by its utterly ridiculous treatment of pre- and post-war slavery, “Gone With The Wind” is still a damn fine melodrama that still has as much power to move today as it ever had. Scarlett O’Hara is a terrific character—we find ourselves pulling for her even as we recognize her spoiled selfishness—and the burning of Atlanta and its aftermath are among the most memorable sequences in movie history. The second act isn’t as powerful—one tragedy follows another until it all becomes dull—but the first act is still a tremendous achievement.

Side note, since I look for films that make me think as well as feel: my friend Margot Morgan, a professor at Indiana University Southeast, reads “Gone With The Wind” as an examination of how people deal existentially with “great social transformation”—or, in other words, how you deal with the realization that your civilization or way of life is historically destined to be swept away.  She’s talking about Margaret Mitchell’s novel there, not David O. Selznick’s movie—Mitchell’s novel actually includes a running discourse between Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler on the idea of the Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods—but it’s worth watching the film with that idea in mind as well. (Neither Ashley, Rhett, or Scarlett come out looking too good.)

7. Pepe Le Moko. Never heard of it? Yeah, neither had I. (My grad school roommate was getting his doctorate in comparative literature, so I was able to see a lot of films I’d otherwise never have discovered.) “Pepe Le Moko” is a gem: set in the Casbah of Algiers, it’s about a charming criminal on the run from the French police—who’s perfectly safe as long as he never leaves the Casbah. He loves the place, but after a couple years he starts to get antsy…

It’s worth seeing for so many reasons. For one thing, it’s a ton of fun, and Jean Gabin—who plays Pepe—is one of the greatest French actors of all time. For the more politically minded, it’s also a terrific lens into how the French understood their own colonialism—especially regarding Algeria, which France really thought of as more than just a colony. (It’s fair to say they were a bit surprised when it turned out the Algerians felt rather differently.)

“Pepe Le Moko” also plays a surprisingly important role in film history. “Pepe” was so popular when it came out in 1937 that it got an American remake the following year, as a movie called “Algiers.” And that was so popular that film studios started looking for similar projects to cash in on its success. They found one a few years later—it was called “Casablanca.”

30s movie 2

“De toutes les joints de gin en toutes les villes en tout le monde…”

Incidentally, speaking of Jean Gabin…

6. The Grand Illusion. Gabin stars in this one too, a French war movie often cited as one of the greatest ever made. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but it’s awful darn close…

Set in World War I, Gabin plays a working-class soldier who’s captured by the Germans, along with a fellow soldier from an aristocratic background. What follows is a devastating takedown of war, nationhood, and class solidarity—and anti-Semitism too, for good measure.

Class means more than nationality: the French aristocrat shares more in common with his German-aristocrat captor than his own fellow soldiers. War itself is an exercise in futility—the “grand illusion” of the title. The aristocracy itself is doomed—about to be relegated to the dustbin of history, like the Old South in “Gone With The Wind.” It’s a thought-provoking movie, even if you already subscribe to its antiwar ideals. Gabin’s presence is also a point in its favor, as well as the presence of Erich Von Stroheim (“Sunset Boulevard”) as the unforgettable German aristocrat.

Click here to continue with Part 2, counting down to #1.

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The Ten Best Movies Of The 1920s, Part Two

Okay, now that Election Day is behind us, picking up where I left off with movies:

Aaron’s Ten Favorite Films Of The 1910s And 1920s, or: Say What You Will About The Silent Era, This Industry Was Pretty Hit-Or-Miss Until The Late 30s.

I got a little more than halfway through my top 10 before I cut off, so to recap:

10. The Passion of Joan of Arc
9. Birth of a Nation
8. The Jazz Singer
7. The General
6. The Kid
5. The Gold Rush

…with all the necessary apologies for No. 9. I really tried to like “Intolerance,” honest I did.

Click here for the first half of the list.

Continuing:

4. Metropolis. Aside from Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang was the greatest director of the silent era, and “Metropolis” was his masterpiece. It’s the first great science fiction movie, not to mention a classic about the ongoing struggle between the haves and the have-nots; Chaplin’s “Modern Times” would eventually surpass it on both counts, but “Metropolis” still holds up to this day.

And what’s more, it’s just as timely now as ever. The upper classes in “Metropolis” use technology to murderous ends partly because they see the lower classes as a threat, but also (and I think primarily) because they’re incapable of seeing them as human beings in the first place. In fact neither side in the class divide is able to recognize the humanity of the Other. It’s the introduction of simple human sympathy that makes a resolution possible: “The mediator between the Head and Hands must be the Heart,” as the final tagline goes.

This is the movie you need to show people, in short, before they start arguing about immigration or welfare or foreign policy—you know, the sort of issues where most of the usual arguments only make sense if you ignore the fact that actual human beings are involved. (It also ought to be required viewing for folks who want to cut humanities departments and pour all our higher-ed funds into STEM.)

3. The Circus. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp movies, they say, always follow the same basic plot: starting out alone and penniless, he finds a community, makes friends, meets a girl, falls in love, and stumbles into financial opportunity as well; in the end, circumstances leave him right back where he started, alone and penniless, but he soldiers on, head held high.

Here’s the thing, though: none of Chaplin’s movies actually end that way. In “The Kid” he loses the girl (sort of) but gets to keep his ‘son,’ which was really the point all along; in “Modern Times” he loses the money but gets the girl; in “The Gold Rush” he gets the money and the girl; and while “City Lights” and “The Great Dictator” are a bit more ambiguous, he certainly doesn’t end up alone.

The one exception is “The Circus,” the only feature-length Little Tramp movie that actually follows the standard plot. It’s wonderful, it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s got some of the most iconic Chaplin moments of all time (oh, the final shot!), and for some reason it’s largely forgotten. I have no idea why.

People, watch “The Circus”! It’s great. I’ll always love “Modern Times,” but aside from that, this is my favorite Chaplin movie.

2. Battleship Potemkin. “Metropolis” ends with the upper and lower classes making peace over a common bond of simple humanity. The Soviet propaganda classic “Battleship Potemkin” is more pessimistic—as per Marx’s insistence that capitalism effectively eviscerates humanity, so all that remains are two different species, “bourgeois” and “proletariat,” whose interactions can only be violent. In the absence of that common bond, there can be no happy ending for all—so “Battleship Potemkin” takes the happiest ending it can get, the triumph of the Revolution through which “humanity” can be finally and fully restored.

I like “Battleship Potemkin” primarily because it makes me think. (I like movies that make me laugh, cry, or think. If a movie can do two of those things, all the better; if it can make me do all three, I’ll love it forever.) But it’s also an emotional movie too. The film industry is light years beyond where it was 90 years ago, so very few of these old, old movies really have the power to move us anymore—but I dare you to watch the Odessa Steps sequence without getting a little choked up.

1. Safety Last! I’ve mentioned this already, but today’s audiences are a bit more sophisticated (and jaded) than they were in the 1920s, when movies were new. They say when “The Great Train Robbery” came out in 1903, moviegoers would flee the cinema in terror when the bad guy turned his gun toward the camera at the end and pulled the trigger. And 20 years later, when “Safety Last!” came out, audiences apparently did the same thing—ran screaming out of the theater. Can you imagine anyone running out of a theater screaming today? What would a movie need to do to elicit such a reaction? I don’t even want to think about it…

“Wait, wait, hang on,” you ask. “Why did audiences run screaming during ‘Safety Last’? It’s just a slapstick comedy!”

Yep. That’s what I thought too.

Then I watched “Safety Last.”

“Safety Last” is a Harold Lloyd joint. As silent comedians go, Lloyd isn’t quite as well known today as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, and for good reason: generally speaking, Keaton and Chaplin made better movies. (A 1989 documentary about him is entitled “The Third Genius.”) Still, Lloyd’s work holds up pretty well in its own right, especially in those moments when he’s at his best—trying to impress some fair maiden or bigwig or cheering crowd by taking control of a situation, even while everything is falling apart around him in every conceivable way.

The last half hour of “Safety Last!” takes this standard plot and heightens it—literally—to a jawdropping level. The entire first hour of the movie is a long contrivance to set up this final scene: with a cheering throng, his boss, and his girlfriend watching below, a policeman actively trying to thwart him, and a friend trying vainly to help, Lloyd must climb up the side of a 12-story building.

And then he does.

What follows is simply one of the most dizzying, thrilling, exciting, suspenseful—and hilarious—sequences I’ve ever seen. If it were made today, it wouldn’t be a big deal. We have special effects, green screens, stunt doubles, all that. But this was 1923—so yes, that’s actually Harold Lloyd, actually hanging off the side of a building, and not for a second does the movie let you forget. (One modern reviewer, paraphrasing “Superman,” sums it up pretty well: “You’ll believe a man can die.”)

safety last

In the 1920s, the switch from Daylight to Standard time was fraught with peril.

I don’t want to oversell it, but there’s not a single action sequence in the entire first half of the century that holds up like “Safety Last!”—and to be honest, I can’t think of very many action sequences I’ve ever seen that were as thrilling. (If you saw the Burj Khalifa scene in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”—and what an amazing sequence that was—I’d say it’s about on par with that.)

So there. The top 10 movies of the 1910s and 20s. Most of them, you can watch for free on YouTube right now—and most of them are barely an hour long, so it’s a great way to pass a fairly short amount of time. I’d love to hear your thoughts: which movies am I leaving out?

(Incidentally, honorable mention goes to “Nosferatu”—which frankly I hated, but I’m pretty sure the version I saw was a poorly edited hack job. Max Schreck is terrific as the vampire, either way.)

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/the-ten-best-movies-of-the-1920s-part-two/

Blog-A-Day III: The Ten Best Movies Of The 1920s, Part One

When I started this blog-a-day mission, I promised posts about everything from politics to pop culture—and so far I’ve been doing nothing but talk about politics. So today, movies!

(Yes, yes, Chapelboro is an Orange County-centric site, and this has nothing to do with Orange County. This will not keep me up at night.)

I’ve been a movie buff for years now—so much so that I’m almost, almost to the point where I’ve seen everything I’ll ever want to see. I’ve checked off 94 of the AFI’s top 100, I’ve hit nearly all the top-grossing blockbusters, and I’ve seen every Best Picture back to the 80s (with the exception of The English Patient, but I’m kinda fine with that).

Elaine
I take Elaine’s reviews very seriously.

And I’m also an anal-retentive completist with a lot of time on his hands. So one day I sat down, compiled a list of all the movies I still wanted to see, and started knocking them off, chronologically, one by one.

That was a little more than a year ago.

Now I’m almost all the way through the 50s and 60s, still working my way up to the present day…but in the meantime I think I’m done with the first half of the twentieth century. (Which is just as well, because good Lord those were some depressing years.)

And so, we commence:

<cue trumpets>

Aaron’s Fairly Definitive, Thoroughly Subjective, Admittedly Heavily US- And British-centric List Of The Top 10 Movies Of Each Decade!

<Exeunt trumpets.>

I’m not going to do it all in one post, so we’ll go decade by decade…and I still haven’t finished the entire list, so the more recent years will have to wait. Hopefully by the end of the month I can get through the 1960s.

But we begin with:

<cue trumpets>

The 1910s And 1920s, Lumped Together Because Frankly It’s Pretty Slim Pickings.

<Exeunt trumpets, grumbling at having been called upon again so soon.>

10. The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s true I am a film buff, but I’m not going to hang onto a movie just for the role it played in film history. If a movie doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t hold up, and I set it aside and move on. And let’s be honest, the movie industry has progressed so far beyond where it was in the 1910s and 20s—not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of how to tell a story and how to move a viewer. So call me a plebe if you must, but there really aren’t many movies from this period that I can say I like all that much.

I say this because when I think of “Passion”—Joan of Arc’s trial and execution, depicted as a traditional Christian passion play—the first word that comes to mind is “ponderous.” Still, it’s worth it for Renée Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan. Some call it the greatest performance in film history. I wouldn’t go that far—she gets by with about three different facial expressions—but she does embody a sense of ecstatic sadness that nobody else can match.

Joan Cries

“As a UNC fan, I can’t help but feel happy, but…those poor NC State boys…”

9. Birth of a Nation. Sadly, yes. (I did say it was slim pickings.) It’s utterly ruined by the virulent racism, but “Birth of a Nation” does have one thing going for it—the battle scenes in the first act actually still hold up, almost a hundred years later. There have been better depictions of war since then, of course, but I don’t think this was surpassed for 30, maybe even 40 years. (“Paths of Glory” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” did it, but those both came out in 1957.)

The battle sequence is important, because–and this really surprised me–I think D.W. Griffith was actually trying to make an antiwar movie here. “Birth of a Nation” really, really wants to be a film about the horrors of war and the lasting scars it leaves. It wants to be “Apocalypse Now.” But “Apocalypse Now” works because it draws its inspiration from a book (and a worldview) that recognizes the white-man’s-burden argument for the racist fallacy it is*…whereas “Birth of a Nation” draws its inspiration from a book (and a worldview) that embraces the racist fallacy and takes it to a whole other level. (Griffith’s ‘antiwar’ argument here also takes a particularly nasty and all-too-familiar form: “Gee, it’s a shame we had to fight that awful war, because wasn’t life just grand before?” Tell that to Solomon Northrup.)

Incidentally, I was browsing through Nice Price Books one day—back when it was still open—and I was shocked to come across a copy of “The Clansman,” the novel on which “Birth of a Nation” was based. I almost bought it just to get it out of the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Never did see it in the shop again. Jarring to know that those books are still floating around out there…

8. The Jazz Singer. Because you can’t escape racism in 1920s Hollywood. Despite its reputation, “Jazz Singerisn’t an especially racist movie by 1920s standards, though of course that says more about the 1920s than it does about “The Jazz Singer.” Comedies invariably used black folk as comic relief by depicting them as simple, childlike, easily deceived, and easily spooked—none of that in “Jazz Singer,” at least—and Al Jolson certainly wasn’t the only star to sing and dance in blackface. (Fred Astaire did it in “Swing Time,” and for some reason he gets more of a pass.)

“Jazz Singer” makes my list because of the affecting scenes between Jolson and his mother, played by Eugenie Besserer. When they’re together, the ecstatic melancholy on their faces rivals Falconetti’s.

7. The General. Now we get to the good stuff. Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, “The General” cuts to the essence of every Keaton movie: the stone-faced hero calmly muddling forward in the midst of utter chaotic absurdity. Sometimes he’s oblivious to the chaos, sometimes he’s aware of it, sometimes he even creates it; always, though, he marches on, and against all odds he makes it through. It’s Hollywood’s answer to Albert Camus. You should see at least one Keaton movie, and if you only see one, it should be this one.

(But you should also see this 50-second scene from “Steamboat Bill Jr.”)

Fascinating thing about “The General”: it’s set in the Civil War, and Keaton plays a Confederate soldier. Why a frickin’ Confederate soldier? All part of Hollywood’s long fascination with the romantic lost-cause mythos of the Confederacy: beginning with “Birth of a Nation,” the vast majority of movies set during the Civil War feature Confederates as the heroes. Odd, that. “Gone With The Wind” is the most famous example, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Western, say, where the hero is a former Union soldier. (There are a few, but not many. More often the hero is a former Confederate—or you have an ex-Union and an ex-Confederate  joining forces against some common enemy. Or you have “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” where the heroes are mostly neutral—but boy, does The Bad ever relish running a Union prison camp!) With very rare exceptions—the John Wayne movie “The Horse Soldiers” is one—it’s not until “Glory” that you have a Hollywood movie unabashedly depicting the Union as the good guys. And that movie came out in 1989!

Apparently it’s not always the victors who write the history.

general-buster-keaton-1

So we beat on, locomotives against the current, borne back ceaselessly into enemy territory.

6. The Kid, and

5. The Gold Rush. I love me some Charlie Chaplin. “The Kid” was his first feature-length movie, “The Gold Rush” was his second, and he only got better from there.

Chaplin’s movies are pretty damn depressing when you think about it. A weak, insignificant, downtrodden, impoverished, and nameless little man tries desperately to make his way in a harsh world where powerful forces—financial, legal, physical, and natural—are invariably massed against him. He almost always fails, but he soldiers on, smiling, to the next confrontation, and the next, and the next. What makes it work? It works because it’s funny…but more than that, it works because it’s optimistic about the human condition. There are comedies today (think “Identity Thief,” most recently, or maybe “Meet the Parents”) that feature insignificant men trying to muddle through in a world that’s out to get them—but they’re often pessimistic, nasty, mean-spirited. Should the hero keep smiling through it, it’s depicted ironically—the hero’s just laughably naïve. But Chaplin’s smile is genuine—and it’s earned, because it’s a response to a world that’s ultimately good, wrong as it may currently be. (Chaplin as Rousseau, perhaps? I’m just spitballing here.)

But Chaplin never downplays the wrongness of the world either. Heartwarming and inspirational as they were, his movies were also cries of protest against concentrated power—be it political, social, or economic. (The McCarthyist witch-hunters went after him in the 50s for a reason.) It’s such a thin tightrope to walk—to make a funny, optimistic movie that cries out against a world gone wrong—but Chaplin does it, every time. “Modern Times” is his masterpiece, but “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush” come close. You should see at least five Chaplin movies, and if you only see five, these should be two of them.

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Click here for Part 2, counting down from 4 to 1.

* I’m talking about “Heart of Darkness,” but to be honest I’m not sure I’m right about this. Does “Heart of Darkness” actually recognize the white-man’s-burden argument as a racist fallacy, or does it only argue that it corrupts? Regardless, “Apocalypse Now” does both: in the film, at least, the white-man’s-burden argument is exposed as both a corrupting influence and a racist fallacy. “Birth of a Nation” does neither, and there’s the rub.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/blog-a-day-iii-the-ten-best-movies-of-the-1920s-part-one/

Oblivion, Oblivi-ous

I remember a discussion I once had with a good friend about the importance of a good screenwriter versus a good director. As a writer, I was of course defending the side of the script, while he argued for the need of quality direction. I’ll always remember what he told me: A good script can be ruined by a bad director, but a good director can save a bad script. In an interesting, and perhaps even tragic twist of fate, Oblivion tells the story of a promising director attempting to salvage his own bad script, based on his own comic book.

The previews for Oblivion seemed to promise something both simple and satisfying; a reliable sci-fi action picture, not too challenging, but still a good time. The film starts off right on this track, with a mediocre script being held up by good camera work, nice art direction, and quick pacing. Sure the storyline is basically Wall-E with the adorable robot being replaced by Tom Cruise looking exactly like he has for nearly 30 years, but there are all the aliens, guns, and spaceships we need for a good time. Then come the twists.

Oblivion leaves the safety of a straightforward action flick, and descends into using cheap twist after cheap twist, the worst of which is an almost heinous theft from 2008’s Moon. Cruise’s character begins to notice some peculiar things happening in his routine life of fixing drones and shooting aliens, culminating in a crashed spacecraft in which he discovers a mysterious woman, and before long his friends start looking like enemies and vice versa. Unfortunately, the film never makes its way out of exposition and into development, so it just feels like we’re having new information piled on top of itself, without ever really understanding what any of it means.

To put it simply, the writers of Oblivion just aren’t as clever as they’d like to think. Every twist that was meant to bring a gasp was instead met with an eye roll or even a little chuckle. Any saving graces to the film are found in the likability of the actors. We all seem to have gotten over Tom Cruises crazy spree of a few years ago, and he is still a generally likable actor who knows how to keep an audience entertained. Morgan Freeman also does a good job hamming things up in a sadly underwritten role that leaves you wishing he got much more screentime. Of course in a post-apocalyptic world there aren’t a whole lot of people left around to fill out a story, and beyond the leads, the remaining characters more often than not fall into painfully token roles, although it is interesting to note that the only people left on Earth are all incredibly good looking.

Despite director Joseph Kosinski’s best efforts, there simply was no life support that could salvage Oblivion’s disaster of a script. The film is for the most part paced well enough to avoid being a complete bore, however a seemingly endless barrage of ridiculous twists derail what could have been a fun afternoon escape, with the whole thing going over a cliff by the third act. While Oblivion is likely far from being the worst movie of the summer, it is likely to be one of the most misguided.

My Rating: 1.5 Stars

Zach Godwin is a web designer, antique picker, and film fanatic who loves uncovering beauty in the world and sharing its stories. You can follow Zach on twitter @zachgodwin.

http://chapelboro.com/lifestyle/arts-entertainment/oblivion-oblivi-ous-2/

I'm Playing The Whedon Game

I know, I know: just last week I was trying to stay away from getting all excited about superhero movie news. But with the whole Joss Whedon being officially on board not just for Avengers 2 but for an Avengers TV show, I couldn’t contain myself!

First of all, it’s hard to go wrong with a Joss Whedon TV show, especially one about people with powers. Second of all, I’m with TV critic Alan Sepinwall in hoping to finally see that Jessica Jones series. Seriously, a PI with a superheroine past and ties to the Avengers is a goldmine, and I would watch the heck out of that show with Whedon behind it. (Also, if you haven’t read Alias yet, get on it! It’s available in two handy volumes now, and it’s great.)
 
And in non-superhero news, check out Matt Madden on the evolution of comics in 6 panels.
 
And in only barely comic-book-related news (there is actually a tie-in to comics!), I am getting super excited about the new season of Doctor Who. Current head writer/showrunner Steven Moffatt is occasionally heavy-handed and likes to re-use tropes (The Doctor meeting women at various times throughout their childhoods/adulthoods, disembodied voices of the dead, etc), but I still love the show and am especially excited about a few teases from the upcoming season, particularly this one (SPOILERS, as River Song would say!)

And, in case you were wondering, there are currently no plans for a Doctor Who movie.
 
Just to tie all this together –Doctor Who, movies and the Avengers– the original Doctor from the modern era, Christopher Eccleston, is going to play the villain in the next Thor movie. I love the sci-fi universe!

http://chapelboro.com/columns/graphic-novelties/im-playing-the-whedon-game/

Basketball and the small cracks in the wall of segregation

The best thing about the new movie and best-selling book, “The Help,” may be something other than the compelling story and the view into the relationships between white women and their black servants.

So what is this “best thing?”
“The Help” has us talking, thinking, remembering, reflecting, and reconsidering. It reminds us of friendships between some whites and some blacks that were making small cracks in that great wall of segregation.
Like “The Help,” a new North Carolina novel pushes us back to 1963 and requires us to re-experience relationships between whites and blacks during those times.
Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train” is set in a small North Carolina town, where two teenaged aspiring musicians, one black, the other white, struggle to build a friendship over and around the walls of segregation.
When he talks about his new book, Edgerton shares a poignant back-story. The fictional black teenager is modeled on a real person named Larry Lime Holman.  Holman, like Edgerton, grew up in Bethesda, a small town near Durham.
Although they lived in the same town, Larry Lime’s black school and Clyde’s white school never competed against each other in athletics. But both the white and black athletes hung around Clyde’s uncle’s grocery store. One day they started arguing about which group had the best basketball players.
Larry Lime, Clyde and the other boys decided to do something that broke the rules of their segregated town. They decided to break into the small Old Bethesda School gym and play a game of basketball, whites against blacks.
 “They had nine guys and we just had five,” Edgerton remembers. “And those who weren’t on the court just stood in line waiting to replace a player who got tired.”
Larry Lime’s team “just wore us down,” Clyde says.
From that report, I assume that Larry Lime’s team won. But Clyde says he does not remember for sure.
Clyde and Larry Lime got away with their secret basketball game. But a few days later, when the two boys were shooting baskets at a goal in Clyde’s backyard, Clyde’s dad came out of the house and told the boys that Larry Lime would have to leave. The neighbors might complain.
Clyde fictionalized this real story in an earlier novel, “The Floatplane Notebooks.”
Retired Chapel Hill pharmacist Cliff Butler remembers a similar story from 1963 when his Dunn High School basketball team coached by Dick Knox (later deputy executive director and supervisor of officials for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association) won its league championship.  
That same year, Harnett High, the black school, also had a great team.
The white players and the black players hung around Cliff’s dad’s drugstore. There was some friendly bantering about which team was better, and they decided to settle the question.
So they agreed to meet in the gym at Harnett High, everybody knowing that it would be too dangerous to bring black players to the white high school gym. The black team won a close game, Cliff remembers, thanks in part to “a little guy on their team who shot the lights out that day.”
The next day, word got out in the community about the game. Mr. Hutaff, who ran an insurance agency next door to Cliff’s dad’s drugstore, pulled Cliff aside and told him that he had heard about the game. “It had better not happen again or there will be hell to pay.”
A more secret and more illegal interracial basketball game took place in 1944 between the Duke Medical School team and the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University).

These basketball stories were tiny cracks in the wall of segregation. But it was the accumulation of many tiny cracks that helped bring down that wall. So, every one of those little cracks in is worth remembering and celebrating today.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/basketball-and-the-small-cracks-in-the-wall-of-segregation/