Posted in First Take

[1937.6] In Old Chicago

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

Nearly eighty years later, In Old Chicago reads as representative of the film industry working many kinks out. For one, movies strove (and maybe still strive) to find the very difference between stage and screen, mostly with obvious differences to do with scale, scope and budget. For another, cinematographers, directors, producers and actors needed to work within technology available: gel film, mechanical cameras, low-light projectors, etc, etc.

The fact that any film existed before a majority of modern technology was commercially feasible is incredible, and we should watch older movies with such-colored glasses. In Old Chicago followed San Francisco as a quasi-blockbuster to feature a miniaturized disaster as precursor to modern computer generated images. To compare, performing in front of a live audience a stage troupe would never be able to convince an audience that a 1:100 scale of anything was supposed to represent “real,” and the choice of medium should be clear. Yet in the case of older film, predating digital film (surely), but also larger and more specific budgets, the cast and crew usually could muster perhaps two chances for the expensive, but visually stunning scenery and subsequent destruction. Make fun of the primitive at will and watch a modern post-produced action film with awe, but respect the vision and execution of the original action sequence for its vision. Continue reading “[1937.6] In Old Chicago”

Posted in First Take

[1937.5] The Good Earth

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

The most obvious anachronism in the film adaptation of The Good Earth is the whitewashing. Paul Muni (Chicago by-way of Ukraine) and Luise Rainer (Düsseldorf) are not Chinese, whereas the characters, Wang Lung and O-Lan, are Chinese.  Yes whitewashing is inauthentic and detracts from the overall believability of the film. Because I know Muni and Rainer are White playing Chinese, the hyper-sensitive culture within which I have watched this movie forces my brain to identify this fact and constantly reminds me of it. In 1937 the industry might have had many reasons to hire white actors: budget (no), racism (maybe), lack of qualified, famous and available Chinese actors (probably). This point is uninteresting.

What about the ‘Earth’ is ‘Good?’ The title is an non-exhaustive metaphor for a noun/metaphor combination that could mean any number of things, but in this film adaptation of Nobel Prize for Literature Winner Pearl Buck’s stunning The Good Earth, which follows the story of human sadness (Good) as the dirt bites back (Earth) and is probably allegory for the tides of Chinese statehood at the turn of the 20th Century. Our characters are metaphors, say, of the competing forces that shaped China during the shift from the final years of Mandated Qing through the sapling stages of the Republic. Throughout the course of Wang Lung’s life, things happen, and The Good Earth follows his quintessentially human story (Good) as he reacts to the different hardships, mostly poverty. His and his wife’s, and eventually his children’s, lives rely on the fickle arid passively dramatic land (Earth) for sustenance and for well-being. Goodness is necessarily of the Earth and wonderfully abstract and confusing. The Good Earth is a story of human suffering, and that it is of Chinese substance is a function of Pearl Bucks’ own formative experience. The Good Earth novel won the Nobel Prize not because it peeled back the curtain, per se, to a wider audience, but because it globalized Occidental and Oriental in a manner theretofore unknown. It is our Earth. Continue reading “[1937.5] The Good Earth”

Posted in First Take

[1937.4] Dead End

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.

Dead End, a 1937 slice-of-life, riches-and-urchins film is a masterful adaptation of stage-to-screen because the theme works with light hands. In an attempt to backdrop ostentatious wealth against abject poverty, Dead End neither attempts to comment on income inequality nor class politics. Instead, the film, basically confined to a single stage (with a few side rooms, as physical asides) tells the story of a couple of chipped kids with no discernible past and, as the story would lead a reader to believe, no future either. Yet we, presumably not destitute, can connect with these kids because for every “stage” in our own lives, there exists at least one kid who has been beaten down by his milieu. Dead End works in that mysterious middle ground of unintentional brilliance, of unassuming aloofness.

The viewing object – the screen – held enormous weight in early Hollywood; no home video existed and the audience needed to see perspective projected onto it. That said, a screen by itself is not perspectival, so in order to create depth, a cinematographer will use different lens widths and size through distance. This technique is not new and not unique to film. Some artists intentionally bastardize perspective to trick the mind, others unintentionally misuse equipment and shift perspective from the normal human eye’s perspective and either ruin a scene or create some modernist brilliance – cohesive and contentious. Dead End exists somewhere in the middle of intentional because of its adaptation from a play written for the stage and unintentional because the available film equipment in the 1930s limited a director/cinematographer’s options. Continue reading “[1937.4] Dead End”

Posted in First Take

[1937.3] Captains Courageous

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Captains Courageous is well-paced, well-acted and holds up over the 80 or so years since its premier in 1937. Rudyard Kipling, of Jungle Book fame, wrote a story that translates well to the screen; humans have a fascination with the unruly sea, that which can giveth life but also taketh. The ocean is often the setting for panacea, spreading hope like miasma, even to the darkest corners and especially for the darkest souls. Kipling’s story extends its reach to that of a child, young Harvey Cheyne, for whom wealth has clouded an imagination and turned a typically joyful time in a person’s life spoiled, spiteful and shrewd. As a character study, Captains Courageous provides a wealth of archetypes that interact: young Cheyne and his wealthy but distant father, Spencer Tracy’s slightly-overacted-but-nevertheless-earnest Manuel, seaworthy Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), et cetera. But the movie still feels told-before in a way, and as a consequence, dull.

Why?

Perhaps through jaded-colored glasses, this story has been told many times since and can no longer be differentiated from the countless iterations in the 80 or so years since. This is, of course, quite a subjective response dependent on the fact that The Academy Nominees Project exists with a close circle of friends almost guaranteeing we’ve seen everything (not literally). So while this pieces change, the story remains and those versed in storytelling notice a rehashing of tropes as a “teaching” moment, a resolution somewhat guaranteed, that’s incomparable to real life situations. It’s escapism at it’s finest because Captains Courageous is well-made and well-meaning. But escapism is unsustainable. Its counterfactual is weariness, to be surfeit with time and life experience.  Continue reading “[1937.3] Captains Courageous”