Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Time Piece (1965)

Jim Henson was such a versatile genius that it can be easy to take for granted the rich variety of work he created across different media and formats. This 1965 experimental short film -- which Henson wrote, directed and starred in -- is one such example. With its creative use of sound and editing, zany satirical humor, and densely layered ideas expressed through constant formal invention, it's one of the best things Henson ever did.

Hallelujah (1929)

This landmark early talkie -- a musical melodrama about a family of black sharecroppers in the American South -- is notable as one of the first all-black sound films made in Hollywood. It was a highly personal project for director King Vidor, who wanted to present an authentic portrayal of black life in the South, using a cast comprised entirely of African-American actors and filmed on location (in Tennessee and Arkansas). The film is notable too for its pioneering use of location sound recording and fluid cinematography, which Vidor achieved by shooting silent and dubbing the sound later.

The results are still quite powerful, though a bit quaint at times today, and possess a vibrant energy, thanks to Vidor's innovative direction, the standout performances of Daniel L. Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney, and the rich soundtrack consisting of Spiritual songs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Baltimore City in Herman G. Weinberg's "Autumn Fire" (1931)

Of the figures who have contributed to Baltimore City's rich regional film culture, one who must be mentioned is Herman G. Weinberg (1908-1983). Weinberg -- a noted film historian, critic, translator, and instructor -- is probably best known by cinephiles today for his film column "Coffee, Brandy and Cigars" and for his numerous books which include Stroheim: A Pictorial Record, The Complete "Greed", and The Lubitsch Touch. Weinberg was also instrumental in the importing and exhibition of foreign-language films in the US, translating subtitles for more than 300 films in a variety of languages.

Though born in Manhattan and based in New York for many years, Weinberg's early career in film can be traced to Baltimore, where he managed The Little Theater, opened in 1927 and located at 523 North Howard Street (it has since been demolished, and is now a parking lot). Incidentally, several short biographical sketches of Weinberg that I've looked at online state that he was the manager of "a little theater" in Baltimore, apparently not realizing that "The Little" was actually the name of the theater. The Little was known as a venue for what would today be termed art house fare, including important foreign films and independent films (my grandfather, an avid moviegoer in Baltimore at the time, recalls seeing the Technicolor production of The Mikado there in 1939).

But Weinberg's contributions to Baltimore's film culture extended beyond his curatorial role as the manager of the Little Theater. In 1931, he wrote and directed an important film in the American avant garde movement, Autumn Fire. This 15-minute lyrical film poem follows two lovers who are separated by distance -- the man in the city, the woman in the country -- and are finally reunited in New York. The silent film tells its story entirely through images, aided occasionally by the text of written letters. The beauty of Weinberg's compositions demonstrate a real eye for setting and detail, making it a pity that this was the only film he completed. It borrows aspects of the "City Symphonies" of the 1920s, with its montages of a modern industrial metropolis, and contains elements of what P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film calls the "trance film", in its dreamlike unfolding of narrative events and emphasis on the relationship between the characters and their respective environments.

According to Robert A. Haller's article on the film (originally published in Field of Vision, Nos. 9-10, Winter-Spring 1980, and reprinted in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1893-1947, ed. Bruce Posner), Autumn Fire grew out of an earlier film project that Weinberg began but never finished, called A City Symphony, and notes that Weinberg was influenced by filmmakers such as Eisenstein (Romances-Sentimentale), Dimitri Kirsanoff (Brumes d'Autome), and Walter Ruttman (Berlin). He also mentions a charming anecdote about the production, that it was intended as a kind of cinematic love letter to Erna Bergman, who played the girl in the film.

Knowing that Weinberg was based in Baltimore at the time he made Autumn Fire, I became interested in the possibility that he had filmed at least some of it there. As a native of Maryland as well as a filmmaker myself, I was intrigued by this previously-unexplored link between Autumn Fire and its possible connection to the city.

Having seen the film several times, I knew the final scenes were shot, or at least set, in New York, as indicated by an on-screen note that refers to the "Central Station". Haller notes that the Manhattan footage Weinberg shot for A City Symphony in the late '20s was cut up and edited into Autumn Fire, which would explain the later "city" scenes taken in New York.

However, it is the earlier "city" scenes that interested me, and I revisited those with an eye toward looking for any identifiable signs that they might have been shot in Baltimore. Although the sequences consisted mostly of brief glimpses of the ships, piers, harbor, etc., there were a couple of shots that contained a view of the city skyline. I realized upon closer inspection that the skyline was all wrong for it to be New York, due to the lack of towering skyscrapers and other recognizable landmarks that would have been present even in 1931.

Taking a closer look at Autumn Fire on DVD, freeze-framing the fragmentary shots, it suddenly became clear: Weinberg did indeed shoot these scenes in Baltimore. Again, it was the skyline that provided the clue. In the shot below, I recognized the unmistakable structure of the Baltimore Trust Company Building (at one time the tallest building in the city and today the Bank of America building, built in 1929 and located at 10 Light Street). Immediately to its left in this shot is another building that remains today, the First National Bank Building (formerly the Legg Mason Building, built in 1924).


The next question was determining which area of the city this shot was taken from. Based on the angle of the buildings, it appeared to be taken in the spot where the USS Constellation is currently docked, at Pier 1 in the Inner Harbor.

With this evidence, I headed to Baltimore to take photos of the area today. Knowing how much the skyline has built up over the years, I doubted I would be able to get a picture of the buildings from the same angle. I was correct -- this particular view is no longer visible from the Inner Harbor, but I was able to find a view of the buildings from a similar angle, further up on Pratt Street:


Here is what the view from Pier 1 looks like today. The area has been built up considerably, between the skyscrapers and the construction of Harbor Place:


Many of the shots in the film appear to have been taken on or around piers that no longer exist. I have been unable to identify the precise locations of which piers might have been used. However, one shot shows a boat docking, clearly marked "Balto, MD", evidence that these scenes were at least taken in Baltimore's harbor:


There is one shot of the harbor taken from a high vantage point, which was possibly filmed from Federal Hill, located across from Harbor Place:


From atop Federal Hill, this was the only view I could get that resembled that in the film at all, though it is difficult to be certain, again, considering how much the area has been developed over the years. The only distinctive elements to go on were the height of the vantage point from which it was taken, which suggested Federal Hill, and the fact that the harbor veers off to the right at an angle:


Presumably, Weinberg shot these scenes in Baltimore due to the need to incorporate the character of "The Man" (played by non-professional actor Willy Hildebrand) into the story, and to supplement the Manhattan footage that he was recycling from A City Symphony (the majority of which seems to focus on the towering skyscrapers, trains, and bustling traffic). Haller notes that the scenes with Erna Bergman were shot first, which suggests that they were filmed somewhere in rural Maryland, though without further research, it is impossible to be sure.

This discovery of Baltimore's role in Autumn Fire establishes a link between the city and the early American avant garde film movement of the 1930s, and provides a starting point in continuing to examine Weinberg's contributions to Baltimore's film culture both as a filmmaker and exhibitor.

Herman G. Weinberg's papers are held in the collection of the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I plan to continue my research using the materials held in his archive and to hopefully be able to shed new light onto Weinberg's time in Baltimore.

References:
Freedman, Samuel G. "Herman G. Weinberg, Writer and Foreign Film Translator." The New York Times. 8 November, 1983. NYTimes.com. Web. Accessed 26 May, 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/11/08/obituaries/herman-g-weinberg-writer-and-foreign-film-translator.html>

Haller, Robert A. "Herman G. Weinberg, Autumn Fire (1930-1933)", originally published in Field of Vision, Nos. 9-10, Winter-Spring 1980, pp. 6-7, reprinted in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1893-1947, ed. Bruce Posner. Filmmakers Showcase, 2001. pp. 137-138.

Herman G. Weinberg Collection, Biographical/Historical Information. The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts. Web. Accessed 20 May, 2015. <http://archives.nypl.org/the/22482#bioghist>

Levin, Michael. "The Little Theatre in Baltimore". CinemaTreasures.org. Web. Accessed 20 May, 2015 <http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/7923>

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Devil's Party (1938)


B-crime drama about a group of friends, who grew up on the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen and reunite once each year for old times' sake. One of the gang, Marty (Victor McLaglen), has a criminal past, but now runs a successful nightclub. However, the friendships are threatened when one of Marty's regular customers is murdered, and his two old buddies -- now cops -- become involved in the investigation.

A solid, quick-paced programmer running just over an hour, it's nothing special but nonetheless possesses a certain charm for its unpretentious entertainment value, benefiting from good production values and a fine performance by McLaglen.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The House on 92nd Street (1945)


Political espionage procedural about an undercover agent for the FBI, who infiltrates a group of Nazi spies operating out of a house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The premise is ultimately marred by the fact that it lacks any real suspense, as there isn't any doubt that the government agents will save the day, and the rather too convenient conclusion feels both contrived and anti-climactic. The picture is helped by strong location photography (with nice views of 1940s New York and Washington DC), and a solid cast including William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, Leo G. Carroll and Gene Lockhart. Produced for 20th Century-Fox by documentary filmmaker Louis DeRochement, the film combines actual newsreel footage with the dramatic action to good effect, while Henry Hathaway's direction is characteristically straightforward.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorsese's sweeping, epic account of the Five Points section of New York during the 1860s, and the tensions between immigrant groups and the native-born Americans, stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first film for Scorsese) as an Irish priest's son who infiltrates the gang of crime boss Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a tour-de-force performance). Directed with a keen sense of period detail and atmosphere, this vivid re-creation of Civil War-era Manhattan (constructed on the massive stages at Cinecitta) is based on Herbert Asbury's account of the period in his book of the same name.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)


A truly inspired piece of surrealist humor, certainly one of the most original and genuinely funny comedies to come out of Hollywood in the past couple decades. The story, such as it is, involves Tom Green's efforts to become a successful animator and move out of his parents' house, but any plot is just a pretense on which to build a series of outrageous, surreal visual gags -- such as Green scooping out and wearing a dead deer carcass, dressing in a backwards suit as "Backwards Man", showering in full SCUBA gear, and playing a piano with dozens of sausages attached to strings on his fingers -- that recall the works of Bunuel and Dali, or Buster Keaton (to whom Green pays homage with a reference to STEAMBOAT BILL JR. late in the film). Green is fearless in his use of extreme, gross-out humor, and remains committed to the material, never breaking character or winking at the audience to re-assure them that it's just a joke. It is on this strength that the film succeeds so well.

Special mention should be made of Rip Torn as Green's long-suffering father, an inspired bit of casting. Julie Hagerty, Harland Williams, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Anthony Michael Hall are all effective in supporting parts. It's fortunate that Green was able to get studio financing for this project while having full creative control by co-writing and directing as well as starring in it. It's hard to imagine it being made today, but he certainly made the most of all the resources at his disposal and created something truly original and funny. It's not for all tastes, to be sure, but it's a welcome change of pace for anyone bored with run-of-the-mill, uninspired Hollywood comedies.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The House of Rothschild (1934)


Stirring historical drama, lavishly produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, tracing the rise of the Rothschild banking family and their struggle against anti-Semitism in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. George Arliss stars in a dual role as Nathan Rothschild and his father, Mayer. Arliss's sensitive portrayal of Nathan, the central figure in the family, is the film's greatest asset, as Nunnally Johnson's script (adapted from the George Hembert Westley play) necessarily covers many events in a short amount of time, resulting in subplots (the romance between Loretta Young and Robert Young) and characters (especially Boris Karloff's Count Ledrantz) that feel underdeveloped, not helped any by Alfred Werker's slick and impersonal direction. Still, it's a powerful and handsomely-mounted production, and contains one of Arliss's finest performances (in a career filled with fine performances).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)


A first-rate adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, about a romantic poet-soldier whose exceptional bravery and wit mask a deep insecurity toward women because of his unusually large nose. Unable to express his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxane, Cyrano is instead forced to speak through the handsome young soldier whom she loves, providing him with impossibly eloquent romantic sentiments with which to woo her.

The pitch-perfect balance of humor and tragedy is beautifully achieved by Carl Foreman's script, Michael Gordon's understated but effective direction, and Jose Ferrer's truly magnificent performance in the title role, ably supported by Mala Powers, William Prince, Ralph Clanton, Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Corrigan. Produced independently by Stanley Kramer, the superb qualities of the writing and Ferrer's performance overcome the limitations imposed by the obviously low budget.