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Archive for August, 2011

The History of Betty Boop

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Click on this link, or the image above, to view Betty Boop Snow White (1933)

Here’s a great video piece on the history of the iconic Depression-era cartoon character Betty Boop, from the WatchMojo site, which has numerous intresting film history videos. Watch it here, and then go over to this link to watch Betty Boop M.D. (1932), for the full experience.

Betty Boop cartoons are very, very different from their Disney or Warner Bros. counterparts; for one thing, they were all made in New York (a few in Florida towards the end of the 1930s, when the Fleischer studios moved there to escape the New York winters, and wound up going bankrupt instead); for another, they mirrored the difficulties of the Depression; yet another difference was that they regularly used important African-American musicians of the era, such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and others to provide the music tracks for their cartoons, when the other animation studios refused to do so; and finally, they have a savagely surreal bent, which has to be seen to be believed.

Betty Boop ended her run in 1939, essentially, as the video notes, a victim of the 1934 Production Code, but her cartoons are legendary and absolutely unique; required viewing.

Vinyl

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Left to right: Billy Linich gets a light meter reading, as Andy Warhol holds up a can of soda for a focus point, while actors Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick wait for the camera to roll on the set of Warhol’s Vinyl; back of screenwriter Ron Tavel’s head in foreground

No doubt you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 version of Anthony Burgess’s groundbreaking, dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, but have you ever seen Andy Warhol’s 1965 film, Vinyl, which is arguably superior in nearly every respect?

Working from a screenplay by the late Ron Tavel, the film, in three long takes from one vantage point, chronicles the misadventures of Victor, the Victor (Gerard Malanga) as he wreaks havoc on society, until he is turned in by his sidekick Scum Baby (Ondine) and “re-educated” by Cop (J.D. McDermott) and The Doctor (Tosh Carillo). Through all of this, Edie Sedgwick sits on a steamer trunk to the right of the frame, watching everything unfold, but saying nothing. Warhol also absolutely forbade rehearsal for the actors, so everyone had to read their lines off huge cue cards during the actual filming, adding to the Brechtian aspect of the film.

Shot in high contrast black and white, on a total budget of roughly $250 ($72 for 2400 ft. of 16mm b/w reversal film; another $72 for processing; then another $100 for final print; none of the actors or technicians were paid) on a sync-sound Auricon camera that recorded an optical soundtrack directly on the side of the film during shooting, Warhol’s film, completed in a mere three hours of shooting time, effectively evokes the dark nihilism of Victor’s empty universe, even as a shiny disco ball twinkles in the inky blackness of the frame over the heads of the foredoomed protagonists.

Village of the Damned (1960)

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

Click here, or on the image above, to view the entire film of Village of the Damned (1960).

Wolf Rilla, in late life a hotelier, made numerous films during his career, but none so perfect as Village of the Damned (1960), starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley and Martin Stephens, which was based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham.

When a strange alien force renders everyone in the village of Midwich unconscious, all the women of child-bearing years become mysteriously pregnant, resulting in a series of sinister “virgin births.” The offspring of these unholy unions are a group of blond, “Aryan-perfect” children with what are described throughout the film as “arresting” eyes, and who have absolutely no compunction about killing anyone who gets in their way, or refuses to do their bidding. As the children grow from infants into young adolescents, they become more and more threatening, until finally it takes drastic measures to curtail their unwelcome reign.

Shot mostly on location in a small village outside of London for a few hundred thousand pounds, Village of the Damned succeeds because of its simplicity, it’s concision (77 minutes from first frame to last), and the superb acting of the leads, especially the unsettling presence of Martin Stephens as David, the leader of the group. The film was considered too risky for production in America, even in 1960, when the Motion Picture Production Code was still in full force; thankfully, at the time, the authorities in England were more enlightened.

You can see the entire film by clicking here, or on the image above; if you haven’t seen it, do so now, and avoid both the 1963 sequel, Children of the Damned, and the 1995 remake.

Voyage to Italy

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Roberto Rossellini went through a number of artistic “periods” in his life; his very early work for Mussolini’s propaganda machine at Cinecitta; his Neorealist work with Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948); his films with Ingrid Bergman, who collaborated with him on some of his greatest films of the 1950s, including Stomboli (1950) and Voyage to Italy; and his later TV films in the “historical” period, of which my favorite is Blaise Pascal.

All of his work is luminous and revelatory; here’s a brief essay I wrote on Voyage to Italy for Senses of Cinema 51, one of the most unexpected, perhaps, of all his films, for its narrative structure seems to be heading relentlessly in one direction for nearly the entire duration of the film, only to reverse itself with a moment of spiritual triumph in its final moments. It’s a stunning piece of work.

Partie de campagne

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

As I wrote in Senses of Cinema 55, “Jean Renoir is arguably the greatest artist that the cinema has ever known, simply because he was able to work effectively in virtually all genres without sacrificing his individuality or bowing to public or commercial conventions. Although he was the son of the famed Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, his visual sensibility was entirely his own, and the technical facility that marks his films is the result of long and assiduous study.”

Jean Renoir’s gorgeous, if truncated film Partie de campagne (shot in 1936, but not completed, in featurette form, until 1946), once again offers proof that Renoir remains the supreme humanist of the cinema, with a deep understanding of the follies of human nature, coupled with a great sense of sympathy for his protagonists. Renoir remains someone I come back to again and again; he restores my faith in the redemptive power of cinema, something that’s often hard to imagine these days.

You can read the full essay here.

Underworld U.S.A.

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Robert Emhardt in Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A.

“There’ll always be people like us […] as long as we don’t have any records on paper, as long as we run National Projects with legitimate business operations and pay our taxes on legitimate income and donate to charities and run church bazaars, we’ll win the war. We always have.” – Earl Connors (Robert Emhardt), the “Big Boss” in Underworld U.S.A.

Along with Don Siegel, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich and a few others in the 1950s American cinema, Samuel Fuller is the poet of brutality, and no film of his is more vicious, to my mind, than his 1961 masterpiece Underworld U.S.A. – perhaps the most ruthless exposé of the corporate criminal gangs ever produced.

As I wrote of the film in Senses of Cinema 52, “Underworld, U.S.A. is arguably Fuller’s most efficient, brutal and unsentimental film, and its reputation has only grown with the passing years. The idea of organized crime as a business was a novelty when Fuller made the film, but as the events of the past half-century have made manifestly clear, this is precisely how the underworld operates, hiding in plain sight under a cloak of false respectability, in this case doing business as the “National Projects” company. Shot swiftly and cheaply, and initially dismissed by the director as “only a quickie,” Underworld U.S.A. offers a compelling vision of American society in collapse, even as it basked in the apparent glow of the post-war boom, and the first years of the Kennedy administration, supposedly an era of unbridled optimism.”

You can read the entire essay here.

Les Mistons

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

François Truffaut’s breakthrough short Les Mistons (The Brats, 1957) is an idyllic film of summer, romance, childhood – and tragedy. As I noted in my essay on the film in Senses of Cinema 38, “François Truffaut’s Les Mistons was the director’s first short film of any real consequence. Truffaut had completed one short narrative film before in 16mm, Une Visite (1955), which had the distinction of being shot by Jacques Rivette and edited by Alain Resnais, both then members of the critical circle at Cahiers du Cinéma.

Une Visite was shot very simply in Jacques Doniol-Valcroize’s apartment, and was considered an experiment by all concerned, but all the participants in the project were dissatisfied with the results. Truffaut was subsequently working on the script that would become Les Quatre cents coups (1959), but found financing difficult to come by, and decided to go ahead with Les Mistons instead.”

It was a smart move; this moving, seemingly evanescent short film is one of Truffaut’s most romantic, and most personal works; you can read my essay here.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Here’s a real curiosity – one that lingers in the mind long after the last frame has vanished.

One of the most curious horror films of the late 1950s, Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) centers on Professor Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), a “professor of Occult Sciences” at an unspecified university, who is convinced that he and all the male members of the Drake family are victims of an ancient curse, handed down from his descendants, who as colonialist explorers massacred all the members of a Jivaro native tribe in South America in the late 1800s.

As a result, every male member of the Drake family dies of a mysterious paralysis at the age of 60, and Jonathan Drake is 59 1/2. Further, before the bodies can be buried, they are mysteriously beheaded, and only the skulls are returned to the family for burial. Nor is Jonathan mistaken in his apprehensions, as a supernatural agent of the Jivaros, Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) is working feverishly to make sure that the curse does, indeed, descend upon Jonathan Drake, the last male member of his family line.

The film opens with a quotation from Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”), and Drake muses, “What if Shakespeare were right? What if the power for good dies when the mind dies, and that only the evil men do lives after them?” What follows is a curious mixture of the obvious and the hypnotic, intertwined into a narrative that is at once preposterous and yet grimly serious, directed by Cahn as if in a trance.

As Zurich notes late in the film, “when the head of a strong, valiant enemy is properly taken, the possessor acquires the spirit, the soul, the vital spark that kept his enemy alive – a degree of immortality.” So it is with this absolutely singular film, a curious artifact of 50s pop culture that, like its undead protagonist, refuses to die.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this deeply peculiar film.

One Hour With You

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor’s One Hour With You (1932) is one of my favorite films, even though its production was rife with internal frictions and difficulties.

As I note in the introduction to the film in Senses of Cinema 56, “One Hour With You is one of Ernst Lubitsch’s most effervescent and sophisticated comedies, and easily ranks up there with the director’s best works, including the sublime Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939), but it had one of the most tortuous and complex geneses of any of the director’s works. For in the beginning, the film wasn’t a Lubitsch film at all; it was to be a George Cukor film, and indeed, when the film began shooting, Cukor was in the director’s chair.”

Read the rest of the curious history of this film here.

Frame by Frame Videos

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Here’s a link to a collection of short, 2-3 minute videos I do for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, directed and edited by Curt Bright; this page is regularly updated, and lists all of them, in reverse chronological order. There are about 47 right now, with more added nearly every week.

Just click on the box above, or here, and happy viewing!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/