Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for December, 2011

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Monday, December 12th, 2011

As Christmastime rolls around again, with all of its attendant merchandising and commerciality now firmly and sadly attached, I always make it a point to watch the 1938 version of Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The story has been burlesqued and retold countless times, but this traditional version from MGM, made in the waning days of the Depression, carries more emotional resonance for me than any other version.

Clicking on the image above will take you to a curiosity — a 2:45 minute trailer for the film, as introduced by Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of Scrooge on radio during the 30s and 40s nearly every Christmas, but who, by 1938, was confined to a wheelchair, and unable to handle the leading role in anything but a radio drama. It was Barrymore who suggested that Owen take over the role for this film version — a very generous gesture, giving Owen one of the finest roles he was ever to have — and while the film is deeply traditional, it also radiates an honest sentiment and cheer that continues to brighten my holiday season, year after year.

The 1951 version, ably directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, also has its adherents, and justly so; it’s an excellent rendition of the classic story. But the 1938 version seems cheerier, more compact — much like the story itself — and full of the optimism and hope that characterizes the best of the holiday season. See it for yourself on TCM, where it runs regularly at this time of year, or buy it on DVD — it’s a Christmas tradition for me, and always will be.

Sir Laurence Olivier on Movies, Money and Mortality

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Sir Laurence Olivier as General Douglas MacArthur

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Sir Laurence Olivier directed and/or appeared in numerous classic films and stage productions, but by the end of his career, as is the case with Terence Young’s infamous film Inchon (1982), he was forthright about his priorities for appearing in any film at all, as long as the paycheck was satisfactory. As he told an interviewer during the making of the film,

“People ask me why I’m playing in this picture. The answer is simple. Money, dear boy. I’m like a vintage wine. You have to drink me quickly before I turn sour. I’m almost used up now and I can feel the end coming. That’s why I’m taking money now. I’ve got nothing to leave my family but the money I can make from films. Nothing is beneath me if it pays well. I’ve earned the right to damn well grab whatever I can in the time I’ve got left.”

Indeed.

One Shot Wonders

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Here’s a very interesting list of feature films — all directed by people who never made another feature, for one reason or another. Blast of Silence is one of the titles, and a good one; the list ranges from the good, to the bad, to the downright terrible, but it’s an interesting overview of something that’s often overlooked in film history – people who get one shot at directing, and then either never get another chance, or walk away from it. Worth checking out; there are lots of surprises here.

Just click on the image above to go to the list.

Very Nice, Very Nice

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

This all-but-forgotten film by Arthur Lipsett, produced by The National Film Board of Canada, is an authentic talisman of where the world was in 1961, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Subject; it was Lipsett’s first film. People as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas have claimed it as an influence on their work. But the world was not so kind to Lipsett himself, as the 2007 documentary The Arthur Lipsett Project: A Dot on the Histomap by Eric Gaucher makes painfully clear.

Click on the image above, and see the entire film, uncut.

The Very Eye of Night

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Maya Deren, one of the first and most innovative of American experimental filmmakers, made this, her last complete film, in 1958 — one of her best. Still hopeful of making new films, Deren left unfinished Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which was shot between 1947 and 1954, and only completed by Teiji and Cherel Ito in 1985, many years after her death in 1961, at the age of 44.

The Very Eye of Night has gotten a bad rap over the years, when compared to her landmark Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), but it doesn’t deserve it. In The Very Eye of Night, Deren finally figures out how to effortlessly make bodies float through space, to mesh the camera with the bodies of the dancers she records, and to create an ethereal, otherworldly series of images that lead the receptive viewer into her own personal dream world.

As Wendy Haslem notes of the film, “The Very Eye of Night was a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. The film was beset by problems in its production and carried with it a heavy weight of expectation. A shimmering constellation of stars established the background for negative images of figures resembling Greek Gods superimposed on and magically transported along the milky way. Deren called it her ‘ballet of night’, an ethereal dance within a nocturnal space that focused on the spectacle rather than the narrative. Ito collaborated on the soundtrack using tone blocks and bells, recalling the trance rhythm of Meshes of the Afternoon. Prioritizing enchantment over interpretation, The Very Eye of Night proved to be Deren’s most controversial and misunderstood film.”

And as Deren herself noted, shortly before her death, “A creative artist must have, to begin with, substantial reserves in his bank. He must have endured the experiences of life; he must have first earned and deposited his money. Those who have spared themselves the pain and effort of living do not have much in the vault…..

At this point my useful bank metaphor has to be modified….Let us instead imagine that this money is really like books or diaries or records of all we have ever seen, felt, thought, heard, thought, and experienced. The problem of the artist, then, is to rob the vaults only of those riches that are relevant to his need.

The trouble is that these vaults — these archives of the spirit — are not catalogued and cross-indexed. So one begins with the idea; and the intensity of one’s concentration makes, of that idea or concept, a sort of selective magnet which, passed over the mind again and again, draws out the images, sounds. movements, people, reflections, ideas, etc. related to it in kind.

If the magnet is too selective, it will bring up only synonyms and no new, illuminating relationships will be revealed. It is better that it be a little loose, eclectic and liberal so that one starts out with a big choice of possibilities. It is wonderful, of course, to watch a Master at work — and this is what a Zen Master is — when the magnet is of such extraordinary precision that it brings forth the most precisely best and no more and no less. One might even say that Zen is the art of tooling the magnet to its most refined precision and of charging it with the greatest pulling power.”

You can view the entire film by clicking on the image above.

Tristana (1970)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Last night I saw again Luis Buñuel’s brilliant film Tristana (1970), starring (above, from left to right) Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve. Shot in Toledo, Spain, the film is one of Buñuel’s most elegiac and cheerfully absurdist films, with his signature meditative camerawork, a quirky scenario based on the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, and impeccable performances by the entire cast.

All his life, Buñuel’s main intention was to shock and scandalize the public, and this film is no exception; Tristana (Deneuve) is an innocent 18 year old girl, when the death of her mother and father leaves her in the hands of the lecherous and hypocritical Don Lope (Rey), who instead of protecting her, takes Tristana as his lover.

As the film unfolds, Tristana becomes less and less dependent on Don Lope, and breaks away for an affair with the painter Horacio (Franco Nero), which comes to an end when a mysterious illness forces the amputation of one of Tristana’s legs. Confined once again to Don Lope’s house, Tristana exacts her revenge upon the increasingly feeble older man through a series of ritualistic humiliations, and by the film’s end, the entire power structure within the household has been neatly inverted, culminating in a surprise montage at the end of the film, which alters time and space itself, calling everything that has come before in the film into question.

It’s always refreshing to see an artist at work; Tristana is a masterpiece, with not one frame out of place. Fernando Rey, who remains most famous for his work as “Frog Number One” in William Friedkin’s The French Connection, is the perfect personification of Buñuel himself on film, something the director recognized and acknowledged — they worked many times together, always with great success — and the film is a reminder that even with the smallest of budgets, all one really needs is genius to make a compelling, and lasting film, something we would do well to remember today.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Here’s an essay I published last week — November 28, 2011 — on one of the most deliriously paranoid noirs of the early 1950s, William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand, which was produced by the reclusive financier Howard Hughes after he took over RKO Radio Pictures. The film was originally designed as a neo-Nazi espionage thriller, but at the last moment, Hughes scrapped large portions of the film to retool it as an anti-Communist effort. As I note in the web journal Noir of the Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert,

“Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative [. . .] Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking on the image above, or here.

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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

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/