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Edwin L. Marin’s A Christmas Carol (1938)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Time for a true Christmas classic!

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.

Happy Holidays and all the best for 2015 from Frame by Frame!

Adrian Danks on Bruce Conner’s Report (1967)

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Bruce Conner’s classic film Report is a masterpiece of montage, dealing with the death of JFK.

As Adrian Danks noted in his brilliantly detailed essay on the film in the journal Senses of Cinema, “completed over a three-year period, Bruce Conner’s Report [1967] is one of the key works of 1960s avant-garde cinema, a refinement and extension of the filmmaker-artist’s film work to that date. In some respects, it is a return to the montage, association and found footage driven preoccupations of his first cinematic opus, the truly seminal and massively influential A Movie (1958), and something of a condensation of Conner’s key interests in popular culture, mass media, the contemporary power of celebrity, recontextualization, and the constitutive significance of cataclysmic violence to both the United States and what we might call late modernity.

Although enmeshed in the nature of cinema itself, as well as our experience of it (it is in essence both a visceral and intellectual encounter), Report equally resonates with Conner’s significant work in sculptural assemblage and what would become known as conceptual art. Initially conceived in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, Report is a deeply felt work, an often lacerating but emotionally draining attempt to deal with John F. Kennedy’s death and the ways it was exploited by the mass media, particularly television (in fact, its use of such material as the “cross-hairs” included in countdown leader suggest an even greater level of culpability). It is also, aesthetically, a prescient but undervalued work, prefiguring the structuralist turn in much avant-garde cinema in the late 1960s.

Report is a film that asks for an affective response from its viewer but also requires forensic attention to detail and structure. It is never an easy film to watch. Roughly divided into uneven halves, it relies upon the principles of association, repetition, variation, recognition, and the often-contrapuntal relationship between sound and image to try to capture the “feeling” of the event. Conner’s decision to only partially ‘illustrate’ Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath is both pragmatically and intellectually apt. Initially, Conner wanted to make a more conventional and fully-formed documentary on Kennedy’s death (how conventional even this film would have ended up being is another matter).

Living in Kennedy’s birthplace, Brookline, Massachusetts, at the time of his death, Conner originally intended to draw heavily upon television archives and to film the burial he expected to occur in his own neighborhood (Kennedy was ultimately buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Pennsylvania). The ambitious nature of Conner’s project was partly driven by the Ford Foundation Grant he had received (one of ten given to experimental filmmakers in 1964), but was also an outcome of an uncommon obsession (though perhaps quite common at the time) with the assassination. In this regard, Report can be considered as something of a mourning work, an attempt to deal with and actually register Kennedy’s death (an aspect that Conner builds into the form and structure of the film itself).”

Another masterpiece of the cinema, which deserves a much wider audience.

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

Robert De Niro’s Actual Hack License for Taxi Driver

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Talk about method acting!

This has been floating around the web, and is worth posting here; this is Robert De Niro’s actual hack license that he used to prep for his career defining role as Travis Bickle, a loner taxicab driver in New York City driven to a homicidal frenzy by forces he can’t control. It’s one of the great American movies, and was shot right around the corner from where I then lived, at 203 East 14th Street in Manhattan. De Niro – a total professional, completely dedicated to his craft, and it shows in the finished film, which is perhaps the finest film from Scorsese, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and everyone else involved. No other film so authentically captured the grit and grime of New York City in the 1970s.

A fascinating artifact from a lost era.

The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism by Mattias Frey

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Here’s an interesting book on the current state of film criticism – a real concern of this blog.

Published by Amsterdam University Press, Frey’s book posits that “film criticism is in crisis. Dwelling on the many film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines, and other ‘old media’ in past years, commentators have voiced existential questions about the purpose and worth of the profession in the age of WordPress blogospheres and proclaimed the ‘death of the critic.’ Bemoaning the current anarchy of internet amateurs and the lack of authoritative critics, many journalists and academics claim that in the digital age, cultural commentary has become dumbed down and fragmented into niche markets. Mattias Frey, arguing against these claims, examines the history of film critical discourse in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He demonstrates that since its origins, film criticism has always found itself in crisis: the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns.”

It’s refreshing to see someone taking a level-headed, non-apocalyptic look at this issue; as Frey argues, “film criticism has always found itself in crisis,” from the earliest iterations of the cinema, and the rise of poplar “fan magazines” as opposed to the serious study of the cinema.The gap between pop culture “reviews” of the latest blockbuster – actually just opinion pieces with little real critical analysis, usually posted in daily newspapers or on the web, and considered by most readers not familiar with the study of film to be serious reviews, and work that actually takes the film apart, places it within a critical and historical context, measures it against similar films from the past, and operates from a detailed understanding of the medium as a whole – has been an ongoing issue in film criticism from the 1900s onward.

Frey’s book offers an excellent overview of the history of this contest between superficial, throwaway writing and actual critical analysis, and as he puts it, demonstrates that “the need to show critical authority and the anxieties over challenges to that authority have been longstanding concerns” in film history, theory and criticism. This is fascinating and important reading, demonstrating that the problem here isn’t so much the web – it’s the fact that many of the people writing on the web on film, as well as numerous other topics, substitute their own personal likes and dislikes for any real, informed analysis. In film as in all the arts, the audience is really an afterthought; it’s what the creators of any given work of art want to express that is paramount.

You can read a pdf of the introduction the book by clicking here, or on the image above.

100 Year Old Canadian Film Found, Restored

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

A one hundred year old film has been found and restored – against all odds.

As Shawn Conner reported on December 6, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, “It’s been lost, found, restored, misunderstood, and restored again. This weekend, 100 years after its initial release, In the Land of the Head Hunters is once again being released, this time in a digitized format. Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis, the 1914 film is the American photographer’s attempt to document the customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Central Coast, while telling a story about how their ancestors lived.

But the film, which opened in New York City and Seattle, disappeared soon after its initial release, having made less than a seventh of what Curtis spent on it.  It wasn’t until 1947 that a film collector found a 35mm nitrate print in a back alley. He donated his find to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the late ’60s, anthropologists Bill Holm and George Quimby used the museum’s damaged, incomplete version to make a 16mm version. Holm then took the 16mm up the Inside Passage and showed the film at a number of Kwakwaka’wakw villages.

‘It was the first time anybody up there had seen it, even though many of their parents had acted in it,’ said SFU emeritus professor Colin Browne, who served as a consultant for a new restoration. Holm brought some elders to watch the film at the Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. ‘They spoke to the screen the words they thought the characters were saying, and layered those with some comments,’ said Browne, who taught film history, production and critical writing at SFU School of Contemporary Arts until about a year ago. ‘That became the soundtrack of the movie.’

Adding the recordings of the Kwakwaka’wakw elders, Holm and Quimby refashioned the film as In the Land of the War Canoes. ‘That’s how it showed up in the ’70s, with new intertitles and the Kwakwaka’wakw soundtrack,’ said Browne. Good portions of the beginning and ending were missing. ‘It seemed to everybody that it must be a documentary.’ In the Land of the War Canoes, with its depiction of warring tribes and First Nations customs, was mostly shown in anthropology classes in universities, and rarely in film studies classes.

But the original got a revival following the discovery of the original score in 2007. Around the same time, a 35mm print of the film’s final reel was also discovered. A restored version was screened in various cities, including Vancouver in 2008. The restored version is made up of footage from both the 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as still images in places where footage has been permanently lost or damaged. (The still images come from the Library of Congress. At the time In the Land of the Headhunters was made, producers copyrighted their work by submitting stills from every scene of their films.)

At the screenings, orchestras and ensembles played the original music along with the restored version. Among the musical groups was Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, and it is their recording that appears on the digital version, which [was] released Sunday, Dec. 7 on DVD by Milestone Films. The Land of the Head Hunters is the first feature film made in B.C., and the first ever with an all-indigenous cast. It deserves to be seen for those reasons alone, but it’s also full of indelible images that have inspired other filmmakers, Browne notes.

‘People haven’t really had a chance to see the film the way we’re going to see it now, which is probably the best restoration we’ll ever have,’ Browne said. ‘I’m hoping film scholars and historians will see it and they’ll go “Oh my God, here’s another great film, we have to include this in the canon of cinema.’” And indeed, the canon of film is constantly expanding – due in large part to archival work like this.

See the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Highway to Hollywood – Maury Dexter

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Writing about The One I Love, I ran across this interesting surprise.

Director Maury Dexter, certainly not one of the major figures in film history by a long shot, has nevertheless written his autobiography – published in 2012 – and made it available as a free pdf file (click on the image above to access). Dexter’s work is extremely straightforward, and he specialized in low budget, quickly produced films for producer Robert L. Lippert for 20th Century Fox, after breaking in as an actor and getting advice from no less than director William Beaudine on how to effectively “act” on screen – Beaudine’s advice; “don’t act!”

From this, Dexter segued into assistant work, then directorial assignments, and more often than not made routine films for a set price, with the notable exception of the groundbreaking science fiction film The Day Mars Invaded Earth (not, sadly, available on DVD), winding up working for Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie.

Dexter’s memory remains sharp, and if he’s not a great prose stylist, he’s still got a lot of tales to tell. Dexter’s memoirs are short and punchy, with lots of inside information, and make for a light, easy read. This is a story of the underside of Hollywood, and the “bread and butter” pictures that cost so much, made so much, and never strained the limits of genre filmmaking.

But the price is right – so check it out; Hollywood in the 50s and 60s.

24th James Bond Film Announced – “Spectre”

Friday, December 5th, 2014

The 24th James Bond film is underway, with Christoph Waltz as the villain of the piece.

As The Indian Express reports, “James Bond’s 24th adventure will be called Spectre, [in which] 007 will be seen uncovering secrets of a sinister terror organization, director Sam Mendes announced at Pinewood Studios today. Daniel Craig, 46, is returning as Ian Fleming’s famous fictional spy for the fourth time, while it is Mendes’ second Bond film after Skyfall. Sherlock star Andrew Scott, Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and Monica Bellucci are joining as new cast members along with other actors. Spectre will release on November 6 next year.

‘We are very excited and I think I speak on behalf of all of us to say that we cannot wait to bring this movie to you in just under a year’s time. We hope you like it,’ Mendes said as he announced cast and crew details with producer Barbara Broccoli at Pinewood where the principal photography will begin from Monday. The film will be shot in England, Mexico City, Rome, Tangier & Erfoud, Morocco, Solden, Obertilliach and Lake Altausee (Austria). In the new movie, a cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization (Spectre). While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind Spectre.

The title is named after the shadowy [fictional] terrorist organisation created by Fleming, which first appeared in his novel 1961 Thunderball. Spectre stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. ‘We’ve got an amazing cast and, I think, a better script than we had last time. We started something in Skyfall, it felt like a beginning of something. This feels like a continuation of that. We’re going to put all of those elements in, and much more,’ Craig said.”

Can’t wait!

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – But Who Cares?

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The first “teaser trailer” for the new Star Wars film is here, and I have only one question – who cares?

Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.

As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.

But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.

Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.

Isn’t it time to just drop the whole thing, and move on to something new?

Show Them No Mercy (1935)

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Here’s a direct link to the Depression era crime film Show Them No Mercy – absolutely worth watching.

Kubec Glasmon, the almost forgotten co-author of the script for Public Enemy, the 1931 William Wellman film that shot James Cagney to stardom, had a real knack for hard-boiled crime drama, and though this film from 1935, Show Them No Mercy, has been unjustly neglected, it’s a stunning piece of work, and you can see it here, now, by simply clicking on the image above.

Produced by Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck for his Twentieth Century Film Company, just before he bought out the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox, Show Them No Mercy tells the story of a young couple and their infant daughter who seek shelter from a rainstorm in a seemingly abandoned house, only to discover a bunch of gangsters holed up inside, with lots of hot money on their hands. They’ve just successfully pulled off a kidnapping, have $200,000 in ransom money, and want to get out of the country, but the question is, how?

Initially too innocent to realize the danger they’re in, the young couple soon figures out that the group will literally stop at nothing, especially the psychotic trigger man Pitch (Bruce Cabot, best known for his work in King Kong, and absolutely brilliant here in a role based on real-life gunman Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll) and the gang’s suave leader, Tobey (the always reliable Cesar Romero, turning in another top flight performance).

To tell you more about what happens next would be a mistake, but take my word for it – this is a film that has been unfairly overlooked, and at 75 minutes, moves along like a streak of lightning, with an ending that’s still shocking nearly a century after the film was made.

As TCM notes, “the film was inspired by the kidnapping in May 1935 of George Weyerhaeuser, scion of a wealthy lumber family, who was released after ransom money was paid. The ransom money, which the FBI arranged so that the serial numbers could be used as clues, was then traced, and the kidnappers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms,” but that’s not what happens here. Glasmon’s script follows an entirely different trajectory, leading up to a satisfactorily brutal conclusion.

Suffice it to say that the film raised a number of eyebrows when it was first released, and barely managed to scrape through Code censorship, thanks largely to the adept machinations of producer Zanuck, who was an expert in telling the Code authorities what they wanted to hear, and then doing precisely as he pleased with the film itself. The result is astonishing.

Now you can see the film for yourself – this is a real find!

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 thirty books and more than 100 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. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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