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Millie (1931) – A Lost Feminist Classic

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Millie is an astonishing film that has fallen between the cracks of film history; now, you can see it here.

John Francis Dillon was a prolific director of silent features, who nevertheless easily made the transition to sound. Only his premature death as the result of a heart ailment at the age of 49 in 1934 stopped him from going on to establish a major career in Hollywood history; Millie is one of his finest works. The film stars Helen Twelvetrees, then a major cinema star, as the title character, Millie Blake, who, as a very young woman, has the bad luck to marry one Jack Maitland (James Hall), a thoroughly unlikable but wealthy businessman, who sets Millie up in a palatial estate, but offers her no real love, and rapidly starts cheating on her. The couple has a child, Connie (Anita Louise), but when Millie discovers Jack’s numerous infidelities, she walks away from the marriage without asking for a cent of alimony, leaving Connie with Jack’s mother (Charlotte Walker), on the rather reasonable theory that in the midst of the Depression, Connie will be better off with people who can provide for her, while Millie tries to make her way in the world on her own.

Refusing all offers of assistance, Millie lands a job at the newsstand in a major hotel, and soon falls in love with Tommy Rock (Robert Ames), a newspaper reporter, whom she loves but refuses to marry because of her past experience with Jack Maitland, even as she is continually pursued by a variety of men, most especially the seemingly dignified but utterly unscrupulous man about town Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), for whom Millie has become an obsession. Millie is eventually promoted to a better position at the hotel due to her hard work, but her relationship with Tommy is ruined when she discovers that he, too, has been cheating on her.

Completely disillusioned, Millie begins to live a wild, reckless life, which with the passage of years takes a toll on her looks, as well as her dignity, even as her daughter, Connie, blossoms in the Maitland home, becoming a beautiful young woman – something that Jimmy Damier notices, too. With Connie’s attractions fading for Damier, he decides to seduce Connie, then just sixteen years old, at his lodge in the country, despite his assurances to Millie that he will leave Connie alone. Discovering Damier’s duplicity, Millie trails Damier and Connie to Damier’s country house, and just as Damier is about to rape Connie, breaks in and shoots Damier to death.

In a more conventional maternal melodrama, such as Stella Dallas or Madame X, one might expect that Millie would then be sentenced to death for her crime, sacrificing herself for her daughter’s future, but no – Millie’s newspaper friends, including erstwhile boyfriend Tommy Rock, come to her aid. Although Millie tries to keep her daughter’s name out of the case, Connie willingly takes the stand, and tells the judge and jury exactly what happened, resulting in Millie’s acquittal on all charges. In the film’s final scenes, Millie is reunited with her daughter and her first husband’s mother at their country estate, as Tommy notes that “she’s going home” to a much better life.

There are many things about the film that are remarkable; Connie’s lesbian friends, who offer aid to Millie throughout the film – Helen Riley (Lilyan Tashman) and Angie Wickerstaff (Joan Blondell) – are completely forthright about their relationship, and no one else seems to give it more than a passing thought, either. People party all night, drink too much, and yet seem resignedly fatalistic about the future – there’s no guarantees that things will get any better. The brutal reality of the Depression is evident in nearly every frame of the film, and, of course, liquor flows freely although the film takes place during Prohibition. Men are depicted as being unreliable and thoroughly dishonest, and so self-reliance for women is viewed as the only possible course of action. Yet in the end of the film, when Millie really needs a friend, her newspaper pals (including a young Frank McHugh, a veteran cinema “sidekick” who remained active in films as late as 1967) rally to her aid to clear her during the trial.

Millie fell into the Public Domain, and is thus available – complete and uncut – not only on YouTube, but also in a surprisingly good (don’t believe the reviews) transfer on DVD from Alpha Video, which can be purchased for as little as 99 cents on Amazon, and which I heartily recommend here. Millie is yet another example of a film which has been lost, essentially forgotten, and ignored by such DVD labels as Criterion because of its Public Domain status, and thus relegated to the margins of cinema history. There are a number of rather uninformed “reviews” of the film on the web, but you should ignore them – see the film for yourself, which is the only reliable way to judge any work of art. At a scant 85 minutes, Millie is a taut, compelling, deeply feminist film which deserves a much more prominent place in the canon of Pre-Code cinema, with a stand out performance by Helen Twelvetrees in the title role.

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for telling me about this film – it’s a key piece of cinema history.

John Flaus on Film and Television Acting

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mia Wasikowska and John Flaus in John Curran’s film Tracks (2014)

Although his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, John Flaus has been a major force in Australian cinema since the 1960s, as well as key figure in the rise of Film Studies in Australia in academe. As Wikipedia summarizes his career, Flaus “attended Sydney University as an undergraduate from 1953 to 1971, eventually attaining a B.A. degree. Flaus has been active in the film society movement since 1953, and published his first film reviews in 1954. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Sydney University Film Group and the WEA Film Study Group with such notable people as Frank Moorhouse, Michael Thornhill, John Baxter and Ken Quinnell. He has lectured on film at various tertiary institutions, was Head of Education at the AFTRS, and designed the original Cinema Studies course at La Trobe University in 1970, the first of its kind in Australia. He became a professional actor in 1977 and has over 100 credits in theatre, film and television.”

While his influence in cinema as an actor is undeniable, what makes Flaus’s career all the more remarkable is the degree of thought and intelligence that goes into his work – whether the project at hand be a television movie or a feature film, he gives his all to every project he’s in. More importantly, he was able to articulate – brilliantly – the entire process of film and television acting. In a detailed article in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 5.2 (1990), edited by Adrian Martin, entitled “Thanks For Your Heart, Bart,” Flaus described both what it is like to work on various film projects, and why film acting is so very different than acting on stage.

As he put it, “Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask – except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defense, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in ‘bad faith’ as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.

The vocational actor must put himself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else’s imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor’s practice is radically different from that of everyday ’social acting’; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.

The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became ‘theater’, its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was ‘company property’. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.

Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term ‘art’ acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to ‘craft’. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.

Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader (‘at all good bookstores’), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practiced. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed – and praised – for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.

Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor’s practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn – and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how ‘filmic’ the particular film or TV drama is.

Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic – film acting – by frequent reference to what it is not – stage acting.” Essential reading; my sincere thanks to Adrian Danks for bringing Flaus’s critical work to my attention.

This is brilliant writing; you can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Why Do You Watch Ads on YouTube?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Really, why do you watch those damned ads on YouTube?

Erika Morphy of E-Commerce times asked me the same question, and as I told her, “YouTube encourages the viewer, more than other sites, to constantly keep clicking from one image source to the next, and with many of the ads starting automatically at the top of the video — though some have a five second ‘opt out’ feature — the temptation to click on the video to see what it might offer is almost overwhelming. Viewers essentially see ads on YouTube as another video, rather than being a commercial — just another video to click on and view. In a world which exists entirely through clicks, the viewer just keeps on hitting the next button, and then the next, until the entire site becomes a seamless blend of content and commercial advertising.”

You can read the whole story here; YouTube really is now all advertising – the death of a platform.

A World of Constant Peril: Seriality, Narrative, and Closure

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the impact of serials on contemporary cinema.

As I write, in part, “What are we watching now at the movies, or on television or Netflix for that matter? Serials – though now they’re called franchises, or mini-series, or ‘cable dramas,’ but they have the same structure, and the same limitations, the same narrative predictability. What will happen, for example, in the next episode of Game of Thrones? Who will be slaughtered, who will survive, who will make yet another grab for power? What scheme will the fictional Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come up with in the next episode of the recently concluded Breaking Bad? You’ll just have to tune in next week and find out, because all we’re leaving you with this week is an open ended ‘conclusion’ – whatever happens next, we’re not telling. But then again, when the trap is finally sprung, are the results all that surprising? Yet you keep coming back, week after week. You can’t stop watching . . .

And yet, unlike any other structural format in commercial cinema, even the theatrical cartoon, the original iteration of the motion picture serial has vanished from contemporary view. Nevertheless, when one compares both the overall narrative structure of these chapter plays, as well as the elaborate fight scenes, exoticist sets, and – despite what some may say – the absolutely one-dimensional nature of the characters, one can easily see where the films in the current Marvel or DC ‘universe’ came from – starting, of course, with the original Star Wars film in 1977, which was transparently formatted as a serial, replete with opening crawl title receding endlessly into infinity, and even an “episode number,” as if the entire film was just one section of a sprawling epic – which indeed it ultimately was.

Comic-Con, which now dominates the commercial film industry, with, for the most part the empty escapism of such films as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – the runaway hit of the current summer – doesn’t want to admit it, but the truth of the matter is that these are films for children, as the serials were, and were relegated, in the 1940s and 50s, to Saturday morning entertainment. No one who made them had any illusions about them, and though they contained both the template for most contemporary Hollywood action and superhero films, they were designed to exist at the margins of the theatrical world, as something for adolescents to view before moving on to more demanding fare. Today, that more ‘demanding’ cinema has all but vanished, as comic book cinema moves to the mainstream, and erases nearly everything else.”

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

David Fincher for The Gap

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

David Fincher has just directed a series of four great black and white 30 second ads for The Gap.

Am I big David Fincher fan? No. But these four thirty second spots — shot with Fincher’s usual William Wyler-esque “forty takes” style of doing it over and over again until he gets precisely what he wants, are haunting, understated, and most interestingly for me, all the more compelling because they are in black and white.

I’m writing a book on black and white cinematography right now, and one of my central arguments is that black and white creates a world apart from the “all color” world we inhabit by the simple act of shooting in monochrome. There’s an immediate transformation of reality into something else, something moody and stylized, and that’s really the case here. This is a great use of black and white, and we should have more of it – in theatrical features, please, and not just commercials.

As Todd Wassermann reported in Mashable, “David Fincher, best known for his obsessive and meticulous direction of The Social Network, Zodiac and Fight Club, has helmed the latest round of ads for Gap, which are shot in black and white and strive to be enigmatic. The four ads, which roll out next week, complement a print campaign the retailer launched in mid-August . . . [and] feature Anjelica Huston, Elisabeth Moss and The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, among others.

Seth Farbman, Gap’s global CMO, told Mashable that the tagline was meant to be a ‘gentle provocation, in a way’ and are designed to connected with Millennials who are ‘pushing back on some of the chaos’ in their lives, some of which is driven by technology . . . The Fincher ads were created with that positioning in mind. However, they aren’t anthemic. Instead, they’re a bit cryptic and generate an atmosphere rather than tell a complete story. As Farbman puts it, they sort of jump into the middle of the story, skipping the beginning and leaving out the end.”

You can see all four thirty second spots by clicking here, or on the image above.

Netflix and National Cinemas

Monday, August 25th, 2014

I have a new article in Film International, on the effects of Netflix on national cinemas.

As I write, in part, “People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

Why go out when you can have the images delivered with a touch of a button? Why bother to seek out anything new when there’s seemingly so much product – all of it pretty much the same, even the supposed ‘indies’ – available on demand? You don’t need to do any exploring. We’ll do it for you, and not only that – we’ll put the films in nice little slots like ‘foreign’ or ‘indie,’ thus ensuring a miniscule audience. Along these lines, the Amazon ’suggestion’ feature on their website continues to amaze me, because of its utter lack of discrimination.

If you order one DVD of a French film, suddenly they recommend nothing but French films for you; order one Barbara Stanwyck film, and they think you’re only interested in films in which she stars; order a gothic thriller, and you’re inundated with offers for like material. Erase all of these possible options, and the suggestion engine comes up blank – it can’t figure you out. How come you like so many different kinds of films? Where’s the thread here that they can track? Why won’t you stick to a predictable pattern? And why do you want a DVD anyway, when there are these great films to stream, so easily, at the touch of a button?”

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

Beat Girl (1960)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Those looking for compelling early 1960s British cinema could do worse than watching Beat Girl.

Actually, the film exists in two versions; the complete film, originally entitled Wild For Kicks, and the American re-cut, shortened by about thirty minutes, entitled Beat Girl. For once, the re-cut is the better version; the original has a whole lot of unnecessary backstory, and the American version just plows right into the adventures of Gillian Hills (seen in the image above) and her gang.

Ruthlessly exploitational, the film nevertheless boasts a truly amazing array of talent, from The John Barry Seven (yes, that John Barry) performing the title track as well as the incidental music throughout the film, as well as (get ready) Oliver Reed, Nigel Green, Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee), Adam Faith, Shirley Anne Field, Peter McEnery and numerous others, and was scripted by Eric Ambler’s son, Dail Ambler.

The plot of the film is simplicity in its extreme: Jennifer (Gillian Hills, who later appeared in Blowup and A Clockwork Orange) is bored, bored, bored, and just wants to have fun. With her nightclub pals, she roams the streets of London looking for action, finding it, and regretting it. Christopher Lee is marvelous to watch as the villainous nightclub owner who figures heavily in the film’s narrative, and Oliver Reed, just out of his teens when the film was shot, turns in a fabulous performance as one of her acolytes.

The director, Edmond T. Gréville, was French, and this was one of his last works; Gréville started his career working on Abel Gance’s epic film Napoleon (1927), and in truth, by this time, was in fairly desperate straits. But though the film ultimately falls apart at the seams, in its embrace of youthful rebellion, and the punk ethos long before anyone knew there was such a thing, Beat Girl — the American re-cut only, please — is a nifty slice of hardboiled teen cinema, as the credits above (click on the image to see them) aptly demonstrate.

So check out the main titles, and then the film itself; a real time capsule.

How to Cast Bill Murray in Your Movie

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Waaaaaay back in 1976, when I was living in Los Angeles, I helped Bill Murray cut his demo reel for SNL.

I walked in the door, looking for a job, and Bill was just a young and up-and-coming comic in those days, looking for his big shot. We met in an editing room, where I was auditioning for a job as an editor, which I eventually got, and my first assignment was to help Bill cut the demo reel for a short film entitled “The World’s Largest Car Wash,” directed by the late Harold Ramis, in which Bill played two characters; a fast talking sharpie on an “on” ramp overlooking the LA freeway, pretending that all the cars were coming to his car wash; and a sort of precursor to his character in Groundhog Day, his idiot brother, who actually ran the business. It was about four minutes long, we cut it in a matter of hours, it came out quite well, and of course, he got the job.

We were all working at TVTV, short for Top Value Television, where Bill was joined by Harold Ramis, Michael Shamberg and a host of other talented people who were creating off the wall television that was way ahead of the norms of the era. Bill, of course, went on to SNL, and thence to a whole string of movies, which gradually became deeper as he went along in his career, with films like Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, and his latest film, St. Vincent. His powers as an actor have only grown over the years, and he’s doing some of the best work of his entire career right now.

As is well known, Bill marches to a very different drummer, and has no agent or contact in LA, just a 1 800 telephone number where hopefuls can leave messages to try and get him for their films, which eventually leads to actual contact if Bill thinks the project is right. For St. Vincent, it was a long and arduous process to get him to come on board, for as the director Theodore Melfi told Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican “you know what the truth is? You don’t find Bill Murray. Bill ­Murray finds you.”

As Melfi told Breznican, Murray “finds everything he’s supposed to be involved in by not chasing anything. If it’s supposed to happen, the person will hound him until it happens, or he’ll run into them at a bar or restaurant. He has a zen-like protocol in regard to what he does and doesn’t do.” Oh, and the last time I saw Bill was in 1980, so don’t ask me how to get in touch with him. I don’t know!

You can read Melfi’s whole amazing saga by clicking here, or on the image above.

At DuArt Lab in New York, Thousands of “Orphan” Films

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

More proof, as if any were needed, of the fragility of film as an artistic medium.

As John Anderson writes in The New York Times, “the Midtown Manhattan building that houses DuArt, the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema for about 70 years, is 12 stories high. The elevator only goes to the 11th floor. To reach DuArt’s rooms of wonder, you need to take the stairs.

On the top floor, in one musty, institutional-green room after another, hundreds of film cans are stacked, floor to ceiling, each negative bearing the name of a long-gone production company, an obscure director or a title that may as well read ‘Dead End.’ This repository of broken dreams is also an orphanage, for movies awaiting adoption. Who made all these films? DuArt wonders the same thing.

With the rise of digital filmmaking and the subsequent demise of celluloid, DuArt in 2010 closed its photochemical division, which developed negatives and struck prints. At that point, DuArt had about 60,000 cans of film in its warren of vaults.

‘I have trouble throwing away film,’ the company’s chairman, Irwin Young, said. His father founded the company in 1922. ‘We never threw anything away. It’s because we were film people.’

Films by Woody Allen, James Ivory, Ang Lee, Gordon Parks, Tom DiCillo, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman and more have been spoken for, but others remain unclaimed and the trail has gone cold on many of them, said Steve Blakely, a former DuArt vice president who has continued to track down filmmakers since 2010.”

Click here, or on the image above, to view the entire story; essential reading.

4-D Cinema, or, Return to The Past

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Ethan Gilsdorf has a new piece on 4-D cinema in The Boston Globe, including my thoughts on the subject.

As he writes of a recent trip to the Boston Museum of Science, “kids will surely be charmed by the 8½-minute Dora & Diego’s 4-D Adventure, another of the museum’s 4-D shorts. When Boots the monkey peels his banana, the theater fills both with yellow light and the distinct odor of (artificial) banana. Wind machines and falling snowflakes make a propeller plane ride to the Arctic all the more delightful.

But to my mind, some tricks, like that Shallow Seas tentacular ‘ankle tickler’ (a thin plastic hose under each theater seat that flaps back and forth when activated by a blast of air) or the ‘back poke’ effect (when sea snakes swim on screen, a secret jab from your seat back triggers your ’startle reflex’), seem more at home in a horror film or haunted house ride, not an educational science film.

Others agree. ‘So-called 4-D cinema is just a gimmick,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. ‘It’s a desperate ploy that has its roots in the 1950s movie theaters trying to get patrons away from their televisions, only now it’s Netflix.’ The sheer novelty, ‘will soon wear off,’ he says. ‘It won’t work.’

Indeed, for decades, directors and theater owners have used various tricks to combat moviegoer apathy. Scent of Mystery (1960) employed ‘Smell-O-Vision’ (pumped-in aromas synchronized to various scenes) and The Tingler (1959) tried ‘Percepto’ (seats that gave patrons mild electric shocks); both were released as television began to dominate leisure time.

Next up, Sensurround, which made theaters shake during films like 1974’s Earthquake. In recent years, Hollywood’s embrace of 3-D has coincided with the proliferation of giant-screen TVs and in-home theaters. Luxury seating, in-seat dining, and films shot at 48 frames-per-second are other ways cinemas are trying to address plummeting box office and make a night at the movies, or a school field trip, a destination event once again.”

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

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/