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How Francois Truffaut And Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cannes

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Cannes, 1968: Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski

The Cannes Film Festival today- it’s going on right now – has turned into such total glitz and glamour that it’s become a shadow of what it used to be. It was always a marketplace, but it was also a place of ideas, where revolutionary ideas in the cinema were discussed, and sometimes put into practice.

In the industry journal Deadline, which is not really known for historical coverage, preferring to focus on the here and now of the movie business, there is nevertheless today a short but remarkable essay on Cannes 1968, when the festival was shut down by a group of directors who refused to buckle under to governmental interference in the arts.

As Ali Jaafar writes, “before there was Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout, there was Paris, 1968. In a revolutionary year—think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—May was a particularly revolutionary month. Student protests in the City of Lights against capitalism, consumerism and traditional values, some say emboldened by their victory in re-instating the much-cherished head of the iconic Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, after he had been briefly dismissed by the De Gaulle government, took over the city on May 3, Red Friday.

Within days, the trade unions had joined in, millions of people around the country were demonstrating and France was brought to the verge of standstill. In Cannes, meanwhile, life was—initially at least—proceeding as normal. The 21st edition of the world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off on May 10 with a restored version of Gone with the Wind. As the protests spread across the country, however, so too did the enfants terribles of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who hit the Croisette with one goal: to shut down the festival.

On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to demonstrate in solidarity of the students, protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the police, and demand the festival be suspended. Festival founder and longtime president Robert Favre le Bret refused. As a concession, he offered to cancel parties and cocktails. That wasn’t enough, however, for the impassioned leaders of the French New Wave, one of whom—Claude Lelouch—actually reported for revolutionary duty in Cannes on-board his private yacht.

Fervor was spreading as the three musketeers of Godard, Truffaut and Lelouch set about disrupting the festival, enlisting members of the jury—including Roman Polanski—and filmmakers, some of whom like Carlos Saura even had their own films in the festival, to the cause. During one heated debate, Godard lost his cool, screaming at someone against cancelling the festival: ‘We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups’ . . .

When the festival tried to go through with the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappė against the wishes of the filmmakers, Saura and leading lady Geraldine Chaplin, along with Truffaut and Godard, tried to grab hold of the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from opening; hanging on like leaves on a tree. There were fist fights. Godard lost his glasses while Truffaut took a tumble.

Eventually, Le Bret relented, reluctantly, and cancelled the festival on May 19, five days before its intended close. Cannes would never be the same again. The following year, a new section was introduced, Directors’ Fortnight, that would become a showcase for radical, daring and revolutionary voices . . . ‘We started Directors’ Fortnight because we wanted to have a festival inside the festival. Cannes did not agree to change some of the regulations,’ says Pierre-Henri Deleau, who ran it for three decades.

‘The first year, we didn’t even know we had to ask for permission from the French customs to allow 35mm prints into the country, so the first two films we had scheduled were delayed. We didn’t even have a catalogue. Just a poster with the names of the films. But, to our surprise, it was a big success. So we kept on doing it.’

Over the years, the selection of Directors’ Fortnight, or the Quinzaine, would continue to seek to push the envelope, whether in terms of showing creatively bold films or simply films from countries never selected for a major festival before. ‘We showed the first films from Cuba post-revolution, for example, or Asia and Latin America. Back then, the competition was quite conservative,’ says Deleau.

‘It was always France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the UK. The selection was like diplomacy. You have to remember in those days there were only three unions: the producers, distributors and exhibitors. There was no voice for the creators and directors. We wanted Directors’ Fortnight to represent the fight against censorship.’

As for the long-term legacy of 1968, there is no doubt that the events in Paris, the country as a whole, and Cannes that year, changed the festival, even if not ultimately exactly the way the great agitators initially envisaged. Ironically, the political fight may have contributed to the eventual breakdown in the friendship between Truffaut and Godard. Godard’s strident declarations and behavior marked him out as a genuine political radical, in contrast to Truffaut, whose main concern was, and remained, cinema.

‘Truffaut was never political,’ says Deleau. ‘He always refused to be associated with one specific party. Ultimately, 1968 was not a revolution. It was not even the beginning of a revolution. It was a happening. The festival did change over the years, in some ways for the better, especially under Gilles Jacob when it became the festival that was choosing the films in selection, and not the producer countries.

But what happened in 1968 could never happen again today. Now, it’s all a question of business and promotion. There are too many films. How can a critic see 70 or 80 films? The real power isn’t in the hands of the director or the producer anymore. The people selling the films are in charge.’”

Yes, today Cannes is a commercial market above all else. But then again, things that go around come around, so to speak, and every so often, the cinema – like all the other arts – reinvents itself. Perhaps something like this, at another festival, with other directors who refuse to accept the status quo of the comic book movie DC / Marvel Universe present may eventually assert itself.

In the meantime, this article, and the events of May 1968, serve to remind us that film has always been torn between two polar opposites; it’s a business, and it’s an art form. Right now, the business end is winning. But as history has shown us time and again, all overblown regimes eventually collapse under their own weight, and commercial cinema has always been – as Jean Cocteau once put it – “a little overripe.” What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but as long as the struggle between art and commerce continues, and the underlying tensions remains, change is always possible.

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

Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Complete Online Index – “A Short History of Film”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

A scholar in Germany has created a complete online index to A Short History of Film, 2nd edition.

A scholar in Germany has compiled a complete list of all the films mentioned in A Short History of Film, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 2013), written by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and myself, with images of either the poster, or the DVD for each film, complete with links to reviews, purchase points, and other information on the film – as well as lots of opinions, of course – which seems like rather an amazing undertaking.

All told, the list covers more than 2,000 films, and runs to 21 webpages in the list, and can serve as a very useful way to access the films discussed in the volume. So if you’re reading A Short History of Film, 2nd edition, or using it for a class, and would like detail on access to some of the many films mentioned – the images here show just a few of the many titles covered in the volume – just consult this list, click on the title, and see what’s available.

A very useful guide – many thanks to the person who did so much work on this.

Andy Warhol at Work in The Factory, 1965

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

This is the best footage I’ve ever seen of Warhol at work in The Silver Factory, E. 47th Street, NYC 1965.

UPDATE: Just turn off the right or left channel on your computer’s sound output, and the echo vanishes.

There’s just ONE track staggered on the left & right with a slight delay.

Just play ONE TRACK – left or right – and the sound is clear.

There is a fair amount of footage of Warhol taking during the mid 1960s, his most productive and influential period as an artist, where he created the signature works for which he would become internationally known. Marie Menken did some great stop motion footage of Warhol making his “Flower” paintings, and independent filmmaker Bruce Torbet did a short film – “Andy Warhol – Superartist,” which used some sync sound to capture one day in the artist’s life, but this footage from the Canadian Broadcasting System for a 1965 documentary is the most authentic sync sound documentation of Warhol’s non-stop work methods during this era.

As the CBC’s site says of this footage, “spend a day with artist Andy Warhol at his studio and you might watch him make a screen print of an electric chair or observe him stretching a canvas onto a frame. You might even end up in front of his Bolex as the subject of one of his screen tests, as Village Voice art critic Andrew Sarris does in this item for CBC’s Show on Shows. In this 1965 interview with Warhol and his agent, Ivan Karp, Warhol shares his thoughts on TV (it would be better if it was short bits of soap opera between many commercials), the subjects of his art (Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor), and his experiments in film.”

In this raw footage, complete with clapper boards for later editing, you see Warhol and his assistant Gerard Malanga knocking out one silkscreen after another – here, a series of electric chair silkscreen prints – with almost complete indifference to Andrew Sarris, the famed film critic for the Village Voice, who lobs questions at Warhol which he answers with just a few enigmatic words, or passes off to art dealer Ivan Karp, who earnestly explains the “pop” aesthetic for Sarris, and for an implied television audience which at the time had no idea what “pop art” was.

As the footage continues, Warhol shoots a brief, 100′ screen test of Sarris, instructing him simply not to talk, with Malanga’s assistance in checking the exposure and focus – the only footage that I’ve seen in sync sound which documents an actual “screen test” – running roughly 2.47 minutes- shot with a Bolex with an electric motor, so the entire film is completed in one take. Warhol would soon expand this by the use of an Auricon camera, which could shoot 1200′ – or roughly 35 minutes – in one burst to create such films as Vinyl and My Hustler (both 1965).

The CBC has done something with the sound here which is rather annoying; adding a echo effect which makes the dialogue somewhat hard to understand, and distracts from the immediacy of the moment, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Also, it’s interesting to see how methodical and mechanical Warhol is as he creates one work of art after another, and how Malanga, normally a very loquacious person, says nothing as Andy directs the creation of both the screen test and the series of screen prints – it’s a Factory, all right, and this is just another typical work day. You also get a real sense of Warhol’s somewhat puckish sense of humor, in addition to his rather imperious control over what’s happening – he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

A fascinating document – runs about 10 minutes – really worth watching.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Tina Hassannia – No DVDs of Many Films by Women Directors

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Tina Hassannia has a superb article on the lack of DVDs of films directed by women in Movie Mezzanine.

As she notes, “one consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a ‘pretty meagre number.’

As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure.

While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film—a still-measly 7%—Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%.

The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture.

There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema—like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films—than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later.

Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

Instead of relying on statistics to examine Criterion’s collection, then, it may be more helpful to think of women-directed titles that deserve a deluxe treatment. No matter what the numbers, statistics, or decades show, given their power, Criterion would go a long way in challenging the canon by releasing more titles made by women. But the reality is that releasing films from a smaller demographic is much more difficult than one might imagine.

Last week, I queried Twitter for female-directed titles that should get the Criterion treatment. Great responses poured in, among them the films of Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Some of these films, however, are already available from other distributors, some with restorations and supplements that are on par with or close to the quality associated with Criterion.”

All I can do is second this heartily, but also note that in addition to the directors mentioned, I would love to see a complete box set of the films of Alice Guy – some of her films are out on a Gaumont two disc set – Lois Weber (pictured at the top of this post), Ida May Park, and especially Ida Lupino, who is mentioned in this article, but whose pioneering work deserves a complete box set of all her work in the 1950s, when she was the only female director working in Hollywood. In any event, this is a real issue, one that won’t go away, and one that needs to be rectified, not only by Criterion, but by all the archival DVD labels – and no EST downloads, either. DVDs – restored, remastered, pristine, living – are the only way to go here.

This is a sharp, impassioned article – you can read the entire essay by clicking here.

Radha Vatsal in The Atlantic – Forgotten Female Action Stars

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Serial star Ruth Roland in an advertisement for Hands Up! (1918)

Writing in The Atlantic, Radha Vatsal has a fascinating piece on early women heroines. As Vatsal notes, “in the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ’serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic.

The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its ‘extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.’ Protagonists exhibited traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities like ‘physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.’ Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ’serial queens,’ disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call ’shorts’ and ‘features.’ But short films weren’t labeled as ’short’ at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels).

Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary, into print.

This example of cross-promotion would continue as other ‘chapter films’ were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathleen (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

Why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the ‘New Woman.’ ‘She wore less restrictive clothes,’ the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, ’she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.’

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement.”

Fascinating stuff – and not well enough known – read the entire article here.

William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931)

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in William Wellman’s brutal Pre-Code drama Night Nurse.

I have a new essay out on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema, which notes in part that “there are precious few ‘ethics’ on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.

Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.

This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a ‘one take wonder,’ capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.

For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.

Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that ‘great experiment’), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; this is a real gem.

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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