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Posts Tagged ‘Silent Cinema’

Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters on TCM

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Once again, TCM scores with another amazing classic film – this Sunday night May 10th, 2015.

Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.

Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.

As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.

Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’

One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline [1914]), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires [1915]). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.

The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).

In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.

In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.

According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”

And you’re going to miss this? No, you’re not – DVR it. Miss Mend is an astounding piece of filmmaking.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906)

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in Film International on Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ (1906).

As she notes, “Alice Guy is a filmmaker whose body of work is still a site of contestation for modern critics; after all these years, her name is nearly unknown. Yet her output was prodigious. Of the nearly four hundred films Guy directed between 1896 and 1920, Guy has two main periods of work as a director: for Leon Gaumont’s studios, where she began her career after breaking out of the secretarial pool in 1896 to become, within a short space of time, the principal director for the studio; and in the United States for her own company, Solax, which flourished for a few brief years after the turn of the century in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Yet much of her work is lost. For a long time, only a handful of Guy’s many films were thought to have survived, among them Les Cambrioleurs (1898), Surprise d’une maison au petit jour (Episode de la Guerre de 1870) (1898), Les Maçons (1905), Le Fils du garde-chasse (1906), Le Noël de monsieur le Curé (1906), and La Course à la saucisse (1907).

However, in 2009, Gaumont released a shockingly well-preserved DVD of more than sixty of Alice Guy’s films made between 1987 and 1913, including Baignade dans le torrent (1897), Chez le magnétiseur (1898), La bonne absinthe (1899), her remake of her 1896 hit La Fée aux choux, ou la naissance des enfants (1900), Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), On the Barricade (1907) and La Vie du Christ (1906), at 33 minutes one of the most ambitious films made up to that point in cinema history, long before D.W. Griffith even stepped behind the camera to direct his first one-reel film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). But history has not treated Alice Guy kindly, or even fairly; even with the release of the 60 films on this disc, she is still marginalized from most conventional cinema histories, and new articles appear on an almost annual basis “discovering” her for the first time, even as her films go unscreened in film history classes.

Yet Alice Guy is in the forefront of cinema history by any measure, working in sync-sound, hand tinted color, and making films of relatively epic length when the medium was still in its infancy. Indeed, close readings of the films of Alice Guy place her work at the center of cinema history. For the most part, the films of Alice Guy have been overlooked by film historians who incorrectly assume that Guy’s films represent a footnote to film history, rather than being one of the first major bodies of work in narrative cinema. Indeed, as one of the first persons to direct a film with a narrative structure, and thus to direct actors to convey the essence of the narrative through gestures and actions, Alice Guy is one of the originators of filmic acting, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, she is the first real auteur of the cinema.”

Alice Guy is the foremother of the cinema; you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ozu’s Gangster Films

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I have a new review in Film International on Yasujiro Ozu’s “gangster” films.

As I note in the essay, “Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this ‘most Japanese’ of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.

By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, The Gangster Films in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, ‘Film Forever,’ a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.”

You can read the entire review 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 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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