Friday, October 18, 2013

Get Thee to MOMA's To Save and Project Festival

It’s that time of year again, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York offers a unique opportunity to see rare old movies, restored to their former luster and projected on film, the way the Goddess and Eastman Kodak intended.

Yes, it’s To Save and Project, what MOMA calls “an annual festival of newly preserved and restored films from archives, studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers around the world, from October 9 through November 12.” You may glance at the calendar and notice the Siren is a wee bit fashionably late, but don’t let that deter you. There are screenings left for many of the most choice selections.

First and foremost, for all those who worked so hard on the second For the Love of Film blogathon, there is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury), newly restored and ready to shine. The Siren has a screener for this one which she is stubbornly refusing to watch, because she wants to see it in the shiny new version for which we bloggers and readers and donors raised all that lolly. Instead, the Siren plans to attend on Nov. 2, when Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation will be presenting this noir along with Crashout (co-written by the blacklisted Cy Endfield, Try and Get Me’s director, and also so far unseen by the Siren) and Alias Nick Beal. (If you want to read up on Try and Get Me!, check out blogathon partner Marilyn Ferdinand’s take.) The screenings start at 2 pm; anyone in the New York City area who can make it definitely should.

Here are some other entries that the Siren finds of particular interest, and hopes her patient readers will, as well.

First up, this Saturday at 7 pm, is the deliriously insane I Am Suzanne!, directed by Rowland V. Lee in 1933. The Siren has a son who is turning seven this weekend and has expressed a desire for Mommy’s presence at his festivities, so she won’t be at MOMA, but if you can make this one, you absolutely should. William McKinley on Twitter described this as “The Red Shoes with puppets,” which is surprisingly accurate; the Siren would call it “Coppelia plus guns,” but feel free to take your pick. Both Will and I, as well as Lou Lumenick, urge you to see for yourself. The title role is filled by gorgeous Lilian Harvey, who had a thrillingly varied career but whose Stateside stardom never took off. Judging by this, the camera was, if not Harvey’s lover, then a very good friend. She’s a pensive, delicate presence with a killer body that the movie gives you ample time to ogle. That’s partly because puppeteer Gene Raymond (whose callowness is just right here) is making a marionette based not on her face, but her figure. There’s also Leslie Banks (about to do The Man Who Knew Too Much for Hitchcock the very next year) stealing everything but the dressing-room door in a very Boris Lermontov role. It soon becomes clear, though, that Banks’ character is much more about padding his pockets than art. What makes the movie so deliciously oddball, apart from little touches like an anthropomorphic dancing snowman, is the way I Am Suzanne! melds childish glee and way-out-there perversion. Watch Harvey’s expression when she’s in the hospital with Raymond adjusting her traction, and maybe you’ll see what the Siren means.  

Stark Love (1927) is a Karl Brown silent screening this Sunday, Oct. 20, at 5:30 pm; the Siren has been unable to see it so far, although she plans to at a later date. Richard Brody, the Siren’s friendly sometime Twitter-debater and a man of highly discerning tastes, was hugely impressed with this unusual silent, filmed in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina with nonprofessionals in the cast. Another silent-film aficionado wrote the Siren saying it’s “astonishing and beautiful,” so clearly this is a must for all the fans of the era. The film also gets a brief, delightful mention in John McElwee’s Showmen, Sell It Hot!. (The Siren plans to write up this book later, but the spoiler version is, just buy it, it’s wonderful.) In his discussion of Jesse James (1939), shot partly near Pineville, Missouri, John writes:

Pineville residents since may have forgotten Ty Power and Henry Fonda, but what fun to have had a major feature shot in your backyard, even if it’s one folks way back thrilled to. The closest my locality came was Thunder Road, several counties away, but it seemed like home, and a silent called Stark Love, directed by Griffith disciple Karl Brown and shot amidst North Carolina hills in 1927. I attended a screening at Appalachian State University in the early 1990s, where many in the audience yelled out  names of locals they recognized upon that flickering, voiceless screen. Good thing Stark Love was run mute, for any mood accompaniment would surely have been drowned by who’s who-ing from the audience along the lines of, “There’s Great-Grandma!”

Hitler’s Reign of Terror and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany pretty much had the field of explicit anti-Nazi filmmaking to themselves when they were released. On Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7 pm, both films will be introduced by Prof. Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University, who discusses them extensively in Hitler and Hollywood: 1933-1939.

Hitler’s Reign was made by Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who didn’t think much of his gilded relations (“dull, uninteresting, hopelessly mediocre people,” was his unfilial summary). Still, once Vanderbilt opted for the life of an intrepid filmmaker-cum-journalist, Doherty says that background came in handy in two ways. Vanderbilt could afford Bell & Howell’s expensive, handheld 35-mm Eyemo camera (although getting real financing and distribution proved hard). And he could use his celebrated name to gain access to people like Pope Pius XI and the Hohenzollerns of Germany who would ordinarily avoid grubby reporter types. In 1933 came the biggest “get” of all, an interview with Adolf Hitler in which Vanderbilt had the courage to ask point-blank about the Jews.

Watching Hitler’s Reign now, there’s a sense that Vanderbilt’s aristocratic background may have been part of what gave him the nerve to ambush-interview a dictator. It’s a terrible loss that there were no cameras turning on the moment, but this film does contain a re-enactment of the encounter, and it still gives a shudder. Vanderbilt himself is a soigne chap with an East Coast lockjaw accent, and he sits in his chair with the air of a man who expects to be listened to. He wasn’t, though; his film played well in a few places, but what few bookings Hitler’s Reign could get were often shut down by state and local censors even though it was (just barely) pre-Code.

Nor were critics especially kind, laudable message or no laudable message. The film is in fact a jarring collection of on-the-scene footage (some of which Vanderbilt claimed to have smuggled out of Germany by strapping the reels to the underside of his car) and obvious re-enactments by actors whom one hopes never quit their day jobs. But the street moments that Vanderbilt captured are chilling, and as an early example of polemical documentary, it absolutely should not be missed. The version that the Siren saw is clearly one that was revised at a later date. Dave Kehr has the scoop on how we have a copy of this movie; the Siren hopes Doherty can shed further light on the revisions, only lightly discussed in the book.

Screening as a highly appropriate double feature with Hitler’s Reign is I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, an independent feature released in 1936 (with a PCA seal, to the annoyance of Nazi consul Georg Gyssling). Isobel Lillian Steele was a Canadian-born, naturalized American citizen who had lived in Germany since 1931, writing daintily apolitical magazine features and enjoying the last gasps of Weimar nightlife. According to Doherty, Steele got caught up in a liaison with one Baron Ulrich von Sosnosky, a Polish military officer and ladykiller-about-town. Steele later said she had no idea (she would say that, wouldn’t she?) that Sosnosky was enjoying the favors of two beautiful secretaries in Germany’s military bureaucracy, much less that those ladies were passing documents to the Baron. When the situation was uncovered, Steele was caught up in the arrests, and sent to prison for several months. She was eventually released through the intervention of Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, the “lion of the Senate,” and Sosnosky’s neck was eventually saved by an exchange of spies (though his later fate is a mystery; Wikipedia, for what it's worth, lists no fewer than four possible ends for the Baron). The two secretaries met a horrible fate.

It’s a thrilling, ultimately tragic story with a strong undercurrent of heedless sex, and the Siren wishes she could tell you it makes for a movie with those qualities. It doesn’t, only partly because it insists, rather implausibly, that Isobel is a simple American girl who went to the wrong parties. More importantly, Kehr is right when he calls I Was a Captive “rhetorically crude and stylistically nonexistent.” (Although there are a few rather haunting shots inside the prison, possibly illustrating Ivan G. Shreve’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Cinema.) And yet the film is undeniably mesmerizing, with its portrait of Germany on the brink, the occasional bits of interpolated documentary footage (including the 1933 book-burning shown in Hitler’s Reign), narration that refers bluntly to concentration camps, and characters such as a brownshirt suitor, tired of persecuting Jews and Communists and looking forward to his promotion--to informer.

Watch out for Steele's “out of character” appearance at the start, wearing an impeccably chic ensemble and toying with what’s either a pom-pom trimming or a powder puff, although on a DVD screener at first it suggested a poodle scalp. Steele says, with a flat delivery that’s pretty characteristic of the whole movie, “The prison scenes depressed me. Hollywood has a way of making things realistic.” That line will probably get a laugh at MOMA, but in a strange way she’s right. The movie may think it’s about an innocent abroad whose heart was always in the right place. But what this movie actually shows is a woman who didn’t want to know about what was swirling around her, until the knock came at her own door. In that sense, Steele was indeed very American.

The movies are also screening Monday, Oct. 28 at 3 pm.

On Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7 pm, we have Death of a Salesman, the 1951 version directed by Lazslo Benedek and starring Fredric March. The Siren plans to be there, but she can’t tell you a thing about this one. That’s because it’s been hard to see for decades. MOMA says this version has been fully restored. Bone up on your Fredric March fandom by checking out director Guy Maddin’s essay on the Criterion edition of I Married a Witch.

The only Nov. 2 noir offering that the Siren has previewed is the long-unavailable Alias Nick Beal, and it’s a pip, a retelling of the Faust legend with Thomas Mitchell’s well-meaning district attorney standing in for Goethe’s scholar, and Ray Milland as Nick Beal--probably a play on Beelzebub, though few screen demons are handsome as this one. The Siren has long been an admirer of Milland, and this is one of his best. Milland is not simply seductive--something he could accomplish by standing in good light and breathing--he’s genuinely frightening, slowly revealing the vicious amorality under his smooth-talking exterior. Mitchell is excellent at keeping his character’s cluelessness plausible; he’s insisting the devil doesn’t come to life far past the point when everyone else has caught on. With George Macready, on the side of the angels for once; and Audrey Totter, playing her pop-eyed, high-strung sex appeal for all it’s worth as Satan’s reluctant handmaiden. She has a late-movie scene that must be one of the best she ever did; no description of any kind, believe me, it will be obvious when it happens. Directed by John Farrow, with fog-shrouded cinematography by Lionel Lindon, Alias Nick Beal will be screening in a fresh archival print. It’s also showing Thursday, Nov. 7 at 4 pm.

Try and Get Me!, in addition to the Nov. 2 screening, also plays Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 4 pm.

The final movie the Siren wants to squeeze in: Caravan, a romance with Charles Boyer and Loretta Young and a screenplay co-written by Samson Raphaelson. The Siren has seen this one mocked from time to time for casting Boyer as a gypsy etc. That doesn’t much matter to her when Kehr calls Caravan a “genuinely great movie,” an endorsement that should make everyone pull out the calendars. Friday, Nov. 8 at 4:30 pm; and Sunday, Nov. 10 at 1 pm.

Please, take a look at the schedule and figure out what else you want to see; the Siren hasn’t come close to listing it all. This is a rich festival, and MOMA deserves every bit of support we can give.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Wish I could see Stark Love. I read Brown's Adventures with DW Griffith many years ago.

Other films that would have hooked me would be the Italian films, Alain Cavalier doing Donald Westlake just because I'm curious, and of course, the director debut of Hugo Haas.

Dan said...

Alias Nick Beal is afflicted with the same thing many Audrey Totter films are: not enough Audrey Totter.

Pordenone said...

Here's my review of Stark Love, which was screened at the silent film festival in Pordenone in 2003, the description is more setup than spoilers.

One of the strangest films of the festival was Stark Love (1927). Directed and produced by Karl Brown, this film takes us to the mountains of North Carolina, where poverty and isolation have degraded men into brutes and women into slaves. To the amusement of the locals, a young man, Rob Warwick (played by Forrest James) teaches himself to read. Realizing the importance of an education, he decides to leave home and go to school in the city far away. Rob has a girlfriend, Barbara (Helen Mundy) with plans of her own, but the couple’s intentions are upended when Rob’s widowed father steps in, announcing his intention to marry Barbara. Rob, unhappy with the prospect of having to call his girlfriend ‘mom,’ has an angry confrontation with his father. The two men fight, and Rob and Barbara escape in a desperate attempt to a new life away from the Carolina hills.

Those of us who watch a lot of silent films see innumerable stories promoting the clean living and health of the countryside over the sinful city life, so it’s refreshing to see a movie so thoroughly pro-city and anti-country. I’m sure the filmmakers would point out it is not the rural life that has debased these people, but rather their extreme isolation. Still, this movie is no ad for Country Living Magazine and if you ever wanted to see Deliverance done as a silent film, Stark Love is the film for you.

Marilyn said...

Wow, this looks like a fascinating line-up, and you're sure to have a great time! Wish I had seen Alias Nick Beal when it was in town, but alas, so many movies so little time. I had a chance to see a few minutes of outtakes of the newly recovered Orson Welles film at the CIFF, with David Robinson swearing us to secrecy. So actually, I never saw them...

The Siren said...

Marilyn, Alias Nick Beal is pretty seriously great.

Lemora said...

Siren, thank you for the link to Guy Madden's wonderful essay on "I Married A Witch." I've heard about that one for years, and now I have to see it. Ditto "Alias Nick Beal" and the one with Charles Boyer as a gypsy. Oh, I wish I could come to New York City and see these on the big screen.

Lemora said...

I just saw "I Married A Witch" and "Alias Nick Beal." I liked them both, but the second is infinitely more compelling. Basically how I feel about all politicians. And you're right. Ray Milland could look seductive just standing there and breathing. Thanks.

mas82730 said...

I'm sure the Siren, with her prodigious knowledge of all things film, already knows this, but Agee's pal and correspondent in the 1920's, Dwight Macdonald, thinks it "not impossible" that 'Stark Love,' with its depiction of the Southern country poor may have been the impetus for Agee and Walker Evans to collaborate on "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Perhaps. Both men admired 'Stark Love,' though they deplored the film's dreadful title.
I hope one day to see Karl Brown's film for myself.

barrylane said...

I Married A witch is a wonderful film and a souvenir, for me, of the past, but Guy Maddin's piece was precious and over-written in his self consciously arty way. As for Nick Beal -- not enchanted by theme, handling or performance, possibly because I don't see politicians this way.

VP81955 said...

I did an entry on "Stark Love" some years ago, focusing on Helen Mundy, who had a chance for stardom and let it slip through her fingers: