Saturday, June 26, 2010

Women's Costumes at the Movies: Faux Fashion Blogger Edition

My final defeat, which made me cry real tears, came at the end of [Pandora's Box], when [G.W. Pabst] went through my trunks to select a dress to be 'aged' for Lulu's murder as a streetwalker in the arms of Jack the Ripper. With his instinctive understanding of my tastes, he decided on the blouse and skirt of my very favorite suit. I was anguished. "Why can't you buy some cheap little dress to be ruined? Why does it have to be my dress?" To these questions I got no answer till the next morning, when my once lovely clothes were returned to me in the studio dressing room. They were torn and foul with grease stains. Not some indifferent rags from the wardrobe department but my own suit, which only last Sunday I had worn to lunch at the Adlon Hotel! Josifine hooked up my skirt, I slipped the blouse over my head, and I went on the set feeling as hopelessly defiled as my clothes. Working in that outfit, I didn't care what happened to me...

I did not realize until I saw Pandora's Box in 1956 how marvelously Mr. Pabst's perfect costume sense symbolized Lulu's character and her destruction. There is not a single spot of blood on the pure-white bridal stain in which she kills her husband. Making love to her wearing the clean white peignoir, Alva asks, "Do you love me, Lulu?" "I? Never a soul!" It is in the worn and filthy garments of the streetwalker that she feels passion for the first time--come to life so that she may die.
--Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood

The Siren was recently designated a fashion blogger by a European site called Wikio, an honor that left her equal parts amused, flattered and puzzled. Aside from her annual rant about the costume awards at the Oscars, a tribute to Mary Astor's makeup and a brief series of posts about perfume, the Siren can't recall saying much about fashion here at her Web outpost, although certainly clothing and makeup rank high on her list of semi-private obsessions. Yet there she is, right next to the black-belt shoppers of Fashionista and seven notches below the cool gaze of the Sartorialist, who would probably stop the Siren in the street right around the same time Dorothy Lamour showed up in hell with a platter of Mai Tais.

Still, the unexpected accolade made the Siren start thinking about costumes in film. The period stuff does get most of the attention, but sometimes deservedly so, as with Walter Plunkett's incredible designs for Gone with the Wind. Those dresses are so brilliantly in tune with Scarlett's character and the events of the movie that you would swear they all must be in the book. The drapery dress is, but just about none of the others are. William Pratt points out that if Plunkett had followed Margaret Mitchell's descriptions to the letter, Scarlett would have spent 9/10ths of the movie wearing green, the author's favorite color. The "scarlet woman" dress that Rhett throws at Scarlett before Ashley's birthday party, for example, was entirely Plunkett's doing. And the Siren has always wanted a better look at the cloudlike indigo gown Scarlett wears in a brief scene of her New Orleans honeymoon. Look closely and you'll see it's adorned with nine stuffed birds--a witty commentary on the once-starving Scarlett stuffing herself with the finest in Louisiana cuisine.

Other great moments in period costume would have to include Marie Antoinette; Jezebel (that red dress was actually bronze, the better to photograph in black-and-white); The Adventures of Robin Hood (Olivia de Havilland spends most of the movie with her hair completely covered, so when she shows up in her bedroom with her hair down in braids, it's a potent sign of sexual yearning); and Queen Christina (the moment when Garbo turns so the firelight outlines her form under a man's shirt is one of the most sensual in all of 1930s cinema).

But the Siren is always drawn to contemporary costumes, particularly those for women. Louise Brooks's essay on Pabst contains what is still the best explanation of costume and performance that the Siren has ever read. Robert Avrech recently posted about designer Helen Rose, and in comments we discussed how an actor's clothing influences a performance. Confronted with that, plus her new job description, the Siren's palms began to itch and she got that yen, the one that says, "It's time to make a highly idiosyncratic list of things I like so that everyone can argue with me, politely."

As Yojimboen has pointed out, the ins and outs of costume credits in old movies can be worse than Kremlinology. Some of these were undoubtedly purchased off the rack, but as Annie or Daria could tell you, there's an art to selecting the right clothes, too. The Siren is mostly sticking with the screen credit, but if someone knows the real scoop on who did what, by all means tell us in comments and I'll update.

So, ten great moments in women's costume design. Let's hope this makes whoever clicks over from Wikio more happy and less confused.

1. Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Orry-Kelly)
I’ll be wearing my white lace gown tonight. I’d like you to wear your black and white foulard.
--Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Henry Windle Vale

Cooper has a lot of bitchy moments in Now, Voyager, such as, just to pick one out of a hat, throwing herself down a staircase to ensure her daughter stays chained up as a nursemaid.

But the Siren thinks even trying to order the newly fashionable Charlotte back into this offense to the human eyesight is as evil as it gets. Have you ever seen anything to equal this horror? The hem that hits just the right spot to get that redwood-forest effect every woman wants for her legs. The neckline that rests at her throat only because the climb to the earlobes got too exhausting. The lace at the collar, probably thrown there by Gladys in one of her temper fits. The way the dress droops away from the body, yet clings enough to say, "There is a whole world of lumpy oatmeal under here and brother, you want no part of it." It's a goddamn triumph of costuming. Kim Morgan recently said every woman should have Claude Rains as her psychiatrist, and ain't that the truth--but Dr. Jaquith's one mistake is waiting to talk to Charlotte before they leave together for his cozy sanitorium. The second she entered wearing that monstrosity, he should have said, "Right, we're outta here."

2. Jean Seberg in Breathless (N/A)
Michel: How old are you?
Patricia: A hundred.
Michel: You don't look it.

Throw a rock down any street in America and you will hit a woman wearing tight pants and a t-shirt. And not one of them, no matter how beautiful, will look one infinitesimal fraction as dangerous as Jean Seberg does in Breathless. Seberg wears this getup because it's her job to wear it, but when Godard's camera catches her calling "New York Herald Tribune," you see a warning sign that Belmondo does not. It's more than her beauty. It's the way she walks, not just casual in her clothes, but careless. Another down-market outfit, another wasteful American in Paris, ready to toss things aside for who knows what reason.

3. Audrey Hepburn's suit in Sabrina (screen credit, Edith Head; actual design, Hubert de Givenchy.)

You needn't pick me up at the airport. I'll just take the Long Island Rail Road and you can meet me at the train...If you should have any difficulty recognizing your daughter, I shall be the most sophisticated woman at the Glen Cove station.

Over at Glenn's place there is a discussion under way about the old saw that Jaws and/or Star Wars "killed the movies." The Siren remarked that the movies were neither dead, nor dying, nor even feeling a bit faint. Here she adds that this kind of chic, however, is deader than vaudeville. Just imagine showing up at the fetid underground bunker that is modern-day Penn Station wearing that suit. You'd get fewer stares wearing a sandwich board. The suit isn't the movie's most famous costume; that's the Sabrina dress, a version of which the Siren has in her own vintage-clothing collection. But this moment, as Wilder's camera gloats over Hepburn from the top of her hat to the little dog at her feet, is one of the most thrilling in the history of film fashion. Sabrina, the lovelorn chaffeur's daughter, has learned poise and confidence, the essential elements of style. Even the least observant visitor to Paris sees that a fashionable Frenchwoman wears chic clothing because she IS self-assured, not because she WANTS to be. This, this is what Paris and a genius designer can do for you!

4. Jean Harlow in China Seas (Adrian)

During my earliest days at Metro, I was put into movies with Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, and I was always taking their men away from them. Temporarily. It was ludicrous. There would be Jean, all alabaster skin and cleft chin, savory as a ripe peach, and I'd be saying disdainfully (and usually with an English accent, I played a lot of Lady Mary roles) to Gable or Bob Montgomery, "How can you spend time with her? She's rahther vulgar, isn't she?"
--Rosalind Russell, Life Is a Banquet

The Siren would love to tell you this little number is a turning point in China Seas, Tay Garnett's lovable strumpet-on-the-high-seas melodrama from 1935. It isn't, although Harlow wears it in a drinking scene with thoroughgoing louse Wallace Beery, and the jeweled straps do suggest a trap. The neckline is almost modest--right up near the collarbone--as long as you ignore Harlow's obvious lack of underwear and those strips of fabric making an oh-so-scalable ladder down the pure-white arms. Russell was right; it is unlikely Gable would even realize there were other women on the ship.

5. Mary Astor & Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth (Omar Kiam)
Edith: My dear...don't.

The British gave us the cruel expression "mutton dressed as lamb," but it's Americans who gave us its best illustration, in Dodsworth. Poor Ruth Chatterton. Her character may turn out to be a harpy, but here the Siren aches for her. That hairpiece, ridiculous on anyone who's out of the schoolroom, hellishly combined with the ill-judged white fabric and the simpering black-velvet bow at the too-low neckline. And, to complete the picture of humiliation, there's Mary Astor, a piece of carved ivory in a perfectly draped evening gown, necklace nestled in a neckline that's even lower than Chatterton's--yet somehow not the slightest bit vulgar. The scene is one of the most poignant in the movie, as Dan Callahan writes so well here, but the costumes take the contrast even further.

6. Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Robert Kalloch & Edward Stevenson)

General Yen: I'm going to convert a missionary.

From the second she dons a spectacular Chinese robe, every aspect of Stanwyck's movement changes. Her arms float away from her body, she takes longer strides around the room, she suddenly seems conscious of having breasts and hips under the fabric. And you sense, too, that the lack of underpinnings makes her feel just that much more vulnerable to the General, even though she is technically as covered up as she was in her missionary garb.

7. Kay Francis in Mandalay (Orry-Kelly)
They call her Spot White. It should be Spot Cash.

Like Harlow's China Seas dress, this one wins for sheer wow factor. Kay Francis, betrayed by the man she loves, winds up as the top earner in a Burmese whorehouse, and shows she won't let the bastard get her down by strutting down a staircase wearing this. She makes that piece of liquid silver seem worth a crash course in male perfidy.

8. Myrna Loy in The Thin Man (Dolly Tree, wardrobe)
Nick: Have you a nice evening gown?
Nora: What's that got to do with it?
Nick: Have you got a nice evening gown?
Nora: Yes, I've got a lulu. Why?
Nick: I'm going to give a party and invite all the suspects.
Nora: The suspects? They won't come.
Nick: Yes, they will.

The Siren can't remember whether the above-referenced "lulu" is the famous one in the above picture, or the halter-necked black gown Loy wears in the last scenes of the movie. No matter; every good husband who asks a question like that should be rewarded by the sight of his wife wearing something like this, even if nobody ever does show. Maybe especially if no one shows.

9. Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Helen Rose, costume and wardrobe department)

Maggie: You've got a nice smell about you. Is your bath water cool?
Brick: No.
Maggie: I know somethin' that would make you feel cool and fresh. Alcohol rub. Cologne.
Brick: No thanks. We'd smell alike. Like a couple of cats in the heat.

In New York City this past week it has been, as Auntie Mame would say, "hot as a crotch." So of course the Siren had to give a nod to Elizabeth Taylor, who set the standard for riding out a heat wave without air conditioning by donning a slip and trying to seduce Paul Newman. The Siren once had the pleasure of relating Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's censorship history to a confused Argentine male who had just watched it and could not get over, indeed seemed personally offended by, Newman's failure to respond to Taylor's come-on: "It was the strangest thing I have ever seen. There's Elizabeth Taylor! and she's wearing that slip! Thank god you explained this..."

10. Kasey Rogers in Strangers on a Train (Leah Rhodes, wardrobe)
Senator Morton: Poor unfortunate girl.
Barbara Morton: She was a tramp.
Senator Morton: She was a human being. Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
Barbara Morton: From what I hear she pursued it in all directions.

Alfred Hitchcock's attention to what his actresses wore gets a lot of press, usually for Rear Window and Vertigo. Here's one that deserves more discussion. Every time the Siren sees this magnificent movie, she's struck again by the brilliance of Miriam's look, how it represents a summit of Hitchcock's oft-stated preference for buttoned-up women. We've already been told about this mantrap who's cuckolding handsome Farley Granger, and we're expecting maybe Linda Darnell. Instead we get a four-eyed tootsie wearing a simple print dress with cap sleeves and a daintily pointed collar, not nearly as tight, body-conscious or as low-cut as you could go in 1951. Miriam probably wore it because it was vaguely pretty and would be easy to clean if she got popcorn butter on it. And the glasses--the Siren can't be the only one mesmerized by Miriam's eyeglasses. Mind you, the glasses are vital to the plot, but Kasey Rogers wields them the way Dietrich wielded a cigarette. This is an everyday black widow we're dealing with, says that costume, the sort of woman who would show up to a backyard pool party in a full-coverage one-piece and a sarong and, given five minutes' opportunity, would still wind up behind the rhododendrons pulling the swimming trunks off the hostess' husband.

There's an awful of lot of sex in this post, isn't there? There are advantages to this whole fashion-blogger gig...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Repost: Father's Day with John Ford

A fellow blogger recently requested that the Siren send a link to her favorite post. After three years, there was still no question--this is it. She reposts it now, and wishes her readers a happy Father's Day.

My father was a constant reader, a wicked prankster and something of a film buff. His film tastes were pretty eclectic--we went together to see The Pope of Greenwich Village, for example--but his real reverence was for the classics. I remember his description of a scene in The Gold Rush, to give his small daughter a flavor of it in those pre-VCR days when anything silent was hard to come by: "...and then he looks up at the clock, and he realizes, she's not coming. And just like that, you go from slapstick to sad..."

For Dad one filmmaker towered above all others, however, and that was John Ford.

One spring Saturday when I was in my early teens, Dad was talking to his adult nephews on the phone. A film recommendation from Dad was something to be taken seriously, and that Sunday morning the Superstation's Academy Award Theater was showing How Green Was My Valley. Our main phone line was in the kitchen and I could hear Dad's end of the conversation. "You should see this one...John Ford, Wales...Maureen O'Hara too...gorgeous...You'll get a kick out of it."

The conversation ended and I caught Dad's eye over whatever he was reading at the kitchen table.

"Get a kick out of it?" I repeated, incredulous.

"Sure," said Dad, affably. "Good movie, isn't it?" As he went back to his book, I swear I heard him chuckle.

Sometime after noon on Sunday our phone rang. It was Cousin R., and he sounded like he was coming down with a cold. "Put that father of yours on the phone," he snapped. I handed the phone to Dad, he put down the New York Times crossword puzzle, and as I leaned across the kitchen table my cousin's voice rose to a volume that carried it well beyond the receiver, especially when my father pulled the phone away from his ear to avoid hearing damage.

"...coal miners...strike...and they go to America...falls in the water...gets sick...accident...the other two leave...won't marry her...ANOTHER accident...goddamnit, I'm gonna get you for this one."

"But it was a good movie, right?" said my father, looking pleased with himself.

"...GREAT movie...I'm going to GET DRUNK."

The conversation ended. Dad returned to his crossword puzzle. "Where's he gonna get a drink?" asked my sister, who had heard the whole thing too. A shrug from Dad.

"He's in a dry county," I reminded Dad.

"It's SUNDAY," added my sister.

The phone rang again. It was another, older cousin, the football coach, who seemed to have caught his brother's cold. "Tell your father we're sending him the liquor tab," he barked.

I hung up and looked at Dad. "You totally tricked them into seeing that movie," I said.

His eyes didn't move from the crossword. "They'll thank me for it later."

Funny that this memory of my father should concern How Green Was My Valley, which has Donald Crisp, 180 degrees from his terrifying drunk in Broken Blossoms, playing one of the most lovable fathers in screen history. Not until Gregory Peck tucked Mary Badham into bed in To Kill a Mockingbird would there be an equally noble, and touching, portrait of fatherhood.

How Green Was My Valley ends with Crisp's death at the bottom of a mine shaft. Ford's camera focuses on the lift bringing other miners to safety. One platform of exhausted men passes us by, and then we see the one we are waiting for, Donald Crisp's head barely at the edge of the frame, cradled by his youngest son. That son, Roddy McDowall, stares past the camera, his beautiful face a bleak mask that reflects every child who ever faced a future without a parent. I've been facing that myself since 1991. Perhaps that's why I haven't watched the movie since.

But Ford wasn't by nature a pessimist, and How Green Was My Valley doesn't end on that shot. Its final montage includes McDowall and Crisp, going for another walk together. Memory isn't enough, but memory has its comforts, even if they're as simple as remembering how your father once lured an audience for one of his favorite films.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Housekeeping; or, Multiple Fragments in Search of a Post

It's been a slow couple of viewing weeks chez Siren. She's had a hard time finding quiet periods to watch things, for one. And for another, what she has seen hasn't exactly brought the Muse sashaying over to her computer keyboard. There were a couple of John Garfield movies, Out of the Fog and Saturday's Children. Out of the Fog had Garfield in delicious bad-guy mode, Ida Lupino looking glorious and James Wong Howe making Sheepshead Bay look the way it should look but undoubtedly never did. Still, no inspiration. Saturday's Children had some lovely, delicate moments in the early scenes but slipped later.

There was The Hucksters, deeply disappointing to the Siren, although Sydney Greenstreet hauling off and spitting on a conference table was an unexpected fillip. But Greenstreet, despite the Siren's deep love for the man, was woefully miscast, Gable failed to charm and Ava Gardner's hairstylist must have had it in for her. Deborah Kerr looked ravishing but her part was wan. The movie looked pretty good but was ultimately toothless; maybe if the Siren watches Mad Men again she will now appreciate it more.

Saw Nightfall at the Film Forum, and a good thing too, since its ravishing beauty (via Jacques Tourneur and Burnett Guffey) needed a big screen. But the plot was preposterous in ways both big and small. Saw Cyrus (oh look! a new movie!) and it had some funny moments, but Marisa Tomei's character was frustratingly underdeveloped and the out-of-nowhere constant zooming made the Siren want to gently take the directors' hands off the camera and hand them some worry beads.

Then there was a Frank Borzage night at the home of some dear friends, where we saw Doctors' Wives, an intermittently interesting early work that the Siren has little to say about, and Young as You Feel, a ghastly relic that the Siren cannot recommend even to ardent Borzage completists. There were three shots where she thought she spotted Borzage; otherwise the only sustaining moments came when the Siren's couchmate (He Knows Who He Is) dissolved into inadequately suppressed giggles every time Will Rogers described himself as "an old meat-packer." That sent the Siren into fits as well and she ended the evening with her Serious Classic Movie Viewer cred in tatters.

Hence the radio silence.

Some weeks back we held a belated house-warming and the Siren shut the door to the hall closet where we had piled all the things we didn't know what to do with, like toolboxes and an old bureau and papers to shred and all the pictures we haven't hung because we don't want to face the inevitable debates: "I hate that one." "I hate THAT one more." "Hey, that was a gift." "Oh, a gift, huh. From who? a sworn enemy?" The door to the closet is right next to the bathroom and during the party the Siren kept one eye peeled to make sure no one opened the wrong door and discovered the secret of our Potemkin housekeeping. Since then, the Siren opens the door from time to time, looks in and says to herself, "I ain't touching this shit," and shuts the door, suddenly gripped with the strong desire for a stiff Scotch.

Well, it's only 9:30 am right now and besides, the housewarming guests drank up all the Scotch and it hasn't been replaced. (That isn't a reproach, guys; we had fun doing it.) So the Siren brewed a cup of nicely smoky lapsang souchong and decided to clean out her computer files instead. The Siren wouldn't show you that hall closet's interior if you came over with an armful of gardenias, a sonnet to her left eyebrow and a large bottle of 30-year-old Talisker. But herewith, because her Scots-Irish ancestral blood deplores waste of any kind, and because otherwise the cupboard is bare, a glance at some of the unfinished fragments that have been lurking on the Siren's hard drive.

Here we have the notes for Siren's abortive stab at a comparison between Criss Cross and Touchez Pas au Grisbi, two movies that she saw back-to-back and that still strike her as complementary.

Oddly, it was the French film that ultimately had a less cynical outlook, holding out the possibility of loyalty and even love. Yvonne DeCarlo speaks for the Americans when she snaps at Burt Lancaster: "Love, love! You've got to watch out for yourself."

Criss Cross is even better than The Killers, one of its predecessors, at least in part because of DeCarlo. Her beauty is just lights-out, on a level with the earlier film's Ava Gardner. Unlike Gardner, however, DeCarlo really acts in this movie. She is very good as Anna, Lancaster's ex-wife, showing us a woman who may have some good qualities deep down, but meanwhile is out for herself. Burt Lancaster's magnificent looks help his portrayal of Steve who is, it must be acknowledged, a bit of a drip. Steve takes up a lot of his narration blaming fate, when we can see he's the author of his own misfortunes.

Both of the movies flip sex roles--Steve the drippy romantic, Anna the practical hustler; Gabin the loyal mate, his partner the feckless damsel-in-distress.

Jeanne Moreau really, really, really cannot dance. DeCarlo, on the other hand, tears up the floor.

The opening graf of a planned post on the splendid The Late George Apley. If this one pops up on TCM, by all means watch it.

It has a dry, witty script by Philip Dunne and a wonderfully funny performance from Ronald Colman whom, as her readers know, usually hits the Siren like a big ol' dose of Nyquil. Mr. Siren, who was in the same room trying to beat an external hard drive into submission, at one point looked up and remarked with mild irritation, "You're laughing a LOT at this one." He would have had a much better time just watching it with me.

This is an excellent example of a post the Siren abandoned because she was being entirely too pissy. And no, she won't tell you who it was who aroused her ire, and there are no prizes for a correct guess, either.

Dude ... Stage Door?

There are I-don't-know-how-many actresses and films out there to illustrate your thesis that everything was so much better without feminism, and you choose--Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door?

Okay, don't let me stop you. Maybe next week you'll follow up with how things in Hollywood were a lot better before they invented panchromatic film. I want to be sympathetic here, because I happen to prefer old movies myself. Hence my blogging about old movies. And of course it is a truism that you are entitled to your opinion. But thematic evaluations are supposed to be rooted in something, preferably something connected to the movie. You can't just watch Bringing Up Baby and decide it's all a metaphor for the Boer War.

Yes, we are all better off without that one. It was only going to get worse from there.

Here, to close out this collection of unrelated fragments, are the Siren's notes on My Last Breath, as her British edition titles Luis Buñuel's autobiography.

The book is, surprisingly, in rough chronological order but Buñuel still meanders from topic to topic, detouring for a while and then swerving back onto the road. He was born in the Aragon region of Spain in 1900, at a time when the area was poor and the peasants still lived in much the same way they had for centuries. His father was relatively well-to-do, however, and Buñuel received a good Jesuit education, right up to the day he was expelled, much to the Siren's relief. (Come on, this is Buñuel. You don't want to hear about him being a complete altar boy, do you?) He went to Madrid in the 1920s to be educated at the university, and there Buñuel seems to have met everyone who was anyone in Spain at the time, from the young Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali to King Alfonse.

He started out studying insects and claims he could recognize and give Latin names for many well into his old age. Eventually he switched to philosophy, but then he moved to Paris. There he made the revolutionary Un chien andalou and L'Âge d'Or, the latter film distinguishing itself by being the first Buñuel to be banned (for about fifty years, as a matter of fact).

In the same way that Buñuel's films can focus on seemingly extraneous details (in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, people going on and on about their dreams, as Bunuel does here) and exclude the information you are dying to know (what, exactly, happened to Don Jaime's wife in Viridiana?) the director gives one chapter apiece to his most prolific years as a filmmaker, in Mexico and in France. He is happy to give you a recipe for a Buñueloni (the Siren would love to order one of these at her next blogger outing) but doesn't want to tell you much about, say, Gerard Philippe.

So now we've used up some leftovers. There's about a half-dozen more lurking around, but the Siren promises she won't drag those out until the next time she's just seen a Will Rogers movie and is stumped for material.

If you've seen anything brilliant lately, by all means, tell.

Update: In a nice coincidence prompted by TV5's showing Grisbi last night (Mr. S watched too), James Wolcott posts about the Becker film. The dancing amused him too. Even funnier: Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough, which may well be playing on a double bill with The Oscar in some midnight-camp-palace of the afterlife.

And the in-depth take on Nightfall that the movie deserves, from Kim Morgan, at Noir of the Week. The Siren was still not keen on the woozy plotting, but Kim points out all the brilliance that made the Siren pretty much love the thing anyway. And Simon Abrams at Slant Magazine liked the movie less than either Kim or me, but makes his case very well (Simon has particular problems with the ending).

Sunday, June 06, 2010

For the Love of Film: The Big Reveal

Update: Marilyn has additional behind-the-blogathon and NFPF information at her place, so do read up there too.

A little earlier this evening, the New York Times published news of 75 silent films, previously thought lost, that have been discovered in New Zealand and are being restored through the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Among them are Upstream, a backstage drama by John Ford--and aren't you dying to see what he did with that genre? There's an early Clara Bow feature, Maytime--and right now Operator_99, Donna Hill, Flapper Jane, Robert Avrech and David Cairns and my other silent-film peeps must be turning cartwheels. And there's also the earliest surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand--hoorah for women pioneers! hoorah for Mabel Normand, so much more than a footnote in an infamous murder.

This was all over Twitter and the blogs in record time.

Well, here's something they aren't saying.

At least two of the films being restored are ours. And that includes the very first one, called The Sergeant, a Western from 1910, shot on location in Yosemite Valley before the National Park Service even existed.

What do I mean by ours? We raised the money for them in February, $13,500, through the blogathon we did for the NFPF, For the Love of Film.

That means these films are surviving through the efforts of Marilyn Ferdinand, the powerhouse behind organizing the blogathon; the people from the NFPF who contributed clips, stills and information for the Facebook page and elsewhere; Greg Ferrara, who contributed the video and banners; me; the 80 or so dedicated bloggers and critics who wrote contributions; and, most of all, the 70 or so people who followed the links and donated.

Believe it, folks. Here is an excerpt from the press release about The Sergeant, from Annette Melville of the NFPF.

The exciting discoveries include The Sergeant, one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.

In this Western, the sergeant takes his commander’s daughter on a horseback ride along the Merced River. When their horses are stolen by a renegade, they are forced to travel back to headquarters by foot and lose the trail. In the first clip, mounted troops search for the lost couple. The two are found the next day and the sergeant is disgraced. However, the sergeant proves his mettle when he escapes during an Indian attack and leads reinforcements to the rescue. The second clip shows his daring exploit.

The Western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its “action” pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for Westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs found that the sunny climate was ideal for outdoor filming and that the area offered a wide array of scenery as well as access to sensational locales, such as Yosemite and Mount Shasta, both used by the company. To act in the films, Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearian actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film. Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.

Very little survives from Selig Polyscope Company, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix Westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.

And here's the part that has the Siren turning cartwheels herself.

About the preservation. This remarkable film—part Western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to funding contributed through “For the Love of Film” Film Preservation Blogathon held from February 14 to 21, 2010, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.

For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.

Here's the credit that will be attached to the film from here on out. The Sergeant will be included on Treasures V, part of the NFPF's DVD box-set series of films preserved through their efforts.

Beautiful, isn't it?

Because the blogathon donations qualified for matching funds from the federal government (hoorah for government funding! sorry, couldn't resist), we can take credit for about $27,000 of preservation money. That means our efforts will also help save another Western, The Better Man (Vitagraph Company of America, 1912) "a Western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man," according to Marilyn. The Siren doesn't know as much about this one, but will be sharing details as soon as they are available.

Update: Clips from The Sergeant are now up at the NFPF site, so go over and take a look. And here is a partial list of some of the most exciting discoveries from New Zealand.

And one note. Perhaps you didn't donate in February. The rent was due, the cat was sick, the kids had cavities, Nathan Detroit showed up at the door to remind you of a pressing debt of honor. It is not too late. The donation link still works. And the NFPF is still working to repatriate all those films, and there will always be others.

Meanwhile, the Siren's busting out the champagne.

(The first two stills are from The Sergeant; the third is from The Better Man.)

A Brief Poetic Interlude, Via Stephen Vincent Benet, of course, of The Devil and Daniel Webster. This one's for Lance Mannion and anyone else who's suffering through this heat spel.

From "Metropolitan Nightmare":

There wasn't any real change, it was just a heat spell,
A rain spell, a funny summer, a weather-man's joke,
In spite of the geraniums three feet high
In the tin-can gardens of Hester and Desbrosses.
New York was New York. It couldn't turn inside out.
When they got the news from Woods Hole about the Gulf Stream,
The Times ran a adequate story.
But nobody reads those stories but science-cranks.

Until, one day, a somnolent city-editor
Gave a new cub the termite yarn to break his teeth on.
The cub was just down from Vermont, so he took his time.
He was serious about it. He went around.
He read all about termites in the Public Library
And it made him sore when they fired him.

So, one evening,
Talking with an old watchman, beside the first
Raw girders of the new Planetopolis Building
(Ten thousand brine-cooled offices, each with shower)
He saw a dark line creeping across the rubble
And turned a flashlight on it.

"Say, buddy," he said,
"You'd better look out for those ants. They eat wood, you know,
They'll have your shack down in no time."

The watchman spat.
"Oh, they've quit eating wood," he said, in a casual voice,
"I thought everybody knew that."

—and, reaching down,
He pried from the insect jaws the bright crumb of steel.

Happy Sunday. The Siren returns tomorrow with other news.