"The Revenue Man and the Girl" (Biograph, 1911, one reel)
Dir: D.W. Griffith; camera: G.W. Bitzer
With Edwin August, Dorothy West, Gladys Egan, Alfred Paget, and Donald
Crisp as an extra.
This rarely shown Biograph, released in September of 1911, is hardly a
great early Griffith, but it's no mere pot-boiler either. He obviously
lavished more care than usual on it, and there are interesting portents
of things to come -- Dorothy West and the dove, for example, brings to
mind later images of Lillian Gish in "Way Down East". The New Jersey
landscape is utilised well to suggest the hill country of the South, and
is intelligently photographed by Bitzer. The original Biograph synopsis
tells us that the lovers "leave the mountains for the city beautiful" --
but the closing scene reveals all too clearly the encroachment of
civilisation on a still fairly wild New Jersey, via several quite modern
dwellings on the left of the screen!
"While the Tide Was Rising" (Edison, 1914, one reel) Written, directed by
and starring Ben Wilson.
Nicely photographed, well-paced and fast-moving, this little Edison
melodrama resembles Griffith's short thrillers for Biograph ("Her Terrible
Ordeal", "A Terrible Discovery", "The Lesser Evil") far more than it
does the usual rather stodgy Edison films of the period. The explanation
obviously lies in the fact that it is largely a one-man show by Ben Wilson,
who may already have been dreaming of his ultimate career as a serial star
and director. (We ran his "Officer 444" complete at the Huff Society a
few years ago). Quite certainly it is one of the few really exciting
Edison films we've come across. Some of the subtitles appear to be
missing, but the print is otherwise complete.
"Motor Boat Mamas" (Pathe-Mack Sennett, 1928) Dir: Harry Edwards
With Billy Bevan, Vernon Dent, Alma Bennett, Carmelita
Geraghty. Two reels. Story by Earl Rodney.
When we first came across "Motor Boat Mamas" some eight years ago, it
seemed a rather inferior Sennett, and thus was carefully shunted away from
the Huffites! In the intervening years, we've looked at so many bad
Sennetts that frankly it now seems rather good! At least, it's lively,
moves alone at a rapid clip, has some grand moments from Billy Bevan, and
some genuinely amusing subtitles. By 1928, Sennett's best days were
certainly behind him -- this is formula stuff, done without much imagination
or real style (even though directed by Harry Edwards, who had made Harry
Langdon's best feature, "Tramp Tramp Tramp"). But by 1928 most of
Sennett's comedies were awful -- slow, involved marital farces for the
most part, more resembling the later sound two-reelers of Leon Erroll
than the fast, visual slapstick treats that had made Mack famous. They
were loaded down with titles, and almost devoid of action. Amid such an
environment, "Motor Boat Mamas" is at least a pleasant oasis of visual
gags, and Billy Bevan -- with his perpetual gleeful appreciation of
Vernon Dent's misfortunes - is a delight as always.
(Notes on prints: "The Revenue Man and the Girl" was processed from a
very much shrunken original negative; the occasional jiggling is a fault
that can now, unfortunately, no longer be corrected. "Motor Boat Mamas"
is a sound aperture print - hence the cut-off titles. Pictorially it
suffers hardly at all, but you'll need to fill in some of the gaps in the
titles yourself. In case you miss it, the full title of Carmelita's
night club ditty is "You may belong to someone else but tonight you go
wrong with me! "
"BEN HUR" (MGM, produced 1924, generally released 1927, reissued with
sound, 1931) Dir: Fred Niblo; 2nd unit directors: D. Reaves Eason
Camera: Karl Struss, Rene Guissart.
Based on the novel by General Lew Wallace; scenario by Carey Wilson;
adaptation by June Mathis; continuity: Carey Wilson, Bess Meredyth.
12 reels. (Our print: 9 reels)
The Cast: Ben Hur (Ramon Novarro) Messala (Francis X. Bushman)
Esther (May McAvoy) Madonna (Betty Bronson) Mother of Ben Nur (Claire
McDowell) Tirzah (Kathleen Key) Iras (Carmel Myers) Simonides (Nigel be
Bruller) Sheik Ilderim (Mitchell Lewis) Sanballat (Leo White) Arrius (Frank
Currier) Balthasar (Charles Belcher) Amrah (Dale Fuller)
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IMPORTANT We hope all of you read our warning concerning the condition of
this print; for the benefit of those of you who may be guests,
we'll repeat it here. The print is a bad dupe, and definitely does not do
justice to the original. Obviously it was taken from a well-used 35mm release
print that was full of splices, scratches and even some hypo. On top of
inferior source material, the lab work was bad too. This is no way to judge a
picture, and normally we would never show such an inferior print. Obviously
at the present time, it is interesting as a matter of historical research to
show this original version, and thus we are showing it primarily as a service
to the many students among us. Undoubtedly we'll attract many tonight who
are not members or students, so to them especially we address this warning
NOT to judge "Ben Hur" by a print which just doesn't permit the grandeur to
come through. Eastman House in Rochester does have a meticulous 35mm print
of this subject, and what a joy it is to behold. However, for the tine being
at least, they have been asked by MGM not to screen it at all. If you've
seen the new one, you'll understand why! Our print runs only some nine
reels of the original 12. Most of the meat remains, but bits and pieces are
hacked throughout. Much of the motivation is obscure, and a good deal of
Messala's footage is missing. The ends of the sea battle and chariot race are
off, but only the tail ends; in each case, the sequence is resolved before
the cuts. (Probably these sequences ended at reel-ends, which is always the
footage that gets damaged first). Most of Carmel Myor's scenes are gone, and
the Technicolor sequences reproduce (in black and white of course) rather
fuzzily. The print does seem to get a little better as it progresses - or
maybe it's just that one gets used to it!
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It would be all too easy to launch these notes with an all-out attack on the
new "Ben Hur", but perhaps that wouldn't be altogether fair. In his review
of "Ben Hur" in "Films in Review", Henry Hart commented that it was unfair to
compare the two versions. In the following issue, Edward Connor lept into the
fray with the statement that there just was no comparison, and that the
original was far superior. Presumably there'll be no argument on that point.
However, Mr. Connor based most of his resentments on the differences between
the two pictures, and the scenes that the first one had and the second one
didn't. After all, however much fun it was for the pirates to use bowls of
snakes in 1924, it doesn't necessarily follow that the pirates have to use
snakes in 1959 as well!
Once one gets used to the fact that the new "Ben Hur" is a long yawn (but not
even a restful yawn) one mellows a little. One feels a little like Gloria
Swanson in reel seven of "Indiscreet" when she tells the no-good Monroe Owsley:
"You're not really bad - you're just not very bright"!
The cheap sets and inept matte-shots one has to overlook; nobody makes big
stuff in these inflated days when laboratory faking will fool nine out of
ten people. Even the ludicrous miniatures in the sea battle wouldn't be so
bad if they were cut shorter, and disguised with a little more smoke and
fury. What is less forgivable is the unutterable slowness of it all - the
long, static takes; the endless conversations where nothing is said; the
lack of cutaways, and indeed, the chariot race apart, the lack of any kind
of filmic grammar. Put when all is said and done, one is annoyed not so much
by the film itself as by the fact that it was made by a once-dynamic
craftsman like William Wyler. (Had Richard Thorpe made it, it would have been
easier to take). And the supreme insult of all has nothing to do with the
film itself -- it's the gullibility or sheer ignorance of the critics who
have been acclaiming it as both a masterpiece of filmic art and the greatest
spectacle ever made. One wonders at their fitness for their jobs -- and I
shouldn't be surprised if MGM doesn't wonder too -- for even if the critics
forget, the men at Metro must remember the original creation?
Having spent longer than I intended to berating the 1959 "Ben Hur", let me
hasten to add that the original version was hardly a great film either. It
had many of the faults of the new one, and was saddled by a singularly inept
director in Fred Niblo. Thanks to titles like "Ben Hur" and "Blood and Sand"
and stars like Valentino and Fairbanks, Niblo put out some pretty big hits --
but if he ever made a really good film, I haven't seen it. What saved the
original "Ben Hur" was its size. Even when nothing was happening, it was good
to look at. The sets were sumptuous and solid. The players were attractive
and performed well. (The new version suffers badly from its casting; Heston
makes a loutish Hur, and Messala, being smaller of stature and far more of a
gentleman, too often seems the victim rather than the oppressor! Bushman
indeed was a "noble Roman" in every sense of the word, and Novarro's smaller
stature and more sensitive features made him a perfect opponent as Hur).
Niblo's direction was that of a traffic-cop -- and while traffic cops are
necessary to maintain order, a film like "Ben Hur" needs someone at the helm
a little above the traditions of law and order. There were no traffic-cop
elements in Griffith's direction of "Intolerance" or "Orphans of the Storm".
But despite this pedestrian quality to it, the original "Ben Hur" remained
a reasonably-paced movie -- done as a comic strip if you like, as opposed
to the more intellectualised approach by Wyler -- and when the two big
spectacle scenes arrived, the whole movie came to life. The sea battle, quite
one of the last things of its kind ever staged, restricted its miniatures
only to establishing shots -- and for the rest, full scale ships battled
one another with a fantastic savagery but, despite lopped off heads, little
of the nauseous gore that characterises the new wholly miniature or studio
tank stuff. And of course, even this was easily topped by the magnificent
chariot race episode - staged for Niblo by second-unit man B. Reaves Eason,
just as Yakima Canutt and Andrew Marton staged it for Wyler. In some ways
perhaps, the new race is more exciting. It has the surprising taste to
dispense with Rosza's thundering and formless music. And it provides an
absolute circus for stuntmen Canutt, Cliff Lyons et al. It is a tremendously
exciting sequence, and together with the interesting scene of the increased
strokes in the galley, it is the only really cinematic stuff in the film.
The old race however does have more style I think; neater editing, a
greater variety of angles. And of course, it has far more to work with in the
way of size. The opening shot is a knockout -- the simple low angle trucking
shot as the camera follows the chariots into the arena, then slowly pans up
to reveal that stupendous set. The new one tries to have its cake and it --
it tries to knock the audience dead with a big shot first, and then attempts
to repeat that stunning pan shot. But this time, as the camera pans up, one
is more dizzy than impressed as all of the little pieces of matte work that
make the "set" zig-zag into place!
Niblo's "Ben Hur" is a "tasteful" production - which may be one of its
drawbacks. The new one is "tasteful" too. Sometimes it's a little more
fun to have less taste and more showmanship. Both versions also share a
surprising lack of humor.
The facts surrounding the production of Niblo's version are too much a
part of Hollywood history (and legend) to need much repetition here...
how the film was started, stopped, shot with George Walsh as Hur, reshot
with Novarro, directors and writers fired and replaced, extras presumed
dead after a disaster in the sea battle, and how finally, after constant
opposition from Italian Fascists, the hulk of tho film was re-shot in
Hollywood. Bosley Crowther covers the whole debacle in a reasonably accurate
form in "The Lion's Den". Erratum: "The Lion's Share".
Strangely, nobody was starred in the original - even Novarro received only
featured billing. He and Bushman carry the film superbly, though there is a
most touching performance (abbreviated, alas, in this print) from Betty Bronson
as the Madonna. According to Miss Bronson, Fred Niblo was violently
opposed to using her for the role, and only did so under protest when
Thalberg was equally violently convinced that she was right.
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Thursday of this week:
CONRAD VEIDT in "The Spy in Black" (Powell-Pressburger, 1938)
Two sound two-reelers from silent comedy greats -
Raymond Griffith in "The Sleeping Porch"; Harry Langdon in "Tired Feet"
Plus Laurel and Hardy in "Laughing Gravy"
Wednesday the 24th:
"Scars of Jealousy" (Ince, 1923) with Lloyd Hughes, Frank Keenan
"A Chapter in Her Life" (Lois Weber, 1923) with Jane Mercer, Fred Thomson
Coming in March:
Al Jolson in "Say It With Songs" (1929) with Marion Nixon, Fred Kohler,
Davey Lee, Frank Campeau
"Lucky Devil" with Richard Dix, Esther Ralston, Edna Nay Oliver
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A final thought on the new "Ben Hur". Even with inflated costs and salaries
and the lengthy location trip, it's difficult to figure out just where
that $15 million went to. It certainly doesn't show on the screen. One must
assume that a large percentage of it must have been studio overhead --
e.g., MGM assigning all overhead costs to pictures in production, even if
out of the studio.