Discord (1963) Produced and directed by John Serrano; narrated by Bill Macalino. 3 reels.
With Cinema 16 now no longer operative, we're spared many of the amateurish and adolescent so-called "experimental" films that literally aren't worth the celluloid they're printed on. But sadly we're also denied the occasionally really worthwhile film from what we can only loosely term "experimental" filmmakers, and more important, those film-makers have lost a kind of showcase that can and often did lead to a film being picked up for commercial distribution. It is neither our function nor intent to try to replace Cinema 16 in this respect, and we certainly have no illusions about our prestige value as a "showcase". Our reason for showing "Discord" is that it is just too good a film to be lost in the shuffle and that it deserves to be shown -- if not to potential distributors, then at least to an audience that enjoys good film.
Discord is a first film by John Serrano, and it is wholly his film in that he both directed and photographed it. It is good enough to overcome two almost insurmountable obstacles -- 1) it is "about" life on the Bowery, and 2) it opens with a Coney Island sequence -- two elements that have been so done to death by New York film-makers that one shudders at the thought of more such. (Curiously, there are all sorts of restrictions about shooting a tree in Central Park, but apparently none in photographing human derelicts!) Discord easily overcomes one's initial (if unfair) antagonism about its plot material via its professional and un-showy approach. There is little in the way of filmic fireworks, and most of the camerawork and editing is firmly grounded in the old school of functional film construction. The compositions are pleasing, the camerawork sharp and steady -- and if these are things that we should take for granted, then it's a pity that so few of the younger film-makers admit it. The story itself is quite moving, and makes its points without undue stress on squallor and degradation. Thanks to an attractive leading lady who looks a little like Elizabeth Taylor, and plot incident a little reminiscent of Dreiser, moments of the film seem to have an affinity to A Place In the Sun -- but I suspect that this is an unavoidable accident, and one that wasn't even apparent until the film was finally assembled.
Discord is not a great work, and doesn't pretend to be. But for a first film, it is an astonishingly assured piece of work. If I seem unduly enthusiastic, it is partly because having seen so many thoroughly inept films of this type - many by "directors" who have made a number of films and consider themselves veterans it is a real pleasure to see one of professional standards. It'll be interesting to see what transpires for it -- and for John Serrano. Presumably, if nothing else, it could introduce him to the world of smoothly-made industrial documentary subjects; but - also presumably - that is probably not what he had in mind.
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EUROPEAN COMMERCIALS (One reel)
A compilation of British and French tv and theatrical commercials that should be quite a revelation to those of you who are hardened to the "But don't forget -- you have to dial RIGHT NOW!" brand of commercials. Most of these examples are so soft-sell and so abstract that it's almost impossible to figure out what the product is, let alone be irritated by it!
THE FIXER UPPERS (Hal Roach-MGM, 1935) Directed by Charles Rogers; starring Laurel & Hardy, with Mae Busch, Arthur Housman, Charles Middleton, Earl Mohan. Two reels.
I'm not sure when we last played this Laurel & Hardy comedy, though I suspect it was quite a while back. Certainly our previous print was not as good as this one, and in any case, the Laurel & Hardy films - like the Chaplin Mutuals - stand any number of re-viewings. This one, a casual reworking of their silent Slipping Wives, is far from being one of their best, but does have some superb moments. Best of all is Hardy's marvellous pantomime, with some of his most subtle and telling side-long glances at the audience, as Laurel goes into a prolonged kiss with Mae Busch. Their cheerful and determined efforts to sell Christmas Cards to potential customers who are either too drunk or too worried to be bothered are also right out of the top L&H drawer. If the first half is better than the second it doesn't really matter too much, and at least the latter half of the film, despite a few rather labored verbal gags, gives us a nice scene In the old "Below Zero" saloon set, and a closing gag that wraps it all up very neatly.
-- I n t e r m i s s i o n --
UNION DEPOT (Warner Brothers, 1932) Directed by Alfred E. Green
Scenario by Kenyon Nicholson and Walter DeLeon from a story by
Gene Fowler, Joe Laurie and Douglas Durkin; dialoguers, John Bright and Kubeo Glasmon; photographed by Sol Polito; edited by Jack Killifer; 8 reels
With: Douglas Fairbanks jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale, George Rosener, Dickie Moore, Ruth Hall, Mae Madison, Polly Walters, George Ernest, David Landau, Lillian Bond, Frank McHugh, Junior Coghlan, Adrienne Dore, Earle Foxe, Mary Doran, Dorothy Christie, Robert Homans, Otto Hoffman, Sam McDaniel, Ethel Griffies, Charles Lane, Purnell Pratt, Pat Wing, Claire McDowell, Frank Darien, Cyril Ring, Spencer Charters, Maude Eburne, George Chandler, Irving Bacon, Clinton Roseman, Lucille LaVerne, Ed Brady, Walter McGrail.
Good old Warners! Union Depot could have been directed by Wellman or LeRoy or Roy Del Ruth instead of Green and one would never have known, but devoid of any main titles at all, any frame of the film could give away its Warner origin! No film factory of the thirties packed and branded its product quite the way Warners did, and it's really quite amazing how many films they made that had individual merits while retaining a kind of collective uniformity.
Union Depot, which came out in January of 1932, is clearly an attempt to jump the gun on Grand Hotel which had been in production earlier and which, due to the less hurried manner in which the wheels went around at MGM, would not be released until April. It has the same basic pattern and construction that is maintained today in similar "all-star" films like The V.I.P.'s, but while the two MGM films conducted themselves on a somewhat higher social strata, this Warner film replaces ballerinas and barons with floosies, con-men and a • particularly vicious sex degenerate! It has a little something for everyone, from racist gags to romance, but with the stress on melodrama. The climax reaches a real pitch of excitement with a whale of a chase and stunt fight through the railyards and atop a locomotive. And considering the audience-pleasing ingredients throughout, the climax is a surprisingly honest and off-beat one -- without being so off-beat as to send the customers home unhappy.
All in all, Union Depot is an unimportant but tight, fast-paced, and tremendously enjoyable programmer, and not the least of its delights is its huge roster of familiar players (only a third of those listed above are the official cast list). Alan Falco in the equivalent of Wallace Beery's Grand Hotel role, is very effective, and there's a chilling performance from that curious individual George Rosener -- a playwright, scenarist, director, actor and former circus, vaudeville and medicine show performer, who in addition to all these talents bears an uncanny resemblance to our own beloved Seymour Stern. Rosener plays the degenerate, and plays him uncommonly well.
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Next program: Tuesday next -- two hard-boiled comedies from 1932. --
BLESSED EVENT (dir: Roy del Ruth) with Lee Tracy, Mary Brian, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Dick Powell, Jack LaRue
THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM (dir: Lowell Sherman) with Ina Claire, Madge Evans, Joan Blondell, Lowell Sherman, David Manners.