Monday, December 21, 2009


Tramp, Tramp, Tramp


A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

Harry Langdon was a supernova. As far as silent cinema is concerned, he was – this is the dictionary definiton – “an extremely bright, short-lived object that emits vast amounts of energy.”

Short-lived is right. Over the years, film researchers have remarked on the brilliance of this comic who came along and almost instantly challenged the greats of film comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd – and then quickly disappeared. Film historian Kevin Brownlow called Langdon “the fourth genius of screen comedy.” He was that, but for a very short period of time.

Langdon came to films late – in 1924, when he was already 40 years old – and soon became a favorite in Mack Sennett short comedies. Two years later, he branched out as an independent producer and starred in a feature-length comedy, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926).

In character, Langdon was as grotesque as Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Great Stone Face. He played a doleful, innocent man-child, baby-like in his mannerisms and gestures. In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, he plays Harry Logan, son of an elderly, handicapped bootmaker (Alec B. Francis) who is behind in the rent. To earn enough money to pay the landlord, Harry enters a coast-to-coast walking race, with the winner to receive a $25,000 prize.

The contest is sponsored by a shoe tycoon whose ads feature a picture of his beautiful daughter Betty (the 22-year-old Joan Crawford). Harry takes one look at Betty’s image and falls madly, impossibly, incongruously in love with her. I say “incongruously” because Langdon’s character looks so immature and fragile, you can’t imagine him having enough pep to love a woman. But he loves this woman.

The race begins. Soon all the best walkers in the world are on the path, heading from New York to California. Harry, naturally, is late… but he catches up. Then he makes a wrong turn and winds up on a ranch, surrounded by hundreds of sheep. To escape them, he climbs a nearby fence and clambers over the side… not realizing that he is now on the edge of a very steep cliff.

It’s a “thrill” moment that would do Harold Lloyd proud. Harry tries to escape his predicament by dismantling the fence with a hammer, but the darned thing falls apart and Harry rides it like a sled, down the hill, hundreds of feet down… and it lands right on the racing path, in front of the other contestants.

The racers rendezvous in Cleveland, Ohio. There, the shoe tycoon and his daughter greet the contestants and Harry, impulsively, steals a kiss from her. Joan Crawford reacts as if she’s just seen a wire coat hanger. But she lets it pass, and soon the racers are off again.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’s most spectacular scene comes after the racers have crossed what an intertitle calls “the great American desert.” A cyclone hits Sand City, and buildings are destroyed, cars are overturned, and the violent wind threatens to kill everyone in town. That would be too bad, because now Betty and her dad have arrived, and Betty finds herself trapped – alone – on the second floor of a building that is ready to collapse. Harry summons the nerve to climb the stairs and he carries Betty down to safety.

Then, seeing that the cyclone is still wreaking havoc, Harry starts throwing bricks at it. That’s right, bricks. He is thinking as a child would; but lo and behold, the cyclone responds by moving away from town and dissipating into the desert.

An intertitle reads: “David slew Goliath; Daniel tamed the lions; Joshua stopped the sun; and Harry made a cyclone take the air.”

At the finish line, the world’s champion walker, Nick Kargas (Tom Murray) appears to be on his way to victory… but this time, the perpetually late Harry puts on a determined sprint, passes him up, and finishes first. He wins not only the prize money, but also Betty’s hand in marriage. And that’s love.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


My Best Girl


A Film Review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

If you’ve heard of the Mary Pickford legend and wondered what all the fuss was about, look no further than My Best Girl (1927), Miss Pickford’s last silent film and, arguably, her best film ever.

Mary Pickford appeared in almost 250 movies and produced 30, besides several uncredited stints as writer and director. By 1920, the year she helped establish United Artists, she was the most popular female movie star in the world. In 1927, she became one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In a word, she was Hollywood.

It’s ironic that this Very Big Star – probably the biggest of them all – was physically tiny, standing just a shade over five feet tall.

In the wonderfully warm romantic comedy My Best Girl, Miss Pickford is Maggie Johnson, a stock room girl employed at Merrill’s Department Store. There’s a clever early scene where Maggie is asked to bring some kitchen pots from the stock room, and finds she can’t carry all of them; so she wears one of them as a shoe and brings it out that way.

Maggie falls for Joe Grant (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a new co-worker with a charming smile. His smile may be a winner, but as a stock room worker Joe seems a bit slow to learn. At one point, Maggie teasingly tells him: “You know, you’re awfully dumb!”

What Maggie doesn’t know is that Joe Grant is really Joe Merrill, the son of the store’s owner, working incognito to learn the business from the ground up. Young Joe is “engaged to be engaged” to an upper-crust girl named Millicent (Avonne Taylor), but she doesn’t seem to light Joe’s fire the way Maggie does. The two co-workers eat lunch together, sometimes sitting in a large crate in the stock room, and we can feel their love for each other growing.

There’s a charming scene where Maggie is riding in the open bed of a truck and Joe chases after her, running pell-mell down the street, trying to keep up with the moving truck. Director Sam Taylor and cinematographer Charles Rosher keep things lively with a long tracking shot that follows Joe on his run, with Maggie and the truck bed framed in the foreground. When Joe finally catches the truck, he climbs aboard and, thoroughly smitten, builds a “throne” for Maggie out of the crates and barrels on board. He even fashions an ersatz tiara for her to wear. It’s as if Rogers and Miss Pickford invented meet-cute.

Eventually, after a comic subterfuge that lands Joe and Maggie at the Merrill mansion, the truth comes out when Mr. and Mrs. Merrill return home unexpectedly. The terrified Maggie jumps into hiding under the dining room table, but to her surprise, Joe remains standing to greet the Merrills. Hearing their conversation, Maggie finally gets the picture: She’s been romancing the store owner’s son!

Maggie’s own family is what nowadays we would call dysfunctional. Her dad (Lucien Littlefield) is a mailman and a reliable breadwinner, but his wife (Sunshine Hart) and younger daughter Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) are a pair of world-class flakes, and Pa can’t deal with them. So, Maggie’s the one who puts dinner on the table night after night, even after working a full day at the store.

One night, flapper Liz and her loser boyfriend get in a jam with the law and wind up in night court, possibly facing jail terms. When Maggie hears of it, she rushes to the court and, putting on her best Clarence Darrow impersonation, pleads a sob story that utterly melts the judge’s (Mack Swain) heart and leads to the dropping of all charges. Because this is a silent film, we can’t hear Maggie’s words, but we don’t have to. Her facial expressions, especially the puckishly pursed lips and sad eyes, convey her sincerity and tell us all we need to know.

My Best Girl is lovely, witty… and busy. Taylor sees to it that the screen is never idle; in nearly every scene there is some bit of business going on in the background. And there’s a whirlwind climax, when Joe proposes to Maggie in front of her family and the two lovers have to scurry to the docks in time to catch the ship that will take them to their honeymoon – all in just ten minutes! With this sequence, Taylor emulates the best of Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and Leo McCarey, as the screen is packed with comic action during a frenzied final reel.

And, in case you’ve come late to the party and didn’t know this, the romance between Mary Pickford and Charles “Buddy” Rogers was repeated in real life, though not right away. Ten years after they made My Best Girl, Mary and Buddy tied the knot and remained a loving married couple for life.

Friday, June 26, 2009


True Heart Susie


A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not – about the 1987 film The Whales of August , starring the graceful, willowy Lillian Gish. She was then 94 years of age, appearing in her final movie after a remarkable 75-year film career. Lillian co-starred with the 81-year-old Bette Davis, playing her sister.

Someone remarked on the wonderful close-ups of Lillian in that film, and the tart-tongued Bette Davis supposedly replied: “They should be. The bitch invented them.”

Movie close-ups have, of course, been around since the 1890s. But they were honed to a fine art by D.W. Griffith, who utilized these and other innovations in his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). His muse was the delicate, angelic-faced Lillian Gish.

In Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919), Miss Gish plays the title role as a young rustic who’s enamored of a neighbor boy, gangly William (Robert Harron), but doesn’t know how to convey the affection she feels for him. She has some money, and secretly finances William’s college education so that he can make something of himself. But once he’s found success, she lets him slip off the hook, and he marries a gold-digging flirt (Clarine Seymour), leaving Susie’s love unrequited.

Halfway through the film, there is a moment when Susie realizes that her hopes are dashed, her sacrifice has been for naught, and the love of her life can never be hers.

This may be the shot that got Bette Davis so worked up. Griffith gives Miss Gish a giant close-up and lets it run for 37 seconds – an eternity in the silent era. During that time, we see Susie’s face register a panoply of emotions: stunned surprise; resentment; sorrow; puzzlement; wry amusement over what a fool she’s been; then her large eyes open wide as she contemplates the emptiness of her own future; supreme heartbreak; and finally, bitter resignation. All this, with only the finely honed delicacy of her beautiful face. We watch in awe, and we know what it’s called: acting.

In all the years I’ve been watching films, I’ve never seen another virtuoso performance that comes close to matching that one Lillian Gish close-up. Katherine Hepburn had her moments, and so, too, did Emma Thompson. Perhaps there were others.

But Lillian Gish, I think, did it best.

True Heart Susie is standard Griffith, meaning it is superbly organized, photographed and directed. At the beginning, Miss Gish and Harron appear as teenagers, and quite convincing they are. They enjoy walking down the country lanes together, and he even carves their initials on a “friendship tree.” But he never gets up enough nerve to kiss her, though she seemingly gives him every opportunity to do so.

Near the end of the film, William’s cheating wife dies from the pneumonia she contracted during a rainstorm while out with her boyfriend. The grieving widower does the right thing, arranging for a proper funeral. Then, and only then, does he learn that his education had been arranged by his teenage gal-pal, Susie, and that she has always been madly in love with him.

William’s own love for Susie, long denied, rushes to the surface, they embrace, and finally – after 87 minutes of mounting audience tension engineered by Griffith – William takes his life-long friend into his arms for the first time, and they enjoy their first kiss.

Most directors would end it there, but Griffith shows us no mercy. He fades on the kiss, then opens a new scene: William and Susie, walking together down the country lane, youngsters again. On this wishful note, the film ends.

True Heart Susie has been restored by David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates and is available in DVD format from Image Entertainment.

Monday, February 02, 2009

a film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976), the first silent picture to be made in 40 years, strives to blend the director’s manic sense of humor with silent film conventions. Surprisingly, they make a good fit. Brooks’ comic repertoire doesn’t begin and end with witty double-entendres; here, he proves himself a master of physical comedy, too.

Brooks (who also co-wrote and directed) plays Mel Funn, a former film director who’s hit the skids, by way of the bottle. Now sober and seeking a comeback, he teams with his buddies, Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), to try to sell Big Pictures Studio (“If it’s a big picture, it was made here”) on the idea of making the first silent movie in 40 years.

The Studio Chief – er, make that the current Studio Chief (in Brooks’ universe, everything echoes the turmoil of real life) – played by Sid Caesar, thinks it’s insane to try to make money these days (“these days” meaning 1976) with a silent picture… unless the intrepid trio can talk some really big movie stars into appearing in it.

So off they go, in search of stars. Some of Hollywood’s big names do appear in this film, as themselves, and Funn and his pals nab all of them – Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Anne Bancroft, Burt Reynolds – and they begin production of the picture.

But trouble lurks around the corner. Big Pictures Studio is on the verge of bankruptcy, and is a take-over target of Engulf and Devour, a ruthless conglomerate. (Brooks has stated, publicly, that any resemblance to Gulf & Western, which had recently swallowed up Paramount Pictures, is purely coincidental.) The only thing that can save Big Pictures is a major hit, and that’s just what Funn & Co. aims to deliver… unless Engulf and Devour can stop them.

That’s where E. & D.’s weasely CEO (Harold Gould) steps in and plots sabotage. Knowing that Funn’s two big weaknesses are women and liquor, he hires a “bundle of lust” – one Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) – to seduce Funn and drive him back to drink.

Silent Movie captures the spirit of the silent era amazingly well, for a film made in 1976. The opening scene shows the trio of Funn, Eggs, and Bell driving down a sunny, palm-lined Southern California street, and we don’t hear a single sound. I’ll admit that I suspected something must have gone wrong in the projection booth, because I was watching a motion picture, but hearing no sound, not even music. Brooks got me good, with that one.

We don’t hear any sound until their convertible coupe passes a giant billboard… and then the camera lingers on that billboard, to show us: “20th Century-Fox”… and the music begins, followed by the opening credits.

In 1948 James Agee wrote an essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” extolling the virtues of silent era comedies when compared to the limp humor of talkies of the current period. Agee described the four main grades of a laugh: the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo.

An ideally good gag, wrote Agee, “would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy….”

Mel Brooks may have read that essay, for in Silent Movie he builds on his gags at every opportunity. In one scene, for example, Eggs (Feldman) is trying to board an elevator, but the door snaps shut just before he can get into it. He pushes the button again. Another elevator door opens and Eggs is ready to run – no, sprint – to it before it closes. But inside the elevator are dozens of doctors and nurses, filing out. Eggs must wait for them. He waits for what seems an eternity, but they keep coming. And coming. Nearly one hundred people, all emptying out of this one elevator. Finally only one person is left: a gigantic nurse with a malevolent glare. Eggs tries to sidestep her, but she’s too quick for him. Face to face, they continue to dance, her glare darkening all the time. Finally she moves away and the elevator door closes, leaving Eggs without a ride. Again.

That scene is a nice spin on a turn in a Harold Lloyd comedy, Girl Shy (1924), in which Harold is trying to board a trolley car but is shoved aside by hundreds of men who materialize out of seemingly nowhere. Later in Silent Movie, Brooks appropriates a gag of Charlie Chaplin’s, from Chaplin’s 1916 short, One A.M., when he does battle with a recalcitrant Murphy bed. (In a shabby edifice known, naturally, as the Hotel Sleez.)

Each of the guest stars gets a generous share of screen time, but the most sparkling is Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks in real life). She does a table-top dance in a night club, tangos with all three principals… and guts it out though she’s taking quite a beating. One moment, Funn is dancing with her and, when they dip, he bangs her head on a table. Later, she is being carried off stage – horizontally – by the three funnymen, who “accidentally” ram her head into a wall.

Vilma, the Bernadette Peters character, converts from femme fatale to a loving partner for Mel Funn. With Engulf and Devour now out of the way, the trio follow through and complete their movie. The night of the Sneak Preview, however, it is learned that the film has been stolen – and it’s the only copy!

Cue up some more jokes from Brooks & Co., enlivened by an encounter with a vicious Coke machine. That’s right, a Coke machine! This gag defies description; it must be seen to be believed. But with Mel Brooks at his manic best, the whole crazy cavalcade delivers some of the heartiest laughs since the real silent era ended.

Silent Movie was released to the public on DVD by Twentieth Century-Fox Video, making this consistently funny grab bag of comedy routines available for the first time.