Friday, August 26, 2011

"Baby Face"

"Baby Face" (1933)

Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has had a hard life. As a speakeasy server, she’s been used and abused by the roughnecks that show up every day to spend their pay on booze. She’s ashamed of what she’s become at the hands of her father, and longs for something more. Her opportunity to leave this filth behind her comes when her father, who runs the speakeasy, dies. She is inspired by her friend Cragg to make something of herself by using her womanly wiles.

With her maid and confidant, Chico, by her side, Lily takes Cragg’s words to heart, venturing to New York, determined to make something of herself. Without wasting any time, Lily finds her way into Gotham Trust, seducing her way into the company. When she inquires about a job, the soft-spoken Southerner who has fallen under her spell asks, “Have you had an experience?” In a purr that would give Mae West a run for her money, Lily answers, “Plenty,” leading him into his boss’ empty office.

In a series of affairs with increasingly more powerful men (including a young John Wayne!), Lily sleeps her way through the company, eventually finding herself in the arms of both the vice president of the company and his soon to be son in law. Lily’s rejection of the son in law drives him mad, and when he finds her in the arms of his father in law, he shoots him before turning the gun on himself.

The murder/suicide scandal comes to a boiling point for the trust, with the chairmen of the board  prepared to pay off Lily to make her go away and not take her story to the press. Lily is more than happy to make off with the $15,000 she manages to finagle from the gentlemen, when her bluff is called by Courtland Trenholm, the grandson of the company’s founder. He uses her words against her, saying that, if all she wants to do is start over in a new city, he can give her a position at the Paris branch instead of the $15,000. Lily is forced to take the position to keep up the facade of a victim and resents Courtland’s interference.

The surprise comes to Courtland when he visits the Paris branch and finds Lily still employed. She woos him and they are soon married. Although all is well at first, Courtland is indicted when the bank fails due to mismanagement.
He asks Lily to return all he has given her to help finance his defense when she refuses. “Face life as you find it defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment,” this lesson from Nietzsche she has taken to heart, and she leaves with Chico, preparing to sale for Europe with only her money and belongings to show for her marriage.

While waiting for her ship to sale, however, Lily has a change of heart and, for the first time since the beginning of the film, shows true emotion. She realizes how much she loves Courtland. She goes to reconcile and finds him lying on the floor, suffering from having attempted suicide. She cries, cradling his head in her arms and reassuring him that all she has is his. This is the polar opposite of how Lily reacted to the murder/suicide of her previous lovers, when she showed nothing by cool logic. Courtland is rushed to the hospital with Lily by his side, as the paramedic assures Lily that Courtland has a good chance. We fade out on Courtland opening his eyes and smiling up at Lily as she smiles back at him.

“Baby Face” and the Hays Code

“Baby Face” was Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s “Red-Headed Woman,” starring Jean Harlow. Both films showed women who were not afraid to use sex to advance themselves and neither film showed the beautiful lead having to pay for her bad behavior. The two films embody the period in which they were made -- the Pre-Code era, the time before the Hays Code was adopted and effectively enforced. A time when censorship was largely left up to individual cities and theaters and a time when nudity, sex, drug use, and homosexuality could be easily found on film. Once Will Hays’ list of “general principals” and “particular applications” was enforced, all of these would be forbidden from the screen.

Although “Baby Face” was released in 1933, a year before the Hays Code was officially put into use, it still faced censorship. It was rejected by the New York Censorship Board in its original state and was then censored, rather heavy-handedly, and given a different ending. Although censorship doesn’t always harm a film, in the case of “Baby Face,” it certainly made it a lesser, though more popular, film.
In the censored version, Cragg’s speech pulling from the philosophy of Nietzsche is altered into a combination of inspiration and foreboding. Overdubbing and clever editing have completely eliminated Cragg’s sentiment, turning this speech: 
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, "All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation." That's what I'm telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!

Into this speech:

A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. But there is a right way and a wrong way. Remember, the price of the wrong way is too great. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Don't let people mislead you. You must be a master, not a slave.
Be clean, be strong, defiant, and you will be a success.

Later in the film, Cragg’s Christmas gift to Lily has also been censored. The pre-release version shows Lily receiving a book of Nietzsche, with the passage “Face life as you find it defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment.” highlighted. The theatrical version has omitted this, replacing it instead with a letter from Cragg that reads, “Dear Lily, From your letters I can tell that my advice was for nothing. You have chosen the wrong way. You are still a coward. Life will defeat you unless you fight back and regain your self respect. I send you this book hoping that you will allow it to guide you right.” In addition to these changes, lingering, sexual shots of Lily have been removed and an ending has been attached, which, through the perspective of the Gotham Trust chairmen, tells us that the Trenholms have donated “their share in putting the bank back on its feet.” We then find out that they have “sacrificed everything they hand -- for the bank” and that they “haven’t a cent. He’s working as a laborer in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. They are working out their happiness together.”

Just as the film ends, we quickly fade in and fade out on the same depressing landscape that Lily wanted to escape at the movie’s beginning.

You can read all of the censor’s notes on “Baby Face” here in their depressing entirety.

I enjoy films that were made under and in defiance of the Hays Code. But to know that such a fantastic film was done such a disservice by those who wanted to ensure “
[t]hat throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right” frustrates me beyond words. The honesty of the pre-release version was lost on the cutting room floor for 70 years. Thanks to TCM and a 2004 discovery by George Willeman, we are now able to view and appreciate the pre-release version in its entirety, especially in contrast to the didactically driven theatrical release. It is significant and telling that, only after the pre-release's recovery was the film chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

If you’re a fan of the incredible Barbara Stanwyck, do yourself a favor and check out “Baby Face.” You will certainly fall under the spell of Lily Powers.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

du musst caligari werden: "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919)
The Story
This masterpiece from 1919 has influenced filmmakers, film critics and film in general ever since its debut. It embodies German Expressionism and horror in a way that few other films do. The story opens on a scene of two men talking. The older of the two comments that strange spirits surround and haunt us. The younger asserts that he has a story that is so strange, his companion will not believe it.

From that moment we go back in time, back to our hero Francis’ hometown fair. Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich con Twardowski) are perusing the attractions when they come across a mysterious figure, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), and his unique attraction -- he claims to have a 23-year-old somnambulist who “knows the past and sees the future.” Intrigued by this, Francis and Alan take in the show. Cesare (Conrad Veidt) the somnambulist frightens the onlookers as he is released from his cabinet and awakened from his slumber. Caligari challenges the audience to ask Cesare any question they like to test his foresight. Alan asks when he will die and Cesare answers that it happen before dawn the next day.

As predicted, Alan is murdered during the night and Francis is devastated. He and his fiancee Jane (Lil Dagover) take it upon themselves to investigate the deaths of Alan and other members of the community, with Francis vowing, “I won’t rest until I have solved these horrible crimes.” Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, but he becomes infatuated with her and kidnaps her. He is soon pursued and abandons her before collapsing from exhaustion.

Francis discovers that “Caligari” is actually the director of an insane asylum, who has gone insane himself, imitating the life and crimes of a monk who called himself “Dr. Caligari” and employed a somnambulist to commit murders. Francis alerts the asylum employees and Caligari is confronted about his crimes, and then locked up in his own asylum.

We return to present day with Francis telling his companion that Caligari has been locked in the asylum ever since. At first we are left with the feeling that, despite the events that have just occurred, we have a happy ending. Then the twist ending occurs, wherein it is revealed that Francis is the insane one, locked away in an insane asylum with Jane and Cesare. The asylum director is none other than “Caligari” and as the film ends, he states that now that he knows what Francis’ ailment is, he believes he can treat him.

The Style
The story of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is pretty incredible on its own. But a large part of what makes the film so effective is the art direction and cinematography. The film consists of sets that are incredible works of art on their own. The sets are dynamic, angular, and jagged, giving an atmosphere of unease. Thick, black lines dominate the background, and although the sets look like sets, they are constructed in such a way that they show depth and dimension. Even the makeup is dark and unnerving, from the dark rings under Cesare’s eyes to Jane’s black Cupid’s bow lips, to the dark lines on Caligari’s gloves and hairline. Indeed, Francis’ insanity is such that it alters the way he sees the world and how he perceives his delusions.
The Treatment
Of course, one must remember that it’s not enough to simply take what was made nearly 100 years ago and stick it on a DVD. If it’s not taken care of, and if a company doesn’t put any care into it, the impact of the film decreases dramatically through no fault of its original creators. When people say they don’t like silent films, I suspect that they have been the victim of poor restoration and poor presentation, not to mention a pretty poor soundtrack as well). And although the “Caligari” sets themselves lend much to the atmosphere of the film, the way it has been restored adds even more.

I’ll admit it upfront, I’m a huge fan of Kino International. They have restored classic films better than pretty much any other company I know of. And that skill extends to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The unique-to-Kino intertitle cards, done very much in the angular, jagged style of the film, add so much to the interpretation of the dialogue. Even the translation of the intertitles from the original German seems to be done with greater care in the Kino version. I cannot stress enough what a difference this makes. Here are some screencaps to help illustrate my point. The tinted, jaggedly worded cards are from the Kino International release, while the other cards are from Film Renters Inc. This version is probably the cheapest release available and can even be downloaded from, but the quality pales in comparison to that of Kino, and not just when it comes to intertitles.

Aside from the intertitle cards, there is also a discrepancy between the dates cited for the monk Caligari that the asylum director is imitating. The Film Renters Inc. version says he lived in 1093, while the Kino version says 1793. That’s quite a discrepancy. Also, while Kino takes the time to tint the film according to setting, time of day and mood -- as seen in “Intolerance,” “The General” -- the Film Renters version remains in poor and grainy black and white. While tinting isn’t necessarily essential, it does help viewers get a sense of the timeline involved in the story as well as the mood. The lack of tinting could be overlooked if the quality of the black and white film was sharp and crisp as it is in “Metropolis,” but Film Renters’ quality is incredibly inferior to that of Kino. The picture is blurry and, at times, off center, making it harder to watch. Here are some screencaps from both versions of the same scenes. The differences between them are incredible, even though they are (relatively small) screencaps from a computer.

What is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two, though, is the speed at which they play. Film Renters projects the film at, what appears to be, the typical speed for silent film comedies. This makes the characters’ movements appear frantic and chaotic. While this frantic movement is necessary for silent comedies, it only hurts “Caligari.” Kino, on the other hand, presents the film at what is closer to the speed of talkies. The “talkies” speed, slows the action down slightly, just enough to allow the characters to languish. The difference in speed even causes the running time to range from 51 minutes (Film Renters) to one hour and 11 minutes (Kino).

The Conclusion
“Caligari” is a fantastic film, a fete that director Robert Wiene, unfortunately, could never seem to match, even with the similarly styled “Genuine: A Tale of Vampire.” It’s a twisted, frightening treasure that owes much of its appeal and effectiveness today to a dedicated team who took the time to restore it to its former glory.

Monday, August 8, 2011

a new approach and "Der Blaue Engel"

I began this blog as an exercise in writing. Finally landing a job that allows me to write has been very beneficial, but because of the nature of the site, I often find myself simply repeating the words of others. Although it's taught me discipline and conciseness, it is not the style that made me fall in love with writing in the first place.

So, I begin a new exercise in writing, an exercise that will get me back to the personal essays I originally excelled at. This exercise will also incorporate my love of film and my experiences of late discovering early film treasures and classics. The first installment in this saga? "Der Blaue Engel."

"Der Blaue Engel"

This German gem is perhaps best known as the project that launched Marlene Dietrich’s film career and began her friendship with Josef von Sternberg. The plot is deceptively simple, Emil Jannings is Professor Immanuel Rath, a man who has dedicated his life to academics and is now in the autumn of his life. In an effort to keep his students from visiting the seedy club the Blue Angel, he attempts to catch them in the act of watching the beautiful, seductive, and intimidating Lola Lola. When his students escape, he appeals to Lola herself and her cohorts. Although he begins as a man firm in his disdain of Lola and her kind, he falls under her spell and is fired from his job because he decides he is going to marry her. Hit with the economic reality of his decision, Rath becomes a member of the act, shilling Lola’s postcards to the audience and slowly becoming a shell of himself. Lola’s promiscuous ways and Rath’s jealousy serve only to make Rath’s rage even more volatile. When the act returns to his hometown, Rath is nothing more than an expressionless clown in the act. He is humiliated in front of the audience and attacks Lola after seeing her very publicly carrying on an affair with the strongman. Rath is locked in a straitjacket, and when he is freed later that night he seeks sanctuary in the classroom he was forced out of what seems like a lifetime ago. He dies clutching the symbol of what he used to be.

The film is historic and remembered for a number of reasons: Dietrich’s film debut, the beginning of von Sternberg and Dietrich’s friendship and partnership, and the first appearance of Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again.” But the film is powerful enough to be remembered on its own. It is a drama of despair and we see an established and intelligent instructor become a shadow of his former self simply because of the speakeasy singer that he got himself involved with. Is Rath a romantic? Perhaps. Is he the victim of infatuation and lust? This is more likely. But does he deserve the fate that he suffers? Not at all. Rather early in the film one of the company members, a clown, eyes Rath suspiciously, questioning his presence though not verbalizing any of it. Instead, he stares blankly and defeatedly, helpless to change what he sees playing out before him, and foreshadowing Rath’s own demise and struggle with jealousy and lust.

Jannings was a star in his own right and fought for his protege Lucie Mannheim to be given the role of Lola Lola. As Dietrich writes in her autobiography, von Sternberg fought tooth and nail against Jannings and Ufa and even threatened to abandon the project and head to the U.S. if Dietrich was passed up. Perhaps it is this resentment and disdain for von Sternberg and Dietrich that carries over into Jannings’ performance and into the helplessness and powerlessness he embodies as Rath. Rath is both heartbreaking and pitiful.

Equally impressive is Dietrich’s performance as Lola Lola. In her autobiography, “Marlene,” Dietrich emphasizes again and again that it is because of von Sternberg that she achieved any level of success or praise. He was her teacher, her mentor, her creator...or so she says. While I don’t doubt that von Sternberg deserves much of the credit for drawing that performance from Dietrich, it is clear that there is more to her than a pair of stockings and a top hat. She is sultry, seductive, mesmerizing, and intimidating. She channels Theda Bara, sucking the life from her lover and leaving him a lifeless corpse. She is even at times tender at times, especially when Rath realizes that he is running late to class after spending the night in her boudoir. In fact, she is even sweet, if a bit patronizing, as she finds herself flattered by so bold an admirer.

In all, the film is gorgeous, dark, and unsettling. We mourn the loss of the professor, but there is something else we find ourselves contending with. Could it be that, despite the destruction she has brought upon her unsuspecting lover, we find ourselves under the spell of Lola Lola? Do we admire her as her former lovers once did?

Falling in love again. Never wanted to. What are we to do?

Can’t help it.