Old movies and reflections of the past

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Another Silent Flick

A couple days ago, a certain venue was screening The Docks of New York, a ravishing silent film that I watched long ago and never forgot. In it, a prostitute falls for a stoker who has only one night of shore leave. Josef von Sternberg, the lighting genius who gave those Marlene Dietrich movies their distinctive shimmer and made Dietrich an icon, directed it.

docks-of-new-york-movie-titleEven if he weren’t a great storyteller, the visual radiance alone of his films makes them worth watching. In “Docks,” the two stars, in a film set almost entirely at night and on a shabby waterfront, are lit like gods. How many moviegoers under age 100 remember stalwart George Bancroft or lovely Betty Compson now?

Now their artistry screens only in museums, while most audiences flock to watch and hear utter barbarism.

There is an account in Kevin Brownlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By” of how the septuagenarian ex-director von Sternberg (he died in 1969) took control of a photo shoot while visiting a London studio one day. The assembled pros murmured in shock and awe while he barked out orders to technicians and while the girl, in a shifting pool of light and shadow, became as luminous as Dietrich before their eyes. He still had it.

The Unbearable Sorrow of Watching Movies

Sometimes a film can break you even in entertaining you.

picnicmovieposterPicnic (1955) is best known for the seduction dance between Kim Novak and William Holden, set to an adaptation of Moonglow. It is a minuet of desire and longing that represents a triumph of the filmmaker’s art, because it hides what we know about the filming: that the insecure, 22-year-old Novak made the set miserable for everybody else, so that off-camera she and Holden were on icy terms. That he was such an admittedly poor dancer that James Wong Howe, cinematographer to the stars, had to film them largely from the waist up. That Holden, an alcoholic who would die in 1981 from a drunken fall at home, had to get bombed to work up the courage to film the “Moonglow” scene.

None of it matters.

The masters behind the camera do their best to make the beautiful ciphers on screen represent anything and everything to all of us. In Picnic their plans worked. You watch with an aching sense of inadequacy, a realization that nothing we do in our humdrum realities and in our homely bodies can ever live up to the fantasy on the screen. Yes, it’s a fantasy fleshed out by deeply flawed fellow human beings, and you can carp that all many of these movie stars have going for them is physical beauty. But carp all you want; down in your core, you realize that no, you will never meet Kim Novak in Halstead, Kansas, and no, she will never share a wordless dance with you that jumps off the screen 59 years later

Thoughts on The Great Escape

Many years have passed since I saw it. But the film is utterly familiar to those who grew up anywhere around a TV, the way The Dirty Dozen and other 1960s war flicks are (and I have watched Dirty Dozen.)

MV5BMTc3ODc5MzIyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjM5OTk4._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_The Brits were not enamored with it. As they would complain about Saving Private Ryan 35 years later, Hollywood exaggerated the American role while ignoring or playing down the British contribution. The real “great escape” was almost entirely a British and Commonwealth POW effort. But Hollywood cranked out an epic with an unforgettable Elmer Bernstein score that immortalized a caper by valiant men who were mostly murdered by the Gestapo upon their recapture. One should also note the film came out only 18 years after the war, when memories were fresh and WWII veterans were still young men. The war was closer to moviegoers in 1963 than the First Gulf War is to us now.

Budding stars flowered or became superstars, period, after appearing in it: James Garner, who became the “smiling con man” forever; the motorcyle-riding ham Steve McQueen; Charles Bronson, born Buchinsky, who as a former coal miner and a real-life son of Lithuanian-Russian immigrants could play the Polish Tunnel King credibly; and James Coburn, three years removed from The Magnificent Seven. And those were just the American actors.

Coburn played a survivor again: he and Bronson portrayed two of the only three (out of 76) who made it out of Germany. In The Magnificent Seven, only he and Yul Brynner were still standing at the end. In real life, three of the POWs escaped, 23 were sent back to prison, and the Gestapo murdered the remaining 50 to make an example.

the-great-escapeRichard Attenborough, still an actor, not yet a director, played the character based on the real-life ringleader of the escape, Roger Bushell (Roger Barlett in the film). Bushell deserves to be remembered for the extraordinary leader he was, a serial escapee who paid the price for Hitler’s frustration with him.

Born in 1910 in South Africa to an English couple, he spoke fluent Afrikaans that made fluent German for him a cinch. He was a ski champion and rampant partygoer in his college days at Cambridge, though he suffered a facial scar from a skiing accident (a few pics of him are on Google) that left him with a drooping left eye. His ability to speak native-sounding German facilitated his periodic escapes, but the 3rd Reich was locked up as tight as a drum, and after his nth recapture, he was shot from behind like 49 others in separate incidents when the Gestapo let him and another escapee out of a car for a fatal “bathroom break.”

Bushell’s fluency in German was an artifact of a Britain that no longer exists, that of the Edwardian era when the working class was thoroughly wretched while the favored sons went off to Oxbridge to learn classical and modern European languages and to have garden parties and row up and down the Thames. A great many of them died in World War I: Anthony Eden’s brother. Vera Brittain’s brother and fiance (Testament of Youth). Rupert Brooke, whose girlfriend lived so long that a teenager in Illinois saw her playing Rex Harrison’s mother in a revival of My Fair Lady in 1982. Eden lived on to become prime minister and to appear in the 1969 Ophuls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, reminiscing about World War II in the fluent French that he learned as an undergraduate. A contemporary of Eden’s, Harold Macmillan, also became prime minister and said that while he was lying wounded in a trench in World War I, he comforted himself by reciting Aeschylus in the original Greek.

That generation and the education it received at Oxbridge merely for being part of the ruling class died in the trenches. Who knows what Bushell could have accomplished if he hadn’t been shot at the age of 33?

download (2)Life at/in the Movies

I went to college in a time and a city where there were still many art movie houses, before the VCR and then the DVD made us a society of walled castles. There I learned to love the noirs, the silents, the foreign flicks, not just the new Hollywood releases. The screens played out the landscapes and the glamor that were missing in my life. I would sit transfixed as silent-movie cowboys rode through a landscape of rural Los Angeles now lost to time, as elaborate back lots recreated medieval Paris or Berlin, as lovely women and their handsome heroes lived out a destiny in palaces and ballrooms that tied up neatly in two hours. …Unless it was a noir, in which case even I could say that my life was working out better than the characters’.

In almost all the movies the unbilled star, the sunshine of California, filled even a black-and-white screen with radiance.

David Hockney once said that, growing up in gloomy Britain, he noticed the crisp shadows in Laurel and Hardy comedies and realized that the sun must shine very brightly wherever they filmed. He resolved to live there someday. Like Hockney, I was able to live there. But unlike him, I had to leave.


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