Tag Archives: Classic

Class Notes: “It Happened One Night”

20 Jul

Next Stop-the Great Depression and one of the Greatest Romantic Comedy of All Time!

Classy, sexy, funny. Not the kind of fare you would expect from director Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), but here it is. One of the last romantic comedies that got away with referring to sex and having a couple share a bedroom. Well, at least for a couple of decades while the Production Code muzzled Hollywood until the ’60s. But enough history, let’s get down to “tearing down the walls of Jericho.”

Never travel without Clark Gabl-I mean, a pillow

For all it’s star power (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert), this film was thought to be a flop, released by a then second-rate studio, and was to serve as punishment for Clark Gable for refusing roles at his parent studio, MGM. The film was shot on a measely budget, and in less than a few weeks. Yet, that Oscar season, the first clean sweep was claimed by the little comedy that could. Best film, actor, actress, and director went home happy that night.

An heiress decides to escape the clutches of her controlling, rich father in order to live with man she married. On her escape to New York to reunite with her husband, she runs into an out-of-work journalist who takes pity on her misadventures and takes a great interest in the headlines he has on his hands. Well, this being a road comedy, hilarity and hijinks ensue, and the unlikely young couple dodge their way around the law, informers, and starvation to happiness. But, does happiness find itself in the news or in the bedroom?

The movie is often credited of being one of the first screwball comedies. I’d say they got it right the first time. Quick wit and storyline rip through most of the traveling so fast, you feel as if this is the fastest flight from Miami to New York you’ve ever felt.

Oh, make the Walls of Jericho come down...

But the class I’m seeing this gem in is not just a film class- it’s a sociology class. Naturally, all the talk about the role of women (how for all her independence, Colbert’s character still needs the protection of a man to get her through her scrapes) and the portrayal of the Great Depression and class stratification (the rich and the poor way of life, how the leading lady is always ignorant of how society functions outside of the rich realm) plays a much larger role in the interpretation of the movie. But I have to hand it to Capra; it’s his gift to show the common man in film not just as cardboard cutout, but as real people with legitimate problems. Even if they are in the background of the love story, we get a glimpse of people forgoing food for a ticket to the city and people lining up to use auto camps as temporary homes. It’s the kind of struggle that the rich do not see and do not understand. While the heiress, Ellie, is arguing with her father at the beginning of the movie, we see her throw a steak dinner on the ground because she is protesting her unfair treatment with a hunger strike. Later, when hitch-hiking has become their only means of transportation, we see Ellie refuse to eat carrots, because they came out of the ground and are dirty. Let me mention the fact that she hadn’t eaten in days at this point, and that her unwilling guardian-journalist, Peter, had scrounged them for her. Try watching this film with a social-sensitive eye, it makes the laughter in the face of strife all the richer.

Hitchhiking 101-"Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars."

This film was released at the height of the Depression, around 1934, and this happy-go-lovey-dovey spin on the “prince and pauper”-esque story became a smash hit at the box office (in some theaters it still only cost a nickle). Watching it now, in the height of the Great Recession, and one can really see a few parallels. Escapism is found in the movies and sensational scandals, foreclosures and job loss are rampant, and people are being fo

rced to count their dollars more carefully. It’s a rom-com to command the respect of all rom-com fans and should not be overlooked because of age. A good love story is ageless, just look at Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Scarlett and Rhett. The road trip of Peter and Ellie are easily a great cinematic example.

I highly recommend the film, in case you didn’t get that idea already. It’s fun, short, easy to relate to, and just oh so darn witty.

"It Happened One Night" indeed...

“Perhaps you’re interested in how a man undresses. You know, it’s a funny thing about that. Quite a study in psychology. No two men do it alike. You know, I once knew a man who kept his hat on until he was completely undressed. Yeah, now he made a picture. Years later, his secret came out. He wore a toupee. Yeah. You know, I have a method all my own. If you notice, the coat came first, then the tie, then the shirt. Now, uh, according to Hoyle, after that, the, uh, pants should be next. There’s where I’m different… I go for the shoes next. First the right, then the left. After that it’s, uh, every man for himself.”

Fun and fancy-free. It’s good to watch as a couple or as a group. Just expect to have a grand old time.

Here’s an interesting essay on the progress of romantic comedies, from “It Happened One Night” to “Knocked Up.”

Original Trailer:

It’s on Instant Watch on Netflix, so don’t miss out!


Class Notes: “The General”

10 Jul

The Great, "The General"

One. Of. My. Favorite. Movies. Ever.

Counting gun powder-in the canon...

There, I said it. I am notorious for never picking just one movie as a favorite film. There are oh-so many!

But you can mark this one down as an ageless classic. It is just that good.

“The General” is the story about a young man, Johnnie Gray, in love with two different entities, his train and his girlfriend. The Civil War rolls through to turn his life upside down when he is rejected by the enlistment office. Now a social outcast, he loses the love of his girl and of his town; all he has left is the love of his train. But, the War takes that too, when Northern spies hijack his General in an attempt to foil the oncoming Confederate army. Things get even more complicated, when Johnnie discovers the spies have not only taken his train but his ex-love as well. It’s a train race to end all train races as the love of machine, women, and country must succeed!

Excited yet?

Why so sad, Stone Face?

Great, because Buster Keaton never shows it. It’s a silent comedy, but instead of the over-acted comic antics of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, audiences got Buster Keaton’s stoic face. He never over reacts, he almost just accepts what is going around him and deals with it. The Great Stone Face never smiled, not once, during his entire movie career. It’s particularly hilarious now, when overacting is the usual response of present-day comedies.

Shock and awe-it's still what brings in the crowds today...

This movie is monumental in a number of ways. It’s the most expensive comedy of the silent era, with the most expensive scene ever shot for a silent film. It’s the climax of the great train race finishes with a dive into the river. According to imdb.com, the scene cost about $42,000  and the extras were not informed of what was going on. Surprise! The train actually remained there until WWII when it was reused for scrap metal.

Another note for the movie was how large the scale is, and keep in mind, this was an independent film maker doing his own script. Entire armies, cities, and railroad tracks were constructed and made to look as if they were straight out of 1862. National guardsmen provided the man power and a lot of the ammunition that’s thrown about the Oregon countryside. Yes, being that this is Hollywood, they filmed it in a place that wasn’t where the story is supposed to be. However, Oregon was the closest Buster and his crew could find that had a lot of the old rail ways from that era still intact, not to mention plenty of space to reconstruct an antebellum village.

Did I mention he was serious about his comedy? Take this exerpt from a documentary on the comedian. How many directors tell you to film until they say “cut” or are killed?

Love, or something like it.

My only sour point of this review is unfortunately, Johnnie’s girlfriend. Annabelle is the stereotypical female role: damsel in distress, the daddy’s girl, the clueless housewife. I understand it’s for comic effect, like the scene when Annabelle throws out a log intended for the train’s engine because it has a gaping hole in the middle. In its place, she finds a stick and throws that into the fire. You can see illogical situation and its ensuing couple frustration as she becomes more of a hindrance than a help to Johnnie’s escape. I am taking this course in the context of sociology, so gender roles are one of the cornerstones we look at in a movie. It’s offensive that she is merely reduced to the role of the “dumb blond.” But I do not think this is Buster’s fault entirely. Prior to “The General,” all of the female leads in Buster’s films were calm, cool, and collected. They were not ditsy, but could follow what Buster was attempting as a solution to the problems they faced. I don’t recall them being hindrances, but rather as obstacles, as some women originally reject his romantic appeals.  Women were something Buster had to both respect and understand. Perhaps he was trying out a different approach to his comedies, but I can’t love this movie as much as I loved “Steamboat Bill” or “Sherlock, Jr.” It’s just not the same.


On a final note, this movie also marked the end of a promising independent director. As expensive as everything was, audience didn’t get it. Some detested that the protagonist was a Southerner and others, mainly film critics of the time, did not like that there was so much seriousness and suspense in the comedy. It was a great financial flop, one that Buster never quite recuperated from. A few smaller budget films after, he decided to sign a contract with MGM Studios against the advice from friends and coworkers (Charlie Chaplin was even said to have called him and pleaded with him not to go through with the deal). He did so, thinking this would secure funding for his future projects without much frustration. He was sadly mistaken. MGM pulled him from behind the camera, threw out his scripts, and reduced him to a bit player in awful (I mean, what-the-hell-is-this awful) comedies. His stardom faded, and MGM reduced him to writing gags for the Marx brothers. Stripped of control over his work, Buster turned to drinking and toiled in obscurity for years. It was not until the New Wave critics like Godard and Truffaut rediscovered his work and brought back his movies to film festivals. Towards the end of his life, in between acting in awful comedies, Buster would find work in ensemble pieces like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Around the World in 60 Days.” He finally received the much delayed honor of respected filmmaker after the screening of the rediscovered “The General” at the Venice Film Festival. When the picture ended, the crowd stood and gave the longest applause ever in the Festival’s history. Respect for the Great Stone Face had come at last.

Thanks to Dr. Macro for the gorgeous stills.

And for the one-off opportunity, I can share this film with you-in its entirety. Enjoy, don’t be afraid to let me know what you think about it. (May I suggest turning off the sound on this version, unless you find the better, Carl Davis scored one for the film-most of the versions out on the internet will be filled with music that does not suit the film. This version starts with “Pomp and Circumstance,” your graduation song. Ya, feel free to slap on any other music at that point…) Side note: this version is also MUCH slower than usual, as it’s played at the incorrect film speed. Silent movies were filmed by hand, with the average frame rate per second was 18-21. TV in the US is braodcast at about 29 frames per second. Some technitians slow down the film in order to make it appear less jittery than if played at the TV speed. This is why I recommend watching movies live…

Avoid the Sepia version that’s online, there’s a good ten minutes missing from the start of the film.

Here’s the link to another version, thankfully with better sound but with a loss of film quality. So, if you want to get fancy, play the score from here while watching the other version

An article just recently published on Keaton’s legacy, namely his stunts in the movie, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Keaton famously did ALL of his own stunts, save one in the movie “College.”


Movie Review:”Network” at the Museum of Fine Arts

5 Jun

Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning role as deranged journalist Howard Beale in "Network"

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,


I can’t even begin to tell you how eerily these words resonated with modern times; you already know. For some mysterious reason, the film “Network” taps into every fear and suspicious we have about our agenda-driven media, the companies running the country into the ground, and the increased callousness of our fellow mankind.

And then exploits the hell out of it.

Exploitation is the driving evil of this film. A poorly performing news network decides to can its anchor after 25 years. The anchor, reacts appropriately to losing his job: he announces on his last week of broadcast that he will be committing suicide by next week, while on the air. The media blitzkrieg that follows forces the hands of the network to fire him on the spot. But the increased viewership of the show lures the corporation that owns the news network to give him back his job. The increased scrutiny and the madness that surrounds the anchor forces him to a nervous breakdown and one of the greatest rants of cinema history. Viewership skyrockets, and a young programmer for the station gets involved in order to turn the news hour to the media circus that viewers want (complete with a psychic). The network profits off the poor anchor’s demise, firing or rehiring him at any turn of ratings.

You'll never see the news the same way again.

Madness is a great way to describe this movie. Incredibly well written, well acted, and well shot, “Network” earns every Oscar it won back in1977. I would describe it as a cynical satire, as the network seems to have no human decency to what it decides to air. At one point, a weekly series is proposed to cover the violence of terrorists committing acts to further their cause. The network asks them to film it as propaganda for their cause. “Must-see TV” is a mantra to many of the characters you come to fear the most. In a robotic way, they seek for whatever will gain viewership the fastest. The network is just the mechanical extension to satisfy their bloodlust for ratings. At one point in the movie, the programmer has sex with one of her bosses, only to explain to him her proposal of ideas for a new hit show. Extreme, yes, but that’s what may happen when networking is the only thing on people’s minds.

I say the movie is cynical because there is no redemption for this sort of evil. Destroying others is its business, and it does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. Sweeps is coming up in November after all.

I highly recommend this movie. As a movie fan, its filled with great actors (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden to name a few), great dialog, and beautifully shot in a dingy pre-Giuliani New York. Those who remember the era would laugh at the old fashions, but its the old technologies that makes this a great period piece. Not much digital in the newsrooms back then, and the older news hounds remember the start of TV news.

The other part of this review, is the experience at the MFA. Yet, another “art” cinema that shows the best in international and independant cinema, as well as classics. The theater is a large room with comfy chairs and is set so every seat is a good seat. Like the Harvard Film Archive, this is an academic theater with no food allowed. The purpose of the theater is to watch the movie with rapt attention. But, the MFA gave its audience something most theaters don’t have access to: an archive of old trailers on original film stock. It was a bit of fun to see the original trailers for movies of that era like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Way We Were.” It was definitely worth the visit.

Well, I guess that’s its for me. As Howard Beale said “I just ran out of bullshit.”

For more information on “Network,” check out the imdb.com page.

For more information on MFA screenings, check out their site.