W. C. Fields, repeats, and VoodooPad

November 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’m in trying-out software mode these days. Voodoopad uses the simple power of wikis to link thoughts and bits of information and allows for a web-like growth of your reflections.

My first use is the W.C. Fields repeat project, which you can read about here. Note that this is a work in progress and will be updated as I have time to work on it…

Indeed you may find other web notes and thoughts in progress wiki-like under the “My web notes” page on this site. 

That same page has also links with updated info on film conferences, film festivals, and bits of information collected reading the web, all related to silent films…

Pordenone – diary – Day One

October 13, 2008 § 2 Comments

As always, the Bioscope has been there before and Urbanora (hiya there!) should always be your first stop when silent-film sleuthing – but you could make this your second stop as I’ll try to post my Pordenone diary with other films the Bioscope has not reviewed (here’s to collaboration).

I’ll add this to his take on the first evening Special Event, Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows: with 88% of all shots visual shots, and only 9% (9%!) of all shots dialogue titles, and less than 1% (you read that right: 0.8%!!) of all shots exposition titles, this has got to be close to a Hollywood record for lowest reliance on intertitles. Small wonder everyone loved Pickford: there is time to see her, her eyes, her pouts, her wildest gestures. And sure, it’s a meller – except when there’s no plot at all and it’s only Mary interacting with children: feeding a kid, arbitrating a fight, pushing another with her head up the stairs, waiting for the night to end…

Had I but world enough  and time (huh, Marvell, is that you?), I’d go a little further. It’s a film that does the meller thing half-way, because it’s pulled in another direction by Mary’s playing a 12-year old: the thrill is not fully in the chase, it’s also in watching the spectacular achievement of this 30+ woman completely at ease, in her element, surrounded by kids one third her age. The fascination is less with the wired crocodiles (an amazing feat of restoration, that: after all this time, the image is so crisp and clear that the wires used to operate the gators’ mouths were clearly visible…) than with the show-woman.

Anabel Lane, Film Mercury, Aug. 1926:

After seeing the picture the writer feels the audiences have taken Sparrows too seriously; it should have been accepted in the same spirit as The Black Pirate. Sparrows might have opened with the subtitles: “Once Upon a Time There Lived” and ended with, “And they All Lived happy Ever After.”(…) Through the harrowing scenes of crossing the swamp she displayed comedy touches; not to relieve the situation but because she knew very few would be able to receive it earnestly.

Carl Sandburg, december 1926:

Yet, while this is melodrama it happens that once in a while the picture achieves fantasy. It’s a real world and it isn’t. Of course, such sweet, tough kiddoes and kiddees are not seen in actual life. And the ending scenes are not dragged too far. Yet it rises and holds one with elemental power of story telling and of character portrayal.

I’ll return to that later in that Pordenone diary: there’s a twinkle in the eye of American silent melodramas, a something that tells the audience this is all for a laugh and the thrill is in knowing it’s a thrill. A reflexive pleasure, so to speak.

And here’s another stat for you: 8 days of film viewing at Pordenone comes down to some 10h of sheer viewing time, on average, every day en route to a marathon 40 feature-length films in the week. That first day alone I spent 352 minutes watching that big, BIG screen. Ah, the happiness of it…

But to return. After the Pickford fest, those that stayed for more were treated to Running Wild, a 1927 Fields/La Cava that to me was the best W.C. Fields of the whole week (with, maybe, the exception of the soundThe Golf Specialist, which is a shorter skit anyway). 80 minutes of Fields trying, trying to impress everyone around him that he is a man. From the waking up to a gym routine (thanks to a chain-smoking instructor on the radio) with Strongfort on the wall, to the step-son wailing that his dad was a man, to the “I’m a lion!” zanniness, the theme is pretty obvious to pick up. Ah, for the day 

when me or Mary want to buy ourselves a new dress !

It’s a riot of a film and what works very well is the mirror structure: the last half of the film is a replay in reverse of the first half of the film. First half: he wakes up, gets humiliated by wife and Junior, goes to the office where more humiliation follows (he is turned down laughed down when asking for a raise), then goes to Mr. Johnson’s office to get his firm’s money back, and is quickly thrown out of there. Then he falls under hypnosis

I’m a lion ! (fist raised, reminds one of the Sister Suffragette routine in Disney’s Mary Poppins)

and retraces his steps, methodically: first Johnson where he gets his money back and signs the big contract, then his office where he insults all the big shots, then home where he straightens (“I’m a lion!”) his standing with wife and Junior (Junior’s beating, a classic of Fields humor, shakes the whole house). Home-office-Johnson-Johnson-office-home. It’s what gives the later scenes, for all their “obstreperous” character (not my word ! That’s Mordant Hall, New York Times, June 19, 1927), their punch. Retracing our steps, the final confrontation is expected, desired, and fulfilling:

It was satisfying (says Mordant Hall, but now I think I know why) to the spectators to observe Mr. Finch even up matters with his wife (his second marriage), first by breaking up a tea party and then by smashing the portrait of Mrs. Finch’s first husband.

There’s another point where I agree, after a good 81 years, with that crowd at the Paramount Theater, New York:

It was interesting to observe that the episode in “Running Wild” that afforded the most enjoyment one afternoon last week in the Paramount THeatre was not where Mr. Finch is perceived slamming people right and left, but during his simple act of trying to avoid the joinings in the pavement as he goes to work. This was an excellent thought, something really human, for after all there are many, many persons in this world who are superstitious, say what they will to the contrary.

It’s also an “excellent thought” because that tip-toeing at full walking speed on the pavement looked remarkably like dancing (thank you Gabriel Thibaudeau for the accompanying jazz beat at that point). But human it is – and so is the “slamming people right and left”, pace Mr. Hall. For, “say what they will to the contrary”, who wouldn’t want to be a lion for a day.

A pretty good day’s work, I’d call it. There was more of Fields slapping kids and people around, thankfully, to come in the festival — but that’s a tale for another day.

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