Vitaphone View: Early Talkies Talk Again

Early Talkies Talk Again!

The Vitaphone Project was formed in 1991 by several film buffs and 78rpm record collectors with the goal of seeking out the 16 inch diameter shellac soundtrack disks that provided the audio portion of 1926-30 early sound films. These disks were shipped to theatres with the picture (film) portion of shorts and features and in an elaborate but generally reliable system, the picture and sound indeed remained in synchronization — contrary to what you may recall from Singin’ in the Rain. Our initial outreach was to record collectors who may have found random Vitaphone disks while hunting for 78s. As the Internet expanded, so did the Project’s effectiveness in finding these lost disks.

Twenty-six years later, we have located over 6,000 disks worldwide, and worked with Warner Bros, UCLA, The Library of Congress and private collectors to get over 125 early Vitaphone shorts and over a dozen features restored with picture AND sound. Many are now available on DVD through Warner Archive.

Vitaphone disk

But just how did these very large, fragile soundtrack disks survive for over nine decades? Since 35mm nitrate film is notoriously unstable, the odds of finding the missing picture portion of an early talkie is very low.  But it does happen. In recent years — often in Australia where it was too costly to return prints to Hollywood where many perished in vault fires or due to decomposition — Technicolor nitrate prints of The Three Stooges’ lost 1933 short Hello Pop, reels for Mamba (1930) and one reel of the still largely lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) were found.. The 16 inch Vitaphone soundtrack disks were at least stable, and if not broken or discarded could still occasionally survive.

During the era of sound on disk talkies, roughly 1926-31 with some stragglers after that, Studios required that theatres return disks after the film’s run. Otherwise a $3 per disk penalty  ($43 today) was supposed to be assessed. Fortunately, this rule apparently was rarely invoked. As a result, a number of disks are still around.

The reasons for a disk’s survival are many, but always welcome. Record collectors sometimes find them intermixed with 16 inch radio transcription disks. Both could provide 10-15 minutes of sound at their 33 1/3 rpm speed. In the late 1980’s, over 1,000 Vitaphone disks were found behind the screen of a Warner Bros scoring stage. Allegedly rock bands recording there sometimes flung them like Frisbees during breaks. In 1992, 3-D film preservationist Bob Furmanek was working for Jerry Lewis, archiving his collection. While going through a stack of 16 inch recordings of audience reactions to previews of Martin and Lewis films, intermixed were several Vitaphone disks. Presumably, these were in the theatre’s storage room along with the audience reaction disks, and just came along for the ride when Lewis acquired them. The disk for a favorite Vitaphone short, Trixie Friganza in My Bag ‘O Trix (1929) was found in this stack.

New Haven Vitaphone Disks 2011New Haven Vitaphone Disks found in 2011

Often, a disk survives because the finder’s relative ran a theatre and brought some disks home. This happened in England with previously lost soundtrack disks for Fanny Brice’s 1928 feature My Man (the picture portion is still missing). A major find occurred in 2011 when I was contacted by the grandson of a theatre operator in New Haven, CT. He was handling the estate and found 80 (!) Vitaphone soundtrack disks. His grandfather ran three theatres in the area during the twenties and thirties.  Of course, I immediately arranged a visit and negotiated the purchase of all 80 disks, carefully driving them back to my home in New Jersey. This collection included long missing disks to match surviving mute pictures for 25 early Vitaphone shorts as well as soundtracks for such films as Redskin, The Mysterious Island and other features. Many of the since-restored shorts using disks from this discovery are on Warner Archive’s new Vitaphone Varieties Volume 3.

But sometimes the finder has no idea where the disk came from, or even what it is. Fortunately the Vitaphone Project is easily found with a Google search. In one case last year, a purchaser of an old house outside Chicago found one disk in the attic. They were able to track me down and I arranged to get the disk. It was for a 1928 hot band short, Irving Aaronson’s Commanders from MGM. The film is still lost.

As of this writing, The Library of Congress holds about 320 mute 35mm prints for which the accompanying Vitaphone soundtrack disks are still sought. If any are found, we then work to arrange a restoration with participation by all the parties mentioned in the first paragraph. This is a very unique and cooperative relationship between collector, archive, studios and The Vitaphone Project.

So please keep your eyes peeled for any of those big soundtrack disks!  They may help yet another early talkie find its voice!

…..

– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub

Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has  been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.

And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon:

               

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Uncommon Ladies of Noir: Rosemary DeCamp

Uncommon Ladies of Noir: Rosemary DeCamp

Quick – think of an actress associated with film noir.

Who’d you come up with? Barbara Stanwyck? Audrey Totter? Jane Greer? Claire Trevor?

There’s a whole list of dames that would fit the bill, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that you didn’t name Rosemary DeCamp.

Rosemary DeCamp portraitRosemary DeCamp

DeCamp, whose acting career spanned nearly five decades, is perhaps best known for such musicals as On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), and for her portrayal of Peg Riley in The Life of Riley film and TV series. But – believe it or not – DeCamp also turned in three distinctly divergent performances in features from the film noir era.

The veteran character actress started her career on radio, frequently using a gift for mimicry that she honed as a child on such programs as Gang Busters, The Goldbergs, and Dr. Christian, where she played the nurse for the title character for the entire 17-year run of the program. She took her talents to Hollywood in the early 1940s when fellow radio actress Martha Scott recommended her for a small part in her film Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941). “I didn’t have to do a thing but sit still and use one of my dearly beloved radio accents,” DeCamp recalled.

Rosemary DeCamp and Robert Cummings, The Bob Cummings ShowRobert Cummings and Rosemary DeCamp, The Bob Cummings Show

The following year, DeCamp appeared in five films, including The Jungle Book, where her character aged from 16 to 30, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which she played James Cagney’s mother – even though she was actually 10 years younger than the film’s star. Before long, she seemed to find her niche as the mother in a variety of films: “I was everybody’s mother,” she once said. “I have this non-aggressive motherly look.” Among others, she was the mother of Ann Blyth in The Merry Monahans (1944), Robert Alda in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Doris Day in Look for the Silver Lining (1949) and Kathryn Grayson in So This Is Love. DeCamp later made her mark on the small screen, with long running roles in such popular programs as The Bob Cummings Show and That Girl. She also wrote a successful children’s book, Here’s Duke! in 1962, authored an audio book of her memoirs, and became a successful copper enamelist, exhibiting her art at several galleries, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry.

Don’t remember seeing this matronly, multitalented Renaissance on the dark streets of noir?

Trust me, she was there.

Rosemary DeCamp Danger Signal movie posterDanger Signal, 1945, DeCamp’s initial foray into film noir

DeCamp’s initial foray into film noir came in 1945, with Danger Signal. This film stars Zachary Scott as Ronald Mason, a writer who proves to be, from the film’s first scene, both murderous and mercenary. After leaving the dead body of a society doyenne in New York, he travels to the west coast, where he meets and charms boarding house owner Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson). After a whirlwind romance, Hilda agrees to marry the handsome Ronald, but when he learns that Hilda’s younger sister is in line for a sizable inheritance, he undergoes a romantic relocation (if you know what I mean). DeCamp enters the plot as Dr. Silla, a Viennese psychiatrist to whom Hilda turns for help in extricating her impressionable sibling from Ronald’s clutches. After just a brief, single meeting with Ronald, Dr. Silla is able to draw upon her personal experiences as well as her education in order to grasp the essence of his character. “He spent his adult life in pursuit of women. At the same time, he has no respect for them,” Silla warns her friend. “Men like that can be fascinating and dangerous. They prey on women and very often the women love it.”

In order to stop Ronald from exploiting her sister, Hilda plans to permanently remove him from the picture, and the good doctor doesn’t exactly try to dissuade her. Instead, Dr. Silla tells Hilda that her desire to exterminate Ronald is a natural impulse. “The murder instinct,” she says, “is latent in all of us.” Ultimately, Hilda is unable to carry out the deadly deed, but let’s just say that Ronald, nonetheless, gets his comeuppance in the end.

Of her three noir features, DeCamp stated that Danger Signal was her favorite – she loved her “smart and sophisticated” wardrobe and greatly enjoyed playing the cunning psychiatrist, which was a decided departure from her usual roles. All in all, she said, the film was “clever and interesting.”

Rosemary DeCamp and Kent Smith in Nora PrentissRosemary DeCamp and Kent Smith in Nora Prentiss, 1947

DeCamp’s second noir, Nora Prentiss, came two years later, in 1947. In this feature, DeCamp portrays Lucy Talbot, a San Francisco doctor’s wife and mother of two teens who places a priority on neatness, order and punctuality. A rather cold fish, she’s far more interested in adhering to an established schedule than she is in, say, taking a spontaneous trip with her husband to the mountains. “A person has to exercise some self-discipline,” she cautions. “One becomes careless about little habits, one’s liable to become careless about big ones.”

Comfortably content in a world of predictable dinner parties and weekend visits to her mother, Lucy fails to notice that her husband, Richard (Kent Smith) is growing increasingly discontented with his home life. But she’s no fool – when Richard starts coming home later and later, and spending less and less time with his family, Lucy knows that something’s not right. “This sudden necessity for you to work until three and four o’clock in the morning seems very odd to me,” she tells Richard. “The population of San Francisco can’t be that unhealthy.”

As it turns out, Lucy’s instincts are correct – Richard meets a local nightclub singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), while his wife is on a weekend jaunt with the children, and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” he and Nora are carrying on a hot and heavy affair. After several months, though, when Nora tires of playing second fiddle and plans to leave Richard, he takes a drastic step designed to keep her in his life forever – but in the world of noir, things never turn out the way you plan.

Although Nora Prentiss is one of my personal favorite noirs, it received widely varying reviews upon its release. The critic for Motion Picture Herald wrote that “the skill with which they story is unfolded gives it fascination,” while The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “major picture-making at its worst.” (I’m not sure what film Crowther was viewing.)

Rosemary DeCamp Scandal SheetScandal Sheet, 1952

DeCamp’s final noir, Scandal Sheet (1952), centers on the New York Express, a formerly reputable newspaper that has been transformed into a successful but sleazy tabloid by editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford). Among Chapman’s unprincipled ideas to boost readership is a Lonely Hearts Ball, where prizes are given to single couples who agree to a public wedding. During the ball, though, Chapman is surprised (and not in a good way) to find that one of the attendees is Charlotte Grant (DeCamp) – who just happens to be the wife he deserted 20 years earlier.

Meeting Chapman in her run-down apartment next to an elevated train, Charlotte shows him her scars from a failed suicide attempt, and bitterly rejects his proposal for a quick divorce and a sizable financial settlement. She doesn’t want money – she wants revenge. “How much for each year? How much for the agony and the heartbreak and the fear?” she asks. “Turnabout is fair play. I’m gonna spread your story all over town – Mark Chapman, the great editor. Wife deserter!” Charlotte doesn’t get the chance to exact the vengeance she’s after, though – when the argument turns physical, she winds up dead, and Chapman scrambles to cover up the crime and keep his own reporters from discovering his guilt.

As the resentful and shrill Charlotte Grant, DeCamp turned in a memorable performance, even though her screen time was less than 10 minutes. Years after the release of Scandal Sheet, DeCamp said that the role was especially memorable for her because of her final scene. “I convinced Brod Crawford that he must really strike me,” DeCamp recalled. “He had hands like hams and hit me off the floor across the room onto a bed. Mother’s Day that year came two days after the blow. I had a black eye, a swollen face, and could only turn my head very slowly.” (Talk about suffering for your art!)

If you only know Rosemary DeCamp as Doris Day’s mom or the wife of Chester A. Riley, you simply must check out her film noir performances.

You won’t be sorry.

…..

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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Buster’s Girls: Exclusive Guest Post by Author Steve Massa (Slapstick Divas)

Buster’s Girls

The most often seen silent comediennes are probably Sybil Seely and Virginia Fox, the leading ladies of Buster Keaton, as his popular shorts, such as One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), and Cops (1922), are still viewed and enjoyed today. Both women had started their careers as Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, and it seems likely that Keaton’s co-director and co-writer Eddie Cline suggested the girls, since he had worked with them at the Sennett Studio.

Glass slide image of Sybil Seely and Buster Keaton for The Boat (121).Glass slide image of Sybil Seely and Buster Keaton for The Boat (121).

Sybil Seely’s real name was Sibye Trevilla, and she was born in 1902 in Los Angeles to a vaudeville family that had a swimming act known as The Three Trevilla Brothers, which consisted of her brothers Jack, Guy, and Ford, in addition to their mascot Winks, billed as “the seal with the human brain.” Considering this family background it’s appropriate that she entered films as a bathing girl. Starting in the late teens Sybil was seen in Sennett shorts such as Hearts and Flowers, Salome vs. Shenandoah (both 1919), and By Golly (1920), in addition to the features Down on the Farm, Married Life, and Love, Honor and Behave (all 1920).

A post-Keaton Sybil Seely in the Fox comedy Please Be Careful (1922) with Charles Dorety and James Finlayson.A post-Keaton Sybil Seely in the Fox comedy Please Be Careful (1922) with Charles Dorety and James Finlayson.

Joining Buster Keaton’s company in 1920 was a step up for the actress as she was now a leading lady with plenty of screen time. One Week (1920) was her first appearance with the comedian, and with her charming personality, pert approach to comedy, and striking natural beauty she’s the perfect love interest for the deadpan Buster. Sadly, she only appeared in four more shorts with Keaton – Convict 13, The Scarecrow (both 1920), The Boat (1921), and The Frozen North (1922) – before moving on to Fox comedies where she supported Charles Dorety and Clyde Cook in 1922 shorts such as Please Be Careful and The Eskimo (1922). Retiring from the screen after marrying screenwriter Jules Furthman (Shanghai Express, Mutiny of the Bounty, The Big Sleep), she remained in Hollywood until her death at eighty-two in 1984.

Virginia Fox and Big Joe Roberts check out Bobby Dunn's form in The Golfer (121).Virginia Fox and Big Joe Roberts check out Bobby Dunn’s form in The Golfer (121).

Virginia Fox was Keaton’s most frequent vis-à-vis, appearing in nine of his nineteen shorts. Born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1903, Mack Sennett reportedly discovered her when she visited his studio while on a break from boarding school. She began turning up in 1919 shorts such as Why Beaches are Popular and Hearts and Flowers, and soon worked her way up to small roles in Fresh from the City, Great Scott, and Fickle Fancy (all 1920). Also appearing in the features Down on the Farm, Married Life, and Love, Honor and Behave (all 1920), she was an ingénue in the Fox comedies Monkey Business (1920), The Golfer, and His Meal Ticket (both 1921) where she supported Bobby Dunn, Big Joe Roberts, Ethel Teare, and Jimmy Savo.

Virginia Fox Engaged for Keaton Comics. Virginia Fox, the dainty little comedy queen whose dimples have been indelibly impressed upon the minds of motion picture fans throughout the country, hereafter will be seen in Metro Keaton comedies.

For Buster Keaton, the merry comedian who never smiles, has selected her from a long list of candidates for honors as his new leading woman (Motion Picture News, September 1920)

The Mack Sennett Bathing Girls pick on Virginia Fox, with Thelma Hill pulling her leg on the right.The Mack Sennett Bathing Girls pick on Virginia Fox, with Thelma Hill pulling her leg on the right.

Her first role with Keaton was as his Hogan’s Alley Juliet in Neighbors (1920), and she played his mostly unobtainable object of affection in The Haunted House, Hard Luck, The Goat, The Playhouse (all 1921), The Paleface, Cops, The Blacksmith, The Electric House (all 1922), and The Love Nest (1923). After working with Buster she starred in the Robertson-Cole Pictures Corp. feature Itching Palms (1923), a haunted house comedy that had been originally titled Now You See It, but when she married the young writer Darryl F. Zanuck in 1924 she left the screen to raise a family. Her last known appearance was a cameo in the Warner’s feature The Caveman (1924) written by her husband, and she spent the rest of her life as Hollywood royalty when Zanuck became the head of 20th Century Fox. Her son Richard became a prolific and well-known producer, and Virginia Fox passed away at eighty in 1982.

–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub

Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent ComedyLame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

If you’re interested in learning more about Steve’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

             

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Pre-Code Corner: Setting Sail on The Sin Ship

Setting Sail on The Sin Ship

For years The Sin Ship‘s frequent appearances on TCM’s monthly lineup repeatedly caught my eye. Besides the saucy title and potential for pre-Code shenanigans with a 1931 release date, I was drawn to the somewhat grim sounding logline (“A ship’s captain fights to protect a female passenger from his crew”), the accompanying contemplative image of star Mary Astor, and of course, the 65 minute run time. Also, there’s this poster.

The Sin Ship poster, 1931The Sin Ship, 1931

It took a few tries, but the timing was finally right for me to book passage on The Sin Ship. One could argue that TCM’s synopsis is technically correct, but it really misses the point of the picture. Captain-fighting-crew time was minimal; rather, what awaited me was one of the more unusual love triangles I’ve come across – if you can call it that – involving brusque Captain Sam McVey (Louis Wolheim, pulling double duty as director and star), alluring Frisco Kitty (Mary Astor), and her self-assertive husband Smiley Mardsen (Ian Keith).

On the lam from authorities following a bank robbery, Kitty and Smiley don the cover of a minister and his wife and hop aboard Sam’s ship to make their getaway. Sam makes a pass at Kitty, and she strongly chastises him under the veil of her benevolent lady facade. I mean, she gives it to him good. To everyone’s surprise, her words straighten Sam out instantaneously, and of course he falls hard for Kitty in the process. Being the shady man he is, Smiley senses an opportunity to use Kitty as bait to keep Sam from returning to port and potentially spilling the beans as to their whereabouts. Realizing Sam is actually one of the only decent men around, Kitty abhors the idea of playing him, but with a drunken Smiley leading the charge, she has little choice, even as her feelings of contempt are redirected from the captain to her partner in crime.

The Sin Ship 1931, Ian KeithCan you tell Slimey, I mean Smiley, isn’t really a great guy?

To be honest, I don’t think I’d take a repeat voyage on The Sin Ship. A relatively simple story with a lean cast and rather confined locations somehow meanders its way to an ending – and don’t forget, the movie only runs 65 minutes. Plus, two of the three main characters, Sam and Kitty, display initial compelling characteristics that diminish considerably, which dulls the proceedings and results in a pretty improbable romance.

Though The Sin Ship is nowhere near as hedonistic as the title implies, the excursion does glide by a number of recognizable pre-Code displays, listed below for your reading pleasure:

Sex(ism):
One look at the back of Kitty at the start of the picture, and Sam is mesmerized. “A woman’s a woman, ain’t she?” he remarks upon setting eyes upon her from a distance. “That’s the kind I like.” Evidently at sea too long and mesmerized by the vague shape of a woman, his lustful infatuation works in Kitty and Smiley’s favor, as they miss their steamer, and wouldn’t you know, Sam’s got space on his vessel. Literally, Kitty’s body won their passage, but she won’t be any safer on board: most of the male characters in this picture – from Sam to Smiley to the crewmembers – view women as objects to claim as their own or handle as they please, at one point or another.

The Sin Ship, 1931The first time Sam lays eyes on Kitty, this is what he sees, and that’s enough for him.

Booze and attempted assault:
To be clear, drunken, egotistical characters like Smiley aren’t unique to the era, but here alcohol plays a role in a thwarted incident that pre-Codes were more likely to confront, albeit off-screen. Sam lures invites Kitty to his room for tea, aka an alcoholic beverage. He’s banking on the drink leading to much more, you know, to cover Kitty and Smiley’s ‘fare.’ While not explicitly implying rape, one can assume Kitty wouldn’t submit willingly, which brings me to my next point…

Strong women (or woman, cause there’s really just one in this movie):
What Sam certainly does not expect is for Kitty to spring right back at him with a series of sanctimonious presages and declarations that he’s the worst of the crew.  But her closing zinger – that Sam clean up his mind, body and soul – hits a nerve, prompting a complete 180 in Sam’s attitude and demeanor overnight.  True, Kitty delivered this diatribe under her righteous guise, but I’ve also got to give the real Kitty credit for having the strength to change her ways and own up to her mistakes later on, which she does … well, read on.

The Sin Ship, 1931, Louis Wolheim, Mary AstorSam: 0, Kitty: 1

The end:
In stark contrast to Sam’s instant rapture, Kitty comes around slowly; she’s got her conscience and a pompous, intemperate partner to reckon with, after all, but by the end of the picture, it’s obvious that she wants out of her lifestyle. Though Smiley gets what’s coming to him in the end (post-Code style), miraculously Kitty goes scot free (pre-Code style), despite admitting that she wants to face her past and pay for her misdeeds (post-Code style again). Oh, well.  Only during this era could two characters like Kitty and Sam walk off into the distance together, hand in hand and free to go as they please.

The Sin Ship, 1931, Louis Wolheim, Mary AstorAnd they lived happily ever after. Presumably.

The Sin Ship is far from the strongest entry of the period that I’ve seen, and it’s not half as wild as it leads you to believe. That said, if you embark on the journey, you’ll take in some pre-Code sights – and sail at your own risk.

…..

 -Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub

Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.

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Neglected Clowns: Exclusive Guest Post by Author Steve Massa (Slapstick Divas)

Neglected Clowns

The unsung ladies of slapstick comedy are a selection of mean landladies, vamps, spinsters, flirty fat girls, mother-in-laws, society snobs, dingbats, and busybodies who performed yeoman service making up the universe of the silent comedy films. Whether fierce, maternal, or straight-laced, they were well-seasoned veterans who were past masters of timing, and at providing much needed comic tension. Some, due to their physicality, specialized in one specific type, while others were more chameleon-like and played all kinds of roles. The backbone of the genre – many of these women were ubiquitous, turning up in film after film from practically all of the various comedy units. Four talented comediennes in particular have fallen through the cracks of film history.

Ethel Teare portraitPortrait of Ethel Teare.

Ethe Teare is a neglected lady clown whose starring films for Kalem and Fox have almost all vanished without a trace. After going on stage at fourteen she toured all over in vaudeville and with stock companies before starting at the Kalem Studio in 1914. Teare was statuesque and quite a beauty, but wasn’t afraid to go to extremes in make-up and costume in the name of comedy. In her second film appearance, the surviving The No-Account Count (1914), she plays the hideous daughter of the rich Mr. Hardup, who’s finding it impossible to get a husband for her.

Ethel Teare seems interested in tramp Lloyd Hamilton in THE WINNING WASH (1915).Ethel Teare seems interested in tramp Lloyd Hamilton in The Winning Wash (1915).

Since she’s covered with warts and knobs all over her face, when her father gets a scheme to hook her up with a certain Count De Bluffe, he sends her to the beauty doctor to get sand blasted, and while she’s there it’s revealed that she’s bald as well, with nothing but a few transparent wisps of hair on the shiny dome under her wig. In other shorts Teare was allowed to be pretty, and had an earnestness and sweetness which led her to take a low-keyed approach to gags and seriously play her characters. A toothy smile that was just a hair too large and a slightly bow-legged walk, her with rear sticking a bit, out completed her comic persona.

Ethel Teare threatens Tom Kennedy and Lois Scott with a limp cat in Mary's Little Lobster (1920).Ethel Teare threatens Tom Kennedy and Lois Scott with a limp cat in Mary’s Little Lobster (1920).

Busy at Kalem in comedies that she starred in, as well as working with their comedy team of Ham and Bud, Teare moved to greener pastures in 1917 when she joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company. Although her stay there was brief, it gave her career a boost, and gave her the opportunity to work with pros like Mack Swain, Polly Moran, and Chester Conklin. Her next stop was the Fox Studio where they took advantage of her talent and headlined her in a series as a gawky and innocent country girl character.

Outfitted in loud checkered dresses and with her hair in little buns on either side of her head, the use of white-face make-up gave her an innocent look. With her big-toothed smile and hesitant gestures she gallumped her way through entries like Her First Kiss (1919), The Roaring BathtubPretty Lady (both 1920), and The Baby (1921). After 1921 she left Fox, went back to vaudeville where she worked with the Marx Brothers in Chicago, and after a few more pictures finally retired in 1924. Sadly almost all of her starring comedies are missing which has left her reputation in limbo.

Western portrait of Jane Bernoudy.Western portrait of Jane Bernoudy.

Most of the screen comediennes came from vaudeville, but Jane Bernoudy got her start in Wild West Shows, where she won awards for fancy riding and roping. Her cowgirl expertise was her ticket for entering films in 1913 to make westerns for Vitagraph, Kay-Bee, Broncho, and Bison, but after going to Universal in 1914 she gravitated to their comedies. In 1915 she was teamed with comic Victor Potel in a series of domestic comedies where Bernoudy was headlined as the family’s maid Sally Slopus. In shorts like Slim, Fat or Medium (1915), When a Wife Worries, and Love Laughs at Dyspepsia (both 1916) Bernoudy toiled as a slightly addled young servant with her pail and mop, lop-sided maid’s cap, checkered blouses, and voluminous aprons. Bernoudy continued in occasional appearances as Ms. Sloppus, as well as played spinsters and other characters in shorts like Mixed Matrimony, The Topsy Turvy Twins (both 1917), Don’t Flirt (1918), and The Movie Queen (1919) until she left films in 1919.

Jane Bernoudy as Sally Sloppus with soon to be director Edward Sedgwick in LIZZIE'S WATERLOO (1919).Jane Bernoudy as Sally Sloppus with soon to be director Edward Sedgwick in Lizzie’s Waterloo (1919).

Children and animals are always sure-fire “scene-stealers,” and two forgotten silent examples are little Hannah Washington and Cameo the dog. Hannah Washington was the niece of popular West Coast singer and dancer Mildred Washington, who started in films at age three and was soon a regular in the Bray Company’s McDougal Alley Kids Comedies. The McDougals were one of the many imitations of Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts, and Hannah was an imitation of Our Gang’s Farina. Named “Oatmeal” and dressed as a boy she was the tag-along younger sibling, who toddled around in too-big shoes and always created problems for the gang, like in The Big Pie Raid (1927) where Oatmeal finds a “kitty,” which of course is a skunk, and brings it to the big pie fight.

After about a year and a half of the McDougal shorts Hannah moved on to other kids’ series such as Mickey McGuire and Winnie Winkle Comedies, as well as a couple of shorts for producer Al Christie. Eventually she ended up at Universal and became a regular in their Buster Brown series. Little Arthur Trimble who starred as Buster wasn’t funny, so Hannah became their comedy ace in the hole for the series – still playing Oatmeal and dressed as a boy. A good example of her work is in the surviving Knockout Buster (1929) where the opening half of the picture is a boxing match between Buster and his fat friend Albert. Hannah plays the referee who gets all the laughs, and most of the punches, as she tries to dodge the blows to no avail, even taking one on the chin that turns her into a human pinwheel spinning wildly on the ringside ropes.

Cameo all ready for her close-up Mr. DeMille.Cameo all ready for her close-up Mr. DeMille.

After the series ended in 1929 Washington’s appearances became sporadic and difficult to chart. Her last known role is the slave girl Sally Ann in Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel (1935). It’s a shame that Hannah was stuck in the Bray and Stern Brothers low-budget left-overs instead of working for more upscale producers like Mack Sennett or Jack White. With good material (or at least some kind of material) her funny presence and natural comic timing could have been developed and resulted in some solid comedy films.

There were many canine comedians in silent films – Teddy, Brownie, Pal, Buddy, and the famous Pete the pup – but perhaps the best, and the only comedienne of the litter, was Cameo. Owned by supporting comic Hap Ward, Cameo had been a sickly pup who was nursed around the clock by Ward, and afterward would do whatever he asked her. Hap Ward was appearing in Chester Comedies’ Snooky the Human-Zee two-reelers, and Cameo made her screen debut in titles like Ladies Pets and Ready to Serve (both 1921). It wasn’t long before she branched out as a sidekick to the likes of Baby Peggy and Lige Conley, but some of her best work was done at the Mack Sennett Studio.

Cameo reports to Billy Bevan with the details of Harry Gribbon's cards in NIP AND TUCK (1923).Cameo reports to Billy Bevan with the details of Harry Gribbon’s cards in Nip and Tuck (1923).

In Nip and Tuck (1923) Cameo plays an unbelievable poker game with Billy Bevan and Harry Gribbon. Cheating for her master Billy she nonchalantly takes a few peeks at Harry’s cards, and whenever he catches her she looks away with split-second timing, leading to a hilarious back and forth routine. From the mid-1920s on she was all over the silent comedy map – shorts such as Low Tide, and Baby Be Good (both 1925), in addition to many “A” features like Penrod and Sam (1923), Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney (1925), and Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927). Known as the “Buster Keaton of dogdom,” Cameo went from studio to studio as the total film dog. Hap Ward told reporters that Cameo never had any set tricks, but understood what he told her and would do it. Her appearances in the sound era were less frequent, probably due to her advancing age, and she passed away at sixteen (one hundred and six human years) in 1935.

These four ladies are just the tip of the iceberg of overlooked silent comediennes. Although their names are forgotten, when their films are played today they still get their laughs and bring delight to viewers.

–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub

Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent ComedyLame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

If you’re interested in learning more about Steve’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

             

 

 

Posted in Guest Posts, Silent Films | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Win Tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: Bonnie and Clyde (50th Anniversary)” (Giveaway runs July 14 – July 29)

Win Tickets to see “Bonnie and Clyde” on the Big Screen!

In Select Cinemas Nationwide Sunday, August 13 & Wednesday, August 16!

“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”

CMH is thrilled to announce the 10th of our 14 movie ticket giveaways this year, courtesy of Fathom Events!

That said, we’ll be giving away EIGHT PAIRS of tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: Bonnie and Clyde” – the timeless classic starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty— the way it was meant to be seen — on the Big Screen!

In order to qualify to win a pair of movie tickets via this contest, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, July 29 at 6 PM EST.

We will announce the winner(s) on Twitter on Sunday, July 30, between 6PM EST and 7PM EST. If a winner(s) does not have a Twitter account, we will announce that winner(s) via this blog in the comment section below.

Bonnie and Clyde TCM Big Screen Presents Fathom Events

The film will be playing in select cinemas nationwide for a special two-day-only event on Sunday, August 13 and Wednesday, August 16 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time. Winners will be responsible for their own transportation to the Event. Only United States entries are eligible. Please click here before you enter to ensure that the Event is scheduled at a theater near you and that you are able to attend. (please note that there might be slightly different theater listings for each date)

About the film:  

Faye Dunaway is Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty is Clyde Barrow in Arthur Penn’s violent, sexually charged and deeply influential crime drama, a nostalgic look back at notorious outlaws filmed with the passion and zeal of filmmakers who were beginning to explore the boundaries of their craft. Features supporting performances by an exemplary cast that includes Gene Wilder, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons.

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, July 29 at 6PM EST…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:

What is it about “Bonnie and Clyde” that, in your opinion, makes it a Classic? And, if you haven’t seen it, why do you want to see it on the Big Screen? 

2) Then TWEET* (not DM) the following message:

Just entered to win tickets to see “Bonnie and Clyde” on the Big Screen courtesy of @ClassicMovieHub & @FathomEvents #TCMBigScreen

*If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

Please note that only United States residents are eligible to enter this giveaway contest. (see contest rules for further information)

BlogHub members ARE also eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

You can follow Fathom Events on Twitter at @fathomevents

Good Luck!

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Contests & Giveaways, Fathom Events, TCM Big Screen Classics | 17 Comments

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy: Facebook/Blog Book Giveaway Contest (July)

“Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy”
Book Giveaway 
via Facebook and this Blog

Okay, now it’s time for the Facebook/Blog version of our “Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy” Giveaway Contest! This time we’ll be giving away one copy of the book via Facebook and this blog, courtesy of University Press of Kentucky. And, remember, we’re also giving away FIVE MORE copies via Twitter this month as well, so please feel free to enter that contest too…

In order to qualify to win this prize via this Facebook/Blog contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, August 5 at 10PM ESTWe will pick one winner via a random drawing and announce him/her on Facebook and here on this Blog the day after the contest ends (Sunday August 6).

If you’re also on Twitter, please feel free to visit us at  @ClassicMovieHub for additional giveaways — because we’ll be giving away FIVE MORE books there as well! PS: you don’t even need a twitter account to enter! (Click here for twitter contest details as well as more information about the book.)

Harry Landon: King of Silent Comedy

…..

ENTRY TASK to be completed by Saturday, August 5 at 1oPM EST —

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:
What is your favorite Harry Langdon film and why? And if you’re not familiar with Harry Langdon’s work, tell us why you’d like to win this book.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

…..

About the Book:  Among silent film comedians, three names stand out―Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd―but Harry Langdon indisputably deserves to sit among them as the fourth “king.” In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. This in-depth biography, which features behind-the-scenes accounts and personal recollections compiled by Langdon’s late wife, provides a full and thoughtful picture of this multifaceted entertainer and his meteoric rise and fall. Featuring never-before-published stories and photos from his immediate family, this biography is a fascinating and revealing look at an unsung silent film giant.…..

Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only Continental United States (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and the territory of Puerto Rico) entrants are eligible.

And — BlogHub members ARE eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

Good Luck!

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase it on amazon via the below link (click on image):

Good Luck!

…..

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Books, Contests & Giveaways, Posts by Annmarie Gatti, Silent Films | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Women Comedy Directors: Exclusive Guest Post by Author Steve Massa (Slapstick Divas)

Women Comedy Directors

More neglected than onscreen comediennes are the women who worked in silent comedy as directors – the number of whom can practically be counted on the fingers of one hand. Alice Guy-Blache is a bona-fide cinema pioneer, having started her career at France’s Gaumont Company as a secretary in 1895, soon becoming the office manager and producing and directing silent and early sound films (known as Chronophone Films). In 1906 she came to America with her husband Herbert Blache to help introduce the Chronophone system in the U.S., and in 1910 she formed the Solax Film Company. Over four years Solax, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, turned out all types of films, including a large number of comedies for which Madame Blache had a definite flair.

Alice Guy BlacheStudy of film pioneer Alice Guy-Blache.

While in France she had directed some very funny slapstick shorts, and at Solax she directed many situational comedies such as When Mary Was Little (1911), Canned Harmony (1912), and Burstup Holmes’ Murder Case (1913). These were very similar to the comedies coming out of the Vitagraph Studio – in Officer Henderson (1913) two cops dress as women to nab purse snatchers, A House Divided (1913) has a battling husband and wife living in separate parts of their house and only communicating through notes, and His Double (1912) even contains an early version of the “mirror routine” made famous by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933). After 1914 Guy-Blache moved on to dramatic features and ended her film career in 1920.

Mabel NormandMabel Normand.

The most all-around famous woman in silent comedy is Mabel Normand, but the least known aspect of her career is her work as a film director. Starting in films in 1910, by 1911 Mabel was becoming popular in the comedies made by Mack Sennett for the Biograph Company, and when Sennett set up his Keystone Studio in 1912 she was one of his main stars. Starting in late 1913 Normand began calling the shots for her films:

Mabel Normand, leading woman with the Keystone, will hereafter direct every picture in which she appears. Madame Blache has been the only woman director for some time, but now she will have a rival in Mabel who will both act and direct. (Motion Picture News, December 13, 1913)

Keystone Ad with Mabel NormandEasy to see who was the main draw on the Keystone program.

Sennett had been getting busier dealing with studio business and administrative duties, so he began curtailing his directing work and started giving his star comics the opportunity to supervise their own films. Mabel was the first, and she began her directorial efforts with The Champion (1913). Unfortunately it’s hard to discern a strong directorial style as more than half of her directed films are missing. The earliest survivor is the recently rediscovered Won in a Closet (1914) where Mabel follows the regular keystone recipe very well – getting in all the required knockabout – but there is one striking sequence that shows unusual directorial imagination. Mabel and her beau spy one another and are drawn to each other like magnets – first in long lingering close-ups, and then finally in a creative double-exposure shot where the pair are on either side of the screen and traveling closer and closer together.

Mabel Normand with dogMabel and canine friend.

Three others – Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Mabel at the Wheel, and Caught in a Cabaret (all 1914) – survive, most likely thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s presence in the casts. Again they are in the standard Keystone mold, but Mabel slows down the breakneck pace a bit to give the performers more leisure to partake and react to what’s happening around them. All three give a good deal of the focus to the young Chaplin’s antics, and Caught in a Cabaret in particular has a lot of atmosphere in a seedy cabaret with detailed character work coming from Minta Durfee, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Phyllis Allen, and Mack Swain as its denizens. Mabel stopped directing after Mabel’s Nerve (1914) and years later in the 1920s she was asked about her directorial work. She responded that filmmaking was so primitive in 1913 and 1914 that you really couldn’t call it directing by modern standards. So with typical modesty she dismissed her work as one of America’s first woman slapstick comedy directors.

Mabel and FordMabel and a large-mustached Ford Sterling in an unidentified Keystone short.

In 1914 Lucille McVey was a young actress who had recently joined the Vitagraph Company. McVey had spent six years presenting recitations on the concert stage and was said to have been one of the foremost child dialect readers in America. Appearing in small roles at Vitagraph in the films directed by and starring Sidney Drew, a romance developed between the twenty-four year-old McVey and the forty-nine and recently widowed Drew, which led to their teaming in real life and on the screen. Together the pair found fame as Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, in a series of comedies that chronicled the misadventures of the average married couple. Surviving examples such as The Professional Scapegoat, Boobley’s Baby (both 1915), and His Wife Knew about It (1916) still delight today, and the Drews were a true team writing and directing their films together. Their success continued unabated until Sidney Drew’s death in 1919.

The DrewsMr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew in a publicity shot for their Metro Comedies.

With a contract to fulfill Mrs. Drew soldiered on herself, writing and directing the shorts Bunkered and A Sisterly Scheme (both 1919). Being forced to branch out on her own she continued turning out material in the “Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew” style. Besides sophisticated scripts like A Gay Old Dog (1919) and The Night of the Dub (1920), in 1920 she launched a series of two-reelers she wrote and directed based on the After Thirty stories of popular writer Julian Street. Four shorts were made – The Charming Mrs. Chase, The Stimulating Mrs. Barton, The Emotional Miss Vaughan, and The Unconventional Mrs. Barton (all 1920) – and were well-received. Following these After Thirty shorts she only had one more project. In 1921 she returned to Vitagraph to direct the screen adaptation of the play Cousin Kate. According to reviews the feature appears to have been gentle and character-driven, with focus given to the small details. Sadly there were no other films, and she died in 1926 at the premature age of thirty-five after a battle with cancer. While many of her films with Sidney Drew survive today, virtually nothing of her solo work is known to exist. In 1926 Motion Picture Magazine reported:

The funeral of Mrs. Sidney Drew was attended by only twenty persons. And yet Mrs. Drew was one of the cleverest and kindest women ever in motion pictures. But apparently, after the death of her husband and her retirement from the screen, the movie colony forgot all about her. As a rule, Hollywood tries to be kind. In this case there’s a black mark against it.

Drew BunkeredMrs. Drew in her first solo outing BUNKERED (1919).

The legacy of the women silent comedy directors has been treated in much the same manner, and it’s hoped that information and the films themselves can be gathered to bring attention to their contribution to film history.

…..

–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub

Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent ComedyLame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

If you’re interested in learning more about Steve’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

             

 

Posted in Books, Guest Posts | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy Book Giveaway (via Twitter in July)

“Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy”
Book Giveaway via Twitter

Time for our next book giveaway! This time, CMH will be giving away FIVE COPIES of “Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy” by authors by Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon, courtesy of University Press of Kentucky, from July 3 through Aug 5. (plus ONE more copy via Facebook and this Blog, details to follow on Wednesday).

In order to qualify to win one of these prizes via this contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, August 5 at 10PM EST. However, the sooner you enter, the better chance you have of winning, because we will pick a winner on five different days within the contest period, via random drawings, as listed below… So if you don’t win the first week that you enter, you will still be eligible to win during the following weeks until the contest is over.

  • July 8: One Winner
  • July 15: One Winner
  • July 22: One Winner
  • July 29: One Winner
  • August 5: One Winner

We will announce each week’s winner on Twitter @ClassicMovieHub, the day after each winner is picked at 10PM EST — for example, we will announce our first week’s winner on Sunday July 9 at 10PM EST on Twitter. And, please note that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to enter; just see below for the details…

If you’re also on Facebook, please feel free to visit us at Classic Movie Hub on Facebook for additional giveaways (or check back on this Blog in a few days) — because we’ll be giving away ONE MORE cop via Facebook/Blog as well!

Harry Landon: King of Silent Comedy

…..

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, August 5 at 1oPM EST — BUT remember, the sooner you enter, the more chances you have to win…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:
What do you love most about Harry Langdon? And, if you’re not familiar with his work, why do you want to win this book? 

2) Then TWEET (not DM) the following message*:
Just entered to win “Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy” #BookGiveaway courtesy of @KentuckyPress & @ClassicMovieHub

*If you do not have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

…..

About the Book:  Among silent film comedians, three names stand out―Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd―but Harry Langdon indisputably deserves to sit among them as the fourth “king.” In films such as The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Langdon parlayed his pantomime talents, expressive eyes, and childlike innocence into silent-era stardom. This in-depth biography, which features behind-the-scenes accounts and personal recollections compiled by Langdon’s late wife, provides a full and thoughtful picture of this multifaceted entertainer and his meteoric rise and fall. Featuring never-before-published stories and photos from his immediate family, this biography is a fascinating and revealing look at an unsung silent film giant.

…..

Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only Continental United States (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and the territory of Puerto Rico) entrants are eligible.

And — BlogHub members ARE eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

Good Luck!

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase it on amazon via the below link (click on image):

Good Luck!

…..

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Books, Contests & Giveaways, Posts by Annmarie Gatti, Silent Films | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Film Noir Review: The Sniper (1952)

“Stop me — Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.”

Edward Dmytryk was an outcast. Blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, the Oscar-nominated director was jailed for his Communist ties in 1951 and forced to throw himself at the mercy of the HUAC. After he agreed to name names, Dmytryk returned to a Hollywood whose only response was a cold shoulder. He was vilified by both the right and the left. The press never missed an opportunity to label him “informer” and “rat.” At the time, he was quoted as saying “They pretty much have buried me.”

It was only through a three-picture deal with producer Stanley Kramer that Dymytryk was able to claw his way back to the surface. By that point, however, the sting of isolation had already taken its toll, and there is no better testament to this than his 1952 comeback The Sniper.

The Sniper actively works against the sentiment of must docu-noir films. “High among police problems is that of the sex criminal,” states the pre-credit scroll, adding that “Adequate and understanding laws do not exist” and “Law enforcement is helpless” when it comes to providing them with proper care. It’s a bold stance to take in a studio film, especially coming from a former commie, but the idea of humanizing a sex criminal– the very definition of an outcast– was nothing if not attention-grabbing.

The Sniper, 1952, The film's appropriately grim poster.The film’s appropriately grim poster.

As the film opens, we see our outcast, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), already preparing to commit murder. He meticulously loads his rifle, and takes aim at the couple quietly necking outside of his apartment window. But when the moment comes to pull the trigger, he hesitates. The perverse gleam in his eye, one that viewers had previously seen in serial killer films like He Walked by Night (1948) and Dial 1119 (1950), melts into a look of utter disgust. Miller hastily shoves the rifle back in his dresser drawer, and tosses the key in a fit of shame. Inner demons are practically bursting through his trigger finger, but in this brief moment of defiance, Miller earns our sympathy — he knows, as we do, that there is a serious problem.

It’s briefly alluded to that Miller has dealt with battery charges in the past, and he spends the first act of the film trying to facilitate a solution. He contacts a doctor, attempts to commit himself to a local hospital, and even goes as far as to burn his trigger hand on a stovetop. The latter plays out in unnerving detail, with the low camera angle capturing every wince of pain on Miller’s face. These attempts are curtailed, however, when he meets a flirtatious singer named Jean Darr (the always manipulative Marie Windsor). Encouraged by their banter, Miller quickly discovers that Darr already has a suitor, and is sent over the edge and back into the vice grip of his demons.

The Sniper, 1952,  Miller (Arthur Franz) is entraped by Jean Dorr's charm.Jean Darr picked the wrong fellow to string along.

The murder of Darr, as she exits a nightclub, provides the film with its breaking point. Miller’s rifle sends her body smashing through a glass display case, in a scene that should have us crying out on Darr’s behalf. And yet, it is Miller, guilty as he may be, who still clings to our our pity like a virus. He’s visibly shaken in the aftermath of the shooting, and the film makes note of this through his modus operandi — he uses the sniper rifle not as a means of preference, but as an excuse to distance himself from his shame, to retreat into the safety of anonymity.

Dmytryk structures the rest of the film as a cruel game of cause and effect: the more insensitive and indifferent people are to Miller, the more violence he commits against women. In one particular instance, Miller stumbles upon a group of kids playing stickball. A ball gets hit his way, and he tosses the ball back in. Come to find out, his assistance actually mucked things up, as one jaded player puts it: “It’s all your fault! Why don’t you leave us alone and go play your own game!?” (Coincidently, the player is a little girl). It may not be especially mature, but this breaking of Miller’s already-fragile psyche ranks among noir’s most mean-spirited moments.

"Please stop me." Arthur Franz, The Sniper 1952“Stop me — Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.”

Also worth noting is The Sniper’s use of San Francisco as a character in the film. Working from a relatively tight budget, Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey take full advantage of their famous locale, and explore every crevice and curving alleyway that the city had to offer. This is especially notable in the nighttime sequences, where Dmytryk’s emphasis on angular streets make it seem as though San Francisco is practically complicit in Miller’s killing spree.

As Miller, Arthur Franz is chillingly effective. He imparts a likability to the character through his good looks and wholesome manner, one that’s tough to shake even when he’s in the throes of violence. At times, he comes off practically naive, like a little boy still seeking validation from those around him. As Police Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou) tracks his movements, he leaves behind notes begging to be caught: “Stop me — Find me and stop me.” These aren’t meant to play into some grand cat-and-mouse narrative, but rather to extend his need for validation — he wants Kafka to know that he’s doesn’t condone his murders either.

The Sniper, 1952, Arthur Franz, Eddie Miller in actionEddie Miller in action.

Scenes where Miller is alone or trying to curb his killing spree are played with little regard for looking pathetic in front of the viewer — Franz fully commits, and the results are often so visceral they can be tough to sit through. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s fleeting moments; as the police surround him, he meets his fate not with resistance, but a single tear of relief. A single, knowing tear. It’s over.

Largely overlooked since its release, The Sniper still manages to provoke and shock in equal measure. By humanizing his outcast, Dmytryk’s film not only served as the inspiration for the nihilistic masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976), but expanded the breadth of where noir could go heading into the 1950s. A

TRIVIA: Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese provided the DVD introduction for The Sniper when it was released as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection.

…..

–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub

Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

Posted in Films, Posts by Danilo Castro | Tagged | Leave a comment