Archive for March, 2012

Hellfire in the Chart Room: The Unmasking of Madam Satan by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 by mchoffman

“Who wants to go to hell with… Madam Satan?”

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Tonight (3/29/12) the Park Ridge Public Library had 86 patrons for our showing of Madam Satan (1930). Although attendance was down from the previous two weeks, the reaction seemed to be up. Things I didn’t think would play well seemed to work. There was laughter and even applause. What I thought was strained bedroom farce on the small screen turned out to be funny lines on the big screen. Once again we see that a film’s real impact can’t be gauged until it’s seen on a big screen with an audience. The film’s a hodgepodge of genres, but our screening highlighted the strengths of each. For instance, I keenly felt the drama of the film’s climax. The Titanic-like disaster aboard the zeppelin was so much more powerful than what I had previewed at home. People who prefer to rent these movies and (sadly) watch them at home are missing out on what everyone else who shows up every week is experiencing. Had this been shown in a newly-struck 35mm print– at the Portage Theatre, for instance– the film would’ve been even more amazing. Madam Satan isn’t the kind of film to be taken seriously– it’s NOT “camp” though– but I always knew it was an entertaining one. Tonight proved that. The following is the text from my introduction to Madam Satan…

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Madam Satan is a strangely fascinating film. It’s also an insane piece of filmmaking. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, upon seeing the finished product, reportedly said, “It contained no semblance of reality.” There are some truly weird moments in this film, and it makes you wonder what Thalberg must’ve been thinking when he viewed it with his star director. It was directed by Cecil B. DeMille while he was at MGM for a three-picture deal. He did not stay there long and returned home to Paramount. C.B. must’ve felt like a square in a round peg at a studio known for assembly-line methods. But his contract stipulated that there would be no interference from the front office, so for better or worse, Madam Satan reflects DeMille’s style more than it does MGM’s. The blame– or acclaim– rests solely on DeMille.

By 1930, DeMille had reached a creative crossroad in the early days of talkies. He was in need of a hit. With Madam Satan, therefore, he returned to material that was familiar territory: farce and spectacle. And he made it a musical too because the genre had been so popular at the end of the 1920s. What could go wrong? The reality was that Cecil B. DeMille had a better understanding of historical epics than musical comedies. It wouldn’t be until 1932’s The Sign of the Cross that he would be back on track. I don’t think DeMille had a favorable opinion of tonight’s film. Speaking of the musical numbers, he wrote that the songs in his film would not have “perturbed the dreams of the young Messrs. Gershwin, Hammerstein, Hart, Rogers or any of the others who have delighted so many, including me, with good musicals.”

There are moments when it feels like the movie is going to become an all-out operetta. One of the composers was Wisconsin-born Herbert Stothart, whose best work is probably the background music for The Wizard of Oz. For that 1939 classic, he won his only Oscar– and the studio’s first in the musical category. One of his songs in this film is the very 1930s-esque “The Cat Walk” which is what the party guests are chanting as they board the zeppelin.

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Madam Satan might not be a good musical, but this isn’t a musical film series. I love Art Deco, and I love movies about zeppelins, so this film was inevitable. The good news is that it gets better once we make it to the masquerade ball; the bad news is that there’s about 50 minutes of bedroom farce before that happens. DeMille may have mastered the form in the silent era with films like 1920’s Why Change Your Wife?, but here the farce seems strained.

The plot involves a married couple whose relationship has dropped below zero. “Love can’t be kept in cold storage,” the husband tells his wife. “It needs to be recharged.” Heat and electricity become recurring motifs. So she sets out to warm things up and put some spark in their relationship. The wife resolves to win her husband back by breaking out an alter-ego and teaching him a lesson in love.  Being an MGM film, this is about an affluent married couple of high society. (I don’t think too many of you tonight will be sitting at your organ in the parlor, relaxing at home.) But DeMille’s excess as a filmmaker works to the advantage of the film. We see the excess and decadence of the rich in their floating dance hall. This is where the wife will make her stand amid the pleasure-seekers.

One of the highlights is Kay Johnson as Angela, the cultured wife who doesn’t know how to make whoopee yet turns herself into a French-speaking femme fatale. Johnson was the daughter of a Michigan architect and she became a Broadway actress. She spent most of her career moving between the theatre and movies, such as Frank Capra’s American Madness. She had starred in DeMille’s first project at MGM in 1929 called Dynamite. This film is mentioned in the book Screen Deco and noted for its Art Deco bathroom– an element of Modern set design that became associated with DeMille.

Kay Johnson

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Kay Johnson was married to director John Cromwell, but she left Hollywood in 1943 to concentrate on being a mother and raising their family. One of her sons is actor James Cromwell. Kay Johnson passed away in 1975, largely forgotten. That’s a shame because, like so many other actresses of her era like Ann Harding or Constance Bennett, she deserves more recognition. As assistant director Mitchell Leisen once said, “Kay was a very talented lady from Broadway, and a lot of fun to work with, but she didn’t quite set the screen on fire.” DeMille originally wanted his star from the silent days, Gloria Swanson, and I’m sure it would’ve been a much different film with her. A lot of modern viewers, however, prefer the other actress in this film, Lillian Roth, as the “Lowdown”-singing rival, Trixie. But Kay Johnson gets the highest bid at my auction. I think whatever emotion this film has rests with her; she is the emotional core of the film and the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

Throughout the first half of the movie there are these cutaway shots to Angela. She’s aware of what’s going on with her philandering husband and his best friend. They hide behind these really broad reaction shots more suited to silent comedy. Angela sees through their pretense as well as through Trixie’s charade. But then there are these discordant moments when she seems desperate and breaks down emotionally, pleading for her husband not to leave her. That’s more the writers than Kay Johnson’s performance. There were three female writers who contributed to this story: Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger, and Elsie Janis. Perhaps the commentary on men—how they are like children chasing toy balloons– came from them.

Reginald Denny plays Bob Brooks, the husband in need of warm affection. He’s an unsympathetic character who makes indiscretions only because his wife is too sweet and logical. Bob Brooks aside, Reginald Denny was always an actor I admired. He came from an acting family in England. As early as 1908 he was touring the United States. He was also part of an Opera company that toured India. As an actor, he returned to the U.S. in 1912, and three years later he made his debut in American film. In 1917 he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot where he became the brigade’s heavyweight boxing champion. He settled in Hollywood in 1919 and appeared in dozens of silent films including comedies like 1925’s I’ll Show You the Town.

Roland Young, Reginald Denny, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan

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Possessed with a good speaking voice, his career continued into the sound era, but he was more limited to what he could play due to his English accent. Though rarely the star, he was featured in many supporting roles throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s in films ranging from John Ford’s The Lost Patrol to Hitchcock’s Rebecca in 1940. Unfortunately, he was mostly typecast as an English stiff.

Outside the movie business, he became a model airplane enthusiast and opened up a model shop on Hollywood Boulevard. This was a popular spot for the kids of the neighborhood, and Denny became quite famous with this second career. His fascination grew and he became an innovator of drone technology, forming a company called Radioplane, which won an Army contract and specialized in military drones. This endeavor of his was a forerunner of what we see being used in today’s modern military. Denny’s acting career, meanwhile, continued into the 1950s where he worked in television. He even appeared in the campy Batman (1966)

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Lillian Roth plays Trixie, the rather shrill but energetic jazz baby, and fans of the Marx Brothers will remember her from her role as “Arabella Rittenhouse” in Animal Crackers. With a background in vaudeville, she was billed as “Broadway’s youngest star.” Lillian had been groomed by her parents, who were also of the stage. Her big break in movies came with Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade. Tragically, in the early 1930s, she developed an alcohol addiction. Everything in her life went downhill from there. She went through eight divorces in her life. She eventually recovered from her addiction and became one of the first celebrities associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Lillian made a singing comeback and turned her tragic story into the 1953 bestselling memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow. (Her autobiography became the inspiration for a movie starring Susan Hayward.) Lillian once said that, “My life was never my own. It was charted before I was born.”

Madam Satan also stars Roland Young, the great character actor many will recognize from such films as One Hour With You, Topper— the film he is best known for– and The Philadelphia Story. He was born in England, and like Kay Johnson, had a father who was an architect. And, as with Reginald Denny, he was performing on the stage as early as 1908. In the United States, he found success as a Broadway performer, hitting the Great White Way in 1912. He became a U.S. citizen and served in the Army before making a career in motion pictures. His best work came in the 1930s and ‘40s. With his restrained comic touch and submissive demeanor, he seemed a natural for screwball comedy. Like many other stars whose movie careers began to decline by the late ‘40s, he found a second life in television.

Despite all the talents involved, Madam Satan isn’t remembered for its acting. It’s the sheer lunacy of the story that makes this a guilty pleasure. Madam Satan is remembered for the scenes on the dirigible; the set was designed by Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen. One of the weirdest moments is the Electric Ballet musical number. This is very much a visual theme of Art Deco– its association with technology, in this case, the modern airship. Out of nowhere, the spirit of modern power, Electricity, materializes like an Art Deco god in a dynamo. The sequence, with man mimicking the movements of machines, is in the same tradition as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made only three years earlier.

Madam Satan’s Deco is also evident in some of the costumes that were designed by Adrian. He was known for designing every costume in the films he worked on. Madam Satan’s slinky, fire of Hell gown might remind the modern viewer of Cat Woman, and it’s the most memorable design in the film. Its sleekness of form and sequined brilliance is very much in keeping with Deco. I believe the original costume was on display recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It just looked stunning in red, black, and silver.

The Madam Satan costume on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art…

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A drawing of the costume by Adrian…

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Madam Satan was originally going to have sequences shot in Technicolor. According to author Scott Eyman in Empire of Dreams, “the miniature of the dirigible had to be photographed at a high speed in order to get the effect of softly floating through the air. Technicolor couldn’t handle the high camera speeds, so DeMille’s only fallback position was hand-tinted color.” But this was abandoned. (Too bad because in the four years I’ve been doing this series, it would’ve been the first time I played anything in color!)

According to Eyman, in one scene Lillian Roth had to fall through a skylight made of candy glass. “She was nervous and complained to DeMille. Without saying another word, he walked over to a pane of the candy glass leaning against a wall, lifted it over his head and slammed it down. The glass shattered; the skull didn’t. ‘If it didn’t hurt my old bald head,’ he told her, ‘it won’t hurt your young back end.’”

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I’m not sure what you will make of this film. It’s a morality play of adultery and hedonism played out aboard a symbol of man’s progress –with an almighty retribution against it. Madam Satan says something else, perhaps, about the figurative masks we wear in public and who we pretend to be. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. You decide… It’s the kind of movie that could’ve only been made at a certain time in film history. The film was not a success at the box office, but over the years it’s become something of a cult favorite. Of course, to modern viewers who are used to seeing films in 3D and IMAX, DeMille’s 1930 disaster film probably feels like a dull antique. But I can sit through Madam Satan more times than I can Titanic. Tonight’s film actually beat out another oddity I was considering showing, Just Imagine, also from 1930. That film has the distinction of being the first ever science fiction musical comedy.

I think it’s about time now we all go to Hell with Madam Satan.

A rare Art Deco statue made to promote the film at theatres…

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Record Turnout For Park Ridge Series!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2012 by mchoffman

Program Host Matthew C. Hoffman
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For two weeks in a row, we’ve had record turnouts with our meeting room filled to capacity. Though we have a larger screen than most libraries, our seating capacity is limited to 90 officially. Two weeks in a row we’ve had lines of people waiting to get in. These lines have extended past the front door. What’s even more impressive is that last night’s turnout was for a silent movie made in 1928.

The line to get into the meeting room for Our Dancing Daughters: 3/22/12.

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These patrons are the real stars of the series. I only rack up the balls on the pool table and allow the films themselves to bring people in. You just need to know how to connect the past with the present in order to make these films relevant. Our patrons are knowledgeable and respectful towards the films. The regulars come for the right reasons. They either want to learn about film noir style, or what the Production Code was all about. Maybe they want to understand more about the tradition of silent comedy, or they want to learn about Art Deco set design in cinema, which is the focus of the current series. By contrast, how many venues have I been to where an older film is playing and younger people are laughing at things up on the screen that weren’t meant to be funny. And what they don’t understand they call “camp.”  I never get that at the Park Ridge Public Library. I’m grateful to have the support of people who actually care about film study.

In this past Thursday’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate there was a nice article by J.T. Morand about the series, which you can access by clicking here!

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Given the quality of the ten films coming up in our series, I don’t see attendance going down. I just wish we had a bigger facility. It’s a shame some of our local politicians lack the vision to see the importance of a library. To me, a library is the center of culture for a community. So instead of a meeting room half the size it should be with storage chairs, I hope one day we will be able to build the kind of library the residents of Park Ridge deserve– complete with a 200-seat “Little Theatre” with stadium seating and a theatre stage to accommodate lectures, performances, and film presentations. This is all the more important when actual movie theatres that play classic film are either disappearing or shutting down. But we will always keep the tradition alive in Park Ridge.

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Reaction to the Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series: Screen Deco

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2012 by mchoffman

Matthew,

Congratulations on a fantastic opening night. I really loved your video/intro and mini-lecture too. Learned a lot.

A great turnout too. I was lucky to get one of the last seats, and I arrived at 6:30! If you posted in the Chicago Tribune I don’t think you could fit anymore attendees in anyway, but you would get more of the recognition your film series deserves…..

Thanks for all your effort. Beautifully done. I regularly go to Eisenhower library, Northbrook, Portage, Music Box, etc, and your film series are by far the best.

Sincerely,

Joan L.

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The following is a letter to the editor of Pioneer Press. It was forwarded to me from one of our most loyal patons who believes we should get more exposure in the local papers. Personally, I thought our SCREEN DECO poster of Joan Crawford should’ve been on the cover of every Pioneer Press paper in the suburbs… instead of a picture of two dogs in a park.

Dear Mr. Schmitz,

 
Respectfully submitted for your attention, the attached scan from the Park Ridge Public Library newsletter contains information about an event that in my opinion deserves front page coverage on the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate. I believe it deserves such coverage for many reasons. First, since the Screen Deco Film Series ties in with the film The Artist, which just won the Best Picture Academy Award, a news story covering the series will have instant reader appeal. The Screen Deco series will help fans of The Artist put it into historical context. Second, the knowledgeable host, Matthew C. Hoffman, has chosen a top-notch line-up of films that aren’t readily available for viewing anywhere else. Third, it is a community event that is FREE and doesn’t even require pre-registration. People can just drop in to see the films that interest them without making a full commitment to be at the library every Thursday night.
 

For the above stated reasons and more, I ask that you consider featuring the Screen Deco Film Series on the front page of your newspaper. I am a long-time subscriber to the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate who feels that this event deserves great attention and support from our community.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kindest regards,

Caroline Schultz

Our Dancing Daughters (1928) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23, 2012 by mchoffman

“Young things with a talent for living”: Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford, and Anita Page in Our Dancing Daughters.
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Today our image of Joan Crawford is colored by the book and movie Mommie Dearest in which Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway) torments her daughter Christina with the “No wire hangers!” line. There were other stories of abuse that came out, but of course Joan was no longer alive to defend herself. Or the public remembers her for 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? opposite Bette Davis– or some of the horror thrillers she appeared in towards the end of her career. In later years, she became an onscreen caricature of herself, heavily made up and in padded shoulders. What the public has collectively forgotten is the initial impact Joan Crawford made on the silver screen.

With her Adrian gowns and her own fashion sense, she was one of the most glamorous of all stars in the 1930s. She was only 5 foot 4, but she was a giant in Hollywood. Her greatest role was that of a star, which she played onscreen and off. She once said, “I played the star Joan Crawford, not the woman Joan Crawford, to the hilt. Partly because of the image thing. Partly because I felt that I photographed better than I actually looked, so I tried desperately to make sure my makeup and wardrobe lived up to the image on the screen.”

Just last week a library patron was telling me she had met Crawford many years ago at a public appearance. This was when Joan was still working for the Pepsi-Cola Corporation. You felt like you were in the presence of a movie star. She still had that aura, she still dressed like a star, and she was still responsive towards her fans. Joan Crawford was the ultimate movie star, and Our Dancing Daughters contains the breakthrough performance that led her on that path to fame.

Joan Crawford’s life-story was like a Joan Crawford movie—the plot not unlike some of her films of the 1930s: the working class girl who grows up on the wrong side of the tracks only to make it big. Her life’s script opened on a scene in Texas in 1905 where she was born Lucille LeSueur.

Tomorrow, March 23rd, would’ve been her 107th birthday. Her father had abandoned the family before she was born. Her mother remarried and they lived in Oklahoma where her stepfather operated a movie theatre. The family moved again, this time to Missouri. Lucille was never well-educated, but she had ambition to succeed, and she dreamed of being a dancer.

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While performing as a chorus dancer, Lucille was discovered by a Broadway producer. Around this time she did a screen test which landed her a contract at MGM in 1925. But the studio didn’t like her name LeSueur, which to them sounded like “Sewer.” A contest was started where readers of the fan magazine Movie Weekly could pick her new name. The newly-christened “Joan Crawford” appeared in bit roles and then as a featured player. She claimed she learned everything about acting from Lon Chaney, Sr., whom she worked with in The Unknown in 1927.

Crawford worked within the studio system, but ultimately, it wasn’t MGM that propelled her. It was her own drive and determination to make it to the top, to surpass stars like Norma Shearer. Joan maintained a rigorous regimen of self-improvement because she wanted to move up on the social ladder as well as in the credits. To her, the whole world was a soundstage, and upon this stage she became what her public expected her to be. But Our Dancing Daughters tapped into the person she felt she was inside. Much of her personality and vitality was in the character Diana. We even see her dancing on tables. When she wasn’t acting, Joan Crawford was dancing the Charleston all over Hollywood. Her nightlife activity paid off with 84 trophies won in various dancing competitions.

Our Dancing Daughters is the quintessential Jazz Age movie. As Diana, Crawford became a symbol of the new woman. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

Another daughter in this film, the gold-digging party girl Ann, is played by Anita Page, who spends most of the film scowling like a brat. And she has one of the longest drunk scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Anita Page was born in New York in 1910. Prior to her death in 2008 at the age of 98, Anita took pride in being known as the last surviving silent film star. Though Anglo-Saxon in appearance, Anita’s heritage was actually Salvadoran and Spanish. Her career began on the New York stage in the mid-1920s, but by 1927 she was making movies in Hollywood. She worked opposite some of the biggest stars at MGM including Buster Keaton, but in the mid-1930s she walked away from Hollywood. She made an ill-fated comeback in the 2000s, but it wasn’t as dignified as Gloria Stuart’s comeback, for example, in the movie Titanic. Sadly, Anita appeared in some direct-to-dvd horror movies that were about as far removed from MGM as you can get.

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Like Joan Crawford in her youth, Dorothy Sebastian, who plays Beatrice in this film, wanted to be a dancer and an actress. She was born in Alabama, and according to one online source, she had a very heavy Southern accent. She eventually ran away to New York where she hounded theatrical agents for employment. But it was a Hollywood screen test in the mid-‘20s that led her to success at MGM. Dorothy was romantically involved with Buster Keaton, whom she co-starred with in 1929’s Spite Marriage, but eventually she married future Hop-along Cassidy star, William Boyd. This was her second of three marriages. For more about Dorothy Sebastian, there’s a very well-organized website on her at: www.dorothysebastian.com.

The male lead in the film is played by Johnny Mack Brown, a former University of Alabama football star who hit it big in Hollywood and then had a resurgence later as a B-Western hero. One of my favorite films that he appeared in was 1931’s The Last Flight, which follows a group of recently discharged World War I pilots as they go carousing around Paris, “getting tight.” That’s the whole plot, but it’s a poignant reflection of The Lost Generation, and it rivals the best of Hemingway. Johnny Mack Brown will turn up later in Screen Deco with Female, which he made at Warner Brothers.

Our Dancing Daughters was directed by Harry Beaumont who had his best years in the silent era. His career as a director went as far back as 1914, and it would last until the late 1940s when he was directing Ann Sothern in the Maisie film series. But the high point in his career was directing MGM’s first talking musical, The Broadway Melody, in 1929. Beaumont was nominated for Best Director, and though he lost, the film did win the Best Picture honors. Broadway Melody—not to be confused with Universal’s Broadway of the same year—starred Anita Page.

At the time, Our Dancing Daughters tried to be modern in all aspects, certainly on a social level with it’s depiction of the “pleasure-mad generation.” Even the costumes reflect this. In press material for the film, Joan Crawford is quoted as saying,

“The spirit of modernity finds expression in the clothes we wear. They are startling. They do not blend; they contrast. They do not conceal; they expose. They do not rustle; they swing. They do not curve; they angle. Perhaps this new feeling in dress finds its first and most definite expression in the motion picture world. We are the first to exploit a style… my own wardrobe, and the wardrobe worn by Dorothy Sebastian and Anita Page, breathe the very essence of restless activity.”

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Technically, Our Dancing Daughters was hardly modern because its silence came in the wake of the talkie revolution. And yet, people still wanted to see silent movies. The film is not totally silent because it has a synchronized soundtrack incorporating music and sound effects and even some dialogue in the background. One can still hear the roar of the Roaring Twenties.

The plot may be outdated with its female-centric melodrama, and the constant musical repetition of the melody “I Loved You Then As I Love You Now” beats the viewer over the head. Despite this, there are still universal truths here that make it relevant and less like a creaky antique. When Diana tells her parents in frustration that “Men want flattery—trickery—lies!” it strikes a chord that can be heard generations later when men are still drawn to “lying imitations.” The film is progressive in the sense that one of the daughters, Beatrice, has a past, but she’s depicted sympathetically. And yet, the film is also conservative because all the girls seem to believe in marriage. They just have different approaches on how to get a husband. With Ann, pretending to be decent is the surest way to hook a rich one.

Though its conflicting social values can be debated, what is apparent from the outset is Joan Crawford’s vibrancy. She brings a lot of energy to this film—and she has more substance as an actress than other flappers of ‘20s cinema like Clara Bow. You see that enthusiasm with the waist-high shot of her dancing while slipping on her underwear. Young people at the time were drawn to this character because she wasn’t anything like Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish, who were iconic actresses of the 1920s who represented a more traditional, almost Victorian image of women. Crawford’s Diana, by contrast, was having fun, but she remained true to herself. In surveys taken by the Payne Fund from 1929 to 1932, which recorded the impact of motion pictures on teenagers and young people, Our Dancing Daughters was mentioned the most. Girls admired Diana’s “sense of fair play.”

The most memorable aspect for me is the film’s aesthetics; namely, the set design by supervising art director Cedric Gibbons and his colleague, Richard Day. This is why I’m showing the film–not because it’s an important social document of 1920s culture, but because Our Dancing Daughters is an architectural landmark in Art Deco. Cedric Gibbons had attended the Paris Exposition in 1925 and had new ideas for modern décor. The home where Diana resides is an amazing Art Deco set with high-gloss floors, dancing figurines and other Deco statuary, and sleek furniture. MGM films were always about the rich—characters that go horseback riding or frequent yacht clubs. It was a world of cocktails and dance parties. The furnishings, therefore, reflect that high-toned lifestyle. The film was so influential it inspired set designs in other films as well as home decorating. The public simply wanted to live like these modern stars.

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Our Dancing Daughters was a sensation and spawned two follow-ups with similar themes and decor: Our Modern Maidens in 1929 and Our Blushing Brides in 1930. The latter is not commercially available, but I do have clips from it in the Screen Deco blog which a friend had uploaded to youtube. A viewer can see the Art Deco influence in those brief scenes as well. Ideally, it’s not the recommended way of seeing a film, but for the purposes of this program I recommend checking it out.

An Epic Opening Night: Cleopatra on the Ides of March by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 16, 2012 by mchoffman

March 15 was our biggest premiere ever for the Park Ridge Public Library’s Classic Film Series. Cleopatra (1934) deserved nothing less than long lines and standing room only. We brought in crowds that DeMille himself would’ve been proud of. It’s a testament to the film that some in the audience even stood during the entire presentation. The following is a transcript of my talk on Cleopatra…

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Before I begin, I would like to mention someone who is not with us here tonight. Last week I mailed a film brochure to one of my regulars who attends these programs, and he also supported me when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in Chicago. The envelope was returned in the mail… I discovered that last summer he had passed away at the age of 80. His name was Bob Rosterman. Bob didn’t have a computer, so he used to send me various news items in the mail on actors like Fredric March and Ronald Colman. Bob was a classic movie historian and knew the film business. However, he did not like movie serials, so I’m sure he would’ve given me a hard time for playing an episode of Flash Gordon in this series. One of his favorite films was Gone With the Wind, and the last time I spoke to him he was telling me about a special screening of that film he would be attending in Atlanta. Bob will be missed…

Art Deco, which is what this entire series is about, was not confined to the contemporary settings of the 1920s and ‘30s. It manifested itself in the ancient world as well. Egypt had influenced the emergence of Art Deco, and now Deco has influenced Egypt. Tonight’s film is perhaps the finest example of Modern decor in a film rooted in the distant past. The streamlined throne of Cleopatra– designed by art director Hans Dreier– and the sleek costumes– designed by Travis Banton– reflect a Modern style. Art Deco radiates off the screen in this film. It’s not surprising given the background of director Cecil B. DeMille, who had made several Art Deco-styled social dramas in the 1920s.

DeMille is primarily known today for the Biblical epics he made. He once famously said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” But his career was much more diverse than that. His first film, The Squaw Man, in 1914, was actually a western– and the first film shot in Hollywood. He was a director of society dramas, Jazz Age comedies—even bedroom farce, and you’ll see that later in the series when we play Madam Satan, which is also a musical. But DeMille was clearly in his own element making epics because the genre was suited to his over-the-top style. Cleopatra is considered one of his best films. There is no sermonizing, no sentiment. Its romantic qualities are what make it endearing to modern audiences.

Cleopatra benefits greatly from Victor Milner’s cinematography, and he did win an Oscar for it. Milner’s camera captures the timeless quality of the Queen of the Nile—a historical figure who has for generations inspired painters, writers, and filmmakers. One of the most striking shots in the film comes at the end of the seduction scene aboard a barge. A curtain closes on the lovers Antony and Cleopatra, and then the camera gradually pulls back to reveal the oarsmen and the beat of a drum. It’s the quality of the image that makes this film so cinematic. Throughout Cleopatra there is a visual sophistication at work as to how shots are framed. Note the visual metaphor of harp strings being caressed while Antony and Cleopatra relax in the background.

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Hand in hand with the cinematography is the art direction by Hans Dreier. Born in Germany and influenced by the Bauhaus school of design, Dreier started in the famed UFA studio before emigrating to the United States in the late 1920s. He would go on to work on many of Ernst Lubitsch’s most famous films in the early 1930s. The continental elegance of Paramount was largely the work of Dreier. He gave the films a distinctive glow. Dreier designed eleven films for Cecil B. DeMille, and he would win three Academy Awards for Art Direction throughout his career. Some of his best work in Art Deco can be found in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which I had played in my pre-Code film series exactly two years ago.

But greater than the sets are the stunning images of Cleopatra herself. She is played by the French-born, New York-raised Claudette Colbert. She was a former Broadway actress who became a major star at Paramount where she excelled in dramas and screwball comedies. She would in time become the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Colbert had a very good year in 1934, having appeared in three films that were nominated for Best Picture: Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and It Happened One Night, which did win the Oscar. Colbert was at her best when she won for Best Actress in the Frank Capra film. In tonight’s film, she plays Cleopatra as a woman both alluring and cunning, whose political power comes from her ability to seduce. Colbert exuded an authority on-screen which separated her from many of her acting peers.

During the making of Cleopatra, Colbert was still recovering from the effects of appendicitis suffered during her previous film, Four Frightened People, which was shot in Hawaii and directed by DeMille. For Cleopatra, she had to find the strength to overcome her fear of snakes. In Empire of Dreams, author Scott Eyman writes that DeMille “knew that she didn’t like the idea of handling snakes, even so small a snake as the creature that was playing the part of the asp with which Cleopatra commits suicide. DeMille solved the problem by walking onto the set holding a five-foot-long California king snake, ominous-looking but harmless. Colbert was appalled. “Oh, Mr. DeMille, I couldn’t touch that snake! I couldn’t possibly. Please don’t ask me to.” At that point, DeMille handed off the king snake and brought out the small snake, “Oh, that one?” exclaimed Colbert. “Why, that’s just a baby!”

Having once considered a career in fashion design, Colbert was not at all happy with the costumes designed by DeMille’s staff. She insisted on Travis Banton being brought in. Banton was considered one of the finest fashion designers of the 1930s.  He basically designed on the spot and turned out magnificent Egyptian headdresses and revealing costumes for Colbert. Her costume changes, like her grand entrances in this film, come quite often and are all memorable.

Warren William’s Caesar is warned of the ides of March…

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Warren William portrays Julius Caesar. William came over from Warner Brothers where he often played amoral cads in various pre-Code films. One of which I had wanted to play in this series, Skyscraper Souls, but it’s unavailable on dvd. There’s a terrific book out on him called Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of the Pre-Code Hollywood. He really had an interesting life as an actor and also as an amateur inventor, having designed essentially a vacuum cleaner for leaves similar to what landscapers use today.

Henry Wilcoxon was an English actor who was discovered by DeMille quite by accident. One day while in the process of casting Cleopatra, DeMille was waiting to use the projection room at the Paramount studio when he recalled hearing a masculine voice from the test film being played. DeMille inquired as to whose voice that was. He was told it belonged to a stage actor from London by the name of Harry Wilcoxon. At that moment, as the story goes, DeMille knew he had found his Marc Antony. Wilcoxon would star in other DeMille films such as The Crusades and eventually became an associate producer for him.

Other notable performers in tonight’s film include character actors C. Aubrey Smith, who always had such commanding presence and who gives a poignant performance here as Antony’s top Roman general, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Irving Pichel as Cleopatra’s advisor. Pichel also had a career as a director and he co-directed 1935’s She, which we will see later in this series.

It’s been said that Cleopatra is one part Shakespeare, one part Shaw, and two parts DeMille. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a DeMille production in terms of extravagance and spectacular set pieces like the royal barge. According to a film teacher who has written me recently, the barge sequence, which features such oddities as a fishing net full of half-naked girls, always gets the attention of younger film students when it’s shown in class as an example of the difference a director can make. Cleopatra doesn’t go as far as 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, which is a pre-Code classic, but it’s still suggestive in a toned-down way.

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This was actually one of the last films made before the Production Code went into effect. It was shot in March and April of 1934 and released in August. The Production Code took effect on July 1st, 1934.

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Cleopatra: “Together we could conquer the world.”

Caesar: “Nice of you to include me.”

One of the criticisms of the film is that the dialogue has that ‘30s attitude. It’s not how characters would have talked at that time. But in a way, that approach makes it more immediate for contemporary viewers. To feel anything for characters so far removed from the present is a challenge, and perhaps if the dialogue had been more historically accurate it would also have been more emotionally distant to DeMille’s audience. This isn’t Shakespearian dialogue written for the stage. It’s movie dialogue for the screen, and it makes the characters more human. The same could be said of the acting itself. Colbert seems more a product of New York than the Nile. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write: “Regardless of the historical period in which a film is set, contemporary styles seep in, if only in the acting. Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra behaved like the clever mistress of an out-of-town tycoon, but a more regal interpretation might not have seemed effective to 1934 audiences.”

But you don’t watch DeMille’s films for their historical accuracy. His relevance as a filmmaker was not in creating realism; it was in how he represented a historical event the DeMille way. He was theatrical and direct as a storyteller. The film opens with all the energy of his silent film technique. No words are necessary. We are immediately involved, racing along with the speeding chariots.

Of technical interest, I’d like to note that there is a montage sequence in this film during the Battle of Actium which involves process shots and old footage from his silent version of The Ten Commandments. It’s interesting that the great production designer William Cameron Menzies worked on this sequence. It’s the only time he collaborated with DeMille. Whether this condensed battle is effective or just repetitive with little drama, you can decide for yourself. This pivotal confrontation certainly felt more epic– and even more intimate– in the generally inferior 1963 remake of Cleopatra with Richard Burton’s Antony charging out alone on his horse to meet the Roman army. By contrast, the confrontation and battle in DeMille’s film does not feel epic in scale. Only a few brief shots tell us it’s even a sea battle. I would assume that only budgetary constraints kept him from making the kind of sequence he was certainly capable of putting on the screen. Had DeMille lived long enough, I wonder if he would’ve considered remaking Cleopatra in color and CinemaScope.

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There’s a reason DeMille’s films still hold up all these years later; they are monuments that will withstand the test of time. It’s a reflection of his skill as a director that this version of Cleopatra is the one most fondly remembered. And like Cleopatra putting on a show for Antony on her royal barge, DeMille always put on a show for his audience. He spoke in a language the public would understand. With the ultimate goal to entertain, he brought to life the myth and majesty of a distant, romantic past.

Tell Us What You Think!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2012 by mchoffman

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Let us know how we are doing!

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Get Deco-fied at the Park Ridge Public Library…

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We won’t have a refreshment stand in the meeting room, but you can get our Screen Deco t-shirts. They can be ordered in advance until May 31 exclusively at the Park Ridge Public Library. Please email me for details… Help us get the word out by wearing these terrific white-on-black shirts based on our official poster.

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The Film Architect: Part 2 by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 5, 2012 by mchoffman

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In our press material for the Screen Deco film series, there is an emphasis on the first-class lifestyle– what I call “finding your inner millionaire.” I was recently asked by a local reporter who has supported us over the years whether I had made a conscious attempt to make the series topical since there is so much talk of class warfare in today’s political scene. But this series was conceived when “Occupy Wall Street” was but a gleam in some unemployed student’s eye. The only politics I’m concerned with are the politics of cinema, and I’m more interested in the lasting work of art directors than politicians. These Art Deco films were geared for audiences who at that time admired the captains of industry and wanted to live that screen-inspired lifestyle of elegance.

Another recent question came from a library patron who asked me whether I had been inspired by The Artist. Now, again, this series was being developed long before The Artist captured the Academy’s heart with its silent film trappings. The Artist didn’t inspire Screen Deco, but the genuine artistry of D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau, Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, inspired this film historian. If anything, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo inspired me to one day return to the silent film medium.

I’ve operated on the fringe of cinema history, so I will always strive to put something original together. I have an appreciation for cinema that’s as wide as CinemaScope. It goes back to the days when I ran the LaSalle Bank revival house and designed offbeat programs like the William Dieterle retrospective. So it’s unlikely I would tap popular genres that are suggested to me. They call me a “film historian,” but what does that mean for me? I don’t know the trivia of who won Best Actress in 1963 or things like that. Trivia isn’t what makes you a good programmer. For me, being a film historian just means I have enough sense to recognize directors like Capra or Ford or Hawks… not the Spielbergs and Lucases of the world. If I ever did feature a theme or subject that was more contemporary– at least, compared to what I’ve done in the past– you can be assured that it will be explored in a new light.

Another patron made a suggestion that next year I profile Clooney. I was like ??? I realized she meant George Clooney. Normally when patrons make suggestions to me I will be polite and say I will consider requests even though I have no intention of showing Shirley Temple movies or B-Westerns. But this was an instance when I said outright, “Absolutely not.”  The people who come to the programs I do are not coming to see George Clooney. You can Netflix George’s political thrillers instead. Even popular classic actors whom I love like Humphrey Bogart probably won’t get a retrospective. Being on the fringe means I’m more motivated to profile actors like Fredric March or Ronald Colman and others the general public has long since forgotten.

It’s important to me to keep alive the memory of stars who deserve it. In his preface to Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood (2011), author John Stangeland expresses what’s at the heart of my mission statement. Though he is writing of the great character actor Warren William, what he says could just as easily be applied to other stars we profile in my programs. Stangeland writes:

“It is only the curious interest of that fringe that now hosts the memory of his (Warren’s) fame, and moment by moment, other events, people and things are crowding in, vying for space. Fortunately, the ongoing digital media revolution will likely ensure that Warren’s films– along with other art great and obscure– will remain available to be viewed far into the future. But in that long-off era of cultural Alzheimer’s– when not just a hundred years, but thousands of years of recorded media compete for our attention– who will know that they ever existed? For those that come after us then, it is our duty to remember those things we love– whatever they may be– and pass on the history, the art, and the joy of rediscovery.”

Our Classic Film Series is a safe haven where we completely avoid pop culture’s stain. We avoid those temporary things that clog up our shelves, compete for the (general) public’s short attention span, and keep people from finding the films that should be re-discovered. We’re a refuge from Breaking Dawn, Jack and Jill, Arthur, Transformers, Abduction (because the world needs another Taylor Lautner movie), network and cable TVand all the other popular ephemera that will be buried by the sands of time. I am fortunate to have the support of so many like-minded friends who recognize this. Additionally, I am honored to have gotten the attention of other groups who believe in what I am doing. In February I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Chicago Art Deco Society’s annual meeting at Roosevelt University. One of the nicest compliments I received came from CADS president Joe Loundy, who told me he wished he could’ve done Screen Deco. To receive such praise from a distinguished organization like CADS is indeed a high honor.

Chicago Art Deco Society president Joe Loundy with Matthew C. Hoffman

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Our Screen Deco series begins in just under two weeks with Cleopatra (1934). Like the lasting tombs of the pharaohs, I will be taking audiences into the movie vault of the eternal. As well-publicized as it is (by the library), I had hoped to make the event even bigger. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to premiere the series right across the street from the library at the Art Deco Pickwick Theatre on March 15? But without sufficient 35mm projection equipment for an archival studio print, that idea did not come to pass. Of course, there is the option to “digitally project,” but the Film Historian doesn’t roll that way. I’ve never seen a classic film look good when digitally projected onto a theatre screen. Classic films were shot on film and so need to be seen on film if possible. I recently viewed a 35mm print of the W.C. Field’s silent comedy So’s Your Old Man (1926) projected at the Portage Theatre in Chicago. The image quality was amazing, and absolutely nothing can duplicate actual film stock. I applaud the Northwest Chicago Film Society for insisting on projecting actual film prints on Wednesday nights. Film is important to me, and if there was anything in The Artist that I could relate to, it was the image of actor George Valentin being dragged out of his burning apartment while clutching a can of film.

Perhaps then it’s fitting I would open the series with a filmmaker I’ve admired, C.B. DeMille– a showman who put together big extravaganzas for the public and was known for some sermonizing. In my case, the only sermonizing I do is preaching the need to view these films the way they were meant to be seen– with an audience. Not on your phone or computer… So I hope we get the media attention needed to make this the biggest epic yet at the Park Ridge Public Library.

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