Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Cure for Pokeritis

Directed by Laurence Trimble
The United States of America

I apologize if these pictures are blurry. The only copy of this film that I could find was on youtube, so these were taken as screenshots on my MacBookPro.

He wears a poor fitting suit and vest and sports a smashed, battered old black hat. His face looks like somebody shoved a bicycle pump up his nose and used it until his cheeks, jowls, and nose became permanently inflated and disjointed from his skull. His wife isn’t much better off, either. Her head looks like somebody from the Amazon tried to shrink it but forgot to remove the skull first. Her nose juts forward with such force that it could probably be used as an icepick. Though they might seem unfamiliar to modern day audiences, these two faces were amongst the most recognizable by many of the earliest film audiences. For they were John Bunny and Flora Finch. Together, they starred in over one hundred short comedies for Vitagraph Studios. They were affectionately referred to by the public as “Bunnyfinches.” These films would comprise one of the earliest bodies of work by a silent comedian. Before Buster Keaton, before Charlie Chaplin, before the silent clowns that would be remembered and loved by generations of audiences and filmmakers, there was John Bunny. Widely considered to be the first comic star in the United States, with the aid of Flora Finch, John Bunny became one of the first pioneers of silent comedy.

If one would look for an example of Bunny’s work, they couldn’t do better than A Cure for Pokeritis. The film was a pristine summation of the John Bunny shtick. It starred Bunny as a husband hopelessly addicted to poker.

His affliction is so severe that he even tricks his wife, played by Finch, into believing that he is a member of a special society that would charge him $10 for each missed weekly meeting. But, alas, Bunny is a restless sleeper. One night, he confesses in his sleep to his grand deception. This was, of course, after he had sworn to stop playing poker. So his wife hires their Cousin Freddie to investigate Bunny’s “meetings.” Upon Freddie’s confirmation of Bunny’s illicit deeds, she convinces her Bible group to dress up like policemen and pretend to raid their game. So the Bible group dons fake uniforms and storms the game parlor.

After a few brief moments of putting the fear of God into their hearts, their wives come into the room and reveal the deception. Husbands and wives embrace and make up, Finch gently pets Bunny’s head, and all is right in the world.

Though the film only clocks in at about twelve minutes, it might seem difficult for modern audiences to sit through, especially ones expecting the polished humor of, say, Keaton or Chaplin. But that is because A Cure for Pokeritis wasn’t funny in the way that we expect silent comedies to be. The film contains no over-the-top slapstick, visual gags, or witty turns of phrase in the dialogue. Instead, audiences from the 1910s would have found humor simply in the situation. At the turn of the 20th century, fat comedians were seen as cute and cuddly. As a result, audiences would have found great amusement at watching a hapless John Bunny try and thwart his wife in the same way that we would laugh at a cat play with a particularly arrogant piece of string.

Films like A Cure for Pokeritis demonstrate the birthing pains of silent comedy. But it also serves as a prime example of early cinematic innovation. Take, for instance, the poker game raid scene. When the “police” arrive to “raid” the poker game, we see the inside of the parlor where the players are positioned in the foreground.

Establishing shot with the gamblers in the foreground and the servant in the background at the upper left.

Suddenly, their black servant enters from the left side of the background. Having spotted the police, he sneaks behind the players, alerts another patron, and exits to the right.

The servant escapes in the background while the players in the foreground remain oblivious.

A “policeman” sneaks up behind the oblivious gamblers using a coat-rack to hide himself.

The first policeman sneaks in while hiding behind a coat-rack.

He signals the rest of the “officers” into the room. Two other “policeman” sneak behind the unsuspecting victims before the rest of them come in and break up the game.

The "policemen" position themselves before they attack.

This might seem like a trivial, commonplace scene to modern viewers. But consider that in 1912, most films were still operating under the tyranny of theatrical staging, blocking, and acting. As a result, most of these early films operated within one depth of field with their characters occupying the foreground. This scene is an early example of a filmmaker simultaneously carrying out a scene in two different depths of field. Even more interesting is how it is used to create a comedic situation. So, this scene demonstrates an early, primordial comedic language that existed explicitly within the realm of cinema.

I understand that this might be a little difficult to understand for people unversed in cinematic language, so allow me to elaborate. If such a scene was blocked and choreographed on-stage, it would have to be done in a way so that every audience member, regardless of whether they are up front or in the balconies, could see all of the action. Therefore, simply having the characters walk behind each other for comedic effect wouldn’t be prudent, considering that audience members in the front of the theater would have their view blocked by the characters in the foreground. But the cinema creates a flat spatial plane wherein every single audience member, regardless of their position in the theater, can get the exact same view of the action. As a result, there is no need to compensate for people who are closer to the screen. This frees the filmmaker to create multiple depths of field within the frame that can act independently of each other. Such a division would be nearly impossible to reconstruct on a traditional flat stage. So this scene in A Cure for Pokeritis uses the limitations of a fixed view to its advantage in order to create a comedic scene that is inherently cinematic.

While A Cure for Pokeritis may seem boring and contrived today, it remains a crucial piece of cinematic history. It represented early efforts to utilize the silver screen as a transmitter of comedy instead of just historical dramas, newsreels, and stage reproductions. Through such films, John Bunny helped make the movies funny. All silent comedians and their modern-day counterparts owe a great deal of debt to him. It is our duty as film lovers to preserve and commemorate such an important talent and his films...even if they don’t seem funny anymore.

Part One

Part Two

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Announcement: Four From the Vault

Well, folks...it's near the end of 2011. That means that another 25 films have been added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry! To be included in the National Film Registry is one of the highest honors that a film can receive. I'll let the Library of Congress' website explain:

"Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, each year the Librarian of Congress names 25 films to the National Film Registry that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant. "These films are selected because of their enduring significance to American culture," said Billington. "Our film heritage must be protected because these cinematic treasures document our history and culture and reflect our hopes and dreams."

Some of the films chosen for inclusion this year are established classics, such as:
- Bambi (1942)
- The Big Heat (1953)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- The Iron Horse (1924)
- The Kid (1921)
- The Lost Weekend (1945)
- Norma Rae (1979)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Stand and Deliver (1988)
- Twentieth Century (1934)
- War of the Worlds (1953)

However, many of this year's entries were films that I had never heard of. In fact, many of them are films so obscure that I wouldn't be too surprised if almost nobody outside of academia had heard of them. So, over the next four weeks, I am going to be reviewing four of these movies. Get ready, folks! We've got some interesting reviews coming up here at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear!

Nathanael Hood

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Longest Day

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, Darryl F. Zanuck, John Wayne
The United States of America

In hindsight, it's a little unfair that The Longest Day was destined to be released the same year as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. As a result, The Longest Day will always be overshadowed by the film that is said to be one of the greatest film epics of all time. And, really, that isn't fair. The Longest Day is one of the most ambitious and massive films ever produced by Hollywood. The film sported five screenwriters and a whopping six directors. The result: one of the finest war films ever made about World War Two. It seems inevitable that history will remember Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as the definitive film about the D-Day Normandy landings. However, while Saving Private Ryan focused on a very small group of soldiers, The Longest Day encompasses the entirety of the forces involved in that terrible battle. The filmmakers brought in military consultants, many of whom actually fought during D-Day, from both the Allied and Axis camps. It is estimated that 23,000 troops were brought in from the American, British, and French armed forces for shoting. Darryl F. Zanuck, the principle director, effectively commanded more “soldiers” than any general did during the invasion. The film poster boasts 42 international stars, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Robert Mitchum. It cost $10,000,000 to make, earning it the title of most expensive black-and-white film ever made until 1993 and the release of Schindler's List.

But enough about the technical aspects. The true triumph of The Longest Day is how it compressed all of the events surrounding D-Day, including occurrences on both sides of the beach, into three hours. We see the Allied soldiers as they wait for the final order to cross the English Channel. We see the German command organize a desperate defense at the sight of the largest amphibious invading force in world history knock on Normandy's door. We see preliminary paratroopers landing behind enemy lines to sabotage German defenses. We see French Resistance members joining the struggle. We see the death and carnage on the beaches. And yet, at no point is the human element of the story lost. At all times we feel deeply connected to the characters onscreen, even if they are only there for a few minutes.

And really, it is the human element of D-Day that makes that historic event so fascinating. We know of the general specifics of the invasion and defense forces: 175,000 Allied troops and merely 10,000 German. And yet, it is so easy to forget that each of those troops had a story to tell on that horrible day. Thankfully, The Longest Day frames each element of the invasion with characters, many of which were based off real soldiers.

For instance, take the scenes detailing the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. During a night assault code-named “Mission Boston,” 6,420 paratroopers were dropped on both sides of the Merderet River on the French Cotentin Peninsula five hours before the landing crafts hit the beaches. Their job was to capture key locations in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the German defenses. However, the drops went horrifically, with most of the troops completely missing their drop points. Many of these troops were killed due to bad landings or because they were intercepted by German troops. With a grim solemnity, the film doesn’t shy away from the fates of these doomed soldiers. We watch as they crash into houses, get caught on trees, and in one horrific instance, land square into an open well.

Thankfully, as history tells us, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, led by Benjamin H. Vandervoot, landed accurately and were able to capture and defend the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Vandervoot is played by John Wayne in a terrifying performance. Wayne gives a face to not just a soldier, but an entire regiment of troops whose success was crucial to the Allies’ victory.

Or consider the vignettes focusing on individual groups of soldiers storming the beaches. The troops aren’t portrayed as faceless drones, but as people faced with an impossible goal. The scenes following British troops on Sword and Gold Beaches. Many of these scenes are dominated by a close group of comrades (one of which is played by a young Sean Connery) that we grow close to. And, yes, even the German soldiers are given respectful portrayals. Zanuck made sure that the Germans were not shown in a stereotypical manner. He even had the German director Bernhard Wicki shoot the scenes with the German army officers. As such, the Germans come off as men who are tired of war and well-aware that the incoming invasion spells their doom. Considering that many of the German officers were played by their real-life counterparts, I suspect that this might not have been too far from the truth.

While during the filming of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shied away from using actual locations to shoot the beach scenes. However, Zanuck took great pains to shoot on the same beaches that the soldiers landed on. Of course, much maintenance was required before the locales were safe enough to film on. Permanent monuments dedicated to the invasion had to be hidden behind sandbags and disguised as bunkers.

Unexploded mines still littered the beaches. As a result, Zanuck hired 41 U.S. and German sappers to identify areas where the actors would be safe. As a humorous side note, while preparing a section of Normandy Beach near Ponte du Hoc, the crew accidentally discovered a tank that had been buried in the sand during the actual invasion. The tank was repaired by mechanics and used during the film as part of the British tank regiment.

So much work, time, and effort went into the creation of this truly gargantuan film. In an age where entire armies and planets can be created at the click of a mouse, it’s refreshing to see old school filmmaking that operated on a truly massive scale. Such films contain something that no computer can replicate: a sense of authenticity. And really, authenticity should be the key word when creating a film about such a momentous event. The D-Day Normandy landings are easily one of the most important moments of 20th century history. There were at least 16,000 casualties on both sides of this great battle. In a film that pays tribute to such a great loss of life, computer graphics just don’t cut it...you need the real thing. And The Longest Day provides just that: as close a historical reconstruction as the cinema has ever provided.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On Hiatus...AGAIN!

Dag-nab it! Just as I was ready to get this blog back on the road, my graduate school work suddenly exploded! I'm going to be so busy over the next two weeks that I won't be able to write any entries! I'll be back by December 17. Until then, thanks for being loyal readers!

I pray that SOON I'll be able to truly get this blog back into shape!

Nathanael Hood