Man of Aran

(UK 1934)

It’s not very often that I’m torn on a film, but Robert J. Flaherty’s pseudo documentary Man of Aran is one where I am. First the good news: from a technical standpoint, this is a visually captivating film; crammed with impossibly rich and downright dangerous shots of the treacherous North Atlantic, the blacks are as dark as squid ink, the whites are as shimmeringly luminous as Tijuana silver, and the greys are a stunningly natural and lovely compromise between the two. These shades of grey are what impressed me most about this film. You’d be hard pressed to find a better fit for a nitrate print.

Now for the bad news: for all its visual allure, Man of Aran is boring. It unflinchingly shows what it takes to survive on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, but it fails to explain why anyone would choose to do it. I was ready to leave after a half hour of watching waves crash on the rocks and men who look the Edge attack a shark. Yawn! I would have liked this better maybe if Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie” were part of the soundtrack.

With Colman ‘Tiger’ King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane, Pat Mullin, Patch ‘Red Beard’ Ruadh, Patcheen Faherty, Tommy O’Rourke, ‘Big Patcheen’ Conneely of the West, Stephen Dirrane, Pat McDonough

Production: Gainsborough Pictures

Distribution: Gaumont British Distributors (UK), Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America (USA), Éditions Montparnasse (France)

76 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A+ (visuals) / F (everything else) / C (average)

Nitrate Picture Show

Vesyole Rebyata [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows]

(Soviet Union / Russia 1935)

It might seem strange to see a 1930s Soviet slapstick big band musical ostensibly made just for fun, but that’s what Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s Vesyole Rebyata [Весёлые ребята] [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows] is. Frankly, it is strange, or at least not anything I expected.

A sort of Depression Era communist Three’s Company, the humor here is crude: sex, mistaken identity, and class are the backbone of this comedy about a bizarre love triangle between a shepherd (Leonid Utyosov), a privileged diplomat’s daughter (Mariya Strelkova), and her housemaid (Lyubov Orlova).

Moscow Laughs is silly as hell, and it works on a certain level, to a certain point. The whole story — Lena (Strelkova), an opportunistic wannabe singer, woos Kostya (Utyosov), a shepherd whom she thinks is a famous Italian jazz conductor when she meets him on a beach — is funny at first. She invites him to her fancy hotel for dinner, calling him “maestro” and flattering him every way she can. Of course, he’s smitten.

Kostya shows up in a borrowed suit. Lena’s servant, Anyuta (Orlova), recognizes him because she’s admired him from afar for awhile — and she knows he’s not bourgeois. Kostya makes the boneheaded error of playing his pan pipe when asked to perform — the same pipe he plays to corral the animals under his charge. Hearing him play, the animals — pigs, sheep, goats, and cows — bust out of their kolkhoz and crash the party, literally. Hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately, Moscow Laughs loses steam once the setup is complete. The story rambles on through a few more episodes separated by cute animated shorts of the moon dancing and some time. Things get wacky. A bit too wacky for my taste.

Technically, Moscow Laughs reads as a transitional work; Aleksandrov clearly executes big ideas but maybe seems to operate from a mindset geared toward silent film. Stalin approved this film, and I can see why: the screenplay, written by Aleksandrov with Nikolay Erdman and Vladimir Mass, criticizes class and capitalism. The hammer and sickle prominently displayed above the stage removes any doubt that this is propaganda — it’s just social and not overtly political. It’s also very cheerful.

With Elena Tyapkina, Fyodor Kurikhin, Arnold, Robert Erdman, Marya Ivanovna, Emmanuil Geller

Production: Grading Dimension Pictures, Moskinokombinat

Distribution: Eduard Weil & Company (Austria), Amkino Corporation (USA), Facets Multimedia Distribution, Grading Dimension Pictures (International)

90 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C+

Nitrate Picture Show

Restless Blood [Levoton veri]

(Finland 1946)

The third Nitrate Picture Show ended on a high note with an unidentified film (the “blind date”) that turned out to be Finnish director Teuvo Tulio’s gloriously insane melodrama Restless Blood [Levoton veri]. I never heard of the director, the film, or anyone in it. I adore this silly spectacle, which straddles the line between soap opera and Saturday morning cartoon.

The story is a love triangle involving two sisters, elder Sylvi (Regina Linnanheimo) and younger Outi (Toini Vartiainen), and Valter Sora (Eino Katajavuori), a burly doctor in their small town. Outi is his patient—she broke her leg—but Sylvi snags him as a husband. Not that Outi has no chance—she does, which she proves when she returns after disappearing, heartbroken, for a few years. Oh yeah—Sylvi goes blind in the meantime: she drinks poison.

Written by Tulio, Linnanheimo, and Nisse Hirn, the script is prime time dynamite. And fresh even by today’s standards. Forget the Ewings and the Carringtons—loaded with sibling rivalry and drama, Restless Blood is the raw and bitter real deal.

Here’s Sylvi driving like a maniac, “blinded” by rage:

img_9487

Come on! That coat, those glasses, that pissed off vengeful smoke! It’s perfect. When we see that Sylvi gets what’s going on between her husband and her sister, wow. Just…wow. The story is thin, but the actors put a lot into it. Bonus: Pentti Lintonen’s cinematography is brilliant. Seeing it on a nitrate print was the icing on the cake—totally worth the cinematic fat and calories.

Restless Blood is not the best film screened at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, but I dare say it’s the most interesting. I’m dying to see more by Tulio—too bad his work is not easily (or cheaply) accessible.

With H. Stenroos, Lauri Korpela, Laina Laine, Nora Mäkinen, Lida Salin, Emma Väänänen, Elli Ylimaa

Production: Teuvo Tulio

Distribution: Väinän Filmi

91 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B

Nitrate Picture Show

Night and the City

(UK/USA 1950)

“Harry is an artist without an art.”

—Adam Dunne

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is a fine example of classic film noir. Filmed in smoky black and white mostly at nighttime on location in London, Dassin takes us slumming through the seedy underworld of nightlife, wrestling, and organized crime.

Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a hard-bitten, ambitious, streetwise American con artist living in London. Always on the lookout for a quick buck, he can’t seem to catch a break. Ever. Literally running for his life in the opening scene, his latest career endeavor has failed, and his girl, Mary (Gene Tierney), is losing faith in him—stealing from her will do that.

Things brighten one night after a failed hustle at a wrestling match: Harry crosses paths with famous retired Greek wrestler Gregorius the Great (real life professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and his prodigy, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond), who both walk out of the arena in a huff. Gregorius is furious with his son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who organized the fight, a low-end sort of WWE-like affair that he finds tacky.

Harry schmoozes Gregorius and learns that Kristo is a mobster who controls wrestling in all of London. He devises a plan to create a promotion startup, aligning himself with Gregorius to get around Kristo. He secures funding by double dealing with Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), the owner of the Silver Fox Club where Mary works, and Phil’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers). She has plans of her own she doesn’t want Phil to know about.

The whole thing looks like it’s actually going to work despite Kristo’s threats, a plot to murder Harry, and Phil pulling his backing from the project. Harry gets so far as setting up a real fight between Nikolas and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki, also a real life professional wrestler). A miscalculation unravels everything—not just for him but everyone involved.

Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel Night and the City with contributions from Austin Dempster and William E. Watts, involves morally bankrupt lowlife characters who lack any redeeming qualities. All of them are scamming for one thing or another, and none of them—except maybe Mary—evokes any sympathy. This plays out nicely with the motifs of money, masculinity, and blind ambition that give this story its dark and bitter hue. It’s suspenseful. Ultimately, evil prevails in this dirty little story, which had to be revolutionary if jarring when this came out.

The backstory here is as interesting as the plot: during the production of Night and the City, Dassin was blacklisted for being a Communist. Pushed into exile, he infuses a strong sense of betrayal and fear into this film (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Dassin).

Night and the City is desperate, chilly, and magnificently bleak—and it looks it thanks to Mutz Greenbaum’s shadowy and dramatic cinematography. Of the nitrate prints that screened this year, this was a standout. According to the festival program, this pre-release print is ten minutes longer than the UK version and 15 minutes longer than the US version.

With Hugh Marlowe, Ada Reeve, Charles Farrell, Edward Chapman, Betty Shale

Production: 20th Century Fox

Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Criterion

111 minutes (pre-release print)
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B

Nitrate Picture Show

https://www.criterion.com/films/933-night-and-the-city

Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskij]

(Soviet Union/Russia 1938)

Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev’s Alexander Nevsky [Алекса́ндр Не́вский] is an oddball film. An historical drama with major propagandist and nationalistic overtones, it depicts Prince Alexander a.k.a. Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) in his battle against the Teutonics as they try to invade the medieval city of Novgorod. Spoiler alert: Nevsky defeats them.

Alexander Nevsky tried my patience; of all the films at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, it’s the only one I can say bored me. The plot is dull and the execution of the narrative is boring. The acting is stiff and the dialogue, even translated with subtitles, is…severe? I got through it without hating it thanks to a tiny amount of lightheartedness spinkled throughout that makes the whole thing bearable.

One subplot in particular kept me engaged and amused: it involves Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov), two warriors competing for the affection of the same woman, Olga Danilovna, a Maid of Novgorod (Valentina Ivashova, and that’s her character’s name). The two men relentlessly try to outdo each other in courage and skill on the battlefield, as she’s the big prize waiting for the winner. It doesn’t turn out how I expected.

That said, Alexander Nevsky is definitely a worthwhile experience for its visuals. It has a cool neoclassical atomic age sensibility, mixing elements of mythology with a kind of futuristic sci-fi minimalism. The battlefield scenes are beautifully shot, evoking a sense of vast otherworldly shock and awe. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography shimmers, and he contrasts light and dark really nicely here. The nitrate print we saw was sharp. I see why this was included in the festival:

Nevsky Cliff.jpg

Nevsky warriors.jpg

nevsky battlefield.jpg

With Dmitriy Orlov, Vasili Novikov, Nikolai Arsky, Varvara Massalitinova , Amelfa Timoferevna, Valentina Ivashova, Aleksandra Danilova, Vladimir Yershov, Sergei Blinnikov, Ivan Lagutin, Lev Fenin, Naum Rogozhin

Production: Mosfilm

Distribution: Artkino Pictures, Progressive Film Institute (UK), Amkino Corporation (USA), Panthéon Distribution (France)

108 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) D+

Nitrate Picture Show

Phantom of the Opera

(USA 1943)

I confess, I rolled my eyes when I found out that a print of Phantom of the Opera was chosen for a screening at the Nitrate Picture Show. I was totally unenthusiastic about seeing yet another version of something I’ve already seen more times than I care to admit. The trailer calls it “[a] story the world can never forget,” but that’s only because Gaston Leroux’s damned story won’t go away.

As it turns out, I quite enjoyed Arthur Lubin’s version. He switches gears with Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay, ditching horror in favor of romance and melodrama. In the process, he brings a really nice camp factor to the whole thing—I didn’t expect that. His version is a sillier, more fun soapy affair than what I’m used to.

Claude Rains is sympathetic as Erique Claudin, the downsized middle-aged composer who becomes the masked phantom after his publisher (Miles Mander) “steals” his new composition. One of my favorite moments of the entire film is the publisher’s exasperated secretary (Renee Carson) throwing acid from a baking pan in Claudin’s face. It’s so bizarre, it’s actually funny. Even with his acid face, Claudin has a crazy plan for making beautiful young soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) a star, even if she’ll never return his love. Her female rivalry with diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) stews while Anatole (Nelson Eddy), the baritone knight in shining armor, combs the Paris Opera House for the malformed monster (that would be Claudin) who murders anyone in his way. Things get dicier the closer Anatole gets to Claudin.

Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the senses, which makes it perfect for a nitrate print. A rich Technicolor dream, it won Oscars for cinematography (W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr) and art direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman, and Ira S. Webb) (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1944). Edward Ward’s score is lovely.

With Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Frank Puglia, Steven Geray, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronyn, Elvira Curci, Kate Lawson

Production: Universal Pictures

Distribution: Universal Pictures (USA), General Film Distributors (GFD) (UK), Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA) (Netherlands), Realart Pictures Inc. (USA), Universal Filmverleih (West Germany)

92 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

The Strike [Siréna]

(Czechoslovakia 1947)

Based on the novel Sirená by Marie Majerová, a communist and feminist Czech author prolific before World War II (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Majerová), Karel Steklý’s The Strike follows the Hudcový family during a mine workers’ strike outside Prague in the late 19th Century. Hudec (Ladislav Boháč) is a sort of foreman at a mine. His job makes him miserable, which is apparent from his drinking. He finds himself caught between the mine’s owner and the discontented, sorely underpaid workers that include his son Rudolf (Oleg Reif). Hudec tries to straddle the line between the two but ultimately joins the workers when pushed by his determined wife, Hudcová (Marie Vásová), who seems like she’s always hungry. The cost is devastating, especially for their preteen daughter Emča (Pavla Sucha).

Though not as elegant, The Strike recalls Metropolis (https://moviebloke.com/2015/09/12/metropolis/) both thematically and visually. Jaroslav Tuzar’s stark and grimy cinematography nicely highlights the plight of the workers, and it looks great in black and white. Nothing here is nuanced, though: the narrative is coarse and blunt, the acting is total amateur hour, and the moral is in-your-face. Still, The Strike is remarkable for its earnestness; the workers plotting a revolt, their riot, and the town police and corrupt mayor (Josef Benátský) standing behind the mine over the workers certainly all ring true and timely. It kept my interest all the way through.

I never heard of Steklý or The Strike or anyone involved with this picture until I saw it 70 years after its release. I’m not sure it ever enjoyed international distribution—I can’t find a trailer for it—and I can guess why: a dour postwar propaganda film, it likely would have turned off audiences with its Reefer Madness-like approach to capitalism and communism that seems to argue for the latter. Viewing it today, I saw it as an eerily accidental warning of what happens when the middle class disappears.

With Josef Bek, Josef Dekoj, Nadezda Gajerová, Vera Kalendová Bedrich Karen, Lída Matousková

Production: Ceskoslovenský Státní Film

Distribution:

77 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C

Nitrate Picture Show

Žhavý jícen [Hot Throat] [Hot Gorge] [The Fiery Gorge]

(Czechoslovakia 1939)

Žhavý jícen is an industrial short produced by Pražská železářská společnost a/k/a Prague Ironworks Company. Jiří Lehovec directed it, using footage from two other short films, Výroba oceli [Steel Production] and Poklady země [Treasures of the Earth] both directed by Karel Kohout the same year.

Needless to say, there is no plot; Žhavý jícen is a demonstration of steel production. According to the festival program, it was chosen for screening for technical reasons: its “perfect definition of light in an excellent print.” I’ll give it that.

12 minutes
Not rated

Production: Pražská železářská společnost

Distribution: N/A

(Dryden Theatre) D

Nitrate Picture Show

Anchors Aweigh

(USA 1945)

“What a time we had tonight, mmm!” In his 1945 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Anchors Aweigh a “Gay Musical Film” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE3DC103BEE3BBC4851DFB166838E659EDE). Well, duh!

I doubt Crowther meant “gay” in the current sense of the word, but he certainly wasn’t wrong either way: between all the singing, dancing, handsome sailors in tight pants, and a very young and wide-eyed Frank Sinatra acting out a creepy attachment to Gene Kelly, the only thing that could make Anchors Aweigh any gayer would be an appearance by Judy Garland. Or a raunchy sex scene with all those sailors and the admiral who, in one number (“We Hate to Leave”), said he would beat them with a whip. I half expected and kinda wanted it to happen, but of course it didn’t. Oh well.

As a reward for their bravery, Navy seamen Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) are given a four-day leave in Hollywood. Joe plans to hook up with his dame, Lola. After stalking him on the streets of Los Angeles, sweet and naive ex choir boy Clarence asks the apparently more experienced Joe to teach him how to meet girls.

Enter Donald (Dean Stockwell, whom most of us know as a middle-aged man from his many ’80s and ’90s movies), a little tyke who’s running away from home to join the navy. Our boys take him home, where Donald lives with his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), a nice girl trying to get into the movie industry—if only she could catch a break. Clarence immediately falls head over heels and enlists Joe’s assistance in wooing her, which provides the story here.

Even though (and probably because) the characters, plot, and dialogue are totally corny, Anchors Aweigh is truly a frothy blast—it’s exactly the kind of film that comes to mind when I think of classic Hollywood. A vivacious affair, director George Sidney keeps everything about it big: the sets, the songs, the dance numbers. I was particularly taken by one sequence involving Kelly and various animated figures—it culminates in an awesome song-and-dance with none other than Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Flawless!

The whole spectacle is tied up in an amazing Technicolor bow; Charles Boyle and Robert Planck’s color palette is gorgeous, and seeing it on a nitrate print literally left me breathless. From a sensory perspective, Anchors Aweigh was hands down my favorite film at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show.

As a side note, I must confess that one thing threw me for a loop: Kelly and Sinatra (and Grayson, for that matter) are young and beautiful here—not the old timers I’m accustomed to seeing having grown up when I did. They’re actually hot, even by today’s standards. Kelly upstages Sinatra throughout the entire film, which I found bizarre and quite amusing.

With José Iturbi, Pamela Britton, Grady Sutton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, William Forrest

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

143 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A-

Nitrate Picture Show

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

(USA 1947)

Richard “Dick” Nugent (Cary Grant) is a dashing, self-absorbed playboy charged with inciting a brawl at a nightclub. A self-employed artist, he shows up late for his hearing before priggish Judge Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy), who’s put off by his casual indifference. Nevertheless, she dismisses the case when she sees that the whole thing started with two floozies (Veda Ann Borg and Carol Hughes) fighting over him. With a slam of her gavel and an eyeroll, she sends Dick on his way, warning him to watch himself.

A free man, Dick heads straight to his next appointment: he’s the guest lecturn at a high school where Margaret’s dramatic 17-year-old sister, Susan (Shirley Temple), is a student. She attends the lecture, and is immediately smitten. Susan approaches Dick afterward and offers to, err, model for him. He’s noncommittal, clearly unaware that he’s dealing with a determined gal.

That evening, Susan gets all dolled up and sneaks out to Dick’s apartment, a spacious two-story downtown suite I’d kill to have. He’s not home, but she persuades the young doorman (Ian Bernard?) to let her up so she can wait for him. Naturally, she falls asleep on the davenport.

A big misunderstanding leads to Dick punching Margaret’s date, district attorney Tommy Chamberlain (Rudy Vallee), when they show up at his apartment to rescue Susan soon after he gets home and discovers her there. Dick is sent to the slammer, where court psychiatrist Dr. Matt Beemish (Ray Collins)—Margaret and Susan’s uncle—figures out what’s up. The good doctor proposes a “simple” solution: Dick agrees to date Susan, Margaret agrees to allow Susan to date Dick until her infatuation runs its course, and Tommy agrees to drop the assault charge. All three grudgingly agree to the plan. Hilarity ensues, especially as Dick and Margaret start digging each other—and Susan proves to be a real pain in the ass.

Penned by future TV creator/writer Sidney Sheldon (The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a solid textbook screwball comedy. It actually feels like a sitcom. Sheldon won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1948), and I can see why: his script is light and fun, capitalizing on the generation gap between youth culture and, I guess, middle age. I doubt the story would fly today; the whole premise reads as creepy by 21st Century standards. For a more innocent time, though, it totally works. And it’s amusing.

Director Irving Reis straddles the line between silly and ridiculous without going overboard. Grant, Loy, and Temple all have better work under their belt, but each still gives a memorable performance here even if their characters and this fluffy film are forgettable. I heard some grumbling from others in the audience, but I enjoyed this for what it is—and it ain’t Citizen Kane.

One final word about the nitrate print I saw: it was stunning, exceeding my expectations. I had my doubts that black and white film would make me sing the praises of nitrate, but The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer made me a believer; the whites were luminescent and the blacks and greys were deep and complex. Lovely!

With Lillian Randolph, Harry Davenport, Johnny Sands, Don Beddoe, Dan Tobin, Ransom Sherman, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Dore Schary

Production: RKO Radio Pictures, Vanguard Films

Distribution: RKO Radio Pictures

95 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C+

Nitrate Picture Show