Sunday, May 31, 2015
Not posting much these days; the blog, with occasional exceptions, at this point is largely on hiatus (we shall return to participate in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon on June 26-28). That said, a big reason for no postings this past week is that the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival started on Thursday night. The 20th annual shindig of silents remains in residence at San Francisco's stunning Castro Theatre all this weekend and finishes with a bang with the big screen epic to end all big screen epics, Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ.
As usual, there is the customary stellar lineup of cool vintage movies to see, as well as lectures and book signings. While this correspondent will, unfortunately, not be seeing anywhere near as much of the splendid selection as he has in past years, there are fine articles out there - Eat Drink Films presents one by Thomas Gladysz, and another by Prof. Karl Cohen of SFSU; a piece about the music score to The Last Laugh by Andrew Gilbert, daily well-written reviews on the Jason Watches Movies blog and the Beyond Chron series about the 20th anniversary festival by Peter Wong, the comprehensive write-up in The L.A. Daily Mirror by author Mary Mallory (Hollywoodland) of the Hollywood Heritage Museum, to name just a few - covering it in detail.
Comedy-centric as this blogmeister is, attending Serge Bromberg's tribute to the way-out and wonderful stop-motion animator/comedian Charley Bowers shall be a must.
Also not to be missed: 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History, a presentation and lecture by Ron Magliozzi of MoMA New York City detailing the discovery of the 1913 film Lime Kiln Club Field Day, starring the legendary Bahamas-born Broadway and Ziegfeld Follies actor-comedian-vocalist-songwriter-recording artist Bert Williams. This is one of the very few silent films with a cast entirely consisting of African-American actors, and very likely the only time anyone in the cast - Williams included - were presented onscreen in non-stereotypical roles.
The first, the best and the most mindbogglingly knowledgeable of all film historians, author and documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, will introduce Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ as the festival grand finale.
For more info, see the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
Monday, May 25, 2015
Today, remembering those who served - and those we miss - we honor Memorial Day with some laughs from Bud Abbott & Lou Costello!
Friday, May 22, 2015
Perusing the British Pathé Collection holds many surprises, but one that's especially felicitous is a preponderance of jaw-dropping animation.
Tying into the last post about animation from the 1920's, the British Pathé Collection include a slew of vintage cartoons by the mighty Otto Messmer.
Thanks to the British Pathé Collection, we will take a time out this Friday with Felix The Cat - enjoy.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
In 1929, the talkies were officially set the entire industry upside-down. In the early talkies, wisecracking Broadway comics were wilder, chorines' costumes were skimpier and the cartoons were weirder - even those produced by Walt Disney.
When the combo of producer Walt Disney, music director Carl W. Stalling and the fastest pencil in the west, Ub Iwerks, did not just master making cartoons with sound - Paul Terry also produced one, Dinner Time, in 1928 - but maximized synchronization's impact by working creatively with the protean elements of rhythm, melody and musicality, this effectively threw down the gauntlet. The first Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphonies in particular - and Ub Iwerks' animation - are rather amazing in this regard.
In The Roaring 20's, the association of Walt Disney, and the animation industry in general, with wholesome family entertainment was still quite a few years in the future. Illustrating this: another Silly Symphony featuring blazing animation and unfettered imagery courtesy of Ub and his stellar crew of assistant animators.
Felix The Cat, created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan Studio, was the most internationally popular of cartoon series in the 1920's. Felix' intergalactic animated adventures remain funny, imaginative and highly original.
While de facto producer Sullivan caroused, the ever-inventive, facile and frequently brilliant Messmer created some of the greatest short films of the decade.
Although Messmer continued making very enjoyable cartoons after sound became all the rage, Sullivan at first refused to convert to sound production. The Felix The Cat series did not adjust to how thoroughly and rapidly that jaunty "Mickey Rat" in Plane Crazy and especially Steamboat Willie profoundly changed the game. This oversight may be also due to Sullivan's mounting debts, as well as legal and personal problems. The Felix cartoons with sound remain fun and very creative, as Messmer's remarkable silents were, but it seems that the music tracks were essentially tacked on as an afterthought. The series did not last beyond the 1930-1931 release season. Too bad - Felix was a wonderful character and Mr. Messmer a most prodigious talent.
Although most cartoon studios tried their best to incorporate the Disney approach to sound into their personal style, some, like the Pat Sullivan Studio, did not attempt to digest what Disney, Iwerks and Stalling had done in 1927-1928 and just continued what they had been doing in the Roaring 20's.
Tops among this group would be Paul Terry's Terrytoons, animated in 1929 by Hugh "Jerry" Shields, Cy Young, Paul Terry's illustrator brother John C. Terry, Charles Sarka and arguably the fastest pencil in the east, Frank Moser, as well as the Van Beuren cartoons, produced by a crew of former Terrytoons staffers led by Mannie Davis, John Foster and Harry Bailey. Both studios feature quite literal Mickey Rat characters - and lots of them.
There is a very odd charm peculiar to the Van Beuren cartoons in particular. Much of it is due to a certain good-natured goofiness, combined with a complete lack of anything remotely resembling skillful animation technique.
Ever-cheerful crudity of execution, gratuitously bizarre moments, out-of-nowhere blasts of genuine imagination and frequent lapses into "sick humor" define the unique cartoon universe created by the Van Beuren Studio in 1929-1933.
The Walter Lantz studio landed the rights to Disney's first cartoon headliner, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, and took the series in a wonderful, way-out direction in the early talkie era. The Lantz cartoons plunge deeply into the "this is a cartoon, so what the hell, let's do something completely bizarre and see how it looks" quality, driven by the inventive and super-rubbery animation of Bill Nolan. The Disney studio would already be moving away from this approach by the end of 1929. Ozzie's wild hijinx would go on a year or so, eventually shifting to a much less out-there approach by the 1932-1933 season.
The Fleischer Bros. studio, responsible for some of the wildest and wooliest 1920's cartoons, especially in the late silent Inkwell Imps series, changed the overall look of their cartoons from "slash" animation on paper to cels and backgrounds. The very distinctive pen-in-ink look the silent Fleischer cartoons share with the Felix The Cat series (due to the technique known as "slash" or "slash and tear" animation - cartoons were drawn directly on the paper and after each pose the paper torn off) was jettisoned. With the switch to cel animation with painted backgrounds and foregrounds, the weird and wonderful sight gags continued, with a distinctive New York City flavor to the settings, plus a touch of the risque, joining the mix.
Dick Huemer, key animator of the Inkwell Imps and Screen Songs series, would subsequently go to California and make cartoons for the inimitable Charles Mintz. The first series, Toby the Pup, released by RKO Radio Pictures, shows a verve, musicality and joie-de-vivre equal to any cartoons produced at the time. For decades, the only surviving Toby cartoon was The Museum, very good and in both reminiscent of and more advanced than Fleischer in 1930.
It's no accident that Walt Disney eventually made ace animator Dick Huemer an offer he couldn't refuse. When Huemer left Mintz, it was comparable to a Miles Davis Quintet or Art Blakey & The Jazz Messenger's star soloist splitting to start his own band, an irreplaceable virtuoso guitarist leaving a rock n' roll group, or an MLB team's cleanup hitter signing with another ball club as a free agent. The Mintz cartoons instantaneously got a LOT less interesting.
The rest is history. Dick Huemer collaborated with Joe Grant at the Mouse Factory; together, they would be key participants in the Disney Studio's subsequent success. For more, read the fascinating and incredibly thorough oral history Mr. Huemer did in 1968-1969, conducted by all-star film historian Joe Adamson.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Today's headlong leap into a consciousness-expanding - and wildly enjoyable - 1950's entertainment and science fiction time capsule takes place at the New Rheem Theatre on 350 Park Street, Moraga, CA 94556.
The monster and alien-packed lineup begins at 1PM with Them, this correspondent's all-time favorite "giant ant" picture. This Island Earth, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Creature From The Black Lagoon shall follow.
Reed Summers-Pirkle, Curator of the Classic Film Hall of Fame and Museum stated, “The daylong event will include screenings of four of the greatest 1950s Sci Fi movies, including Them! (1954), This Island Earth (1955), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).” Special guests at the event will include Billy Gray, who played Bobby Benson in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Screen legend Julie Adams from Creature from the Black Lagoon will be in attendance for the screening and both she and the movie will be inducted into the Classic Film Hall of Fame and Museum.
As a special treat to Sci-fi fans and movie lovers, “The Man of Many Creatures”, Doug Jones, will host the day. “Mr. Jones is truly a fan favorite in the industry and one of the nicest guys in Hollywood”, states Derek Zemrak, Founder of the Classic Film Hall of Fame and Museum. “Doug has performed many memorable creatures in modern day cinema, including: Silver Surfer (Fantastic 4: Rising of the Silver Surfer), Abe Sapien (Hellboy), Fauno & Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth), and Billy Butcherson (Hocus Pocus). Plus Doug is currently on the hit Sci-fi television show Falling Skies where he plays the role of Cochise and the television show Flash as Deathbolt”.
Sounds like Big Screen Fun to all of us sci-fi film fans at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog. To contact the New Rheem Theatre's box office, call (925) 388-0751. Main office: (925) 388-0752. And pass the popcorn while you're at it!
Thursday, May 14, 2015
NO CONTEST - and with the full understanding that there must be an Otto Messmer cartoon titled Felix Leaves This Earthy Dimension And Transforms Into An Alien Single-Cell Lifeform, inevitably backed by cheesy background music, this distinction goes to the following transfer of the phantasmagorical Fleischer Studio masterpiece Koko's Earth Control.
The jauntier, happier and peppier the generic "Movie Wonderland" track gets, the weirder, farther out and more apocalyptic this cartoon goes.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Back In 2015: Further Mishaps Of Musty Suffer And More Silent Comedy Rarities "Accidentally Preserved"
"In the world of Musty Suffer, anything can and does happen, and it’s not always pretty—to the cognoscenti, that is the beauty of these films: they are not pretty." Ben Robinson
"Volume 2 gives us another visit to the hilarious and surreal world that Musty barely survives in. Either you're laughing at his antics, or your jaw is dropping in suspended disbelief at his predicaments. Frank Commins
"Take one hapless tramp who dreams of bathing in bathtubs of beer, suffers from tenacious hookworms, and regularly goes reconstructive surgery with blunt instruments but always lives to tell about it in the next episode, and you have The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer." Steve Massa
Well, it took 97 years in limbo for the warped comic universe of goofball tramp Musty Suffer to make the journey from its original 1916-1917 run in movie theaters to a revival in a 2014 DVD release.
This first volume of Musty's mishaps turned out to be the first time these films have been available to be seen the general public after their theatrical release.
The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer series, produced by George Kleine for Essanay in 1916-1917, stars rubber-faced circus clown and Ziegfeld Follies performer Harry Watson, Jr.
The humor is original and highly unusual, with one foot planted firmly in the 19th century circus, with plenty of extra sawdust, and the other foot not-so-squarely into the most wacky, cartoony and surreal movie sight gags, looking forward to the wildly imaginative likes of such animators as Charley Bowers and especially that master of physical distortion gags, Tex Avery.
Watching The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer, besides recalling Terry Gilliam's animated abuse of 19th century photo cut-outs in quite a few Monty Python's Flying Circus shows, brings to mind a "face rearranging gag" from Avery's epic MGM cartoon Northwest Hounded Police, in which The Wolf (who, after at one point literally running off the very sprockets of the film) barges into a plastic surgeon's office and demands "Doc, you gotta get me a new face - YOU GOTTA GET ME A NEW FACE!" These films are decades apart, but, weirdly and with some serendipity, in the same comic spirit.
Hallelujah, there is a followup DVD release in 2015, now available via Amazon. That means more HD transfers of Musty's "greasepaint and surrealism" packed mishaps (a.k.a. "whirls"), preserved by The Library Of Congress, with new musical scores by Ben Model. None have been previously available on video.
The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer volume 2 features four more off-the-wall scenarios in which Musty Suffer works in an arcade and as a messenger boy, has his body and face repeatedly mangled in the hopes of getting a meal, and is gifted a pantomime horse by the itinerant Fairy Tramp for a business opportunity.
Also on the DVD are Bickel & Watson's first film from 1915, and a 1910 newsreel that contains footage of them as members of a clown band as well as of the legendary Bert Williams doing some of his famous boxing routine.
Here's a little taste of Musty mayhem.
The lineup of The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer volume 2 is as follows:
Showing Some Speed (1916) - 13 mins
Out of Order (1916) - 13 mins
Musty's Vacation (1916) - 13 mins
Strictly Private (1916) - 13 mins
Actors Fund Field Day (1910) - 5 mins
The Fixer (1915) - (1916) - 33 mins
Produced by Ben Model/Undercrank Productions
Curated by Steve Massa and Ben Model
97 mins - B&W - stereo
NTSC - region 0 (all-regions)
For more info about the films and the DVD, check out these reviews from Ben Robinson and Anthony Balducci's Journal, as well as the official Musty Suffer website and Silent Film Music.com. In addition, David Kalat of Movie Morlocks wrote a terrific article on the TCM website about the series.
Meanwhile, Undercrank Productions, responsible for bringing Musty (and stylish slapstick farceur Marcel "Tweedy" Perez) back from the deep past have also launched a Kickstarter fundraiser to get the ball rolling on their next Accidentally Preserved DVD of very funny and VERY rare silent comedy films, thankfully still surviving due to 16mm prints struck long, long ago.
We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are thrilled and delighted to support this work! The fundraiser for Accidentally Preserved volume 3 will be on for another 10 days.