The Hell Hole: Manhattan bar from the 1910’s & 20’s

Dorothy Day, before she was a Catholic worker, hung out in a glorious dive with Eugene O'Neill



This painting is At The Golden Swan (a.k.a. Hell Hole), by Charles Demuth, and I ran across it while researching this bar, a gathering point for artists in Greenwich Village during its heyday from 1913 to the early ’20s (about the time housing prices started driving the poorer bohemians out).  I’d read many memoirs that referenced this joint, which was hardly the kind of place you’d expect a crew of artists to be.  The Hell Hole was not fake tough of the sort that brings in today’s hipster wannabes.  No, it was a true lowdown tavern owned and beloved by Irish gangsters.  Apparently there was a time when Greenwich Village was a diverse mix of old rich, poor artists, hopeful immigrant families, and flat-out thugs.  The bar’s seediness and peculiar mix is exactly what attracted the serious (and curious) artists, writers, journalists, and anarchists who also pursued serious drinking.  The place was situated at 6th Avenue and 4th Street, in the shadow of the El.

Demuth’s painting actually seems to me a brighter and more sedate environment than the one I’ve read about.  Though no doubt accurate, it seems rather bright and optimistic, more like a cool coffeeshop than a seedy bar (except for that shadowy guy in the corner).  In reality, the swan in the background was actually a mouldering, leaning stuffed goose in a dirty case.  The Hell Hole had two rooms — the back room, with a separate glass entrance, allowed women; the front room, where the Irish gang the Hudson Dusters made its home, was more loudly argumentative and more violent.  Prostitutes (or possibly just loose women) were said to make steady appearances, and all women were allowed to smoke publicly, which appealed to some of the more independent ladies of the Village.  The Hell Hole was also interracial — apparently everyone was welcome (except possibly the rich). The incredible hodgepodge of folks and the vague threat of violence and the actuality of various addictions made it especially attractive to artists who enjoyed observing human behavior and were not easily scared off.  Below is artist John Sloan’s version, The Hell Hole, painted in 1913.  Sloan was a more long-time habitué of the bar, having lived in New York longer than Demuth and with a studio right across the street.  This picture reflects in detail the accounts I’ve read.  The two guys in the doorway were apparently tough bouncers, Lefty Louie and John Bull.  The waiter here does not look quite so happy.  The patrons, too, seem more ragged; cheerfully talking, yes, but there’s clearly drinking going on; a woman is losing her hat, possibly because she’s smashed; a woman is getting her leg felt up; there are cigarettes.  The paintings on the wall appear to be accurate, with a racehorse and (I think) a nude and lounging woman. This is the way a bar that’s open after others close ought to look.  (Not saying that I don’t love the Demuth, but historically, I believe Sloan nails it.)

sloan hell hole

Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, (see him in the upper right?) adopted the Hell Hole as a second home on and off for three years, going on all night benders, able to travel the boundary from back room to front, making friends with all kinds.  The Hudson Dusters were his pals, in part because he didn’t condescend to them, and some of them attended his plays when they were performed nearby. From 1917 through 1918, and occasionally beyond, he was joined by his pal, the social activist (and later Catholic near-saint) Dorothy Day.  Another friend and patron was the Village anarchist/gadfly Hippolyte Havel, a wild haired Czech who became the model for Hugo Kalmar in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  In fact, the Hell Hole is the model for the bar in that play, a place where in the 1910’s people came to celebrate and conspire, and a place where, as time passed, people got drunk and swore over the failed revolution. Another regular in O’Neill’s Hell Hole circle was Terry Carlin, a sixty-something anti-government radical who lived on the streets, obtaining a kind of true bohemianism that the others romanticized.  While he helped O’Neill when he was in the blackest of slides, he began bitter and nihilistic with the failures of his ideas.  (I imagine Carlin as being the like a particular kind of disappointed hippie from our own era.)  Another of O’Neill’s friends there was a dissipated Villager who was a friend of O’Neill’s from college, Louis Holladay.  Louis’ sister ran one of the most popular restaurants for the Village folk, Polly’s; Polly was married to Hippolyte Havel, and, according to one biography, had sexually abused her younger brother.  Louis has the sad legacy of being the one of the few heroin deaths among the intellectual bohemians, literally dying while leaning up against socialist worker Dorothy Day.  The story has it that he got his drug from Terry Carlin at the Hell Hole.  Another patron was Christine Ell; this big red-haired woman becomes the character Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.  The radical immersion journalist John Reed spent time there, along with his wife Louise Bryant, who had an affair with O’Neill.  O’Neill met one of his wives, Agnes Boulton, there.  It was also frequented by the playwriting and performance group the Provincetown Players, whose Manhattan theater was located nearby; among this group were “Jig” Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Mary Heaton Vorse, all of whom encouraged O’Neill and gave him his theatrical break.

It seems remarkable now that there was a time when such a disparate crew of people actually spent time together, night after night, radicals, artists, thugs, prostitutes, and musicians mingling in the same beer-soaked, sawdust-floored dump.  But it happened.

While the Hell Hole lasted beyond the ’20’s, these were its glory years.


Piccadilly, a silent, one of Anna May Wong’s best

Atmospheric and dark, directed by E. A. DuPont

Anna May WongDirector E. A. DuPont’s silent films are hard to find now, except for three important films about performers: Variete, Piccadilly, and Moulin Rouge.  Each is fun to watch, and each is historically important for different reasons.  While DuPont may be one of the German emigre directors who we’ve mostly forgotten, his films are well worth a look. Variete, the best of the three, features the great Emil Jannings and some inventive technical maneuvers.  (This film was marketed in the States as Jealousy, and in England as Vaudeville, though its most recent edition uses the German title of Variete.) Piccadilly is one of the best films of the exquisitely beautiful Anna May Wong, who is astonishing in one of her earliest roles.  And Moulin Rouge — well, it’s the earliest version we have of the story.

piccadilly bar pair

A bit about DuPont

Before getting to Piccadilly, a little background about director DuPont.  Aside from his three special films about performers, he apparently wasn’t a remarkable director and had a difficult time finding employment.  In Germany where he began his career at UFA, his films are all impossible to find except in a few archives.  In his later career, he was mostly relegated to B pictures.  This didn’t make much sense to me, given how great these three films are, until I read that DuPont was “extremely temperamental and preferred to work after midnight,” which ran up costs and pleased no one.(1)  His sound films were apparently pretty bad anyway, so his skills didn’t transfer well beyond the silent.  For his piccadilly mirrorperformer films, he drew upon what he learned when managing a large vaudeville theater in Mannheim, and he would have stayed in live theater if he hadn’t been drawn back to films for money.  Each film demonstrates an insider’s perspective, which is in part what makes them so historically interesting.

Anna May Wong and Piccadilly

When Anna May Wong made Piccadilly in 1929, she was already a popular actress, havingpiccadilly anna in office appeared in more than thirty films. Only two of these were starring roles: Toll of the Sea in 1924 and the German film Song in 1928. Nevertheless, when she was filming Piccadilly, she was mobbed by Londoners, some of whom “tinted their faces ivory with ochre color to get ‘the Wong complexion,'” according to biographer Graham Hodges. Coolie coats became the rage in the Piccadilly neighborhood where filming took place.  Her charm and beauty allowed her to transcend the usual real-life role forced upon the few Chinese in England — that of laundry worker or servant — and her sweet temperament and grace in interviews also prevented people from perceiving her as the stereotype of an evil Asian seductress.  That the film industry wouldn’t allow her to transcend these roles in most of her movies is a shame.

piccadilly anna hosePiccadilly for the most part avoids the stereotypes.  It is an entertaining film that is especially noteworthy because of Wong’s beautiful performance.  Even though we aren’t allowed to see far into her character, she is riveting.  She is the featured performer; everything revolves around her.  Had she not been Asian, and thus held back by the film industry, she would almost certainly have been a major star.  In Piccadilly her character, Shosho, is a smart and talented young woman from the poor Limehouse district. The plot, as it is, hinges on her as an object of desire for a male producer and club owner who decides to replace his long-time girlfriend and aging star (Gilda Gray) with the alluring, mysterious dancer who works in the kitchen. Shosho seems a bit bemused and befuddled at her good fortune, though she’s more than willing to take advantage of her situation.  That Shosho is truly more talented than the woman she replaces makes it all seem justified somehow, and quite realistic. (Gilda Gray’s main claim to fame as an actress was her ability to do the shimmy.  While biographies credit her with “inventing” the shimmy, this is sheer crap; the piccadilly anna may wongshimmy was a black dance long before Gilda got ahold of it.  Anyway, Gilda does some good pouting in this film.)  The manager who falls for Shosho isn’t portrayed as a predator; he seems to feel some genuine guilt and tries for a time to be fair to both women.  But, you know, we’re talking about Anna May Wong; how can he deny his love?  Besides, his name is Valentine Wilmot (he’s played in an appealing, humorous way by Jameson Thomas).  There are even some touching moments with him, as when he secretly draws a little sketch of her when he’s interviewing her for a position, and, later, when he takes her hand.

piccadilly bar copAt a point in the film (and it’s a little murky), Shosho suddenly becomes ambitious and is willing to cruelly crush the rejected actress.  This comes out of the blue and is a false note heading to a silly plot confrontation that wraps up the picture all too tidily.  It’s only at this point that the character of Shosho leans toward the usual stereotype of Asian manipulator, though not much is made of it and it doesn’t change Shosho’s basic appeal.  Like Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong can transcend any cliche thrown at her.

The plot in Piccadilly doesn’t mean much, anyway; this film, like the other DuPont films, is all about atmosphere, technique, and small realistic touches.  My favorite scenes in Piccadilly are those set in the kitchen and in the Limehouse district. When we first see Shosho, it is in the kitchen, where the camera focuses, one by one, on the faces of the workers as they watch her dance on a table.  Shosho hasn’t even appeared in the film at this point; it is a slow build, and her dance, piccadilly bar faceswhen we see it, is fascinating. It’s a simple dance, just a kind of gyration, but there’s something mesmerizing about it.  Sensual, but not just that; more hypnotic.  I can’t imagine any other actress pulling this off the way Anna May Wong does; it is so odd and unique to her.  Shosho is spotted dancing by the manager, too, who has come to find out why the dishes are dirty.  (Trivia: the restaurant patron who complains about the state of the dishes is a young Charles Laughton in his first feature film.)  Later that night, the manager seeks her out and follows her up a flight of stairs and the screen goes black, with the implication that they sleep together; not long after, she is the new featured dancer.  She’s a dancer that already knows her own mind, insisting upon wearing a specific elaborate costume; she calls the shots over both the manager and a man she lives with, Jim.

piccadilly cafeIt’s unclear whether Jim is a lover or just a kind of odd, putzy fellow in love with her; at any rate, he is not happy about the manager’s intrusions. He is a peculiar comic relief character at times; other times, he is just silent and sullen. She confides in Jim, and he supports her, but we don’t understand them.  All in all, he is part of the mystery of Shosho’s Limehouse world, the Oriental sphere.  Jim and Shosho herself are never fully explained to us; we don’t know their histories or their motives or even their actual relationship. Yet their Limehouse/Chinatown is depicted in such a realistic, dark way that it doesn’t come off as cliched as many depictions of Asian neighborhoods.  The Asians in Limehouse are not so much elevated and evil and mystical as they are just getting by, making money through gambling and liquor and small shops, and sleeping in cramped rooms, like any other poor people.  There is a kind of equality in the way DuPont depicts the residents in Limehouse, who, though mostly Asian, include a motley set of races and ethnicities who mingle together in clubs, piccadilly bar dancersrestaurants, and on the streets.  DuPont gives us close-ups of faces that remind me in some ways of Depression-era photographs in the States.  The people aren’t pathetic; they’re just hanging around, smoking, reading the paper, dancing, trying to have a good time.  “You see, this is our Piccadilly,” Shosho tells her manager/lover, as the camera once again pans from one face to another.  A woman slips bills into her stocking.  Drunken dancers are distorted in a mirror.

The film is always most interesting when it leaves the high-class nightclub where piccadilly shopShosho works and enters the underworld.  Late in the movie the problems of interracial relationships are directly commented upon when Shosho and the manager go drinking at a lower rent club.  He takes her hand as they watch the happy people dancing.  Then another woman, a white woman, enters the club and starts happily dancing with a black man in a top hat.  They’re ordered apart by a manager who tells them this isn’t allowed; “are you blind, or wot?”  The woman talks back and she’s heckled by many; we don’t hear what’s being said, but it’s clear enough. If the woman doesn’t leave, she will be attacked.  Shosho turns away and hides her head and she and her lover leave as quickly as possible, with it now clear that there is no way they can ever be together.  This is not because they are incompatible; it is entirely because of the danger created by the racist social restrictions.

piccadilly bar hoseAlthough this film was made in England, it has the dark, German sensibility that is reflected in many Weimar films and art.  There’s an edginess, a sense of decadence, and an acceptance of every character. There is no moral lesson.  It has a tough urban feel to it, almost a lack of sympathy or even interest in the internal workings of the characters.  They are subsumed by their environment, by Piccadilly itself, which ultimately does not accept them.

A lovely print of this is available through the British Film Institute on DVD.  It’s a region 2 disc, but it’s worth owning a region-free DVD player to see it and many other quality BFI releases.  I hope they, or some other good company like Kino or Criterion, release some of the other early Anna May Wong films, especially her two German films from the same era.  She has fans; I believe there would be an audience.

piccadilly couple

piccadilly comic relief

(1) Warren, Patricia.  British Film Studios: An Illustrated History.  London: Batsford, 2001.

(2) Hodges, Graham Russell Gao.  Anna May Wong. New York: Palgrave, 2004.




Children of the Beehive

Shimizu's haunting film about traveling war orphans

children-of-the-beehiveI recently watched Children of the Beehive, a haunting post-World War II film by one of my favorite directors, Hiroshi Shimizu.  Although it’s made in 1948, and beyond the usual scope of my site, I love it so much and it’s so hard to find that I feel I should discuss it here.  It has an artistic and historic value that I hope raises it from obscurity.

Children of the Beehive is about a band of orphans who follow a repatriated World War II soldier who is jobless himself and has no family.  Like many other Shimizu films, it’s set on the road, on a journey where rootless people meet others and attempt to establish some tentative connection.  These orphans are not cute victim-sorts, at least not obviously.  Sometimes they come across as clever thieves.  Mostly, though, they are just ordinary kids who have noplace to goShimizu Children of the Beehive because their parents have died in the course of the war.  They wander to survive.  When the soldier meets them, they’re working for a one-legged thief who, like everyone else, is just trying to get by.  (This movie has no villains.)  They end up following the soldier who goes from place to place taking on fieldwork; the boys begin to grasp the benefits of labor.  Although reluctant at first, the soldier also teaches them to become better people by helping them to understand others, and he becomes committed to helping them get an education.  (When a group of boys runs away from them, one of the orphans calls the group “weak.”  The soldier explains that they’re not weak, they’re afraid, and it’s up to the boys to adopt the right approach.)  In the course of the film, the soldier also becomes more generous and less isolated (and even gives up smoking!), meaning that he has gained something from the boys.  And they meet a young woman along the way, someone else who has noplace to go and is trying to find a safe spot.  This is the story.

The actual meaning of the film arises slowly as we come to know the children and, like the soldier, develop compassion for them.  Not pity.  The film pivots upon a childrenofbeehive stairs goodtragedy that is truly poignant, slowly and subtly developed.  This makes it all the more troubling.

Like other Shimizu films, the setting here is extremely important, as we go to parts of Japan that aren’t usually shown in films.  We bump along the road in trucks and we walk. The movie is in constant motion.  Many of the film’s shots are from distances — across bridges, up and down long flights of stairs, down roads to the horizon — and are quite beautiful.  (Even with my bad print, I could tell that at one time, they must have been gorgeous.)  The towns they visit are identified, giving it a bit of travelogue quality, similar to Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You.  The film’s most unforgettable scene, for me, is set in the ruins of Hiroshima.  There is no big deal made of this.  No dramatic dialogue — no direct discussion of what happened there.  The strongest statement, aside from the destruction itself, is a shot of a boy who walks around with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, in front of crumbling monuments that evoke headstones. Ultimately, a scene develops between one of the boys and the young woman, and it becomes an allegory for what took place among these beautiful ruins.  I’ll never forget this scene.

Although this isn’t all that important, I was impressed that the young woman (Natsuke Masako) is not wearing make-up and isn’t beautiful; she is in baggy pants for nearly all of the film. She isn’t played for sexual attractiveness (though there’s achildrenofbeehive woman sense, a hope, that maybe she and the soldier will stay together, even though they rarely have a direct conversation).  She’s a fellow traveler who serves, through no real effort on her part, as a mother figure.  (We certainly don’t see her adopting the maternal role in any subservient way; it’s just something that happens.)

The film on its own is beautiful and moving.  Beyond that, though, is the fact that the orphans are actually played by war orphans, children that Shimizu took in, adding another element of realism.  Like the soldier, Shimizu helped them to survive and provided them with schooling.  I actually didn’t know this when I watched the film.  Now that I know it, I find it even more profound.  The children are good actors, too, natural and at ease with the camera.  When the children reveal glimpses of their stories, I now wonder if they were true.childrenofbeehive trees

Children of the Beehive is, sadly, extremely difficult to find.  I found a copy from an ebay seller (I call him “my source,” ha) and it has English subtitles.  I hope that Criterion will include this if it releases a second Shimizu box set.  Apparently, his films are just hard sells, probably because they are rather slowly paced, have no samurai, and are too subtle for most modern audiences.  It’s such a shame.

When Joan Crawford was a flapper

Flapper-Our_Dancing_Daughters_1928_I had no idea until recently that Joan Crawford was anyone but that scary, dark haired, angry woman that looked a little like my mother.  I had no idea that there was this other Joan, a bubbly, silly, manic flapper who liked to dance the night away.  I guess I never thought of her as young; I just thought of her as a rather unlikeable cliche.  (Although I did always love her in Mildred Pierce.)  I really hadn’t had much opportunity to see the earliest Crawford films; I knew nothing about “pre-code” until a few years ago, when I discovered silent films and realized than those early films were more far sophisticated that the our dancing daughters anita pagesanitized movies I’d watched on late night TV growing up, pre-cable.  I had no idea how risqué, experimental, fun, and downright surreal they could be.  If only I’d known that many films from many countries from 1910 to 1935 were essentially banned from mainstream viewing for years, straight through and past the supposedly rules-bending sixties themselves (an era that broke no rules that hadn’t been broken back in the 1910s).  Only now are some of these old movies fairly easy to find, restored, with deleted scenes included.  When I tell Anita Page Our Dancing Daughterspeople all of this, most of them don’t believe me.  Maybe we just like to believe that our own era is the most cutting edge, and that history is always a positive progression.

All I can say is that no woman today is wilder than Joan Crawford (and a lot of other women) were in the 1920’s.  Even now, we tend to see the flapper as a quick anomaly — we see the hair and the clothes and think “instant liberation.”  In fact, women were already testing sexual and role boundaries by the early 1910’s, so the flapper hardly came out of the blue.  They just had an easier time wearing short dresses and short hair in public.  Joan Crawford didn’t even invent the flapper image, as a few people have maintained.  It started before her and before Zelda Fitzgerald.  Anita Loos chopped her hair off for one of the earliest bobs in 1916, when she was doing publicity interviews for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.  (And boy did Anita look cute.)  But Crawford certainly rode the flapper wave, and she helped to popularize the trend when the film Our Dancing Daughters became a national success and was shown in places like Omaha.our daughters joan sexy

I don’t think Joan alone made Our Dancing Daughters popular; the movie did, though, make her a success.  Our Dancing Daughters centers a trio of feisty flappers, and is filmed showing plenty of leg and plenty of lip.   It’s quite a good little movie that explores, in a mostly lighthearted way, what women can and can’t get by with, and what they have to do to stand up for themselves.  Joan is the center of the story — she plays an unstoppable girl named Diana who dances her feet off and wears cute fringy dresses and has a heart of gold.  But I think Anita Page as her rival is really terrific, too, and provides some of the movie’s best drama.  Even beyond the movie’s heroines, I’m sure that the whole milieu of drinking, dancing, men, fashion, more drinking, flirting, straight-talking — all of it must have held great appeal to young audiences.  And it has just enough sentiment to especially appeal to young women of a certain age who want a good romance to be moony over. The script (written by three women) and direction (by Harry Beaumont) are plain good and allow the movie to transcend others of its kind.Joan Crawford Our Dancing Daughters

Joan Crawford is so unlike herself in this movie.  Or maybe she was most like herself before the Hollywood machine got ahold of her.  I’ve read that Joan was really a redhead, and her hair in this is light and short and really represents a rebellious liveliness.  Her eyes are downright manic at times, as if she has much to prove and has to prove it fast.  She seems witty, quick, funny.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was a great actress, but that doesn’t really matter.  She seems to be having a great time.  I’ve seen her in her other silent films, and she generally plays a low-key, romantic partner to a likable male star our daughters joan crazy(like Billy Haines).  She’s cute in these, but not remarkable and not even traditionally pretty.  She does have a great body, which we see a surprising amount of at times.  But she seems a bit toothy, a bit starey-eyed, a bit odd.  Awkward, really, compared to some of the more glamorous actresses of the period.  It’s sad, the way this gets cleaned up as the thirties go on, as they make Joan cool, glam, then colder and colder, as if she grows more distant as time passes.  In the sequel to Our Dancing Daughters, Our Modern Maidens, her character is known as “Billie,” which was actually what Joan was called before becoming an film actress.  (Apparently Fairbanks Sr. called her this, too, for years.)  Billie is a slang-y, boyish name, a spirited name.  Within a few years, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but staid cold Joan.  It’s hard for me to really understand how and why this happened, since Our Dancing Daughters was a huge hit.  Biographers refer to her desire to insinuate herself in the Fairbanks/Pickford circle when she started seeing Joan Crawford Our Dancing DaughtersFairbanks Jr.; they refer to the influence of Mayer at MGM.  They talk about Crawford’s own desire to fit in and to be taken seriously.  It almost seems that she decides to become another person.  Although I know many people would disagree with me, I really hate to see the glamorization that happens to actors and Our Dancing Daughters Crawford Paige Sebastianactresses as the thirties progresses.  I could care less about the gowns. I’m partial to realism and the open sense of fun that’s in the earliest films.  I like the idea that the Joan in these silent films really is a vivacious, sincere, sweet-but-daring sort, and that she captures the spirit of many young women of the day.

Our Dancing Daughters stands up over time because it really isn’t glamorous and overly stylized, but is in fact rather complex, with the girls winning and losing as they fight for independence. My favorite part of the film, in fact, involves not Joan but Anita Page, who delivers a great tirade as she stands drunkenly teetering at the top of a staircase.  She yells down to a group of our dancing daughters anita pagewasherwomen cleaning on their knees below: “Women!  Women working!  Hey — why are you working?  Haven’t you any daughters?  Pretty daughters?  Pretty daughters — doll ’em up — a rich man wants his money’s worth!”  So the decadent clothes, the drinking, the spangly parties and the search for wealthy suitors ultimately backfires in a dramatic fashion.  Page is so full of false hysterical hilarity in this scene that it is downright disturbing.  Flapper tragedy may seem a cliche to us now, but this was filmed right in the midst of it all.

By the time the second sequel appears in 1930, a talkie called Our Blushing Brides, that original energy is completely gone and it’s all become a boring formula.  Joan Crawford herself even noted that when Our Dancing Daughters became a success, she became much more self-conscious, as if she were watching herself, analyzing herself.  I think filmmaking itself goes through the same process as the thirties go on.

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Our Dancing Daughters intertitle


Double Wedding – Powell & Loy & antics.

I’ve seen all of the Thin Man films and  Manhattan Melodrama, but Double Wedding has to be one of my favorite William Powell-Myrna Loy movies.  I almost wrote “romp” in place of “movie” there, but that’s too corny — except that it is a romp, completely silly and rather strange.  It’s an odd role for William Powell, who william powell double weddingis usually so dapper and suave.  In this, he plays a goofball artist who lives in a trailer parked in a vacant lot; on the trailer is a sign that reads, “You are Now Departing Wilkes-Barre.”  (Having spent time working in the creative writing program in said city, I thought this was pretty funny.)  Powell runs around the movie wearing a long ratty fur coat, painting, and helping a young couple practice a play.  I liked him this way.  I would have run off with him any day.  Myrna Loy is her usual calm and collected smart lady wearing cool hats and occasionally suits and ties.  I have mixed feelings about Myrna, but no one can say she isn’t classy.  She is particularly controlling in this film, playing her usual part times twenty, and it was oh so amusing.  Will the double wedding myrna loycommanding businesswoman marry the itinerant artist?  What do you think?

The plot revolves around who-will-Powell marry, but not really.  There is Myrna’s younger sister who gets a crush on Powell though she’s supposed to marry someone else.  It’s all about the characters and their flirting.  The supporting roles are fun.  John Beal in particular is great as the mopey, monotone paramour to Myrna’s sister.  Various other character types pop in and out and then collect en masse in a completely over-the-top scene at the end.  It gets increasingly ridiculous and I thought it was a hoot.  These kinds of movies are nice when you don’t want to think, and this was one of my favorites of this kind of ramped up, screwy thirties comedy.

Double Wedding sidekicksIt’s too bad that today the movie is mainly known as the film that William Powell was working on when his fiancee Jean Harlow died.  As I watched, I had no idea that he was suffering (and that Loy was, too), and that goes to show how good they really are.  Filming had to be halted for several weeks after her death because Powell was unable to work.  Throughout, he seems to be his usual bubbly, campy self.  I’m glad I didn’t know when I was watching; I’m sure I would have otherwise been looking for signs of anguish.  Looking back, I can sense points where the tone seems off, or when Loy seems to be running the show.  He’s unusually touching in this role, and I suppose the reason for that doesn’t really matter.

Thing is, this is a fine movie of its kind.  Powell is hilarious, Loy is deadpan, and they work brilliantly together, as always.  Double Wedding just reaffirms my mini-crush on William Powell.  Now if I could just have his long coat and her hats, I’d be set. double wedding myrna loy william powelldoublewed beer

Yes, please, Hiroshi Shimizu

4 amazing films: Mr. Thank You, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, The Masseurs and a Woman, & Ornamental Hairpin

mr thank you musiciansI bought Criterion Collection’s Hiroshi Shimizu box set as a lark, knowing nothing of what I would find.  I ended up completely drawn in to the point where I had to search out as many Shimizu films as possible.  Needing films with subtitles, I found this to be far more challenging than I expected. (Brief rant: It’s really frustrating that even the finest old Japanese films are nearly impossible to find in the States, with the exception of Kurosawa or Ozu.  It goes to show just how Euro-centric we remain.  I did manage to find some Shimizu through an e-bay seller’s off-site list of bootlegs which he translated.  That’s it!)  I’m grateful that Criterion took the risk to make their fine editions available in the Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu set.  His colleague, the great filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, once said, “People like me and Ozu get films made by hard work, but Shimizu is a genius….”  I understand why he felt this thank you driver

I imagine that Shimizu’s films might be a challenge for some viewers, as they seem at first to be rather mild and slowly paced.  Not only are they, well, from Japan, but they don’t feature samurai and not quite as warm and family oriented as work by the more popular Yasujiro Ozu.  Shimizu’s films move like poems or like imagistic short stories.  While they have story lines, the focus is on the image and on a string of loosely linked characters.  There’s an episodic quality that I very much like, as Shimizu peeks in on various groups with the sum of it all not readily apparent. Yet in all of his films there is a sense of unity that becomes clear at the end.  Shimizu was a practicing Buddhist and there is a kind of peaceful, evolving, accepting concentration to his work.  Let me explain by delving into my favorite of four Shimizu’s in Criterion’s set, the early talkie from 1936, Mr. Thank You.
mr thank you landscape

Mr. Thank You is mostly set on a small bus that takes people through some isolated mountain communities.  People come onto the bus; people leave the bus — but a few people stay, and they provide the center of the story.  The bus is driven by a good looking, friendly, generous, and perceptive young bus driver who is known by people throughout the towns as “Mr. Thank You” for his tendency to call out “thank you” to those walking on the street.  Various stories are united by the thread of giving and taking, of stinginess and generosity.  The people who come and go provide a microcosm of people who lived in Japan in this period — everyone from wandering minstrels to sophisticated Westernized women to an old doctor and, most importantly, a mother who has sold her daughter and is taking her to work in (we assume) a geisha house.  Incidents on the bus reveal the changing status of women, the state of mr thank you road 2economy (a deep depression), the onslaught of modern vehicles (as they rush past those who still walk), the lack of available men, the decline of rural life, and other situations common in this period across the world.  But you don’t really think about all that as you’re watching the movie.  It’s hardly ponderous; Shimizu has such a light, witty touch that you might just think you’re going on a pleasant bus ride.

mr thank you geishaAnd the ride really is enjoyable.  On one level, Mr. Thank You works as a travelogue — I saw parts of Japan on the ride that I’ve never seen in other movies.  Even in black and white, it was quite lovely as the bus wound around water and through tunnels and nearly toppled down mountainous drop-offs.  There are sweeping views of fields and flowers and sensuous paths.  The quaintness of ordinary people walking in groups down the street had a real sweetness.  (This same look at people walking on rural roads comes up in another Shimizu film in the box set, The Masseurs and a Woman.)   It felt like a final glimpse at a vanishing world.  It had a certain documentary quality.  All of the people did seem to represent types, and since we see them so briefly, we know them only as we might know that person we see every day on the subway.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t conjecture quite a lot about their lives, though.

mr thank you shimizuWe do come to know more about our core characters as the ride goes on.  It becomes clear that among all the light-hearted talk is a weighty situation.  The pomegranate crop is so good that there is no money to be made.  People can’t survive.  The girl being sold as a geisha is withdrawn — nearly mute — and very unworldly.  She has absolutely no idea whatsoever about life in the city.  She has never heard a popular song (which is revealed in a funny scene in which girls on the road greet the bus driver and ask him to bring them back a recording as if it’s the most precious thing in the world).  She is embarrassed to speak and humiliated by her situation.  Her mother seems to accept it as a practical situation and only rarely reveals that it causes her grief. People on the bus discuss how commonly girls are sold, because there are too many of them and no way to feed them.  It’s chilling.  A doctor remarks that he doesn’t know whether he should congratulate parents on a birth or offer condolences.  In many little ways the real conditions of poverty are revealed, and yet there is no great drama over it.  It’s simply a fact, andmr thank you records people try to get by, and someone makes a joke or falls asleep.  Only the bus driver as he glimpses in the rear view mirror seems to have an understanding of the wider picture, much as the director himself might feel.

While our driver Mr. Thank You embodies the virtues of kindness and politeness, it is the sassy young woman in Western dress who consistently does the right thing.  While Mr. Thank You drives along, she-who-has-no-name watches the others, cracking jokes, mouthing off, and passing around a flask.  She is a wanderer; she would be an entertainer if she could sing, she says.  We don’t hear her tale of woemr thank you michiko kuwano (as is so often revealed in early Japanese films); for all we know, she has no woe.   Aside from being wistful, and unsuccessfully flirting with the driver, she seems to have made peace with her situation.  (There is one great moment, though, when one of the passengers says that no matter how bad the girls have it, the boys have it rough.  And she stares at him.  For a long time.)  And it is she who finds the solution to the potential-geisha’s problems.  She breezes in, she breezes out, and it’s the last we see of her.  She is played by an actress named Michiko Kuwano who unfortunately died young, and I loved her in this.

Oh, and Mr. Thank You tosses in a number of pop culture references, as with this little joke about the changes in films (and how slow they are to be discovered in the mountains): mr thank you talkies

Traveling on: not all of Shimizu’s films are as upbeat as Mr. Thank You.  Japanese Girls at the Harbor is an odd gothic melodrama about a murderous schoolgirl who comes to lead a life of disgrace.  This is a silent film from 1933, and one of the things I liked most about it was the way the intertitles sometimes entwine with the visuals to create a fable effect.  So there will be the beginning of a sentence — beautiful shot — middle of sentence — another cool shot — and end of sentence japanese girls at the harbor(moving on into the story), as if the film is truly being narrated by a knowing and rather kindly voice.  Though this is a story that might lend itself to all manner of narrator judgment (after all, our heroine shoots someone, becomes a prostitute, and seduces her best friend’s husband), the narration seems generous.  The errant schoolgirl punishes only herself; there is no call for retribution upon her.  (This is, in fact, rather puzzling.  Although she goes into hiding for awhile, she does reappear in her home town and even briefly helps the woman she shot.  Yet there’s no apparent fear of arrest, and no one really seems to mind much that she actually shot this flirty Western-dressing interloper in the first place.)  Nor is society taken to task for what happens to any of the women.  There are really few American silents that were as open-minded about its female transgressors — if it wasn’t her fault, it had to be someone else’s.  It was refreshing to have the moral stance off the board; it meant I could japanese girls at the harborcome to my own conclusions about the characters.  This was a trait I enjoyed in all four of the Shimizu films that I saw.  And, in fact, the only person I actually disliked in the film was Henry, the charming guy that all the girls wanted.  It in fact seemed quite telling that there were apparently no other appealing guys in all of Japan, given the way these three women fought over him.

japanese girls umbrellasAll of this aside, what I most appreciated about this film was its visuals. Frame by frame, there were simply stunning shots.  Shimizu uses several unusual devices, as when some people leave a scene by simply dissolving and disappearing, or when a change in location can be indicated by one woman at her window, while her friend, miles away, is shown in another.  People are often framed by doors and windows, doors opening and closing.

There was a sweetness to its visual portrayal of the two girls who become women, a real affection toward them and their friendship.  I felt it captured something fleeting and true about close female friendships, especially in adolescence.  This is treated in a delicate, poetic manner, and to me these scenes are the best parts of the film.  After the girl commits her crime, the film shifts into a different phase.  Japanese Girls at the HarborThen it becomes the story of a geisha, one seen often in the Shochiku films of the period, treated in varying ways by Shimizu, Ozu, and Naruse, and probably others whose work is lost.  Because we’re gotten to know our fallen heroine, there is real poignancy to her grief and her attempts to carry on.  This is not at all heavy handed; it’s done quite beautifully as in a scene where she smiles and says the right geisha things, only to have it come apart in a simple glance away.  She switches on her role; she switches it off, all in the space of a second.  There’s something very true Japanese Girls at the Harborin that; who hasn’t done it?  There is no need for dialogue or histrionics to get across the woman’s pain.  The actress Michiko Oikawa is wonderful — Sunako could be dismissive and cruel, but the actress made me sympathize with her by the way she reveals how she is suffering underneath it all.  Oikawa is also not a traditionally pretty actress; she has an unusual face, a ferocious face, and that made her interesting to watch.  She is not a victim and she is not demure.  Neither is she particularly evil.  She is passionate about her emotions.

This film, which has a pretty trite plotline, is carried by Oikawa’s Sunako and by some quirky elements.  I am a huge fan of the actor Tatsuo Saito.  Usually he plays sympathetic dad-types or lovably cranky professors; here he follows Sunako while wearing a beret and toting painting canvases.  He literally washes her underwear Japanese Girls at the Harborwhile she supports the household.  He’s not especially likable, though.  He’s in fact just rather…strange, as much as I felt for him.  I always find this actor funny, a bit goofy and out of place. Ozu played on that quality quite poignantly when using Saito in his films.  Here he’s funny in a peculiar way, as if the actor is laughing at his own character, who is all angles and puzzlement and head tilts.  He is also featured in some of the film’s best moments, as when he and a friend attempt to sell art on the street, talking about the lack of jobs as people pass quickly by, not looking; “There’s a lot of people in the world,” he says (shot of feet passing at their eye level) “too many people.” That this fellow takes matters into his own hands at a certain point provided an interesting plot twist.  His presence also adds a certain bohemian element into what would be an otherwise standard working girl scenario, as he japanese girls saitohides the dirty laundry (literally) and has his paintings thrown at him.  Shimizu is so wonderful at coming up with these small odd touches that might seem unimportant, but that actually make the film worth watching.  (And that painting-toss scene actually uses a hallway, a door, and a long shot to great comedic effect while giving the scene a kind of balanced unity.  It’s so good!)

It’s strange how little Shimizu is known.  He was big in his day, directing 160 movies.  Japanese Girls at the Harbor actually uses some motifs that are practically goth (murderous schoolgirls in uniform and all).  I’ve seen plenty of anime films that might as well be direct lifts.  Unfortunately, many of the people who might like this movie would probably not be caught dead watching a silent film.    It’s a shame, because it’s terrific.

Ornamental Hairpin and The Masseurs and a Woman were the two other films in this box set.  I loved Ornamental Hairpin, but as it’s made in 1941, it just slips beyond the purview of this blog.  It’s a sweet, sad little movie with a very ornamental hairpin poetry ornamental hairpin 3 sympathetic heroine.  Like Mr. Thank You, it brings together a disparate group of random people and then disperses them.  This film again includes Tatsuo Saito and another actor who appeared in many Ozu films, Chishu Ryu.  As with the other films, it has beautiful cinematography and features elements of the natural world.  And it has a similar setting to the one he uses in the film The Masseurs and a Woman, with both films using a vacation retreat on the Izu Peninsula to bring everyone together.

Both The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) and Mr. Thank You refer to the economic depression and the difficulty of men finding work, with the masseurs concerned that they will lose their jobs to women.  Although The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) was my least favorite in the set, it was still fun to watch and allowed 000f8032_mediumShimizu to practice techniques that he later used more effectively in Ornamental Hairpin.  (A long winding bridge and an adorably obnoxious child are used similarly in both.) The Masseurs is primarily of interest because it features blind people — the very sufficient and competent masseurs.  They can out walk and out work all of the other travelers in the movie, including two young groups of hikers.  Although there are some jokes at their expense, the film takes them seriously for the most part, and one masseur is the hero of the story.  This masseur, Toku, is a kind of all-seeing eye who picks up on all kinds of details that sighted people miss, and his ultimate masseurs and a womanvulnerability is touching.  Like Mr. Thank You, this is an upbeat little movie, and its good humor nearly masks its statements about the self-sufficiency of the supposedly handicapped.

I’m so glad that I came across this box set.  These are wonderful films. (Personally, I like his work more than I like the more popular Ozu’s, in part because the women are more complex.)  It would be great to see more Shimizu films released in the West, but I’m not holding my breath.  A number of writers have conjectured that Shimizu films don’t sell in Japan or the West, and we’ll probably never see more.  I hope that isn’t so.  For now, I’ll watch bootleg versions of the other films and wait.  Everyone who hasn’t seen Shimizu should check out this reasonably priced set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu in Criterion’s Eclipse series.masseurs and a woman




Silent Naruse – geishas in desperate straits

In the U.S. we call racy, daring “women’s films” of the 1920’s and early 1930’s pre-code, referring to the dampening effect of the morality code instituted by the Hays’ office.  To my surprise, I’ve found that other countries had their own version of the honest little melodramas and comedies that dealt with women’s issues, and that these grapple with equally risky themes.  I was even more apart from you geishas2 surprised to find that some of these are Japanese, which made me confront my own assumptions about what Japanese women’s lives were like eighty years ago, and, especially, what could be dealt with in films of the period.  (Actually, I have been struck over and over again with just how socially daring and progressive that art was then, and how far we have regressed.  But that’s for another essay.)

mikio_naruseFor now, I’ll talk about the silent films of Mikio Naruse.  Throughout his career, Naruse’s films focused on the travails of working class women, and, often, on geishas.  These are not high-end geishas — they work in bars and men’s clubs, and only a few play musical instruments — and it’s strongly implied that they are prostitutes.  This isn’t a prettified geisha world, and there is actually a contrast between their natural beauty at home with their children and the more artificial painted beauty that adopt in the workplace.  In both of the silent geisha films I watched — Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Apart From You (1933) — the women are ashamed of their work.  And the work is strictly something they have to do for money to support their streetwithoutend geisha wifefamilies.  In every Naruse film I saw, there was a weak or struggling man who forced the woman to become a working girl.  That these films were directed and written by a young man in his twenties was really quite remarkable to me, as the focus is primarily on the women and is completely on the women’s side.  Naruse is never judgmental, and in fact is quite the opposite.  He puts the blame on the men and, sometimes, on a family matriarch.  In a less direct way, the blame is also placed on society, in particular a rigid class structure that forces people into roles and perpetuates poverty.  This, too, parallels concerns that come up in American pre-codes that often would probably be considered “socialist” if made today.  The world was in the grips of the Depression in the early 30’s — it wasn’t just us in the States.  The themes of jstreetwithoutend couplemountainoblessness and poverty ran through all four of the Naruse silents that I watched.

Mikio Naruse himself grew up poor; both of his parents died when he was young.  He began working in film as a prop manager while a teenager and directed his first film at 25.  One biographical account claimed that his father left the family for a geisha.  If that’s so, he certainly had sympathy for the geisha.

Just as with Tatsuo SaitoAmerican pre-codes, Naruse’s films were specifically created for and marketed to young working women who would often bring friends and family to the theater with them. The basic plot devices are familiar to anyone who has watched a D. W. Griffith melodrama or a contemporary romance on Lifetime: The husband-boyfriend is weak or a jerk; someone (child or protagonist) is hit by a car or gets a hideous disease and may or may not live; someone needs money for an operation (or medicine); someone is threatened by a boss or by a customer; men can’t get jobs and may turn to crime or alcohol; girls have a good laugh at the expense of guys — and women are more comfortable with one another; mothers-in-laws are bitches; girls will do a lot to help/protect their younger siblings and/or children; women will sacrifice their own lives for others.  While I would be bored silly with such hackneyed plots if that was all there was, I was completely pulled into the Naruse films.  The reason for this is not just in the fascinating differences in culture and time period.  It’s that the films are just so beautiful and apart from you boy 2compassionate and are filled with many small, touching moments that have little to do with the broader storyline.  They are wordless glimpses that tell us volumes about a character’s mental state or situation.  They are not dramatic, but are more rueful and reflective, which felt to me to be emotionally realistic.  Some of my favorite of these came in the film Every-Night Dreams, the most successful of the four “working girl” silents I watched.  In one, the geisha Omitsu, played by the funny-faced Sumiko Kurishima, must pin up her hair in preparation for going out on the job.  She stands in front of the mirror, resigned to her fate, while the act of pinning her hair is in itself gracious and lovely.  Another moment comes when her husband Mizuhara, who can’t find work, must discuss his situation in front of his wife’s pretty friend; he is embarrassed, and turns away, then looks up quickly and apart from you hairlaughs just a little.  Mizuhara has other touching scenes, especially when he plays baseball with his young son, or when he realizes his son has fixed a hole in his shoe by using a card and chewing gum (a motif that comes up in other Naruse films).  Actor Tatsuo Saito does a wonderful job of showing the fellow’s shame as he attempts to look for work and always fails, yet meets his defeats with melancholy good humor.  (Tatsuo Saito appears in many films by Naruse, Ozu, and Shimizu, among many flunky work hard kidsothers; he is a familiar, good-humored, downtrodden dad.)  The landlady has her own quiet moments, too, as she tries to help Omitsu leave her geisha life; she is played by Choko Iida, who was in four of the Naruse silents and whose face is instantly recognizable.  Here she is worried and thoughtful as she quietly observes the struggles of this young family, and she provides calm in the center of what looks to be growing trouble.

Naruse is not a straightforward director.  He has an odd style flourishes that I found sometimes jarring.  Sometimes he’ll do a distant shot of a character and then very quickly streetwithoutend actress mirror 2flow into a close-up.  He will also quick cut from one character’s face to another, bam bam bam, to make a point about a conflict.  It’s quite strange, especially in this kind of film, which generally has a more naturalistic, realistic style.  I got used to it after awhile, and certainly give him credit for having a signature, but I did at times find it intrusive, even while I was thinking, well, yes, that’s pretty cool.

In all of these films Naruse would step back to give us a full, detailed look at the cultural apart teahouse 2.jpgsurroundings.  This, too, separates his work from standard family melodrama.  Apart From You, Naruse’s other silent geisha film that is still in print, shows in some detail the actual activities at a risque “teahouse.”  While Omitsu in Every-Night Dreams worked in a seaside bar, these geishas and their patrons looks and behave in what we Westerners see as more traditional geisha fashion.  The teahouse has tea and food, and geisha musicians, and “games.”  The women entertain the men in small compartments by talking with them, sharing food and especially liquor — the sex is implied in a few scenes, as when a young Harry Potter-ish-looking guy sets his coin purse of bills beside Kikue’s leg, sticks his tongue out, waggles his  eyebrows, etc. (The scene is actually a bit creepy, though the kid is clearly painted as harmless.  Another man does a sinister dance.)  In another subplot, an older geisha who is supporting a resentful teenaged son has a long-time patron who wants to dump her for a younger one; he clearly is helping to support her. apart from you jerkThe teahouse is not remotely classy; the women share camaraderie there, but are clearly hungry (one girl fantasizes that she’s eating a bowl of rice) and/or depressed, and the manager is shown smoking and counting money.  The male patrons are for the most part portrayed as lecherous buffoons.  Kikue, our protagonist, is financially forced to work as a geisha as a way of keeping her younger sister out of the profession; her father is a drunk.  The older geisha works to support her hateful son.

Two other silent Naruse films I watched featured young women who were not geishas, but who were still forced to work in blue collar jobs and suffered the contempt of others because of it.  Street Without End I particularly liked for its contrast between working class people in Tokyo andstreetwithoutend smile the more traditional, snobby, rules-bound rich.  Though it was full of the standard “pre-code”-type cliches (I kept thinking of early Joan Crawford movies where the tough chick is picked on by her boyfriend/husband’s family), it was well worth watching.  I liked getting a look at the waitresses, artists, and movie-makers of early 1930’s Tokyo; they gave the movie a real energy.  I especially like Naruse when he goes outside his sentimental plot structures to show us the details of how people lived.  The behind the scenes look at early filmmaking (following a subplot involving Sugiko’s friends) was a particular kick, and I wish there had been more of it.  I apart dancing jerk 3did, though, find it interesting that when the heroine Sugiko “marries up” she moves from Western-style outfits into the more traditional clothing — very geisha-like.  I could only see this as a commentary that marrying for class mobility is a kind of prostitution.  Naruse simply gave no nods to tradition in any of the films I watched, and indeed implied that tradition was repressive for all concerned. Those who fought to retain traditional ways were in fact rather horrible.

Through all of the Naruse movies, I felt that I gained a real sense of Japan in that time period.  The impression — which is quite streetwithoutend bridge factorymodern, fast paced, industrial and tough — was actually very different from other Japanese films I’ve seen.  They lack the contemplative, kindly, dignified sensibility of the silent Ozu films, which also often explore modern family life.  Naruse takes a more distant, setting-oriented stance, making the films less intimate than Ozu’s, but in some ways more interesting in terms of the social backdrop.  The settings in Naruse included both apart husband seathe very urban (Tokyo) and the small town seafront. Every-Night Dreams has many long shots of docks, ships, the sea, as well as factories and vacant lots.  It felt quite hardscrabble.  The sailors in the bars looked every bit like real sailors.  The docks looked like a lonely place for a geisha to smoke a cigarette.  A kid looked isolated sitting on top of a large concrete pipe; the same kind of pipe appears among flowers in the only silent Naruse comedy, Flunky, Work Hard.  In contrast, the film Street without End showed crowded, busy, sign-strewn Tokyo streets in great detail and in a lingering way.  People are busy doing things (running, fighting, bustling around, throwing things, even robbing people), while behind them cars, trains, and buses threaten and take people away.  (Every Naruse I watched included someone being hit by a car or train — a hokey device, but also a nod to the suddenly overwhelming presence of vehicles.)  Naruse’s Tokyo felt quite contemporary, actually, like Scorcese showing the streets of New York.  The environment of streetwithoutend moviethe films imparted a realistic, almost documentary sensibility.

(I ought to slip in that Naruse’s first short film, Flunky, Work Hard, was the only film of his that was a family comedy with a male protagonist.  It reminded me of an early Ozu film, except actually funnier.  The shlubby insurance agent who’ll do anything to sell a policy was goofy and endearing.  Being Naruse, it has its melodramatic twist, but the emotion remains true.  It made me wonder why his studio so consistently directed him toward women-oriented films.)

streetwithoutend narusestreetwithoutend women on street

Despite the melodrama and plot devices of the Naruse films, I found myself drawn in, even hooked. Perhaps because I’m female, I’m not willing to dismiss them as women’s films, which they actually were.  Films aimed toward working women, whether made in Japan or America, shouldn’t be rejected, ignored, or demeaned because of that.  I like seeing these nice, upbeat, struggling apart from you  manwomanwomen sorting out their roles, working out their place between old and new society. The focus on women allowed directors of the period to indulge in emotional content and close character development that they might otherwise have had to avoid.  (Gangster films were other big thing in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  In fact, Ozu did some gangster films and they just aren’t up to his other work.)  At least in these films the women aren’t just passive sidepieces or nagging shrews.  And I also sympathized with some of Naruse’s male characters who are trying and usually failing to make money.  Sure, there’s a soap opera quality to his films at times (as there are in many American “women’s films” of the era), but that’s just plot.  Every existing silent film of Naruse’s has moments that are genuinely touching, funny, weird, and sad.  The films are also beautifully shot.  I’m going to seek out as much Naruse as I can find.every night dreams baseball

The Naruse films I watched are all included in Criterion’s terrific box set Silent Naruse as part of their Eclipse Series.  What would we do without Criterion to restore and distribute great foreign films?

apart from you flowers




Earth – the weirdly compelling silent classic

dovzhenko earth fruitLast night I watched Earth, a Russian silent film that appears on many lists of the all time greatest movies.  When I read that this film, by the Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko, was about the Russian Revolution, I envisioned a film full of action and Russian humor.  Earth is not that.  Earth is, though, strangely fascinating;  I haven’t seen anything remotely like it before.  It’s like a slowly unfolding, beautiful dream with lingering closeups of faces, bodies, machinery, wheat in many stages of use, fruit, horses, cows, and, yet again, faces.  Horses and cows square off.  Horses race away.  Couples stare at the sky.

dovzhenko earth horsesThe storyline is almost like a joke; at first, I was reminded of that early SNL skit, Bad Playhouse, with Ackroyd’s Leonard Pith-Garnell.  Earth displays a ponderous seriousness about, of all things, the arrival of a tractor in rural Russia. I laughed for about a minute and then found myself sucked in to the point where I was unwilling to stop staring long enough to reach for a glass.  What the hell is this? I kept wondering. Why?  What does it mean?  And the film kept defying my attempts to categorize or historicize it.  It became for me an almost hypnotic series of images, even while I would comprehend that I was seeing Russian peasants, Russian farmers, the onset of the industrial revolution, the ways that the Communists used machinery to draw in workers and to propagandize their work, the reasons that peasants might embrace the revolution and its sweeping change, and the violent reaction of the dovhenko earth skylandowners.  What I felt was a vague sense of joy and doom.  As I watched I kept thinking, you poor guys — you Russians of 1930 — you don’t know what you’re in for.  You don’t yet know that Stalin’s purges are going to kick you in the ass.  You don’t know that the loss of your hands-on, rural life will ultimately devastate you.

earth dovzhenko boys in graveyardI’m uncertain about what the director felt about the situation.  The very long, lingering shots of wheat, trees, and fruit — and of those who harvest — might be read as a celebration of the simple rural way of life before the coming of mass machinery.  On the other hand, the film’s cheering of the mighty tractor seems awfully sincere.  The film seems to tell us that both are simultaneously true.  It defies linear, logical dovzhenko dancer

The allegory of the revolution — the war between the landowning farmers and the workers — was clear to me, yet I didn’t entirely understand it.  Maybe a Westerner in our own time really can’t.  As I watched, though, it was enough to see the images and to wonder where it would all lead.  And at a point, the film develops an absorbing story; there actually is something of a plot, and it is a symbolic one that resonates far more deeply than the simple tale of an idealistic young man killed by his wealthy rival who wants to keep his farm.  I did find it helpful to watch the film more than once; situations that seemed confusing or obscure on first viewing became much clearer, and the dovzhenko earth man and bullsexperience for me became more emotionally moving.

The film’s nature imagery is especially striking, and I felt a personal attachment to it.  I grew up in a rural area, and Dovzhenko perfectly captures the quietness and the slow movement of that.  The juxtaposition of people and animals in a number of montages clearly demonstrates that we are the same.  I very much liked these.  The animals and the humans sense and react to one another, and the humans sometimes inflict a startling cruelty upon them to which the animals seem resigned.  The humans are no less cruel to one another.  Dovzhenko grew up in the rural Ukraine, among the very kinds of illiterate peasants that he depicts, and this lends the picture a lyrical honesty.  He isn’t  judging.  Life is hard and simple.  I felt that I was seeing through his eyes, much as if I were reading a poem.

It is because of its incredible artfulness that the film is still watched today; were it a standard Soviet dovzhenko earth girl with fruit 2propaganda film, we would hardly care.  I was surprised to find that in its day, Earth was controversial, viewed by the government as subversive.  Then, the very art that we so appreciate led to suspicion.  The instances of small rebellions (as with a father who laughs at the younger men’s obsessions with “the party”) got the director in some trouble; he was denounced by the “Kremllin poet” and felt forced to leave the country.  The film’s beauty and its quirky bits (as when a group of men pee into a tractor to put water in the radiator, and some glimpses of full female nudity) were enough to get the film censored.  That these small subversions in what seemed to me to be a strongly Communistic film — a film that denounces religion and embraces technology and the people’s unity — could create controversy shows just how doctrinaire the government had become.  (Not that films weren’t also censored in the States.)  Again, I was reminded that things would only get worse with the growing repression of Stalin’s regime and World War II.  I felt sad for both those thrilled that a tractor would lessen their work and break the hold of the feudal landholding system and for the landowner who tries to literally bury his head in the sand.  Both sides would meet with tragedy, though the director didn’t know this yet.  None of “the people” would win, yet the fruit would return with the season.


Westfront 1918 – the German side of war as told by G.W. Pabst

westfront 1918 1Westfront 1918 is a thoroughly grim but generous film about German soldiers and the women left behind.  The director is the great Austrian G.W. Pabst, never known for his upbeat perspectives.  Westfront 1918 reminded me of his easier-to-find film The Joyless Street in its view of women under the stress of war’s deprivations.  Westfront 1918, though, is much more invested in the fate of a particular group of soldiers who have little choice in their lives.   Although the characters are mostly German, this group of men could be interchangeable with types found in any number of American/British/French war films of the period.  The lesson of these films tends to be that the trench soldiers are innocently trapped in something they can’t change; the evil lies with commanders or, more broadly, with the vague forces that created the war in the first place.  Pabst doesn’t conjecture; he keeps his lens squared strictly on the victims.

The film has a number of unusual storylines.  Or, well, perhaps it isn’t the stories that are so westfront 1918 2unusual, but the particularly stark and uncompromising ways they are examined.  There are several striking, even unforgettable, scenes.   One comes early in the film when a group of soldiers is trapped underground in a collapsed trench while above them, their troop is being shelled in “friendly” fire.  This scene is intensely claustrophobic, yet highlights a moment of strength and bravery that is not melodramatic, but necessary — a big brute balances on his head the few boards that keep all the dirt from caving in and smothering them.  Another comes later in the kind of scene that Pabst is so good at — the depiction of the fallen woman and how she meets her fate.  This section has some gripping moments involving the cheated-upon husband, played by Pabst regular Gustav Diessl.  There’s also the story of “the kid” (or “the student”), a sweet and brave sort who wants to marry his French sweetheart.  Speaking of that sweetheart, there are some fairly overt sexual westfront 1918references that swirl around her; she is always surrounded by these German soldiers who have encamped in her house, and she seems pretty happy about it.  The film opens with a drunken scene of soldiers groping her — in a friendly way, of course, and she doesn’t mind — that we probably wouldn’t see in a film today.  Yet it somehow feels realistic in the context of the film, and the men have a protective attitude toward her and toward her lover, “the kid.”yvette 2

The dire circumstances surrounding war are brought in directly, but in a way that didn’t feel to me  too heavy-handed.  They fit the storyline.  There is a quick but pointed reference to the consequences of fleeing the service (“we’ve found a deserter; you’d better oil up your guns.”).  There are many touching, sad examples of the food shortage in Germany; the home situation is so grim, in fact, that the soldiers would prefer to fight rather than to stay there.  Going home on leave brings more grief than respite.  There is no refuge.  I admire this about Pabst.  He just does not quit.  He gives the viewer no pleasant out and little humor.   His film The Joyless Street is similar in this regard — women and men will do anything when food is involved, with the men using the women’s starvation as a means of leveraging power over them.  Anyone who doesn’t understand the situation in Germany during and after the first world war, and why that led to the rise of the Nazis, would do well to watch these films.  While The Joyless Street had Garbo around to pretty up and class up the town, there’s none of that in Westfront 1918.  There is not a hint of glamour.  Even the French girl lives in poverty.

soldiers westfront 1918 2What makes this all tolerable is the warmth of the soldiers toward one another.  There is a kind of matter-of-fact camaraderie and understated love.  Nobody gives speeches about it.  It’s shown primarily through the visual interactions between the characters — the way they help one another and work together — and through little jokes they make and songs they sing.  If there is redemption, it is in these small moments of humanity.

yvette westfront 1918Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, well after the war, but with the economic conditions still in place.  The film was resented by both the right and the left — by the right, for its clearly negative views about war — by the left for its unwillingness to delve into the political conditions that caused it.  Some viewers found Westfront 1918  too graphic in its violence, although this isn’t a problem for us now, since almost fifteen minutes were cut by the censors.  The random way that the men come under fire — the constant sense of doom — and the fact that this could come from either side of the battlefield is shown again and again.  It put me on edge for much of the movie.westfront 1918

While this is an early sound film, and the sound is used effectively, the cinematography, pacing, and the emphasis on “showing” over dialogue demonstrated that Pabst didn’t sacrifice his usual techniques and way of seeing for the new medium.  The singing, joking, and whistling in the trenches were natural and effective.  The only time the sound got in the way was in an extended stage show that appears in the middle of the film — and while it’s a rather creepy stage show, given that there is a clown involved, and while the sound slides nicely into the following juxtaposing scene, it is still an awfully long demonstration of “here’s what we can do with music!”.  But for the most part, sound is used well and doesn’t sound messy, muffled, or awkward.breadline westfront 1918 3

This was a striking and disturbing movie.  I’d love to see a good version of it.  I have no idea why it is so hard to find.  I found a DVD copy with English subtitles on Amazon, but it is a bad print and clearly was just duplicated by some guy off of some old video.  That the film was great enough to transcend its fading and bad duplication says much in itself.  If someone would take the time to clean this up and put it out in a good edition, I’m sure it would be viewed as often as All Quiet on the Western Front.  It is at least as good.  With the interest in Pabst’s work (and many critics list it as among his top five films), and the general interest people have in war films, it’s perplexing to me that this hasn’t been resurrected.  Too bad Pabst didn’t just toss Garbo in and have her stand beside the trench.  Then we’d get a good print.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

Outskirts – Boris Barnet’s Russia in World War I

outskirts nicolai white flagI first came across Boris Barnet by watching the Russian silent comedy Miss Mend, a frenetic, quirky, episodic tale of a female labor activist and an evil American industrialist.  Miss Mend is a slapstick silly assault on capitalism, and while the lifts from American film are clear, there’s also a specifically Russian kind of dark humor — no matter how bad the situation gets, it can still be funny in the most fatalistic way.

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Director Boris Barnet (with camera) in Miss Mend

Before Miss Mend, I was appreciative of the great Soviet silents, but a bit put off by the Bolshevik weightiness, never quite able to shake my sense that the work was censored.  Miss Mend opened my mind to what else was out there — and it put me on the search for more Boris Barnet. (Barnet is credited only as an actor in the Miss Mend (he plays an American journalist), but film theorist Giuliano Vivaldi believes that Barnet was the film’s co-director.) Unfortunately, very few of Barnet’s films are on DVD with English subtitles.  These are outskirts flying soldiers The House on Trubnaya Square (found in Kino’s Landmarks of Soviet Film set ), The Girl with the Hatbox, By the Bluest of Seas, and the film I’m going to discuss here, Outskirts.

Outskirts, made in 1933, is technically a talkie, but with the subtitles on, I really found that it worked quite naturally as a silent film; the visuals do much to tell the story.

Yelena Kuzmina

Yelena Kuzmina

I loved Outskirts (also found under the titles The Patriots — I have no idea why, as the film is subversively not patriotic — and its Russian title, Okraina).   Outskirts is irreverent, poignant, and disturbing; I was moved by it, and it’s bumped into the top five films I’ve seen about World War I.  Many critics rightfully compare it to Godard’s Grand Illusion.  It’s also my favorite Russian film to date.  There are a number of interwoven story lines, but put most directly, it’s the tale of a pair of brothers and a pair of friends who are divided by the war, of the effects of war on their isolated town.  Two middle aged men, one Russian and one German, play checkers and drink beer together; the war makes them heartbroken enemies. outskirts checkers 2 Two brothers, one smart and one dumb, meet their fates in the stalemate of trench warfare.  And those in the town of shoemakers display their corruption and their compassion when faced with those labeled the enemy.  These situations aren’t presented in any kind of predictable or straightforward manner.  They break the conventions of the war films to which I’ve become accustomed (and I’ve seen many).   There are strange, disturbing twists which I would love to give away, but won’t; I can’t really get them out of my mind, I found them so startling.  There are also some sweet, funny moments, also surprising, as when one brother, Nicolai, has a German soldier practically land in his lap and they rather happily agree that the German ought to now be a prisoner of war.  At this point, the film then follows the story of this German soldier, who goes back as a prisoner to our little Russian town, thus linking the stories again in a new way.  The depiction of the German soldier is deeply sympathetic, as it is with the German friend; this film takes no sides.  (The only side seems to be against pre-revolutionary government and the industrialists who made money from the war.)

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

Nikolai, played by Nikolai Bogolyubov

All of the stories come together through the setting of the town and through two townspeople: an innocent, knowing girl, and a poor old shoemaker, the brothers’ father.  These characters are consistently the fairest and the least involved in the allegiances of the war.  This is a complex ensemble, with all characters carrying a certain weight, and none of them serving simply symbolic purposes; both the setting and the characters are highly realistic.  Nearly everyone in the film is poor-but-pretty-happy — not in an overly political sense, but in the way that a town full of laborers actually would be.  I wasn’t getting too much of a feeling of These are the Proletariat (okay, just a little, as when a strike is depicted), but I rather found myself thinking, “oh, that’s what a little Russian town was really like in the early days of the revolution.”

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

The shoemaker father (Aleksandr Chistyakov)

Every person in this cast was first rate.  No one hogged the limelight.  No one came off as a caricature.  The actors came from a range of theatrical and film backgrounds, and a number of them went on to appear in films for years.  Barnet keeps all of the characters (and the actors) in beautiful balance.  I can’t even say that I liked one actor more than another, can’t give any kind of special credit.  The ensemble was seamless.outskirts nicolai


Though this is considered a war film, the battle scenes were not epic.  They were close up with a focus on the characters.  The action is mostly in the trenches — with the exception of a scene in which the German and Russian soldiers who face one another across the expanse attempt to forge their own ceasefire, and nearly pull it off.  (By the way, this actually did happen in World War I — bored troops, tired of the stalemate, deciding to quit and wait it out by not shooting at one another anymore.  This wasn’t just a symbolic scene.)

Without ever being heavy-handed, the film shows the pointlessness of war.  Nobody has a valiant death.  Nobody is redeemed.  Nobody commits a heroic act (except, perhaps, the innocent girl, Anka).  This isn’t played for melodrama — there’s no “oh, the futility!”.   It’s simply the way it is.  It’s even pulled off with a bit of bitter humor.  And there is a very strange and very Russian ending.

Outskirts has been released with another Barnet film, The Girl with the Hatbox, in a set by Image Entertainment produced by David Shepard.  It’s a bargain.  Everyone who is interested early cinema of all kinds, Russian films, or war films really ought to see this.