Tag Archives: 1930s

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

 

 

 

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.

a little more about Ethel

ethel-waters-01-smroots-ewIn 1921 Ethel Waters was picked up by Black Swan Records, a publisher of what were then known as “race records.” Initially, race records were for black audiences (right?), but it wasn’t long before white people started looking for them, too. Black Swan was a label out of Harlem, and Ethel was one of their first artists. Her first record sold 500,000 copies in six months. This is phenomenal by the standards of the day, and especially so considering that she was among the earliest black artists to be recorded. Ethel’s account of her first recording goes like this:

…. I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … There was much discussion of whether I should sing popular or ‘cultural’ numbers. They finally decided on popular, and I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me. Mr. Pace paid me the one hundred dollars, and that first Black Swan record I made had Down Home Blues on one side, Oh Daddy on the other. It proved a great success … got Black Swan out of the red.
.black swan ethelblack swan 2

Here’s an audio clip of Down Home Blues, 1921, on Black Swan.
The biography Heat Wave by Donald Bogan is an interesting account of the personal and professional life of this complex woman. Her rise from poverty to becoming an actual recording smash and occasional film star really is quite amazing. She had a genuine ability to connect with her audience in a way that feels warm and sincere. Her directness, which was sometimes simply mean-spirited and angry in her personal life, comes across in her work as a kind of intimate honesty. We feel connected to a real woman. To me, there’s an element of pathos in some of her work that strikes me as a genuine — not a pose — though it can appear in the silliest of scripted situations. I found myself moved by her sweet singing in this scene from the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky. She’s performing here with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (on guitar) and Bill Bailey (the tap dancer).YouTube Preview Image

I found another film clip, this from 1933 and a film called Rufus Jones for President. Try to look past the racist mugging if you can and just listen to Ethel — except, well, you might take note of a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. serving as the judge. It’s a shame that the films we have of black performers in this era are often full of racist touches — but they’re all we’ve got. The lyrics to Underneath a Harlem Moon are really pretty weird; the song is written by Mack Gordon, a Polish Jew. Sometimes it’s racist, yet in the period it was written was widely performed by black jazz artists. Yuval Taylor on his blog Faking It points out that in the movie, Ethel changes the last half of the song and claims it for her own. (At least we think it’s Ethel who changed it? It’s hard to be sure about that, I think.) These are the lyrics:
Once we wore bandannas, now we wear Parisian hats,
Once we were barefoot now we wear shoes and spats,
Once we were Republican but now we’re Democrats
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We don’t pick no cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo.
All we pick is numbers, and that includes you white folks too,
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We just thrive on dancin’;
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in–
That’s why house rent parties were born!

We also drink our gin, puff our reefers, when we’re feelin’ low,
Then we’re ready to step out and take care of any so-and-so.
Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go,
Underneath our Harlem moon.

And here is the performance in question, from Rufus Jones for President:

YouTube Preview Image
My reading about Ethel primarily goes through the 1930’s, so the following comments speak to who she was at that time. (I actually find her later appearances in so many “mammy”-type roles a little depressing.) There’s been a lot of discussion about Ethel being bisexual. It’s true. But as Donald Bogan points out, and as I’ve found in all kinds of reading from the era of the 1900-1930’s, this was not all that uncommon. A lot of women, especially younger ones, had sexual and romantic relationships with other women, and then went on to marry men. They seem to be a bit iffy on whether they considered themselves to be lesbians; generally, they didn’t. There’s considerable denial, professing it all to be a kind of experimental fluke. (Maybe it’s not all that different now.) Others remained in same sex relationships to some degree or another throughout their lives, as Ethel did, even when she had three husbands. These choices by female performers made sense; they were preyed upon by managers, stage door dandies, producers, and on and on, and they hung together out of protection. (You can even see this in a lot of pre-code movies – think Joan Blondell rolling her stockings behind the stage door. The movies don’t show the women sleeping together, but it’s often just a kiss away.) Performers had to sleep and dress in close quarters, and sometimes share beds, and, well, it seemed natural. Ethel as a young woman did have a relationship with a dancer, Ethel Williams, that lasted several years, until Ms. Williams got married. (Ethel Williams’ story is interesting, too — she was a whiz at the dance the turkey trot, and was in one of the most important early black musical plays, Darktown Follies.) Ethel Waters was apparently a bit of dog for a good deal of her life — she got around and didn’t mind who knew it. She was her own woman. waters