Day 997: Hollywood’s Original A-List, Part II

originally published September 23, 2014

Last year I penned a heartfelt tribute to Lilian Gish and that first generation of cinematic ladies who made male hearts swoon, back when it was still gentlemanly to swoon in mixed company. Alas, the big bold number at the top of this article threatens an accusation of sexism if I don’t supply that article’s flip-side in short order. So here you go: five sploosh-worthy gents who first glued eyes to screens.

It’s important to note that the qualifications for being a sex symbol in the 1910’s were somewhat different than today. Washboard abs were barely an asset; Fatty Arbuckle was a lady’s man and he had the body shape of a Barbapapa. Acting back then was all in the eyes, and it was to the eyes that our attention was drawn. I suspect that in 1914, Channing Tatum’s beady greens wouldn’t have made the cut.

The style of acting required for silent film is truly unique; no one knew (or cared) whether these men could sing, or if their voices sounded like a sack of wet noodles being dragged through a frog’s trachea. We say that Hollywood is superficially mired in its obsession with physical looks today (seriously, why has every on-screen cop since Andy Sipowicz been traditionally attractive?), but back then looks was all they had. Looks, and the ability to brood on cue. Gotta have that brooding glare.

Those eyes will look into your soul, rearrange the contents therein and leave you a changed person. This is Sessue Hayakawa, and he was causing hearts to throb before literally any other Hollywood star. In his time – which began about a hundred years ago – he was as popular and beloved to audiences as Charlie Chaplin. Born in Tokyo, Sessue broke down racial barriers before the paint had even dried on their walls. He refused any role that perpetuated schlocky Asian stereotypes, and was thusly thrust into the spotlight when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the romantic lead in 1915’s The Cheat.

Sessue started his own production company, produced 23 films of his own and became incredibly wealthy, yet his name strikes almost zero chords of recognition today. I just finished a degree in film studies and I’d never heard his name uttered in one lecture. The only performance of Sessue’s that I’ve seen is the one that netted him an Oscar nomination, as Colonel Saito in Bridge On The River Kwai. In fact, many of his films are considered to be lost today. But back in the day? He could raise the barometric pressure inside a theatre full of ladies with one coy stare at the camera.

Now here was a set of abs that could grate a block of cheddar into sunset slivers. The first Hollywood “event” movies were the swashbuckling adventure flicks of the early 20’s, like Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro or The Thief of Baghdad, and Douglas Fairbanks was the era’s Jason Statham, commanding the lead in most of them. By 1919 he was the country’s most popular actor after Charlie Chaplin, he was about to marry Mary Pickford (the highest-grossing actress in the business, making them Hollywood’s first power-couple), and all three stars hooked up with filmmaker D.W. Griffith to launch United Artists, the first artist-run production house in Hollywood.

Fairbanks and Pickford were the first to slap their handprints and footprints in cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. He presented the first Oscars. Then the talkies happened.

It wasn’t that Fairbanks’ voice was a cacophonous disaster; movies simply weren’t being made in the same way, and in the new reality of the marketplace, his first few performances didn’t resonate with audiences. He retired from movies after 1934, just as his son took over the family business of stardom.

Calm down, ladies. He’s taken. He has also been dead for more than 65 years.

Back in the rollicking 1910’s, the western was as ubiquitous in the cinematic landscape as superhero movies are today, and William S. Hart was among the first to follow the genre to stardom. John Wayne was still in grade school when Hart hit the scene, transitioning from the Broadway stage to the new medium as many curious actors did. Hart was a devotee of the Old West. He was friends with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and he even bought Billy the Kid’s 6-shooters. He insisted that his westerns be realistic and true.

Hart’s white pinto horse, Fritz, became the first famous steed of the movie world, beating out Tom Mix’s Tony and Roy Rogers’ Trigger. But the popularity of Hart’s pictures – which were admittedly a little blatant in their morality, and were far outshone action-wise by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks – began to wane in the early 20’s. He bowed out of the scene before the talkies moved in to made the decision for him.

The ladies loved Valentino. Known as the Latin Lover, Rudolph Valentino (born Rodolfo Alfonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla – presumably his birth certificate was printed on tabloid-size paper) was originally type-cast as the grizzly Italian villain type. It was The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921), one of the first films to gross over a million dollars, that launched him to stardom. He married, then married again, then got sued for bigamy and un-married the second woman. The tabloid crowd, such as they were in the 20’s, ate it all up.

The press loved to play up Rudolph’s alleged effeminateness, which caused him no end of ire. He challenged one Chicago Tribune writer to a boxing match over a snarky story. The women didn’t care; Valentino had eclipsed any and all other sex symbols of the era, a fact that was evidenced by the reaction to his demise.

A bout of appendicitis led to his premature death in 1926 at the age of 31. Over 100,000 fans lined New York streets for his funeral, leading to an all-day riot around the Frank Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue.  Apparently women committed suicide, they were so despondent. I don’t think that crossbow guy from The Walking Dead can expect that level of fan adoration.

And because there is always a portion of the lust-hungry female audience who gets giddy over the funny guys (what single woman wouldn’t fall for a guy with a Bill Hader tattoo?), I feel I should pay tribute to the beloved Harold Lloyd. Harold Lloyd was about as popular a comedic actor as Chaplin in the 20’s (and he released three times as many features), and considerably more popular than Buster Keaton. Like Keaton, Harold insisted upon performing all his own stunts, which makes the fingernail-biting building-climbing sequence in 1923’s Safety Last! all the more fantastic.

Harold was so devoted to his work, he paid for it in body parts. A prop bomb on the set of a 1919 production went off, costing Harold the thumb and index finger of his right hand. To be clear, the bulk of his stardom was achieved after this disaster, with a prosthetic glove subbing in for his missing digits when necessary.

The talkies didn’t kill Lloyd’s career – he simply slowed down his schedule until 1963 when he retired completely. The movies he left behind – Why Worry?, Girl Shy, The Freshman, etc – are still gut-splittingly hilarious today.

We can’t all be Valentinos or Fairbankses, ladies. This is what you’d have had to choose from among Hollywood’s first generation of A-list hunks. What do you think, are we better off today?

Day 969: Pound-For-Pound Performances

originally published August 26, 2014

If anyone asks, I’m currently beefing up for the lead role in the upcoming biopic about Orson Welles’ final days. I haven’t been cast yet, and to my knowledge no such movie exists, but when Hollywood finally comes around to making it, I’ll be ready. So yes, I will have that second bag of deep-fried Oreos.

Screen actors – and perhaps stage actors as well, but that information is trickier to find – must occasionally alter their physical weight to slip into a part. Sure, they can cheat like Chris Evans in Captain America, whose 220-pound bulk was deflated to a scrawny pre-Atlas sand-faced wimp through the magic of CGI, but outside of the superhero genre, you’re not likely to see that. These self-abusatory body-wallops are a good reminder that that some of the faces speckled across movie screens are actual artists who are willing to endure physical torture for their craft.

In tracking down some of the wonkier stories for this piece, I tried to uncover an actress who has made a similar transformation, but there aren’t many. Renée Zellweger snarfed back some pastries to gain twenty pounds for Bridget Jones’ Diary, but her final appearance was hardly extreme. I’m more impressed with Anne Hathaway’s 25-pound drop for Les Miserables, much of which occurred throughout the filming process. If anyone knows of any other actresses who pulled off feats like these, please tell me in the comments section. It’s quite the sausage-fest on this page.

Considered to be one of the greatest actors of the last 50 years, Robert De Niro has yet to win an Academy Award since 1981. While I’ll withhold judgment on some of the scripts he has chosen in the last 20 years (I still can’t scrub The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle from the part of my brain upon which it splattered back in 2000), watching him perform usually justifies the cost of admission. If you have somehow deprived yourself of seeing 1980’s Raging Bull (for which he won his most recent Oscar), then you must immediately stop calling yourself a film fan until you do so – particularly if you have seen even one Tyler Perry movie.

For his role as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro first trained as a boxer, winning two of his three middleweight fights. His trainer – the actual Jake LaMotta – believed De Niro to be one of the most promising middleweights he’d ever seen. Once they’d wrapped on the bulk of the shooting, production was halted so that De Niro could go on a 4-month binge eating trip around France and Northern Italy. The pasta took its toll, adding 66 pounds to De Niro’s frame and affecting his breathing, his posture, and his manner of speech. Martin Scorsese then shot the scenes in which Jake was retired and flabby. Throughout De Niro’s eating frenzy, the entire crew was paid for doing nothing but waiting. Not a bad gig.

Toss out those diet supplements and Weight Watchers points books; if you want to shed pounds quickly, you simply need to follow Matthew McConaughey’s six-month regimen. He dropped 47 pounds, from 183 to a lanky 136 for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. He ate very little, and locked himself inside his Texas home with the blinds drawn in order to gain that ghostly pale pallor that the girls find so attractive.

In the end, he couldn’t run more than 30 feet before his legs locked up. Push-ups were agonizing, and his vision began to suffer. But like De Niro, his torture was rewarded on Oscar night, as was the work of his co-star, who also dropped a hefty chunk of his mass in order to portray a body ravaged by AIDS. Yes, of course I’m talking about this guy:

Jared Leto has been kicking the crap out of his body for most of his professional career. In 2000 he whittled his body down to drug-addict levels for Requiem For A Dream and he did a similar slim-down for Dallas Buyers Club last year. Perhaps more impressive was his 67-pound beef-up to play John Lennon’s killer in 2007’s Chapter 27. Mark David Chapman was a chubby bastard, and Leto wasn’t about to cheat with a fat suit to embody the guy.

Every night, Leto  would chug down pints of microwaved ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil. He later told the press that the weight gain was harder to achieve than his previous reduction to a skeletal state for Requiem. It gave him gout, and landed him in a wheelchair. Afterwards, he went on a liquid diet for ten days to lose the weight, though it took him nearly a year to achieve physical normalcy.

Now we’re entering the territory of the grotesque. Christian Bale dropped 62 pounds for his role in The Machinist, a movie I feel guiltily obligated to see, simply due to the effort Bale invested in the part. He drank one cup of black coffee and dined on an apple and a can of tuna every day until he reached 120 pounds. He’d wanted to shrink down to 99 pounds, but the filmmakers felt that might kill him.

Perhaps more impressive than this hefty weight loss was the fact that he had a few months afterward to put back all that weight plus another 60 pounds in muscle mass for his next role, as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.

This stick-figure version of Matt Damon is the after-effect of dropping 40 pounds for a job. He ran six and a half miles each morning and evening (he needed to be skinny, not emaciated like Bale), and ate only a chicken breast, egg whites and one baked potato every day. He needed a few months of medical supervision afterward, but it was worth it. Not only because it captured the character brilliantly, but because it brought him more work.

Damon was not a star when he landed this part in 1996’s Courage Under Fire. He’d had a few parts on screen, but this devotion to method acting attracted the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who gave Matt the lead role in The Rainmaker the following year. Damon built his career on this ludicrous sacrifice of good health. Let that be a lesson to you aspiring artists out there: you must suffer for your work. I’ve been learning that lesson for the last 969 days, without a break.

No discussion of acting chops can be digested without first biting into the work of Tom Hanks. He shrunk himself for Philadelphia a few years earlier, but in Hanks’ run for yet another Oscar he played with his weight for 2000’s Cast Away, which I have been incorrectly writing as a one-word title for 14 years now.

Tom went in both directions for this role. During pre-production he tacked on 50 pounds to attain the look of a typical pudgy middle-age, middle-income employee, which makes me wonder if I was to shed the same amount of weight if I’d gain that sleek Tom Hanks build.

After the pre-island and early-island scenes were shot, the production was halted for a year to allow Tom to lose all that weight and then some, and to grow his hair and beard to a suitable scraggle. During the break director Robert Zemeckis borrowed the entire crew to shoot the tragically mediocre What Lies Beneath. Oh well, work is work.

Now that I have achieved my Wellesian frame and salty beard, I have only to adopt his alcoholism to truly embrace my role in this as-yet-unwritten film. It’s all about the method. Let’s have a drink.

Day 943: Rolling Through The Revolting – Worst Films Part 8

originally published July 31, 2014

It can never be said that I do not sacrifice for my art.

Just as my eyes have been manhandled by Manos: The Hands Of Fate, and later subjected to the probing fright of Deep Throat, I have once again endured one of cinema’s most masterful clusters of unmitigated celluloid sewage, strictly for the purposes of advising you, my dear reader, of what you’re missing. Last night found me roller bootin’, jive turkeyin’ and keepin’ on truckin’ through the film that arguably closed out the all-too-brief huzzah of disco musicals: Can’t Stop The Music.

This was a film that appeared too late to save a dying fad. And not just a dying fad, but one that was being actively butchered by anyone and everyone more than ten feet outside the protective sphere of Studio 54 (or whatever might have been your local equivalent). No trend has become so resoundingly reviled by its non-participants – and thus subject to spontaneous surges in nostalgic re-emergence. But in its immediate aftermath, disco was a ripe and easy-to-despise carcass.

And that’s where Can’t Stop The Music enters the scene: the Village People’s A Hard Day’s Night, without the charm, the wit, or the enduring tuneage. Battling for an audience who had mostly moved on to the next disposable trend (and also for any theater-goer who wasn’t headed to see The Empire Strikes Back). The movie was a career-killer for almost everyone involved. Well, except for one guy.

That’s right, The Gute himself – future star of Police Academy, Three Men & A Baby, Cocoon and Short Circuit – was catapulted to some level of glittery fame on the backs of the Village People, which is far less homo-erotic than it sounds. Guttenberg plays a thinly-disguised version of Jacques Morali, the composer who put together the Village People back in 1977. Throughout this insipid film, The Gute is perpetually enthused and 1000% committed to the role, displaying plenty of the charisma that would make him a star, all while delivering dialogue that resonates in the brain like a malnourished cat trying to deliver a monologue from the bottom of a laundry chute.

The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of who gives a damn: you’ve got Valerie Perrine, whom you might remember as Lex Luthor’s assistant, Miss Teschmacher – and if you don’t, then you probably don’t remember her from anything. Sammy Davis Jr.’s wife, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, and Billy Idol’s girlfriend all show up. Oh, and before he started becoming a woman, decathlete Bruce Jenner was cast in a significant role.

But the real treat here is watching the Village People act. Free from such encumbrances as ‘nuance’ or ‘talent’, each of the six singers displays a singular character trait, and for the most part they hover in the background until it’s time for them to sing. No explanation is given for their wacky costumes, except that they’re “from Greenwich Village”, which in 1980 parlance means they dress funny. That they all happened to land on such distinct and separate stereotypical costumes must simply be a coincidence.

How would one explain the Village People to the younger generation? They were a boy band – playing no instruments, only singing, and cashing in on the disco phenomenon. The costumes were clearly a gimmick, though they were chosen specifically as the embodiments of gay fantasy: the biker, the cowboy, the soldier, the cop, the construction worker and the Indian chief. This is a salient point: while my wife assures me that junior high girls sported Village People posters on their walls back when the group was relevant, it was the gay community that truly embraced them.

And it was the unspoken banner over their heads as a ‘gay group’ that almost derailed this film.

Principle photography for Can’t Stop The Music began in July of 1979, less than two weeks after Cleveland Indians fans had caused a riot in their home stadium whilst trying to explode every disco record in the city. Meanwhile, Victor Willis – the original Village People cop, and the group’s lead singer – wanted the screenwriters to shoehorn in his wife (Phylicia Ayers-Allen, later Phylicia “Claire Huxtable” Rashad) into the script so that he could assert a little old-fashioned heterosexuality into the band’s image. The writers refused; Victor quit.

Ray Simpson took over as the new face of disco law enforcement. The band is shown having zero relationships with women, as is Steve Guttenberg, whose real-life counterpart had been out of the closet for years. No mention is made of homosexuality in the film at all – sex is simply not mentioned, except during the trite “love story” between Miss Teschmacher and Bruce Jenner. It is certainly implied though.

While “In The Navy” and “Macho Man” never made the cut, there is an extended musical sequence to the tune of “YMCA”, the group’s biggest hit. Yes, that scene includes a little shower grab-ass and some of the only full-frontal male nudity you’ll find in a PG film. But where the movie could have elbowed in a message for tolerance and/or gay rights, instead it only wants us to believe that the Village People are the “sound of the 80’s”.

The soundtrack album did alright (possibly because there’s an entire song about making milkshakes), though it was the first Village People album that was never certified as RIAA Gold. Such was the curse of Can’t Stop The Music; it precipitated the group’s inevitable demise into irrelevancy. No one (except The Gute!) escaped this movie with more than a low-key career. Producer/writer Allan Carr, who had tasted glory with the 1978 hit Grease, scored a slightly less disastrous film with Grease 2, then drifted away from features completely.

The movie’s director? You might recognize her.

On the right, that’s Nancy Walker, who played the titular character’s mother on the 1970’s sitcom hit, Rhoda. She’s also the actress who, playing a New Jersey diner waitress in a series of Bounty commercials between 1970 and 1990, helped to popularize the slogan “the quicker picker-upper”. For whatever reason, she was tapped to direct Can’t Stop The Music, after which she was invited to never direct another feature film again.

Bruce Jenner’s next significant feature film appearance was as himself in 2011’s Jack And Jill, also revered as one of the most fetid films to ever ooze onto theater screens.

And that’s the legacy of Can’t Stop The Music. Publicist John J.B. Wilson saw a double-feature of this and Xanadu, and was inspired to develop the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards, more affectionately known as the Razzies. That’s right – this movie was so awful, it inspired a guy to devote the rest of his days to spotlighting just how bad movies can be. Can’t Stop The Music won Worst Picture in those inaugural awards. I can understand why.

Oh, and there’s a weird piece of trivia about Alex Briley, the group’s “soldier”. His brother was identified by several folks as The Falling Man who plummeted to his death from the World Trade Center in 2001. This has nothing to do with the film, but it’s such an unusual snippet of knowledge, I felt I needed to pass it on.

As for Can’t Stop The Music – I recommend it heartily if (like me) you share that squiggly affection for mocking hilariously bad movies. By the end you’ll want to stop the music. You’ll want to stop it and destroy it. Enjoy.

Day 937: Hollywood’s Hollywood Ending – USA vs. Paramount, 1948

originally published July 25, 2014

For those who wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Hollywood, who swoon over the catchlights dazzling in Rita Hayworth’s dark chocolate eyes, who are pushed to the brink of their seat cushions by a stabbing violin score, or who treasure a film’s complete batch of credits before the story gets rolling, you may need to taste that era’s whole truth. Sheltered in the oligopolic thatch of corporate hubris, the Big Five studios were paying themselves twice, fortifying their sweet-spot on the dais of celluloid art with soggy sandbags of nefarious business practices.

When the chips finally fell on the Golden Age, they landed with such a clatter the movie business crumpled into a slump the likes of which we’d never see again; even the modern age of easily-snatchable torrents and duplicitous street vendors pitching bootleg blockbusters hasn’t throttled the industry like this.

For the struggling filmmaker or the tiny fledgling production company, adrift without financial paddle in a sweaty sea of studio bullies, the Golden Age of Hollywood was an ordeal. It took until 1948 for the United States Supreme Court to peel the wings off the sleazy sideshow of backdoor studio arrangements, and they managed to pack the full heft of their punch into one near-unanimous decision.

Piecing together the components of a relatively new art form required some experimentation, allowing a few different business models to walk the industry’s catwalk while the studios toyed with the best way to maximize profits while maintaining the high aesthetic of the art form itself. I’m kidding of course; they wanted to make money, and it was clear from the moment Tommy Edison’s industry stranglehold was quashed by the feds in 1915 that the best way to do that was to keep everything in-house.

Writers, directors, producers, actors – everyone was under contract, which meant if you thought James Stewart would be perfect for your bubbly and wry script, you’d better also be working for MGM or you’d be out of luck. The studios also kept a clunky foot deep in the waters of film distribution and exhibition, owning nearly 20% of the movie theaters in the country. That was where the cash-bills were printed; if your theater, located on a coveted slab of foot-traffic-heavy real estate, is only showing the movies your studio produced, you’re piling dollars on top of dollars. Makes for a downright tasty bottom line.

The Federal Trade Commission had been skulking around the studios’ footprints since the silent era, but in 1938 they filed a lawsuit, claiming the Big Five – that’s MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and RKO – were actively pissing all over the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The studios were ordered to stop ‘block booking’ short films along with features. Block booking is the mandatory bundling of sketchier lower-budget flicks with limited appeal along with the movies people actually wanted to pay to see. So if your theater really wanted to show Casablanca, you’d also have to agree to show The Wacky Exploits Of Mrs. Picklebelly.

The Big Five could still block-book up to five features, but short flicks were out. Also, they couldn’t force theater districts to buy films without checking them out first. The demands were fair, but the studios did nothing to tweak their policies. In October of 1945, the government filed suit again, this time going after all eight major studios – Universal, Colombia and United Artists didn’t operate very many theaters, but they operated enough to get lumped in with this lawsuit. One way or another, the future looked bleak for Mrs. Picklebelly.

It took three years for the case to land on the shiny oaken table of the US Supreme Court. With Justice Robert H. Jackson abstaining (he was probably out catching a movie), the Court voted 7-1 against the studios, forcing all eight companies to pick a side: they could make movies or show them. Paramount, who had owned an impressive stable of cinemas, split in two. Paramount Pictures kept churning out flicks while United Paramount Theaters ran the houses. That company merged with brand-new TV network ABC in 1953, the company that is now owned by Disney, which theoretically should create another conflict of interest. I’m not certain how they ironed out that particular fish.

The studios had to rebuild their skeletal innards from the bottom up. It hit the big guys hardest, and with RKO already struggling under the wonky leadership of Howard Hughes, it would be the only member of the Big Five to crumble. The little guys didn’t have much to lose from the court’s decision, especially United Artists, who was more of a backer/distributor than a full-fledged studio. But the industry itself metamorphosed overnight.

While I’m sure a number of theaters closed up shop when they lost the financial backing (and the exclusive screening rights) of their studio owners, several more popped up into what was suddenly a much more democratized marketplace. Independent film companies didn’t pack the fiscal wallop of their corporate competition, but at least they had a fair shot at squeaking through the front door of a theater and maybe onto the screen.

This subsequently kicked the feet out from under the Hays Code as well. This was the precursor to the modern ratings system, and it expressly forbade the studios from allowing horrifying, scarring content (like boobs, or frightening curse words) into Hollywood movies. The new arthouse theaters that speckled the cinematic landscape in the 50’s exhibited foreign films, or movies by up-and-comers that could shove the boundaries of so-called decency just a little.

But far from a rebirth of true film, that Supreme Court decision was but one of many bullets that Bonnie-and-Clyded the movie business around 1948-50.

Just as the studios were witnessing the end to their cushy reign over all things film, they also had to contend with a stifling crowd of their most elite professionals getting hauled in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to be questioned about their possible communist dalliances. At the same time, television was worming its way into every home in the country, populating everyone’s living room with a viable alternative to spending the evening out on the town.

1946 was the pinnacle year for movie-going, with box office returns at an all-time high. By 1950 the industry hit such a slump, they were willing to try anything to fight the riptide and stay near the surface. More movies were being made in shiny Technicolor. Theaters were outfitted with massive Cinerama screens, creative widescreen technology and 3-D pictures – all in an effort to offer what television could not. But despite all this innovation, the movie business’s slump would remain until the 1970’s, when The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars would introduce the tradition of the blockbuster to shake movie-lovers away from their sets.

It was an ugly trade-off: legitimate business practices for a morbid slump in sales. Yet it’s also a facet of the glamorous good-ol-days that gets forgotten in the sweeping crane-shot of Hollywood nostalgia. Sure, those old studios produced some enduring classics, the likes of which are seldom equalled today. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t being dicks about it.

Day 925: The Titanic’s First Cinematic Splash

originally published July 13, 2014

Mention the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic to someone and you’re bound to get one of these responses:

“What an overpriced piece of CGI crap!”

“I loved that movie!”

“Not just a great film, but that Celine Dion song is the best!” (these are the people with whom I won’t spend a lot of my free time.)

There’s no question that Cameron’s movie – despite its mostly unnecessary formulaic love story – best captures the realism of the mighty liner’s demise. Other movies have focused on various passengers and dynamics aboard the RMS Titanic: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is a musical about the American socialite, Titanic (1953) is a movie filled with historical inaccuracies – also with a fictitious love story crammed into its frames, and A Night To Remember (1958) was a British film praised for its attention to detail.

 But the first movie about the Titanic to hit the silver screen? We’ll have to venture deep into the realm of silent cinema, years before the advent of talkies and even years before the first World War. The first movie to capture the horrors of that fateful April night in the cold claws of the North Atlantic was called Saved From The Titanic. It was released on May 14, 1912. Twenty-nine days after the ship sank.

The story of this lost classic begins and ends with the beautiful and talented Dorothy Gibson, a singer, dancer, Broadway performer and one of the first ladies of silent cinema to earn top billing as a genuine star. She was a natural comedic actress, working briefly at Lubin Studios but getting her big break with the American branch of Éclair Studios, which was based out of Paris. In the early spring of 1912, Dorothy took a six-week holiday with her mother in Italy. She was booked to sail home aboard – what else? – the Titanic.

Dorothy and her mother – both of whom had been up late playing bridge – were awake when the Titanic became intimate with that iceberg (or whatever actually happened – I’ve been over the conspiracy theories already). Along with the other bridge players they raced to lifeboat #7, which was the first to be lowered into the water at 12:40am, one hour after the collision. For almost six hours Dorothy Gibson bobbed through the waves, watching the unsinkable vessel’s final descent into the shadowy brine and listening to the desperate and doomed souls, fighting fruitlessly against hypothermia and/or drowning. Dorothy’s mind slipped off its axis; she was heard muttering “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again” over and over.

Jules Brulatour, a successful movie producer with Éclair and (coincidentally?) Dorothy’s lover, heard of the disaster and immediately dispatched a fleet of tugboats dotted with cameramen to New York to capture the return to port of the RMS Carpathia, the ship which had rescued a heap of Titanic survivors. He stitched together his footage along with a few shots of the Titanic’s official launch, some old clips of Captain Edward Smith aboard the RMS Olympic, and some stock footage of icebergs. The newsreel was rocketed around the country in less than a week. People were buying tickets to movie houses just to see the footage.

This gave Jules an idea – why not throw together an actual film of the disaster? After all, he had the Carpathia footage, he had a top-notch studio at his disposal in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the pre-Hollywood Hollywood), and he also had a girlfriend who had actually been there, and who could provide details that no other screenwriter could possess. Whether Dorothy was persuaded to participate in the picture out of tribute to the lost souls who perished that night or because it would be a huge career boost, we’ll never really know.

The production was filmed at Éclair Studios and also aboard an abandoned transport vessel in New York Harbor. It took only a week to shoot, and the studio insisted on racing through the editing and processing stages so the film could land in theaters as quickly as possible. This was before the era of the feature film, so the entirety of Saved From The Titanic fit onto a single reel – it was only ten minutes long.

Dorothy Gibson starred as “Miss Dorothy”, a fictionalized version of herself. Miss Dorothy is shown arriving aboard the Carpathia and meeting her mother, father and fiancé. She tells the story of the sinking in flashback, after which the mother pleads with her fiancé to quit the US Navy, as the sea is simply too dangerous. The fiancé asserts his patriotism and the film fades to black. The lesson here is yes, people died and it was a tragedy… but AMERICA!

Kind of brings a tear, don’t it?

Dorothy, who was said to have burst into tears several times throughout the film’s production, added to the realism by donning the same dress and overcoat she’d been wearing on the night of her rescue. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that reliving an unfathomable tragedy immediately after having experienced it – even wearing the same clothes – is not an advisable route to mental recovery. Critics picked up on the look of shock and devastation on Dorothy’s face throughout the movie. She probably didn’t have to do much actual acting.

The movie was released worldwide on May 14, 1912, less than a month after the events that inspired it. Motion Picture World praised the film and in particular the braveness of Dorothy’s performance. Éclair made a point of emphasizing the actress’s actual participation in the disaster, and promoted the authenticity her involvement had provided. The New York Dramatic Mirror was less kind with their review, finding it “revolting” that Éclair – and Dorothy herself – would capitalize on the worst maritime disaster in history.

This sounds about right. Had there been a 9/11 movie released within a month of the atrocities of 2001, most of us would have been disgusted, but ticket sales would have nevertheless been through the roof.

Unfortunately, a 1914 fire at Éclair Studios destroyed the only known prints of Saved From The Titanic. All that remains are a handful of production stills and the movie’s dubious legacy of questionable taste. For Dorothy, making the film plummeted her fragile sanity into a frothing crisis. She retired from movies immediately after the film’s release, and despite being neck and neck with Mary Pickford as one of the two highest-paid actresses on the planet, she never made another movie again. She returned to stage work, and eventually moved to Paris, then to Italy, where she became an alleged intelligence operative and Nazi sympathizer.

Éclair eventually shifted their focus from movie-making to camera-making (the makers of the Woodstock film used Éclair cameras), but they found their curious niche in cinematic legend with this film. Was it a good movie? No one who has seen it is alive to say. Was it in poor taste? Perhaps. But at least it didn’t feature that deplorable Celine Dion tune. So that’s something.

Day 914: Retching At The Wretched – Worst Films Part 7

originally published July 2, 2014

There are certain cinephiles – and I’m proud to call myself one of them – who take pleasure in the savory low-hanging fruit known as bad movies. This is my seventh (and most likely final) installment in my Worst Movies series, and I believe it to be an opportune moment to discuss the semantic differences between a bad movie and a shitty movie. A bad movie invites an unintentioned hilarity. A bad movie accidentally reveals the fishing line holding up the rocket ship, spills an unlikely twelve gallons of blood from a victim’s abdomen or demonstrates an extraordinary aptitude for stilted, unnatural dialogue.

A shitty movie either sets out to be a shitty movie from the start, or else it has no pretentions whatsoever. Making a bad movie on purpose will inevitably result in a shitty movie. Take a gander at the insufferable (but sincere) madness of Manos: The Hands of Fate, an exercise in bungled horror, then sit through last year’s Sharknado. Yes, the latter is bad. But it knows it’s bad.

Sharknado, and indeed the bulk of films released by The Asylum, a film studio that specializes in ‘mockbusters’ and monster movies that pay an almost Mystery Science Theater-esque tribute to the monster flicks of the 50s and 60s, are shitty movies. It’s hard to find enjoyment in sitting with friends and making derisive jokes about these flicks when the creators, cast and crew of the films have probably already made the same jokes.

The mockbusters genre began with movies that would almost certainly fit more snugly into the ‘bad’ category than the ‘shitty’ one. Unlike the modern direct-to-cable excursions into over-the-topsville, mockbusters were legitimate attempts to ride someone else’s box office coattails into a modest profit. When The Creature From The Black Lagoon became the go-to monster epic of 1954, a couple of contract employees at Universal – one of whom was Jack Kevan, the guy who had designed the aforementioned Creature’s costume – decided to produce a knock-off called The Monster of Piedras Blancas.

A cavalcade of copycat copycats followed, including Village of the Giants after Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds after the 1975 hit The Land That Time Forgot, and a slew of garbage sci-fi hackjobs that tumbled into second-rate theaters after Star Wars. These films were either cashing in on a fad or hoping to dupe unwitting movie-goers. In some cases, perhaps an optimistic amalgamation of both. None of these movies were good – though I knew a couple of deluded souls who didn’t care that Mac And Me was a grotesque rip-off of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – but most of their creators hadn’t set out to fashion something purposefully bad.

Success breeds imitation. Often that imitation is astoundingly genetically inferior, and probably should have been killed in utero, but it brings in money and in Hollywood, money almost always trumps art. No one needed the 1979 Peter Lawford / Jack Palance film Angels Revenge, but droves of TV viewers had recently made Charlie’s Angels a smash hit, so the producers knew they’d at least break even.

And that’s really the goal here. No one makes a mockbuster in hopes they’ll earn enough scratch to buy a romantic Malibu getaway pad, any more than they make one in order to quell the angst-sopping shriek of their inner artist. They want to make enough to pay the bills and have a hearty laugh at their detractors. Only once has a mockbuster-type knock-off successfully out-performed its predecessor, and that was when the syndicated sitcom Mr. Ed borrowed the big-talking-farm-animal trope from Frances The Talking Mule and became a huge hit. Disney tried it again (sans the talking but with that bizarre ability to fully understand human speech) with their 1976 film Gus, about a football-playing mule. That one didn’t fly though; it just left us wondering why Don Knotts kept getting so much work in the 70’s.

The Asylum is the name of the reigning king of mockbusters today. Founded in 1997, The Asylum appears to have truly taken aim at creating knock-off clones of genuine hits to coincide with the blockbusters’ release. Their 2007 film Transmorphers (which you can watch a clip from here if you want to be thankful you haven’t wasted 85 minutes of your life) is similar to the first Transformers movie, only with crappier CGI, a plot that necessitated less building-smashing, and a healthy dose of shaky hand-held camerawork to inject an artificial intensity.

Director Michael Latt claims there is no attempt at duplicity here, only a non-subtle tie-in that happened to be released on video two days before Michael Bay’s explosion-heavy epic hit theaters. It’s all a question of where that fuzzy line of legality is drawn and how far The Asylum can lean over that line without losing its balance. They couldn’t dispatch Bilbo and Gandalf on a new unsanctioned adventure without getting sued back to the silent era, but they could create another “unrelated” type of hobbit (apparently based on Homo floresiensis, an actual human subspecies discovered in 2003 in Indonesia and actually referred to as ‘hobbits’ by the scientific community) for their film called Age Of The Hobbits. Coincidentally, their movie was released shortly before the 2012 release of Peter Jackson’s latest big-budget Middle Earth flick.

Universal took The Asylum to court because American Battleship was too similar to their movie Battleship (and probably just as awful). The film’s title was changed to American Warships. Other similar titles have been allowed to slip through. The Asylum’s catalog reads like the new release rack at the Blockbuster Video in hell: The Da Vinci Treasure, Snakes On A Train, Pirates Of Treasure Island, AVH: Alien Vs. Hunter, etc. They even dropped a version of War Of The Worlds into video stores at the same time as Steven Spielberg released his 2005 adaptation. Only The Asylum’s version starred Gary Busey’s son.

The Asylum will never be a major player among Hollywood studios, but in fairness they’ve probably got a better track record than most. Their movies never have a budget even close to a million dollars, and they generally break even within three months of release. I’m fairly confident that no other major studio can lay claim to The Asylum’s success rate of having never lost money on a single picture. They have even branched into the religious market, dropping Sunday School Musical on a Jesus-loving public just as High School Musical was at the peak of its popularity. I suspect The Asylum’s version peppered more than one disappointed kid’s Christmas stocking that year.

Lately The Asylum is becoming more known for its original, not-so-derivative monster movies, which are so horrendously awful and devoid of intricacy and intelligence they become self-parody. Here I’m speaking of Mega Python vs. Gateroid, 2-Headed Shark Attack, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (starring Jaleel “Urkel” White), and of course Sharknado and its forthcoming sequel. These movies will not compete with Her or The Wolf Of Wall Street in seducing film buffs, nor will they compete with The Hunger Games or Frozen as movies people will actually line up to see. But they’ll do more than break even, and given the public’s inexplicable love of Sharknado last year, they might just keep The Asylum in business for another two decades.

But let’s be clear on this – these are shitty movies. When that guy leapt into the flying shark’s mouth with a chainsaw, we were all meant to groan at how cheesy and excessively goofy that moment was. But an intended gag is seldom as funny as the ones we stumble upon by chance, which is why watching Sharknado feels hollow, while picking apart the subtle strangeness within wrestler Tor Johnson’s “acting” in Plan 9 From Outer Space or dissecting the story structure of The Room is downright delicious.

Take my advice, everyone. Dial up some cheap-ass Blaxploitation or some classic low-budget sci-fi tonight. Watch a bad movie, not a shitty one.

Day 909: The Real Grand-Daddy Of Motion Pictures – Louis Le Prince

originally published June 27, 2014

As an aspiring young (using the most broad and generous definition of “young”) film studies major, I was fascinated by the pre-Edison attempts at capturing moving pictures for subsequent viewing. Eadweard Muybridge used a long row of still cameras to capture a galloping horse’s stride, only to spurt the images in semi-full-motion through his zoopraxiscope. Coleman Sellers invented the kinematoscope, using a hand-cranked paddle machine to bring pictures to life. Then there’s Henry Renno Heyl’s phasmotrope, which demonstrated that every early cinematic invention had a cool name.

But we can’t forget ol’ Louis Le Prince, the Frenchman who patented his own camera that created a sequence of photos on treated paper. Like Muybridge, Sellers and Heyl, Le Prince’s work is seen as part of the multi-textured groundwork that gave birth to Thomas Edison’s magical moving-picture camera – the real genesis of the movie biz. Or so they say.

Except that Louis Le Prince’s story goes a little deeper than that. His is a tale, not only of innovation and genius, but of a curious – some might say suspicious – disappearance, and a very smarmy lawsuit against the man who would eventually get the credit for being the brains behind movie technology.

Louis was a brilliant photographic technician, which was the 19th-century way of saying he was a brilliant photographer. There wasn’t much one could artistically accomplish with cameras back then, but Louis was renowned for his skills at fixing color photographs onto metal and pottery surfaces, which earned him the privilege of creating portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. He moved from Leeds (where he had been situated since his mid-20’s) to New York in 1881, a pioneer in his field.

Like a lot of inventive minds back then, Louis was focused on making pictures move. He felt that treated paper – similar to what was used to house still images – was the way to go. He built a 16-lens camera that kind of worked, though because each “frame” was captured by a different lens, which captured the subject from a slightly different angle, the moving pictures jumped around somewhat awkwardly. Louis scooted back to Leeds in May 1887 and figured it out: a single-lens camera that could create actual moving images.

Louis used his camera to capture this 2-second film – arguably the first legitimate motion picture (spoilers: people walk a few steps). He had done it. It was a long hike from Scorcese, but Louis Le Prince had invented the movies. He even figured out how to project it onto a screen. He just needed to make one quick trip back to visit some family in France, then he’d patent his camera in the UK and jet off to America to promote it. Fame and fortune awaited this forward-thinking concoctor of dreams.

If only he hadn’t vanished.

Louis left Bourges by train on September 13, 1890 to meet his brother in Dijon. They hung out for a couple days, then on the 16th Louis boarded a train to Paris. He was never heard from again. There was no luggage, no body, no trace of his having been on the train, apart from his brother’s testimony that he’d watched Louis board. The case was never solved. French police worked with Louis’ family and Scotland Yard to try to piece together what happened.

Louis’ brother’s grandson went on the record stating that it was probably a suicide because Louis was bankrupt. That’s unlikely – his business was doing well and he was on the verge of popping out a revolutionary new invention. Another theory is that Louis was ordered by his family to ‘disappear’ to Chicago because he was a homosexual. No evidence of this, but people like biting into conspiracies so I thought I’d offer you a taste.

The brother is certainly a suspect, being the last person to have seen Louis alive and the only one who swears he boarded that train. There’s also the remote possibility that Louis might have befallen a random act of savagery, but with no trace of a body or of any of his belongings, it seems suspicious. There was one other suspect – one who was never formally accused nor was he even seriously investigated at the time. But it’s certainly worth a mention.

Would the master of the light bulb, founder of the phonograph and direct-current advocate Thomas Edison actually murder a man so he could steal his invention? Probably not, but it is significant that Louis was just about to patent his creation, one that would have likely pushed Edison down the chow line at the banquet of motion picture innovation. Louis’ family suspected foul play in his disappearance, but there was no evidence of anyone mucking up the works – not his brother, not his elder kin and certainly not Thomas Edison.

But history shows that Edison was running neck and neck with Louis: he’d invented the optical phonograph in 1888 and just a year after Louis’ disappearance he came up with his prototype kinescope. The motive was certainly there, though I’d have to agree that it’s a stretch to think that Edison would resort to murder to protect his legacy in this one field. He’s more the public-smear-campaign type anyway, as any devotee of Nicola Tesla will tell you.

By 1898 – one year after Louis Le Prince had been officially declared dead by authorities who had completely given up hope – Thomas Edison brought a lawsuit against the American Mutoscope Company (better known as Biograph), claiming he was the sole inventor of motion pictures and that he should receive royalties on anyone else’s work in the world of film. Adolphe Le Prince, Louis’ son, was called by the defense to testify. Adolphe and his mom were eager to welcome a big judicial stamp that solidified Louis’ place in history as the father of cinema.

Adolphe testified, but was not allowed to present Louis’ two cameras as evidence. I don’t know why; perhaps it was because Louis never got around to patenting his single-lens marvel. Maybe the judge was just being a dick. The case was ruled against Mutoscope, and Louis’ legacy took a serious hit. Eventually, Edison and Mutoscope teamed up for the outlandishly greedy Motion Picture Patents Company, and everyone else who had a hand in the invention of movies but was not a part of their little clubhouse was relegated to the dustbin of history.

We’ll never know what happened to Louis Le Prince. In 2003, an enthusiastic history detective discovered an unidentified drowning victim in the Paris police archives from 1890 that might have been Louis, but we’ll never know for sure. Also – and this just adds to the flurry of weirdness – Adolphe Le Prince was found dead of a weird shooting accident while duck hunting on Fire Island two years after testifying against Edison.

Proof of Edison’s evil? Hardly. Suspicious enough to bump an eyebrow just a little over the horizon? Hmmm….

Day 908: It’s Hee-eere… This Article About Poltergeist

originally published June 26, 2014

Despite being physically nothing more than distortions of light and shadow on a few reels of tightly-wound celluloid, a movie can possess the power to frighten free the literal turds from viewers’ backsides. I was eleven or twelve when I first saw Poltergeist, and I remember clearly the electric squirms it blasted through my vertebrae.

I’ve since grown to find I’m more a fan of comedies, documentaries and films involving talking badgers than horror flicks, mostly because I find the tropes of the horror genre to be repetitive. Who dies, who lives – that’s the central question a typical slasher pic makes its audience ask, or in the case of the torture-porn subgenre (the Saw movies and their ilk), how grotesque can the human imagination become when there’s a multimillion-dollar budget at stake?

But some horror films are truly glorious in their ability to capture the human psyche and scare the ever-lovin’ bejeebus out of it. The Exorcist is one; The Ring is (for me) another. And I’ll drop Poltergeist into that column too, despite the fact that I can still only see the film through my eleven (or twelve)-year-old eyes. But there was a lot more to the weirdness of the movie than what we saw on the screen, which is why today it gets a kilograph of its own.

For starters, we can’t even say for certain who directed this thing. Tobe Hooper gets the official credit, and if you ask him, he’ll swear it’s his picture. The guy had made his bones in the horror game, with the gore-fest Texas Chainsaw Massacre under his belt, as well as 1981’s The Funhouse. But if you compare the shot composition, the framing and the overall aesthetic of Poltergeist to those films, it just seems… different somehow.

Perhaps it has something to do with the producer, Steven Spielberg. According to Zelda Rubenstein, who spent six days on the set as the goofy but lovable medium, Tangina Barrons, Steven was in charge the whole time. Other members of the cast and crew have backed up this allegation, though Zelda took it a step further and indicated that certain “unacceptable chemical agents” were mucking about in Tobe Hooper’s bloodstream, leaving him only partly there. So was Steven so hands-on during the production because he was meddling or because he was saving the picture?

Co-producer Frank Marshall credits Spielberg with having storyboarded the entire movie, which would suggest that this was almost entirely his vision from fade-in to credits. It is, after all, his story and his co-written screenplay. Hell, Spielberg even edited the thing. Who’s to say Steven didn’t direct the movie, with Tobe Hooper standing in as a directing shill, a front-man, a beard?

There was certainly motivation to do so, if Steven so desired. He was under contract with Universal Pictures at the time (Poltergeist is an MGM joint), and that contract explicitly stated that he was not to direct any other film that might compete with his big Universal summer blockbuster, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. So technically, he didn’t. E.T. and Poltergeist opened one week apart, and Spielberg all but owned the box office in the summer of 1982.

For the record, Steven was one of Tobe Hooper’s loudest defenders, writing an open letter to his director and publishing it in The Hollywood Reporter. In the letter, he makes it clear that Tobe directed the film, and that Steven really dug his work but remained relegated to his producer tasks. Of course, with the prospect of a contract-breech lawsuit over his head, that’s exactly what he should say…

The skeletons scene is one of the movie’s spookiest, as the inhabitants of the disturbed cemetery come to life and freak the everlovin’ fuck out of JoBeth Williams in her swimming pool. JoBeth was just as skeeved out as Diane, her character – not because she feared death but because the skeletons used in that scene were actual human remains. Special effects artist Craig Reardon shrugged this off; human skeletons were considerably cheaper than plastic facsimiles, given the notable reduction in manufacturing costs.

My mistake – JoBeth actually was scared during that scene, and the once-sentient bones had nothing to do with it. She was flailing about in all this water, with massive lights and cameras all around her. Gravity takes one poke at any of those suspended devices and she’d be as good as fried. Spielberg – who was totally not directing the scene – put her at ease by sitting in the water with her while they shot. That way they’d both die if something went wrong. What a guy.

Nothing tragic happened on the set of Poltergeist. But this is a movie about the remains of the dead being desecrated for modern American convenience (a planned suburban community), and the movie used actual human remains as props. In effect, the lesson of the film – don’t fuck with the mortality-challenged – was being flagrantly ignored in its production. Naturally, this led the more conspiracy-minded folks in the crowd to believe there might be a legit curse on the movie.

This was bolstered by the fact that, within the six-year time frame that saw the release of Poltergeist and its two sequels, a number of wonky deaths occurred. There was Julian Beck, the 60-year-old actor who played the Reverend Henry Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. He died of stomach cancer months before the film was released. Okay, that one isn’t too creepy. But what about Will Sampson, who played the medicine man in the first sequel, but died in 1987 from post-operative kidney failure after having received a heart and lung transplant?

Then there’s Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling, the eldest daughter in the first movie. She was strangled by her abusive boyfriend at age 22, dying only four months after the movie was released. And don’t forget Heather O’Rourke.

The only member of the Freeling family to have appeared in all three movies, Heather was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease in early 1987. About a year later she became very ill and was brought to the hospital, where she died during surgery to fix a bowel obstruction. At twelve years old, Heather had already cemented two catchphrases into the pop-culture lexicon (you can flip a coin between “They’re here” and “They’re back” to guess which is more popular), and she was already dead.

Is it a curse? Did the Academy Award-nominated special effects team screw up by using actual human remains? Ever the skeptic I’m going to say nope, any more than some “curse” bestowed upon the series a totally garbage script for the third installment. There is no curse – though there are weird conspiracy theories, and the suggestion that Steven Spielberg dipped his directorial quill into multiple major-studio inkwells at once is too delicious not to entertain.

It’s nice to see this movie as something other than the monolith of terror that it was to my 11 (or 12)-year-old self. Now if I can just overcome that silly childhood fear and sit through that William Shatner episode of The Outer Limits again…

Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

originally published June 20, 2014

If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout.

Just like that, he was in. He directed a few silent films, sold a few more to the major studios, and picked up some extra scratch by shooting insert shots. An insert shot is a close-up that gets plopped into the middle of a scene, like a hand picking up a matchbook, or a book on the shelf that a character suddenly sees. These are often shot separately because paying top-tier directors and actors to spend a few hours on the perfect hand-shot is a waste of studio money.

Then one day, the industry changed with a thud so loud even the eventual advent of color wouldn’t compare. The movie was called The Jazz Singer, and with it Warner Brothers ushered in the era of sound. Immediately, every other studio went into a panic. No one wanted to be the last schmuck on the block spewing out silent flicks while everyone else was yapping and singing and punching one another with a satisfying thwack. Universal had been working on an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat, which was currently one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Before the film could get released, they decided to “fix” it.

About 30 minutes of the film was re-shot with dialogue and singing. Except the songs were not taken from the musical hit – something which Universal execs suddenly realized might piss off a portion of their audience. So a prologue was shot, featuring the Broadway cast singing some numbers. Jack was brought in to help out. In Studio 10 on the Universal lot, conductor Joe Cherniavsky led a 40-piece orchestra, while Jack stood off to the side, recording the sound effects and laughter in real time to sync up with the film on the screen.

The art of Foley was born.

Jack was suddenly in tremendous demand. Studios were still figuring out what the hell to do with this sound technology; microphones were tucked into flower boxes or behind furniture until someone figured out how to dangle it from a long pole. If you watch most sound films from the late 1920’s, you’ll notice a dominant sparseness between the actors’ lines and an unnatural absence of ambient sound. Jack was brought in to fix that. He’d record one reel at a time – roughly eleven minutes non-stop.

He kept a sizeable strip of cloth at the ready to simulate the sound of pant-legs rubbing together as someone walked. He used a cane to add depth to his footsteps in order to create the sound of multiple people walking at the same time. Jack would immerse himself in the film – no doubt watching him at work would have been a performance unto itself. For more complex sequences he’d employ the hapless prop guys who would bring him supplies. He’d be creative, but always in service of the art.

When Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus required the distinctive sound of slaves marching in leg-chains, the director was set to redo the sequence just so they could record the effects. Jack took care of it himself, using in-studio footsteps and key chains. When another director needed a specific stair on a staircase to squeak, Jack dropped himself into a rocking chair and eased back just as the actress stepped on her mark. The man came to know every Hollywood actor’s gait, as he’d be the guy reproducing them with a microphone three feet from his shoes.

Noticing Foley work defies its purpose. Realizing that almost every non-human sound you hear in movies or on TV is artificially added after the fact takes away from the magic, so as an audience we collectively let that knowledge go. Jack Foley helped to make that possible, and the Foley artists who have entered that industry since have maintained the illusion of reality. And while computers continue their sweeping takeover of the industry of effects, it’s comforting to know there are still pupils of Foley’s trickery out there, MacGyvering our on-screen worlds to make them more real.

That gruesome bone-break? Probably a frozen head of romaine lettuce being crushed, or maybe a walnut being smashed on a parquet floor. Need to shmush some thumbs into someone’s eyeballs, Mountain-style? Gelatin and hand soap will give you that squishy splurt sound to lay down underneath the requisite screaming. Monty Python fans already know that coconut halves stuffed with padding can recreate the clip-clop of a horse.

And Jack’s innovations stretched beyond the Foley pit. Sci-fi sound designers have employed a similar makeshift creativity in coming up with the ideal sounds to liven up their films. A hammer smacking an antenna guy wire sounds suspiciously like the blasters in Star Wars. Luke’s landspeeder is just the L.A. Harbor Freeway recorded through a vacuum-cleaner pipe. That giant boulder that chases Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is simply the sound of a car tire advancing slowly along a gravel road.

Jack Foley brought a handyman creativity and a remarkably inventive zeal to sound films. And thankfully, the spirit of his approach is still alive today.

Day 885: Video Predates The Radio Star

originally published June 3, 2014

Now a haven for reality shows and programming that has little or nothing to do with anything resembling music, MTV was once the go-to station for the ubiquitously 80’s art form known as the music video. But flipping one’s video rolodex back to the Buggles singing “Video Killed The Radio Star” is hardly an act of embracing the retro when it comes to the timeline of the music video.

You’ll have to travel farther back still than the pre-taped lip-sync videos the Beatles sent in to the Ed Sullivan Show when they no longer wanted to contend with the manic theater crowds to appear live. No, the music video is literally about as old as the medium of film itself.

As with any conceptual progress in the medium of film, the music video had to be squeezed through the skinny tube of innovation, and a quizzical defining of its language. But make no mistake – the music video was always about the music. In particular, about selling the music. Of course, in the beginning it wasn’t sex and sweat and slow-motion twerking that sold the music; it was the technology itself. This was some pretty sophisticated stuff.

In 1894, a button salesman/lyricist named Edward B. Marks and a necktie salesman/pianist named Joseph W. Stern teamed up to write a song called “The Lost Little Child.” It was a cute little folk story about a policeman finding a lost child who turns out to belong to his estranged wife who once traded a donkey to Grover Cleveland for a magic whistle that could summon Poseidon inside a special thimble she’d wear in her hair, but only on Tuesdays when the barometer displayed a curious lack of humidity. Or something – I haven’t actually listened to the entire thing. The point is, music promoter George H. Thomas knew how to sell this thing.

The idea was to use a stereopticon (pictured above) to show a slide show against the curtain in Brooklyn’s Amphion Theater before the play, using the two lenses to dissolve between photos that would tell the narrative of the song while it played. Partly thanks to Thomas’s marketing ploy, “The Lost Little Child” was a certifiable hit, selling more than two million copies of the sheet music. This was the first music video, though at the time the gimmick was marketed as an ‘illustrated song.’

There was no record industry back then, but sheet music sales kept the music industry afloat. At least ten thousand theaters in America were showing illustrated songs before silent films, sometimes during the elaborate reel changes. The point was certainly to keep the audience entertained, but more important to the medium’s creators was getting folks hooked on the songs and buying the sheet music. Even after the advent of home-based record players and radio – even as late as 1937 when color movies were just beginning to emerge – illustrated songs were a hit.

A lot of silent film stars got their start as models for illustrated song photos, from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor. By the 1940’s, advances in technology had produced a new way to push the knuckles of music promotion deeper into the soft flesh of our everyday lives. No longer would we need to venture to a dark theater to be exposed to these visual ads for the latest hits. Now we could enjoy them while dining out.

They were called soundies: three-minute films, often with dance sequences, set to whatever song was being promoted. But rather than display the latest Jimmy Dorsey, Doris Day or Gene Krupa tune for movie-goers, they’d show up on a Panoram, which was a kind of film jukebox. You’d head to your local restaurant, nightclub, bar or amusement park and plunk in a quarter to watch people get their polka groove on to that Lawrence Welk hit you’ve been adoring on your radio because it was the 1940’s and maybe you liked really bland, shitty music.

In 1941, companies began fusing music with actual filmed narrative, adding the likes of the Keystone Kops or Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer to goofy little stories set to the music. These didn’t catch on – the public preferred to associate their music with watching either the musicians themselves or dancers. The soundies era was significant though, as they gave us some of the only visual recordings of African-American stars like Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and Moms Mabley. The last of the Panoram soundies was released in 1947. From there, it was time for technology to up the game.

This is the French-invented Scopitone, the next stage of music video evolution. This device was brought to market in the late 1950’s by a company called Cameca, based out of Courbevoie. It spread to West Germany, then to England, and by 1964 it was beginning to make a splash in America. The machines were similar to the original film jukeboxes, but they played 16mm color film. Actual color!

One would imagine that the Scopitone revolutionized the music industry in the 1960’s, but in fact the trend never caught fire, possibly because the most popular artists of the day had no interest in producing films for them. But while you couldn’t pop the visual embodiment of the latest Rolling Stones or Kinks tune on the thing, you could still dial up Neil Sedaka singing “Calendar Girl” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” But by the end of the decade, the public lost interest. The Scopitone would never rise above fad status.

While the Panoram and Scopitone were spewing visual popular music into our lives in public, it was the musical short that truly heralded the video age. From the earliest days of sound film, studios would produce little one-reel shorts of the talent they were trying to push into the public’s collective consciousness – Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and Judy Garland all got their starts this way, as did a number of future stars who wouldn’t gain fame based on their singing skills – people like Humphrey Bogart, George Burns and Cary Grant.

These were filler pieces, meant to be sandwiched between previews and newsreels between airings of a movie. When TV hit the scene, these shorts could pad the back end of a 20-minute sitcom.

The Beatles may have invented the conceptual-art style of the music video when they poured paint on a piano and leapt backwards into trees for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, but the art form itself is downright ancient. It has most certainly been improved upon over the last 120 years, though I firmly believe we’ve passed the music video’s apex, which occurred somewhere around the creation of this masterpiece: