Monthly Archives: September 2012

Early Talkies: A Primer

Acquired Tastes
If one wanted, for whatever reason, to sketch a dividing line between the casual movie fan and the serious cinephile, the early talkies are probably the place to do it.

Their stars are unfamiliar—flashes-in-the-pan whose popularity is more mysterious and unaccountable than those that came immediately before and after. (Modern audiences instinctively understand the magnetism and sexuality of Valentino and Garbo or Stanwyck and Gabin; not so El Brendel, whose narrow ethnic burlesque is such an acquired taste that it beggars belief he was ever accorded starring roles in big-budget specials.)

Too often, discussion of the earliest sound movies (say, between 1928 and 1932, but especially those made before the summer of 1930) is heavily laced with apology. It’s assumed that they’re successful in spite of incontrovertible deficiencies. Their music often comes across as a soupy, repetitive mess. The sets are sometimes barely dressed. The takes are long and the camera movement minimal. The dialogue is so heavy it’s no wonder they were called talkies. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged | 4 Comments

Just Imagine—We Dare Ya!
The Original Sci-Fi Musical in 35mm at Cinema Borealis!

Cinema Borealis in Wicker Park • 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave, 4th Floor
Suggested Donation: $10

Sunday, September 30 @ 6:00pm & 8:30pm
JUST IMAGINE
Directed by David Butler • 1930
A lavish science fiction musical from a band of Broadway braggarts with largely nominal interest in the rockets and biotech innovations depicted herein, Just Imagine is nothing if not a singular cinematic experience. In this speculative rendition of 1980, citizens are identified only by alphanumeric codes and love is regulated through the government marriage tribunal. (It plays equally well as a show-stopper for 1930 and a Tea Party fever dream for 2012.) When aristocratic dead weight MT-3 wins a marriage judgment for the hand of LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan), her sweetheart J-21 (John Garrick) must undertake an experimental trip to Mars to prove his social worth. He’s joined by Single O (El Brendel), a lightning victim from “the good ol’ days” of 1930 recently revived by the miracle of modern science. (As an instantly perishable artifact of 1930, El Brendel’s dumb Swede vaudeville shtick can’t be bettered.) With its inimitable blend of creditable Art Deco set design, a varied score from De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson (Good News, Sunnyside Up), and a terrifyingly guttural cohort of Martian chorines, Just Imagine leaves nothing to the imagination.  (KW)
109 min. • Fox Film Corp. • 35mm from Criterion Pictures, USA

—————-

Not the imaginative type? That’s okay; we’ve got a wonderful movie for you, too! Join us next Wednesday at the Portage for a rare screening of a drop-dead gorgeous IB Technicolor 16mm print of Chad Hanna.

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Wednesday, October 3rd @ 7:30pm
CHAD HANNA
Directed by Henry King • 1940
After helping a runaway slave escape to Canada, starry-eyed Henry Fonda runs away with Guy Kibbee’s upstate New York circus. Also along for the trip are John Carradine, Dorothy Lamour, Oscar the Lion, and 17-year-old runaway Linda Darnell. Fonda falls for Lamour and then dopily falls for Darnell, eventually proving his worth by getting the circus an elephant. Adapted from Red Wheels Rolling, a Saturday Evening Post serial by Walter Dumaux Edmonds, this is the kind of simple, natural filmmaking that made Henry King 20th Century-Fox’s most subtly valuable director. Bosley Crowther captured the overwhelmingly lush and dreamlike state of Chad Hanna in his New York Times review: “the color and mood of that small town America has been excellently captured in the crickets dinning the night silence at Canastota; the creak of wagon harness as the little caravan journeys to the next town; . . . the roustabouts of rival circuses fighting it out with tent pegs on the bridge; the acrobats in pink tights and gold fringe running into the sawdust ring while Guy Kibbee delivers a stentorian rhetoric on the ‘most daring, the most breath-taking . . .’” (JA)
86 min • 20th Century-Fox • IB Technicolor 16mm from the Radio Cinema Film Archive
Short: Notes on the Circus (Jonas Mekas, 1966) – 16mm from Canyon Cinema – 12 min

Posted in News | Comments Off

It’s All Over Icky: Erich von Stroheim as The Great Gabbo in 35mm from the Library of Congress!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30pm – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Wednesday, September 26th
THE GREAT GABBO
Directed by James Cruze • 1929
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have the privilege to appear before you in what I might call, with all due modesty, the greatest ventril-o-quil exhibition of all times.” So intones Erich von Stroheim and we’re inclined to believe him. It’s certainly kinkier than Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy: Stroheim’s demanding Gabbo pushes away his girlfriend (Betty Compson) but tries to win her back with his seductive dummy Otto. A one-of-a-kind collaboration between two titans of silent cinema, The Great Gabbo shows Cruze and Stroheim groping their way through the wooly world of experimental sound filmmaking. (That the film was released by short-lived Sono Art tells you all you need to know about their respective positions in the industry, which was then using the talkie revolution as a pretext for shunting aside difficult talent.) What with its delirious musical numbers (including “Icky” and the arachnophilic “Web of Love”) and satanic molasses pacing, The Great Gabbo makes a mighty peculiar case for the talkies—but then, how could a wisecracking dummy work in a silent picture? (KW)
96 min • Sono Art-World Wide Pictures • 35mm from Library of Congress
Cartoon: “Ventriloquist Cat” (Tex Avery, 1954) – 16mm – 7 min

—————-

What’s that? You’re a Gabboholic and need another early talkie fix? Like, real soon?

Lucky for you, this Sunday we’ll be screening The Great Gabbo‘s only real rival for the title of Most Bizarre Early Talkie Semi-Musical: Just Imagine, the operetta-rocket not taken in our alternative history of tunesmithing.

Cinema Borealis in Wicker Park • 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave, 4th Floor
Suggested Donation: $10

Sunday, September 30 @ 6:00pm & 8:30pm
JUST IMAGINE
Directed by David Butler • 1930
A lavish science fiction musical from a band of Broadway braggarts with largely nominal interest in the rockets and biotech innovations depicted herein, Just Imagine is nothing if not a singular cinematic experience. In this speculative rendition of 1980, citizens are identified only by alphanumeric codes and love is regulated through the government marriage tribunal. (It plays equally well as a show-stopper for 1930 and a Tea Party fever dream for 2012.) When aristocratic dead weight MT-3 wins a marriage judgment for the hand of LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan), her sweetheart J-21 (John Garrick) must undertake an experimental trip to Mars to prove his social worth. He’s joined by Single O (El Brendel), a lightning victim from “the good ol’ days” of 1930 recently revived by the miracle of modern science. (As an instantly perishable artifact of 1930, El Brendel’s dumb Swede vaudeville shtick can’t be bettered.) With its inimitable blend of creditable Art Deco set design, a varied score from De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson (Good News, Sunnyside Up), and a terrifyingly guttural cohort of Martian chorines, Just Imagine leaves nothing to the imagination.  (KW)
109 min. • Fox Film Corp. • 35mm from Criterion Pictures, USA

Posted in News | Comments Off

Will You Live Through The Big Night?
Rare Noir in 35mm at the Portage!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30pm – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Wednesday, September 19th
THE BIG NIGHT
Directed by Joseph Losey • 1951
Birthday parties can be traumatic experiences for kids, but this celebration boasts a whole new dimension of terror for 17-year-old John Barrymore, Jr., who’s barely had a chance to blow out the candles on his cake when sports columnist and underworld heavy Howard St. John appears out of nowhere and orders his father to strip and take a beating. Barrymore spends the rest of the movie trying to unravel this wholly mysterious act of primal violence, swearing revenge on an adult world he barely understands. The Big Night is a meandering nightmare-testament made by a band of angry talent at the twilight of their Hollywood careers. Blacklisted screenwriters Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner, Jr., already working pseudonymously here, would continue writing through fronts; director Losey would soon flee to Europe; and actress Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane) would never work in features again. This addled teen noir is the perfect outlet for their broad-based disenchantment. (KW)
75 min • United Artists • 35mm from Park Circus
Cartoon: Droopy Dog in “Homesteader Droopy” (Tex Avery, 1954) – 16mm – 7 min

Posted in News | Comments Off

Instant Cinema: Home Movies and the Avant-Garde

Since avant-garde movies first attracted a substantial audience in America under the auspices of indecency and subversion of established ideas about politics, art, society, and especially sexuality, many don’t expect that such films can also be exceedingly gentle, even reverential towards their subjects. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Home Movies: Not Just for Your Uncle Anymore
16mm Avant-Garde Program at Cinema Borealis!

Cinema Borealis in Wicker Park • 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave, 4th Floor
Suggested Donation: $10

Sunday, September 16 @ 7:00pm
HOME MOVIES AND THE AVANT-GARDE – PROGRAM 1
For decades, home movies and avant-garde films were jointly denigrated as ‘amateur’ in the least appealing sense: precious, obscure, endless, and immeasurably handicapped by a lack of professional polish. They were judged as failed attempts at Hollywood-style filmmaking, though their aspirations and implications often could not be more removed. In the 1960s, avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Vanderbeek began reclaiming the epithet of ‘home moviemakers,’ producing work that challenged the borders of amateur cinema and domesticity itself. In honor of the tenth anniversary of Home Movie Day, the Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening two programs of avant-garde films that exalt, appropriate, and reshuffle home movies. Co-sponsored by Chicago Film Archives

The Program
People Near Here (Ron Finne, 1969, 12 min, 16mm from Film-makers’ Coop)
Urban Peasants (Ken Jacobs, 1975, 60 min, 16mm from Film-makers’ Coop)
Shit Rat (Dave Rodriguez, 2012, 20 min, 16mm from the artist)

—————–

And don’t forget about our next program at the Portage Theater: a rare noir from soon-to-be-blacklisted director Joseph Losey!

Wednesday, September 19th @ 7:30pm
THE BIG NIGHT
Directed by Joseph Losey • 1951
Birthday parties can be traumatic experiences for kids, but this celebration boasts a whole new dimension of terror for 17-year-old John Barrymore, Jr., who’s barely had a chance to blow out the candles on his cake when sports columnist and underworld heavy Howard St. John appears out of nowhere and orders his father to strip and take a beating. Barrymore spends the rest of the movie trying to unravel this wholly mysterious act of primal violence, swearing revenge on an adult world he barely understands. The Big Night is a meandering nightmare-testament made by a band of angry talent at the twilight of their Hollywood careers. Blacklisted screenwriters Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner, Jr., already working pseudonymously here, would continue writing through fronts; director Losey would soon flee to Europe; and actress Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane) would never work in features again. This addled teen noir is the perfect outlet for their broad-based disenchantment. (KW)
75 min • United Artists • 35mm from Park Circus
Cartoon: Droopy Dog in “Homesteader Droopy” (Tex Avery, 1954) – 16mm – 7 min

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Posted in News | Comments Off

Can’t Wait for Halloween? Come to Our Pre-Mature Anti-Monster 35mm Double Feature at the Portage!

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Wednesday, September 12th @ 7:30pm
Back-to-School Chiller Double Feature!

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER
Directed by Lambert Hillyer • 1936
“Who can define the boundary between the superstition of yesterday and the scientific fact of tomorrow?” Picking up only a few minutes from where Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula left off, Dracula’s Daughter (sourced very loosely from “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter from Bram Stoker’s original novel) follows Gloria Holden as she preys on unsuspecting early-twentysomething-year-old girls. The only one who’s wise to her is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), but he’s under investigation for driving a stake through Bela Lugosi’s heart. (Lugosi appeared only as a wax bust, for which he reportedly charged $4,000 for use of his likeness.) Now famous for being the first lesbian vampire movie (what took so long?), it’s also the last film in Universal’s horror cycle made before production head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was forced out of Universal for a string of over-budget projects (including this one). Charles R. Rogers took over in early 1936 and would never oversee anything as weird, wonderful, and erotic as this. (JA)
71 min • Universal Pictures • 35mm from Universal
Short: Dracula (Castle Condensation) – 16mm from the Chicago Film Archives – 8 min

followed by …

WEREWOLF OF LONDON
Directed by Stuart Walker • 1935
Those still complaining about Sony and Marvel deciding to ‘reboot’ their Spider-Man franchise so soon after the last effort would do well to look at Werewolf of London, the nearly forgotten template for the lycanthropic horror cycle that Universal brushed aside a mere six years after its release to make way for Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man. The set-up in Werewolf of London is exotic, even by Universal horror standards: a werewolf roves the forests of Tibet (here represented by Angeles National Forest) and infects famed botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) with dangerous full-moon impulses. Back in London, Glendon learns from the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, in a welcome respite from Charlie Chan) that a rare flower from the same Tibetan forest is the only check on his animal instincts. Glendon’s efforts to impose self-discipline fail brutally; he must balance his appetite for a cure with the realization that he cannot truly protect those he loves. An atmospheric effort that smartly downplays fantastic makeup schemes (Hull found the full facial regime tedious), Werewolf of London is a worthy late effort in the Universal horror cycle. (KW)
75 min • Universal Pictures • 35mm from Universal

——————

Had enough movies yet?

Good, neither have we. Remember that we’re also showing an avant-garde 16mm program this Sunday in our parallel series at Cinema Borealis…

Cinema Borealis in Wicker Park • 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave, 4th Floor
Suggested Donation: $10

Sunday, September 16 @ 7:00pm
HOME MOVIES AND THE AVANT-GARDE – PROGRAM 1
For decades, home movies and avant-garde films were jointly denigrated as ‘amateur’ in the least appealing sense: precious, obscure, endless, and immeasurably handicapped by a lack of professional polish. They were judged as failed attempts at Hollywood-style filmmaking, though their aspirations and implications often could not be more removed. In the 1960s, avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Vanderbeek began reclaiming the epithet of ‘home moviemakers,’ producing work that challenged the borders of amateur cinema and domesticity itself. In honor of the tenth anniversary of Home Movie Day, the Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening two programs of avant-garde films that exalt, appropriate, and reshuffle home movies. Co-sponsored by Chicago Film Archives

The Program
People Near Here (Ron Finne, 1969, 12 min, 16mm from Film-makers’ Coop)
Urban Peasants (Ken Jacobs, 1975, 60 min, 16mm from Film-makers’ Coop)
Shit Rat (Dave Rodriguez, 2012, 20 min, 16mm from the artist)

Posted in News | Comments Off

The Demon in the Machine: Approaching Tony Scott

“Sometimes miniature electric train cars simply will not stay coupled. At some crucial tunnel, curve, or grade, the locomotive charges forward, leaving uncoupled cars behind and possibly derailed. It often seems that extra exertion at switches, curves, and grades has something to do with the uncoupling.

“Much, perhaps most, of the film footage that you project is coupled into “trains.” Like those miniature trains, films must stay coupled and on track through something like tunnels, curves, and grades, and switches. Therefore, couplings—let’s, of course, call them splices or joins—are crucial. Making good splices is one of your key responsibilities as a film handler. ”

The Kodak Book of Film Care, 1st Edition, 1983 Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Comments Off

Tony Scott RIP: Gone but Unstoppable
This Sunday in 35mm at Cinema Borealis!

1550 N. Milwaukee Ave, 4th Floor • $10 Suggested Donation
Two Shows! 7:00pm and 9:15pm!

UNSTOPPABLE
Directed by Tony Scott • 2010
The recent death of director/producer Tony Scott has left an irreparable rupture in Hollywood cinema: the Paul Sharits of testosterone-driven action filmmaking, Scott staged mayhem with a singularly florid intensity—color outside of time. After the operatic assault of The Hunger, Scott settled into a series of relatively staid blockbusters before an abstract late-career renaissance that encompassed Man on Fire, Domino, Deja Vu, and his final masterpiece, Unstoppable. A mere plot summary of Unstoppable makes it sounds like a Denzel-ized retread of Speed, but trust us: if your idea of a perfect night at the movies is watching trains hurdle through the verdant backwoods of Pennsylvania at a hundred miles per hour in throbbing primary shades, this is your kind of movie. One of the rare recent action films to take full advantage of the scope of Cinemascope, Unstoppable also found praise in the Canadian journal Cinemascope for its “daring, forceful plunges into abstraction combined with a hardscrabble, working-class metaphysics.” (KW)
98 min • 20th Century Fox • 35mm from Criterion Pictures, USA

——-

And if that wasn’t enough, be sure to come out to the Portage Theater on Wednesday for our first-ever double bill. That’s two chills for the price of one!

Wednesday, September 12th
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER
Directed by Lambert Hillyer • 1936
“Who can define the boundary between the superstition of yesterday and the scientific fact of tomorrow?” Picking up only a few minutes from where Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula left off, Dracula’s Daughter (sourced very loosely from “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter from Bram Stoker’s original novel) follows Gloria Holden as she preys on unsuspecting early-twentysomething-year-old girls. The only one who’s wise to her is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), but he’s under investigation for driving a stake through Bela Lugosi’s heart. (Lugosi appeared only as a wax bust, for which he reportedly charged $4,000 for use of his likeness.) Now famous for being the first lesbian vampire movie (what took so long?), it’s also the last film in Universal’s horror cycle made before production head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was forced out of Universal for a string of over-budget projects (including this one). Charles R. Rogers took over in early 1936 and would never oversee anything as weird, wonderful, and erotic as this. (JA)
71 min • Universal Pictures • 35mm from Universal
Short: Dracula (Castle Condensation) – 16mm from the Chicago Film Archives – 8 min


WEREWOLF OF LONDON
Directed by Stuart Walker • 1935
Those still complaining about Sony and Marvel deciding to ‘reboot’ their Spider-Man franchise so soon after the last effort would do well to look at Werewolf of London, the nearly forgotten template for the lycanthropic horror cycle that Universal brushed aside a mere six years after its release to make way for Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man. The set-up in Werewolf of London is exotic, even by Universal horror standards: a werewolf roves the forests of Tibet (here represented by Angeles National Forest) and infects famed botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) with dangerous full-moon impulses. Back in London, Glendon learns from the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, in a welcome respite from Charlie Chan) that a rare flower from the same Tibetan forest is the only check on his animal instincts. Glendon’s efforts to impose self-discipline fail brutally; he must balance his appetite for a cure with the realization that he cannot truly protect those he loves. An atmospheric effort that smartly downplays fantastic makeup schemes (Hull found the full facial regime tedious), Werewolf of London is a worthy late effort in the Universal horror cycle. (KW)
75 min • Universal Pictures • 35mm from Universal

The Portage Theater – 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave – 7:30pm – $5.00 per ticket
For the full schedule of classic film screenings at the Portage, please click here.

Posted in News | Comments Off

More on Programming: Not on Video

Our sixth (and best?) season starts on Wednesday at the Portage with Hands Across the Table. The occasion affords us an opportunity to talk about a programming issue that’s usually not critically aired in public—the impact, presumed or otherwise, that a film’s presence on home video has on its viability in a repertory slot.

Programming a calendar is always a multi-dimensional balancing act, and the availability of the films in other formats is a central factor in that equation. Present a calendar where every title is available on DVD and Blu-ray and your audience is likely to shrug it off—the titles are familiar, perhaps over-familiar, and there’s no sense of urgency in seeing them again. If you miss the screening, you can just pull out the disc from the shelf in the family room. A Casablanca or a Psycho feels omnipresent anyway, and a programmer can’t reasonably expect folks to approach such screenings as anything other than business as usual. (After all, you’ve owned a VHS, a DVD, a special anniversary-edition DVD reissue, a Blu-ray, and if there’s another edition with specially-branded shot glasses or an umbrella, you can’t deny you wouldn’t be tempted…)

Of course, one of the foundational, but often implicit, ideas behind repertory cinema is that its offerings are unique. You can flop into any multiplex and be reasonably sure there’s another showing of The Dark Knight Rises or The Expendables 2 starting sometime in the next 45 minutes. You don’t even have to check the showtimes beforehand. Rep, by contrast, forces people to plan in advance, jot down titles in Moleskines, sometimes change their social plans to accommodate a one-night-only screening. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | 2 Comments