Taking the Taboo Off the Cinema: A Million Bid

Very few people have seen Michael Curtiz’s A Million Bid (1927), but it’s an interesting picture, moreso than its meager reputation would suggest. The film merits barely more than a paragraph in James Robertson’s The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz and earns a passing mention in Alan K. Rode’s newly released Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. (Rode provides additional context on A Million Bid in his recent interview with Ben Sachs.) Yet the story of its production, release, and restoration of A Million Bid suggests a film of enduring, imponderable mysteries. Rather than attempt a critical evaluation of the film, I hope to demonstrate how rich and contradictory a record A Million Bid left behind in primary sources alone.

The neglect of A Million Bid is understandable. The script is rote melodrama, and the film itself (presumed lost for decades until a copy was rediscovered in Italy) is somewhat extraneous in assessing Curtiz’s legacy. It was Curtiz’s second American film, but his first, The Third Degree (1926), long ago preserved by the Library of Congress, seemed a sufficient example of his work from this period. The Third Degree was released amidst of flurry of Warner Bros. publicity, touting the studio’s newest filmmaker (already a veteran director of sixty films in Europe) as a technical wizard. “I do not see a scene with my eyes,” boasted Curtiz in a Los Angeles Times profile, “I see a scene with camera-eyes.” The film earned decent reviews, with favorable comparisons to E.A. Dupont’s Variete, one of the German imports frequently invoked as a rejoinder to pedestrian Hollywood technique. 

As a studio contract director, Curtiz had only limited autonomy in choosing his own projects. Indeed, he was not initially assigned A Million Bid, which came to Warner Bros. as one distressed asset among many from the Vitagraph Company of America, a pioneering company in decline that the rising Burbank studio had recently acquired. Vitagraph had produced a film version of George Cameron’s 1908 play Agnes under the title A Million Bid in 1914, and the melodrama seemed ripe for a remake. From the start it was a Dolores Costello vehicle, but the director was replaced at least twice, and here’s where the history of this modest film becomes exceedingly confusing.

In December 1926, Roy Del Ruth took out a trade ad in Film Daily touting the fact that he was “preparing” the next Costello picture, A Million Bid, to be based on a property called “Good Time Charlie,” with no author cited. By Feb 1927, Warner Bros. was taking out a two-page trade ad in various papers previewing Costello’s productions for the 1926-1927 season, including a film called A Million Bid to be directed by Alan Crosland. This time the George Cameron source material is listed as the basis for A Million Bid. By May, the film was finished under the direction of Curtiz.

Or was it? An item in the March 26, 1927 edition of Exhibitor’s Herald passed along the rumor that “Warner Brothers have changed the title of Alan Crosland’s recently completed opus to “Old San Francisco” and the title of “A Million Bid” has been tacked onto another story, which will be made by Michael Curtiz.”

It is true that studios would sell their slate as a block, with titles announced long before the cameras rolled, which occasionally led exhibitors to charge bait and switch. The February 1927 ad describes A Million Bid as “Beauty on the auction block—a dramatic romance with a lavish society setting,” which is generic, but close enough to the finished film to suggest that the title wasn’t simply ‘tacked onto another story.’ The nod towards George Cameron’s play is another indication that Warner didn’t simply elevate Crosland’s film to Old San Francisco while fobbing off some other junk as the promised Million Bid. (Further complicating the picture, Curtiz would direct a film called Good Time Charlie later that year, its relation to the initial Del Ruth picture unknown.)

Some exhibitors bought into the conspiracy theory anyway, with the local trade group Motion Picture Theater Owners of Pennsylvania and West Virginia lodging a formal complaint with Warner Bros., charging that the studio had “deliberately taken the original picture, ‘A Million Bid,’ and retitled it ‘Old San Francisco’ and substituted an inferior picture and released it to exhibitors as the original ‘A Million Bid,’” expressing their strong “disapproval of such unethical practices.”

The Pennsylvania and West Virginia exhibitors weren’t alone in finding A Million Bid inferior. By the time A Million Bid reached the screen in May 1927, critics were pointedly more skeptical of Curtiz’s bravura technique than they had been with The Third Degree a few months prior. The New York Times review was typical:

Michael Curtiz, a Viennese director who drew attention to himself by his orgy of pictorial dissolves in his film version of “The Third Degree,” once again amuses himself by photographic stunts in his new film, “A Million Bid.” While some of Mr. Curtiz’s ideas are interesting they do not fit into this current offering as well as they did in the cinematic version of Charles Klein’s play. There are parts of this subject that are virtually lifeless and other sections that are quite bright.

Motion Picture News complained:

The theme, that of a doctor committed to his work despite any personal sacrifice involved, has been used before but there is no complaint on that score; the fault lies in the old-fashioned treatment of the story. In an attempt to add a touch of novelty a number of trick camera shots are introduced, but they mean little or nothing; some could easily be eliminated.

Photoplay:

Michael Curtiz, the director, is a hound for camera angles and, between the weepy yarn and the angular photography, one becomes groggy.

Hollywood Vagabond:

Mr. Michael Curtiz has gone to great pains, it seems, to introduce a lot of “psychological” camera flip-flops patterned after the German nuances of “Caligari,” “Last Laugh,” “Variety,” et al. Here it doesn’t mean much. “A Million Bid” is just another movie.

Just about the only positive notice came from Moviemakers, the amateur filmmaking magazine, which was dazzled by the technical finesse and declared A Million Bid to be an instructive step forward in cinematic art:

This film shows what can be done by the use of camera tricks with a routine amnesia story, already shown on the screen some years ago. By his swift juxtaposition of shots of a moving train, of flashbacks, and of a wedding that is taking place simultaneously, Mr. Curtiz has given psychological significance and emotion power to an ordinary coincidence scene. As the train rushes through the night, by his moving shots of sections of the engine, of the rails and the ground rising to meet it as it tears through space, he has conveyed an overpowering sense of speed and power. Again, in the triple exposure of the flashbacks he suggests the swiftness and unreality of life. The film is filled with bits of virtuosity, especially in the derangement and loss of memory sequences in which the villain sees distorted visions of the girl, and a partial insanity is suggested by a mere technical device. Such films as this take the taboo off the cinema as a medium incapable of psychological expression.

(Moviemakers would make another positive nod towards A Million Bid in an article on set design by legendary critic Harry Alan Potamkin, posthumously published in 1937.)

Unfortunately, any attempt we might make in evaluating A Million Bid is necessarily tentative and incomplete. All surviving copies of the film derive from a single Italian release print, which is linguistically and chromatically distinct from the American release. The film is tinted in a variety of colors in the Italian copy, though contemporary practice in America would likely have rendered a final release print in straight black and white. Additionally, contemporary advertisements suggest that the original American release of A Million Bid featured a Vitaphone score, though no copies of the discs appear to survive.

Above all, there’s the matter of the Italian intertitles, which are graphically handsome and compelling in their own right. Had the American titles survived, they would be bog standard Warner Bros. typeface and layout, no different from any other film the studio released in 1927. So ultimately we’re left with a specific variant of A Million Bid, rather than some pure rendition of the ‘definitive’ film as seen by American audiences. That’s a positive thing, as the Italian version works as a thing unto itself; trying to create an approximation of the American version by, e.g., replacing the Italian titles, would yield something of less authenticity rather than more.

Still, keeping the Italian version intact and as-is raises some logistical problems when presenting A Million Bid to modern audiences. We will be doing performing a live translation of the Italian intertitles at our screening, but there remain substantial questions about the reliability of the Italian translation, which may or may not accurately reflect the gist of the American titles. The Library of Congress provided a literal translation of the Italian intertitles, but it rarely captures the idiom of a Warner Bros. picture from 1927.

 Some translation issues that seem like nitpicks actually have profound consequences for appreciating and understanding A Million Bid. When Warner Oland’s uncouth millionaire Geoffrey Marsh re-appears halfway through the film, washing up on the beach with no memory of his former life, the intertitles identify him as “signor Del Mare.” The first I saw A Million Bid at Cinefest nine years ago, this was translated as “Mr. Sea.” The LoC translation renders it more poetically as “the Stranger from the Sea.” But how was his character actually described to American audiences in 1927? (The “signor Del Mare” name pops up about a dozen times in the Italian version, which treats it as the amnesiac’s proper name.)

Mike Quintero, one of the Film Society’s greatest advocates and its most tireless freelance researcher, tried to get to the bottom of this issue with me, but we found it surprisingly difficult to confirm how this character was positioned for American audiences. Trade reviews and synopses, which can usually be relied upon to settle questions like this, referred only to Oland as “Geoffrey Marsh,” but not “Mr. Del Mare” or “The Stranger from the Sea” or anything like that. A few contemporary reviews refer to a “wandering” character, but none go so far as to call him “The Wanderer.”

A 1928 review of A Million Bid in the Brisbane Courier calls the amnesiac “Monsieur de la Mer” and describes him as a presumptive Frenchman. Assuming that the English titles were not remade for the Australian release, that would strongly suggest that “Monsieur de la Mer” was used in the now-lost American version. (The original 1908 Cameron play used “Monsieur de la Mer,” too, and explained that the character washed ashore on the Southern coast of France—a geographic detail absent from the surviving portion of the Italian version, which is missing several minutes.) And yet, the Australian review also refers to Malcolm McGregor’s character as “Dr. Loring Brent”—the name used in the 1914 Vitagraph version, not the “Dr. Robert Brent” that every other contemporaneous review of the ’27 version confirms. Did the Australian paper just dust off the synopsis they published in 1914? Can we trust their attribution of “Monsieur de la Mer”?

This seemingly insignificant detail exemplifies the depths of mysteries that still remain with even a ‘minor’ film like A Million Bid. If we can’t identify a character’s name with much certainty, what else are we missing?

Chicago Film Society screens A Million Bid at the Music Box Theatre on Saturday, April 21, with live organ accompaniment by Dennis Scott. The 35mm print appears courtesy of the Library of Congress. Original research has been made possible by Lantern, ProQuest, and Google Books.

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An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part II

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. This is Part II of a two-part interview. Part I can be found here.
– Rebecca Lyon

Willie (1985) – Murderers (2005)

DL: By the middle of the ’80s, photography is starting to take off, and I’m going, “Well, here I am, I’m probably the greatest photographer of my generation, I haven’t taken a picture in fifteen years, everybody’s making money, this is crazy.” I might as well announce that I’m still alive and still a photographer. And I start doing photography again. And I did the Haiti book [Merci Gonaïves]. We go into self-publishing. But the big period of making films that were mostly ignored and in that sense failures, is from around ’70 to ’86, and that includes Los Niños, ending in Willie, and all the films in between.

RL: I wanted to ask you about Michael Guzman. Because that’s such an amazing story about filming him later in life and then realizing he was in an earlier film.

DL: Right, so the great film I had made at this time was Willie, and ironically I made it while I was living in Long Island, not when I’m living in New Mexico. But you and I and the family had gone back to Bernalillo because we would go back on different summers and I was there, I think, with the camera. This might have been around ’82 or ’83, whenever I was shooting Born to Film and I took the camera with me.

I went downtown and I came back and said to Nancy, “I just saw Willie.” In fact, he had recently been released from  prison  but I didn’t know that at the time.

I had filmed Willie as a child in Llanito,and I had filmed him as a teenager in Little Boy and then he had kind of vanished. In fact he had vanished into the penitentiary for five years. But that day I was so stunned and I said to Nancy, “You know I’ve got to film him.”  I did film him, and by the time we returned home, I said, “I’m going to make a film about Willie because I have the earlier footage.”

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An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part I

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. Many toasts were made on the eve of his birthday party the night before, most of them to Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of them to Eleanor. My dad finished his first film in 1969, and continues making them to this day.

After becoming a member of the Chicago Film Society last year I finally had some co-conspirators to help me lure my dad out to Chicago for a screening of his films. We will be screening two of them on Thursday, April 20 at the Logan Center for the Arts: Willie (1983) and Born to Film (1982), both in 16mm prints from Anthology Film Archives. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II can be found here. – Rebecca Lyon

Danny and Nancy Lyon in the New Mexico State Prison filming “Willie”. Photo credit: Jack Foley

The Traveling Filmmakers

DL: So you were saying we never talk about film. I was saying we never talk about anything.

RL: That’s not true. We worked together! I helped you make two films. We did Two Fathers together…

DL: I think the perfect helpers for me don’t say anything. They just do what they are told [laughing].

RL: That’s why you like me, because I don’t ask any questions.

DL: Nancy [Lyon] was the perfect sound recordist. And I thought, well, this is great, I’ve met the perfect companion, let’s put her to work. And our tax form has said ‘traveling filmmakers’ ever since.

We made many films, five, six seven films together. Nancy did the audio, but she also helped with the editing. Nothing happened without mom seeing it. She was an assistant editor on some films. She’s been involved in everything. So… you want to talk about the films?

RL: Do you want to start a little farther back?

DL: My formal education ended at the University of Chicago. I was a history major, ancient history mostly, and a philosophy minor. Self-taught in photography. I think the first movie camera I actually picked up was in Chicago, so I would have been doing The Bikeriders by then. So I was already past the Civil Rights [book, The Movement], and had done Uptown and The Bikeriders. So I think at that point I already was interested in film. Continue reading

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Fantastic Prints and Where to Find Them

For the past couple years, Silver Cinemas’ Market Square Location has been one of the only places to see new Hollywood movies on 35mm. On this visit INSIDE OUT and ANT-MAN were both playing on film, with the other three titles on DCP. About 5 months into its run, the print of INSIDE OUT had probably been run over 400 times (and still looked very nice).

Even for those paying close attention, the conversion from 35mm to DCP on all of Chicago’s multiplex screens happened with very little fanfare.

In December of 2010, Regal City North 14 was playing True Grit on 35mm, but by the time Super 8 came out in June 2011 all screens were DCP – some bitter irony. Kerasotes Webster Place (best worst 7th grade date spot) installed its first digital projector around February 2009, was taken over by Regal in May of 2010, and by August of 2011 all screens had been converted. The AMC-owned Piper’s Alley simply closed in May of 2011 without a word. The Logan Theater (best $3 date spot) closed for renovations in September 2011 and reopened in March 2012 as an all-digital 4-plex, with inaugural DVD and Blu-Ray screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Enter the Dragon – one 35mm Century SA projector and Christie AW3 platter was kept for special events. The Landmark Century was the last major holdout: Samsara screened on 35mm in August 2012, but The Master opened on DCP in September, with all projectors being swapped out and installed the night before. The single-screen Patio Theater closed Argo on November 21, 2012 and added a new, Kickstarter-funded digital projector the following week.

The Music Box and the Gene Siskel Film Center can still run 35mm and do with great frequency for repertory programming, but as far as first-run art-house movies go, the 35mm well pretty much dried up by mid-2012. Any subsequent runs on film would be anomalies, usually at the request of the filmmakers à la Son of Saul or The Love Witch, and many independent and arthouse titles that were shot on film didn’t have the luxury of 35mm release prints (most notably Certain Women, Queen of Earth, the partially-shot-on-65mm Sunset Song). Continue reading

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2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

What makes a movie?

This is a richly theoretical question that’s often been answered by glibly practical guidance. The most common criterion is highly circular: if it’s exhibited in a movie theater, then it’s automatically a movie.

Never mind that there have long been grey areas—misfit media whose very names suggest their dual identities, like ‘made-for-TV movies’ or ‘direct-to-video’ feature films. By dint of their general disreputability, these works were rarely regarded as deep challenges to the established boundaries of cinema. In the 1980s, a number of long works produced for television by established art house directors—Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat—successfully slant rhymed their way to festival success. Treating them as films, rather than TV miniseries, was an honorific gesture, an acknowledgement that their high artistic ambitions automatically marked them as works of cinema. There was no other vocabulary to describe them.

By the conclusion of 2016, these distinctions were lying in shambles, if they ever mattered at all. To talk about the year in moviegoing necessarily requires engaging with this shift. It wasn’t the first year that disruptive new entrants to the film business—Netflix, Amazon, and assorted VOD proponents—sought to change the way we conceive of movies, but it may well be the year they convinced a substantial portion of the public to go along with them.

The year saw countless think pieces proclaiming that movies had been firmly supplanted as the center of popular American culture. The real energy, the driver of the proverbial water cooler conversations in increasingly anachronistic office parks, was peak TV, or perhaps Pokémon Go. The Los Angeles Times even inaugurated a series devoted to the topic: The Blur. Veteran movie reviewers wrote from a defensive crouch; a great new work, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, was first and foremost a refutation of the “death of the movies” narrative. Continue reading

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David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

I heard last week that my friend David Shepard was in the hospital with pneumonia again, but not to let word get around. Yesterday I learned he was, in fact, in the hospital with stage four cancer and had been taken off life support. This morning I learned he had passed on. My last letter arrived too late.

No obituary can detail all of David’s achievements. Most film scholars and collectors know him from his days at the American Film Institute or Blackhawk Films, through which he saved and preserved countless films. A later generation knew David through the laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays he produced under his Film Preservation Associates banner and released through Image Entertainment, Lobster, Kino, and Flicker Alley. But how many know that David also worked briefly for the Director’s Guild of America, through which he arranged campus appearances for a vanishing generation of film pioneers like Henry King? How many knew he was also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I interviewed David five years ago for this blog, and that conversation should serve as a modest introduction for those who knew never him. In the very least, it should give you a sense of David’s droll, old-fashioned verbal gentility. I guarantee that no one else working in the home entertainment business would ever describe a successful release as “selling like hamburgers.” Continue reading

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One Movie Worth a Fight: Restoring The Front Page

In 1967, the newly-formed American Film Institute released a preliminary list of 150 significant feature films that were considered endangered, already lost, or thought to survive only in substandard copies. Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of The Front Page was among the titles at risk.

Based on the reviews that greeted The Front Page in 1931, it’s sobering to recognize that the survival of such a highly-regarded film could be in doubt scarcely four decades later. To put that in perspective, it would be as if no one could readily ascertain whether a single copy of a film like Reds or Atlantic City still existed in 2017.

Admiration for The Front Page was professed in publications high-brow, low-brow, and every brow in between. The Chicago Tribune’s spectral critic Mae Tinee proclaimed that “Lewis Milestone’s direction is the last word in snap: lines click, photography and sound are all to the good.  What this production lacks in nobility it makes up for in ‘It.’” Writing in Vanity Fair, Harry Alan Potamkin rhapsodized that “Milestone’s contribution in The Front Page is the first American contribution to the ‘philosophy’ of the sound-sight cinema. It puts forth the principle of pace set by the verbal element. The film itself is a tour de force, a vehicle which by its speed makes a superficial cargo appear profound.”

The Front Page earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, too, but the passion aroused by the film was perhaps best captured by Pare Lorentz’s column in Judge:

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From Boardinghouse to Angry Birds: The Adventures of Misfit Media

If you’re at all familiar with our activities at the Chicago Film Society, you probably know that we place special emphasis on the act of projecting motion picture film. At a point in cinema history when digital video has become the exhibition “norm,” we pride ourselves on providing a link to a pre-digital past and a critical framework to contextualize film images. Look at the first page of our program book or click on the About Us section of our web page and you’ll find this paragraph:

The Chicago Film Society exists to promote the preservation of film in context. Films capture the past uniquely. They hold the stories told by feature films, but also the stories of the industries that produced them, the places where they were exhibited, and the people who watched them. We believe that all of this history–not just of film, but of 20th century industry, labor, recreation, and culture–is more intelligible when it’s grounded in unsimulated experience: seeing a film in a theater, with an audience, and projected from film stock.

The argument that film remains a vital and important exhibition medium into the 21st century, even as cost-cutting measures drive it out of more and more cinemas, often takes a historicist angle that can breed misconceptions about the medium even as it elucidates the importance of the inherent historical memory found in media. Arguments for the value of presenting works of film art in their original media often focus on the ways that analog media can highlight the visual decisions and strategies of the technicians who authored the works. However, we at the Film Society are also interested in the authorship of exhibition, and in understanding the context of media through the marks left on its physical form by various production and exhibition histories.

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Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film

okay-america

Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive

Is there any more dismissive response to a film than slagging it off as “dated?” Does a film lose its relevance merely because its clothing and hair styles are passé, its slang forgotten, its topicality turgid, its passions yoked to a particular time and place?

It’s a charge related to, but ultimately distinct from, the realization that a beloved film’s attitudes toward gender or race are indefensible. It shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that The Birth of a Nation (1915) advocates white supremacy, that Gone with the Wind (1939) puts a positive spin on marital rape, or that casting Mickey Rooney as a Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is an act of thermonuclear indifference. It’s legitimate to view those films as products of the culture that produced them, as failures of empathy and imagination that reflect the limitations of their social horizons. Continue reading

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Don’t Trust Your Local Film Programmer

devils-insertWhich version of The Devils are you going to show on Monday?

We’ve been asked this question over the phone, in person, and on social media since announcing we’d be screening The Devils at the Music Box. And it’s a perfectly reasonable question, as there are at least four versions The Devils commonly cited: the 111-minute X-rated British theatrical cut; the 108-minute X-rated American theatrical cut; the R-rated American version (either 106 or 109 minutes) released on VHS decades ago; and a spectral cut that re-integrates footage discovered by the critic Mark Kermode.

Adding to the confusion, Warner Bros. prepared a digibeta transfer of The Devils over a decade ago and commissioned several DVD extras but never released a disc—bowing, at least in the imaginations of fevered Ken Russell fans, to a Vatican conspiracy or the resurgent Evangelical stirrings of the Bush era. The studio eventually licensed the transfer and extras to the British Film Institute, which released a Region 2 DVD that runs 107 minutes—but that’s not a new iteration, just a slightly sped-up version of the 111-minute British cut because the video is encoded at the 25 fps PAL standard.

So, which one are we showing?

The fact is, film programmers frequently operate in the dark about these matters and have limited means of seeking clarification. The print arrives at the venue a week before the show (at most), and long after calendars have been printed and disseminated.

Programmers rely on distributors, archives, and private collectors to supply film prints for public exhibition. We interface with studio bookers, who almost always have no physical access to the prints they send out. At best, they have notes about the prints, but not always. The prints are usually in another building on the studio lot or located in a storage depot hundreds of miles away, operated by a third-party logistics firm in Sun Valley or Long Island City. To verify the condition of a print, let alone the specific version it represents, bookers can order an inspection from the depot (which costs money and often overstates a print’s deficiencies) or they can rely on scattered remarks from previous venues. Of course, some venues fail to report prints that have been torn in half, while others phone in a detailed assessment of every scratch and speck of dirt (and expect a price adjustment for their trouble). In an era when some studios are eager to junk prints, every condition report is a provocation and potential death sentence. Continue reading

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