Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of life minimum-waged among bloodthirsty department store throngs will resonate with those who’ve worked on the other side of the counter (and that probably accounts for most of us in the 99%).

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The classic 1923 silent comedy follows the misadventures of “The Boy,” who works as a lowly sales associate in The Big City.

It’s so accurate I’m convinced the film’s creators worked at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at some point. Not much has changed since then. That the phrase “Safety First,” which the film’s title parodies, is still used in corny mandatory safety videos just confirms it (John ignored safety first rules and stood on the top ladder rung. Now he’s dead. *Cue ominous music*). And the scene where hordes of sale-crazed shoppers attack The Boy could come straight from a modern-day Black Friday free-for-all.

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It brought back fond memories. There’s this one scene where a matronly patron asks to see every bolt of cloth on the shelves. In the end she leaves with just a tiny free sample. My experience was similar, only it involved king comforter sets and the tallest shelf in the store. Ah, retail. How I … don’t miss you. 

The Boy promises his fiancé, The Girl (Mildred Davis), he’ll send for her as soon as he makes enough money for them to get married. Of course he lies, writing that he’s making gobs of money and ordering peons around when in reality he’s a lowly clerk behind on rent in the ratty apartment he shares with “The Pal” (Bill Strother, who has a fantastic albeit stomach-churning scene reminiscent of Ebbet’s famous photograph).

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To prove his fabulous success, The Boy buys her a pendant — instead of paying rent — then later a matching chain (instead of paying rent). So naturally The Girl takes matters into her own hands and heads on over to The Big City to marry him. Seeing as he’s so wealthy and all…

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This of course presents a problem for our endearing, not-quite-so-honest hero, and he concocts a scheme to attract customers to the store in exchange for prize money. The idea? Have his friend scale the store building. Only he can’t make it at the last minute, so guess who does it instead?

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It’s a fantastic film; witty, true to life (some parts, anyway), and just plain fun to watch.

 

 

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Hugo, Automatons, and Early Movies

Liz: Yesterday, I watched the 2011 movie Hugo (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Caberet by Brain Selznick), and today I stumbled across blog posts on early movie projectors and automatons–both of which play a major role in Hugo. Funny how that happens. So I decided I to write about them.

220px-Hugo_PosterFirst, Hugo. I enjoyed this film with its giant clock, 1930s French music, orphaned Hugo Cabret (played excellently by Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game) who finds a home, its message that we all have a purpose, and, as mentioned, its early cinema history and automatons.

Summary: Orphaned clockmaker’s son runs the clocks in a railway station in Paris while stealing food to survive as well as stealing mechanical parts to repair the automaton his father found in a museum. His life gets complicated when the toy maker he’s been stealing parts from takes his father’s notebook of automaton sketches. Hugo and the toy maker’s goddaughter try to get the book back, discover why it upset the man so, and avoid the railway station inspector, who considers it his duty to send orphaned kids to the orphanage.

The story was moving and the history intriguing. Playing off his clock maker’s father saying “there are no spare parts in machines” and his own visualization of the world as one huge machine, Hugo says that  each person is a “part” of the world. As a machine, the world would have no spares and, consequently, everyone in it would have a purpose. Hugo’s seems to be to fix broken things and people, like Papa George, the toy maker. A person who isn’t filling their purpose in the world would be miserable–would feel broken.

Okay, on with the fascinating history.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

Automatons are mechanical men and were popular in the 1700s and 1800s. If you’ve seen Hugo, one particular historical automaton will sound familiar.The “Draughtsman-Writer” automaton boy sits at a little desk and writes and draws. He arrived at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA in a pieces, part of his body possibly partly ruined by a fire. His inventor was unknown. However, when put back together, this writer of  three poems and artist of intricate drawings revealed his mysterious maker by adding “Written by the automaton of Maillardet” on the edge of its artwork. Maillardet was a well-known Swiss clock maker and mechanician. For more information, check out this blog post.

Poem by the "Draughtsman-Writer" where he reveal his maker, Maillardet.

Poem by the “Draughtsman-Writer” where he reveals his maker, Maillardet.

Early cinema history. I can’t say much about this without giving away some of the story’s mysteries, so forgive me if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. The story tells about the life of George Melies, a French magician turned movie producer. In 1895 he witnessed the Lumière brothers demonstrate their Cinématographe to the public. He tried to buy it from them, but they refused and he ultimately made his own machine and began screening movies and then producing and acting in his own.

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In 1896 his camera jammed, and from the resulting film, he discovered, essentially, how to  photoshop, to manipulate time and space in films. He developed double exposure (La caverne Maudite, 1898), split screen (in which performers act opposite themselves [Un Homme de tete, 1898]), and the first dissolve (Cendrillon, 1899). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a magician should be responsible for the illusions in movies.

Probably the best known image from Melies's films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Probably the best known image from Melies’s films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Moving picture technology actually has its roots way back in the 1830s. For more information on the early machines and inventors, check out this post (focusing the phantoscope and American movie history) and this post (a brief history written to commemorate the first commercial movie screening).

Classic Movies for Scientists

Science nerd rejoice! You have more than grade B sci-fi films to herald your profession. I was watching an old British movie (Highly Dangerous) and was pleasantly surprised to see that the heroine was not only a scientist, but an intelligent, normal person. She wasn’t merely a stereotype throw in to amuse the audience. It made me think about other movies featuring scientists. Here’s some that Jaz and I came up with that we science people can appreciate:

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. WIth bugs in a jar.

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. With bugs in a jar.

Highly Dangerous (1950). In this British thriller, the lovely Margaret Lockwood plays an entomologist sent by the government to Balkan country to identify an insect being developed for biological warfare. An American newspaperman helps her out when the British agent she’s supposed to contact is shot.

When the newspaperman admits he’s not digested by bugs, Lockwood’s character knows she’s found her man.:) And, as if a good story wasn’t enough, fans of Lockwood’s The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich will be happy to see Naunton Wayne in this film, though he doesn’t mention cricket even once.

Three Guys Named Mike (1951) Stewardess Jane Wyman is the object of the romantic attention of–you guessed it–three guys named Mike: one pilot (Howard Keel), one businessman (Barry Sullivan), and one chemistry graduate student (Van Johnson). Van Johnson take her to the research lab and gives her a great explanation for bioluminescence.

Cry Wolf (1947) Intrepid geology PhD student Barbara Stanwych goes to the family home of her late husband (a marriage of convenience–he had to be married to inherit and she needed money to continue her studies. He was to pay her and they go separate ways) after he mysteriously dies.

War of the Worlds (1953) A scientist and a librarian escape from one of the original sites of an alien invasion and try to find a way to kill the invaders. (This is science fiction, but it’s a great movie so I had to include it.)

Jaz added the biographies Madame Curie, a 1943 film with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).

madame curieJaz: I saw Madame Curie a long time ago, so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember enjoying it. Also worth a watch: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), starring Don Ameche, Loretta Young and a very young Henry Fonda. I haven’t seen The Story of Louis Pasteur. Yes, yes, I slap myself on the wrist. How can a microbiologist and classic film junkie not have watched this? Well, I’ll tell you: there are about a bajillion films out there! Give me a break, people!

Besides these, the only films that came to mind were Dr. Dolittle, Bringing Up Baby and The Absent-Minded Professor. All of which reinforce negative stereotypes of scientists. I mean, the latter film’s hero is named Professor Brainerd. Subtle, right? And they’re all super goofy and fly around on old cars and giant creepy moths. So we’ll ignore those for this post.

I also recommend any book by the brilliant Jules Verne, who obviously did his research for every work. There’s a 1916 silent film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I found out recently — actually just now — .and which looks fascinating.

The times they are unchangin’

So guess who gets DVDs by mail now? This girl! Two weeks ago Modern Times (1936) blew in through the post, along with Bridesmaids (I tell you I watch everything).

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Modern Times was Chaplin’s first sound film — the 1940 film The Great Dictator his first “talkie”, which interestingly, he swore he would never make. In 1936 it seems he hadn’t reconciled himself to the advent of talkies. Except for a scene in which Chaplin’s  Tramp entertains a cafe audience by singing complete gibberish, he says not a peep. Narration and dialogue occur mainly on intertitles.

It’s also my first exposure to Chaplin’s work — don’t judge, internet. Can I be honest here? All that his name brought to mind before this was a goofy tramp with a tiny mustache. Modern Times changed that. The clarity! Paulette Goddard’s first scene stunned me. Her character, so joyous, so alive as she scrambles along the docks to survive, gritting her teeth against a sharp knife — and life.

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Goddard as “A Gamin.”

The satire and humor! It’s impossible to pick a favorite scene from this film. Among the many is when Chaplin, on the verge of a nervous breakdown after working on a production line, goes on autopilot and attempts to tighten the secretary’s skirt buttons with his wrenches. Or how about after he falls into the cogs?

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Or when the mechanic falls through it? And who can forget the American daydream house where grapes grow around the kitchen door and cows walk up for milking?

It’s not all laughs, of course — they live in the midst of the Great Depression. Tragedy comes in the form of a bread line. The tramp alternately lands in jail and gets fired. Life fights dirty and they fight back — often ending up on the losing side — but they try.

I was excited watching this film. Excited, frustrated, saddened, amused. I could relate to it in different ways — many people can. But the main feeling threading its way throughout the film? Hope. “Buck up — never say die!” the tramp tells “a gamin” as they sit, homeless and exhausted, along the side of a vast, empty highway. She does … and we do too.

Opera haters, you’re missing out.

I went on a crazed movie purchase binge recently, and now the 1955 film Interrupted Melody sits atop my T.V. (Does anyone put their DVDs back in the cabinet? Really? Okay, never mind). Finally! This film is seriously underrated. Based on opera singer Marjorie Lawrence’s  memoir, it recounts her rise to, and later, her fall from fame after she contracts polio.

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Eleanor Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and with good reason: her performance was gripping, emotional, inspiring.

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Parker as Dalila in a scene from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila.

Parker’s voice was dubbed by Eileen Farrell, who insisted on going uncredited for the score.

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Opera singer Eileen Farrell.

Something to do with Marjorie Lawrence wanting to sing the score, and the producers not, and Farrell not wanting to steal her thunder. Pretty selfless if you ask me.

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I read that Parker actually sang on set to make the scenes more realistic. It worked. All of the opera scenes are spectacular, but their collaboration on Carmen was my favorite.

Glenn Ford also delivered an excellent performance as Thomas King the doctor, Lawrence’s love interest.

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But his character grated a little on my nerves. He bordered on sexist at times, wanting her to stay home as much as possible and make babies, wanting her to sacrifice her 6 month tour (which isn’t that long), the opportunity of a lifetime, to keep him company. And the film seems to agree, because she contracts polio during the tour. “I’m such a fool,” she says, weeping, as Tom gazes down at her immobile form. As if to say, if she had just stayed home and made babies with Tom like a good wife should, instead of gallivanting all over South America, this would have never happened. Hello! When you’re a world-renowned opera singer at the height of your career and love what you do, some compromises have to be made. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s challenging being spouse to a celebrity. She made sacrifices. He just didn’t appreciate them. 

But I digress. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know when she contracts polio. Therefore, I can’t assume anything. Plus, later on he makes up for being a jerk.

On doing research, I discovered that Eleanor Parker passed away this past December. She was 91. The Baltimore Sun wrote a short but warm tribute on her passing.

Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: James Stewart

Most people think of James Stewart as the upright, fight-for-your-ideals, invite-to-the barbecue-for-a-beer kind of guy. But the iconic actor did play a villain. Twice. Yes, all of TWO times. Not surprisingly, he played the roles early in his career. The films hit the box office in 1936, two years after his debut in the short Art Trouble. In both, he’s so overshadowed by ridiculously famous on (and off) screen couples that he appears as a mere whisker on the cinematic canvas.

Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy fans will remember Rose-Marie, in which Eddy plays a dashing Canadian Mountie pursuing MacDonald’s no-good, on-the-lam brother played by – guess who – James Stewart.

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Stewart led in handcuffs by Eddy, who proves that no one looks good in Mountie breeches.

Then there’s After the Thin Man, a William Powell/Myrna Loy collaboration, but I won’t say more about it, given that it’s a mystery film and all …

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Did I say too much?

James Stewart milk After the Thin Man

On the set of After the Thin Man with a tall glass of milk and looking … not quite so villainous.

Now for all his good guy films. Everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to the film’s copyright issues, or rather, lack of them…

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This is the scene I remember most vividly — when realization sets in and he stares into the camera. Creepy.

That and the pool/ensuing camellia bush (?) scene.

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“I could sell tickets!”

Of course there’s his brilliant work in Hitchcock’s films: Rope (’48), Rear Window (’54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56) and Vertigo (’58)

And my favorites, both Capra films co-starring Jean Arthur: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (’39) …

The filibuster scene. Capra was a genius.

… and the screwball You Can’t Take it with You (’38).

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Stewart discussing photosynthesis and the possibility of solar energy (really!) in You Can’t Take it with You.

Stewart also starred in The Shop Around the Corner (’40), on which In the Good Old Summertime (’49) and You’ve Got Mail (’98) were based. I didn’t care much for it. Due to the bickering star couple, cheating spouses and — spoiler alert — an attempted suicide, I found it pretty downbeat (is that a word?) for a romantic comedy.

For big-band lovers like myself, I recommend the delightfully music-saturated film The Glenn Miller Story (’54).

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Stewart accompanied by Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story.

And Harvey (’50), the hilarious, thought-provoking, poignant film about a rabbit and his visible human companion nominated Stewart for an Oscar (which I think he deserved).

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They had such great chemistry.

As for his personal life, Roger Ebert wrote this tribute on Stewart’s passing in 1997 (Interestingly, Ebert neglected to mention the villainous role in Rose-Marie).

Stewart also starred in a bajillion other movies — including his Oscar-winning film The Philadelphia Story (’40) — of which you and I have neither the time nor patience to read/write about. Suffice it to say, Jimmy Stewart was awesome.

Summer Stock (1950)

Summer Stock film poster

Jaz: Summer Stock makes a great case for saving the newspaper industry. And recycling. Because not only does Gene Kelly make glorious music with newsprint, he also reads the articles AFTER dancing all over them. After which I’m sure he lined the canary cage … and then composted it. If that’s not love for paper-based media, I don’t know what is.

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I’d like to see YOU tap dance on your Kindle!

I love musicals, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland (excepting a brief period when my sister played Garland’s music nonstop — for months I couldn’t listen to “The Trolley Song” without wincing). To see all three of them joined in technicolorful harmony was bliss. It makes me want to watch Meet Me in St. Louis and For Me and My Gal again.

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Judy Garland singing “Friendly Star”

Perhaps nostalgia has something to do with it: a part of my childhood is punctuated by the sound of the Summer Stock soundtrack on scratchy vinyl. My personal favorite? The Gospel-inspired song, “Dig for Your Dinner.”

As for plot, if it’s depth you’re going for, brush off that copy of Moby Dick. But if you want to see whether or not the theater group pulls off their barn-staged musical, Gene Kelly tap dance on the dining room table, and Judy Garland get happy — in a strange, albeit wonderfully artsy choreographed act — leave the dust bunnies undisturbed.

summer-stock-judy-garland-1950_i-G-67-6719-ELVA100ZBeaver and I give it four carrots (out of five).

Note: This post is in no way meant to discourage the reading of Moby Dick. In fact, I fully intend to finish it myself. Right after I watch Meet Me in St. Louis.

Liz: I was unsure about the movie for the first few minutes, but then Gene Kelly showed up and it got a whole lot better.
summer stock garland kelly
I liked the overall story–hard-working girl trying to save her farm gets shackled with her irresponsible sister’s boyfriend’s acting troupe. Trouble of the heart then arises when her paternally dominated fiancé (and his father) objects to the show being put on in her barn and when she falls for her sister’s boyfriend as he begins to learn where on the family tree the leading lady characteristics really are.
The cast includes numerous familiar faces beyond the main stars, which always makes me happy. The musical numbers were okay. Nothing spectacular, but not bad, though I wasn’t sure what to make of the semi-religious ones, such as the one where Judy Garland dances around in a suit jacket and stockings.
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I usually don’t like romances between two people already involved in relationships, but I liked this story. It was a bit cliché with the oft used circumstance of one character being in a lackluster engagement with a likable-but-not-romantic-hero-type and the other being in a relationship with a beautiful but spoilt and selfish woman. Predictable, but was cute nonetheless.

Overall conclusion: Enjoyable and worth the watch.