Early Film Pioneers: Alfred Clark and the Birth of the Historical Reconstruction Film

Alfred Clark

One of the most remarkable cinematic innovations (technically and artistically) effected by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1895 seems to have come about more or less by happenstance and to have passed almost completely unnoticed in the U.S. itself. By August, Raff and Gammon, the firm primarily responsible for marketing Edison films and equipment in America, faced by Edison’s continued refusal to abandon the notion of the “peephole” viewer and investigate the possibilities of projection, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the continuing decline in sales and the resultant decline in film-production. They urged the development of new subjects and Edison assigned the task to one Alfred Clark. Clark (1873-1950) does not seem to have been, as Charles Musser suggests, a Raff and Gammon employee, but an employee of the Edison Phonograph Company. He had previously worked for Edison’s chief rival, the North American Phonograph Company, which Edison destroyed with his habitual dirty tricks and legal chicanery. His main interest was in sound recording, an area in which he was something of an expert.

      Imaginatively Clark made two films for Edison in August 1895, both based on dramatic historical scenes, Joan of Arc, showing the burning of the French heroine, and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, which made a very early use of the stop-action technique to film the beheading of the queen (played, not as Charles Musser states, by a man, but by the wife of Robert Thomas, secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company). Presumably, however, it was not Clark himself, but the regular Edison cameraman, William Heise, who was actually responsible for the filming, but nothing in Heise’s previous or subsequent career, suggests that he would have had the imagination to conceive such films and it seems reasonable to suppose that, in this sense, Clark was the “director”. He and Heise also made Duel Between Two Historical Characters and three scenes from U.S. history, Rescue of Capt. John Smith by Pocahontas, Indian Scalping Scene, and A Frontier Scene (later retitled Lynching Scene). Of Clark’s films, only The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, filmed on August 28, 1895, appears to survive.

 

bbbClark’s experiments in historical reconstruction mark an interesting departure but seemingly met with little favor. Clark himself went to France in 1899 as an Edison representative, but left the company to found his own Compagnie de Gramophone Française. He subsequently settled in Britain where he became chairman of the newly-formed EMI and was, in his spare time, a celebrated collector of Chinese ceramics. His innovative concept of the historical film was never followed up but left, like so many other ideas, for the French and Italians to develop further.     

       The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was seemingly a very popular film, particularly in the French fairgrounds. It (or a film of the same name) was shown in Arras on 8 July 1896 by an exhibitor purporting to be “Le Cinématographe” (almost certainly the ubiquitous Henri Joly). It was shown, again by Joly, in Saint Quentin on the 8 September (as La Décapitation d’une femme) and in Nîmes on 14 November. In 1897 it was even shown in Havana, Cuba. One French newspaper, L’Indpendant des Pyrrénées Orientales, found it a moving spectacle – “La hache se lève, le sang jaillit, la tête roule sur le sol et le bourreau la saisit aux cheveux pour la montrer à son entourage” (The axe is raised, blood spurts, the head rolls on the ground and the executioner seizes it by the hair to show to those around him). Good wholesome family entertainment, in other words. In the light of this, one has to be a little skeptical of Georges Méliès’ claim (or acceptance of the claim) to have invented the technique of “stop-motion” or to have stumbled across the idea accidentally. He may very well have known Clark’s film.

 

Gabriel Veyre

Gabriel Veyre is exceptional amongst the Lumière cameramen abroad in that, from the outset, he experimented with films that are “fictional” in the sense of being staged reconstructions. The most famous, Duel au pistolet (1896), a reconstruction of a duel between two Mexican deputies, must have been amongst the very first batch of films made by Veyre since it was already on show in France in September. The film, when it was shown in Mexico, caused some outcry in the press there, not, as is so often foolishly repeated, because people could not tell the difference between the real and the fictional but, on the contrary, precisely because they could tell the difference and were uneasy at the ethical implications of a non-explicit blurring of the two. Veyre also filmed the reconstruction of a military trial and execution by firing-squad, Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro(1896) which, in the context of Veyre’s closeness to President Porfirio Diaz, very justly gives grounds for qualms. There is something distinctly exploitative about Veyre’s film-making which is similarly apparent in the very marked “orientalism” of his films later shot in the Far East. Un duel au pistolet was a popular film as witness a second duel scene (Un duel au pistolet II) which was shot back in France by another Lumière operator probably later the same year or early in 1897. A dueling scene, Duel Between Two Historical Characters had been made by Alfred Clark and William Heise for Edison in 1895 and Veyre’s Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro also puts one in mind of a whole series of historical execution scenes made shortly afterwards for Lumière by Georges Hatot and Gaston Breteau [Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc (1898), La mort de Robespierre (1897), and Mort de Charles Ier (1897)].

 

Author David Bond is a historian who specializes in the study of cultural history. Subjects of interest, past and present, include late seventeenth-century English drama, early English paperback publishing, the French graphic novel (bande dessinnée), Jamaican popular music (not just the “r” word) and cinema – of all periods and all traditions but with a special interest in the period prior to the (mitigated) disaster of what is popularly known as “sound”.

The Unbeliever (1918)

 

the unbeliever 1918 film review

My viewing of this film coincided with finishing film historian Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon – Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. It’s one of the last films released by the Edison company before Edison, who once dominated the American film industry, washed his hands of the movie business. The book details how competitive the business was from the very beginning and the often unscrupulous business tactics employed by Edison and his legal team. It also traces Porter’s life and career with an emphasis on his years with Edison. His 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was one of the most groundbreaking and popular films of its time but by 1908 his films were harshly criticized for being difficult to understand and not adopting the editing techniques employed by D.W. Griffith, who worked for Edison’s chief rival amongst American film producers, the Biograph company. Porter and Edison parted ways in 1909 but that wasn’t the end of Porter’s career. His success with the Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, which he co-founded, restored his reputation. It eventually became the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. While still at Rex, Porter formed the Famous Players Film Company, which became the first studio to regularly release feature length films and Porter even directed Mary Pickford’s first feature length film, A Good Little Devil (1914). The Edison company, on the other hand, was more concerned about cutting costs than box office success. By the time they got around to making feature films, like The Unbeliever, Edison felt it would be too expensive to reorganize the company in order to keep up with the competition.

The Unbeliever was directed by Alan Crosland, who is best known as the director of The Jazz Singer (1927) and its cast includes Erich von Stroheim playing, you guessed it, a sadistic German officer. In the 1910’s there was a backlash against the American film industry led by religious and moral groups. Since that time, Edison, concerned about his legacy, made it a policy that the films he produced should be wholesome and moralizing. Thus this film, though it is a typical WWI American propaganda film with some exciting battle scenes, really uses the war as a backdrop for the story of a wealthy young atheist who finds God, love, and loses his sense of class distinction. In addition to YouTube, this film is available on disc four of the DVD set Edison – The Invention of the Movies: 1891-1918 with a piano score and a few comments from film scholars which precede the film.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Unbeliever at imdb.com

Planet of the Apes (1968)

planet of the apes 1968 film review

The unanticipated success of 1968’s Planet of the Apes began the longest running English-language film series other than James Bond and helped pave the way for the Hollywood of today where it seems every other movie released is part of a film franchise. The original film was followed by four sequels and a TV series. There were Planet of the Apes comics, toys, lunch boxes, and conventions. After a gap 28 years the series was rebooted with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) followed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). Besides its influence on the film industry, the series has had a strong impact on popular culture and even entered into political discourse.

It all began in 1963 with the short novel, La Planète des singes, by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai. The novel is a satire influenced by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. He didn’t consider it a work of science fiction nor did the director of the original film, Franklin Schaffner: “I had never thought of this film in terms of being science fiction. More or less, it was a political film, with a certain amount of Swiftian satire, and perhaps science fiction last.” Boulle’s intention was to critique our over-reliance on technology which he saw as the cause of declining intelligence amongst humans.

American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to the novel and hired Rod Serling to write the screenplay. Serling’s script bears little resemblance to the the final film but his thematic contributions were significant. He emphasized humanity’s cruelty to animals such as hunting for sport and medical experiments, a theme which is also present in the novel. By reversing the roles of humans and animals, the audience experiences the horrors of being hunted or subjected to medical experiments. He also introduced the theme of man’s destructiveness and eventual nuclear self-annihilation, though over Boulle’s objection. I believe it is Serling’s writing in the sacred scrolls produced by Dr. Zaius at the end of the film with its warnings about men:

Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair – for he is the harbinger of death.

Ironically, this echoes the message to Earth recorded by the film’s hero/antihero, Taylor, at the beginning of the film when he asks if people still make war against their brother and keep their neighbor’s children starving. Though it is natural to identify with Taylor despite his misanthropy, and view Dr. Zaius, his chief antagonist, as a villain, the latter is really the hero of the film for trying to prevent mankind from becoming dominant again via Taylor, for he knows that mankind destroyed the planet ages ago. Objecting to the destruction of the cave with evidence of an earlier civilization in which humans were dominant, Zira’s nephew asks him “What about scientific progress? What about the future?” Zaius replies “I may have just saved it for you.” I also think Serling wrote the final lines of the film spoken by Taylor when he realizes that mankind has destroyed itself: “Goddamn you all to hell!” Serling’s criticisms of mankind may seem misanthropic but apparently he cared enough about humans or perhaps just other forms of life on this planet to use this film as an attempt to lead us away from the path towards global destruction.

Concerned that the cost of producing Serling’s screenplay would be prohibitive, Michael Wilson, who had adapted Boulle’s The Bridge over the River Kwai for the screen, was brought on board for a rewrite. Wilson had been blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and so received no credit for his Oscar-winning screenplay. Wilson contributed the film’s allegorical references to race issues and the Vietnam War. In the early sixties, when America felt threatened by the expansion of communism and anti-colonialism, Hollywood produced many films that promoted the myth of America as the defender of civilization in an effort to reassure audiences that the West would continue to reign supreme. Charlton Heston was frequently cast as the hero in these types of films such as in El Cid (1961), where he plays a white man fighting against North African Muslims, 55 Days at Peking (1963), where he fights hordes of Chinese, and Khartoum (1966), where he battles Arabs. By the time filming began for Planet of the Apes in 1967, for audiences, Heston had become a symbol for Western Civilization itself. Thus he was the perfect choice to play the last representative of the West thrust into a world in which he is helpless and his efforts to defend his civilization are pointless because, as he eventually learns, it has already disappeared. Taylor’s impotency parallels America’s hopeless situation in Viet Nam.

The story is that the film’s producers didn’t recognize its racial undertones until Sammy Davis Jr. pointed it out to them. In the novel, racial hierarchy amongst the apes, though once present, had been eliminated. In the film, it is apparent that the light-skinned orangutans are in a position of authority, dark-skinned gorillas are assigned to menial labor and law enforcement, while chimpanzees form the intelligentsia, doctors, scientists, etc. In Eric Greene’s  in-depth analysis of the film series, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture he states that the orangutans represent the dominant white culture, gorillas represent blacks, and chimpanzees represent Jews, who are “on the periphery of the power system and not fully sharing all of its privileges.” Perhaps more obvious is the sense in which the subjugation of one species by another serves as an allegory for the subjugation of one race by another. This theme became much more explicit in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).

Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score also deserves to be mentioned. According to Goldsmith, it’s the first feature length film with an entirely avant-garde score. Goldsmith and the producers are also to be commended for knowing when not to use music, such as when Taylor and crew first begin wandering around the desolate landscape after their crash landing. The silence adds to the sense of desolation. At the end of the film, as the credits roll, there is only the sound of the ocean waves on the soundtrack, which helps the power of the film’s final image and message sink in.

For further reading I highly recommend Eric Greene’s aforementioned book, from which I have gleaned most of the insights expressed here. He also provided the text commentary for the Planet of the Apes 35th Anniversary Edition DVD.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10) Planet of the Apes at imdb.com

Chronological List of Films – A Work in Progress

chronological list of films

Why did I decide to compile a chronological list of films? In December, 2010 I embarked on a project to watch a film from every decade from years ending in zero (1890, 1900, 1910, etc.). After watching a film from 2010 I would start over again with a film (or films) from 1890. Later I decided not to restrict myself to films from years that end in zero and instead of returning to 1890 after watching a film from 2010 I would progress to 1891 and watch a film from every decade from years that end in one (1891, 1901, 1911, etc.). But I didn’t want to watch just any film from a particular year, I wanted to watch them in the order they were released during that year. This was no easy task as I couldn’t find anything like a comprehensive chronological list of films on the internet nor elsewhere. Sure, at imdb.com one is able to sort all entries from a particular year by order of release date but I find that there are films out of order, inaccurate release dates, and missing entries, particularly for the early years of cinema. For example, many films produced by the Lumière company have no entries on imdb.com. So I decided to create my own chronological list of films in which I list the premiere date, title, director, and availability with links to imdb.com or elsewhere with more information on the film, director, and on where to purchase or view the film. I began with years that end in zero but am now including films from every year beginning with 1888 up to the present year. On March 16, 2018 I began adding entries for titles that are known to exist but not available for on-demand home viewing as well as entries for films considered lost. Of course the index is nowhere near to being comprehensive but I hope that even in its present state it may prove somewhat useful for research purposes or for locating hard to find films. As of today, March 23, 2018, there are 13,529 entries and I add about ten new entries per day. The index may be viewed here.

Halls of Montezuma (1951)

halls of montezuma film review

“The everlasting story of the everlasting glory of the UNITED STATES MARINES!” That tagline might lead one to expect this film to be a gung-ho pro-America, pro-war film. It certainly has enough action and ‘splosions to satisfy your average war film fan but this is essentially an anti-war film. That may come as no surprise if you’ve seen one of the earliest anti-war films, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by the same director, Lewis Milestone. The story takes place during WWII where a company of Marines have landed on a Japanese held island in the Pacific. As they advance inland the Japanese launch an unrelenting rocket attack and the combined US forces are unable to locate the rocket base. Richard Widmark stars as Lt. Anderson who is tasked with capturing Japanese prisoners in order to get information from them about the rocket base. The quest to solve this mystery, which involves an understanding of the Japanese psyche and a bit of luck, forms the main story arc of the film but along the way we get to know some of the main characters through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the war. Lt. Anderson was formerly a high school chemistry teacher who has developed migraine headaches due to the stress of resisting his urge to flee from combat. He relies on Doc (Karl Malden) to keep him supplied with painkillers so he can continue to function when the headaches start. Anderson knows he could use his condition to get a ticket home but war has made him bitter and he would rather die. What finally gives him hope for the future is the film’s central message which I found a tad too religious. The film was made with extensive cooperation from the United States Marine Corps and even utilized by them as a recruitment film which seems a bit odd considering its anti-war stance. And they needed recruits as the U.S. had entered the Korean War in 1950 while this film was being shot. The Navy and Marine units who appear in the film would go on to fight in Korea.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Halls of Montezuma at imdb.com

As of May, 2017, Halls of Montezuma is available to rent on DVD from ClassicFlix.com.

The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

the honeymoon killers 1970 film review

This is one of those films in which case the story of its production is more interesting than the film itself. Warren Steibel, a television producer, had an ambition to make a movie and convinced a wealthy friend to put up $150,000 to make it. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had been released recently so Steibel suggested to his roommate, Leonard Kastle, a composer, that they make a film based on the true story of an obese nurse and a Spanish-American con man who fleeced and sometimes murdered women they met through lonely hearts clubs in the late 40’s. Steibel convinced Kastle to write the screenplay, arguing that he had the necessary experience since he had written librettos for his operas. They fabricated a screenwriter’s name for the producer’s sake while Kastle researched court records for the case and came up with the screenplay. After the producer read and approved the screenplay they revealed their ruse. Martin Scorsese was hired to direct but fired after a week when it became obvious that his approach to the film would cause them to exceed their limited budget. A few scenes that Scorsese directed were used in the film. Kastle ended up directing with assistance from cinematographer Oliver Wood, who has had the most illustrious career, besides Scorsese, of all those who worked on the film. Kastle detested Bonnie and Clyde due to its glamorization of violence and chose a quasi-documentary style for his film, making his characters and their deeds as unglamorous as possible. One of the advantages of using unfamiliar actors in a film is that the viewer is never sure whether they are acting or not which works especially well with Kastle’s documentary style. As one critic remarked, he forgot he was watching a film and felt he was peeping through a keyhole. I found it to be a bit like an early John Waters film minus the camp. It has its humorous aspects but overall one is left with a feeling of disgust which most likely was the intention. Despite writing several more screenplays, Kastle never made another film and refused offers to make a sequel or something similar to The Honeymoon Killers.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Honeymoon Killers  at imdb.com

As of April, 2017, The Honeymoon Killers is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

Black Legion (1937)

black legion film review

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been an explosive rise in the number of hate groups in America since 1999. The numbers declined between the years 2011 and 2014 but rose by 14% in 2015 and though statistics for 2016 are not yet available it’s most likely that they’ve continued to rise as interest in white supremacist groups swelled thanks to the Trump campaign. Though Trump doesn’t belong to nor endorse any such group his comments on Muslims and other minority groups have energized hate groups.

The situation was similar in the 1930s. White supremacists in America encouraged by the rise of fascist and racist leaders in Europe and embittered by the dire economic situation in which competition for jobs was fierce flocked to hate groups like the KKK, the Silver Legion, the German American Bund, the Christian Front, and the group depicted in this film, a splinter group of the KKK, known as the Black Legion.  Some historians say that at its peak there were 60,000 to 100,000 members most of whom resided in Michigan and Ohio. Members included a former mayor, a city councilman, a chief of police, along with scores of native-born Protestant white men, many of whom had migrated from the South. Even anti-Semitic, union-hating Henry Ford is rumored to have been a secret supporter.  The Legion’s targets were immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks, nontraditional Protestant faiths, labor unions, farm cooperatives, various fraternal groups, and anyone deemed un-American by whomever was in charge of a local chapter.

Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the film, the story is based on real events. In May of 1936 members of the Legion kidnapped and killed Charles Poole, a Catholic WPA organizer, for supposedly beating his Protestant wife. A group of twelve men were arrested and prosecuted. One of them, Dayton Dean, pleaded guilty and testified against other members thereby exposing what had been a secret organization which led to more arrests and the eventual demise of the group.

The film features Humphrey Bogart in his first lead role. It’s probably the only time he played a regular Joe with a wife and kid and probably the only time you will see him break down and cry in a role. After Frank Taylor (Bogart) loses a promotion at work to the son of an immigrant he gets involved with the Black Legion who, along with Frank, run the immigrant and his son out of town. Frank ends up getting the promotion but his nocturnal activities with the Legion begin interfering with his job and marriage. Frank Taylor starts out as a likable but easily misled character and Bogart manages to make him empathetic even when he is the most despicable. Many critics praised his performance and predicted his rise to stardom. Jack Warner, however, didn’t consider Bogart star material and didn’t cast him very often and the parts he did get were usually as a villain opposite James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. In fact, Robinson was considered for the role of Frank Taylor but deemed too foreign looking by Warner Brother executives. Of course Bogart eventually became a star after his breakthrough with High Sierra (1941).

Black Legion is one of several films from the 1930s that dealt with the issues of fascism and racism. Columbia Pictures’ Legion of Terror released in 1936 is based on the same story. Warner Brothers, which had been very successful with a string of gritty gangsters films beginning with Little Caesar (1931), was forced to produce more moralistic films when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1935. So if you find the film too preachy or the message too blatant don’t blame the writers, blame Joe Breen! The Hays Code also didn’t allow the film to identify persons of any specific nationalities, ethnicities, nor religious affiliations as victims of the Legion which is one of the reasons there are no black people in the film, though they were certainly victimized by the group. The writers got around this as best they could by naming Frank’s competitor Joe Dombrowski, implying he was Polish and including a remark about his big nose hinting he was Jewish. Despite the efforts of the Breen Office the film still managed to offend some viewers and was banned in Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus, Finland, Trinidad, and France while the British and Australian releases were heavily censored. The KKK filed suit against Warner Brothers for using their insignia in the film but the case was thrown out of court.

The film ends with a speech given by the judge presiding over the trial of Frank Taylor and his cohorts. He ends his speech with a quote from an Abraham Lincoln speech which is as relevant now as it ever was: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.  The next two sentences from that speech were not included in the film but are especially relevant today: “Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.”

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Black Legion at imdb.com

As of January, 2017, Black Legion is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

Visages d’enfants (1925) Faces of Children

visages d'enfants (faces of children) film review

A few French filmmakers in the early twenties utilized rapid-fire editing montage techniques that would later be taken up by Russian filmmakers, most notably Sergei Eisenstein. The earliest example I’ve yet to see is Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Abel Gance’s La roue (1923) took the technique even further. Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’enfants, which was begun in 1923 but not released until 1925 due to a conflict with a distribution company, also opens with a visually arresting montage sequence before settling, like the other films mentioned, into a more conventional storytelling style. The story is about a young boy who has a difficult time adjusting to to his father’s remarriage after the death of his mother. His father and new stepmother are insensitive to the boy’s profound and unresolved grief. His resentment grows when he is moved to a shabby back room in the house while his new sister is given a nicely decorated room. He breaks down crying when he sees his stepmother wearing his mother’s brooch and spitefully destroys one of his mother’s old dresses when the stepmother decides she’ll make new dresses for her daughter with the material. Eventually the boy’s resentment leads to near-tragic consequences. The film is beautifully photographed in the Swiss Alps and its realism and naturalistic acting, especially by Jean Forest, who played the boy, make the film feel more modern than other films from the era. The DVD is one of a set of three from Image Entertainment featuring outstanding restorations of films by Jacques Feyder and includes an exquisite newly commissioned score which complements the story and atmosphere perfectly.  

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Visages d’enfants at imdb.com

As of December, 2016 Visages d’enfants is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

bitter tea of general yen film review

“I know it didn’t make money, but it has more real movie in it than any other I did.”

Frank Capra, who in the early 30’s desperately wanted to win an Oscar, realized that the commercial romantic comedies he had been making would never be considered by the Academy and chose to make, in Columbia studio head Harry Cohn’s words, “arty junk” that usually wins awards. Despite his cynicism, Cohn allotted a million dollars to the project, the biggest budget so far for Columbia which was still considered a Poverty Row studio.

The story of unrequited love may also have had an appeal for Capra due to the fact that he had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck, who is the star of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and whom he fell in love and began an affair with during the shooting of their first film together, Ladies of Leisure (1930).

This may be Capra’s and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Joseph Walker’s most visually striking film. Its bold lighting and compositions often dominated by darkness seems closer in style to Josef von Sternberg than most of Capra’s other films.

The screenplay is based on a novel by Grace Zaring Stone in which a young American missionary, Megan, confronts her own racial prejudices and notions of white supremacy when she travels to China to wed her childhood sweetheart, also a missionary. As the film opens, a group of missionaries prepare for the marriage oblivious to the pain and suffering all around them. The story is set in Shanghai in the late 20’s during the Chinese Civil War. The missionaries make condescending and derogatory remarks about the Chinese for whom they’ve come to convert to their so-called superior way of life and values. Probably a large percentage of Western film audiences in 1933 were in agreement with the sentiments of the missionary characters and though it may seem at first that the film is reinforcing racial stereotypes its real mission is to shatter those stereotypes and show that the Chinese are human beings just like everyone else.

Before the marriage can take place, Megan and her fiancé rush off the save some orphans that are in danger. In the chaos of the war they’re separated and she’s knocked unconscious. When she awakes she finds she’s been rescued/kidnapped by General Yen, a Chinese warlord. Yen is ruthless when it comes to dealing with his enemies but he behaves with Megan like a perfect gentleman. Though she rebuffs his attempts to seduce her, a dream sequence reveals that she harbors a sexual desire for the General. He manages to reveal Megan’s hypocrisy more than once. On one occasion after she states that “we’re all of one flesh and blood”, he puts his hand on hers but she quickly withdraws it.

This miscegenous aspect of the story was probably the main reason it failed at the box office. It probably couldn’t even have been made after the Hays Code went into effect the following year. In 1950 when Columbia tried to reissue the film the Production Code Administration found that the subject matter was “very questionable” and it wasn’t rereleased.

Besides the interracial love affair they also objected to the characterizations of Americans in the film. Yen’s financial advisor is an American war profiteer who is the personification of American imperialism which has always used the pretext of spreading liberty while pursuing hidden agendas. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that at the time even Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was thought to be communist propaganda by the FBI and the HUAC due to the fact that it portrayed a banker in an unfavorable light.

Capra managed to win Oscars and help Columbia on its way to becoming a major studio the following year with, ironically enough, the romantic comedy It Happened One Night. He would return to the theme of east meets west in Lost Horizon (1937) where once again the perceived superiority of the Western way of life is called into question.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 The Bitter Tea of General Yen  is available to rent on DVD from ClassicFlix.com.

La roue (1923)

la roue film review

Akira Kurosawa: “The first film that really impressed me was La roue.”

Jean Cocteau: “There is the cinema before and after La roue as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

French director Abel Gance is probably best known for his epic 1927 film Napoleon. After the international success of his 1919 anti-war film J’accuse, Gance was considered one of the finest and most innovative directors in France and possibly in the world. With the financial backing of the Pathé studio he embarked on La roue (The Wheel), which took three years to complete and in its original form ran for seven and a half to nine hours (sources disagree). During the production Gance was deeply affected by the fact that his companion Ida Danis was dying of tuberculosis and his friend and lead actor in the film, Séverin-Mars, was also severely ill. Both died shortly after shooting completed. Like Erich von Stroheim, Gance insisted on authenticity which meant sets were built on location; railroad yards for the first half of the film and on Mount Blanc in the French Alps for the second half though the decision to shoot in the Alps has been attributed to Ida’s need for alpine air.

The film is notable for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques, especially the use of of rapid montage which was studied and implemented by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin et al at the Moscow Academy. It appears that Gance was the first filmmaker to utilize this technique in order to represent an extreme state of mind or build tension though the opening Marcel L’Herbier’s 1921 film El Dorado makes similar use of rapid cutting but not to the same degree. The story, however, is a rather maudlin melodrama about a widower railroad engineer, Sisif, who rescues a little girl from a train wreck and finding she has no parents, adopts her as his own. Flash forward fifteen years and the little girl, Norma (played by English actress Ivy Close), is a stunning beauty with whom everyone is in love with including Sisif and his son Elie, who thinks Norma is his sister. Even the four and a half hour version available on the Flicker Alley DVD is a bit of an ordeal to sit through and seems repetitious at times so it’s difficult to imagine how Gance managed to stretch the story into a film almost twice that length in the original cut.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

La roue  at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 La roue is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.