Archive for cinema

Why Most of the Time Frank Capra was Not “Frank Capra”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

It’s film director Frank Capra’s birthday. This post has come about because in recent years I’ve filled out my Capraducation some — I’ve seen a bunch of his more obscure movies from early and late in his career. Once you do that, Capra’s “voice” becomes more diffuse. It becomes harder to say what it is.

It’s become idiomatic: “A Frank Capra movie”. Most people think they know what they mean by the phrase, and the idea that they have, I’ll bet, is coherent. It’s based on a handful of his best known and best loved movies, which will generally consist of the Capra movies most people have seen, chiefly: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Nowadays, many would call It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite and I’ve even heard some ostensibly knowledgeable commentators call it the most representative Capra movie. I would have to disagree. In my book, the two most perfectly constructed distillations of the Capra Idea are Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith…the little guy going up against huge, apparently unbeatable and malevolent forces and winning. In the case of Mr. Deeds it’s an ethic of generosity vs. cynical greed. In Mr. Smith it’s the application of power towards the common good vs. power for its own sake. It would be hard for me to pick which is my favorite. Some days, the first, other days, the second.

“Mr. Smith” — the Capra template

At any rate, while the other films I just mentioned may come close to the ideal in philosophy and tone, they deviate in structure. The stage version of You Cant Take It With You was much different; Capra kind of wrestled it into a message picture he was more comfortable with for the screen version, and it’s a little inorganic. Meet John Doe is very dark; it lacks the affirmation we get from Deeds and Smith. There is an 11th hour reprieve in the film but it is a small one and we emerge full of doubt about the goodness of The People. It’s a Wonderful Life is also pretty dark; it’s about a man’s inner battle between his own self-interest and the sacrifices he makes for the good of those around him. It’s an excellent movie (Capra justifiably thought that it was his best) but I wouldn’t call it representative of the Capra Idea — that’s my point.

Still these are the five I would call the most Capraesque in that sense. Yet Capra made close to 40 Hollywood features, and another dozen or so documentary films and industrials besides. Most of these films are not “Frank Capra films” in the commonly used sense. Some come close: I’d have to include The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932), Platinum Blonde (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) and State of the Union (1948) in a slightly expanded circle, dealing as they do with fraudulence and values in America (most of them in the context of the Depression). He’s constantly asking, “What matters most in this world? Fame and riches? Or being a right guy?”

I haven’t seen all of his films, but of the ones I’ve seen the remainder are quite a grab bag. There are his two silent comedy vehicles for Harry Langdon, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), generally conceded to be among the greatest of silent comedy features. (Capra got his start in silent comedy as a gag writer for Our Gang!) There’s the Joe Cook starring vehicle Rain or Shine (1930), also essentially a straight up “comedian comedy”. Dirigible (1931) is a fictional adventure story about a race to the South Pole in a hot air balloon. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Lost Horizon (1937) have (probably unintentional) racist overtones that seem to oddly point the way to his anti-Japanese propaganda films of WWII. Broadway Bill (1934) is a horse racing story; he later remade it as Riding High (1950). Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is just a straight-up farcical comedy with no social dimension at all.

Interestingly, although so many now love It’s a Wonderful Life, it bombed when first released. It was both a financial disaster and a crisis of confidence for Capra that he never completely recovered from. I theorize that 1946 audiences found it intolerably old-fashioned and sentimental. To us, it seems timeless. But in 1946, the cutting edge was movies like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra was now at sea. I happen to like State of the Union (1948), a story of political corruption not unlike Meet John Doe. But everything after that is both feeble and pretty hard to take. Of his four remaining features, two are remakes of previous Capra hits (Broadway Bill as Riding High; Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles [1961]). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom [1951]) star Bing Crosby. A Hole in the Head (1959) is the most interesting and easiest to take of the bunch, although it’s slow moving and lacks the sort of sparkle that once came easily to him.

Capra remained healthy and alert well into the 1980s. I loved his autobiography and I often used to think “What a shame he could’t get funding for pictures, he had at least another couple of productive decades in him.” But then I went and watched (or tried to watch) his last movie Pocketful of Miracles the other day, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and I was like “Oooooh! This is why.” And I’m more than okay with the fact Capra made no further movies. It seems as though, in his best pictures, i.e., the Depression era message movies and his Why We Fight series of WWII documentaries, he had something to push back against. An epic sized villain. Lady for a Day had made sense in the context of the Depression, but as a period piece I found Pocketful of Miracles screechingly, unwatchably bad, just woefully out of step with the times, full of patronizing, rose-colored, romanticized portrayals of homeless people and gangsters. I sort of wanted to throw up from the first frame. And, listen, I’m plenty sentimental. I watch Capra’s movies from the 30s and weep.

The last Hollywood film Capra worked on was the sci-fi astronaut story Marooned, which he was originally to direct. He quit the project due to budgetary frustrations. The film was finally made by John Sturges and released in 1969. A lot of his final movies were science related documentaries and industrials. By training he was an engineer.

So we return to my original thesis. Most of Frank Capra’s movies are not “Frank Capra” movies. Those constitute a minority within his body of work.

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).


The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

George Spoor: The S in Essanay

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of George Kirke Spoor (1872-1953).

Starting in 1894, Chicago-based Spoor was among the very earliest of motion picture exhibitors in the world. His first device, the Magiscope, created with inventor Edward Hill Amet, put him in direct competition with Edison and the Lumière brothers. Spoor and Amet are also credited with creating the first newsreels, some of them real, like footage of President McKinley’s inauguration in 1897, and some of them faked, like Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. In 1899, he renamed his device the Kinodrome and showed films in vaudeville theatres in Chicago, New Orleans, St Louis and Kansas City and expanded from there. These early pictures were all about five minutes long, the perfect length for a vaudeville bill. From the turn of the century through the death of vaudeville in 1932, films were an integral part of the vaudeville experience. Eventually the films simply took over. In 1907, Spoor would partner with Broncho Billy Anderson to found Essanay Studios, most famous for producing the films of Charlie Chaplin in 1915. In the 1920s, he helped invent one of the cinema’s first widescreen processes, known as “Natural Vision”. His last film as producer (uncredited) was Danger Lights (1930), with Robert Armstrong, Jean Arthur and Hugh Herbert.

For more on early film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Bryant Haliday: Man of the Cinema

Posted in Impresarios, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2015 by travsd


“I’d walk miles for the hubble, bubble and toil of a good horror movie, or to watch Vincent Price stirring cauldrons of horror, or to observe a well-fanged Christopher Lee on the prowl for blood. I love to see black horses and coaches galloping through the night and all that traditional stuff. The more traditional it is, the better I like it.”  — Bryant Haliday

Today is birthday of actor, producer and film distributor and exhibitor Bryant Haliday (1928-1996). I became aware of this interesting and significant personage in a backwards fashion. He plays the evil ventriloquist in the 1964 low-budget horror film Devil Doll (1964). With his piercing eyes, distinguished mien, and classical diction, Haliday makes a big impression. It was from asking the question “Who is that guy?” that I learned that Haliday’s reach was vastly broader than the handful of horror films he’d appeared in only as a lark.

Raised and educated at a Benedictine Monastary in Rhode Island, he enrolled at Harvard in his late teens and gravitated towards theatre instead. He was one of the founding members of the Brattle Theatre Company, based on the model of the Old Vic and located in historic Brattle Hall in Cambridge. Haliday acted in and produced 50 classical productions over the next few years. In 1948 he bought the building, which had been built by Reverend Samuel Longfellow, the poet’s brother in the late 19th century. Haliday was only 20 years old at this stage; one can only conclude that he enjoyed the advantages of wealth.

In 1952, the Brattle stopped doing theatre and began to focus exclusively on screening films. And history will show that this was Haliday’s greatest contribution to American culture. With Cyrus Harvey, Jr. he co-founded Janus Films, which distributed foreign and art films to the U.S. market. Haliday and Harvey screened these films at the Brattle in Cambridge and the 55th Street Playhouse in New York through the mid-60s, fostering the cults of Bergman, Fellini, Kurasawa, Antonioni etc which were to have such a huge impact on film-makers and audiences of the late 1950s and 1960s. All of the Beats, and film artists like Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, and Robert Altman cut their teeth on these films, as has every generation since.

At the same time, Haliday dabbled in film acting, appearing in two French movies in the early 60s, and then four British horror films produced by Richard Gordon: Devil Doll (1964), Curse of Simba (1964), The Projected Man (1966) and Tower of Evil a.k.a. Horror on Snape Island (1971). After this, Haliday (who’d sold Janus and his theatres in the mid ’60s) moved to France, where he continued to act in theatre and television from time to time. He died in Paris at the age of 68.

Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic) with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by travsd

Tonight at Dixon Place at 9pm, the latest edition of Fear Mongers, the series of panel discussions about horror films organized by Clay McCleod Chapman. This evening is being moderated by the New York TimesJason Zinoman, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about his excellent new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

I think the most important function critics serve is as professors of appreciation. At their best, they provide us with a language to help us articulate our likes and dislikes, and help us widen our personal canons, (or at the very least gain new respect for artists who don’t immediately speak to us.)  Shock Value does all of those things for me.

As won’t surprise you, I am a fan of what Zinoman calls the Old Horror: supernatural Gothic tales with monsters, mansions and expressionistic atmosphere, the kind of horror films Hollywood produced in greatest number between the 1920s and the 1960s (though occasional ones have slipped through since). The Poe legacy. I am looking for something irrational, something that resembles a nightmare. I love the ritual of it. And the fact that much of it often descends to the level of camp is for me, only an added bonus.

But, when it’s good (as it often is), New or Old,  I find I require a supernatural element in order to score an effect. I want the primitive, unsophisticated, superstitious part of my brain to be aroused. I want the uncanny. I find for example, that I am terrified of voodoo zombies, which are produced by magic, and completely unmoved by post-Romero zombies of the scientific-explanation variety. And while I acknowledge there are some serial killer masterpieces out there (Psycho and Peeping Tom among them), I am much less frightened of a mere maniac than a creature than can fly, materialize and dematerialize at will, shape-shift or take over my soul.

Zinoman’s book is about the New Horror, chiefly the generation of directors who came up from the late 60s through the late 70s. Defensive of my Old Horror prerogatives, and disdainful as I am of graphic horror, gore, torture porn and cutlery, I was ready to be engaging the book from across a very wide gulf. But NOT so.

First, the crucial years Zinoman examines pre-dates the avalanche of junk that begins in the 1980s. So we don’t waste any time talking about Chucky or Leprochaun 6: Back 2 the ‘Hood, as edifying as that may ultimately be.

Second, he has chosen a pantheon of really fine directors, producers and screenwriters to discuss (for the most part), and puts them in the context of their times, stacking them up alongside the other New Hollywood auteurs like Spielberg, Coppola, Scorcese etc. Of the horror directors Zinoman talks about, probably only Brian de Palma is commonly lumped with these others. Zinoman shows how others of the same generation: George Romero, John Carpenter, and others may rate inclusion.

And third, a lot of these films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Shining) actually do have a supernatural element. The difference between Old and New is the level of effectiveness for modern audiences. Zinoman helps provide crucial context here to help us appreciate the revolution. He cites a 1969 interview with Vincent Price on The Mike Douglas Show that is mortifying for all the wrong reasons, as the old ham extols the virtues of spiders and cobwebs and the necessity of wearing a black cape. This is horror for six year olds. And while I’d rather have one The Abominable Dr. Phibes than 1,000 Friday the 13ths, the point is inarguable. How do you revitalize an exhausted genre? (I often ponder the parallel question in comedy. The ultimate comedy film-making assignment: stage a pie in the face but make it funny. Because for me the pie in the face is beyond dead. Deader than dead. It was vital in the 1920 and maybe the 1930s, but after that, it is a tiresome cliche).  At any rate, several people in the late 60s and 70s showed that it could be done. A pivotal moment was Rosemary’s Baby, when schlockmeister producer-director William Castle was forced by the studio to hire Roman Polanski to direct. Polanski abjures the man with devil horns and pitchfork Castle might have depicted…instead he implies the malevolent presence of the devil. The Exorcist (to my mind one of the scariest movies ever made), breaks out a whole battery of special effects, but not before establishing a highly believable, realistic universe not unlike the one director William Friedkin created for his previous feature The French Connection.

But like I said, what critics do best is expand our personal canons. This book helped enhance my appreciation of De Palma, for example. While I think Carrie and The Fury are brilliant and I would (and will) watch them again and again, and Dressed to Kill, which I saw in the cinema when I was 13, was certainly one of the most shocking experiences I ever had in the cinema, I have found a lot of his other films coldly formal, derivative, and downright silly. But I’ve never seen any of his films before 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, and there is much in Shock Value that makes me want to check out those early films. Likewise, the supposed brilliance of John Carpenter has always eluded me. I’ve seen most of his movies (most recently Halloween), and still can’t see it. This book (and several interviews I’ve heard Carpenter give recently about Howard Hawks) makes me want to give it still another shot. And likewise Tobe Hooper, whom Zinoman plainly admires and whose Texas Chainsaw Massacre I really hated. I’ll watch that again. But I draw the line at Wes Craven.

The book is elegantly written, full of astute insights, and contains an amazing amount of original interviews — a TON of research, all valuable stuff, as the comments by the artists gives us both historical information and perspective on the work itself. It will have an honored place on my shelf next to my dog-eared copies of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which is perfect — Zinoman picks up right where they left off.

Jacques Tati: The Slapstick Tradition’s Last Gasp

Posted in Clown, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), Russian, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the sublime Jacques Tati (1907-1982), the world’s premiere exponent of clown cinema in the post silent era. Of Russian and Dutch extraction (his full last name is Tatischeff), he was a pro soccer player and French music hall comic before directing and starring in his first feature Jour de fete, about a funny postman, in 1949. He created his signature character the awkward, bumbling, unfailingly polite M. Hulot in his next film M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), as well as Tati’s recognizable style: a pleasant, leisurely pace; very little dialogue; stylized sound effects; recurring musical themes; satirical tweaks at modern life; and an organization revolving around the imaginative physical gag, reminiscent of all the great silent film comedians. His next Mon Oncle (1958) was his largest international hit. Playtime (1967) was his most ambitious film and his biggest flop (it bankrupted him), although it has its prononents, including Truffault and Terry Jones (and me!) With Trafic (1971) he returned to a more modest budget and a more typical Hulot like scenario (the transportation of an experimental car to a trade show). His other films are documentaries, although one of his earlier scripts forms the basis for the 2010 animated film The Illusionist.

Below a scene from Mon Oncle, in which he tries to figure out his sister’s moderm kitchen:

To learn more about  variety artistsconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Balaban & Katz

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2010 by travsd

I bet you didn’t know Hollywood star Bob Balaban has a connection to vaudeville. His father Elmer was one of the 7 Balaban brothers, most of whom were Chicago-based theatre owners. The pioneer was Bob’s uncle Abe, a vaudeville singer who leased a Nickelodeon in 1908 in partnership with his older brother Barney. They pioneered the movies-plus-vaudeville combination that was to find its full flowering in the 20s-30s-40s. Their initial enterprise was so successful, the following year they built the 600-seat Circle Theatre. In 1914 they partnered with Sam Katz, another Chicago theatre owner. In 1916 the combined organization built the 2000 seat Central Park Theatre. Throughout the 1920s, Balaban and Katz grew into a huge chain. Abe Katz retired in 1929 at the age of 40, a rich man. In 1936, barney became President of Paramount Pictures, where he remained for nearly three decades. Sam Katz was to become VP at MGM, and Bob Balaban’s grandmother’s second husband. The Balaban-Katz chain folded in 1970. For more info, go here.


To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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