Saturday, August 29, 2009

Two sisters tag

Elizabeth over at Oh By Jingo, Oh By Gee! has tagged me with the following questions, each one a bone of contention between her and her sister.
I wish I knew people I could have these kinds of debates with...
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1. Do you like Greta Garbo?
Yes, I do, but she's not in my top twenty stars, nor are any of her films to be found among my very favourites (except possibly Grand Hotel - and then mainly for the Crawford/Lionel Barrymore/Beery bits). It may be simply that I discovered Dietrich first. BBC-2 showed a very comprehensive Garbo season on Wednesday nights when I was about twelve, and I was impressed but not floored. Neither was my youthful ardour goaded over much - a far cry from Destry Rides Again!
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2. In Buster Keaton's MGM films, do his gestures and his plots resemble those of Harry Langdon?
Intriguing! My first answer would be no, which is only to say that the thought has never struck me independently before. But now you say it, do I think there's anything in what you say? - yes, possibly. Though I think your sister makes a good point that the performance inevitably changes when you switch from pantomime to dialogue acting. This got me thinking about some of the others. Even Stan Laurel's talkie persona is notably different from his more demonic silent self, and he was one of the least affected. Chaplin knew the change would be so fundamental it would be dangerous to even try. Harold Lloyd becomes more shrill, a little more irritating perhaps; his relentless go-getter energy seems more opposed to the society he is trying to infiltrate; he seems more of a pathetic character somehow.
So the characteristics of Buster that you identify as different could well be the inevitable result of trying to adapt to a new medium; and things like increased pathos and docility could just be the curse of MGM: the studio that hated great comedians so much they kept giving them contracts just so they could destroy their careers. Much as I like Langdon, I can't really see a performer of Buster's stature consciously finding inspiration in him. So, finally, I think I side with your sister after all.
As a side-note: I've never seen a Langdon talkie. What's he like?
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3. Who is your favorite director of silent dramas?
There aren't many of whom I have seen more than one film, so picking a favourite is perhaps unfair. Griffith is an exception, but I find his films more to be appreciated than enjoyed. I loved The Wedding March (guess why) but don't know any other Von Stroheims. So with The Crowd and The Big Parade under his belt, it has to be Vidor - unless the majority of DeMille's silents count as 'drama', in which case, obviously...
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4. Do Harold Lloyd's movies (movies, not shorts) drag along?
No! Well, maybe some do, but not the ones I've seen: they all zip by in my estimation. In fact, I always thought that Lloyd's work was distinguished in particular by its pace, far more than that of many another silent comic, in that it was essentially urban, and timed to the rhythms of the twenties, the department stores and the tram cars and all the other frenetic diversions of new-fangled city living, whereas Chaplin's and Keaton's films are much more bucolic and nostalgic. Even when Lloyd does rural - The Kid Brother, for instance - there's always a sense that the world depicted is one coming to an end, and that Lloyd's character, however gauche and ineffectual he may seem at first, is ultimately in his resourcefulness and energy an agent of that change. Chaplin is always an outsider, Keaton a supreme individualist, but Lloyd is the spirit of his age. This might to some degree account both for some of his great popularity, and for the cooling off in the public's esteem that saw him lose his hold in the thirties. The Freshman is one of my half-dozen favourite comedies of all-time. I vastly prefer his features to his shorts. I also love his talkies. And the fact that he had a lookalike brother called Gaylord.
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5. Who made better silent shorts, Mack Sennett or Hal Roach?
Don't know. I would say that, for me, they were much of a muchness as far as silent shorts go; perhaps I would lean slightly towards Roach, but only because his were on their way to finding those characteristics that become definitive of his sound shorts, which I vastly prefer to the silent work of either. I think both are fascinating, wonderful, essential chapters in American film history, but for laughs I'll head for Below Zero, or for that matter to Sennett's sound shorts with W.C. Fields - quite possibly the funniest films ever made.
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6. Is Al St. John a genuine heavy, or a baby heavy?
[Elizabeth explains: "This is based on the idea of the "Baby Vamp", which was the character of the girl who was vampish, but not a vamp. My sister doesn't really quite believe Al St. John is a genuine heavy because he doesn't have the crazy facial hair, and because he isn't quite so muscular as some of the other heavies (such as Noah Young or Eric Campbell). However, I'm firmly convinced that Al St. John is actually a heavy, moustache or no. He's too diabolical to not be one.]
Hmm. I'd hate mine to be the casting vote on this, because I'm not overly familiar with this chap. But from the brief acquaintance we have struck up here and there, I would lean strongly towards baby heavy. Unless I've seen an unrepresentative sample of work, Eric Campbell could kick his ass, no problem.
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7. Do you like 1920s musicals?
You mean there's some other kind? No, I do like musicals from other eras, but less and less the further away from the twenties you go. Twenties popular music is one of my absolute favourite sounds in the world, not just the songs and performers themselves but the actual noise of it, the exact nature of the instrumentation and recording. I like thirties music very much, forties a little less, fifties a lot less, sixties and onward not at all. So my taste in musicals inevitably marches in step with this prejudice. I mean, even Singin' in the Rain sounds compromised to me: I love it, of course, but if they are going to have a twenties setting and use vintage songs why not make them sound vintage?
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8. Do you like Al Jolson's movies?
If you mean: do the movies live up to the talents of the man, or are they a good substitute for seeing him on stage, I guess not really, but they'll certainly suffice until science comes up with an alternative. If you mean: do you like that man in those movies, do you like this man Jolson, then yes; he was the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. I mean, who else comes close? Michael Jackson?
(By the way, anyone heard Mel Brooks's impression of Al Jolson making a phone call to Irving Berlin on his 2000-Year-Old-Man album Two Thousand and Thirteen? It's brilliant, and if you're in two minds about Brooks, it'll make you a fully paid-up convert.)
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9. Who is your favorite animal star? She says Asta from "The Thin Man" movies, but I like the monkey in "The Cameraman".
I have many. Mut in A Dog's Life gives one of the best all-round performances by an non-human animal, even though accounts in the Chaplin archives reveal that they got him drunk for one scene. But for comic ability, based on natural talent rather than artificial stimulants, I think the prize has to go to Charley Chase's dog in Mighty Like a Moose, specifically the moment in which, as the result of comic contrivance too convoluted to go through here, he ends up wearing Charley's false teeth.
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Thanks, Elizabeth, this was great fun!