Monday, August 23, 2010

The films I most wish had never fallen into the public domain

I came late and grudgingly to the DVD revolution, not so much striding boldly into the future as bowing grumpily to the inevitable. (I appreciate you can fit more of 'em on a shelf but my heart will always be with those big sexy tapes.)
History will recall DVD, in fact, as the last big new thing in technology that I was ever suckered into rearranging my life for. I don't care what they come up with next: I'm sticking to what I've got. I'm halfway through my life now anyway, and everyone knows that CD's will never replace wind-up gramophones in the long run.
By the time I started buying discs the market was already up and running to capacity, and I just loved the fact that there were so many old classics to be found at near-giveaway prices.
What I soon discovered, of course, was that the condition of the movies more than reflected the generosity of the price ticket, which came as a bit of a shock.
Like many, I had bought all that buckwheat with which the format had been launched - you remember it all, I'm sure: that a poor quality DVD is a contradiction in terms, that the very process of transferring film material to disc is an act of aural and visual restoration, that the quality is so sharp you can not only see and hear pins drop but smell them too, that every time you buy one God puts another sunbeam in the sky, and so on. I had no idea that it was even possible to simply copy an old tape onto a disc using technology every bit as low-tech as I used to make tape to tape copies, though it was soon obvious that that was what had happened with a lot of the discs I was buying. In many cases they had not only been mastered from old tapes but from tapes that had been kept at the bottom of someone's swimming pool.
The problem was copyright, or rather the lack of copyright.
Films that had fallen into public domain were free to manufacture, and anyone capable of producing a few hundred discs and printing a sleeve could be in the distribution business. At the time I was just so glad to finally see these films that I didn't let the quality bother me too much. Besides, I was also buying even less legit versions of far rarer films from mail order suppliers, and these were frequently of such appalling quality - multi-generation copies of video recordings of 16mm projections - that these semi-official titles seemed near-perfect in comparison.
Now though, I'm more picky, and the quality of some of these discs seems in many cases just not good enough to watch.
I'd be happy to pay a little more for a better quality issue, though - and that's where we see the real problem. In most cases whatever market might have existed for the film in question has been killed stone dead by the cheapjacks. Putting out old movies is chancy. Rewards are minimal. And if the potential purchaser already has a choice of a hundred pocket money versions, how many are going to shell out bigger bucks for better quality? On Pot o'Gold for Chrissakes?
So the wide availability of a public domain title actually makes it vastly less likely that we'll get anything better.
Not in every case: the accident of public domain status is no indicator whatever of quality, and a few of these films retain a sufficiently high reputation as to justify distributors offering the choice: you can pay £15 for a shiny, top quality His Girl Friday or £2.99 for one that gets the essence across but looks like it was photographed through the window of a fish and chip shop, with the microphone next to the deep fat fryer. (Personally, I have the pucker Columbia Classics disc in the Elstree Hill packaging: it's nicer.)
The same goes for Orson Welles's The Stranger, the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and My Man Godfrey. If you want to lech over Jane Russell in The Outlaw, you can either shell out pence for any of the currently available discs, and get the perhaps effective sensation of peeping on her through net curtains, or go searching for an old Video Collection tape: the last time the film appeared, in Britain at least, in even vaguely pristine form.
Likewise with a little perseverance, and the stamina to resist all DVD's calling themselves The Evil Mind, you should eventually be able to locate one of the old British video tapes, correctly titled The Clairvoyant, that give you the full effect of Fay Wray doing her mindreading act in one of the most heart-stopping costumes and hairdos of her career. ("I have a very pretty thing here. Can you tell me what it is?")
And of course, crappiness is not guaranteed with a public domain release: the distributors don't care, but they don't actually want to upset you; they just release whatever they get hold of. So the relative quality of a title does vary throughout the public domain sector. With a bit of trial and error I found more than watchable versions of The Kennel Murder Case, Lady of Burlesque and the Ritz Brothers' version of The Gorilla, though the copies of each that I started with were among the worst I'd seen of anything.
There should be a website, 'PublicDomainWatch', or something, where we consumers swap horror stories and point each other to the best and worst existing editions of a particular film.
So this is the two-edged sword of public domain: it means that we have some sort of access to films that we might never have seen at all - but heaven help us if we ever fall in love with any of them.
What follows are the films I most fell for that are least capable of loving me back, and that I most wish some suicidal distributor would waste money issuing in proper restored form, just for me.
Each is obtainable in a seemingly infinite number of editions so inadequate they seem not so much like movies as dreams of movies, or memories of movies, or movies watched illicitly through the windows of neighbours' houses; movies at one removed, movies on which I can only eavesdrop, but which, even in the cruddiest condition imaginable, convey as much to me as if I was watching them for the first time, in a packed house, in 1934, or 1943, or 1931... or... or... or...

The Front Page (1931)
Another Lewis Milestone milestone in the wake of All Quiet: the talkie of the play that invented the talkies. Was ever a better cast assembled for a single film? One of the most important films ever made, and only a pristine restoration will be enough to stop people yammering about how it's good but His Girl Friday is better. No way. His Girl Friday is just lovely, but this is American history photographed in flashes of lightning, every bit as much as Birth of a Nation. It's also funnier than Birth of a Nation, a film which, for all its points of interest, doesn't have Frank McHugh in it.
But I've never found this in any condition better than terrible.
Rain (1932) and Of Human Bondage (1934)
The first seemed an unusual departure for Joan Crawford on release and audiences stayed away; now of course it's more like a presentiment, and the negative reputation it retains is completely unjustified. Joan is ably complemented by Walter Huston, the greatest actor in talkies at the time, and Lewis Milestone is still restlessly pushing the limits of talking cinema, and building up the reputation as one of the true thirties masters that for some reason he doesn't have.
Bondage, by contrast was a success, and catapulted Bette to stardom, overshadowing Leslie Howard's fine study in self-abasement. But the films make for a natural double-bill: they have early fireworks from Bette and Joan in common, they have their air of sexual cruelty in common, they have Somerset Maugham in common. And of course they have only being available in dodgy public domain editions in common. I've found fairly watchable versions of these, but nothing you could confuse with a truly first class transfer.
Our Daily Bread (1934)
A breathtaking masterpiece. The best version I've found is okay-ish on the eye, but spoiled by that most weirdly ubiquitous giveaway indicator of public domain status: a constant noise exactly like dripping rain outside the studio on the soundtrack. What causes this I've no idea, but start the film with an empty bladder or you'll be stopping it every fifteen minutes to answer the call, which does tend somewhat to disrupt the poetry and majesty of Vidor's greatest achievement in the talking era.
The Strange Woman (1943)
Strange woman, strange movie! How I long to see it gleam! And to think I only got it because it was in a 50 film cheapo box set!
Edgar Ulmer's in the chair, so you know it's going to be weird, but it's really good: one of his very best. This is like a British Gainsborough melodrama but even more so: Hedy Lamarr breaks hearts and heads on so ruthless a pursuit of personal gain she makes the bitchiest bitches of Davis, Crawford, Hopkins and Stanwyck, to say nothing of Margaret Lockwood, look like Olivia de Havilland tending the wounded.
If you ever feel yourself entertaining the notion that Hedy didn't have the chops to play Scarlett O'Hara, watch this and don't let me catch you saying anything so silly again.
Indiscreet (1931)
The first time I ordered this I got that glossy Sunday afternooner with Cary and Ingrid. Right title, wrong film. Next two tries got me the right film, but with such smudgy visuals and tinny sound as to make it almost unwatchable. That I say 'almost' is tribute to the film itself: imagine a DeMille and Swanson silent in sound... or imagine Swanson in Madam Satan, if you like, then add Monroe Owsley... and you have this piece of pure froth. Gloria is so haughty when she's talking! I wish she'd made a million talkies like this - or that someone would just issue a decent print of this one...
The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932)
The saddest of all. I know I'm going to love this, but I can't prove it. If you think you don't know it, that's because it's invariably issued with a tv era retitle: Three Broadway Girls. It's gold-diggers and sugar daddies and chorus girls and Joan Blondell and I'm sure it's a delight. Alas, I've never got all the way through it.
Do you have any public domain experiences to share?
And needless to say, if any reader knows where I can get a really good edition of any of these, do please get in touch...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!

What follows is no kind of systematic analysis of the work of Harold Clayton Lloyd, but a few random reflections; a kind of stream of consciousness; a work in progress...
I'd always loved Harold: I'd seen a lot of his work in extract, and thanks to a compilation tv series I saw as a child (of which more later) I had got to know him more extensively, and earlier, than I had Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (and vastly more extensively and earlier than Keaton).
Then there was his own 1962 distillation Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, the most successful product, I would say, of the sixties vogue for feature compilations of comedy clips. (Lloyd's best sequences are often self-contained, or build from simple, easy-to-grasp premises, so their highlights can usually be removed from their narrative context with the minimum loss of meaning or effect: not so easy with other comics, which is why the Robert Youngson films, for instance, sometimes seemed a little spasmodic.)
As I grew older, I began to tick off the full features, and a few shorts, in occasional tv broadcasts, but there was so much of his work, produced over so many years, that my absorption of it was entirely unsystematic. I remained a fan, but never felt confident enough to call myself a connoisseur.
At last, now, I'm in a position to really get to grips with the full trajectory of his work, and to rope it all into critical perspective, thanks to my simultaneous acquisition of this terrific box set of 9 DVDs, containing a good selection of shorts and most of the features:
... and this supplementary two-disc set of still more, rarer shorts:
. In so doing, I've also been able to soberly reassess my opinion. Perhaps I might still think Lloyd an important figure, but lose some of my youthful, uncritical love for the man as I gained a more thorough and detached perspective? That this might be possible seemed even more likely when I mentioned the box set to my cinematic touchstone Anthony Blampied, only to learn that he has no time for Lloyd at all. Major disagreements about movies are a rare thing between us.

In the event, I'm delighted with what I've found, and I'm delighted that I'm delighted. I don't think Lloyd was as important an artist as Chaplin, but I never did. I do think his films are funnier pound for pound, however, and for laughs and formal innovation, I see him as fully the equal of Keaton, with a somewhat more winning screen presence. (I admire Buster hugely, and laugh at him as loud as anyone, but I came to him as an adult and, for whatever reason, that just seems to make a difference with me...)
The thing that Lloyd has over both men - and by and large qualitative ranking of these three giants is as odious to me as to all of good will and stout heart - is a beautifully precise sense of his own place and time. By which I mean not just in the backgrounds to his films, but also in his own characterisation, which is specifically and instantly a thing of the American teens and twenties, as opposed to that something of the eternal that we see in Chaplin and Keaton. This is, of course, part of what made Lloyd so very successful, and part of what counted against him in the Roosevelt years.
It's a good thing or a bad thing; it comes down to taste. Personally, I'm in love with the twenties, and so I am in love with Lloyd and his screen world, and I bless him for preserving so much of the flavour and the iconography of the times in which he worked.

And so, that's what I've been watching lately: Lloyd, Lloyd and more Lloyd. As always, I find myself drawn first to the less acclaimed and the less familiar: the earlier shorts, the later features. I've now seen all of his sound films except for Professor Beware, which is, frustratingly, the only one apart from the widely (albeit multi-generationally) available Sin of Harold Diddlebock not to be included in the set.
And watching the shorts in chronological sequence is revealing too - showing that the switch from Lonesome Luke to the Glasses character may have been an instant visual transition, but a much more gradual one in terms of character and performance.

No question what the most striking discovery has been so far: The Cat's Paw (1934) is one of the most fascinating films of the early thirties I've yet seen. Not Lloyd films - anybody's films. And the early thirties are, after all, where a conservatively-estimated 99% of my most cherished movie experiences are crowded, so this really is something.
The film is a conscious effort by Lloyd to try something new - his character is not called Harold, for the first time in one of his features - and it is also one of the very last Hollywood films to enjoy the liberty of pre-Code censorship (or lack thereof). There's very little of the traditional Harold to be seen here, except perhaps in his obtuseness (that gets more pronounced in the talkies), the sweetness of his naive courting of the leading lady (Una Merkel here: superb as ever), and in an amusing nightclub sequence, that strives for the same embarrassment-at-a-public-event effect that worked so well in The Freshman and Movie Crazy but is chiefly notable here for the eye-opening pre-Code outfits on the girls:

The big reason why the film is so interesting, however, is how it fits into the New Deal era 'Dictator Craze', with Lloyd as a Capra-esque naif accidentally elected Mayor of a big American city, discredited by a fabricated scandal, who decides to become a dictator, rounds up all of the neighbourhood criminals and forces them to confess under threat of decapitation! We get to see a convincing severed head and gory, oozing neck before we are let into the secret that it is all an illusion, a trick to get them to talk... nonetheless, this is one of those 1933-4 pro-Roosevelt movies that today get labelled 'Fascist' - occasionally by people who actually know what the word means.
Cinematically these films are all completely thrilling: it's that juxtaposition of a familiar style and a totally unfamiliar viewpoint: the accepted pre-Code experience, times ten. Beast of the City, Gabriel Over the White House, let's not forget Duck Soup (anti-war satire my arse), and most of all DeMille's unimpeachable This Day and Age are vital, vivid documents of a period of true uncertainty in American history. Others: Vidor's beautiful, perfect Our Daily Bread... Capra's fantastic American Madness... Certainly Capra is the film-maker you'd most be prepared to accept was behind the camera of The Cat's Paw were such a claim made... It anticipates the screwball mode - it was made before It Happened One Night - but also taps into that Mussolini-admiring era of Hollywood/Washington paternalism... plus it's Harold Lloyd, so it's really charming and really funny... Me and the missus are still reeling from it, actually.

Moving on from Capra, we arrive at Sturges. I am unusual in quite liking The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. I think it will inevitably disappoint if you think of it as a Lloyd movie that happens to have been made by Sturges (and admittedly the film does all it can to foster that impression with an opening flashback to the end of The Freshman that achieves nothing other than show how good for his age Lloyd was in 1947). Think of it, rather, as a Sturges movie, for which he had the inspired idea of casting Lloyd in the lead, alongside his other rep players: Conlin, Pangborn, Kennedy, Vallee... Listen to the dialogue: some of it is wonderful; Sturges at his best, and Lloyd delivers it well. Never mind the back-projected thrill finale - remember this was the forties, and communal film-making genius of the sort that could be commandeered for Safety Last was just a memory now.

Lloyd had the greatest Hollywood house of all: an amazing Italianate Los Angeles monstrosity, so exquisitely tasteless... just beautiful. If you want a tour of the property, seek out a tv movie called Death at Love House, filmed there with somewhat indecent haste, given the morbid subject matter, a year after his death. Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson are husband and wife journalists researching the great, fictional thirties starlet who supposedly lived there, and who appears in flashbacks and faked old film clips, and looks exactly as you would expect a fake thirties film star to look in a seventies tv movie: like a fake fifties film star. Is she haunting the estate? Has she possessed Robert? Or is she even not dead at all? Who knows, and who cares, to be honest. It's just fun, inconsequential spook stuff, enlivened all the way and back again by the authentic support cast: Sylvia Sidney, John Carradine, Dorothy Lamour and an especially droll Joan Blondell. But the real star is the house - Harold's house, which is shown in immodest detail. Even his celebrated 'rogue's gallery', an arched corridor lined with autographed photos of Harold's fellow Hollywood royalty, is worked in, and frankly it looked a bit creepy and mausoleumish even in Harold's heyday. No set dressing necessary here. The thought that his beloved mansion would have served as instant Hollywood kitsch would have horrified him. But if you can reconcile your respect for Harold and your innate voyeurism, take the tour. Death at Love House, it's called.

How unknown a quantity is he, really? Whenever I read a book or an essay, or watch a documentary about Lloyd, they always start the same way: by remarking how ironic it is that this giant of silent comedy, who consistently outgrossed his - apparently - better-known and more celebrated peers, should now be more or less forgotten. This always takes me aback. At first I thought it was simply wrong, but lately I've come to accept my astonishing good fortune in being a member of the sole generation in Britain since Lloyd's active years of which this is not true. Everyone who was born in Britain somewhere between the late 1960's and the mid 1970's knows Lloyd. And I don't mean the film buffs solely; I mean everyone; I mean people with only the vaguest sense of who Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy are; people who have never even heard of Buster Keaton and couldn't pick him out of a line-up of four. But not only would they recognise Lloyd and be able to tell you who he was and what he did, they'd be able - and more or less certain, unprompted - to launch into a song that begins:

Hooray for Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)
Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)

and ends:

A pair of glasses and a smile!

See, in the early nineteen-eighties, Britain had just three tv channels (envy us, envy us) and after the kids' programmes had finished on the main channels and we were waiting for our parents to bring the chips in from the kitchen, we all switched to BBC 2 to escape the news. BBC 2 was at this time the best reason for owning a television. (Today, alas, it is just one more good reason not to.) We first saw Chaplin here, and Stan and Ollie, but the big hit was Harold. Everyone loved Harold Lloyd, chiefly, I suppose because of the thrill sequences, and the fact that, unlike the other stars, BBC 2 showed not whole shorts but a packaged tv compilation series, with two extracted sequences per show, and that insanely catchy theme song I quoted above.
Yet Kevin Brownlow's introduction to Jeffrey Vance's near-edible coffee table book Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian not only opens with the usual spiel about Lloyd being now forgotten, it actually indicts these programmes as partly responsible for the man's oblivion:

Two years after Lloyd died in 1971, Time-Life signed a distribution deal for his films and handled them with a tragic lack of understanding. The shorts were packaged with a commentary in the style of Pete Smith ("Poor Harold! It's doom for the groom unless he gets to his room!"), which effectively sank them without a trace. The features were spared the commentary, but insensitive, honky-tonk scores and the elimination of entire sequences often crippled their effect.

True, the commentary was naff in the extreme: I remember one beginning, "Here's our old friend Harold Lloyd; I used to know his brother Cellu..." I also have it on good authority that the programme split the Safety Last climb into two segments, ending the first with, "Hickory dickory dock, Harold's on the clock, We'll finish his climb some other time, Hickory dickory dock!" On the other hand, we were all doing that voice in the playground next day; it didn't put us off or seem inappropriate... And as for the honky-tonk music, I loved it. In these new versions, it's going to take me a long time to get used to the absence of the infectious musical motif that accompanied the 'call me Speedy' greeting in The Freshman. Another interesting thing the Time-Life programmes did was show the Feet First climb as a silent, slightly re-edited, with honky-tonk accompaniment. I couldn't believe how less funny it was when I finally saw it in its proper form, with no music, just the sound of Lloyd grunting and yelling.

I could go on like this for ages. I haven't, for instance, devoted a dozen or so paragraphs to how adorable Bebe Daniels is. I haven't raised the matter of whether Lloyd reminds anyone else but me of Woody Allen when, in his sound films, he pulls his 'idiot face' (ie: when trying to hide the colt in the taxi in The Milky Way). But you must excuse me: I have Harold Lloyd movies to watch.