F.W. Murnau’s comedy masterpiece, Sunrise

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is one of those reliable standbys certain to show up in most critics’ Best Of lists.  Thanks, Greg, for noting that Sight and Sound placed it 5th in their latest silly list.  It was the very first selection chosen to inaugurate Eureka’s Masters of Cinema DVD collection.  It won (for all intents and purposes) the first ever Oscar, has been placed on the National Registry, and was the first silent film put out on Blu-Ray.  I could keep going—you get the point.  This is one of those “safe” choices, beloved by the pointy heads but not a crowd-pleaser (I mean, c’mon, with a pretentious title like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, are you kidding me?).  Right?

A few weeks ago I played around with viewing Last Year at Marienbad through the lens of science fiction, by way of making its more obtuse aspects less alienating.  But Marienbad is a deliberately off-putting exercise.  Sunrise is, by contrast, a picture whose artistry is intended to be accessible to mass audiences.  It is conventionally beautiful, conventionally narrative, conventionally stirring.  It needs no apologies or excuses, it’s just excellent in every way.

But that won’t stop me from approaching it from an oblique angle, just to be ornery.  The fact is, Sunrise can actually be enjoyed as a comedy.  Yeah, you heard me.  Now click that “more” button below the fold and let’s have some fun!


The 1927 Effect

Conventional wisdom will tell you that the arrival of talkies killed off silent film, especially silent comedy.  (This is, for example, the premise of The Artist, and a couple of generations earlier the premise of Singin’ in the Rain).  I’ve been tilting at this windmill pretty much since I showed up on this board back in 2010, but I don’t think I’ve ever been properly systematic about organizing my counterargument.  So, I intend to devote the next several weeks to exploring this moment in film history in some detail.  It’s going to be story about F.W. Murnau and Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and Mack Sennett—it’s going to build a bridge from Murnau’s Sunrise to Hawks’ His Girl Friday.  It sounds like a sprawling mess, and maybe it will be, but in my mind’s eye this all ties together.  We’ll see.


The Great Ones: On & Off the Set Photographs

The celebrated photographers Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell are partly responsible for creating the mystique and allure that surrounded the first major stars of the studio system. Their spellbinding portraits transformed actors like Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford into objects of beauty to be desired and worshipped, a Hollywood version of the greek gods. But the flip side of this were the candid, behind-the-scenes shots and odd publicity stills that showed another side of the stars, one that depicted them at work, relaxing on the set, playing a practical joke on fellow coworkers, or pursuing some favorite ordinary pastime like gardening, barbecuing or spending time with their children or pets.

Enter the behind-the-scenes exhibition.


Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle—a fairly forgotten romantic comedy from 1938, a passable entertainment but not the sort of movie likely to inspire much deep discussion.  Or is it?

Too Hot to Handle

See, this unassuming movie ties together many of the themes we’ve been working with since the end of December—this is a movie about movies, specifically about how movies lie, and how people who lie tend to make movies.  Like Melies’ faked coronation of King Edward VII, these are newsreels that lie—documentaries that are secretly fictional (which is the sort of thing we had on our minds at that very first film show in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers’ very first film being a staged “documentary”).

The film in question is by Jack Conway, whose virtues I sang back on February 4, and is a quasi-remake of a Buster Keaton silent classic—one that calls into question the conventional wisdom of what happened to the silent clowns when the movie started to talk.

That’s a lot to pack into one movie—so let’s get started unpacking it.  This week, Too Hot To Handle!


The history of the history of silent comedy

We begin our story at the end.  The end of what, you ask?  The end of silent comedy.  It is March of 1949, twenty years after sound came to Hollywood and laid waste to the traditions of silent slapstick.  It is St. Patrick’s Day, and the California Country Club is playing host to an event called the Mack Sennett Alumni and Remember When Association.

The aging wrecks of once sprightly comedians have convened, decked out in ill-fitting finery that went out of fashion back in the days of Prohibition.  They are here to reminisce, to drink, to throw pies at each other.  Mack Sennett, one of the true pioneers responsible for creating Hollywood as we know it, has seen to it his friends don’t waste their efforts on something so ephemeral as mere fun.  He’s brought cameras—to record their shenanigans  for posterity.  This is how he built his empire—by letting funny people do what came naturally and let the cameras roll.

Keystone Kops a sagging


Buster Keaton vs. Pierre Etaix

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One of the sad things about being a classic movie buff is the closed nature of so much of the experience.  Fritz Lang ain’t gonna make any more movies, Alfred Hitchcock is all done and gone, Charlie Chaplin has left the building.

Now, every once in a while, some old once-lost fragment gets dug out of the archives and brought back to public consciousness.  Fritz Lang may be dead but–almost ninety years after it was made–his METROPOLIS can be refurbished and given new dimensions.  Alfred Hitchcock can’t make movies any more but the discovery of bits of THE WHITE SHADOW can be uncovered in New Zealand.  Charlie Chaplin isn’t around to share it with us, but a previously unrecorded appearance by him in THE THIEF CATCHER can draw huge crowds of gawkers and journalists.

Still, there is no question that none of these experiences comes close to the thrill of the experiences that drew us in as fans in the first place.  METROPOLIS isn’t new, it’s just longer.  THE WHITE SHADOW will not slake a thirst created by REAR WINDOWTHE THIEF CATCHER is mildly amusing at best.

What if I were to tell you that there is a cache of movies that you have never seen before and most likely never even heard of, that can stand alongside the best of Buster Keaton’s work?  A selection of short films and features that share none of that diminished expectations that dog his later work–we’re not talking PASSIONATE PLUMBER here, but entire treasure box full of movies to take their place with THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL JR.

I am not kidding.


Buster Keaton vs The History of Comedy

The following is in honor of the upcoming birthday of Buster Keaton, on October 4th.  It is the story of a custard pie, a movie camera, and the very origins of American slapstick.


The Way You Wear Your Hat, Part 2

Last week’s post on memorable movie hats for women was fun and enlightening but time consuming because of the laborious process of researching examples. Women’s hats tend to be unique variations on specific styles or one-of-a-kind haute couture designs. To find examples, I wracked my brain to recall films, stars, or female characters that might lead to colorful, meaningful, or dynamic hats, and then I searched for film stills from those movies. Once I found examples, I discerned what style it was and then interpreted its use in the film. Not the most efficient approach to the topic, and I knew many good examples of hats would fall through the cracks. Fortunately, my readers picked up the slack and mentioned some terrific examples, which prompted me to add bits of hat lore and history in the comments section.


Keaton International

In this week’s post we will meet Buster Keaton the gangster, Buster Keaton the communist, and Buster Keaton the Nazi.  I’ve got a treasure trove of rare clips you won’t see anywhere else—all you have to do is click that “more” button to expand this.  C’mon, you know you want to.  It’ll make your day…

Buster Keaton



The Passion of the Keaton

Buster Keaton has a problem.  Working backwards: 5)  he’d very much like to get an audience with a certain general, so he can present his latest invention—a gun fitted with a headlight, for improved aim; 4) the general is inside a swanky casino; 3) the casino’s dress code requires formal attire; 2) renting a tuxedo costs money; 1) Buster’s broke.  But Buster has recently made the acquaintance of a loudmouth (Jimmy Durante) who has explained that casinos are naturally jumpy around men with guns—they’re worried about bad publicity when people commit suicide.  If a dead body is found near a casino, the house has a habit of stuffing money in the corpse’s pockets so it won’t look like he killed himself after losing.

You can see the light bulb go off behind Buster’s sparkling eyes.  He needs money, he’s outside a casino, he has a gun…


And there, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER.  Keaton’s first four talkie features at MGM were hit-or-miss affairs that, even at their best, never felt like proper Keaton movies.  And while conventional wisdom would have you believe that the addition of Jimmy Durante marked the beginning of the end, in fact it was a decided improvement.  I’m going to work through this thesis in more detail below, but for those of you in a hurry who just want the gist of it, just copy and paste the following formula into your head and be done with it: THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER = funny + stylishly made + smart Buster + appropriate use of Jimmy Durante = good movie.


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