Ralph Barton and Charlie Chaplin in the Jazz Age

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Charlie Chaplin—an icon of cinema—flirted with the fine arts. He sketched on occasion, and he could converse about art and music in social situations, but his strongest connection to the world of art was his friendship with illustrator Ralph Barton. During the 1920s, Barton was a highly successful caricaturist and cartoonist, whose work was elevated by an understanding of design, line and composition. He served as an advisory editor for The New Yorker from its very beginning in 1924, which reflected the type of social circle Barton traveled in. Barton seemed to know everyone who gave the Jazz Age its flavor, from Mayor Jimmie Walker to actor Paul Robeson.

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Sharing a Smile and a Tear With My Kid

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When I was pregnant with my daughter, I made a promise that I would share my love of music and film with her. All throughout my pregnancy I cranked up the classic rock, 80’s alternative, James Brown and Frank Sinatra. My husband and I sat immediately behind Robert Osborne during a screening of Steamboat Bill Jr. at the final Robert Osborne Classic Film Festival held in Athens, Georgia. I saw a beautiful 35mm print of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which is one of my daughter’s favorites, when I was seven months pregnant. I swear she was tapping along to “Moses Supposes.” I was watching Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) and I went into labor just as Sabrina and Linus embrace one another on the ship. She obviously wanted to hold out to see who Sabrina ended up with. Ellie shares a birthday with Buster Keaton, October 4th, and the TCM Star of the Month at the time was my beloved Fredric March. And Ellie, short for Eleanor, is partially named after Eleanor Powell (with Roosevelt being the other namesake). We even joked that she looked like Guy Kibbee with her pudgy cheeks and bald head. This kid never had a chance.

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To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the Importance of Satire

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Whenever I’m feeling really low, I reach for the Lubitsch. I suspect I’m not the only one who does this. From personal favorites such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design For Living (1933) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch’s films never fail to bring a smile to my face, lifting my spirits and recharging my soul. After a pretty lousy few weeks, I revisited a favorite that I reserve for only the most desperate of times: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comedy masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck). With each viewing I’m left both with tears of laughter streaming down my face and scratching my head in a state of confused awe: How did Lubitsch manage to get this film made? In a world torn apart by war, with the ascension of fascists in positions of endless power and the looming threat of Nazi Germany invading European countries, how on earth did Lubitsch convince Alexander Korda and United Artists to make this film? And how did he convince Jack Benny and Carole Lombard to star? It had to be that infamous “Lubitsch touch.”

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Chaplin Takes Us to Easy Street

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Charlie Chaplin had been in Hollywood only two years when he signed a lucrative deal with the Mutual Film Corp., but he was already a star because of his one-reelers with Keystone and Essanay. The years 2016-2017 mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers, which I believe rank among the best comedies of the silent era.

FilmStruck offers Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies in three parts for your streaming pleasure. My personal favorite, Easy Street (1917), can be found in Part 3.

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The American Artist

While vacationing in Paris recently I was struck by how much Parisians love their artists.  The streets are named for major cultural figures, the city is awash in museums, and at the newsstand kiosks at the entrances to the subway you can find, nestled between the tabloids and porno mags, a huge portfolio of works by Modigliani.  That’s how they roll.  And it’s ever been thus: once upon a time, Auguste Rodin was commissioned to do a sculpture in honor of the author Balzac.  The resulting statue was perceived as being “too avant garde” and triggered outrage, public complaints, and threats of lawsuits.  Has anything remotely like this ever happened in the US?  Has there ever been an artist, in any media, who was so beloved and so intimately intertwined with our national sense of self that anyone would bother to complain that an honorary statue wasn’t sufficiently reverent?

(Well, I mean aside from Lucille Ball, naturally)

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January 30, 2016
David Kalat
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The Immigrant

For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.

Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.

I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, The Immigrant
COMMENTS: 9
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January 23, 2016
David Kalat
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Musty Suffer

It’s March 1, 1916 (or its November 1915 if you want to be pedantic and argumentative. I know who you are, and I’m ready for you). Let’s start again: It’s March 1, 1916. There. This is the day that the first film in the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is released: Cruel and Unusual.

For the next two years, Musty Suffer’s mishaps will unspool over a raucous cycle of unruly two-reel shorts, full of surreal imagery and violent slapstick. Largely forgotten today, but available to the curious in an outstanding set of DVDs, the Musty Suffer films are remarkable both for what they are and also for what they are not. They are artifacts of what happens when talented and inventive people go significantly out of their way to take the road not traveled. And to understand just why these singular oddities deserve special attention beyond their immediate joys, we need to focus on the significance of that date—these would make sense if they’d been a few years before, or a few years after. But 1916?

That’s just nuts.

 

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Musty Suffer, Silent comedy, Slapstick
COMMENTS: 10
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January 9, 2016
David Kalat
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Life, Police, and Trouble

Lately I’ve been enjoying the outstanding Blu Ray box set from Flicker Alley of Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay films from 1915-1916 (do you own one of your own?  Why not?). And while watching them, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a rabbit hole that other Chapliniacs (Chapliniados? Chaplinners? Chaplinians?) have fallen down before—some have even pursued it to absurd, quixotic lengths. But, being the obsessive fella that I am, I burrowed down this well-worn path too, and finally emerged for air. I’d like to take this week’s post to share my journey, perhaps to help spare some other poor sod from wasting as much time as I did.

This is the story of three movies. One of these movies was never made. The second was made, but has at times been alleged to be a wrongheaded bastardization of its creator’s true intentions. The third film is most decidedly a wrongheaded bastardization, but was deceptively promoted as being the real deal.

This is the story of Life, Police, and Triple Trouble.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Essanay, Police, Triple Trouble
COMMENTS: 6
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November 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Happy Fifth Birthday to Me (with movies)

Today is my fifth anniversary of joining Movie Morlocks. My first post, “Hey, down in front!” was posted on Saturday November 6, 2010. This week marks my 260th post—and since it’s been 261 weeks since I first showed up, that means I’ve only missed my slot once. And I didn’t even really “miss” it, since the day I dropped was when TCM took over the site for a themed promotional event and pre-empted the usual Morlocks posts.

Rather foolishly, I saved the best for first, and haven’t managed to top “Hey, down in front!” Maybe I should’ve done a mic drop and walked away then and there—instead I’ve gone on an interminable downhill slide as I’ve used this platform to broadcast my contrarian ideas about classic films (click on any of the titles to read the original post, if you’re interested): FW Murnau’s Sunrise is a slapstick comedy! Buster Keaton’s talkie pictures are actually quite enjoyable—especially The Passionate Plumber! Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is a slapstick comedy! The inner frame of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not function like a dream sequence! The shorter cut of Metropolis is actually more authentic than the longer “director’s cut”!  Chaplin mimics aren’t worthless ripoffs!  FW Murnau is not the most important creative force behind Nosferatu! Star Trek The Motion Picture is a great movie, for exactly the reasons everyone hates it!

It’s a wonder y’all haven’t kicked me out of here yet.

Here are a few of my personally most memorable posts.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Claude Chabrol, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, William Haines
COMMENTS: 7
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The TCM Movie Locations Tour is a year old!

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Previewed during the 2014 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival and launched properly the following June, the TCM Movie Locations Tour is now a year old. Seats are available and all lights are green…  [...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.