Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Mike Gebert

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Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Jun 22, 2017 9:39 pm

There are classic films that I see at least once a decade-- at least a decade has never gone by that I haven't managed to see Sunrise, Casablanca, All About Eve, The Godfather etc. etc. Films I know well enough to quote from, to recognize this or that from, to have in my repertoire of analogies and examples of film history. These are my movies, the ones I treasure enough to have acquired in multiple formats over the years (I have four Sunrises, three each of Casablanca and All About Eve, and two Godfathers, from laser to blu-ray).

And then... there are classics that I have seen. But have I seen them? I saw them when I was a kid or a teenager, maybe many times—but not since then. I saw them in college. I saw them before I had kids. In any of the cases it means not in 15 years or more, possibly not in 30 years or more. I am not that person, exactly, though we are often close relations. But there's nothing like watching a movie you haven't seen since a very different phase of life to make you realize how much your perceptions change as time goes by.

I thought it might be interesting to make an effort to see some of these things, that I know... but maybe don't really know, now. The classics that maybe I've never loved enough to acquire on laserdisc or DVD or blu-ray, and thus haven't seem in a very long time. Here goes with number one...

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)

One of the local TV stations in Wichita had the RKO package from C&C Movietime, so if there's any set of movies I grew up with, it's Kong, Kane, Gunga Din, even Bs like Five Came Back... and the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can't remember when I last saw it, so it's entirely possible I haven't seen since I was 12, but I saw it a number of times then and many scenes stick in my memory— Quasimodo kicking the bells, getting whipped on the pillory, the notion of sanctuary in a church being where the law could not touch, and interestingly, the scene where King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) and his valet (Etienne Girardot) discuss whether he should bathe more than twice a year. That stuck in our young heads when many other things sailed over it.

Such as that the Gypsies being persecuted are stand-ins for the Jews in 1939 (also, of course... the Gypsies in 1939). Or that the film is quite mature about portraying Cedric Hardwicke's sexual mania as he's tormented by the thought of gorgeous Maureen O'Hara, all of 19 when it came out (though largely indistinguishable from herself at, say, 33, in The Quiet Man—apparently she was never a teenager). Though the script can sometimes be simplistic (King Louis XI has a speech about the printing press bringing freedom that sounds like one of those speeches Rathbone lays on Nigel Bruce at the end of one WWII-era Sherlock Holmes movies), overall it successfully conveyed the multidimensional narrative of the Hugo novel, with multiple major figures having their own plot lines and philosophical points of view advancing toward the showdown at Notre Dame. It often has the innocence and winking humor of 30s historical films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, yet it also veers into darker territory— historically not shrinking from some of the darker aspects of middle ages life, and psychologically (Cedric Hardwicke, in what could have been a two-dimensional baddie role, really conveys sexual repression and derangement well).

What I'm sure I didn't get on the 25" TV back then is what a handsome production it is—no doubt I got something of the historical setting, but it really conveys medieval Europe as well as any movie of that time, through a mix of sets, models and glass shots. William Dieterle is hit or miss as an auteur, I think, but this shows his strengths as a visual filmmaker with a keen sense of chiaroscuro and gothic detail, which sometimes crowds in just a little too tight, like it wants to be Expressionist and be all angly-jangly. I suppose Dieterle felt challenged by the Lon Chaney film, not that it was exactly a visual masterpiece (mainly, it was good at filming Universal's handsome set) but that the film needed to have something of the visual splendor associated with the silent era. (I wonder if the film he was really comparing it to was The Beloved Rogue, in which Louis XI is also a character.)

What I mainly remember from the film, of course, is Charles Laughton, who is the title character if not quite the main character—like his RKO colleague King Kong, he's kept out of sight for much of the early parts of the picture, and it's not until the plot is good and heated up, like a cauldron of lead, for act 3 that he takes a central role (which, I note, also involves carrying a girl up to the top of the tallest building in town). He's poignant, and an obvious inspiration for John Hurt's Elephant Man, but, well, I guess older me noticed that there's a lot more movie around him than I remembered.

So The Hunchback of Notre Dame holds up, indeed though it is long (nearly two full hours), it remains an effective production with memorable moments, serious performances, and it looks very handsome indeed on the blu-ray which came out in 2015, though the Amazon complaints that the sound levels are inconsistent are correct. In any case, a film whose acquaintance I am glad to make again.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostSat Aug 05, 2017 7:09 am

LOST HORIZON (1937)

A few years ago my wife and I spent a weekend at a fancy spa in Napa Valley, a rolling wooded place of vaguely Eastern cedar cottages and wind chimes and healthy breakfast buffets and an assortment of hot tubs and massages with which to rejuvenate your spirit, as the brochures for the upscale places call relaxing and laying about.

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The joke about Frank Capra's vaguely Frank Lloyd Wrightish vision of Shangri-La, the mystic hidden paradise of James Hilton's pre-WWII fantasy novel and Capra's 1937 film Lost Horizon. is that it looks like The Fontainebleau or some other fancy resort of the midcentury. But surely this is much backwards as true; our collective vision of the hidden New Age paradise to which we want to escape from the world's cares comes from Hilton and Capra. Lost Horizon may be an influential film (watching it, I suddenly realized exactly where Peter Jackson's inspiration for the various paradises of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings films came from) but it's the travel industry it has shaped the most. It's a dream that has persisted for 80 years, and despite a notoriously awful musical remake in the 1970s.

That's a bit surprising because seeing it today, it is very much a fantasy for its time. I last saw it in the early 80s and I had never seen Robert Gitt's reconstruction, which took the full 132-minute soundtrack and restored all but about 7 minutes of footage cut in various reissues, using still photos to get us through the remaining 7 minutes. Ronald Colman is Robert Conway, "the empire builder," a British popular hero in foreign affairs whose disillusionment will be the driving force of his enchantment with Shangri-La. (I assume T.E. Lawrence is the primary inspiration for his character, perhaps with others mixed in.)

Capra's story is that the movie started with two reels about Conway in China before the current slam bang opening, in which Conway, his brother (fellow Bulldog Drummond player John Howard), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), a cynical businessman (Thomas Mitchell), and a woman of undefined dark past (Isabel Jewell) get out on an airplane just ahead of Chinese warlords. I've always wondered—is there any proof that the two reels before this were actually shot? It is hard to imagine that their presence ever seemed necessary to a plot which would head straight for Tibet.

In fact they've been kidnapped and are flown to the Himalayas, where they are led into a colonialist's dream of paradise— founded by a presumed Jesuit missionary and devoted to preserving western learning, run on benignly authoritarian-socialist principles rooted in plenty, a population of happily working Asians with a steady supply of white female foundlings so there's no question of mixing the races when it comes to romantic interest, the whole tranquil resort managed by Chang, H.B. Warner very good as a mystic proprietor talking in New Age platitudes.

Someone could rip into this fantasy of the White Man's Burden's ultimate benevolence pretty harshly today, but you have to look at the time that the book and the movie come from. The next war was coming, the only way to think otherwise was to be in denial—and at one point Conway spins a fantasy of disarmament solving everything, and then acknowledges that a fantasy is all it is. I don't think 1937 really needed 2017 doctoral students to tell it that the West had some serious failings.

In fact the film itself displays its contradictions pretty obviously and immediately. Not just that Shangri-La is nothing like a democracy, and depends on a contented peasantry completely uninterested in class struggle for its lack of the strife that exists in every human society. But it is hard to see what has seduced Robert Conway so completely, except perhaps that he's simply tired. Well, Lawrence was tired, so he enlisted in the air corps as Ross, to be among other manly men. But why would Conway, at this momentous time in history, disappear to this monastic retreat— just to keep the ideas in books properly shelved? Why disarm himself? Ultimately, it seems unconvincing, maybe even a little cowardly, and it takes Colman's considerable charm to not dislike Conway at this point. In fact Conway makes me think of another figure besides Lawrence— the Foreign Office official Ralph Wigram, who early on began leaking classified information to Winston Churchill to enable him to make his case for the Nazi threat during his "wilderness years." Wigram is thought to have sought his own way out of the coming disaster of the 1930s, committing suicide when he came under suspicion (at least that's one version of events).

But again, the fantasy is in a movie, a few hours of relief from hard facts no one would really be able to forget. Most of the other characters find practical use for their time in paradise; only Conway's brother seems to be agitated, frankly to the point of overacted mania, from an early point by being held captive in paradise. That prompts the third act, in which Conway, brother and the Russian foundling Howard loves (played by one-named Margo, long married to Eddie Albert) try to leave Shangri-La and return to the world of the 1930s.

Ultimately the answer would be for democracy to be an arsenal; when Franklin Roosevelt famously referenced Shangri-La in a speech, it was as the place from which the Doolittle Raid took off to show Japan that it could be bombed (even if, at the time, ineffectively, but the psychological point was made). By 1942, the dream of Shangri-La was that it could serve as an airbase, apparently.

The restoration is interesting, though I would rather see a version without stills, few of the reconstructed scenes seem all that essential (where the bits taken from inferior sources, revealing the reissue cuts, often provide important shading on characters). The main exception comes in one of Conway's visits with the High Lama (Sam Jaffe); a number of bits of dialogue about the philosophy behind Shangri-La were apparently removed, which substantially weaken the arguments for the life being practiced there.

For me, I enjoyed the New Agey resort, getting massages and eating fresh fruit and yogurt and sleeping on really nice sheets, but after a few days I wanted to get out and eat tacos and see the messy world, such as it is. A break from it, yes, a permanent escape to peace away from cities and noise, I am not made for that.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostSat Aug 05, 2017 3:37 pm

The original opening of the film, discarded by Capra, was included in the 1940 Lux Radio Theater broadcast.

http://www.chelsearialtostudios.com/los ... on_lux.mp3
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 4:36 pm

Mike, your review of LOST HORIZON makes me want to see it again. I always tend to skip over it when re-visiting Capra's classic '30s-'40s films.

As for HUNCHBACK, that's still one of my favorites. Absolutely heartbreaking performance by Laughton. Classic Hollywood at its best, as far as I'm concerned.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 7:26 pm

There is a new blu-ray of Lost Horizon coming out in October from Sony. It will contain the latest restoration, which may or may not be what Mike saw. I read somewhere that this restoration has been available on a disc from Australia for a while now.

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Horizon-Blu ... on+blu+ray

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“The past is never dead. It's not even past” - Faulkner.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 7:51 pm

The Amazon listing says:

Now restored in 4K and featuring an additional minute of footage long missing from the film, Lost Horizon is a sumptuous experience for lifelong fans and newcomers alike.


So, down to six minutes of still reconstruction, I guess.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostFri Aug 18, 2017 1:58 pm

MattBarry wrote:As for HUNCHBACK, that's still one of my favorites. Absolutely heartbreaking performance by Laughton. Classic Hollywood at its best, as far as I'm concerned.


HUNCHBACK is one of those sound remakes I like as much as the silent version. But then, the source material is so strong I liked a lot of the Disney animated version.

A few months ago, I sat myself down and forced myself to give CITIZEN KANE another chance. I saw it in a film class 30+ years ago. At the time, I appreciated the deep-focus photography and the tricks OW used to make Xanadu and the film as a whole appear to be more sumptuous than the budget allowed. But I didn't care enough for the characters to be emotionally invested in the story.

Turns out my opinion of the film hasn't really changed over time.

Finally, for obvious reasons, I've been thinking a lot of THE GREAT DICTATOR in recent days. I also first experienced that film in that film class of long ago. I've watched it on video since then, but not often, and almost certainly not within the last ten years. Perhaps I'll dig it out of mothballs this weekend.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Aug 22, 2017 11:06 am

The Lost Horizon Blu-ray pre-order is now down below $12:

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Horizon-Blu ... on+blu+ray" target="_blank

Rick
“The past is never dead. It's not even past” - Faulkner.

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