Sound Comes to TCM's 'Story of Film' in Week Four

Television
by Sam Adams
September 23, 2013 4:14 PM
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Boris Karloff in 'Frankenstein.'

In the fourth week of Turner Classic Movies' 15-week series, sound comes to The Story of Film, bringing with it a host of possibilities and, for a time, setting the art form back on its heels. Narrator Mark Cousins points out how early sound films were restricted by the tremendous bulk and noise of primitive cameras -- see Singin' in the Rain for the fictional version -- but the film, on the series, concentrates on movies that rushed to exploit the new possibilities offered, from the syncopated beat of a city coming to life in Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight to gangster James Cagney throwing himself to the ground at the noise of a truck backfiring in The Public Enemy. Here's Criticwire's annotated guide to Week Four's first night, with notes on the second to follow tomorrow. View previous weeks' coverage here.

Monday, Sept. 23

8 p.m.: Love Me Tonight (1932) (U.S.A.)

The Story of Film singles out director Rouben Mamoulian's use of sound in the 1932 Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical in particular the opening sequence where the noises of people setting about their morning routines merge into what Mamoulian called a "symphony of sound" -- an offshoot of Walter Ruttman pioneering Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

On his blog, Shadowplay, David Cairns zooms in on the film's narrative complexity, especially as it entwines a story of romantic conquest with an exploration of social class.

10 p.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode Four: "The Arrival of Sound (1930s)." 

11:15 p.m.: The Public Enemy (1931) (U.S.A.)

This iconic Warner Bros. gangster picture epitomizes not only the genre's thrills but its horrors, most indelibly with the scene where James Cagney's hood smashes a grapefruit into girlfriend Mae Marsh's face. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls it "less a sociological exploration than a psychological case study" in his video appreciation, and Variety's contemporary review -- from the issue of December 30, 1931 -- says, "There’s no lace on this picture. It’s raw and brutal. It’s low-brow material given such workmanship as to make it high-brow."

12:45 a.m.: Frankenstein (1931) (U.S.A.)

Representing Universal and the horror movies of the 1930s is James Whale's version of Mary Shelley's novel, starring Boris Karloff (Bela Lugosi turned down the part). Film School Rejects culls 24 factoids from the film's DVD commentary, including which scenes were most frequently cut by censors. The BBC offers "Five Things You Didn't Know" about Karloff and Frankenstein. Here's TCM's Felicia Feaster on the film and its production.

2 a.m.: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)  (U.S.A.)

The director of this musical spectacular, Mervyn LeRoy, goes unmentioned in The Story of Film's discussion, which focuses instead on the geometric pageantry of Busby Berkeley. Not for nothing did the American Film Preservation Foundation include Berkeley's work in their anthology devoted to the American avant-garde: Though Berkeley worked entirely within the studio system, his over-the-top extravaganzas have a formal rigor belied by their overt excess. The blog The Iron Cupcake offers a collection of eye-popping stills that show off Berkeley's graphic genius.

3:45 a.m.: Twentieth Century (1934) (U.S.A.)

One of the earliest, and best, examples of the American screwball comedy, with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as feuding theatrical types who will stop at nothing to out-emote each other.  Jake Cole of Not Just Movies sings its praises, calling it "so ahead of its time it serves as a precursor to two great types of Hollywood storytelling: the behind-the-scenes, referential melodrama and the screwball comedy."

5:30 a.m.: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1927) (Germany)

Lotte Reiniger's silhouette animation, using paper cutouts that swivel on metal hinges, seems as if it could be a thousand years old or a visitor from the future, so strange and mysterious are its wondrous images. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wesley Morris says it "has the scary symmetry of a Rorschach test and the strange eroticism typically reserved for the Valentino silents of that era," while on TCM's site, Felicia Feaster looks into the film's incredible technique.

Tuesday, Sept. 24

8 p.m.: Zero de Conduite (1933) (France)

9 p.m.: L'Atalante (1934) (France)

The first of this evening's double-headers features the near-complete works of Jean Vigo, one of cinema's greatest poets. (Watch the short films A propos de Nice and Taris on Criterion's The Complete Jean Vigo and, unfortunately, you're done.) As with the jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, the elliptical style of Vigo's short feature, Zero de conduite, grew out of exigency: His initial cut exceeded the agreed-upon running time, and rather than attempt to tighten things up, he boiled the film down to its most evocative moments. Maximilian Le Cain's biography at Senses of Cinema calls Vigo "more than a filmmaker -- he was a moment in film history that will never be repeated." Unfortunately, link rot has eaten away at most of the suggestions for further reading, but Derek Malcolm's essay on L'Atalante, Vigo's only feature, beautifully evokes the its marriage of the fantastic and the everyday. The story of a barge pilot (Michel Simon) who takes his new bride on board is full of surrealist touches, like the cats that inexplicably invade their floating home, but at heart it's a simple (if not straightforward) exploration of the blissful anxiety of marriage.

10:45 p.m.: Grand Illusion (1937) (France)

12:45 a.m.: Rules of the Game (1939) (France)

Jean-Michael Frodon is a great French critic, but in The Story of Film, he commits the frequent cinephile scene of quoting only the half of his famous line from The Rules of the Game: "The terrible thing in this world is that everyone has his reasons." Renoir's films -- and these are two of the greatest -- are the bedrock of cinematic humanism, but that humanism is often reduced to a kind of soppy empathy. Renoir understands his characters, but by no means does he excuse them, or even refrain from judgement. From the Criterion Collection's site, Alexander Sesonke (who quotes the above line in full) sums up Rules' "dazzling accomplishment," as well as the catastrophic failure of its initial release, while Peter Cowie chronicles the worldwide success, only two years later, of Grand Illusion. Peter Bogdanovich explains why he considers Renoir "the best director ever," and They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? collects much more.

2:45 a.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode Four: "The Arrival of Sound (1930s)"

4 a.m.: Le Quai de Brumes (1939) (France)

Cousins praises the poetic realism of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert at length, but at the time of its release, their Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows) was denounced by none other than Jean Renoir as "counter-revolutionary," its downbeat mood clashing with the need to build French moral as World War II approached. In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey recalls that sad history alongside the film's indelible artistic triumph, which has only been fully recognized in recent decades.

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