David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Directors: Ford' Category

John Ford and the CITIZEN KANE assumption

Kristin here:

A few days ago I was reading the February 24 issue of Entertainment Weekly. I started subscribing to EW during the days when I was working on The Frodo Franchise. Being a Time Warner publication, it tended to feature The Lord of the Rings a lot (Time Warner also owns New Line Cinema). I was trying to keep track of the popular-press coverage of the film, and EW was a helpful source. It also used to be a bit more substantive in those days. In recent years it has become more fluffy. Still, it’s handy for reading over lunch or when brushing one’s teeth.

Turning to page 66, I found Chris Nashawaty’s “The Most Overrated Best Picture Winners.” The double-page spread was slathered with photos of My Fair Lady, Out of Africa, Gandhi, The King’s Speech, and Shakespeare in Love. (The piece is online, but as a gallery rather than an article, lacking the introduction.)

I like putdowns of overrated and/or over-rewarded films as much as anyone, so I settled in to read. I was shocked, however, to find that the first film on the list was How Green Was My Valley.

I happen to think the How Green is one of the very greatest American films. Probably no Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars has been a more fitting recipient of that award. Why lump it in with Shakespeare in Love?! (I think you know what’s coming.)

Nashawaty gives his reasons. He admits that How Green has three pluses going for it: “It’s got beautiful cinematography, John Ford as a director, and a three-hankie plot about a Welsh mining village.” He goes on: “The minuses: mismatched accents and the still-outrageous fact that it beat Citizen Kane.”

Mismatched accents as a reason not to win Best Picture? The notion belittles the brilliant ensemble acting in Ford’s film, with Donald Crisp, Sarah Allgood, Barry Fitzgerald, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pigeon, and many others giving fabulous performances, career bests in some cases. It is a joy to watch them interact. Of course most of these people sound more Irish than Welsh, but frankly, who cares?

By the way, I’m assuming Nashawaty means the mismatch of Irish accents to a Welsh setting, not a miscellany of accents among the cast, which is common in Hollywood films. Besides, isn’t accuracy of accents—think Meryl Streep—one of the criteria used to judge the very Oscar-winners that Nashawaty is decrying? I’ve never seen Gandhi, but I’ll bet Ben Kingsley did a heck of an authentic accent. Accents are one of the easiest aspects of performances to notice, so it’s not surprising that they are so often a factor in Oscar-nominated and -winning roles.

But it’s not really the accents that bother people about How Green. No, it’s really the “beat Citizen Kane” part that grates on film fans. Quite possibly it has led them to dismiss or undervalue one of Ford’s greatest films.

I’m going to be heretical and say that How Green deserved to win over Kane.

For years Kane has been sitting atop many lists of the greatest films of all times, including polls of professional film critics. The notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it. Back when that idea arose, critics were unaware of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, probably the world’s greatest film director to date. Play Time was for years ignored and only recently has begun to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. With the rise of film restoration in the 1970s and the spread of film festivals and retrospectives, we now know vastly more about world cinema than we did before. Yet Kane has settled into its top slot for many people, including entertainment journalists. I can think of many films I would rank above Kane.

No doubt it’s a great film, with a marvelously tricky plot, another great ensemble of actors, splendidly distinctive cinematography, and innovative special effects masquerading as cinematography. It was hugely influential at the time and remains so to this day. Of course, Welles has declared time and again that he learned filmmaking by watching Stagecoach over and over, so Kane would probably not be as good as it is without Ford’s influence. Not that such influence proves that How Green is better than Kane, but it shows Welles’s respect for Ford. More on that below.

Middlebrow and proud of it

I think another reason why How Green tends to be dismissed as merely the film that cheated Kane out of its best-picture Oscar is that it is resolutely middlebrow. Indeed, in that way it fits in with all the other films Nashawaty writes about. They’re all resolutely middlebrow, too. Middlebrow films are for those people who look down upon popular genres and want to feel they’re seeing something worthwhile.

Despite this attitude, most of the great American films fit into popular genres: Keaton’s The General (or substitute your favorite Keaton film), Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (or, if you will, Shadow of a Doubt or Notorious or Psycho). This is one thing that the auteur theory, somewhat indirectly, taught us. Howard Hawks’s modern reputation rests partly on his ability to waltz into any American genre and make one of its best entries. The Godfather is technically a gangster film, but one could argue that by taking it from a bestseller and making it into a glossy A picture, Coppola pushed his film into the middlebrow range far enough for the Academy to dub it Best Picture—twice. The one Best-Picture winner of recent decades that arguably did thoroughly deserve the prize was a serial-killer thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. I think a lot of people were surprised that the strait-laced Academy members could accept such subject matter in a nominee, let alone a winner.

Like Hawks, Ford moved easily among genres and excelled at least once in every one he touched. He made arguably the greatest war film ever, the underrated They Were Expendable, and the greatest Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (or Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine). He also pulled the turgid middlebrow genre of the 1930s biopic into greatness with Young Mister Lincoln. There’s no doubt that Ford was an uneven director, and arguably his worst films arose from his attempts to go for middlebrow respectability. The Fugitive is almost unwatchable in its pretentiousness, and the mid-1930s brought forth such  items as Mary of Scotland and The Informer. But starting in 1939, he produced an almost unbroken string of masterpieces and near masterpieces, culminating in They Were Expendable and My Darling Clementine.

We should recall also that Welles himself adapted a middlebrow bestseller for the film he made directly after Kane: The Magnificent Ambersons. Had the studio not meddled so extensively with it, it probably would have been one of the American cinema’s great middlebrow classics, fit to sit alongside How Green.

Earned sentimentality

Welles himself probably would have felt honored by that comparison. In a 1967 interview he described his taste in films:

Old masters—by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world—even though it may have been written by Mother Machree.

In other words, Welles recognized that sentiment did not take away from the brilliance of Ford’s best work, and How Green is definitely in that category. Welles was too big an egotist not to have been annoyed at losing the Best Picture award to Ford, but he probably understood why How Green won better than most people do today. Today, apart from groups of women who go to see heartwarming female-oriented fare, audiences tend to shy away from sentimentality.

To his credit, Nashawaty lists sentimentality as a plus for How Green. (“Three-hankie plot” has a dismissive ring to it, but I’ll chalk that up to the requirements of infotainment journalese.) But I’m sure that many people who underrate How Green do so because it’s essentially a family melodrama where everything starts out in an Edenic state and the situation slowly goes downhill to a distinctly unhappy ending for all concerned. A lot of people simply dismiss sentimentality in all its manifestations, presumably as too naive, hitting us below the belt for an easy emotional appeal. In this day and age, it is much easier to admire cynicism than unembarrassed emotion. Despite its subject matter of environmental depredation by greedy companies, How Green is resolutely focused on the joys and sorrows of the family. Kane is cynical in a very modern way. Yet I cannot believe that we care nearly as much about the characters in Kane, even Susan, as we do in How Green.

Sentimentality is not a bad thing in itself. Sure, it’s an easy thing to evoke. Easy sentimentality is banal and cloying because there’s so little underpinning it except conventional romance and cute babies and long-suffering mothers and the like. Then there is what I call earned sentimentality. (A similar distinction is often made between sentiment and sentimentality.) Films with this quality are rich with original characters and situations that might make even a viewer who dismisses easy sentimentality pull out a hankie. The sentimentality in Chaplin’s films sometimes achieves this, and his Little Tramp character has been widely praised over the decades for his mastery of this emotion. Even those who dismiss sentimentality can forgive Chaplin, since humor usually undercuts the cloying quality just a bit. In a less obvious way, Harold Lloyd sometimes proves himself a master of sentimentality, as in The Kid Brother. And earned sentiment is not dead. It pervades Big Fish, another film that has been underrated or at least largely forgotten, perhaps in part due to its sentimentality. It has eccentrics galore and an original plot idea, but it doesn’t have that edgy, weird quality that sophisticated viewers treasure in Tim Burton’s work. There’s even sentimentality in the Wallace & Gromit films, though again humor makes the emotion palatable. Art cinema has its own sentimental masterpieces: Bicycle Thieves, Jules et Jim, Tokyo Story, Sansho the Bailiff, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and the list could go on and on. True, all these films are grimmer in part or in whole than the average Hollywood film, but so is How Green.

By the way, Welles himself delivers one of the sublime sentimental passages of world literature in the heartbreakingly nostalgic “chimes at midnight” speech in Falstaff, which has other passages of the same emotion. The Magnificent Ambersons is a sentimental film of a different sort.

For my money, How Green earns its sentimentality as well as any film ever made.

On everyone’s syllabus

You may be asking at this point, if How Green is so fantastic, why didn’t Bordwell and Thompson use it as their central example of a narrative film in Film Art? Why is Kane in that spot? There’s a simple answer to that: Kane is a very teachable film, and How Green, to say the least, is not. Our challenge was to find a film that most teachers used, or would happily start to use, and that demonstrated many concepts about film narrative and style that we wanted to describe.

Some films are just more teachable than others. They use a lot of different techniques, both stylistic and formal, in a way that students can notice. Hitchcock is probably the most teachable director overall, and I would bet that his films show up on introductory-film-class syllabi more often than any other director’s. It’s just that with Hitchcock, there’s no one film that’s self-evidently more useful for teachers than others. I sometimes think that one could almost write an entire introductory textbook using nothing but examples from Lang’s M. There are other classics like that. But Kane beats them all: a complex but clear flashback structure, obvious and varied technique, a complex soundtrack born of Welles’s radio experience, and examples of many things teachers want their students to learn about. It’s a classical Hollywood film, but it has touches of art-cinema ambiguity about it. It’s entertaining, at least to motivated students, so they’re likely to pay attention rather than dismissing it. They may come into the class knowing that it’s a revered classic and hence be interested in seeing it. It may even reconcile them to watching black-and-white films.

How Green, however, is difficult to teach. David has found this to be true. Our colleague Lea Jacobs occasionally offers a seminar on Ford, and How Green is among the most challenging films by a director whom students tend to be slow to warm up to. She attributes this partly to changing tastes and partly to the subtlety of the style of its cinematography. It’s very hard to make students, and indeed almost anyone who isn’t already a believer, see why How Green is a masterpiece.

Kane is not only teachable, but it’s highly conducive to analysis, and no doubt these two traits are closely related. David’s first widely seen article was a study of Kane, and I wrote the sections of chapters in Film Art dealing with it. I don’t mean that it’s simple; Kane is a complex film that has provided material for many different essays and books. But How Green has so many ineffable qualities that it resists cold, precise analysis. It has been one of my favorite films for over three decades, and occasionally I have contemplated writing something in-depth about it. I can’t, however, think what one could possibly write. One would just have to throw up one’s hands and say, “You either get it or you don’t.”

It reminds me of when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate career. I didn’t “get” Godard. I found his work pretentious and boring. But given how many people whose opinions I respected admired Godard, I persisted. I think I suffered through seven features, and at about number eight (Weekend), I got Godard. Maybe Ford, at least for his non-Western films, is somewhat the same sort of challenge. I’ve written analyses of two of Godard’s more difficult films, Tout va bien and Sauve qui peut (la vie). I’m still scared to try to deal with How Green.

(Stagecoach is much easier. For several editions of Film Art we included an analysis of it, which I wrote. Eventually it got replaced, but it’s still available here.)

 A few hints

Since I doubt I will ever thoroughly analyze How Green, here I’ll offer just a few hints as to why it deserved to take home Best Picture and leave Kane an also-ran.

Nashawaty mentions the beautiful cinematography. Arthur C. Miller was 20th Century-Fox’s A-list cinematographer, having shot some of the Shirley Temple films in the 1930s, films that kept the studio afloat during the Depression. He teamed with Ford only on Tobacco Road and How Green, though he apparently helped with Young Mr. Lincoln uncredited. Miller won his first Oscar for How Green, his second for Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (the main virtue of which is it looks a lot like How Green), and his third for Anna and the King of Siam. Few of Miller’s non-Ford films like The Ox-Bow Incident and Gentlemen’s Agreement are watched much today. He did lens somewhat minor films by major directors (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Preminger’s Whirlpool), but he is less famous than he deserves.

Just a few examples. How Green contains some of the same techniques that are so admired in Kane, but in a less flamboyant fashion. Deep focus, for example:

Admittedly, the people at the right rear are slightly out of focus, but the shot was done in-camera. No special effects.

The interiors of How Green have a distinctive touch: patches of light on the ceilings. Implausible, when you start to think about where the light must be coming from, but beautiful nonetheless. Miller (or at least Fox) almost had a patent on this way of lighting a room. With Kane getting so much credit for adding ceilings to sets, we should remember that Ford has done so in Stagecoach and does it here as well. It’s not as in-your-face as Kane’s ceilings, but it’s an example of the subtlety that pervades How Green. The first shot (below) is part of the series of scenes at the beginning setting up the happy home life of the large and relatively prosperous Morgan family; the father is about to dole out allowances to his sons on payday. The second comes much later, as the last two grown sons prepare to depart abroad in search of work after the mine has declined.


Kane is admired for both its long takes and its dynamic editing. Ford seldom used either. He held a shot long enough to be effective but not long enough to turn into showing-off. Take the scene after Angharad’s marriage to the wealthy mine-owner’s son. Mr. Gruffydd, the minister whom she actually loves, has performed the ceremony. As has been pointed out many times, Ford filmed the final shot without doing any close views to be cut in later. (Indeed, most of How Green was edited in the camera by Ford, so that most of the footage he shot ended up on the final version. It was his way of keeping control over his film.) By happy accident, a breeze caught Angharad’s veil, sending it soaring and twisting through the shot. Perhaps it was a reflex gesture on the part of the actor playing the mine-owner’s son, but he reaches out and holds the veil down as his bride climbs into the coach; it perfectly captures his cold, proper nature. For a split second before the coach pulls away out right, Angharad glances back toward the church, where Gruffydd remains inside. Once the coach is gone, Ford holds, and Gruffydd appears on the hillside at the rear, watching and then turning to go inside. No cut-in mars the perfection of the shot.



There’s one of the hankie moments. I get tears in my eyes during this scene, partly out of sympathy of the sundered couple and partly from aesthetic pleasure. If ever there was a single shot that exemplifies Ford’s combination of sentiment and discretion, this is it.

The last of these five frames belongs to the visual motif that appears in the opening sequence, as Angharad waves to her father and Huw on the beautiful distant hillside (see above), as well as in the final scene, where Angharad struggles in her fine clothes across a similar hillside, swathed in smoke, to reach the mine after the disaster that traps her father (see below). Such moments create a quiet measure of the gradual degradation of the valley and the dwindling of the family’s happiness.

Did Ford realize how brilliant this shot was? We can be confident that Welles was well aware of how daring and wonderful his techniques in Kane were. It shows in the film. With Ford, one can only suspect that he knew exactly what he had accomplished here and elsewhere.

Another thing How Green shares with Kane is a flashback structure. It largely consists of one big flashback told by the protagonist, not a series of embedded stories by witnesses. Nevertheless it’s unusual, since we never come out of the flashback. The tale opens with the valley in severe decline, the village nearly deserted, and the hero about to depart for a better life. We witness the decline of his family as he grows, gets educated, and opts to follow his father and brothers into a job in the mine. By the end his elder brothers have scattered all over the world, his father is dead, and we don’t know what has become of his mother and sister. (One plausible assumption is that his mother has recently died, prompting his departure in the opening scene.) Yet the ending gives us a series of shots of the family as they had been in their prime, with the protagonist-narrator declaring, “Men like my father can never die.” Like Kane, it is a film about the power of memory, but in this case the power to comfort rather than to baffle.

One thing that makes How Green stand apart from some of Ford’s other films is that it for once controls the director’s penchant for mixing in broad humor. His stable of supporting actors playing minor characters who love to drink and fight can be trying. There is a particularly ill-advised moment in The Searchers when, after the epiphanic moment when Ethan has lifted Debbie as if to kill her and then embraced her, Ford cuts to the Ward Bond character having a wound on his posterior dressed, to the derision of his comrades. That Ford should undercut such a scene with a vulgar moment of comedy combines with another flaw or two in the film keep if off my list of Ford’s very best films. And much though I love the first three-quarters of The Quiet Man, that climactic brawl just goes on and on.

In How Green, the characters Dai Bando and Cyfartha provide humor, but they are held in check. They play reasonably significant roles in the action, helping Huw deal with the school bullies and his sadistic teacher. Many of the family scenes involve amusing moments as well, moments that arise naturally from the situations and have no air of mere comic relief. In screenwriter Philip Dunne’s introduction to the published version of his screenplay, he finds fault with several scenes and actors. Maybe he’s right that the scene when the mine owner visits the Morgan family is played for broad comedy, but it’s not as broad as elsewhere in Ford’s work. Luckily Ford’s brother Francis does not return for yet another of his bit parts as a drunk.

In 1972, when Ford was dying of cancer, the Directors Guild held an evening gathering to honor him. He was asked to choose one of his films to be projected, and he named How Green. He had consistently said he considered it his finest film.

There’s no budging Kane

I doubt that the notion of Citizen Kane as the Greatest Film of All Time will go away anytime soon. Changing (and unchanging) tastes are reflected in the decadal Sight & Sound poll of critics concerning the ten greatest films of all times. They started in 1952 and have continued to 2002, with another due this year. The lists reflect the fact that apparently critics can somewhat agree on the greatest older classic, though fashions in these come and go, but they cannot agree on much of anything that has been made since 1970:


  • 1. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
  • 2. City Lights (Chaplin)
  • 2. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
  • 4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 5. Intolerance (Griffith)
  • 5. Louisiana Story (Flaherty)
  • 7. Greed (von Stroheim)
  • 7. Le Jour se lève (Carné)
  • 7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
  • 10. Brief Encounter (Lean)
  • 10. La Règle du jeu (Renoir)


  • 1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
  • 2. L’avventura (Antonioni)
  • 3. La Règle du jeu (Renoir)
  • 4. Greed (von Stroheim)
  • 4. Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
  • 6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 7. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
  • 7. Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein)
  • 9. La terra trema (Visconti)
  • 10. L’Atalante (Vigo)


  • 1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
  • 2. La Règle du jeu (Renoir)
  • 3. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 4. (Fellini)
  • 5. L’avventura (Antonioni)
  • 5. Persona (Bergman)
  • 7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
  • 8. The General (Keaton)
  • 8. The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
  • 10. Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
  • 10. Wild Strawberries (Bergman)


  • 1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
  • 2. La Règle du jeu (Renoir)
  • 3. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
  • 3. Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly, Donen)
  • 5. (Fellini)
  • 6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 7. L’avventura (Antonioni)
  • 7. The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
  • 7. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  • 10. The General (Keaton)
  • 10. The Searchers (Ford)


  • 1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
  • 2. La Regle du Jeu (Renoir)
  • 3. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
  • 4. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  • 5. The Searchers (Ford)
  • 6. L’Atalante (Vigo)
  • 6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
  • 6. Pather Panchali (Ray)
  • 6. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)


  • 1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
  • 2. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  • 3. La Regle du Jeu (Renoir)
  • 4. The Godfather, parts I and II (Coppola)
  • 5. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
  • 6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
  • 7. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
  • 7. Sunrise (Murnau)
  • 9. 8 ½ (Fellini)
  • 10. Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly and Donen)

There is much that could be said about these lists. Most readers will probably be astonished to see Bicycle Thieves at the head of the first list, with Kane not even present. Brief Encounter above La Regle du jeu. Louisiana Story, of all things, and Le Jour se léve. By 1962, tastes had changed. Italians won the day, with three films, while Eisenstein, whose Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 had finally been released in 1957, had two films chosen. Two French films and two American. But it was in this year that Kane appeared, immediately bouncing to number one, a position from which it has never budged. I suspect it will sit atop the 2012 list, simply because now so many critics assume it’s the best film ever–and even if they don’t assume that, they won’t be able to agree on an alternative.

Ford has had only one film on the lists, The Searchers, in 1982 and 1992. For a time it was the Ford film du jour, until in 1992 Hitchcock zipped past it with Vertigo, which settled into the second spot after Kane in 2002. Mizoguchi has been on only one list, in 1972 with Ugetsu Monogatari. Ozu’s first film to became well known in the west didn’t make the list until decades later, in 1992, and yet despite the discovery of Late Spring and Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon, Tokyo Story remains the Ozu film. Tati has never appeared on the list. Neither has Bresson. I’ll buy the idea that critics are out there voting for Bresson like mad, but all for different films. But Play Time, surely one of the very greatest films ever made, should be easy to converge around. Finally, the only post-1970 film on here (and not by much) is the Godfather pair. I was still working on my master’s degree when the first one came out.

I suppose by now, with so many smaller countries starting to make movies and so many festivals making them widely available, it becomes impossible to anoint new classics in the way critics used to. Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, in whole or in part, would seem to be such a classic, but there are so many great competing films. Does one have enough perspective to choose more recent films when others, like Sunrise, have stood the test of time? Play Time is 45 years old now, and I think it’s a greater film than most of those on the 2002 list–certainly including the number one. Possibly it will make the list this year.

Why is Kane so fixed at the top, when other films move up and down and ladder, and some appear and disappear? Perhaps the simple assumption that if it has been up there so long, it must really be the greatest film ever made.

I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later. The point of such lists, if there is one, is presumably to introduce people who are interested in good films to new ones they may not have seen or even known about.

Such an approach is not wholly unthinkable. Each year the National Film Registry maintained by the Library of Congress chooses 25 films deemed to be national treasures worthy of special priority in preservation. There’s probably some assumption that the best films were on the early lists and that each new 25, especially coming annually rather than at longer intervals, must be of less interest than its predecessors. But on the whole it’s a pretty egalitarian exercise, one that treats all kinds of films as fair game, not just fiction features, and it really does draw attention to obscure films that deserve to be better known. Given how many films have been made in the USA, it will be a long time before the Registry is scraping the bottom of the cinematic barrel. The entire world could supply so many more.

At any rate, I don’t insist that justice will not be done until How Green or some comparable Ford masterpiece appears on Sight & Sound‘s poll, any more than I would say that it’s having won the Best Picture Oscar proves that it’s a great film. I think we all know that the whims of the Academy members are hard to fathom, then and perhaps even more so now. But why call it overrated just because it beat Kane for that dubious honor? If anything, How Green is underrated for that very reason. Had it been made in a different year and won the Oscar against some other films that weren’t Kane, would it be any better or worse?

If you have never seen How Green and are not wholly opposed to earned sentimentality, give it a try. Just make sure you have at least three hankies handy.

PS March 8, 2012. Our friend Antti Alanen points out that Maureen O’Hara said the shot with the veil was carefully planned. She disagrees with Philip Dunne’s claim that the wind catching it was a happy accident, as Joseph McBride recounts in Searching for John Ford:

Dunne thought Ford had “one of the greatest strokes of luck a director ever had” when the wedding veil suddenly caught a gust of wind and billowed behind Mareen O’Hara as she walked down the steps from the church. O’Hara recalled, “Everybody said, ‘Oh, that Ford luck! How wonderful that was! What an effect it has!’ Rubbish! It wasn’t ‘Ford luck.’ It was three wind machines placed by John Ford, and I had to walk up and down those steps many times while he worked out that the wind machine would do exactly that.” As she climbs into the carriage, the ator playing her husband, Marten Lamont, reaches out to catch her veil. Dunne thought, “The man shouldn’t have touched it when the veil spiraled up. My God, what a shot! Luckily, Joe LaShelle, who was the operator, just gave it a little tilt with the camera.” I told Dunne I thought the gesture of restraining the veil (probably planned by Ford, like the rest of this meticulously composed shot) is an eloquent metaphor for the repressiveness of Angharad’s loveless marriage. “Well, I guess so,” the screenwriter responded. “I didn’t think beyond that. I said, ‘My God, you get a break like that, you leave it alone.'” (p. 332)

PPS March 11, 2012. Thanks to Przemek Kantyka for pointing out that Ugetsu actually figured on the 1962 and 1972 lists.

Silents nights: DVD stocking-stuffers for those long winter evenings

Von Morgens bis Mitternachts

Kristin here:

The year 2011 has been a good year for silent cinema on DVD. In time for the holiday shopping season, here’s an overview of some of the highlights.

One-stop shopping for the latest restorations

In the past we have recommended films released on DVD through the Munich Film Museum’s Edition Filmmuseum. We haven’t really emphasized enough, however, what a major resource this site is for film enthusiasts interested in restorations of older films and new editions of hard-to-see modern films (like the work of James Benning). Edition Filmmuseum sells not only its own impressive series of releases but also DVD editions of restorations by other major national European archives. Its website is available in German and English versions, and it is as easy to sign up and order DVDs there as it is through Amazon. The DVDs on offer can be browsed via a number of different categories, such as “Silent films,” “German movies,” and “Danish classics.” Releases from  Lobster Films and Flicker Alley are also available through Edition Filmmuseum. Have a look at its forthcoming releases here. North American educational institutions seeking public performance rights for many of these and other titles should contact Gartenberg Media Entertainment.

Scandinavia comes on strong

Danish and Swedish films show up fairly regularly on DVD these days, but Norwegian films are rarities. This year, though, there are two of them.

The Danish Film Institute continues to release the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. This time it’s a pairing of Elsker Hverandre (Love One Another, 1922) and Glomdalsbruden (The Bride of Glomdal, 1926), also available in Blu-ray. (See below.) I have to admit that these are not among my favorite Dreyer films, and I don’t think many would put them alongside his best works. Still, Dreyer is one of the great masters of world cinema, and anyone seriously interested in film history will want to see these. Back when David was working on his book on Dreyer, we went to Copenhagen and saw these at the Film Institute. They were incredibly rare, and it was a privilege to see them. Now, they’re available to all. Check out the Institute’s entire list of restored Danish classics on DVD here.

[Dec. 16: Archivist Jan-Christopher Horak has recently blogged about Elsker Hverandre.]

 The Bride of Glomdal is the first of our two Norwegian features. Dreyer worked outside Denmark a number of times. In the summer of 1925 he shot this film in Norway. His next film was to be La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

The second is Laila, a 1929 Norwegian feature, also with a Dreyer connection. Its director, George Schéevoigt, had been Dreyer’s cinematographer for some of his early films: Leaves from Satan’s Book, The Parson’s Widow, Once Upon a Time, and Master of the House. Laila bears no sign of Dreyer’s influence, but its images, shot in the snowy mountains and valleys of the arctic regions of Norway, are gorgeous.

Like many features made in countries with no real established film industry (Laila’s footage had to be processed and edited in Copenhagen), Laila exploits both national literature and landscapes to distinguish itself from the Hollywood films that dominated European theaters. It was based on an 1881 novel by J. A Friis, Fra Minmarken, Skildringer. Friis strove to promote the rights of the indigenous Sami people (sometimes known as Lapps). The story follows the heroine, Laila, from infancy to adulthood. The first half of the film succeeds in giving a distinctly non-classical feel to the story. Laila is lost in the snowy wastes when wolves attack her family as they travel on sleds. She is found and nurtured by a childless Sami couple who come to love her but return her to her parents when they learn her background. The scene of the return is handled in a subtle and moving fashion. As the grieving parents console each other on Christmas Eve, Aslag, the baby’s foster father, enters at the left, with the tree blocking the door. He crosses to appear at the center and puts the child beside the presents under the tree:


A cut-in to Aslag shows him struggling with his emotions before turning to the parents and declaring, “Tonight all should be happy.” The mystified parents stare at him uncomprehendingly before he explains that he had found their daughter:


Once Laila grows up, the film turns into the more typical romantic triangle. Still, its epic landscapes and focus on a little-known ethnic group make it quite appealing, and the print itself is gorgeous. Flicker Alley has provided a rare opportunity to step outside the more familiar filmmaking countries and explore a bit. Our friend, the fine Danish film historian Casper Tyberg, has provided a helpful text in the accompanying booklet.

Casper also provides a commentary for The Criterion Collection’s release of the restored version of Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Chariot. (It’s number 579 for you Criterion completists–but you already know about this disc anyway.) I won’t say much about it, since it will inevitably show up in our year-end list of the ten best films of 1921. Here I’ll just note that it’s also a beautiful print, with impeccable tinting and toning that don’t darken the images to the point where the composition is obscured–something I’ve seen too often in recent DVD releases of silent films. The frame above shows the opening scene, with its masterful control of lighting. I was disappointed that the supplements stress Sjöström’s influence on Ingmar Bergman. It may sound heretical, but Sjöström seems to me the better director, and I wish there had been more on his career.

One of the most obscure of German Expressionist films

Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (“From Morning to Midnight”) is an early Expressionist film. It came out the same year as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It’s based on a play by one of the major Expressionist dramatists, Georg Kaiser, and directed by one of the major Expressionist stage directors, Karlheinz Martin. The problem is, it never got released in Germany.

Most of the classic Expressionist films are, like Caligari, horror films that motivate their stylization through genre. Von Morgens bis Mitternachts adheres to the subject matter of Expressionist theater, which was vehemently critical of modern society. It centers around a downtrodden bank clerk who suddenly rebels against his apparently happy family life and good job, stealing a huge sum from the bank and trying to run off with a glamorous rich woman who visits the bank. Rejected by her, he wanders away to spend the money in frivolous pursuits.

It’s no wonder that German distribution companies shied away from releasing the film. Its only known theatrical screenings were in Japan, where one nitrate positive print survived. I saw an archival copy years ago. It was an impressive film, more extreme in its stylization than Caligari or even Robert Wiene’s second Expressionist film, Genuine. (All three films were released in 1920.) Unfortunately it had no intertitles, which made it seem all the more radical.

In 1987 censorship records were discovered that allowed the Munich Filmmuseum to reconstruct the intertitles and create the restored version that now has been released on DVD. It’s a significant film, not only as an artistic achievement but as a record of stage Expressionism of the 1910s. Few plays of the era were filmed, most importantly this one and Jeopold Jessner’s 1923 film Erdgeist, adapted from the play by Frank Wedekind  and starring Asta Nielsen and Albert Bassermann. (The play was adapted again by G. W. Pabst as Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks, in 1929; wonderful though that version is, it retains little of the radical Expressionism of the original.)

Von Morgens bis Mitternachts has some of the most avant-garde set designs of the era. Jagged white sets are smeared across back voids, as in the scene at the top where the protagonist flees down an endlessly winding road after being rebuffed by the woman for whom he impetuously stole money. It records another performance by one of the leading Expressionist actors of the era, Ernst Deutsch, whom I mentioned in my entry on Der Golem. Apart from its jagged sets, the film features a remarkable scene at a bicycle race, with the contestants being filmed in a distorting mirror. It was a technique that the French Impressionists would soon popularize, but Martin may have used it first (see left).

Despite the film’s lack of impact at the time it was made, it belongs squarely within the German Expressionist movement. This release at last allows it to take its place. (The forthcoming issue of the restored Expressionist science-fiction film Algol, also from 1920, will give an even broader picture of the movement.)

Eureka! Ford is found

The British company Eureka! continues to bring out classic films of all sorts. Its “Masters of Cinema” series has released John Ford’s 1924 western, The Iron Horse. By this point in his career, Ford has made many western features, only a few of which survive. They were lively low-budget films, but by the early 1920s the western became a prestige genre with the success of James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon in 1923. The Iron Horse was Ford’s move into the high-budget western, and what it lacks in high-spirited energy it makes up for in impressive landscapes and careful dramatic staging. The Indian attack on the train, revealed by shadows (right) is one of the film’s high points.

This Eureka! release is the same version and has the same extras as the DVD in the American series “Ford at Fox.” The two-disc set includes both the 150-minute version released in the U.S. and a 133-minute version, with alternate takes, distributed abroad. Anyone in European Region 2 area who doesn’t want to buy the immense “Ford at Fox” set of 21 discs might want instead to pick up The Iron Horse, one of its highlights, separately. It has plenty of extras as well.

I’ll sneak in an early sound film by recommending another Eureka! release of just about a year ago, Max Ophuls’ La signora di tutti (Everybody’s Lady). Made in italy in 1934, it was Ophuls’ first film after fleeing the Nazi regime. It’s a flashback tale, with the heroine recalling her life after a failed suicide attempt. It’s a new transfer and comes with a video essay by Tag Gallagher and a booklet.

 Do yourself, your family, and your friends a favor

The 1994 edition of the “Giornate del Cinema Muto” in Pordenone, Italy, was as memorable as usual. There was the magical presentation of all the surviving Indian films (apart from a few short scraps), accompanied by a delightful and inventive chamber group of three Indian musicians. There were the silent westerns of William Wyler and the sophisticated 1920s features of Monte Bell. The main thread, though, was “Forgotten Laughter,” a celebration of known, little known, and unknown comedians. Their films were mainly shorts, and they provided us with a great deal of laughter.

Then came Wednesday, October 12, when we all witnessed history. A program entitled “Max Davidson” unspooled five two-reelers starring a short, middle-aged guy doing a beleaguered-Jewish-father shtick as well as such a thing has ever been done. We enjoyed four films before the program culminated with the immortal Pass the Gravy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience laugh so loudly and continuously. Don’t assume this is anti-Jewish humor. This is pure  Jewish humor, injected for just a few years into mainstream American slapstick filmmaking.

For some reason that year there was a poll taken to determine a film which would be encored at the end of the final evening. Pass the Gravy inevitably won, and we laughed just as hard the second time through. Mere words cannot convey why this film is so funny. It involves Max’s daughter being engaged to a young man who lives next door with his father, proud owner of a prize rooster which ends up the main dish in a meal shared by both families. The running gag involves the young people trying to convey to Max what has happened without the young man’s father realizing what has happened. But no, you have to see it for yourself, preferably with friends and family about you. Like so many comedies, this one works best with an audience.

It has taken 18 years for the surviving Max Davidson shorts, most of them supervised by Leo McCarey, to appear on video, a two-disc set, “Max Davidson Comedies.” Fortunately the job has been done well. The Munich Filmmuseum has assembled 13 shorts, 12 silent and one sound. Not all are as funny as Pass the Gravy, and Max plays only a supporting role in the earliest one. (The less said of the sound short, the better.) A booklet, in German and English, includes historical background and complete credits, including descriptions of the lost films. Davidson, by the way, had a long career playing bit parts, often uncredited. Often he played tailors, as in The Idle Class and The Extra Girl; during the sound era he appeared in The Plainsman and The Great Dictator, among many others. But for a short stretch at the Hal Roach studios he was the star.

At this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, “Max Davidson Comedies” shared the DVD prize for “Best Rediscovery of a Forgotten Film” with a parallel set put out by the Filmmuseum, “Female Comedy Teams.” The latter included more films shown in Pordenone in 1994.

Of  course, the Davidson films were not forgotten by those of us lucky enough to have been in the Cinema Verdi in 1994. Two of them, including Pass the Gravy, were shown on Turner Classic Movies at 6 am a few years later, and we long treasured our VHS tape of that. But now everyone can share in this rediscovery.

A modestly pioneering early American film company

The Kalem company was one of those firms that cropped up during the early years of the American film industry, made shorts and short features for less than ten years, and disappeared without growing into one of the important Hollywood studios. Today it is perhaps best remembered for its 1913 biblical feature, From the Manger to the Cross, which was shot in Egypt and “the Holy Lands” at a time when filming abroad was unusual for American film companies.

Kalem had pioneered the tactic of filming abroad earlier, however. Its series of films shot in Ireland, beginning with The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), are claimed to be the first American films shot outside North America. Eight of these survive, though often with missing sections. The Irish Film Institute has released a two-disc set including all of them, along with a feature-length documentary, Blazing the Trail: The O’Kalems in Ireland, directed by Peter Flynn.

The films were shot in the region of the Lakes of Killarney, taking advantage of famous locales like the Gap of Dunloe and Torc Waterfall (seen in Rory O’More, right). Intertitles include passages emphasizing that the scenes were shot in the very places where their historical and literary sources were set.

Unfortunately even the surviving films are not in good condition. Some are lacking their endings, and all are worn. The transfer has unfortunately cropped the edges, even though the accompanying documentary stresses that director Sidney Olcott’s main strength was his eye for compositions. Still, this set of films provides a rare example of fairly standard American films of the transitional period between the primitive and classical eras. Most classes in cinema history represent this transitional period mainly through the Biograph shorts of D. W. Griffith. This DVD provides a chance to show the more mainstream filmmaking of the early 1910s.

The accompanying documentary, Blazing the Trail, takes its title from the memoirs of Gene Gauntier, Kalem’s main scenario-writer and leading lady in its early period, including most of the Irish-based films. The film is perhaps a bit over-long for the topic, but it provides a rare in-depth look at a small company of the early era. The DVD set is available only from the Irish Film Institute’s website.


Unquiet silents

DB here:

It happens every year: the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna is offering something for everyone. It’s officially dedicated to film history, but its organizers understand that history includes today. This year you can watch films from 1898 (Gaumont shorts) to 2011 (The Actor, hot from Cannes). Silent cinema is given its due, but so are films from the 1930s-1950s, with glimpses of the 1960s (Petri’s The Assassin, the new La Dolce Vita) and 1970s (Kevin Brownlow’s little-seen Winstanley).

The director retrospectives alone are overwhelming. We have a chance to watch great swatches of films by the celebrated Alice Guy, the underappreciated Luigi Zampa, the effortlessly lyrical Boris Barnet, and the still-being-discovered master of the 1910s, Albert Capellani. Oh yeah, then there’s a guy called Hawks, with a complete set of all his surviving silents filled out with little items like Twentieth Century, Tiger Shark, and thanks to Grover Crisp a lab-fresh restoration of Only Angels Have Wings that had even hard-core Ritrovato veterans gaping.

Not to mention sidebars dedicated to images of socialism and utopia, the development of color cinema, and the annual “100 Years Ago” series curated by Mariann Lewinsky, who brought a stunning array of 1911 films into our ken. With Ayn Rand’s gospel of egoism and selfishness finding ever more adherents these days, a screening of the original Italian version of We the Living (Noi Vivi) reminds us that, contrary to the evidence of this year’s Atlas Shrugged, you can make a pretty good movie from one of her books. (Of course the great Rand adaptation is the out-sized Fountainhead.) In the evenings, on the Piazza Maggiore, items like The Thief of Bagdad and Taxi Driver regale a thousand people or more.

In short, a feeding frenzy for the cinephile. We’ve been here before; you can read reports from the last four years in the category Festivals: Cinema Ritrovato. But this time things are even more intense. A fourth venue has been added, the ample and modern Cinema Jolly, so the decisions about what to see are even more pressing.

Kristin has concentrated her viewing on the 1910s, although so far she’s found time for Wind Across the Everglades and an episode of Barnet’s charming Miss Mend. (She wrote about the Flicker Alley DVD of this here). Her upcoming blog entry will concentrate on Capellani. For now, I find that a mere two films give me something to chew on.

From talky silents to talking movies


Ford and Hawks are very different directors, but two 1927 films, both made at Fox, allow us to see their work blending into a broad trend.

Upstream, recently rediscovered and shown to admiring audiences around the world, takes place largely in a boarding house for struggling vaudevillians. A knife-thrower is in love with his assistant, who is in love with a self-centered ham hired to play Shakespeare. Among the roomers are a declining classical actor and the song-and-dance brothers Callahan and Callahan, one of whom is Jewish. The ham accidentally becomes a star, in the process forgetting the girl he once wooed. But her marriage to the knife-thrower is threatened when the ham returns to the boarding house.

The film has the drawling, anecdotal quality of many Ford comedies. The plot is simple, but it’s decorated with character bits and an overall tone of self-aware corn. The latter was enhanced in the Ritrovato screening by the brash musical accompaniment designed by Donald Sosin, with him on piano and Guenter A. Buchwald on violin. Sosin, like Ford, knows hokum when he sees it, and both know that you must revel in it.

Cradle Snatchers, Hawks’ third film, shows a trio of cheated wives exacting revenge on their philandering husbands. The women arrange for three penniless college boys to pretend to court them so that their husbands can become jealous. Even though some portions are missing, the first reel is intact, and it’s instructive. Instead of opening with the women’s plight, as the source play does, the film starts with the fraternity brothers and mostly anchors our viewpoint to theirs. Variety noticed.

Probably the most remarkable angle of transplanting this “smash” comedy to celluloid lies in the manner in which the three college youths have been duplicated. As a screen threesome they overshadow the women who play the neglected wives. . . Each of the male youngsters does exceptionally well and Hawks has directed them splendidly.

Once Hawks turned it into a male-centered plot, he could indulge in the gay-play that would crop up in his later work. A title points out that “When a roommate takes a girlfriend, he becomes only half a roommate.” One of the boys hangs up on his girlfriend in order to chat up a sexy dame strolling by, but she turns out to be a frat brother in drag (the same Sammy Cohen playing Callahan frère in Upstream). Still, the gags provide equal-opportunity innuendo, as when Louise Fazenda flounces in from a massage and is asked “What have you been doing?” She replies: “I’m not doing, I’ve been done.”

Visually the films are remarkably similar. Removed from Monument Valley, Ford doesn’t give us vistas, deep focus, or even scenes organized around doorways. At home in sparky comedy, Hawks doesn’t provide the graceful, pell-mell staging we get in Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday. Instead, we have classical American silent technique, already by the early 1920s quite polished (as can be seen in the 1922 Ritrovato entry from another master, The Real Adventure by King Vidor).

This silent technique turns out rather talky. Dialogue titles constitute seventeen percent of the shots in Upstream and sixteen percent of the shots in Cradle Snatchers. This isn’t a late 1920s development, since The Real Adventure contains nearly twenty percent dialogue titles. Why are these figures interesting?

The 1920s, the era of the “mature silent cinema,” led many filmmakers and critics to expect that filmmakers would shift toward purely visual methods of storytelling. Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), Lloyd’s Girl Shy (1924), and Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) remain dazzling exercises in getting maximum impact from the flow of images, with dialogue titles adding another layer of dramatic interest.

Ideally, the aesthetes thought, one could make a film entirely without titles. German films like Der letzte Mann (1924) are the most famous examples, but there were American experiments along these lines too, such as The Old Swimmin’ Hole (1921). The arrival of sound threatened this trend toward “purely cinematic” narration. Now, critics fretted, filmmakers would be forced to rely on language to make dramatic points. The visual side of cinema would be secondary to “theatrical” methods.

Actually, however, alongside the consummate pictorial storytelling of Keaton, Lloyd, Lubitsch, and others, something else was happening. During the 1920s, quite a lot of American cinema became dependent on language. This happened, paradoxically, because of what critics then and since called the increasingly “cinematic” qualities of movie storytelling.

Not having either Cradle Snatchers or Upstream available for illustration, here’s an example from a film not playing here. In Henry King’s Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), Holmes the engineer is calling on Barbara before he sets out on a mission. He tells her that he plans to go back east, and he’d like her to join him. He’ll be back in a week for her decision.

At the purely imagistic level, the scene is presented in standard continuity, with a long shot establishing the kitchen, then a series of reverse-angle medium-close shots of Holmes and Barbara as they talk flirtatiously.

The conversation is interrupted by a cutaway to Abe outside, coming in the gate, which serves as a transition to a two-shot of Holmes and Barbara.

It’s from that framing that Holmes leaves, and she lingers at the doorway.

But the scene is even more broken down than this. Of its twenty-eight shots only eighteen are images; the other ten are dialogue titles. They are sandwiched in between the tight singles of Holmes and Barbara, as here:

In effect, breaking the scene down “cinematically” into close views of each character may seem to pull cinema away from theatre. Yet it works to frame and underscore each line of dialogue. The pattern is speaker/ title/ speaker. Even the more distant shots, like the opening establishing shot and the final two-shot framing, are broken up by inserted titles.

Across the 116 seconds of the passage, nearly 36% of the shots consist of dialogue. Of course this proportion wouldn’t be sustained across the whole film, since many sequences are filled with physical action and have no conversation. But in this and many other films American directors were creating a silent-film dramaturgy that incorporated dialogue into the texture of the cutting. Dialogue titles became editing units that could maintain a rapid pace and, combined with legible singles and two-shots, made for cogent storytelling.

This is what happens in Upstream and Cradle Snatchers. They are dialogue-driven vehicles (one a short-story adaptation, the other taken from a play), and both Ford and Hawks, idiosyncratic stylists in other genres and at other times, accept the dominant norms of their moment for these projects. These films employ speaker/ title/ speaker cutting, the singles and firm two-shots, and the careful eyeline matching. In fact, Ford uses a clever “impossible” eyeline match when the ham star looks up from the dinner table and the answering shot shows the distraught Gertie in her room upstairs, looking down, as if at him.

So were films like Upstream, Cradle Snatchers, The Real Adventure, and The Winning of Barbara Worth “preparing” for sound? In the sense of underscoring dialogue, yes. But the detailed breakdown into singles was not the most common option in most talkie scenes, at least in US cinema. (Japan is another story; cf. Ozu’s 1930s films.) The default for most scenes was the two-shot framing, with characters conversing within a sustained shot. This strategy is present at the end of our Barbara Worth scene, and it can be found throughout 1920s cinema. In other words, given the choices already established during the 1920s, sound-era filmmakers usually preferred the two-shot over singles. Accordingly, the cutting rate slowed down in most sound cinema. (The over-the-shoulder shot, a sort of single-plus, was another fairly rare option in the 1920s, but that too came into its own in the talking film.)

As often happens, Hollywood style offers a menu, with some options becoming more common at different periods. For sound filming, directors relied upon what had been an alternative option in the silent era, the two-shot. They saved singles for key moments. Today, with the dominance of what I’ve called intensified continuity, we seem to be back in the late 1920s. Filmmakers are inclined to present a line of dialogue with a tight single of the speaker, as happens in the Ford, Hawks, Vidor, and King films–but this time, of course, sync sound does duty for the intertitles.

This is one of the things that Ritrovato does best—provoke you into seeing new connections and trying out fresh ideas. Of course, it shows you a wonderful time in the process.

Kristin’s 2010 blog entry on Capellani is here. She will update it and write a new one after she’s assimilated the Ritrovato experience. The Variety review of Cradle Snatchers is from 1 June 1927, p. 16. We discuss dialogue intertitles in American cinema throughout The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), particularly in the chapters written by Kristin.

Everybody’s Irish

Three Bad Men (1926) at the Piazza Maggiore; Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna conducted by Timothy Brock. Photo by Lorenzo Burlando.

DB, still in Bologna:

The early Ford retrospective at Cinema Ritrovato rolls on. The surviving reel of The Last Outlaw (1919) proved very tantalizing. An end-of-the-West Western, it shows its grizzled hero revisiting the town of his youthful exploits. But now, in an anticipation of Ride the High Country (1962), civilization has taken over. Cars chase Bud off the streets and the theatre features movies (Universal Bluebirds at that, a bit of product placement). Ford heightens the contrast by letting us into the hero’s memory, introduced by the title: “Memories of the past flashing back to him”—the earliest reference to the term “flashback” I recall seeing in the movies.

The plot of Cameo Kirby (1923) involves a cardsharp who tries to help a southern family but whose chivalrous intentions are misunderstood. The film’s virtues were, I’m afraid, undercut by a choppy, contrasty print.  Another 1923 vehicle, North of Hudson Bay (1923) was in much better shape. A fairly routine adventure about schemers trying to take over the gold claim of two brothers, it was enlivened by a mysterious murder scene, in which a man is shot before our eyes but we can’t say exactly how. Ford later replays the scene to clarify what happened, and then sets up suspense as the trap is put in play again, this time to kill our hero.

Kentucky Pride (1923) is a turf tale narrated by a racehorse. This might have become a tedious gimmick, but the film handles it with aplomb and modest emotion. Our narrator Virginia’s Future stumbles during the race, and the scene during which she is about to be shot generates a great deal of suspense and concern. At the end, her reunion with her son, Confederacy, is smoothly integrated into the humans’ reconciliations and just deserts.  In between, Virginia’s Future passes from owner to owner, in something of a rough draft for the adventures of Bresson’s donkey in Au hazard Balthasar.

Kentucky Pride is a programmer, but between the peaks of racetrack excitement we get several arresting interludes. In one scene the now-destitute horse farmer reunites with his daughter. He’s at the dinner table. She comes up behind him and covers his eyes. So far, so conventional. But he raises his calloused, dirtied hands very slowly to touch her wrists. Prolonging the gesture shows not only Ford’s delicate way with such moments but the quiet skill of Henry B. Walthall; it’s impossible not to think of similar handwork in Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915). The scene’s subdued pathos was enhanced by the accompaniment of Neil Brand, a Bologna regular.

In another horsy tale, The Shamrock Handicap (1926), the financially challenged aristocrat is an Anglo-Irish lord , and to pay his taxes he sells some of his stable to an American racing entrepreneur. His top rider, Neil, goes along, leaving sweetheart Sheila behind. Once in the US, Neil takes a serious spill and acquires a game leg. Soon the aristocrat and his 120 % Irish household are coming to America to stake everything on racing their pride filly in the Handicap. The whole thing is a pleasant tissue of contrivance and coincidence, allowing Ford some chances for sentiment, camera tricks induced by ether, and gags on Irishness. The horse handler discovers that all his old friends and kinfolk in the New World have become cops.

There were opportunities to develop Sheila as more than a pretty face (that belongs to the enchanting Janet Gaynor), but the plot puts the menfolk to the front. The scenes of Neil’s acceptance in the hard-bitten jockey world show America as a place in which ethnic minorities hang together; his best friend is a Jewish rider who keeps a black valet. The characteristic Ford sadness surfaces in a lovers’ reunion. When Neil greets Sheila at dockside, Ford gives us a painful glimpse of wounded masculine pride. Neil stands waiting with his pals. Has he recovered?

As Sheila approaches, Neil swings his crutch abruptly away from her, as if to hide it. But the same gesture sharply reveals to us that he’s now lame.

In their embrace, the crutch falls away. Neil clutches Sheila as if she were not his sweetheart but his mother; he needs consolation, not passion.

The film may be about male pride, but as ever in Ford a man’s sense of self-worth is sustained by a touching reliance on women. So it’s fitting that the walking staff Neil leaves behind in Ireland–a slip in continuity, you might think–becomes his new crutch when he comes home again for good.

Lightnin’ (1925) moves not like lightning but at the pace of its elderly protagonist, Bill (Lightnin’) Jones. The opening is a drawling play with rustic humor, centering on Bill’s laborious stratagems to hide his whisky bottles from his wife. Bill isn’t Irish, but he might as well be, like the purported Welshmen of How Green Was My Valley (1941).

Initially the film seems to depend on one of those promising screenwriting switcheroos. The couple manage a hotel perched on the border between California and Nevada, so aspiring divorcées can collect their California mail and still maintain residency in Nevada. A dividing line runs through the center of the house, and it provides some adroit byplay when a young lawyer, pursued by corrupt businessmen, teases the Nevada sheriff by hopping from state to state. The romance between the lawyer and the old couple’s adopted daughter is handled briskly, with the usual repeated-and-varied dialogue motifs (courtesy Frances Marion’s script). One might expect a climax wringing comic confusion out of the divided household. But soon the border gimmick is forgotten and Ford moves to the emotional core of the movie, the testing of the old couple’s marriage.

When Mrs. Jones tries on a guest’s fashionable dress to find out what it’s like to wear nice clothes, Bill reacts obtusely. It’s his indifference as much as her decision to sell the hotel to land-grabbers that pushes her to sue for divorce. The climax is a prolonged trial scene in which Bill becomes his own advocate. As in later folkish tales like Judge Priest (1934) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), plot dynamics take a back seat to horseplay and quietly detailed scenes of character reaction and reflection. Some laughs are milked from the family dog wavering between husband and wife, the judge flirting with a flapper, and the dimwitted drinking buddy with his two pudgy children. But soon Bill is fingering his Civil War medal as he slowly confesses his faults as a husband, and we recognize what we’d learn to call a pure Fordian moment.

Those were the days when you could make a film about old people.

For more on Ford, visit Tag Gallagher’s generous and wide-ranging website. It includes a revised version of his critical biography on the Skipper, as well as articles on many other filmmakers. For more Cinema Ritrovato photos, go here. For Gabe Klinger‘s rapid-fire Bologna updates, try Mubi. And for remarks on non-Fordian entries in this abundant festival, check in with us again soon.

David Bordwell
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