Helpmates (1932) Review

Helpmates Director: James Parrot (1932)

★★☆☆☆

Helpmates is an amusing early Laurel and Hardy film lasting just over 21 minutes. It was released by MGM and tells the story of Ollie, a chubby married man, who throws a large house party while his wife is away on vacation. He receives a telegram from his wife stating she will return home early and he calls his friend Stan over to help cleanup.

The plot is simple and the efforts to clean the house are ruined when Stan stains Ollie’s only suit with soot right before he picks his wife up from the train station. While Ollie leaves for the train station, Stan returns the entire house to its former cleanliness. He then lights a fire in the fireplace that accidentally ignites the whole house and burns it down. Ollie returns home without his wife and with a black eye to find his house ruined. The film ends as it starts raining.

Helpmates is a decent little comedy, however it could easily be removed from a list of great films. It is often considered one of Laurel and Hardy’s best movies, even if the comedy has not lasted in ways that Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin has.

Way Down East (1920) Review

8/16/14

Way Down East (1920) Director: D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)

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★★★★☆

D.W. Griffith was apparently drawn to more sentimental film-making in his later years with films like Way Down East and Broken Blossoms. Once again, Griffith’s leading star Lillian Gish delivers a tender performance as an outcasted young woman who has fallen on hard times. However, in my view, Way Down East lacks the magic of Griffith’s earlier films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East is a pitiable little melodrama, with an all-too-perfect ending, which strains credulity when viewed in a certain light. There were actually four movies made from the original play of the same name by Lottie Blair Parker. This was actually the third silent film based on the story, and it was later followed by a 1935 “talkie” starring Henry Fonda. Way Down East was one of Griffith’s most commercially successful films, and it was also even more expensive than The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was subtitled: “A Simple Story of Plain People.”

As with other Griffith films, Way Down East stars Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) and Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett) who also played Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms (1919). He was later nominated for the first Oscar for Best Actor.

The opening title reads:

“Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous – even the saints of Biblical history – but the Son of Man gave a new thought, and the world is growing nearer the true ideal. He gave of One Man for One Woman. Not by laws – our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws – but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard – except perhaps in theory.”

Anna and her mother are impoverished and in need of money so Anna travels to the city in search of money from her wealthy cousin. Her cousin and sisters reject Anna at a ball, until their obscure extremely wealthy aunt offers Anna some nice clothes. However, at the ball Anna catches the eye of Lennox Sanderson, a known womanizer. Lennox lures Anna to his house saying that his relative will meet them there, but when she arrives only two of them remain alone in the house. Lennox tries to grab Anna but she grows angry until he says he wants to marry her. She is immediately smitten and accepts. They are then married in a sham wedding staged by Lennox with some friends acting as false religious figures (he has paid them to pose as clergy). Soon, the couple begin their honeymoon during which Anna gets pregnant, and later Lennox admits that the wedding was a sham, leaving Anna sad, lonely, and with a child.

Meanwhile, near the Sanderson family estate is Bartlett Village, a country farm owned by Squire Butler and his attractive, well-spoken son named David.

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After Anna’s mother dies, she wanders away to hide her shame and she gives birth to her baby, who then gets sick and dies. She then goes to find work and winds up on Bartlett’s farm where David quickly falls in love with her. Soon rumors circulate that Anna has delivered an illegitimate child and Bartlett, in a rage, banishes Anna, sending her out into a snowstorm. This all occurs during an awkward dinner in which Lennox is visiting and making passes at another girl at the house, Kate, to whom David was initially betrothed from a young age. David follows Anna out into the storm and rescues her from a floating piece of ice before she can tumble down a waterfall (these were highly dangerous scenes which left Lillian Gish’s hand damaged from the freezing waters, though the floating ice she rested upon was actually made of wood). In the final scenes, Lennox apologizes to Anna and offers to marry her, but Anna rejects him over David. Together Anna and David get married, along with two other couples from the film. It concludes with a blissful fairy-tale ending.

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The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Review

7/21/14

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Director: Charles Tait

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★★☆☆☆

The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature-length narrative movie in history, running longer than one hour upon release. It tells the story of Ned Kelly, the famous Australian outlaw, as he ventures forth on his many escapades. Much of the film has been lost or severely edited, but the thin narrative still stands. It details the rise and capture of Ned Kelly. There were no inter-titles released with the film, and due to its poor quality, historians have been forced to piece together the story from newspaper clippings and historical accounts of Ned Kelly’s life.

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The Story of the Kelly Gang is a film worth watching purely for the sake of posterity. While it is historically significant to the development of cinema, much of the film is lost, confusing, or badly damaged. Only true dedicated film buffs should venture down this path.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) Review

7/10/14

La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) Director: Louis Lumiere

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory was directed and produced by the Lumiere Brothers, Louis and Auguste in 1895. In French it was called “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon,” though the film has been called a wide variety of different names in both English and in French.

This short film lasts just under two minutes (46 seconds in the earliest 35mm version) and it features 100 factory workers as they end their work day at the Lumière factory in Lyon-Montplaisir. All the workers exit the factory between two gates and leave the frame on both sides. Note: several different versions of this film exist, because it was filmed during different seasons and with different objects in the foreground, such as a horse-drawn carriage. Today, the old factory building still stands in Lyon, but it has since become the Lumière Institute, a museum dedicated to the preservation of French cinema.

The brothers were sons of a French portrait painter, and they were excited about the recent advances in photography, particularly Thomas Edison’s inventions. In particular, they were enamored with the Kinetoscope, an Edison invention, despite its clunky and enormous size. Together, they improved upon this early camera with their own Cinematograph, an invention that initially did not have a proper name, but which was used to offer screenings of their short films to the general public. From the French word “Cinematograph,” we derive the word “cinema.” The brothers viewed this medium of film as an odd novelty, an extension of their father’s small and teetering photography studio in Lyon. They continued to develop unique photography and novelty colored films until their deaths in the mid-20th century.

The first private screening of the Cinematograph occurred on March 22nd, in 1895 at 44 Rue de Rennes in Paris. The screening generated considerable excitement, the local press was infatuated with the prospect of the new machine. Later, the Lumière Brothers presented their first fully public screening on the 28th of December at the Grand Cafe located on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines. The films shown were:

La Sortie de usines Lumière (1895)
La Voltige (1895)
La Peche aux poissons rouges (1895)
La Debarquement du congres de photographie a Lyons (1895)
Les Forgerons (1895)
L’ Arroseur arrose (1895)
Repas de bebe (1895)
Place des Cordeliers a Lyon (1895)
La Mer (1895)

Audiences were immediately enamored with this new invention, when it was first shown they demanded a replay of the workers leaving the Lumière factory. Notably, the most compelling film in this grouping featured humans in motion –people like watching other people in movies.

It is important to note that the subject matter of the film concerns ordinary workers of all stripes – a theme which the history of cinema will return to again and again, such as in Chaplin’s Modern Times or in Eisenstein’s Strike. However, later films rarely, if ever, turn the camera back onto their own workers –staff and crew and so on. The workers often remain silent parties to the final cinematic project. Although the Lumière Brothers did not intend for their first film to be political, it nevertheless set a tone for the future of cinema with one single camera at eye-level on the street, focusing on industrial workers ending their workday. Naturally, Marxist interpreters of the film have offered numerous interpretations regarding the plight of the proletariat and exploitation and so on, however I am generally not as interested in these revisionist interpretations. In the film, the factory serves as a kind of container filled with people, and it does not stop until it is emptied, a pleasing motion for the mind’s eye. This ability to capture the desires of the audience’s mind soon becomes the goal of all later story film-making, particularly in Hollywood, which rarely focuses on how the film was made, but rather simply on capturing the faith of its audience –suspending viewers’ disbelief for a period of timeWith the development of moving pictures, cinema begins as a gratifying spectacle.

This film has endured simply because of its extreme importance to the history of cinema in a number of ways. Otherwise, the title explains the entirety of the single shot. It is primarily important for the technological innovations it offers, and its precedent-setting status in the story of movie-making. It was actually preceded by the Roundhay Garden Scene, another short film by Louis Le Prince in 1888. Le Prince was an English inventor who shot some of the earliest known footage at his home in Leeds, but he mysteriously disappeared on a train in 1890 and was never heard from again. Conspiracies abound as to his disappearance, including a story about Thomas Edison killing him. His family later sued Edison, believing Le Prince was the original inventor of motion pictures, though the law and the tidal wave of the changing times have generally sided with Edison, even though other early movie-makers like Lumière Brothers were an undeniable force in the foundation of early cinema.