From Chaplin To Ford To Kubrick…

If someone had bet me that we’d have a chance to see formerly-unknown movies by Charlie Chaplin and John Ford during the course of one year, I’d have lost the wager but I wouldn’t have resented the loss because it’s been such an exciting turn of events. The Chaplin appearance discovered by Paul Gierucki (click HERE) wasn’t just a lost film—it was undocumented in Chaplin’s career. The Ford film, Upstream, was one of many he made in the teens and 1920s that have been missing in action. The good news is that those films represent the mere tip of the iceberg.

At his recent 3-D show in Telluride, repeated at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Linwood Dunn theater in Hollywood, French film archivist (and showman) Serge Bromberg unveiled some extraordinary—

—stereoscopic finds: fragmentary films made in 1900 and rescued from paper prints, impressive experimental “reality” footage shot by Louis Lumière in the 1930s, and a 1950s Soviet short subject featuring a juggling act that has some of the best 3-D effects I’ve ever seen. Serge also made a startling discovery this past year when he realized that Georges Méliès made duplicate negatives of his films, one for U.S. distribution and one for Europe—and that somehow he shot them with lenses (or cameras) placed side-by-side, replicating the effect of a left-eye and right-eye 3-D camera. He screened the serendipitous results: a handful of Méliès trick films in an early incarnation of 3-D!

On Sunday night, Caroline Frick Page, curator of motion pictures for George Eastman House, hosted an evening at the American Cinemathèque’s Egyptian Theater featuring rarities from the Rochester, New York institution, including the only known 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire (1953), a pretentious war allegory written by Howard Sackler, who enjoyed greater success some years later with his play The Great White Hope. It’s understandable why the director tried to suppress showings of the picture in later years, but it also reveals a young photographer getting his feet wet in cinematic storytelling. Adding immeasurably to the evening’s experience was a q&a session afterward with Page and filmmaker Paul Mazursky, who costarred in the film. At first he was reluctant to say anything critical about the picture, which he hadn’t seen in forty years, but he quickly acknowledged its obvious flaws. A natural spieler (and former standup comic), he entertained the audience with recollections of how he landed the job just as he was about to graduate from Brooklyn College, took his first-ever airplane ride with costar Frank Silvera to Los Angeles, and survived the threadbare production for five weeks. Summing up, he suggested that we should think of it as the equivalent of a student film, and that’s as good an assessment as any, so long as it’s noted that this was a student with an unusually keen eye.

I am still reveling in the good cheer that permeated the Academy’s larger Samuel Goldwyn Theater on September 1 when a new 35mm print of John Ford’s Upstream was unveiled to an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd. I saw film-buff friends from the East Coast, Midwest, and Northern California who made the trip to Los Angeles just for this screening; I don’t think anyone was disappointed. It would have been enough just to resurrect a previously-lost Ford feature in nearly-complete form: that it was actually good was icing on the cake.We are all indebted to the The National Film Preservation Foundation and its intrepid leader, Annette Melville, who organized the preservation of Upstream in concert with the New Zealand Film Archive (represented at the screening by its chief executive, Frank Stark), where it was discovered after all these years, in concert with 20th Century Fox (and its dedicated film preservation guru Schawn Belston) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (represented by the director of its archive, Mike Pogorzelski). They can all be proud of what they’ve achieved.

Since that showing I’ve heard, and read, a handful of people marveling at Ford’s handling of comedy in this amusing tale of a theatrical boarding house. I don’t know why anyone should be so surprised; comedy was always part of Ford’s repertoire.

The main titles are abrupt and don’t contain any credits other than Ford’s name and a cast list. Perhaps because of that, no one seems to be talking about the men who wrote the picture, as if Ford created it, and its hilarious title cards, out of thin air. (An introductory title about a sister act gets one of the biggest laughs, explaining that since these particular performers were mother and daughter, it gave them more of a relationship than most “sister acts” in vaudeville!) The story is credited to Wallace Smith, a novelist and Hollywood newcomer who one year later did the screen adaptation of the well-received Two Arabian Nights, directed by Lewis Milestone, and in 1929 provided continuity for the witty early-talkie Bulldog Drummond. In 1934 he worked with Milestone again, adapting his own novel The Captain Hates the Sea, which might best be described as an eccentric comedy.

Even more credit for the loose, knockabout tone of the comedy might go to Randall Faye, who came to this Fox feature directly from the Mack Sennett studio, where he was a staff writer. His later efforts as writer, producer and occasional director (particularly in England in the late 1930s) were generally undistinguished.

This is not to belittle Ford or his orchestration of multiple characters in this cheerful film. I’m only making the point that the director knew how to make the most of his material, even when it was a simple, straightforward comedy with moments of farce and slapstick.

The stars of Upstream are generally unknown today, although they make an effective ensemble. Young, handsome Grant Withers, the movie’s nominal leading man (who would soon marry and then get an annulment from Loretta Young) turned up years later—with considerably more bulk—as a featured player in such Ford films as My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and The Sun Shines Bright. Earle Foxe is especially effective as a two-bit vaudevillian who gets a chance to play Hamlet in London because he comes from a famous theatrical family—and success goes to his head. Veterans Raymond Hitchcock, a stage favorite, and Emile Chautard, a pioneering silent-film director, make especially rich contributions to the proceedings.

Unbilled but present throughout the antics at the boarding house is John Ford’s older brother Francis Ford, with his unmistakable bushy head of hair. He was a famous star in the teens as well as a director; as his fortunes faded, his brother’s grew, and he became a character player, often turning up in John Ford pictures.

Francis Ford also turned up in one of the rare silent shorts Caroline Frick Page brought to the Egyptian theater this past weekend. A recent discovery, A Western Girl (1911) was reportedly made in San Antonio, Texas by Georges Méliès’ brother Gaston. Tall, skinny Ford plays a local bully who torments a recent arrival in town, a tenderfoot who’s looked after by a kindly Edith Storey. This pleasant one-reeler is one of the few films to survive from Gaston Méliès’ foray into filmmaking in Texas, and is yet another nugget to surface in this remarkable year.

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May 2024