Saturday, June 30, 2007

At the Movies Then & Now: America’s Obsession is Mine, Too ..

From Edison to Turner, America’s love affair with moving pictures dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Now in the palm of your hand, you can watch videos on your latest gizmo. (did anybody stand in line all night for that ridiculously over-hyped iPhone?) Now in the privacy of your home, your family room can become your mini-theatre. From four inches in your hand to sixty on the wall in plasma or LCD — what next, Consumer Mad, USA? ... iScreen implants, I suppose ...

What next for me is Turner Classic Movies — the best cable decision I ever made. I’m discovering good, sometimes true "classics"reaching back to the silent era. In stark speechless black and white the actor’s facial expressions convey so much emotion.

Here’s comedienne Beatrice Lilly, entertaining me in Exit Smiling, a silent flick about a wacky troupe of touring thespians. Working as the troupe’s all-purpose cleaning lady, Lilly pines away over the man of her dreams (Jack Pickford), a bank teller by profession who is hiding out from a false accusation of embezzlement. Once he is acquitted, Pickford reconciles with the woman of his dreams back home. Cry, Lilly, cry.

When did simple human drama give way to pyrotechnic warfare, ad nauseam? Today, moviegoers gulp down special effect orgies like popcorn. They watch people skinned alive. Torturemaster Quentin Tarantino dares them to take it all. Not me, I failed the test, once walking out on a Quentin. The Los Angeles Times, headlining the current season "Little Flop of Horrors," is quoting an insider, "There’s nothing you can do to a human being on the screen that is taboo anymore."

Hitchcock’s Rear Window, when I first saw it, scarred the living daylights out of me. Now I appreciate the poignant little stories played out in the revealing windows of that eerie apartment building. Another Hitchcock classic, The Birds, is both chilling and challenging; each time I watch this masterwork, I discover something new.

Mindless action produced on an overactive computer, you can have it. I’d rather spend my time discovering yesterday's triumphs, like Susan Hayward’s unforgettable true-to-life performance as alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow.

I’d rather watch MGM’s first musical, Going Hollywood (even with the thoroughly pleasant, thoroughly mediocre Marian Davies in it -- finally, my chance to check out her acting abilities). Starring Bing Crosby, it buzzes with inventive crackle. Camera angles create clever stage pictures in motion. And everybody in it has the personality that William Randolph Hearst’s famed mistress doesn’t. Good try, Marion. Poor casting decision, producer Hearst.

The salient silents drew my great uncle, Eugene B Lewis, out to Hollywood in 1916. A one-time Hearst reporter, he railed west with imposing Biogroaph credits from New York. Within weeks of pitching his portfolio on fledgling movie lots, Lewis was made story editor at the "Big U" (Universal Film Manufacturing Co.), supervising at one time 27 writers. I’ve read that scenario writers suffered an average shortened life span second only to race track drivers. My great Uncle Eugene died at the age of 46 in 1924.

Toiling in the shadows (scenarists were likened to stenographers), he worked on treatments, scripts and titles for a young director named Jack Ford , directing a young cowboy named Harry Carey. Great uncle Eugene also scripted other films, laboring for Thomas Ince, Wallace Reid and Mary Miles Minter, virtually all of them now lost in the dust of celluloid history.

Watching Turner Classics, there are big disappointments, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea -- too hokey and way too long for me to get through. And there are less-regarded flicks well worth finding. Golden example: the multi-talented Ida Lupino (the only female director in Hollywood during the ‘50s), cast as a widow in Beware My Lovely. Her home is invaded by a drifter (played by Robert Ryan) applying for work, who is haunted by the rejection he suffered when offering to serve in World War II. This is not just a crack suspense noir that builds skillfully by degrees (will she end up alive?), but also a terrifically engaging psychological study of a very troubled man. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Ryan deserved an academy award.

How many other undiscovered gems are flickering somewhere in the dark, waiting to live again on somebody’s palm, plasma or laptop?

originally posted 6/30/07

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