This is part two of a two-part retrospective of Disney’s live-action/animation hybrids. For part 1 check here.
Mary Poppins (1964)
I’ve said many times that I absolutely despise the movie Mary Poppins even though I’d only been something like 60% sure I’d even seen it. I knew for sure that I’d seen large portions of the movie over the years and I’ve hated what I’d seen but I wasn’t sure I’d seen it from beginning to end, and if I had it was when I was very very little and wasn’t really in the best of positions to give a reasoned opinion about it. So I decided to more or less watch it anew for the first time as an adult for this Disneyology installment and I was very ready to revise my opinion of it like I had with previous Disney movies like Lady and the Tramp or at the very least come to the conclusion that it wasn’t “so bad,” but nah, this movie sucks.
The film is something of an aberration for Disney as it in many ways felt like an attempt to more directly compete with the musicals that the other studios were making rather than something that would strictly fit within their own brand, and looking at you can see why it would be pretty comparable to stuff like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Now, I’m not a musical person and to my eyes those movies are themselves too sugary sweet for their own good, so to take that formula and then make things even more saccharine and family directed and you’re really messing with some dangerous territory. The film is almost wall to wall musical numbers, many of them featuring songs that have been so heavily repeated in the culture that they’re hard to really evaluate on their own at this point. “A Spoonful of Sugar” sounds like it could basically be at home in any musical whereas “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” both indulge The Sherman Brothers’ rather annoying penchant for making songs out of nonsense syllables. There isn’t really as much animation mixed in here as I was expecting and the few animated sections that are here don’t impress me spectacularly. The film apparently used some pretty innovative proto-bluescreen technology but the actual animation is the same kind of scratchy “Xeroxed” stuff Disney was using for their animated features.
If I had a central complaint about the movie it’s that Mary Poppins herself is not really a character. That’s somewhat by design as she is seemingly quite literally not supposed to be human, but for narrative purposes she’s still essentially a manic pixie dream babysitter who exist to show up in the kids’ life, take them on these endless whimsical adventures that are largely disconnected from one another and then more or less inadvertently make their father less uptight. If the movie Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed that redemption ark for the father was extremely important to the original author of the books this was based on and I must say she was right to not care for the film’s treatment of that character the movie views him one dimensionally. It’s basically just the prototypical family movie that exists to shame fathers for having jobs and, like, not wanting to come home to find a bunch of weird chimneysweeps dancing through his house. And then Dick Van Dyke is here as this peripheral side character who behaves like a dope and has an infamously horrible cockney accent (seriously, British people cannot shut up about how much they hate his voice in this). The movie is largely premised on the assumption that the audience will find the various musical numbers and hijinx this crew goes on very amusing and I really don’t, almost every bit goes on way longer than it probably should as does the movie itself, which runs a good two hours and twenty minutes despite being largely devoid of substance. Just a painfully unpleasant experience for someone with my sensibilities.
*1/2 out of Five
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
During the contentious negotiations with P. L. Travers for the rights to Mary Poppins there came to be certain moments when it looked like they would never be able to make that movie and as a fallback they picked up the rights to the children’s book “The Magic Bedknob & Bonfires and Broomsticks” by Mary Norton and considered applying their live action/animation hybrid ideas to that instead, but eventually Travers caved and Mary Poppins was back on. After that movie became a giant hit they weren’t quite sure whether to strike while the iron was hot and get out a similar movie based on Norton’s book or to drop that idea because it would look like a retread. After Walt Disney’s death they did return to the idea of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the film they came up with is often kind of viewed as the redheaded step-sibling of Mary Poppins. I’d heard the film’s title here and there but had never seen it and frankly didn’t know much of anything about it aside from the Mary Poppins association and basically didn’t know what to expect from it but my expectations were very low. Mary Poppins is annoying enough to me and seeing some second rate lesser version of something I don’t like seemed like it would be quite the endurance test, but while I certainly didn’t like the movie I was rather pleasantly surprised to find I generally rather preferred it to its predecessor.
The similarities between Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks should be readily apparent to even the most casual observers. They’re both anglophilic musicals about plucky magical women intervening into the lives of a family and going on whimsical magic adventures including one that’s animated. David Tomlinson is in both films, but here he’s closer to being in the Dick Van Dyke ally in whimsical fun role while the oldest of the three children takes more of the stick-in-the-mud role that Tomlinson held in Mary Poppins. The biggest difference between the films is that Julie Andrew’s titular protagonist has been replaced by Angela Lansbury’s Miss Eglantine Price, who is a different character in many ways. Price is not depicted as some kind of perfect pixie like Poppins was but is instead a rather fallible human who is only just becoming involved in (friendly) witchcraft. This isn’t to say she’s any kind of deep character and there is certainly a lot of Disney in her but she isn’t the same kind of paragon of wholesomeness. The kids here also aren’t the perfectly behaved moppets we got in Mary Poppins and are actually kind of brats who actually stand to learn something from the evens of the film. Furthermore, the actual animation hybrid scenes here are generally more interesting than the ones in Mary Poppins, particularly the “Beautiful Brimy Sea” sequence which feels like a predecessor of some of the stuff we’d eventually see in The Little Mermaid and the sequence of animals playing soccer, which is a solid comic cartoon in its own right.
So, if this movie is in many ways better than Mary Poppins why is that one viewed as a beloved classic while this follow-up is kind of ignored? Well, partly it’s a matter of there being no accounting for good taste, but the bigger factor is almost certainly context. Mary Poppins came out in 1964 and was perfectly aligned with the tastes of that era while Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out in 1971 and kind of a lot had happened between those two years and in many ways Bedknobs and Broomsticks felt like a complete dinosaur in a year that gave us much grittier fare for adults and also the much more popular Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for kids and drug users. Also, while I may have said some nice things about Bedknobs and Broomsticks those were only in comparison to the relatively rank Mary Poppins, on its own I do not consider Bedknobs and Broomsticks to actually be “good,” in fact there are plenty of bad things about Mary Poppins that it carries over without improving, namely the fact that it’s still in many ways structured like a series of sketches rather than a story and that a lot of them really wear out their welcome after a while. And the one thing that Mary Poppins almost certainly does do better than Bedknobs and Broomsticks is music as the latter movie doesn’t have a single song that I found to be overly memorable or good. So this is certainly not a movie for me either, but I do find it weird that the rankings of the two films seems to be backwards.
** out of Five
Pete’s Dragon (1977)
While it’s pretty easy to pair up Song of the South with So Dear to My Heart and to pair Mary Poppins with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney’s 1977 live-action animation hybrid Pete’s Dragon does not as easily fit in within a clear Disney trend (that I’m aware of). Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie; I knew of the film as a child but I don’t think I ever saw it and it doesn’t really get talked about all that much and I’m not sure how remembered it is. I think I expected it to be a short small scale movie for particularly small children, but it was actually a full on musical with reasonably large production values and its existence makes very little sense in 1977. I’ve talked about this before but the 70s were generally kind of a terrible decade for Disney, in part because there simply weren’t as many kids as their used to be. The baby boomers had grown up, so that population spike was no longer in Disney’s demo and the next population spike (the millennials) had not come along yet. So that’s a big part of why pop culture in general was relatively adult during that decade; music was dominated by rockers and singer-songwriters and the movies that excited people were either social realist movies or violent exploitation flicks. Disney only released three major animated movies during the decade and I would argue that most of them were pretty weak (I know Robin Hood has its fans), and it was also a pretty terrible decade for the traditional Hollywood musical. There were some stragglers in the very early 70s like Fiddler on the Roof, some experiments in modernizing the form for a new era like Caberet, and there were some counter-culture based musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but by the late 70s Hollywood was done with bubbly musical numbers (Grease notwithstanding) and yet along came Disney with this thing.
I was pretty surprised at exactly how much of a musical the movie was, there’s almost wall to wall musical numbers each one going pretty long and many of them with full on Hollywood dance choreography to go with it. All of this is a tad odd as the movie isn’t exactly going for that widescreen roadshow look you expect from traditional musicals but it is very much playing with that film grammar and the live action filmmaking is generally more competent than in some of Disney’s earlier live action/animation hybrids. Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s songs here don’t really seem to be terribly popular, probably because a lot of them wouldn’t work terribly well outside the context of the plot, but I generally found more to like in them than in a lot of the Sherman Brothers’ music from the last two movies even if I think the movie generally would have benefited from cutting a few songs and shortening the ones that are there. The animation here is also distinct from what we saw in the previous live-action/animation hybrids is that, rather than having certain fully animated sequences or animated sequences with humans walking through them, this movie uses animation more as a visual effect the way filmmakers would use CGI now to bring the titular dragon to the screen even though he’s a rather silly looking 2D animated cartoon rather than something that’s actually trying to look “real.” It almost certainly isn’t a coincidence that this was directed by Don Chaffey, who also directed a lot of the Ray Harryhausen effects movies and is probably something of a unsung innovator in visual effects direction.
Now, having said some nice things about how this movie was made, there’s still a whole lot about this movie which is intolerably corny. Even by Disney standards this movie takes place in a world where the good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Pete himself is another insanely clean-cut white boy out of a Horatio Alger book, his dragon is this cuddly cartoon, and the people who take him in are these saintly parental figures. Meanwhile the villains of the film are this insane family of hillbillies and a snake oil salesman who has a very Snidely Whiplash demeanor who sings a whole song about how he’s an evil person who will kill the dragon out of pure greed. The movie also tends to swing pretty dramatically from the kid wanting to keep his dragon a secret and just openly talking about it and making himself look crazy in the process. It’s all very silly. Yeah it’s meant for kids… but what kids? This must have seemed incredibly square to all but the lamest of the emerging Gen X kids who had just made Star Wars into a blockbuster earlier that year. As such the movie only kind of came and went at the box office and was viewed as something of a disappointment by Disney brass and they would more or less leave the whole live action/animation musical hybrid thing behind.
** out of Five
After Pete’s Dragon Disney wouldn’t make another major live/animation hybrid for another thirty years until the release of the 2007 film Enchanted, and admittedly calling Enchanted a live action/animation hybrid is a bit of a stretch. The film does begin with a scene of traditional animation and briefly has another such scene but 95% of the film is either live action (or CGI effects) and the animated segments are more or less pure animation that doesn’t incorporate live action actors. Having said that the movie doesn’t really fit well in any of the studios other usual trends but is nonetheless kind of an important release by them. It came out right when Disney was in the process of switching from making traditionally animated films of their own separate from Pixar and at the time their live action family movies were pretty disconnected from the studio’s legacy and branding. This however was extremely connected to the Disney brand, in fact it was a sort of parody of their signature style and their first three “princess” movies in particular and it predated their upcoming attempts to revive that old style by a good three years.
The film begins in an animated sequence that is essentially an exaggerated version of what we saw in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. This ends in the our princess (well, soon-to-be-princess) being sent through a portal by the villainess (who probably could have saved herself a lot of trouble by just killing her) and winds up being transported from the animated universe into modern day Time Square, at which point it becomes a live action fish out of water story along the lines of Splash. In this Amy Adams deserves a lot of credit for really committing to this performance as a hyper-wholesome lady with naïve Disney notions of love at first sight and the like. She also needs to sing as the film is also a musical of sorts, one that doesn’t have a ton of songs but does have at least two rather notable numbers both written by Disney veteran Alan Menken the lyricist Stephen Schwartz and she acquits herself well on that front. There are some other performances here that stand out; James Marsden is also strong as the dimwitted prince who chases Adams into the real world and if nothing else it’s amusing to see Timothy Spall show up in a movie like this as the henchman.
So there are some amusing things in the movie but I must say that as a parody of Disney movies I found the movie to be toothless to the point of just being a rather pointless piece of work. The film’s screenplay was written in the 90s and was not necessarily meant to be produced by Disney itself and was meant to be a more adult oriented satire and you can pretty easily see the roots of that in the movie. The basic concept of this G-rated heroine being dropped into the real world is kind of undercut by the fact that the New York she’s dropped into is itself rather cleaned up and PG rather than being the mean streets that would really clash with her aura. Even without the more adult humor this could have still been a lot better if it had simply had more of a philosophy to it but Disney never really lets it. It basically sets up this satire about everything wrong with their old princess movies and why they’re sexist and nonsensical but then it never really goes in for the kill shot and instead just transitions into some silliness where they fight a CGI dragon. The movie also doesn’t really put a lot of effort into arguing the opposite, that this person’s innocence is admirable and replicable, so it’s really kind of a pointless movie about nothing albeit one with some fun moments along the way.
**1/2 out of Five
Collecting Some Thoughts
Well, I think that’s the most negative I’ve ever been on one of these Disneyology things, not a single positive score in the bunch. Even at the darkest periods of their fully animated run Disney would usually had at least one winner in each bunch but not here. Clearly I’m not very receptive to what the Mouse House was going for with these movies, but I still feel like this was worth doing. Having an informed opinion on Song of the South has been on my “to do” list for a while, I’ve also been meaning to make sure that I have actually seen Mary Poppins and thinking Bedknobs and Broomsticks is superior to it will be a fun hot take to trot out from time to time. Enchanted is also a somewhat important movie in Disney’s recent history that is worth knowing about and even Pete’s Dragon had a couple of slightly charming elements worth knowing about… probably could have gone without seeing So Dear to My Heart though, that thing was dull.
Three years ago I embarked on a rather ambitious project to watch and write about all of Disney’s animated films for a series I called Disneyology 101. That worked out well enough, but there was still some unfinished business left over and I seek to correct that with a new series called Disneyology 201 which looks the company’s basic canon of feature length animated films and explores some of the other nooks and crannies of the company’s legacy. This will likely be done sporadically with long pauses between installments rather than the quick pace I kept when doing Disneyology 101 (expect it to correlate heavily with new seasons of “The Mandalorian” and the MCU shows because I do not intend to stay subscribed to Disney+ permanently). For the first installment I intend to look at the live action films that Disney made over the years which heavily combined in elements of traditional 2D animation. This was something the company would uses sporadically over their history after first pioneering it in the 40s and then reviving it in the 60s and 70s, but they would ultimately only use it for a handful of films, opting instead to focus primarily on either pure animation or pure live action for the vast majority of their films. Of course to really examine this topic one must first begin with the film that started it all, 1946’s Song of the South, a work of such infamy that I will likely focus most of my attention to part one of this retrospective exclusively on it.
Song of the South (1946)
On November 12th 1946 Walt Disney staged the world premiere of his new film, Song of the South, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta Georgia, not far from where Gone With the Wind had premiered seven years earlier. And like the premiere of that film, stars James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel were refused entry to their own premiere because Atlanta’s strict segregation laws would not allow an event of this nature to be integrated. From that rather unpleasant beginning the film would go on to be, by far, the most controversial film Disney ever put out and has been on something of a roller coaster between public embrace and public disdain. The movie earned mixed reviews upon first release and was only a moderate box office success but was not a beloved hit. James Baskett would go on to receive an honorary Oscar for his performance (something his boss Walt Disney almost certainly pulled some strings to make happen) and the film also earned an Oscar for its main song and most enduring element “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” but aside from that it sort of came and went during a time when Disney was not really at the top of its game. The film would go on to earn more money upon re-release, including some rather disturbingly successful runs in the 70s and 80s where it was likely actually seen by more people that it was back in 1946 and it would eventually become the thematic basis for the popular Disneyland attraction Splash Mountain. Those re-releases did however garner the film increased scrutiny for its retrograde racial depictions and in the time since then as Disney grew larger and became more image-conscious they’ve come to view the film as an embarrassment and have refused to distribute on home video for the last thirty or so years and likely do not intend to do so in the future.
As the film has been removed from the public eye its split the opinions of fans down the middle with some saying it’s been unfairly maligned and others suggesting it’s even worse than its reputation and it’s been hard for anyone to make up their own mind on the topic because they can’t see it for themselves. As such I’ve managed to obtain a copy (through legally ambiguous means) and decided to finally watch the movie and figure out where I stand on it. I hope to figure out three things: is the movie as racist as its reputation suggests? What does it say about the Walt Disney Corporation’s history? How do I feel about its effective “cancellation” by its own creators? And, most importantly, is the damn thing even any good to begin with?
I’ll start with that last question: no, the damn thing is not any good to begin with… or at least it’s probably not good enough to be worth all this trouble. The film is ostensibly set during reconstruction (though a year is never quoted in the movie and audiences could well mistake it as being set in the antebellum) on a Southern plantation that a seven year old white kid travels to in order to live with his grandmother and mother for a period while his father is away. While there the kid meets a kindly old black man named Uncle Remus (who is presumably a former slave) who takes to telling him a bunch of folk stories about a character named “Br’er Rabbit” which help him with some of his mundane white kid problems like dealing with local redneck bullies, but his mother becomes wary of the influence these stories are having for… reasons… and it all culminates in the kid getting injured after he stupidly runs into a bull’s pen… but he gets better and everyone’s happy.
So, as you can probably tell that’s a really simple story that really doesn’t have a lot going on in it. The biggest conflict in the whole thing is a the mother’s uncertainty about the influence of Remus’ stories on the child, but her reasons for feeling this way are never clear and she just sort of gets over it at the end. Beyond that it’s just a very episodic and insubstantial story that just kind of exists to act as a framing narrative to include the animated segments that illustrate Remus’ stories. In fact I kind of suspect that if Walt Disney had had his druthers the whole movie would have just been an animated film about these Br’er Rabbit stories as they are very plainly the aspect of the film everyone put the most work into. So why were the live action sections included? Probably as a cost cutting measure. Disney was not in good financial shape in 1946, the war had really desimated their productivity and had cut off lucrative European markets. In the eight years between Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950) they didn’t really have the funds to make feature length films outside of commissioned war propaganda and compromised shorts compilation package films. So, making a live action hybrid like this was a good way to make a film where they’d only have to make some twenty minutes of animation and then pad the rest of the film out with this cheap half-assed story about happy southerners living together.
But what of the animated segments? They’re alright, at least on a technical level. The film’s famous “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” sequence does stand out, firstly because that song is quite the earworm and secondly because it really stands out after thirty some minutes of lifeless inanity. The rest of the animated sequences (though frequently offensive in their own right, more on that later) are sporadically entertaining, but they aren’t really offering much you can’t otherwise get in your average Warner Brothers cartoon and they don’t singlehandedly save the movie which is, frankly, quite boring. If you aren’t interested in looking at this film historically and parsing its racial politics it is simply not a very entertaining experience, so if you’ve been craving this piece of forbidden fruit you really aren’t missing anything that special.
So, is this thing racist or what? Short answer, yes. Having said that, the movie isn’t necessarily as aggressively offensive as you may think given the endless cloud of controversy it exists under. This isn’t The Birth of a Nation, and for that matter I’m not sure I’d say it’s any more racist than Gone With the Wind, and I also don’t think it was necessarily made with malice. At its worst the movie basically just makes the same mistake that their more contemporary bad idea of a movie Pocahontas made: thinking they could just whitewash the hell out of a very dark period of American history. The post-war South was not a fun time or place to be an African American; people were pushed into poverty, the Ku Klux Klan was in ascendance, former “masters” were openly hostile, and lynching was an ever-present threat… but you wouldn’t know that from watching this movie. Here Uncle Remus is happy to still be serving his former owners, as is the maid “Aunt Tempe” played by Hattie McDaniel, and the only other African American of note in the film is this sort of wild mostly personality free kid that our white protagonist befriends: an “Uncle Tom,” a “Mammy,” and a “Pickaninny.” Remus has basically no internal life or ambition in life other than to help this white kid and we see nothing of the scars he would almost certainly bear from years of enslavement. Meanwhile its left unsaid how these white people got this plantation or if they were former slave owners, but that’s kind of the most logical assumption to make, especially given the undying loyalty their servants seem to show toward them. And of course all this is if you follow the company line that this is all happening in the post-war era, as I said before the film is fairly ambiguous about when its set and I’m sure plenty of audiences have assumed that this is a plantation, that these happy black people are straight-up slaves, and that paints an even darker picture of how much about “the South” this film is lying about by omission.
For a while Disney’s approach to handling the movie was essentially to strip it for parts. They’d include “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in their musical compilations and they’d use the “Br’er Rabbit” sections out of context in places like Splash Mountain under the assumption that it was the film’s live action segments that were the “real” bad parts and that they animated bits everyone actually liked were innocent but that isn’t really the case. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is, in fact, heavily influenced by the minstrel show standard “Zip Coon” (the problematic nature of which likely does not require explanation) and also draws on some rather racially insensitive versions of “Turkey in the Straw.” As for the “Br’er Rabbit” cartoons? Well, they and the Uncle Remus character are ultimately drawn from the work of a white southerner named Joel Chandler Harris who claimed these stories to have been drawn from authentic slave folklore but he almost certainly put them through a white guy filter and each of the film’s animated segments have some rather unsavory subtext if you’re looking at them in context. The first story involves the rabbit trying to travel away from his warren only to then encounter a fight with Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, which is supposed to teach him that his home is where he belongs even if he thinks he doesn’t like it. It’s hard not to watch that and not view it as some sort of allegory for the Great Migration North that many African Americans of the period made to escape overt violence from the KKK and others, and in that context this “moral” is rather dubious. The next animated segment is even more undeniably odious as it involves Br’er Fox trying to trap Br’er Rabbit by placing a baby doll at the side of the road which he made out of hot tar… a “tar baby” if you will to ensnare this rabbit in hot goo… does the offensiveness of this need further explanation?
So, not a very good movie, and I wouldn’t recommend renting it or buying it if you could… but you can’t. So what do I think about Dinsney’s decision to keep this thing out of circulation? Well, given that I just watched the movie it would be a little hypocritical of me to say “I can watch this, but you can’t handle it.” Obviously there are plenty of “good” reasons to want to watch this movie and examine its legacy and people who want to do that should ideally have some sort of access to it. What’s more there are certainly ways to release these sort of dated products in a respectful way which provides context for what you’re watching and outlets like Criterion and Kino put out all sorts of things that are almost certainly more problematic than this and they do it well. Having said all that, Disney is not Criterion and for that matter it’s not even Warner Brothers. “Disney” is a brand name that is synonymous with family entertainment and also with the mass market, they aren’t really capable of targeting niche cinephille markets like Criterion can nor can they simply release something “for adults” like Warner can when they put out Gone With the Wind blu-rays. There would be something rather obscene about Disney “letting the movie out of the vault” and putting out a “75th Anniversary Diamond Edition Blu-Ray” out on the shelf for anyone to pick up and unsuspectingly shot to the tots at will and it would probably be just as ill-advised to throw it onto Disney+ next to The Lion King for any four year old to stumble across. On some level I think Disney knows that they can’t really present this thing without crassly monetizing it and in a way I respect the self-awareness in that and don’t really blame them for not wanting to “go there.”
*1/2 out of Five
So Dear to My Heart (1948)
Two years after the release of Song of the South Disney released another film combining live action and animated elements called So Dear to My Heart which I think was meant as a sort of spiritual sequel which did for the Midwest what its predecessor did for the South. The film has not had the same kind of infamous legacy as Song of the South, but it hasn’t really had much of a legacy at all… in fact it’s kind of fallen into obscurity. I actually did encounter this once at a summer program when I was about ten or eleven. It was a rainy day so during the time we’d normally be outside the old lady who was running things decided to just huddle everyone in the cafeteria and play a movie and this was the VHS she brought in. I’d never heard of it and upon hearing the title I thought it sounded so lame that I just went to the back of the room and played Go Fish with a friend rather than watch it and having seen it now I can say… I didn’t miss much.
The film stars Bobby Driscoll, who was also the main white kid in Song of the South. I didn’t talk much about him when I looked at that movie because there were bigger fish to fry, but he was a kid that Disney decided to invest in pretty heavily during the late forties and early fifties when they put him in these two movies as well as their fully live action Treasure Island and would also make him the voice of Peter Pan. They then pretty much dropped him when he stopped being a cute kid however and he would go on to have a terribly life even by child star standards… to the point that when he died a drug related death at age 31 people didn’t even recognize his body and he wouldn’t be identified until two years later. Anyway, I hate the little shit, he’s one of these irritatingly clean-cut 50s kids who seems to really like saying “Gee Wiz” a lot. Anyway, the movie is pretty much built around this kid and is this inane story about a farm kid raising a sheep and hoping to bring it to the county fair in order to win a prize. The animation comes in when the kid has some weird hallucinations about a owl giving him advice and they’re generally average to uninspired.
The film’s semi-random song about the bravery of Christopher Columbus hasn’t aged well but the film is otherwise very very white and generally devoid of any people or color or much of anything else that could be considered controversial. It’s basically all the things that made Song of the South a rather boring viewing experience but none of the retrograde racial politics that I had so much “fun” parsing. On some level I guess the fact that this isn’t overtly offensive makes it “better,” but also makes it a lot less noteworthy. Also the animated sequences feel more disconnected than they did in that movie and there isn’t any music that’s nearly as earwormy as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” In general with So Dear to My Heart we get a glimpse at the disinterest people would probably have in Song of the South if not for the fact that it was a touchstone for controversy. It’s decidedly inessential.
*1/2 out of Five
Note: for more thoughts on Tenet’s theatrical situation check out this essay.
Tenet very well not simply be “just a movie” to me. For the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic the movie has been this sort of mythic thing that could be the salvation of theatrical exhibition and movie going as a whole. When almost every other movie around it balked and moved its release date it stood firm in its belief that it would open in July back when it still seemed there was hope that this mess would be solved by then. As that date approached and it was moved back but only by a few weeks and then another few weeks it began to seem less like a possible salvation to cinema and more as a possible death blow, something that could well get people killed by encouraging theaters to open too soon. I think I’m going to be writing a separate piece about my own thoughts about the ethics of opening this thing and my own decision to see it, but I don’t want to dwell on that too much here because I feel like Tenet does on some level deserve to be considered separate from these circumstances but on the other hand I’m not sure I can entirely separate this viewing experience form its context. Regardless a bit part of why the film’s eventual release has seemed like such a tantalizing prospect (while the possibility of other releases like Mulan and Unhinged have not) is what Christopher Nolan’s movies represent for the film community and in relation to theatrical distribution under better circumstances. Nolan’s films are events, almost always the most anticipated films of whatever year they come out, so for his latest to be in this position is kind of a rich irony.
The film follows a man known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who is with the CIA who finds himself captured by the enemy during a botched rescue/infiltration during a hostage situation in Ukraine. Under interrogation he takes a suicide pill which turns out not to really be a suicide pill and wakes up on a boat being debriefed by a man named Victor (Martin Donovan) who informs him that now that he’s “dead” they will be sending him on a mission reserved for those who have shown the utmost loyalty. This mission relates to certain objects that have appeared which seems to coming backwards through time from the future through a process called entropy inversion. This investigation sends him to India where he meets a contact named Neil (Robert Pattinson) who points him toward an arms dealer named Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia) who in turn points them towards an Anglo-Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) as a likely person at the center of this mystery and The Protagonist sets out to infiltrate his organization through making contact with his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
Christopher Nolan has built his career making movies with complicated chronologies and rules that some people have found “confusing.” Personally I’ve never had much trouble with them. Memento seems pretty easy to follow as long as you pay attention to it and catch on to its forwards and backwards chronology, Inception works just fine as long as you jive with its time bending internal rules, and Dunkirk makes perfect sense if you bother to read the title cards that explain that its three sections run across different durations of time. And yet I ended up hearing people tell me they were “lost” in all three of these movies despite the clear trail of clues (and some would say “clunky exposition”) that they all provided and I’ve kind of scoffed at them. Well this time the joke was kind of on me because while I wouldn’t say I was completely confused by Tenet the movie was usually a few steps ahead of me and I had some trouble keeping up with it. The movie kind of combines the usual convulsion of spy movies (with their double crosses and secret agendas) with the usual convolutions of science fiction/time travel movies (with their rules and paradoxes), and it probably didn’t help that I needed to watch it while dealing with the distraction of trying to keep my mask from fogging up my glasses all while contemplating the morality of potentially aiding the spread of a deadly virus by being in the theater watching this thing.
I think part of the problem is that this movie often does not go out of its way to explain all of The Protagonists moves, which often feel a bit out of proportion to certain steps in the process and I often found myself thinking “wait, what are they even trying to do here” midway through certain set-pieces. Take an early scene where they attempt to break into an art repository in order to destroy a forged painting that the villain is using to blackmail his wife. We are given some perfunctory dialogue explaining the importance of this, but it’s never really driven home and by the time they’re actually breaking in getting to the actual painting seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind and I don’t even remember them showing if they succeeded or failed at getting it. At other points the movie throws scenes at the audience that almost seem calibrated to leave them unsure what they’re watching until after their given some exposition later on. It is perhaps ironic that the movie is coming out at a point where it feels dangerous to even see the movie once because more than any other movie this feels like it was designed to be watched multiple times as this first viewing almost seemed like it was just there to prime me for when my future self goes through this experience over again, which is kind of meta in its own way.
Since seeing the movie I’ve read up on some of the plot machinations and think I caught more of it on first viewing than I had thought. On a second viewing I think that will be less of an issue. What I’m more hesitant about is the human side of the film so much as it exists. As his lack of name suggests, The Protagonist is a bit of a cypher in the film. We know next to nothing about his past and he has few defining characteristics aside from his persistence in completing his mission. John David Washington gives him some personality but otherwise there’s not really a whole lot there, but that at least is by design. The bigger problem here is that I never really found Andrei Sator to be a terribly compelling villain and was also not very into his twisted relationship with his wife. We’ve seen Kenneth Branagh play Russian oligarch’s before in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and while that was a deeply forgettable movie I think that performance stood out to me a bit more and when we finally learned this character’s motivations for acting as the antagonist here I found it strange, unconvincing, and in some ways contradictory to his wife’s motivations earlier in the film. That having been said I didn’t actively dislike these characters either so much as I feel like they could have been more interesting than they were.
In a lot of ways I think the movie actually might have worked better if it had been less grounded than the usual Nolan film and had instead embraced its inner-James Bond and had been more of a straight up romp. The science in the film is basically made up nonsense and the villain is pretty much a cackling madman, why not just go all the way and give that villain a pet shark and a more colorful henchman while they’re at it. In many ways it’s probably the least flavorful and most purely Nolan movie that Nolan has made in a while. It lacks the historical realism he was going for in Dunkirk and the sentimentality he was experimenting with in Interstellar and the political commentary and literary allusion of The Dark Knight Rises or even the psychology of Inception. It’s probably the closest he’s come to making a pure formal exercise in puzzling his audience since Memento but even that movie was shooting for a bit more of an emotional core. The movie I’d probably most readily compare is probably actually Shane Carruth’s Primer, which this almost feels like a sort of big budget action movie riff on. In other ways the whole thing almost feels like Nolan indulging himself, not necessarily in a bad way, to see if he can take his usual trickery to its natural extreme and to just mess around with that while not having to worry too much about, like, historical accuracy or authentic astrophysics.
Now, I feel like I’ve focused way too much on the negative up to now, which is strange because I actually quite like this movie and if I rip on it a little it’s because I hold Nolan to a high standard and want to explore why this didn’t necessarily hit me as hard as something like Inception. Let me make it clear that there are definitely things about this movie that do deliver. There are some action scenes here that manage to use the time inversion thing in some really impressive ways, particularly a fight scene and a car chase which we end up seeing twice and making more sense of with additional information. There’s another scene, essentially an interrogation using the film’s central technology which did not make the slightest bit of sense to me while I was watching it but which I strongly suspect will work better for me on a re-watch. In fact I kind of have a lot of faith that a lot of scenes here were staged in a rather meticulous way which will be revealed to be pretty spectacular achievements when we examine them and see how well they come together and hold up to scrutiny… but that’s not necessarily something to appreciate on a first viewing.
In fact I’m in a generally strange position with Tenet because I think I like the movie a lot more than I liked my frustrating compromised first viewing experience. That probably sounds odd and I’m sure there are plenty of people who won’t have any patience with a movie that baffles them at first glance. It’s definitely a movie that Nolan made “for the fans” and won’t exactly win over the people who’ve complained in the past about his obsession with rules and his challenges writing compelling female characters and certainly won’t impress the people who’ve found his work cold and unemotional. It even reminds me a bit of his brother Johnathan Nolan’s TV show “Westworld” in that it almost seems to exist as much for people to deconstruct on Reddit as it does to simply be watched. I’d say it’s one of his lesser works and there are limits to how much of a benefit of a doubt I can give it under the assumption I will more firmly grasp it on future viewings. But I also think it’s one of the year’s best movies (albeit sort of by default) despite whatever misgivings I might have. I guess even when Nolan is kind of missing the forest for the trees he’s still better than most of his peers.
**** out of Five
[Editor’s Note: I will be posting a review of the new Christopher Nolan film Tenet in the next few days. So as to allow that review to focus on the actual movie as much as possible, I have opted to put my thoughts about the process of seeing the movie in these troubling times in the below essay separate from the review.]
On March 11 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic someone asked me if I would be afraid to go to movie theaters while the virus was out there. I responded by saying “I for one have no intention of slowing down my theater visits and look forward to there being smaller crowds of assholes with cell phones.” The stupidity of that statement haunts me. Firstly it haunts me because of the dumb assumption that theaters would even be open in the forseeable future and secondly it haunts me because of the cavalier attitude I was having toward the situation and social distancing. Two days after I said that I saw the (terrible) horror film The Hunt in theaters not knowing that it would be the last movie I’d see on the big screen for months and the AMC staff was already trying to employ some social distancing protocols and had begun wearing gloves and masks. I also had tickets for a rep screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre lined up but I never made it to that. The night of that screening my governor announced that he was shutting down restaurants, bars, and movie theaters and though the order wasn’t going to go into effect until the next day it was something of a wake-up call to me and I decided to stay home and from there I joined with the national lockdown.
In the months that followed I took (and still take) lockdown very seriously. I’ve taken great efforts to avoid going to the grocery store more than once a week, I’ve avoided in person meetings with most people including close friends and family, my hair is the longest it’s ever been, and when I manage to get out of the house to go for walks I’m careful to maintain distance from the people who walk by even if it means stepping off the sidewalk and onto lawns and into the street. I realize that I’ve been able to maintain my level of social distance in part because I’m privileged to have a job I can now do from home, but still most of these things can be done by anyone who cares to take the effort. Meanwhile I’ve watched with absolute disgust as the crises has gone on and on and on largely because of the greed, selfishness, stupidity, and general lack of discipline by my fellow Americans. I of course have nothing but contempt at the deranged lack of leadership on the part of Donald Trump and by local officials across the country who cave right in when people whine about businesses being closed down and having to comply with mask ordinances. I also have minimal sympathy for political organizers who delude themselves into thinking they aren’t spreading a deadly disease when they encourage people to pack themselves together in protests, with or without masks. And perhaps most of all I’m disgusted by everyday people who willfully ignore the multitude of guidance they’ve gotten not to take unneeded risks meeting in groups indoors but who just march into bars, restaurants, and hair salons the second their spineless leaders allow them to despite rising cases and deaths.
Now, as I proceeded to watch people keep this epidemic going by doing stupid things there was always something nagging at me saying “would you be as willing to throw stones if things I actually enjoyed were being dangled in front of me.” Bars and restaurants were never a huge part of my life and giving them up was not hard, and while it was killing me not to be able to go to movie theaters they weren’t really available to me even if I wanted to march out to them so I hadn’t exactly put my principles to the test and the release of Tenet was going to be quite the test. Pretty much from the beginning of the pandemic Warner Brothers was lining up that film to be the movie that welcomed people back to theaters but I’m pretty sure when they made that bet they were expecting America to respond to the pandemic responsibly like other countries around the world and for it to have been much more contained by that point. I don’t exactly blame them for going forward with the release. All things being equal, I do wish they had just moved the release out to 2021 like so many other movies did so I could (hopefully) see the movie without all this baggage but I don’t blame them for releasing it. The rest of the world is more ready to open up and can do so safely and their movie theaters shouldn’t remain shut just because America doesn’t have its shit together, and I can at least on some level sympathize with the fact that domestic theaters need some kind of lifeline in order to have a future.
Much of the last few months there’s been a push pull in my conscience between wanting theaters to be preserved and also believing they shouldn’t be allowed to open. It’s annoyed me when movies like The King of Staten Island and Mulan opt for expensive VOD release over delay, firstly because it makes watching them more expensive and secondly because it’s one less potential source of revenue for theaters when they come back but I do think these lame VOD releases are preferable to rushing theater openings when it’s not safe. Ideally I don’t think theaters should even be legally allowed to open right now and I don’t support my Governor’s decision to allow such re-opening. And beyond the obvious dangers of re-opening the act of going to see a movie in a COVID-19 environment did not sound like any fun. I consider mask wearing to be an important act in blunting the pandemic and do it without complaint, but I also completely hate it. Getting all those water vapors trapped around my mouth is unpleasant and I also wear glasses that get completely fogged up whenever I try to breathe while wearing these masks. I can barely tolerate masks for the twenty minutes it takes to go grocery shopping and seeing an entire feature length film in one sounded both unpleasant and also potentially unfair to the film I would have trouble focusing on while dealing with one.
Finally July and August came and went and the film’s final release date was set to be August 26th in international markets and September 3rd for the United States with extensive “Early Access” showings beginning August 31st. It was finally time for me to decide what I was going to do. In many ways skipping the movie altogether during this theatrical run just didn’t seem like a real option to me given how much keeping up with current cinema is a passion of mine and something that’s almost tied to my very identity. The fear of missing out was particularly palpable in the case of a Christopher Nolan film like this as I would need to be out of the loop while the whole world of film discourse dissected the film without me. Additionally a certain feeling of karmic justice occurred to me: I’d been on my best behavior through this whole pandemic while other dipshits did all sorts of dumb stuff to help spread this disease. If everyone else can party it up and take all these risks why can’t I be entitled to cheat just once? That’s not an attitude that can withstand strict scrutiny. The truth of the matter is that breaking social distancing guidelines is always a roll of the dice, much as other irresponsible behavior like drunk driving is a roll of the dice. You could do it fifty times and if you’re lucky never get snake eyes, but you could also get snake eyes on your first roll and no amount of past good behavior really changes that. On the other hand, just living during these times is going to force you to take some risks and this may well have needed to be one of them for me.
And so, the day tickets went on sale I went ahead and reserved a ticket for the very first preview show in a Dolby Cinema Auditorium on August 31st. Reserving such a ticket and actually going were two separate decisions however and from the moment I bought the ticket I knew I would need to keep on thinking about whether I was going to go through with the plan. Around the same time as this images were coming out from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a truly horrific gathering in which a bunch of defiant assholes gathered in South Dakota without wearing any masks or adhering to basic social distancing. That this was allowed to happen allowed to happen is disgraceful and the local officials that didn’t prevent it almost certainly have blood on their hands… but there was a certain guilt that came over me for feeling that way about those people while still having tickets to a not so safe gathering of my own. When I took another look at the theater website I realized that the screening I had tickets to had actually sold out. Granted it only “sold out” at 40% capacity, but still that meant a great deal of the theater I was preparing to enter would have people in it and even if they were theoretically going to be wearing masks that didn’t seem ideal and the type of person who would attend such a thing likely wasn’t going to make for the most risk averse crowd. I didn’t want to be part of such a crowd so I finally balked, decided not to go to that screening, and requested a refund.
From there the plan was still to go to the movie but not until I felt somewhat sure I’d be seeing it in a fairly empty theater. That was not made easier by this “Early Access” screenings that Warner Brothers cooked up for the film, which I think is some kind of scheme to allow them to report a week’s worth of box office along with the opening weekend numbers. The whole thing seems to be forcing the theaters to only have three or so showings of the movie a day which is stupid because it forces more people to gather in single auditoriums when the safer thing to do would be to have it basically playing on every screen and spread people out some more. I was busy with work stuff for a lot of the following week (I’m never quite sure when my day job will have me staying late on a given day) but I kept tabs on the screenings and how many people had tickets to given shows (one of the benefits of assigned seating) and a lot of the showings seemed disturbingly crowded. Finally on Thursday the 3rd, the supposed real release date of the film, a lot more showings got added and while the Dolby and “Lie-Max” screenings at my local multiplex were still more filled than I was comfortable with there was a 5:30 showing that appeared to only have four people showing up, all located in a group toward the front of the theater. I decided the time to strike was now. Seeing that there were still only four tickets old half an hour before the start time I bought a ticket in the top row (pretty far away from them) and drove out there.
I had worried that the screening would fill out in the last half hour but I think I only saw one or two people show up outside of that original family. So I was located about as far as I could be from another human in the screening but I was still plenty being risked here. I don’t know how well the air is actually circulating out with these MERV-13 air filters the theater is touting so there could well have been airborn COVID lingering in the theater. Additionally I had no idea who had been sitting in my seat prior to this and there could well have been fomites all over the armrests for all I knew. I was careful to use my T-shirt to get my tickets from the automated machine when I arrived and was pleased that the ticket taker was now just looking at my ticket as I walked in rather than physically tearing it, and as I exited I was careful to push the door open with my foot rather than touch the doorknob. All told I think I saw this movie about as safely as I possibly could have considering the situation but all the warmth and coziness I normally associate with movie theaters was gone and the notion of a theater being a distraction-free environment were certainly diminished by having to adjust my mask a bunch to make sure my glasses didn’t fog up. The constant dread of mortality and plague spreading probably didn’t help either.
Ultimately I think I saw this thing as safely as possible, but as this rambling essay suggests I had to deal with a whole lot of nonsense and anxiety to do it and that’s not an experience I want to replicate too many times. I’m certainly not going through it all again to satisfy whatever morbid curiosity I might have about New Mutants, I’m not doing it to check out that Unhinged thing, I’m not doing it to see re-releases of movies I can watch on Blu-ray even if I might have viewed that as a great opportunity otherwise. In fact there’s not a single thing on the September schedule that jumps out as something I’d even consider going through all that again over. Wonder Woman 1984 is scheduled for October 2, that might spark some consideration, as will some other titles later in the year like Black Widow, No Time to Die, and Dune but none of those are sure things for me and at the moment I’m hoping they all just get pushed out. I’m sure there are “normies” for whom only going out to the theaters for major blockbusters like that isn’t out of the ordinary but this is coming from someone who would normally be going out to theaters at least once a week on average so if I’m not pumped to see some movies I’m not sure who will be and I’m sorry to say I hope it isn’t many.
Like many a dutiful cinephile, I picked up Kino’s “Pioneers” boxed sets when they came out. These sets looked at the early output of African American and female filmmakers and serve as important corrections to the often white and male film canon. That said, as much as I like having these sets I haven’t exactly carved out the time to actually watch much of either of them as digging into them did not feel like a task to be taken lightly. While I consider myself to be much better versed in silent cinema than the average person, the truth is that my knowledge of the really early days of cinema (the era from roughly Edison to Griffith) is pretty limited. I know enough to know who the Lumière Brothers were and had seen the odd Edwin Porter film and knew who Georges Méliès was long before Hugo, but I haven’t really taken that much of a deep dive into the very early shorts that cinema was built on. And that is where disc one of the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set comes in as it focuses on the Franco-American film director Alice Guy-Blaché, who made literally hundreds of short films between the turn of the century and 1920 and was right there on the front lines when film grammar was first being developed. Her life story is fascinating and I’ve been interested in finally watching her work and want to see if I can make a writing project out of it. Now, a lot of these movies are only about ten or fifteen minutes long and I’m not sure how much I’m going to have to say about each of them, so this might end up taking a bit of a different format than some of my other similar projects like my deep dives into the short films of Chaplin and Keaton, but we’ll see how it goes.
Mixed Pets (2/10/1911)
Guy-Blaché was born in 1873 in France and split her time growing up between France, Chile, and Switzerland. She would enter the world of film when she married the owner of a photography supply company which would be sold to four men including Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame) and Léon Gaumont (whose film studio still exists to this day). She was right there when the Lumières first presented motion picture technology and the next year was making films of her own and made a number of films with Gaumont. Eventually her second husband, Herbert Blaché, brought her to America where he was tasked with overseeing Gaumont’s stateside operations and the two of them eventually founded their own studio, Solax, in New Jersey. Her work at Solax is where most of the shorts on this disc come from including this, the oldest surviving film from that studio. This film is a light domestic comedy involving some misunderstandings with a dog and a baby. Not exactly high stakes drama and I wouldn’t say it’s overly “funny” either, but it is an example of filmmakers finding ways to use this new medium for simple storytelling.
Tramp Strategy (4/12/1911)
Here we get another simple comedy with a domestic setting involving a quickly reversed mix-up. In it a dude hatches a scheme to get the approval of his lover’s father that involves disguising himself as a hobo and saving the girlfriend from car accident but this gets further complicated when two actual hobos overhear this and try to take his place in this already questionable scheme. I was generally less impressed with the storytelling in this short, which rests on this strange premise of a guy staging a daring rescue but it wasn’t all that clear to me why said plan necessitated the disguise and with the actors here not being all that familiar to me it wasn’t always that clear to me when people were in disguise or when they weren’t.
Greater Love Hath No Man (6/30/1911)
This short seems like a much more ambitious production than the first two films on the disc and feels more like something you’d expect from early D.W. Griffith both for better and worse. The film is a western of sorts set at a goldmine in California and focuses in on a guy who pines for a local cowgirl who does not seem to be that into him. This woman is notable for her prominence in the story, she’s not the protagonist and is essentially an just an object of affection, but she has her feisty moments and even pulls a gun on the bad guys at one point. Speaking of the bad guys, the film has a whole plotline about the “Mexican Miners” complaining about their white boss, which the movie frames as baseless, and it ends with them becoming a violent force before being vanquished by the American Calvary swooping in… it’s not a terribly progressive depiction of labor uprising or of Mexicans and I’m pretty sure these “Mexicans” were played by white people. Clearly even feminist heroes like Guy-Blaché were not immune from some of the prejudices of the time but I also don’t want to overstate how problematic is because this is hardly The Birth of a Nation and there are much more wildly offensive things you’re likely to encounter looking at movies from this era.
Algie the Miner (2/28/1912)
If you’re looking at these female directed shorts for some gender studies type insights this might be a good short to look at. Another western, it focuses on an effete Easterner who heads out West to become more rugged and what follows is some fish out of water comedy about how much this dude is not a real cowboy. There’s a running gag about how his pistol is smaller than all the real cowboy’s pistol in a rather phallic way and the dude also has a tendency to kiss the other cowboys so there’s room for queer analysis here as well. Having said that, there’s really only so much that can be done in a ten minute film like this and the film’s ending ultimately restores the status quo.
Falling Leaves (3/15/1912)
A lot of these Solax films seem to really swing pretty dramatically between comedy and drama with this film going so far as to be a straight up weepy, almost like the original Hallmark movie. The film is about a child who overhears that her consumptive sister will die by the time “the last leaf falls,” meaning before winter, but the kid takes it literally and starts trying to tie the leaves onto the trees. Pretty corny premise, and the film has kind of a lame resolution where a dude just shows up and cures the disease with a miracle cure he invented. However, the film is pretty well shot for what it is and it has a pretty good grasp of the tone it’s going for and doesn’t lean too much into its innate sentimentality.
The Little Rangers (8/7/1912)
This film is listed as a “fragment,” meaning that there are sections of the film that have been lost. I’m not sure how much of the film is missing as what’s presented on Kino’s blu-ray is a good eleven minutes long, which is longer than some of the films here and only about five minutes shorter than some of the longer ones. The film is another western of sorts but a noticeably female one that ends with two girls picking up arms and going after a bad guy, ultimately causing a climactic fire with a flaming arrow. The movie didn’t do a whole lot for me leading up to that finale (possibly because of the whole fragmentary thing), but the ending is a bit of a doozy.
Canned Harmony (10/9/1912)
Sometimes in these really early works it’s the small things that really stand out to you as innovative more than the broad strokes. That’s not to say that the broad strokes here aren’t somewhat noteworthy, this is after all a silent movie about a guy using a phonograph to pretend to be a skilled musician, that’s kind of a bold thing to try to make a silent film out of. I’m not exactly sure the movie is fully able to convey what this story is trying to do, but I respect the hustle. Anyway the small thing that stood out to me was a shot where two people were talking to one another over the phone and the film uses a split screen technique to do this. My research indicates that this wasn’t the very first time a shot like this was done but it certainly wasn’t the kind of visual that would have been routine. In fact the film feels compelled to split the screen into three sections instead of two with the outdoors in the middle section just so people would “get” the distances involved.
A Fool and His Money (10/11/1912)
A Fool and His Money is a particularly unique “find” among these Alice Guy-Blaché films as it is one of the oldest surviving films to feature an all-black cast and was likely intended to be exhibited to largely black audiences. So that obviously leads one to ask: how did Guy-Blaché choose to represent black characters in this movie made three years before The Birth of a Nation? Well, probably more positively than not. The film looks at a black character who is “a fool” and finds money on the side of the road and proceeds to waste it on some junk and then ends up poor again by the end… so there’s a lot of space for charicature and stereotype in the basic story, but there’s no blackface and on balance the actors don’t perform in particularly broad ways. All told I don’t think it’s particularly offensive for its time… but I’m not sure it’s terribly good either. Ignore the racial stuff and it’s just not a particularly inspired comedy.
The High Cost of Living (10/23/1912)
This is a film that has a flashback structure that would seem pretty routine in a modern feature length film but which is pretty ambitious for a fifteen minute short film from 1912. The film begins in a courtroom and then flashes back to the story of how the accused, an old iron worker, came to be charged with murder. The story he tells, which is acted out on screen, is basically this melodramatic rendition of how this loyal worker got screwed over by his fellow workers when he is elected to bring their grievances to his boss (who he has a kinship with) and then follows them into a misbegotten strike which leads him into poverty and then when he sees his fellow strikers are laughing it up at a bar he lashes out and kills someone in a fight. So, this isn’t exactly the most progressive picture of union labor and between this and the strike among Mexican miners in “Greater Love Hath No Man” I think it’s safe to say that Alice Guy-Blaché did not have the most enlightened view of organized labor, which maybe has something to do with the fact that she was essentially her own studio executive. Look past that and you do still have a pretty well constructed film for what it is.
The Coming of Sunbeam (1/22/1913)
This film would be something more in line with the previous film “Falling Leaves” in that it kind of feels like a bit of a Hallmark card. The film is about a young woman who is disowned by her rich father because he doesn’t approve of her marriage. Years later she hatches a scheme to get back in his good graces by droping her child at his doorstep, having said child charm his cold demeanor, and then show up posing as a nurse and reunite the family. It’s all very sugary. I don’t have a lot to say about this one so I’ll take a moment to make a general observation that has surprised me watching all of these films: the title cards in them seem oddly blunt and inelegant. You would think that the writing on title cards would be something that would be fully developed early in the history of cinema as they don’t exactly require a technological breakthrough, but clearly that side of film writing needed as much time to develop as anything.
Burstup Homes’ Murder Case (3/26/1913)
This is one of the beat up and scratchy films on this whole blu-ray set but I suspect it was programed despite its restoration status in part because it was a Guy-Blaché film that commented pretty overtly on gender dynamics. The main character is a woman who is identified as a “modern woman” in an early title card and wears a masculine suit… but a lot of what being a modern woman involves being a bit of a bitchy wife because she’s apparently been monitoring her husband’s every movement to make sure he isn’t running off to gamble and get plastered. The movie isn’t entirely on the husband’s side though as he seems like a bit of a dumbass who’s maybe deserving of this treatment. The other main character in the whole farce is this comical detective she calls after she thinks her husband has died after a misbegotten stunt where he snuck out and left a dummy in the bead. It all ends happily though when the two are re-united. Not sure the comedy in this one has really translated that well over the passage of time, but there’s artifact value to it.
A House Divided (5/2/1913)
This little comedy would be the second straight film in this collection to take a slightly comical look at a marriage that’s on the rocks. In this case the marriage in question has reached the point where the couple is putting together an agreement to live separately together, meaning they’ll still live in the same house and work together but will only speak to one another through notes and correspondence. Obviously this isn’t going to be workable and after their predicament is played for laughs for a bit but the two eventually bond in the face of a challenge and bond over it and rekindle their love. It’s a pretty unrealistic but re-assuring look at marital strife, and it’s probably important to remember that divorce was a deadly serious topic at this time which was difficult to obtain and which was viewed as a mortal sin by many, so one has to expect comedy touching on it to be a bit cautious.
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (6/11/1913)
Well, here’s something interesting. This short focuses on a high concept about this lady who is so desperate to marry her non-committal boyfriend that she concocts a scheme where she tricks him into thinking that he will inherit a fortune, but only if he’s married by noon. She gets the timing wrong though so without being able to find her he starts just randomly proposing to every woman on the street. Silent film aficionados will recognize this premise as being very similar to one Buster Keaton would use for his 1925 film Seven Chances. That film cited a stage play written by someone named Roi Cooper Megrue from 1916 as its source, so it’s possible that Megrue was the one “borrowing” from this (or there might have been an earlier work that all three were stealing from), but there are even individual jokes in Seven Chances that seem to have been lifted from this including a plainly racist gag in which the dude tries to propose to a random lady only to realize she was African American and then recoil. That unfortunate moment aside this is definitely one of the better made and more developed shorts here.
The Ocean Waif (11/2/1916)
The last Alice Guy-Blaché film presented in the Pioneers set and differs from the others firstly because it’s from about three years later than the last of the rest of them and secondly because it’s longer than the 15 minute one-reelers that are mostly included. As presented here the movie is about 36 minutes but it’s plainly missing some pieces that the restorers fill in with title cards. I don’t think the completed film is dramatically longer than what we see here but one scene that is very notably missing is the film’s big finale, so that’s clearly a big loss. The film tells a fairly simple story about a young woman who runs away from her abusive family and ends up being taken in by this wealthy author. So kind of the setup for a romance novel, but in a fairly chaste turn of the century way and it doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of curveballs in how you expect this is going to go. It is well shot though and there are some pretty cute moments early in the film when the woman and the author first meet and there’s some nice atmosphere as well. You can tell that film has evolved quite a big in the few years since some of the earlier films from this set were made; it’s a plainly more ambitious project in general and the title cards are a lot better written.
Alice Guy-Blaché would make some more movies after “The Ocean Waif” but not too many more and her career wouldn’t last into the 1920s. She eventually divorced Herbert Blaché, who left to make films in Hollywood and the East Coast filmmaking scene she thrived in decayed. On top of that (in a development that feels all too relevant today) Guy-Blaché contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1919 pandemic and while she did eventually recover and live into her 90s she stopped making movies and basically retired.
So clearly there’s an important and interesting story behind the making of these movies, but what of the films themselves? Well, as I outlined at the outset I’m not sure I’m entirely equipped to judge all of them. They don’t seem as inventive as Georges Méliès’ work, though those would perhaps be more comparable to her early French work rather than the Solax films presented here which would likely be a bit more easily compared with D.W. Griffith’s early work, though I haven’t really watched a lot of that (Kino, that would probably be a good boxed set to put out) so it’s a little hard to say. So she was clearly versatile, but I will say that unlike the Chaplin shorts I was watching earlier this year (which weren’t made too much later) these kind of felt a bit more like homework, though there were certainly some inspired moments to be found. One thing that stood out about her work is that, given that she was as much of a studio head as she was a filmmaker, the subject matter of the shorts tended to vary pretty widely as she was kind of responsible for providing works in many different genres including comedies, westerns, and sentimental weepies. So she was clearly impressively versatile but this also means that she’s kind of hard to analyze as a true auteur and it’s hard to make a simple judgement about how rewarding this viewing was. In some ways I do wonder why Kino’s curators focused so heavily on the Solax films for this set; much of what makes Guy Blaché interesting is that she was there at the very beginning of cinema so I would think her really early Gaumont films would have been the more essential viewing than what she made while in New Jersey, but perhaps the elements for those simply weren’t available.