September 26, 2016
The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature
screens “100 Years – 100 Movies”
A vertical tasting of world cinema. Not always the obvious choices, these films are each meant to be somehow representative of their era, saying something about the year in which they were made or something about film in general as a medium of art and/or entertainment. In each case, for any given year, there were probably half a dozen, or maybe twenty, films vying to be shown. Sometimes I picked the top grossing film of the year or the Best Picture Oscar winner, but usually not. Sometimes I picked a popular film, but since everybody has seen Casablanca and Star Wars many times over, I have often gone for the more obscure choice. Sometimes I picked a movie because I always wanted to see it and never had, so this was my chance. Sometimes I picked my favorite movie of the year just because I wanted to watch it again. Every one of these films is worth seeing for one reason or another—so hopefully I can convince others to watch along with me. These films are screened at the Dalenberg Library, usually on Sundays, sometimes other days. I try to get the children interested, but sometimes they have trouble thinking anything worthwhile happened before they were born. It will probably take me a year to get through all the films, so here is Installment #1:
1917 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Dir. Marshall Neilan. Starring Mary Pickford.
One of the three top grossing films of 1917, two of which starred Mary Pickford. Upon viewing this film, there is no question why she was called “America’s Sweetheart.” It is weird today to think of a 25 year-old playing the part of a 12 year-old, but Pickford’s sheer charisma makes it work. Her mischievous but loveable character in this movie is the prototype for many that came later: I see traces of Tuesday Weld in Lord Love a Duck, Hayley Mills in The Trouble With Angels, and even Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.
1918 Mickey. Dir. F. Richard Jones & James Young. Starring Mabel Normand.
The top grossing film of 1918. An ambitiously eclectic comedy/drama with elements of western, romance, Keystone comedy, screwball comedy, and a Cinderella story. Mabel Normand (who often starred opposite Charlie Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle) was at the peak of her career in 1918—this was the only film put out by her own production company. She is a genuine precursor of greatness in comic actresses as she portrays everything from tomboy to society girl to ingénue in this film. I see in her an early version of some amalgamation of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bernadette Peters. Pictured here is Mabel’s portrait on the sheet music for the title song—Mickey was one of the first movies to have such a thing.
1919 Broken Blossoms. Dir. D. W. Griffith. Starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, and Donald Crisp.
Possibly the cinema’s first interracial love story, depicting a humble Chinese immigrant shopkeeper as the lover (albeit platonic), savior, and avenger of a girl who is fleeing an abusive father. A beautiful film with indelible images, mostly due to Lillian Gish’s portrayal of the fragile young woman abused by her brutal guardian. Gish might arguably be the first “method” actress for the way she immersed herself in her roles. Her performance here is achingly genuine, her supreme sadness, her tears, the way she pushes the edges of her mouth up with her fingers because it is the only way she can make herself smile. Watching her, it is easy to forget that this film is a century-old melodrama. It is also surprisingly easy to overlook the undercurrent of racism implicit in this film, although there are moments when it bubbles to the surface. In some small way, “Broken Blossoms” is D.W. Griffith’s attempt to atone for the blatant racism of his “The Birth of a Nation,” which was already considered racist by a lot of people back in those pre-diversity-training days of 1915. But by modern standards, it is atonement by baby steps—this is still a film imbued with racism, but with some substantial stabs at a greater awareness. The entire title is “Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.” That title is already an improvement, considering that the original short story by Thomas Burke was “The Chink and the Child.” I don’t blame Griffith for not being able to step out of his era, because it took a lot of years for Hollywood to start allowing non-white people to play themselves in starring roles in movies. Witness Katharine Hepburn playing a Chinese villager in “Dragon Seed” in 1944, or Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican in “West Side Story” as late as 1961. But if you can get past the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese in “Broken Blossoms”, Richard Barthelmess (a white actor trying to look squinty-eyed as the Yellow Man) does a creditable job bringing a sensitivity to the role. In the film, the Yellow Man was once an idealistic young man in China who dreamed of taking the peace of Buddhism to the West, but when he arrived in England, reality swamped his dreams and he ended up scraping for a living running a little shop, smoking a lot of opium, and not converting any Westerners. Barthelmess’s slanty-eyed squint and odd oriental mannerisms are hard to bear these days, but the essence of the character and his message do peek out of his caricature, and it is powerful (spoiler here) when the story builds to this peaceful Buddhist pulling out a gun and pumping lead into the bad guy. D. W. Griffith, oft-reviled for the racism of “The Birth of a Nation,” but always respected as the most important director of the early cinema, really did have a grasp of the big picture when it came to redeeming himself with “Broken Blossoms.” He not only made a Chinese man and his ethos the hero of this story, but the entire film debunks the notion that the anglo-centric view is the superior point of view. There is a great scene that is a foil to the scene early in the film where the Yellow Man is planning to leave for the West with the message of Buddha–only, in this later scene, a young Christian missionary is embarking for China to “convert the heathen.” Thus, Griffith makes a wry comment on the boorish arrogance of white people and, in so doing, takes at least a baby step toward erasing our recollection that he was the director who made a major hit movie a few years earlier glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.