Happy 115th birthday to The Great Train Robbery!

Side note: The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one of my two favoritest Cagney films I’ve seen to date, the other being the indescribably awesome White Heat (1949)

Legendary, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, released 1 December 1903, is perhaps his best-known film. Though there were no credits during this era, we know the stars included Broncho Billy Anderson (the first film Western star), who plays three roles; Justus D. Barnes (the outlaw who famously shoots at the screen); Alfred C. Abadie (the sheriff); and B-movie Western actor Tom London (the conductor).

Bandits hold up a railway telegraph worker, forcing him to stop a train and order the engineer to fill the coal car at a water tank. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.

The bandits board the train when it stops. Two of them enter a passenger car, kill a messenger, and dynamite open a box of valuables. The other two bandits kill a fireman and make the engineer stop the train and disconnect the locomotive.

The passengers are then forced off and searched for valuables. One brave soul tries to escape, but is killed.

The bandits make off with their booty, and come to a valley where their horses are waiting.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator comes to, and quickly passes out again. Then his young daughter arrives, prays over him, cuts his restraints, and throws water over him.

At a dancehall, locals mirthfully make an Eastern greenhorn dance as they fire at his feet. The merriment is interrupted when the operator bursts in to relay news of the robbery.

The menfolk waste no time in banding together and riding to the rescue. They catch the bandits, overtake them, and recover the loot.

The closing shot (which some theatres chose to play at the beginning) is one of the most iconic of cinematic history, right up there with the spaceship in the eye of the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last! (1923), and King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

The film was shot at the Edison studios in NYC; New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation; and along the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, in November 1903. Some prints feature hand-coloured frames (e.g., the outlaw’s green shirt in the final shot; the orange and pink vault explosion; clothes in the dancehall).

The Great Train Robbery had its début by NYC’s Huber’s Museum and Theatre, which is now an NYU dorm. It was then shown by eleven other city theatres. The film was a huge, immediate success, one of the very first blockbusters and Westerns.

Indeed, it was one of the most popular films of that era, until The Birth of a Nation came along twelve years later and smashed all records.

The budget was about $150, equal to $4,153, or £3,238, in 2017 money.

Just one year later, a remake with the same name came out, from Siegmund Lubin’s Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Piracy and unauthorised remakes were a huge problem in this era, since copyright protection for films was legally murky. Only in 1912 were films legally classified as protected works.

The Great Train Robbery has inspired many other Westerns over the years, as well as scenes in other films and TV shows. Director Edwin S. Porter also parodied his own film in 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, which featured an all-children’s cast.

This is truly one of those films everyone should see at least once.

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Hollywood sends up Hollywood

Released 20 November 1928, Show People is widely considered Marion Davies’s best film. It’s also notable for having about two dozen celebrity cameos, such as Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Karl Dane, Elinor Glyn, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Eleanor Boardman. Another thing it’s known for is being one of the greatest silents still not on DVD.

Marion Davies was a wonderfully talented actor, esp. in light comedies, despite the ugly, persistent myth she only got into films because of her powerful lover William Randolph Hearst. His mismanagement of her career hurt her, such as how he tried to force her into costume dramas instead of the light comedies she excelled so much at.

Peggy Pepper is driven to Hollywood from Georgia by her father, Col. Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper, to prove herself as a great actor. She’s overcome with shocked delight to realise she’s really arrived in Hollywood. Her first celebrity sighting is John Gilbert.

Col. Pepper drives her to a studio and asks to see the president of the company. He’s directed to the casting office, where he and Peggy are asked to produce photos. All they have are very old photos, so Peggy is asked to demonstrate various moods, such as anger, sorrow, and joy.

Peggy and her dad have just 40 cents, which only buys crackers in the dining hall. Billy Boone (William Haines), a slapstick actor, joins their table uninvited, and tells Col. Pepper his “Southern makeup looks very Indiana.”

Peggy is very insulted by his antics, still believing she’s about to become a great actor and is so much better than all these other people. She says her acting is “the talk of all Savannah,” and that she’s got several offers in Hollywood. Billy promises to help her to break in.

Billy gets her an audition at his Comet Studio, which Peggy believes produces dramatic pictures. Trouble starts immediately, as she first disrupts a filming in progress, and then walks across another set.

Peggy gives a serious, dramatic performance to show Billy’s boss how good she is, and is quite unpleasantly surprised to find herself in a slapstick film. She lashes out by throwing a pie in one of the actors’ faces, and rages about how her clothes were sprayed with seltzer.

Peggy laments she came there to do drama, and asks why Billy didn’t warn her. He tries to cheer her up by saying all the greats had to start somewhere, and that many of them began with comedies. Billy also says success means work, and urges her to think about the first big thrill she’ll get when she sees herself on the big screen.

The director liked Peggy’s performance so much, he insists she do another take, and signs her up to star in another slapstick picture. The theatregoers love her work, but she’s despondent. The film that starts after hers is John Gilbert’s Bardelys the Magnificent, the kind of “real” acting she insists she’s going to do someday.

One of Peggy’s new fans asks for her autograph afterwards. Only after he leaves does Billy reveal that was Charlie Chaplin. She also encounters the casting director for High Arts Studio, who asks for an audition.

Peggy is worried he only wants to see Billy, but Billy reassures her he won’t accept a deal unless the director wants Peggy too. The receptionist dashes his hopes by saying the director only wants Peggy.

Before she goes to her audition, Peggy tells Billy she won’t accept a deal unless he’s signed up too. However, the director doesn’t have anything for Billy, and says maybe next year there’ll be something.

Peggy is both glad and sad to leave Comet Studio and her new friends, esp. Billy. As badly as she wanted to break into “real” acting, she’ll miss everyone so much, and can’t bring the person responsible for her success.

Will Peggy achieve stardom like she’s always dreamt of, and what will become of her relationship with Billy?

Wind, wind, incessant wind

Released 23 November 1928, The Wind is widely considered one of the greatest of all silents. It’s also one of the silents most famously not on DVD, in spite of its incredible reputation. The Wind was based on Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name.

In the 1880s, Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) leaves Virginia for her (male) cousin Beverly’s Texas ranch, Sweet Water. On the train, she makes the acquaintance of cattle rancher Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love, who frequently played villains), who tries to scare her away from this land of neverending winds and isolation. Wirt claims the wind often drives people, esp. women, crazy.

Letty is met by Beverly’s closest neighbours, Lige Hightower (Swedish import Lars Hanson) and Sourdough, who live fifteen miles away. After a difficult journey full of wind and sandstorms, Letty finally arrives, and is joyously met by her cousin Beverly.

Beverly’s wife Cora isn’t very pleased to have a new addition to their household, and is even more displeased when her kids immediately warm to Letty.

Some time afterwards, at a party, Sourdough tells Cora he’s going to propose to Letty that night. Lige breaks in and says he’s going to do it. In response, Sourdough challenges him to shoot a wooden owl on the wall. Since they both shoot equally well, they decide to ask together.

An incoming cyclone forces everyone into a storm cellar, where Wirt professes his love and begs Letty to come away with him. When the party resumes, he tells her to think it over, and that he’ll be in town till tomorrow.

Lige and Sourdough get Letty alone and propose. She doesn’t think they’re serious, but Cora feels very differently. She demands Letty leave Beverly alone, in spite of the fact that they were raised by Letty’s mother as siblings.

With no money or home, Letty decides to marry Wirt, but there’s a catch—he’s already married, and wants her as his mistress. Cora drives her away and demands she marry one of the other two.

Letty chooses Lige, whom she feels absolutely no passion for. Under the influence of alcohol, Lige becomes more brutish and insistent. Letty says he’s made her hate him, when she didn’t want to hate him. Lige says he thought she married him because she loved him and wanted to be his full wife.

Lige promises he’ll never touch her again, and will try to earn enough money to send her back to Virginia.

Letty encounters a group of cattlemen on their way to a meeting, to see what can be done to save the people from starvation. She begs Lige to take her with him, since she’ll go insane alone with the wind.

When Letty is unable to control her horse in the intense windstorm, Lige has her get behind him on his horse. She later falls off, and Lige orders Sourdough to take her home.

Lige’s party returns with an injured Wirt. With nowhere else to go, he stays in Lige and Letty’s house.

Letty is terrified of being alone with him, and denies the wind has made her crazy. She pretends she likes it. Wirt tries to tempt her with descriptions of how lush and beautiful Virginia is this time of year, but Letty stands firm. So terrified of Wirt is she, she runs right into Lige’s arms for safety.

Lige conscripts Wirt into participating in a roundup of wild horses. This is Lige’s one big chance to get money to send Letty home to Virginia. Once again, Letty is left alone with the wind.

And then, in the thick of a fierce windstorm, Wirt returns alone.

The Wind was both panned and praised by critics, coming as it did during that difficult transitional period away from silents and towards fully sound pictures. It suffered a net loss of $87,000 in the U.S., though it fared much better in Europe. Today, the film is considered a classic.

Both Lillian Gish and director Victor Seastrom (né Sjöström) were quite displeased with the ending, though, contrary to popular myth, neither written nor filmed proof exists of an alternate ending that was replaced.

Lillian Gish was an absolutely incredible actor, one of the greatest of the silent era. She communicated so much emotion without saying a word.

Duck Soup at 85, Part III (Legacy)

While the Marx Brothers’ MGM films were more financially successful and popular than their Paramount films during their respective original runs, today the situation has reversed. By and large, fans tend to strongly prefer the five Paramount films, and don’t think that highly of any but their first two MGM films.

In the 1960s, as interest in 1930s films grew, Duck Soup finally recovered from its initial lacklustre reception and gained classic status.

Some film critics feel it’s not only on par with other comedic, satirical send-ups of politics and wars, like The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove, but even more effective and unnerving because it wasn’t consciously trying to be anything but irreverent comedy.

In 1990, Duck Soup was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, owing to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” On those incessant best-of lists and surveys, it’s routinely included as one of the greatest comedies and films of all time.

The film has been cited as strong inspiration for many comedians over the years, as well as some political satires and animated cartoons. The Beatles also named it as inspiration for their madcap film Help!, and other of their comedic stylings.

In 2004, the five Paramount films were released in a boxed set, along with 15 minutes of interviews and a rather shallow 40-page booklet. Many fans were deeply disappointed with the shoddy condition of the prints and audio, and the lack of bonus features.

In contrast, the MGM films (and the one-off RKO film), which show a gradual, painful decline in quality, got the deluxe DVD treatment.

Thankfully, in 2016, this disgraceful situation was finally rectified, and now we can enjoy these films properly, with pristine prints, audio commentaries, and bonus features.

I first saw Duck Soup on New Year’s Eve 1999. In 1997, I’d seen my first two Marx Brothers’ films, which I wouldn’t wish on any new fan. Of all the great films to start out with, Love Happy (1949) ain’t it! That horrible, unrepresentative first impression was followed up by another poor choice for a new fan, Room Service (1938).

I decided to give them one more chance when my father rented Duck Soup from Blockbuster. Lo and behold, it was much better than the first two films I’d seen, and significantly changed my impression. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

The third time was the charm. While it took me awhile to fully grow in love with the Marx Brothers (vs. immediately falling in love, as I did with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges), it ultimately created a very strong bond.

I wasn’t ready to be a true Marx Brothers fan till my mid-twenties, through no fault of theirs, or mine. I just most strongly prefer slapstick and physical comedy. Some things, like fine wine or a piano, are best when aged.

There are also books, films, and albums one always enjoys, but doesn’t have the maturity to fully appreciate and understand until going through more of life. That’s what the Marx Brothers have been to me.

Duck Soup at 85, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though urban legend has it Duck Soup was a box office bomb and caused Paramount to drop the Marx Brothers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933. It earned mixed reviews, despite not earning nearly as much money as Paramount hoped for.

The Marxes left Paramount because of contract disputes; deteriorated relationships between them; and a threatened walk-out. Duck Soup also fulfilled the five-film contract they’d signed, so they were free to go elsewhere.

Audiences didn’t warm to it so well because they were in the throes of the Great Depression. They sought lightweight, escapist entertainment, not cynical political satires. The subject matter wasn’t something they felt should be made into a joke.

As MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg explained when they switched studios, there wasn’t enough of a solid story. Audiences needed someone to root for, not a nonstop, disconnected parade of freewheeling comedy, gags, and anarchy.

The MGM films have more tightly-plotted scripts, but they also added something else Thalberg insisted on—a romantic subplot, with the brothers helping the couple to get their happy ever after. Had Zeppo stayed, he would’ve gotten so much more screentime as the romantic lead and straightman!

Most of the characters’ names were altered from the original script. Groucho’s surname was Firestone; Harpo was Brownie; Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania was Ambassador Frankenstein of Amnesia; and Vera Marcal was June Parker. The lattermost started as Mrs. Teasdale’s niece, then became Trentino’s niece, before finally just becoming Trentino’s partner in crime.

Zeppo was also originally Groucho’s son.

Prior to filming, Paramount was near bankruptcy, and on the eve of reorganization. They thought they could use the Marx Brothers as cash cows (like Universal later used Abbott and Costello), based on the huge success of 1932’s Horse Feathers. Unfortunately, the brothers feared they’d never get paid what they were already owed, and threatened to start their own company.

They planned their first indie film as an adaptation of Of Thee I Sing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical. There was talk of Groucho and Chico starring as the characters they played on their radio show, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

In 1941, they finally played these characters, Flywheel and Ravelli, in the dreadful The Big Store. Many of the gags and routines in the final script came from the radio show.

This indie film never came to fruition, and the team of Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Arthur Sheekman, whom they’d worked with before, began writing a script with the working title Firecrackers. Two months later, it was changed to Cracked Ice. Several more months later, it became Grasshoppers.

The ultimate title was the same one director Leo McCarey had used for a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short. In U.S. slang of the time, duck soup referred to an easy job.

The title also continued their animal theme, after Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers.

Mussolini banned the film, taking it as a personal insult, while the city of Fredonia, NY, wanted the fictional nation’s name changed. They thought it’d hurt their reputation. The brothers fired back, telling them to change their name to avoid hurting the movie.