Monthly Archives: January 2016

Edward Arnold: The Tycoon of the Big Screen

edThough we know him as the big, bad Jim Taylor from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the actor Edward Arnold was actually well-known for his ability to play the ambitious, overpowering “bad guys” on screen. Born in New York to German immigrant parents, Arnold was actually orphaned at age 11. By 12, he started his career on stage and then became an extra in western films for Essnay Studio.

Though Arnold originally wanted to be the slender leading man on the big screen, he found his niche in character parts, commenting “The bigger I got, the better character roles I received!” After many years on Broadway, his talking picture debut was as Jake Dillion (a gangster) in the 1933 film Whistling in the Dark, a character he originated in the Broadway play the film was based on. He continued to play many supporting villains until his big role as James Buchanan Brady, the real life entrepreneur, in the 1935 biographical film Diamond Jim, which also starred Jean Arthur as his romantic interest. In fact, Arthur and Arnold were frequent collaborators, appearing in several films together, including the 1937 film Easy Living, where Arnold plays a rich, greedy banker and Arthur stars as his mistaken mistress.

                         Arnold and Arthur from the film Easy Living (1937)

Though Taylor appeared in over 150 films in his acting career, there are a few notable films that established his role in Hollywood as the powerful tycoon:

  1. Come and Get It (1936) where Arnold plays a ruthless man who rises from lowly lumberjack to head of the logging industry.
  2.  Sutter’s Gold (1936) a biographical film where he played John Sutter, a man who held a prominent role in the start of the California Gold Rush.
  3. Toast of New York (1937) where he partners with Cary Grant as a towering stockbroker whose greed goes beyond control. Fun fact: Arnold was billed above Grant in this film.
  4. You Can’t Take it With You (1938). Another Capra film starring James Stewart, Arthur and Arnold as a successful banker who aims for complete control and monopoly. Arnold also held a role in the Capra film Meet John Doe.
  5. Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) where the actor portrays Daniel Webster, a widely love senator who champions for the little guy. However, will Webster sell his soul to the devil to become President?

Additionally, Arnold was the first actor to portray Nero Wolfe, a large commanding “armchair detective” in the 1936 film Meet Nero Wolfe. Towards the end of his career, Arnold focused more on radio, playing the chief part of the President in the ABC radio program Mr. President (1947-1953), a weekly show that told an incident in the life of a President, only revealing who it was at the end of the show.

Though he passed away in 1956, Edward Arnold truly made his memorable mark as the greedy, controlling tycoon in cinematic history, giving new meaning to the phrase “It’s good to be bad.”

References:

  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0036427/
  • http://www.moviefanfare.com/edward-arnold-the-big-screens-toughest-tycoon/
  • http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/2352/Edward-Arnold

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and its Impact On Headlines

So, for this week, I wanted to do a thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and use some grouping of articles to say that it still is an accurate criticism of American politics. To a sense, I still believe it to be true, especially considering how much the media is owned by a small few, and the people who do control it tend to be politically motivated. But, when looking for those sort of articles, I couldn’t find any by a reputable source, and those that were halfway reputable were such angry editorials that I knew I couldn’t use them in any way without drawing some sort of angry response.

But, you know what I did find out about this movie’s impact? Oh my god do people love using it as headlines. If you google something along the lines of “_____ Goes To Washington” or “Real Life Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” you’ll be inundated with articles who use the title of this movie, rather uncreatively, to say that whoever they’re supporting in their article is some political outsider who is trying to clean up Washington because “It’s a mess!” No joke, I found this article titled “Mr. Trump Goes To Washington.” Like Richard Nixon and Watergate, I think Capra’s legacy will be best remembered and lived through lazy news outlets.

But this goes a lot with what Professor Jordan was saying about populism and how it’s still everywhere. I thought he was making an unfair point about everyday appeal by politicians, but in all seriousness, this is crazy. Everyone wants their politician to be the new guy who will pull a Mr. Smith and make some miraculous change to Washington. All of these articles (many of them seem to be just blog posts except for that weird Trump one) are supporting some politician and saying that they will fix the country. I find it kind of weird. I would love to see some sort of analysis about this sort of headline and see if it confirms my suspicions.

Daddy Issues

Capra’s film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has many interesting components that are still relevant in film today. One of these components is the role of the absent father. That is, the idea that the symbolic father, for example a father who has passed away or a father who just plain packed his bags and left, is more powerful than the living father. In both Saunders and Smiths lives, we are given the image of the absent father. I asked myself “why?” What’s the deal with the fatherless movies and how many other films have this same component?

Well, I did some research and discovered some surprising things about Disney and Pixar films in particular. One of my favorite Disney movies, aside from The Little Mermaid, is Toy Story. I never really thought about it, but in all three Toy Story movies, Andy’s father is never mentioned. I looked into this phenomenon. The conspirators say that Andy’s dad was a ‘deadbeat’ and they pick up a few subtle hints to prove this theory. This assumption explains why Andy is so attached to Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The absent father can be replaced though cowboy toys and astronaut toys, especially for a boy Andy’s age.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-negroni/the-truth-about-andys-dad_b_5405864.html

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Alice does not have a father in Alice in Wonderland. She is inundated with ‘mad’ thoughts and curious ideas. We, as an audience, know that her father was supportive of her thinking creatively and being inquisitive about almost everything. He acts as her driving inspiration and ‘image of hope’ throughout her nightmare. It seemed as if he was her guiding light through the whole thing, and even though he had passed away, she knew that he would be supporting her and her inspired, curious thoughts. This heroic image that is given in Alice in Wonderland is just one way the absent father is powerful. As we find out the father in the film is deceased, a heroic symbol of hope is birthed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.03.50 AM

UP is another example of a fathers absence. I believe that in this movie, the absence of a father in Russell’s life is the driving force of his ambitious personality and drive to do good in the world. For those of you who are not familiar with the movie, Carl is the ‘grandpa’ whose wife Ellie passed away. When Carl and Russell meet, the audience is convinced that it is destiny. When the two go on an adventure to Paradise Falls, we can see that Carl is filling the hole in Russell’s life that his father left when he left him. An absent father can also build other relationships in a sense that the role of the father can be filled by other characters, such as Carl, to build the story.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.03.14 AM

So, there might not be a concrete answer on “why?”. Why is the absent father such a common occurrence in film and television? Like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Disney and Pixar utilize the absent father to add to the story. Whether it be a vision of a hero, an inspiration, a drive to do better, or just a way to make a new friend, in film, the absent father is more powerful than the present father.

To read more about the ‘disappeared dad’ and why in film, “Deceased Parents are the Best”, check out these two articles on tvtropes!
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DisappearedDad
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeceasedParentsAreTheBest

Buster Keaton and Silent Comedy

It is interesting to compare Charlie Chaplin with his silent contemporaries. One of the most significant is Buster Keaton. Check out this video on Buster Keaton by Tony Zhou, who makes great video essays on film:

I have only seen about three Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films each, which comprises my foray into silent comedy, so I can’t say I know much about it, but Sherlock Jr. is my favorite Buster Keaton film I saw. It’s on YouTube for free and only 45 minutes long, so check it out if you have the time:

From what I have seen, it seems as if Buster Keaton focuses more on impressive stunts and gags while Charlie Chaplin’s jokes are smaller in scale and more detail-oriented. I do have to say the Tramp’s simple mannerisms are more entertaining than Keaton’s. I love to just watch Charlie Chaplin just walk around or do any simple action. It is also worth mentioning that of course Sherlock Jr. does not bear anywhere near the same sort of social commentary as something like Modern Times or The Great Dictator. I found Sherlock Jr. much more humanistic, though, as the film’s focus was on humans’ dreaming of the ideal.

The Acting of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Although the story behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is heartwarming, I did not find the writing too compelling. It paints a pretty straightforward picture of a complex issue. This might be my own taste, but I like movies most when their morals are complex and ambiguous rather than clearly defined. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we all know who the good guys and the bad guys are, and this sort of demarcation is not realistic. To me, it seems only Joseph Paine and possibly Saunders were complexly characterized. On the other hand, Jefferson Smith was pure and wholly “good” while Jim Taylor was a completely “bad” character. This type of characterization is common in most films such as the Star Wars trilogy but even that trilogy tried to humanize the villain.

You could argue that having the story be morally ambiguous would make it difficult to fulfill its purpose of populism. I would probably have to agree because when making a film with a moral goal makes it very difficult to keep it unbiased.

I wanted to make this post though to express some appreciation for the acting of this film because I think the acting is what truly carried the film and made it work. I can’t think of a single stale performance in this film. James Stewart is of course excellent in his portrayal of Jefferson Smith from his most timid moments to his power during the filibuster and then his final weakness near the end of the filibuster. James Stewart really captures the audience’s attention and you fall in love with his character by the end of the film. Even very minor characters had nice portrayals. Guy Kibbee captured Governor Hopper’s sycophantic fear pretty well, and it was fun to see the President of the Senate, acted by Harry Carey, hide his amusement. None of the performances were especially subtle but they conveyed the tone of the film well.

Chaplain in Communist Romania

I don’t remember my first Charlie Chaplain movie, but I do remember watching it with my parents and being happy that I could understand it even though it wasn’t dubbed. We still watch Chaplain movies, our personal favorite is “The Kid,” and every time my parents tell me how much these movies made them laugh when they were growing up. This may not seem like a big deal, except my parents grew up in communist Romania, and I was lucky to have been born a few years after the Romanian Revolution. When I was a kid, the Tramp helped them tell me their stories about life in an oppressive regime through comedy.

“The Great Dictator” (1940)

For my parents, the Tramp’s endless quest for his next meal struck home in a time of severe rationing and actual bread lines. To this day, my parents hate pasta because grocery stores would be filled with aisles on aisles of pasta and canned fish…and nothing else. Electricity and running water were never a given; if anything was certain, it was that the water would run out or the lights would turn off exactly when you needed them most. (I should also mention that they lived in the capital city, Bucharest, not some tiny Transylvanian village.) The shantytown houses Charlie would sometimes live in looked a lot like the poor village homes you can still see in rural Romania today, torn, tattered, and falling apart. And while most people identified Adenoid Hynkel with Adolf Hitler, my parents could sneak a giggle at how much he resembled Nicolai Ceaușescu without incurring the wrath of the Secret Police (if you don’t believe me, here’s Hynkel, and here’s Ceaușescu). 

Lines at the grocery store in Communist Romania.

How do you explain poverty and political oppression to a 6-year-old girl? Show her a Tramp who would rather go to jail for a hot meal than be homeless. Show her a dictator who speaks in understandable gibberish. Let her laugh, because she is too young to understand how tragic it is when these situations are real. 

I know these blog posts are supposed to be more research-oriented, but two points were brought up in class that literally struck home for me. The first was that Chaplain believed silent movies were more universal. I think he should have been less modest and insisted that HIS silent movies are more universal. The Tramp became a symbol of resilience in communist Romania, somebody who was staring into the face of poverty and still finding reasons to laugh. Because his comedy was all transmitted through his body and his facial expressions, his movies were incredibly easy to understand. His use of universal themes, like hunger and societal oppression, also made the movies translatable. 

Ceaușescu giving a speech in 1967. He was the dictator of Romania until 1989.

Another point we brought up in class is the ability of comedy to reflect on social issues. To be fair, “The Great Dictator” would undoubtedly have been banned in my country if it weren’t a blatant satire of Nazi Germany. Still, it struck the hearts of a people who were tired of hearing the ruthless leader of their country screaming on the TV for an hour every week about how rich Romania was when everyone was miserable and starving. Chaplain gave them a way to express their criticisms and frustrations with the oppressive regime. 

In that vein, we also mentioned in class how comedy is a fine line away from tragedy, as noted in the roller skating scene of “Modern Times.” One step over the edge turns laughter into tears. For my parents, that ledge was moving from the movies back to reality. But at least the movies gave them a chance to laugh.

I haven’t seen the film, but I have an opinion

Have you ever seen Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator? NO??? Well, neither have I!!

In all honesty though, I feel like I’ve seen this movie because I’ve seen so many clips from it I can pretty much fill in the blanks. Its the age old tale: Boy saves pilot. Pilot becomes stormtrooper (not the Star Wars kind). Boy grows up and becomes barber. Everyone has to run from a dictator who’s looking for jews. Barber looks exactly like dictator. Barber somehow manages to convince everyone that he’s the dictator and to stop this war of madness. A timeless story, no?

(If that’s not how it goes down… I repeat: I haven’t actually seen the film)

If you also haven’t seen the film (or haven’t even heard of it), it uses Nazi-like imagery and themes to help the audience understand that this is a commentary on the events that were going on in Germany and Europe at the time. Think The Interview but instead of James Franco, we have Charlie Chaplin. The film itself is very good, It even has a 92% ‘fresh’ approval on the movie-rating website Rotten Tomatoes. But I wanted to write this post because of my– and many others’– favorite part of the film.

It’s the moment of glory. The barber is finally going to take the stage as the great dictator to attempt to keep up his charade as the dictator, and he suddenly realizes what he has to do: he has to try and stop the war. While the real dictator was arrested for something absolutely silly like duck hunting (it is a Chaplin film, after all), the Barber is appealing to the crowds that he has made a mistake and he pleads them all for goodwill and peace. The speech itself is astounding. It takes a hard turn from Chaplin’s normal silly antics and is still to this day regarding as one of the most captivating speeches ever delivered. You can watch below:

 

You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men.”

Amazing, right? If I ever had to perform a monologue, it’d be that. Although it’s not very funny, how could you make that funny? Even Chaplin took a turn in drama, I guess.

I used the below articles and websites to write this article:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032553/?ref_=nv_sr_4

http://www.charliechaplin.com/en/biography/articles/13-The-Great-Dictator

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/great_dictator/

Charlie Chaplin- Can you hear me now?

What really interested me about Chaplin’s film, “Modern Times”, was the use of sound. Sure, in any movie the soundtrack plays a vital role in the overall message of the movie. Nobody ever questions why there is background music in movies, or how it started. The soundtrack of a film can either make or break the film as a whole. It can also give a film a different interpretation or overall feeling and mood.

charlie_chaplin02

As we all know, films started out as silent. In my experiences, silent films are awkward because… well, it’s silent! Back in the day, the reels that the film was projected from was loud and distracting from the content of the silent movies. So, this is where the film score comes in to play. Charlie Chaplin composed the background score in “Modern Times”. It’s quite remarkable, really, how a simple sound can change how a scene is interpreted. What really interested me about Chaplin’s film, “Modern Times”, was the use of sound. In any movie, the movie soundtrack and sounds play a vital role in the overall message of the movie.

For the majority of this movie, the soundtrack gives a feeling of mechanism and routine. It is very modernizing, almost, and the factory rhythms are emphasized through the rhythms of the music. Another sound we repeatedly hear is the noise that signals the start of the machine. This sound is mechanized, too. Imagine if we heard a horn to a clowns car or a whimsical sound. The machine would seem much less intimidating and large and more like a toy of some kind.

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A simple example is this “How to Make Chili Cheese Nacho Dip” video. When making food or watching cooking shows or videos, there is usually a fun, upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. Cooking and food are topics that are usually looked at as being fun and happy. The sad music just gives it a depressing, sad and melancholy feeling. In this video especially, I almost feel like laughing since the music soundtrack is so unfit for the context of the video, giving cooking chili cheese nacho dip a whole new level of sadness.

How Important Was Charlie Chaplin?

Professor Jordan talked a lot about how Charlie Chaplin was and still is one of the most recognizable figures in history with his character of The Tramp. I wanted to look into it. Because I was never one for “silent” films, I didn’t really get the whole Chaplin thing. I mean, I know people have talked about him and said that he was important, but from what I saw, he was just another actor from back in the day.

A lot of what I saw showed that Chaplin was one of the biggest figures responsible for the transition of movies from what was essentially just a play on film to the medium we know them as today. As in, before (like we saw with A Trip To The Moon), the camera was in a single position and actors did their whole scenes in one take in front of it. Sure, the lack of voices meant that there had to be more expression, but that didn’t keep the actors from still acting in plays. Chaplin, even in a time when voices could be added to movies, made it much more expressive. The cameras focused on his expressions and his nonverbal communication. This was a huge impact for films, and still is today.

In fact, many actors still cite Chaplin as their inspiration for a lot of their performances. Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) got the inspiration for his “very funny things said in a very serious tone” style of acting form watching Charlie Chaplin. Even great actors like Charlie Depp try to emulate the great Chaplin in their films, and often have a hard time. Depp even had to do one of Chaplin’s famous dances (the one with the dinner rolls) in one of his movies, and said he struggled with just the level of talent that Chaplin had.

After death, Chaplin is still known as one of the great American actors. Many have written on his impact, Winston Churchill included. It’s ironic, considering that he was born in London.

Information gotten from these two articles

A Timeless Classic

When we watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Monday, I was frankly prepared to be bored. I generally consider films from the 80s to be too old to bother with, never mind a film from 1939. But on Monday, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was. Many of the film’s funny moments still got a laugh, such as when the coin landed on its side or Jeff kept dropping his hat. I was also charmed by Jeff’s relationship with Saunders, since she was the skilled and knowledgeable one of the pair and stayed that way throughout the film. Oftentimes the female love interest will start out being much better than her male partner, but over the course of the film he will somehow surpass or at least equal her skills and become the most important figure in whatever struggle there is (see Antman and The Lego Movie). While Jeff does become the focal point of the conflict here, he is still looking to Saunders for cues throughout the whole filibuster. It is his sincerity and spirit which make him strong, and it foils nicely with Saunders’ strategic mind. But in the end, it was the message that really made this film enjoyable. As we know, the American people’s satisfaction with the government is at an all time low, and seeing a film about a hopeful politician trying to make a difference is very heartwarming. And I am a little embarrassed to admit that I did shed a tear or two at the end.

With all this in mind, I recalled from the lecture that this movie got some heat from all sides when it first debuted. I did some digging to see what sort of reception this film got and found that, after the movie’s debut, the Senate majority leader said it “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks” and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain worried that the film would damage America’s reputation in Europe. The Boy Scouts themselves wanted no part in the movie, thus leading to the fictional Boy Rangers. This all sounds bad but there’s something to be said about the fact that we are still talking about it in a film class today and that the film enjoys a very high rating on RottenTomatoes, if that means anything, One thing’s for sure, this movie has definitely affected my perspective on what “old” movies can be.

Sources:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3771/Mr-Smith-Goes-to-Washington/notes.html