Film / Film Reviews / The Story of Film

The Story of Film: An Odyssey — Chapter Two “The Triumph of American Film”

Turner Classic Movies is currently playing host to The Story of Film: An Odyssey. This 15-part documentary, which originally aired on British television back in 2011, is the brainchild of film critic Mark Cousins, based on his 2004 book of the same name. The documentary provides an overview of the history of cinema worldwide, and a new episode airs each Monday through December. In addition to the screening of every chapter of the documentary, TCM will present a selection of films—both feature-length and short subjects—that are either discussed during that episode or that are related to the time period covered within that segment.

Here at The Moviola, we will be covering the documentary every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the second installment, “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels,” (1918 – 1928) which premieres tonight, September 9th, at 10PM EST.

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Each episode of The Story of Film is dense with information and imagery. Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ takes an atypical approach in telling the story, and, as written about earlier, it takes some getting used to. Not just the unusual cadence and lilt of his narration, but the non-linear way he has organized the material.

The second chapter’s stated theme focuses on this new art form and its transformation into commerce; the US’s ability to take Henry Ford’s assembly line template and extend it to motion picture production and distribution. But perhaps a more apt description of this episode would be the circuitous route that film influences and inspires a world hungry for entertainment, and other countries and generations impersonating and assimilating these advances and milestones in movie making. The episode may be based in the golden age of silent film (1918 – 1928) but Cousins’ thesis is that its lasting impact can be felt and seen today.

Cousins purposefully uses anachronistic images, time and place to connect disparate elements thematically, not always successfully. He references a red Christmas tree decoration (the “bauble”) as it seems mammoth in forced perspective in front of the Hollywood sign. But his point is to illustrate how delicate and ephemeral the Hollywood vision (the “Bauble”) is and how many pioneering filmmakers rejected the “dream factory” mentality; setting in motion artists from later decades, when the dictatorial system would come crashing down.

To further “expose the artifice,” Cousins frames and lights his interview subjects unflatteringly, low camera angles reveal shadows, harsh bright spots, cables running across marked carpet; anything to strip away the glitz and expected glamour of the Hollywood frame.

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After World War I, while most of Europe was rebuilding, Hollywood opened its doors, pumping out product that “promised perfection.” The Studio System had been born, run by business men who would seemingly be ill-fitted for the task; four Canadian brothers started Warner Bros., a brash Russian immigrant built MGM, and for the first time, the moviemaking, which had been the slave to the sun, the reason it moved west in the first place, moved indoors, inside soundstages where cameramen and directors learned and excelled at controlling light.

Interestingly, at this time, in Japan, the director reined supreme, but in the US, it was the producers and Studio heads who ran the creation and distribution of this “art”, because they were faster to capture the idea that films were not just an art form, but were first and foremost a commodity.

Cousins then begins his mini thematic journeys; for light, he uses Citizen Kane (1941), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Desire (1936) to showcase how the use of light was Hollywood’s greatest  storyteller.

Author Henry Miller called Hollywood a “dictatorship,” and he wasn’t off the mark. Cousins illustrates how fascism was the mode of operation for the studios, dictating outrageous demands upon their talent to keep the myth, the “Bauble,” alive. Contracts that laid out what time Joan Crawford had to be in bed each night, and that Johnny Weismuller could be fined a dollar for every pound he gained over 190, were the norm.

Cousins breaks down the look of the big three studios: MGM films exhibited opulence and optimism, Warner Brothers was street-wise, depicting harsh lit scenes, and Paramount sparkled, delivering romantic stories that were geared toward a more feminine audience.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is offered up as a prime example of the silent storytelling style that was so ingrained in the American psyche, and yet so foreign to the rest of the world. Studios thought they were delivering “classical” stories, but they were described here, not complimentary, as “romantic.”

In the first 90 seconds, we’re given the film’s theme; etched across the sky in a lantern’s smoke: “Happiness Must Be Earned,” a tweak on the American Dream. Then we dissolve to a series of shots that each reveal more information as one dissolves to the next: a busy, street scene, with American stylized “arabesque” structures. Next, we go deeper to see our movie star, Douglas Fairbanks, bronzed and smiling, asleep amidst the toil around him. In deeper, and we see his movie star good looks; there is no question; this is our protagonist. Feigning slumber, he easily picks the pocket of a wealthy man, and as the victim leaves the frame, we are given a series of images that focus the screen direction; a character exiting frame right, turning back to face frame left in search if his missing wallet, and so the setting, the theme and the staging have been presented quickly and efficiently.

With this simple theme delivered, Cousins introduces us to whom he consideres the real innovators of silent cinema; the comedians: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

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Before these titans, there was simple slapstick; wideshots that offer a frame for stunts and vaudevillian surprises. But Keaton, with the genius mind of an inventor, turned inward, learned and dissected the camera. He turned the already established conventions of film inside out, turning editing (Sherlock Jr.) , perspective (One Week) and expectation (The General) on its head.

Cousins again jumps time and displays some of the L.A. locations then and now, and how Keaton’s understanding that the visual medium of film was not just about what the viewer “sees,” but what he doesn’t “see,” hid peripheral objects that detract from the message and the meaning.

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Again, we fly through time to see how Keaton’s inspiration still impacts filmmakers today. Palestine’s Elia Suleiman renders his film Divine Intervention (2002) in shadings of Keaton. We watch a boy bouncing a soccer ball in an alley, accidentally kicking it up onto a roof. Shot in wide, old men in the foregound never moving, watch deadpanned, their backs to the camera, as a grumpy man stomps out a rooftop door, grabs the ball and pops it, then strides back off screen. Classic Keaton.

But Keaton’s production excesses soon overtook his box office revenues, and he slowly lost more and more control of his films. It destroyed him, and ever the rebel, he drank himself into a slow death; ending up living in a trailer in a carpark next to MGM, where he had once been king.

If Keaton was the meta-camera comedian, Chaplin was the physical master. We see a rarely viewed rehearsal of Chaplin viewing a naked statue in the window from City Lights (1931), as he wears just remnants of his tramp outfit, the cane and the hat really, just to give him the props he needs to make the scene work.

Chaplin’s work was more autobiographical, he and his brother Sidney came from extreme poverty, and this informs his little tramp; used to masterful perfection in The Kid (1921) , Chaplin’s first feature length film. He expertly melds comedy and tragedy to create pathos, as the self-adoptive father fights to keep his child. Physical comedy and rooftop derring-do direct the audience to laugh through their tears.

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Another deleted scene from City Lights shows the Tramp playing with a piece of wood trapped in a street air vent. We are watching a character “unaware” he is being watched, as his subconscious behavior informs and gives him a relatability we could barely fathom if we were expected to choreograph our own inner lives. We flash forward to 1980, and watch Nicholas Roeg’s Bad Timing, as Art Garfunkel and Teresa Russell project one type of persona, but the eye catches the behavior of their unconscious lives, nervous fingers and energy, which betray their stoic attitudes.

It is also this greater understanding of the unconscious life that so informed Keaton and Chaplin. In The Great Dictator (1940) Chaplin’s Hitler has no idea we are watching him as he takes the globe and performs and achingly beautiful dance with this mistress who he hopes to, but ultimately will never, conquer.

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We then fly through time yet again, following all of the artists who were informed and inspired by Chaplin; some using more subtlety to tap into the same genius of passive voyeurism, like France’s Jaques Tati, who made his character an alternative to the Tramp; where Chaplin’s pants were long, Tati’s were too short. While the Tramp leaned back from the action, Tati leans forward.

In Italy, 1940s Toto became a huge star wearing Chaplin’s trademark hat and jabby confident manner. In India, Raj Kapoor gave us Awaara (1951) modeled after the tramp; streetwise and plucky. And Billy Wilder, who Cousins will revisit again and again throughout his series, a filmic master in his opinion, illustrates several odes to Chaplin, not the least of which is Gloria Swanson’s impersonation in Sunset Boulevard (1950). And then the flip side; we see sad street performers along decrepit Hollywood Blvd today, some dressed in a saggy Chaplin outfit, no longer the bright icon, now a shadow of a shadow.

Harold Lloyd also started out as a Chaplin impersonator with his early Lonesome Luke, later changed to the athletic nerd, the everyman who yearns for the girl, but can’t quite achieve her through traditional means. Safety Last! (1928) is the measuring stick of all Harold Lloyd works, and thanks to Keaton, displays his use of framing to deliver and hide the elements that will give the most heightened reality to his scenarios.

But the failure of Hollywood’s Dream Factory, the “bauble,” was so delicate, that Americans believed Baghdad was what Thief of Bagdad showed, not the real thing, as we are exposed to today with real images of Iran, and so this fleeting, ephemeral dream can be easily shattered.

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Several filmmakers already had realized the fakery, and wanted to show real life, which brought about documentary filmmaking, what Cousins considers the greatest innovation of 20th Century Cinema. (Cousins shows us images of the homeless, decaying buildings from  today as examples of reality in the world of dreams). Some of the great filmmakers were not just the documentarians, but those who learned to meld the non-fiction world with a fictionalized reality, to deliver something entirely new and fresh. Examples include:

The House is Black (1963) an Iranian documentary, used beautiful Black & White photography and smooth tracking shots to turn a home for lepers into a filmic poem.

Sans Soleil (1983) Chris Marker filmed real places in Japan and added a fictional essay; created letters against real images of people, to help imagine a very believable alter reality

The Not Dead (2007) Brian Hill – took war experience interviews from a veteran and turned his words into poems

The Five Obstructions (1963) by Jorgen Leth is remade in 2003 by Lars von Trier with the original filmmaker Leth, tasked to remake his film five times, each with a startling new challenge.

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Back in Hollywood, the success of documentaries like Nanook of the North inspired director Erich von Stroheim to take on the establishment, and rebel against every facet of the “bauble.” In Blind Husbands (1918) von Stroheim filmed himself square on, looming out of the dark, leering at the audience to unnerve and expose them to reality.

In an interview with classic scenarist Anita Loos, she comments that von Stroheim was one of the few geniuses from the silent days, with such vision, he found nothing but trouble in Hollywood. His drive for realism was greater than any documentarian.

Greed (1924) his epic 5th film, relates the story of a dentist’s wife who wins the lottery. In the original prints, the money was hand tinted yellow. As she becomes obsessively greedy, her husband becomes drunk and penniless. He finally murders her. In the climax, shot in Death Valley, California, he kills a rival, and now the yellow color of money has flooded the whole story. Handcuffed to the body, he must perish.

Von Stroheim’s finished film ran 7 hours, and he was considered the Dostoyevsky of cinema . But his studio, MGM,  hated the results. His film and style became a stigma, he never directed again. In 1950, he supposedly saw the studio edited version of Greed & cried. He said, “film is dead.”

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Again Cousins forwards to the future and to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd,” where we experience the many strange elements of coincidence and fate. Von Stroheim is cast as Norma Desmond’s butler. In the story, he is her ex-husband, and once one of Hollywood’s greatest silent directors. Desmond screens one of her old films. In it, we see the real Gloria Swanson from the silent days, in a real film Queen Kelly, directed by von Stroheim. Art imitates life which imitates art.

According to Cousins, the greatest pre-wall street crash social picture after Greed was The Crowd (1928). Director King Vidor, was a Hollywood anomaly; a philosopher. His films rarely had a villain and mostly featured women. They pushed realism beyond the Hollywood norm. The Crowd was the first film to use New York as a location, and Vidor cast an unknown lead instead of a star. His opening sequence, which has a camera craning high overhead hundreds of office workers to finally come to rest on our character John , was reworked again by Billy wilder in The Apartment (1960).

And Orson Welles, taking Vidor’s lead, used the same idea in The Trial (1962) but pushed it by exaggerating the space with small desks, dolls and little people, shooting upward, to force the perspective to extremes.

MGM, already burned by von Stroheim and uneasy with The Crowd, made Vidor shoot 7 different endings in different shades of optimism. The final ending,  the one the studio accepted, was a shrewd piece of compromise. We leave our protagonist in a movie theater crowd, as we pull back wider an wider to show a laughing audience. The studio may have thought it was optimistic, but it has an oppressive, tragic sensibility that delivers the film’s message resoundingly.

The Crowd made good use of the kinetic energy of the city, inspired by French and Russian filmmakers, like Yakov Protazanov and Yevgeni Bauer. We are treated to involved renderings by these directors, that use both natural settings and supernatural happenings to tell ghostly and powerful stories.

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Finally, we meet Carl Theordore Dreyer, a serious Danish filmmaker who challenged romantic fantasy cinema with deeply felt realism, undercutting emotion with a spiritual sparseness. Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) broke rules and helped reinvent film grammar. He filmed his Joan only in close up, with no make-up, her hair cropped right before the scene was shot. Supposedly the atmosphere on set caused electricians to cry. There is no depth to the image, only empty backgrounds, no set or shadows, the walls were painted pink to remove glare so as to not detract from Joan. Dreyer was the master of pared down décor. Other examples of this sparse style include:

Ordet (1955). In an interview, Dreyer stated, “…you can’t simplify reality without understanding it.” The actress was asked to equip her set kitchen with her own things from home. She brought all sorts of pots and pans, and then the cameraman and Dreyer started taking objects away one by one, until only four or five items remained, a pared down reality.

The President (1919) Dreyer’s first film, where he strove to simplify and purify his images.

Vampyr (1932) shadows against a white wall had a life of their own. Even the vampyr accomplice dies suffocating in purifying white flour.

Lars von Trier’s homage to Dreyer can be felt in his 2003 film Dogville, where he utilizes radical reductionism with set and style.

All of Dreyer’s work, and his descendants created a “purged cinema,” a universe away from Hollywood.
Cousins believe the 1920s was the greatest period of cinema, not just from the United States output, but from all over the world. Images were universal, and dialogue never interfered with the vision.

Following is the schedule of films and shorts that will accompany this second installment of the documentary (all times are Eastern).

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 9th
8PM: One Week (1920) Buster Keaton
8:30PM: The Three Ages (1923) Buster Keaton
9:50PM: Mischa Elman (1926) Violinist – Early Vitaphone sound example
10:00PM: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) Episode Two
11:15PM: The General (1927) Buster Keaton
12:45AM: The Kid (1921) Charlie Chaplin
1:45AM: City Lights (1931) Charlie Chaplin
3:25 AM: Harold Lloyd Biopic Short (1962)
3:30AM: Never Weaken (1921) Harold Lloyd
4:15 AM: Safety Last! (1923) Harold Lloyd

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10th
8PM: Nanook of the North (1922) Robert Flaherty
9:30PM: The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Douglas Fairbanks
12:15M: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodore Dreyer
1:40 AM: The Devil’s Cabaret (1928) Early use of color
2:00AM: The Crowd (1928) King Vidor
3:45AM: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)–Episode Two
5:00AM: Greed (1924) Erich von Stroheim

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3 thoughts on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey — Chapter Two “The Triumph of American Film”

  1. Interesting review, Wade. I will definitely try to catch some of the movies mentioned on TCM. Always great to read about Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd among others on a Monday morning.

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