Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Orson Welles

HG Wells wrote a book in 1898 detailing an alien attack on Earth. It was one of the first of it's kind, tying in current (for the turn of the century) scientific theories with an alien invasion and attack on the human race. Wells had studied as a scientist and like Neil Degrasse Tyson today, was widely known for his ability to explain scientific theories with a simplicity that everyone could understand. Although "War" was classified as science fiction and scientific romance, it's parallels to evolution, space travel, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life was based on the research of the time and inspired many scientists. Just 20 years prior Mars had been viewed for the first time through a telescope, and 30 years prior Darwin issued his theories of natural selection and evolution.
                                                             Original broadcast in full:

Orson Welles had primarily worked on the stage and in radio prior to the 1938 broadcast that brought him international fame. Basing the mood for the broadcast off the non-fictional Hindenburg disaster reports, Welles (and Howard Koch) reset the novel by placing it in New Jersey instead of England, and planning to deliver it as a breaking newscast interrupting the "live" broadcast of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra (actually the in house CBS orchestra) with bulletins and commentary from scientists, witnesses, and members of the US Government (played by Welles and other CBS actors).

Howard Koch

The Mercury Theater on the Air program was one of few programs to air without advertisements. Welles had been a regular cast member for 3 years, and having heard Ronald Knox's BBC false broadcast of London riots a few years prior, was inspired to try a similar plot in the US.  Without commercial interruptions and already in a heightened state of anxiety over attacks due to the looming threat of a second world war, listeners that joined the program mid-broadcast were unaware it was a work of fiction.

With sound effects (directed by Ora Nichols), "dropped" interviews, dead air, and a general sense of panic throughout the hour long broadcast, many listeners were thrown into a frenzy as CBS simulcasted their broadcasts throughout most major cities in the eastern US. Radio stations were flooded with calls from concerned citizens, and unrelated power outages in a handful of towns added to the confusion and fear. Although today we're told the hysteria wasn't as dramatic as originally reported, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were genuinely terrified by the performance. Welles had anticipated listeners tuning in during breaks of other stations, and timed the most terrifying parts around these since the Mercury was a smaller production with fewer listeners and no stop sets. People turning the dial after the first scheduled commercial break in other station's programs (just like today, around 13 after the hour) initially caught War in the first report on an invasion over Grover Mills, NJ. After the introduction, no mention was made that the story was fictional until over 30 minutes in.

CBS Studio 10/30/38

The newspapers, threatened by radio, had a field day with Orson's performance. They claimed radio had too much power and was dangerous, suggesting everyone go back to print, as print "never deceives".  Even Hitler cited the broadcast as proof of "the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy".  The station was sued by hundreds, citing mental anguish and personal injury. All suits but one were dropped - a man had spent money reserved for new shoes on supplies to flee town - Welles insisted the man be compensated. Newspapers ran almost 13,000 stories and the station was investigated by police and FBI (then called the BOI). Koch told the NY Times - "The police came in after the broadcast and seized whatever copies [of the script] they could find as evidence - There was a question that we might have done something that might have criminal implications" .

Regardless of the mayhem caused, Orson Welles and CBS were skyrocketed into international fame. The broadcast has been copied numerous times all over the world: in the 1940's a Spanish DJ reenacted the story with help from a local newspaper, initially causing fear in Ecuador that led to police being dispatched. Once it was revealed the story was fictional, a riot broke out against the station and newspaper that played party to the hoax.

To this day Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast is cited as one of the most famous moments in radio history, and you can often hear the broadcast re-aired around this time of year. Welles was only 22 at the time, and the fame garnered almost immediately launched his Hollywood career.

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!". Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween!"

                                               Welles apologizes for the misleading broadcast:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Old Hollywood Costume Parties

No one knew how to don a costume better than Old Hollywood.  

Cagney, Francis, Chevalier, Blondell and Barnes                   
  Claudette dressed as Scarlett O'Hara     
The Beatles and friends at an album release party 

  Chaplin as Napoleon                                                                 

  Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, 1933

Gable, Lombard, and Hearst at a party

Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett       

  Grant, Pickford, De Frasso, and Carminati

Betty Grable, Martha Raye, and Dorothy Lamour Can-can!

Swanson, Davies, Bennett and Harlow

Norma Shearer and Hearst at his birthday party

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The most F'd Up Movie Ever

I'm taking a little detour from the classics (although the one Im about to discuss is considered "cult" to some) because I saw this blogathon about messed up movies  and wanted to add my two cents.

1980's Cannibal Holocaust. Seriously.  I've lost friends after lending this one out. The conversation always begins the same:
"man, I thought this movie was gonna be messed up but it was so not scary/gory/etc"
     "oh yeah?  well, I have this movie, but it's pretty rough . . . I've only made it all the way thru it once "
 "whatever it can't be that bad, I so want to see it"
     "well, okay."

The next (and often last)time I see them is when they are slipping the DVD thru my mail slot and scurrying off.

Im not a squeamish person. I can sit thru stuff like Traces of Death, Mondo Magic, the evening news, no problem.  But I can honestly say CH is the most brutal movie I've ever seen, and I always end up leaving the room not because it's really gory, but because it makes me so. damn. uncomfortable in it's realism. In what is considered the birth of the "found footage" format (like Blair Witch, Paranormal activity, etc") we get a movie that was not only confiscated by Italy's magistrate at the release, but a movie that is STILL banned in almost half the world.

 It starts innocently enough. A group of documentary film makers want to travel into the wild to capture tribes on film that are hidden in remote and never before seen areas of The Amazon. Just a bunch of fun loving college kids out to make their mark on the world and have an adventure. Good times, right? Um, no.

Things start to go wrong as cultures collide when the team locates villagers. The group underestimates the villagers and treats them horribly, staging violent and deadly situations for "a good shot", and taking advantage of their women, which is violently retaliated for. Between wars with other tribes and the film makers being just insufferable assholes, the brutality escalates fairly quickly and... just ugh.

 Maybe it's because I'm a chick. Everyone meets a seriously horrible end, but it seems the women (and some animals) get the brunt of it. I get what it's supposed to represent, it jumps back and forth from the "found" footage and documentary makers in New York, and you can't tell who's more messed up - the people that will  rape and murder for entertainment, or the suits that approve this behavior to make appealing programming for ratings.

 The only time i would really recommend watching this is if you are curious to see how much you've been desensitized by society, or to test how much realistic torture and mutilation you can tolerate. If you can sit thru this one and not bat an eye, well, you're likely a little f'd up too (but we still love you).

Friday, October 5, 2012

Hollywood's Black Friday

After 6 months of striking for better wages by the set director sect of the newly formed Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), tempers reached a boil in front of the WB gates on Oct. 5th, 1945.

77 set directors set out to form their own union separate from the international union that had previously resided over most of the film trades in Hollywood. After 9 months of wage negotiations and most of the studios reaching a deal, Warner Brothers failed to deal with the newly formed union, setting off a strike that delayed films such as Dual in the Sun and Night and Day.

Approximately 10,500 employees picketed the gates of the studio. When workers attempted to break the line and fill the jobs, cars were attacked and overturned, forcing the hand of Burbank police to take action against the picketers. Over 40 injuries were reported.

Continued striking throughout the next week along with national attention forced Warner to negotiate with the union. Unfortunately for the CSU this would also trigger government regulation in the form of the Taft-Hartley act, essentially regulating union size and power to avoid similar conflicts in the future. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Keaton on the Big Screen

I used to be bored to tears by silent films.  Sad, I know, but it's true.  Smooth into my early 20's even, I would try, because I at least realized a lot of them had historical significance, but would always seem to hit play, and then wake up when the end credits were rolling.

I'm not sure if it was hitting the wise, ripe age of 25 or what, but somewhere I developed different tastes in films than I had growing up.  When I had TCM (oh how I miss you, please stream) they had a feature - probably still do- called Silent Sundays that would still be on Monday mornings while i was getting ready for work. And this weird  movie, with any shot of money tinted gold, was on, and 3 hours later I was hooked, and super late for work.


Fast forward 5 years to now- I recently moved to Los Angeles, and holy crap the plethora of films you can see on the big screen here. After Greed I ran the gamut on silents, Demille, Griffith, Chaplin, Stroheim, if I could find it, i would watch it.  But, as much as I enjoyed them at home alone on the couch, something was missing.

The Cameraman is now my favorite Keaton film.  It's absolutely hilarious. Whenever Im bummed out, I find that scene of him in the dressing room at the Venice Plunge on youtube, and giggle away.  This was the first film Keaton did with MGM, and the last film he made there where he had creative control.  Hollywood thought it was completely lost, but in Paris in the late 60's,  someone found the whole thing.  Another copy was found in 91, and through the combination of the two, we get the whole film in near-perfect quality.

Filming the dressing room scene

A few weeks ago I spotted a Facebook posting from The New Beverly Cinema about a Buster Keaton night. I came so close to not going, short notice, laziness, etc etc. but I even managed to drag my boyfriend along, and Im so glad I made it - I realized what was missing siting alone on the couch.

New Beverly Theater

The movie revolves around a poor tintype photographer who falls for a girl, Sally, who is a secretary in a news department. In an attempt to impress her, he trades in his junk camera for an even junkier motion film camera that he doesnt even know how to operate, and shows up at her job looking for work to be near her.  Even after making a fool of himself in front of her entire office, Sally takes Buster's phone number and promises to call. (When she does call, Keaton runs down about 5 flights of stairs, and then a mile or two, and is in her lobby before she even realizes he's dropped the phone. Awesome scene).  He is so happy to be on a date with her, but naturally everything that can go wrong does - he's broke, he gets squeezed off the trolley, his bathing suit doesnt fit, he loses his bathing suit all together, all the other guys along the way try to steal her away, aw man! - and the date ends with poor Buster being dropped off by a guy from her office who had picked them up on their way home.  The next day, trying to help Buster, Sally gives him a tip of something possibly film worthy going on in Chinatown, but he messes that opportunity up as well, almost costs Sally her job, and vows to stay away.  I won't spoil the hijinx that result in the end of the film, but it involves a monkey, a speedboat, chivalry, and sweet redemption. It's really some of Keaton's finest.

As soon as we arrived at the theater I got incredibly excited.  We had to wait . . IN A LINE... for the box office to open to get tickets.  I wonder if Keaton ever imagined that in 2012 there would be a line to get in to see his films, I hope he did. Young, old, black, white, everybody waiting anxiously to see a great film. It's really a happy occasion to see so many different backgrounds able to come together for a common interest. No matter what we think or do when we go home, for that one moment, we're all together, getting along, and really happy in each other's company.  Keaton did that for us that day. Awesome.

The theater was almost full.  The Beverly isn't a huge theater but it probably seats 150 or so.  I was thinking "eh, this will be cool for a Sunday afternoon, pass some time with a good movie" not really understanding the enjoyment about to happen. The movie starts, and about 2 minutes in, as soon as we see Keaton fighting a crowd to be able to smell Sally's hair, the whole theater erupts in laughter. The 8 year olds behind us were laughing every bit as much as the 80 year olds in front of us, making us laugh even harder. By the time Keaton gets to go on his date, my boyfriend was laughing so hard i thought we might have to step out for a second.

For some reason, when you see movies with an audience, the emotions in the movie hit you harder.  Sitting in the dark with popcorn in a room full of strangers, all laughing and booing at the same thing, really makes seeing a movie an experience. Especially at a venue not trying to squeeze every last cent out of you.  I think modern films and theaters are kind of lacking in that department.  The theaters are so big and expensive, the movies so overdone, you kind of lose that sense of community you get in a smaller theater with a film that doesn't rely on booze and fart jokes for a laugh.  I can understand how back in the day going to a movie was a real event.  Not just because it was all new to them, but because you felt a little more in touch with your fellow man at a good movie that had something to say, or could really make you laugh. That's what was missing from my couch.

I cannot wait to find more silents to see on the big screen.