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King Vidor

Men on a Mission

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.

Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.

While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.

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Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.

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MOD Movies: Silent Hollywood

Show People (Warner Archive), from 1927, is one of the greatest of Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. It is a marvelous showcase for the talents of Marion Davies and in some ways it is the story of its star. Davies was a natural comedienne, full of warmth and sparkle and energy and sweetness, but William Randolph Hearst (her boyfriend) didn’t think comedy was dignified enough for his woman and wanted to build her up as a dramatic star.

In Show People, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, is naïve Southern girl trained in hoary stage melodrama and brought to Hollywood by a father who wants to make her a star. With her bright eyes and big smile and unassuming determination, Davies makes Peggy a delight, completely out of her element in the professional studio system but plucky enough to get over her humiliation and become a natural in the “low” comedy of slapstick while dreaming of the serious drama put out by the likes of High Art Studios, which indeed comes calling.

King Vidor rarely dipped his toes into comedy but this was his second film with Davies and he brings out the best in her and in the film, which spoofs the culture of Hollywood celebrity while celebrating the act of moviemaking. He slights neither aspect, and while his recreation of the slapstick film unit (a Keystone Kops-like team) is clearly a fiction, there is surely more authenticity to the moviemaking apparatus than we see in more contemporary films about filmmaking. And to fans of old Hollywood, the film also features some of the superstars of the era playing themselves in playful cameos, including Charles Chaplin (out of makeup), Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Mae Murray, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, Lew Cody, Elinor Glyn, and King Vidor himself. He’s a better director than actor and he brings a light, deft touch to this bouncy comedy. The disc features an archival synchronized score with sound effects, and the mono soundtrack is low fidelity and in some sequences quite distorted. It preserves the original release version, but more audio work needs to be done.

Show People is one of the most famous of the Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. One far less well know but almost as accomplished and just as interesting is Souls For Sale (Warner Archive), a 1923 feature that was lost for years and rescued in the last decade.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Bird of Paradise’

There was a vogue for South Seas exotica in the late silent and early sound era, films made up of varying degrees of ethnographic revelation, social commentary, and erotic spectacle. Moana (1926), Robert Flaherty’s documentary portrait of life in Samoa, is the first expression of this idealized screen fantasy (every scene was carefully staged for his cameras), and the most spectacular expression comes via King Kong (1933), which exaggerates both the primitive exoticism and the primal fears of savage tribal culture to outrageous extremes. Along the way are films as varied as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Pagan (1929), Tabu (1931), and King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932).

Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea

You wouldn’t peg King Vidor, a social realist by nature, as a natural for such a subject, and the director himself dismissed 1932 Bird of Paradise as “a potboiler.” He took the assignment with no script, merely a Hawaii location, a South Seas setting, Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea set for the starring roles, and a few directives from producer David O. Selznick, new ensconced as head of production at RKO. “Just give me three wonderful love scenes like you had in The Big Parade and Bardelys the Magnificent. I don’t care what story you use so long as we call it Bird of Paradise and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish,” is how Vidor (writing in his autobiography A Tree is a Tree) recalled Selznick’s request. And that’s what, after weeks of waiting out tropical storms to shoot location footage in Hawaii and completing the production with Catalina doubling Hawaii, he finally delivered. So many of these films revolve around forbidden love, often (though not always) about white male adventurers intoxicated by the primal innocence in a land of plenty and a culture of easy living. And so goes Bird of Paradise, with McCrea as Johnny, the all-American sailor who (with the blessing of his paternal captain) jumps ship to spend time on a tropical island and the chief’s beautiful young daughter Luana (Del Rio), who is betrothed to the prince of another island. But of course.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

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