This was one of the last movies on a list that, over the years, I have thought of as the “Why isn’t this on DVD?” list. Happily, the list has been constantly whittled down. The Knack finally came out, and so did Royal Flash, just recently. In fact, the only ones left are another Peter Bogdanovich opus, At Long Last Love, Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room, and They Might Be Giants. Being on this list doesn’t mean they are neglected masterpieces, or even very good, though some of them are. It just means I wanted to see them again.
This is often a lot of fun, but it never quite becomes what it wants to be. It takes place in the years between 1910 and 1915, in New York, Chicago, Cucamonga, and finally, Hollywood, and follows the adventures of a small band of moviemakers as they try to shoot film while being hounded by the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Edison Trust. This was an organization (later ruled illegal in restraint of trade) of the major production companies like Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, and Eastman Kodak. The MPPC did some good, introducing standards for cameras and projectors and renting films to exhibitors instead of selling them to improve quality control, but they were basically Big Business, and interested in squashing the little guys, who called themselves “blanket companies.” I think that’s because they hid their illegal cameras under blankets until they were ready to shoot.
This movie captures the anarchy of those days very well, according to what I’ve read about the period. They really did make up their stories on the trolley car on the way to the day’s location. They really did relocate to California to escape the MPPC. It’s clear that Bogdanovich loves this period of film history and wanted to make a valentine … but he missed. Bits of it are very good, but it never really comes together. Partly that is because it starts out as a slapstick comedy (too much slapstick, in my opinion; he seems determined to put at least three pratfalls into every minute of film) and then turns more serious, giving me a bit of whiplash.
The best part, and the reason why it’s worth seeing: The movie begins with a stage production of the play “The Clansman,” one of the nastiest pieces of drama ever to defile the boards. It ends with this jack-leg film crew attending the world premiere of the movie, The Clansman, soon to be re-titled The Birth of a Nation. (It is so terrible that the first really great movie was made from such loathsome material, but there it is, you can’t change it, and you can’t deny its greatness … well, I can’t, though some do.)
These guys are stunned, speechless, to see what can be done in film. They had had no idea, and they leave the theater inspired but depressed at the same time, realizing the paltriness of their own efforts, doubting they can ever compete with what they just saw.
And I’ll bet most people seeing this had no idea of what it was like to see a great “silent” movie. Because, you know, silents were almost never silent. Very few nickelodeons were so small or so mean that they didn’t have at least a piano player, sometimes playing from a score, sometimes making it up as he went along. Often there would be a small combo, or a band. In the larger cities, The Birth of a Nation and most spectacular films that followed it were shown with a full symphony orchestra in the pit, and dozens of sound effects men behind the screen, firing guns, imitating thunder and explosions and hoofbeats. Who needs sound?
Trivia: Bogdanovich shot it in color, but wanted to release it in black and white. The studios said no. In 2008 he showed a director’s cut in B&W, and that cut is included on the DVD. I took a look at it, and I think he was wrong. It plays better in color.
Also … There are two main female characters (in addition to Tatum O’Neal, paired with her dad again, in a small and neglected part). The ingenue is Jane Hitchcock, and she’s very pretty and quite competent as an actress … and aside from 9th billing in a TV movie five years later, she has never worked in films again. I have to suspect it’s because she didn’t want to. It’s hard to imagine a casting director not wanting to use her … unless she was an alcoholic or a hype or crazy, I guess. The second is Stella Stevens, and I immediately thought what I often think when seeing a movie more than 30 years old: “Whatever happened to …? Well, it’s sort of amazing. She’s been working steadily, she has a long list of credits … and I’ve seen almost none of them except her role as Appassionata Von Climax in Li’l Abner. That’s because 99% of those movies were crappy, and are long forgotten. But she’s been making a living in Hollywood. I hope she’s happy!