This week has been like Christmas to me! I’ve been more excited than Ralphie discovering that last obsessively desired present–his official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle–hidden behind a desk. I was awarded my first ever media credential to cover the TCM Classic Film Festival! Attending has been a long-term goal. Expect to see pre-festival coverage, posts during the course of the event, interviews, reviews, live tweets, Instagram pics, and more. You may find my festival writings appearing outside of this blog. Friend and Hollywood historian Karie Bible runs Film Radar, a site focusing on revival and specialty films. She’s asked me about contributing additional festival content to Film Radar. This next month will be an exciting one as we head on the road to Los Angeles and to the TCM Classic Film Festival together!
By msbethg in Authors, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Movies, Quotations, Winifred Watson, Winifred Watson Tags: 1930s, 1938, 30s, actors, actresses, Amy Adams, beautiful, beauty, cinema, Delysia, Delysia Lafosse, escape, escapism, going to the cinema, going to the movies, Guinevere Pettigrew, heroes, heroines, LaFosse, Miss LaFosse, Miss Pettigrew, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, movie characters, movie theater, movie theatre, movie types, moviegoer, moviegoing, négligé, orgy, thirties, villains, Winifred Watson
“In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace négligé. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.”
By msbethg in Actresses, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), Louise Brooks, Movies Tags: A Social Celebrity, actress, Anita Loos, casting, Colleen Moore, director, directors, Dorothy, Dorothy Shaw, film, films, Flaming Youth, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Laurence Reid, Lorelei, Lorelei Lee, lost, lost film, lost films, Louise Brooks, Malcolm St. Clair, Motion Picture News, movie, movies, Pamela Hutchinson, part, Prince of Wales, role, screen test, screenwriter, Silent but Deadly!, The Canary Murder Case, The Show Off
When refreshing about Anita Loos for my post on the writer, I stumbled across a reference in Pamela Hutchinson‘s excellent silent film column Silent but Deadly! about a casting that almost was–Louise Brooks as Dorothy Shaw.
Louise was the studio’s choice to appear in the first screen adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). If she had been cast, this would have been her third film working with director Malcolm St. Clair. Louise had acted for him in two prior films, The Show Off (1926) and A Social Celebrity (1926). Instead another film was their third pairing.
Even though Louise’s The Show Off character was a Lorelei, the Dorothy casting wouldn’t have been against type. The character was a chooser of the road less travelled. While Lorelei pursued men with status, money, and jewels, Dorothy romanced who attracted her for himself, whether he was a writer, tennis player, or ballroom dancer, and she ended up having adventures like meeting the Prince of Wales and teaching him American slang. Everything depended on whom was cast as Miss Lee for Louise to appear the more romantic, less scheming, and in her own way, less conventional one.
Louise got as far as the screen test, which she bombed. Anita Loos viewed the test, and she was bitingly honest to the actress saying, “If I ever write a part for a cigar-store Indian, you will get it.” Likely due to lasting bitterness at losing such a high profile part, Louise “was partly responsible for the low regard that St. Clair’s films later fell into.” During her late in life rediscovery by cinephiles, she would tell interviewers what a terrible director he was, but she was critical of most of her directors.
We’ll never know what kind of Dorothy Louise would’ve been once she relaxed into the role, and we have to read period reviews to know how the movie turned out. It’s a presumed lost film. It earned lukewarm reviews in which the cast were more praised than the project. Motion Picture News‘ critic Laurence Reid said it was missing “the sparkle of the book and the play.” We’ve the above picture of Louise to taunt us with the film that could’ve been, one we’d likely be lamenting as lost. Maybe we’d even be claiming that as Flaming Youth is to Colleen Moore, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is to Louise Brooks.
By msbethg in Anita Loos, Holidays, International Women's Day, Screenwriters, Women Screenwriters Tags: #IWD2016, Anita Loos, Brownlow, Clare Boothe Luce, comic, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, documentary, Douglas Fairbanks, F. Scott Fitzgerald, female, film, films, flapper, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, H.L. Mencken, Helen Hayes, HL Mencken, Hollywood, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, humorist, International Women's Day, intertitle, Intolerance, It, John Emerson, Jule Styne, Kevin Brownlow, Lillian Gish, Lorelei Lee, Mencken, movie, movies, novel, quotation, quotations, quote, Reaching for the Moon, Ruth Gordon, San Francisco, satire, satirist, scenario, scenarios, screenwriter, screenwriters, screenwriting, series, silent, Silent Film, silent films, silents, sound, talkies, television, The Women, TV, woman, women, writer
She started screenwriting in the silent era, and she’s credited for elevating the intertitle beyond the functional into an art form. A wordsmith, wit, and satirist, her intertitles had zing. Yes, they had “It.” It’s likely her exposure to the family tabloid and her own newspaper writing made her value succinctness. Would it be even more of a stretch to suppose that this early education schooled her in the art of equivocal, particularly innuendo? She could write a line explaining a scene and poking fun at a star’s persona. When describing yet another one of Douglas Fairbanks‘ characters designed to show off his athletic prowess, she wrote he had “a vaulting ambition which is likely to o’erleap itself and fall on the other side.” She was getting meta before that became a thing!
She had an aversion to societal hypocrisy and the pitfalls of her sex, threads that run through her work, like in this line from Intolerance (1916): “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice.” Instead she had a fondness for hustlers, loose women, and other characters usually viewed as disreputable undesirables. Exposure to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and piers, when accompanying her father on drunken wanderings and fishing trips, gave her a glimpse of those types at a young age, and she never lost her fascination for them, and they populate her work.
The most famous example is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ Lorelei Lee, a ditzy, gold digging flapper. Loos wrote the comic novel as an act of revenge. She was tired of seeing her male intellectual friends (and crushes like H.L. Mencken) fall for women with more “downstairs” than upstairs. Despite Loos’ upset over the inspirational situation, there’s an admiration for Lorelei’s wiles and ambition. Loos was a hard worker, and so was her creation, who through her kooky logic and machinations ultimately wins.
Despite a disastrous love life that included marriage to a controlling, abusive, narcissistic, spendthrift schizophrenic, she kept working and didn’t turn to drink or idleness unlike other contemporaries. She survived film’s transition into sound writing more screenplays and expanded her oeuvre to include additional novels, (likely fictionalized, but so much fun to read) memoirs, Hollywood biographies, and Broadway.
She even became a script doctor. My favorite example of this was her being called in to work on a property other male writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, couldn’t get right. They couldn’t relate to the source material. Fitzgerald thought it “a spiteful portrayal of femininity.” Loos loved the Clare Boothe Luce play. Loos was very familiar with its subject matter, an exposé of the cattiness, gossip, men-stealing, and gold digging of Park Avenues socialites and the wannabees. She delighted in dishing on what occurs behind the scenes in women’s spaces. She turned out a script in three weeks that remains a classic beloved for its zingers to this day–The Women (1937).
When she died in August of 1981, her drive resulted in a body of work spanning about 65 years. She remained a celebrity. The gamine, 4’11’ girl with the pixie cut had aged into a grande dame of the New York social scene, active and vibrant close to her end. She frequented the party, fashion, and arts circuits. She enjoyed being among the surviving few of the silent era able to share what ever stories she remembered or fabricated. Film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow interviewed her for his television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), and he must have had a fun time sorting fact from embellishment. “At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jule Styne played songs from Loos’ musicals, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The storyteller would live on in others’ tales and through her work.
By msbethg in Film Community, Film Critics, Film Twitter, Women Film Critics Tags: academic, academics, Alex Heller-Nicholas, aspirational, Bilge Ebiri, blog, blogger, bloggers, blogging, blogs, book, books, classic, contemporary, criteria, critic, criticism, critics, dearth, female, film, film Twitter, films, include, inclusion, journalist, journalistic, lack, list, list-making, lists, magazines, Marilyn Ferdinand, movie, movies, newspaper, newspapers, online magazines, outlet, outlets, paid, perspectives, physical print, podcasts, print, prominence, publication, publications, publish, publisher, publishers, publishing, radio, reviewer, reviewers, reviews, Sabina Stent, spotlight, The Atlantic, tradition, traditions, transgender, transgenderism, Twitter, Vanity Fair, Variety, woman, women, women film critics, women's, writer, writers, YouTube
What else was I up to during my winter blogging hiatus? My most initially time-consuming movie project outside of Spellbound involves Twitter. After articles from Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Variety bemoaned the lack of women film critics or their lack of prominence in the industry, I decided to do something pro-active. I created a women film critics list on Twitter. Even though I knew there are a lot of women film critics out there, I did not predict how many hours I’d devote to working on the list!
Based on my internet networking and reading, I knew there wasn’t a dearth of women of all ages engaging with and writing about movies. A lot of easily found online film writing from any gender falls into the category of uncritical fandom. There’s nothing wrong with sharing and delighting in what we enjoy. Sometimes a heartfelt personal recollection of what a movie or performer means to a blogger has more impact than an intellectual analysis, and sometimes both are great pieces to read. My goal in creating the list was to help others find true critics. If you know where to look, there are women producing quality film criticism. My list would cut down the search time to find them.
I began adding familiar critics I knew were on Twitter, and once I had a small list, I started crowdsourcing. I began Tweeting about the list and asking for recommendations. Complain about the term Film Twitter or the community if you like, but Film Twitter was wonderful in responding. The majority of responses I received were not self-serving. Many people, not just women, pointed me to women whose work they enjoy and admire. Some sent me multiple tweets as they thought of additional list members. Bilge Ebiri was one of the stand-outs in repeatedly sharing new recommendations with me. He was walking down the street while tweeting to me, and I imagined him having to avoid slapstick scenarios like walking into street lights or against pedestrian signals. All responders linked to critics’ Twitter handles in Tweets and suddenly these women critics were receiving notifications that their work was valued. Twitter was turning into a love fest! In turn, that led to the new list members suggesting others for inclusion.
One issue I had not predicted was the impact of transgenderism on building the list. Maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve not used the term “female film critics” as the word female relates to reproductive capabilities. If a person identified as a woman, and she was a movie critic, then I had no problem in listing her, and I received no negative feedback from those women in being included on the list. I was not about to police chromosomes. I was looking for a range of women’s perspectives to add to the list. In a few situations, people recommended I add individuals who may present visually in their styling as women, but identify as they and them in personal pronouns. One such person was good-humored about it and immediately tweeted a correction, so I asked about adding them to my general film critics Twitter list, and they were happy with that solution. In a couple of other cases, I initiated discussion about which list they were comfortable being added to.
Some self-recommendations proved problematic. On Twitter I shared the list was a work-in-progress and recommendations were welcome. The majority of those asking to be added were understanding about not being included yet. Only one major critic told me I had forgotten to add her. I politely responded in a way that seemed to diffuse the situation. Every once in a rare while someone self-recommended who was more aspirational in applying the term film critic to herself. Maybe her body of work was in a creative writing field with few film reviews published recently. Maybe her blog was mostly a personal one with a rare post on film. Maybe her only work published in an outlet was about TV. I tried to be diplomatic when speaking with these women. I didn’t want to diminish the value of the list for those looking for women writing about film, nor did I want to discourage these future movie critics. I always can reconsider someone for inclusion later as they rack up publication credits.
Obviously I developed criteria for making the list. To be fair, I sought feedback from Film Twitter as I created and revised my criteria. Marilyn Ferdinand, Alex Heller-Nicholas, and Sabina Stent were especially helpful during this process. Here’s what I came up with. To be added to the list, women film critics could come from the journalistic or academic traditions. They would have to publish consistently. That did not mean weekly publication as not all outlets follow that schedule, and many women film critics work as freelancers. Outlets include physical print (e.g. magazines, newspapers, and books), online magazines, radio, TV, prominent film blogs, podcasts, and YouTube. Reviewers did not necessarily have to be financially paid for their work. I’m aware that many writers agree to be paid in publication credits, and there are reviewers who self-publish and have followings. In some cases, there were women I could add to the list due to having publication credits, but their Twitter feeds rarely have anything to do with movies. This was especially true of Millennial writers who focus more on cultural commentary on Twitter while their publication credits sometimes include film commentary. I decided that list subscribers want to find women’s film writing, so I didn’t add anyone who doesn’t at least Tweet periodically about film. Right now the list focuses on women who cover contemporary film, and I’m considering who qualifies as a critic working within only the classic film community. As I said before, this is a list is a work-in-progress!
By msbethg in #52FilmsByWomen, Directors, Viewing Campaigns, Women Film Directors Tags: #52FilmsByWomen, animation, blogathon, Blogathons, campaign, Dance Girl Dance, director, directors, documentaries, documentary, Dorothy Arzner, female, feminism, feminist, feminists, Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco, Mabel Normand, narrative, pledge, silent era, Silent Film, silent films, silents, viewing, watchathon, watching, women, women in media, women in the arts, Women's History Month
During my recent blogging hiatus, I took a movie-watching pledge that’s perfect to share with you during March, which is Women’s History Month. I pledged to watch 52 Films By Women. I’m watching at least one film directed by a woman a week. I started fulfilling my pledge in January. I’m not alone in joining the campaign. As of today, 6,546 other people have made the same promise and are seeking out movies made by women film directors.
Women in Film (WIF) came up with the idea. They’re an advocacy group for women in media. Their goal is to see “gender parity reflected on and off screen” and ensure that “rich, diverse experiences of women’s lives are reflected on screen.” WIF “found that one of the barriers for female directors is a perceived scarcity of talent pool and experience.” Their 52 Films By Women project is a way to draw attention to the wide body of work from the silent era to today that’s available to be viewed, enjoyed, discussed, shared, and inspire future films.
If you’d like to participate, it’s very easy to. Fill out their pledge form here. Start watching films made by women. Share what you see with others. Tweet about the movies. Blog about them. Make Instagram, YouTube, and Vine posts. Remember to use the hashtag #52FilmsByWomen where appropriate. Talk to people about the movies. Organize your own home or theatre viewings. Have fun finding the work that is out there!
I’ve been sharing what I watch on Twitter, but moving forward I plan to feature the films on this blog. I’ve been selecting from the full time range of available offerings from the silent and classic eras to the present day, and the genres have varied within the formats of narrative film, animation, and documentary. I’ve been trying to make all movies first viewings and seek ones I’ve not seen before, but I was away on a trip last weekend, and while I watched a woman directed film in a theatre, it was one I’d seen previously. Maybe one week I’ll watch two to make up for that!
By msbethg in Actresses, Biographies, Book Review, Patsy Kelly, Reviews, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Tags: Buster Keaton, California, carbon monoxide, Charley Chase, Chicago Review Press, comedienne, comedies, comedy, death, gambling, garage, Hal Roach, Harry Langdon, Hot Toddy, Ice Cream Blonde, inquest, Jewel Carmen, Joe E. Brown, Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Massachusetts, Massachusettsan, Massachusite, Michelle Morgan, mob, mobsters, New York, Patsy Kelly, pratfall, pratfaller, Roland West, screwball, slapstick, The Tin Man, Thelma Todd, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, trial, Wheeler and Woolsey, Zasu Pitts
While Thelma Todd‘s death often overshadows her work, Michelle Morgan has written the biography the actress deserves. Any book about Thelma must mention her death and the mystery that surrounds it, but Morgan spends the majority of The Ice Cream Blonde discussing the slapstick comedienne’s life and career.
Morgan researched her subject well. The book is filled with details whose sources are carefully listed in the notes and bibliography sections. She shows how a prim and proper New Englander originally intent on becoming a schoolteacher became “Hot Toddy” roughhousing with a veritable who’s who of silent and early talkie comedy. Her famous co-stars included the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy.
Producer Hal Roach sought to make a female comedy short duo as popular as his Laurel and Hardy pairing. He first paired Thelma with ZaSu Pitts, and when Pitts left his studio, he replaced her with Patsy Kelly. While the shorts’ detractors call them derivative and uninspired, Thelma and her co-stars draw laughs in their roles, and the films’ plots, while sometimes bizarre like The Tin Man, put slapstick into female realms, seemingly to offer a woman’s take on this comedy form despite being written and directed by men.
Even though Thelma wanted a break-out role to lead to feature starring work, she was more concerned with expanding her talent and roles and securing her future than the fame associated with stardom. She was never too proud to not take a pratfall or to recognize and respect everyone working on-set. She knew the names of those working behind the scenes because she chatted with them about their families. As a consequence, she was beloved wherever she worked, at Roach’s or on loan.
Her generosity helped many a friend. When New York stage star Patsy Kelly wasn’t adapting to life on the West Coast or slapstick screen work, and her debts threatened to drown her, Thelma’s intervention prevented Patsy from returning east in defeat. When Patsy was fleeing California, Thelma became determined to save Patsy before the studio got word. Thelma hopped into her car and dragged Patsy off of her eastbound train. The two had an all-nighter, full of heart-to-hearts and advice. A lifelong friendship developed.
When her big break didn’t seem to be coming, Thelma’s practical side made her plan for her post-screen future by becoming a businesswoman. She partnered with former lover Roland West and his wife Jewel Carmen to open Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Initially Thelma was to provide her name and presence, while the Wests were to provide the financing and management, but Thelma became very hands on, learning to run most aspects of the business. She could be found hostessing and personally preparing food, and her presence attracted everyone from tourists to fellow film stars.
Her business put her on the trajectory to tragedy. Soon after becoming partners with West, the two became romantically involved again, and Thelma moved into the café’s apartment in a room next to his, only separated by a sliding door. The pair’s relationship was volatile, and at least once resulted in physical violence. Her alleged mobster ex-husband Pat DiCicco had been physically abusive as well. The smart starlet was not so smart in her choice of men. The eatery’s success and perhaps secret on-site gambling of Hollywood stars attracted mob interest. Meanwhile Thelma started receiving anonymous blackmail threats in the mail. Whatever your theory about Thelma’s subsequent death in the café’s garage, these incidents provided possible motives for murder.
In dissecting the available evidence surrounding Thelma’s death and the subsequent inquests, Morgan carefully conveys which testimonies and pieces of evidence she finds credible and why. She reviews the theories relating to accidental death, suicide, and murder, and she favors one, but she doesn’t belittle those coming in with others. For instance, she asks if Thelma truly walked to the garage herself why was no mention made of the state of her hosiery? Thelma was wearing high-heeled sandals, and such a long walk in or not in non-protective footwear would have resulted in dirtiness and runs.
Don’t think Morgan’s fact-focused approached leads to a dry style, quite the contrary. While her style is non-sensationalistic, it is engaging and allows the personalities she describes to be experienced through her words, especially in the book’s concluding and haunting quote from the actress. Maybe Thelma truly had the last word. Always the planner, she had posted Christmas cards and presents early. Friends and family received them a few days after her death. Still trying to make others happy. Her true legacy.
Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher, Chicago Review Press.
By msbethg in 1930s, Actresses, Black Friday, Charley Chase, Comedies, Directors, Era, Genres, Hal Roach, Holidays, Length, Producers, Shorts, Slapstick, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Tags: 1930s, 30s, bargain shopping, battling for bargains, Billy Gilbert, Black Friday, Charley Chase, comedies, comedy, comedy duo, comedy duos, comedy team, comedy teams, female, Hal Roach, in movies, James P. Burtis, on film, pre-code, pre-codes, precode, precodes, sales, short, shorts, slapstick, teaming, teamings, Thelma Todd, thirties, Zasu Pitts
Feeling Black Friday fatigue? Here’s a delightful Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts comedy teaming, The Bargain of the Century (1933), that pokes fun at battling for bargains for you! The duo’s slapstick antics bring humor to scenes best experienced secondhand. In their quest for a good deal, the women give and get bruises in a rough shopping crowd. Each lady does so in her own inherently idiosyncratic style. Thelma’s character is a scrapper, not afraid to get into the mêlée, and ZaSu’s character eventually gets a grabbing with her formerly timid, fluttering hands. Their shopping excursion ends up costing them more than they saved when they accidentally get a policeman (James P. Burtis) fired, whom they have to house and feed until they find him a new job. Of course, that task turns out not to be so easy! Watch the videos below to see how it all plays out.
By msbethg in Actresses, Holidays, Lillian Roth, Thanksgiving, Thelma Todd Tags: actress, Bay Stater, holiday, holidays, Lillian Roth, Lillian Rutstein, Massachusettsan, Massachusite, Michelle Morgan, publicity, publicity still, publicity stills, still, stills, Thanksgiving, The Ice Cream Blonde, Thelma Todd
Why the fervor over the Criterion Collection?
When DVD technology was new, I read in Movieline and other magazines filmmakers and actors praising the technology and claiming watching DVDs was like taking a film class. DVDs offered extras that most VHS tapes did not. Today the content on DVDs and Blu-rays varies. They might contain supplements, but if they’re made-on-demand, bonus features are likely to be minimal–if they are even included. The Criterion Collection carries on the tradition of educating film fanatics about the movies they love.
The company focuses on world classics and movies otherwise deemed culturally important. It packages home viewing copies in carefully designed cases usually including booklets containing essays written by experts on the films or their subject matters. Aspect ratio police can relax when watching a Criterion disc. When buying one, they will never buy a pan and scan, essentially a new directorial version of the film sacrificing its full screen image by cropping it to fit yesteryear’s square televisions. The distributor standardized the letterbox format for widescreen films on discs.
Sometimes Criterion’s licensing for movies lapses, and it cannot produce new copies for sale. The threat of time limited editions pressures movie lovers to buy discs sooner versus later. Tardy and unlucky cinéastes risk having hunt for them on the used market, where hard-to-get out-of-print editions can be costly.
As of my writing this post, a Google search of the words Criterion Collection yields 9.3 million hits. Most of that content isn’t even produced by the company. Fans share their Criterion hauls across social media. Some make blog posts and podcasts about individual films. Others go even further devoting their entire blogs and podcasts to covering only Criterion’s offerings. This blogathon is another contribution to the cult of Criterion!
In order to best cover Georges Franju‘s Judex (1963) for the Criterion Collection blogathon, I’m reviewing not only the film, but also its packaging and bonus features. I bought the dual-format edition, so all details following below refer to that edition, but a one-disc DVD edition is available.
Packaging & General Contents
The set comes in a sturdy box, squatter than a traditional DVD case, but of the same width and length. While the case is classic Blu-ray size, the plastic is not blue. It is clear, so that it does not detract from the cover artwork. Inside is a thirty-seven page booklet and three discs. One disc is a Blu-ray, and the other two are DVDs.
Packaging Design & Booklet Artwork
Art directors for this set are Sarah Habibi and Eric Skillman. The packaging design is by Skillman, “a Brooklyn-based designer, art director, and writer, best known for his work with The Criterion Collection, where he has been firmly ensconced since 2002.” Ron Wimberly, best known as a comics writer and artist, provides the illustrations, including the cover image. He designed the box art for Criterion’s Zatoichi collection.
Their challenge was to make the package and booklet visually tie into the Judex’s silent film aesthetics. They did a superb job! All design elements are in the color palette of silent film. They’re in whites, blacks, and grays with orange added as the one vivid, popping color. A modernized, meaning streamlined, art nouveau style is found in every design element. Major sections of the booklet are demarcated by intertitle-style boxes with art nouveau framing, and those frames are copies of ones in the movie’s opening credit sequence. Art nouveau embellishments mark essay and interview breaks. Wimberly’s illustrations have a simplified style. His subjects from the film are immediately recognizable, but they’re rendered in a style where the film’s decadent art nouveau aesthetic meets a graphic novel pop art style.
The booklet contains the film’s cast and credits listings, the essay The Secret of Heart of Judex by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, selected commentary by the director entitled Franju on Judex, information on the transfer, special thanks and acknowledgements, and productions credits. O’Brien’s essay covers a lot of ground, from Louis Feuillade‘s cinematic contributions and rediscovery, to his original Judex (1916), to what both directors have in common, to an evaluation of Franju’s version, and to how a reimagining of Feuillade’s Judex could result in a highly personal film for Franju with a lasting contribution to pop culture. In his commentary, Franju discusses how he actually wanted to remake Fantômas, but was solicited to remake Judex and how he modernized the telling of the tale while attempting to keep the original film’s atmosphere. He reveals how he felt about his main actors and characters. For example, his muse and frequent collaborator Édith Scob gave him déjà vu when he first met her. A diversion into Le grand Méliès connects back to Judex, but before it does some wonderful anecdotes about Jehanne d’Alcy, Méliès second wife and widow, are shared.
According to the booklet, “Judex is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.” On my widescreen television, the film’s images filled my screen without any letterboxing, but on standard 4:3 televisions and some widescreen models, you may see black bars to maintain screen format. The new transfer “was recreated in 2k resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” During the restoration process, “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed.” The resulting movie I watched has a gorgeous look, clear of signs of aging with the dreamlike silent film aesthetic intact and details in set design, clothing, and actors’ expressions readily studiable.
While this Judex is a near silent in some parts, it has spoken dialogue and a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, another frequent collaborator with Georges Franju. From the booklet: “The original monoaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” Again no signs of aging are audible in the movie’s soundtrack. The resulting soundtrack is clear.
Contents of the Three Discs
The single Blu-ray contains the movie, a searchable timeline, film chapters, supplements, and an option to turn off or on English subtitles (The default is on). DVD 1 contains the movie, film chapters, and the option to turn off or on English subtitles. DVD 2 contains the DVD version of all the supplements found on the Blu-ray disc.
The menu screen design of the Blu-ray is quite clever. As you prepare to watch the movie or its extras, you see Judex’s observation screen. Images from the film play within its frame on a loop. The soundtrack has a shorter loop than the images. It features a segment sounding quite sci-fi. You’ll likely not leave on the menu screen too long before the sounds of such a short loop get annoyingly repetitive.
- The first bonus feature is an interview with Francine Bergé, who played Marie Verdier/Diana Monti. The interview was recorded in 2012 for Paris’s La Cinémathèque française. She talks about what it was like working with Franju and the other actors and what a fun time she had on the set. Franju’s main character direction was for her to play her role as “evil.” She relates a sad on the set tale about costar Channing Pollock.
- The second is a 2007 interview with Judex cowriter Jacques Champreux. Franju credited Champreux for removing any aspect resembling movie serials in their retelling. He called Champreux “a habitué of the Boulevard of Crime” and one of “the most creative writers.” Champreux was involved with the project first, and he was the one who solicited Franju to participate. Champreux, also, happened to be the grandson of Louis Feuillade.
- The third supplement is Franju Le Visionnaire. It’s a fifty-minute program consisting of interviews with Franju that spanned twenty-three years. The last was filmed shortly before his death. Clips of his better known films are spliced into the interviews, and works covered include his documentaries, like Le sang des bêtes/Blood of the Beasts, as well as his fiction films, like Les Yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face. Franju Le Visionnaire was originally broadcast as part of the French television series Cinéma, de notre temps in 1998. The interviews expand on the booklet’s material in Franju on Judex going deeper into his film-making philosophies and techniques and his work on Judex.
- The fourth is short Le grand Méliès (1952). It’s a biographical tribute to early film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose movie career ended around the onset of World War I. Méliès started in magic theatre shows, and after seeing the Lumière brothers privately demonstrate their cinematograph, he knew it could be used for entertainment purposes. Franju’s film starts when elderly Méliès runs a toy store and jumps to the end of his pure theatre career as he segues into his movie career before ending in 1953, past Méliès death. His wife Jehanne d’Alcy plays herself, and Méliès’ son André plays his father. The movie is a creative way of teaching film history while demonstrating early film-making techniques.
- The final extra is Hôtel des Invalides (1951). It features music by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Marcel Fraedetal, both collaborators on Judex. It’s an antiwar documentary short. Hôtel starts off seeming like a simple cinematic tour of the museum in the former hospital. We follow a young couple visiting the site. The movie ultimately shows the human cost of war. We’re shown the place’s burial site, and we’re shown physically and likely psychologically wounded veterans being celebrated for their service. Hôtel hints war is not over as one of its final shorts contains child soldiers, eager to grow up and serve.
If you have seen Louis Feuillade’s movie serials Judex (1916) and Les Vampires (1915), you’ll get the most enjoyment out of this film. While it functions as an entertainment on its own, including scenes of original, strong imagery, it’s a lot more fun to see the ways in which Georges Franju’s film remains faithful to its source material and when it deviates. Placed throughout the movie are what we now call Easter eggs to Musidora‘s performance as Irma Vep in Les Vampires. Franju was known for mixing documentary style with the dreamlike, and his Judex screens like we’re watching his fever dream that crosses Feuillade’s films and a groovy, sixties crime thriller.
Franju loved how monochromatic silent film made everything beautiful, even the mundane. He was influenced by surrealism, expressionism, documentaries, and the French “tradition of quality.” Aware of his influences, he was driven to pursue his own vision: “I like films that make me dream, but I don’t like anyone to to dream for me.” He discovered Louise Feuillade’s films in 1938. He and Henri Langlois “included some of them in a retrospective program at the Venice Film Festival.” Franju complimented Feuillade saying, his style “does not seem like a style. . .His way of telling the simple or crazy stories that are made still more extraordinary by the familiar natural settings whose reality–the truth–always makes them beautiful.” It’s hard not to read that description and see those elements in Franju’s works.
Franju wanted to remake Fantômas, but its rights were not available, so he consented to work on Judex. He saw Judex, in the name of good, as being as horrible as Fantômas. In Franju’s film, Judex (Channing Pollock) loses his revenge tale. A backstory whose DNA can be found in pop culture creations like Batman is gone. Instead Judex metes out justice against the horrible banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) for no reason. Why did Judex decide to turn vigilante and punish Favraux for his crimes? Has Judex punished anyone else before? Is he letting out a dark side in the name of good? We never find out. Perhaps if Judex whims had turned another way, he’d be a criminal like Fantômas. Perhaps Franju’s Judex’s DNA can be found in television shows like Dexter.
Even though Judex’s targeting of Favraux starts the plot going, he becomes reactionary to the antics of Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), nanny to Favraux’s grandchild under the false name Marie Verdier. Diana has a scheme to marry Favraux, so she can get access to his wealth. Judex seems to kill Favraux at a party, and then Judex secretly kidnaps the comatose Favraux. Diana is the only one bright enough to realize the ruse. We’re never told what motivates her other than greed and jealousy, but Bergé is a better actor than Pollock and has more presence, so she makes the more use of her greater screen time. Her Diana is evil, sexy, and profane. A feat when following Musidora’s performances!
Édith Scob’s Jacqueline Favraux is Diana’s opposite. She’s the good woman whose strong moral character survives despite being the pawn of so many in the story. Her father Favraux had married her off too young to a man old enough to leave her a widow with a young child. Her father plans to marry her off again for his convenience to a penniless man of low morals. After her father’s “death,” his true nature is revealed to her, and she renounces her portion of his fortune, while leaving her child’s in trust for her to decide what to do with it when she comes of age. Jacqueline’s suitor breaks their engagement, and her only remaining friend is family servant Vallieres. Thin Scob conveys a physical fragility later exploited by Diana, and Scob gives Jacqueline’s eyes a haunting, soulful look that replaces her initial sunniness and naiveté.
Judex and Jacqueline stand in Diana’s way. She needs to find Favraux to “save” him so she can marry him. Judex knows where Favraux is, and Jacqueline is the heir who can make trouble for Diana and prevent her marriage. Diana repeatedly attacks Jacqueline, and while Judex doesn’t prevent the attacks, he’s too consumed in punishing her father, he repeatedly saves her. It’s sheer luck that Diana’s efforts don’t kill Jacqueline before Judex’s appearances. Further speaking to his impotency against Diana, it will be another female, Daisy (Sylva Koscina), more robust than Jacqueline, but also a wearer of white, who will prove to be more than Diana’s equal in a rooftop battle.
The film’s setting exists in an alternate reality merging 1914 and 1963. All the cars driven are vintage, and one neat scene features headlights being lit by hand with flame. The characters wear sixties clothing that echoes their characters’ silent film origins. There’s a tribute scene to Les Vampires’ Apache dance sequence. Diana and her boyfriend Morales (Théo Sarapo), are dressed like mod reinterpretations of Irma Vep and her companion. Judex has gadgets and a secret lair like in the silent, but they’re upgraded for the sixties, like Judex’s observation mirror. Phones and decor remain vintage style. As in the original Judex and in Les Vampires, the decor offers much eye candy and design inspiration. My favorite set piece is Favraux’s art nouveau embroidered desk chair.
Franju fills his film with beautiful and surreal and frightening images. A kidnap attempt on Jacqueline is foiled when German shepherds suddenly appear on the grounds. They drive Diana and her henchman away, and one dog rests his paw protectively on Jacqueline. The scene is like something out of a fairy tale. In another scene while dressed as a nun, Diana attacks Jacqueline with a hypodermic needle. It’s done in daylight and in public, and no one notices. Later Diana has drugged Jacqueline dropped into the river, where she floats away. Shots of her in the water evoke Ophelia. Near film’s end, Judex’s men carefully scale the wall of Diana’s hideout. They move slowly up it like insects.
The movie’s standout scene is its masquerade ball. Pollock is best made use of in this sequence. The tall, handsome man stands outside the party. As the camera pans up his tuxedo, he’s revealed to be wearing a hawk’s mask, and its face looks toward the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He turns his attention to what appears to be a dead dove, picks it up, and carries it on his hand into and through the party onto the stage. With a sleight of hand, the dead dove becomes a living one and flies out toward the crowd. A crowd of people wearing bird and insect-like masks. Pollock was a stage illusionist best known for his grace in making doves appear out of nowhere. For a moment, Pollock has something in common with his director. Both skillfully make illusions to entertain.