Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is This Utake Abe?

One of the more intriguing minor characters in the Golden Chance is pictured to the right. He's a servant to Wallace Reid's fabulously wealthy Roger Manning. He may be Manning's valet. (Though Lucien Littlefield also makes an uncredited appearance early in the film performing a valet's duties.) He arrives late in the film, seeming to perform more of a porter's function. In the final sequence he functions as the "hero's sidekick" when he's charged with fetching the police to rescue Manning from a sticky situation in a rough part of town.

The same actor appears in the Cheat. He has a small role in both of these two films that DeMille shot at the same time toward the end of 1915. In this one, he plays a servant to a fabulously wealthy ivory merchant named Tori played by Sessue Hayakawa- the future Oscar-nominee's star-making role. Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen's 1969 book the Films of Cecil B. Demille identifies the actor as Utake Abe. Abe's imdb profile lists many variant spellings and alternate names for the Kyoto-born actor who acted in a number of Hollywood pictures in the teens and early twenties, before returning to Japan to become a notable film director. Joseph L. Anderon and Donald Ritchie's 1982 expanded edition of the Japanese Film: Art and Industry describe the beginnings of (as they spell it) Yutake Abe's directorial career:
Comedy, long neglected in pre-1920 Japanese films, was now coming into its own, the form receiving yet further impetus when both Yutake Abe and Frank Tokunaga returned to Japan. The former had been working in Hollywood - as a butler duting long periods of "at liberty" as an actor - and came home just in time to see what [director Yasujiro] Shimazu was doing in the way of comedy. Abe's long American training had given him a profound dislike for the Shimpa style, and shortly after his return he began creating films which brought to the new comedy speed, sharpness in editing, and sophistication.
Abe would make the first film to top the annual critics' poll held by the film magazine Kinema Junpo, with his 1926 comedy the Woman Who Touched Legs, which was remade by Kon Ichikawa in 1952 and by Yasuzo Masamura in 1960. Another film Abe directed that year, Mermaid of the Land, came third in the same poll, just edging out Teinosuke Kinugasa's a Page of Madness (Minoru Murata's the Sun, not to be confused with the Kinugasa film bearing that name, came second). Abe would continue a long career as a director, making what Anderson/Ritchie call "ultra-nationalistic" war films in the early 1940s, but continuing to work through the U.S. post-war occupation period and into the 1960s.

Interesting stuff, but perhaps a major sidetrack, as no other source I've seen confirms that Abe is the same actor who appears in both the Cheat and the Golden Chance. Many sources, including Robert S. Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, identify him as playing Tori's valet in the Cheat. However, there are two distinct actors whose characters performed as servants to the ivory king. Either might be considered a valet, and the one pictured to the left is the one with a title card of dialogue in the film (the closest thing silent films had to "speaking parts" I suppose). The question becomes, how reliable is Ringgold and Bodeen's information? As a researcher I've grown to become wary of the accuracy of data found only in a single secondary source and not corroborated. I'd love to be pointed to another source with a picture of Abe, whether in the Hollywood or Japanese phase of his career. I'm on the list to receive Daisuke Miyao's book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom when a copy arrives at my local library, in the hopes that Abe is discussed or pictured. Anyone else have any guesses on leads?

Whether it's Abe or another man, I remain curious about the actor who played an on-screen servant to both the heroic Wallace Reid and the villainous Sessue Hayakawa at precisely the same moment in film history. What stories could he tell of the film industry attitude toward Asian-born actors in Hollywood at the time? What would he say about Hayakawa? About DeMille? I'd love to know.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Upstairs/Downstairs and Conventional Morality

CB DeMille was nothing if not a conventional moralist. The Golden Chance, which has rightly been commented upon as a Cinderella story, is also Dickensian, with obvious parallels between the character of Mary Martin and Nancy, the abused and eventually murdered wife of thief Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Unlike Dickens, however, DeMille has no real interest in social reform. His Mary is not to be pitied for her situation in the same way we feel for Nancy. Mary chose to degrade herself with an unsuitable marriage below her station. DeMille, therefore, affords (likely unintentionally) a particularly twisted entertainment to the working-class women of the time—fantasies about being Cinderella at the ball and smug satisfaction at watching one of their betters pulled down off her pedestal and treated just as they would be treated by the ruling class.

Were DeMille willing to toss out his moral compass, he would have left no doubt about Mary’s instant availability to Roger upon the death of her husband. But for DeMille, the sanctity of marriage and knowing one’s place are far more important than individual happiness. There are many enforcers of the status quo: Mrs. Hillary’s maid, who gives Mary a dressing down for dressing up; Steve Denby, who sneers that Mary is no better than him just because she is a judge’s daughter; Mrs. Hillary, who uses Mary for financial gain and then makes sure Mary can’t do the same with Mrs. Hillary’s loaned jewelry. Despite the possibility of physical harm, Mary never seriously entertains leaving her husband and seems distraught when he is killed. There is no look of relief on her face that he is finally out of her life for good, and no final clinch with Roger. She probably realizes that Roger will never believe that Mrs. Hillary put her up to the deception, that is, if Mary would be so disloyal to her class again as to betray the Hillarys. And that will never happen. Mary will have a rough time as a single woman—and she deserves it, DeMille seems to imply.

In 1919, DeMille will have more fun with social convention in Don’t Change Your Husband (working again with the writer of The Golden Chance, Jeanie Macpherson). Still affirming the sanctity of marriage, DeMille allows his upper-class heroine, played by Gloria Swanson, to divorce her wealthy, but inattentive and slovenly husband to marry a man of her own social standing who turns out to be far more flawed than her husband. She, too, playacts at a costume ball at which her would-be lover is dressed as a king and she as a queen. Already in enviable circumstances, the characters must impersonate royalty to find suitable models for their aspirations and feelings. Her first husband reforms to win her back—affirming that he now takes marriage seriously and as something not to be taken for granted. No harm, no foul in this case. The larger transgression, it would appear, is betraying your own kind.

The superior-quality melodramas that comprise the genre of Women's films have remained surprisingly true to form over the years. Take a look at the films of Douglas Sirk and his spiritual protege Todd Haynes and see their inspiration in these early Women's films from the dawn of movie-making.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Popular (Silent) Film History

Brian has started off the discussion with a detailed and useful consideration of the continuity editing in The Golden Chance. I want to step back to reflect on how we (as cinephiles) approach a film like DeMille's. Popularly, silent film, most of all early silent film, does not fare well; just witness the Netflix stars or imdb ratings. Meanwhile, a popular cinephilia often falls prey to the "Griffith narrative": American cinema fumbled through awkward, one-reeler melodramas til D.W. Griffith refined a more supple film language and invented classicism. I myself have subscribed to this understanding, until I have watched a little more 1910s cinema. Crucially, I have to credit Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History textbook for breaking me of this lingering historical picture. For they point out Birth of a Nation's importance in elevating the social status but seem to isolate the formal innovations elsewhere, either in Griffith's early work or in other films of the mid-to-late 1910s. And once one starts to look closely, one can begin to draw a different picture.

The Golden Chance
, for example, lacks the epic scope of Birth of a Nation, the tracking shots, or the touches like the activation of off-screen space. But it feels to me closer to the direction in which Hollywood films would follow in the 1920s: continuity editing to give studio sets an illusion of 3-dimensionality (what Noel Burch calls haptic space), true yoking of dual-subplots, and most of all expressive use of artificial lighting. Meanwhile, 20s Hollywood arguably would forsake some of the Griffith traits, such as the schematic, naked parallel editing, a practice to find a more subdued existence. Thompson and Bordwell use The Cheat as an example of this pioneering use of lighting, but The Golden Chance revels in the new effects as well, even from the credit sequence, in which lighting reveals then conceals the drunken husband against the backlit window backdrop.

Also, arguably, while racism and white privilege remained a strong, dominant current, I'd venture that The Golden Chance is closer to Hollywood's key ideology than Birth of a Nation. Crucially, the Cindarella narrative taps into an ur-narrative of class transcendence (conflict meanwhile is external in BoaN). I've always been struck at how often in Hollywood films, to borrow and revise a phrase from Laura Mulvey, the glamorous impersonates the ordinary impersonating the glamorous. What's still missing in The Golden Chance is the complementary class transcendance: in mature classicism, the rich (here the millionaire Roger Manning) would themselves be breaking free of the stifling social roles and class traditions to truly experience life. Undoubtedly, films drew upon popular theatrical, melodramatic, and literary precedents in these narratives and ideologies. I would love to explore this period more, to watch more, and to read exactly what led to Hollywood's ideological formula, which seems established by the 1920s.

Moreover, not being a specialist in the period (and early classical film is really only beginning to get a fraction of the scholarly attention that early and transitional cinema has generated), I find myself asking: is The Golden Chance typical of what an American studio picture of the mid-1910s looked like? Or is De Mille exceptional? Maybe some film-of-the-month clubbers can help answer these questions.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Golden Chance: a Photoplay

Cecil B. DeMille began directing films in late 1913, after forming an alliance with Jesse L. Lasky, Lasky's brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (who would later change his name to Goldwyn) and attorney Arthur Friend. None of them had been involved in making motion pictures before, and the name of the new venture, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, indicated the company's theatrical beginnings. Lasky had been a vaudevillian, and DeMille had come from a family of playwrights. The pair had initially joined forces as producer and director of not-terribly-successful Broadway productions.

The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company's first film, released in February 1914, was the Squaw Man, based on a very popular play by Edwin Milton Royle. Indeed, the majority of films DeMille would direct over the next two years would be adapted from the theatre: the Girl of the Golden West and Rose of the Rancho by David Belasco, the Warrens of Virginia and the Wild Goose Chase by Cecil's brother William, and quite a few more, including a version of Carmen that for legal reasons had to be positioned as an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's novel, but that starred opera diva Geraldine Ferrar and was certainly intended to exploit audience interest in Bizet's opera. Like another failed playwright named D.W. Griffith, DeMille had a theatrical instinct that helped broaden the cinema's reach beyond the Nickelodeons, attracting middle-class audiences clamoring for narratives that would be sustained for more than just a reel or two at a time. Unlike Griffith, he never released a film less than four reels long (about an hour in duration).

But beginning in 1915 with the Captive, DeMille began directing films based on original scenarios. Two of these were produced, for all practical purposes, simultaneously, one during daylight hours and one at night: the Cheat, with a script by former theatre critic Hector Turnbull, and the Golden Chance, by DeMille and his writing partner (and mistress) Jeanie MacPherson. Sumiko Higashi, in her 1994 study Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture writes:
A move that secured his claim to authorship, the decision to collaborate with a scriptwriter rather than to purchase rights to existing works was also cost-effective: Macpherson received $250 for the script of The Golden Chance, whereas playwright and novelist Charles Kenyon was paid an advance of $2,000 against 10 percent of the royalties for the adaptation of Kindling.
Higashi describes the Golden Chance as "an exercise in middle-class voyeurism with the heroine in the mediatory role of a tourist." As in the Squaw Man, Carmen and other DeMille adaptations, much of the drama of the Golden Chance lies in the crossing of social class boundaries, in this case on the part of the audience surrogate Mary Denby, played by Cleo Ridgely. We are not shown Mary's transformation from judge's daughter to struggling wife of an impoverished alcoholic; it's revealed in a newspaper headline seen at the beginning of the film. But her role-play as a high-society belle in a scheme concocted by Mr. and Mrs. Hillary (played by Ernest Joy and Edythe Chapman) invites the viewer to dream of an opulent life with rich, handsome Roger Manning (played by Wallace Reid) just as the scenes involving Mary's husband (Horace B. Carpenter) serve as a warning against marrying below one's station.

If none of this narrative material seems likely to appear fresh to modern observers, it probably wasn't particularly fresh at the time, either, at least not to anyone familiar with the Cinderella myth. What comes across, then and now, is how the story is told. The cinematography, especially the lighting, has been praised approximately as often as the film has been written about. In his recent DeMille biography, Simon Louvish extracts the following passage from a Peter Milne review for Motion Picture News contemporaneous to the film's release:
...the countenances of the players are clearly defined by rays of light that strike them full in the face, leaving the backgrounds totally dark...aiding the story beyond measure...
Higashi quotes W. Stephen Bush from Moving Picture World:
If the paintings in a Rembrandt gallery or a set of Titians or Tintorettos were to come to life...and transferred to the moving picture screen the effect could not have been more startling.
Perhaps just as interesting as the lighting is the staging and editing of the film, especially as it develops across the sweep of the picture. In the first reel or so of the Golden Chance, each of DeMille's cuts comes at a natural geographic separation point, almost as if a scene shift in a play. Every shot concludes either a) at the moment of an explanatory or dialogue title card, b) at a shift of location from one room or one location to another, or c) at a shift of focus to a character entrance, as when DeMille cuts from Mary hearing someone at her apartment door and responding (mouthing) "come in!", to the rent collector entering through a door in the room unseen in the previous shot.

It's only in the DVD's 18th minute, during Mary's debut at the Hillarys' party for Roger Manning, that DeMille begins to stretch his continuity editing muscles. Though the occasion is once again a character entrance, the cutting is much more complicated than anything seen in the film up to this point, and it remains at this pitch for the rest of the sequence. After a title card announcing Mary's arrival in the room ("The Substitute.") we see Roger Manning entertaining a trio of young women at the gathering.

Cut to Mary, beginning her descent down the grand staircase.

Back to Roger and his group, now noticing the new arrival in the room.

Then a shot establishing the geography of the room and the distance between the two.

A close-up of Roger, looking intently at his object of attraction.

Mary, surveying the scene.

Back to the establishing shot, as Mary continues her descent into an attractive but ultimately forbidden world.

As she completes her journey down the steps, she is greeted by her duplicitous guide, Mrs. Hillary.

One final shot before we get to the title card bearing Mrs. Hillary's introduction.

Mary and Roger have been introduced, and now we get the payoff: a two-shot.

The scene continues with a lavish dinner filled with continuity editing choices, cross-cut with a single-shot scene of Mary's husband scrounging for sustenance at home. It's as if DeMille is using cuts within a scene to signal Mary's fantasy world; either its dream-come-true quality, its mendacity, or both. Unvarnished truth about the dark side of urban society gets relatively long takes that may or may not hearken back to theatrical staging strategies, but the world of hopes, desires, and lies is gloriously woven together by splicing tape in the Grand Hollywood manner, as only the cinema can achieve.

Approximately a year after the Golden Chance was released, DeMille's first full-blown epic was unveiled: Joan the Woman. It was not as financially successful as had been hoped, but that did not deter the director from continuing to attempt to bring more and more opulence and spectacle to his films. By the time he remade the Golden Chance as Forbidden Fruit (a film I have not seen apart from a few clips) in 1920, he felt it necessary to include "elaborate Cinderella fantasy sequences," as Robert S. Birchard has described them, that caused its budget to soar to well over $300,000, where the original version had cost under $20,000 to produce. However, few who have seen both films report Forbidden Fruit to be more effective than the Golden Chance.

-Brian Darr

Sunday, June 1, 2008

June's Film Of the Month

Greetings, Film of the Month Clubbers! My name's Brian Darr, and I'm a cinephile and blogger born and bred in the fertile movie-watching ground of San Francisco, California. I don't know about you, but my mind's still reeling a bit from the fascinating discussions held here regarding Girish Shambu's May selection the Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.

But it's June, and you may be wondering what the new Film of the Month Club topic is going to be. Chris Cagle, the instigator of this discussion hive, asked me to make this month's selection, and I've decided to go back to a much earlier era this time out, to a film released at the tail end of 1915: Cecil B. DeMille's the Golden Chance, starring Cleo Ridgely and Wallace Reid.

Unlike Girish, I'm not brave enough to pick a film I've never seen before. Just a little background on why I chose it: while volunteering as a researcher for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, I went on a mini-binge of DeMille silents. I also took a closer look at Robert S. Birchard's book entitled Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood. Starting from the preface Birchard's book pointed me toward this particular film. I found it fascinating, and I hope those who join me in watching and writing this month do too.

Like Girish did, I'm going to give myself a deadline for my own contribution to this month's discussion: June 12th. If others are able to watch the film and post something before then, that's just fine by me.

The Golden Chance is available to view on a region-1 DVD available through Amazon, Netflix, GreenCine, the San Francisco Public Library and certainly elsewhere, I'm sure.