Monday, March 30, 2009

Stanford Theater and BEST FILM EVER

I had the incredible good fortune to see one of the BEST FILMS EVER last weekend. (Rose, you can stop reading here, movie heathen!)

Yes, it was a silent movie
Yes, it was over 70 years old
Yes, it was well worth the trip down to Palo Alto.

Here is the Stanford theatre marquee, and you'll notice, I am not the only one who showed up to see this film!
I have seen this movie before, and even own a DVD transfer of it. So why trek all the way to Palo Alto to see it again?

It's that good.
The plot is simple and the subject matter still resonates today. It's the story of John Sims, an everyman who insists he is going to be the one to break out of "The Crowd" and "make his mark". The film follows his birth, job, marriage, kids, tragedy, and finally mere survival as just one of the crowd.

It's so powerful that it leaves you wondering at the end if you should laugh or cry. To see it in a theater, with live organ accompaniment, is an experience. Here are some screen shots (from my DVD at home, I would NOT take photos of the film in the theater!) and a brief review:

Here is "Young, Fresh and Eager" John Sims as shows up in New York City, all eager and ready to "make his mark". Notice the hunkered down, beaten shell of a man next to him, looking at the same city skyline with a much more bitter look about him.

"Young, Fresh and Eager" John ends up working in an office building, doing some kind of pointless accounting work. This setup is eerily similar to what cubicles are today! This looks like my office! John is now merely #137 and his job sucks. Big time. To pass the time, John spends time trying to come up with clever ad slogans, like "Jazz-O-Line" for a Gas Company.

Now who doesn't do this? If you work in an office, you have done your fair share of clock watching. At five, "Young, Fresh and Eager" John and the rest of the crowd exit work, gather up their dames and head out for an evening of forgetting just how badly their lives suck.

Here is "Young, Fresh and Eager" John meeting "Fun and Wonderful" Mary on a blind date to Coney Island. They hit it off right away, and he makes her laugh by mocking a poor guy working as an advertising clown, remarking that his folks probably thought he'd be president one day:

Here is the clown "Young, Fresh and Eager" John feels is pathetic and pitiful. Wait for it....

"Young, Fresh and Eager" John is about to propose marriage to "Fun and Wonderful" Mary, after just one date! She accepts, which is more than I would do if some guy on public transit propositioned me!
Here is "Fun and Wonderful" Mary wondering if her first night as a wife will be fun and wonderful.
Here is "Young, Fresh and Eager" John the same night...yeah, he's ready.

The whole film sequence on the train to Niagara Falls is wonderfully done, filled with the awkwardness of newlyweds and their reticence to actually "get it on".
Here are John and Mary at Niagara Falls. I am pretty sure they don't let people get this close to Niagara Falls anymore.
I love old cameras, and particularly enjoy this shot in the movie of John taking a photo of his new bride.
The awkwardness is GONE. It's a beautiful moment in the film, with Niagara Falls in the background.
Awww...the honeymoon phase of marriage begins..."Young, Fresh and Eager" John is strumming a tune as they prepare for Christmas dinner with the "Disapproving" in laws. They live in a crappy one room flat by the El Train in NY, but they don't care...they are in LOVE. Please note: This movie is the first one to dare show a toilet onscreen. There is film history, in all it's glory, above.
These are the "Disapproving and Unfriendly" in laws. They don't think John is "Young, Fresh or Eager". Can you tell?
Here is it, 6 months later. John is no longer "Young, Fresh or Eager". Mary is no longer "Fun or Wonderful". The honeymoon is OVER. Daily living has taken it's toll. They are broke, everything they do annoys each other (a hilarious sequence includes John blaming Mary for everything from the toilet running to the milk cap exploding) and they are basically having what I like to call...a Monday.
I LOVE THIS TITLE CARD...I think it must be the first time the joke was used in a movie. "Tired, Disgusted and Frustrated" John storms out, leaving "Hysterical and Heartbroken" Mary behind.
Now, the scene above is a PRIME example of silent film acting at it's finest. "Hysterical and Heartbroken" Mary begins to cry, and without saying a word to the audience...she manages to convey that she is pregnant. It's fantastic.
"Tired, Disgusted and Frustrated" John rapidly turns into "Hysterical John" as "Tired out" Mary gives birth to their first child. I couldn't get a clear image of the hospital room when John was going nuts with worry, but take it from me, the sequence of him frantically searching for Mary and breaking down once he finds her is timeless. She even says.."Poor boy, I am sorry you suffered so"!
Here is "Suddenly Inspired to Make Good" John and "Happy but Tired Out" Mary with their son, Junior.

So time marches on... "Suddenly Inspired to Make Good" John and "Happy but Tired out" Mary now have two kids (Junior and Baby) and they struggle to make ends meet. In this scene above, John is about to have a "big idea" for an advertising slogan, and he finally decides to send this one in.
As the title card tells us...Luck has finally happened! "Suddenly Inspired to Make Good" John has gone and made good! He gets $500 (a crapload of money in 1928) for his efforts with the slogan, and he celebrates by buying crap (of course). Here are "Happy John" and "Happy Mary" calling to the kids to come in and see all the crap they bought.
Oh, look how happy those kids look! Yeah, you KNOW that can't be good...

Baby takes off across the street and, of course, doesn't quite make it. This effect is actually quite good for the silent era, and it had the Stanford audience gasping. I have spared you the next image of the Baby with tire marks across her back as the crowd closes in on John trying to pick her up.
Baby doesn't make it, and "Tragic and Depressed" John cannot take the loss. The above image shows him at work, trying to work while constantly haunted by the image of Baby getting run over. The acting is so good that it's terrible to watch.

"Tragic and Depressed" John finally flips out and tosses his work and desk, telling the job and everyone to go to hell.
Then comes the best title card I have ever seen in a silent film. It about says it all.

"Tragic and Depressed" John cannot function and find or keep a job. "Long Suffering and still Supportive" Mary does some dressmaking to keep the home together, but they are now REALLY broke and getting desperate.
Things reach a boiling point when "Tragic and Depressed"John refuses to take a "charity" job from " Still Supportive of her Man" Mary's disapproving and unfriendly in laws. "Supportive no more" Mary slaps the hell out of "Tragic and Depressed" John and tells him she'd rather he was dead than be like this any longer.
So "Tragic and Depressed" John goes off to the train yard to do the unthinkable. It's a hell of a scene, made so by the uncanny acting.
The agony on this actor's face is terrible to watch. The situation he is in is timeless and as we well know, still goes on today. No job, no prospects, wife and kid starving, ill and needing help for his depression, he is a completely broken man.
Junior, who was tagging along as "Tragic and Depressed" John was looking for a spot to end it all, suddenly appears again. He innocently asks his daddy why he doesn't play with him anymore, and why mommy doesn't like daddy anymore. Completely broken, John merely walks on, crying.
Then the kid says "I like you" and "I want to be just like you when I get big" and John is snapped awake by this. He can't believe his kid still loves and believes in him and is suddenly "Eager to find Work" John.
Now, here is a scene that you won't find repeated today. "Eager to find Work" John takes little Junior (no more than 5 years old, btw) to downtown NY with him. He parks him on a bench by a cemetery, gives him a jacket to keep warm and LEAVES HIM THERE WHILE HE GOES TO FIND A JOB. Gasps from the Stanford audience again, for a much different reason.
Here is the payoff to the 7the photo I posted above...Remember "Young, Fresh and Eager" John making jokes with "Fun and Wonderful" Mary about that advertising clown? Well....lesson learned.
"Barely Employed but once again Eager"John reunites with "Still Supportive of her Man" Mary and they dance to an old record to rekindle their love...the scene dissolves to:
"Eager Again" John, "Happy" Mary and Junior sitting in an audience, laughing their asses off at some vaudeville act.
John's "Sleight o Hand" advertising slogan (the one that got them $500 but cost them a kid) is on the back of the program.
But now, the camera pulls back and John, Mary and Junior dissapear into the crowd. It's a fantastic image, especially if you are watching it in a theater and happen to be part of a crowd watching the film.
As "The End" comes up, I really don't know whether to laugh or cry. I've seen this film at least 20 times now, and still don't. See it for yourself, and see what I mean.

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