Monsieur Hulot and His Brother-in-Law

Monsieur Hulot and His Brother-in-Law in Mon Oncle

Because of tax season stress, I am repeating this post from March 2006:

It is difficult to say which Jacques Tati film I love the most. In the end, it is a tie between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), with Jour de Fete (1949) and Playtime (1967) close on their heels.  In the end, I chose Mon Oncle because I thought its humor has almost attained the status of myth. In the inter-generational rapport between M. Hulot and the young son of his social-climbing sister, we see how new Hulots are created. By the end of the film, even the insufferable CEO brother-in-law (shown in background above) has become Hulot-ized as he complicitly clasps the hand of his son.

We don’t usually think of the French as being funny. Yet there was a tradition of film comedy in France going back to Max Linder in the silent era, followed by the early talkie musical comedies of René Clair. It is in Jacques Tati (real name: Tatischeff), however, that it reaches its pinnacle.  During his film career, which extended from 1934 to 1974, he directed only nine films and acted in fifteen, including shorts. Some of these are minor, but the four films named above are gems that will stand the test of time.

To illustrate how natural Tati’s comedy is, I will mention one scene. Hulot’s nephew plays with a bunch of lower-class kids who like practical jokes. They hide on a hillside overlooking a street corner where there is a lamppost. When they see a likely victim coming, one of the boys runs down with a broom and starts vigorously sweeping the sidewalk in front of the oncoming pedestrian, in effect directing him to walk toward the post. As he nears the post, another boy gives a loud whistle, which causes the pedestrian to look around and walk face first into the lamppost.  They run several variations on this until they are caught.

Hulot’s Paris is a layered city in which eccentric ne’er-do-wells laze around picturesque streets and social climbers dine at horribly pretentious restaurants like Kington’s (which looks ahead to the destruction of a similar restaurant/nightclub in Playtime).

For more information about Tati, click on Tativille, the “official” site of this great comedian. If you have never seen any of his films and need some cheering up, I urge you to get one of the recently released DVDs of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Mon Oncle and have yourself a ball.


Films: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

I knew I would love The Imitation Game even before I saw it. I’ve been working with computers for half a century. Back in the 1960s, they were still often called Turing Machines in honor of the perverse mathematical genius who almost single-handedly invented the first digital computer, code-named Christopher.

Ironically, what brought Turing down were England’s anti-homosexuality laws. Given a choice between prison and a regimen of hormonal drugs to “cure” him, he chose the latter. Within a couple of years, frustrated by the drugs’ effect on his intellect and libido, Turing finally committed suicide in 1956, a scant nine years before I started working on my first computer, a GE 600 series at Dartmouth College, using the world’s first timesharing system and the world’s first higher-order programming language, BASIC.

As you may know, I don’t see too many current films, especially when they are of the self-indulgent “indie” variety. The Imitation Game, on the other hand, is about a man whose way of thinking and feeling is radically different from most of us. And yet he is one of the greatest geniuses of the Twentieth Century, along with Einstein, Von Neumann, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, and a handful of others.

I liked The Imitation Game so much that I intend the read the biography by Andrew Hodges on which it based, Alan Turing: The Enigma. Enigma was the code name of the cryptography machine the Nazis used during World War Two for all their most top secret communications. Turing and his assistants not only cracked the code, but did it in such a way that the Germans could not know that the code was cracked—so they continued using it throughout the war.

Benedict Cumberbatch was superb as the code-breaker, as was Keira Knightley as his talented assistant.


A True Life Adventure? Not Really!

Lemmings Committing Suicide En Masse

Lemmings Committing Suicide En Masse

We have all heard of the mass suicide of cute little Arctic lemmings, but has anyone ever seen it? You have if you’ve seen the Walt Disney True Life Adventure called White Wilderness (1958), directed by James Algar. And the reason you’ve seen it is because the filmmakers faked it. According to the Alaska Fish & Wildlife News in September 2003:

According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the lemming scenes were faked. The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers. The epic “lemming migration” was staged using careful editing, tight camera angles and a few dozen lemmings running on snow covered lazy-Susan style turntable.

“White Wilderness” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a landlocked province, and not on location in lemmings’ natural habitat. There are about 20 lemming species found in the circumpolar north—but evidently not in that area of Alberta. So the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children a couple provinces away in Manitoba and staged the whole sequence.

In the lemming segment, the little rodents assemble for a mass migration, scamper across the tundra and ford a tiny stream as narrator Winston Hibbler explains that, “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny.”

That destiny is to jump into the ocean. As they approach the “sea,” (actually a river—more tight cropping) Hibbler continues, “They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!”

The “pack of lemmings” reaches the final precipice. “This is the last chance to turn back,” Hibbler states. “Yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

Faking documentaries is nothing new to the film industry. In the famous early documentary Nanook of the North (1922), filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty had to teach his Eskimos how to build an igloo. And the women who were supposedly the star’s wives were actually Flaherty’s common-law wives, who happened to be Inuit. So much for verisimilitude!

An Actual Lemming. Cute, Huh?

An Actual Lemming. Cute, Huh?


The World’s Greatest Epitaph

And Who, Might You Ask, Was Mel Blanc?

And Who, Might You Ask, Was Mel Blanc?

If you were born under a rock in Uzbekistan, you may not ever have heard the voice of Mel Blanc. But if you’ve ever seen a Warner Brothers Cartoon that featured Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote, Pepé le Pew, Marvin the Martian, or the Tasmanian Devil, you’ve heard just some of the wizardry of Mel Blanc.

Just to refresh your memory, here’s a little sample:

This afternoon Martine and I went to Hollywood Forever cemetery where many of the greats of Hollywood are buried. There you can find Rudolf Valentino, film moguls like Harry Cohn and Jesse L. Lasky, directors like Cecil B. DeMille and Edgar G. Ulmer, members of the Little Rascals like Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and Darla Hood, and literally hundreds of Russians, Armenians, and Jews who have decided to spend a part of eternity at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. There is even the grave of aspiring starlet Virginia Rappe, who died of being raped at a famous party hosted by silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

But the best epitaph award clearly goes to Mel Blanc. After his death, Warner Brothers tried to find a replacement, but no one could match Melvin Jerome Blanc. He had a million voices, all of them clearly distinguishable one from the other, and they were all great.

The Man Who Gave Us the Tingler

He Made Being Scared Fun

He Made Being Scared Fun

Last Saturday, Martine and I visited one of the three places worth seeing in Hollywood, namely the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which is almost in the shadow of he Hollywood Bowl off Highland Avenue. (The other two places worth seeing are the Egyptian Theater, especially during Cinecon, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society’s museum on Cahuenga.)

It is not the museum I want to talk about right now—though I’ll get to it later—but an exhibit I saw there honoring that great showman of horror, William Castle, director of such classics as Macabre (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), and Homicidal (1961). Although he was active since the early 1940s, it is during this relatively short period in the 1950s and 1960s that he almost pre-empted the horror genre.

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

What make Castle famous at the time was that he were his publicity gimmicks. When he released Macabre, he had to mortgage his house, so he came up with some hilarious ideas to promote the picture, such as giving every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies and had hearses parked outside the theaters.

My favorite of his films was The Tingler, filmed in “Percepto.” According to Wikipedia:

The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theatre to theatre attaching them to the underside of some of the seats (in that era, a movie did not necessarily open on the same night nationwide). In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theatre itself. The buzzers were activated as the film’s star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to “scream—scream for your lives!” Some sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler! how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.

Well, he wasn’t the only one. Several years ago, the Alex Film Society in Glendale not only showed The Tingler, but claimed that some of the seats were “wired.” I was disappointed to see that the wiring was nothing more than some aluminum foil attached to the underside of some of the seats.

It didn’t matter. Martine and I loved the film anyhow, and we loved Castle’s gimmicks. Okay, maybe we were too sophisticated to be taken in by them, but we loved the idea that he made the horror picture not only scary, but funny.

I don’t know if Castle was a “great” director, but I still enjoy seeing his films.

Supreme Competence and Moral Probity

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

There were cowboy films before William S. Hart. As early as 1903, there was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. Then there were the films of Broncho Billy Anderson who was the first film western star—those his films were also shot back East and were redolent of New Jersey.

No, it was William S. Hart who really got the ball rolling back in 1914 when he teamed up with Producer Thomas H. Ince to produce a series of oaters at Santa Ynez Canyon just a few miles from where I live. (John Ford got started around 1917 with Harry Carey, Sr. in Straight Shootin’, but Hart quickly became the better known of the two stars.)

The Hart hero was almost always a loner, half-civilized if at all, but radiating an awakening sense of moral probity. While he was in the process of making his decision, God help any bad guys who tried to do him in in the meantime.

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

This was certainly true of Travelin’ On (1922), which I saw this morning at Cinecon. He is simply J.B., an illiterate loner who rides into a crude Arizona town run by Dandy Dan McGee, a saloon keeper who runs all the vices from his Palace of Chance. When a preacher, his wife and daughter pull into town in their wagon, they witness a fight between two toughs, which the preacher tries to stop. Some time later, Hart rides into town and runs afoul of Gila, one of McGee’s cronies, whom he makes short work of.

Both McGee and J.B. fall in love with the preacher’s wife. When Hart sees McGee make a move on her, he threatens to kill him the next time he sees him. Of course, he does, but not before he takes the rap for a stage robbery committed by, of all people, the preacher—and then he rides off alone, after saving the preacher from being justly hanged for his crime.

I never seem to tire of seeing Hart’s films. I visit his ranch in Newhall once or twice a year and see to some extent how his character was formed. He married a younger star named Winifred Westover and had a son named William S. Hart Jr. (whom I knew). He never remarried and lived on his ranch with his sister until his death in 1948.

It was around the time this film was made that Hart was upstaged by other Western stars, most notably Tom Mix. Mix was good, but there was something about Hart that was unique.


Two Christs for Modern Man

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

After two centuries of Christian art,the West has produced thousands of images of Jesus Christ—almost none of which connects to people who are alive today. The Son of God is usually portrayed as a man who was born to be tortured to death on a cross, but not as a man who could gather around him twelve apostles and hundreds of followers.

One notable exception are the vignettes with Bernard Verley (above) as Christ in Luis Buñuel’s film The Milky Way (1969). The scene pictured above is at the marriage ceremony in Cana, when the Redeemer performed his first public miracle.

The other image is one I saw at the Getty Center today: It is the Italian painter Correggio’s “Head of Christ,” pictured below:

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

I like the look of consternation on Christ’s face as he contemplates what lies ahead while he is wearing the crown of thorns. This is the Christ who, the previous night at Gethsemani, had said: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He may be God, but the look on His face is 100% pure human.