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Flick Clique: July 1-7

The Big House (1930). Early talkie from MGM is famous for being the first “prison flick” with all the clichés that go with it (the naive newcomer con, the grizzled vet con, the suave player con). It actually holds up very well with fluid direction very unusual for an early sound film and good performances from the three leads, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery and an unforgettable Wallace Beery. Frances Marion’s script details Morris and Beery’s attempts to break out of the prison life, and the weak-willed Montgomery’s trying to fit in. It’s gritty, bracing stuff – a lot of the material set up here was also explored in films like Brute Force (since we recently saw this, it was an interesting compare-and-contrast). I wonder if films like this and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang were responsible for prison reform in the U.S.? This Warner Archive DVD was available for check-out at my local library; I will definitely get more W.A. discs from them just to give them my support.
The Makioka Sisters (1983). Idyllic, involving chronicle of four Japanese sisters in the ’30s who find themselves in a family crisis after their widower father dies. The man’s dying wish was for his second youngest daughter to have a husband so that she could acquire the dowry he set up. The sister in question, a sweet yet passive type, allows for her older, comfortably married sisters to find her a suitable mate – not easy, since there aren’t too many eligible bachelors of good social and financial standing available. Meanwhile, the more modern youngest sister sets her sights on starting a doll-making business while getting involved with the ne’er-do-well son of a department store magnate. Once I got past the initial confusion (at first I thought the two oldest sisters were the mother and aunt of the younger sisters), this was a fascinating drama that somewhat reminded me of the upper-class tribulations in Downton Abbey with the family fussing over the daughters’ marriageability while the coming world war will soon render those concerns quaint and obsolete. Both projects also have the more enlightened younger sibling who is sorta the rebel of the family. Although The Makioka Sisters is statically filmed and ponderous at times, it’s beautifully crafted and contains several notable performances (apparently all four of the actresses who play the sisters are legendary in Japan).
The Saphead (1920). This early Buster Keaton film (his first feature film role, as a matter of fact) has recently gotten a good re-release by Kino. I’m reviewing the DVD edition for DVD Talk. This one isn’t quite the same as other Keaton vehicles, since it was a stage success first – a florid family melodrama, no less – and Keaton was suggested for the film by Douglas Fairbanks, who originated Buster’s part of sad-sack rich boy Bertie on stage. The story revolves around Keaton’s character trying to prove himself with his uncle (William H. Crane), a successful industrialist, so that he can marry Agnes (Beulah Booker), the orphan girl whom the uncle raised from childhood. But wait! The man’s no-good son-in-law (Irving Cummings) receives news from his illegitimate daughter that his former flame, now dying, is threatening to expose their affair. Will he pin it on poor Bertie? Like many earlier silents, the film is pretty stagy and inert, and Keaton doesn’t have much opportunity to do the highly physical comedy he’s known for. Basically, it’s worth a peek for fans but not an especially noteworthy film for anyone else. I will have my full write-up posted this next week, hopefully in time for the DVD’s release this Tuesday.

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