Tuesday, May 28, 2013
What to tell about 'Potemkin' and
what not to tell about 'Tell It To The Marines'
Memorial Day weekend brought screenings of two military-themed silent films, both of which I scored for the first time. 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) was shown on Friday, May 24 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H., while 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926) was featured on Sunday, May 26 at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
I know it was kind of a stretch to program 'Battleship Potemkin,' a Soviet-era propaganda movie, for Memorial Day weekend. But it's one of those big "must see" silents, and I'd never done it before, so I chose it rather than some other more obvious title such as 'Wings' (1927), which I've done many times.
As a payoff for my oddball programming notions, the turnout for 'Potemkin' was slim: a grand total of 16 people. But Eisenstein's film rose to the occasion, providing vivid images and sequences that still held power even in this video-saturated age, I thought. Even after all this time, it was possible to sense what it was about this movie that excited so many people.
I began thinking of the music about a month ago, when I heard a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' but in the Stokowski orchestration, not the more familiar Ravel version. Although I hadn't yet previewed 'Potemkin,' that was the sound I would go for: modal, rhythmic, and inevitable.
But I didn't do anything further until the week before, when I came up with a plaintive rising and falling theme that carried a built in "trudge" to it, which seemed perfect. The theme also included an octave leap that could be altered for development purposes, giving it all kinds of possibilities. It turned out to be versatile enough to carry the whole picture.
Our post-film discussion lasted almost as long as the picture, and produced some interesting insights. Unlike traditional films that tell a story through the eyes of specific characters, 'Potemkin' was all about the collective mass of people. The only "character," if there was one at all, was the sailor who became a martyr, and as such had more screen time dead than alive.
But as a propaganda film, 'Potemkin' had bigger issues on its mind—issues that Eisenstein clearly felt transcended the individual stories that could have been highlighted. On the Odessa steps, who was that woman with the baby carriage? We don't really know. Same thing with the guy who blames the Jews for trouble, and is then beaten by the crowd. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why does he feel this way? We are not given any information, and perhaps that's the point.
So, by keeping things in the abstract, Eisenstein made the film actually seem more universal. Because we don't have a lot of details about the woman and her baby, we are free to assign to her whatever significance we can draw from our own life. We perhaps do this even without realizing it. The guy who blamed the Jews: We've all known or seen someone display bigotry that is shocking to us.
In this case, there's a convenient mob to dispense punishment. This perhaps reinforces the idea of the collective wisdom of the crowd, which I think itself is a not-so-distant cousin of that time-honored shaper of human behavior, peer pressure. But that's a topic for another day.
Back to Eisenstein's lack of information, which is at the heart of 'Potemkin' and its power. It's the same dynamic that powers all "collaborative" art. By "collaborative," I mean forms that do not provide everything, but are incomplete and require audience members to use their imagination in some way. Radio (sound but no pictures) comes to mind. Silent film (picture, but no dialogue) is another one. But Eisenstein's film stretched this dynamic, taking it one step further by eliminating character.
The risk of doing this, of course, is that the people in the film could wind up as nothing more than cartoons or caricatures. In Eisenstein's case, it worked, I think, because the ideas behind the images were so basic and powerful. And also, the visuals had enough power to hold an audience's interest throughout the picture.
All of this makes it a great film for music, which Eisenstein recognized. Somewhere, I read that he wanted the music be rhythmic and driving throughout, and so that's what I tried to do. The film is constructed almost like a symphony: An intense opening movement (the battleship mutiny), a slow movement (the body displayed for Odessa residents), a wild scherzo (the Odessa steps sequence), and then a grand finale (the final confrontation with Russian imperial forces).
It ended up being a very satisfying experience, I thought—one of those times where the music came together just right, surprising even me in how effective it seemed to be.
A completely different approach to filmmaking was shown two days later with MGM's 'Tell It To The Marines' (1926), a military-themed comedy/drama starring Lon Chaney (for once not made up to look like a freak), William Haines, and Eleanor Boardman. With the urgency of World War I fading, making screens safe for military pictures, the goal of this film was simple: to make money for MGM. And as the studio's second-highest grossing picture that year, it clearly accomplished that goal.
But there was a propaganda element to it after all. 'Tell It To The Marines' was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Navy, and it certainly polished their brass, so to speak. Not only could it serve as a recruiting film, there are amazing sequences filmed at sea aboard the U.S.S. California, with what seems to be the whole Pacific fleet in tow close behind. Whatever it took for MGM to get these scenes, it was worth it, as they add a real level of excitement and authenticity to the picture, and also form a priceless record of our military in action in a bygone era.
So it was interesting to point out to our audience (about 100 people) that even though we as a nation had joined in World War I, in the 1920s the United States considered itself a nation that was not in the war business. That's so different from today's endless state of war, and the U.S. role as policeman of the world.
Back then, there was a feeling among many that after 'The Great War' (it was not yet 'World War I'), and with the establishment of the League of Nations, there would be no more need for involvement in wasteful and pointless global conflicts. Hitler and the rise of fascism was still in the future. Indeed, in 'Tell It To The Marines,' the most significant military action comes in the form of rescuing nurses and hospital personnel from the clutches of what are described as "Chinese bandits."
So there's a certain carefree spirit about 'Tell It To The Marines' that even Lon Chaney's menacing drill sergeant can't quite dispell. (Chaney, with his bulldog companion, seems to have served as a model for the character Sergeant Snorkle in the Beetle Bailey comic strip.) Despite a violent climax, 'Tell It To The Marines' is a sunny, and often funny, movie.
But there's a twist to this tale that neither the moviemakers nor the military could have anticipated, and which makes it so appropriate for Memorial Day. The U.S.S. California, pride of the Pacific Fleet and so impressive and prominently featured in this picture, would go on to be at anchor in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when it was sunk with the loss of 100 lives during the Japanese surprise attack.
The ship would later be refloated and rebuilt, and go on to serve into the 1950s. But nothing could replace the loss of those who gave their lives in service to their country. And the knowledge we have today of what would happen—that not only would the ship be sunk, but the whole planet would soon be plunged into another global conflict—lends a special poignancy to 'Tell It To The Marines,' and indeed many war films of the silent era. There's an innocence that comes through, and an idealism that's both poignant and at the same time worthy of our own contemplation, a century in the future.
I thought about this before the screening, and decided to not mention the ship's fate to our audience until after the film was over. I wanted to give people the chance to enjoy the movie on its own terms and for what it was, like audiences of the 1920s, rather than always thinking about how the ship would later be sunk in an infamous attack. As they say, ignorance is bliss. That's not always true, of course, but in the case of trying to present a silent film as it was intended, sometimes there's no other way.
It's the same thing with Harold Lloyd's missing fingers. If you mention it before a screening of 'Safety Last' (1923), all an audience member can think about as Harold lunges for the clock is "Oh my God, he's missing some fingers!" Lloyd knew this, and wisely kept his absent digits a secret for a very long time, lest they overshadow the character and the story and everything else that goes into creating the magic of cinema.
That same principle applies to William Haines, I think. Prior to showing 'Tell It To The Marines,' I described him as a leading man who at the time was as popular as, say, Tom Hanks, and let it go at that. It was only after the picture that I said that he was openly gay, and became the subject of a great deal of industry controversy in the 1930s, when he refused to enter into a studio-arranged "sham marriage" to enhance his "leading man" status with Middle America.
Haines courageously said no, refusing to live a lie, and so gave up his lucrative movie star status. And he would go on to establish, yes, a fabulously successful interior decorating business! For decades, anyone who was anyone among the Hollywood elite would have interiors done by William Haines Designs, whose clients included Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The firm is still in business, even though Haines himself died in 1973.
And of course you can't mention any of this prior to a film starring the guy because no matter what happens on screen, all people will think is, "Hey, there goes Nancy Reagan's gay interior decorator!"
Probably not the best frame of mind to take in a gung-ho picture like 'Tell It To The Marines.'
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't thank the crew of the Londonderry, N.H. FedEx depot, without whom there would have been no screening of 'Tell It To The Marines.'
What happened was on Thursday, May 23, yours truly realized he didn't actually have a copy of the film, which had been scheduled last fall. Oops! A quick search found a seller in California who could ship it on Friday via FedEx overnight. Problem solved!
Or so I thought, until Saturday, May 25 at 3 p.m., when I checked the online tracking and found it had arrived in New Hampshire, but was being held for delivery until Tuesday, May 28!
What?! I needed it for a screening on Sunday, May 26. I couldn't get a local phone number for FedEx in Londonderry, but found it the office was open until 5 p.m. It's one town over from home base, so I barreled out there to see what was going on.
Turns out "overnight" at FedEx means next business day; for Saturday, you need to specify that and pay extra. Ooops! But wasn't my package right there? Yes, they said, but it was somewhere in several containers that weren't due to be opened until Tuesday, so finding it would be like finding, yes, a needle in a haystack.
And that was that, except I had nothing to lose by being a pest, which is what I proceeded to be, but in a nice way. It wasn't busy, so couldn't someone look for it? I finally mentioned that it was for a Memorial Day program, and so it wouldn't be any use to me on Tuesday...please?
To their credit, the FedEx folks actually heard me out, and finally agreed to try looking for it, even inviting me into the FedEx employee lounge and making me a fresh pot of coffee. It took about a half-hour before the package was found, to my great relief.
I guess it's lucky that I got there with enough time for them to find it, and also that they took pity on me. Even so, I can't say enough for their willingness to go above and beyond. FedEx, you have a customer for life. Or until the next shipping fiasco. (Just kidding!)