Sounder: The Anti-Blaxploitation Film

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Paul Winfield (left) doles out fatherly advice. Image:

“Son, don’t get used to this place.”

This advice is from a sharecropping father to his eldest son in 1930s Louisiana – and if you guessed these people are black and poor, you guessed right.

The father’s statement has dual meaning: Don’t settle for being a sharecropper, and don’t settle for being a poor black man in Louisiana.

The line is from the 1972 drama, Sounder, a thoughtful and moving film about family, poverty, and being black. Especially about being black.

A little background: In the 1970s, a new sub-genre of film emerged, called Blaxploitation. These were films intended for urban African-American audiences, but were often criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. (You can find a list of blaxploitation films here.)

While Sounder is a movie about being black, it is not an edgy look at life on the mean streets of a large city. In fact, Sounder has often been called an “anti-Blaxploitation” movie due to its focus on a hard-working rural family. It’s based on the lyrical and haunting Newberry Award-winning novel by William H. Armstrong.

Initially, there weren’t high hopes for the film. Variety magazine, at the time, said Sounder would “test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the ‘super black’ exploitation features.”

The plot: A poor sharecropper (Paul Winfield) is arrested for stealing meat from a smokehouse. He is quickly arrested and sent to a hard labour camp, leaving his wife (Cicely Tyson) and their three children to plant and harvest the year’s crops.

Sounder is the name of the family’s dog, who is a symbol of the father’s impulsiveness and, by extension, the family’s suffering.

Both Tyson and Winfield were nominated for Oscars, and rightly so. Tyson portrays a strong, determined woman who says more in the tightening of her lips than other actresses say in a page of dialogue. We feel Tyson’s weariness, her fear and her sense of rage. She makes us wonder if, given similar circumstances, we would soldier through half as well.

Winfield is magnetic as a charming man who truly loves his wife and children. He’s quick to laugh but also quick to sink into depression. He’s complex, but never unsympathetic. As he’s arrested for the theft of the meat, his face shows regret, but his body language says, There’s nothing I can do now.

Cicely Tyson dlakfj dkjf d Image: lskdjf klsd

Cicely Tyson keeps her anger in check. Image:

It’s easy for us to say Winfield’s character should not have stolen the meat for his family. But the larger context of the film alters our view. While the family lives on lush Louisiana farmland, they’re practically starving. They’re a study of stark poverty in a rich landscape.

And this family toils. It’s rare to see characters in a film who work as hard as these people do. But it’s not enough. No matter how hard they work, they cannot change the fact they are poor and black.

Sounder is not a comfortable film. Although it has artful cinematography and feels authentic to the 1930s, it’s not intended to make us feel better about the family’s fortunes – or anything else.

With this in mind, it’s surprising that the movie was a box office hit. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1972.

Aside from the two Oscar nods for acting, Sounder was also nominated for best adapted screenplay and best picture. But filmmakers went home empty-handed because 1972 was also the year of another cinematic exploration of American life: The Godfather.

Sounder is not a light-hearted viewing experience, but it is a worthwhile one. A film about a poor black rural family is not a theme Hollywood visits often, which means Sounder should be on your Must-Watch List.

Sounder: starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks. Directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Lonne Elder, III. Radnitz/Mattel Productions, 1972, Colour, 105 mins.

A Word About Fräulein Maria

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The pre-Hollywood Captain von Trapp and Fräulein Maria. Image:

Nine years before Hollywood unleashed the world’s greatest schmaltz-fest known as The Sound of Music, German filmmakers released a biopic of the famous von Trapp family.

Die Trapp-Familie (1956) is a more down-to-earth telling of the Fräulein-Maria-vs.-the-von-Trapps story. It set the basic template for the later Hollywood version, although neither film is an exact re-telling of actual events. (One could argue the German version is a smidge more factual.)

If you’re not familiar with the movie version of this story, it is set in Austria in the mid 1920s. (The Hollywood version takes place on the eve of the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.) A young woman named Maria (Ruth Leuwerik) is a happy, non-conformist novitiate living in a Salzburg convent, when she is suddenly dispatched to work as a governess to seven children. The children have a history of making their governesses quit; they’ve gone through a remarkable 26 governesses in only four years.

Although Fräulein Maria is charming, she is also one hard-boiled egg. Not only does she win the children’s affections, she discovers their widowed father (Hans Holt) has fallen in love with her.

There are several differences between the German and Hollywood films. In Die Trapp-Familie, Maria is already a teacher at the convent, so her new job as governess is a logical choice. She also uses religious language; for example, she often says “God’s greetings” when meeting people.

The German version touches on von Trapp’s loss of wealth during the Depression and the family’s difficulties in emigrating to America, developments left untouched by the Hollywood version.

A notable difference between the two films is the treatment of Nazi occupation. In the German version, filmmakers carefully tiptoe around the subject, which was likely still a raw topic with German audiences. Hollywood, on the other hand, torques the Nazi occupation to expertly amp the film’s tension.

Of all the differences between the two films, the most striking is language.

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Maria and the children wow ’em in concert. Image: YouTube

It’s weird to see this familiar Hollywood story told in German, which is strange in itself because German would have been the family’s mother tongue. By contrast, the Hollywood version uses such over-the-top British enunciation, it has to continually remind you these people are Austrian.

The German film allows us glimpses into the zeitgeist of post-war Germany. In one scene, von Trapp is told by a well-meaning friend, “A little unhappiness in childhood is the best preparation for life.”

The version we watched also had flawless translation that explained the script’s cultural references that may not be familiar to English audiences. For example, early in the film Maria asks her class for examples of words starting with the letter “D”. Some of the children give words that the translation politely describes as “expression[s] of anger”, which not entirely appreciated by the religious Maria.

We were so impressed by this translation, and the care that went into it, we asked our friends at Smartling (developers of translation software) about the business of cinematic translation. Their own blog explains the challenges of translating for the cinema, including using minimal text and ensuring no more than two lines appear at the bottom of the screen at any given time.

We feel Die Trapp-Familie is an excellent example of translation that pulls the viewer into the film, even if it does sidestep some difficult history. (Incidentally, this film was so successful, a sequel was made two years later: Die Trapp Familie in Amerika.)

If you are interested in the von Trapp story but want a more authentic-feeling film, then you’ll enjoy Die Trapp-Familie.

Die Trapp-Familie: starring Ruth LeuwerikHans HoltMaria Holst. Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by George Hurdalek and Herbert Reinecker. Divina-Film, 1956, Colour, 106 mins.

The Man-Crazy Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple falls for Cary Grant – and who can blame her? Image: laskdjf askjdf d

Shirley Temple falls for Cary Grant – and who can blame her? Image: Miss Shirley Temple

In 1947, Shirley Temple was 18 going on 19 and struggling with a difficult marriage.

Her career was faltering, too. She was no longer the winsome child star who had charmed millions of moviegoers during the bleakest years of the Depression. She was now one of many talented young actresses in Hollywood.

But Temple wasn’t a seasoned pro for nothing, and if you watch films from the last years of her movie career, you can’t detect the off-screen pressures she must have faced. She was a hard worker, starring in three (three!) films released in 1947: Honeymoon, That Hagen Girl and, one of our personal favourites, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

Now, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is one of those films that suggests you leave your critical thinking skills at home. However, it does deliver hearty laughs in return.

The film stars Cary Grant as an affable painter of contemporary American life. He is one of those fellows who’s always in trouble, usually with women. However, his real headaches begin when he gives a lecture at the high school Temple attends, and discovers Temple has developed a sudden, fierce crush on him.

After the rousing lecture, Temple rushes to meet Grant in the school hallway, and introduces herself as a representative of the school newspaper. She fawns over Grant and gushes over the Suffering Of The Artistic Soul. While the uncomfortable Grant tries to make a polite getaway, Temple immediately starts grilling him on his love life. This makes Grant wonder what kind of newspaper the school actually publishes:

Temple: “Oh, all the students read it.”
Grant: “I’ll bet they do!”

Grant is Not Interested in Temple for many reasons, including her age. Yet, their scenes sparkle with on-screen chemistry, the way scenes do between two professional actors.

Myrna Loy also stars as Temple’s accomplished older sister, a judge who is well aware of Grant’s reputation. She considers the remote possibility of Temple dating him as odious: “I’d just as soon my sister were going out with an actor.

Although the cast includes the ultra-fab Rudy Vallee and Ray Collins, it’s Temple’s charismatic performance that elevates the film and, ironically, makes Grant and Loy even more culturally significant.

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Myrna Loy (left) is not amused by Grant’s protestations. Image: Dr. Macro

The term bobby-soxer was popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Bobby socks (short socks that reach just above the ankle) became fashionable during WWII and, after the war, were often worn with saddle shoes. This style was especially popular with teenage girls and young women.

More importantly, the bobby-soxer crowd made big stars out of singers like Frank Sinatra and actors like Van Johnson. Just like today’s teenage girl demographic, these young women could elevate a performer’s status to über-stardom.

By portraying a bobby-soxer, Temple was endorsing the longevity of Grant and Loy. It’s telling that Loy is not cast as Temple’s mother, but her older sister, and Temple’s crush on the 40-something Grant only enhanced his status as a romantic leading man.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was a profitable film for RKO; it tied with The Egg and I as the second-highest grossing film of 1947. It also won a screenwriting Oscar.

Grant and Loy may have gained street cred with the younger set in this charming film, but it did not save Temple’s film career. By 1950, she was out of the movies and her troubled marriage – but had embarked on other challenges in her remarkable life.

The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer: starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple. Directed by Irving Reis. Written by Sidney Sheldon. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1947, B&W, 95 mins.

This post is part of The 1947 Blogathon co-hosted by Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.


The Algonquin Table of the Old West

Gordon MacRae's pimped-out surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: lsdkjf askdjf

Gordon MacRae’s fully-loaded surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: Los Angeles Times

You would have a skewed view of life if you only watched musicals.

For example, look at the recently-restored Rodgers and Hammerstein western-comedy musical, Oklahoma! (1955). This film is about a group of farmers and ranchers in turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma, who hold a box lunch social to raise money for the schoolhouse roof.

This film makes it look like these farmers and ranchers have nothing to do but sing and dance and make merriment. In one scene, a train pulls into the station and everyone on the station platform suddenly – and without warning – leaps into a impromptu hoedown.

The rustic Oklahoma in this film looks gla-mor-ous. Men’s tailored shirts are neatly pressed, and women’s Orry-Kelly gowns dresses are made of sumptuous fabrics. Life is so effortless, folks do their chores while wearing crisp, white clothes. There’s not a drop of sweat in sight.

You’ll notice a lot of dancing in this Oklahoma, even interpretive dance where themes of innocence and exploitation are examined.

The villain in this neck of the woods is played by Rod Steiger, a surly and vaguely creepy man who is the only one in the film with grime on his clothes. He lusts after young Shirley Jones (in her film debut) and resents the cowboy Gordon MacRae for wooing her.

You could be forgiven for thinking these are simple, unsophisticated folk. Indeed, the film opens with MacRae (in a glorious CinemaScope tracking shot) riding his horse along a row of corn, underneath a dazzling blue sky. He sings about the beautiful morning and a “bright golden haze on the meadow”.

Basic, wholesome people living a basic, wholesome life? Not so fast, partner.

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The marvels – wholesome and unwholesome – of Kansas City. Image: Dusted Off

What really makes this film, besides the wardrobe and the scenery, is the song lyrics. The clever lyrics easily outpace the script in wit and innuendo.

Notably, the songs seesaw between the conflicted feelings of the characters. For example, a man sings about his visit to Kansas City and, alternating between amazement and disapproval, he describes life in the prosperous, fast-growing burg:

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a building ought to grow.

He then goes on to detail, with a twinkle in his eye, various other sights including a burlesque show.

In another scene, MacRae confronts the surly Steiger with a song that swings between threats and flattery. MacRae suggests no man will be more highly praised at his own funeral than Steiger himself:

He’s looking oh so pretty and so nice
He looks like he’s asleep.
It’s a shame that he won’t keep,
But it’s summer and we’re running out of ice.

That’s a bit twisted, no? MacRae is taking chances, singing this kind of stuff to the temperamental Steiger.

In another scene, Gene Nelson proposes to his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), although she doesn’t really want to settle down. After the he proposes, Grahame replies:

But if a wife is wise, she’s gotta realize
That men like you are wild and free …
Stay up late and don’t come home till three
And go right off to sleep if you’re sleepy.
There’s no use waiting up for me!

Oklahoma! won Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Sound, and raked in $6.8 million at the box office that year. We think you’ll enjoy this cheeky, light-hearted tribute to the 46th state of the union.

Oklahoma! starring Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson. Directed by Fred Zinneman. Written by Sonya Levien & William Ludwig. Magna Theatre Corp., 1955, B&W, 145 mins.

Classic Movie History Project Blogathon: Modern Era

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Welcome to the swanky Modern Era of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon (a.k.a. FREE Film History classes). Our partners in crime (Fritzi and Aurora) have already covered the Silent Era and the Golden Age, so be sure to swing by their sites for more movie history knowledge.


Thanks to Flicker Alley for sponsoring and promoting this event. They have two historical (and historic!) new releases: a gorgeous restored Blu-ray of Dziga Vertov’s most famous works and an eye-popping collection of vintage 3D Rarities. You can win the 3D Rarities collection too. (Details here.)

The Modern Era is controversial. Some folks feel the classic movie era ended in 1967 with the abandonment of the Production Code, but we (as in, yours truly) feel the definition of “classic” is more fluid. Luckily, we’re in good company because just look at the fabulous posts below!

(Note: This page will be updated as new posts are uploaded. If you aren’t able to upload until later in the day or even tomorrow, don’t sweat it. We’ll make sure you’re included.)

1953-1957 • Rebels with and without causes:
The birth of cool

giphyMovie Mania Madness • ‘It’s Always Fair Weather,’ Except When It’s Not: The Musical Gets Cynical

Silver Scenes • 3-D Films of the 1950s

Back to Golden Days • Juvenile Delinquency in Mid-1950s Cinema

Queerly Different • The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Two (1956-1960)

Silver Screenings • Better Living Through 3D Living: A Review of 3-D Rarities

Voyages Extraordinaires • Scientific Romances in the Atomic Age

Let’s Go To The Movies • Cinematic Romances of the 1950s

Movies, Silently • After the Silents: A Face in the Crowd

Totally Filmi • The Apu Trilogy

1958-1962 • A little song, a little dance,
a lot of people with no pants:
Musicals, biblical epics and the shimmy-shimmy shakes


Paula’s Cinema Club • Roger Corman: Rebel and Pioneer, by Jack Deth

Queerly Different • The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Three (1961-1966)

Cary Grant Won’t Eat You • Mad Men Meets Sex and the City: The Best of Everything

A Shroud of Thoughts • The British New Wave

Jim Fanning’s Tulgey Wood • Wondrous To See: The Widescreen Splendor of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

1963-1967 • Mod’s the word:
And then things started to swing


The Last Drive In • The 1960s: The Bold & the Beautiful (1960-69)

Reel and Rock • Sex and Sensibility: “The Girl-Getters” is the Lost Classic of British Beat Cinema

That Other Critic • Why Adam West is the Perfect Batman

No Nonsense with Nuwan Sen • 1966: The Year dubbed as Nineteen Sexty Sex

The Wonderful World of Cinema • 1967 in Films

1968-1972 • Hays is dead:
The end of the Code


Le Mot du Cinephiliaque • The Year 1968 in France’s Cinema

The Moon in Gemini • Put on Your Tin Foil Hats: Paranoia in 60s & 70s Films

The Joy and Agony of Movies • Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era – Introduction

The Joy and Agony of Movies • Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era – Part 1: Looking for America

The Joy and Agony of Movies • Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era – Part 2: Costa-Gavras, Godard, and the Others

The Joy and Agony of Movies • Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era – Part 3: The Documentaries

Girls Do Film • Easy Rider: Freedom, Escape and the Open Road

1972-1975 • The Godfather and Jaws:
Auteur films and the modern blockbuster


Once Upon a Screen • Mel Brooks and Classic Movie Genres

Crimson Kimono • The Surveillance Sleuth of 1974’s The Conversation

Thanks to all our contributors, who have worked so hard on these fab posts and helped make the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon a tremendous success.

Here’s to you!



Better Living Through 3D Viewing

The (3D) Adventures of Sam Space: Image: MoMA

Intergalactic traveller Sam Space answers a distress call from the planet Meecan. Image: MoMA

If there’s one thing we love, it’s discovering rare footage that deserves a cult following.

One such film is The Adventures of Sam Space (1960), a “puppet cartoon” about two boys and a scientist who travel on a shiny rocket to a distant planet. Not only does this animated short have a nifty robot named “Robo”, it’s presented in THREE DIMENSION!

(Digression: While Sam Space & Co. are travelling to the distant planet, they see an interstellar ad for Joe’s Diner, located “only 36,000 light years ahead.”)

Sam Space is one short from the 3-D Rarities blu-ray from Flicker Alley, restored and curated by Bob Furmanek and the 3-D Film Archive. These shorts are beautifully restored and look fabulous on a 3D television.

Some of the 3D effects are so good, we found ourselves flinching. For instance, 3D footage filmed between 1924-27 made us duck when a baseball pitcher throws a fastball, and say “Eww!” when a fisherman dangles a fake (but very creepy) bug “in” the audience.

Yes, you read that right. This is realistic 3D footage from the 1920s, and it turns out the 1920s weren’t even the earliest years for 3D footage. (Smarty Pants Tidbit: The first 3D footage was released in 1915.)

The 3-D Rarities set features a wide variety of films, including a World Championship fight (Rocky Marciano vs. “Jersey” Joe Walcott), scenic tours of tropical islands, footage of the Pennsylvania Railroad (featuring value-priced “roomettes”), and trippy, experimental 3D animation courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. One of the most mesmerizing scenes (that we watched repeatedly) is footage of an atomic blast in Nevada.

By the early 1950s, 3D had hit its stride. It had bold colour, thrilling effects and scripts that capitalized on both.

Happily, the 3-D Rarities blu-ray includes selections from the midst of this “golden era”. These shorts and movie trailers almost make you nostalgic for this generation of 3D film.

They also make us wonder if the relationship between early filmmakers and 3D technology was as straightforward as we thought.

Richard Carlson warns us away from The Maze (1953). Image: Flicker Alley

Richard Carlson warns us away from The Maze (1953). Image: Flicker Alley

Filmmakers from the 1950s knew exactly what 3D is and what it should offer viewers. (You can see a complete list of 1950s 3-D movies at the Film Archive site here.) These movies are sensational and exhilarating; viewers realize they should never hold a cup of hot coffee while viewing.

We were surprised to see 3D films were not always about intense thrills. One of the earliest films on the blu-ray has genteel, patriotic shots of Washington D.C. The disk also includes street footage of New York City, and an earnest explanation of the importance of the railroad to the American economy. One short (hosted by Lloyd Nolan) shows us the inside of a large, expensive-looking 3D camera and explains how our eyes see 3D images.

Another narrator declares,  “You can see how things work in three-dimensional movies. Almost better than being there yourself.” He says this as we watch a man ploughing a field with a bright red tractor.


These are noble efforts to give us audiences an intellectual 3D experience, to try to make us better people. But let’s face it. If we’re watching 3D film, we aren’t concerned with Being A Better Person at the moment. We want thrills!

We want the high-speed car chase and the up-close-and-personal roller coaster ride. (Both filmed, incidentally, in the 1930s. We do not recommend viewing after a heavy meal.)

Still, you have to respect early filmmakers who wanted to educate us and show us parts of the planet we may never have visited. You find yourself appreciating these altruistic efforts.

We feel the 3-D Rarities collection from Flicker Alley offers an enlightening mix of shorts that give us a greater perspective of 3D history. Once you experience it, you’ll agree that some of this footage deserves its own cult following.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies, Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click here to view all the posts for today’s era.

Click HERE to purchase a copy of 3-D Rarities.

Check out Silver Scenes contribution HERE for a more complete look at feature 3D films of the 1950s.

For a review of a live screening of 3-D Rarities at MoMA, check out Citizen Screen’s review HERE




Silent Film with a Surrealist Twist

Buying a new arm at the limb store. Image: lskdj f

Buying a new arm at the Limb shop. Image:

We could hardly wait to share an obscure six-minute film with you.

Get this: Here is a film that was made in 1908, during the Nickleodeon period (1905-1915), and it feels as fresh and original as many indie short films produced today.

Some background: Before movies became the blockbuster form of entertainment they were before the pre-gaming era, films were shown as one attraction in a vaudeville (variety) show. However, in 1905, there was a shift in the entertainment industry, when the first Nickelodeon theatre opened in Pittsburg. Price of admission: 5 cents.

Suddenly movies became the dominant form of entertainment. As vaudeville theatres were converted to nickelodeon theatres, the programs changed, too. Instead of the focus on live acts, the focus was now on the films, although singing and some vaudeville acts still accompanied these films. These programs lasted between 10 minutes and an hour.

A lot of films were produced during this period; theatres changed their programs as often as three times a week. Everything about these films were short – production time, run time, and length of time in theatres.

Now, you may think these films were simple and unsophisticated. But we disagree. We like to think audiences were given their nickel’s worth. One example is 1908’s The Thieving Hand.

This movie was filmed in Brooklyn, New York, by the Vitagraph Company of America. This company began by making newsreels, but it graduated to narrative film. It was a prolific company; in 1907, for instance, no other company produced more films than Vitagraph. It was also the first studio to use stop-motion photography.

The Thieving Hand is an excellent example of Vitagraph’s trick cinematography (and black humour) during this era.

The plot involves a one-armed man who peddles cigars on a street corner. He sells a cigar to a rich man who accidentally drops his ring in the street. When the one-armed cigar peddler chases him down and returns the ring, the rich man rewards him by buying him a new arm.

Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: alskdfj

Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: Film: Ab Initio

This is where the film leaps into surrealism. The two men go to a Limbs shop where the one-armed man can be outfitted with a new forearm + hand. (The shop’s windows has arms and legs on display, but you can buy an assortment of hands and feet as well. Wooden “peg” legs are available, too, if that’s your style.)

Sadly for the cigar peddler, his new hand has a mind of its own and steals from passersby on the street. The owner, the poor slob, has no idea his fancy new hand is a kleptomaniac and, through a series of events that are not his fault, ends up in the slammer.

It’s an interesting study of a man, who is honest, and his alter-ego, The Hand, which is dishonest.

It’s also a delightful film with a slightly twisted bent, made better by some cheeky special effects, including:

  • Forearm + hand crawling around by itself.
  • Fitting the man with his new arm by merely shoving it up his shirtsleeve. (If only fitting prosthetics were this easy!)
  • The man pulling off the arm when he doesn’t want it any more.
  • The hand putting rings on itself, then admiring how it looks.

No CGI or other high-tech tricks here, only clever sleight of hand (ha ha). The result is pure magic.

But don’t take our word for it! We’ve included the full movie below. We think you’ll get a kick out of this little-known Nickelodeon gem.

The Thieving Hand: starring Paul Panzer. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. Vitagraph Co. of America, 1908, B&W, 6 mins.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies, Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click here to view all the posts for today’s era.


The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon Launches in a Few Days!


My co-hosts are Ruth of Silver Screenings and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and our sponsor is the wonderful Flicker Alley, which is supporting the event in honor of its release of 3-D Rarities (did you know it is the centenary of 3D film?) and Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works. There is also a giveaway for the 3D release (you don’t need a special TV or anything to enjoy it) so be sure to check that out as well.

The full roster is here. (I am updating it as I type.)

Here are some friendly reminders to all our participants:

  1. Please inform the hostess you “belong” to that you have posted and provide the URL.
  2. Please link to the event page for the era you are covering. I’m the silent era, Aurora is the Golden Age and Ruth is modern.
  3. Flicker Alley is helping spread the word about the event and is basically acting as a forth host so please link to them as well, if possible.
  4. If there are any issues with the links or any other concerns, please contact one of us.
  5. Feel free to contact Ruth, Aurora or myself if you have any questions. We don’t bite. Well, not often.

Billy Wilder’s Life-Affirming Ninotchka

"We're here to work, Comrades." Greta Garbo as Type A communist. Image: alkdsj flksd f

Greta Garbo, Type “A” communist. Image: More Stars than in the Heavens

A person could go on all day about the delightful 1939 comedy, Ninotchka. What’s not to love about a film with Cedric Gibbons art direction, Adrian gowns, Ernst Lubitsch’s skilled directing (a.k.a. “The Lubitsch Touch“), and a top-notch cast?

What we admire most is the script.

The screenplay was a collaborative effort by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and a man who would become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors, Billy Wilder.

To us, the script is like sneaking into your grandmother’s freezer and discovering a cache of baked goods. There are plenty of funny lines, endearing characters, and thoughtful observations on geopolitics.

Ninotchka is set in pre-World War II Paris, where three Russian envoys have arrived with orders to sell Russian jewels on behalf of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, prices are not ideal because the market has become flooded with such jewels.

There’s a bigger glitch: A Russian Countess in exile (Ina Claire), learns the Soviets have arrived with intentions to sell her family’s confiscated heirlooms.

Moscow then dispatches an Envoy Extraordinary named Ninotcha (Greta Garbo) to Paris to sort out this mess.

Wilder & Co. have created such intriguing characters that even if this film had no plot, it would still be fascinating. Characters reveal, in the first exchange of dialogue, their agenda and their eventual outcome.

For example, the Countess’ courtesan (Melvyn Douglas), is a suave fellow who appears with this introduction: “Remember that platinum watch with the diamond numbers? You’ll be in a position to give it to me now.”

Garbo, at the start of the film, is a dour, industrial-strength communist. She doesn’t suffer fools, and she despises frivolity.

Her adversary, the Countess, is a refined, cultured woman who is equally tough. She despises everything Garbo represents. Our sympathies throughout the movie lie with Garbo, but Claire is not going down without a fight. When the two women finally meet, Claire sharply reminds Garbo of everything the Bolsheviks have taken from her.

Whether as a screenwriter or director, Wilder is as funny as he is cynical. He’s an unflinching observer of human nature. This script incorporates Wilder’s trademark shrewdness, but we also find something unexpected.

Ninotchka, at heart, is overwhelmingly life-affirming.

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A tipsy Garbo jokes about being human. Image:

Garbo’s character undergoes an incredible transformation in this film. When she first arrives in Paris, she orders her fellow comrades, “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood. We’re here to work.

When she sees a ridiculous hat in a shop window, she almost can’t express enough displeasure. (“A civilization cannot survive with such hats.”) However, each time she passes the window, her contempt softens. Then, when she opens a carefully-locked drawer in her hotel room and pulls out said hat, we realize she is shedding Soviet rhetoric for a more human existence.

Douglas is drawn to Garbo in spite of (or because of?) her humourless demeanour. He implores her to smile and to laugh at “the whole spectacle” of life. “Thinking about death is so glum,” he says.

After Garbo’s internal human-ness awakens, she gives a poignant speech which must have been acutely felt by audiences in 1939, when the world was on the verge of global war. Her speech is almost a direct plea to world leaders.

“Comrades, people of the world,” she says, “the revolution is on the march. I know, bombs will fall, civilizations will crumble, but not yet. Please – wait. What’s the hurry? Give us our moment. Let us be happy.”

Ninotchka received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. We know you’ll enjoy this clever film co-authored by the great Billy Wilder.

Ninotchka: starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, BW, 1939, 110 mins.

This post is part of the BILLY WILDER Blogathon co-hosted by Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE to view all the fab posts in this blogathon.


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