Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Mike Gebert ""

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Mike Gebert

Michael Gebert is a Chicago food writer and the proprietor of NitrateVille.com, a discussion site devoted to silent and classic film, and the podcast NitrateVille Radio, which talks to archivists, collectors, authors and others in the world of classic film.

This was an interesting year for old movie fans—physical media were dying, streaming was replacing it, and by year’s end the best streaming service, Filmstruck, was dead and blu-rays were better than ever (as Just the Discs chronicles in each episode). And yet half my list is theatrical screenings, which still exist and offer wonderful obscurities. My half dozen for 2018:

The Silver Cord (1933)
As Filmstruck was approaching its end, movie Twitterers exchanged titles to see while you still could. Most were things I knew of but had never gotten around to, like David Lean’s Victorian noir Madeleine (great to look at, not one of his best). One I had never heard of was this pre-Code drama, with Laura Hope Crews repeating her stage role as what seems, at first, like a clinging, pathetic mom. But there’s more to her conniving nature than that, as Irene Dunne discovers when she has to battle Crews hammer and tongs for Joel McCrea. It’s fiery stuff with Crews unafraid to suggest incestuous depths to mother love, and Dunne surprisingly modern as a career woman with no apologies.
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The Ancient Law (1923)
A traditionalist Jewish cantor and his son are estranged, when the son wants to follow a career in worldly showbiz. Hey, isn’t that The Jazz Singer? It is, but before that it was this lavish 1923 melodrama by E.A. Dupont (Variety), set not in 20s New York but 19th century Viennese theater.

Long unseen, it’s recently been restored and is currently touring with veteran silent film musician Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals (of the punk-era klezmer revival band The Klezmatics). Seeing them play everything from Viennese waltzes to fiddlers on roofs for this superb picture of Jewish life was one of the great silent film experiences of my life. If they tour near you, don’t miss them, but they also do one of the scores on the Flicker Alley disc.
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Value For Money (1955)
People running regional old movie festivals like Cinevent (in Columbus, Ohio) have to look for things collectors have that nobody’s ever thought to put on DVD. This is a mid-50s British sex comedy, the very tame sex mainly being the mere presence of Diana Dors (the Jayne Mansfield of postwar England), and honestly, paying money to own it on disc would set up expectations of value it couldn’t quite meet.

Yet it was fun to catch something weightless like this in an IB Technicolor print as shiny as a new sports car. And the plot—the heir to a Yorkshire manufacturing concern goes to London for a high old time and meets a showgirl—gives you a vivid picture of England before the Beatles, London as glitzy as Vegas while the north is still basically Dickens.

The Rescue (1929)
Another old movie festival I went to was Capitolfest, in Rome, New York. The featured star of 2018’s fest was Ronald Colman, seen in four films of which I’d only seen one. This late silent—1929, the same year Colman made one of the smoothest transitions to sound with Bulldog Drummond—is based on a Joseph Conrad novel which has Colman as the sort of itinerant ship captain that Bogart plays in To Have and Have Not. Directed by Herbert Brenon (Peter Pan, Beau Geste), it’s completely unknown—I wrote the first IMDB review for it—and it’s terrific, tough and unsentimental and with a dynamite climax (literally—they blew up a full-scale model of a ship with a blast that took the audience’s breath away).

La Belle Equipe (1936)
Julien Duvivier was one of France’s top directors for decades—on the level of William Wyler in Hollywood—and his Pepe le Moko had a huge impact on pop culture, giving us Pepe LePew, the stock line “Come wiz me to ze Casbah,” and the idea of international romance-thrillers like Casablanca. Yet somehow his reputation has faded—and as a friend on NitrateVille said, next to somebody like Jean Renoir, Duvivier doesn’t seem to like his characters much.

Still, an estimable career, and Pathé has released a gorgeous region-free and English-subtitled blu-ray of this beautiful, sad 1936 film with the great star Jean Gabin (Pepe himself). Five working class friends go in on a lottery ticket and win, and decide to open a getaway cafe in the country. But man was not made to live in Eden…
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Come and See (1985)
I was sure I had seen this Soviet film set in Belarus during WWII. I flipped it on on Filmstruck one day and… it was in color. Which I did not remember it being. Turns out I was thinking of a 1967 Soviet film, Commissar. So I watched this one too and it’s a harrowing masterpiece of a WWII film, about a boy who has ideas of valor as a partisan fighting the Germans, and finds himself plunged into a surreal hellscape, survival the only purpose in life. Like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev, the view is often that of the gods looking down on ants, big canvas long takes as horror and cruelties unfold in real time.
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