Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2019 - Mike Gebert ""

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Film Discoveries of 2019 - Mike Gebert

Michael Gebert is a Chicago food writer and the proprietor of, 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.
On Twitter @Nitrateville.
His 2018 Discoveries list can be seen here:

This column is about film discoveries, but how can you make discoveries in a world where everything seems to be available, and you can just watch Zoolander over and over and never have to see anything new? So this year I’m not only calling out my discoveries, but how I discovered them—some curated by smart programmers, others just stumbled upon in the infinite space of streaming.

HIS NIBS (1921)
Here’s a real oddball of a silent film that the Chicago Film Society turned up and showed at Chicago’s Music Box Theater. Chic Sale was a famous vaudeville monologist—that is, he would do a whole comedy speech in a rural character’s voice, and he was quite successful with one about a “specialist” in building outhouses. So a company made a silent melodrama called The Smart Aleck, with him as the small town rube who defeats the city slickers and wins the girl. (Did I mention he was famous for talking?)

Then… they decided it was lousy, and it fell to a cartoonist named Gregory LaCava, who would go on to do things like My Man Godfrey, to salvage it. His answer was basically Mystery Science Theater 1921—to use The Smart Aleck as the film within a film about a small town theater owner (Sale) putting on the big Saturday show, with all the local types (the local gossips, the disapproving preacher, etc.), most of them played by Sale, too, poking fun at it along the way. The picture of what going to the movies in the sticks was like back then is a lot of fun—and The Smart Aleck, cut down to highlights, isn’t that bad.

Unlike His Nibs, here was a silent that I knew about—its restoration was shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year, though I caught it, again, at the Music Box. In silent days train movies were as much a genre as westerns, offering the same benefit to producers (the outdoors is a free set), and similar conventions—the good guy who works a remote station, his sweetheart, the bad guy (always mustached) who lusts for the girl and is in cahoots with robbers, etc. This early film from Clarence Brown, who would go on to direct Garbo and National Velvet and things like that, has all the conventions—but they play wonderfully fresh here. Wallace Beery is the baddie sent to the remote station, who immediately takes an eye to Virginia Valli, which good guy/husband Rockcliffe Fellowes refuses to see. Brown ratchets the situation up until one stormy night, Fellowes finds himself torn between preventing a train wreck—and preventing Beery having his brutish way with his wife. Beautifully shot in northern California, this is the kind of steam-heated silent thriller that talk could only slow down.
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Dr. Kildare was one of those TV series that I never saw as a kid, but knew about because Mad magazine kept all of pop culture in a constant state of Mixmastering. Anyway, on TV (Richard Chamberlain) and in old movies (Lew Ayres), it was apparently soothing doctor-romance for the ladies.

So it was quite a surprise to see the original Dr. Kildare movie at Capitolfest—which turns out to be completely bonkers. Joel McCrea’s Kildare meets patient Barbara Stanwyck, whose son vanished with her dead gangster husband; Kildare saves the life of mobster Lloyd Nolan (operating on him in his own bar), so then he tries to help Stanwyck too… but there’s another bad guy who’s blackmailing her for sex… hey, wasn’t this supposed to have something to do with medicine? Stanwyck and McCrea are hot, the hospital set looks like it came from Things to Come, and Kildare, who I remind you is not a full-fledged doctor yet, will wind up doing another emergency barroom gangster surgery before it’s all over.
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One way to discover things on Criterion Channel is to check the list of movies leaving at the end of the month. Which is how I saw this Alec Guinness movie which puts him in a dual role under director Robert Hamer (who directed eight Guinnesses in Kind Hearts and Coronets). He’s an English teacher who feels ignored by the world, and heads off to France. There he finds he has an exact double in a Frenchman—and after a lot of drinking together, he wakes up in the Frenchman’s life, while the French version of Guinness has vanished. For a while he has fun toying with the lives of the Frenchman’s mostly unhappy family and mistress, and generally being an improvement on the original—but French Guinness must be out there somewhere, plotting something.… Based on a novel by Daphne duMaurier and co-written by Gore Vidal, this is a droll comedy with a dark edge, not as good as Kind Hearts and Coronets, but smartly grownup all the same.
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Mickey Rooney, only one third of the way through his very long career and already scrambling for a way to continue being a star, found a 1950s niche in noir tales of little guys with hard luck lives. Here he’s an auto mechanic with a disfigured face who dreams of being a race car driver. He meets a girl, she introduces him to her friends, they all think he’s swell. Hmm, what would attract some fast-living, shady types to a guy who can drive a car really fast?

Criterion Channel ran a whole series of Columbia noirs and among the ones I hadn’t seen, this was my favorite, written with pointed psychological perception by Blake Edwards, and with Rooney really outstanding as the pathetic, unloved protagonist. Another thing I liked about all of the Columbias was the extensive use of real 1950s locations—driven by cheapness, no doubt, but offering a vivid picture of ordinary life in that decade. The gleaming body shop here, the department store fashion show in Nightfall, San Francisco’s Sutro Baths in The Lineup, a vintage amusement park in The Burglar—all among the minor but real pleasures of watching movies this year.
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An old movie title I knew but didn’t really know what it was about—I confused it with Another Dawn, with Errol Flynn. But Arrow put out a blu-ray so I bought it, figuring how bad can a movie written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett the year before Double Indemnity be? Charles Boyer is a Romanian dancer-gigolo who wants to get into America, and gets as far as the Mexican border; there he runs into old dance partner Paulette Goddard, who tells him the easiest way to scam your way in is to find an American tourist and con them into marrying you.

So, a tale of a very timely border in 2019. Boyer sweeps naive teacher Olivia deHavilland off her feet, all according to plan. But deHavilland’s guileless goodness starts to have its effect on Boyer, and you realize that this is Wilder’s semi-autobiographical parable of what getting to America a few steps ahead of the Nazis meant—Europeans must cast off their cynicism and corruption, and be worthy of passing through the gates of their last hope to be reborn as good, honest Americans. How you want to read that in 2019 is up to you, but by 1943’s lights, it’s very moving—and yet, bizarrely, the whole thing is framed as a story that Boyer tells to a Hollywood director (played by the movie’s actual director, Mitchell Leisen), which seems a cynical way to present a tale of sincerity triumphing over cynicism. America didn’t know what it was getting in Billy Wilder.
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