Blockade (1938)

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  • directed by William Dieterle
  • starring Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, Leo Carrillo, John Halliday, Vladimir Sokoloff, Robert Warwick, Reginald Denny, Carlos De Valdez
  • A peasant farmer is forced to take up arms to defend his land during the Spanish Civil War. Along the way he falls for a woman whose father is a Russian spy.

“You may escape with your lives but you’ll have nothing to live for.”

“The most important film of 1938,” was the tagline associated with Blockade, a movie technically about the Spanish Civil War that was released in the middle of the conflict. The descriptors “topical,” “groundbreaking,” and “controversial” may have also been found as buzzwords on the film’s marketing materials. There is a wide expanse of territory between what producers and the politically-minded, Communist writer John Howard Lawson thought they were making and what ended up on the screen however. I have no doubt that there are one-panel political cartoons released during this time that dealt with the Spanish Civil War in more poignant terms.

What else can you say about a movie that is terrified of saying anything. One that turns its back completely on the subject matter in its blood. Socially and politically, The Spanish Civil War was a complicated issue and yet Blockade had so little to say about it that the two factions fighting it—the Nazi-backed, Francisco Franco-led Nationalists and The Republicans or Loyalists—were not once mentioned by name. There were clues as to which side Henry Fonda’s people’s militia and the spy-heavy opposition represented but uniforms were altered and the script so convoluted that the story of good guys versus bad guys could have taken place during any historical conflict. Its main generic goal was shrinking the monumental conflict down to one village, and then one farm, and then one man, to speak of the toll that war has on a country’s civilian population. The movie then went on to give no context to why any of it was actually happening.

Blockade was a Spanish Civil War movie in the same way a much more important film of 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood, was about King Richard’s role in the Third Crusade. A tame romance and espionage won out at the expense of, you know, actual information. If it wasn’t bad enough that the aim of the production was many levels higher than the execution, consider the fourth wall-breaking, hollow ending speech by Fonda’s Marco who turns directly into the camera to ponder “where is the conscience of the world” to allow such atrocities to take place?

“Atrocities where and by whom?” audience members may have asked themselves after watching a movie based on current reality that seems to intentionally disorient those who watch it. “I hear Hemingway is writing a Spanish Civil War-set novel right now, let’s just wait for that,” one of them added while walking out of the theater.

Dancing Lady (1933)

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  • directed by Robert Z. Leonard
  • starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Robert Benchley, Fred Astaire, Nelson Eddy, Ted Healy and His Stooges
  • A dancer is torn between a millionaire playboy and her stage manager.

“I’ve got good legs, Mr. Gallagher.”

There were a series of hail mary passes thrown by MGM with the release of Dancing Lady. First, it was a chance to get one of its shining stars Joan Crawford back into the good graces of audiences after a small string of missteps. Bigger than that, though, it was the studios official bid for a chunk of high-profile, big screen musical extravaganza real estate after Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers had been cornering that market for years. So MGM took some faulty parts and a small and typical script that tells of a scrappy burlesque starlet with big theater dreams and attempted to put together a huge, glitzy, state of the art musical machine.

There were big victories scored with the movie and not just financially. Joan Crawford was perfect in the non-singing and dancing scenes as Janie Barlow and naturally she had plenty of chemistry with Clark Gable, a man she had off and on romantic dealings with for years. Her character’s journey was predictable but Crawford put forth a vulnerable toughness that saved her in my eyes from what could have easily been a movie-ruining lack of command on the stage itself. It was striking to see just how confident her acting was in some scenes contrasted with how detached she became when it came time to sing or dance. There were dozens of people around for every rehearsal of the onscreen production of Dancing Lady, including Gable as the anguished and tough as nails overseer, Patch Gallagher, and yet nobody ever questioned having an oddly uncharismatic singer and dancer at the center of it all. To make matters worse the costumes that Crawford was forced to wear while dancing appeared to be extremely restrictive.

Dancing Lady is best remembered as the gathering spot for an astonishing amount of initial film appearances. The Three Stooges, billed as Ted Healy and His Stooges, introduce themselves to the world as a bunch of goof-off stagehands. In a lot of scenes they can be spotted in the background performing versions of their slapstick irrelevant to the film’s narrative. Nelson Eddy sings “That’s the Rhythm of the Day” in one of his first-ever appearances after signing with MGM. Blink and you’ll miss a young Eve Arden strolling through one of the audition scenes. Biggest of all though is Fred Astaire, formally introduced by name and dancing in the show’s biggest numbers in his trademark top hat and tails. There is little remarkable about Astaire’s work in this first appearance but even while dumbing down his abilities to meet his partner in the middle, I defy anyone’s eyes to even glance at Crawford while they dance together.

Crawford and Astaire was an unfair partnership to the both of them and it underscores a lot of MGM and David O. Selznick’s misguided intentions in approaching their first big musical production. Most of the performers in Patch Gallagher’s Dancing Lady came across as unnatural performers playing performers. And you can’t just tack a Busby Berkeley-ish kaleidoscopic carousel onto the end of it and call it a day. Simply put there was too strong a Hollywood mentality on the part of Joan Crawford and the film’s producers to properly sell an authentic Broadway spirit.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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  • directed by Paul Leni
  • starring Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst, Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell
  • Gwynplaine, the son of an aristocrat, is kidnapped for political reasons and then disfigured by a gypsy surgeon, who leaves the boy’s face paralyzed in a contorted smile.

 “God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine.”

Director Paul Leni was a German avant-garde painter and set designer who experienced some success with the stylish anthology film, Waxworks, but never broke through in Germany or during his brief time in the States. There was good material and some breathtaking visual moments for Leni but he very much remained an aesthetic-driven everyman until the end of his life one year after releasing Universal’s adaptation of The Man Who Laughs. Going back to the Victor Hugo well was an attempt by the studio to keep the high-profile Gothic romantic melodrama train rolling after two big successes in the years prior–The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.

Like the early films of Joe May and Ernst Lubitsch, the look and feel of Leni’s films rarely escape such a mighty theatrical and Expressionist background. The carnival settings were exciting and twisted and the scenes with the royals appropriately opulent. The subject matter was practically begging for the loud brand of Expressionist compositions with props and angles thrashing across the screen, but Leni went in the other direction, perhaps recognizing the otherworldly qualities of the narrative and going for a more subdued and natural visual form. By 1928, pure Expressionism as it was known was coming to an end hand in hand with silent film. The style primarily existed only in the silent years and was then picked apart and appropriated throughout many more mainstream genres going forward.

Written in 1869, The Man Who Laughs is about a man who was used by others for various purposes since birth. Gwynplaine was used as a young boy by King James II as a lesson to his insubordinate father. He was then found and used as a freak show entertainer positioned right next to the three sword swallowing man and the five-legged cow. Later in life he was used again by the royals who discover his esteemed lineage and need him to legitimize the Duchess Josiana through marriage.

Through all of these injustices Gwynplaine has no choice but to smile, only literally, as it was carved into his face at a young age. After his father is killed he wanders and stumbles across a child in similar circumstances, the blind girl Dea, and both get taken in by the charlatan, Ursus. There is always love and care shared between the deeply insecure Gwynplaine and the soft-spoken and vulnerable Dea. Unlike the carnival audience members who point and laugh, Dea is unable to see any disfigurement and instead notices an immensely warm person who has the gift of making people laugh.

Mary Philbin plays Dea like she is made of tissue paper and the forecast calls for rain. To see her in The Man Who Laughs is to want to drop everything and nurture her. A very delicate performance. Both leads elicit much sympathy as the great Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine was similarly raw, but it was a unique watching experience to have to rely on his eyes alone to capture the depth of emotion. Silent film hinges on a performance style that more often than not crosses the line to over-emotive and this was the exact opposite. These two say everything that needs to be said about pain and damage and even more without doing much of anything.

The length of the movie was one problem I had. When a simple story like this gets 110 minutes to unfold, often, as here, there will be buffer scenes or side stories that weaken the impact. In this case the greater share of showing what’s being done to Gwynplaine and Dea as opposed to how they’re coping with or internalizing such injustice kept interrupting my heartfelt devotion to the characters.

The one part of The Man Who Laughs that I was fully expecting but looking forward to was the happy ending for the pair. After escaping Queen Anne’s grand plan, Gwynplaine dodges several guards to reunite with Ursus and Dea aboard a boat and right then was the moment the entire film was building to, the same smile we’ve seen all along but this time for real.

Mayerling (1936)

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  • directed by Anatole Litvak
  • starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Dax, Gabrielle Dorziat, Andre Dubosc
  • Rebelling against his overbearing father, Austria’s crown prince, Rudolph, slips away and begins a passionate tryst with young baroness Marie Vetsera.

 “Nanny, do you think a prince can be unhappy?”

The story of Archduke Rudolph and his mistress Marie Vetsera has been a point of historical fascination for a century and a quarter by now. Over the years there have been dozens of theories put forth about what exactly transpired at Mayerling on the night of January 30, 1889. Was it a murder-suicide? A botched abortion? An ambush by Vetsera’s family? Was Maria complicit in or even aware of the plan? Questions remain mostly due to evidence tampering and suppression by the House of Habsburg at the time. All we know is that after a refusal by the Pope to annul Rudolph’s existing marriage and a period of hushed courtship between the two as a result of family objections on both sides, they entered into their chambers at the quiet royal manor for one last night together and were found dead the next morning.

For better or worse it is Claude Anet’s book Idyll’s End as adapted in two Mayerling films, in 1936 and 1968, which paints the largest picture available of the doomed affair between the would-be Emperor of Austria and the young baroness. And so the story that is most often told, not surprisingly, is the one that we the ever salacious-leaning public would like to be told as we munch our popcorn, stifle our tears, and consider the many injustices this world of ours has seen through the centuries. Combining the elegance of European royalty, the façade of a classic forbidden romance, and true crime-levels of evidence and theories as to how it ended for the pair, the story of Rudolph and Marie Vetsera was tailor-made to inspire, depress, and make the world wonder for generations.

Anatole Litvak was in no way interested in telling a straight, star-crossed love story with Mayerling. There was an ominous mood that accumulated throughout and any shred of positive emotion or romance was immediately stifled by a symbolic prop or line of dialogue that pointed toward the grave, such as the skull on Rudolph’s desk, him firing a gun at his reflection in the mirror, his growing paranoia and mental anguish, a puppet show in which a character is punished for feelings of true love, and Maria wishing on her wedding ring that she dies before he does. Litvak created perfectly refined environments and the stuffy atmosphere of European pomp and circumstance. There was also on the surface somewhat of a traditional love story narrative, though cleverly seasoned with dread at every turn. For all the efforts to tamp down the sunshine and rainbows, this was still to its detriment a version of the story that had the strong-burning love between the two as the sole motivating factor to rid themselves of this world. In reality there were a lot of other factors involved.

Another problem that I had with Mayerling can be boiled down quite simply to the story of the two Vetseras. First there is the real life Mary Vetsera, who I read was every bit as melancholy and trapped as the crown prince. She was a mistress after all, one of many in fact, and on a much smaller scale she could bring on just as much public shame to her family as Rudolph. If death was a way for her and Rudolph to continue on together, then I buy the fact that Mary Vetsera, ignorant to the fact that her true love had been searching for a death partner previously, was a knowing accomplice to that plan.

A different character in the film altogether, Anet and Litvak’s Marie, as played by the lovely Danielle Darrieux, was the unassuming young woman that caught the eye of everyone as she kept to herself at various galas and receptions. She was radiant and beautiful with an aura that competed with even the most esteemed members of the crowd. My issue arises when she says of herself in an early scene that she was happy and satisfied with life. As the relationship with Rudolph developed and the cards quickly stacked against them she maintained that emotion and there were never steps made to darken her demeanor suggesting she would go along with a joined suicide attempt.

As complex as her experience and motivations were, Rudolph by comparison is an easy case. Charles Boyer played the character completely drenched with grief throughout, leading to that out of control party scene that played more like a horror movie in that we do not know what deprave acts his depression will make possible. He is a shamed playboy cursed by his father and lashing out at the formal, conservative trappings of being the heir apparent. Death was always going to be his escape hatch. He just had to find the right person with which to share that.

It is important to note the severe implications that night at Mayerling potentially had on the world at large. The line of succession was foggy to say the least upon Rudolph’s death, leading his father to appoint his nephew, Rudolph’s cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was already a time when tensions in Europe were escalating and Austria-Hungary influence was waning considerably. This all highlights a very clear alternate timeline, in which there is no assassination of the heir to the throne in 1914, no escalation of tensions and July crisis, and just maybe no World War I. About 16 million people died  during World War I and it very well could have been because of the two that did themselves in 25 years earlier.

 

Twentieth Century (1934)

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  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane, Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller
  • A Broadway producer who has fallen on hard times tries to get his former lover, now a Hollywood diva, to return and resurrect his failing career.

“We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed.”

The elements of the screwball comedy genre were floating around as early as the development of sound, primarily in the work of Ernst Lubitsch at the turn of the 1930s. By 1934, a romantic angle was no stranger to comedy, nor were endless strings of misunderstandings and farcical narrative choices, all building blocks of screwball. What completed the puzzle though, something that arose partly in response to amped up production codes as the decade unfolded, was the breakneck pacing, as if censors wouldn’t be able to catch every little detail, and the quick, witty verbal sparring between the sexes, an easy-to-miss stand-in to non-physically suggest sexual tension and frustration.

In early 1934, ready or not, audiences would witness two of the first screwball comedies and ones that would go on to influence a large portion of Hollywood’s business for nearly an entire decade. Everybody except perhaps its difficult star Claudette Colbert was ready for It Happened One Night, which was received as well as can be by America and the Academy. Twentieth Century, though, needed a lot more time for its value to be acknowledged. As John Barrymore’s immensely memorable Oscar Jaffe remarks in the movie, “the gold is all there, but we must mine it.” So let’s do that.

That Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century has graduated from the depths of box office hell to such classic and beloved levels is a testament to the film’s writing, the performances, and–what audiences could not have known at the time–one of the more fascinating examples of film mirroring real life.

First the casting of Carole Lombard, an actress just getting started without yet a breakout hit, proved to be as contentious a choice as it was on screen for Oscar Jaffe to transform Mildred Plotka into his muse, Lily Garland. Lombard had a few mid-level roles, but there was still no evidence that she could command the screen, let alone sell comedic material. Hawks, like Jaffe, saw a potential in her that she didn’t even know was there and he stuck by her loyally throughout. There was no rolling of the dice with the casting of John Barrymore, already a more than capable talent with a familiar face. Long before people like Peter Sellers and Gene Wilder created similar brands of seething and intimidating characters who bullied their way into hilarity, there was this particular portrayal of Oscar Jaffe. Twentieth Century was Barrymore’s high point, creating an indelible character through sheer force, and it also marked the beginning of the end for his stature as a leading man.

The exact dynamic of Garland surpassing Jaffe is the story of Barrymore and Lombard’s careers at this point in time. On screen you have the god-like Oscar Jaffe going from toast of the town to an in-debt, babbling vagrant. Same ego from beginning to end but the perception changes from intimidating to pathetic. Lily Garland starts the movie unable to act her way through a scene, is coached by Jaffe, and ultimately blossoms into Broadway’s and then Hollywood’s leading diva, leaving the headache that is her former lover and mentor behind. “The sorrows of life are the joys of art.”

What I loved most about Twentieth Century was that it changes on a dime over and over between being much smarter and dumber than is any typical romantic comedy audience. There was no even plane of existence for these characters. They were either bloviating with high-minded references to D’Artagnan and Sappho or wallowing in the silliness of physical comedy. There was also great poetry to be found in the array of insults they hurled at each other, such as old fainting Bertha, Anathema, scorpion, fishwife, and my favorite, Hairpin Annie, the pride of the gashouse.

Twentieth Century came very close to achieving perfection in my mind but the formula of a screwball is laden with traps, especially as the brisk and charismatic foundation established starts to move into absurdist territory. The religious Matthew Clark subplot, which worked in parts once it was brought into the fold of the main story, went through a few too many forced moments in order to get there. The ending too was dangerously close to falling apart at the seams and had little of the charm displayed up to that point.

Much has always been made about the so-called “invisible style’ of Howard Hawks. There will always be efforts to brand directors in order to find the common current surging through their films—one of my favorite hobbies. Nobody in their right mind would question his greatness but the visual and narrative details of what makes Hawks Hawks is a trickier proposition, especially with him jumping between the comedy, drama, science fiction, crime, noir, and western genres so seamlessly. Of the Hawks films that I have seen there is a distinct lack of noise or sentimentality. What one may call no nonsense. More importantly, and this runs counter to Oscar Jaffe in many ways, is that he builds a production with high quality scripts and dominant players and shies away from loudly advertising his own role. “A good director is someone who doesn’t annoy you,” he once said. Hawks is not above behind the scenes manipulation to get it right, but with a smart script like Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s, two incredible supporting performances by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns, and the monstrous comedic performances at the center, it’s probably easier than ever to step aside.

Asphalt (1929)

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  • directed by Joe May
  • starring Betty Amann, Gustav Frohlich, Albert Steinruck, Else Heller
  • A Berlin policeman is caught between his desires and his duties when he allows himself to be seduced by a woman accused of robbing a jewelry store.

“Do you really think I became a thief out of need?”

From the opening scene of a bustling, kaleidoscopic Berlin cityscape to the bits of noir and Expressionist imagery featured throughout, it was clear that director Joe May aimed to heighten this simple story as much as possible with style. On first glance, the cold, hard title of Asphalt seems counter to that mission and to have nothing to do with Albert Holk’s increasing mania brought upon by the cunning criminal Else Kramer. How Berlin was captured by May, though, and that exhilarating opening sequence in general, tethered all that followed to the seedy, illicit aura of the city at night. The streets of Berlin, where the traffic cop once did right by the city, were now suggestively held responsible for chewing him up and spitting him out.

Of course in the story-world it was Else Kramer, one of silent film’s great characters thanks to the beautiful and dominant Betty Amann, who did all the heavy lifting to send him spiraling down. Else can hysterically cry, feign sickness, or effortlessly seduce a man at the drop of a hat, deploying whichever is necessary in any situation to escape trouble, something she finds herself in often. Albert falls hard for this when trying something as simple as bringing her in for an arraignment yet somehow, after trick after trick, is borderline molested by Else at her apartment. There is no actual hypnosis involved, although it is teased, but an uninhibited sexual display by Else is enough to render all the Berlin men that we see completely powerless.

The pair separate after that first encounter and both seemed consumed by the experience. It plays on one hand like a typical love story but with one participant’s intentions being completely unreliable. Everything about their scenes together is just a little off. Else is mostly shown towering above him in the traditional couple scenes. Their first kiss features her forcefully jumping, climbing, and looking down on him. When they meet later and he confesses his love, he is on the floor holding her in bed. When she gets up, he clings to her legs like a desperate child. She struck me as a female Von Stroheim creation at some points, equally as depraved and predatory, and not something one would expect from a Flapper-looking 1920s leading lady.

Gustav Frohlich, well-known from Metropolis, is terrific in Asphalt though his role is little more than tortured meat for most of it. Any semblance of Albert as a masculine, by-the-book officer of the law is quickly gone as he’s lowered himself to a mere subject of Else’s will and she is never quite as in love with him as he is her. It was hard for anybody else to shine in the film because there is hardly any screen to share aside Betty Amann’s tour de force. In terms of appearance and how she was presented, there was very little separating Amann from Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, or other prolific talents of that era. It was all dark features, knowing eyes, and soft lighting in close-up. The ruthless character of Else and how naturally Amann shifted between femme fatale and damsel in distress was one part of a tide-turning in 1929 toward complex and dominant female characters.

There might never be full agreement amongst fans and film scholars on where film noir began, when it began, or what it even is, but the many narrative and visual aspects of the genre are loose and hazy enough that you can track its inception and influence far before the standout American titles of the 1940s and 50s. German Expressionism in particular, with its ability to create tension and darkness through distorted or askew visual choices is a great point of influence for the later noir movement.

The brand of Expressionism found in Asphalt is practical as opposed to theatrical, achieved through editing, framing, and lighting. Albert’s world becomes ruled by passion and lust with his moral grounding completely twisted by the end, a very noir-like arc for the character, and May keeps up with this dive by creating a frenzied and ominous Berlin. In these ways it is easy to point to Asphalt, as well as countless other titles from this era, from von Sternberg, Lang, and others, as a visual template for the noir movement for others to Americanize and expand upon.

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

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  • directed by Yasujirō Ozu
  • starring Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine, Tatsuo Saitō
  • A married Tokyo man faces unemployment after standing up for an older colleague.

“A drowning man will clutch at straws.”

The great, influential Yasujirō Ozu was a man who grew up dazzled and obsessed with the films of Hollywood, but did not follow their language when it came time to make his own. I’m quite torn with using the word influential in Ozu’s case, though it’s a longstanding badge on his legacy, because that implies that his many tricks and trademarks may have been adopted and personalized by several that followed. For such a minutely cultivated style, that is unlikely or impossible. Instead he seems most influential in terms of his mission statement that a film need not conform to the longstanding structure that by 1931 had already been established.

Conventions are for the conventional.

It turns out, we all discovered from the films of Ozu, that action can indeed be shot literally from the ground up, dialogue remains strong and continuity intact even though characters sometimes appear to be not looking at each other, scenes can transition from one to the next in different ways than what audiences are accustomed to, a narrative does hold up even when a script’s “big” moments are not shown but referenced in the words or actions of a character, and, perhaps most revolutionary of all, a film’s tone and pace can be slowed down to contemplative, almost serene levels. These are all techniques that turn his traditionally small and insulated stories into something much larger.

The results, so frequently with Ozu, are complex and life-affirming scenes like the one in Tokyo Chorus, in which two parents playing a silly hand clapping game with their kids start out despondent over their marriage and impoverished and unlucky lot in life—two adults appearing playful and foolish yet emoting devastation—before succumbing to the bittersweet-for-them celebratory spirit in the air. Scenes like this, along with frequent cuts to scenery, props, or body parts, causes me to feel that Ozu always seems to be searching for the soul of each individual frame that only he knows is there.

We meet Shinji Okajima as a young man being disciplined during drills at his school, a scene which features the first of a few tracking shots captured of men lined up. There would be more down the road with men lining up at work  and lining up to find work, among others. Years later, Okajima leads a modest life, now married with two children, working at an insurance company, and awaiting a promised bonus needed to fund gifts for his children and a comfortable standard of living that somehow continues to be elusive. On bonus day when he learns that a senior coworker has been unfairly fired, Shinji takes up his cause with management, hence departing for the day fired himself. So begins the downward trajectory of a man who has lost his livelihood, the respect in his household, and any sense of purpose. He now must lower himself considerably to get it back.

In Tokyo Chorus, as elsewhere in Ozu’s filmography, character’s faces are sometimes cut in half or completely out of the frame during conversation. Legs, feet, and the lower halves of bodies are often given equal billing to the active elements in a scene. This was due to one of his many innovations, the famed tatami shot, named after the straw, composite, or wood mats traditional to Japanese culture. For centuries and still in many regions today sitting in the traditional seiza position on treated mats or floors was proper. There are no chairs in the film’s Okajima household so it is only natural that more often than not, Ozu would bring us right down with his characters, not even rising as the characters get up themselves.

Ozu had already made 20+ silent films by 1931 but barely any of it has survived. Tokyo Chorus, with its autobiographical flourishes and flashes of style, is for all intents and purposes the debut on record for the director and it’s a wonderful precursor to all that will follow as his career escalates in quality. The tiny family story with questions of honor and responsibility, along with almost-impossibly low camera angles, were two quintessential Ozu signatures that are on display here. But at the end of the day, it features a confident director in the early stages of developing his creative muscle, perhaps with a priority of mastering the format of silent film instead of the bold yet restrained works of art that would come as color and sound enter the fold.

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