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.

Le Million (1931)

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  • directed by René Clair
  • starring Annabella, René Lefévre, Vanda Gréville, Jean-Louis Allibert, Paul Ollivier
  • An impoverished painter and his rival engage in a race across Paris to recover a jacket concealing a winning lottery ticket.

“The breeze on this night so fair/ Carries off our coupled sighs/ Far away toward distant skies.”

A down on his luck man hounded by debt collectors beats the odds to win the lottery at exactly the right moment in René Clair’s early sound film Le Million. The victory ends up being the easy part for Michel as a series of incidents places a jacket which holds the ticket in the hands of a couple of criminals before ending up as a tenor’s costume in a production of “Les Bohémiens.”

From that point on, Clair’s music- and joy-filled seemingly endless amount of chase sequences begin in the original apartment building before moving to the streets of Paris and finally the Lyriqué Opera sequence, my favorite of the film, a master class on editing and tone, and the one which really illustrated René Clair’s fixation on music and theater, as well as his conflicted views on the advent of sound. It is in this sequence where we see Michel and Beatrice having a momentous conversation about their love for each other without speaking a word. A full relationship arc full of thoughts, facial expressions, and emotion conveyed only by the lyrics of the opera happening on stage; a neat trick that shows that Clair came armed with sound to play and be clever.

It was very early on when Clair declared that sound would be the death of film and cinema. Le Million was his second sound film after Under the Roofs of Paris, and by that time his feelings had evolved to a place where his intention with the new tool was to use it as an added artistic element to silent film principles as opposed to “killing the camera” with dialogue-heavy productions, as was stated in his 1959 interview with Jim MacAndrew. Silent film was something new and revolutionary, his thoughts continued, and sound and dialogue would fatefully revert the cinema back to the old styles and traditions of live theater.

It makes perfect sense that Clair’s opinion would be cautious, to say the least. His approach to filmmaking around this time was basically a celebration of silent cinema itself as a means of conveying the vibrant energy and beauty of life’s surface. They were a toast to the general joys of life and nary a complexity or double-meaning reared its head. You would be swept away and humming with a pep in your step after watching a Clair film, but what you see is very much what you get. It’s funny to think of how many similarities his work shares with Ernst Lubitsch in my mind–the grandeur, the artificial, highly-stylized sets, the whimsy, the lack of fear when it comes to the corny–but the two come to a very sharp fork in the road when it comes to what’s lying under the surface. Lubitsch films say a hell of a lot of things without directly saying them. Clair’s on the other hand are usually content to say nothing at all.

Many have said that he remained a silent film director in style even into the 1940s, which led to a falling out of favor for his legacy especially as French New Wave pioneers were quick to dismiss his work as safe and too fixated on the mainstream. Luckily I’m the type of film watcher who delights in the smart type of mainstream as much or possibly more than the revolutionary.

Visually, Le Million is like watching a silent film with an audio track added in years later. Though it had more dialogue than I was expecting, you can clearly tell which aspects of sound that Clair was most delighted to employ, for instance his use of bells, whistles, unintelligible crowd noise, and music as decorative accents to the lottery mayhem. Overall though there’s a feeling of disjointedness in watching sound hand in hand with the showy brand of silent film performances. I’ve seen several silent films that look and feel like less of a silent film than Le Million, but that was Clair’s flag to fly and I respect that it comes off as not clinging to the past but as a conviction that the past is important enough to bring along to the future.

Frankenstein (1931)

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  • directed by James Whale
  • starring Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye
  • An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

“I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to, uh… Well, we’ve warned you.”

This was a clear favorite of mine and always has been possibly due to me dressing as Frankenstein’s monster for Halloween so many times as a child, a tradition that unfortunately culminated in the year when the adhesive on my neck bolts painfully fused to my skin. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t half expecting to be let down re-watching this as I have been with some of the other Universal horror titles of the era, but it still stands up as a solid movie with great effects, makeup, sets, and a few wonderfully nuanced performances.

I almost saw it as two movies this time or instead the first two episodes of a TV series. Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein steals the show in the first half as the mad scientist who has no clue what level of danger with which he’s toying. Director James Whale and set and effects designers created the perfect laboratory for Henry, with its sky-high ceilings and flowing currents of electricity. After the successful creation and even when the monster is at his most captive, there is never any doubt that the monster is just too powerful to keep contained and that he would be escaping. When he finally does in the films second half, the mood changes and it sheds a whole new light on the character as he stumbles through the daylit forest and encounters the young girl who he drowns in the river. After 10 or so horror movies that have done everything in their power to hide the horror, I have never been so shocked and happy to see on screen a young girl who can’t swim getting thrown into a river. Good on you, Mr. Whale.

The moral ambiguity of the monster is something that’s been dealt with in many ways across many mediums. Here he is awakened behaving like that which he is–the child of just one parent Henry Frankenstein. There’s a brief scene where he learns to obey certain commands but all throughout, Karloff’s expression and mannerisms signal a search for love and acceptance. The film made a point to show us that this monster was given the abnormal brain of a criminal (laughably, this clue came from a note on the jar that read “abnormal brain”), but it’s hard to think of what intent for murder he’d have if it wasn’t for the taunting by Fritz or the general antagonism he was met with by all including Henry during the conclusion.

Like his directing work on The Old Dark House, James Whale had such a firm grasp on the scary parts of the material that he was able to ease up here and there and be just as effective at showing the many emotional aspects. I am very excited for his sequel to this, a film that has a pretty solid reputation of being as good or better.

Dracula (1931)

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  • directed by Tod Browning
  • starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston
  • The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

The first thing I noticed and what stuck with me most through Dracula was just how quiet it was without a musical score. I’ve watched a few silent movies in the past month and somehow even with dialogue this one seemed the quietest. With sound films being a recent advance in the industry, there was a brief transition period in which filmmakers believed that audiences would not believe background music that didn’t match up with the action screen. So in this film, the only music heard was what occurred during the Royal Albert Hall theater performance sequence. I have to admit I was expecting a film chock full of stereotypically vampiric pipe organ beats, but was pleasantly surprised at the effect that dead silence had on Tod Browning’s production. It’s difficult to think of what style of score would have matched up with the level of scariness here without bringing it at least a little bit into cheese territory. The end result, for me, was being swept up in the environment even more due to only having natural noises paired with the physical performance and stylish drawn-out dialogue of Bela Lugosi.

I also had wrongful expectations of this Dracula’s affectations due to what I now realize are decades of Lugosi impressions and straight-up caricatures by others. His movements were instead minimal and deliberate, his sentences were slow and full of pauses, and his stare and expressions were truly scary at times. It would be very easy to insert humor into such a portrayal, something that many have done, but Lugosi and the entire production on the whole operated with sincerity throughout. Though I had some problems with how nonchalantly Van Helsing and everyone else were taking such an obvious threat from Dracula and Renfield, I did love Edward Van Sloan’s confident and competent portrayal of the Professor. Aside from Lugosi’s all-time great performance, my other standout was the tense showdown of psychological strength between Dracula and Professor Van Helsing.

As far as this era of the Dracula/vampire universe goes, this had the advantage over Nosferatu as being permitted to stick to Bram Stoker’s original story. Stoker’s estate came down hard on Nosferatu, which caused that film to drastically change key elements and almost resulted in the actual film being completely destroyed upon completion. This 1931 production leaned heavily on Stoker’s text, as well as the revolutionary 1924 play by Hamilton Deanes, to present a classic, accurate, but very condensed version of the story.

Hey, this is pretty funny: The studio did not want the scene where Dracula attacks Renfield to be fimed due to the perceived homosexual subtext. A memo was sent to the director stating, “Dracula is only to attack women.”