Weekend Cinema Listomania (Special There are No Small Parts, Just Small Actors! Edition)

on September 18, 2009 by Steve Simels
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gaumont treasures.jpgVideo Event of the Week: Is it Fox's DVD and Blu-Ray of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber saying "Ooh -- shiny!"? Could Focus Feature's DVD of Away We Go, the bittersweet comedy starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph from director Sam Mendes and writer Dave Eggers, possibly make the cut? Or, against the odds and every moral precept we as a society hold dear, might Paramount's discs of Monsters VS Aliens, the animated sci-fi romp featuring the voice of the not-at-all over-exposed Seth Rogen actually be The One?

All worthy, to be sure, but for my money it's got to be the quite amazing Kino 3-disc box set Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, featuring over ten hours of ground-breaking silents from the vaults of the oldest still-active movie production company in the world.

The Kino/Gaumont set (abridged from an earlier French version) focuses on the works of three early filmakers (one disc apiece), and I must confess that two of them were, as the New York Times used to say, not reviewed or even suspected by me before I got the box. Disc one is devoted to Alice Guy, a woman who became such an accomplished director that she got the job as Gaumont studio production chief a mere five years after joining the company as a secretary. Disc three features the works of Léonce Perret, a comedian and director whose 1913 The Child of Paris is a two hour feature that anticipates everybody from Griffith to Renoir to Truffaut. And disc two sports early short films by Louis Feuillade, the hero to the Surrealists who is of course best known for his beyond remarkable thriller serials like Les Vampires; as critic David Thomson aptly put it, he's "the first director for whom no historical allowances need to be made."

Here's the official Kino trailer to give you an idea.

Frankly, the sheer breadth of the stuff here is almost overwhelming, and as my colleague Glen Kenny noted the other day, it's worth remembering that the easy availability of this material is, historically speaking, still quite an anomaly. As recently as ten years ago, for example, if you were a film nut and had read about Feuillade, the chances of your actually seeing his work was severely limited unless you lived in New York, LA or Paris. Now, of course, anybody with an internet connection can order his complete 1917 masked superhero cliffhanger Judex in a beautifully restored DVD version.

In any case, as mentioned above, the Feuillade films here are shorts (the longest is 29 minutes), including the visually impressive historical tableau The Agony of Byzance and the eight minute and aptly titled The Roman Orgy; they're fascinating signposts pointing toward the hyper-realistic fantasy world of the serials. The Perret disc features two full-length films, including The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, whose film-within-a-film psychological catharsis gimmick is startlingly modern. The volume devoted to Guy, however, in many ways showcases the most remarkable and experimental works in the collection. The earliest of the Guys are little slice of life documentary snippets, the kind of the thing we associate with the Lumiere Brothers -- "Bathing in a Stream," for example, which is a bunch of men in 1897 doing exactly that. By 1905, however, many of her films are verging on Melies fantasy narratives and six of them have an early form of synchronized soundtrack. Even to contemporary eyes and ears, the effect of these is truly startling, like watching an MTV clip from 100 years ago.

In any case, as I said, there's almost too much here to digest, let alone write about, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Kino has also included two fascinating documentaries on Feuillade and Perret and that most of the films have been given better than workmanlike contemporary musical scores. Most important, the prints of the over 75 flicks in the set are obviously variable, but by and large most of them look astoundingly good given their age.

Bottom line: If you have even the slightest interest in cinema history, you really need to order Gaumont Treasures from Kino over here.

And tout de suite, as they say.

 

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Okay, that said, and because things will doubtless be fairly quiet around here for the next few days, here's a totally off-topic little project for us all to contemplate, in honor of the great Henry Gibson, who died, alas, earlier this week:

Most Memorable Screen Performance by a Character Actor in a Supporting or Cameo Role!!!

And my totally top of my head Top Five is:

5. Mark Rydell in The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

I go hot and cold on Altman's revisionist take on the Raymond Chandler classic, but it features scads of terrific supporting performances by folks including Sterling Hayden and -- well I'll be darned -- Henry Gibson. Rydell's psychotic mobster, whose unexpected eruption into violence remains terrifying after all these years, runs away with the picture however.

4. Harry Davenport in Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

 

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Actually, Harry Davenport in anything, although he was mostly typecast as a crotchety old coot -- like GTWT's Dr. Meade -- in over 160(!) pictures between 1914 and 1949. I've said it before, but has anybody in Hollywood history been as consistently excellent in so many films? Frankly, I can't think of an actor who even comes close.

3. Cheech Marin in Tin Cup (Ron Shelton, 1996)

Cheech as the Sancho Panza-esque caddy and guru to Kevin Costner's quixotic golfer (he's trying to win the U.S. Open to impress a girl). A vastly underrated and charming film, and Marin gives one of the best sidekick performances in recent years.

2. Marcel Dalio in Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970)

Dalio, formerly Bogart's Casablanca croupier, has the role of a lifetime as the infuriating opportunist who explains why Italy will actually win the war by losing it. One of the funniest scenes in the picture, actually, and almost verbatim from the supposedly unfilmmable book.

And the numero uno thespic turn in a feature film by a non-leading man type of guy unquestionably is...

1. J. Carroll Naish in The Beast With Five Fingers (Robert Flory, 1946)

Naish was an Irishman who got cast as a member of just about every ethnic group but his own; over a four decade career, he played Latino, Native American, East Asian, Polynesian, Middle Eastern/North African, South Asian, Eastern European and Mediterranean. Here he's an Italian police detective providing comic relief in one of the most over-the-top horror films of the 40s; in fact, he pretty much steals the picture out from under his scenery chewing character actor contemporary Peter Lorre. No mean feat, that.

Alrighty then -- and who would your choices be?

 

Tags: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Monsters VS Aliens, The Child of Paris, Les Vampires, Judex, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, The Long Goodbye, Gone With the Wind, Tin Cup, Catch-22, The Beast With Five Fingers
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