#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

OR “Joad Trip”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Nunnally Johnson. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

Class of 1989 

The Plot: Freshly paroled from prison, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his parents’ farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, only to discover it abandoned. Joad learns that the family farm was foreclosed by the bank (this being the Great Depression/Dust Bowl and all), and they have plans to move to California and seek migrant work. Tom finds them before they leave and, along with ex-preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), joins the Joads on their westward trip. The journey is fraught with hardships and setbacks, including a disappointing lack of work and support upon arrival in California. Despite these struggles, Tom remains steadfast in his belief that honest hard-working people will always band together against oppression.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “American artistry”, highlighting “Gregg Toland’s stark photography and Henry Fonda’s memorably penetrating performance”. They also include a series of production stills from the film.

But Does It Really?: Sometimes a preordained “classic” film can be underwhelming given its legendary status, while others can still wow an audience and make a solid case for their staying power. “The Grapes of Wrath” is somewhere in the middle. It’s very good, I grant you that, but I surprisingly don’t have a lot to say about this movie other than…it’s very good. I think part of that is the film’s straightforward presentation; Ford’s realistic directing style lacks pretension, with Fonda and the rest of the cast giving grounded, understated performances. While “Grapes of Wrath” is never anyone’s pick for Greatest Movie Ever Made, its effective presentation and evergreen theme of survival amongst oppression consistently ranks it among the greatest, and that is more than reason enough to induct “Grapes” into the NFR inaugural class.

Everybody Gets One: Nunnally Johnson started out as a journalist and short story author. When he sold his short story “Rough House Rosie” to Paramount for a Clara Bow vehicle, he quit the newspaper business to become a screenwriter. His screenwriting career spanned 40 years, with a brief detour into directing in the ’50s (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, “The Three Faces of Eve”). For his efforts adapting “The Grapes of Wrath” to the screen, Johnson received an Oscar nomination, and met his future wife Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn Joad).

Wow, That’s Dated: The film is – of course – ingrained in the Depression-era culture and Dust Bowl politics of the novel’s setting. So ingrained in fact that a brief text prologue was added to the film for its international release so foreign audiences could understand the historical context.

Title Track: John Steinbeck’s wife Carol came up with the title “The Grapes of Wrath”, taken from the second line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“He is trampling out the vintage/where the grapes of wrath are stored”). This lyric is a reference to a passage from the New Testament. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I guess Jesus stomped on grapes in a winepress and, I dunno, he fell down or something?

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “The Grapes of Wrath” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner of the night was “Rebecca“, but “Grapes” took home two major prizes: Jane Darwell for Best Supporting Actress and John Ford for Best Director (his second of an eventual four). Henry Fonda lost Best Actor to Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story“, and would end up waiting 40 years before receiving a lifetime achievement statuette, plus a Best Actor win for “On Golden Pond” the following year.

Other notes 

  • “The Grapes of Wrath” was published in April 1939, and was immediately the most popular book of the year, subsequently winning a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The film rights were snatched up by 20th Century Fox for $70,000, with a Steinbeck mandated clause that the film adaptation would “retain the main action and social intent” of the novel. Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck co-produced the film, and the project was quickly rushed into production; filming in October and November of 1939, with its New York premiere in January 1940.
  • This is my perennial reminder that like so many other Fox properties on this list, “The Grapes of Wrath” is legally a Disney movie. Perhaps a Hooverville expansion in California Adventure?
  • Poor Henry Fonda. He’s very good in this, so good it doesn’t look like he’s acting. His Tom Joad is the stoic center of the story, as he should be, but that means no fireworks or hysterics to help you notice his great performance (even his closing monologue is powerfully subdued). I’m beginning to understand why Oscar voters gravitated more towards Jimmy Stewart’s flashier comic turn in “Philadelphia Story”.
  • Look how young John Carradine is in this! I didn’t realize Carradine made movies before he was ancient.
  • [Spoilers] It’s fun to watch Charley Grapewin go from his reserved performance as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz” to the more energetic Grandpa Joad. Sad to see him die, though.
  • Leave it to Gregg Toland to make anything look this good in black and white. The traveling shots of the American Southwest are impressive, though never as glossy or over-saturated as they would have been if the film was shot in color.
  • A good chunk of the Joad’s traveling takes place on Route 66, one of America’s first highways. A quick shot in the montage shows a sign calling it the Will Rogers Highway, an unofficial moniker no doubt popularized after the humorist’s death in 1935. Route 66 would eventually be officially dedicated to the late Rogers in 1952.
  • As always, I appreciate when I get to watch a John Ford movie on this list that isn’t a western brimming with negative racial stereotypes.
  • Shoutout to Darryl Hickman, playing the youngest child Winfield Joad. As of this writing, he is the film’s last surviving cast member!
  • A roadtrip through the Southwest to California with a car on the verge of collapse and the grandparents dying mid-trip? I didn’t realize “Grapes of Wrath” shares so much DNA with “Little Miss Sunshine”. I’m looking forward to this movie’s beauty pageant dance-off finale.
  • In a rare moment of something getting past the censors, nobody at the Hays Code offices seemed to catch Tom telling Ma to “get the hell off” the car fender. It’s pretty quiet; I only caught it because I had closed captioning on.
  • Jane Darwell had been acting in films since the silent era, but she didn’t hit her stride until she became a contract player and character actor at 20th Century Fox. Her Ma Joad is far and away her career high point (with her brief appearance as the Bird Woman in “Mary Poppins” a potential second), quietly holding the film together with her warmth and determination. Of that year’s Best Supporting Actress contenders, I’d say Judith Anderson in “Rebecca” is giving the best performance, but you can’t fault the Academy for giving Darwell the trophy. Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is impressive, but too cold and off-putting to the average moviegoer. Ma Joad is the one you want to hug.
  • The Weedpatch Camp is a real labor camp created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to support displaced farm workers. Even more impressive, Weedpatch is still around, and was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
  • If nothing else I was captivated by this movie. I found myself caring for the Joads quite a bit, hoping that each episode would be the one where they finally catch a break (it helps that I was never assigned the book in high school and genuinely didn’t know what would happen). I was surprised by how many moments of kindness there are in this film. Yes, there’s the corrupt labor officials and “red agitators”, but those are nicely balanced by regular people who help out others even when it makes things harder on themselves. Steinbeck’s work is filled with such downer material it’s nice to see these uplifting moments of humanity.
  • You’ve definitely heard Tom’s final monologue or a variation of it at some point in your life: “Where there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there…” It’s delivered calmly yet stirringly by Henry Fonda, the epicenter of his future screen persona. My question: With Tom’s turn to pseudo-vigilante and looking out for the oppressed, did he just become Batman?
  • The novel’s original ending continued to chronicle the Joads after Tom left them, and things ended on a sad note – especially for Rosasharn. In an attempt to end the film somewhat optimistically, Ma’s “We’re the people” speech, spoken about two-thirds through the book, was transplanted to the end. I was surprised to see the film continue following Tom’s departure, but ending with Ma’s monologue about how “they can’t lick us” is the right choice. In addition to its upbeat by comparison presentation, it illustrates how much Ma was inspired by Tom’s words to keep fighting.

Legacy 

  • “Grapes of Wrath” was a critical and commercial hit right out the gate, solidifying John Ford as one of our great directors, and Henry Fonda as a morally just leading man. One of the biggest fans of Fonda’s performance was John Steinbeck himself, who said the actor made him “believe my own words.”
  • The closest anyone has come to remaking this film was the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of the novel that played on Broadway in the early ’90s, and was subsequently filmed for TV. The cast included Gary Sinise, Lois Smith, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and – Bingo! I got Steppenwolf Company Member Bingo!
  • While “The Grapes of Wrath” has maintained its legacy as a classic over 80 years later, I feel that most modern references are to the book rather than the film specifically. Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech still gets quoted, but “Grapes of Wrath” is primarily remembered for being the good classic movie companion to a good classic book.
  • The only parody I can recall off-hand of the movie is that “South Park” episode where the main characters headed out “Californee” way to find some internet.
  • No post on this blog is complete without some classic “Simpsons” reference, so here’s Nelson Muntz with his “Grapes of Wrath” diorama. Yes, yes, very good wrath.

The NFR Class of 2022: My Ballot

Hello readers,

Well, it’s that time of year again; the National Film Preservation Board gathers to select the 25 films that I will one day force myself to binge. As the NFR sticks to their annual tradition, I shall stick to mine: nominating 50 movies and publishing my findings for consideration. Here are my 50 in order of random categorization. Movies with an asterisk (*) denote films I am submitting this year for the first time.

I will keep submitting these movies until conditions improve: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Miracle Worker (1962), The Great Escape (1963), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Carrie (1976), Big (1988), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Sixth Sense (1999)

Some of my Favorites: Hardware Wars (1978), Clue (1985), Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Home Alone (1990), Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), Austin Powers (1997)*

Some of the GF’s Favorites: The Valley of the Dolls (1967)*, Almost Famous (2000)*

My obligatory Disney selections: The Band Concert (1935)*, Treasure Island (1950)*, The Jungle Book (1967)*

Disney-adjacent movies: Snow White (1916)*, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)*

How are neither of these films on the list yet?: Love Affair (1939)*, An Affair to Remember (1957)

Movies I’m surprised I’ve never submitted before: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)*, The Misfits (1961)*, The Way We Were (1973)*, Scarface (1983)*, Inglourious Basterds (2009)*

My mission to preserve American Theater on this list knows no bounds!: Original Cast Album: Company (1970), Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (2003)*

Franchises!: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)*, Spider-Man (2002)*

Going all in on Jane Fonda: The China Syndrome (1979)*, 9 to 5 (1980), On Golden Pond (1981)*

And Robin Williams too: Good Will Hunting (1997)*

Grab Bag: Dinner at Eight (1933)*, Captain Blood (1935)*, Advise and Consent (1962)*, Cleopatra (1963)*, Shampoo (1975)*, Smokey and the Bandit (1977)*, Blue Velvet (1986)*, Dirty Dancing (1987), Speed (1994), Fight Club (1999)*, No Country for Old Men (2007)

The first round of 2012 submissions: The Avengers (2012)*, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)*, Skyfall (2012)*

On average, 3.6 of the 50 films I submit every year make it into the NFR. I’ll be curious to see what the 0.6 movie is this year. Maybe 72 minutes of a lost film?

And as always, you can submit any American movie you want for NFR consideration. You can start nominating here, and check out a list of movies not yet on the NFR here.

Happy Viewing and Happy Nominating,

Tony

#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

OR “You Bête Your Life”

Directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

Written by Linda Woolverton. Based on the fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Songs by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken.

Class of 2002

The Plot: Once upon a time, a young woman named Belle (Voice by Paige O’Hara) yearns to go outside her provincial French town and have the kind of adventures she has read about in so many books. When her father Maurice (Voice by Rex Everhart) gets lost in the woods, he takes shelter in an enchanted castle, run by a menacing Beast (Voice by Robby Benson). In exchange for her father’s safety, Belle offers to stay prisoner in the castle in his place. Over time, Belle shows affection for the Beast, who – unbeknownst to her – is a prince doomed to stay transformed as a beast until he can love and be loved. It’s a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, yada yada yada.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a recap of the film’s plot and historical significance, though weirdly no superlatives.

But Does It Really?: I saw “Beauty and the Beast” when it was first in theaters, and I have to say that I was as charmed on this re-watch as I was all those years ago. “Beauty and the Beast” works on every front: it is a spectacular feat of animation, an incredible piece of musical theater, and an overall outstanding film. Every artistic choice in this movie, from the storytelling to the performances, is the right one, leading to a movie that continues to weave its magic spell. Sure, like so many Disney classics, “Beauty” endures thanks to its conglomerate’s merciless marketing, but “Beauty” holds its own as an entertaining fairy tale with a guaranteed spot in the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were both CalArts graduates working as animators and storyboard artists at Disney when they got the call to replace Richard Purdum as director on “Beauty and the Beast”. At this point, the duo’s only directorial credit was for the animated pre-show of EPCOT’s Cranium Command. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton was determined to break out of children’s television, landing a job with Disney after sending them a copy of her young adult novel “Running Before the Wind”. With “Beauty”, Woolverton became the first woman to write a screenplay for an animated film.

Wow, That’s Dated/Title Track: “Beauty and the Beast” not only gives us a lovely title number, but also the first of my favorite ’90s Disney staple: the end credits power ballad!

Seriously, Oscars?: The most successful animated feature at the time, “Beauty and the Beast” received six Oscar nominations, including the first Best Picture nod for an animated feature. Though “Beauty” lost the top prize to “The Silence of the Lambs”, the film prevailed in Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for the title number). It is speculated that the film’s lack of a Best Picture win prompted the creation of the Best Animated Feature category a decade later.

Before we continue, I’d like to go on a little rant I’ve been holding onto for a while, and “Beauty and the Beast” feels like the right film to say my piece. One of my main goals with this blog is to combat modern Internet film criticism, in which an entire film is dismissed due to a single logical misstep (often mislabeled a “plot hole”). Sure it’s fun to poke holes in movies we love (CinemaSins and Honest Trailers come to mind), but that becomes a problem when it is mistaken for genuine criticism and a movie is deemed a failure because it doesn’t hold up to real-world logic. “Beauty and the Beast” tends to get a lot of flak in this area (“How old was the prince when he turned into a beast?” “Is every item in the castle a transformed human?” “Is Belle displaying Stockholm syndrome?”). Here’s the thing Internet: Movies. Aren’t. Logical. The best pieces of art are based not in logic but rather in emotions: the ones that drive the art as well as the ones they evoke. When done well, as in “Beauty and the Beast”, the audience is willing to take leaps of faith with a film’s internal logic in favor of the emotional experience. So please, let’s stop chastising this movie for what it isn’t and keep celebrating it for what it is; a fairy tale charmingly brought to life on the big screen. Okay, rant over. Where were we?

Other notes 

  • Walt Disney attempted to make an animated “Beauty and the Beast” twice in his career, but both versions stalled due to development issues. The idea was resurrected in the 1980s as a project for the animation studio Disney had started in London to oversee “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“. “Roger” animation director Richard Williams declined the offer to direct, but recommended his colleague Richard Purdum. Under Purdum’s direction, “Beauty and the Beast” was a more serious non-musical, but following the success of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, the Powers That Be ordered “Beauty” to be re-tooled as a musical, a shift that did not mesh with Purdum’s vision, leading to his resignation. Trousdale & Wise were assigned as acting directors, becoming the film’s official directors three months into their new assignment.
  • When I was young, I used to listen to this soundtrack all the time, and apparently those lyrics all stayed rent-free in my brain because I sang along during this whole viewing. Not only are the songs catchy and clever, but they do an amazing amount of storytelling. The opening number “Belle” establishes the film’s setting AND introduces Belle and Gaston AND serves as Belle’s “I Want” song. At a brisk 84 minutes, this film has no time to waste.
  • We really don’t deserve Belle as a movie hero. Unlike practically every Disney female lead before or since, Belle is not motivated by romance or wishing, but rather by kindness and inner beauty. Most of Belle’s more dimensional traits can be attributed to Linda Woolverton, though Paige O’Hara’s performance gives her a lovely balance between the fairy tale and modern aspects of the character.
  • Quick shout-out to the film’s voice cast, especially those playing the castle’s enchanted objects. Most of the voice actors were/are musical theater performers with many a Broadway and “Law & Order” credit (including that Venn diagram’s intersection Jerry Orbach!) David Ogden Stiers is clearly having a blast as the stuffy Cogsworth, and Angela Lansbury is giving us a genteel variation of Mrs. Lovett as Mrs. Potts.
  • Of course, this film’s vocal performances are perfectly matched by the animated performances. They’re all great, but Glen Keane is your MVP, embellishing Benson’s vocal work as the Beast with added nuances of tragedy, ensuring that we actually care about him. Special mention to Will Finn for matching Stiers’ exasperated energy as Cogsworth. Finn would go on to animate Iago in “Aladdin”.
  • What’s in the forbidden West Wing? Mostly just walk-and-talks with witty yet perpetually exhausting banter.
  • For those of you keeping score: Number of NFR films with Sandra Bullock: 0. Number of NFR films with Jo Anne Worley: 1.
  • “Be Our Guest” is easily the most fun song in the movie, and Jerry Orbach’s finest hour. Fun Fact: “Be Our Guest” was originally going to be sung to Maurice when he entered the castle, but an early screening made the production team realize that the song needed to be sung to Belle, and was quickly reanimated.
  • Wow, I really don’t remember Chip being this annoying. It makes one pine for the subtleties of the kid who played Thumper.
  • The title number is just as beautiful as you remember it being, with a very impressive simulation of a dolly shot moving through the ballroom as Belle and the Beast dance. This combination of hand-drawn and computer animation was achieved using a system called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which was developed by Pixar, right around the time the company had inked a deal with Disney to make three feature-length features.
  • Even for a movie that keeps its momentum going, the third act really moves fast. We go from “Kill the Beast” right into a comic action sequence (complete with a Wilhelm and a “Potemkin” reference), into the more serious climax, straight through to the happy ending. More movies should take note of this pacing. The finale does, however, feature the movie’s one unintentionally funny moment for me; when Belle returns and lovingly shouts “Beast!” to the Beast. Did she never bother to learn his real name? (See Internet? One nitpick and I still like the movie. It’s possible!)
  • “Beauty and the Beast” is dedicated to Howard Ashman, the film’s lyricist and one of its executive producers, who died of heart failure caused by AIDS eight months before the film’s release; though he did live long enough to see an early rough cut, and predicted the film’s success.

Legacy 

  • The critical and financial success of “Beauty and the Beast” was a grand-slam for Disney following the home-run of “The Little Mermaid”. The film continues to be a jewel in the Disney crown, and a staple of modern pop-culture. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale would direct two more films for Disney animation: the underrated “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the even more underrated “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”.
  • Inspired by a positive review from New York Times critic Frank Rich, Disney turned “Beauty and the Beast” into a Broadway musical, the first such adaptation of an animated film to hit the Great White Way. With eight new songs (one of which was written but deleted from the film), “Beauty and the Beast” ran on Broadway for over 5,000 performances, and paved the way for every hit Disney film’s inevitable theatricalization.
  • The aforementioned deleted number, “Human Again”, found its way back into the film thanks to an IMAX Special Edition in 2002. It’s cute, and it’s great having a few more moments with these characters, but “Human Again” has been more or less relegated as a supplemental feature in the years since.
  • “Beauty and the Beast” has been adapted for every aspect of the Disney synergy machine, from merchandising to theme parks. It also recently received a live-action remake, that adds 45 minutes of screentime to cover all of the original’s “plot holes”. I could go on about that movie’s flaws, but I’ll never be as articulate as Lindsay Ellis.
  • Rather than a direct-to-video sequel, “Beauty and the Beast” became the inaugural film on my “Beauty and the Beast midquel set during Christmas” list.
  • “Beauty” is well represented in the various Disney theme parks, including an impressive ride in Tokyo and a themed restaurant in Florida. Not only have I been to the latter, but I tried the grey stuff. It’s alright.
  • And finally, a shoutout to this parody from an episode of “The Critic”, which I found hilarious, mainly because it was one of the few lampooned movies that I had actually seen.

Further Viewing: There are countless other adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast” from before and after the Disney version, but the most renowned is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation, considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and containing a few elements lovingly borrowed for the Disney version.

#621) The Battle of the Century (1927)

#621) The Battle of the Century (1927)

OR “Pie Anxiety”

Directed by Clyde Bruckman

Written by H.M. Walker

Class of 2020

The Plot: Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy team up as, respectively, the boxer Canvasback Clump and his unnamed manager. Clump is handily defeated by the brawny Thunderclap Callahan (Noah Young), and the manager signs an insurance policy in which he receives the money if Clump is injured. An attempt to get Clump to slip on a banana peel escalates into the titular battle: the pie fight to end all pie fights.

Why It Matters: The NFR’s rundown is mostly an examination of the film’s status as lost-and-found, though they do call the short “a classic” and single out the “renowned pie-fighting sequence”.

But Does It Really?:  We all know why we’re here; “The Battle of the Century” was lost for decades, with enough bits and pieces showing up throughout the years to warrant a restoration (more about that in “Legacy”). Historical significance aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I love me some Laurel & Hardy, and the two are in fine form with their trademark physical slapstick and mugging. The film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the pie-fight finale earns its reputation as the best in movie history. As with many movies on this blog, I am grateful to the tireless efforts of film historians and preservationists who rediscovered “The Battle of the Century” and got the film into the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: While obviously not their only NFR entry, this is a good place to discuss the origins of Laurel & Hardy. Stan Laurel got his start playing music halls in his native England, arriving in the United States as part of a theater tour. In 1926 Laurel signed with Hal Roach Studios as a gag writer, director, and occasional actor. It was here that he started working with Roach company player Oliver Hardy, a native Georgian who was pursuing a Hollywood career after the Florida film industry started to buckle. Although the two appeared together in the 1921 short “The Lucky Dog”, and both appeared but share no scenes in 1926’s “45 Minutes from Hollywood”, they were not paired together until 1927’s “Duck Soup” (no connection to the Marx Brothers movie) and became an immediate hit with moviegoers. “The Battle of the Century” was their 16th film together, and the 6th official “Laurel & Hardy” short.

Other notes 

  • The print I watched of “Battle” was the UCLA restoration, which begins with an explanation of the film’s condition. The film proper opens with the musical score punctuating Leo the Lion’s silent roars with a honking sound. As another comedy legend would say, “Oh, a wise guy, ay?”
  • This movie comes out swinging with a great joke where Laurel’s boxing moniker is “The Human Mop”. I laughed out loud pretty much through all of this movie.
  • No offense to Noah Young, the actor playing Thunderclap Callahan, but boy is that a face that takes some getting used to. He looks like Fredric March turning into Mr. Hyde.
  • Apparently Lou Costello makes an early film appearance as a ringside spectator. From what I can tell, Costello was working as an extra at MGM at the time, so I guess that scans?
Is this Lou Costello? Sure, why not?
  • Even in a silent film, I can hear Laurel’s whimpering and Hardy’s exasperated outbursts.
  • In the restored print, there is only one scene missing, with surviving still photos utilized to fill in the gaps. The scene in question involves longtime character actor and equally longtime racist Eugene Pallette, so maybe that footage can stay lost.
  • The second reel begins with a pretty solid banana peel gag, with Hardy trying to get Laurel to slip so he can collect the insurance money on him. Even a simple raising of the stakes helps elevate a banana peel gag. Speaking of classic comedy bits…
  • The old pie-in-the-face gag dates back to vaudeville and music hall, popularized by British theatre impressario Fred Karno (who a young Stan Laurel once worked for). The first known instance of a filmed pie gag is in the 1909 short “Mr. Flip” with Ben Turpin. While Turpin’s pieing was a hand-held attack, Mack Sennett is the one who allegedly popularized the pie throw in his films. By the time “Battle of the Century” came around, the pie-in-the-face gag was already a comedy cliché. Stan Laurel proposed a pie fight for this film and while initially met with hesitation from Hal Roach, convinced him with the added hook to “give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.”
  • With all this context out of the way, man oh man does that pie fight not disappoint. A pie in the face is never not funny to me, and the whole sequence brilliantly escalates, throwing every conceivable gag at a relentless speed. The story goes that over 3,000 pies were freshly baked by the Los Angeles Pie Company to be thrown in this scene. And Laurel confirmed in his later years that those were actual pies being thrown, as opposed to the common substitute of whipped cream in a tin plate.

Legacy 

  • Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy continued to work as a comedy duo on stage and screen for the next 25 years. Laurel & Hardy are represented elsewhere on the NFR with their shorts “Big Business” and “The Music Box“, as well as the feature film “Sons of the Desert“.
  • Throwing a pie in someone’s face is still a go-to comedy staple (although non-consensual pieing is a crime in several countries, including the U.S.). Everybody from Soupy Sales to Bugs Bunny has thrown a great big custard pie in someone’s face. Even I got into the act a few years ago, planting a cream pie on my manager’s face to celebrate – appropriately enough – Pi Day.
  • Yes, there was an attempt to out-pie fight this movie with an even more epic battle in Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race”, but it is debated if that film used as many pies as they claim (4,000 by their estimate, though some of that is set dressing and not actually thrown). Having just re-watched the “Great Race” pie fight, I must say it lacks the overall frenetic energy of the “Battle” pie fight, though Jack Lemmon is clearly having a blast.
  • As for this film’s status as a lost film: For many decades, all that was known to survive of “The Battle of the Century” was a three minute edit of the pie-fight, preserved by Robert Youngson for his 1957 compilation film “The Golden Age of Comedy”. Around 2012, film collector Jon Mirsalis came into possession of Youngson’s film library, as well as that of the late preservationist Gordon Berkow; a combined collection of over 2300 films. While cataloguing this collection, Mirsalis discovered Youngson’s complete second reel of “Battle of the Century”, pie fight and all. This, with the addition of a near-complete first reel discovered in the 1970s, marked the rediscovery of the presumed-lost film. “The Battle of the Century” received a restoration through UCLA and the Smithsonian, and was screened for the first time in 2015.

#620) Solomon Sir Jones Films (1924-1928)

#620) Solomon Sir Jones Films (1924-1928)

OR “OK By Me”

Directed by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones

Class of 2016

This post would not have been possible without these films being made available on Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library website. I thank them for their research and cataloging of the Solomon Sir Jones films. 

If you don’t have seven-plus hours to devote to watching these films, this eight minute overview from the Oklahoma Historical Society will do in a pinch.

The Plot: Armed with one of the first commercial Bell & Howell Filmo cameras, Oklahoma minister Solomon Sir Jones spent almost four years documenting anything and everything in such towns as Tulsa, Muskogee, and Bristow. In the process of chronicling major events in these communities (baptisms, funerals, parades, sporting events, etc.), Jones paints a vivid portrait of Black life in the 1920s at the beginning of the Great Migration, as well as in the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In total, the Solomon Sir Jones films are comprised of 29 reels of film, culminating in 7 hours and 15 minutes of footage. And you better believe I watched the whole damn thing.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives some background information on Solomon Sir Jones and his films, and includes a quote from IndieWire about their historical significance as a record of African-American lives in the south during the 1920s.

But Does It Really?: I’ve been watching these films and writing this post on and off for the last 2 1/2 years (!), but thankfully it was always worth it. The Solomon Sir Jones films are the most thorough documentation of this era and community you could hope for. Depictions of African-Americans in the 1920s are typically reduced to their offensive stereotypes in White films of the day. But in a similar vein to what Oscar Micheaux was doing with narrative films at the time, Reverend Jones is showcasing the authentic variety of ways that African-Americans dressed, worked, lived, and interacted with the world. As a whole these films present a complexity of living that is too big to be ignored, and I’m glad the NFR found a place for them as a significant piece of American history.

Everybody Gets One: Shoutout to this article by Martin L. Johnson from the Center for Home Movies website; from which most of my information on Reverend Jones and the films comes from. Born in Tennessee and the son of former slaves, Solomon Sir Jones traveled to the then-Oklahoma Territory at age 20 as a missionary for his Baptist church. Jones lived in Oklahoma the rest of his life, settling down in Muskogee and devoting the next five decades to supporting countless Black institutions and businesses throughout Oklahoma. In 1924, Reverend Jones was one of four religious leaders voted to travel to Europe and the Middle East in a contest run by the Madam C. J. Walker Company. Before departing on the three month trip in early 1925, Jones purchased a 16mm camera, and used the subsequent footage from his trip during his sermons. Jones then proceeded to record as much of his surroundings as possible, spending the next three years filming and sharing his community with his congregations.

Other notes

  • I’m sure the historians who worked on cataloging these films appreciated that Jones had the foresight to label each scene as he went along on a pushpin letter board. That must have saved them hours of time.
  • I’m enjoying the shots of children playing. Typically any documentation of children from this era is them standing sadly amongst their dustbowl era setting, so it’s nice to see that even kids in bleak 1920s farmland were capable of happiness.
  • It’s always awkward when people film funerals. Should I be watching this?
  • Ah, straw boaters. Everyone looks good wearing one; they make you look super fancy and/or like you’re gonna start singing.
  • One of the early highlights is Muskogee’s Turkey Day parade on Thanksgiving 1925. This is followed by a lengthy football game between MTH Muskogee and BWH of Tulsa, complete with leather helmets! Where’s John Facenda?
  • What’s the point of filming a marching band when your film has no sound?
  • Hey, a fashion show! Jones covers Elliott Furnishings’ 1926 Spring Style Show in Muskogee, a rare glimpse at some of Oklahoma’s finest attire. The Beinecke Library mentions that T.J. Elliott was the only place in East Oklahoma to sell Stetson hats, and one of the rare desegregated businesses of the era.
  • There’s a Juneteenth parade from 1925! I feel like Juneteenth is only now getting more national recognition, so it’s comforting to see footage of a celebration from almost 100 years ago.
  • In the midst of all of this, Jones captures a brief moment with one of Muskogee’s Indigenous people. Even in these fleeting moments, this anonymous man subverts a 1920s White audience’s expectations of Native Americans (for starters, he carries a rifle). Side note: Muskogee is named after the Indigenous tribe (spelled “Muscogee”) that was among the “Five Civilized Tribes” victimized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830
  • As these films are not presented in chronological order, Jones’ international trip that inspired this whole endeavor shows up around the halfway point. Among the places Jones visits are a church in Paris, and the holy sites of Israel, Egypt and Galilee. For the latter, Jones himself makes a Hitchcock cameo in a few shots.
  • We get a glimpse at the Madam C. J. Walker Company southwest headquarters in Oklahoma. C. J. Walker was the first American woman (Black or otherwise) to become a self-made millionaire, in this case through her line of cosmetics and hair products for Black women. Walker had passed a few years before this film, but the company continued production until 1981.
  • One of my favorite recurring bits in this movie: People posing for the camera as if it were a photograph. Been there.
  • Thanks to a scene of schoolchildren decorating their Christmas tree, the Solomon Sir Jones films qualify for my Die Hard Not-Christmas list.
  • Here’s a weird one: In Reel #17 there’s an insert of two travelogue shorts from Bell & Howell. I doubt Reverend Jones had anything to do with “Capturing Big Fish in Pacific Waters” and “Whaling in the South Pacific”. Maybe this reel was accidentally mixed in with his films over the years? Regardless, there’s some whale skinning that makes this the kind of animal snuff film I try to avoid on this list.
  • One of the more sobering moments from these films is when Reverend Jones visits Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years after the 1921 race riot that killed anywhere from 30 to 200 Black lives. A photo is shown of Mount Zion Baptist Church immediately after it was totally destroyed in the riot, as well as footage of the rubble that still surrounded the site (the church would not be rebuilt until 1952). As with the earlier Juneteenth parade, these home movies preserve a significant amount of Black history that were all but erased in a White supremacist system.
  • Seeing footage from inside a shoe shop and a bakery reminds me: Now is always the best time to support your local Black businesses!
  • I’m a sucker for ’20s cars. They look so cool! Even in this silent footage you can practically hear the “aaoooga” of the horn.
  • Jones visits a Baptist Church convention that wins for best slogan: “All the Word for All the World”.
  • Near the end, Jones films animals at an unspecified zoo, in which we get actual footage of lions and tigers and bears.
  • Watching all these hours of footage, I got a genuine feeling of community. Not just images of people and places, but a real sense of what life was like in this neighborhood. I look at all these people and I recognize that they are all long gone by now, but I hope that despite what the next century of American history has in store for African-Americans, they all lived long, satisfying lives.

Legacy

  • According to the aforementioned Johnson article, Solomon Sir Jones would play these films “for public exhibition in churches, civic halls, and schools” – though hopefully not all 29 in one sitting. Following Reverend Jones’ death in 1936, the films seemingly disappeared, eventually being rediscovered 70 years later by a local antiques dealer in the walls of one of his properties in Tulsa. Oklahoma historian Currie Ballard recognized the films’ value and purchased them along with Jones’ projector and screen. In 2009, Ballard sold the films to Yale University, which began their preservation and eventual NFR induction.