The Plot: When visiting the 1964 New York World’s Fair, be sure to stop by the Protestant Pavilion and see their short film “Parable”. Unlike religious films of the past, Jesus is not presented here in a literal sense, but rather metaphorically as a clown dressed all in white (Clarence Mitchell). This clown wanders into a circus, helping those who are being oppressed by the circus’ cruel puppet master (Gordon Oarsheim). Ultimately, the clown replaces the human marionettes and becomes crucified (if you will). But the clown’s good deeds live on in the most avant-garde passion play you’ve ever seen.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a history of church-sanctioned short films (typically made in response to overblown Hollywood religious epics) and cites “Parable” as “[o]ne of the most acclaimed and controversial films in this tradition”. There’s also an essay by UCLA archivist Mark Quigley.
But Does It Really?: Oh sure. I’m all for movies on this list that stand on their own piece of ground, and “Parable” sticks out thanks to its experimental interpretation of the Bible. Plus, thanks to its original engagement, “Parable” represents the 1964 New York World’s Fair on this list. No argument for “Parable”.
Everybody Gets One: Rolf Forsberg got his start as a theater director in Chicago, which led to him becoming a writer and director for “Light Time“, a Lutheran TV show that taught morality to children. It was his work on “Light Time” that led to the New York City Protestant Council of Churches commissioning Forsberg to create a short film for their World’s Fair exhibit.
Wow, That’s Dated: Circuses and sideshows.
Wow, That’s Not Dated: Religious groups being upset over depictions of Christ as anything other than a White male. Ok Greg.
Seriously, Oscars?: Due to its screenings at the New York World’s Fair (as opposed to Los Angeles), “Parable” was not eligible for an Oscar. For the curious, 1964’s Live-Action Short Subject winner was “Casals Conducts: 1964”, an appreciation for cellist and conductor Pablo Casals.
“Parable” was filmed in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about 40 miles north of Madison (and just south of Wisconsin Dells!). This filming location may seem random, but Baraboo is the home of the Circus World Museum (The Ringling Brothers grew up in Baraboo). I suppose filming in a museum filled with circus artifacts is cheaper than trying to film an actual circus.
The only information I could find on co-director Tom Rook is that, like Rolf Forsberg, he also directed the TV show “Light Time”.
The opening prologue is the only part of the film with spoken dialogue, in this case a narrator saying that this film is a parable in the truest sense. This film is not meant to accurately portray Jesus, but is rather an original story based on Jesus’s teachings. I guess some people missed the prologue.
Among the cast members appearing as circus performers are Saeed and Madhur Jaffrey. The couple had both appeared in Rolf Forsberg’s Off-Broadway production of “A Tenth of an Inch Makes the Difference”. Although they divorced shortly after “Parable”, Saeed continued acting in his native England, while Madhur brought Indian cuisine stateside with her book “An Invitation to Indian Cooking“. Plus, Madhur is the one who introduced Merchant to Ivory.
Why are all the kids dressed in hoodies? Is that a metaphor too? They all look like Elliot from “E.T.” Side note: the children were all students from Baraboo East Elementary. Hopefully this counted as a day off/field trip.
I will admit that if this film didn’t have the prologue, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the Christ metaphor. I would have eventually figured out it was an allegory of some kind, but not necessarily Christ.
This is all well and good, but how about a scene where people loudly suppress each other in the name of that clown, despite the fact that their actions obviously go against his basic beliefs and teachings? Or did I just get too real for you.
“Parable” attracted controversy before it even premiered. World’s Fair president Robert Moses tried to get the film removed (even though he declined to see it), other Fair organizers resigned in protest, and some religious-types even threatened violence if the film was shown (oh the irony). The Protestant Pavilion stood by “Parable”, and the film played a successful run at the Fair.
After the Fair closed in 1965, the film maintained its controversial status. According to the Quigley essay, “Parable” was on a banned film list at the LA County Library in the ’70s (for promoting “anti-establishment type things”) while at the same time being screened at churches across the country.
Among Rolf Forsberg’s later films is 1979’s “The Late Great Planet Earth”, another nuanced take on religion, narrated by Orson Welles.
Also inspired by “Parable” and its looser depiction of Jesus: John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote the musical “Godspell” as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. A revised version with a new score by Stephen Schwartz landed off-Broadway a year later, and is probably still playing somewhere right now.
Further Viewing: The other religious films made exclusively for the 1964 World’s Fair: “Man in the 5th Dimension” at the Billy Graham Pavilion, and “Man’s Search for Happiness” over at the Mormon Pavilion. Man, there were a lot of movies.
The Plot: A man known simply as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives in the border town of Ciudad Acuña, looking for work as a guitar player. After checking into a hotel, he is mistaken for a criminal (known for carrying a guitar case full of weapons) and chased by some local thugs. El Mariachi takes refuge in a local bar and befriends its owner Dominó (Consuelo Gómez), who it turns out is connected to Moco (Peter Marquardt), the drug lord who the thugs work for. There’s plenty of action and mistaken identity in this thriller from Robert Rodriguez.
Why It Matters: The NFR cites “El Mariachi” as one of the films that “helped usher in the independent movie boom of the early 1990s.” Rodriguez’s creativity on a budget is praised, as is his “energetic, highly entertaining” movie.
But Does It Really?: Maybe it’s the amount of older movies I have to watch for this blog, but it was such a relief to watch something different. With its inventive storytelling and impressive visuals, “El Mariachi” perfectly encapsulates the low-budget indie scene that the NFR has started to recognize in the last few years. Robert Rodriguez uses his budget constraints as a positive, creating a frenetic, riveting action movie that keeps the pace going all through its brisk 81-minute runtime. A yes for “El Mariachi” for its representation of Rodriguez and ’90s indie movies, its sheer entertainment value, and as always, bonus points for being short.
Everybody Gets One: Born in San Antonio, Texas, Robert Rodriguez became interested in film at age 11 when his father bought an early VCR that came with a camera. After a series of successful shorts, Rodriguez began production on “El Mariachi”, which he considered a “practice” film for a bigger movie. As with many of his later films, Rodriguez wore many hats during production: director, writer, cinematographer, camera operator, editor, etc. He refers to this style of solo filmmaking as “Mariachi-style”.
Wow, That’s Dated: “El Mariachi” has that synthesizer score/film by way of video aesthetic that thrived in the early ’90s. And thanks to this movie I get to play one of my favorite early ’90s games: Cordless Landline or Cellular Phone?
Title Track: Forgive my ignorance: I didn’t realize mariachi is also used to describe a singular person in a mariachi band, or someone who plays mariachi music. Columbia opted not to translate the title because they figured people wouldn’t want to see an action movie called “The Guitar Player”.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “El Mariachi”, but the film won its share of festival prizes, as well as the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Robert Rodriguez was nominated for Best Director, but lost to Robert Altman for “Short Cuts”.
“El Mariachi” was made on a budget of $7,000 (most of which went to film processing). Rodriguez’s main approach to keeping a low-budget was frequent cost-cutting. Among his examples: most scenes were shot in only one take, desk lamps were used for lighting, and a wheelchair was used for a dolly.
For the record, I watched the English dubbed version, which wasn’t too distracting (considering the Spanish-speaking version is dubbed too). I also appreciated how much common Spanish was kept in, because we all know what “por favor” means.
In addition to playing El Mariachi, Carlos Gallardo was this movie’s co-producer. He does well in the lead, but how charming can you be when you have the same haircut as ’80s-era Howie Mandel?
One of my notes simply reads “God, this is good”. Even on a shoestring budget Rodriguez knows how to tell a good story, aided by shrewd cinematography and a restraint on dialogue.
I don’t like endorsing anything with excessive gunplay, but man are those some good action sequences. El Mariachi’s first escape from Moco’s thugs is an exciting sequence, although Mariachi pulls off the best stunt thanks in part to everyone’s terrible aim. Like, he’s a foot in front of them and they still miss. ¡Anda ya!
During this viewing I wondered how much of this film’s budget was spent on squibs. Turns out, not a lot. The “squibs” were actually condoms filled with fake blood over weightlifting belts. Well done.
The chemistry between El Mariachi and Dominó is a variation of “He’s a jerk and she’s okay with it” called “He confessed to a murder and she’s okay with it”. Actor Consuelo Gómez only made one other movie after “El Mariachi”, briefly reprising her role of Dominó in “Desperado”.
Another nice bit of filmmaking, the constant use of close-ups. It helps give us the intense, disorienting feeling El Mariachi has as he stumbles into each new situation not fully aware of what is happening. Or maybe it’s just another cost-cutting measure. Either way, it works.
Something about Peter Marquardt’s performance struck me as off, and it turns out that Marquardt didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and had to learn his lines phonetically. That explains why he feels more stilted than the other characters.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t take a lot of notes for this movie, mainly because I was enjoying it so much. I spend so much time watching increasingly problematic classics and long forgotten relics it was nice to watch a (relatively) modern action movie by someone who clearly loves movies. I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen any of Robert Rodriguez’s other movies, and “El Mariachi” got me excited to see the rest of his filmography.
Rodriguez made “El Mariachi” with the intention of releasing it on video, but after several video distributors rejected it, Rodriguez sent a trailer to theatrical distribution companies. Columbia Pictures purchased the film, and spent over 200 times the film’s budget on post-production and marketing. Today, “El Mariachi” holds the Guinness World Record as the lowest-budgeted film to gross $1 million at the box office.
“El Mariachi” is the first in Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi Trilogy”. 1995’s “Desperado” saw Antonio Banderas replacing Carlos Gallardo as El Mariachi, and Rodriguez’s concluded his trilogy with 2003’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”.
After “El Mariachi”, Robert Rodriguez successfully crossed over to mainstream filmmaking. Later films include “Sin City”, the “Spy Kids” trilogy, that Boba Fett spin-off we’re getting on Disney+, and a movie we won’t see until 2115.
2014 brought us a TV series based on “El Mariachi”, in which another young mariachi is mistaken for another criminal and imprisoned. He escapes, and vows to find the real criminal. Kind of a modern-day “Fugitive”, I guess.
And finally, Robert Rodriguez may be the only filmmaker on the NFR with their own cable channel: El Rey Network. Check your local listings.
Written by Mann Page, Edward T. Lowe Jr., and Tom Reed
Class of 2010
The Plot: Jim (Glenn Tryon) and Mary (Barbara Kent) are both single and living solitary lives in New York City. The two meet by chance when both take an impulsive trip to Coney Island for the day. Things immediately click and the two fall in love. But will such outside forces as a faulty rollercoaster, sudden thunderstorm, and relentless crowds keep these two from being together? Come for the love story, stay for the revolutionary attempts at sound and color.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises director Fejos’ “eloquent and brilliantly photographed tale”, though admits the sound sequences are “better for their technological innovation than their wit”. There’s also an informative essay by fellow film blogger Raquel Stecher.
But Does It Really?: Ultimately I get why “Lonesome” is on this list: it is not only an early example of film experimenting with new sound technology, but is also a “lost and found” silent film (aka a “Belloq film“, for those who remember that). “Lonesome” is hardly an essential in the history of film, but its sound and color techniques make it enough of a curio to warrant a viewing.
Everybody Gets One: After working as an orderly in his native Hungary during the First World War, Pál Fejös became a set painter for an opera company, which led to him directing films and eventually heading off to Hollywood. His big breakthrough was 1928’s “The Last Moment”, in which a drowning man’s life flashes before his eyes. It was a technical marvel and a hit with audiences, but unfortunately “The Last Moment” is now a lost film. Fejös chose “Lonesome” as his next film because it was only a short synopsis, thereby allowing him more creative freedom with the storytelling.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the ’20s-era amusement park as a literal deathtrap where rides randomly catch on fire and/or give you whiplash. Also, one of the rides is led by mules. That could not have smelled great.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Lonesome” was released in June 1928, making it eligible for the very first Academy Awards. Its lack of nominations (with the Oscars or any critics group) makes it one of the earliest NFR entries to be “snubbed” by the newly formed Academy.
As we’ll cover later, “Lonesome” was initially filmed as a silent movie with a synchronized soundtrack comprised of a score and effects. Once the sound craze was in full swing, Universal added three new sound scenes with dialogue to cash in. The story goes that Universal recorded the sound for “Lonesome” while they had a Fox Movietone News truck on loan for “conducting sound tests”. In the brief time Universal had Fox’s truck they “tested” three other movies as well.
“Lonesome” would definitely work well as a double-feature with “Applause“, the other NFR movie that dabbled in sound and experimental camerawork.
Not a lot of info out there about either of our leads. Glenn Tryon got his start as a comedian with Hal Roach, eventually pivoting to leading man roles, and eventually as a writer/director at Universal. Barbara Kent was a beauty queen turned actor who appears in fellow NFR entry “Flesh and the Devil“. She lived to be 103 years old!
No Production Code yet, but the camera tastefully zooms in on Jim’s upper torso as he changes into his work clothes, for fear of showing us anything too scandalous. Also, Jim is not wearing an undershirt: another point removed from the Clark Gable undershirt legend.
In addition to the film’s soundtrack, Fejos et al are having fun with superimposing images over each other; the customers Mary talks to on the telephone, the clock ticking away the work hours, etc. This movie was definitely a playground for the technical staff.
The actor playing Jim’s friend in an early scene is future Western character actor Andy Devine. He’s hard to recognize when you don’t hear his voice.
Despite its prominent New York setting, “Lonesome” was filmed at Universal, with a Coney Island recreation on the back lot.
No surprises, the added-on dialogue scenes feel added-on. No new information or character development, Jim and Mary just hit the same beats as they do in the silent scenes. Clearly the novelty of hearing someone talk was enough at the time. Speaking of, both Glenn Tyron and Barbara Kent have strong enough voices here that they could have transitioned to talkies.
My biggest complaint about this movie: no conflict lasts longer than 2 or 3 minutes. Jim pretending to be rich fizzles out after a few moments with no real suspense, as does Mary losing her ring in the sand. I know it’s a romantic fantasy and I’m supposed to suspend my disbelief, but come on!
In addition to its advances in sound, “Lonesome” experiments with color. In addition to a few tinted shots, several of the Coney Island shots use a process called “stencil coloring”, in which individual elements of each frame are removed, tinted a specific color, and rejoined to the frame. The results are just gorgeous (and amazing considering how many individual lights are colored in these shots). Side note: The NFR write-up says the film uses two-strip Technicolor, but I could not find any evidence to support this claim.
Again, I know I’m reading too much into this movie, but do Jim and Mary have anything in common? Besides being lonely? At least Marty and his date spent most of the night talking and not riding on roller coasters.
The third dialogue scene involves Jim being arrested by the police, and immediately being let go with no repercussions whatsoever. What is the point of anything in this movie?
[Spoilers] In the film’s tradition of not maintaining any long-lasting drama, it turns out Jim and Mary were neighbors the whole time. This movie is so close to being “Ring Them Bells“.
“Lonesome” was released in June 1928 as a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack. Three months later, the film was re-released with three new sound scenes, and promoted as Universal’s first feature-length talkie. Although critics and audiences were indifferent to these changes, “Lonesome” was a small hit at the box office.
Pál Fejös’ Hollywood career didn’t last too much longer after “Lonesome”, and he quit Universal when he was passed over to direct “All Quiet on the Western Front“. Fejös returned to Europe and became known for making ethnographic films before leaving film entirely and becoming a respected anthropologist.
After Fejös’ exit from Hollywood, his films were forgotten and considered lost. An original print of “Lonesome” resurfaced in France in the 1950s, and since the screenplay was missing, the French intertitles had to be translated back into English. After being added to the NFR in 2010, “Lonesome” received a full restoration (including the color sequences) and was released on Blu-Ray in 2012.
“Lonesome” is one of many classic films whose events all take place over one 24-hour period. Among those that owe the largest debts of gratitude towards “Lonesome” are fellow romance movies “Before Sunset” and “One Fine Day”.
It’s that time of year again when the National Recording Registry announces its 25 newest inductees. This year’s recordings range the gamut from “Oh yeah, that song” to “I’ll take your word for it” to “Another fucking Edison recording?” Here is the complete list, with links embedded whenever possible.
“This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9th, 2008)
The NRR has also included this playlist so you can listen to this year’s inductees wherever you stream your music. Personally, I’m thrilled that the NRR now includes a talent whose singing skills have been long missing from this list: former NFL defensive tackle Rosey Grier.