#591) The Breakfast Club (1985)

#591) The Breakfast Club (1985)

OR “Five Angry Teens”

Directed & Written by John Hughes

Class of 2016 

The Plot: Five students at Illinois’ Shermer High School spend their Saturday in a nine-hour detention session run by Vice Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason). The five students initially see each other as their stereotypes: by-the-book academic Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), muscle-headed jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez), silent introvert Allison (Ally Sheedy), put-together popular girl Claire (Molly Ringwald), and rebellious delinquent Bender (Judd Nelson). Over the course of their day together, the five start to see that they all have much more in common; mostly their struggles dealing with parents and teachers, and their anxieties about fitting in and staying within the high school status quo. Will this group break free from their self-imposed shackles? Or will life go back to normal on Monday?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a comedy that delivers a message with laughs” and highlights the film’s longevity.

But Does It Really?: One of the questions I ask myself when watching a movie is “What was the director’s goal when making this, and did they achieve it?” With “The Breakfast Club”, the answer is a resounding yes. Part of the film’s longtime appeal is because it succeeds at what it wants to be: a movie for and about teenagers that treats its subjects with authenticity and respect. For a brief moment in the ’80s, John Hughes was the voice of every confused teenager, unsure of their identities and/or of their place in the world. Aided by note-perfect performances from its young ensemble, “The Breakfast Club” takes us beyond what we think teenagers are like and shows us how we truly felt in our teen years. Plus it has a bitchin’ soundtrack. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: This is the only NFR appearance for all five main cast members (though Emilio Estevez has a brief uncredited appearance in “Badlands“). Of the five, Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald were the only two age-appropriate cast members (both were 16). Estevez and Ally Sheedy were 22 during production, Judd Nelson 24.

Wow, That’s Dated: Other than the soundtrack and some of the clothing, there’s nothing too aggressively ’80s about “The Breakfast Club”. Unfortunately that means we have to focus on the surprising amount of misogyny and homophobia throughout this movie. For a more detailed analysis, I highly recommend this think-piece that Molly Ringwald penned for the New Yorker in 2018, in which she reexamines this film and “Sixteen Candles” from a #MeToo perspective.

Title Track: Originally, titled “Detention”, Hughes’ script got its name from one of his friend’s teenage son, who attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. The school’s morning detention was dubbed “The Breakfast Club” by students, who most likely got the name from the Chicago-based radio program “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club“.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “The Breakfast Club” from the Oscars or any other voting group. The film would not receive any accolades until 2005, when the MTV Movie Awards gave the film the Silver Bucket of Excellence in honor of its 20th anniversary.

Other notes 

  • “The Breakfast Club” was meant to be writer John Hughes’ directorial debut. After completing the screenplay in 1982 and getting an option from A&M films, “Breakfast Club” sat in limbo for a few years. In the meantime, Hughes wrote a few more screenplays, including “Mr. Mom”, which was a big enough hit to get Hughes a three-picture deal with Universal. The studio agreed to greenlight “Breakfast Club”, on the condition that Hughes’ more accessible teen comedy “Sixteen Candles” be made first.
  • You can’t hate a movie that begins with text from David Bowie’s “Changes”. The inclusion of the lyrics was suggested by Ally Sheedy.
  • This movie excels at non-verbal character intros. We learn so much about our lead characters just from how they dress, what kind of cars their parents drive, where they sit in detention, etc. Hughes establishes these character tropes quickly to give himself enough time to break them down.
  • Ah yes, the John Hughes tradition of parents and authority figures being the worst. Do people automatically become assholes once they turn 18 in this universe?
  • That being said, Paul Gleason is relishing the opportunity to play the antagonistic Vice Principal Vernon. A former athlete turned actor, Gleason has the correct amount of menace and sleaze, without veering into the cartoonish buffoonery of Rooney from “Ferris Bueller“.
  • Mainly I’m just amazed that a major movie studio like Universal would ever produce a low-budget character study with a single setting and a small ensemble. The days of that ever happening again are done and done.
  • Wait, Bender said “Eat my shorts” first? I thought that was a Bart Simpson thing. Next you’re gonna tell me Bender never said “Bite my shiny, metal ass.
  • While never as revered as his father Martin Sheen or as eccentric as his brother Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez has maintained a steady legacy of good performances, and “Breakfast Club” is no exception. As Andrew, Estevez, perfectly encapsulates the kind of alpha male athletes who blindly follow orders without learning to think for themselves, and takes the character on a lovely arc. And for the record, Estevez is not anti-vaxx.
  • Also great in this movie is Anthony Michael Hall, though mainly that’s because I was definitely a Brian-type in my high school years, and sympathized the most with his character. When you play a lovable loser as well as Hall does, you can’t fault him for bulking up and playing completely against-type in his adult years.
  • Sometimes I can get a little too critical with movies on this list (I can imagine some of you vigorously nodding your heads now). Case in point: I found myself quite annoyed by the characters’ constant bickering over such inconsequential things as virginity and popularity, but I had to remind myself that’s the point. When you’re in high school, those subjects are the most important, and there’s going to be a lot of talk about them. It all stems from this film’s main theme of Image: what it means for teenagers and how they can best dismantle it. “The Breakfast Club” was not meant to be observed and analyzed like a museum artifact, it is meant to be enjoyed by its target audience: teens who feel like outsiders.
  • My pick for MVP is Ally Sheedy, quietly stealing the show as “the basket case”. Even without dialogue for most of the movie, Allison’s presence is always felt in each scene, a notion reiterated by the constant cutaways to her for reaction shots.
  • I got nothing against Molly Ringwald in this movie (and I have a ton of respect for her after reading the aforementioned think-piece), but most of Claire’s reaction shots in this movie are her looking dreamily at Bender. Even the ’80s fell victim to the “He’s a jerk but she’s okay with it” trope.
  • I’m enjoying John Kapelos’ down-to-earth performance as Carl the janitor, though I would give a lot to have seen Hughes’ first choice Rick Moranis, who apparently grew out a beard and planned to play the role in a Russian accent. “The Breakfast Club” could have been a weirder, very different movie.
  • Ah man, Bender’s joke about a naked lady walking into a bar was made-up. The internet has provided a few possible punchlines, my choice being “You’re telling me. I thought I was buying a dachshund.”
  • The big scene is of course when our five leads, sitting comfortably on the library floor, finally open up about their true selves and why they’re in detention. All five actors do an excellent job playing the scenes naturally, with any emotional hysterics coming across as justified and not forced. I just wish I was this insightful when I was 17.
  • And now for everyone’s favorite part, the dance montage! I’ll take this time to shout out legendary film editor Dede Allen, removed from her auteur days cutting “The Hustler” and “Bonnie and Clyde“, injecting the right amount of kinetic energy to a movie that’s just “people talking”.
  • I’ve only seen “Breakfast Club” a handful of times, but I always roll my eyes when Allison gets a makeover and suddenly turns the heads of her male colleagues. What message is this sending?
  • But perhaps the film’s most iconic moment comes from its final shot: Bender walking across an empty football field, raising his fist in triumph as the screen freeze-frames on him and the credits roll. I’m pretty sure this is the epicenter for the ’80s freeze-frame trope.

Legacy 

  • “The Breakfast Club” premiered in February 1985, and was a decent (if not spectacular) hit; receiving praise from most critics and earning $45 million on a $1 million budget. In the ensuing years, the film has become a beloved encapsulation of its time and a rite of passage for generations of teens.
  • Immediately following “The Breakfast Club”, Hall and Ringwald continued with John Hughes’ follow-ups (“Weird Science” and “Pretty in Pink”, respectively), while Estevez, Nelson, and Sheedy joined the cast of Joel Schumacher’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” (playing college graduates!). In the lead-up to “Elmo’s” premiere in June 1985, reporter David Blum wrote an article for New York magazine about this new roster of young talent. Comparing the popularity of Estevez, Nelson, and “Elmo’s” co-star Rob Lowe to the Rat Pack of the ’50s and ’60s, Blum dubbed the group “The Brat Pack”, a name that continues to define these actors and their 80’s filmography. For the record, no one in the “Brat Pack” likes the name or its implications, and Blum subsequently admitted he regrets writing that article.
  • Like any iconic movie, “The Breakfast Club” has had its share of parodies and homages. The TV show “Community” gets its overall vibe from “Breakfast Club”, citing the film in its pilot episode, and casting Anthony Michael Hall in a guest role a few episodes later.
  • There was occasional talk of a sequel by John Hughes in the late ’80s, which would have seen the characters in their ’20s and ’30s, but the writer/director’s falling-out with Molly Ringwald (and his dislike of working with Judd Nelson) stalled those plans. Similarly, talks of a reboot have mercifully never come to fruition.
  • Perhaps the film’s biggest breakout star wasn’t one of its actors, but rather one of its songs. Scottish rock band Simple Minds was reluctant to perform “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for the movie, but relented, recording the entire song in one three hour session (the “la la las” at the end were filler). The success of “The Breakfast Club” gave Simple Minds their only number one hit, and the song remains a staple of the ’80s and the ’80s teen film genre.

#6) Zapruder Film (1963)

#6) Zapruder Film (1963)

Filmed by Abraham Zapruder

Class of 1994

This is an expanded and revised edition of my previous post, which you can read here. While I am maintaining my vow to never watch that disturbing footage again, I feel that my decision to keep that original post to its bare minimum shortchanged the film’s historical significance. As always – and this cannot be stressed enough – this post is about the film itself, and not the Kennedy assassination, which I have zero interest in doing a deep-dive on.

1941: 36-year-old Ukranian-Jewish immigrant Abraham Zapruder moves to Dallas, Texas with his wife Lillian and their two children Henry and Myrna. Zapruder emigrated to America from the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1920, residing in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan’s garment district.

1949: Zapruder co-founds Jennifer Juniors Inc., a dress manufacturing company. Zapruder’s office is at the Dal-Tex building on Elm Street in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, across the street from the Texas School Book Depository. 

1962: Zapruder purchases an 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera, a then-state of the art model.

November 22nd, 1963

  • President John F. Kennedy arrives in Dallas as part of an extended tour of the south; partially to smooth things over with Texas Democrats, and partially to begin his 1964 re-election campaign. A few days earlier, the path of the President’s motorcade through downtown Dallas was finalized and released to the public. The president’s car would drive from Love Field to the Dallas Trade Mart by way of Dealey Plaza, carrying himself, his wife Jackie, Texas Governor John Connolly, and Connolly’s wife Nellie. 
  • A big supporter of Kennedy, Zapruder considers filming the motorcade, but initially doesn’t bring his camera due to an early morning rainfall. Upon arriving at work, an assistant convinces Zapruder to go home and bring his camera. Zapruder initially plans to film the motorcade from his office window, but decides to capture the footage on Elm Street.
  • Approximately 12:15 pm: Zapruder leaves the Dal-Tex building to stake out a good observation spot for President Kennedy’s motorcade. He settles on a 4-foot concrete abutment on a grassy knoll in the center of Elm Street. Zapruder’s secretary Marilyn Sitzman volunteers to hold onto his coat to help him with his vertigo.
  • 12:30pm: Zapruder begins filming the president as his car arrives in front of the Book Depository and down Elm Street. In the 26.6 seconds (486 frames) captured by Zapruder, both President Kennedy and Governor Connolly are shot by an off-camera assailant. While Governor Connolly survived this attack, President Kennedy would be pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital a half hour later. Zapruder would later recall that he knew at that exact moment the President had been killed. 
  • 12:45pm: Amidst the ensuing chaos, Zapruder returns to his office, and is visited by Harry McCormick, reporter for The Dallas Morning News, and Forrest Sorrels, agent with the Secret Service’s Dallas department. After some discussion, Zapruder agrees to give the footage to Sorrels, on the condition that it only be used for investigation, and not public viewing.
  • 2:00pm: The three arrive at TV station WFAA to get the film developed. It is discovered, however, that the station does not have the right equipment to develop Zapruder’s footage. While at WFAA, Zapruder is interviewed on-air, giving his account of the assassination, calling it “terrible, terrible” and saying that he’s “just sick”.
  • 2:30pm-8pm: The film is developed at the nearby Eastman Kodak processing plant, and three copies are made at the Jamieson Film Company. Zapruder keeps the original film and one copy, while Sorrels takes the other two copies to Secret Service headquarters in D.C.

November 23rd, 1963: Zapruder meets with Life magazine editor Richard Stolley, and sells the rights to the footage for $150,000 (Life outbids, among others, CBS). Still traumatized by what he had witnessed (and additionally distressed from a nightmare he had that evening), Zapruder sells the film on the condition that the frames showing the actual murder be omitted from Life‘s printing. Zapruder donates $25,000 of the Life money to the widow of J.D. Tippit, a police officer killed by Dallas resident and former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald shortly after the assassination.

November 25th 1963: CBS News correspondent Dan Rather, who happened to be in Dallas on November 22nd, describes his viewing of the Zapruder film on-air, the first national report of the footage’s existence. Rather erroneously describes Kennedy’s head as having moved “violently forward” following the shot, although the actual footage shows the head moving backwards. This discrepancy is believed to be the germ from which several conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination arose. 

November 29th, 1963: Life publishes 30 frames from the Zapruder film in black and white. Later publications would include these frames in color, as well as additional frames.

1964: Abraham Zapruder gives his recollections of the day’s events to the Warren Commission, who ultimately determine that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in his assassination of the President.

January 29th 1969: New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw is brought to trial by local D.A. Jim Garrison for his alleged involvment in the Kennedy assassination. The Zapruder film is shown as evidence, its first public screening. Zapruder himself is brought in to testify on February 13th. Clay is ultimately found not guilty on March 1st. During the trial, attorney and conspiracy theorist Mark Lane obtains Garrison’s copy of the Zapruder film (subpoenaed from Life), and makes several copies. These copies start getting distributed on the black market, adding to the film’s notoriety.

February 14th, 1969: The Zapruder film has its US television premiere on KTLA in Los Angeles. The footage is shown in conjunction with news of the Clay Shaw trial.

August 30th, 1970: Abraham Zapruder dies of stomach cancer at the age of 65.

March 6th, 1975: The Zapruder film makes its national TV debut on ABC’s late-night program “Good Night America”. Public outrage over this airing leads to a royalties suit between the Zapruder family and Time Inc. (owners of Life).

April 1975: In a settlement, Time Inc. sells the rights of the footage back to the Zapruder family for $1.

1978: After years of hesitation, the Zapruder family finally agrees to have the original footage stored in D.C.’s National Archives and Records Administration. The family does, however, retain the film’s ownership and copyright.

October 26th, 1992: President George H. W. Bush signs into law the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (aka the JFK Act). This act automatically classifies the Zapruder film as an “assassination record”, and therefore government property. After some back and forth with the Zapruder family over ownership, the film is eventually purchased by the U.S. government from the Zapruders in 1999 for $16 million.

November 15th, 1994: The Zapruder film is inducted into the National Film Registry. In their annual write-up, the NFR calls the film “the most authoritative record” of the JFK assassination.

December 1999: The Zapruder family donates the film’s copyright (retained after the JFK Act settlement) to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, thus ending any ownership of the film by the Zapruder family. In the ensuing years, the Zapruder film has been digitized and made available on the internet, making it one of the most viewed and analyzed pieces of film in American history.

Further Reading: David Wrone’s 2003 book “The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination” is a detailed account of the film’s chain of evidence.

#590) The Inner World of Aphasia (1968)

#590) The Inner World of Aphasia (1968)

Directed by Edward R. Feil

Written by Naomi Feil

Class of 2015

This hard to find short is available courtesy of Indiana University’s Media Library.

The Plot: Nurse Marge Nelson (Naomi Feil) is frustrated with her job at a local hospital, offering little support to her patients. When Marge stumbles down a flight of stairs, she suffers brain damage and develops global aphasia, losing her ability to comprehend speech or communicate with others. Through her inner monologue, we hear Marge’s frustration as she struggles with basic words, exacerbated by the nurses’ lack of empathy or understanding. With help from fellow aphasia patient Jack Campon (Actor Unknown), Marge begins the long, hard process of re-understanding the world, and ensuring that the world understands her.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “empathetic and often poetic”, praising Naomi Feil’s “powerful performance” and admiring the film’s “innovative artistic qualities”.

But Does It Really?: As always, I’m looking for movies on this list that stand out for their creativity and individuality, and “Aphasia” passes the test. There’s a few rough edges in this film, but the Feils prove with their compelling storytelling that low-budget does not have to equal low quality. “Aphasia” surprised me with its delicate balance, showcasing the struggles of the disorder without ever becoming too saccharine. A yes for “The Inner World of Aphasia” and Edward & Naomi Feil.

Shout Outs: In a moment when Maggie is mentally berating herself for being “dumb”, she imagines herself as the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz“, saying, “No brain, only straw.”

Everybody Gets One: A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Edward Feil was born to a family of doctors, but his love for movie making started early. After a stint in the Army and a B.A. from Yale, Feil founded Edward Feil Productions in 1952. Feil spent the next 50 years making short films and documentaries, many of them centering around the sick, disabled, and elderly, all treated with empathy and respect. As with “Aphasia”, Edward collaborated on many of these projects with his wife Naomi, a social worker and founder of Validation, a therapeutic method supporting elderly patients in cognitive decline.

Wow, That’s Dated: Hopefully the empathy towards brain damage victims by hospital staff has improved in the last 50 years.

Wow, That’s Not Dated: Understaffed hospitals. Man, we really suck at healthcare. Are we sure we don’t want Canada’s system? This is a situation where it’s okay to cheat off the guy sitting next to you.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Aphasia”, or any of the Feils’ filmography (“Feilography”?). For the curious, the 1968 Live Action Short winner was Charles Guggenheim’s timely “Robert Kennedy Remembered“.

Other notes

  • Kudos to Naomi Feil for her performance in the film’s opening scene. She’s so natural I genuinely didn’t know if this was scripted or a documentary, or somewhere in between a la “Let There Be Light“.
  • Through an effective use of voiceover and flashbacks, this movie does a great job of really putting you in the headspace of someone with aphasia. Each moment of struggle for Marge is highlighted by some sort of triggering flashback. It seems incredibly frustrating on film, which means it’s undoubtedly even more frustrating in real life.
  • As Jack struggles to talk about the problems he and his wife have communicating, his doctor misconstrues this as “women talk all the time”. Oh goodie, there’s still room for sexism while dealing with aphasia.
  • I do love it when the phrase “all fouled up” is used in a medical context.
  • In one brief fantasy sequence, Jack is shown literally reaching for words as he attempts to speak to his nurse. Been there.
  • Some of these performances, let me tell you. Jack’s wife Janet and son in particular are letting me know that the Cleveland Playhouse was really thriving in 1968.
  • “It’s hard for a woman to understand what you’re going through.” Alright already! Yeesh.
  • The newspaper one of the nurses is holding for Marge to read is apparently an issue of the Cleveland Press, made evident by the column from their longtime sportswriter Bob August.
  • “Aphasia” would make a good companion piece with “Peege“, another NFR film about the breakdown in communication between family members when one of them is in decline. Just keep a box of tissue at the ready.
  • The shot of Janet realizing the error of her ways and consoling Jack is a low-key artful shot: You see the reflections of Janet and the doctors as they watch Jack and Margie through a two-way mirror.
  • “I nurse. I help you.” Time to break out that tissue.

Legacy

  • Edward Feil continued making movies for another 35 years after “Aphasia”, mostly dealing with the elderly and growing old. Among those films, “Looking for Yesterday”, “100 Years to Live” “My First 100 Years”, and “The More We Get Together”. These films (as well as several others in the Feil filmography) amassed a number of festival awards, as well as a Great Lakes Regional Emmy! Edward R. Feil died February 5th, 2021 in Springfield, Oregon at the age of 96.
  • Naomi Feil is still with us at age 89, as is Validation therapy and the Validation Training Institute. Feil is also the author of several books on the subject of elder care.
  • The Feils’ filmography was donated to the Moving Image Archive of Indiana University, and much of it can be viewed on Ed Feil’s YouTube channel.

#50) The Front Page (1931)

#50) The Front Page (1931)

OR “All the Film That’s Fit to Print”

Directed by Lewis Milestone

Written by Barlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Class of 2010

This post is based on my viewing of the Domestic print (aka the “A” print), and is an updated and revised version of my initial post.

The Plot: “The Front Page” is a fast-talking comedy about reporters in the heyday of the printed press. On the eve of the hanging of political prisoner Earl Williams (George E. Stone), Chicago newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) announces to his tough-as-nails editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) that he’s leaving the business to live happily ever after with his fianceé Peggy Grant (Mary Brian). When Williams escapes the jail and takes refuge in the Criminal Courts press room, Hildy knows a scoop when he sees one and is torn between his love and his career. What follows is some classic screwball hijinks that sound awfully similar to another movie…

Why It Matters: The NFR praises this film for its “strong performances” and for having “one of the best screenplays of the 1930s”. The write-up goes on to highlight “Front Page” as an example of an early movie that “realiz[es] the capabilities of sound technology to invent new film narratives”.

But Does It Really?: On its own, “The Front Page” is a perfectly fine time-capsule of the pre-Code era that managed to get a few decent laughs out of me 90 years later. That being said, it’s hard to judge “Front Page” on its own merits when you have “His Girl Friday” just around the corner, surpassing this movie on almost every front. Throw in the discovery of two different prints of this movie, and “Front Page” seems more like an historical NFR choice rather than an artistic one. Presently, the cultural significance of “The Front Page” can be summed up by its Blu-Ray release: as a supplemental feature to “His Girl Friday”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Um…everything? This movie is jam-packed with so much ’30s jargon and dated references, even I couldn’t keep up, and I actually pay attention to this kind of thing!

Seriously, Oscars?: A modest box office hit in 1931, “The Front Page” received three Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Actor for Adolphe Menjou. Perhaps due to Milestone’s wins at the previous ceremony for “All Quiet on the Western Front“, “Front Page” lost to, respectively, “Cimarron”, “Skippy”, and “A Free Soul”.

Other notes

  • Before we go any further, a quick clarification of the multiple prints of “The Front Page”. During the silent era, many movies were shot with multiple cameras at once, with different prints using different angles of the same scene, culminating in slightly different versions of the same film. With the advent of sound, simultaneous filming was made impossible (early sound cameras were too noisy), so early talkies would use alternate takes for different prints. Documentation of “The Front Page” shows that for each scene, Lewis Milestone used the best take for the Domestic (“A”) print, the second best for the UK (“B”) print, and the third best for the General Foreign (“C”) print. For years, the B print (or possibly the C print) was the most widely available, but a discovery (and verification) of the film’s A print led to “The Front Page” getting a proper restoration in 2016.
  • Based on Hecht and MacArthur’s own experience working as Chicago newspapermen, “The Front Page” premiered on Broadway in 1928 and was an instant smash hit. Film producer/future cautionary tale Howard Hughes snatched up the film rights and offered Lewis Milestone the chance to direct following his success with “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Neither of the show’s Broadway leads – Lee Tracy and Osgood (father of Anthony) Perkins – were considered to reprise their roles for the film. Milestone wanted “Western Front” alumni Louis Wolheim as Walter Burns, but the actor died before filming commenced. Hughes vetoed Milestone’s first choices for Hildy (James Cagney and Clark Gable) opting instead for Pat O’Brien, who previously played the role in a Chicago production.
  • Speaking of Chicago, for whatever reason the censors of the day wouldn’t allow the film version of “The Front Page” to be set in Chicago (I guess to avoid accusing “The City That Works” of corruption). As the opening text proclaims, this film is “laid in a Mythical Kingdom”…whatever that means.
  • That being said, the censors obviously had no problems with the frequent sexism and occasional racist terminology sprinkled throughout this movie.
  • Oh Edward Everett Horton, how I’ve missed you. Mr. Fractured Fairy Tales appears here as Bensinger, the stuffy reporter whose germaphobia would fit right in during today’s pandemic lifestyle. Bensinger definitely would have worked from home before it was mandated.
  • The rest of the reporters get a decent amount of screentime, though none of them leave a big impression. Among them is actor Walter Catlett, best remembered today for his work in “Bringing Up Baby“, and his vocal performance as Honest John the fox in “Pinocchio“.
  • Of course you can’t have a movie where the lead character is referred to as “Mr. Burns” without making me think of the “Simpsons” character. I’d give anything to see Adolphe Menjou steeple his fingers and declare something as “Exxxxcellent“.
  • This movie is definitely in the “Applause“/”Hallelujah” category of early sound films trying to stay visually dynamic with the new technology. There’s plenty of inventive camera angles and dolly shots to help “open up” the play, plus some intercutting between scenes and at least one jump cut. Kudos to everyone involved.
  • This movie is covering a lot of subjects that would have been definite no-nos in the Code era: political corruption, Communism and “the red menace”, yellow journalism, not to mention a few jokes about sexual perversity. “His Girl Friday” may be the better movie, but “Front Page” has a lot more pearl-clutching in its dialogue, which I found more entertaining.
  • Pat O’Brien is definitely one of your standard-looking All-American leading man types. With his jet black hair he kinda looks like Steve Martin in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”.
  • This movie has another one of my favorite early movie tropes: Censoring by interruption. “Here’s a feature on the manhunt that’ll knock you right on your – excuse me, miss.”
  • Having “His Girl Friday” to compare this movie to definitely has its pluses and minuses. For one thing, it’s interesting to watch this story without a love triangle, making it more a tale of corruption and power than just a rehash of “The Awful Truth”. On the other hand, while this movie retains the fast talking of its source material, there’s little to no overlapping dialogue. Everyone talks fast, then pauses while the next person speaks, and then hurries through another line. It’s like watching a train travel in quick short spurts: the speed is there, but not the momentum. 
  • O’Brien and Menjou have a lovely rapport with each other. It’s just a shame you have to wait until the second half of the movie to see it.
  • “Get back in there, you Mock Turtle!” Wait, I thought Cary Grant ad-libbed that line for “His Girl Friday”. Is nothing real anymore!?
  • The film’s finale retains the original ending, with one noticeable difference. The play’s curtain line “That son-of-a-bitch stole my watch!” remains, but is partially censored by Burns resting his elbow on a typewriter’s carriage, causing the ding of the bell to obscure the most offensive part.
  • As for the two widely available prints, the A print is the overall better movie, with tighter editing and better delivery. The B print, however, is worth a viewing for the curious; its lackluster timing compensated for with alternate lines, and a shot of one reporter flipping off the mayor!

Legacy

  • While largely forgotten today, “The Front Page” has its devotees who champion it for depicting the kind of fast-talking reporters associated with this era of film. Some historians even go as far as calling “Front Page” the first true screwball comedy, even though that subgenre is typically reserved for romantic comedies.
  • Lewis Milestone’s directing career was hit or miss after “Front Page”, but he does have one more movie on the NFR, the 1945 war drama “A Walk in the Sun“.
  • Howard Hughes’ film career continued with another NFR movie set in not-Chicago with a Hecht/MacArthur screenplay: “Scarface“.
  • Nine years after this film’s release, another famous Howard – Hawks – was considering a remake, with the goal of making “Front Page” faster and funnier. While there are different accounts of how inspiration struck, Hawks’ key difference with this remake was the gender-swapping of Hildy, making him Burns’ ex-wife. The resulting movie – 1940’s “His Girl Friday” – is widely considered one of the rare remakes that surpasses the original.
  • Aside from its most famous remake, “The Front Page” received a more faithful update in 1974. Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and reuniting Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Hildy and Burns, this “Front Page” seemed like a recipe for success…”seemed” being the operative word. Like the 1931 version, the ’74 “Front Page” has all the essential elements, but nothing fully gels.
  • The original stage version of “The Front Page” still gets revived on Broadway from time to time. A 1960s revival saw MacArthur’s wife Helen Hayes in a supporting role, an 80’s revival starred John Lithgow and Richard Thomas, and a 2016 revival featured an all-star cast led by Nathan Lane and John Slattery.
  • In addition to its revivals, “The Front Page” was musicalized in the 1980s as “Windy City”. The New York Times review used words like “mundane”, “mediocre”, and “forgettable”, which explains why no one’s heard from “Windy City” since.
  • While the film maintained its status as an underrated classic for decades, it wasn’t until 2014 – and the discovery of the original “A” print – that things got interesting. This video from the California Film Institute does a very succinct job of explaining the differences, perhaps too succinct because the narrator talks really fast.

#589) Unmasked (1917)

#589) Unmasked (1917)

OR “To Catch a Thief”

Directed & Written by Grace Cunard and Francis Ford

Class of 2014 

I’ve been trying to track down this short for years, and I’m delighted that a high quality print has been posted on the official George Eastman Museum website. Please check out their preservation work, and donate if you can.

The Plot: Two thieves, Francis and Meg (Francis Ford and Grace Cunard) run into each other at a masked ball, both with the intention of stealing the necklace of their hostess Mrs. Montague (Actor Unknown). Francis is successful and flees the scene of the crime, evading two detectives (Edgar Keller and Harry Schumm). Meg congratulates Francis on his success, but uses this as a chance to retrieve the necklace for herself. Will Francis get away with it? Will Meg have a change of heart? Will Hollywood remember that it used to let women write and direct films all the time?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a succinct but illustrative example of the role of women in film history”, then goes on to praise its “artful and sophisticated cinematography”.

But Does It Really?: This is another short that makes the NFR for what it represents rather than for what it is. Grace Cunard was quite popular with filmgoers in her time (dubbed “The Queen of the Serials”), and her talents extended to behind the scenes as well. “Unmasked” is a brief, enjoyable little thriller, managing to pack in a heist and a car chase in its short runtime. The Cunard/Ford collaborations are noteworthy enough for recognition, and as one of their few surviving efforts, “Unmasked” makes the NFR cut.

Everybody Gets One: Grace Cunard started off as a stage actress, only accepting film work for the Biograph Company on a dare. After working with all of the east coast movie studios, she headed to California in 1912, finding employment with Thomas H. Ince. It was with Ince where Cunard first met actor/director Francis Ford, beginning their successful run of collaborations. When Ince fired Cunard for refusing to leave Ford’s unit, Ford followed suit, and the pair wound up at Universal. From 1913 to 1917, Ford and Cunard worked on hundreds of serials and B-pictures, often co-starring together, co-writing the scenarios, and occasionally co-directing.

Other notes 

  • As I said, “Unmasked” is available on the official George Eastman Museum website, and the video begins with a five minute introduction by Eastman curator Peter Bagrov. To be honest, most of my information regarding the movie comes from this introduction (and the text on the video’s page). Like so many films from the silent era, “Unmasked” lacks any decent documentation of its production.
  • Here’s an interesting one: “Unmasked” is actually a re-release of the 1913 Ford/Cunard short “The Black Masks”. While “Unmasked” is a one-reeler (about 12 minutes), “Black Masks” was a two-reeler, with the events of “Unmasked” being in the second reel. The first reel (from what we know – “Black Masks” is a lost film) featured the racing skills of driver Tony Jeannette (credited as “The Speed Demon”). After winning a race, Jeannette is invited to a masked ball, but loses the invitation, which ends up in the hands of the thieves played by Ford and Cunard. The first shot of “Unmasked” (an impressive-for-its-time composition of the crooks’ hands reaching for the necklace) is actually from the middle of “The Black Masks”.
  • Still very much in pandemic times while watching this, my first thought during the ball was “They’re wearing their masks wrong.”
  • I love me some old timey phraseology. Literally any other movie would have its character say “Step on it!” to the driver during a high speed car chase, but “Unmasked” has Francis command, “Say, put a little speed behind this boiler.”
  • Side note about Francis Ford: He is of no relation to Francis Ford Coppola, though both got the Ford in their names in honor of Henry Ford (Francis Ford was born Francis Feeney).
  • I definitely laughed out loud when Meg walks away from her encounter with Francis, revealing that she stole his watch. Well played, everyone.
  • If there was one thing the 1910s loved, it was movies where criminals were brought to justice. With all this morality being enforced, is it any wonder the ’20s were so aggressively decadent?
  • No offense, but I feel like it was a lot easier to be a burglar in the 1910s. Everyone was far more trusting, and nobody locked their doors or windows. Hell, Francis probably could have just asked Mrs. Montague “May I please steal your necklace?”
  • Much like the original racecar opening of “The Black Masks”, the short’s ending was trimmed for its “Unmasked” re-release. After returning the necklace to its rightful owner, Meg and Francis get married and donate all their stolen items to charity. Cutting out this ending makes it less sappy, and suggests that these two will continue to commit crimes. Very daring for 1917.
  • Sorry “Unmasked”, but when I want to watch a cinematic necklace heist I’ll watch “The Great Muppet Caper”, thank you very much.

Legacy 

  • In 1917, Ford left Universal to found his own (short lived) movie studio Fordart Films, thus ending his successful collaboration with Grace Cunard. As Ford’s movie career was starting to decline, things were looking up for Franics’ younger brother – John Ford. Little brother John got a leg-up in the industry thanks to advice from Francis, and would repay the favor by casting Francis in small parts for many of his movies, including “Stagecoach“, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “The Quiet Man”.
  • Although Grace Cunard continued to appear in films for the next 30 years, the films were always B-pictures, and the roles began to diminish until she was playing bit parts. When Universal discontinued their serials in the mid-’40s, Cunard retired from show business, happily married to stuntman Frederick Tyler until her death in 1967.
  • While most of the Ford-Cunard collaborations are lost films, the duo have been getting their share of recognition for their place in film history in recent years. In addition to “Unmasked” making the NFR in 2014, Grace Cunard in particular continues to be singled out (along with her contemporaries) as a pioneer for women behind the camera.