#11) In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

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#11) In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

OR “O Native Canada!”

Written & Directed by Edward S. Curtis

Class of 1999

Here’s the whole thing!

NOTE: One of the great things about the registry is the diversity of people and culture on both sides of the camera. Of course this means that, as a straight white male, I start any film this diverse with three strikes against me already. I approach these posts as a discussion of the film, not the cultures depicted. At no point do I mean to offend with my obvious and fully admitted ignorance. I do as much research as I can while writing these, and I am open to any constructive and well-researched corrections.

The Plot: Conceived by photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis, this film is a fictional story set among the real-life Kwakwaka’wakw (or sometimes Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia. The film tells the story of Motana, son of the chief, who falls for Naida after seeing her in a vision. She is engaged to an evil sorcerer (like you do), so Motana and his men go to fight him. They succeed in killing the sorcerer and Motana and Naida are free to marry. But then comes along the sorcerer’s vengeful brother Yaklus and, well, you can fill out the rest from here.

Why It Matters: The NFR points to the film’s accurate depiction of many Kwakwaka’wakw traditions, but also openly admits that some of it was inaccurate or downright fictionalized. Also included is a more detailed essay by Professors Brad Evans and Aaron Glass.

But Does It Really?: This is one of those movies that was originally viewed as narrative fiction but then got preserved as a documentary. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the customs (real or fabricated) depicted in this film. As a narrative it’s pretty standard and as a documentary it’s a bit of a head scratcher. This film blurs the line and doesn’t quite succeed in either camp. That being said, I hope that anyone who comes to this film to learn more about the Kwakiutl finds what they are looking for.

Take a Shot: No mention of the title (this being a silent film and all) but you do get some headhunting (via title card) about 13 minutes in.

Other notes

  • I would really like to see a movie about the making of this film. How did Curtis find these people? Why would they agree to let him film this, especially as a piece of fiction? How did everyone get along during filming? Was it catered?
  • By 1914 standards, that’s a really impressive effect at the beginning when Naida shows up in the smoke.
  • I have yet to find the actual term the Kwakwaka’wakw would use, but “sorcerer” cannot be the correct term.
  • During the celebration of Yaklus’ overthrow of Motana’s village, there’s an extended shot of someone in bird regalia that is obviously filmed on a set some time later. Did they honestly think no one would notice?
  • The print that I saw ran about 40 minutes, but all information I can find says it runs 65 minutes. Is there more footage out there? Or, like some silent films, is this just played at a faster frame-rate?
  • Please enjoy this film for what it’s worth, because we’re not getting another film with a fully Native American cast for a long time. You may have to wait until 1998’s “Smoke Signals”.
  • And for your further education, this film has a whole website devoted to it, including information on the film’s 100th anniversary restoration.

Legacy

  • One really important thing about this film I forgot to mention; the celebration of Motana and Naida’s wedding is depicted here as a potlatch. At the time of filming, potlatch practice was banned in Canada (as well as in the United States) because Christian missionaries with influence thought it was uncivilized. The fact that this film went ahead and filmed one anyway is pretty astounding. From what I understand this film’s depiction of a potlatch is accurate, and may be the only surviving film of the custom during the ban.

Listen to This: Speaking of the above, many continued the practice of potlatch during the ban anyway, and Kwakwaka’wakw chief Dan Cranmer was one of many jailed for practicing in 1921. In 1938, anthropologists Franz Boas and George Herzog recorded several hours of Cranmer speaking the words, songs, and traditions of the Kwakiutl. These recordings were preserved by the National Recording Registry in 2013, and a small snippet can be heard on their website.

#10) Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

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#10) Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

OR “War is Peck”

Directed by Henry King

Written by Sy Barlett and Beirne Lay Jr. Based on the novel by Lay and Bartlett.

Class of 1998

The original trailer, which is mostly Gregory Peck talking at you.

With this film, we make the first of many stops into World War II. The events that occurred over these six years will lead to many of the films (both fictional and historical) we will be looking at. This war may have had the single most impact on American film.

The Plot: Based on true events, “Twelve O’Clock High” is the story of the Army’s 8th Air Force (specifically the 918th bomb group) and its attacks on Germany using daylight precision bombings. After several disastrous raids leading to many casualties, the 918th is given over to Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). No-nonsense and an all around hard-ass, Savage shakes up the ranks (including promoting and demoting one sergeant throughout) and uses military red tape to stop his men from transferring on him. Savage eventually sees results and the raids become more successful. This leads to their most dangerous strike (loosely based on Black Thursday) in which the 918th will take down a ball bearing factory in Germany. But the iron will instilled in the group has started to take its toll, especially on Savage.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites Peck’s performance and the final aerial attack. It also mentions this being one of the first films about WWII to move away from the typical flag-waving propaganda to a more “war-is-hell” psychological study.

But Does It Really?: For the above, sure. But man do you have to slog through a long movie to get to all of the good stuff. I mean, it’s all important, but it’s so slow leading up to that last 25 minutes. The film is a lot of talking, specifically military jargon that, if you’re not too well-read on the subject, is going to leave you behind. Worse than that, most of the film is people telling rather than showing. A lot of interesting things happen in the film, just not in scenes we get to see. The final attack and subsequent character development is well worth it, but that’s all I can recommend with this one.

Shout Outs: One of the bombers is named “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Not a lot in this one, mainly being a WWII piece made not too long after the actual war. I do love me some repurposed stock footage though, as well as rear projection for effect shots.

Take a Shot: The phrase “twelve o’clock high” is said once, and only once, during the final aerial attack 105 minutes into the film. The characters in this film get to drink a lot more than you will.

Seriously, Oscars?: The film won two Oscars; Best Supporting Actor for Dean Jagger (which makes sense since his is the most emotionally invested of the characters) and Best Sound Recording (even though it’s really only for the last scene). This film’s other two nominations – Picture and Actor for Peck – went instead to another NFR entry; “All the King’s Men”.

Other notes

  • Part of why this film seems to last a lot longer is that most of the scenes are done in long uninterrupted static shots of just two people talking. This ain’t “Rope”, buddy, spice things up!
  • During Savage’s first meeting with his troops, one of his men is definitely looking straight at the camera when he stands up. I see you.
  • Pretty gutsy having a character in a war film named Kaiser.
  • At one point Peck says the word “gadget” but pronounces it “gay-dget”. Anyone know if that’s an acceptable alternate pronunciation?
  • Not surprising for a war movie, there’s only one woman in the whole film; the nurse when Savage visits Gately. She’s uncredited, she has two lines, and I’m pretty sure the drawing on the Piccadilly Lily has more screen time than she does. Despite all of this, she ends up on the original poster.
  • For you air force buffs, the 8th Air Force (which was created just before the events of this film) is still flying to this day.

Legacy

  • Peck’s eventual return to the war as MacArthur.
  • A TV series based on the film, because hey why not?
  • Apparently this scene in “Star Wars” was influenced by the final attack.
  • Speaking of, Rian Johnson has said that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will be influenced by “Twelve O’Clock High”. As of this writing that film hasn’t come out yet, so what say you, readers from the future?

AN UPDATE FROM THE FUTURE: 12/17/17 – “The Last Jedi” has finally been released. Yeah, I see it.

#9) The Music Box (1932)

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#9) The Music Box (1932)

OR “Stairway to Comedy Heaven”

Directed by James Parrott

Dialogue by H.M. Walker

Class of 1997

This is one of those films that has entered into the public domain, so there’s a lot of versions of this online. This is the best version I could find.

The Plot: Strapped for cash, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy try their luck as a transfer company and take on the deceivingly simple task of delivering a player piano to a client’s home. The only things in their way are a nosy cop, a volatile professor, and oh yes, a flight of stairs with 133 steps.

Why It Matters: Interestingly, the NFR description doesn’t actually cite a specific reason “The Music Box” is in the registry. The accompanying essay by Laurel & Hardy expert Randy Skretvedt is much more loving.

But Does It Really?: Let me put it this way; I didn’t write too many notes for this one because I was laughing out loud too much. This film is quintessential Laurel & Hardy. Anyone who doesn’t know who these two men are or why they are among the best comedy duos ever will have their answer after watching “The Music Box”. Hardy’s pompous over-confidence and Laurel’s endearing earnestness are on fine display here, and the two compliment each other beautifully. On the page, a 28-minute short about moving a piano up some stairs shouldn’t be funny the whole way through, but this one pulls it off (though I admit it trips at the finish line just a bit). “The Music Box” is filled with great visual gags, pratfalls, and classic examples of set-ups and payoffs by two of the best.

Wow, That’s Dated: Player pianos, horse-drawn carriages, doorbells with actual bells.

Seriously, Oscars?: This won the very first Oscar for what was then called “Best Short Subject – Comedy”. That category would eventually morph into today’s “Best Live Action Short Film”.

Other notes

  • I had to look up the word “foundered”. Well played, movie.
  • Given how mean that nursemaid was to the boys, I wish they had gone full “Potemkin” on that baby carriage.
  • How come Laurel doesn’t talk for the first 7 minutes of this short?
  • There are two things that Hardy does in this short (as well as in others) that will never fail to make me laugh; his welp of pain when he’s the brunt of a pratfall, and his direct take to the camera with his “Can you believe this?” look.
  • After 25 minutes of watching them abuse each other, the shot of Laurel & Hardy dancing while cleaning up is just pure joy.
  • The steps used in the film are still in Silver Lake, and are officially known as the “Music Box Steps”.

Legacy

  • Every idiot who thinks they can repeat the bit.
  • That one scene from “Friends”.
  • That time Laurel & Hardy presented at the Oscars, despite the handicap that they had been dead for several decades.
  • More blatant disregard for pianos.
  • The third act of “Home Alone”.
  • And of course, the very loose 1989 remake starring Jessica Lange.

Further Viewing: A Laurel & Hardy classic that probably won’t make it onto the Registry any time soon, “Babes in Toyland” (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers) is one of my perennial Christmas favorites. It’s dated and weird as hell, but thanks to the boys, it’s also drop-dead funny.

#8) The Graduate (1967) [Original 2017 Post]

1967-the-graduate#8) The Graduate (1967)

OR “Mind the Generation Gap”

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on the novel by Charles Webb.

Class of 1996

Original Theatrical Trailer

This is my original “Graduate” write-up, but wouldn’t you rather read the revised, expanded version instead?

The Plot: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from a fancy east coast college and returns to his parents’ house in California for the summer. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life, Benjamin spends his days lounging in the pool, and his nights sleeping with family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Things get complicated as outcast Benjamin starts to come into his own, and get more complicated with the arrival of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the work of Nichols, Henry, Hoffman and especially Bancroft. Their description of the film also goes out of its way to point out that the film seems dated in places and doesn’t quite capture the ‘60s the way “Easy Rider” does. The expanded essay by Jami Bernard is much more forgiving.

But Does It Really?: Many will carp about the film not quite capturing the ‘60s, but “The Graduate” is the right film at the right time. When America was feeling uncertain about its future, along came Benjamin Braddock. This is one of the rare films that is a truly cinematic adaptation of a novel. It takes the exact same story and tells it in visuals just as much as in words (if not more). This is all grounded by the star-making turns of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. He’s too old for the role and she’s too young, but together they are giving performances that are about as perfect as you could ask for.

Everybody Gets One: A trove of TV actors are featured in this one; William “Mr. Feeny” Daniels, Norman “Mr. Roper” Fell, and Marion “Aunt Clara” Lorne. But special mention must go to Walter Brooke. A film veteran of 25 years at the time of filming, Brooke achieved film immortality with just one word.

Wow, That’s Dated: Drive-in restaurants. Bossa nova as mood music. In addition, once the film does its on-location shots, the ‘60s love generation comes out in full force.

Take a Shot: The word “graduate” is not said until 43 minutes in, and then is only said one more time in the film. Even if you extend the word to its variations, you’re not getting buzzed.

Seriously, Oscars?: With seven nominations, and with competition that included “Bonnie and Clyde” and “In the Heat of the Night”, “The Graduate” ended up taking one statue; Best Director for Mike Nichols. Amazingly, this is one of the rare times that a film only won in the Best Director category without winning anything else.

Other notes

  • I guess the film is now owned by Studio Canal. The version I saw began with their current logo, which is incredibly out of place with this film.
  • Between Mike Nichols’ direction and the cinematography by Robert Surtees, the generation gap between Benjamin and his parents is immediate and powerful.
  • Regarding Ben’s isolation; does he have zero friends? One wonders what he must have been like as a roommate.
  • This film proves time and again that comedy is drama plus detail (a line that some attribute to Nichols’ old sparring partner Elaine May). The scene where Benjamin tries to book a hotel room is filled with great examples of this. There’s nothing inherently funny about getting a hotel room for your affair, but the scene’s details keep making it funnier and funnier.
  • Gotta love a montage so long it takes two songs to cover it.
  • I don’t want to slight Katharine Ross, because she’s doing fine work here, but what does Ben see in Elaine? She is so underwritten. We know nothing about what Ben sees in her other than she’s the same age as him. But then again, that may be the whole point.
  • Those who know their Bay Area geography know that when Benjamin drives on the Bay Bridge to go to Berkeley, HE’S GOING THE WRONG WAY. You can see the piers of San Francisco very clearly in the background. He should be driving on the less cinematic lower level.
  • Speaking of, I’ve been to UC Berkeley, and that ain’t it.
  • Everyone’s favorite “Before They Were Famous” moment is a young Richard Dreyfuss as one of the tenants in the boarding house. His character was, of course, studying oceanography and would eventually clash with Mr. Robinson on the subject.
  • How much easier would Ben tracking down Elaine have been if the internet had existed? It’s not a pleasant thought, but I’m going ahead with it.

Legacy

  • The Graduate Part 2 (which may or may not have Julia Roberts)
  • That time Dustin Hoffman cashed in on his own filmography.
  • That running joke on Season 4 of “Arrested Development”
  • The attempt to adapt the film (and the book) into a stage play. Jury’s still out.
  • [Deep exhale] Way to go, Meathead.

Listen to This: “Sounds of Silence”, Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit album, which includes two songs featured in the film; “April Come She Will” and of course, “The Sound of Silence”. “Mrs. Robinson” would be featured on side two of their first post-“Graduate” album, “Bookends”.

#7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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#7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

OR “Aliens-They’re Just Like Us!”

Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Edmund H. North. Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates.

Class of 1995

SEE the original trailer! AMAZE at the blurb from Look Magazine! WITNESS the incredible spoiler!

The Plot: A UFO lands in Washington D.C. Its inhabitants are a human-like alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and a robot named Gort (Lock Martin). After being attacked and escaping an army medical center, Klaatu takes refuge in a boarding house under the assumed name of Carpenter. He befriends a fellow tenant named Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). While in hiding he connects with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is studying atomic power, a power that Klaatu’s race has already mastered. With his ship stranded in plain sight, and Gort waiting for his return, Klaatu tries to get an important message to the people of Earth.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls this a “classic science fiction film with a strong pacifist message”. Bernard Herrmann’s score also gets a shout-out.

But Does It Really?: This goes in my “absolutely yes” category. This film is the best kind of science fiction. It takes an interesting idea and runs with it in a realistic way. This is one of those films that makes me angry at how relevant it still is. Ultimately it is a film about communication and what we are and aren’t doing to achieve that. It is a call for peace, and no matter what type of world we are living in, we can always use the reminder.

Everybody Gets One: Frances “Aunt Bee” Bavier, who is especially saucy in this one for some reason. Billy Gray would go on to achieve fame as Bud on “Father Knows Best”.

Wow, That’s Dated: This film takes place in that brief time when both radio and television were news sources, with radio still dominating. This film also shows us a time when doctors could openly smoke in a hospital, and when two dollars could get you more than one movie ticket. Simpler times indeed.

Take a Shot: Sadly, no one says the phrase “the day the earth stood still” in this film. You’ll have to think of something else.

Seriously, Oscars?: Not a single nomination. Not Adapted Screenplay. Not Original Score. Nothing. The film did, however, win a Golden Globe in the now defunct category “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”. Always embarrassing when the Golden Globes beat the Oscars at recognizing a classic.

Other notes

  • “Farewell to the Master”, the short story this film was based on, contains the film’s bare bones, but doesn’t give us the pacifist viewpoint. It actually reads more like a “Twilight Zone” episode.
  • In films like these, no matter what the aliens have learned about our planet, they always land in America.
  • Klaatu reveals that his race studied Earth by listening to our radio broadcasts. I guess they missed “War of the Worlds“.
  • Once the name Carpenter came up I thought, “Oh no is this a Jesus metaphor?” Minimum research shows I’m not the only one who thought this. Allegedly director Robert Wise has said it’s purely coincidental.
  • My favorite scene in this film is when Klaatu and Bobby visit the ship site and the radio announcer talks to them, but immediately cuts Klaatu off when he starts talking about not “substituting fear for reason”. Stop being so relevant to my time, movie!
  • Among the trappings that this film could have fallen into, I appreciate that at no point does Klaatu lie to Bobby (the name Carpenter aside) and at no point do he and Helen get romantically involved.
  • Another great line in this film “It isn’t faith that makes good science, it’s curiosity.”
  • Did anyone else notice that throughout the film the “Room for Rent” sign is permanently lit? What is going on in that house?
  • If nothing else, this film predicted motion-sensor technology.
  • This film went out of its way to include very diverse extras, especially in the last scene. Now if only any of them had any lines…

Legacy

  • Don’t worry, they remade this with Keanu Reeves.
  • This is the film that every bad alien movie shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was trying to be, particularly “This Island Earth”.
  • Bernard Herrmann used theremins in his score to give it an other-worldly quality. Everyone else in the ‘50s followed suit.
  • Speaking of, this is the score that inspired Danny Elfman to go into film composing.
  • The phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” has seeped so fully into science fiction culture that there’s a Wikipedia page keeping track of every time it’s referenced.
  • Fellow NFR entry “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, another alien movie that may or may not be a Christ allegory.
  • Recent Oscar nominee “Arrival”, also based on a short story and also a science fiction film about peace and communication.

Further Viewing: This is as good a time as any to express my love for the film “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”, which owes a huge debt of gratitude to this film.