#580) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

#580) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

OR “The Midnight Special”

Directed by Jim Sharman

Written by Sharman and Richard O’Brien. Based on the stage musical “The Rocky Horror Show” by O’Brien.

Class of 2005

The Plot: On a dark and stormy night [Audience shoots water pistols], engaged couple Brad Majors [ASSHOLE] and Janet Weiss [SLUT] (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) walk to a nearby castle for assistance when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves in the home of Dr. Frank-N-Furter [audience throws hot dogs] (Tim Curry), a “sweet transvestite” and mad scientist who has created a muscle man named Rocky [BULLWINKLE!] (Peter Hinwood). Assisted by servants Riff Raff and Magenta (Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn), the doctor keeps Brad and Janet from leaving, while also helping them discover new facets of their own sexuality. And I am just scratching the surface of the greatest B-movie musical in film history.

Why It Matters: The NFR’s brief paragraph on the film calls it a “low-budget cult classic” and singles out the “catchy songs”.

But Does It Really?: It’s certainly not for everyone, and some of its subject matter would still raise an eyebrow today, but the people who get this movie GET this movie, and in doing so have helped it become a classic. “Rocky Horror” has become so synonymous with its own cult following that it’s nearly impossible to separate the film from the phenomenon. Ultimately, to appreciate “Rocky Horror”, you have to accept this movie for what it is and just go with it, from its campy presentation to its unapologetic sexuality. While not a conventional NFR choice, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” does what every classic movie should: it has its own instantly identifiable aesthetic, iconic moments, and a legacy that endures year after year.

Shout Outs: Among the movies referenced in “Science Fiction/Double Feature” are NFR entries “The Day the Earth Stood Still“, “Flash Gordon“, “The Invisible Man“, “King Kong” and “Forbidden Planet” (whoa-oh-ah-oh-oooooo-oh). There’s also references to “Frankenstein“, “The Bride of Frankenstein“, “The Night of the Hunter“, and “The Wizard of Oz“. Bonus reference: one of the film’s original posters mentions its main box office competition: “Jaws“.

Everybody Gets One: Passing the time while unemployed, English/New Zealand actor Richard O’Brien wrote a musical that combined his love of B-movies, ’50s rock and roll, and the glam rock scene of the early ’70s. O’Brien showed the musical – then called “They Came from Denton High” – to director Jim Sharman, who agreed to stage the show at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, a space reserved for experimental pieces. “The Rocky Horror Show” transferred to West End’s King’s Road Theatre in August 1973 and was a runaway hit. American producer Lou Adler saw the show, and quickly bought the US theatrical rights as well as the film rights. After the conclusion of the show’s nine-month run in Los Angeles, the creatives flew back to England to shoot the movie.

Other notes

  • Wow, this movie is unsettling from frame one. The first shot is an extreme closeup of Patricia Quinn’s blood-red lips mouthing along to “Science Fiction/Double Feature”. Buckle up, everyone.
  • Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon were cast as a sort of compromise. Fox offered the film a larger budget if the cast included big name rock stars (Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley were mentioned). When Sharman and O’Brien declined, opting to stand by the original stage cast, Fox agreed on the condition that Brad and Janet [DAMMIT] were played by American actors.
  • Unlike many musicals that started on the stage, “Rocky Horror” fares well as a film adaptation. This is partly due to the “opening up” of certain scenes, and partly the cinematic influence already baked into the show’s DNA. Also helping things is the film’s limited budget, which forces creativity across all departments
  • Ah, “The Time Warp”. It’s very hard to watch this number solely within the context of the movie, but it’s a lot of fun and so damn catchy. There’s even dance instructions from Charles Gray’s Criminologist. [HE’S GOT NO FUCKING NECK!]
  • Tim Curry was one of the first people to see the potential in “Rocky Horror”, and starred in its original England, Los Angeles, and New York productions. Understandably, Curry walks away with this movie as ruler of all he surveys, in his film debut no less. And he does the whole thing in heels!
  • Pardon my ignorance, but are the terms “transvestite” and “transsexual” still kosher? I’d hate for this movie to become dated in regards to its identity.
  • This movie requires a lot of prior knowledge of old movie stars and bodybuilders. Sure, I got the shoutouts to Fay Wray and Anne Francis, but who remembers Steve Reeves and Charles Atlas? [Audience throws confetti]
  • Because it’s always worth mentioning: NFR movies with Glenn Close: 0, NFR movies with Meat Loaf: 1.
  • “Hot Patootie” is fun, but is immediately followed by a truly disturbing murder. [THAT’S NO WAY TO PICK YOUR FRIENDS!]
  • I was always under the impression that Susan Sarandon had spent most of her career distancing herself from this movie, but I guess she’s warmed up to it in recent years. Not surprising, even Christopher Plummer came around to embracing “The Sound of Music“.
  • Columbia’s donning of mouse ears for most of the film’s second act is a good reminder that “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is now legally a Disney movie, and is the only Fox property that Disney has kept available to theaters. Even Disney knows better than to mess with “Rocky Horror” fans.
  • Apparently in the L.A. production Meat Loaf also played Dr. Scott? That I would have liked to see; I’m sure he was a great Scott. [Audience throws toilet paper]
  • I’ve seen “Rocky Horror” a few times over the years, and I always forget that it ends up being aliens. Still don’t see it coming. [LIKE EVERYONE IN THIS MOVIE]
  • The Floor Show suite is quite the finale, with the film’s message coming across loud and clear: Don’t Dream It, Be It. The line that stuck with me most comes from “Rose Tint My World”: “Rose tints my world/Keeps me safe from my trouble and pain”
  • [Spoilers] Shoutout to Nell Campbell (billed here as “Little Nell”) as groupie Columbia. The closest this movie gets to an emotional core, I was actually saddened when she’s killed off at the end. [OH SHIT, IT WORKS!]
  • I love me some hand-drawn animated effects. Someone spent hours hunched over a desk drawing those blood credits and laser beams.
  • I’ve said this many times on the blog, but I’ve never meant it as sincerely as I do with “Rocky Horror”: What in God’s name is happening?

Legacy

  • “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was a critical and commercial disaster upon release, although the UA theater in Los Angeles noted that some moviegoers came back night after night to see the film. On April 1st 1976, “Rocky Horror” was re-released as a midnight movie at New York’s Waverly Theatre. The film finally found its audience, and soon “Rocky Horror” was playing as a midnight movie in hundreds of theaters across the country. Some viewers started bringing props and shouting back at the screen as a way to entertain themselves, which quickly became part of the midnight screening rituals. The film soon developed a following larger than most religions, and “Rocky Horror” is the most successful cult film of all time. 
  • In antici…. [SAY IT!]…pation of the film’s US release in September 1975, Lou Adler also backed the show’s first New York production on Broadway. “Rocky Horror” opened in March 1975…and closed in April 1975. At least the Tony Awards nominated it for Lighting Design. A revival in 2001 fared a little better.
  • Richard O’Brien has tried many times over the years to make a sequel to the stage and/or film version of “Rocky Horror”, with such titles as “Rocky Horror Shows His Heels”, “Revenge of the Old Queen” and “Rocky Horror: The Second Coming”. None of the projects got too far, however, due to a lack of interest from the original cast and creatives. O’Brien and Jim Sharman did reunite in 1981 to make pseudo-sequel “Shock Treatment”, which has a minor cult following of its own.
  • As part of the wave of TV movie musical remakes we got throughout the 2010s, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” tried to be both a remake of and tribute to the original film, including a framing device of an audience watching a midnight screening of the film. Even the natural charisma of Laverne Cox and stunt casting of Tim Curry couldn’t save this one.
  • “Rocky Horror” doesn’t so much have parodies as it does homages. I’ve always been partial to the tribute to “The Time Warp” on “The Drew Carey Show”, which “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” thrown in for fun.
  • I’m also amused by the extended sequence in “Fame” where the characters attend a midnight screening. “Fame”: the movie that just gives up and watches another movie instead.
  • Tim Curry and Meat Loaf reunited on “SNL” in a sketch about their “Rocky Horror” shop. Like most of early ’80s “SNL”, [HOW’S YOUR SEX LIFE, BRAD?] it’s negligible.
  • “Rocky Horror” joins the elite list of NFR movies with not one, but TWO video game adaptations.
  • According to the documentary “These Amazing Shadows”, entertainment executive/National Film Preservation Board member John Ptak suggested “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for NFR consideration, citing its cult following and continued popularity. Then-Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington agreed to the inclusion, stating that the conversation about a “Rocky Horror” induction “certainly broadened [his] horizon” in regards to which films are truly NFR-worthy.

For Your NFR Consideration: Jane Fonda

FYNFRC: Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda does not have a single movie on the National Film Registry.

I will repeat that: Jane Fonda does not have a single movie on the National Film Registry.

Impossible, right? But with the exception of quick archival clips in “Precious Images“, none of Jane Fonda’s filmography has been added to the National Film Registry as of this writing. Her father Henry Fonda has eight movies on the list, brother Peter has one; hell, even her niece Bridget shows up in “Easy Rider“. Despite her legendary status, her iconic filmography, and her remarkable longevity in a business that shuns any woman who dares to age, Jane Fonda has yet to appear on a list of films that has inducted the likes of Fran Drescher, Martin Lawrence, and the kid from “Dennis the Menace”.

Thankfully, you – the movie-viewing public – can nominate any American film you want for NFR consideration. If you’re thinking of submitting one of Jane’s movies to the Registry, here are a few titles that stand out for their cultural, historical, and/or aesthetic significance. Side note: Sorry “Barbarella” fans, but that movie was a French-Italian co-production.

Cat Ballou (1965): The quintessential western spoof before “Blazing Saddles” came along, “Cat Ballou” represents Fonda’s early film work in light comedy, and helped solidify her standing as a movie star. Plus, it got Lee Marvin an Oscar!

Barefoot in the Park (1967): Most years I submit “The Odd Couple” for NFR consideration as representation of the plethora of hit Neil Simon comedies we got in the ’60s and ’70s. That being said, “Barefoot” would be a fine substitution, with great early performances from both Fonda and Robert Redford. My other option in the Jane Fonda/Neil Simon collaborations would be “California Suite” which….no, not happening.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969): This drama set at a Depression-era dance marathon proved that Fonda was more than just another Ann-Margret type sex kitten, and could easily carry the weight of a period drama (and a dead Red Buttons) on her back. The film was also an early success for its up-and-coming director, Sydney Pollack.

Klute (1971): “Horses” earned Fonda her first Oscar nomination, but “Klute” won her the trophy. As a call-girl mixed up in a missing persons case, Fonda added complexities to the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope that ended up enhancing her feminist ideology, rather than detracting from it.

F.T.A. (1972): If the NFR wants to recognize Fonda’s politics among its ranks, look no further than “F.T.A.”. Francine Parker’s documentary chronicles Fonda (along with her “Klute” co-star Donald Sutherland and many other performers) as they travel to army bases in the Pacific Rim with their anti-Vietnam revue, the antithesis of Bob Hope’s pro-Vietnam USO tours of the time.

Julia (1977): Who better to play controversial activist and artist Lillian Hellman than controversial activist and artist Jane Fonda? “Julia” has a lot going for it: it is the penultimate film of director Fred Zinnemann, it was the film debut for a 30 year old stage actor named Meryl Streep, and it attracted a large share of controversy in its day, thanks to Fonda as well as the film’s other NFR-less star: Vanessa Redgrave.

Coming Home (1978): The post-Vietnam movie for everyone too emotionally drained to watch “The Deer Hunter” again, “Coming Home” sees Fonda as a military wife who develops a relationship with a paraplegic veteran (Jon Voight) while her husband (Bruce Dern) is in Vietnam. Jane served as the “muscle” for “Coming Home”: producing the film with her own company (IPC Films), hiring the creatives and helping re-write the screenplay. For her efforts, she received her second Best Actress Oscar.

The China Syndrome (1979): Part social drama, part ’70s disaster movie, “The China Syndrome” tackled the dangers of nuclear power, and unexpectedly entered the zeitgeist when Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown days after the film’s release. In addition to getting Fonda on the NFR, “China Syndrome” would add another Jack Lemmon movie (vastly underrepresented with three of his early films), and would be the first with a Michael Douglas performance (Douglas is only on the list as the producer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“).

9 to 5 (1980): While it’s not a “Jane Fonda movie” per se, “9 to 5” is my annual pick to get Jane on this list. Like so many of the movies we’ve discussed, “9 to 5” speaks to real-world issues of its time, in this case the gender gap for women in the workplace. In a filmography with over 50 movies, “9 to 5” may be the most memorable and timeless of Fonda’s films. It’s a comedy classic, with outstanding work from Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, the latter of whom penned one of the most iconic songs in film history. You’re humming it right now, aren’t you?

On Golden Pond (1981): Again, not a vehicle for Ms. Fonda, but one that she championed, leading to the only film collaboration between her and Henry Fonda. As a play, “On Golden Pond” wasn’t the most profound or dimensional character study, but with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in the leads, the film version goes beyond its contemplation of old-age and serves as a curtain call for Classic Hollywood. Plus, if this and “9 to 5” make the list, they will join “Tootsie” in my unofficial “Smarmy Dabney Coleman” trilogy.

Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982): This is NOT a joke: Smithsonian archivist and National Film Preservation Board member Wendy Shay has pushed for the NFR to add “Jane Fonda’s Workout” multiple times through the years, and the title appears on their official list of films not yet on the Registry. I get it: “Workout” was the biggest video cassette of the 1980s, and Fonda was the first major celebrity to embrace the lucrative world of VHS productions. Plus, after almost five years of watching classic movies every week, I could use the exercise.

Monster-In-Law (2005): Okay, this one IS a joke. Moving on…

Hopefully, one or more of these titles will compel you to nominate them for NFR consideration. Hell, nominate all of them if you want, and be sure to add your own favorites. I’m confident Jane Fonda will make the NFR someday, but the question is: which movie will finally welcome her to the club?

July 2021 Poll: Birthday Grab Bag!

Thanks for your votes in June. The bonus July post will be…

Toy Story“! That should be a fun re-watch/ugly cry.

Now onto this month’s poll to determine the August bonus post. August happens to be my birthday month, so let’s do something fun; a movie I’ve covered that is either a personal favorite or one that I enjoyed discovering through the blog. And the nominees are…

Airplane!: Arguably the funniest remake of all time.

All That Jazz: It’s Fosse, it’s the Broadway scene of the ’70s, and it’s super morbid. What could be better?

The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair: Sure, it’s pure capitalist propaganda, but look at that robot smoking a cigarette! He thinks he’s people!

Peter Pan: No, not that one. …Or that one. ….No, you’re thinking of “Hook”. …Look, I’ll just tell you: it’s the 1924 silent version.

Happy voting and happy viewing,

Tony

#22) All the President’s Men (1976)

#22) All the President’s Men (1976)

OR “Bob & Carl and CREEP & Nixon”

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Written by William Goldman. Based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Class of 2010

There is so much to unpack about the Watergate Scandal (or as I like to call it “Watergate-gate”), but this post is focusing on the film itself. Also, this is a revised and updated version of my original “All the President’s Men” post, which can be read here.

The Plot: In June 1972, rookie Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is assigned to cover a minor story about five burglars arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s D.C. headquarters at the Watergate complex. Upon learning that the five burglars all have CIA connections, Woodward continues to investigate, joined by fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who is also intrigued by the mystery surrounding this break-in. With support from Post editor Benjamin Bradlee (Jason Robards) and enigmatic informant “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), Woodward and Bernstein’s research leads to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and the biggest political scandal in American history. Well…up to that point.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the original book the rare source material to be “transformed into a hit film and a cultural phenomenon in its own right.” Pakula’s “taught” directing is also praised. D.C. film critic Mike Canning pens an essay that is mainly an overview of the movie through a series of segmented trivia. What kind of two-bit operation is this?

But Does It Really?:  There are good movies, and then there are damn good movies. “All the President’s Men” is a damn good movie. There are a lot of films out there about journalistic integrity and freedom of the press, but “President’s” is the only one that accurately conveys the rush of covering a news story. Part detective noir, part historical reportage, the movie has a wonderful forward momentum as you watch Woodward and Bernstein pull at a thread that quickly unravels. Aided by a first-rate ensemble, wonderful direction, and a screenplay that depicts everyone as grounded people rather than historical deities, “All the President’s Men” has endured as the gold standard for movies about journalism.

Wow, That’s Dated: I honestly don’t know how to contextualize this movie in a post-Trump/”Fake News” America. How do I explain that there was a time when you assumed the President wasn’t corrupt and that all news information came from credible, trustworthy sources? I worry this movie plays more like a Sorkin-esque fantasy nowadays.

Title Track: The title is, of course, derived from the novel “All the King’s Men“, itself taken from the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme about a great fall and something broken that cannot be fixed. Get it? GET IT?

Seriously, Oscars?:  One of the biggest hits of the year, “All the President’s Men” entered the Oscar race with eight nominations, second behind “Network” and “Rocky“. “President’s” lost four of its nominations to these two films, but tied “Network” for most wins of the night with four: Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Sound, and Supporting Actor for Robards.

Other notes 

  • Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were on the fence about writing a book regarding their experience breaking the Watergate story, but when Robert Redford approached them about buying the film rights, the two were motivated to complete the project. Redford had been fascinated by Watergate since its beginning, and encouraged Woodward and Bernstein to focus on their personal experience rather than a rehash of the events.
  • William Goldman was hired to write the screenplay, but his draft was rejected by Redford following disapproval from Woodward and Bernstein. Bernstein and his then-girlfriend Nora Ephron took a crack at a draft, which – unsurprisingly – highlighted Bernstein as the real hero and quite the ladies’ man. When Alan J. Pakula came on board to direct, he and Redford threw out the Bernstein/Ephron draft (save for a fictional scene where Bernstein outsmarts a secretary) and conducted their own research. Despite the extensive re-writes, enough of Goldman’s original screenplay was used to warrant him receiving sole credit in the final film.
  • Man alive is that a great opening. With the startling crack of a typewriter key mixed with the sound of gunfire, this film tells you exactly what kind of ride you are in for.
  • One of the cops who busts the Watergate break-in is a pre-“Amadeus” F. Murray Abraham, and one of the burglars is a pre-“Sopranos” Dominic Chianese. Also involved in this scene is Frank Wills, the actual security guard who reported the break-in, playing himself. In fact, the break-in’s attention to detail is impressive, except for the omission of the ping pong player staying at the hotel who called security.
  • While we’re talking about Watergate, can we please put the kibosh on giving every major scandal the “-gate” suffix? It makes no sense. The word “gate” is not short for scandal, it was the name of the building!
  • Everybody’s so damn good in this. Redford and Hoffman have their natural charisma of course, but their performances have a drive to them. You get caught up in their unrelenting pursuit of this story. As Jack Warden says later on to Martin Balsam, “They’re hungry. You remember when you were hungry?”.
  • Speaking of, shoutout to Warden and Balsam, two angry men reuniting as editors Harry Rosenfeld and Howard Simons. You really get the feel that they are old-school journalists who have been on this beat forever. Also great is Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee, with a winning combination of command and approachability. You see Bradlee’s inner fire get reignited by being around Woodward and Bernstein.
  • Many scenes were filmed on location in Washington D.C., including the Library of Congress, birthplace of the NFR. Interestingly enough, the Library was not happy with the production being there, at one point revoking permission to film and straight up denying its Watergate connection. Fortunately, the production called on Jack Valenti to intervene, and the scenes were shot. Subsequently, very few films have been allowed to shoot inside the Library of Congress.
  • The identity of “Deep Throat” was not revealed until 2005, when former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt divulged his participation as Woodward’s deep background source. The casting of “Deep Throat” for the movie was left up to Woodward, who selected Hal Holbrook from a pile of headshots. And while we’re on the subject: Due to its significance within this scandal, is the 1972 porno “Deep Throat” worthy of NFR recognition? Discuss amongst your group.
  • My love for single take scenes continues with a beautiful six minute shot of Woodward on the phone with Kenneth Dahlberg as the story inches closer towards Nixon. The scene is covered in a slow zoom, with split focus on both Redford and the background of the newsroom. It’s a wonderfully tense composition, and yet another example of Gordon Willis’ stunning camerawork being snubbed by the Oscars.
  • Who ISN’T in this movie? In addition to everyone mentioned already, there’s Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday, John McMartin, Penny Fuller, Meredith Baxter, Robert Walden, and so on. Making the most of their limited screentime is Jane Alexander, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Judy Hoback, Nixon’s re-election campaign bookkeeper who helped Woodward and Bernstein follow the money.
  • Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was originally to appear as a character in one scene, and names like Lauren Bacall and Geraldine Page were considered. Graham, however, requested the scene be removed from the screenplay, and no one was ever officially cast. Graham later regretted this decision.
  • The best part about this movie is that with the exception of the opening break-in, no information is revealed until Woodward and Bernstein learn about it. You get the sense of discovery alongside them, and like the two, you don’t really get what it’s all about until they start putting the pieces together, only realizing how big it is when you take a step back.

Legacy 

  • “All the President’s Men” premiered in April 1976, and played well into the fall, though Warner Bros. claimed this was not a deliberate attempt to influence the 1976 presidential election. While some critics were disappointed in the lack of character development for Woodward and Bernstein, both of their real-life counterparts approved of the final film.
  • While this may have been Alan J. Pakula’s peak as a film director, he certainly left behind an impressive filmography. Between this, “Klute”, and “The Parallax View”, choosing Pakula’s best film is a real “Sophie’s Choice”, which he also directed.
  • “All the President’s Men” still gets referenced with some regularity in pop culture, though mainly because of the title and the historical events depicted. There are, however, the occasional references to “Follow the money”, a line written specifically for the film.
  • One of the film’s more faithful parodies is this classic “Simpsons” episode, right down to Woodward and Bernstein’s dad waiting in the car reading Archie Comics.
  • A few other film projects have some shared DNA with “All the President’s Men”. The 1989 TV movie “The Final Days” is an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s follow-up book about Nixon’s resignation. 2015’s “Spotlight” covers the Boston Globe’s takedown of Catholic priests, and features Ben Bradlee Jr. as a major character. The film’s parallels to “President’s” were highlighted frequently in its ultimately successful Oscar campaign. 2017’s “The Post” stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as, respectively, Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham during their controversial decision to publish The Pentagon Papers. The film even concludes with the Watergate break-in.
  • I’m gonna go ahead and reserve this space now for the inevitable movie made about the Trump presidency. We’ve gotten “The Comey Rule“, but we’re still waiting on the Oscar-bait, “Hindsight is 20/20” one that focuses on the journalists and their fight for freedom of speech.

Further Viewing: Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” speech, which, and I can’t stress this enough, was delivered at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. Remember the magic!

Further Further Viewing: The 2012 documentary “All the President’s Men Revisited”. Come for the reflections on Watergate upon its 40th anniversary, stay for Ben Stein crying during his interview.

#579) A Bronx Morning (1931)

#579) A Bronx Morning (1931)

OR “Jay and Silent Job”

Directed by Jay Leyda

Class of 2004

The Plot: As the title suggests, “A Bronx Morning” is…well, a morning in the Bronx. Jay Leyda chronicles an average day in New York’s fourth largest borough, as its businesses open up and all walks of life travel across its sidewalks. But Leyda is also quick to note the effects the Great Depression has started to have on the Bronx, with several businesses closing or having fire sales, and several residents now living on the streets.

Why It Matters: Well someone likes “Bronx Morning” over at the NFR. They call it a “renowned city symphony”, praising the “sensational and stylish use of European filmmaking styles.” There’s also an essay from film expert Scott Simmon, cribbed from his liner notes for the film’s DVD release.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. I’m always willing to give a pass to documentaries, short films, or avant-garde pieces from influential filmmakers, and “A Bronx Morning” is all three! That being said, studying Leyda led to the kind of artsy film critique that makes my eyes glaze over (if I see Leyda’s filmmaking style described as “European” one more goddamn time…). Jay Leyda is an important figure in film history, and while his contribution to film study has overshadowed his actual film output, one of his movies should be on the NFR, and “A Bronx Morning” is the right choice.

Everybody Gets One: Not a lot of information out there about Jay Leyda before “A Bronx Morning”, other than he was born in Detroit, grew up in Ohio, and moved to New York in 1929. An accomplished still photographer, Leyda used the money from various gigs to buy a movie camera and film. Just so we all feel bad, Jay Leyda was 21 when he made “A Bronx Morning”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Obviously, the film’s Depression era setting is on full display. Also, look for a few shots from the Bronx El train, part of which would be destroyed two years later by a giant stop-motion ape.

Other notes

  • For starters, a reminder that the Bronx sits on Lenape land.
  • Named after Swedish and/or Faroese farmer Joseph Bronck, the Bronx became part of New York City in stages: the land west of the Bronx River in 1873, and the land east of the river in 1875. The Bronx became one of the five boroughs when New York City officially consolidated its land into the City of Greater New York on January 1st, 1898. Like most of New York, the Bronx saw an immigrant boom in the early 20th century, with immigrants arriving from Europe and the Caribbean (as well as African-Americans emigrating from the South).
  • Not a lot to say about “A Bronx Morning”, other than it is artsy, and not without its ironic humor: a title card stating “The Bronx does business” is followed by a store sign reading “Lost Our Lease”.
  • For anyone interested in an NFR film festival: “A Bronx Morning” would make a good companion piece with “In the Street“, the Levitt/Loeb/Agee short about 1948 Spanish Harlem. Both would pair well with “On the Bowery“, Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 docudrama about the titular Manhattan neighborhood.
  • Looks like someone learned how to intercut. Several of this film’s shots cut back and forth between each other. If there’s some layer of symbolism Leyda’s trying to convey I ain’t catchin’ it.
  • Anyone looking for the Eisenstein influence on Leyda can spot it in a lingering shot of an abandoned baby carriage. Of course, it’s easy to assume that any baby carriage in a movie is a reference to “Battleship Potemkin“…or “Naked Gun 33 1/3“.
  • This is where film stock makes all the difference. Presented in black-and-white, the Bronx of “A Bronx Morning” appears even drabbier than it would in real life (even the sky is gray). You can’t help but wonder how different this film’s tone would be if the exact same shots were in color.
  • Like many a documentary before and after, “Bronx Morning” closes with shots of children at play, including two kids putting the “rough” in roughhousing. They’re fighting on concrete! There is something about kids being kids that appeals to anyone trying to capture natural life on film.

Legacy

  • “A Bronx Morning” was screened primarily at various New York art galleries, and Jay Leyda included the film when he applied to Sergei Eisenstein’s directing course at the Moscow State Film School. Leyda was accepted, and worked with Eisenstein on many of his projects.
  • Following his return to America in 1936, Leyda did…pretty much everything. Over the ensuing decades he was assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote extensive biographies of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, wrote the first English book about Chinese cinema, and taught film studies at several universities, including Yale. Jay Leyda died in 1988, just three days after his 78th birthday.
  • The Bronx as seen in “A Bronx Morning” was the beginning of a new era for the borough, one defined by an economic decline brought on by the Depression and World War II. Like most of New York, the Bronx spent the mid-20th century in urban decay, with crime rates skyrocketing. The good news: the quality of life has improved in the Bronx in recent years. The bad news: It’s because of gentrification. 
  • On a less depressing note, the Bronx has given so much to American culture; from Off-Off-Broadway to the creation of Hip-Hop, and even the Bronx Cheer. But the greatest piece of pop culture associated with the Bronx: “Leave the Bronx. You are ordered to leave the Bronx.”