I caught up with a film school classmate last night by attending a double bill of King Vidor's The Big Parade (2nd highest grossing silent film of all time after The Birth of a Nation) and Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad (a sort of All About Eve starring the lovely Joan Fontaine). You might ask what links these two movies (shortly after asking "What movies?"). You might ask because I did, shortly after my friend suggested the double bill.
It turns out that the what links the two movies is that they are rare pieces from the UCLA Film Archive, not to be found on DVD or at your local megaplex or as a torrent on the high seas of Internet piracy, and both are black and white.
Together they loomed as a formidable opponent to my attention span on a Friday night after a long week at work. I laugh now to think that I initially asked if I should leave work earlier than normal in order to buy tickets in advance. I must have been thinking of Superbad, that movie showcasing those new film technologies known as color and sync sound. No, even in the most ardent film appreciation city in the world, I doubt a back-to-back showing of a 2 hr 20 min silent film and a 1 hr 30 minute black and white from the 1950's would sell out.
When we strolled into the very new Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, I spied a die-hard audience of about 8 people, most of them old enough to have been Billy Wilder contemporaries. I was no longer nervous that I'd pass out and start snoring loudly as it was likely that a few of the other filmgoers might do so as well, out of sheer age. One seat in the theater, right on the aisle, is a different color than all the others. Supposedly it was actually Billy Wilder's chair from some long gone age; unfortunately they chose to model all the other seats in the theater on that one instead of opting for more comfortable and modern furnishings. I felt like I was sitting in a coach seat of a 737. My friend's knees were wedged against the seat in front of her. Not a promising sign for what promised to be about four hours of viewing.
Some man had the audacity to sit in Billy Wilder's chair despite the preponderance of empty seats. I thought of approaching and reproaching him on his impudence, but a second glance gave rise to a second plausible theory that perhaps he was simply too old to notice which seat he had occupied.
A pianist played en electronic keyboard to accompany the entirety of King Vidor's silent film. That guy had a good memory and a good sense of timing. In part because I'd just finished Discover Your Inner Economist, I had promised myself that if at any time the movie bored me I'd walk out and do something more productive with my time, like play keep away from the dozens of hobos wandering the streets of Westwood.
After a somewhat disturbing first act, the movie increased in watchability, and I found myself unexpectedly moved by several moments in the movie. Spanning the period from just before the start of WWI to just after its conclusion, the movie follows the story of Jim Apperson, a lazy son of a wealthy businessman who comes of age when he enlists in the army. His character arc mirrors that of the nation, from idleness to patriotic fervor to disillusionment with the war, and his personal triumphs and tragedies are those of America.
While in France, he falls in love with a French woman named Melisande, and their first date is a staple of that romantic comedy genre classic, the meeting between two people who are in love but don't speak the same language. They trade a French-English dictionary back and forth, and their resulting meet-cute dialogue is genuinely touching and romantic.
Many people think of silent film and think of Chaplin or Keaton and keystone cops and those sorts of physical capers, but many of them, like Intolerance and this Vidor film, work in modes other than comedy and offer great depth and complexity. The acting may not impress a modern audience, but there's stronger story and heaps more emotional heft in The Big Parade than in The Transformers.
Born to Be Bad is some good melodrama. You'll either laugh at that old school sass (that the movie is hard to find on video is the only explanation I'll accept for why IMDb has no memorable quotes listed) or chuckle at the old school syrup, with Joan Fontaine being pulled into about twenty to twenty-five passionate kisses to the accompaniment of strings soaring to a crescendo.
I'll also confess to thinking Joan Fontaine is a stone cold fox who looks ravishing in this movie. Younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, Joan was not just a pretty face. According to her IMDb bio, "Joan Fontaine has been a licensed pilot, a champion ballonist, an expert rider, a prize-winning tuna fisherman, and a hole-in-one golfer, a Cordon Bleu chef and is also a licensed interior decorator." She's the only actor to win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film, and "Howard Hughes, who dated her sister Olivia de Havilland for awhile, proposed to Joan many times." And that, as we all know, is as foolproof an endorsement of a woman's hotness as existed in that age.