Monday, January 14, 2013

BROADWAY 1929



Question: Name the movie director who began his career as a bacteriologist, became a set designer for F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and directed two groundbreaking end of the silent era/beginning of the sound era works before abandoning his film career to take up anthropology, becoming one of the world's most respected figures in that fascinating field?

If you guessed Paul Fejos, you're correct (and something of a geek as well). This fascinating figure's life is worth more than a cursory glance  In addition to his varied and always distinguished careers, Fejos married journalist Inga Arvad, whose sexual resume is fascinating--she "appeared" with Hitler at the Summer Olympics in 1936, then slept with John F. Kennedy in 1941, leading the FBI to begin their file on him. She later married the actor Tim McCoy, if that's your idea of a good time.

Below I've posted two clips from Fejos' groundbreaking (and long thought to be lost) film of the great stage hit "Broadway", from 1929. A print evidently turned up a few years ago in Hungary--note the titles in Hungarian. 


"Broadway" was based on a hit play of the same name which opened at the Broadhurst theater in the fall of 1926. Written by George Abbott and Phillip Dunning, and presented by Jed Harris, it is difficult to now to comprehend the enormous cultural impact of this rather modest little play. I saw a production of it ten or so years ago--fun to see but certainly not something that can be viewed as anything but a window onto the time period in which it was created. The only thing I can liken it to in modern-day terms is, probably, "Pulp Fiction"--it was a piece of entertainment that became a must-see part of the cultural to-do list, leading to its becoming a catchword in the zetigeist. For years after it opened, people as varied as Winston Churchill, Alexander Woolcott and James J. Walker still referred to it as the greatest and most exciting evening they'd ever spent in the theater. It "made" the careers of everyone involved--Abbott, of course, continued on past the age of one-hundred as a major force in the Broadway theater, and Harris became, for a time, the greatest star producer Broadway had ever known. 


The play was, apparently, the first to deal with the times that people were in the midst of living in--it's original title was, in fact, "The Roaring Twenties" (this is interesting because I would have assumed the twenties were assigned their "roaring" value once they were over--but apparently people knew exactly the kind of madness they were living through). It deals with nightclubs, gangsters, bootleg hooch, hoofers and is filled with excellent period talk. (For instance: to dine with someone is to "tie on the feedbag.") I have a fine, first edition of the published playscript, with a preface by Alexander Woolcott, who makes claims for the plays greatness and certain classic status that, alas, cannot be taken seriously anymore. Indeed, the whole enterprise now is of interest largely because of the movie made from it in 1929--which  is filled with some of the most breathtaking sets, effects and camera moves you will ever see in a film from this time.


Pay close to attention to the shot that begins outside the club and moves indoors--I think I see the device that conceals the cut and allows it to look like one continuous movement, but it's still damn well done. Apparently, Paul Fejos had a special crane built capable of moving the burdensome camreras (which were enlcosed in sound proof booths) at great speed, with great felicity. Why the hell didn't anyone else use it? By the way, the movie was made available in both silent and sound versions and this appears to be a silent section that the correct soundtrack was synced to. For the silent version, many of the production numbers were cut or abridged--thus the choppy nature of the muscial sequences.

Unlike a lot of the other early talkie material which I love because of the clumsy, fumbling nature due to the early adjustment to sound, these clips show that it was possible to make a "talkie" that actually didn't look like it was photogrphed by a rhinocerous. Indeed, Fejos work is startling in its fluidity, it's use of color (this is two-strip technicolor--an early aborted system that has its own art deco charm) and the dynamic sense of staging. The below is the opening of the film and is still incredibly fresh and quite startling in its use of miniatures, elaborate sets, surreal super-impositions.

Fejos was apparently unhappy working in America and returned to Europe, making his last film in 1941 and chucking it all for his aforementioned fascination with anthropology. Good for him! Most directors stay too long at the fair. Probably Fejos saw the writing on the wall--had he stayed, Universal would have James Whaled him, assigning him ever cheaper B-unit fair until, in the 1950's, Fejos might have turned to the tube, where he would have been lucky to have nabbed a couple of episodes of "My Little Margie." Take your pick: A life of globe-trotting anthropological adventuring, or Gale Storm and the Hollywood General Service Studios lot?






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3 comments:

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Wow, I would love to read this one. I find the subject fascinating and would love to know more about the latest studies and research.
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