Friday, December 23, 2011

These Amazing Shadows - The Movies That Make America (2011)

I was a little hesitant (just a little) about watching These Amazing Shadows, hoping that it wasn't going to be just another vehicle for a collection of classic film clips.  Directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, and produced by Mariano, Norton, and Christine O'Malley, These Amazing Shadows - The Movies That Make America is an impressive documentary about The National Film Registry, film preservation, and why film is important to so many people.  The film also demonstrates the influence that film has had on actors, directors, filmmakers, and the rest of our society.

Congress established the registry in 1988 in response to a collective cry of foul after media mogul Ted Turner purchased the MGM film library and began to ruffle the feathers of many classic film fans as he started colorizing many of our beloved favorite films.  There is actually a clip of Turner pompously proclaiming that "the last time I checked, they were my films ...  I'm workin' on my films".  Even Hollywood stars began to protest.  James Stewart made a trip to Washington to express his concern about the issue.  Speaking about the film colorization process he stated "I feel they're being tampered with and I want to speak out against this".  Woody Allen was another celebrity who spoke in front of Congress opposing Turner's actions.

The importance of restoring these films is so that we can continue to enjoy and learn from them.  There are scenes from many classic films, shorts, documentaries, propaganda films, home movies, and cartoons that have had a significant and lasting impression on popular culture and display technical advances and historical significance.   For myself it was like a highlight reel of my own personal DVD collection. 

Some of the clips included are scenes from The Wizard Of Oz (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Duck Amuck (1953), Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956), What's Opera, Doc (1957), the Zapruder Film of the Kennedy assassination (1963), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and more recent films added to the registry including  Blade Runner (1982), Star Wars (1977), and many others.  According to information provided by ITVS and Independent Lens "the oldest film on the registry is Newark Athlete (1891) and the most recent is Fargo (1996).

There are numerous interviews with film experts, historians, archivists, directors, and actors throughout the documentary who explain how certain films inspired them or set them on their career path, as well as interviews with individuals who have had a direct input as to which films should be nominated and why they thought them relevant.

There are numerous powerful images and memorable video clips of titles chosen to be included in the National Film Registry.  I wasn't familiar with all the titles included in the film, but after seeing them I can see how every single one of them would leave a lasting impression on the viewer in one way or another.  Some comparisons of original and restored footage makes one appreciate the time and effort that's put into restoring these films.

 In the documentary actor/director Rob Reiner discusses It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and how it's "a film that celebrates the value of life".  John Singleton director of Boyz n the Hood (1991) makes a great point when he says that "Film is a reflection of the times we live in, good or bad".  Actor George Takei of Star Trek (1966-68) fame relates his own personal recollections and experiences in relation to the cultural impact of film.

This is a great documentary with some really fun, entertaining, and memorable moments.  It's not just for classic film fans, but for anyone who is interested in and appreciates any genre of film.

These Amazing Shadows premieres on Independent Lens on Thursday December 29, 2011 at 10 PM (check your local listings and PBS stations).

DVD, promotional materials, and images courtesy of ITVS and Independent Lens.  Special thanks to Abbe Harris and Cara White for their help with the promotional stuff.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Superman aka "The Mad Scientist" (1941)

"Up in the sky ...  Look ...  It's a bird ...  It's a plane ...  It's Superman ...  "In the endless reaches of the universe there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens ...   With this opening statement we are introduced to the "man of steel" in the first moving picture appearance of one of our favorite superheroes.

Nominated for an Oscar for "Best Animated Short Subject" in 1942, but beaten out by Disney's Lend a Paw, this beautifully drawn short released by Paramount and shown in Technicolor, was produced by Max Fleischer, and directed by his brother Dave Fleischer.  It's based on the Superman comic strip created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, and as seen in Action Comics and Superman Magazine.  Unlike other versions of the story of Superman, in this episode we learn that after crashing on Earth the last survivor of the planet Krypton was found by a passing motorist who took the uninjured child to an orphanage, where as he grew up he found he was possessed by amazing physical powers.

When a mad scientist uses an "Electrothanasia ray" to destroy buildings and bridges and pretty much just terrorize the civilian population in general, it's Superman to the rescue to save the world and protect Lois Lane as she tries to scoop Clark Kent on the story.

As the series of shorts progresses you can see how the animation process was honed and developed over time.  As each short was released the drawings seem a bit cleaner and backgrounds more detailed. 

I always seem to find something in films or shorts to pick on.  In this short, after Kent changes into Superman he sticks his head out of the doorway of the stockroom to peek down the hallway, when I'm assuming he could have just used his X-ray vision to look through the wall to see if anyone was around, but that's just me throwing a wrench into the works.  Don't forget, I'm not trashing the short.  I just seem to pick up on the strangest things.

According to The Super Guide To The Fleischer Superman Cartoons written by Russ May, these cartoons were originally released monthly in theaters from September 9th 1941, to July 30th, 1943.  "Paramount obtained permission to make a series of cartoons based on the comic strip.  The pilot cost $50,000.  This is three times what the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons of that time cost.  Subsequent cartoons in the series had a budget of $30,000.  And the cost for all 17 of the "Superman" cartoons was $530,000."

The voices for the characters were provided by Clayton "Bud" Collyer (Clark Kent/Superman), Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), and Jackson Beck (Narrator/Perry White) but the names were never shown in the credits.

Unlike other serials you won't have any problem watching multiple episodes in one sitting as each is an individual adventure rather than a continuing storyline.  With 17 cartoons in total for the series, and with a running time between 8 to 10 minutes each, this episode is the first one in the series.  Overall this a great collection of animated shorts to watch.    A must see for fans of the early days of animation or admirers of the Superman character.