Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Utter Joy of Wretched Excess

For me, it all began in Stewart's Ice Cream Parlor in the small town of Corinth, New York.  One summer, when my family was vacationing at nearby Lake Luzerne, my parents took us to a place where you could make your own ice cream sundae. The joy of going to Stewart's was not just that you could pile as much glop on top of the ice cream as the dish could hold. In those days, no one cared whether or not you ate it all.

Years later, I was introduced to my first smorgasbord at the Scandia Restaurant in the heart of New York's theater district. Precocious glutton that I was, I knocked off seven plates of food before my parents rolled me down the street to the John Golden Theater for a performance of the ground-breaking hit, "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May."

Anyone who has visited my abode knows that it is decorated in a style best described as wretched excess. When I moved into this apartment in 1974, I was working as a medical transcriptionist during the swing shift at St. Luke's Hospital.  One night, I asked the ditzy queen who worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit if he had any spare urine specimen jars in which I could store nails, screws, and other bits of hardware. Larry dutifully explained that, because they contained medical waste products, those bottles had to be carefully disposed of but suggested that I try some of the discarded Similac jars instead. Then he asked the magic question.

"Do you want them with or without the nipples?"

Foolish child. Some wooden slats, some Elmer's glue, and the Hallway of Nipples was born. After too many nipples started falling off the walls and doorway frames, I was eventually forced to redecorate.  My office now sits in the Angela Lansbury room.  Just past the Beverly Sills Hallway Memorial is a room devoted to vintage ocean liners from the first half of the 20th century. The bathroom and kitchen are filled with beefcake (it's just amazing what you can do with an Inkjet printer and several hundred cheap picture frames from the Mission District's "dollar" stores). 

My apartment is like a theme park for the madman on Dolores Street. The front window, with its collection of owl figurines, gets constant hoots of attention from children of all ages and has even been mentioned in a book about walking tours of San Francisco. One day, as I was sitting at my desk, a heard a little boy exclaim to his parents "I think that place is haunted!"

Thus, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely loved Harrod Blank's hilarious documentary, Automorphosis, that will be shown next month at SFIndie Fest. You could not find a more delightful pick-me-up than this sublimely over-the-top tribute to individualism, to acting out your fantasies, and to the joyous results of not holding back when the creative urge strikes.

You haven't lived until you've seen someone driving around in a hamburgermobile, a shark car, or a Cathedracar that would make Morticia Addams green with envy. What makes Blank's documentary so much fun is that he has focused not just on the art cars, but on their creators as well.

Thus, you get to meet the person who used copper pennies to decorate an art car after wearing a sheath of copper pennies made his arthritis disappear.  You meet a woman whose throat cancer spurred her to express herself as an artist, as well as the man who created the amazing Big Horn mobile. Whether you are watching a car decorated with singing fish and lobsters or someone driving around in a horizontal Madonna made from license plates, seeing is believing.

When my sister and I were kids, our parents told us that the family had a very special puzzle that could only be used on days when we were sick. That puzzle was passed down to my niece and nephew when they were young and still holds a special place in all of our hearts. 

You may be too old to qualify for a day with the sick puzzle.  But if you can't get to a screening at SFIndie Fest, I'd strongly advise you to either rent Automorphosis from Netflix or purchase a copy of the DVD.  Let it cheer you up when you're sick. Invite friends over for a screening party. Watch it when you have insomnia. Revisit it when you're down in the dumps. Here's a sample of the craziness you will enjoy:

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One of the joys of attending a film festival is learning about relatively obscure pieces of cinematic history. Shortly after the 1927 debut of the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue (The Jazz Singer), Fritz Pfleumer's invention of magnetic tape in 1928 led to the introduction of sound dubbing in the movie industry during the early 1930s.  During the intervening years, however, many films were shot in multiple formats in order to accommodate new technology as well as make them available to foreign markets.

During the silent film era, it had been fairly easy to adapt a film for foreign audiences by simply changing the language of any text that was flashed on the screen.  With the advent of talkies, however, American English did not easily translate into other cultures. One of the largest markets for American film was Germany, as Stefan Droessler (Director of the Film Museum Munich) explained during a thrilling presentation entitled Hollywood Speaks German that was part of this year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.

Droessler outlined how each major Hollywood studio went about shooting alternate versions of their films for foreign markets. Some found actors already in Hollywood (Edward G. Robinson, Greta Garbo) who were fluent in German.  Others imported German actors specifically for these reshoots or built satellite studios (one near Paris) where the film could be reshot with local talent.

Although very little remains in film archives, some clips are priceless -- especially the ones of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy filming the same comic routine in English, German, and Spanish. Because they were fluent in neither German nor Spanish, they had to learn the script phonetically on the set. 

In another demonstration, Droessler screened clips of Buster Keaton performing a scene in 1931's Parlor, Bedroom and Bath with a very tall German actress, as well as the English version with Charlotte Greenwood. Having only seen Greenwood in movie musicals (The Gang's All Here, Down Argentine Way, Oklahoma!), it was thrilling to watch her flex her comedic muscles. See for yourself:

Notes published on IMDB about The Big Trail (which starred a young John Wayne in his first leading role) relate that: 
"Incredibly, five different versions of this film were shot simultaneously. (1) a 70mm version in the Grandeur process for exhibition in the biggest movie palaces; (2) a standard 35mm version for general release; (3) a 35mm alternate French language version La Piste des géants (1931), (4) a 35 mm alternate Spanish language version La Gran jornada (1931), and (5) a 35 mm alternate German language version Die Große Fahrt (1931). The three alternate language versions were shot with (mostly) different casts."
As he screened this picture, showing the five actors who appeared in the lead role (John Wayne is in the center), Droessler noted that the man who starred in the Spanish version wore the tightest costume of all five heroes.

Droessler also pointed out how in some translations, the context of a filmed moment could be changed by showing how, in The Big Trail, the German version had specific references to German immigrants settling America.  The hero's reference to two criminals which described them as "skunks" had been changed to "vultures" for German audiences.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, some of the clips Droessler used to illustrate his lecture can be shared in this blog posting.  In this version of a scene from Anna Christie (in the English version shot in 1930 with Marie Dressler as Marty), Greta Garbo is directed by Clarence Brown.

In the German version, shot in 1931 and directed by Jacques Feyder (with Salka Viertel as Marty), Garbo had more influence over the choice of costume, director, and even some text. Although shot on the same set with the same cinematographer, there was a different crew, a German translation and more smoking.  As the only actor to appear in both the English and German versions, Garbo is reported to have much preferred the German version of the film.

One of the first examples cited by Droessler, however, has no clips available on YouTube but proved to be of special interest to me. One of the great Broadway musicals of the 1950s was The Most Happy Fella, for which Frank Loesser composed a nearly operatic score that contained such hits as "Standing on the Corner Watching All The Girls Go By" and "Big D." Based on Sidney Howard's 1924 play, They Knew What They Wanted, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Howard's play tells the story of an older Italian man living in Napa who owns a vineyard and desperately wants to marry a younger woman. 

In 1940, Garson Kanin directed a film version of They Knew What They Wanted starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton in which Karl Malden made his film debut in a minor role. What I did not know was that Sidney Howard had also written the screenplay for an earlier adaptation, A Lady To Love,  which was filmed in 1930 starring Edward G. Robinson as Tony and silent screen star Vilma Banky -- who spoke with a fairly thick accent -- as Lena (Amy).

Using clips from the English and German versions, we were able to hear Robinson acting with a heavy-duty old world Italian accent with German subtitles and then see him do the same performance in German with English subtitles. As Droessler noted, the censors prevented American audiences from hearing that Lena was pregnant, whereas the German version was quite clear about that crucial plot point.

As a reminder of how one piece of literature can morph into a variety of interpretations, here's a clip of baritone Christopher Holloway singing the famous "Joey, Joey" solo from Frank Loesser's score for The Most Happy Fella

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