#102 Sunset Boulevard

Watched: April 30 2017

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton

Year: 1950

Runtime: 1h 50min

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Thematically linked to All About Eve, though centred on Hollywood rather than Broadway, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of broke screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) and former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Swanson), who embark on a strange and ill-fated relationship when he accidentally seeks refuge in her decrepit Hollywood mansion on the day of her chimp’s funeral.

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No, we did not make that up.

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When Norma learns that Joe is a writer, she asks him to read through and rewrite her script for her epic comeback Salome and, being down on his luck and about to return home to take an office job, Joe agrees and moves into the faded star’s equally faded mansion.

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Despite the state of the mansion, the floors are waxed to perfection and the quartet has been polished for the occasion

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Joe soon gets used to the lifestyle offered to him by the delusional Norma. Even though he understands that her aspirations to return to the screen are completely unrealistic and he knows that to the outside world she’s a has-been, he, like Norma’s creepy butler Max (von Stroheim), plays along and feeds into her false sense of relevance.

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That’s not all he feeds into if you get our drift… He’s a kept man, is what we’re saying.

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As Norma’s delusion of grandeur increases, Joe’s satisfaction with his life of leisure decreases, and he starts working on the side with Betty Schaefer (Olson) with whom he collaborates on an original screenplay. Norma starts to suspect that her boytoy is getting some on the side, and she is not happy…

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“I let him watch my movies with me and this is how he repays me?!?”

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Now, this film is a classic for a reason. It’s endlessly quotable with a Gothic setting and extremely memorable characters, in particular the unstable, possessive, explosive, toxic and fabulous Norma Desmond. Even our old favourite Buster Keaton makes an appearance, as do old-timey stars Hedda Hopper, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and, famously, Cecil B. DeMille.

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Guess who’s ready for her close-up…

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Sunset Boulevard is a sort of Gothic Film Noir and we loved it completely. It’s one of those films you’ve seen parodied, referenced and referred to, and heard quoted, so many times that you start thinking you’ve actually seen it, but in our case that turned out to be false (for some reason, although this is right up our alley). There’s madness, love, satire and men who (once again) feel they need to make hard decisions for women who love them, without giving them the unbiased facts and letting them choose for themselves. Loved, loved, loved it.

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Ah – Buster. We still love you dearly.

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What we learned: Great stars have great pride.

Next time: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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#9 The Cameraman

Watched: August 9 2016

Directors: Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton

Starring: Buster Keaton

Year: 1928

Runtime: 1h 09min

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In this rollercoaster ride, the exquisite Buster Keaton portrays a slightly creepy hair-sniffing tintype photographer who falls instantly in love with a charming young lady played by the beautiful Marceline Day. He finds out that she works for MGM News Reel and promptly decides to get a job there as a cameraman. Which is kind of stalkery, but he is so nonthreatening that he gets away with it. He is also adorably uncoordinated with the camera, and slapstick ensues.

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“Which emotion am I conveying now?”

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The characters are very likable. Probably for the first time (in terms of films we’ve watched for this project), the hero has fallen for a lady worth making good for. Sally is sweet and kind, and she tries to help him and give him advice when he accidentally double exposes all of his footage. She does not seem to care that he has very little money, and she appears to genuinely enjoy his company. No wonder, considering all the other douches creeping on her. At least Buster can do magic tricks!

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“Where did my coin go now, do you think?”

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The physical comedy is this film is wonderful. There’s an amazing one-man baseball scene, a hilarious stair-running bit, a brilliant scene on a bus and a very enjoyable running gag with a police officer. As well as a delightful scene in a dressing room, which I’m sure we would have enjoyed even if he didn’t get undressed…

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Oh, what is this picture doing here? Must have snuck in by mistake

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This is the one I meant to post. With the distinctly non-sexy swimwear. Yes, that’s the one

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Among its many merits, The Camerman has a shoot out scene which rivals that of Spaced (1999-2001), and there’s a bit with a monkey. It is considered by many Keaton’s last masterpiece as he lost creative control of his movies around this time and eventually descended into alcoholism. Which is not funny. But the film is. So if, like us, you have developed a major crush on Buster Keaton, this is a definite must-see.

Next time: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

#8 Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Watched: August 3 2016

Directors: Charles Reisner & Buster Keaton

Starring: Buster Keaton

Year: 1928

Runtime: 1h 10min

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Only the second Buster Keaton film and we’re already in love. He is so incredibly physically gifted, and when you combine that with his stony face you cannot avoid falling for him.

The plot is not overly complicated, but it works. A boat captain, Steamboat Bill, is being forced out of the business by a mogul named King(!). Simultaneously, the captain’s estranged son, the eponymous hero, is coming to see him for the first time since he was a baby (the son that is – not the father). Bill, Jr. is nothing like his father pictured or wanted which leads to one of the best make-over scenes in history.

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“Again, behold my happy face!”

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Bill Jr.’s relationship with King’s daughter is also a source of discord between father and son. They have a kind of Romeo and Juliet-thing going on except with more slapstick and less murder and suicide.

If you ever need an excuse to watch Buster Keaton being awesome this is it (not that anyone needs an excuse). The main part of the film is just him doing spectacular stunts and showing off his (pre-B-Boy) power moves. It’s hilarious and awe-inspiring, and you can watch the whole thing here. It’s also educational; among other things we have now learned that coconut shells were the legos of the 1920s (in terms of damage to bare feet). If you need further prompting, Steamboat Bill, Jr. includes one of Keaton’s most memorable moments; the house falling-scene.

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Watch it, laugh, enjoy, fall in love.

Next time: The Cameraman (1928) (Yay! More Keaton!)

#5 The General

Watched: August 1 2016

Director: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman

Starring: Buster Keaton

Year: 1926

Runtime: 1h 15min

The General

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After the soulshattering experience of watching a penniless prospector becoming a multi-millionaire and getting together with the woman he loves in The Gold Rush, we needed something heartwarming to lift our spirits. What better then, than a comedy about a train engineer working against the odds to become a lieutenant in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War!

Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who tries to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War but is rejected. His girlfriend, whose brother and father both enlist, believes him a coward and breaks up with him. A year later he gets the chance to prove himself when Union soldiers highjack a train and inadvertently kidnap Gray’s now ex-girlfriend. He follows them, finds out about the Union Army’s plans, rescues his girl and highjacks another train to get back and warn of the oncoming attack.

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Look at the happy couple!

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The stunts and train sequences in this film are spectacular, and the main character is likeable. Even the girlfriend isn’t completely useless, which was a nice departure from some of the other films we’ve watched so far. Also Buster Keaton has the best face ever in show business.

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“I present to you: a picture of my happy face”

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“And this is my sad face”

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The General is funny, beautifully shot in places (such as when he sits on the side of the train and it starts running), and it has some amazing comedic and dramatic scenes on the moving train. Never has rooting for the Confederate Army been more fun!

Next time: Metropolis (1927)