#56 Sullivan’s Travels

Watched: November 04 2016

Director: Preston Sturges

Starring: Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea

Year: 1941

Runtime: 1h 30min

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John L. Sullivan (McCrea) wants to make a serious film with real social issues and deep meaning (with a little sex in it) which will educate his audience and make them think about the social and economic structures in place in 1940s USA. The only problem is, he’s a pampered Hollywood director who’s never really experienced any of these problems himself. Also, his producers would rather have him make silly comedies and fun action flicks (with a little sex in them).

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“Let’s face it, you can make whatever you want as long as there’s a little sex in it”

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Naturally, he decides to go undercover as a hobo to experience firsthand the suffering of the penniless, with nothing but ten cents (or something like that), the clothes on his back and a crew of five or six reporters, producers and chefs following him in a bus.

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“What do you mean, some people go on the road without the expert advice of costume designers? Then how do they achieve that ‘poor, penniless hobo’-look?”

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His first venture is somewhat fruitless. Although he hilariously manages to shake his entourage with the help of a little boy in a “whippet tank” and then convinces them to take a vacation in Las Vegas, he doesn’t do too well on his own and is eventually kidnapped by a sexually frustrated woman. After escaping through the window he finds a diner where a failed actress (Lake) buys him breakfast and he then “borrows” his own car to give her a ride home.

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There’s just no way any cop would ever pull over a tramp driving an expensive car

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The Girl (who needs a name anyway?) finds out his true identity and decides to join his experiment, dressed (rather unconvincingly) as a boy. Together they go on fun hobo adventures!

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Turns out dressing like a hobo isn’t really enough to fool actual hobos.

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More problems ensue and after a stint in prison Sullivan realises that comedies aren’t really that bad after all and that serious films with real social issues are actually more interesting to the people not experiencing these issues themselves than the ones living them.

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Just like living the hobo life seems more romantic to people not forced into that position

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It’s pretty much impossible to explain how funny this film is. We loved the fast, snappy dialogue, the long, silent Chaplinesque scenes, the wonderful bass voice of the minister who invites the prisoners to movie night in his church, and the satirical view of 1940s Hollywood (and U.S. society in general). This was also our first Veronica Lake (we know – for shame!) and we have now developed major girl crushes on her. Not only is she gorgeous, but she has a very particular presence which is completely fascinating.

Give Sullivan’s Travels a chance. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life!

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Even as a hobo, Veronica Lake is gorgeous.

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What we learned: if we know what we want, we’ll never live in Pittsburgh. Also, the value of escapism in films is not to be underestimated.

Next time: Suspicion (1941)

#41 Modern Times

Watched: September 17 2016

Director:  Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

Year: 1936

Runtime: 1h 27min

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Modern Times is Charlie Chaplin’s comment on the Great Depression and the struggles of modern society, and he is clear in his condemnation of the eradication of humanity within the capitalist ideals of modern industrialisation.

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Political, yet adorable

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The Tramp has got a job working in a factory straight out of Metropolis, and spends his time turning screws on an assembly line to maximise efficiency. After his boss tries out a new “feeding machine” on him (to reduce break time and thereby increase production), he finally snaps and has a mental breakdown.

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We’re not entirely clear on how this would increase efficiency, but it’s a great scene.

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To his credit, Chaplin has the most adorable mental breakdowns. A lot of dancing is involved

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After being advised to “take it easy and avoid excitement,” he inadvertently leads a worker demonstration and is arrested. In prison, he gets high on cocaine (again, without really realising it) and stops a mass breakout, earning him a position as the jailers’ pet.

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The prize for helping terminate a prison break: tea with this charming lady!

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He gets out of jail against his will (in prison, he is given food and clothes, which is quite a high quality of life during the depression) and immediately starts trying to find ways in which to get back in. He finds his opportunity when a young girl is caught stealing a loaf of bread, and he takes the fall for her.

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Cue depression era romance/father-daughter relationship/friendship or similar

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The girl (Goddard) and the Tramp spend the remainder of the film trying to make a life for themselves, working as singing and dancing waiters in a café while doing their best to keep her out of the claws of something equivalent to Child Protective Services (which is where her siblings went after their father died). There are many complications, and some wonderful scenes (including an amazing skating bit in a shopping centre) but the two of them manage to be quite happy together even though their lives are unstable at best.

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They find that life is still worthwhile if they just smile

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Modern Times is a beautiful and melancholy film which we really enjoyed. We loved the girl and her feisty and proactive personality, and the Tramp, though a hazard and fairly egocentric, was charming and funny. It was also interesting to go back to silent films after so many talkies, where everything spoken was recorded, broadcast through a machine or sung. One of our favourite Chaplin films for sure!

What we learned: once younger siblings are removed from your life, you never spare them another thought.

Next time: The Awful Truth (1937)

#14 City Lights

Watched: August 12 2016

Director: Charles Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill

Year: 1931

Runtime: 1h

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And we’re back to silent films. This time a tramp, a blind flower girl and a suicidal millionaire point out the vast differences between the rich and the poor. There’s also some very aggressive twirling on a dance floor and a well choreographed boxing match.

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“I just want some human contact…”

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City Lights is not as devastating as The Gold Rush (as in we didn’t have to take breaks to cry our eyes out), but it has some of the same melancholy and a certain sense of despondency.

The Tramp meets a beautiful, blind flower girl and (at first inadvertently, then knowingly) tricks her into thinking he is rich. He also befriends a millionaire by stopping him drowning himself and thus gets the means to woo her (note to self: be on the lookout for suicidal millionaires).

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“Yes, miss, I’m totes rich!”

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Unfortunately, each time the millionaire sobers up he forgets all about the Tramp, so his income is sporadic at best. Still, all our favourite scenes were with the two of them including the aforementioned aggressive dancing.

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“Everyone’s about to get served!”

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We kind of preferred the Tramp when he was a prospector, probably because this time he tricks the blind girl into thinking he’s something he’s not. He is still funny and sweet though, and he means well. After reading an article about sight-restoring surgery, he decides to get a job and help out the flower girl. Hence the boxing match (as well as an actual job as a street sweeper, but that is less well choreographed..).

There’s slapstick, lots of physical comedy and everything else you’d expect from Chaplin, including a soundtrack composed by him which works really well with the visual. The ending is slightly ambivalent so feel free to interpret that as you wish. An enjoyable watch, but not as wonderful as some of the other films we’ve seen for this project. However, given the awesomeness of the list, it’s still miles better than most films in the world.

Things we learned: drunk friends aren’t real friends. Unless you get them drunk again.

Next time: Dracula (1931) (Oboy, oboy, oboy!)

#4 The Gold Rush

Watched: August 1 2016

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale

Year: 1925

Runtime: 1h 35min

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“At least I’m properly dressed!”

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We continue our epic quest through the silent film era with The Gold Rush (a.k.a. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DOG??? Until someone can prove otherwise, we’re just going to assume it did a White Fang and found a lovely pack of wolves to hang with and lived happily ever after). This Charlie Chaplin classic deals with lighthearted themes such as poverty, betrayal, murder, potential cannibalism and bullying while incorporating plenty of humour, his signature physical comedy and a (probably disastrous) romance. It also has the best bear fight scene since (or I suppose before?) The Revenant (2015).

Chaplin’s the Tramp is a lone prospector during the gold rush when he gets caught up in a snow storm. He finds a cabin which is inhabited by a wanted criminal and the two of them, together with another prospector and the aforementioned dog, all try to ride out the storm. Lack of food leads to the criminal (and the dog) going out looking for supplies and also to the famous shoe-eating scene. We never see the dog again…

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Yummy yummy shoe shoe

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The Tramp survives the ordeal only to give up on the whole gold-finding-thing and retire to a nearby gold boom town where he meets bitchy dance hall girl Georgia and her rapey douchebag boyfriend, Jack. He of course falls in love with Georgia (despite her making fun of him and treating him like crap) and tries his best to woo her. Which takes us to the part where my sister and I both had a mental breakdown.

Bitchy Georgia and her even bitchier friends tell the Tramp that they will come for New Years dinner. He works and works to make the dinner perfect, but they never show up as they are busy laughing about him at the big party in the dance hall (which he could have gone to as well had they not lied to him). Just in case this didn’t inform the audience of just how worthless these people are, they then proceed to go over to his place to mock him even further. At this point we needed to take a break until we had stopped crying.

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Pass me the kleenex. The single saddest image in the world.

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Let me tell you about our childhood trauma. When we were young there was a sort of comedy show on NRK (Norwegian TV) every Friday called Go ‘Elg. In every episode there was a segment where they would show names of viewers whose birthday it was, and during this there was a video with a song where an old lady is celebrating her birthday and one by one her friends and family members call her to tell her they cannot make it. Now, the old lady was the male host in drag which was supposed to be funny, but this did not take away from the fact that this was the saddest video ever shown on television! Every Friday, around 17:30, we would sit in our living room and cry about this fictional old lady’s sad, sad birthday. The memory has never left us. This may be relevant to our reaction at this point in the film.

Anyway, once we were ready to return, things were looking up. Georgia did redeem herself a bit by seeming genuinely sorry about what they had done to the Tramp, and he himself stumbled on some good luck. Watch the film to see what we mean. But bring kleenex. Yes, it’s a comedy in many ways, but there is a sadness and melancholy to it which you cannot escape. It is well worth your time, though. And I’m sure the dog is living a happy life somewhere.

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Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!

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Next time: The General (1926)

PS. I haven’t read White Fang (1906) for over twenty years, but didn’t he go off and join a wolf pack..? I’m going to assume he did.