It is relatively easy today to discover a film. It is certainly far easier today than it was when I was growing up. Online streaming platforms such as FilmStruck and Hulu bring a wide variety of titles, some obscure and some not, to curious spectators and cinephiles with far more ease and accessibility than a video store or a library ever did. Yet, somehow, this great abundance and variety becomes prohibitive after a fashion; inundating the viewer with maybe too many options. There is also something to be said about collecting films. Owning a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, possessing an object, gives one a sense of material satisfaction. This satisfaction, when so many things are available in the ether of the internet, is part of the appeal of these formats. One could even say that it is this impulse toward the tangible that has sparked the revitalization of vinyl within the music industry. And similarly to how vinyl records often sound better, a film often looks better on DVD or Blu-Ray. In my own experience I often have found prints of obscure films on different streaming platforms, like Netflix, to be rather poor when I know for a fact that a better print is available.
There is also the matter of availability. Warner Archives, for instance, has brought out and continues to bring out what seems like a limitless supply of classic Hollywood fare. Most of these films will probably never be popular enough to find a place in the foreseeable future on Netflix or Hulu. So the only way to access these titles is on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, this doesn’t even get into films that are available only in other regions. Eureka!, Second Run, BFI, Edition filmmuseum, all release prestigious and scholarly packages of renowned films unavailable in the United States, making their home video releases essential to serious students of film. Ironically, the shift in the home video market, epitomized by the strategies exemplified by Warner Archive, only came about because of the immense popularity of online streaming. That is to say that home video has become a niche market after a fashion.
These circumstances that have made so many films available for study for the first time has such inexhaustible possibilities that it can be overwhelming and often times happens only as a sort of accident. Back in July I finally saw the Norman Foster film Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948), a sort of quickie noir piece that was the first film produced by Burt Lancaster’s Norma Productions (available as a Universal Vault Series DVD release). The opening chase sequence in which Lancaster evades the police on an elaborate expressionist set-piece with all of his athletic prowess was surprising not just for its length, but what evidence it provided of Orson Welles’ influence on his one time protege Norman Foster (Foster was at one time a co-director on Welles’ famous “lost” project It’s All True, directing the “My Friend Bonito” section). One can’t necessarily credit Welles with introducing Foster to the silent German Expressionist films of the twenties, but one can credit Welles with having imbued in Foster a sensibility for the importance of the seen and unseen in a sequence. Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, like Welles’ The Stranger (1946), uses shadow and dramatic angles (high and low) to focus the spectator’s gaze on specific details in a rapid succession of shots. Foster’s employment of Welles’ visual strategy in a run-of-the-mill “quickie”, for my money, positions him in favor of Jess Franco as the “kitsch Welles”. This aesthetic relationship between Welles and Foster was one that, like so many others, I had dismissed after having seen some of Foster’s work for Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. However, after viewing Kiss The Blood Off My Hands I revisited Foster’s most famous film, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and was able to locate shades of Orson Welles yet again, though this time employed toward a more theatrical aesthetic end.
I also found a trend in later MGM musicals upon revisiting Charles Walter’s Texas Carnival (1951) as a companion film to Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At (1952); both available from Warner Archive and both featuring Red Skelton. First it may be helpful to note that the Jerome Kern musical Lovely To Look At was made quickly to cash in on the success of George Sidney’s film of Show Boat the previous year, employing almost all of the same cast but with Jack Cummings producing in place of Arthur Freed (Jack Cummings also produced Texas Carnival and handled a number of MGM’s lower budget musical productions). Both of these films star Howard Keel and each film stages an effective dream sequence around Keel as the romantic leading man. The earlier film, Texas Carnival, locates this dream as a kind of sexual reverie or fantasy that Keel is having about his leading lady, Esther Williams. LeRoy’s camera stays predominantly behind keel, though it concludes with Keel in a profile shot. LeRoy’s motivations for this visual structure are twofold. Firstly, Keel is the lesser star in 1951, and secondly this placement of the camera invites the audience to share and to participate in Keel’s gaze as an apparition of Esther Williams (courtesy of superimposition) swims around his hotel suite. In Lovely To Look At, Keel is the bigger star and has thus graduated to becoming the subject of the underrated Kathryn Grayson’s dream stuff in this film. Here, Grayson finds Keel gradually appearing in four full length mirrors as he serenades her, his voice quadrupling on the soundtrack. The camera sits behind Grayson, and the four Keels, forming an implied triangular formation, frame her. Both sequences, comic in their eccentricity, heartbreaking in their sincerity, prove just how important the commodification of a star was for MGM. Neither scene is important to characterization nor to narrative. The one aim that they prove and satisfy is in selling a star. This tactic, from today’s viewpoint, epitomizes the nostalgia and innocence promised by “classic movies”, thus rendering such scenes more memorable than some of those films’ finer sequences such as Vincente Minnelli’s uncredited climax to Lovely To Look At.
These discoveries may seem inconsequential or even mundane, but they prove that there is still so much to mine in the cinema. I chose these three films for their obscurity because it is in these films which are finally receiving a release, some for the first time ever to home video, that one can find the untold stories of film. The cinema will always be progressive, it will always move forward with hundreds upon hundreds of films completed each and every year, but it is our collective cinematic past, more than our present in this country, that is finally becoming available.