The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

The Freshmen

freshman_01The more I see Harold Lloyd, the more I love him and his films. In The Freshman (1925) Lloyd plays an young man also named Harold who saves up enough money to go to college. Once on campus, Harold’s main concern is getting popular by following the tricks he saw in a movie.

Instead of being the big man on campus he’s soon the butt of everyone’s jokes. His peers love putting him in awkward positions and taking advantage of him. He never catches a break as he inadvertently insults the dean, takes the dean’s car from the train station and makes wrong step after wrong step. The gags at the student assembly, the dance and the football field are priceless.

Jobyna Ralston plays the sweet love interest Peggy perfectly. Harold meets Peggy on a train and then it turns out that she’s the daughter of his landlady. Yes, it’s coincidental, but it’s a small town and she’s the one sincere woman in a sea of fakes.

I watched a Criterion Collection disc with the commentary, which I find adds to my appreciation of any silent film. I seem to need some talk.

A masterful comedy, The Freshmen is a film I can see watching again and again.

Speedy

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Harold Lloyd’s 1927 film Speedy is a comic delight. Speedy is hero’s name. Lloyd’s Harold “Speedy” Swift is in love but can’t hold a job for more than a few days so his sweetheart’s grandfather, her guardian, won’t let them marry. We see him lose a couple more jobs through no fault of his own.   His fanatical love of baseball cost him his soda jerk job and luck just wasn’t on his side when he tried to drive a taxi with Babe Ruth as his first and only customer.

Despite his poor job record, Speedy takes his girl to Coney Island, where a slew of mishaps continue.

His sweetheart’s grandfather owns the last horse-drawn car (i.e. a tram driven by a horse when cars and buses have taken over the streets). A railroad tycoon wants to buy him out to replace the old horse-drawn conveyance with his railroad line. After reading about the railroad deal in the paper, Speedy changes grandpa’s requested amount from $10,000 to $70,000, which the big shot who’s come to negotiate with grandpa outright refuses.

Thus the railroad man plots to prevent grandpa from completing his route. If he misses a day, the railroad can take over the route without paying grandpa anything so the shrewd tycoon hires a bunch of thugs to stop grandpa. Speedy happens to overhear the plan and volunteers to take over as the driver. Since Speedy’s batted 0% as far as his jobs go things look bad.

The film is full of sight and physical gags that amaze. How did they do these stunts? Considering how they sometimes used real streets and had to orchestrate massive, chaotic scenes with hordes of extras and animals, it’s incredible and still entertains.

Sepia Saturday

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When I saw these boys playing marbles, I figured I could find some photos of the Easter Egg Roll at the White House and I’d be close enough to the theme and the holiday spirit.

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Source: Flickr Commons, Library of Congress

Warren Sonnemann holds his winning Easter basket, April 2, 1923.

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Source: Library of Congress

Kids of all ages roll Easter Eggs, April 2, 1923.

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Source: Flickr Commons, Library of Congress

Children at the White House Easter Egg Roll pose, April 17, 1922.

Dressing Downton

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The Dressing Downton exhibit has opened in Chicago at the Driehaus Museum. I’d never been to the Driehaus, but the exhibit drew me. In this restored mansion once owned by the Nickerson Family, there’s an exhibit of the costumes featured in PBS’ Masterpiece’s lavish drama Downton Abbey.

This Gilded Age mansion was the perfect venue to see costumes of the same era. With your $25 admission, you get a free audio tour, which enables you to hear not only the descriptions of the rooms, but the stories behind the costumes from the early 20th century. In several cases the costumers would find a vintage dress and embellish or restore what remained of it, which gives the clothes more authenticity.

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My friend and I savoured both the costumes and the house itself so it took about 2 hours to get through the three story house. If you drive down, you can get your parking validated so you wind up paying just $14 for 12 hours parking, which is a real deal in Chicago. The museum is holding several events such as author talks and a viewing party for the series’ finalé. I wish I could attend, but I leave for China tomorrow. Alas.

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Steamboat Bob Jr.

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Finally I found time to watch a movie, albeit a short one that I watched in short stints as I ate lunch this past week.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. starred Buster Keaton as a long lost, disappointing son of a steamboat owner. Steamboat Bill. Sr. owns an old steamboat that gets condemned shortly after Mr. King, a local tycoon with a splendid new boat muscles into town. Bill’s son, whom he hasn’t seen in at least 20 years comes to town and the rough, salt-of-the-earth father is totally disappointed with his light-weight, citified son.

To make matters worse, coincidentally, the son’s sweetheart turns out to be the daughter of the tycoon, who so hates Bill.

Lots of slapstick ensues. While I could appreciate the acrobatics and the technical precision in the film, I wished for more–more like the social commentary Chaplin would have included. The DVD I had had a few extras, but I missed the audio commentary that many Criterion Collection films have. It wasn’t a bad film, but it could have been better.

Sepia Saturday

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Order Coal?

Hmm.

I’ll go with posters, 1920s posters for this week’s Sepia Saturday. Whenever I teach The Great Gatsby, I touch upon the culture of self-improvement and how Gatsby tapped into that when he was young. In that era “self-improvement” was a pervasive value and posters like those below were found in workplaces and throughout the community to promote hard work, savings and “common sense.”

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Downton Abbey, Season 5 Premiere

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After months and months of hype and waiting, Downton Abbey’s fifth season began in the U.S. It’s a favorite show of mine, but I’ve never seen so much promotion. For crying out loud I saw three ads for Downton on CBS’ Sunday Morning — they’re in competition. CBS just had one promo for The Good Wife, which is on opposite Downton. Did PBS advertise on other networks as well?

It felt good to see the familiar faces of the Crawley clan and their servants. The costumes are always stunning. Julian Fallows offered his usual fare: verbal digs from the Dowager Countess, plots from Thomas, Cora going along with most everything, light moments with Mosely, Edith unsure and worried, and Mary capably preparing to take over the reins of Downton while mulling over her suitors.

Fallows packed a lot into the episode, which picked up where the last one left off although I was surprised that while the adults haven’t aged much, the children’s ages seem to have doubled. We learned that little Sybil calls her grandfather “Donk” as in donkey. How perfect! I love children’s names for grandparents and this one will keep Robert humble.

SPOILERS

While dedicated fans have already seen the new episode, let me note the following comments contain spoilers .

I’m glad that Miss Baxter told Cora that Thomas was using her and confessed that she’s been to jail for theft. Cora was discrete and fair with Baxter, who now can work without constantly worrying about Thomas.

  • There was no revelations about Bates. Perhaps he killed Anna’s rapist; perhaps he didn’t. It’s hard to say.
  • Edith seems to visit her daughter Marigold at the farmer’s house quite a lot. The farmer’s wife suspects that Edith’s got eyes for her husband, but I’d think these visits would be conspicuous to neighbors too. Alternative theories would come up and someone would get it right. Anyway, the husband’s sharp and he proposes the visits stop and agrees for a new story to explain them, because Edith can’t stop. Funny that she spends more time with her daughter than Mary does with her son, George.
  • Edith’s going to blow it. We all know that. The idea to bring Marigold to England was foolish and too tempting. I do have sympathy for Edith, but it irks me to see foolishness in any form. I’d love to see Edith get some gumption and hard as it is, send her daughter back to Switzerland. Then she should find a life’s passion and throw herself into it. Be a victor, not a victim, Edith!
  • Lord Gillingham visited Downton to woo Mary. Blake’s no where to be seen and Mary seems like the “out of sight, out of mind” type of woman. Any thought of Blake was fleeting. She’s agreed to go off with Lord G. to see if they’re compatible. I’m not sure that’s really historically accurate. Besides a week’s vacation isn’t a great way to learn about a person, especially when you’re traveling first class insulated from life’s trials and tribulations. The tryst is to be hush hush, but all secrets come out on TV. Seems to me there are other ways to gather the information Mary seeks. Also, is this going to be like the horrendous Bachelorette show? Will Mary give Blake a similar week?
  • Daisy’s starting to try to learn math. She’s struggling, but hats off to her for trying to take charge of her life. It’s funny how the high ranking staff had a pow wow about this. Carson and Mrs. Patmore worry that it’s too stressful for Daisy who already has a good job, in their opinion, while Mrs. Hughes supports Daisy’s desire to get more education.
  • As a surprise, Rose decides to invite the teacher Tom befriended to Cora and Robert’s 35th anniversary dinner. This Miss Bunting sets my teeth on edge. Throughout the evening she makes controversial statements such as questioning the need to remember the heroes of WWI (which we still do 100 years hence) and tries to cause trouble. She lacks the awareness to know that you can disagree, but you needn’t be rude and rabble rousing only rouses rabble. Tom’s just embarrassed and it took every ounce of patience and decorum for Robert not to toss this guest out on her tush. Miss Bunting was just boorish and self-serving. Her aim was to stir things up so she could then confirm her prejudices about the upper class. I really don’t like her and would love it if Fallows dropped her from the series, but I do doubt that. I fear Miss Bunting will go after Tom. What a pain!
  • Romance was on the horizon for Isobel Crawley, but Violet interfered as only she can. Violet does not want Isobel (Matthew’s mother) to marry a lord and gain status. So she hosted a big lunch inviting Dr. Clarkson, who’s sweet on Isobel and a beautiful widow who might divert Lord Whoever’s eye’s away from Isobel. It’s too soon to know whether that worked.
  • Robert’s nose got out of joint because the town committee wants Mr. Carson to lead the committee on the WWI memorial. Carson was as if not more upset by this unusual choice. My everything’s in flux!
  • Jimmy’s old employer showed up and they had a thing in the past, which gets rekindled. Almost literally.
  • The show ended with a house fire starting in Edith’s room. I’m not sure what happened. Did Edith try to burn that book with Gregson’s writing in it? Anyway Thomas was lurking in the halls trying to get dirt on Mary and to act as a lookout for Jimmy when he noticed smoke coming from Edith’s room. He swooped in and rescued Lady Edith, thus securing his job, which was on the line since his plot against Miss Baxter was discovered. I like justice so it would be fine with me if Thomas were fired. They can always bring in another devious footman and show Thomas in town, plotting against the family. I’m sure blackmail is in his skill set, as Lady Mary may learn.

I think Fallows could have made more of the fire. It was hard to believe the fire department could get their as fast as they seemed to and even with Robert and Tom’s quick response, I’m surprised there wasn’t more damage.

Sepia Saturday

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I loved the boy dressed up as a cowboy having roped the man (his father? an uncle? a neighbor?). So I decided to search for children dressed up in some way and I found the photo below of a group of kids dressed up for a mock wedding. It was taken in 1924 and has been saved by Florida Memory.

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