Archive for June, 2013

King Klunk

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2013 by mchoffman

As I dig through the archives looking for our 2014 lineup, I thought I’d share this rarity I found. I’m not sure if this is available anywhere else, but this is the kind of forgotten animation that I’d like to work into our next program.

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High Treason (1929) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 8, 2013 by mchoffman

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This past Wednesday night I went with my dad to the Patio Theatre in Chicago to see a 35mm screening of the early British “talkie,” High Treason (1929). This was being presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society. We saw a pristine 35mm print with sound. For a time, only the silent version of the film was thought to exist, but there was a recent restoration of the film. According to one of the programmers, Kyle, this was only the second screening of this print, having earlier played at the Mount Pony Theatre at the Library of Congress. This was a film I had always wanted to see. What added to the enjoyment was the knowledge that we were viewing something few others have seen. It’s the type of offbeat title that had always attracted me as a film programmer. I was never able to find it on film when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house, but I was able to screen its American counterpart, Just Imagine (1930).

The story, based on a failed play by Noel Pemberton Billing, is an early science fiction film with a pacifist bent. Set in “1940,” High Treason depicts a world that is in a precarious state. Two superpowers are on the verge of war: the United States of Europe and the Empire States of the Atlantic (America). Tensions reach a breaking point in the first scene, which depicts a patrol of border guards stopping a futuristic, three-wheeled car from transporting liquor. Clearly, Prohibition is a part of the world of tomorrow! The scene ends with a shootout between the rival border guards. Against this backdrop is a love story between Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas) and Evelyn (Benita Hume), the daughter of a pacifist leader.

Her moral convictions, however, fail to discourage director Maurice Elvey from working in a gratuitous shot of her undressing and showering behind a frosted glass screen. Her fashionable dress and lively attitude are certainly those of a 1920s flappper even though the film is set a generation after the Great War. Her suitor, Michael, is rather blase about war. To him, it can be no worse than cold soup– the sad fate of an interrupted dinner date. Evelyn tries to talk him out of fighting, but this doesn’t stop him from enlisting as an airman. Benita Hume literally faces down a firing squad in what is the film’s most suspenseful sequence. Michael is at the command of the armed air force in front of Evelyn. Tensions mount as the world waits to see whether there will be war. A televised message from the President is imminent, and only Evelyn’s father, the leader of the Peace League, will be able to influence the fate of the world.

High Treason shows that behind the scenes there are terrorists and arms manufacturers working to ensure that what is to come will be a profitable war. Despite some of the dated “hi-tech” contrivances that only the movies could invent, High Treason raises issues that reflect the highs (the technology) and lows (war) of our own society.

Those familiar with early screen science fiction will recognize the familiar trappings so endemic to the genre: aeroplanes flying over a modern city, television monitors, sleek fashion designs, etc. This was Britain’s first major foray into science fiction, and though it has its merits, it’s an inferior film compared to Things to Come, which was made just a few years later in 1936.

Benita Hume
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Benita Hume is the whole show here. Hume would appear in several American films, but is better known to some of us as being the wife of actor Ronald Colman. The two of them would later perform together on the popular radio series, The Halls of Ivy. English-born Jameson Thomas, who died in 1939, is no one’s idea of a dynamic leading man. On this side of the Atlantic, it would’ve been like trying to pass off C. Henry Gordon as a romantic heartthrob– but Gordon was never as dull or stiff in his role of a character actor. The film has a certain creakiness in terms of its performances– sometimes with characters shot in close-up staring each other down at dramatic moments. Nevertheless, there is a conviction and a truth on the screen that trumps some of these faults.

The best actor in the film is actually a background character. Raymond Massey, who would star as “Wings Over the World” in Things to Come, makes his acting debut in High Treason. However, he only has a few lines as a member in the cabinet. Half of the delegates vote for war and the other half for peace. True to the peace-keeper he would become in Things To Come, Massey votes against war.

High Treason is not a great film, but it’s an interesting one. My favorite scene is the one set at an Art Deco nightblub. The sequence features a one-man orchestra and a fencing demonstration by two women in the middle of the dance floor! (I’ll leave the interpretation for others.) It’s a curious moment, but the film overall doesn’t have the sheer lunacy of Just Imagine, which was an American sci-fi-musical-comedy set in 1980. Just Imagine didn’t have the depth of High Treason, but it’s a lot more fun with its off-the-wall musical numbers and Martian settings. The special effects and model work are also a little more interesting in the American film; how can you fault a film that offers audiences the greatest rocketship in movie history? Like the split cabinet in High Treason, I’m sure audiences would have divided opinions of these two films. What is not debatable is that both films are vastly inferior to the one that inspired them. Both films were influenced by the aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and yet both come up far short in terms of drama and visual metaphor.

There was a great turnout for High Treason, which was preceded by a 35mm installment of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1952). This Republic serial is certainly a more childlike vision of the future, and yet it’s depiction of old machinery (both earthbound and in space) is actually refreshing compared to today’s weightless unreality of CGI effects… The Patio is a fabulous venue for a movie. This is the way it should always be– people coming out to experience film under the best possible conditions. Film discovery is about making the effort. Too many people take the shortcut or simply rely on a semblance of the movie experience. YouTube doesn’t count, and I’m glad you will not find High Treason on YouTube.

Though we won’t be showing it in 2014, High Treason is representative of the kind of neglected, obscure films we’ll be focusing on next season. If people want to find The Rediscovered, they’ll have to come out for it.

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Uncovered… Rediscovered

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2013 by mchoffman

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Coming soon!