Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Speak Easily - 1932 - Editing Exercise - Sequence 5 - Broadway Bound and Down to Business with Thelma

Despite Durante's brash presence, he brings the picture a splash of welcome energy with a bit of his anthem, "Can Broadway Do Without Me?"  and his march through the hallway to his new business office.  This is followed by a bit of stock footage pulled from King Vidor's 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd.  The rest of the scene is dominated by Sidney Toler, known at the time as a Broadway comic actor, but destined to be remembered for his later portrayal of Charlie Chan at 20th Century Fox and Monogram pictures.  Then Thelma Todd arrives, full of tough charm and hard-boiled agendas.

Most of the changes here are for staging - again, to adjust for the dark set and master shot mentality of MGM's misunderstanding of comedy.  

1932 - 7 minutes

2021 - 6 minutes, 58 seconds





Speak Easily - 1932 - Editing Exercise - Sequences 3 and 4 - To the Show! and The Professor Saves the Show!


Sequence 3 of Speak Easily is one of the smoothest of the film.  It begins with goodbyes at the station, with Keaton getting mixed up with Jimmy Durante and then getting on the wrong train - the shot is one of the best composed of the feature, with Keaton staring ahead, while his departing train can be seen through the doorway behind him.  He is for a fleeting moment, a contented statue.

The banter with the station master is a well performed give and take, for as short as it is, followed by an undercranked ride in a jalopy.  Keaton is deposited in front of the opera house and, like his 1929 feature Spite Marriage, we get to see the troupe's performance before it is later disrupted by Keaton's inclusion.  

Very little needed attention here, a relief from the earlier sequences - however, we decided that some of the shots could have been tighter, in order to emphasize the action over the audio.  We let it stay "as is."

Sequence 4 gives the professor a chance to play hero to the troupe with his new-found "wealth."  It, too, was fairly smooth, but the class found a few things to trim after repeated viewings.

From 1932:

The class was noticing that Keaton appeared not necessarily clumsy by character, but unsteady.  We discussed his drinking problem that was accelerating during this production, and that multiple takes were probably not always an option.  If you get the chance to watch his second release of 1932, What, No Beer?, you'll find that his appearance is pasty and disheveled, his delivery hoarse, and he often seems unsteady on his feet.  This film has a few episodes of this, but he nevertheless used to refer to Speak Easily as one of his favorite of the sound MGM releases.  This is likely because his studio-abused character of playing a clumsy simpleton was at least fairly consistent here in the role of a slightly-foggy professor.

So, after a little trimming, this version for the editing project emerged:

The original sequence  ran 4 minutes, 45 seconds.  The edit came in at 4 minutes, 20 seconds. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Speak Easily - 1932 - Editing Exercise - Sequence 2 - The TRAIN

The first sequence was a warm up for this class project to play with the 1932 Keaton film, "Speak Easily."

Once the Professor has been informed of a $750,000 inheritance, he is off to seek companionship and rub elbows with the common man.  Instead, he encounters Jimmy Durante and an impoverished vaudeville troupe.  I ran the clip from the original film, and then we made suggestions based on what we saw.  To be honest, I had already made the edit for this portion, but the students were a savvy lot and they identified nearly everything destined for the cutting-room floor.

Here is how it ran in 1932:

One line everyone seemed to like was, "I'll tell it to the guy with the face."  Other than that, the questions were, "What does the baby have to do with anything besides being a prop?  Can we get the baby to stop crying? Why does Jimmy tell the joke twice?  Why does the professor have to repeat 'equivocate'? Why can't we get more camera movement? Why aren't there second takes when lines get muffed or talked over?  Was this when Keaton was drinking? Why are they going on past the best line to close a shot?"  

During this sequence, the audience learns that the inheritance was a ruse by the professor's butler (well, a shared butler, I guess...what kind of college is this?!?).   His confession is staged in another cavernous set at a college where buildings are 50% higher than they should be to accommodate the high ceilings.

So I showed them my edited version, and they suggested further cuts and resized shots which were then incorporated:

The 1932 scene ran 10 minutes, 36 seconds.  The edited version came in at 8 minutes, 34 seconds.  Already we have trimmed about a third of a reel!  It won't be the last time Henry Armetta gets his underwritten and overacted part trimmed in the course of this project.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Speak Easily - 1932 - Editing Exercise - Sequence 1 - The Set Up

There are the ruins of a good comedy in the penultimate Keaton feature for MGM, "Speak Easily."  Released in 1932, it has the typical overwritten, over-explained plot of his "talkies," often more noise than humor.  I turned it over to my students in a dozen sequences after discussing film editing, use of close-ups, tightening action, and knowing when to end a scene.

Here is sequence #1 of the film, as released by MGM.  It has gone into the public domain, so that was the main reason I chose it for the exercise:

The group working on this sequence first noted that, since it is immediately established that this is taking place on a campus, why bother with the extra expense of hiring two mediocre actors to portray students?  They don't add anything, they aren't in the least bit interesting or funny, so cut them out!  
"Is this how some producers got their kids into movies?  Parts like these?" 

Next came the overuse of master shots, in some cases making the cavernous set the emphasis, instead of what is going on.  This is supposed to be a poor professor, but he has a huge apartment like this?
Using a video editor, master shots became medium shots, action was tracked with the camera to add emphasis to the movement, and insert shots were incorporated, again to heighten the motivation of the butler as he produces his letter to the professor, which ultimately proves to be fake.  
Insert shots also allow for the cutting of a second here, another there.  Nothing is lost for the sake of the scene, but the overall effect is to keep the action moving.

Finally, they decided that the scene should end with "I'll buy companionship!" referring to the Keaton character's need for friends as he hurries to pack.  The action that followed seemed more bungling and incidental than funny.  End with the joke and get out!

So their Sequence #1 came out as this.  The public domain source had some inherent flaws with the print quality, so expanding the frame created some fuzziness that wouldn't be present in a proper production.

The original clip ran 6 minutes, 20 seconds.  The students' version ran  5 minutes.  The group liked the sense of instant gratification with digital editing and were pleased that it started the film off with less exposition.  

They had even more fun with the second sequence.


Friday, March 26, 2021

"Migranos" - A Work In Progress

When the grant comes in, this could become my Magnum Opus.  Or serve as a warning to others.

(cc) 2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

but, wait, potential investors, there's moe!  Er, MORE!

(cc) 2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Road Tripping - 1984 Style

With CoVid vaccinations becoming more available and some possible light at the end of the tunnel emerging, it's time to reflect on a favorite Michigan past-time, namely, road trips.  Here's a bit of one from 1984...on SUPER 8mm FILM!!


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath - 1931 - A Visual Study of Camera Speeds

Early sound films were concentrated on just that - sound - with the visuals often suffering as a result.  Keaton was able to insert little bits of silent business in them, but when compared to his silent work, they frequently seem slower paced.  This is because - they were.  Sound film is filmed and projected at 24 frames per second, based on the projection speeds in place in the late 1920s, speeds set to increase the number of daily projections of the features of the time.  

Silent film began at being shot at 16 frames per second (to squeeze in the most action within a limited film budget, Griffith had his Battle at Edlerbrush Gulch shot at 14fps!).  So, filmmakers caught onto the increased projection rate by increasing their camera speed to about 20fps by 1920, and more like 22fps by the mid to late 1920s.  Actors, editors, and directors became used to that rhythm and performed accordingly.  

When 24fps became the standard from 1928 onward, it took a while for the pacing to accommodate the change, and especially visual humor.  Keaton's early MGM work is a case study in this.  First of all, MGM didn't understand humor, shooting and lighting their comedies in the same manner as a courtroom drama (just look at the dreary sets of Speak Easily).  

For a visual comparison, here is a silent sequence (with ambient sound, no dialogue) from the frustratingly staged Parlor, Bedroom and Bath from 1931.  This is how it looks, shot at 24fps, the standard sound camera speed.  The gag is a variation from the house-demolition climax of his 1920 One Week:

Now, if it had been shot at 22fps (about 10% "quicker" during projection), the standard for the mid-1920s, it would have appeared as this:

And if it had been at 20fps (20% quicker during projection), the general speed of around 1920, it would have appeared this way:

The differences are subtle and work on a subconscious level - the eye can absorb the information faster, so what we are left with is the pacing.  At 20-22fps you can see how the performers of the silent era were thinking things would appear during the early sound era.  

When The Artist was produced in 2011, it used the 22fps camera speed - and it worked very well on many levels that the Brooks film, Silent Movie, failed to achieve in 1976.  

Keaton's work at MGM showed many production blunders besides misunderstanding visual humor - my film production students were able to shave 10 minutes off of Speak Easily by following basic editing techniques - avoiding redundancy, punching a joke by proper cutting, creating inserts to direct the audience attention - and were working on Doughboys to experiment with varying film speeds during the silent sections.  "We can fix it in post," may have been a phrase used then, but rarely employed.  

(The use of varying camera speeds is still employed today and not only for comedic effect - Raiders of the Lost Ark used 20-22fps for some of the action sequences.  When blended with music, sound effects, and editing, nobody really notices that things are moving 10-20% faster than might be humanly possible.  Movie magic!)

Timing can work both ways.  Here is the original gag from Keaton's One Week in 1920, projected at 24fps, followed by a projection at 20fps (both clips are silent):

24fps projection

20fps projection

And, regarding the 1920 film, it is interesting (to me, anyway) even how carefully the For Sale sign is positioned, how it stays rigidly in place with its gentle posing, and how the instructions envelope sits at the right spot - nothing wobbles, nothing moves, with all that surrounding destruction.  

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

"Brain Donors" (1992) - Tribute to the Comedic Style of the Marx Brothers

After hearing it discussed on the Marx Brother's Council Podcast, I found a copy of the Zucker Brother's Brain Donors from 1992. It follows the plotline from the Marx Brothers' MGM film Night at the Opera from 1935, with pacing by comedian Dennis Dugan to match their later, more frantic Paramount releases. There is even credit to the original Kaufman-Ryskind screenplay at the closing credits.

John Turturro was starting his ascendency, Mel Smith was an established comedic character, and Bob Nelson seems never to have made a film after this one (and that's a pity; he's great here and in an earlier appearance in Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop ).

Opening and closing animation by Will Vinton ("California Raisins") and music by Mark Motherspaugh.
Apparently, Paramount in the 1990s was undergoing a comedy excision in its management and another film with the same team was mothballed (another pity).

It's fun and fast (75 minutes!?), and those familiar with the original Marx film will see how it takes some familiar situations and gives them a unique twist (the contract scene, stateroom scene, piece where the manager is greeted by stagehands).
Screenwriter Pat Proft certainly appreciated his source material! (the title, a Paramount decision, didn't make the appropriate connection, however...)
And to top it all off, the love interest for the film is played by Spike Alexander, a near doppelganger for Zeppo!

It's episode 31 of the Marx Brothers Council Podcast series, available at their website:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

This Sums Up the Wind-turbine "Controversy" Rather Nicely

The retired author is among the emeriti from MSU regarding land management and other educational topics.  From the Greenville Daily News, 20 March, 2021.  So, subscribe, already!

Again, (c) 2021 Greenville Daily News

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Why I Miss "Connections"

 Back when computer games were a hoot, James Burke put out a two disc set based on his television program, "Connections."  I spent a weekend playing through the whole thing, felt completely fine that it also expanded my appreciation for just about everything scientific.

Of course, that was in the days of Windows 95, and the "improved" Windows 10 is utterly incapable of understanding how to run the game, so I am left with just the small-resolution video bits that peppered the experience.  This is one, particularly of interest to those with pharmacology occasionally cluttering their minds:

Friday, March 19, 2021

Holidays Keep Brewing

 And that calls for more experimentation with layered color exercises!  Oh does The Animating Apothecary know how to PARTY!

1. Tweener Easter Bunny - "Whatever"

(c) 2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

2. Transitional Humpty - Any Holiday Will Do

(c) 2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

3. Psycho sunshine - maybe a bit too much Vitamin D
(c) 2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

4. Confidence in Carrots
(c) 2020-2021 The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

(c) 2020-2021, "Holiday Specific," The Animating Apothecary, Jim Middleton

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Experimenting with Soundtracks - "Rush Job"

Originally a six week project in 1998, using a DOS animation version of "Autodesk Animator Pro," this collection of 2800 frames was initially paired with a 1917 recording of a Chopin Waltz composed in the 1830s.  When first uploaded to test the limits of a Facebook posting, FB said, "Oh that music violates copyright!" based on some parallel world regulations.  

So I went with a 1911 performance of Victor Herbert performing his own work, "Scherzo."   

Thought I'd test the limits on uploads to Blogger...