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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Three Documentaries

Background

Incredible as it may seem, the end of this Janus series is fast approaching. We’ve seen films from around the world, directed by the masters of international cinema: Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Saul J. Turell… wait, what?

Who is this Turell fellow, and what is he doing in my Janus set?

Here is the first paragraph of his (two-paragraph) Wikipedia entry:

“Saul J. Turell (January 20, 1921 – April 10, 1986) was a producer and maker of documentaries, and a distributor for classic film. He founded Sterling Films in 1946. In the early sixties, Sterling Films merged with the Walter Reade Organization, becoming Reade-Sterling, of which Turell was president. In 1965, Turell and William Becker took over the ailing Janus Films.”

And now you see why this week’s Three Documentaries are included in the Janus set: They were made by one of the owners.

Saul J. was born in the Bronx, and served in the balmy South Pacific during Dubya-Dubya-Two. He had intended to enter the film business, perhaps as an editor, after the war ended, but found himself competing with a glut of like-minded young technicians. Instead, he went into the distribution end of the movie biz, and that is where he made his mark. Of course, once he had an “in” he was able to make a few of his own movies on the side, so it was a win-win.

Sterling Films made its money cranking out cheap-to-produce and easy-to-sell documentaries and compilations of newsreel footage, such as Death in the Arena (about bullfighting).

When those kinds of films were no longer profitable in theaters, Turell began marketing them to schools and other non-traditional venues. In the 1960’s, he put together an ABC television series titled Silents Please, hosted by Ernie Kovacs. Silents Please presented classic silent films, re-edited to fit all of the good parts into a 30-minute time slot.

Our man Saul then moved to NBC and produced Hollywood: The Golden Years, a series which documented the early years of the talkies. It was hosted by Xanadu‘s Gene Kelly.

Around this time, Turell wrote The Great Chase and directed The Love Goddesses, both included in today’s triple feature.

In 1965 (as noted in the Wikipedia excerpt), he and William Becker took over Janus Films. They purchased the rights to rent out prints of classic European and Asian films, thereby making some of them available for the first time in the United States.

Answers.com says: “Turell was a key figure in facilitating the revival of interest in classic cinema during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.” Amen to that.

In 1973, Turell won the George P. Eastman award for his tireless efforts, and went on to teach film courses at NYU while still running Janus. In 1979, he returned to film making with Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, also included in today’s triple feature. It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary, and, judging by the picture at the top, the statuette was presented by Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Ilia. (“V’ger!”)

In 1986, Saul J. Turell died. His son, Jonathan Turell, continues Saul’s work, primarily through the much-venerated latest incarnation of the Janus brand and recipient of the bulk of my discretionary income: The Criterion Collection.

So here ya go: The last three films in this series. I’m including some brief comments on each below, but not a full-fledged review, because I think Janus is cheating a bit by including these.

Title: Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
Director: Saul J. Turell
Country: United States
Year: 1979

Wikipedia lists his occupations as follows: “Athlete, actor, orator, concert singer, lawyer, social activist.”

docs_robeson01

I had a general idea who Paul Robeson was (Black Shakespearean actor and deep-voiced singer) before watching this documentary, but had no clue about the extent of his activism, the astonishing breadth of his achievements, or the lengths to which he was persecuted and blacklisted by his government and by his fellow citizens. Tribute to an Artist is narrated by Sidney Poitier and is by far the most emotionally powerful and artfully constructed of the Three Documentaries. Highly Recommended.

Title: The Love Goddesses
Director: Saul J. Turell
Country: United States
Year: 1965

The Love Goddesses charts the simultaneous evolution of onscreen female characters and changing public attitudes toward sex and women. Despite consisting almost entirely of clips from films made prior to Barbarella, The Love Goddesses contains a high quotient of female nudity, near-nudity, and brazen sexual innuendo.

Fun, insightful, and titillating, if a bit overlong.

Title: The Great Chase
Director: Saul J. Turell
Country: United States
Year: 1962

This was the one of the three that I was most eagerly anticipating, and the one that left me the most disappointed. I expected a madcap compilation of death-defying stunts and high-speed chases from the Golden Age of Silents and Early Talkies; A smidgen of Mack Sennett, a dollop of Buster Keaton, add Perils of Pauline to taste. Instead, what I got were several complete sequences – including the boring bits – each lasting ten to fifteen minutes. Worse, the annoying narrator described everything that I could see plainly for myself: “Now he’s getting off the train again! Uh-oh, looks like the bad guys are catching up!”

Adding insult to injury, a couple of brief sequences are unnecessarily repeated.

I am a huge fan of Buster Keaton, love silent and early sound comedies, and this should, by all rights, have been my favorite of the three films. Somebody should do this again, and do it better.

The End

That’s it for the films in this series, dear reader(s). Matt and I will likely put together a wrap-up article and we’re also working on a clips compilation to bring the series to a fitting conclusion. Hopefully we’ll have both of those done soon after the beginning of the year.

Next: The Wrap Party!

One Comment

  1. THREE DOCUMENTARIES

    Well, well, well…Netflix had, I think, 48 of the 50 film collection but it did not have this collection. Thankfully Jason shipped it to me to give it a view in hopes I’d send it back pretty quickly. Since these are all on the same disc, I figured I’d review them all together. Okay? Here goes:

    Here’s the deal with documentaries. You are at the mercy of those in the editing room. And having watched reality television until my eyes have bled crimson, I know that a lot of what I see is purely done/calculated/manipulated from the standpoint of the editor. Let’s take that popular reality “star searchy” type show: “American Idol!” We Americans LOVE a villain. We do. It’s proof positive in most of our films and we love villains who speak with funny accents (i.e.: AREN’T American) and so WHO is the villain on “AI?” Why it’s Simon Cowell of course! But here’s the deal with editing…if the editors of the show wanted Simon to be a lovable little cuddly teddy bear – they could easily edit together all the moments where he says something nice. Whether it’s to a performer or the catering gal bringing in his roast-beef on rye. If they choose to edit it and show it, it’s the viewing public’s ability to say: Yes, I believe that or Hell no, I don’t believe that. Villains sell tickets. That’s the bottom line. And don’t put it past a network exec and his editing crew to make heroes and villains however they see fit.

    So when I watch a documentary I’m already at a point of disinterest. Or, lets say, hesitancy. I cannot believe that anyone is truly impartial whether they are writing reviews about films, or making them. When Michael Moore, with his bleeding heart liberalism on his sleeve, makes a film – you can guess that it’s going to have a slant, an “agenda” a “point of view.” Does this make the documentary WRONG? No. All it means is that know that if you watch something like a Michael Moore documentary, it’s probably going to have a certain, entertaining, slant to it. Can any film-maker be truly impartial about their subject? Honestly, I do not think so.

    Enough of my impartial rambling, lets get on with these here “picture shows.”

    The first documentary was a short film about Paul Robeson. Now, he’s one of those people that I’ve heard about, maybe saw some clip about him from years past but don’t know much about. He’s a black singer who sang “Old Man River” about a hundred gajillion times. He also was a bit of a loud mouth who kept his political views where everyone could see them and this, of course, pissed some people off. We can argue ‘till the cows come home of whether this was due really to his politics or the color of his skin – but that’s not the point here. The point of this 30 minute doc was to give a cursory (and VERY CURSORY VIEW AT THAT) of Robeson’s life. He seemed like an all around great guy/singer/performer/actor but when he started traveling to Russia, he become persona non-grata around the country and the US Government revoked his visa/passport because the Guv’ment didn’t like what he was saying. What was he saying?

    I have no f*cking idea – because they don’t TALK ABOUT IT IN THE FILM! They show him singing “Old Man River” and changing the lyrics to suit whichever group he was talking to that day – and they discuss that Robeson’s political views were not looked at kindly (or something) but they never actually say what his political views are/were. I’m trying to think…did they say he was a liberal commie pinko? No. Did they say he was a conservative gun loving, God fearing, good ol’ boy? No. So when the US revokes the man’s visa for all we know are changing song lyrics – the documentary fails (oh, but he sings “Old Man River” AGAIN).

    BOTTOM LINE: I’m glad I got a chance to know a bit more about this guy – but I could have learned a LOT more, if they only took the time.

    The second documentary is: “THE LOVE GODDESSES”

    Or was it “The Love Goddess” – oh well, whatever, no worries…

    If there has been on major complaint about watching these 50 some-odd films, is that there has been a complete and total lack of nudity. Oh, sure, once in a great while (saw Max Von Sydow’s butt just a couple weeks ago) but for good soft-core, black and white, diffused foreign film nudity/sex/lovin’ – there ain’t been a lot of goodies on the shelf – if you know what I mean.

    When “TLG” started, though, I thought: “Oh, here we go…80 minutes of silent film nudity – wooooo doggie!”

    Well, no. What this documentary is about is (are) the changing social mores in films from the silent era to 1965 (when this film was made). It touches on a lot of things in films but, I felt, the films chosen were very particular to show a particular bent. Just ‘cause DW Griffith is showing a little T&A doesn’t mean that Mack Sennett and Hal Roach are doing it too. Still the film-makers are trying to make a point and they…uh…make it – I guess.

    Once the silent film era is over they move on to the next decades pointing out certain actresses here and there that could be considered “love goddesses” (why do most of them SING?) and some of the things film-makers would do to imply sex without actually showing it (dang!). Some of those moments are hilarious and interesting in that sort of “Sears Roebuck Catalogue from 1947” might be interesting – but I feared there were a lot more potentially BETTER clips from BETTER love goddess actresses that the film-makers/editors could have used.

    As I watched the film I was surprised, too, that the main envelope pusher from the 30’s and 40’s took a while to show up. I’m talking about “Mae West” – but then the clips they choose to show I don’t think did their point of view justice. But we’re at the whim of the guy hunkered down behind a movieola machine and cutting out feet and feet of film. Still, good to see her mentioned. When you see these films with Mae West just think of Roseanne Barr as a sex object – kind of turns your stomach. But it was nice that, at the time, this large-ish, gal was getting attention from all sorts.

    As the film wound down in the 60’s with the focus on Marilyn Monroe – I still felt like the film missed many actresses, or many films that showcased a woman and her “womanly wares.”

    BOTTOM LINE: Glad to see some footage from silent films and be re-acquainted with actresses I haven’t seen in forever – but felt that the film could have been done better.

    The final film in the trio is “THE CHASE.”

    Similar to “The Love Goddess” – this film explores the “chase scene” and how it became a staple of silent films. And, pretty much, ONLY silent films. As “TLG” went through the decades, “TC” focused solely in the silent film era focusing on a number of films.

    Here again I have the issue of what film options did the film-makers have at their disposal? Could they not have chosen better? What they chose was VERY GOOD, don’t get me wrong (except for one that I take exception with) and they included a car/train chase scene from some film I had never heard of (starring some comedian I had never heard of) that was truly amazing.

    They also focused a large part of the 80 minute film on the Buster Keaton feature: “The General”- a classic film that should be watched immediately (and it’s in the public domain).

    My biggest exception in this collection was a “chase” that wasn’t much of one. It was, basically, stock footage set in the Amazon, or some place and really had more to deal with the “chase” of a very fake looking exotic butterfly. This gave the original film-makers the “story” of shooting at animals and beating crocodiles to death, etc. I don’t see the film being very “chasey” when it’s two guys in a boat going down the river shooting at natives and crocodiles.

    Spoiler alert!! Having watched and studied film for many years (including silent films) it was very common back then for studios to lie through their teeth in regards to their actors and what they were capable of. The “Dream Factory” being what it was in the teens and twenties wanted their actors to seem larger than life and super human. For instance, when Harold Lloyd “climbed the clock” in “Safety Last” – the official story was that he did it ALL ON HIS OWN – no stunt doubles, no safety net, no nothing. The actual story is that they used a stunt double, there WAS a safety net, the film-making was done in a perspective to make it APPEAR as if he’s climbing the building when, in fact, it was a fake façade. If you watch the film and put your logical cap on, you’ll realize that the only way of this film-making to be “true” was that they would have devised some sort of elevator contraption that would slowly move up the outside of the building – smoothly. Frankly, the technology wasn’t there at the time. In this film, one of the first chases is a chase on ice floes to rescue Lillian Gish from certain peril. Of course the narrator intones that “this really, REALLY HAPPENED…” Again, if you look closely, there are close-ups, cut-aways, etc. I HIGHLY doubt that D.W. Griffith would put Gish and his other actors at risk (nor do I think they would actually put themselves at risk) just to make a film. Now, maybe the narrator is correct. Maybe it’s all real and they nearly froze to death but…I doubt it.

    Final complaint. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe the narrator had a cold. But it seems like the film changes narrators about 65 minutes through. Why, I have no idea.

    BOTTOM LINE: Interesting film focusing on some classics. Still think they could have scoured a bit more to find better footage and some of the choices they made were marginal at best. Not bad, could have been much better.

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