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2018 – SCREENING #4: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) – 110 MIN.

Famous silent movie star Norma Desmond’s career has faded to oblivion. Eager to make a comeback she chooses young B-Movie screenwriter Joe Gillis to fix her script. But during the process, Norma starts to fancy him. Financially dependent on her, it becomes more and more difficult for Joe to refuse her.

This film noir was directed by Austrian immigrant Billy Wilder (1906-2002) who is considered to be one of the top directors and writers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Among his credits are classics like “Double Idemnity” (1944), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Sabrina” (1954) and “Some Like It Hot” (1959).

Although some Hollywood “insiders” – older movie stars and in particular MGM studio boss Louis B. Meyer – were not fond of this motion picture, Sunset Boulevard managed to garner 11 Academy Award nominations and 3 Academy Awards (Best Script, Best Art Direction, Best Score). The critical reception was tremendous, and also financially the film had a moderate success (it did well in the metropolitan areas, but poor in the countryside). In 1998, Sunset Boulevard was selected to be number 12 of AFI’s 100 best American movies.

Director Billy Wilder gathered a great crew – eight time Academy Award winner Edith Head for the costumes, composer Franz Waxman, art director Hans Dreier, make-up artist Wally Westmore – and cast: Gloria Swanson, herself a faded star from the silent era, as Norma Desmond, the up-and-coming William Holden as the young writer, and legendary silent filmmaker and actor Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s servant Max. In special appearances one can see other greats of the silent era: Comedian/actor Buster Keaton, director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Anna Q. Nielsen and British actor H.B. Warner.

The film’s story is said to be inspired by the life of actress Norma Talmadge – a superstar of the silent screen that did not succeed in making the transition to the talkies, had an affair with actor Gilbert Roland (who was 12 years younger than herself) and spent her later days in wealthy retirement. Another reference is to the mysterious murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor.

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Just as an interesting coincidence, recently one of the famous mansions of the grand old Hollywood glory was offered to be sold. Director Billy Wilder is also being quoted in the article:


2018 – Mini Discussion #1: “The Great American Man”

We will have a mini discussion about actors who not only represent the desirable looks of their time but also incorporate praiseworthy traditional American virtues (righteousness, sense of justice, assertiveness, readiness to sacrifice oneself for a higher cause, empathy for the weaker, mental and physical strength, excellence in skills and leadership etc.) in the hero roles they portray in film. One could argue that American movies did successfully carry American culture and values to foreign countries, and this played a role in democratizing other countries after WWII. The world looked up to “The Great American Man” embodied by iconic actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, William Holden or Henry Fonda. On the other hand, there also existed a fine group of very handsome actors that embodied the male beauty ideals of their times, like Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando or Tony Curtis. Interestingly, those tend to be cast as more sensitive and fragile personalities in their films, sometimes even rebellious or completely opposed against an aging “Great American Man”, who now appears to be too conservative, too stubborn, and therefore unromantic. These “Troubled Handsome Guys”, as I would call them, often surpassed those aforementioned veterans by drawing a new, young audience into the cinemas – even if only for the limited period of their younger years. Some of them had great acting skills, but soon faced great professional and personal hardships…  (Golden Age Hollywood actresses often represented exceptional beauty, but arguably have never have gained recognition as “ambassadors” of American values through film.)

I am wondering if you could single out present day actors of “The Great American Man”? Does “The Great American Woman” exist these days, too? Is the role of “The Great American Man” still distinctive from the “Troubled Handsome Guy”? Any parallels in different cultures?

(I feel that “Captain America” is rather the Marvel character who represents the ideal of “The Great American Man” than its actor. I’m more looking for an actor that represents the ideal in a variety of roles, like Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington or Will Smith – you also could describe your feelings if you would believe it is one those mentioned here!) This is a question for Americans as well as foreigners who watch many American movies.



2018/Breakout Session # 1: Hollywood Scandals, Self-Censorship and Selected Classics Between 1934 and 1965

In today’s lecture we talked about the exemption of motion pictures from the protection under the First Amendment between 1915 and 1952, how the Yellow Press had boosted scandals surrounding certain Hollywood personalities in the 1920’s, the reasons and problems caused by the establishment of the Production Code by William Hays and its enforcement through Joseph Breen, and how film directors tried to undermine those moral boundaries. Afterwards, we had a look into a number of film trailers of highly respected American films around this time.

If you would have any comments or questions about this first breakout session, please post them here!

2018 Screening #3: Jesse James (1939) – 106 min.

The ordinary farmer boys Jesse and Frank James turn into the country’s most notorious outlaws when ruthless railroad agents try to take away their property.

Based on real life characters, the James brothers became one of Hollywood’s idealized and  glorified symbols for righteous people that were forced to get on the wrong side of the law.

Jesse James was directed by Henry King (“David and Batsheba”, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” a.o.). A very handsome Tyrone Power can be seen in the role of  the main character. He is supported by legendary character actor Henry Fonda as the older brother Frank, western star Randolph Scott as Marshall Will Wright, and horror legend John Carradine as Bob Ford.  Over the years this story was adapted many times for the big screen, and although recent portrayals have become more and more realistic, from this film on it stayed to be a Hollywood tradition to use some of their coolest and best looking guys for this part:

Roy Rogers (“Jesse James at Bay”, 1941), Audie Murphy (who actually played Jesse twice in “Kansas Riders”, 1950, and  “A Time For Dying”, 1969!), Robert Wagner (“The True Story of Jesse James”, 1957), Ray Stricklyn (“Young Jesse James”, 1960), James Keach (“The Long Riders“, 1980), Kris Kristofferson (“The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James”, 1986), Rob Lowe (“Frank and Jesse”, 1994), Colin Farrell (“American Outlaws“, 2001), and eventually Brad Pitt (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford“, 2007).

However, despite these idealizations of the American outlaw in film, Jesse and Frank James were tough gangsters who were merely caring for themselves and their families than others who were in need. So, what do you think was the reason for changing the facts into such a positive portrayal?


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2018/Screening #2: Gold Diggers of 1933 – 98 Min.

During the Great Depression four poor actresses and a Broadway show unexpectedly get financial support from a young and aspiring musician. But from where did he get that much money?

Joan Blondell and Dick Powell (who were married from 1936-1944), Ruby Keeler, Warren William and a young Ginger Rogers (famous for her later partnership with Fred Astaire) are starring in this highly entertaining musical film directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Filmed on a budget of estimated 433,000 US $, the movie features four gorgeous dance sequences by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895-1974). All songs are composed by Harry Warren, who gained three Oscars and eight nominations in his career and wrote many standards like “Jeepers Creepers”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “Lullaby of Broadway”.

Gold Diggers of 1933 gained great commercial success, but was actually one of the first American films being altered before distribution in order to avoid state censorship. In 2003, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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2018/Screening #1: Sunrise (1927) – 95 min.

In this melodrama a farmer is forced to choose between a seductive it girl from the big city and his simple and innocent country wife.

Sunrise was German filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s (“Nosferatu”; “The Last Laugh”) first of four American films before his tragic death in a car accident in 1931.

Producer William Fox (founder of Fox Film that became a part of nowadays 20th Century Fox which presently is owned by Rupert Murdoch) granted Murnau maximum artistic freedom for this film that brought his studio a lot of prestige, but poor revenues.

The film received three Oscars at the first ceremony of the Academy Awards in 1929. The categories at that time were a bit different, but would nowadays approximately equal for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Gaynor as the farmer’s wife) and Best Cinematography (Charles Rosher and Karl Struss). The film furthermore received one Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction (Rochus Gliese).

Murnau: “I think films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles’, or, as I prefer to call them, these ‘dramatic angles’. They help photograph thought.”

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