Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ideas for your first paper

Greetings, Honors 399 Students! I'm going to post a few ideas you may consider for your first papers. It's not an exclusive list, of course, but just one to get you to thinking about what may be interesting for you. Maybe an idea here prompts a similar, related idea. The paper should deal with one or both of the films we've watched so far, and/or issues related to them. Here's my list:

- Innovations in "The Last Laugh" that permanently influenced filmmaking
- Emil Jannings and his life and career with and beyond "The Last Laugh"
- Ufa versus Hollywood: What were the similarities and contrasts
- Class in both "The Last Laugh" and "I Was A Fugitive on a Chain Gang"
- The "prison film" and what role "Fugitive" played in that genre
- Paul Muni's career before and after "Fugitive"
- How bad were the chain gangs, and was "Fugitive" an accurate portrayal?
- Did Hollywood pull punches in "Fugitive"?
- The mystery of the ending to "The Last Laugh" solved
- The ending of "Fugitive" and the controversy surrounding it
- Secondary characters in both films and their importance
- The importance of setting in either or both films
- The evolution of film from "The Last Laugh" to "Fugitive"
- From Germany to the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, what a difference in film?
- How Germany influenced U.S. film in the early days
- German Expressionism and "The Last Laugh"'s role in it
- How contemporary events shaped the filming of "The Last Laugh" and "Fugitive"
- The concept of freedom in "Fugitive"
- The concept of the uniform in "The Last Laugh"
- The role of women in "Fugitive"
- Do we see pre-Code tolerance in "Fugitive"
- Is there the whiff of revolution in either "The Last Laugh" or "Fugitive", or just the opposite?
- Comic relief in either film--does it play a role?
- The use of the camera in either film
- A study of the directors of these films, or the director of one of them

Thursday, February 9, 2017


Parchman is Mississippi's state penitentiary. It was opened in 1901 in the delta and was built mostly by prisoner labor. Parchman became infamous in the delta as being a place where a man of color would end up if he was not careful. In its early days, it became the place for healthy, black prisoners to be sent and then exploited for their labor. In the 1960s, captured Freedom Riders were sent to Parchman. The guards were instructed to break their spirits, so the Freedom Riders were kept away from other inmates but not physically abused. The guards mocked them, and they were provided with very little in their cells.
The penitentiary has a musical tradition linked to the blues. The prisoners would often sing work songs much like the ones slaves used to sing. They would also sing spirituals. The male and female workers would sing duets together. Alan and John Lomax, two folklorists, studied these songs and hollers and visited Parchman multiple times to record them and interview the prisoners.

Chain Gangs

Chain gangs, as they were known colloquially, were groups of prisoners linked together, usually by the feet, in a long line of shackles and tasked to perform menial physical labor during their times in prison. Usually their tasks were public works too difficult and rote for other workers: digging ditches and paving/repairing roads, weeding and litter-picking, as well as sometimes farming and other grueling tasks. The chain gang mostly arose from the public's desire for better infrastructure combined with few conscripted or volunteer workers willing to make that infrastructure. Chain gangs were a staple across the South in the 1920s and 1930s, and symbolized a kind of "new slavery" the prison system was working -- particularly since most members of chain gangs were black.

Conditions in these gangs were brutal and inhumane; sores and ulcers could develop where the chains dug into the skin, disease could spread easily between members, any tripping or stumbling by other members could jeopardize the whole group, and there was no way to escape other violent prisoners attached if one had a conflict. The 1932 film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on a book of the same name by escaped chain gang member Robert Burns, was one of the most influential public depictions of the chain gang; this film, along with others, were instrumental in pushing the Progressive reforms that would lead to larger scrutiny of the chain gangs.

By the 1950s, chain gangs had all but disappeared, due to several economic and social factors. Their rise had been deterred starting in the 1930s, as work was scarce and even public works jobs were seen as desirable in that troubled economic time. Federal funding and support for chain gangs fell. Additionally, new equipment that could do most of the labor chain gangs performed and lessening public support for a practice that was shown to be horrific and degrading caused the chain gang to fade out of existence; Georgia was the last state to abandon its chain gangs.

However, chain gangs experienced a resurgence in the 1990s when public officials were in the midst of a "tough on crime" wave of reactionary politics. Alabama, in 1995, instituted a chain gang for its prisons as a form of humiliation and punishment for repeated offenders. Even as late as 2013, a Florida prison instituted chain gangs as a "public service announcement" against crime. These re-institutions of the old practice have led to backlash from primarily civil rights groups, as they feel chain gangs are unsafe and outdated. Most modern chain gangs are volunteer-based, for nonviolent prisoners who want to go outside for longer periods, but they still paint a stark picture of the nature of the American justice system, in the past and today.

Paul Muni

Paul Muni’s career began on the stage, where he starred in various productions with Yiddish theatre companies both on the East Coast and in New York.  This exposure brought him some fame on the theatre circuit and ended up landing him a part that would prove pivotal to his career, the starring role in his very first Broadway production.  Interestingly enough, Muni--who had been born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund and immigrated to the United States from Austria as a young boy--had up until this point, never before acted in English.  Nevertheless, the thirty one year-old’s performance in “We Americans” attracted the attention of major film studios like Fox and Warner Brothers.  He was subsequently cast in his first film, “The Valiant,” and while he was praised critically for his performance, it did not keep the film from flopping in the box office.  After “Seven Faces,” his next attempt to make it in film, fared similarly, Muni returned to the stage for a time. 

In 1932, Muni appeared on the big screen again in the excessively violent but massively successful independent gangster flick “Scarface.”  With this role and his turn in “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” he achieved some of the success he had not enjoyed in his previous foray into film and was quickly established as a rising star.  Warner Brothers seized on this opportunity and offered Muni a substantial contract, which he accepted.  

Determined to capitalize on their investment, the studio gave Muni as much exposure as they were able to, allowing him the rare privilege of script pre-approval, and even going so far as to bill him as “the world’s greatest actor.”  Their faith was repaid in full, as Muni soon garnered a massive following.  In turn, this gave Muni the leverage he needed to convince Warner Brothers to take a risk by making a biographical picture.  The studio funded his proposed project, albeit begrudgingly and with a paltry budget.  Fortunately, “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” was greatly successful and netted three Academy Awards, paving the way for future biopics starring Muni, like “The Life of Emile Zola.”  He would feature in several more successful films with Warner Brothers before finally ending his career where he began--on the stage.

Something else of particular note was Muni's staunch dedication to fully embodying a role.  This compulsion led him to transform himself physically to fit each character he portrayed.  His experience in the world of theatre had left him expertly trained in the application of stage makeup, a tool he would use frequently during his film career to mask his natural good looks and, in many cases, to make himself look far older than he was.  This frustrated studio head Jack Warner to no end, galvanizing him enough to ask, "Why are we paying him so much money when we can't even find him?"


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mervyn LeRoy

Mervyn LeRoy was born on October 15, 1900, in San Francisco to a Jewish family. LeRoy had a troubled childhood, seeing as his mother deserted his family when he was five years old. After the mother left, one year later, San Francisco was struck by an earthquake, completely destroying the LeRoy’s department store. Trying to aid
his family and climb out of their financial pit, the young LeRoy sold newspapers and entered talent shows as a singer. Through these auditions, he discovered an aptitude for musical theater and tended to win many shows. He made his way from city to city, but soon his act broke up, and he moved to Hollywood, where he pursued the film industry.

LeRoy worked in various behind the scenes areas like costumes, cameras, and processing labs. He moved in front of the camera with his debut in silent films. After a short run in acting, he moved on to directing, in which his peers praised him for making lots of money without spending too much of it. His rise to Hollywood stardom can be seen in the Oscar-nominated Five Star Final and Little Caesar. His fame was secured with I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang which stirred American political conversation. This film attributed to the creation of many major legal and penal reforms. Throughout his career, he directed over 70 movies over a span of 40 years.  

Some personal tidbits of LeRoy are as listed. LeRoy was married three times, and in his autobiography, he omits to mention his first wife to whom he was married for six years. He was an enthusiastic follower of horse racing and owned many racehorses. In his old age, he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and died at the age of 86 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.

Prison Film

  Prison film is the genre of that focuses on prison life or imprisoned characters. Generally a prison escape, a crime or just a depiction of prison life takes place. The term crime film (at least in the pre-code era) is used interchangeably with prison film, as well as with chain gang film. The Big House (1930) is said to be, the prototype of the genre prompted by the Ohio Penitentiary fire where guards refused to free prisoners, which resulted in about 300 deaths. Chain gang films were also created in the same manner. They were a response to the cruelty of the chain gang system, which was prevalent mostly in the southern states of the U.S. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), also a pre-code film, depicted life in prison as well. Especially, a conviction to a chain gang, which is when prisoners are chained to one another in order to perform some kind of boring or physically demanding work as a shape of punishment.  Since this genre appealed only to men, and not a bit to women they did not have strong box performances.

  However, as of 1991, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has been considered a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant so it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry. This film, in specific, prompted the questioning of some of the measures used in the U.S. legal system and  persuaded the release of chain gang victims. Notable prison moves include: Cool Hand Luke (1967),  Escape From New York (1981), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). Some of them, even though, considered underdogs when first released have become milestones of the genre.

Helen Vinson

Helen Vinson, born Helen Rulfs, was a Texas native and the daughter of an oil company executive. From an early age she had a passion for horses, but it wasn't until her family relocated to Houston that the desire to begin acting struck Vinson. As a teen, she married a man a decade and a half older than herself and began attending the University of Texas. Though the stock market crash ruined her husband's business and ended her marriage, Vinson spent her time acting in local theatre productions. Eventually, she made her Broadway debut in a production called "Los Angeles". From there, she starred in "Berlin" and "The Fatal Alibi" on Broadway before being discovered by Warner Brothers talent scouts and recruited to Hollywood.

In the pre-Code film era, Vinson was versatile, playing lead and supporting roles. Described as self-involved and unsympathetic, she often played characters who were typically wealthy or trying to recapture lost fortune. She was also prone to being typecast as the "other woman" or the "loose woman", roles audiences were not supposed to like. However, Vinson played these roles so convincingly at times that audiences found themselves sympathizing with her in spite of their better judgment. A perfect example of this feat was her successful role in "The Wedding Night".

Vinson married twice more, first to a British tennis player and finally to a socialite. After marrying her third husband (the socialite), upon his wishes, she retired from acting. She spent out the rest of her days traveling around the country with her husband and being a supportive wife. Upon her husbands death, she lived out the last of her days enjoying Broadway shows and caring for horses, dying of natural causes at the age of 94.

Robert E. Burns

Robert E. Burns was the author of the memoir "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang!", which tells the story of his escape from a chain gang in Georgia. Burns, a World War I veteran, was sentenced to his punishment of 6-10 years on a chain gang for working with a friend to rob a grocery store for a little less than 6 dollars. He was able to escape with the help of a few other inmates, and moved to Chicago to avoid anything having to do with jail or the south. His wife, whom he tried to leave for a much younger lady, sued him and reportedly tipped off the judge that he was an escaped convict, and he was sent back to the chain gang. Burns escaped yet again and moved to New York to begin writing his autobiography, and he was able to get pardoned for his crime and lived as a free man until his death in 1955. His writings and the eventual films that resulted are said to be responsible for the ending of the chain gang system as punishment.

Robert Burns used his years of freedom to write and work in business, and used his connections in the political spectrum to get his pardon many years after he escaped. His book was the only work that he did in the film industry, and its legacy helped abolish the idea of using chain gangs to destroy the prisoners' will to live through grueling manual labor. Burns wanted the truth to be known about the hard times he faced for such a menial crime, and his book changed the way prison systems worked in the mid 20th century. His willingness to fight for his pardon and freedom showed how passionate he was about changing the system, otherwise he would not have risked going to jail for a third time and facing even more severe punishment for twice escaping the chain gangs.

This is a link to a newspaper article from 1930 that describes Burn's escape. I thought this was a neat first-hand account of these events and calls for people to watch out for this "dangerous" man.


Glenda Farrell

A native of Oklahoma, Glenda Farrell was encouraged to become an actress by her Alsatian mother, who had cherished dreams of the spotlight herself. Accordingly, at age seven, Farrell began playing the role of Little Eva in an adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1920, while dancing at a San Diego Navy benefit ball, she met the WWI veteran who would become her first husband, Thomas Richards. Though he was penniless, the two married and created a vaudeville act together, but their relationship crumbled when Richards succumbed to alcoholism and absenteeism.

Eventually, however, the blond Farrell was cast as the lead in the play The Spider; her predecessor had been fired for dying her hair black. The show eventually moved to New York, launching Farrell on an extremely successful career. After signing with the Warner Brothers studio, Farrell made a number of movies in which she played wisecracking, gold-digging characters. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was one of her first major films, but she did not receive the acclaim she would later receive for her portrayal of the quick-witted, fast-talking reporter Torchy Blane (the inspiration for the Lois Lane of the Superman cartoons).

Farrell considered most of her roles rather out-of-character, describing herself as more serious and less "wangling" than her characters. After getting sick while touring in New York, Farrell developed a deep love for the doctor who cured her, Henry Ross: they got married and lived happily for the thirty years until her death. Because Ross was a West Point grad, Farrell is the only actor buried in the academy's cemetery.

Amusingly, Farrell was very fond of her cat, Frankie, who was very short-sighted and would walk around the house bumping into furniture. Accordingly, she took him to an eye doctor, who fitted the cat with glasses: