The Steps of Age (Ben Maddow, 1950)

MMC! returns to the work of Ben Maddow, this time with him in the role of writer/director and working in collaboration with Helen Levitt as producer and Sidney Meyers as editor. Maddow’s short film The Steps of Age (also known as The Stairs, 1950) was sponsored by the National Association of Mental Health, produced by the Department of Mental Health for the State of South Carolina, and organized by the Mental Health Film Board, and it focuses on the strain of aging and retirement through the figure of Mrs. Potter (Rose Spencer), a 62 year-old woman challenged with a listless husband forced into retirement and then the difficulty of moving in with her daughter’s family. The short ultimately promotes the need for empathy, respect, and appreciation by Mrs. Potter and her daughter (played by James Agee’s younger sister Emma), along with an acceptance of old-age and the changing roles that accompany it. The Steps of Age garnered a Documentary Short Oscar nomination, losing to Edmund Reek’s Why Korea? (1950).

Muscle Beach (Irving Lerner and Joseph Strick, 1948)

Our next stop on the way to MMC!’s forthcoming Criterion Collection proposal brings us south of the Santa Monica Pier to the original Muscle Beach and to Joseph Strick and Irving Lerner’s Muscle Beach (1948). Strick had met Irving Lerner and other left-wing filmmakers through connections with a youth theatre company in New York. After enrolling to study physics at UCLA (because “that’s where movies were made”), Strick signed up as an aerial photographer searching of U-boats off the Atlantic coast during World War II. He worked as a copy boy at The Los Angeles Times upon his return to civilian life and shot Muscle Beach on weekends with the assistance of Lerner and using an army surplus bombsight camera with a “bottle-glass” lens and rigged up with a viewfinder made from “sellotape and paperclips.”

Muscle Beach is a warmly satirical look at an emerging subculture of bodybuilders, gymnasts, and exhibitionists. Originally constructed in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration as a park on a public beach, Muscle Beach in the 1940s has become a standing joke in trade magazines and a source of innuendo in Hollywood gossip columns. The short responds to this view with a lighthearted celebration of soaring feats, flirty sunbathers, and playing children, buoyed by music composed and sung by folk singer Earl Robinson with lyrics by screenwriter and poet Edwin Rolfe. Muscle Beach played in competition at Cannes in 1949, won a prize at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1951, and became a cult favourite among film clubs.

In the Street (James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb, 1948)

Our second stop along the way the MMC!’s next proposal brings us to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and In the Street (1948), a short documentary made by a trio of brilliant American polymaths: critic and novelist James Agee, photographer Helen Levitt, and painter and screenwriter Janice Loeb. The three friends shot the film in 1945 and 1946, near where they lived, with Levitt editing the short into its final version. Originally titled I Hate 110th Street, a phrase captured in an image of children’s chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, In the Street began with footage originally shot by Agee that directly engaged with his subjects, capturing the vitality of children mugging at the camera with gleeful abandon. Levitt’s approach for additional footage mirrored her trickery in still photography. Pointing her camera at Agee or Loeb, her sister-in-law, as decoys, she used a right-angled viewfinder to catch her true subjects unawares. While Agee’s footage anticipates the direct cinema movement, Levitt’s sideways gaze reveals urban life at its most unmediated, save for her expert framing. Theorist Siegfried Kracauer hailed the documentary as “reportage pure and simple,” presenting a collection of seemingly random experiences infused with an “unconcealed compassion for the people depicted” and a tenderness that never converts them into “anything but themselves.” The short was also a favourite of Charlie Chaplin, who never tired of imitating its young participants.

People of the Cumberland (Robert Stebbins, Eugene Hill, Elia Kazan, and William Watts, 1937)

In anticipation of our next proposal for the Criterion Collection, MMC! will lead the way a series of “Son of Wholphin” posts focusing on a group of short films that will set a path to and through our next feature subject. We start with People of the Cumberland, a documentary short from 1937 directed by Elia Kazan, William Watts, Eugene Hill (credited as Jay Leyda), and Sidney Meyers (credited as Eugene Hill). The film concerns a progressive adult education project, Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, located in the mountain community of Monteagle, Tennessee. Demonstrating the School’s impact on the impoverished coal mining region, the short pivots toward the growing labour movement and advocates for a “new kind of America” free from economic exploitation and privation. The film was made under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration, a New Deal agency, and as part of the Federal Arts Project program. Written by Erskine Caldwell and Ben Maddow (credited as David Wolff), the short is an excellent document of its time and a rousingly populist essay thanks to the narration of Richard Blaine and the footage shot by Ralph Steiner.

Payday (Daryl Duke, 1972)

FOR MAURY DANN, EVERY DAY IS “PAYDAY”

In a rare starring role, Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a hard-living country singer traveling the Deep South honky tonk circuit. Dann’s good ol’ boy smile charms even passing fans, but in private he is a greedy, entitled, and pitiless tyrant ruling from the back seat of a Cadillac sedan. Set over a day and a half, Payday reveals Maury’s unrepentant selfishness and cynicism, bedding young fans, popping pills, and casting off members of his entourage once they have outlasted his needs. Dann’s self-serving and hedonistic ways come to a head in a late night parking lot scuffle, transforming his megalomania into inevitable self-destruction.

Music critic and Payday producer Ralph Gleason declared that the objective of this staggeringly jaundiced portrait was a desire to provide an honest portrayal of life in the country music business. Under the direction of Daryl Duke (The Silent Partner), Payday rejected the polished image of country music, pointed the way toward the approaching outlaw country movement, and placed a spotlight on the magnetic presence of Rip Torn.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Feature-length audio commentary with director Daryl Duke and producer Saul Zaentz
  • Risk Management, a new interview with actor Michael C. Gwynne
  • Ride-along, a new interview with actor Elayne Heilveil
  • Passing Through, a new interview with actor Cliff Emmich
  • The Music Man, a new interview with music supervisor Ed Bogas
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by musician and scholar Kim Simpson

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Peace on Earth (Hugh Harman, 1939) and Good Will To Men (Joseph Barbera and William Hanna, 1955)

Nothing says Christmas like a post-apocalyptic rumination on peace by anthropomorphic rodents and so MMC! happily presents Hugh Harman’s Peace on Earth (1939) and its Cinemascope remake, Joseph Barbera and William Hanna’s Good Will To Men (1955). Peace on Earth’s anti-war sentiment is expressed through a grandfather squirrel who describes the senseless self-destruction of humankind through war (guessed at as a battle between vegetarians and meat-eaters). The short’s rotoscoped depictions of gas masked soldiers are chilling and provide a rather staggering contrast to the pleasantly plump and happily caricatured animals that now claim domain over the Earth. Hanna and Barbera’s post-World War II version manages to be even grimmer in its details, taking images of infantry helmets and gas masks and adding flame-throwers, machine guns, bazookas, missiles, and nuclear annihilation. In doing so, Good Will To Men brings man’s capacity for mutual destruction into fearsome relief. Both of these MGM shorts garnered Academy Award nominations and Peace on Earth in particular has developed a reputation in the animation field as being Harman’s masterpiece and a heralded classic of the form.

To all those who stumble into the blog (intentionally or not), Make Mine Criterion! wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season!

Stay safe, share some love, and watch something amazing!