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Reviews 1984-1988


The Last Laugh

B&W. 1924. Emil Jannings, Mary Delshaft, Kurt Hiller; dir. F. W. Murnau. 74 min. Beta, VHS. $19.95. Kartes. Reproduction: C

The Last Laugh is unusual because it uses no title cards; everything is explained through visuals. It is, as Hitchcock might have said, pure cinema.  It is also relentlessly downbeat: a stylized tale of a fall from grace, in this case that of an old doorman (Emil Jannings), proud of his job and uniform, who finds himself demoted to lavatory attendant. German director F. W. Murnau, who made the vampire movie N osferatu and the semisound classic Sunrise, uses all the cinema's tricks including superimposition, close-ups, cutaways, panning shots, and lighting to depict the deteriorating psyche of the protagonist. He offers a vivid lesson about the dangers of pride and the cruelty of the world, only partly blunted by a ridiculous comic epilogue. (In it, Iannings inherits a fortune and his problems are solved; whoever added sound effects to this print also included a spoken apologia for this sequence.)

Murnau is one of those "might have been" directors whose reputation rests on a handful of movies but who died in a car crash just after he moved to Hollywood, and before he realized his full potential. His work is subtler than Abel Gance's (whose flashy Napoleon received such acclaim a few years ago), yet his achievement is in some ways more-impressive.

Unfortunately The Last Laugh is hurt by the inferior quality of this VHS rendering. Much of the movie's effect depends on its imagery. But in this version it is often unclear what is going on: the whites are washed out, the blacks muddy. In addition the music and sound, tacked on by some later producer, are often obtrusive, working against the images Murnau labored so hard to create. Which is all too bad, because this movie, more than most, depends on the look. As it is, few could sit through it and fewer could recognize the work of genius.


The Original Keystone Comedies, Vol. 1 B&W. 1915. Roscoe Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain. 46 min. Beta, VHS. $19.95. Kartes. Reproduction: B

Poor "Fatty" Arbuckle. All he ever wanted was to be in show business. From his childhood in the 1890s on, he performed wherever he could-singing at socials, working with a touring theatrical company, collecting tickets, doing a blackface number, singing ballads in a nickolodeon-until finally he was cast by producer Mack Sennett as a "Keystone Cop. " Stardom soon followed in a series of one- and two-reelers that exploited Arbuckle's girth and babyface looks.

The pity is, it didn't last long. In 1921 an actress died at a wild Hollywood party. Arbuckle was there and was accused of killing her ("Roscoe hurt me," she reportedly said before dying). Three trials later he was acquitted, but his career was finished. "Arbuckle was made a scapegoat," wrote historian David Thomson, "as though after calling a man 'Fatty' for years and rejoicing at his humiliation on film the public could only move in on him with trained hostility." Arbuckle did some odd directing here and there (under the name Will B. Goodrich, or "Will Be Good" -get it?) and even made a pathetic return to vaudeville. But the spark was gone.

It's not much in evidence in these three films: public-domain items from the start of Arbuckle's career. All feature the comedian running; fighting, running, and fighting (along with the rest of the cast). The plots are fairly interchangeable, involving mistaken identities, petty jealousies, and Fatty's continual humiliation. They're really just live-action cartoons with none of the pathos of Chaplin or the cinematic invention of Keaton. As such, however, they should be entertaining for the kids and perhaps for diehard silent-movie buffs.

The VHS transfer is fine, although the movies are washed out and shaky in the manner of most films of that era. Musical accompaniment has been added with little ill effect.

VIDEO, 1984


Weight Watchers' Magazine Guide to a Healthy Lifestyle Color. 1985. Lynn Redgrave, host; dir. Michael Wiese. 60 min. Beta, VHS. Vestron.

It was inevitable that someone would come up with this, a video version of the highly successful Weight Watchers'Magazine. Lynn Redgrave (a celebrated fatty in the film Georgy Girl, now thin) hosts, conducting interviews with "Success Stories" (others who have lost pounds via Weight Watchers). Dr. Henry Grayson uses phrases like "locus of power" and advises viewers to take responsibility for themselves. The tape is slickly produced and has something for almost everyone-tips on cooking, exercise, walking, swimming, even makeup, interspersed with some rather broad and unfunny spots by the High-Heeled Women, a New York comedy troupe. There's good advice here but it can be boiled down to one idea: if you really want to lose weight, you can.


You and Your Dog

Color. 1985. Dr. Michael Fox. 51 min. Beta, VHS. Video Associates (5419 Sunset Blvd., L.A., Calif. 90027).

This tape works best as an instructional. It is worst when it attempts to be funny or dramatic. The host is Dr. Michael Fox, a knowledgable and award-winning veterinarian who has made pet care and pet rights his particular concerns. His tour of treatment ranges from "How to Adopt a Pet" and "Getting Your Dog Used to People" to "The Importance of Play" and "Neutering." Although the background muzak is terrible, the tape succeeds admirably as a live-action pet-care book-with an assortment of cute canines that will melt the hardest heart.

VIDEO, 1985


The Waltons: A Retrospective Color. 1980. Richard Thomas, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, Ralph Waite, Michael Learned. 120 min. Beta, VHS. Karl! Lorimar.

It can be sentimental and corny, but at times The Waltons: A Retrospective can also be effective drama. Using a character's birthday as a jumping off point for memories, the two-hour show hits all the highs and lows of the series' first eight yearsfrom puppy loves and anniversaries to diseases and deaths. The most effective sequences involve Will Geer (who died during the run of the show and is touchingly mourned in one clip) and Richard Thomas. The nadir comes when host Earl Hamner Jr., who based the series on his experiences growing up, introduces members of his own family. They are "interviewed" by their Waltons counterparts in hokey, scripted spots that emphasize the kind of sweet artificiality that is the series' greatest weakness.


Agatha Christie's

Partners in Crime: The Crackler Color. 1982. FrancescaAnnis, james Warwick; dir. Christopher Hodson. 60 min. Beta, VHS. Pacific Arts.

Christie's mysteries are usually cheats: puzzlers that don't give the reader all the clues. Partners in Crime, the British TV series about Christie's 1920s husband-and-wife sleuth team Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, is not only a typical Christie cheat-it's also confusing and dull, so that by the time you reach the solution you have little interest or consciousness left. James Warwick and Francesca Annis (Lillie) are fine as Tommy and Tuppence, a sort of British Nick and Nora Charles, and the plot=-something about counterfeiters in high society-could have been done on The Saint, but it's a leaden affair. The main plus: the period costumes and sets are lovely to look at (and well-reproduced).

VIDEO, 1986


The River

Norma Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Thomas E. Breen. Dir. Jean Renoir. 1951. Connoisseur Video Collection. (NR)

Fans of Jean (Rules of the Game) Renoir and/or exotic nlocales will  enjoy this turgidly paced melodrama, ostensibly about children and adults growing up in India. What it's really about, though, is Indian customs and philosophy, best summed up by the moral of the story: "We must accept life for what it is." Based on a novel by Rumer Godden (who co-wrote the screenplay with Renoir), The River features beautiful location photography and seemingly endless narration -- all of which makes you depended on the river spiritually and physically"). For the feel like you wandered into an Indian Tourist Board production ("people record, the plot involves a one-legged man searching for inner meaning, a young girl who loves him, and a cobra that kills a small boy. The cobra has the best part.

V, 1988