Six Damn Fine Degrees #10: Ed Wood

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Johnny Depp as Edward D. Wood Jr.

If there ever was a prime example of positive thinking gone awry, it has to be Tim Burton’s interpretation of Edward D. Wood Jr.

A filmmaker in the 50’s, an era of highly localized and diversified cinema where there was still a space for worse-than-B grade films, the real Ed Wood’s two best known films are Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. He is most noted for being voted the worst director of all time, posthumously, in 1980. It is clear he wanted to make extraordinary movies, but lacked everything, from money to quality control to, well, competence. But they do have… personality.

Note: spoilers below…

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #1: Body and Soul – John Garfield.

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. It’s not just big names, it’s anyone. How everyone is a new door opening into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet…

Welcome to our new weekly feature: Six Damn Fine Degrees. These installments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation, in the loosest sense. One contributor writes about the film Six Degrees Of Separation, to which we owe the partial quote above? The next piece might be about Will Smith, who is in it. Or Sydney Poitier, whose son Smith’s character claims to be. Or John Guare, who wrote the original play. Or even Pam Grier, who was snubbed for a Best Actress Oscar, as was Stockard Channing. And it needn’t be just people. It can be plays, music, books, films, video games, anything we, as culture baristas, feel we should write about. The only rule is that it connects – in some way – to the previous installment. We hope our readers will enjoy our forays into interconnectedness. As the man said: it’s a small world, after all.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Mildred Harris (1901)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“You can’t use my name in your pictures!”, said Charlie Chaplin and charged.

At the Alexandria Hotel, on the 7th of April 1920, Louis B. Mayer stuck out his fist just in time for an irate Charlie Chaplin to barrel into it. Chaplin had ordered Mayer to take off his glasses to aim a punch: both men fell, and had to be escorted out. The reason for this kerfuffle, meanwhile, was 800 miles away, dancing the foxtrot with the Prince of Wales. The famously belligerent producer had signed one Mildred Harris Chaplin for the sum of 50.000 dollars a picture, plus a percentage, to be able to use the Chaplin name.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne Australia on Boxing Day 1906, it was standing room only. Advertised by its producers as “The longest film ever made”, the reels ran over 1200 metres, about an hour. Today there are those who claim it was the very first narrative feature film ever made. Of course films were made before that time, mainly shorts; the Salvation Army, for example, had released many short biblical films in Australia by 1900. Whether they were Australian, American or European films, however, they rarely exceeded 30 minutes, or about 600 metres of film.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Lois Weber – Suspense (1913)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Even according to Wikipedia, J.W. Griffith “seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language”. Griffith is credited to have been “the first” to invent such innovations as intercutting, or even, absurdly, the close-up. However, he did not. There were many filmmakers before him to use such innovations, and during the span of his career, there were many others using these techniques to great, or better, effect. It is often difficult, seeing how much early film is lost, to determine who was “the first” to do anything. But it is certain that many early filmmakers used such techniques to “create an expressive language” before Griffith’s career was made by the massive, though controversial, success of his racist, excessive tour de force in 1915.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Spontaneous Combustion, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford (1917)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Frances Marion and Mary Pickford

When Mary Pickford and Frances Marion met in 1914, Marion may well have believed that fate was playing a hand in her favour. Not long before she had met and befriended Marie Dressler, the famous vaudevillian. Marion was then a cub reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper. The interview was probably a joke at Marion’s expense: Dressler despised Hearst and everything connected to him. Marion, however, pleaded with Dressler, “I will lose my job!”, she insisted. “Is that what those bastards told you?!” replied Dressler, and granted Marion the interview. Marion would never forget the kindness, the women became lifelong friends, and much later she would return the favour. And now she had an opportunity to meet a rising star, whose quality films already stood out for Marion, Mary Pickford.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

In our current times, Douglas Fairbanks is best known for his swashbuckling films. Chances are that one of your first silents was a film he made. But at the time, making The Mark of Zorro was quite the risk, for an actor best known for light comedy work and westerns. Especially since he was also co-founding United Artists, with such luminaries as Chaplin, Pickford and Griffith. If audiences wouldn’t accept Fairbanks’ re-branding, his career might very well fail. The decision for his first more meaty role to be Zorro, then, was an inspired one. He gets to show off his comedic chops, as well as his incredible athleticism.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Safety Last! (1923)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin. To a lesser extent perhaps, Buster Keaton too. But the third giant in this comedy trifecta, Harold Lloyd, is not as well known nowadays, although he made more films than the two of them combined. This may be because of distribution issues (Lloyd, in his later days, would only allow screenings of his films on special occasions). But perhaps even more so because the need-to-succeed everyman of his ’20s films was felt to be old-fashioned.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Jazz Singer (1927)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Despite its reputation as the first full length feature with synchronised sound, The Jazz Singer is a silent for most of its running time. When Sam Warner of Warner Brothers bought Vitaphone in 1925, despite the misgivings of his brother Harry, it was not because he thought that “Talkies” were the future: it was because they could record a film’s music, making a full orchestra unnecessary for showings. The process was complicated and ponderous. But the future did belong to the Talkies, and so The Jazz Singer is still famous today for being the first of its kind.

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The Rear-View Mirror: The Divorcee (1930)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

The Divorcee begins with a group of friends which make up the in-crowd of New York society. Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are in love. They decide to get married. Paul (Conrad Nagel), who also loves Jerry, is firmly relegated to the friend zone. Gutted, he proceeds to get drunk and gets into a car accident that disfigures one of the other women of the group: Dot (Judith Wood). Ur-‘Nice Guy’ that he is, he marries her out of pity. Wedding bells and domesticity, sacrifice and unrequited love. So far, so Hollywood. Female facepalm. But then halfway Shearer delivers the following searing monologue:

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