February 2008

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This is the second Scorsese film we’ve shown to our class this semester. The first was Gangs of New York, also starring recent Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, though in a very different role — or is it?

In a way, as different as these films seem, they share a fascination not only with old New York but with a sort of tribal violence bred by class stratification in American culture — as played out in the nineteenth-century city, itself a product and symptom of modern capitalism.

And as Cyrus pointed out in his last entry, about the connections between this film and William Wyler’s adaptation of James’s Washington Square, Scorsese also sets out, in this film, to examine “the emotional violence that lies at the heart of a tradition that readers tend to associate with genteel behavior: the novel of manners.”

In other words, watch for all the red at the end of the trailer, and pay attention to the relationship between color — especially the color red — and the codes of polite society in the rest of the film.

The simmering sexuality in Age if Innocence is ultimately repressed; all Scorsese’s unfolding flowers, then, may have more to do with (figurative) bloodstains.

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Today, Bryan and I are showing The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson, and Montgomery Clift. It makes a nice pairing with last week’s film, Dead End (1937): both were directed by the legendary director William Wyler and both are adaptations of successful Broadway plays.

heiress_dvd_cover.jpgIn this case, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s play of the same name was itself an adaptation – of Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880). Both play and film highlight the melodramatic aspects of James’s novel (see the poster featured on the cover of the DVD case at right). De Havilland, best known today for her supporting role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), won an Oscar for her portrayal of the heiress, Catherine Sloper. Catherine’s final words to her aunt about her intentions towards the man to whom she was once betrothed aren’t in James’s novel and are a wonderful addition to the story. The expression on de Havilland’s face in the final scene is justification enough for her Academy Award.

An added bonus is the score, by the composer Aaron Copland (known for such pieces as “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring”), which also won an Oscar.

The Heiress also makes a nice pairing with next week’s film, Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920).

Scorsese has said that The Heiress made a profound impression on him when he saw it as a child: “When I was 9 my father took me to see The Heiress, the Henry James story with Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. It was a double bill with a Western — my dad figured he’d get to see the good movie, and I’d enjoy the Western. I don’t remember the Western, but I never forgot this incredible movie. I felt this emotional violence between father and daughter. My dad and I always talked about it.” Wyler’s film became one of the inspirations for the Scorsese’s version of The Age of Innocence, which investigates the emotional violence that lies at the heart of a tradition that readers tend to associate with genteel behavior: the novel of manners.


Only in New York …



Blown away? Get the complete lowdown here.

This week, in conjunction with our Writing New York class, Bryan and I are screening William Wyler’s 1937 film Dead End, starring the Bronx-born Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart, who had not yet become a screen icon. In fact, Sidney received top billing when the Dead End was released. The film also features the first screen appearance of the “Dead End Kids.”


Dead End is an adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s 1934 play of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 1935 and ran for two years. Wyler and the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn saw the production and decided to bring the play to the screen, hiring the writer Lillian Hellman to do the adaptation.

The play’s producers had hired fourteen local boys to appear in the production, and six of them (Gabriel Dell, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, and Bernard Punsly) were eventually brought to Hollywood to appear in the film and given two-year studio contracts. They caused such a ruckus on the set, however, that Goldwyn sold their contracts to Warner Brothers. The Dead End Kids made six films with Warner Brothers, including two more with Bogart – Crime School (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) – but misbehavior on the set led Warner to release them from their contracts. The Dead End Kids subsequently ended up working with various studios and spawned such ensembles as “The Little Tough Guys,” The East Side Kids,” and “The Bowery Boys.” All in all, the various iterations of the Dead End Kids starred in 89 films and three serials with four different studios.

Set in New York’s Lower East Side during a single day and night, Dead End focuses on a young woman named Drina Gordon (Sylvia Sidney), who is trying to keep her younger brother, Tommy (Billy Halop) from turning to a life of crime. She’s also in love with Dave Connell, a struggling architect played by Joel McCrea, who is, in turn, trying to woo the heiress Kay Burton (Wendie Barrie) in the hope that she can help him leave the slums behind. Into their lives steps Dave’s childhood pal, “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart), a gangster who’s returning to the neighborhood of his youth after a ten-year crime spree and significant plastic surgery. When Martin begins to corrupt Tommy and then plots to kidnap the nephew of a judge, Dave is forced to reassess his priorities and his allegiances.

Although it’s set in a later time period, the film helps to illuminate the culture of the streets depicted in some of the texts we read, particularly Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), and Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893). Although it might seem sentimental to a twenty-first century audience, Dead End was regarded as hard-hitting in its time and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. William Wyler would go on to direct Jezebel and Wuthering Heights during the next two years, and he would win directing Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1947). In 1949, he served as the director for another, rather different, adaptation of a play about New York life. Focusing on the upper crust of New York society rather than its lower classes, The Heiress (1949) was adapted from Augustus Goetz’s stage version of Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880).

We’ll be reading James’s novel and showing The Heiress next week.

Wyler went on to direct several other now-classic Hollywood films, including Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), which earned him another directing Oscar, and Funny Girl (1968). In 1966, he won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award given periodically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

Dead End is currently available on DVD. Its running time is 92 minutes.



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BORN IN FLAMES (dir. Lizzie Borden, 1983), 80 minutes

WHEN: Tuesday 5 February 2008, 6pm

WHERE: 53 Washington Square South, Room 428

All Welcome. Refreshments provided.

“The right to violence is like the right to pee: you’ve gotta have the right

place and the right time.” One of the headiest, most fiercely out-there

independent films of the 1980s, BORN IN FLAMES is an unclassifiable mash-up

of science fiction, post-No Wave docudrama and exercise in radical

dialectics. Set ten years after the Social Democratic War of Liberation, it

depicts a tumbledown, self-proclaimedly Socialist New York in which

competing groups of women, when they’re not pedaling across the city on

their bicycles in order to attack macho idiots and discontented hard-hats

hitting on their sisters, fight for a braver, more combatively feminist new


BORN IN FLAMES is a seething, combustible and strangely joyous time capsule

of a film, populated by black separatists, vigilante groups and brusque FBI

agents, that was inspired in part by the Italian free-radio movement of the

1970s and 1980. It features a range of downtown luminaries – Adele Bertei

(The Contortions, The Bloods), Kathryn Bigelow and, in his first screen

appearance, Eric Bogosian – and is accompanied by a terrific soundtrack of

post punk, art rock and hip hop. A feminist classic, a piercing critique of

the media structures that pervert and betray social reality, as well as a

bulletin from the frontline of a still-raging set of ideological conflicts,

its scene of the World Trade Center being bombed alone makes it an absolute

must see.

The screening will be introduced by Asad Raza, writer and PhD candidate in

the English department at NYU.

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