Friday, 23 July 2021

Jan Troell 90 years today

One of the most celebrated of Swedish filmmakers is undoubtedly Jan Troell, who today turns 90. He is still active, re-cutting one of his films, Bang! (1977), for a re-release, and participating in exhibitions and retrospectives, at home and abroad, about his work and art.

His first feature-length film, after years of making short films, is Here is Your Life/Här har du ditt liv (1966). It is set in the far north of Sweden during the years of World War 1 and focuses on a young man, a boy at first, who leaves home to travel around the country looking for jobs, discovering sex and socialism, and finally getting a job as a projectionist at a cinema. There he eventually sees newsreel footage that the war is over, and he quits, finally buys that hat he has been wanting for so long, and leaves, potentially heading for Paris.

It was probably the longest Swedish film made up until that point, over 160 minutes, and it is certainly among the most beautiful. Troell's cinematography, primarily black and white but at times in colour, and with some sequences even animated, captures the far north like few, if any, other Swedish films, both the deep snow in winter and the short and ethereal summer. He mixes all kinds of techniques, as if thrilled by the amazing possibilities of the camera and the editing board, and not wanting to leave anything out. And every character is played to perfection by many of Sweden's best actors, often in small parts. I particularly like Ulf Palme as a foreman at a sawmill and Gunnar Björnstrand as the owner of the cinema. The film is an endless source of pleasure, including Eddie Axberg in the lead role.

Troell is his own editor and cinematographer (from the late 1990s together with Mischa Gavrjusjov), and his style is impressive. A combination of raw realism, lyrical interludes, and expressionistic touches, and where the natural world plays an important part; trees, grass, insects, water given as much attention as the characters. The narrative often consists of vignettes and sketch-like scenes, capturing a mood or a significant moment, without necessarily highlighting its importance. In that regard many scenes do not forward the story in a conventional sense but work together to create an impression, or impressions, of the main character. This main character, as so often in Troell's films, is a person who is a dreamer and seeker, who wants to unleash him- or herself from a quotidian existence, and they are often people from Swedish history, real historical figures. Because another theme of Troell is Sweden itself, its past and its present.

All of the above is present in Here Is Your Life, and they would remain central aspects of his later films, even though not necessarily all at once. Some other films by Troell to mention are the nightmarish Who Saw Him Die/Ole dole doff (1968), about a primary school teacher (as Troell had been); the epics The Emigrants/Utvandrarna (1971) and The New Land/Nybyggarna (1972), about Swedes emigrating to the U.S. in the mid-19th century; Flight of the Eagle/Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (1982), about a failed expedition by balloon to the North Pole in 1897; the documentary Land of Dreams/Sagolandet (1988), Hamsun (1996), about the Norwegian writer who during World War 2 embraced the Nazis; As White as in Snow/Så vit som en snö (2001), about the Swedish aviation pioneer Elsa Andersson; and Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (2008), about a hard-working woman with a brutal husband who finds solace in photography during the 1910s. The everlasting moments are the images that she captures with her camera, and in that she is a kindred spirit of Troell.

But this post is not meant to be a critical evaluation of Troell's oeuvre, in all its strengths and weaknesses, but a celebration of a remarkable filmmaker on his 90th birthday!

Friday, 9 July 2021

1930 to 1945 by the numbers Part V (adaptations or original stories at the box office)

One of the more common complaints about contemporary Hollywood is that they have run out of ideas and are only recycling already well-known materials and doing remakes and adaptations. It is not only a common complaint now, but it has almost always been a common complaint. Some claim that this is what ruined Hollywood in the late 1970s, that pre-packaged films based on famous books/comics/shows took over what had once been a place of original ideas. But as I pointed out in one of my articles about "New Hollywood" it has always been the case that Hollywood bought the rights to whatever was big and successful and made a film adaptation of it. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is not something that is unique to Hollywood, or to mainstream films. Cinema as an art form is to a large extent built on adapting stories already told in some other art form, whether novels, plays, short stories, songs, poems, essays, or other films. Bergman, Fassbinder, Akerman, Kurosawa, Visconti, Zetterling, Hitchcock, Ford, Tarkovsky, Hawks, Troell, Denis, Truffaut; they have all made films based on other material instead of original stories. That is not particularly interesting. It is what they do with the material that matters. And so it is in Hollywood at the height of the studio era. Continuing my project of investigating the period 1930 to 1945 (read introduction here), I will now take a look at this topic. How many of the box office hits from those years were adaptations, and what were they adapted from, and how many were original stories?

Here are the lists of all films, year for year, and what their source material was. (All the necessary caveats are presented here.) I make a distinction between novel and book, and use the latter when it is a work of non-fiction. The first list is 1930 to 1935, then 1936 to 1941, and then 1942 to 1945. Films marked with yellow are those I believe should be counted among the top ten box office hits of that year but I have not had it confirmed. The many films made in 1943 and 1944 explicitly to boost the morale of troops during World War 2 are difficult to classify.

Out of 166 films, 42% were original stories (70 films), making it the most common form. 50 were adaptations of books, 17 of plays, and 15 of short stories or novellas. The rest were based on other things, like radio shows or operettas. Most of those 17 adaptations of plays were made in the first half of the 1930s, after which they almost disappeared.

One thing to consider is that there is not much point in making distinctions between original stories and adaptations. The quality or originality of a given film is almost completely unrelated to that factor. It is not always easy to decide whether a film is an original story or not, as there are many layers and various factors involved. If a film is based on a novel but entirely rewritten so that all that remains are some characters and the setting, is it even relevant to call it an adaptation. What is an original story anyway? Above I have marked a film as an original story only if it has not got any specific source of any kind. But that does not mean that those stories are more original or that the others are less interesting or daring.

In an upcoming post I will compare the figures presented here with the Academy Award nominees for best film and see whether there are more, fewer, or the same amount of adaptations among them. 


Previous posts in the 1930-1945 project are:

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Friday, 25 June 2021


It has been two weeks so there should be a new blog post today but since it is midsummer here in Sweden I shall not be providing any groundbreaking historical research, or much else either, this week. You are more likely to find me eating ice cream in the shade of a tree on a suitable square than watching a film. The next, proper, post will be up two weeks from now.

Friday, 11 June 2021

1930 to 1945 by the numbers Part IV (Oscar nominees vs box office hits)

Previous articles within my 1930 to 1945 project were concerned with box office figures. Which films, studios, genres, directors, and actors were the most prominent ones at the box office. This article will look at the Academy Award nominees for best film for that time period, and compare it to the box office lists. What is the same and what is different? Is MGM as dominant there as it was at the box office?

Here are all the nominees for best film for each year. As you can see the number of films that were nominated varied a lot from year to year.

There are in total 142 films, and while there are overlaps with the most successful films, box office wise, there are also differences. Of those that made it onto the top ten lists for each year (see earlier post), 61 also got nominated for best film. Among the nominees are also several European films, four British and one French, and there are more production companies involved. MGM is the studio with the most nominations, but it does not dominate as much as at the box office.

For both the box office successes and best film nominees, the same three studios are in the top: MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros, with MGM having the most films either way. Of the 142 films, 34 were made by MGM, which makes 24%. That is a lot but still considerably less than at the box office, where MGM dominated with 35%. Paramount also lost something, 11,3% among the nominees but 18% of the box office. They were overtaken by Warner Bros., which had 11% of the box office hits but 17,8% among the nominated films. Several small independent productions got nominated that were not among the box office hits, such as The Caddo Company (The Front Page 1931), Hal Roach Productions (Of Mice and Men 1939), Sol Lesser (Our Town 1940), and Argosy-Wanger (The Long Voyage Home 1940). A neglected part of the history of the studio era are definitely the independents, beyond David O. Selznick.

The European productions that got nominated for best picture were The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), La grande illusion (1937), Pygmalion (1938), 49th Parallel (1941) and In Which We Serve (1942). The last two could be seen as contributions to the war effort (and 49th Parallel is set in Canada) but the first three are interesting, especially the inclusion of La grande illusion as the only non-English language film for the whole period. It shows in what immense esteem the film was held, and still is.

The kind of films that are nominated for best film are more or less the same as those that were the most profitable, but with some artistically more daring films nominated, and fewer melodramas, musicals, and rambunctious comedies. There are no European films among the box office hits, and none of Orson Welles's films either. The films by Chaplin were considerably more popular among the audiences than among the voters at the Academy.

That is one thing that signals a difference between box office hits and best film nominees, who directed the films that were nominated, compared to who directed box office hits.

These were the directors who did the most films among the box office hits:

Clarence Brown (mainly MGM), Frank Capra (Columbia), Mervyn LeRoy (WB and MGM), Michael Curtiz (WB), and Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount) had 5 films each. George Cukor (three studios) and Henry King (Fox and Twentieth Century-Fox) had 6 films each. Victor Fleming (Fox and MGM) had 7 films, and W.S. Van Dyke 8 films, all for MGM.

Among the nominees for best film, it is instead William Wyler who has directed the most films: seven. The following directed six each: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Sam Wood, Frank Capra, and Michael Curtiz. George Cukor too, but one of them was co-directed with Ernst Lubitsch, One Hour with You (1932). The following had five films among the nominees: Henry King, Leo McCarey, and Lubitsch (including One Hour with You).

Only Capra, LeRoy, Curtiz, Cukor, and King are on both lists. Van Dyke, and especially DeMille, did a lot better with the audiences than with the members of the Academy. Here are all the best film nominees again, but with their directors instead of studio/producer:

You might want to compare it to the list of those who were nominated for best direction:

73 nominations, to 37 directors. Wyler, Capra, and Clarence Brown got five each. Ford and Curtiz got four each. Hitchcock, although he did not arrive until 1940, still managed three.

This research work continues, and in future posts I want to look at, for example, the extent to which the films at the box office, as well as among those nominated for best film, were based on previously published material, such as novels, short stories, or articles.


The earlier articles in this series:

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