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January 29, 2015

Carl Dreyer: Master of the Movie House


For those who are unaware of the history of this blog, the name is something of a parody on a column written by film historian Herman G. Weinberg for the Canadian magazine, "Take One", titled "Coffee, Brandy and Cigars". A relatively hip, though scholarly monthly, Weinberg was the house curmudgeon, who could be counted on to dismiss the current crop of films, while complaining about the Hollywood philistines who mutilated the eight hour version of Greed. Carl Dreyer was one of the handful of directors Weinberg loved to mention as an example of a great artist all but ignored by those with the power to finance his projects. I'm not sure if Weinberg was unaware of what Dreyer was up to when he wasn't making films, or he just wanted to create a myth about an uncompromising filmmaker forced into an ascetic existence due to the indifference of the money men. At any rate, during the latter part of his life, Carl Th. Dreyer ran a movie theater in Copenhagen, Denmark. And that theater showed (gasp) popular Hollywood movies.

If that's not damning enough, Dreyer also won a Golden Globe. Yeah, him and Pia Zadora. This was back in 1956, with Ordet being one of several films to have been named as Best Foreign Film. Some of the awards back then might raise a few eyebrows, like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing promoting "International Understanding". And Pia Zadora has redeemed herself with several music videos and a very funny performance in John Water's Hairspray. Still, Dreyer's relationship with Hollywood isn't totally antithetical.

Discussion about Dreyer's management of the Dagmar theater mentions some of the more critically acclaimed directors whose films Dreyer chose to present, as well as how Dreyer got to manage a movie theater. But what struck me is that some of the films shown were not always the ones discussed by serious cinephiles of the time.

During the same year as he premiered his own Ordet, Dreyer showed Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water and Jean Negulesco's Three Coins in a Fountain, two color and CinemaScope productions from 20th Century-Fox. Dreyer would seem to hold Martin Ritt in higher esteem than the American critical establishment with the five films shown at the Dagmar. Maybe it was commercial considerations, but Dreyer had no problem booking Paul Wendkos' Gidget or Phil Karlson's The Young Doctors. The man who made Vampyr didn't seem to care for horror movies as a rule, with Robert Wise's The Haunting being the sole exception.

Conspicuous in his absence would be Rudolph Mate. The former cinematographer of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr had a few films worth seeing when he moved to the director's chair. I wrote about a couple of films Mate made with Glenn Ford that visually shared some of the look of the work Mate did with Dreyer, especially The Green Glove, shot on location in France, with cinematography by Claude Renoir. Surprisingly, Joe Pevney makes it on this list with Cash McCall, and admittedly, Natalie Wood looks great in that silly film.

That there are a handful of films from Charles Walters may be enough proof that far from being a snob about cinema, Carl Dreyer had no problem with films that might not have aspired to be art, but were, without argument, solid entertainment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 29, 2015 07:52 AM