Welcome to the Weekly Movie Thread, where we discuss film. What have you watched recently? What movies are you excited for?
Today’s bonus prompt: What movie effects would you describe as “magical”?
This week celebrates the 90th anniversary of The Great Gabbo. You hear that, Avocado? Garbo is coming!
It’s a strange movie about a ventriloquist and his dummy, Otto. The Great Gabbo (who is the ventriloquist, not the dummy) impresses audiences by drinking and smoking while throwing his voice. He’s also a huge emotionally abusive jerk hole and can only manifest his good side through his puppet. “Little Otto there is the only human thing about you,” his wife says after being yelled at by Gabbo.
I actually do not recommend this movie, as it is 15 minutes of plot stretched out to an hour and a half. The movie is padded with stage performances and musical interludes. Erich Von Stroheim doesn’t even do ventriloquism. (Otto is voiced by an uncredited George Grandee.) I just wanted to make a Simpsons joke.
What I do recommend is another movie celebrating a milestone that prominently features puppets.
The Muppet Movie, the first full-length movie featuring puppets as the main characters, celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year. The movie was directed by James Frawley and was filmed in the middle of The Muppet Show’s third season. Frawley was unhappy directing the film. It had to be an uncanny predicament. I imagine that you have to be of a certain mindset to be directing people with felt puppets on their hands. How would you even begin to tell Kermit or Jim Henson to play a scene a certain way? Which of the two should you be making eye contact at?
The movie featured a host of cameos (among them: Steve Martin, Carole Kane, Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Don DeLuise, Milton Berle, Orson Welles, Mel Brooks, and Madeline Kahn) and music by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher… the most famous being “Rainbow Connection.”
From the Jim Henson biography (written by Brian Jay Jones):
In a water tank on a movie studio backlot, Jim had created an enormous and entirely convincing swamp set, with real trees—shipped in from the Georgia bayous—drooping their branches into a massive tank full of muddy-looking water. Jim’s idea was to sink a custom-made diving bell into the tank, lower himself inside, then perform Kermit up on the surface by sticking his arm up through a rubber sleeve in the top of the diving bell.
It’s clear throughout the book that Henson wanted to break into things other than puppetry. He made short films in his younger years. Destiny is a weird thing though, and that sweet song that calls the young sailors may be a tune that most are unfamiliar with. Puppetry was what he was an expert at, and that’s not something you can say of just anyone. So Henson broke into TV and movies using the fullest extent of his own expertise, and evolving it in new and amazing ways. Previous to Henson, American puppetry was the domain of Kukla, Fran and Olly and Howdy Doody… or repurposed Vaudeville skits like The Great Gabbo. It was low-cost children’s entertainment made of cloth and blocks of wood.
In the hands of Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, David Goelz, and others, they created the very definition of “movie magic.” (Fun fact, both Tim Burton and John Landis are also in the film. They were puppeteers in the final shot.)
And that’s how I would describe that effect… “magical.” When I see that scene in The Muppet Movie, I don’t really think about the work that goes into it even though I know all about it. (It was a very tough scene to shoot too. It took five days to film.)
The part of the rational mind that knows that the character is just a hand covered in felt completely disappears. All I see is Kermit sitting on that log, believing that he’s a real living being. Movie magic may have dimmed somewhat in the age of CGI, but it never really completely disappeared if those people who couldn’t live in a world without Pandora were being serious. (All kidding aside, some of the behind the scenes techniques that went into Avatar were pretty mind-blowing.)
MIGHTY MOVIE MAVENS:
(Apologies, by the way, for the ton of links ahead. There was a lot of good movie reviews that came out this week. I suppose I could’ve trimmed it down. However, a lot of people had some well-written pieces, and I always love to use the space below to give them a stage in case readers missed them the first time around. Cineastes can always check out our “Movies” section to see all the great takes on film.)