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I'm planning to write on this film at length, but for now I just want to offer a quick but enthusiastic recommendation for William Wellman's Frisco Jenny (1932). I watched it for the first time a few weeks ago and was shocked to find myself crying at the end--shocked because until the tears started flowing I thought I was just watching a pretty good genre film of the pre-code era. I knew at that moment that I wasn't crying because of a few especially good shots and nicely plotted twists (although it has both). The film had something special. The tears were a cumulative effect. I watched it again this morning with a notepad, pausing and rewinding when necessary, and the exercise confirmed my suspicions. Most surprising, I cried again, despite all of the starts and stops and notetaking. If Claire Denis made a Dreyer film in 1932 Hollywood, it would be Frisco Jenny!

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Link to our thread on Brad Bird's 1906, where this film has been mentioned before.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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It passed Darren's cry test; it must be a masterpiece.smile.png

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Oops, I forgot the smiley face.:)

Actually, I am a firm believer in crying during movies (and music and books), even though I can't recall weeping in a theater since fall '05 (the penultimate scene in Polanski's Oliver Twist). My sentimental sense could certainly use a tuneup.

Your enthusiasm has made me interested in this film. I think TCM's Forbidden Hollywood collection is one of the more exciting DVD projects of the last ten years. The few I've seen from that series--Baby Face, Wild Boys of the Road--are quite brilliant.

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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  • 4 weeks later...

What a fine analysis, Darren. It reminds me a little of Lea Jacobs' book length study of the "fallen woman" melodrama, particularly the section concerning Blonde Venus, in which Jacobs demonstrates how Josef von Sternberg managed to manipulate certain narrative conventions through visual style while simultaneously satisfying the requirements of the Code. I like the metaphysical slant of your essay, though, and it would be so cool to see Frisco Jenny inducted into the canon of film saints.

 

I should've watched the film before reading your piece, though. I can't hold it back any longer; I'm going home and watching it right now.

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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  • 1 month later...

"Burn it. Don't leave a trace of me."

 

Darren wasn't kidding about that ending, alright. What struck me most about it, besides that evocative dolly-in, was the strange, almost imperceptible susurrus on the soundtrack, like the howl of wind or the whistle of a distant train. What was it? 

 

One of the things I've discovered about myself is that I am only able to be moved (I mean really moved--moved to tears) when there is some kind of aural/musical component working in concert with the imagery. Here is proof: Frisco Jenny would not have been the same for me without that strange, haunting, ghostly sound accompanying the final scene.

 

I have more to say about this film (and thanks to Darren for ferreting it out), but now I am hankering to write about the final sequence in Oliver Twist, which is strikingly similar both in form, content, and emotional effect.

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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  • 1 year later...

UCLA is launching a 21-film Wellman retrospective starting next weekend. 

 

Darren, are you still working your way through his filmography? Frisco Jenny was such a good find. 

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Looks like his silent hobo drama Beggars of Life is a rare one. (And I do love Louise Brooks.) The western double bill on June 14th (Westward the Women/Yellow Sky) also seems attractive. Of course, I may have to watch Track of the Cat just to experience that masterful use of 'Scope on a huge screen.

 

In 1968, Andrew Sarris sized him up as a "recessive" director, but I think Wellman's reputation has risen in recent years. I intend to find out why.

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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  • 4 years later...
  • 1 month later...

This is undisputedly a great film, and I can see and appreciate the spiritual resonance in that it's the story of a mother who lays down her life for her son. This may be because I watched Dancer in the Dark recently and loathed it, but after the ending of Frisco Jenny, I started to think about how many films about suffering do we want on the list? Because if we take Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet, whichever two Bergmans, The Son, Two Days or Kid With a Bike, Au Hasard Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest, Night of the Hunter, First Reformed... it starts to seem (to me at least) that we have a predisposition for films about suffering at the exclusion of films about joy or peace.

So Darren, before I give this a 3 (or maybe a 4), do you want to argue why this story of suffering is essential and should be included alongside the others I listed (because they'll all presumably make the cut)? Because I didn't feel this story had quite the religious and spiritual concerns that a lot of those other films have, which is why right now I'd rank them higher than this.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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11 hours ago, Evan C said:

 Because if we take Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet, whichever two Bergmans, The Son, Two Days or Kid With a Bike, Au Hasard Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest, Night of the Hunter, First Reformed... it starts to seem (to me at least) that we have a predisposition for films about suffering at the exclusion of films about joy or peace.

 

Probably not the right thread for this, but I think that's a misreading of a couple of those films, especially Two Days, which has the car scene singing to the radio (a rare but real moment of joy in a hard world) and ends the entire film with the line,

 

"I'm happy."

Perhaps one of the things I love most about that film is that it powerfully illustrates the principle that peace comes foremost not from external circumstances but from being at peace with yourself and how you responded to them.

 

 

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> do you want to argue why this story of suffering is essential and should be included alongside the others I listed?

Frisco Jenny is a pre-code gangster movie, and especially for a film of that time and genre I would argue its religious and spiritual concerns are front and center, from the very opening scene. Jenny isn't too far from a Dardenne hero, and she lives in a similar, parable-like world of heightened moral stakes (Joel can likely offer a more elegant phrase to describe what I mean).

How each of us stack this film against others working with similar tropes will come down, I suppose, to personal taste and to our concept of the list. I'm giving Frisco Jenny six points because I genuinely prefer Wellman's style in this film to Bergman's and Bresson's. Pre-code Hollywood has become my favorite era of filmmaking, and when I stumble upon a great one -- King Vidor's Street Scene is my major discovery of the past few months -- they feel miraculous. I guess what I'm saying is I actually think Frisco Jenny is better than the other films you mentioned! Also, I think the list needs a pre-code genre film, and I'm on a personal mission to work Frisco Jenny into the larger critical conversation about transcendental cinema (I wonder if Schrader's seen it?).

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In edition to Darren’s excellent essay, I think this gets at why I’ll be voting Frisco Jenny highly. 
 

“Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures. It is not a specific genre like the western or the horror film; it is not a deviation of classical realist narrative; it cannot be located primarily in woman’s films, “weepies,” or family melodramas—though it includes them. Rather, melodrama is a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action. It is the foundation of the classical Hollywood movie (42).”

—Linda Williams in “Melodrama Revisited”

Edited by Anders

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Also, this essay I wrote 6 years ago on James Gray’s The Immigrantwhere I quote Williams, explores one argument for the spiritual value of films like this. 

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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