Well, we’ve taken a look at my very favorite things of 2016, now it’s time to look at the things that annoyed the almighty heck out of me. The worst movies, performances, etc.
Obviously, this list is limited to films that I reviewed in 2016. Enjoy! Or should I say… enjoy?
Little Orphant Annie (1918): Hoo boy, this was a twee mess. I know there’s a restoration in the works but, frankly, the problems with this film are baked into the source material, which is also a twee mess. (It’s a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, glurge artiste extraordinaire, whose picture is to be found in the dictionary entry for twee.) Colleen Moore is a doll, of course, but all the cutesiness and baby talk in the intertitles makes one feel not unlike Constant Reader Dorothy Parker: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” Tonstant Weviewer fwowed up too.
The Toll of the Sea (1922): This Technicolor production stars Anna May Wong. Color and Miss Wong? That’s the good news. The bad news is that the narrative conspires against its heroine and tries to force us to sympathize with the caddish American who seduces, impregnates and abandons her. The technical achievements of the picture are impressive but not enough to make up for its ingrained racism and sexism. (Before someone starts squeaking about context, remember that Asian-Americans and other minority groups did go to movies, did object to racism and did make those objections public. The silent era was not a magic la-la land where no one was ever offended by anything. That’s a myth. Sorry.)
The Cossacks (1928): This was a double whammy for me. The Cossacks may be perfectly fine if you are not a fan of Tolstoy or of French silent cinema. I plead guilty to both and so found this picture agonizing. This is Tolstoy for philistines and the best scenes in the picture are lifted wholesale from the French/Russian mega-epic Michael Strogoff. Further, the central love story is abusive and John Gilbert’s character is a psychopath and he isn’t even a fun one. Renee Adoree is Gilbert’s leading lady once again and she is kicked, punched and shoved by her lover throughout the picture. Oh dear. I have heard this picture being defended with “But John Gilbert is in it!” That is a fact. It is also a fact that this film is a steaming pile of garbage. (Seriously, some Gilbert fans cannot accept that he ever made a bad film. It’s weird. The funny thing is that HE did not like The Cossacks.)
The Lion of the Moguls (1924): I had high hopes for this one. Amazing design, story by its star, Ivan Mosjoukine. Y’all know how I feel about him! But this meandering, self-indulgent film is absolutely painful to watch. I really, really wanted to like it and gave it every chance but my mercy was not rewarded. Let that be a lesson to me.
The Prairie Pirate (1925): Some movies are so bad they’re good. Others are so bad they’re funny. This is a funny one. Harry Carey’s sister is murdered and his only clue is a twisted cigar butt. So what does he do? He becomes a bandit who raids saloons and steals their ashtrays! I am not making this up. That is the plot.
Allen Holubar’s Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has to be seen to be believed. (Holubar proved to be an even worse director than he was an actor, as The Heart of Humanity proved.) His embarrassing makeup is bad enough (seriously, he looks like Santa) but he compounds the problem with hammy gesticulations. Truly bizarre.
Dishonorable mention goes to Babe Ruth, who proved in Headin’ Home that as an actor, he is an excellent ball player. John Gilbert’s grinning misogynist in The Cossacks also deserves some derision. For worst supporting actor, I must mention Sidney Olcott for his ridiculous mugging in The Colleen Bawn. Since he was also the director, there was no one to rein him in.
As I mentioned in my Best of 2016 list, the ladies really pulled out all the stops and so it’s hard to choose a really terrible performance but here goes.
Jane Gail as The Child of Nature in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is absolutely horrendous. She mugs and twitches and randomly launches into weird, awkward dancing. I think she’s supposed to be one with nature or some nonsense like that. She actually looks like she’s been indulging in recreational pharmaceuticals.
(Why isn’t 20,000 Leagues in my worst list if it’s sweeping the worst performance category? The gorgeous underwater photography more than makes up for it!)
The Cossacks features a normally talented cast that is allowed to go completely off the rails. In addition to John Gilbert’s Daffy Duck-esque performance, we get an oddly smirking turn from Nils Asther and a bellowing Ernest Torrence. I wanted to smack them all or at least lock them up until they came down from their sugar highs.
The Cossacks seems to be on a roll. Its much-praised finale is a virtual shot-for-shot ripoff of Michael Strogoff. To add insult to injury, few have heard of the original and so they heap honor on The Cossacks for its bold vision. As you can well imagine, this has me spitting nails.
I go into further detail in my review but here is some of the evidence:
Worst Silent Film Scholarship
Mabel Normand directed herself in Mabel at the Wheel and that’s pretty wonderful but, alas, the story of the film has been hijacked by Charlie Chaplin. He claimed Normand was an incompetent director and his rantings have been repeated and repeated by film historians for decades. It seems that no one has ever bothered to check up on the story and see if it holds water. Well, I did and I found Chaplin’s account woefully lacking.
The Oddest Comment Experience
While 99% of all comments are perfectly lovely and/or interesting, that 1% sure outdid itself this year. The comment section for Camille, for example, is pretty overwrought and I highly recommend reading it with a bowl of popcorn nearby.
But the weirdest? That title has to go to a comment that was never published. I mentioned in a review that I do not care for the work of a particular author. This being the internet, a fan of the same writer decided to leave a 3,700 word comment on the subject explaining why I am wrong and the author is a genius. (The review in question was 2,000 words, by the way.) It was divided into 12 parts and neatly labeled (part one, end of part one).
I am a writer and reader of long letters and emails and I enjoy them very much but I think this bonkers comment was just a bit much. Obviously, I did not publish it because it was twice as long as the original review and, frankly, this is a case where it is best to back away slowly and avoid any sudden movements.
Dishonorable Mention: Griffith’s Cheerleaders
I am tickled pink that D.W. Griffith did not direct any pictures released in 1917. The past two years have been… interesting with his more fanatic devotees attempting to gaslight the world. “He wasn’t really racist, he just loved the KKK! He invented everything but nothing bad was his fault! He giggled about starting race riots but only to prove the power of movies!”
Oh yeah, it went over well. (Obviously, I am not talking about people who find Griffith to be a flawed filmmaker with a body of work worthy of study. This is a perfectly reasonable position.)
So, I will be enjoying my break and keeping my powder dry for 1919/2019 and Broken Blossoms.
What’s worse than passing slapstick comedy stills off as dramas to prove that silent movies were all laughable melodramas? Photoshopping a still from a modern film to make it look like a silent movie, of course! Check out this little gem:
On the Modern Science Fiction Front
What a year! Rogue One was fun (a solid B, fun adventure, good prequeling, fun uses for A New Hope trimmings, seeing Darth Vader’s castle… but also creepy CGI actors who look like the Edgar suit in Men in Black and a talented but overstuffed cast) but then we got The Sheik in Space… er, I mean, Passengers. (Seriously, did NO ONE consult a woman about the script? Probably not. Sigh.)
I skipped Star Trek: Beyond in theaters because Into Darkness was so awful and I decided I wanted JJ Trek to die. Some people say the new one is good but I suspect it may be a First Contact thing. That is, it’s okay but hailed as a masterpiece in comparison to the other turkeys in the series. (TNG films… Yeah…) Beyond has the dubious honor of being the first Trek movie since Nemesis to fail to make back its budget domestically. I hear it also borrows the ending of Mars Attacks and/or Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Oh dear.
Star Trek: Discovery, the Trek show, is looking more and more like a Pakled fire drill. The small nods to diversity in the still-being-announced cast (which, by the way, are not nearly as bold as Rogue One) are not matched behind the scenes with the vast majority of this “diverse” show’s creative team being white and male. And that doesn’t even touch the obvious chaos behind the scenes with the showrunner quitting and the whole shebang being rescheduled. Also, it’s a prequel, which is something most fans assuredly DID NOT WANT. (What better way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of TNG in 2017 than to completely erase it?) I have a well-honed nose for bad Star Trek (I have had plenty of experience since 1995) and this stinks to high heaven.