Category Archives: Frye at the Movies

Frye at the Movies: “The Count of Monte Cristo”


One of the sources for V for Vendetta (here and here) is The Count of Monte Cristo. Frye saw the movie on a double bill with The Barretts of Wimpole Street on November 1, 1934 with his friend Roy Daniells (CW 8, 375). The entire movie after the jump. Above is a traditional fireworks display in London celebrating Guy Fawkes Night.

Here also is an interesting passage in one of the late notebooks on the relation between opera and romance, including a surprising declaration to rehabilitate the melodrama. Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas and other authors of the genre are cited:

Scott was the source for the 19th c. opera — Donizetti’s Lucia & Bellini’s Puritani, the latter very loosely adapted from Old Mortality. I think not Verdi, though Verdi drew from a Romantic tradition that Scott did a lot to solidify: Hugo, Dumas, Schiller, etc. Nobody could imagine an opera of that period based on Jane Austen. If I try to rehabilitate Scott as a romancer, I should also try to rehabilitate melodrama. That term is usually used with contempt, & I’ve used it myself, because of the way it approximates lynching-mob mentality in its hiss-villain setup. But there’s a legitimate type of melodrama where characters and plot outrage “probability,” yet seem to live in a legitimate world. I find Scott very hard to read now, but there are a lot of important critical principles extractable from him. (CW 5, 245-6)

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Frye at the Movies: “The Phantom of the Opera”

Full movie at this single link

It’s Halloween weekend, so here’s the original 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, which haunted Frye as a child, and which he would have seen in one of the two movie theatres that still stand in Moncton.

Frye later acknowledged that the fascination of the film for him was his own childhood affinity for katabasis, or theme of descent. From Bob Denham’s Frye Unbuttoned:

Everybody has a fixation.  Mine has to do with meander-and-descent patterns. For years in my childhood I wanted to dig a cave & be the head of a society in it — this was before I read Tom Sawyer. All the things in literature that haunt me most have to do with katabasis. The movie that hit me hardest as a child was the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. My main points of reference in literature are such things as The Tempest, P.R. [Paradise Regained], [Blake’s Milton], the Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, the Waste Land– every damn one a meander-&-katabasis work. (29)

Frye at the Movies: “Whisky Galore!”

It’s Frye’s birthday week, and posting a movie he’d seen and enjoyed is a good way to go.

Although I want to say this first. There is almost no video and audio of Frye available online. The CBC is sitting on a treasure trove of interviews and features. A few months ago, TVO posted a link to a Frye interview from the 1970s-era “Education of Mike McManus,” but the link was dead. I wrote TVO about it, was promised the link would be fixed, and then it disappeared altogether.

Now that the centenary is on the way, people should weigh in and convince these public institutions to make this material available. There’s stuff everywhere on Marshall McLuhan (whose centenary is on 21st), including YouTube. There is potentially a lot of audio and video of Frye that could be had from many sources. We should be able to access it.

Now this movie, Whisky Galore!, is a classic from Ealing Studios, which made smart little British comedies during the 1950s. Frye saw it under the title, Tight Little Island, which was the name attached to it for North American release. Frye records seeing it and makes an extended comment on it in his 1950 diary, a time we now know the work that eventually became Anatomy of Criticism was gestating. It really shows in this comment:

The show itself was pleasant: “Tight Little Island,” about a small Hebridean community & how it dealt with a wreck bearing fifty thousand cases of whisky. An immemorial theme, but pleasantly handled. As I was looking for comic archetypes, I noted that the Saturnalia is an upsetting of an existing social order which recalls a Golden Age before that order was established, & which is therefore the Saturnalia’s grandfather, so to speak. Hence the existing social order is a kind of deputy rule, a viceregent custom, like the rule of Angelo in MM [Measure for Measure]. In this movie the only antagonist, a Malvolio churl, was captain of the home guard, & tried, like Malvolio, to act like a steward locking up the drinks. One of the most unsympathetic people was his own colonel. This, of course, was as corny as Plautus himself really: the drunks weren’t slaves, but they were poor people, & there was a restive agin-the-government tone to the whole picture. (CW 8, 312-13)

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Frye at the Movies: “Detective Story”


Frye refers to this movie in his 1952 diary as a “sardonic masterpiece.” Detective stories generally were a source of almost guiltless pleasure for him (even putting aside their value in studying popular and primitive archetypes), and he made reference to them often. However, this personal account in his 1942 diary of reading them is easily the most charming:

I don’t think that I have either a highbrow or a lowbrow pose about detective stories, but I don’t really quite understand why I like reading them.  I read them partly for the sake of the overtones.  I’m not a connoisseur of them: I can never guess what the hell’s up when the detective pulls out a watch and shouts: “My God, we may yet be in time!”, shoves the narrator and half the country’s police force into a taxi, dashes madly across town and finds the girl I’d placidly thought was the heroine all equipped with a blunt instrument & an animal snarl.  I’m always led by the nose up the garden path in search of a false clue, and I never notice inconsistencies.  And I always get let down when I find out who dun it.  As I say, I like overtones.  A good style, some traces of wit & characterization, a sense of atmosphere, and a lot of the professional intricacies of the game can go to hell.  Yet I want a good novel in that particular convention & no other.  The answer is, I think, that I’m naturally a slow & reflective reader, & make copious marginalia.  In the detective story I live for a moment in the pure present: I’m passively pulled along from stimulus to stimulus, and, ignorant & idle as that doubtless is, I’m fascinated by it.  Yet I seldom finish without disappointment. (CW 8, 15)

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Frye at the Movies: Keystone Kops


Since my trip to Moncton, I cannot stop thinking about the Capitol and the Empress Theatres, still standing and refurbished, where Frye would have seen the movies of his childhood. He loved silents, and he mentions seeing the Keystone Kops, so here’s one of their two-reelers, Our Dare-Devil Chief, from 1915.

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Frye at the Movies: “Solaris”


The anniversary of Stanislaw Lem’s death just passed, so it seems like a good time to post the beautiful 1972 Russian film adaptation of Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Frye read the novel and alluded to it often.

I’m posting this in the “Frye at the Movies” category because it will always be interesting to see film adaptations of literary works he liked and could well have seen, contemporary ones especially. It’s at times like this we wish that Frye had kept his often made and always broken promise to maintain a regular diary, an effort that, unfortunately, ended altogether in 1955.

Frye cites Lem’s novel in The Secular Scripture to expand upon the archetype of Narcissus, which is primal. Two recent and very popular movies, Inception and Black Swan, are directly derived from it:

. . . Adam, after his fall, changes his identity, and the later one may be said to be the shadow or dreaming counterpart of the one he had before. The Classical parallel to the Adam story, as several Renaissance mythographers have noted, is the story of Narcissus, where we also have a real man and a shadow. The mistress of Narcissus, Echo, reminds us of the parrot or echo bird that we have already met. What Narcissus really does is exchange his original self for the reflection he falls in love with, becoming, as Blake says, “idolatrous to his own shadow.” In Ovid’s story he simply drowns, but drowning could also be seen as passing into a lower or submarine world. The reflecting pool is a mirror, and disappearing into one’s own mirror image, or entering a world of reversed or reduced dimensions, is a central symbol of descent. A study of mirror worlds in romance might range from the Chinese novel best known in the West by the title The Dream of the Red Chamber to some remarkable treatments of the theme in science fiction, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. (CW 18, 71-2)

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Frye at the Movies: Buster Keaton


Buster Keaton in Cops, from 1922 (complete movie)

Frye in “Canada and Culture”:

I remember seeing a movie, colored and talking, which was a comedy, and being bored by it: but at the beginning there was a reference to the early knockabout silent comedies of the pie-throwing kind, with a brief illustration, and I laughed until I nearly fell out of my seat. (CW 25, 197)

The movie he refers to may be 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, a musical set at the dawn of the age of the talkies that opens with a spoof of the silent movies being replaced by the new technology.

Frye makes passing reference to Buster Keaton — as well as to Larry Semon, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett — whose movies he would have seen as a child.  The Keaton two-reeler above was very likely one of them.

Frye at the Movies: “City Lights”


Continuing with our Frye at the movies series, here’s Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, City Lights.

Frye seems to have been a genuine fan of Charlie Chaplin and wrote two Canadian Forum articles about him: “The Great Charlie” (1941) and “The Eternal Tramp” (1947).  Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

Chaplin’s tramp is an American dramatic type, and Rip Van Winkle and Huck Finn are among his ancestors.  The tramp is a social misfit, not only because he is too small and awkward to engage in a muscular extroverted scramble, but because he does not see the point of what society is doing or to what purpose it is expending all that energy.  He is not a parasite, for he possesses some occult secret of inner freedom, and he is not a bum, for he will work hard enough, and still harder if a suitable motive turns up.  Such a motive occurs when he discovers someone still weaker than himself, an abandoned baby or a blind girl (students of Jung will recognize the “anima” in Chaplin), and then his tenderness drives him to extraordinary spasms of breadwinning.  But even his normal operations are grotesque enough, for in the very earnestness with which he tries so hard to play society’s game it is clear that he has got it all wrong, and when he is spurred to further efforts the grotesqueness reaches a kind of perverse inspiration.  The political overtones of this are purely anarchist — I have never understood the connecting of Communism with Chaplin — the anarchism of Jefferson and Thoreau which see society as a community of personal relationships and not as a mechanical abstraction called a “state.”  But even so the tramp is isolated by his own capacity for freedom, and he has nothing to do with the typical “little guy” that every fool in the country has been slobbering over since Pearl Harbor. (CW 11, 117)

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