Category Archives: Movies

Harold Lloyd


One of the greatest bits ever committed to film during the silent era

Today is Harold Lloyd‘s birthday (1893-1971). Frye was a fan as a child. Above is the signature Lloyd routine from Safety Last!

An earlier post on Frye’s love of silent movies here. Bob Denham’s compilation, “Frye and the Movies,” here.

The movie that haunted the young Frye here.

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 and the Movies

This article is cross-posted in the Denham Library here

“[T]he movie is capable of the greatest concentration of any art form in human history.  The possibilities of combining photographic, musical, and dramatic rhythms leave all preceding arts behind in their infinity” [Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 99]

“The film is the one real major art-form of our time: it has, with its greatest directors, solved the problem of the balance of eye and ear. It has taught a whole generation of people to use visual symbols, to think with them sequentially instead of merely staring at one after the other, and to follow visual programming that is not on the simplest and most naïve levels of realism.  As such, it affords a model for television, which is still limping along on the old staring principle.” [Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 272]


Michael Happy asked me if I had a list of the movies Frye had either seen or referred to in his writings.  I said that I didn’t but that I could probably construct one.  What follows is such a list.  The movie titles are in italics, and untitled movies in Roman.  Following the list are the sources.

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Saturday Night Cartoons


“Beanstock Bunny”

I can’t even pretend embarrassment here. These Warner Brothers cartoons are classics — they’re funny and grownup and look pretty good after almost sixty years.

I also confess a preference. Sure, Bugs Bunny is the breadwinner, but I always sorta preferred Daffy Duck. The two of them in combination is of course irresistible: eiron vs alazon.

And that reference provides the cue to exploitable Frye-relevance. Here he is in “Towards a Theory of Cultural History”:

The conception of irony meets us in Aristotle’s Ethics, where the eiron is the man who deprecates himself, as opposed to the alazon.  Such a man makes himself invulnerable, and, though Aristotle disapproves of him, there is no question that he is a predestined artist, just as the alazon is one of his predestined victims.  The term “irony,” then, indicates a technique of appearing to be less than one is, which in literature becomes most commonly a technique of saying as little and meaning as much as possible, or, in a more general way, a pattern of words that turns away from direct statement or its own obvious meaning.  (CW 21, 157)

And here he puts the animated cartoon in the context of the “media revolutions” he’d experienced in his lifetime:

In my childhood were the silent movies, which were lineally descended from the puppet show.  The comedies of Larry Seton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, were funny in a way that no spoken comedy can possibly be: naturally the spoken lines, which had to be printed, were kept to a minimum in any case.  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.  Similarly, with children at a Punch and Judy show.  Some types of movie, notably the Disney and other animated cartoons, continued this totally disembodied puppet convention: in television it only survives in things like Sesame Street, which are addressed to small children.  (CW 25, 197)

Phew! Without further ado, more Bugs and Daffy after the jump.

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Saturday Night at the Movies: “Duck Soup”


Given the state of our politics these days, this may be the perfect film to watch on this particular Saturday night. (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link.)

The 24 year old Frye in a letter from Oxford to Helen Kemp relates a story involving a classmate, a somewhat addled aristocrat, and the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic, Duck Soup:

The other night in the lodge our only sprig of nobility, the Honourable David St. Clair Erskine (one of our tame homosexuals as well) came in from the Dramatic Society’s performance of Macbeth and met Baine, who had just come in from seeing the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.  The Honourable David St. Clair Erskine was tanked up just enough to be affable to anybody–when he woke up the next morning and realized that he had spoken to an American Freshman Rhodes Scholar to whom he hadn’t been introduced he probably went on the water wagon for life.  He said: “I enjoyed the show (meaning Macbeth) very much, didn’t you?”  Baine: “Very much (meaning Duck Soup).  “I remembered that I had seen it before, but I enjoyed it very well the second time anyway.” The Honourable D. St. C.E. (somewhat staggered): “I — I understand they didn’t get it all rehearsed in time, and are adding a few scenes at each performance.”  Baine: “Yes, I noticed it had been cut a good deal, but thought it had been censored.”  The Honourable Et Cetera: “I like the leading lady — she’s new to Oxford, but she did very well.”  By this time, there being no leading lady in the Marx Brothers picture, the first faint roseate blush of dawn began to appear in Baine’s mind, but he wisely decided the situation would be too much for the H. D. St. C. E.’s  bewildered brain to cope with at that point.  (CW 2, 702-3)

The rest of the film after the jump.  This is the Marx Brothers at their very best.  Many will no doubt be amazed just how many of the classic Marx Brothers scenes come from this one movie.  About the best way I can think of to spend 80 minutes.  As a bonus, this is also a pristine, high definition version of the film.  Enjoy.

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“The Circus”


The Circus (1928) seems to be regarded as Chaplin’s “little-seen masterpiece,” so let’s see it.

Frye in “The Eternal Tramp” (1947):

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 see the point of what society is doing or to what purpose it is 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 sees 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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Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland


Lewis Carroll’s books of fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, were important to Frye, and he mentions them frequently in the Notebooks.  In the Anatomy of Criticism he says that “the Alice books are perfect Menippean satires, and so is [Charles Kingsley’s] The Water-Babies” (Anatomy 310).  Elsewhere, he identifies a quality “of slightly nutty fantasy which has been the characteristic of Oxford from time immemorial” that links works such as The Anatomy of Melancholy, Alice in Wonderland, and the works of the Inklings (C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams) – the latter products of the Oxford in which Frye himself studied (“The Critic and the Writer,” Collected Works 7:470-71).

Tim Burton’s new film Alice in Wonderland is more of an epic adventure than a Menippean satire, and interestingly enough it combines elements from the two Alice books with elements of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia stories, and perhaps one or two from The Wizard of Oz.  The result is a successful and charming film whose ethos is quite different from the bizarre world created by Lewis Carroll.

The opening of the film effectively represents the famous descent which was the subject of some discussion on the blog last year; thereafter, the story becomes a quest narrative and a struggle against evil.  Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are excellent as the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter.  It is a visually stunning film, in Frye’s terminology a triumph of opsis.

Saturday Night at the Movies: “The Third Man”


Russell Perkin has already posted on Graham Greene and Frye and evidently will be doing so again soon with something on “Shakespeare, Greene and ideology.”  This seems like a good time, therefore, to feature a movie written by Greene, enjoyed by Frye, and now of course regarded as a classic in its own right: The Third Man.

In his diary entry for April 26, 1950, Frye records having seen the movie with Helen the night before and describes it as “very good’:

The musical accompaniment — a zither playing the same series of chords over & over — was very effective, & the whole atmosphere of post-war Vienna, its spirit broken by occupation & its poverty grinding everyone down to a squalid sort of mutual prostitution, was horribly convincing. The villain, done by Orson Welles himself, was the type Hollywood movies generally idealize — a cheerful, handsome, appealing boy who was a complete psychopath, & the curiously empty & helpless horror that such a character inspires came through in a magnificent scene — the only one where he said anything — on a Ferris wheel with the American hero [Joseph Cotten], whose inept honesty made just the right foil. The ferocity of the heroine’s devotion [Alida Valli] to the man whom she knew had betrayed her tied up what was really a pretty grim story, for all the melodramatic chase-through-the-sewers that made it more reassuring for the young women behind us.

It’s funny now that Frye turns his nose up at the “melodramatic chase-through-the-sewers.”  At the very least it proves that he did not reflexively fall into archetype spotting simply because it might niftily prove a point.  Every Frygian since would recognize the sequence as a nicely framed descent into the underworld, and all no doubt sooner or later comment on it.  Furthermore, this particular “melodramatic chase” is artful and modest compared to the Wagnerian tumescence of the formula as it is rendered these days.  Over Christmas I went with my neighbors and their kids to see Avatar.  For the first 90 minutes I was enchanted by it — in terms of cinematic art and technology, it is undeniably a watershed — and I considered posting on it in the context of Frye’s observations about how comprehensive an art form the movies actually are.  But, oh my, then the formula kicked in (this is a James Cameron movie after all, the director who included a chase scene on the sinking Titanic in which gunshots are fired), and all of the care and ingenuity that went into creating the world of Pandora in 3D sickeningly descended for almost a full hour into a futuristic hightech blood letting.  It was like falling out of love and waking up cold and hungover all at once.  I joked to my friends afterwards, if only Cameron believed in the movie he’d been making up to that point.  If every life is precious (as Avatar unrelentingly insists), then why was so much of it so readily expendable?

In any event, The Third Man is literarily grounded popular film making at its best: smart with a sharp tongue and a sound ear and at least a couple of unexpected moments of cinematic genius.