Mining History

Every time we watch a movie, our understanding and enjoyment of it are affected by our knowledge of film history. Two movies at the Detroit Film Theatre on September 10, 2017 educated me more about the histories of feature film animation and Italian movies.

The 2017 documentary Tyrus introduced me to Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant to the United States who made significant contributions to the artistic look of films produced by the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studios. The movie was part of the DFT Animation Club series, which usually features fictional movies that are aimed at younger audiences.

Wong, who was born in 1910, knew early in life that he was best suited for drawing and painting. These skills led him to the Walt Disney Studios, where he helped define the look of the 1942 movie Bambi with the gentle impressionism of his background drawings. He later moved to Warner Brothers, where he worked on storyboards for many famous movies from the 1940s to the 1960s.

For Wong’s Disney and Warner Brothers work, Tyrus director Pamela Tom used side-by-side comparisons to show the significant effect of Wong’s drawings on the finished products that reached theaters. This technique was also used effectively in another recent DFT movie about storyboarding—Harold and Lillian.

Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong

A documentary about Wong’s film work would have been fascinating by itself, but Tyrus also explored Wong’s other artistic endeavors, including Christmas cards, painted dishes, and elaborately designed kites that he flew from California beaches.

Tyrus was also recently shown on public television as part of the American Masters series. I was glad to see Tyrus on the big screen, where I could more fully appreciate the life-affirming creativity and personal warmth of Tyrus Wong, who died in December 2016 at the age of 106.

After Tyrus, I relaxed with a book in the Crystal Gallery Café, and then went outside to enjoy the crisp sunshine of a beautiful September afternoon.

Soon I was back in the DFT watching the 1963 Italian film Il Boom, a dark comedy about the hazards of Italy’s economic progress in the 1960s. I had never heard of this film, and couldn’t find much about it in my movie reference books. It was directed by Vittorio De Sica, who is best known for post-World War II neorealist movies like The Bicycle Thief (1948).

Il Boom was much different from The Bicycle Thief, but taken together, the two movies show the economic progress of Italy after World War II. Il Boom showed how De Sica grew as an artist, using his art to bring clarity to current events.

Alberto Sordi, Il Boom

Alberto Sordi, Il Boom

With Il Boom, I realized that a background knowledge of Italian culture was needed to fully understand it. After the film, I found much of this background in the DFT program notes, which I never read before the movie, to avoid spoiler information.

But Il Boom‘s general message about the hazards and responsibilities of money came through in a way that could be understood by any audience.

Il Boom introduced me to Alberto Sordi, a very famous actor in Italy. His facial expressions and body movements perfectly expressed the confused priorities of his character, who ended up paying a heavy price for his inability to handle and properly value money.

Sordi will return to the DFT in October in one of several movies in a four-day Italian film festival. These movies were released between the 1930s and the 1980s, and promise to add much to the DFT audience’s knowledge of film history.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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