Silent films


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


STELLA DALLAS. United Artists, 1925. Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt, Beatrix Pryor, Lois Moran, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vera Lewis. Based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. Director: Henry King. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   One of the great all-time tear-jerkers, and I don’t imagine there was a dry eye in the room at the end. Colman was a major star before the talkies, and I’ve never seen him give a bad performance, but this Belle Bennett’s film, and she carries you with her all the way.

   Is her performance better than Barbara Stanwyck’s in the sound remake? Maybe not, but I think it’s just as good, and I am a great admirer of Stanwyck in almost everything she did in the thirties and forties.


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


WHITE GOLD. Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC), 1927. Jetta Goudal, Kenneth Thomson, George Bancroft, George Nichols. Director: William K. Howard. Shown at Cinevent 22, Columbus OH, May 1990.

   The notes for the program put it well: “…claustrophobic, oppressive and obsessed with lust and betrayal.” A bride is seen by her father-in-law s coming between him and his son. The father-in-law lies and the woman will not betray the lie, hoping that her husband will believe in her innocence in the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

   The scene in which, as the wife leaves the house, she makes a gesture that without a single comment answers all the questions raised in the preceding scene of confrontation, is an unforgettable lesson in narrative economy. I feel as if this film is burned into my mind’s eye. Not to be missed if it’s ever scheduled near you.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CAPTAIN SWAGGER. Pathé Exchange, 1928. Rod La Rocque, Sue Carol, Richard Tucker, Victor Potel, Ulrich Haupt, Maurice Black, Ray Cooke. Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This silent comedy opens in France in 1917, where gallant American pilot Rod La Rocque as just returned from Paris, “an hour and three quarts away…” still on the windward side of soused, but ready to volunteer to dare the skies against Baron Von Stahl (Ulrich Haupt), due to make his daily bombing run.

   Sure enough our hero is true to his word and shoots Von Stahl down over his own lines, but when he fails to see the gallant enemy pilot emerge from his burning plane he lands and rescues him. The grateful German recognizes a fellow knight of the sky and presents him with his own engraved Luger, then helps him to escape the German troops who spotted his plane come down.

   A decade later back in good old New York, our hero, who has earned the nickname “Captain Swagger” from his numerous bill collectors is on his last dime, a playboy who has run out of funds and friends, so taking the engraved Luger he decides to do what any self respecting Twenties gentleman would do: turn elegant bandit (top hat, white tie, formal coat, and white silk scarf).

As luck would have it, all he succeeds in doing is rescuing beautiful Sue Arnold (Sue Carol) from a wolf with a convertible. A bust at banditry, Captain Swagger returns to his soon to be former residence with the girl, and resolves he will have to try a more honest form of survival.

   With the girl, he manages to form a dancing act at one of the more upscale clubs and they are an instant hit. Sue is ready to breathe a sigh of relief: he has finally given up the gentleman bandit game when the club his held up, and one of the hold-up men is Baron Von Stahl.

   Will Captain Swagger stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of true love, or will he fall under the sway of his old enemy and comrade of the skies?

   And why, should you care?

   There is a reason, the reason I have been so careful not to reveal the true name of Rod La Rocque’s Captain Swagger, you see his real name is one you will almost certainly know:

   It’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond.

   Brought to the American screen for the first time, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s two-fisted, beer-guzzling, jovial and homicidal hero not only becomes an American, he loses his entire reason for being, looking for adventure in boring old peacetime, misplaces Carl and Irma Peterson, leaves the trenches for the skies, and ends up dancing at a night club.

   What would Algy Longworth say? What would Dick Hannay say? What would they say at his club? What would Phyllis say?

   He can hardly show his face at those old Etonian dinners again, one would think. At least Raffles had the good taste to get shot in the Boer War. Even the Saint might think twice about rubbing shoulders with half of a cabaret act.

   La Rocque isn’t bad in the lead. You can imagine him as Drummond, and fortunately a year later Samuel Goldwyn had the good taste to stick much closer to the book and play with an all talking film, cast Joan Bennett as the soon to be Mrs. Drummond, Montagu Love as dear old Carl, and Ronald Colman as Hugh, an especially good idea as Colman managed to get nominated for the first Best Actor Oscar for playing Drummond (he lost out to Warner Baxter’s the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona the last time two series characters or films would be nominated).

   But such is Bulldog Drummond’s first sojourn onto American screens, and I suppose we should be grateful the Brits didn’t retaliate by casting Jack Buchanan as a singing and dancing Philo Vance. There’s no telling where this kind of thing might lead. Can you imagine Mr. Moto, Burlesque comic; or Charle Chan with simple songs and snappy patter; Ellery Queen and his amazing Poodles; or, Fred and Ginger as Nick and Nora?

   The blood curdleth.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Paramount-Artcraft Pictures, 1920. Silent film. John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, J. Malcolm Dunn. Based on the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Director: John S. Robertson.

   Originally published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde introduced the reading public to two of the most well known characters in modern literary history: the conventional Victorian physician, Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego, the uninhibited and cruel Mr. Hyde. Stylized as a detective story, one in which the reader does not discover that Jekyll and Hyde are merely two parts of the same man until the story’s ending, Stevenson’s novella highlighted the duality of man: That lying underneath man’s civilized, urbane exterior is a bestial side, one that later critics identified as lurking not far beneath a highly repressed Victorian society.

   Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, doesn’t read as if it was designed to impart any emphatic moral lesson. Instead, the work unfolds as a mystery tale and, to a lesser extent, an early work of the emerging genre of horror fiction. In that sense, it is as much of a thriller as the shudder pulp stories that it influenced decades later.

   Indeed, Stevenson’s novella is written from the point of view of a society lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson who begins an amateur investigation into the strange happenings concerning his friend, Dr. Jekyll. By the end of the tale, Utterson has learned that Dr. Jekyll and his strange friend, Mr. Hyde, are one and the same person. Two divided halves of the same self. This was a concept that Stevenson, who is still best known for his adventure fiction, apparently wanted to incorporate into his writings. In that sense, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been not only a literary success, but also a personal triumph for Stevenson as Jekyll and Hyde are now among the best known fictional characters in Anglo-American literature.

   Although it wasn’t the first effort to adapt Stevenson’s novella into a motion picture, Paramount/Artcraft’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) has ended up the default template for nearly all the subsequent movie versions. Arguably based more upon Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation of Stevenson’s novella than the literary work itself, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stars John Barrymore in the dual title role, a performance that by all accounts solidified his Hollywood star power. Barrymore, who at the time was still best known as a stage actor, delivers an exceptional performance in his portrayal of two halves of the same individual man.

   The Dr. Jekyll that the audience first encounters in the film as opposed to the novella is both a physician and a philanthropist, a Victorian man of science who devotes considerable amount of time to helping the poor. He is a rather stiff, that is to say not particularly relaxed individual, who seems to be more interested in expanding his knowledge than in the more mundane, let alone sensual, aspects of life.

   Jekyll is, however, engaged to a charming lady named Millicent (Martha Mansfield). Millicent’s father, Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) in the presence of friends Edward Enfield (Cecil Clovelly), Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane) and Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn), tempts the ascetic physician with the possibility of exploring London’s less refined, if not downright seedy, locales. Observers have rightly noted that Carew’s temptation of Jekyll into the proverbial dark side seems to be based more on the character of Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) than on Stevenson’s work itself.

   Furthermore, at least some of the silent film’s intertitles include text that are directly borrowed from, or inspired by, Wilde’s literary portrait, and philosophical study of libertinism. Indeed, Sir Carew’s admonition that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” comes directly from Wilde.

   The turning point for Dr. Jekyll is when he meets Gina (Nita Naldi), a dance hall girl he encounters when Sir George Carew takes him to the seedier side of town. Jekyll is fascinated by her, but is actually somewhat embarrassed, if not repulsed, by the degree to which he finds himself attracted to her.

   Before he absconds back into the London night, Jekyll engages in a short conversation with Gina during which she shows him a large ornamental ring that she wears on her finger. She tells him that the ring acts as a vessel and that it contains poison. When Jekyll ends his encounter with Gina, it seems as if her poison ring is all but forgotten. The audience, which is familiar with foreshadowing, knows that this ring will very likely end up playing a prominent role in what follows.

   It is Jekyll’s encounter with Gina, a character that doesn’t appear in Stevenson’s novella, that sets him down a path from which he will never return, for it is his interaction with this dance hall girl that guides his decision to manufacture a chemical compound that will separate his good, philanthropic self from his baser, lecherous self – a part of him that he never acknowledged existed until he met her.

   Barrymore’s transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is perhaps the highlight of the film, for it showcases both his raw theatrical talent, specifically his ability to convey meaning with his facial expressions.

   The remainder of the film follows Dr. Jekyll and his diabolical alter ego, Mr. Hyde, as the latter embarks upon a path of death and destruction. Barrymore’s Hyde, dressed in a top hat and cape, lurks through London’s back alleys. Initially, Hyde seems to not only relish his inhibited self, but also appears to get away with his bad behavior.

   Things change, however, when he first injures a child, then escalates to murder, beating a man to death with his cane. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as much a tragedy, as it is a horror story. It’s the story of a man, who in his quest for scientific knowledge, ends up both becoming and subsumed by his repressed, animalistic self.

   Mastered in high definition from archival 35mm elements, the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that I recently had the opportunity to watch provides movie aficionados with an opportunity to watch a relatively clean, uncluttered version of this silent film, one that exists in the public domain.

   Released in 2014, the Kino Classics version also features a serviceable, but by no means outstanding, score by Rodney Sauer, one that is performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. There are moments during the film when the music seems intrusive, as if it were disconnected from what was occurring on screen.

   Still, for the most part, Kino’s Blu-Ray release is quite watchable, despite some elements that were clearly degraded in the course of time. There’s also the tinting factor. Although most of the film was photographed in standard black and white, there are several sequences that are now bathed in either a reddish or bluish hue. Given that the workmanlike photography by cinematographer Roy F. Overbaugh is not particularly artistic – certainly not on the level of his German Expressionist contemporaries – the tinting does little to either elevate or to decrease the overall rather flat, staid visuals.

   Indeed, apart from the sequences featuring prosthetics in which Jekyll transforms into Hyde and the fever dream scene in which Jekyll is confronted by a giant crawling spider, there’s little in the way of outstanding visual effects in this film. In many ways, it’s Barrymore and Barrymore alone who carries the movie. At the end of the day, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Barrymore’s vehicle, one to which both Fredric March and Spencer Tracy were truly indebted.

   Without Barrymore’s uncanny transformation from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, it also remains uncertain whether the two characters in one would have lived in through not only March and Tracy, but also such disparate actors as Jack Palance, Kirk Douglas, and Michael Caine, all of whom took turns in portraying the quintessential man divided against himself.

SELECTED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


Sometimes YouTube videos add a something special to the music. Taj Mahal is always fun to listen to and even more so when you combine his version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” with this clip from The Abyss, a Danish silent film from 1910. Also known as The Woman Always Pays, the film was written and directed by Urban Gad and starred Asta Nielsen and Robert Dinesen.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SAFETY LAST! Hal Roach Studios, 1923. Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke. Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor.

   Harold Lloyd silents are, as a class, wonderfully inventive, well-thought-out and screamingly funny, and here’s an example. Everyone has seen the picture of Lloyd hanging off the clock while climbing the side of a building in Safety Last!, but the sequence itself is one of sheerest genius:

   For starters, the film is about 90 minutes long, and the whole last third of it is devoted to that climb up the building, which is as carefully crafted as a suspense set-piece. Lloyd has arranged to win himself a promotion and the hand of his childhood sweetheart by having a friend climb the building as a Publicity Stunt.

   Unfortunately, the friend is wanted by the Police and spotted just before he starts his climb. So he and Harold arrange that Harold will climb the first floor, then duck in a window where his friend will don his coat and continue the climb.

   But the Cops spot him again and begin chasing him frantically so that he never just quite has the time to make the switch, and Harold has to keep going “just one more floor.”

   There is a marvelous few minutes where the buddy tosses a rope out for Harold but is chased from the room before he gets to tie it to anything! This is followed by a nerve-wracking stretch where Harold strains, contorts, scratches and all-else to get hold of the rope that will be his death-trap, and a heart-stopping span where he gets it waving just enough to almost reach, then launches himself out, grabs it and plummets down to … well, see the movie:

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT


PETER PAN. Paramount Pictures, 1924. George Ali, Esther Ralston, Cyril Chadwick, Mary Brian, Jack Murphy, Philippe deLacy, Virginia Browne Faire, Betty Bronson, Anna May Wong, Ernest Torrence (Captain Hook). Based on the play by J. M. Barrie. Director: Herbert Brenon. Shown at Cinevent 31, Columbus OH, May 1999.

   The high point of the convention for any silent film fan was the screening of Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan, accompanied by a score written by Phil Carli and performed by the Flower City Society Orchestra at the piano and conducting.

   I have a dimly transferred dupe of the film that did not prepare me for the overwhelming experience of viewing a pristine print in an intimate theater on the Ohio State University campus.

   Betty Bronson was the Peter Pan of Barrie’s dreams (unless he preferred a male actor), and her closeups achieved a beauty and poignancy that I cannot begin to describe. The cast was impeccable, with Ernest Torrence a commanding Captain Hook, Mary Briana remarkable Wendy, and Virginia Brown Faire a duplicitous Tinker Bell for whom, nonetheless, the entire audience clapped to restore her to life.

   The most indelible performance, however, was that of George Ali, as Nana the dog, a performance someone said he had played hundreds of times on the London stage. Even people who aren’t overly fond of dogs would surely have been touched by his miming.

   There were several films I enjoyed [at this convention], although nothing reached the level of Peter Pan.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE PHANTOM CHARIOT. Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1921. Also known as The Phantom Carriage. Swedish title: Körkarlen. Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Astrid Holm, Tore Svennberg. Director: Victor Sjöström. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Victor Sjöström is not only a pioneering and notable Swedish film director and actor, but the acknowledged mentor of Ingmar Bergman, and for about four years, from 1924, [as Victor Seastrom] a successful Hollywood director of Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped, Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, and Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman.

   The Phantom Chariot is his best-known Swedish film and a classic of the horror film. According to legend, a person who dies at midnight on New Year’s Eve is condemned to drive Death’s chariot for a year, gathering in souls.

   In part a moralistic drama (a drunken, abusive husband is redeemed by his vision of Death’s chariot), it is the recurrent visions of the chariot that linger in the memory, a fantasy haunting an austere, realistically filmed narrative.



                                 

               

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Sokal-Film GmbH, Germany, 1926; original title: Der Student von Prag. US title: The Man Who Cheated Life. Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Agnes Estherhazy. Script by Henrik Galeen and Hanns Heinz Ewers, based on the short story “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe (1839). Director: Henrik Galeen. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A legendary German horror film that lived up to its reputation. Veidt is the student who sells his reflection to Krauss for the love of an heiress and is drawn into a nightmare that culminates In a magnificent sequence in which he confronts his mirror reflection and tries to destroy it.

   The haunting cinematography and art direction are by Guenther Krampf and Hermann Warm (art director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). A scene in which Krauss stands on a hilltop and orchestrates the elements and the activities of a hunting party reminded me of Veidt’s summoning of the storm in The Thief of Bagdad (Korda) and a long shot, later in the film, in which we see only the elongated shadow of Krauss’ arm and hand as he reaches up toward a garden terrace is equally unforgettable.

   Veidt is perfectly cast as the obsessed student and his deterioration is reflected in an extraordinary alteration of his face, which seems to grow thinner and more furrowed in the course of the film. A great film.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part One: Georges Méliès
by Walter Albert


   One of the “givens” of film history is that French director Georges Méliès, a magician who turned his talents from stage to film enchantments, is one of the great film innovators. In my surveys of French films, I have always dutifully shown Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902) and talked glibly of the importance of his work.

   I was only repeating standard film history, and I had no real basis for believing it until this past weekend when I attended an extraordinary event sponsored by the film section of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute.

   Méliès’ granddaughter, Madeleine Malthète-Méliès, came to Pittsburgh to present three different programs of his films with piano accompaniment by Eric Leguen. I was able to see thirty-one of the forty-seven films she screened, including four that were hand-tinted, and what I saw on those two rainy, chilly October evenings was a revelation.

   In the dozen years from about 1898 to 1910 that Méliès was producing and directing, he made over five hundred short films. His family has been able to assemble and restore only about 150, so the series we were shown represents about one third of the surviving films.

   Working before the era of the feature-length films that were to dominate world production after 1912, Méliès drew on his experience as a stage illusionist and his incomparable visual imagination.

   Disguises and transformations abound in his films, and he devised the dissolve, fade, and superimposed image to make his fantastic tricks possible. The prints are not always properly defined, and some of them are not complete, but the witty inventions from his apparently inexhaustible box of illusions are still a delight.

   What is particularly striking about Méliès’ films is their pacing, a perfectly choreographed comic rhythm that is most impressive when Méliès himself is performing.

   For director-producer-writer Méliès was also a comic actor of rare skill, with a good-natured pleasure in fooling an audience that is still infectious after eighty years. He was very fond of playing the role of the Devil, and the final film of the series, Satan in Prison (1907), was a perfect capstone to the screenings.

   In this dazzling film, the Devil-Méliès furnishes a bare cell out of his cape, complete to a lovely lady toasted at a candlelight midnight supper. When they are surprised by her jealous husband, she collapses into a heap of crumpled fabric in one of the most magical of Méliès’ effects.

   Then, in a furious reverse movement, the Devil strips the room and, disappearing behind the cape, leaps toward the rear wall where the cape suddenly hangs suspended from two nails and, when it is pulled down, exposes a bare wall.

   I mentioned to Madame Malthète-Méliès my pleasure in her grandfather’s good humour, and she replied — her entire face lighting up — that even after he had lost everything else, he never lost his humour and was always playing the prankster, pulling innumerable cigarettes out of her ear.

   In his last years (he died in 1938) Méliès operated a toy shop in one of the Parisian train stations, but what find most painful is the anecdote of the evening that Méliès burned all of his negatives in the garden of his Montreuil home. Fortunately, prints have survived, but those wasted years when he was eclipsed by a generation of gifted comedians — all of whom drew upon his routines and inventions — is, I think, one of the great tragedies of film history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

Next Page »