Silent films


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.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


ON TRIAL. Essanay Film Co., 1917 James Young, Barbara Castleton, Sydney Ainsworth, Patrick Calhoun, Little Mary McAlister. Assistant director: W. S. Van Dyke. Director: James Young. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A melodrama with a suspenseful courtroom climax; the sharp print was struck from an original 35mm nitrate negative. Robert Strickland (Sydney Ainsworth) confesses to the murder of Gerald Trask (James Young) and refuses to defend himself on the stand. Adroit cross-examinations by his lawyer of Strickland’s wife and young daughter arouses sufficient doubt in the minds of the jury for them to quickly reach an 11 to one verdict to acquit, but the adroit holdout convinces them that although Strickland may not be a murderer he is undoubtedly a thief.

   They request that Trask’s secretary Glover (Patrick Calhoun) be recalled for questioning and in a tense, effective sequence, the calm, self-assured Glover is shown to be both the actual murderer and the thief.

   The acting style of the women is considerably more extravagant than that of the men, and reminded me somewhat of Theda Bara’s style. The person who introduced the film theorized that Van Dyke might in fact have been responsible for much of the direction.

   The film is certainly superbly controlled and paced, and the attention paid to small details, like the way Glover preens when he is called back to the stand and the characterization of secondary players during the trial is impressive. The director has the ability to integrate this detail with the suspenseful main narrative in a way that is quite striking.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


HEART O’ THE HILLS. Pickford/First National, 1919. Mary Pickford, Jack Gilbert, Harold Goodwin. Director: Sidney A. Franklin. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   This is based on a novel by John Fox, Jr. and like his The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (filmed several times, including Paramount, 1936), has a heroine who leaves the hills where she has grown up to live in town, where she goes to school and picks up city ways.

   This is not, however, as dark as Trail (our Mary is much perkier and more resilient than Sylvia Sidney in the sound film), and she eventually rejects the son of the rich man who has taken her into his family (a young John Gilbert) and goes back to the hills to marry her childhood sweetheart.

   Beautiful location filming by Charles Rosher. A friend and I parted ways on this, but I’m a sucker for back-country folk standing up to city slickers, and this pulled me in without any trouble. I think it has something to do with the summers I spent on my grandparents’ farm in rural Arkansas, and rural Arkansas was about as primitive as the area depicted in this slice of Americana.

   Mary plays herself at 13 (a real stretch) and 20ish (more believable), and she rides well and appears to handle a rifle like a young frontier sharpshooter.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THUNDERING HOOFS. FBG, 1924. Fred Thomson, Fred Huntley, Charles Manes, Ann May, Carrie Clark Eard, Willie Fung, Silver King. Director: Albert S. Rogell. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Fred Thomson films are rare indeed. Thomson was married to noted screenwriter Frances Marion and died before the advent of sound films. Willie Fung is a familiar face from sound films, but the real co-star is Silver King, Thomson’s horse.

   In addition to the superb action sequence in which Thomson stops a runaway stage (and injured himself so severely by falling under the horses that the film was completed by stunt man Yakima Canutt), a sequence shows Thomson’s character’s father slipping from Silver King and dying, with a quick cut to a staged shot of Silver King kneeling by a roadside grave marked by a crude cross.

   A good friend’s unforgettable comment was his curiosity about why the footage showing the horse burying the father was cut. In spite of this irreverent comment that broke me up, the film is a top-notch western. I am convinced that had Thomson made more surviving films, he would have made it to the pantheon that includes Tom Mix, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


JAZZ MAD. Universal Pictures, 1928; Jean Hersholt, Marion Nixon, George Lewis, Roscoe Karns. Director: F. Harmon Weight. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Hersholt plays a German composer who moves with his daughter to America to find a supporter of his classical symphony and finds all doors closed to him. In desperation, he takes a job in a club conducting an orchestra.

   The act is a comedy turn, which submits the conductor and musicians to vegetables thrown by the audience. When his daughter’s suitor’s wealthy parents learn of this public spectacle, they connive to separate the couple and Hersholt falls into a deep depression.

   The machinations of Roscoe Karns lead to a performance of the symphony by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony orchestra (performing indoors) and the conductor’s acclaim as an unrecognized genius.

   It sounds treacly, but the performance. are uniformly excellent and the public humiliation of the musician is a striking forerunner of Emil Janning’s role in The Blue Angel. Splendid photography by Gilbert Warrenton. A real find.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


SHERLOCK, JR. Buster Keaton Productions, 1924, 45 minutes. Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane. Writers: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell. Director: Buster Keaton.

   For silent film aficionados Charlie Chaplin is the ne plus ultra of comedians. Certainly Chaplin had a wide emotional range which he was able to exploit at every turn; with him, slapstick humor and pathos — if not bathos — could be only a few frames apart. There is no denying Charlie Chaplin’s talent.

   For this silent film enthusiast, however, Buster Keaton is still my favorite comedian of the era. No knock against Chaplin, but there is something irreducibly American about Keaton, especially in his boundless enthusiasm and unquenchable energy in accomplishing his goals. If a situation seemed hopeless, Keaton would simply redouble his efforts and win out in the end — no defeatism for Buster. For him, the most intractable problems would always involve women in some way — and thus has it ever been with men.

   Buster Keaton didn’t have that wide emotional range that Chaplin possessed, but he didn’t really need it. In fact, he eschewed facial emotions, leading to his nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Keeping a dead pan regardless of the situation, Buster was still able to convey exactly what he should be feeling at any given moment. Now that’s talent!

    Sherlock, Jr. is one of Keaton’s best efforts. In it he plays a film projector operator whose dreams mirror his real-life anxieties, so you shouldn’t think that the movie is simply a shallow comedy. As Dan Callahan writes:

    “With Sherlock Jr, he [Keaton] came up with a haunting little meditation on movies and dreams. Projectionist Buster falls asleep at the controls and dreams that he can enter the film he is unreeling. With a series of ingenious visual effects, Keaton gives us a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb up onto a screen and become a part of the movie we are watching. It’s an unforgettable scene. Without self-consciousness, Keaton brings home the wondrousness of the medium itself, submerging himself in the ocean of its superb and liquid unreality. When he steps onto the screen, he fulfills something in all of us.”

   It is within this framework of fantasy that Buster acts out some of his most inventive visual gags — falling in and out of the dream world of the film-within-a-film, pretending to be the suave supersleuth (more like James Bond, in fact) who nearly gets it from an explosive billiard ball, diving through a window in a tuxedo and coming up from the ground inside a woman’s dress, diving headfirst yet again through — yes, through — another human being, an exquisitely-timed descent hanging from a railroad crossing gate into a moving car (if you can, run that sequence in slow motion), a gag involving Buster all alone on a bicycle’s handle bars approaching a train that’s just about to pass a trestle, and another stunt in which he falls from a moving train (and during which, he learned years later, he actually broke his neck). It seems that one of Buster’s favorite gag props was trains; he also used them to good effect in The General.

   No two ways about it: Buster Keaton was a comic film genius.

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