Silent films


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.

PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. Filmstudio Berlin, Germany, 1930. Originally released as Menschen am Sonntag. Erwin Splettstößer (taxi driver), Brigitte Borchert (record seller), Wolfgang von Waltershausen (wine seller), Christl Ehlers, (an extra in films), Annie Schreyer (model). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak (source material), Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder. Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann. Producers: Seymour Nebenzal & Edgar G. Ulmer. Directors: Kurt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Rochus Gliese (uncredited).

   Jon and I saw this a couple of nights ago as a restored print at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced by Arianne Ulmer, Edgar Ulmer’s daughter, with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

   It’s a long list of credits for a film with virtually no plot, and I’m not sure if anybody knows now who did what in putting the film together. It was a collaborative effort, or so I’m inclined to assume, with no studio backing, making this possibly the first “indy” film. The actors, as per the credits, played themselves as a group of friends and acquaintances who on a Sunday afternoon go to a park with a lake and bathing area in or near Berlin to spend the day together.

   Two men, two young ladies, and one wife or girl friend of one of the men who stays home in bed all day. They pair off, laugh, play, flirt, and go off in the woods together, but in this last instance, the pair in question are not necessarily the two who met at a train station the day before to set up the date for this particular Sunday.

   The next day it is back to work, but in the meantime we have a small time capsule of what life may have been for the working class in Germany before the small man with the mustache rose to power, lending a certain poignancy to the film that probably was not intended, although who knows, since I wasn’t there, it may have been.

   Watching this film feels at times as though someone is showing you a home movie, made with a small camera without sound, as many of my father’s family movies were made. And yet, despite a story line that is so flimsy as so nearly not exist, some of the filming techniques, the cutting of one scene to another, the angles of the shots and so on, foreshadow what was to come in the careers of those who created this film.

   Unhappily the men, who flirt with two other women in a boat on the lake right before the eyes of their dates for the day, are not very likeable, while the girls are pretty but not beautiful by any means. Brigitte Borchert, who is the blonde girl in the photos you see, died in 2011 at the age of 100, and this is the only film she made.

   As amateurs, the players play themselves very naturally, and perhaps this explains why their performances do not display the “overacting” that is so often associated with silent films.

   This is considered a classic movie by many sources, but in my opinion, only because of its historical significance in film making, not because it represents a giant leap in storytelling.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE SEA HAWK. First National Pictures, 1924. Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace MacDonald, Marc MacDermott, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Medea Radzina, William Collier, J. Lionel Belmore. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The Sea Hawk was a substitution for the originally scheduled L’Argent (1929; Marcel L’Herbier, director) L’Argent was certainly the film I was looking forward to with the most anticipation. However, although I’d seen The Sea Hawk more than once and have a Turner showing on tape, I didn’t miss the opportunity to watch it again.

   Some of you will be familiar with the Errol Flynn remake (WB, 1940), although the silent version is more faithful to Sabatini’s novel than the later version, which eliminates the extensive Moorish section that’s one of the glories of this film.

   When Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) is betrayed by his villainous younger brother and delivered into the greedy hands of rascally Jasper Leigh (Beery), his Christian upbringing is so damaged by his sense of outrage that when he falls into the hands of Moorish pirates, he quickly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the “Sea Hawk,” Muslim scourge of the high seas, and the favorite of Asad-el-Din, Sasha of Algiers, much to the chagrin of the Sasha’s favorite wife and heir apparent son.

   Enid Bennett, the lovely star of Hairpins, and Sir Oliver’s intended bride until his betrayal, is imprisoned in unbecoming costumes that mask her beauty until she’s captured by Moorish pirates (guess who?) and put up for auction, her clothes in tatters that reveal something of her native charms, and sold to… guess who again?

   Beery is a rascal, but lovable, and Sills is a splendid corsaire, with a focused rage that distinguishes his portrayal from that of the rakish, devil-may-care Flynn. I like both portrayals and both films.

   Now, the downside: this was, for much of the screening, an inferior print that only occasionally incorporated a reel of superior quality, most notably during the Moorish episodes. Of course, I missed the great score that Korngold composed for the sound remake, but the accompanist was more than competent.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? Selznick Pictures, released by Select Pictures, 1921. Eugene O’Brien, Winifred Westover, Arthur Houseman, George Lessey, Warren Cook, Arthur Donaldson. Director: Alan Crosland. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Based on “The Open Door,” a Saturday Evening Post story by George Weston, this attractive film traces the fortunes of a young office worker who’s framed for a crime and after unsuccessfully trying to make a fresh start selling typewriter ribbons, has his suicide all planned and ready to be carried off when he rescues a young woman who’s fainted from hunger in a park.

   He carries her off to his boarding house and puts her in the care of his sympathetic landlady. He keeps delaying his suicide as he establishes a business with the young girl’s help to convince her that she’s repaying his good deed. The business unexpectedly takes off and he becomes wildly successful. Then the man who framed him reenters his life, and it appears that the young man’s success may be short-lived.

   Lewis Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, apparently liked the story in the Post so much that he rushed the film into production. I’ve not read the story, but I certainly liked the film that resulted from it. It’s basically an Alger story with some wry twists that lift it out of that time-worn groove.

   I suppose that much of the attraction of the film lies in innocence reestablished and generosity rewarded, with a healthy dash of rooting for the young couple. In any case, I thought the film was a standout for its sympathetic characters and compelling situation.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


HOLD YOUR BREATH. Christie, 1924. Dorothy Devore, Walter Hiers, Tully Marshall, Jimmie Adams, Priscilla Bonner, Jimmy Harrison, Lincoln Plummer, Max Davidson. Director: Scott Sidney. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The audience greeted the silent comedy with considerable pleasure. In its own way, it is somewhat bizarre, as cub reporter Dorothy Devore attempts to get an interview from reclusive millionaire Tully Marshall in his well-guarded apartment.

   Through a series of ruses, she gains entry and even manages to ingratiate herself when an organ-grinder’s monkey reaches through an open window and makes off with an expensive diamond bracelet, the most recently acquired bauble in Marshall’s collection.

   The rest of the film consists of Devore’s hair-raising attempts to retrieve the necklace as the monkey climbs about the building’s exterior, with a detective in hot but somewhat less exposed pursuit, A highlight for the audience was a cameo by Max Davidson as a street pedlar who takes advantage of the crowd gathered to hawk his wares.

   Devore is a delight, and this film was one of the comic highlights of the weekend. Sidney also directed the Elmo Lincoln Tarzan of the Apes, as well as another Christie comedy that I’ve seen and liked, Charley’s Aunt (1925). According to the program notes, Devore was the top female comedian on the Christie lot in the 1920s. I don’t find that hard to believe.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BABY. Essanay, 1915. G. M. Anderson (Broncho Billy), Berenice Sawyer, Evelyn Selby, Lee Willard. Based on a story by Peter B Kyne. Director: G. M. Anderson. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   It’s a strong sign of the popularity of the Broncho Billy series (and possibly, also, a symptom of the difficulty in getting new scripts fast enough to accommodate the rapid shooting schedules of the series) that this remake of Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid was released only two years after the original film.

   Billy, an outlaw on the run, rescues a child and returns her to her mother. When the husband returns and discovers that the saviour of his child is a wanted outlaw, he’s faced with a moral crisis.

   It’s difficult to explain the appeal of these simplistic little two-reelers, but they undoubtedly reside in guilelessness and sympathetic portrayal of Billy by Anderson, and in the emotional tug of the simply defined story lines.

   The screening of an interview with Anderson by William Everson in 1957 showed Anderson to have a phenomenal recall of details of the early days of the film industry, if somewhat less appreciation of current films.

   This was followed by Shootin’ Mad (1918), an abridged version of one of Anderson’s last Broncho Billy films, originally released as a five-reeler. The budget was larger so that the sets didn’t shudder when a door was slammed, but Billy was his dependable self, still, as the program notes put it, “a surefooted cavalier who turns into a bumbling clod when he meets a purty girl.”

Editorial Comment:   The popularity of the Broncho Billy series (1910-1918) should not be underestimated. The list of films in the series on IMDb includes 144 of them, and there are quite likely many others that are missed.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


SUBMARINE Jack Holt

SUBMARINE. Columbia, 1928. Silent film with sound effects. Jack Holt, Dorothy Revier, Ralph Graves, Clarence Burton, Arthur Rankin. Director: Frank Capra. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Ace deep-sea diver Jack Dorgan (Jack Holt) marries a woman he meets at a dancehall (Bessie, played by Dorothy Revier). When he’s called to work, Bessie, bored, goes out and meets Bob Mason (Ralph Graves), who, unknown to her, is Jack’s best friend.

   Jack returns unexpectedly, finds the two together and throws Bob out of the house. When Bob is trapped in a sunken submarine, Jack, the only diver who might be able to reach the sub, sulks at home, unwilling to help the man who betrayed his friendship. A chance discovery reveals Bessie’s duplicity and Jack races to the rescue of the crew.

SUBMARINE Jack Holt

   According to the program notes, this was Columbia’s first “A” picture, and Capra was brought on after Harry Cohn fired the original director. Capra obtains the assistance of the Navy, shooting on location in San Pedro with 100 Navy seamen as extras.

   The last third of the film keeps cutting from the trapped seamen to the rescue attempt, with the tension building until the final minutes of the film. Capra’s skill with actors makes the shopworn triangle believable and Holt, one of my two favorite actors when I was a kid (the other was Buck Jones), is every boy’s idea of a resourceful hero.

   Graves, hardly remembered today, is almost as good as Holt, and Revier is perfect as the girl you love to hate.

SUBMARINE Jack Holt

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