Silent films


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Next Page »