Silent films


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


MOCKERY Lon Chaney

MOCKERY. MGM, 1927. Lon Chaney, Ricardo Cortez, Barbara Bedford, Mack Swain, Emily Fitzroy, Charles Puffy, Kai Schmidt, Johnny Mack Brown. Scenario by Benjamin Christensen based on a story by Stig Esbern. Cinematography by Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by John W. English. Director: Benjamin Christensen. Shown at Cinevent 35, Columbus OH, May 2003.

   After a notable career as a director and actor in his native Denmark that included the controversial Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, Christiansen was brought to America in 1926 by MGM, where after completing two films, The Devil’s Circus and Mockery, and working on The Mysterious Island (begun by Maurice Tourneur and completed by Lucian Hubbard), he moved to First National.

MOCKERY Lon Chaney

   There he completed (among other films) a version of A. Merritt’s Seven Footprints to Satan that’s not a lost film but one that’s in restoration limbo. (It was announced for a showing on Turner several years ago that was cancelled with the explanation, as I recall, that the soundtrack was not up to standard. An odd explanation for a silent film’s cancellation. A good friend, Charlie Shibuk, who saw the film some 25 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art with Czech intertitles, points out that the original titles were written by Cornell Woolrich as William Irish.)

MOCKERY Lon Chaney

   Chaney plays Sergei, a brutish peasant who rescues the Countess Tatiana (Barbara Bedford) from revolutionaries, helping her to escape to Novokutsk to deliver a message to the Czarist forces. Sergei falls in love with Tatiana and she, in turn, falls in love with a Czarist officer (Ricardo Cortez) who arrives in time to save her from the Bolsheviks.

   Chaney learns to hate the aristocrats but can’t overcome his love for Tatiana and sacrifices his life for her. Chaney, almost unrecognizable in his effective makeup, gives a nuanced performance, one of his strongest in a non-genre film that I’ve seen.

   I didn’t detect any of the stylistic flourishes for which Christiansen’s horror films are known, but his sensitive handling of the fine cast is, perhaps, a testament to his own acting skill.

   I wondered if the editor is the same John English who co-directed, with William Witney, some of Republic Studio’s finest serials in the late 1930s. IMDB says yes.

MOCKERY Lon Chaney

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE BARGAIN William S. Hart

  THE BARGAIN. New York Motion Picture Corp., 1914. William S. Hart, J. Frank Burke, Barney Sherry, James Dawley, Clara Williams, Charles Swickard, Roy Laidlaw, Herschel Mayall. Scenario by Thomas H. Ince and William H. Clifford; cinematography by Joseph H. August and/or Robert Newhard. Director: Reginald Barker. Shown at Cinevent 39, Columbus OH, May 2003.

   Hart’s first feature-length film, The Bargain, as the program notes aptly pointed out, established the basic elements that would be a hallmark of the Hart Western (notably the concept of the good-bad man who is regenerated through his love for a good woman).

THE BARGAIN William S. Hart

   The film was shot in and near the Grand Canyon (with some sources claiming the cinematography was by Joseph August) and while the print was not always the sharpest, varying in quality from reel to reel, the Arizona landscape was captured in its startling beauty and awesome grandeur.

   I was immediately struck by the opening sequence in which each of the cast members is first shown in evening attire, then as they bend over, hiding their face from the camera, they straighten up in makeup and costume for their on-screen-roles. (Dan Stumpf commented that he had seen this device used in at least one other Hart film.)

   Hart plays outlaw Two-Gun Jim Stokes who, after he is wounded by a posse, is rescued by a farmer (J. Barney Sherry) who takes him to his shack, which he shares with his daughter Nell (Clara Williams).

THE BARGAIN William S. Hart

   Stokes and Nell fall in love, are married, and Stokes leaves to settle some unfinished business (he plans to return the money from his most recent holdup), promising to return.

   He’s captured by Sheriff Bud Walsh (J. Frank Burke) but when Walsh, falling prey to temptation, gambles away the money he’s rescued from Stokes, Stokes strikes a bargain that will save Walsh’s reputation and allow Stokes to escape to a new life.

   In a sense, The Bargain was Ince’s response to DeMille’s The Squaw Man. It made Hart a star and confirmed the Western as a major film genre.

THE BARGAIN William S. Hart

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


NORTH OF 36. Paramount Pictures, 1924. Jack Holt, Ernest Torrance, Lois Wilson, Noah Beery, David Dunbar, Stephen Carr. Based on the novel by Emerson Hough. Director: Irvin Willat. Shown at Cinevent 35, Columbus OH, May 2003.

NORTH OF 36 Jack Holt

   Lois Wilson plays Taisie Lockheart, a Texas rancher who needs to get her herd of cattle to Abilene and across “a thousand miles of Indian territory.” Noah Berry, the villainous Texas State Treasurer (some things never change, I guess) Sim Rudabaugh, scheming to take control of her land by any means necessary, tracks the cattle drive with a crew of ruffians among whom is good guy Jack Holt aiming to thwart Rudabaugh’s plan.

   This was conceived as a sequel to The Covered Wagon and was to be directed by James Cruze, but a cut in the budget lost the company the director and its grandiose plans for another epic of the West.

   However, they were able to engage the last remaining herd of longhorn cattle for the drive and the excitement of the drive and the work of an excellent cast more than makes up for any budget deficiencies.

   The punishment meted out to Rudabaugh by the Indians he’s wronged is a truly horrific moment in film vengeance, and the audience responded with cheers and applause. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. And they should.

NORTH OF 36 Jack Holt

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE BLACKBIRD Lon Chaney

THE BLACKBIRD. MGM, 1926. Lon Chaney, Renée Adorée, Owen Moore, Doris Lloyd. Director: Tod Browning. Shown at Cinevent 35, Columbus OH, May 2003.

   I had seen this film a few years ago, but the Chaney-Browning combination is always a pleasure to revisit. Chaney plays two brothers, one a crippled preacher (The Bishop) who succors the wayward inhabitants of Limehouse, the other a criminal mastermind (the Blackbird), who is the antithesis of the saintly Bishop.

   Chaney’s masterful dual portrayals are well supported by Moore, Adorée and Lloyd, in a complex of relationships that complement Chaney’s Jekyll/Hyde roles. The beginning is particularly striking as it displays a series of close-ups of Limehouse characters, immediately establishing the grotesque strain that is developed in Chaney’s characterizations.

Editorial Comment:   Shown in the photo image above are the three stars of the film, Lon Chaney, Renée Adorée, and Owen Moore. The movie has been shown on TCM; whether recently, I do not know.

THE BLACKBIRD Lon Chaney

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


SALLY IRENE AND MARY

SALLY, IRENE AND MARY. MGM, 1925. Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford, Sally O’Neill, William Haines, Henry Kolker, Douglas Gilmore. Based on a play by Eddie Dowling. Director: Edmund Goulding. Shown at Cinecon 39, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2003.

   I have fond, if vague, memories of the 1938 remake of this silent film that featured Alice Faye, Tony Martin, Fred Allen, Joan Davis, Jimmy Durante, and Gypsy Rose Lee (quite a cast!), but I had never seen the original film.

   Constance Bennett (Sally), Joan Crawford (Irene), and Sally O’Neill (Mary) are showgirls, with Sally the older and wiser gal who’s seen it all but is happy with her older lover who keeps her in luxury, and Irene and Mary the recent recruits, childhood friends from the same tenement background.

   The film alternates between the giddy, dangerous after hours parties and the tenement apartments where families fear they are losing their daughters to a sinful show business world. The adventure will end tragically for one of the tenement girls while the other will return to her childhood sweetheart.

   The scenes in which the showgirls talk and gossip among themselves are striking in their mixture of dreams and occasional rueful incursions of reality. Crawford is the standout, although Bennett is almost as fine in her “mother hen” portrayal.

SALLY IRENE AND MARY

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE TURMOIL Tarkington

THE TURMOIL. Universal-Jewel, 1924. Emmett Corrigan, George Hackathorne, Edward Hearn, Theodore von Fitz, Eileen Percy, Pauline Garon, Eleanor Boardman, Winter Hall. Based on the novel (1915) by Booth Tarkington. Director: Hobart Henley. Shown at Cinecon 39, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2003.

   It’s probably difficult to appreciate the appeal Booth Tarkington had for earlier generations (which include mine). He’s probably best remembered as the novelist who provided the inspiration for Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, but even earlier I read and reread his Penrod series, the story of an imaginative, adventuresome boy who did all the things that I, a dull, unimaginative, tradition-bound kid, never dared to do.

   The Turmoil, however, is more in the vein of the Ambersons and is the story of a successful father who tries to direct the lives of his three sons, with disastrous results for two of them.

   It’s a dark film that lacks the kind of riveting detail that a William deMille might have brought to it, but somehow manages to focus poignantly on the difficult road to manhood travelled by the third son, with a particularly fine performance by Eleanor Boardman as the young woman whose love he eventually returns.

NOTE:   The cover shown is that of the Grosset & Dunlap “Photoplay” edition, 1924.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE FIGHTING BLADE

THE FIGHTING BLADE. Inspiration-First National, 1923. Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Mackaill, Lee Baker, Morgan Wallace, Bradley Barker, Frederick Burton, Stuart Sage, Phil Tead, Walter Horton. Story: Beulah Marie Dix; scenario: Josephine Lovett; art director: Everett Shinn. Director: John S. Robertson. Shown at Cinecon 39, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2003.

   Barthelmess plays Karl Van Kerstenbroock, a Flemish soldier of fortune who joins Cromwell’s forces. Going undercover, he visits the home of the fiancé of Thomsine Mugrove (Mackaill) whose cowardly brother (Bradley Barker) had earlier fled a duel with Van Kerstenbroock. Musgrove risks her life to help Von Kerstenbroock and is rescued by him after he leads Cromwell’s forces to victory.

   Barthelmess is a somewhat unlikely action hero, but character development and conflict are not neglected in this film, handsomely designed by noted contemporary illustrator Everett Shinn. Barthelmess is moody and often diffident in his acting style, a striking contrast to the flamboyance of an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

   I liked the film, but Jim Goodrich found it lacking the brio he appreciates in a swashbuckler. (I hope that Jim won’t mind if I report that he referred to it, in passing, as a “swishbuckler.”)

      Dorothy Mackaill:

THE FIGHTING BLADE

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE UNKNOWN. MGM, 1927. Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, John George. Director: Tod Browning.

THE UNKNOWN Lon Chaney

   One of Lon Chaney’s most famous roles. He plays Alonzo, an armless circus performer, who loves Manon (Joan Crawford), daughter of the circus owner. Alonzo performs prodigious feats with his bare feet and is caressed fondly by Crawford, who cannot bear to be touched by “normal” men.

   Eventually, Crawford is cured of her neurosis and is happily married to the strongman, who has devised an act where his arms are attached to two horses running in place on treadmills with the mechanism controlled by a single lever in the wings.

   Alonzo, insane with jealousy, gains control .of the lever and, as a horrified Crawford watches, speeds up the treadmill, the horses straining at their ropes, so that…

   But you didn’t think I was going to tell you how this one came out, did you?

   There’s a strangulation, murder, a dwarf, a visit to a hospital operating room at midnight (this is, after all, only four years before Frankenstein), and Chaney’s menacing, brooding presence, like a tightly-wound spring that threatens to unwind at any time.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 4, July-August 1986.


THE UNKNOWN Lon Chaney

A FESTIVAL OF CHARLEY CHASE SHORTS
by Walter Albert


   Just about everyone is familiar with the iconic greats of silent film comedy, but Charley Chase, a multi-talented comedian, a director, writer and actor, also an accomplished musician, who appeared in some of the best silent film two-reelers, is largely forgotten today.

CHARLEY CHASE

   Not however, by the programmers of film conventions, with Cinevent 40 [Columbus OH, May 2008] taking pride of place for its annual screening of selected comedies. Three of his shorts opened the Sunday evening program,with “Bromo and Juliet” (1926) one of his best, followed closely by the inspired antics of “Forgotten Sweeties” (1927) and “Movie Night” (1929).

   Charlie was an eternal optimist, striving to be successful in love and in business, and usually failing miserably at both. In “Bromo and Juliet,” directed by Leo McCarey, Charley is starring in an amateur production of Shakespeare (and just to see him, with his spindly legs in tights, is enough to justify the price of admission).

   He’s undercut by his fiance’s father, who has a weakness for the bottle, and constantly thwarted by Oliver Hardy as a taxi driver who just wants to get paid for his services. When the hapless Charley finally gets onstage, his histrionics catch the audience’s fancy, and his every misadventure feeds their delighted appreciation.

CHARLEY CHASE

    “Forgotten Sweeties,” directed by James Parrott (Charley’s younger brother), deals with a classic Chase situation, the husband who’s suspected by his wife of cheating on her with an attractive neighbor.

    It’s all a comedy of misunderstanding, but the misunderstandings result in some perilous marital moments for Charley, before it’s all resolved happily, if messily.

   The final short, “Movie Night,” with a story by Leo McCarey and directed by Lewis Foster and an uncredited James Parrott, has Charley, his wife and two kids (with the older played by the inimitable Spec O’Donnell) set off for an evening at the movies, where chaos eventually ensues.

   This reinforced my long-time conviction that the only place to sit in a movie theater is on the aisle.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO. First National Pictures, 1926. Constance Talmadge, Tullio Carminati, Edward Martindale, Rose Dione, Chester Conklin. Screenplay by Hans Kraly based on the play Sybil by Max Bordy and Franz Martos. Director: Sidney Franklin. Shown at Cinevent 40, Columbus OH, May 2008.

THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO 1926

   The beautiful Constance Talmadge plays Marian Duncan, an American dancer who’s touring Russia and leaving broken hearts in her wake. She’s fallen in love with a young lieutenant (Tullio Carminati) but she’s caught the attention of an aging roué (Edward Martindale), a Grand Duke who’s also the commanding officer of the hapless lieutenant.

   This is a tightly constructed romantic comedy, highlighted by a lengthy climax in which the lieutenant, Marion, the Grand Duke, and the Grand Duchess play an elaborate game of musical chairs in a hotel suite, a classic drawing room comedy situation that brings this witty play to a resolution that pleases everyone except, perhaps, the Grand Duke.

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