Douglas Fairbanks was not a good actor. Let’s just get that out of the way. In many ways, he is the epitome of silent over-acting. When Fairbanks is hungry, he uses his hands to make huge circles in front of his belly. When he is tired, he yawns like a lion on the prairie and stretches his arms above his head as far as they will go. And I cannot keep my eyes off him when he is on screen.
I once saw home video of Fairbanks and Chaplin (they were very close friends) and I always think the same thing when I see them. They seem so alive that I find it hard to believe they are actually dead (and Fairbanks has been gone since 1939, Chaplin since 1977). This is what Fairbanks brings to the screen, an ebullience that is infectious. This is a zest for life that cannot be faked.
The first action movie star, his athleticism is amazing. He seems like a gymnast and a dancer when he is onscreen. He was also the prototype for the onscreen swashbuckler. When he filmed this movie Fairbanks was in his early forties but was a tremendous athlete. He spends most of the movie climbing, stealing, and sneaking around shirtless. It’s amazing to me that he died just fifteen years later of a heart attack. Famously, his last words were “I’ve never felt better.”
Fairbanks wrote and produced his most successful movies, but often based them on existing stories. He starred in Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, The Black Pirate, Zorro (and the sequel, Don Q: Son of Zorro) and this week’s entry to the blog, The Thief of Bagdad (I know that is a misspelling, but that is the way they spelled the city in the movie). It is the story of a thief who falls in love with a princess and fools her into believing that he is a prince. When he is discovered he is ashamed, but has also won her affection and finds that he could possibly win her hand if he faces and conquers a series of challenges. The movie would have made a great 8-bit scroller on the original Nintendo. He goes through fire stages and water stages and at one point even (I’m not kidding here) must uncover the star shaped key in order to enter the abode of the flying horse. It’s a video game that was just never made.
Although the special effects may seem amateurish to modern eyes, it is important to remember that they would have been absolutely cutting edge at the time. Fairbanks spared no expense and this film clearly cost a lost of money to make. The sets, in particular, are still impressive today, especially when one considers that many of them were built and not miniatures with computer generated extras. (Although I don’t have a strong background in Middle Eastern history, I am going to go out on a limb and assume that they are not historically accurate).
The film, like many silent films, does suffer from stereotypes that can seem jarring to modern viewers. Fairbanks’s nemesis is the epitome of the “devious Oriental” stereotype, who uses subterfuge to try and take over the city of Bagdad. He is (SPOILER ALERT!) defeated by our hero in the end. It also features one of the first film appearances by Anna May Wong (the first Asian-American star), and is the role that brought her international attention.
Despite these limitations, I strongly recommend seeing Thief, or any of Fairbanks’s movies. He is an important character in the history of Hollywood and had a star power that cannot be denied. He had been referred to, with justification, as the King of Hollywood and is largely forgotten today. I recommend seeing any of his movies. (The Black Pirate is another favorite, which was filmed in color, something very rare in the ‘20s).
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1924 that are worth seeing):
Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen is an epic retelling of a German myth “Nibelungenlied.” It’s enthralling and such a huge tale. I mentioned Von Stroheim’s Greed in my last post, the 9-hour film has been lost, but parts of it survive and I wish we could see the whole thing. Sherlock, Jr. is one of Buster Keaton’s most inventive movies. It was VERY difficult to not choose The Last Laugh, a human drama about a man who loses everything that makes him feel worthwhile. It is a beautifully acted film, featuring an impressive performance by Emil Jannings.
Did you know? (1924 Trivial Knowledge):
“I can bear a thousand tortures, endure a thousand deaths – but not thy tears.” The thief to the princess (yes, they do speak as if they are in ye olde Englande).
Which DVD version did I watch?
I watched the Kino On Video edition from the Douglas Fairbanks box-set
The Big Three of silent comedy is almost never disputed. Aficionados of early film, when discussing comedy, may include names like Fatty Arbuckle, Charley Chase, or Max Linder in the discussion, but in reality, the three giants of silent comedy are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd is the most forgotten of the three, and that’s a shame because his movies contain inventive and original gags and he is the greatest practitioner of daredevil comedy that I know of (A lot of Jackie Chan’s work reminds me of Harold Lloyd…but with more Kung Fu and fewer flappers).
Lloyd had enjoyed some success in the teens playing a character called “Lonesome Luke” which even he admitted was little more than a Chaplin rip-off. It wasn’t until he put on a pair of glasses and stopped imitating Chaplin, that Lloyd really started to find his groove in Hollywood. Safety Last is perhaps his most famous work and does contain the scene he is most remembered for (the famous “clock scene” that you see above).
Lloyd is not as remembered today because he had no need for publicity after he retired. Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd all owned their own studios and produced their own movies. Keaton signed over the rights to his movies and lived for many years in difficult financial straits. His movies were re-released from time to time and he occasionally acted in movies and on television later in life. Chaplin continued to work almost until his death, re-released his movies fairly regularly (often with new scores or narration that he had written) and he was constantly in the press because in the middle of the 20th century because of paternity suits, suspected un-American activities, or his exile from the United States. Lloyd however, retired from movies in the mid-1930s (only coming out of retirement to make 1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock with Preston Sturges and Howard Hughes). He was a very wealthy man (his Beverly Hills lawn was big enough that he put a nine-hole golf course on it) and set a high price to show his movies, which meant that the public did not see them as often.
In many ways the plot of Safety Last (a play on the phrase “Safety First,” popularized during the First World War) seems like a standard comedy (although, to be fair, I have no idea how standard this would have been in 1923). Harold plays “Harold” and Mildred Pierce plays “Mildred” (apparently they went to the Tony Danza School of Character Naming, since he’s never played someone who wasn’t named “Tony”). They are a young couple in love. He is off the to city to make it big and once he does, she will join him and they will be married. He sends her letters that greatly exaggerate his financial situation and, of course, she surprises him by walking in on him at work. He works at a department store, but must convince her that he is the manager. He overhears the real manager lamenting their lack of publicity. He will pay anyone $1,000.00 to bring publicity to the store. Of course, Lloyd has a brainstorm. His friend and roommate is good at climbing buildings (having scaled one early in the film to escape a cop) and so they will have this daredevil climb the outside of the building to attract a crowd. Unfortunately, when they are set to begin, the police officer is there to arrest the friend and Lloyd must scale the building himself.
Lloyd spends about a fifth of the movie climbing the building, and it is still a genuinely exciting scene. As far as I know, Lloyd did all or, at the very least, almost all of his own stunts. He probably worked with a net in most scenes, but there are many where the danger is clearly real. He must battle pigeons and dogs and his own fear on the way up. Near the top, he almost falls and is saved by hanging onto the hands of a clock (see image above). The plot sounds trite, like something from a boring romantic comedy, but it isn’t boring, it feels fresh and exciting and Lloyd is an extremely charming presence on film.
Lloyd’s character was easily identified with the 1920s. He was a go-getter and an optimist who was always on the way up, working his way through the ranks of business to “make something of himself.” Unfortunately these very characteristics made him seem hopelessly out of touch with the world after the start of the Great Depression (whereas Chaplin’s Tramp character fit right in). He was entertaining and inventive and a master of suspense and danger as comedic devices. It is a shame that he is the least remembered of the three great silent film comedians, but hopefully at least one or two people who read this blog will go out and discover Harold Lloyd for themselves.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1923 that are worth seeing):
A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first foray into strict drama. Meant as a vehicle to give Edna Purviance, his longtime leading lady, a career on her own as a dramatic actress, it was a financial failure (the first of his career). Audiences stayed away when they realized that Chaplin was not the star of the film (in fact, he only appears very briefly as a porter). This movie appeared on many “Greatest Films of All Time” lists in the first half of the 20th Century, although few people have seen it today. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first of Lon Chaney’s two greatest films (the other being Phantom of the Opera). A classic that features one of his best performances and his customary, highly detailed makeup jobs, the movie is a must-see for fans of literature and film.
Did you know? (1923 Trivial Knowledge):
“Young man, don’t you know you might fall and get hurt?”-Old Woman to Harold as he’s climbing the building
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 1
Nosferatu (also referred to as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror), directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau, begins with a young real estate apprentice named Hutter. I love him because it is clear within the first 30 seconds he is on screen that Hutter is absolutely insane. Early on in the film he must leave his wife (which I assume is played by an actress but, like most women in German silent films, looks like a man in drag) because of business. He works for a man named Knock (just imagine Ebenezer Scrooge and you have imagined Knock). Knock sends Hutter to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania because a Count named Orlock wishes to buy property in their town. If this sounds familiar it is because Nosferatu is simply the story of Dracula with the names and one of the locations changed (instead of coming to England, the Count wishes to come to Germany). Hutter is Jonathan Harker, Professor Bulwer is Van Helsing, and Count Orlock is Dracula.
They needed to change these details because although Dracula’s author, Bram Stoker, was deceased, his widow was still alive and would not give them the rights to film a movie version of the novel. I suppose that they could have begun the film with the following disclaimer: “Any similarities between this and the only other vampire story are purely coincidental,” but that would have seemed rude since it was such an obvious lie. Florence Stoker sued the filmmakers and won. Courts ordered that the movie be destroyed but some copies of it were kept and still exist today.
Another of the great German Expressionist movies (although this film is not as overt in its expressionism as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosferatu (a reference to “vampire,” a word the filmmaker avoided) uses shadows better than almost any other movie. Max Schreck’s performance as the vampiric count is highlighted by sharp contrasts of light and shadow, which make him seem even more menacing to the viewer and to his victims. Visual effects considered primitive today must have had a powerful impact on audiences in 1922. The first third of the movie, which takes place in the Carpathians, may have even been shot on location (this is one of those things that I have heard, but cannot verify due to my “no research” policy on the blog), making the beginning of the film even more intense.
Unlike the suave version of Dracula introduced by Bela Lugosi (and continued by Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman), Count Orlock is repulsive. Visually evocative of a giant rat, he is the vampire as vermin. This vampire will not seduce his victims. In this interpretation a vampire is a filthy parasite living on the blood of others. It is different from most versions you may have seen and it is incredibly creepy.
Some of the performances may seem too melodramatic to modern viewers (particularly Hutter’s) and the film certainly would not be considered scary by modern standards. It is a compliment to Schreck’s performance as Orlock that the movie is still creepy and to Murnau’s direction that it is still visually and atmospherically interesting.
If you do decide to watch this film, be careful which copy you see. This seems like a good time to bring up a tricky issue with silent films. A ridiculous number of silent films do not survive to the current day. There were a couple of reasons for this. Movies were filmed on a nitrate-based film stock and nitrate (1) shrinks over time (this is why old movies sometimes seem jumpy, because the images have shrunk slightly in places) and (2) is highly flammable. Movies were also edited differently in various places around the world (depending on what local censors felt would be suitable for their audience) and movies were often either used until they wore out or were thrown away when theaters were done with them. Some versions of silent films are just pieced together from the scraps that were gathered. Depending on the print that you watch of a silent film, you may not be seeing the full picture. You may get a version that is an hour long and rent another copy of the same movie and get one that is an hour and a half.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1922 that are worth seeing):
Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler is the earliest of Fritz Lang’s movies that is readily available on today. Lang made some decent movies after moving to the U.S. in 1934, but his German films, from Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler to 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse are all solid films and are all worth seeing (and I’m sure at least one of them will come up in future posts). Foolish Wives, written, directed by and starring Erich Von Stroheim, is a masterpiece of silent drama, with complex characters and wonderful direction. Robin Hood continued Douglas Fairbanks’s run of wonderful action/swashbuckling pictures and was, as far as I know, the first time Robin Hood appeared on film. Just like every Fairbanks movie, it is characterized by fun, excitement, and athletic stunts.
Did you know? (1922 Trivial Knowledge):
“Your wife has a lovely neck”-Count Orlock to Hutter
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Kino on Video DVD, not the Ultimate Edition, the regular edition.