Have you ever seen a star athlete, retiring at the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, get chosen for an All-Star Team despite the fact that his statistics that season don’t really impress as much as others? That’s a little bit how I feel about this year’s entry, Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage. This isn’t meant to give the impression that it’s a bad movie, it just isn’t Keaton’s greatest. My personal favorites of his full-length features are Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (which I touched upon in my last entry) and most critics agree that The General is his best. I just don’t think I could have finished the 1920s without highlighting Keaton at least once, because he is a treasure of American cinema.
Spite Marriage is the story of a working-class guy named Elmer who dresses up in his customer’s finest clothes (he works at a dry-cleaners or whatever the early twentieth-century equivalent of a dry-cleaners was called) to see the woman of his dreams perform on stage. She is in love with her leading man and, when rejected for another woman, marries Elmer out of spite (all the while thinking that he is rich because he comes to all her shows in such nice clothes. The latter part of that last sentence is totally a line from a hip-hop song. Go ahead, say it out loud, I’ll wait). She leaves him when she finds out he isn’t wealthy and gets back together with the leading man. Through a course of events that would be fairly confusing if written out, he ends up working on their yacht by accident and, when the yacht is in danger, he lover leaves her behind and Keaton must save the day. The last 15 or 20 minutes are particularly enjoyable.
He is still a charming presence who commands the screen. It is worth noting that Buster Keaton literally spent his entire life in show business (he claimed that his nickname “Buster” was given to him by his Vaudevillian parents’ friend and associate, Harry Houdini). He was performing on stage from the time he was a toddler and had mastered the prat-fall practically before he could walk (being thrown around stage by his father).
Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd had their careers take vastly different turns after the 1920s. Chaplin and Lloyd retained the rights to their old films and control of their new ones. Lloyd mostly retired within five or six years after the decade ended. Chaplin started making one or two movies a decade until the ’60s. Keaton, however, signed on with a studio, losing the rights to his back-catalog and creative control of his films. This disastrous decision, a particularly nasty divorce, and a drinking problem cost him dearly, both financially and emotionally. Spite Marriage was the last movie he made with any creative control and it represents, to me, the end of the silent era in comedic filmmaking.
It is all the more poignant to watch when you realize that you are watching the end of an era, both for Buster Keaton and for cinema. Aside from Chaplin, who would wait until the early ‘40s to make a completely sound film, and Garbo, who would make the transition to sound soon after, almost all actors had either converted to sound or had their careers ruined by it. The sound era was beginning, the silent era was over, and the fortunes of one of it’s greatest stars would end with it.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1929 worth seeing):
The Marx Brothers make their first movie together with The Cocoanuts. It is vintage Marx Brothers and an entertaining ride throughout. Even though cowboy movies had been made since the dawn of cinema, I consider The Virginian, with Gary Cooper, to be the first modern Western (although most people might argue that it is Stagecoach, a decade later). Woman in the Moon is wonderful science fiction by the always entertaining husband and wife pair of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. Anyone that reads my blog regularly knows that I have a man-crush on Douglas Fairbanks. The Iron Mask is his farewell to silent film and one of his last movies. Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks is considered one of the classics to come out of Germany during the Weimar era. Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Erich Von Stroheim, was a delightful train wreck of the star and director’s egos. They ended up firing the director, removing large chunks of the story, and letting the star direct a new ending. A version cobbled together from many disparate bits is available from Kino.
Did you know? (1929 Trivial knowledge)
Elmer (Keaton), after he has saved her: “Good Bye, I’m awful glad to have seen you again.”
Trilby: “You’re going to be seeing a lot of me from now on.”
Which Version did I watch?
The Version in the TCM Archives set
Directed by a master in Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc features one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema (and that is not something that I say lightly). I’ve seen the lead credited as Maria Falconetti and Renee Falconetti, I don’t know which is her actual name (ah, the beauty of the silent era, when you could just make up your name, place of origin and background. It was kind of like professional wrestling but with fewer chair smashes over the head). This was only her second film, although before and after the movie she was an accomplished stage actress. This was also her last film. The process of making the movie was so draining that she never made another movie ever again. Dreyer achieved as much emotional resonance as possible by using long close-ups of the actors’ faces and not using any makeup. This approach works, as Falconetti is heartbreaking as Joan, giving one of the most moving performances captured on film. Dreyer also manages to get very good performances from the rest of the cast as well.
I don’t know much about material culture during that era, so I cannot speak to how realistic the costuming is, but I can say that it avoids some of the obvious ludicrousness often associated with period pieces. A stickler for verisimilitude, Dreyer based his script on the actual court documents of the trial, but the audience is meant to identify with the beleaguered Joan and not the English who would put her to death (who says that the winners always write history?). It is presented as a passion play, which isn’t altogether surprising considering the title. The movie focuses on Joan’s trial, her tortures, and her ultimate martyrdom, and one feels for her throughout the film.
I can understand why it was tough on the actors. In a field that traditionally coddles the on-film talent, Dreyer was apparently a rather punishing director and even the process of watching the movie can be a little tiring, but in a good way. This was a particularly difficult year for me, because Charlie Chaplin is my favorite actor and The Circus is my favorite of his movies. I have heard the argument that he has had better films, but for my money, this is his funniest movie. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is my favorite Buster Keaton movie and he is another one of my favorite comedic actors. I am as happy-go-lucky as anyone I know and am tempted to recommend one of these great comedies, but the emotional resonance of The Passion of Joan of Arc really cannot denied is just crying out to be viewed and loved by more people and I encourage you to go out and rent it. It is a difficult film, but it is well worth the effort.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1928 worth seeing):
As I said in the description above, I think that The Circus is the funniest Charlie Chaplin movie. It features the Tramp finding his way into a circus, causing mayhem by accident, and falling for the ringmaster’s daughter. It’s a wonderful film. Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. is well worth a watch and features one of his most dangerous and mind-numbingly awesome stunts (and all he had to do was stand still). This year saw one of the earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which also featured synchronized sound. Conrad Veidt is tragic and moving in The Man Who Laughs. Lon Chaney gives a characteristically amazing (and kind of creepy, since he’s in love with his adopted daughter) performance in Laugh, Clown, Laugh opposite a very young Loretta Young. He runs the emotional gamut in the movie from happiness to despair and it speaks to his talents that it doesn’t seem all that creepy while you’re watching it. I don’t normally make a habit of highlighting movies I’ve never seen, but King Vidor’s The Crowd is, apparently, an amazing movie that has never been released on DVD and I would love to see it.
Did you know? (1928 Trivial knowledge)
“Laugh, clown, laugh, even though your heart is breaking.” Flok (the clown) speaking to Flik (the other clown) in Laugh, Clown, Laugh when he realizes his adopted daughter doesn’t want to marry him.
Which Version did I watch?
The Criterion Collection edition
This is probably the timeliest entry into my blog (which, when you’re talking about 1927, it’s pretty tough to find something timely). Metropolis is an epic story of the tension between rich and poor. A privileged young man, Freder (played by Gustav Frohlich) begins to see how the other half lives through his obsession with a noble and innocent schoolteacher, Maria (played wonderfully by Brigitte Helm). There is also an important subplot involving a scientist named Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge). He has created a mechanical woman to replace his lost love, who had chosen Freder’s father over him. The visual image of the robot is probably the most well known of the movie.
I’m always interested in Sci-Fi movies from a historical standpoint. I love the idea of trying to figure out what people in past think the future will like (Metropolis takes place 100 years from when it was made, so about 15 years from now). It is sometimes easy to understand what occupies the minds of people by looking into the ways they think the future will suck. However, Metropolis is more than a cultural study, it is a cultural touchstone. It is beautiful and grand and in many ways is the prototype for the science fiction film. Pristine towers inhabited by the wealthy loom over the underground city of the poor and the people of the two classes only interact superficially with one another. It is an indictment of both power relationships and class struggle. Freder learns that he must become the link between his rich father and the working class and teach both sides that they can work together. Rather than engage in violent class struggle, Metropolis suggests that the two groups in conflict can and should compromise.
It is the timeliest entry because we can now see the full film for the first time in decades. I read once that only about 20% of movies from the silent era survived. There are a number of reasons for this. Movies were edited differently for different censorship boards around the country and around the word, leaving whole chunks missing from existing prints. They were also considered fairly disposable and would often be discarded by theater owners when new movies arrived. Lastly, silent movies were filmed on nitrate-based film stock. Nitrate shrinks over time (this is why images in silent movies are often shaky or seem to “jump” while you’re watching them. It is also highly flammable and for years after the silent era stores of archived movies in studio lots would catch file, destroying the negatives of the movies (also see my post on Nosferatu for a discussion of this). Metropolis was a victim of these factors. A dramatic failure upon its release, the movie was edited down by the studio and changed dramatically. Much of the original release was thought lost forever.
In 2008 a complete version of the movie was discovered in a South American film archive and after two years of restoration is now showing in theaters all over the country. I’m going to see it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge this weekend and I haven’t been this excited to see a movie in a long time (Return of the Jedi springs to mind). I encourage you to check out www.kino.com and look to see if the movie is playing anywhere near you. You’ll be seeing a classic film that no one has viewed (in its original form) in over 80 years.
Metropolis is grand and beautiful. The ending is a little hokey but the performances are strong (particularly Helm) and you are seeing a director at the height of his considerable creative powers with complete control over his art. I’m REALLY excited to finally see the complete version of the movie this weekend.
After seeing the reconstructed, full version of Metropolis I felt it necessary to add an addendum to my previous post.
Because I knew there had been some damage done to the recovered scenes I was initially concerned that there would be a jarring inconsistency. My fears that the relative sharpness would detract from the experience proved misplaced. It was actually an interesting experience to know exactly which scenes were taken out and how their inclusion added to the film.
I had forgotten how amazing Karl Freund’s cinematography is in many of the great German and American movies of the late silent/early sound era (yes, I do have a favorite cinematographer). His camera work on Metropolis is amazing. Some of the lost shots really add dimension to the characters that didn’t exist before. For instance, in one particular scene, Joh Fredersen receives disturbing news and a lost shot shows his pained expression, with his back to the rest of the characters. He collected himself and revealed none of this emotion when he turned around. This is the only shot that was kept, keeping the audience from knowing that he was not, in fact, completely heartless.
The most gripping lost section of the film is easily the mob of children trying to escape from drowning in the underground city. The scenes are terrifying and overwhelming, with children crawling all over one another and an almost crushing Maria. The scenes felt so dangerous that one of the people I saw the movie with commented that there must have been zero child labor laws because the mass of little children would have led to many of them getting hurt. Brigitte Helm looked genuinely frightened during the scenes.
The movie takes on an interesting dimension knowing the political persuasion of its writer. As I mentioned earlier, writer Thea Von Harbou was married to the director Fritz Lang (and divorced from co-star Rudolph Klein-Rogge). She and Lang would split a few years later because she embraced Nazi-ism and the Third Reich and Lang did not, fleeing to the United States. In our culture it is normal for us to conceive of class struggle as confrontational and/or violent. I think this might be a product of class being viewed through a Marxist lens (whether one is a Marxist or not, the modern concepts of class distinctions owes a lot to Marxist theorists). This film postulates that the classes should work together and completely disregards or denies class struggle. The working class in this film is infantile, easily led, and prone to outbursts of mob mentality. I wondered as I was watching it whether it was a fundamentally conservative movie, especially knowing just how far to the right Von Harbou would go in the next few years. I don’t know if that is the correct interpretation (and I’m sure that there are actually many interpretations) but knowing that she came from such an anti-Marxist background added another layer to my thought process.
I loved the re-release. My wife, Kelley, commented (and I agree) that even though she knew how the movie ended, she still felt tense while watching parts of it. If you have the chance to see one of the re-releases in the theater, I highly recommend it. It is a wonderful movie.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1927 worth seeing):
The Cat and the Canary is a wonderful dark comedy directed by German expressionist Paul Leni. It is the story of a group of people who must spend the night in a haunted house inherited from a rich uncle and, although this seems overdone now, it was rather new at the time. The General is considered by many to be Buster Keaton’s best movie (although I prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr.). It’s the story of a Southerner during the American Civil War who must defend his train, “The General,” from Northern invaders. I will say that I have gotten a little sick of the Grand Army of the Republic always being the bad guys in movies. It isn’t true to say that Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was the first “sound movie.” Other movies had used synchronized soundtracks and other short movies had used recorded dialogue, but it did open the door for the sound era (there’s also surprisingly little dialogue in the movie, it is mostly a silent film with some musical numbers). Clara Bow is the personification of the flapper in It. She’s got “it,” even if we’re not exactly sure what “it” is. I almost forgot to mention The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning (who is ALWAYS wonderful) it is the story of an armless knife thrower and his beautiful assistant, who can’t stand to be touched by a man. Unfortunately, he has a dark secret.
Did you know? (1927 Trivial knowledge)
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, ushering in the sound era (I never said it had to be a quote from the movie I picked.)
Which Version did I watch?
The Kino version from the Fritz Lang box set.
The story of Faust is fairly well known and F.W. Murnau’s 1926 version is, as far as I know, the earliest attempt to bring it to the screen. It stars Gosta Ekman as Faust, Emil Jannings as Mephisto, and Camilla Horn as Gretchen. In the tale Mephisto and an angel make a wager over the concept of free will as it applies to humanity. If Mephisto can destroy what is good in Faust, an aged alchemist, then the world will be his. Jannings is, as usual, wonderful in the role. He brilliantly mixes deviousness and menace. His characterization manages to be iconic (see the photo above, of him towering over the city, sending a plague to test Faust’s faith) and conniving. I’ve always wondered why someone would ever make a literal deal with the devil in a movie/song/story because, let’s face it, it never works out well. In the case of Jannings, however, it seems reasonable that even Faust would be taken in by his scheming.
Ekman is a revelation as Faust. I have never seen him in anything else, but apparently he is considered one of the greatest actors that Sweden has ever produced and this reputation seems deserved. He is as completely believable as an old man as he is young (in fact, the first time I saw the movie I assumed it was two different actors). The portrayal is filled with inner turmoil, the dichotomous relationships between doubt and certainty and right and wrong.
Faust’s deal with the devil destroys everything he loves and his relationship with all those around him. Near the end of the film he is all alone, his only companion being Mephisto. He originally entered the pact to save his hometown from the plague and when they realized what he had done they rejected him. He asks to be returned to a younger state, embracing the ideal of youth. It is in the guise of a young man that he falls in love with an innocent girl and their relationship leads to her fall from grace and descent into madness. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but is it not all sunshine and flowers (although I would argue that it is a happy ending).
This was Murnau’s last German film. One of the greatest directors in film history, he moved to Hollywood just after finishing Faust. He enjoyed success in the United States, but became disenchanted after a few years and spent much of his time in Tahiti. Unfortunately he would only make four more movies in his lifetime, his final one being shot on location in Tahiti. Jannings would also go to Hollywood soon after, but he returned to Germany after the advent of sound (apparently his accent was too thick to be understood by English-speaking audiences). He made propaganda films for the Third Reich and this ended his career after the Second World War. Jannings had won the first Best Actor Oscar (and was the first person to ever win an Oscar) and apparently he carried his statuette around just after the war, showing it to allied soldiers in an attempt to prove that he was pro-American.
To me, this movie marks the end of the expressionist era in German film (Metropolis would follow just one year later, ushering in a new realism and science fiction). Although elements of the movement still survived, it peaked in the 1920s and Faust is, in my mind, the last great expressionist movie. Light and dark, good and evil, compete with one another for screen time in Murnau’s masterpiece and in the end we are lucky enough to watch the struggle forever.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1926 worth seeing):
Don Juan, starring John Barrymore (who is worth watching in almost anything), was the first full-length feature film to have a recorded, synchronized score and sound effects. There was not recorded dialogue, however. Douglas Fairbanks starred, wrote, directed, and produced The Black Pirate and he paid for the extraordinarily expensive Technicolor process on the film. It is a delight to watch and really interesting to see such an old film in color. Son of the Sheik was the last screen appearance of Rudolph Valentino, the original matinee idol and co-stars Vilma Banky, one of my wife’s favorites.
Did you know? (1926 Trivial knowledge)
“If thou canst destroy what is divine in Faust, the earth is thine.” The Angel to the Devil.
Which Version did I watch?
The Kino version from the F.W. Murnau box set
This entry is more about Lon Chaney Sr. than about the film, although Phantom is a genuine classic. It is the melodramatic story of a disfigured man named Erik, who lives in the old torture chambers far below the Paris Opera House and is occasionally seen by actors and stagehands. He takes a fancy to an understudy, Christine Daae, and uses the threat of violence to get her into the performance. Once he has fulfilled her dream of appearing on the stage, she keeps her promise to come and live with him (honestly, I can’t tell if she’s drugged or fulfilling her promise or what, but for some reason she moves to the sewers with him), although she has never seen his face. In the end, she must be rescued by her true, mustachioed, love (and, of course, he has to win because his mustache is so glorious).
The movie itself has beautiful set pieces, costumes, and some good performances. The massive sets were intended to recreate the Paris Opera House perfectly (allegedly some of the sets still stand on the studio lot and won’t be taken down because the ghost of Lon Chaney hurts studio employees who try to take it down)
The film includes a mesmerizing Technicolor sequence that takes place during a costume ball (contrary to popular belief, Technicolor was available during the silent era, but was VERY expensive, hence only a portion of the movie was filmed in color. Douglas Fairbanks filmed all of The Black Pirate in Technicolor). This scene allows Chaney, dressed in a red costume and a skull mask, to interact with other denizens of the Opera House. He intimidates and frightens them and follows Christine and her lover to the roof. While they discuss their love for one another and their fear of the Phantom, he sits above them on a statue, his red cloak whipping in the wind, his twisted face pained by her rejection.
Mary Philbin is a little over-the-top but charming as Christine and the supporting players, by and large, are good. But Chaney is the center piece. Famously known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” (this nickname was the inspiration for the genius Dragunfyst and Phriskey line “I’m the man of a million rhymes/the Lon Chaney of raps”), he did all his own makeup and his creation for Phantom is one of the most iconic in screen history and the makeup job for which he is best known. The scene where his face is first revealed is a ballet of tension and suspense. While Erik is playing the organ, Christine walks up behind him. She wants to remove his mask, she reconsiders, and then she decides to do so. She pulls the mask from his face while both of them are facing the camera, revealing his hideous visage to the audience before she glimpses it. When he turns she is mortified. Audiences allegedly screamed out loud when Chaney’s phantom was first revealed.
Chaney had grown up the child of two deaf/mute parents. This lifetime of communicating without sound made him particularly suited to the silent film era and there was no star bigger in the second half of the 1920s. His performances are emotional and subtle in a time when most actors were merely emotional. Lon Chaney, Sr. is a jewel of early film acting and you should see at least one of his movies. I loved him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he is mesmerizing in Phantom.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1925 that are worth seeing):
If this was a blog simply about the greatest film of a particular year, it would be almost impossible to not select Battleship Potemkin. The impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece on film cannot be overstated. His “Odessa Steps” sequence is so recognizable that everyone who reads this blog has seen something that imitates it. Eisenstein’s Strike was also released in the U.S. that same year. Like Battleship some of the editing tricks will seem conventional to modern eyes, but they were completely revolutionary for their time. If you enjoyed the Douglas Fairbanks film I recommended for 1924, you will also love Don Q, Son of Zorro, a sequel to his highly successful turn as Zorro a few years earlier. Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman rather unrealistically casts Lloyd as a college freshman, but it is a fun romp. The Gold Rush was Charlie Chaplin’s favorite Charlie Chaplin film, where he mined comedy from a story inspired partly by the Donner Party tragedy.
Did you know? (1925 Trivial Knowledge):
“Feast your eyes – glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.” Erik, the Phantom, to Christine Daae.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Milestone edition, which features both the original and the re-edited 1930 re-release. I watched the 1930 version.
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.
This could be a long one. Charlie Chaplin is my favorite actor and I have to resist the urge to talk about him in every single one of these posts. I don’t think that The Kid is his funniest movie (that’s The Circus), his most complete film (probably City Lights), and it wasn’t even the movie he most wanted to be remembered by (that was The Gold Rush). But The Kid is, all in one movie, funny, sad, tragic and uplifting. It’s a moral tale about the relationships between parents and children and what makes a family.
Just before making the movie, Chaplin was in the middle of an artistically crippling creative block. He was unhappily married to actress Mildred Harris (unknown to most people today, she was a big enough name during the silent era to warrant a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and was unable to come up with fresh and inventive ideas. Chaplin owned his own studio and had his entire staff on the payroll. He was in complete control of his pictures, writing, starring, producing, directing, casting, and on and on (after the advent of sound he even wrote the scores of his movies and sometimes conducted the orchestras). When he didn’t have ideas everything came to a grinding halt.
The creative block came to an end after the death of his son, Norman Spencer Chaplin. Norman was just three days old when he died. After his passing, Chaplin wrote The Kid and by the time the movie was released, Charlie and Mildred had divorced.
The movie was the first full-length Chaplin film. Charlie plays his “Tramp” character that brought him to fame in 1914 and he would portray on screen almost uninterrupted until The Great Dictator in the early 1940s (in which he made fun of Hitler for an entire film, because he’s the man). A woman, played by Chaplin’s former lover and longtime co-star Edna Purviance, leaves her baby in the car of a wealthy family hoping that it will be raised in better circumstances than she can provide. The car is stolen and the baby abandoned. The Tramp discovers the boy and raises him. They live together, swindle people to earn their living, and try to avoid the cops. Eventually the kid is taken by representatives of The Department of Children and Families (or whatever their early 20th century equivalent was called). The moments that they are together are filled with laughter and love, the moment they are torn apart is heart-wrenching.
In many ways, The Kid and Limelight (a 1952 drama) are bookends to Chaplin’s life and career (even though he had made dozens of shorts before the former and made two more movies after the latter). In Limelight Chaplin plays a vaudeville comedian at the end of his life, dealing with his own mortality, but also the mortality of his career. He must confront what happens to a comedian when he cannot make people laugh anymore. The Kid draws upon his Dickensian childhood growing up in poverty in the Lambeth section of London. It is reminiscent of his own abandonment by his father and his being taken to a workhouse when his mother’s mental instability made it impossible for her to care for him. Limelight is a drama, with some comedy, about a man at the end of his life and The Kid is a comedy with some drama, about family, childhood, and innocence. It’s also a beautiful film.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1921 that are worth seeing):
The High Sign is my favorite Buster Keaton short and a good example of why Keaton is so good compared to other film comedians. In this movie, a banana peel gets dropped on the ground and, if you have ever seen a single slapstick movie, you would assume that the next person would slip on it. But Keaton was original and imaginative and knew that movies are about anticipation. He has multiple characters walk over the peel multiple times without falling. Orphans of the Storm may represent the last great success of D.W. Griffith, perhaps the earliest example of a director reaching the height of fame. The Sheik is a must see as the star-making vehicle and iconic role of Rudolph Valentino. In many ways he set the standards for Hollywood heartthrobs to follow.
Did you know? (1921 Trivial Knowledge):
It’s not a quote in the traditional sense, because you can’t hear what he’s saying, but when the child services people come to take the kid from the Tramp, his crying out for his father is genuinely heartbreaking.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The 2-Disc special edition from the Chaplin Collection-Volume 2
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a strange film. Directed by Robert Wiene, the movie feels like a continuous dream sequence, highlighted by insanity, purposefully stylized sets, a somnambulist (that’s just a fancy way to say “sleepwalker”), and murder (that’s just a fancy way to say “killing someone”). It is also the earliest one that I know of that features a “twist ending” (take THAT M. Knight Shyamaylan!).
Considered by some to be the quintessential expression of Expressionism (did you see what I did there?), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with the German Expressionism movement, had a great impact on future movies, particularly in the horror and noir genres. The historical significance of the Expressionism is important to highlight. The movement was very short lived, beginning and ending in the 1920s. It features dark themes, highly stylized visuals, and a disregard for reality or realism. Many Expressionist filmmakers left Germany in the late ’20s and ’30s, bringing its influence to Hollywood. Their visual composition, camera movements, and the ambience of their style permeated the early Universal Horror movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.). A decade later, their use of sharp contrasts between light and dark and morally ambiguous characters would be a foundation of film noir.
This is an exceptionally interesting film visually, where characters walk through doorways with no 90-degree angles and trees look so fake they could have been used in an elementary school production (that doesn’t sound like a good thing, the way I wrote that, but trust me when I say that it works). The plot revolves around a Dr. Caligari, who is part of a traveling show. He presents the crowds with Cesare, a somnambulist who answers questions in his sleep (and is SO emo, he’s the fella in the middle in the photo above). A crowd member asks Cesare how long he has to live and Cesare responds that the man will die that night. When the man dies, his friends begin to suspect that things aren’t exactly copasetic with Cesare and Dr. Caligari and try to uncover what is really happening.
I was a little hesitant to make this the first movie that I discuss, because it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is exceptionally interesting, the ending is truly surprising, and the movie itself has a great historical significance in cinema.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1920 that are worth seeing):
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore, features an absolutely amazing transformation scene and Barrymore used no makeup at all, he just ducked his head, mussed his hair, and contorted his face. The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney Sr., has one of Chaney’s most painful costumes. In order to play double amputee, he had his legs bound with his knees strapped into large cups (or small buckets, I don’t know). Mark of Zorro, starring the immortal Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is one of the first swashbuckling movies and maintains is vibrancy today. The Saphead is the first full-length feature starring Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedic talents in movie history.
Did you know? (1920 Trivial Knowledge):
Um, this is a silent film.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Kino on Video DVD.