The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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director Robert Wiene
viewed: 09/15/2018 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As a kid, I’d read of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as being “the first ever horror film” and long desired to see it. It wasn’t until my first film class in junior college that I heard the term German Expressionism and came to realize that term more accurately described the numerous German silent films I had longed to see.

Robert Wiene’s 1920 film utilizes wild, literally Expressionistic set designs to stage the foremost and “quintessential” Expressionist film out there. And initially, I was pretty disappointed that other classics of Expressionism didn’t use as much crazy set-design and make-up as Wiene and company employ here. Much like the poster, it’s as if Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” came to life, in the film the lurid color translated to black and white, chiaroscuro, shapes and forms.

This viewing of Caligari was a special show at the Castro Theatre, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra, part of a day-long performance of their “greatest hits” alongside other classics of silent cinema. This was the only showing my son and I hit.

The Wind (1928)

The Wind (1928) movie poster

director  Victor Sjöström
viewed: 11/20/2017

The Mojave Desert stands in for the godforsaken dustbowl of Texas in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind. With the help of airplane engines and propellers to whip that dust up.

It’s a gorgeous film, and it’s all Sjöström and star Lillian Gish, the latter of whom selected the source material, writers, actors, and director Sjöström for what would be MGM’s, Sjöström ‘s, and Gish’s final major Silent Film, made at the very end of the Era. Though it was a commercial and critical failure in its day, The Wind is considered one of the finest films of its time.

Gish plays Letty, an East Coast middle class girl, come by train to the windblown outpost where her childhood friend Beverly (Edward Earle) lives with his suspicious wife, Cora (Dorothy Cumming) and their rambunctious children. Cora quickly sours on Letty and forces her out of the house and into marriage with one of three pursuers, none of which Letty cares much for.

The intense wind and the cruel fates nearly drive Letty mad. And it’s impossible to hear about the original bleak ending (considered apocryphal by some, though how the original novel ends), without wishing the film had ended that way.

Sjöström’s mise-en-scène is gloriously bleak, verging on the surreal at times. But Gish herself is the key part of that mise-en-scène.

Truly, a great film.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) movie poster

director Clarence Brown
viewed: 07/17/2017

The break-out film for then 21-year old Greta Garbo, a cinematic presence beyond age and time. Garbo would go on to several other films with director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels would become known as her “personal cinematographer”.

And much to Daniels’s credit, Flesh and the Devil is a gorgeous film, with some stunning shots and some impressive, beautiful set design. The film made Garbo a star and ignited a real-life romance between her and co-star and lead John Gilbert.

Garbo is Felicitas von Rhaden, a femme fatale who comes into the lives of Gilbert and his friend Ulrich (Lars Hanson), whose bromance is deeply affectionate and really quite touching.

If it wasn’t for the religiosity that drives the moral heft of the story, I would have liked it almost wholeheartedly. Gilbert and Garbo may set fire to the screen, but Gilbert and Hanson’s friendship and devastation is what makes the picture so tragic and beautiful. That, and Daniels’s amazing cinematography.

The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade (1925) movie poster

director King Vidor
viewed: 07/16/2017

Often making lists of the best or most important films of the Silent Era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade has been on my list of “films to see” for some while. It’s a War film, made about WWI when it was still “the war to end all wars”, only 6 years after the conflicts had ended and still almost a decade before it started to become clear that another war would take its place.

Interestingly, the three men that the story follows are examples of different classes drawn into the fight. Hero and star Jim (John Gilbert) is a wealthy ne’er-do-well caught up in the patriotic call to arms. He’s joined by the more working class Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, who head to Europe with perhaps little insight into what they have signed-up for.

The bulk of the film’s 2 1/2 hours is a leisurely comedy-romance in which the three, with their fellows, lounge around Champillon while Jim falls for pretty Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French peasant girl.

And to be honest, nothing about this opening hour and a half is of particular interest or stands out from a lot of the era’s films. But when the march to the front, “the big parade”, leads the men into battle, the film becomes vividly visual, intense, and powerful.

The march through the woods (Belleau Wood, based on a real life battle), is the film’s best sequence. Tracking shots follow and lead as the march pushes forward. Shot at by entrenched German soldiers, they move inevitably forward in the film’s best visual sequence.

The latter battle sequence, strafed and bombed in foxholes left by explosions, the trio fight and hide, staying alive as the battle rages. Toward the end of this segment, Jim winds up in another hole with a wounded German soldier and finds a level of humanity with his enemy.

Taken as a whole, it is indeed a noteworthy film, but it’s really the battles that transform the film into something much above the average. It’s visual storytelling of great intensity and vividness, with amazing cinematography and camera movement. The Big Parade is well worth seeing, but in other ways, I’d consider showing just the battle sequences to someone out of the context of the whole.

Also, tragically and interestingly, Adorée, Gilbert, and Dane died young. Adorée at 35 of TB, Gilbert at 36 from alcohol-related heart attack, and Dane at 47 by suicide.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Alice in Wonderland (1915) movie poster

director  W.W. Young
viewed: 03/22/2017

There are many Alices in Wonderlands. Many. This Alice in Wonderland may be the first feature-length filmed version. By 1915, feature-length was still becoming a thing.

As you will read in most any write-up on this picture, the costuming is the film’s greatest strength. Made in aspects of grotesquerie, they are caricatures in the popular style of Punch illustrations of the time, with some surprising creatures of the menagerie.

Outside of that, it’s fair to say that it’s a bit dull.

Obviously shot in the Southern California outdoors that stand in for both England and Wonderland, it still bears a lot of the theater rather than purely of the cinema.

But much like the silent version of Snow White (1916) that so influenced Walt Disney into his version of that tale, some of the designs seem to have found play in the Alice in Wonderland (1951) as well, or is that just my imagination?

Warning Shadows (1923)

Warning Shadows (1923) screen capture

director Arthur Robison
viewed: 06/01/2016

Warning Shadows or as it is in the original German, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (“Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination”), is an obscure but impressive sample of German Expressionism, nowhere as well known as its contemporaries.  It may not achieve the sublime qualities of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), but it has many interesting elements and is well worth discovering.

An entertainer (Alexander Granach) who employs shadow puppets visits a mansion at a dinner party and uses his craft and crafts to play a twisted morality show on the dinner guests.  All of the guests are lusting after the wife (Ruth Weyher) which is driving her husband (Fritz Kortner) into fits of rage.  The play goes from paper cut-outs performing on a screen by candlelight to an inverted shadow world, where the players act out their inner desires.

The entertainer, the shadowplayer, invokes the cinema in his pre-cinematic entertainments.  The best scene (or effect) is when he inverts the shadows of the guests, pulling the shadows into the people and then flipping them from the viewing side to the side of the stage/screen.  His role may be that of trickster, but what he wreaks is a morality play, unleashing the inner shadows and showing what will come of it.  Whether Freudian or not, it is definitely highly figurative psychology on display.

Director Arthur Robison opts to tell the story sans intertitles, so the story ads no explanatory words to break to scenes.  This is a very effective technique, one not often used in silent cinema, already so visual a narrative medium.

Apparently, the film was made by many of those who had worked on Murnau’s Nosferatu, including art director/designer Albin Grau, following the fall-out over the rights to the “Dracula” story that ended the studio at which is was made.  I recommend reading the write-up about Schatten at The Devil’s Manor, quite informative.

The opening sequence, which introduces the players and their roles is the one part of the film with titles at all.  It’s also a very inventive and theatrical sequence, featuring shadow hands grabbing or erasing each figure.

The whole film doesn’t retain the same level of visual inventiveness throughout and can drag through sequences of more narrative build up, but it is tremendously interesting at its best moments, at times quite funny, and extremely unusual.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) movie poster

director Carl Theodor Dreyer
viewed: 04/16/2016

It’s hard to find a list of the best silent films ever made that doesn’t have Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently placed, most often in the top ten (heck, The Guardian even places it at #1).  Expanded lists not limited to its place in the Silent Era often include the film too, particularly the more scholarly or at least historically aware.

Dreyer’s camera hangs on tight close-ups of the face of his Joan, Renée Jeanne Falconetti in a performance also considered among cinema’s greatest.  Joan had recently been canonized, elevated to iconic status for both the Catholic church and the nation of France, legendary martyr and devout heroine, and Dreyer based the film’s story and dialog on the transcripts of her trial in Rouen in 1431, ending with her death, burned alive before a crowd that immediately reacts in recognition of her sainthood.

I’d long intended to see this film, but never had before Saturday, when I watched it with my kids.  I’d been holding out in hopes of seeing it on the big screen, but I don’t know that is really necessary for this film.  The whole film almost is in close-up, or medium close-up.  The power resonates from Falconetti’s visage, the cruel faces of her tormentors, and some of the film’s other more unusual moving shots.

What more is there to say?  It’s indeed a remarkable film.

The Doll (1919)

The Doll (1919) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 07/05/2015

A German fairy tale film of sorts, adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann by Ernst Lubitsch, The Doll is an odd charmer, propelled in large part by the amusing performance of Ossi Oswalda, the girl who plays the would-be robot girl.

When a ne’er-do-well is told to get married or be cut off from his uncle’s inheritance, he runs to join a monastery (as you do).  The monks realize that he is due to inherit a big wad of cash and recommend to him to hunt down the toymaker extraordinaire up on the hill and take one of his robot-women automatons as a bride.  He takes this advice, finds the craftsman and sees his wares of life-size dolls and finds one to his liking.  Only the dollmaker’s assistant accidentally breaks the doll, so the dollmaker’s daughter, on who the doll’s likeness was crafted, stands in for her.

It’s a light and strange little film, which opens with an odd piece in which a puppeteer sets up a stage and dolls to act out the film.  The film is then essentially a “brought to life” doll world, which seems to be played out in some of the spartan sets in which backgrounds are crudely drawn on the walls at times.  It’s not so much a story-within-a-story but it’s an odd conceit in a strange, sweet little romantic fairy tale.

Quite nice.

Greed (1924)

Greed (1924) movie poster

director Erich von Stroheim
viewed: 06/14/2015

Considered one of the Silent Era’s masterpieces, perhaps one of all-time cinema’s masterpieces, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is indeed a major film of note.  It is also one of the epic masterpieces that was so sprawling in length (the original cut of the film was reportedly 7 to 10 hours long) that it was also ruthlessly edited down to a duration and form that the director, von Stroheim, ultimately utterly disowned.  The original uncut version has been described as “the Holy Grail” of film preservationists, but what we have here is the 140 minute release that MGM went with and which tanked at the box office, leading to Hollywood infamy.

Really, though, it seems that a lot of von Stroheim remains intact in this film.  Certainly, even at 140 minutes, Greed is still considered a masterpiece of cinema.

I had caught Greed at some point on public television.  I’m not sure when this was exactly.  I want to say it was in the  1980’s when I was first getting interested in film, because I remember hearing about it, its notoriety, and being interested, though daunted by the length.  The luminous and terrific ZaSu Pitts struck me at the time as reminding me of my high school girlfriend.  However much of the film I caught, I’m certain I didn’t catch it in its entirety.  It has since been one of the films I’ve most wanted to see again.

TCM plays all kinds of great movies and last Sunday they offered two films that I had long harbored desires to see, Dave Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) and von Stroheim’s Greed.  You never know with TCM, what films will be available on demand for a while after airing, or available on for a while after airing, or which films will end up in rotation again in a few months.  Such is their programming cycle, so I made it a point to watch the movies while I had a chance.

Greed is adapted from Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague, which is a tale of vice and avarice, set in Polk Gulch in San Francisco.  When published, McTeague was a tale of the times, a sociological parable, and a somewhat raw attempt at realism.  I’ve read the novel, and it’s really quite something.  But where the novel is interesting and well-worth reading, it’s certainly not “literature” at its highest levels, where arguably von Stroheim’s adaptation elevates the material to one of cinema’s most significant works.

Shot on location in San Francisco, Northern California, and Death Valley, the film stars Gibson Gowland as McTeague, the unlicensed dentist, Pitts as Trina, his wife and downfall, and Jean Herscholt as Marcus, Trina’s onetime boyfriend and villainous adversary turned by greed and envy.

The Greed we have is still remarkable.  The ending is really quite amazing, quite a lot as in the novel itself, an escape into Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, utterly desolate and doomed, two men fight to the death but become chained together in handcuffs, leaving them both to ultimately die alone and far from anything, except the corpse of a horse and a bag of money with no value to them at all.

There is too much to say, too much to comment upon, for me to blather on about.  Besides, it’s been said and delved into far more deeply than I can with just one recent viewing.  I’m cutting it short here.  But what can I say, it’s an amazing film.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) movie poster

director John S. Robertson
viewed: 06/06/2015

For me, the best adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian version starring the fantastic Fredric March.  That movie is pure pre-code awesome.  But you know, there are more than a few Dr. Jekyll’s and Mr. Hyde’s out there.  There were even three made in the year of this one, 1920.

This one is good.  John Barrymore is the kind, good scientist who discovers his dark side through chemistry.  I prefer it to the Spencer Tracy film.

But seriously, the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the best.  If you haven’t seen it.  You must.