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.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) movie still

director Anthony Asquith
viewed: 11/13/2014

In 2011, an article ran on Time Out detailing the best British films of all time, and I think I was intrigued because of the many with which I was indeed familiar, there were others with which I wasn’t familiar at all.  As is my way, I queued up as many of the films that I could find available and left them for future viewing.  One of Netflix’s long-handy traits.

Director Anthony Asquith’s The Cottage on Dartmoor was one of those films.

Somewhere over the intervening years, I’ve read more of Asquith and Cottage, mainly perhaps in relation to a showing of another of Asquith’s silent films, Underground, at the BFI and subsequent DVD release (I would love to see that film, too.  Honestly, I believe I’d read something of greater substance on Cottage itself, but I’m just not turning it up.)  I’ve subsequently gained more avenues of film access, in this case Fandor streaming.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is a thriller, a story of unrequited love, a self-reflexive cinema commentary, and a redemptive humanist portrait.  Quite a lot in 88 minutes.

It’s a striking, remarkable film.

It opens with the escape of a criminal from a prison/asylum, his mad race across the countryside, breaking into an isolated cottage and confronting a woman who recognizes him and utters the first words of this silent film, his name.  Silence and words are a vivid factor in Cottage, especially as played out in an extended scene in a cinema midway through the film.  A lot of focus has been given to the commentary Asquith provides on the transition from silent movies to “talkies,” and with good reason.  It’s right there, most vividly.

But the film itself is also remarkably visual in its storytelling.  I think it’s about 10-11 minutes before the first verbal titlecard appears and sends the story into an extended flashback to the story of Joe (Uno Henning), a lovelorn barber and Sally (Norah Baring), the manicurist he loves.  He asks her out to a “talkie” but first she turns him down.  Eventually they have dinner at her boardinghouse, while she tries to be friendly and entertaining, he shows his love only knows a creepiness and obsession.

She falls for Harry (Hans Adalbert Schettlow), a farmer with a cottage in Dartmoor, who wants to take her away from all things.  She does take Harry up on the date to the “talkies,” where the notable scene takes place, and eventually promises to marry him, which pushes Joe to the edge (the line literally snaps in metaphor) and he attempts to slit Harry’s throat while on the barber’s chair.

This is most of the film, the flashback, but eventually we end back up at the cottage on Dartmoor, Sally at Joe’s hands, in revenge.  But what seems like it might become some Hitchcockian thriller, ends up playing out with great pathos and humanistic power a tale of forgiveness, redemption, and ultimate tragedy, something that brought to mind not so much “The Master of Suspense” but rather F.W. Murnau in his more beautiful like The Last Laugh (1924) or Sunrise (1927).

I found it quite moving.

The self-reflexive portion of the film, in the cinema, is remarkable on its own.  A Cottage on Dartmoor would turn out to be Asquith’s fourth and final silent film (he went on to a career of many films on through the 1960’s), but what is so interesting about Cottage is where it sits on the verge of the “talkies”.

As I’ve mentioned, when asked out to a movie, it’s very specifically a “talkie” that they plan to see, which is odd enough in a silent film, right?  But at the theater, the crowd watches a Harold Lloyd silent short, laughing uproariously while a small orchestra plays with avid gusto.  Our drama plays out as Joe surreptitiously watched Harry and Sally, but Asquith captures a multitude of experiences all around, the various characters attending the film and their mixed and complex reactions to the screen.  And when the Lloyd silent short ends, the feature “talkie” begins, and the transition of cinema is being shown as it unfolds.  It’s indeed a fascinating piece within the film, ripe and ready for analysis and interest.

The film as a whole is quite terrific and there is far more than I have time and energy to address in a simple response like I write here.  I really liked the film a lot.  It’s fascinating.  And I eagerly now want to see Asquith’s Underground as well.  It’s odd and interesting that he went on to a career of high mediocrity after having started so well in the silents.  Maybe he was already aware that he had found his medium right as it was changing forever.