Wednesday, 29 April 2015

1916: The Vagabond

I hope you like Chaplin, because he's going to be my subject for the next three entries - mainly because I don't have any other DVDs from those years.
I watched most of his 1916 output before deciding which one to review. Far and away, I like this one the best.
Although much more sophisticated than his Keystone work of two years before, most of his films from this time still lack a structured story - they go from one gag-filled situation to the next without much of a narrative to hold them together. This is one of the first that aims higher than that.
The start of the film establishes Charlie as a busker, playing the violin outside a bar. After a standard bit of chase-and-slapstick in which he gets seen off by a rival band, he's walking down a country lane when he finds a pretty but ragged girl by a gypsy caravan and stops to play for her (with the ironic caption "I ought to do well here.") There's an altercation with the gypsies whom she's travelling with, and after some standard (but particularly good) pratfalls and bonks-on-the-head Charlie and the girl escape in her caravan.
Predictably, he grows fond of her - as he did of the actress, Edna Purviance, in real life, and it shows. Their screen chemistry has a warmth and tenderness that elevates this film above most of his - or anyone else's - previous screen comedy. In my favourite scene, Charlie sits her by a bucket of water and washes her face rather roughly, yet affectionately, with a cloth - scrunching it up into her ears and nose while she sits patiently with equally scrunched-up face, no doubt trying to ignore the infectious laughter of the crew behind the camera.
Inevitably, though, a third party appears. She happens across an artist, sitting in a field looking for inspiration. She of course supplies it and becomes smitten. Later the artist visits for a meal and the two of them are drowning in each others eyes, oblivious to Charlie as he helplessly watches his romance slip away. It's a very moving scene, played with great realism - and echoes Chaplin's own relationship with Edna. The film itself ends a little more happily though. In real life, they drifted apart as she began seeing someone else. In the film, she goes off with the artist but then realises where her true affections lie. I don't know whether the two stories tie in chronologically, but I wonder if he was trying to tell her something.
I haven't linked to a YouTube video because none of them are very good - either poor reproductions, or with inappropriate, tacked-on music, or both. Better not to bother until you can at least see it on DVD. Chaplin's films with Mutual company are due out on Blu-Ray soon, or you can get this one on DVD quite cheaply - it's on the BFI disc "Charlie Chaplin - The Mutual Films vol 2".


Sunday, 19 April 2015

1915: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
1915, and I finally get to review a feature film. There were a few feature length pictures before this but none of such epic scale, and none that made such an impact.
I have seen this before, but many years ago and I remembered little about it this so was almost like a first viewing for me.  
Over three hours long, it follows the fortunes of two families - one Northern, one Southern, through the American Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed.  It has action, romance, pathos, tragedy, moments of humour, and the most spectacular battle scenes yet filmed. Woodrow Wilson compared it to "seeing history through flashes of lightning".
You might think the choice of heroes a little odd though - the Ku Klux Klan.
After the first half of the film, which deals mainly with the Civil War and the losses suffered by both families, we start to see the problems faced by the South Carolina family, the Camerons, following the assassination of Lincoln. The black slaves have been freed and now hold (we are told) a majority in the state senate. They form all-black juries and rule (arbitrarily, it's implied) against white people in legal cases. (The main black characters, incidentally, are all played by white actors in make-up - which must have looked unconvincing even then.)  
When war hero Ben Cameron's sister is killed running from a black man in the woods, it's the last straw and he decides to take matters into his own hands. He's inspired when he sees some black kids scared by another child hiding under a white sheet.
When this film was released on Blu-Ray recently, one reviewer remarked on the opening scene - an historic tableau of slaves being blessed by a white clergyman, preceded by the caption "The Bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion". His interpretation of this was that the film was racist from the start, blaming the blacks for the whole problem. Before watching the film I thought this was unfair - I'd have taken it to mean that the practice of slavery was the cause of it all - and I wondered if the film was getting a bad rap from people predisposed to see it in a certain light. It's easier and safer to shout 'racism' than to look deeper and present a more balanced view.
That's not easy, though, when we have scenes of Cameron's sister's black assailant being given what the captions tell us, without any hint of irony, is a "fair trail" by the Ku Klux Klan, complete with white hoods and flaming crosses, before his body is dumped on the courthouse steps.
In Griffith's defence, Lillian Gish, who starred in the film as a teenager, was interviewed about the film in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's landmark 1979 documentary series"Hollywood".  She insists that Griffith had nothing against the blacks, notes that the chief villain is a white man, Austin Stoneman, a senator whose policy of full equality for blacks is presented as dangerously radical. The character is based on Thaddeus Stevens, whom she quotes as saying "we will crush the white South under the heels of the black South". Blanche Sweet, another of Griffith's leading ladies, says "You had to take Griffith and his Southern background seriously... it's a very important part of the man. You couldn't have been brought up with all that background of the South without it colouring your feelings. I don't wonder that they have called Griffith a racist."
Even so, Griffith was seriously out of step even a hundred years ago. Roger Ebert notes: "So instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with that the offences in the film actually had to be explained to him".
Perhaps it was this that prompted him, soon after it premiered, to change the title to "The Birth of a Nation" from "The Clansman", the name of the play on which it is based, even though the film itself laments the loss of sovereignty of the individual states. And on a later release he added a title card that read "If this work has conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain." As if that was the sole intended message the whole time.
We're left with the troubling question of whether you can have a good film with a bad message. I suppose it just depends on how you define it. The film's technical achievement is beyond reproach, but as drama - well, it's hard to root for a lynch mob, and its release led to race riots and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan - hardly an endorsement most directors would wish for.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

1914: Kid Auto Races at Venice

 Kid Auto Races at Venice
Cinema's 20th year, and Chaplin makes his first appearance.
Chaplin was on tour in the USA with Fred Karno's music hall company when a talent scout from Mack Sennett's Keystone studio spotted him and offered him a contract. His first film for Sennett was "Making a Living", in which he plays a slimy swindler in a top hat. That film, not uniquely for Keystone, is a bit an incoherent mess. His next, the first in which he used the famous Tramp character and costume, was "Mabel's Strange Predicament", with Mabel Normand. In that film the character appears almost fully formed, trying to charm ladies in a smart hotel lobby despite being very down on his luck.
His next film, though, "Kid Auto Races at Venice", was released before that and was therefore the Tramp's debut.
There's no story- it was reputedly filmed in forty-five minutes and looks it, but it's interesting for what it represents - the world's introduction to a cultural icon.
It seems that part of Sennett's modus operandi was to send a crew out to anything that was happening in the neighbourhood and improvise a film around it. Here, they're covering a kids' go-kart tournament at Venice Beach, and Chaplin's tramp is one of the audience. Having spotted the camera, he plays up to it and keeps putting himself between it and the action, to the annoyance of the director (played by the actual director, Henry Lehrmann) who keeps pushing him out. Lehrmann is a bit brutal with his shoves at times and it's not always clear how much of it was Chaplin was prepared for.
At this point in time, audiences were probably a bit weary both of films that covered mundane events and of random members of the public in those films who insisted on drawing attention to themselves. It would have been fun for audiences to see that parodied, especially played with such an air of self-importance from an obvious nonentity.
The public's reaction in the film is interesting to watch too. None of them have seen this man before and at first they pay him no attention, thinking he's exactly what he's pretending to be, but as the film goes on they start to get the joke and enjoy it. In just a few months Charlie would be world famous, and it would be impossible for him to shoot this sort of film ever again.                  

Thursday, 9 April 2015

1913: Bangville Police

Bangville Police

Now we're getting to the early days of recognisable Hollywood silent comedy. The Keystone company was founded by Mack Sennett only ten months before this film was released in April 1914 and is often cited as being the first Keystone Cops film - however the trademarks aren't all there yet - there are no truckloads of hyperactive uniformed policemen dashing maniacally round the streets of Hollywood. This film is set on a farm, where the farmer's daughter (Mabel Normand) tends the cow and for some reason wishes they had a little calf. Apparently she hasn't noticed there's one on the way so she can't be much use as a farm girl. Anyway, while she's not looking two men - passing vagrants presumably - go into the barn with the aim, it seems, of taking a nap. The girl comes by to check on the cow and sees the men silhouetted against the back window, talking. She takes them for burglars and hides in the house, where she phones the police, an ungainly lot who spend the next few minutes heading for the farm, utilising a combination of silly walks and an unreliable car prone to backfiring.
Meanwhile the girl thinks the burglars are outside trying to get in, but it's actually her parents who think it's the burglars in the house. They nearly shoot her as she hides in the cupboard.
By the time the police arrive the misunderstanding is resolved, but they don't seem to mind. Then they all find that while they've been distracted the cow has had a calf, so that's nice. The end.
Keystone's approach to comedy was to have lots of frantic action and to have a high turnover. It's early days of course, but the rushed production methods do show a bit here. It's not clearly indicated who the 'burglars' are supposed to be, and there aren't even any real gags as such, just a lot of running around and falling over. Mabel Normand is nice though.

Also released in 1913 was the first few chapters of Louis Feuillade's five-hour crime thriller serial "Fantomas". I'd like to have reviewed that, but it's five hours long and I don't have the DVD, so....        

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

1912: The Girl and Her Trust

The Girl and Her Trust

In the interests of making the films reviewed in this blog as varied as possible, here's another D.W. Griffith film with 'trust' in the title. (Actually I'm just trying to stick to films in my DVD collection, and it was either this or "Nicholas Nickleby".)
This is a great little film though. From the hammy theatrics and already-tired camera trickery of just a couple of years ago, suddenly the craft of film-making seems to have grown up.
A remote railway station is run by a man ("Jack" the Railroad Express Agent, according to Wikipedia) and Grace, the telegraph girl. In the first scenes, we can see that there's some romantic chemistry between them but he upsets her by stealing a kiss and she orders him out of the office.
A message comes in that there's a shipment of cash arriving on the next train. The train pulls in and Jack brings the box into the station, making up a little with the girl as he does. However two villains, who have hidden under the platform, have seen him, and when he wanders off they sneak up to the station. There's some wonderfully tense moments when both Jack and Grace almost spot them peering menacingly in through the windows. When she does see them through the window of her office, she tries to shut them out of the station but they overpower her. She makes it to safety in the office - they try to break in there too as she has the key to the cash box - but she scares them off by wedging a bullet in the keyhole and setting it off with a hammer. They take the cash box and make their getaway on a railway handcart. Grace gives chase and ends up on the handcart with them as they head off down the track. Jack sees them but is too late to catch them.
Grace had managed to telegraph for help, though - "Help...tramps...quick.." - and the station down the line send a locomotive. (Tramps can only mean trouble, apparently.) As it passes his station, the porter jumps on and we get a beautifully filmed railway chase, with tracking shots following both the cart and the engine.
The thieves eventually collapse with exhaustion and are easily apprehended. Then Jack and Grace cosy up on the front of the engine (even though he didn't really do a lot to help) as it backs away into the distance.
It's a simple enough story, and dozens of variations of it were probably being released every year by now, but the interplay between the leads is well thought out in a truly cinematic way and gives them real personality. The elements of film grammar and editing are all in place with use of perspective, close-ups and cross-cutting. There's an effective buildup of tension as the thieves encroach on the station. Proper film acting has really been achieved here too - everything is communicated in subtle looks and gestures - nothing is overplayed.
I'm making it sound like this was a landmark film, but Griffith alone released 70 films in this one year, which makes the quality shown here even more impressive.
Incidentally Nicholas Nickleby, by George Nichols of the Thanhouser Company of New York, is worth a look if only to see how Dickens adaptations have moved on since "Oliver Twist". Nicholas's stand against the brutal schoolmaster Squeers at 13.50 is as good a scene as any. (It's on the BFI DVD "Dickens Before Sound" but the one on YouTube seems to be more complete.)

Friday, 3 April 2015

1911: His Trust

His Trust

D.W. Griffith's Civil War pictures from this year, several of which feature on Eureka Video's blu-ray of "Birth of a Nation", show a huge improvement on anything I've seen from previous years. The race relations angle has dated rather badly though.
In "His Trust" - subtitled "The faithful devotion and self-sacrifice of an old Negro servant" - a Confederate soldier goes off to fight a battle, bidding goodbye to his wife, little daughter, and several -presumably - slaves.
He leaves his wife and child in the care of George, who looks like he might be head butler, and George promises to look after them.
The soldier is killed in the battle and a comrade returns his sword to the wife, who spends the rest of the picture in various degrees of helpless shock.  Then, while she's out, some Union soldiers ride up to the house, chase away the slaves, then loot the place and set fire to it. The little girl is inside, and George, realising this, braves the fire and smoke to rescue her. The mother returns in time to see the house burn to the ground.
George, however, takes them both to his shack. He sits the mother down in his only chair, puts the child to bed, then gestures to the mother that all he has is hers. Still stunned, she barely reacts. George then goes outside and settles down to sleep on the ground under a thin blanket.
Acting and production values have moved on dramatically since "Oliver Twist" just a couple of years ago. No more stagey painted backgrounds - the sets are three-dimensional and look like real rooms. The fire and smoke are also real. A real house - or something very like it - burns down. There's still a bit of the melodramatic "hands-flung-in-the-air" approach to death scenes, and "hand-across-the-brow" swooning, but at least they're now learning that the camera is sensitive to finer stuff than this - that just acting with the face and eyes can convey an awful lot.  
What a pity then, that it didn't worry them that the black characters look ridiculous.  They're clearly white people blacked up, and not even very well. George himself is bad enough but the others look like they've come straight from the Black and White Minstrel Show. Griffith was a serious, ambitious film maker so there's no reason to think he was setting out to ridicule anybody, it's probably just that being a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, born just a few years after the Civil War, it would never occur to him that getting black people to do a job like acting was an option. Nor is there any malice here - George is presented as a self-sacrificing hero - but how else should we read it? Patronising? Or just blinkered?
Was Griffith so much an uncritical product of his time and place that he was never struck by the absurdity of a slave gallantly telling his mistress that all he owns is hers?
No need, George. She knew that already.