Saturday, 1 October 2016

1930: Hell's Angels


We've finally reached a year in which all the films I've watched are sound films. Not only that, but sound technology has reached a point where it's not so clunky as to be a distraction, and directors and editors are getting to grips with the style and pacing of sound pictures. It was an expensive film to make largely for that reason. Production began in the silent era - presumably, like "Wings", as a response to the general fascination with aviation that accompanied Charles Lindbergh's 1927 crossing of the Atlantic - but took so long that much of it had to be reshot for sound.
The film has some colour and tinted sequences - night scenes, as was the custom, are tinted blue, while the ballroom sequence is in two-strip Technicolor. The DVD must have been struck from the only surviving colour print - the one that was given to John Wayne by Howard Hughes in the 50s and only rediscovered in 1989.
Although inevitably melodramatic and stagey by modern standards, it represents a marked advance in storytelling on previous war adventures like "Wings" and "The Big Parade", with their formulaic "boy loves wrong girl, boy suffers terribly in war but meets right girl in the process" story arc. This might be down to the intervention of James Whale, who insisted on a rewrite when he was brought in to direct after the changeover to sound.
The story follows three Oxford students (rather mature-looking ones, naturally) - two English Brothers - Roy and Monte - and Karl, a German. Helen, the love interest, is played by Jean Harlow in her first screen role. Although idolised by the naive Roy, she also gets entangled with Monte, which gives her the opportunity to coin the expression, 'to slip into something more comfortable'.
In between the scenes of romantic drama, we get some spectacular set pieces, which really show us where the money went, beginning with a Zeppelin raid over London, which ends with the airship being shot down by Roy and Monte's squadron. Their planes are damaged but they land safely, and in a particularly spectacular and beautifully hand-coloured piece of model work - or is it? - the burning wreckage of the airship falls out of the sky directly above them.
Later on, the brothers volunteer for a dangerous mission to destroy a German munitions depot. No expense was spared here. It really looks as if Howard Hughes and company built a full-size mockup of the depot - several buildings complete with roads, trucks, and all the other visible infrastructure - on an area the size of a couple of football fields - and bombed it to bits from the air. It's an impressive sight, and is immediately followed up with a full-on aerial dogfight which pulls no punches about the brutality and horror of this type of combat.
Finally there is a dramatic showdown with the grandfather of all German-Officer parodies, complete with what must be the first recorded use of the lines "So we meet again!" and "For you the war is over!". For all that, though, the climax is genuinely dramatic and emotional. Inevitably the film looks dated at times from our modern perspective but if you can slip into '1930' mode, it's more involving and far less clunky than most sound films from this period.


ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: This deservedly legendary film, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, shows the German experience of the First World with uncompromising frankness as it records the front-line experience of a group of schoolmates, hectored into joining up by their jingoistic schoolmaster, and promptly disillusioned as they are killed off one by one. The scenes of trench warfare are truly gruelling, on a par with "Saving Private Ryan" over sixty years later - a tour-de-force of early sound film editing and direction.    

ANNA CHRISTIE: I got through whole silent period without watching a single film from one of its great legends, Great Garbo, so the sensation announced on the posters for this film - "Garbo talks!" - didn't carry the same impact for me as it did for audiences of the time.
Early talkies have the reputation of being stagey and studiobound compared to the grand spectacle of the late silents, and this is a prime example. It's scarcely more than a filmed version of the stage play on which it was based, with very little added in the way of cinematic technique. Garbo is magnetic though, in all her glorious glumness.

ELSTREE CALLING: A revue of stage entertainment, using the framing device of a television broadcast. BBC radio was only a few years old but amazingly its first TV service began this year. Evidently it caused enough excitement for Elstree to produce this forward-looking feature. The acts are a mixed bag to a modern eye - an assortment of American Vaudeville and British music hall and nightclub acts. The music and dancing are still impressive but the comedy is pretty dire. It has curiosity value as the revue segments were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and the dance numbers are stencil-coloured, probably one of the latest examples of the technique that dates back to the turn-of-the century Pathé fairy-tale films.
It's a surreal experience at times, partly for the scenes of a frustrated home viewer trying to fix his faulty flatscreen (!) TV with a hammer and screwdriver, and especially for the "Taming of the Shrew" segment, a very free adaptation of Shakespeare which involves custard pies, a riderless motorbike being tamed like a lion, and an enraged Anna May Wong in a skimpy silver costume throwing piles of furniture down a staircase.

Monday, 15 August 2016

1929: Man with a Movie Camera


Dziga Vertov's documentary of a day in the life of a city (a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa) regularly ranks highly in lists of the greatest-ever films and top in lists of greatest-ever documentaries. It's been on my must-watch list for years; I even owned a DVD of it for years but never opened it up till I got an HD TV. I found that it upscaled really badly, so decided to wait for the Blu-ray - or rather, the second Blu-ray, since the first to appear was the version with Michael Nyman's music. Though highly regarded by some, I found this hard on the ear when I dipped into it on YouTube.
Eureka Video finally brought out their version earlier this year with a score by the Alloy Orchestra, and I'm glad I waited for it. With the exception of a few odd choices of sound effect (modern sirens over shots of speeding ambulances, a string orchestra over a shot of a pianist) it's terrific - a dynamic composition that matches the pace and energy of the images.
The film itself is a snapshot of one day of Soviet city life, from the silent streets at dawn, the citizens waking and going to work, working, then playing, exercising, drinking, relaxing - and finally going to the cinema to see this same film, because it's also a record of its own creation. Via a second camera, we see the cameraman himself putting himself in front of, under, and on top of trams, trains, bridges, furnaces, and factories. He's made to look very daring. Shots freeze in mid-action and are revealed to be clips of the film in the hands of the editor, who trims and splices and thereby allows the film to continue until finally it reaches the projectionist, which is where we came in.
Vertov uses every film-making and editing technique at his disposal to great effect - time-lapse, film speeded up and slowed down, multiple exposure, split-screen; shows (nearly) every aspect of life  - birth, death, marriage, divorce, work, play - and does it as such a breakneck pace that by the end of the film I felt like I had to pause to get my breath back.
The film's explicit aim is to create a language of cinema - an art form that owes nothing to theatre, poetry or literature. It succeeds wholeheartedly. It doesn't invent all the techniques it demonstrates but it works as a pretty thorough compendium of all that had been created up to that time and integrates them successfully into a single film. It's poignant that 1929 is the last great year of the art of the silent film, so - along with a few other candidates - this film could be regarded not just as its masterpiece but as its climax.    

So many choices from this year that I would like to have added here but these posts are getting so far apart I need to move on, so I've settled for the following:      

WELCOME DANGER: Harold Lloyd's first sound film was originally shot as a silent, and it shows. Production was switched to sound before the film was released and the result is a clumsy, overlong affair that alternates between tiresome sound scenes and laborious dubbed ones that could have been effective had they remained silent and been edited a lot more tightly. The film is nearly two hours long and feels like it. Its only saving grace is that Harold's character, as usual the poor schmuck who manages to make good at the end despite being dismissed as an incompetent nonentity by those around him, has a couple of truly dramatic scenes in which he has to put up a desperate fight to save himself and the situation. But it's a gruelling watch to get to them.

UNDERGROUND: Anthony Asquith's first film with full director billing is a story of four young working people in London - particularly interesting if you've been a young working person in London because the experience doesn't seem to have changed all that much - crowded tube trains, shabby bedsits and precarious jobs.

PICCADILLY: A. E. Dupont's drama of showbusiness rivalries is worth a watch for the same reason - though the nightclub setting is a bit more upmarket, and leads me to wonder whether there is still such a genteel evening-dress establishment quietly lurking somewhere in Mayfair, and if so whether its patrons are relics of a bygone age or just postmodern aficianodos. Also notable for the presence of Anna May Wong, freshly arrived from Hollywood, as a kitchenmaid turned exotic dancer, and Charles Laughton as a disgruntled diner - surely the prototype for Mr Creosote in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

ATLANTIC: A.E Dupont also directed this first screen dramatisation of the Titanic disaster (in all but name, for legal reasons) - somewhat less successfully. Although the action sequences of the panic on deck and the rush for the lifeboats are well staged,  the dramatic scenes are risible. The leaden pace seems to be an attempt at generating tension, but the melodramatic style might charitably be interpreted as a late example of the Victorian style of theatrical acting. This clip from a 1980s Clive James programme gives a fairly accurate sample. The ship's orchestra famously and heroically played on deck till the last minute - "Nearer My God To Thee", according to witnesses - but the sound editors seem to have had some mischievous fun here by having them play jaunty numbers like "Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be" and " A Life on the Ocean Wave".

A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR: Asquith squeezes in one more before the dawn of sound with this tense thriller - probably his silent masterpiece, with its painterly composition of shots, dramatic lighting and virtuoso editing. The story plays with our loyalties, as the main character, Joe, a socially awkward barber, loses the object of his affections to a customer, but then becomes a more sinister presence as he threatens the life of his rival. When he escapes from prison with murderous intent we're kept guessing about whether he will earn our sympathy again.
The sequence in the cinema adds a wry commentary on the shift from silent to sound as the protagonists to to see a talkie. The audience is enraptured as they watch a comedy on screen (unseen by us but we're shown a programme that tells us it was Harold Lloyd) but become awkward and uncomfortable as the talkie comes on, and they have to remind themselves not to laugh or talk too much, or clap at the good bits. (Interestingly, even today I've noticed that the atmosphere at a silent comedy tends to be far more relaxed and joyful than at any sound film - complete with spontaneous applause.)          

FRAU IM MOND (THE WOMAN IN THE MOON): Fritz Lang's last silent film doesn't have the operatic grandeur of "Metropolis" or the menacing villainy of "Dr Mabuse the Gambler" but it does succeed in being the first carefully-researched 'hard' science fiction epic, telling of the first successful manned mission to the Moon. The first half is more spy thriller, and mainly serves the purpose of putting an antagonist on the rocket for dramatic purposes (one with Hitler's haircut and dress sense, interestingly). Once we get to the space part though it's all uncannily accurate - Apollo could almost have been a straight remake.  From the concept of a staged rocket to a diagram showing the flight path and the respective gravity fields of the Earth and Moon, it's hard to believe it was all worked out 40 years before the real thing. Only the presence of air on the Moon dates it.

BIG BUSINESS: Unlike the other great silent comics - Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy were just getting into their stride in 1929, with their best days still ahead of them in the sound era.
this is possibly the best of their silent shorts as they ill-advisedly try to sell Christmas trees door-to-door in sunny California. After picking a fight with reluctant customer James Finlayson they end up wrecking his house while he destroys their car. For years afterwards Producer Hal Roach told the story that the film crew went round to the wrong house and trashed some innocent couple's home while they were out. Whether that's true, who knows, but it doesn't hurt the film's entertainment value.

Monday, 20 June 2016

1928: The Man Who Laughs

In 17th century England, James II has a rebellious nobleman executed and his young son disinherited. As a sick joke, the boy, Gwynplaine, is given over to a notorious band of gypsies, the Comprachico - who buy and mutilate children to display in their travelling freak shows - and his mouth carved into a permanent, ghastly grin.
The Comprachico are then exiled from England but leave Gwynplaine behind to fend for himself. Wandering in the snow, he rescues a blind baby girl from the arms of a frozen, dead mother, and the two are are taken in by a kindly travelling philosopher, Ursus.
Years later, Gwynplaine and Dea, the girl, are grown up and still living with Ursus in a modestly successful travelling show, with Gwynplaine as their leading clown, "The Man Who Laughs". The two are in love but Gwynplaine holds back, afraid that Dea would be repelled if she understood his true appearance.
Meanwhile King James's former jester, the devious Barkilphedro, has learned that Gwynplaine is alive and in England, and schemes to profit from revealing this to the new monarch, Queen Anne.
He has Gwyplaine arrested and later tells Ursus's company that he is dead....

Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, and an early entry in Universal Studios' horror tradition that led from "The Phantom of the Opera" in 1925 to the Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man 'monster movies' of the 30s and 40s. "The Man Who Laughs" was directed by Paul Leni, who arrived in Hollywood from Germany in 1926 and tragically died of sepsis in 1929, just as he seemed to be getting into his stride.
This film is unusual in Hollywood horror in that the monstrous-looking character is monstrous in no other way. Gwynplaine is tortured, certainly - doomed to show a grotesque grinning face to a world that only wants to laugh at him, while feeling forced to distance himself from the girl he loves, but unlike, say, Dracula, who is pure evil, or the unhinged Phantom of the Opera (also a Victor Hugo creation, incidentally), he's a pure, gentle soul who wouldn't hurt a fly. The horror of this film lies in his isolation from the rest of mankind, portrayed in the form of Stuart England at its most hostile, brutal and capricious - the winters are cold and merciless but at least the executions are summary.

Gwynplaine is played by Conrad Veidt, already a big name in horror from his performance as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Less menacing here, but no less powerful, with the same intense aura of inner torture.

It's largely forgotten now that during the two or three years that straddled the transition from silent to sound films, many pictures were presented with a synchronised soundtrack - a recorded track of music and, to an extent, sound effects, but no dialogue, and no sound recorded on-set. This was the technique used in the more clunky sound parts of "The Jazz Singer". It's a slightly awkward halfway-house between silent and sound pictures, and wasn't in use long enough for it ever to be mastered. The soundtrack for "The Man who Laughs" is of this type, and it's a pity really because it's a great film and deserves better. It's crying out for a modern orchestral score by Carl Davis - as well as a decent restoration. I watched on Amazon Instant Video, which was watchable but not great.


STEAMBOAT BILL JR: One of Keaton's last great silent features, but fairly undistinguished for most of its length, until the climactic storm that features the iconic shot of the end of a house falling on Buster, but narrowly missing him because he's standing under the window.
Since the title of the film was inspired by the song "Steamboat Bill", itself inspired by a great steamboat race of 1870, it's easy to imagine that Keaton originally had something very different in mind - perhaps a climactic steamboat race on the scale of "the General" - but had to drop the idea for budget reasons. Certainly most of the plot looks to be building up to something along those lines, and the storm sequence looks a bit tacked-on. Pure speculation, but what a film that could have been.

STEAMBOAT WILLIE: Another sound revolution - not the first sound cartoon but the first to 'get it', and integrate images with music to wonderful effect as Mickey Mouse plays the tune 'Steamboat Bill' by abusing the anatomies of various farm animals  - using a cat as bagpipes, the teeth of a cow as a xylophone and so on. Not a cartoon that would get made today, because of course we'd all be inspired to go right out and do the same thing.

SPEEDY: Harold Lloyd's silent swan song shows him still at the top of his game as an eternal optimist who can't hold down a job. A vintage set piece shows him trying to last a day as a cab driver despite an escalating series of mishaps. The de rigeur climatic cross-town chase has him desperately trying to complete a run on New York's last horsedrawn tramcar to save it from being taken over by unscrupulous developers. In true silent movie tradition, a spectacular, unscripted mishap when the tramcar collides with a pole and loses a wheel is retained in the finished film, and the story adjusted to accommodate it. Also there's some historic images of Coney Island in the 1920s.

THE CIRCUS: Chaplin's first film since 1925's "The Gold Rush" shows him at his best in every respect - expect perhaps for the maudlin theme song on the 1970 soundtrack. It's the usual setup - tramp falls for girl but inevitably she just sees him as a rather sweet friend. Many sequences are Chaplin at his absolute best - trying to escape from a policeman through the circus fun-house, trying to walk a hire-wire while being harassed by monkeys. The ending is unusually poignant even for Chaplin because of the role the tramp actively plays in his own fate, and for a fleeting moment as he watches the circus depart, his expression of regret and controlled despair is just a little bit more real than usual, and makes one wonder all the more why he never mentioned this film in his autobiography.                  

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC: Director Carl Dreyer enraged his sponsors - who were expecting a spectacular epic - by instead filming the story of Joan of Arc as an intimate courtroom drama consisting almost entirely of close-ups. The result is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Renee Maria Falconetti's performance as the strong but terrified Joan is compelling from her first appearance, no less so because you know where it's going.

THE WIND: Lillian Gish stars in - and produced - this claustrophobic tale of a naive Virginia girl who moves out west to join her rancher cousin's family and start a new life. Expecting a rural idyll, she instead finds a bleak, sandblasted world of tumbledown shacks, rough cattlemen and the incessant, brutal wind - depicted as a giant, bucking ghost horse in the sky - that threatens to drive her mad... and perhaps does. Another one that's deserving of a remastered release - in spite of the jarring, studio-sanctioned happy ending. I had to watch a copy made from an 80s off-air VHS recording - but at least it had the superb Carl Davis score.  

SHOOTING STARS: British silent films are often dismissed as cheap and clunky compared to the budget of Hollywood and the artistry of Europe, but Anthony Asquith's first film of many (although A V Bramble is credited as director) shows that wasn't always the case. Only 26 when he made this, it's a very assured and polished work. A story of romantic intrigue and jealousy at a film studio, it gives an interesting glimpse into the workings of such a place at that time.    


Monday, 13 June 2016

1927: Wings

Probably the greatest war film of the silent age.
Two city boys from well-off families, Jack and David, fall in love with the same girl. When the USA joins WW1, they both enlist in the Air Corps and become fighter pilots. They become best friends and put their rivalry on the back burner. Meanwhile Jack's lifelong friend and neighbour Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with him, but still just thinks of her as the kid next door, and she's determined to change that.
The plot is standard melodrama - the theme of the young man shifting his affections from the wrong girl to the right one has featured in most of the non-comedy films I've watched from the 1920s. What raises this film above that standard pattern is the the way things pan out between the two young pilots during their combat missions. As a French officer remarks at one point, 'C'est la guerre' - but it does highlight the cruelty of war more effectively than most films, so have a hanky ready.
The battle scenes, both on the ground and in the air, also raise the bar significantly. The dogfight scenes look totally authentic and are actually filmed in the air, with cameras attached to the planes. The trench warfare manages to be simultaneously epic and human in scale. Throughout, the camera is kept mobile and used inventively - especially so in the cafe scene at the Folies Bergere, in which it tracks over the top of several tables, passing between couples who are kissing, drinking, arguing - a virtuoso piece of cinematography. We're really reaching the peak of silent cinema here, in the very year that its death knell was sounded by 'The Jazz Singer'... particularly unfortunate for the two leads, Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers. Rogers has a packed filmography for the last few years of the silent age but his career fades away sharply as soon as sound comes in. Perhaps like many actors his voice didn't match the public's expectations. Clara Bow, perky and charming here, also dropped off the screen on account of her Noo Yawk twang. It certainly wouldn't have gone with her rich-girl character in this film.
For the first time, though we see a familiar face from the sound era - Gary Cooper as a young, but already battle-weary, pilot.

Also from 1927:

THE JAZZ SINGER: Now we're talking... not very much, though. For a film of such standing in the history of cinema, this is actually quite an undistinguished little melodrama, though worth a look just to witness the first faltering steps of sound cinema. About 80 percent of the film is silent, and our first look at a sound sequence is of young Jakie Rabinowitz singing in a jazz club, and shortly afterwards we see his stern, disapproving father singing a ritual in the synagogue. It's clear from the lack of background noise and the poor synchronisation that the film has been matched to a recording made separately. Later, though, we get the real thing when Al Jolson, as the now grown-up Jakie, sings a couple of numbers. Having watched so many silent movies recently,  I got some idea of the impact his exuberant rendition of 'Toot-toot-tootsie' must have had.
Most dated scene: Jolson in his dressing room, torn between staying at the theatre for his Broadway debut and leaving to sing at the synagogue in the place of his dying father. He talks about the pride and traditions of his 'race' while dressing up as a caricature of someone else's, without a shred of irony, unless I missed it.            

SUNRISE: F. W. Murnau's first American film is often listed among the greatest ever made. On the face of it it's a fairly simple melodrama but it's executed with total virtuosity, and has a universal quality. The settings could be Europe or America and have qualities of both. The cars and fashions tell us it's the 1920s, but some vague, dreamlike version of it. Murnau pushes the craft of silent film-making, using spilt-screen and double-exposure like a paintbrush, to such a degree that you wonder if he felt the pressure of sound nipping at his heels: In just two or three years it would be impossible to make a film like this.  

METROPOLIS: One of those films, like Napoleon, that has taken decades to put back to something like its original form after having just a few initial screenings, followed by lots of heavy cutting by distributors. The latest version, with most of the gaps now filled by a very poor 16mm print found in an archive in Argentina, finally gives the film the coherent plot and character motivation that was missing from earlier versions. Far and away the most spectacular science fiction film made up to that time, and for a long time afterwards. Still a contender for the greatest, even if the operatic acting style has gone out of fashion.

COLLEGE: Buster plays an academic student whose disdain for athleticism at his high school graduation speech alienates his girlfriend. Once at college he takes up sport to impress her but only ends up annoying the athletes into the bargain, until of course it all works out.
Not quite vintage Keaton, and it didn't help that my copy was very poor. The plot struggles to fill the running time and there's little innovation in the comedy. It does however have one of the best endings, which shows us, in a brief montage of the Buster and his girl's later life, what 'happily-ever-after' really means.

THE KID BROTHER: Harold Lloyd, perhaps because he relied more on a team of writers than did Keaton, is still at the top of his game here, even if the plot is much the same as usual. Here, he plays the youngest brother to two tough lumberjacks and their father, the sheriff. When the father is wrongly accused of stealing it falls to Harold to recover the true thief and the money before the lynch mob gets their way. Best of many great scenes is the crane shot where Harold, having just fallen for the girl he meets in the woods, climbs ever higher up a tree to catch another glimpse and call after her as she walks away.

THE LODGER: Hitchcock's first proper 'Hitchcock' film need make no apologies for being an early work or a silent one. It's atmospheric and compelling and done with great technique. Sadly I was put off buying the blu-ray of this because of negative reviews about the new score by Nitin Sawhney: it's got a pop song in the middle of it - the perfect thing to bump you out of the film.
I stuck with the version I have as part of a box set - a good restored print but with no soundtrack at all. I put "The Orchestral Tubular Bells" on the record player and that worked well enough.

NAPOLEON: Abel Gance's six hour epic was intended to be the first in six films about the Little Corporal's life, but the first one turned out to be such a monumental and expensive task that further films would have been impossible even if sound hadn't thrown all the cards in the air.
Although seldom seen, this has become something of a legendary film on account of its history. Appearing just before the birth of sound, it took the art of cinematography to a whole new level with its innovative use of camera movement, rapid editing, and triptych scenes in which three adjacent screens were used to show either a panoramic view of a single scene, or three scenes simultaneously. Unfortunately it failed to make the impact it deserved. Recut several times, by different people and for different markets, the edits that were most widely seen were evidently profoundly inferior to the original. Much if it has been missing for most of its history and has been painstakingly reassembled for over 50 years by film historian Kevin Brownlow. A restored version was screened in 1980 with a live orchestral accompaniment by Carl Davis and in New York with one by Carmine Coppolla. Remarkably Abel Gance was still alive to witness the rapturous reception at both events.
Unfortunately the two music scores have led to rights issues which resulted in screenings being restricted to those with live orchestra, which of course has kept showings to a bare minimum, but that now appears to be resolved with a cinema run and DVD release in the UK planned for late this year, as well as a new French restoration due to appear in 2017.  
I haven't yet seen the film - until now opportunities have been few and far between - but my ticket for the next screening with live orchestra, in November, was booked nine months in advance.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

1926: The Black Pirate

A merchant ship is attacked by pirates. They pillage the ship then blow it up, crew and all. Two survivors are washed up on a beach - the man we come to know as The Black Pirate, and his father who soon dies from his ordeal. The younger man swears revenge. When the pirates come ashore to bury their loot, Black Pirate reveals himself and asks to join their crew. To prove himself, he kills their captain in a fair fight. They're all cheerfully impressed by this except the deceased captain's right-hand man, who is understandably restrained, but MacTavish the Scottish Pirate - two caricatures for the price of one - jollies him along and Bad Pirate accepts the situation for now. 
Black P further proves himself by capturing the next ship singlehanded, and MacTavish moves that he be made their leader, but then a beautiful young woman (Billie Dove) is discovered hiding, and Bad Pirate 'wins' her by drawing lots with some of the other pirates.
Black P takes her under his wing before any harm can come to her, though, and announces that she is wearing a jewel that identifies her as a princess and therefore a valuable hostage. Shifting operations to the captured ship, he sends the pirate ship demand a ransom to but now he has to keep the 'princess' safe from the clutches of Bad Pirate and avoid bloodshed as far as possible, while maintaining the pretence that he's as much a bloodthirsty cutthroat as his crew...

Fairbanks's follow-up to "The Thief of Bagdad" is shorter and less spectacular, but a lot more fun. The opening scenes of the merchant ship being pillaged by the pirates are startlingly, even hilariously brutal, compared with the relatively genteel swashbuckling of Errol Flynn just a few years later, though with minimal on-screen blood and gore. For instance, the pirate captain spies one of the captive crew, tied to the mast, taking off a jewelled ring and swallowing it. He instructs another pirate to retrieve it and then calmly chews his fingernails until the other man returns with the ring and a bloody knife. Later on, Bad Pirate calmly weighs up which of two stolen swords to keep for himself by casually stabbing another captive with one of them to test the blade.

The pirates have clearly all been carefully picked by the casting department to looks as villainous as possible, while Donald Crisp provides endearing light relief as McTavish the Scottish Pirate and Sam de Grasse makes a good slimy villain in the Basil Rathbone mould. Billie Dove is very majestic as the love interest and is good at making wistful faces, but she does get to be brave and resourceful at one point too.  
Although Hollywood still has a little to learn about getting the most out of a dramatic climax - Bad Pirate gets his deserts a little too briskly - the film keeps up the excitement all the way through, and the hero has to rely on genuine wit and resourcefulness as well as his charm and athleticism to bring it to a happy conclusion, so the film is still a thoroughly entertaining watch to a modern audience.
A few shots belong in a 'best of' montage of silent action films - Fairbanks splitting the sail as he slides down it with a dagger; his crew swimming underwater en masse (though in fact on strings) to attack the pirates, then manually hoisting their victorious leader up several decks by passing him man to man.
This was one of the first feature films to be shot entirely in Technicolor, though it's still only the red-and-green, two-strip variety. The more recent Park Circus DVD is a sharper transfer than the older Kino disc, though the Kino DVD has 18 minutes of out-takes with an interesting commentary by Rudy Behlmer.

 Also from 1926:

THE GENERAL: Keaton's greatest film, I think. Buster plays an engine driver in the American South. When the Civil War breaks out, he tries to enlist but is refused. He is not told that this is because he is more valuable as an engineer and feels rejected, while his girlfriend now rejects him because she is under the impression he never tried to enlist. When Union spies steal his locomotive, he commandeers another one to give chase, and ends up rescuing the girl and foiling a Union plot to catch the Southern army unawares. 
This film has some of the most daring and painstakingly staged screen comedy ever filmed. It's gripping to watch as you know it's all done for real. In the scene where he has to manually move some huge wooden beams out of the path of his engine, the slightest mis-step could have been disastrous.  
This is available on a Region 2 Blu-ray from Amazon Spain, complete with the terrific score by Carl Davis.
BATTLING BUTLER: As in 'The Navigator', Keaton plays a rather helpless and clueless rich youth, who is sent on a camping trip by his father in the desperate hope it'll make a man of him. He falls for a mountain girl, and wins her approval because he is mistaken for a famous boxer of the same name, and has to spend most of the film keeping up the fiction in the run-up to a big fight. For the most part, it's a standard plot and there's not much new here, but it does have one of the most satisfying finales of any film ever.    

ADVENTURES OF PRINCE AHMED: As the oldest surviving animated feature, this deserves a long entry in some future animation blog, but I can't ignore it here. It's basically an animated Chinese shadow-play - the story is told in silhouette throughout, with remarkable sensitivity and some clever special effects. The story is also a little more layered that your average fairy-tale as we have two pairs of lovers, whose tales are intertwined, instead of just one.          

THE PLEASURE GARDEN: Worth a look as it's Alfred Hitchcock's first film as director, and his comic touch is already visible in the opening scenes as a bunch of lecherous old men watch a line of chorus girls at the music hall. The rest of the film is a pretty standard melodrama without much to distinguish it, though. Having said that I was only able to view an old print, not the recent BFI restoration, so there may be more to it that I've missed.

FAUST: F. W. Murnau's poignant adaptation of the German folk tale is distinguished by some stunning cinematography and special effects work, and by Emil Jannings as the demon Mephistopholes, comic and chilling by turns.  

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE: Harold Lloyd, by now almost going through the motions, this time as a spoilt socialite who can simply buy a new luxury car each time one breaks down. He accidentally makes a donation to fund a mission in a poor part of town and stays on as its patron when he falls for the girl who runs it, of course. The whole film might have been constructed around the climactic chase scene where Harold once again has to get all the way across town to get to a wedding in time, only this time he has half a dozen drunk vagrants in his charge and he has to get them there too.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

1925: The Lost World

From the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, and best remembered today as the precursor to King Kong.
Mildly unhinged explorer Professor Challenger returns to London from an expedition to the Amazon, where he claims to have found an isolated land, high on a plateau in the jungle, still populated by dinosaurs. Unfortunately all his photographs have been lost so he has no evidence. Ridiculed by the press and the scientific establishment, he decides to return, this time with the daughter of a missing comrade, and a handsome young reporter (you can guess how that part will play out). Sure enough, back in the jungle, they find their dinosaurs - but become trapped on the plateau for a while, have a few dangerous encounters with them and witness some impressive dinosaur fights before escaping. But what about returning with proof? Incredibly, no-one's thought to bring a camera this time, but fortunately there's an unconscious brontosaurus handy as well an another expedition with lots of manpower and ropes, so they decide to take it back to London.
Glossing over the logistics of that, we cut back to London where the professor is giving another lecture, promising to show them his proof any minute now (he's somehow managed to keep it quiet). However the dinosaur has other ideas and escapes as it's being unloaded from the ship. Running loose in London, it causes panic and wrecks a lot of buildings (including the Blue Posts, a perfectly good pub in Soho) before swimming out to sea. Professor Challenger, having traded public ridicule for being the cause of this mess, sits on the ruins of Tower Bridge and has a cry. The end.
It's a thrilling ride, but not for the last time in film history the focus on spectacle leads to the narrative falling a little short. Here's an alternative synopsis:
A young man wants his girl to marry him, but the girl, who is clearly bit flighty, can't commit until he's added a bit more manliness to his CV. So he goes off to face some terrible danger, falling in love with another, more worthwhile girl in the process. Returning home, he feels duty-bound to marry the first girl but is relieved and delighted to find she's married an accountant in his absence. Happy ending all round. It's exactly the same plot as "The Big Parade", released the same year and described below. However, it's likely no-one was bothered by this as, technically, the film is stunning for its time. The dinosaurs are brilliantly executed, even if the human characters' interaction with them is limited to hiding behind trees and shooting at them. (Bessie Love, the love interest, only gets to look pretty and scared, while more hands-on jeopardy is supplied by a man in an ape costume.)  The dinosaur battles are so far beyond anything previously seen on film it makes you wonder where the learning curve was.
The most important thing about this film though, is its legacy. We have it to thank for King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Ray Harryhausen's whole wonderful career.    

Also from this year:

THE WIZARD OF OZ: This is actually a pretty awful film. For a while in the early 20s its star and director Larry Semon was one of the great silent comics, right up there with Keaton and Chaplin. When they started making feature films he felt under pressure to do the same and spent a fortune securing the film rights to L Frank Baum's book. Incomprehensibly, though, he thought it would be  good idea to use little more than the title as a basis for an extended succession of silent-short set pieces and slapstick gags, with a very minimal plot holding it all together like string round a herd of cows. The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man are just disguises that the farmhands use to hide from the villains in Oz, destroying their magical quality altogether. Unsurprisingly, the film was a critical and commercial failure. Semon's career faded away and he died, almost forgotten, just a few years later.

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN: After the previous few years, this feels like an abrupt shift into a more modern style of film-making: more dynamic and inventive lighting and composition, fast editing, acting that is passionate without being theatrical. Much of it still gripping, particularly the Odessa Steps sequence in which the citizens, out in support of the revolutionary sailors, are gunned down by the tsar's army. However - and this might seem blindingly obvious - it's all a bit, well, communist. I don't mean that as criticism of the film's politics - I think that's irrelevant in evaluating it as art or entertainment - but we're expected to sympathise with masses of people rather than with individuals. People come and go in the narrative as faces in a crowd. We see little or nothing of their lives as individuals so we're not as moved as we might be when awful things happen to them.
Also, it's worth noting that, largely due to this film, Sergei Eisenstein's name is synonomous with the invention of very fast editing as a means of building tension. In fact Abel Gance did it first with 'La Roue' in 1923.

SEVEN CHANCES: Buster Keaton has to get married by 7pm to inherit his uncle's fortune. Naturally there's already a girl he's in love with but he makes a mess of the proposal and she turns him down. His business partner advertises for prospective brides and hundreds turn up at the church, but the priest assumes it's all a practical joke so they become an angry mob, after Buster's blood. Meanwhile he's received a message that his girl will marry him after all. All this builds up to one of silent cinema's great chase scenes, involving hundreds of irate brides and a spectacular sequence in which Buster has to dodge hundreds of boulders, from small to huge, as they roll down a hill. The blatant artificiality of the rock-strew hillside creates a delightfully comic-strip sense of unreality.
It's a lot of fun but at 45 minutes is still more of an extended short than a true feature. Buster's best work was still to come.

THE FRESHMAN: Harold Lloyd goes to college. A naive country boy, his expectations of college life are based on the movies, and he makes a fool of himself on his first day. His fellow students, though, turn it into a huge joke by letting him think he's a cool and popular guy, all the time laughing at him behind his back, including the football team who let him think he's a substitute when in fact he's just the water-boy - a demeaning role for an aspiring athlete.
In a big inter-college match, though, over half the team are injured and the coach sends Harold on in desperation. Through a combination of luck, ingenuity and enthusiasm, he scores the winning points.
Coming as it does on the heels of "Girl Shy",  I didn't take to this one quite so much. Perhaps it's partly because the plucky-but-awkward-underdog-gets-the-girl plot is wearing a little thin, but mainly it lacked the spectacular, daring physicality of his previous two films. If you find American football exciting, you might feel differently.  

THE GOLD RUSH: Chaplin's back, with one of his most famous films.
My DVD has both the 1926 silent version and the 1942 version with Chaplin's own music and commentary. I much prefer the latter - it's about 20 minutes shorter - the silent one drags a little at 90 minutes, and I was hard pressed to spot what was missing, besides the intertitles. Georgia Hale is the love interest, somewhat more brash and arrogant than the usual sweet-natured Chaplin girls, but it gives her character room to develop.
The film opens with a spectacular recreation of an endless line prospectors labouring up the 'Golden Stairs' of Chilkoot Pass, the mountain path to the goldfields of the Klondike. Apparently location filming proved too gruelling, so after months of set-building and shooting Chaplin moved the whole production back to Hollywood and shot indoors.
The best part of the film, I think, is the sequence when Chaplin and his companion wake up with a hangover and feel as though the cabin is tilting back and forth - initially unaware that it is actually balancing on the edge of a cliff.
In the silent version, I think we glimpse the real Chaplin, not the character, in the final shot. As he kisses the girl - he was having an affair with Georgia Hale in real life - he gives the camera a dismissive wave of his hand, as if if he wants to carry on doing just what he's doing rather than continue acting.        

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Notable as the first in Universal's great tradition of horror Movies, it now looks like a montage of cliches - but that just shows how profound its influence was.
The unmasking of the Phantom to reveal his shark-like, cadaverous face now feels relatively tame, though no doubt it had more impact on the big screen.
It always strikes me as curious how a generation fresh from a terrible war and no stranger to hardship, injury and terrible disease - that must have seen more ghastly things in their everyday lives than most of us - were apparently so much more disturbed by on-screen horror then we are today. Perhaps it was the novelty of the experience, or perhaps it was precisely because it did seem closer to the real world.  

BEN HUR: One of the great epics of silent cinema, it's a bit sad to note that its status has been reduced to a mere extra on the blu-ray of the Charlton Heston remake - it isn't even mentioned on the cover - yet it stands up pretty well. Ramon Navarro actually makes a more credible lead than Heston. He has a sensitive, vulnerable quality that the larger-than-life Heston lacks, while still holding his own in the chariot race - which, incidentally, also holds its own against the one in the later film, largely because so much of the action - including a spectacular multi-chariot pile-up - looks unplanned.
The transfer on the Blu-Ray is from a 1988 Thames Silents restoration, but it looks pretty good in HD despite its age.

THE BIG PARADE: Probably the first great film to tackle the experience of the First World War.
The first half is all rather lightweight as three chums enjoy a bit of fun and romance in the French village where they're billeted en route to the Front... but then it all turns serious. Our main hero is engaged to a girl back home but falls in love with a French girl. Remembering his prior commitment, he feels duty-bound to make light of his new entanglement and walk away. The girl understands and does likewise but as the troops are mustered to board the trucks to take them to the war, both realise they are making a mistake and frantically hunt for each other in the crowd as the trucks pull out. It's a grippingly tense scene. They find each other, or course, and exchange affections fairly unambiguously in their fleeting last moments together. The climactic shots where the girl, unable to let her lover go, is dragged along the road as she clings to a chain hanging from the back of his truck really ought to look hysterically melodramatic today, but somehow they don't. The fact of a film being silent somehow allows it to get away with things a sound film never could. The film is most memorable, though, for its depiction of war. The scene in which the new recruits, having been thoroughly humanised to us in the first half of the film, now have to act like cold automata as they march through a sniper-ridden forest, impassively killing and being killed as they go, is deeply chilling.

THE PLEASURE GARDEN: Hitchcock's first film as director, and worth a look for that reason alone. This was restored by the BFI along with eight other early Hitchcocks, but that version has yet to see a DVD or Blu-ray release, so I had to watch a rather scratchy old print in which it was hard to tell the two female leads apart.
The opening scenes in a theatre, with a front row of lecherous old men enjoying a chorus line, have Hitchcock's impish sense of fun all over them and are the scenes most often seen in documentaries about him, but it's not long before it settles into a fairly standard melodrama - skilled in execution but very conventional.            


Tuesday, 19 January 2016

1924: Sherlock Junior

Phew, a tough choice this year - which is partly why it's taken me so long to get round to it.
Someone said I should pick more esoteric films than I have been, since everyone's familiar with Chaplin, Lloyd etc - but having covered those two I can hardly let Keaton off the hook - perhaps the most daring and durable of the three.
Old Stone Face, arguably, has worn a little better that Chaplin to modern audiences as his films are less sentimental. He said the audience had to decide whether to care for his character. He wouldn't ask for their sympathy in the narrative.
Here, Keaton plays a young small-town movie projectionist - so poor he has to depend upon finding lost dollar bills among the litter he sweeps out from the cinema after the show. He doesn't have much luck though as the customers come back looking for the lost cash, and he's honest enough to give it back to them - once they've accurately described it for him.
Keaton gets thrown out of his girlfriend's house after a slimy rival frames him for stealing her father's watch. Suspicious of the rival, and inspired by his book on how to be a detective, he follows him - but the rival traps him in a railway goods truck. At this point we see one of the most remarkable moments in all of silent film, but no-one was aware of it till years later.
As the train pulls away, he gets out through the roof hatch and grabs the chain of the railside water tank, inadvertently turning on the spout and bringing a torrent of water down on his head. He falls to the tracks, and gets up again in time for a handcart to pass under the gushing water, soaking its occupants, who spot Buster as the one responsible and chase him into the distance.
The action was all impeccably staged and appears on film exactly as planned, except that Buster seriously underestimated the power of the water coming from the spout, and instead of merely dropping the ten feet or so to the tracks he is slammed to the ground, invisible under the gushing torrent until a few seconds later when, unperturbed, he gets up to run away from the handcart guys.
What no-one knew at the time was that the impact had broken his neck. A lifetime of punishing falls and stunts - ever since being thrown around the vaudeville stage by his father as a three year old - meant that he was made of such tough stuff that he didn't find out about it until an x-ray revealed the knitted bone years later.
Back at the cinema, he falls asleep and dreams that his girlfriend and the rival are in the film, playing more glamorous versions of themselves. He run into the cinema and up onto the screen, but once up there the scene keeps changing around him, and in a sequence of painstakingly calculated cuts he find himself in one location after another - a rocky hillside, a jungle, a busy road, - with barely time to avoid the hazards of one environment before it cuts around him to the next. It all looks spontaneous, and Buster acts it out as one flowing scene, but it must have taken weeks to plan and film.
The rest of the film is of the standard boy-girl-misunderstanding-chase-resolution variety that had now become the standard movie comedy feature plot, but it's pacy and inventive, and engaging thoughout. Unlike the previous year's "Three Ages", Buster has now got the hang of structuring a film around plot and character rather than gags, the essential element in a comedy feature as opposed to a short.

Also from 1924: Harold Lloyd's GIRL SHY. I really wanted to review this one - I watched it specially for the first time last week and was on the edge of my seat. Harold plays a would-be author, hopelessly shy and crippled with a stutter,  who hopes to publish a book on how to be successful with women, despite his total lack of experience. On his way to the city to hand the manuscript to a publisher, he falls in love with a rich girl, and depends on the book being published to get the money he needs to marry her. However he's laughed out of the publisher's office, and painfully breaks it off with the girl by pretending he never really cared. Heartbroken, she accepts a proposal a man who has been pursuing her for some time - a tall rake with a pencil moustache, much like the rival in "Sherlock Junior". In the final act, it's the morning of her wedding and Harold learns, in quick succession, that the man is an adulterer, and that the publisher has decided to release his book - as a comedy - and has sent him a substantial advance. The film concludes with a marathon chase scene as Harold commandeers cars, horses and tramcars in a mad rush to stop his girl from marrying the wrong man - silent action comedy at its absolute best.

Every bit as notable - Douglas Fairbanks in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. No spring chicken at nearly 40, Fairbanks' gymnastics in this spectacular 150-minute epic are sufficiently larger-than-life to compete with the enormous, magical sets. Fairbanks plays a vagabond thief who spurns the work ethic preached to him in a mosque he accidentally stumbles into - via a magic rope and a window, naturally - until he falls in love with the princess and has to compete with three undesirable princes to win her hand. Cue a series of picture-book adventures featuring dragons, caves of fire, mermaids and flying horses. The moral - hard to miss as it is is literally written in the stars both at the beginning and the end of the film - is that 'happiness must be earned'.
The BFI blu-ray features an orchestral soundtrack by Carl Davis - an arrangement of music from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade". The acting is interestingly stylised - broad and theatrical, as in the days before D W Griffith.  Sojin Kamiyama is particularly effective as the scheming Mongol prince - he acts in an odd, two-dimensional fashion as if consciously imitating the puppets of Chinese shadow-plays. Anna May Wong plays his spy, under (very little) cover as a servant in the Princess's palace.
The BFI has two notable archive documentaries from this year out on Blu Ray, both with transporting, subdued music specially composed by Simon Fisher Turner - THE EPIC OF EVEREST, a record of the Mallory/Irvine expedition, and Herbert Ponting's THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE, a late edit of his 1912 film of Scott's tragic polar expedition.
The Everest film is interesting not only for the footage of the climbers on Everest - rather sweetly kitted out as if they were hiking from Interlaken for the day - but for its record of life in the Himalayan villages en route. "The Great White Silence" is more than anything a wildlife film - an aspect that be would far more novel and fascinating to contemporary audiences than it is to us, spoilt as we are by Attenborough and co. What little there is of the polar expedition is a precious record, and the sequence of Scott's party acting out the routine of having supper in their tent and bedding down for the night reveals the human faces of the legendary explorers and the rapport between them. If you can lip-read you can probably even make out the odd snatch of conversation.