Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Re-Discovering Abel Gance

Few filmmakers can claim such innovation over such a short period of time as Abel Gance. Born to working class parents in Paris in 1889, he later shed his working class roots, marking himself as a true artist of the cinema. For many years, his filmography served only to tantalize film buffs, as so many of his titles are either lost or unavailable. Following the reconstruction of his 1927 masterpiece "Napoleon" in 1981, Gance returned to his position as one of the cinema's foremost innovators.

But what of his other films? Among his silent films, perhaps the two most well-known titles are "J'accuse", his 1919 pacifist epic, and "La Roue", a melodrama taking place in the trainyards. For many years it has been difficult to obtain copies of either of these films for viewing, and even then, only in poor prints that did not do justice to the original. Thanks to the restoration efforts of David Shepard, the films are now available on DVD in splendidly restored editions. These two films were shown on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday April 27th, 2008.

I will write separate reviews of the films as soon as I have the chance to see them.

The evening's lineup of films also included a 1968 documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow titled "The Charm of Dynamite", a fascinating look into Gance's career and the making of his films. It featured large amounts of behind-the-scenes footage taken on the set of his films, showing the elaborate camera operations that had to take place in order to achieve the distinct moving camera style that Gance perfected.

"La Roue" was a hugely innovative film in its time, causing Jean Cocteau to write "There is filmmaking before and after 'La Roue' just as there is painting before and after Picasso". It was clearly influential in its editing style, which the Soviets would borrow to develop their theories of montage. Akira Kurosawa claims he was inspired to go into filmmaking after seeing "La Roue".

Gance was a huge admirer of D.W. Griffith, and like Griffith, was an artist who was perhaps too big for the medium at that time. His ideas, the scope of his productions, practically seemed beyond the capabilities of the medium. He did, as Kevin Brownlow said, grab the infant medium by the hand and give it a breathless rush through life. It would be at least thirty years after "Napoleon" before the cinema had caught up with Gance's ideas from a purely technical standpoint.

The opportunity to see these two films is an excellent way to begin re-discovering the work of this master, and to examine more closely the films that display his genius.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Unholy Three (1930)

Tod Browning was one of the most distinct directors of the late 1920s. Developing a specialty for crime dramas early on his directing career, he soon turned to a unique combination of the bizarre and the grotesque, the sordid and the spectacular, creating-with star Lon Chaney-some of the most delightfully weird films ever to come out of Hollywood. The film that really solidified the Browning-Chaney collaboration was a 1925 production from MGM, "The Unholy Three", which cast Chaney as Professor Echo, a ventriloquist who teams up with two fellow sideshow performers to form an unholy trio of criminals.

In 1930, MGM decided to remake the film as Chaney's first talkie, billing the "Man of 1000 Faces" as "The Man of 1000 Voices" in advertisements. The 1930 version is interesting on a number of levels. It provides us with the chance to see the same actor playing the same role a second time and in the new medium of talking pictures. It is remarkably faithful to the original film, and gives us the opportunity of watching a journeyman director like Jack Conway imitate the style of Tod Browning quite well. It's use of sound is quite creative for the time, and despite some moments of muddled recording, quite clear. The "shadow" of Tod Browning hangs over the project, as so much of the film, and certainly all of the distinct visual touches (such as showing the silhouettes of the "unholy three" while plotting their crime) come from his original film.

The film begins at a sideshow, where a barker is bringing audiences in to gawk at the variety of oddities and novelty acts. The audience for this show is overwhelmingly "bland" and "normal", compared to the bizarre gallery of performers they have come to watch. It is tempting to read into this scene, a direct carry-over from Browning's original, a bit of commentary on the kind of grotesque entertainment that Browning and Chaney provided, and the large numbers of viewers who lined up to watch it. Both versions are clearly fascinated with showing the sideshow performers-a tattooed lady, a fat woman, a fire eater, Siamese twins-perhaps giving the movie audience their "money's worth" on acts that could only be seen otherwise in dime museums or carnival fairgrounds. The sideshow scenes have a sleazy quality to them, a certain grim tone that makes this carnival seem like a frightening and unpleasant place. This was a staple of Browning's work, and of his original version of the film, which no doubt stemmed from his years working the sideshow circuit. Jack Conway does a good job of re-creating that atmosphere here.

Ivan Linow plays Hercules, the strong man, a role played by Victor McLaglen in the original. Linow is actually quite good in the role, and is perhaps does even more with the part than McLaglen did. The 1930 remake jettisons a cute bit during this scene from the 1925 original, in which a mother tells her son that if he doesn't smoke, he'll grow up to be strong just like Hercules. Later, just after Hercules has finished selling copies of his "self-help" book, he casually lights a cigarette.

Next, we are introduced to Chaney as Professor Echo. Chaney has a wonderful, relaxed presence in front of the camera here, apparently quite comfortable with handling dialog in his first talkie. He also has a pleasant voice that matches his screen presence well. Watching this film, it immediately becomes apparent that Chaney could have had quite a career in talkies, and it is a pity that he would be dead within the year. His performance here includes a delightfully strange act with his ventriloquist, who makes wisecracks and sings songs. Chaney "signs off" his act with "That's all there is to life, a little laugh, a little tear". Echo is also involved with Rosie O'Grady (played by Lila Lee, who is charming enough but lacks the presence that Mae Busch brought to the original role), a young woman who works as his partner in picking pockets in the audience during his act.

Finally, the audience is introduced to the third partner in crime, Tweedledee (played to perfection by Harry Earles from the original), a midget who is extremely sensitive to comments on his height. Presumably just to earn a living, he allows himself to be taunted and gawked at by the crowds, until he finally loses control and kicks a small boy in the face for heckling him. The boy's father rushes the stage, and a terrible brawl erupts, causing the sideshow to be shut down by order of the police.

Out of work, Echo teams up with Hercules and Tweedledee to form the "Unholy Three". Their plan is quite complicated: Echo will disguise himself as "Mrs. O'Grady", with Rosie as his "granddaughter", and sell birds in a rented pet shop. Hercules will become "Herman", their friend, and Tweedledee will become their "baby". Echo will throw his voice to convince potential buyers that the birds can talk. Of course, when customers bring them home and they say nothing, they call the pet shop demanding an explanation. "Mrs. O'Grady", along with the "baby", will come out to the house, ostensibly to check on the bird, but really to case the joint so they can plan a perfect robbery.

In the rented pet shop, they have taken on a salesman, Hector MacDonald (played quite well by Elliott Nugent, who also co-wrote this film and is superior to Matt Moore in the original). Hector is falling in love with Rosie, which creates great tension between her and Echo. Their robbery of the Arlington home ends in disaster, and raises the suspicion of a detective, Regan, who begins an investigation. There is a particularly memorable scene in which Regan comes to visit "Mrs. O'Grady" in her bird store, and almost discovers the stolen beads which Tweedledee has hidden inside his toy elephant. This scene is a fine example of how this story really works better as a talkie, because the sound effects convey so much of the suspense and the pending disaster.

From here, it is only a short time before things become more complicated, and their plans continue to spin out of control, ending in a trial that goes well except for one fatal mistake.

This 1930 film is remarkable in the fact that it manages to retain so many of the really strange, fantastic elements of its 1925 version without losing its power. It's the kind of story that would be very easy to do wrong, because it requires complete conviction on the part of the actors to maintain the genuinely suspenseful tone amid all the really bizarre and even improbable plot points. The scheme hatched by the trio, for instance, is impossibly complicated, but the film allows the viewer to get so drawn in to this bizarre world that it hardly matters.

Jack Conway was one of MGM's least distinct technicians, but his direction of this film shows that he was at least capable of imitating Browning's style. Browning himself was never the stylist that some of Chaney's other directors, such as Victor Sjostrom and Herbert Brenon, were. But he did develop a distinct visual look which gave his 1920s work a particularly effective atmosphere. Conway manages to capture that here.

By the end of 1930, Chaney would be dead from throat cancer, a tragic end to a brilliant career. In this, his final film, he delivers a powerful performance, making the most out of his character and transforming Echo from a caricature to a real character. The film is a testament to his professionalism and his love for his art.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Wrong Man (1957)

In Alfred Hitchcock's body of work, his films tend to be thought of in four or five major "sections": his early British period, including his silent films; his "Golden Hollywood" period of the early- to mid-40s; his "post-war" period, beginning with "Spellbound" at Selznick, covering all of his independently produced films, and ending with the dark, profound "I Confess"; his "golden age" of "Rear Window" through "Pyscho" and "The Birds"; and finally, his "later years", featuring such films as "Topaz" and "Frenzy".

One film that somewhat stands out among his films of his "golden age" of the 50s is this 1957 drama based on a real incident of a man falsely identified as a stick-up man, and his efforts to extricate himself from inevitable conviction at the hands of mistaken witnesses.

What makes the film unique is that, by 1957, Hitchcock had become very comfortable working within his style, so much so that by 1959 he was able to make what essentially amounted to self-parody in "North by Northwest". His TV show had been on the air for two years by this time, and it must have seemed to everyone that the Hitchcock formula was already well set.

It came as a surprise, then, when Hitchcock made a stark, black and white film that owes much to Italian NeoRealism as well as the films of Jules Dassin, Sam Fuller, and other younger filmmakers who had emerged after the war. Hitchcock chose as his leading man Henry Fonda. Unlike his two other favorite leading men, Cary Grant and James Stewart, Fonda was quite capable of stepping outside of a "public image" and getting closer to the root of the character he was playing. Here, he is the model of solemn, silent dignity as he is put through every conceivable indignity while being questioned and investigated by the police.

The film makes brilliant use of its New York City location photography. There are some scenes taken in the subway that are particularly effective. Hitchcock had used New York as a location before, and would use it again, but never with quite the same "realist" style as he does here.

"The Wrong Man" is the odd Hitchcock film that can't quite be compared to any of his other work. Aside from the theme of the film, which of course defines Hitchcock's favorite plot device, there is little in the film that screams "Hitchcock". There is, as in many films of the era, an interesting exposing of the "dark side" of American family life. It's apparent that, especially for many artists, post-war American life was portrayed as just a little too good, just a little too perfect, and filmmakers like Hitchcock, Lang, Wilder, and others delighted in poking holes in that mythology.

The film is an interesting testament to the willingness of Hitchcock to step outside his cinematic "comfort zone" and experiment with new, emerging film styles in cinematography, acting and storytelling. As has been pointed out, the public stayed away from the picture, probably because Hitchcock's name guaranteed light, fun entertainment. Some have even suggested that the film would have been more highly regarded if directed by someone like a Frankenheimer or a Lumet. I would tend to agree with Andrew Sarris' assessment of the film as one of the greatest American films of the 1950s.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Suspicion and the British Style

Alfred Hitchcock can be a difficult director to write about, because his name, themes and favorite obsessions are always larger than the individual films that make up his body of work. As with any large body of work, there are stronger and weaker works. "Suspicion", a 1941 suspense thriller starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, is a film that is easy to classify in that latter category. But, despite it's flaws, I would rank it closer to the former.

The plot revolves around a charming cad, Johnny, played by Cary Grant. He ends up getting married to young and innocent Joan Fontaine, but soon, mysterious things begin happening that give her a very bad feeling about him. Soon, she even becomes convinced that he is plotting to murder her for her inheritance, which she has ended up forfeiting as her father doesn't approve of Johnny.

What is remarkable about the film is not the plot, nor the performances, but the sheer style that Hitchcock brings to every frame. He was still working very much in what I see as his "British" style. There is a calm, almost lyrical pace to the film even in its more intense moments. He is still using his performers more as "types" than as real characters, which seemed to be the traditional approach in his British work. We see the remnants of his "British" stylistic sensibility in a number of his early films, certainly "Rebecca", most clearly in "Foreign Correspondent", and to a lesser degree in "Suspicion". The one exception may be "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", a thoroughly American screwball comedy that Hitchcock (supposedly) directed as a favor to Carole Lombard. However, this film, along with "The Trouble with Harry", perhaps gets closer than any other of his American films to what he was trying to do all along in Britain, which was to make comedies. Hitchcock's sense of humor is above all what marks his "British" style. I would argue that it was with "Saboteur" and "Shadow of a Doubt" in 1942 and 1943, respectively, that Hitchcock really moved fully into an "American style".

The ending of "Suspicion" also recalls the ending of Hitchcock's "The Lodger", in that the obviously guilty man is suddenly announced not to be the killer after all, not for any logical connection to the events that have preceded it in the plot, but because the studio felt that the public just didn't want to see lovable Cary Grant (like Ivor Novello in the earlier film) as a killer. This is the kind of studio-era interference out of which the auteur theory was born, because although such a forced ending could have ruined the film, Hitchcock makes it work, somehow, despite our senses telling us of the obvious incongruity of the ending compared with what has gone before.

"Suspicion" is a solid Hitchcock film, not one of his very best, but containing many of his favorite elements and handled with a clear style that enhances what would have been a fairly routine picture in other hands.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hearts of Age

Orson Welles was a boy genius if ever there was one. From virtually his earliest works, he exhibited a kind of full understanding of each medium that he worked in. In addition, he seemed to be in total control of each medium, whether working on the stage, on radio, or in film.

It is amazing, therefore, to watch his first film, "Hearts of Age", and to see what an interesting aesthetic he brought to what is essentially an experimental student film, made at the university in Illinois where Welles was studying at the time. The film is full of suggestive imagery. His future wife, Virginia Nicholson (made up as an elderly woman) is seen sitting atop a large, ringing bell. Egerton Paul, Welles' roommate and friend, plays the blackface footman. Welles appears in a variety of roles, including a hauting appearance in a death-mask. The film has a playful charm about it, serving as something of a satire on the experimental genre. Welles is clearly having a lot of fun with his performance. Interestingly, and this is something rare in an experimental film, it is very much an actor's film, carried largely by Welles at the center of it all.

While it would be tempting to read the film as a kind of warm-up for "Citizen Kane", I'm not sure that it would necessarily be accurate to do so. Welles, for all his obvious skill, is still testing the waters in this early effort. "Kane" is a totally successful piece of cinematic experimentation, whereas "Hearts of Age" still has an uncertainty about where it's filmmaker will go. There can be little doubt after watching "Kane" that it's director is clearly a man in total control of his artistic faculties.

The film is thankfully preserved and available to watch as an early effort from one of cinema's most profound yet mysterious figures. Welles was an enigma, and this early film proves that even at the age of 19, his work was filled with mysterious and profound elements that leave viewers with something to ponder.

Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part 2


Another of Porter’s “one-joke” films, this short contains a few little special effects as well. An old maid wanders into a portrait studio to have her picture taken. Her appearance causes the hands of the clock to fly around before it falls to the ground. Next, she looks into a mirror which promptly cracks. And when the portrait photographer sits her down in front of the camera, the camera explodes!

The joke itself is nothing remarkable. What is rather interesting about this film is the framing of the shot to include the mirror’s reflected images. From the angle that the mirror is positioned at, it appears we can see the glass roof of Edison’s New York studio, where this was shot, letting in the necessary sunlight. It is little touches like this, totally unintentional on Porter’s part no doubt, that can make these films doubly interesting to watch today.


I find that, in going through the Edison films in general, the travelogues and “actualities” (to borrow a term from Lumiere) are more interesting to watch on repeat viewings. This is perhaps because of the wealth of visual information they provide about the time and place in which they were shot.

This is by far one of the best of these types of films included on the Edison set. The sight of the exposition halls is simply breathtaking, especially when you realize how hard it is to find anything like it today. Porter begins with a camera pan across the exposition grounds, before fading to black. Fade in on the same exposition, only now at nighttime, lit entirely by electric bulbs that outline every building. The main building even includes a spotlight that casts its glow around the entire landscape. This is truly one of the most visually memorable films on the set.


This is the type of film that it seems Porter, and the Edison company in general, should have moved on from by 1902. It is a newsreel-style coverage of the burning and aftermath of a fire. It isn’t particularly imaginative in the way it’s shot, nor does it offer anything that hadn’t already been shown in a number of earlier Edison films. Films such as this were no doubt considered good fodder for vaudeville bills and fairground shows, but compared to the more sophisticated work coming out of Europe at the time, it can’t help but look just a trifle pale in comparison.


Another one-joke film, albeit with a cute topper gag. Some girls, who are swimming in a lake, are interrupted by two men who flirt with them and then steal their clothes. As the girls swim off-screen and the men depart, one girl walks across the screen wearing just a barrel. This type of film, playfully dealing with sex and with a coy sense of humor, no doubt would have been a hit on burlesque bills or at sideshows.


It is unclear whether or not this was, in fact, directed by Edwin S. Porter, or his frequent co-director of this period, James Blair Smith. The film is notorious today for its frank and brutal depiction of an elephant being executed via electricity. Visually, the film itself is unremarkable, taken in a single shot, but the image of the elephant being killed is one that sticks with modern viewers in the worst way possible. It does show how attitudes toward death have changed (it’s important to remember that, in its time, the humane society considered electrocution to be the most humane method of putting down the elephant, rather than the public hangings that had been attempted in the past). It’s impossible to imagine a film today that depicted real death, let alone even simulated animal abuse. I suspect audiences of the time took it as a necessary step to protect the public against a potentially dangerous animal. There is little doubt, however, that the spectacle of watching a might beast felled with an electrical shock was no doubt a big part of the film’s appeal.


One of the more enjoyable Edison comedies from this period, this film sees a young woman enter a shoe store with an older woman (presumably her mother). The young woman sits while the shoe clerk tries on different shoes for her. She lifts her skirt and the clerk stands up, kissing and flirting with the girl, while the mother beats him with her umbrella. There is a kind of playful fun about the film which still makes it amusing a century later.

This would be another largely unremarkable film if not for two things: 1) The pacing of the film is much tighter than other Edison comedies we’ve seen up to this point. The film runs just long enough to accommodate all the necessary visual information and serve the gag without becoming drawn-out. 2) The single close-up of the girl’s foot is a breakthrough in the editing of this type of film, which was most often played in a single long shot. Here, the closeup serves to emphasize certain action on the screen, conveying the visual information much more clearly. This single close-up represents quite a breakthrough in this type of filmmaking.


Another well-paced comedy short, and well-framed, too. Instead of playing the action straight-on as if on a stage, the camera here is slightly angled, and positioned closer to the actors, emphasizing their facial features and characteristics to help us identify with them.

It is also interesting to watch the train window on the left side of the frame, which is a matte shot with the passing scenery superimposed. It’s rather amazing that this technique was developed so early on, and is used in a completely “natural” way. I find it interesting, too, that Porter and other directors saw the advantage of providing that moving scenery that could not be replicated on a stage.

The set-up here involves a man and a girl flirting on a train, while her black maid listens excitedly, laughing at their playfulness. The train enters a tunnel, whereupon the screen goes dark. As soon as it leaves the tunnel, and the light returns, we see the girl has switched places with her maid as a joke on the man, who reacts in surprise.


This film begins with a shot of a large group of people boarding a carriage. The camera pans with them as they climb aboard. A man who has missed the carriage chases after it in a series of imaginatively set-up shots. The visual look of this film is quite nice, and Porter is once again framing his shots slightly at angles to accommodate a wider range of visual information, including, once again, the facial features of his actors. The film ends when the carriage arrives and the passengers disembark. While rather light on actual plot of any kind, the film represents a visual step-up, both in terms of its framing, but also in terms of its use of locations.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part 1

Edwin S. Porter is, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, known best for a single film, one that he directed in 1903, The Great Train Robbery. He is often credited as the American filmmaker who brought film out of the fairground and the vaudeville bill and into the nickelodeon, where the moviegoing experience became an event in itself.

For years, it was difficult to see much of Porter’s work. Often, it was assumed that after directing The Great Train Robbery, he slid into relative obscurity. However, his films are now available to view on a number of home video collections, including The Movies Begin, and most importantly, the Museum of Modern Art’s Edison: Invention of the Movies collection which, at least for those interested in the history of film, may be the most important DVD release of all time.

Using these sources, I decided to review the Porter films that are available, and compare them not only with his other films, but also with films being made by others at the same time. This is the first part in that series of reviews.


The earliest Porter film in the collection, this film gives an excellent idea of the appeal of motion pictures to early audiences. It’s short, filled with moving scenery of a bustling location, and includes people walking through the frame who may or may not be actors. Surely the many background figures seen are actual passers-by,

The camera is positioned on a sidewalk, and in front of the camera is a grate. Various figures walk around the grate, some stopping to look at it before moving on, causing the audience to anticipate some sort of gag to top off the short.

Finally, a couple come walking toward the camera. The woman, wearing a long dress, walks over the grate, causing her dress to be blown up, like Marilyn Monroe fifty years later. These two are obviously performers, but what makes it so interesting is that clearly, they come from far off in the distance, so their performance was very much “timed” to the length of the film. As soon as the woman steps off the grate, she is seen waving to someone across the street, and another passer-by as well as a policeman look into the camera.

There is clearly much blurring between “fiction” and “documentary” here, as it becomes unclear to us, especially a century later, just who is aware of what is going on, and who is being taken by surprise.

The short must have fulfilled all the demands that an early audience would have had for such a film. A documentary glimpse at a big American city, moving figures in the frame, a little humor with some sex thrown in, and above all, a short, sharp payoff to the whole thing.


This short plays like a burlesque comedy. A trapeze artist, hanging over a painted stage on a trapeze, performs a strip act, while two men cheer her on from their box seats at the side of the stage. It is shot in a single take, with the actors strategically placed in the frame for maximum effect. The whole film is clearly designed as a very basic mix of sex and comedy, and feels unsatisfying to a modern viewer looking for Porter’s narrative touch.


This is a strange little film. We see a man, sitting in a tight medium shot, at a small table, taking drinks of liquor and debating whether or not to blow his brains out, apparently. He finally lifts the gun, places it to his head just above the frame of the camera’s field of vision, then places it back on the table and laughs hysterically into the camera.

It’s difficult to know just how to take this film today. It seems like a morbid joke, especially considering that audiences at the time had no way of knowing whether or not the man really would commit suicide right then and there on camera. As it is, the film seems like another one-note film best designed for a very short “peepshow” screening.


This is the type of film that Porter would become known for and really make his mark as a filmmaker at directing. We are shown the traditional fairy tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, played in an exaggerated, pantomime-style (two actors obviously playing the cow that Jack sells in exchange for the beans, for instance).

Porter’s set is obviously flat and painted, not unlike what Melies (no doubt his major influence) was doing in Paris at the time. However, watching Porter’s film, it seems too straddled between the physical immediacy of the motion picture as it existed in the US at that time, and the kind of outright fantasy and theatricality that Melies embraced rather than trying to conceal. It’s as if Porter wants to make us believe what we are seeing is real, rather than a kind of gloriously artificial illusion. That, I think, is the key to understanding where Porter’s trick films lack the kind of effectiveness seen in the best films of Melies, Zecca, and others. He seems, here, unwilling to fully let go of the “realistic” opportunities provided by the camera. In addition, his painted sets appear drab and uninspired compared to those in, say, “A Trip to the Moon”, which was released the same year. His special effects also feel somewhat clunky and uninspired. Porter was clearly still finding his style, although imitating the Melies fantasy narratives provided an important first step in that process.


With this film, Porter found his style. He finds the perfect match for the documentary realism of the camera and the kind of stylized narrative that he was interested in exploring more. This is best evidenced by the opening sequence, in which a napping fire chief dreams of his family at home. The images of his family are superimposed, projected onto a black space almost like a magic lantern show.

The narrative of the film really gets underway when the fire alarm begins to sound, and the audience takes an active part, becoming emotionally involved, in the race to the rescue. There is one shot that I find particularly interesting. A seemingly endless parade of fire trucks drive by a small house, probably out in the suburbs of New Jersey, as people watch them drive by. It is an interesting reminder of how people of the time sought entertainment in every possible venue, even the thrill of rushing out of the house to watch the fire trucks on the way to some heroic rescue nearby. The fireman himself is portrayed as a kind of action hero, not unlike a Western cowboy star riding to the rescue to save a runaway coach from running off a cliff. Porter combined newsreel footage with footage of his actors to create a more convincing set-up.

It is during the rescue sequence that we catch a glimpse of why this is a key work in Porter’s filmography. The rescue is seen from two angles-once from the interior of the house, and once from the exterior. Unlike what Griffith would be doing in a couple of years, Porter shows us the entire action from both angles. It is important to remember that this is not a deficiency in Porter’s filmmaking skill, but rather the conventional screen grammar of his time.

The ending of the film is dramatically satisfying, and leaves the 21st-century viewer with a feeling of exhilaration, not only at the story, but also at the technical accomplishment they have just witnessed.


With this film, Porter takes a decided step backward. The filming of this traditional play takes place entirely in front of painted backdrops suggesting the Old South.

Supposedly, an “Uncle Tom” company was hired to re-create key scenes from the play in front of Porter’s camera. Unless the viewer is familiar with the story, the film is virtually impossible to follow. A single title card announces which “scene” we are about to watch, and then it plays out.

The film shows, too, how Stowe’s novel was twisted into a kind of late-19th century variety show. The original novel is a quite serious and moving work, but this film, which is based on a popular abridgement that was a staple of touring companies in the US at the time, features many “musical” and dance interludes, as well as much comic relief.

It was certainly the most popular entertainment of its time; it’s doubtful there will ever again be another single show that is so deeply ingrained in a country’s popular culture, but this film is an interesting record of what such a show must have been like, even if, as cinema, it’s basically filmed theatre.


I’ll end the first part of this review with the film that Porter best known for. Based on a recent train robbery, Porter shattered notions of just how big an audience could be had for motion pictures with this exciting prototype of the Western. It’s rather difficult to find anything new to say about what is surely one of the most seminal, landmark American films. G.M. Anderson, a stage actor who had been doing some work here and there in films, was chosen to play the lead role, or “roles”, as he turns up in at least a half-dozen parts. Anderson, of course, went on to become “Broncho Billy” Anderson, one of the first “name” movie stars and the first “cowboy” actor of real note.

Porter’s filmmaking here was so skillful, so masterfully in control of his subject, that it’s easy to see why the film was a success. I have a hard time thinking of any film made prior to this one that “feels” so much like a piece of contemporary moviemaking. The editing, the depth of the shots, and especially the use of locations (including the moving train) add to this.

The print of “The Great Train Robbery” that was used for the Edison set includes the original hand-tinting, which emphasizes the lengths that filmmakers went to at the time to enhance the “spectacle” elements of these films.

With “The Great Train Robbery”, moviegoing became an American pastime and an event unto itself. The nickelodeons that sprang up around the country were able to do so largely by advertising “The Great Train Robbery”, just as “The Birth of a Nation” would usher in the era of big-theatre screenings and the era of the Movie Palace for the major films. Although it would take a couple more years before the transition was fully complete, it was at this time that film stopped being just a short peepshow diversion to be seen in boardwalk arcades, or brief tent shows at US fairgrounds, and began to move toward becoming an art form.

Interestingly, it is said that Porter lacked the ego and temperament to be a successful director in the era of Griffith and others. That may have been true, but he certainly was instrumental in opening up the possibilities of film as a mass art form rather than sideshow curiosity.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

"The Taming of the Shrew" is an intriguing idea for a film featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. It is more interesting as a curio than as a Shakespeare adaptation, but also carries with it a sense of fun that cannot be overlooked.

Selected as their first joint-venture into the new realm of the talking picture, the selection of a Shakespeare plays speaks volumes about the shifting values of the cinema. The best Fairbanks and Pickford films had been carefully crafted for the cinema, emphasizing character over plot, and allowing their personalities to carry the film. By selecting a Shakespeare play, we see the immediate prejudice that sound brought to the uniquely artistic medium that had flourished over the past 15 years. The idea of essentially filming a play comes off as stagy, and Fairbanks and Pickford seem frankly out of their league as actors doing Shakespeare.

Of course, this particular adaptation leaves plenty of room for Fairbanks to indulge in some fancy stuntwork. Rather than merely walk up a staircase, he leaps and bounds up to the balcony. His performance is played at a level of 100% energy throughout, filled with hearty laughter. Pickford, on the other hand, is not terribly good in her role. Her performance lacks all of the charm and subtlety of her best work. She later blamed director Taylor for not bringing out a better performance from her. As it is, her performance is played at continual full volume just like Fairbanks, and there are perhaps too many scenes of really over-the-top tantrums and outbursts. This was the same year she was awarded an Academy Award for her performance in “Coquette”, which is at least a more subtle performance.

There are perhaps a few too many slapstick scenes in this version, or perhaps I should say to many moments of physical chaos passing as comedy. The scene that introduces Pickford in the beginning has her throwing her suitor down the staircase, knocking over another man in the process, and throwing plates and furniture wildly around the room as everyone tries to find a safe hiding spot. To top it off, the entire scene is shot at faster-than-life silent speed to enhance the comedy. It’s not bad, of course, but it’s not the kind of thing one expects to see in a Shakespeare adaptation. It also shows, of course, how badly suited the stars were to this kind of material.

The play itself was adapted for the screen by director Sam Taylor. The film’s pacing is actually rather breezy and light compared to many talkies of the same year. There is also a remarkable amount of very fluid camerawork that really helps lift the film out of what could have otherwise been a very dreary cinematic experience. Also, for a 1929 film, the sound recording is remarkably good.

This may have something to do with the fact that circulating copies of the film derive from a 1966 reissue that may have had access to original elements that were better-preserved when compared to what we see for many early talkies today. This version also features new opening credits and a music score which, while obviously not from 1929, adds quite a bit to the film and helps carry the action scenes well. (The voice of the priest is also dubbed, probably by Pickford’s business manager Matty Kemp who oversaw the reissue). Normally, I detest watching films in these kinds of reissues (Fairbanks’ “The Iron Mask”, for instance, features narration in place of the intertitles). But for whatever reason, this particular reissue works.

Also in 1929, Fairbanks would appear in the far superior “The Iron Mask”, the sequel to “The Three Musketeers” and also one of his best silents. He would begin the film with a spoken introduction, and concludes it with his farewell, joining his fellow musketeers in the great beyond, which would seem not to be merely his farewell from the film but a kind of farewell from the art of silent film forever. Pickford appeared in “Coquette”, a rather creaky early talkie for which she won an Oscar, but never again would she (or Fairbanks, for that matter) enjoy the kind of success they had in the silent film.

Watching the film today, one is struck by how quickly the art of silent film crumbled when sound came in to the picture. The acting that had made Pickford and Fairbanks the “King and Queen of Hollywood” rendered their performing style obsolete overnight. One could make the case that Pickford fared better with her work in “Coquette”, but with all due respect to that fine actress, I can hardly see how it was Oscar-worthy. It’s important to remember, of course, that the change brought about by sound had absolutely nothing to do with their deficiencies as performers, but only emphasizes the differences between silent and sound film. Watching a film like “The Taming of the Shrew”, and comparing it to what they were both doing just months earlier, makes a strong case that the silent and sound film are really two entirely different things.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Unholy Three

Tod Browning remains one of the most intriguing directors of the silent era. Best known for grotesque and bizarre crime dramas and character-driven horror, Browning falls into a delicate middle-ground of silent film directors. His work is definitely distinct, even when it is not terribly interesting. He really achieved his mark with a series of films starring Lon Chaney, who appeared in every conceivable makeup in a variety of grotesque roles. Unlike some of Chaney's other directors, such as Wallace Worsley, Victor Sjostrom and Herbert Brenon, Browning was most interested precisely in that grotesque element, fusing it with popular crime stories.

One of the earliest Chaney-Browning collaborations at MGM, the studio at which both of them worked regularly from 1925 on, is a truly bizarre film about three ex-sideshow performers who hatch an elaborate scheme to steal jewels. Professor Echo (Chaney) is the ventriloquist with a gift for throwing his voice. Harry Earles is Tweedledee, the midget who flies into a fury of violence when he is laughed at for his height (in the opening of the film, we see him kick a small boy in the face). Victor McLaglen is Hercules, the strong man. Together, they form "the unholy three", and set about on their scheme. There is also a bit of romance, between Echo and Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch), whom Echo becomes extremely protective of partly through concern for the scheme, and partly from jealousy.

The scheme itself is quite elabroate. Echo disguises himself as "Mrs. O'Grady", bird seller, who throws his voice to convince customers that the parrots he sells them can talk. When the customers call back to complain, "Mrs. O'Grady" and her "grandson" (Harry Earles) take a trip out to the house, where they proceed to case the joint before coming back to rob it. Rosie begins a relationship with Hector MacDonald, the young shop assistant working in the bird store, which both threatens their plans and makes Echo jealous.

Things go horribly awry after Earles strangles the child of a wealthy victim in front of the Christmas tree in a rage. Before long, the detectives are on their trail, and things quickly unravel.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either of the strongest of the Browning-Chaney collaborations, or one of the weakest. The film is filled with gimmicks, and contains many memorable bits, most involving Chaney and Earles in their disguises, as well as the "speech balloons" that are used to convey the voices supplied for the parrots by Chaney. On the other hand, the plot itself takes a while to really get going, and lacks the narrative drive of their best collaborations. Part of the problem is that it's a little difficult to become too involved with any of the characters. The crime becomes the centerpiece of the film rather than the characters, which is ultimately all wrong for a film like this. Also like many of the other Browning-Chaney collaborations, it lacks the artistry that makes a film like "He Who Gets Slapped" and "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" so interesting even in their slower spots. Browning's framing of the shots is relatively straightforward, and does little to heighten the potential for interesting cinematography. There are shots, too, which feel as if they last longer than they need to.

It is interesting to compare the 1925 version with its 1930 remake, which is practically a shot by shot remake featuring some of the same cast (Chaney and Earles). That version was directed by Jack Conway, one of MGM's least distinct functionaries, and he seems to be copying Browning's original as a model of style. In some ways, the film actually works better as a talkie. It's certainly shot and edited like a talkie (in a way that, say, "The Unknown" isn't). The plot device of having the ventriloquist throw his voice is clearly better served in sound, but also heightens the absurdity of the whole idea when we actually hear Chaney talking in a "little old lady" voice.

"The Unholy Three" is probably the instrumental film in moving Chaney away from the crime dramas that he most often appeared in earlier in his career ("The Ace of Hearts", the brilliant "The Penalty"), and toward the sideshow gallery of the grotesque that made him an icon.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Foolish Wives

"Foolish Wives" is an exceptional film in so many ways, that it's rather difficult to imagine what audiences must have thought of it upon its intial release in 1922.

Erich von Stroheim can be a difficult figure to discuss. His reputation is so clouded in myth and exaggerated publicity claims that we tend to overlook the delicate artistry he brought to every film he directed. But to speak of his body of work is also problematic, as so much is either lost, or survives in cut-down or fragmented versions that do not reflect his original vision. As it is, only his 1925 version of "The Merry Widow" is the only one of his films not to bear some evidence of studio tinkering (it's also one of his most conventional projects in any case, which explains why it wasn't tinkered with). Looking at "Foolish Wives", for instance, we must remember that it was cut down from a nearly seven hour running time to its current version, which runs about a one and three-quarters hours.

Stroheim takes his time in setting up the premise: Count Karamzin and his "cousins", who are staying in Monte Carlo as "Russian nobility". What's remarkable about the characters Stroheim gives us in this film is that no one is exactly who they seem to be, always motivated by some ulterior motive, usually greed or lust. Karamzin sets his sight on the Helen Hughes, wife of American Andrew J. Hughes, American envoy to Monaco. Her wealthy husband neglects her, as Karamzin is quick to point out, and the two strike up a relationship, much to the concern of Mr. Hughes, who distrusts the Count. The Count is after her money of course, and the entire charade ends with disastrous consequences for Karamzin.

Stroheim does not seem interested in plot, as such, but rather in presenting a highly detailed character study of the deception and relationships between the various players in his story. In particular, the scene where he meets Mrs. Hughes is brilliantly handled through an exhange of glances and gestures, such as the moment that she catches him staring at her while she lounges on a chair. The desperation and pathetic air of the Count's charade is perfectly conveyed through the moment when he pays off a page boy to page him, "the louder, the better", to attract the attention of Mrs. Hughes.

Stroheim himself plays the role of Karamzin, of course, and makes a striking figure with his glistening white uniform, monacle, and cane. He gives the role the perfect amount of self-importance and heightened, mannered dignity. It's easy to forget that Stroheim, in addition to being one of the finest directors of his time, was also an excellent actor. He was, to borrow a term from Jerry Lewis, a "total filmmaker", and his involvement in every aspect of a production ensured a certain amount of creative control and, as the star, would have to remain on the project through completion (indeed, it's significant that the film that he was fired from, "The Merry Go Round", did not feature Stroheim in the cast). He presents us with a protagonist who is almost entirely despicable, yet we can't help but find him an attractive character when compared with the rich but dull Hughes and others like him. Stroheim is clearly working here with a very high attention to character dynamics. In one sequence, he and Mrs. Hughes hole up in a small dwelling during a terrible storm, and there is great tension and frustration as he tries to maintain his composed, ultra-mannered behavior while simultaneously struggling with his attraction to Mrs. Hughes. There is also an excellent point during this sequence in which she becomes distinctly uncomfortable with his behavior, setting up the turn the story will take in the following sequences leading up to the ending.

His cinematic style is incredibly subtle, really on par with Lubitsch in that regard. The compositions, especially the framing of the actors, is striking in its simplicity and effectiveness. There are the brilliantly subtle moments, such as when he uses a mirror to watch Mrs. Hughes undress. There are also moments that are breathtakingly shot, such as the extreme wide shots of sprawling Monte Carlo. Despite the worn print and occasionally patchwork editing, the film displays a distinct if subtle visual style.

Perhaps the most inspired part of the film is Stroheim's choice of Monte Carlo as the location. It is the perfect setting for Karamzin's deceptions. Stroheim presents Monte Carlo (in a hugely expensive set re-created on the Universal backlot) as a sprawling pleasure-ground, where people from all walks of life are brought together and, whether rich or not, share the same dreams of winning big at the casinos, or finding excitement in this bustling entertainment center. His depiction of Monte Carlo and the lure that it presents for the characters is not unlike modern day Atlantic City or Las Vegas, existing in a heightened state of pleasure, excitement, with the chance of bigger things to come out of the experience. Stroheim's intertitles perfectly capture that combination of thrill and chance that the casinos provide, which is really what the core of his story deals with in terms of Karamzin's relationships with the characters around him.

The film is very effective in conveying its characters' motivations and plot through as little intertitles as possible. The print that I viewed was issued on VHS in the 1990s by Kino, and was restored by Arthur Lennig in the early 1970s. It shows the signs of being a combination of different prints, but we can be thankful to have the film at all, considering its history of being edited and re-edited. "Foolish Wives" also represents the first time that Stroheim butted heads with Irving Thalberg, then Carl Laemmle's executive assistant at Universal, who would later take control of Stroheim's epic 1924 masterpiece, "Greed", editing it to a more manageable length and attempting to heighten it's "commercial" appeal in the process. Stroheim's outlandish budget on this film and his notorious attention to detail began the tensions between the two men.

As it is, "Foolish Wives" remains one of the most powerful character dramas of its time, featuring a magnificent leading performance by its director, and displaying a subtle visual style that brings the film up to the level of a masterwork of silent cinema.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Hearts of the World

"God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling!" So reads the opening title of this rarely-seen but incredibly powerful war drama produced, written and directed by D.W. Griffith in 1918.

The beauty and power of Griffith's moving 1918 anti-war epic is in his focus on the individuals touched by war. Griffith is not so much interested in telling us a story as such, but rather in conveying great themes and ideas through characters who represent good and evil through their actions toward each other. Here, he focuses on Marie Stephenson (played to perfection by Lillian Gish), a French girl in love with an American, Douglas Gordon Hamilton (Robert Harron), an aspring writer living in France with his parents and three younger brothers. Griffith takes his time setting up peaceful, serene shots of the French village, emphasizing the wide array of people, each with their distinct traits. We also meet the "Little Disturber" (a typically feisty Griffith heroine, played very well by Dorothy Gish), who will later play a very important role in the film's climax. There are charming domestic scenes, not unlike those of the Cameron household in "The Birth of a Nation", which emphasizes the importance of home and family to these characters, the destruction of which later on is portrayed in devastating detail.

Marie meets Douglas in his garden one morning, as she is playing with geese wandering around in the back yard. (We see another one of Griffith's favorite visual touches-the female protagonist playing with animals, usually geese or ducks.) The two become romantically involved, and are engaged to be married when war is declared, just after Douglas has received a letter from a publisher interested in his new manuscript. Douglas enlists in the military, however, (a title describes his decision to defend France as "land good enough to live in is good enough to fight for") and in an absolutely heart-wrenching scene, Marie packs up her clothes, including the wedding gown she never got to wear, putting her dreams away. Griffith's emotional manipulation still works very well, because I confess I found myself moved to tears during this scene. It's so effective because of Gish's complete and utter conviction in playing the role. Watching the film, we don't see an actress playing a part. Gish manages to convince us that she, herself, is making these sacrifices. And Harron's beautifully understated performance is one of the finest from this period. He conveys a sadness in his eyes that reminds me of Laurence Olivier's performance in William Wyler's "Carrie" (another film that left me emotionally devastated). His scenes with the younger brothers, especially the youngest-who worships the ground he walks on-are especially moving and even unsettling, because it conveys so well how, if anything were to happen to Harron during the war, it would tear the family apart.

The remainder of the film is handled in a quite interesting manner. Griffith alternates scenes taken at the front, with scenes of the people back home. He is going after no particular narrative drive here, but rather to heighten the emotional intensity and connection with the characters-as-people by focusing in great detail on their lives. There are some particularly devastating shots of the small town being bombed out, with villagers fleeing in panic, and shots of the geese we saw earlier in the film swimming through a lake which erupts with explosions from shells.

At this point, I have to admit I found the film difficult to handle emotionally. I've never been so moved by the depiction of war on-screen as I was by this film, although there are a few moments in other films that have come close. I decided to keep watching, because at this point I was also reminded of just how compelling and gripping Griffith manages to make every one of these characters, so that you quite literally feel that you want to know what happens to them, for better or worse.

Douglas decides to come in to the town to meet with Marie at the local inn. He makes his way through a German trench, disguising himself as a German soldier, and manages to make his way to town.

Griffith does introduce the film's "heavy", a German named Von Strohm, played to perfection by George Siegmann (who surely played some of the most truly vile and despicable villains of the silent screen). Siegmann is a fine actor who brings a genuine sense of menace to his performances. Here, he sets up shop in a local tavern in the village, in which Marie and the "Little Disturber" are both working. Incidentally, it's interesting to point out that Erich von Stroheim delivers a brief but effective performance as Von Strohm's aide. Just in these very brief scenes, Stroheim infuses his character with a very real villainy that would have perhaps been better suited to the Von Strohm character than Siegmann's broad performance.

Douglas arrives at the inn, which is infested with German soldiers and officers looking for him. The "Little Disturber" detains Von Strohm while Marie and Douglas hole up in one of the deserted rooms at the top of the inn after Marie kills a German officer. Von Strohm eventually locates them and is determined to kill them both himself. Here we begin a typical Griffith climax, with a proverbial "ride to the rescue", here represented by the progressing French and British forces moving in to reclaim the town. Marie and Douglas debate whether or not to take their own lives as they are sure death is coming. The troops arrive just in time, however, and the "Little Disturber" saves the two by throwing a grenade into the gathering of German officers right outside the door. With the town now back under the control of the Allies, Marie and Douglas are married.

His film has an immediacy lacking in many war pictures, which is heightened by a short prologue of behind-the-scenes footage of Griffith visiting the trenches, where he shot second unit footage for the film, newsreel-style. It's difficult to imagine any American filmmaker undertaking such a project today. In the prologue, we see Griffith personally shooting scenes in a trench while shells pass overhead. The picture was clearly made for the war effort, and the ending seems to overlook the fact that, despite the temporary glory of reclaiming the town, the impacts of the war will continue to be felt for many decades. We can forgive it's rather overly-optimistic ending, however, because Griffith has laid out his real message of the brutal and horrific effects of fighting on every day people in the preceding two hours of the film.

The film is not discussed as often as Griffith's other major work from this period, falling between the epic "Intolerance" and the sublime "Broken Blossoms", the film's mix of intimate character drama against an epic background is an interesting approach that only heightens its power to move, even close to a century after it was made. It's message is, of course, timeless.

Griffith was an artist the likes of which the cinema has not quite yet seen again. That is because everyone is still, in one way or another, working in his "shadow", so to speak. The models of filmmaking that he perfected, and the grammar of screen language that he gave us, are still so prevalent that it's impossible to fully divorce "contemporary" filmmaking, as it exists now, from what Griffith was doing in 1918. His vision extended beyond the medium itself, launching a fledgling technology into an art form to stand alongside the other arts. "Hearts of the World", a relatively minor Griffith film, compared to his better-known works, is a testament to that vision.

The copy of "Hearts of the World" that I viewed derived from a Killiam Shows print, available on VHS from Republic Pictures Home Video. This copy contains tinting and a nice piano score by William Perry. The restoration was performed by Karl Malkames. This video edition contains the original newsreel prologue, showing Griffith at work in the trenches and meeting with Prime Minister David Lloyd George. While the video itself is out of print, copies can probably still be located online or through independent outlets.

The Racket

One thing that can be said about the silent films made at the end of the 1920s is that, all too often, they play like talkies without sound. We can look at the earliest silents, even those that were little more than photographed scenes from stage plays, and still feel a certain excitement over the placement of props and actors within the frame. Even by the time directors like Griffith, Dawley, Boggs, and Apfel were working in their prime, film grammar had developed to a point where silent filmmaking was a recognizable artistic style in its own right. By the 1920s, it had reached a level of artistic excellence that some feel the sound film has yet to reach. So why, after the films of Griffith, DeMille, Stroheim, Chaplin, Ingram, Tourneur, and Vidor (just to name a few working in Hollywood), did so many of the later silent films seem less like silents, and more like talkies without sound?

"The Racket", unfortunately, suffers from this. The film is one of the titles, produced by Howard Hughes, that has recently been restored and shown on TCM. For that, film historians can be very grateful. The disappointment comes in the fact that, ultimately, it's a very average picture. "The Racket" is by no means a bad film, but it lacks the kind of gripping characters or grand themes that we associate with the best silent films. The characters in a Griffith film, for instance, are always more interesting than the story itself. The themes of love and romance in "Sunrise" are the focus, over it's characters, who are more like stylized "types". But in "The Racket", we have the tough cop, McQuigg (Thomas Meighan), who is both a not-too-sympathetic figure, nor a terribly interesting one. The film's most interesting character is probably the heavy, Nick Scarsi (played quite well by Louis Wolheim), a racketeer with political aspirations that McQuigg is determined to bring to a halt. Relocated to another precinct as a result of their feud, McQuigg becomes determined to bring down Scarsi at any cost. After Scarsi's younger brother is brought in on hit-and-run charges, McQuigg refuses to release him, and all hell breaks loose as Scarsi and McQuigg fight it out. Unfortunately, neither character garners much sympathy from the audience, and the conclusion is somewhat less satisfying as a result.

The problem, of course, is for the viewer-watching this film today-to put themselves in the place of a 1928 moviegoer, who had yet to hear the snarling of Edward G. Robinson or the tough wise-cracking of James Cagney. It proves that gangster pictures were becoming popular before "Little Caesar" in 1930. (Robinson had starred in the stage version, however). There is, too, a certain excitement in watching a real, honest-to-goodness film from the period being depicted. We've become so used to the 20s Chicago scene being depicted through nostalgiac re-creations that it's thrilling to think that this film really was made in 1928. There are some good shots of nightclubs and a street riot between the two rival gangs, but much of the action in the second half takes place in the small police station McQuigg has been re-assigned to.

The film's major technical flaw is that it's shot and edited very much like a talkie (complete with shot/reverse shot editing during all the dialogue scenes). Nearly every point is conveyed entirely through dialogue intertitles, and the plot would be very difficult to follow without them. The reliance on dialogue no doubt stems from it's theatrical origins, being adapted from a play by Barlett Cormack. This is a problem that plagues many of the later silent films I have seen, such as the William Haines films, and even King Vidor's "The Patsy", also from 1928 (it's signficant that he would also make "The Crowd", one of the most cinematic and inventive silents, the same year). This points the way, perhaps, for why audiences were really willing to embrace sound film, even though it meant taking an artistic step backward. Watching the film, one also has the distinct feeling that every scene would play perfectly naturally with synchronized sound. It's hard to imagine what "sound" might accompany some of the more delirious montage sequences in "Sunrise", or the Expressionist camera moves in "The Crowd", but here, we can easily imagine the chatter and clickity-clack of typewriters in the newsroom scenes, the wisecracks of the always-ready reporters, and the sounds of speeding cars and guns.

The direction here is by Lewis Milestone, at the beginning of a very long and varied career. Milestone had first come to attention with "Two Arabian Knights" in 1927, for which he won an Academy Award for "Best Comedy Direction". By the early 30s, he had become best known for his brilliant and moving anti-war drama, "All Quiet on the Western Front", but after that, worked in nearly every style and genre imaginable, directing such films as "Of Mice and Men", "The Red Pony", and "Ocean's Eleven", while still managing to make two more powerful war pictures, "A Walk in the Sun" and "Pork Chop Hill". Here, Milestone's cinematic technique is strangely static; ironic, considering that he's often recognized as one of the primary filmmakers responsible for "moving the camera" again in early talkies. There are just a couple of inventive shots, but the rest of it is shot very conventionally. Milestone would do much better, and in any case, it's quite possible he was working under a tight leash with Hughes at the helm.

As it is, the film is almost more interesting as the prototype for the gangster film as it exploded onscreen in the 1930s, and also as an example of why audiences were willing to accept sound film at the time.

"The Racket" has been restored and re-released by Flicker Alley, with a score by Robert Israel. His score here is up to his usual high standards, capturing well the jazzy late-20s musical styles, and heightening the mood of several tense sequences. The print is crystal clear except for a few sections which contain scratches. The film is not currently available on DVD but has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Winning of Barbara Worth

This film proves how much was lost when the transition from silent to sound film occurred at the end of the 1920s. It tells the story of a rivalry between two men for the love of a girl in a Western town. Abe Lee (Gary Cooper) is the simple but brave son of a local seer, who finds himself in direct rivalry with Holmes (Ronald Colman), the foster-son of Greenfield, a big businessman, for the love of Barbara Worth (Vilma Banky), whose adopted father has promised to an irrigation system for the small Western town. Unfortunately, Greenfield has only profits on his mind, and fires Mr. Worth and his entire team before completion of the system, after they point out that without further reinforcement, it could give way and destroy the town. Holmes, working as Greenfield's assistant, is blamed, but is determined to prove that he knows nothing of Greenfield's business dealings and decides to help Mr. Worth to prove himself. Worse still, Mr. Worth is unable to meet payroll to pay his team, and things turn ugly. Mr. Worth and Abe Lee ride off to try to get the money from a visiting businessman, and are surprised to find their rival, Holmes, already there, and having made a successful plea for the money to lend to Mr. Worth. Holmes then accompanies Lee on his journey back to town to deliver the money. The two rivals are brought together by their love for Barbara and their desire to save the town from disaster. The film contains a spectacular flood sequence which is a tribute to the scale these filmmmakers were working on at the time.

Based on a novel by Harold Bell Wright and adapted by Frances Marion, the film is a tightly written drama that still finds plenty of room for the comic relief so favored by filmmakers at the time, especially John Ford. The supporting characters here offer the same kind of broad comic relief one would find in a Ford Western. King proves himself here to be a true visual stylist, something that was lost in his transition to sound filmmaking in the 1930s. Here, every shot is perfectly composed. The print of this film that is available on DVD is, thankfully, one of the best-looking silent film prints I've ever seen, complete with tinting, which really heightens the effects of these carefully-composed frames.

Remarkably, as we see even in a rather straightforward drama such as this, silent film was truly thought of as a visual art form. By the 1930s, when the values shifted toward films made in the grand literary tradition, such visual artistry became much less common. But in this 1926 film, we can see the care with which King has taken to make sure every shot is splendidly photographed. The film was photographed by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, certainly two of the finest artists of their craft.

What, perhaps, is even more remarkable are the performances. Vilma Banky is quite good as Barbara Worth, and it is a pity to remember that her career would end in just a few years with the coming of sound. The two male leads, however, would find that sound helped launch them into long careers as stars. It's rather difficult to imagine Ronald Colman playing a role like this in a sound film, but here, he's fine, and it's easy to see his more understated acting style which was better suited to the sound film. The real revelation, however, is Gary Cooper, in his first substantial role. Watching him here, it's easy to see why he became a screen legend once audiences were able to hear his voice. This is a role he could have played, say, ten years later without virtually any change. He gives a comparatively natural performance, with an incredibly expressive face. There is one scene, in particular, where he watches Barbara dancing with his rival, Holmes, at a town dance toward the beginning of the film. The change of expression in his face, from joy and affection at watching Barbara, to jealousy while watching Holmes, is the most powerful moment of the film, conveying so much through mere changes of expression in his eyes. His expressive face has always made Cooper especially powerful as an actor, and this can be seen perhaps most of all in one of his very best later roles, that of the sheriff in "High Noon".

As I mentioned earlier, the single most apparent aspect in watching this film is the realization that things changed very, very much just three years later when the transition to sound took place. Watching this film, I would guess that Henry King was one of the finest visual artists of the screen, whose name would be mentioned alongside John Ford, say, or even Josef von Sternberg. With the coming of sound, however, he worked primarily as a contract director at Fox, making films that fit within the aesthetic guidelines of the studio. We see the same thing happen with John Ford in that early sound period, working his way through multiple studio assignments that lack the visual power of his best silent work. I've often felt that King was unfairly overlooked as a filmmaker, especially in regard to his silent work, but even in his sound films as well. When given the chance, he was clearly capable of creating films that displayed the artistic possibilities of the medium as well as just about anyone else from that period. All too often, he found himself working on studio assignments, where that kind of thing wasn't encouraged. Indeed, the greatest change of all between the silent and sound era could be seen as the re-positioning of the director from being a primary creative force in the filmmaking process, to the position of studio craftsman, whose primary task was to film the front office-approved script as closely as possible.

Some directors, especially those who worked at Paramount, were able to maintain the virtually-complete control that they had in the 20s (Sternberg, Lubitsch, DeMille). Others (Walsh, Hawks, Ford, Wellman, Vidor) found ways to work within the studio system and use the vast resources to their advantage. Henry King seems to have lost his "artistic identity" somewhat in the 30s, rarely doing any work that blatantly stands out from the routine studio assignment (compare what he did with "Jesse James" in 1939, and the distinct difference that Fritz Lang brought to its sequel the following year). This is not to dismiss King as a filmmaker (he was certainly one of the best studio filmmakers of the 30s and 40s), but merely to point out the change in hierarchy that took place. That may be the single biggest loss that the art of film suffered in the transition to sound, and the subtle beaty of a film like "The Winning of Barbara Worth" is a testament to that.

"The Winning of Barbara Worth" has been released on DVD as part of the Gary Cooper "MGM Movie Legends Collection", which features three other titles from Cooper's sound film work. The print quality is excellent, apparently taken from original 35mm elements, and is one of the sharpest transfers I've seen of any silent title. The organ score is a live recording by Gaylord Carter, and after watching so many recently-scored silent films on TCM by young composers with no sense of how to really accompany a film, rather than to work against it, Carter's subtle but effective accompaniment is a breath of fresh air.