Friday, 17 February 2017

Sunday, 12 February 2017

1931: The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy:
 If the silent era of American cinema was dominated by escapism in the form of romantic melodrama, comedy and swashbuckling adventure, it seems that by the time sound had become established the studios were discovering an appetite for something darker and grittier.
Mervyn LeRoy's "Little Caesar", released in January of 1931, was the first great gangster picture, and it defined the form:  Young man gets in with the wrong crowd, quickly makes the transition from juvenile delinquent to murderous gangster, then suddenly it all goes wrong, leaving him precious little time to reflect on the error of his ways. But like "Dracula" (see below), "Little Caesar" is technically undistinguished and looks for the most part like a filmed play. William Wellman's "The Public Enemy", released just a few months later, raises the bar considerably. This is one of the first true sound films - not merely a silent film with added dialogue or a stage production with added camera, but one that used sound creatively. Much of the most brutal action happens offscreen, but is none the less shocking for it. When the two young gangsters, Tom Powers (James Cagney, practically inventing the art of sound movie acting) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) spot their double-crossing old boss "Putty Nose" in a nightclub they tail him back to his flat to settle the score. Putty Nose pleads for his life, and tries to remind them of their old camaraderie by singing at the piano, but is abruptly cut off as Tom shoots him. We don't see this happen because the camera discreetly pans over to Matt's horrified face, then we only hear the gunshots and the discordant notes as Putty Nose slumps over the keyboard,
Equally shocking in a different way is the breakfast table scene in which Tom, irritated by his girlfriend's needy attitude, loses his temper and pushes his grapefruit in her face. No-one gets killed or injured but the sheer unabashed contempt of the action hits you like, well, like a grapefruit in the face. (William Wellman reportedly included the scene because he often felt like doing it to his own wife.)
The film's most powerful moment, though, is purely visual - Tom's 'homecoming' in the final scene of the film, and its effect on his brother. It features one the most disciplined moments of acting - by Cagney - you'll ever see.

Also from 1931: 
Dracula: Strange as it seems now, Dracula revolutionised the American horror film genre not only by being the first major horror talkie, but by introducing a supernatural element, something preceding films of the silent era avoided. It looks somewhat stilted and stagey to the modern eye, partly through Tod Browning's going-through-the-motions direction and partly through being an adaptation of the stage play, rather than the book, but the perfomances save it. Edward van Sloan's strong, dignified van Helsing, Dwight Frye's unhinged Renfield - more comic than horrific today but still a tad chilling and a joy to watch - and of course Lugosi's definitive, hypnotic interpretation of the Count himself.
It's worth adding a word about Lugosi: Despite popular belief, he didn't play Dracula in numerous sequels to the exclusion of all else. He played many and varied roles in horror films of the 30s and 40s, always to great effect, and only played Dracula on screen in one other film: 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" - and brought sufficient dignity to that picture (as did Lon Chaney Jr) that it's more worth watching than some of the preceding 'serious' Universal monster movies.
Spanish Dracula: Filmed concurrently with the English language version, George Melford's direction easily outstrips Tod Browning's, but Carlos Villarias isn't in Lugosi's league. He's exactly like a bloke you know from work who's gone to a Halloween party as Dracula.      

Frankenstein: The other first great monster movie of the sound era, and by far the better of the two I think - great in so many ways, but mainly in Boris Karloff's performance as the monster. He combines the innocence of a newborn child with the rage of a wounded animal, and creates a character both terrifying and sympathetic. It's easy to parody the grunting speech and the lumbering walk, but it was a true original in its time and an achievement seldom, if ever, matched in the history of horror films. Dwight Frye shows his versatility as Dr Frankenstein's hunchback assistant Fritz (not Ygor - he makes his first appearance in 1939's "Son of Frankenstein" - played of course by Bela Lugosi.)

M: Fritz Lang's first sound film, featuring a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as a serial child killer, is horror of a very different kind. As stylish and compelling as you'd expect from the master, but especially notable for the scene in which Lorre accuses the 'kangaroo court' of professional criminals who plan to lynch him. He admits his crimes but pleads that he is the victim of a monstrous compulsion - that he has no control over his actions and did not choose to be the way he is, unlike his accusers who are criminals by choice.        

City Lights: Chaplin raised a few eyebrows by continuing to make silent pictures after everyone else had moved on, even Keaton and Lloyd - though neither of them managed to carry their success over into the sound era, but 'City Lights' was a huge success. A blind flower girl mistakes Chaplin's tramp for a rich man. The tramp, having fallen for the girl, has to use all his wits to find the money to have her sight restored.
Typical for Chaplin, himself a child of the London stage, the story has echoes of Victorian melodrama, but is carried off with such virtuosity I defy you not to get just a little choked up at the end.
One of its best sequences, an extended visual gag in which the Tramp tries to dislodge a stick from a sidewalk grating, was cut from the finished film and not rediscovered until the 1980s.      

Pardon Us: Arguably, the comedy crown had by now passed to Laurel and Hardy. Well established in short comedies, this was their first feature - though like others before them it took them a film or two to master the form.  It seldom gets shown today perhaps because of racial sensitivity - Stan and Ollie escape from prison and hide out among a village of plantation workers by blacking up - though there isn't a hint of malice in it, and it gives Hardy the chance to show off his sublime singing voice with a rendition of 'Lazy Moon'.  

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.