Wednesday, 5 August 2015

1923: Safety Last

Safety Last
Yes, it's the film with one of the most iconic images of the silent period, Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock. I'm not planning to do the most obvious or famous films from each year, nor necessarily the ones I happen to like best - I just wanted to do this one.
Anyone who bangs on about silent comedy will be quick to tell you that there's more to it than tinkly pianos and speeded-up pratfalls, but this one really does set the standard. I saw it at the Hackney Empire a few years ago, introduced by Paul Merton, and it was as funny and thrilling then as it must have been in 1923. Anyone outside hearing the laughs and shrieks from the audience must have wondered what was going on.

Chaplin had proved that silent comedies could work at feature length with 'The Kid' two years earlier - the secret was that you had to blend the comedy with real drama and well-developed, sympathetic characters, and you had to have a solid story, just like any other feature drama, that would hold an audience's attention for an hour or more.
The first 40 minutes of this film achieves that. Harold is a country boy going off to the city to make his way in life, so that he can marry and support the girl he loves. However he's making slow progress - working hard, but still only a sales clerk in a department store. Unfortunately he's been exaggerating his success in his letters to the girl, and now she's coming out to visit him. He manages to fool her into believing he's the manager of his department, to the bewilderment of his colleagues, but he still needs lots of money in a hurry if they are to get married. Fortunately he overhears his bosses offering a $1000 reward for anyone who can get the store the publicity it needs, so he arranges for an old friend he ran into earlier (who happens to be a talented climber) to scale the outside of the tall building, thus attracting a crowd. But due to an earlier comedy of errors his friend is on the run from a policeman, and Harold has to stand in for him and start the climb until the friend can shake off the cop and take over. Needless to say, he ends up doing the whole climb.

Despite all the tricks of Melies, Pathe, etc, which formed the staple of silent film's early years, this was still an age when what was seen on the screen was taken at face value, as opposed to today when we assume what we're watching is artificial unless we're told otherwise. If Harold appeared to be hanging off a clock face 200 feet above a city street, that's exactly what he was doing. No blue-screen, no back projection, no model work and certainly no CGI. The reason it looks real is because it is. Granted, the wall and the clock are constructed on the roof of another building, and there are safety mats just 15 feet beneath him, but even knowing doesn't detract from the thrill of watching it.

Opportunities to see this on a cinema screen are few and far between but if you can at least see it on a big TV, please do - and with an audience as well, even if it's just a few friends.


A Woman of Paris, Chaplin's sole venture into directing serious drama. It's a good film but it's not funny and he's not in it (except in a heavily disguised cameo), which is no doubt why it wasn't a hit. It seems he was trying to kickstart a career as a serious actress for Edna Purviance, his frequent leading lady, whom he never married but was clearly deeply fond of. Sadly it didn't achieve that goal either. It's a moving story that confounds expectations. The message (or one of them) seems to be that the life that will make you happy isn't necessarily the life you think you want.

Three Ages: Buster Keaton also jumped on the comedy feature bandwagon this year, but he's still finding his feet with the form here. He seems to be stuck for an idea for a feature-length story and instead tells the same one three times, borrowing from Griffith's "Intolerance" to cut between three eras - modern times, Roman times and the stone age. In each one, he's competing with the unscrupulous Wallace Beery for the hand of a lady. It's basically three two-reelers intercut. There's just enough gags to keep it going but it struggles. The Roman sequence is the best of the three, especially the part where he's trapped in a Colosseum dungeon with a lion, and understandably keen to be friends with it. Struggling to remember the story of Androcles, he gives it a manicure.      

Sunday, 17 May 2015

1922: Haxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages

 This year brought two of the greatest early horror films, F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu", and Benjamin Christensen's "Haxan". I've watched them both this week but I've picked "Haxan" as my film for the year as it's the more neglected of the two. "Haxan" is what would today be called a drama-documentary. It's a picturesque tour of witchcraft in the late medieval world; how it was allegedly practiced, why, and by whom - and about what happened to those people.
 It begins with a summary of the medieval view of the world and its place in the universe using contemporary art and artifacts, then goes on to show witches of the time practicing their evil deeds, as seen through the fevered imaginations of those who feared them. In its most intense sequence, an old woman is arrested by the inquisition, tortured, and inevitably spills the beans on all her evil deeds - midnight masses with other witches, cavorting with the devil and giving birth to his monstrous children, flying over the rooftops with other witches - she names her enemies who got her arrested in the first place, who will now be arrested in their turn.
 This film has more startling images in any ten minutes than just about any ten other whole films. Unsurprisingly it was banned in most countries as wicked and profane (and consequently lost for many years) and it's certainly lurid and shocking, but beneath the surface there's a serious message for all ages - that rumours, accusations and counter-accusations can get out of control if not responded to with caution and rationality, with tragic results.

 ALSO FROM 1922:

Nosferatu, of course - the other great horror film and the granddaddy of all vampire pictures. Still probably the most unsettling, more so I think than any of the Universal or Hammer Dracula films, and rivalled only by Werner Herzog's remake. The current restored version, available on Blu-ray from Eureka, is about 20 minutes longer than any previous version.

Grandma's Boy: Harold Lloyd enters the comedy-feature fray and goes to the other extreme from Chaplin, having a sweet old lady rather than a sweet little boy.

Oliver Twist: Only 13 years on from the previously reviewed adaptation, this is a world away in film-making terms. The story is neatly condensed, and presents a convincing Victorian London. I'd have said David Lean owed much to it, including the scene of Bill Sikes's terrified dog trying to escape under the door as he murders Nancy, except that the film was considered lost at the time. Jackie Coogan is not too nauseating as the eponymous goody-no-shoes who fails to be corrupted by either workhouse or gang of pickpockets, and Lon Chaney makes a menacing Fagin.

Dr Mabuse the Gambler: Fritz Lang's epic crime-thriller serial about a master criminal whose power of will and hypnosis seem almost supernatural. Another German masterpiece with odd future-echoes of that country's own history.  

Saturday, 9 May 2015

1921: The Kid

We're not done with Chaplin yet. No apologies - this is a great film, also it's the only feature film in my collection from that year.
Simple plot - A poor and unmarried young mother abandons her baby in a car outside a mansion. Soon she regrets it and goes back but the car has been stolen and the baby dumped in an alleyway, where Charlie finds it. He brings the boy up in his own little attic room in the slum, where the story picks up five years later. The two are poor but happy, scraping a living with a window-repair scam (the kid breaks them then runs off, then Charlie, with glazier's gear, fortuitously passes by.) All's well till the kid gets sick and the doctor learns he's an orphan then the authorities come round to take him to the orphanage.
At this point we get one of the great scenes of silent cinema. The kid, an amazing five-year-old Jackie Coogan, is dragged off kicking and screaming by the welfare officer and his driver and dumped in the back of their truck, while Charlie, pure terror on his face at losing the kid, is held back by the neighbourhood policeman. He breaks free and runs over the rooftops in pursuit of the truck, leaps into the back as it passes, fights off the welfare officer and rescues the kid.
Jackie Coogan is Chaplin's great discovery in this film -an amazing performance from a five-year-old. There's not the slightest false note in his cries and pleas as he begs the welfare officer not to take him away. It may be silent but you can hear it anyway. Unsurprisingly this was the second biggest grossing film of 1921 (after "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", with Rudolph Valentino).
Chaplin had seen Jackie in a vaudeville act with his father, and was so impressed he became preoccupied with thinking up ideas for a film to use him in. A week later he'd heard the boy had been signed up by Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, and was kicking himself for not doing it first, until he found out Arbuckle had signed Jack Coogan, the father, not Jackie.
Chaplin had trouble coaxing the emotions out of Jackie for this scene though. Jack was on the set and told Chaplin, "Leave it to me, I'll make him cry". He went off with Jackie and came back with him two minutes later, suitably distressed. They shot the scene, and Chaplin, concerned, asked Jack how he did it- he hadn't hurt him-? "No, nothing like that", said Jack. "I just told him if he didn't perform we'd REALLY take him to the orphanage."
Reassuringly, Chaplin goes on to say that Jackie told him afterwards " I knew Daddy was only fooling".  
It's an episodic film, like most silent comedies up to this time - a string of set pieces in search of a plot - but it works, and like much of Chaplin has a timeless, universal quality. This will be as funny and heartrending in a thousand years as it is today.
When Jackie Coogan reached 18, he found that his mother had somehow managed to spend all the 68 million dollars he'd earned up to that time. Legislation was subsequently brought in to stop that sort of thing happening.
Incidentally, here's Jackie at the other end of his career:

Monday, 4 May 2015

1920: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Looking for something a bit different from Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin? How about this?
I think I've watched this just once before, ten or twelve years ago, probably on the portable TV I had at the time. This time I watched the newly restored blu-ray - a whole different experience. It was pin-sharp and looked like it was filmed yesterday.
Having said that, there used to be a certain mystique about watching scratchy old prints- it made them feel more like they came from a different age. And when you're young, the fifty or sixty years that had passed since the films were made seems like an incredibly long time. Now, well - I've lost things in the backs of drawers for nearly as long.
I wouldn't go back, though - it's great to be able to see such beautiful restorations of these films.

So, Caligari: A travelling showman is exhibiting something unusual in his tent at the town carnival: Cesare, a catatonic young man in a box, all dressed in black, with a cadaverous, haunted face, who only wakes up when commanded by Caligari. Sort of a pet emo. Meanwhile, series of murders is being committed in the town and the Cesare is the key suspect. But what is Caligari's role, and what is the motive?

The first thing any book or documentary tells you about Caligari is that it was the first German Expressionist film. The sets are all very stylised, full of weird angles and exaggerated perspectives - a very dreamlike effect. It almost seems a pity to put real actors in front of them. It's also very theatrical, and I wonder if a contemporary audience would have seen it that way, or if the sense of artifice comes from a modern familiarity with more realistic production design.
It's one of those films that you might interpret a different way with each viewing - I'll probably watch it again soon with the commentary - but its preoccupation with the power of will is intriguing; of one man exercising a sinister control over others - especially with Hitler's rise just a few years away.

Overall, still quite effective after all these years - maybe not as scary as it once was but still unsettling, especially Conrad Veidt as Cesare, and quite unique.


Sunday, 3 May 2015

1919: Daddy Long Legs

All I've got in my collection from 1919 is four undistinguished early shorts from Harold Lloyd, but a quick look at Wikipedia reveals that the second biggest grossing film in America this year is "Daddy Long Legs" with Mary Pickford, adapted from the novel by Jean Webster. As it happens it's available on Amazon Instant Video so I've just watched it for your benefit. (You're welcome.)
A baby girl is found in a dustbin by a policeman and given to the orphanage, where she has a generally miserable time until an anonymous sponsor sends her to college. She then becomes a successful writer and consequently a successful socialite, and has to choose between two men.
It's hardly a groundbreaking classic. The story is a fairly standard melodrama - worrying about which man to marry, that sort of thing - and the narrative structure is pretty rudimentary.
On the upside, Mary Pickford is a delight to watch, with more charm in her little finger than most modern stars have in their whole implants.
She's most fun in the early orphanage scenes, running about and causing mischief - she's supposed to be an older child here - 12 or so I suppose - and she's remarkably convincing considering she's actually 29. However since this is supposed to be a very harsh time in her life most of it is actually a bit too much fun - getting drunk on a discarded beer bottle for instance, accidentally pushing a bitchy girl down a well, and so on. All this is clearly designed more to use Mary Pickford to her best effect than to serve the story. Only a couple of incidents - the death of a small child and Mary's character Judy being punished by having her finger burnt on a hot stove to teach her what Hell is like - really make the point of the orphanage being a terrible place.
Once she leaves, it's routine melodrama stuff but with the occasional inventive scene, such as the one in the Cupid company offices where one of a group of winged babies is being ticked off by his boss by accidentally shooting two guys with one arrow. He cries while being told "you've probably set off one of those darned eternal triangle things". This is one of those scenes that highlight what the movies lost when sound took over.
Favourite line: "Love is a bad habit. It's much safer to have the measles - they ain't near as painful."

Anyway, if you're looking for something to watch on Amazon Instant Video, you could do worse - just don't read the synopsis, it gives too much away. And they're lying about it being in HD.


1918: Shoulder Arms

Not a lot of options for 1918. Chaplin only made two films this year, this one and "A Dog's Life".
In "A Dog's Life", Charlie's tramp meets a pretty girl (Edna Purviance), sees off some ruffians, and the two go off together at the end - much the same story as most of his last few films, but with a cute dog added to the mix. Chaplin, not surprisingly, remarked in his autobiography that one his biggest problems was constantly finding new ways for a pretty girl to fall in love with a tramp.
So, let's look at the other film. Cecil B. De Mille had cautioned Chaplin that it was dangerous to make fun of the war, but being Chaplin he followed his inspiration anyway. It paid off and the film was a big hit.
It picks up with Charlie in a training camp in America, struggling with learning how to march properly with his splayed feet and so on, then cuts to the trenches where he's having a miserable time. (A tracking shot through the trenches anticipates Kubrick's "Paths of Glory".) In one scene he and his bunkmates are trying to sleep in a trench that is flooded in two feet of water.
Meanwhile the Germans are planning their attack, and interestingly Chaplin refuses to dehumanise them, portraying the rank-and-file as reluctant and unfortunate as himself. Only their bullying little officer is the butt of his hostility as he drinks a big tankard of beer as a toast to the coming victory, and doesn't share it with his men. A few minutes later, Charlie's squad has gone over the top and, cutting past potentially unpleasant battle scenes, Charlie captures the whole platoon. His own officer congratulates him. ("How did you capture 13 men?" "I surrounded them.") He offers the Germans cigarettes but the little officer rudely declines. Charlie then puts him over his knee and gives him a good spanking, much to the delight of the German platoon.
Charlie then gets sent on a mission behind the lines, and after an assortment of comic sequences, inevitably resulting in meeting Edna Purviance in a bombed-out house, he ends up capturing the Kaiser himself and delivering him to the allies. (Edna gets to disguise herself as a German soldier in this bit, no doubt the inspiration for Blackadder's "Driver Parkhurst".)
Sadly though, after what looks like a triumphant ending, Charlie wakes up back in training camp. The whole thing has been a dream, and the battle is still to come.
Early signs here of the political views that would get Chaplin into trouble in later years, and finally kicked out of the country in the McCarthy era. Chaplin had no time for patriotism but was very much a champion of the little man, whatever his nationality. I think that was the key to his popularity. Sadly there's never been a shortage of people who can relate to being downtrodden.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

1917: The Immigrant

In 1914, Chaplin made 36 films for Keystone. In 1915, he made 13 for Essanay. In 1916 he made 9 - one for Essanay and the rest for Mutual - and in 1917 he only made 4, all for Mutual. He was quite rapidly acquiring more control, more time, and more money to make his films.
I wasn't planning to cover the most obvious films from each year, and "The Immigrant" is possibly Chaplin's most iconic short, if not the most famous short comedy of the whole silent era, but never mind.
The story has already become a regular one of Chaplin's: Tramp meets girl, tramp sees off ruffians, tramp and girl live happily ever after. This one's a bit different in that it's a film of two halves - in the first half, Chaplin is on a ship bringing immigrants to America. Here he meets - once again - Edna Purviance. Events throw them together but they say goodbye as they leave the ship to be processed through immigration.
Later, Charlie is penniless and hungry but finds a coin and goes into a cafe, where he meets Edna again by chance. After some comedy business about losing the money and dodging Eric Campbell's scary waiter, they are rescued by a rich artist who wants to paint their portrait. In the final scene the pair are in the rain outside a registry office. Charlie wants Edna to come in with him but she's shy and embarrassed. Finally he picks her up and carries her through the door. It's very sweet but I hope she didn't want a bit a bit more time to think about it.
Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's series "Unknown Chaplin" from 1983 reveals a lot about Chaplin's working methods. The standard method of making films was probably already well established - you write the script, THEN you shoot the film. It seems that Chaplin just needed the germ of an idea before getting his sets built and setting up the camera. He'd start filming, improvise, stop, refine it, film it again, and so on, then decide what happens next and start the process again from there. This accounts for the unstructured narrative of a lot of his films. It also means he shot an awful lot of film - much of the discarded material ended up in the hands of collectors, and a tiny fraction of that - clips of abandoned sequences and alternative versions with different cast members - found its way into "Unknown Chaplin". The whole sequence on board ship seems to have been a late addition to an idea that was initially just about a tramp meeting a girl in a cafe. He shot more footage for this two-reel short than D W Griffith did for his three-hour epic "Intolerance". It pays off though as the film is polished to perfection, with more detail that you're likely to pick up on one viewing. Hardly a frame is wasted. For instance, after Charlie has spent ten minutes worrying about how to pay his bill after losing his money, the artist comes over to talk to them. He offers to pay but Charlie graciously refuses once too often and is lumbered again. While the artist is talking to Charlie and Edna, he pays his own bill. The waiter takes it and returns the change - one large coin. The artist, still in conversation, dismisses it with a wave of the hand, meaning the waiter to keep it as a tip, but the waiter misses this, and returns a moment later with Charlie's bill. Still talking to the artist, Charlie steals a glance at the camera and nonchalantly pays his bill with the artist's change, tipping the waiter with the tiny coin that is his own change.
When the three leave, the waiter fawns over the artist, obviously expecting a huge tip, but receives none and glares angrily at the departing artist, who of course thinks he has already tipped him handsomely. We wonder for a moment what sort of service he'll get on his next visit.
All this action is very low-key and easily missed if you're not giving the film your full attention - which is why, since you'd be hard pressed to find them in a cinema, I'd encourage you to watch these films on blu-ray or DVD on your big HD TV, rather than on a tiny YouTube window.      

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

1916: The Vagabond

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


Sunday, 19 April 2015

1915: The Birth of a Nation

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


Sunday, 12 April 2015

1914: Kid Auto Races at Venice

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

Thursday, 9 April 2015

1913: Bangville Police

Bangville Police

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

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

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

1912: The Girl and Her Trust

The Girl and Her Trust

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

Friday, 3 April 2015

1911: His Trust

His Trust

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

Monday, 30 March 2015

1910: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
It's always interesting to see other versions of well-known film adaptations. Here's the Selig Polyscope Company's version of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" from 1910.
It seems to be a tradition in Hollywood not to have too much respect for your source text - in this film, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow before she goes to Oz, not after she gets there - though perhaps that was done to tie in with the brilliant spinning haystack that gets caught up in the cyclone - a practical alternative to having a house lift off the ground.
Stylistically, this isn't too far removed from George Méliès - elaborate but theatrical-looking backgrounds, and a style of acting where the whole ensemble convey the feel of a scene simultaneously, while the camera keeps its distance and takes in the whole stage in each scene, rather than having the action focus on an individual from shot to shot. Also reminiscent of Méliès and various Pathé films from several years earlier, we've got demonic imps that turn somersaults and disappear in puffs of smoke.
There's not a lot of camera trickery, but there's some great wire-work. Check out the wicked witch's spectacular entrance at 3.38.
The best thing about this though is the costumes - we've got a great pantomime mule and cow, and the Cowardly Lion with his huge head is very endearing.
Incidentally there's a perfect HD version of this on the current Wizard of Oz 3D blu-ray, along with loads of other stuff not mentioned on the box, including the 1925 feature with Larry Semon and Dorothy Dwan.            

Saturday, 28 March 2015

1909: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
As a rule, I've been trying to select films that bring something new to the art of cinema, but this one is so far behind the curve it's in danger of being lapped. The reason I include it is that it represents the last gasp of a style of film making that in 1909 had already had its day.
Instead of telling a coherent story, it illustrates incidents from a story it assumes we know well. Also, it does this with stagey, painted backgrounds and a locked-off camera. There's no attempt at close-ups or editing or any kind of film technique at all - and this is starting to look odd because all of that had been introduced by Edwin S Porter and Cecil Hepworth six or seven years previously. Also, it displays more ham than Smithfield Market. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, just treat yourself to Nancy's death scene, starting around 11.20. The over-the-top, theatrical acting makes this a masterpiece of unintentional comedy to a modern eye - and perhaps even to a contemporary one. Bill Sikes drags Nancy through a door and out of sight while strangling her, and reappears a few seconds later, tortured with remorse. Point made, you might think, but not quite. You'll see what I mean.
It could be that the producers just wanted to get their money's worth out of Elita Proctor Otis, as she's the only performer in the picture to get a screen credit - and in the middle of the film, too.
To be fair to the director, J. Stuart Blackton, he was probably pitching to a safe market here. He was a pioneer of animation and trick photography, so no stranger to innovation. For a more fun example of his work, check out "The Thieving Hand", from 1908.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

1908: Troubles of a Grass Widower

Troubles of a Grass Widower
Now we're getting somewhere. Max Linder's "Troubles of a Grass Widower" is part of a silent comedy tradition that's recognisable to a modern viewer. We have a fully developed character  - not just a random person having surreal dreams or fantastic accidents but someone we can relate to in situations we might have had to deal with. In this case, Max's wife goes home to mother after he ignores her once too often at breakfast, leaving Max to cope - ineptly - with making his dinner, doing the dishes, making the bed, and wondering where the hell he put his tie.  
We're not all high-living Edwardian-era Frenchmen, of course, and we don't still live in a time when there's such clear demarcation of what's women's work and what's men's work but we haven't totally lost the idea that some men at least can be a bit useless when it comes to commonplace tasks that their significant other is normally the one to do. If you don't agree, you can take my word for it.
Max Linder is the first silent comedian to have a well-defined screen identity, and he's a master of it. He can be graceful, balletic and charming one moment, clumsy and gauche the next, without missing a beat. It's clear why Chaplin called him "my professor".
Also finally here's a good version on YouTube - no music though. Ignore the incorrect date, this is definitely from 1908.      

Saturday, 14 March 2015

1907: Le Cheval Emballé

Le Cheval Emballé
Many of the Pathé studio's films from this period are fairy-tale or Arabian Nights adaptations - lavishly decorated studio productions, usually hand-coloured. Very pretty to look at but rather dull to watch, to a modern eye. I wanted to include one in this blog just to have the genre represented, and many of the best examples are from 1907, but I'm going to give them a miss again to focus on one that's from the same studio but a lot more fun.
In Le Cheval Emballé - The Runaway Horse - directed by Louis Gasnier but often attributed to Ferdinand Zecca, a delivery man's horse gorges itself on a sack of oats while the owner is distracted.
Energised, he runs off down the street and causes chaos, wrecking carts, market stalls and workmen's scaffolding as he gallops past. At each incident a few more people join the angry crowd chasing the horse, until he returns to his stable and the crowd are seen off with hoses.
Each scene is clearly carefully set up, but with little room for error - there's only so much precision you can bring to charging a horse and cart through a row of market stalls. As a result there's a special joy to watching something like this, where everyone involved is throwing themselves into the job, apparently with little heed for their own safety and clearly no health-and-safety or insurance company placing any limitations on what gets filmed or what risks are taken. It's not even clear whether each scene went quite as planned.  
Especially fun is the mother or nanny - clearly visible on the DVD as a man in drag - who doesn't give a damn about the safety of the baby in the pram.  Sadly like many of these films the low-res versions on YouTube don't quite do them justice, but most of the ones I've covered so far are on the BFI DVD "Early Cinema - Primitives and Pioneers".  

Friday, 13 March 2015

1906: Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
I passed on Edwin S Porter's landmark 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery" to focus on the more visceral "Desperate Poaching Affray", but just so his fans aren't too upset, here's his 1906 film "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend", based on one of a series of comic strips by the great Winsor McCay.

A man overindulges in a restaurant, then staggers home, stopping to cling to a lamp post as the streets spin around him. He gets into bed, then the furniture comes to life and leaves the room. After he goes to sleep, little demons stand on his headboard and torment him with pitchforks, then the bed lifts off the floors, spins round wildly and flies out of the window and over the city. Finally he finally he falls out of the flying bed, gets caught on a weathervane, then falls again, through the ceiling of his room and back into bed, where he wakes up.    

The film is full of ingenious photographic effects that aren't too obvious in their execution even today. Not to me anyway. I was trying to see whether he's really hanging from that flimsy-looking weathervane via a hidden harness, or if there are wires supporting him from offscreen - I think there are, in which case it's quite a feat not to get them tangled up as the vane rotates several times as he hangs from it.

We're getting to the end of an era here - one where trick effects are still expected to hold an andience's attention without much added in the way of characters or story - but this goes the extra mile, adding a few new tricks of its own, and is still fun to watch today.

It's hard to find good copies of many of these early films online but the one I've linked to here with a soundtrack by The Carport Theatre is the best I've found.      

Monday, 9 March 2015

1905: Rescued by Rover

Rescued by Rover

Here's the prolific Cecil Hepworth again with one of the iconic films of the age, "Rescued by Rover". A simple story but impressively executed - ingeniously so in fact.
It's very much a family production. A nanny, out walking the baby (played by Hepworth's son), gets distracted by a handsome soldier, while an old beggar woman, bitter about being turned away a moment earlier, steals the baby from the pram and takes it back to her hovel ( a run-down terraced house in Walton-on-Thames that probably last sold for about half a million if it's still there).
The nanny gets home and tearfully confesses to the mother (Mrs Hepworth). The dog (Hepworth's dog, Blair) eavesdrops, runs off to track down the baby, and having done that reports back to the distraught father (Hepworth) and somehow gets the message across to him. Father chases dog back to the hovel, father retrieves baby, happy reunion scene.
It's obvious enough to us that the dog would have been carefully trained to do each shot in turn, but a contemporary audience - even fully aware that they were watching a fiction - would probably have been hugely impressed by the dog apparently racing right across town and checking a whole row of cottages till he found the baby. Apparently, in reality, sausages helped.
The film was so popular the negative wore out from repeated reprinting, and it had to be re-filmed twice. One of the versions on YouTube seems to be one of the remakes. In that version, the dog seems to be momentarily confused about which scene he's playing when, reaching the river, instead of immediately swimming across, he sits for a moment in the boat as he's supposed to do later when leading the father to the baby.
Of course this is the prototype for all the clever-animal series that were popular throughout the 20th Century - Lassie, Champion the Wonder Horse, and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

1904: Opening of the Drill Hall, Accrington, by General Baden-Powell

Opening of the Drill Hall, Accrington, by General Baden-Powell

OK - I admit it. I only did this film because of the catchy title. In terms of innovation or cinematic technique it has nothing to offer, but I mention it here because it's an example of a type of film-making I haven't touched on yet.
The Mitchell and Kenyon film company was active in the North of England from 1897 to about 1920, and specialised in making documentary films of local events, making sure to include as many faces as possible, then develop the films the same day and screen them at a local venue in the evening, hopefully making a profit from the sale of tickets. (One of their slogans was "Local films for local people".) Mitchell and Kenyon suddenly became famous again a hundred years later, after their film archive was rediscovered, long forgotten, in the basement of a shop in Blackburn, and subsequently restored by the British Film Institute.
This film is a fairly typical example. All the film makers have done is set up the camera in a prominent position and turned the handle. It's a living.
To a modern viewer, it's a glimpse into a long gone world in which everyone wore hats and the presence of a movie camera was a big event.
Even if you're from Accrington, you're hardly likely to recognise anyone, but watch out for a cameo from the bloke who drives the fire engine in "Trumpton".

1903: Desperate Poaching Affray

Desperate Poaching Affray

I'm spoilt for choice this year - 1903 gives us a whole bunch of groundbreaking early films including Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery", credited with creating much of the grammar of film narrative and editing, the Sheffield Photographic Company's "Daring Daylight Burglary", equally inventive and a few months older, George A Smith's  "Mary Jane's Mishap", in which the director's wife plays a ditzy housemaid and gets spectacularly blown up the chimney when trying to light the stove with paraffin, and Cecil Hepworth's "Alice in Wonderland", longest British film of its time at around 10 minutes.
The one I've picked, though, is William Haggar's "Desperate Poaching Affray". Perhaps I like this film because it's a lot like films I made as a teenager, but with a cast of more than three, who are less afraid of getting hurt.
Essentially it's a simple chase film in which two poachers are caught in the act and pursued through woods, fields and ponds by several policemen and (presumably) gamekeepers. The poachers shoot at the gamekeepers, the gamekeepers shoot at the poachers (never mind that the policemen are in the way), all of them get into a big fight first in the woods, then in the middle of a pond, before the poachers are captured and led off - all for the sake of a pheasant or two, presumably.
What makes this film stand out is the wholeheartedness with which the performers throw themselves into the action - often literally. The fighting is convincing and dynamic, even when the performers are waist-deep in muddy water.  None of the theatricals or over-emphasised gestures of "Scrooge" or the Melies films, these guys are doing it like they mean it.    

Saturday, 21 February 2015

1902: A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon

I don't know what I can add to the volumes that have been written about this, Georges Melies' most famous film and probably the first great science fiction film, except that it's a shame so many great film-makers of this period fell on hard times later. Melies, as you'll know if you've seen the excellent 'Hugo', ended up running a toy stall in a Paris railway station. If only they had known that their work wasn't, in the end, as ephemeral as it seemed at the time.
This film has recently seen a brilliant and painstaking new restoration by Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films, created from a badly decayed hand-coloured print that technology has only been able to rescue in the last few years.  Until recently you could find the Park Circus DVD of that version in Fopp for as little as £3 but some dealers on Amazon are now asking up to £150. Never mind, though, it's on YouTube in full HD - for the moment. (I've linked to one that's less likely to be removed.)
The style of acting and photography hasn't really moved on yet, but Melies' stop-camera effects become ever more effective, as the moon creatures who chase the heroes back to their ship vanish in puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas - hardly an effective survival mechanism, you'd have thought, but certainly spectacular.
Aside from the presence of breathable air and humanoid life on the Moon, one huge difference in the perception of the space-travel business in 1901 versus later years is that in those days it seems to  be so far removed from reality that it falls into the province of wizards and mystics, since the film opens with a meeting of pointy-hatted, robed gentlemen discussing the project with the aid of a blackboard.
On the other hand, the space capsule, remarkable similar to a Gemini or Apollo craft, splashes down in the sea and is retrieved by the Navy.        

1901: Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost

Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost

Or even "A Christmas Carol". We're starting to get into serious attempts at story-telling now, though sadly only three and a half minutes of this 11-minute epic survive. It's included on the BFI DVD, "Dickens Before Sound".
It's early days, so what passes for screen drama involves a locked-off camera pointed at a painted backdrop, with a company of actors mugging and gesticulating as if their myopic grannies were sitting right at the back of the cinema -it's not even acting so much as a catalogue of theatrical shorthand.
Technically, it's already conventional in comparison to Melies, with double-exposure effects telegraphed in advance by the presence of, say, a broad black curtain for the double-exposed characters to show up against. Nevertheless, though, it no doubt did the job for audiences of the time. It relies on knowledge of the story to communicate its full meaning, but since we still make films today for people who have already read the book we can't fault it for that, and its worth saluting just for pushing the boundaries and trying to get people to sit still through 11 minutes of film - something that seems to be more of a challenge now with each passing year.


1900: Explosion of a Motor Car

Explosion of a Motor Car

Ok, it would be a shame to give up on this without at least making it into the 20th century, so here's a fun little film from Walton on Thames's own Cecil Hepworth, soon to become one of Britain's most famous and prolific film makers.
Motor cars were just as new and as much a curiosity as moving pictures in 1900, and must have seemed a little ridiculous to some - a rich people's plaything, less practical than a horse, more dangerous and much more expensive - so when a car full of bright young things comes chugging down the road, its occupants cheerfully waving their hankies as working men go about their business, it must have raised a huge laugh in the cinema when the car explodes, blowing its occupants sky-high.
A passing policeman witnesses the incident and calmly notes it all down as body parts land around him.
The trick photography is simple but effective - just a few frames after a puff of smoke is released from the car, the camera is stopped and the car substituted for a pile of wreckage.
The playful tone of the film is again interesting - on one level it's a simple sight gag but one wonders if Hepworth was playing to his audience, and counting on a good response from punters of limited means, many of whom would have been hard-working servants to exactly the sort of people who get their come-uppance here.