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.