Sunday, 28 February 2016
1925: The Lost World
From the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, and best remembered today as the precursor to King Kong.
Mildly unhinged explorer Professor Challenger returns to London from an expedition to the Amazon, where he claims to have found an isolated land, high on a plateau in the jungle, still populated by dinosaurs. Unfortunately all his photographs have been lost so he has no evidence. Ridiculed by the press and the scientific establishment, he decides to return, this time with the daughter of a missing comrade, and a handsome young reporter (you can guess how that part will play out). Sure enough, back in the jungle, they find their dinosaurs - but become trapped on the plateau for a while, have a few dangerous encounters with them and witness some impressive dinosaur fights before escaping. But what about returning with proof? Incredibly, no-one's thought to bring a camera this time, but fortunately there's an unconscious brontosaurus handy as well an another expedition with lots of manpower and ropes, so they decide to take it back to London.
Glossing over the logistics of that, we cut back to London where the professor is giving another lecture, promising to show them his proof any minute now (he's somehow managed to keep it quiet). However the dinosaur has other ideas and escapes as it's being unloaded from the ship. Running loose in London, it causes panic and wrecks a lot of buildings (including the Blue Posts, a perfectly good pub in Soho) before swimming out to sea. Professor Challenger, having traded public ridicule for being the cause of this mess, sits on the ruins of Tower Bridge and has a cry. The end.
It's a thrilling ride, but not for the last time in film history the focus on spectacle leads to the narrative falling a little short. Here's an alternative synopsis:
A young man wants his girl to marry him, but the girl, who is clearly bit flighty, can't commit until he's added a bit more manliness to his CV. So he goes off to face some terrible danger, falling in love with another, more worthwhile girl in the process. Returning home, he feels duty-bound to marry the first girl but is relieved and delighted to find she's married an accountant in his absence. Happy ending all round. It's exactly the same plot as "The Big Parade", released the same year and described below. However, it's likely no-one was bothered by this as, technically, the film is stunning for its time. The dinosaurs are brilliantly executed, even if the human characters' interaction with them is limited to hiding behind trees and shooting at them. (Bessie Love, the love interest, only gets to look pretty and scared, while more hands-on jeopardy is supplied by a man in an ape costume.) The dinosaur battles are so far beyond anything previously seen on film it makes you wonder where the learning curve was.
The most important thing about this film though, is its legacy. We have it to thank for King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Ray Harryhausen's whole wonderful career.
Also from this year:
THE WIZARD OF OZ: This is actually a pretty awful film. For a while in the early 20s its star and director Larry Semon was one of the great silent comics, right up there with Keaton and Chaplin. When they started making feature films he felt under pressure to do the same and spent a fortune securing the film rights to L Frank Baum's book. Incomprehensibly, though, he thought it would be good idea to use little more than the title as a basis for an extended succession of silent-short set pieces and slapstick gags, with a very minimal plot holding it all together like string round a herd of cows. The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man are just disguises that the farmhands use to hide from the villains in Oz, destroying their magical quality altogether. Unsurprisingly, the film was a critical and commercial failure. Semon's career faded away and he died, almost forgotten, just a few years later.
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN: After the previous few years, this feels like an abrupt shift into a more modern style of film-making: more dynamic and inventive lighting and composition, fast editing, acting that is passionate without being theatrical. Much of it still gripping, particularly the Odessa Steps sequence in which the citizens, out in support of the revolutionary sailors, are gunned down by the tsar's army. However - and this might seem blindingly obvious - it's all a bit, well, communist. I don't mean that as criticism of the film's politics - I think that's irrelevant in evaluating it as art or entertainment - but we're expected to sympathise with masses of people rather than with individuals. People come and go in the narrative as faces in a crowd. We see little or nothing of their lives as individuals so we're not as moved as we might be when awful things happen to them.
Also, it's worth noting that, largely due to this film, Sergei Eisenstein's name is synonomous with the invention of very fast editing as a means of building tension. In fact Abel Gance did it first with 'La Roue' in 1923.
SEVEN CHANCES: Buster Keaton has to get married by 7pm to inherit his uncle's fortune. Naturally there's already a girl he's in love with but he makes a mess of the proposal and she turns him down. His business partner advertises for prospective brides and hundreds turn up at the church, but the priest assumes it's all a practical joke so they become an angry mob, after Buster's blood. Meanwhile he's received a message that his girl will marry him after all. All this builds up to one of silent cinema's great chase scenes, involving hundreds of irate brides and a spectacular sequence in which Buster has to dodge hundreds of boulders, from small to huge, as they roll down a hill. The blatant artificiality of the rock-strew hillside creates a delightfully comic-strip sense of unreality.
It's a lot of fun but at 45 minutes is still more of an extended short than a true feature. Buster's best work was still to come.
THE FRESHMAN: Harold Lloyd goes to college. A naive country boy, his expectations of college life are based on the movies, and he makes a fool of himself on his first day. His fellow students, though, turn it into a huge joke by letting him think he's a cool and popular guy, all the time laughing at him behind his back, including the football team who let him think he's a substitute when in fact he's just the water-boy - a demeaning role for an aspiring athlete.
In a big inter-college match, though, over half the team are injured and the coach sends Harold on in desperation. Through a combination of luck, ingenuity and enthusiasm, he scores the winning points.
Coming as it does on the heels of "Girl Shy", I didn't take to this one quite so much. Perhaps it's partly because the plucky-but-awkward-underdog-gets-the-girl plot is wearing a little thin, but mainly it lacked the spectacular, daring physicality of his previous two films. If you find American football exciting, you might feel differently.
THE GOLD RUSH: Chaplin's back, with one of his most famous films.
My DVD has both the 1926 silent version and the 1942 version with Chaplin's own music and commentary. I much prefer the latter - it's about 20 minutes shorter - the silent one drags a little at 90 minutes, and I was hard pressed to spot what was missing, besides the intertitles. Georgia Hale is the love interest, somewhat more brash and arrogant than the usual sweet-natured Chaplin girls, but it gives her character room to develop.
The film opens with a spectacular recreation of an endless line prospectors labouring up the 'Golden Stairs' of Chilkoot Pass, the mountain path to the goldfields of the Klondike. Apparently location filming proved too gruelling, so after months of set-building and shooting Chaplin moved the whole production back to Hollywood and shot indoors.
The best part of the film, I think, is the sequence when Chaplin and his companion wake up with a hangover and feel as though the cabin is tilting back and forth - initially unaware that it is actually balancing on the edge of a cliff.
In the silent version, I think we glimpse the real Chaplin, not the character, in the final shot. As he kisses the girl - he was having an affair with Georgia Hale in real life - he gives the camera a dismissive wave of his hand, as if if he wants to carry on doing just what he's doing rather than continue acting.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Notable as the first in Universal's great tradition of horror Movies, it now looks like a montage of cliches - but that just shows how profound its influence was.
The unmasking of the Phantom to reveal his shark-like, cadaverous face now feels relatively tame, though no doubt it had more impact on the big screen.
It always strikes me as curious how a generation fresh from a terrible war and no stranger to hardship, injury and terrible disease - that must have seen more ghastly things in their everyday lives than most of us - were apparently so much more disturbed by on-screen horror then we are today. Perhaps it was the novelty of the experience, or perhaps it was precisely because it did seem closer to the real world.
BEN HUR: One of the great epics of silent cinema, it's a bit sad to note that its status has been reduced to a mere extra on the blu-ray of the Charlton Heston remake - it isn't even mentioned on the cover - yet it stands up pretty well. Ramon Navarro actually makes a more credible lead than Heston. He has a sensitive, vulnerable quality that the larger-than-life Heston lacks, while still holding his own in the chariot race - which, incidentally, also holds its own against the one in the later film, largely because so much of the action - including a spectacular multi-chariot pile-up - looks unplanned.
The transfer on the Blu-Ray is from a 1988 Thames Silents restoration, but it looks pretty good in HD despite its age.
THE BIG PARADE: Probably the first great film to tackle the experience of the First World War.
The first half is all rather lightweight as three chums enjoy a bit of fun and romance in the French village where they're billeted en route to the Front... but then it all turns serious. Our main hero is engaged to a girl back home but falls in love with a French girl. Remembering his prior commitment, he feels duty-bound to make light of his new entanglement and walk away. The girl understands and does likewise but as the troops are mustered to board the trucks to take them to the war, both realise they are making a mistake and frantically hunt for each other in the crowd as the trucks pull out. It's a grippingly tense scene. They find each other, or course, and exchange affections fairly unambiguously in their fleeting last moments together. The climactic shots where the girl, unable to let her lover go, is dragged along the road as she clings to a chain hanging from the back of his truck really ought to look hysterically melodramatic today, but somehow they don't. The fact of a film being silent somehow allows it to get away with things a sound film never could. The film is most memorable, though, for its depiction of war. The scene in which the new recruits, having been thoroughly humanised to us in the first half of the film, now have to act like cold automata as they march through a sniper-ridden forest, impassively killing and being killed as they go, is deeply chilling.
THE PLEASURE GARDEN: Hitchcock's first film as director, and worth a look for that reason alone. This was restored by the BFI along with eight other early Hitchcocks, but that version has yet to see a DVD or Blu-ray release, so I had to watch a rather scratchy old print in which it was hard to tell the two female leads apart.
The opening scenes in a theatre, with a front row of lecherous old men enjoying a chorus line, have Hitchcock's impish sense of fun all over them and are the scenes most often seen in documentaries about him, but it's not long before it settles into a fairly standard melodrama - skilled in execution but very conventional.