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.