Category: silent cinema

Nov 10 2014

The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Oct 05 2014

Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

'The General'

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Aug 30 2014

Videophiled Classic: Chaplin at Mutual and 25 Years of Mack Sennett

Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.

MackSennettV1

The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.

It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.

This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Aug 21 2014

Rediscovery: Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’

Joseph Cotten channels Harold Lloyd in 'Too Much Johnson'

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!

Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.

There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.

That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Jul 25 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1920)

Stage and screen legend John Barrymore took on the good doctor and his vicious alter ego from the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel in this silent horror classic, adapted as much from the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan as from Stevenson’s original book. It wasn’t the first adaptation of the story but it became the most celebrated until Fredric March took on the role in the sound era, and it helped elevate the respected actor into a major big screen attraction.

As Dr. Henry Jekyll, the moral, religious man who keeps company with society gentleman who find Henry more than a little self-righteous, Barrymore takes on a theatrical nobility: quiet and subdued, he stand tall and stiff and favors his great profile to the camera. He runs a free clinic (called “the human repair shop,” a phrase that inadvertently brings to mind Frankenstein more than Hyde) that his friend Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) sneers at. “You should live–as I have lived,” he advises the sheltered Henry. Sir George is the father of the proper young lady Millicent (Martha Mansfield), who admires and loves Henry, a seeming contradiction that he explains to Henry thusly: “I protected her as only a man of the world could.” After a visit to a seedy nightclub, where Sir George invites dancing girl Miss Gina (Nita Naldi) to get Henry all hot and bothered, Henry decides that maybe it’s time to let his baser desires out for a romp. But rather than sully his soul (or his reputation) he concocts a potion is release the evil buried inside (the original sin?), essentially releasing the id from his dominant superego, to take a Freudian approach

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movie

Jun 14 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Master of the House’

The theme of Master of the House, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1925 screen adaptation of Svend Rindom’s play Tyrannens fald, is better captured in the film’s original Danish title Du skal ære din hustru: Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife. Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), the master of the house himself, is indeed the central character of this domestic drama, but his journey is all about learning to appreciate his wife Ida (Astrid Holm), who he has driven to illness with his ill temper.

While the opening intertitles of the film, a sentimental paean to the overlooked and underappreciated work of the mother and housewife, leave no ambiguity about the drama to come, Dreyer is far less obvious in his direction. The film opens with Ida’s morning ritual, a routine that Dreyer observes with the patient care of a documentarian and the delicacy of a painter. Ida is never still as she makes breakfast, cares for the children, and sacrifices her own meager luxuries to give Viktor a little extra butter on his bread, but neither is she rushed or harried. There is a grace to her toil and a pride and satisfaction in the work she does. Her confidence and clarity unravels, however, when Viktor emerges for breakfast, complaining with his first steps into the room that coffee is no waiting for him on the table.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

May 28 2014

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Freshman’

Harold Lloyd was the collegiate kid to Chaplin’s underdog tramp and Keaton’s earnest social misfit, the young, modern guy full of energy and spunk taking on the world with the ambition of a go-getter and the smart-aleck attitude of a city boy. Yet for a young man who epitomized the up-and-comer in the modern urban world, he only made one film where he played a college kid: The Freshman, which became his biggest box-office hit of all time and the definitive college comedy of the 1920s.

Lloyd had tried out a number of personae over his career but when he put on those round glasses and flashed that smile, he created the incarnation that made him one of the biggest stars of the twenties. He referred to that creation as “the glasses character” but in the movies he was invariably called Harold. In The Freshman he’s Harold Lamb, a small town boy preparing to go to college by watching movies and practicing his elaborate greeting, a little jig of a dance step followed by an extended hand and a slogan of an introduction: “I’m just a regular fellow – step right up and call me ‘Speedy’.” (Fans of Yasujiro Ozu may recognize that bit from his Japanese college comedies like I Flunked, But… , an example of life imitating art; where Harold copies it from a fake movie, Ozu’s students pick it up from their love of Harold Lloyd comedies.) He’s convinced himself that the movies and the dime novels about campus heroes are an accurate portrait of college life and he studies them like textbooks. In fact, he studies them instead of textbooks. The Freshman is a college film where no one attends a class, goes to the library, or crams for a test. “Tate University – A large football stadium, with a college attached,” reads the title card for Harold’s arrival on campus, and the film makes good on the joke.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Apr 06 2014

Blu-ray: Lon Chaney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Lon Chaney was the most unlikely of Hollywood superstar actors. Talented and ambitious, he fearlessly took on roles of tortured victims, twisted villains, and misshapen outcasts, parts that he brought to life with a mix of elaborate make-up, physically demanding incarnations, and emotionally intense performances. In some ways, you could see him as the De Niro of the silent era, sinking himself into each role so deeply he loses himself in it, at least as far as the viewer in concerned. In an industry that celebrates physical beauty and charisma, Chaney won over audiences by playing characters that looked or acted like monster while communicating their inner drives and torments with his eyes and his face and his body language. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 was his first major production, a lavish period drama based on a classic novel and created at a cost of over $1 million by Universal, at the time a second-tier studio with ambitions to compete with the majors in the blockbuster realm. It made him one of Hollywood’s biggest screen stars.

This adaptation largely hews to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney plays Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen, deaf and half blind bell-ringer at Notre Dame, nominally raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Nov 08 2012

Classic: Fritz Lang’s ‘Die Nibelungen’

Die Nibelungen (Kino) is the original fantasy epic, a magnificent silent spectacle based on the same German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the wellspring that nurtured “Excalibur,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Game of Thrones” (not mention “Metropolis”).

This blood and thunder myth of warriors and dragons and brotherhood and betrayal, is awesome in its scope, both visual and dramatic. Warrior prince Siegfried is both innocent child-man of the wild and the blonde Aryan ideal of German myth, a mortal god in his own right destroyed by the pettiness of human vanity and weakness of his own sworn blood brother. The betrayal of the first part of this mighty diptych is answered in the title of part two: “Kriemhild’s Revenge.” His widow vows vengeance (“Blood cries for blood!”) and it is as enormous and devastating as anything Shakespeare created, practically destroying two kingdoms in a literal conflagration.

On the one hand, Lang presents is as a tragedy, of vengeance burning down everything and everyone it touches, but Kriemhild can also be seen as the hand of the gods burning out the corruption of a compromised kingdom that defends a killer with the same sense of honor that justified the betrayal of a blood brother. “You do not understand the German soul,” explains one knight to the King Attila of the Huns, but as embodied by the weak-willed King Gunther, their is little to understand beyond perhaps regret for past sins and a futile gesture to regain lost honor.

Beyond that, “Die Nibelungen” is simply magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. There’s a half-hearted inclusion of Christianity with a massive cathedral and a few carefully-placed crucifixes, but if there is any religion to this film, it is of the Earth and nature and the old gods, and every set and manufactured landscape serves the grandeur of this primeval, pre-religion world.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Aug 31 2012

Classic: ‘Lonesome’

Lonesome (Criterion), completed just as sound technology came to the movies, is one of the last great silent films. Or should I say, mostly silent. Finished just as “The Jazz Singer” kicked off the rush to talkies, it was revised just before release with the addition of three sound dialogue sequences. While they tend to stick out, being static and somewhat awkward (though they learned to talk, these early films had not yet found their voice), they are brief and a little endearing, a unique gimmick in the midst of a turbulent changeover.

The rest of the film is a lovely little romance right out of the late-silent film culture of “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “People on Sunday” and others, a simple story of a young man (Glenn Tryon) and a young woman (Barbara Kent), just a couple of working class folk in the urban crush of New York City, looking for companionship and finding each other in the bustle of a holiday weekend at the beach. “In the whirlpool of modern life, the most difficult thing is to live alone.” Directed by Hungarian émigré Paul Fejos, it is delicate and sweet, playful and creative, and cinematically inventive without showboating.

Along with the sound sequences, the film was released (like a lot of others of the period) with a synchronized music and effects track, this one quite effective at creating the atmosphere of the city at rush hour with an impressionistic soundtrack of bells, engines, and the rumble of crowds, and setting the mood of the escape of the Coney Island carnival where they play, flirt, and then lose one another.

The Blu-ray and DVD feature a beautifully mastered edition from the restored duplicate negative and include commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski, a bonus film by director Paul Fejos, his 1927 “The Last Performance” with Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin (with a new score by Donald Sosin), a reconstructed sound version of Fejos’ 1929 musical “Broadway,” a 1963 visual essay set to interviews with Paul Fejos narrating his life story, audio excerpts of an interview with cinematographer Hal Mohr discussing “Broadway,” and a booklet with essays by critic Phillip Lopate and film historian Graham Petrie and an excerpt from Fejos’s autobiography.

More cool and classic releases at Videodrone

Aug 16 2012

Classic: The Mad Genius of ‘Les Vampires’

Les Vampires (Kino), Louis Feuillade’s mad serialized tale of a master criminal organization that robs, kidnaps, and murders their way through Parisian society, is a strange and wonderful masterpiece of 1914 cinema. The Vampires of the title are bloodsuckers only in the metaphorical sense. They’re a Masonic criminal conspiracy that intrepid reporter Philip Gueraude (Édouard Mathé) vows to expose. He outlives a succession of Vampire Grand Masters but the grand dame of all femmes fatales, the slinky, sinister Irma Vep (French icon Musidora in a body stocking and black mask), eludes him.

It’s easy to see why the surrealists embraced Feuillade’s mad serialized tale. Spiced with sudden revelations and unexpected humor, the pulp plots of his episodic adventure are less mystery than chaotic thriller where nothing is as it seems and anything goes. When Philip discover and opens the hidden compartment above his bed, his pride turns to shock when he finds a severed head inside. And that’s just the beginning of this heady mix of secret passages, poison pen letters (with real poison pens!), disappearing bodies, and disguises galore.

While D.W. Griffith was changing the face of American cinema with his editing, Feuillade took a different approach. He emphasized tableaux scenes played out in single takes, with little camera movement (apart from mounting it in cars during escapes and chase scenes) or edits within scenes — there are few close-ups and almost no crosscutting here — yet he gives the film a dynamic energy with his compositions and choreography and inventive imagery. The energy is created through staging, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience’s attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. The style makes the film even more mad: you can’t take anything at face value. Watching the well-ordered world turn upside down in a single shot makes the experience even more shocking.

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Jul 12 2012

Classic: Buster Keaton is ‘The Saphead’

The Saphead: Ultimate Edition (Kino) is Buster Keaton’s feature film debut, though he didn’t direct this one. An adaptation of the Broadway hit “The New Henrietta” (previously made into the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “The Lamb”), it’s a conventional but cute comedy with Keaton in a role that would recur in numerous shorts and features: the spoiled son of wealth trying to navigate the working world. Apart from the energetic finale, where he leaps, slides, and wrestles with wall street lions on the stock exchange floor, Keaton is given little opportunity to display the comic gymnastics that would define his greatest films and the comedy stays safe and conventional. It’s a completely genial and entertaining film carried by Keaton’s sweet charm and plucky naiveté and it made him a star, but it’s only a warm-up for his later directorial efforts.

On DVD and Blu-ray in a new, remastered edition with a musical score by Robert Israel (originally recorded for the 1995 video release) and a bonus variant cut composed entirely of alternate takes (with a piano score by Ben Model). Other supplements include a short featurette comparing the two versions, a 30-minute audio recording from 1962 with Keaton recalling his vaudeville days, and a gallery of stills.

More cool and classic releases at Videodrone

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