Category: silent cinema

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.

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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.

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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

Jun 25 2012

New Release: ‘The Artist’ – For the Love of Cinema

The Artist (Sony) is a valentine to silent movies. You’ve likely heard that before and it’s true, but it’s more than that. A modern movie in a classical mode, shot in glorious black and white without spoken dialogue (but filled with music and sound) in a directed with a lively spirit of romance and adventure and joy, it is a celebration of the dreams and fantasies and magic of the movies of every age.

Embraced by film critics and audiences all over the country, it generated a renewed interest in silent movies and it charmed Hollywood, earning ten Academy Award nominations and earning five statuette, including Best Picture, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). Not bad for a foreign film shot on location in Hollywood with French stars, American co-stars, and a charismatic pooch who almost steals the film. And for reasons I don’t quite understand, it has suffered a backlash from some of the movie lovers you would most expect to appreciate a tribute to the golden era: fans of the very classic movies the film celebrates.

So let’s just be clear about one thing: The Artist is not an attempt to recreate the art of silent cinema at its height. It does not have the richness or ambition of Sunrise or Metropolis or The Crowd or The Gold Rush, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise. It is an appreciation of silent cinema from a director who quite deftly incorporates the flavor of silent moviemaking, with its physically expressive acting, longer shots, and more patient editing rhythms, with a more modern sensibility for contemporary audiences. And it is a delight.

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Jun 17 2012

MOD Movies: Silent Hollywood

Show People (Warner Archive), from 1927, is one of the greatest of Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. It is a marvelous showcase for the talents of Marion Davies and in some ways it is the story of its star. Davies was a natural comedienne, full of warmth and sparkle and energy and sweetness, but William Randolph Hearst (her boyfriend) didn’t think comedy was dignified enough for his woman and wanted to build her up as a dramatic star.

In Show People, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, is naïve Southern girl trained in hoary stage melodrama and brought to Hollywood by a father who wants to make her a star. With her bright eyes and big smile and unassuming determination, Davies makes Peggy a delight, completely out of her element in the professional studio system but plucky enough to get over her humiliation and become a natural in the “low” comedy of slapstick while dreaming of the serious drama put out by the likes of High Art Studios, which indeed comes calling.

King Vidor rarely dipped his toes into comedy but this was his second film with Davies and he brings out the best in her and in the film, which spoofs the culture of Hollywood celebrity while celebrating the act of moviemaking. He slights neither aspect, and while his recreation of the slapstick film unit (a Keystone Kops-like team) is clearly a fiction, there is surely more authenticity to the moviemaking apparatus than we see in more contemporary films about filmmaking. And to fans of old Hollywood, the film also features some of the superstars of the era playing themselves in playful cameos, including Charles Chaplin (out of makeup), Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Mae Murray, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, Lew Cody, Elinor Glyn, and King Vidor himself. He’s a better director than actor and he brings a light, deft touch to this bouncy comedy. The disc features an archival synchronized score with sound effects, and the mono soundtrack is low fidelity and in some sequences quite distorted. It preserves the original release version, but more audio work needs to be done.

Show People is one of the most famous of the Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. One far less well know but almost as accomplished and just as interesting is Souls For Sale (Warner Archive), a 1923 feature that was lost for years and rescued in the last decade.

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Jun 13 2012

Classic: Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’

The Gold Rush (Criterion), Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 frozen north comedy classic, is just as funny today as it was over eighty years ago, and just as mawkishly sentimental.

Drop him in a muddy Alaska boom town and he’s little more than a lovestruck adolescent stepping through emotional trap doors—he  lives in a romantic dream world while the social reality rebuffs his awkward, mooning advances. Give him a prop and a stage, however, and he brings elegance to vaudeville, whether he’s eating a boiled shoe or scrambling across the floor of a cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff.

The Little Tramp is not just another prospector hiking into the Alaskan interior with hundreds of ill-equipped dreamers and scruffy roughnecks, he’s the pluckiest of them all. He meets deprivation and starvation with ingenuity and farce, but he believed in the underdog romance of his story. I believe in the slapstick ballet of his physical comedy.

In 1942, Chaplin cut more than 20 minutes from the original 1925 silent version and re-released the film with sound narration, a new score, and a different final shot. This was Chaplin’s preferred version and thus was better preserved and most version most readily available, but the silent version is the original, the actual “director’s cut” of the film, and is still the superior version, without the second guessing of Chaplin, who has a tendency to sentimentalize the film even more in his 1942 cut.

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Apr 11 2012

Cinema Landmark: ‘A Trip to the Moon’ Restored

A Trip to the Moon: Limited Edition (Flicker Alley) features the home video debut of the painstakingly restored color version of the landmark George Méliès fantasy short, perhaps the most famous film made before “The Birth of a Nation” and (in the words of film historian and archivist Serge Bromberg) “the first international hit in motion picture history.”

Yes, as we know, there was no color filmmaking until the twenties, and even then it was something between an experiment and a stunt until the more reliable and realistic three-strip Technicolor arrived in the thirties. But many early films were released in premium hand-painted versions. A Trip to the Moon, a lavish epic spectacle in its day, was one such film, but no surviving color versions were known to exist. Until 1999, when Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange were offered one brittle, badly decomposed, but almost intact print in a Spanish archive. The preservation and restoration, which began with a frame-by-frame digital copy of the crumbling print, took more than ten years, some of that simply waiting for technology and support. This is surely the most expensive, extensive, and ambitious restoration of any work of early cinema and its timing couldn’t be better. Between the restoration debut at Cannes 2011 and the American Blu-ray/DVD release this week, Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” was released, a love letter to the fantastical visions of George Méliès and the magic of silent cinema.

Historical importance aside, A Trip to the Moon is a delight, a work of pure, playful imagination, a picture-book fantasy brought to life with intricate, hand-painted sets and a whimsical portrait of science as wizardry by way of the industrial revolution, and the then-revolutionary film effects perfected in his “trick films” are here incorporated into the storytelling. Méliès was the filmmaker as magician and showman. A Trip to the Moon showcases the best of all these dimensions, and it does so with the pulsating hand-painted colors of the day. The French pop duo Air contributes an offbeat original score.

As the film runs only 15 minutes (an epic for 1902), this release features the 65-minute documentary “The Extraordinary Voyage” by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, which profiles Méliès and the making of “A Trip to the Moon,” the filmmaker’s decline and rediscovery, and the unprecedented restoration process of this edition. Also features a B&W version of the film from a preserved 35mm print with a choice of three additional soundtracks, two additional astronomically-minde​d films by Méliès (“The Astronomer’s Dream” from 1989 and “The Eclipse, or The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon” from 1907), and interview with Air.

This limited edition comes in a steelbook case with both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film and supplements, and a beautifully illustrated booklet with an extensive essay on the film.

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Mar 18 2012

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ – The Complete Masterpiece Debuts in America

On Sunday, October 20, 2001, on the final day of the 20th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the greatest, grandest silent film festival in the known universe), I boarded a vintage steam engine with a few hundred other silent movie-loving patrons, traveled from Sacile to Udine, filed into the Udine Opera House, took my nearly-front row seat (the Camerata Labacensis, Ljubljana, a 35-or-so-piece orchestra, was practically under my feet) and was, for the next 5 ½ hours (divided up by two intermissions and a dinner break), entranced by Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon. It was the most transporting, invigorating, exiting cinematic experience of my life to date. Mr. Brownlow did not lie when he stepped on to the stage and made his introduction: “If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

His introduction ironically but endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoleonpremiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was sound butNapoleon, the most expensive film made in France to that time, remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema. Like Birth Of A Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come,Napoleon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.

On Saturday, March 24, 2012, Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon makes its long-awaited American premiere in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre, presented by Brownlow and accompanied by a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who conducts his score. There are only four shows of this all-day event: March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, and there are no further American screenings planned. If you love the cinema and have any opportunity to see one of these shows, by all means make every effort to do so. Yes, it is an event. It is also a transporting cinematic experience like no other.

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Mar 18 2012

Abel Gance Before ‘Napoleon’: ‘J’Accuse’ and ‘La Roue’

In advance of the American premiere of the fully restored edition of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon in Oakland on March 24, Turner Classic Movies presents two of the auteur’s earlier films: J’Accuse (1919), which appropriates the cry leveled by Emile Zola during the Dreyfus affair to decry the horrors of World War I, and La Roue (1923). These films—the sole silent films from the director currently available to American audiences (both are also available on DVD from Flicker Alley)—make clear that there was no director like Abel Gance in the silent era. One of the great technical innovators and visual artists of his time, Gance was a master conductor of the cinematic form. He transformed dramatic stories into emotional symphonies, and these two films are among the most stirring of the era.

Abel Gance began shooting J’Accuse, his harrowing anti-war drama, while the trench warfare of World War I was still grinding up soldiers on both sides of the battle. Such sentiments were certainly not encouraged by a government straining to support the war effort, but the time was ripe when it finally came months after it ended. France was devastated and the film is appropriately devastating, all but announcing its intentions in the opening titles, spelled out in the fallen bodies of soldiers dropping the ground as if in death. The story itself begins as a love triangle melodrama of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by war and transforms into a veritable love story between two men, comrades in arms brought together by battle and the mutual love of the same woman, but this is no romanticized portrait of courage and comradeship forged under fire.

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Jan 24 2012

‘Wings’ – The First “Best Picture” Debuts on DVD and Blu-ray

Clara Bow took top billing in the 1927 Wings (Paramount), the film that won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, but the real star of this World War I drama is the amazing aerial spectacle: the dogfights in the sky over the battlefields.

The rest of the film, co-starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen (both virtual unknowns at the time) as buddies and fellow pilots, is sturdy studio filmmaking with romance, bonding under fire and rousing “war is hell” action. There’s none of the seriousness or dramatic grace of King Vidor’s earlier “The Big Parade,” but director William Wellman, who was a World War I fighter pilot himself, invests us in the camaraderie of men in battle and especially the thrilling flight of the warriors. The magnificent dogfights, the sky swarming with planes, the downed ships spiraling down through the clouds with a tail of black smoke and yellow flame (color added like hand-tints of the time) were all staged and shot for real and the budget soared to $2 million, making it one of the most expensive films of its era. Wellman makes sure it’s all there on the screen. It’s a romanticized look at war, but it’s also what Hollywood does best.

Paramount releases the film on DVD and Blu-ray (adding one more silent offering to the Blu-ray format) in a beautifully restored and newly remastered edition that preserves the texture of the photography, and offers a choice of two scores.

Continue reading at Videodrone and see an exclusive clip from the disc

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for January 24

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