Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…
Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)
William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.
Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).
Turner Classic Movies is turning all the Fridays in September over to films from that brief period in the early thirties when the studios thumbed their collective noses at the toothless Production Code and pushed the boundaries of sex, violence, and bad behavior without judgment or consequences in film after film. The iron boot of censorship came down in 1934 and stomped out all that deliciously salacious content, but for a few years Hollywood acknowledged and even flaunted sex between consenting adults (married or not). The films from this era were branded “Forbidden Hollywood” when they were rediscovered and revived for audiences in the 1990s, but today they are better known as Pre-Code. Turner Classic Movies has four full Fridays full of forbidden Pre-Code delights.
While there are gems aplenty throughout the month, I’ll spotlight a few of the most interesting and audacious rarities and lesser-known glories, including two from the coming Friday line-up.
Set those DVRs now!
Friday, September 5:
Safe in Hell (1931) – Think of this as a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a merciless brutality by William Wellman. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as the hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the spiritual with equal commitment.
Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is about the odyssey of Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, from his San Francisco home to the rigors of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The 1935 screen adaptation Call of the Wild, the first sound version of the adventure, makes Buck a supporting character in the human story of Jack Thornton, a brash, cheerful miner who begins the film by gambling his entire fortune away in a saloon and sets out with an old buddy to start again, this time with a map to an unclaimed mine that may or may not be reliable.
That’s the way Hollywood tends to tackle these kinds of stories, of course, and when you’ve got Clark Gable and Loretta Young in all their mid-1930s glamor tramping through the wilds of the great white north (Washington State interior standing in for Northern Canada), that’s a forgivable compromise. Gable’s Jack Thornton and Young’s Claire Blake, who Jack finds fending off a ravenous pack of wolves in the middle of the wilderness, spar and spat almost immediately after Jack saves her. She’s a married woman who is surely widowed by the time she’s rescued (her husband slogged out into the drifts days before to get help) but that doesn’t stop the spirited instant antagonism that practically defines screen romance in 1930s Hollywood movies. Jack Oakie is the buddy-turned-third wheel ‘Shorty’ Hoolihan, providing comic relief as the soon-to-be-lovers tangle on the trail, and Sidney Toler is the film’s villain Joe Groggins, an arrogant miner with a crooked streak who wants to shoot Buck dead for daring to growl at him.
11 sassy, sexy and sometimes stiff early sound pictures with attitude from the Warner Archive.
When Hollywood was trying to find its way in the early sound era, learning to work around the sudden production constrictions imposed by sound recording and editing while struggling to find its own distinctive voice and delivery, it was also getting downright racy. It flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned soon to be imposed on Hollywood productions by the Production Code, reluctantly accepted by the studios (the alternative was separate censorship boards in each state, a much more demanding and expensive proposition for the film industry to deal with).
Not all the pre-code movies took that attitude, of course, but a couple of decades ago a handful of sauciest of these otherwise forgotten films were branded with the promise of “Forbidden Hollywood” for a retrospective that led to a line of VHS releases, followed by laserdisc and, finally, DVD. And while most of the best of these films have already been resurrected and released – I’m talking about Night Nurse, Baby Face, Heroes For Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, Murder at the Vanities, Three on a Match, not to mention Scarface and Bride of Frankenstein (this attitude is not limited to any one genre) to name just a few – there are still films to discovered and savored, in some cases for just a scene, in other for a full length appreciation.
All of which is introduction to a wealth of pre-code titles recently made available via manufacture-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It’s a mixed collection, by which I mean there are some real discoveries here along with some misfires, and Safe in Hell (1931), a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a brutally by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are the most exciting of said discoveries.
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.
He was called “The Great Profile,” elevated as the great lover of the silent screen and held up as the greatest actor of his generation. In retrospect he left behind his share of hammy performances and lazy mugging, but when he was at his best, John Barrymore was a shining star of the silent screen. Kino has collected four Barrymore silents in The John Barrymore Collection, three of them new to Kino (but not necessarily new to DVD). The highlights come via the Killiam Collection, complete with the original seventies-era piano scores by William P. Perry recorded for repertory showings. The Beloved Rogue features Barrymore in swashbuckling form as François Villon, “poet, pickpocket, patriot” (as his introductory title card identifies him), a hard-drinking gadabout who satirized the King (Conrad Veidt, making his Hollywood debut in a comically gnarled performance) in his poetry but loved “France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively.” The famed Shakespearean stage dramatist has a tendency to twist face into a clownish curl to play 15th century poet as a fun-loving fool and drunkard, parading about with his drinking buddies and playing the king of the beggars of Paris. But he also throws himself into the swashbuckling scenes, leaping across roofs less like an action hero than a child of the streets who hasn’t quite grown up, and tones himself down for romance with Marceline Day, the king’s ward. Alan Crosland previously directed Barrymore in Don Juan, one of another of his best silent films, and William Cameron Davies creates the lavish sets.
I’m even more partial to Tempest (1928), not a version of the Shakespeare play but a tale of a peasant soldier (Barrymore) in love with a princess (Camilla Horn of Faust, whose eyes burn with a mixture of haughty arrogance and guilty desire) in World War I Russia. Barrymore gives one of his most restrained performances as the tormented soldier whose hatred of the aristocracy is systematically stoked when he’s put through a living hell for his temerity at falling in love with a high-born beauty. The aristocracy systematically keeps the lowly peasant class its place until the revolution turns the tables, at which point the film tries to cast the Red Menace as the villain. It’s a hard sell given the brutality and contempt of the ruling class, but in a manner that suggests director Sam Taylor studied the works of D.W. Grifffith, he portrays the aristocrats as beautiful people tormented by the ugly peasants who take their revenge with a vengeance. In this new paradigm, Barrymore rejects class politics to save his fair aristocratic love from the grimy hands of the dark, unwashed proletariat brutes. Director Sam Taylor directed some terrific Harold Lloyd comedies before making this historical romantic drama, but he guide this gorgeous costume drama like he was a master of the epic form, and William Cameron Menzies once again contributes great sets. The box set also features the 1922 Sherlock Holmes and the previously released 1920 Dr Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, and the discs are also available separately. The films are preserved rather than restored but look fine and The Beloved Rogue is tinted.
Hollywood pro William Wellman directed more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three collects six features by the enormously prolific director from that era (and two documentaries) on a four-disc set, and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
I cover all six films – with special attention paid to the two mad masterpieces of depression-era outrage and helplessness Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road (both 1933) – in my review on Parallax View.
The intense and thoroughly riveting In Treatment, a series developed for HBO by Rodrigo Garcia (who directed half the series himself), is presented in an unconventional format: five half-hour episodes a week over the course of nine weeks. Each feature psychiatrist Paul (Gabriel Byrne) in a weekly session with his patients and, at the end of the week, with his own therapist (Dianne Wiest), with whom he has an adversarial relationship. Which isn’t all that different from many of his own patients: Laura (Melissa George) is in love with Paul and spends her sessions trying to rouse an emotion from him; Alex (Blair Underwood) is a hyper-competitive Navy pilot who treats his session like verbal sparring matches; Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage gymnast with deep emotional conflicts; and Amy and Jake (Embeth Davidtz, Josh Charles) are married couple who can turn ferocious in the middle of a session. The show was adapted from the Israeli series Be’Tipul and many of the American scripts are based on episodes written by Ari Folman, the writer/director of the Oscar nominated film Waltz With Bashir. Garcia is a cinematic short story craftsman and this series, like his films, is adept at exploring uncomfortable relationships and tense emotional states. Continue reading “DVDs for 3/24/09 – William Wellman, In Treatment, Twilight and Bond… James Bond”