RSS

Tag Archives: Silent Films

The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.

3

Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.

joan-banner

 
24 Comments

Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_-_L_Gish_&_Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.

The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.

The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.

This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.

It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.

Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.

birth-of-a-nation-465

The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.

That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.

In two short films  – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a NationThe Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.

At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.

And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.

Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.

The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.

It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beginning Silent Films

download

Buster Keaton behind bars (except it’s really just a gate and not jail, as he initially leads you to believe)

I’m somewhat nervous about writing a beginner’s guide to silent films because I am still so new to silent films and because my own path to silent film fandom was somewhat unorthodox. I have not seen many great classic silent films. However, I do believe that silent films are far more accessible than is generally supposed. Last month I showed my thirteen year old cousin two Buster Keaton shorts and he loved them and wants to see more. Sometimes, I think the trick is simply finding the genre or actor that appeals to you, rather than trying to watch the ones that are considered the best or most definitive.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding silent films and in this post I would like to outline a few thoughts, as well as make a few recommendations for some good films to start with.

Some Silent Film Thoughts

Silent films are watched in a slightly different way than talkies. My sister likes to knit, cross stitch or crochet while watching movies, but she has discovered that it is harder to do so with silent films. You can more easily get away with looking up and down with talkies because a significant amount of information is conveyed through the spoken word, but in silent films you have to be watching the entire time. Blink and you might miss something significant. If my mind ever wonders or I look away, I will sometimes realize that I lost the thread of the action. As I’ve quoted before, biographer Scott Eyman (he’s written some excellent biographies on Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, as well as some others) says that silent movies affect our minds differently, putting us in almost a hypnotic state.

One thing I had to learn was that intertitles do not actually take the place of dialogue. They are there mostly to convey information or context that we cannot otherwise infer, but the bulk of communication is done visually, through facial expressions, gestures, mime and context. In Eileen Whitfield’s biography of Mary Pickford, she argued that silent films are just as easily compared to ballet as talkie films.

The music is also extremely important in silent films. A good score can vastly improve one’s enjoyment of a film, even a mediocre film. There are a lot of silent films available on youtube, but with only a few exceptions, most of them have wildly inappropriate music or often no music at all. I’ve found the most success with companies like Kino and Milestone, which always release films that are in pretty good shape and have been given a new score. Robert Israel, Carl Davis, and Jon C. Mirsalis are three composers whose names pop up most often (at least in the films I’ve seen so far). Music varies from organ, solo piano to full orchestra. I must confess that organ – though traditional – is not my favorite. I once fell asleep to an organ accompaniment to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers. Sometimes, organ accompaniment can be all-too soothing.

John_Barrymore_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_Motion_Picture_Classic_1920Some Silent Film Suggestions

I must confess that this list of suggested silent films is largely reflective of my own tastes in films in general, because they are the films that I have so far sought out, though I am hoping to broaden myself.

D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts – from 1908 to around 1913, D.W. Griffith worked at the Biograph Studios making short films, which means mostly one and two reel films. Kino released a wonderful collection called Biograph Shorts and they are a fascinating window into a time before feature films (which got going in America in 1914 with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man). So many future stars are in evidence: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore. It was particularly fascinating to see a young Lionel Barrymore playing roles ranging from romantic lead to scruffy gold prospector. Griffith’s shorts range all over the place: romances, social drama, thrillers, historical drama, adaptations of poems and literature. It is here that he practiced those techniques that he would later be famous for, like the close-up and the exciting cross cutting used to create tension and a sense of motion (most famously at the end of Birth of a Nation).

Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – it’s hard to go wrong with silent comedy. Many critics consider silent films to be particularly suited to comedy with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the finest practitioners of the art. Charlie Chaplin was The Little Tramp, who also combined pathos and a social conscience (pathos being a word routinely applied to him) to his comedy. Buster Keaton was called The Great Stone Face because of his impassive expression no matter what mayhem was going on around him and he brought a highly acrobatic, daredevil and inventive wit to his comedy. Harold Lloyd, on the other hand, was the American every man who usually got into trouble while trying to win the girl or win respect. All their work is full of delights, but to begin I recommend Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Buster Keaton’s The General and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman or The Kid Brother.

Chang and The Lost World – if you are a fan of King Kong, then you can’t go wrong with Chang and The Lost WorldThe Lost World is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World and features dinosaurs, created with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien, the same man who would apply this technique to the creation of King Kong. Chang is more of a fictional documentary created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack – creators, directors and producers of King Kong. They spent time in Siam (Thailand) where they constructed a drama, that feels more like a documentary, about a family living in the jungle and dealing with tigers, monkeys and an elephant stampede. The footage of the animals, especially the tigers and elephants, is thrilling and it does give a good sense of how people lived.

Douglas Fairbanks and Swashbucklers  – do you like Errol Flynn and swashbucklers (or Rafael Sabatini novels)? Than try Douglas Fairbanks (the original swashbuckler) and his The Mark of Zorro, a delightful, exciting and highly athletic romp of a costume adventure. Also fun are the adaptations of several Sabatini novels – Scaramouche (1923, with Ramon Novarro) and The Sea Hawk (1924, with Milton Sills). Both films are far closer to the novels than their later remakes with Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger. It’s not exactly a swashbuckler, but the 1925 Ben-Hur (also with Ramon Novarro) is also excellent and stands up just as well as the 1959 version (the chariot race is awe-inspiring).

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterGerman Expressionism – German cinema was extremely inventive during the silent era and the film that started it all was the 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. When I first saw it, I think the music put me off (it was highly discordant), but the Kino edition that I saw offered multiple scores and next time I am going to choose music that is less stressful to listen to. Other examples of German expressionism include most anything directed by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, though one of his loveliest films is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a tender romance which he made while in Hollywood that also demonstrates how sophisticated silent movie was.

Lon Chaney – Lon Chaney was The Man With a Thousand Faces. He did The Phantom of the OperaThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown (with a very young Joan Crawford), and the crime drama The Penalty. Unrequited love, crime, physical deformity, beauty, redemption, revenge, longing and goodness are often his themes.

Josef von Sternberg – before he made his films with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous silent films. My favorite is The Last Command, with Emil Janning and William Powell. It takes place both in Hollywood and Russia during the 1917 Revolution. It’s not terribly accurate regarding the revolution, but the emotional and visual beauty is stunning.

Another way to get into silent movies is to take some favorite actors from the talkies and look for them in silent films. Greta Garbo, John Barrymore (my favorite of his films are Beau Brummel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford all appeared in silent films. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, William Wellman, Tod Browning (of Dracula fame) and even Alfred Hitchcock made many excellent silent films.

Where to See Silent Films

Silent films are admittedly much hard to get hold of than talkies. Most of the ones that I have seen have come either from the library or Classicflix, which has a far better selection of silent films than Netflix. All the DVDs I have seen are also available from Amazon, though some are rather expensive.

There are even many silent films available on sites like youtube, though often the quality of the film is poor and the music is either missing or doesn’t match. There are, however, a few decent quality silent films to be found there.

Buster Keaton’s silent short: “The Scarecrow”.

MV5BMTY3MTkyMTc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UY1200_CR122,0,630,1200_AL_A gothic thriller (influenced by German Expressionism) with strong echos of Charles Dicken’s Nicholas NickelbySparrows is one of Mary Pickford’s best films. Along with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Clara Bow personified the flapper in the late 1920s and her most famous film was It. This copy on youtube has a score by Carl Davis.

Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, made their debut in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short “An Unseen Enemy.” The video quality is a little shaky, but the music is not bad.

In Grandma’s Boy, Harold Lloyd is a coward whose grandmother shows him that he has courage and can win the girl and defeat the murderous tramp who is terrorizing the community.

 

 
16 Comments

Posted by on May 9, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: