F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.
Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large, but not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés of studio cinema: the great genius cut down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native strengths. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
Stroheim found fame as an actor, his turns as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate,” including his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time, that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal, and so at least at first, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two films, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922). (With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms.) Foolish Wives was brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams, and for a long time afterward, however ruefully, Hollywood played along.
Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly eat at the frame. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony,that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed, but his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry backed up by bogus cash supplied to them by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting at bottles by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
From the start of Foolish Wives, however, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm comes looking for shelter: pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen, complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.
During the silent film era, exoticism was all the rage. The original Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino, was the stand-out heartthrob of the age, but Myrtle Gonzalez, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, and Beatriz and Vera Michelena all had their followings, and Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez became bonafide movie stars. It took Valentino’s death in 1926 for Mexican singer/dancer/actor Ramon Novarro to become Hollywood’s reigning Latin lover, a place he would have held easily in any open field. Novarro combined the athletic daring and comic wit of Douglas Fairbanks with the dusky good looks of Valentino, and threw in his own dazzling smile for good measure. The camera loved him, and soon, so did audiences all over the world. Novarro almost single-handedly saved MGM from bankruptcy when his star turn in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ hit theatres in 1925; after that, he made up to four pictures a year through 1934.
The Pagan came about in the middle of Novarro’s heyday, and aside from recycling some popular tropes of the silent era, it lavishes a good deal of attention on Novarro’s sex appeal. It also has a documentary quality to it, filmed as it was in Tahiti, with fascinating footage of workers harvesting coconuts and making copra from it: a title card even tells us what copra is and what its uses are. Perhaps most interesting to me are the musical threads that run through and beyond the film itself.
Stalwart representative of white progress Roger Slater (Donald Crisp) sails to the island where half-white/half-native Henry Shoesmith, Jr. (Novarro) owns a vast coconut grove in hopes of striking a deal with Shoesmith to harvest the crop for copra production. Slater learns from an Asian banker where Henry lives and that the young man takes after his native mother—in other words, he’s too lazy to work the plantation. Slater and Henry meet cute when Slater goes to the manor house looking for Henry and is directed to a pair of bare feet by a servant. Henry is lounging barechested and rebuffs Slater, telling him he should come back later. Henry is much more interested in sleeping and playing his ukulele than in talking business.
I’m not sure why, but every tropical paradise seems to have a white prostitute, and we meet this island’s good-time girl, Madge, (Renée Adorée, a dead ringer for another actress of the night, Shirley MacLaine) as she’s being thrown out of the bank. Unaccountably, we next see her lounging with Henry in a field, playing his ukulele to him. The camera pans up Novarro’s half-naked body as Madge asks with a sigh why Henry never liked her. Of course, she means in the biblical sense, but Henry is such an innocent that he merely answers that he does like her very much. At this moment, Henry’s sexual urgings are awakened when he starts to sing “Pagan Love Song” and hears the song returned by a woman on board a ship anchored near his field. Madge warns him that the ship belongs to a nasty white trader—Slater—but he responds, “she native voice” and swims out to meet the lovely young woman whose voice he heard—Tito (Dorothy Janis), an orphan and Slater’s ward.
The Pagan offers echoes of Sadie Thompson (1928), but with a much lighter and more peripheral touch. Instead of a sanctimonious preacher who falls for the prostitute, Slater is this film’s reformer, and his project is Tito. The film is quiet in portraying Slater’s attraction to Tito, with Crisp underplaying what could have been a cardboard villain role; he gently plays with her hair while she reads scripture aloud to him and projects as much fatherly regard as he does lustful suitor. It’s not clear how long she has been his ward, but when Henry appears as a rival for her attentions, Slater’s affections stir to the point of “sacrificing” himself to her betterment by forcing her to marry him through the power of his parental authority.
More central to the film is the clash of Western progress/colonialism and native culture. The film states its case in the opening moments of the film, remarking that Slater is too busy to notice the natural beauty all around him as the camera scans the tropical idyll. At the same time, Henry is such a naïve nature boy that it’s hard not to see some condescension in the film’s attitude toward native people, though his cluelessness is played largely for laughs. He has no interest in or knowledge of money, accepting no payment for giving Slater exclusive rights to harvest his coconuts because he has too many to eat himself and similarly giving away the goods in his plantation store on the promise of payment as he tries and fails to become a businessman worthy of Tito’s affections. Despite being cheated of his plantation, Henry only becomes angry when Slater snatches Tito away. Even Slater’s comeuppance is dealt by the impersonal hand of nature, not Henry.
It’s safe to say that The Pagan was the Out of Africa (1985) or Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) of its time—an escapist travelogue that allowed audiences to enjoy the attractive island and human scenery and dream about a simple life unencumbered by financial concerns. Novarro and Janis are a gorgeous couple who play extremely well together and provide an island of calm and joyful play to balance the more melodramatic moments of this generally solid film. Because of the location shooting, the film was made as a silent, and employed a MovieTone synchronized score for the musical interludes, though I think I detected a very short scene that seemed to be sound-recorded on one of the interior sets.
It is the music connections of this film that I found most interesting while researching this review. Novarro had ambitions to be a professional opera singer, but his voice lacked the strength to carry it off. Nonetheless, a contemporary review of the film by the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall says, “Mr. Novarro, who is to make his bow on the Berlin operatic stage within a week or so in ‘La Tosca,’ is heard singing a few songs in the course of this film.” “Pagan Love Song” was produced by the composer/lyricist team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (“I Cried for You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), the latter of whom would play a monumental role in creating and fostering movie musicals in Hollywood. Finally, the beautiful Dorothy Janis, who also sang in The Pagan, ended up marrying popular, Chicago-based bandleader Wayne King in 1932 and retired from movies.
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
The touring show The Hitchcock 9—the nine surviving features from Alfred Hitchcock’s catalog of silent films restored by the British Film Institute—finally hit town this weekend. For those unfamiliar with the director’s formative years, The Hitchcock 9 will prove enlightening, as nearly all of the films represent comedy and melodrama rather than classic suspense. The one exception, and my favorite of Hitchcock’s silent output, is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The film, based on the best-selling 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, establishes in one package all of Hitchcock’s major obsessions—the wrong man, blondes, voyeurism, and the threat of nature. The latter, more suggested by the subtitle Hitchcock tacked onto Belloc Lowndes title than an actual menace, nonetheless is used to great effect to veil the title character in mystery and menace.
The Lodger is based loosely on the exploits of Jack the Ripper, and Belloc Lowndes’ book was widely known and read when the film premiered (in fact, it’s still in print today). The key, therefore, to building suspense is to arouse fear in the audience that our heroine, vivacious blonde Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), is to become a victim of the man who has been slaughtering golden-haired women in a pattern that suggests Daisy’s street is the next to be hit.
First, though, one must fill their hearts with dread. A terrified woman looks up into the camera and screams in the night. Too late, as would-be rescuers find only her mangled corpse on an embankment and a note marked with a triangle and the scrawl of “The Avenger” claiming to have done the deed. A witness says she only saw a man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face. A music hall marquee blinks “To-nite. Golden Curls,” ironically taunting the audience that blondes will be murdered over the next 80 or so minutes to provide us with a guilty pleasure perhaps not unlike the killer’s.
Daisy, a mannequin at a London atelier, returns home to her parents’ (Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney) boarding house, where her suitor, Detective Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), drops by to flirt with her and gossip about the Avenger case. The doorbell rings, and Mrs. Bunting goes to answer it. Enveloped in the fog and a heavy cloak, a pale man (Ivor Novello) stands before her carrying a small grip and wrapped up to his nose in a scarf. When asked to state his business, he raises a ghostly hand toward the “To Let” sign above the door. After being led upstairs to inspect the room, he pays a month’s rent and becomes the lodger. He asks that the various pictures of blonde-haired women be removed from the room, and when Mrs. Bunting sends Daisy up to help carry the pictures out, she and the lodger meet for the first time.
Novello’s acting in the opening scenes is very broad, emphasizing the lodger’s peculiarities and secretiveness, filling him with a torment that seems largely overdone. There’s no doubt that Hitchcock the control freak wanted this type of performance, which shows up one handicap of soundless pictures—the inability to use vocal inflection to inject subtly suspicious tones and phrases. He throws further suspicion on the lodger when Novello admires Daisy’s golden curls and locks away his grip, which looks like a doctor’s bag in direct reference to the theory that the Ripper was a physician skilled in using surgical tools. One night, when the lodger goes out at about the same time another woman is murdered, Mr. and Mrs. Bunting start developing their own suspicions and quake at the thought that the murderer is living under their roof and, as it turns out, romancing their daughter.
There’s nothing terribly subtle about The Lodger. Daisy is a flirt who keeps Chandler on a leash until she finds someone she deems better, and Chandler is an overbearing blowhard who would love it if the girlfriend-stealing lodger were the killer. When we get to the truth that the lodger is wealthy (of course) and lost his sister to The Avenger, we understand his fixations and sensitivities. His promise to his dying mother that he will bring The Avenger to justice has worn on his last nerve, which is better exemplified by Hitch’s trick photography—letting us peer through the ceiling to see him pacing in his room—than with the sunken-eye make-up and fragility Novello displays.
Nonetheless, the murder of one of the Golden Curls dancers (Eve Gray) shows Hitchcock at his suspenseful best. The Avenger has been a topic high on the list of the dancers for weeks. Gray’s character is no less wary than the other girls, but she is often met at the stage door by her boyfriend and feels safe in his company. One night, they have a quarrel, and she storms off without him, blinded by her anger to the danger she has just put herself in. The scene unspools like any fateful encounter, building from the stage door to a secluded square where Gray fumbles with the undone buckle of her shoe. The dreadful build-up and horrible end to this scene, perhaps the best of the film, reflects the economy with which Hitchcock can terrify an audience.
He also knows how to titillate the old-fashioned way. In what a modern viewer can only see as a precursor to the shower scene in Psycho (1960), Daisy prepares for a bath. We watch her strip off her garments one by one until Hitch cuts to the bathtub drain and Daisy’s toes wiggling in the water. The lodger has no peephole like Norman Bates’, but he listens at the door nonetheless, and we get to see Daisy in her all-together, though the rim of the bathtub obscures any flagrant nakedness. Norman would have killed her, but the lodger’s interest is amorous, not murderous. I was quite overwhelmed during a love scene between the two when Hitchcock practically climbed up Novello’s nose with a close-up that took up the entire screen; this is one time I can honestly say the effect—and what Hitch was going for is anyone’s guess—would not be the same watching a DVD at home.
Hitchcock takes a dig at vigilante justice as well, when the lodger is arrested but breaks free, only to be chased by a mob and beaten as he hangs helplessly by his handcuffs from a wrought-iron fence he tried to climb. Carefully placed shadows make the lodger into a Christ figure, and Hitch would return to the court of public opinion with no less than a priest at the center of suspicion in I Confess (1953).
All’s well that ends well, as the lodger is saved by Chandler and his men when they get word that the real Avenger has been apprehended. Failing to give the audience a glimpse of the killer is not only anticlimactic, but also a cheat. We are at the movie because we have a certain bloodlust that needs slaking, but Hitch proves to be more the moralist than usual and scolds us for suspecting the wrong man. The disappointment that must have greeted this omission was not lost on the master, however. He would not make that mistake again.
It was a treat to see this film with its restored color tints, and what looked like two-strip Technicolor in the penultimate scene of the mob chasing the lodger. The title cards, a clear homage to German Expressionism, must have been a delight for the director to work on, harkening back to his days of drawing them for other filmmakers. Finally, the live accompaniment of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was appropriate, elegant, and a huge asset to enjoying this classic from the silent screen. If you have the opportunity, make time to see some or all of The Hitchcock 9, and especially The Lodger.
One of the best things about being a cinephile in Chicago is the wealth of informed, passionate fellow travelers who are in a position to bring the best from the world of cinema into our theaters week after week. I have mentioned the Northwest Chicago Film Society here before as one of the best of the programming outfits around town. The NCFS has had a rough time lately, first losing the theater that housed the 40-year-old classic film series they took over; then facing a battle with a Christian congregation that wanted to buy and convert their new home, the Portage Theater, into a church; and now with the theater’s current owner, who abruptly locked the doors of the Portage over a dispute regarding the theater’s liquor license.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing quite like the solidarity of the film community here, as two other movie palaces helped the show go on by lending their facilities to the NCFS to continue their summer schedule—and what a schedule it has been! With the addition of the estimable Kyle Westphal, late of George Eastman House, as a partner and programmer, NCFS has learned of and been able to secure prints of rare films and restorations that have flown under the radar of most other venues. I was fortunate to be part of a packed audience at the Patio Theater to see High Treason, an extremely rare British talkie made on the cusp of the conversion from silent to sound pictures, with both silent and sound versions created and released. The restoration of the spotty nitrate and badly damaged soundtrack was funded by the Library of Congress/National Film Preservation Foundation and The Film Foundation, but the new print has only been shown once before at the Library of Congress Packard Campus Theater. Thus, we were only the second American audience in more than 80 years to see the sound version of High Treason on the big screen.
High Treason, an ambitious production that clearly was influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), is set in the future—1940!—when, after the horrible destruction of World War I, individual countries are now formed into federations throughout the world to work in harmony. A sustained period of peace, encouraged by a worldwide organization called the Peace League, has caused an economic downturn for those in the business of war. Thus, a cabal of monied industrialists plots to inflame passions and start the war machine rolling again. The peace is disturbed in Europe by a border incident instigated by the cabal in which a vacationing couple and a slew of border guards are gunned down. When this first incident isn’t enough to shake the peace, a train traveling through a tunnel beneath the English Channel from England to France is bombed, killing all aboard. When the decision to go to war is considered, President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) breaks a tie vote and casts his lot for war. His soldier son Michael (Jameson Thomas) prepares to mobilize, while Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), Michael’s sweetheart and daughter of the leader of the Peace League, Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), tries to dissuade him and eventually breaks with him in bitter anger. As men and women all over are called up to fight, Dr. Seymour makes a last, desperate bid for peace.
What may strike you from this brief synopsis is how eerily accurate this film was in predicting the European Union and the Chunnel, and how the idea of a military-industrial complex, which was criticized by progressive movements during the 1960s, is presented here credibly, not as some delusional conspiracy theory that would be ridiculed today. High Treason, however, stays very much of its time in celebrating the Jazz Age. Michael takes Evelyn, in full flapper mode, out on the town for an extended and very enjoyable scene in a nightclub full of fashionable Gatsby-esque extras dancing and drinking the night away. The parallels to the nightclub scene in Metropolis are obvious, as the first vision from inside the club is of a gigantic nude statue of a woman overseeing the revelers. While there is no actual nudity in this or any other scene, as there is in Metropolis, there were enough long takes of women in their silk undies that the film was actually banned in New York.
Elvey produced another fine set-piece in the train sequence. A first train goes through the tunnel, and the conspirators on board drop a time bomb out the train window and onto the tracks. With the dread of the inevitable gripping the audience, he then offers a scene of high comedy, as the doomed second train teems with lively characters, particularly a rich, elderly woman doting on a small puppy, which she puts in her bag and hangs on a hook while she and her husband have their supper. The sweetness of the scene contrasts suddenly and violently with the explosion that upends the train and collapses the wall of the tunnel, sending cascades of water in to drown the passengers. Again, the parallel with the flood scene in Metropolis is hard to ignore, but the scene has a drama and integrity all its own.
The critique of the idle rich that was present in Metropolis is absent here, as the message of the film is not so much about class struggle as about maintaining a lasting peace in a world programmed for conflict. This perspective is another unique aspect of High Treason. The film takes its pacifism—itself a rarity in world cinema—to a logical, if extreme conclusion. Dr. Seymour is as influential a figure on the world scene as any warlike world leader might be today. President Deane allows him to make a statement before Deane announces over the radio that war has been declared; Seymour uses this time to kill Deane and announce that the nation will remain at peace, but he has destroyed another human life and refuses to defend his action as necessary for the greater good. Elvey frames Seymour as a Christlike figure, with a circular window in the background surrounding his head like a halo at his trial. However, Seymour is no martyr, simply a man who sees moral relativism as the greatest danger to the common good, to peace, by suggesting that one life is more important than another. This Eastern notion of the godhead in all of us put me in mind of another utopian vision put to film, Lost Horizon (1937).
Aside from its status as a rarity and important transitional film, High Treason has other qualities to recommend it. While the acting is generally overwrought, particularly from Thomas, the film perfectly exemplifies the transition of acting styles from the broad pantomime needed in the silent era to a more naturalistic rendering of dialogue and expression. The ramp-up to war that has young women lining up to work in an aerodrome factory, guarded by Deane and his troops, is offered in a high crane shot as a moving tableau not only of the legions of lives hanging in the balance, but also of how war reduces human beings to little more than identically uniformed ants marching in line. This impression, however, is mitigated by one woman who begs an intake worker not to accept her; the worker guesses that she has children at home and stamps her orders with an exemption, offering the possibility of mercy against the tidal wave of violence. In perhaps the most compelling scene in the film, the women, led by Evelyn, are prepared to defy Michael and his troops. Seeing the two sides square off in deadly earnest is a genuinely tense moment perfectly staged and paced by Elvey.
Gaumont British had high hopes for High Treason, a prestige export they hoped would put them on the map. Unfortunately, its lackluster box office and complete absence from New York doomed it, and High Treason vanished quickly from view. Thanks to the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, High Treason is back. Urge an arthouse in your neighborhood to book it today!
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped in to a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
Director: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Film fans, the day you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Just a few hours ago, the rediscovered “lost” film that marks the earliest surviving feature for which Alfred Hitchcock received screen credit debuted on the internet.
Although missing its last three reels, The White Shadow, a good-looking melodrama of uncommon richness, has come back to cast its white shadow upon audiences again through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production, donated web hosting by Fandor, and a magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla with violinist Nicole Garcia funded by donors to this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon! For the next two months, anyone anywhere in the world can watch this treasure free of charge here, solving one of the biggest problems in film preservation: offering access to films that have long been out of circulation and are not likely to get wide distribution again.
Annette Melville, executive director of the NFPF and the best collaborator Farran, Rod, and I could have had in making the blogathon a success, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered last year, David Sterritt, who wrote a book on Hitchcock for Cambridge University Press, pointed out that it was quite a find. But a little more research suggests that it is more like ‘the missing link.’ It appears to be the first surviving feature on which he collaborated with his wife Alma as well as the film that established his connection with the Selznick family. Lewis J. Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, was the American distributor, and the film survives as a Selznick distribution print.”
So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. The screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that Hitchcock’s lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early and tracks with the style of melodrama favored in silent pictures. Betty Compson plays devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets American Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe, a cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signaling to Nancy that she is almost returned to her “beloved” Devon. Field is immediately smitten with the vivacious Nancy and turns up on her doorstep just as she is becoming bored and restless with life at home. Her romance with Robin is cut short when she impulsively runs away, followed by a father determined to bring her back. Both go missing and the failure of a final effort to find them kills Mrs. Brent (Daisy Campbell).
Georgina meets up with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) by chance, and the romance is back on, with Georgina pretending to be Nancy to save her sister’s reputation. However, when Louis, a painter who has returned to his home in Paris, spies Nancy drinking and gambling in a bohemian nightspot called The Cat that Laughs, he rushes back to Robin to prevent him from marrying the woman who is not the person she appears to be.
I can’t pretend to know much about Graham Cutts and his directorial style, but I would venture to say that the depth of the portrayal Betty Compson gives to her twin characters may be down to his coaching. I would expect Hitchcock to direct the evil twin as more cold and duplicitous, even this early in his career. Compson acts like neither a cardboard goody-two-shoes nor a wildly amoral sensualist. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Nancy for having her character judged so harshly by the title cards. A woman who wants to travel, have the upper hand in romance, play poker, and smoke—in other words, have a man’s freedom—seems to have the kind of spirit Victorian women like Georgina were straining after; indeed, this tale of good and evil seems outdated even by 1920s standards, belonging more to the vamp era of the 1910s. Of course, Nancy wishing her father would break his neck while horseback riding and then showing up his poor “seat” on a horse is awfully wicked, but we are told Mr. Brent made his wife and family miserable. It’s no wonder Nancy ran away.
If a film has to end in the middle, the shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of the Paris nightclub, gaily unaware that she is about to have a vicious confrontation with Robin, is the perfect place to stop. The synopsis of the rest of the film shows that it veered into a kind of Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul. I prefer to write my own scenario for a film that is filled with some interesting, full-bodied characters who deserved better than to have a moralizing fate determine their lives. Some truly suspenseful moments and occasionally murderous emotions leapt from the screen, perhaps revealing Hitchcock’s touch. A raft of interesting villians, from Uncle Charley and Norman Bates to the cruel death dance of Judy/Madeleine and Scottie, have some ancient echoes in this substantial blast from the past happily restored to the world again. Go watch it!
The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other. That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.
Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.
Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.
But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.
One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.
Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.
The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.
Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.
Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.
The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement. Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. Thus the story is complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities.
The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden. The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and in spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked for same in the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile, Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.
Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.
The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.
A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.
The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.
A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.
Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.
The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.
A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.
Early cinema had no shortage of great innovators whose names roll off the tongue of any film lover, but D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau stand as perhaps the signal triumvirate of the medium’s formative influences, with Griffith as grammarian, Eisenstein as architect, and Murnau as alchemist. Murnau had, with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), made a film nominally within the limits of the Expressionist style laid out by Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang, but pushed those limits outwards and introduced qualities of aesthetic and technical experimentalism into narrative film that soon began to inflect silent cinema far outside German borders. His subtitle for Nosferatu declared the intent and the effect: he made symphonies in cinema. Murnau’s almost endlessly resonating career was tragically short, for only 12 years intervened between the time when the young former assistant to Max Reinhardt made his first movie and his death in a car accident in 1931, just before his last feature Tabu premiered. Murnau’s influence on filmmakers was less how to put together the specific pieces of film to tell a story than as an exponent of “Unchained Cinema,” that is, the use of every element at the director’s disposal to construct an image on screen operating entirely to express a poetic-artistic vision. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, his first American production and one of the defining films of the silent era’s last few glorious years, was to influence filmmakers from the French Poetic Realists to Orson Welles to the New Wave and on and on.
With his legendary run of UFA films like ThePhantom (1923), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926), Murnau deepened his skill and fame and pushed his belief in pure visual exposition to radical limits. His dramatic sensibility expanded, too: whereas in Nosferatu he presented everyday humanity as literal prey for the emanations of the psyche, he began to more carefully modulate this theme through characters both insignificant, like the hero of The Last Laugh, and titanic, like Faust, who nonetheless are at the mercy of forces within and without that can destroy them or make them indestructible. When Murnau came to Hollywood to make a project he’d been developing back in Germany, Fox Studios’ money and infrastructure was laid at his feet with a boisterous profligacy only given today to the crassest would-be blockbusters. Murnau and his screenwriting partner Carl Mayer set out to create a little drama imbued however with qualities of fundamental allegory, hence the subtitle of “a song of two humans,” which, on the face of it, it like almost a caricature of high-falutin’ pseudo-art. But Murnau’s confidence in his grasp on the poetic lexicon of early cinema and the genuineness of his empathy for characters at the mercy of larger forces was such that he could transmute them into aesthetic riches. Mayer was a specialist at writing chamber dramas about everyday characters, whereas Murnau was interested in the elemental, yet the duo’s disparate interests complemented each other perfectly for The Last Laugh and Sunrise. Sunrise’s unspecific setting, perched somewhere between country and city, old world and new, past and present, artistic traditions and cinematic immediacy, dramatizes its world in terms of such binaries: most important of all, love and hate are entwined here with an inseparable, dizzying potency.
Sunrise tells the exceedingly simple story of a young couple in a state of crisis in an extraordinary manner. Murnau approaches it in a seemingly oblique fashion, starting off with the streams of holidaymakers who come to the tiny village where the main characters live from a city that is darkening and spreading, to quote The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), one of the many films under Sunrise’s influence. The opening shots, utilising overlays and split-screen effects, mimic the style of the era’s travel posters, as if drawing attention to how commercial visions mould our experience of the world, and in particular, the way the urban affluent see places beyond city limits. The very first shot is practically a film school subject in itself in terms of form and function: the artful sketch of a railway station interior and the lettering scrawled across it again evokes advertising, but also the art of the set designers, a touch that allows Murnau to immediately invoke the artificiality of his vision. As the sketch fades into actual set, with a great glass wall allowing us to see the urban context for a departing train, he consciously introduces the organic quality to the way his artificial world is constructed, binding city, train, and the movement of the train together like a museum display of an engine showing all its moving parts. The organic quality of Murnau’s created world extends to later in the legendary sequence on a trolley car where the country gives way first to the detritus-strewn outskirts, then the industrial belts and finally, the urban heart.
Sunrise’s first act is built around erotic obsession, intrusion and parasitism, so it’s fair that the film starts off with the city penetrating the country like a virus, ready to infect it and leech off it. The attitude of “the Woman of the City” (Margaret Livingstone), the vampy vacationer who stays behind in the rural village, is signalled very early when she has the woman renting her a room clean her shoes while she’s wearing them. The Woman is the embodiment not simply of the flashy thrills of urban modernity, but also of irresponsible sexual excitement itself, and her whistle to alert the Man (George O’Brien) that she’s waiting outside his hovel of a farmhouse is the call of the Siren, a Lorelei or female counterpart to Count Orlock. She fills a void of desire and excitement for the Man because the flush of romance has entirely left his life. The Man’s farm is failing, and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), silently aware of her husband’s infidelity and pain, slogs her way through days and nights and takes care of their infant son in glum distraction. With her old-fashioned hair style and sexless persona, she inhabits the idea of a wife from another era where it scarcely has traction, and the marrow has been sucked out of the Man along with the nobility of labour.
The Man leaves his barely furnished dinner table to venture into the reedy fringes of the lake that separates the village from the tramline to the city. Under the moonlight, he meets the Woman, who, in her black coat, has a panther’s aspect. Murnau matches the vamp’s promises of an electric life in the city with gaudy visions of whirling, expressionistic models and a split-screen shot of a bandleader thrashing time before a battery of horns and a dance floor that churns a storm-swell of sensual thrills. Lust and murder are instant bedfellows, as the vamp suggests to the Man that he arrange for his wife’s death by drowning. The Man flies into a rage at the suggestion and almost strangles her, but this is just prelude to carnal frenzies in the moonlight. The Man’s violence only stokes the Woman’s lust, her lunatic dancing and shimmying drives him to bury his face in her crotch in a scene that’s still amazing for the unrestrained manner in which Murnau presents sex and the death wish with raw, Freudian force. A tracking shot following the couple’s footprints in the mud, the vamp’s hard-heeled shoes showing up as utterly impractical, captures the insidious muck of their actions, as she cuts bulrushes for him to tie together and use as a buoy to keep himself afloat after he tips his boat into the water.
Glazed in Murnau’s nocturne eroticism, the first third of Sunrise suggests the distant prototype of all film noir, with a dash of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. If the Wife is femininity rendered stale and mute, so, too, the Man’s masculinity is contorted and volatile. When the Man returns to his home, carrying the guilty bundle of bulrushes, the Wife pulls a blanket over his sleeping form with a care that’s sublime, and when he seems the next day to reach out to her, she’s all too willing to believe he’s coming back to her. The build-up to the Man’s aborted attempt to kill his wife is prolonged when the family dog senses evil in the air and jumps aboard their rowboat, forcing the Man to turn back and take the dog inside. The Wife’s buoyant mood sinks in sensing, but not quite realising, her husband’s nihilistic mood, a mood that finally shows itself when he rises to do the deed, stiff and hunched, arms straight at his sides, like Orlock in Nosferatu But his wife’s terror brings the man back to his senses. He chases after her when, after they reach the shore, she flees onto a trolley, and the two journey into the city barely aware of anything except their own mutual horror and shame.
Much of silent cinema tends to look old—feel old—in a fashion deeper than mere technological modishness: through so much of it there is the incidental depiction of a world rapidly changing. For instance, all those Keystone Kops chase scenes depict a Los Angeles being built, and the shifts in fashion take us from the fading of Edwardian gentility into the sleekness of the Jazz Age within a decade, reminding us that the golden age of silent cinema came at a time when the world made a definitive shift into the one that, more or less, we still live in, but people still cast glances over their shoulder. Cinema of the time also had an eye toward a world beyond American borders: a huge proportion of the population in that time had been born overseas, many in places where the city depicted in the film was as exotic as and equivalent to the new country they came to. The other truly great depiction of marital pain in the new urban age from this time, King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), seems amazingly contemporary because it’s keenly attuned to the pulse of a purely modern, industrial city’s rhythms and realities. Sunrise operates in a different fashion, trying to be universal and timeless, even whilst still describing the world in which it was made. Murnau’s work, with one eye constantly back on a mythic past and the other on an oppressive present, feels like a barometer for the age, and the film’s elemental conceptualism emphasises all this: at its heart it’s a love story, yes, but it’s also about the way people are defined by place and time, and how they also might escape that definition. Just the same as the Man is beset by outsized moments of despair, rage, joy and sensual frenzy, Murnau’s movie operates according to the same bipolar spirit, swinging between poles of menace and anguish, and freewheeling ebullience and liberation. Sunrise, in its way, is a cinematic equivalent of one of Dostoyevsky’s characterisations, embodying and encapsulating multiple impulses and the way variations on the same basic feeling can draw one in diametrically opposed directions.
When the Man and Wife reach the city, however, they find a temporary release from the things that have nearly destroyed them both. Far from being entirely populated by people like the vamp, the city proves as alive with variety and human quality as anywhere else. Here buildings take on the outlook of alien embassies, and human visages are menacing and magnificent all at once. Sunrise, once it reaches the city, isn’t all that great a distance from the films of Chaplin and Keaton in its wry, observant take on individual quirks, from tipsy waiters to comically presumptuous lotharios to photographers who take secret delight in the unruly romanticism of their subjects, and its feel for the individuals contending with an almost-overwhelming new world. Murnau repeatedly makes a gag of situations that seem momentarily threatening, but prove eventually to be all right, as when the Man and Wife get frantic over thinking they’ve knocked the head off a classical statuette belonging to the photographer, not realising that it never had a head, and when an alarm over not being able to pay the bill in a swanky nightclub proves only momentary, as the Wife reveals she’s stashed some funds away for a rainy day. Even the finale renders the same basic idea on an epic and urgent key. Murnau’s visual excitement never gets in the road of his essential material, but rather dovetails with its richly conceived, poetic intensity. When the wife gets off the tram, still dazed, the husband grabs her and swings her through the traffic, constantly in danger of being knocked down; once the pair reconnects, they drift through the traffic with a weightless evanescence, and shift realities back into a pastoral setting before coming back to reality, where their kissing is holding up a river of traffic.
If Sunrise is taken too literally, it could be construed as a portrait in pathology, with the Man’s wild swings between ardour and homicidal feeling the stuff of horror tales. In context, however, it’s a virtually metaphysical portrait of how terrifyingly close such intense emotions are. It’s momentarily bracing to note that Murnau, gay and very Prussian, was one of the cinema’s great portrayers of grand, erotic passion and emotional immediacy, but then again, stereotypes never lasted long with him. The Man’s swing from cyborg-like fixation in the boat scene to crumbling, guilty mess sees the male and female roles reverse, the Wife holding power of life and annihilation in her hands and whose understanding of his emotional fatigue has a maternal element. The crucial scenes of the whole film comes when the pair, still bleary and shell-shocked from the evil morning, stumble into a church, where the spectacle of another couple’s wedding provides catharsis for them, repeating compositions of the man’s earlier tussles with the Woman as he buries his face in her belly, but with completely different emotional meanings. This scene segues into Murnau’s best joke, as our couple emerges from the church like they’re the ones who have just been married, to the bewilderment of the waiting folk outside. It’s both amusing and fittingly alarming then when, as the Man gets a shave, he’s hovered over by a manicurist who evokes the Woman and the Wife is bugged by a moustachioed letch who tries a bit too forcefully to chat her up, stealing one of the flowers the Man had given her. The Man, brushing off the manicurist, rises from his seat, unfolds a pocket knife and, with a triumphal flourish of reclamation and resurgent power, hacks the flower from the stranger’s lapel.
Of course, the film’s diptych of female types, blonde Madonna and vulpine brunette Whore, is reductive, but it does offset the Man, who combines violently opposing temperaments common to all men but stoked to fever pitch in him—just as Murnau had earlier in Nosferatu and The Phantom, and would again in City Girl (1930), presented similarly internally conflicted female characters. Gaynor, who herself won Best Actress in the 1927 Oscars for three performances (the other two were in Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Street Angel), was used by the directors for her capacity to seem limpid yet luminous, whilst suggesting a less elfin Lillian Gish. O’Brien, mostly a Western actor who much later would star in two of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, is a fearsome physical performer, and when he and Gaynor come alight, it’s magic.
The process of the couple’s reconciliation is completed in a gigantic nightspot, memorably depicted on the exterior as a gigantic roulette wheel. There the Man becomes a momentary hero with his simple farmer’s fearlessness in hunting down a prize pig that escapes from the neighbouring sideshow. This sequence is a stream of hilarious vignettes of eccentric, flaky, sexy, ludicrous humanity, culminating as our couple is cheered on in performing the “peasant dance” in a display of deft physicality and pure partnership that delights the city crowd. Again this scene straddles worlds: for Germans Murnau and Mayer, it simply evokes the immediate reality of the national culture and the intrusion of the rural populace upon the urban. In the context of an American movie, the idea of a “peasant dance” evokes the immigrant experience, and at least for me, the curiously similar dancing styles often exaggerated in the Disney Silly Symphonies, which drew their inarguable popularity from aiming precisely at the nexus of audiences who covered a colossal range of cultural references. Simultaneously, the dance resolves what has been schismatic—city and country, male and female, fun and marriage, the world of two and the world at large, new and old.
Whilst the rural environment that the Man and Wife come from is a world of primal environs and singular, transcendent emotions, the city is a place of synergies, frippery, shallow wonders, and real ones, too. Perhaps the only other film that communicates the joy of rediscovering the love in a pained relationship as authentically as Sunrise is Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1951), a film that is in many ways a temperamental opposite: Rossellini’s intimate, ironic realism illuminates the inside of its characters through the tropes of the world as found rather than reordering the world. Sunrise’s finale offers up melodrama, as natural forces as immutable as the emotional ones seen throughout the film endanger the Man and Wife as they sail back to their village. Plot motifs converge with cunning symbolism as the Man gives the bundle of bulrushes that was supposed to save his life to his Wife just before their boat is capsized, an act of perfect charity, though the Man is washed ashore while the Wife is left to drift in the lake under the steadily disintegrating bundle: when the Man and fellows from town return to the becalmed lake, they only find drifting rushes leading the Man to believe the worst, and the vamp believes he’s pulled off the murder.
Murder indeed almost happens, as the Man this time comes out in reply to her whistle to throttle her almost to death, only to be saved by Murnau’s use of a gigantic close-up. More specifically, a gigantic close-up shot of the couple’s maid (Bodil Rosing) shouting out that the wife has been found alive, saving the femme fatale in the nick of time. But the sense of technique, the sheer go-for-broke feeling of Murnau’s employment of Rosing’s face, is inescapable, the purest distillation of form and function he can offer. Murnau follows it up with an equally perfervid close-up of the Wife, long hair at last unfurled, awakening in bed to the man’s kiss, as the pair dissolves in a beatific air. It’s a moment where the opposites in Murnau’s vision of the universe finally melt away, and the carnal becomes spiritual.
My love affair with Colleen Moore started the night I saw Ella Cinders several years ago at Chicago’s Silent Summer Film Festival. The most I had seen of Moore before that was in short film clips outside Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry display of her Fairy Castle, built for $500,000 in the mid 1930s and toured around the country by Moore to raise an eventual $650,000 for children’s charities. I never paid much attention to those clips, though they included a scene from Ella Cinders, so anxious was I to see the wonderland in miniature she created just for kids like me. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the woman who inspired this dollhouse for fairies would be exactly the kind of actress who could cast enchantment over an entire nation. After the premiere of Ella Cinders, she did indeed become the most popular actress in America.
At first, no one would make this light comedy based on the story of Cinderella. Some clever promoters decided to drum up demand for the film by launching an “Ella Cinders” comic strip in 1925 with characters from the film script, and a heroine who looked exactly like Moore. “Ella Cinders” was a big hit, not only inducing First National to make the picture, but also establishing a comic strip that would run for 36 years.
Ella Cinders is the put-upon servant of her stepmother (Vera Lewis) and two stepsisters, Lotta and Prissy Pill (Doris Baker and Emily Gerdes). Her only friend is handsome and gentlemanly George Waite (Lloyd Hughes), nicknamed Waite Lifter because he is the iceman who hauls the blocks to stock the iceboxes that fill their home town of Roseville, Colorado. Ella, longing to escape, learns that Lotta plans to enter a local beauty contest whose winner will receive a cash award and a contract with a Hollywood studio. When she goes to the photographer for a headshot to enter in the contest, she is plagued by a fly buzzing around her face. It is the headshot showing her cross-eyed with a fly on her nose that wins the contest for her, providing the judges with a good laugh instead of a dime-a-dozen beauty shot. Shrugging off her rags with the money to buy some new clothes, and with a train ticket in hand, she heads for Hollywood, only to find that the contest was a scam and that there is no studio contract waiting for her, only the same struggle to crash into a studio and get noticed that others face.
Ella Cinders offers some sight gags to tickle our fancy, but they pale in comparison to what Moore does on her own. For example, desperate to win the contest, she steals a book on acting off the chest of her sleeping sister and tries to follow instructions. Notably, the book says that being able to act with your eyes is the key to success (and an interesting take on acting in the silent era especially, with the cross-eyed look that catapulted Ben Turpin to comic fame included in the book). Director Green offers special effects of Moore apparently crossing and swirling her eyes in different directions to get laughs, but I was more impressed with her attempts to match the looks in her mirror. Similarly, when posing for the headshot, she is a mass of uncertainty, putting her hat at different angles, clutching some tulle around her face, leaning her chin on her finger, and other strange poses that are funny and charming at the same time. In Hollywood, she is thrown out repeatedly by a studio guard she is trying to get past. Her final attempt is to wrap a silk throw around herself and put a mannequin head on top to disguise herself. The image is kind of amusing, but when a dog unmasks her, her tear through the studio onto different sets is guilelessly funny.
The most famous scene in the film is her encounter with Harry Langdon. She sees him holding a door closed during a scene, and goes to his aid with the line, “They’re after me, too.” The gags Harry uses to hide her from the guard are pretty standard stuff—bobbing up and down to conceal her behind him, throwing a blanket over her and pretending she’s a table he’s having lunch at. For my money, the best bit is when she accidentally plugs a lion’s tail into an electric outlet and runs for her life. She ends up screaming for help on a set on which a fire is being simulated with blow torches, and the director, thinking she’s the actress he hired, congratulates her even after he sees the real cause of her distress. Naturally, she is put under contract and eventually wins herself a Prince Charming—George is actually wealthy, loves her, and goes to California to marry her.
I could quibble about details, and I certainly think the comedy bits are very routine and not very funny for modern tastes. But none of that matters because my sweet Colleen shines in every frame. She truly is incandescent, a warm and mirthful soul I love to spend time with whenever I can. Indeed, I found myself with an indelible smile on my face throughout my recent re-viewing of the film. Moore herself searched her whole life for prints of her many lost films without much success, but there is always hope that one will turn up somewhere the way Her Wild Oat did. Whenever and whatever it is, I’ll be there, communing with my favorite star.
It has been a few months shy of two years since I first learned about the cache of American films from the silent era found in the New Zealand Archive, and almost as long since I learned that a long-lost film by John Ford called Upstream was among them. Preparing for the first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, I was let in on the secret by the organization for which we chose to raise money, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). A lot has happened since those first organizing discussions: we’ve held another blogathon, one of the films whose restoration we funded (The Sergeant, 1912) is soon to be released on DVD by NFPF as part of a collection of Westerns, and Upstream made its repremiere in Los Angeles last September. The film has only shown in a handful of venues since then, none of them near Chicago.
That changed two weeks ago. A friend of mine told me Upstream was to screen at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison in a few days’ time. How had this amazing information escaped my notice?! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. At last, a chance to see what I’ve known about and worked for for so long. And what a show it was! The UW Cinematheque is a wonderful venue for free screenings of a wide range of films during the school year. Jim Healy, the new director of programming, came to UW after 10 years at George Eastman House, so not only are his taste and pedigree impeccable, but he also has a direct line to film sources throughout the world. Upstream was to have played at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema during their “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” symposium (which brought my blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme to town to sit on two panels), but an equipment problem caused the detour to the Cinematheque. Thus, with apologies to Farran for leaving her and the symposium behind, the hubby and I set off for our favorite neighboring state.
The evening Healy had planned was a tribute to the Fords, Francis and John, beginning with a screening of a short film, When Lincoln Paid (1913), directed by Francis (that’s him as Lincoln, too). The nitrate film had been found moldering in a New Hampshire barn and was taken on by Eastman House for restoration; Healy informed us that after the discovery, additional scenes were found elsewhere, so restoration of the title is ongoing. I look forward to seeing the film in its nearly complete form when the “new” scenes are edited in—it’s an extraordinarily gripping story of how Abraham Lincoln pays an I.O.U. to the owner of a boarding house years later, after he becomes president and is conducting the War between the States that caused the unfortunate woman to lose her son, a Union soldier, to a Confederate firing squad. (This film and brother John’s were both given brilliant piano accompaniment by David Drazin, a musician who has quite spoiled silent film lovers in Chicago with his witty, appropriate soundtracks improvised right on the spot.)
John Ford’s recovered film is a much different sort of film—a show biz story brimming with comedy and a lighthearted love triangle. Most of the action takes place in a boarding house for vaudeville performers run by Miss Hattie Breckenridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus), a former vaudevillian whose several posted signs let “resting” performers know that they must pay in advance. Raymond Hitchcock, in one of his last film performances before his death in 1929, plays the big star staying at Hattie’s with a wonderful shabby gentility. Hitchcock, a true star of the theatre whom audiences of the time were so sure to know that he wasn’t even given a character’s name, uses his reputation and liberal amounts of flattery to get Miss Hattie to overlook his outstanding debt to her. A knife-throwing act made up of the knife tosser Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), his target, Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), and their assistant, Eric Brashingham (Earle Foxe), aren’t booked up either. Worse for Jack, Gertie is carrying on a flirtation with Brashingham, the last in the line of an acting dynasty, and like the last in line for anything, he was shortchanged in the talent department.
All of the boarders, even Miss Hattie, hope for a big break when Gus Hoffman (Harry A. Bailey), a booking agent, shows up during their communal dinner. Everyone runs to greet him except Brashingham, who is far too busy slaking his appetite to bother; naturally, Hoffman is there to see him. The Brits want a Brashingham to play in a new production of Hamlet, and talent is no object. Dramatic actor Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard), who reveres Shakespeare, offers to coach Brashingham. The pair stays up all night rehearsing, and Brashingham makes a breakthrough. He sets sail for London, makes an enormous triumph, and grows a head the size of the Titanic. He returns to New York and visits the boarding house as a publicity stunt on the day Gertie and Jack are married. Will Gertie, who carried a torch for the ham for some time, regret her marriage? Will Jack throw a knife at his former colleague’s fat head to deflate it? Will Brashingham be able to fit his head through the front door at all? It’s for the viewer to see and enjoy.
The performances in the film are uniformly wonderful. Chautard does Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” scene that, regardless of the lack of sound, is magnetic and full of feeling. We see the difference between his rendition and Brashingham’s over-the-top recitation not only in the lack of obvious gesticulation, but also through lighting that offers a dramatic counterpoint to Chautard’s emotive face. The comedy dance team of Callahan and Callahan is wonderful as an odd-couple pairing. Ted McNamara’s face is the map of Ireland, while Sammy Cohen’s is kosher for Passover. They couldn’t be brothers if they tried, but their differences land them a print ad for cosmetic surgery, with Cohen offering a side view of his angular proboscis in the “before” picture, and McNamara showing a diminutive nose in the “after” photo. The partners also dance quite well, and offer an early comic scene as their rehearsal in their room above the dining room sends plaques of thin, loose plaster crashing down from the boards that form both their floor and the diners’ ceiling.
I thought Earle Foxe was a little overstated during his snob phase, though the groundwork was laid very nicely by his half-hearted romancing of Gertie that was more mercenary than marriage-minded. His humanity comes out best when all of his lines go out of his head just before curtain in London, and he’s in a very believable panic. Ford offers a ghostly image of Mandare appearing in a dramatic special effect to bolster Brashingham’s courage. Nancy Nash looked adorable, (I covet her three-piece suit), and Grant Withers didn’t overdo the jealousy. I really felt for him when Brashingham crashed his wedding, sending Gertie into hiding upstairs.
I’ve seen a number of film critics tying themselves into knots trying to “auteurize” Upstream. The truth is that Upstream is a wonderful comedy that wouldn’t be recognized as a John Ford film if you didn’t know he directed it. But it does reveal that he was always great at directing ensembles that could accommodate stars without selling them the deed to the farm and that comedy was in his blood. I could never understand the strange mixed tone of his film Pilgrimage (1933), a rather serious World War I film that unaccountably goes slapstick in its middle act. Now I think I get it.
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North is credited with being the first full-length, ethnographic documentary in cinematic history. As we understand the term “documentary” today, this film certainly stands as the most famous of its time, that is, a documentary that is not merely a document impassively recording occurrences in front of the lens, as with the “actualities” from the dawn of filmmaking, but one that preserves cultural artifacts with either implicit or explicit points of view about those artifacts. Flaherty would be one of the first documentarians to fiddle with the truth to preserve things he found valuable. In Nanook and Man of Aran (1934), for example, his aim was to document ways of life that were becoming extinct. Flaherty banished any modern tools or methods used by the Inuit tribe he recorded in favor of filming their traditional way of life; in Aran, the fishermen of Ireland’s Aran Islands literally reenacted traditional practices they had already abandoned.
You might call Flaherty something of a Luddite, despite his use of photographic equipment in filming and editing his material, and someone who may have romanticized traditional societies even as he saw the evidence of their hardships with his own eyes. His bias toward simplicity comes roaring out of The Twenty-Four Dollar Island, a 13-minute documentary in which the city of New York itself is the main character. The film is included in Anthology Film Archive’s nine-hour DVD set, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, a brilliant attempt to make it and other vital and fascinating films unseen no longer.
The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is another startlingly original work, portraying the mechanical organism that is a robust industrial city through its architecture and machines. While I don’t know what the original score for the film sounded like—or even if it had one—the new score by Donald Sosin provides a strong complement to Flaherty’s point of view that a city is something close to a fascistic overlord that, nonetheless, reflects human civilizations through the centuries.
The film opens with an image on paper: an historic drawing of the 1626 trade Dutchman Peter Minuit supposedly made with Native Americans—boxes of trinkets worth $24 for Manhattan Island. Title cards tell us the Dutch immediately built 30 houses. Next, we learn the new city of New Amsterdam grew to 1,000 residents by 1656. The film then juxtaposes a drawn map of the original New Amsterdam settlement with photos of the metropolis that had spread out on the same site by 1926, the year this film was shot. The next title card introduces Flaherty’s subject proper: “New York, symbol of impressive industry, finance, power, where men are dwarfed by the immensity of that which they have conceived—machines, skyscrapers—mountains of steel and stone.”
A couple of men are glimpsed on the edges of the frame as they maneuver some earth-moving equipment into place. Steel clam shovels dig into the sand and move on threads of chain into the air to deposit their loads in a nearby container. The music, which until now had trafficked in Native American motifs, starts to take on a stronger rhythmic intensity, as though it were imitating the heartbeat of the city, and synthesized tones emphasize the mechanistic nature of the subject. Ships belching black smoke and dwarfing nearby ferries and tugboats fill the frame. The Hudson River, visible on the maps shown at the beginning of the film, seems to be brimming with seafaring traffic, like a bathtub awash in rubber duckies and toy boats. Bridges spanning from the island to the surrounding land cut a swath through the sky; when the river traffic and bridges enter the same frame, the sky is all but obliterated. The total encroachment of the urban human habitat on the natural landscape of the island will fill the frame at the end of the film.
New York seems like some ghastly nightmare to Flaherty. Men building the mighty structures of the city work in deep holes, chipping at bedrock with pick axes and sliding down loose earth and rubble. The rock is loaded into a container and lifted by a crane out of the hole. During the scene, my mind raced to the building of the pyramids, which employed devices and many men working with their hands to erect the pharoahs’ tombs. As if by magic, the next image is of a building whose upper half is shaped like a stepped pyramid.
When the film segues to some of the skyscrapers then standing in Manhattan, a tree limb or two break into the frame. Not all of New York is hard and pushy, the film seems to want to say. The music softens with strains reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” but trending in the direction of his more atonal Third Symphony, and the examples of grace and elegance then in existence are boxy or overly fussy, reflecting a basic bad taste. If only the Chrysler Building had been finished in time to be photographed for this film, this section might have made a better case for New York’s softer side.
Flaherty captures the muscularity of New York, its ugliness, and deliberately eliminates most humans from the frame. It’s hard to believe the title card that says there were 8 million people living in the city in 1926, so completely does the island seem entirely populated by buildings and machines. There is nothing left from 1626 for Flaherty to recreate ethnographically, and without the elemental roots of the city—only its bedrock bones being hacked to pieces by drone workers—Flaherty seems to find little to dignify in his portrait. His point of view is clear; The Twenty-Four Dollar Island is a mesmerizing and amazing achievement for him and for its new scorer, Donald Sosin, who captures the spirit of the film and enhances it significantly.
When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.
Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.
Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.
Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.
The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.
The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.
Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful.
King Vidor deserves to be held high in the pantheon of American directors, and yet he’s never quite gained the stature he deserved in comparison with the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Wyler. Perhaps this is because his best work was more intermittent and mainly done as a young man, during the silent era. He spent much of the late 1940s and ’50s taking shoddy work for hire, ending his feature film career with his uneven adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956) and the truly awful Solomon and Sheba (1959).
The colossal project that was The Big Parade reputedly sprang from Vidor and his desire to create movies with a longer life span than the almost instantly disposable general cinema product. His idea was shepherded to realisation by Irving Thalberg at a time when films about the Great War were largely considered box office poison. The risk paid off: The Big Parade was an event movies of the 1920s, and is still officially recorded as the highest grossing silent film ever made, making more than $22 million in its worldwide release, a colossal sum for the time. The Big Parade holds up mightily, obviously superior in terms of cinematic construction and dexterity of expression, and a testament to silent-era Hollywood’s sweeping force and openness to innovation in style and story. The film could well have helped invent the basic structure of the modern war movie, and tonal disparities aside, echoes can be seen even in a film like Full Metal Jacket (1987), particularly in the finale in which a wounded soldiers’ buddies are driven to irrational actions in the face of an unseen threat.
Vidor’s inventive filmmaking is evident from the get-go, depicting various strata of American life called to action by cutting between construction riveter Slim (Karl Dane), bartender Bull O’Brien (Tom O’Brien), and rich layabout James Apperson (John Gilbert) at the fateful moment the U.S. declared war, announced by hooting sirens and marching revellers. Even Gilbert falls for the hypnotic spell of patriotism, which, as a title card puts it, can awaken in a heart in which it has never stirred, and joins several of his pals in the march to the recruiting office. Gilbert returns home to his plutocrat father (Hobart Bosworth), loving mother (Claire McDowell), and ludicrous brother Harry (Robert Ober). Mr. Apperson is proud of Harry, who’s putting his shoulder to the wheel by organising double shifts at their factory, and demands of his other shiftless son that he either pledge some effort to the war or get out of his house. Jim sarcastically asks if he can stay the night before clearing out. But his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) excitedly lets slip the news, which he wants to keep from his worried mother, that he’s already joined up. In basic training, he’s thrust into a unit that includes Slim and Bull, and learns the ropes of soldiering alongside them.
The first half of The Big Parade is generally played as a romantic comedy laced with serviceman humour, predicting the likes of MASH in the sardonic contrast of dutiful patriotism and filthy reality. It observes the tawdry and amusing proliferation of petty irritants, deprivations, and perils of military service, and the awakened native guile of the khaki-clad wayfarers in coping with the alienation of distance, language, and an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. Thalberg’s original hope had been to film What Price Glory?, the hit Broadway comedy-drama by Maxwell Anderson and military veteran Laurence Stallings, but the rights to that had already been purchased. Thalberg had Stallings write a new scenario for The Big Parade that has a strong resemblance to Glory. Vidor brilliantly employs Irving Berlin’s sarcastic anthem “You’re in the Army Now” as a motif for tying the early segments together; it becomes an integral part of building their esprit de corps as the recruits sing it when they march, and then its lyrics are quoted repeatedly as the company contends with a filthy bivouac in France that lacks showers and other conveniences.
Jim soon devises a way to wash—converting an empty wine barrel into a showerhead suspended in a treetop, with the unexpected result of drawing mademoiselle Melisande (Renée Adorée), whom Apperson ran into when transporting the barrel, to entertain herself with the sight of their naked backsides. Soon, Jim’s efforts to strike up a relationship with Melisande—assigning himself to “skirt detail” as the title cards put it—draw him into her farming family’s circle of friends who gather to read letters from relations at the front. In a comic piece, Slim and Bull raid the wine cellar while Jim sits with Melisande and her friends, causing a ruckus that nearly gets Jim arrested by some MPs. Recognising that they got him into trouble they save his hide been starting an even bigger ruckus. Such hijinks could have been buffoonish if not for the intricately observed, nuanced behaviour that is one of the great pleasures of silent films, building hilarious bits of business: for example, Jim’s efforts to break apart a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent him so he can share it with his fellows or introducing Melisande to the pleasures of chewing gum.
Moreover, The Big Parade is cunningly structured. Except for the bookend scenes stateside, the bulk of the film takes place in the course of two or three days, and the comedy and romance gives way soon enough to the grimmer tasks at hand. The film was reportedly expanded after test audiences responded enthusiastically to its fresh, romantic, antiheroic style, but no seams are apparent. The sequence in which the troops are ordered to the front, setting off a storm of frantic activity in the eye of which Jim and Melisande make their despairing goodbyes, was so instantaneously iconic that Vidor lampooned it four years later in his comedy Show People. It’s both vintage Hollywood schmaltz and a startling piece of filmmaking, alive with motion and drama in the smallest details, leaving Melisande finally alone on a desolate road, the big parade having surely gone by. Jim, Bull, and Slim ride off amongst an armada of trucks and tanks to meet their baptism of fire, first in a sniper-riddled forest, and then in a crater-riddled wasteland.
The way the sequences build is all the more extraordinary for possessing both spectacle and gut-grabbing mystery and threat, in a vividly coherent vision of men in the midst of war. After the grandiose vision of the “big parade” itself, they march first into teeming, shadowy threat in the forest, and then into the midst of a colossal campaign, and finally, finish up lost, alone, isolated, surrounded by darkness, as if they’ve stepped off the end of the earth and ended up in hell. If Stendhal’s vision of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma has a clear cinematic counterpoint in a movie, it’s here. Pinned down by machine gunners, Slim, Bull, and Jim to draw lots to see who will go out and try to knock out one of the enemy emplacements. Slim “wins,” ventures out, and succeeds, but is riddled with bullets on his return and is left to die without a rescue attempt. Jim explodes in outrage when he and Bull are ordered to stay put, demanding “Who’s fighting this war, men or orders?” He goes to find Slim, and Bull pursues. Bull is quickly killed. Jim is wounded in the leg when he finds Slim, also already dead. Jim, flushed with hysteria and adrenalin, takes out another machine gun nest on his own, allowing the rest of the unit to spring from their foxholes and advance.
Jim awakens in hospital and hearing that Melisande’s farmhouse has been the centre of fighting, rises from his bed, sneaks out the window, dragging his crippled leg in search of her. But she’s already been shipped out with her family and other refugees, and all Jim accomplishes—revealed when he returns home—is having his leg amputated. This shocks his mother, and Vidor evokes the sprawl of her thoughts with a montage of her memories of him from infancy to manhood. This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929). Vidor could also make a film as idealistic as The Citadel (1938) and as ornery as Beyond the Forest (1949) fit into this fascination, swinging from poles of mystically charged births to ignominious deaths.
In the end, Jim’ larger quandary at home is that he’s still in love with and haunted by Melisande. But his mother knows that Justyn has fallen in love with Harry, and soon enough Jim is free to return to France and track down Melisande, who is labouring in the fields.
The storyline no longer has any glint of originality, but The Big Parade retains force and vivacity for a great many reasons, not the least because of its uncluttered simplicity, eye-level humanism, likeable characters, and an unruly mix of then-fresh elements makes it more ambiguous in tone and meaning and less ponderously grave than All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This contrast is acute in a scene very similar to the one in which All Quiet’s hero was stranded in a foxhole with a dying enemy soldier: where the later film goes all out to establish the common humanity, The Big Parade evokes the idea without declaration, and with a dark sense of the unimportance of that humanity in such a ferocious situation.
Gilbert, who had been a top matinee star already for several years but for whom this was surely the peak of his career, is a poised and restrained screen presence whose charisma is nonetheless effortless (although he does give into that worst habit of silent actors, waving his arms around in declarative fashion in his climactic foxhole speech). The fate of The Big Parade’s heroes reflects the connivance of classic Hollywood’s bosses, as MGM’s conniving executives went on to help wreck Gilbert’s career and cheat Vidor out of the small fortune that would have come his way—having as he did a percentage of the profits in his contract—by talking him into taking a smaller compensation. As Vidor himself put it, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” C’est la guerre. l
Emil Jannings has the distinction of being the first Best Actor Oscar winner for his performance in the film under consideration here, The Last Command. It’s interesting that the Oscars set a precedent they would follow faithfully up to this day—honoring actors for previous performances. There is no question that Jannings would have garnered a Golden Boy for his moving performance in The Last Laugh had the awards existed in 1924. The Last Command is inferior in every way to that film, and Jannings’ performance as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin of unfortunate Czar Nicholas Romanov, while showing off the Swiss actor’s ability to gain an audience’s sympathy, is kind of a walkthrough in most respects.
The Last Command has a wraparound story in which the Grand Duke is a down-and-out immigrant working as an extra in Hollywood. The director of a Russian war epic, Lev Andreyev (William Powell), surrounded by assistants, is working his way down a stack of head shots. He’s not happy, even though his assistant director (Jack Raymond) says it contains every Russian in Hollywood.
Andreyev finds one headshot that seems to mesmerize him; he turns it over to read the actor’s particulars: “Claims to be the cousin of the Czar and the commander of the Russian Imperial Army. Little acting experience. Will work for $7.50 a day.” Andreyev tells his assistant to get the man in and fit him with a general’s uniform. When his landlady knocks on his door to tell him there’s a call for him, the Grand Duke opens his door tentatively and shuffles lethargically to the phone in the hall, his head shaking incessantly.
The cattle call in the morning is a frenzy of extras trying to get their costumes and props. The dazed Russian moves from window to window, gathering up his uniform, saber, boots, and hat. When he goes into the dressing room crowded with other extras, the man next to him tells him to stop shaking. “I can’t help it. I’ve had a great shock in my life.” Another sees a medal the Russian unwraps from among his personal items. “The Czar gave it to me,” he says. The extra snatches it and humiliates the old soldier by making him fetch it off the top of a bayonet. The Grand Duke escapes in memory to Russia and his glory days.
We’re taken to 1917, just before the Russian Revolution. The Grand Duke, confident and resplendent in his fur-trimmed coat, is inspecting his troops, who are ill-supplied to fight battles on every front. The Czar, however, thinks war is a board game. He makes demands that require the Grand Duke to pull divisions from the already outmanned front lines just so that he can inspect them. “This is the kind of thing that feeds the revolutionists.” Two such suspected revolutionists, Lev Andreyev and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), have been rousted from their flat and brought in to headquarters. The Grand Duke interrogates them both, striking Andreyev across the face with a riding crop and taking Dabrova as his “guest” when the command must move to different quarters.
Dabrova behaves like a glamorous ornament, but plots the Grand Duke’s murder. She invites him up for coffee in her room, but secrets a pistol she has stashed among her belongings under a pillow. He sees it, but does nothing to stop her. She asks him about his devotion to Russia, and he says he would give his life for his country. Her resolve wavers. When he gets up to get her a cigarette, she pulls out the gun but, shaking, collapses into tears. She admits she loves him. Naturally, love cannot conquer the Russian Revolution. Revolutionaries capture the Grand Duke’s train and execute his entourage in a mob frenzy. Dabrova sacrifices herself to help ensure the Grand Duke’s escape from Russia. He leaps from the train and watches as a trestle the train passes over collapses into a frozen river below. His head shake starts from that moment. The memory having reached its climax, we return to Hollywood and the reunion of the Grand Duke and Andreyev on set.
The script, written by von Sternberg but credited to someone else, is a very silly affair. The Ebertfest audience laughed out loud at the purple prose of love he injected into it, and also at the intentional and witty jokes. When the Grand Duke’s valet (Michael Visaroff) is caught for a second time trying on the Grand Duke’s great coat and smoking his cigarettes, the general exclaims, “If you catch him doing it again, remove the coat and shoot the contents.” The seriousness of the backstory is undermined by the improbabilities required by Hollywood at the time. For example, although Dabrova is taken straight from interrogation, she seemingly has a huge, chic wardrobe at the ready. Perhaps the Grand Duke bought it or had it from his previous mistress, but where did the gun come from? It’s the usual illogic of the early costume drama in action.
An escape of Andreyev and the other prisoners was well staged and exciting, as was the taking of the Grand Duke’s train. The mob frenzy was believable, but Jannings’ endless mugging at them started to try my patience. Powell was excellent as a committed revolutionist, as was Brent. The final scene of the film is both melodramatic in a bad way and undercut by a callous joke. The scene could have worked as a reconciliation between the Grand Duke and Andreyev, who must have seen the failure of the revolution (why else would he have left Russia?) with 10 years’ hindsight and felt more sympathy for the general’s urgings not to believe the traitors to Russia. Von Sternberg despised working with Jannings, so I can imagine he may have deliberately ruined the actor’s last impression.
The Alloy Orchestra’s score worked well in the grander moments of the film, but was too pompous-sounding for the many light moments, particularly in the first act. I’ve had this complaint with them before, that their scores are not particularly sensitive to mood changes. The print of the film was spectacular, though it seemed to have been synched at the wrong speed.
As a silent-film buff, I am perhaps harder on this film than the average filmgoer would be. It’s perfectly enjoyable. Just don’t expect too much of it.
Marion Davies means different things to different people. To those unfamiliar with silent films, which comprise the bulk of her filmography, she may mean nothing at all. To others, she is the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart and the model for no-talent singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Finally, to those who love silents, she is one of the silver screen’s first and best comic actresses.
Davies, born Marion Douras, began her career in show business on stage, where she made a great success in a variety of comedies, musicals, and as a chorine in The Ziegfeld Follies. She made her first film in 1917 and three more in 1918, two with backing from Hearst. She worked steady and successfully, promoted prominently by the Hearst newspaper chain. By 1928, she was a major star able to secure the services of the best talents available. MGM’s Show People was produced by “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, directed by the great King Vidor, and features cameos and short scenes by such big stars as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin playing themselves—a true insider look at Hollywood. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that this film is lit from within by the comic gifts and down-to-earth charm of its star Marion Davies.
Show People, a quintessential movie about the movies, tells the story of Peggy Pepper (Davies) a southern belle from Savannah, Georgia, driven cross-country by her daddy, General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson), to become a big star in Hollywood. Bumping along the uneven roads in their open-top jalopy, the General and Peggy, looking all the world like Col. Sanders and Little Bo Peep, finally find their groove in the streetcar rails that run past the major film studios of the day—Fox, First National, Universal. The Peppers pull up at the gate of Comet Studios, where Peggy tells the guard that she wants to speak to the president. “What about?” he asks. “I want to be in the movies!” “Casting office,” he replies, pointing to his left.
Full of enthusiasm, Peggy and the General walk past the other wannabes to the receptionist’s window. “I want to be in the movies,” she declares. The receptionist calls one of the casting directors (Tenen Holtz) over. “Can you act?” Oh yes, the Peppers assure him, and the General hands Peggy his handkerchief. She raises it in front of her face. When her father calls out an emotion, “Sad…Angry…Yearning,” Peggy lowers the scarf to reveal her interpretation of each feeling. They’re laughingly bad. Peggy is so sincere, however, the assistant gives her a card to fill out.
Weeks go by, and Peggy’s big break still hasn’t come. She’s not even getting extra work. At the studio canteen, she and the General try to make their 20 cents go as far as possible. They sit down near a pleasant young man who recognizes a starving artist when he sees one. He introduces himself as Billy Boone (William Haines), a working actor at the studio. Peggy says she has hopes of becoming a dramatic actress. Billy shares his meal with them. Overjoyed, the Peppers befriend Billy. He later delivers on his promise to get Peggy work on one of his pictures.
Peggy’s first day on the job has her weaving her way through various sets to find the one where she belongs. She ruins a take by tiptoeing across a set as a torrid love scene ensues in the foreground, and narrowly escapes a drenching as bathing beauties splash in a pool. Finally, she locates Billy, who introduces her to the director (Harry Gribbon). He gives her her direction—come through the door and look surprised. She goes to the other side of the door as the other actors practice various pratfalls, with one of them getting knocked to the ground several times. Finally, the director calls action and cues Peggy to come in. When she steps through the door, she is hit from across the set with a stream of seltzer water. Her surprise is genuine, as her gape-mouthed drenching has the cast and crew in stitches. Peggy, however, is humiliated and runs off in tears. She wails to Billy that she wants to be a dramatic actress. He tells her everyone has to pay their dues and encourages her to be a trouper and go through with the film. Summoning all her strength, she prepares to come through the door again for some close-ups of her “big moment.”
When the film premieres, Billy takes Peggy to see it. She watches the audience laugh hysterically, and gains a bit of pleasure from it, even as she winces painfully to see herself hit with pies and being chased by Keystone Kops. After the screening, as Billy and Peggy stand in the vestibule of the theatre, a producer and a little fellow named Charlie Chaplin converse. “She’s really got something,” the producer exclaims. Chaplin spies her and Billy, and goes over to them. He pulls out his autograph book and asks them to sign: “I’m just crazy about signatures!” Peggy is annoyed by the intrusion, but Billy gladly signs and hands the book back. “Who is that little fellow?” Peggy asks as she watches him get into a limo. “Charlie Chaplin!” Billy exclaims. Peggy faints into his arms.
Peggy continues to churn out comedy shorts, but eventually the call comes from High Arts Studio. She and Billy enter the studio grounds. A car pulls up, and a man and woman get out. “Who is that?” she asks Billy. “Marion Davies,” he answers, and Davies as herself looks around. In an endearing bit of self-deprecation, Peggy shows that she doesn’t think Davies is all that much. The pair forgets about Davies, and goes to the office. Trying to calm Peggy’s nerves, Billy says he won’t sign if they don’t take her, too. Alas, when the receptionist calls for Miss Pepper, they both get up. “Miss Pepper only,” says the receptionist. Peggy says she won’t sign if they don’t take Billy, but the crestfallen Billy encourages her to go on.
On her last day with her old gang in the comedy unit at Comet, Peggy becomes tearful and promises not to forget them. Billy, however, is not at the farewell party. She finds him waiting outside the soundstage door so he can speak to her privately. He says his good-byes and seals them with a kiss. Tearfully, Peggy goes off to become a star. And boy does she ever! At the advice of her leading man Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli), a phony count who used to be Tony the pizza slinger, she changes her name to Patricia Pepoire (a reminder of Marion’s own change to the Anglicized “Davies” on beginning her stage career) and transforms into a diva. She rarely sees Billy or her father (who, strangely, has been MIA until the scene below), so Billy calls her up to invite her over for dinner. Her pretentious buffoon of a maid (Fanny Brice lookalike Polly Moran) answers the phone:
One day, Peggy is shooting in the same location as Billy’s film unit. He sees her and stands out of sight to watch her play. After the director yells cut, he approaches her and starts kidding her about the old days, pushing at her until she snaps. She’s humiliated by the sight of him and never wants to see him again. Billy, hurt and thoroughly chastised, slinks off to become a part of “Patricia’s” buried past. Trying to put her beginnings completely behind her, Peggy is set to marry Andre. But as her attendants put the finishing touches on her wedding attire, she flashes back to all the good times she had with Billy. She calls off the wedding.
In the end, Peggy, her swollen head shrunk down to size, asks King Vidor to cast Billy in her next picture. When he reports for work, Peggy hides and instructs King not to say that she is in the picture, too. When Billy comes to the door of a cottage on the set, Peggy walks through it. The lovers are reunited, both having learned valuable lessons—Peggy, about humility, and Billy, that keeping audiences laughing is a safe career path but one he has outgrown.
This fictional film within the real world of Hollywood, dotted with its biggest stars playing themselves, is both a lampoon of what happens to star-struck, naïve kids when faced with fame and fortune and a flattering gaze at Hollywood’s elite. The film certainly touches on the broken dreams that are the lot of most of Hollywood’s hopefuls, but sticks within the Jazz Age ethos of glorifying high society. We completely believe Marion as a goodhearted soul who lets her image get the better of her—in fact, Marion Davies was said to be just as good-natured despite being surrounded by the rich and riches associated with Hearst. Nonetheless, the film is obviously an inside job, one that probably thrilled audiences of stargazers while promoting MGM’s human “product.”
My favorite scenes are between Haines and Davies. Great friends in real life, they are able to be emotionally open to each other. When Billy comforts Peggy, the scene is longer than I would have expected, giving the pair ample room to talk through her trauma in a very realistic way. In addition, when Peggy banishes Billy from her life, her anger and cruelty come vividly off the screen. Haines deftly plays Billy’s bewilderment and incomprehension and brings his sad resignation slowly and painfully to the surface. It’s a devastating scene that might provoke a few tears.
Beyond these stellar attributes, it’s a genuine thrill to see the real facades of the great Hollywood studios, particularly since some of them are gone or merged with other studios. Watching Peggy tiptoe through set after set shows exactly how active the studios were churning out every variety of entertainment. And when Billy’s troupe comes upon Peggy’s High Arts production, we get a feel for the location shooting that was the norm in the silent era.
Show People is a truly fine film that showcases the enormous talent of Marion Davies, a talent that would fade from movie screens in only a few short years. I think of it as both a love letter to Hollywood and to one of the greatest funny women it ever produced. l
In 1928, the silent film era was nearing its end, Greta Garbo was at the height of her popularity, and her frequent director, Fred Niblo, was four years from the end of his career. The Mysterious Lady, a fairly standard-issue Mata Hari story, paired Garbo, as Russian spy Tania Fedorova, with leading man Conrad Nagel, as Austrian officer Karl von Raden. Only the year before, Garbo repeated the great sensation she made with her Flesh and the Devil costar John Gilbert in Love. They were an electifying pair on screen, but Gilbert’s frequent dust-ups with studio head Louis B. Mayer brought his career to a premature end. As Garbo’s leading man in The Mysterious Lady, Nagel offers fans a rougher sexuality, one that helped Garbo reach further into a darker aspect of herself—moving from someone who is born evil (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil) to one whose evil is pragmatic and ostensibly patriotic. The Mysterious Lady thus presents a certain evolution in the Garbo oeuvre, one that enhances her exoticism while allowing her to emotionally shade her shady ladies.
Niblo opens the films with a wonderful scene. Horse-drawn carriages bunched together, moving in and out of the frame in a dense tapestry, deposit their elegantly dressed passengers at the entrance of a Vienna opera house. Two soldiers, von Raden and his friend Max Heinrich (Albert Pollet), rush to the box office to buy tickets at the last minute. The performance is sold out. Just then, a man returns a ticket to the box office. He gives the pair a suspicious sidelong glance, but leaves quickly. The ticket clerk says he can sell the soldiers one ticket. Max insists that Karl take it; Max intends to let a few cabaret girls entertain him.
Max is seated in a box. In front of him is the sumptuous back of a woman leaning on the edge of the box, paying rapt attention to the singers on stage. He concentrates his gaze on her, her soft curls, her curved arms. During a brief lull in the action, she turns to him and says, “Franz, you’re very late.” Surprised that he is not her cousin, she blushes. The pair are obviously attracted to each other, as they both squirm deliciously in their chairs, a really wonderful scene. The opera ends with the soprano dropping to her knees and moving toward the tenor in what looks like a declaration of love and plea for forgiveness.
The woman leaves and goes outside, only to be greeted with heavy rains and no ride home. As she stands on the street in confusion, Karl catches up to her and offers to take her home. She accepts, and when they arrive, she invites him in. They drink cognac and chat. Then Karl sits down to play her piano. He reprises the theme from the last scene of the opera, and she sings it. He falls in love on the spot. In rough passion, he grabs her from behind. She turns and invites his kiss. It’s a wonderfully choreographed scene of seduction, moving from polite to alarming to passionate.
Karl and Tania spend the next day in typical movie happiness—frolicking in nature. When their day is at its end, Karl tells Tania he must leave for Berlin for a short while. Tania wonders if there can again be days as wonderful as they have had. Karl vows to come back soon, and they will have many more such days. When he leaves, Tania goes inside and opens a letter. Someone named Boris tells her he misses her terribly. A rueful look crosses her face. Foreboding is in the air.
Karl picks up some important military plans from his superiors and is told by his Uncle Eric (Edward Connelly) that the woman he was seen with the previous night is a notorious Russian spy. Karl’s disbelief turns to anger. Karl boards the train and secures the documents in a briefcase. Tania bursts into his compartment from the adjoining compartment, telling him she had to see him one more time. He rebuffs her and accuses her of setting him up. She admits it, but says she really does love him and wants him to give her a chance. He becomes enraged. She says, “Don’t make me hate you, Karl,” but nothing will get through to him. In the morning, he awakens and finds that the documents are missing. He is arrested, courtmartialed for treason, and thrown in prison. The rest of the film details his escape and his plot to track down Tania and recover the documents and his honor.
There are so many wonderful moments in this film. For example, Karl’s public disgrace is really excruciating to watch. The ritual—broken sword, removal of all signs of rank and medals of accomplishment, and finally, cutting of buttons from the uniform coat—is done with precision and a horrible coldness we don’t feel Karl deserves. In another memorable scene, Boris (Gustav von Seyffertitz), Tania’s lover in waiting (it appears they have never had sex), throws her a birthday party. The camera movements for the party are done in standard movie language—close-up on a tray of champagne glasses opening up to the party full of guests laughing, talking, and dancing. But a titillating undercurrent moves through this swirl as Karl, posing as a professional musician, sits down at the piano with his stack of music. A quick glance at Boris and then at Tania sets up the major tension for the remainder of the film. In a nice double exposure, we see Karl’s thoughts as his image gets up from the piano bench and strangles Tania, who is standing next to him singing.
Garbo is excellent throughout. She wears little make-up in her opening appearance, looking fresh and innocently lovely. Her flirtation with Nagel at her home is perfectly orchestrated—step close, move back, circle around a table to pour a drink. When she is cornered by Boris, who has had her watched ever since he discovered that von Raden was on the premises, her fear and confusion are those of a wild animal. She has no plan for escape—indeed, probably knows there is no hope of it—but keeps working selflessly to free Karl, wondering all the while whether he plans to take his revenge on her or believes that she loves him. It’s a real tour de force that is a pleasure to watch.
The film is part of a recently issued Turner Classic Movies collection of Garbo films. It was scored by TCM’s 2000 Young Film Composers Contest Winner, Vivek Maddala. I thought his score was a bit cheesy in spots, particularly his sentimentality during the love scenes, but the love theme from the opera that recurs when Tania thinks of Karl is touching. The film from which the DVD was made was in a poor condition in parts, particularly the first reel, but it’s all there and visible even through the scratches and pops. This film is a must-see for Garbo fans, and well worth any film lovers’ time.