28th 11 - 2009 | 7 comments »

The Big Parade (1925)

Director: King Vidor

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By Roderick Heath

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


25th 04 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Ebertfest 2009: The Last Command (1928)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


23rd 08 - 2008 | 2 comments »

Show People (1928)

Director: King Vidor

Movies about Movies Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is an entry in the Movies about Movies Blogathon, hosted by Mike Phillips of Goatdogblog.

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.

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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.”

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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.

Show%20People%201%20edit.JPGOn 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.

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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


8th 03 - 2008 | no comment »

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

Director: Fred Niblo

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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8th 10 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Her Wild Oat (1927)

Director: Marshall Neilan

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Silent film buffs are a particularly rabid bunch. With about 80 percent of films made before 1930 having vanished from the earth forever, we gobble greedily any offerings from our beloved era. We especially rejoice when a film thought lost forever turns up in some archive, attic, or warehouse. The last find that set my heart aflutter was Beyond the Rocks (1922), the only teaming of Gloria Swanson and my favorite male star, Rudolph Valentino.

wildoat.jpgNow I have another find to cheer about—Her Wild Oat, starring my favorite silent-era actress, Colleen Moore. Miss Moore became my favorite on the basis of one film alone—the delightful Ella Cinders (1926), in which her expressive face and body tell the comical story of a small town girl’s rise to stardom while maintaining her sweet and down-to-earth nature. This type of character seems to have been a specialty of hers, though she also played flappers with relish.

Unfortunately, time has destroyed so many of her films that her popularity in the 1920s, as well as the variety of her work, can be assessed almost exclusively by seniors who saw the films and printed reviews that are left behind. Miss Moore herself led a largely unsuccessful quest to locate any extant copies of her work. The almost miraculous discovery of a Czech version of Her Wild Oat in the Czech National Film Archive in 2001 would have pleased Miss Moore tremendously.

The film begins by showing idle men at their leisure—playing polo, sailing, and tanning on the beach. The daydream of the working class, however, is just that in reality. The men, including a reporter named Tommy Warren (Hallam Cooley), are all posing for pictures that will appear in the newspapers and on advertisements. Lights out on Warren.

Next we are taken to a depot in New York where numerous lunch wagons are ready to fan out to corners all over the city. As the race for the best corner ensues, one wagon is left behind. It belongs to Mary Lou Smith (Moore), an orphan with nothing but the wagon and a dalmation to keep her going. She has a hired hand (Frank Hagney) who substitutes for the horse she can’t afford to keep to drive her wagon. Together, they pull the wagon with the help of some young boys who at first push, and then climb aboard.

Mary is the picture of thrift and efficiency as she serves her customers, including regular customer Tommy Warren, and makes change from the change dispenser she wears around her waist. When one customer complains about the high price of a fried egg—a whole 20 cents!—Mary thinks fast: “Well, it took the chicken a whole day’s work.” Mary tots up her totals in her savings book. A showgirl who frequents her diner, Daisy (Gwen Lee), asks her if she’s going to buy another wagon. Mary says no. She’s hoping to have enough to close the current one down—she’s worked day and night for five years and needs a rest. Warren tells her about his new article about the playground of the wealthy, Plymouth Beach. She can’t wait to read it.

The scene shifts to a swanky nightclub, where rich lawyer Philip Latour (Larry Kent) is leaving with some friends. He decides to walk home, but is mugged and robbed of his clothes and money. He happens on some workers and persuades them to give him some overalls to wear and a dime for the trolley. He ends up at Mary’s wagon, too poor to order anything but coffee. She’s attracted to him, but far too shy to flirt. When it comes time for him to pay his bill, he finds that the dime he had fell through a hole in his pocket. Mary puts him to work washing dishes. He haplessly breaks half her stock. Kindhearted, she takes over and tells him to make good.

By now, Philip has a yen for Mary, too. When he returns to her wagon a few days later, he is now in disguise. He pays her for the breakage and tells her he has a job as the driver for Philip Latour. They are going to Plymouth Beach that very weekend. Mary, in hopes of following him there, asks how much it costs to stay at Plymouth Beach. He says “$30.” “A week?” “A day!” Mary just about faints, but after Philip leaves, she decides to throw caution to the wind and have herself a great time there. Daisy gives her “swank” lessons and buys her an outlandish dress that only succeeds in making her look like a floozy when she actually arrives at the hotel.

Mary is heartbroken by the cold and mean reception she gets from the hotel’s genteel guests. Fortunately, Tommy shows up, his editor actually making him go to the place he’s reporting on. He decides to pass Mary off as a duchess so that she can be accepted and he can have a scoop to report on. As they dine, they try to think of a name for her. Mary looks at the menu, which lists its soup offering as “Potage de Granville.” Ta da! She is now Mary de Granville. “What if there really is a Mary de Granville?” Mary worries. Tommy tish-toshes her.

Alas, Mary’s fears prove true, as Philip, her heart’s desire, turns out to have a new stepmother named the Duchess Latour de Granville! Moore’s consternation at being called “Mother” by her would-be Romeo is hilarious to watch. When Philip says, “I heard you were 48. Surely that can’t be true,” Mary answers “I’ve had my face lifted.” Of course, all comes right in the end, and the film ends with Mary taking a wild ride in her lunch wagon to the doorstep of Philip’s mansion, ready for a life of married bliss on Easy Street.

It’s inspiring to watch the genius of Colleen Moore as she mugs through a wide variety of facial expressions and practices her “swanky” walk, which includes a strange rolling of her hands. Her wide-eyed wonder is perfectly enchanting as she imagines what a life on Easy Street might be like, and her hesitation to pursue Philip is demure and girlish. Kent is a handsome and warm leading man, and both Cooley and Lee impress in comic second-banana roles.

Josef Lindner, an archivist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Film Archive, gave a presentation on the Archive’s restoration process after the film screened. He said that notices of the time gave the film passing marks, primarily due to Moore’s charisma. He notes that the Coronado Hotel in San Diego was the stand-in for Plymouth Beach. He said that the film was a B version, one that was shot alongside the A version but intended for distribution overseas. A shooting script and title list helped with recreation of the title cards, which had been redone in Czech. Even scenes with newspaper headlines were reshot in Czechoslovakia using the Czech language. Lindner was confident that with the exception of one scene, the film is very nearly original.

Once again Dave Drazin, who provided such excellent accompaniment to last year’s CIFF silent-film offering, Chicago, worked his magic on the piano, following some of the prescribed song suggestions (e.g., “Me and My Shadow” for a scene in which Mary is snubbed at a ping pong table—look for Loretta Young in an uncredited cameo in this scene; she’s second from the left in the above screencap).

Chicagoans may know Colleen Moore as the former owner of the Fairy Castle at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. She was a long-time resident of Chicago and a cofounder of the Chicago International Film Festival. It is fitting that after so many years, the CIFF was able to “premiere” Her Wild Oat again in her kinda town. I hope you get a chance to see this very funny and endearing comedy made magic by the presence of Colleen Moore.


29th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Sadie Thompson (1928)

Director: Raoul Walsh

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The world of cinema has lost a great many films over the years to decomposition. Sadie Thompson, a film that held such fascination for movie studios and fans alike that it was remade twice, nearly left us. The only surviving print was kept in the vault of United Artists partner Mary Pickford, whose company distributed the film, and it was badly damaged—nearly the entire final reel of the film disintegrated. Fortunately, Kino International restored and released the film on video in 1987, using still images from the private collections of the film’s cast and crew, as well as the scenario and notes from director Raoul Walsh to create intertitles. Kino also commissioned a score for the video release by Joseph Turrin. Roger Ebert chose Sadie Thompson as the silent film to be featured at this year’s Overlooked Film Festival.

The Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute on the run going head to head with a moral reformer certainly has spice, but the special attraction of this first and arguably best rendition is Gloria Swanson. This charismatic actress who became a huge star in the silent era, imbues Sadie with exactly the right degree of natural spunk, fear, and madness.

At the end of a long voyage from San Francisco to Pago Pago, a crewman asks passengers to sign his remembrance book. Reformer Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) and his severe wife (Blanche Friderici) signal their characters by writing of damnation and the need for repentance. Another couple, the Angus McPhails (Charles Lane and Florence Midgley) temper this response with a plea for tolerance. Finally, Sadie gets her chance to crack wise to the crewman and write a defiant message of her own. In this humorous way, we know exactly who we’re dealing with.

At the dock, bored marines watch the new arrivals, brightening considerably when Sadie comes down the gangplank. The Davidsons are appalled as Sadie is swarmed by men, and head off to the guest house at which they normally stay on their visits to the islands. Davidson has made himself a very powerful man, and detours to the governor’s office for an update on the state of the natives’ souls. Sadie is waiting for a ship to take her to a job in Apia, Samoa, but learns the ship is quarantined for smallpox and will not leave for at least 10 days. Sadie runs from the ship and starts examining herself for spots, carelessly inviting the marines, particularly one named Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), to help her look. They return her to the guest house, owned by a trader named Joe Horn (James A. Marcus) and his hefty native wife Ameena (Sophia Artega). Sadie sweet-talks him into letting her stay just until the boat sails. The marines clean out a store room off the sitting room for her. To thank them, she invites them to listen to some jazz records on her victrola. The Davidsons, of course, are scandalized.

Naturally, Davidson decides to make trouble for Sadie, certain he has seen her in the red-light district of San Francisco. He uses his influence with the governor to have her deported. Sadie is panic-stricken at the thought of returning to San Francisco; she eventually confesses to Davidson that she is wanted by the law, though she swears her innocence. Tim proposes to Sadie and tells her to go to Sydney instead, where his friends will look after her until his tour is up. In a pure act of sadism, Davidson refuses to allow the change of destination. Panic and the incessant rain on the roof sends Sadie into a nervous collapse, putting her at Davidson’s mercy.

Swanson is absolutely perfect in every scene. She affects a jaunty walk that signals her sexual freedom and toughness, but we watch her prepare it every time she must confront Davidson. She’s actually fragile and certainly not the hardened prostitute Davidson would have us believe her to be. In fact, she probably just likes men, and the feeling is mutual. It’s not hard to see how Tim could propose to her, whether she has a past or not. She also has a believable temper. When Davidson tells her he is having her deported, she flies off the handle, unable to be stopped by a roomful of marines. She swears a blue streak, as evidenced by Mrs. Davidson and Mrs. McPhail running from the room holding their ears. The scene is funny but also intense. Sadie may be scared, but she doesn’t bend easily. Nonetheless, when her paranoia finally gets the better of her, we have been well prepared for her break in character by these small moments of uncertainty.

sadiethompsonstill.jpgWalsh is a perfect foil for Swanson, the two exhibiting chemistry and a playfulness that make us believe that their short romance could blossom into love so quickly. At one point, as Sadie wonders whether Tim could ever be serious about a good-time girl like her, Tim says his buddy married a girl from San Francisco. “Where in San Francisco?” Sadie asks. “Where they hang the red lanterns.” Sadie assumes a look of foreboding. “And are they happy?” Yes, Tim replies, and they have two kids. His lack of judgment reassures Sadie and brings out the softness in her. Therefore, when Sadie sends Tim away at Davidson’s instigation, it is a truly heartbreaking scene. And what of Davidson? Lionel Barrymore has a cunning face that makes this professional meddler into something quite twisted and evil. I thought he chewed the scenery a bit—a Barrymore family flaw—but his fall from grace, seen only in still photos and two brief film clips that survived from the last reel, is chilling.

The entire Turrin score was performed by the Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra and conducted with a sure touch for movie accompaniment—an art unto itself—by Steven Larson. This, my first film of the festival, was an absolute joy and revelation.


23rd 07 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

Director: Harry Edwards


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the pantheon of silent film clowns led by the Big Three—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—Harry Langdon is barely remembered. Yet in his time, his popularity was equal to the Big Three, and he made some timeless classics. He was the first silent clown to whom I was drawn when I first started watching shorts from this bygone era on a PBS series called “The Toy that Grew Up.” I was instantly captivated by his babyfaced sweetness as he negotiated peril after peril to reach his happy ending.

Langdon, a major vaudeville star, first made an impact on the silver screen in Mack Sennett shorts as the innocent man-child character created for him by Frank Capra, then a writer. This character went straight to the hearts of moviegoing audiences and propelled Langdon to stardom. He formed his own production company and inked a six-picture deal with First National. The three features he created with Capra under this deal, including Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, rival the best of the films of the Big Three.

In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Langdon plays Harry Logan, the son of a broken-down cobbler named Amos Logan (Alec B. Francis) who is on the verge of eviction from his shop. He can’t compete with Burton Shoes, a corporation whose nationwide billboard campaign is driving independent shoemakers out of business. Even as Amos finagles an extra three months’ occupancy out of his landlord and sends Harry off to raise the rent money, John Burton (Edwards Davis) is unveiling a new publicity stunt to cement his stranglehold on the American market. He has invited champion race walkers from all over the world to compete for a $25,000 prize by walking across the United States wearing Burton Shoes.

As the contestants assemble at Burton’s East Coast factory, Harry unwittingly is drawn into the race by the imperious world champion Nick Kargas (Tom Murray), who commandeers Harry to carry his luggage. Burton’s daughter Betty (Joan Crawford), whose image on the popular billboard has won Harry’s heart, sees Kargas heap abuse on Harry. She brings Harry the shoes and jersey he needs to enter the race and urges him to compete, promising him a date in California at the end of the walk. A thoroughly smitten Harry signs on.

Among the wonderful bits in this energetically paced film is the double-take Harry does when he turns away from the image of Betty he has been mooning over only to see the real Betty, dressed exactly as she is on the billboard, trying to catch his attention. He becomes incredibly shy, running away from her, then coming close again, then running away. He acts like a 3-year-old boy. We should be annoyed with him, but we aren’t. Langdon is so sincerely bashful that he charms us as well as Betty. And anyone who has the heavy-browed, Mommie Dearest picture of Joan Crawford in their head will find her unrecognizable as the beautiful, sympathetic ingenue who falls for Harry in this picture.

Another charming comic scene has a farmer complain to two police officers that someone is stealing his fruit. Of course, it is Harry, who has fruit stains all over his face and a bag of fruit bulging under his oversized jersey. As he tries to evade exposure as the thief, he moves the fruit behind him. This allows the head of a chicken he also has filched to poke through a hole in the jersey. I was helpless with laughter as Harry tries to hide the curious chicken. When next we see Harry, he is working on a chain gang. Don’t ask about the illogic of this turn of events within the context of the race—the gags in this sequence are just too good.

One gag that equals Harold Lloyd’s seemingly death-defying stunts occurs when Harry tries to outrun some policemen who are trying to return him to the chain gang from which he has escaped. He runs through a flock of sheep and scales a fence that is built right at the edge of a cliff. As he lowers himself over the fence, his jersey gets caught on a nail. He frees the material, only to find his belt hooked as well. As he starts to unbuckle the belt, he chances to look behind him at the sheer drop below. He gingerly rebuckles his belt, pulls a hammer from his voluminous pants, pulls nails out the fence, and nails his sweater to the wood. Of course, as he pulls nails out, he is disassembling the fence, and ends up tobaggoning down the side of the cliff to safety. The scene is hilarious and thrilling in the same way as Lloyd’s high-wire stunts.

Naturally, Harry wins the race and Betty. The final sequence of the film is the capper to Harry’s man-child persona. The now married and prosperous Harry and Betty look in on their baby. Of course, it is Langdon dressed in a bonnet and playing in a cradle. His impersonation is perfect, from the quick tears to the awkward playing with his own hands. This scene shows the true power of the character Harry Langdon perfected. Although his career went into decline through some bad choices, causing him to fade from view in the decades that followed, Langdon was a noble clown who deserves to be discovered by a whole new audience.


6th 07 - 2006 | 4 comments »

Don Juan (1926)

Director: Alan Crosland

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This year will see several champagne corks fly to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the introduction of Vitaphone to the American moviegoing public. On July 26, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) plans to present the Vitaphone Corporation’s complete sound-on-disk program at the Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood just as it occurred in 1926 at the Warner Theater in New York City. Don Juan was the centerpiece, made a small noise compared with the thunderous response when it released The Jazz Singer (also directed by Crosland) in 1927, allowing millions to hear vaudeville’s megastar Al Jolson sing out from the flat screen. Nonetheless, the use of a record synchronized to actions on the movie screen got a very respectable launch with the John Barrymore vehicle Don Juan and several short subjects. Subscribers to Turner Classic Movies got a sneak preview this weekend when TCM presented the first program AMPAS will offer later this month.

This tale of the legendary ladies’ man begins in his childhood. A five-year-old Don Juan plays happily with his father Don Jose (John Barrymore) and mother Donna Isobel (Jane Winton) in their castle in Seville, Spain, before Don Jose must leave on a trip. After he rides away, Donna Isobel waves her lover in from the garden.

Unfortunately, the trip was a ruse designed to capture Donna Isobel in flagrante. The lover hides in an opening in the thick castle walls, and Donna Isobel plays dumb as her husband calls some men in to finish repairing the wall. Donna Isobel’s anxiety grows until the last stone is replaced, sealing her lover alive in the wall. She flings herself at the wall and pleads with Don Jose to spare him. Instead, in a heartbroken rage, he sends her away as little Don Juan cries out for her.

Don Jose goes on to live a life of debauchery, never keeping company with a woman for more than a couple of months. He is teaching his growing boy (a radiant Freddie Bartholomew look-alike named Philippe de Lacy) never to give his heart to any woman. During a banquet, Don Jose spurns the attentions of his current paramour Donna Elvira (Helena D’Algy) for a new love. In a jealous rage, she stabs him through the heart. In his dying breath, he muses to Don Juan that the circle of woman is finally complete, “birth, disillusionment, death.”

The movie fast-forwards to Rome, where the grown Don Juan (Barrymore) has taken up residence and built a reputation as a womanizer. He attracts the attention of the reigning Borgia family, particularly Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor), who believes her enormous political power and, of course, irresistible looks and grace, will see her triumph over the Don where all other women have failed. She invites him to a soiree to which the rival Orsini family members Duke Della Varnese (Josef Swickard) and his daughter Adriana (Mary Astor) have been invited on behalf of a smitten friend of the Borgias, Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). Don Juan, like Donati, is drawn to Adriana’s virtue, and he makes an enemy of the Borgias by rejecting Lucrezia to pursue Adriana. Love has its trials, of course, including a massive sword fight and imprisonment for the Don and torture for Adriana. But Hollywood being what it is, true love triumphs over power and a bad upbringing.

Aside from an overwrought third act and Hollywood ending, this film has a great deal to recommend it. Alan Crosland directs his cast with a deft hand, muting even the most florid scenes by keeping their emotions real and their gesticulations to a minimum. Barrymore is especially good as Don Jose—his fury at his betrayal terrifying to watch even through the distance of time and celluloid. I’ve seen a number of films in which people are buried alive, but this film’s is the most horrifying in my experience, with effective crosscutting between the terrified Donna Isobel, murderous Don Jose, smirking manservant Leandro (John Roche), and efficient servants doing their deadly work.

The Roman home of Don Juan is a setting for a great short comedy within the film. Pedrillo (Willard Louis) is a jovial co-conspirator in Don Juan’s amorous shenanigans. He keeps two ladies waiting for the tardy Don by telling each exactly and identically what they want to hear, “You are his only love.” A camera lingers on a closed door, the stand-in for the man behind it as he makes love to a third woman. The timing of the actors and editing is perfect so that despite the predictability of the scene, we can’t help but be charmed.

Barrymore, at age 44 and the worse for wear from his acute alcoholism, does not cut a particularly alluring figure. He looks haggard, particularly in profile, making him somewhat unconvincing as the supreme lover of women. Yet he attacks his action sequences with relish and energy and projects the superior air of a man who would defy Lucrezia Borgia, known today mainly for her penchant for poisoning her foes. Small delights for the classic movie fan include appearances by the future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as Lucrezia’s brother Caesar and Myrna Loy as her maidservant Mai.

Despite being a Vitaphone film, Don Juan does not use the process to produce dialogue. Instead, Vitaphone was used to sync a film score perfomed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It is one of the finest scores I’ve ever heard for a silent movie and well deserving of recognition.

I watched two of the shorts that accompanied the first Vitaphone presentation, one of the New York Philharmonic playing and the other a hilarious “commercial” for the new sound process by none other than an ill-at-ease Will Hays, the author of the infamous Production Code that brought censorship to the movies. These novelties were mere icing on the cake for a terrific debut sound film. Seek them and the other shorts out if you can, but definitely try to get your hands around a copy of Don Juan. This piece of film history is a cracking good film to the core.

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19th 03 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Beyond the Rocks (1922)

Director: Sam Wood


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Major news was made in the film world in 2004 when Nederlands Filmmuseum announced that a complete print of the Dutch version of Beyond the Rocks (six reels instead of the seven-reel American version) was found among the effects of a private Dutch film collector. This film, the only screen collaboration between Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, was presumed lost forever. Its rediscovery and first-rate restoration (including original tints) by Nederlands Filmmuseum is a triumph for cinematic history and scholarship, as well as an enormous treat for film buffs all over the world.

This film returned to the big screen in Chicago this weekend thanks to the efforts of the Silent Film Society of Chicago and the historic Music Box Theatre. I was one among the sizable crowd that turned out to welcome Beyond the Rocks back. Well-known silent-film organist Jay Warren accompanied the film on the Music Box’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.

In Warren’s introduction to the film, he said Beyond the Rocks wouldn’t have won any Oscars, had they existed in 1922, and that the real draw is Swanson and Valentino. In this remark, he was exactly right. The film is a silly affair. Swanson plays the youngest of three daughters of a retired British officer (Alec Francis) struggling to make ends meet. The older daughters contrive to marry her off to a rich older man (Robert Bolder), which she does for the sake of her father’s financial security. But she meets and falls in love with Lord Bracondale (Valentino). When Swanson’s husband inadvertently discovers that his wife is in love with another man, he runs off on a dangerous archeological expedition in North Africa, where he is killed by Bedouin thieves. Swanson and Valentino end up together, “beyond the rocks” of their previous difficulties, sailing into a happily ever after.

This film packs in the action in a way that makes it seem as though we are watching The Perils of Pauline. Twice Valentino must come to Swanson’s aid—once when she unaccountably falls overboard from her rowboat in a laugh-inducing scene and once when she falls over a cliff in the Alps and dangles precariously from a rope tied around her waist. Rescuing the damsel in distress moves Valentino from inveterate bachelor to ardent suitor.

Swanson’s wardrobe is very odd. She wears a youthful sailor suit at the beginning of the film that makes her look ridiculous. After her character’s marriage, she becomes uber-glamorous. Her outfits range from bizarre to ravishing. She even dons 18th century garb, supposedly to play a part in an amateur drama at the estate of Bracondale’s sister. We don’t see the drama, of course, only Valentino in a courtier’s costume stolen from the man who was to play opposite Swanson riding off with Swanson in a carriage loaded with play-acting footmen. Romance is the real star of this plot, and in the silent era, that meant all the bodice-ripping elegance they could muster. When the film switched to North Africa, where Swanson, Valentino, and Francis pursue Bolder to dissuade him from his suicide mission, I was sure we’d see Rudy back in his Sheik costume. This was not the case, but he certainly did look very fetching in a pith helmet and riding jodhpurs.

The amazing, dazzling thing about Beyond the Rocks is the interaction between Valentino and Swanson. It’s pure dynamite. As Stella Du Bois Kowalski said in A Streetcar Named Desire, “There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sorta make everything else seem unimportant.” This is especially true for the film buff watching these two beautiful creatures from his or her seat in a darkened theatre. Their electrifying chemistry and screen presence have their equal in only a few other pairings, most notably Garbo and Gilbert. I was swooning about every five minutes at this handsome, sexy pair, and that’s all I really cared about. It’s hard to believe these two stars were never teamed again.

It is very fortunate that Beyond the Rocks was liberated from the lock and key under which it has been kept for so many years by a private collector. The magic created by Swanson and Valentino, now finally revealed to the millions of film fans who have been denied it for so long, is as special as anything ever committed to celluloid.


17th 02 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Shadows (1922)

Director: Tom Forman

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the first independent producers in the film business was B. P. Schulberg. A liberal at a time when studio moguls were conservative, his Preferred Pictures company showed his independent approach to story content not unlike that of indie producers and directors today. In 1922, Schulberg greenlighted a picture with the not-very-liberal-sounding working title of “Ching Ching Chinaman.” Eventually, it became Shadows, a more fitting title for a work that allowed The Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, to work his humanizing magic on the “heathen” Yen Sin.

This melodrama, set in Maine, tells the story of a shipwreck survivor, Yen Sin, one of only two men to survive a horrible storm at sea that sunk several vessels, including the one carrying the brutal husband of Sympathy Gibbs (Marguerite de la Motte). Yen Sin, cold and exhausted from his ordeal, nonetheless is driven from the company of the anxious townspeople because he will not kneel with them on the beach to pray for the souls of the lost sailors. However, with nowhere else to go, he settles in the town, occupying the shanty of a scow in the harbor and setting up a laundry business.

His heathen ways make him the butt of insults and pranks by the local boys, but he eventually becomes more integrated into the community when a plump boy with a passion for sweets (Buddy Messinger) befriends him and, more importantly, when a new minister named John Malden (Harrison Ford) comes to town and chastises the boys for their unchristian attitude. Malden had hoped to be a missionary in Asia instead of a small-town preacher in New England, so he takes on the task of trying to convert Yen Sin. At the same time, he courts the widow Gibbs. When their engagement is announced, Nate Snow (John Sainpolis), who himself had his eye on Sympathy, is crestfallen. Nonetheless, as the lay deacon of Malden’s church and now a friend of Malden’s, he serves as best man at the wedding.

After a year of wedded bliss, the happy Maldens are separated for a week while John, accompanied by Snow, attends a church conference in a nearby town. While there, he receives a letter from a man claiming to be Daniel Gibbs, Sympathy’s supposedly dead husband. Gibbs demands money to keep his presence a secret. A distraught Malden agrees to Snow’s plan to deliver the money while Snow watches to see if the man really is Gibbs or just an impostor.

Unbeknownst to both men, Yen Sin’s friend, who has been handling their laundry while they attended the conference, has been keeping an eye on Gibbs and observes the transaction. He sends a message to Yen Sin on one of Gibbs’ collars about the problem. Malden, believing Daniel Gibbs lives, returns a broken man, abandoning his pulpit and refusing to live illegally with his wife, but keeping the secret of their invalid marriage to avoid ruining the life of their daughter Ruth, born while Malden was away. Yen Sin, of course, is the crucial link to ending the blackmail scheme and restoring order to the unhappy town.

I have read several reviews of this film that praise only Lon Chaney for his sensitive portrayal of a minority. My reactions are very mixed to Chaney’s performance. He adopts a very peculiar posture—hunchbacked with his elbows held high and back—to suggest that Yen Sin is elderly. This is not only a painful posture to watch, but also it seems very unnatural and stagy. Chaney’s face is similarly pinched, showing little of the endearing qualities of Yen Sin in his expressions. We feel a certain warmth toward the outsider Yen Sin that Chaney always is able to induce in audiences, but I’d venture to say that the reactions of others to him are also responsible for our sympathy. Chaney’s final scene is so overwrought that I was reduced to giggles.

The story, of course, is melodramatic, but not ridiculous. Harrison Ford, Marguerite de la Motte, and John Sainpolis play their parts naturally and realistically—convincing in an unconvincing scenario. Sainpolis was an utter revelation to me; I was not familiar with him before this film, but I shall be on the watch for him in others. I also will be on the look-out for more title cards drawn by Renaud. They are a delight and help to forward the story in a most pleasant way.

The film is shot in a very meat-and-potatoes fashion, with medium straight-on shots interspersed with straight-on close-ups; the beach scenes at the beginning of the film are probably the best and most dramatic of the film. There does seem to have been some care taken in trying to make the film look realistic, for example, showing an background behind a window in Yen Sin’s shanty moving as the boat supposedly rocks on the water. A kitten Yen Sin acquires at the beginning of the film is a cat by the end. However, there is one glaring continuity error that is a real doozy. Malden is supposed to have moved out of his house the week his daughter was born and stayed away for a year. (It might be hard to explain a year apart from a plot standpoint, but never mind that.) In the final scene, Sympathy goes to Yen Sin’s bedside carrying her infant daughter. Well, maybe she’s just small for her age…

Overall, this is an interesting movie that deals with race relations in a fairly realistic way for the time. It is not one of Chaney’s better efforts, but should be seen, at the very least, for the marvelous supporting performances.

There are several versions of Shadows floating around on DVD, with run times varying from 68 minutes (the official time) to 90 minutes and some with color tinting. This is a reply to my inquiry about DVDs of this film from Carl Bennett, editor of the Silent Era website, that you should note:

“There were not established shooting or projection speeds for films in the silent era, so when home video producers create their editions, the running times can vary wildly depending on the running speed during video transfer. Since your [90-minute] edition was likely transferred from a 16mm reduction print, it is unlikely that your edition has additional footage in it; it is likely that is has been transferred at a slower speed. As to the color tinting, that is usually done electronically during the video transfer. Unless they are transferring from a 35mm print color-tinted or color-toned when the print was struck, the video producers are lying through their teeth about restored color tints. We would recommend (sight unseen) the 2000 edition from Image Entertainment


25th 01 - 2006 | 1 comment »

La Boheme (1926)

Director: King Vidor

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1926, Lillian Gish was one of the most powerful actresses in Hollywood. She had her pick of directors and costars and could choose any project she wanted to do. She chose La Boheme. It’s easy to see why Gish would want the talented Vidor to direct and the handsome and charismatic John Gilbert as her leading man. It’s also easy to see why if she wanted to move away from her virginal violet roles, as Robert Osborne claimed she did in his introdution to the film for Turner Classic Movies, she chose to portray Mimi. The Mimi of the original novel Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger was a bright and flirtatious coquette. Even Puccini’s opera views Mimi as a bit sassy, though it saves its more voluptuous sauciness for the artists’ groupie Musetta.

So what are we to make of Gish’s Mimi? Frankly, she is a bore. Although Rodolphe and the foppish Vicomte Paul(Roy D’Arcy) declare her a great beauty (the Vicomte even halts his carriage to try to seduce her when he spots her on the street), Gish was no Greta Garbo. To be a guy magnet, Gish would have had to wipe the perpetual pleading off her face and carry her fragile body with a bit more energy. Instead, she appears to have consumption from the opening scene, and her frolicking at the picnic at which she declares her love for Rodolphe looks more like a child’s glee than a would-be bohemian in full abandon. While the Mimi who would have lived in Paris’ bohemian Latin Quarter in the 1830s probably would have slept with Rodolphe, Gish’s Mimi keeps her chastity well in place. So we have another portrayal of a fragile female innocently in love and Gish no closer to the toughness she was well capable of if we are to judge by her portrayal of a struggling pioneer woman only two years later in The Wind and her shotgun-toting granny in The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Her acting choices have a very unfortunate effect on her fellow players. Gilbert was well-known for burning up the screen with Garbo, but here his ardent admiration looks like overacting. When he spots Mimi with the Vicomte, he flies into a jealous rage and beats her. This scene plays like an elephant swatting a fly and makes Gilbert look as horrifying as the brutal father who savagely beats his daughter (Gish) in the tragic Broken Blossoms (1919). The marvelous Renée Adorée does as much as she can with Musetta, but ends up as a mother figure to Gish instead of the loose free spirit she should have been. The other bohemian artists and musicians, played by Gino Corrado, Edward Everett Horton, and George Hassell, are a welcome, but too scarce, source of relief from this soapy melodrama.

Gish was said to have asked MGM to secure the rights to the Puccini opera to play in theatres as the film was shown. This they were unable to do, but I think this request is a fairly key act in determining how Gish saw the film–as grand opera. In this case, I am reminded of my reactions to some famous operas. Forget the ridiculous story and just listen to the music. Unfortunately, with this La Boheme, we don’t have Puccini to console us.

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3rd 01 - 2006 | 1 comment »

The Rag Man (1925)

Director: Edward F. Cline

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It may be hard to believe now, but Uncle Fester from the TV series “The Addams Family” was one of the biggest motion picture stars of the silent era. Yes, Jackie Coogan once sported a mop of Buster Brown hair and a jaunty cap instead of a shiny pate of skin and had people of all ages laughing and crying at the exploits of the tough little waif Charlie Chaplin created for him in The Kid (1923). (There’s a lot I could say about Chaplin and The Kid, but that’ll save for another day.)

Mere words cannot convey the likeability of Jackie Coogan on screen. He defies the absence of sound with his wide catalog of expressions, graceful movements, and utter naturalness. A formulaic film such as The Rag Man (lonely old man and young orphan find each other and live happily ever after) comes vividly to life with the presence of such a star. But it has other noteworthy attributes that make it worth seeking out.

Jackie plays Timothy Kelly, an 11 year old who flees his burning orphanage and insinuates himself into the home and business of a “rag man” named Max Ginsberg (Max Davidson) by offering to care for Ginsberg’s horse and cart. A plot about Jackie making an attorney give back money he made by stealing a patent he handled for Ginsberg simply serves to flesh out this slight 68-minute film and give Jackie an excuse to tug heartstrings with his patented crying scene.

What really distinguishes The Rag Man is its treatment of the character of Max Ginsberg. A Jew, Ginsberg is poor. He’s frugal, but not tight-fisted. He gives his last $4 to Kelly (as he calls Timothy) to let him learn how to buy rags and other junk for resale, fully expecting Kelly to blow the money fruitlessly. He takes Kelly to synagogue on Saturday and lets Kelly take him to mass on Sunday. He reads a Jewish newspaper and teaches a bit of Jewish to Kelly (shown in Hebrew-script on the intertitles). His dialogue is much as a Jew would speak (as a Jew whose grandfather was a rag man, I know this). In other words, stereotyping really doesn’t exist in this movie.

I really like how Davidson and Coogan interact. Ginsberg’s relationship with Kelly is sweet and sour, like the cabbage soup he probably loves to eat, and that relationship forms the rich heart of this movie. Eddie Cline, perhaps best known for directing most of W. C. Fields’ best movies, wisely uses a naturalistic approach over melodrama. Perhaps because of this, I found myself refreshed to see a child actor not aiming for an Oscar, as they do today, but acting like a child.

Other points of interest are the intertitles illustrated by Robert Hopkins that tell small stories all their own. This lost art is something I treasure about silent films. I also love the location scenes of New York in the mid 1920s as a time capsule of the era.

Turner Classic Movies used The Rag Man in its 1994 Young Composers Competition, which gives up-and-coming film scorers a chance to provide a new score for a classic silent film. Linda Martinez, who tragically died at the age of 29, provided the effective score for this film. Check TCM or a specialty store for a copy of this gem from the Metro-Goldwyn (before Mayer) Studio.


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