Safety Last! (1923)

2020 #172
Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

Safety Last!

I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

What a way to make a living

My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

5 out of 5

The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

2020 #189
Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

The Man Who Laughs

Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

I was only Jokering

The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

Tale as old as time...

A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

I said it's NOT a horror movie!

It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

4 out of 5

The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

Bao (2018)

2018 #233a
Domee Shi | 8 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | PG / G

Bao

This short film from Pixar played before Incredibles 2 in cinemas, so naturally it accompanies it on Blu-ray too. In it, a Chinese-Canadian woman is steaming dumplings (the titular bao) when one comes to life and grows into a little dough boy, who she begins to raise as a son.

As with many of the best short films, Bao takes a simple theme (though to say what the real core of the short is would give away some of the ending) and executes it succinctly. As is often the case with Pixar’s work, it aims at packing an emotional wallop, using it’s fantastical story to elucidate a real-life situation. It also doesn’t stint visually, with an overall animation quality that wouldn’t be out of place in a feature.

Bao is perhaps most notable as the first Pixar short to be directed by a woman. It only took 35 years and 35 shorts to get there. Considering some of the recent stories about the company, and the reputation it was gaining as a “boy’s club”, I guess this couldn’t come at a better time, though perhaps it’s to their credit that they didn’t seem to harp on about this aspect (I stumbled across the fact on Wikipedia). Given the quality and clarity of work on display, perhaps writer-director Domee Shi will get to be Pixar’s first female feature director too.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped (1917)

2018 #159
Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

Kidnapped DVD

The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com. (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

“Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

Swashes being buckled

Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Conquest Program No.9

2018 #158a-d
30 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

Conquest Program No.9 advertisement

We all know the cinema experience of today: 20 minutes of TV adverts that we’d fast-forward at home but have no say in on the big screen, followed by 10 minutes of movie trailers that we’ve already watched on YouTube, and, finally, the film we’ve paid to see. But back in the day the theatrical programme was less unedifying, with short films of various stripes preceding the headline film (hence the term “feature film”, obv.)

For her DVD release of the 1917 feature Kidnapped (more about that in my review here), Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently was able to source the four short films that were bundled with it as part of “Conquest Program No.9”. The Conquest Programs were the idea of distributor George Kleine and created by Thomas Edison’s film company. Eleven were created in all, each one bundling together a feature film and a mix of shorts to create a complete bill of wholesome entertainment. By specifically recreating Program No.9, the Kidnapped DVD doesn’t just offer an approximation of what a night at the movies in 1917 might’ve been a bit like, but rather a genuine was-definitely-shown-in-theatres programme from the time.

Friends, Romans and Leo

The programme opens with a twelve-minute comedy short, Friends, Romans and Leo, directed by Alan Crosland, who also helmed Kidnapped, and featuring several of the feature’s leading players too. It’s a bit of Roman farcing about, concerning an “emperor” who’s so in debt he lets the moneylender marry his daughter rather than call in the mortgage on his garage. I’m sure that’s exactly how Roman politics worked. Then, an unwanted and useless servant is cast into the gladiatorial ring to face the hulking Brutal Brutus, and also Leo, a man in a lion costume… er, I mean: Leo, a lion. This bit, at least, has some amusing pratfalling. It’s not big (it’s a short film, after all), it’s not clever (characters speak in a mix of Olde Worlde English (“thou hast been good to me”) and modern slang (“that’s a twenty-karat rock, girlie!”)), and it’s not particularly amusing to today’s eyes either, although the second half is at least diverting enough. Certainly, a grown man titting about in a lion suit has its own kind of charm.

Up next is a seven-minute “fairy tale in silhouette”, Little Red Riding Hood. I’d assumed it was going to be some kind of puppet animation job, but no, it’s live-action shot in silhouette, presumably for a kind of stylistic, picture-book-ish look. This means we’re treated to another man in an animal costume — the wolf, of course — but this outfit is less good than Leo’s, something even the silhouetted visuals can’t hide. The short rattles through the traditional story with no significant variations, which feels a little quaint viewed from the vantage point of over a century later. That said, it does include this immortal line: “It must be grandmama for it is her cap, but how very strange this bad cold makes her look!” Because people can always be identified by their caps, and colds make you look like a wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood

Talking of quaint, that clearly wasn’t a concept alien to 1917 audiences, as the third short implies. Titled Quaint Provincetown, it’s a seven-minute travelogue about a quiet little seaside town and its almost throwback way of life (even for 1917!) A series of lifestyle scenes rather than a narrative documentary, it’s a fascinating window into the past, which arguably makes it the most interesting of these films for the modern viewer. That said, how much of it was captured actuality and how much was staged, who knows — for example, at one point we watch a couple of boys have a fight in the street while their friends egg them on, which you feel the filmmakers can’t’ve just happened upon. Still, kids, eh? I guess some things never change.

Finally, Microscopic Pond Life is a four-minute look at… well, what it says on the tin. This is, broadly speaking, stuff we’re nowadays familiar with from a young age thanks to science lessons and whatnot, but I imagine it must’ve been quite incredible to see these minuscule organisms in action for the first time. You’re not going to learn a lot of detailed scientific information from a 100-year-old short like this, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of the tiniest of lifeforms.

Microscopic Pond Life

Viewed today, this selection of short films is, at worst, an insight into a time long gone — one of the nearest experiences we’re likely to get to time travel. At best, the films themselves retain some inherent interest and entertainment value. As Fritzi puts it in her booklet accompanying the DVD, “the ninth Conquest program is not filled with hidden masterpieces, just good solid programmers that would have entertained the average American audience in 1917.” Very true, and fair enough.

3 out of 5

Read my review of Conquest Program No.9’s feature film, Kidnapped, here.
The DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), they give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero in that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

The Golem (1920)

aka The Golem: How He Came into the World / Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

2015 #163
Carl Boese & Paul Wegener | 85 mins | streaming | 4:3 | Germany / silent (English) | PG

The word “prequel” was first coined in the ’50s, arguably entered the mainstream in the ’70s, and was firmly established as a term everyone knew and used in the ’90s by the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Works that can be defined as prequels predate their naming, however, and surely one of the earliest examples in the movies must be this silent German horror.

Now lost, 1915’s Der Golem was set in the present day, when “an antiques dealer (Henrik Galeen) finds a golem (Paul Wegener), a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi four centuries earlier. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders.” The film was written and directed by both Galeen and Wegener, but the latter was reportedly unhappy with the film due to compromises he’d made during production. So, after a sequel (also lost), Wegener tried to more directly convey the legend as he’d first heard it — hence Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, translated as The Golem: How He Came into the World, and commonly abbreviated to just The Golem, what with the original The Golem being lost. (Got it? Good.)

Set in 16th Century Prague (not that there’s any way to know that from the film itself), The Golem 3 tells the story of that rabbi who brought the clay statue to life in the first place. When the Roman Emperor decrees that Jews must vacate their ghetto, a rabbi builds a monster out of clay then summons a spirit to bring it to life. Meanwhile, one of the Emperor’s knights has fallen in love with the rabbi’s daughter, who is also the object of the rabbi’s assistant’s affections, and this love triangle — combined with access to control of the Golem — will eventually spell “climax”.

Regarded as one of the first horror films, The Golem is more of a moderately-dark fantasy, or a fairytale-type myth. There are clear similarities to Frankenstein, though I don’t know if either influenced the other. However, it does feature what I presume is one of first instances of that most daft of horror tropes: running upstairs to escape the monster. It goes as well here as it ever does, i.e. not very. Said monster looks a bit comical by today’s standards. Built by the rabbi to defend the Jewish people, he immediately uses the hulking chap to chop wood and run errands — he doesn’t want a defender, he wants a servant! A terrifying beast nonetheless, it’s ultimately defeated because it picks up a little girl for a cuddle and she casually removes its magic life-giving amulet.

Golem aside, there are some good special effects, like the ring of fire that summons a smoke-breathing demon; composer Aljoscha Zimmerman’s score is largely atmospheric; and there are some nice shots, like when the rabbi walks up to camera, does something with his hands (in what is effectively now a close-up), then walks back to the Golem at the rear of the set. These are the exception, though: it’s mostly a mix of flat long and medium shots. Oddly, the credits on the version currently available note that it adds computer graphics and animation. Presumably this is the English text that’s been digitally pasted into the film on letters, decrees, books, and the like. It also means that the judder, grain, and print damage on the English intertitles is utterly fake. How silly.

Revered for its place in film history, The Golem has elements to commend it still, but doesn’t hold up as well as other films of the era.

3 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

2015 #175
Raoul Walsh | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | U

Douglas Fairbanks started out in comedies, where he was so popular he was quickly established as “the King of Hollywood”, which allowed him to attempt something different: an historical adventure film. The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, in the process defining the swashbuckling genre, so he followed it with The Three Musketeers, then Robin Hood. With each new film he tried to outdo his last, and that culminated in his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad.

Fairbanks plays the titular thief, who steals only what he can’t afford — that’s everything. Well, that’s not strictly true: he’s clearly stolen a load of cash, so he must be able to afford quite a bit. But shush, I will have my Aladdin references. No, the thief mainly steals for the thrill and the adventure, and to have whatever he wants. As he tells a fella in a mosque, “My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth.” I guess you could say things like that in the ’20s without being brutally murdered.

Anyway, it’s time for the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston) to get married. Princes are called from far and wide to vie for her hand, and one of the keenest is the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama), who wants to add Bagdad to his empire (because only a truly evil ruler would use their army to conquer Baghdad). With goods flooding into the palace in preparation, the thief decides it would be a grand time to burgle the place. As he goes about his thievery, he comes across the princess’ bedchamber and falls in love. Or maybe just lust, because his next plan is to masquerade as a prince and steal her.

With the aid of his comic chum (Snitz Edwards), the thief pretends to be Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa Ahmed of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces. It’s a made-up title, of course, which alerts the Mongol Prince to the attempted deception — though as he’s “the Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak”, he’s a fine one to talk. The thief manages to make it to see the princess anyway. She instantly falls in love with him, and he realises he loves her too, so can’t just kidnap her. His whole value system is undermined! But now he’ll have to win her hand by more honest means. Well, she already loves him, so he’s halfway there; but he’s an imposter, so there’s that to sort out yet.

The main problem with The Thief of Bagdad, for me, was that it took more-or-less 90 minutes to get to this point. That stretch isn’t without entertainment value, both deliberate, like Fairbanks’ joyful displays of athleticism, and not, like the overwrought intertitles in which characters speak like Yoda by way of Shakespeare (“Thou wilt wed the suitor who first toucheth the rose-tree” / “He touched not the rose-tree”). The beginning is where the pace really suffers: the multitudinous ways the thief goes about his larceny are individually entertaining and/or ingenious, but as an introduction that merely needs to establish “this man is a clever, successful thief”, it’s overkill. Lovers of Fairbanks’ theatrics may well disagree, but I wanted the real story to get going.

However, once it gets past this languorous preamble, the film really comes alive for its final hour. Everyone’s off on a quest, and so we leave the epic Bagdad set for an array of other equally-impressive locales. Here’s where the film’s real adventure lies, as we whizz through multiple fantasy landscapes, the thief battling monsters as he goes, and the Mongol Prince plotting to conquer the city. This is also where most of the film’s famed special effects are to be found. So groundbreaking that they were analysed in scientific magazines at the time, they still have the power to enchant viewers the best part of a century later. Okay, sometimes you can see the wires, but that rarely undermines the magic. While a giant bat looks quite cuddly, a dragon-ish alligator-creature is fairly effective, and an underwater-spider-thing is actually rather creepy.

Even more impressive are the sets. The work of famed Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, at the time Fairbanks felt Menzies was too inexperienced to work on such a big project. Undeterred, he created a collection of detailed drawings and convinced the star/producer. No surprise that worked, because Menzies’ designs are extraordinary. His complex, detailed, unreal drawings are recreated accurately on screen (examples of this can be seen in the ‘video essay’ included on the film’s Blu-ray releases, for instance), using numerous techniques to create truly fantastical scenes: ginormous sets (they covered six-and-a-half acres), built on a reflective enamel floor (which had to be constantly re-enamelled throughout the shoot) and painted in certain ways to make them appear floaty; or glass matte paintings used to seamlessly extended or enhance shots. Reportedly 20,000 feet of film — that’s hours and hours worth — were shot just to test the lighting and painting of the sets.

Such visual extravagance could overwhelm many a movie star, but not so Fairbanks. I suppose it helped that, as the biggest male name in Hollywood movies, and with his own production companies and studios, he was in charge. Whatever the credits may say (not that there are any on the current widely-available prints), it seems Fairbanks was as much the film’s director as Raoul Walsh, who was hired because he used to run and box with the star. Consequently the film is built around Fairbanks, his skills and his interests — it’s a true star vehicle. He exudes fun, embodying that swashbuckling spirit of adventure and derring-do, and clearly having a whale of a time, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us, too.

Nonetheless, other cast members manage to make a mark. Kamiyama is an effective villain, with his skull-like face and menacing manner, in particular when he unleashes one of my favourite threats ever at the ruler of Bagdad: “You shall add joy to the wedding festival by being boiled in oil.” Who doesn’t think deep-fried caliph is joyous? In a star-making supporting role, Anna May Wong is indeed memorable as a traitorous handmaiden. That’s more than can be said of her employer: Johnston is a bit of a non-starter as the princess, which I guess is what happens when you have to re-cast because your original choice departs part way through production. Comedian Snitz Edwards was also a mid-production replacement, drafted in to provide comic relief. It wasn’t necessary: he doesn’t add much, and Fairbanks had it covered.

The Thief of Bagdad succeeds most as a spectacle, especially as it has various kinds to offer: Fairbanks’ stunts, Menzies’ sets, the still-remarkable effects work. It may be a bit bloated, but Fairbanks’ exuberance infects the entire production so that, when it’s at its best, it’s immensely enjoyable.

4 out of 5

This review is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.