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), the 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 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.

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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 lightning 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.

Wings (1927)

2015 #153
William A. Wellman | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | PG / PG-13

Students of the Oscars well know that, technically speaking, there wasn’t a single “Best Picture” award at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Instead, there were two awards that covered that ground, seen (at the time) as being of equal significance. One was for “Unique and Artistic Production” — which I’d argue is more or less what most people think Best Picture represents today. That was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The other was more generically titled “Outstanding Picture”. Presumably because of the more obvious similarity in its name, that’s the one the Academy have retrospectively decided was the first Best Picture award; and that’s why Wings is, officially speaking, the first Best Picture winner.

In small-town America in 1917, middle-class Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) and rich David (Richard Arlen) are rivals for the affections of city girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). She’s actually only interested in David, though Jack’s too naïve to see it. He also doesn’t see that his neighbour, Mary (“It girl” Clara Bow), is infatuated with him. When both lads sign up for the air service, they find themselves in training together, where they eventually bond by having a punch-up. Boys, eh? Before you know it they’re on the front line of the First World War — via a brief encounter with Cadet White (a pre-fame Gary Cooper) — holding their own in dogfights against ace German pilots. Meanwhile, Mary has also joined the war effort, arriving in France as an ambulance driver. What are the chances she’ll run into Jack and their potential romance will have an opportunity to progress, I wonder?

So Wings is part rom-com, part war-action movie. On the ground, Jack and David’s interactions with Mary and Sylvia (the latter of whom barely features) are based around misunderstandings and almost-slapstick drunkenness. In the air, the picture comes alive in thrilling battle scenes, performed by fearless stuntmen and shot by bold cameramen. Well, most of the time: famously, Rogers and Arlen had to pilot themselves (in Rogers’ case, he learnt to fly just for the film), and, mid-flight, had to film their own close-ups by switching on battery-operated cameras mounted in front of them. You wouldn’t know it from watching the film itself, though: even today, the action sequences carry a palpable air of excitement, aided (perhaps even created) by the knowledge that it was all done for real — including the crashes.

At the time of production, director William A. Wellman was pretty much unproven, having mainly directed B-level Westerns. Conversely, Wings was a risky proposition, with a remarkably high $2 million budget — not the most expensive silent film (that was Ben-Hur, at $4 million), but in the very top tier (according to this Wikipedia article, the average cost of an MGM feature at the time was $160,000). However, Wellman got the nod because he was an experienced combat pilot, having flown in World War One himself. This knowledge paid dividends for the film’s eventual quality, though caused some friction during production, as Wellman spent weeks on location not shooting as he waited for the right clouds. Sounds ridiculous, but the movie was shot in clear-skied Texas, and with no clouds there would be no sense of depth or speed for the planes.

Why Texas? It’s where the country’s largest military base was, with up to 10,000 troops stationed there. The military committed resources to aid a picture that was seen to cast them in a positive light, reportedly providing the production with $15 million worth of men and equipment. Yes, not 1.5 — fifteen. In today’s money, that contribution comes to around $200 million, which alone would put Wings among the top 50 most expensive films ever made. It was a remarkable undertaking. This included occupying a five-acre site where they “built France”, including an entire village and a trench-crisscrossed bomb-pockmarked battlefield. Those bomb craters were, in fact, genuine: the military spent a few days before filming using the location for target practice. The climactic battle that occurred on this site was filmed with up to 19 cameras at once, including some mounted on four towers, the highest of which reached 100ft. I know this is a review, not a catalogue of production numbers, but it’s quite incredible.

As is the movie it produced. Whatever Wellman’s status before and during production, the end result proves his skill as an action director. Unsurprisingly these sequences don’t have the adrenaline-fuelled fast-cutting of today’s action scenes, but they have a mind-boggling scale that armies of CGI will never replicate, and an accompanying sense of awe to match. It’s not exactly thrilling, because Wellman takes time to find asides that show the cost of combat — this isn’t just a Boy’s Own gad about in the jolly old First World War. Tragedy strikes, and Wellman makes it suitably affecting.

If the same can’t be said of the romantic storylines then, well, it could be worse. A mid-film sequence in Paris, where Jack gets plastered and starts imagining bubbles floating out of everything, wins bonus amusement points for actually showing those bubbles, though loses some for going on too long. It also doesn’t help matters that Jack’s actually a bit of a dick in the way he treats other people throughout the movie. He undermines and borderline bullies David thanks to their shared affection for Sylvia, while we know David’s being kind enough to not tell Jack that Sylvia’s actually in love with him. Even after they’ve made up, the same situation rears its head late in the film, when David tears up a photo of Sylvia to stop Jack seeing the love note jotted on it. That’s before we even get on to how completely ignorant he is of Mary’s affections.

How much these factors affect the film’s quality seems to be very much a personal matter. Wings set the stall for many a Best Picture winner to follow by being not that well regarded by critics; indeed, more time and praise is given to its top-award compatriot, Sunrise. For the most part, I found the personal dramas passable enough, with a few outstanding scenes — David’s farewell to his stoical parents; Cooper’s scene; the bubbles (at first). However, the combat sequences, and in particular the aerial photography, are stunning; so impressive as to easily offset whatever doubts the other elements may engender.

At a time when silent movies are still routinely overlooked by the studios (and the best most labels outside the US seem to release is the canon of accepted greats (plus a few random outliers)), I think it’s safe to say Wings has only received extensive restoration and re-release thanks to its position as the official first Best Picture winner. Would it receive such royal treatment from Paramount without that accolade? I think we can be pretty certain that — even though it was both an extraordinarily expensive and extraordinarily successful film — it would not. On the bright side, it’s deserving of such attention for its inherent qualities, even if it remains a shame that other equally (or, arguably, even more) deserving silent pictures not only don’t receive the same love and attention from their rights holders, but don’t receive any attention whatsoever.

But I digress. Wings is a film that deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote. It’s not just a trivia answer to “what was the first Best Picture?”, but a worthy winner of that prize; a movie that, almost 90 years after it was produced, still has the power to elicit excitement and awe. Wellman’s picture may not have been deemed unique or artistic, even though it’s definitely the former and possibly the latter, but it was deemed outstanding, and it’s definitely that.

5 out of 5

This review is part of The Silent Cinema Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

aka Moriarty

2014 #106
Albert Parker | 85 mins | streaming | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English)

Sherlock Holmes, aka MoriartyAmerican actor William Gillette was the most iconic portrayer of Sherlock Holmes on stage, penning his own play (with permission from Conan Doyle) that he performed 1,300 times between 1899 and 1923. It was filmed in 1916, a feature long thought lost but announced as found in October 2014 (and to be released on disc by Flicker Alley this coming October — expect a review eventually). Before then, the only thing approaching a filmed record of that iconic interpretation of the Great Detective was this: a 1922 remake starring John Barrymore as the famed sleuth, originally released in the UK as Moriarty (possibly for legal reasons, possibly (according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies) due to “the mediocrity of so many of the earlier Holmes films”).

This film was also considered lost, until elements were discovered in the ’70s — not the film itself, but original negatives “in which every take — not every sequence, but every take — were jumbled out of order” (as per William K. Everson’s programme notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, via Wikipedia). These were painstakingly reassembled into something resembling the original film, although around 26 minutes are still missing. Nonetheless, the film remains completely followable: nothing important to our comprehension is missing, with some storytelling rough edges the only vague sign that anything may be amiss.

Said story diverges from the canon so much it’s liable to give any particularly canon-focused Sherlockians a conniption. It begins in Cambridge, with what many reviews call a “prologue”, usually preceded by an adjective such as “overlong”. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as the first act. There, a student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), third in line to the throne of somewhere-or-other-in-Europe, has been accused of stealing from the university, but he claims innocence. His friend John Watson (Roland Young) recommends he seeks the assistance of a chap in his year, one Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Holmes and Wastson, 1922 styleYes, shades of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn there are fewer CGI stained glass window knights here, though.

Holmes quickly uncovers the real culprit, another student by the name of Forman Wells (the screen debut of William “The Thin Man” Powell, looking ever so young). However, Wells is acting under duress, forced to commit the theft by Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an obviously evil-looking fellow who sits at the centre of a spider’s web of criminal activity. Holmes confronts Moriarty in Wells’ stead, to little effect, the criminal genius swatting the student away as one would a fly. Undeterred, our young sleuth commits to stopping Moriarty as his life’s very purpose.

That and finding a girl he saw once and instantly fell in love with.

Meanwhile, Prince Alexis is informed that his two brothers have died in a car accident, making him heir to the throne, and so he can no longer marry Rose Faulkner, a British commoner he’d been courting. Rose is the sister of Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), who just so happens to be the girl Sherlock fell for. When she learns of the split, Rose commits suicide.

And that’s just the so-called prologue. I’m loath to explain the whole plot of a movie, but the tale spun here is actually somewhat intricate. Personally, I thought it was quite a good yarn. It’s flawed in the telling — it’s not particularly Holmesian, and there are far too many overlong title cards (Everson calls it “one of the ‘talkiest’ silents”) — but I don’t hold with criticisms that it’s slow paced, or that the lack of any real mystery is a problem. Sherlock Holmes tales are remembered as “detective stories” because that was his profession, Sherlock Holmes in lurveand in many respects they led to the abundance of crime-solving fiction that fills bookstores and TV schedules to this day, but there’s a reason most of Conan Doyle’s stories are prefixed with “The Adventure of” rather than “The Fiendishly Difficult to Solve Mystery of”.

Anyway, after the Cambridge to-do the film jumps forward some years, to find Holmes a respected detective residing at 221 Baker Street (I guess he also acquired 221a and knocked through or something). Moriarty has still eluded him, but the revival of some matters from his student days are about to change that. Turns out Alice has in her possession some letters from Alexis to Rose, which she intends to publish to ruin him in revenge for her sister’s death. Goodness knows what’s in these letters; the ’20s equivalent of sexting, presumably. Alexis attempts to hire Holmes to retrieve the letters, but Holmes isn’t particularly inclined to do so because he rather agrees with the position of the love of his life (not that he’s seen her since that one time they bumped into each other years earlier). However, Moriarty also wants the letters, in order to blackmail Alexis, so Holmes takes the case so as to get closer to his nemesis.

You’ll notice a lack of Watson in most of this outline. He’s rather sidelined, unfortunately. Some would prefer this to the comical treatment he suffered at the hands of Nigel Bruce, but your mileage may vary. I think Watson’s often one of the most undervalued characters in literature, a very capable fellow who’s usually overshadowed by his grandstanding friend. There’s nothing wrong with Young’s performance, there’s just not much of it.

If I can just focus on the middle distance...Barrymore makes for a solid, if perhaps unremarkable, Holmes. He has the right look for the role, and makes good use of the same staring-contemplatively-into-the-distance furrowed-brow expression that Basil Rathbone would employ a couple of decades later. He has down the precociousness of student Holmes, which develops into a kind of righteousness when older. He’s not as stand-offish and borderline unlikeable as some interpretations of the character, nor as affable as others. As I say, he sits in the middle, doing nothing wrong but not getting a chance to mark himself out either.

The thing that does go terribly wrong, however, is the romantic subplot. Even if you set aside that such palaver doesn’t fit with the traditional Holmes character, this version is unconvincingly handled. Not only has Holmes apparently spent years pining after a girl he met once (it’s unclear why the Great Detective hasn’t been able to find her in all that time), but when he does meet her there’s no chemistry whatsoever. According to Fritzi at Movies Silently in her review, we should attribute the fault here to Dempster. I see no reason to disagree. Apparently Barrymore so disliked his co-star that he refused to perform the final scene with her, which would certainly explain the none-too-subtle way the actress’ face goes unseen at that point.

Young Mr Powell probably gets the best part, in particular a scene in a cab on the way to Moriarty’s lair where we learn his tragic backstory. The young thin manHe crops up in the years-later narrative too, used by Holmes to go undercover in the house where Alice is being held hostage by some of Moriarty’s many villainous associates. A major part of Holmes’ plan hinges on him turning up at these villains’ house, telling them what to do, and them obeying him. That this method succeeds is not due to Holmes’ considerable skill, but more due to the screenwriters’ lack of it.

Von Seyffertitz gives a very good Moriarty, though does err on the side of OTT. In part this is his look: I thought they had perhaps gone a little far with the make-up, turning him almost into a caricature of a villain, but having Googled the actor I think that it may mainly be his face… Still, what a perfect face for playing villains! Naming the film after him for the UK isn’t wholly inappropriate, especially as his role is expanded from Gillette’s play (the prologue confrontation being the main addition) and one of the throughlines is Holmes’ focus on apprehending him. It would certainly differentiate it from all of the other films called simply Sherlock Holmes.

The 1922 version isn’t the best film to bear that moniker, but nor is it the worst. I don’t think it’s a great interpretation of Holmes, but I found it to be a pretty entertaining adventure in its own right. I’d even quite like to see the plot rejigged (and the holes ironed out) to make it more truly Holmesian. Even having enjoyed the film, I must say how entertainingly dismissive I found Everson’s notes: he thinks that “one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever […] quite overshadows the fact that the film itself Moriarty vs Holmeshardly seems worth such devotion except on a purely academic level.” He goes on to say that “it must be one of the blandest misuses of potentially exciting material ever,” that “it literally has no highlights,” that it “has no pictorial style of its own,” that Barrymore “clearly lends his profile to Holmes, and not much more,” that “if it is a major find, it is also a major disappointment.” Ooh, burn. (The whole thing is worth a read.)

Now, with the discovery of the Gillette film, one wonders if this Sherlock Holmes is destined to become even more of a curio than it already is. It’s not wholly undeserving of such a fate: it’s not bad and I found it solidly entertaining, but one for Barrymore fans and Holmes completists only.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty, is available on YouTube here.

This review is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

The General (1926)

2015 #29
Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman | 77 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English) | U

The GeneralPoorly reviewed and a box office flop on its release, Buster Keaton’s The General has undergone a stark re-evaluation since: the United States National Film Registry deemed it so “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” that it was added to the registry in its first year, alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars; these days, it rates on both public-voted popular lists (the IMDb Top 250 at #133) and critics’ polls (34th on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll). Does it live up to such a reputation?

Set at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Keaton plays a Southern train engineer who is refused permission to sign up for the army. When agents of the North hijack a train, he sets out to prove himself by giving chase. Hilarity ensues.

Believe it or not, The General is based on a real incident from the war… which was considerably grimmer than the farce presented here. Like the film, however, the South did win… except in real life the South were the bad guys (right?), so that’s no good. Anyway, such things shouldn’t trouble us here — this is a comedy, not a history lesson. That said, I must confess I didn’t laugh all that much — although some of it is quite funny — but, in spite of that, I rather loved it. Whatever the intention, it worked for me as a kind of comedic action-adventure (a genre we more often associate with more modern eras, I’d wager), rather than as an out-and-out comedy. Some of it is quite genuinely tense rather than purely amusing.

The GeneralIt was reportedly a very expensive film, and it looks it: there are tonnes of extras, not to mention elaborate choreography… of trains! Who knew old steam trains were so agile? There’s impressive physicality on display from Keaton, but the well-timed movements of those big old locomotives are quite extraordinary, especially for the era (I mean, for the past couple of decades you’ve been able to do pretty much anything thanks to a spot of computer-controlled what-have-you. Not much of that going on in the 1920s.)

Sometimes watching Classic Movies is almost a chore of noteworthiness or “good for its time” import; other times, they still offer pure enjoyment, however many decades later. I’m not sure a silent comedy is ever going to curry favour with all modern viewers, but The General is one that still has the power to transcend the (perceived) limitations of its era.

5 out of 5

The General was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

aka La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / Jeanne d’Arc’s lidelse og død

2015 #69
Carl Th. Dreyer | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | France / silent (Danish) | PG

The Passion of Joan of ArcWidely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (look at the lists!), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s French-produced silent movie depicts the last hours in the life of Joan of Arc (Falconetti), a nineteen-year-old who is on trial by the Church for claiming God instructed her to fight to free France from British rule. You probably know it doesn’t turn out well for her.

Such a summary, while not inaccurate, is almost disingenuous. “This is by all odds the least religious and least political Joan ever made,” write Jean and Dale D. Drum (in a piece included in the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release), because Dreyer was explicitly not interested in the political or theological issues of the trial, which he felt were no longer relevant by the 20th Century. As he wrote in 1950, “I have tried to show that people in the medieval tragedy were, behind their historical costumes, people just as you and I are, caught up in the web of political and religious opinions and prejudices of the time.” With those religious and political issues set aside, Dreyer was instead focused on the universality of Joan’s experience as a human being. He was attempting to relate the tale — and, more importantly, the emotions — of a young woman sure of her convictions but persecuted for them.

Jeanne d'ArcDreyer based his telling on the written records of Joan’s trial. Although that’s grand for claims of historical accuracy, it’s hard to deny that silent cinema is ill-suited to thoroughly portraying something dialogue-heavy. There are many things silent film can — and, in this case, does — do very well indeed, but representing extensive verbal debate isn’t one of them. Bits where the judges argue amongst themselves — in silence, as far as the viewer is concerned — leave you longing to know what it is they’re so het up about. Sometimes it becomes clear from how events transpire; other times, not so much.

Dreyer’s faithfulness was not in aid of precisely representing what happened, however. For instance, the film takes place over a day or two, at most, while in reality Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution took most of a year. Events were condensed so as to provide “a kind of bird’s-eye view, where all the unnecessary elements disappear” (Dreyer, quoted by Drum & Drum). This was partly in aid of what Dreyer described as “psychological realism”: rather than slavish fidelity to the facts of the era, it was about accurately and universally conveying the human experience.

According to Chris Marker (also in Masters of Cinema’s booklet), the aesthetic element of achieving this goal is one reason the film has endured so. Dreyer’s efforts to make the events seem ‘present’, as opposed to historical, works to make the film eternally present; they help it to transcend not only the 15th Century, but also the more recognisable trappings of “a silent-era movie”. The actors wear no make-up, perform in sparsely-decorated setsneutral costumes on sparsely-decorated sets, and are almost entirely shot in close-ups — all elements that avoid the usual grandiosity of historical movies, both in the silent era and since. What we perceive as being ‘grand’ changes over time (things that were once “epic” can become small scale in the face of increasing budgets, for instance); pure simplicity, however, does not age much.

The near-constant use of close-ups, in particular, is one of the film’s most renowned elements. Dreyer was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, feeling this was an area film could excel in a way theatre obviously couldn’t. For Dreyer’s goal of giving us access to Joan’s very soul, it’s arguably the perfect medium — eyes are the window, and all that. This hinges on Falconetti’s acting. In her only major screen appearance, she delivers a performance that is still considered one of the greatest ever. It’s hard to pinpoint what she’s doing, but her wide eyes and almost crazed expression convey more subtlety than that sketched summary might imply. She is Joan, you feel, which again was Dreyer’s goal: he wanted his cast to inhabit their characters; to be them. He insisted the words from the trial record were spoken accurately (even though they obviously couldn’t be heard by the audience) and he built a whole 15th Century city set so that the actors might feel they were really there. As the film is shot largely in close-ups, that feels like a stupendous waste of money; and it led to the crew having to drill holes in walls and dig pits in the floor in order to get the shots Dreyer desired. But hey, whatever works.

JudgesThe actors playing the judges may be less individually memorable than Joan, but it’s their conflict — the personal battle between Joan and these men, as Dreyer saw it — that drives the film. Dreyer believed the judges felt genuine sympathy for Joan; that they did what they did not because of politics (they represented England, and she had led several successful campaigns against the Brits) but because of their devout belief in religious dogma. Dreyer says he tried to show this in the film, though it strikes me the judges still aren’t portrayed too kindly: they regularly seem contemptuous of Joan, and are outright duplicitous at times. Maybe that’s just religion for you.

Despite being of the film’s most famed elements, Joan isn’t entirely constructed of close-ups. When Dreyer breaks free of such constraints, the dynamic camerawork on display transcends many people’s view of silent cinema. A swinging pan as maces are dropped from a window was a personal highlight, but there are some great, dramatic push-ins during the trial. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the editing as well: it’s surprisingly fast-cut at times, and the use of montage for some sequences (particularly in the torture chamber and the epic climax) makes for stunning visual cinema.

Reportedly Dreyer’s preferred soundtrack was complete silence, which makes sense given his other aims and views on depicting realism rather than interpretation. That sounds a little like an endurance test, however, and so of course the film is usually presented with a score. In the US, it’s now routinely accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Clearly it’s a noteworthy soundtrack because it feels like the vast majority of reviews and comments online make reference to it. Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray doesn’t include it, What's at stake?however, so I have no opinion. Instead, they offer two alternatives. On the correct-speed 20fps version, there’s a piano score by silent film composer Mie Yanashita. Apparently this is the only existing score set to 20fps, and Masters of Cinema spent so much restoring the picture that there was no money left to commission an original score. Personally, I don’t think they needed to. Yanashita’s is classically styled, which works best for the style of the film, and it heightens the mood of some sequences without being overly intrusive, by and large. Compared to Dreyer’s preferred viewing method, of course it affects the viewing experience — how could it not, when it marks out scenes (with pauses or a change of tone) and emphasises the feel of sequences (with changes in tempo, for instance). That’s what film music is for, really, so obviously that’s what it does. Would the film be purer in silence? Maybe. Better? That’s a matter of taste. This particular score is very good, though.

The Masters of Cinema disc also includes the film in a 24fps version, which is how it used to be presented most of the time (what with that being the standard speed for so long; it’s also the version Einhorn’s score was written for). I watched just the climax at that speed, and I’d agree with the scholarly consensus that it’s clearly running too fast. If it was the only version you knew, you might not notice; but in direct comparison, people are clearly moving unnaturally fast and the pacing of camera moves and edits feels off, like there’s not quite long enough to appreciate what you’re being shown. At 24fps the Blu-ray includes an avant-garde score by Loren Connors. It feels apocalyptic and so, in its own way, is somewhat appropriate, but it’s far too dissonant for my taste. I can’t imagine enduring it for the entire film, even at the commensurately shorter running time. Silent London’s review describes it as “tedious and barbaric… insensitive and intrusive”, and advises first-time viewers to “steer well clear.” I concur.

Close-upSome viewers describe how they’ve found The Passion of Joan of Arc to be moving, affecting, or life-changing on a par with a religious experience. I wouldn’t go that far, but then I’m not religious so perhaps not so easily swayed. As a dramatic, emotional, film-viewing experience, however, it is highly effective. As Dreyer wrote in 1950, “my film on Joan of Arc has incorrectly been called an avant-garde film, and it absolutely is not. It is not a film just for theoreticians of film, but a film of general interest for everyone and with a message for every open-minded human being.” A feat of visual storytelling unique to cinema, it struck me as an incredible movie, surprisingly accessible, and, nearly 90 years after it was made, timeless.

5 out of 5

The Passion of Joan of Arc was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Also of note: this is the 1,000th feature film review I’ve published. (For what it’s worth, 2015 #112 will be 100 Films #1000. I’ll probably reach that in August.)

Modern Times (1936)

2014 #55
Charles Chaplin | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / G

Modern TimesCharlie Chaplin satirises technology and modernisation in arguably the last film of the silent era. It actually has a synchronised soundtrack, primarily for music and effects, but also dialogue — though “we hear spoken voices only when they come from mechanical devices, a symbol of the film’s theme of technology and dehumanization.” The irony is it was that technological progress which rendered Modern Times the last hurrah for the era Chaplin remains most identified with.

Stand-out sequences include Chaplin and co-workers battling a speedy production line, and him being the test subject for a new machine designed to feed workers quickly.

4 out of 5

Modern Times was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.