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.

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 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.

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.

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 one 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.)

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)

aka Fantômas: À l’ombre de la guillotine

2007 #111
Louis Feuillade | 54 mins | DVD | PG

FantomasThe first of the silent Fantômas films (I reviewed the second previously).

It’s interestingly structured: there’s no ‘origin story’ for Fantômas, he just is an infamous master criminal, who’s introduced in what would undoubtedly be a pre-titles sequence today, before the story switches to follow Inspector Juve and his quest to solve the disappearance of Lord Beltham… which of course leads back to Fantômas. Its pulp fiction roots shine through in the entertaining plot that’s just far-fetched enough.

As I said before, it’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing it’s unmissable.

4 out of 5

The Crowd (1928)

2007 #110
King Vidor | 98 mins | TV

The CrowdLate silent-era drama — though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a comedy until halfway, when the light antics of a young couple in ’20s New York give way to some increasingly dark drama (interesting trivia: seven endings were shot for distributors to choose from, some happy and some sad; all chose sad ones. However, the copy we saw (taped from an ’80s TV showing) had a happy ending).

The first half is gentle but amusing; the sudden shift catches the viewer off-guard, undoubtedly making what follows more effective. The main character is in many ways pretty useless and at least some of the problems that befall him are his own fault, yet his comedic treatment in the first half makes you care for him throughout the second.

If you can accept the shifting styles of an age before genre was rigidly defined, The Crowd is a worthwhile experience.

4 out of 5