Sunday, September 29, 2013

Silent September Quick Picks and Pans

This month's feature title is a misnomer, since there are no pans, only picks.  I deliberately chose to cover films across a broad spectrum of genres, but as is always the case with theme months, I ended up screening more films (including The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bardelys the Magnificent and Three Ages) than I could ever write about.  I was impressed by the overall quality and diversity of the films, but saddened to ponder the fact that they represented the 10% or so of films produced during the silent era that have survived to the present day.  What remains, however is a treasure trove that could take a lifetime of movie watching to explore, a tangible glimpse into another world.  This mere sampling of films reinforced my sincere admiration for those who have chosen to devote their blogs exclusively to silent movies.  I also came to the realization this month flew by far too quickly, and suspect this won’t be my last Silent September.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Director Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, based on a story by Victor Hugo, represents a transitional phase, when movie theaters were making the awkward change from silent to sound.  As a result, two versions were released: one as a standard silent print, and another with a music score and limited sound effects.  At the heart of the film is Conrad Veidt’s touching performance as Gwynplaine, a man whose mouth is frozen in a permanent rictus (a role that was originally envisioned for Lon Chaney).*  Ironically, Veidt’s constrictive mouth appliance prevented him from speaking, but his expressive eyes convey a profound sadness about his character’s unfortunate affliction.  Mary Philbin plays Dea, a blind woman who performs with him in a traveling sideshow.  Olga Baclanova (Freaks) is the scheming Duchess Josiana, who takes an interest in Gwynplaine after watching his show, and toys with his affections.  The Man Who Laughs is a memorable tale of injustice, betrayal and redemption, and should be on anyone’s short list of essential silent films.

* Veidt’s distinctive makeup allegedly served as Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s inspiration for Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

The Lodger (1927) Alfred Hitchcock established his distinctive voice with The Lodger (aka: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog).  Although my DVD came from a battered print, it was easy to see the influences of German expressionism on Hitchcock’s film, with an emphasis on atmosphere (helped by the enveloping fog), heavy contrasts and bold angles.  The story, based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel and play, shares many similarities with the Jack the Ripper serial murders.  An unseen assailant, known only as The Avenger, targets blonde women as his prey.  Daisy, a fair-haired stage performer played by June (yep, just June), is one of The Avenger’s potential victims.  Her boyfriend, ambitious police detective, Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen) is eager to stop him before he kills again. 

Ivor Novello is creepy as the enigmatic Lodger, who comes to live in the boardinghouse run by Daisy’s parents.  Hitchcock leaves clues early to suggest the Lodger might be more than he seems, with his aloof manner and secretive demeanor.  By the same token, it’s easy to see why Daisy would be attracted to him, compared to her loutish boyfriend.  The new tenant exudes a quiet sophistication and elegance that she finds irresistible.  Her parents, however, are not quite so smitten, fearing he’s up to no good.  Hitchcock continually plays with the audience, with the quandary, “Is he or isn’t he?” 

Many of what would come to be known as Hitchock’s trademarks are conspicuously on display, with spots of humor to offset the horror, the MacGuffin, and his first cameo (as a reporter).  The Lodger is a tense ride from beginning to end, and is a worthy entry in his resume of films.  Don’t miss it.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

The Phantom Carriage (aka: Körkarlen) (1921) Victor Sjöström’s dreamlike The Phantom Carriage (based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel) shares some similarities to A Christmas Carol and could have easily influenced It’s a Wonderful Life.  The story draws from a Swedish legend about Death’s carriage.  On each New Year’s Eve, a new assistant is chosen to drive the carriage and harvest souls. Writer/director Sjöström plays David Holm, a man who has hurt everyone around him, and on the eve of his death is forced to reflect on his life and all of the wrongs he’s committed.  Astrid Holm is affecting as Edit, a Salvation Army worker dying of tuberculosis (contracted from
David).  She alone is convinced of his potential for redemption, with her last wish to witness him turn over a new leaf.  It’s pretty bleak stuff, but an effective mood piece.  You won’t soon forget the film’s haunting, distinctive imagery of a ghostly carriage riding through the countryside.

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Strong Man (1926) Lesser-known comedy actor Harry Langdon stars in an early film by director Frank Capra.  Langdon plays Paul Bergot, a Belgian who arrives in America to find the woman who wrote him love letters while he was at war.  The film features an inspired gag with Paul using hard biscuits and onions as ammo on the battlefield.  After he arrives in New York, he becomes the reluctant assistant to his former enemy, who runs a traveling strong man show.  In a funny sequence, a shady con-woman trying to evade a detective slips a wad of bills in his coat.  What ensues is an amusing ballet of errors and mistaken identity as she attempts to retrieve her money, and almost murders him in the process.  Eventually, he finds the mysterious letter writer, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), a blind daughter of a minister, living in a corrupt town.  The pacing of The Strong Man, is inconsistent, and the gags aren’t quite as refined as those of his contemporaries, but it remains an enjoyable little romp.  Over the years, Langdon’s work may have been overshadowed by the works of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, but it doesn’t diminish his significant contribution to comedic film, nor does he deserve to be a mere footnote.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD (as part of Harry Langdon – The Forgotten Clown collection)

Silent Movie (1976) Mel Brooks’ hit and miss comedy is a valiant effort to combine two styles of filmmaking.  Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise star as bumbling filmmakers Mel Funn, Marty Eggs and Dom Bell, on a mission to gather stars for their modern silent film.  Unlike Blancanieves, which faithfully embraced the conventions of silent cinema, director/star/co-writer Brooks uses the silent film format as a gimmick.  True to its roots, Silent Movie doesn’t contain dialogue, and relies on physical rather than spoken gags.  The illusion is compromised, however, by Brooks’ choice to shoot the film in widescreen, color, and in a contemporary (circa 1970s) setting.   While the results are less than satisfying, Brooks’ film is packed with enough fun moments to make it worthwhile.  It’s a veritable who’s who of 1970s celebrities, including Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli, who seem to be having a blast playing caricatures of their public personas.  Another highlight is a great meta-joke, involving the only spoken word in the film.  Fans of Brooks will probably get the most mileage out of Silent Movie, but there’s more than enough to keep lovers of silent-era comedy entertained.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

The Man from Beyond (1922) The one and only Harry Houdini stars as Howard Hillary, a 19th century Arctic explorer found frozen on a 100-year-old ship.  After he thaws out and miraculously returns to life, he returns to America to explore a world that’s changed.  When he encounters a woman (Jane Connelly) who resembles his fiancé from a century ago, he’s convinced he’s met her reincarnated form.  I suppose it’s intended to be romantic, but Houdini just comes across as a delusional stalker.  Of course, audiences probably didn’t flock to the theaters to see Houdini appear in a love story.  The main draw of The Man from Beyond was to showcase his arsenal of tricks. In one scene, he’s committed to an insane asylum, but promptly escapes from his straightjacket and padded cell.  Even if the film around him is a lackluster, half-baked romance/fantasy, it’s a treat to see Houdini do what he does best (hint: it’s not acting).

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

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