He Who Gets Slapped (1924) The second American film from Swedish director Victor Sjöström (The Phantom Carriage) is a grim tale of betrayal and revenge, starring Lon Chaney. Chaney is Paul Beaumont, a brilliant scientist poised to bring the results of his research to a board of his peers. On the eve of his triumph, his papers are stolen by his wealthy benefactor, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), who also runs off with his wife. Regnard takes the credit for Beaumont’s research, and in a final act of humiliation, he slaps Beaumont in front of an audience of his fellow scientists. Years later, the disgraced researcher has made a new name for himself in an unlikely venue, as the clown “He.” He creates a comedy act, re-experiencing the trauma of getting slapped before a jury of jeering clowns. He attempts to prevent history from repeating itself when the Baron sets his sights on Consuelo, a young performer (Norma Shearer). Chaney’s heartrending performance is as memorable as it’s painful to watch.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Swashbuckler extraordinaire Douglas Fairbanks stars in the titular role, as a thief with aspirations of being a prince. If it all looks a little familiar, it springs from the same well that Disney dipped into, many decades later, for Aladdin. The thief disguises himself as a prince to woo the princess (Julanne Johnston). After his ruse is discovered, he leaves in shame, but aims to redeem himself with a quest to find the greatest treasure. Aside from Fairbanks’ formidable charm and exciting antics, one of the highlights is the spectacular production design by William Cameron Menzies, who co-directed the terrific 1940 version (still my favorite version of the story). The film also features fine performances by Anna Mae Wong as a duplicitous Mongol slave, Snitz Edwards as the thief’s loyal companion, and Sôjin Kamiyama as the Mongol Prince. It may be sacrilege to say the film goes on a bit too long but there’s much to love about this excellent adaptation of Arabian Nights. The film hosts a collection of visual wonders, and Fairbanks is as dashing as ever, so who’s complaining?
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video
L’ Inferno (aka: Dante’s Inferno) (1911) The Virgil (Arturo Pirovano) guides fellow poet Dante Alighieri (Salvatore Papa) on a tour of Hell, and that’s about it. While this groundbreaking Italian fantasy-horror is short on plot, it’s a treat for the eyes. As the travelers descend through the various levels of hell, they witness the many torments, created specifically for each resident. Among the sights: men wallow in a lake of filth, some are buried upside-down, with their legs wiggling in the air, while others are transformed into trees. Charon and Cerberus are also there to greet the travelers. It’s a must for fans of early horror.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and YouTube
The Flying Ace (1926) The film’s title is somewhat misleading – anyone expecting dogfights and thrilling aerobatics will be disappointed (the flying scenes were filmed in a studio), with most of the action taking place on the ground. But there’s plenty to keep viewers entertained with writer/director Richard E. Norman’s film, with a love triangle and a mystery surrounding $25,000 in missing payroll funds. Laurence Criner stars as the main character, Captain Billy Stokes, a WW I flying ace, who’s returned from the war to resume his career as a detective. He’s joined by his one-legged companion, played by Steve Reynolds. They make such a great team, that I couldn’t help but wonder if other adventures with the two were planned or filmed (If not, they missed a golden opportunity.). The investigation takes a detour thanks to a love interest (Kathryn Boyd) and another aviator who might not be as honorable as he seems. Despite obvious budgetary limitations, The Flying Ace soars with humor and adventure. Note: this film is part of the five-disc Pioneers of African American Cinema collection. It’s not just for stuffy cinephiles and would-be historians, but a rich glimpse into our cinematic past, and a neglected part of film history.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Monster (1925) With Lon Chaney starring, and a title like The Monster, you might expect a tense horror film, instead of a comedy/mystery in the vein of The Old Dark House. Although Chaney enjoys top billing as the deranged Dr. Ziska, he’s not really the film’s main character. Co-star Johnny Arthur gets more screen time as a would-be sleuth, attempting to find out about a string of disappearances. His investigation leads to a spooky old asylum, boasting hidden passageways and a basement laboratory, where Ziska is conducting weird human experiments. Meanwhile, the amateur detective tries to win the affections of a girl (Gertrude Olmstead) from the boss at his day job. The Monster doesn’t sustain the comedy throughout, with mystery prevailing in the second half, but it’s good for a few laughs and mild chills.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Three’s a Crowd (1927) Harry Langdon directed and starred in this comedy about a man who leads a lonely existence, yearning for a wife and child. One day, he rescues a pregnant woman from the cold, and experiences what it’s like to have a family, if only for a little bit. Langdon’s bittersweet (with an emphasis on the bitter) comedy has a few moments of levity, but there’s a stronger focus on drama. The final gag does little to defuse the downbeat climax. Despite the paucity of comic moments, there’s still much to like about Langdon’s film, and the evolution of his man-child character. Note: David Kalat’s commentary on the Kino DVD sheds some light on the controversy over this often-maligned film, as he picks apart the pro and con arguments, and it’s well worth a listen.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
The Headless Horseman (1922) This lackluster, unimaginative adaptation of Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” misses the mark at practically every turn. Will Rogers (yep, that Will Rogers) is miscast in the starring role as awkward schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. He competes for the affections of Katrina Van Tassel (Lois Meredith) with Brom Bones (Ben Hendricks Jr.), who will stop at nothing to sabotage Crane’s reputation in Sleepy Hollow. Director Edward D. Venturini and writer Carl Stearns Clancy turn an extraordinary story into something by the numbers and prosaic. (Spoiler Alert) Unlike Irving’s story, the disappointing ending unwisely eschews any ambiguity about the supernatural origins of the horseman. Perhaps this should have been called The Headless Hoax?
Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Video (Note: The version I watched, on Amazon Prime had no music score, just some very annoying white noise. If you feel inclined to see this, watch it with the sound off.)