Monday, September 29, 2014

Silent September II Quick Picks and Pans

Sunrise (aka: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) (1927) F.W. Murnau’s stylish, affecting melodrama packs a wallop. The deceptively simple story about a crumbling marriage is enhanced by complex visuals that underscore the ensuing drama. The main characters, known simply as The Man and The Wife (George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, respectively) are archetypes, as well as the urban and bucolic landscapes depicted in the film. Sunrise contrasts the quiet, serene countryside with the bustling city (actually a huge set). Instead of fixating on the characters’ identities or the specifics of where they live, we’re left to ruminate on the universal aspects of the human condition. The Man contemplates murdering his wife, so he can go off to the big city with his lover, The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). Before he can act on his dark impulses, he’s overwhelmed with guilt about his planned betrayal. Murnau’s masterful use of shadows, fog and overlapping images provides a feast for the eyes, while the story is a meditation on darkness and light that reside in us all.

Rating: **** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Un Chien Andalou (1929) From the opening scene where a woman’s eyeball appears to be sliced by a straight razor, you know all bets are off in this surrealist joint venture between director Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (who co-wrote the scenarios with his partner in crime). It’s an intentionally jarring experience that can be likened to a funhouse ride, featuring more insanity in 17 minutes than most full-length movies. The plotless parade of images taps into our unconscious, and brings it bubbling up to the surface in an Id-laced explosion. It doesn’t take a film major to see how this film could have provided the template for David Lynch’s works. 85 years onward, Un Chien Andalou is still fanciful, nightmarish and disturbing.

Rating: **** . Available on DVD

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) G.W. Pabst directed this German drama, based on a novel by Margarete Böhme. The film chronicles the sad exploits of Thymian (Louise Brooks), a pharmacist’s daughter. When she’s raped by her father’s business partner, Meinert (Fritz Rasp) and becomes pregnant, it’s Thymian who must pay the price. After refusing to marry the loutish Meinert, she’s sent away to a girls’ reformatory, where she meets a cruel headmistress (Valeska Gert) and creepy director (played by Andrews Engelmann, who obviously relishes his role as the heavy). She eventually escapes, but drifts from one bad situation into another when she takes refuge in a brothel. Brooks’ is mesmerizing as the eponymous “lost girl,” conveying sorrow and lost innocence with her expressive eyes. Diary of a Lost Girl takes a cynical view of men and their intentions, as well as the role of women in society. While men are free to have their indiscretions, it’s the women in their lives who must shoulder the burden.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Avenging Conscience: or Thou Shalt Not Kill  (1914) This landmark film from director D.W. Griffith was inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe (especially “The Telltale Heart”), and represents a step forward in early horror cinema. A domineering uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) stands in the way of the woman his nephew (Henry B. Walthall) loves. After the nephew murders the uncle, he’s subsequently haunted by a ghost and sees demonic apparitions, including visions of heaven and hell. Just when it seems hopeless for the main character, the film takes an abrupt shift with a tacked on happy ending, replete with images of dancing sprites and a flute-playing Pan. The Kino DVD also includes a 1909 short from Griffith, which attempts to re-create a pivotal moment in Edgar Allan Poe’s life. It’s unintentionally hilarious, as Poe finds inspiration in a raven, and gleefully composes his famous poem.  

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

Waxworks (1924) Director Paul Leni’s expressionistic portmanteau film prefigures such macabre anthologies as Dead of Night, and the Amicus horror movies. While it’s not really horror in the strictest sense, the expressionistic elements and suspense themes would prove to be influential in future productions, especially Universal Studios horror in the ‘30s. In the framing story, a writer (William Dieterle) is hired to weave tales that will accompany a traveling sideshow with wax figures of history’s most famous (and infamous) people. The first segment concerns the Caliph, Haroun al-Raschid (Emil Jannings) and a lowly baker (also Dieterle) in Baghdad. The imaginative, distorted sets match the shape of the Caliph’s ample frame. In the second segment, Conrad Veidt stars as Ivan the Terrible, and depicts his nefarious scheming and eventual descent into madness. The third segment, concerning Jack the Ripper, is surreal and claustrophobic, but ultimately disappointing, with no real story. A man and a woman are pursued by Jack (Werner Krauss) at every corner, with nowhere to hide. Compared to the previous two stories, it appears as if the filmmakers ran out of film, inspiration, or money (a fourth story, featuring Italian bandit Rinaldo Rinaldini was planned, but never filmed). Despite the weak third segment, Waxworks is well worth checking out.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

The Cook (1918) This collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (who also directed) and Buster Keaton was thought lost for many years, until a Norwegian print turned up in the ‘90s. Arbuckle, who was one of the biggest stars in the world during the film’s release, plays the title character, while Buster Keaton co-stars as a waiter. The cook takes the business of hash slinging seriously, as dishes are flying fast and furious, and the waiter must endeavor keep up with them. In one clever running gag, everything from soup to ice cream seems to emerge from one enormous pot. In another scene, the kitchen staff members sit down to eat, employing inventive ways to eat spaghetti. Flying food antics aside, it’s nothing special, but it’s worth a watch due to its rarity. The Cook DVD is accompanied by two other shorts, one featuring Arbuckle in A Reckless Romeo (1917), and Number, Please (1920), a hilarious Harold Lloyd short with a rather downbeat ending.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

(1928) Directed by: Herbert Brenon; Written by Elizabeth Meehan; Titles by Joseph Farnham; Based on the play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing; Starring: Lon Chaney, Bernard Siegel, Loretta Young and Nils Asther

Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I believe you’re suffering from some sort of suppression… perhaps a hopeless love.” – Doctor (Emmett King) to Tito (Lon Chaney)

I recently remarked on Twitter that a silent retrospective without Lon Chaney was like a cupcake without frosting (If you’re one of those poor souls that scrape the frosting off, I weep for you). While that statement might seem a smidgen hyperbolic, it’s safe for me to say I fell in love with silent cinema, thanks to Chaney, my gateway drug. I can also safely attest that none of his roles have failed to captivate me. No matter how weak the story might have been, or unbelievable the situation, he always immersed himself in his characters, and elevated the material to sublime levels. It’s no surprise that Laugh, Clown, Laugh* features yet another superb performance by Mr. Chaney, once again proving what an amazing, versatile actor he was. In his capable hands, what could have been a simple melodrama about unrequited love becomes a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

* According to film historian Michael F. Blake’s DVD commentary, the theme song, which shares the film’s title, was wildly popular at the time. The lyrics mirror the sentiment of a pivotal scene late in the film.  

Laugh, Clown, Laugh was based on a 1924 stage play, starring Lionel Barrymore in the lead role. Director Herbert Brenon and writer Elizabeth Meehan did an admirable job adapting the play for the screen, taking advantage of various Southern California locations to simulate the Italian countryside.   In an early scene, traveling clowns Tito (Lon Chaney) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) discover an abandoned toddler girl. Although Simon is initially reluctant to bring her along, his heart melts when Tito decides to name her Simonetta. As she grows up, she learns the tricks of the trade, and joins their circus act*. As the years pass, and Simonetta has blossomed into a beautiful young lady, it dawns on Tito that his feelings for her have shifted. Things take a turn for the worse, from Tito’s perspective, when an outside force, the debonair Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), threatens to take her away.

* The circus tent set in the film was previously used in the Chaney films He Who Gets Slapped and The Unknown.

It’s a testament to Chaney’s supreme skill as an actor that Laugh, Clown, Laugh never ventures into the creepy territory it could have gone. We can feel Tito’s inner torment from his pained expressions. As his alter ego, the clown Flik, he spends his time making others laugh, but cannot feel joy himself, on account of a love he doesn’t dare reveal. His conflicted emotions, stemming from repressed sexual frustration and paternal affection for Simonetta, are manifested in crying spells. He meets his rival, Luigi, when they both visit a doctor to help cure their respective afflictions. In direct contrast to Tito, Luigi is prone to uncontrollable fits of laughter. They start out as friends, as they help each other overcome their respective afflictions, but their amity gives way to animosity when Simonetta enters the equation. The two men and Simonetta form a love triangle that’s doomed from the start. Despite the fact we’re painfully aware Simonetta and her father by proxy can never be together, we feel sympathy for Tito because he’s essentially likeable.  

Loretta Young, who was only 14 when filming began for Laugh, Clown, Laugh, is excellent as the innocent ingénue, Simonetta. She strikes the perfect balance, torn between her devotion to Tito and being smitten by Luigi. Admittedly, the love triangle, and all of its Freudian implications, comprises one of the more disturbing aspects of the film. The audience is expected to accept that a teenage girl is the object of affection for men who are significantly older. While this sort of story line may have been reflective of the times, it doesn’t make it more palatable as a subject. Most modern filmmakers would be hard pressed to rationalize such a relationship in a current film, at least outside of quite a few Disney animated movies.

According to Blake’s commentary, an alternate happy ending was made available to theater owners, who had the option of playing this version instead. Although it’s a shame no known print of this scene exists, it’s hard to imagine the film ending any other way. The writing is on the wall for Tito as a tragic figure. Concluding the film on a positive note would have seemed like a cop out, undermining the impact of Tito’s moral dilemma. As it stands, Laugh, Clown, Laugh features another classic Chaney role, which ranks among his best.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Cat and the Canary

(1927) Directed by: Paul Leni; Adapted from the stage play by Robert F. Hill and Alfred A. Cohn; Based on the stage play by John Willard; Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall and Martha Mattox; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

“You are just like your uncle – in a cage surrounded by cats.” – Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall)

If you think The Cat and the Canary looks more than a little familiar, you’re right. The spooky old house mystery was a staple in the silent era. In Roy Kinnard’s book Horror in Silent Films, there are 15 separate entries listed under The Haunted House alone. Although movies with this subject matter were  clearly a dime a dozen, director Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, adapted from a John Willard stage play, proves appearances are only skin deep. It manages to rise above the rest, thanks to generous comedic touches and oodles of atmosphere.

The film opens with the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, who’s stalked by greedy relatives, “like cats around a canary.” The story skips 20 years later, as his heirs assemble in West’s mansion (rumored to be haunted by its former owner) to hear the reading of his will at the stroke of midnight. Much to the chagrin of her relations, Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) is named sole recipient of his estate. There’s just one stipulation, however. She must be evaluated by a physician for her sanity. In the event that she’s proven insane, the inheritance would go to another family member to be named in a second document. Sensing that her safety and newly acquired fortune is in jeopardy, the executor of the will, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), attempts to inform her she’s a prime target for evildoing. Before he can warn her about the back-up heir, he’s dispatched. To make matters worse, a homicidal maniac is wandering the premises.

The Cat and the Canary’s distinctive look can be credited to Paul Leni’s eye for visuals and experience as an art director in his native Germany. This film marked his feature film debut in America, a career that would be cut tragically short two years later due to blood poisoning. Along with cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, Leni took a fresh approach to the time-worn material. The house becomes another character, with long foreboding corridors that take on an almost organic appearance, hidden cobweb-filled passages and dusty rooms obscured in shadow. Many of the scenes are shot as if the viewer were an observer in the house. In one shot, viewed through the slats of a chair, Annabelle appears to be locked in a cage.

La Plante is complimented by some amusing supporting performances. Martha Mattox is the standout, perfect as the surly housekeeper Mammy Pleasant, sole caretaker of the crumbling West mansion for the past 20 years, and spiritual predecessor for Lurch in The Addams Family. When Crosby comments that she must have been lonely, she replies “I don’t need the living ones.” Mattox plays the ironically named Pleasant as if it would create intense physical discomfort to smile. Creighton Hale is suitably goofy as Annabelle’s, scaredy-cat cousin, Paul Jones (I couldn’t stop thinking the role would have been ideal for Rick Moranis in a remake), ready to jump at his own shadow. Unlike the rest of her relatives, Paul is a likeable enough guy, but a wee bit obtuse (“Don’t interrupt me. I think I’m thinking.”). His intentions to protect Annabelle often exceed his abilities, as he frequently tempers his affection for Annabelle with his fear for suffering bodily harm.

(SPOILER ALERT) It’s disappointing that the supernatural occurrences depicted in the film are revealed to be a cheat. True to form of many similar-themed stories of the time, there’s a prosaic explanation behind the ghostly hijinks. Even though it’s hard not to feel let down by the conclusion, it’s impossible to deny the film’s influential role. The Cat and the Canary helped inspire James Whale’s gothic comedy The Old Dark House, and likely formed the template for virtually every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made. And if the basic concept was nothing new, then Leni’s novel approach kept things from getting stale. It’s what lies beyond the surface that counts. The Cat and the Canary is full of visual treats that will make you shiver and smile.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Classics Revisited: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

(1928) Directed by: Charles Reisner; Written by Carl Harbaugh: Starring: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron and Ernest Torrence; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **** ½

“I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.” – Buster Keaton, on filming his famous collapsing wall scene (from Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, by Marion Meade)

It was inevitable I would write about a Buster Keaton movie sometime, but I can’t believe it took so long for me to get around to it. I won’t presume to enter the debate about which silent comedian was the “best.” Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd each embodied a different aspect of the “everyman” archetype. They were all immensely talented, and deserve the accolades they’ve received, and I love them all, so let’s leave it that, okay? On the other hand, of those talents, the one I gravitate toward most frequently is Keaton. Chaplin’s Little Tramp was a populist hero, portraying the underdog with a quiet dignity and style, while helping his fellow man (or woman). Lloyd, with his “glasses man” persona, embraced the “can do” American spirit, confident in his abilities to overcome the ordeals of life and emerge triumphant. Keaton, as “The Great Stone Face,” portrayed another type of everyman, his melancholic expression a Rorschach test for audience members to interpret while he stumbled through life, and eventually found his way. There was always something infinitely relatable about his nebbishy characters. If there’s such a thing as a stereotypical Keaton flick, which incorporates all of these aspects, it must be Steamboat Bill, Jr.     

Bill Canfield, Sr. operates a ramshackle, second-rate riverboat, the Stonewall Jackson. His archrival, Mr. King (Tom McGuire) virtually owns the town – his name adorns the signs of many local businesses, including his fancy new paddlewheel boat. In an early scene, Bill, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) waits for his son’s arrival at a train station. Although he hasn’t seen him since he was an infant, the towering, grizzled steamboat captain imagines his progeny as a chip off the old block. His expectations are dashed when he realizes he’s looking directly at his son, a diminutive* lad with pencil-thin mustache, beret and ukulele. To make matters worse, Bill, Jr. has fallen for King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Byron). Their romance is doomed from the start, a sort of Romeo and Juliet on the Mississippi, as both fathers take pains to keep the young lovers apart.

* It was a casting coup for the filmmakers to place six-foot-four-inch Torrence’s hulking frame against the five-foot-five-inch Keaton.

Like one of the buildings in the climactic storm scene, Keaton’s independent film company collapsed, thanks to producer Joseph Schenck. As a result, Keaton was left without a production company, and he was effectively reduced to being another contract player for MGM, while his contemporaries had the clout to do as they pleased. Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, Keaton was in top form, contributing some ingenious sequences. Embarrassed by his son’s foppish appearance and demeanor, the elder Canfield attempts to transform Bill, Jr.’s appearance into something a little more masculine. In the ensuing scene, his son tries on a variety of hats (including Keaton’s trademark porkpie), but most of his choices earn his father’s disdain. After a scuffle with King resulting in Bill Sr.’s incarceration, the younger Canfield brings a loaf of bread stuffed with tools to rescue his father from jail, and does a pantomime in a futile effort to inform the elder Canfield about its contents. In one of Keaton’s most famous (and dangerous) stunts, the entire side of a house topples around him, and he’s left standing through an open window.* Keaton, reeling from the news about his company, reportedly claimed he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Fortunately for all involved, the stunt went as planned.

* Keaton stood on a strategically placed nail (or two, depending on which source you believe), providing a scant two inches of clearance around his shoulders when the wall fell around him. Jackie Chan, an ardent fan of Keaton and his stunt work, made his own homage to the famous scene in Project A, Part II.

The cynically inclined might nitpick about Steamboat Bill, Jr. not having much of a plot, or that the film was merely an excuse to showcase a string of elaborate gags, but oh, what gags they are.  Aside from a rather weak plot and a couple (mercifully) short comic bits at the expense of African American characters, the film holds up tremendously well. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not a big hit at the time, following two other Keaton commercial failures, The General and College. Yet, like its protagonist, it has stood against the adversity of a chilly reception to win the hearts of filmgoers. While The General is widely regarded as his masterpiece, I prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Sure, there were other Keaton films with better stories and more elaborate plots, but this riverboat tale is hard to top for pure enjoyment. So much of what was funny then, is funny now. How funny? I recently used a clip from the 86-year-old film (the hat scene) for a professional conference presentation, and instead of blank stares, it received big laughs. Mr. Keaton would have been pleased.

(Sources for this article include: The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, by Jim Kline; Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, by Marion Meade; and Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, by Edward McPherson)