Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Silent September III Quick Picks and Pans

The Mark of Zorro (1920) Director Fred Niblo’s adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s story “The Curse of Capistrano” captivates, thanks to brisk pacing and a spirited performance by Douglas Fairbanks as the titular hero. Fairbanks stars as Don Diego Vega, who leads a dual life as a pampered son of a wealthy 19th century California aristocrat, and a hero of the people. His bland, sleepy countenance belies the soul of a fighter. When he puts on his mask and outfit, he becomes Zorro, a champion of the weak and downtrodden. He always stays one step ahead of the oppressive governor (George Periolat), leaving his mark (a customary “Z”) wherever he goes. The film’s formula has been emulated many times over the years, and has frequently been cited as one of the inspirations for the Batman comic. Marguerite De La Motte is fine as Zorro’s main squeeze, Lolita Pulido, who refuses to be a stereotypical damsel in distress. Filled with action, thrills and the requisite modicum of romance, this movie was made for popcorn.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Man with a Movie Camera (aka: Chelovek S Kinoapparatom) (1929) Director Dziga Vertov’s (his birth name was David Abelevich Kaufman) dizzying pastiche of images chronicles life in the Soviet Union. The film isn’t presented as a conventional narrative, and his fly-on-the wall, patchwork-quilt style prefigures such documentaries as Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Samsara (2012) by several decades. Instead, Vertov lets the scenes play without comment, as the audience sees citizens at work and play, and the various sequences cover the gamut from birth to death. Scenes of hard labor in a coal mine and foundry are contrasted with frolicking on a beach. Michael Nyman’s modern, frenetic score (featured on the Kino DVD) provides a fitting accompaniment to the collage of activity.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Frankenstein (1910) Thomas Edison’s production of Mary Shelley’s venerable story stars Augustus Phillips as the eponymous creator, and Charles Ogle as his doomed creation. The film covers a lot of ground in 14 minutes, taking quite a few liberties with the source material along the way. For starters, the monster is brought to life through alchemy, not stitched together from corpses. It’s a mesmerizing scene nonetheless, as he comes into being via a cauldron of fire. Fans of Shelley’s story will likely cry foul, especially when it comes to Frankenstein’s responsibility (or lack thereof in this version) to his creation, or the contrived happy ending, but it’s tough to deny the film’s significance for cinephiles and horror fans alike.

Rating: ***½. Available on YouTube

Battling Butler (1926) Compared to some of Buster Keaton’s better known flicks, the gags aren’t flying as fast or furious, but what Battling Butler lacks in innovation, it makes up in story. The key plot point is a case of mistaken identity between Alfred Butler (Keaton), a milquetoast, spoiled rich kid, and prize fighter Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald). In order to keep the girl of his dreams (Sally O’Neil, credited as “The Mountain Girl”), he must keep up the ruse of being a professional boxer. The gags are somewhat hit and miss (pun unintended). It’s hard to find a joke about spousal abuse funny, but there are some amusing bits throughout. His misguided version of “roughing it” in the wilderness, with butler in tow, provides some of the best scenes. The final shot of the film is memorable as well. While Keaton is excellent as always, the real standout is Snitz Edwards, in a terrific understated performance as his eager-to-please valet.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

It (1927) Clara Bow stars as the original “It” girl, Betty Lou, in the movie that launched a thousand rom-coms (based on a story by Elinor Glyn, who appears in a cameo). Betty Lou is a lowly department store clerk who schemes to steal the heart of the store’s wealthy owner Cyrus T. Waltham (Antonio Moreno). It’s an enjoyable romp on the surface, and Bow is suitably cute and charming, but the implications about a woman’s worth in the early 20th century are disturbing. According to the film’s central thesis, the world’s your oyster as long as you’re young, pretty and childless (her single mom roommate doesn’t fare very well). Admittedly, I’m not part of the film’s target audience, so the wish fulfillment elements didn’t do much for me. If you know what you’re getting into, and (like most sane people) take the film at face value, It serves its purpose.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

A Fool There Was (1915) This is the movie that introduced the world to the vampire (or “vamp” for short) – not the supernatural being, but a bloodsucker, nonetheless. Theda Bara plays The Vampire, a predatory woman who leaves a trail of broken men in her wake. The story focuses on her efforts to entrap a poor, defenseless diplomat into an affair, while his family idly stands by. A Fool There Was is best remembered for Bara’s performance as a borderline sociopath, which is better than the production deserved. It’s worth seeing for its place in film history, but should be regarded as a curio, due to its dim view of female sexuality and women who dare to climb the social ladder.

Rating: **. Available on DVD.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Classics Revisited: Nosferatu

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“Can we not stay together a little while longer, my lovely man? It’s still quite a long time until sunrise and I sleep by day, dear fellow… completely dead to the world…” – Count Orlock (Max Schreck)

You’re probably thinking, “Oh no, not another Nosferatu review,” and rightfully so… Wait!  Don’t go yet. I was just getting to the point. The film is so ubiquitous I had nearly convinced myself I’d reviewed it before, when in reality I took a look at Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake a few years back. While Herzog’s version was a respectable film in its own right, it wasn’t the original. With this in mind, I decided it was time to go back to the source of inspiration, and explore why it’s regarded as such a venerable classic. The central character is instantly recognizable to film fans everywhere, even those who never saw the silent original (And if you haven’t seen it by now, what’s wrong with you?)

When’s a Dracula movie not a Dracula movie? When it’s a thinly veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, with a few judicious nips and tucks. In an effort not to get sued by Stoker’s estate, Nosferatu scribe Henrik Galeen changed the character names and locations described in the source material. The ruse didn’t work, however, and Stoker’s widow sued in German court and subsequently won. Pursuant to the ruling, all extant copies were ordered destroyed. Fortunately for us, and film history, prints outside of Germany survived. The movie remains a fascinating and vital contribution to the vampire mythos.

Prior to working in cinema, F.W. Murnau cut his teeth as a stage actor. He eventually graduated to directing feature films. Sadly, seven of his early titles, including an unauthorized adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde,* are presumed lost. This film, with its supernatural themes, helped set the stage for his groundbreaking vampire flick.

* Fun fact: 1920’s Der Januskopf (The Janus Head) featured a young Bela Lugosi, years before his starring turn as a certain vampire count.

Nosferatu’s interiors were shot in a Berlin studio, while the real-life towns of Lübeck and Wismar stood in for the fictitious German town of Wisborg. The film’s art director Albin Grau embodied the principles of Theosophy and its occult doctrines, endowing it with an ominous, otherworldly look. Nosferatu’s link to occult themes is further reflected in the production company’s name, Prana, meaning “the force of life.” Murnau and his crew used many tricks of the trade to create the film’s dreamlike imagery. Although many silent films employed tinting, few did it with such élan. Each color helps further the story, setting and mood, as the scenes transition from golden hues, to pink, to a spectral greenish-blue. Through editing magic, the title creature appears as something that exists on a different plane of existence, not quite corporeal or ghost, fading in and out of the frame, and moving through solid objects. Through time lapse photography a horse-drawn coach (which sometimes appears as a negative image) seems to glide over a road, or a pile of caskets stack up on their own, with no earthly assistance.

Few cinematic monsters are as immediately recognizable or enduring as Max Schreck’s creepy portrayal of Count Orlock. With his enlarged head, pointed ears and long, spidery fingers, Orlock is a thing that inhabits our nightmares suddenly made real, as our subconscious fears emerge into the conscious world. Unlike more modern interpretations of the vampire count, he is a predator through and through, an unapologetic creature that lives only to drain human bodies of their precious blood. Kinski’s re-interpretation of the count in Herzog’s 1979 version captures the look of the original, but presents a more pitiable creature, who laments the curse of eternal life, and the loss of his humanity. Schreck’s take is more instinctual and elemental, a thing that evokes only fear and scorn. Compared to later film iterations of vampires, there’s nothing remotely sexy or endearing about Schreck’s Count Orlock. As good as they are, the Universal and Hammer versions strayed from this paradigm, with Lugosi’s suave performance, or Lee’s sexually charged presence. Many years later, Gary Oldman’s compassionate take as the count in Coppola’s over the top Bram Stoker’s Dracula, further subverted the vampire’s image.  

Why has Nosferatu remained relevant? It tells us something about ourselves, and our need for stories that makes us shiver at things that go bump in the night. Vampire films and stories are a product of the era in which they were produced, a projection of our deepest fears and anxieties. In Stoker’s time, and likely when this film was released, the vampire legend was a distillation of myths passed down through the ages, based in xenophobia (Count Orlock, the outsider from the old world, arrives in the western world, bringing a new type of plague). Some things never change, as this irrational fear of immigrants never seems to have gone out of style. Aside from these darker societal implications, many recent incarnations of vampires have taken a more sympathetic route. The recent trend (I’m looking at you, Twilight and True Blood) has depicted vampires as somehow glamorous, as if their respective afflictions were less of a curse and more like a minor disability, something to be desired and celebrated. The vampire tropes have been co-opted, but without any bite (pardon the pun), until the end result could hardly be referred to as horror. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to shift back, so vampires can take their rightful place as unapologetic villains. Nosferatu reminds us, nearly a century later, there’s still plenty of room for scary vampires.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


(1928) Directed by: Ted Wilde; Written by John Grey, Lex Neal, Howard Emmett Rogers and Jay Howe; Starring: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Byron Douglas, Brooks Benedict and Babe Ruth

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****

Speedy being a big city picture, I am an irresponsible, flip, scatter-brained, baseball-crazy youth of a kind the city breeds by the thousands.” – Harold Lloyd (from his autobiography, An American Comedy)

As the silent era was drawing to a close, Harold Lloyd pulled out all the stops for his exuberant, aptly named comedy Speedy. High-energy gags and a brisk pace ensure the film lives up to its title. Speedy was set in New York City, but filmed partially on location in New York and Los Angeles. While Speedy deserves to be better regarded in its own right, it’s known primarily for two things: capturing Coney Island as it appeared in 1928, and featuring baseball great Babe Ruth as himself.

According to Lloyd’s autobiography, Speedy started as a criminal underworld plot, until it evolved into something quite different. It’s a simple story, but in Lloyd and company’s capable hands, the film is ripe with comic possibilities. Lloyd stars as Harold “Speedy” Swift,* a young man whose baseball obsession appears boundless, but his capacity to hold a steady job is nil. He already has a steady girlfriend, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy), but she’s not ready to settle down until her grandfather’s affairs are in order. Her grandfather, Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) runs the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York City, which is a thorn in the side of railway tycoon W.S. Wilton (Byron Douglas, erroneously listed in IMDB as “Bryon Douglas” and “Uncredited). Wilton intends to put Pop Dillon out of business by hook or by crook. If he can’t buy him out, he’s not above resorting to some underhanded tactics to get his way. What follows are three distinct acts, each with its own distinct flavor.

* Fun fact: According to Lloyd, the title came from a childhood nickname. Lloyd observed in his autobiography, “When the character of the current picture began to take shape, it was seen that the name fitted him like a glove.”

The first third is a delight for amusement park enthusiasts, featuring a visit to Coney Island. Luna and Steeplechase Parks appear in all their glory, back in the days when the rides were apparently designed with the specific intent to kill you, or at least leave you maimed (Seatbelts? We don’t need any stinkin’ seatbelts! What’s a concussion or broken collarbone between friends, right?). Witness “Shoot the Chutes,” a boat ride that purposefully flies off the tracks into a lake. Another diabolical contraption, “The Human Roulette Wheel,” features a spinning floor – its sole purpose is to see who can last the longest before being flung away from the center, crashing head over heels into your fellow riders. Some great gags are built around a wayward crab (Don’t ask why they sold live crabs at an amusement park.) that stows away in Speedy’s coat pocket, and a mischievous but loveable mutt that takes a shine to the young couple.

The second act continues Speedy’s ongoing dilemma with chronic unemployment. He becomes a cabdriver, but for reasons that are painfully obvious to the viewer, can’t seem to get any passengers. After a series of misadventures, he finally lands the mother of all fares, Babe Ruth (in a memorable cameo), who needs a ride to Yankee Stadium. What follows is a harrowing cab ride through the streets of Manhattan, weaving through traffic and pedestrians at a breakneck pace, as Speedy and his mortified passenger narrowly avoid disaster at every turn. Thanks to some snappy editing, the scene is a visceral, thrilling experience that couldn’t have been more effective if filmed today.

Speedy loses some steam in the final act, as Wilton makes good on his threat to stop Pop Dillon. When some hired toughs attempt to stop the streetcar service, Speedy enlists the aid of the local residents, and an all-out war ensues. This sequence drags on a little too long, and seems the least inventive, compared to many of the scenes that preceded it. Things pick up, however after the streetcar is stolen. Pop Dillon will lose the streetcar run if it’s out of service for more than 24 hours, so Speedy must race against the clock to locate the errant trolley before time runs out.  What follows is another energetic ride through the streets, as he endeavors to overcome all manner of obstacles.

Will Speedy get his act together? Will he get to marry the girl he loves? Do you really have to ask? As with many great silent comedies, it’s not the destination that’s so satisfying, but the journey. He’s such a likeable screw-up that it’s hard not to root for him every step of the way. At times, Speedy appears as if three different films were combined into one. If you want to nitpick, the parts are superior to the whole, but oh, what parts they are. The many elaborate gags really pay off, and rank right up there with the best of them. Even if some segments seem familiar, rarely have all of the parts been executed so well. As Lloyd’s final silent film, it’s a fitting epitaph to this stage of his career, and a reminder that this specific form of comedy will always have a place in film lovers’ hearts.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Classics Revisited: Metropolis

(1927) Directed by: Fritz Lang; Written by Thea von Harbou; Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou; Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Theodor Loos and Heinrich George; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: *****

“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” – Epigram

“What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” – Freder (Gustav Fröhlich)

From a modern perspective, it’s difficult to fathom that one of the best known and well-esteemed films from the silent age wasn’t always regarded as anything special. Based on Thea von Harbou’s novel and directed by Fritz Lang, shooting for Metropolis began in May 1925, and ran until October 1926. With a production cost of 6 million marks (approximately $24 million in 1927 dollars), it was the most expensive German film to date. The lavish production didn’t translate to universal praise, however. The initial release received a lukewarm critical reception and tepid box office. Time wasn’t kind with subsequent releases, as the original running time of 153 minutes was whittled down to approximately 90 minutes. Over the past 15 years or so, film preservationists have labored to restore the film to its former glory. The most recent version, at 145 minutes, incorporates footage from a scratchy 16 mm print from Argentina, and is probably the most complete version we’re liable to see.

Everything about Metropolis, ranging from the set design to the soaring cityscape to the archetypal characters, is told in broad strokes. It’s a modern fable, rich in allegory, with many themes that still appear contemporary nearly 90 years later. Alfred Abel is exceptional as the cold, impassive Joh Fredersen, master of all he surveys. He supervised the construction of the city-state of Metropolis, and stands as its de facto ruler. He impassively observes society from atop his New Tower of Babel, and endeavors to preserve the status quo. The laborers who make the lifestyle for the upper class possible toil away in the subterranean city under the city, little more than a mean to Joh’s predetermined end. Lang contrasts the cold machine world beneath with the Club of the Sons and Eternal Gardens above, where the wealthy come to play.

Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) doesn’t share his father’s dispassionate views. He becomes determine to learn more about the subterranean city after he’s smitten by the virginal Maria (Brigitte Helm), who takes a group of children from the lower levels to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Eternal Gardens. Maria has steadily gained a loyal following with her peaceful protests. In a reversal of fortune plot similar to The Prince and the Pauper, Freder trades places with Worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), and takes up his mindless job. In one of the film’s many memorable sequences, Freder works a grueling 10-hour shift, moving the hands of a clock-like mechanism with indeterminate purpose. While Freder poses as Worker 11811, the emancipated laborer enjoys his brief flirtation with luxury, riding in a limousine and attending the Yoshiwara nightclub.  

When Joh learns of his son’s sudden fascination with the plight of the working class, he works to discredit Maria. Joh employs the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to endow his robot with Maria’s likeness (also played by Helm) and set her up as a false prophet. Rotwang, however, has ulterior motives, which are made clear in the longer cut of the film. Her robot counterpart becomes the antithesis of Maria, a stark contrast between the sacred and profane. She performs an erotic dance at a club, and her volatile speech sparks a violent workers’ rebellion.

Many of the criticisms heaped against Metropolis were not dissimilar to those of modern blockbusters, alleging spectacle over story. One of its most notable detractors, H.G. Wells, excoriated the film* for what he deemed to be a simplistic tone and dated view of society. It’s ironic to note that Wells’ cinematic take on utopia, Things to Come, premiered almost a decade later, and appears to have aged less gracefully. On the other hand, Metropolis has endured, thanks to its more metaphorical rather than literal approach. While Wells’ film differed from Metropolis thematically, he failed to acknowledge how the earlier film shaped many of the visual elements, including scenes of machinery and industrial might, towering structures, elevated walkways, and communication via 2-way video screens. Unlike Things to Come, which was concerned with envisioning a sort of future history, Metropolis works on our subconscious, projecting human frailties, hopes, dreams and fears within a dehumanizing society. While Wells opined the rational side would prevail, von Harbou argued this was not enough. There had to be a mediator between the forces of rationality and brute strength. Although the future world of Metropolis is fantastical, it seems less sterile than the one Wells envisioned. The old co-exists with the new (witness how Rotwang’s machine man is brought to life through a combination of technological know-how and alchemy), and a gothic cathedral stands among futuristic architecture.

* According to Wells: “It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.” (New York Times, April 17, 1927)

One of the rewards of subsequent viewings is spotting the myriad influences of Metropolis on many other films. The comparisons are too numerous to mention in any one article. I could probably devote an entire essay comparing Star Wars to Lang’s film. The eccentric inventor Rotwang and his artificial hand could have easily been the inspiration for Darth Vader. Likewise, his mechanical man is often cited as the template for C-3PO. Rotwang’s appearance also bears a strong resemblance to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future Movies. The vast cityscape has been emulated many times, from Blade Runner to Dark City to Akira. It also likely influenced Terry Gilliam’s retro-future aesthetic for Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Gottfried Huppertz’s score, with its rousing multi-layered themes has doubtlessly influenced other composers of epic films.

It seems as if everyone and his/her dog has reviewed Metropolis by now, but I propose every fan (and detractor) should take a crack at re-evaluating the film. No, this isn’t a perfect movie – the acting is suitably over the top, particularly by Fröhlich, whose portrayal of Freder appears hopelessly naïve. Subtlety is not Lang’s strong point, but the subject matter requires a broader palette. The anachronisms are a stylistic flourish, not meant to be a realistic representation of future society. The iconic imagery, thanks to cinematographers Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann is steeped in metaphor (One of the most iconic images involves workers marching up to the M-Machine, sacrificial offerings to feed the machinery’s insatiable appetite). A film isn’t classic because everything makes sense, or it’s uniformly liked by everyone. The sign of a great classic is that it transcends the time in which it was conceived, demanding repeated viewings. Metropolis’ influence has spanned decades, and will continue to spawn debate and imitation for many years to come.