Saturday, September 30, 2017

Silent September IV Quick Picks and Pans

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.)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Classics Revisited: The Phantom of the Opera

(1925/1929) Directed by: Rupert Julian; Written by Elliott J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock; Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux; Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Snitz Edwards, Virginia Pearson and Mary Fabian; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Rating: *****

“Look not upon my mask – think rather of my devotion, which has brought you the gift of song.”
– The Phantom (Lon Chaney)

Even if you’ve never seen the original cinematic version of The Phantom of the Opera (and if you haven’t, what’s your excuse?), Lon Chaney’s inimitable portrayal of the title character is embedded in our consciousness. Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel about a shadowy figure that haunts the Paris Opera House has been interpreted and re-interpreted on stage and screen so many times, I’d wager most people have seen it in one form or another. It’s the original adaptation, however, that all other versions are inevitably judged against.

The lavish Universal Pictures production “…which would give Lon Chaney a chance to use more make-up and Carl Laemmle a chance to spend more money.” (excerpt from 1926 article “The Phantom Jinx,” by Robert E. Sherwood, Photoplay Magazine), endured a rocky road to the silver screen. Chaney and director Rupert Julian reportedly didn’t see eye to eye on the production, and rumors persisted that the veteran actor took over directing chores for some scenes. The original cut ran an ungainly 22 reels, or approximately four hours, before being edited down to a more manageable length. Before its initial fall 1925 release, it underwent several iterations, bouncing around preview screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Comic-relief scenes featuring Chester Conklin and garden party sequences with Ward Crane were casualties of the editing process.  Once again, the film received a major revision for the 1929 version, with some additional editing and scenes being re-shot (Virginia Pearson, who originally starred as the prissy diva Carlotta became Carlotta’s mother in the new version). Further tweaks involved adding sound elements (with a spoken prologue). Time wasn’t kind to the film, as Universal* allowed the copyright to lapse in 1953, and the film fell into public domain.

* Not So Fun Fact: Universal had a particularly bad track record taking care of its silent legacy, melting down many film reels for silver. As a result, most of Chaney’s early work with the studio is presumed lost.

Who better to depict the anguished title character than the crown prince of unrequited love, Lon Chaney. His anguished interpretation shines through the various versions and troubled production history. As was his trademark, Chaney created the makeup (unthinkable for a large production today), which remains to this day the definitive depiction of the Phantom, with a distinctive skull-like visage, his face frozen in a ghastly rictus. It’s a testament to Chaney’s strength as an actor that he doesn’t rest on the laurels of his impressive makeup. As the unseen muse for the ingénue Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), he speaks to the audience with his body movements and gestures. Whenever the Phantom (aka: Erik) is on screen, all eyes are firmly planted on Chaney.

Christine and Raoul de Chagny, co-stars Philbin and Norman Kerry make a cute couple, but add little else, other than to move the story along. When they share the screen, it’s clear that Philbin isn’t in the same league as Chaney. Her movements and expressions seem rooted in melodrama, whereas Chaney appears to be channeling the spirit of the Phantom. Thankfully, the supporting roles make up for any deficits from Chaney’s co-stars. The real standout is Arthur Edmund Carewe (whose screen-time was shortened for the 1929 re-issue) as the enigmatic police inspector Ledoux, who’s been on the trail of the Phantom for months, and seems to possess a sixth sense about how he operates. Carewe is a joy to watch, creating an air of mystery with a simple gesture or stare. Although many of the comedy bits were removed (probably a good thing), the film retains some nice bits of humor to lighten the mood, particularly from the fine character actor Snitz Edwards. As stagehand Florine Papillon, he witnesses the mysterious comings and goings of the Phantom.

Aside from Chaney’s remarkable performance, The Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the eyes, featuring amazing set pieces,* including an enormous re-creation of the Paris Opera House, and the extensive underground catacombs where the Phantom dwells. Only second to the famous unmasking scene is the stunning two-strip Technicolor masquerade sequence (the only color sequence that remains) of the Phantom striding in his red cape and costume, with a skull mask (“Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does Red Death rebuke your merriment!”). It’s the film’s meticulous attention to detail throughout that makes other versions pale in comparison.

* Fun Fact: According to film historian John C. Mirsalis, the boat-shaped bed in the Phantom’s lair (set aside for Christine) appeared 25 years later in Norma Desmond’s bedroom in Sunset Boulevard

Unlike many subsequent versions (notably the 1943 film with Claude Rains and Hammer’s 1962 version with Herbert Lom), the silent Phantom of the Opera doesn’t get bogged down in Erik’s origins. Instead of an elaborate back story, we’re left to speculate about the situation that led to his self-exile and infatuation with the Paris Opera House. Leroux’s book and the Chaney film also influenced the hugely successful Broadway musical (yes, I’ve seen it a few times), and a tepid film adaptation by Joel Schumacher. The story has undergone quite a few additional permutations, including Brian De Palma’s underappreciated mini-masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and if I know Hollywood (well, I don’t know Hollywood personally, but you get the idea), the powers that be are probably cooking up yet another version. Nothing quite compares to the original film, though, for a traditional take on the material. Forget about the glut of inferior public domain home video releases, and splurge on the deluxe Kino Blu-ray.* You’ll be glad you did.

* The options on the Kino disc can be quite confusing, with three versions, 24 fps and 20 fps, and a wealth of features and soundtrack options, including an informative commentary by John C. Mirsalis. Due to degradation of the silver nitrate source print, not every frame is pristine, but who’s complaining? This is about as good as it’s ever going to look.