Category Archives: 1910s and earlier

The Mysterious X (1914)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Is there any truth to the old claim that, in the very early days of cinema, close-ups were frowned upon because audiences were supposedly paying to see the performers’ whole bodies rather than just parts of them? If so, I presume the person who first said that would’ve had conniptions at this film, in which the audience would’ve been paying to see performers they couldn’t actually see… Benjamin Christensen is best known now, no doubt, for Haxan, but this, his debut, also offers points of interest. It has to be said the plot is not exactly one of those… basically, war breaks out and our main character (Christensen himself), a naval lieutenant, gets sent off to fight; meanwhile, Mrs Lieutenant has become the object of infatuation for a certain Count Spinelli, who takes an opportunity to break into the lieutenant’s sealed orders (Sealed Orders being the other, more immediately understandable English title for the film) and steal the info therein, which eventually results in the lieutenant himself being arrested for spreading said info to the enemy (whoever they are; the film is oddly reticent about who the other side is supposed to be. How ironic, too, that a film released just a few months before the actual outbreak of actual war should’ve been made in a country that would then stay neutral during that war…)

So this is all so much melodrama, and JESUS FUCK how excessive does it get at times, too… and just how does Spinelli manage to survive so long trapped in the old mill without food or water given that the film seems to take place over quite a number of days? Anyway, the narrative and the handling of same aren’t really the point, it’s Christensen’s visual presentation of his material that is. The staging is largely in fairly standard early cinema tableau form, very minimal cutting, but there are some nice moments of camera movement (the house interior set is revealed to be surprisingly large) leading to some borderline abstract compositions at times, and then there’s Christensen’s use of darkness as much as light. In 1914, I imagine this would’ve been particularly striking, and some of the silhouette business still is. It’s a better film to look at than it is a story to follow, but it’s not bad all up and the whole thing culminates in a last-minute rescue that Griffith might’ve liked.

Frankenstein (1910)

Director: J. Searle Dawley

I’ve been mostly reading lately rather than watching anything, and once of my recent books was Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein, a reread for the first time in probably over two decades. As such, I know exactly how “liberal” an adaptation of the book this film is… The film indeed describes itself as being liberally adapted, which is at least a pleasing admission of honesty you don’t get from certain other equally “liberal” film versions, almost as if the producers thought that by admitting its differences from the book upfront, admirers of the latter might be less appalled at just how extensive said differences are. And, to be sure, condensing a biggish book like that into a single reel—remember, this Frankenstein predates the feature film—would have inevitably required some substantial changes, so you can’t really blame the Edison team for not making the most faithful film of the book. Still, there’s something disconcertingly blunt about the storytelling, even allowing for that—Victor Frankenstein goes to college, discovers how to create life, creates Charles Ogle instead, the latter menaces him and his bride on the day of their wedding then kind of… well, vanishes for some reason. Even considering that such a short film hardly allows for the complexity of the book, the reduction of the latter to such basic melodrama is kind of brutal. I suspect Frankenstein has taken its place in film history largely by virtue of being what it is—i.e. the first film version of that book, a silent horror film, and one that was lost for decades after its initial release—rather than because of its innate quality; at the time it seems to have been actually kind of unpopular, partly because of the theme and partly because, well, it’s not really that good; it’s a hard film to really appraise, of course, cos the surviving print is in mediocre shape and the available Youtube copies mostly seem to be shit, but even so, you can see the style is stiffly theatrical and even the monster’s creation—famously never actually described in the novel, of course, so give Dawley points for pioneering—looks a bit lame once you realise how it’s done. Historical interest, yeah, but not a lot more.

Bucking Broadway (1917)

Director: John Ford

Recently I watched Brownlow & Gill’s legendary Hollywood series, one episode of which is dedicated to the western. It was an interesting and useful reminder that the last days of the old West overlapped somewhat with the early days of Hollywood; many of the early screen cowboys (including this film’s star, Harry Carey) had been actual cowboys not long before, and some parts of California were still being settled while the film industry was growing there. Useful, because I think the western genre mostly seems to be associated with the three or four decades after the Civil War, so that when we first see the villain of the piece make his appearance in an automobile it seems… a bit jarring. Here you think you’re watching a story taking place in maybe the 1870s or 1880s, and, oh, fuck, it’s the modern (well, 1917) world after all… Anyway, this is us almost at the start of John Ford’s directorial career, and I suspect it’s that particular credit which made the rediscovery of this film in 2002 a kind of big thing, from a lesser director it wouldn’t seem like a big deal. Cos as a film, it’s not a big deal, it’s a small thing and I suppose that’s the charm of it; it’s a simple story of a man (Carey) working as a ranch foreman out in Wyoming who falls in love with the owner’s daughter, she then being spirited away by the aforementioned villain, a city slicker from the east coast. Revenge ensues. As I said, a small tale, but perfectly well-made, and culminating in an absolutely fantastic climactic dust-up, performed, filmed and edited with thrilling vigour. Obviously this early in his career, Ford had yet to blossom into the giant of later years (even though this was something like the sixth feature he’d made just that year—ah, the mighty work rate of the old-school Hollywood filmmaker, eh), but it’s still a film with its own virtues, and not the least of those is the 54-minute running time, with everything in its right proportion and nothing wasted, and worth it for that outstanding climax…

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released and so was a thing still reasonably within living memory, at least for older people at the time of the film—and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

A Trip to Mars (1918)

Director: Holger-Madsen

Not only did the Danish film industry get to the apocalypse first, they got to Mars ahead of almost everyone too, apparently fuelled mostly by rather hammy arm-waving and other gestures…  Holger-Madsen was apparently one of Denmark’s leading directors in the silent era, though if this film is indicative getting subtlety and underplaying from his actors wasn’t exactly one of his strengths. But I don’t suppose the acting was the selling point back in 1918; people would’ve been rather more engaged by the idea of the expedition to Mars. It’s a curious film like The End of the World, albeit in obviously different ways; it begins somewhat in the spirit of the pulp adventure of the period, as Captain Avanti Planetaros returns home from a long expedition, gets bored, and becomes inspired to go on an even longer expedition to another planet. As you do. Having rounded up a crew to join him on this possibly foolhardy journey, they eventually get there and find Mars is surprisingly like Earth, only markedly more advanced, whereupon the pulp adventure kind of becomes this weird, sentimental Utopian fantasy thing. Obviously the whole message of love and enlightenment business is the sort of thing I imagine most modern viewers would find too cheesy and naive to be acceptable, but it’s not exactly unpalatable and it’s a lot more optimistic and uplifting than The End of the World is (unless you find the fiery destruction of the world a cause for rejoicing, of course), and Madsen presents it in reasonably good style. The film’s inescapable problem, though, is that there’s no real dramatic tension, apart from one scene not long after landing on Mars, and as such it’s not really the most exciting example of its kind. Still, as with last night’s film, let’s give it the due place in film history it’s kind of missed out on over the decades; anyone exploring early SF should obviously hunt this out…

The End of the World (1916)

Director: August Blom

This month, the challenge theme at the ICheckMovies forum is silent cinema, so obviously there’s going to be a batch of that featured here in February (can’t pass it up). However, I’m not entirely finished with the SF/fantasy theme yet, as will be evident from the next few reviews… We start with something of a bang, accordingly. As far as I can tell, this is probably the earliest apocalyptic SF film, revolving around a comet poised to strike the Earth, and though Denmark gave us Lars von Troll’s Melancholia a few years ago, I wonder how many people know it also gave us this thing nearly a century earlier… long before the US could offer the efforts of Bruce Willis to stop the catastrophe, which means yeah, the big glowing space thing does in fact hit. Actually, the film is mostly a bit of a romantic melodrama involving a venal capitalist who owns a mining town, steals the girlfriend of one of the miners to be his wife, and, when news comes of this comet thing, plans to come out on top of things after its arrival. Curious film in some ways, even in 1916 it must’ve seemed a bit… old in its cinematic technique (stiff tableau staging and all that); but the subject matter (which seems to have been inspired by the then-recent fuss over Halley’s Comet in 1910) must’ve been something new at the time (not to mention singularly cheerless, given the conflict still raging in Europe at the time; I know Denmark was neutral in WW1 but even so). And, when the comet does start to hit, it does so with surprising force given the limitations of budget and technology 100 years ago; and though Blom does give us an approximately happy ending (the film’s other nice romantic couple survive, though there’s still strangely little sense that things will be OK somehow), I will admit to being a bit taken aback by his commitment to the carnage. It’s probably a flawed film in various ways from a modern perspective, but let’s give it the honour of its historical position, and thank it for being half the length of Melancholia

Fairy Tales: Early Stencil Colour Films from Pathé (1901-1908)

Directors: various

So, after watching that René Clair film trying to evoke primitive cinema, it seemed logical to follow it with a hit of the real thing. This is a BFI compilation of 25 early Pathé productions, ranging from one to fifteen minutes in length, almost all in the féerie or fairy tale genre, and almost all involving some degree of colour stencilling too… and I will admit that was the main drawcard for me, cos I love that stuff; I’m fascinated by early colour film and Pathé’s stencil method has always particularly attracted me.

As the DVD booklet notes, the expense of the colour process meant that Pathé made up to 200 prints of each film to get their money back, and that also seems to be why so many of them survive. The booklet calls this selection a random assortment of titles that, over the years, managed to end up at the BFI’s archive (the prints themselves are of varied provenance, some having German titles, a couple having Czech, one having Russian), but I suspect that, nonetheless, it constitutes a pretty fair cross-section of the sort of thing Pathé were doing in the first decade of the previous century. Interesting that the colour actually isn’t necessarily the chief attraction in some of them, e.g. the adaptation of Cinderella that’s monochrome until the very end; there’s a fair amount of Méliès-style trickery on show (one of his films is included as a bonus feature), and most of them evince some reasonably high production values for the period. It’s an exhaustingly long program to watch in one hit (I should perhaps have split it into two), but delightful to watch.

Alas that it’s far less so to listen to. When it comes to silent films I do tend to be a bit conservative in terms of the musical accompaniment, and generally I much prefer scores that are similar to the sort of thing that might’ve been played when a film was first shown. I don’t absolutely insist upon historical accuracy—which isn’t always possible, I know—and not everything needs the full Carl Davis treatment, I also know, and I do recognise that some unconventional scores can actually work quite well. It’s just that, as a general rule, and in my not especially humble opinion, conventional scores befitting the period of production do usually go better. That’s not what we get here. The scores have been curated by Mike Harding from the Touch Music organisation, whose own scores here involve electronic voice phenomena and recordings of film projector sounds; the list of contributors includes Touch associates like Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi and Philip Jeck amongst others. In other words, decidedly not conventional silent film scores.

And, just as the disc is lovely to look at, so for the most part I found it catastrophic to listen to. Whatever merit these scores may have as musical/sound works in their own right—and some certainly do have such merit—is almost completely outweighed by their uselessness as scores for these films. They might suit some film, but damned if most of them suit these particular ones. We’re not talking about some other films these might fit; we’re talking about these ones that, with only a few exceptions, they don’t. BJ Nilsen’s score for The Blue Bird is probably the most egregious example, a grating noise piece that sounds less like it’s been produced to suit the film that it does the considerable deterioration and wear displayed by the BFI’s print of it. As I said—some unconventional scores can work for a given film, and even on this disc the London Snorkelling Team score for The Black Pearl actually does kind of demonstrate that (it’s an odd score for a film with several odd things in it, and it kind of suits it). But, to be honest, the next time I watch this DVD I think I’ll be doing so with the sound off…

Fritz Lang: The Early Works (1919-21)

Director: Fritz Lang

For a long time I thought that, apart from The Spiders, all of Fritz Lang’s pre-Destiny films were considered lost. As such, I was a bit surprised to recently find this was not the case for three of them at least (the other two, his first two films, seem to remain MIA); not only that but you could actually find (kind of shit) copies of them on the Interwebs. Better still, a few months ago Kino put them out on DVD. Let’s take a look…

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Blind Husbands (1919)

Director: Erich von Stroheim

This was kind of amusing viewing after Don’t Change Your Husband, though there’s nothing particularly funny about it apart from the relative timing… Here we are at the beginning of Erich von Stroheim’s brief and problematic directorial career, which at least got off to a comparatively happy start. Then a struggling actor, Stroheim had managed to convince uncle Carl Laemmle at Universal not only to buy his book The Pinnacle for filming, but to let him be the one to make it (and act in it. Oddly, he’s only credited as “Erich Stroheim” for writing and directing, but as “von Stroheim” in the actors’ list). Part of his argument was that apparently he told Laemmle he could make it for about $10,000; however, he wound up starting as he meant to continue by actually spending about ten times that amount. But, unlike some of his later efforts, Blind Husbands rewarded the studio’s faith (and soothed what were probably its shattered nerves) by being something of a megahit and returning ten times its cost again.

Whether all that expense shows on the screen is something I’m not sure of, but we’ll let that slide. The setting is a nice little Austrian mountain village, with the story revolving around some nice American tourists passing through. As with last night’s DeMille film, there’s a not entirely happy marriage at work, too; a middle-aged doctor and his wife pass through the village, but while she still loves him, he’s not paying her as much attention as he could. This leaves room for Stroheim’s character, a lecherous Austrian lieutenant—because, you know, what other sort of role would he give himself—to make advances on the lady as they travel together… By this time I presume Stroheim had been on enough film sets to know how things were done, and so Blind Husbands evinces a reasonable amount of assuredness; Stroheim himself obviously enjoys the villainous part he plays on screen, and though the film takes a while to warm up and there’s something perhaps a little aloof and remote about it, it’s still a fairly impressive debut; alas that things would shortly go more than a little pear-shaped for him…

Don’t Change Your Husband (1919)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Although the years of big real spectacle were still a little bit ahead of him, this is still rather more lavishly appointed than the DeMille film we just saw; uncle Cecil’s popularity was about to really take off thanks to films like this. As such, we move from somewhat bitter urban melodrama to sprightly marital comedy, with similarly rising star Gloria Swanson; the marriage in this film isn’t exactly happy either, but the outcome is brighter at least… Swanson plays Leila, who’s been married for years (she herself was only 19 when the film was made) to Jim (Elliott Dexter, actually nearly 30 years her senior), and, well, things aren’t brilliant; Jim is essentially amiable and means no harm, but his slackness (around the house and around himself) and his fondness for onions and not using an ashtray is wearing her down. The initially unwelcome attentions of a younger suitor are eventually reciprocated, but remarried life proves not much better. The title kind of gives everything away, really, so no prizes for guessing the ending… but this is a nice example of the “having one’s cake and eating it” narrative strategy DeMille had latched onto by that time, working on the assumption that you can’t show the wages of sin without showing the sin too. DeMille casts it as a comedy of such basic lightness and geniality that it’s hard to object to the ultimate morality of the thing being essentially conservative; Swanson obviously gets understandable credit for her performance, but I also really liked Dexter as the husband, because Jim is basically good, just a bit thoughtless. His realisation that he’s no longer what she needs or wants because he’s let himself go over time gives the material a slightly sadder edge when the story needs it.

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