Category Archives: 1920s

The Unknown (1927)

Director: Tod Browning

Another one of those films whose place in the top 500 horror list is, frankly, a bit tenuous but whatever. It’s got Lon Chaney in it and that’s never an entirely bad thing; he was in some right tosh but he was usually fine. Anyone who could make He Who Gets Slapped watchable had to be a good actor, and although he’s probably better known for his undeniable makeup artistry, part of me is actually more interested in the non-makeup films where he has to do other things like, well, act. This film is a sterling example of that. It may or may not be horror as such, but it certainly does constitute one of the most fucked-up romances ever… Chaney plays a criminal with a very particular physical distinction, i.e. two thumbs on his left hand, so he hides at a circus where he pretends to be armless (hiding them under a corset-like connivance) and becomes adept at throwing knives with his feet. (MGM were amazingly fortunate to find a double for him who not only looked enough like him that you can barely tell in some longer shots, but who actually WAS an armless circus knife-thrower. That’s the sort of detail you couldn’t make up.) Alonzo the Armless loves the circus owner’s daughter Nanon—for whom he has a rival in the form of the circus strong man Malabar—but she has a fear of men touching her (hence why she’s so comfortable around him). Alonzo decides the only way to seal the deal is to have the arms amputated for real… and complications ensue when he discovers Malabar has helped Nanon get over her hang-up about men’s hands. This is one of the most mouth-drying “oh fuck” moments in film history—also a great example of a scene that could probably only work in silent cinema, which was of course about to be swept away by certain technological innovations—and it’s a scene that really proves Chaney had acting chops beyond just makeup. This then leads to a climax that, when I first saw the film back in 2002, had me squealing like a small child; not bad for a film that was then 75 years old, and more of a reaction than a horror film actually made in 2002 would likely draw from me. Like I said, I don’t know if it’s horror as such rather than just gruesomely lurid melodrama, but it’s great whatever it is; remarkably intense for something that (in its extant form) clocks in under 50 minutes…

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Director: Robert Wiene

Is there anything really left to say about Caligari after the decades of analysis it’s had foisted upon it and becoming hardened into a cliché of film studies? I don’t know. I watched it tonight (Saturday night) for the first time in probably over a decade (I recall borrowing it on DVD from the TAFE library, which must’ve been 2003), although I’ve “seen” it probably a few times at local goth clubs and similar nights (e.g. this minimal wave thing I was at just a week or so ago) when it’s been the visual accompaniment… I don’t count those, though, only the actual sit-down screenings like tonight. It’s one of those films, though, that I’ve seen so many times and have become so familiar with over the years—indeed, was familiar with just from reading about it well before I first saw it around, when, 1993 I think—that I haven’t forgotten it in the way I forget the details of quite a number of films I go years without seeing again. As such, revisiting it tonight mainly served to point up some details I’d never really picked up on before…

* The guy who plays Alan kind of looks like Matt Smith (a detail I obviously wouldn’t have appreciated before a few years ago);

* There’s something… homoerotic about Caligari’s joy at acquiring Cesare for his work. Or am i just reading it that way?

* This film really benefits from tinting to designate day/night distinctions. Maybe not as necessary as it is for Nosferatu to make sense at times, but still useful.

* And I never really paid any attention to Franzis’ fellow inmate in the last part of the story before, the one he actually relates the story to… that bit in the final scene where Franzis points Cesare out to him in horror, and the other man just has this look on his face like “fuck this guy, what a lunatic” and gets the hell away from him. Almost a moment of levity that I only picked up on tonight for some reason.

Also, someone said once that the real problem with the infamous “frame” narrative—allegedly devised by none other than Fritz Lang, who was originally supposed to direct the film, and which was supposed to neuter the intended political subtext of the story by revealing it as a madman’s delusion—actually fails because, really, even without it it’s easy to view Franzis’ story, or at least his own role in it, as a delusion of grandeur. (He does seem to find it awfully easy to assert himself over the authorities and gain access to things a regular private citizen would never get near.) Watching the film tonight made me realise that perspective has some validity; that framing device complicates the film far more than the conventional story of the film’s making suggests.

As for the film itself, it probably seems like more of a museum piece than anything else; the radicalism of its “expressionist” stylings was pretty much a function of its point in history, so it’s probably more tied to 1919-20 than, say, Nosferatu is to 1921-22. And, pretty much since its first release, it’s been the subject of analysis and argument to a degree where I don’t know if it’s still possible to treat it as a living film rather than a historical moment. (Cos it didn’t leave much real progeny, did it? Not in the way The Golem directly influenced the early 30s Hollywood horrors. Cf. Robert Wiene’s own next film, Genuine, which looks more like a parody of what he did in Caligari than a building upon it.) Still, those “expressionist” aspects make for a pretty good focus of attraction even now, of course, there’s still something fascinatingly weird and disturbing about them nearly a hundred years later. If, as I suggested, the film is a cliché of film history, let’s remember things like this become clichés for a reason, and even now there’s something iconic about many parts of the film. Even if certain of the participants disagreed for decades over exactly who was responsible for what, the overall achievement was still pretty remarkable…

Days of Youth (1929)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Days of Youth occupies a difficult place in Ozu’s filmography, being his eighth film but only the first one to actually still exist, so it’s impossible to judge how far his skills had actually developed to that point; all I can really gather is that this was apparently his first proper feature (all the othes having been shorts). Within the context of his later films, of course, it obviously looks kind of “early”; Ozu hadn’t become “Ozu” yet (if you’ll pardon me using that formulation again), and though the BFI DVD’s booklet essay does point up some common themes with his later work, the differences are perhaps more striking. HIGH-ANGLED CAMERA PANS! TRACKING SHOTS! CAMERA MOVEMENT GENERALLY! The sort of thing that he eventually ditched. Also, this is the age of Ozu the fan of American pop culture when he wasn’t afraid to own up to that influence; witness the big poster for Borzage’s 7th Heaven featured prominently. Anyway, the story involves two college chums, Watanabe and Yamamoto, and the girl they both fancy, Chieko. Watanabe is über-confident to the point of brashness, actually to boorish lack of consideration; Yamamoto is much more reserved, a well-meaning but uptight klutz. Of course, neither man factors what Chieko might think of them both into consideration… All this is perfectly genial, of course, but the end result is kind of minor even so; Ozu’s material is kind of thinly spread over 100+ minutes and could’ve been tightened to something much shorter. My main issue with the film, though, was the score by Ed Hughes (which Ozu obviously can’t be blamed for); however much he may talk in the DVD booklet about the film’s rhythms influencing his music for it, the end result struck me as bizarrely tone-deaf to the fact that the film basically is, you know, a comedy. You’d barely guess it from Hughes’ score. Hoping the rest of his work on these BFI discs is more fitting…

The Manxman (1929)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The second feature in Madman’s silent Hitchcock double bill; buggered if I know why it’s taken me two years to see it after I watched the first one, but there you go… Anyway, Hitchcock himself was pretty down on this, his last silent film (I know Blackmail technically counts as that, but never mind), dismissing it as “banal” and not a “Hitchcock film”. And both of those statements arguably have some truth to them; the plot essentially boils down to a love triangle melodrama of a not terribly Hitchcockian sort. Mind you, at that point Hitchcock had yet to really become “Hitchcock”, if you know what I mean, in any case; either way The Manxman is still better than he’d admit. The three points of the triangle are Pete the fisherman, Philip the magistrate’s son, and Kate the innkeeper’s daughter, the woman they both love. Kate’s father thinks Pete the poor fisherman is too poor a catch for his daughter, while Philip’s mother thinks Kate’s unfit for her son who’s going to follow the family trade. Anyway, Pete sets off to make his fortune in Africa and is later reported dead, which would seem to clear the way for Philip and Kate whether or not his mum objects… except that Pete isn’t dead, and complications obviously ensue. If you think this sounds like it’ll end badly, you’d be right; I was impressed by Hitchcock’s refusal to cave in with an even remotely happy ending. The basic niceness of the cast only makes it worse somehow; Carl Brisson is particularly charming as Pete, and I was amazed to find his career (which had barely started by then; he also starred in The Ring for Hitchcock) was pretty much over within a couple of years. He was Danish, so I wonder if his accent was a problem in the early days of British sound films (his co-star here, Anny Ondra, would be famously problematic for that reason on Hitchcock’s next film, Blackmail). The scenery on show might be Cornish rather than Manx, but it’s beautifully photographed either way, and the whole film is generally nicely turned out, demonstrating that Hitchcock had a pretty solid technique for silent films even if he was meh about this one in particular. No masterpiece but still pretty good.

The Magician (1926)

Director: Rex Ingram

William Everson’s book on classic horror observes of Rex Ingram that his films “invariably and automatically disappoint” these days (well, by the mid-70s). Clearly that’s why I found myself enjoying this (and why I liked three others of the six Ingram films I’ve seen) when I watched it tonight, after long years of wishing that I could… It’s adapted from Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, based on the career of that notable early 20th century figure Aleister Crowley, which I’ve not read but I know enough of Crowley’s life to know he would’ve found it unflattering (as he did), and the equation of Oliver Haddo with uncle Al is imprecise at best anyway. Ingram was something of a prestige figure in 1920s Hollywood—James Joyce, of all people, actually namechecks him in Finnegans Wake, apparently (Ingram was Irish)—although by this time he’d set up shop in France and kept his physical distance from Tinseltown, hence the rather multinational cast, most notably Paul Wegener as Haddo. The story involves the latter working on an alchemical experiment in the creation of life, the key ingredient of which is the blood from a virgin’s heart. Young Margaret—played by Mrs Ingram, Alice Terry, who Everson rather ungraciously accuses of being too “mature” for this part—is just right for the task, he decides, and soon it’s up to Dr Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich, who would soon co-star with Wegener in that other great tale of the magical creation of life Alraune) to save his beloved from Wegener’s hamming… er, machinations. Yeah, Wegener’s a bit porky in the title role, but let’s face it, The Magician is that sort of film; it’s not the high quality literary adaptation that Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was, for example, rather it’s a perfectly efficient potboiler (the original novel doesn’t appear to have been mega-high calibre stuff itself). And there’s nothing wrong with being that sort of thing, of course, when it’s done well, as I think it is here. Even if I do kind of wish Emil Jannings had played Haddo rather than Wegener, it’s a nicely executed bit of work that must’ve had at least some influence on Mr Whale’s Frankenstein a few years later; plus I got the Warner Archive disc on sale for just US$8, so no complaints in that department either…

The New Gentlemen (1929)

Director: Jacques Feyder

So to finally end this tour of the French Masterworks box (which has taken far longer than it should), the second Feyder film in the set. Feyder’s fortunes had been highly variable through his career to that point; the success of Gribiche was followed by the apparent catastrophe of Carmen and the collapse of another production, then the success of Therese Raquin (lost, alas) which apparently earned him an invite to work at MGM, but before sailing for Hollywood he owed Albatros one more film… which was banned. The film adapts a recently successful stage play about a ballet dancer, Suzanne, and the two men who love her: the conservative MP and aristocrat whose protegé she is, pushing for her to be made the lead dancer at the Paris Opera (despite her not actually being conspicuously talented at dancing) and the electrician at the Paris Opera who also works as the union secretary and ultimately finds himself elected as an MP as well (whereupon complications ensue). After one trade showing in November 1928, the film suddenly had its distribution visa withdrawn, apparently because certain actual MPs objected to the film’s depiction of its fictional government. This must’ve seemed bizarre even in 1928 and looks even more so now; The New Gentlemen is so mild and genial I can’t comprehend anyone taking offence to anything about it. Maybe there was harsher business in the material that got cut before it finally passed in April 1929? I don’t know. Actually, there’s one thing still in the film, the implication that politicians use their power to score jobs for people who aren’t actually any good at them—and it’s notable that Gaillac, the union man, winds up using his own influence as an MP on Suzanne’s behalf at the Opera just like the Count did—which might’ve struck a nerve back then. Truth hurts, after all. I liked this, though it has no business being as long as it is (90 minutes would’ve sufficed); Meerson’s sets are a stand-out feature again, though what really struck me was the eventual climax, which not only avoids the romantic ending you might expect but actually goes for what really constitutes an unhappy ending instead…

Gribiche (1926)

Director: Jacques Feyder

I did something with Gribiche I almost never do while watching a film: I fast-forwarded through some of it. Not proud of myself for that, but I had to do something to make it a bit shorter. Anyway, by 1926 Albatros had lost quite a lot of their existing talent to other studios like the other Russian mob at Billancourt, so chief Alexander Kamenka took a plunge on rising Belgian director Jacques Feyder. Despite the latter already having accrued a reputation for budget blowouts, Kamenka reined him in and the end product seems to have been a box office success at the time… it just singularly failed to connect with me tonight for some reason. Gribiche is a young lad of impoverished background, who does a good deed when he returns a lost purse to its owner, a rich widow who repays the favour by adopting him from his own widowed mother (thus also allowing her to remarry, to a man who doesn’t want a stepson) to give him a chance at life, education, being the sort of well-meaning upper class bore she is, etc. Needless to say, the boy’s natural youthful working-class high spirits don’t react well to the new regime… Now, this central plot idea is not an inherently bad one, I’ve read one other review earlier this evening comparing it to screwball comedy, and played as such it could be quite amusing. Instead, however, Feyder plays it for sentiment; as the film progresses it starts to become obvious that the rich woman has adopted the boy more for her sake than his own, and she’s the one who ultimately receives the education. If you’re into thickly laid-on morals, you’ll probably dig this; what I got most out of from the film was Lazare Meerson’s production design, which is great. Look, it’s nice, the performances are good and all that, and I’m perfectly willing to concede I may just have been in the wrong mood for this sort of thing tonight. Did nothing much for me either way.

The Late Mathias Pascal (1926)

Director: Marcel L’Herbier

I have a tendency to talk about what I call the narrative economy of older films, their ability to do a lot of stuff in a (usually) relatively short time span. This is not an example of that tendency, sprawling as it does over nearly three hours to tell a story that could probably have been told in about half that time (Rosenbaum, in this old review of the film—which he apparently likes more now than he did back in the mid-70s, is crueller, describing the source novel as a 300 page “anecdote” that could’ve been told in ten). Another thing it isn’t, whatever IMDB might say, is a horror film; one kind of hallucination and a séance do not add up to horror! I can only assume whoever entered it into the database saw it was called The Living Dead Man in America and decided it must have zombies or something. Um… no. Our “living dead man” is of an entirely different order. Mathias is a young man living an unenviable life; screwed out of an inheritance, married to a woman whose ghastly mother lives with them and turns her against her husband, stuck with a crap library job that mainly involves trying to kill rats. Family tragedy strikes, Mathias goes to Monte Carlo to get away from it all and miraculously wins a shitload of money. Learning that his death has been wrongly reported in his home town, he realises he’s got a golden chance to start afresh. But is “death” everything he thinks it’s cracked up to be? As I said, it take an awfully long time to tell a not terribly complicated story, and it might be telling that a remake a decade later only ran 90-odd minutes instead of 170. Mind you, I rarely felt it dragging as such, curiously—L’Herbier’s pace is stately but doesn’t feel protracted somehow—and Mosjoukine’s central performance is a solid, compelling anchor for these tragicomic shenanigans, particularly in the second half (which I thought was actually more interesting than the first). This was, in fact, Ivan’s last film for Albatros before heading off to another Russian emigre studio at Billancourt where Abel Gance was working on a little film called Napoleon (though he wound up making the latter without Moz). I enjoyed this more than I initially thought I was going to. Still not convinced it really needed to be 170 minutes long, though.

Kean (1924)

Director: Alexandre Volkoff

I had a fairly hard time with this one, not least because when I actually went to watch it last night the disc (or the DVD player? Actually, probably the latter, really) was playing up, so about 50 minutes in I had to give up on it. Tried again today—this time watching a rip of the disc rather than the disc itself—and, well, still struggled with it. Cos to be honest i hadn’t really been that grabbed by what I’d seen of the film already, and even after speeding through the film to pick up where I’d left off I was still finding it a slog. The source material is evidently a play by Dumas based on the life of the actor Edmund Kean, and when I say “based on” I mean that Kean in the play/film is a famous English actor prone to scandal and bad behaviour, like the real Kean, who had a career-ending on-stage meltdown, like the real Kean, and died a lot earlier than he should’ve done, like the real Kean. Otherwise I don’t know how much of the historical Kean is in this film, and I suspect not a lot. The DVD booklet notes puzzle over Mosjoukine’s presentation of Kean the actor, thinking it hardly measures up to Coleridge’s description of watching him being like “reading Shakespeare by flashes of light”. Personally I find that a meaningless statement that tells us nothing in particular about Kean the actor, but in any case the film’s not really interested in Kean the actor except insofar as being an actor gives him angst. As I’ve said, I found it hard going and I’m not sure if that’s down to the material or the handling of same; it was apparently designed as a big prestige project for the Albatros company, and it always feels that way, technically well-made but a bit airless and uninvolving, and vastly overlong at 141 minutes (much like the climactic death scene, which itself feels longer than the rest of the film). Not feeling the love I know other people have for it.

Le brasier ardent (1923)

Director: Ivan Mosjoukine

Next up: Flicker Alley’s collection of five films made in the 20s by Films Albatros (who also produced The Italian Straw Hat which I reviewed a few months back). Albatros were one of various filmmaking enterprises established in Paris by Russian emigres fleeing the new Communist regime—France being a logical place for them to end up, given the importance of French companies to Tsarist-era filmmaking—among them this film’s star and director, Ivan Mozzhukhin (as he used to be spelled before his Francification). Apparently this was his second directorial effort (though IMDB credits him only with this), and his last one as well, though he acted in many of the other Albatros films (and wrote some as well). Indeed, he apparently plays no fewer than eleven roles in Brasier, most of them evidently in the quite astounding nightmare sequence that kicks off proceedings. On which note… you know how I’ve talked in the past about some films being kind of variable in tone? Brasier‘s not so much variable as it is prone to whiplash after that opening reel, which gives absolutely no indication that the rest of the film after it will actually be a comedy. This is not Doug Fairbanks in When the Clouds Roll By. Story: basically, nice couple—older man, somewhat younger woman—love each other dearly, but he wants to leave Paris and head home for South America and she doesn’t. Disputes ensue and the husband hires master detective Z (Mosjoukine) to find madame’s “soul”. Madame is played by Nathalie Lissenko, Mrs Moz, which may indicate how all this turns out. But that opening reel casts a bizarre shadow over the rest of proceedings—not just because it keeps cropping up in the story proper—and suffuses the film with an air of overall strangeness that’s quite perplexing. Not just the actually strange business (like the husband’s visit to the detective agency, which is like Feuillade on… I don’t know what, but something bad) but even the straightforward comic stuff. The shift after the first reel is such a thrower that its original audiences apparently never forgave it, the film flopped and there ended Mosjoukine’s directorial career. Personally I’d hesitate to say I liked the film, though I might enjoy it better on a second viewing when I know what to expect; and one undeniably good thing did come from the film indirectly, in that a young ceramic artist called Jean Renoir was apparently so moved by it he decided to get into filmmaking himself…