Archive for the 'Directors: Lubitsch' Category
The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Kristin (with some help from David) here:
I approached 1926 with the assumption that it would present a crowded field of masterpieces; surely it would be difficult to choose ten best films. Instead it turned out that some of the greatest directors of the era somehow managed to skip this year or turn in lesser films. Eisenstein had two masterpieces in 1925 but no film in 1926. Dreyer made a film that is a candidate for his least interesting silent feature, The Bride of Gromdal. Chaplin did not release a film, and Keaton’s Battling Butler, while a charming comedy, is not a plausible ten-best entry. The production of Lang’s Metropolis went over schedule, and it will appear on next year’s list, for certain.
Still, the Soviet directors were going full-tilt by this time and contribute three of the ten films on this year’s list. French directors on the margins of filmmaking created two avant-garde masterpieces. Two comic geniuses of Hollywood already represented on past lists made wonderful films in 1926. A female German animator made her most famous work early in a long career. I was pleased to reevaluate a German classic thanks to a sparkling new print. Finally, Japan figures for the first time on our year-end list, thanks to a daring experimental work that still has the power to dazzle.
The Russians are coming
Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother was a full-fledged contribution to the new Montage movement in the Soviet Union. By the 1930s, that movement would be criticized for being too “formalist,” too complex and obscure for peasants and workers to understand. Nevertheless, being based upon a revered 1906 novel of the same name by Maksim Gorky, Mother was among the most officially lauded of all Montage films. It tells the story of a young man who is gradually drawn into the Russian revolutionary movement of 1905. His mother, the protagonist of the novel, initially resists his participation but eventually herself joins the rebellion.
Along with Potemkin, Mother was one of the key founding films of the Montage movement. Its daring style is no less impressive now than it must have been at the time. One brief scene demonstrates why. Fifteen years before Mother, D. W. Griffith was experimenting in films like Enoch Arden (1911) with cutting between two characters widely separated in space, hinting that they were thinking of each other. By 1926, Pudovkin could suggest thoughts through editing that challenged the viewer with a flurry of quick mental impressions.
As the Mother sits beside her husband’s dead body, her son, a participant in the 1905 failed revolution, comes in. He is about to bend down and open a trap-door in the floor (73 frames). A cut-in shows her horrified reaction (12 frames), and there follows a brief close shot of some guns she had seen him hide under the floor in an earlier scene (11 frames). Even shorter views of a man clutching his chest (8 frames), two jump-cut views of the dead husband (3 frames and 2 frames), and a tight framing of the son being shot follow (8 frames). We return to her face, registering even greater horror (15 frames). A return to the initial long shot shows her leaping up to try and stop her son from taking the guns out to participate in a seditious act (31 frames).
The series of five shots goes by in a few seconds, and we are challenged to grasp that the guns are a real memory, while the shots of the man’s chest and her son’s anguished face are visions of what might happen. The shots of her husband’s body suggest that she could soon end up sitting by her son’s corpse as well. The jumble of recollection, imagination, and reality are remarkably bold for this relatively early era.
Mother also contains two of Pudovkin’s most memorable scenes, the breaking up of ice in the spring as a symbol of the Revolution and the final violent attack on the demonstrators, including the heroine.
Mother was released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 1999, but it seems to be very rare. An Asian disc, perhaps a pirated edition of the Image version, is sold on eBay. I’ve never seen the film on DVD and can’t opine on these. The time is ripe for a new edition.
Pudovkin was one of the filmmakers who had studied with Lev Kuleshov during the early 1920s, when Kuleshov made the famous experiments that bear his name. Pudovkin played the head of the gang of thieves in The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which I included in the ten-best list of 1924.
Kuleshov had moved on as well to direct his most famous film and probably his best silent, By the Law, based on Jack London’s story “The Unexpected.” Set in the Yukon during the gold rush, it involves five people who are cooperatively working a small claim and discover gold. Taking advantage of a warm autumn, they stay too long and are trapped for the winter. One of the men kills two of the others, and the heroine, Edith and her husband Hans are left to determine the fate of the killer, Dennin. Edith insists on treating him strictly according to the law. After enduring the harsh winter and a spring flood, the couple finally act as judge, jury, witnesses, and, after finding Dennin guilty, executioners.
The great literary critic and theorist Viktor Shklovsky (one of the key figures of the Russian Formalist school) adapted the short story, condensing it by eliminating the opening section of Edith’s backstory and a few scenes in which a group of Indians appear occasionally to help the prospectors. The result is a concentration on the tense drama of a three people trapped together in a tiny cabin.
In the 1924 entry, I mentioned that Kuleshov’s team emphasized biomechanical acting and that Alexandra Kokhlova was adept at eccentric acting. She delivers a bravura performance here, as Edith moves closer to a breakdown as the months go by.
Kuleshov also puts into practice the experiments in imaginary geography that his classes had made. Although in this film he didn’t unite shots made in widely separate spaces, he did favor scenes built up of a considerable number of detail shots before finally revealing the entire space in an establishing shot. Edith, for example, though glimpsed briefly asleep early on, is introduced in a later scene by a shot of her boots and Bible, followed by a shot of her head as she read the Bible. The scene also contains close shots of the other characters before a general view of the cabin interior shows where each of them is.
The scene of the execution includes one of the most famous images of the Monage movement, a framing with the horizon line at the bottom edge of the frame and the sky dominated by trees (see bottom). Any number of framings of tall features such as trees and telephone poles against a huge sky appeared in Montage and non-Montage films, and this device became so common as to be a trait of the Soviet cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The desire to hide the actual hanging led Kuleshov to stage is behind the larger of the two trees, as Edith and Hans struggle to carry out their sentence on Dennin. This leads to some eccentric framings, such as our view only of Edith’s legs as she teeters on the box where Dennin stands, presumably adjusting the noose (see top of this section).
A beautiful print of By the Law is available on DVD from Edition-Filmmuseum.
Grigori Kozintzev and co-director Leonid Trauberg did not study with Kuleshov, but they shared a passion for eccentricity. Having started out in the theater, in 1921 both contributed to the “Manifesto for an Eccentric Theater,” a dramatic approach based on popular forms like circus and music-hall. In 1922 they founded the “Factory of the Eccentric Actor” group and two years later transformed it into FEKS, devoted to making films.
The Overcoat (also known in English as The Coat), their second feature, was based on a combination of two short stories by Gogol, an author whose grotesque creations were very much in tune with their own tastes. It tells the story of a poor, middle-aged low-level government clerk, Akaky Akakievich, who is bullied over his shabbiness, particularly his worn-out overcoat. Scrimping to buy a new one, he finally purchases a magnificent new coat and finds his status suddenly raised–until the coat is stolen.
Andrei Kostrichkin was a mere twenty-five years old when he played the fiftyish clerk, but he was highly effective and provided another model of the eccentric actor. As Akakievich he stands with bent legs and twisted torso, as if flinching away from a blow, and walks in tiny steps along perfectly straight lines through the hallways in his office building. When he applies to a Person of Consequence for help in recovering his stolen coat, the official leans over his desk to look downward, with a high-angle point-of-view framing of Akakievich appearing dwarfed by the other’s superiority.
The script of The Overcoat was adapted by another Russian Formalist critic and theorist, Yuri Tynjanov.
Unfortunately The Overcoat does not seem to be available on any form of home video.
Petit mais grand
The IMDb lists 23 directing credits for Dimitri Kirsanoff from 1923 to the year of his death, 1957. He is largely remembered, however, for one film, the 37-minute Ménilmontant, a melodrama about the travails of two sisters orphaned as children by a violent crime. Each is later seduced by a callous young man who leaves the heroine a single mother and her sister reduced to prostitution. It belongs to the French Impressionist moment. (We deal with Impressionist films in other entries: La roue, L’inhumaine, L’affiche, Coeur fidèle, The Smiling Madame Beudet, Le brasier ardent, Crainquebille, and El Dorado, as well as DVD sets of Impressionist films by the Albatros company and by director Jean Epstein.)
The story itself is simple and indeed might be thought clichéd were it not for two factors. First, there’s the performance of the delicately beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa as the protagonist. There’s also the lyrical, melancholy use of the settings, initially in the countryside and later in the desolate working-class Parisian district whose name gives the film its title. The simplicity of the narrative also makes it one of the most successful of the attempts to tell a story visually, eschewing intertitles.
The film’s most famous scene is its abrupt, shocking opening. With no establishing shot, there is a series of rapid shots of details of faces, hands, a window, and an ax, during which we can barely discern that a man has committed a double murder. The spectator cannot possibly know who these people are and why the murders occur.
Instead of offering an explanation, the action then shifts to two little girls playing in the woods. As they return home, the camera begins to concentrate on one of them, apparently the younger, as she arrives at the murder scene and reacts in horror. Kirsanoff presents her expression in a series of five shots, linked by what David has termed axial cuts, from medium shot to extreme close-up as she gradually realizes what has happened.
There had certainly been axial cuts before this, including in Potemkin, but Kirsanoff probably went further than anyone of the era by including so many shots, by making each so short, and by moving his camera forward in such small increments. It is difficult to notice every cut, particularly the one from the third to the fourth shot, and the effect adds an unsettling quality to an already intense moment.
After this opening, a funeral scene reveals through labels on the grave that the murdered man and woman are the children’s parents. We might have suspected that the killer was a jealous husband discovering his wife with her lover. As it is, we never learn whether the crime was the result of a love triangle or the random act of a madman.
The rest of the film establishes the sisters now grown up, working in a workshop making artificial flowers and sharing a small flat in Menilmontant. The heroine’s brief romance leads to a baby, and superimpositions and other Impressionist techniques depict her despair and contemplation of suicide. Beautifully melancholy atmospheric shots of the streets of the neighborhood punctuate the action and underscore the dreariness and hopelessness that the heroine faces. The ending, though an improvement in the heroine’s lot, does little to dispel the overall grimness of the story.
Menilmontant is included in the out-of-print set “Avant-garde – Experimental cinema of the 1920s & 1930s.” It has been posted twice on YouTube in a low-rez format.
Even shorter is Anémic cinéma, the only venture into film directing by the great French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. It’s hard to compare a roughly seven-minute abstract film with narrative features, but this short is so innovative and influential that it’s also hard to leave it off the list.
Duchamp went through a phase of spinning artworks, including some “Rotoreliefs” that he attempted to sell as toys. These were similar to some Victorian optical toys, such as the Phenakistopscope and the bottom disks of Zoetropes. See Richard Balzer’s website for a collection of such devices, as well as “The Richard Balzer Collection” on tumblr, which contains gifs that animate some of the disks, done by Brian Duffy. Some of these resemble the spinning spirals and embedded circles that Duchamp used for his short. (See the top of this section.)
These spinning abstract circular images alternate with slowly spinning disks with sentences laid out as spirals. These involve either alliteration or puns or both. Unfortunately the English subtitles cannot render these in a way that conveys the original intent. For example, “Esquivons les ecchymoses des esquimaux aux mots exquis” becomes “Let us dodge the bruises of Eskimos in exquisite words.” The meaning is the same, and even the echo of the first syllables of “Eskimos” and “exquisite” is retained. Nevertheless, the similar syllables in two other words in the original are lost, as are the echoes of “moses,” “maux,” and “mots.” It is rather as though someone attempted to render “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” into another language quite literally. (The Wikipedia entry includes a complete list of the sentences in French.)
Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”
Anémic cinéma is available in the same collection as Menilmontant, linked above. it is also available in the similarly out-of-print set, “Unseen Cinema.” There are numerous versions on YouTube, varying in quality. Some of these have been manipulated by other artists.
Lloyd and Lubitsch
Though Chaplin and Keaton might have had off-years in 1926, Harold Lloyd did not. Over the past several years, Lloyd has gradually been gaining the admiration he deserves. He used to be known largely for Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925), two excellent films which, however, are not his finest. Girl Shy (1924) and The Kid Brother (1927) are better known now for the masterpieces they are. For Heaven’s Sake (directed by Sam Taylor), which clocks in at a mere 58 minutes, is just as good.
Lloyd plays a breezy millionaire, J. Harold Manners, who unintentionally helps Brother Paul found a mission in the downtown slums of Manhattan. He falls in love with Hope, the missionary’s daughter, and decides to help out around the place. By this time Lloyd was known for his spectacular chase scenes, and there are two here. Initially he puts a twist on the chase, luring a growing crowd of criminals into racing after him, ending in the mission. Gaining their respect, Harold makes the mission a happy social center.
The romance provides one of my favorite comic intertitles, leading into a love scene: “During the days that passed, just what the man with a mansion told the miss with a mission–is nobody’s business.” The love scene in turn includes a visual joke that emphasizes the rich boy – poor girl contrast.
Harold’s rich friends hear that the pair are to be married and determine to kidnap him to prevent the inappropriate match. The result is a lengthy chase through the streets of Manhattan, with the drunken thugs rescuing Harold and using a variety of means to get him back to the mission in time for the wedding–as when the drunken leader of the group demonstrates his tightrope-walking abilities on the upper railing of a double-decker bus (see above).
Two years ago, when I put Girl Shy on my list, the New Line Cinema boxed set of Lloyd films was out of print and hard to find, and the separate volumes appeared to be going out of print as well, with Volume 1 not being available at the time. The situation has changed, and the boxed set, though apparently still out of print, is now available at reasonable prices from various third-party sellers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The set contains a “bonus disc” with extras, including interviews and home movies. The same is true for the three individual volumes (here, here, and here). For Heaven’s Sake is in Volume 3.
Inevitably, coming directly after Lady Windermere’s Fan, probably Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest silent film, So This Is Paris does not quite live up to its predecessor. Still, it’s a very fine, clever, and funny film, and it marks Lubitsch’s last appearance in these lists until sound arrives.
The opening scene, running nearly twenty-five minutes, is as good as anything Lubitsch did in this era. Set in Paris, it’s a slow build-up of misunderstandings and deceptions involving two affluent couples in apartments across the street from each other. One couple, Maurice and Georgette Lalle, are practicing a melodramatic dance in Arabian costumes. Their marriage seems to be a rocky one. Across the street, Suzanne Giraud is reading one of the lurid “Sheik” novels that were popular at the time, involving “burning kisses” in its final scene. Put into a romantic mood by this, she looks out her window and sees the head of a man in a turban at the window opposite–Maurice relaxing after his strenuous rehearsal.
Her husband Paul arrives home, and she kisses him passionately. Apparently not used to such affectionate greetings, he is puzzled until he, too, looks out the window. By now Maurice has doffed his turban and necklaces and appears to be not only naked but also examining a piece of his anatomy.
Paul jumps to the conclusion that this sight is what caused Suzanne’s unaccustomed display of passion. He calls her to the window, and we see Maurice in depth through the two windows.
Suzanne then asks if Paul is going to stand for such a thing, and he goes to the other apartment to confront Maurice. Instead he finds Georgette, who turns out to be an ex-lover of his. She introduces him to Maurice, who is very friendly and charms Paul. The latter who returns home and claims that he has beaten Maurice and even broken his cane on him, though in fact he had simply forgotten it. Shortly thereafter Maurice visits Suzanne to return the undamaged cane and takes the occasion to flirt with her. It’s a beautifully plotted and developed farcical scene. The film is based on a French play and could easily have become stagey in its adapted form. Yet the byplay between the two apartments via the windows allows Lubitsch to avoid any such impression; the misunderstandings based on optical POV recall the racetrack scene of Lady Windermere.
The rest of the film develops the two potentially adulterous affairs, primarily with Paul secretly taking Georgette to the Artists’ Ball. Here Lubitsch uses an elaborate montage sequence to convey the wild party, with superimpositions and shots taken through prismatic lenses.
Such sequences were primarily developed in German films and were still fairly rare in American ones in 1926. Similar techniques convey Paul getting drunk on the champagne he and Georgette are awarded when they win a dance contest–the announcement of which on the radio broadcast of the ball alerts Suzanne to her husband’s presence there with another woman.
So This Is Paris is less famous than Lubitsch’s earlier American comedies primarily because it has never appeared on DVD. Marilyn Ferdinand, in a blog entry that gives a detailed description of the film, writes that Warner Bros. claims not to own the rights to the film anymore and therefore has made no effort to bring it out on home video. On the other hand, a four-minute excerpt of the dance montage sequence was included in the Unseen Cinema set (disc 3, number 18), and the credit there is “Courtesy: Warner Bros., Turner Entertainment Company.” Whatever the rights situation is, a home-video version of this film is in order. A beautiful 35mm print is owned by the Library of Congress, so there is hope.
Two German flights of fancy
I must confess that I was disappointed the first time I saw F. W. Murnau’s Faust, and I have never warmed up to it in later viewings. I am delighted at having occasion to look at it again for this 1926 list, since a recently discovered and restored print reveals that the main problem before was the poor visual quality of the print formerly in circulation.
Different local release prints survived in a number of countries, but there were basically two original versions made: the domestic negative for German release and the export negative. These were shot using two camera side-by-side on the set, as was the standard practice in much of the silent era, given the lack of an acceptable negative-duplicating stock. The primary camera contributed most of the shots to the domestic negative, though in some cases where the second camera yielded a superior take, that was used in the domestic negative. Conversely, inferior takes from the primary camera sometimes made their way into the export negative. The result, as we now know, was that both the visual quality and in many cases the editing of the scenes was markedly different in the two negatives.
The version familiar for decades originated from the export negative. Recently the domestic negative was rediscovered, and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung restored the that version using the that negative, supplemented with material from a variety of other prints. The result closely approaches the original German release version, including the original decorated intertitles. The contrast in quality between this restoration and the old, familiar Faust is remarkable.
Given how dark the film is, details in the backgrounds could easily be lost. The scene in which Faust is called to help a woman dying of the plague is revealed to have dramatic staging in depth against a very dark room contrasted with the stark foreground underlighting of the woman’s haggard face. Faust enters from behind the daughter and comes forward to her, after which his movement is balanced by the daughter retreating into that same dark background.
The famous aerial journey of Mephisto and Faust from Germany to Italy (below left) always looked rather hokey, but the detail revealed in the extraordinarily extensive model makes it far more impressive. Similarly, when one can actually see the sets, visual echoes become apparent. For example, Faust first encounters Gretchen and follows her into the church, where he finds himself barred from entering by his pact with Mephisto. Later, when Gretchen has been abandoned, she laments when not permitted to enter there.
No doubt some motifs of this sort were visible in the earlier print, but their clarity here enhances both the beauty and the craft of Murnau’s film.
Faust is available in several editions on DVD and Blu-ray. DVDBeaver ran a detailed comparison among seven of these, including a selection of frame grabs. To my eye, the 2006 DVD “Masters of Cinema” version of the domestic print, released by Eureka!, looked the best. (The two-disc set also includes the export version.) The Blu-ray from the same source, released in 2014, looked slightly darker. The box for the Blu-ray also includes the DVD, however. These releases are Region 2. The film is available on Blu-ray in the USA from Kino.
Both Eureka! releases’ supplements include a booklet, a commentary track, a Tony Rayns interview, and a lengthy comparison of the domestic and export versions. One particularly striking example is drawn from the scene in which Mephisto talks with Gretchen’s brother in a beer hall, with the domestic version on the left.
While watching Faust, I kept grabbing frames, far too many to be used in this entry. They were simply too beautiful or impressive to be passed over, and they made my final selection of illustrations difficult. The only other film for which this was true this year is Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette-animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The restored, tinted print that is currently available is even lovelier than the older black-and-white version.
Reiniger seems to have invented the use of jointed silhouette puppets, and she still is the first artist one thinks of in relation to this form of animation. She continued to practice it until the 1970s. (See the link below to a collection of many of her short films.) Her one feature film remains her most famous and is probably her masterpiece.
It involves far more than simple black figures moving against a light background. As the frame at the top of this entry shows, her characters, furnishings, and locations, all rendered in paper with scissors, were often elaborate indeed. Characters wore feathers, jewelry, fancy wigs, and other decorative elements. The hanging platform has many little tassels, and the lamps are rendered in delicate filigree. The backgrounds are not blank but have varying layers of saturation that suggest a depth effect, the equivalent of atmospheric perspective. At the left in the top image, a series of identical curtains start out a dusky orange and in three stages lighten until there is a bright, solid glow at the center.
In the frame at the left below, the same sort of shading creates the depth of a cavern, setting off the tracery of the foliage and the kiosk in which the hero finds the magic lamp. On the right, very simple shading suggests a vast and elaborate palace in the background, while Reiniger fills the foreground with many small figures, all marching out to surround the procession of the caliph.
By choosing a classical fantastic tale, Reiniger found the perfect subject matter to fit the technique that she invented. Both the subject matter and the sophistication of the animation give her films a timeless look. Her reputation remains high today as a result. One scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” was made in a style inspired by Reiniger’s work. (I discuss it here.)
A restored, tinted version of The Adventures of Princes Achmed is available from Milestone. A combination Blu-ray/DVD release of the film is available from the BFI. (I have not seen this version.) Note that these have somewhat different content. The BFI version has five Reiniger shorts from across her career along with a booklet. The Milestone version has only one of the shorts, but it includes a documentary about Reiniger. (This documentary was on the 2001 BFI release of the film on DVD but is not listed among the extras on its Blu-ray.) See also the BFI’s collection of many of her shorts, “Lotte Reiniger: The Fairy Tale Films,” which I discussed here.
[Dec 27: Thanks to Paul Taberham for pointing out that Prince Achmed also has no intertitles and gets along without them very well.]
Into the asylum
Few western viewers of 1926 saw any Japanese films, but Japanese audiences had been watching imported films for a long time. Hollywood films could easily be seen in the big cities, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released in 1922), La Roue (released in early 1926), and other films from Europe had made a strong impression on local filmmakers. One fruit of this influence was the wild Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji, aka “A Crazy Page”).
Directed by Kinugasa Teinosuke and based on a story by the renowned experimental writer Kawabata Yasunari, the film bore the influence of German Expressionist and particularly French Impressionist cinema. Page of Madness set out to be a bold exercise in subjective filmmaking. But it wasn’t widely seen at the time, and wasn’t revived until 1971, when Kinugasa discovered a print in his house (reportedly, among cans of rice). Apparently the version we have is slightly edited.
A woman has been confined to a madhouse, and her husband has taken a job as a janitor there to stay in touch with her. Many of the scenes are presented as the hallucinations of the wife and other inmates, while abrupt flashbacks attached to the husband fill in the past. But this story is terribly difficult to grasp. There are no intertitles (perhaps an influence of The Last Laugh, shown in Japan earlier in 1926), and the film is a blizzard of images, choppily cut or dissolving away almost subliminally.
Viewers of the period had the advantage of a synopsis printed in the program, and there was a benshi commentator accompanying the screening to explain the action. Because we lack those aids, the film seems more cryptic than it did at the time. Even when you know the story, though, Page of Madness often surpasses its foreign counterparts in its free, unsignalled jumps from mind to mind and time to time. It remains a powerful example of narrative and stylistic experiment, from its canted framings and single-frame cutting to its frenzied camera movements and abstract planes of depth (thanks to scrims à la Foolish Wives, 1922).
For nearly fifty years it has remained a milestone, a grab-bag of advanced techniques and likely the closest Japan came to a silent avant-garde film.
Page of Madness is not commercially available on home video. It is occasionally shown on TCM, and a reasonably good print is on YouTube. Aaron Gerow’s A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan is an indispensable guide to Kinugasa’s eccentric masterpiece.
By the Law.
The Big Parade (1925).
As all about us in the blogosphere are listing their top ten films for 2015, we do the same for ninety years ago. Our eighth edition of this surprisingly popular series reaches 1925, when some of the major classics of world cinema appeared. Soviet Montage cinema got its real start with not one but two releases by one of the greatest of all directors, Sergei Eisenstein. Ernst Lubitsch made what is arguably his finest silent film. Charles Chaplin created his most beloved feature. Scandinavian cinema was in decline, having lost its most important directors to Hollywood, but Carl Dreyer made one of his most powerful silents.
The lingering traces of Expressionism vs the New Objectivity
The Joyless Street (1925).
Last year I suggested that German Expressionism was winding down in 1924. It continued to do so in 1925. Indeed, no Expressionist films as such came out that year. What I would consider to be the last films in the movement, Murnau’s Faust and Lang’s Metropolis, both went over budget and over schedule, with Faust appearing in 1926 and Metropolis at the beginning of 1927.
Murnau made a more modest film that premiered in Vienna in late 1925, Tartuffe, a loose adaptation of the Molière play. The script adds a frame story in which an old man’s housekeeper plots to swindle and murder him. The man’s grandson disguises himself as a traveling film exhibitor and shows the pair a simplified version of the play, emphasizing the parallels between the hypocritical Tartuffe and the scheming housekeeper.
The film has some touches of Expressionism but cannot really be considered a full-fledged member of that movement. The lingering Expressionism is not surprising, considering that some of the talent involved had worked on Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr.Caligari: screenwriter Carl Mayer, designers Walter Röhrig and Robert Herlth, and actors Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover.
The visuals include characteristically Expressionist moments when the actors and settings are juxtaposed to create strongly pictorial compositions. These might be comic, as when the pompous Tartuffe strides past a squat lamp that seems to mock him, or beautifully abstract, as when Orgon is seen in a high angle against a stairway that swirls around him:
A restored version is available in the USA from Kino and in the UK in Eureka!‘s Masters of Cinema series. (DVD Beaver compares the two versions.) The restoration was prepared from the only surviving print, the American release version; it runs about one hour.
The other German film on this year’s list, G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street, contrasts considerably with Tartuffe. It was arguably the first major film of the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity trends in German cinema. I have already dealt with it in a DVD review entry shortly after its 2012 release. The restoration incorporated a good deal more footage than had been seen in previous modern prints, but it remains incomplete.
Once more the comic greats
The Gold Rush (1925).
For several years now these year-end lists have mentioned Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, in various combinations. Early on it would was Chaplin alone (Easy Street and The Immigrant for 1917) or Lloyd and Keaton alone (High and Dizzy and Neighbors for 1920). In a way most of these films were placeholders, signalling that these three were working up to the silent features that were among the most glorious products of the Hollywood studios in the 1920s. In our 1923 list, each found a place with a masterpiece: Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, Keaton’s Our Hospitality, and Lloyd’s Safety Last.
This year we may surprise some by giving Lloyd a miss. For years The Freshman was thought of as his main claim to fame, perhaps alongside Safety Last. I think this was largely because The Freshman was the one of the few Lloyd films that was relatively easy to see. (Perhaps also because Preston Sturges dubbed it an official classic by making a sequel to it (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, aka Mad Wednesday, 1947.) Now that we have the full set of Lloyd’s silent features available, it emerges as a rather tame entry compared to Safety Last, Girl Shy, or our already-determined entries for 1926, For Heaven’s Sake, and 1927, The Kid Brother. Let’s just call The Freshman a runner up.
Keaton’s Seven Chances takes one of the most familiar of melodramatic premises and literally runs with it. James Shannon discovers from his lawyer than he stands to inherit a great deal of money if he is married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday–which happens to be the day when he receives this news. A misunderstanding with the woman he loves leads to a split, and in order to save himself and his partner from bankruptcy, Shannon determines to marry any woman who will volunteer in time. Hundreds turn up.
The result is another of the extended, intricate chase sequences that tend to grace Lloyd’s and Keaton’s features, and to a lesser extent Chaplin’s. In fact Seven Chances has a double chase. The first and longer part involves a huge crowd of women gradually assembling behind Shannon as he unwittingly walks along the street. This accelerates and keeps building, exploiting various situations and locales, as when the chase passes through a rail yard and Shannon escapes by dangling from a rolling crane above the women’s heads. Eventually the action moves into the countryside, where the brides temporarily disappear, taking a short cut to cut Shannon off, and he ends up in the middle of a gradually growing avalanche.
Of all the films on this year’s list, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is probably the most widely familiar. The Little Tramp character, here known only as a “Lone Prospector,” blends hilarity with pathos in a fashion that is actually typical of relatively few of the director/performer’s films overall. It is, however, how many people think of him.
The Gold Rush looks rather old-fashioned compared with Seven Chances. Although the opening extreme long shots of an endless line of prospectors struggling up over a mountain pass are impressive, much of the action takes place in studio sets, sometimes standing in for alpine locations. Both the cabins, Black Larsen’s and Hank Curtis’, are like little proscenium stages, with the action captured from the front. Yet the film depends on its brilliant succession of gags and on the Prospector’s status as the underdog who is also the resilient and eternal optimist.
The best bits of humor arise from Chaplin’s ability to create funny but lyrical moments by transforming objects metaphorically. Given the plot, some of the best-known gags arise from meals. One is the dance of the rolls, part of a fantasy sequence in which the Prospector dreams of entertaining a group of beautiful women at dinner (above), when in fact the women stand him up. Trapped by a storm in a remote cabin, the Prospector and his partner cook one of his shoes. He serves it on a platter and carefully “carves it, with the leather becoming the meat, the nails bones, and the laces spaghetti.
Many home-video versions of The Gold Rush have been released, but the definitive restoration of the 1925 version is available from the Criterion Collection.
The Golden Age in full swing
When people speak of the “Golden Age” of the Hollywood studio system, they usually seem to mean the 1930s and 1940s (and the lingering effects of the system in the 1950s). A look at Hollywood films of the 1920s shows that it was already functioning at full steam. Three features of 1925 display the utter mastery of continuity storytelling and style and a sophistication that matches films of subsequent decades.
Lady Windermere’s Fan may be the best silent made by Ernst Lubitsch, who has appeared on these lists before. It arguably ranks alongside Trouble in Paradise and The Shop around the Corner as one of the best films of his entire career. It’s a loose adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play, but it’s pure Lubitsch throughout.
Anyone who thinks that the classical Hollywood system was merely a set of conventions that allowed films to be cranked out with minimal originality could learn a lot from Lady Windermere’s Fan. Its completely correct in its use of continuity editing, three-point lighting, and the like does not preclude imaginative touches and methods of handling whole scenes. There’s the sequence when Lord Windermere visits the mysteriously shady lady Mrs. Erlynne in her drawing-room. The camera is planted in the center of the action, with frequents cuts as the two characters move in and out of the frame and even cross behind the camera. There’s not a hint of a mismatched glance or entrance across this complex and unusual series of shots. There’s the racetrack scene, as everyone present watches and gossips about Mrs Erlynne in a virtuoso string of point-of-view shots.
The racetrack scene ends with a wealthy bachelor following Mrs Erlynne out of the track. The camera moves left to follow her, keeping her in the same spot in the frame. As the man gradually catches up, Lubitsch uses a moving matte to hint at their meeting without showing it or cutting in toward the action.
A good-quality transfer of Lady Windermere’s Fan is only available on DVD as part of the More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931. (Beware the copy offered by Synergy, which according to comments on Amazon.com is from a poor-quality, incomplete print.)
The one title on this list whose inclusion might surprise readers is Frank Borzage’s Lazybones. I remember being bowled over by this film during the 1992 Le Gionate del Cinema Muto festival in Pordenone, which included a Borzage retrospective. I found the more famous Humoresque (1920) a disappointment, but Lazybones was a revelation. This is another case of a film that was simply unknown when film historians started writing about the Hollywood studio era. It was not discovered until 1970, when it was found in the 20th Century-Fox archives. As a result, Lazybones was, as Swiss film historian Hervé Dumont put it in his magisterial book on the director, “revealed as the most poignant–and the most accomplished–of Borzage’s works before Seventh Heaven.”
Year by year since we started this annual list, I looked forward to recommending Lazybones, and now we arrive there. I rewatched it for the first time to see if it really deserved to make one of the top ten. The answer is yes. For me, this is as good as 7th Heaven, or as near as makes no difference.
It’s difficult to describe the plot of Lazybones, since it doesn’t have much of one. Steve (played by the amiable Buck Jones) is a very lazy young man living in a rural village. He has a girlfriend, Agnes, whose mother scorns him. The girlfriend has a sister, Ruth, who returns home with a baby in tow. In despair, Ruth leaves the baby on a riverbank and tries to drown herself (image at top of section). Steve rescues her, and she explains that unknown to her family, while she was away she married a sailor who subsequently went down with his ship. She has no proof of this and knows her tyrannical mother will assume that the baby is illegitimate. Steve decides to keep her secret and adopt the apparent foundling himself.
All this happens during the initial setup. Then the little girl, Kit, grows up into a young lady. Along the way, not all that much happens. Steve, lacking any goals, stays lazy, which sets him apart from the energetic, ambitious protagonists of most Hollywood films. Kit is shunned by her classmates and the townspeople, and Steve tries to shelter her from all this. He loves Agnes but quickly loses her to a richer, more respectable man. He goes off to fight in World War I, becomes an accidental hero, and returns home after perhaps the shortest battlefront scene in any feature of the period. Kit finds a boyfriend.
What makes all this riveting viewing is its mixture of quiet comedy and poignancy. Steve is so amiably and unrepentantly loath to work that he is scorned by nearly everyone, and yet he commits an act of great kindness for which he gets no credit at all, except from his devoted mother. It is clear that these snobbish townspeople would scorn him even if they knew how he has kept Kit out of the orphanage and made a happy life for her.
The film is beautifully shot, and Borzage displays such an easy mastery of constructing a scene, particularly in depth, that it is easy to miss the underlying sophistication. Early on, Agnes and her mother arrive at Steve’s house. As Agnes waits outside the fence in the foreground, Steve tips his hat to her, in the foreground with his back to the camera. The mother passes by him toward the house, her mouth fixed in a sneer. We may think that Steve is oblivious to this, but once she passes out of the frame in the foreground, he puts his hat back on and slips it down over his face rather cheekily as he glances at her, his gesture suggesting his indifference to her opinion of him. (Note also the subtle touch of his lazily fastened suspenders.)
Borzage has mastered the use of motifs that are so characteristic of Hollywood cinema. There’s a running gag about the state of disrepair into which the gate of the picket fence around Steve’s and his mother’s house, with each person remarking “Darn that gate!” as they struggle through it. The repetition becomes cumulatively funnier because about two decades pass in the course of the film without the thing being fixed. The acting, particularly of Buck Jones and Zasu Pitts (as Ruth), is affecting.
It’s difficult to convey the charms of such an unconventional film, but give it a try and you may be bowled over, too.
A superb DVD transfer of Lazybones was included in the lavish Murnau, Borzage and Fox box (2008). The 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archives series offers it separately as a print-on-demand DVD-R. I’ve not seen it but suspect that there would be some loss of quality in this format. Besides, every serious lover of cinema should have that big black box sitting on their shelves next to the Ford at Fox one.
Returning to the more familiar classics, my final Hollywood film of the year is King Vidor’s The Big Parade.
Apart from its success and influence, however, The Big Parade remains an entertaining, funny, and moving film. Vidor’s scenes often run a remarkably long time, suggesting the rhythms of everyday life. One such action involves James fetching a barrel back to where he and his mates are staying so that he can turn it into an outdoor shower. When nearly back, he encounters Melisande, whom he initially can’t see. His stumbling about and her increasing laughter at his antics are played out at length (see top), as is a supposedly improvised scene shortly thereafter where James tries to teach Melisande how to chew gum.
A very different sort of prolonged scene is the long march of James and his comrades through a forest full of German snipers in trees and machine-gunners in nests. They begin by walking through an idyllic-looking forest, then increasingly encounter fallen comrades, and finally reach the Germans.
For years the prints of The Big Parade available were less than optimum, with some based on the 1931 re-release version, where the left side of the image had to be cropped to make room for the soundtrack. A 35mm negative was discovered relatively recently, however, and is the basis for the superb DVD and Blu-ray versions released in 2013.
Finally, I turn you over to David for some comments on films that fall within his specialties.
Eisenstein, action director
Watch this. Maybe a few times.
These two seconds, violent in both what they show and the way they show it, seem to me a turning point in film history. Here extreme action meets extreme technique. The spasms of the woman’s head, given in brief jump cuts (7 frames/5/8/10), create a sort of pictorial fusillade before we get the real thing: a line of riflemen robotically advancing into a crowd.
It’s not usually recognized how often changes in film art are driven by showing violence. Griffith’s last-minute rescues usually take place in scenes of massive bloodshed; not only The Birth of a Nation but the equally inventive Battle at Elderbush Gulch use rapid crosscutting to treat a boiling burst of action. The Friendless One’s pistol attack in Intolerance is rendered in flash frames that Sam Fuller might approve of. Later, the Hollywood Western, the Japanese swordplay film, the 1940s crime melodrama, the Hong Kong action picture, and many other genres pushed the stylistic envelope in scenes of violence. Hitchcock’s vaunted technical polish often depended on shock and bloodletting, from a bullet to the face (Foreign Correspondent) to stabbing in the shower (Psycho). The free-fire zone of Bonnie and Clyde and Peckinpah’s Westerns took up the slow-motion choreography of death pioneered by Kurosawa. Extreme action seems to call for aggressive technique, and intense action scenes can become clipbait and film-school models.
Sergei Eisenstein is celebrated as the theorist and practitioner of montage, whatever that is; but he insisted that what he called expressive movement was no less important. Just as montage for him came to mean the forceful juxtaposition of virtually any two stimuli (frames, shots, elements inside shots, musical motifs), so he thought that expressive movement ranged from a haughty tsar stretching his stork neck (Ivan the Terrible) to peons buried up to their shoulders, squirming to avoid horses’ hooves (Que viva Mexico!). In Eisenstein, psychology is always externalized, crowds move as gigantic organisms, and any action can turn brutal. (I fight the temptation to call him S & M Eisenstein.) We can trace influences—Constructivist theatre, the chase comedies coming from America, his interest in kabuki performance—but when he moved into cinema from the stage, Eisenstein became an action director, in a wholly modern sense.
Eisenstein’s first two features bracket the year 1925. Strike was premiered in January, The Battleship Potemkin in December. The first was apparently not widely seen outside Russia until the 1970s, but the second quickly won praise around the world. Potemkin’s centerpiece, the Odessa Steps sequence, became an instant critical chestnut, proof that cinema had achieved maturity as an art. Owing nothing to theatre, this massive spectacle was as pure a piece of filmmaking as a Fairbanks stunt or a Hart shootout. But of course Eisenstein went farther.
The Steps sequence was probably the most violent thing that anybody had ever seen in a movie. A line of soldiers stalks down the crowded staircase. A little boy is shot; after he falls, skull bloodied, his body is trampled by people fleeing the troops. Another man falls, caught in a handheld shot. A mother is blasted in the gut, and her baby carriage, jouncing down the steps, falls under a cossack’s sword. A schoolmistress who has been watching in horror gets a bullet in the eye–or is it a saber slash? The sequence ends as abstractly as it began, if “abstractly” can sum up the horrific punch of these images.
The film is much more than this sequence, of course, but every one of its five sections arcs toward violence, and each payoff is shot and cut with punitive force. The mutiny itself is a pulsating rush of stunts, unexpected angles, and cuts that are at once harsh and smooth. The whole thing starts with a rebellious sailor smashing a plate (in inconsistently matched shots) and ends with the ship confronting the fleet, a challenge rendered by percussive treatment of the men and their machines.
In Strike, Eisenstein rehearsed his poetry of massacre, along with a lot of other things. Instead of rendering an actual incident, as in Potemkin, here he portrays the typical phases any strike can go through. The plot starts with injustices on the shop floor, escalates to a walkout, and then—of course—turns violent, as provocateurs make a peaceful demonstration into a pretext for harsh reprisals. Throughout, Eisenstein experiments with grotesque satire and caricature. The workers are down-to-earth heroic; the capitalists are straight out of propaganda cartoons; the spies are beastly, the provocateurs are clowns. Every sequence tries something new and bold, and weird.
The most famous passage, well-known from his writings if not from actual viewing, is the climax. Here a raid upon workers in their tenements is intercut with the slaughter of a bull. Montage again, of course, but what isn’t usually noticed is the remarkable staging of that police riot, with horsemen riding along catwalks and fastidiously dropping children over the railings. For my money, more impressive than this finale is the earlier episode in which firemen turn their hoses on the workers’ demonstration. The workers scatter, pursued by the blasts of water, until they are scrambling over one another and pounded against alley walls. This is Strike’s Odessa Steps sequence, and for throbbing dynamism and pictorial expressiveness–you can feel the soaking thrust of the water–it has few equals in silent film.
For Eisenstein, the bobbing, screaming head in my clip was the “blasting cap” that launched the Odessa massacre. Is the woman the first victim of the troops, or is her rag-doll convulsion a kind of abstract prophecy of the brutality to come? Yanked out of the actual space of the action, it hits us with a perceptual force that goes beyond straightforward storytelling. Kinetic aggression, making you feel the blow, is one legitimate function of cinema. Eisenstein is our first master of in-your-face filmmaking.
After many tries, archives have given us superb video editions of Potemkin and Strike, both available from Kino Lorber. Potemkin’s original score captures the film’s combustible restlessness. Strike seems to have been shot at so many different frame rates that it’s hard to smooth out, but the new disc makes a very good try, and it’s far superior to the draggy Soviet step-printed version that plagued us for decades.
Every so often a filmmaker decides to accept severe spatial constraints, creating what David Koepp calls “bottle” plots. Make a movie in a lifeboat (Lifeboat) or around a phone booth (Phone Booth) or in a motel room (Tape) or in a Manhattan house (Panic Room) or in a remote cabin plagued by horrors (name your favorite). In the 1940s several filmmakers were trying out a “theatrical” approach that welcomed confinement like this; Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles, H. C. Potter’s The Time of Your Life, and of course Rope are examples. Today’s filmmakers are still exploring “chamber cinema.” The Hateful Eight is the most recent instance, with most of its chapters set in Minnie’s Haberdashery.
Typically, the chamber films in any period aren’t “canned theatre” like the PBS or English National Theatre broadcasts. Chamber films push the camera into the space, often showing all four walls and letting us get familiar with the rooms the characters inhabit. But this requires not only a carefully planned setting but also a good deal of cinematic skill in smoothly taking us to the primary zones of action.
Carl Dreyer was one of the earliest exponents of chamber cinema. He had seen initial examples in German Kammerspiel (chamber-play) films like Sylvester (1924) and had made a mild version himself in Michael (1924). Dreyer took the aesthetic to new heights in The Master of the House (1925).
Long before Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann, Dreyer gave us a film about housework. Ida’s husband Victor is unemployed, so while he loafs and drifts around town, she struggles to keep things going. He pays her back with scorn and abuse. The plot is structured around two days, which yield a before-and-after pattern. At the end of the first, Ida leaves Victor, and a month later, his realization of his mistakes is revealed by his behavior in the household. The drama comes not only from the characters’ conflicts but from the way they handle everyday things like butter knives and laundry lines.
Rendering the household in all its specificity obliges Dreyer to rethink continuity filmmaking. He lays out the geography of the home by shooting “in the round” and cutting on the basis of eyelines and frame entrances. (He displays the same confidence in the “immersive camera” that Lubitsch displays in Lady Windermere’s Fan.) He trains us to notice landmarks, to associate bits of action with particular areas of the apartment, and to sense the characters’ changing emotions in relation to small adjustments in composition. The film is an exceptionally fluid, assured one, and it prepares for more daring Dreyer experiments to come: the fragmented interior spaces of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the creeping camera of Vampyr, and the intensely theatricalized late films Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. Little-known at the time, The Master of the House has come to be regarded as one of the most quietly perfect of silent films.
The most lustrous edition of The Master of the House is the Criterion release. It contains an in-depth interview with Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg and a visual essay that Abbey Lustgarten and I prepared. Criterion has posted an extract from the essay. More about this release is here.
In connection with the eleventh edition of Film Art: An Introduction, to be published in mid-January, we have added ten new online Connect video examples. These include one based on clips from the Blu-ray of The Gold Rush, which the Criterion Collection has kindly allowed us to use. We discuss two contrasting styles of staging used for comedy effects in the isolated cabin set.
The Dumont quotation is from his Frank Borzage: Sarastro à Hollywood (Cinémathèque française, 1993), p. 108.
Lea Jacobs and Andrea Comiskey have examined the complicated early distribution of The Big Parade in their “Hollywood’s Conception of Its Audience in the 1920s,” The Classical Hollywood Reader, Steve Neale, ed. (Routledge, 2012), p. 97.
Eisenstein’s aesthetic of expressive movement, and its relation to montage, is discussed in David’s The Cinema of Eisenstein. On Dreyer’s “theatricalized” cinema see his The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and this essay on its sources in 1910s tableau filmmaking. Eisenstein’s exactitude in matching gesture to sound and cutting is demonstrated in Lea Jacobs’ Film Rhythm after Sound, reviewed here.
Lev Kuleshov’s second feature, The Death Ray, doesn’t make our top-ten list for 1925, but as a bonus we include its poster (by Anton Lavinsky), which must rank among the most beautiful of that year.
Music Land (Disney, 1935).
“The great directors, I’ve learned, have a great sense of rhythm.” So says Alexandre Desplat, who’s again earned two Oscar nominations in the same year (for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel). The statement sounds true but vague. Musicians and musicologists have a firm sense of what the term rhythm means, but how can we understand it in relation to movies?
Well, surely it refers, at least, to the rhythm of the music we hear in the film. But we usually think there’s more involved. There’s rhythm in the movement on the screen. The people and things we see can be infused with a beat and tempo and pace. (Critics of the 1920s considered Chaplin a dancer, like Nijinsky.) There’s a rhythm to the combination of images too, as everybody who’s tried film editing knows. And we think that the story can be told in a way that has a distinctive pace–narrative rhythm, we sometimes call it. But how do these components work together to create an overall rhythm for the film?
When synchronized sound recording entered movies, critics and filmmakers worried a lot about this problem. Filmmakers who had mastered visual storytelling in the silent era had to figure out how to merge spoken language, music, and sound effects with the flow of images. The lazy solution was simply to shoot plays, filling the scenes with dialogue. But both audiences and critics missed the dynamism of silent films. Talkies were too talky.
The opposite solution, to eliminate words as much as possible and simply use music and sound effects, was of limited value. After all, silent film needed the written language of intertitles to make the story clear; why give up the advantages of spoken language? But how then to integrate image and sound into something that engaged the audience–not only through the film’s story but also, perhaps more deeply, through that elusive quality called rhythm?
Today this debate may seem sterile. We think filmmakers have solved the problem. Maybe they have, collectively, but each one faces it at every moment. How do you blend movement, music, pictorial composition, sound effects, and dialogue to create an overall pace that will benefit your movie? No single recipe will work. The rhythm of the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona is very different from that of No Country for Old Men. Both Gone Girl and Non-Stop are thrillers, but Fincher’s pacing is far more deliberate and understated than Collet-Serra’s; yet both take hold of us.
Filmmakers solve the problem of rhythm in practice, often brilliantly. Those of us who want to understand how films work, and work upon us, want to get specific and explicit. What is this thing called cinematic rhythm? What contributes to it? Can we analyze it and explain its grip? Very few scholars have tackled these questions; they’re hard. In her new book, Film Rhythm after Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance, our friend and colleague Lea Jacobs takes us quite a ways toward some answers.
Lea starts from the assumption that the debates of the early 1930s are still relevant. So she looks at some much-praised examples of sound/image integration: the musicals of Mamoulian and Lubitsch and the cartoons from the Disney studio. She studies these paradigm cases more closely than anyone has before. She also goes beyond them to consider the theory and practice of Eisenstein (a big admirer of Disney) and the handling of dialogue in Howard Hawks’ work from The Dawn Patrol (1930) to Twentieth Century (1934).
Central to Lea’s inquiry is the notion of synchronization. How can distinct moments in the image flow, the sound flow, and the narrative action be pinched together, like the toothpick pinning the ingredients in a sandwich? One answer is to rehabilitate the old idea of mickey-mousing. Mickey-mousing makes the patterning of the sound match, in some way, the pattern of onscreen action. Mickey-mousing has had a bad press, but Lea shows that if we look at it afresh, it offer a solid point of departure for thinking about rhythm.
Eisenstein develops the idea of sync, in a fresh but still general way, in his notion of “brickwork” structure–the non-coincidence of image and sound, like the staggered array of bricks in a wall. That is, your cut shouldn’t come on the beat (are you listening, music-video directors?). Save your sync until it can have maximum impact, ideally through accenting some action in the image and maybe a high point in your drama. This is a step beyond the duality synchronous/asynchronous sound that was floated in the early 1930s. Eisenstein shows how all the different lines of pictorial and auditory movement can be woven in a flow that will create various degrees of emphasis. In this “wickerwork” pattern (another of his metaphors), actor movement might coincide with a melodic run rather than a beat, and the cut might accentuate a line of dialogue while the music subsides. Or instead of Hollywood’s underscoring, the music might be abnormally loud, doubling and clashing with dialogue in a “Godardian” manner. At certain moments, several accents in these lines could hit simultaneously. Just as important are the moments when the imagery and the mix get thinned out so that a single element–a word, a chord, a gesture–is isolated.
The key example comes from Ivan the Terrible, Part I, in which the ailing tsar asks the Boyars to kiss the cross in allegiance to his baby son Dmitri. In unprecedented detail, Lea tracks how the melody, meter, motifs, orchestration, and dynamics of the music fluctuate in relation to staging, line readings, and narrative developments. In a passage lasting only six minutes, she shows how–as so often happens–Eisenstein’s practice outruns his theory and creates a rich audiovisual texture at an almost microscopic level.
Rhythm is constructed frame to frame, sync point to sync point, and involves very small durations of a half second or a quarter second. This proposition may seem obvious to anyone who has been involved in editing or scoring film music. Classical Hollywood click tracks measured tempi to fractions of a frame, as defined by the sprocket holes, and there are clear indications that composers and editors haggled over durations of five or six frames.
This urge to “think small” and study the finest grain of image and sound carries through Lea’s analysis of rhythm in Disney cartoons. Some have accused Eisenstein’s Ivan of being a live-action cartoon, and there’s no hiding either the old man’s admiration for Disney or his belief that cinema was capable of highly “engineered” effects. Still, music and its mickey-mousing possibilities determine animated films even more strongly than live-action ones. Lea takes Disney’s early sound films as experiments in synchronization.
Early sound cartoons are sometimes characterized as “prisoners of the beat” because they create cycles of motion that are lined up with the musical meter. Lea traces how Disney animation became more fluid and flexible, syncing more around sound events than around rigid beats. She illustrates her case with analyses of Hell’s Bells (1929), The Three Little Pigs (1933), and Playful Pluto (1934). The last two are widely regarded as classic Silly Symphonies, and she sheds fresh light on them through the sort of micro-analysis brought to bear on Ivan.
She shows how sections gain a fast or slow tempo through the interaction of many factors, of which shot length is only one. In particular, Disney directors could change pace through a tool that Eisenstein didn’t have: altering the frame rate of animation. Normal animation is “on twos”; each drawn frame is photographed twice, to last for two film frames. Many stretches of the Disney cartoons are on twos, but sometimes, to create vivid sync points, the filmmakers go “on ones,” allotting one frame for each drawing. This is more expensive and time-consuming, but it allows for the sort of fine control of pace that we find in The Three Little Pigs. There the Wolf launches into “a jazzy, up-tempo gallop” that accelerates the danger bearing down on the pigs. In a similar way, Playful Pluto creates variety by “matching movement to different fractions of the beat and establishing differential rates of movement within the shot.” Imagineering, for sure.
How to convey this fine-grained analysis on the page? Lea uses the familiar tactics of presentation: verbal description, musical scores, and frame enlargements. But she goes farther. At great effort and expense, she has constructed analyses of key passages as video clips, with the film scene running in interlock with a highlighting bar that shifts across the score. Annotations on the score mark actions and sync points. These analyses are designed to be watched as you read along in the book. You’ll see some frame grabs in this entry, but to watch them simply go here, select the Audio/Video tab, and choose what you want to see from the menu. This is a real step forward for film scholarship, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for helping her take it. Why shouldn’t every film book hereafter come garlanded with clips?
No age for rhythm
Monte Carlo (1930).
Okay, you might say. Rhythm is of concern to top-down audiovisual masters like Eisenstein and Disney. But there are other notions of film as art–for instance, that performance is central to its storytelling. Lea shows that, again, early sound film explored a more open and porous integration of music and image. Ernst Lubitsch, as Kristin has shown, was one of the masters of image-based cinema in the silent era. Yet as soon as sound came in, he was exploring how to blend music with the mercurial repartee and attitudes of his sophisticated characters. Rouben Mamoulian, who had indulged in sync experiments in the theatre, contributed as well to a broader trend that gave music a central role in structuring scenes.
The result wasn’t exactly “musicals” as we usually understand them, although there might be song numbers; instead, the music worked its way into the crannies of the scenes–pauses in the dialogue, moments when characters cross a courtyard or boudoir. Thanks to post-synchronization (music performed after the film was shot and cut) and sync-to-playback (prerecorded music played on the set during performance), early sound films could boast a tight rhythmic bond of performance style and musical accompaniment. That created a sort of cinematic operetta, one no longer bound to a theatrical space. In “Isn’t It Romantic?” in Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), a song begun in a tailor’s shop is passed along through Paris, onto a train, to the open road (soldiers march to it), and eventually to a gypsy campfire, where the heroine hears it from her balcony.
Most historians find strong similarities between such passages in Love Me Tonight and scenes in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo (1930), but Lea contrasts them. She argues that Mamoulian’s film is more like early Disney in syncing music one-to-one with figure movement and camera movement. Lubitsch (although working earlier than Mamoulian) is interested in synchronization at another level, linking musical segments to dramatically coherent parts and wholes. She shows how one sequence in Monte Carlo accelerates its techniques to culminate in a patter song, creating a curve of rhythmic interest that sculpts the scene’s overall shape. Significantly, as in the famous choo-choo “Beyond the Blue Horizon” number, the song uses noises rather than music to launch its rhythmic arc.
The case-study method leads Lea to some generalizations too, as in her survey of manners of dialogue underscoring. This section of the books seems to me especially rich, because it shows how tactics of underscoring associated with the 1930s “symphonic” scores were already available, at least sketchily, in the early years of sound. At the same time, she’s able to distinguish some creative options, such as the conversion of patter songs to a more conversational tempo, that seem very distinctive of these early sound films and not their successors. She and other scholars can now build upon her survey to track a variety of styles of dialogue underscoring.
Enter Howard Hawks.
The book’s last in-depth analysis is devoted to probably the trickiest aspect of the whole problem: rhythm in speech, performance, and narrative. Lea points out that sound film acting required quite exact timing of pauses, glances, gestures, movement around the set, and deployment of hand props–probably tighter timing than in the silent era, with its shorter takes and greater scene dissection. (Consider how often a silent film gives us a close-up of a hand picking up something; in talkies, picking up something seldom gets that emphasis, so that the actor has to integrate the action into the flow of the full shot.) In sound filming, the shooting of the scene and the actor’s performance choices limited what an editor could do to slow it down or speed it up.
Hawks is a notoriously difficult director to analyze because he doesn’t have an obvious signature style at the visual level. His conception of cinematic art relied upon his players. He famously developed his scenes slowly, letting actors improvise, asking screenwriters to recast the scene, and working out the blocking gradually. In this actor-centered cinema, we’re often told, a lot of the Hawksian tang comes from overlapping dialogue. Lea points out, though, that overlapping dialogue was already in wide use on the theatre stage and Hawks was comparatively late in importing it to film. His earliest 1930s experiments don’t owe much to it, largely because early sound technology couldn’t discriminate voices very well. Lea breaks new ground in showing other ways in which speech patterns, regulated through rhythm as well as pitch and timbre, not only contribute to characterization but supply that zesty bounce we associate with the Hawksian world.
His tactics include shifting actors around the set, letting background and foreground sound alternate in clarity, and shortening scenes. Lea goes on to show how these and other options led Hawks to create the “tough talk delivered in a tough way” that became one of his hallmarks. By measuring the length of actors’ lines in seconds and fractions of a second, she’s able to track a subtle orchestration of voices–long speeches delivered fast (or slow), short speeches delivered slow (or fast), and many varieties in between, all interwoven. Overlapping comes in occasionally, as icing on the cake. When it does, especially in Twentieth Century, Lea is ready to specify it, showing how syllables and phonemes are stepped on or cut off.
Now the control freaks aren’t the directors, the Eisensteins and Lubitsches, but the actors. Working together, they plan their lines, expressions, and gestures down to the word. They make their own music. Hawks, says Lea, gives us rhythm “without benefit of a beat.”
Film Rhythm after Sound is a breakthrough in showing how narrative cinema masters time in its finest grain. We’re used to talking about scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue. Lea has taken us into the nano-worlds of a film: frames and parts of frames, fractions of seconds, phonemes. As Richard Feynman once said of atomic particles, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” Of course Lea doesn’t overlook characterization, plot dynamics, themes, and other familiar furniture of criticism. But she shows how our moment-by-moment experience depends on the sensuous particulars that escape our notice as the movie whisks past us. We can’t detect these micro-stylistics on the fly. Yet they are there, working on us, powerfully engaging our senses. Film criticism, informed by historical research, seldom attains this book’s level of delicacy. Analyzing a movie’s soundtrack will not be the same again.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried
For a seventh year running, we skip ranking the current year’s films and instead hark back 90 years.
We started out with a list that was essentially an appendix to an entry, but soon we were dedicating whole entries just to the list. Our entries for past years are here: 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, and 1923.
These lists are our way of calling attention to important silent films that some readers may have overlooked. In one case here we point out a largely forgotten film that deserves to be better known, in the hope that an archive will take the hint. With the proliferation of silent-film festivals, of DVD and Blu-ray releases with restored prints and supplemental material, and of TCM’s eclectic screenings of foreign and silent titles, there seems to be considerably more interest in these early classics. Herewith our choices for 1924.
For the last few years I’ve struggled to fill out the full list of ten films with truly deserving items. But as I’ve been predicting, the 1924 choices fell easily into place. As usual, some of these are obvious picks, already famous to most readers. Others are less obvious, and a few are unknown except to specialists. Some, though very important historically and artistically, are not currently available on DVD, which is a real shame.
At last, the USSR
Films in the Soviet Montage style make up one of the most important cinema movements of all times. The key filmmakers of the movement, Eisenstein, Pukovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Kozintzev and Trauberg, and others began their work later than the German Expressionist and French Impressionist directors. But at last one joins our list, with Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.
Although Kuleshov’s work has become more widely available, his most familiar work is still By the Law (1926), a grim tale of two members of a gold-prospecting team agonizing over how to bring to justice a colleague who has committed a terrible crime. Mr. West couldn’t be more different. This hilarious and grotesque comedy satirizes American perceptions of the new Soviet Union, as Mr. West, president of the YMCA, comes to for a visit, his faithful cowboy friend Jeddie in tow. They’re terrified of the barbaric land they expect to encounter, and a gang of thieves dupe Mr. West by dressing up in outfits that caricature West’s images of Bolsheviks (above).
In making the film, Kuleshov and his team drew upon the experiments they had been doing in his classes he ran of the early 1920s. Film stock was scarce and all he and his students could do was practice staging scenes and make short editing experiments. They explored the possibilities of “biomechanical acting,” a style based more on gymnastic control and energy than on psychological subtleties of facial expression.
Once the group did get the resources to make a feature, their delight is evident in the lively editing and the exuberant performances. Alexandra Khokhlova, a gangly woman who was married to Kuleshov and starred in most of his films, plays a vamp who tries to lure Mr. West into her toils. Pudovkin, who studied with Kuleshov before going into directing himself, is the well-dressed gang leader who pretends to guide Mr. West away from danger. Boris Barnet, also to become a major director, performs feats of derring-do as Jeddie tries to save Mr. West.
Mr. West is not only a satire on Western fears of post-Revolutionary Russia but also a parody of American serials. (The latter was something Barnet soon tried in an actual serial, his 1926 Miss Mend.)
Mr. West is available on DVD in Flicker Alley’s set, “Landmarks of Early Soviet Film.”
German Expressionism begins to wind down
Last year I was hard put to pick a film to represent the German Expressionist movement in the top ten. I chose Erdgeist but mentioned Schatten and Raskolnikow as runners-up. By 1924 there were fewer Expressionist films released, though the movement would linger on until 1927, mainly carried on by the two greatest directors who had worked in the Expressionist movement: F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. Each of these contributed a classic film in 1924: Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Lang’s two-part epic: Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge).
The Last Laugh isn’t really Expressionist. The sets are mildly in the style, but what really fascinated Murnau at this point was the freedom of camera movement introduced by French Impressionism. He set out to make a character study. Emil Jannings plays a doorman in a large hotel (none of the characters’ names are given). His regal bearing and fancy uniform bring him respect among his fellow employees and from relatives and neighbors in the lower-middle-class neighborhood where he lives. He has aged to the point where he carry large luggage and is abruptly demoted to work as a rest-room attendant.
Murnau introduced what came to be known in Germany as the entfesselte Kamera, the “unfastened camera,” beginning in the opening shot where an elevator with a grill descends, carrying the camera and dramatically revealing the lobby. Murnau may have been directly influenced by one of last year’s top-10, Cœur fidèle, where Epstein put his camera on a spinning-swings carnival ride. Murnau saw other uses for the device. Like the Impressionists, he conveyed drunkenness through moving camera, though in this case he put the actor and camera on a turntable, so that the room spins past behind Jannings, conveying the dizzy happiness of the doorman at a party (above).
Using more imagination, Murnau follows sound with his camera. As the party ends, musicians exit to the apartment-block courtyard, and one plays a final tune under the window. Starting with a close-up, the camera “cranes” diagonally up and backward until the men are in long shot. A cut takes us to the doorman inside, happily listening.
Actually the camera was not on a crane. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund affixed a track over the courtyard with a small metal elevator underneath, so that the camera could move both back and forth and up and down. The camera was not literally unfastened in these cases, but it looked like it was.
Murnau wanted to end the film on a grim note with the protagonist seated alone in the hotel rest room. Commercial considerations led to a happier ending, however, with him unexpectedly becoming wealthy. The twist was so outrageous that Carl Mayer, the scenarist, considered it a comment on Hollywood’s insistence on happy outcomes. Hence the English title The Last Laugh. The original German means “The Last Man.”
The Last Laugh got distribution in the USA, but it was not a success. Hollywood practitioners studied it, though, and started hanging cameras from tracks themselves and trying other tricks. The track backward above a long, laden banqueting table soon became a cliché of Hollywood cinema.
Murnau would make two more mildly Expressionist films, Tartuffe (1925) and Faust (1926) before heading to Hollywood to make the ultimate hanging-camera film, Sunrise (1927)
One of my favorite films of the 1920s is Lang’s two-parter, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge). An adaptation of the ancient German myth, it mostly proceeds at a stately pace until the final battle scene. Some may find it slow, especially when compared with the lively, suspenseful Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and Spione (1928). Yet its leisurely presentation is appropriate to the subject matter. Equally important, lingering over images allows us to notice the details of the extraordinary settings and costumes, with their busy decorated surfaces and their startling arrangements within the shot.
Take the image at the top of this entry. Brunhilde, having been forced to marry King Gunther against her will, envies her sister-in-law Kriemhild, who has married Siegfried, the man Brunhilde loves. In this shot, Brunhilde mounts the steps of Worms Cathedral to confront Kriemhild and assert her right to enter the cathedral first. We see her from behind and then at the upper left as her ladies follow her, wrapped in their patterned hoods and black cloaks, creating an almost abstract composition. Lang build the enormous stairway outside the cathedral in two stages and then used the set imaginatively to stage several ceremonies and dramatic conflicts.
What makes this film Expressionist, I would argue, is the way the actors and settings interact, as in this moment when Brunhilde pauses by her window and then comes forward through the slightly parted curtain, exiting left. She pauses in the opening, her dress seemingly becoming part of the curtains for a moment.
The similarity and the pause have no narrative function, but it’s a very Expressionist composition. Insistent symmetry and acting also contribute to the style. In the second plot, the Hunnish King Etzel asks for Krienhild’s hand in marriage. She agrees on the condition that he will aid her in exacting her revenge on Siegfried’s killers. Upon her move to the land of the Huns, the style becomes a more familiar sort of Expressionism, with distorted trees and buildings that looks like they were built of mud that settled oddly before drying:
The elements of the German tales are all here: love, betrayal, suicide, revenge, presented in images worth savoring.
Lang was inspired in his approach to the film’s visuals by some illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka for a 1909 retelling of Die Nibelungen published in 1909. The heavy decoration on the knight’s shields and many other surfaces in the film somewhat resemble this image, for example:
Yet the resemblance is far from exact. Clearly Lang used elements from these illustrations and took them off in his own direction.
Scandinavia’s golden age drawing to a close
During the first half of the 1920s, the Swedish cinema was a victim of its own success. Victor Sjöstrom (who has figured in these lists in 1918 and 1921, as well as in our “Lucky ’13” entry), had headed to MGM, becoming Victor Seastrom. In 1924 he released his first two films in 1924: Name the Man and He Who Gets Slapped. The latter was the newly formed MGM’s first in-house production to be released. It was a huge success, no doubt in large part due to the growing stardom of Lon Chaney, and it put the studio on the map and allowed Seastrom to stay in Hollywood, notably for The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928).
Mauritz Stiller (also a previous top-10 choice) was about to head for Hollywood as well, but his final Swedish film is one of his finest. Gösta Berlings Saga, a epic adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel, was made in two parts lasting over three hours. Many people will know it as the debut film of Greta Garbo. Fans should be forewarned that she is an important character and appears in the early and late scenes but disappears for a long stretch in the middle.
[December 30: As our friend Antti Alanen points out, Garbo had already acted in a comedy, Luffar-Petter (Peter the Tramp, 1922) and in some short advertisements.]
The film begins with Berling, a drunken pastor in a small town, being relieved of his duties. He ends up being taken in the “Chevaliers” at Ekeby the country estate of Margaretha Samzelius, a tough middle-aged woman who runs a group of foundries she has inherited from a lover. The Chevaliers are a group of hangers-0n, men who can drink and laze about most of the time but who must be charming and entertaining at Samzelius’ many dinner parties. Berling has a number of chances to redeem himself but ends up harming the people around him and sinking lower into despair. He is finally redeemed by the love of the Garbo character, Elizabeth, the new bride of a wealthy neighbor, to whom, it turns out through a technicality–and happy coincidence–she is not actually married.
Hansen and Garbo make a gorgeous couple (below left), but they are upstaged by the great Swedish stage actress Gerde Lundequist as Samzelius:
As usual, the film contains lovely scenes in the Swedish landscapes. There are some impressive night sleigh rides, including a famous scene in which Berling and Elizabeth are chased across a frozen lake by wolves. There is also one of the most impressive fire scenes I can recall from the silent era, as Samzelius’ efforts to smoke the Chevaliers out of the guest house where they live and inadvertently sets fire to the big main house as well.
Unfortunately the film was cut down into a single feature for its release outside Scandinavia. The Story of Gosta Berling was the main version that circulated for many years. The Swedish Film Institute restored it in stages as more footage was found, but the current print, at 183 minutes, is still missing some footage.
Beware picking up an older video release with the truncated film. The restored version was released on DVD in the USA by Kino. The original Svensk Filmindustri release (with English, French, Portuguese, German, and Spanish subtitles), is available here. The same DVD comes in a box set of six Swedish silent classics, which is widely available from the usual online sources.
Carl Dreyer has popped up on this blog several times, usually in passing. Not surprising, since David wrote a book about him way back 1981. Here he makes his second appearance on our ten-best lists (the first having been for his first feature, The President, in 1919) with Michael.
The film centers around a wealthy, aging artist, Claude Zoret. The main room of his house is decorated with several eye-catching pieces of sculpture, notably a mysterious battered head that looms in the background of many shots. Is it one of Zoret’s own works? Is it part of a collection of ancient statues? Much of the action takes place here, which has led some historians to place Michael in the tradition of the Kammerspiel. David calls it a borderline case. There are certainly scenes that leave Zoret’s studio, most notably one in a large theater set.
The film has been hailed as an early treatment of homosexuality. Although there is nothing overtly expressed, it is hard not to read such a subtext into the action. Zoret, wonderfully played by Danish director Benjamin Christensen, has many guests and admirers visit him, creating a little all-male coterie. He has taken in a young protegé, a very beautiful and very young Walter Slezak. Zoret refers figuratively to Michael as his son, but there seems to be another tie between the two. Moreover, there may be a hint that Charles Switt, a journalist apparently writing a biography of Zoret (at the center of the frame above), feels some jealousy toward the young man.
Trouble begins when a princess comes to commission a portrait from Zoret. Although he usually doesn’t do commissions, he is intrigued by her face and agrees. During her visits to the studio to pose, she meet Michael, who is immediately smitten. The affair continues as Michael becomes increasingly inconsiderate to Zoret,borrowing money to continue the affair and missing an important showing of his work. In contrast, Zoret shows unwavering generosity to Michael, despite being devastated by his desertion.
Ultimately Zoret paints his last work, showing an elderly, lonely man against a barren seascape. It is hailed as a masterpiece at a party which Michael does not attend.
The character study proceeds at Dreyer’s usual formal pace, and yet it is never dull. As much as any of his silent films, it looks forward in tone to his later sound ones.
She was nothing but a poor flower-maker
Every now and then I want to put a film on the list which is impossible to see unless you happen to live near one of the archives that has a print and they happen to program it. Still, in the hope of inspiring someone to restore it and make it available, I proceed.
The film is Jean Epstein’s L’Affiche (“The Poster”). Epstein first made our list last year for the much better known Cœur fidèle. L’Affiche is a bit like the earlier film, a simple melodrama made in the French Impressionist style. Its situation is highly conventional, and its plot depends on a massive coincidence.
The heroine is introduced as Marie, one of several women making artificial flowers. On her lunch break she thinks back to a romantic day she spent in the country. There she meets a young man, Richard. The couple go to an expensive restaurant, and Richard seduces Marie, and then abandons her, driving away alone the next morning.
Three years pass, and Marie has a small child, also named Richard. She enters him in a contest for the most beautiful child, with a cash prize, offered by an insurance company that wants to put the winner on their advertising posters. The boy wins, and Marie signs a 10-year contract for the rights to use little Richard’s image.
The child dies, however, and Marie visits his grave. As she leaves, she sees a huge poster with his image. The campaign has begun. Everywhere in Paris she goes, she sees the poster and finally begs the insurance company to end the campaign. The boss, however, refuses. Marie begins tearing down the posters, and she is soon arrested. Epstein handles the arrest scene without an establishing shot but builds it up through close-ups.
Initially we see only the back of Marie’s head and her arms tearing down a poster. There a cut-in to slightly closer framing as a policeman’s hand comes into the shot and touches her shoulder. A third shot shows her turning to the officer and staring in a way that suggests she is becoming mentally unbalanced. Finally a long shot establishes the scene as a second policemen enters to help arrest her.
It’s the sort of gradual revelation of space that Kuleshov was working with at the same time.
The boss of the insurance company is informed of this and sends his son to file a complaint against her. New copies of the poster are being put up all over town. The son is none other than the Richard who seduced Marie years before. Hearing her tale, he asks her forgiveness and takes her home to his parents. The father forbids their marriage, they marry anyway, and eventually (after his own younger child dies!), the boss blesses the marriage and agrees to take down the posters.
Summarized baldly, it sounds like an impossible plot to take seriously, but Epstein’s delicate, understated approach in presenting it and Nathalie Lissenko’s affecting performance as Marie manage to make it a great film. It’s full of Impressionist moments: Marie’s memory of her romantic day with Richard, a dance scene with rhythmic editing, a dream sequence, and plenty of gauzy shots and fancy wipes at transitions.
Earlier this year I complained because L’Affiche was not included in the big new box set of Epstein’s work, despite almost everything else from the period being there. It’s also not on the box set of films made at the Russian emigré studio, Albatros, even though Epstein’s other three Albatros films are there. I don’t whether there are rights problems or there simply isn’t a good enough print.
At least one streaming service claims to have L’Affiche available, but a search turns up numerous complaints about the site.
I should make mention of one other Impressionist film that came out in 1924. Perhaps it should be on the list rather than L’Affiche. It’s Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine. L’Herbier appeared on our 1921 list for El Dorado, and even then I expressed reservations. Most of his films seem cold and by-the-numbers to me, not to mention a bit pretentious. But his films were historically important, and L’Inhumaine was influential in its use of art deco sets. At one time the film was available on DVD, but it seems to be out of print.
Three funny men …
And no, it’s not Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd this time. Chaplin didn’t release a film in 1924. His next would be what many would consider his funniest feature, The Gold Rush.
Over the years I’ve stressed that during the 1910s, the three great comics were working in shorts, honing their filmmaking and working up to their great series of features. By 1923 they had fully made the transition: Lloyd made Safety Last and Keaton Our Hospitality. Safety Last had a simpler plot, structured mainly by the stages of the hero’s climb up a building. Keaton went further with a complex story of a romance blooming between members of feuding families, using multiple locations, a developing causal line, and clever motifs. (We analyze it in Chapter 4 of Film Art: An Introduction.)
In 1924, Lloyd achieved a similar complexity with Girl Shy, one of his greatest films. He plays a bashful young tailor’s assistant who is terrified of women. Yet in secret he writes a guide for seducers, taking on the narrational persona of a jaded man of the world. Clearly he has taken his inspiration from movies of the day. The imaginary scenes from his book dramatize his success in gaining the love of a vamp (see bottom) and a flapper. The publishers decide that the book is so over the top that they will publish it as a comic story. During all this Harold develops a relationship with Mary, a quiet young woman from a wealthy family. When her father tries to buy Harold off, he pretends to spurn Mary. She is about to marry a rich man, but Harold determines to stop the wedding.
There develops one of the most epic chase scenes in all silent comedy, and indeed all cinema, as Harold commandeers all manner of vehicles, from cars and wagons to a firetruck and a speeding trolley (above).
Even Keaton never outdid that one. But from 1923 to 1927, these two each created a string of innovative, carefully crafted, hilarious films.
Girl Shy used to be available in a 3-DVD set from New Line, but that is no longer available–though one optimistic third-party seller offers it, still sealed in plastic, for $399.99). Now the individual releases of each DVD seem to be slipping out of print as well. Volume 1, which contains Girl Shy, is definitely out of print. Be forewarned: Volume 2, which includes the wonderful 1927 film The Kid Brother (look for it on a future list) seems like it’s not long for this world, and the same is true of Volume 3, with For Heaven’s Sake (1926).
It was difficult to choose between Keaton’s two major releases of 1924, Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator. I chose the former mainly because of its perpetually astonishing transition from the frame story of a small-town projectionist unlucky in love to his dream of himself as a sophisticated detective. His dream takes the form of a movie, and the sleeping projectionist walks through the theater and into the onscreen action. With extraordinary precision, Keaton maintains a long-take framing of the pianist and audience in the auditorium while the hero onscreen undergoes a series of unexpected shot changes. In each he is in the same pose and position within the screen, but the backgrounds change arbitrarily, as when he begins to dive from a rock into the ocean and finds himself landing in a snowdrift:
The result is a marvelously convincing technical feat, giving the illusion of being a single shot as far as the theater is concerned and on the movie screen a character wandering through an appropriately dream-like series of edited shots. In general, Keaton was the most adept of the three great comics at using cinema technology to create gags, and this is his most elaborate attempt. (Though see also his short, The Playhouse, in which multiple exposures, flawlessly managed in-camera, create Keaton clones that play all the roles.)
The plot of the dream emerges after this virtuoso transition, and it remains hilarious throughout. The chase, while not quite as dazzling as the one in Girl Shy, has considerable variety of vehicles (one wonders if the two comics were consciously trying to best each other), including a passage where the hero rides the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, unaware that the driver has fallen off.
The third funny man was Ernst Lubitsch. The Marriage Circle was his second Hollywood film, and one of his best. Lubitsch had started out as a comic in silent shorts in Germany, but unlike the famous Americans, he entirely gave up acting to direct. Not that he directed only comedies, but his best films, including Lady Windermere’s Fan, Trouble in Paradise, and The Shop around the Corner, fall into that category.
The Marriage Circle is a light romantic comedy, following a chain of flirtations and misunderstandings. Prof. Stock has realized that his pretty young wife Mizzi has begun to neglect and nag him. She is soon attracted a newlywed, Dr. Braun. Mizzi happens to be an old friend of Braun’s wife Charlotte, which gives her opportunities to flirt aggressively with Braun. Charlotte is in turn admired by Braun’s medical partner, Dr. Mueller, though she laughs off his attempts to woo her.
It has often been pointed out that Lubitsch is a director of doorways. That’s not always true, but The Marriage Circle is built around visits. The five characters visit each other in various combinations, and the string of attempted seductions and jealousies builds. Stock encourages Mizzi’s pursuit of Braun, since he wants an excuse for a divorce. Charlotte naively pushes Braun into visiting Mizzi at home when she plays sick.
The sets and especially the doorways play a big role. Characters pause in doorways to take in a compromising situation they have interrupted. At one point Mizzi comes to Braun’s office. Mueller spots them in an embrace, but Braun claims he’s hugging his wife. Eager to alienate Charlotte from her husband, he opens the office door to reveal Charlotte in the waiting room:
This is the first film where one can see the “Lubitsch touch” in action. It’s an ability to use film techniques to hint at something naughty. Here the innuendos are aimed at the characters. We know more than any of them does, and the humor arises from watching them misinterpret what they see and hear. When they finally learn of their mistakes, they end the “circle” of the title.
The Marriage Circle is available to rent or buy in digital form on Amazon. I know nothing about the source or the quality. The only DVD easily available is a region 2 French one under the rather blah title Comédiennes. The print is distinctly soft (as the frame above suggests) but acceptable until a better one becomes available.
… and one not so funny
Greed is often spoken of as the film that historians and buffs would most like to see rediscovered. Part of it survives, of course–about two hours out of the original eight or so. Its producer, MGM, had it was edited down into a reasonably coherent feature, mainly by cutting out a number of characters and their subplots. I won’t say much about the film here, since it is already quite well-known.
The film is an adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague done in a naturalistic style, which was unusual for Hollywood films of that or any other day. It follows McTeague, an unlicensed dentist, who steals his friend Marcus’ girlfriend, Trina, and marries her. Their luck fluctuates, as Trina wins a lottery and McTeague is thrown out of work for not having a license. Trina becomes an obsessive miser, and McTeague, by now an alcoholic, murders her and flees to Death Valley with her money.
I find a lot of Greed heavy-handed and obvious. (I prefer the simpler Blind Husbands, which made our ten-best list for 1919.) It has an interesting style, however, with a lot of proto-Wellesian deep focus and low angles, complete with, in the case of the frame above, a hint of a ceiling. The final sequence in Death Valley is also very effective.
Apart from being 75% lost, Greed has never been released on DVD. (See Indiewire for comments on this.) In 1999 Turner Classic Movies edited a four-hour version, inserting production stills to suggest the missing scenes. This was reasonably effective, but it seems impossible to find a print of it that is not washed out and fuzzy. We’ve tried taping off TCM, as well as buying the VHS and laserdisc releases of that version. They all verge on unwatchable. I hope that the situation is not left where it is and that a true restoration is eventually done. My frame above comes from an archival 35mm print, so clearly better material exists.
The lost film that I would most like to see discovered is Lubitsch’s Kiss Me Again (1925). Given that it was made right before Lady Windermere’s Fan, there’s a good chance that it’s a masterpiece.
One of a kind
Last year I put Man Ray’s experimental short, La retour à la raison, on the list. Comparing experimental shorts to fiction features, though, seems unfair. This year I’m separating out the experimental category and will try to choose at least one film each year.
This year it’s Walter Ruttmann’s Opus 3, the third of his four films done with abstract animation.
All of the Opus films plus other Ruttmann shorts are available on a DVD set with Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt and Melodie der Welt. If you want to sample just Opus 3, which is about four minutes long, it has been posted multiple times on YouTube. Although a bit dark, this is the best copy I’ve found, and it has a nice, appropriate score by Hanns Eisler.
Bernard Eisenschitz made the connection between Lang and Czeschka in his massive Fritz Lang au travail (Cahiers du Cinéma, 2012) , pp. 38 and 42. Czeschka’s Nibelungen illustrations can be see along with the entire book on the Museum of Modern Art’s website, with a page-turning feature and the ability to enlarge the pages considerably. Individual illustrations can be found with a Google Images search on “Czeschka” and “Nibelungen.”
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for a correction.