Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Title: Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Release Date: May 12, 1928
Director: Charles Reisner
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Buster Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a young man who finishes college in Boston and goes to join his father (Ernest Torrence), a riverboat captain in the South nicknamed “Steamboat Bill.”  Canfield, Sr. is caught in a rivalry with another riverboat captain,  John James King (Tom McGuire) with a newer, more luxurious boat.  He hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby and is disappointed that Canfield, Jr. is small and unaccustomed to manual labor.  To make matters worse, Canfield, Jr. is in love with a young woman, Kitty (Marion Byron) who is also visiting her father, who turns out to be none other than King.  Hijinks ensue.

Compared to other Keaton films I watched, this one took a long time to get going.  It really doesn’t have much in the way of stunts or even funny gags for the most part.  The end of the film involves a big storm in the town where buildings collapse like matchsticks.  This includes one of Keaton’s most famous stunts where the facade of a house falls toward him, but he survives by being right in the path of an open window.  All of this comes a little bit too late though, so Steamboat Bill, Jr. fails to be a comedy classic.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Wind (1928)


TitleThe Wind
Release Date:November 23, 1928
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Silent film star Lillian Gish starred in her last silent film as a young woman named Letty Mason, who travels west to live with a cousin who is like a brother, Beverly (Edward Earle).  All is not well in Sweetwater, Texas, though, as two ranchers want marry Letty, the creepy cattle buyer Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) pursues her relentlessly, and Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) is jealous of her.  Worst of all, the relentless wind torments poor Letty.

This movie is a straight-up melodrama to the point where I expected Gish to grab her heart and proclaim “I can’t pay the rent!” Having seen some other late-era silent films, I also don’t think the movie is particularly technically innovative, either. Mostly it’s a movie made on powerful wind machines and Gish flailing around like she’s on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The best sequence is toward the end when in a fever dream Letty deals with the worst wind storm yet and the threat of sexual assault.  But it’s too little, too late in a movie that’s largely Hollywood hokum.

An interesting side note, much later in life, director Victor Sjöström starred in Wild Strawberries.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Tabu (1931)


TitleTabu
Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

F.W. Murnau, famed for directing Nosferatu and Sunrise, made this “Story of the South Seas” on Bora Bora as his last film before dying.  The film purports to tell a legend of the indigenous people of Polynesia. This is a silent film in that it has no dialogue, but sound effects and music are synchronized with the film. Like many of the best silent films it doesn’t have frequent intertitles, but when it does they are presented as letters written by the character, which is a clever and attractive effect.

The opening title card also states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”.  But there are also clearly white actors portraying French colonial officials. The film has the feel of Nanook of the North, a docu-fiction that attempts to recreate traditional ways of Polynesian people, but is filtered through a western gaze (and Nanook director Robert J. Flaherty, was in fact co-writer of the film with Murnau).

The story regards a young couple, a Boy (Matahi) and a girl named Reri (Anne Chevalier) whose romance is interrupted by the arrival of The Old Warrior (Hitu). Reri is selected by her royal bloodline to be a maiden scared to the gods, and Hitu declares it tabu for men to form a relationship with her.  Matahi and Reri flee to another island under French colonial control where Matahi becomes a successful pearl diver, but they continue to suffer ill-fate they attribute to the tabu.

The movie is well-filmed and feels unique and sympathetic for a Hollywood production of the era, but nevertheless I think there’s a lack of cultural competence in its production.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Within Our Gates (1920)


Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company
Summary/Review:

Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.

The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.

While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.

The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.

As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car.  I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Napoléon (1927)


Title: Napoléon
Release Date: April 7, 1927
Director: Abel Gance
Production Company: Gaumont
Summary/Review:

Napoléon may have been more accurately titled Young Napoléon since it was intended to be the first of six movies about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the evident in the sheer amount of time spent depicting Napoleon as a child at a military school leading his classmates in a snowball fight. The film also depicts Napoleon escaping from Corsica during an uprising there and his rising up the ranks of the French revolutionary army. I do not know a lot of detail about Napoleon’s life, but this movie feels more like hagiography than biography and can get very cheesy in its patriotic set pieces. There are certainly far too many scenes of Napoleon just sitting and brooding for a silent film to handle.

Stylistically, the movie lives up to its epic protagonist. Like Intolerance, filmmaker Abel Gance had the budget for a cast of thousands and made sure to use them whenever possible. The use of lighter cameras also allowed for fluid camera movement used to great effect much like in Sunrise, made the same year. It also reminds me of Man With A Movie Camera since Gance used a lot of experimental techniques such as fast cutting, multiple exposures, and split screen images. Parts of the movie were filmed on location and the title cards are proud to let us know they were filmed on the actual historic sights. Most famously, the movie employed an early widescreen approach by having the final reel projected from three projectors onto three side-by-side screen, an effect many cinemas couldn’t support on time and is pretty much lost on me viewing the movie on an iPad.

Unless you’re a film buff or particularly interested in French history, I don’t think many people are going to be up to watching this long, silent, epic. Nevertheless, it does deserve credit for its place in film history and innovations that would not become commonplace for decades after its release.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Greed (1924)


Title: Greed
Release Date: December 4, 1924
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I came to this film reluctantly because in college I read the awful book it’s based on, McTeague, about a horrible dentist who abuses his wife. The novel’s author, Frank Norris, practiced scientific racism and the fictional work is supposed to be his expose of the inferiority of the working class, immigrants, Jewish people, et al. So, you know this is going to be a fun movie!

In a sense, the movie is better than the book, especially since director Erich von Stroheim removed the prejudicial undertones. Gibson Gowland plays the irascible John McTeague, a dentist in San Francisco. His friendship with Marcus Schoule (Jean Hersholt) deteriorates when he marries Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts, one of the great names in Hollywood history), whom they both courted. McTeagues marriage swiftly falls apart, partly dur to Trina clinging to $5000 she won in a lottery even as the couple fall into destitution.

Von Stroheim largely filmed on location which means you get a lot of cool glimpses of San Francisco from a century ago. The final scenes were filmed on location in Death Valley under brutal conditions for the actors and crew. Still, the final shot is about as iconic as they come in film history. Von Stroheim also used tinting to add a golden glow to the objects of desire that the characters lust after. The movie is melodramatic and the characters are more types than realized people. Overall, this is another film that I’m glad to have watched from a film history perspective, but not one that I would otherwise have enjoyed.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)


Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Scary Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Title: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Release Date: 26 February 1920
Director: Robert Wiene
Production Company: Decla-Bioscop
Summary/Review:

A character named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) narrates a strange tale of of the sideshow impresario Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who trains a “somnambulist” named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to carry out murders. The movie’s frame story ends with a surprising twist. I didn’t find the movie all to scary or suspenseful or even unsettling, but I guess I’m jaded from watching it 100 years in the future. I did appreciate the “fun house” style sets and the scene where the name “Caligari” is superimposed on the the screen in multiple fonts. This movie is definitely worth watching as it is arguably the first horror form and had a great influence on German Expressionism and later Film Noir. I also think that directly or indirectly it must’ve been an influence on Robert Smith of The Cure (who resembles Cesare) and the entire oeuvre of Tim Burton.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Un Chien Andalou (1929) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Un Chien Andalou
Release Date: June 6, 1929
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Les Grands Films Classiques
Synopsis:

First things first, by all the rules of alphabetization this movie should be filed under “C” not “U.”  But there’s not much that makes sense about this movie so it may as well be here.  For example, writing a “synopsis” of this movie would require it having a standard plot.  Instead, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí populate the film with surrealistic visions and nightmare imagery.

The movie is famed for scenes of a man sharpening a razor and then slicing a woman’s eyeball. Another man pulls two grand pianos with dead donkeys and two surprised looking priests.  There are no real defined characters or places, and much of what we see is horrifying.  Buñuel and Dali plumb the depths of the subconscious as well as giving a goose to the film industry of the possibilities of what film could do.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This movie was my “white whale” for some time.  I read about it in a book for my high school film studies book and it struck me as something so fantastically weird for the 1920s.  Not too long afterwards Pixies released the song “Debaser” which is inspired by Un Chien Andalou.  It wasn’t until the early 2000s when I finally saw the movie at the Harvard Film Archive.  I remember trying to figure out the plot and symbolism for the first five or ten minutes before cottoning on that I was missing the point.

What Did I Remember?:

The eyeball slicing, the piano/donkeys/priests, and the man sort of dressed like a nun riding a bicycle around Paris.

What Did I Forget?:

The ants, the severed hand, the woman in the street, the sexual assault, the nudity, and the beach.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

It changed the way films are made and is the ancestor of much independent and arthouse cinema.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

A lot of the ensuing independent and arthouse cinema is made by people who are quite full of themselves.

Is It a Classic?:

Does it matter?

Rating: ****

One More All-Time Favorite Movie Starting With U:

  1. UP

What is your favorite movie starting with U? Any guesses for my V movie (hint: one of its biggest stars is a famous West coast city)?  Let me know in the comments.