In our zeal to preserve our scandalously mistreated film heritage are we creating an atmosphere of critical deference to the characteristics of the silent film that normally would be scrutinized with all due diligence in the “talkie” era? Has the silent film been placed into a type of critical bell jar which causes it to be immune from standard critical yardsticks and perhaps, in the interim, then, even unwillingly, creates a sub-form of artistic expression unto itself? Do we now fail to see film as a constant, evolutionary form, but rather as two separate entities: the silent and the sound? And is this ultimately destructive to a fair critical assessment of the silent film?
“The Bat” is a rather creaky manor house murder mystery play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, substantially derived from Rinehart’s 1908 novel The Circular Staircase with the embellishment of a costumed super-criminal, all of which has been excitingly enlivened in it’s 1926 silent film incarnation by director/screenwriting adapter Roland West who blends a modernistic aesthetic eye to the proceedings (the director would revisit the material four years later for a sound and 65mm widescreen remake entitled “The Bat Whispers”), which seems to be a remarkably fertile source of inspiration both attributed (the “Batman” comic book) and unrecognized (parts of the the film feel uncannily prescient of much of the visual design of Fritz Lang’s 1928 “Spione”): a blazing crazy quilt of expressionism and traditional Gothic elements, eccentric cinematic flourish and might-have-been stagnant stage bound gigantism. If the nature of the mystery makes for less than profoundly nourishing material, director West amply demonstrates how the tools of the cinema applied with energetic exuberance might elevate the threateningly static and in his capable hands this standard dark house mystery seems to rely as much on the timely exit and entrance of characters from the room as much as a Feydeau bedroom farce (“The Bat” predating Paul Leni’s expressionistic horror-comedy “The Cat and the Canary” by a year), providing a template for directors to follow in a filmed genre that found its initial expression with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1914 “The Ghost Breaker” and would later become a reliable source of often blackly comic entertainment that would extend through the films of William Castle and the 1960’s Gothics of Robert Aldrich.
Amid a crime wave perpetrated by a mysterious masked figure known only as ‘The Bat’, the Oakdale Bank- already suffering from the untimely death of it’s President Courtleigh Fleming (Charles Herzinger) -is robbed of two hundred thousand dollars by an employee. Fleming’s mansion is subsequently rented for the summer by Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy), who is accompanied by her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen) and nervous maid Lizzie (Louise Fazenda). During their stay it becomes apparent that the stolen money is hidden within the walls of the house which accounts for the sudden eruption of coshings, arson, murder and circuitous duplicity with the arrival of an assortment of a variety of suspicious and possibly dangerous characters; all observed with an amusing dichotomy of reaction from Miss Van Gorder and Lizzie, doubly entertaining in that both can be observed to miss nothing while the former appears immutably unreactive (she casually continues with her knitting during much of the brouhaha) while the latter is of a perpetually whirligig hysteria that makes Una O’Connor’s behavior in “The Invisible Man” look narcoleptic by comparison. There is a clear class differentiation in the kinetic reactivity of the characters to the evolving mystery, with the servants (including Eddie Gribbon’s sniveling hired gumshoe) coming off the worst, and used as lower grade (but entertainingly efficient) comic fodder, whereas the with the last line of the play successfully carrying the weight of the immodestly superior (to the point of ennui, but only as a feint) carriage of Miss Van Carden’s fertile mental acuity: her self-assuredness is comically inspired. (The subject of class struggle has always been a foundational staple of the mystery genre, most often advanced as the gap between the staggering analytical acumen of the investigating sleuth- vividly addressed in the opening paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal genre offering The Murders in the Rue Morgue defining the superior faculties of his detective C. Auguste Dupin, clearly the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – Often the class gap surfaces in atypical representations such as that between gangland overlords and their thuggish hirelings, or more obviously, especially in English parlor mysteries facing the gentry versus the perceived working class [often ungenerously dismissed as being of lesser breeding and substance], a prejudicial divide delineated quite explicitly in Anthony Shaffer’s play [and subsequent screenplay] “Sleuth”.) Most of the fun is in West poking fun at those elements of the story that would later become conventions but at that time were only in the process of genre definition and though this might suggest a devaluation of the film’s provocation of the psychological climates of fear and menace, this lighter touch- unaffected by exaggerated mockery that would despoil many later genre efforts through the process of desperate recycling -accentuates the enjoyment of the mystery elements by lessening the strain of credibility in some of the convenient plot implausibilities inherent in the greater portion of a genre which relies more on character type than character depth, narrative contrivance rather than narrative insight. It’s easier to swallow the full menu of the proceedings if presented with even a subtle wink. “The Bat” may not aim high, but what it does it accomplishes with finesse and an unashamed enjoyment of its self-acknowledged silliness.
Two aspects of the production merit special mention. First, are the production designs of William Cameron Menzies which in themselves become characters in the drama, imparting a lunatic grandiosity onto the proceedings; dynamically off-kilter settings which dwarf the labyrinthine scrambling of the characters from one location to another as if they are mice in a maze of such an immensity of scale that the primary living room setting alone could be used to park zeppelins (the influence on the later design of Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s “Dracula” can be strongly felt here as well). Amid the impossibly tall doorways, arches, eaves and windows, the narrative takes on an additionally surrealistic quality to its already humorous leanings by imposing disproportionate physical dimension in a plot where the necessity of the requirements of close contact peril is hilariously despoiled by the enormous spatial playing field: often it seems that even fleeing the room might incorporate the necessity of marathon training. If this old dark house is truly encased in a shadowy murkiness, it’s only because nothing could possibly bring illumination to such a cavernous setting except direct contact with the surface of the Sun. Also of note are a happy profusion of performances which seem extremely modern in their rejection of the type of florid theatricality that discredits silent films as a source of interest for many contemporary cinema enthusiasts; so lacking in broad affectation of mannerism (even Fazenda’s Lizzie whose quantity of histrionic moments should not be mistaken for a lack of quality) are the cast that the viewer might possibly forget they are watching a film without audible dialogue (aided enormously by intertitles are sensibly inserted and well composed).
“La petite marchande d’allumettes / The Little Match Girl” (1928)
Jean Renoir’s film version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1854 story “Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne” (“The Little Match Girl”) alters the original story considerably by featuring the casting of Renoir’s then-wife Catherine Hessling in the title role. Hessling, already proving herself a disastrous muse in Renoir’s ruinously expensive film version of Emile Zola’s “Nana” in 1926, here takes on a role for which she is, generously, at least fifteen years too old, nor does the forced theatricality of her acting style, which usually becomes both overbearing and obnoxious, have the ability to convey the requisite waif-like delicacy necessary for the role, unless it is substantially reconceived as having the requisite fragility of a tumbling boulder, though in this particular circumstance- perhaps due to exhaustion over her unrelenting mugging and grotesque cavorting in the Zola epic- Hessling finds a new method of intrusive overplaying by massive underplaying, a unique experience in which, while playing a starving young girl, the decades of overripe heft, highlighted by her fleshy mug, contradicts any reasonable facsimile of either a young girl or someone who hasn’t been sated with three squares a day. Nor does she seem capable of conveying the simplest of emotional states; so stone faced is the actress that she gives the impression of being prematurely flash frozen.
However, the film’s greater failure comes from a mistaken conceptual alteration of the nature of the original story’s hypothermic hallucinations- the very visions which impart either the ethereal aspect to the original story or the strictly phantasmagorical to Renoir’s film vision, where spiritual comfort makes way for gimmicky effects laden fantasy beholden more to E.T.A. Hoffmann than to Andersen, with the addition of needless and extended banal editorial demarcations on class privilege.
Andersen’s brief story, despite its unbroken solemnity, is a particularly hopeful story of the salvation of the innocent through heavenly ascension despite its mortal surface fatalism; a young girl escaping the abuse of home by wandering the frigid streets on New Year’s, pathetically attempting and failing to earn money by selling matches she eventually succumbs to hunger and the cold while using the matches in pathetic attempts to stave off the winter elements. Each match ignites a new fevered hallucination until she sees her deceased grandmother, “the only person who had loved her and who was now no more” who guides her to heavenly salvation.
While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with changing the thematic emphasis from a source story, such alterations should form palpable consistency between the narrative’s events and the newly existent theme. “La petite marchande d’allumettes” suffers from an insoluble blending of Andersen’s parochial viewpoint-especially in the finale -and Renoir’s decision to turn the same sequences into a parade of fantasy unrelated to the character of Karen (the name given to heretofore unnamed match girl) culminating in an inappropriate and blatantly “arty” stab at visual poetry with a wisp of her hair becoming entangled on a cross standing over her grave turning into a blossoming of flowers. This would be a heavy-handed bit of symbolism in the best of circumstances, inexcusably empty of meaning when applied at the end of a story which in a very short running time veers wildly from social drama to fantasy to Byronesque symbolism without finding a common foothold on which all of the disparate find, at best, tenuous companionship, and which negates the spiritual aspects of the story for a more severe (though fantastical) descent into hopeless death. (The difference between Anderson’s ending and Renoir’s is important as Anderson, despite his heroine’s expiring, intended her fate to be an ascension into a state of Grace, whereas, despite Renoir’s eleventh hour grasp at transcendent profundity, Karen’s death is merely the consequence of overexposure to the elements.
The actual callous passivity of her passing (if put into the context of earlier sociological finger wagging ) is represented with the curiously unfeeling line of dialogue on the intertitles- “How stupid to think you can warm up with matches”, as opposed to the more sympathetic line in Andersen’s story. It’s a particularly cold hearted acknowledgement of Karen’s demise that Renoir renders, an unnecessary gesture which is meant to compliment earlier disparate societal snubs of Karen (as a matter of fact, she has the opportunity to sell matches to one particular socialite, though out of convenience fails to notice his interest); a dismissive line meant to shed a generally uncaring light on the disposable nature of the dispossessed. Andersen’s story is cruel in the conditions under which its heroine exists, but in his replication of events Renoir favors a harsher denouement (though admittedly, the mortal outcome for the girl is the same) in which the redemptive spiritually-based outcome is ignored in favor of a more concrete and agnostic approach.
However, in taking Renoir’s ending at face value, this leaves the question as to the true nature of Karen’s hallucinations. In the original story, the girl’s visions are fueled initially by images of comfort taken directly from her views of holiday delights through shop windows, culminating in a welcoming vision of her late grandmother, though it is questionable- given the Christian undercurrent of the story -if Andersen intends the apparition of the grandmother to be taken literally or on faith; the culminating passages suggesting the former. The difference in Renoir’s version is startling, with illusions beginning with similarly sighted observed holiday elements, but quickly evolving into an active scenario in which Death gives pursuit in a relentless sequence of flying horses until brought to a halt with the aforementioned grave site ministrations. Since the match girl’s hallucinations are born of her own observations (a Christmas tree, a feast of food)and later her own personal experience (her grandmother), leading to her correlating spiritual epiphany, then what of the cinematic Karen? From whose mind are these fantastical images supposed to have sprouted, Karen or Renoir himself, and if the lengthy sequence- which one would presume would spring from the character’s own imaginative extensions -presents a dark equine pursuit through cloud formations, just what in her experience would lead to such an apparition? Also, if the fantasy sequence is to be taken at face value, then just who is imagining the transformation of the cross into flower blossoms at her burial site? If Karen is imagining the moment of her own passing, and it is to be taken as a simultaneous literal occurrence- as in Andersen’s story -the continuation of the dreamscape with the concluding symbolism becomes illogical from the film’s point-of-view.
All of this is contributory to the wild variance of making the short film feel as if either the wrong reels had been placed in the projector mid-stream or that Jean Renoir has no handle on his material and that in adapting this deceptively simple story, his interest was muddled by a desire to experiment (clearly within his early films especially in “Sud un air de Charleston” he displays a fleeting interest in Surrealism, though his thinking is far too conventional to maintain this a continued course of expression) with cinematic effects rather than in concentrating on the human story within the fantasy.
POE IN THE CINEMA: TWO 1909 GRIFFITH SHORTS- “Edgar Allen Poe” & “The Sealed Room”
Despite the endless spate of film either directly drawn from or merely produced through the route of provident inspiration (an exampled by the much of the celebrated Roger Corman adaptations), precious little of value has emerged from film versions of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. More disastrous are the few attempts that make the pretense toward biographical insight, usually diverging into the true intention of the film makers, which is to feed Poe’s macabre musings and the whole of his psychology into a crass predilection toward satisfying the popular horror/slasher/serial killer film trends of the time and to contort Poe’s writings, while exploited his name value, into any number of productions which have as much genuine connection to Poe’s writings as they would the works of Barbara Cartland. Given the facility with which the reader easily conjures startling images from Poe’s printed works, it is more than a little astounding to find that the purely visual art of silent film did not afford itself of more opportunities to translate these same images to the screen. As can be seen from these earliest examples of Poe related films, the tradition of casual misrepresentation of the author and his works was evident from the start.
The first problem evident from D.W. Griffith’s 1909 one reel “Edgar Allen Poe” is the misspelling of the subject’s name, a portent of things to come, for although it is credited as the first biographical movie in American cinema, this one-reel short film is not biographical in even the most liberal use of the word, but rather is meagerly comprised of a fictionalized one-note incident cobbled from two facts from Poe’s life: that he did compose and publish a poem entitled “The Raven”, and that his wife, the former Virginia Clemm, was chronically ill and expired at a tragically young age, though neither event has any dramatic relationship with the other, as “The Raven” was actually published two years prior to the death of Poe’s young wife, so the increased superneal pessimism expressed in the verses (unlike many of the author’s other poems pining for lost loves, “The Raven” is very direct in its expression that there is no soul reacquainting afterlife.) was found unlikely inspiration in the loss of his wife. Nor is the immediate positive reception of the poem accurately relayed as in this film it is primarily met with ridicule and dismissal. The symbol of the raven is simply used as a bit of hoary visual shorthand in identifying the author (Otherwise he might be mistaken for Twain? Hawthorne?) , since the poem- his most famous associatively referenced work -is identifiable (certainly not by content, but, at least, by title) even by school children as Poe’s signature work. Still, a figurative representation of the author’s writings instills no insight into his work nor does it illuminate an understanding of his life or creative process.
The actual premise of the film is simplicity on a scale of dramaturgical primitivism unworthy of the production’s intended commemorative usefulness (it was meant to celebrate the centennial of Poe’s birth): the impoverished author and his desperately ill wife live in a tiny hovel, where in a fit of sudden inspiration by the large stuffed raven which just happens to be decorating an overhanging shelf (a curious proprietary detail since their apartment is so sparse, it makes Ralph Kramden’s look palatial by comparison) the film’s simplistic take is another of Griffith’s heavy-handed filmed theatrical sketches in which the enfeebled are overpowered by the unforgiving hand of Fate; in this case, the fragile, ailing Virginia tormented by the heavenly shafts of sunlight, a rather obvious supernatural allusion Griffith would continue to beat into the ground. In fact, it was redundant Griffith’s stilted moral fundamentalism that would later prove more of a popular undoing than his ironic critical ascendency as an aesthetic innovator who would find himself eclipsed by an Art Form which, in a very brief period of time, absorbed his contributions and then moved completely past him, causing his later efforts to appear both dramatically and technically creakier with each subsequent production. Outside of its dubious designation as the first biographical film made in America and that it is a silent film, which seems to convey some rarified honorarium to automatically afford it a special attention its content doesn’t merit (see: Are Silent Films Overrated?), there is absolutely nothing to distinguish this film.
Despite the brief running time, any opportunity to relay even one simple fact that might give a cursory understanding of who Poe is to the uninitiated is wasted, or the opportunity presents itself to dramatize, even superficially, the poem “The Raven” is ignored, but the concession to merely presenting a simplistic melodramatic skit is absolute, without meaning, without substance and certainly, even within the context of early silent shorts, cinematic primitivism at its most irrelevant. Even if the film lives up to the claim as the very first biographical film in the American cinema, its a staggeringly paltry footnote in the cultural annals. To what end is this claim relevant to any valuable advancement of a young Art Form, especially when the premier example is a vessel of vacuous conception?
With “Edgar Allen Poe”, if there is a legitimate attempt to commemorate Poe, the obvious surrender to the primitive melodramatics of Biograph’s standard assembly line method of production betrays that objective. No where is there any attempt to directly identify Poe status in American literary culture, nor is there a attempt to dramatize one of Poe’s writings. Instead, there is simply the writer suddenly clutched by sudden inspiration over a raven he presumably had never noticed in his empty quarters, and genius emerges. This is certainly not a tribute to a writer who was painstaking in his composition, but simply a mercenary attempt to capitalize on the greatness of another with as little effort made as possible. The remarkable Poe lookalike Herbert Yost portrays the author as an over-caffeinated whirlagig, his lone gesture of expression appearing to be a wild flailing of the arms, indiscriminately registering both joy and despair, as if the emotional expressions are interchangeable, though the performance makes him a solid bet to be the world’s greatest runaway director of aircraft in a snowstorm. The one facet of the film worthy of note is a lone facet in the performance of Linda Arvidson (the wife of the director) as Virginia. Required to do little more than lay on a bed and suffer, her eventual empty stare of death- directly into the camera -is an indelible image suggesting the morbid confluence of romance and death that is characteristic of many Poe works. That the film features no companion moment in the ruinous performance of the unfortunate Mr. Yost is only one of this short film’s many disappointments.
If “Edgar Allen Poe” was possessed of the worst of filmed theatrical melodrama, “The Sealed Room” edges slightly in favor of the Morality Play, though happily tinged with a sense of the macabre, explaining why there has been widespread attribution to Edgar Allan Poe as an inspiration, in particular his 1846 story “A Cask of Amontillado”, simply because it features a similar act of deliberate premature entombment. However, the similarities stop there, and even a casual knowledge of the D.W. Griffith’s short film and Poe’s story reveals that the source of the film, despite widespread claims, was, in fact, not Poe, but the estimable Honoré de Balzac, more specifically from his 1832 short story “Le Grande Bretèche”- a scenè de la vie privée from his voluminous interrelated works of stories, novels and essays collectively entitled La comédie humaine and probable inspiration for Poe – this tale of revenge concerns the mysterious legacy of a Countess, revealed in a party anecdote by one Doctor Bianchon, only one of the recurring characters in Balzac’s massive collective tome. The cuckolded husband of Comtesse deMerret in a fit of jealous rage, entombs his spouse’s lover alive in a closet, forcing the Comtesse to endure the agonized awareness of his extended death throes for almost three weeks and then being forced into agreements ensuring a lifetime of horrific remembrance of the events occurring in close proximity.
“Le Grande Bretèche” has a complex narrative framing structure- the story unfolding through a succession of narrators within a central narrator -with each layer characterized by separate but thematically interrelated acts of disloyalty and betrayal. The film streamlines the story as it abandons the structure of a tiered mystery as memory play, condensing the narrative so that the immediate events surrounding the vengeful action of the cuckolded husband are portrayed without anything but the most simplistic context. The focus of the film- the act of spousal betrayal and immediate act of revenge -is.. presented in a linear fashion, bearing a greater resemblance to Poe”s story than Balzac’s, since in “A Cask of Amontillado”, the story is comprised of a singular occurrence: the enacting of the vengeful burial and without a subtext observant of post-French Revolutionary social mores, which informed the earlier story. Beyond the macabre story element, the participation of actor Henry B. Walthall– a known Poe enthusiast -and director Griffith’s reported interest in Edgar Allan Poe, there is nothing to suggest the film is directly related to the American master- except through literary influence -though that the film is commonly credited to Poe as an inspirational source is not an attempt at literary deception, but merely a case of false attribution by writers on film to whom a greater exposure to literature might be advisable. However, even if entirely dismissible as a legitimate part of the genuine Poe-inspired film catalog, “The Sealed Room” is certainly worthy of interest in its representation of Balzac in another medium.
If the more complex framed structure of threaded storytelling has been abandoned by way of necessity in economizing a potentially lengthy story into fitting the standard length of a Biograph short releases, allowances might be charitably considered, but the structural integrity of the original story is cannily used to magnify the author’s intent in exploring the behavior of societal types in deeper issues such as the lapse of devotional integrity, which goes unpreserved nor apparently considered as important by the filmmakers, who clearly regarded the story as ripe for exploiting of the most provocative element while casually gutting the contextual heart of the work which gives it its meaning. What remains is a baseless incidental action only a few steps removed from the lurid attractions of Grand Guignol theatre; certainly not the objective of the author.
Amid routine pomp and circumstance, a King (as opposed to a Count but played by Arthur V. Johnson) surprises his beloved one (though it is unclear whether she is his wife or mistress, but in either case played by Marion Leonard) with a specially built dove cote, little suspecting that when the festivities disperse, she will make use of her gift by hiding away with her lover, the court minstrel (Henry B. Walthall) and engaging in a romantic tryst. The King discovers the pair and secretly walls the entombs the pair with the assistance of masons who appear to work silently (they are separated from the amorous couple by a simple drapery) and swiftly (the wall is completed and dried in mere moments) until the room is sealed. The pair discover the fruits of their treachery and are mocked by the King on the opposing side of the wall until the illicit lovers expire from suffocation. The obvious limitation in creative story editing leads to a film that- despite its technical limitations -effectively conveys the horror element in Balzac’s original story without any of the obvious burden of the remaining thematically constructive content. The film is staged in with the same static camera work characterizing “Edgar Allen Poe”, though there is a welcome use of dramatic cross-cutting between the lovers and tormenter which both increases the tension of the sequence and emphasizes the cruel nature of the King in his sadistic enjoyment of his betrayers’ death throes. The performances, however, do nothing to elevate the drama. Arthur V. Johnson’s King is all caterpillar eyebrows and frantic gestures- his exhibition of hurt feelings resembling a hyperactive child pulling taffy. For her part, Marion Leonard, is a virtual catalog of swoons and flailings, perhaps explaining why the seemingly ample oxygen supply runs out in a matter of seconds. By comparison, Walthall is a model of restraint, limiting most of his early histrionics to a succession of eye rollings that might merit a sobriety test, a task that might prove difficult in Griffith’s overstuffed staging that at times threatens to resemble the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera”.
“THE ACE OF HEARTS” (1921)
It is often true that the villain is a far more interesting character than the hero of a film. The more lurid the story, the chances are that the colorful antics of villainy will far outshine the interest generated by the rather straightlaced square jawed purity of heroism: the good guy may get the girl, but the bad guy generally has all of the fun. This does suppose that the innate blandness of the forces of good will create an unintended but dramatically stimulating contradistinction positioning the pure against the morally vile, and with this happy exhibition of the more seductive nature of the nefarious, creating an occasion for the safe enjoyment of the wickedness inherent in the more flamboyant conspiratorial enterprises of evil. This was especially true of the films produced under the Production Code which, in theory, attempted to dispel the attraction of wrongdoing, but simultaneously created a forced homogenization upon the villain’s decidedly milquetoast opposition. However, since conflict be the heart of drama, then a steady diet of all good or all bad is an unrecommended recipe for unrelieved temperamental monotony.
“The Ace of Hearts” begins with a languid meeting of a secretive “Brotherhood” as if the members were converging before the decision to begin the film properly had been made, which in essence is what is going on. The conclave exchanges what appears to be rather insignificant information about an unnamed “Man Who Has Lived Too Long” and vote to put him to death, though this conspiratorial congress goes unexplained nor are the qualifications for fatally aggravating this group’s sour disposition unveiled, however, during the entire murderous election process, one of the group, Farallone (Lon Chaney) spends the bulk of the discussion mooning over the empty chair opposite him. As it turns out, the absent member is the lone female of the group, the oddly schizophrenic Lilith (Leatrice Joy), who enters the film infused with the same zealous commitment to the “Cause” as would a pioneer temperance crusader against a gimlet, but with an alarming swiftness, radically metamorphosises into a tearful, helpless waif through no other transformative process than enjoying a night of connubial bumpies. Lilith is also at the center of the primary (actually, only) relationship in the film, spreading her charms between the morose Farallone and the more gregarious Forrest (John Bowers) who she ends up marrying simply by the random draw of a playing card, which instead of an act of chance, she romanticizes into an indication of courage.
If none of this makes a great deal of sense, the hope arises that perhaps the confusion is the result of several reels missing due to deteriorated nitrate elements, but unfortunately, for once, the abusive disregard of silent features cannot be blamed for what is clearly a dearth of narrative coherence. Based on the novel “The Purple Mask” by pulp author Gouverneur Morris,, the screenplay by Ruth Wightman presents a situation but fails to illuminate character, motivation or simply explain the significance what is going on. Just who is this Brotherhood? What is their origin and how are the members selected? Since they are a vigilante organization and clearly operate outside the boundaries of the law, are their intended victims members of society whom the law might otherwise punish or are they simply a band of poor sports? Finally, what is the criteria to be targeted for assassination? Criminal enterprise? Corruption? Rudeness? A bad haircut? The most basic questions the film should raise are not only unanswered but are completely unaddressed. It is a dangerous thing for a film to demand a blind faith from the audience to swallow whatever hokum the filmmakers throw at them, and to suspend disbelief for this undefined bunch of vigilantes is asking too much in requiring dismissal of the audience’s need for clarity.
Thus, what the viewer is left with is a monotonous arrangement of killers, three of whom are involved in a petty love triangle which is marred by backstabbing and a rather sordid game of musical libidos in which unrequited love is asked to take a backseat for emotional blackmail whenever the mood strikes. The film has no actual plot to speak of, but is in essence a chamber piece with the the worrisome trio engaging in enough strategic manipulation to launch a beach invasion against the Axis powers: the de facto succubus Lilith exuding a paralyzing hold over both Farallone and Forrest, though displaying neither a sexual magnetism nor an idealized romantic sensibility with which to compel such ruinous favor; this while Forrest schemes of a romantic union with the girl, as his rival Farallone morbidly sulks over his failure to possess her, spending his more pensive moments pounding his chest with clenched fist, as if Chaney felt the need to dispel any doubt as to his ability to convey his character’s turmoil. (Still, there is no accounting for his bizarre haircut which suggests he mistakenly thought he’d be playing in a biopic of Brigham Young.) Forrest is equally the human ping pong ball, first portraying himself as a heartsick lapdog to Lilith’s every eye flutter, and then playing the hardened committed vigilante to whom an “Oath” of loyalty is paramount. (He and Lilith are the very definition of the star-crossed pair as their behavior patterns always appear at cross-purposes.) Perhaps this tendency toward character inconsistency is intended as an apologetic substitution for the absence of narrative complexity, but it simply results in frustratingly obtuse behavior that delays what little movement there is in the film; every action seems inordinately protracted as if the filmmakers realized they didn’t have enough plot for the contracted number of reels and encouraged the actors to stretch things out.
If the ending of the film were meant to suggest a victory over corruption, where love conquers evil, it fails in that the victory is dishonestly arrived at, with Forrest willing to carry out the mindless homicide until he is softened by an adjacent couple who will be killed in the planned bomb explosion, a couple that has an eerie resemblance to Lilith and himself, though by failing in his appointed task, Forrest (by the rules of the Brotherhood) is condemned to death, a sentence to be carried out by Farallone, who by happy coincidence has secretly entered into an agreement with Lilith to spare Forrest from the group’s retaliation, and in the service of such a betrayal of Brotherhood rules, ironically uses the very same explosive device intended for the group’s original target to obliterate the vigilantes- with the “happy” exception of Forrest and Lilith who are seen happily walking down a country lane oblivious to the carnage their romantic bliss has wrought. In a moment of unearned sarcasm, the intertitle announces the impending doom of the “Men Who Have Lived Too Long”, certainly meant as an acrid note of cosmic irony, though the film hardly capable of reaching any pinnacle of moral superiority with its unrelieved depiction of every character as self-indulgently corrupt and manipulative. Even the members of the Brotherhood display a level of disloyalty based on cowardice that is surprising, not only for their sacrificial killings of their own, but made supremely evident during the initial drawing of cards to choose an assassin, with each subsequent member visibly relieved they weren’t chosen for the task- Farallone and Forrest the only two eager for selection (though for personal romantic motives rather than out of misplaced idealism).
Save for one rather startling overhead shot during the card drawing sequence, Wallace Worsley’s direction is disappointingly moribund, visually unaided by the uninspired production design of Cedric Gibbons or dramatically by an arid screenplay and a cast whose ability to find any foothold in their vaporous roles is perhaps evidence of the greatest crime depicted in the film: waste.
“THE CHEAT” (1915)
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 “The Cheat” is a melodrama posing as a morality play that manages the hypocritical feat of allowing the guilty embezzler, the shallow socialite Edith Hardy, to escape punishment from both the law and her particular social class, but excoriate another, the Burmese ivory trader Haka Arakau, who while certainly not innocent of wrongdoing, is essentially an accomplice who is drawn into his initial immoral action by the behavior of Edith, taking advantage of the circumstances of her criminal deceptions, feeling shielded by Edith’s fear of exposure, not merely to her dumbly devoted husband but to the members of her Long Island high society circle, all of whom she has needlessly betrayed through sheer selfishness. (More about this in a moment.)
Not unlike another American film milestone release of the same year, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, “The Cheat” has been lambasted with charges of racism, to the point where the eventually blamed”villain” of the piece (Haka), originally identified as Japanese, was in the 1918 re-release changed to Burmese, [presuming whatever made the character adherent to the accusation of racist ignonimity would suddenly evaporate by this subtle shift of ethnicity] due, in no small part, to official protests from Japanese organizations, including their Embassy.
However, on close examination, it is not the depiction of Haka which may be construed as objectionably divisive, no matter what his racial persuasion, but the generally low standard for justice and morality which are more at issue, the total abandonment of the very foundation of the morality play (that the story presents an eventual moral lesson), and the ease with which the film abandons any semblance of the just administration of the law in its relentless excusing of Edith while sacrificing a character far less complicit in unlawful behavior. If the character of Haka Arakau is to be considered an insulting model of the Asian male, then what possibly would the verdict be on the white American Edith Hardy? She is by all accounts a liar and a cheat, loyal to no one, and a betrayer of all; a spoiled self-centered sociopathic manipulator who brings ruin to everyone who comes close to her. Curiously enough, Edith Hardy is also the eventual, titular heroine of the film.
Edith (Fannie Ward) and her investment broker husband Richard (Jack Dean) are fixtures amid the circle of privilege of Long Island society; this despite the couple’s apparent shortage of money- they still live the extravagant life -complicated by Edith’s careless and irresponsible spending. Despite refusing to show any inkling toward responsibility with money (Richard discovers she hasn’t even bothered to pay the household staff), Edith has been entrusted as the Treasurer of the Red Cross Fund (the slight scenario is rife with coincidence and convenient though unlikely circumstance, as is typical of all lurid melodrama), an amount of ten thousand dollars, which at the first opportunity she casually embezzles to invest in a stock tip which, if it pays off, will fuel her insatiable appetite for new gowns and expensive baubles. Naturally, the tip immediately nose dives and she loses the money (significantly this advice is given by a rival broker of Edith’s husband, while Richard has always cautioned for patience for his own investment to kick in), disregarding the consequences until she realizes the untenable position she’s put herself in. However, rescue comes in the form of her friend and fellow socialite Haka Arakau, who is not only presented as a welcome member of the elite social circles, but also graciously hands over his home for Edith’s Red Cross Ball charity function.
When Edith’s greed leads her to unexplainable ruin, she is forced to reveal her predicament to confidant Haka whose suppressed sexual appetite toward the woman find expression in a sudden offer to loan Edith the ten thousand to cover her malfeasance in exchange for her agreement in conceding to his simmering urges. To save herself, Edith agrees, then in keeping with her consistently unreliable character, renigs, as Richard’s investment conveniently strikes it big and because it is her nature to “cheat”. (The title- despite the mid-narrative chapter heading of a particular sequence labeled “The Cheat” -has multiple meanings not limited to Edith’s direct actions.) The multiplicity of Edith’s dishonesty enrages Haka to the point where he loses control of himself, branding Edith’s shoulder to claim possession of her, an act which leads Edith to shoot him with his own pistol- mockingly handed to her after she threatens to kill herself, which, of course, she doesn’t do -and flee the scene, leaving Richard, who conveniently arrives at the scene (How could melodrama thrive without such contrivance?) to assume the blame and face trial.
The subsequent trial sequence is the source of the majority of the racial attacks on the film. Both Richard and Haka are seen testifying, though both continue to shield Edith’s personal involvement except as a victim, though when Richard is convicted, Edith loses control and confesses the entire tale in open court. The resulting outrage and violent furor shown against Haka has been widely interpreted as a product of racial prejudice, yet there is no evidence anywhere in the scene to support this notion nor in the rest of the film. That Haka has indulged in an indefensible act is shown to be as an influence of the immoral attitudes of Edith, a woman who brings ruin to both men who care for her- both Richard and Haka find their instinctively reactive impulses toward Edith, Richard’s self-destructively misplaced gallantry and Haka’s sexual attraction, to be magnified in their immediate response to her betrayals -and though he should be answerable for his actions (he was shot, after all), the same moral compass pointing in the direction of the men used by Edith, fails to prosecute (or even recognize) the woman for her serial irresponsible, unethical and outright felonious behavior.
In fact, in one of the most overlooked and revealing features of the trial portion of the film, during Edith’s entire testimony, there is not a single inter-title to determine the nature of her defense nor whether there is any confession on her part as to her culpability in the entire scandalous affair; her testimony represented solely by a shameless demonstration of manic overacting, The resulting riotous reaction from the spectator gallery plus the the judge’s reversal of the guilty verdict and a dismissal of the charges against Richard are spontaneous actions that lack a clarification of motivation unless the causative testimony is revealed. Without this information, the solution to the mystery as to the testimony’s substance must be inferred solely from Edith’s prior behavior, which has been limited to a succession of irresponsible untruths leading to fraud, grand larceny and attempted murder; one must assume that Edith was telling whoppers on the stand, leading to a startling finale, in which the newly exonerated Richard and Fannie happily link arms and exit the court through a gauntlet of appreciative, applauding onlookers (the same gentleman who moments before were, inexplicably, a vicious mob) celebrating what has apparently been misinterpreted as a heartwarming victory of justice!
Is this proof positive DeMille intends a sanctimonious warning against the consequences of antisocial behavior? The content of the film suggests just the contrary, that criminal wrongdoing is not only allowable but acceptable if one is happily situated within the protective embrace afforded not merely by social positioning (it doesn’t hurt, but is no guarantee against punishment, proper or not, as demonstrated by the initial sentence against Richard), but, more importantly, by gender. Clearly Edith plays the part of the weak, feminine victim set upon by the wolfish male, catering precisely to the protective (and blindly pious) instincts of masculine gentility (remember the vintage of the film) in escaping her much deserved comeuppance. Throughout the film, there seems to be an enjoyment- even an appreciation – for the very tactics with which Edith uses to manipulate those about her: she is the temptress, the manipulator, the seductress- a favored female archetype appearing throughout DeMille’s filmography. It’s clear from the director’s career-long selection of material, that he enjoys the flagrant exhibition of immoral behavior: his historical, and especially, Biblical epics conceding to a lurid fascination with depravity and orgiastic excesses that preclude the rather wet-blanket necessities of the inevitable piety imposed by the grand design of the morality plays (and later as sanctioned by the Hays Office as a de facto administrator of all filmed stories as moral cautions) in which DeMille openly disguised the preference for unbridled revelry. In the typical DeMille film (of which “The Cheat” is an exception), there may be a triumph of the moral, ethical and spiritual, but it is made apparent that in the meantime, the sinners have all of the fun.
“The Cheat” is also very much a director’s film. None of the roles are developed in any depth save to be presented as stiffly conceived games pieces controlled entirely by the needs of the plot and not through character defining instincts altered by fateful interaction. This accounts for the need for the aforementioned wealth of narrative contrivance since dramatic fluency is achieved through event and not through character development. The director’s handling of such materials demands an imaginatively controlling hand which is able to divert attention away from the more ludicrous aspects of the plot (this was one of Hitchcock’s greatest strengths) while relying on actors skilled enough to illuminate the shadowy contours of their ill-defined roles. Those only acquainted with DeMille’s later, more flamboyantly showy efforts might be surprised at the resourcefulness the director shows considering the technical limitations of the day (again, a reminder of the film’s vintage is imperative) as his visualization of the rather humdrum narrative appears contemporaneous in its imaginative welding of lighting and background screens to embellish character and allow enlightening counterpoints to several characters at once during significantly revealing moments of crisis. DeMille’s astonishing sense of modern theatricality is uncharacteristically insightful and implemented with impressive finesse.
The director’s efforts are not reciprocated by his performers, save one; a quiet, internalized portrayal by Sessue Hayakawa as Haka springs unwritten dimensions to an as-written stock character that magnifies the eventful mishandling of justice meted out in the closing reel. Sadly, Fannie Ward’s ham-fisted theatrical excesses seem to find no reason to rein in every twitch or tic where it wouldn’t be noticeable in the last row of the third balcony. Her histrionics, in the face of the graceful suavity of Hayakawa only serve to further remove her character from the audience’s sympathy and thus fuel feelings of outrageous injustice (and thus, due to the actor’s/character’s ethnicity feed a simplistic and incorrect critical attack which requires little thought, only an empty soapbox) in the concluding sequence.
Despite the film’s reputation for so-called racism (nonsense), nowhere is there a hint of ethnically bigoted sentiment. Is it too farfetched to suggest that the racial backlash is an invention of hysterically biased, overly sensitive viewers with an agenda who have misinterpreted the film with hidden symbolism it doesn’t contain? If the film were examined as, not a morality play, which the contrivance of its illogical misplaced empathy toward Edith clearly demonstrates it is not, is it not possible the “The Cheat” (again, remembering the early vintage) is composed with a far more sophisticated purpose in mind than simple melodrama: perhaps an open-ended moral mystery for the viewer to unravel and interpret at their leisure? This would certainly explain the absence of Edith’s testimony which has a cathartic effect on the existent, assumed moral balance already in place within the narrative, an absence otherwise too glaring to explain other than dramatic incompetence.
Which may resign the film to be regarded as something of an enigma (in the “Lady or the Tiger” vein), as Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” is either a milestone work of cinema intelligence or a disastrous conceptual folly.
WHOSE VISION IS IT ANYWAY?
It is apparent in the modern world of cinema that there are many directors, especially of the commercial Hollywood variety who see the world of the DVD and all of its minor technological advances as a supreme opportunity to endlessly tinker with their films. Seemingly not confident enough in what they presented to a mass audience who was only shelling out good money on bad faith, it seems the final product is anything but. The latest “controversy” over Lucas’ continued manipulating of his “Star Wars” films is a case in point. Obviously not satisfied with making more money on his Tinkertoy creations than most small nations will ever see in a lifetime, his continuous altering of not particularly interesting material only arouses suspicion that it is the only way for a modern Mogul to stay in the news as the development of new and original productions would probably be too much effort.
But that is the modern model of fidgeting: of avarice over artistry. What of the films of the past who are at the mercy of the inheritors of their legacy? In the case of the silent films, where the filmmakers have since passed and have no control or wishes expressed as to the condition of their films, it is left to archivists, restorers and anyone who happens to own title to the film materials. In most cases, any restoration of silent material is a welcome event as the very existence of the material is as tragically uncommon as rainwater in a desert. Still, if we are to judge the artistic merits of the individual accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era, is it not imperative that honestly representational materials are on-hand. Which leads to an important question: whose vision is it anyway?
Take, for instance, the case of the 1925 film “The Lost World”, which for years had languished in severely truncated, poorly executed video formats of a length approximating anywhere from 50 minutes to a mere hour, presenting the false assumption that the film, for all of its epic reputation, was a merely extended short, a highlight reel of a more ambitiously planned undertaking. Recent restorations have happily proved this assumption false and have revealed extra characters, incident and plot only hinted at through grapevine discussions of film myth (not dissimilar to the unending argument over whether the actual filming of a 1933″King Kong” giant spider sequence took place). At some point, scholarship has become obscured in the myriad mire of wishful thinking and supposition based upon rumor, gossip and a perpetuation of unreliable memory. Actual hard and tangible evidence was the one thing lacking. Until recently, anyway.
At the beginning of the century, two major restorations of the 1925 “The Lost World” emerged, virtually doubling the running time and restoring the film to what is far closer to its “approximate” intended feature length as originally exhibited. The cautionary words are “approximate” and “intended”, for what the original intentions of the filmmakers were is a matter for scholarly archeology; piecing together disparate prints from around the globe, with comparisons to any existing paper notations, censorship certificates, stills (a notoriously unreliable reference point), even musical scoring transcriptions. The approximation comes in when the results of the painstaking restorations are completed and are viewed as representative of the original state of the film. Clearly without precise references available, almost an impossibility in films of this vintage, the films are puzzled together as the result of educated, but still unreliable, guesswork.
For example, in the two different major restorations of “The Lost World”, The Eastman House version and the David Shepard/Serge Bromberg version, there is a disparity not only of particular takes chosen to insert into sequences, but also differences in color tinting and inclusion of particular shots to satisfy the restorer’s point of view, but not precise to the original conception. Both restorations are eminently worthy and they go a long way to satisfy the cinephile’s desire to see the film in optimum condition; but can they truly be considered the “restored” (in a purist sense) version. Does it truly mirror the work of the director and studio involved?
To go one step further with the higher profile case of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis”, again there have been a myriad of versions available over the years, not assisted by the public domain status (the same is the case for “The Lost World”) and the reckless buzzard attitude toward putting out the cheapest representation of the film without regard to the complete bastardization of the initial work.
At the time of its premiere at the UFA-Palast am Zoo, Lang’s epic ran a lengthy 153 minutes and was reduced under orders from the American distributor Paramount to a more manageable length by Channing Pollock, removing essential sequences, characters and entire sub-plots which harmfully simplified Lang’s typically complex cross-cutting structure.
Enduring decades of faulty and severely abbreviated versions which carried the artistic reputation of the original film in theory while oddly never delivering the goods, Lang’s film finally received (after an abortive Georgio Moroder restoration replete with misapplied modern rock songs) an impressive restorative effort in 1987 by Ennio Patalas, which has since been deemed the Munich Version, restoring coherence, lost essential footage, the stirring original score of Gottfried Huppertz and a sparkling vibrancy to the images, unseen since its initial release. But… and it’s a very major caveat, there still was extensive footage missing, dealt with rather effectively, in this case, with the simple inclusion of clear and intelligent intertitles which bridged the missing action. This is a method that has been used effectively in certain limited circumstances with silent films, but is ruinous in sound film- “Lost Horizon” and the 1954 “A Star is Born” being two obvious examples- as the concerns of the archival purist intrude upon the cinematically inclined viewer. Putting a slide show in the middle of a film does not court completism, reflect in any way the wishes of the makers of the film and it destroys the illusionary cocoon in which the viewer should be enrapt by in an intentionally immersive Art Form.
However, in the case of “Metropolis”, the added intertitles are less intrusive, being that they meld in well with a medium already dependent on such graphic applications, and unlike Von Stroheim’s “Greed”, they were not so abundant as to overwhelm the existent materials. Until the 2008 Argentinian archival discovery of a rather complete print and materials from several other sources was it even dreamed that an almost full version of the film would ever be seen again. This final version clocking in at a mere eight minutes short of the premiere running time!
The problem now becomes one of cosmetic fidelity. The recovered footage may cement the essential narrative threads, but it also turns the existing film into a quilt, eschewing the importance of visual design in favor of narrative completism. This may seem like poor sportsmanship, to complain that a more complete film may not necessarily be a better film, but this is an important argument in favor of aesthetic purity in an age where the reduction of film images onto phones or laptop computers is accepted as an equal experience to a theatrical one (usually by those who have not seen films of this type on the large screen) and there are clearly representational issues here. Any film is diminished by not being viewed on the intended theatrical screen. There are compositional and visual components that are deliberately designed for viewing in the theatrical format as it is the ultimate intention of the filmmaker for the film to be experienced in optimum conditions. Any diminishment is just that and a lessening of the intended representation of the film. Thus when a film’s visual design is obscured in part by elemental degradation, how can the film be perceived as the truly intended aesthetic expression of the filmmakers, even if achivally correct? Short answer: it can’t be. It can only serve to ultimately satisfy the appetites of those whose interest in film can be limited to an aggressive restorative process that satisfies itself with technical representation while setting aside concerns of historically accurate aesthetic purity.
“Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari” (1920)Universally regarded as a landmark in German Expressionistic cinema and one of the first important horror films, Robert Weine’s 1920 “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari” is many things: a breakthrough in films penetrating the unconscious mind, one of the first films to offer a “twist” ending and an impressive exhibit of the use of distorted light, shadow and setting using painted backdrops. But as a film of estimable quality meriting its laudatory reputation, the film falls surprisingly short. Much of this has to do with the stagnant direction of Weine, who consistently relies on master shots intercut with medium iris shots comprising a dreary visual redundancy which is at odds with the often fascinating set design of Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. These settings, almost exclusively composed of painted flats shaped into distorted geometric perspectives, abstractly decorated with bent and twisted symbols, shapes and shadowy forms, depict a truly hallucinatory environment, both dizzying and harrowingly claustrophobic, as if conjured by a disturbed mind; which telegraphs a key secret to the genuine mysteries of the film’s narrative. They convey, not a horror film in the truest sense, but a mystery within a gimmicky faux-horror framework (If we consider the mentally ill “monsters” on the level of the supernatural manifestations of the Wolfman, resurrected mummies, vampires and products of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.) that strains at appearing a manifestation of the otherworldly but is merely a contribution to a rather clever narrative feint. However, despite the solid structural construction of the scenario, there is a dearth of both character development and richness of incident, problems exacerbated by director Weine’s apparent inability to both make something more cinematic of the story or to provide a momentum to dramatically stimulate the events at hand. For all of the cleverness of the illusionary double “reality” of the scenario, the aforementioned set design is allowed to the assume the entirety of the heavy lifting. Divorced from his startling production design, crippled by Weine’s inert direction, the film would literally resemble a stagnantly recorded stage production; not unlike the 1910 “Frankenstein” by J. Searle Dawley, whose own prior experience to that production was limited to that under the Proscenium Arch. Therefore, it is incumbent for whatever power the film might contain to be drawn from its settings, performances and script rather than any genuine cinematic contributions from the director’s chair. Is this possible, for a film to achieve any level of artistic success without the assistance of the guiding hand which has traditionally (in the past forty years anyway) been credited as the single most important factor in film production?
Well, yes and no. If we allow for the prudent abandonment of the modern post-Auteur Theory standards of critical rationale that credits the director with the most important creative contributions, then yes, the film may achieve worth on the strength of its conceptual structure. The duality of the screenplay, which is not evident until later in the film, is an ingenious ruse to have the viewer perceive and accept one viewpoint of events while building a framework for a shift in perspective that will withstand the scrutiny of logic. To this end, the production design makes its greatest contribution as every elongated, twisted angle is subject to supporting the scenario’s structural duality. Even the blatant artificiality of the sets- doors are wafer thin flats, and several settings are seen to visibly waver when actors pass- contributes to the central theme on unreality essential in bringing the film’s finale to successful fruition. That the highly stylized artifice of the production has eventual meaning and is not simply present for decorative distraction shows a creative intelligence in the initial conceptual stages of the project (no doubt guided by producers Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer, the latter who would later be made head of production at Ufa) in which all of the visual elements would act in concert with the innovative elements of the screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer to create a virtual world of nightmares.
The theatrically exaggerated performances (even for silent film) are part of this overall design, though Werner Krauss manages to put new meaning to the phrase “cooked ham” in a caricature of madness that threatens to prematurely reveal the scenario’s concluding twists. As Cesare the Somnambulist, Conrad Veidt, despite the reputation of his performance, which is primarily reliant on stylized make-up and a lanky physique, has little to do except for standing or lying in a box, though his graceful physicality is an asset in more overtly active scenes such as the effectively atmospheric abduction of Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover). Dagover accounts for herself quite ably, her magnificently expressive eyes working wonders depicting a woman in peril whether through physical circumstances or through psychological trauma. If there is a dark horse whose presence across the board offends on the level of both blandness and acting incompetence, it is Friedrich Feher in the key role of Francis who is not only given the important task of relating the entire narrative, but is an extremely consequential figure in unraveling the tale’s final mysteries. His failure to engage the viewer as the titular hero of the piece, or as a figure of sympathetic emotional resonance, dilutes much of the impact of the finale’s revelations.
In playing with the duality of the artificiality of two separate forms of “reality” as expressed through both “theatrical reality” and “cinematic reality”, “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari” importantly prefigures more than the subsequent evolution of the German Expressionist movement, with a subversive hint toward the more avant-garde works of the Surrealist Movement. Repeated viewings suggest an intelligent appreciation of the very theatrical fabric of the cinematic form, while the camera itself films a reality that itself is a fabrication. The “fourth wall” is literally stripped from the enacted drama to expose the scenario as both a fraud of reality and a candid acknowledgment of the willful design to create a new, manufactured reality in the happy collusion between audience and the filmmaker that both defines and feeds the film entertainment experience. In this acknowledgment, the cinema importantly took one significant step in its continued development as a genuine art form .
Despite the insubstantial contributions of director Robert Weine which seriously hampers the film in embracing the substantial dramatic possibilities of the story by failing to visually exploit the designs (both narratively and stylistically) of the production to their fullest hallucinogenic potential, (a problem encountered by Hitchcock in “Spellbound” with the far more conservatively imagined “fun house” dreamscape designs of Salvador Dali), the film achieves, by way of historic providence a notable seat at the table of- if not pure entertainments -culturally significant oddities.
How fortunate for Mary Philbin that in her portrayal of fledgling opera singer Christine Baaé, she is not under the technical requirements to convincingly render the voice of an operatic diva, as per the evidence onscreen, the capacity to compliment her role with more than an embarrassing assortment of swoons, cringes and teetering impressions of drunken whirlagigs seems quite beyond her capabilities.
Rupert Julian’s 1925 film of Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera”, its first cinematic translation, is known primarily as a vehicle for Lon Chaney’s extraordinary make-up transformation and an impressively effective unmasking scene. And that’s all. There’s a good reason for a general lack of similar excitement over the remaining aspects of the films, as quite simply as either a successful adaptation of the novel, or as an example of a grandiose spectacle with hints of mystery and the Grand Guignol, the film is a disappointing rendering to all but the most melodramatically inclined. Rather than using the novel as a springboard for a psychologically rich tale of isolation and dependence (think Svengali and Trilby by way of a Harlequin romance version of Poe), we get a catalog of craftsmanship courtesy of the Universal production design department; all immensity of Opera House and shadowy, would-be sinister cellars and sewer passages, but without the requisite directorial vision nor developed characterizations to make these imposing settings come alive.
The novel is not an example of densely conceived narrative, but there is far more complexity of character than is evidenced here, or in any of the myriad incarnations of the story; which follows the illiterate examples of both “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” in that a legacy of media representations has emerged being more heavily influenced by generations of faulty film adaptations rather than by the merits of the initial literary work. For instance, the novel contains a detailed back-story on Christine, exploring the reasons for her unquestioned devotion to her mysterious mentor, especially in an atmosphere charged with paranoid terror about the presence of “The Phantom”. None of this is touched upon at all; as a matter of fact, the entire roster of characters is so one-dimensional, its difficult to distinguish at times just who is who. Important past connections between Christine and the Viscount Raoul de Chagny and the perceived “Angel of Music” assumed by Christine to be sent by her dead father are completely absent in this screen version, as are the connective subplots, briefly mentioned then discarded without revisitation of the new opera owners, the diva Carlotta and the importance of Box Five. It was as if in translation, the writers considered only the most meager of narrative outlines based on the novel, and later fleshed out the eviscerated text with a rather ill staged and creatively impoverished chase through the streets, until a minor character exacts a revenge for an action that completely obliterates the original’s intimately emotional conception.
As a horror film, the movie is lacking in both suspense and a logical progression of dramatic conflict. The viewer is thrust into the situation midstream, without relevant exposition to explain just why the events that are transpiring are actually taking place. As a romantic tragedy, the complete lack of connective materials derails the triangulated romantic entanglements, portraying Erik the Phantom as merely a lonely guy who hopes to win over his girl by way of Stockholm Syndrome, while the relationship between Christine and de Chagny is so disaffected, distant and lacking in any discernible emotional chemistry, it appears the viewer is called upon to imagine the passion between the characters merely by prudent necessity of moving the plot forward. Attempted innovations such as sequences filmed in early Technicolor, or the inclusion of staggering amounts of costumed extras to give the film an epic feel, fail to compliment the film in any way except to reemphasize the complete lack of an emotional core to a production that cries out for the dynamic realization of a tragic tapestry of passion unrequited.
Mary Philbin as Christine, as mentioned earlier, is a dud as the object of everyone’s ardent desire, but the genuine surprise here is Lon Chaney, whose Phantom has given a dynamic performance in decades of photographic representation, but is less impressive once given life. This actor whose physical performances are as varied as his cosmetic applications finds himself unable to find the center to the character that would bring a fullest expression to the role, especially since he is under the additional burden of being cloaked behind a succession of masks during the bulk of the film.
Notwithstanding the curiously exalted reputation the film holds with film historians, the greatest mystery to emerge is the question as to why, with the production’s history of innumerable reshoots, did it not occur to anyone to not leave a potentially powerful moment following Erik’s unmasking irritatingly out of focus?
“Sadie Thompson” (1928)
Based upon the W. Somerset Maugham short story “Miss Thompson”, (also known as “Rain”) this 1928 silent feature stars a powerhouse pairing of Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson and Lionel Barrymore as fundamentalist reformer Davidson under spirited and judiciously impassioned direction by Raoul Walsh. With such stellar talent (not to mention production design by William Cameron Menzies) on board, there is every reason to expect an adaptation of this tale of hypocrisy under the guise of religious zealotry to be uncompromising in its adherence to the original literary source.
That is succeeds even partly is both heartening and disappointing; heartening in that in expanding the story to move beyond a relative chamber piece, the film’s focus shifts away from the story’s almost pathological fascination with Davidson and affords a more generous characterization of Sadie, which strengthens both her transformation- which in the story is left to the reader’s faith to accept- and explains the dramatic psychological shift in Davidson that leads to the ironic climax. The film, however, disappoints in the elements of the story that were easily translatable and are still missing, rendering unfortunate reduction to the final film; the film following the controversial play adaptation “Rain”by John Colton and Clemence Randolph more closely than the Maugham original.
The diminishment of the McPhails from whom the reader of the story retains their most balanced perspective of the Davidsons and the subsequent reign of enforced spiritual terror they bring to both the islands and specifically Sadie, is a damaging and needless change in the psychological dynamic of the story. While the film hints at Davidson’s seemingly complete control over the islands-including the gubernatorial authority- the story is blatant in the oppressive hold he holds over the entire native culture giving him a sense of omnipotence which is progressively commented on by the shy but sensible Dr. McPhail who finds the clergyman’s actions increasingly distasteful. Davidson is also diminished in his theological position in the film from minister to civilian which makes his dictatorial behavior even harder to rationalize in how it’s accommodated by both governing and military authority.
This sense of oppressive power misused, of hubris unchecked is at the very heart of the story, and the symbolic presence of the rain, along with the oppressive ministrations of Davidson, is essential to a creeping claustrophic atmosphere the characters are subjected to. In the film, the rain may be constant, but it’s just as often used for comic effect as it is for dramatic emphasis which is a great mistake. The rain is meant to confine the characters in an oppressive atmosphere, an allegorical equal to the savagely controlling, narrow-minded abuses of the reformist Davidson, and thus magnify the emotions of the story. This oppressive environment imposes a societal isolation, magnifying Davidson’s sense of power over the entrapped Sadie, enabling a heightened absence of empathetic commiseration within the reformer which will ultimately have an equal power on Davidson himself, leading to uncontrolled actions betraying his sworn sanctimonious campaign against sin and inexorably causing his ultimate destruction. Yet, in the film, it is only at the nadir of Sadie’s abuse by Davidson- when she discovers she is to be deported to San Francisco and certain incarceration- that the rains emerge as an elemental contributor to the film, though at this point, without a sensible set up, the scene of Sadie’s panic in partnership with the howling storm comes across as an hysterical exhibition of overacting unworthy of the cheapest PRC programmer.
Which is a pity for outside of this aberrative moment, Gloria Swanson’s performance is a winning combination of good time girl and volcanic hellion; adeptly covering the gamut of emotions befitting a woman forced into an implacable terminal crisis. Her moments of dazed placidity, following the process of her “reformation” are an affecting portrait of a spirited individual who has allowed her very will to live to be extinguished under the guise of redeeming her soul. As her nemesis Davidson, Lionel Barrymore is a case study in obsessive hauteur crossing into the extremes of the irrational. His is a countenance of fire and brimstone (his eyes are lit as if glowing with a Hellish flame) frozen into masks of sadistic delight at the success of his own unanswered abuses; it’s a magnificent portrayal, both fascinating and repulsively discomforting.
Director Raoul Walsh has the occasion to pull double duty as he also portrays Sadie’s love interest Tim O’Hara, a rather thankless and extraneous role courtesy of the stage adaptation that is not only written as a one-dimensional lunk, but only serves to slow down and dilute the central Sadie-Davidson relationship with the addition of rather disappointingly standard melodramatics. Walsh’s direction, outside of a failure to use his tropical environs for their fullest allegorical potential (on a purely conceptual level), manages to impress with its intimately sympathetic portrait of some rather unsavory characters; even after accounting for the intrusion of the Hays Office in imposing censorial restrictions in getting the production green lighted to begin with. (The background of Sadie is softened [to say the least], and her closing return to her “sinful” ways has been altered [presumably].)
“Presumably” is the operative word as, in the end, it’s difficult to make a complete assessment of the film as the final reel is missing and presumed lost, restored by a patchwork replication of stills, intertitle card text and unrelated though similar film footage. This situation, while certainly not the fault of the original creative talents, again demonstrates the destructive force time and decades of ignorant dismissal has wielded on the silent film legacy. With “Sadie Thompson” the resulting loss of a reel is especially painful since the entire culmination of the film’s themes runs into a full collision moments after the footage ends. The presumptive curative of quilted materials is not only insubstantial but insultingly lackadaisical. Even a conciliatory explanatory crawl would have better suited the wounded film than to presume to mollify the situation with a haphazard collection of random scraps. (For a fuller consideration of this restorative conundrum, consult the earlier “Whose Vision Is It Anyway?”)
However, for what it’s worth, on the existing evidence, “Sadie Thompson” is a dramatically astute, well performed version of a controversial though reductive stage adaptation of one of W. Somerset Maugham’s shorter though most recognized works. If its candor in criticizing the blind hypocrisy that may arise with zealous fundamentalism is muted, it’s more balanced focus on both Davidson the reformer and Sadie, the recipient of every form of his abuses actually makes for a more richly conceived portrait of the bullying moralist who is luxuriant with sadism but born of weakness, fear and ultimately- fired by his keenly attuned obsession with debauchery- temptation; presenting a more pitiable (in theory anyway) character, and in being portrayed in a more three-dimensional fashion than in Maugham’soriginal text, becoming less the monster but no less monstrous.