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Die Susi bläst das Saxophon!
The comedy Saxophon-Susi (1928) was screened with live piano accompaniment by David Schwarz on January 8, 2019, at the Zeughauskino in Berlin as part of the series "Weimar International: Silent Film without Borders". Both Anny Ondra, the star of the picture, and Carl Lamac, the film's director as well as Ondra's then-husband, had their start in the Czech film industry before branching out internationally.

The film, which was digitally scanned from the nitrate print held at the Národní Film Achive in Prague, had a running time of approximately 52 minutes, since "most" of the first two acts (of six total) are missing from this surviving print. Even without that footage, however, the story was easy to follow (largely due to its predictability). The film survives with Italian titles, which were supplemented with German translations projected on the screen as subtitles.

The story concerns two befriended young women who attempt a bit of deception. Annie (Anny Ondra) is a dance-crazy flapper and theater enthusiast from a well-to-do noble family who decides she needs to be sent to a finishing school for girls in England in order to put such notions out of her head. Her friend Susi, who is more interested in books than the stage, is the daughter of working-class parents at a revue theater and is also about to be sent to London to be trained as a chorus girl. While crossing the Channel to England, Annie spontaneously introduces herself to a potential beau as Susi and so the plan begins: the two will switch identities, with Annie taking Susi's place at the dance school, and Susi posing as Annie at the boarding school. After this point, the story focuses only on "Susi's" fate, which as you can guess from the film's title, has everything to do with partying, Jazz, and dancing. The inevitable complications ensue as Susi and her beau (an English Lord!) navigate their relationship, but there is no doubt that everything will end happily.

Anny Ondra is very appealing and reminds me a bit of Marion Davies here, since she does a lot of physical comedy. The other actors (among whom is Hans Albers in supporting role) also are suited to their parts. The film is enjoyable fluff, which of course is all it was intended to be.

Café Elektric

Social Mobility is a Two-Way Street
Were it not for Marlene Dietrich's appearance in this film, CAFE ELEKTRIC would be an unlikely candidate for a DVD release, especially considering that it is incomplete (the restoration done by the Filmarchiv Austria summarizes the missing ending). Yet this film by Gustav Ucicky—the son of the painter Gustav Klimt—is really an ensemble melodrama, with Dietrich no more the star than the other featured actors (her legs, however, do receive plenty of screen time).

The story concerns the interaction between two poles of contemporary Viennese society (not Berlin, as a fellow reviewer mistakenly states): the upper-crust bourgeoisie, represented by the capitalist Göttlinger (Fritz Albert) and his daughter Erni (Dietrich); and the prostitutes and petty criminals that hang around the Café Elektric. Of these, we are introduced to Fredl (Willi Forst), a pickpocket who's always short on cash, and his sometime girlfriend Hansi (Nina Vanna), who longs to escape from her circumstances. In the course of the film, Erni and Hansi's fates play out in counterpoint with each other, although the two never actually meet. While Hansi struggles upward towards societal respectability in a life with Max (Igo Sym), Erni descends from her privileged existence thanks to the negative influence of Fredl.

Ucicky's direction is competent but not remarkable or visually distinctive. The most sympathetic character is Hansi, both because her plight gives us someone to root for, and due to the charismatic performance given by the lovely Nina Vanna. Silent film accompanist Gerhard Gruber provides an excellent piano score on the Austrian DVD edition.

The Girl of Gold

"Girl of Gold Left Out In Cold"
THE GIRL OF GOLD is a fast-paced programmer (lasting about 50 minutes) that emphasizes melodramatic plot over any pretense of incisive character development or the ethical dilemmas presented by the story. The direction by John Ince (older brother of Thomas and Ralph) is workmanlike and largely unremarkable; the production design rather generic but not cheap-looking.

Having made his fortune in the western gold mines, Lucius Merrimore (Charles French) moves to New York with his daughter Helen (a blonde Florence Vidor). While Merrimore's successes continue as a result of ruthless Wall Street maneuvers, Helen quickly finds herself ostracized as a parvenu by the established social class who dub her "the Girl of Gold." Helen tells her father she wants to escape from her life of privilege--in which men see her only as a dollar sign--and marry the first man who loves her just for herself. This rash outburst inspires Merrimore to concoct a plan involving Schuyler Livingstone (Malcolm McGregor), a young man whose family fortune has recently been wiped out by Merrimore's manipulation of the financial markets. Merrimore feels a pang of guilt when he learns the plight of Schulyer's now destitute sister (Bessie Eyton) and her ailing son, and decides to offer $100,000 if Schulyer will marry Helen. Schulyer is outraged at such a proposal, but his sister convinces him to agree.

Meanwhile, ignorant of her father's deal with Schuyler, Helen has accepted an invitation to attend a weekend house party in Newport, seeing this as her opportunity to shed her "girl of gold" image and present herself instead as a poor cousin. When Schuyler and his sister inevitably show up at the same house party, he is of course enchanted by "Helen Wheeler," while his sister reminds him of his obligation to marry "Helen Merrimore" (whom he has never seen) and secure the $100,000. It doesn't help matters that the hostess of the party is an old flame of Schuyler's and that she is married to an extremely jealous husband...

This being melodrama, the plot continues at break-neck speed, with one twist and revelation after the next. The climax occurs in a night club built somehow into a gold mine. Of course there is never any doubt about whether all of this will end well for "the Girl of Gold," and for 50 minutes the journey is quite enjoyable. This film asks nothing more.

Die Heimkehr des Odysseus

Henny Porten does comedy!
Henny Porten, who was *the* German film star of the 1910s, is typically defined today by roles that were steeped in classic melodrama, suffering, and noble angst. Here, in this delightful film from 1918, she proves that she was also an effective comedienne. DIE HEIMKEHR DES ODYSSEUS ("The Homecoming of Odysseus") takes as its inspiration the famous Penelope episode from Homer's /Odyssey/ and transplants it to the present-day Bavarian Alps.

The story begins with a prologue, as the wedding day of Josepha (Henny Porten) and Hansl (Bruno Decarli) is eagerly anticipated by all. Hansl, however, without telling anyone, decides to go climb a mountain, thus delaying the wedding and causing Josepha much embarrassment. When Hansl finally returns to the village (with a bouquet of Edelweiss in tow), Josepha is fuming mad, and after the ceremony she tells him off. He leaves in a huff, before the marriage can be consummated. Ten years pass, and Hansl has never returned to the village. Josepha is the proprietress of the inn, and must endure the blatant come-ons of all the single men on the mountain. They insist she forget about Hansl and marry one of them. Josepha is a feisty woman, though, given to pulling pranks on her potential suitors, all of whom she finds distasteful. She dreams that her true love will one day return to her. Meanwhile, a bearded stranger pops up at various times and in various places, with a definite interest in Josepha...

Although the situations in this film are played as comedy, the echo of real-life circumstances surrounding men missing in action or held in prisoner-of-war camps during World War I surely resonated with audiences. Josepha, who must fend for herself in the absence of her husband, yet who always remains faithful to him, can be seen as a kind of model for contemporary women, encouraging them to follow her example.

The dialogue in this film appears as Bavarian dialect in the intertitles. In addition to the "locals," there is also an interloper who appears -- Alois Buttermilch (Arthur Bergen), who speaks in the Berlin dialect. This is a thoroughly enjoyable picture, well-paced, clear (if somewhat stereotypical) characterizations, and fine performances from the cast. Director Rudolf Biebrach even appears in the film as, oddly enough, the Man in the Moon.


Harry Piel: the Douglas Fairbanks of Weimar cinema
Harry Piel was one of the major stars of German cinema in the 1910s and 1920s, though most people have probably never heard of him today. Because Weimar-era cinema is typically linked with the Expressionist era of the early 1920s or the Neue Sachlichkeit movement of the later years of that decade, films and directors who did not fit that mold are often excluded from the traditional narrative.

Piel's ZIGANO (1925) shows no trace of Expressionist, psychological angst, and makes no attempt to tell its story through realism or social criticism (though one could make a stretch in drawing comparisons to the Napoleonic-era occupation of the Rhineland and the presence of the French in post-Treaty of Versailles Germany). First and foremost, ZIGANO is pure entertainment. It is highly reminiscent of the costumed swashbuckler epics that Douglas Fairbanks was turning out in Hollywood. Zigano is one part THE MARK OF ZORRO and one part ROBIN HOOD.

Set during the Napoleonic wars, the film tells the story of Benito (Harry Piel), a sensitive young man, raised by his mother and taught to be a morally upright, self-sacrificing Christian. Yet when confronted with the injustices committed by the occupying French soldiers, Benito must reject his "turn the other cheek" indoctrination and learn (astonishingly quickly) to fight back. Benito becomes embroiled in a conflict between the French soldiers and a band of outlaws (who in these desperate times are considered heroes by the local peasants). In coming to the aid of the robber chieftain Zigano, Benito practically single- handedly defeats a gang of French soldiers. Zigano, however, is killed by a sniper. The robber band elects Benito as their new leader--their new "Zigano." An intrigue is underway at one of the German courts, and it's up to Zigano to prove the faithfulness and innocence of the damsel in distress (Dary Holm) and to expose the villainous Ganossa (Fritz Greiner).

The film is overlong (approximately 125 minutes), just as the above-mentioned Fairbanks epics tend to be, but Harry Piel manages to convey enough on-screen charisma (he even winks at the audience with a knowing tongue-in-cheek attitude) and matinée-idol good looks to charm the ladies in the audience, and to provide enough action and derring-do to satisfy the boyfriends. ZIGANO is not a masterpiece, but it is an example of the kind of lavish spectacles that entertained German audiences in the 1920s, and a reminder that German silent cinema was more than NOSFERATU and METROPOLIS.

Und wieder 48

How to come to terms with History
The scene: Berlin, 1948. In the midst of the ruined city, a movie about the revolutions of 1848 is being produced. Several university students are employed as extras, among them the medical student Heinz Althaus (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) and Else Weber (Inge von Wangenheim), who is studying German history. At first they interact with reserve, though Heinz's attraction to the intelligent, beautiful Else is clear from the start; her passion and interest in the ideals of the '48ers intrigues him, forcing him to confront his own stance regarding one's relationship to history.

UND WIEDER 48! is an erudite film, made at a time when many Germans would have rather brushed aside their history, even as they were removing the rubble of their destroyed cities. Gustav von Wangenheim (here as director, earlier star of the Weimar cinema) draws extensive parallels between the Germany of 1948 and the as-yet non-existent Germany of 1848. Scenes alternate between "today" and "then", either as represented in the fictitious film under production, or as imagined by the characters involved in the project.

UND WIEDER 48! is also a film about Berlin; several scenes were shot on location. Here one can see the Berliner Dom, the Humboldt University, and even the ruins of the Stadtschloss, all as they looked in 1948. The film's final scene takes place at the Wartburg fortress in Thüringen.

Inge von Wangenheim (the director's wife) is unquestionably the star of this film. Her performance is so natural, her bearing so graceful, it is unfortunate that she did not continue a career in film acting. Ernst Wilhelm Borchert also delivers a fine performance. It is a fascinating film from many perspectives; one that deserves to be better known.

Algol - Tragödie der Macht

Turning Power into Might
The early 21st century has witnessed increasing debate about the world's energy resources; the production, control and distribution of oil and electricity carries not only political and financial implications, but ethical ones as well. Hans Werckmeister's ALGOL, made shortly after the first World War, when coal shortages and rising energy costs were crippling the already hard-hit Weimar Republic (Germany), is a mirror of contemporary concerns surrounding the technology of the modern age.

The alien-demon Algol's "gift" to Robert Herne, the hard-working coal-miner (played by Emil Jannings), is the secret to building a perpetual energy source powerful enough to light the whole world. Yet Robert Herne ultimately is seduced by the power this device brings him as the "ruler of the world", and refuses to surrender the secrets of the machine for the good of mankind. Robert's ideological counterpart is Maria (Hanna Ralph), his one-time girlfriend and co-worker in the coal mine, who disapproves of his greed and retreats to a neighboring agrarian country to live off the land. This contrast between industrialized modernity (typically represented by decadent, stylized Expressionist sets) and traditional agrarian society (represented by naturalism, scenes shot outdoors, and use of realistic sets) is a striking aspect of Werckmeister's film. The construction of the narrative (consisting of a prologue and four acts) is carefully balanced, with effective character development. Direction, photography, and performances are all uniformly excellent. The (perhaps too abrupt) ending brings about an epiphany for Robert Herne, who comments ironically on his fate.

Von morgens bis mitternachts

Insightful adaptation of Kaiser's Expressionist drama
Georg Kaiser's VON MORGENS BIS MITTERNACHTS (written in 1912, first performed in 1917) is one of the masterworks of German Expressionist drama, an artistic movement of the early 20th century which emphasized the psychological or "spiritual" (in the sense of the German word "seelisch") suffering of the subject. Kaiser's play thus assumes the form of a "Stationendrama" (station play), i.e. a series of episodes (modelled after the Stations of the Cross in the Christian tradition), each of which culminates in a kind of spiritual revelation, propelling the protagonist onward to the next "station". Death is typically the inevitable final destination on the journey.

Karlheinz Martin's film adaptation remains largely faithful to Kaiser's play (minus the rich dialog of course), and indeed adds some insightful touches, especially in the opening scene in the bank vaults. The set decoration is ultra-Expressionistic, even more so than that found in Robert Wiene's DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (produced more or less around the same time), perhaps reflecting actual stage sets used for contemporary productions of the play. The omnipresence of Death (and its connection to women) is emphasized through the multiple characters portrayed by one actress (Roma Bahn). Ernst Deutsch, as the Cashier, is particularly effective in conveying the grasping, despairing nature of the character -- a man whose life is controlled by money and a petty bourgeois mentality, and whose attempts to overcome this enslavement prove impossible.

Astute viewers who are familiar with CALIGARI will spot Hans Heinrich von Twardowski in the role of the Son of the Lady (he played the doomed friend Alan in Wiene's film).

VON MORGENS BIS MITTERNACHTS has an odd history. Never officially released in Germany at the time of its production, it found contemporary success in Japan, then was believed lost for decades until its rediscovery in the 1960s.


An example of Borzage's romantic realism
My fellow reviewers have done so much justice to this fine film that I hesitated to submit my own thoughts, since many of them would be quite redundant. I therefore will not comment so much on the story itself in this review, but instead concentrate on some of the aesthetic qualities of the film.

The careful attention to period detail is one of the salient features of LAZYBONES. Produced in 1925, but telling a story that reaches back to the turn-of-the-century and advances to "now," it genuinely captures the look of each era it portrays. Often films made in the 1920s but set, say, before the War (WWI), look very different from actual films produced in 1914 -- we can see it in the clothes and the hairstyles. In LAZYBONES this is not the case. Even the characters age believably as the decades advance (only Kit is portrayed by different actresses as she grows up). Buck Jones's transformation from a teenager to an almost middle-aged man is especially noteworthy.

Another strength of Borzage's direction is his strong evocation of place. His rural America is steeped in romanticism -- so stylized and yet so personal as to exist both everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. One is left with the feeling that these characters -- especially Steve (Buck Jones) and his mother (Edythe Chapman) -- are inextricably linked with the languid atmosphere of their environment. This quality is also reflected in Borzage's lingering, empathetic close-ups that seem to stretch time beyond its natural bounds. The scene in which Ruth (Zasu Pitts) passes by Steve's house in the carriage, catching a glimpse of her daughter, is one such example. This moment -- consisting of only a few seconds in real time -- is frozen as Borzage focuses on the emotions displayed in the expressions of Ruth, Steve, and Kit (Virginia Marshall). The reunion scene when Steve returns from the war is certainly every bit the equal of the one near the end of Vidor's THE BIG PARADE, and is another prime example of "stretching time" for dramatic effect.

In contrast to such Borzage silent masterpieces as 7TH HEAVEN, STREET ANGEL, and LUCKY STAR, I would classify LAZYBONES as a film fundamentally grounded in realism (note the prominent use of real exteriors instead of studio back-lot sets). At the same time, however, Borzage flavors the whole work with a wistful romanticism that is never cloying but somehow manages to capture the dream-like qualities of our own nostalgic memories: snapshot moments, tinged at times with melancholy, at times with happiness.

Dressed to Kill

These are gangsters... not gangstas
Actually, the word that is used throughout this 1928 film is "Mob," not gangster. The characters, settings, and plot of DRESSED TO KILL would all become staple elements of the Hollywood gangster film, and are indelibly linked to late 1920s-early 1930s popular culture; I almost expected Dick Tracy to show up and clean up this racket.

Here, however, the police is far from being depicted as heroic or even competent. Instead we are introduced to a bevy of tuxedo-clad, cigarette-smoking tough guys with nicknames like Silky and Ritzy, whose boss--played by the suave Edmund Lowe--always manages to evade implication in the crimes he masterminds. Ever conscious of "stool-pigeons" and women in general, the rest of the Mob is leery when Barry (Lowe) decides to take on a new "associate" as the gang's "stall moll" (the beautiful Mary Astor).

The story is minimal, though there is a nice twist with Astor's character--and Lowe's final decision seems somewhat incredible in light of how long he has known his "moll." Irving Cummings (who also directed Astor and Ben Bard in ROMANCE OF THE UNDERWORLD, another 1928 gangster flick for Fox Studios), brings some stylish touches to the film, creating moods of tension and menace through lingering, extensive close-ups.

The film unfortunately ends later than it should have. I have the feeling that the studio (or someone in charge) ordered the rather ridiculous last scene to be shot in order to ensure that all the criminals received their comeuppance. The scene immediately before this was surely intended as the end of the film; left as such, it would have left a more powerful impact.

Conrad in Quest of His Youth

"Dreamer... There is no road back to seventeen..."
Conrad (Thomas Meighan) is suffering a mid-life crisis. Having just returned to his native England after a military position in India, he is overcome with unhappiness, realizing that he no longer feels like the man he used to be. Believing his happiest days were those of his youth, he attempts to re-capture the sensations he remembers so vividly. Yet despite his efforts, it proves impossible to return to the land of the past. Milk and porridge no longer taste as delicious as they once did; the childhood sweetheart has become a doting matron; and the mature woman who was once the object of a seventeen-year old boy's passionate crush has also aged, even as he has.

The fourth act of this story introduces a new character whose path inevitably crosses with Conrad's. Again the contrasts of youth and age, memory and reality play a role in their interaction.

William De Mille's direction is lyrical and perfectly paced. Conrad's nostalgic quest for lost time is at once both gently mocked and sympathetically presented. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Meighan's.

The Enemy

Margaret Booth's film editing is a work of art
Following such prestige projects as LA BOHEME (1926) and THE SCARLET LETTER (1926), THE ENEMY was Lillian Gish's fifth and final film for MGM (it was completed after, but released before, THE WIND). Based on a play by Channing Pollock, this is a vehemently anti-war film, well-directed by Fred Niblo and expertly edited by Margaret Booth. Though it is difficult to tell where Niblo's direction ends and Booth's editing begins (or to what degree they were close collaborators), it must be stated that the fluid, eloquent visual language of the silent cinema is exemplified here -- as in so many other films of the late 1920s -- at its apogee. This film certainly must be counted among Booth's finest artistic work (for film editing is indeed an art) -- and her resumé is indeed impressive.

For some, the unrelenting pacifist message of the film may lack subtlety. Today's viewer certainly needs an appreciation for historical context in order to understand properly the impact this film would have had on contemporary audience. The time period is the Great War (WWI), and the impact of that senseless carnage on ordinary people's lives. The setting is Austria, and the main characters are Austrian (plus an Englishman who suddenly becomes "the enemy" among former friends), yet it really could take place anywhere, at any time. The ironies of propaganda, through which all parties invoke the name of God to assist their cause against "the enemy," are emphasized here, as are the absurdities of a blind nationalism which causes friends to accuse each other of being unpatriotic. Actually, the messages of this film are not so far removed from our own time as one might think.

The performers all turn in convincing portrayals. Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes are the newlyweds whose wedding march is interrupted by the drums of war. Their last night together before he is summoned to the front is a tenderly poetic interlude, as is the scene in the train station when she narrowly misses the chance to see her husband again. Frank Currier is especially sympathetic in the role of the principled, anti-war Professor Arndt ("I shall never teach that legalized murder is a glorious thing," he says at one point); and George Fawcett even manages to instill some humanity in his war-profiteer character. Karl Dane and Polly Moran are on hand to lend their usual brand of comic relief.

It is unfortunate that the last reel to this film is apparently lost. This will probably prevent the film from being screened on television or released to DVD -- which is unfortunate, since this is a work that deserves to be seen and appreciated as a fine example not only of late-silent movie-making, but also of the anti-war film.

Pretty Ladies

Presenting the pretty ladies... and Zasu Pitts
If you know Zasu Pitts from her later years as a comedic supporting actress, this movie will show you a whole different side of her talents. If you loved her performance in Erich von Stroheim's GREED, you will be pleased to see she was allowed during this time to make brief forays into dramatic roles. This film, in fact, showcases both sides of Pitts' repertoire, as it calls on her to play a woman who is a popular vaudeville comedienne by night but who, off stage, leads a lonely and loveless life due to her low self-esteem.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling I watched a truncated print of this film, since it only ran a little under an hour. The editing especially at the beginning was quite poor -- too many characters all introduced at the same time, but often without identifying intertitles. I also have no idea why a seemingly wealthy woman like Maggie Keenan (Pitts) would be tramping about on the Follies stage. Joan Crawford does appear in a small part, though in the print I watched, she was not credited at all.

The real stars of this film, however, are Pitts, Tom Moore (as the drummer she falls in love with), and Lilyan Tashman (as her rival). The story is a contemporary (mid-1920s) backstage look at the Follies. A couple of production numbers are also featured (you must see Pitts dressed as a housefly!). The romantic entanglement is unexpected, and I assure you, the ending will absolutely shock you. I can imagine this one sparked many an after-the-movie conversation. I am a fan of Monta Bell, yet I can't rank this one as highly as some of his other films such as LADY OF THE NIGHT, AFTER MIDNIGHT, and UPSTAGE. Nevertheless, PRETTY LADIES is worth a look -- oh, and Zasu Pitts definitely qualifies as a "pretty lady."


For love (and labor) or money?
First of all, in case you were wondering, the film's title "Doomsday" refers to the name of a farm, and yes, there really are only four credited members of the cast. This is a chamber drama essentially focused on the age-old configurations of the love triangle.

The story is set in the English countryside, shortly after the Great War. The twenty-three year old Mary Viner (Florence Vidor) is courted by two men: one of them, Percival Fream (Lawrence Grant), is the wealthy, aging owner of a large neighboring estate, who (as his friend notes) possesses everything of value except a wife; the other man, Arnold Furze (Gary Cooper), has invested in a decaying farmstead (called "Doomsday") and toils away to make a living. Mary is physically attracted to Arnold, but repulsed by his primitive, Elizabethan-era house and the life of menial labor she will be subjected to, should she marry him. On the other hand, Percival offers her a life of luxury in which she need only pose in beautiful clothes and become another of his many objets d'art; there is nothing carnal about his interest in her, and several of the titles (as well as Grant's portrayal) suggest that Percival is, if nothing else, asexual.

Director Rowland V. Lee (who also directed the excellent 1927 picture BARBED WIRE) does fine work with the material here, utilizing the language of silent cinema to full advantage. There are numerous "extreme close-ups" of the three main characters; and some nice atmospheric touches as well. The initial romance scenes between Mary and Arnold are breathtaking in their subtly erotic intensity. Florence Vidor and Gary Cooper are photographed to full advantage. The story then moves somewhat predictably along the parameters of the triangle. I do have, however, mixed reactions to the outcome. When Mary devotes herself to doing everything in her power to win Arnold, his cold cruelty and her extreme passivity tarnish, in my opinion, these characters' chances to live "happily ever after." Nevertheless this is a fine film, and worth seeing for the performances of Florence Vidor and Gary Cooper.

After Midnight

Norma Shearer shines in ensemble melodrama
I was fortunate enough to see this film with live musical accompaniment at Cinecon 40 in Los Angeles (2004). Even after three years, there are still scenes that stay in my memory, and while the story may be melodramatic, perhaps stretching credibility, as cinema I found it to be compelling. This is in large part thanks to the sensitive direction of Monta Bell, and the realistic, sympathetic performances turned out by Norma Shearer and Gwen Lee.

I've read elsewhere that Monta Bell was to Norma Shearer what Josef von Sternberg was to Marlene Dietrich. The close-ups of Shearer in AFTER MIDNIGHT are breathtakingly beautiful. Her expressions are subtle and telling. She'll break your heart with a downward glance of her eyes. Bell's attention to detail is everywhere in evidence -- and those who enjoy the time- capsule effect of old films will appreciate the glimpses into the cupboards of the characters in this film.

The Viking

Beautiful film, preposterous story
I attended a screening of THE VIKING last evening at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Yes, the 2-strip Technicolor is lovely, and I agree with one of the other reviewers here who stated that the muted colors serve to emphasize the film's setting in the distant past. However, if you're expecting any degree of historical authenticity, forget about it.

Anyone who knows something about Viking history, including the figures of King Olaf of Norway, Leif Ericsson, and Eric the Red, will have to work hard to suspend disbelief. The story is preposterous, the costumes straight out of 19th-century productions of Wagner's RING cycle, and the synchronized soundtrack also depends heavily on Wagner's music for many of the film's themes. In this sense, the film is very much a product of 1928 and the way the Viking era was envisioned in the popular imagination and by film-makers of the time.

The standout performer here is Pauline Starke as Helga, who with her flowing blonde hair, perfectly chiseled cheekbones and Nordic facial characteristics, is the living personification of Arthur Rackham's drawings of Brunnhilde and the other Valkyries. She of course is accompanied by Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" on the soundtrack every time she approaches a horse. Helga finds herself in a love quandary as the object of desire of not two but three men. Starke is a compelling performer, steely-eyed and fierce as nails, but also soft and ravishing.

This is a film that I am hard-pressed to recommend, because I can't get past the absurdity of its story. Yet for those who can accept it on its own terms, it is indeed a lovely film, and even oddly fascinating in the sort of way that bad films can sometimes become cult classics.

Harold Teen

Charming slice of 1920s Jazz Age youth
If you're familiar with such better-known films as THE FRESHMAN (1925) with Harold Lloyd, COLLEGE (1926) with Buster Keaton, or even BROWN OF HARVARD (1926) with William Haines, you'll know the formula of HAROLD TEEN--but don't let that stop you from seeking out this little gem that deserves a place of prominence amidst the late 1920s craze for the college-film genre.

Technically, of course, Harold Teen is a high school senior, not a college student, but that point is irrelevant. Based on the characters of a popular comic strip whose heyday was the Jazz Age, HAROLD TEEN glides along on the strength of its excellent cast, breezy intertitles laced with 1920s slang ("Gee, that's hotsy-totsy!"), and all-around good humor.

Arthur Lake, who would later play Dagwood Bumstead in a series of BLONDIE movies, is adorable as Harold, the innocent farmboy who moves to Covina, California, with his Grandpop (Jack Duffy, the most energetic grandpa you'll ever encounter) in order to attend high school with his sweetheart Lillums Lovewell (the beautiful Mary Brian, who reminds me here of Fay Wray). Of course the city kids all think Harold's a rube at first, but he soon wins them over with his affable manner and the secret of "gedunk" sundaes. Alice White (First National's ersatz Clara Bow), plays Giggles Dewberry, "the perfect vamp," who takes a liking to Harold. The usual elements are present: love troubles, a big football game--but what makes this story different is the hilarious movie Harold and his friends decide to produce. We watch its premiere along with the kids--part spoof of silent westerns and pantomime acting, it is unlike anything you've ever seen before.

This is a highly enjoyable film, recommended to anyone interested in late-1920s youth culture.

Why Sailors Go Wrong

Ridiculous farce is tough-going
I've never heard of the film's nominal stars, Sammy Cohen and Ted McNamara (the latter died before this film's release), and Fox's WHY SAILORS GO WRONG does little to establish their place in a revisionist history of silent film comedians. Contemporary reviews actually praised their work here, citing laughs from start to finish. I think today's audiences, even those sympathetic to silent film comedy stylings, would have a tough time with the forced, clichéd situations in which Cohen and McNamara find themselves here.

The comedic hook for Cohen's character, Sammy Beezeroff, is an ethnic stereotype--emphasized repeatedly throughout the film by the size and shape of his nose and his eagerness to do anything for a quick buck. It should be noted, however, that his mannerisms do not imitate those of another Jewish comedian of the silent era, Max Davidson. As for McNamara, I never really could figure out what was supposed to be funny about his character except that he was incredibly stupid.

I watched this film primarily to see an example of the silent work of Nick Stuart, who here plays the young man trying to stop his best friend from stealing his fiancée. He has the opportunity to be on the giving and receiving end of a lot of fisticuff action--all done quite believably--and he's an appealing performer to watch. Too bad he's only a supporting role here. Sally Phipps fares even worse as the girlfriend--a mere cipher in the story, she hardly gets five minutes on screen.

The antics of Cohen and McNamara take them from an ill-fated yacht cruise to a shipwreck on a south seas island, where, according to one intertitle, "the friendly Natives subdivide the tourists instead of the land." The fade-out scene--involving $5000, a crocodile, and a jug of Castor oil--is probably the best of the movie.

The Blood Ship

Conventional but rollicking sea melodrama
I had the opportunity to view a beautifully crisp and clear 35mm print (from the camera negative) of this film at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood. Unfortunately this particular print was missing the last reel, so the inevitable mutiny at sea was left to the imagination.

The story, adapted from a 1922 novel by Norman Springer, is a typical adventure yarn, populated by types instead of characters, with no deeper meaning than simply providing a summer afternoon's worth of entertainment. Eighty years after its release, the film still delivers on that front. Effectively directed by George Seitz, it exhibits some fine camera work in the ship scenes and even a bit of atmospheric lighting. Violence occurs frequently but not explicitly (the camera typically cuts away when the beatings and floggings begin).

What today's viewers will notice, however, are the very "un-PC" ethnic stereotypes delivered through the intertitles. "Swedish" and "black English" accents are conveyed through irregular orthography, allowing the viewer who can sound out these spellings to "hear" the characters. The film should also be of special interest to those tracing the Hollywood depiction of African Americans. Edgar "Blue" Washington, appearing here in one of his first films, plays a character called only "A Negro," but who has a significant role in the story. In fact, I would call him the outstanding performer of the film. While it is true that the story at first cannot seem to get past his race, he develops into a noble, loyal, and even *brave* character by the seventh reel. I wish I could comment on his role in the mutiny, but I have not yet seen the final reel.

The other players are competent in their roles. Hobart Bosworth, the ostensible star of the picture, is an old pro at playing salty sea types. James Walter, as his sadistic nemesis Captain Swope, provides the right amount of villainous snarl while avoiding camp. Richard Arlen looks rough-and-ready, but is saddled with the supporting role of the lovestruck boy instead of the strapping hero and therefore has little to do. The lovely Jacqueline Logan (whom 1927 audiences had recently seen as Mary Magdalene in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings) fills the shoes of the token lone-girl-on-the-ship, who of course falls for Arlen's character, the best looking of the sea swabs.

Silent film fans familiar with Paramount's 1926 Old Ironsides may note similarities here. Considering Columbia Pictures' fledgling status in 1927 (essentially a Poverty Row studio), the end result is a more than adequate attempt to produce a picture worthy of comparison with that of the other big Hollywood studios of its day.


The story may be familiar but "don't let that worry you"
Norma Shearer plays Dolly Haven, an ambitious ingénue who applies for a job as a stenographer in a New York casting agency, but instead is hired as the "class" portion of a vaudeville act. Dolly has no real talent--can't sing, can't dance, can't act--but just by walking across the stage dressed elegantly, she quickly becomes the toast of Broadway. Of course, all this success starts to go to her head and she starts behaving like a big-time diva, much to the dismay of Johnny Storm (played by Oscar Shaw, a prominent Broadway star of the time), the hoofer who discovered her and, as it turns out, contributed greatly to the publicity machine surrounding her rise to fame.

After being wooed away to another troupe, in which she believes she will achieve even more success, things start to go downhill and Dolly finds herself reduced to a member of the chorus in a third-rate act, playing in small-town venues. It's only when she learns to become a "real trouper" in the midst of a crisis situation backstage that Dolly redeems herself.

Norma Shearer does fine work in this film, exhibiting an impressive emotional range as her character develops from a stagestruck girl to a haughty star with attitude, and finally to a humbled and wiser young woman. She is surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, notably Tenen Holtz as the casting agent Sam Davis (who gets all the good lines in Joe Farnham's titles), and Oscar Shaw as Johnny.

The picture is well directed by Monta Bell, whose careful attention to realistic detail in his films always impresses me. Bell composes his shots beautifully, and especially the Christmas Eve snow scenes are beautifully choreographed and photographed. There is also an interesting use of the "zoom" technique, though of course without a zoom lens. The story invites comparison with EXIT SMILING, another MGM film from 1926--both provide insightful behind-the-scenes glimpses of vaudeville life even as it was on the verge of extinction.

The Circle

To leave one's husband or not... that's the question...
This MGM film, directed by Frank Borzage (7th HEAVEN, STREET ANGEL, etc.), and adapted from a stage play by Somerset Maugham, is a prime example of the drawing-room drama. The sets are sumptuous, the actors beautiful, the set-up intriguing, but the finish is a complete cop-out. I'm not familiar with Maugham's play, but from what I understand, the story does not end the way this filmed version does. In fact, the carefully established symmetry of the narrative (i.e. the "circle" alluded to by the title) is completely undone by Borzage's forced "happy" ending.

To his credit, Borzage engages in some elegant direction, mostly successful in the difficult task of making a stage play visually interesting on film. The cast also aids in making this comedy-drama appealing. Special mention should be made of the actors making up the "older" generation (Alec B. Francis, George Fawcett, and Eugenie Besserer). Their characters are in fact much more interesting and sympathetic than those of their younger counterparts. The standout scene is the one where Besserer wistfully looks at a picture of herself as she was 30 years earlier (the younger version of her character is played by an uncredited Joan Crawford), and Fawcett's somewhat surprising response. There's real humanity on display in that scene.

Eleanor Boardman does fine work, as usual, and looks lovely, but her character's motivations are somewhat vague. Creighton Hale's rather milquetoast character doesn't allow for much view sympathy, and Malcolm McGregor's character--well, he's certainly handsome, but that's about it.

What remains are some somewhat amusing scenes played for laughs (the gun scene, the bridge scene), a lot of talk through intertitles (I can imagine the stage play must have been quite witty), and a completely inexplicable conclusion. Really, I was following this storyline very closely until the end, when it just left me baffled. Too bad, because this would have been a nice chamber drama if the ending hadn't been sanitized.

The Fair Co-Ed

1920s College Hijinks
There are several extant films of the 1920s that focus on college life, which Hollywood seemed to define as little more than the social activities surrounding one big sports event after another. In this film, that sports event is basketball--and what may come as a surprise to many today, WOMEN's basketball. If nothing else, this movie provides a fascinating glimpse of the game as played in 1927 (you'll smile when you see the final score)--complete with turtleneck uniforms for the women players!

This is a Marion Davies vehicle all the way, but the character she plays is really not that likable. I'd compare "Marion Bright" to any one of the cocky, wisecracking characters played by William Haines in MGM films of the same time period. Yet Haines always infuses his performances with a kind of pathos that makes his transformation at the end more believable. Throughout THE FAIR CO-ED, Marion Bright is so belligerent and stubborn that it's hard to muster much sympathy for her in the "conversion scene" when she realizes the error of her ways. To be sure, Davies does fine work as a comedienne, but the script just doesn't allow her character's heart of gold to shine through, making her reconciliation with the team quite hurried and unbelievable.

On another note, who knew that 1920s youth slang was peppered with so many intentional archaisms (e.g. Elizabethan verb conjugations!), and that the use of the word "fly" (as in "he thinks he's so fly") was common parlance in 1927! The intertitles for this film, written by Joe Farnham, won an Academy Award in the first year of that prize's existence.


Excellent, irony-filled adaptation of Jazz Age story
I, too, was fortunate to attend the public screening of this recently-restored film at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Los Angeles. While I feel that some of the scoring choices on the part of the accompanying dance orchestra were inappropriate and distracting, and while I suspect that the projection speed was a bit slow (22 fps instead of 24), this is an excellent film adaptation (based on the original stage play) that can hold its own in comparison to the 2002 version (based on the Broadway musical). I should note, too, that this preserved print is the "roadshow" version, which means it is a longer version that was probably shown at the New York or Los Angeles premieres before being cut down for wider release in 1927.

Aside from the stellar performances of Phyllis Haver (sexy, vibrant, and even affecting) and Victor Varconi (stoic and sympathetic) as Roxie and Amos Hart, what struck me most about this film was its pervasive use of dramatic irony--a device that is eminently suited to this particular story. Whereas the Bob Fosse musical seeks to emphasize the power of the media in manipulating public opinion, this 1927 CHICAGO strikes me more as a comment on the ironies of life, both cruel and merciful. To name only one example (caution: spoilers ahead), the murder scene is exquisitely conceived: as a player piano hammers out a joyful rag, Roxie rashly fires a shot as her lover walks out the door. The bullet pierces a mirror on the door and reaches its target on the other side. As Roxie looks on in horror at the dead man on the floor, the piano continues, oblivious to the tragedy that has occurred. The cracked mirror, and the black stockings on the door effectively add to the irony of the scene.

This is a film that deserves a DVD release (at proper projection speed and with a top-notch score). If Phyllis Haver has been unjustly forgotten (the curse of Roxie Hart's fate), this is the film that, if marketed properly, could turn her into a bona fide 1920s icon. Talk about irony.

Desert Nights

Old fashioned melodrama for 1929
There's not much distinctive about William Nigh's direction of "Desert Nights," unless you consider anachronisms distinctive. This being a late silent film, you might expect fluid camera work, tracking shots, and other editing techniques that by this time so beautifully conveyed the eloquence of the silent cinema aesthetic. But with the fast approaching obsolescence of the medium it's clear from this film that MGM was only interested in turning out a filler product, and Nigh was willing to oblige. The result is a film that, were it not for the 1929 fashions and automobiles, has the look and feel of early 1920s desert melodrama. In fact, the film's one truly memorable scene, featuring a waltz, depends on the synchronized score for its notability--a sign of the movies' obsession with sound over visual storytelling.

John Gilbert, his career by this time quickly slipping through his fingers, plays the hero who is not given the chance to act very heroically. His metaphoric emasculation is evident from the amount of time he spends either tied up at the mercy of his captors or dying of thirst. He is denied almost every opportunity to display his physical prowess or to come to anyone's dramatic rescue--partly because there's no one around worth saving. The plot is full of holes (why didn't the crooks just shoot Hugh Rand instead of taking him with them?), and the unfortunate and abrupt loss of footage at the dramatic confrontation with Ernest Torrence spoils what should have been the climax of all that has come before it. We're left with a rather limp and silly conclusion back where it all started, with Torrence uttering the kind of line that surely inspired every Scooby Doo villain, and Gilbert safely back behind a desk.

On a more positive note, mention should be made of Mary Nolan, who brings a certain presence to an under-developed role. She and Gilbert do display chemistry in their scenes together (especially the waltz), and Ernest Torrence delivers a characteristically accessible and natural performance. He is truly one of the most engaging character actors of the silent screen. The print shown on TCM, while truncated, is beautifully preserved, and the synchronized score is generally quite good, again notably in the waltz scene. Finally, the film is worth viewing for John Gilbert. Though this film is ultimately beneath him and can't bear comparison to such greats as "The Big Parade," "The Merry Widow," "The Show," and his appearances with Garbo, he still conveys the wordless charisma that so defined him, but ultimately confined him to the silent screen.

Slide, Kelly, Slide

Ace Pitcher learns to become Regular Guy
William Haines stars as Jim Kelly, the Yankees' ace pitcher (who is also able to knock 'em out of the park—talk about versatile!) in this enjoyable baseball comedy from MGM. The picture was a tremendous hit for Haines, who made a career out of playing cocky, wise-cracking young athletic types whose large egos threaten to stand in the way of success until an attitude adjustment integrates them back into the fold. Other Haines pictures in this mold include BROWN OF HARVARD, TELL IT TO THE MARINES, and WEST POINT. In SLIDE, KELLY, SLIDE Haines does some of his finest work, mugging excessively when in prankster mode, but also surprisingly subtle in the quieter, more reflective moments. He gives Kelly the kind of real human qualities that make us like him, laugh at him, get annoyed at him, and of course, ultimately root for him.

Haines is also surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, all of whom make important contributions to the picture: Karl Dane as the lovable oaf, Sally O'Neil as the tomboyish object of Kelly's affections, Harry Carey as the girl's father and the Yankees' aging catcher, and Frank Coghlan, Jr. (billed as Junior Coghlan in those days) as the adorable orphan moppet who makes Kelly aspire to be a better man. These elements have all become cliché today, but watch this film with the eyes of 1927 movie-goers who thrilled to Kelly's happy-go-lucky antics even as they cheered him on in the inevitable ninth-inning climax, and you'll be swept along in its charm, too.

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