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The Golden Chance

A good early DeMille film
Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), a seamstress from the slums, gets a chance at a better life when she is employed by a couple that hopes to woo a young millionaire (Wallace Reid) into a lucrative contract. However, unbeknownst to her employers and would-be-suitor, she has a thieving drunkard husband (Horace B Carpenter) who complicates things. Directed by Cecil B DeMille.

The story is generally engaging, although at times somewhat implausible, and with a rather rushed ending. Cleo Ridgely is quite appealing and sympathetic as the heroine, and Wallace Reid smolders and charms very effectively as the debonair millionaire. The acting by all is generally quite restrained and naturalistic, showing that even in the early days of feature films actors were capable of nuanced performances.

Director Cecil B DeMille and cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff make a very talented team, imbuing the film with distinctive lighting and shadow effects, as well as intriguing compositions (note the shot where Reid and Ridgeley kiss, which is done with the camera looking down briefly from above). By now they had emerged with a distinctive style, consolidating the successful elements at work in CARMEN and THE CHEAT (which also came out in 1915). A nice film, worth watching for silent movie enthusiasts as well as those who may be new to silent film. SCORE: 8/10.

Going Straight

Out of the past
Directed by Sidney Franklin. Norma Talmadge and Ralph Lewis star in GOING STRAIGHT (1916). A well-to- do couple, the Remingtons, happily raise their children in the suburbs of New York, but there is a secret from their past that threatens to destroy their happiness. Years before, both of them were involved in a gang of thieves. The husband served his sentence but the wife never got time. Years later, a member of the gang, Dan Briggs, runs into Mr Remington and blackmails him. How far will they go to make sure their past doesn't destroy their future?

This film was quite brisk and economical in its pacing. The plot takes some intriguing turns and presents the characters with difficult decisions. It plays a bit more like a modern movie - the story of a couple who have a past that threatens to surface is one that has been used more in recent films than in the silent era. One can feel sympathy for the central couple, and the narrative features enough layers to keep things interesting.

Norma Talmadge is very good as Grace Remington, acting with a nuanced naturalism that is quite remarkable. Where many actresses of the time would have done lots of clutching and bug-eyed gestures, Talmadge conveys her character's trepidation with the utmost realism. She uses her large expressive eyes to memorable effect, and gives a solid performance. Ralph Lewis is effective in his role as a husband striving to protect his family. He and Norma Talmadge have good chemistry together despite the obvious age difference. Perhaps most memorable of all was Eugene Palette in his role as the menacing Briggs. His body language, appearance, and overall air of criminal decadence seems like a foreshadowing of Robert Mitchum's performance in CAPE FEAR (1962). Palltte makes an unforgettable heavy, just shifty enough without overplaying. Child actor Georgie Stone is also charming and distiguished as Jimmy, a street waif whom Briggs uses for his schemes, but who finds a sweet and convincing rapport with the Remington children.

The direction was quite good, and the editing and cinematography were quite accomplished. There are some interesting touches, like near the end where Remington sees Briggs entering his house - this is conveyed through a reflection on the windows of a china cabinet. Norma Talmadge is given a number of expressive close-ups. Tinting is used effectively as well. One can see some of the influence of Cecil B DeMille in the use of light and shadow. Overall, the movie is visually striking.

My wife and I watched this film. She is not as into silent movies as I am, but has been good enough to watch them with me on occasion. She felt that the movie was quite interesting. In my opinion this would be a good picture to introduce newcomers to the world of silent film. Many have the idea of silents as hokey films with overly fast movement and acting of the stagger-and-clutch variety. This film would help to clear up misconceptions about silent movies and may fuel more interest in cinema of this period.

GOING STRAIGHT is an excellent film, featuring an interesting plot, memorable and nuanced performances, and accomplished cinematography and direction. Definitely worth checking out for silent movie fans, and even if you're not one, you may find it entertaining. SCORE: 8/10

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Classic Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford stars as Gwendolyn, an 11 year old who longs for the love of her wealthy parents, but has only the servants for company. Her attempts to find friendship and ease her loneliness lead to comic and touching situations. This vehicle was one of the highest grossing films of 1917 and consolidated Mary Pickford's stardom even further.

Frances Marion contributes a fine screenplay. Gwendolyn is an appealing character - she's not flawless, but she is very sympathetic. Mischievous, spunky and resourceful, yet also longing for love and tenderness, she is a memorable heroine. There are plenty of comic moments, like when Gwendolyn invites the organ grinder into the house, a mud-pie fight with neighborhood boys, her escapades in the bathroom, etc. And there are touching moments as well, such as Gwendolyn's visit to her father's office, and Gwendolyn's battle for life after an irresponsible servant gives her a poisonous sleeping medicine. A dream sequence near the end, while a bit lengthy for my taste, astutely plays on the movie's themes and shows a surreal child's-eye view of things in a delightful way.

Mary Pickford is very charming and believable. I had my reservations about watching Pickford, who was then about 24 years old, playing an 11 year old girl, but when she came on screen I was hooked right away. It's easy to see why she was such a big star - she is utterly charismatic, natural, spunky and witty, tender and moving, with a distinctive, luminous beauty. Charles Wellesley and Madlaine Traverse contribute fine support as Gwendolyn's parents. Wellesley is especially good in the scenes where he interacts with Pickford's character; he conveys a father who wants to reach out to his daughter yet is hesitant to do so. Gladys Fairbanks is fine as Jane, a domestic worker who has the unenviable job of trying to rein in the free-spirited Gwendolyn.

Maurice Tourneur, one of the most acclaimed directors of early cinema, makes this film a beautiful viewing experience. The restored copy I watched displayed beautiful tinting, moody, expressive shadows, and Tourneur's use of space to emphasize Gwendolyn's loneliness. The editing is seamless and no shots linger too long, showing the advancement that cinema had made since the beginning of the feature era five years before.

Overall, POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL is a classic of its era that has stood the test of time very well. The fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and poignant story make it worth watching. SCORE: 9/10

City Lights

A Jewel in the Crown of Silent Cinema
The transition from silent film to sound is undoubtedly the most significant change to affect the cinematic medium. The commercial success of 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER, the first mainstream film to feature talking segments, prompted other studios to either add sound segments to already existing silent films, or create full-length "talkies." The public eagerly embraced this new form, but not all were so enthusiastic to abandon mute film. Perhaps the most ardent promoter of silent cinema at this time was Charlie Chaplin.

Between 1928 and 1931, the number of silent features steadily dwindled until. In 1930 and 1931, Hollywood produced maybe 4 silent pictures, among the hundreds of sound features that came out in those years. One of them was CITY LIGHTS (1931). If CITY LIGHTS (as well as Chaplin's 1936 MODERN TIMES) serve as an epilogue or elegy for the silent era, it can also be said that Chaplin's film provides a passionate and effective argument for the aesthetic and emotional value of cinema without spoken dialogue.

Once again, Chaplin uses his Little Tramp character in a tale that blends humor with pathos. The Tramp makes the acquaintance of two very different characters - a pretty, blind flower girl who lives in poverty (stunningly played by Virginia Cherrill) and an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers) who only remembers the Tramp when he's drunk. Chaplin, who wrote and directed the film as usual, plays off of the contrast between rich and poor, and once again his Tramp character shows humor and resilience in the face of adversity. When he realizes that the flower girl is in dire financial straits, he does everything possible to help her, and an unexpected love blossoms between the two. There are many funny scenes here - the opening scene with the Tramp sleeping on the statue as it's unveiled, the Tramp and the millionaire attempting to dance in the restaurant, the comical boxing match - all displaying Chaplin's trademark command of visual humor. The flower girl is the emotional anchor of the movie - happy despite her blindness and poverty, she takes in the Tramp as well as the viewer with her incandescent charm. Neither she nor the Tramp have much materially, but their concern for each other illustrate how love can make every life better despite hardship.

The acting is superb. Chaplin could seemingly do no wrong on screen, and he shows humor, flamboyance, tenderness and warmth in his portrayal. The biggest revelation is Virginia Cherrill, in her first major film role. Cherrill is wonderfully natural, understated and charming, beautiful and luminous, the center of all of her scenes. She convincingly portrays the blind girl and contributes a performance full of feeling. The interplay between Cherrill and Chaplin at the end of the movie is extraordinarily moving and memorable. Harry Myers is funny and memorable as the millionaire whom the Tramp befriends.

Chaplin always employed a rather minimalistic style of cinematography as director. He didn't care to have the camera draw attention to itself, but used it to capture the story in a way that would emotionally involve the audience. Chaplin also composed the score, and it effectively draws out the right emotions from each character and situation.

Overall, CITY LIGHTS is a definite classic. SCORE: 10/10

Die Austernprinzessin

Absurdist Amusement
THE OYSTER PRINCESS (1919), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is a zany absurdist comedy revolving around Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) a spoiled America heiress, and her quest to marry a prince. Her father (Victor Janson), an oyster-shipping magnate, hires a matchmaker to assist. He finds a destitute prince (Harry Liedtke) who sends his friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to take a look at Ossi before he commits, but complications ensue when Josef takes a liking to her…

The story is pure, over-the-top absurdist satire of the idle rich. Anyone who thinks Germans have no sense of humor needs to see this movie! It is described appropriately as "A Grotesque Comedy", so exaggeration is the order of the day. Just about everything is, in modern parlance, turned up to 11 here, to skewer the entitled, indulgent lifestyle of the idle rich heiress and her father. There are literally armies of hundreds of servants to attend to Ossi's every need, particularly during the hilarious sequence where her maids dress and bathe her while Josef waits anxiously. Other highlights include the opening scene, where her father Mr Quaker dictates to a room full of secretaries while servants wait on him, the scene where Ossi destroys her room, the foxtrot scene, and a boxing match between girls that is played for laughs.

The performances couldn't be better. Ossi Oswalda shows great comic talent and loads of charm as the spoiled heiress. She takes a character that would usually be quite irritating and actually makes her empathetic and funny. Julius Falkenstein is also quite funny and effective as Josef, particularly during the banquet scenes. Victor Janson is also very good as the indulgent father, and he contributes some very amusing facial expressions. Everyone plays this just right – broad enough to show that they understand the ridiculousness of the scenario, but not enough to be detracting.

This movie is also very well shot. There is some panning and tracking, but for the most part visual interest is maintained through mise-en- scene (composition within scenes). Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl captures the large, opulent palace and the armies of servants in an inspired way. The camera work and editing really shine during the scene where Josef waits for Ossi – you see the mass of maids attending to Ossi as kind of an industrial assembly line, while Josef skips and jumps over the geometric patterns on the floor! The editing back and forth and the quality of the shots is really effective and funny here. The foxtrot scene is also a visual highlight, where the camera glides over the dancers and architecture. The banquet is another marvel, with the servants positioned and moving in a precise, military fashion.

Overall, THE OYSTER PRINCESS is a great success of absurdist satire, with fine comic performances (especially by Ossi Oswalda), a funny scenario, and inventive cinematography. Definitely worth checking out! SCORE: 8/10

The Toll of the Sea

Tragedy in Technicolor
Directed by Chester M. Franklin and written by Frances Marion. Filmed in 2-strip Technicolor. An adaptation of the opera MADAME BUTTERFLY, it tells the story of Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong), a young Chinese woman who finds a mysterious American stranger, Allen (Kenneth Harlan) washed up on the shore. The two fall in love and marry "Chinese fashion", but her "husband" has to leave for business and winds up marrying his sweetheart from back home. Meanwhile, Lotus Flower has Allen's son and raises him alone, pining for Allen to come back and waiting for him to return…

Interracial romance was a theme that was seldom touched on in early cinema, and when it was there was always a tragic outcome. This is shown in such films as BROKEN BLOSSOMS and various previous adaptations of MADAME BUTTERFLY, the musical SHOW BOAT, and others. It's interesting to watch a depiction of this theme as filtered through the sensibilities of the past. THE TOLL OF THE SEA depicts the negative viewpoints of society towards such romances, via the gossiping Chinese girls and the American businessmen who discourage Allen from taking Lotus Flower to America with him. (Interestingly, the one who was most sympathetic to Lotus Flower's plight was Allen's American wife.) The overriding message is that such relationships were doomed to fail because of racial differences and societal disapproval. The audience could enjoy the passion between the two leads, but they knew that tragedy was around the corner.

However, the nuanced acting in this film elevates it above maudlin melodrama. Anna May Wong is captivatingly expressive and subtle, admirably capturing Lotus Flower's intense joy and her restrained despair. Her screen presence here is comparable to that of Lillian Gish in Griffith's best films. I found Kenneth Harlan a little too subdued at times, but he displays his character's reticence effectively when confronted with tough decisions, and his performance is fine overall. Beatrice Bentley stars as Allen's wife, and she has a wonderful rapport with Anna May Wong, especially in the scene where Lotus Flower gives her son to Elsie so that she may raise him. Both actresses beautifully and realistically convey the feelings of loss and sadness at the injustice that Lotus Flower has suffered.

This film is most noted for featuring an early form of Technicolor. The two-strip process used at this time produces vivid, dreamy images, some with a soft-focus feel. The film could be shown through standard projectors. It makes liberal use of close-ups on the lovely Anna May Wong, and wonderfully captures the seascapes, rocky shores, and gardens of the story's setting. The end of the film, however, is missing, so during the process of restoration a new 2 strip Technicolor film was made of the ocean, and titles were created from Frances Marion's scenario.

All in all, THE TOLL OF THE SEA is a classic of silent cinema. SCORE: 9/10

True Heart Susie

Plain and Simple vs Paint and Powder
Lillian Gish stars as the title character in TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919), a bucolic romance directed by DW Griffith. Susie loves William (Robert Harron), but he doesn't fully commit himself to her. Susie makes sacrifices so that William can go to college and become successful. He comes back to town as a minister, and Susie expects that they will marry, but Bettina, a vibrant and modern city girl (Clarine Seymour) sets her sights on the hapless William.

TRUE HEART SUSIE is a quite charming film, a portrait of a different era with different values. Susie typifies domesticity, constancy and self- sacrifice, simple country values. Bettina and her friends, the "paint and powder brigade", represent the city life – fast-paced and artificial, enticing men with "suggestive clothing" and heavy use of makeup to emphasize the physical and superficial. Susie becomes insecure because of her appearance and determines to entice William with the same "paint and powder" and flashy dress as Bettina, and her aunt says that she looks like a "Jezebel"! So Susie changes her clothes and goes back to her normal simple look. It's pretty obvious which side will win out in the end, but William and Bettina's marriage proves an unexpected roadblock for Susie. Griffith could lay it on thick with his title cards in many films, driving home the moral of the story with sledgehammer force, but in this film he is comparatively restrained.

Lillian Gish again shows her acting prowess as Susie, a simple girl who shows herself to be very resourceful and self-sacrificing. Gish was one of the great screen beauties of her time, but she is quite convincing as the plain heroine. Gish is superbly expressive, nuanced and naturalistic, the only off moment being a bit of jumpiness that Griffith liked to induce in his leading ladies for some very strange reason. Robert Harron is also quite good as William, who is oblivious at first to Susie's affections, but then comes to realize his mistakes. Clarine Seymour is charismatic as the scheming Bettina, full of energy and mischief. Future Griffith leading lady Carol Dempster is effective in a small but important role as Bettina's best friend.

Longtime Griffith cinematographer Billy Bitzer again shows his mastery of the camera. The film has a warm, tranquil feel throughout, taking advantage of the beautiful country scenery and using different tints for day, night, and indoor and outdoor scenes.

Overall, TRUE HEART SUSIE is a charming film, a "small" film in Griffith's repertoire, but in its modest way, one of his most artistically successful. It features fine acting, a moving story, and it's lovely to look at. SCORE: 9/10

Hell's Hinges

A Gripping Narrative with a Haunting, Powerful Climax
A weak-willed parson and his pious sister are sent to the town of Placer Center, known far and wide as Hell's Hinges for its immorality. There, Blaze Tracy a local gunfighter (William S Hart) is won over to belief by the sister's sincerity. A battle of wills ensues between the faithful churchgoers and the rowdy townspeople, with devastating results. Directed by Charles Swickard, William S. Hart and Clifford Smith.

HELL'S HINGES is a more mature, serious brand of Western than many may expect. It examines religious hypocrisy in the form of the weak reverend, easily swayed into debauchery by the townspeople. It also features an anti-hero character in Tracy, who is not the typical affable good guy in white, but a violent, brooding man who is gradually won over to belief. The story is told in a compact, economical fashion, with not a wasted moment in its hour length. Each event in the story drives it to an unforgettable climax, full of action, where the tensions inherent in the story reach a cataclysmic boiling point.

The acting is uniformly excellent and naturalistic. Standouts: William S Hart was one of the biggest stars of his time, and he shows why here. Hart has genuine star quality, acting with ease and restraint but also displaying charismatic power in his role. Clara Williams is completely believable in her turn as Faith, the reverent sister of the wayward parson. I was impressed with her work in the previous year's THE Italian, and she impresses again here, displaying conviction and tenderness in equal measure.

Jack Standing is also fine as Bob Henley, a young man who was goaded into the ministry by his mother even though he doesn't have the right character for it. Another standout is Louise Glaum, one of the famous "vamps" of the period, who ably displays her seductive charms as a dance-hall girl who is urged to lead the minister to ruin. She conveys the character effectively without overacting.

The cinematography here conveys the barren emptiness and imposing landscapes of the desert. The editing enables the film to move at a comfortable pace. Especially notable is the end, where the tensions between the two factions literally explode into nightmarish frenzy, as the church, then the whole town, is set ablaze. The images in the ending are exquisitely captured, showing the movies' ability to iconize people and images, as the hero and his love walk from the ruins of the town to start a new life.

HELL'S HINGES is a memorable, powerful film from the early days of cinema, and merits viewing today. SCORE: 10/10

Terje Vigen

The Effects of Man's Inhumanity to Man on an Individual
Poverty, loss, revenge, and man's inhumanity to man are the themes that propel director Victor Sjostrom's film TERJE VIGEN (1917) (listed here under its English title A MAN THERE WAS). Sjostrom portrays the title character in this adaptation of a poem by noted author Henrik Ibsen. Terje is a sailor who supports his small family in Norway. A blockade by the English navy causes Terje to undertake a dangerous voyage to get supplies for his family, but he is caught and imprisoned. When he learns of his family's death from starvation, he becomes a broken man. One day he comes unexpectedly face to face with the captain responsible for his imprisonment, as he and his family are caught in a violent storm. What choice will Terje Vigen make?

The story is told in approximately one hour. Modern filmmakers could learn much from the economy and concision of these early features. The narrative is straightforward, simple and unadorned, with no padding or extraneous subplots, and the story is told most effectively. It uses title cards sparingly, and in a very interesting fashion. Lines from the original poem are displayed on the screen, then the action described in the lines takes place, and the viewer is able to follow from there.

The actors do fine work in this film. Sjostrom proves to be a fine actor in the lead role, imbuing his character with dignity, sorrow, tenderness, anger, and many other emotions. The supporting cast is also effective, particularly Bergliot Husberg as Mrs. Vigen. The actors show restraint and naturalism in their parts, largely avoiding the tendency towards big melodramatic gestures that marked contemporary theatrical productions.

Equally notable is the cinematography, which depicts both the beauty and the dangerous ferocity of the sea, as well as the starkness of the island landscapes. Sjostrom made very effective use of the Norwegian scenery, causing nature to become a character in its own right in the film. Tinting adds to the moody atmosphere. The camera is mostly stationary, according to the custom of the time, but the shots are very well composed, like paintings. In addition, the film is well edited, not allowing shots to go on longer than necessary.

This film was definitely very moving and memorable. TERJE VIGEN is a compelling and concise tale of the effects of man's inhumanity to man, and of the dilemmas that individuals face when tempted to cast compassion aside. It is rendered effectively through succinct scripting, heartfelt and naturalistic acting, and artfully composed cinematography. It is definitely a masterpiece of silent cinema. SCORE: 10/10

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Hitchcock Emerges
London is gripped by panic over a mysterious serial killer with a predilection for young blond women. Meanwhile, an enigmatic young man moves into a boarding house. Could he be the killer? Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The main star of this film is Ivor Novello, who was better known as a songwriter. Novello brings an appropriately enigmatic, shadowy quality to his character and only occasionally lapses into melodramatic gestures. He has a wonderful rapport with June Tripp, who portrays Daisy, a model and the daughter of the boarding house's landlady. Marie Ault and Arthur Chesney also do fine work as the owners of the house, friendly, then fearful of the potential killer living in their house. Also noteworthy is Malcolm Keen as Joe, a policeman who loves Daisy and is investigating the nearby serial killings.

THE LODGER (1927) is often considered Alfred Hitchcock's first truly distinctive film. Much of what would inform his later films is present here. Hitchcock creates a unique and unnerving atmosphere inspired by German Expressionism. His use of light and shadow in many shots is fascinating, and the editing is accomplished. This movie flows at a good, even pace; not a moment goes on longer than necessary. He shows his mastery of building suspense and anticipation. He uses modernistic design in some of the title cards in order to heighten the atmosphere of tension and dread. The movie's climax is riveting. The audience genuinely wonders as to whether or not this young lodger is capable of murder, and the actors effectively portray their characters' fear and apprehension.

Overall, THE LODGER is an effective start to one of the most distinguished careers in movie history, and merits viewing today. SCORE: 8/10

The Black Pirate

Great Fairbanks, Wonderful Color, Fair Direction
THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) tells the story of a mysterious figure (Douglas Fairbanks) who survives a pirate raid. Sworn to avenge his dead father, he takes command of the pirates responsible, and secretly strives to free the princess whom they have kidnapped. A power-hungry lieutenant who tries to incite the men against him complicates his plans. Directed by Albert Parker.

The script is quite interesting, following The Black Pirate's skillful command of his pirate band, as well as his resourcefulness and ingenuity. The scenario offers plenty of action – pirate raids, duels, underwater photography – as well as a little bit of rather unlikely romance that always seems to pop up in films like these.

Perhaps the greatest cinematographic interest is provided by the film's use of two-strip Technicolor. There are some lovely sweeping shots of the ocean and the ships at sea. The film could benefit from more dynamic editing and variety between close-ups and long shots during the other scenes, though. The camera work feels very restrained for much of the film's running time, as if the crew were aiming to evoke the tableaux style of earlier films. In my opinion this diluted the impact of the action scenes and caused the film to feel somewhat detached. The direction of the movie was competent rather than brilliant, and greater use of the cinematographic resources available at the time would have given the film more impact. After all, this was made in 1926, after such pioneering classics as THE LAST LAUGH and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. However, there were very dynamic moments as well, mostly due to the stunt work.

THE BLACK PIRATE boasts fine performances, particularly by the charismatic and athletic Fairbanks, as well as by Sam de Grasse, the lieutenant who chafes under The Black Pirate's leadership. There's a scene where the Black Pirate takes over a ship by himself, and the athleticism shown by Fairbanks is astounding. Billie Dove plays a fairly typical damsel in distress type as the Princess.

Overall, THE BLACK PIRATE is entertaining, but it could have packed more of a punch with more imaginative direction. However, the color cinematography is generally lovely to look at, and Fairbanks gives a splendid performance. SCORE: 7/10


A Sharp, Snappy Satire
CHICAGO (1927) is the story of Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver), a bored young housewife who kills her lover during an argument. She convinces her doting husband Amos (Victor Varconi) that she killed the man in self- defense. Amos goes to great lengths to save her from the noose, hiring oily lawyer William Flynn (Robert Edeson). Meanwhile, a slick reporter (T Roy Barnes) plays up her beauty and "innocence", making her into a nationwide celebrity. Direction is credited to Frank Urson, but in actuality Cecil B DeMille directed the majority of the film.

CHICAGO is an adaptation of a play by author Maurine Watkins, which was inspired by Watkins' own articles about the trial of real-life murderess Beulah Annan. The film is tight and well crafted. In particular, it's a sharp and merciless satire on unearned celebrity, societal double standards, and the hedonistic 1920s lifestyle. There are many laugh-out- loud hilarious scenes, including a scene where Flynn coaches Roxie on how to appear during his closing statement to the jury, and a scene of the photographer posing Roxie shortly after the murder takes place. Many scenes use exaggeration to make points about media sensationalism and lawyers' appeals to emotion, rather than truth, in order to exonerate their guilty clients. The humor is balanced by the dramatic portrayal of Amos' efforts to save his undeserving wife from the noose. Amos is the moral center of the movie, a decent man who is so in love with his wife that he is willing to break the law to save her, yet struggles with her murderous deed and self-centered, callous attitude.

The acting in CHICAGO is nothing less than excellent. Phyllis Haver makes a great lead, portraying the many facets of Roxie Hart's character skillfully. She shows equal comedic and dramatic ability. One could argue that Roxie is a sociopath, able to turn on the charm and the waterworks at will in order to get her way, but fundamentally lacking a conscience. Haver's portrayal of Roxie is perfect. I had never heard of Victor Varconi before, but he played Amos with great skill, sensitivity and restraint, turning in a very believable performance. The rest of the cast does fine work as well.

Visually, CHICAGO is top-notch, with skillful editing, fluid camera work, and meaningful use of visual cues. One instance of this is a shot of a crowd walking heedlessly on a newspaper with Roxie on the front page once her 15 minutes of fame are up. The visual style of the film points the way forward to the classic Hollywood style of the 1930s and 40s. This film came out the same year as landmark movies like SUNRISE, WINGS, and METROPOLIS, and even though it is not as celebrated as those visual marvels, in its way it's just as accomplished.

SUMMARY: CHICAGO is a skillful blend of satire and drama that boasts a razor-sharp script, excellent performances, and highly accomplished direction. The message of the movie has just as much resonance now as it did in its time. A classic! SCORE: 10/10.

The Man Who Laughs

The Sadness of Laughter
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) is the tale of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), who was disfigured as a boy as retaliation for his father's refusal to pay obeisance to King James II. With a blind foundling, Dea (Mary Philbin), he grows up to become a traveling performer. Gwynplaine is involved in court intrigue when an evil jester discovers his existence and plots an arranged marriage to control Gwynplaine's fortune as the heir to a lord. Directed by Paul Leni.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS movingly portrays Gwynplaine's plight as a man who is marginalized by society. His disfigurement controls his life in many ways. Crowds laugh at Gwynplaine for his appearance, and he feels that no woman can love him because of his face (except for the blind Dea). The script touchingly conveys the love between Gwyplaine and Dea, who only sees the inner man. However, I felt that the exposition lacked clarity when the story dealt with Barkilphedro the jester's intrigue and the reasons for the arranged marriage. Was the jester planning to kill Gwynplaine and take the money as his own? His motivations are not fully clarified, except for the fact that he is evil. On the other hand, maybe it was a plan to rectify things for Gwynplaine. I wasn't sure. The narrative drags a bit in places but comes to a pretty epic and satisfying conclusion.

As far as the performances go, Conrad Veidt is compelling as Gwynplaine, haunting and expressive even though required to hold his face in the contorted laugh to which the title alludes. Veidt is compelling, emotive and unforgettable in his role. For much of her role Mary Philbin doesn't get to do much other than smile and look pretty, but she does realistically portray a blind woman, a definite acting challenge. She does best in her scenes with Veidt. Olga Baclanova is very charismatic as Duchess Josiana, alluring, flirtatious and imperious. Cesare Gravina, who plays Ursus, the philosopher who takes Gwynplaine in, overacts in the Grand Guignol style, something that would be practically obliterated from film about two years later when the switchover to talking film was finally complete.

The production is moody and evocative in the German Expressionist style, using light and shadow, as well as camera angles, to heighten the feeling of the film. I was able to watch the original version with a synchronized sound track. The music was appropriately vivid, and sound effects were added liberally to the score – especially crowd noise and clanging objects at the fair. This can be rather jarring at times, since these effects often play alongside the music, even during love scenes! However, it is an interesting artifact of the pre-talkie era, as Hollywood was learning how to incorporate recorded music into movies.

Overall, the story was moving when it came to Gwyplaine's plight, although somewhat muddy when dealing with the intrigue. Conrad Veidt and Olga Baclanova give compelling performances, with good support from Mary Philbin, and the style of the movie is quite intriguing. A fine movie from the late silent era. SCORE: 8/10


Humor, Heart and Harold Lloyd
SPEEDY (1928) tells the story of Harold "Speedy" Swift (Harold Lloyd), a young man that floats from job to job while dating Jane Dillon (Ann Christy), who lives with her grandfather Pop (Bert Woodruf). Pop drives the last horse-drawn passenger carriage in New York City. Unscrupulous developers who want to use his track for a streetcar will stop at nothing to take it out from under him. Can Speedy save the day? Directed by Ted Wilde.

1928 was one of the last great years in silent film. The art form had reached a technical high point thanks to such films as FW Murnau's masterpieces THE LAST LAUGH and SUNRISE, William Wellman's WINGS, and King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE, which featured sophisticated cinematography and expressive acting. Many other films benefited from these innovations, and SPEEDY is one of them. Befitting its title, it features taut editing and vivid, fluid cinematography, using many tracking shots and shots from the front or the rear of a moving vehicle. We also get a wealth of wonderful location shots that show 1920s New York City in all its glory. No cheap looking back lot sets here; everything is REAL. And it makes a huge difference.

Most importantly, though, it's a hilarious movie with moments of tenderness and quite a bit of suspense. We get an outing with Babe Ruth in a speeding taxi to Yankee Stadium, and a hilarious mêlée between Civil War veterans and the unscrupulous developers, as well as genuinely exciting chases and rides to the rescue. The film makes a nice detour from the plot to show Speedy and Jane's eventful outing at Coney Island. It doesn't matter that it's not really part of the plot – it works because it establishes the characters and it's full of funny moments, like the painted fence, a persistent dog, and Lloyd's comical efforts to avoid getting his suit dirty that are nearly foiled at every turn. This movie is very, very funny, but it also has a lot of warmth too – like the scene between Speedy and Jane in the moving fan, sitting among the furniture and imagining their married life together, as well as Speedy's devotion to Jane and her grandfather.

Lloyd carries the film with his trademark good-natured, can-do persona, and he doesn't overplay either – he's very restrained and realistic. He holds it all together with his somewhat bumbling yet also quite inventive character, and his relentless optimism, which appealed greatly to 20s audiences and still does today. Lloyd and Christy make a charming couple. Apparently Ann Christy only made a few more appearances, mostly in Poverty Row efforts. It's a shame she didn't have more of a career – she's very likable and effective here, an appealing heroine. Everyone in the cast does fine work in their roles.

I could say more, but it's best to see it for yourself. SPEEDY hasn't gotten as much acclaim as SAFETY LAST or THE FRESHMAN, but in my opinion, as great as those two movies are, this one is even more so. A true classic. RATING: 10/10

Seven Chances

The Build-Up and the Payoff
SEVEN CHANCES (1925) is a Buster Keaton vehicle, wherein a young man receives an inheritance from his grandfather – with the condition that he marry on his 27th birthday. His quest to find a wife in time to make the deadline is the driving force behind this comedy. Directed by Buster Keaton.

This film takes some time to really develop its comic potential to the full. At first it proceeds rather slowly, but then the laughs slowly start to build up…and the payoff in the final act is spectacular. The various rejections he encounters in his quest for a wife are quite amusing. Unfortunately, some of the comedy relies on stereotype-driven blackface humor, which was considered funny at the time but is cringe- inducing now. In the last act, Keaton again shows his mastery of outrageous sight gags and athleticism, all done in his trademark deadpan persona. An ad in the paper brings many prospective brides to a church, and then the pastor convinces them that it was a prank, resulting in one of the most hilariously inventive chase sequences ever, treating us viewers to a raging torrent of hysterical sight gags and daring athleticism by Keaton. You'll have to see it to believe it. And the ending is just what you wished for, all done in a nice compact 56 minute runtime. SCORE: 8/10

The Last Command

Three Fine Performances Make This Film
THE LAST COMMAND (1928) tells the story of Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), a former general in Czarist Russia, who now works as a Hollywood movie extra. He is hired by a Russian expatriate director, Leo Andreyev (William Powell), who knows Alexander from years ago. A flashback reveals that the two were on opposite sides during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the relationship that developed between Alexander and a beautiful actress, Natalie (Evelyn Brent). Directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The movie basically sets up it premise within the first 10-15 minutes and then proceeds to an extended flashback which shows the general's life in Czarist Russia. For a while I thought that the film would go back and forth between the two settings, but it does not until the flashback is concluded. I found it a bit lengthy, but it does pay off in the end, and the final sequences of the movie have considerable dramatic power.

Emil Jannings gives a haunting, excellent performance as Sergius Alexander. In lesser hands, Alexander would be nothing more than a stereotypical tyrant and hissable villain. However, Jannings was one of the greatest actors of his time, and he imbues his portrayal with nuances that cause of to feel sympathy with the man and make us aware of his love for his country. Jannings is highly expressive throughout, and always compelling to watch. William Powell is also memorable, as he displays firm conviction in some scenes and an eerily calm, menacing quality in others as his character strives to humiliate Alexander. I had some reservations about Evelyn Brent's performance. She's good at giving dour glares, but the initial phase of her performance left me wishing she would find more facial expressions to display. However that changed when she gets the chance to play revolutionary firebrand, and a conflicted woman in love. Her performance at this point went from somewhat adequate to genuinely excellent. She becomes mesmerizing and totally convincing. I was quite impressed with the range she displayed.

The cinematography is effective, very solid and well executed. You get a feel for the contrast between the opulence in which General Alexander lived before, and the squalor of his surroundings once he had to eke out a life as a movie extra. The main draw here, though, are the performances from Jannings, Brent and Powell. Overall, the movie does require some patience, but it stands as a superior effort from the end of the silent era. SCORE: 8/10

The Freshman

A Harold Lloyd Classic
THE FRESHMAN (1925) deals with Harold Lamb's (Harold Lloyd) endeavors to become a popular man on campus, by joining the football team, only to find that the other kids think he's the "college boob". Still, with the support of his girl Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), he manages to show them all what he's really made of. Directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor.

This film was one of Harold Lloyd's biggest successes, and is now part of the National Film Registry. THE FRESHMAN represents the culmination of Harold Lloyd's development of his lovable nerd persona – clumsy and awkward, but plucky, full of spirit, and never quits. This had a tremendous appeal to 20s audiences and is still quite endearing today. THE FRESHMAN kickstarted a spate of college-based movies, and many movies to this day use the same kinds of characters – the nerd, the insensitive jock, the girl who sticks by the leading man's side even when no one else believes in him, etc.

The movie has some brilliantly constructed gags - just when you think they can't go on any more, Lloyd comes up with something else to amaze you. My favorite is the party in the hotel, which features a dizzy tailor trying in vain to mend Lloyd's tuxedo. Also funny is the scene where Lloyd's character has to make an impromptu speech to his class while wrestling with a cat.

Harold plays his character with his typical peppy charm, and Jobyna Ralston makes a nice love interest. Everyone here is effective in his or her roles and the film doesn't wear out its welcome. It's easy to see why this movie was so popular in its time, and it still has lots of comic appeal today. SCORE: 8/10


Remember? I think not...
My initial impression of the 2009 remake of "Fame" was favorable, having seen only the scene where the failed ballet dancer contemplated taking his life in a subway station. I was impressed by the directorial style, where everything around him faded into a distant noise as he became overwhelmed by his feelings of hopelessness and futility. This is, unfortunately, the most striking scene of the whole movie, and not really enough to justify sitting through it for a whole two hours (I saw the "Extended Dance Edition"). If the rest of the movie would have been made with the same care, it would have been much more resonant and enjoyable. Unfortunately it was not, and this is why I was so disappointed with it.

Upon viewing the complete movie from the beginning, I was taken with director Kevin Tancharoen's use of the cinema verité style in order to give the movie more of a documentary feeling. Unfortunately, his attempts at realism were severely undermined by the flat, one- dimensional characters, clichéd situations, and (for me) underwhelming dance and musical production numbers. Add to this the fact that the rather sloppily written screenplay attempts to cover too much ground for the movie's running time, trying to focus on so many characters that I was not able to really connect in a substantial way with any of them. The movie ultimately has a rather sterile, detached feel to it, and I found it difficult to really care about the characters because they came across as stock types (the shy, naïve starlet who comes this close to be taken advantage of, the angry inner city black youth, the selfish dancer who only cares about stardom). The production numbers did not impress me either, although Naturi Naughton did display an impressive vocal range and stage presence. This is especially worrisome to me, as I watched the "Extended Dance Edition". None of the dance numbers really stayed with me...I've seen better on shows like "Britain's Got Talent".

The more experienced actors (Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles Dutton, Megan Mullaly, and Debbie Allen) had little to do except for portray the teachers, which also come off as your typical authoritative/mean/condescending/inspirational stock types. The younger actors are fine in their roles, although not outstandingly charismatic or memorable. I can't really complain about the acting, though, since the script is so poorly conceived the actors simply don't have much to work with. Not even Meryl Streep and Laurence Olivier could have saved this one.

One thing I did notice was a direct rip-off of a scene from "Mr. Holland's Opus", which is, in my mind, a far superior film whose characters truly resonate with the audience - a student does a rendition of the old Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me," and is instructed by the teacher that she needs to have a better grasp of what the words mean. The scene is slightly different here, but couldn't they have at least have chosen a different song? This, to me, is symbolic of what is wrong with this movie - lazy, formulaic plotting, stock characterizations, and a poorly conceived script. There are so many characters on display that at the end of the movie, I didn't know what happened to all of them. What happened to the aspiring director at the end? Or the dancer's best friend (and it was news to me that they were friends until the end of the movie?) The filmmakers didn't even so much as put an epilogue on the end that you could read in order to figure out what became of the characters. Overall, I felt like the movie was a waste of my time. Disappointing.

The Kid

A Wonderful Film - except for one thing...
THE KID (1921) tells the story of an infant who is abandoned by his mother, and the poor Tramp (Charlie Chaplin, of course) who takes him in, as well as the joys and struggles that they face along the way. When the child's mother (Edna Purviance) becomes a famous actress, she decides to perform charity for others, which brings her in touch with the Tramp and her child. Directed by Charlie Chaplin.

THE KID is Chaplin's first feature, and is usually cited as a breakthrough in comedy for mixing humor with pathos, or poignancy and sadness. The story is fairly simple but told economically and skillfully – except for a detour into a rather bizarre "angels and devils" dream sequence that doesn't add anything to the narrative. It's really strange and I didn't find it particularly amusing. Except for that, though, the film is quite funny and moving.

Charlie Chaplin displays his usual charm as the "little tramp" character, but the real revelation here is Jackie Coogan, who plays the kid of the title. His performance is so natural and unforced, so real and vivid, that he went on to become a star during the silent era. The scenes where Chaplin and Coogan's characters are separated are downright heartbreaking, especially due to Coogan's vivid expressions. There are many comical scenes as well, involving the Tramp's window replacing business and his run-ins with the cops, and tender scenes in the Tramp's tenement apartment.

Chaplin shows a little more cinematic flair in this film than in many of his shorts, especially with the climactic rooftop chase, and he vividly captures the atmosphere of poverty in which his characters live. He uses undercranking at times to speed up the movement, an effective device that was used commonly in slapstick comedies. The editing is smooth and the print from the Criterion Collection is pristine, featuring the original orchestral score that Chaplin wrote for the film, which fits perfectly. Except for the jarring dream sequence, this movie is a marvel. SCORE: 8/10


An Impressive Debut by Josef von Sternberg
UNDERWORLD (1927) tells the story of love, betrayal and murder among gangsters in 1920's Chicago. Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), an alcoholic former lawyer, gets back on his feet when gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) takes him in off of the street. Complications arise when Weed's girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent) and Royce start to become attracted to each other, and when a rival gangster, Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) becomes increasingly antagonistic towards Weed. Directed by Josef von Sternberg.

UNDERWORLD was von Sternberg's debut feature, and it's quite impressive. This is basically the granddaddy of gangster movies, and you can see its influence in later classics such as LITTLE CAESAR and SCARFACE (the original 1932 version). Ben Hecht was the main screenwriter, so the movie emerges as a starkly realistic portrait of organized crime during the Prohibition. The film moves fast and doesn't waste time, clocking in at an hour and 20 minutes. It keeps you in suspense until the end.

The film also boasts fine performances. Clive Brook was very effective as Rolls Royce, a stoic, down-and-out former lawyer who strives to maintain what little dignity he has left and tries to fight his attraction to Feathers. He is quite expressive and believable. George Bancroft is also fine as Weed, alternating convincingly between boisterous charm and raw aggression. Evelyn Brent is adequate in her role as Feathers, though I felt she could have been a bit more expressive at times, but she does have good chemistry with Clive Brook. Fred Kohler is appropriately menacing and brutish as Mulligan, and Larry Semon offers a bit of comic relief as well.

The cinematography of UNDERWORLD shows considerable skill and accomplishment. Editing is smooth and fluid, and there are a variety of tracking shots, especially during a car chase sequence, as well as interesting camera angles and lighting. It's an impressive debut and one of the foundations of an entire genre. SCORE: 9/10

Sumerki zhenskoy dushi

Cinema in Transition
TWILIGHT OF A WOMAN'S SOUL (1913) tells the story of Vera, a reserved young Russian noblewoman who accompanies her mother as she provides charity to the poor. She meets a poor, seemingly injured man who lures her to his home under false pretenses and violates her. Vera struggles with the shame and stigma of this attack, and whether or not to disclose it to the prince whom she is engaged to marry. When she does, there are great consequences for both of them. Directed by Evgeni Bauer.

This film is Bauer's earliest surviving work, and an early example of the feature film (clocking in at approximately 48 minutes). The story is told in an economical and straightforward fashion, something from which this reviewer feels modern-day movie makers could learn. The actors here are effective in their roles, and one can perceive in this film a transitional style of film acting, between the dramatics of the stage and the more intimate, restrained approach demanded by the movie camera. Vera Chernova is particularly effective as Vera, showing all facets of her character's personality and emotions. I found her interesting to watch because she did use some graceful stage gestures, but was able to scale her performance down for the camera appropriately. A. Ugrjumov also does fine work as the prince, although he is a bit more given to big emotive gestures and expressions at times (but come on, this was made in 1913! Let's not be too harsh).

The cinematography in this film is also indicative of the transition between the tableaux style of earlier films, and the more refined cinematic approach that was being pioneered by DW Griffith and others. There are no close-ups, and the camera is stationary for many scenes. The takes can be a bit lengthy, although Bauer does show awareness of the impact of editing, and there is a flashback scene. Bauer does use expressive lighting at times, like when the deceitful Maxim sneaks into Vera's room. He also chooses some interesting angles for overhead shots, and makes use of double exposure during a dream scene.

Overall, TWILIGHT OF A WOMAN'S SOUL is an understated and haunting film, and it displays Evgeni Bauer's emerging talent as a director who is able to produce a memorable work of emotional power. It is an intriguing early feature film, and is worth watching for those interested in early cinema. SCORE: 7/10.

Kept Husbands

A Mixed Message
KEPT HUSBANDS (1931) tells the story of Dot Parker (Dorothy Mackaill), a wealthy young socialite who sets her sights on the hard working Dick Brunton (Joel McCrea), a supervisor at her father's steel plant. She bets with her father that she can get him to agree to marry her within four weeks. When she does, she uses her father's wealth to treat Dick to a life of luxury. Dick, however, begins to feel unfulfilled and trapped by luxury, longing for a simpler life, and tensions arise between the two. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

This pre-Code film shows an assertive young woman who isn't content to wait for the man to propose to her; she takes the initiative in the relationship. While this may seem rather tame now, it was revelatory to audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. It sends a mixed message about this, though, since Dot's character is eventually shown as a spoiled girl who will resort to manipulative and dramatic behavior to get her way. The title refers to Dick and another character, who both come to feel useless and unfulfilled because they live off of the wealth of their wives and family rather than the sweat of their brow, and are helpless victims of controlling women. So what are we supposed to take away from this, exactly? It seems to extol assertive women as modern while villainizing them as controlling at the same time.

It also touches on the clash between the idle wealthy and the working class, with the rich portrayed as elegant yet superficial, and the working class as rustic yet wise and loving (via Dick's parents). The characters aren't really defined that well. The script gets really silly in the last act, settling for a pat, forced conclusion

Dorothy Mackaill and Joel McCrea both do fine work in their respective portrayals. Mackaill shows intelligence and humor in her portrayal, and McCrea is refreshingly low-key and naturalistic. The supporting players also do effective work here, although I found Dick's dad a little on the stiff side. The sets are appropriately well furnished and luxurious. The cinematography and editing are well executed, not really outstanding but quite professional. It's somewhat entertaining as a pre-Code look at gender roles, but it sends a mixed message and is rather simplistic. SCORE: 6/10


Stanwyck Shines in Standard Melodrama
Barbara Stanwyck stars in SHOPWORN (1932) as Kitty Lane, a young woman who has to move to the city when her father dies after a work accident. She is taken in by her aunt Dot (ZaSu Pitts) and works in a diner frequented by college students who are always hitting on her. Unfairly, she acquires a reputation as an "easy" girl, and this complicates things when she falls in love with David (Regis Toomey), a wealthy young man whose selfish mother (Clara Blandick) will stop at nothing to prevent the two from marrying.

The plot of SHOPWORN is standard melodrama – boy loves girl from "the wrong side of the tracks", the good girl with an undeserved bad reputation, the overly possessive mother, the uppity disapproving blue bloods, etc. As such, there are very few surprises here and the peripheral characters are very one-note. The ending is rather predictable. There is also a misunderstanding (based on a lie) between Kitty and David that causes them to separate for a long time, and Kitty finds success as an actress in an unlikely plot twist. It does have some pre-Code innuendos that I found rather surprising, especially when the college students at the diner hit on Kitty. There are some witty exchanges between Kitty and David that make the movie livelier in spots as well.

The film is redeemed somewhat by the caliber of the performances. Barbara Stanwyck is always worth watching, and her charm, fire, wit and charisma help to bring some life to the rather cookie-cutter plot. Regis Toomey is good as David, sometimes a little cloying during the love scenes but effective when he defends his love and stands up to his mother. Clara Blandick plays the mother about as well as her character could have been played, revealing an unhappy, self-centered woman whose "love" for her son is mostly obsessive fixation and a desire to control him. The cinematography and editing are professional, if not outstanding, except for the first part where Kitty's father is killed as the result of an explosion.

Overall, SHOPWORN isn't really a great movie, but fairly serviceable and not very long (1 hour 12 minutes). Worth seeing mostly for Barbara Stanwyck's performance. SCORE: 7/10


Joan Crawford Shines in Adaptation of WITHIN THE LAW
PAID (1930) tells the story of Mary Turner (Joan Crawford), a department store employee who is unjustly accused of theft and is sent to prison for three years. After her sentence is over, she determines to get back at her boss, and becomes involved with shady grifters. She decides to concoct a breach of promise scheme targeting wealthy elderly men, and strives to make sure that her plans are executed within the framework of the law. However, she begins to think twice about her revenge later on, but her partners get tipped off to a robbery scheme that complicates things enormously. Directed by Sam Wood.

PAID originated as a stage play named WITHIN THE LAW, which had been previously filmed in 1922 starring Norma Talmadge as Mary Turner. This adaptation has the advantage of being a sound film and not silent, so that the dialogue of the play may be conveyed to the audience. The heroine is portrayed as a victim of injustice who has to choose between perpetrating an act of revenge, and being honest and letting the past go. For the first two-thirds or so of the movie, the plot moves along quite quickly, but the last act in the police station becomes rather talky and the film's stage-bound origins become much more apparent. However, in spite of that flaw, the movie keeps you guessing until the end as to how everything will be resolved.

Joan Crawford is compelling and charismatic in her role as Mary, showing the star quality that would enable her to remain a fixture in Hollywood for decades. Her acting style does show the marks of its time, but her performance holds up very well. Crawford is very expressive, particularly with her unique eyes. Robert Armstrong is solid as her partner in crime, and Marie Prevost provides a sassy presence and comic relief as one of Mary's fellow inmates who is collaborating with her scheme.

The cinematography and editing are fluid and professional throughout, with camera movement and effective composition of shots. There isn't a music soundtrack except for the beginning credits and the end, and some incidental music played by bands, as was usually the case with early talkies. The last act would have benefited from more contrast or intercutting between scenes, but it's fairly satisfying on the whole. PAID is worth checking out for classic movie lovers, especially for Joan Crawford fans and those who are interested in early talkies. SCORE: 7/10.


A Streamlined Adaptation with a Riveting Performance by Geraldine Farrar
CARMEN (1915) is Cecil B DeMille's adaptation of the famed opera, starring operatic legend Geraldine Farrar in the title role. Carmen is an independent minded, sultry Gyspy girl who agrees to seduce an idealistic army officer, Don José (Wallace Reid) in order to distract him from smuggling activity. José falls in love with Carmen and becomes part of a love triangle that leads to tragedy.

The script distills the essence of the opera into a movie that runs just shy of an hour, eliminating extraneous characters and focusing on the main plot threads. Carmen and Don José receive the most emphasis in this treatment. Geraldine Farrar had played this role on stage over 60 times before making the film. Farrar is truly mesmerizing, playing Carmen with abandon and verve. Her expressive performance and strikingly unusual beauty made it impossible for me to take my eyes off of her. She really embodies Carmen very well, teasing and tempting, then showing ferocious independence and an iron will. Although accustomed to the stage, where larger than life acting was the order of the day, Farrar successfully scaled her performance for the camera. It's a big performance, to be sure, but her work has its subtleties as well. Wallace Reid is also very believable as the once upright army officer whose love turns to obsession and leads to tragedy. Reid was one of the early superstars of American cinema, and he also proves very charismatic. There is undeniable and abundant chemistry between Farrar and Reid. Pedro de Cordoba also does fine work as Escamillo, a bullfighter who loves Carmen.

The work of the actors is in general quite well done, in line with the style of the time but not so much as to be laughable today. The cinematography is for the most part competent rather than brilliant, but there are touches of innovation here and there, like DeMille's fondness for chiaroscuro lighting. There is also some intriguing tinting during the scene in the bar where Carmen dances for José and his response arouses the jealousy of her real love, Escamillo. Close-ups are used sparingly, but effectively, particularly when it comes to Carmen.

Although lacking the grandeur (and, of course, the music) of the opera, CARMEN succeeds in presenting the main thrust of the story, and the main interest today rests on Geraldine Farrar's charismatic performance, as well as her chemistry with Wallace Reid. SCORE: 8/10.

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