There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.
But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy. (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.
The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent. Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.
Of course, the bias is absurd. Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely. If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking. So why the fear of silents? Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein. Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 4, 2015
Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead, a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse. Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on July 26, 2015
If you stay up past midnight tonight, TCM will be screening an influential supernatural film about a violent alcoholic who at one point will grab an ax to splinter down a door behind which can be found his terrified family. And, yes, ghosts are involved. And, no, it’s not The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The film in question is Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, which was released in 1921. Fans of The Shining will be quick to notice that this is the same year printed at bottom of the iconic last shot of Kubrick’s film that shows us a black-and-white photograph with Jack Torrance frozen in time. [...MORE]
In case you missed the listings, TCM is screening Fritz Lang’s Metropolis this week—and users of the splendid TCM smartphone app can stream it at their leisure. I have a very fond spot for this film, beyond its significance as a masterwork of world cinema. I was a student at the University of Michigan’s Film and Video Studies program in the early 1990s when a previous restorations effort was unveiled at the Michigan Theater. In 2010 I was asked by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema to contribute to the UK Blu-Ray edition of the newest restoration, and got the special privilege of being one of the first people to see it.
Earlier this summer, the Chicago Symphony’s CSO at the Movies program screened the film with live accompaniment by the symphony, and I had the pleasure of taking my daughter Ann to see it with me. She had not seen the film before, and came out of the screening full of energy and enthusiasm for what she’d just experienced. It occurred to me that given that she’s blogged here before in my place, I should once again hand the keyboard to her to let her share her perspective. Click the fold below and I’ll let Ann take over from there—
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on June 28, 2015
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first masterpiece. It was critically acclaimed but a disappointment at the box-office. Dryer followed it with a second masterpiece, Vampyr (1932), which also failed to impress its investors, but this time he was criminally overlooked by the critics, probably due to the stigma that hounds the horror genre. Day of Wrath (1943) fared better, but due to its allusions to the tyranny of Nazi Occupation Dryer fled to Sweden and did not return to Denmark until after the war. Dryer grew up in a Danish foster home and was adopted by a newspaper typographer, and this later dovetailed into a career in journalism. In 1912 he got work as a title writer for Nordisk Film and for the next six years wrote many scripts before breaking out as a director. Dryer was influenced by Sergei M. Eisenstein’s work, but his films are in a class all of their own and have left deep imprints on many filmmakers, including Lars von Trier – who sometimes seems to be as haunted by Dryer as were all the people who worked on The Passion of Joan of Arc. [...MORE]
Back when I started my endless ramblings about the transition from silent slapstick to screwball comedies, I led by singling out Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp as a fulcrum point where screwball becomes imperative. So it’s time to come back to Harry Langdon, and indulgently celebrate what made him so gloriously awesome, even if his style of comedy was unsustainable over the long run. Harry, this one’s for you.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 31, 2015
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]
Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.
You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.
Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.”
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 31, 2015
Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).
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