Archive for the ‘SILENT PICTURE’ Category

The Oyster Princess

21 Oct

The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want To Be A Man — written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Comedy. Silent Black And White 1919/1920.


The Stories: A petulant rich girl defies custom and finds a mate.


The Lubitsch Touch is the external expression of the sense internal in what he does that sex and marriage and love are random, arbitrary, and capricious. That they are not so much a form of love as a form of greed, and as such somewhat ludicrous. Indeed, they are not even sexually oriented, for here we have the short film I Don’t Want To Be A Man in which the heroine, to have a good time, dresses up as a male and goes out on the town, where she meets her guardian, who kisses her rapturously and repeatedly as a male. Of course, he is tipsy, but that only means that liquor is a permissive for what is more easily inherent. When the truth is out, they kiss again as girl and boy, and she marries him without a qualm. “Without a qualm” is the secret. The fixed masculinity of certain males is the determined safeguard against what inwardly all males know: that the sexual machinery has no particular gender necessarily in mind. It just wants sex. It just wants an outlet.

All of this is a great tonic. It helps. The Lubitsch touch is a touch on the body that, as we watch, the body recognizes without being actually touched at all. The touch is freeing. And sex is light, fun, and forgivable. Indeed it is never to be blamed to begin with.

The Oyster Princess was one of Lubitsch’s big hits, and rightly so. It involves a spoiled brat rich girl who smashes everything in the house because she is not married. This is played by the same actress of I Don’t Want To Be A Man, a role which would be brought to perfection in time by Carole Lombard, indeed finally in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be. To say the present actress is a little crude would be an exaggeration, for she is very crude, so she’s a bit hard to take. Things don’t really smile up until the impoverished prince and his adjutant appear in the picture. Then we see Lubitsch seize the screen. He enjoys the two-dimensional symmetry of silents, and the joy of preposterous excess, which sex promises and sometimes delivers. I keep wanting him to make comic use of all those spectacular stairs, but he goes from crazy balls to insane banquets to ridiculous drunk scenes, instead. How does he do it? Easily.

How does he let off all those drunks with a light sentence? Watch him park them.

How does he let off this idiot adjutant? Watch him let him slip the knot.

How does he deal with that massive father? You’ll be impressed.

Anyhow, the comedy of silent films is the most fundamental human comedy, because it is based on the music of the human body admitting everything, including the mute effect of speech on our depth of grasp. And we do have the inter-titles, for sometimes the human body needs to be spoken to to know the truth. And accompanying us in this romp, a jolly musical score on the piano right in our livingroom.




21 Sep

Suds – Directed by John Francis Dillon. Comic Melodrama. A scrubgirl rides a magic horse to true love and salvation. 65 minutes Black And White Silent 1920.

* * *

Pickford’s Amanda Afflick is a reprise of a character from Stella Maris, but without the deformed shoulder. The face is a grimace, the mouth flattened, the eyebrows thickened. You would not recognize her as Amanda until the princess scenes, where she appears as the Mary Pickford we know. The real difference, however, is in the interior of the Stella Maris character which is another person entirely from Stella Maris herself. Here, in Suds, the actress instead gives herself over to large gestures and cartoon faces, even broader in the princess scenes, which is strange because Pickford was renowned for inventing screen acting as we know it today, a craft of interior and subtle registration. She also miscalculates the performance by crying, weeping, bawling, wailing at every slight and abuse. She leaves no room for us to participate in her situation. (See Judy Garland make the same mistake in A Star Is Born.) What does work is her execution of the physical comedy, which is imaginative and robust. The Extras include the three endings the film had, and a documentary on Pickford’s immense film career.







The Thief Of Bagdad

19 Jun

The Thief Of Bagdad – Directed by Raoul Walsh. Fairy Tale. A daring thief of old enjoys his calling no end, until the end, when he learns his lesson. 2 hours and 31 minutes Black and White With Color Filters Silent 1924

* * * * *

The style is Silent Gestural, with the body cocked back and the arms thrown wide and hair tossed rakishly. There are no small gestures, there are only gesticulations. And Fairbanks is an excellent actor in this style. No pose he strikes does he strike too long, and he knows that the purpose of the style is to provide the narrative with an exuberant foundation. This is one of the great silent films because of his keen acrobatic sense of himself in film, because of his fine physique which is bare to the waist at all times, and because of the irrepressible impudence of the character he makes for us. All this is played against sets of unheard of magnificence and spectacle, elaborate, yet quite spare and because spare, surprising. It is the film which launched the young designer William Cameron Menzies, and the sets are revolutionarily entertaining, as are the highly imaginative and varied costumes by Mitchell Leison (later to become a director). So in a sense there is not an ounce of spare flesh on either the actor or the settings, and these elements works brilliantly together. When you are not entertained by the one, you are by the other. Arthur Edison (who later filmed Casablanca and many another masterpiece) held the camera. But it is Fairbanks’ vehicle or rather he is its vehicle, as all this whizzes by this speed demon of a character, who never walks when he can stride and never strides when he can fly. After a bunch of establishing escapades, all of which are comic in a way which only silent pictures can make them, he sets out to woo, since after all this is a fairy tale, the princess. Never mind what happens then; we know there are dread feats to be faced. With his narrow glittering eyes, he accomplishes them all. He’s very good in love scenes: he’s perplexed, which means he doesn’t know whether she loves him or not; in nothing else is he uncertain. And opposing him is the Mongol Highmuckymuck aided by the princess’ handmaiden, played by the great Anna May Wong, who slinks. Fairbanks, however, bounds – with bowed arms always swinging in determination, so how can he lose. In the meantime, never have you seen such headdresses as on the men: hats the size of skyscrapers, turbans the size of hot air balloons, all towering above Fairbanks to make him appear like a boy, which at 41 he was. Raul Walsh was a master director of extras (see The Big Trail), and here he has several thousand, so it’s well worth waiting to the end of this, Fairbanks’ longest film, to see them moving through Menzies’ fantastic sets as Fairbanks wins the day.








Stella Maris

22 May



Stella Maris – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A sequestered rich girl wakes up to the reality of life in her love for a man also loved by a poor orphan. 84 minutes Black and White Silent 1918.

* * * * *

If you can accept the rubrics inherent in silent pictures as entertainment of a kind, you will likely have a good time with this film. The requirements of story-telling in silent pictures are different from what we have become used to in modern films, and the stories told, while, like ours, still melodrama, are executed on a different level of value, since, let us say, in black and white films, values themselves are more black and white. So patience with the unfamiliar is called for to enjoy what is before us. What is priceless is what the actors do within these confines, and Mary Pickford is an extraordinary example of genius and charm in dealing with them. Here she plays Stella Maris, a Happy Prince character preserved from the woes of this world because she is crippled. The character would be intolerable were she played for pathos, but Pickford plays her as happy, open, and without calculation. You never feel sorry for her. You only want to be in her company. But Pickford also plays another character, the orphan Unity, in one of the shrewdest portrayals I’ve ever seen an actress attempt, for she gives Unity a hunched shoulder which makes her appear also crippled. Standing together in the film, you would not believe they were being played by the same actress. Homely Unity’s inner life in no particular resembles that of pretty Stella Maris’s. Neither in appearance nor being are they the same person. And the actress is completely realistic and in the moment with both. Mary Pickford was the most popular female film star of her time; she was also the most brilliant businesswoman ever to work in Hollywood (She founded and ran United Artists); what is more important still, she clearly was one of the greatest actresses of her era.




12 Mar

Destiny –– directed by Fritz Lang –– a drama of redemption –– 99 minutes Black and White 1921

* * * * *

A lavish silent picture. The story of a young woman given three chances to redeem her lover from death. She deals with Death himself –– that Mephistophelean figure which the Germans seem to love –– and the three trials send her to foreign lands with the most elaborate sets and costumes imaginable. A beautifully made picture. It’s acted in the style of the silents with broad narrative histrionical gestures, but they work, because they are designed to, and they are needed to tell such a story. Don’t be put off by the style. It’s not old fashioned; it’s just a style –– mimetic, gestural, broad. Enjoy it for what it is and for what it does. Respect it. Lang is working on a mythic level here, and no medium in the world does this better than film –– for film more than any other art medium resembles dream.



The Phantom Of The Opera

30 Jan

The Phantom Of The Opera – directed by  Rupert Julien – Melodrama. An understudy at the Paris Opera is lured by a lurid beast in the basement. 92 minutes black and white with color scrims, silent with orcheatra sound track, 1925

* * * * *

I can understand why this is such a popular story. On the surface is beauty, sexual attractiveness, talent, popularity, successful employment, love, youth, and innocence. And underneath, in the dungeon of one’s being, is an isolated crazy monster who believes himself unlovable and who wants to control the whole show.  What a model of the human individual in adolescence. One is always drawn to sympathize with the monster, of course. At least, in Claude Raines version one was. But this is the Lon Chaney version. It had color scrims to enhance certain scenes, and it is well-augmented by the Montreal Symphony, with vocals from Gunod’s Faust. For it seems Mlle. Deea has made a pact with the devil, or at least is happy to be hypnotized by him and drawn into his scary sewer lair. So far so good, until, Psyche-like, she strips off his mask, and then, ugh! This is a silent version, and the story lends itself well to silence and to the style of acting silents used. For silent films were not movies. For the camera never moved. It was stationary, and, within static sets, the actors alone moved. This led actors into compensating with big gestures. Olivier called it The Bent Wrist School Of Acting, and there is a lot of big bending at the waist here, heads thrown back, wrist to brow. It may look corny or hammy or old-fashioned, but the question really is: is it well done, and here it really is. Lon Chaney throws one arm behind him, extends one up in front of him in and stalks out through the exit. Such gestures were meant to capture and convey big emotions, and they do. There is nothing small in anything here. Mary Philbin, the soprano, is very beautiful and Chaney, The Man Of A Thousand Faces, is really evil looking. He uses his hands so beautifully you think they are beautiful, for every detail here is advanced into the realm of spectacle. We begin with a zillion ballerinas, the huge foyer of the Paris Opera House, tons of extras in astounding costumes dancing with flagrant abandon, and mobs of  audience inside the theater and out of it. The story has many variations, and this is a highly professional one of them.



Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown

28 Jan

Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown —  directed by Frank Captra and Harry Edwards. Three broad comedies: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Strong Man; Long Pants.   193 minutes blck and white 1922 and later.

* * * * *

Harry Langdon was tapioca pudding buttoned up in a tight little jacket. Wry bee-stung lips, white makeup, wide-spaced eyes beady and alert as a chipmunk. He was a child-size man with a child’s responsiveness to life, a responsiveness physically and emotionally more subtle than Chaplin’s. The entire body is always engaged differently, unlike Chaplin’s which as the little tramp was broadly kinetic and always the same. Tiny men both of them, Langdon seems smaller, a pipsqueak, and like Chaplin and Keaton, heroic. I find him very very funny. And always surprising. See him in this Strong Man picture defend his honor from a female rapist! See his scene in the bus with a cold. See the little bows he takes as the strong man at the end.  Watch his eyes. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the second feature puts him in a crosscountry walking race. See the cyclone scene!  See the cliff hanger scene!  See the scene in the bassinet!  I fell off my chair laughing. Watch his contortions when he first lays eye on his dream girl, the ever-gauche Joan Crawford (age 23). The picture is set up in long sequences, and they’re wonderful, and only in pictures and only in silent pictures would they work. The third piece, Long Pants, I found less amusing, but still… See him, he’s a find: the Pierrot of silent film, The Great White Clown. A master.



Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley & The Dream

25 Jan

Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley & The Dream – Broad Comedy. In the first, a laundress and her family is invited into the parlor of the upper-crust. In the second, a devoted housewife is mistaken for a raving tart by her drunkard husband. 67 minutes. black and white, silent.1918 & 1911.

* * * * *

She was a charming actress, understated, quick, responsive, and not so pretty as a picture as to give offense. America’s Sweetheart was not readily cast as a vamp, but in the second of these two films, the 10 minute The Dream, she turns from the dutiful wife to the flagrant babe, kicking over the traces. Amarilly is a story that remained with us right through Pretty Woman, and was played out by Laurette Taylor, Joan Crawford, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and any actress who could convey the lower classes moving into the upper classes. These stories always have an immigrant settling, for they were made in the day when many Americans were just arrived or first generation. Nowadays, for the most part, we no longer have that background. This one is Irish-American, and it’s a comedy played in broad strokes. It is interesting to see how the acting style resulted from the fact that the camera did not move and the action was played against a single set. This seduced the actors to move a lot, as in The Dream. Pickford wisely remains restrained. It also drove the actors into necessary improvisation, and they were very good at it. I admire their gusto and willingness. I think you will too. Just don’t judge it by today’s standards — except for Pickford, who is as modern an actress as one could hope for. Don’t confuse the role with the actress. See her. It’s likable to like someone as likeable as Pickford, and you’ll like yourself for it. It’s the secret of her vast and still valid success.



The Oyster King — I Don’t Want To Be A Man

31 Dec

The Oyster King  [1919] & I Don’t Want To Be A Man [1921] — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — Two comedy black and white silent features by the great master of film comedy. In the first, a tycoon’s spoiled daughter makes her father find her a prince for a husband. In the second a spoiled young lady dresses in men’s evening clothes and ends up having an adventure with her guardian.

* * * * *

The Oyster King is radiantly funny. Lubitsch calls it a grotesque farce, which it is, in the Ionesco sense of farce. The story moves along lickety-split from one spectacularly funny development to the next. Ossi Oswald is the young lady in both films. She’s a comedienne from the Betty Hutton School Of Acting — but then, in those days, they all were, weren’t they? She’s a stocky little soubrette and fully engaged in all and everything, so the film is carried forward by her and by Lubitsch’s master hand at movie-making. He has the ability to engage the audience in the scene and participate as a teller of the story. That is, Lubitsch gives the audience full credit for intelligence and willingness for fun. I, for one, delight in his confidence in me. The Oyster Princess was a famously successful picture in its day, and, seeing it now, I do not wonder why. I laughed myself silly. I Don’t Want To Be A man is played by the same actress, Ossi Oswald (who is called that in both films). Once again she plays the spoiled society girl. Whereas the first film is a satire on American money, this one is more European in the aim of its comedy, with considerable footage given over to a man kissing another man — who is actually a woman in disguise. Well, you see what you are in for here. The astonishing sets by Richter spell vulgar luxe in hilariously large letters. The music accompanying the films is very deft and funny as well and so are the titles. They are both a great lesson in visual comedy, not pantomime, as in Chaplin, but something else. Later he was to direct Trouble In Paradise, Ninotchka, and To Be Or Not To Be — two of the funniest films of the prewar era. End that old depression: rent ’em and rent this.



Blood And Sand

24 Oct

Blood and Sand – directed by Fred Niblo. Romantic Melodrama. 80 minutes Black and White 1922.


The Story: A cobbler’s son becomes a Spanish matador, marries his true love, and then is made the plaything of a rich masochist widow.


Well, there he is, Rudolph Valentino, looking pretty good in a suit of lights. He was the screen lover of all time, and women went mad for him. It’s a bit hard to see why. Not because he isn’t good-looking or a good actor, for he is both, but because you have to grow up with someone to become that sort of mad fan of them. Your sexual maturity has to correspond with theirs. You have to see something in them at just the moment when you need to see it, and become entranced with its reappearance from film to film.

Valentino has a somewhat fleshy face, a beautiful mouth when it’s in repose, a long jaw line with perfectly flat cheeks, the right one adorned by a little scar, a thick nose, a brow high and broad with long eyebrows which bracket his eyes like eaves. The eyes are large, long, wide-set, and the left eye is slightly larger than the right. He has a great ass. He uses his figure for effect, but he never uses his looks for effect.

As an actor he has the problem all actors of that era had, which was to hold emotion in place to make the sure the story was being spelled out. This created by a false tension, almost as tableau. But otherwise he is easy in his work, natural, interesting in his choices and details, and you remain attentive to him because the camera dotes on him, since he is, after all, the focal character. It’s his story.

It’s a story which never works because no actor can actually play the ignorance and country bumpkin naiveté required as the basis for the character as he gains in worldliness, wealth, and sexual access. Tyrone Power years later is flaccid in the role; Anthony Quinn should have had the part, instead of the gigolo to Donna Sol, played by the incontestable Rita Hayworth.

Nita Naldi in the part in the present film doesn’t quite stack up as a femme fatale. She is matronly of figure and so the relationship between her and Valentino doesn’t wash, although Valentino is excellent in the emotional outskirts of the part. It’s one of those tempestuous relationships you have to suppose it is true because the story depends upon it and says it is true and because it is acted out in front of you.

But as a parable the story plays beautifully and always will. Valentino is 27. His technique is modern, and, more, you actually want to engage with him. It is the sine qua non of big movie stars, and the only reason to watch him now. He is rare. He died at 31.


Beyond The Rocks

12 Oct

Beyond the Rocks — directed by Sam Wood — subjecting herself to the needs of her family the lady marries for money, but falls for a valiant aristocrat — oh dear!  Black and white, silent, 1922.

* * * * *

Gloria Swanson was an odd looking little person, with a big hatchet face, cruel lip rouge, and a dazzling overbite. Rudolph Valentino’s eye makeup would make a tall man topple. The oddity of their apparitions on screen matched nothing in the movie goer’s daily life. Swanson was no taller than a footstool and had no figure. True,Valentino had beautiful shoulders and looked super in suits. But what was their appeal? It was, I think, that acting was in their bodies, and their contemporaries were young when they were young. For these two acting was a matter of embodiment. Swanson was a movie star at — what? — age 14 or 15? She was never a jeune fille. Essentially she was not a leading lady either, but a star soubrette. (Jean Arthur is the type. So is Reese Witherspoon) But the point is she could act because she could respond inwardly and naturally to what was being thrown at her. She was real. Valentino, being a male, was going to be a less good actor than she, but he had the same ability to respond. In this picture, there is a moment in a garden in a dream scene from the 18th Century in which he takes her hand and kisses it and lays his cheek upon it. It is one of the great moments in all cinema. No  wonder the ladies fell for him. Such vulnerability is as rare as rubies. You’d have to go to Montgomery Clift’s dance with Anne Baxter in Hitchcock’s “I Confess” to see again how a heartthrob is created in one moment forever. I found the film fun, and I expected it to be expected and it is, so that’s all right. The accompanying material is wonderful. The story of the Collier Brothers man who owned the long-lost print is exceptional. Swanson’s voice-over on the re-run holds the key to acting for all actors: she believed! Listen to her, and never forget.


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