Sherlock Holmes (1916): Romance of the Impossible

William Gillette Sherlock Holmes“MARRY HIM OR MURDER HIM OR DO WHAT YOU LIKE WITH HIM.” With this 1897 cable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle placed his most famous creation in the hands of another. It was a shrug for the ages, a non-decision that would forever shape the public’s perception of Sherlock Holmes.

The telegraph’s recipient, American actor and playwright William Gillette, took Doyle at his word and recast the immortal detective as such stuff that matinee idols are made of. He turned Holmes, an object of curiosity and awe, into an explicit, if unlikely, object of desire.

Gillette opened up the Holmes character for generations of actors to come by giving him flexibility and humanity. He proved that the sleuth was not only fascinating on the page, but also bankable on the stage—and screen.

The Reappearance of the Reels

In 1916, with over a thousand performances of his theatrical hit Sherlock Holmes behind him, 63-year-old Gillette traveled to Essanay Studios in Chicago to shoot a movie adaptation. It would be his first and last performance in a feature film.

And, for almost a century, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes went unseen. Until last year, when a nitrate print of the film—long presumed lost—turned up in the Cinémathèque Française’s collections.

Last month at New York’s Film Forum, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Sherlock Holmes, lovingly restored by Flicker Alley and tinted according to handwritten notes on the original negative, with live accompaniment.

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Now, when a film reappears after so long a hunt, the initial jubilation yields to creeping anxiety. The question begs to be asked: “But is it any good?” The possibility of disappointment runs high. Of course, all movies have value as documents of their time, but entertainment value? Not necessarily.

So, let me say this at the outset (well, sort of). I had high expectations for Sherlock Holmes. And I loved it.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, Sherlock Holmes packs enough action, intrigue, and humor to show even skeptical modern viewers how delightful an early feature film can be. Kidnappings, tense confrontations, sinister lairs, nasty henchmen, cunning disguises—you can expect all the ingredients of an exciting thriller.

From the “lowest and vilest alleys in London” to the “lonely houses” of the countryside, Berthelet conjures up a bygone world both warmly nostalgic and fraught with peril. Characters rove the smoky, burnished universe of Doyle’s canon, instantly familiar to a century’s worth of readers.

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The cast’s wildly uneven approaches to movie acting add some unintentional amusement to the film, but don’t generally detract from the story. The extremes on the melodrama-to-naturalism spectrum balanced each other out neatly, pitting caricatured miscreants against more subtle good guys.

Taken as a whole, Sherlock Holmes is a treat. But the film is ultimately a fine gold setting for the star sapphire that is Gillette’s performance.

A Study in Sherlock

It seems nothing short of miraculous that a man who’d never before acted for the camera could deliver such a compelling screen debut. However, throughout his stage career Gillette won a reputation for subtlety, and his celebrated style of underacting transitioned seamlessly to cinema.

He inhabits the role of Holmes, body and soul. Doyle wrote about eyes that “fairly glittered” and a body that can spring “like a tiger” and let readers’ imaginations do the work, but Gillette made Holmes real in a way that satisfied legions of fans. As Orson Welles remarked in 1938, “It is too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”

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Indeed, Gillette not only lent his aquiline profile to the character, but also contributed to the public image of Holmes by adding the drop-stem pipe and the lavish dressing gown. He also adopted the iconic deerstalker and ulster jacket and made them Holmes’s uniform for outdoor scenes.

Although this costuming decision would’ve been a faux-pas in Victorian England—Country attire in the city? Quelle horreur!—it reflects the character’s worldview perfectly. The city is the detective’s hunting ground. He stalks his prey through the mean streets of London just as a country squire would track a fox in the forest.

More important, Gillette (even in his sixties) translated Holmes’s languid yet powerful physicality into flesh. His Sherlock can believably stride unarmed into a criminal’s headquarters and, with one intimidating step forward, slap a gun out his foe’s hand, making the bad guy draw back in fear.

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In writing and acting Holmes, Gillette also distilled and elegantly evoked the personality traits that have defined every major interpretation of Sherlock Holmes since: incandescent arrogance, brooding melancholy, inventive eccentricity, rigorous focus, and, of course, massive intellectual acuity.

When the spectator first sees him in the film, Holmes is wearing a white lab smock, pouring chemicals from one flask to another. Flames leap rhythmically upwards with each careful drop he adds. Such is the precision of Gillette’s timing that this display of chemistry elicited chuckles from the Film Forum audience. This introduction also echoes the first time Watson lays eyes on Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, heating test tubes over Bunsen burners and exultantly crying, “I’ve found it!” From the beginning, Gillette grounds Holmes the modern myth, Holmes the Victorian superhero, with a sense of wit and whimsy.

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Throughout the movie, Gillette infuses humor into the story through Holmes’s sardonic conceit, his slight swagger, the glimmering pride that endears him to the audience.

Surrounded by thugs, Holmes practically yawns in boredom, “All of these maneuvers have been entirely commonplace. Can’t professor Moriarty show me anything new?” Then the lights go out and, in the blackness the point of light at the tip of his cigar traces zigzags around the screen, a ruse to distract the baddies while he escapes. This puckish cinematic touch conveys the quirky brilliance of Holmes’s mind.

In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, Holmes cheerfully defies Moriarty when the menacing nemesis barges into his flat. Ernest Maupain’s fuming, grimacing, scenery-chewing turn as the Professor fares surprisingly well, since his over-the-top malice contrasts with Gillette’s underplayed strength. When Moriarty leaves in exasperation, Holmes kicks one leg up on his ottoman in a stance of sublime nonchalance and triumphantly puffs smoke from his pipe. It’s the gestural equivalent of a “sick burn.”

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Gillette engages the new medium with virtuosic intimacy. This is a man who transforms the act of taking off gloves into a cinematic event.

The challenge of playing Holmes lies in visually communicating his formidable logic and intellect. Any adaptation runs the risk of getting bogged down in talky deductions or of excluding the viewer from the processes of the detective’s mind. The 1916 Sherlock Holmes avoids both pitfalls, since the lightning-fast current of the great detective’s thoughts expresses itself through Gillette’s elastic face and posture—sometimes changing at breathless speeds, sometimes freezing into a tightly-coiled enigma.

Most daring of all, Gillette took Holmes the “automaton” and gave him a heart.

The Case of the Lovelorn Detective

You can think of the movie’s plot as Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits. It cobbles together elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Copper Beeches,” “The Final Solution,” and other Doyle stories along with some of the old standbys of stage melodrama. (The surviving version of Sherlock Holmes also displays the influence of the policier serial, since French distributors chopped the narrative feature into multiple parts.)

Spirited Alice Faulkner inherits a packet of incriminating letters from her sister, who’d been seduced and discarded by a European prince. Mr. and Mrs. Larrabee, leaders of a notorious band of criminals, overhear Alice refusing to sell the letters to the aforementioned caddish potentate. The dastardly duo befriends poor Alice then whisks her off to a secluded estate. Though a virtual prisoner, the clever girl hides the letters before her captors can get at them.

Hired to retrieve the letters, Sherlock Holmes storms the villains’ stronghold and discovers the documents. Yet, confronted by Alice’s fierce loyalty to her sister, Holmes falters. He cannot bring himself to take the letters by force.

Wait, what? The man who “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer”?

Indeed. There are two things going on here, both of which I approve. First, Holmes respects a woman as—get this—a human being with rights and opinions of her own. Second, that respect blossoms into love.

Some might argue that any emotional involvement is a bad move for a Sherlock adaptation. This line of reasoning suggests that Holmes is inherently rational and thus cannot be romantic without betraying his primary attribute. I disagree.

Gillette Sherlock Shooting UpAbove all, Holmes thirsts for complexity. He yearns for new sensations, stimulations, diversions, preoccupations, “all that is outside the conventions and humdrum routines of daily life.” This is a man so addicted to excitement that he’ll pick up a grisly 1890s hypodermic and jab it into his vein to deliver a rush of artificial elation—three times a day, mind—rather than risk boredom.

The great detective regularly shoots up, yet recoils from emotion, lest it interfere with the delicate apparatus of his mind?

Please. Love can’t mess you up any worse than cocaine, Sherlock. (Probably.)

By forcing the great detective to wrestle with his emotions, Gillette used Holmes to explore the dilemma of the quintessential modern individual: he’s hyper-aware of life all around him, yet emotionally disconnected. Gathering data to grasp the big picture, the sleuth shuns the messy mysteries of human experience.

Perhaps Holmes and cinema were meant for each other: the man who’s uncannily like a machine and the machine that produces uncannily lifelike illusions. But if art can come from a contraption, then love can certainly come from “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” as Watson describes Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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The romance unfolds organically within the plot. It builds up not to a love scene but to a third-act confession that brings together Holmes’s two most significant relationships: his growing bond with Alice and his longterm friendship with Watson.

Holmes explains how he’ll let Alice decide the fate of the letters. “Holmes, my good man, you’re in love!” Watson chuckles. The sleuth starts to protest. Instead, he glances down. Bashfully, he puts a hand on his friend’s jacket pocket, close to the heart. Then he looks Watson in the eye and nods, as if to say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

This small gesture produced gales of rapturous, approving laughter from the audience I watched with. Gillette paces the reaction beautifully, tenderly. By recognizing his feelings for Alice, Holmes doesn’t distance himself from his comrade. Instead, he shares a hitherto-unsuspected piece of his humanity with the good doctor and deepens their confidence.

One understands that Holmes has found the excitement, the tingle, the sense of stimulation he’d been seeking for so long in a romance of the impossible.

His Zen-like detachment yields to his “love of all that is bizarre.” And what could be more bizarre than Sherlock in love? That is the paradox, but, let’s face it, Sherlock has never been one to shy away from paradoxes.

Just as the immortal sleuth returned from his presumed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls to continue his adventures, the 1916 Sherlock Holmes came back to us from the land of the lost to enchant a new generation. The game’s afoot again for Gillette’s detective, and it’s an adventure to remember.

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The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Just Dandy: The Art of Max Linder

maxyHe was the first international movie star. The man Charlie Chaplin called his “professor.” A visionary writer-director.

And in 1925, Max Linder—sickened by war wounds, maddened by post-traumatic stress, and increasingly neglected by the audiences he had once delighted—died by his own hand. It was a very sad end for a very funny man.

Linder deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for refining that curious alchemy that we now recognize as great screen comedy. His cocktail of uproarious pratfalls, farcical situations, surreal gags, and wistful, tender humor was utterly unlike anything that came before.

Over the course of hundreds of film appearances from 1905 to 1925, many of which he directed, he developed a signature mischievous, urbane style of physical comedy. In a 1917 interview, the comedian himself commented on this intentional, yet intuitive mix of high and low: “I prefer the subtle comedy, the artistic touch, but it is a mistake to say I do not use the slapstick. I do not make it the object; I do not force it; but I employ it when it comes in naturally.”

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Max Linder shows his affection for cats of all sizes.

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At five-foot-two, Linder looked tiny even in his splendid high hat. His dainty features, his fussy feline mustache, his spindly legs, and his glistening immaculacy of dress all gave the diminutive comedian the aura of a pretty wind-up toy. Such a comedic creation, a dapper, accident-prone bourgeois, could easily have fallen into the sort of frivolous comedy that sours as quickly as cheap champagne. However, Linder endowed his Max with a romantic fire and a befuddled enthusiasm that transcend time.

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Linder understood that only a proper man could ever truly be improper. In his full regalia, he dazzled viewers with head-to-toe elegance at the beginning of his films—and wound up sullied almost beyond recognition by the end of the reel. He didn’t look like the sort of man whose shoes would catch on fire, who would end up sharing a cage with a lion, or who would get trapped on the fender of an automobile. Which made it all the funnier when he did.

Unlike raffish Chaplin, woebegone Keaton, or boy-next-door Lloyd, Linder infused his onscreen persona with an upper-class whimsy. He does what he does not necessarily because he has to, but often because he damn well feels like it.

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Max wants to be a bullfighter? He grabs a rug hanging out to dry nearby and brandishes it like a matador, imagining an unlucky oncoming cyclist as his bull.

Max wants to woo two women? He does—and somehow in the process punches a friend, clocks a stranger on the head with a rotten apple, and starts a duel.

Max wants to take a bath? He can’t get the huge tub into his room, so he deposits it in the lobby of his apartment building, scandalizes the other tenants, and ends up fleeing the cops with the porcelain tub on his back like a turtle’s shell.

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Linder’s screen Max is a miraculous bungler, a sprite, a magical creature who happens to frequent mundane places of respectability. In his top-hatted silhouette, seemingly on equal terms with the Eiffel Tower in “L’anglais tel que max le parle,” we recognize a kind of transitional icon, the bridge between chivalry and modernity, between the 19th century gentleman and the 20th century superstar.

There is something heroic in the quixotic desires that stir him. And life imitated art. We’re talking about a man who wore three different suits per day and travelled with 46 trunks of clothes and accessories. Who fought a bull in Spain—and won to the joy and amazement of ecstatic crowds. A man who, although he could’ve avoided military service, volunteered for his country during World War I and had to be practically blown up, frozen in an icy bomb crater, shot twice, and reported dead before he would accept his honorable discharge.

His beautiful impracticality, his slavery to caprice, his cavalier courage all make him a true dandy and a great artist.

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Stand in front of an oncoming train? Pas de problème. Wear ugly boots? Quelle horreur!

In his pre-WWI short films, Linder already showcased a guillotine-sharp knack for conceptual, innovative gags. In “Le roman de Max” (1912), for instance, our man-about-town arrives at a hotel resort at the same time as a beautiful woman. We feel the electricity between the strangers as they wordlessly walk side by side up a series of staircases and lodge in adjacent rooms. However, no sooner do they place their dirty boots in the hall and close their doors than these shoes come to life.

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In an early example of pixilation (the animation of an inanimate object on film), the pointed toes wiggle and rub against each other in a strikingly erotic kiss. This trippy courtship image could never exist on a stage; it both mocks and poetically celebrates the intimacy of the film medium. It’s a trick borrowed from another early short, of course, but Max frames it and milks it for all its tenderness and charm. The next day, Max and the mysterious belle are hilariously drawn to each other by the insistent magnetism of their soles.

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Max Linder was likewise one of the first comedians to explore the humor of dream logic and the possibility of recreating it through editing. In “Max asthmathique” (1915), our little gentleman sojourns in the Alps and decides to do some skiing. Once he gets to the top of the slopes, he comes speeding down with such celerity that he careens over the mountain peaks, over the ocean, over the rooftops of Paris… only to wake up in his bed. The trick backgrounds and Méliès-ish editing as Max “flies” on skis over various terrains foreshadows Buster Keaton’s montage frolics in Sherlock Jr.

chaplinlinder1918Although the great silent comedians who followed Linder were pioneers in their own right, their debt of gags and comedic “grammar” to the Man in the Silk Hat isn’t hard to discern. Consider Max’s burlesque attempts at suicide (though less funny in retrospect) in “Max in a Taxi” (1917), Linder’s first film made in California.

Disowned by his father for bad behavior, the prodigal fop decides to end it all by lying down in front of an oncoming train. We see the train approaching in long shot, far away. Max, sartorially obsessed even in the face of death, flicks some of the dirt away from the train tracks and lies down. The train chugs forward—and turns onto a different track at the last possible second. Cut to: a very disappointed and outraged Linder in close-up.

If this description triggers a sense of déjà vu, that might be because Harold Lloyd famously included an almost identical sequence in “Haunted Spooks” (1920). Lloyd’s bespectacled boy loses “one of the only girls I’ve ever loved” and plunks himself right in the path of an oncoming trolley, with his back to the streetcar… which promptly veers in the other direction. Cut to: a medium close-up of Lloyd looking dazed. Certainly, Lloyd adapted the gag to his own particular tone (it’s part of a long sequence of suicide attempts), but one can detect strong echoes of Linder’s concept and timing. Keaton would also film a variation on this scene in “Hard Luck” (1921), in which the oncoming trolley backs up, leaving hapless Buster no choice but to find another way to off himself.

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The perennial richness of this routine seems all the more impressive, given that Max was forced to stay in a sanatorium for a relapse of his lung troubles shortly after the making of “Max in a Taxi.” And all the more sad, given the way some critics panned the film.

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Linder transitioned gracefully into comedy features. In Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife, both made in 1921, comedy set pieces flow harmoniously into each other as the slightly sanitized Max curbs his roving fancies and tries to win just one dream girl. The better-known of the pair of films, Seven Years Bad Luck features Linder’s famous mirror routine, in which one of his servants tries to cover up the breakage of a mirror by pretending to be Linder’s reflection. You might have seen it… in Duck Soup, made over ten years later.

Be My Wife features a similar act of doubling, a scene in which Max, hoping to impress his lady love’s disapproving aunt, stages a fight behind a curtain. Pretending to fend off an unseen criminal, Max becomes a brawl of one. He even goes so far as to put another pair of boots on his hands and walk on all fours, giving the impression of two men tussling. However, the funniest part isn’t that Max is basically beating himself up. What’s most amusing is that he feels the need to do it in character—jumping from spot to spot, playing both the bad guy and the good guy with a flamboyant theatricality just for his own benefit.

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Linder’s life of comedy came to a tragic end. As he had observed, “They are closely akin—the tears and the smiles.” He explained shortly after returning from the war, “This great sadness has made me wish to bring more joy into the world. I want to make people laugh as never before.”

And 130 years after his birth, he is still doing exactly that.

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Absolutely no article on Max would be complete without mentioning his daughter, Maud Linder, who has tirelessly worked to preserve her father’s film legacy and to restore his place in cinema history. She is doing amazing work and everyone interested should buy the DVD “Laugh with Max Linder,” which showcases a few of his shorts and Seven Years Bad Luck in gorgeous condition.

As for the offerings you can find on YouTube, here are my recommendations for those just getting started on Linder’s brilliant filmography:

1910 – Max prend un bain

1912 – Max reprend sa liberté

1912 – Le roman de Max

1916 – Max entre deux feux

1917 – Max in a Taxi

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Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Lost and Found: Reflections on an Evening with Mary Pickford

cameraLast night, I was part of the first audience to see a long-lost film for over 80 years.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

This story starts with a condemned barn in New Hampshire, marked for demolition. In 2006, contractor Peter Massie did a routine sweep of the site. Let’s just say it’s a good thing he did, because, to his surprise, Massie discovered a 1920s Monarch projector and seven reels of film.

How those films ended up in the barn remains a slight mystery, although they were probably shown as part of a boy’s summer camp once located on the land there. Massie contacted Dr. Larry Benaquist of Keene State College, who sent the fragile nitrate film—the strips stuck together and the sprocket holes shredded—to Colorlab Corp. for the challenging restoration. Out of the cache, the lab identified four films presumed lost, including the 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle “Their First Misunderstanding.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the last time when this film was shown; it might have been reissued a few years after its initial release. It might have been seen sometime in the 1920s, but it had almost definitely not been projected since the dawn of the talkies.

Until last night, when “Their First Misunderstanding” saw the light after so many years of darkness.

At Keene State College, this short film had its re-premiere, projected on a big screen from a digitized copy. Professor Benaquist and Christel Schmidt, a Pickford scholar and editor of Queen of the Movies, introduced the program. In addition to the rediscovered film, the screening included another Pickford one-reeler, “The Dream” (1911), and perhaps her greatest film performance in Sparrows (1926), all with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

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(Poster design by Caitlen Brown.)

“Their First Misunderstanding,” a concise one-reel marital dramedy, might not seem like anything special out of context. However, Schmidt explained the significance of the rediscovered film. The short movie represents a crucial piece of cinema history: it’s the first film that gave Mary Pickford billing under her real name, as well as her first film with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP.

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(Frame from the collections of Keene State College and the Library of Congress.)

Pickford also wrote the scenario for “Their First Misunderstanding.” This wasn’t particularly unusual, since she shrewdly sold many scenarios to the production company she worked for, as well as to others, as a way of earning extra income. Nevertheless, I enjoyed knowing that Mary’s genius for cinema pervaded the short film, not only through her performance but also through all of the “bits of business” she had concocted. When Mary toyed with a cigarette, beat the hell out of a suitor with an enormous bouquet, or snuggled sadly by a fire, all of those actions came from her nimble, vivacious mind.

Although “Their First Misunderstanding” survives astonishingly intact for having languished in a New England barn (without the protection of a film canister) the years had taken their toll. The one-reeler begins and ends a bit abruptly due to missing footage.The opening scene of the film, which mostly likely started with a scene of the couple’s wedding, has not survived. However, in its present state, it opens with a brief shot of Owen Moore’s character frantically packing for his honeymoon.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

From there, the newlyweds meet at a train station where their families ambush them with well-wishes and a cascade of rice. From her first appearance, luminous Mary Pickford looks elegant in a luxurious travel outfit of white fur, which she adjusts and preens daintily, the image of a new bride wanting every last detail to be simply perfect. Among the crowd on the train platform are an unrecognizable Ben Turpin (with nary a googly eye in sight!) and a very recognizable and dapper Thomas Ince who bobs up and down like the center of attention, seemingly unaware that he is not the star of the film. The newlyweds embark on their honeymoon, filled with hope and love.

But the intertitles warn us that marital bliss doesn’t last forever: “One Year Later: Oh! How Different It Is!” It’s always a joy to listen to a modern audience laugh at intertitle jokes, and, last night, we roared at this 1910s equivalent of the CUT TO: juxtapositions that movies still use as punchlines.

Apparently, one year later, the husband has grown into a self-absorbed lout who mostly ignores his chic wife. Mary tries various tactics to get his attention—pretending to smoke one of his cigarettes, massaging his scalp, and going into full-on melodrama mode—but none of them work. When the couple attends a party, hubby goes off into another room with a society cutie, leaving poor Mary alone to fret and worry. Never one to sit around and do nothing, she decides to do a little flirting of her own with the ludicrously caricatured poet-pianist—think Snidley Whiplash as Romeo—who’s playing at the dinner party.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

To his dismay, Mary’s husband walks in on her intimate conversation with the poet. Soon the would-be romancer is visiting the couple’s home. The husband decides to rig up a little bell on the house door, so that he knows when any visitor comes to call. This, of course, leads to a number of false alarms, as the husband nearly suffers a fit of apoplexy… only to discover a deliveryman at the door. In another adorable scene, the poet does come for a visit, but has to do his wooing from the entrance of the room to keep the bell from ringing. Is this seeming like a lot of plot developments for 11 minutes? Because it’s not over yet. Mary’s scenario packed in an abundance of comedy and drama in an impressively short time.

The husband finally buckles under the suspicion and decides to leave his wife, writing, “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” He leaves her to the poet. Mary, however, had no intention of going away with the second-rate scribbler. When the fawning suitor appears, she whips him out of the house with a bouquet of enormous flowers!

curlsDesolate over the loss of her husband, Mary crawls into his study (read: mancave, circa 1911) and curls up with his smoking jacket to comfort herself. Let me mention that the naturalistic light in this final scene, seemingly from the single source of a fireplace, resembles a moving Rembrandt: hauntingly exquisite and warm.

The husband returns, shambling in, filled with remorse; as he looks down, he unexpectedly sees his wife. Overcome with happiness at finding that she never ceased to love him, he goes in for a kiss and she shares his joy. Until she smells the tobacco on his breath and coughs. But snuggles with him anyway. The sophisticated mixture of melancholy and humor in this conclusion save it from pure sentimentality. (One suspects that Chaplin picked a thing or two from watching Pickford one-reelers.) We realize that these flawed young married people have lost a few illusions, but gained a firmer bond of friendship and consideration. Knowing how it feels to get hurt, they will try not to hurt each other anymore.

You can watch “The Dream,” the second film on the program, online, and I eagerly recommend that you do, if only for the pleasure of watching alternate-universe Mary Pickford totally trash a living room. In the brief fantasy-allegory, another less-than-ideal husband goes out drinking and treats his wife horribly. Crashing on the sofa, he has a dream where his wife acts like him—a brazen, sardonic lush, who goes about drinking, shattering the china, and staying out late partying. He wakes up screaming, relieved to find his sweet real-life wife just as she was, and recognizes the treasure that was under his nose all along.

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(Library of Congress.)

Both short films humorously advocate for equality and trust within marriage. The one-reelers focus on women who start to behave like their wayward husbands (whether in real life or in fantasy) and, in so doing, force their husbands to recognize the error of their own ways. Ironically, Pickford’s life mirrored her art—but without the happy ending. According to Schmidt, Pickford married her co-star Owen Moore two days before the release of “Their First Misunderstanding.” The nightmare marriage paralleled the bad relationship that we witness at the beginning of “The Dream” and ended in divorce. Alas, Moore didn’t learn from his onscreen acts of repentance.

It’s hard not to detect feminist undertones in the onscreen depiction of macho spouses who neglect their wives and expect them to deal with it—but who freak out when their wives pay them back in kind. The movies astutely illustrate how a husband’s lack of respect for his wife, combined with the abuse of his greater social freedom, can ruin an otherwise happy union.

I especially appreciated the nuances that Pickford brought to her character in “Their First Misunderstanding.” Unlike the droll polar personas in “The Dream,” she doesn’t strike us as either a passive bride or a scarlet woman, and flirts with another man only after her husband starts misbehaving. She may not be perfect, but she certainly comes closer than her husband. Pickford’s light touch for this sort of romantic farce comedy makes us sympathetic to her plight; we enjoy her enjoying herself, but ultimately root for her to make the right decision and turn her husband back into the man she married. Because she is clever, beautiful, and loving, she succeeds.

While these films still place most of the burden of keeping a marriage together on the women, at least they honor that burden. I imagine that Pickford’s performances and scenarios motivated quite a few husbands in the audience (in 1911 and last night) to appreciate their wives more, lest they threaten to run off with the next leering poet they meet!

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William Beaudine’s Sparrows features one of the strongest, feistiest female protagonists I know of. Pickford’s performance as Molly, a spunky teenager who leads a group of orphans through miles of dangerous swamps in a desperate escape from a brutal “baby farm,” inspired the steely role of Miss Cooper in Night of the Hunter (1955). Lillian Gish immortalized that part, but as Christel Schmidt noted, this was unusual, considering her frail star image in the silent days, in contrast to Mary Pickford’s up-by-her-bootstraps persona. “Lillian Gish would get trapped on an ice floe and need to be saved by Richard Barthelmess, whereas Mary Pickford might save Lillian Gish from an ice floe.”

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It was inspiring to savor the audience’s vibrant reactions to the film. Some of us even hissed and booed the vile Mr. Grimes and his nasty family. Unfortunately, the DVD print projected was not a good one, but accompanist Jeff Rapsis more than compensated for this by creating a delightfully suspenseful score. Having seen the film on DVD with a recorded score, I admired how Rapsis delicately underplayed the maudlin aspects of the film, instead highlighting its rich blend of poignant humor and tense action, all graced with glimmers of tenderness. I also have no idea how Rapsis managed, at certain key moments, to ring a bell WHILE playing his keyboard, but somehow he did. He’s also written up a wonderful piece on his blog about creating a score for the rediscovered one-reeler, which makes for terrific reading.

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Without a doubt, the entire evening will take an honored place among my filmgoing memories. However, I keep circling back to those 11 minutes that no audience had collectively experienced for almost a century. As Christel Schmidt said, “This film wanted to come back to us.” This encounter was meant to be.

I found my mind drifting to the Japanese concept of ichi-go-ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting,” the idea of something that happens only once in a lifetime, that acquires a tremendous weight of destiny through its uniqueness. Cinema is almost the opposite of this—a film is the same every time you see it. Or is it? You never see the same film twice, because you are different each time. The screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” brought on this epiphany, because of the sheer onceness of that particular encounter. We live in the midst of this onceness and never quite realize it. The moviegoers who went to see that film in 1911—could they have imagined how irreplaceably precious it would become to us?

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

Cinema is my personal religion, so I can only describe what I felt last night as a vision, in many senses of the word. The imprint of light, of time, is caught on celluloid. Once that celluloid is gone, the soul of that moment returns no more. What was rescued from a little New Hampshire barn, then, wasn’t merely a museum piece, but a relic, something saturated with long-lost memories. At the risk of sounding a little too Proustian, the screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” last night was the restoration of lost time, the opening of a portal to another world that had been closed to us for longer than the span of the average human life.

In 1911, there were still a large number of people who scoffed at the idea that images produced by a machine could provoke laughter, tears, affection. But Mary Pickford knew different; she publicly heralded film as an art when few others would’ve dared to use the word. I think that she would have been proud to witness her films flood into a theater so removed from their time and place, yet magically connected to those bygone days through the power of the seventh art.

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The Cameraman (1928): Roll With It

postHe had never seen her before, but he knew on sight that she was something mysterious, unattainable, and lovely.

He longed to understand her and couldn’t help edging a little closer.

And so Buster’s onscreen love affair with the movie camera begins—almost identically to his mega-crush on Sally, who happens to work at the M-G-M Newsreel Office. Upon “meeting” both Sally and a newsreel camera, he proceeds the same way, with boyish simplicity and joy in discovery, snuggling up to of them without a thought for what others might perceive as weirdness. Just as Buster can’t resist plunging his face into Sally’s hair and inhaling deeply, he sticks his head right inside the chamber of the first professional newsreel camera he gets the chance to examine.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.22.54 AMHe nuzzles the woman and the camera in much the same way, knowing instinctively that the mechanical device which so many of us see as cold and exacting is, in fact, a fascinating creature with as many secrets as a beautiful woman. Admittedly, the camera Buster explores in the newsreel office is a different from the one that becomes his loyal companion, a mangy early Pathé camera that needs to be hand cranked. Nevertheless, his childlike affection for the device in general is telling and utterly charming.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 7.27.05 PMThe film originally ended with Buster abandoning the camera in a Chinatown scrape. He previewed the sequence and it “died the death of a dog. It dawned on us what that was. I deserted that camera. So I had to go back and remake that—even with the trouble of trying to get away… I still kept my camera. Then it was all right.”  Throughout the perilous Chinatown tussle, Buster gallantly totes his battered camera around as he usually carries damsels in distress, hugging her to his body when the bad guys corner them. The romantic bond between Buster and his camera must never be undermined, otherwise the whole film would come crashing down.

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Buster’s onscreen love of the camera as a being, an almost personified toy that brings him closer to his dream girl, reflects his real-life appreciation of this mystical doohickey. No sooner did Buster start his film career than he borrowed a camera, took it apart, and put it back together again: “One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to run it on the projector.” The potential of the device immediately struck him; he grasped the boundless scale of what a camera could put before viewers, compared to the cramped artifice of a stage.

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And because Buster, real and fictionalized, loves his camera, the camera loves him, takes pity on him, and comes forth to bear witness to his courage when he needs it most.

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As a movie about movies—or, to be precise, about the video journalism of newsreels—The Cameraman blissfully shatters all of our notions about the boundaries between fact and fiction. Really, it’s a movie that messes with your head in the best possible sense. I mean, by the end, we’re watching people watching Buster Keaton in a movie… within a Buster Keaton movie. Thanks to its dizzying mise-en-abyme conclusion, much of The Cameraman’s most enduring humor and pathos resides in its ability to hint at what it means to film something, to preserve reality and then to play it back.

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For instance, during the climactic Tong War in Chinatown, Buster’s antics reveal the extent to which “documentary” footage often benefits from a little creative staging. Buster, caught in the thick of it, seizes on the opportunity to embellish what’s happening all around him. Watching two men wrestling on the ground, trying to reach a knife, Buster drops them the knife and then cranks away, recording the now slightly more dramatic fight.

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Once holed up in a dry goods store, he positions his camera in the window and chucks a few light bulbs down on the squabbling gangsters below to stir the fight up a bit more, all in the sake of a better shot. We recognize that the newsreel cameraman is never a passive entity, a dumb witness to events. Merely by choosing what to record and how to record it, what to show and what exclude, he discerns value and importance out of a world of noise. And, as Buster shows, these early video journalists didn’t baulk at stooping to a little directing, as well.

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I’ll bet audiences left The Cameraman feeling a bit more wary of newsreel truth, seeing how those daring young men with their filming machines sometimes enhanced the action. Rearranging or even totally restaging historical events wasn’t unheard of for news coverage… and it still isn’t! Here I’m reminded of the famous Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, so celebrated for their rawness and authenticity… when, in fact, his assistants arranged the corpses for better compositions. Does that make the photographs less truthful? Perhaps. But nobody cares about the truth if it’s not interesting.

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The screening of the Chinatown footage vindicates Buster’s deft management of the situation. Every thrilling shot explodes with danger and conflict. The chief of the M-G-M Newsreel Office even exclaims, “That’s the best camera work I’ve seen in years!” As we watch the footage, we chuckle, however, because we recognize Buster’s handiwork. We see the situation twice—first as a movie, with Buster present as the protagonist, and secondly as a newsreel, with Buster’s presence and influence subtly permeating each frame.

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The humor that arises from this doubling of perspective impresses me with its complexity. The Cameraman abounds with delicious pratfalls, gags, and physical comedy, including the famous get-a-load-of-Buster’s-abs dressing room sequence followed by the nude swimming pool scene.

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In My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster remembered that the film received one of its biggest laughs during the scene where the wet-behind-the-ears cameraman watches his film being previewed for the newsreel crew. The trial goes hopelessly badly, because the reel of film that the newbie took consists of a series of hilarious double exposures and trick shots. Battleships float through New York, stunt divers flip backwards out of the water, and city streets jumble together in an impossible collage of mayhem.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.55.11 AMOf course, what cracks me up about this scene is that his footage looks scarily like the montage documentary opus Man with a Movie Camera, which features a plethora of impressive yet playful superimpositions. See? Buster’s not incompetent! He’s a prodigy. He’s a natural Dziga Vertov, for crying out loud! Amusingly, what doesn’t cut it for the newsreels actually makes for splendid art—and for a hearty laugh.

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Although the film was mostly made at a studio, it does include some genuine newsreel footage, like the shot of Charles Lindberg that punctuates its conclusion. The archive shot serves a clear narrative purpose, explaining the reason for the parade Buster gets caught up in, which he thinks is in his honor—and also adds a strong emotional reaction to the scene.

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No American in 1928 could’ve looked at that shot and not been filled with pride and joy. This documentary image, plucked from the Hearst files, serves an expressive purpose in the context of a fictional narrative. Lindberg’s real-life triumph—and he was Superman in the 1920s—echoes Buster’s smaller victory, and the inclusion of reality bolsters the fiction.

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Plus, Buster’s confusion, mistakenly believing that the swelling ticker-tape parade is celebrating him, parallels the mix-up created by seeing newsreel footage of Lucky Lindy embedded in a fictional storyline. We get a whole bundle of conflicting things to laugh about. Buster thinks he’s the protagonist in the newsreel reality of the diegesis, but he’s not. However, in the reality of The Cameraman, he is, of course, the protagonist.

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The fact that a movie about newsreels returns to actual newsreel footage at the end makes us feel that the whole film has coiled up on itself. Buster never quite lets us free of this movie, trapping us in a Möbius strip of irony to the end. Was this a fiction with a detour through newsreels… or a newsreel with an extended detour through fiction?

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Buster’s adventures cross over so serendipitously with actual historical events—even if the documentary footage component makes up only a few feet of film among thousands of studio-shot illusion. His journey, especially the wish fulfillment conclusion, recalls the way we bump into our favorite films and half imagine ourselves to be the protagonists.

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What is and is not recorded on camera also interjects some of the saddest moments of The Cameraman—and some of the saddest moments of any comedy I’ve seen! When Buster returns from his death-defying mission to Chinatown only to discover that he forgot to put film in the camera, the emptiness of the reel makes our hearts sink. Not only has he utterly failed as the newsreel journalist he longs to be, but he literally lost the thing that he tried so hard to protect. The fruit of his labor, the thing that he valued above his own safety, suddenly dematerialized. Such is the nature of film.

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When Buster rescues the girl and goes to get something to revive her, he returns to find her walking away with another man. As our hero sinks to his knees, the camera slowly slides away from him… showing his own camera a few yards away, still being cranked by Josephine the monkey.

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It’s hard to put into words what that devastating tracking shot conveys. As Buster watches, the young lovers walk away, and his heart breaks, like an intruder in somebody else’s movie, a conventional romantic comedy. I suppose that seeing the camera jerks us out of the film world and forces us to take a moment of silent reverence for the suffering that Buster undergoes for the sake of our belly laughs. The sudden appearance of that implacable camera shocks us and strips away the escapism of comedy.

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However, on a deeper level, the absurdity of a camera capturing the depths of his despair, of memorializing a moment he’ll always remember with a tiny throb of anguish, drives home the loneliness of the experience. I mean, what if someone videotaped the worst moment of your life? Pretty harsh. His only companion (besides the monkey) is that helpless three-legged beast, the camera. And she can’t understand what he’s going through… or can she? Perhaps she can make his isolation shine. After all, that sublime tracking shot sure does. That complex shot is every bit the equivalent of the ending shot of Chaplin’s City Lights, in my humble opinion—that one shot that tells you everything you need to know about the wistfulness at the heart of this little man we find so funny.

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Fortunately, the camera that can be cruel is also kind, because the miraculously rediscovered footage comes to testify in Buster’s behalf. The camera sees his melancholy beauty just as it sees the news, when it’s fed the right subject, recontextualizing life and making it amazing again. A literal deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, it’s film itself, or rather the film within the film, that furnishes the happy ending we all crave.

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This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Please check out the other fabulous entries!

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Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end the post without this, did you? One of these men is Buster Keaton. Guess which.

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Hearts of the World (1918): Battle Dress

hearts“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened. 

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

—D.W. Griffith, quoted in Photoplay magazine

The soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the two girls—sylphlike belles swaddled in long coats, headed on a train towards no-man’s-land. One can imagine the battle-weary young men on their way to or from the trenches rubbing their eyes, thinking that the girls were some sort of mirage. Civilian women didn’t go to the front. Hell, even trained nurses didn’t go to the front. It simply wasn’t done.

And yet, there they were: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, accompanied by their mother, hurtling into the belly of a blighted war zone in France. They traveled to a ruined village, within range of bombardments from German long-distance guns. Brought over by that great general D.W. Griffith, the sisters had been drafted to star in his next picture, a WWI drama which would be called Hearts of the World, once its narrative took shape.

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Hardly any of the footage captured in France actually appears in the final film. Yet, what Dorothy and Lillian saw and heard there—and in England, during air raids that riddled the civilian population, crushing schools full of kindergarteners before the sisters’ eyes—haunted them. In her autobiography, Lillian shared a vivid snapshot of the kind of devastation she witnessed on a daily basis: “I remember the odd feeling I had seeing a coffee pot perched on top of a pile of rubble, the sole evidence that a house had once stood on the spot.”

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This shot of real town in France was included in Hearts of the World.

And let me reiterate: few surviving civilians came closer to WWI than Griffith and his crew. Even hardened war correspondents weren’t allowed such comprehensive access to the horrors of the front. The psychological impact of the sisters’ proximity to death and destruction added a shade of genuine trauma to their intense performances… even though those performances were safely captured in California.

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Now, it’s tempting to dismiss Hearts of the World as The Birth of a Nation II: This Time We’ll Only Offend the Germans. The plot certainly bears a resemblance to Griffith’s infamous Civil War epic. In an idyllic French village, Marie and Douglas, both children of American families, are torn apart by WWI.

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While Douglas goes to the trenches, Marie stays in the village. On the day that had been set for their wedding, a heavy bombardment all but razes the town and the French are defeated; Marie happens across Douglas’s unconscious body, faints, and believes him dead. When the Germans occupy the town, the beastly Hun in charge takes a shine to Marie. Will the Allies liberate the village in time to save Marie from The Fate Worse Than Death?

dorothyincostumeAlthough clearly not the heroine, Dorothy Gish’s supporting character soundly “stole the show,” even in Lillian’s words. She stands out as one of the few sexually aggressive and sympathetic women in Griffith’s oeuvre.

Playing a wandering lady minstrel, “the Little Disturber,” Dorothy exudes a free-spirited vitality and a quirky, Chaplinesque sensuality. In contrast to Marie’s goose-tending, rose-caressing demureness, the Little Disturber behaves with delicious impropriety.

She corners the man she likes (Douglas, Marie’s fiancé) and plants a kiss on the reluctant fellow right in a public street! Afterwards, when she returns in despair to a man she’d previously rejected, the Disturber flashes the new object of her affections with a look of such hostile amorousness that he cringes, unsure whether she’s going to smooch him or wallop him!

With her cute pageboy haircut and independent attitude, the Little Disturber no doubt resonated with the young women in the audience who had borne the brunt of the home front war effort and would shortly claim their right to vote—and bob their hair.

The fact that Dorothy copied her wiggly, zigzag walk from a streetwalker she saw in London speaks volumes about the endearing, working-girl vulgarity of the character’s persona. As she recounted to Kevin Brownlow:

“Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she [the prostitute] had the darndest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.”

Dorothy Gish keeps the spark of humor and hope alive even in the darkest moments of the film. Her Little Disturber demonstrates how the tribulations of war actually bring out the deepest virtues of certain individuals. Once frivolous and flighty, she nurses Marie, her former rival, back to health.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h11m32s232Moreover, at the suspenseful climax of Hearts of the World, it’s not the hero who saves Marie, but rather the resourceful Little Disturber. With one well-placed hand grenade, she obliterates the whole pack of wicked Huns about to break down the door and capture Marie and Douglas.

Her feisty resistance interjects some unexpected humor into a scene where, when a collaborator catches her in the act of mourning for the French, wiping her tears with a tablecloth, the Disturber chases the traitor away with a broken champagne bottle!

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.06.44 PMJoie de vivre: the Little Disturber abides with a song in her heart 

The Gish sisters’ interpretations complement each other beautifully. They were, by this time, veterans of the Seventh Art, and the scenes between them have all the delicate, practically invisible mastery of a well-sung bel canto duet. In one funny, poignant scene during the occupation, the Disturber finds Marie’s picture keepsake of Douglas and starts kissing it. Marie walks in and sees her. Their reactions—sheepishness on the Disturber’s part and tactful understanding on Marie’s—communicate a new bond between the two characters, a relationship all the more exquisite because it’s so surprising. Even such different women can become spiritual sisters through kindness and compassion.

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Lillian Gish teases all possible nuances out of Marie’s character, bringing a feverish, trapped quality to an otherwise routine fragile-but-unbroken role. You can discern the strains of harrowing, gritty fear that she would exhibit so thrillingly in Broken Blossoms. She traces her character arc from an ordinary, loving girl to a total emotional wreck back to an ordinary, loving girl with sweet simplicity. For instance, as she folds her unused wedding dress and puts it in a chest, she does so with all the tactile tenderness of a mother burying her only child.

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Later, as she totters across blasted fields in search of her fiancé, the floating lack of purpose in her movements translates her psychotic break even when we see her in an extreme long shot. This is a woman who has been emptied of all grief, all pain, all hope; she is almost a ghost.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h14m34s7In a 1918 interview, Lillian remembered, “I saw one woman whose little brood of three had been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.” Well, she came pretty darn close.

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With material that might’ve come from a bad 19th century melodrama, Lillian gives us a performance of madness worthy of Ophelia.

All in all, Hearts of the World strikes me as both a throwback and a strikingly modern portrait of the first total war. Part pro-American propaganda, part anti-war drama, the film cobbles together footage from a striking range of sources—staged battles shot in England, real ruins shot in France, smuggled footage of the German army, and, overwhelmingly, scenes filmed on converted sets and stages in Hollywood left over from Intolerance.

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A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!

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Real footage taken at the front… behind German lines!

Hearts of the World pushes the reconstructive possibilities of editing to a logical extreme—even more so than Intolerance, I would argue. It’s the Kuleshov Effect on steroids: shells fired in France seem to “land” in California.

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However, the film was misleadingly marketed as mostly a documentary. This irresponsible advertising—combined with its graphic content—makes it another blot on Griffith’s checkered record. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so commercially ignored and elusive; I had to watch it on an old VHS cassette and get my screenshots from a documentary about Griffith. Which is ironic, considering that Hearts of the World smashed box office records among an American public that wanted to savor the Hun-bashing glory of their entry into the fray.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h10m16s235Oh, and that VHS cassette even neglected to include the most infamous scene—“The Dungeon of Lust,” in which two lascivious German officers abduct and assault a peasant girl. (Did I mention that Erich von Stroheim chewed some of his first scenery in this?)

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Stroheim menacing a maiden…

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h07m46s21 …And Stroheim menacing an extra, while serving as Griffith’s military advisor for the film

Prepare yourself for opulent German orgies and gratuitous scenes of Lillian Gish being beaten by a hulking officer because she can’t pick up a sack of potatoes bigger than she is. You will see primitive, prejudice-nourishing panoramas of kink—that were disgustingly presented as Gospel truth.

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If you cannot quite bring yourself to forgive Griffith for such exploitation of the medium and its persuasive power, you’re not the only one. As Lillian Gish observed, “I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. ‘War is a villain,’ he repeated, ‘not any particular people.’”

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Beyond question, Griffith hated war. And particularly World War I. He opposed American intervention from the start, and Lillian Gish described him openly weeping at civilian casualties. If he succumbed to the flattery of European governments and the pressure to produce a biased film, he nevertheless betrays his loathing for the inhumanity of it all.

Griffith’s distaste for violence reveals itself in his implication that World War I reminded him of a predictably directed movie, a mass of clichés. War, indeed, reduces the hearts of the world to just so many figures, formations, legers, plot devices. Other than the high-stakes chess players in their offices, we all turn into bit players, extras in a gaudy global production.

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The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.

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This shot of her father’s dismembered corpse, reduced from a lovable individual to a pile of rubbish, translates the appalling meaninglessness of death in a vast conflict. Griffith illuminates both macro horror of war—the numb, dumb pointlessness of this death—and the smaller-scale ugliness of conflict. The orphaned little boys burying their parent under the floor tiles. The young girl unable to tear herself away from her mother’s body. The broken, shattered skeleton of a garden wall where roses once bloomed. As Griffith said to Lillian, “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables—but children killed, lives destroyed.”

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Cinematography by hardened war cameraman Alfred Machin, in addition to more lyrical footage taken by Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer, contributes to the deliberately uneven, deglamorized portrayal of modern warfare.

5 1Despite its upbeat denouement, Hearts of World is perhaps not a film with a message, but rather a query to send into the universe. The film’s intertitle prologue best articulates it, wondering, “After all, does war solve any question?”

World War I certainly didn’t solve it. Which is why there was the inevitable sequel.  And we still do not have the answer. Although it’s not the coherent masterpiece that The Big Parade or Journey’s End turned out to be, Hearts of the World at least dared to ask the question, “What’s the purpose of all this carnage?” with words, images, and, thanks to the Gish sisters, searing performances.

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This blog post is part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by The Motion Pictures and Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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