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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Blue Jeans (1917): Against the Grain

blue_jeans_poster_1917There is something very wrong with the following “silent movie cliché.” See if you can spot it.

The saw blade glints and turns hungrily as the damsel in distress, bound and gagged, inches closer and closer towards certain death. Suddenly, the hero (you may be imagining him in a Mountie uniform) bursts into the sawmill and unties the damsel in distress, preferably at the last possible minute.

What’s the flaw? Simple: in the most famous sawmill scene of the silent era, the finale of John H. Collins’s Blue Jeans, the heroine saves the hero, not the other way around. As June, the film’s ragamuffin protagonist, Viola Dana not only rescues her husband from being sliced in half at the end, but also battles corrupt politicians and defies small-town hypocrisy.

Last weekend, Capitolfest screened a 35mm print of Blue Jeans from the George Eastman House. Unavailable on DVD, this forgotten classic invests the stock types and baroque storylines of 19th century melodrama with rawness and urgency. Although hampered by an uncharismatic leading man, the film has lost little of its rousing entertainment value and suspenseful momentum almost 100 years after its release.

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Most important, Blue Jeans bequeathed to us one of the great silent movie heroines. June abides in a world that considers her worthless. She fights for happiness and charts her own moral path although her community shuns her. And she has the resourcefulness to smash her way out of a locked room and push her man away from a buzzing saw blade.

It’s a sad commentary on our culture that the myth of the flailing, fainting, utterly useless silent movie heroine has persisted for so long when nothing could be further from the truth. Pre-sound films featured some of the strongest female characters you’re likely to meet. (Watch Mary Pickford in Sparrows, Lillian Gish in The Wind, and Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, to name just a few, and see for yourself.)

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Moreover, female stars, writers, producers, executives, and directors shaped the hugely influential and developing medium behind the scenes. Women wielded arguably more power in the silent era than they do in the industry these days. Only around 11% of Hollywood movies have female screenwriters these days, whereas more than 50% of movies made before 1925 were written by women. With a scenario co-written by June Mathis (who would become Hollywood’s first female executive), Blue Jeans belongs to that 50%.

Based on a hoary stage melodrama, Blue Jeans crackles with big-screen energy, thanks to Mathis and Charles A. Taylor’s taut adaptation and the dynamic vision of director John H. Collins. As Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood documentary notes, had Collins not perished in the 1918 Influenza epidemic, we might remember him along with Griffith, DeMille, and company as one of the great auteurs of the silent cinema.

According to Viola Dana, who married Collins in 1915 and made several films with him, “He was a very sensitive person, sensitive with actors. He cut the films, even took over the lighting. He did everything.” In Blue Jeans, Collins skillfully harnessed Dana’s dramatic talents, showcasing her range from tomboyish mischief to heart-wrenching sorrow to rousing determinate. Whether or not he set out to make a feminist thriller, that’s exactly what he did.

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John H. Collins (right) directs Robert Walker and Viola Dana for Blue Jeans.

The story centers on June, a homeless waif wandering in rural Indiana. One day, June happens to meet local lawyer and aspiring politician Perry Bascom, who apparently likes to take a long lunch in the fields. Starving June tries to steal his cake… and his sandwich… and his apple.

When Bascom begins to lecture her, she tells him all about her hard-knocks life, the death of her mother, and her run-in with police brutality. Bascom understandably feels like a jerk, and, moved by her circumstances, he helps her get a job in the town where he lives. June also moves in with an elderly couple who lost their daughter (read: kicked her out when she got pregnant outside of wedlock) who happened to look an awful lot like June’s mother…

June and Bascom fall in love and secretly marry. Little does June know that Bascom is already married—albeit in an invalid union to a bigamist—and that he may be related to the n’er-do-well who impregnated and abandoned June’s mother.

Bascom’s wicked political rival Boone cannily exposes this news on election day and swings the vote, prompting the defeated politician to depart and hunt down proof of his innocence. Meanwhile, ostracized by the townsfolk, June cares for her newborn baby alone.

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From its first shot, which introduces June, Blue Jeans challenges traditional notions of femininity and suggests the complexity of its protagonist. The audience initially sees her in a long shot from behind: an androgynous bundle of denim and flannel hunched on a fence. The next shot comes as something of a surprise: the face of girl too young to be wearing such a look of weary sadness.

By portraying June from two different, conflicting sides and forcing the spectator to reconcile them, Collins presents her as both a seasoned vagabond and a fragile teenager. We see her as a person first and a woman second. Her identity is not bounded by her beauty. She is a survivor above all, and many things besides.

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The film’s opening also calls out the dubious politics of empathy. Our first view of her is distant and distancing. It acquires pathos only retroactively through the second image, a close-up that draws us into June’s emotional state. Nobody cares about a shapeless unfortunate in overalls, but our hearts go out to a pretty girl in distress. Taken together, the two shots deliver a subtle social criticism, revealing how easy it is to ignore the plight of a displaced girl like June.

Collins reserves the most damning social criticism for the scenes in which June herself is condemned, first by her grandfather, second by her minister. As it turns out, the elderly couple that agreed to house June are her grandparents. When they discover Bascom’s identity, they forbid June from going to live with them. June trusts her husband and refuses to listen to her grandfather’s commands. The old man strikes June on the cheek, declaring, “I never want to see you and I never want to hear from you again!”

Throughout the renunciation scene, Collins pulls the audience into the heroine’s anguish through 3 or 4 extreme close-ups of June with large teardrops quivering on her cheeks. These shots, foreshadowing the surreal melancholy of Man Ray’s photograph “Larmes,” transfigure June’s pain, imbuing her with the aura of a weeping saint. The universality of her suffering blazes off the screen and accuses the inhumanity and inflexibility of her grandfather.

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The old man’s “morality” really boils down to a kind of possessive pride, the desire to control the women in his life and ensure that they don’t reflect negatively on him. His warped sense of honor erases the compassion he should feel for his own flesh and blood—whether she disobeys him or not.

In a later scene, June’s grandmother finds the courage to break with her husband’s orders and bring food to June, eventually bringing about a reunion. The wisdom, forgiveness, and tenderness of women triumphs over the rigid, selfish ethics of a patriarchal society.

June faces humiliation again when she carries her baby, considered illegitimate by the townsfolk, to the church to have her baptized. The minister refuses the young mother, coldly pronouncing, “She is damned.” No one in the church moves a muscle to defend June, save her grandmother who is quickly restrained by the old man.

As a rebuke to the closed-mindedness of the village, Collins reveals a stained-glass window in the church that shows Jesus with the verse, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The so-called good Christians in the pews have failed to observe Christ’s teachings.

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Though mistreated, June is much more than a symbolic martyr. Dana communicates her confusion, her love for her child, and her fear over what will happen to both of them with gut-wrenching naturalism. Collins illuminates the paradox of Dana’s face, possessed of girlish round cheeks and womanly, dolorous eyes. She’s little more than a child herself, we realize, and Dana ploughs into the character’s devastation with the honesty and unselfconsciousness that we expect from the unvarnished June. It’s as though we’ve sneaked into this woman’s life and watch as mute, ghostly spectators, unable to help.

Choking back tears as she rocks her unbaptized baby in a cradle, June expresses the very real hardship that unwed mothers endured—and continue to endure.

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June’s emotions do not classify her as a victim, but rather call attention to her fortitude, to the quiet, maternal strength that doesn’t call attention to itself as much as the derring-do associated with male bravery. However, in the movie’s final act, Dana gets to demonstrate that more active kind of courage, as well.

Since Brownlow and Gill’s documentary included the famous sawmill scene, I’ve been able to extract it for your edification (with Carl Davis score, no less).


Notice the dizzying pace of the editing and how Collins juggles at least 3 trajectories throughout the whole sequence: the escaping villains, the unconscious hero, and the desperate heroine.

Of all the “threads” interwoven in this short sequence, June gets the most time, as she struggles to escape the locked room and save her husband. On a stage we wouldn’t see her, but here she’s the focus of our attention, the single variable that determines the outcome of the whole equation.

When we’re with her, we can’t see the blade; we don’t know how much time she has left and share her anxiety. The rhythm of the cutting pulses adrenaline through the viewer’s veins and cements our identification with June—waif, wife, mother, survivor, martyr, heroine, and lone voice of logic in a mean, bad world.

So, watch the clip. Share it. Let’s slice a silent movie myth to smithereens.

This post is part of the Anti-Damsel blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Check out the other entries about badass babes of the silver screen!

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Cary as Chaplin: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 31

And so my series comes to a close with this hilarious portrait of Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine. I adore this image because, silly as it is, it hints at the way Grant assimilated many of the best traits of the silent comedians… and combined them with the wit and suaveness of talking comedy. He was a treasure and always will be.

Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine

Image scanned from LIFE Goes to the Movies (Time-Life Books, 1975).

Happy Thanksgiving! Harold Lloyd in Hot Water (1924)

Today I’m thankful for Harold Lloyd. Today and pretty much every other day. That bespectacled goofball/genius never fails to make me laugh and remind me that life, even at its most awkward and calamitous, is a beautiful thing.

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Sadly, Lloyd doesn’t seem to get the widespread love that Keaton and Chaplin do, but his comedy has aged every bit as well as theirs. I actually feel like I can relate to Lloyd’s character the most of silent comedy’s “big three.” Lloyd’s harried, usually eager-to-please persona displays the right amount of cockiness and crankiness to let audiences recognize him as one of their own. Encountered with ridiculous obstacles or heinously rude people, Lloyd takes a moment to grimace in solidarity with his audience, as if to say, “Well, that’s just typical, isn’t it, folks?”

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I decided to share the brilliant scene where Harold wrestles with a turkey in Hot Water—perfect Thanksgiving entertainment, right? Well, I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I don’t want to live in a world where that scene’s not available for your instant viewing pleasure. So, I uploaded it myself. Enjoy!

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An hour-long feature, Hot Water doesn’t stand out as one of Harold’s best films or even a representative entry in the Lloyd cannon: he doesn’t have a distinct goal or overcome a weakness to win the girl he loves. Instead, he plays a new husband grappling with his wife’s unpleasant family through a series of disastrous events.

However, Hot Water does contain some of Lloyd’s funniest material, such as the celebrated car-ride-with-the-family shenanigans and a dizzyingly hilarious faux-ghost finale. Although the movie’s second half takes place in a mundane setting, a modest 1920s home, the simple cleverness of the gags speaks to Harold’s remarkable timing.

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For instance, seized by the false fear that he’s killed his mother-in-law, Harold Lloyd looks down at a newspaper to see a story about a hanged criminal. He tries to pull away, but, oh no, he’s leaned on his necktie! We get a hearty belly laugh as Harold’s guilty conscience, no doubt interpreting the pressure around his neck as a phantom noose tightening on him, prompts a panic. This underrated gem of a movie proves that Harold excelled at a wide range of comic styles—including domestic humor—not just the high-anxiety daredevil comedy for which he’s best remembered.

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When I had the pleasure of meeting Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd at the TCM Classic Film Festival, she described Harold as “the father of romantic comedy.” Hot Water, with its abundant misunderstandings and ambiance of family dysfunction, suggests that Harold might’ve been the ancestor of the modern sit-com, too!

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Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

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A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

Seeing the Light: Serge Bromberg Unveils Cinematic Treasures by the Seine

sergenitrateThe film strip burst into a jet of bright yellow flame, cutting into the damp riverside air. As photographers snapped furiously, the nitrate exhaled its cloud of potentially toxic heat, sending waves of undulating shadows across the huge inflatable screen.

These pyrotechnics put the literal flamme in Serge Bromberg’s show Retour de Flamme—the play on words also means “backfire” or “flashback”—an anecdotal foray into film history through rare and recently discovered old movies.

When Bromberg lights up some nitrate stock, he’s not just performing a parlor trick. Rather, he’s reminding audiences of what might have happened to many of the precious films that he has spent his life hunting. As the director, producer, and founder of Lobster Films explained, “Classic cinema is an endangered part of our heritage. About half of the movies ever made have been lost.”

However, last night at the Berges de Seine Bromberg gave the crowd hope for the future of film preservation. Movies consigned to oblivion until a few months ago—or even a few weeks ago—saw the light again. And, more important, those movies elicited laughter and gasps of excitement from their spectators. Projected onto an enormous blow-up screen and accompanied on a piano by Bromberg, the strange assortment of once-lost films did what they were intended to, what their makers wanted them to: they entertained.

If movies have souls, and I suspect that they do, a few more just escaped from limbo.

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The presentation opened with “Paris sous les eaux,” an actualité documenting conditions in the city following the calamitous 1910 flood. As the footage showed, entire streets were submerged, turning Paris into a temporary Venice, only navigable by boats. Groups of mustachioed municipal workers paddled down the rues, pushing debris aside to clear passage.

Diving into his selections, Bromberg celebrated the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp by screening Lobster Films’ new restoration of the two-reeler A Night in the Show (1915). The rowdy comedy showcases early Chaplin at his most disruptive, playing a tuxedo-clad drunk bent on upstaging a vaudeville performance with his own antics.

anightintheshowAs Bromberg noted, from 1908 to 1913 Chaplin’s performance of an almost identical scenario in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds sketch, a hit since 1904, gave the young comedian his first taste of fame and paved the way for his cinema debut. After establishing the Tramp as a character in 1914, Chaplin returned to material from his stage career, but altered the sketch enough to avoid being sued by Karno.

Remastered from many elements, including some from the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Cinémathèque Française, the image quality of A Night in the Show was astonishingly sharp. After years of fuzzy, crackly Chaplin viewings on YouTube, I was amazed to see every spangle on Edna Purviance’s headdress! Plus, the pearlescent clarity of the restoration brought out the surprisingly refined feel of the short comedy—making the slapstick bits that much more hilarious.

Next, Bromberg dazzled audiences with a world premiere. About a month ago, he stumbled across a length of film on an online auction site and bought it for 7 euros. Well, actually, with shipping it turned out to be 11 euros, but that’s still a small price to pay for a complete version of Émile Cohl’s Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908). The second animated cartoon ever made, this groundbreaking work was thought to exist only in damaged fragments before Bromberg’s discovery.

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Restored to its trippy glory, Le cauchmar de Fantoche or The Puppet’s Nightmare provokes a mean case of the heebie-jeebies. With a series of simple white figures on a black background, Cohl captured the bizarre logic of bad dreams where clocks turn into boogiemen, hats morph into prisons, and huge lobster claws prowl in search of the unfortunate Fantoche. The imagery is unremittingly morbid; for instance, a butterfly becomes a spider and spins a giant web across the screen. The short cartoon ends not with Fantoche waking up in his bed, as I anticipated, but with a huge knife cutting him in half.

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Émile Cohl, father of the animated cartoon and cultivator of fine moustaches.

Fluid transformations explore the potential of animation to show the impossible and foreshadow similar madness in Fleischer and Disney cartoons two decades later. As Bromberg noted, “It’s absolutely stunning to imagine that one man alone could invent the animated cartoon and then create an animation of this quality in a month.”

Cohl’s cartoon seemed like a tough act to follow, but Bromberg then projected a film that even he calls “époustoflant”—in English, we might say mind-boggling.

We know that Chaplin cribbed his basic premise for A Night in the Show from Fred Karno’s vaudeville number Mumming Birds, but he took pains to modify the scenario and avoid legal infringement. By contrast, in 1907 Charles Pathé had no qualms about copying the act more or less exactly for the short film Au Music Hall. Because Pathé did run into legal troubles, the one-reeler had been presumed lost for years.

Until about two weeks ago, when Bromberg’s research led to a print in Mexico among UNAM’s holdings.

A Pathé reproduction of a famous stage act might not sound particularly historic, but this one occupies an unusually sacred place in film history, uniting two great film artists. As Bromberg told the audience, “Frankly, what you’re going to see is a miracle. In fact, it’s probably a film that Charlie Chaplin saw before he started his vaudeville career. It might have inspired him to join Karno’s troupe, take on the famous act, and become Charlie Chaplin.”

And who else could have inspired Chaplin to become Chaplin… but the great French comedian Max Linder?

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 “Qui? Moi?”

So, for the first time in probably more than 100 years, an audience watched Max Linder shamble though the Mumming Birds routine, giving a performance that likely lodged itself in Chaplin’s memory.

In Au Music Hall, Linder plays a prototype of the disastrous dandy persona that would make his fortune. Drunken Max falls out of his carriage and stumbles into a vaudeville theater. Proceeds to heckle or hinder every stage act put before him, he squirts a singer with a seltzer bottle, spoils a magician’s trick, and smooches an exotic dancer. Finally, when a strongman wrestler enters the stage with a lifesize doll for demonstration, Max tackles the doll… and loses the fight. Undaunted, the pint-sized fop tears off his jacket and goes fisticuffs with the wrestler, before ultimately being carted away by the theater manager.

chaplinlinder1918Primitive though Au Music Hall seems on the surface, and it’s basically two shots, Linder’s surprisingly graceful drunk routine and well-timed pratfalls elevate the short and hint at the future of screen comedy. Whereas vaudeville sketches and early films often relied on interchangeable stock characters, Linder conveys the impression, even in long shot, of somebody we want to get to know better. His little bits of business, like repeatedly conking his head on a tassel in his theater box or flipping a mass of unruly black hair out of his face, cry out for a close-up or two.

Chaplin called Linder his “professor” for a reason. In 1907, this little Englishman may well have watched this little Frenchman and seen a glimmer of personality, of photogénie to which he could aspire.

Bromberg’s following selection was the only part of the program announced ahead of time: Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith with recently rediscovered footage.

If you’ve seen The Blacksmith as it’s been circulating for years, you might have noticed a flaw in the comic structure. After squirting oil all over an immaculate white horse, Buster pulls almost the same routine on an immaculate car. I love Buster Keaton for his refreshing versatility of gags, so this repetition always fatigues me a little.

The rediscovered footage really creates an alternate version of the film—and a superior one, in my estimate, complete with an action sequence, some risqué humor, and a very Keaton proposal scene. Although the endings of the two versions vary slightly, the main difference occurs in the early middle of the film.

In the cut I saw last night, Buster leaves the confines of the blacksmith shop and takes his burly, surly boss’s beloved car for a joyride. Alas, Buster runs into Mr. Surly himself who futilely gives pursuit. They only pause to sit down and admire the silhouette of a nubile young lady disrobing in front of her window. When she prematurely turns out the light, the chase is on again, until Buster locks Mr. Surly into a shed.

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Not only does this sequence inject more movement into the film, but it also strengthens Buster’s relationship with the snooty equestrienne he ends up marrying. In all previous versions, Virginia Fox’s character interacts with Buster only towards the beginning and then at the end of the film. Gorgeous though Buster is, I don’t quite buy that Miss Snooty would elope with him on the basis of two meetings. Well, in the rediscovered footage, while fleeing Mr. Surly and running around a house, Buster bumps into Miss Snooty, drops to bended knee, and proposes… before running around the house again to elude Mr. Burly… and then he proposes again. And so forth. This charming vignette lends just enough credibility to the romantic subplot without wasting a second of screen time.

Bromberg recounted how this extraordinary footage, instead of hiding out in an attic or a basement all these years, was waiting in plain sight—in a film archive, no less. After receiving a phone call from Fernando Pena, who also found the full cut of Lang’s Metropolis, describing the alternate Blacksmith, Bromberg asked him to bring the footage to France so that he could examine it.

Pena, however, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary: the alternate version was probably the print of The Blacksmith that was generally distributed through Europe in 9.5mm, a home viewing format. Bromberg checked the 9.5mm version at the Centre National de la Cinématographie and there, sure enough, was the alternate cut—as well as a 35mm version with yet more unseen footage. It had been there for years. Moral of the story: never take anything for granted.

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I get the feeling that somewhere Buster is laughing at us.

To wrap up the program, Bromberg played two wacky trifles that I won’t soon forget: Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) and Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). The former, a short British crime thriller, lives up to the promise of its title with a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier who thwarts a group of bank robbers. This manipulative little pooch even gains entry into the bad guys’ lair by curling up in the middle of the road and pretending to have been run over. Could anyone—even a hardened criminal—resist the desire to nurse little Spot the Dog back to health?

In the latter film, animator Marv Newland makes good on his title when Bambi, after grazing in a field of flowers for the duration of the credits, is smashed by a reptilian foot from above. “We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo for their help obtaining Godzilla in this film.” The End.

The end of Bromberg’s spectacle arrived just as abruptly for this spectator, who could have stayed at the Berges watching classic film snippets until dawn.

Sitting scrunched up in a beach chair by the Seine as the night breeze floated off the water, I witnessed film and life mingling mysteriously. Boats passed, sirens warbled in the distance, cooing couples walked on the quai above. At one point, a gaggle of inebriated young ladies started singing and calling out to the screen. They didn’t realize that they were echoing Chaplin via Linder via Karno, but they added another layer Mumming Birds-esque commentary to the show.

As the sights and sounds of the world now gently (or not so gently) filtered into the world then as projected in front of me, I pondered the strange lives of the films themselves.

Not unlike a human life, a film destroyed forever unravels the fabric of time in a way that cannot be repaired or even entirely understood. A work of art is never lost alone; it wipes out a network of influences, preparations, moments, dreams, footnotes, and possibilities.

Conversely, a lost film found might knit together the threads of innumerable lives. Charlie Chaplin watched Max Linder, so now when I watch Max Linder, I’m watching Chaplin through Linder. When I watch Chaplin, I watch Linder through Chaplin. The next time I watch Godzilla, I’ll think of Bambi. And the next time I watch Sherlock, I’ll think of Spot the Dog. Even the curiosities, the baubles, the trinkets of film history affect our brains—and sometimes our culture as a whole—in powerful and unpredictable ways.

As a film event, Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme resonates so profoundly, I believe, because it alerts audiences to the mystical dialogue between movies themselves and between movies and lives.

May the yet-undiscovered nitrate reels remain stable, but may the cinephile flame keep on burning. Amen.

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An American (Diva) in Paris: Classic Movies at the Festival Paris Cinéma

pariscinemaI am very pleased to announce that I will be covering this year’s Festival Paris Cinéma as a member of the press. And you should know, as I wrote that, I was pinching myself to make sure this isn’t all some kind of very good dream.

Founded in 2003, the festival, which will take place between July 5 and 12 this year, primarily showcases contemporary international films of note. However, there’s plenty to attract those of us on the old movie beat.

The program celebrates cinema history with a series of Paris Cinéclassics: new restorations digitally projected on the big screen before they’re re-released in France.

The cinéclassics program eschews any unifying theme in favor of a memorably eclectic bunch of 16 movies, ranging from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to Losey’s The Servant (1963) to Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973). Hitchcock, Preminger, and the Swedish director Bo Widerberg feature the most prominently among the selections bunnylakewith two films each. One of my all-time favorite thrillers, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), made it onto the roster and I can’t wait to find out what new details I notice while watching it on the big screen.

I’m also eager to savor some lesser-known and hard-to-find films by French directors, such as Renoir’s Hollywood opus Swamp Water (1941), Allio’s dramedy La Vieille dame indigne (1964), and Benicheti’s documentary Le Cousin Jules (1973).

The Nouveau Latina, a beloved art house theater in the Marais, will present all of the cinéclassics, with one exception. The Louxor, a spectacular Neo-Egyptian movie palace that opened in 1921, will screen North by Northwest—known in France as La Mort aux Trousses, meaning roughly “Death at his Heels” or “Death on his Trail.” A bit more dramatic sounding, n’est-ce pas?

Speaking of translations, all of the non-Francophone cinéclassics will be shown in VOSF: version originale, sous-titres français. That is, in their original language, but with French subtitles. It’ll be interesting (and hopefully not too distracting) to size up the differences between the English dialogue and the onscreen translations.

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Beyond the cinéclassics, ParisCinéma’s 2014 line-up is particularly rich in old movie culture. Sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Paris, a series of 50 films at the Réflet Medicis theater, presented from July to December, will enable audiences to rediscover some of greatest female roles in cinema history. Coinciding with the festival, two showings of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour will honor Emmanuelle Riva’s hypnotic performance as a nameless actress unsettled by doomed love affairs both past and present.

busterSilent music lovers have a treat in store with the festival’s Musique et Cinéma series. Les Berges du Seine, a reclaimed stretch of the river’s Left Bank between the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, will host an open air movie theater. The general public can enjoy screenings of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Tabu (1931) and Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) under the stars free of admission.

Best of all, film preservation legend Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will share an assortment of rare treasures from his collection while accompanying them on the piano. Although most of his picks will be a surprise, Bromberg has announced that he will screen something particularly special: a newly reconstructed version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1921), with added footage once thought to be lost forever.

The festival will close with a classic, too: Paris vu par…, a playful anthology film that preserved the look and feel of the city during the 1960s. Young producer Barbet Schroeder stoked the creativity of six directors—including such Nouvelle Vague vuparheavyweights as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer—by challenging them to capture the spirit of certain sections of Paris in a color 16mm short.

In a touch of reflexivity that the Nouvelle Vague boys would no doubt have appreciated, the film will be projected en plein air on the banks of the Seine—an elegant twist on Paris in movies and movies in Paris.

You can read more about ParisCinéma on its official website or follow the festival on Twitter for the latest news.

On a personal note, I’ll be in Paris for more than a month. So, in addition to my festival coverage, I hope to report on screenings at as many of the city’s historic venues and art house theaters as possible. Brace yourself for updates on my next cinematic adventure!

Hands Up! (1926): Top Secret

rayIn 1926, two silent comedians made movies set during the Civil War. One was panned at the time, but went on to win its rightful place among the greatest movies ever made.

The other, praised upon its release, is all but forgotten.

Indeed, I’ve heard more than one silent movie devotee refer to Hands Up! as “the funniest movie you’ve never heard of.” Well, we really need to do something about the “you’ve never heard of” part.

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Sure, Raymond Griffith’s masterpiece isn’t as great as The General—and you’d have a hard time convincing me that anything is—but it comes mighty close. There was plenty of greatness to go around in that golden age of comedy. A contract player at Paramount, Griffith turned out hilarious, original comedy confections even within the constraints of the studio system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the snide brilliance of the so-called silk hat comedian deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed today. Modern audiences might even be surprised by how morally daring his comedy is.

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Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith rejected the role of the underdog, the harried little man you root for without reservation. By the time he was making feature films, Chaplin wanted you to like him, even when he was behaving badly. Keaton wanted to earn your esteem and to earn it the hard way. And Lloyd wanted to be your personal hero. That contrarian Griffith, far from trying to attract our sympathy, often goes out of his way to make us dislike him. He invites us to question his ethics and to savor his pratfalls all the more because of his doubtful motives and his urbane appearance.

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The comedian himself cited schadenfreude as a central ingredient of his humor. As he told Motion Picture magazine, “the high hat stands for aristocracy, for snobbishness, for aloofness. The boy in the street would rather fire a snowball at a silk hat than at any other type of headgear. In reality, he is taking a whack at what the hat represents, not merely at the hat itself.”

Griffith’s character does appeal to the audience through his competence and panache, but, boy, is he a smug, unscrupulous fellow. His one saving grace is that he makes us laugh with his pride as well as with his falls. It might not be off the mark to identify his persona as a proto-playa. Impressing us with his sheer nerve, he wins the audience over with his vices rather than his virtues.

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Directed by Griffith and Clarence Badger, Hands Up! takes full advantage of the star’s slippery charm. In the role of a Confederate spy known only as Jack, he inveigles to divert or destroy a shipment of gold that would save the Union cause. Brave, but decidedly not heroic, Jack literally carries a couple of aces up his sleeves, woos two women simultaneously, and cheats a Native American chief out of his headdress with a pair of loaded dice. He’s the man we hate to love.

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With his diminutive height and dapper style, Griffith accentuated the comic potential of his starkly un-rugged brand of manhood. In one of the most quietly funny moments of the film, Jack’s primary foe, burly Captain Logan (perennial villain Montagu Love) attempts to intimidate the spy in a stagecoach. Logan pulls out his enormous Colt revolver and casually examines it.

Never one to back down, Jack whips out his firearm—a dainty two-shooter, you know, like saloon madams keep in their garters—and fussily begins polishing it. The enemies sit as mirror images of each other, insouciantly posed but with the hypothetical line of fire from each of their guns trained unmistakably on the other.

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On the most obvious level, the wordless, macho exchange tickles us because of its, ahem, symbolism. (Oh, you men, always trying to prove who’s got the biggest, bestest gun!) More important, this bit of business illuminates an amusing contrast between the characters and how they fit into the movie’s historical context. Captain Logan fully embodies the robust masculinity that we tend to associate with our gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’ Civil War-era forefathers.

Griffith’s Jack, on the other hand, might strike us as comically effete for that period—and as rather unprepared for the toughness of his opponent. Yet, like his miniature pistol, he’s discreet and surprisingly useful in a jam. In a later scene, Logan holds a man at gunpoint, the tip of his Colt on the hostage’s head… whereupon Jack darts out from behind and jabs his foe in the belly with the ladylike pistol that looked so innocuous.

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In other words, Hands Up! suggests that caliber doesn’t matter; it’s the dexterity of the spy that counts.

The wit of Hands Up! often emerges from clever repetitions: sets of two parallel sequences, shown in succession, become outrageously funny as the differences (or the similarities) between the variations pile up. For instance, the film opens with scenes of the Union and Confederate agents receiving their orders respectively from President Lincoln and General Lee. First, bulky, straight-faced Captain Logan accepts his mission in a static conference room. Lincoln turns to Logan and to Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service and future founder of the famous detective agency. The President confides, “Gentlemen—this is a secret between the three of us.”

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Immediately afterwards, Jack obtains his instructions in a scene that begins the same way, but ultimately overflows with kinetic hilarity. A succession of classics from the slapstick playbook embellish an interaction that, just a moment ago, served as standard exposition. As General Lee and his aide wait in a cabin under heavy Union fire and bombardment, Jack bounds off a horse and darts into the meeting place in a whirl of dust.

64Lee explains the commission and Jack accepts, just as a bomb detonates the cabin sky-high, leaving Jack and the General shaking hands in the debris. By leading us to expect identical (and thus rather tiresome) scenarios, Griffith and Badger undermine the viewer’s expectations—and then literally blow the roof off of them.

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Unfazed by the explosion, Lee echoes Lincoln’s words exactly, “This is a secret between the three of us!” An errant bullet mows down Lee’s aide.

Jack doesn’t flinch and dryly corrects the General, “The two of us, sir.”

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Now, that update is funny, but a pretty damn morbid kind of funny. Even Lee looks a trifle scandalized by Jack’s lack of shock. Griffith engineers a joke that depends on the audience’s desensitization to onscreen death, or at least to the deaths of characters we don’t know well. His barely-there quip reminds me of the wry James Bond one-liners that make us chuckle just after 007 has dispatched a henchman.

While I’m on the subject of everyone’s favorite super-spy, I’d note that our Jack comes across as downright Bond-ish in his luck with the ladies. The most fertile running gag of Hands Up! involves Jack courting two daughters of a pro-Lincoln mine owner with a series of identical gestures. Towards the end of the film, he’s trying to make a getaway with the gold when each sister stops him. Within the space of a few minutes, he proposes to not one, but both of the girls—in the exact same manner!

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Played through once, the mini love scene might provoke titters of laughter by gently lampooning melodramatic love scene tropes. Played through twice, with recycled intertitles and all, the scene’s satire on relationships ascends to a truly farcical level.

I won’t tell you how this love triangle resolves itself, but let me say if you’re thinking, “Um, threesome?” you’re actually quite close. I usually have no qualms about spoilers, but the ending of Hands Up! is as unexpected as it is uproarious, so I’ll keep that one top secret for now. It’s worth tracking down a copy of the film just to find out for yourself how the romantic subplots conclude.

28Cunning as its saboteur protagonist, the comic style of Hands Up! also draws deftly on illusion and ellipsis. For example, early on in the film, Jack is discovered as a spy and about to face a firing squad. The entire execution scene revolves around Jack’s clever ruses to distract his would-be executioners. We neither see him being caught, nor do we actually see him escape. The sections of narrative that most silent comedians might be inclined to emphasize and elaborate on have been omitted entirely.

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In fact, the audience only learns that Jack has escaped when the head of the firing squad does—and it gives us a moment of supreme tension. The line of gunners fires and we wince. Huh? What? Who kills off the protagonist? But Jack, apparently tied up and facing a wall, doesn’t collapse. The soldiers fire again. He’s still standing? How is that possible? The head of the squad steps forward to check—and realizes that his men had been shooting at a trompe l’oeil painting that the prisoner had daubed on the wall. (Evidently, Confederate spies are forced to take a course in rapid-fire oil painting before entering the field.)

54Later in the film, Jack relies again on the power of illusion to save his hide by tricking an enemy to fire at his reflection instead of him. Because the audience only sees into a fragment of the room where Jack is hiding, we can’t know that he’s stowed behind the door—away from the line of fire. In this instance, an illusion plus a spatial ellipsis generates tension and then relief. While the gunpowder clears, we see Jack hastily making his getaway.

mirrorNow, I’ve really only scratched the surface of this rich, action-packed classic. You really owe it to yourself to see the movie. Like many of the best things in life, Raymond Griffith’s best work demands a little effort—to track down a scarce DVD or scout for an even scarcer screening. I’m sending you, dear reader, out on a little mission like Jack’s: retrieve the comedy gold. Perhaps then this movie, and the sublime comedy of its secret agent protagonist, won’t be such a secret anymore.

44(Note: Hands Up! is not by any means politically correct by today’s standards. Duh. It was made in 1926 and was cartoonishly depicting 1864. That said, I refuse to make any apologies for a movie that’s still less offensive—and way more funny—than plenty of what you can watch on TV right now.)

This post is part of the Snoopathon, a blogathon celebrating spies in classic cinema, hosted by the amazing Movies Silently. Click the banner below to check out the other entries!

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High Hat: Raymond Griffith and Paths to Paradise (1925)

rayhatYou may have never heard of Raymond Griffith, as I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but you’ve probably seen him. His brief role—as the mortally-wounded French soldier Gérard Duval in All Quiet on the Western Front—ranks as one of the most memorable uncredited parts in all cinema.

This heartrending turn would be his last appearance before the camera, an ironic final act for one of the greatest laugh-makers of the silent screen.

Hollywood’s transition to talkies put a definitive end to Griffith’s stardom, not because he had an incongruous voice, but because he barely had one at all. Though an avid conversationalist, he couldn’t speak above a hoarse whisper, “the ghost of a voice” as one fan magazine described it.

The handicap was occasionally blamed on his show business childhood spent screaming in melodramas night after night. In point of fact, it was diphtheria that probably caused the permanent damage to his vocal chords and set an expiration date on his acting career. As adaptable as his celluloid persona, in the early talkie years Griffith transitioned smoothly to the roles of producer and sought-after script doctor and never looked back.

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During an era of imposed silence, however, the dapper, blasé Griffith rivaled the greatest comics of the 1920s. This feat speaks to his glittering intelligence and resourcefulness, since he produced his films at a major studio, Paramount. You might say that Griffith rose from the same conditions that proved the downfall of certain other silent geniuses. As Motion Picture magazine observed in May 1926, “If all the truth were told, his presentations would read something like this:

Raymond Griffith in ‘So and So’

Adapted from the story by Raymond Griffith

Directed by Raymond Griffith

Photographed with suggestions by Raymond Griffith

Titles by Raymond Griffith

A Raymond Griffith Production.”

So, even in his own day, he wasn’t perceived as solely a gifted comic actor, but as a bona fide auteur.

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Griffith’s Paths to Paradise, released into theaters the same month as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Lloyd’s The Freshman, held its own in the eyes of the critics. Compared to those two better-remembered films, Paths, co-directed by Clarence Badger, blazes a completely different path for comedy. Whereas Lloyd and Chaplin stabbed the public cleanly in the feels with tales of toil and woe made unexpectedly funny, Griffith cleansed viewers’ palates of pathos and sentiment.

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Interestingly enough, although Griffith plays a congenial crook, the viewer never feels manipulated by him. His unfazeable (it’s a real word because I say so) persona exists solely to entertain us. The phenomenal silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis (who put Griffith on my radar) has noted that the comedian plays especially well to audiences today, since his films can seem “a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern” compared to those of his contemporaries.

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An autodidact and classic literature junkie, Griffith cited Aristophanes and Molière as two of his favorite slapstick masters. One can discern the indiscriminate wit and nothing-sacred mentality of those timeless playwrights in Griffith’s worldview. The “silk hat comedian” demurs to deliver any broad moral vision, apart from the idea that we live in a shyster world and it behooves us all to be the most competent shysters we can be. If that’s not a message for our day and age, I don’t know what is.

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Paths to Paradise revels in dissembling and chicanery. It’s a veritable millefeuille of fakery: airy, yet carefully structured. As “the Dude from Duluth,” a debonair confidence trickster, Griffith wafts about, assuming a dozen different aliases and cheerfully pursuing other people’s wealth.  For the greater part of the story, the Dude and Molly—the delightful Betty Compson as a fiery lady criminal—vie for the chance to swipe a valuable diamond necklace.

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This sadly neglected classic peppers its discreet Lubitsch-esque interplay with bits of action-comedy that might make even Buster Keaton crack a smile. The Dude and Molly’s rivalry and eventual alliance, set against the backdrop of a society wedding party, is sandwiched between two dazzling set pieces. The film begins with an elaborate triple-cross scenario in a seedy corner of San Francisco’s Chinatown and ends with a chase involving hundreds of policemen on motorcycles.

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These bookend stunners cleverly use cinema’s complex balance of illusion and reality to make us laugh. Blissfully innocent of exposition, the opening sequence quickly establishes the Bucket o’ Blood saloon as a generically nasty underworld watering hole. Hatchet-faced thieves scowl at each other and some tough dame, the Queen of Counterfeiters, is making money in the corner. We notice these things especially because a tour guide—and the camera—points them out to a small group of wealthy sightseers.

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Their curiosity satisfied, the thrill-seekers depart, whereupon the Queen of Counterfeiters serves up the results of her labors: she was only making waffles. Despite the “genuine” textures of the gangland saloon, we realize that it was all just an act, staged to extract dollars from gullible tourists. The guide sticks his head into the saloon and announces their next customer. Some poor goof wants to see a Chinese joint. In a matter of seconds, the small army of cons transforms the saloon into an opium den, bringing out lacquered crates and scrambling up into bunk beds with long pipes.

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And in steps our hero. First seen in a mysterious, imposing silhouette, the Dude from Duluth rather underwhelms us when he appears in person. Another trick. Another chuckle.

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The crew of racketeers proceeds to put on a new show for the Dude. Through it all, he overreacts to each fresh exotic shock: cowering dope fiends begging for money, an overly solicitous Tong proprietor, and the agonized pleas of the Queen of Chinatown.

The fakers manage to extort an ungodly sum of money from the Dude and send him scuttling away…but he stops at the door, lets his lackey in, and flashes a badge. What a sting!

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After roundly lecturing the group of flimflammers, the Dude graciously accepts a bribe in exchange for not hauling the lot of them to the station. The Dude saunters out. Oh, he left something behind: his badge. But wait…

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He’s no policeman. He conned the cons with nothing more than guts and a gas inspector’s badge.

Within the space of a few minutes, our perception of the protagonist thus radically changes—twice. His modulation from startled gentleman slummer to wily undercover cop to consummate scoundrel impresses the audience. His nimbleness of identity wins over our good humor in spite of—or maybe thanks to—that reptilian glint in his eye and his beastly indifference.

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More important, a lot of the comedy of the scene depends on our brain cache of movie-going experiences. The racketeers expertly summon up a bunch of cues that signify certain romanticized locales, not as they really are (probably) but rather as they’re typically depicted. These hustlers know how we’ve been conditioned to read and anticipate these cues.

In this way, the fake-outs within the film remind the audience of the fake-out that is film, of the thousand-and-one times we’ve seen a dive like the Bucket o’ Blood or an exaggerated Chinatown hovel in a movie and accepted it as reality. Paths to Paradise celebrates the creativity of crooks even as it debunks the clichés which Hollywood, that great community of swindlers, puts over on us regularly.

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The conclusion of the film, as the Dude speeds towards the Mexican border with the jewels and the girl, also riffs on this concept of pushing movie-land fraud to extremes. Road signs announcing DANGER! fly right into the camera. Spectacular high angle shots show a fleet of motorcycles careening around curvy mountain paths in pursuit of our hero—ahead by a nose.

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As the brilliant Walter Kerr explains in The Silent Clowns, “The business is flatly impossible… a gleeful seizing on silent-comedy permissiveness… Griffith’s planning eye has told him precisely what camera angles are needed to validate the gag while reveling in its preposterousness.”

The joke’s on you and me, the viewers who inevitably recognize but condone the shenanigans. And unlike a lot of today’s “meta-humor,” this dose from 1925 is actually funny. Griffith exposes filmdom’s cheating—then uses it to his and our benefit.

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My favorite moment from the film savors a less flamboyant flavor of flimflamming. At one point, a few policemen happen across the Dude and Molly (disguised as a maid) fighting over the diamonds. Improvising with the reflexes of professional crooks, they can’t just act like nothing was going on. There’s too much electricity in the air. So, the Dude and Molly break apart and proceed to make eyes at each other furtively, as if they’d just been caught in flagrante. We get this wonderful suite of leisurely-paced, evasive, eyeline-matched shots as the Dude and Molly fidget and feign to avert their gaze.

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Don’t get me wrong: they’re not pretending they were just canoodling. They’re pretending that they’re pretending they weren’t just canoodling. Griffith and Compson’s sophisticated performances convey a micro version of the film’s layering of charades that proves a total joy to watch.

Now, I write about a lot of movies that I think you all (or those of you who make it to the ends of my posts, you brave souls) should seek out. But this one really needs you to go and buy it. I think the time is right for a Griffith rediscovery.

This man and his work have dwelt too long in silence.

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