Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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The Reel War: Historic Pictures from WWI’s Celluloid Front

Dismissed as an insipid novelty less than a decade earlier, the film medium flexed its muscles during World War I as it never had before. Movies documented life in the trenches for eager audiences on the home front… while conveniently concealing gory realities. They cheered the hearts of those fighting the battles. They even helped to turned the tide by persuasively prodding America into the fray.

The war also forever altered the landscape of film production and distribution, decimating European national cinemas and establishing Hollywood as the industry’s juggernaut. Screenwriter Anita Loos observed, Hollywood “was an outcome of an economic situation created by war.” If the conflict shaped Hollywood, Hollywood shaped the war, as well. Propaganda pictures moulded public opinion with “real-life footage” actually shot on California sound stages. Movie stars, still a relatively new phenomenon, drew massive crowds and raised even more massive amounts of money for the war effort, demonstrating the unprecedented power of celluloid fame.

So, without further ado, I invite you to ponder these images, gleaned from a variety of sources, that convey the multi-faceted significance of film and filmdom during WWI.

mary_doug_and_charlie_againDouglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin insist that every part of America should make a contribution to the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds. (And, is it just me, or is Charlie giggling over Florida’s phallic shape?)

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR I/PATRIOTISM

The irrepressibly likable Douglas Fairbanks engages a sea of spectators while talking up the third Liberty Loan in front of the Sub-Treasury building in New York City. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

As the actor’s son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. remembered, “When my father tried to join up [for active service] he was personally written to by President Wilson at the time who said ‘For heaven’s sake, we’re not going to let you do that because you can do much, much more for the country by raising these vast sums which nobody else can do.'”

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Mary Pickford stirs up a crowd with her patriotic rhetoric at a Liberty Bond rally in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 1918. A single speech from Little Mary could harvest some big cash—millions in a day. Image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Doug and Mary pose with relief packages. Another image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin make an appearance in Philadelphia, lobbying support and funds for the third Liberty Loan drive.

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Silent film actress Edith Storey knits a sweater for her brother in the Navy, while wearing a Russian Army uniform for her latest film. Wartime fan magazines often shared images of female stars working at their needles—in the hopes that their legions of fans would follow suit and contribute warm woolens for the boys overseas.

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The silent screen’s original vamp, Theda Bara visits a ward of wounded veterans. Though famous for playing carnivorous femmes fatales, the actress revealed her heart of gold by raising money for the war effort and visiting army camps to raise morale. (Image from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

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This image showing Private Keaton of the Fortieth ‘Sunshine’ Division suggests that even the Great War couldn’t make a dent in Buster’s poker face. Still, the silent clown recalled his frustration with the fact that the U.S. Army clearly didn’t design uniforms with men of his build (a lean 5’5″) in mind; his standard-issue outfit made him “look and feel ridiculous.”

Although Keaton applied himself dutifully to army life, he reported in his memoirs, “It was not always possible to take that war seriously. In the first place, I could not understand why we, the French, and the English were fighting the Germans and the Austrians. Being in vaudeville all my life had made me international-mided. I had met too many kindly German performers—singers and acrobats and musicians—to believe they could be as evil as they were being portrayed in our newspapers. Having known Germans, Japanese jugglers, Chinese magicians, Italian tenors, Swiss yodelers and bell-ringers, Irish, Jewish, and Dutch comedians, British dancers, and whirling dervishes from India, I believed people from everywhere in the world were about the same. Not as individuals, of course, but taken as a group.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons via this article about Keaton’s service in WWI, which I recommend.

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Speaking of comedians… Max Linder, the ground-breaking French comic (right), convalescing from a major injury at an army hospital and holding hands with, I believe, a member of a Senegalese tirailleur unit. The first international film star, Linder projected a dandyish screen image and was known for his ubiquitous silk top hat—he’s all but unrecognizable in this cloth cap and ragtag bundle of clothes. Sadly, Linder’s career would suffer from the decline of the French film industry following the war; he directed and starred in feature-length comedies in the United States, but met with only limited success among American audiences.

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Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, solemnly works under a service flag decorated with a star for each studio employee in the military—and there are 217 of them. German-born Laemmle, aiming to distance himself from a background which made him a possible target for prejudice and even boycotting, green-lit some of the most virulent anti-Hun propaganda films of the era. Years later, however, his studio would produce the acclaimed WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which expresses a poignant anti-war message through its sympathetic German protagonist.

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Pickford in uniform? Did she single-handledly win WWI like she seems to do in the movies? Well, no, but she was the honorary colonel and “godmother” of a regiment, the 143rd Field Artillery, jokingly referred to as “Mary’s Lambs.”

A uniformed Pickford also presided over a group of studio employees known as the Lasky Home Guard who vowed to enlist and serve their country. As Agnes de Mille remembered, she “wore a splendid couturier’s outfit of patriotic grey with a little veil down the back. She looked splendid… and sent them to death very valiantly. The grisly part is some did go to death.”

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Two volunteers with the YMCA use a portable projector to show movies to an audience of soldiers in France.

In the Photoplay article that accompanied this image, Janet Cummings of the overseas YMCA service extolled the importance of movies to American troops: “Film has been the recruiting sergeant, the drillmaster, the morale-strengthener and the faithful comrade-in-arms of this country’s army in cantonment, on board transport, in front line camp, in the zone of the rear and in hospital.”

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American sailors crowd in to enjoy a comedy projected on their battleship’s patch.

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An open-air movie theater in an American army encampment. In this picture, however, no movie is playing. A boxing match is taking place on the stage in front of the screen instead.

Interestingly enough, the price of admission to screenings “over there” cost five or ten cents for an enlisted man. Many soldiers couldn’t spare a nickel, so Americans on the home front helped them out by buying and donating movie vouchers. At the time, railroads sold mileage booklets that would enable a traveler to ride for a certain distance. Hence, the film vouchers were affectionately called “smilage” booklets—letting the troops smile and forget their cares for an hour or so.

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Second-Lieutenant A.H.C. Sintzenich of the U.S. Signal Corps prepares to record some footage with his Debrie camera from a light railway track in Sussex, England…

debrie1 …and now Sintzenich braces himsele to take off and capture some aerial shots.

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D.W. Griffith (wearing a bow-tie) visits an active battlefield sector in France—just 50 yards away from the German lines—while developing his wartime drama Hearts of the World. Invited to Europe by the British government, Griffith was the only film director allowed to tour the trenches. (Previous three images from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Yet, Griffith witnessing war firsthand—after faking it so often on film—described the experience as an anticlimax:

“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.”

~          ~          ~

Please note that most images with no specified source were cropped and edited (by me) from digitized issues of Photoplay magazine, for which I gratefully acknowledge the Media History Digital Library.

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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Free Friday Film: Dark Journey (1937)

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In order to explain the plot of Dark Journey fully, I would need to make a diagram. Which is why I’ll spare us all and just tell you to watch it.

If the plot of this 1937 British espionage thriller leaves us in the dark, its resplendent romance rises to the occasion and lights the way through. Best of all, Victor Saville’s stylish movie manages to convey the individual stakes of spying in wartime far more effectively than most pre-WWII secret agent yarns I’ve seen.

Under the gloss of their anachronistic settings and costumes, Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt communicate the exhaustion and anxiety of two people constantly on guard, constantly assessing the risks and rewards of their actions and affections.

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Despite the fact that the story takes place during World War I, the producers made absolutely no attempt to recreate the fashions and ambiance of that period. Right there, the eye is confused: it’s hard to keep telling yourself that the events of Dark Journey are unfolding in 1918 when the cast appears to have sought refuge from one of Wallis Simpson’s house parties. I would usually object, but I find this cavalier attitude towards verisimilitude rather charming. I guess, you can never predict what I’ll find charming, but usually it involves Art Deco in some way.

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“My monocle is very displeased!”

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“And now my monocle is intrigued…”

And speaking of charming, Veidt looks better than ever in a monocle and a tuxedo that shows of his impeccable waist—only slightly larger in circumference than that of his exquisite co-star. Vivien Leigh, in her sixth movie and one of her first true leading roles, musters an extraordinary performance so subtle that, in comparison to her Scarlett O’Hara, it could be mistaken for somnambulism. She carries her much-remarked-on porcelain beauty like a mask that only occasionally allows a crease of genuine reaction to be perceived.

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Be forewarned: from here on in, this post does contain major spoilers. However, I would also note that about 25 minutes into this film, I was searching for spoilers on the Internet, the film had confused me so. IMDb gives the following tagline: During World War I, a German spy and a British spy meet and fall in love. Okay, fair enough, except that I kept wondering which character was spying for whom. On the surface, it seemed obvious, after all, Viv is English and Connie is German.

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But wait! Our Viv plays Madeleine Goddard, a Swiss dress shop proprietor living in Sweden who practically commutes back and forth from Paris, importing the newest French fashions with her. With each trip, she brings more with her than the latest modes: military information sewn into the fabric. We discover this when she attends a clandestine meeting of vaguely sinister middle-aged blokes and proceeds to decipher a dress by holding it up to a lampshade with a map pattern.

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From there, one of her confederates signals the defense information to a boat which then conveys it to… BERLIN?

What!?! Vivien? The so-British-she-was-born-in-India Viv of That Hamilton Woman as a German spy? The mind reels at the thought, even if she is playing a Swiss girl. Or is she?

Meanwhile, the first time we see Conrad Veidt, probably best known as the wicked Major Strasser, he’s not engaged in espionage for the Fatherland. His Baron Von Marwitz is running away from the Fatherland! As he wryly informs a customs agent, “I came to Sweden because I want to refrain from any political activity.”

So, I ask myself, is this deserter going to start spying for the British while she’s spying for the Germans? Well, no. Just wait and see.

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The graceful aristocrat indulges himself in Stockholm, establishing his reputation as a bon vivant with a special trick: he can tell what any girl will say after he’s kissed her. Madeleine sees him playing this parlor game at a nightclub and blows his secret: there are only a few likely things a girl would say, and he keeps all them in some part of his clothing, only to reach for the correct one when the time comes and act like he thought of it beforehand. Don’t ask.

Enchanted by Madeleine’s brains (and the fact that she has Vivien Leigh’s face), Von Marwitz pursues the girl, seemingly unaware of her extracurricular activities. Their love affair unfolds with a mixture of passion and fear, fascination and hostility, as we detect in their earliest exchanges:

Marwitz: Why did you give away my little trick last night?

Madeleine: Because you claim to know so much about women.

Marwitz: I know nothing about them.

Madeleine: That means that you’ve had a lot of experience.

Marwitz: Oh, a lot. But what does it amount to?

Madeleine (giving him the bill for the dresses he just bought for some tarty girl): One thousand two hundred and seventy-five krona.

But back to the intrigue: When Madeleine’s superior agents order her to Paris, then and only then, more than halfway into the film, did I learn that she’s actually a double agent. She passes on select information to the Germans for the strategic benefit of the French and the British.

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However, no sooner do we find this out than does Marwitz… who’s actually the hidden mastermind behind the German Secret Service cell in Stockholm. Head spinning yet?

The final third of Dark Journey shines most brightly, once the characters have put their cards on the table and the situation is handled for suspense rather than surprise. In the astonishing scene when Madeleine figures out Marwitz’s identity, they lock in one of the slowest, most poetic movie kisses I’ve ever seen. Madeleine clings to him as he lifts her slightly—like a ballet in smooch-form.

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Veidt and Leigh possess a strange chemistry that churns mightily, like the waves of the North Atlantic, an image that dominates Dark Journey. The two enigmas collide. Under his hedonistic façade, there’s a core of austere courage and beneath her schoolgirl manners, she harbors the fierce strength of a career woman and a spy. Their relationship buzzes with the electrical charge that comes from two equals, two foes joined in a dangerous embrace. Shades of Garbo and Gilbert!

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Throughout the frenetic following scenes, I found myself wringing my hands in dread over what’s to become of Madeleine, as she now rushes to flee the country and escape from her beloved who must do his duty and try to have her killed.

In one particularly lovely scene at the end, once she’s been smuggled onto a ship leaving Sweden, Leigh’s performance suggests the natural emotions that one would feel: the simultaneous relief (I’m safe now…) and apprehension (…safe for the moment). However, she also adds a layer of more perverse sentiments—we understand that she wants Marwitz to abduct her because that would mean that he is indeed a daring patriot and also a passionate lover. In her mind, he’s part Siegfried, part enemy agent. Ironically, only by trying to drag her to her execution can Marwitz prove an ideal romantic partner. We perceive the barest glint of excitement in her eyes when she hears the ship being boarded.

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In the “Dolce” section of Irene Nemirovsky’s haunting WWII novel, Suite Française, a German officer, engaged in a forbidden romance with a French woman, compares the anticipation inherent in war and in love, observing that “Waiting is erotic.” Dark Journey captivated me with this atmosphere of waiting, of imminence. Fans of a good star-crossed love story won’t be steered wrong with this one.

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The script provides many piquant morsels of dialogue from Arthur Wimperis, whose dry wit enlivened Mrs. Miniver and A Knight Without Armor, and Lajos Biró, the brilliant scenarist behind Alexander Korda’s historical “private lives” films. I enjoyed the banter between Madeleine’s squabbling saleswomen, one German, one French, whose daily backbiting reveals the ultimate pettiness of war and nationalism. As Madeleine finally tells them, “I do not want French women here… nor German women. I want saleswomen!”

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“Stop playing League of Nations and take care of the customers, you hussies!”

Madeleine’s crotchety, lazy storekeeper, Anatole also gets some amusing, but very un-Continental lines. While trying to make his excuses for not sweeping the floor, he kvetches, “What can one do with a broom that’s as bare as the behind of the burgermaster’s baby?”

My absolute favorite line, however, comes from the mouth of a bit player—why do bit players get the best lines in British films? One of Von Marwitz’s servants is bemoaning the Baron’s infatuation with Madeleine which prompts him to buy up all of her dresses as an excuse to see her: “It used to be all girls with no clothes. Now it’s all clothes with no girls.” What’s the 1930s equivalent of LMAO?

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Shot by world-class cinematographers George Périnal (of Colonel Blimp and The Fallen Idol) and Harry Stradling Sr. (of Suspicion and My Fair Lady), Dark Journey paints a glamorous world with undercurrents of surreal dread. From the claustrophobic halls of steamer ships—threatened by torpedoes—to the chic expanses of posh nightclubs, this film offers us an entertaining portal into Europe on the brink of World War II.

Watch Dark Journey. You may be utterly befuddled by the plot. But, if you’re like me, you’ll be too entranced to care.

To watch the movie on YouTube, click here.

And because they’re both so beautiful, here are some gratuitous screencaps of Vivien and Connie. 14 40 46 57

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Journey’s End: Remembering Colin Clive on His Birthday

Journey's End“I’m no Clark Gable in the matter of looks; I require a good dramatic play before my fatal charm is discernible.” —Colin Clive

Fatal, indeed.

On this date in 1900, Clive Clive came into the world. In 1937, he died alone and unhappy in an oxygen tent, succumbing to alcohol-exacerbated tuberculosis. He didn’t stay here for long, but in some ways he never left.

He lives in a thousand imitations of his broken-reed voice, in horror movies that he hated making, in the dormant celluloid of films not available for distribution, and in my cinephiliac obsession. He always seemed to be a bundle of nerves—even beyond the diegetic gallery of tightly-wrapped characters he played, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope to the blasphemous Dr. Frankenstein to the traumatized Stephen Orlac.

The twitchy, overblown energy of Clive’s performances, his harnessed panic, makes you somehow more aware of what the film critic Laura Mulvey has called death at 24 frames per second, the poignant passage of time as captured by the camera.

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There are many things that I would like to say to Clive, but someone else pretty much wrote it all down and actually sent it to him when he was still around to read it:

I want to thank you for the little bit of rare beauty you have given me, a real spark of something which does not exist in the world today. I am not speaking of your great acting nor the great part you brought to life so expertly. Others have done great acting before, and there have been many great parts written. I am speaking of something which, probably, was very far from the mind of the author when he wrote Journey’s End, and from your own when you acted it. Perhaps that which I saw in you exists only in my own mind and no one else would see it, or care to see. I am speaking of your achievement in bringing to life a completely heroic human being.”

This is an excerpt from a beautifully written fan letter by no less than Ayn Rand (!) who saw Clive perform in a stage revival of Journey’s End in 1934. She was herself a successful playwright at the time. Clive replied that her praise meant a lot to him. I hope that he internalized some of it. Whatever anyone may think or feel about Ayn Rand, I must admit that she seized on a key aspect of Colin Clive.

Journey's EndIt’s ironic that Rand, who championed iron wills and inner strength, should have so admired a man whose weaknesses and insecurities destroyed him. And yet, Clive was not just a downward spiral, but an aspiration towards something higher.

All of his performances have a grace and beauty to them, as if even the most loathsome characters could have been better people—should have been, but were cut off by some cruel twist of fate.

When Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein delivers his speech about clouds and stars and eternity, he becomes my personal definition of the heroic in mankind. In this case, I know exactly what Rand was on about.

Some actors have fans, and that’s just fine. Colin Clive has a cult. I wonder what he would have thought of us, the endless Googlers of his image, holding vigil over his memory. I’m not entirely sure that he would have been pleased. He may well have been a trifle freaked out.

But I would like to remember him on his 113th birthday with a few words about his first film, in which he recreated his signature stage role: Captain Stanhope, a part he seemed born to play.

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The cast of Journey’s End and James Whale listen to the radio on the set.

Directed by James Whale, Journey’s End reminds me a lot of Das Boot: quite long, claustrophobic, and character-driven. After two hours, confined almost entirely to the trench set, we feel as though we’re really in there with these damned, laughing fellows. We come recognize and cherish their foibles and mannerisms through the intimacy of the camera.

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I must confess, though, the first time I saw this, I found myself disappointed by how terribly uncinematic it seems. Then again, overwhelmingly stationary shots are par for the course in an early talkie.

Whale matter-of-factly plunks us down in the trench and lets most of the action unfold in medium long shots, with the occasional significant close-up—a yucky blancmange, a box of candles, hands opening a letter. Apart from the striking chiaroscuros of a few bombardment scenes and some muddy tracking shots, we get little sense of the innovating flair James Whale clearly had for making horror jump off the screen.

However, trench warfare isn’t cinematic, is it? It’s not a sweeping crane shot. It’s not lyrical in the least. It’s creaky, stale, and soggy. Journey’s End manages to convey these qualities aptly, while still mobilizing the force of our bond with the characters to hold our attention. By about ten minutes in, we like these unfortunate chaps. We wonder which ones of them are going to die. We hope that the causalities will be minimal.

The cast works remarkably well together. David Manners, in particular, will surprise you if you’ve only seen him play juvenile romantic leads. As Raleigh, he transforms from the fresh-cheeked schoolboy soldier into a mortified, disillusioned young man. Returning from a raid in which most of the men died, Raleigh collapses onto a bed; Whale gives us a close-up of Manners who really did pull out all the stops. He looks shattered, hollow-eyed, sweaty, and broken—a far cry from his wooden pretty boy reputation.

Journey's EndWhale does occasionally oblige us with moments of conspicuous filmic brilliance. For instance, at the very end, when the cowardly Hibbert hesitates to join the front line, we get a shot of the doorway to the top of the trench, where a body is being carried past on a stretcher in silhouette. It borders on allegory: the doorway to death. The image shifts towards abstraction, like the famous reaper shots in Dreyer’s Vampyr. A WWI veteran himself, Whale knew how to reduce trench warfare to a bare, razor-sharp grisaille. This touch foreshadows the morbid, metaphysical resonance of Frankenstein.

Just as Frankenstein begins before it starts with the sounds of weeping that precede the opening images of the funeral, the deep, booming bass of exploding shells begins over the credits of Journey’s End—and keeps banging away through the film until the audience’s nerves have gone to pieces, too. Pretty astute use of sound for 1930.

Journey's EndReturning to our leading man, Clive became Stanhope. Or perhaps Stanhope became Clive. One can understand why Whale insisted that Clive be imported from England immediately, as no other actor would do.

This was rather unusual, that a stage actor unseasoned by cinema experience be brought thousands of miles for a single part only. Well, from the moment Clive enters the dugout set—his face half-hidden from the camera by his metal helmet, brushing briskly by, trying to drop his knapsack on his bunk, then pulling the strap off where he caught it on his shoulder with a weary tug—his every movement rings utterly true. We never feel that he’s playing for the camera, which I consider a small miracle, since he had never acted for one before.

Drunk parts are notoriously hard and perhaps Clive wasn’t faking drunk. Whatever Clive’s consumption of whisky was during production, though, Stanhope’s state of inebriation varies through so many shadings of prickly, dreamy, and cheerily garrulous that we’re watching a person shot through a prism—all the emotions that usually coexist in diluted form come through in vivid contrast. He portrays a man fractured and fragmented into pieces, pieces that some central, guiding insight is trying like mad to hold together.

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The thing that nurtures Stanhope, his perspicacity, his ability to understand the point of staying strong in the midst of pointlessness, is also the thing that makes him need to numb himself out with alcohol. Like a plant which, when its growth upwards is blocked off, twists around but keeps on growing, Stanhope’s passion for life has been stunted by war into the desire to die like a man—the only option left. Part child and part old soul, Clive’s Stanhope shines with the feverish glow of the actor’s own incandescent torment.

I consider Stanhope the flip side of Clive’s Frankenstein. Both are individuals attuned to some higher significance. Stanhope delivers a marvelous speech about giddy stars and mortality that almost certainly inspired the famous monologue from Frankenstein (which was not in the shooting script, incidentally). We recognize in Stanhope, as in Frankenstein, a brutal hubris that holds everyone to a high standard—but himself to an almost impossible standard.

Journey's EndPerhaps most importantly, Whale shows both men (Stanhope and Frankenstein) to be rather childlike. Remember how Frankenstein, seeing Elizabeth, takes a few steps and collapses in his laboratory when his father comes for him? That moment echoes a scene in Journey’s End when, consumed by worries and heavily inebriated, Stanhope falls into his bunk and partially out of frame. His head and shoulders are off-screen as the fatherly Sergeant Osborne puts a blanket on him. It’s as if he disappeared for a moment, regressed into a place where he’s no longer trapped in the trenches, but he then calls pathetically, “Tuck me up!” In both films, Whale and Clive deliver moving depictions of men returning to helpless boyhood on the brink of exhaustion.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Osborne reads a letter from Raleigh, who happens to be the brother of Stanhope’s fiancée. Stanhope fears that Raleigh will unmask him as a drunkard and ruin his reputation with the girl he loves, but instead, as Osborne reads the letter, Stanhope hears nothing but kind words for his spirit and leadership. The play of emotions on Clive’s face is, as usual, extraordinary. We spot relief, yes, but also anguish, sadness, an attempt to gather his courage, as though he were facing down German machine guns. I have to commend Clive on this unique interpretation, but a very genuine one, as I believe that praise is the most humbling thing in this world. Praise frightens Stanhope more than criticism, because being a fine fellow is an ideal he has to live up to. Heroism is his curse.

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Clive exuded a borderline ludicrous modesty in his interviews, claiming that anyone could have done his parts well, that it was the writing or the directing that did most of the work. This quote, from a 1932 issue of Picture Show magazine, characterizes his attitude towards fame and his obvious talent:

“It took me ten years to learn my job on the provincial stage—of course, I’m still learning now; but I’m afraid it will take me a lot longer to learn anything really worthwhile about films. The technical side is so interesting, and if ever I do master this part of making pictures I would like to produce pictures and give up acting altogether. 

“You see, I’m little more than a puppet really as far as film work is concerned. The director does all the brain work. He is the man who makes the picture.”  

I think that praise frightened this self-deprecating man as much as it scared Stanhope. Well, that’s too bad. I want to praise how he ruffles a dying friend’s hair, while looking away from the body in horror. I want to praise how disobligingly nasty and snappish he acts at times in the film, yet still makes us care for him. I want to praise him for “the little bit of beauty” he bequeathed to us with his performance.

Watch Journey’s End and I think you will too.

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(Note: I refuse to post screenshots of this film because the print on YouTube, as well as the one on my DVD, look like they’ve been dropped in the mud at the Battle of Ypres. You can watch the full movie by clicking here, although it’s a crime against humanity that someone has not restored this magnificent film about the tragedy of war. Since no one has, I’ve decided to include a lot of publicity stills and materials in this post which I gleaned from the fantastic Tumblrs of missanthropicprinciple, sullivanstrvls, and, of course, colincliveforever. Do give them a look. They post terrific movie-related images and reflections and they have my gratitude.)

Insanely Real: Renfield, Dracula, and World War I

If you don’t like disturbing images and ideas, I advise you not to read this blog post. Seriously.

I realize that, in writing this, I am echoing about a century of horror movie taglines that warned away the “faint of heart” and promised near-fatal excitement. In this case, I am writing about real horrors along with fictional ones. And they are unforgettable, irredeemably awful. Some of you may have read my post on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and how that film processes some of the trauma of World War I. Now, I’d like to write about a movie that takes on the WWI legacy in a much more subtle and, I would argue, poignant, way: Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.

“Wait a minute, there, sister,” I hear you saying. “Dracula is a Victorian novel so how can it be about a modern total war? The answer revolves around the characterization of the “madman” Renfield. I admit that so-called “lunatics” have permeated popular conceptions of macabre from even before the era of the Gothic novel, but World War I triggered an unprecedented incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, known at the time as neurasthenia or war neurosis (van der Hart et al. 37). “Madness,” once a relatively rare thing, became the subject of mass experience as thousands of young, otherwise healthy men returned from battle acting in ways very removed from acceptable social norms.

And Renfield, as Browning visually portrays him, and as Frye performs him, resembles the shell-shocked veterans of the Great War much more than he does Stoker’s version of the blood-obsessed asylum inmate.

Renfield seems to disappear as he steps into the web at Castle Dracula.

Moments after his arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield gets caught in a spider’s web and flails his way out. Dracula gently scolds him with a conspiratorial smile, “The blood is the life, Mister Renfield…” This ironic foreshadowing really works, instead of being corny, because it’s quite sad, in retrospect. Renfield goes on to eat spiders and rue his own thirst for blood. Even as a vampire, a predator, he’s still caught in the web, at the bottom of the food chain.

In fact, as he trips into the web, the spider-silk covers him like a shroud and gives him an indistinct, ghostly aspect. It’s as though he dematerialized into the web, as though he’d already been consumed and digested. Browning found a clever way to visually suggest that Renfield’s a pawn in the game and he will suffer horribly. And he does so in a manner very reminiscent of some of the men who returned from WWI trenches.

First, in terms of casting and physical description, the movie makes some major departures from the 19th century source text. The most visually impacting one centers on Renfield’s age. Bram Stoker describes Dracula’s unwilling lackey as a white-haired man of 59, elderly by Victorian standards, yet prone to grotesquely childlike outbursts. Dr. Seward paints this portrait of his patient:

Something seemed to affect his imagination, for he put his fingers to his ears and shut his eyes, screwing them up tightly just as a small boy does when his face is being soaped. There was something pathetic in it that touched me. It also gave me a lesson, for it seemed that before me was a child, only a child, though the features were worn, and the stubble on the jaws was white.

He’s an older gentleman and the disturbing factor is that he does not behave appropriately for his age. Similarly, the first film adaptation of the Dracula story, Murnau’s Nosferatu, depicts Knock, the Renfield character, as middle-aged and paunchy, with wild white locks.

Browning’s Renfield couldn’t contrast more with these grizzled Renfields! Dwight Frye’s screen incarnation strikes the audience with a façade of outward normalcy and borderline matinee idol good looks.

At a youthful 31, Frye, a Broadway star, cut a dapper figure in the film’s early scenes as he travels through the rustic village with his smart suit, hat, and a walking stick in hand. It’s actually a pretty brave choice, adaptation-wise, to make the first character we identify with and come to like descend into utter insanity!

Renfield’s handsome, affable characterization in the first scenes renders his degradation even more stark and disquieting later on. This change, the choice to depict Renfield as young, doesn’t really offer any new advantages in terms of plot. There’s little logical justification, especially given that Renfield has no love interest in the book or in the film. However, emotionally, the sight of a man in his prime succumbing to insanity offers a much more unsettling worldview—and one more congruent with the impact of the Great War.

We might expect senility from a white-haired inmate, but there’s something particularly sad and morbid about a fine specimen of a young man who’s almost totally lost touch with reality. (However, I mean no offense to all of my senior citizen friends who are sharper and stronger than I am at 21!)

Another significant discrepancy between the gothic novel and Tod Browning’s film makes Renfield the protagonist of the first scenes set in the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker casts Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé, as the hapless character who first discovers Dracula’s undead wickedness. We, the readers, are aligned with Harker from the first.

However, in the motion picture, the spectator’s emotional investment in Renfield drives the tension of the meeting between the estate agent and the vampire. I think it’s also interesting that the movie does not spare its likable young man from a fate worse than death. (This sacrifice of the key character who leads us into the story actually foreshadows, in my mind, Hitchcock’s brave, shocking decision to kill off Marion Crane so early in Psycho.)

Whereas the Johnathan Harker of the book eventually escapes from Dracula’s castle, the cinematic Renfield almost immediately falls prey to the forces of evil and is damned simply for carrying out his duty. Just doing his job, he’s doomed to forever lose a part of his humanity and transform into a cackling monster in the eyes of others. Doesn’t this smack of the injustice and tragedy of war here?

There’s something of the between-the-wars cynicism about this plot choice. Bram Stoker suggested that good people will always end up okay—or at the very least, their souls will be saved. No such luck for Renfield. Therefore, as a somewhat average young man who travels to a foreign country and loses his mind and his dignity as a result of his experiences, Renfield closely resembles the thousands of “shell shock” victims of World War I.

The cinematography of Dracula intensifies the sense of disorientation and trauma with respect to Renfield. The first time we see him in the asylum, Browning orchestrates a striking long take, which trails from the clinic gates up to Renfield’s cell. In the Seward Santarium, the zoophagous (animal-eating) madman announces himself by his offstage shouts, amidst a chorus of the wild shrieks and giggles of the other inmates.

The camera, like the eye of a curious visitor, pans and rises in a crane shot towards Renfield’s window, coldly prying to the inside of a world without privacy.

A cut takes us to an unconventionally blurry long shot in the cell, with only the heads and shoulders of Renfield and of his keeper Martin, struggling over Renfield’s fly.

This shot radically departs from the regular, crisp proscenium space frequently defined by Browning; instead, the images convey a sense of unbalanced naturalism, much like the raw documentary quality of the footage taken of WWI shell shock victims—and there was significant documentation.

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Private Eaglefield, one of many WWI veterans who suffered from a form of “war neurosis.” He was treated at the Seale Hayne War Hospital.

Like this clip below. Yes, it’s totally and completely authentic. Even though this editing of footage taken from the Seale Hayne War Hospital does try to put a positive spin on shell shock recovery, it’s not light viewing. The staring, wide eyes of one patient, Private Eaglefield, also above, stand out for me as particularly haunting. My heart goes out to these men. Watch it AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In Frye’s performance, the insanity also physically presents itself through jerky gestures, a sallow complexion, exaggerated facial expressions, and braying laughter. All of these “symptoms” recall somatoform disorders and various psychological conditions recorded among WWI veterans in shock, as well as among modern sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yet, even beyond Frye’s heart-rending portrayal, Browning manipulates light and shadow in the sterile sanatorium room to conjure up the kind of unthinkable angst that we see at work in these documents of real veteran anguish.

For instance, as Renfield sits on his bed at night, weeping at his torment, the window bars cast strangely angled shadows over the walls and partially obscure his face.

Here, the jagged shadows not only stress Renfield’s physical entrapment, but also act as a visual representation of the mental, moral maze that troubles him.

The lurid, crooked look of this scene harkens back to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, another aesthetic product of WWI. However, unlike the extreme abstraction of CaligariDracula takes place in plausible settings. By casting disquieting shadows from a pretty believable sanatorium room, Browning disturbingly melds reality and the harrowing textures of madness.

I’d also point out that of the first times we see Renfield in his “lunatic” state, he’s in a trench-like space: the hold of the wrecked ship, from which he is the sole survivor.

Likewise, I consider it important that Renfield emerges as a deranged, yet lucid and sympathetic figure.

He’s not just a standard movie maniac: his “fits” arise from his profound spiritual and moral fears. Indeed, the bitter contradictions of Renfield’s existence parallel the psychological conditions that drove many WWI soldiers to crippling despair. Both find themselves forced to kill or to become complicit in killing in order to live, according to the will of an unassailable authority.

Renfield, like any soldier, must make a kind of doomed bargain. Consequently, he’s forced to abandon his ethics (his intrinsic goodness and his desire to do no harm) in order to maintain a half-life of slavery and regret. We sense the constant pressure he’s under: if he plays an accomplice to Dracula, he must contend with crippling guilt. If he lets his humanity win, Dracula will kill him. Damned if he does, dead if he doesn’t.

Browning’s camera carefully suggests this awful double-bind. When he enters a scene, Reinfield’s movements often provide a motive for destabilizing camera activity. For instance, when Renfield attempts to warn Van Helsing of Dracula’s plans, the Master, in bat form, flies towards the inmate. The camera implacably tracks in, emphasizing Renfield’s trapped situation. Renfield frantically declares his allegiance to Dracula to avoid punishment and we sense his dark, rankling pain and terror.

Therefore, as a young man tragically struck down by madness, physically trapped, and mentally torn between obligation and conscience, the Renfield of the 1931 version Dracula constitutes a modern creation quite separate from Stoker’s novel. Frye’s Renfield is, I’d argue, a legacy of World War I.

Although one might assume that by the onset of the Great Depression, the prevalence of the “shell shock” phenomenon would have subsided, both in their effects on veterans and in the minds of the public, war neuroses continued to linger on the edges of the society. Stunningly, even in 1942, over a decade after the release of Dracula and over two decades after the Treaty of Versailles, the majority of men living in American veterans’ homes had been afflicted with some kind of “neuropsychiatric” trauma as a result of their service in WWI.

Renfield (bottom center), dwarfed by Dracula’s enormous castle. 

These statistics not only demonstrate the widespread mental cost of the conflict on direct witnesses, but also suggest the extent to which questions of insanity, psychological disorders, and institutionalization intruded into the consciousness of American civilians. I suspect that a fair number of viewers would have thought of a shell shock victim they knew, while watching Dracula.

Whether knowingly or unintentionally, Dracula, acted as an outlet for exploring the incidence of shellshock that continued to threaten and challenge the public.

The pathos that Frye and Browning brought to Renfield deserves to be recognized, for the character’s suffering mirrors the real agony of those many soldiers who attended the ultimate horror show of all time. Like Renfield, they witnessed something so unprecedented that it broke many minds to pieces—and left them all scarred in some form. It’s not a spectacle any of us wants to see, but it is one that we all ought to remember.


Sources and Resources:

Mank, Gregory, James Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye. Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh. Fredericksburg: Sheridan Books, 1997.

Prawer, Siegbert. Caligari’s Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Skal, David. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Universal Horror. Dir. Brownlow, Kevin. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Forest Ackerman, Turhan Bey, and Fay Wray. 1998. Universal, 2006.

Van der Hart, Onno, Annemieke van Dijke, et al. “Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage”. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. I (4), 2000.

Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Ulmer’s The Black Cat and World War I

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!

As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.

The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.

Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.” 

Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.

Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.

The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.

The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.

Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.

This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.

Look familiar? WWI barbed wire defenses, X-shaped “knife rests.”

The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.

Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.

In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.

However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.

After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.

During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.

…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.

Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.

The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.

This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,

“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?” 

Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”

Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.

Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”

But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.

(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)