The Umpteenth Blogathon: Beauty and the Beast (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946)

This post is for the Umpteenth Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. It’s a blogathon dedicated to the movies individual bloggers have watched obsessively over the years. Check out the other posts at this link!

SPOILER ALERT! Let it be known, I’m discussing this movie in a fair amount of detail including the ending. I imagine most people know how the Beauty and the Beast story ends, but just in case you’re uninitiated with this movie and want to go into this classic absolutely cold, then watch the movie before reading this.

Image source: MOMA

Some people cannot rewatch movies. They don’t see a point. You already know what’s going to happen. Comedies become less funny. Suspenseful films become less suspenseful. Mystery films are spoiled by knowing who did it. Even art films don’t evade these beliefs about diminishing returns.

Yeah, that’s not me. I love rewatching my favorite films, be they blockbusters or Bergman. Any film that tells its story well will still hold up on repeat viewings. Not every movie is a one-and-done affair and to suggest otherwise is an insult to cinema as an art form, if you ask me.

I also don’t care how astute a filmgoer you believe yourself to be: a movie with many layers cannot be understood on a single watch, especially when the viewer is coming in fresh. Case in point: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I have literally watched dozens of times and have yet to grow tired of, let alone fully comprehend.

Many might not get why that is the case. After all, aren’t fairy tales just simple stories for kids? Aren’t they full of bad advice about romance and happy endings? Songs like Maroon 5’s “Payphone” proclaim that “all those fairy tales are full of shit,” after all. Maybe when you get your understanding of fairy tales from popular culture, this might seem to be the case… but no. That’s not what fairy tales are, especially not Cocteau’s magnificent fairy tale film.

Fairy tales are not realist novels or self-help books. They reflect a complex inner reality in their presentation of humanity’s deepest desires and primal fears, but they are not meant to give you dating advice or comfort you with promises of a literal, concrete happily ever after. If anything, fairy tale worlds are perilous. In his book on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, historian JB Kaufman describes the original context of fairy tales as less sunny than most imagine: “[F]airy tales were expected to contain elements of magic and enchantment but also commonly depicted a cold, forbidding, and dangerous world.” For that reason, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is my idea of the perfect fairy tale film. There’s nothing sugary or safe about it.

The basic outline should be familiar: Belle, a lovely young woman, takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a Beast who lives in a remote castle. At first repulsed by his animalistic appearance, she comes to see the goodness within him. Her love transforms the Beast into a handsome prince and they marry.

However, Cocteau’s version stands apart from other retellings in its strange details and surrealistic touches. For one thing, Cocteau adds a human suitor for Belle, the handsome but unpleasant Avenant (Disney would famously reincarnate this character into the meme-inspiring, antler aficionado Gaston). Cocteau also tells this enchantment-filled story with a surprising lack of spectacle, setting this film apart from other cinematic fantasies of the time, like The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad. Those films seek to wow you with their spectacular effects and color. Not so in Cocteau’s dreamlike, black-and-white universe.

In Cocteau’s world, there is no real spectacle to Belle gliding down a corridor when she first enters the enchanted castle or the candles along the wall igniting by themselves as Belle’s father walks past them. The effects are antique even for the 1940s, yet they somehow make the magic seem more matter-of-fact, further immersing us into the tactile reality of this world.

The characterizations of the titular beauty and beast are no less unsentimental than the magic. Jean Marais’ Beast is as tragic a figure as any classic movie monster, desperate for love and ashamed of his ugliness. He has the soul of a sensitive poet, yet he is also tormented by a desire to kill when he hears wildlife rustling in the bushes. Unlike Disney’s angry and selfish Beast, Marais’ Beast is a victim of vengeful spirits rather than his own bad behavior, making him all the more pitiable.*

Josette Day’s Belle is arguably even more complicated than the Beast and not in a way that immediately endears her to the audience. Her characterization was downright baffling to me the first few times I saw the movie. Used to the feisty bookworm of the Disney version, Day’s Belle seemed aloof, even haughty. However, I’ve come around to the character because there’s a lot more to her than is readily apparent.

Jean Marais plays Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, creating thematic links between the three characters.

In her introductory scene, Belle acts the archetypal Cinderella: dressed in rags, polishing the floor, protesting the ardent affections of Avenant. But even in this scene, as she defends her sisters from Avenant’s barbed comments and claims her father is her sole priority, there is a coyness to her interaction with Avenant, a slight flirtatiousness– of course, that flirtiness evaporates the moment Avenant decides to act like a caveman (dare we say, like a beast?), but it does imply Belle desires something beyond a life of household chores and somber filial duty.

But Belle does not totally subvert our expectations until she’s in the enchanted castle. At first terrified of the Beast, she quickly learns he means her no harm after he carries her to a sumptuous bedchamber and leaves her in peace. Courteous despite his hairy face and compulsive need to hunt, the Beast is the inverse of the handsome but aggressive Avenant. However, Belle’s attitude towards the Beast is just as complex as it is towards her human suitor. Despite claiming “I would never wish you the slightest harm,” Belle can be blunt and callous. For example, though she is aware of the Beast’s self-loathing, she calls him “an animal” when stroking him like a cat.

Though Belle denies any deeper feelings for the Beast, her attraction towards him is palpable. Roger Ebert famously observed how she “toys with a knife that is more than a knife” when rejecting the Beast’s first dinnertime marriage proposal. Later, she takes sensual delight in having him drink water from her bare hands. These scenes flaunt Belle’s erotic power over the Beast, complicating the idea that this is some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy. If anything, it is a power fantasy, with Belle becoming the imperious mistress she refuses to be in her own home. Even the scene where the Beast appears at Belle’s threshold, shirt undone and hands smoking with blood, every bit a virile force, Belle is the one who holds the power, cowering the Beast with a fierce look as she demands he clean himself up.

Unlike the Disney film, in which Belle’s love creates both inner and outer change in the Beast, the Cocteau film transforms both of the lovers. Belle returns to the dying Beast, tearfully confessing that “I am the monster” in failing to keep her promise to return to him. The Beast then transforms into a handsome prince– though that description is debatable if you aren’t fond of ruffled collars.

Happily ever after or a downgrade?

What are we to make of this transformation? The former Beast seems content enough (no more worries about shedding), but Belle is definitely conflicted. She’s astonished by this miracle and acts a bit coquettish when speaking with the prince, just as she did with Avenant earlier. However, disappointment is palpable when she confesses she will have to get used to the prince, who must seem all too ordinary compared to the magnificent Beast.

Some have taken this ending to be a true downer. Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich, depending on what version of his apocryphal story you hear) famously wailed, “Give me back my Beast!” as she exited the theater. Cocteau himself forecasted a painfully ordinary happily ever after for Belle, in which she could only look forward to bearing children.

Maybe I’m more of a cautious optimist, but it’s hard for me to read the ending as THAT bleak, despite Cocteau’s intentions. The conclusion is undoubtedly bittersweet because the Beast was so majestic compared to the prince (but in the movies, isn’t suffering always more majestic than bedazzled bliss?), but that last image of the lovers ascending into the clouds is hardly a gloomy one and the triumphant music does not suggest a future of endless diaper changes and domestic squabbling. Whatever “ever after” these two encounter, it isn’t going to be as simple as “they lived happily ever after” or “and then they were miserable, life sucks doesn’t it?” From the start, nothing in this movie was that simple, so why should the ending be?

To wrap it up, La Belle et la Bete is a film I can return to again and again because that quiet, seductive magic humming in every gorgeous black-and-white frame has never died out for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never wholly “get” this movie, for all my ruminations on the psychology of the characters or the nature of the magic. And to be honest, in a world where a great many movies are so simple as to barely make an impression beyond their runtime, that’s a wonderful, wonderful quality to have.

* Let it be known that if it sounds like I’m dumping on the Disney film, that is not at all my intention. The 1991 Disney film is a favorite of mine as well– my second favorite movie version of the story, actually. Now the 2017 remake– that abomination is another deal.

Sources:

Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1928-beauty-and-the-beast-dark-magic

The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by JB Kaufman

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-beauty-and-the-beast-1946

http://www.thecinessential.com/beauty-and-the-beast-yearning-for-the-beast

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

The best of times, the worst of times…

Image source: MUBI

Good riddance to 2021. Not betting much on 2022, but I’m gonna start it off with some movie watching. I got a decent sized pile of DVDs and Blurays for Christmas, so time to break them in with a cup of tea and a box of chocolates (I’ll get back to cutting down on sugar when the holidays end!).

My official first watch of 2022 is the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, a magnificent achievement in adapting Dickens for the screen. I saw this one on TCM some time ago and remember liking it. Coming back to it, I’m stunned by how well the filmmakers were able to condense the story down to two hours. It can be a bit overwhelming for those who have not read the book, but it’s not incomprehensible and moves at a good clip. By the time Darnay was tricked into going back to France, I was surprised at how much time had passed since I pressed play.

The movie makes a few changes from the novel, namely in buffing up the relationship between Sydney and Lucie. They actually feel like friends, whereas in the book Lucie seems to tolerate Sydney more than anything else. I also appreciate Elizabeth Allan’s performance– Lucie tends to set my teeth on edge in the book, while here she’s presented as a little less naive.

Really, all the actors are all exceptional. The 1930s acting style fits perfectly for Dickens’ stylized worlds, bringing more affected characters like Miss Pross, Madame Defarge, or Jerry Cruncher to more glorious life than a more “realistic and gritty” rendition would allow. Ronald Colman is particularly amazing, channeling both Sydney’s sardonic wit and tragic, self-loathing core.

Being a product of the mid-1930s– and therefore only half a decade into the 100% all talking era– A Tale of Two Cities features plenty of silent film style flourishes. Intertitles are used to transition between sections of the story. The repetition of Madame Defarge’s anguished “Why do you bear it?” during the Bastille sequence is something right out of the late silent period, yet it is a flourish that suits the intense drama of the sequence.

Watching this movie is to experience pure old-time movie spectacle: the sweep of actual, non-CG-generated crowds, elaborate costumes and sets, big emotions played out on a grand scale, no chance of a million sequels and spin-offs. Absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended.

Happy New Year’s, everyone!

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.

As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.

Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.

Warner with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source: normashearer.com

Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.

Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”

From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.

Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.

Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.

It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

Happy birthday, Carol Dempster!

Image source: Wikipedia.

Today marks the 120th birthday of Carol Dempster, best remembered as DW Griffith’s leading lady of choice throughout the 1920s. While only known to silent movie buffs today, she starred alongside luminaries such as WC Fields, Richard Barthelmess, and both Barrymore brothers during her heyday. Her legacy is a controversial one, though in recent decades, she’s gained more defenders– or at the very least, more people who are willing to examine her brief career in a more nuanced light.

Minnesota-born and California-bred, Dempster’s background was in dance. She was remarkable enough to be singled out by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Dennis during a school program. She would later boast in an interview that, “I was the youngest pupil to graduate in her first class.”

The Denishawn Dancers in 1915. A teenage Carol Dempster is the fourth dancer from the left. Image source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Her connection with St. Dennis is what brought her to the attention of DW Griffith. St. Dennis staged the dancing scenes in the Babylonian segment of Intolerance and Dempster was included among this company. Griffith was impressed with what he saw of her and would recruit her for small parts in rural dramas such as A Romance of Happy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, and True Heart Susie.

By 1919, she had her first major role for Griffith in the bizarre western Scarlet Days where she played the convent-schooled daughter of a saloon hostess. Called “Lady Fair ” in the title cards, Dempster’s character is the usual Griffith waif: delicate, respectable, and naive. She almost made her leading debut earlier: Griffith considered giving her the role of the abused Lucy Barrows in Broken Blossoms when Lillian Gish came down with the Spanish Flu, but Gish fought to retain the part.

Dempster being menaced in One Exciting Night. Image source: Wikipedia.

With the dawn of the 1920s, Dempster would become a Griffith mainstay as well as his lover. The filmmaker became obsessed with her, which baffled just about everyone else. Many professionals in the industry found Dempster unremarkable on a good day. Journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns called her mediocre, Colleen Moore thought her talentless, and cinematographer Karl Brown found her professionally “inept” and personally “over proper.” Critics Anthony Slide and Richard Schickel essentially paint her as a full-time impersonator of the earlier, greater Griffith leading ladies.

That last description is not without accuracy. Dempster often essayed the same kinds of roles that made Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh stars in the 1910s, sometimes even using the same mannerisms and tics, only to much lesser effect. Rarely was she outright bad in these parts, but they never played to her strengths as a performer, which tended more towards the athletic, practical type than the ethereal girl-children Griffith favored.

Dempster in an ad for America, where she played a Gish-style ingenue. Image source: Wikipedia.

Reaction to Dempster was mixed from the very beginning. In the first half of her career, she was usually accused of being a copycat. Many resented her displacing Lillian Gish, who made her final collaboration with Griffith in 1921. Both fans and critics stoked this notion of a Gish-Dempster rivalry.

A fan burns both Dempster and Griffith at once in this 1923 issue of Picture-Play Magazine.

However, Dempster did have her champions. While she never procured a huge following, there were movie goers who made their appreciation of her known in fan magazines. The running trend in these positive notices is that Dempster was unconventional in both appearance and screen presence.

A kind fan letter from a 1926 issue of Photoplay.

Towards the end of her career, the critics also grew kinder to her work. Miracle of miracles, they were sometimes even enthusiastic—the Moving Picture World review of Isn’t Life Wonderful singles out Dempster’s lead performance as “one of the finest performances ever seen on the screen” and her turn in the now-lost That Royle Girl won her raves from Photoplay, where the reviewer claimed she was among “any ten best list of players.”

Dempster as a flapper in That Royle Girl. Image source: IMDB.

The Sorrows of Satan, a 1926 melodrama in which she acted alongside Adolphe Menjou and Ricardo Cortez, proved to be her swan song. Many critics past and present have felt this movie represents her best work: Morduant Hall thought the part displayed more of her untapped acting talent than in any of her films to date and later on, Anthony Slide (by no means a Dempster fan) felt her turn in Sorrows was the first to actually show she had any talent at all.

However, Dempster retired from movies after the film’s premiere. With both her professional and romantic relationships with Griffith ended, she married a banker and lived the rest of her life away from the Hollywood scene, entertaining friends and supporting the arts. In 1928, she told Photoplay that she wanted to pursue singing, but nothing came of that. She died in 1991 at the age of 89, but her legacy lives on in critical debate and sparring matches on classic movie message boards.

Dempster would co-star with WC Fields in two movies. The still above is from the only one that survives, Sally of the Sawdust. Image source: The Loudest Voice.

My initial interest in Dempster came from how much irritation she tends to generate among silent movie buffs. The long-standing narrative is that she was a stone around Griffith’s neck, hastening his artistic decline. This narrative puts a lot of blame on Dempster and ignores that the writing quality of several of these later projects was not up to the same standards as Griffith’s earlier work (not even Gish was going to save the nightmarish mess that is Dream Street— I don’t think anyone could have!). As with any widely accepted theory, I had to see for myself if Dempster actually was the acting talent abyss some claim.

My conclusion? She wasn’t that terrible. Clumsy when trying to be winsome and innocent, sure, but I never shudder when she’s on-screen even if I can also see why she never became the mega-star Griffith wanted her to be. I think Dempster suffered most from Griffith’s Pygmalion tendencies. He wanted her to be another Gish, but her angular looks, athletic body, and “no-nonsensical” manner (to borrow Schickel’s description) were more suitable for flappers and everyday women than dainty ingenues. Unfortunately, Griffith wasn’t that interested in those kinds of roles for her and Griffith was the only filmmaker she wanted to work with.

Lobby card for Isn’t Life Wonderful. Image source: Wikipedia.

Dempster is served far better by movies like Isn’t Life Wonderful, where her character is a cautious optimist trying to make sure her loved ones don’t starve to death. Here, her unconventional looks strengthen the illusion that we are watching an ordinary person, not just a movie star impersonating one. Dempster’s best scene, where she stands in a butcher shop line, watching in suspense as the prices inflate before she’s even able to step a foot into the door, is fully put over by the fleeting expressions of hope and dawning horror on her face. Her swimming scenes in The Love Flower also show a side to her that Griffith rarely took advantage of, making one wonder if it was a declining Griffith not doing Dempster’s career much good rather than it being the other way around.

Whatever any critic or fellow film professional has had to say about Dempster, good or bad, she seems to have been indifferent. Once her movie career was over, she rarely reminisced about her brief tenure as a leading lady (according to her associate John McGee, many of Dempster’s friends had no idea she was ever an actress) nor did she ever shoot back at those who had nasty things to say about her. She famously insisted she was blessed with a real-life “happy ending.” What more could any of us ask for than that?

Image source: Photoplay.

Sources:

DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel

The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee

The Griffith Actresses by Anthony Slide

“I Don’t Care If I Make Another Picture” by Ruth Biery, Photoplay, August 1928, Vol. 34, Issue 3

“Remembering DW Griffith” by Alanna Nash, Take One, September-October 1973, Vol. 4, Issue 7

Silent Star by Colleen Moore

Up From the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s by John T. Soister

The WC Fields Films by James Neibaur

Reflecting on my favorite version of A Christmas Carol

‘Tis the season to binge your holiday favorites! And few Christmas stories are as beloved as Charles Dickens’ enduring classic, A Christmas Carol. You might dread dealing with cranky relatives at Christmas, yet we all seem to look forward to revisiting fiction’s favorite misanthrope Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Pretty much everyone has a go-to adaptation of A Christmas Carol. God knows, there’s one for every taste. Want A Christmas Carol with a large dollop of Old Hollywood gloss? Here’s the Reginald Owen version! Enjoy warm sentiment and meta comedy? Here’s The Muppet Christmas Carol! Like your Dickens extra dark and moody? Here’s the George C. Scott movie! Want musical numbers and a campy as hell Jacob Marley? Here’s the Albert Finney version!

To name the 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation as my favorite isn’t going to score me any originality points. It’s one of the most popular versions, tied with the Scott movie as the definitive cinematic Carol. I watch at least three or four versions of this story a year when December rolls around, but the Sim version is the only one I put on without fail.

What sets the Sim version apart for me is its masterful tone. A great many Carols are too sentimental or sweet, taking the bite out of Dickens’ social criticism and blunting Scrooge’s redemption. And as admirable as I find a great many elements in the much-loved Scott version, I always thought it had the opposite problem, becoming so excessively grim that it undercuts Dickens’ palpable sense of holiday cheer and communal joy (that’s my unpopular opinion for the day—in the name of Christmas, please don’t put a stake of holly through my heart for it!).

Dickens’ original story is so beloved because of its multi-faceted nature. It’s a scary ghost story with a gloriously joyful conclusion. It criticizes society’s callousness towards the unfortunate while affirming that even the worst people can change. The Sim version achieves all of this perfectly and I think the key to that success is Sim in the lead. His characterization is so rich and dynamic. Some Scrooges are such monsters that we don’t want to see them redeemed, so it’s important that Scrooge not be 100% off-putting in his earliest scenes. The best Scrooges infuse their crotchety callousness with a grim sense of humor, and I think Sim managed that best of all.

Humor aside, what defines Sim’s approach to the character is its palpable vulnerability. To put it bluntly, this Scrooge is a sad man who hides his pain behind a hostile front. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when the aged Scrooge realizes he ran out on his dying sister right before he could listen to her request that he take care of her newborn son. Scrooge’s body trembles with waves of regret and self-loathing. He sees firsthand just how hardened he became, even towards the one person who loved him most.

Fan’s early death and the absorption of Fezziwig’s company leave indelible wounds on Scrooge’s psyche. These avatars of love and warmth being utterly destroyed, Scrooge is left with the conclusion that money will be the sole means of protecting himself from pain. The young Scrooge’s line to Jacob Marley during their first meeting is telling:

“I think the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place, Mr. Marley. One must steel oneself to survive it and not be crushed under with the weak and the infirm.”

On that note, few other versions make Scrooge’s subsequent rejection of his fiancée (here renamed Alice) more credible than here. Contemptuous of weakness and poverty, his once-beloved Alice holds little allure for a man obsessed with “gain.”

Sim’s Scrooge also boasts a wonderfully credible transformation. This isn’t a case of some mean old man being scared into reformation through hellfire—this Scrooge is a man on the verge of total despair. It’s not that he just does not want to change: he also believes it’s too late. He’s already immured himself in the deceased Marley’s miserable, dilapidated house (a set which eerily resembles the Bates house from Psycho… or is it just me that thinks that?), treating himself with no more kindness than anyone else. Scrooge’s inner gloom is also reflected in the shadowy, filthy Victorian London sets, lit very much like any hard-nosed noir of the period.

And then Dr. Pretorious himself shows up.

Contemporary reviewers slammed the movie for its darkness, but this willingness to show emotional trauma, poverty, and despair only heightens the story’s moments of compassion and joy. They are no longer taken for granted. It is hard to do good in a seemingly unjust and hopeless world. It is hard to face the day— even Christmas Day— with a heart weighed down by grief and resentment. And yet, when we see the weary but good-hearted Alice comforting the poor at a shelter or the put-upon Cratchits making the best of their meager holiday feast, these moments hit the viewer that much harder because we understand their greater significance. These people have been beaten down by life. By all means, they should be as bitter as Scrooge and yet they choose compassion over self-isolation.

This too is why Scrooge’s awakening on Christmas morning gets me in the Sim version the way no other adaptation does. He’s EARNED it. His giddiness is palpable after so much inner struggle and reflection. I’ve got about every frame and line from this movie committed to memory, and yet this scene never fails to lift my spirits and make me smile like an eggnog-addled fool. It’s truly the perfect finale to a movie I would consider as close to perfect as movies can get.

Bernard Herrmann blogathon: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

This post is for the Bernard Herrmann blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse. Check out the listings for more Herrmann-related material. The blogathan lasts from October 29th to October 31st.

Image source: Wikipedia.

On Dangerous Ground had a famously muddled production and has enjoyed an equally muddled critical afterlife. Director Nicholas Ray considered the movie a failure and producer John Houseman found it “sort of a mess… but awfully good.” Now that the passage of time elevated this once minor work to cult status, generations of critics and movie geeks have argued its merits. Is the story structure, severing the film into two tonally disparate halves, merely uneven or is it bold? Do the romantic elements complement the gritty noir elements or do they declare open war upon them?

The movie starts like any typical noir. Jim Wilson is a big-city cop who’s been hardened by constant exposure to corruption and criminality. His ordinary world encompasses darkened alleys and shabby apartments populated by every kind of scumbag. Not above beating the hell out of suspects to get confessions, Jim is too much even for the police force. His captain opts to send Jim to the snow-covered countryside where there’s a murderer on the loose, hoping the assignment will cool Jim off literally and metaphorically.

Depending on your perspective, this is either where the movie loses its way or gets interesting. Jim encounters a reflection of his own anger in the victim’s father, who swears bloody vengeance on the killer. During the search, he also comes across the lonely Mary Malden, a sensitive young blind woman who knows the killer’s whereabouts but is not willing to reveal him. It turns out Mary is the killer’s sister and she’s hoping he’ll agree to be hospitalized for his mental illness rather than continue to run from the law.

Image source: The Signal Watch.

On Dangerous Ground is definitely a film of two halves. While most people prefer the gritty urban fare in the beginning, I take more to the latter section. The desolate beauty of the wintry countryside sets the film apart from your typical city-bound noir, createing an atmosphere both dreadful and romantic. The black-and-white visuals make the sense of cold palpable, especially when the film goes inside Mary’s cabin, dominated by deep shadows and the intense white fire of the hearth.

What stands out the most in the story is the fragile relationship between Jim and Mary. Ryan and Lupino could both channel hardboiled toughness and soulful yearning, making them an ideal screen pairing. Their characters are desperately, even ontologically lonely people, lending a desperate quality to their budding romance. Not everyone likes this part of the script, feeling any love that doesn’t end in disillusionment or death has no place in noir. However, I think there’s room in film noir for movies that show some glimmer of hope in an otherwise corrupt world. Murder, My Sweet has a similarly romantic subplot between Philip Marlowe and a fresh-faced ingenue, and no one ever contests its noir status.

“The Death Hunt”

The one element of the film everyone agrees upon is the quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score. For his part, Herrmann liked the movie and claimed he was “very partial to it” in a 1971 interview. Herrmann’s score brings together the contrasting elements of menace and romance in a chocolate/peanut butter style combination. This contrast is especially clear in two pieces from the score: “Death Hunt,” an intense, brassy composition which plays while the men are pursuing the killer, and the gentle, romantic theme associated with Mary. The gentler music is soulful and moving, perfectly complimenting the central romance and the quiet, desperate yearnings of both lovers.

The suite

Whether you see On Dangerous Ground as a truncated curiosity or an underrated gem, there’s no denying the power of the film’s many parts. Herrmann’s contribution might just be the glue that holds everything together.

Sources:

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

Poster advertisement for the ill-fated 1998 Wait Until Dark. Image source: Pinterest.

The inevitable reaction to learning Quentin Tarantino once graced the Broadway stage is a hearty, “The hell?,” probably followed by a potpourri of more colorful expletives if you’re feeling especially Tarantinoesque. But it’s true: for a few months in 1998, Tarantino was the star attraction of a revival of Wait Until Dark, a 1960s home invasion thriller penned by Frederick Knott of Dial M for Murder fame.

For those aware of this pop culture anomaly but who did not see it live, it is an event shrouded in a thick fog of mystery. Press photos show Tarantino dressed in grunge fashion and snarling beneath unkempt hair. Ads for the show promised audiences a night of unmitigated terror. If the critics are to be believed, what they got instead was unintentional hilarity.

Let me just sample a few of the revival’s notoriously bad reviews for you—or rather, Tarantino’s bad reviews:

New York Amsterdam News: “Tarantino as the cold-blooded, mean killer was hilarious. He couldn’t scare a fly. In fact, when he spoke dramatic, threatening lines, the audience responded with laughter.”

New York Daily News: “As a movie director Tarantino may be the new Alfred Hitchcock, but as a stage actor he is the new Ed Wood. He has the vocal modulation of a railway station announcer, the expressive power of a fence post and the charisma of a week-old head of lettuce.”

The New York Times: “Mr. Tarantino seems menacing to nothing except possibly [the] script. Whether raising his voice in deranged fury or softly promising to commit unspeakable tortures, he registers at best as merely petulant, like a suburban teenager who has been denied the use of his father’s Lexus for the night.”

Totally unrelated image of Rick Dalton putting the burn on someone. Image source: Slash Film.

But for me, there’s more interest in this revival than mere celebrity schadenfreude. The more you research it, the more questions begin to emerge. Like in the first place, why was a 32-year-old thriller revived on Broadway in an era where stage thrillers were unfashionable? Did Tarantino seek out the producers or did the producers seek out Tarantino? Was Tarantino put to poor advantage by dated material or was a classic play sabotaged by Tarantino’s presence? And what was so bad about the experience that none of the cast and crew want to discuss it even years later?

Origins

Lee Remick was the terrorized lead during Wait Until Dark‘s original Broadway run. Image source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The history of the 1998 Wait Until Dark starts with a revival of another Frederick Knott play. A new production of Dial M for Murder starring Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen toured the United States during the 1995-1996 season. While critics were concerned those rascally boomers and Gen X-ers would find the show too talk-heavy and quaint (one review mentions an audience member standing up during intermission to shout, “Who cares?!”), it was enough of a modest success for the octogenarian Knott to ask the show’s producer Robert Young if he would help him bring another work of his back to the Broadway stage after 32 years: Wait Until Dark.

Knott’s second-biggest hit, Wait Until Dark is about a drug deal gone wrong. After a plane ride from Canada, Greenwich Village photographer Sam Hendrix is handed a child’s doll by a mysterious woman named Lisa. She claims she will pick it up from him at a later time. Turns out the doll is packed with heroin and Lisa is a drug mule hoping to wheedle her partners-in-crime out of the profits. Unfortunately, Sam claims to have mislaid the doll in his apartment when she asks for it back. Now three criminals connected to Lisa have targeted the Hendrix domicile, intent on procuring the heroin.

The leader, a suave psychopath who calls himself Harry Roat Jr., devises an elaborate plan to get the drugs back without violence: luring the husband away with a phony assignment, the men will pull a con on Sam’s blind wife Susy to terrorize her to giving them the doll without knowing its true contents. Little do they know that Susy has no idea where the doll is either—or that her other senses are sharp enough to sniff out their games. By the time the jig is up, it becomes clear the conflict will end in violence, famously climaxing with Susy fending off the homicidal Roat by smashing all the light sources in the apartment. Their showdown, one of the most celebrated sequences in thriller history, literally left audiences screaming in the aisles.

A press photo for the 1967 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Image source: Cinephilia and Beyond.

Running for 373 performances, Wait Until Dark was the sleeper hit of 1966 with Lee Remick and Robert Duvall heading the show, and it would be even more successful on the West End with Honor Blackman, where it ran for almost two years. A film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin swiftly followed in 1967, raking in over five times its budget. While the critics complained about plot holes and the middle section being convoluted, ticket sales revealed the property was critic-proof.

Regardless of this previous success, bringing the show back to Broadway was risky. Stage thrillers were common enough between the 1920s and the 1950s with hits like The Bat and Night Must Fall, but their presence began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s. Ira Levin’s satirical Deathtrap was the genre’s last hurrah, both homaging and deconstructing the old thriller masters like Knott. However, even if thrillers were not common on 1990s Broadway, regional theaters were another matter. To this day, Wait Until Dark is a staple of community theater with its single set, cat-and-mouse games, and famous showdown in absolute darkness. The 1967 film is a classic in its own right, benefiting from marvelous performances and tight direction. With all that in mind, why shouldn’t a Broadway revival have had a decent shot at success?

Gathering the cast and crew

The main cast clockwise from the top: Quentin Tarantino, Marisa Tomei, Stephen Lang, and Juan Carlos Hernandez. Image source: Playbill.

Considering Knott had not written a play since the 1960s, I was surprised to find he was so involved in the revival, to the point where he modified his own script. There is no copy of this revised script available anywhere, so I had to comb through reviews to find out what he changed. The most significant addition is a brand-new prologue in which Lisa (a character kept off-stage in the original play) desperately searches the half-lit apartment for the doll. The scene ends with the lights going out and the audience hearing her scream before being murdered by Roat. Despite this added scene, the running time was shorter than the original by about 20-30 minutes, in part because the intermission was snipped. Other changes were made to modernize the story, such as Susy buzzing people into the street door. Finally, the setting was changed from Greenwich Village in the 1960s to the Lower East Side in the present day.

Leonard Foglia was hired as director. He’d recent success with Master Class and a pre-existing attachment to Wait Until Dark, which had been his senior thesis when getting a theater degree. Feeling that earlier production was lousy, Foglia wished to redeem himself with the revival. His direction would incorporate cinematic touches, such as scene transitions that emulated jump cuts with clicking noises and flashing lights.

Marisa Tomei was cast in the lead and received the best critical notices of the entire cast. Image source: Playbill.

Of course, there was no getting a 32-year-old show produced without celebrity wattage to draw audiences. Dial M benefitted from Roddy McDowall and Nancy Allen’s combined presence, so Wait Until Dark would have to procure similar star power, a feat easier said than done. In an interview with Indianapolis Monthly magazine, Young and fellow producer Allen Lichtenstein bemoaned the difficulty of getting movie stars to commit to weeks-spanning Broadway runs. While most celebs liked the idea of having a Broadway show on their resume, few were willing to pass up more lucrative movie deals in exchange.

Though Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally cast as Susy Hendrix in late 1997, she backed out by the new year, leaving it open for Marisa Tomei, then most known for her award-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny. No doubt for the producers, she represented the best of both worlds, bringing both movie star allure and a decent amount of stage experience with her. The two subordinate criminals were played by Stephen Lang and Juan Carlos Hernandez. Long before committing himself to Avatar‘s proposed 999 sequels and playing a (very, very different) blind character himself in Don’t Breathe, Lang racked up stage credits throughout the 80s and 90s, even playing Hamlet in 1992. Hernandez brought plenty of stage experience as well, though Wait Until Dark proved to be his only Broadway engagement. Rounding out the main cast was Imani Parks as Susy’s bratty kid neighbor Gloria, her previous stage experience including a revival of Show Boat and The Lion King musical.

Of course, the most memorable casting choice was for the chief villain… though memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Enter Tarantino

Tarantino’s biggest acting role before Broadway: the homicidal rapist Ritchie Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn. Image source: The Spool.

If one director encompasses the attitude of the 1990s, I can think of no one more appropriate than Tarantino. The one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made Tarantino the new Orson Welles. Adored and despised, Tarantino represented the zeitgeist: irreverent, brutal, and ironic. His sharp features and six-foot-one height made him imposing on sight, perfect for a heavy. With all that in mind, casting a young celebrity du jour famous for his violent movies as your knife-wielding, bloodthirsty villain makes perfect sense if you’re the one managing the money.

For his part, Tarantino was excited to take the role. Not content with just writing and directing, he wanted to be a triple threat by adding acting to his accomplishments. He’d done small parts in his own movies and even played a raping, killing nutjob opposite George Clooney in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but he craved more. Proud of his work in From Dusk Till Dawn and feeling his thespian skills went unappreciated, the chance to play an even bigger part on Broadway proved too great a temptation to resist. It was a wish come true… perhaps come true while he had a monkey’s paw in his pocket.

Tarantino’s limited stage experience (and by limited experience, I mean he did some community theater in his teens) does not seem to have worried anyone. He was a big name, he was willing to put other projects on hold to commit to the production, and he was not required to carry the show since Roat only appears sporadically between the first scene and the climactic showdown. Tomei and Lang were the ones with the lion’s share of the script, so Tarantino could rest easy and just look threatening when his time came to stalk on-stage. Hopes were certainly high, as the show made three million dollars in advance ticket sales alone.

The show

An animated Quentin Tarantino blackmails Stephen Lang. Image source: Playbill Vault .

The revival’s first night before an audience was at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on March 5, 1998. Tickets were a hot item with many eager to see Tarantino and Tomei in the flesh. After 11 previews, the show finally opened on April 5 at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater, where it played for the remainder of its run.

Critical reaction was almost universally negative, as everyone knows. Consistently, Tomei and the set design tended to receive the most praise: Tomei was sympathetic and convincing, and the rotating set was meticulously designed to go down a bit into the audience, involving them more in the action. Parks merited a few good notices and Hernandez was deemed competent, but no one else proved so lucky. Lang was dismissed as a bore. Foglia’s direction was accused of being too rushed, disrupting the slow simmering of suspense.

Being the most high-profile member of the cast, Tarantino naturally received the most vitriol. Tarantino was deeply hurt by the reviews, his legendary confidence sustaining blow after blow with each nasty word put down in black and white as he mentioned in an interview with Variety: “I tried not to take it personally, but it was personal. It was not about the play—it was about me, and at a certain point I started getting too thin a skin about the constant criticism. It started getting to me. It’s fucked up when people make fun of you.”

Tarantino did get one thing wrong there: in some of the critical notices, there was quite a lot of complaining about the play. Barring only Tarantino, Knott’s writing received the most scorn. While Wait Until Dark was criticized as contrived when it first premiered, the passage of time added another adjective to the critics’ arsenal: dated. Try as he did to modernize the story, Knott’s changes were apparently uneven: Carolyn Clay of The Boston Phoenix mentioned that the telephone lacked an answering machine, for instance. Characterized as slow and musty, many critics argued the show was past its expiration date. The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley’s words about the play best reflect the general sentiment: “today [the play] comes across as a tediously contrived wind-up toy that yells ‘Boo!’ just before it runs down.”

The Brooks Atkinson Theatre during the revival’s run. Image source: Pinterest.

Audience reaction was more mixed. The 2018 Adam White article on the revival samples both positive and negative comments from normal theatergoers. One spectator called the production “weird and excruciating,” while another was spellbound by the sound design and Tomei’s performance. Going through this Broadway forum thread on the topic is much the same. Some claimed the play was the scariest experience they ever had in the theater, vividly recalling thousands of audience members screaming in unison during the play’s famous jump scare, while others claimed there was laughter throughout and that the revival came off as a slapdash effort.

Bad reviews or not, the show did maintain good attendance for a time, buoyed by Tarantino’s presence. Unfortunately, other issues plagued the run, such as Tarantino getting arrested after hitting a photographer. There were rumors that Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame might take over Tarantino’s role come June, either because Tarantino wasn’t interested in continuing the show or because the producers thought that Tarantino was just that awful depending upon the source. This recasting never happened because the show did not last long enough. It closed after 97 performances and was swiftly forgotten as though it were a bad dream.

Aftermath—What went wrong?

It’s easy to blame everything on Tarantino, but many poor decisions were made in trying to revive this play for a 1990s audience. Obviously, I cannot say for sure whether or not the revival was bad as I was too busy playing with Rugrats toys back in 1998. No recording of the production exists either, so all I have to go on are the reviews and recollections of theater goers. Even so, I still have my theory as to why this revival failed. My hypothesis comes down to two factors.

1. Tarantino was miscast—or at the very least, he was not experienced enough to do the role justice.

Image source: Playbill.

Now obviously, I cannot judge the performance properly as I did not see it. That being said, given my exposure to Tarantino’s movie roles, I can easily imagine him struggling with Knott’s verbose dialogue (decidedly void of his beloved f-bomb or any curse words for that matter) and substituting loud-mouthed swagger for chilling menace. An actor playing Roat has the challenge of combining genuine threat with humor and reptilian charm. Perhaps Tarantino was not experienced enough to go beyond one of those notes at a time.

Still, I have to take the critics with a grain of salt because there is a common willingness to get nasty in these “professional” reviews, almost as though they just wanted a chance to dump on a famous person they didn’t like. Tarantino was then, as he is now, a controversial figure. Not everyone enjoyed the hyper-violent style of his films or his brash, arrogant manner off-screen. Take this unwarranted comment on Tarantino’s weight from the Entertainment Weekly review: “Tarantino, out of his overcoat, appears to have prepared for this role primarily by hitting the dessert cart. If only his acting were half as substantial.”

Of course, not everyone hated Tarantino’s performance either. Ain’t It Cool News found Tarantino “deliciously evil.” A staff reporter for the MIT newspaper claimed Tarantino and the show as a whole were not as bad as the media had them out to be in what might be the revival’s most positive notice:

“[Tarantino’s] character was quite believable: well suited to Quentin’s pre-existing image, yet different enough so that you knew it wasn’t just him being himself. His best moments were during the blackout scene towards the end, where he and Tomei exchange dialogue in the dark. Their interplay was quite natural, and helped bring the show over the top.”

I’ll conclude this section with a comment from actor David Carradine, who Tarantino asked point blank about his chances on Broadway years after the revival closed. Carradine is reserved but thoughtful on the matter:

“I think your experiment came too soon, and you used too much of your clout to get the part. […] You …understand violent people. What’s inside them. I think, while you were suffering on Broadway, you might have forgotten that that guy you were playing, at least one of him anyway, was such a person. You seemed to be apologizing for him.”

2. Putting “the chief avatar of the desensitized 90s” into an old-fashioned thriller was not the best idea.

I will admit my bias: I like this play and don’t agree with the critics’ harsh assessment of it. When done right, Wait Until Dark is a buffet of dramatic irony. The audience holds the most information, privy to the full truth of the situation whereas the characters only know different bits of the big picture. The fun comes in seeing how the blind woman and the criminals try to deceive one another. The men prey on Susy’s insecurities while Susy eventually preys on their arrogant underestimation of her competence.

That being said, the play is not perfect. The first act is quite slow and the charade plot can be confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the story. And, yes, there is one big plot glitch. These issues perturbed critics in the 1960s—it isn’t a shock that it would only get more ire from sophisticated NYC critics decades later, though ideally presented, it might have proven itself a crowd-pleaser.

A still from the Geffen Playhouse’s 2013 production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s new take on the play. The 2013 rewrite moves the story to WWII but does an admirable job adapting the story for modern tastes by improving the pacing and embracing its old-school charms. Image source: Geffen Playhouse.

And then there’s the problem of trying to update the story to the late 90s. Obviously, when Wait Until Dark debuted, it was presented with a contemporary setting. While it wasn’t uncommon for subsequent productions to keep it in the then-present, even by the 1970s some directors chose to make the play a period piece due to its sheer 60s-ness. The more successful 2003 London revival went all-out with groovy Swinging Sixties atmosphere and the 2013 Jeffrey Hatcher re-adaptation moves the story even farther back to the thick of World War II. Ironically, the Hatcher version does a great job modernizing the story by embracing the old-fashioned elements while also giving the play snappier pacing (and filling in some of the aforementioned plot holes).

The kind of deal audiences expect when Tarantino is involved.

Young joked that had Tarantino written Wait Until Dark, the play would be over in seconds because his Roat would just shove a gun in Susy’s mouth and demand the doll. While this was said in jest, it actually foreshadows a serious problem regarding audience expectations. When putting Quentin Tarantino, master of ultraviolent, postmodern cinema as a drug-dealing psychopath in your play, audiences drawn to the production by his presence alone likely had a certain idea of what to expect… and it wasn’t an old-fashioned mystery-thriller with only two on-stage killings.

The anonymous writer for the Harvard Crimson put it the best when s/he said:

“…Wait Until Dark is a period piece, a clever, understand brew of Hitchcockian suspense and late-’60s proto feminism. It hearkens back to the good old days, when drug dealers carried knives, not guns, and when West Side Story was still considered gritty.

Suddenly, in walks the chief avatar of the desensitized ’90s and POOF! the spell is broken. On press night, when Tarantino opened a closet door to reveal the body of one of his victims, some people actually laughed. And can you blame them? I mean, this is Quentin Tarantino! They were probably expecting him to kill her on-stage and toss off a twisted one-liner before her body hit the floor. They were probably expecting him to actually shoot heroin, not just talk about it.”

Exactly. If anything, the combination of Knott’s old school style and the hip 90s aesthetics probably just felt like a theatrical version of the “Hello fellow kids” meme.

Lights out

Al Hirschfeld’s caricature of the cast. Image source: Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

The best that can be said of the revival is that it did not permanently hurt anyone’s career. After the show closed, Tarantino began writing the script that would one day be Inglorious Basterds. Lang and Hernandez never returned to Broadway, but Lang’s seen plenty of cinematic success and Hernandez has recently appeared in shows like Tell Hector I Miss Him and Thunderbodies. Tomei and Foglia’s stage careers bounced back, and Parks went on to become a prolific audiobook narrator. About the only sour note is that this revival marked Knott’s last real involvement with the theater, a dismal note on which to end a largely successful playwriting career.

It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight to mock this revival’s creative decisions, but as cynical as most get about the motives of producers, you have to remember these people were not out to make a flop. Considering they thought an extended run was a major possibility, I’m going to surmise this revival was not intended to be a hit-and-run exploitation of a celebrity-mad public (at least, not exclusively an exploitation of a celebrity-mad public), but an honest attempt at a solid, crowd-pleasing potboiler. People forget how often great entertainment comes with an element of risk. Still, the unfortunate truth about risks is that they don’t always pay off. This revival is a textbook example.

I’ve got to give Tarantino this, he hasn’t let failure scare him away from future risk-taking. After The Hateful Eight premiered in 2015, Tarantino expressed interest in adapting the film for the Broadway stage and even said that he wanted to try directing plays once he bows out from filmmaking. After researching the Wait Until Dark saga of misery, I hope he does it. It would be nice to see him try again, the critics be damned.

Sources:

https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1995-10-26-1995299013-story.html

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/e-75032/

http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/9804/08/seinfeld.email/

https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1998/3/13/tarantino-acting-in-a-play-pin/

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Biskind

https://ew.com/article/1998/04/17/wait-until-dark/

https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/wait-until-dark-9129

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/quentin-tarantino-wait-until-dark-broadway-debut-violence-marisa-tomei-a9062366.html

The Kill Bill Diary by David Carradine

https://legacy.aintitcool.com/node/731

https://www.playbill.com/article/playbill-vaults-today-in-theatre-history-april-5-com-104873

https://www.playbill.com/article/quentin-tarantino-wants-the-hateful-eight-on-broadway-before-the-end-of-2016-com-375132

https://www.playbill.com/news/article/wait-until-dark-opens-to-audience-cheers-in-boston-73845

Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog by Dale Sherman

Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, Revised and Updated edited by Gerald Peary

“Tarantino misses his Q” by Jack Kroll for Newsweek

http://tech.mit.edu/V118/N13/dwait.13a.html

https://variety.com/1996/film/reviews/dial-m-for-murder-3-1200444410/

“Wait Loss” by Carolyn Clay for The Boston Phoenix

“Wait Until Dark is No Thriller” by Linda Armstrong for New York Amsterdam News

What Is The Greatest Silent Film?

I don’t usually like “what is the greatest X” questions, but this article is a fun discussion of what might be the silent film most representative of the medium’s strengths. (For my money, it’s either The General or The Passion of Joan of Arc, but we each have our own pick.)

Silent-ology

This is my own post in honor of the Silent Movie Day Blogathon. Hope you enjoy!

When it comes to talking about great movies (in the Roger Ebert sense of the word), I’ve always loved making and sharing lists: top tens, top fives, your “essential threes”–they always seems to prompt interesting discussions. Face it, you’re asked to list what you think are the Top 10 Best Movies Ever Made and it’s hard to resist, isn’t it? Even the top film critics and directors in the world famously contribute to Sight & Sound‘s “Top 10 Greatest Films” lists once every decade. It’s enlightening to see how certain films will fall a bit out of favor while others remain universally praised–often for generations.

The greatest films of all time- a list compiled from multiple sources –  OWEN TEMPLE
Image credit: Owen Temple

But your average carefully-compiled lists, hard as they can be to put together, are one thing. Trickiest of all is picking a…

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Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1921

This post is part of the Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Today is National Silent Movie Day, a great chance to celebrate early film history! Check out the roster on their blogs to indulge in more silent movie themed goodness!

For this blogathon, I originally considered covering a single film; however, I wanted to do something a bit different from my usual reviews. I got to thinking about box office and what audiences were eating up one-hundred years ago.

The top-grossers of 1921 are largely escapist in nature: an idyllic Victorian past, the glittering mansions of high society, the burning sands of an Arabian desert. And yet, these big hits also contain elements of the zeitgeist, such as the lingering aftershock of World War One and the changing roles of women in society. By this time, Hollywood was also taking its place as the moviemaking center of the world, entering its decades-spanning classic period.

Fun stuff. Let’s get to it!

NOTE: I based my top-grossing films list on the data collected for the “1921 in film” Wikipedia article; however, not being one to take Wikipedia at its word, I went and did my own research, looking up box office numbers in a variety of silent film history books and such. The farther back in time you go, the harder it is to get EXACT box office numbers for any movie, so keep in mind that this list is probably more approximate than exact. I’ve concluded each section with a list of references in case you want to know where I pulled the information from.

#7 – LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

Release date: September 15, 1921
Box office (est.): 900,000 – 1.1 million

Summary: Young Cedric Errol and his mother “Dearest” live a content existence in 1880s New York City. One day, they receive a message  from Cedric’s estranged English grandfather: Cedric is to inherit the family title and must come to England to be trained for the aristocratic life. While Dearest is despised by her father-in-law as a suspected gold digger, Cedric’s precociousness is able to penetrate into the old man’s cold heart.

Doesn’t the very title Little Lord Fauntleroy put you on edge? It’s a triumvirate of words destined to make your teeth rot with Victorian sentimentality! A bit unfairly, I’d say—the book is cleverer than you’d expect with its themes of class conflict and culture shock. The ringlet-laden Fauntleroy (called Cedric Errol in the novel) might be precocious and pure, but his character is presented with a disarming humor that makes the book go down easily.

Of course, Victorian readers took less issue with sentimentality and pure-hearted child heroes than subsequent generations. According to the Polly Horvath introduction to the novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy was the Harry Potter of its era, popular on stage as well as on the page (fun bit of trivia: Buster Keaton got to don the curls when he was a child—he claimed to have enlivened his performances with “accidental” pratfalls). By the early 1920s, it attracted the attention of Mary Pickford, undoubtedly one of the most powerful individuals in Hollywood. Already associated with the child roles that continue to define her screen legacy to this day, “Little Mary” seemed an obvious choice to headline a movie production, even though she was pushing thirty.

No one seems to agree whether or not she fits the part. In 1921, the performance earned nothing but raves from critics and the public. Later in life, Pickford regretted doing it, even going as far as to say no woman should ever essay a male role for realism’s sake. Her stepson Douglas Fairbanks Jr. felt it was her best role, while biographer Eileen Whitfield was unimpressed. Me? If you can buy Betty Bronson or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, then suspending enough disbelief to accept Pickford as a young boy is no biggie. She also has the benefit of forced perspective and camera trickery to complete the illusion that she’s much smaller than the adult characters, including herself as Dearest, Cedric’s long-suffering mother.

As in Stella Maris, one gets the sense that the Cedric-Dearest dual role allowed Pickford to partially break free from the demands of her public, who loved seeing her play children. Pickford could successfully play a great variety of characters and often played young women in her 1910s work, but she was at heart an astute businesswoman with a deep desire to please her public and so she would continue to take on child roles well into the 1920s.

But what about the film itself? Of the 1921 top-grossers, I confess I enjoyed this one the least even though it is a charming enough piece of work. Pickford is good in both roles. The sets are big and lavish. The direction is competent. The book is faithfully adapted, the only additions being some slapstick business and a more action-packed climax (Cedric gets into a round of fisticuffs with the kid imposter out to seize his title). Pickford biographer Scott Eyman claims one can see the influence of Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks all over the film. Just as Fairbanks became more enamored of grand historical settings and spectacle in his own work, Pickford inserted that same grand scale into her own productions.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is an ideal example of a star vehicle, taking a hot property and tailoring it to the popular persona of its lead player. However, I find it mid-tier Pickford, a bit too stately to be as engaging as her other popular films like Little Annie Rooney or The Poor Little Rich Girl.

Sources:

Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman

Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield

Polly Havroth’s foreword for Little Lord Fauntleroy (2004 Simon and Schuester edition)

#6 – ORPHANS OF THE STORM

Release date: December 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1 million

Summary:

In eighteenth-century France, adopted sisters Henriette and Louise (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) are drawn to Paris in the wake of a plague that has left the latter blinded. They hope to find a famous oculist—instead, Henriette is kidnapped by a lecherous aristocrat and the abandoned Louise is taken in by a family of beggar-thieves headed by the ruthless Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne). After Henriette is rescued by the dashing Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), she makes it her mission to find her sister in the thick of the bustling, dangerous city. If only there wasn’t a revolution brewing…

DW Griffith was always one to go big. The mammoth Intolerance grew from a single contemporary domestic story and the rural stage melodrama of Way Down East became a veritable epic under Griffith’s direction. When presented with the long-running theatrical chestnut The Two Orphans for his next project, Griffith had lost none of his preference for a large canvas.

The original play is set in pre-revolutionary France, following the titular orphans as they are torn apart by malicious outside forces. Griffith’s treatment moves the action to the beginnings of the French Revolution, throwing the likes of Georges Danton, Louis XVI, and Maximilien Robespierre into the mix. The orphaned sisters are prey to overwhelming historical forces, giving the story a more epic scope than originally intended. Retitled Orphans of the Storm, the movie also marks the end of an era for Griffith: depending on your perspective, it’s either his final great movie or the beginning of a creative slump.

Whatever one thinks, the film did mark the beginning of Griffith’s box office descent. The movie made quite a sum and proved popular with the critics, but the production was so expensive that it took a long time for Griffith to profit off it. At the very least, every penny is on the screen, from the recreations of eighteenth-century Paris to the massive crowd scenes. The costuming isn’t always faithful (as the delightful Frock Flicks blog puts it, many of the outfits are “The Great Gatsby Goes 18th Century”), but it’s never anything less than stunning.

Most would concede with William K. Everson that Orphans is more representative of “Griffith the Artist-Showman” than “Griffith the Artist-Innovator.” The revolutionary vigor that animates earlier Griffith epics isn’t present this time around and would come in only fits and starts throughout his 1920s work—but does that really matter? Here we have Griffith at the top of his game, mixing melodrama and suspense into a delicious concoction.

But even there, some would disagree. In his biography of Griffith, Richard Schickel argues the movie isn’t a true epic because it does not have a traditionally heroic lead character who engages with historical forces. Both the sisters and Henriette’s love interest are caught up in the revolution and ultimately need to be rescued by Danton, therefore the movie is dramatically unbalanced, granting more agency to a historical cameo than its leading figures. I initially agreed with Schickel’s assessment, even though I enjoy the movie far more than he does. However, perusing comments from Griffith scholar William Drew and The Hollywood Epic author Foster Hirsch made me reconsider my opinion.

Schickel’s problem is that he believes epic heroes are only like Beowulf or King Arthur, people who go out, fight, and shape history themselves. Because he takes that for granted, he calls Griffith’s epic a failure. However, both Drew and Hirrsch argue this is not the only model for an epic hero. They mark Henriette as a heroine in her own right, elevated not by heroic deeds but by heroic suffering—endurance in the face of her antagonists, which range from the selfish ancien regime to the overzealous revolutionaries.

Throughout history, most people are not grand movers and shakers. They are caught up in the “storms” of revolutions and epidemics and wars and witch hunts and other disasters, things which disrupt their modest lives. Henriette is no leader, warrior, or general, but she is a likeable individual we root for, someone who just wants a peaceful life with her loved ones. She cannot change the storm or even avoid it—she must endure it and survive.

Much has been made of Griffith’s bizarre attempts to link his film to then-contemporary problems. He compares the revolutionaries to bolshevists and then calls Danton “the Abraham Lincoln of France” in what might be the movie’s most baffling intertitle. As in Intolerance, Griffith isn’t so much interested in the exact details of history (even though historical research was very much part of his pre-production) as he is in expressing great moral themes with distant times as a backdrop. Just like in the earlier epic, all of humanity’s problems come down to people being unable to embrace Love and cast out Hatred.

And that brings us back to the original accusation that Orphans is just treading old ground. Orphans may not be Griffith’s masterpiece, but I’m with Lea Stans of Silentology on one point: we probably would rate it much better if it were earlier in the Griffith canon or maybe if a younger, greener director had helmed the production. As entertainment, it’s still stunning work, perhaps more accessible to silent film newbies than Griffith’s more critically-acclaimed epics. As for me, I’ve grown to like it the more I watch it.

Sources:

DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel

“DW Griffith’s ‘Orphans of the Storm’” by William M. Drew

Frock Flicks review – http://www.frockflicks.com/18th-century-quest-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/

The Hollywood Epic by Foster Hirsch

Lea Stans’ review of Orphanshttps://silentology.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/thoughts-on-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/

William K. Everson’s program notes – https://wke.hosting.nyu.edu/wke/notes/huff/huff_580523.htm

#5 – THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL

Release date: September 21, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.1 million

Summary:

Young, attractive, and wealthy married couple Vivian (Gloria Swanson) and Anatol De Witt Spencer (Wallace Reid) would appear to have everything, but their marriage is bordering troubled water. Vivian is obsessed with good clothes and a good time, while the fiercely romantic Anatol longs to indulge in heroic fantasy. He spies a potential damsel-in-distress in every woman he meets, first with the gold-digging flapper Emilie (Wanda Hawley) and then with Annie, a suicidal farmer’s wife (Agnes Ayres). Alienating his wife with his naïve “experiments,” Anatol comes close to losing her forever when he starts wondering if she’s gone onto greener pastures with one of his close friends (Elliott Dexter). Will both suspicions and an attempt at a fling with the notorious “Satan Synne” (Bebe Daniels) put an end to their marriage?

The movies—particularly Hollywood movies—have never been shy about indulging in lifestyle porn. Think of those beautifully gowned screwball socialites sipping martinis in Art Deco mansions or James Bond traveling through exotic locations in his smart suits. Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps the first filmmaker to really put lifestyle porn out there as a serious selling point, clothing his leading ladies in the latest fashions and placing his immaculately groomed sophisticate characters on ornate sets.

It’s easy to dismiss these movies as pointless fluff. Contemporary critics certainly did, saving particular ire for The Affairs of Anatol, a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 play. Sidestepping the censors, DeMille cleaned up the titular hero’s behavior and lightened the play’s cynical tone. He apparently had no qualms doing so, not holding his source material in high regard and only filming the story at the request of Famous-Players head Jesse Lasky.

Schnitzler is hardly a household name nowadays. Most movie buffs only know him as the author of Dream Story, the source material for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with which Affairs shares some key points. Both are about an affluent couple dissatisfied with their marriages, and both plots are episodic. One cannot help but see a kinship between Anatol’s jealousy-inspired attempt at adultery and the sexual insecurity which fuels Bill Harford’s surreal odyssey through 1990s New York. The DeMille movie lacks Kubrick’s cynicism and surrealism overall—Kubrick was less interested in the luxurious lifestyle of his anti-hero, whereas DeMille stresses it, to the point where the story almost seems swallowed by the fancy bathrooms, cars, and headgear.

But there is a great deal of intelligence and feeling beneath the glossy opulence. DeMille biographer Scott Eyman has gone to bat for the film, calling it an astute portrait of postwar ideas regarding women and consumerism. Swanson’s character represents the “new wife,” if you will: someone who is just as much a playmate as a helpmate within marriage. Traditionally, married women dedicated themselves to hearth and home; the new wife is allowed to enjoy herself, buying attractive clothes and going out to parties, without being demonized.

The relationship between Anatol and Vivian is most strained by a mismatch of expectations. Anatol’s romanticism is old-fashioned: he longs for a helpless damsel to rescue, the total opposite of his feisty modern-minded wife. The “damsels” in question only turn out to be opportunists: Emilie just wants jewelry and Annie needs to replenish the money she accidentally took from her community’s church funds. Ironically, when Anatol goes for a blatant femme fatale, the deliciously named “Satan Synne,” her wickedness turns out to be a pretense: she sells herself to support her husband, a war veteran still suffering from lingering injuries. Anatol’s “virginal innocent in peril” fantasy is punctured again and again by reality since he can never understand nor predict what’s going on with any of these women.

Actually, even the opportunistic women have softer sides: Emilie seems fond of her original sugar daddy, even accepting a marriage proposal from him once she’s done with Anatol, and the preacher’s wife wants to do right by her husband. In a story that could easily go into “good versus bad woman” territory, all of the women are rather complicated, never evil and sometimes even well-intentioned. When Anatol returns to Vivian and declines to really find out if she has been unfaithful to him, it’s a touching moment of trust and respect. The De Witt Spencers are able to resume their marriage on equal footing and free of illusions.

I have to go with Eyman: Affairs might glisten, but the gold isn’t only on the surface. Unlike some of DeMille’s other hit films, there’s a beating heart beneath the lifestyle porn. In a way, this is Hollywood entertainment at its best: simultaneously vicarious fantasy and emotionally involving.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

#4 – THE SHEIK

Release date: November 20, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million

Summary:

Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is a “madcap” English aristocrat who insists marriage is captivity, rejecting suitors and venturing out into Middle Eastern deserts without a chaperone. Unfortunately for her, her blonde beauty attracts the attention of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino). Carried away by hormones, Ahmed kidnaps Diana and holds her captive in his tent, hoping to make a conquest of her. But the proud Diana won’t budge, even when she starts developing feelings for her wily kidnapper. Will these crazy kids ever find love?

The Sheik was pretty much a guaranteed profit. The 1919 novel of the same name was a smash, titillating and scandalizing its massive readership in equal measure with its tale of a macho, glowering sheik kidnapping and ravishing a “liberated” modern Englishwoman. The question was how would Hollywood manage to adapt it without provoking the snip of censor shears.

I’m reminded of the ad campaign for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita. Posters beckoned with the question, “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” When the movie was finally released, critic Bowsley Crowther answered, “They didn’t.” The same applies to the movie version of The Sheik. The explicit (for the time) sex was all but cut from the script, keeping it extremely vague as to whether or not the central relationship involves any kind of hanky-panky. The domineering titular character (a charmer who says things like, “We teach our women obedience with the whip” or “Better me than my men”) is made into a rather affable fellow whose looks of lust are famously reaction-image worthy. No one on the set seems to have taken the project seriously: director George Melford went for a more theatrical style, staging scenes and directing the actors accordingly.

No one flocked to The Sheik because they wanted a masterpiece of cinema. As film historian Jeanine Basigner once said, they went to get “sexed up.” Women went crazy for Valentino, nostril flares and all. He represented the ultimate sadomasochistic fantasy, an uncompromising bad boy with no qualms taking what he wants. In an era where the sexual double standard was firmly in place, the Valentino phenomena fascinates—his image was clearly curated for a “female gaze.”

It can be easy to discredit Valentino as a performer. He’s often accused of being little more than a good-looking guy who knew how to pose attractively with a cigarette. However, as much as I enjoy making fun of this movie, I have to give Valentino his due—he’s honestly more at the mercy of the material and his director than anything. As Valentino lamented, “I was forced… to play this wild Arabian charmer as though he were an associate professor of the history of English literature at Oxford.” (I would say it’s more like Melford told Valentino to pretend he was a stoner with a rabid case of the munchies and that Ayres was a giant bag of potato chips, but I digress.) Regardless, a few scenes allow him to show off a more restrained acting style and easy grace, like the moment he takes pity on a weeping Diana and sends a servant to comfort her.

Even though Valentino was basically at least 50% the reason people bought their tickets, Paramount top-billed Agnes Ayres, who you might remember from The Affairs of Anatol. To put it bluntly, she was much better there. For a sharp-shootin’ daredevil madcap, Ayres’ Diana sure lacks fire. Combine that with her almost matronly looks and it can be hard to figure out just what’s driving Ahmed crazy about her. Maybe it’s because she held her own in that staring contest they had by the casino? I don’t know. As Howard the Duck once said, love is strange.

Love may be strange, but the box office results aren’t. Even if the critics complained that the book’s sexual frankness had been neutered, the audience didn’t care. A bowdlerized version of a bodice-ripper could still be shocking—in fact, the film was banned in Kansas City for being too smutty for local tastes.

Even if The Sheik is not the best silent film by a long shot, it’s goofy fun, a delight because of its unashamed silliness. And don’t congratulate us moderns for being more sophisticated—the Twilight movies were big hits and they often trend on Netflix. We still love hokum.

Sources:

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

#3 – THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Release date: August 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million

Summary: In seventeenth-century France, young D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) seeks adventure as one of the king’s musketeers. Initial rejection does not deter him and he soon finds himself embroiled in court intrigue. The honor of the queen (Mary MacLaren) is at stake due to the machinations of the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier) and Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr). Allying himself with musketeers Athos (Leon Barry), Porthos (George Siegmann), and Aramis (Eugene Pallette), D’Artagnan must reclaim the queen’s diamond brooch from her lover before the king (Adolphe Menjou) discovers the affair.

The 1920s would mark a shift in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. Previously a star of light comedies, in 1920 he fulfilled his ambition to create a swashbuckling adventure in the form of The Mark of Zorro. The film was a success, so naturally a follow-up was in order. Fairbanks had long adored Alexandre Dumas’ adventure classic, The Three Musketeers. For whatever reason, Hollywood producers felt the general public had no use for costume dramas. Fairbanks didn’t care. He was emboldened by Zorro’s profits and embarked on a Dumas adaptation, exhibitors’ anxieties be damned. He imported several alumni from Zorro to his new project, including director Fred Niblo and leading lady Marguertie de la Motte as D’Artagnan’s love interest Constance.

Needless to say, the movie was a hit, its New York City premiere a thing of legend. Patrons lined the streets hoping for a seat and a glimpse of both Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The additional appearance of Charlie Chaplin only added more glamor to the event. Neither the two-dollar admission fee nor the dreaded “costume picture” label could keep the crowds away.

Though beloved in its day, this movie has gotten a tepid reputation over time. Silent film historian William K. Everson never failed to call it “turgid” whenever it was screened. It might also suffer from direct comparison with its 1929 sequel, The Iron Mask, which is a much slicker production. However, the lukewarm reputation baffles me—I find Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers one of his most satisfying movies. Like Zorro, it has a breeziness that keeps the grand historical elements from overwhelming the fun. Sure, it’s slow in places, but it moves along at a better pace than his more regarded costume movies like Robin Hood or The Thief of Bagdad, hitting a happy median between spectacle, story, and humor.

Fairbanks is also fantastic in his dream role, the high-spirited D’Artagnan. While it takes a while for him to appear on-screen, he is worth the wait. Some actors can handle being much older than the intended ages of their characters and Doug was so packed with joie de vivre himself that he is the ideal D’Artagnan. He so identified with the role that he kept the mustache he grew for it until the end of his life.

If I have any big problem with the movie, it’s that the other musketeers don’t leave much of an impact. George Siegmann and Eugene Palette are fantastic actors, and Leon Barry is no slouch in the part. However, they are denied any major developments, their individual personalities a bit sidelined in this adaptation. The same applies to Barbara La Marr, given precious little to do as Milady de Winter.

Luckily, the same cannot be said for the rest of the supporting cast. Adolphe Menjou is great as the frivolous but jealous Louis XIII, Mary MacLaren generates a great deal of sympathy for her adulterous Queen Anne, and Marguerite De La Motte is sweetly likeable as Constance (even if they take some of the bite out of her relationship with D’Artagnan by making her an unmarried ingenue rather than a married woman). But it is Nigel De Brulier who most stands out. His Richelieu is cold-blooded and intelligent yet not without a wry sense of humor. He is so fantastic in the part that he would return to the role three more times in The Iron Mask, the 1935 talkie version of The Three Musketeers, and the 1939 James Whale adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask.

Overall, Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers avoids any pretense, which might be why some audiences avoided costume pictures. The film never tries to be “good for you” since it is wholly uninterested in actual history or Grand Weighty Themes. It’s a classic adventure story and a perfect vehicle for its star.

Sources:

United artists: the company that built the stars by Tino Balio

The First King of Hollywood by Tracy Goessel

#2 – THE KID

Release date: January 21, 1921 (premiere), February 6, 1921 (general release)
Box office (est.): 2.5 million

Summary:

When an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her child, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) reluctantly adopts the little tyke. Five years later, he and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) make a hand-to-mouth living repairing windows (after the Kid busts them first, of course), but outside forces threaten their bond. The boy’s mother, now a wealthy stage star, yearns for her lost child and the local social workers feel the Tramp is not a suitable father. Will the father-son pair be split up?

The Kid is representative of the biggest leap forward in Chaplin’s art by the early 1920s. Chaplin’s shorts had been dabbling with dramatic stakes for a while, most boldly in A Dog’s Life from 1918, but The Kid goes into pure tear jerker territory with its sentimental story of a tramp and an orphaned child almost torn apart by society’s meddling. The story definitely hit a chord with worldwide audiences (according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, by 1924, only the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Colombia had not screened the film). It sealed Chaplin’s reputation as one of the great geniuses of cinema and made Jackie Coogan a top-tier child star.

Chaplin never had a better screen partner than Jackie Coogan nor perhaps an actor as ideally suited to his direction. His directorial style was more about getting the other actors to mimic his conception of their roles than to let them loose with their own interpretations, and it seems he never found a better mimic than Coogan, who could replicate Chaplin’s movements down to the least detail. Something in Coogan struck Chaplin to the heart: he argued Coogan’s character embodied all the orphans created by the Great War, but it might be more apt to say he saw something of his child self in the little guy.

Along with Limelight, The Kid is Chaplin’s most autobiographical work. Most know the project was sparked by the loss of Chaplin’s first child, but one can also see echoes of his mother, the tragic Hannah Chaplin, in Edna Purviance’s unwed mother (though there is, admittedly, some poignant wish fulfillment in her fate as a successful actress—Hannah wanted to be a stage star but mental illness and a lack of support would interfere). The threatened workhouse sentence for the boy calls back to Chaplin’s own miserable childhood stint there. Even little details, like the attic apartment where the tramp and the kid live, is a reference to Chaplin’s living situation at 3 Pownall Terrace, where he slept under a slanted ceiling and hit his head when getting out of bed every morning.

The autobiographical elements are filtered through Dickensian whimsy and sentiment. The poverty and the child of the slums who does not know his true identity could have come right out of Oliver Twist. Still, there’s a fairy tale timelessness to the film’s setting: the setting is a blend of the Victorian world of Chaplin’s childhood and the sensibility of early 20th century America. This is a story that could conceivably take place anytime and anywhere, which might be why it has held up so well.

The Kid might not be Chaplin’s funniest movie, though it does have some earthy gags that scandalized critics at the time (particularly the potty humor—one can only imagine how they’d react to the abundant fart jokes in modern comedies). The bittersweet elements are more potent here than even in City Lights—the threat of separation and subsequent loneliness suffuses the film. Even the ending is ambiguous: mother and child may have reunited, but is there a place for the tramp in that equation? Overall, the film certainly lives up to the description in the opening title cards: “A picture with a laugh—and perhaps a tear.”

Sources:

Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson

#1 – THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Release date: March 6, 1921
Box office (est.): 4.5 million

Summary:

In pre-war Argentina, powerful landowner Madriaga openly favors his French-descended grandson, the libertine Julio Desonyers (Rudolph Valentino) over the offspring of his German son-in-law. When Madriaga dies, halving his wealth between his two daughters, Julio’s family returns to France and his cousins go back to Germany. Julio spends time teaching socialites the tango and pursuing an affair with the unhappily married Marguerite (Alice Terry), but rumors of encroaching war begin to disrupt his fancy-free lifestyle.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s success is a classic underdog story. No one expected it to be the hit of the year when it debuted in 1921. While it was based on a blockbuster of a novel, conventional Hollywood wisdom dictated that the public was burned out on anything to do with the Great War. Not only that, but the movie didn’t even have guaranteed star power behind it—the hero was played by some Italian bit player with a name a mile long and the leading lady was hardly in the same league as a Norma Talmadge. And yet, this movie proved to be not only the biggest money-earner of 1921, but one of the most successful movies of the entire silent era and a true zeitgeist hit.

What made Four Horsemen such a success? At the time of release, critics compared it to The Birth of a Nation, only more modern in both style and subject matter. It was definitely sexier than Griffith’s movie, what with Valentino’s tango or the ardent way he handles his leading lady (in one decidedly pre-code moment, he actually cups her breast). Pictorially, Four Horsemen is gorgeous: director Rex Ingram was heavily influenced by painting and sculpture, and these instincts leaked into his compositions and lighting.

However, none of this is satisfactory in answering the question what made this blockbuster such a hit? Later Ingram films move more quickly and feature even more stunning imagery. Later Valentino films are sexier and more exciting. Later WWI movies are more nuanced in their treatment of the war. And yet few left as much of a cultural impact. Certainly, none made as much money.

The best answer I can muster is that Four Horsemen was made at the perfect time: the public was far away enough from the war to be willing to engage with it on-screen again and society was just shifting to the faster, looser Roaring Twenties, making Four Horsemen a natural step in the evolution of the Hollywood Epic, picking up where the more Edwardian Birth left off.

If a movie must have an “auteur,” then Four Horsemen has two: June Mathis and Rex Ingram. Ingram brought his artist’s eye to the film and Mathis was the executive producer in all but name. She played up the original story’s spiritual bent (the bearded mystic Tcherkoff gets more of a Christlike presence here) and made the decision to cast Valentino in the lead after being impressed by his brief but memorable role as a heartless gigolo in the 1919 Clara Kimball Young melodrama The Eyes of Youth.

You can’t discuss Four Horsemen without mentioning Valentino. His turn as Julio is often considered the best performance of his short career, the most dramatic and least encumbered by Hollywoodisms. Comparing his performance here to his coked-up antics in The Sheik is a revelation for those who think he was just a pretty face sans acting skills. Hell, comparing it to his performance in Eyes of Youth is interesting—there, his character is marked by bold sensuality and danger, traditional signs of 1910s Hollywood villainy. Julio shares these qualities, but he’s a diamond-in-the-rough. By the 1920s, the dangerous lover was a far more popular fantasy, outplacing the clean-cut screen heroes of the previous decade.

Julio’s introduction might be the most perfect example of a star-making moment I can name. Author KM Weiland often talks of what she calls “the characteristic moment,” a scene which introduces the protagonist in a strong, immediate way, showing the audience why we should bother investing in them emotionally. The tango scene is a perfect characteristic moment. We get the sense that Julio is a handsome libertine, a bit selfish and entitled but loyal enough to those he loves (he ditches his newly-won conquest when she mocks his aged grandfather). That he’s so likeable is a quality I attest to Valentino’s innate charisma—in the book, Julio comes off as far more callow and childish before his eventual redemption.

Being a war story, this redemption naturally comes via military service. Though the story takes place during WWI, Four Horsemen is quite unlike later treatments of that conflict. When WWI is brought up at all, people tend to see it as a tragic waste of life. Unlike its sequel, there are no definite “good guys” or “bad guys.” But perhaps that was still too new a viewpoint in 1921, because Four Horsemen paints the war in definite good versus evil terms: the French are noble and good, the Germans are goose-stepping authoritarians who must be stopped.

Even within the Madriaga family, the Germans are pure evil, presented with no moral greyness. When Julio comes face-to-face with a German cousin on the battlefield, the moment is no equivalent to that heartbreaking scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul recognizes the humanity of the enemy in the French soldier he killed—the Germans are never allowed humanity, not even the slightest, which is why I have always been puzzled by Four Horsemen’s anti-war reputation.

I am not, however, puzzled by its popularity with audiences of the time. It feels in some ways like the Ultimate Hollywood Epic, big in the same way Ben-Hur and Gone with the Wind and hell, even the Infinity Stone saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are big. There’s family drama, forbidden love, attractive heroes and heroines, sweeping battles, world-shattering events, everything people still love about blockbuster movies. That it was so in tune with the zeitgeist also made it lightning in a bottle, as evidenced by the lesser reception to the film’s 1962 remake. The old adage once more proves true: you can only get lightning in a bottle once.

Sources:

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton