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

Whimsy and suspense in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (warning – spoilers for 98 year old movie)

It’s intriguing how during the 1920s, Buster Keaton’s features tended to be seen as less dramatic than Chaplin’s. I recall one critic of the period claiming Keaton (and Harold Lloyd) “openly tickle” the audience while only Chaplin was interested in providing an emotional experience.

That sentiment is total nonsense when you think about Our Hospitality. Only Keaton’s second feature film, it represents a major evolution in his storytelling. Three Ages was episodic, essentially three shorts strung together. In contrast, Our Hospitality is a fully developed narrative with dramatic stakes that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock movie.

Strangely, it makes me think of Chaplin’s The Kid—not in terms of tone, as the two movies are nothing alike, but in terms of the way it blends comedy with other genres. The Kid features heavy melodrama that induces more tears than laughter for me. Our Hospitality keeps me on the edge of my seat from the sheer suspense.

This mood comes on strong from the first scene. For those who think Keaton is only a “tickler,” this opening can be shocking, since there is no humor in it at all, not even a twinkle of irony. During a stormy night, two men locked in a generations-spanning feud shoot one another dead. Their families grieve both their lost loved ones and the sad fact that these killings will only extend the vengeance into perpetuity.

Keaton’s plucky, modest persona isn’t a relief from the tension. It makes the audience fear more for his life when he’s cornered by the physically imposing, revenge-obsessed Canfield family. The feud is no laughing matter and the movie makes it clear that Buster isn’t going to be able to walk off a bullet in this storyverse. If he gets shot, he’s dead. Movie over.

It’s amazing how the movie juggles so many tones. It’s got humor and suspense, which as we’ve seen in other films often do go hand in hand, but there is also a gentle whimsy augmenting these elements. The prolonged train scene offers more than gags about how quaint and rural America used to be before mass industrialization—it also provides the sense that the refined Willie McKay is moving to unfamiliar territory where his guilelessness will be a liability.

In the end, love wins the day. Willie outwits his would-be killers (attacking them back seems to be only a last resort judging by that last gag), rescues the girl, and makes peace with the Canfields. In a great many stories, the hero has to beat up, kill, or even just humiliate the villain. I’m not saying that’s an unacceptable approach, but it is always refreshing to see a story where reconciliation is the answer. That might be why I go back to Our Hospitality so often. Its gentleness is all the more appealing in a landscape where so many film “comedies” rely on vulgarity and mean-spiritedness to entertain the audience.

“Thrill to the same idol who made your mothers’ hearts flutter wildly” – Revivals of the sheik movies in the 1930s

William Drew’s The Last Silent Picture Show really is a treasure of a book. Way too many people get their film history from (admittedly delightful) movies like Singin’ in the Rain, where it’s made to look like the talkie revolution occurred overnight. Most might even assume the American moviegoing public was content to let their silent favorites rot by 1930.

The actual history is far more complicated. In truth, silent films would sometimes get revived for Depression-era audiences, even after all theaters converted to sound. (Not to mention, silent films would still be produced in some Asian and European countries until the mid-1930s.)

Silent comedies were usually revived and given some level of respect– after all, you were supposed to laugh at them. Silent dramas were not so fortunate, at best treated as nostalgia items and at worst openly mocked as outmoded camp. However, there is an interesting case of silent drama revival I just have to share from Drew’s book.

“Show it– and machine guns wouldn’t keep the people away.”

It might surprise some that the two Rudolph Valentino sheik movies were revived throughout the 1930s. The popularity of the original Edith Hull novel and the 1921 movie adaptation had sparked a craze for desert romance in the 1920s, inspiring fashion trends and slang words like “sheik” and “sheba.”

By the time the talkies arrived, this fad mostly died out, though there were a few humorous treatments of the “sheik” theme, such as 1937’s The Sheik Steps Out with Ramon Novarro, a low-budget affair that converted the Hull novel from a racy melodrama to a screwball comedy and replaced the trembling Lady Diana with a wisecracking American heiress.

When Depression-era exhibitors put The Sheik on the bill, it was usually a bid for nostalgia. These showings did draw patrons, though The Sheik was mostly mocked as a “typical” silent film, what with Valentino’s bug-eyed antics and Agnes Ayres’ imitation of a fainting goat. Apparently forgetting that critics in the 1920s had the same issues with the film, it was held up as yet another example of how unquestionably, absolutely superior sound films were in terms of realism (for what that’s worth).

The hell with realism– realism would deny me fantastic reaction images like this!

Not everyone reacted this way, of course: Valentino still had a devoted cult fanbase and they did not appreciate snickers from fellow audience members or the accompaniment playing “The Sheik of Araby” to camp up the screening.

While The Sheik might have been enjoyed as a guilty and nostalgic pleasure (not unlike the reaction some have to Twilight these days), The Son of the Sheik was another matter. When a Washington DC theater revived that one in 1938, people rushed for seats.

Yes, you read that right! The “sophisticated” 1930s audience lined around the block to see a silent movie to the point where hundreds of patrons had to be turned away at the box office.  Inspired by this success, over five hundred theaters across the United States would revive Son and always to the same bewildered reaction that an “old movie” could be good. Not so bad it’s good, but genuinely well-made, entertaining, and holding its own against current releases. Even skeptical youngsters who had been kids when Valentino died were entranced.

A surprise success (all over again).

What won over an audience of people hostile to silent films? Comments from both critics and ordinary film-goers emphasized the film’s blend of hot-blooded drama and self-aware humor as the main ingredient for its continued appeal. Unlike the first movie, the sequel is aware it’s dealing in hokum. The actors are all in on the joke while still preserving the sense that vital things are at stake for the characters, a magnificent achievement.

And then there was the silver image of Valentino in his prime. Girls and women too young to have experienced Valentino mania thought he was just as appealing as Hollywood heartthrobs of the day. And of course, those who had loved him long ago felt that fangirlish fervor all over again. As one patron explained, “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him– I still love him.”

If there’s something to be gleaned from this anecdote, it’s that many people– even in the thick of the Golden Age of Hollywood– have turned their noses up at anything older than them or just perceived as “old” in general. This isn’t unique to millennials or Gen Z. Even during the silent era, audiences mocked the stage melodramas of their grandparents’ time.

Everyone thinks themselves more sophisticated then the storytellers who came before them, that their tastes are less “cringey” than the audiences of yesteryear. Sad, but seemingly inevitable. However, there are plenty of treasures from the past in every medium, waiting to be appreciated for those willing to take a chance on anything not made in the past five minutes.

On that note, read Drew’s book! It really is fascinating and filled with other interesting stories like this. In a way, silent films are given more love and attention now than they were immediately after sound arrived.

“Father and son” – Steamboat Bill Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 1928)

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Steamboat Bill Jr. is Buster Keaton’s final independent film, though not necessarily the last one in which he had creative control. His first work with MGM, The Cameraman, could be said to hold that title, so when you watch Steamboat Bill Jr. there is not the same sense of the bittersweet you may get when watching Keaton’s final 1928 masterpiece. However, there is something grand about Steamboat Bill Jr., not just in its dazzling final hurricane sequence, tight sense of plotting and structure, or Buster’s increasingly creative pratfalls, but in the emotional heart of the story, young Willie Canfield’s efforts to simultaneously please his father Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrance) and be with his college girlfriend, Kitty (Marion Byron)— a hard task, considering her father and his are rivals in the river boat transportation business.

It is true that Keaton’s films often show his characters more comfortable with props and animals than other people; this is perhaps the largest reason why his characters feel otherworldly, as though he hailed from another dimension altogether and were perplexed by ordinary human interaction. Perhaps more than any of Keaton’s previous films, Steamboat Bill Jr. has Keaton interacting with other characters constantly, and they are some of the most interesting supporting characters in his oeuvre.

Keaton’s feature characters don’t often have families. With the exceptions of the aunt in Our Hospitality who warns him of the feud, the parents in Battling Butler who push him to “rough it” in the wilderness in order to become less dependent on luxury, and the doting mother in College (played by 1910s comedienne Florence Turner, no less!), most Keaton protagonists are loners looking for a place to call home or at least someone to share home with (often a love interest, sometimes a cow). Yet in Steamboat Bill Jr. unlike any other Keaton movie, the protagonist’s family is a source of conflict. In Keaton’s short work, Torrance may have been purely the heavy with his scowling face and towering build, but here that function is complicated: he is the bullying heavy, but he is also Willie’s perplexed father. Willie’s petite frame, stylish clothes, and enthusiastic ukulele-playing have the burly Bill fearing his son may be a wimp at best or a touch “purple under the collar” at worst. And while Willie’s relationship with Kitty may dispel the latter anxiety, his prime desire is to make Willie more of what he thinks a man ought to be. Being a son who wants to please the father he’s never known, Willie agrees to go along with it.

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Irritated with his son’s college boy aesthetic, Bill Sr. takes Willie to the hat shop to try on a series of comically oversized hats. Of course, the scene is funny, what with the silly headwear and Buster’s attempts to look as dignified as possible in them, but the scene is hardly frivolous or throwaway. It serves an important narrative function: the main conflict of the film is father versus son, or perhaps more specifically, the father wanting to fashion his son into his own image. Yet the moment Bill Sr. is satisfied with a hat and the two Canfields leave the shop, the headwear is blown off of Willie’s head the moment they leave the shop. Already, we are shown through the visuals that Bill’s mission is a doomed one; Willie cannot be changed and, as we come to learn later, should not be.

And yet despite Bill’s distaste for his son being who he is, he is not presented as a terrible person or black-hatted villain. Indeed, Bill is protective of his son, knocking out any sailor who attempts to bully or beat up on Willie. And once his violent temper lands him in prison, he gains a newfound respect for his effete son’s resourcefulness in the hilarious and celebrated tools-in-bread sequence. Like Annabelle Lee in The General who so wanted Johnnie Gray to be a soldier, Bill Sr. discovers that there was nothing wrong with his son after all, he never needed to change himself to prove heroic. (Throughout the picture, Keaton and Torrance have such wonderful chemistry in general; it’s too bad they never shared the screen again. It could have livened up some of the dreadful projects MGM had in store for Keaton in the early 1930s.)

In the end, Willie more than proves himself, as Keaton’s heroes often do. Yes, he may not be physically intimidating or as willing to pick a fight, but he does manage to possess bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness when he rescues Kitty and Bill from drowning. Willie is also forgiving. Both Bill and Kitty want Willie’s complete, unwavering loyalty to one or the other of them; both become angry when he fails to split ties with either of them. Rejected by both, Willie has no reason to stay in Mississippi, yet he sees his father in distress and stays to help him. After rescuing his father and his girl, all three reconcile and are allowed to live happily ever after.

Keaton’s last two truly Keaton-esque features, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman, allow his protagonist to be more vulnerable in a way, put into situations where we see more of his emotional side in regards to human interactions. Not that he is cold or machine-like in his earlier features as some silent film aficionados have claimed: for me, his hurt and humiliation during the early scenes of The General, where Annabelle Lee rejects him, are moving— though Keaton does not keep you feeling sorry for his hero for long because dammit, we’ve got a train engine to save! But the intensified emotional qualities of these two films make them stand out, all culminating in that famously heartbreaking descent into the sand scene in The Cameraman. The father-son moments and romantic scenes in Steamboat Bill Jr. and much of The Cameraman are perfect illustrations of what film scholar Imogen Sara Smith means when she claims Keaton’s movie persona is like “Baked Alaska in reverse,” cool to the touch, warm at the center.

(Images courtesy of Doctor Macro)

The House of Darkness (dir. DW Griffith, 1913)

The House of Darkness is rather unsung as far as Griffith’s short films go. It’s about the soothing effect of music upon a mentally deranged man, one which becomes a major boon when he breaks into the home of a former nurse. While the video above cites Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish as the stars, it is Claire McDowell as the nurse and Charles Hill Mailes as the mentally ill patient who are the real stars of the show, beautifully underplaying parts which could have easily turned hammy.

Also am I the only one who thinks the shot set-up at 9 minutes and 56 seconds in looks a lot like the famous scene from James Whale’s Frankenstein where Karloff breaks into the bride’s chamber? The use of suspense there, with the woman unaware of the potential danger behind her, is very similar between the two movies.

The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Top 10 post-1940s appearances

There are many who view the last thirty-something years of Buster Keaton’s life as a tragedy worthy of the absurdists, ignoring his own statements about considering himself fabulously lucky. Many Keatonphiles take him at his word nowadays, though it is hard not to be disappointed that after 1928, he was never again behind or in front of the camera on projects like The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Still, that does not mean his later career is worthless; in fact, there are a lot of moments that are quite fun and rewarding. In the spirit of the second annual Buster Keaton blogathon, I’ve decided to make a top ten list ranking my favorites of his post-1940 film and television appearances… at least, of what I have seen so far, which is quite a bit. So relax and enjoy; I’ll provide clips where I am able.

  1. The Triumph of Lester Snapwell

Yeah, this is pretty much a twenty minute commercial for Kodak, but it is a mildly funny trip through the history of Kodak’s many photographic technologies. Keaton plays the titular hero, who travels through the 1860s, 1880s, 1920s, 1950s, and eventually the contemporary 1960s on a quest to perfectly photograph his girlfriend Clementine and her battle axe mother. Though the Party City-ish historical costumes make me cringe (especially that ridiculous outfit they try to pass off as flapper get-up, woof!), the short is more enjoyable than you would suspect.

  1. Route 66 – “Journey to Nineveh”

Having never seen other episodes of this series (though I understand it’s usually much more dramatic than this), I cannot judge this fifty minute episode on how well it fits into Route 66, but even so I had a pretty good time watching it as a BK fan. He plays a luckless fellow named Jonah who just wants to catch a fish and hitch a ride back to his brother (played by Joe E. Brown) so he can give him a cake for his birthday. Complications ensue when the ex-fiancée Brown’s granddaughter claims Brown stole the engagement ring to buy a truck; of course, the granddaughter put the ring in Keaton’s fishing kit, so they have to pray he’ll get home in one piece with it in tow, lest Brown be stuck in jail.

The story is honestly average and the granddaughter is beyond irritating, weeping and wailing every other line, but it’s worth it for Keaton (and/or Brown, if you’re a hardcore fan of his). While his pratfalls are needlessly saddled with cringe-worthy cartoon sound effects that would make Bugs Bunny cry in pain, his best moments are the less overtly slapstick-ish ones, such as his managing to cram a massive amount of luggage into the back of the protagonists’ Chevrolet, his adorable interactions with Shaddy the dog, or the satisfying yet understated resolution to the issue of whether or not the birthday cake was pulverized by their trying journey into town. It’s not a laugh riot, but it is very cute. The episode can be found on Hulu or you can rent it on YouTube.

  1. The Twilight Zone – “Once Upon a Time”

The great derp face

The great derp face

A rare comic episode for this strange series, “Once Upon a Time” has both Keaton and one of life’s most important lessons, namely that the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, or in this case, another time. Keaton plays a janitor from the 1890s; dissatisfied with the noise and expense of modern life, he nabs a time helmet from his scientist boss and decides to try the future on for a spin. Landing in the noisier world of 1960s America, he reconsiders his complaints. The 1890s scenes are silent, complete with intertitles and what people thought silent film music should sound like (tinkling pianos). The then-present is all sound, full of background noise to emphasize the divide between the past and future.

The episode does have issues, like the other characters being a little too obnoxious for me and some of the slapstick being uninspired. Still, most of it is cute and funny, with Keaton being given a relative amount of creative freedom. Worth a watch. The episode can be viewed on Hulu.

  1. Candid Camera

Keaton was a lifelong lover of practical jokes, so it’s no surprise he appeared on Candid Camera. I’m particularly fond of the segment where he goofs around unsuspecting patrons in a diner, especially with all those people trying their best not to be rude by laughing.

  1. Limelight

Despite all the nasty rumors that circulate around the sole time Keaton and Chaplin shared the screen together (concerning everything from Chaplin’s treatment of Keaton to the idea that he was jealous of him and cut some of his stuff out of spite… even though that would make sense considering this is Chaplin’s project, one that is more drama than comedy anyway), their little routine in Limelight is a lot of fun for silent comedy nerds.

It’s a fun little routine, with the two masters playing hapless concert hall musicians who just can’t get their instruments to work, and once they manage that, Chaplin’s violinist is thrown into artistic frenzy, with Keaton’s deadpan pianist trying his best to keep up with the insanity. For two artists with such differing styles and aims in their craft, the two manage a low-key chemistry that makes you want more interaction between them. It’s also a great example of how different they were: Chaplin is the extrovert who uses his body as the source for humor, while Keaton is reserved and prefers props. As James Neibaur said in his book The Fall of Buster Keaton, this sequence “reminds us of each comedian’s own special magic.”

As a bonus, here’s Keaton doing the same skit on television with Martha Raye (who had also played opposite Chaplin in the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux):

This time Keaton is leading the action, the pace is faster, and there are additional gags. The two versions make for interesting comparison.

  1. San Diego, I Love You

We all know San Diego, I Love You as “that one movie where Buster smiles.” Considering he also smiled in many of the 1910s Arbuckle shorts and at the end of the underrated Le Roi de Champys-Elysses, one has to wonder why this seven minute cameo warrants as much attention as it does.

For one thing, the bus driver Keaton’s playing appears to possess a great deal of character and inner life for such a small part. He’s trapped in his routine-ridden life, miserable and angry driving along the same ugly route every day, saying things like, “Being alive is monotonous.” The two protagonists “subtly” advise him to drive along the beach for a change (and by “subtly,” I mean they may as well have used a sledge hammer to beat the idea into his brain); at first, the bus driver reacts with hostility to the very idea of busting up routine, but seduced by the idea of scenic beauty and spontaneity, he swerves into another lane and exclaims, “For ten years, I’ve been driving this route and for ten years most of ya have been riding with me through the cursed backyards and I’m sick of it! I’m gonna drive along the beach and the consolidated bus company can go shoot itself!” With the exception of a henpecked husband afraid of angering his wife, everyone else agrees that routine is overrated and supports the notion of mixing things up a little.

Then they all go off and drive along the beach, with a band conveniently located in the back and Buster the Bus Driver lighting up a cigarette. He says he may not be able to take such a detour again if he wants to keep his job, but the audience can tell that the driver from then on will be a much happier man open to the simple beauties of life. And then in the end, he has that beautiful, spontaneous smile, one that I much prefer to the rather strained one Keaton gives at the end of Le Roi. It’s a nice, quiet, almost lyrical moment and it just melts the old heart.

  1. The Villain Still Pursued Her

I know I’m probably—okay, definitely biased— but I’m convinced that Buster Keaton is the only worthwhile aspect of this clunker of a picture. A parody of Victorian melodrama (“Hark! Who knocks?!” and “I shall go to yon hill! Hark! A man approaches!” and best of all, “Come now, me proud beauty! Aha, at last I have you in my power—helpless and alone!”), it’s mostly uninspired and gets old quick, like an SNL skit stretched out beyond comfort or entertainment value.

Keaton plays the alcoholic protagonist’s loyal best friend and basically does most of the heroics, confronting practitioners of mustache-twirling villainy and defending the heroine’s virtue from unwanted advances, always proclaiming, “Just in the nick of time!” From his first appearance, he’s active and a lot of fun, or his name’s not *looks at the screen* WILLIAM DALTON!! After trudging through material such as the Columbia shorts from this period, it’s so nice to see Buster playing a character who’s both a competent badass and dryly humorous. It’s little over an hour long, so for a Keaton fan, it’s worth watching just once, especially to hear him say lines like, “Be off before I come at ya like a steam engine—chugga, chugga, chugga!”

Interesting to note that Eddie Cline, long-time collaborator of Keaton’s during the 1920s, sat in the director’s chair. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, Buster can still rock nineteenth century clothing like a boss.

  1. The Railrodder

Often considered Keaton’s final great film appearance. The results are funny, wistful, and a little bittersweet when one knows this was one of the last things Buster ever did. The Railrodder was made as an advertisement for Canadian tourism, but it’s so much more than that. Concerning Buster’s quiet railroad adventure through the beautiful Canadian wilderness, one could easily imagine this short as an elderly Johnnie Gray’s vacation, what with the shenanigans going on, Buster’s expressive face, and the understated physical humor (and dangerous stunt work) throughout.

  1. The Buster Keaton Show

Part of what makes this one so special is that it’s about as close as we’re going to get to see what Buster was like in front of an audience. You can tell he’s enjoying every bit of laughter he’s getting; indeed, part of the appeal of early television for an old vaudevillian like Keaton was the presence of spectators.

The story of this episode is about as thin as one of Keaton’s two-reelers: Buster (or “BK” as he’s called by the other characters) wants to get into shape, so he hires a personal trainer. Of course, there’s the presence of a homicidally jealous man who craves blood whenever any man so much as taps his woman on the shoulder to complicate things. Gags are recycled from Battling Butler and Spite Marriage, but there’s plenty of new material in there too. The sequence with Buster shooting hoops is just amazing and his creative solutions to comic problems are as inspired as ever.

Also worth watching due to this being a reunion of sorts for Keaton with his old collaborator Clyde Bruckman and former onscreen rival Harold Goodwin (of College and The Cameraman fame).

  1. Rhenigold Theatre – “The Awakening”

It’s ironic that my favorite post-1940 appearance of Keaton’s is not from a comedy at all, but from a dystopian drama. On her IMDB review of the episode, Imogen Sara Smith described “The Awakening” as the antidote for Buster Keaton fans disenchanted with his appearances in Beach Party schlock and beer commercials. One of the few purely dramatic roles Keaton essayed in his career, “The Awakening” reveals how versatile he was as an actor. Even without the moments of physical grace and pratfalls and stunts, Keaton is a marvel playing a lonely, vulnerable man, a tool of a totalitarian regime who comes to stand up for justice and humanity.

Watching “The Awakening” is like seeing one of Keaton’s protagonists transplanted into an Orwellian nightmare where human life is cheap and compassion is a foreign concept, beaten down and frustrated in a job cataloging missing persons. After being robbed of an overcoat he had struggled to save for (and one that had given him an immense amount of respect from those who had looked down upon him), Keaton realizes how inhumane the world has become. Appearing before the Big Brother-like tyrant who rules over this hellhole, Keaton gives a speech often compared to the one Chaplin delivers at the end of The Great Dictator, arguing for a more humane world:

“You can keep dismissing me. Stripping them of all power, disgracing them, and replacing them until the end of time and it still won’t get my overcoat back! And when I protest, they’ll still throw me into prison– because it’s not ‘they.’ They’re just part of a machine, a machine that was to give us so much happiness! This machine that reduces a broken heart to a number in a catalog, that says a hungry child is no more than 26583-Y! A machine that has forgotten what kindness, warmth, and pity means!

When you say you care, you lie! You can’t possibly care! None of us can care– we’ve forgotten how! This machine that has taken our souls– so let the machine die with you!”

Keaton delivers this monologue with a great deal of passion and righteous fury. And then, he goes from talk to violent action in a moment that brings to mind the climax of Battling Butler, where Buster’s milquetoast character flies into a fit of rage when his attacker strikes down his diminutive valet, going for the man’s throat again and again, even long after he’s knocked him unconscious. And like Keaton’s would-be boxer, the rebel of “The Awakening” recoils in horror when he realizes his own power, though by the end he does not regret a thing, choosing to continue to follow the path of the rebel to the end.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Imogen Sara Smith’s “Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy”

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There are two books that I reread every year without fail: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Imogen Sara Smith’s Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. The latter is the finest interpretation of Keaton’s style, persona, comedy, and impact that I have ever come across, freed of over-intellectual tosh and sordid Freudian rambling that turn some of the funniest and most dazzling pictures ever made into psychodramas of abuse and loneliness. Like Keaton himself, the book is beyond category, touching upon Keaton the artist, Keaton the man, how audiences in the 1920s reacted to him, his modern resurgence and acclaim, his place in popular culture, the weird fascination academics have with him, and a decent focus on his post-1933 career that does not treat the remaining thirty-three years of his existence as a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, but as a triumph over adversity and despair.

It’s not a book for Keaton neophytes: I would suggest having some familiarity with his life. If you haven’t already, watch Kevin Brownlow’s three hour documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and then tackle this one, which you can snap up for fifteen dollars on Amazon. Smith is a marvelous writer: her analysis is easy to read, passionate and not burdened down with dry academia, so if you’re intimidated by the likes of a light read like Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit, then this may be more your speed and style. Few critics have been able to break down Keaton’s style the way Smith does. There’s no comparing him to Beckett or Kafka; Smith knows about a little thing called context and shows how Keaton was far more influenced by the world of vaudeville than absurdist philosophy.

The biographical elements are well done. Unlike certain authors who yearn for dirt, dirt, and more dirt when it comes to Keaton’s familial and romantic relationships, Smith displays good taste. She also has the good sense to shrug her shoulders when dealing with issues that we can never comprehend 100 percent, like just what went wrong between Keaton and Natalie Talmadge. (Smith wisely observes we have little documenting Talmadge’s side of the story and thus that first marriage will always be a mystery to the Keaton scholar and fan.) The biographical sections mainly focus on the things that tell us how Keaton’s screen persona and comedy developed, from his vaudeville roots and days at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. Smith breaks down Keaton as a director, how he preferred long shots since they allowed you to see that a great deal of the action was real and not faked, or how his minimalist acting style tended to rub off on his supporting players. There is an entire chapter analyzing the artistic success of The General, going into depth as to why people love that movie so much. Like me, Smith sees that film, and indeed Keaton’s oeuvre as a whole, as mastering the art of comic understatement. Reading her analysis and commentary always has me running to my Keaton Blu-ray collection, ready to revisit them once again.

Some have criticized the book as being too gushing in tone. I’ve come across those who take issue with the moments where Smith makes it clear she finds Keaton physically attractive, such as in the passage where she finds the feminine scorn directed at Keaton in the MGM bedroom farce Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath to be eye-roll worthy, saying “in fact, he looks particularly sexy in this film—sporting some very jazzy art deco pajamas” (190). Personally, I did not find the book overly gushy and uncritical. Smith is no doubt an enthusiast, but her enthusiasm is balanced, without fan-ish disregard for logic or anything else. She does have criticism for the mediocrity of shorts like the lackluster Daydreams and The Blacksmith, as well as the racist jokes in Seven Chances. She even argues that the final battle in The General can be seen as that film’s sole flaw.

What seals my affection for this book is the ending section, where Smith broadens her scope from Keaton to his place in the larger culture of the first half of the twentieth century, a time Smith deems “the golden of popular art” (244). She describes this period as being a time when “art and entertainment, highbrow and lowbrow, used to meet and mingle (if not always amiably) instead of drinking at separate water fountains.” Nowadays, we consider so many of the movies and pulp novels and music made for the masses back then to be classics. Heck, let me just give you her excellent rundown:

“[In the first half of the twentieth century, a]rtists and intellectuals were fascinated by vernacular forms, while the masses yearned to better themselves, worshipping paragons of ‘class’ like Fred Astaire, who was really a former vaudevillian from Ohio. In the twenties Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo barnstormed around America performing for audiences who had never seen ballet before. In the thirties Benny Goodman played in Carnegie Hall; Hollywood films featured music by Alan Copland and choreography by George Balanchine… Jazz-classical hybrids like Rhapsody in Blue drew scorn from snobs and purists but generated enough excitement to drown them out…

This invigorating exchange of influences has grown scarce in an age when silent comedies are mostly seen in museums and film classes. Once scorned by the high-minded, they are now embraced by a minority of serious film buffs and scholars, who are often at a loss to do them justice without transporting them into a loftier cultural stratum than the one where they originated…

Passing through the phases of modernism and postmodernism, all of the arts have experimented with extremes of obscurity… Culture became a series of endurance tests: marathon theater performances, dances presented without music or sound scores that assault the ears, artworks that dare viewers to declare, that’s not art. Deliberately arcane art rewards a self-selected minority with the sense of ‘getting it,’ having the superior taste or erudition needed to meet its challenge. Difficult art can reward the effort needed to decipher it—Ulysses proves that—but not to a very broad audience… The divorce between art and entertainment has diminished both, though pop culture has suffered more. Driven solely by commercial motives, entertainment dives for the lowest common denominator, producing disposable, cynically vapid products. As artists fear the accusation of accessibility,the rest of society fears being labeled ‘elitist,’ getting down and dirty to prove their regular-guy credentials.” (245-46)

This is far, far different from today’s artistic and entertainment landscape. True “art” has to be inaccessible. “Entertainment” must be as dumbed down as possible, made to appeal to the 18-35 male demographic almost without fail. Not to say that is the case for every modern art film or big studio release, nor is that to say every film cranked out in pre-1970 Hollywood wasn’t pandering schlock, but there is a certain divide present.

At any rate, this is a fabulous book, for what it says about Keaton, his Hollywood, and how his legacy endures almost a century later. Keaton fans will devour it.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

Backstage blogathon: The Unknown (dir. Tod Browning, 1927)

Image courtesy of Dr Macro

Image courtesy of Dr Macro

“Every time Browning thinks of Chaney he probably looks around for a typewriter and says ‘let’s get gruesome.’” – Variety review of the film

“This delirious, outrageous l’amour fou – a chilling, genuinely disturbing and haunting melodrama – is what cinema should be all about: a suspension of belief in the face of a story that defies all logic yet rings true to the deeper human emotions.” – Michael Koller in a Senses of Cinema analysis

“[In my pictures] I’ve tried to show that the lowliest people frequently have the highest ideals. In the lower depths when life hasn’t been too pleasant for me I’ve always had that gentleness of feeling, that compassion of an underdog for a fellow sufferer. The Hunchback was an example of it. So was The Unknown…” – Lon Chaney in a 1928 issue of Photoplay

Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr. had one of the most fruitful and (mostly) satisfying collaborations in Hollywood history. Both attracted to material featuring the macabre and antagonistic characters who still had a chance to be redeemed by love, they were of a like mind, artistically if nothing else. The best-loved products of this actor-director teaming are The Unknown and The Unholy Three, both set in Browning’s favorite sort of atmosphere: the side show and circus, though The Unholy Three is more concerned with crime than circus tents. The Unknown, on the other hand, is entirely set in the show business world of the circus, one which is much more seedy and sinister than the one briefly depicted in The Unholy Three. With circus performers as the leads, Browning delves into a distinctly pre-code atmosphere filled with murder, mutilation, and madness.

Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a knife thrower with a shady past and a powerful obsession with Nanon (a luminous Joan Crawford), the lovely daughter of the circus’s leader who is terrified of male sexuality. The origin of her aversion to the male touch is never explained, though the movie implies her cruel father has been pimping her out. Nevertheless, it causes her to reject the romantic advances of the strong man Malabar (Norman Kerry, appearing opposite Lon Chaney for the third and last time) and run to Alonzo for support; since he has no arms, she never worries that he might try to paw her and Alonzo uses this trust to keep her to himself as much as he can. He hopes that even one day he will be able to reveal to her his biggest secret: that he is not armless at all, but a criminal who keeps one of his abnormal thumbs hidden beneath an old school straightjacket in order to keep the police off his scent.

Of course, Nanon’s bullying father discovers this and Alonzo is forced to strangle the life out of him to save his own skin. And of course, Nanon gets a glimpse of the murder, though she only knows that the man who killed her father had a double thumb. Afraid of losing the woman he is willing to possess at all costs, Alonzo makes a major sacrifice, only for Malabar to help Nanon through her trauma, which results in the two falling in love. Will Alonzo have his revenge? Will Nanon ever be his at last?

It’s a Lon Chaney movie—what do you think?

Like many of the Browing-Chaney films, The Unknown is off-the-wall insane and full of dark themes and humor. Contemporary critics were unfavorable toward the film, finding it too creepy and shocking for general audiences, and the film wasn’t one of Chaney’s best-grossing at the time. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who has seen the film and found it anything other than a masterpiece. Clocking in at a spry fifty minutes (though this is because some footage is missing; luckily the story does not suffer much because of it, save for Alonzo’s partner in crime Cojo disappearing without explanation in the last third), the pace never lets up for a moment and the atmosphere remains suffocating throughout. While many Browning films usually suffer a bit in the final act, this one has one of the finest climaxes of his oeuvre, all breakneck editing and unbearable suspense. Cinematography-wise, it’s one of Browning’s most uncharacteristic pictures, with a little more camera movement and flair than he usually allows.

One thing which always stands out in a Browning film is his focus on the theme of illusions versus reality. Think of the strongman lighting up a cigarette after handing out health manuals to a gullible audience in The Unholy Three—there are a billion moments like that here, except they’re even more fused into the story and its themes. We see all the behind the scenes action in the circus, the way Malabar’s strongman schtick is a façade cleverly upheld by hidden devices like treadmills underneath the feet of the horses he’s supposed to be holding back in the movie’s climax, the way Nanon’s father uses her when the show is finished. This theme extends to the characters themselves, from Alonzo’s secret straightjacket to his scheming nature concealed behind his supposed kindliness toward the young lovers.

Out of Browning’s work, The Unknown may be his most erotically fixated, even more-so than Dracula. From the first reel, Browning displays how Nanon is sexualized and put on display by the men around her; in her knife-throwing act with Alonzo, he starts off by using the knives to cut off her skirt as she poses in front of him. Her father wrenches a shawl from her bare shoulders when he chastises her for listening to Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men’s embraces. The arm motif throughout the films is used as a symbol of power, particularly masculine power. You could write a whole paper in the vein of Linda Williams’s feminist essay “When the Woman Looks,” where the fear-induced frigidity of the female Nanon and Alonzo’s initially presumed lack of arms (not to mention his three thumbs) mark them as freaks in comparison to the strong sensuality of the “normal” Malabar, but I don’t want to go into that kind of territory here.

Chaney had a lot of damned good performances in his cinematic career and more than one could be argued to be his best, whether it’s the Phantom, Sergeant O’Hara, Professor Echo, HE the clown, or Quasimodo. As for me, I’ll go with his turn as Alonzo in this movie, which is just miraculous when you think about it: Chaney is able to make this monster sympathetic. The Phantom may have been a murderer and obsessive in his love for Christine, but his mistreatment at the hands of a shallow and cruel society made him that way. The Blackbird and Blizzard the gangster are redeemed by the endings of The Blackbird and The Penalty, but Alonzo is a fiend to the end, never apologetic for the cruel things he is willing to do to have Nanon. This desire goes beyond mere lust, but Alonzo’s wish to possess Nanon are fueled by a twisted, possessive affection. To be blunt, Alonzo is a scary fellow and one that never quite repents of his evil ways by the end title card.

Yet somehow, someway, Chaney makes us feel sorry for him. The most celebrated scene in the movie, where he realizes Nanon is marrying another and that he has sacrificed his own physical prowess for nothing, is nothing short of intense, a tour de force of film acting, one that is chilling and terribly sad. One almost feels as though Chaney’s anguished, angry eyes are burning through the screen at the audience itself. That he could take someone so loathsome and make us wish the best for him—that’s the mark of a fabulous, rare talent.

Some Chaney films suffer from the love interest being rather bland, like Eleanor Boardman’s nurse in Tell It to the Marines, Renee Adoree’s showgirl in The Blackbird, or Lila Lee in the sound remake of The Unholy Three, leaving you to wonder why he goes to the lengths he does to try to win them over, but Nanon is one of the most interesting leading ladies for him. The character is more than a pretty face; she has suffered great trauma and possesses psychological hang-ups of her own, ones that come from being objectified and used. We may feel sorry for Alonzo and his frustrated passion, but it is made clear that he perceives Nanon as something to be possessed, declaring that he “must own her.” Malabar comes on strong at first, but he eventually comes around and helps Nanon through her pain by seeing her as a person and not an object, keeping his hands to himself until Nanon is comfortable with him. Crawford’s breakout role might have been Diana the flapper in Our Dancing Daughter (released a year after The Unknown), but for me, this early role is the first to really show her potential as an actress. As for Norman Kerry… well, it’s still clear that acting was only a hobby for him, not a passion, but he’s adequately handsome and loving toward Crawford, so he gets the job done. It’s a rare romantic subplot in a Chaney film which is actually interesting and not saccharine at all, so kudos to everyone in that aspect.

The Unknown is so haunting, proof that melodrama need not be fodder for tired soap operas. When you have folks like Chaney and Browning at the helm, melodrama can even be transcendent, dare I say art.

Check out more posts for the Backstage blogathon at the Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid blogs!

Leonard Maltin on how Hollywood reshaped public perception of silent cinema

“Just a few years after the birth of talkies in 1927, Hollywood seemed to have made a concentrated effort to reshape people’s thinking about silent film; in doing so, it eradicated both memories and perceptions of the silents’ power to move and inspire an audience. In an effort to embrace modern and forward thinking, Hollywood turned an art form into a joke.

Pete Smith produced and narrated a series of M-G-M short subjects called Goofy Movies beginning in 1933. He transformed silent film dramas into broad comedies, using sarcastic narration and non-sequitur interpretations of the actors’ dialogue. A decade later, Richard Fleischer created a similar series for RKO called Flicker Flashbacks, drawing on some of the earliest, most primitive silent shorts as raw material.

Overnight some actors were regarded as “old timers.” By 1935 it was a novelty to gather veterans of the silent era for reunions, or cast them for the sheer novelty value of their presence.”

Favorite film discoveries of 2015

Umm, where did we put that microphone again?

What fun I had with movies in 2015– save for the nightmares that were the Robert Altman Popeye and Jupiter Ascending, most of it was good stuff. Here are my favorite discoveries of the previous year:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1943)

I prefer The Red Shoes, but only by a hair, because this war time film is Powell and Pressburer’s masterpiece, full of warm humor and elegiac yearning in addition to satire. It’s also cemented my love for Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr.

Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 1996)

To date, the definitive version, despite some over the top silly moments. As someone who does not care for the Oedipal readings of the original play, this version is further made my favorite of all the movie adaptations I have perused.

Greed (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

A masterpiece that more than lives up to its reputation, Greed is a must-see, even in its truncated form. Von Stroheim may have been over-indulgent, but he was a genius oif the medium. Also Zasu Pitts is damned fine in a dramatic role, as is Gibson Gowland, who should procured had more great roles after his turn as McTeague. Having read the original novel from which it is based in a college class, I am of the opinion that the movie is actually superior to the book.

Scarlet Street (dir. Fritz Lang, 1945)

To date, my favorite Lang picture. Perfectly cast and about as bleak as noir gets while still possessing a wicked sense of humor to go with the tragic story of the pathetic would-be painter Christopher Cross and his unrequited love for a sadomasochistic prostitute.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (dir. Clyde Bruckman, 1933)

Hands down, best thing W.C. Fields ever did in the short format. I have rarely ever laughed so hard when watching a comedy alone. It’s also insanely quotable: “I’ll go milk the elk.” “Ain’t a fit night out— for man NOR BEAST!”

The Vikings (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1958)

Schlock, glorious schlock! Tony Curtis in Ugg boots and tiny shorts! Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine chewing the sets and crying “ODIN!!!” And yet, there are moments of surprising beauty amidst the campy fun, like Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking color cinematography or the climactic sword fight.

The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)

How have I been alive for 22 years and not seen this movie? It’s hilarious and has tons of great music, plus one of the finest car chases ever filmed.

Pickup on South Street (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Aside from its great characters, intense score, political subtext, and being a rare example of noir that is (sort of) optimistic, this gave me a crush on Richard Widmark. Total landmark in my life, guys.

The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Aside from minor elements, it’s not really like Star Wars at all. With that obligatory mention out of the way, this may not be as “masterful” as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, or Ikiru, but The Hidden Fortress is a great blend of humor and humane drama. I love Mifune and the bandits, but for me, Misa Uehara steals the spotlight as the tough yet compassionate princess.

Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961)

Made after the noir cycle was pretty much dead in Hollywood, this is a brutal, bleak film. Everything feels rough and unpolished, but that’s what gives the film its power even after all this time. Its plot about a hitman doing a job during Christmas inspired my Nanowrimo novel this year too (I won for the first time!), so it has a personal significance for me too. Can I call it one of my new favorite Christmas films? I mean, it is set during Christmas!

Michael Strogoff (dir. Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)

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A silent film epic you’ve likely not heard of. Romance! Adventure! Political intrigue! Historical setting! Humor! Everything you could ever want in a three hour movie.

Hedgehog in the Fog (dir. Yuri Norsteyn, 1975)

A lovely fable about the mysteries and beauty of the world. I don’t know why, but it arouses all kinds of emotions in me, mainly nostalgia, melancholy, and a sense of wonder.

Marie Antoinette (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)

A lot of people hate this movie, but I just think it’s the bee’s knees. In addition to the sheer eye candy of the 18th century costumes and goodies, it’s a fine exploration of the doomed queen’s isolation in a foreign court as well as the destructive decadence within Versailles itself. It’s also made me rethink my opinion of Kirsten Dunst as an actress, as she’s just fabulous in the lead.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy is now officially one of my favorite filmmakers. This gentle musical rightfully earns its stellar reputation. The candy colors and fairy tale elements would lead one to think this is cinematic cotton candy, but I found its themes of youth, romance, and the uncertainty of the future to be poignant and true to life. Make sure you have handkerchiefs ready.

Grand Slam Opera (dir. Charles Lamont, 1936)

Hands down Buster Keaton’s best 1930s effort. The dance sequence is just too funny, Keaton’s energetic body perfectly contrasted with his face’s subtle expressiveness. Yeah, he’s named Elmer Butts again, but his character has a decent amount of competence and few are the gags that don’t hit the mark. To me, it proves that his style could have survived into the sound era, had he remained in control of his own studio, but I’m content that we have this brilliant gem and his other Educational shorts that really aren’t as horrible as reputation has implied.

The Evil Dead trilogy (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981, 1987, 1992)

Another set of movies that I’m surprised I have not seen in all my years on this planet. Army of Darkness in particular is insanely quotable. Bruce Campbell is excellent in all three of these films, showing a good amount of range and comedic power too.

The Toll Gate (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1920)

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My long-overdue introduction to Bill Hart. His westerns were gritty and morally grey long before the days of Sergio Leone. The Toll Gate in particular centers around a fugitive bandit leader who’s a far cry from Gene Autry, only just barely redeemed by a good woman, played by the lovely and shamefully overlooked Anna Q. Nilsson.

Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1940)

A gentle, funny, and even melancholic look at the early career of Abraham Lincoln with Henry Fonda in the lead role– probably my favorite Ford picture, closely followed by How Green Was My Valley.

Love Me or Leave Me (dir. Charles Vidor, 1955)

Don’t let the Technicolor and presence of Doris Day mislead you, this musical “biopic” is a cynical and occasionally sinister melodrama of great power. Day and James Cagney have great chemistry as the ruthless singer (a character who’s really not much like the real Ruth Etting, from what I have read) and the gangster who wants to possess her body and soul. Even if you don’t like musicals, I would recommend this one.

Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981)

Wouldn’t it be great if most family entertainment had such imagination, brains, and heart behind it? At once possessing satire, slapstick, adventure, and a surprising amount of spiritual/philosophical questions, it’s a good one whether you’re 3 or 300.

Blind Husbands (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1919)

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A mature look at marriage and infidelity, this is about the only von Stroheim film in which he doesn’t indulge his bizarre tastes, so I imagine non-fans of his work will enjoy it too.

Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963)

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn should have had more team-ups, because they are just excellent together in this famously Hitchcockian thriller/romantic comedy. Gosh, it just makes me realize how much I adore genre mash-ups!

Le Roi de Champs-Elysses (dir. Maz Nossek, 1934)

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I finally got to watch this rare movie, a French movie Keaton made during the nadir of his alcoholic period, right after he’d been fired from MGM in 1933. It’s not perfect and has some clunky moments (Keaton himself did not think much of it in later years), but it’s more Keatonesque than most of his slicker work at MGM had been, plus we get to see Keaton’s woefully underused versatility as an actor, with him playing both the hapless hero and the ruthless gangster villain.

The Great Locomotive Chase (dir. Francis Lyon, 1956)

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Though most people dismiss this film and compare it to Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, I enjoyed it very much. I would even say it is an underrated gem. It’s a tense film with solid performances, taking the same historical situation Keaton used but examining it from the Union’s perspective. Yeah, not as fun or compelling as Keaton at the peak of his powers, but few movies are to be fair.

Dragnet Girl (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

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This silent gangster drama from the early days of Yasujiro Ozu’s career may not be on par with something like Tokyo Story, but it is a very good picture with great compositions (though what Ozu film doesn’t have these?) and performances. The leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka possesses both talent and beauty as the gangster’s moll desperate not to lose him to a younger, more virtuous woman.

His Birthright (dir. William Worthington, 1918)

Sessue Hayakawa shows off his comedic talents in an otherwise average film about a biracial dude who wants to get vengeance upon his white father for abandoning his Japanese mother. Still, it’s Hayakawa. The man could make even the worst script worth the time.

Shanghai Express (dir. Josef von Sternburg, 1932)

Paramount’s much-superior answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel, complete with Marlene Dietrich in extravagant outfits, gorgeous black and white cinematography, and Anna May Wong stealing the show.

The Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)

Florence La Badie died much too early. I sampled many of her films last fall and was impressed with the charm and emotion she exuded. While I like her Cinderella best, this ghostly little melodrama is a close second.

Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. Don Coscarelli, 2002)

Elvis isn’t really dead; he’s just stuck in a nursing home with a black man who thinks he’s JFK and a soul-sucking mummy. From this synopsis you’d expect an out and out comedy, but Bubba Ho-Tep is surprisingly sad in addition to being funny, often touching on the troubles of being an elderly person in a society which holds up youth above everything. The ending actually made me weep. Go figure.

The Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker, 1987)

This weird, weird curio from the 1980s has lines like, “Wolfman’s got NARDS!” It has a scene where Dracula picks up a five year old girl and screams, “Give me the amulet, you BITCH!” It’s so bizarre, it has to be seen to be believed.

Descendants (dir. Kenny Ortega, 2015)

Guess who’s got a new guilty pleasure? This movie features the Disney villains living together in an apartment, eating junk food, and yelling at the television all day. Not to mention some of the songs are catchy (save for the rap version of “Be Our Guest,” which makes Kidz Bop sound like an angelic chorus). What’s not to love, huh?

The Wild One (dir. Laslo Benedek, 1953)

I expected unbridled camp, so imagine my surprise when I found this movie kind of compelling. Yes, its “dangerous bikers” come across like goofy frat boys nowadays, but the alienation and frustration of the Brando character stood out big time. I imagine most of that came from Brando and not the lackluster script.

A Lady of Chance (dir. Ribert Z. Leonard, 1928)

A pretty cute romantic comedy about a lady thief and a gullible Southern guy. I could have done without some of the racist stereotyping in a few scenes, but Norma Shearer is in fine comedic form.

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)

I didn’t like this one’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s novel that much and found most of the actors terrible, but it hasn’t left me since I’ve seen it. The bleakness and obsession within the story are captured well, and I’ll give it this, it’s unlike any other WH adaptation which came before it, so I’ll likely revisit it.

What were your favorite film discoveries this year?