Monthly Archives: February 2013

Camille (Film d’Art, 1911)

Camille posterCamille (Film d’Art, 1911)
Directed by Louis Mercanton
Starring Sarah Bernhardt

Based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s much adapted novel The Lady of the Camellias, Camille (1911) follows Marguerite Gautier (Sarah Bernhardt), a “courtisane” (or high-class prostitute) who falls in love with Armand Duval (Lou Tellegen) and decides to give up her former life to marry him. Armand’s father (Georges Charmeroy?), scandalized by his son’s association with Marguerite, forbids her from seeing him. Marguerite abandons Armand and returns to her old ways, much affected by her loss and in declining health. Time passes and eventually Armand’s father relents. Armand goes to Marguerite, but reaches her just in time to witness her death.

Coming in at not even three reels, the story is obviously condensed greatly. It includes the familiar scenes of the meeting between Marguerite and Armand’s father, of Armand finding the note, the scene at the gambling party, and Marguerite’s death. There’s little linking these vignettes together besides intertitles, but the plot is still comprehensible even going in cold. That said, a working knowledge of the story the film is based on certainly helps to fill in the gaps.

This is the only multi-reel Bernhardt film I’ve seen aside from Queen Elizabeth (1912) and I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two while I was watching. Both films are stagey, but Camille is exceptionally unadventurous. Elizabeth at least varies the angles now and then and does some intercutting between shots to show simultaneous action when not all the characters are on screen together. Camille is all medium-long shots, straight on, and without cuts. Cinematography had progressed beyond that in 1911. I can only assume that they wanted to capture, as faithfully as possible, the experience of seeing Bernhardt perform the play on stage – Marguerite was her most famous role and she was known the world over for it – but from a movie-goer’s perspective, Elizabeth is certainly more exciting to watch.

Bernhardt – “the Divine Sarah” – was regarded as one of the finest actresses that ever lived, but from Camille and the handful of other films I’ve seen of her, that simply doesn’t come through. Honestly, she doesn’t stand out at all in this adaptation. I would say it’s a matter of changing styles in acting, but compare Bernhardt to her only slightly less famous contemporary Eleonora Duse. Watch Duse in Cenera (1916) and tell me she wasn’t a gifted actress.

For someone interested in Bernhardt, of course you’ll want to see Camille, but if you’re just in the mood for a good adaptation of Lady of the Camellias, I’d recommend the 1921 version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Available from TheGreatStars.com

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What a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913)

What a Change of Clothes Did screenshotWhat a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by Maurice Costello
Starring Maurice Costello and Clara Kimball Young

John Mason (Maurice Costello), a wealthy New York socialite, has grown tired of being sought after and fawned over only for his money. He takes a trip to the country to get away from it all and go fishing. Meanwhile, Joe (Herbert Barry), a man wrongly accused of bank robbery, has escaped from jail and is on the lam. As he’s fleeing, he notices John lazing by the riverbank. Joe grabs a tree branch, quietly sneaks up behind him, and conks John on the back of the head. When John regains consciousness, he discovers his clothes are gone and he’s left with convict stripes.

John, still woozy from the blow, finds his way to the nearest house, which just happens to be Joe’s sister’s (Clara Kimball Young). She knows Joe has escaped and quickly figures out what became of John’s clothes. She offers him some of Joe’s old things, which he gladly accepts. John, not one to take it slow, asks her out on a date, which she gladly accepts.

Joe’s sister doesn’t know anything about John and John isn’t volunteering any information. As far as she knows, he’s a penniless fisherman. Be that as it may, the two hit it off and are married in the next scene. Only then does John reveal his wealth, saying that he was waiting for someone interested in him and not his money.

Oh, and Joe apparently tracked the bank robbers down, followed them to Buenos Aires, and brought them to justice, thus exonerating himself and allowing him to return a free man, but all that happens off-screen.

What a Change of Clothes Did (1913) isn’t an awful film, but it’s about as subtle as being conked on the head with a tree branch. I don’t care for the reliance on incredible coincidences – it’s a sure thing for drawing me out of a story – and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and say there’s some time compression going on, but it really does seem like John and Sister just skip over to the Justice of the Peace at the end of their very first date.

On the other hand, I did like all the location shots. This was entering the period when Vitagraph was investing heavily into location-centric films actually shot on the locations they take place in. They had teams going all over the world shooting pictures. Change of Clothes was filmed on Long Island – in Brooklyn-based Vitagraph’s backyard, essentially – but it still feels like they’re making a showcase of the rural backdrop. I also like how the studio interiors actually look like they belong to the location exteriors.

The acting is unremarkable, and I say that as a Costello fan. Again, it isn’t bad, just… perfunctory. It’s surprising, really, given that Costello directed the film himself; I would have thought he would be more invested in it. My favorite character was actually the butler (Richard Leslie), who’s only in two scenes, but he provided a nice, subtle bit of comic relief that made me smile.

In summation…

My rating: Meh.


Available from Harpodeon

‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)

'Morning Judge screenshot ‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Starring Peggy Shaw and Flora Finch

Flora Finch is most known for playing opposite John Bunny as his shrewish wife in the numerous “Bunnyfinches” the two made for Vitagraph in the early 1910s. When Bunny unexpectedly died in 1915, she attempted to continue the act solo. It didn’t really work out. Going from the height of stardom in the ’10s, her career sunk lower and lower until, by the end of her life, she was reduced to doing extra work.

In ‘Morning, Judge, Finch plays Crabbine Hicks, president of the Women’s Uplift Society. To give an idea of her moral conviction, she once organized a movement “to prevent saw mills from selling undressed lumber”. The local theatre is playing a saucy can-can dance routine, which Crabbine successfully sues to shutdown.

Peggy Pierce (Peggy Shaw) is among the now out of work chorus girls. The coat boy at the theatre is Crabbine’s son, Buster (James Terbell). Buster is rather taken with Peggy, and as she has nowhere to go, Buster suggests that she and the other girls come over to his house. Mother is out all day with the society, and Dad (Joseph Burke) isn’t the sort to care.

Crabbine and the other society members are at the train station when one of them realizes they’ve left the treasury back at Crabbine’s house. The group discusses for a moment before deciding to go get it. They’re overheard by Naughty Nick, a “large bandit at large” who’s “in the country for his health, after too much night work in the financial district”. Nick also decides to pay the Hicks house a visit.

 

‘Morning, Judge is not a good film – not at all. It’s unfocused, unfunny, the plot just meanders from one scene to the next, and the “resolution”, if you can even call it that, is infuriating:

The police cum fire department are called, who turn out to be a rustic version of the Keystone Cops. Yes, you didn’t read wrong, the film was indeed released in 1926, not 1916. The force is complete with a dwarf, a giant, and a fat man (I suppose they wanted to cover all their bases) and they completely wreck the house when they arrive. One of them climbs down a ladder cradling what looks like a baby wrapped in a blanket, but golly gee, it’s actually a fire extinguisher. Ha, ha, ha, the end.

The chorus girls? Naughty Nick? Buster and Dad? No time for them when you’ve got a killer sight gag like that to go out on. Rarely has a film – and a comedy film, no less – angered me so much as ‘Morning, Judge. It’s only February, but I think I’ve already seen my worst film of the year.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Metropolis (Paramount, 1928)

Metropolis PosterMetropolis (Paramount, 1928)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Adapted by Channing Pollock
Starring Gustav Fröhlich and Brigitte Helm

If you’re reading this at all, you must have at least a passing interested in silent cinema, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the story of Metropolis (1927). We know about the Berlin premiere version that was presumed lost decades ago. We know about the reconstruction attempts that began in the 1980s and culminated with the then-definitive Kino version in 2002. We know about the discovery of a nearly complete print of the film in Argentina that, in 2010, allowed us to see the premier version again for the first time in 80 years. But if you’re like me, you may not know much about what happened between 1927 and 1984.

The international release of Metropolis was handled by a company called Parufamet, a joint venture of UFA in Germany and Paramount and MGM in America. Paramount was to be the American distributor. UFA, who produced the original film, gave Paramount (through Parufamet) carte blanche to re-edit the film to make it more profitable in America. They hired a playwright named Channing Pollock to make the necessary changes. Pollock’s Metropolis premiered in America in 1928 and between that date and the first reconstruction, if someone said that they had seen Metropolis, it was Pollock’s version that they were referring to.

I’m not going to talk about Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis. There would be no point – I’m sure you’ve seen the recent 2010 reconstruction and probably one or two of the others as well. But in a curious reversal of history, if someone today said that they had seen Metropolis, they’re never referring to the Pollock version. That’s the film I’m going to review.

 

The first two acts of the film are spent weaving a Christ allegory around Eric Masterman (Freder Frederson in the original – Gustav Fröhlich), a man metaphorically borne of Mary (Maria – Brigitte Helm) and come as a savior to the workers of Metropolis. It manages this to good effect, even repurposing the scene where Freder takes over for 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) on the V-machine as a metaphorical crucifixion. It tries to carry it forward into the final act, but frankly, Pollock’s film kind of falls apart after the introduction of the Machine Man, or “Efficiency” as they name it.

I suppose now is a good time to bring up Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Of all the characters, Rotwang is the most changed in Pollock’s edit. In the original film, Rotwang’s reason for creating the Machine Man is to bring his lost-love Hel back to life. He’s motivated by a deep-seated hatred for Joh Frederson, the man he lost Hel to and the man he blames for her death, as she died giving birth to Frederson’s son, Freder. When he gives the Machine Man the likeness of Maria, he does so to trick Joh. Joh thinks he’s helping him to quash the worker’s nascent uprising, but the Machine Man really obeys only Rotwang and he intends to use it to spur the workers into open rebellion and crush Joh’s city.

In Pollock’s film, Rotwang is working with John Masterman (Alfred Abel) in creating a soulless and untiring race of machine men to replace the workers of Metropolis, and Efficiency is their prototype. The soullessness part is John’s idea. John sees himself as a god (and, taking the allegory Pollock has so carefully constructed around Eric to its natural conclusion, he sort of is) and wants to remake man in his own image of the perfect worker. Rotwang warns that a man without a soul can have no loyalty to his creator and will quickly turn on him, which is just what Efficiency does.

It wasn’t a bad idea on Pollock’s part, and it could have worked had he been writing the script for a new movie, but limited to just the scenes available in the original Metropolis, there isn’t the necessary footage to convey what Pollock is trying to say and the third act feels cobbled together in a way that the first two acts didn’t.

What surprised me most about Pollock’s Metropolis isn’t what was changed but what wasn’t. I had always heard that the reason Paramount didn’t simply release the original film was because they feared its Marxist themes wouldn’t play in America, but if that’s true, then Pollock failed spectacularly with his edit. Pollock’s injection of religion does nothing to diminish the overarching class struggle between the proletariat “hands” of the workers’ city and the bourgeois “brains” of Metropolis. If anything, his Christ allegory emphasizes the film’s socialist message – Pollock’s Eric is no Supply Side Jesus. It strikes me that Paramount was less concerned with the film’s politics than it was with its length (Pollock’s version is a good half-hour shorter) and accessibility (it goes out of its way to explain visual metaphors like the Moloch machine where the original had more faith in the audience’s intelligence).

I confess that, before sitting down to watch it, I was unprepared to like to Pollock’s Metropolis, but it very nearly won me over. Had it not collapsed in on itself by the end, I would have said that, while it was a very different film from Fritz Lang’s vision, it more than accomplished its goal. But with the almost incoherent third act, it lost whatever praise I could have given it. It exists as a curiosity that a fan of the “real” Metropolis may be interested to see, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a first-time viewer.

My rating: Meh.

You may also be interested in the novel the film is based on, which I read and wrote about on my other blog.

Air Pockets (Educational, 1924)

Lige ConleyAir Pockets (Educational, 1924)
Directed by Fred Hibbard
Starring Lige Conley

Well that was a thing. I’m not too familiar with Lige Conley. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the first film of his that I’ve seen. I wonder if all of his work is this… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a slapstick comedy, the plot of Air Pockets (1924) is surprisingly intricate. The foundation of the story involves a private detective, Uranius Holmes (Earl Montgomery), whose card tells us that he specializes in “Alimony, bombs, and secrecy – not responsible for lost property”. Holmes drums up business by committing the crimes he hopes to investigate.

No… no, I shouldn’t start with that. The plot really hinges on this committee of wealthy investors, led by Sanford Morgan (Otto Fries), who are being extorted by a mysterious person called Moscow Murphy under the threat of something unsavory happening to Morgan’s daughter (Olive Borden) – who does, in fact, turn up kidnapped later in the film.

Wait, back up. There’s this guy named Octavius Jones (Lige Conley), an inventor who fancies himself to be a real mover-and-shaker in the automotive industry. He’s invented a revolutionary “folding flivver” that will render the garage obsolete, if only he could get his hands on enough venture capital.

He’s also got a mother-in-law who’s fat (Sunshine Hart). That’s it. Her plotline, at least, is easy enough to follow.

With it all separated out, you might see how each story segues into the others, but understand that Air Pockets jumbles them together in an almost dreamlike manner. It has its fair share of standard slapstick gags, making much use of Octavius’s car and Uranius’s airplane (did I mention he has an airplane?), but it’s the confused, illogical-but-yet-unquestioned way that the story unfolds that really makes “dreamlike” the best way to describe it.

Also of note, the last act takes place mostly in the air and features some very good aerial photography and miniature work.

A word of warning, you will not like this film if you’re sensitive to racial comedy. It isn’t quite on the level of G. Howe Black in Wizard of Oz (1925), but Morgan’s valet and chauffeur and the mechanic at the airport speak in an exaggerated dialect (“Oh mammy – bring dat ground closer to mah feet”) and are the butt of many, many a joke.

That aside, I found Air Pockets mesmerizing to watch and will admit that it got a few laughs out of me. I think that counts as an endorsement.

My rating: I like it.

The Quakeress (Broncho, 1913)

The Quakeress Poster

The Quakeress (Broncho, 1913)
Directed by Raymond B. West
Starring Louise Glaum and Charles Ray

Priscilla (Louise Glaum) is a Quaker living among Puritans in a colonial-era New England village. She takes in boarders to support herself and her sick mother. The latest is the town’s new schoolmaster, John Hart (Charles Ray). Over time, John comes to love Priscilla, and on her mother’s deathbed, promises to take care of her.

The spiritual leader of the town is the Reverend Cole (William Desmond Taylor), who very much despises “the heretic” and forces through new legislation compelling all townspeople to attend Puritan services and forbidding anyone from giving food or lodging to non-Puritans. Priscilla is arrested, tortured, and banished. John follows her and they set out for a Quaker settlement somewhere in Pennsylvania, but on the way, they come across a hostile Indian tribe preparing to assault the Puritans. The question is then whether to return and warn them of the danger or to leave them to their fate.

 

In 1913, Charles Ray was just beginning his assent to his fleeting stardom, which peaked around 1915 and vanished almost before the year was out. The basic plot of The Quakeress mirrors what I would consider his seminal film, The Coward (1915). In The Coward, Ray plays a young man who deserts the Confederate army, accidentally learns of vital Union war plans while in hiding, and then must decide whether to save himself or save the army.

The Coward conveys the idea of torn allegiances significantly better than does The Quakeress, but that isn’t to say the latter is a bad film. I quite enjoyed it. Glaum’s Priscilla, Ray’s John, and Taylor’s Cole are all well acted – it’s a testament to how well acted they are in that the characters feel like they have some depth to them, despite the film never actually revealing anything about them beyond what’s necessary to advance the plot. I also must commend the film for never once becoming mawkish, given how easily the story could lend itself to that. I can only imagine how it would have turned out had this been a Biograph picture with Griffith at the helm.

I won’t be adding The Quakeress to my list of favorites, but it’s a solid film that I enjoyed watching and would recommend.

My rating: I like it.

The Mysterious Black Box (Selig, 1914)

Frame from The Mysterious Black BoxThe Mysterious Black Box (Selig, 1914)
Directed by Norval MacGregor
Starring John Lancaster and Sidney Smith

Bill (Sidney Smith) is in love with Mr. Fogg’s daughter, Betty (Elsie Greeson), and wants to marry her. Mr. Fogg (John Lancaster) does not exactly approve of the match, and as he just so happens to be Bill’s boss, he fires him. Bill, hoping to persuade Fogg to give him his job back, goes up to the boss’s office and discovers Fogg and his secretary in a rather compromising situation. Bill rushes away, but not before Fogg notices him holding what looks like a camera under his arm. Fogg must prevent that picture from reaching his wife at all costs.

The Mysterious Black Box (1914) is one of those films that straddles the line between drama and comedy, and like many other such films, it doesn’t really succeed at either. The infidelity story, clichéd as it is, does start out strong thanks in large part to John Lancaster’s performance, but that same performance hinders the comedy elements. Lancaster plays his part as straight as an arrow, but Sidney Smith and especially Lillian Leighton (Fogg’s wife) act as if they’re in a broad slapstick regardless of the scene. When the three come together, it feels almost as if two entirely separate movies have crashed into one another.

Selig films fascinate me for reasons I can’t quite articulate and I’m happy to have seen another of the rare surviving few, but The Mysterious Black Box isn’t a film I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

My rating: I don’t like it.