Category Archives: silent film

Traffic in Souls

Traffic in Souls ~ This 1913 silent was also known as While New York Sleeps: A Photodrama of Today. Written and produced by George Loane Tucker (best known for his later film, The Miracle Man), it was also called in Hollywood circles ‘Tucker’s folly,’ as he tried for years to get the film made.

Traffic in Souls is about the slave trade in the early 20th century, something that tragically still goes on today. Tucker sought to develop a drama that would simultaneously entertain and inform audiences of this horrid crime. Rumor had it at the time it was based on a government report, but this wasn’t true, although that didn’t keep folks from seeing the picture. Hype worked the same way a century ago as it does today.

I finally got to see this flick on TCM’s terrific “Silent Sunday Nights.” It is a tale of two upstanding Swedish immigrant women, played by Jane Gail and Ethel Grandin, one of whom is swept away by deceptive men into prostitution and worse. Matt Moore is also very good here, and it might be why his career stretched beyond this film.

It’s one of the first feature films from Universal, one of their first hits, and did what Tucker intended, alerted audiences to the horrors of human trafficking at the time. Great scenes of New York of the time, and worth a look for silent film lovers.

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Blackmail 1929

While known alternately as both Great Britain’s first and Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound movie, Blackmail in truth was released simultaneously as a talkie and as a silent film. To make sure it was seen by as many people as possible, Hitch made two versions, the one silent to ensure theaters not yet equipped for sound in 1929 could still show it.

Blackmail is a tale of passion, betrayal, murder, and yes, blackmail, based on a play by Charles Bennett, who also helped Hitch adapt it for the screen. Bennett would end up working with the director in this capacity many times over the years, on films like Secret Agent, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. On his own he would also go on to adapt the TV version of “Casino Royale” and Curse of the Demon.

While originally a stage bound story, Hitch, and Bennett, do a wonderful job of opening the story up to many locations and sets. Many adaptations like this of the time were limiting and almost claustrophobic. The film’s climax is an edgy mad chase through the British Museum, similar to scenes Hitch would continue to construct throughout his career.

Lead actress Anny Ondra, primarily a Czech and German actress is stunning as an early Hitchcock blonde. All the other roles are played with precision but Ondra is the standout by miles. She was so well liked that the studio refused to let Hitch do the ending he wanted. The studio insisted Ondra walk free at the end, rather than pay for her crimes.

Hitch’s directing and storytelling skills are at their height here, and seriously, when aren’t they? Even before he was the master of suspense, he was always a master filmmaker. As with all Hitchcock films it is key you pay attention at all times, the devil is in the details. Simple yet complex, the dynamic storytelling style that would make Hitch one of our era’s greatest directors is evident and already honed here at the end of the 1920s decade.

I recently caught the rarely seen silent version on “Silent Sunday Nights” on TCM, and it was stunning. Must see for any Hitchcock fan or student of the medium, recommended.

Cain and Mabel

Cain and Mabel ~ This is one of those movies with stories from behind the scenes are far more interesting than the movie itself. This classic 1936 romantic comedy, a remake of the silent 1924 The Great White Way, stars a pre-trademark moustache Clark Gable and the infamous Marion Davies in the title roles.

The not so cleverly titled Cain and Mabel is the tale of a rising Broadway star who crosses paths with a prize fighter and rub each other the wrong way, so much so that they, duh, fall in love. The number of great songs and dance numbers are countered however by the terribly staged boxing matches. These folks should have had Rocky to watch back then for inspiration. Still, it’s fun, and daffy Davies is a delight to watch.

For those not in the know, actress Marion Davies was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, and he paid for and/or demanded certain casting choices in the film. Gable was ‘loaned’ from another studio, and certain leading men who found Hearst’s mistress attractive were banned from parts.

Marion Davies, even without her benefactor’s money, was a talent all by herself. Her comedy training and below average dancing skills were bonuses for this role. And even though this was early Gable, he still demonstrated that air and power that would dominate screens in years to come. Their lack of chemistry however undoes any magic they have separately. It makes it a love story that only works when the two lovers aren’t together.

All in all, this is a fun 1930s frolic that’s worth a watch. Check it out.

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My Oscar Picks for This Year

Okay, first off, yes, I have been lax this year with The Oscars. I am hesitant to admit this, but I really haven’t even taken a good look at the nominees until earlier this week. Nevertheless, I will take a shot a predicting the Academy Awards – both what will win, as well as what should win. And just to remind all you other latecomers, check out the nominees here.

Best original Screenplay – I want Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris which I thought was brilliant, but it will probably go to The Artist.

Best Original Song – Of the choices, it’s “Man or Muppet.” Only two songs nominated? Really?? And only one from The Muppets??? What about the songs in Captain America or Bunraku?

Best Animated Film – Nothing deserving was nominated, and the three I saw were abysmal. For the first time in quite a few years, I don’t care about this category.

Best Supporting Actor – Is it time for Nick Nolte to win this year? Plummer and von Sydow deserve it, but I think it’ll go to Nolte, just a hunch.

Best Supporting Actress – I looove Janet McTeer, and would love to see her get this, but I think one of the ladies from The Help will take this one.

Best Actor – I only saw Clooney and DuJardin, but I’m still going to say the latter.

Best Actress – Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. It’s her turn again.

Best Director – If Martin Scorsese doesn’t get this for Hugo, it will be a crime. Not only will the Academy admit they know nothing about direction, they nothing about film either.

Best Picture – The Help and Midnight in Paris were my favorite movies of the year in this batch, The Artist and Hugo are wonderful love letters to film itself, but I’m going to say they give it to The Help.

Check back later and see how I did. What are your picks?

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Metropolis at Biff Bam Pop!

My review of the silent scifi film classic Metropolis is now live at Biff Bam Pop!.

Metropolis is one of my all-time favorite movies, and revolutionary in inspiring an entire film genre. You can check my review out here.

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The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer ~ Okay, I confess, I’ve never seen the classic 1927 The Jazz Singer before, heck, I’ve never even seen the 1979 Neil Diamond version. I know, I know, how dare I call myself a film critic and not have seen it. Well, sit still, I’m amending that tonight as I watch it.

I know of the film’s importance, in fact I know quite a bit about it, just never sat through the whole thing before. We all know the story, Al Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a devout Jewish cantor who wants his son to replace him when he retires, all Jakie wants to do is be a song and dance man on stage. It’s a touching, time honored story, one that resonates today. The generation gap always works, just ask Neil Diamond.

The film is often noted as being the first talkie, but in reality, only a few sequences feature what was called ‘synchronized dialogue.’ And despite the name, there’s not really all that much dialogue beyond the six songs featured. That said, the musical sequences are amazing, and probably startled and stunned audiences for the better when it was first seen in movie theaters.

The Jazz Singer, despite its reputation is primarily a silent film, with terrific singing episodes, and it’s also a damn good flick with dynamic if melodramatic performances. But then again, silents operated on the melodrama principle, so no points off. This is a great film, not really what I expected, but still one of the best films of its era. See it if you get a chance. The DVD has some wonderful background material.

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The Movie I Can’t Watch

My mother-in-law and I talk about film a lot. An ongoing discussion seems to be that she doesn’t like horror movies – or creepy, scary, or anything like that of the kind. She’s often puzzled that I do like them. The argument that comes up most frequently is why would someone want to be scared. The point is I don’t want to be scared. I wouldn’t watch these things if they truly scared me. In fact, there is one movie I will not watch because it does absolutely terrify me.

Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror ~ This 1922 classic of German silent horror is perhaps one of the greatest and most enigmatic and most legendary of all horror films – and I have made a conscious effort not to view it for years, as when I have, it’s given me nightmares, when I was able to finally get to sleep that is.

I’m not sure if it’s the imagery of the horrifying Max Schreck who played the vampire Graf Orlok or not. I am able to watch movies that emulate the visuals like the remake from 1979, or “‘Salem’s Lot,” or even Shadow of the Vampire, which is about the making of this film. So it just must be the wonderful shadowy direction of F.W. Murnau, and Max Schreck himself. Oddly enough, Graf Orlok only appears on screen for nine minutes, but it’s enough. No matter how you cut it, Schreck is scary here. The Renfield character played by Alexander Granach is also pretty fearsome as well.

Nosferatu is an unauthorized filming of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” thus why so many names are changed while the story remains much the same. Because of an ugly lawsuit, Stoker’s widow had every print and negative of the movie destroyed. Luckily (depending on your outlook), copies reappeared in other countries around the world. It has since fallen into the public domain, and has been accompanied by several wonderful soundtracks, including one by Type O Negative.

I had mentioned the shadow work previously. It is some of the best ever in film history in my opinion, and the German silents were masters of the artform. And still, I won’t watch it. I love watching old movies on the big screen, which is why I’m such a big fan of the Silver Screen Classics on the local Rave, but notably I once turned down a chance to see Nosferatu in a theater, it scares me that much. I probably won’t even look at the pics supporting this blog entry.

Happy Halloween.

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Sands of Oblivion

Sands of Oblivion ~ An interesting horror film. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, as Cecil De Mille is actually a great casting choice, unexpected and quite good. George Kennedy is also here, even though I thought he was dead, but I’m glad he’s not as he brings his superior acting skills with him. Unfortunately neither of these men is in this much.

An ancient Egyptian relic is uncovered on the set of de Mille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments, an undying evil is released, and hilarity ensues, fun fun fun. Apparently the shooting set was lost, and lost for a reason. Adam Baldwin is a bit wishy-washy here. Although I first saw him as Linderman in My Bodyguard, it’s hard for me to see him these days as anything other than John Casey from “Chuck.” Here he plays against type and I don’t believe him for a second.

The monster is a rather frightening looking alligator-jawed Anubis, even though its size and shape varied wildly each time it appeared on screen. I know I watched this with the lights on, but it wasn’t as scary as it could be. There were too many sequences with nothing happening and when it did happen, it was drug out. The dune buggy chase lasted forever.

This was a good old-fashioned horror movie, but would have been much better, if it was shorter and more consistent. Check it out if there’s nothing else on.

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The Magician

The Magician ~ This 1926 silent film is based on the 1908 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which was in turn, based on the infamous Aleister Crowley. It was directed and adapted by Rex Ingram and starring his then-wife Alice Terry (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Prisoner of Zenda). As presented on TCM’s Silent Sundays, this was a crisp clean print, something always important when dealing with the silents. It might be noted that while Ingram and Terry mentioned above had many films to their name, few survive.

A sculptress is nearly killed when her sculpture, a big scary thing, falls on her. A young surgeon miraculously saves her life and a romance blooms. Meanwhile Oliver Haddo, a magician/mad scientist played by German Paul Wegener, is seeking the means to create life. All Haddo needs is the blood of a virgin – and he sets his sights on the sculptress. The film rolls from there.

If the plot sounds a bit Frankenstein-ish, it is, and some of the imagery is reminiscent of that film, but remember, Universal’s Frankenstein is still six years away when The Magician was made. There are some quite horrific visuals here, right from the start, and especially one scene in Hell that rivals any in Haxan, complete with “Night on Bald Mountain” soundtrack. This proves that Hollywood was just as good at this kind of horror as Germany was, and they didn’t even need Lon Chaney for this one.

This rarely seen silent film is a classic and a must see. There are some gorgeous French locations (real or not, still stunning), great color tinting, an explosive ending and a wonderful score by Robert Israel. Recommended.

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Silent Hunchback at the Ritz

The Hunchback of Notre Dame ~ I love silent film, but apparently I am one of the few. I was kinda surprised at the turnout for this 1923 masterpiece compared to other films presented by Silver Screen Classics at Showcase at the Ritz. I even overheard one woman at the box office upset that this wasn’t the Charles Laughton. She asked for her money back when she heard it was silent. She objected to having to read, she said. Surprisingly she saw a subtitled movie instead – go figure.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the 1939 version of Hunchback with Laughton, it’s terrific, and Maureen O’Hara was amazing. But the 1923 Lon Chaney version is classic, the best in my opinion, and not the original, it should be noted either. Victor Hugo’s novel has been filmed multiple times throughout film history. Not seeing this version just because it’s silent, to me, is like refusing to see The Wizard of Oz because Judy Garland is not Fairuza Balk. Oh well, it’s your loss, folks.

Michelle McDonald, a manager at Showcase at the Ritz, has gotten much better at the introductions of the movies here, but film historian Lou DiCrescenzo is still much missed. I hope he returns soon. His knowledge and love and respect of the artform is unparalleled. After some fun and waiting on a new projectionist, the movie finally started.

Sadly, this was not a great print, but strictly speaking, there really aren’t that many great prints of this one. In fact, a complete version doesn’t exist, that we know of, we’re still missing ten to fifteen minutes from what I understand.

Amazing sets and the always amazing make-up and portrayal of Lon Chaney highlight this film. There is a ponderous cast of characters, and that and the long setting up of the story are not strictly the film’s fault, but Victor Hugo’s. Tastes from the time it was written to the time of this past century had changed. Disney actually did a fairly excellent job of Cliff-noting it (and also unfortunately politically correcting it as well) many decades later in 1996.

Esmeralda as played by Patsy Ruth Parker is wonderful, and Nigel DeBrulier as Don Claudio and Ernest Torrence as Clopin are terrific villains – who were notably combined into one for the aforementioned Disney adaptation. And Chaney, hell, Lon Chaney is always amazing. This is the role that cemented his legendary status as both a performer and a make-up master. He is the king. Quasimodo’s whipping scene, pivotal in the film, is particularly intense. Chaney is genius at portraying both monstrous and pitiful at once. Though brief, Esmeralda and Quasimodo’s scenes are far more entrancing than Parker with any of the other male leads.

While Parker and Chaney stand out in this film, silents were the realm of pantomime and over the top acting. Here the poet Gringoire as played by Raymond Hatton – famous later in life for The Three Mesquiteers – is the champion. Even though he has his share of dramatic moments as well, his humorous takes steal his scenes, especially one with Norman Kerry’s Phoebus.

The film exhibits quite a political side. The caption cards especially are quick to lay the blame for tortures like the whipping and other atrocities that were done to the lower classes solidly at King Louis XI’s feet. Sometimes the class war looms largely here than any individual’s story. But of course – that’s what Victor Hugo is all about.

When the climatic siege of Notre Dame begins we see some of Chaney’s best scenes as he throws stone blocks and pours molten lead on his attackers from above. Even as a kid I was enthralled by that scene. Great stuff, always worth seeing.

This film is a mix of many genres, several scenes go by without Chaney on screen where the film could have simply been a period piece with no horror overtones. Sometimes you forget what you’re watching, during the Esmeralda and Phoebus scenes specifically. To me this is the sign of a well-rounded story and presentation.

No matter how you see it, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film masterpiece, and must see. Highly recommended. See it, and see it on the big screen if at all possible.

A note on Silver Screen Classics, with the theatre recently being purchased by Rave, it’s now calling their Monday afternoon features the Rave Cinema Classics. Same films, same website, different name. Keep ‘em coming, folks!

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