Are we in the midst of a City Symphony revival? As well as recent essayistic examples from Terence Davies and Mark Cousins we have had last year’s London Symphony, and in 2016, Brighton Festival commissioned another, which has been screened a handful of times around the country and is now out on DVD, and about to screen again in London and Brighton soon.
I’ve been keen to set my eyes on Brighton: Symphony of a City for a while, especially once I started hearing such good things about it. The DVD it is available on is called Symphonic Visions, and it is a showcase for the work of composer Ed Hughes. Alongside Brighton: Symphony of a City, directed by Lizzie Thynne, which is a whisker over 47 minutes long, there are four silent shorts featuring new scores by Hughes and Sky Giant (1942), a British Movietone film from the Imperial War Museum archive about the Arvo Lancaster Bomber.
The BFI’s sumptuous restoration of Indian romance Shiraz is out on dual format DVD/Blu-ray now. Assuming that you took this website’s advice and already saw this lush film at the London Film Festival Archive Gala or on its recent theatrical run (actually, there are probably some more screenings coming up – check here) why should you buy it on disc?
1) Because this is a film to wallow in. Hat-tip to the illustrious Anglo-German cinematography team of Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann. It takes repeat viewings of Shiraz to satisfy your hunger for those gorgeous landscapes and grand palaces. All that beauty looks great in high-definition on the Blu-ray – and you can watch a short demo of the restoration to see just the BFI put into making it look so stable and blemish-free. I am shameless, as you know by now, so I recommend using the scene selection function to skip straight to the kiss, or to the reveal of Taj Mahal. Not forgetting the fact that you can pause that elephant’s foot moment to see just how close a call it was.
2) Vintage extras. I really like the BFI’s habit of putting extra archive films on movie discs. In this case it the Temples of India, a short travelogue from 1938 that features the Taj Mahal, which was shot in blistering colour by none other than genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff. There’s also Musical Instruments of India – a government film designed to promote Indian culture, which might be of special interest if you’re drawn to reason Number Three …
With one week to go before the big day, the Silent London elves bring you a selection of festive gift recommendations. These are great ideas to buy for the sexy silent cinephiles in your life – or to spend your gift vouchers on in the sales.
I have mostly linked to UK Amazon for ease, but you should be able to find these elsewhere online, direct from the supplier or (hopefully) in a shop near you.
A silent symphony
London Symphony, Alex Barrett’s gorgeous, moving tribute to the capital city is out to buy on multiregion Blu-ray now from the good folks at Flicker Alley. Also included on the disc is a 1933 archive film London Medley, as well as an interview with Barrett and his short form Hungerford Bridge. It’s a brilliant, beautiful modern city symphony, with a cameo from yours truly, and possibly a couple of other faces you will recognise. Readers in the UK may want to wait until the UK DVD release in February from New Wave.
The perfect introduction
New to silent cinema? Or just want to read an intelligent, refreshing perspective on late teens and 1920s cinema? Lawrence Napper’s Silent Cinema: Before the pictures got small is a valuable, and highly readable guide to pre-sound film. I loved it. Regular readers of this site will especially enjoy the hurrah for British silent cinema: “thrillingly cosmopolitan”.
Film on the front line
The history buff in your life will be fascinated by the Imperial War Museum release of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) on Blu-ray and DVD. Geoffrey Malins’ followup to The Battle of the Somme (1916) is more tightly constructed and cinematically shot with a greater focus on the soldiers than strategy. It is presented here in a crisp, fresh restoration with a beautiful score by Laura Rossi, and a reconstruction of the recommended medley score from 1917, compiled by Stephen Horne.
Before Hollywood became the heart of the American film industry, New Jersey was studio city. About 20 miles from West Orange, where Thomas Edison’s famous Black Maria swiveled to catch the light in the 1890s, the town of Fort Lee became the site of DW Griffith’s acting debut in 1908, and the birth of movie mammoths now known as Universal, MGM and 20Th Century Fox.
Now, to best understand the history of Fort Lee, and its importance to the US film business, you should read Richard Koszarski’s 2005 book Fort Lee: The Film Town. This DVD set from Milestone, The Champion: A story of American’s first film town, could work either as a companion to that volume, or as the best kind of introduction to the subject. Whatever you have or haven’t read, this set represents an exceptionally entertaining way to potter around movie history for three hours.
“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?
Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.
Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)
The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.
So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.
And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.
In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.
Ruan Lingyu appeared in her first film in 1927, aged 16. In 1935, she took her own life, just over a month before her 25th birthday. In that short time, she had appeared in many Chinese silent films and become one of the country’s best known actresses. Today she is celebrated for her delicately nuanced performances in those films that survive – she has been called the “Chinese Garbo”. However, if you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage say, you will also know about the troubles Lingyu encountered, and the events leading up to her shocking suicide.
Lingyu’s private life shouldn’t concern us now, any more than in 1935, but when you watch The Goddess, a stunning Chinese silent film and one of the last she made, it is difficult not to make a link between the actress and the character she plays. Lingyu’s suicide note (which may have been forged) famously read “gossip is a fearful thing”, and her early death came after she had been monstered by the press over her love life. In The Goddess, Lingyu plays another woman devastated by malicious gossip. But it’s important not to take this comparison too far – the chatter of small-minded women is not the worst of her character’s problems.
The first thing to know about this film, which is every bit as beautiful and tragic as its star, is that “goddess” was a Chinese slang term for a prostitute, perhaps a slightly ironic one. Lingyu’s character embodies the perceived contradictions in that name: she is a loving mother who supports her son by nightly sex work. The crib is in the centre of her home, and her garish cheong sams are hanging on the wall. The nameless heroine has the misfortune of running into the house of a sleazy gambler, “The Boss”, when fleeing the police one night. From that moment one, her decides to exploit her, taking her earnings on the threat of harming her son. When the “goddess” attempts to send her son to school, the other mothers soon catch on to the way she earns her money, and complain to the principal, which is when our heroine faces the worst crisis of all.
Prostitution was rife in China in the 1930s and The Goddess’s story would not have been unusual. Many women were forced by poverty or trafficking into a career that was both illegal and made them vulnerable to pimps and clients – some of whom might be beasts like the Boss. If they aspired to a better, safer, more respectable life, the taint of sex work could hamper their efforts – which this film illustrates. The Goddess doesn’t feel like a campaigning film, despite a rousing speech made by the school principal, and you may feel let down by the ending. But this is a humane and very moving film – who knows whether it may have changed a few attitudes in its time?
Who among us can honestly say they haven’t got their history from the movies? Sometimes, at least. And while Hollywood epics are known to take liberties with the facts, some movies seem to be more immediate sources. Take Soviet history. If you are a silent film aficionado you will have seen how Soviet cinema is constantly re-presenting events from its own recent past. And even if you don’t mistake reconstruction for documentary fact, these films provide their own window on history. The government involvement is often painfully clear, but that in its turn provides its own commentary on the events as presented on screen. A new documentary about Soviet art history, Revolution: New Art or a New World, recounts a familiar anecdote about Eisenstein’s October (1928), a stirring re-enactment of the 1917 revolution. On the day of the premiere, Stalin himself entered Eisenstein’s editing room, and ordered that all scenes involving Trotsky be excised.
So the film, intended to create a certain impression of the workers’ struggle, and of Lenin’s leadership, loses a fragment of what truth remains inside the propaganda. But, of course, this story is almost well known enough to be a companion-text to the film. October becomes known as the story of the 1917 uprising, but without Trotsky, on Stalin’s orders. That said, I hadn’t realised quite how much exaggeration went into October’s depiction of the assault on the Winter Palace. Revolution put me right on that too.
What I’m saying is that context is always important, and this documentary, released on DVD next week is especially welcome as a survey not of all Soviet history, but the art scene, and its relationship with the changing political regimes. For Lenin, art was the best form of propaganda, and he channeled plenty of funds into hiring artists to make monuments and sculptures of socialist heroes. Never mind that many of those artists had absorbed the revolutionary spirit of the times themselves and felt passionately that their work should not be beholden to religion or state. There is a great line here about the anarchism of Malevich’s work coinciding with Bolshevism, rather than there being an cause-and-effect at work between the two.
In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.
The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.
For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.
This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.
Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”
Make more noise! More than a silent film? More noise than an Edwardian lady? No, more noise than the patriarchy.
Make More Noise! is the title of boisterous new compilation from the BFI, an anthology of films related to the British campaign for women’s suffrage. It contains newsreels of protests and personal appearances by the leaders of the movement, as well as short fiction and actuality films that reveal the changing role of women in British society. In the second category, you’ll spot Tilly films, and footage of women working in munitions factories and field hospitals. It’s a fascinating mix, beautifully programmed by Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz and superbly scored by Lillian Henley.
This anthology pretty much had me at hello – the combination of early cinema and feminism is right up my street. But I’d like to think that Make More Noise! holds an appeal for people who aren’t pre-sold on the content that way. If you enjoyed Sarah Gavron’s very moving Suffragette, this programme gives you a more complete picture of the world of the characters in that movie – these are the films they would have seen at the cinema, the ideas they would have discussed at the dinner table, and just possibly, a glimpse of their future.
Love is All sprawls across the history of cinema, picking up clips from classic films and home movie so the and editing them together into a gorgeous mess of love and romance. It contains flirtations, seductions, marriages and babies; young love, forbidden love, gay love and straight. It leans quite heavily on silent cinema, possibly because those films work particularly well in this treatment, possibly because they are just the most romantic. Who knows? And the whole thing is set to a gruffly melancholic soundtrack of songs by Richard Hawley. So it’s really rather eye-catching, but could be a head-scratcher too. What does it all mean?
This DVD release from the BFI does attempt to reveal the mysteries of this swooping documentary, with a package of extras including explanatory essays and statements from the film-makers, plus a bundle of complete short silent films from the archive. There is also a recorded Q&A with Longinotto in which she happily admits that she had never heard of Hindle Wakes or Anna May Wong before including them in Love is All. Yes, really.
If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.
You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.
First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence.
The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast.
Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.
So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.
I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.
London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.
Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?
This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.
Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Louise Brooks and GW Pabst, an irresistible combination? Certainly Pandora’s Box (1929) caught lightning in a bottle, creating one of the most iconic female roles in all of silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Brooks tease eroticism out of a certain ingenue naivety, whereas in her previous US films (A Girl In Every Port and Beggars of Life in particular) Brooks had offerede a slightly more world-weary sensuality. So it is no surprise that Pabst saw Brooks as the perfect person to play Thymian, the sheltered girl who will drop through the cracks of life via a workhouse for fallen women and prostitution.
This new Blu-Ray transfer of Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer verlorenen, 1929) by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is a crisp and beautiful version of what is clearly an exploitation movie. As in Pandora’s Box, Pabst’s walks the tightrope of commenting on eroticism and sensuality; too often he falls off the tightrope into titillation. The film is set up for us to rue the difficult circumstances that lead to Thymian’s journey from a fine middle-class household down into poverty and eventually to selling her body. Except everything is still a bit clean. The reformatory is horrid, but only in comparison to her comfortable home – and its horridness is more due to a Miss Hanniganesque management rather than something inherent in the system. And there isn’t really too much criticism of Thymian’s shaming (AKA rape), and pregnancy. You get the sense that the original author (the film is based on a popular Margarete Böhme novel) and the film-makers are just following through the logical conclusion of these incidents. Instead, we end up with a somewhat warped fairytale, a slow-burn Snow White where the dwarves run a brothel full of happy hookers, or Cinderella with calisthenics.
There is a sensuality and rawness in Pandora’s Box, coming from Lulu’s naivity, which Thymian doesn’t share at all. At least by the time the film has put her through her paces as part of the reformatory’s physical education routine, she has no sense of wild abandon. It is a wholly more sinister erotic thrill, underlined (perhaps a bit too heavily) by the matron whipping her gong and clearly getting far too much pleasure out of the whole affair. This part of the film could be subtitled Reform School Girls do gym:
Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.
Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.
But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.
Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
Pola Negri’s Madame Dubarry has it. You know exactly what I am talking about. Dubarry is living and loving in the heat of pre-revolutionary Paris, but she’s more than enough trouble for the aristos all by herself. “The woman who will ruin France” is first introduced as a breath of fresh air, whispering saucy jokes to the other girls in the seamstresses’ workroom – a ripple of fun in the stuffy atmosphere of the atelier. When she leaves the shop, Dubarry collects admirers with every step, like Clara Bow in a crinoline. Before long, of course, she’s the mistress of Louis XV, creating disarray in the court, just as she did in the shop.
Ernst Lubitsch is brilliant at capturing this, the sizzle of sex appeal so hot that it can turn a king’s head, transform a society ball into an orgy, or raise an angry mob at the palace gates. Madame Dubarry has the angst of a drama, but the vigour of a comedy, and Negri has exactly the attitude that the part demands. Dubarry isn’t a calculating seductress, just a natural-born pleasure-seeker: a minx who decides which lover to visit by pouting as she pulls at the bows on her bodice. And Negri commits fully to the role of a beautiful woman in ugly circumstances – those enormous eyes are flirting one moment and filled with anguish the next. Some people are allergic to Negri’s grand emoting, the head flung back, the flailing arms. But there’s plenty there’s naturalistic and light here: watch her face as Jannings trims her fingernails, revelling in pleasure and pain. And yes, there’s also an opportunity for Negri to rehearse her most notorious scene – hysterically throwing herself across her lover’s coffin.