Tag Archives: William Wellman

Beggars of Life: a Companion to the 1928 Film review – behind the scenes of a silent classic

Nobody knows more about Louise Brooks than Thomas Gladysz. Having founded the Louise Brooks Society in 1995, he has spent more than two decades researching her life and work, curating memorabilia and writing about this most fascinating of silent era actresses. A few years back he published a sumptuous illustrated edition of the novel that Brooks’s second German film, Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) was based on, and he has contributed audio commentaries to American DVDs of that film, and her finest Hollywood movie, Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928).

Which brings us up to date with Gladysz’s latest publication – a short book about the Wellman film, packed with anecdotes and information. Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film is a quick, satisfying read, illustrated with promotional material, posters and stills as well as press clippings. In these pages, Gladysz takes us through the making and the reception of the film and clears up a few mysteries too.

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)

The film, which you may have been lucky enough to see accompanied by a live score from the fabulous Dodge Brothers, features Brooks as an orphan fugitive, dressed as a boy and riding the rails with a handsome tramp played by Richard Arlen and a gang of his peers, including the the menacing Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery. It’s adapted from a famous book by “hobo author” Jim Tully, and although it was a little sanitised by Hollywood, it’s still a remarkably raw, realist film. Not least of its strengths is that Brooks here gives an excellent performance as a survivor of sexual abuse, as she would in her two Pabst films, drawing perhaps on her own experiences as a child.

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Why William Wellman will always have Paris

The silent movie revival (© 2011) takes many, many different forms. A few months back, in February, I noticed a clip from a silent movie popping up in my Facebook feed a lot. Not a long clip, just a short one – a single tracking shot from a well-known movie. The Facebook page that shared this video so successfully had rendered the name of the film in English and French – “Wings (Les Ailes, 1927) an avant-garde film.” A colleague of mine, one of the brainiest in the building, sent me the link, telling me that he had seen a clip from a really special silent film and he thought I would like it. He was a bit miffed, somehow, when I told him that it was a Hollywood movie, a Top Gun style film, which won the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

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That was a bit harsh of me, I shouldn’t have been so blunt and I think I rained on his parade a little. Lots of people don’t think they like Hollywood films, especially the kind that win Oscars. Although lots more do, surely. And French avant-garde films are much cooler than Top Gun – I probably agree with that. I did wonder how many people thought that they were sharing an obscure example of le septième art rather than slick Hollywood film-making, when they pushed that nightclub tracking shot around Facebook.

Today, I saw the clip was back – transformed into a very smooth gif by the twitter account @silentmoviegifs and going great guns for shares and likes. This time it was more accurately credited. Wow, People really love Wings! Or at least this part of it.

This animated 2015 piece about the cinematography in Wings puts the tracking shot above the flying sequences, and this may be where the gif first took off. My clever colleague had read on Facebook that the smooth camera movement was achieved by splitting the tables in half as the camera moved forward. Now that is quite bizarre, although this shot was quite tricky to achieve. This YouTube video explains how it really worked:

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Dodge Brothers and Neil Brand bring silent cinema to Glastonbury for the first time

On Saturday night at Glastonbury 2014, the mud, the terrible noodles and the hangovers will all be worth it. For the first time ever, a silent film will play the country’s leading rock festival. Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers will perform their rousing score for William’s Wellman’s rail-riding rollercoaster Beggars of Life in the Pilton Palais cinema tent, at 6pm on 28 June. We’ll be there – will you?

Read more about Beggars of Life here

The 4th Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema – 12-16 March 2014

Lucky Star (1929)
Don’t go to Bo’ness without me, darling!

Scotland’s only silent film festival returns to the glorious Hippodrome cinema in Bo’ness with another impressively wide-ranging programme. There are some real treasures to be unearthed here: rare screenings of little-seen but highly valued films, and innovative ways to share the magic of silent cinema with younger audiences. Gala screenings include the Dodge Brothers‘ Scottish debut, accompanying the Hollywood classic Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks; Jacques Feyder’s heartstopping Visages d’Enfants closes the festival, with music from Stephen Horne; Frank Borzage’s wartime weepy Lucky Star plays on the Friday night, with Neil Brand on the piano; and Jane Gardner will perform a specially commissioned new score for Ozu’s gangster drama Dragnet Girl. German group The Aljoscha Zimmermann Ensemble will provide a score for Murnau’s timeless The Last Laugh; Jason Singh will create his magical vocal soundscapes for Grierson’s landmark documentary Drifters, live at the Hippodrome.

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Wings (1927): Blu-Ray and DVD review

Wings (1927)
Richard Arlen, Clara Bow and Charles Rogers in Wings (1927)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.

Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.

If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.

Wings (1927)
Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston in Wings (1927)

In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 2

Chytÿte ho! (Lupicÿ nesÿika)
Chytÿte ho! (Lupicÿ nesÿika)

They say the world is divided between night owls and early-rising larks. Here at the Giornate, we split in two similar camps: are you up and at ’em first thing for Felix the Cat, who opens each day of the festival, or up all night with curtain-closer Koko the Clown? Your humble correspondent, it seems, is very much a cat person.

And by lunchtime today I was longing for the narrative simplicity of our lovable early morning Felix cartoon (Felix Loses Out, 1924). There was much to enjoy in the morning screenings, but either my mind was especially feeble or the plotting in some of the comedies was needlessly complex. First up, we had a Czech  Anny Ondra double-bill. Chytÿte ho! (1925) was a romp and a half – Ondra plays a young lady whose guardian was a chronic gambler. There is a charming but dissolute artist, a gang of robbers and all kinds of shenanigans involving a stolen dowry. Ondra is all impish charm when in front of the camera, but most of the running time was taken up by male lead Karel Lamac undertaking a series of increasingly inventive comic stunts – the only shame was that the execution fell short of the imagination. Still lively stuff, and for me, preferable to the following film, Dáma S Malou Nozkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). A couple of amateur sleuths, one wily, one scrappy and dwarfish, attempt to recover a case of stolen money. It’s a strange film, made stranger by a missing length of film that renders one subplot barely intelligible. Strange too, in that it resists the expected narrative resolution. As it says in an intertitle, it’s a “comical piece about a detective, who discovered nothing, but found his true love”. Anny Ondra appears briefly as a young lady who has feet that are small, shapely and completely irrelevant to the plot. Anny, meet the “MacGuffin”, your friend Alfred will tell you more later …

Polis Paulus' påskasmäll (1925) Filmografinr: 1925/11
Polis Paulus’ påskasmäll (1925) Filmografinr: 1925/11

I had little time for Polis Paulus Paskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) in the Swedish strand, though others heartily enjoyed it. Its stars were a famous comic duo in Denmark, though as far as I could tell their humour was based on the fact that one was shorter and fatter than the other, who in turn had a ridiculous moustache. Bucketloads of plot here, too, as love affairs, criminal schemes and old rivalries cause havoc among the residents and staff of a ski hotel. There was some excellent slapstick here (a sequence in which the taller comedian dressed himself in a bearskin rub, notably) but though you may call me shallow for it, my favourite thing in this film was leading lady Lili Lani’s chic winter wardrobe.

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