Blind Husbands (1919)

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  • directed by Erich von Stroheim
  • starring Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim, Sam de Grasse, Gibson Gowland
  • An Austrian military officer attempts to seduce the wife of a surgeon during the couple’s vacation.

“In the Alps there is no sin.”

One production note left behind with no additional detail I can find says that Blind Husbands was taken from von Stroheim and edited solely by the studio, due to the director’s alleged involvement in the murder of the dog that’s in the film. That’s a huge bomb of a story to read without a complete account and aside from being fascinated by what could possibly have happened on set, it’s also interesting because I found the inter-scene editing to be one of the most successful elements of the film. What ended up getting cut by the studio and how it fashioned the overall narrative, however, is a different story.

Blind Husbands at its core tells a simple love triangle tale set in the shadow of the Austrian Alps. An unhappy married couple stuck in a rut of complacency is vacationing so that husband, Dr. Armstrong, can take on the challenge of climbing the Pinnacle, a harrowing mountain that’s taken many lives before. Also staying at the hotel is Lieutenant Von Stuben, a serial seducer of women, married or otherwise, and something like a wily snake in the clothing and stiff posture of a distinguished military man. Von Stroheim would actually go on to play a few characters with the same monocled appearance and penchant for borderline perverse courtship tactics throughout his career.

The story is told with sparing title cards and is instead carried out mainly by an editing style that rapidly bounced around to show each of the three main characters and the current states they are in at all times. This was really the aspect of the film that sucked me in the most and aside from showing the Armstrongs and Von Stuben the shots are interspersed with check-ups on the mountain guide Sepp, his (poor, poor) dog, and a host of nature and inanimate items and decorations, which went a long way in rounding out the tension-filled atmosphere and geographical context of the film.

There are tons of stories over time about clashes between von Stroheim and stars and executives. He was never economical with the amount of footage shot or the amount of time he put into perfecting every detail. His best-known film, 1924’s Greed, was at first a 10-hour print taken from more than 80 hours of footage. I don’t know how the final result of Blind Husbands matches up to his intentions, but I’d be surprised if a flat and basic narrative told in 90 minutes with only a couple of thought-provoking highlights was what he was after.

I loved the private mourning sessions of Margaret and von Stroheim filmed her in very delicate lighting to offset the desperation as she grows dissatisfied with her husband and even sadder it seems at the avenues presented to move away from him. I also enjoyed the mountain climbing scenes shared between the Dr. and Lieutenant which were unpredictable due to the latter’s deceptions being unveiled in a locale that was advertised as begging for a taste of justice aka violent death. But like the film on the whole, any teasing of darkness was just that, and the ending devolved quickly into a big bunch of surface melodrama. Von Stroheim is a great director and probably one of the most-skilled director-actors in film history. At some point though, Blind Husbands, his first directorial effort, got out of his hands and I’m going to assume the overall piece would have been at least a little different if he were able to see it through. If only he didn’t kill that dog…

The Oyster Princess (1919)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Ossi Oswalda, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke, Julius Falkenstein
  • Determined to not let his princess down, Quaker finds a financially hard up royal and throws the couple a lavish ceremony.

“If I don’t get a husband within five minutes I’ll demolish the whole house!”

The Oyster Princess is the earliest indication I’ve seen of the look, tone, and type of stories that would eventually become a trademark of director Ernst Lubitsch. Perhaps this film is the very essence of Lubitsch then, taking the ingredients of extravagance, explosive style, and veiled social commentary that he’d go on to morph and modernize over time and reducing them down to the simplest, most visual depiction possible.

Without sound of course the film is missing the great dialogue–the crucial element—of his later films that either complements and fortifies the themes perfectly or offsets them completely to create independent layers to the work’s message. Instead, in The Oyster Princess, the predominant element that made it a great and recognizably Lubitsch film was its visual strength.

It was a rare type of film because the cinematography and the grand settings, along with incredible symmetrical compositions that could only come from a story in which our main characters, Quaker and Ossi, are waited on and attended to by at least a hundred servants, were my main takeaways from the film. You don’t watch The Oyster Princess and discuss the matters of the wallet and heart at the core of the story, but it’s the assembly line of employees, four to each Quaker, three rows deep around the kitchen table, and at least a dozen for a bath, that hold they key to what it was Lubitsch was trying to communicate. It’s easy to agree that the director is remarking on in purely visual terms American greed, gluttony, and consumerism. If it’s an indictment or a celebration of those things, though, is a little less clear.

The machine-like human formations of the servants and the beautifully choreographed work they are tasked with were presented as the relentless, unstoppable churning of the American system of manufacturing and consumption. I saw an additional angle, whereby the Quakers were the manufactured product and were living a life, like super-rich and status-conscious people everywhere, entirely dependent on meticulous maintenance and manicuring. But again, the film contained not one ounce of mean-spirited judgment.  There were great comedy bits and an effervescence in the air at all times. The impressive scale to the mise en scéne made me feel like we were an inch away from an epic Busby Berkeley-style dance number breaking out.

In my view it was a key decision to include the great foxtrot scene during the wedding. A very American innovation, the foxtrot being emphasized confirmed for me something I’d already known; there was a great admiration for American culture and style on the part of Lubitsch. Additionally, the ending of the film in which Veruca Salt on speed, Ossi, grows to love and accept the down-and-out Prince Nucki says something about the director’s operating levels of cynicism and optimism at the time.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
  • Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan rescues an abused waif and romance blooms as he nurses her back to health.

Broken Blossoms tells the story of two distressed individuals, one East one West, who in uniting and attempting to rise above their terrible circumstances in life are driven even lower. It isn’t happy stuff, but it’s done extremely well and commanded investment from start to finish.

The first half of the movie set the stage beautifully for the two main characters to come together. In Cheng, Lucy discovers the first gentle spirit she has ever known, and in her he catches his first sight of beauty since moving to such a cold and disinterested country. A few details in terms of the film’s Asian-ness were a bit iffy and I’m sure they represented the Western world’s prevalent derogatory opinion of the Asian population at the time. Overall though Griffith’s treatment came across as respectful and restrained in many ways.

Lucy is terrorized psychologically and physically by her boxer father. There were a few disturbing scenes of abuse in the film, none more visceral than in the finale when Battle ripped apart Cheng’s shop and dragged his daughter back home where she frantically hid in the closet. There was a lot of whipping and physical abuse in the film up until this point, but nothing brought me down as much as seeing Lucy try and claw her way out of the small closet as her father zeroes in. It was the nightmare of claustrophobics everywhere. During these years, there was nobody more capable of playing the victim of terror than Lillian Gish and her performance in Broken Blossoms was over the top at times, but effective and competent enough to steer the film away from the campy terrain into which the story seemed to want to drag it.

As for the other half, we first meet Cheng in China as he is preparing to head West to spread the Buddhist teachings of peace and enlightenment. You can tell that he has grand visions of what his life abroad would be like, but after years of nobody paying any attention to him, save for those set on persecuting him for his culture and religion, he ends up depressed and managing a store in Limehouse’s Chinese district. Not really managing a store, more like smoking opium in an empty store and waiting for divine intervention. I liked Barthelemess in this a lot. I wouldn’t quite call his Cheng an un-racist portrayal, I mean he did go by the alternate name of Yellow Man on the cast sheet and was referred to as “Chinky” by friendly characters even. There was something damaged and animalistic about his performance. If forced to come up with a description I would call it graceful, kind, mellow leopard.

This was a really enjoyable movie and neck and neck with The Outlaw and His Wife for the title of best pre-1920 silent film I’ve seen so far. The gritty, realistic town setting, Griffith’s expert and in this case sensitive vision, and three great performances of three great archetypical characters all led to what felt like a way more advanced film than the others I am watching from these years.

Victory (1919)

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  • directed by Maurice Tourneur
  • starring Jack Holt, Seena Owen, Lon Chaney, Ben Deeley, Wallace Beery, Bull Montana
  • Uncommitted wanderer Alex Heyst takes pity on a troubled woman and gives her refuge on his island.

 “A man don’t hide away in a lonely island like that unless he’s got something to hide from.”

It took me about halfway in to fully connect with Victory and if it weren’t for superb performances and the glorious photography of Tourneur, I never would have gotten there at all. Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad, this was the first film adaptation of the author’s work and it was the only one that he lived to see.  I can’t imagine what he thought of it because I’ve never known a Conrad story that could fully be told in 60 minutes or less. So going into it expecting depth, as I did, led to being thrown off that the story was mainly sticking to the surface.

As he did with the very different The Blue Bird, Tourneur seemed to make striking compositions and near-visible atmosphere his priorities with Victory. He did take advantage of the incredible island locale with cutaways to a smoldering volcano and plenty of landscape shots, but interestingly enough the most memorable moments visually were the interiors. Where the script lacked in providing a roundedness to motivations and personalities, Tourneur filled it in with his camera, giving each character his or her own trademark visual treatments. He shot Alma with a thick, glowing halo around her most times; the psychological jaggedness and unpredictability of Ricardo was highlighted with stark streaks of light and the diagonally cast shadows from window blinds; and Heyst was by comparison shot fairly flat, representing the serene and lonely life for which he strived.

Though I enjoyed it most for it being a tour de force of technique, it all came together in a big and tense way during the final showdown between Heyst and the gang. The stunts were great, the murders were brutal, and I found myself for the first time invested in the death- and love-induced awakening of Heyst’s spirit.

Male and Female (1919)

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  • directed by Cecil B. DeMille
  • starring Thomas Meighan, Gloria Swanson, Lila Lee, Theodore Roberts, Raymond Hatton, Mildred Reardon
  • An aristocratic British family always gets their way until shipwrecked with their house staff.

“I was a king in Babylon and you were a Christian slave.”

Like most of DeMille’s work, Male and Female deals with issues and themes that are so enormous that there’s trouble in fitting them neatly into the boundaries of the more traditional story he’s trying to tell.  As far as the overflow, I refer to his inability to resist shoehorning in a relevant but superfluous ancient Babylon sequence, which attempts to contextualize but in my opinion disrupts what was a captivating story with a lot of moving parts constantly at work. Guided by the play The Admirable Crichton, by J.M. Barrie, the story of Male and Female most of all hinges on the concept of power; the power within, the power man holds or lacks in society, and ultimately the power of nature to turn all of that on its head without a moment’s notice.

The film begins at the Loam manor in which we see the well-off family relying on staff to draw them rosewater baths, braid their hair, serve dinner, and strictly follow convention by staying out of the way in any social capacity. The family is clearly on the greedy, class-conscious, and ignorant side of the wealth spectrum. A family boat trip along with Crichton the butler and Tweeny the maid leads to the main portion of the film whereby the boat crashes onto a deserted island and the crew must now work–some for the first time–and struggle to survive. At first Crichton and Tweedy maintain their roles of subservience. After a while of pulling all of the weight, though, the butler begins demanding equality, something he gets and then some as we cut to two years later and his physical strength and strategic know-how have led to his becoming something of a King to the group.

During the island section of the film there is a lot going on at once with each of the stranded minute by minute either having their status or point of view completely changed due to the long-held traditions of aristocracy now being an irrelevant, distant memory. It was then surprising to see Crichton, a principled and loyal servant albeit one with suppressed ambitions, quick to take a turn for the greedy and corrupt in his style of island dominance. The ensuing rescue cuts shorts his time on the throne and it also disrupts a spontaneous wedding between him and Lady Mary, something that they both know will be ignored completely upon homecoming.

Aside from power, the film dealt with disparities in class, the strength of love and relationships, and the flimsiness of a lifestyle run by money and inheritance alone, but what was it saying exactly? I thought that what happened when they returned home from the island would hold the answer, but it was as if on the boat home they all had their memories wiped clean. Crichton held no shame for getting carried away with his authority and the Lords and Ladys weren’t thankful in the least for his stewardship through years of desertion. They were all desperate to just make it the way it was with the one exception being that Lady Mary is finally able to work up the courage to ignore tradition and open herself to love the butler. He walks away instead and marries Tweeny.

Overall it was a very busy film, always entertaining, and one that relished much more in proposing themes and provoking thoughts than it did provide any kind of final judgment.  If anything, I suppose the answer to many of the questions the film poses is that whether you’re in or out of power–in the rosewater bath or preparing the towels nearby—the accustomed groove of life is quick to kick in and something resembling happiness could occur. A fairly bleak interpretation but an apt one for Male and Female I think.

The performances leaned more towards slowed down and natural than they did theatrical, something that I am quick to notice and appreciate in silent films. Standing out the most was Thomas Meighan, an actor who because of age was mainly a silent film star and therefore gets short shrift in the household name department. I really enjoyed the film but I don’t think it would have been the same without his solid performance as both the dedicated servant and the more-egomaniacal-by-the-minute island ruler.

True Heart Susie (1919)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour, Loyola O’Connor
  • Young country girl Susie secretly loves a neighbor boy and sacrifices her own happiness to promote his ambitions.

I’m always intrigued when big directors go small and D.W. Griffith, having invented dozens of crucial film techniques in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance just a few years prior, settled into a string of films in these years that traded in large-scale historical movements for individual human emotion. He did have a few more epics left in him before he stopped directing in 1931, but True Heart Susie was one of those quieter Griffith films, more ice cream social than battlefield, which looked good but worked most of all because of great and very human performances. Well, let’s be more clear; his films benefited greatly from Lillian Gish.

The story is of a lifelong romantic bond between Susie and William, some of it known and some just projections on her part, but the film most of all seems hung up on one issue—the inability of “plain women” to claim any strength or control in their romantic pursuits.

William has an effortless way about him that attracts the outside world in droves. All the ladies in town are drawn to his looks and college officials and rich philanthropists are attracted to his future potential. Meanwhile Susie who clearly contains all or more of the same charm and attractiveness as William garners none of that brand of attention, so she copes by contributing to his tuition, inspiring him to propel upward in life, and all the while remains back home with her aunt and livestock. Two wildly different paths they are on connected only by the delicate and frayed thread of childhood love.

William eventually returns home with a smooth mustache, savviness, and a new political gig, and now takes up with a woman of “the paint and powder brigade,” the very antithesis to the plain Susie. Judging from the film’s theme of the battle between plain women and party girls who rely on cosmetics and conniving to win over a man, Griffith had a sympathy for the down-home style of woman who gets passed over, but it all ends in the same way most of these types of films end, with only the destruction of his new marriage providing the inspiration for seeing what was there all along.

The film succeeded for me because Griffith gave Lillian Gish the time and breathing room to properly express emotion. I’m noticing a surprisingly little amount of space in many silent films of this era. Most seem quick to cram in story or zip along various settings, but are rarely willing to slow down to visually express actual feelings. When you have the skill and eyes of Gish, though, it’s a no-brainer approach and here she shouldered an incredible amount of pain and betrayal throughout, which made for a memorable film.

The Doll (1919)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Hermann Thimig, Ossi Oswalda, Max Kronert, Gerhard Ritterband
  • A young man marries a lifelike doll in order to claim his inheritance, but when the dollmaker’s daughter starts to impersonate it, real love springs to life.

The Doll begins with Lubitsch pulling back the curtain and revealing himself as our host of sorts as he opens a box, removes set pieces, and constructs a playful, miniature homestead scene. He then retreats to the camera, slowly zooms in, and the same scene comes to life to begin the story. It was one of the best parts of the film and a great way to establish the mood and lend an air of whimsy to the rest of the action that followed.

Lubitsch took the short story Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a much heavier and adult story, and turned it into a fantastical fairy tale full of comedic performances and imaginative visuals. In the adaptation, Lancelot, upon learning that he must choose one of the 40 female suitors his father has picked out for him, instead flees to a monastery as a way of avoiding such responsibility. It then becomes clear that he’ll be granted a lot of money upon getting married so he shops for a doll to be his bride. Before the transaction is finalized the doll breaks unbeknownst to him so the manufacturer’s daughter, who was the model for the toy, steps into its role. Enter Ossi Oswalda who gave a funny performance that successfully landed halfway between human and object and was also downright lovable at times.

I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the concept of the famed “Lubitsch touch,” a trademark aspect of the director’s work for which dozens of definitions seem to exist. On the surface it’s easily identifiable, with frequent recurrences of sophistication, sexuality, and an incredible and almost-otherworldly sense of lightness to his films. However there’s also something deeper to the touch, like it’s a direct line of communication between the director and his audience not reliant on character, story, or anything tangible on the screen to convey. Nothing as extreme as an outright acknowledgement of the audience-film relationship, but a unique dimension or convergence of message and story that more or less boils down to “you know it when you see it.” It’s not something I’m able to fully grasp yet without having seen the bulk of his work but I’m familiar enough to know that in The Doll we were shown something of a different side to the director.

In 1919, Lubitsch’s exploration of adult themes and trademark style begin to develop with the geopolitical film The Oyster Princess and the French nobility tale Madame du Barry. These films along with The Doll represent the variety of genres that the director was eager to tackle but one common trait unites them and it’s a distinct departure style-wise from German cinema at the time. Years before he even moved to Hollywood, Lubitsch’s film work was already moving fast toward the American sensibility and away from his home of Berlin. In comparison to some of his other films during these Berlin years, The Doll was an enjoyable film but felt slight in a way, leaning much more in the direction of his extensive theater past than it was one of the early signals of his future signature film style.