The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

Image

  • directed by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown
  • starring Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall, Alan Roscoe, James Gordon, Theodore Lurch
  • During the 18th century wars between the French and English, Huron Indian Magua sides with the French, while Mohicans Uncas and Chingachgook remain loyal to the Brits.

At some point during the production of The Last of the Mohicans director Maurice Tourneur was injured in a fall and his assistant, Clarence Brown, had to step in and finish the project. Google isn’t cooperating with my attempts at getting the details of the incident and finding out at what point in the filming that it occurred. Having seen some of each director’s work, I have some guesses as to what portions of the film should be attributed to which man but really it’s all speculation and I’m sure that Tourneur being the mentor of the relationship, coupled with Brown having never been in full control of a film before, amounted to the former’s sensibilities and choices seeping in even when he was absent.

Many of the scenes in the first half of the film had the familiar landscape-driven and highly composed pictorialist bent of Tourneur. Sequences like the introduction at the British camp, the cave scene, Munro’s candlelit strategy session, and the Delaware council all began with near-still establishing shots that wouldn’t look out of place on a museum or private manor wall. Frequently these establishing shots featured characters right up against the camera with the rest fanned out symmetrically in the middle ground in full pose and then some even further back. Soft lighting and great costumes enhanced the dignified and aristocratic atmosphere inside running in contrast frequently to glimpses of the dangerous world outside whether with a visible breeze or a view through a window or door. Once a calming visual like that had been properly set, Tourneur would then dig in, mainly employing close-up shots and editing to do the work of a scene in lieu of having the characters actually moving around the space.

If a lot of the interiors and the great sense of tethering the upstate New York landscape to all of the action were traits that screamed Tourneur then I must also give credit (again, speculation) to Clarence Brown for the brutal and chaotic Fort William Henry massacre scene. Nineteen years later Brown would win the first-ever Special Effects Oscar for The Rains Came, a film that featured an amazing monsoon/earthquake/flood scene with techniques and a scale that was up until that point not seen. Likewise, with the massacre in this film there was no holding back in terms of how big, explosive, and violent it would be. This was also when the film’s depiction of Native Americans fell in line with how most films in these decades treated them—face-painted, animalistic, blood-hungry, and rabid. Horses, children, and babies were killed and paraded around, explosions lit up the background; the ground was filled with bodies. By the way, the guy who stole a baby from its mother’s arms and threw it into the air was none other than a young Boris Karloff.

James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has been adapted for film and television a few times although its literary legacy is one that has never been too solid. Mark Twain mocked its style and wordiness, Michael Mann said that he changed certain things in his film because the novel was, “not a very good book,” and even its creator himself after re-reading it years later noticed problems with the plot and characters. The different film versions over the years either take liberty with characters and plot, omit large sections that Cooper wrote on the Indians outside of their involvement in the French-English conflict, or heighten a romantic angle between characters that wasn’t present in the book. I think perhaps the biggest stamp that Tourneur and Co. put into their film was the strong reliance on landscapes, composition, and suggestive visuals, which allowed them to place much less emphasis on the ins and outs of the story.

Advertisements

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Image

  • directed by Fred Niblo
  • starring Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery Sr., Charles Hill Mailles, George Periolat, Sydney de Gray
  • By day, Don Diego de la Vega is the ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy California rancher. By night, he’s the masked hero Zorro, who fights to rescue his fellow citizens from the tyrannical Capt. Juan Ramon.

For me there were two separate movies going on within The Mark of Zorro, which struck me more often than not as a remarkably flat movie when it wasn’t in full-tilt action mode. The reason for the unevenness is likely because that it was a film developed mainly by Douglas Fairbanks as a way to put on a pedestal the star power and charisma of Douglas Fairbanks and launch himself into the big budget adventure film genre. This was a winning strategy at the time as audiences were ecstatic just to have the actor be dashing on screen, but it goes without saying that almost a century removed from Fairbanks-mania, the actor alone is not still able to hold up an entire film. There were only a few people who in these years had that power to overshadow otherwise lackluster productions, in my opinion, and although his physical abilities as Zorro were impressive, the film needed much more help.

On the positive side, it was hard not to enjoy the cartoonish yet thrilling fight scenes, especially the one between Zorro and Gonzalez that opened the film. For all the swords, guns, and deadly intentions, there was very little danger present in any of the fights so the overall stakes plateaued rather early on. Fairbanks’ humorous side was a great addition to the series of battles, however, featuring choreography that I could see in any Looney Tunes sketch had they been animated.

Another part of the film that I enjoyed, and it was unexpected as I am no aficionado on the backstory or mythology of the Zorro character, was how closely the story of Don Diego/Zorro followed the path, or founded the path, of many of the modern comic superhero origin story films. It struck a lot of those familiar chords in its structure and in how relationships were carried out between Don and his alter ego, his father, and the villain. In true superhero fashion the story also had that romantic interest Lolita, who knew both of his personas yet couldn’t decipher that they were one and the same despite some minor facial accessories.

There was also a foliage-covered door in which he and his horse could subterraneously enter his house ala 1960’s Batman. All of these familiar, but innovative at the time, concepts and yet it sorely lacked the one thing that any good origin story needs–an origin story. There was very little explanation or detail given to Diego’s earlier time in Spain where he developed the skills and convictions that compelled him to return home and fight for the oppressed. Some flashbacks to his awakening or having the whole film be about that come to think of it would have done wonders in rounding out the otherwise one-note story.

That’s really all I see fit to discuss about The Mark of Zorro. The film so clearly came alive during the action sequences with some truly great stunts and choreography, but then it took a nosedive immediately with most exposition scenes. Two memorable fight scenes don’t make a great film and aside from a picturesque moonlit prison break, I felt like director Fred Niblo was inactive for the majority. As producer and something of Hollywood royalty at the time, it’s easy to point to Fairbanks as the guy to blame for letting some important details fall away in favor of hamming up the screen in the Zorro blacks and suave and smiley countenance. The film wasn’t a huge failure, don’t get me wrong, but it needed a lot more meat on its bones.

Way Down East (1920)

Image

  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale
  • A naive country girl must rebuild her life after being tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy womanizer.

I suppose there’s more than one way in which to experience Way Down East. D.W. Griffith’s intention according to the introduction was to provide some kind of historical context to the double standard to which we judge men and women in terms of relationships and status. As he put it in the title cards, this film takes place at a particularly bad time for wives as husbands were stepping out and playing the field possibly more than ever. There are also less successful moral and religious themes strewn throughout, such as the subjectiveness of religious scripture and a depiction of those that downright reject it.

There seemed to be a lot of things swirling around in the director’s head that he may have wanted to flush out in Way Down East but from my perspective, and for fans like me who are consistently knocked out by the purity and effectiveness of Lillian Gish’s acting, Griffith’s themes failed to resonate beyond frequent mention and the entire film was really just a showcase for the actress to do what she does best. In that way, it was basically a two-hours-plus emotional beatdown because nobody plays hurt like Gish and nobody put her through the ringer like Griffith.

Even when she wasn’t on the screen and the film moved to focus on one of the comical side characters or the overlong party scene for instance, I could think of nothing else but the dark shadow that Anna’s tortured existence cast over the story. Griffith went to great lengths to give depth to a lot of characters that surrounded the Bartlett household, but for me there simply was no film outside of Anna’s arc. I would even find myself trying to picture what she was doing or how she was getting along during the times when the action moved elsewhere.

To summarize the story, we meet Anna in the midst of desperate financial circumstances living with her mother in the country. They decide that she is to head to the city to seek assistance from better-off relatives and immediately her eyes light up at the many beauties of high society. Before long she falls into the trap of a phony marriage to wealthy playboy Lennox Sanderson, seeing in him security and happiness for her family and the fairy tale future that she never thought she deserved. Little does she know she’s just a short-term conquest for Lennox and he never intends on marriage despite getting her pregnant. From there things get worse as she returns home alone, her mother dies, and then so does her newborn; all this as she’s still processing extreme heartbreak. It was here that the movie began to feel almost at the level of a horror movie with the amount of torture put to poor Anna.

As someone completely closed off to the outside world and then only exposed to the very worst it has to offer and mainly due to Gish’s supremely vulnerable and devastating performance, Anna’s troubles made this portion of the film feel a lot like watching a child or an animal subjected to abuse and that was just crushing. It doesn’t get better as she is now alone and wandering around in a daze looking for work. She ends up at the Bartlett house with two ultra religious parents at the head so if her history of unmarried illegitimate motherhood was found out then it would be hell all over again because something resembling a family unit is finally within reach and there’s a small sliver of romantic potential with their son, David, although she refuses his advances because she herself feels tainted by her scandalous past, innocent and manipulated though she was. There was a lot of rock bottom for Anna throughout the film and I guess one of the more innovative parts of the story was how it was never true bottom and her situation always got darker until the somewhat surprising conclusion.

The thing Griffith really nailed better than anything in Way Down East is the ending, a thrilling sequence still granted classic status to this day and one that was executed, painfully so, without special effects. The storm that Anna races into after being shamed by the Bartletts sure looked like the real thing and a cast and crew that suffered frostbite and permanent injuries is a testament to the fact that, yes, it was a very harsh and cold set during those days. I call what happens to Anna somewhat of a surprise because up until that point, the stage had been set over and over again for her to go through nothing but hell and at best die a martyr, a sacrifice by Griffith so he could tell his story of the era’s inequality and unfairness in even more dire terms.

Overall, the film had some nice glimpses into the culture and style of the 1920’s at times and it truly was a hell of an exciting climax, but Griffith packed in a lot too many side plots, the melodramatic elements got to be too much, and it’s easy to say that the main reason that Way Down East holds any sort standing of importance and  impact was because of Lillian Gish.

Within Our Gates (1920)

Image

  • directed by Oscar Micheaux
  • starring Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, William Stark, Ralph Johnson, E.G. Tatum, Grant Gorman
  • An educated Negro woman with a painful past dedicates herself to helping a near-bankrupt school for black youths.

If it weren’t for it being found in Spain in the early 1990s and then pieced together and rehabilitated then we still would be without this important document from the beginning of Oscar Micheaux’s filmmaking career. Within Our Gates, the oldest surviving film by an African American director, is not quite his complete statement and vision as some scenes are gone and a lot of the titles had to be converted back to English from the Spanish version that had already gone through a rough translation. However the power of the imagery and story still remains and the sheer quantity of perspectives presented result in it being a thorough snapshot of an America still very much divided by race and prejudice in the years halfway between the abolishment of slavery and Reconstruction Era of the 1860s and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s.

The film paints a picture of many types of prejudice with blacks and whites in the North dealing with not only each other but their views on the South and vice versa. The two predominant types of racism, though, are the mob-mentality-driven almost rabidly racist violent attacks of the South during Sylvia’s younger years—there was a dark cloud over most of the film as it all headed downhill to a brutal one-two punch of the attempted rape of Sylvia and the lynching of her family and Efram–and the institutional racism that she faces in the present as she tries to scrape together any amount of money from any person or agency to simply teach black kids to read.

Sylvia Landry’s travels in the pursuit of funding from South to North and back again and all the many characters she meets creates a rich tapestry in terms of the very confused country that the film was intent on depicting. Consider the character of Geraldine Stratton, a white woman who moved to the North and steadfastly opposes the Women’s Suffrage movement lest it result in black women being able to vote. Micheaux was able to explore the many ways in which such a disgusting past and a too-slow-to-progress present have inspired the best and the worst in individuals on both sides of the racial divide.

There was a clear lack of generalities cast in this film, a trap that is all too easy to fall into when dealing with slavery, racism, and black vs. white issues. Instead, the film presented racism as an entity that even ill-intentioned black people could latch onto to manipulate and exploit their own people. Each character, black or white, came with his or her own unique perspective, some with morals and decency and others without.

In terms of the filmmaking craft of Within Our Gates, I would say the film’s biggest strengths were its editing and the management and pacing of Sylvia’s two different timelines. Perhaps its biggest strength of all though was the ambition of Micheaux to stuff into the film so many concepts, some fleeting, some lasting, but all important to have on record forever, and not to mention the bravery it took to take on such a correct yet controversial counterpoint to Birth of a Nation.

The Parson’s Widow (1920)

Image

  • directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • starring Einar Rod, Hildar Carlburg, Greta Almroth
  • A young man is elected by a small village to be its parson and as part of his duties is required to marry the widow of the previous parson.

I’m not yet overly familiar with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s style as I’ve only seen one of his films, the much-praised Vampyr. After reading about his career and monumental works however, I was guilty of anticipating a film, though it was only his second, that was in line with his overall legacy. Something hard to access with rich visuals, near-tangible atmosphere, and depth. There were some skilled touches in The Parson’s Widow, mainly the long and portrait-like shots that detailed characters’ faces and emotions, but I was surprised that the strength of the film for the most part–and I loved it–lies mainly in its story and characters.

More than anything else Vampyr was an impactful experience because of Dreyer’s technique. What I’ve read on The Passion of Joan of Arc speaks similarly to a much higher level of praise for Dreyer’s and Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s craft, especially since everyone already knows of that tale’s narrative strength. So for that reason to witness from Dreyer understated and naturalistic direction and a consuming story about generational divide, love, and spirituality—a story treated with ample lightness and humor no less—was unexpected. This was a couple of ball gowns shy of a 1930’s screwball comedy basically.

In order to wed his love Mari, Sofren must endure a hard-fought political and religious campaign to become the village’s Parson. Sofren wins the election but thereby must instead marry Margarete Pedersdotter, a woman something like 40 years his senior who in her lifetime has had to marry three new Parson’s dating back to her first husband, the love she still carries in her heart. Margarete, played by Hildar Carlburg, was the complex, punch-packing character at the heart of the film.

According to Sofren and Mari, two children by comparison, Margarete was intimidating, closed off, and possibly even a witch. We are supplied a much richer background to her though, giving us a more complete picture of an elderly woman who’s in reality quite warm despite being heartbroken by those she’s lost throughout her life. The film’s universe was much more rounded out by having these two characters misunderstand each other in such a way and it was a timeless take on the wide gap between the old and experienced and the young and ignorant.

So begins a series of humorous attempts by Sofren to either steal away for alone time with his true love or even go so far as to try and murder Margarete so he and Mari could achieve their long-intended existence in love and religious power. This culminated in him injuring Mari instead of his intended target. The scenes with laid-up Mari were when Margarete’s dichotomous persona became one and the couple, like us, grew to admire her for her tender, caring touch and matronly behavior. When she learns what had up until then been the secret that she was the one keeping them apart, the woman steeped in tradition and heavily burdened with being past her prime does what’s necessary to keep the cycle of love in the parsonship going.

The lead performances were perfectly done. Einar Rod was the epitome of young brat, which was all the more compelling set against the backdrop of the spiritually elevated position he undertakes. But really the film belonged to Hildar Carlburg as the old lady who you want to heed yet hug and treat as your grandmother. With his intense and deliberate focus on the face of the woman, Dreyer all but created a monument of the elderly woman with which to empathize.

The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

Image

  • directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
  • starring Albert Steinrück, Paul Wegener, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Müthel, Otto Gebühr
  • A Jewish rabbi creates and brings to life the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.

This was Paul Wegener’s third film based on the novel by Gustav Meyrink but the only one that still exists today. How He Came Into the World is a prequel to his first two efforts and the film’s importance is felt to this day for its beautiful Expressionist style and for it being something of a forebearer to the Universal horror explosion that occurred a little over a decade later. Any answers searched for as to the right tone to strike overall or how a monstrous creation should behave on screen in those 1930’s horror films, specifically the Karloff ones, were properly flushed out by the creatively mighty team behind The Golem.

There were a few direct hat tips in Frankenstein, the obvious ones being the creation’s physicality and the two monsters’ interactions with a cute and innocent child during their violent rampages. The Golem’s influence goes even further to films like The Mummy (directed by The Golem’s cinematographer Karl Freund) and all the way into 50’s science fiction and beyond. The concept of a creation with an expressed purpose that slowly degrades into moral ambiguity and uncontrollable violence has been explored in film from all angles. The Golem happened to be one of the first, if not the first.

This was my favorite execution of German Expressionism on film because it feels like Wegener and Boese, with designer Hans Poelzig and cinematographer Karl Freund, were able to seamlessly blend the angular and larger than life design elements into scenes that still felt traditional in a way. Where The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari flaunted its angry-looking and over the top sets and artwork to convey the psychotic nature of the story, it felt like The Golem’s Expressionism was more warm and fluid, a good portion of which came from the placement of the camera itself. There were surely the requisite cartoonish settings, but one thing I said to myself over and over was, I’ve never seen a camera in this part of the room before. It was a way, I’m assuming, to achieve Expressionist angles and have the main action off-centered even in settings that were light on design elements. The film looked amazing throughout and Freund clearly utilized many different techniques to get it to that level.

Story-wise, I appreciated the religious and spiritual depth given to what was basically a monster movie. What was unique was that it wasn’t a monster made out of madness like Frankenstein’s or one to carry out world domination, but instead designed as the physical embodiment of the spirit of the Prague Ghetto and the Jewish faith in general. One thing I’m unclear about is what exactly the Rabbi wanted the Golem to do to protect the exiled Jews. The Golem saves the day by coincidence really as he prevents the ceiling from falling on the Rose Festival gatherers, but what if that didn’t happen? It was the Rabbi’s magical presentation that caused it to fall in the first place. I get the Golem as a symbol of strength for the Jewish community during a difficult time, but as an imposing figure I think a lot of the details of the plan were left unexplained.

The priority was in the hitting of the necessary beats of the character’s journey—creation, exhibition of strength, saves the day, darkens, even darker, redemption—instead of following through with the original story introduced in the beginning. For a movie called The Golem, I’d say that’s appropriate, but a few points were left dangling and it was all rushed a little too much for me. Still an absolute classic for its look, mood, and influence.

Erotikon (1920)

Image

  • directed by Mauritz Stiller
  • starring Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje, Karin Molander, Lars Hanson, Elin Lagergren, Vilhelm Bryde
  • An entomology professor has an easygoing wife who is courted by two suitors.

I don’t really know where to begin with Erotikon partly because it’s been hard to wrap my head around what was going on or why it was going on in the way that it was. One point of confusion was that for a story mainly about love and relationships, there was a glaring absence of any warmth or emotion in the film.

Though I can’t quite say he produced an enjoyable film for me, Stiller did do great work in matching the coldness and cynicism of the story with very clean and emotionally detached photography. There was the occasional flash of something ecstatic or suggestive to round out the perspective on modern love, but Stiller’s staging, especially in the first quarter of the film when we meet the characters and see Professor Charpentier lecturing on the mating patterns of insects, plays much more like an educational work than it does a “romantic comedy” film.

Moving forward to consider the film’s first half on the whole, the plot—the Professor’s wife being desired by two men and him developing an unhealthy liking for his niece–astonishingly moves forward with our main characters contributing nothing to it at all. The lecture on polygamist bugs and a ballet given much emphasis at the film’s halfway mark are basically the only reasons I was aware of the dynamics of the story. Preben and Irene don’t have a scene of expressed or suppressed desire, but the ballet in which a man interrupts a marriage with his scandalous yearnings tells us everything we need to know about the nature of Erotikon’s main characters.

The characters work, shop, run errands, deal with their dress, and there’s much time given to leisure activities. The thing they don’t do is communicate to the audience or each other what they are unhappy with or want in regards to romantic pursuits. Again, for a “romantic comedy” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film’s plot—through supplemental elements, foreshadowing, and metaphors–unfold in such a roundabout way before.

After a very slow first half, the tone shifts and the film does start clicking at some point soon after the ballet with a confrontation between the married couple and the male mistress who attempts to come between them. Stiller’s compositions mostly remained distant and minimal, but for once the characters break out and are willing to act on their impulses and begin to acknowledge and take stock of the messes surrounding them.

The other problem I had with Erotikon and probably my biggest point of disconnection was the musical accompaniment to the film. In the rare scenes where the film was working it unfortunately carried on its back a flatlining score that had nothing to do with the mood and brought the energy to a screeching halt. As I make my way through the silent era I’ve been surprised to find that’s exactly how I prefer to watch some of these films—on mute.

Come to think of it the score was one of a big bunch of contradictions right down to the film’s title, which suggests that the proportions of the sensual and the banal were going to be the opposite of what they were. The Charpentiers were complete opposites, the music and subject matter worked against each other mightily, the story pitted science and hormones versus tradition and rational emotion, and Stiller’s very structured images were at the same time, but not often enough, at least nodding towards sultry. All put together this made for intentions and themes that were difficult to fully grasp on one viewing.