The Kid (1921)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance
  • The Tramp cares for an abandoned child.

“A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.”

There are many miracles contained within Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid. Yes, the oft-mentioned successful marriage of comedy and drama is one of them and this was the first time it’d been attempted so boldly. More than the innovativeness, I had the expectation that the light and dark would come in and out in waves; one exiting and leaving the door open for the other. One of the many remarkable things about The Kid, though, is that humor and heartfelt emotion are present on screen at all times, sharing the screen throughout. Even during the laugh-heaviest scene, the fight between the kid and the neighborhood bully, I couldn’t help but be affected by a detail like the way Chaplin looked at his unofficially adopted son with pride and commitment.

Something else unexpected for me was how the pacing, editing, and performances transformed the story’s overblown melodramatic elements–the basic human struggles of poverty, class, family, and loneliness—into something subtle, natural, and altogether comfortable to watch. Mostly, melodrama is used to elevate a basic story to inhabit a larger, more universal plain of emotion. Chaplin did the same, but the film defiantly remained very small and personal.

That the film felt personal is not something often said about the works of Chaplin but it’s no mystery why this one was such an exception. The man’s poverty-stricken upbringing, a recent bitter divorce, and the death of his first-born son were all events that had to have put great amounts of feeling into his performance and the story. A lot of the film’s great emotional moments arise from The Tramp either trying to find happiness and stability in the middle of dire economic straits or desperately trying to sustain the familial bond with the orphan while circumstances begin to conspire to have them separated. Viewed with the lens of Chaplin still mourning the loss of his son and marriage, the film’s most enduring scene, the contrast of Jackie Coogan’s face as he is carted away hysterically crying and that of Chaplin who turns almost rabid as he’s overpowered by authorities, is all the more heart-wrenching. There are innumerable faces and moods to the character of the Tramp, but physically intimidating and furious were two traits I’d never encountered until this scene.

With all that said, The Kid doesn’t quite live up to the perfection that I’d label some of Chaplin’s later films. It’s easy to think that a bitter divorce that compelled him to flee California in order to hurriedly edit the film in a Salt Lake City hotel room resulted in him taking his eye off the ball here and there. A surreal, nicely shot, atypical-for-Chaplin dream sequence towards the end of the film was interesting on its own, but rang out like an off-note on the whole. But more than nine decades later it still remains miraculous how one man, representing the film’s lead actor, writer, director, producer, and at least five or six other crewmembers can execute all areas of his vision at such a high level.

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Lucille La Verne, Monte Blue, Sidney Herbert
  • Peasant girls raised as sisters, Henriette and Louise, get separated and caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution.

More than 500 films and a handful of truly great ones made up D.W. Griffith’s decade and change up until 1921’s Orphans of the Storm, a film that marked the final critical and commercial high point for the director before a very sharp decline. Nothing ever came easy business-wise throughout his career and yet, despite the odds of facing enormous production costs and presiding over grand and complex sets, he did put together a string of successful later films with Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.

Based on the 1872 play The Two Orphans by Adolphe D’Ennery and Eugene Cormon, the film features subject matter that falls into familiar territory for the director—a place where historical events, while large and flashy and somewhat accurately depicted, are reduced to mere delivery systems for his world view. The country and culture heading into the meat of the 1920s was about to zoom past him, however, so it was his inability to get out of his own way and read the road signs that also contributed to his growing out-of-touchness with audiences. He does get a lot right in Orphans. The resentment between the classes was palpable, the celebrations and battles were appropriately kinetic and chaotic, and the sets and cast of extras were of course enormous, but, as with all of his films, his inability to see much of anything outside of himself, this time in the form of an overly preachy opening title card, does nothing but overshadow what was, despite a lagging middle section, a great intertwining of fictional melodrama and dynamic retelling of history.

The opening is a message of caution to Americans, drawing parallels between what we see on the screen, France in the 1790’s, and that which greatly distressed Griffith about his current world, Russia’s October Revolution and the creeping fog of modern Communism. Griffith details the upcoming plot and describes the seeds of the Revolution before getting to his bottom line in the film’s first minute: “The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.”

It’s a bold statement, worthy of applause or scorn depending on your views, but this here is a film blog and not a history blog, so I’ll instead just briefly mention the film’s two greatest assets, because frankly it was a long and overwhelming film and on one viewing there’s no way for me to dive into the little bits of Griffith ideology strewn throughout. The performances by the Gish sisters and the pure spectacle that is the film’s final third (from the balcony singing scene through the end) are two things that make Orphans wholly recommended watching. Other than that there are some things done right, such as the scale, design, and costumes, and others a bit off the mark. He makes an effort to depict the facts, in one way by folding into his story some of the key players of the French Revolution, including Georges Danton, Robespierre, and Louis XVI, but then twists and exaggerates their intentions and personalities beyond recognition to fit the melodrama. It’s fascinating to see what he chose to stick to the book on and with what he took plenty of liberties to change completely.

As dominant as the director was throughout his career, I still have to give a lot of credit to the performances of Lillian Gish who had the ability to turn the very worst of Griffith, the pompous and the preachy, into material both accessible and affecting. It might have been money that led to the professional split between actress and director or it could have been jealousy on his part for the frequent overshadowing, but this was their 40th and final film together and it’s interesting to see that his directorial career remained, until his death, fruitless without her. As such, this will be Griffith’s final appearance in my journey through film.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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  • directed by Victor Sjöström
  • starring Victor Sjöström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Hilda Borgström
  • Legend holds that the last sinful person to die before the strike of midnight on New Year’s eve must drive a carriage for the next year collecting souls.

“Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped.” 

Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Victor Sjöström: three legendary European directors who brought the character of Death to the screen in 1921, all in different ways and to varying degrees of success. Lang’s Destiny and Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book were both obsessed with placing the life and death divide in a thorough historical context and as a result both ultimately fell short of striking the sufficient emotional chords to match such lofty and evocative subject matter. There was a cold and almost docudrama feel to the films. Not so with The Phantom Carriage, which had a personal story that succeeded at conjuring up, with barely a direct nod, the larger physical and spiritual universe. Sjöström didn’t deal with the carriage in any terms larger than the dreaded role of driving it nor did he have to apply David’s struggle to several different people throughout history because his arc is so basic that it’s immediately relatable to humans anywhere, anytime.

The character of David Holm, as written in Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and as performed by Sjöström, has a lot of torment and chaos under a calm and calculated shell. There was complexity and a lot of realism to Sjöström’s acting in this film. His temper was constantly seconds away from spilling over and the actor had complete command over delivering David’s afflicted, violent, patronizing, and considerate sides. It was by far the best male performance I have seen thus far in the silent era.

The story takes the film into many different territories from horror to religious drama to death-tinged fairy tale, but it moves fast enough and concentrates so hard on David that it never settles into just one genre. Think It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol but darker than Dickens, by default making it anything but Capra. David’s journey backward upon meeting the driver brings us through flashbacks upon flashbacks. Sjöström has in the air a few different timelines simultaneously and balances them all with ease making for an easy and captivating watch from start to finish.

It was an emotionally heavy film during the carriage scenes and Sjöström was able to achieve that with superb design and revolutionary effects work. I’ve seen the double exposure technique used before, but advancements in the technology had taken place to allow more layers to the superimposed images. The result was seeing the carriage as well as the souls escaping from those claimed by Death looking faint and otherworldly, while at the same time being perfectly present in the scenes, reacting naturally to the physical environment. Even the carriage slowly rolling over a raging ocean to claim a drowning victim was somehow visually believable. David Holm’s anguished and alcohol-fueled existence was presented to be a lot like drowning come to think of it. Edit at one point even says to him something to the effect of, “don’t try pulling us under with you.” So it seems like no accident that Sjöström would include the ocean into the carriage sequence as a sort of visual companion to David’s downward spiral. Slowly through a series of flashbacks over the course of Georges and David’s conversation, we are let into the extent of the damaging wake that alcohol has left in his life, and the nature of his disease and selfishness is all the more harsh when contrasted with the pure and well-meaning women around him. This builds until the surprisingly optimistic ending in which we as an audience are practically challenged to join Georges, and perhaps God, in believing in David’s turnaround and offering a reprieve.

The Phantom Carriage must have some high profile fans as a few of its scenes obviously influenced at least two major films decades later. Just about anybody will recognize the visual similarities between David wildly swinging an axe at his wife’s door and Jack Torrance doing the same in The Shining. The same setup came a few years earlier in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms but I noticed shots and angles that were directly delivered from Sjöström to Kubrick. The pivotal part of this axe sequence was how quickly David went from maniac with violent intentions to concerned husband who sees his wife unconscious and rushes to bring her water. That was a huge moment for David and for us as an audience to begin empathizing with him.

And then there’s Ingmar Bergman whose career, along with Sjöström’s, and the relationship that the two shared culminating in 1957’s Wild Strawberries, are the crowned jewels of Sweden’s film history. Bergman was a three-year-old in Uppsala, Sweden, when The Phantom Carriage was released but at some point later in life the director claimed to view it at least once a year. To name just one, there are plenty of similarities between this film and The Seventh Seal, but you can see remnants of Sjöström’s style in many places throughout Bergman’s filmography.

The Blot (1921)

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  • directed by Lois Weber
  • starring Claire Windsor, Margaret McWade, Phillip Hubbard, Louis Calhern
  • When wealthy son Phil West falls for Amelia Griggs, daughter of his extremely underpaid Professor, he at last sees the differences in class and tries to make lasting changes.

Lois Weber, an undersung hero of the silent film era, blazed many trails throughout her career and it wasn’t just because she was the largest female presence within such a male-dominated industry. Just as importantly as gender, Weber understood even as cinema was still in its infancy that films not only had the potential to dazzle, but that they could inform and influence as well. She was not just a director, instead she held the rare titles—matched in stature and prolificacy only by D.W. Griffith at the time—of producer, actress, writer, director…someone in charge of all aspects of their output. As if the extent of her work weren’t enough, the boldness with which she tackled her subjects, from abortion and gender equality to religion and censorship, never wavered throughout her 20+-year career. The Blot, a film that arrived toward the tail-end of her filmography was yet another one that had much to say, this time about the very wide gap between poverty and privilege.

The patriarch of the Griggs family is a morally rich professor much more interested in the many beauties of teaching and learning than he is with the particulars of the unlivable wage he earns. Following in her father’s footsteps is Amelia, who seems to value an honest day’s work at the library above all else. It’s Mrs. Griggs, the one in the trenches every day trying to figure out how to feed her family on such meager funds, who is driven mad by current conditions. Making matters worse is the fact that through her window she could peer in on the very comfortable, happy, and well-off Olsens next door. Mr. Olsen is a high-end shoe salesman earning much much more than the guy, Mr. Griggs, in charge of their son’s academic future, as well as that of all the young men of the community. It doesn’t seem fair and the characters’ individual stands on the issue land all across the spectrum; some sympathize and attempt to improve the Griggs’ circumstances; some, including those directly affected, who don’t concern themselves with issues perceived to be large enough to be out of reach; and those, like Mrs. Olsen, who until the end seem to almost revel in such disparities. Matters get complicated and opinions are further ingrained in the characters when everyone learns that Amelia has drawn the affection of the son of a wealthy school trustee.

For all of the discussions about Weber’s strengths in activism, she had a hell of a lot of moviemaking talent to go with it. She shot Claire Windsor in such gorgeous, warm close-ups that it was easy to see why Amelia would have three men clamoring for her. What also impressed me about The Blot was that its message was delivered so strongly but not at the expense of thorough character development, story, or visuals. Weber certainly wasn’t shy about piling on the melodrama and direct illustrations of her central point, but overall it was a very small universe that she focused on with practically no major occurrences. In other words, the story basically was as quiet as its message was loud. With characters just being for the majority of the film, every small decision they made rang loudly.

The Sheik (1921)

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  • directed by George Melford
  • starring Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Lucien Littlefield, Walter Long, Adolphe Menjou, Frank Butler
  • An Arabian sheik becomes infatuated with an adventurous Englishwoman and abducts her to his home in the Sahara.

I have no clue what to make of this movie, which was made not to honor the 1919 romance novel by Edith Maude Hull and not to commit to any kind of message in regard to interracial love, but primarily to keep the Valentino marketing machine churning for his new production company. Famous Players-Lasky, having just signed the star after the hugely successful Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, needed a project as big to keep the ball rolling on his “Latin Lover” public persona and they settled on this Saharan-set romance.

Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in the novel is an Arab leader who vengefully swore off his European beginnings, eventually adopting a culture in which wives are won by gambling and rape is something akin to foreplay. These stereotypes, greatly heightened by Hull, allow for the eventual warming of feelings on the part of the victimized Diana to hit readers as a taboo, dangerous, forbidden style of love affair. Valentino was uncomfortable with a negative portrayal of Arab culture, however, so the end result for the film is instead a giant hole where character-defining moments should have been. There are insinuations of untoward behavior but for the most part the Sheik just saunters around with a silly smile desperately trying to keep Diana in his possession. A series of escape attempts by Diana followed by her recapture is pretty much all that happens. That and watching Valentino with, as you can see in the above photo, a supremely off-putting horny look on his face for the entirety.

Women at the time found Valentino irresistible and I can’t figure out how much would have had to change in the last 90 years for that to be possible. Also, while I’m nitpicking, did the defiant and modern-minded Diana really choose a region of the world where a roulette wheel chooses brides for bidding gentlemen as a vacation from the marriage pressures back home? Sure enough, though, after a while of captivity even the tough and independent Diana begins coming around on the Sheik and this slowly morphs into utter devotion when he saves her from the bandit Omair. She learns of his European parents in the end, a move that somewhat reversed a lot of the messages and tensions in the first two acts and cleared the filmmakers from having to face the controversy of featuring a two-toned, cross-cultured union.

That’s the final story-neutering decision in a long line of them and they all rendered the film as one-note nothingness all the way through. The Sheik basically rests the development of story and character relationships mainly in the hands of the tabloid power of the celebrity out in front. Who needs to connect any dots or deal with world issues in a meaningful way when the tickets for Valentino are already purchased? A sentiment like that behind a production is not necessarily a death sentence, but this one, with its constant broaching of interesting ideas and then cowardice in failing to develop them in substantial ways, was more like the pesky neighborhood kid who keeps ringing the doorbell and running away.

It was unsatisfying that the filmmakers thought that just by having the Sheik and Diana in so many rooms at the same time and having him give some suave glances, we were expected to derive some kind of growing sultry love affair for the ages. If the clock wasn’t 80 minutes away from when I last checked it, I wouldn’t believe I’d actually just watched a movie.

Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921)

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  • directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • starring Helge Nissen, Halvard Hoff, Jacob Texiere, Hallander Helleman, Ebon Strandin, Viggo Wiehe, Emma Wiehe, Jeanna Tramcourt, Hugo Bruun, Clara Pontoppidan, Carlo Wieth
  • In order to return to heaven, Satan must perform acts of temptation upon humanity with the stipulation that for every soul who yields, 100 years will be added to his time on Earth. For every soul who resists, 1,000 years will be commuted from his judgement.

Leaves from Satan’s Book definitely doesn’t have the power or reputation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s later works nor is it as engrossing as his previous film, The Parson’s Widow, but I still think there was a lot to like about this film. More than a lot of online reviewers and film historians give it credit for, at least. Yes, it was long, and more than once I fell uncomfortably into that silent film zone in which a film’s seemingly endless wandering puts a swarm of ants in my pants. I had to come back to the film two or three times before finishing, but after I did and now look back on it I admire the photography and the film’s multi-level storytelling, which kept even the long-slog scenes at least a little interesting.

The opening tells of Satan’s punishment at the hands of God, which sets him off as a Zelig of sorts, showing up in time for some of the world’s biggest conflicts over the centuries and instigating them past the breaking point. The four separate stories—Jesus’ crucifixion, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and the Finnish Civil War—were well designed and unique to their respective times and cultures. Dreyer assumedly went to great lengths, particularly in the first sequence which had a stunning recreation of the Last Supper, to not only arrange his compositions for their visual strength but also with a sense of historical accuracy in mind.

Where the visuals landed on the side of realism, the film’s story went far away in the opposite direction. Each of the four sequences treat the history itself very broadly while featuring a sullen Satan lurking around to choose his vulnerable subject and hope his evil influence gets ignored. The third dimension of these scenes is the personal journey of a character whose strong or weak will holds the key to God’s judgment. The technique of putting an individual human’s decision, usually a romantically influenced one, as the seed of enormous world-changing events I thought worked well, it speaks to just how delicate the course of our world is, but I could see it being bothersome to some for it to paint very real and tumultuous uprisings with such a melodramatic brush.

Needless to say, Dreyer would go on to settle into a very distinctive style of filmmaking and push many boundaries with his works. In Leaves from Satan’s Book, however, he seemed too hung up on how it already had been done. The film was firmly facing the past not just in subject matter but also in it being so influenced by the time-jumping, episodic structure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. There already existed a handful of films by 1921 that featured cinematography and performances that were progressive and surprisingly quite close to modern. Henry King’s Tol’able David struck me as one, Ernst Lubitsch was getting there with some of his last German films, and, perhaps disappointingly, Dreyer himself had already advanced forward with 1920’s The Parson’s Widow, only then to revert back to the style and feel of films from the dawn of big, ambitious filmmaking less than a decade earlier.

The trademark Dreyer details were all present though; the passionate close-ups, heavy use of religious iconography, and striking compositions will always have an effect on me. Maybe it was his worst film, my quest through time will allow me to lob my unwanted hat into the ring on that judgment, but even a minor Dreyer film is one worth seeing, even if you have to take a few breaks to get to “The End.”

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

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  • directed by Wallace Worsley
  • starring Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy, John Bowers, Hardee Kirkland, Edwin N. Wallack, Raymond Hatton, Roy Laidlaw
  • A romance between members of a secret society is complicated when the man is assigned to carry out an assassination.

One event, the assassination of “the man who has lived too long” and a secret society’s selection of whom is to carry it out, makes up the entirety of The Ace of Hearts. It’s a minor work overall, staying laser focused on this one lacking thread, but on the positive it’s a film with a good deal of mood thanks to little bits of noir and gangster film imagery, great utilization of just two or three sets, and highly illustrative if at times a little overblown performances.

There is a remarkable amount of things we don’t know and never find out about the inner workings of the group or its processes. Three basic things we’re noticeably never filled in on are the who, what, and why. All clues point to this extremist organization being a direct nod to the much-maligned, often-overstated communist groups that bubbled up during the first Red Scare period after WWI in the U.S. None of that is ever directly stated.

Nothing wrong with heightening a story’s intrigue by under-explaining some key details, but this was just bothersome and mainly came across as half-baked story as opposed to intentional mystery. Not knowing the true nature of the cause or its target created a huge void in the story to the point where one could basically fill in the details however they see fit.

The non-assassination half of the story is a spontaneous marriage between Forrest and the group’s sole female member, Lilith, after she thinks it will give him a boost in courage to carry out the mission. It was another swing and miss for the writing. In the hours following the couple’s wedding, both of them quickly realize that they now have other things to live for other than the cause. It all happens laughably fast. Will his act of terrorism result in a lifetime behind bars? Death? The one outcome that seems impossible is that the newlyweds will be able to escape together, and that painful thought, along with the potential collateral damage of a young couple in love at the table next to the target leads Forrest not to go through with it. But really at this point who cares? The mission itself was never really interesting and the love between Lilith and Forrest was neither believable nor important enough to interfere with a cause that I’m assuming these two people grew up with in their blood.

Kudos to Lon Chaney who was the main draw on screen and, through facial expressions alone, contributed more crucial plot points than did the actual script. Long before the romantic angle between Forrest and Lilith is revealed we see Farallone’s ears perk up at the sight of them and a constant sense of pain and jealousy wash over him. It takes a long time for Farallone’s feelings to ever officially come up, but up until it does it’s been clear as day on his sullen face. I get what the film was going for with the chirping birds message of all you need is love to solve society’s ills, but this definitely suffered by not flushing out just a little bit more of the characters’ motivations. Chaney’s performance went far in clueing me in on certain particulars, if only the script had been as thorough.