Cops (1922)

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  • directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton
  • starring Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Edward F. Cline
  • A series of mishaps manages to make a young man get chased by a big city’s entire police force.

“Get some cops to protect our policemen!”

As I did with Chaplin not too long ago, I spent the better part of the morning cycling through some of my blind-spot Buster Keaton short films before arriving at my destination—1922’s Cops. One of the comic master’s final shorts before graduating to the feature format, Cops in many ways strides firmly in the typical Keaton formula, combining daring stunts and, if you dig deep enough, allusions to ideas larger than the physical comedy on screen. Here and in many of his other films during these years Keaton plays the very basic young man who desperately grasps at every opportunity to become a “mature adult” so he can win the girl. His intentions remain good throughout but the trouble and bad reputation grows and grows with every move.

Become a dependable businessman and then we can marry is the charge Keaton receives from the girl in the beginning. From there, a series of serendipitous incidents leads him to the acquisition of exactly three things–a mountain of secondhand furniture, a horse, and a buggy. Roaming the streets he winds up in a procession full of the entire city’s police force where he discards a bomb that was thrown onto his lap and immediately becomes the city’s No. 1 fugitive. The trouble from there is that seemingly every single cop on the payroll has now ID’ed him and is on the chase. There is no way to explain this plot to a point where it makes sense but it flows in perfect Keaton fashion. I never scoff at a bomb or a wallet loaded with cash literally falling onto his lap from above because to believe and enjoy his most cartoonish physical comedy moments is hand-in-hand with forgiving the silly, forced plot points needed to propel the character to his end.

Once the bomb detonates, the remainder of the film is an all-out several hundreds versus one chase through the streets full of inventive gags and some of the most impressive acrobatics that I’ve seen from Keaton. Cops has a good reputation and is praised quite a bit, but I have to say that I didn’t find anything terribly interesting in it. I much prefer Keaton’s One Week or The Boat, two films in which the metaphors are as thick and prevalent as the laughs. I read that Cops may have been a veiled shot at the legal system due to his mentor Fatty Arbuckle’s very public scandal surrounding the death of party companion Virginia Rappe. So whether it was meant as yet another Keaton metaphor for the struggles of growing up, a show of solidarity to his now-toxic friend and mentor, or just an excuse to stage an extremely elaborate chase sequence, it was still the same purely delightful viewing experience for me.

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Phantom (1922)

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  • directed by F.W. Murnau
  • starring Alfred Abel, Frida Richard, Aud Egede-Nissen, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Lya De Putti, Anton Edthofer
  • A shiftless young man becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman and yearns to find her again.

Admittedly, I approached a film called Phantom directed by F.W. Murnau expecting material in the darker, more supernatural realm. Part of that may have been me projecting my desires as I did start it on Halloween, but also we’re dealing with a guy who in the same calendar year laid a foundation full of influences for all future horror to build on with Nosferatu, and to a much lesser extent The Haunted Castle.

There’s nothing ghoulish about Phantom. There are the superimposed ghostly images that are seen in a lot of the horror films of the time, but instead of haunting undead entities they are instead hallucinations, memories, and the representation of our main character’s worsening mental condition. The film delicately points out how an empty and unfulfilled existence can become a breeding ground for unhealthy fixations, destructive behavior, and an altogether dark path in life. It also has the distinction, despite its merits, of being the only film so far that I couldn’t finish. It took me three weeks to try and pick up the last half hour, but I was unable to keep my attention tethered to Lorenz’s downward spiral.

Lorenz’s reality—his home, family, and work life—is so shatteringly empty that he finds solace in near-constant daydreaming from the time he is knocked down by the woman in the chariot. There is a complete absence of joy, spirit, passion, and love in Alfred Abel’s brilliantly deadpan performance. It isn’t just Veronika and the accident he is hung up on. He’s also haunted by a life that he knows is out there for himself and not only can he not grasp it, but he cannot even visualize what it looks like. Murnau illustrates these longings and ambiguities in perfect abstract fashion.

This is not an engrossing film as it unfolds at a measured pace with little action and few major plot-shifting scenes to propel it forward. I feel like it might have been an experiment on Murnau’s part to see just how much he could convey without actually putting it on screen, a new theory that took shape in these years and an alternate path forward jutting out from the overly showy early years of silent cinema. And so we have a film that relies much more on the abstract internal struggles of Lorenz than it does his actions. The heavy lifting for that task certainly fell on the shoulders of Abel and, though he doesn’t strike me as a worthy leading man, he did muster up enough conviction to not be accountable for whatever tedium was occurring. Lorenz’s downfall is something we realize is happening quite clearly all while Murnau’s direction and Abel’s performance remain steady and peaceful as if it weren’t. As if the entire story was happening in another dimension with the real world full of consequences continuing on somewhere unseen.

I don’t need to balance out my dislike of this film by pointing out Murnau’s standing as perhaps the greatest of silent film directors, but I’m tempted to nonetheless. Before Phantom there was Nosferatu to love and there are at least five titles of his to look forward to up until 1931. There was some great stuff in Phantom and as a quiet experiment the film may have given Murnau a new sense of what the boundaries of film were. There was plenty of evidence up until 1922 showing how big you can go and how the limits on the high-end were only in the maker’s imagination. Here we see how scarce it can get. In the end, an end that I never quite arrived at, I did enjoy the look of the film, the tone, and the dreamy pace of it all, but it was an absence of interesting story that took me out of it for good.

Foolish Wives (1922)

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  • directed by Erich von Stroheim
  • starring Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont, Rudolph Christians, Dale Fuller, Mae Busch
  • A fake count seduces and blackmails the wife of an American ambassador in Monte Carlo.

It’s tempting to try and discuss Foolish Wives without getting into the legendary behind the scenes intrigue and the larger than life figure behind the camera, but unfortunately I’m not going to get many more chances to cover Erich Von Stroheim since his directorial career barely made it out of the 1920s. Additionally I think without being able to see the work as he fully intended, it’s a fool’s errand to dissect films that one could argue are studio-manufactured versions of Von Stroheim stories. The techniques are still intact but perhaps not the fluidity or the power.

All you have to do is Google “The Man You Love to Hate” and this should give you an idea of how producers felt about the notoriously difficult director and conversely how audiences were drawn to his perverse and guileful on-screen presence. Von Stroheim wore that title like one of the many badges on his counterfeit uniform and he meticulously cultivated an image for himself that never put him in with the good guys in his works or those in which he starred for other directors.

Just a few of the director’s 12 films can currently be seen in the condition and full length that he’d crafted. Foolish Wives ran longer than six hours before it was chopped up to a more studio-friendly length of 140 minutes. It also cost Universal around $1.2 million to employ a guy who would stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the perfect story. This meant building an insanely detailed Monte Carlo streetscape on the Universal lot accounting for half the film’s budget and importing authentic dress, furniture, and decorations from around the world. Even the never seen underwear of his actors had to be genuine. Seedy raspberry jam was sometimes subbed in for caviar in black and white films to pinch a penny. Not so with von Stroheim, who insisted that he and his cast chow down on the real stuff.

All of this put him at odds, to say the least, with the rather economical Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who probably spent many of his professional hours trying to figure out how to replace the director and lead actor of a film that was devouring time and money at astonishing rates. None of this bothered The Man You Love to Hate although at some point he had to have stepped outside of his own head to realize that an endgame that he was already familiar with was imminent—that the film would eventually leave his hands and Universal would get the last word. In the short term, Foolish Wives would end up not profiting enough to cover the exorbitant costs but Von Stroheim would eventually put his relationship in the black with Merry Go Round in 1926. Anyway, that’s already way more backstage than I wanted to talk about, because the film is not a freak show and it’s basically the opposite of the catastrophic failure that von Stroheim’s enemies may have been praying that it would be.

In Foolish Wives he plays a similar character to the one seen in Blind Husbands a few years earlier. Dressed in his trademark monocle and military garb, here again there is absolutely nothing that will stop his obsessive pursuit of a married woman. It’s impossible to tell what was missing or edited out of order in the story, but overall it flowed nicely with the exception of what must have been massive cuts to the film’s ending—a scene in which we are taken from the set-up, Karamzin entering the window of Ventucci’s sleeping daughter, to a matter-of-fact-seeming conclusion with Ventucci stuffing Karamzin’s corpse down a sewer drain. It makes me feel like there are many aspects of Karamzin’s journey and von Stroheim’s intention that we will never be able to fill in.

He had endless styles at work throughout the film and the camera at times had the quality of a leering eye, perfectly matching the lurid nature of the story. There were hazy blue tones, stark shadows in traditional black and white, the violent colors of the fire scene, and the ebullient tones of Monte Carlo on a bustling, bright afternoon. The lantern filled riverboat scene was a knockout, capturing nighttime like I haven’t seen yet in the 1920s. I wouldn’t necessarily label von Stroheim a master of artful composition like some of his contemporaries, but through effects, lighting, and performances his scenes were charged with gorgeous and affecting images. Though the length of his scenes, the detail, and the budget were very much apparent on screen, he never flaunted the extravagance of it all. A madman may have made the film and the result should have been over the top, but what ended up onscreen is instead mature, full of life, and at times downright delicate.

The earlier example of his actors’ underwear is a good one and rings true for the film as a whole. He wanted the cast to feel right so they could better do their jobs. Likewise, the opulence and grandeur of his constructed Monte Carlo immediately registers to the viewer as pitch perfect so that he could then go on, at his own pace, to unfold the story of deception, infidelity, and manipulation. It’s a real wonder that this all came from the same one mind and it’s one of the earliest successful marriages between big budget Hollywood and auteur filmmaking that I can think of. I’m certain that Carl Laemmle would disagree with that.

Pay Day (1922)

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  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Mack Swain
  • A laborer divides his meager paycheck between his home and the bar.

I spent the morning watching a series of Chaplin’s short film work, jumping around year by year in preparation of arriving at Pay Day, his final and reportedly favorite short. It may just be his most down to earth and relatable work as well, being about the everyday routine of working hard, struggling to support a household, and letting off some steam at the end of the day. Buster Keaton dealt with similar, basic life subject matter but largely in metaphorical terms in the form of a sinking boat or a puzzle of a house build. In Pay Day Chaplin just shows the typical day, punching in and out and then escaping the stresses of married life by going out on the town with some friends.

Production on Pay Day began as a slightly different project before it was interrupted by what sounds like a rather important and transitional vacation that Chaplin took throughout Europe in late 1921. With hysteria and public celebration following him at every stop, it was there that he noticed for the first time how much his almost decade-long Hollywood career had impacted those back on his home soil. Later in life he wrote My Wonderful Visit, a book about the monumental trip. Two interesting bits about his return to film and America as a new and rejuvenated man. He wasn’t sure that he was still funny and for some reason the project he was compelled to complete before beginning the next phase of his career–features–would be the small-scale and blue collar Pay Day.

In unsurprising news, I am happy to report that Chaplin’s skepticism about the waning of his comedic chops were unfounded as I got perhaps my biggest laugh of the day during the post nightclub scenes. A few of the gags in this sequence are a tipsy Chaplin and one of his cohorts unknowingly walking the streets sharing a sleeve each of two coats, Chaplin graciously offering up his signature cane as a doomed umbrella while ending up with his friend’s real one, the group of friends belting out a sloppy version of “Sweet Adeline” amid falling household items from an unhappy neighbor, and then the end of the night which sees various circumstances conspiring to keep him from boarding three or four consecutive crowded trolleys to head home.

My favorite aspect about the work of Chaplin, and it’s something I can’t help but bask in after watching a good deal of his work back to back even seen in his 1914 directorial debut Caught in the Rain, is the downright balletic quality of the filmmaking and performances. The feeling of sophistication is never tampered by the cartoonish or the low brow but rather stands out all the more because of it. There’s nothing glamorous about laying brick, dealing with a nagging spouse, or being generally uncomfortable with your lot in life—day after day after day. But in the hands of Chaplin there is bright and flowing life pumped into the gruff and mundane.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons this was his favorite. He hadn’t quite achieved perfection in his work by 1923 yet he was completely confident and dominant in the directing, editing, and acting chairs. Going back home to Europe forced a guy who was for the last ten years drowning in his work and personal drama to revisit his beginnings, witness the full scope of his profile, and take the time to actually notice the faces of those he was entertaining. Maybe it wasn’t until Pay Day that he finally felt like he understood the people on the other side of the screen.

Beyond the Rocks (1922)

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  • directed by Sam Wood
  • starring Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Robert Bolder, Raymond Blathwayt
  • A young woman marries an older millionaire only to then fall in love with a handsome nobleman on her honeymoon.

“Fate seems to send you to me when I most need you, Lord Bracondale.”

Hard to believe that the world hadn’t seen this gem of a silent film until it was found in a private collection in the Netherlands just eight years ago. As Martin Scorsese said in his brief introduction on the DVD, “every lost film that gets discovered is another contribution to our public consciousness.” This is true of all found films but one like Beyond the Rocks seems extra special due to some notable aspects and the additional fact that it features some fantastic work by Sam Wood and his cast. On the subject of the main players here, Scorsese also pointed out the fact that casting more than one huge star in a film was a Hollywood tactic that was not abundant until sound made its way into the picture. Thankfully producers opted for that approach here because there was great chemistry between Valentino and Swanson and the story was full of traps with a lure too great for lesser-skilled performers.

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Valentino so soon after finding his performance in The Sheik to be so repellant. My enjoyment and recognition of his charisma literally went from 0-10 between the two films. He did a lot of the same mugging and pensive and swooning gazes, but that’s just trademark Valentino I now realize. In the appropriate context it does work for me. Both he and Swanson had to strike a very intricate balance with their performances in Beyond the Rocks. They needed to achieve and maintain a chemistry strong enough to keep the audience invested while at the same time keeping their attraction and any sort of consummations just enough at bay to where we don’t turn on them and start feeling bad for the scorned and somewhat pathetic Josiah. All three main characters dominated their roles. They completely avoided going over the top to match some of the more extreme melodramatic situations and contributed to the very fluid and natural-feeling pace of it all.

It was a little unfortunate that the stakes had to be raised to Hollywood heights with an ending disproportionate to the small scale of all that preceded. It sort of reminded me of how the quaint and precious Made For Each Other took a tale of a married couple’s ups and downs and transformed it into a storm-threatened airplane race against the clock in the final act. Josiah, after learning of his wife’s impure relations with Hector takes off to Northern Africa and is killed by a rogue desert marauder in a gunfight, giving the couple the green light for romance for which they’d been yearning. Judging from the tenor and expert control of the first two acts of the film, it’s easy to recognize that Sam Wood was smarter than devolving into silly and needless gunfire–there is nothing of an African expedition in the original novel by Elinor Glyn—but on the whole I’m going to give the film a gold star of a pass because the rest of it is that good.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

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  • directed by Benjamin Christensen
  • starring Maren Pedersen, Oscar Stribolt, Astrid Holm, Elith Pio, Karen Winther, Wilhelmine Henriksen, Benjamin Christensen
  • A tracing of the history of witchcraft and the occult from ancient times though the early 20th century.

“Isn’t superstition still rampant among us?”

The endlessly fascinating history lesson of Häxan begins with a series of still photos detailing ancient civilizations’ superstitions and views of witchcraft. It comes as a shock (not even close to the only shock) when you realize what it is Christensen is attempting to pull off; that in 105 minutes divided into seven parts, he will be taking with him centuries of misguided and savage persecutions, tortures, and executions and making the leap of connecting them to attitudes he still sees as happening in his day. For a film that on its surface appears to be putting forth a point of view that follows a regimented format of “this happened at this time in history,” all of the rules fly out the window when it comes to his spectacular reenactments.

When Christensen says “I will now illustrate a trial for witchcraft from beginning to end,” it’s immediately clear, from shot one, that his costumes, lighting, and production designs will be unlike anything seen before. It also might be easy to assume that the stories he’s chosen to illustrate will follow the style of a documentary. Expected would be a style akin to the artwork from the beginning coming to life on screen in an easy to follow way. Christensen couldn’t keep himself from having fun, however, and in addition to some truly gross-out imagery, humorously so, the reality of nearly everything we are shown seems to arrive with just enough ambiguity to allow him to weave a complex fabric out of the real and the otherworldly combined. The effect from this at times is having the viewer thrust into the same unknowing mindset as the pious and accusing half of the equation.

After Part 1’s slideshow we are taken to the first of the illustrated segments, into the dark lair of a witch in 1488 when a visitor comes to request a love potion that will win her the heart of a pious man of the church. As the story unfolds, Christensen the narrator is a character that we are eager to connect to and trust throughout. But he takes a turn in wondering if the staunch and frequently conjured up belief in witches alone was enough for them to actually be considered real. He wonders the same about the devil, who then shows up in church of all places, most assuredly the location that his name is invoked the most. When the devil pops up behind the bible and clutches its pages, it was as if Christensen was posing a question to the witness, a terrified holy man: you live your life devoutly as if he was real, how shocking could it be that he actually is?

The third through sixth parts of the film begin with artwork of inquisition judges at work, followed by the central part of the film and of Christensen’s hypothesis, the events leading up to a trial for witchcraft. Here the visuals of the film graduate from the searing iconography of the earlier portion into more mature, evocative, and emotional filmmaking.

Maren Pedersen, a 78-year-old flower seller who Christensen cast as the main witch under trial has the face and, due to what I thought before I saw Häxan was trademark Carl Theodor Dreyer emotional staging and framing, the screen presence of Hildur Carlberg in Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow. One look into her eyes and you can see that Pedersen has a lot of years behind her and has seen it all. Add to that the mental and physical torture that her witch character goes through and it’s all very devastating to watch. That is until the other shoe drops and she’s all of a sudden confessing to birthing several of the devil’s children and naming names of her fellow witches. The Dreyer comparisons don’t end there interestingly, as some of the more emotional shots in Häxan, six years earlier mind you, are probably the closest in style and pacing anyone’s ever come to what Dreyer accomplished with Renée Jeanne Falconetti.

Upon arriving at the moment when the witch will make her confession, the film then takes flight into a spectacularly bizarre reenactment of all that she says followed by another tutorial on ancient torture machines and techniques. Yet another jarring moment happens here when, as narrator, Christensen speaks to us directly to let us know that the actress he hired for the torture segments wanted to actually experience the thumbscrew, one of the more minor contraptions. So we see some of that sequence and are told that she was basically in hysterics before the clock struck one minute.

Finally the thick and multi-layered experiment of Christensen’s arrived at its conclusion. After creating images that may last in my head forever (I think he actually tapped into my childhood nightmares somehow), his lectures on medieval intolerance and the dangers of religious fanaticism and scientific ignorance, and his expertly realized narrative segments, the director now had to stick the landing. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the basis of the original question–comparing burning witches at the stake with the institutionalizing of hysterical or mentally afflicted women and the elderly. His academic argument may have fallen apart somewhere along the journey. It was, after all, a unique film that begins with a very structured classroom-like presentation and seems to get looser, blurrier, and more surreal as it approaches the analysis phase. There are probably clues and bits of Christensen ideology to absorb on repeat viewings, but the strength of the argument turned out to be irrelevant after all. I felt more than anything an emotion of gladness that he felt that the questions needed to be asked, and, controversy be damned, he went ahead and asked them.

There is a 1968 version of Häxan available on the Criterion disc that, though it has about a quarter of the original runtime cut off, is very much worth watching due to the added absurdity of jazz scoring and William S. Burroughs narration.

La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

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  • directed by Germaine Dulac
  • starring Germaine Dermoz, Alexandre Arquilliére, Jean d’Yd, Madeleine Guitty, Dick Sutherland
  • The story of an intelligent and imaginative woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage.

Germaine Dulac was operating on two very bold and groundbreaking levels with the release La Souriante Madame Beudet in 1922. Not just content with the distinction of being one of the few working women directors in those years, she also stood out for exploring stories filled with strong feminist angles and employed experimental techniques that contributed greatly to the formation of the impressionist and surrealist movements of French cinema.

At just shy of 40 minutes, La Souriante Madame Beudet is overflowing with visual and narrative ideas. The A-story tells of a wife trapped in her own home terrorized by an insensitive and bullying husband. Each night he returns home from work and ignores her save for the nightly ritual of pointing an empty revolver at his head as a mock suicide attempt. You can practically see the drool escape his chin as the laughter roars from his body. None of this amuses the Madam as we see in the B-side of the story, which Dulac presents to us as visual representations of her discontent and her dreams of a life with more. The music she plays on the piano literally glows and sparkles above her head; a puppet show appears above her husband as he rambles on about something she knows are not genuine words; and a professional athlete leaps off the page of a magazine to confront her husband with a polo mallet. Soon the lonely and miserable nights add up to a point when Madame Beudet decides to put bullets in his gun, a plan that doesn’t go off as well as she would like.

The visuals of the film were its strongest aspect and it made me sad that Dulac’s career never quite got rolling. Her other well-known film, 1928’s La Coquille et le clergyman, was a complex and multi-layered surrealist project, which preceded, influenced if not informed, and was then overshadowed by Un chien andalou one year later.

Aside from the superb effects work that gave life to the imagined visions of the wife, the film was photographed beautifully with mood-adding elements that took a simple story and made it feel just a little off-kilter. Darkness was prevalent whether it shut off the background completely to reveal fully lit characters out in front or shadowed large portions of characters’ faces in close-up. Though it all took place in one small house for the most part and spoke solely of one woman reaching her personal limit for abuse, it was the finesse with which the film was shot that injected extra meaning and depth.

Dulac should be applauded for highlighting the strength of a woman and being forward-thinking enough to realize that subservience in any way will not always be the unavoidable, never-ending fate that it may have been in 1922. Dulac should also be applauded for telling that bold story in such an easy to watch and masterfully visual way. Most of all, I think she should be downright celebrated for her work in creating a few great movements in cinema that would reverberate through France and elsewhere for decades. She got in on the ground floor of these styles and somehow made a loud statement of a film that made it feel like she’d been there for years.