Saturday, September 12, 2009
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard, Donald Calthrop
Background: Blackmail was originally intended to be a silent film, but the popularity of talkies convinced producers to film a sound version as well. Lead actress Anny Ondra's voice had to be dubbed for the sound version, as her Czech accent did not work for the character. Both sound and silent versions were released, as many theaters were still not equipped with sound equipment. The sound version is considered Britain's first all-talkie film.
Story: Alice White (Ondra) ditches her date, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (Longden), so she can meet up with a painter (Ritchard). When the man tries to rape her, she grabs a knife and kills him. Alice flees, but one of her gloves his found by Frank when he arrives to inspect the scene. His attempt to hide the evidence is discovered by a thief (Calthrop), who tries to blackmail the pair.
Thoughts: As in many other early talkies, there are some problems with the line delivery, especially absurdly long pauses in between each actor's lines. Ondra is a wonderfully expressive actress, but the dubbing makes some of her moments feel awkward. Having seen some of the scenes of the silent version, her performance (not to mention the film) was much better there without the added distraction. Still, this is a pretty good early Hitchcock film that showcases some of the skill that would make him a legend in the coming years. The offscreen rape and murder is brilliantly handled, as Hitchcock makes it clear what happened by only showing two different arms appear in the frame. The extended sequence where the thief blackmails the couple is top notch stuff, maintaining a strong tension eventhough not much is happening. With this film and The Lodger, you can see the skill of the young Hitchcock that would eventually be fully realized in later films.
Postscript: Anny Ondra's acting career was over in England, so she moved back to Czechoslovakia and in 1933 married boxing champion Max Schmeling. She was portrayed by Peta Wilson in the 2002 tv-movie Joe and Max. It would be another six years before Hitchcock would make what is regarded as his first classic, The 39 Steps.
Director: Harry Beaumont
Cast: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Bessie Love
Background: The Broadway Melody would be (as advertised) Hollywood's first all talking musical. Bessie Love and Anita Page were both veterans of the silent era making their sound debut.
Story: Queenie (Page) and Hank (Love) are sisters who take their vaudeville act to New York, hoping to find success on Broadway. However, Queenie begins to find more success than her sister, both on stage and in her romantic life.
Thoughts: This is a film that has a fairly negative reputation, thanks in part to it being considered the inspiration for the silent to sound transition problems played to comic effect in Singin in the Rain. However, the common problems that appeared in early sound films (bad dialogue, awkward line delivery) do not exist in this movie at all. Sure, the camera is stationary, but that's not a drawback for a backstage musical. In fact, the performances really shine here. Anita Page is dazzling, completely owning the screen and infusing her character with winning charm. It's interesting that Bessie Love was such a veteran of silent cinema, because she has a wonderful voice and infuses her line delivery with so much spunk that it's hard to root against her obviously doomed character. This leads to the one major problem the movie has. The plot is so predictable that you can see what's happening every step of the way. There's also an unforunate gay stereotype that is unpleasant to witness. The musical numbers are all very well done, and I enjoyed the elaborate stage decorations. This film may not be as good as it was received in 1929, but it's also not nearly as bad as people make it out to be today.
Postscript: The Broadway Melody was the second winner of the Best Picture Oscar. There were no nominees listed for the Oscars that year, but both Bessie Love and director Harry Beaumont are considered nominees by the Academy today. Anita Page was one of the most popular stars of the era, but announced a sudden retirement in 1934, later stating that she was banned from Hollywood by refusing to bow to sexual favors from Irving Thalberg. She was the last major silent star to pass away, when she died last year at 98 years old. Bessie Love's popualrity dipped in the 30s, but she did make a comeback in the 80s with supporting roles in Ragtime, Reds, and The hunger.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Laura La Plante, Neil Hamilton, Robert Ellis, Jocelyn Lee, Norman Trevor
Background: William Wyler had made a number of silent films when he was chosen by Laura La Plante and her husband to direct her next feature. La Plante was best known for playing the heroine in Paul Leni's horror classic The Cat and the Canary.
Story: Poor Evelyn Todd (La Plante) has a chance meeting with wealthy Peter Harrington (Neil Hamilton) and they fall in love, but his family objects to their marriage when Peter's uncle (Trevor) remembers Evelyn from an unfortunate (and misunderstood) incident in her past.
Thoughts: What starts off as a mediocre romance gets progressively worse as the movie goes on. Chief among the problems this movie has is that the decision was made to switch to sound for the 2nd half. This is disastrous because most of the actors were apparently not ready for it. La Plante is particularly bad, with some nonsensical line readings in an awkward delivery. There's an illogical sequence at the end between La Plante and Trevor that is just painfully bad from every angle. The story is so weak that it probably wouldn't have mattered if it was done silent or not, but at least it might have been bearable. As it is, it's a struggle just to make it through the meager 71 minute running time.
Postscript: La Plante acted in many films over the next decade, but nothing of note. William Wyler would go on to a legendary directing career, winning three Oscars for Best Director.
Director: Roland West
Cast: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch, Eleanore Griffith, Regis Toomey, Purnell Pratt
Background: Roland West was a theater director who had made a name for himself in film with the 1925 Lon Chaney vehicle Monster. The story for Alibi was based on a stage play called Nightstick.
Story: Gangster Chick Williams (Morris) has just been released from prison and is now married to a policeman's daughter (Busch). He doesn't leave his old ways behind and soon finds himself having to cover his tracks for the murder of a policeman during a botched robbery attempt.
Thoughts: It's odd to say about a film that received a Best Picture nomination, but this is one severely underrated film. Many contemporary takes on the film call it clunky and outdated. While the sound is admittedly a problem in this early talkie, there is still plenty to admire here. The most notable aspect is that West takes a stage play and the limitations of the camera during the early sound era and still comes up wtih a nice visual flair. I especially like the art deco design of the gang hideout. There's also a brilliant interrogation sequence that utilizes some interesting camera angles to add to the tension. The characters are all played with multiple dimensions (the charismatic Morris is especially strong), and West isn't above making the cops seem self serving. The film concludes with a rooftop chase sequence that is very advanced for the time period.
Postscript: Alibi received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Morris), and Best Art Direction. Roland West's career was cut short when his mistress mysteriously died and he was considered a suspect, although no evidence ever turned up and no one was ever charged for the crime. Chester Morris continued acting for a long time, including numerous films in the Boston Blackie detective series in the 40s.
Director: Abel Gance
Cast: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Gina Manes, Edmond van Daele
Background: Abel Gance was a veteran of the silent cinema, his most notable previous work being La Roue, which ran for over 5 hours. As the silent era was ending, he set out to make a series of films (in 6 parts) about Napoleon's life.
Story: A biopic about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonné), following him from his early days at a boarding school to his early military triumphs.
Thoughts: It should be noted that the only version I was able to find was a mediocre copy of the Francis Ford Coppola restoration, which cut out tons of Gance's film and played it at the wrong speed. That being said, this is still an amazing cinematic experience. Gance was a master of what could be accomplished with the camera during the silent era, and he utilizes every tool at his disposal to present a grand portrait of a legendary historical figure. If you're looking for an unbiased examination of Napoleon's life, you'll have to look elsewhere. This is instead a celebration of Napoleon the hero, showing how he perseveres against many setbacks, including imprisonment and stupid senior officers that ignore his advice. There's a little bit of romance in the latter half of the film as Napoleon and Josephine finally find their way to one another, but for the most part this focuses on his military exploits. Perhaps the greatest tribute I could pay this 4 hour film is that it isn't dull for one second. Gance fits in so much compelling material that you can easily see how another hour and a half could be added to the running time. Albert Dieudonne gives a charismatic and stoic performance as Napoleon, and you can sense the man's driving ambition through Dieudonne's eyes. There's a particularly stirring moment where he stops at a conference hall and gathers inspiration for an upcoming battle, remembering the revolutionaries who came before him. Special mention must also go to Vladimir Roudenko, who does a brilliant job as the young schoolboy Napoleon in the first hour of the film. The most eye opening moment is during the finale, in which Gance creates a 4:1 aspect ratio by lining up three cameras, allowing for some mesmerizing shots of the battlefield along with the opportunity to use one of them cut in to a close up of the stoic Napoleon as he leads troops into battle. This is an amazing and important piece of work and I can only hope to one day see the original version, as Gance intended.
Postscript: The other 5 films in the planned series were never completed. Gance's first sound picture (The End of the World) was too ambitious and flopped, so he went for safer projects throughout the 30s. World War 2 slowed down his career somewhat, but he returned to continue directing through the 60s.
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Will Rogers, Irene Rich, Owen Davis Jr., Margeurite Churchill, Fifi D'Orsay
Background: Frank Borzage was the master of romantic melodramas, but he decided to mix it up for his first talkie and tackle a light comedy. At the time, Will Rogers was avery well known performer and humorist, having made his fame in the Ziegfield Follies and appearing in over 50 silent films.
Story: Pike Peters (Rogers) and his family get rich when they find themselves part owners of an oil field. At the urging of his wife (Rich) they leave the comfort of Oklahoma and take a trip to Paris, but Pike finds himself at odds with his family who get caught up in their new ritzy lifestyle.
Thoughts: This one is certainly a misfire, although it is at least an interesting one. Will Rogers gives a strong performance as an almost maddeningly decent man that just feels out of place in Paris. At first the character seems like it might go in the direction of a typical country bumpkin, but it's to Rogers' credit that he never oversells the character. He's not an idiot, but just has principles that he's not willing to compromise just because the family is now rich. Unfortunately, the other performances are not quite as nuanced and the film goes a little too far in showing how much his family, especially his wife, are frustrated with him. There's one scene in particular where his wife says things so mean to him that I almost wished he ran off with the cute waitress that keeps flirting with him. The ending of the film is just a little too neatly wrapped up and not very convincing. Credit to Borzage for attempting a departure from his usual fare, but it simply lacks the artistry he brought to his silent films, and all that remains are the storytelling problems that have sometimes hampered him in the past.
Postscript: Not one of Borzage's more notable works, it only has 44 total votes from IMDB users. He would return to his roots for his most well known talki, 1932's Farewell to Arms, which earned him a Best Director nomination. Sadly, Will Rogers would die in plane crash just 6 years after this movie was made.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Director: Robert Flory, Joseph Santley
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx. Chico Marx, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Margaret Dumont
Background: The Marx Brothers were five brothers that got their start performing in vaudeville shows. Their act got very popular by the end of the 20s, and with the invention of talkies, they seemed a perfect match to take advantage of the new medium.
Story: Groucho owns a Florida hotel that is about to go belly up. He comes up with several ideas for making money, including a real estate auction, but is often thwarted by Chico and Harpo. They also get mixed up in a romance between
Thoughts: This was a great debut for the Marx Brothers. The thin plot was enough to provide them ample inspiration for great wordplay and hijinx. The most inspired moment comes during a scene where the camera cleverly shows us two rooms at once, and the Marx Brothers all rotate through the two rooms (and the unseen hallway) trying to find one another. This sequence features the brilliant comic timing that no doubt made their stage show a success. There's another great moment that recalls Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine where they get plenty of hilarious mileage out of Chico's pronunciation of "viaduct". What I could've done without were the musical interludes that did not involve the Marx Brothers. They bring the show to a screeching halt and sap some of the comic momentum.
Postscript: The Marx Brothers would continue to make a number of highly successful films, including two that appeared on the AFI Top 100 list (A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup). Their last feature length film would be The Story of Mankind in 1957.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D'Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles
Background: Paul Leni was known for directing horror films such as Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary. His most recent effort was an attempt to helm a more serious (but still dark) film, The Man Who Laughs.
Story: An actor is mysteriously murdered during a play, and the killer is never found. Five years later, a new producer tries to reopen the theater and bring the same cast back to perform the play.
Thougts: This is a return to form for Leni and owes alot to Leni's earlier horror film, The Cat and the Canary. Once again, we get a story filled with crazy plot twists and moments designed to make you jump out of your seat. There's plenty of fun to be had here. Leni has always been terrific at creating tension with a stirring atmosphere and inventive use of sound effects. The final 15 minutes are especially fun. The only thing that detracts from this is the lack of strong characters. Laura La Plante made for a strong heroine in Cat and the Canary, but her character is not very sympathetic here and given very little to do. There is also no performance that approaches the wonderful Martha Mattox's creepy turn as the maid in that earlier film. With better characters, this could've been one of Leni's best films.
Postscript: Sadly, this would be the last film Paul Leni ever made as he succumbed to blood poisoning in September of 1929. It's a shame because he seems like a director that was primed to take full use of the new sound era.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Director: Dziga Vertov
Background: Dziga Vertov was a documentary filmmaker who did not hide his contempt for fictional storytelling. He worked on a newsreel series known as Kino-Pravda where he pushed buttons with his experimental technique. He was hired by the Ukrainian government to direct a documentary about a man with a movie camera, and set out to change the way films were seen and understood.
Story: The day in the life of an unnamed large Russian city, as recorded by a cameraman who shows up frequently in the action.
Thoughts: It's really hard not to be impressed somewhat by this film. Vertov completely changed film language with his frequent use of stop motion and split screen, among many other innovative techniques. It's clear to see how influential the film is today. And it looks so great. There are a number of beautiful, memorable shots that completely amazed me. But what is all of this in the service of? No, a strong narrative isn't necessary for a film like this, but if you compare to Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, there was a film that took a similar premise (day in the life of a city) and made it work because Ruttman didn't feel the need to call attention to himself in every single shot. Vertov was going for a more personal and intimate view of city life, focusing more on the individuals within the city, but the problem is that his own technique severely detracts from that as the subjects get buried under layers and layers of fancy camerawork and rapid fire editing. Vertov may have accomplished his goal of influencing film language, but he did not accomplish his goal of making a good film.
Postscript: The Man With a Movie Camera is a highly regarded film classic, making it on several best of all time lists, and included in Roger Ebert's Great Movies column, where he admittedly makes a strong case for the film. Vertov continued directing after this, but soon met difficulties with the Soviet government who began to demand heavy edits to his films, turning them into nothing more than propoganda. His brother Boris Kaufman later became a cinematographer, winning an Oscar for helming On the Waterfront.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guinn Williams, Hedwiga Reicher
Story: Mary (Gaynor) is a poor farm girl who meets Tim (Farrell) just as World War 1 breaks out. Tim goes off to war, but comes back in a wheelchair. Tim and the now older Mary begin to fall for one another, but Mary's mother does not approve of her marrying a "cripple".
Background: This is the third collaboration between Borzage, Gaynor, and Farrell after Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. Gaynor had just won the first Best Actress Oscar (partly for her performance in Seventh Heaven) and Borzage won the Best Director Oscar (also for Seventh Heaven).
Thoughts: A much improved outing for the trio after the dismal Street Angel. This one contains all the romanticism of Seventh Heaven and avoids the nonsensical plot twists that doomed Street Angel. In fact, it's pretty remarkable that the film remains interesting despite most of the scenes consist of Mary and Tim talking to one another. But oh how wonderful those scenes are! There's even a very sensual moment when he begins to wash Mary (in his attempt to remake her), but gets shy when he starts to undress her. By now, Gaynor and Farrell were such a perfectly matched pair that they could sleepwalk through their roles and still be convincing lovers, but they invest everything in these roles, completely selling even the corniest of moments. The ending is just perfect and includes a shot of Farrell in the distance that is one of the best images Borzage has produced.
Postscript: This would be the last film the trio would make together, but Gaynor and Farrell would continue working together in 8 more films. Borzage would win another Oscar for 1931's Bad Girl and continue directing until he made his final film in 1959.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: John Barrymore, Camilla Horn, Victor Varconi, Mona Rico, Hobart Bosworth
Background: This was Lubitsch's 59th film in his long and distinguished directing career. Leads John Barrymore and Camilla Horn had worked together previously in 1928's Tempest. The story was adapted from a novel by Jakob Christopher Heer.
Story: It is 1806 and the French have occupied a small Swiss town, demanding that all guns be surrendered. Marcus (Barrymore) is the lone hold out, but finally relents because he is in love with Ciglia (Horn). However, their romance is threatened by the scheming Pia (Rico), who plots a trap to get Marcus to marry her.
Thoughts: The first act of this picture plays out as an NRA wet dream, but the gun subplot is just another clever way in which Lubitsch inventively uses a prop for comedic and romantic effect. Unfortunately, there are fewer of those typical Lubitsch moments and instead the story plays out like a straightforward romantic melodrama. Thankfully, Lubitsch knows how to make this work and even manages to coax a strong performance from Camilla Horn, who was downright awful in the previous year's Tempest. John Barrymore is charismatic as always and the ending packs a pretty powerful punch. The movie is very short at only 72 minutes long and would've been better if expanded to add more of Lubitsch's wit.
Postscript: Lubitsch's 59th silent film would also be his last, but his transition into sound was smooth and his most notable films come from that era (Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner). Camilla Horn continued acting, but mostly in German, British, and Italian films. John Barrymore's drinking problems would get the best of him and hurt his career throughout the 30s.
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Hertha von Walther, Fritz Rasp
Story: Secret agent no. 326 (Fritsch) is assigned to bust up a spy network led by the ruthless Haghi (Klein-Rogge) and ends up falling in love with one of the spies (Maurus).
Background: Coming on the heels of the legendary sci-fi classic Metropolis, Fritz Lang turns to the world of spies, once again calling on author Thea Von Harbou to adapt another of her novels. Rudolf Klein-Rogge was a Lang regular by this point, playing the mad scientist in Metropolis and the title role in the two Dr. Mabuse films.
Thoughts: Here we have a movie made in 1929 that is as exciting as any action movie today. Just as he's done in previous films like Destiny and Metropolis, Lang knows how to keep a story moving like no one else. The opening sets the mood right away, with a flurry of astonishing sequences that lead to one of the best screen introductions ever, a close-up of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the menacing Haghi. The story unfolds at such a breakneck pace that you wonder if it can possibly hold up for the 2 hour, 23 minute running time, but aside for a few moments where Lang lets you catch your breath and digest the complexities of the story, this thing is on full tilt for the whole ride. Klein-Rogge (so wonderful as the mad scientist in Metropolis) goes for a more controlled sinister performance here and creates a memorable villain, while Willy Fritsch invents the handsome secret agent role that undoubtedly inspired Ian Fleming. The incredible ending contains a shocking, but nonetheless satisfying denouement.
Postscript: Lang would return to sci-fi (and reteam with Fritsch and Maurus) later that year with Woman on the Moon. His most notable film after this would be 1931's M, and he would make three more Dr. Mabuse films (two with Klein-Rogge). Fritsch and Maurus would have successful careers in German film.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Director: Robert V. Leonard
Cast: Marion Davies, Lawrence Gray, Cliff Edwards, Benny Rubin, George Baxter
Background: The second of two versions of this story, both starring Marion Davies. The original version was a silent, and the hope then was that the experiment with sound pictures would fail. That didn't happen, so a talkie version was made. It would be Marion Davies' first sound picture. She previously teamed with co-star Lawrence Gray in The Patsy.
Story: During World War 1, a French girl (Davies) catches the eye of several American soldiers and falls for one of them (Gray), but she is promised to a French soldier.
Thoughts: Casting Marion Davies as a French woman may have worked in a silent film, but with recorded dialogue it does not work at all. As great a comic actress as Marion is, her performance here is dreadful, with a ridiculous (and almost unrecognizable) French accent that is incredibly annoying and not credible or funny one bit. This saps every bit of fun from the story. Marion sure gives an energetic performance, but the ridiculous accent destroys every single joke. The only fun bits involve the men who are courting her and a genuinely charming sequence in the third act where Marion performs musical numbers meant to be impressions of Sarah Bernhardt and Maurice Chevalier. There's not much else to say about this one. What a disaster.
Postscript: Davies would make 14 talkies in total, but her best remembered films are the two silents she made with King Vidor, Show People and The Patsy. She would also team up once again with Gray in 1930's The Floradora Girl.
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William E. Fountaine, Harry Gray, Fannie Belle de Knight
Background: King Vidor had wanted to make this film for many years, and finally jumped at the chance with the advent of talkies. The project was so important to him that he gave up his salary to make it. It would be one of the first all-black films made by a major studio.
Story: Sharecropper Zeke (Haynes) gets set up for a rigged craps game by con artist Chick (McKinney). He decides to reform by devoting his life to God and becoming a minister. However, a chance encounter with Chick threatens to ruin everything he has rebuilt.
Thoughts: This film proves that Hollywood had come a long way from Birth of a Nation, but also proves that they hadn't yet come far enough. It's certainly admirable for Vidor to have attempted a film with an all black cast. Unfortunately, the film is littered with problems and the end result just doesn't add up. The characters speak in a very stereotypical way, and even Vidor himself admitted that his overall view of African-American life was (unintentionally) very condescending. Much of the film consists of the characters standing around singing spirituals. But the problems don't end there. The storytelling leaves much to be desired. The film drags throughout the second act, and the disturbing actions taken by Zeke in the third act are all too easily wiped away by the ending. What almost saves the movie is the dynamic performance by Nina Mae McKinney. Not only does she play an electrifying femme fatale, she has several show stopping musical numbers. More of those and fewer spiritual singalongs would have made this a much, much better movie.
Postscript: King Vidor received an Oscar nomination for this film. Nina Mae McKinney struggled to find good roles in the ensuing years, as other directors were not willing to follow Vidor's lead in attempting positive views of African-American life. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2008.