CHAPLIN’S CITY LIGHTS (1931) (CRITERION COLLECTION)

The most recent Charlie Chaplin feature to see a Criterion treatment is City Lights (1931). Released three years after the advent of talkies, City Lights remains, for many, quintessential Chaplin. It was possibly inspired, in part, by Frank Capra‘s The Strong Man (1926), starringHarry Langdon.  Chaplin labored on City Lights for three years, in part due to difficulties with leading actress Virginia Cherrill, in the role of the Blind Flower Girl (which is how she is billed. Like everyone else in the film she has no name, just a simple description). Chaplin spotted her at a prize fight. She was acutely near-sighted and had the look and personality he was seeking. … Continue reading CHAPLIN’S CITY LIGHTS (1931) (CRITERION COLLECTION)

CHAPLIN’S THE IMMIGRANT (1917)

It was approximately 44 years ago this Christmas that my grandfather introduced me to  with an 8mm film of The Immigrant (1917). Although the film has nothing to do with the actual holiday, I felt, even at that young age, that Charlie Chaplin and  (never more beautiful than here) felt like Christmas. I believe my grandfather liked Chaplin, but no more than he liked , whom I was also introduced to that same day. For me, it was different .I was later to learn that The Music Box (1932) was actually a sound film, but the 8mm version we saw (from BlackHawk films, I think) was silent. Perhaps that was one initial reason for my stronger response to Chaplin, but it was far more than that. I was not sold on preconceived notions regarding Chaplin’s superstar status because I knew next to nothing about him.

Today, as I approach the half century mark, my viewing habits have changed considerably and yet, having gone full circle, I find they ultimately—and paradoxically—remain the same. Apart from re-familiarizing myself with a film (in order to write on it), I have arrived at a point where I almost never watch a film more than twice. Chaplin seems to be the sole exception. I return to him again and again, like an obsessive childhood passion. On the surface, I should have outgrown him. In my own work, I vehemently avoid overt sentimentality. Chaplin, of course, is apt, at times, to wallow in it.

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SPARROWS (1926)

Louise Brooks defied all odds in becoming the defining cult figure in early cinema, despite the fact that her brief stardom was as an American actress in European films. Although Brooks lacked initial recognition, she  was far more contemporary and provocative than established stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was the female superstar of the silent era. She was huge box office, married the swashbuckling matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks (theirs was the first Hollywood celebrity wedding) and together they built their famous mansion PickFair. Astutely, Pickford learned the business of filmmaking: editing, cinematography, lighting and … Continue reading SPARROWS (1926)

LOSING LULU

The promiscuous motion picture camera has had many memorable romances: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet, the great love affair of the it’s 100 plus year life was also one of its briefest: actress Louie Brooks. Despite, or perhaps because of, that brevity, this love affair has never really been equaled in intensity. Louise Brooks is primarily remembered for the cinematic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), made with G.W. Pabst. He was considered by some the greatest of all German directors; he was certainly one of the most intelligent. Pabst only made one other film with … Continue reading LOSING LULU

THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist. The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The … Continue reading THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

Buster Keaton‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated. Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact … Continue reading SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

GO WEST (1925) AND ONE WEEK (1920)

Buster Keaton further explored his fascination with the west in his feature Go West (1925). Keaton had previously parodied the westerns of William S. Hart in Frozen North (1922) and Go West is a further development of that exploration. Go West, however, is more influenced by Charlie Chaplin than by Hart; it has qualities which have to come to be termed as “Chaplinesque”, albeit filtered through “Keatonesque” sensibilities. It is said to have been Keaton’s personal favorite among his features, enough that he took solo directorial credit, which was rare for him. Go West is the romantic (and odd) story of a cowhand drifter and his cow, with a girl in the very … Continue reading GO WEST (1925) AND ONE WEEK (1920)

PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

These two Buster Keaton films, separated by seven years, represent the artist at his most hyperkinetic. Playhouse (1921), co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, is a twenty-two minute short and one of Keaton’s most surreal efforts. The movie iris-ins on Keaton’s Opera House. It’s actually a vaudeville show, in which Keaton is the conductor, every member of the orchestra (dubbed Buster Keaton’s minstrels), a stagehand, and the entire audience. The crowd consists of the actor in three drag guises, a spoiled tyke, a befuddled husband, a lethargic old man, and (alas) Keaton in (mercifully brief) blackface. This is the sole area … Continue reading PLAYHOUSE (1921) AND STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928)

OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923) was Buster Keaton‘s first true feature film. Keaton’s previous “feature,” Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success. Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton’s features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton … Continue reading OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

Buster Keaton never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) andFrozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism. At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation … Continue reading SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL

Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy Mack Swain with him, among others.   Although Chaplin’s first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a … Continue reading CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL

CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS: A FORMIDABLE GREEK MAIDEN BETWEEN TWO NORSE GODS

Charlie Chaplin‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO. Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. … Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS: A FORMIDABLE GREEK MAIDEN BETWEEN TWO NORSE GODS

PAUL LENI’S CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

In 1927 Universal Studios chose their new emigree star director Paul Leni to turn John Willard’s hit stage play, The Cat and the Canary, into a work of German Expressionist art.  Carl Laemmle was clearly envious of the types of films being produced in Europe and Leni had proven himself with the critical success of Waxworks (1924). The Cat and the Canary is a compact (not a shot is wasted) standout in the “old dark house” genre.  Who needs dialogue when the visual story telling is so richly expressed? Leni’s style certainly was a profound influence on both the Universal films to follow, and on James Whale in particular, … Continue reading PAUL LENI’S CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well.  A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios.  His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit.  Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44.  Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often … Continue reading PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

PAUL LENI’S WAXWORKS (1924)

Kino International included Paul Leni‘s 1924 Waxworks in its German Horror Classics collection.  While the usual Kino craftsmanship has gone into remastering and merchandising, the inclusion of Leni’s breakthrough film is a bit of a misclassification.  Waxworks is not a “horror” film.  It is representative of what may possibly be the most experimental period in the medium of film: German Expressionism.  This style exploded with Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which turned out to be an even more influential film than D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Leni was among the apprentice filmmakers and artisans profoundly influenced by Caligari. That inspiration came to fruition in the anthology film Waxworks ( screenplay by Henrik Galeen, … Continue reading PAUL LENI’S WAXWORKS (1924)

ROBERT WIENE’S THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

Robert Wiene’s 1924  film, The Hands of Orlac is the first of several film adaptations of Maurice Renard’s story of a concert pianist who hands are amputated and replaced with the hands of a murderer.  Of the remakes, the most notable is unquestionably Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Lovewith an all star 30′s cast of Peter Lorre, Colin Clive, Francis Drake, and Ted Healy.  Freund’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, also filmed Citizen Kane (1940) and critic Pauline Kael famously noted the considerable visual influence Freund’s film had on Welles.  Peter Lorre also starred yet another version of the story, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) which allegedly was (anonymously) written by Luis Buñuel (doubtful) and Curt … Continue reading ROBERT WIENE’S THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

ROLAND WEST’S THE MONSTER (1925) STARRING LON CHANEY

The Monster (1925) is part of  the extensive Warner Archive Collection 2011 releases.  This film, directed by Roland V. West and starring Lon Chaney, goes a considerable length to prove the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Essentially, The Monster is the precursor for the tongue-in-cheek old-dark-house-with-malevolent-horror-star-as-host movie.  Considerably later,Vincent Price and William Castle visited The Monster‘s familiar territory in the House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has become the stereotypical example of the genre. Director Roland V. West revisited The Monster territory again in the following year’s hit, The Batand, yet again with sound in The Bat Whispers (1930) (for which he is most remembered—well, he may … Continue reading ROLAND WEST’S THE MONSTER (1925) STARRING LON CHANEY

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE– CRITERION RELEASE

Although it has been predictably labeled a “horror” film by more than a few dull and lazy commentators, Victor Sjöström‘s The Phantom Carriage owes more to Charles Dickens and the literary world of supernatural dreams than it does contemporary, cheapened genre categories.  In October of this year, The Phantom Carriage received its long overdue Criterion release.  A telling clue to the film’s artistic merits can be heard in the academic commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg.  Another valuable and revealing extra in this Criterion edition is an excerpt from a filmed interview with Ingmar Bergman in which the director discusses the influence that Sjostrom and The Phantom Carriage had on … Continue reading THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE– CRITERION RELEASE

ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)

With this 2011 Warner Archive Release, most of Erich von Stroheim’s “personally directed” films have been released with the inexplicable, frustrating exclusion of his legendary, mutilatedGreed (1924).   Only von Stroheim could have taken Franz Lehar’s 1905 giddy operetta “The Merry Widow” and turned it into a silent fetishistic melodrama.  The Merry Widow stars Mae Murray and John Gilbert.  Murray’s screen persona alternated between virgin and vamp . Here, she is the virgin who becomes the much sought after prize.  Despite having unique on-screen charisma, Murray, one of early cinema’s true divas, was among those who could not make the transition to sound, … Continue reading ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)

DISCOVERING CHARLEY BOWERS

   In the documentary Looking for Charlie Bowers, film archaeologist Raymond Borde recollects buying a box of silent film reels marked “Bricolo” from a gypsy.  Borde was unable to identify the films or the filmmaker, but found the films quite unique.  The character in the Bricolo shorts was clearly patterned off of Keaton, but the gags were highly surreal, mixing animation with live action.  The search for the identity of Bricolo took Borde to the Belgium Royal Film Library and the Annecy Animated Film Festival.  Still, no one could identify the films.  Borde searched the exhaustive reviews of “Midi Minuet Fantastique,” … Continue reading DISCOVERING CHARLEY BOWERS