Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reflections: Quick Work

Brief entry this time, as it's the late hours of a long day before a short night.
Why was my day long? I won't bore you with that. See, I'm not a big believer in confessional blogging, or its banal cousin, the Daily Update. I don't think I'm talented enough to make my average day sound intriguing, and if I was, I hope I'd be too busy to do the blogging.

In brief: My day would have been easier if I did not have to search for things I wanted. That's life, of course. But the challenge with a Silent Volume Reflections post is linking 'life' to silent movies, which most people associate with 'dead.'

Well, here it is twenty minutes ago, and I'm pretty much drawing a blank. Then I think, 'what was notable about my day? What daily dose of nutrient-rich, metaphorical topsoil can I trowel up into the pot of my imagination?'--You can tell I was tired. The answer was 'Nothing, because I didn't do anything meaningful. I just laboured, and that ate my time.'

And then I thought, 'what silent movie does that remind me of?' And then I thought, 'The Electric House (1922)!'

It's a short film by Buster Keaton (one of many). The premise seemed appropriate: two bachelors share a small house, which they've rigged with a series of labour-saving pullies and levers to minimize or eliminate most chores, and in fact, most movement. This is Classic Male Behaviour and I could totally relate. I mean, I didn't feel like posting anything tonight, so I planned to latch on to this film as a subject, then milk it for 300 words or so. Then eat a Peak Frean.

In a slapstick comedy, the pullies prove deadly. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I introduce my topics with a picture. In this case, it would appropriately be a picture of The Electric House. I had one in mind... the one scene people always post when they talk about that film... the shot of Buster and his housemate sitting at opposite ends of the dinner table, with the salt and pepper shakers dangling over them... why couldn't I find it?

Google Images failed me, though only, very, slowly. Ten screens along and no dinner table. At a loss, I Wiki'd Buster, and that's when I realized I'd been searching the wrong title altogether. See, The Scarecrow (1920) is about a pair of guys in a house full of labour-saving, makeshift gadgets; The Electric House places Buster in a mansion that has been substantially (but not expertly) automated, leading to potentially lethal consequences. Hey it could happen to anyone.

There is no point here, except possibly this: your expertise is only as good as your memory. And since mine ain't so hot tonight, the result was extra time spent trying to save time, followed by a confessional blog about not writing confessional blogs. That is all. Now to the cookie.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Son of the Sheik (1926)

A movie can either guide, or serve, its audience. The former can inspire, enlighten, enrich and challenge viewers; the latter will entertain them.

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained. After all, it’s our twelve dollars. Sometimes, we prefer stories to unfold in a predictable manner, just like we might order that same burger we enjoyed the last time. It was delicious before; it’ll be delicious again.

The success of ‘entertaining’ films has always—and rightly—been judged by their ability to meet the expectations their audiences bring to them. Exceeding those expectations is fine, but not at the expense of the entertainment. Profundity, for example, may not improve an action film if it reduces the kicking of ass. In such cases, who’s the screenwriter trying to impress?

A film-goer of the early-1920s knew what to expect from a Rudolph Valentino film: sex. Not graphic sex scenes, of course; just raw eroticism, borne upon endless, lingering shots of the man’s body and face. An actor of limited skill, Valentino’s real gift was posing. No one was better at halting a story and directing all attention upon himself. Today’s Hollywood is filled with his handsome disciples.

The Sheik (1921) was an enormous hit for Valentino. It told the wafer-thin story of an Arabian sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan, who meets, abducts, and eventually marries an English noblewoman, Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). Hassan is a brute, but all man, and Mayo’s genteel attitudes are eventually crushed beneath his total sex appeal. She first rejects him as a primitive, but when he saves her from a posse of (much uglier) desert bandits, she gets over herself, and they wed.

The Son of the Sheik picks up about 25 years after the first movie; we learn that Hassan and Mayo have had a son, also named Ahmed, also played by Valentino. Ahmed is impetuous, privileged, and a bit of a swashbuckler. Like his father, he doesn’t spoil romance by over-thinking it. Unlike his father, he falls for a woman denied the advantages of good breeding.

Yasmin (Vilma Banky) is a beautiful dancing girl. She is part of a travelling performance troupe featuring jugglers, acrobats, singers and dancers. Really, they’re thieves; including her father, who ostensibly runs the outfit. This posse’s alpha-thief is the thuggish Gahbah (played by the inappropriately named Montague Love); he has designs on Yasmin, and has been promised her hand, though not by her. He’s getting impatient.

Yasmin’s mind isn’t on some rough-looking lowlife, however. She is smitten; having only the day before met young Ahmed in the town square. The meeting is merely a flirtation, but it’s Rudolph Valentino we’re talking about here; he invites her to meet him in the old ruins at nightfall, and she’s damn well going to show up.

Ahmed and Yasmin’s rendezvous is a primer in pure romantic filmmaking, and a virtual monument to Valentino’s beauty. Close-ups abound. Dialogue is minimal. The lovers embrace, with Valentino’s smooth profile bearing down over an almost drunken Yasmin. It’s like watching a painted poster, and indeed, others must have thought so too:

Soft-focus camerawork offers the couple to us as though they’re beneath a veneer of dripping honey. But the lust can’t last. Yasmin has been followed, and after an extremely impressive showing, Ahmed is subdued by Gahbah’s cronies. When next we see him, he’s strung up by his wrists—bare chested—awaiting his fate. Women admiring Valentino’s build might miss Gahbah telling Ahmed that in fact, Yasmin set him up all along. This is a lie, but Ahmed believes it whole-heartedly. He is soon rescued by his friends, vowing revenge on the gang in general and Yasmin in particular.

Fans of The Sheik continue to get their money’s worth. Ahmed easily kidnaps Yasmin from the thieves (most of whom are idiots) and transports her to his tent. He flings her on his bed like a piece of laundry. She recoils, then protests her innocence. Ahmed raises his arm to her (an uncovered bicep, specifically), then declines to strike. Instead, he strolls the room with a cigarette, and she grows enraged. Though there is no intertitle to confirm it, Ahmed clearly considers Yasmin a whore, and since she is not one, she fights him strongly as he grabs her for a kiss. “For once your kisses are free,” he tells her as the scene fades.

Modern viewers now pause to debate the ethics of cheering a rapist, but the movie has no time to split hairs. Ahmed is soon paid a visit by his stern father (also played by Valentino). The Sheik discovers the angry Yasmin hidden behind a curtain and berates his son for holding her. Besides, he’s got a nice girl all picked out for him. Ahmed assures his dad that the kidnapping is motivated by hate, not love, but does agree to release her.

Yasmin is sent back to the desert atop a donkey—truly a humiliating way to treat a woman. She despises her treatment as much as we do, and rightly so, but her pride doesn’t quite measure up to our indignation. Yasmin loves Ahmed despite herself, going so far as to pray to Allah to be rid of the feelings. Soon she is captured again, this time by the thieves, and again put at risk of rape. Now, it's the charmless Gahbah crouching at the other end of the tent.

Mind you, Gahbah does do Yasmin one favour—he tells her it was him who sowed the seeds of doubt in Ahmed’s mind. And so Yasmin’s never-ceasing love for Ahmed is justified, even if Ahmed’s treatment of her cannot be.

The misconception is eventually solved on Ahmed’s end, too; leaving only his moment of heroism as he (along with his crowd-pleasing father) crash the gang’s hideout and save Yasmin with some superior swordplay. It’s the tag-team main event the audience was waiting for, and the thieves are dispatched like no-name wrestlers in an opening bout. All is resolved. The elder Ahmed has his reservations about Yasmin, of course; but as his wife reminds him, he was much like his son. “What you wanted, you took,” she says, gazing up at him. She has the face of one who loved being taken.

Where to find The Son of the Sheik:
To kidnap Valentino in all his bare-chested glory, visit Kino International’s website at:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Double Bill: Man on Wire and Safety Last

Philippe Petit once said the Twin Towers were built so he could conquer them. And so he did, crossing from one rooftop to the other on his high-wire, eight times, in 1974. Man on Wire chronicles this stunt, and the months of careful planning that preceded it. The film introduces Petit as a talented man and a positive thinker. He's also committed to this act so completely that every conseqence, both mortal and legal, both for himself and others, fades in the intensity of his focus.
This is a documentary of a caper, but all of it builds to a great performance, and even on a TV screen, it awes. As Petit explains, the real danger was not the height, but the wind--after all, when you're that high up, what's a few dozen more storeys?
Documentaries don't invite comparisons to comedies, especially slapstick ones. Indeed, Harold Lloyd's 'Boy' (otherwise unnamed) is utterly unlike Philippe Petit. He's an average man with no love for heights. His only goal in life is to make good in the big city, and not for his own satisfaction, but rather, to earn the heart of his beloved back home. It's only through a series of serious missteps that he finds it necessary to climb from the street to the roof of an office building, and his terror grows with each foot. But Safety Last, like Man on Wire, can scare you a little. Yeah, it's fiction; yeah, it's Hollywood; but in the silent period, you did your own stunts. And while Lloyd wasn't really a hundred feet in the air when he dangled from that clock, he was high enough to get killed if he fell. Knowing this, you wonder who's crazier--the busker, or the millionaire comedian?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reflections: Immortality and Taxes

Preparing a tax return is the sharing of a ritual. Not in the sense of a group of people standing together, chanting words or motioning as one body—that is communal. Preparing a tax return, as I’ve just done, is a private act honouring two of the values we hold most desirable: individuality and permanence.

In transferring data from a box on a sheet of paper to another box on a screen, I leave my mark. This is a record of me alone, reduced to numbers and their context, and it will persist at least until those receiving the record deem it irrelevant. If it is never deemed irrelevant, it could outlive me.

The tax man is passionless, but he has pragmatism, and I respect that. I wonder if he will sustain me longer than will the memories of those who love me? They could write my story, rendering the gist of me—the events of me—in flat letters; flat as the numbers in the tax man’s file. But for these people, my standards will be too high. I’m satisfied being nothing but numbers to one who sought to know me only as numbers. Through those who knew me, though, I’d hope to be sustained in a more enriching way, with loving feeling.

Of course, love cannot be rehearsed and passed along. Even great authors, actors and painters can only be complimented on the degree to which they fall short of recreating their subjects.

And can I be trusted to perpetuate myself? Aren’t I biased? I have this blog; I’ve written many other things and double-back-saved all of it like a paranoiac. But how vulnerable would all this be to future readers, assessing it according to the prevailing analytical framework of their day, not mine? Assuming, of course, anyone wishes to read it at all?


I spend a lot of time looking at other silent movie blogs and websites, in part because it’s a great way to discover films I haven’t seen yet. However, many of these sites float dead in the digital ether—I’ll often read blog entries from someone who last updated in mid-2004. That date-stamp’s another number, of course—the only thing tethering the site to anything current.

Blogging about silent movies can feel like tending a gravesite. Around you, things may be happening—film festivals; special screenings; new, ‘definitive’ digital transfers. But the movies themselves—the artworks—are old and their directors and actors almost always long dead. The stars especially—all the silent icons are gone.

Last week, I watched a film from 1917. Everyone involved with that film, from the actors and director to the camera crew, set designer and producer, is surely deceased. The youngest teenager in the cast is likely dead. If not, then any day now. Only one person may be left: an infant, filmed eating ice cream. This child is the setup to a gag in which one comedian wields an ice cream cone against another. This child may still be with us; but if he (or she) is, then he or she is over ninety.

Well, ‘ninety’ doesn’t mean much, except as a marker of mortality. For record-keeping purposes, it’s a useful number that keeps things up-to-date. Somewhere though, that elderly person is an infant still, and will always be known, at least to most viewers of that film, only as a baby.

Images like this bring a quiet gravity to silent films. I watch them and remember that every performance, competent or not, itself memorable or not, deliberate, or unwitting, like the baby’s, is a gesture from a dead hand. Even in the lightest comedy there’s this bit of weight. It’s moving, and it’s permanent.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coney Island (1917)

What could have been.

‘Fatty’ (actually, it was Roscoe) Arbuckle ought to have been the third titan of silent slapstick comedy. He should have made legendary, feature-length films throughout the 1920s, standing eye-level—for all time—with Charlie Chaplin (with whom he worked) and Buster Keaton (whom he worked with and mentored). Instead, his career was destroyed by trumped-up sex scandal, just as he’d begun to pursue a longer, more complex form of art. Arbuckle’s ruin is a depressing story that showcases humans at their worst; I don’t want to write about it. But you can read about it here.

Anyway, we have his short films. A considerable number, in fact. Arbuckle was a dominant star of the 1910s and produced more than 150 films between 1909 and 1921. He made Coney Island in 1917. Like so many of his other movies, it still works—not so much as a piece of art, but as a bunch of damned funny routines. I could have picked several other standout Arbuckle shorts to write about today: Fatty Joins the Force (1913); The Rounders (1914); That Little Band of Gold (1915); and Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915) are just as terrific. I chose Coney Island because it sums up Arbuckle so well. The man had many talents, and this 25-minute short draws upon all of them.

Coney Island stars not only Arbuckle, but also his nephew, comic acrobat Al St. John, and a very young Buster Keaton. The plot is basic: Arbuckle escapes the watch of his domineering wife (Agnes Neilson) and heads for Coney Island. Keaton arrives that same day with his attractive, and rather easy, girlfriend (we’ll call her Alice, since that was the actor’s name); Alice is immediately stolen from him by St. John, who in turn loses her to Arbuckle. Arbuckle and St. John end up incarcerated, though not for good.

The delivery’s the thing. Arbuckle ‘got’ film acting earlier and more completely than most comedians; his outrageous gags (he once threw a piano through a wall to hit someone) are always tempered with equally funny, subtle gestures. Consider Arbuckle’s first scene in Coney Island. He’s on the beach with his wife, very much wishing he were not. He keeps turning from her and she keeps pulling him back by the seat of his pants. There’s no exaggeration here, but we know what he thinks of her. And with her eyes on her magazine rather than him, all the communication is really between Arbuckle and us. Have a look at this clip, from 1:10 to 1:40.

The great silent comedians all connected with their audiences in different ways. Chaplin mixed his comedy with pathos; Keaton reflected our need for restraint in the face of chaos; Harold Lloyd tried to be average. But Arbuckle engaged the audience directly. The others we watch; with Arbuckle, you often feel as though you’re in on whatever scheme he’s hatched. Move the previous clip ahead to 1:45 and he’ll tell you all about his plot to escape the wife.

Arbuckle’s characters tended toward scoundrel-hood. He was very good at playing cheating, boozing no-accounts with cowardly hearts; all of whom suffered greatly over the course of 20 minutes or so. He takes several beatings in Coney Island—from his wife, police officers and from Keaton (with a sledgehammer). He’s nearly drowned by St. John. But Arbuckle also clobbers a lot of people in his films, because compared to most comic actors, he was very large.

Keaton and Chaplin were lightly-built men. While they sometimes played unethical characters, they could never play bullies. Both used large actors as foils and were often thumped by them. Not Arbuckle. He was a convincing brawler, even thuggish; when he went down it meant something and due to his unusual acrobatic skill, it looked good too. Watch him slug (then dropkick) Al St. John at 2:06.

Arbuckle’s egg-shape added another dimension to his comedy. Only he could play the oversized farmhand or the glutton; and naturally, any gag related to weight worked best with him. One of Coney Island’s strongest bits begins when Fatty is unable to rent a swimsuit in his size. He spies an enormous woman laying out her own swimsuit before heading into the powder room. He steals it and spends the remainder of the film in various states of drag.

Female Fatty is less grotesque than she sounds, though not because Arbuckle’s an attractive cross-dresser. He knew how to move like a woman, and the result is simply an obese and very homely lady, not a bulbous man squeezed into a swimming skirt. Have a glimpse, at 2:08.

An overweight man with grace is really a joke in itself. Arbuckle’s physicality made him funny down to his last fibre, and funny in ways no one else of his stature could be. Rather than saying more about the film (the conclusion of which, naturally, teaches Arbuckle nothing), I’ll leave you with an example of what I mean, starting at 3:05. Among all the great gags in Coney Island, this is the one I’ve remembered best.

A fat man in a dress, swimming beluga-like to escape his nemesis. No one but Arbuckle could’ve pulled that off.

Where to find Coney Island:
Well, you could watch it on YouTube, but it’s pretty blurry. Better to brandish your rental card and pick up the phenomenal, fantastic, Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a four-disc set that includes more than 20 of the comedian’s silent shorts, plus several films he directed (under the pseudonym ‘William Goodrich’) following his blacklisting. The set is distributed by Mackinac Media.

Some of Arbuckle’s work can also be found on Kino International’s Arbuckle & Keaton, Vols. One and Two.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Double Bill: Revolutionary Road and The Crowd

Big dreams don't fit on small desks. Frank and April Wheeler (top) know they're just biding time in their middling, middle-class lives; Frank will leave that job of his and the family will move to Paris, where the cultured, not the moneyed, have the status.

John and Mary Sims (bottom) would be satisfied with the money. John is a mouse in the rat race, and he's got more plates to fill than his own. John's also a dreamer, just like Frank Wheeler; he longs to be somewhere else, but spends little energy trying to get there. With so much potential and so little success, both men are vulnerable to temptation, which at least brings a quick payoff. And what of April and Mary? What is the price of loyalty to such men?

Neither Revolutionary Road nor The Crowd give easy answers; but their lesson is a simple one. It's not enough to be better--you've got to do better, too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reflections: Make Me Believe It

Misconception #4: Silent actors overact.

This one’s not so much a misconception as an over-generalization.

I’ll start with a short rant here. I have an issue (albeit a minor one) with ‘perfect little movies’—Juno, for example—and the lauds they receive for sounding so real. By no means is Juno a bad film, nor, I expect, was it easy to write. I simply wonder if some people overrate the value of writing (and speaking) dialogue ‘realistically.’ I rarely go to the movies seeking a slice of life. I digest enough reality as it is, thanks.

Happy Go Lucky is a more extreme case. This movie wasn’t scripted in a traditional sense—it was ad-libbed by the actors and rehearsed over the course of many weeks until the scenes came together. Again, I don’t criticize the method—movies don’t, and shouldn’t, play by set rules—but to applaud this movie for sounding ‘real’ is akin to praising a documentary for the same thing.

Realistic dialogue in film is equivalent to photorealism in painting. Both require virtuosity; both can be powerful. Neither represents the pinnacle of its medium. Of course, no other style does, either. That’s why it’s art.

I think, when it comes to movies, a good acting performance is one which best suits the movie it’s in. Experts can debate the relative merits of the Method, etc. (quickly leaving me behind, I might add, as I’m a total layperson). However, the open-minded will likely admit that an outsized performance has its place in an outsized movie.

Now, imagine having to act for a medium that has just been created. A medium for which all the rules you’ve been taught must be questioned.
A stage actor must account for an audience that cannot be close to him or her. Nuance cannot be subtle. A gesture must be huge just to seem normal to those in the back row. Film is different, as the camera lens can be as close to the actor as a human companion, or even closer. The first generation of film actors simply portrayed scenes as they always had—as though before crowded rooms of onlookers—and often produced silly results.

This makes some silent actors' performances seem overdramatic or even histrionic, especially to today's audiences. The problem occurs as much in silent comedy as in melodrama, though comedy, overall, is more forgiving. Once you’ve watched enough of these films, however, you’ll notice that most of the bugged-out eyes, wailing and hands outstretched to God show up before 1920. By that point, the challenges of film acting—particularly the close-up—were well understood and actors trained on the stage knew how to adapt.

But still, ‘real’ was an acquired taste. The end of the silent era brought a flood of talkies, none of which, I’d suggest, sounded remotely realistic to anyone, even in the early-1930s. Many of those movies remain effective today. The lesson, I guess, is that a good movie makes you believe in its characters and what they're saying or doing, no matter how they say it or do it. Or to put it another way, Juno would've sung differently in a Casablanca gin joint.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beyond the Rocks (1922)

Theodora (Gloria Swanson) is an object of fantasy for two men; one her husband, the other her would-be lover. Her own actions will devastate one of those men; not because she is cruel, but because the truth hurts. Especially when it’s unfair.

Theodora is the beautiful third daughter of Capt. Fitzgerald (Alec B. Francis), a poor but hearty retired British soldier, and widower. Her elder sisters, Sarah and Clementine, are as plain as a sodpatch, but pragmatic; they know Theodora’s beauty is the family’s best chance for security. Surely, she can bewitch some nobleman with a fat wallet.

This she will do. In her very first scene, Theodora’s rowboat overturns and she is saved by a handsome nobleman in a passing yacht. Hector, the tenth Earl of Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino) returns the girl to the beach. She hands him the Narcissus flower she’d pinned to her shirt; she asks him to enjoy the scent, though it might be waterlogged. He will not forget her.

He couldn't forget her. Theodora stands out not only because of her beauty, but because of the kind of beauty she possesses. Her face has no innocence; it is a wanton, dangerous face, severely angled; it would’ve swirled the brains of anyone in her little, impoverished village and it belongs only in the presence of a lustful and lazy, wealthy young man.

And that name—Theodora, also the name of the lowborn but gorgeous Byzantine actress who married the Emperor Justinian. Hector? He was the prince of Troy, of course; and the Narcissus the symbol of all-consuming, lethal vanity. The couple seem like a pair of gods, fragrant like the flower, surrounded by plain things.

But we all need to eat. The next intertitle sets the plot in motion: “Eventually Fate brings for Theodora a suitor who meets the family requirements.” And so we're introduced to Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder), a short and portly former grocer, now self-made millionaire. Josiah arrives at the Fitzgerald home immensely satisfied. He earned his money, and with it bought influence, freedom, and a big car. Now he wants a beautiful wife. The family finds him off-putting, but Clementine and Sarah like his money. Theodora stands on the Fitzgerald’s front stoop, flanked by her sisters, and accepts Josiah’s proposal.

We expect to dislike Josiah, but it proves difficult. He is not overbearing, despite his position. He’s not miserly, either; following the wedding, he takes his wife on a honeymoon in the Alps, dressing her in beautiful jewels and furs. Josiah’s chief flaw seems to be his lack of energy. Maybe he used it all up in becoming a millionaire. When Theodora asks him to go hiking in the mountains, he declines. His lungs are bad. Or perhaps, he doesn’t feel so comfortable hanging out with the idle rich.

Hector is also staying at the inn, and like Theodora, he’s being watched. He’s joined by both his mother and the woman she’d have him marry, Morella Winmarleigh (Gertrude Astor). Neither of these ladies is around later when Hector and a male friend decide to hike in the mountains. Again, his party crosses paths with Theodora’s, and again, she endangers herself; losing her balance and falling over the cliffside, dangling unconscious by a rope.

Hector rappels to her aid, and the pair are lowered to a rock ledge, where he revives her. She smiles at him: “Fate seems to send you to me when I most need you, Lord Braccondale.” Theodora must put a lot of stock in forces outside her control. She and Hector are eventually pulled to safety by a rescue party that includes a distraught Josiah. He tends to his wife while an irked Hector stands and observes.

Hector will accept Fate, if it works fast enough. But he’s the type to rush. With his unlimited time and money, he follows the couple throughout their honeymoon travels, catching up with them in France. One day, when Josiah is again unwell, Hector and Theodora visit the gardens of Versailles. Here, in this playground of the wealthy, Hector recounts a moronic tale of aristocratic lovers, which the film recreates with Valentino and Swanson playing the roles. The scene is unsubtle, but so is Hector. He lauds the efforts of the bold (that is, adulterous) lover in his story, then declares his love for Theodora. She returns the sentiment immediately, but cautions him: “If we are not stronger than our love, we must not meet again.” Hector nods in agreement, but the scene ends with Theodora’s hand travelling downward to his.

Josiah and Theodora end up at a week-long Whitsuntide party, hosted by Hector’s sister in England. Hector is onsite too, with his mother and Morella. Josiah is again apart from Theodora, though this time, at least, he stays in visual range. He strikes up a conversation with Sir Lionel, a British adventurer intent on visiting Egypt and digging for artifacts. Like many people in Beyond the Rocks, Sir Lionel could sure use some of Josiah’s money. Josiah, totally oblivious to Hector’s designs, confides to the younger man that he’s half-tempted to join the expedition, not just fund it. Hector, to his credit, advises Josiah to stay put. The region is reportedly very dangerous.

Theodora and Hector's flirtation goes on, and unfortunately for them, Morella is not as clueless as Josiah, or as kind-hearted. She gets her opportunity to strike quite suddenly, as Josiah is called away from the retreat to tend to business in London. He’s closing the deal on a new townhouse. “I’ll return for you,” he tells Theodora, “just as soon as our love nest is ready.”

Theodora doesn’t hate this man—she cannot, if we're to maintain any sympathy for her. An intertitle assures us: “After Hector’s departure for London, Theodora decides between love and duty.” She remains at the Whitsuntide party after both her men have left it. She writes two letters, one to Josiah, the other to Hector, and places them both in a box in the foyer, from which servants will take them to the post office. Morella witnesses this, steams the letters open, and switches the envelopes.

Hector gets his letter first. It reads:

Dear Josiah. Expect me in London Thursday. I have decided not to wait for your return.

Affectionately yours, Theodora.

Now we dread what must happen. Now we’re in Josiah’s townhouse. He’s sitting down to a genteel breakfast; his butler brings him his mail. He sees the envelope addressed in his wife’s handwriting. He pushes aside the pile of other letters and beams at the thickness of this one. He opens it, and reads a long, grieving letter from his wife to Hector, promising she’ll love the young man always, but regrettably, bidding him farewell.
Theodora has written nothing bad about Josiah, but it hardly matters. Josiah is heartbroken. The scene is very, very moving, and Robert Bolder perfectly captures that moment, which we’ve all experienced, when our greatest hope is dashed beyond doubt.

Hector now blunders into Josiah’s house, having figured out Morella’s plan. Josiah is livid, but stoic toward his betrayer. “I could kill you—,” Josiah tells him, “—you have stolen my wife!” But of course, Josiah could not kill Hector. He’s too fat, and small, and old, and all his hard-earned money cannot buy youth and beauty—unless, of course, he’s buying Theodora's.

Josiah ends this scene with a long, pained look at a photograph of Theodora on his table. She is a venerable object for him. And her photo fixes his attention once again when he looks upon it in a desert tent, in Egypt, some weeks later. He has fled his marriage, and England, choosing to join Sir Lionel on the dangerous expedition. And dangerous it is; the camp is attacked by bandits and a gun battle ensues. It is going on outside Josiah’s tent; he’s only sought shelter to reload his pistol. But upon seeing Theodora’s image, he stops. He turns, walks out of the tent unarmed, and is shot.

Josiah lays dying as Hector and Theodora arrive, along with Algerian soldiers, to drive the bandits away. Theodora cradles Josiah’s head against her breast, and the old man is enraptured to the end. He takes her hand, and Hector’s, placing them over his wound. “Do not grieve,” he tells them. “You are young—and I—I want you to be happy.” Josiah’s body is then placed inside his tent, and a weeping Theodora sprawls over it—the very image of a slain great man and his devoted bride. Lying down, Josiah doesn’t look so fat after all. Maybe he resembles the biblical King Josiah, struck down by an arrow in the Holy Land.

Even Josiah Brown has the makings of a romantic icon. It is he, not Theodora or Hector, who elevates Beyond the Rocks far past most stories of star-crossed romance. Josiah is the one who reminds us that a beautiful person is desired by many, but may not choose the one most worthy. Usually, beautiful people desire beauty equivalent to their own. At least plain Josiah can become beautiful in defeat.

Where to find Beyond the Rocks:
Beyond the Rocks is available on DVD courtesy of Milestone Films. Included with the movie is a stills gallery; a short film called Delicious Little Devil, starring Rudolph Valentino; an audio interview with Gloria Swanson; and documentaries about the re-discovery and restoration of Beyond the Rocks (the film was thought lost for decades). Find it here:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Double Bill: Watchmen and Metropolis

Two big, long films with many ideas... and at both their cores, the theme of societal alienation. Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan (left) achieves a kind of perfect power--unlimited, pragmatic, and even physically attractive. He embodies the dreams of a society on the verge of atomic holocaust; he is their hero, because he represents that frighful power put to positive use (or at least, to the preservation of America). The military and the media hale him as the leader of the glorious future. But Dr. Manhattan can no longer relate to human beings, and they eventually turn on him.
The Maria Robot (right) is the creation of the masters of Metropolis--the uber-rich who dominate the world of the future but rely on the labour of a permanant underclass to maintain it. The robot has two purposes: first, to undermine a nascent protest movement in the underground caverns where the labourers dwell. Second, to replace those workers with tireless robots like itself. The Robot is covered with a false skin that makes it resemble Maria, the beautiful and benevolent leader of the movement. However, the Robot lacks Maria's kindness--it is seductive and chaotic, and eventually, the citizens turn on it, incinerating it on top of a bonfire.
Two powerful beings with limitless potential, and both the products of powerful men with short-sighted dreams.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reflections: Minimal Signage

Last week, I wrote about what ‘speech’ really amounts to in most silent films: an indication that speaking is occurring, not a transmission of specific information to the viewer. Silent films dispense with small talk—that is, words for their own sake—much as we would like to do in real life.

But what if we do need the words? When you don’t have a soundtrack, there’s only two ways to convey them.

(1) Hire a narrator to sit in the theatre and describe the specifics of the plot, and perhaps speak some character’s dialogue, loudly. This was never a popular technique in North America, though some early films made use of it.
(2) Display words on-screen. This is achieved by filming a card with words written on it (called an ‘intertitle’). Intertitles momentarily interrupt the action, usually for the length of time most audience members would need to read them.

Since the purpose of this little blog series is to challenge misconceptions about silent films, let’s bust another one right now:

Misconception #3: Intertitles transcribe every word spoken on-screen

Ugh, can you imagine? The films would be fours hours long, at least—following every image of a person speaking with several seconds of transcribed dialogue. A conversation between two actors would be interminable. Who would sit through that?

Intertitles only convey crucial information; that is, information that cannot be inferred by the actors’ body language or circumstances. If you’re new to silent films, you may be surprised how much you can figure out on your own—this is one of the great joys of watching these movies.

Some silent films even dispense with intertitles altogether. F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) tells almost its entire story with images and expressionistic camera-work; yet the plot is never in doubt to us. Nothing more needs to be said, and besides, we all know how many words a picture is worth.

Intertitles are actually quite a flexible device. Most silent films display them immediately after we’ve viewed the actor speaking the words, but they can also be displayed immediately beforehand, to increase shock value. Some do not display dialogue at all. If shown before the scene begins, the intertitle can sum up the action you’re about to see. This is not so different from a theatre program which describes each act of a play before the curtain even comes up.

Introducing scenes this way is often a hallmark of older silent films; it has a sentimental quality and naturally reduces the drama of the scene. On the other hand, descriptive intertitles can add majesty, or at least importance, to the scene that follows them, or even produce a second of dread. As with any film, it comes down to the director’s skills.

The development of the soundtrack didn’t kill off intertitles completely. Think of any movie you’ve seen that interrupts the action with a newspaper headline, computer screen or letter. Recall any biopic that concludes with a text screen describing how things turned out. These, too, are forms of intertitle, used because today’s directors still find it tedious to verbalize everything.

Too bad so many of those biopics end with plain white text against grim black—silent directors knew that intertitles could be artistic, as well as informative. Let’s end this entry with a few beauties:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Speedy (1928)

Even New Yorkers were impressed when Harold Lloyd shot a movie in their town. Speedy was filmed on location, with the Californian comedian using New York actors and landmarks in nearly every scene.

Lloyd’s cameras caught the city in one of its heydays. Speedy’s New York is attitude in motion, busy and gutsy. You’ll see the real Babe Ruth; Yankee Stadium, Coney Island and the subway, all as they looked in 1928. Some of the public scenes were filmed with hidden cameras, meaning the people you’re seeing and the fashions they’re wearing are real, too. Despite being a comedy (and often a broad, physical comedy) Speedy stylizes none of its surroundings—the city is vibrant enough to carry itself.

Lloyd’s character, Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift, is a normal guy with an abnormally strong love for baseball. He has a terrific girlfriend named Jane (Ann Christy); she’s pretty, level-headed and devoted, and longs for a settled life, which would be a good thing for Speedy, too. Jane’s grandfather, Pop (Bert Woodruff), drives the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York City. Pop owns the rights to the stretch of track he rides on, and gets to keep it as long as his old beater makes the rounds at least once every 24 hours. Pop’s livelihood stands in the way of a forward-thinking developer, W.S. Wilton (Byron Douglas), who tries to buy him out. When that option fails, Wilton selects force. After all, he only has to stop the service for one day.

Here’s what happens: Speedy overhears Wilton planning to send his thugs onto the streetcar as it rounds its track; once on the car, they’ll stage a brawl, take control of the vehicle and dispose of it. Speedy prevents this with the help of a few dozen old codgers living and working along the streetcar’s route. (Most of them are Civil War vets looking for something to do.) The combined power of superior numbers and slapstick violence defeats the thugs. The next morning, Wilton simply steals the streetcar from its barn; Speedy retrieves it (with the help of his faithful dog) and returns it to Pop’s track with less than ten minutes to spare. In the end, Pop sells out anyway.

This is all the plot Speedy's got, and it takes up only the last third of the film. Lloyd spends a lot more time on a series of elaborate, self-contained gag sequences. They’re all funny, but their real appeal is the glimpse they give us of New York City in its prime.

Take Speedy’s first job: soda jerk. He’s not bad at this; he can lob a scoop of ice cream over one shoulder and right into a patron’s dish. He’s got rhythm and he works quick. But his co-workers are baseball fans just like him, and the Yankees are a hopeless distraction. The scene’s best gag involves Speedy trying to communicate a baseball score to the cooks without yelling it into the kitchen. His solution is to place donuts and √©clairs (zeros and ones) on two rows of a display case, mimicking a scoreboard. When the Yankees score three runs in the fourth, he chews a pretzel to make the number.

He doesn’t hold that job long, nor the next. Hired as a cab driver, Speedy manages to hook an ‘out of service’ sign on his way out of the lot, and spends his first three hours without a single customer, never understanding why. Things look bleak (and dull) for Speedy; then he sees Babe Ruth. The Bambino has spent too long giving away baseballs to local kids and now he’s got to get to Yankee Stadium, pronto. He hails Speedy’s cab.

Wouldn’t you be thrilled? I would be, and I don’t even like baseball. Speedy gushes over his passenger and nearly kills them both several times, since he always looks the Sultan of Swat in the eye while talking to him. Ruth’s not a bad actor, either; he manages to look scared without overacting, even as Speedy barrels toward several large vehicles on his way to the stadium. He stays for the game, and ends up sitting behind the owner of the cab company.

Speedy the film (if not Speedy the man) is summed best by one, extremely long sequence, beginning less than 20 minutes in. Following Speedy’s firing from the diner, he tries to make things up to a disappointed Jane by suggesting a trip to Coney Island. The scene opens with an intertitle:

When a boy loses his job, buys a new suit and takes a girl to Coney Island, he’s either insane or in love—and there’s not much difference.

We see Jane and Speedy (indeed, wearing a suit we haven’t seen before) boarding a crowded subway car. Lloyd delivers several good gags as his character attempts to gets Jane a seat—some seem a little cutthroat for the Speedy we’ve come to know, but whatever. The couple arrive at Coney Island and it’s on to the rides. Again, we get priceless footage, this time of an amusement park so recklessly designed that it could never exist today. For example, there’s the rippling wooden slide that ends with a sheer drop of about a foot—when you land, the back of your head is level with the boots of the people following you. Then there’s the rotating cylinder, into which Jane and Speedy climb much as a hamster climbs into its wheel. The cylinder spins so fast that Speedy trips and falls on his face. This isn’t slapstick exaggeration—in fact, it seems quite likely. Best of all is a wooden disk, about 20 feet in diameter, on which customers sit. The disk starts spinning, flinging customers off it at high speeds and crashing them into an unpadded gutter. Last one clinging to the disk wins a prize.
The Coney Island sequence continues. Speedy encounters various mishaps with his new suit. He and Jane win handfuls of prizes. Eventually it is nightfall, and we see the park’s legendary neon displays. At about this point you may realize that neither character has mentioned anything about Pop, W.S. Wilton or the various threats of criminality and ruin they experienced only the day before. In fact, there’s not even one intertitle, mentioning the characters by name. And on it goes, as a mishap with a table of prizes costs Speedy all his money and they’re forced to hitch a ride home in a moving truck. What follows is a genuinely sweet scene, as Speedy and Jane move the furniture around in the back of the truck so it looks like the home they hope to one day share. It is only now, some 20 minutes into the Coney Island sequences, that Speedy and Jane again discuss elements of the plot.

Nothing we’ve seen here reveals new information or otherwise advances the film. In fact, Speedy’s suit, introduced in the subway scene and never mentioned again, has the effect of making Coney Island seem divorced from the rest of the film. Though I can’t prove it, I think this was intentional. As a set of scenes, Coney Island is too long; but as a standalone short film, it’s just right. The truism (introduced via intertitle at the beginning of the subway scene) is typical of silent shorts—a universal maxim that sets the tone for the action to come. The characters, too, could be universal. The only reason they are ‘Jane’ and ‘Speedy’ is because they were so named in the previous scenes. Lloyd’s appearance (clean-cut, with eyeglasses) was common to most of his films. Having Ann Christy as his co-star would not have been unusual, either, since many silent comedians worked with their female leads more than once.

So what kind of a movie is this? I suspect it began in the minds of talented people with heads for business (Lloyd himself was such a man). It has humour, some romance, dramatic tension up to a point; a dog, a celebrity, a chase, danger, brawls, and an upbeat ending. It’s set in a location with infinite cinematic possibilities. Even if you don’t like all of Speedy, you’re bound to like some part of it, so no refunds required. And if ever your theatre needed one more Harold Lloyd short to fill the bill, wouldn’t these be useful? Just make a couple of cuts. I mean, they’re practically done already. And like everything else in Speedy, they look fantastic.

Where to find Speedy:
Speedy is available on Volume Three, Disc One of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, along with Hot Water (1924) and two of Lloyd’s shorter films, Haunted Spooks (1920) and Never Weaken (1921). The set was released several years ago by New Line Home Entertainment, and I’d provide you the link if New Line still listed it. Here’s what it looks like, anyway:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflections: No Small Talk

The next entry in my short series on Silent Movie Misconceptions.

Misconception #2: Nobody talks in a silent film

Oh c’mon, characters in silent films can be positively verbose—you just can’t hear what they’re saying. The key is to recognize the role speech plays in silent films, which is much different than the role it typically plays in a sound film. In fact, a silent actor doesn’t speak to tell you anything—he or she speaks to show you that speaking is happening. Think of speech in a silent film as a visual action, rather than an aural one.

Just as an actor might scrub pots to show his character’s daily chore, or move rapidly to convey anxiety, he can also speak to show that his character is communicating. Yes, you may have little idea what he’s saying, but consider the context. Aggressive gestures might accentuate the actor’s speech, for example; tender touching can do the same. The way characters are seen to speak with one another may display much about their relationship, even if the specifics remain unclear. This is the main reason silent film plots are so simplistic—when you can’t provide details through speech, you must rely on rudimentary plots based on convention and driven by emotion.

This needn’t be a bad thing. A hallmark of early sound films was the tendency of actors to fill every spare moment with dialogue, most of it rapid; glorying in the fact they could be heard at all. This has its charm, but it’s a bit like being machine-gunned with words, and frankly, I prefer the reprieve silent films provide me.

Besides, isn’t it a fact that most of what people say is small talk, or filler? In a silent film, you’re spared verbal minutiae that serves no real purpose beyond breaking the silence—in a silent film, the music does that anyway.

By de-emphasizing the spoken word, silent films also bring physical acting to the fore. Not in the crude sense of choreographed tumbling (though this, too, can be sublime), but through subtle bodily expression. Actors like Conrad Veidt, Mary Pickford and Rudolf Klein-Rogge sent their signals to the viewer quite clearly without uttering one word. Lillian Gish may have done it better than anyone—my recent film essay on The Mothering Heart--

--describes how Gish’s character undergoes a profound emotional and spiritual realignment, presented to us through the contortions Gish makes with her face and hands.

So, what do we do if a piece of information is crucial to the plot? What if we need to know that the baby is sick, or the father has squandered the family’s fortune? Well, then we’ll need a title card, a.k.a. an intertitle. Intertitles are quick screens that interrupt the action long enough to display printed dialogue the actor has said (or will say). I’ll discuss intertitles more next week; for now, let’s just say they’re less common than people think.

Watch enough silent films and you may even long for their brevity. How many modern films have you seen that could have run 30 minutes shorter without all the go-nowhere, expository dialogue? No words mean no clich√©’s (verbal ones, at least). Real life is no different—would you want to spend an extra half-hour listening to someone who has nothing to say? Better to get to the point, then get going.

The absence of sound is not a failure of early technology, even though silent-era filmmakers were always looking for ways to get around it. Observing speech, rather than listening to it, provides us an opportunity to gauge how much we require to truly care about the tale we’re being told.