Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

Every movie featured on this blog must be evaluated on its own terms. There’s two reasons for this: first, each film is a piece of art unto itself; second, placing them in historical context demands more time (and expertise) than I can muster. Let’s leave that to the Wikipedians.

My philosophy serves Silent Volume pretty well, but it’s no good this week. Had I seen only a tenth of the films I’ve seen, or read none of the books about film that I have poured through in my life, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) would still be impossible to consider on its own. Any film with this name (or any name ending with ‘of Oz’) fights for attention beside (or beneath?) The Wizard of Oz (1939). That film is almost primal, at least for North American children. It informs our ideas of film-making before we know what movies are. For most kids born since 1970, The Wizard of Oz will be the first film they ever see in black and white. Everybody knows its characters, its scenes and its songs. It is the most watched movie in history.

Actually, the 1939 film is the fifth adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s story. But it is everywhere, and one can’t help but compare other adaptations to it. It will always be Judy Garland et al, linking arms and skipping down the yellow brick road, singing songs in my head, even if I’m watching their unidentified, silent counterparts from 1910. I can’t fight my upbringing and I won’t try. So let’s begin.

The blatant difference between the 1910 and 1939 Wizards is length, with the earlier film clocking in at only 13 minutes. Yet the story is entirely familiar. Its touchstone moments: the cyclone, Dorothy’s discovery of the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, the Witch’s death-by-water bucket, the Wizard’s ascent-by-balloon, are all intact. These moments are the core of all Wizard of Oz stories, and their presence authenticates the tale, no matter what else is absent or added.

(It’s worth remembering that the 1939 film is itself the product of truncation. Baum’s text is episodic; it contains several, self-contained adventures that, if filmed in their entirety, would push any movie well past the three-hour mark).

Actually, the 1910 Wizard draws as much from a same-named 1902 stage musical as it does from the book. The musical was highly successful, toured for years, and wasn’t for kids. Films weren’t for kids either, at least in 1910; I imagine most of the movie’s audience were as familiar with the musical as they were with the book (perhaps more so, if they hadn’t any children).

The shift from stage to screen cost the audience every song, but gained them other things. This was an era when films were still novelties unto themselves, and here was a chance to see how cinema’s powers of editing could transform the well-loved play into something new. Seeing an already spectacular stage production on film must have been a tantalizing prospect for director, actor and audience alike.

Of course, we’re viewing it from the other direction. So what’s ‘new’ in this old silent film? For starters, you’ll find this Dorothy a lot less memorable than Judy Garland; she’s a real kid with a good soft-shoe act, but obviously, no musical numbers. Mostly, she stands toward the back of the stage and observes the weirdos around her.

There’s a lot of weirdos. Dorothy’s entourage swells beyond the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion to include Imogene the Cow, Eureka the giant cat, and a donkey. These new characters (along with the Lion, once he’s introduced) are portrayed by acrobats in animal suits. Toto is played by an acrobat as well, though he begins the film as a regular dog. Imogene had replaced Toto in the stage musical, because, I assume, a live dog would wreak havoc in a live show. But in the 1910 film, Toto is transformed into a giant dog by Glinda the Good Witch, so dog and cow can co-exist.

The 1910 Cowardly Lion is far more animal than Bert Lahr made him out to be, but the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are very close to their 1939 incarnations. Particularly the Scarecrow, whose floppy-limbed movements must have inspired Ray Bolger directly. But the Scarecrow also presents us with the greatest deviation between the two Wizards, because the 1910 Dorothy meets her straw man—alive and kicking—before the cyclone ever casts her from Kansas. Observe the scene, starting at 0:20:

The 1939 film’s opposition of drab reality to Technicolor surreality is absent here—it’s pure fantasy all the way through.

Thirteen minutes isn’t enough time for such questions, anyway. The original Wizard is about spectacle, not longing, and it still delivers with every hyperactive, anarchic scene. Watch Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the farm animals cling to a haystack that spins and flies off-stage as the winds rise; see the Wizard’s throne room bustle with spearmen and dancing girls in tiny skirts; try to turn away as Dorothy and her friends attack the Witch’s lair, with its flying lizard-men and windows that look like giant eyeballs. Films of this time kept the camera still and relied upon the actors and sets to provide the energy. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gets it done, with all the lunatic zeal one could hope for.

Now, this Dorothy never does make it back to Kansas. That seems okay, since she arrives in Oz with several friends and little is made of her relatives back on the farm. And really, if Kansas had a talking Scarecrow, what is Oz except a better place to party? Let’s turn our feelings of loss in a positive direction, and try to enjoy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for what it is: a crazy short, well shot, expertly performed, in a spirit distinct from everything that came later. We’ve all got 1939; 1910 is for those of us travelling a different road.

Where to find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
MGM’s three-disc release of The Wizard of Oz (1939) includes a complete version of the 1910 film, along with The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914); His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (1914); and a 1933 animated short, The Wizard of Oz. The set also includes the second film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz: Larry Semon’s 1925 version, which I’ll be writing about in a future blog entry. Look for it all here:

And there’s always YouTube, with my usual warning, “fixed-camera films lose all their detail on YouTube.” Press play at your own peril.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reflections: Primal Cynicism

Short post today, but hopefully food for thought.

I watched my first William S. Hart silent western last night: The Toll Gate (1920). Hart’s movies are not easy to come by today, though I don’t know why. His heyday was the mid-teens to early-1920s and The Toll Gate, if it’s emblematic of his work, does seem to hold up pretty well.

The film explores the redemption of a good man who has done a lot of bad things. Hart’s character is a train-robber—fairly successful, but not nearly as successful as he might have been if he’d had no conscience. His good deeds, few though they may be, end up saving him from trouble no heist could buy him out of. Yes, The Toll Gate is moralistic, like a lot of silent dramas, but it asks interesting questions. It’s a good movie.

The DVD in question pairs Hart’s film with a 1916 comedy short, His Bitter Pill. This short was produced by Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops fame) and it satires Hart mercilessly. It tells the story of Jim, obese sheriff of a frontier town; a simple man in love with the local girl. Urged on by his mother, Jim proposes, only to discover another ring on the girl’s finger. A ‘book learned scoundrel’ has stolen her heart, and now this moustachioed feller is pressuring her to visit saloons. Following a tantrum (face down on his mother’s floor, with legs kicking), Jim shoots down the city-fied scoundrel’s entire posse.

His Bitter Pill is a great reminder that silent-era audiences were just as complex as today’s. The content of silent melodrama might tempt us to think that pre-1930s viewers ate up schmaltz with a spoon. Which they did; they just happened to be snarky and cynical about it, too. What were people thinking when they watched the Gish sisters wax apoplectic in films like Orphans of the Storm? Were they moved, or were they just moved to smirk? Or could it be both?

I’m no art critic, but I have a strong belief in the power of context. I trust the human mind’s capacity to be equally entertained—and even transformed—by works of art that are incompatible and even contradictory. We are complicated beings, for the most part. Silent audiences had the same advantage.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Spiders, Part 2: The Diamond Ship (1920)

**For my essay on The Spiders, Part 1, click:

When last we saw Kay Hoog (millionaire adventurer, courageous hunk), he’d been beset with tragedy. Having escaped an ancient Incan city by the skin of his gleaming teeth, Hoog looked forward to a few years of settled life with his (amicably) captured Incan lovely, Naela. But the past struck quickly. Hoog’s arch-nemesis, the homicidal femme Lio Sha, murdered Naela on the very grounds of Hoog’s estate, prompting him to swear revenge upon her and her criminal organization, the Spiders. Now he must find them, as the Spiders continue their global quest for the Buddha-head Diamond. The head, it’s said, has the power to restore Asia to world dominance.

Not a pleasant thought for a handsome colonial like Kay Hoog. He gets right to work, revealing to his servant that he has, in fact, located the Spiders’ North American hideout. He plans his attack, described by the following intertitle as ‘A Modern Raid.’ And modern it is—Hoog leaps (not parachutes) from the rear cockpit of a biplane, landing on the roof of the Spiders’ building.

There must be easier (and safer) ways to scale a building, especially one surrounded by other buildings, but we’ll leave that criticism to the bean counters with no bravado. Hoog is a man of action. Leading a small army of agents, he storms the headquarters and does battle with Chinese [sic] swordsmen against a background of Oriental [sic] screens and riveted steel walls. Lio Sha and her associates flee via hidden elevator, and the pursuing Hoog is nearly sandwiched in a booby-trapped room. Though he hasn’t exactly exacted his vengeance yet, he does find a small piece of ivory, inscribed with mysterious script, that might bring clues to the Spiders’ next move. So Hoog brings this item to ‘an old bookworm’ who specializes in ancient languages.

It is an item of interest, alright. The bookworm explains:

“This is proof of my suspicions. Under the Chinese quarter exists a secret Chinese city. This piece of ivory is the entrance key...

...but beware. The Police will give you no protection in the Chinese quarter, let alone in the subterranean city. Remember—they deny it even exits!”

Indeed. If we’ve learned one thing from The Spiders thus far, it’s that everything mundane has something fantastic within, behind or beneath it. Lio Sha, we know, hides nothing in plain sight, preferring to conceal her valuables in motorized, sliding drawers. So it’s only appropriate that a whole community may be bustling beneath the feet of everyday San Franciscans. Hoog easily finds the entry point to the secret city (it’s a trapdoor), passes through a tunnel guarded by traditional-looking robed fellows with heavy blades—and tigers—and begins to search the city. This subterranean civilization doesn’t look much different from a Chinatown market, actually—assuming you could locate one in a cave. Hoog eventually takes a breather in an opium den, though he doesn’t inhale.

Gunfights ensue. Hoog is captured, nearly drowns, then completely escapes. Lio Sha, meanwhile, sets sail aboard the good ship Storm Bird headed in the general direction of the diamond. Hoog is stows away on the same vessel, having smuggled himself inside a large crate equipped with bookshelf, reading lamp and a hook to hang his gun.

The Storm Bird soon turns around. Another contingent of Spiders, led by a spindly figure called All-Hab-Mah, or The Master (Friedrich Kühne), has discovered that the diamond’s whereabouts are, in fact, known only to the descendant of the pirate who stole it. That descendant still makes his living appraising jewels. He is a Londoner, John Terry (Rudolph Lettinger). Terry lives with his only daughter, Ellen (Thea Zander). Ellen is destined to be Hoog’s next true love, since she possesses the two traits he values most in a girl: beauty and obliviousness.

Lio Sha and her minions invade Terry’s home, and even crack his safe, but find no jewel. They take Ellen instead. It turns out Terry has never heard of the Buddha-head Diamond at all, though when he enlists the help of Kay Hoog, the facts quickly fall into place. Terry maintains a painting of his imposing pirate ancestor over the fireplace. Within the painting is a map of the Falkland Islands. This map, combined with the pirate’s log book, states quite clearly where the diamond must have been stashed. However, the book is coy about why, after hiding the diamond, the pirate was the only one to escape the site alive.

A lesser man would stop to ponder this. Not Kay Hoog. He sets off for the Falklands. Unfortunately for him, Terry’s butler, a spy, manages to inform Lio Sha—via carrier pigeon—to follow him. Lio Sha and her men capture Hoog again, this time amidst the pirate’s loot, deep underground. “Hunger and thirst will make you talk,” promises Lio Sha.

Poor Lio Sha. She doesn’t know about the poisonous crater nearby. The one that spews deadly fumes which overcome anyone foolish enough to follow the pirates. Hell, it probably killed the pirates, first. The Spiders' film-stock tints delightfully red as the criminals gasp their last breaths and Hoog, once again, survives. Lio Sha does not. She’s the one we’ll miss most, we sigh.

The Spiders now careens toward its ending. The Master, it’s discovered, has returned to England with Ellen in tow. He is desperate. His hypnotic analysis of Ellen has revealed that she knows absolutely nothing. He fears that the Spiders’ Asian Committee will think him a double agent, since he still has produced no jewel. The Master plans to solve this by getting a fake jewel cut in Amsterdam, but he never gets the chance to try. He is instead assassinated by Sikh operatives (part of the Asian Committee apparently); the Sikhs, in turn, are finished off by Hoog.

Well, what about Ellen Terry? She’ll be alright, a doctor tells us. In fact, she’ll soon awaken with no memory of the ordeal whatsoever. And so Hoog finishes the film with vengeance met, the Buddha-head Diamond in his pocket, the gratitude of several millionaires, and the love of a vacuous babe with no emotional baggage. Not a bad for a few weeks’ work.


Hey, The Spiders is fun. Here you’ve got action-adventure done in a silent, somewhat serious format, very different from the more famous (but not always better) work done by Douglas Fairbanks around the same time. If you’re feeling analytical, you can pick up on themes typical of director Fritz Lang’s later work: science fiction, hypnosis, disguise, the occult, exotic underworlds, cities within cities, cultural decay and persecution. And if you just want to sit with your popcorn tub and forgo deep thought, The Spiders still delivers.

I miss Lio Sha.

Where to find The Spiders:
Parts One and Two of The Spiders were released at different times; in fact, director Fritz Lang planned four movies in the series, but only the first two could be made. Both halves of the film are available on a single disc, distributed by Image Entertainment. The release has no extras and unfortunately, the restoration of the print is not the best. However, any chance to see a silent Indiana Jones is a chance worth taking:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Double Bill: Milk and Different From the Others

Appreciating old films requires tolerance--the ability (and eventually, desire) to watch movies that look and sound different from those we're most used to. Watch enough of them, and you'll even begin to appreciate the relative values of the culture the film represents. Movies are a populist medium, and there is no better measure for the values of a particular age than the films it produced. To define those values --and their various advocates--as sharply as possible, we rely on the Message Movie.

Some of cinema's most celebrated achievements are Message Movies--films filmed to shock you, change you, change your actions and by force of multiplication, change society for the better. The Best Years of Our Lives, 12 Angry Men, Days of Wine and Roses, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Platoon... all big movies with big aspirations. And where can you find the greatest of all minefields of movie meaningfulness? Silent film! Virtually anything un-comic had a point to make (and in Chaplin's case, there was no distinction at all). The messages seem conservative by today's standards, and may have been conservative, in the literal sense, even in their own time. But most took a stand about something, that's for sure.

There's an ironic consequence to this. The tolerance that allows one to appreciate films made in olden times can also make one intolerant (or at least, impervious) to message movies. I support the message of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in an objective sense--who wouldn't? But much has changed for the better in the last 40 years, and while the movie's message remains admirable, it no longer feels, well, urgent.
While we try our best to evaluate films on their own terms, it is still a compliment to say that a film has 'aged well.' If a film is meant to shock, or enrage, or even guilt its audience, what happens when its potency fades? Or worse, what if the message becomes unpalatable? Birth of a Nation was a message movie, too.

My 'double bill' entries are meant to be short, and this one doesn't seem to be. To sum: Milk has inspired many to tears of sympathy, and rightfully so. Like all good message movies, it puts the characters first and deifies no one. Plus, I think Milk will age well. It's aesthetic merits, particularly Sean Penn's performance, will keep it worth watching long after gays and lesbians have won the last of their battles for equality. However, when that day comes, Milk will feel like an artifact.

Different from the Others, as old as it is, still does not. The film addresses a similar problem: the criminalization of sodomy in late-19th century Germany, and the devastating effect this had on the gay community in that country. The film is uncompromising in its acceptance of homosexuality as natural behaviour, and holds not the slightest sympathy for the other side.

Maybe I'm wrong about Milk. Maybe it will move hearts and minds 90 years from now just as it does today. But I'm sure of this much: Different from the Others still feels cutting edge after almost a century, and because it presents such modern material in such an antique format, it still shocks. The more cynical you are about message movies, the more inspirational this one seems.
My long-form article on Different from the Others can be accessed here:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reflections: My First Silent...

...was Metropolis.

No way I’m alone on this one. Metropolis is probably the most famous silent film among people under 60, and they can find it everywhere: on television, tape, laserdisc or DVD; legit or bootlegged, at lengths ranging from one hour to nearly three. I’ve seen Metropolis more times than any other silent film. Metropolis is the only silent film most of my friends have watched. And it seems we’ll all get to see it fresh again: in 2008, a batch of new footage was discovered in Argentina, prompting talk of another restoration.

Metropolis still resonates because of the potent, standalone images it provides. The plot is basic, not terribly convincing, and not even stable, considering the radically different cuts viewers have been exposed to through the decades. It’s the pictures that last, and appropriately, it’s through still pictures that I first came to know the film.

In 1984, in our town library, in the dusty back shelves, was a beat-up science fiction film book. It charted the development of science fiction movies from their origins in 19th century popular novels all the way to the present day—that being the early-60s. (Our library wasn’t blessed with many benefactors when I was young.) The book’s editors mused about the effects a successful moon-landing might one day have on the genre.

I was only eight, and I don’t remember much else about the book, aside from its fatness and photos. It must have devoted space to A Trip to the Moon (1902) and the Flash Gordon serials, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Forbidden Planet (1956). Those last two are terrific sound films, both of which left us iconic robots:

But I don’t recall Robbie or Gort in those pages. I do remember this:

If you’d asked eight-year-old-me what the future looked like, I’d have held up my plastic Rebel snow-speeder. The future was filled with machines, yes, and great, tall shining towers; but all of it was in colour, and loud and fast. Black-and-white meant old. I’d never seen a black-and-white movie, other than first quarter of The Wizard of Oz, and really, wasn’t the point of that to wow you with what colour could do? And by the way, the future had too many rocket engines and laser guns blasting to ever be silent.

Ask me what a robot was and I’d have set down the snow-speeder and picked up Optimus Prime. To me, the idea of a sentient robot was not strange. Depicting one with feminine form? That certainly was. These pictures were not simply strange to me; they were transgressive. They stepped over the boundaries my pop culture had marked for me. They made the future look old, and in so doing, taught me that the future is a concept informed by the present, not a set of predictable and inevitable developments. Most importantly, they broadened my sense of the age of film. I thought the 1940s were plenty ancient, since they produced my parents. The 1920s? They produced my grandmother, for pete’s sake.

If I’d had access to a World Wide Web in the early-80s, I would have tracked down a copy of Metropolis. But there was no ’Net, nor even a big-box video store where I lived. I closed the book on this film (literally) for many years. About six years, actually. And I owe my re-awakening to pretty base circumstances.

A fourteen-year old boy from a good home in a developed country has few real challenges, but I did have a small one: finding movies with boobs in them. Like any young gentleman in the early, ’Net-less 90s, I had only three options:

1. Porn.
Bootlegged, of course. Rickety VHS tapes were occasionally smuggled between houses, usually without parental crackdown. But urgent, vigorous rewinding diminishes the performances within, and really, these flicks weren’t as erotic as we’d hoped.

2. Erotica.
You couldn’t rent porn from the local indy video store, but you could rent this stuff. Too bad the front counter was always manned. Erotica guaranteed boobage and humiliation in equal volume, forcing every teenage boy to choose between two, temporary masters: Dignity and Desire.

No contest.

For starters, you made sure no one would be behind you in line. If the store was busy, you just wandered around until it wasn’t. This could take a long time. Step two was removal of the tape-sleeve from the rack, to be performed briskly and without halt—same principal as a drive-by shooting. The sleeve was to be held cover-side down, obscuring the artwork between your forearm and thigh. The transaction was to be made without eye contact or small talk of any kind.
I had an extra tactic: I’d rent something classy alongside the dirt. I remember renting Citizen Kane and Wild Orchid on the same day. (It wasn’t a problem to watch them both in an evening, thanks to fast-forwarding.) I thought this made me look like less of a loser sleazebag. I may have been wrong.

3. The third way.
The biggest longshot, but also the least embarrassing. If you could stay up until 1:00 a.m. on a Friday night in my town, you could see one of City-TV’s ‘baby blue’ movies. They were ‘blue’ because they always—always—gave you a sex scene. But you had to wait for it. Plus, City-TV punished you by going to commercial (it seemed) every five minutes, for five minutes, shilling Bad Boy Furniture and Three-for-One Pizza while you got anxious.

The better the movie, the worse it was. The truly gratuitous sex movies at least brought you the goods on a regular basis. But films that tried to elevate the sex (while still giving you gobs of it) usually put you through a first hour of overwrought, way-too-celibate ‘meaning’ that still pretty much sucked. So teens like me, who had no taste but were capable of developing some, learned what times were safest to switch the channel. The ideal time was immediately after a sex scene had ended. And I remember doing just that one night, flipping channels rapidly upward with no destination in mind, when I found Metropolis on the French-language station.

It was well into the third act. The hero and heroine, Freder and Maria, were trapped in the underground city that housed the labouring class. The labourers were above ground, rioting; no one remained in the caverns but their children, and now water was rushing into the caves, threatening to drown them all. Freder and Maria drew the children out of the tenements and up to the highest point they could find. On the surface, the workers’ uprising raged on and its evil robot-instigator was burned alive.

Imagine a fourteen-year old, sitting cross-legged on a hard carpet in front of a small TV, in the middle of the night, with every light in his house switched off, seeing all this. Sexier entertainment had fixed my eyes to that screen well before I found the French station; fear of being caught had tuned my ear to the slightest meaningful sound—creaks, toilet flushes, footfalls on floorboards. No matter how base my reasons, I was absolutely in the right state of mind for Metropolis’ pivotal third act, and it gave me much. I perceived film in a wholly new way

My town had its own Blockbuster by now, so the next day I headed there to rent Metropolis. Blockbuster did not carry it, but they could order it. Six weeks later I marched back into the store, straight to the cashier, and with half-a-dozen people in line behind me, paid for my first silent film. Now, that tape spurred me to watch hundreds more silent films, and eventually, to start this blog. So it seems right to conclude this entry with a thank you to the casts and crews of Under Cover, Animal Instincts, Bodies of Evidence, Sheer Passion, Intimate Deception, Animal Instincts III: The Seductress, and all their colleagues. Without you, I wouldn’t be here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Spiders, Part 1: The Golden Sea (1919)

While Modern Men sleep soundly in their beds, ancient civilizations plot to invade.

While Today’s Women keep their houses pristine, secret societies send hooded hoodlums skulking through the closets and corridors.

Who can peer to the depths of this shadowy world?!

Only a most intrepid gentleman—a courageous fellow who loves culture but shuns convenience. Kay Hoog is the man we need.

Kay Hoog. Millionaire, treasure hunter, athlete, adventurer. Dashing bachelor; a man who, in the words of his greatest nemesis (and would-be lover), ‘lives only for sport.’ But Hoog (Carl de Vogt) finds ribbons and cups mere distractions—his first love is adrenaline, and the more dangerous and exotic its pursuit, the better. His mansion is filled with the spoils of missions-past: Indian statues; African masks; golden Buddhas—trophies he would not have sought if they were easy to find.

When Hoog arrivess at the Standard Club of San Francisco, he is again a man on a quest. He doffs his cloak and brandishes a soiled cloth before his crowd of grey-headed, tuxedoed admirers. It is a note, found by Hoog in a floating bottle that very morning. Its message enthrals them all:

To whomever finds this:

Please notify Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts, immediately that I was taken prisoner here near the 75th longitude by descendants of the Incas, who by tradition still faithfully offer human sacrifice to the sun.

Unbelievable treasures lie buried below the ruins of their temples, which are probably inherited from their old King. Beneath the so-called “Holy Sea” extends a gold mine, which appears to be inexhaustible.

Today I escaped my torturers and made it to the coast. In the name of God, help me. May 5, 1918.

Fred Johnson

Hoog will find that gold. The grey heads applaud his manly courage and raise their glasses. But one of the listeners, a young woman, sits quietly. She is Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), and she seems more interested in the note than the man holding it; her toast smashes Hoog’s glass. Hoog considers that a sign of luck.

Lio Sha has dangerous associates. She works with The Spiders, an underground organization of well-heeled conspirators. She does not meet with them directly; her connection is the weird Dr. Telphas (Georg John). However, nothing escapes her attention; as Dr. Telphas plots with the Spiders in their hideout (a mausoleum of riveted iron with sliding doors and secret exits), Lio Sha watches the proceedings from a magic mirror.

Lio Sha knows more about the ancient Incan city than Hoog does. She knows that the piles of gold in its underground caverns are worthless compared to its real treasure, the Diamond Ship. Lio Sha will do anything—to anyone—to possess it.

An added challenge? So much the better for Hoog. However, he must first find a way to the Incan city, which is buried deep within overgrown jungle. The fastest (and of course, most dangerous) way to reach it is by air. Hoog finds an old friend who pilots a weather balloon; will he fly him over the city? Hoog is happy to parachute from the basket once they’re overhead. The friend agrees, but warns Hoog that the balloon must leave the ground at 6 o’clock sharp; if Hoog is late, tough luck.

Indeed, Hoog nearly misses his flight, and it’s all Lio Sha’s fault. He spots her recruiting locals at a nearby bar, promising riches to all who agree to be the muscle for her mission. Lio Sha’s no shrinking violet herself—she stands on a chair in high boots, shirt and tie, giving muscular handshakes to every volunteer.

Hoog bursts into the room and grabs Lio Sha’s book of plans, holds off the crowd with two revolvers and escapes on horseback. The thugs chase him at full gallop, opening fire. Hoog presses his horse for all it’s worth and reaches the balloon just as it’s leaving the ground. He leaps from his saddle, catches the tow-rope and follows the airship skyward.

Hoog’s flight, and subsequent jump, are successful. Now surveying the jungle surrounding the ruined city, he spies Naela, Priestess of the Sun (Lil Dagover), bathing alone in the Holy Sea. Unfortunately for her (but perhaps not for Hoog), she is unaware of the anaconda slipping down the temple steps toward her. Hoog shoots and kills the beast. Naela faints.

When Naela comes to, she is frightened—not about snakes so much, but for her new hero’s well-being. “No white man has ever left this valley alive,” she warns him, though white women must feel more at home, since she’s clearly white herself. She runs off.

Naela is pretty conflicted. As Priestess, it’s up to her to oversee the blood sacrifice her superiors believe necessary to restore the Incan Empire. She prefers offering flowers to the Sun God, but has been overruled by her superiors. And it turns out that the chosen sacrifice is yet another white person: Lio Sha, who has been captured by the Incans.

The multi-armed Sun God awaits tribute. The Incans bind Lio Sha by her hands and feet and lay her before the idol on a bed of feathers. Despite her pants, tie and manly bearing, she’s quite the eroticized damsel now. And again Hoog appears for the saving, all pistols firing and hands untying. He throws her a gun of her own and the two shoot their way out of the crowd, backed up by Lio Sha’s underlings, who finally arrive to rescue her.

The interlopers escape beneath the city. Hoog and Naela move ahead, toward a small escape boat he’s fashioned for them. But Lio Sha’s forces halt before the mountains of golden treasure. They brawl over the booty, setting off a booby trap that floods the caverns.

Hoog and Naela are washed out to sea, where a romantic tall ship appears rescues them. Lio Sha finds her own exit just in time. The rest perish.

Weeks later—back in San Francisco:

We return to Hoog’s mansion, where our hero is in good spirits. After all, he may have missed out on the gold, but he’s got a better trophy idling upstairs. Now his servant alerts him to a visitor. It is Lio Sha, looking dramatic. She declares that she loves him for saving her life.

Actually, they seem like a pretty good match. But Hoog likes his femmes more feminine; Naela descends the staircase at just that moment. Lio Sha does not take the rejection well.

Given all that he’s been through in the last few weeks, you’d expect Hoog to take Lio Sha’s threat seriously. Instead, he takes a day trip, alone. When he returns, he finds Naela lying dead in the garden. Upon her breast is a dead tarantula.

Oh, this isn’t over. The final intertitle says it plain:

For the further adventures of Kay Hoog and his revenge on Lio Sha... See Part Two—


Where to find The Spiders:
Parts One and Two of The Spiders were released at different times; in fact, director Fritz Lang planned four movies in the series, but only the first two could be made. Both halves of the film are available on a single disc, distributed by Image Entertainment. The release has no extras and unfortunately, the restoration of the print is not the best. However, any chance to see a silent Indiana Jones is a chance worth taking:

Friday, May 8, 2009

Double Bill: The Wrestler and The Show Off

Randy 'The Ram' Robinson's wrestling career peaked long ago, but it peaked big. And we know why. In The Wrestler's finest scene, Mickey Rourke charms dozens of patrons at a grocery store meat counter, reminding us that he dominated the squared circle through charisma, not just muscle. But cutting meat is quiet work--too quiet for a man who misses his audience. Had Randy settled for a more stable living, right from the start, who knows how wretched he might have turned out? He might even be as pitiful as Aubrey.

Aubrey is a big man in a small room; a would-be mover and shaker with the desire for greatness and perhaps, the talent to achieve it. The 'perhaps' is what tortures him. Aubrey (Ford Sterling) is a fraud who justifies his fraudulence because it is a means to an end. He has real achievements: a decent desk job and a wife who loves him; but their blandness makes his ambitions seem all the more ridiculous. Randy, at least, was 'The Wrestler'; Aubrey's just 'The Show Off.'
The Show Off is more comic than The Wrestler, but both films ask serious questions about the pursuit of greatness. We wonder how many good things a man is willing to destroy in order to be great; then we wonder whether a great man is synonymous with an admired one. Finally, we ask whether Randy and Aubrey, as likeable and talented as they are, can be great at all. Maybe they aren't even good.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reflections: Taxonomy

For reasons too complicated to explain, I see a lot of vultures. By which I mean the literal bird, not an unsavoury co-worker or passer-by. The vultures cannot see me, so I can spend a lot of time studying them. They’re very interesting. But the most interesting thing about vultures cannot be observed directly—in fact, direct observation causes you to miss the point altogether. Wikipedia says:

Although New World [North American] vultures have many resemblances to Old World [European, African and Asian] vultures (traditionally considered part of the bird-of-prey order Falconiformes, though now often classified in a different order), they are not very closely related. Rather, they resemble Old World vultures because of convergent evolution.

Looking and acting like a certain other type of bird does not, in fact, mean you’re closely related to it. The article goes on to explain that Old World vultures spot meals by sight alone, lacking the refined nose of the New World vulture. There are distinctions of the genetic variety as well. Fair enough. But for most people, vultures are too alike to be much different. So wherever the birds might be from, they’re still vultures.

The vulture debate is one of those mental exercises that keeps a layperson’s mind fit, if not expertly applied. I find myself engaging in another one lately. It was spurred in part by my previous blog entry on the 1910 film, Frankenstein. At about 13 minutes, Frankenstein qualifies as a ‘short’ film. In fact, it could be forty minutes long and still qualify for an Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action). Of course, by the time the Oscars were around to be given out, many movies were running at two hours-plus. That wasn’t the case when Frankenstein appeared.

Frankenstein wasn’t made to be a ‘short film’; it was made to be a movie, and if most movies of the time weren’t much longer than 15 minutes anyway, then a film of 20, 40 or 60 minutes would have been a ‘long film,’ would it not?

This is semantics, but it came to a head not long ago when I was discussing my favourite movies with a friend. He had his casual list and I had mine, which happened to include A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Play House (1921). He protested, on the grounds that these were short films, whereas we were supposed to be discussing features. And I protested his protest, arguing that A Trip to the Moon was about as long as movies got in 1902. OK, he had me on The Play House, but I wasn’t giving up on the first one.

My friend’s point was that the length of a film is a limiting factor on its content, not simply in the obvious sense, but in terms of what works and what does not. He compared it to the different challenges faced by writers of short stories and novels. Short story writers, he said, cannot employ subplots, complex backstories or characters by the dozen. Nor can they afford a mistake. When one has less than 40 pages to work with, any error in continuity, etc. stands out like a beacon.

He’s right, I guess. But placing films like A Trip to the Moon and Frankenstein too closely beside The Pig seems reductionist to me. If a short running time does impose absolute limits on what (or better yet, ‘how’) one can tell a story, filmmakers of today nevertheless have a choice. They can select subject matter well suited to a short film, then make one. If the subject matter is not well-suited to a short, then they (or someone with more money, maybe) can produce something longer.

Would the works of Jules Verne or Mary Shelley (especially Shelley) be considered fodder for a short film nowadays? Not likely, at least if one sought to tell a truncated version of the whole story, rather than material inspired by it. True, no feature-length film based on a novel is wholly faithful either, but we would expect, in the case of a sizeable literary source, that the movie be at least two hours long.

Audiences of the very early 1900s might have expected their novel-turned-movie to be as long as possible, too. Which for them, was pretty short. And I wonder if the directors of the time, bearing the audience’s (and industry’s) expectations in mind, made choices that modern short-film directors might not have made.

But the clock is the clock, and all vultures eat carrion. Says Wikipedia again:

...there is a recent trend to raise the New World vultures to the rank of an independent order, Cathartiformes, not closely associated with either birds of prey or storks or herons. In 2007 the American Ornithologists’ Union’s North American checklist moved Cathartidae back into the lead position in Falconiformes, but with an asterisk that indicates it is a taxon “that is probably misplaced in the current phylogenetic listing but for which data indicating proper placement are not yet available.”

My blog entry on A Trip to the Moon can be read here:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Frankenstein (1910)

Many silent films are early adaptations of material later made iconic in the sound era. It was silent cinema that first gave us The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra; The Great Train Robbery; Hamlet; Robin Hood, and The Thief of Baghdad. Nosferatu preceded Dracula by nine years, while there were two versions of The Wizard of Oz before Judy Garland donned her ruby slippers in 1939. Now, comparing a silent film to its sound remake isn’t a wise use of time if one is only interested in judging absolute quality—silent and sound films face different challenges in telling a story. But it is worthwhile, and enlightening, to compare films that treat the same source material in different ways. Such is the case with Frankenstein.
The original Frankenstein film has no castle, lightning storm or shrieks of ‘It’s alive!” (not even through an intertitle). No stitches, green skin, or bolts in the neck. Its Monster is a lumpen hulk, wild haired and sneering; conjured in a cauldron of boiling chemicals, just like Mary Shelley intended him to be. Actor Charles Ogle tries for none of the sympathy Boris Karloff would win for the character 21 years later. Instead, he’s a boogeyman—a direct product of Frankenstein’s hubris. Perhaps he’s not even real.

That you can even debate the Monster’s realness says much for Frankenstein. Few films made in 1910 had much complexity at all, partly because they were so short. Frankenstein itself is less than 15 minutes long, and bears all the limitations of its period: intricate but theatrical sets; a fixed camera set at medium range; no dialogue; intertitles that describe the scene before it is shown. Audiences of the time still saw the moving picture as a spectacle unto itself; part of the entertainment was seeing a story they knew well portrayed in this unusual way.

Frankenstein is more than a novelty, though. It speaks plainly of the catastrophes that result from bad intentions, and by never clarifying the reality of the Monster, it achieves something almost no film from that period could: subtlety.

Just who is Victor Frankenstein in this film? Early scenes depict him as the son of wealthy parents, headed to university to study anatomy. He has a fiancé, whom he intends to marry after completing his life’s work. We know all of this before the five-minute mark, but none of it tells us about the man himself. Are we to supply the rest? Viewers in 1910 would have known about Frankenstein’s arrogance and obsessive nature from Shelley’s book. Today’s viewers might add elements of Colin Clive’s 1931 mad scientist. But this is all the silent film tells us:

Instead of a perfect human being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.

This intertitle leads to the creation scene—a remarkable bit of special-effects that still works today (imagine tender meat falling on, rather than off, the bone). Upon being born, the Monster immediately attacks Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), who faints upon his bed. The Monster then hovers over him for a moment, looking like a bad dream that’s still being dreamt.

Does the simultaneous appearance of Frankenstein and the Monster confirm that the Monster exists? All we know is that it has been created by ‘the evil in Frankenstein’s mind.’ This could mean (a) the Monster is a by-product Frankenstein’s evil nature, i.e. a dream, hallucination or split personality, or (b) Frankenstein’s evilness prompted him to build a being of flesh and blood. Without proof to the contrary, most viewers will assume (b).

But the matter proves very tricky. This Frankenstein has no Igor to help him—he works alone, and other than one, dubious exception, he is the only character who sees the Monster. We viewers see him all the time, of course. We witness the Monster following his creator home, confronting him in otherwise empty rooms, then hiding behind curtains when other characters appear. We are the only ones who see the Monster alone, as when he recoils before his own image in a full-length mirror.

Shelley left no doubt that her Monster was a fully independent, living thing. But consider the subtext of the 1910 film’s scenes involving Frankenstein, the Monster, and Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). At home, away from the lab, in the gentle arms of his wife-to-be, Frankenstein seems at peace. However, the moment Elizabeth leaves the room, the Monster appears, and Frankenstein is again angst-ridden. When she returns, the Monster is out of view, and we read this intertitle:

On the bridal night, Frankenstein’s better nature asserting itself.

How are we to interpret this? We see the wedding guests departing the home, leaving only the new husband and wife. They embrace happily, and she precedes him to the bedroom (off-screen). He pauses, then walks off-screen in the opposite direction. The Monster now appears and skulks into the bedroom. Frankenstein returns and is nearly knocked down by the terrified Elizabeth as she flees the bedroom. She faints; Frankenstein and the Monster briefly struggle over her prone body. The Monster escapes.

Elizabeth, it seems, has seen a Monster on her wedding night.

The last intertitle reads:

The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears.

Fleeing his creator, the Monster tries to hide in the room with the mirror. He is again horrified by his own appearance, but this time, he doesn’t shy from it. The Monster then disappears, but his reflection remains, as Frankenstein now enters the room. For a moment, Frankenstein’s reflection is the Monster’s, not his own. Only when the reflection of Frankenstein matches the man himself does Elizabeth appear and embrace him again.


As different as Shelley’s novel is from the 1931 version of Frankenstein, they share an assumption that the Monster is real. The novel’s Monster embodies Frankenstein’s arrogance and folly—his flaws literally come back to haunt him. The 1931 film has the Monster interact with (and kill) so many people that his physical presence is undoubted. Only the silent version approaches it as pure abstraction. The Monster is lust.

Where to find Frankenstein:
This is a story in its own right. All copies of the film were thought lost until one showed up in the hands of a private collector, Alois F. Dettlaff. Dettlaff was a strange man and kept a tight grip on his find. As a result, it was rarely seen in his lifetime and probably suffered deterioration that an expert restorer could have prevented. Fortunately for you, the entire movie is available here:

and on YouTube:

For a good summary of Detlaff’s relationship to Frankenstein, read this obituary:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Double Bill: The Dark Knight and The Ten Commandments

The Dark Knight: an action picture about philosophy and guilt. Deep down, we're fascinated by Batman, Harvey Dent and the Joker because they are blunt instruments, driven by rigid value systems and a shared need to impress those systems upon society. Obsession feeds on the insides of these men, swelling up as their outsides grow thin and cracked around it. They are unholy, or at least unwhole--and all are victims of the past.
The Ten Commandments goes deep, too. Cecil B. DeMille's first crack at the tale of Exodus begins with Moses already old and resolute. Opposing his destiny is the Pharoah, whose position seems no less reasonable than Moses' own. DeMille then shifts to the 1920s, telling the story of two brothers: Dan, a venal and charismatic architect, and John, a narrow minded but principled carpenter. As Dan's wealth and fame grow, his personal battles with John take on public significance. The only thing that keeps them together is their bible-thumping mother, and she's a fanatic.
Harvey and Bruce face a man without conscience; Dan and John face a woman with too much. The results are the same.