Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Ten Commandments (1923)

In 1956, Cecil B. De Mille filmed The Ten Commandments and established Charlton Heston as cinema’s definitive Moses. He’s an attractive figure even today: Tall, broad-shouldered, stoic; his every phrase authoritative because every one of them carries the weight of Scripture and he knows it. Decked in robes, arms outstretched, one hand holding a staff, the other an open palm—this is a Moses we can get behind.

Heston wasn’t the screen’s first Moses, though. He wasn’t even De Mille’s first. Years before, the director gave us a very different Ten Commandments with a very different Moses—a silent-era Moses, wild-eyed, ferocious, and unkempt. This first film doesn’t stop to ask where Moses (Theodore Roberts) came from, or remind us of his relationship to Pharaoh, here depicted as a lovely, almost porcelain figure with eyes fixed on the distance. This Moses is an adult, already a leader; a man who, as the film opens, has already leveled nine of the ten plagues upon the Egyptians, apparently to no effect. His final plague, which he promises without remorse, takes Pharaoh’s son along with the first-born of every other Egyptian. Pharaoh lets his people go. The Jews are desert-bound before The Ten Commandments reaches the 20-minute mark.

The first half of The Ten Commandments is all spectacle, almost relentlessly so. The walls of De Mille’s Egyptian city are high and thick and looming; his crowds are hundreds-strong and his desert (actually California’s Nipomo Dunes) adds a vastness to the Israelite’s journey that no matte painting ever could. His intertitles are a mix of Biblical quotes and pronouncements that sound vaguely biblical, all in a font reminiscent of Hebrew script. They are prescriptive, in a way that builds anticipation for the sights to come: “And the pillar of fire went from before their face and stood behind them,” for example, and then a wall of fire indeed rises between the Egyptians and the fleeing Israelites. Other sights amaze with their sheer weirdness and scale. De Mille’s first parting of the Red Sea looks like a tiny crowd marching between two giant, quivering walls of Jell-O (which is more or less what it was). The veneration of the golden calf is a sex party terminating in a massacre. And Moses atop Mount Sinai beats it all: Here the voice of God is depicted through ten huge explosions in the sky; after each fireball, the words of a commandment. Imagine “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” hovering in glittering, star-spangled letters above your head. Moses, clinging to the cliff face, looking like a deranged Santa Claus, hacks God’s Word into the rock.

There’s a Vegas-feel to this sermon, but De Mille was always a showman. And because of that, The Ten Commandments is one of the quickest-moving, best-looking silent epics around today. If it lacks the succulence and artistry of something D.W Griffith would have produced, so too does it have the vigor and magic that Griffith too often ignored in favour of more preaching. The first half of The Ten Commandments is a film modern movie goers can enjoy without resorting to sympathy. Which makes things doubly interesting when, at about the hour-mark, it becomes a totally different flick.

From the remnants of the Golden Calf and the strewn of bodies of its worshippers we fade, suddenly, to a home in modern America. A little old lady closes her massive bible with solemnity, her daily story done. To one side of her sits her son, the stern young carpenter John McTavish (Richard Dix); to the other side her other son, Dan (Rod La Rocque), whose occupation isn’t clear. This little family, plus a pretty drifter named Mary whom Dan will find and eventually wed, form the nucleus of a modern parable: the second half of The Ten Commandments.

De Mille redraws his lines of conflict clear and quick. Dan is a charming rogue; a cocky atheist who thumbs his nose at his mother’s rigid faith, to her disgust. He sees the Ten Commandments as a brake on ambition; he encourages his stoic brother to do the same, but John prefers hard work to clever angles, and stands firm. John’s weakness is Mary (Leatrice Joy), whom he loves despite her party-girl philosophy, and whom he loses to his more charismatic brother. With Mary by his side, Dan makes a swift but crooked rise to the top, becoming the city’s most sought-after contractor; even landing a contract to build a cathedral. He thinks nothing of building his house of God from a lean mix: one of cement to twelve of sand and rock—the film calls it ‘rotten concrete.’

Dan must fall; we know it. But to the credit of the actors, and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, The Ten Commandments never devolves into the preachy morality play it could have been—after the borderline-action film that formed its first half, such a drop in tone would’ve been devastating. La Rocque’s Dan is flawed but likeable; we learn who he is not through a set of intertitles condemning the man, but through Mary’s looks—she falls for him immediately—and through John, who can’t help but grin even when he disapproves of Dan’s boldness. Yes, things get heavy later, but these three people love one another, and that love precedes all judgment.

Dan’s villainy is also tempered by Mother McTavish (Edythe Chapman), who’s presented as a decent but overpious prude with no sense of fun. John chides her more than once about her use of Scripture as a weapon: “there’s nothing anywhere in that Book against having a little wholesome fun on a Sunday,” he declares, after she smashes a jazz record. Would Dan have rebelled if his mother hadn’t made God something to fear, rather than love? The movie insists that we ask this, even as Dan’s cathedral, and wider world, collapse around him.

It wouldn’t be De Mille without a little more over-the-top. Recalling the venality of the Golden Calf sequence in Part One, Part Two introduces us to Sally Lung (Nita Naldi), a half-Chinese, half-French intoxicant who emerges from a bale of jute en route through a leper colony. A Theda Bara-type, Sally seems more comedic than sexy today, but at least she looks convincingly mixed-race. She’s also the centerpiece for one of De Mille’s best shots, involving a torn curtain and several spoilers.

The Ten Commandments is really two films, either of which could stand alone and be hailed. That they’re placed together begs a question: If a healthy faith is one balancing reverence with good humour; piety with practicality; honesty with compromise, then what of De Mille’s Moses in Part One? Is this Moses a man loved or feared by his people? He’s so intractable; so explosive-tempered and inflexible. He calls down such a wrath upon them. Are they so hopeless that they must die for their fear? Maybe so. But maybe he’d have smashed a jazz record, if he'd heard one.

Where to find The Ten Commandments:
The Ten Commandments is available on disc three of Paramount’s The Ten Commandments 50th Anniversary Collection. The 1956 version is obviously the focus of this set, but Yul Brynner’s performance aside, the silent film trumps it in every way.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

30 Second Review: Intolerance

Top Star Mae Marsh       Date 1913      Category Drama

The Story
An epic history of people terminated with—and by—extreme prejudice.

The Verdict
Huge, but a behemoth with heart.

Best Scene
Given Griffith’s overall body of work, it’s ironic that Babylon—a venal sin-pit—receives the best of his attention. In the scene leading to the great battle, you’ll see a different D.W.; one willing to film erotic footage of writhing priestesses amid other opulencies. Some parts of Babylon are downright steamy and it’s too bad he didn’t film more of this adult (in the best sense of the word) material. He might have stayed on top a while longer.

For the full-length Silent Volume article, click HERE.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Dream (1911)

Rare was the Mary Pickford film where Mary gave less than she got. Rare was the lout, thief, or cheat who did her wrong and stayed intact. Those mournful looks, that tiny body—they might bolster a bully’s confidence, but not for long. He’d soon find out what he’d awoken. And the result would be all his fault. This is an insight that Pickford’s husband in The Dream has forced himself to forget.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do or Do Not... There is No Try.

Many sci-fi fans love silent film--maybe because some of today's most popular, accessible silent films belong to the Science Fiction genre, or its sister-genres of high-geekery: Horror and Fantasy. Silents certainly provide the sort of weird imagery that pleases such fans, though it's not quite so weird as some of them think. More on that in a moment. I'm a sci-fi fan myself--not the convention-going type, but still a fan--and I love those images too.

Here's something for the silent-film-fan and science-fiction-fan alike. It's the famed Cloud City duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, culminating with Vader's revelation that he is (SPOILER) Luke Skywalker's dad.

This little film is one of many on YouTube, proving there's a renewed appetite for the silent aesthetic, even if it is through parody. That pleases me much. I particularly dig the Imperial logo on the intertitles and the convincingly-faked high contrast.

But then again, why the high contrast in the first place? Why the blurry images, when many silent films survive in pristine condition even today? Last night I watched a 100-year-old Mary Pickford film so clean it could have been made last week. LOTS of silent films look as good or better than films made in the Sound Era, yet the stereotype persists that they're foggy, dim or over-lit, torn and jumpy. For many people--even those who love these films enough to pay them homage or employ them for parody--the 'damaged look' is part of that aesthetic, rather than a barrier to its appreciation. They mean well, I guess.

One other thing: no real silent film would transcribe the dialogue of this scene so thoroughly. Luke's expression makes "No, that's not true! That's impossible!" superfluous--and that goes double for "HaaaaAAAAaaahh!" I know it's funnier that way, because we know the source material so well, but it's not true to the medium.

Artists, keep the parodies coming. I'm grateful to you. Just--please?--know your material a little better.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Modern Times joins the Criterion Collection

Modern Times is easy to find on video, but no one gussies up a classic quite like Criterion, right? Here's what you'll be buying, alongside the masterpiece itself:

Disc Features
•New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition

•New audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson
•Two new visual essays, by Chaplin historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
•New program on the film’s visual and sound effects, with experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
•Interview from 1992 with Modern Times music arranger David Raksin
•Chaplin Today: “Modern Times” (2004), a half-hour program with filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
•Two segments removed from the film
•Three theatrical trailers
All at Sea (1933), a home movie by Alistair Cooke featuring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and Cooke, plus a new score by Donald Sosin and a new interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge
The Rink (1916), a Chaplin two-reeler highlighting his skill on wheels
For the First Time (1967), a Cuban documentary short about a projectionist who shows Modern Times to first-time moviegoers

•PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Saul Austerlitz and a piece by film scholar Lisa Stein that includes excerpts from Chaplin’s writing about his travels in 1931 and 1932 


Chaplin's Depression-era tale of men, machines and Paulette Goddard is available for preorder today. While you're waiting for the mailman to arrive, re-read my Silent Volume post on Modern Times then ponder the connection between the Tramp and Alex DeLarge.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

If you're in Toronto...

...tomorrow night is a great night for free screenings of silent films, courtesy the Toronto Entertainment District Business Improvement Area (BIA). Keaton, Pickford, Arbuckle, Maddin... even I will be there. Here's the link.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Bat (1926)

In a wealthy American suburb, where the women wear pearls on a quiet evening and the men smoke pipes while pondering things, and the houses look like miniatures both rustic and opulent, a killer skulks.

He (if it is a ‘he’) wears a grotesque mask over his face, complete with snout, teeth and wide ears. His coat is long and black, concealing pistols and rope and hooks for climbing walls and jimmying windows. He may be able to fly, and if he can’t, there’s some very large bats bobbing in the night sky above the homes and businesses he robs. We see these little details from the beginning of The Bat, but the police do not—they arrive on the scene just as The Bat’s gloved hand recedes from view, leaving a socialite bent over the windowpane with a broken neck. The police chief, pinching a bat-shaped paper calling-card between his fingers, can do nothing but vow:

“I’ll send ‘The Bat’ to the chair, if it’s the last thing I do!”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Rescue the Hitchcock 9"

That would make a good movie title.

Nine of Hitchcock's silent films survive, and the British Film Institute (BFI) wants to restore them. In fact, several are available on DVD already, which the clip below doesn't mention, but having never seen them, I can't judge the quality of those prints. Spare a pound for film history, mate: 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Red Dead Redemption: Another Place to Find Modern Silent Films

If you're a gamer, you're probably all over Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games' latest console-based blockbuster. Redemption is an 'open world action-adventure game' (says Wiki), set in 1911, in the waning days of the Old West. Players control a gunslinger named John Marston, who must track down his former outlaw gang-members.

The game is apparently terrific, but someone else can blog about that. What interests me are the two silent films that Rockstar has added to it--mostly for colour, I've been told, but sometimes it's the little touches that make the difference. Both are cartoons, and both are on YouTube, which means they can be here, too:

Quick impressions? An animator in 1911 would have given his non-dominant hand to produce a cartoon that moved this smoothly. Rockstar's brand of humour also seems a bit edgy for the period, but if you know more about early animation than I do, feel free to enlighten me otherwise. My last complaint: the arch wording of the intertitles seems more like what modern gamers think people of the 1910s sounded like than what silent film intertitles from that period actually say. But something is certainly better than nothing, and if Rockstar Games inspires a few players to delve deeper into the silent artform, good for them.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Conquest of the Pole (1912)

Conquest of the Pole is bonkers, like most things Georges Méliès filmed in his near-20-year career. It may also be his most complex work. But it has a tragic tone, at least if you know its place in the master's canon. Only a year after it debuted, Méliès was finished. Bankrupted. The victim of pirates less fantastical than his films would have made them. Conquest of the Pole was one of his last major achievements.

Consider it, then, to be a glimpse into a possible future: one in which a genius—whose unique skills brought him from the dawn of his artform to the brink of its next evolutionary step; from the Nickelodeon era to the beginnings of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin—might have either progressed, or dissipated. Could this man of the theatre, this magician, have embraced a medium that had grown up? Conquest offers clues.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Silent Volume's Facebook Page

A friendly Friday reminder that Silent Volume has a new Facebook page. Any and all of you are welcome to join. I won't be adding a static link to it here on the blog, since that's a banquet for the clutter-monster. But please have a look anyway. It's the happenest silent-film-page loading.

And I do love to be 'Liked.'

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Oliver Twist (1922)

Oliver Twist is well shot and well paced; the work of a director, Frank Lloyd, confident in his art, his cast, and his source material; a model, really, for adapting great work without being enslaved by its reputation. It is unlike so many silent films based on books, which acknowledge and lionize their source (often in the film!) then deliver their take on it almost apologetically. The orphan’s hardships are all here in Oliver Twist, but condensed. Intertitles are rare, despite the temptations of Dickensian prose. It demands to be judged on it own terms.