Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Accident (1912)

Merry Christmas! If your heart-cup happens to be overflowing with holiday spirit right now, perhaps you can do me a favor. I can't find a single image online for A Christmas Accident. If you have one, let me know. This post would really benefit from a few visuals specific to the film. In the mean time, you can see the whole thing (all 15 minutes of it) here.


Christmas-themed silent films are always about death. It’s implicit in everything they celebrate: family, hearth and home; the bond between parents and children. We watch these films, from a distance of a century, and wonder how much of what they depict would be gone, were it all real. The house, maybe. The gifts, probably. The people, for sure. All of them, even the tiniest children, gleefully opening presents. But of course, the people—the actors—really are dead. It’s difficult to forget this.

Maybe, if I didn’t take this morbid approach, I wouldn’t find A Christmas Accident so creepy. There’s an undertone to this little film so grim it has stayed with me for years; yet, with one exception, there is nothing in the plot itself that could be called dark. It’s a simple story of a miser’s redemption, facilitated by a little girl, pure of heart. No one (no person, anyway), dies. The ending is happy. So it must be me.

But still, there is strangeness here. Imagery and compositional choices meant, I think, to tweak things embedded deep in our brains, things stretching further back in our collective memory than Victorian stories do.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Wildcat (1921)

Everything in Fort Tossenstein looks like fondant. Furnishings, lintels, standalone statues—the snowbound base’s interior details are broad and bulbous, wavy and swooping, conveying shapes but not convincing you of them; they’re decorative, but not practical. Were a character to break off a piece of a coffee table and eat it, you’d not be surprised.

That doesn’t happen in The Wildcat, but it could have. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1921 effort is a piece of comic hyperactivity, unconstrained by plot or much else. It is not a sophisticated film, and would be offended to be so accused. Main characters Alexis and Rischka, and Alexis’ would-be father-in-law, the pompous Bavarian stereotype who commands the Fort, have only the simplest motivations. What matters here is what they do, not why.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)

I didn’t plan on writing another post so soon, having just finished a weighty one two days ago. But I can’t let a weekend slip by without telling you about Max Linder. It’s my obligation.

You may know the name. Linder was a Frenchman; a stage comic who entered motion pictures before 1910, becoming a director, screenwriter and big, big star. He established the model his successors would follow: a stock character, distinctively his own, returning in film after film.

Linder’s “Max” is typically well-off. He’s inventive and clever, though not always practical. He drinks and womanizes. He makes his own messes, and arguably, his greatest single skill is getting out of them. It’s our pleasure to watch him do this. Linder was, to quote Charlie Chaplin, “the master.”

The master didn’t make many feature films. Linder’s life, which ended in 1925, was terribly tragic—not least because he died in the middle of the greatest decade in the history of filmed comedy. Max would have made it greater. I’ve written that Roscoe Arbuckle, had he been allowed to continue working, would have been silent comedy’s “fourth genius,” alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd; after watching Seven Years Bad Luck, I think Linder could have been the fifth.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blind Husbands (1919)

Here’s a movie that begins with a loaded question. The kind that starts arguments:

“Guilty! says the world condemning the “other man”…

…But what of the husband?”

Indeed. Few victims earn easier pity than cheated-on spouses, unless they’re abusive. But Blind Husbands, an interesting film in many ways, suggests that emotional neglect can be abusive too. Can a husband, if he puts work before wife, rightfully lose her loyalty?

Margaret Armstrong, the tempted wife in the film, is paralyzed by her profound sadness, something director and star Erich von Stroheim exploits gorgeously. Francelia Billington plays the lovely, lonely doctor’s bride; Von Stroheim is Von Steuben, a predatory Austrian lieutenant at the same Alpine lodge; while Sam De Grasse is the workaholic husband, Dr. Robert Armstrong. Dr. Robert, a noble figure when it comes to his duties, is guilty of no crime here except inattention.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Les Vampires (1915 to 1916)

This is a post I should’ve written two days ago, when I had more time. On Friday the floor was cleaner, and could’ve waited. Today, in an hour, I’ll have to stop and vacuum it. I’ve been stalling, and where’d it get me?

I didn’t like Les Vampires at all. When I finished it, late last week, splitting the hour-long last episode into two 30-minute halves so as not to find it so tedious, I already knew the whole thing wasn’t for me. I didn’t expect the finale to save it, and the finale did not. But since then, I’ve tried to ponder what makes this ten-part serial so well-liked by so many. For indeed, there are many who find it wonderful.

It’s the subject matter itself that thrills them. That’s my take. For if I tell you what Les Vampires is about, you will want to see it. If I tell you how Les Vampires is about it, you may not.