Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)

Based on a hit stage play. Rich, useless Alfred Butler goes on a ludicrously well-outfitted camping trip with his valet and meets a beautiful mountain girl. But he can’t marry her without impressing her father and brother, strong wilderness men. Fortunately Alfred shares a name with an up-and-coming lightweight boxer, so they pretend that he’s “Battling” Butler, and he marries the girl. He’s off to the boxer’s training camp to keep up the charade, and Keaton goes from fake-training to real-training when the other Butler swaps roles with him, leaving Keaton to face the Alabama Murderer for the championship. But the boxer returns, wins the fight then gets plastered by Keaton in the dressing room after being a huge asshole to everyone.

Happy ending:

Battling B with Keaton’s valet:

The Haunted House (1921)

Crooks have a foolproof plan to avoid capture: make their hideaway into a haunted house. But first: Keaton and Big Joe Roberts are bank clerks, and Joe’s men are planning a heist. Keaton foils the holdup through incompetence, having spilled glue on all the money. Mistaken for a criminal, the cops are after him, and an angry audience is after the cast of a nearby stage performance of Faust – all end up at the house, with Big Joe’s thieves donning ghost costumes and pulling levers to turn the stairs into a ramp (which would be frustrating but not exactly scary). Keaton again foils the robbers and gets the girl (I forgot to mention there was a girl). Also Keaton gets konked on the head and goes to heaven then hell. And it’s only a twenty minute movie.

And this happens:

with Virginia Fox of The Love Nest, The Playhouse, Neighbors, etc.

The Frozen North (1922)

Keaton falls asleep during a movie and imagines himself in the sort of town where Chaplin would lose and then get the girl in The Gold Rush. A weird short which makes little sense, with Keaton as the bad guy: opens with him holding up a casino before he shoots a neighbor couple to death as a gag. He loses another girl, shacks up in Big Joe’s igloo, goes snowshoeing and ice fishing (what else can you do in the frozen north?) then gets shot going after that girl again. Apparently a parody of western director William S. Hart’s films – Keaton was feuding with Hart over the Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

Keaton emotes:

And turns into Erich von Stroheim:

Janitor Eddie Cline:

Queen Kelly (1928, Erich von Stroheim)

Evil, decadent Queen Regina V (Seena Owen, doomed queen of Babylon in Intolerance) is engaged to wolfish Prince Wolfram, but he falls for convent orphan Gloria Swanson whose pants have fallen down. I am not making this up. They go on for twenty minutes about her pants falling down, which is a pretty big deal in an hour and forty minute movie. Anyway the queen decides to punish Wolfram by moving up their wedding to the next day. And Wolfram plays a hilarious prank, breaking into the convent, setting it on fire to flush out his beloved, then kidnapping her. This doesn’t end well for either of them when the queen finds out. Wolfram is imprisoned (I like that he receives visitors in “solitary confinement”) and Gloria jumps into the river, killing herself, the end.

Queen:

Kelly:

But that’s only the end because Stroheim was fired from what was meant to be a five-hour film, so producer Swanson wrapped it up quickly and shipped to theaters. The DVD contains a couple reels of what was shot next, after Gloria was supposed to be saved from drowning in the river: some crazy scenes in an African brothel where Gloria is forced to marry the brilliantly grotesque Tully Marshall (Intolerance‘s High Priest who deposes the queen). The movie pops to life here, turns from a stodgy old costume drama with a few exciting shots into a sleazy melodrama with only exciting shots.

Wolfram, receiving bad news:

Kelly hanging over the river, remembering everyone laughing at her (left) as the queen (right) chased her from the palace with a whip.

Silent movies can get tiresome when they have too many intertitles, each of which lasts too long. Definitely the case here. Produced by Swanson and Joe “JFK’s dad” Kennedy, and supposedly sunk by clash of personalities, increase in Hollywood censorship, and the advent of talkies. I didn’t feel like watching the thousand minutes of extra features today, so I read the Senses of Cinema article instead.

Tully/Jan:

M. Koller:

In the African sequences… the relationship between Regina and Wolfram is mirrored by Jan Vooyheid and Kitty’s loveless, contemptuous marriage. As with Regina’s introduction at the beginning of the film, Stroheim uses a series of vignettes to summarise Jan’s attributes. Jan (Kitty’s benefactor) can also be seen as the degenerate extrapolation of an unredeemed Wolfram; old, ugly, and crippled by syphilis, he is a violent, disrespectful, gambling, whoring drunk.

Buy from Amazon:
Queen Kelly DVD

Foolish Wives (1922, Erich von Stroheim)

Crazy movie featuring an extremely evil Stroheim in league with two fake princesses, Olga (Stroheim regular Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch, desireable pickpocket of The Unholy Three). They’re introduced in Monte Carlo being shitty to the maid, then the girls meet the counterfeiter (Cesare Gravina, the junkman in Greed) from whom they buy their false fortune while Stroheim tries to hit on the guy’s not-quite-right daughter.


Oops, I forgot which is which.

On to the main plot: a couple of important American diplomats are in town, and the wicked trio plots to befriend them in order to ensure their own status among the suspicious locals. Or that’s what the plot was supposed to be, but soon Stroheim goes full-on Blind Husbands trying to seduce the wife (and later rob her, after she wins a fortune at the casino).

EvS picks up Mrs. Hughes at the palace, getting himself introduced himself by paying somebody to page him, then takes the couple out shooting to show off, and soon enough takes her alone for a walk and gets “accidentally” lost in a storm, having to spend the night in a cabin. Fortunately for Mrs. Hughes, a monk comes along and gives EvS the stinkeye just as he was about to rape her in her sleep.

Meanwhile, EvS is also defrauding his own maid, getting her to hand over her life savings while promising to marry her. And diplomat Andrew Hughes is suspiciously keeping his back turned to camera in most of his scenes, because the actor died in the middle of production. It’s funny that Stroheim was obsessed with accuracy, dressing sets the camera would never see, using real caviar and buying silk underpants for all the actors, but when a main character died he just worked around that.

fake Monte Carlo:

All this deception catches up with the fake royalty. The cops bust the women, but EvS gives himself a more dramatic ending. The maid (Dale Fuller, also played crazy in Greed) sees EvS trying to seduce Mrs. Hughes so locks them both in the house and sets it aflame before throwing herself into the sea. Stroheim thinks he’s escaped a public scandal after jumping from the burning balcony first and leaving poor Mrs. Hughes to defend for herself, but her blind husband finally catches onto EvS’s game and knocks him down in public. Stroheim thinks of one last woman he can try to destroy and runs to the counterfeiter’s house (actually I think this was a different man), where he’s stabbed to death then dropped down a manhole.

The maid goes crazy:

I watched the first two thirds with Kino’s generic music before remembering that I control my own destiny and turning on the ol’ standby for silent movies, John Zorn’s Filmworks Anthology, which worked brilliantly as it always does.

A few seconds after Stroheim’s character is introduced, he fires a gun straight into the camera, making sure he’s immediately recognized as a villain (though he’s smiling a second later).

Mrs. Hughes spends the whole movie reading a novel: Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim

My favorite subplot: Mrs. Hughes is offended by a porter (played by silent star Harrison Ford) who never picks up the stuff that she drops, until one night she sees his cloak fallen at his feet and realizes he has no hands.

Also watched a Stroheim doc on the disc. I guess no Stroheim “director’s cut” exists of any of his films. It doesn’t get into the details of cuts made to them, but Blind Husbands title was forcibly changed from The Pinnacle, The Devil’s Passkey is lost (reviewers said it was better than Blind Husbands), Greed was drastically cut, Foolish Wives became “a national scandal,” he was fired from Merry-Go-Round, Merry Widow was a big hit, Wedding March was shut down in middle of filming then cobbled together for release, Queen Kelly also shut down/fired, and Walking Down Broadway was recut into Hello, Sister! after a disastrous premiere. It also says that Stroheim declined both roles offered him for Grand Illusion, then invented the idea that they’d be the same man (before and after getting injured) in order to give himself a larger part.

Buy from Amazon:
Foolish Wives DVD

Midnight In Paris (2011, Woody Allen)

Valentine’s Day screening with Katy (who liked it more than I did, but has issues with Owen Wilson) ends my 8-year ban on Woody’s new films since his Melinda & Melinda was so awful. Owen is about to marry irredeemably bitchy Rachel McAdams (potentially of the next Terrence Malick movie), so they’re vacationing in Paris with her condescending/republican parents (Kurt Fuller: Karl Rove in That’s My Bush! and Mimi Kennedy: the anti-war diplomat trying to wrestle into the war meeting of In The Loop, also of the Mr. Boogedy movies).

Owen is an annoyingly self-effacing frustrated novelist (but not so self-effacing that he doesn’t push people he’s just met into reading his manuscript) and a lover of old-fashioned things. At the titular magic hour/location he finds himself in his ideal 1920′s, mingling with Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill: Scott Pilgrim‘s girlfriend), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, wonderful), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and fifty others. Each time Owen manages to stammer out their name and indicate that it’s an honor to meet them, then the famous character gets a couple lines before we’re whisked away to another famous character. Owen also meets non-famous Marion Cotillard, who dreams of an even earlier time, and then that ol’ Paris magic whisks her and Owen back to a pub in the 1880′s or 90′s where she meets her own art heroes (Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas) – who dream of an even earlier golden age. This was my favorite bit, where the movie seems to mock Owen and its own nostalgic premise. Marion opts to stay in her ideal past, but Owen returns to his present, dumps his wife (she was sleeping with Michael Sheen anyway), and picks up tour guide Lea Seydoux (baddie who shoots Paula Patton’s boyfriend in Mission Impossible 4).

Buy from Amazon:
Midnight in Paris DVD

Three Ages (1923, Buster Keaton)

I watched this again after seeing Intolerance and realizing this was a parody. I didn’t love it the first time – maybe my least-loved of all Keaton’s features, so thought I need to give it another shot. Well, I still don’t love it but it’s got some good scenes.

Love triangle:

Three time periods – modern, roman and caveman (with stop-motion dinosaurs) – featuring the same cast: Buster wants The Girl (Margaret Leahy, who won the role in a beauty contest), but she’s grabbed away by Wallace Beery (best known as the star of Barton Fink‘s unfilmed wrestling picture). The Girl’s parents (Lillian Lawrence and Keaton’s longtime anatagonist Joe Roberts) prefer Beery, but Keaton’s tenacity and stunt-survival skills win the girl’s hand in the end.

Her parents:

Best bits: Keaton jumping from one building to another and missing (an actual stunt-gone-wrong), his car falls apart while he’s driving it, Buster’s rival plans to pummel him during a football game – come to think of it, all my favorite parts are from the modern segment. The cave era is all downhill after the animated dinosaur. Roman spends too much time with a man in a lion costume, and has a classic bit of racism when all the negro servants come running when they see Buster throwing dice.

Buy from Amazon:
Three Ages DVD

The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)

The story is a heavy-handed melodrama, but the filmmaking is light and fun with a surprisingly mobile camera. It goes down a slide at the fair! Shot by Henry Sharp (Ministry of Fear). Wow, this had a sequel in the sound era called My Daily Bread (the only other Vidor movie I’ve seen, though I don’t remember it).

Johnny is born on the 4th of July, 1900, is given every opportunity by his parents, has a big future ahead of him – but his dad dies when he’s twelve. Camera at the top of the stairs with the doctor, fifty neighbors gathered below, Johnny steps out from the crowd and walks upstairs towards the camera, almost in 3D.

John moves to New York City, gets a job as one of Jack Lemmon’s office-mates in The Apartment, a menial accountant but still studying at night because he’s gonna be someone big.

He meets a girl named Mary at Coney Island – they get hitched immediately

The couple heads out towards Niagara Falls aboard a train. You don’t see many 1920′s movies that address the pre-wedding-night virginal jitters. Apparently I’m the only one who noticed, since all the IMDB trivia items focus instead on a toilet visible in the couple’s apartment.

Honeymoon’s over – John and Mary bicker about every little thing. Her condescending family comes to visit on Christmas eve, so John ducks out and goes dancing at his coworker Bert’s place. During one blow-up fight Mary reveals that she’s pregnant, and her husband gets all emotional and promises to be a better man.

Crabby in-laws:

John gets a slight raise, while Bert gets a major promotion. He wins $500 from a slogan contest (after this and Christmas In July, I figure slogan contests used to be a major source of income for Americans) but their second child is killed by a truck.

John having number problems:

“The crowd laughs with you always, but it will cry with you for only a day.” Depressed and anxious, John quits his job, almost kills himself while taking junior for a walk, but is re-determined to support his family, gets a menial new job. They go to the movies and the camera pulls out, losing John in the laughing crowd.

The movie stars James Murray, whose career took off with this picture until he turned drunk/homeless/suicide after a few years, and Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s wife and star of Souls for Sale and Borzage’s The Circle. John’s friend/boss Bert is Bert Roach, an original Keystone Cop. This was the movie beaten by Sunrise for the first “artistic” best picture oscar, Vidor beaten by Borzage (for Seventh Heaven) for the first best director.

The Haunted Castle (1921, FW Murnau)

A silly-ass mystery film with little of the grand style of Murnau’s later films. Also: the castle isn’t haunted, and it’s not a scary movie, and Kino knew that when they gave it that goth-expressionist cover art. All was forgiven when Julius Falkenstein of The Oyster Princess showed up, got scared and had a Nosferatu-prefiguring dream sequence.

D. Cairns already gave a terrific write-up of this movie last month, so there’s little I can add, except that the story revolves partly around a fake beard that I spotted the moment I saw it (then a close-up revealing the character’s “bald” head to be a cap confirmed that even in the film’s reality, this is a fake beard).

Plot concerns a count named Oetsch who comes uninvited to a hunting party at the Vogeloed castle, sits stewing in the corner while everyone gossips about how he murdered his brother the baron a couple years’ back. The brother’s widow, now remarried, is an invited guest, mostly stays in her room avoiding the count. Meanwhile a priest (the count with the fake beard) wanders about then disappears. Somehow this all makes the baroness’s new husband admit his guilt in the ex-husband-slaying, letting the count off the hook.

Buy from Amazon:
The Haunted Castle DVD

The Phantom Carriage (1921, Victor Sjöström)

Just before midnight of the new year, a salvation army sister named Edith, “stricken with galloping consumption,” sends for David Holm. Meanwhile across town, Holm (played by the director) gets in a fight with his fellow drunks and is killed. Many flashbacks ensue, including one inside another – the second movie I watched this month where that happens.

Firstly, the last person of the year to die must serve Death driving the phantom carriage for the next year – and time moves slowly after death so one night driving the carriage can seem like a year. So said Holm’s drinking buddy George just over a year ago (the movie points out that George knows such things because he went to college), and now George drives the carriage, passing the reins to Holm.

L-R: David Holm, David Holm, George:

Also a year ago, Edith opened her salvation army branch. Holm was her first guest, and she prayed he’d have a good year, asked him to return next new year’s eve. She stayed up all night patching his disease-ridden coat, catching the tuberculosis that would kill her. He stands up the next morning and tears out all the patches in front of her. So it’s the story of the most selfless angelic woman and the worst, drunkest, cruelest motherfucker (Holm also chases his wife with an axe Shining-style – commentary says probably inspired by a domestic violence scene in Broken Blossoms). Edith’s life (and death) and the phantom carriage both exist primarily to reform Holm, get him to drop the bottle and come back to his family – sort of a grimier It’s a Wonderful Life, a prohibition morality tale.

The whooshy ambient music seemed nice at first, but was perhaps too ambient. From the commentary: “Few, if any, previous films had been enveloped in the darkness of the night the way this film is” – and – “Sjostrom tends to avoid compositions that look too balanced, often shooting into the corners of rooms rather than straight at a back wall.” I appreciated this, as well as the great editing and unusual storytelling, making the movie seem decades more modern than the 1910′s tableau style. Also good acting and fun superimposition effects, overall a hundred times better than the contemporary Murnau film I watched this week. Also came out the same year as Lang’s similarly effect-heavy death-poem Destiny, the year before Haxan, and thirty-six before The Seventh Seal. Remade by Julien Duvivier after twenty years, and again back in Sweden after another twenty.

Holm’s wife vs. Sister Edith:

P. Mayersberg:

The film is surprisingly disconnected from Swedish Lutheranism. It is closer to Bergman’s demonic Hour of the Wolf than to the religious crisis of Winter Light. David’s sudden conversion at the end is not altogether convincing. He is given a last chance by coming back from the dead to save his wife from poisoning herself and their children out of hopeless desperation. But it isn’t God the Father who intervenes. It is his dead predecessor, coachman Georges, who is touched by David’s loving wife and the devoted Edit, who have fought so hard and long to save the man.

Buy from Amazon:
The Phantom Carriage (Criterion Blu-ray)

He Who Gets Slapped (1924, Victor Sjöström)

Opening-day SHOCKtober screening this season is one I’ve been meaning to watch for years for being Shadowplay’s favorite film. Not my favorite, but I appreciated the enjoyably absurd premise, Chaney’s performance (which involves getting slapped), the brilliant optical transitions (a spinning ball -> globe -> circus ring), and of course, murder by lion.

Lon with his wife and benefactor, just before tragedy struck:

Lon Chaney (same year he did Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three) is a brilliant scientist married to sweet Ruth King (in possibly her only surviving film) and sponsored by a wealthy baron (Marc McDermott). Life is good, until McDermott steals Chaney’s ideas and his wife. Chaney is humiliated in front of his peers at a big presentation, slapped by the baron, slapped by his wife, and told to fuck off. Treated like a clown, he joins the circus, becomes an actual clown and creates a hugely successful routine wherein he reenacts his humiliation, getting slapped again and again as he tries to be taken seriously, the other clowns and the crowd roaring laughter at him.

A few years later, attractive young Norma Shearer (The Divorcee) joins the circus, drawing the attention of attractive young John Gilbert (The Merry Widow, The Big Parade) as well as Lon (now, hilariously, only known as “HE”). But slimy old Baron McDermott visits the circus and sees his chance to dump Lon’s wife for a younger girl. He makes a deal with her father to marry Norma, causing HE to take his belated revenge via lion.

Attractive young couple, somewhat overdoing it:

Cairns:

The biggest contortion of credibility is when Chaney confesses his love to Norma Shearer and she thinks he’s joking which, given his performance and the lines we get via intertitle, is impossible to accept as believable in any literal way. Nobody could be that dumb. A modern actor might say the scene is unplayable. But it works, because we get what it’s about (this film is deep but it ain’t exactly subtle, so Chaney even TELLS us what it’s about: “I say serious things and people laugh!”).

The first film MGM released, and the first American picture by Sjöström, lured to Hollywood after the international success of The Phantom Carriage. IMDB suggests a pile of related films – a 1917 Russian version, later Chinese and Argentinian versions, and three 1925 shorts with parody titles.

Transformation:

Buy from Amazon:
He Who Gets Slapped DVD