Some 1920’s and 1930’s Shorts

Ballet Mecanique (1924, Léger & Murphy)

Every camera and editing trick known to man (at the time), in a rhythmic collage of pleasingly odd images. Plucky string music by Paul Mercer on this version.

The women (woman?) of Ballet Mecanique:


Combat de boxe (1927, Charles Dekeukeleire)

Someone allowed a filmmaker to shoot a sold-out boxing match, not knowing Dekeukeleire was a lunatic obsessed with film reversal and superimposition who would shoot anything but a standard angle on the action. Who did the great soundtrack, all pulsing sound effects and breathing? Dekeukeleire was a Belgian film pioneer, made two other influential avant-garde films in the late 1920’s according to wikipedia.

The boxer uses ghost mode:


Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell)

Cornell’s re-edit of East of Borneo, which appears to be a somnambulist jungle picture, highlighting the scenes of star Rose Hobart. Oh wait, he has slowed the film to silent speed, that’s why it looks so dreamy. The not-exactly-fitting-the-mood soundtrack is from a record called Holiday In Brazil.

Cornell’s first film, and his most famous. Reportedly during the premiere screening Salvador Dali attacked the film projector in a rage, claiming the film had been stolen from his dreams. I watched a whole program of Cornell shorts at Eyedrum in the pre-blog era, but hadn’t seen this one before.

Rose chats with a monkey:

B. Frye in Senses of Cinema:

Rose Hobart was only one of several mythologized actresses who populated Cornell’s hermetic world. Many of his boxes were homages to the actresses that formed his pantheon: Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, among others. In Rose Hobart, Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film itself into a sort of box. She moves her hands, shifts her gaze, gestures briefly, smiles enigmatically, perhaps steps slightly to the side, and little more. The world appears as a sort of strange theatre, staged for her alone.


Betty Boop for President (1932, Dave Fleischer)

Okay, what? That is a cynical view of government for the 1930’s. Betty does caricatures of I’m not sure who, and appears to be a communist. Her opponent is Mr. Nobody, who gets booed by his crowd. After she’s elected, her victory parade fades into a giant beer mug, implying the entire film has been a drunken fantasy.


Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933, Dave Fleischer)

Bimbo and Koko are incompetent, cat-tormenting mad scientists obsessed with their next door neighbor Betty. They accidentally create a Chemical Frankenstein who pursues her before being turned into a flower by her perfume. Insane and wonderful. Nice variation on the ol’ blackface Al Jolson gag.

Koko on fire:


Carmen (1933, Lotte Reiniger)

I don’t watch much opera, so don’t know the plot of Carmen. It seems she lures some fancy man to her sexy lair, then steals his clothes and sells them, buying herself a new outfit. But she fails to impress an even fancier man, the famous bullfighter, so she heads into the ring, dodging the first man who is now trying to murder her, and dances with the bull. Is that the general idea? Oh yeah, Wikipedia says that’s pretty much it, except the first man ends up killing her. The first of Reiniger’s silhouette films I’ve seen and it’s just wonderful.


Papageno (1935, Lotte Reiniger)

More opera… guess I never wrote up the Julie Taymor theater version of The Magic Flute we saw last year. It wasn’t a proper Taymor film like Midsummer but a live-televised version of her play. Anyway we both enjoyed. I wouldn’t have figured the carefree singing bird catcher Papageno for a spinoff film, but that’s what we’ve got here, set to the Mozart music. Papageno’s a real hero in this one, fighting off a giant snake that attacks his girlfriend Papagena by harnessing his bird-friends’ powers, like an avian Aquaman. She escapes on an ostrich, is gone for a half minute, which is too long for ‘geno, who attempts suicide, saved by a flock of parrots. Definitely best part is the ending, while the reunited lovers are singing to each other and the birds start rolling in eggs hatching baby Papageni.

Parrots!

There’s a lot of kissing and disrobing in these movies – guess you could get away with sexier stuff in silhouette animation than using actors in the 1930’s.

Making out in the trees:

About to catch an escape-ostrich outta here:

The Last Performance (1929, Pal Fejos)

Conrad Veidt, Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, again plays an intense guy with too much eye makeup, this time as stage magician Erik The Great. He can hardly wait until the young girl he stuffs into boxes and pretends to saw in half turns 18 so he can marry her, but the girl Julie (Mary Philbin, star of Phantom of the Opera, Merry-Go-Round, The Man Who Laughs) doesn’t seem anxious to marry the elder magician.

Dangerous Conrad:

Julie:

Assistant Buffo:

Film Quarterly: “In the course of his act, Eric demonstrates his hypnotic control of his assistant, Julie, and also his power over the audience, in a series of short cuts on his eyes and the faces of the audience, and then swirling images of the city, with Eric’s face looming in superimposition over it all.”

Erik hires a dude named Mark after catching him break into his apartment, as his assistant Buffo’s assistant – so now Erik, Buffo and Mark are all in love with Julie. Buffo (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy, later a director) gets caught mouthing off that Julie doesn’t love Erik, and Mark gets caught sitting on a bench with her (bench-sitting was 1927’s version of sex), and Erik dramatically overacts overreacts, announcing at a fancy dinner that Mark and Julie will marry, as the camera glides over a crowded dinner table in a way I didn’t know could be done back then. Then Erik frames Mark by having him murder Buffo on stage in a box full of swords.

Mark and Julie on the whoring bench, Conrad’s massive shadow over them:

Mark and Julie at trial:

Nothing’s as thrilling as a big courtroom ending, and so Erik and Julie demonstrate how the murder-box was supposed to work in front of a judge. It’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it. But out of nowhere, Erik confesses and kills himself with a knife, leaving Mark and Julie – a thief and an unemployed magician’s assistant – in each other’s arms. I’m being flippant, but it was a good movie, if not Lonesome-caliber. Also released as a part-talkie, but Criterion’s got the silent version. Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot The Jazz Singer the same year, later A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Master of the House (1925, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

No finches were hurt (but it was a close call).

Watched with Katy after episode 2 of The Story of Film (and after Chaplin’s The Circus, since I didn’t want to limit silent cinema viewing to the famous comedians). Pretty straightforward: husband (Johannes Meyer of Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book) has become a tyrant, mistreating his kids, disrespecting his nana (Mathilde Nielsen of The Parson’s Widow), and driving his wife (Astrid Holm, dying woman in The Phantom Carriage) away to her mother’s to recuperate. Now he has to run the house without his wife’s help, learning to appreciate all that she regularly does for the family.

Katy and I haven’t extensively studied the cinema of 1925 so we had little to say, style-wise, and I saw little in common with the later Dreyer films I’ve watched. Mostly it seemed a well-assembled showcase for great performances by the husband and nana. I’d have some nice screenshots of the close-ups if we hadn’t watched it on Hulu… oh wait, here are a couple stolen from the great DVD Beaver site:

Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton)

We managed to watch this despite obstacles (DVD gone missing, Amazon’s lies about runtime). Keaton’s second feature, a vast improvement over his first. Keaton takes a train to brutal, rural America to claim his family estate, which turns out to be a crumbling shack. So instead he focuses on the hot girl who rode the train out west with him (played by Keaton’s wife), but her dad (familiar heavy Joe Roberts) and two brothers are out to kill him because of a century-old family feud.

After a flashback open where Keaton’s dad and Joe Roberts’ brother kill each other, the first half of the movie is mostly the ride out west on a ridiculous wood-fired train said to be based on an actual vehicle. Second half is Keaton, having been invited over by the girl, unable to leave since the men won’t shoot him while he’s a guest in their home. He finally escapes dressed as a woman, then after a mountaintop chase culminating in one of the best stunts in movie history – Keaton swinging on a rope to catch the girl coming over a waterfall – they marry, ending the feud. Watched with Katy as history lesson after the first Story of Film episode, though we mostly forgot to analyze editing and obsess over the 180 degree rule.

Fall of the House of Usher (1928, Jean Epstein)

Everyone in a Poe adaptation is weak, white and willowy, and it’s expected that at least one of them will die of consumptive illness, as did Poe’s own wife, as we learned in the D.W. Griffith bio-pic. Here it’s Usher’s wife (played by Marguerite “wife of Abel” Gance), but not for a while. First, portrait-painting-obsessed Usher (Jean Debucourt, decades later the jeweler in Madame de…) has his “dear and only friend” over for the season, then mostly tends to his paintings (which move and blink) while his wife dies (shades of Dorian Gray).

I love how this silent film portrays music. Everything starts moving in slow-motion until Usher plays his guitar, then his playing is illustrated with quick cutaways to nature shots. Overall lots of camera movement for 1928, with crazy angles and ghostly superimpositions – a slow and moody film. Excellent looking except for the fake castle (in wide shots) and owl.

This is the third House of Usher movie on the blog after the Watson & Webber and the Ken Russell, but the first to tell the Poe story in a way I can follow. IMDB says assistant director Luis Bunuel quit over liberties taken with the adaptation. In the Poe story Madeline is his twin sister instead of his wife, but otherwise doesn’t seem too dissimilar. Epstein made this the year before his amazing Finis Terrae.

Ed Gonzalez in Slant:

The film’s tour-de-force is a hulking funeral procession of overlapping visual textures and animal-like camera movement, a startling vision of metaphysical passage and metamorphosis. With the castle’s dripping candles in ominous tow, the men proceed through land and water toward the netherworld of Usher’s catacombs, with Madeleine’s veil weighing them down like an arm digging into the ground; all the while, an owl keeps ominous watch and two toads get their groove on. Madeleine will not go gently into this sinister night, nor will Usher let her, insisting that her coffin remain unnailed, which, in effect, precipitates a supernatural spill between worlds.

Alloy Orchestra double-feature

I never got to see Alloy Orchestra very often in Atlanta, but apparently both Lincoln and Omaha are on their regular tour schedule. They played different movies (with very different scores) in each city, so I made us watch both. Roger Miller seems very approachable at the merch table, but I have all his records and am therefore afraid of him.

Son of the Sheik (1926, George Fitzmaurice)

Sequel to Valentino’s The Sheik from five years earlier, so the flashbacks to his father as a young man are scenes from that film. Son walks in his doppelganger-father’s footsteps by kidnapping and raping the woman he loves, the same way Sheik met his wife. Son’s girl (Vilma Bánky, also in Valentino’s The Eagle) dances for a nomadic group of entertainers/bandits who are trying to extort and/or murder the Son. Much unconvincing swordplay ensues!

Man with the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

Timely screening, less than two months after Sight & Sound declared this the best documentary of all time. It certainly has one of my favorite silent-movie scores, all driving percussion to fit the unrelenting pace of the film, and we sat right in front of the band for an awesome sensory experience (also because we arrived too late to get seats further away).

Always surprised that this “day in the life of a city” movie opens with the city waking up but ends abruptly without showing it go back to sleep. Probably a “sun never sets on Russia” sort of thing. I realized while looking up Vertov that he invented cinema-verite (his newsreel series Kino-Pravda translates as film-truth), took his moving camera into the streets to film everyday people, and made a film that contains its own behind-the-scenes elements – all forty years before Chronicle of a Summer did these same things.

Sept. 2015: Saw this AGAIN with the Alloy Orchestra, this time at The Ross, at a more reasonable distance from the live band, and with the beautiful new restored print. One of the greatest things ever.

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.

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.