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.

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.

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