Fred (of early Bunuels – also good roles in major Renoir movies, but I suppose I’ll always think of him as the enraged looney from L’Age d’Or) is would-be rapist who steals pretty Pola’s key to surprise her at home – a foolish plan, since without the key she spends the night with Al instead. He’s Albert Prejean of The Crazy Ray, the French version of Threepenny Opera, S.S. Tenacity and something called The Buttock. Also in the mix: pickpocket Emile and criminal Louis (Edmond Greville, who’d later helm a Hands of Orlac remake).

Will the pretty girl with the cheek curls choose the thief, the lout, the rapist or the cheater? She is Pola Illery, who’d appear in an unknown 1930’s version of The Indian Tomb / The Tiger of Eschnapur as well as a poetic realist Pierre Chenal film from the same year as L’Atalante. Anyway, she ends up with Louis but only because Albert is arrested for a crime Emile committed. We would’ve preferred she end up with nobody, or at least leave town and find some better guys. Anyway it’s quite a pretty movie and more importantly for 1930, uses the title song expressively.

Luc Sante for Criterion:

In that era, the start of the worldwide financial crash, important movies tended to be set in fantasy realms of impossible wealth. Clair’s Paris was, in a way, no less fantastic—every street and square, every tenement, garret, dancehall, and café was designed by the great Lazare Meerson and built in the studio. But its characters, who live on the border between ill-paid labor and petty crime, were both instantly recognizable the world around and imbued with romance by the magic of Paris. In the decade that followed, that setting and those kinds of characters were to constitute the fundament of the French cinematic style called “poetic realism,” a principal architect of which was Marcel Carné, an assistant director on Under the Roofs of Paris.


His Royal Slyness (1920, Hal Roach)

Katy went flipping through the endless scroll of Criterion movies on Hulu, settling on this. Of course we didn’t know it was a short, so 20 minutes later we started Under the Roofs of Paris. This one’s a Harold Lloyd short, where Lloyd and the King of Whatever trade places then he ends up joining the revolution against the monarchy. There’s a princess, and I dunno it was lightly amusing and now I don’t remember it all that well.

Methuselah (1927, Jean Painlevé)
The title character is a dog-masked shoe-obsessed megalomaniac. Painlevé himself plays Hamlet, and surrealist poet Antonin Artaud found time to appear in this between Abel Gance’s Napoleon and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Doesn’t really make sense on its own – five filmed episodes that were projected during a stage play, strung together here with a stereotypical silent-film piano score.

The Vampire (1945, Jean Painlevé)
Portrait of the South American vampire bat set to happy jazz. They put a bat and a guinea pig in a cage and let the one eat the other. Don’t think I’ll be showing this one to Katy.

Bluebeard (1938, Jean Painlevé)
An opera version of Bluebeard, comically told with awesome and elaborate claymation.

The High Sign (1921, Keaton & Cline)
Buster steals a cop’s gun, runs a shooting gallery, becomes a rich guy’s bodyguard and becomes the same guy’s hired killer. Gags involving ropes and dogs and a house full of traps – one of BK’s funniest and most complicated shorts. So many film scraches I thought it was supposed to be raining. Features Al St. John (the clown who would one day be known as Fuzzy Q. Jones in a hundred westerns) and the gigantic Joe Roberts.
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One Week (1920, Keaton & Cline)
Opens with the same calendar we just saw in The High Sign and Buster getting married… nice transition from the last movie except that it’s a different girl. The one in which he builds a house. More acrobatic stunts than the previous movie – the two make a good pairing. Ooh, a meta camera gag and some near-nudity. I think more work went into this than all of Go West.
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A Wild Roomer (1927, Charley Bowers)
Charley (who not-so-subtly calls himself an “unknown genius” in the intertitles) makes a God Machine which creates self-aware puppets.
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Actually I’m not sure what that was about, besides being an extended stop-motion demonstration – the machine is supposed to take care of all your household chores. As with both of the other Bowers films I’ve watched recently, he has unquestionably made an excellent machine, so the conflict comes from the complications from having to show it off to others (in this case a cranky saboteur uncle with an inheritance at stake).
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Zooming in further one finds… a baby exterminator??
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Fatal Footsteps (1926, Charley Bowers)
“If there were a tax on idiots, Tom would send his dad to the poorhouse.” Well that makes up for the “unknown genius” line. Charley is trying to learn the Charleston to win a contest in the very house where the Anti-Dancing League (motto: “mind thy neighbor’s business”) is meeting. Just when I thought it was gonna be that simple, he invents some mechanical dancing shoes – stop-motion ensues. The shoes get mistakenly worn by Charley’s relative who offends his fellow Leaguers, then Charley wins (and escapes) the contest.
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Even fish are learning the Charleston:
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Haunted Spooks (1920, Hal Roach/Alfred Goulding)
The girl is first introduced kissing baby birds, so she’s got my sympathy.
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Her grandfather dies – she gets the house and inheritance if she lives in it for a year with her husband – but she has no husband! I thought I’d be in for 25 minutes of haunted-house hijinks, but the husband problem has to be solved first (Harold Lloyd is rejected by his rich dream girl, picked up by our girl’s lawyer while attempting to commit suicide) so we don’t get to the house until minute 17. After introducing some superstitious-negro stereotypes, the girl’s crooked uncle proceeds to “haunt” the house to drive her away and steal the inheritance.
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Cute movie, but what I liked best were the illustrated intertitles.
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Chess Fever (1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Fever has gripped the whole town. Chess breaks up a relationship, drives two people to attempted suicide, then happily reunites them. I guess from important-sounding Pudovkin, with his grim-looking video covers, I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but this was light (despite all the suicide) and wonderful. Wikipedia says it includes documentary footage of the 1925 Moscow chess tournament.
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Charleston (1927, Jean Renoir)
A scientist from central Africa (a white guy in blackface and a tuxedo) flies in his aircraft (a marble on a string) to post-apocalyptic Paris, runs into a sexy Euro-girl and her pet monkey. The girl (Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s wife) teaches him the Charleston, filmed in cool slow-motion. Maybe this wasn’t as surreal in ’27 as it is today. The first (credited on IMDB anyway) film produced by Pierre Braunberger, who would go from Renoir to Resnais/Rivete/Rouch to Truffaut/Godard to Shuji Terayama.
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The Little Match Girl (1928, Jean Renoir)
New year’s eve, a poor girl (Catherine Hessling again) can’t sell any matches, starves/freezes to death on the street after hallucinating a better life. The first Renoir film I’ve seen with stop-motion (there’s only a tiny bit) but not the first to focus on clockwork machines. Also reverse and slow-motion and a horse race through the clouds – much more ambitious than Charleston. In her fantasy she plays at the toy store, shrunk to toy size herself, and meets a handsome soldier who looks suspiciously like the handsome cop who was nice to her in the snowy street. It’s all fun and games until Death comes and wrestles her from the soldier. Both these shorts were shot by Jean Bachelet, who would be cinematographer on three separate films of The Sad Sack including Renoir’s.
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The Freshman (1925, Newmeyer & Taylor)
The sad truth about Harold Lloyd is that I loved him when I first saw him, but every time I rewatch a movie I like it less. So far I’ve seen Safety Last! and The Freshman twice, and each dropped from “great” down to around “pretty good”. I’m afraid to rewatch the ones I thought were pretty good to begin with.

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Young Harold (he was actually 32) watches imaginary film The College Hero over and over to prepare himself for college, filling his head with stupid ideas about college life. I would’ve loved it if they’d done more movie-vs.-reality comparisons, but it seems the only thing he took away from the film was the hero’s nickname (“Speedy”), catchphrase (“I’m just a regular guy”) and silly jig, which everyone at college mocks until Harold manages to win the big football game, then the jig becomes the coolest thing. It’s a wonder that nobody else at school had seen this movie and figured out Harold wasn’t even an original nut, just a nerdy guy ripping off a bad movie joke. But my biggest surprise was finding that the silly hat Harold wears wasn’t an invention of his silly movie – college kids (according to this silly movie anyway) actually wore those hats!

Below: Harold and “the college cad” in silly hats. The cad, Brooks Benedict, later appeared in Leo McCarey’s not-sequel The Sophomore.
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In the scene below, Harold’s tailor hides behind a curtain, ready to patch Harold’s unfinished suit should the need arise, but the two get their signals crossed because of a dude at a table ringing a bell. Supposedly the bell ringer is Charles Farrell, star of Street Angel, but he sure doesn’t look like he does in my screengrabs from that movie.

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The girl who likes Harold, cutie Jobyna Ralston, was in The Kid Brother and Wings, didn’t make it in the sound era.

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The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916, Christy Cabanne & John Emerson)
Written by DW Griffith and Tod Browning, the same year they did Intolerance, and co-produced by Keystone. Douglas Fairbanks was apparently famous enough to play himself in a framing scene – I think he plays himself, and the rest of the film (starring himself) is his rejected pitch to a producer for a film to star himself. That’d already be plenty to wrap one’s head around for a 1916 short, but that’s before we even get to the main story, which involves incompetent and extremely drug-addicted hero Coke Ennyday trying to stop criminals from smuggling contraband via one-man inflatable toy rafts, and stop the criminal mastermind from forcing the lovely Fish Blower to marry him. Coke gets the drugs and the girl, and I didn’t know I could have my mind blown by Douglas Fairbanks. Bessie Love, the Fish Blower, appeared in three major films in the early 1980’s, sixty-five years after this one. I wonder if anyone on those sets asked her about her cult druggie silent short.

The Play House (1921, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)
I’d seen almost all of Keaton’s solo silent shorts, but I’d missed this major one, in which he plays all the characters in a trippy dream sequence that lasts the first half of the film. Reliable heavy Joe Roberts finally wakes Buster from his funhouse-mirrored delusion and he goes to work as a stagehand, where he’s spooked by a pair of identical twins with mirrors. A sheer delight of visual invention only grudgingly held together by a plot.

That’s two of Virginia Fox, daughter of William Fox:
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Buster Keaton’s minstrels:
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Cops (1922, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)
The Freshman was a movie about a boy whose ideas about life have been warped by the movies, Leaping Fish had Douglas Fairbanks the actor playing Douglas Fairbanks the aspiring screenwriter, and The Playhouse featured Buster Keaton playing a hundred of himself in a stage performance viewed by even more of himself. Cops has no self-conscious reflection that I can think of. It’s just a damn fine heist/love/chase flick with great invention in props and situations. However it does fit in with the outrageousness of last two films in its ending: snubbed by his intended love, Buster effectively commits suicide by running back into the police station where he has just locked up hundreds of angry cops.

An amusing 80-min comedy, no masterpiece to be sure, but very likeable and occasionally funny. Harold Lloyd is the weak kid in a family of two burly brothers and sheriff dad. Medicine Show comes to town while dad is out and Harold was pretending to be sheriff, so he signs their permit, then can’t tell ’em to get out of town because he has fallen for the cute girl in the act. But note: she’s doing the show against her will along with two slimy characters who run off with the town’s treasury – and the sheriff is blamed! Can Harold Lloyd redeem himself by finding the abandoned ship where the criminals are hiding out and return to town triumphantly with the loot and the surviving thief before his dad is lynched? Yes.

Some real nice staging, more elaborately planned shots than the Keaton (see below; the Keaton was also seven years later, which might make a difference, but I think Keaton camera setups were pretty plain, just make sure the action is in the viewfinder), incl. a cool bit where he climbs a tree, higher and higher and the camera follows on a high crane. Movie also had a trained monkey, slingshots, a burning trailer, and laundry drying on a kite string, so you really can’t complain.

Could you bring yourself to hit this man? Could you?!?
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Two of Harold’s family members had small parts in Citizen Kane, a medicine show guy was in Sunrise later the same year, and actor Ralph Yearsley who played Harold’s rival died aged 32 a year later. Lloyd was working at a pace of one movie per year, and this came after For Heaven’s Sake and before one of my favorites, Speedy, which would be his last silent film. Speedy also had Ted Wilde as credited director (though IMDB says Lloyd pretty much directed his own films), and Ted died the following year at age 36. IMDB also claims some uncredited direction on this movie by Lewis Milestone, who would soon make All Quiet on the Western Front. The General, Metropolis and October all came out in ’27, pushing the cinematic art ever forward, but so did The Jazz Singer, spelling doom for Keaton and Lloyd (but not for Lang or Eisenstein).

Also watched Neighbors, a 1920 Buster Keaton short which outshone the feature. Buster likes the girl next door, but her family won’t have him. Hilarity ensues. All you really needed for a great Keaton film was a basic premise and thirty brilliant gags – fully-developed plot/characters not required. Terrifically funny movie.

Buster gets into the neighbor’s third-floor window with help from the Flying Escalantes:
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Blackface is funny; half-blackface is funnier:
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