While watching The Story of Film, I’ve been marking down the names of movies Mark Cousins discusses which I haven’t seen. And since I love lists, I thought I’d pick one title per Story episode and watch it, more or less chronologically. I call it The Story of Film Festival.

For years I’d been meaning to watch Birth of a Nation, then after reading Rosenbaum’s article about the AFI 100 list, I’ve been meaning to watch Intolerance instead. I’ve enjoyed some of Griffith’s shorts (A Corner in Wheat, The House with Closed Shutters) but never tackled any of his features, which seems a major oversight considering how important they were in film history (or in “the story of film”). While watching Intolerance, I dutifully noted Griffith’s pioneering editing style. I marvelled at the few extreme close-ups and dolly shots, a couple apparent crane shots, and heaping tons of cross-cutting, both between and within the four different time periods. But besides the academic interest, I found the movie boring and heavy-handed. It could’ve used a couple rewrites – the four stories of intolerance told simultaneously don’t work well together, and two of them (Paris and Judea) don’t work at all. Maybe this is because of deleted scenes, but I certainly don’t wish for the movie to be longer. Hopefully I’ll end up enjoying his shorter, more personal stories like Broken Blossoms and True Heart Susie more than this one, but now I’m in no hurry to watch those.

“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”

Lillian Gish (star of Broken Blossoms) rocks this cradle meaningfully beneath a sunbeam whenever Griffith lacked a good transition scene between time periods.

In the “present” of the 1910’s, wealthy Mary Jenkins, “unmarried sister of the autocratic industrial overlord” is ignored at a party and so “realizes the bitter fact that she is no longer a part of the younger world.” So she joins a stuffy ladies’ reform club dedicated to the “uplift of humanity” (read: censorship, prohibition, and making things generally boring).

Meanwhile, the father of The Dear One (ugh) works at the Jenkins factory. The mill orders a wage cut (to conserve funds for Mary’s reform group), a strike ensues, lots of cannon fire (reportedly modeled after a bloody strike at a Rockefeller factory). The Boy’s father dies (excuse me, “the Loom of Fate weaves death” for him). The surviving protagonists move to the city, where The Boy and “The Friendless One” get tangled up with gangsters (“musketeers”) and Dear One’s dad dies (sorry, “inability to meet new conditions brings untimely death” to him). Boy and Dear are to be married, but his boss doesn’t like quitters, plants stolen goods on the Boy which “intolerate him away for a term” in prison, because the titles love to use that word even when it doesn’t fit. While he’s in prison, his Dear wife has a baby, which is taken away by the Intolerant reformists and raised by careless nurses.

Friendless Miriam Cooper, actually married to Raoul Walsh:

In ancient Jerusalem, there’s some stuff about hypocrites among the pharisees, funniest part of the movie. Jesus turns water to wine, proving that he is on the side of fun, not like the stuffy ol’ reform club of the present-day scenes. Then this whole segment is forgotten.

A hypocritic pharisee, probably not played by Erich von Stroheim:

In 1570’s France, the catholic king’s mother hates the Hugenots (protestants), and despite some royal wedding that’s supposed to bring peace, she schemes to destroy them. Meanwhile, down in the peasantry, Brown Eyes is dating Prosper Latour (the great Eugene Pallette of The Lady Eve – weird to see him young and silent).

The King with mum Josephine Crowell, who’d play queens in The Man Who Laughs and The Merry Widow:

Protestant leader Admiral Coligny: Joseph Henabery, a prolific director who also played Lincoln in Birth of a Nation

At the Great Gate of Babylon in 539 B.C. (an intertitle brags about the movie’s life-size replica walls), the Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton, prolific director of westerns in the 40’s, also made the marijuana scare flick Assassin of Youth) is a warrior poet, agent of the High Priest of Bel, who falls for a Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge, with the most modern look in the movie, despite wearing a hat that looks like a spinach salad with olives). Their leader is great and Tolerant, but the high priest is annoyed that some people worship a rival goddess, so he schemes to assist the Persians when they attack Babylon by having the impenetrable gates opened for them.

Mountain Girl joins in the battle:

So all the stories (not counting Judea) are about poor, pretty girls having their lives ruined because of greedy decisions made by rich, powerful people. The movie is incredibly obvious, so I got bored and spent much of the second half imagining the bloody murder of everyone involved. And then that’s pretty much what happened.

But first – two doves pull a chariot carrying a rose:

In the present: “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice” – cue montage of the ugly women of the reform movement. But the reformists’ actions have simply moved the drinking and partying underground, where it’s more dangerous for being unregulated. The Boy returns home, the Musketeer gets involved in their lives again, then the jealous Friendless One kills him. Boy is blamed and sentenced to hang, but T.F.O. confesses at the last minute, so a car carrying her races to beat the governor’s train and stop the execution in time.

Robert “Boy” Harron (star of Griffith’s True Heart Susie, who killed himself in 1920) with Dear Mae Marsh (appeared in small roles in John Ford movies through the mid-60’s):

Babylon is attacked by Persian “Cyrus, world-conqueror” with his sword “forged in the flames of intolerance,” assisted by the jealous high priest. Hilarious moment in the fight when a warrior knocks another’s head clean off – then it happens again, in case you missed it.

In France: The Massacre of St. Bartholemew: a morning army assault on the unsuspecting protestants.

Unsuspecting Prosper (Eugene Pallette!) and Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson, later author of The Pocket Book of Etiquette and The Complete Book of Charm):

After hours and hours of long setup, the movie picks up the pace, cross-cutting between two battles and the final hours before the Boy’s hanging.

Brown Eyes is speared to death while Prosper runs through the city to reach her, then when he curses out the soldiers for killing his beloved, they blow him away with rifles.

Brown Eyes meets spear head:

Every character we’ve met in Babylon is killed, the Mountain Girl shot full of arrows.

But the Boy is spared and reunited with his Dear One, though their missing baby is never mentioned. IMDB says all sorts of alternate versions and deleted scenes exist, one of which shows the baby coming home with them. The site also says that after filming, Babylon was declared a fire hazard, and that Jesus Christ was deported for having sex with 14-year-olds. I need to watch Buster Keaton’s parody (only an hour long) The Three Ages again sometime.

Crazy ending:

People supposedly involved in this movie who appeared in minor roles whom I failed to spot: Tod Browning, Frank Borzage, Douglas Fairbanks and W.S. Van Dyke. Behind the scenes: Erich von Stroheim, Victor Fleming, Billy Bitzer, Jack Conway, Allan Dwan, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-author Anita Loos and Howard Hawks head writer Charles Lederer.

Not as big a horror fan as I claim to be, I’d never seen Dracula before. Watched at least three other Tod Browning pictures, and at least seven other Dracula movies, but never the original that kicked off Universal Horror in the sound era. And I probably should have started with it, because it’s anticlimactic after having just watched Hammer’s blood-soaked version. The sound work is primitive compared with Lang’s M, the horror isn’t horrific compared with Browning’s own Freaks (or even Frankenstein if my memory serves), and the story is nothing to rave about if you’ve ever seen a vampire movie before (I suppose most of Dracula’s original audience had not). One of those movies I can’t unqualifyingly like, just say something weak like “it seems good for its time.”

Exceptions: not much Ed Wood-style hand acting, but Lugosi is a striking figure in wide shots and close-ups. Dwight Frye as Renfield starts out as your standard easily-amazed eyeliner-wearing actor, but turns into a creepily intense giggling psycho after being bitten. He’d play Fritz (the sidekick mistakenly known as Igor) in Frankenstein the same year. And there’s a surprising scene at an opera, where Drac first meets our heroes and has a sober line about fates worse than death, giving an edge of unfortunately-tortured-soul to his standard murderous-villain role.

Tame: no fangs, no bite marks, and needless to say no blood. No score, either – some scenes are conspicuously quiet, lacking any sound effects for minutes at a stretch. No money at Universal to film the storm at sea during the crossing from Transylvania to London (one of my favorite parts of Herzog’s Nosferatu) so they used a scene from a silent film, comically sped-up from 18fps to 24. It works, though, making the scene more intense (it’s the biggest action scene in the entire film, and it’s stolen).

Renfield, not Harker, visits the castle at the beginning, gets turned (halfway?) and helps Drac move to England where he meets useless, boring Harker (David Manners would costar with Lugosi and Karloff in The Black Cat) and his girlfriend Mina, along with Mina’s dad and friend (?) Lucy. He goes about his business draining blood from the girls until family friend Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, who appeared in Frankenstein and The Mummy) catches on after Lucy’s death. VH runs down Drac, catches him burying Mina (?), chases him into the castle and pulls down the curtains as the sun rises, turning the vampire to ash and freeing Mina. And Universal stood behind that death – Dracula wouldn’t appear in any sequels until the mid-40’s. Lugosi wouldn’t even fare as well as his most famous character. He’d play Dracula in one more film, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, before ending up in Ed Wood hell and giving Martin Landau an oscar.

Mythology: They’ve got the no-reflection thing, the turning into bats and wolves, aversion to sunlight and crosses, wooden stakes through the heart, but Drac can enter a room without being invited and vampires avoid wolfbane, not garlic.

Karl Freund, formerly F.W. Murnau’s image-man in Germany, would go on to shoot most episodes of I Love Lucy.

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.

Pretty good movie with laughably ludicrous plot.

Ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney) teams up with midget Willie (Hans from Freaks) and strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen, oscar-winning John Ford fave) to form the unholy three, an ill-conceived crime group. In tow are cute pickpocket Mae Busch (Foolish Wives, and some 35 movies between 1931 and ’35) and patsy Hector (Matt Moore).

Hans is maybe better appreciated as an actor in a silent film, since his voice is hard to understand in Freaks… he out-acts everyone but Chaney in this movie. Chaney is fun to watch as Granny O’Grady and Hans as Little Willie. Hercules never has much to do. The giant chimpanzee and out-of-focus cockatoo are cool, too, and the visual speech bubbles when Echo makes the birds talk (funny to have a ventriloquist in a silent film). The dialogue contains “echoes” (repeated lines), appreciated by the English students watching along with me. A few good shots of the shadows of shadowy conspirators conspiring.

The movie’s not scary, more wacky/funny than anything else. Their criminal plot is idiotic and doesn’t work. Hercules kills someone during a heist and gets them all in trouble, everyone’s plotting behind everyone else’s back, Chaney and Hector are in love with Mae, and eventually Herc and Willie kill each other via chimpanzee. Hector is about to be framed for the murder when “Grandma” Chaney comes and saves him. Chaney is then set free by awesome-looking judge Edward Connelly (The Saphead, The Merry Widow) for being such a good guy and goes back to the circus, ho hum. Movie’s got good atmosphere… def. a quality lightweight film with that freakish crime-drama Tod Browning touch.

Not to be confused with the non-Browning sound remake from 1930, the last film Lon Chaney made before his death from cancer.

Liked it better than Unholy Three because of the super fast pace and more exciting atmosphere, the wonderfully (if not accurately) rendered African setting.

Ron on IMDB helpfully summarizes: “Magician Phroso’s wife Anna leaves him for another man, named Crane, who fights with Phroso and leaves him paralyzed. Later Anna returns and he finds her dead, leaving behind a daughter. For 18 years Phroso, known as “Dead Legs” by his cronies, plots his revenge, becoming a pseudo-king in East Africa, nearby where Crane has set up an ivory business. When the daughter is grown, having lived in a brothel in Zanzibar thanks to “Dead Legs”, Phroso put his plan into action, resulting in revenge and retribution all around.”

Lon Chaney is great as Dead Legs, but the great Lionel Barrymore looked pretty generic to me, failed to stand out as the arch-rival. Young wife Anna quit acting the following year (right before sound films) and lived until 1986. Drunken Doc, who falls in love with the daughter, was Warner Baxter, who won the best-actor oscar that same year in the second annual academy awards, for In Old Arizona, the first full-talkie.

Not to be confused with the 50’s British Ealing Studios West of Zanzibar about a good-hearted man (Story of O actor Anthony Steel with wife Sheila Sim of A Canterbury Tale) fighting ivory pirates.

I was gonna go on about similarities between Gordon/Mamet’s Edmond and Freaks, but I guess that doesn’t make much sense.

Katy is hung up on how the freaks turned the wicked trapeze artist into a chicken lady, but it is a “horror” movie, so we’ll just say the Human Torso has transformative magical powers.

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Wallace Ford (Phroso the clown) was in tons more movies, incl. Anthony Mann’s Man From Laramie and Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
Good-girl beauty Leila Hyams was in Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage, Browning’s 13th Chair, Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap, then she never acted after 1936.

Evil trapeze girl Olga Baclanova was in The Docks of New York and not many sound films because she moved to Broadway for a decade before retiring.
Hercules Henry Victor got huge in the 40’s playing evil nazis in every Hollywood movie that would take him before dying of a brain tumor in ’45.

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Short couple Hans and Frieda were actually siblings. He was in Browning’s Unholy Three and both of them were munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

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Those twins actually were conjoined.
The human torso was sixty-one when the film was made!

One of the greatest weird movies everywhere. Rob Zombie loves it.

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