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.

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:


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.