The Thirteenth Chair (1929)

After London After Midnight came three more Lon Chaney pictures including West of Zanzibar. Now, Browning’s love for headscarves leads him to India, and his love for Hungary leads him to Bela Lugosi. This is quite good for a 1929 sound film, but it hurts to exchange the long, lingering silent facial expressions for inane upper-class British conversational pleasantries. There’s no transitional period, the movie is crammed wall-to-wall with dialogue as if spectators were paying by the word.

Madame LaGrange is played by an actress named Wycherly, which would’ve been a cooler name for her medium character. Yes, we’re back in Mystic territory, and to prove her authenticity she explains the mechanics of the usual tricks used by mediums, then proceeds to her spiritual work uncovering a murderer. Someone dies during the first of two lights-out seances (during which the movie achieves maximum talkie-ness, becoming a radio play) so Inspector Lugosi arrives, and star Conrad Nagel’s girl Leila Hyams emerges as chief suspect, but it turns out some other blonde lady killed both guys.


Dracula (1931)

Written about this before… watching now with the Philip Glass / Kronos Quartet score, hell yes. The music is mixed higher than the dialogue, as it should be. Now that I’ve seen Thirteenth Chair I have to say this is extremely awesome in comparison, dispensing with the constant dialogue and returning to beautiful image-making with big Lugosi close-ups.


Freaks (1932)

Wrote about this before, too. More movie-worthy characters in this hour-long film than in Browning’s whole pre-Dracula career combined. Over 50 years later Angelo had a plum role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Before Dracula, Browning made that Outside The Law non-remake, before Freaks came boxing drama Iron Man, and afterwards was Fast Workers… a comedy?


Mark of the Vampire (1935)

John Fordian Dr. Donald Meek busts into an inn just as idiot tourists are getting the talk about why we don’t go out at night (bad idea to watch the same night as Dracula since it’s all the same vampire explanations to incredulous people). Inspector Atwill, a large mustache man, arrives to investigate a mysterious death. Fedor and Irena are survivors, swoop-haired Otto is her guardian. Meanwhile, Dracula himself (played as a wordless zombie monster with no suave dialogue) and his undead daughter Luna lurk in a nearby castle. Professor Barrymore arrives to do some Acting, a welcome diversion, while Irena’s dead dad Sir Karell has become a zombie Drac-follower, and Irena has begun acting vampy herself.

Somehow the plot gets even more convoluted, and Browning and Lugosi’s involvement becomes an in-joke, because the “vampires” have only been performers in Barrymore’s Holmesian plot to make swoop-haired Otto confess to killing his friend, hypnotized into re-committing his crime. Good performances in this, though nothing else really works, and the rubber-bats-on-strings technology hadn’t improved since ’31. I liked how no two people manage to pronounce the character names the same way.

Clanker, the Jump-Scare Cat:


The Devil Doll (1936)

Nobody told me this would be a Bride of Frankenstein ripoff cowritten by Eric von Stroheim. Maybe bitter that another director remade Tod’s Unholy Three with Lon Chaney, he goes ahead and rips that off too. Lionel Barrymore is a banker who got backstabbed by his partners and sent to prison, escapes to get revenge – wrongly(?)-accused man becoming a murderer on the run.

First stop is scientist Marcel (Henry Walthall, the yellow shut-in of Griffith’s House with Closed Shutters) to borrow his shrinking formula. He’s working on miniaturization to alleviate world hunger (isn’t this the plot of Downsizing?) but has a heart attack while shrinking the maid, so his devoted wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano, who’d worked with Barrymore on Grand Hotel) comes along to continue his research by shrinking some bankers, Lionel hiding in plain sight as an old woman running a doll shop.

First off is nervous mustache banker Arthur Hohl (a cop in The Whole Town’s Talking), then they use a devil-doll to rob the house of Robert Greig (who played butler-typed in Preston Sturges movies). The dolls are mind-controlled by their masters (I missed Marcel’s explanation for this) and this doll-heist setpiece is cool enough to justify the entire movie.. Barrymore wants to see his beloved family members now that he’s out, so he pays disguised visits to his blind mom (Lucy Beaumont, who’d played Lionel’s brother John’s mom in The Beloved Rogue) and his lovely grown daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan started acting at the dawn of sound cinema and died in 1998 in Scottsdale, so she may well have watched Fargo in Arizona like we did).

Malita and tiny assassin:

The third banker is Pedro de Cordoba (a circus player in Hitchcock’s Saboteur), who surrounds himself with police then sweatily confesses that he railroaded Barrymore right as his doll-sized colleague was about to stab him with paralysis/shrink syrup. Malita helpfully/fatally blows up the lab/shop because Barrymore’s mission is done but she wants to go on shrinking things. Happy-ish ending for Barrymore, who meets his daughter and her beau Toto atop the Eiffel Tower, but after all the murdering he’s got to stay on the run. Browning’s penultimate film – he’d turn in one more comedy before forced retirement.

Katy’s out of town and there’s a new Criterion blu-ray, so we’re having a Tod Browning Halloween.


The Exquisite Thief (1919)

Fragment of a lost film, found in Dawson City. A carnival barker turned blackface comedian turned melodrama film director, Browning had made six features before teaming up with the exquisite Priscilla Dean for a successful run. Here she is robbing everyone at a fancy dinner party before making her getaway. Her chauffeur steals Lord Chesterton’s car, accidentally also stealing the Lord (Thurston Hall, later a Karloff victim in The Black Room). It’s implied that the cops are about to find dirt on our Lord just as he’s turning the tables on his captor, but here the fragment ends.

How will Lord Chesterton get outta this mess:


Outside The Law (1920)

Now Priscilla Dean is a reformed criminal, hanging out with her dad Madden at Chang Low’s bazaar in SF Chinatown. Gangster Lon Chaney shoots a cop while Chinese Lon Chaney(!) suspects a plot and tries to help, getting Madden arrested. The dad was in some major Griffith films, “Chang Low” is a white guy from Richmond VA who also played “Lu Chung” in an Anna May Wong movie.

Priscilla, her dad, Chinese Chaney, Chang Low:

There’s to be a heist, and the cops, the Chaney gang and the girl are all playing different angles. Priscilla gets away with Safecracker Bill, and their plan is to hang out in his apartment… for how long? Months? They invite over an annoying neighbor kid (Stanley Goethals died in 2000, and might well have seen The Matrix or the Matthew Broderick Godzilla) and let him play with a hatchet.

Sweet Priscilla goes outside the law:

Safecracker Bill is Wheeler Oakman of some very silly looking early-’40s Bela Lugosi films. Chaney surprises them and they try to keep him from finding the jewels. But they’ve both fallen for the annoying kid, and his shredded kite out the window provides a christly vision convincing the girl to go straight. The last couple reels of the film are as damaged as the kite – there’s a half hour of good movie in here within the sappy script. Browning would make a different crime film a decade later using the same title.

Non-Chinese Chaney, Priscilla, Safecracker Bill:


The Mystic (1925)

In the time since Outside the Law, Browning made a bunch more Priscilla Dean pictures and Unholy Three. Zazarek, his assistant knife thrower Anton, and daughter Zara are traveling and being tailed by a Regular Looking Normally Dressed Man, who stands out among the loonies and drunks that are their usual clientele. When they finally corner him, he’s an investor offering to bring them to the States to do their act for wealthy people.

In their U.S. debut, police pre-inspect the room as if this is a crime and not a performance, which seems silly until it turns out he money man’s plan isn’t to get performance money from rich patrons but ghostly blackmail/trickery with Mystic Zara. The money man begins to fall for cute, round-nosed rich lady Doris (she was in Princess Nicotine in 1909 and lived long enough that she might’ve watched Edward Scissorhands). The team goes after her “guardian” Bradshaw, who’s working with the cops. Schemers turn on each other and it ends in a situation I’d imagined during Outside the Law – if the people who say they were gonna give back the stolen goods get nabbed before they can, there’s no way to prove good intent. The money man didn’t have good intent after all when it comes to the crimes, but he does follow the deported family to Hungary to find Zara, so that’s something.

Glad I stuck with the new Dean Hurley score instead of playing my own thing, enjoyed the foley effects. They seem like pretty minor actors. The money man appeared in Stella Maris with Mary Pickford, the knife thrower had been in The Big Parade, the father figure showed up in small parts everywhere, and Aileen “Zara” Pringle was a short-lived star. I thought there should be more knife throwing.


London After Midnight (1927)

Browning’s lost follow-up to The Unknown, which I watched out of order in its TCM reconstruction from titles and stills. Halloweeny visuals, with a mad spookyfaced Lon Chaney renting a house, or something. The music was bad so I put on Secret Chiefs – but The Book Beriah, not Horrorthon. Unfortunately I swung too far in the other direction, now the music is 100 times better than the “movie,” and all the panning across still photos is tiresome so I’m dropping this 48-min program halfway through.


The Unknown (1927)

Opens at Circus Zanzi (this guy and Z names), where all the gypsy circus gals lust after Malabar the Mighty. This is a terrific tragedy which I’ve watched before on TCM, but does it count as tragedy if the guy who loses the girl is actually evil? Lon Chaney is sweet on Zanzi’s daughter, who fears being touched, so the armless wonder Lon is a perfect confidante. But of course Lon has arms, he’s just hiding them for his act, and he strangles her dad after being discovered.

Lon foot-toasting Cojo:

Lon’s buddy Cojo says you can’t marry the girl or she’ll find out you have arms, so Lon blackmails a doctor with a dark past into arm-removal surgery. After all, he can light and smoke a cigarette with his feet, and the girl doesn’t know he murdered her dad, what could go wrong? But while he’s away in recovery she decides she’s not afraid to be touched after all, falling into the strong arms of Malabar. Even Cojo is a shitty friend, taunting Lon about his lack of arms. Crazed Lon tries to sabotage a strongman stunt and gets horse-stomped to death in the commotion.

Typical piano score, after 10 minutes I swapped out for Tortoise’s Remixed, which I’ve never appreciated on its own but as a movie score it’s fantastic. Zanzi was in Chaney’s Hunchback and Malabar was Christine’s beau in Chaney’s Phantom. The girl Joan Crawford went on to some fame in the sound era. Between The Mystic and Unknown/London, Browning and Chaney made The Blackbird and the half-surviving Road to Mandalay, and Browning went back to “Hungary” for The Show.

Amazing opening, EO introduced as circus donkey to Sandra Drzymalska, some strong scenes and visuals, finally dribbles to a less amazing ending, Eo being marched to execution.

He’s repoed from the circus and spends some time with a horse breeder… mopes around a petting zoo, escapes after a visit from his former owner… wanders through a wolfy forest into town where he becomes a football team’s mascot then is beaten half to death by rival hooligans… after recovering, he violently refuses to take part in an animal slaughter operation. We were watching Poker Face the same week, and besides the Okja veganism, the two shows share socially awkward truckers getting into serious trouble.

On the run after killing his dad, Bradley Cooper wanders mutely into a carnival needing work and food and gets shown around by Willem Dafoe. Ron Perlman is there of course, typecast as a strongman. Cooper’s talents are gradually put to use until he runs off (openly, not in secret) with Rooney Mara to run their own upscale act stolen from mentalist Toni Collette and her late partner David Strathairn.

A couple years later in the plotty, less compelling back half of the movie, the spook act impresses Mary Steenburgen and he’s set up with haunted and dangerous Richard Jenkins. Psychologist Cate Blanchett gives him inside dirt on Jenkins then swindles him, Rooney dislikes his turn to crime-laced trickery, and after it all goes wrong he leaves town in a chicken car, wounded, with nothing and nobody, and comes crawling to new circus master Tim Blake Nelson.

It’s convenient when you’re a circus psychic that everyone in the 1940’s had the same backstory. The movie is as obvious as I’d guessed from the trailer, but the actors and the look of the thing make it completely worthwhile.

I’m sad that there’s bird killing in this movie, but at least it’s traumatic to young Bart, who remains gun-crazy but never shoots a living creature again. Going through a teenage Russ Tamblyn phase, he’s sent to reform school for breaking into a gun shop, and years later returns from the army as John Dall (just off playing Brandon-who-thought-he-was-god in Rope). Still gun crazy, he reconnects with his childhood buddies and sees the gun crazy Peggy Cummins (also love interest of Night of the Demon) in a circus. An impulsive Bart steals her away from drunken proprietor Barry Kroeger (Cry of the City) – they get fired, married, and live the high life with absolutely no plan until they end up broke in Vegas, and she talks him into doing holdups. On the run, they’re gonna give up the criminal life after One Last Job, a big one where they get hired by the targeted company and work from the inside. With no traumatic backstory to stop her, Peggy freely shoots civilians during their escape, and trouble quickly closes in when desperate Bart takes them to his hometown to hide out. Such great camerawork, especially in the car scenes.

Russ/Bart:

Edith+Eddie (2017, Laura Checkoway)

I guess it’s common practice to screw over elders using the legal guardianship system? Imagine being the lawyer responsible for the lonely death of a nice old man in an oscar-nominated documentary seen around the world. This was filmed 11 miles from my grandmother’s house.


Daredevil Droopy (1951, Tex Avery)

Droopy and Spike compete at a circus to be one of The Great Barko’s daredevil dogs. Rapid-fire series of short contests, mostly ending with the larger dog badly injured, but it’s fine because he was trying to cheat. Lots of dynamite in the second half. Best bits: figure skating, human bullet, that strength-tester bell-ringer seesaw hammer game.

Mouseover to send Spike through the hoop of fire:
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Mouseover to give Droopy a better gun:
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Droopy’s Good Deed (1951, Tex Avery)

Spike is a wild-eyed hobo pretending to be a boy scout, another series of short competitions with Spike cheating and losing to the cool and competent Droopy, who gets a ton more dialogue in this one. Slightly racist jokes in this and the previous one, always to the effect of turning Black after a bomb blast, and it’s not terrible – until one time it definitely is, then a weird, fakeout ending at the White House. I assume I downloaded the uncensored versions of these somewhere or other, they sat on my laptop for a year, and tonight I’m in the mood for some violent cartoons.


Watching Oana (2009, Sebastien Laudenbach)

Earlier short by The Girl Without Hands director. A couple: he is a pastry chef, she translates poetry and brochures. Told from his perspective, wanting a baby, not believing in her ambitions, thinking he knows her inside and out but apparently not. Some cringey moments, I hope it’s not based on a true story. Spoken opening credits, then alternates between written segments created with stop-motion pasta, and spoken conversations with close-up animation of something besides the couple’s faces (wine glasses, shadows, legs in the surf), then the pasta turns into words inked onto skin and the music ramps up for the disturbing final section. The voice of Oana is played by Elina Löwensohn, who keeps coming up lately. Played at Annecy with The Secret of Kells and Western Spaghetti.


The Boy Who Chose the Earth (2018, Lav Diaz)

Two minutes for the latest Vienna Film Festival, a boy at home alone receiving a letter, running outside, apparently surprised – then rain and flooded streets. The last Lav Diaz short I watched was also fierce storms and floods, either footage from the same week or else the Philippines get some regularly nasty weather.


The Glass Note (2018, Mary Helena Clark)

Miniature frames of music and water and wind. Extreme bodily close-ups. Mostly seems interested in sound being created and moving through channels, with a sidetrack about tourists touching the breasts of bronze statues.


Story of an Old Lady (1985, Agnes Varda)

Lost, deteriorated Varda mini-doc about the woman she cast to get naked in the feather room in 7 P., cuis., s.de b…. Bit of behind-the-scenes interview, her getting a kick out of playing the employer in Vagabond, bossing around Yolande and Sandrine, when she’d worked as a maid all her life.


Trees Down Here (2018, Ben Rivers)

I wasn’t sure that ending my night with Ben Rivers would work out, since he tends to put me to sleep, but it opens with an owl close-up and I’m hooked. Architectural sketches alternate with architectural photos, but with an owl or snake in the foreground. The final minutes have a tape of John Ashbery reading his poem “Some Trees”. Ben’s most engaging work yet, I suppose if you’re into architecture, poems, owls and snakes.

Some months you just don’t feel like writing about movies, and then you get behind and start forgetting things, and the whole point of the movie blog was to write those things down soonish so you didn’t forget them. I watched this after Heart of Glass, then kept putting off writing anything because I wanted to watch again with the Herzog commentary, but never got around to that…

1828, a languageless man with no knowledge of the world is released from his cellar by some shady dude and abandoned in town. They take him to the stables and interrogate him, reluctantly decide he’s not a criminal and take to educating him, lending him out to a family. After a while Kaspar is “beginning to be a burden on the community coffers,” so he’s handed to a circus freak exhibit, sharing a tent with The Little King (the camel-laugher of Even Dwarfs Started Small), a Brazilian bear tamer, an “untamed Indian” from Spain and The Young Mozart.

With rouge-cheeked circus leader Willy Semmelrogge:

Once Kaspar is able to hold conversations, the townspeople introduce him to music, religion, agriculture, government and take in Kaspar’s naive, Chauncey Gardener-like responses, until Kaspar is unexpectedly stabbed (two separate times!) by (I’m pretty sure) the shady dude from the beginning.

Stork eating frog:

Lead actor Bruno S. was reportedly a huge pain in the ass, but I loved his Kaspar. Little Clemens Scheitz (hypnotically hobbled as the Master’s assistant in Heart of Glass) steals every scene he’s in, as a bureaucracy-loving scribe. I liked Heart of Glass better, but what do I know – this won numerous prizes at Cannes, where it played alongside A Touch of Zen and The Passenger.

Clemens:

Another great night with the Alloy Orchestra. Probably the number one advantage to living in Lincoln is that they come through every year with a different silent film – last year was Man with the Movie Camera, the year before was Son of the Sheik. Now I’ve bought their Phantom of the Opera on DVD, and I’ll see if I can sync the CD of their Lonesome score with the Criterion blu-ray – unlikely, but it’ll be fun to try.

Emil Jannings (same year as Tartuffe) is introduced as a sonofabitch who mistreats his woman, soon leaving her and their young child and running off with Lya de Putti (Murnau’s Phantom and the Joe May Indian Epic). They work circus acts until noticed by trapeze star Artinelli (Warwick Ward, who became a producer in the 1930’s) and asked to join his act. Artinelli easily steals away Emil’s girl while Emil spends all his time drinking and gambling (don’t trapeze performers have to stay in shape?), and when he realizes the betrayal he plots revenge. Some fun first-person shots from the trapeze were this film’s main attraction when it opened. Emil envisions his boss having a fatal “accident” – somehow he can’t bring himself to drop the guy, but is okay stabbing him to death

Ouch from Dave Kehr:

The blatancy that makes it so easy to teach is also its chief drawback as art. Expressionism needed the taste and insight of a Murnau to be transformed from a manner to a style; this film, untransformed, is the work of the negligible E.A. Dupont.

Haven’t watched this since theaters. Blu-ray version 17 years later reinforces first impression that it’s pretty good. Man, Pixar has come a long way with 3D textures. Misfit inventor ant is exiled for causing havoc and getting the ants in trouble with the bully grasshoppers, finds help in the form of failed circus act, returns and fails to save the day but succeeds in convincing his fellow ants to stand up to oppression.