Tag Archives: silent cinema

The Rattlesnake, 1913 – ★★★

The Rattlesnake (1913), dir Romaine Fielding for Lubin Manufacturing Company. 

Romaine Fielding (1868-1927) was one of the most fascinating characters of early silent cinema. A maverick who created a new identity and background for himself, he was a flamboyant actor, writer and director who created many westerns set in New Mexico for the Lubin studios, becoming by 1915 the most popular screen personality in the United States.

Sadly, few of his films (70 as director, more than 60 as actor) have survived the passage of time. Many perished in a fire at the Lubin HQ in 1914, and the few which remain survive in a poor state or are unrepresentative of his best contributions to cinema (he crops up in a couple of Alice Guy melodramas – Mixed Pets (1911) and Greater Love Hath No Man (1912) where his style of acting looks 19th century and theatrical; and can also be seen in a handful of comedies which are held by archives around the world, but by all accounts these are not representative of his talent).

Which brings us to ‘The Rattlesnake’, a film he directed and starred in, which was filmed wholly on location in that New Mexico outpost. It is missing the final few minutes due to nitrate decomposition, and the print shows significant damage, but this film, which was publicised on its release with the blurb “Man who threatens society with a dangerous snake returns to sanity after an encounter with a young girl”, zips along well enough.

Fielding plays the bad guy, a Mexican who, crazed with jealousy, wishes to kill the good guy, who has married his former girl (Mary Ryan), but of course he finds redemption by the closing reel. He’s an unconventional filmmaker with a back-story which would do any fiction scenario writer proud, which makes it frustrating in a way that there isn’t enough of a body of work to see this performer reappraised in any meaningful way.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

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The rescue of the ‘Hitchcock 9’

For the past couple of years, the British Film Institute has been involved in a major project to restore all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, and over the past three months these have been premiered with new scores across London. I previously reported on The Pleasure Garden at the Wilton Music Hall, and since then I have caught up with a further three restorations at the BFI Southbank.

First up was Downhill, starring Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, and Ian Hunter, from the play by Novello and Constance Collier. A rather mature Novello gets expelled from school when he takes the blame for a shopgirl’s pregnancy (his friend is the one responsible), and we follow his descent (and ascent, and descent) literally from rugby ace and head boy to chorus boy, gigolo, and destitute beggar before the inevitable happy ending as the film comes to a close. Hitchcock used stairs and escalators to represent the descent of his leading man. Jeans plays the flighty and two-faced actress who only throws herself at Novello when he improbably inherits money from a distant relation. She and her fancy man soon work through this money and our hero is left again to fend for himself. This film has previously been badly served in DVD releases – its inclusion in ‘Hitchcock – The British Years’ presented the film without a soundtrack, while a substandard print appeared on a release in Greece. Now it looks approximately as the director must have intended, tints and all. I didn’t see the version with the ‘beatbox’ score, but rather a more sedate but enjoyable one from John Sweeney.

Next was Easy Virtue, again with Jeans in the lead, but this time suffering from the loss of an original negative which means ‘restoration’ is not quite of a quality which could be broadcast or easily watched. The elusive twenty minutes which seems to be missing when comparing the original running time and the one it has now has not been located, and so this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play is simply good – but not great. The inter-titles have however been redone and look pristine. This film has not looked as appealing as this for a long time, regardless of it still having the feel of squinting through the fog, and Stephen Horne’s piano accompaniment was a suitably classy side dish.

The final film of the three I watched was The Ring, which showcases the ill-fated Lilian Hall-Davis, the Danish actor/singer Carl Brisson, and Ian Hunter (again – he also makes an appearance in Easy Virtue). Perhaps one of Hitch’s greatest silents, and his first from an original screenplay rather than a published or performed source, this story of many rings – a boxing ring, a wedding ring, a bracelet – sparkled with the jazz score of the Soweto Kinch Sextet, which fitted perfectly with the action, which revolves around a rivalry for the top in the boxing ring, and for the girl. This film is lively, and Hall-Davis in particular is a delight to watch.

 


The 50 films that didn’t quite make the cut!

My last post here was about my ‘greatest fifty films’ list. But since then I have been thinking about other films which would have sneaked in had I the luxury of choosing one hundred titles.

So, here are the fifty which ‘got away’. No less revered and loved, but not quite making the main cut. Again, sorted by decade.

1920s

51 The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Hard to see these days due to no official DVD release, but still one of the best films about the Great War.
52 The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926). Hitch’s ‘first film’ by his definition, and despite an ending which didn’t convince, it has enough innovation going on to keep it fresh.
53 Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). In any and all versions, the ultimate science fiction film.
54 Safety Last (Fred C Neumeyer, Sam Taylor, 1923). Harold Lloyd at his best. Other films might have tighter plots but this is the iconic image we have of him.

1930s

55 The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, 1938). The blueprint for all adventuring swashbuckers to follow, and what glorious Technicolor.
56 Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). A stunning and creepy achievement.
57 Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). The character and premise should be ridiculous, but it isn’t.
58 I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932). The strongest of the social drama pre-Code films.
59 The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch, 1934). Chevalier, Macdonald. This musical sparkles with energy.
60 Peach-O-Reno (William A Seiter, 1931). A Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, naughty, spicy and fun.
61 Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). Garbo in perhaps her best remembered (and parodied) role.

1940s

62 The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). This film shows the return home of war veterans without sinking to cliche or sentiment. Known for its use of deep focus shots.
63 Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Noel Coward’s timeless romance.
64 Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). The best debut film of any director or actor.
65 Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948). A truly cinematic Shakespeare.
66 The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan et al, 1940). A film which doesn’t quite gel, but remains curiously entertaining.
67 Without Love (Harold S Bucquet, 1945). A Tracy-Hepburn comedy romance with added pep from Lucille Ball.

1950s

68 Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959). When we talk about epics, the genre cannot be better represented than with this superbly shot and directed classic. Bloated it may be, but still very watchable.
69 The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955). Monroe at her vulnerable best.
70 A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). The film which should have gained Judy Garland an Oscar, but instead proved to be the last hurrah for her musical career.

1960s

71 If … (Lindsay Anderson, 1968). An evocative fable of school and authority.
72 Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961). For many great cameo performances, especially Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster. This film uses, but doesn’t abuse, star power.
73 The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968). Historical soap with great locations and a good example of taking theatre into the cinema, effectively.
74 The System (Michael Winner, 1964). Oliver Reed in his first leading role, a Brighton mod/rocker piece which remains challenging and provoking today.
75 Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Ken Annakin, 1965). For pure enjoyment and a great theme tune.

1970s

76 Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). Preferable in the original version rather than the Redux. A beautiful nightmare of ‘Nam, helped by The Doors and Brando.
77 Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971). Dirk Bogarde’s best performance in a hymn to Mahler and the beauty of the young.
78 Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973). Difficult to get a rock opera right on the screen, but opening out the locations and making the story relevant to modern times nailed it.
79 Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971). Historically inaccurate, but by far the best Tudor film made, with lovely performances, and colourful locations.
80 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975). A guilty pleasure if only for Tim Curry’s Sweet Transvestite.
81 Scum (Alan Clarke, 1979). Powerful, bleak, disturbing drama.
82 The Tempest (Derek Jarman, 1979). Shakespeare for the 70s. It looks great and doesn’t betray the play.
83 Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971). A tale of the Australian Outback and the weakness of humanity. A truly beautiful film in every shot.
84 Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970). The best of all the music films, especially in the director’s cut. Contains all the drama and power of this greatest of rock festivals.

1980s

85 Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). Flawed, but interesting.
86 The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980). Thoughtful, subversive, melodramatic, and wonderful.
87 Nijinsky (Herbert Ross, 1980). Ballet does not always transfer well to cinema, but this biographical piece remains strong in the mind even after one viewing, although it is difficult to find these days.
88 Le retour de Martin Guerre (Daniel Vigne, 1982). The original of what became ‘Sommersby’ and the ‘Martin Guerre’ musical. Touching, yearning, and very accessible.

1990s

89 Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996). A nostalgic love letter to the industrial north and their brass bands.
90 The Field (Jim Sheridan, 1990). King Lear in Ireland, and a career best performance from Richard Harris.
91 The First Wives’ Club (Hugh Wilson, 1996). Pure fun, guaranteed to lift the spirits.
92 Guinevere (Audrey Wells, 1999). An age gap romance which is celebratory, not creepy.
93 Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996). Disturbing history lesson about the partition of Ireland.
94 Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1995). King Lear in Japan, perhaps the greatest Shakespeare film ever made.
95 Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990). Leigh’s funniest and most charming film.
96 Trojan Eddie (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996). A film of contrasts, shocks, and blarney.
97 Wilde (Brian Gilbert, 1997). Up there with the best of all biopics, with a great central performance.
98 Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (Randa Haines, 1993). A quirky celebration of ageing.

2000s

99 The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). An action feature with some intelligence and stunning CGI.
100 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001). Purely because it brought together actors, models, CGI and a great script to create something very special.

Films matter to me if they make me laugh, cry, feel scared, feel revolted, make me think, stay in my mind. All the above meet at least one of these criteria, and so they deserve their place.


50 greatest films: my nominations

Every ten years, a section of film aficiandos and experts receive an invitation to submit their selections for the Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’, and 2012’s selections were announced yesterday, with the big news being that after fifty years, Citizen Kane has been toppled from the top spot by Vertigo.

To me, a film becomes ‘great’ if it is innovative, interesting, or informative – in short, if it has something to say, and stays in my memory. This can apply whether the film is a silent romance, a musical, a war film, a women’s weepie, or a kitchen sink drama. In my list you will find examples of all of these, and more. It is a purely personal list, however, and rather than sort it by numbers, I have chosen to break down my selections into decades.

The 1910s

1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919). Innovative, and still feels fresh.

The 1920s

2 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927). Contains perhaps the greatest acting performance of all time, from Maria Falconetti.
3 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927). Not necessarily better than Nosferatu or Faust, but engrossing on many levels.

The 1930s

4 Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933). A bubbly comedy of manners with Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler and the two Barrymore brothers.
5 Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936). An early Spencer Tracy film with a message about vigilantes and lynch mobs.
6 Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). The greatest of all pre-Code musicals.
7 Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). A great, epic, glossy soap opera of the American Civil War.
8 Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander, 1936). The Swedish original of the great romance between musicians.
9 Mr Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936). A charming slice of Capra-corn whimsy.
10 Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Garbo laughs!
11 Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). A career defining performance from John Wayne in Ford’s memorable Western.
12 Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935). Polished floors, inky canals, and Fred and Ginger.
13 The Women (George Cukor, 1939). The greatest ensemble cast of ladies in the history of cinema.

The 1940s

14 Bambi (James Algar & Samuel Armstrong, 1942). Disney’s most emotional achievement, and one of the funniest.
15 Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The Archers’ colourful and over-wrought production set in a house of nuns.
16 A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944). A quirky, unique, and unusual war film.
17 The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). Judy Garland in her first non-musical role in this charming romance.
18 It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Perhaps the best of all ‘what if’ films.
19 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). A delicious crime caper with a twist.
20 Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944). A drama of obsession.
21 Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). Hitch’s claustrophobic and clever anti-Nazi film.
22 The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). A remake, but an excellent one, and the first film by Huston.
23 Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Joan Crawford suffers in a typical ‘women’s picture’.
24 Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). And Bette Davis does the same.
25 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947). Deeply subversive and beautifully performed British classic.
26 Pimpernel Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). The Scarlet Pimpernel set in wartime.

The 1950s

27 All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950). An acerbic drama of theatrical poison.
28 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). For the dance sequence at the end alone, and Gene Kelly’s enthusiasm.
29 Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950). One of the rare handful of appearances by Judy Holliday as the scatty Billie Dawn.
30 From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Career-defining on so many levels, and remembered largely for Deborah Kerr in the sea, but has much more to it.
31 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Anti-McCarthyism at its best. I could have picked the much later film of The Crucible, for the same reasons.
32 Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). The strange story of Norma Desmond, and her iconic close-up.
33 Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). A stifling and wordy courtroom drama which never tires.

The 1960s

34 A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). For Jean Seberg’s smile.
35 Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967). High energy and enthusiasm in this French love letter to the American musical film.
36 Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964). Simple perfection, and a perfect marriage of live action and animation.
37 This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). Angst on the rugby field and by the kitchen sink.
38 The Trap (Sidney Hayers, 1966). Notable for Rita Tushingham’s mute performance.
39 West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961). The greatest of all dance films, and a potent love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
40 Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968). A chilling horror film which does not have its tongue in its cheek.
41 Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964). An example of the stirring ‘boy’s own’ epic, with great music and three-dimensional characters.

The 1970s

42 The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971). Derek Jarman’s designs and Ken Russell’s direction lift this film to greatness.
43 The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The blueprint for all crime epics to follow.
44 Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). A blackly comic exploration of the influence of television on the masses.
45 Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971). A milestone in gay cinema, and full of unusual shots and ideas.

The 1980s

46 Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981). The greatest and best film about sport, which still feels relevant today.
47 Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983). Michael Caine’s best performance and a touching portrait of adult education and self-awareness.

The 1990s

48 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). A vibrant musical comedy, and perhaps the defining image of a transsexual character on screen, who gets her happy ending.
49 Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). Bonkers, clever, unnerving.
50 Trois couleurs bleu (Three Colours Blue) (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). All the trilogy could be included, but this is the best of the three on all levels.


Cinema review: Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – restored

The BFI’s ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ project launched this week with the restoration of the director’s first film from 1926, ‘The Pleasure Garden’, now with original tints and extended to a length of twenty minutes more than has previously appeared on DVD releases.

The setting for this first screening (with live accompaniment from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, to a new piece composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen) was the charming but dilapidated Wilton’s Music Hall, in Whitechapel, just a short walk from Tower Hill tube station. Given the young Hitchcock’s love for the theatre (which is shown by the opening shots of this film, featuring blonde chorus girls) it was the perfect venue, and it was fitting that with the launch of this season the announcement was made that Wilton’s has gained Lottery funding – of £56,000, as it turns out.

The film itself is a potboiling melodrama with a leering villain (Miles Mander), a sweet chorus girl (Virginia Valli), a gold-digging bitch (Carmelita Geraghty), and a nice but dim chap (Hugh Fielding). There’s also a cute dog to rival ‘The Artist’ and Uggie. Although it isn’t top drawer Hitch, there is much to enjoy in this piece from the fledgling director, and from this beautiful restoration.

The remaining eight silent features are to be restored for this year’s Cultural Olympiad (The Ring, The Lodger, Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman), and donations can still be made via the BFI website .


Silent cinema review: Faust (1926), with Philharmonia Orchestra

The Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank was the venue for last night’s screening of FW Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (1926), starring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings and Camilla Horn, which was also the premiere of a new score by Aphrodite Raickopoulou, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra with Gabriela Montero improvising on the piano.

Faust is a German classic, based on the story of the old man who sells his soul to the devil, initially so he can heal plague victims but eventually so he can snatch back his own youth.  But Mephisto is a clever chap who is one step ahead of Faust, tricking him at every turn.  At first this shows flashes of humour – Mephisto’s dalliance with Aunt Marthe, for example – but with the introduction of Gretchen (‘an innocent girl running to a priest’) the story takes a darker turn.

With primitive special effects and some ripe performances (mainly from Jannings as the Devil and Wilhelm Dieterle – who went to Hollywood to direct – as Gretchen’s brother) Faust can be said to show its age, but still, it has power, emotion, and energy, as well as some clever and imposing shots.  The death riders through the sky.  Mephisto enveloping a whole town with the Black Plague.  The wretched Gretchen’s visions which seal her fate.  The final shots, in which the Devil’s spell is broken, and he is cast out from the presence of God by the one word which blocks his power – ‘love’.

Raickopoulou’s score fits perfectly with the film, and was played beautifully.  I could have done without the lame puns of her celebrity friend, Hugh Grant, who showed a profound ignorance of the film and its period when he introduced it.  Best to let films of this age speak for themselves.  Faust was one of Murnau’s great silent classics – the others are Nosferatu (1922, based unofficially on Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Der letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924), both made in Germany, and Sunrise (1928), made in the USA.

Murnau never got to enjoy a career in the talkies as he died in a car accident in 1931, with his final film Tabu released a week after his death.


Silent cinema review: Salome (1923)

The Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre last night played host to a screening of the Nazimova classic silent ‘Salome’, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, and designed and costumed from the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

Charlie Barber’s percussion-based music, punctuated by singing in Hebrew, fits perfectly with the strange story of the daughter of Herodias and the prophet John the Baptist.  In a costume which includes a wig adorned with white globes glowing like stars, Nazimova (already a mature woman in 1923 and hardly the innocent child the part demands) pouts and grimaces at her stepfather’s attentions.    But he is the powerful Tetrarch and should not be disobeyed.

British-born Nigel de Brulier plays the mysterious Prophet John, the ‘man who has seen God’.  He is perhaps best known as a succession of cardinals, bishops, judges and other such characters in both silent and sound pictures up to his death in 1943.  His sad face and expressive eyes are perfect for the head which will drive Salome to frenzy and eventual destruction.

Mitchell Lewis is the randy Herod, who first lusts after Salome and then recoils from her in horror after hearing the price she demands for dancing in front of him.  Lewis would continue to make uncredited and small roles for the cinema for another thirty years after this film.  As his wife, and the mother of Salome, Rose Dione, the French actress, is effectively raging at the threat to her position as the first lady of the country.

But this is Nazimova’s film, and rightly so.  Her second costume change, to a silver wig and many veils as she dances, is stunning, and for a woman of over forty she moves like a young lady and passes (just about) as the picture of innocence.  Shown in a lovely tinted print, this film retains its power and is faithful to its source material.


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