Thursday, January 28, 2010


by Allan Fish
(Germany 1926 116m) DVD2 (DVD1 export version only)
Aka. Faust: Eine Deutsche Volkssage
Go to a cross road and call upon him three times
Erich Pommer  d  Friedrich W.Murnau  w  Hans Kyser  books  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe  ph  Carl Hoffman  ed  Friedrich W.Murnau  Werner R.Heymann, Erno Rapee (Timothy Brock 1997/2006 restoration)  art  Robert Herith, Walter Röhrig  cos  Georges Annekov
Gösta Ekman (Faust), Emil Jannings (Mephistopheles), Camilla Horn (Gretchen), Yvette Guilbert (Marthe Schwertdlein), William Dieterle (Valentin, Gretchen’s brother), Frida Richard (Gretchen’s mother), Eric Barclay (Duke of Parma), Hanna Ralph (Duchess of Parma), Werner Fuetterer (Archangel),
At the time I write in 2006, we have become accustomed to, and somewhat take for granted, the sterling efforts of film restorers to bring the masterpieces of yore back to gleaming cinematic life, making them look arguably better than they did even on release.  In 2006, however, a further step was taken that is unlikely to be repeated; up until that time the only version of Murnau’s silent masterpiece seen was commonly referred to as the ‘export version’, which was made up of takes which Murnau discarded from his perfectionist German print.  Even in that almost second-hand form it was a near masterpiece, but the release in 2006 of that original, long thought lost German version, was more than a subject for rejoicing, it was almost a cinematic epiphany.
            Murnau’s vision borrows heavily from various previous interpretations by Goethe, Marlowe and Gounod, and shows the fight between the forces of darkness, and those of light personified by an unnamed archangel.  The Devil, Mephistopheles, wagers the archangel that, if he can turn the almost saintly old professor and theologian Faust to the dark side, as it were, the forces of light must surrender the Earth to the forces of darkness.  Mephisto spreads a pestilent plague on Faust’s home town from which few are spared and, in his desperation to save his townsfolk, Faust makes a fateful decisio

by Allan Fish
(USA 1928 21m) DVD1/2
Everybody follow them sailors!
p  Hal Roach  d  James Parrott  w  Leo McCarey, H.M.Walker  ph  George Stevens  art  Richard Currier
Stan Laurel (Ensign Laurel), Oliver Hardy (Ensign Hardy), Edgar Kennedy (family motorist), Charley Rogers (man with damaged fender), Thelma Hill (brunette), Ruby Blaine (blonde), Charlie Hall (cop),
Undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of short silent comedy, for a long time this – and fellow masterpiece Big Business – was overlooked in favour of the team’s more readily available talkie counterparts.  Yet in these late silent gems, there was a sense of wilful destruction that the talkies lacked.  Yes, The Music Box, Towed in a Hole, et al, did have destruction, that comes with the territory with Stan and Ollie, but it wasn’t deliberate.  Both Business and Tars are orchestrated and choreographed master-classes of wilful abuse, vandalism and childish petulance.  In Business, an example of a war between door to door Christmas Tree Salesmen and an irritable would-be customer.  In Tars, the chaos has a ring of modern truth, echoing as it does a factor of modern day life – ROAD RAGE!

by Allan Fish
(USA 1915 187m) DVD1/2
Monument of shame
p  D.W.Griffith, Harry E.Aitken  d  D.W.Griffith  w  D.W.Griffith, Frank E.Woods  novel  “The Klansman” by Thomas Dixon Jnr  ph  Billy Bitzer  ed  James E.Smith  m  Joseph Carl Breil
Henry B.Walthall (Benjamin Cameron), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Robert Harron (Ted Stoneman), Wallace Reid (Jeff), Donald Crisp (U.S.Grant), Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman), Joseph Henaberry (Abraham Lincoln), Raoul Walsh (John Wilkes Booth), Josephine Crowell (Mrs Cameron), Violet Wilkey (Flora Cameron as a child), Eugène Pallette (union soldier), Walter Long (Gus), Sam de Grasse (Charles Sumner), George Siegmann (Silas Lynch), Bessie Love (Piedmont girl), Erich Von Stroheim (man falling from roof),
Paragon or pariah?  Masterpiece or monstrosity?  Superlative or shameful?  In truth, probably all six.  D.W.Griffith’s epic adaptation of Dixon’s openly racist novel is everything people say it is and more, worthy of the moral outcry at the time when it was labelled “a flagrant incitement to racial antagonism”.  In its way, as offensive to modern sensibilities as Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it remains the most controversial American film of them all, but the one without which American cinema would not have been the same.  Released on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the best part of a century on it still has the power to both move and offend


by Allan Fish
(USSR 1927 95m) DVD1
Aka. Tretya Meshchanskaya
King, queen, jack…
d  Abram Room  w  Abram Room, Viktor Shklovsky  ph  Grigori Giber  ed  Abram Room  art  Vasili Rakhals, Sergei Yutkevich
Nikolai Batalov (Kolia), Lyudmila Semyonova (Liuda), Leonid Yurenyov (porter), Vladimir Fogel (Volodia), Yelena Sokolova (nurse), Mariya Yarotskaya,
Over thirty years before François Truffaut redefined the very term ménage à trois in his masterwork Jules et Jim, Abram Room shocked Soviet Moscow with this classic study in sexism, modernity and domesticity in Stalin’s capital.  As some critics pointed out, the central situation has a sophistication that reminds one of Noël Coward, and Room mixed this most dextrously with the style of the montage school so favoured in the silent masterworks of Communist Russia


by Allan Fish
I write literally seconds after hearing of the death yesterday of Jean Simmons.  I think my first memory of her was in the God-awful The Thorn Birds in the early eighties, when I was about 12, but then again, that was also the first I saw of Barbara Stanwyck.  Yet when I think of her now it’s with a burning sense of regret.  Of all the actresses Hollywood has wasted criminally – Deborah Kerr and Claire Bloom were other examples – Jean Simmons must surely rank at the top of the list.
It was in 1945 when she first attracted attention, singing “I’m Going to Marry” at a dance in Puffin Asquith’s classic wartime film The Way to the Stars.  The same year she can be glimpsed among Cleopatra’s maid-servants (along with Renée Asherson) in Caesar and Cleopatra, but it was a year later when she made her first startling contribution as the haughty Estella in Lean’s Great Expectations.  So startling was she she totally overshadowed Valerie Hobson playing the character a decade older enough to make one wish she’d played the role older, too.  (In actual fact, Margaret Lockwood should have been the older Estella).  She was 17, and before turning 18 had also dazzled as the Indian slave girl in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus before taking on the biggest challenge of all, playing Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet.  Vivien Leigh had wanted the role but she was too old at 33 when it went into production.  Olivier got a masterful performance from her that ranks as still probably the definitive interpretation of the role, magnificent in the madness sequences and captured for ever in still photographs as Ophelia drowning like the Lady of Chalot. 


by Allan Fish
(USA 1921 51m) DVD1/2
A picture with a smile – and, perhaps, a tear
p  Charles Chaplin  d/w/ed  Charles Chaplin  ph  Rollie Totheroh  m  Charles Chaplin  art  Charles D.Hall
Charles Chaplin (the tramp) Jackie Coogan (the kid), Edna Purviance (the woman), Carl Miller (the man), Tom Wilson (policeman), May White (policeman’s wife), Henry Bergman, Albert Austin,
If ever a caption summed up Chaplin’s combination of humour and pathos, that would be it.  Indeed when people accuse Chaplin of drowning in pathos, there are few more potent pieces of evidence for the prosecution than this, his debut feature from 1921.  It’s absolutely dripping with pathos, and that in itself may be the reason it isn’t as well looked upon now in critical circles as it may have been half a century ago, when it was ranked with his best films.  To this reviewer’s eyes, however, it seems somewhat irrelevant, for as a piece of popular film-making it really is a pretty faultless film which doesn’t outstay its welcome for a minute and has enough memorable scenes, both emotional and comic – and both at the same time – to make up for any inherent mawkishness or cloying sentimentality some might perceive it to have


by Allan Fish
(USA 1923 70m) DVD1/2
Love thy neighbour as thyself
Joseph M.Schenck  d  Buster Keaton, Jack G.Blystone  w  Jean Haver, Joseph Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman  ph  Elgin Lessley, Gordon Jennings
Buster Keaton (Willie McKay, aged 21), Natalie Talmadge (Virginia Calmadge), Joe Keaton (Lem Doolittle), Buster Keaton Jnr (Willie McKay, aged 1), Kitty Bradbury (aunt Mary), Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield), Monte Collins (parson), James Duffy (Sam Gardner), Ralph Bushman (Clayton Canfield),
Our Hospitality is Buster Keaton’s homage of homages to life in the old South.  It is also, assumedly quite by chance, the nearest he came to the death-defying world of Harold Lloyd.  Yet Keaton in some ways tops Lloyd, his stunts not only being daring, but reliant on absolutely exquisite timing.  In truth, The General and Sherlock Junior are more recognised as Keaton masterpieces.  Even Leslie Halliwell said that Hospitality is more charming than hilarious, but it’s no worse for that.  It’s still a damned fine film.
            The story is a variation on the legendary McKoy and Hatfield feud of nineteenth century repute, beginning in 1810 with John McKay celebrating the first anniversary of the birth of his only son.  Also on his mind is the continuing feud with the local neighbours, the landowning Canfields.  When he is killed, his infant son is sent to live with his aunt far away but, come his 21st birthday, he is summoned back by executors of his father’s estate to reclaim what is his.  He dreams of large cotton plantations out of Gone With the Wind and sets off by train to the town of Rockville.  Once there he again runs foul of the Canfields, but unwittingly falls for their daughter, with whom he had travelled on the journey.  Once he gets to his estate, he sees that the reality is somewhat less salubrious than he had imagined (think of Bill Fields’ orange grove shack in It’s a Gift and you’ll get the idea)

by Sam Juliano
     Georges Bizet’s Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in history, and it’s almost never off the yearly schedules of the largest and smallest companies.  Only Puccini’s La Boheme is in its stratosphere of adoration,  and it stands alone as the indoctrinating vehicle for neophytes to the form.  The opera’s central role is perhaps the defining one for a soprano, and over decades it provided some of the greatest singers with their most electrifing moments onstage.  For the second time this season, the Metropolitan Opera has replaced a long-running Franco Zeffirelli staging, (and a shorter one after it)  but unlike the first instance, where the desision drew ire from traditionalists, (Tosca), this new incarnation by Richard Eyre stands among the season’s most distinguished stagings, with an outstanding Carmen and Don Jose and some virtuoso conducting by a gifted newcomer.  The new Carmen, wields the raw power of the 1875 work, but the underpinnings are more contemporary than the Zeffirelli production, which typically was traditional.
     Carmen, which contains some of the greatest passages in all of music (“The Toreador Song”,” “The Flower Song” and the “Habanera” are musical masterpieces) is a work of superbly balanced construction and extraordinary precision, on in which Bizet is able to express in 16 bars what almost any other composer would need 160 for and might still not succeed.  The opera with it signature sexuality, smoldering passions and violent denouement, has often been understood as a story of ill-fated love between two equal parties whose destinies happen to clash.  But to read the opera in this fashion is really to ignore the faultlines of social power that organize it, for while the story’s subject matter may appear idiosyncratic to us, Carmen is actually only one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that are known to have circulated in nineteenth-century French culture.   Most interpretations of the opera either assume Carmen’s treachery or else try to eradicate the differences in class, race and gender between Carmen and Don Jose.  To be sure, the illicit sexuality of the opera continues to be acknowledged; but as it took it place within the canon many decade ago, Carmen became a locus for socially-sanctioned titillation rather than a cause for moral indignation.  A self-congratulatory smugness seems to characterize much of what was written about Carmen after it became a staple of the repetory, as subsequent critics gloat when recounting the prudery of Bizet’s initial audiences, along these lines: “The libretto is effective, but far from shocking a generation that now considers Strauss’s Salome tame.  The tragic ending is so seasoned a convention that we accept it without thought.”  In any case the popular literature on Carmen tends to highlight the elements of femme fatale and male victim, often rendering the plot in a gleefully naughty, insinuating style

by Allan Fish
(USA 1927 119m) DVD1/2
The Hole in the Sock
p  William Fox  d  Frank Borzage  w  Benjamin Glazer  play  Austin Strong  ph  Ernest Palmer, J.A.Valentine  ed  H.H.Caldwell, Katharine Hilliker  m  Michael Mortilla  song  “Diane” by Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack  art  Harry Oliver  cos  Kathleen Kay
Janet Gaynor (Diane), Charles Farrell (Chico), Gladys Brockwell (Nana), David Butler (Gobin), Brandon Hurst (Uncle George), Ben Bard (Colonel Brissac), Albert Gran (Boul), Jessie Haslett (Aunt Valentine),
Seventh Heaven’s reputation has risen, fallen and risen from the ashes again much like that of its director Frank Borzage.  It won him an Oscar in 1927, and for a few years he was the Academy’s darling, winning another award a few years later.  Yet for many years, after World War II, Borzage’s doomed romanticism seemed phoney, out of date with the prevailing cynicism.  Only in recent decades have Borzage and his films undergone a bit of a revaluation.  He’s now seen as a master by many, and though I don’t think he ever made an outright masterpiece, of his silents this came the closest.
            The setting is Paris in 1914.  Diane is a timid mouse of a girl who lives with her bullying, absinthe addicted whore of a sister in a slum dwelling.  One day news reaches them that their aunt and uncle have returned from overseas to take them under their wing, but will not do so if the girls have not been good.  Despite vicious arm-twisting and threats from her sister, Diane cannot lie, and when her aunt and uncle depart, tossing money on the floor like a client leaving payment on the dresser, Diane’s sister beats and whips her savagely (McDowell acting like she’s in an Erich Von Stroheim or Cecil Mille film).  To the rescue comes Chico, a live-for-the-moment sewer worker, who threatens the sister with violence of his own if she doesn’t leave off.  But the sister, having been caught by the gendarmes, volunteers Diane as a vagrant, and Chico pretends they’re married to keep the law off her back.  He takes Diane up to his rooftop garret on the seventh floor, closest to heaven (hence the title).  Needless to say, they fall in love.


by Allan Fish
(USA 1925 148m) DVD1/2
Lion of the tribe of Judah
p/d  Fred Niblo  w  June Mathis, Carey Wilson, Bess Meredith  novel  Gen.Lew Wallace  ph  Karl Struss (and René Guissart, Percy Hilbum, Paul E.Eagler)  ed  Lloyd Nosler  m  Carl Davis (modern score)  art  Cedric Gibbons, A.Arnold Gillespie, Horace Jackson, Camillo Mastrocinique  cos  Hermann J.Kaufman  models and miniatures  Kenneth Gordon McLean  2nd unit d.  B.Reeves Eason  tech.d.  Col Braden
Ramon Novarro (Judah Ben-Hur), Francis X.Bushman (Messala), Carmel Myers (Iras), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (The Virgin Mary), Claire McDowell (Miriam, princess of Hur), Nigel de Brulier (Simonedes), Dale Fuller (Amrah), Mitchell Lewis (Sheik Ilderim), Frank Currier (Quintus Arrius), Leo White (Sanballat), Charles Belcher (Balthazar), Winter Hall (Joseph), Myrna Loy (Hedonist Mistress),
William Wyler’s Ben Hur swept the board at the academy awards for 1959 winning eleven Oscars, including best picture and director.  The record was only matched by James Cameron’s Titanic 38 years later.  And if an ancient Roman religious epic and a grossly inferior saga of a doomed megatonne ocean liner may have nothing in common narratively speaking, but in terms of film history they are very similar.  If either had failed at the box office it would have spelt ruin for the production companies, in the case of Ben Hur, MGM, in the case of Titanic, Paramount and TCF.


by Allan Fish
(UK 1926 78m) DVD1/2
To-night Golden Curls
p  Michael Balcon, C.Wilfrid Arnold, Carlyle Blackwell  d  Alfred Hitchcock  w  Eliot Stannard, Alfred Hitchcock  novel  Mrs Belloc Lowndes  ph  Baron Ventimiglia  ed  Ivor Montagu  m  Paul Zaza  art  C.Wilfred Arnold, Bertram Evans  tit  E.McKnight Kaufer
Ivor Novello (Jonathan Drew, the lodger), June (Daisy Bunting), Arthur Chesney (Joe Betts, detective), Malcolm Keen (Mr Bunting), Marie Ault (Mrs Bunting),
In 2006, the BBC and BFI co-produced a programme entitled Silent Britain, in which cineaste Matthew Sweet tried to convince us that, contrary to general opinion, British silent film was not the poor cousin of either Hollywood’s glamour or artistic Europe, but a national cinema in its own right.  Certainly there are certain British silent films of merit – Dupont’s Piccadilly and Asquith’s Underground and A Cottage on Dartmoor to name but three – but it’s generally fair to say that British silent films revolve around the reputation of one man; Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact he made two great silent films which can be considered masterworks, though one of them was never seen for over fifty years.  That film was the silent version of Blackmail, shelved after they reshot scenes as a talkie, but surfacing later as better than the original.  The first, and probably most important and best known, was The Lodger.  Hitchcock himself said it was rather like his first film, and it’s certainly his first major work


by Allan Fish
(USSR 1926 73m) not on DVD
Aka. Dura Lex; Po zokanu
For luck
d  Lev Kuleshov  w  Lev Kuleshov, Viktor Shkovsky  story  “The Unexpected” by Jack London  ph  Konstantin Kuznetsov  ed  Lev Kuleshov  art  Isaak Makhalis
Alexandra Kokhlova (Eidth Nelson), Sergei Komarov (Hans Nelson), Vladimir Fogel (Michael Dennin), Pyotr Galadzhev (Harkey), Porfiri Podobed (Dutchy),
Considering he was known as the Father of Soviet Cinema, it’s amazing how anonymous and marginalised Lev Kuleshov’s work has become.  When he burst into cinematic folklore in 1924 with his extravagantly titled satirical comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, his place seemed secure, and yet within a matter of a few years, he’d been supplanted by Vertov, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin.
He was well versed in many facets of the arts and began his film career as a set designer while still in his teens.  He was only 25 when Mr West was made, a year younger even than Eisenstein when he made his debut with Strike later the same year.  And unlike the other aforementioned Soviet greats, he lived into his seventies, with all those years retrospectively ahead of him.  He’s seen very much as the leader in the Soviet montage school, and yet the irony there is that much of his influence came from analysis of foreign fare, from the comedies of Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd – the latter a clear influence on Mr West – to the dramas of D.W.Griffith and Abel Gance.  It was through them that he picked up his fascination with the incorporation of editing, and especially Gance, whose quick-fire editing, first really demonstrated in La Roue, was a massive influence on the development of montage under Kuleshov and Eisenstein.  By the time he came to make his most famous and best film, By the Law, it was no surprise he turned to another American, Jack London, for his inspiration


by Allan Fish
(USA 1925 137m) not on DVD
To supper – ah…
p  Irving G.Thalberg  d  Erich Von Stroheim  w  Erich Von Stroheim, Benjamin Glazer  operetta  Victor Leon, Leo Stein, Franz Lehar  ph  Oliver Marsh, Ben Reynolds, William H.Daniels  art  Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons  cos  Richard Day, Erich Von Stroheim
Mae Murray (Sally O’Hara), John Gilbert (Prince Danilo Danilovitch), Roy d’Arcy (Crown Prince Mirko), Tully Marshall (Baron Sixtus Sadoja), Josephine Crowell (Queen Milena), George Fawcett (King Nikita I), Edward Connelly (Baron Popoff),
The Merry Widow is unique among Von Stroheim’s post debut (Blind Husbands) output in that it survives just about as intended.  Just take a look at his other masterpieces – Foolish Wives (butchered from 6 hours to under 2), Greed (mutilated from 8 hours to just over 2), The Wedding March (minus its entire second part) and Queen Kelly (abandoned unfinished).  The Merry Widow was intended as a relatively small scale production, but Thalberg brought Von Stroheim on board aiming for a little more opulence.  Thalberg knew Von Stroheim, remembering their tussles on Foolish Wives and The Merry-Go-Round, which he fired him off only a part of the way through.  Yet he knew Von Stroheim’s genius, and recognised its almost anachronism to the money mad twenties.  He tolerated his excesses this once, even if he famously called the Von in to see him to explain the various shots and expenses of women’s shoes, to which the Von merely said that the character has a foot fetish.  Thalberg replied “and you, sir, have a footage fetish


by Allan Fish
(USA 1928 101m) DVD1
Majesty my foot!
p  Joseph Kennedy, Gloria Swanson  d/w  Erich Von Stroheim  ph  Gordon Pollock, Paul Ivano, Ben Reynolds  ed  Viola Lawrence  m  Adolf Tandler  art  Harry Miles, Richard Day
Gloria Swanson (Patricia Kelly), Walter Byron (Prince Wolfram), Seena Owen (Queen Regina V), Tully Marshall (Jan Vryheid),
Just to think of Erich Von Stroheim’s uncompleted final film as a director makes one think over two decades after its abandonment to Sunset Boulevard.  There Swanson and Von Stroheim appeared together, the latter playing the one-time director, one-time husband, and now dog-like retainer to Norma Desmond.  In it, of course, they show a film, and it’s Queen Kelly, and the thought that comes to my mind every time is whose idea it was to use the film.  Swanson’s?  Von Stroheim’s?  Wilder’s?  Probably Billy’s, though Swanson and, more importantly, Von Stroheim would not have failed to notice the irony.  After all, when directing him in Five Graves to Cairo Wilder was sheepish directing a man he felt was ten years ahead of his time, and Von Stroheim replied “twenty.


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