Category Archives: Silent

The Golem (1920)

“Be lifeless clay once again–lest the powers of darkness take vengeance.”

Golem the 1920 silent German film from directors Carl Boese and Paul Wegener is set in 16th century Prague, and it’s a simple story with fantastic overtones based on Jewish folklore. Elderly Rabbi Low (Albert Steinstruck) goes to the top of his tower and reading the stars, he predicts a great disaster will soon befall the Jewish people. To prepare for the disaster, Rabbi Low, dabbling in sorcery creates a man from clay known as the Golem. In theory, the Golem is supposed to protect the Jewish ghetto dwelling community from the impending disaster, and Rabbi Low works furiously against time to finish his creation before disaster strikes.

But disaster comes in several ways. The Emperor delivers an edict that all Jews must be banished for the city, and this order is delivered by the knight, Florian (Lothar Muthel). He arrives at the Rabbi’s dwelling with the declaration of expulsion in one hand, and a flower that he sniffs occasionally in the other. Just this small gesture of idly waving the flower back and forth before his nose conveys the knight’s lack of humanity towards the ghetto dwellers. While the knight’s errand is ostensibly over, he begins casting his eyes on the Rabbi’s daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova).

With the Golem created, the Rabbi brings his creature to life during an elaborate ceremony of the Black Arts. The Rabbi intends to use the Golem as a demonstration of his power and his brilliance–and hopes that by doing so, the Jews will be allowed to stay in the city. Unfortunately, his plans go awry. The Golem’s emotions seem to lean towards the negative side of humanity. Is this a corruption of black magic, or is this human nature at its basest?

It’s impossible not to watch Golem without being struck by some similarities to James Whales’ Frankenstein (especially one scene at nearly the end of the film). The film’s sets are incredibly complex–the ghetto is within a walled section of the city and entered only by a huge, locked gate. Winding cobblestone streets are lined with tall, stone multi-level buildings. The Rabbi’s home is quite fantastic–gothic arches, and a stairway carved from stone. Those interested in German Expressionist cinema will want to watch the film for its historic value alone. The Alpha DVD print is quite acceptable, and my copy had no blemishes.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

“In the grip of an obsession.”

If you are the slightest bit interested in discovering what German Expressionism is all about, then there’s no better place to start than with the 1920 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by Robert Wiene, the film begins with two men sitting on a bench exchanging their stories of woe. One of the men, Francis (Friedrich Feher) says that his troubles all began when the fair came to the small town of Hostenwall….

A rotund, shabby, toad-like and repulsive individual named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) arrives in town and takes his sideshow to the fair. Here he attracts a large audience to see his somnambulist–a young man named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who’s kept in a coffin, and brought out by Caligari to answer the audience’s questions. Caligari brags that Cesare can answer questions about the past, present or the future, but Caligari also uses Cesare to commit a series of horrible murders in the town.

Gripping, mesmerizing and infinitely creepy, this film maintains its bizarre, grotesque otherworldly atmosphere to the very last frame. It’s a perfect example of German Expressionism–with unrealistic sets painted with bold, wild geometric designs, and objects set at impossible angles. The complexities of this impressively eerie film must be seen to be appreciated, but the most amazing scenes occur when Caligari’s ego becomes entangled with the fate of the somnambulist. Just how this silent film manages to convey Caligari’s imagination and runaway ego is truly impressive.

This Image DVD is marvelous quality for its age–however, a horizontal line appears through some of the frames. Image states that this is a fault in the print and they made the decision to leave it–rather than crop it out. The DVD also includes commentary by film scholar Mike Budd and a 3-minute portion of the film, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire. The clip was just long enough to intrigue me. Film buffs, silent film lovers, or those interested in the beginnings of horror film, do yourself a favour and seek out this film.

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Beyond the Rocks (1922)

“Fate seems to send you to me when I most need you.”

Beyond the Rocks a 1922 silent film directed by Sam Wood was re-discovered in 2000 and restored by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. The film is irreparably damaged in a couple of spots–but for silent film lovers, this film is exquisite. The story–which concerns star-crossed lovers–is fairly standard, but it’s the sole screen teaming of two silent megastars–Gloria Swanson and Rudolf Valentino.

Theodora Fitzgerald (Gloria Swanson) is the third, and youngest daughter of an impoverished, retired guardsman. The fortunes of the family–including Theodora’s two spinster sisters–rest on Theodora. Everyone hopes that she will make a fine match with a wealthy man. When the film begins, a very young Theodora ventures out in a rowboat, and is saved from drowning by Lord Bracondale (Rudolf Valentino). The meeting is a significant one, but they part. Years later, Theodora is married off to the elderly millionaire Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder), and while on a honeymoon in the Swiss Alps, Theodore reconnects with Bracondale….

Beyond the Rocks is an epic love story–beginning in Dorset, England, and then traversing to Switzerland, France, London, and then to the violence of the desert sands of the Sahara. Even though Valentino has some great heroic scenes as he rescues Theodora twice from certain death, this is largely Swanson’s film. The drama is marvelously, elegantly restrained, and the film is packaged together with a gorgeous score. DVD extras include: an introduction by Martin Scorsese, a stills gallery, a 54-minute film The Delicious Little Devil starring Valentino, a recording of Swanson from 1955, and various interviews and articles detailing the film restoration. For silent film lovers, or Swanson/Valentino fans, Beyond the Rocks is a lost treasure.

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Nosferatu (1922)

“You can’t escape destiny by running away.”

Set in the sleepy German town of Bremen, the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu is based on the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. The film company was unable to obtain the rights to the story, so the names of the Stoker’s main characters were changed to avoid legal complications. Bram Stoker’s widow sued anyway, and won. All existing copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed by the court handling the case, but since many copies were already in circulation, Nosferatu was not lost.

In this version of the vampire legend, a young married man, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is commissioned by the peculiar, repulsive Knock (Alexander Granach) to visit Count Orlock in Transylvania. Count Orlock, apparently wants to buy a house in Bremen, and Knock tells Hutter to travel to Transylvania and make the necessary arrangements with the Count. Knock tells his employee not to pay any attention to the stories of phantoms–it’s all nonsense. Hutter, who imagines that he’s hit the big time with this commission, travels to Transylvania leaving his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder) behind in the care of friends.

The trip to Transylvania builds up the suspense as Hutter travels closer and closer to the lair of the Count. Locals at an inn near the castle are full of dread, but Hutter laughs off their horror by blaming the rumours he’s been warned about. Even when he’s taken by coach to the castle, and dropped some way off because the coachmen fear to go closer, Hutter still proceeds on his journey. The Count’s nightmare castle is incredibly atmospheric, but it isn’t until Hutter slices his finger while eating dinner that it begins to dawn on him that there’s something wrong with this situation. The Count–who doesn’t look human–expresses an inordinate amount of interest in Hutter’s blood.

While Hutter becomes the Count’s next meal, his wife back in Bremen experiences horrible nightmares. Meanwhile the Count travels back to Bremen via his coffin in the cargo hold of a ship. The people back in Bremen begin to read newspaper accounts of the plague spreading throughout the region, and after Nosferatu’s coffin arrives, residents are found dead in their beds. Naturally the blame falls on the plague–a disease shrouded in mystery. Fearful residents in Bremen stay isolated in their homes, but death still finds them.

The element of sexuality always evident in later vampire films also exists in the symbolic surrender of a victim as she presents her neck to Nosferatu while collapsing on her bed. While the film is of great interest to anyone who likes silent film or German Expressionism, it’s also fascinating to watch the film and see how the Dracula legend mutated over the years with various versions. Modern versions of Dracula tend to portray him as an accomplished, enigmatic seducer. Nosferatu–on the other hand–looks like a ghoul.

F.W. Murnau’s film is a masterpiece of the imagination. Nosferatu is a nightmarish figure–a ghoul who rises from his coffin to relentlessly seek his food. The film–devoid of the special effects that dominate today’s cinema is gripping, and the scenes of the rats pouring out of the coffin are unforgettable. My Alpha DVD was fair quality given the film’s age. It was certainly watchable–one note however, in the subtitles, the original names–Count Dracula, Renfield etc. are used.

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The Eagle (1925)

“I don’t associate with masked men as a rule.”

Dashing Russian Army Lieutenant, Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolf Valentino) draws attention from Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) when he heroically captures one of her favourite horses. Catherine wants to reward him by making him a general, and while that title comes with certain privileges, it also comes with certain obligations. Catherine makes it clear that she has amorous intentions towards her new general, and while she goes to her boudoir to slip into something more comfortable, Dubrovsky escapes to the provinces.

Dubrovksy intends to return to his family estate, but in his absence, it’s been seized by Kyrilla (James Marcus). Meanwhile, Catherine, enraged by the rejection of her latest love-toy, issues a warrant for his arrest and execution.

Dubrovsky dons a mask, and calling himself the Black Eagle, he and a band of loyal followers begin robbing and generally harassing Kyrilla at every opportunity. But then Dubrovsky meets the lovely Mascha (Vilma Banky)–Kyrilla’s only child….

The Eagle  directed by Clarence Brown is great entertainment for Valentino fans. The scenes between Dubrovsky and Catherine are wonderful, and while she eyeballs him head to foot, she doesn’t hide her admiration or her insatiable nature. Dubrovsky is depicted as coy and chaste–powerful qualities that no doubt drove his hordes of female fans to distraction, and this simple but entertaining romance works well as a vehicle for Valentino’s role as yet another impossibly dashing romantic hero.

This silent film from 1925 is a decent print marred by a few, thin, black vertical lines. The DVD has no extras, and if you’ve never seen Valentino I also recommend the two-for-one Sheik/Son of the Sheik. These two films show Valentino several years apart and he measurably hones his acting skills for the later film. The Eagle is great fun for Valentino fans, but it’s not his best.

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Queen Kelly (1929)

“Unmistakably a lady of the horizontal profession.”

Queen Kelly–written and directed by Erich von Stroheim–was never completed, so all that we have is about half a film and a handful of fragments, but even so this is marvelous stuff for silent film fans. It’s a fairly simple story: Decadent Queen Regina V (Seena Owen)–the last of her line–rules her kingdom with an iron fist. She intends to marry playboy Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron), and he’s trying his best to avoid the final commitment of marriage, but that’s a little difficult as he’s both her ‘subject’ and an occupant of her opulent palace.

The film quickly establishes that both Regina and Wolfram are a dissipated pair. She’s drunk when she wakes up in the morning, and he races until dawn with a group of madcap acquaintances. Regina’s displeasure at Wolfram’s antics results in her demand that he marry her the next day and that he spend his last day of bachelorhood marching around with his men. So Wolfram and his men take to their steeds, and begin maneuvers on a road outside of a convent. Here, Wolfram meets and falls for convent orphan Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson)….

When the film went massively over budget, and star Gloria Swanson halted production after objecting to the African brothel scenes, von Stroheim was fired by the film’s financier Joseph Kennedy (Swanson’s lover). Too bad–because the film really is great fun, and I loved the African bordello–including the drooling Jan Vryheid and the prostitute Coughdrops. Everything about this film is over-the top–there’s Regina who’s fond of the whip, and she’s also not averse to tossing her cats around at the appropriate moment. And then there’s Wolfram who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to meet with Patricia Kelly–the girl with the droopy bloomers.

This wonderful Kino edition includes loads of extras, and this at least allows the viewer to piece together the story as it was intended (and we can also see Swanson’s vastly more respectable and comparatively dull ending). DVD extras include: audio commentary by biographer Richard Koszarski, outtake footage, The Kino International restored ending, the “Swanson Ending,” videotaped introduction by Gloria Swanson, excerpt of the original screenplay, production documents, photo gallery, “Man of Many Skins”–a 1952 TV performance, audio clips of cinematographer Paul Ivano, assistant William Marguiles Allan Dwan and Billy Wilder, dossier on Merry-Go-Round with excerpts of scenes directed by von Stroheim, and a note on the film from von Stroheim. Personally, I preferred the von Stroheim naughty version of the story.

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Erotikon (1920)

“I claim my rights as a deceived husband.”

The 1920 silent film Erotikon is a fairly standard tale of domestic turbulence involving a staid professor Carpentier (Anders De Wahl) and his lively young wife, Irene (Tora Teje). The story is laced with elements that hint at the impossibility of maintaining monogamous relationships, and this is underscored by the film’s alternate title, Bounds That Chafe.

The first few scenes establish the relationship between the professor and his wife. While he lectures about the sex-lives of beetles (“Generally two females will suffice, but one is never enough”), she takes to the air with a dashing baron. But is Irene attracted to the baron or is she in love with her husband’s best friend, sculptor Preben Wells (Lars Hanson)? And just what is Preben’s relationship with a beautiful model?

This tale of marital woes, laced with jealousy, extravagance, adultery, and mutton and cabbage casserole, is a treasure for silent film fans. Although not as riveting as the Louise Brooks, Valentino films, it’s still a deliciously witty tale. The essence of the main characters leaps from the screen, and Irene’s delightful, playful, fey personality is given full scope as she treads lightly through the home of her very unsuitable husband. One of the film’s highlights is an evening at the ballet attended by the Professor, Irene, and Preben. The exotic ballet is marvelous, and as the tale of adulterous love plays out on the stage, both Preben and Irene are aware that the performance reflects their forbidden feelings. The professor, whose tastes run to far less exotic fare, remains blissfully unaware of the situation brewing under his very eyes.

Special thanks to Kino for once again restoring a silent film. The print is a little damaged in spots, but who’s complaining? DVD extras: “Rediscovering Sweden: Peter Cowie Introduces the Films of Mauritz Stiller.”

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Cobra (1925)

“Women fascinate me–just like that Cobra and its victim.”

The silent film Cobra directed by Joseph Henabery is a perfect vehicle for Rudolf Valentino. In the film, Count Torriano (Valentino) is an incorrigible Don Juan who cannot help himself when it comes to relationships with women. Interestingly, Torriano’s moral redemption finally arrives through his friendship with a man.

The film begins in Italy with the father of a young woman seeking recompense against Count Torriani (Valentino). The father mistakenly confronts American antique merchant Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson) instead, and this leads to a friendship between the Count and Dorning. While Count Torriani bemoans the fact that women won’t leave him alone, Dorning offers him a job in America. Working for Dorning’s antique business will give the impoverished count an income and steer him away from women. Well that’s the idea, anyway.

The film casts Valentino as the victim of a series of rapacious women, and just like anyone with an addiction, he can’t help himself. At one point the Count compares himself to the victim of a Cobra’s hypnotic stare, and the Cobra represents the alluring female sex. The film plays this idea of Valentino as the victim, the crushed misunderstood hero who is used and abused by nasty women, but Valentino could just as well have cast as a heartless seducer who sees women as disposable objects. This is a splendid vehicle for Valentino as the film allows scope him to appear simultaneously heroic and dastardly, and of course, the idea that he can’t help himself when it comes to women certainly adds fuel to the fire. Dorning’s wife Elise (Nita Naldi) plays the serpentine vamp who tests Torriani’s moral fibre. It’s Valentino’s respect and loyalty for Dorning that causes Valentino to make the ultimate sacrifice.

There’s a pervasive sadness throughout the film, and this tone matches Torriano’s sense of regret–a sense that’s delicately hinted at but never explored. Cobra was made just a year before Valentino’s death, and his acting skills are mature and well honed. Valentino’s subtle glances and facial expressions capture Torriano’s sense of lost possibilities, and the film’s strong moral tone underscores the fact that our actions carry consequences.

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Manslaughter/The Cheat 1922/1915

“Don’t you think this is a case for mercy rather than justice?”

This double feature DVD from Kino includes two silent titles from director Cecil B. DeMille–Manslaughter (1922) and The Cheat (1915). Of the two titles–both morality tales–Manslaughter–is the stronger film.

Manslaughter is the tale of a shallow, self-centered Jazz era heiress, Lydia (Leatrice Joy) whose life is one long wild party. District Attorney Daniel O’Bannon (Thomas Meighan) loves Lydia but strongly disapproves of her behaviour. After she accidentally kills a motorcycle policeman, O’Bannon is determined that Lydia must pay her debt to society, and his goal is to send Lydia to jail in order to “save” her from herself.

Manslaughter is a wonderful film built on a great story, and the idea that O’Bannon vigorously prosecutes Lydia is never presented as Conflict of Interest–something of course, that immediately occurs to the viewer. O’Bannon is a rejected suitor, so there’s possibly another motive for his intense desire to see Lydia behind bars. O’Bannon compares Lydia’s wild parties to drunken Roman orgies, and DeMille, using O’Bannon’s mind for flights of fancy, includes scenes of decadent Roman orgies (and these must be seen to be believed).

Manslaughter examines how class affects the justice system. Lydia’s maid is found guilty of theft, and her sentence is exactly the same as Lydia’s manslaughter charge. There’s one scene when O’Bannon eyes the stacks of Lydia’s clothes, shoes and perfumes, and asks her to show mercy towards the maid’s crime, but Lydia is too superficial to even grasp the idea that poverty that might drive another to steal. The film goes overboard with the entire redemption issue, however, and at one point, Lydia praises prison as her personal “life preserver.” Manslaughter–while an indictment of the selfishly wealthy–pulls back from delivering a complete coup-de-grace against a society ruled by the upper classes. Ultimately the film maintains its hierarchal equilibrium, and it’s morally acceptable, according to the film, to be Lady Bountiful in silks and ermine as long as you feed the poor and forget the parties.

People often ask me how I can stand silent film, and my answer is that with a good silent film, it never occurs me to think I ‘miss’ the dialogue, and Manslaughter is a wonderful example of this. The film has a marvelous soundtrack that matches the mood of the action, and this epic tale–of wealth, bad luck, decadence, guilt, corruption, and redemption–provides music for almost every mood under the sun. Another really wonderful feature of the film is the performance of actress Leatrice Joy. Her facial expressions capture her complete lack of sincerity when she professes regret for causing the death of Officer Drummond. To her, everything has a price, but it doesn’t occur to her that she’ll have to pay with something other than a pearl bracelet, a smile, a flutter of her eyelashes, or even a fine.

The second feature The Cheat is the tale of a spoiled stockbroker’s wife who won’t stop spending money. Her shopoholic ways cause her to steal from the Red Cross, and she borrows a large sum from a “Burmese Ivory King” in order to cover her crime. Unfortunately, he interprets this to mean several things–all of them quite unacceptable and shocking to the upper class, spoiled and spendthrift stockbroker’s wife. The film’s final scene–a riot–is the crowning point of this film, and I loved it.

Visually, The Cheat is better quality than Manslaughter. During some scenes in Manslaughter the film flickers from time to time, and in other scenes, faces are bleached out. Keep your eyes open for the interesting use of veils in the courtroom scene of Manslaughter.

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