Tag Archives: silent film

Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

“You seem to use women too easily, my dear man. People get hurt in that game. Beware, one day one of them may avenge the others.”

I’ve been reading quite a few Zola novels lately, and since I have a fascination with the book/film connection, it was only a matter of time before I started watching film versions of Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. Some months back, I watched Gervaise (1956) which is based on the 7th novel L’Assommoir, and then recently I found a copy of Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies Paradise), a silent 1930 version of the 11th novel in the Zola series. This film is from director Julien Duvivier. He also made Pot-Bouille based on another novel in the series, but I haven’t found a copy of that with English subtitles yet.

While the novel is set in the hustle and bustle of France’s Third Empire, the film is set in the 1920s, and the film immediately captures the atmosphere of a world in flux–a world of horses, carriages and small businesses about to be replaced by cars and huge department stores.

The film begins, appropriately at a train station with the arrival in Paris of young Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphan from the country who’s arrived to join her uncle at his small shop. As she steps off the train and makes her way through the bustling streets of Paris, a plane flies overhead showering leaflets advertising the huge department store, Au Bonheur des Dames. Everywhere Denise turns there’s mention of this phenomenon and when Denise first sets eyes on the glittering lights and the gorgeous window displays, she’s mesmerised.

Unfortunately Denise’s uncle invited his niece in better times. The mammoth store Bonheur de Dames, which is directly across from her uncle’s business, has effectively ruined him.  His grimy, dingy little shop simply cannot compare to the glittering competition. He’s no longer in a position to employ anyone, and so Denise drifts across the street to the beckoning lights of the Bonheur des Dames and there she’s employed first as a floor model. 

Soon she attracts the attention of several men: a homely young clerk, the lascivious manager and the owner, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand)….

The film lacks the complexities of the book. Background information on Octave Mouret is absent, and unfortunately the film simplifies the intensity of Octave Mouret’s business acuity. In the novel, he’s a brilliant businessman, and this is detailed in several instances. In the film, however, this is distilled down to the essentials and the physical evidence of the Bonheur des Dames. For example, in the book, Octave sets in motion a fierce sense of competition between the shop clerks by giving commissions. In the film however, employee interactions are mostly limited to a brawl in the cafeteria, and a bitchiness between the floor models. Neither does the film address the dilemma of Denise’s divided loyalties, and only hints at the book’s depiction of Denise as a woman with an intuitive business sense that matches Octave’s ambition.

Although the film simplifies the book, it is not a disappointment.  The film’s strength lies in its depiction of the huge department store. Interior scenes depict a lavish, garish Tower of Babel with distant aerial shots of the customers resembling ants on a giant anthill as they ascend and descend the enormous, central sweeping staircase. Close-in shots concentrate on the madness and mayhem of the shoppers in riot-like scenes.

As Mouret plans the expansion of the Bonheur des Dames, neighbourhood shops fall victim to the insatiable appetite of progress, and phantasmagorical scenes depicting the destruction of the old shops are juxtaposed with the expansion of Mouret’s   “Temple of Temptation” to consumerism. Another scene depicts Octave’s love interest, madame Desforges (Germaine Rouer) sitting in an alcove against the backdrop of a gorgeous art deco mural. Beautiful shots of reflections in mirrors and in glass windows are scattered thoroughout the film.  Visually this is a gorgeous film and Dita Parlo’s wonderfully expressive face is complemented with plenty of close-ups.

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Father Sergius (1917)

father-sergius“I saw you in a dream.”

The 1917 film, Father Sergius (Otets Sergiy) is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, and after suffering through the 1990 version from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Night Sun/Il Sole Anche di Notte), I hunted down a copy of this original, silent film. Father Sergius was made after the February Revolution but completed before the October Revolution, and with its anti-tsarist stance, it’s an extremely important film in the history of Russian cinema. Tolstoy’s story was controversial for its implications about the Tsar’s private life and also for the implications about the priesthood. The film was not shown in cinemas until May 1918.

Co directed by Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff this is the tale of Prince Kasatsky (Ivan Mozzhukhin sometimes spelt Mozhukin). The story begins with glimpses into the character of the young Kasatsky as he attends military training school, and it’s noted that he would make a “model officer” if not for his temper.

In adulthood, Kasatsky falls in love with Maria (V. Dzheneyeva) and several scenes show Kasatsky tentatively attempting to establish a relationship with Maria, but unrequited love is in the air as he gazes at her while she gives him the cold shoulder. Unbeknownst to Kasatsky, Maria is the mistress to Tsar Nikolai I, and when rumours begin to fly around the court, the Tsar decides to marry off his mistress to avoid the scandal. Kasatsky is selected as the bridegroom, but is horrified when he learns the truth.

Devastated and humiliated, Kasatsky becomes an acolyte, a priest, a hermit, healer and a wandering holy man, and the film follows this process while emphasizing that this choice is Kasatsky’s failure to face his pride. Even as a priest, however, Kasatsky, now the bearded Father Sergius suffers the temptations of the flesh in some of the film’s very best scenes. At one point, he’s locked up with a nymphomaniac in an attempt to cure her (and the inevitable happens) and this sends him spiraling off into solitude. But even here the now middle-aged, unhappy and hysterical Maria finds him.

Actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (also known as the Russian Valentino) fled from Russia and settled in Paris, eventually trying his luck in Hollywood, but the end of silent films combined with the actor’s Russian accent ended hopes for a Hollywood career. Mozzhukhin returned to France and died there of tuberculosis in 1939.

If you are a fan of silent film, or if you are interested in Russian cinema, then seek out Father Sergius. This really is an amazing film–the sort of silent film in which you don’t ‘miss’ dialogue because the story and the acting are all encompassing. The film includes some incredible scenes–the temptations suffered by Father Sergius, a fantasy-guilt scene, and one scene (possibly the best scene in the film) in which father Sergius stares through a window and glimpses peasants dancing, and the dancing evokes poignant memories of the ball and falling in love with Maria.

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October-10 Days that Shook the World (1927)

“Down with the lackeys of the bourgeoisie.”

October (10 Days That Shook the World) written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov was commissioned by the Soviet Central Committee to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. As such, the film is a landmark slice of propaganda depicting the events of 1917, a relic not just for film lovers, and it’s a remarkable piece of revisionist history too.

The black and white silent film is told in documentary style and focuses on the efforts of the provisional government to maintain the country after deposing the Tsar in February 1917. The film was made in 1927, and by that time, Lenin was dead, and Trotsky–one of the main figures behind the Bolshevik revolution was already in the hot seat with Stalin and was effectively being cut out of the Soviet political system.

The film shows scenes with Trotsky, and doesn’t identify him at first, but then when it does it’s in a negative light. Some of the best unsubtle scenes involve the bourgeoisie women who beat up the Bolshies and tear up their flag. General Kerensky is also depicted negatively–he throws himself on the bed, covers his head with pillows and has a temper tantrum–and the tantrum continues while scene after scene depicts growing unrest in the country. The large-scale mob-scenes of the revolution remain fairly bloodless, and the emphasis is on events in Petrograd and the ineptness of the provisional government. There are some great scenes of the Mensheviks, the Savage Division and the Women’s Death Battalion. The scenes involving Lenin show the people going wild with adulation at their hero. No doubt Stalin realized that it was better (and safer) to immortalize a dead politician (Lenin), and wiser to marginalize a live one (Trotsky). As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”

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Pandora’s Box (1929) AKA Die Buchse der Pandora

 “He’s the only one who wants nothing from me.”

pandora2Pandora’s Box–in glorious black and white–was filmed in 1928 and is set in Berlin. As the title suggests, the film explores the unleashed excesses of the human vices. It’s the story of a vaudeville performer, Lulu. She is in the middle of a passionate affair with newspaper tycoon, Schoen. He wants to terminate the relationship due to the small matter of his engagement to someone else. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know that once Lulu has her charming talons in a man, he’s not going anywhere. Schoen often looks narcotized when he gazes at Lulu–he just can’t help himself. He is just one in a series of men that Lulu ruins–one way or another. Lulu is surrounded by men (and one woman) who are obsessed with her. In one scene, men literally pass each other on the stairs.

Louise Brooks stars as Lulu. Pandora’s Box was the first time I’d actually seen her in a film, and she was simply amazing to watch. This actress doesn’t need words–she uses her face instead. She conveys every thought running through Lulu’s mind with just a slight change of mood in her eyes, a self-satisfied little smile, or a miniscule shift in body language.

Several of the scenes involved large numbers of people (I call them mob scenes)–and the best of these scenes is one that takes place behind the set of a Revue. Everything was so well choreographed. The set is at once so busy–complete madness and mayhem–yet at the same time, the scene is very tightly controlled with expert precision. It’s just an amazing sequence.

The music accompanying the action is appropriate and timely. Many characters have their own signature tune–Lulu’s theme, for example, conveys a certain languid, seductive, discordant eroticism. In spite of the film’s age, the quality of the film was good, and the story seems surprisingly fresh. From director G.W. Pabst

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Blood and Sand (1922)

“Happiness and prosperity built on cruelty and bloodshed cannot survive.”

Rudolf Valentino stars as the toreador Juan Gallardo in the 1922 silent film Blood and Sand. As the son of an impoverished widow, Juan is considered a wastrel for his attraction to bullfights, and no one in his family takes his interest seriously. But when Juan is catapulted to fame for his bullfighting skills, his family–particularly his brother-in-law–become hangers-on in Juan’s growing entourage. Soon Juan, a simple Andalusian peasant, has the equivalent of a management team accompanying him to all the fights.

Juan marries the sweet and good Carmen (Lila Lee) who stays at home and prays for his safe return from the bullring. Juan’s fame spreads and he eventually becomes the greatest toreador in Spain. Decadent, devious evil vamp Dona Sol (Nita Naldi) sets out to seduce Juan and add him to her list of conquests.

While the film directed by Fred Niblo seems essentially simple–good vs. evil, a man derailed by his own fame and fortune, etc., the film is actually rather complex and powerful. Juan is seen as a victim of a rapacious society that demands entertainment through a horrendous, senseless blood sport–bullfighting. In one fascinating scene, Juan meets the infamous bandit Plumitas (Walter Long) face-to-face. Plumitas has charted Juan’s mercurial rise to fame with great interest and sees parallels in their different careers. Plumitas remarks that they are both poor men who have to face death for a living–but whereas Juan’s death will be greeted with pomp, ceremony and mourning, the state will delight at the bandit’s ignoble death. Plumitas obviously grasps and visualizes the inevitable brutal end of his bloody career, but Juan is troubled by the comparison.

A philosopher, Don Joselito, who collects torture devices to “remind himself of man’s inhumanity to man” acts as a narrator and moralist throughout the film. He too apparently studies Juan’s career and also recognizes its inevitable conclusion.

Valentino does an excellent job as the Andalusian peasant who gets in over his head and is finally corrupted by a wicked woman. It’s a sign of how absorbing a silent film is when dialogue isn’t missed, and with its haunting score, Blood and Sand is a must-see. The Alpha DVD quality is acceptable. The words on the screen faded in and out (but could still be seen) in a couple of spots, and the picture was a bit scratchy. Warning: The film contains actual footage of bullfights, but these scenes are fairly short.

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The Sheik/Son of the Sheik (1921 & 1926)

“For once your kisses are free.”

If you’ve heard about the charisma of silent star Rudolf Valentino and wondered what all the fuss is about, then a wonderfully packaged DVD from Image Entertainment is for you. The DVD presents two films The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) and naturally, Valentino stars in them both. In The Sheik directed by George Melford, Valentino plays the role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, a French-educated desert dweller. The incorrigible, willful heiress Lady Diana (Agnes Ayres) runs amok in an Arab town. The Sheik comes to town to gamble in the Arab-only casino, his eyes lock on Diana, and the die is cast. Diana sneaks into the casino disguised as a dancing girl, but all those veils don’t fool the Sheik, and he unmasks her. When the Sheik learns that Diana is taking a tour in the desert, he decides to kidnap her and take her to his sumptuous tent with the intention of making her his bride. Diana doesn’t take kindly to the kidnapping thing, and this makes for a bumpy romance….

The Son of the Sheik directed by George Fitzmaurice was made just 5 years later, and it’s the better of the two films. Valentino plays two roles–young Ahmed and his father the Sheik (the hero of the first film who’s now middle aged). Ahmed falls in love with Yasmin (Vilma Banky), a dancing girl whose father is a thief and a bandit. Yasmin’s father has promised her to another member of the gang, and this spurned lover sabotages Yasmin’s budding romance by capturing and torturing Ahmed. Ahmed, believing that Yasmin betrayed him seeks revenge–and of course this means carrying her off in the desert and throwing her in yet another sumptuous tent.

Image Entertainment’s juxtaposition of the two films allows the viewer to see the progress of Valentino as an actor. In the first film, his facial expressions are limited to gleeful grins, but in The Son of the Sheik he’s mastered a range of expressions–from cold disdain, to passion and distress. In The Sheik there’s an attempt at colorization. The daytime scenes are gold tinted. The dawn scene has a pink tinge–while the night scenes have a blue-black cast. The Son of the Sheik is much more fluid, much more exciting, and full of stunts–swordplay, fighting, and leaping on beautiful horses that race across the desert sands. The Son of the Sheik also displays Valentino stripped and tortured by the evil bandits, and the filmmaker is confident enough to include elements of comic relief found in the relationships between the thieves. The thieves’ lair–the Cafe–is stuffed full of smoking dancing girls with “hips full of abandon”, and they drive the customers mad with desire. But even with the humour, The Son of the Sheik is a much darker film for it contains a controversial implied rape scene.

Extras include three short clips of film. The first clip Rudolf Valentino and His 88 American Beauties is about 12 minutes long and shows Valentino judging a beauty contest. The second 3-minute clip is The Sheik’s Physique. It’s a teaser of sorts and shows Valentino undressing to change into a bathing suit before he lounges on the beach falling asleep. The third clip (about three minutes long) is newsreel of Valentino’s funeral in August 1926.

There’s an irony in the fact that The Son of the Sheik ‘ages’ Valentino almost beyond recognition by giving him a double role as both the hero and the hero’s father. Sadly, Valentino’s early death negated aging–he died at the age of 31 from complications of appendicitis just days after The Son of the Sheik premiered.

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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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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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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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