Tag Archives: 1924

LIST CANDIDATE: L’INHUMAINE (1924)

The Inhuman Woman

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marcel L’Herbier

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: A celebrity singer feels responsible for the suicide of a young suitor.

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Too weird for 1924, when screenings reportedly prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its numerous detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.

COMMENTS: L’inhumaine is a riot of Futurist preoccupations, with sets and themes evoking then-current Euro-chic: Cubism, Art Deco, German Expressionism (filtered through French Impressionism) and even a bit of Surrealism. Director Marcel L’Herbier’s intent was partly to showcase all the new movements in the art world for 1925’s Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. To this end he invited artists like painter Fernand Léger and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to put their individual stamps on the various sets. The outside of singer Claire Lescot’s mansion are Cubist, and model cars pull up in front to drop off attendees for her soirees. She takes her meals in a grand geometric hall; the dinner table is on an interior peninsula surrounded by a pool in with swimming swans, and butlers in eerie smiling masks serve hors d’oeuvres. Claire has an indoor “winter garden” with giant ferns, and Einar’s laboratory, lined with neon and filled with strange machinery, makes Dr. Frankenstein’s digs look subtle and restrained. Every detail is so heavily artificed that even the real sets look like painted cardboard backdrops.

L’Herbier uses every camera trick in the silent arsenal: irises, tinted footage to denote different moods and locales, double images, words appearing in mid-air, lightning-fast Soviet-style montage (which reaches a fevered peak in the still-awesome final “resurrection” sequence with its spinning dials and rocking pendulums overlaid on a veering camera and certain-to-cause-seizures strobe effects). Watching this, you’ll understand why fell in love with the 1920s (I wonder if “The Heart of the World“‘s competing suitors explicitly nod to L’Inhumaine). The acting is theatrical and possibly old-fashioned even for 1924 (watch as the evil maharajah narrows his eyes when introduced to signal his untrustworthiness), but still appropriate for melodrama. But the film’s biggest detriment, and the thing that holds it back for unqualified classic status, is the miscasting of matronly opera star Georgette Leblanc as the fabulous beauty who enchants the hearts of the world’s most eminent men. Leblanc put up half the money for the production, essentially buying the role; but I don’t care how well she sings or how glittery the tiara, no man is going to commit suicide for a woman who compares only slightly favorably to your Aunt Martha. Imagine how effective L’Inhumaine might have been if they’d cast an actress who looked more like Maria in Metropolis!

The Blu-ray, a co-production between France’s Lobster Films and the United States’ Flicker Alley, offers the viewer the choice of either French or English subtitles, as well as a choice of music. The Alloy Orchestra’s percussion-heavy, mechanistic performance is perhaps closer to the score’s original intent—you can occasionally hear a touch of George Anthiel in it—but drummer Aidje Tafial’s progressive jazz accompaniment is superior. He leads an ensemble featuring percussion, accordion, vibes and trumpet, and the abstract spaces the group explores suggest an agreeable affinity between the old and new avant-gardes. Sadly, composer Darius Milhaud’s original score is thought to be lost.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the Alloy Orchestra accompanied a screening that left hundreds of us wondering who slipped the hallucinogens into the popcorn… it’s so completely what it is, so fervent in its devotion to then-fashionable notions of modernism, it’s hard to adjust your eyes to the real world again.”–Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune (2016 screening)

THE NAVIGATOR (1924) AND FROZEN NORTH (1922)

The Navigator (1924) was ‘s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic.

Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (, Keaton’s leading lady from Sherlock Jr.).

The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this film’s box office appeal. (Yes, once upon a time, the one percent were not adulated by Hollywood. Rather, they were ridiculed because that ancient, naive generation actually believed that people were not defined by dyed green paper or quantity of possessions).

Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal of marriage and, after a series of circumstances, they find themselves aboard the adrift schooner, the Navigator. When they are left to fend for theirselves, without the aid of a servant, pandemonium is the result. Far from the idyllic honeymoon he imagined, Rollo is forced to assist in fixing breakfast. Much to his dismay, he discovers that a butcher knife is not the best way to open a can of food. Betsy learns how not to make coffee. Unground beans and seawater do not a good brew make.

Still from The Navigator (1924)An expressionistic play on shadows, via clever use of candles, reveals the consummating kiss Rollo and Betsy will never have. This is but one example we find of Keaton pushing the art of film in ways no other American filmmaker was doing at the time.

Co-director Donald Crisp makes an unbilled cameo, in the form of a sinister sea captain’s picture inadvertently placed in front of a porthole, which predictably gives Rollo a bad case of late night jitters. (With the advent of sound, Crisp abandoned directing and became a much sought after character actor, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty, JezebelHow Green Was My Valley, and National Velvet). Roman candles, soggy cards, a rainstorm, and sleeping arrangements round off a disastrous “wedding night.”

The first night over, Betsy and Rollo have brilliantly overcome the menial chores, which of course makes way for larger-scale challenges to come. A master of the slow burn, Keaton, as usual, revels in the second half. Nothing less than cannibals craving white meat is their first obstacle. (Unfortunately, one area in which audiences of the time were indeed embarrassingly naive was in their racial stereotypes, and Keaton was not exempt from that).

In order to fix a leaky ship drifting towards the excited natives, Rollo and Betsy pull out the deep-sea divers manual. Down in the murky ocean below, Rollo meets a couple of swordfish and, in the film’s most iconic highlight, he seizes one fish and engages in an underwater fencing duel with the second.

The showdown with the cannibals is worthy of a Loony Tune, and a grand finale gag is amongst the best of silent cinema. Aside from the stereotypes, The Navigator is remarkably contemporary. McGuire is a near-perfect and sweet foil for Keaton, breathlessly matching him. In one of their best scenes together, she straddles him (in his diving gear), using him as a lifeboat, and paddles them back to the temporary safety of the ship.

The Navigator was among a generous crop of 2012 Kino Keaton Blu-ray releases. It is also available in Kino’s indispensable “The Art of Buster Keaton” DVD box set.

The Frozen North (1922) is a seventeen minute short, co-directed by frequent Keaton collaborator Edward. F. Cline. It is another of Keaton’s venture into informal surrealism. Unfortunately, it is not an entirely successful effort, which may be due, in part, to its missing three minutes of footage. Frozen North is Keaton’s parody of western actor . Hart had publicly condemned Keaton’s friend and mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle, during the comedian’s famous murder trial. Upon seeing Frozen North, Hart was incensed and did not speak to Keaton for years.

Keaton plays the villain, a caricature of Hart’s screen persona: melodramatic machismo (cigarette flip), questionable ethics (two-gun firing), and saccharine pathos (tears and all). Keaton uses a cardboard cutout of Hart in order to rob locals in a tavern, then brutally murders a kissing couple, only to realize that he has shot the wrong wife in the wrong house. Keaton callously dances with his wife’s unconscious body, vacuums an igloo, plays tennis with snowballs, disguises himself as Sam the Snowman, and is envisioned as Erich von Stroheim by a woman who he is trying to rape. Keaton also pays brief  homage to vamp Theda Bara, but it all turns out to be a dream.

The humor in Frozen North is atypical with Keaton at his blackest, bleakest, and strangest. With its Yukon scenes, it clearly influenced ‘s The Gold Rush (1925). Kino’s restoration is as good as it can be for a film that only exists in a dissipated, fragmented state. It is available on 2012’s equally essential Buster Keaton: Short Films Collection 1920-1923.”

*Next Week: Go West ( 1925 ) and One Week (1920).

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

 never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) and Frozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism.

At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton’s body of work. Being one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema, but the phantasmagoric qualities always serve a linear narrative.

In this meticulously crafted, compact film, Keaton is a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. Keaton is trying to win the affections of a girl (), but has a dastardly rival (Ward Crane). In attempt to steal McGuire from Keaton, Crane frames our protagonist as a thief. With his “How To Be A Detective” book in hand, Keaton follows closely on the heels of Crane.

The basic theme of any Keaton film is an everyday man attempting to win a pretty girl. Naturally, he encounters unrequited love and then must overcome insurmountable odds to win the heroine’s affections, which he usually does. The consummation of hero and heroine is of no interest, it is in the journey to true love that we encounter the joy of Keaton’s cinematic foreplay. Tensions, triumphs, failures and rebounds populate his promenade.

Still from Sherlock Jr. (1924)Keaton, who disavowed any claims of intellectualism, simply was inventive in spicing that repeated dish. Yet, Keaton’s interpretation of “spice” was, by any standards, a fearless one. Although he looks the part of a stone faced average Joe, once the projectionist dreams himself into celluloid, he becomes a flawless and imposing detective. Only someone with Keaton’s athletic abilities could have pulled the transition off so brilliantly. Keaton did, however, fracture his neck during the making of the film, which resulted in years of severe migraines. This was one of numerous injuries Keaton sustained throughout his career. In addition to aesthetic muscle flexing, Keaton shows off his virtuoso prowess as a billiard player in a compelling vignette. Despite that, Keaton never fails to remember his primary goal: to be a clown.

One of the funniest and most clever scenes in Sherlock Jr. is its finale in which actors on a fifty-foot screen teach the projectionist how to kiss a girl.

Sherlock Jr. was a substantial influence on ‘s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

Next week, a Keaton double feature: the shorts Playhouse (1921) and the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).

ROBERT WIENE’S THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924)

Robert Wiene’s 1924  film, The Hands of Orlac is the first of several film adaptations of Maurice Renard’s story of a concert pianist who hands are amputated and replaced with the hands of a murderer.  Of the remakes, the most notable is unquestionably Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love with an all star 30’s cast of Peter Lorre, Colin Clive, Francis Drake, and Ted Healy.  Freund’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, also filmed Citizen Kane (1940) and critic Pauline Kael famously noted the considerable visual influence Freund’s film had on Welles.  Peter Lorre also starred yet another version of the story, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) which allegedly was (anonymously) written by Luis Buñuel (doubtful) and Curt Siodmak (much more likely) and directed by Robert Florey.

Mad Love shifted the primary focus from cursed hands to mad scientists and unrequited love.  While that film has its admirers, it is not an example of Expressionist film. As compared to its counterpoints in painting and in music, Expressionism really only existed in the art form of silent filmThe Hands of Orlac conjures up the hands of Expressionist painter Egon Schiele and composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Still from The Hands of Orlac (1924)‘s performance can only be described as expressed inner rhythm.  His acting, like the greatest of silent actors, is a visceral dance.  Later, Veidt proved to be as naturalistic an actor as Hollywood required (i.e, his next to last role as the Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca, ironically, one of several Nazi roles played by the staunchly anti-Nazi actor who had been targeted for assassination in Hitler’s Germany); still, Veidt is, justifiably, remembered  for his earlier, eminently stylized acting.  His Orlac is almost the text book essence of Weimar Cinema (even if it was an Austrian production) and justifies the actor’s claim that “I never got Caligari out of my system.”  The hallucinatory fever billows in the veins of the actor’s brow.

Alexandra Sorina’s performance is a suitable match to her co-star and their scenes together are, often, erotic, but in a way one might find eroticism in a canvas of Emil Nolde. Wiene’s style is far more subdued here than in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The exaggerated sets echo Orlac’s distorted vision and the film itself is ominously paced like a somnambulist walk.

PAUL LENI’S WAXWORKS (1924)

Kino International included ‘s 1924 Waxworks in its German Horror Classics collection.  While the usual Kino craftsmanship has gone into remastering and merchandising, the inclusion of Leni’s breakthrough film is a bit of a misclassification.  Waxworks is not a “horror” film.  It is representative of what may possibly be the most experimental period in the medium of film: German .  This style exploded with Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which turned out to be an even more influential film than D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).

Leni was among the apprentice filmmakers and artisans profoundly influenced by Caligari. That inspiration came to fruition in the anthology film Waxworks ( screenplay by Henrik Galeen, also responsible for Golem-1920 and Nosferatu-1922). Leni’s breakthrough film is no mere carbon copy of Caligari.  Indeed, Waxworks is something of a yardstick for what an anthology film should be.  William Dieterle (later an esteemed director whose credits include 1937’s Life of Emile Zola, the superior 1939 remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1940’s Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet) plays several characters, including the poet hired to write an article about wax figures of historical tyrants in a sideshow museum.  This framing sequence segues into a fantastic, carnivalesque omnibus.  In the first segment, Emil Jannings play Al-Raschid.  In this introductory Caliph vignette, Leni’s design work with Max Reinhardt is at its most impressive and expansive.  The ambiance is, paradoxically, both larger than life and remarkably introverted.  Fanciful, intricate roads wind and turn, leading to the Caliph’s aberrant belfry.  Gloom-laden canvases, crackling signs, and a towering wheel are remnants of a spidery, crepuscular  bacchanal.  Caligari‘s design is comparatively static next to this fluid, humorous, and transcendental Arabian tale.

Still from Waxworks (1924) gives a harrowing, anemic performance as Ivan the Terrible.  Angular and clammy, this segment is a paranoid fable which ends with a stark, memorable scene of the scourged despot forever turning the hour glass, convinced of his fate (death by poisoning).  Leni’s use of Eastern Orthodox iconography, inhabiting a shadowy world, is refreshingly and expressively idiosyncratic.  Helmar Lerski’s cinematography, which proved to be a considerable influence on Eistenstein, aggrandizes Ivan’s maniacal state.

The Jack the Ripper finale has been much discussed and is more a sketch than a climax. Werner Krauss plays the infamous Whitechapel serial killer who dominates the shadows, blade in hand, awaiting the poet and his lover.  This surreal whisper was originally intended to lead into a fourth narrative based off Vulpius’ “Rinaldo Rinaldini.”  Although the dreaded captain’s wax likeness can be seen in several scenes, budget restraints forced that narrative to be deleted.

After Waxworks, Hollywood beckoned.  Considering what was to follow in Hitler’s Germany, Leni’s departure from his homeland may have saved the Jewish artist, but, most cruelly, fate prematurely deprived him, and us, of his life and art.

VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director ,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).

After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the Continue reading VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY