Tag Archives: 1925

SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.

Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith’s onetime assistant, , might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could  compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning’s standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.

While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning’s liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.

Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.

Still from Seven Chances (1925)Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film’s artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.

A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton’s girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton’s marital efforts—that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist’s inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film’s timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stone-faced Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.

The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.

Note: This was one of Keaton’s least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton’s producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.

* Next week: The Cameraman (1928) and Film (1965)

GO WEST (1925) AND ONE WEEK (1920)

 further explored his fascination with the west in his feature Go West (1925). Keaton had previously parodied the westerns of  in Frozen North (1922) and Go West is a further development of that exploration. Go West, however, is more influenced by  than by Hart; it has qualities which have to come to be termed as “Chaplinesque”, albeit filtered through “Keatonesque” sensibilities. It is said to have been Keaton’s personal favorite among his features, enough that he took solo directorial credit, which was rare for him.

Go West is the romantic (and odd) story of a cowhand drifter and his cow, with a girl in the very distant background. Keaton plays a lonely fish-out-of-water named Friendless (cue symbolism). The unemployed Friendless finally gets a job at a cattle ranch, but he is ill-equipped for the duties of a cowboy. Out of his element in this blue-collar, macho labor, Friendless is an object of ridicule to his peers. He never can bond with the other ranchers and gets so behind in his work that he always misses the company meal. Some gags are in order now, including Friendless’ clever technique for overcoming his discomfort with a six-shooter. Paralleling Friendless is an equally anti-social cow named Brown Eyes, who also does not bond with her peers. Rather, Brown Eyes gets attached to Friendless and becomes a shadow to the misfit herder, whom she loves.

Naturally, our misfit among misfits will have to overt the slaughter of Brown Eyes. Kathleen Myers, the ranch owners’ daughter, develops a soft spot for the bohemian pair and pleads with Papa to show mercy, which is about all the lackluster Myers gets to do. (With few exceptions, Keaton’s leading ladies are pretty much wallpaper and Myers’ character is true to that rule. Keaton never developed or nurtured a consistent female foil of the type or played for Chaplin).

Still from Go West (1925)Although Keaton pulls audience heartstrings here, he never milks it with obviousness, but rather imbues it with inherent strangeness. Keaton, per the norm, builds the film to an epic climax which involves a stampede in town. Havoc ensues, although it is pretty much an extended single joke of cattle wandering into places and circumstances in which they do not belong.

The most inventive gag is Friendless donning a devil’s outfit and literally becoming a waving red flag to round-up the wayward herd. Keaton pulls out all the stops and the finale is grandly executed—although much to Keaton’s dismay, the cattle was not as cooperative as he had hoped for, and compromises had to be made in the shooting script. Naturally, the eccentric duo will save the day and Friendless will choose his longhorn over the real live girl as a reward.

One Week (1920) is co-directed by  and was Keaton’s first real solo short after a lucrative three-year apprenticeship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Keaton clearly had learned his trade and developed a vision; One Week is a masterpiece, co-starring, for the first time, Sybil Seely, who was the closest Keaton would come to a regular leading lady.

Keaton establishes a decidedly more progressive and idiosyncratic stylization here: inventive and intelligent slapstick through elaborate set demolition and madcap, highly choreographed stunt work.

Uncle Mike gifts newlyweds Keaton and Seely a house and a lot. Seely’s old suitor, Handy Hank, is incensed. Much to the newlyweds’ dismay, they discover their house comes in a box, which they have to assemble. There are directions, which simply instruct to “follow the numbers.” A vengeful Hank jumbles the numbers. Carpentry is simply not Keaton’s trade, ND the result is a surreal house which makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa look stable.

The house on sand will come a tumbling down, a gag Keaton will perfect in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Perhaps the most surprising element here is Selly’s bath scene in which she drops her soap and the cameraman spares her modesty by covering the lens with his hand. Seely is understandably grateful. It’s easy to see why Keaton preferred Seely. He may not have given her  a lot to do on-screen, but her sexy and sweet personality shows through in every frame she occupies. One Week rounds up with an extended storm sequence.

Next Week: Seven Chances (1925).

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S THE GOLD RUSH (1925) CRITERION COLLECTION

The Criterion Collection’s remastered The Gold Rush (1925) is undoubtedly the Charlie Chaplin release of 2012. For years, the prevailing critical consensus was that Gold Rush was Chaplin’s feature film masterpiece. However, a newer generation of critics have since argued that honor should go instead to City Lights (1931). The Gold Rush receives criticism for its episodic structure; however, all of Chaplin’s features, including City Lights, are episodic to a degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing, making that a moot critique.

The Criterion Collection release features the 1925 original, along with the 1942 re-edit that omitted the intertitles in favor of narration (by Chaplin) and economically trimmed down of some excess plot developments. While the 1942 version does look better and the editing is better paced, Chaplin’s voice-over actually dates the film far worse than the silent original.

Chaplin had a voice which carried well into the sound era. He intuitively knew that silent film was a different art form, however. Thinking about marketing, he seemed to have forgotten that fact. The 1942 version illustrates the artist’s discomfort with sound. Chaplin never could wrap his art around the new sound medium, and he pointlessly tells us what we are already seeing. Some may prefer the 1942 version, but my concentration will be on the superior, original version that audiences of 1925 saw.

While The Gold Rush exhibits Chaplin’s characteristic pathos, here it is far better balanced with his brand of comedy than any of his other features (when the pathos, often, nearly soaked the films).

Chaplin’s increasing need for audience sympathy marred may of his later features. Here, he keeps that need in check, and all for the better. Chaplin’s Mutual shorts are considered by many (including Chaplin) to be his best work. One of the reasons for that is the presence of his best nemesis in Eric Campbell. But, when Campbell was killed in an automobile accident in 1917, Chaplin was left without a great heavy. His first feature film, The Kid (1921) was able to bypass that. For this, Chaplin’s second Tramp feature, two villains were needed: the bonafide villain Black Larson (Tom Murray) and reformed villain Big Jim McCay (Mack Swain). While neither Swain nor Murray could replace Campbell, they were aptly cast and give the film needed tension.

The Gold Rush‘s most discussed scene is the dance of the dinner rolls, often imitated (and usually badly—Chaplin was a master at utilizing props for something other than their intended use).  What may be the most compelling scene, however, is the surreal chicken hallucination. Everyone has seen this scene spoofed in countless Looney Tune shorts. The starving villain (Swain) imagines his buddy (Chaplin) to be a walking meal (in this case, a plump chicken). Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene (complete with shoe laces substituting for noodles) and the rocking house at the edge of the cliff are additional surreal vignettes.

Still from The Gold Rush (1925)While Chaplin was never a Surrealist, many of his films contained surreal vignettes. The Kid had the dream of heaven, Sunnyside (1919) has the Tramp frolicking in a ballet with hill nymphs. Perhaps it was Chaplin’s occasional, natural elements of Surrealism which endeared him to the movements luminaries, such as André Breton. Next to and Buster Keaton, Chaplin was the filmmaker most cited by the Surrealists.

As The Gold Rush progresses, hunger, the struggle for survival, and harsh elements give way to a soapy romance with the dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). Chaplin had originally cast 15 year-old Lita Grey in the role, but his getting her pregnant necessitated a new lead actress. While Chaplin does milk sympathy as a rejected lover, he never does it (here) at the expense of the film’s comedic tone.

As to be expected, the Criterion extras are abundant: both film versions, a 15 minute short (Presenting The Gold Rush), audio commentary, booklet, a look at Chaplin the composer, and James Agee’s famous 1942 review of the film.

 

ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)

With this 2011 Warner Archive Release, most of Erich von Stroheim’s “personally directed” films have been released with the inexplicable, frustrating exclusion of his legendary, mutilated Greed (1924).   Only von Stroheim could have taken Franz Lehar’s 1905 giddy operetta “The Merry Widow” and turned it into a silent fetishistic melodrama.  The Merry Widow stars Mae Murray and John Gilbert.  Murray’s screen persona alternated between virgin and vamp . Here, she is the virgin who becomes the much sought after prize.  Despite having unique on-screen charisma, Murray, one of early cinema’s true divas, was among those who could not make the transition to sound, and her off-screen life was not afforded a happy ending.  She married a real-life Prince who forced her to leave MGM, then divorced her, and took custody of their children.  Years later, Murray, homeless, was arrested for sleeping on park bench in NYC.  She died, forgotten and in poverty, in a nursing home in 1965.  Gilbert’s decline into alcoholism is, of course, far better documented.

Still from The Merry Widow (1925)Quite surprisingly, The Merry Widow was a critical and box office success for von Stroheim.  The film was so successful that it was remade in 1934 by Ernst Lubitsch (as a musical, replete with the Lubitsch touch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald) and in a best-forgotten 1952 version starring Lana Turner.  Despite a studio mandated, ill-fitting happy ending, von Stroheim’s silent version is, predictably, the most bizarre.  The director added much to the story, stamping it with his idiosyncratic touch and causing the film to go considerably over schedule and over budget. The previous Continue reading ERICH VON STROHEIM’S THE MERRY WIDOW (1925)

ROLAND WEST’S THE MONSTER (1925) STARRING LON CHANEY

The Monster (1925) is part of  the extensive Warner Archive Collection 2011 releases. This film, directed by Roland V. West and starring Lon Chaney, goes a considerable length to prove the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Essentially, The Monster is the precursor for the tongue-in-cheek old-dark-house-with-malevolent-horror-star-as-host movie. Considerably later,Vincent Price and William Castle visited The Monster‘s familiar territory in the House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has become the stereotypical example of the genre.

Director Roland V. West revisited The Monster territory again in the following year’s hit, The Bat and, yet again with sound in The Bat Whispers (1930) (for which he is most remembered—well, he may actually be best remembered for giving  a deathbed confession that he murdered his girlfriend Thelma Todd).The Monster is the least known of West’s dark house trilogy and, although it is the weakest of the three, it retains interest for several reasons.

The Monster is an oddity in the way it uses star Chaney. Chaney’s body of work goes a considerable distance in debunking his reputation as a “horror” actor.  The few horror films Chaney appeared in are more aptly described as bizarre, densely psychological melodramas.  The Monster, however, could serve as a prototype for a genre celebrity in a B-movie parody. Chaney’s Dr. Ziska is strictly cartoon horror.  He could romp with Baron Boris in Mad Monster Party (1967), or brew up a Gossamer with Bugs in Hare-Raising Hare (1946).

Hick amateur Johnny (Johnny Arthur) has just gotten his detective license in the mail, just in time to try and solve a local whodunit disappearance. Johnny, the local nerd, has his eye on Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she’s on the arm of the local jock hero. If only Johnny could solve the case and win the girl. This setup leads the three teens to the local spooky house run by Dr. Ziska, a mad surgeon running a former sanitarium. Ziska is aided by caped ghoul who rolls imagined smokes and, with the aid of a mirror, plays saboteur to cars on lonely back roads. Ziska is also assisted by the hulking mute, Rigo.

Still from The Monster (1925)Trap doors, laundry chutes, secret basements and an electric chair are the props in West’s dream-world. Chaney’s Ziska is surprisingly foppish with smoking jacket, a flapper-like quellazaire, and a wayward eyebrow. Ziska wears a menacing grin at all times, making him a possible first member of a Grand Guignol Three Stooges which might include Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in their lean salad days. Foppish or not, Ziska is man enough to get aroused when he straps poor Betty to the table. With Rigo’s Frankenstein monster-like presence, about the only thing missing is a Vampirella to play opposite Ziska’s Dr. Deadly.

The Monster is not great cinema, its not the best West, best Chaney, or best Old Dark House movie ( would deliver that seven years later), but it is silent pulp and, in the right mindset, it can take you back to the days of milk duds and acne.

TOD BROWNING’S THE MYSTIC (1925)

Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The Mystic from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Show (1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929).  The early knife-throwing act seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown The Mystic (1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival.  The main attraction of the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle).  Zara is  part of a trio which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert Ober).  Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.

Still from The Mystic (1925)Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to take their act to America, where they can bilk  naive, rich Manhattanites out of their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the scam.  To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed aside.  Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience.  He becomes reluctant to swindle a young heiress.  The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must want her for himself; but, Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest life for Zara.  Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law (1920), as are the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.

Pringle shows considerable screen charisma; or, at least, Browning draws it out of her here.  Her performance compares to other great female roles in Browning’s ouevre: Joan Crawford in The Unknown and Lupe Velez in Where East is East.  In many scenes, such as the knife throwing scene, Pringle looks remarkably like Crawford; in close-ups, Pringle exudes the same soft sensuality and subtle anguish.  In other scenes, Pringle shares the bubbly quality that we see later in Velez’s performance. At other times Pringle calls to mind the mysterious exoticism of Edna Tichenor.  Unfortunately, Pringle and Browning never got to work together again.  The actress was reportedly difficult to work with; most of her co-stars considered he an intellectual snob.  Indeed, she kept company with many of the artisans and intellectuals of her day.  George Gershwin and H.L. Mencken were among her notable lovers and she was married, briefly, to author James M. Cain.  Pringle’s acting career never really took off, and she didn’t seem to care.  She remained active in films (mostly small parts, which included uncredited roles) up until the mid 1940s and died in 1989 at the age of 94.

Because of the lack of usual Browning stars, The Mystic is an interesting, lesser known film in the director’s canon.  Not only is it thematically related to his other films, but it also shows the idiosyncratic continuity of his taste in actresses and his ability to mold actors, whoever they were.

Note: the luxurious costumes for The Mystic were the work of legendary French designer Erté.  Erté, who was a big fan of Georges Méliès, later said it was a thrilling experience to collaborate with such a distinguished surrealist as Tod Browning.

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)

In 2011 Warner Brothers has finally released a series of Lon Chaney films on DVD. Of these, the 1925 Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning, is of considerable interest. The Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations The Unknown (1927) and a photo still reconstruction of the legendary, lost London After Midnight (1927) were released  a few years ago on a box set highlighting the actor.  Before that, Image Entertainment released the first two films Browning made with Chaney, The Wicked Darling (1919) and Outside the Law (1920).  Their The Big City (1928)  also seems to be forever lost, which leaves four neglected films: Where East is East (1929), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Road to Mandalay (1926, in truncated and badly deteriorated form), and The Blackbird (1926).   Hopefully, the release of The Unholy Three is a sign that the studio will release the remaining films of  the strangest collaboration between director and actor in cinema history.

Among the new Lon Chaney DVD releases is the 1930 sound remake of The Unholy Three with Jack Conway directing Chaney and a mostly different cast. The only point of  interest in the latter film is the novelty of hearing Chaney’s voice.  As in the silent film, the actor took on various disguises, this time allowing 1930 audiences to potentially envision the famed “Man of a Thousand Faces” as, additionally,  the “Man of a Thousand Voices.”  It was not to be. Chaney died shortly after filming and the resulting one and only film to feature the actor’s voice does not realize that potential.   Chaney, dying of throat cancer, is hoarse throughout the film. To make matters worse, actor Harry Earles was far more magnetic and compelling in silent films.  His thick German accent in the sound remake is an epic distraction.

Still from The Unholy Three (1925)Lon Chaney’s style of acting was so ingrained in the silent film style of emoting that he was understandably reluctant about making the transition to sound.  Knowing Browning to be equally uneasy with sound, Chaney unwisely requested the pedestrian Conway to direct.  Under Conway, who had no feel or vision for the strange, the remaining cast in the sound remake are sanitized, hack versions of the far more eccentric and genuine cast in Browning’s silent film.

The original, silent Unholy Three (1925) catapulted Browning into star director status.  Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)