Tag Archives: Silent Film

287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

“At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued.”–Jaque Catelain, in his biography of Maurice L’Herbier

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: Claire Lescot, a celebrity opera singer, hosts a soirée at her modernist mansion for her many male admirers and suitors. Among these is the young engineer Einar, whom she toys with and eventually scorns. When Einar commits suicide, it causes a scandal and Claire is castigated for her callousness; but is there more to his mysterious death than meets the eye?

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

BACKGROUND:

  • Maurice L’Herbier started his career as a writer; his fascination for cinema partly developed when he was assigned to the French Army’s Cinematographic Service, where it was his job to document the horrors of WWI.
  • Star Georgette Leblanc, an opera singer, put up 50% of the production cost. L’Herbier offered her a script which she deemed too noncommercial, and he had it rewritten according to her suggestions.
  • The production design was divided among several leading international avant-garde artists, each of whom was responsible for creating a different set. These artists were all featured in the influential 1925 Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Art, for which L’Herbier was also a member of the jury.
  • Extras in the 2,000-strong audience that boos Claire included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. To set the mood, dissonant composer George Antheil played piano as the opening act.
  • The original score by Darius Milhaud is lost, although he may have recycled some of the themes for use in later compositions.
  • As was typical for avant-garde performances of the period, fights erupted at the screening.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many crazed sets to choose from—Claire’s dining room isthmus, her spiky green “winter garden,”  Einar’s disorienting Cubist laboratory—that we were totally confounded at picking just one. Fortunately, we can go with a bizarre costuming choice instead: the masked butlers in short pants with smiles (literally) plastered on their faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Perma-grin waiters; backwards television; riotous resurrection montage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Too weird for 1924, when screenings prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its many 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.


Blu-ray trailer forL’Inhumaine

COMMENTS: It’s fitting that L’Inhumaine stars an opera star (playing Continue reading 287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf Angelo Rossito (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

LIST CANDIDATE: L’INHUMAINE (1924)

L’Inhumaine has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this review.

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 extrerior of singer Claire Lescot’s mansion is 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 from 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 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)

249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

Snow White

Blancanieves combines the characteristic language of documentary, a typical feature of Spanish realist cinema, with other devices from the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (fades, magical connections, etc.), typical of silent film – which in some cases call to mind Luis Buñuel’s surrealist aesthetic. These paradoxical styles help to create a visual atmosphere which is appropriate to the somewhat sinister tale by the Brothers Grimm which serves as the pretext of the film.”–Jorge Latorre

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Pablo Berger

FEATURING: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sergio Dorado

PLOT: Antonio Villalta is a famous bullfighter with a pregnant wife who is distracted in the ring and gored by a bull. The accident leaves him wheelchair-bound, his wife dies giving birth to his daughter, and he marries his nurse Encarna, a cruel and manipulative sociopath who only wants him for his fortune. Encarna at first keeps Carmen, Antonio’s daughter, as a servant girl and virtual slave on the estate, but orders her killed when she is found visiting her father against her stepmothers will; Carmen escapes and is rescued by a band of dwarfs who travel Spain performing a novelty bullfighting act.

Still from Blancanieves (2102)

BACKGROUND:

  • The folk tale “Snow White” was first set down in print by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
  • Dwarf matadors (known as “charlotada”), who would warm up the crowd before the main event, were a real phenomenon in Spanish bullfighting.
  • Writer/director Pablo Berger cites ‘s Freaks (1932) as one of his main inspirations for the script.
  • Blancanieves was in development for eight years before filming began. This means that it was conceived before The Artist, the revivalist silent film that won the Academy Award in 2011.
  • The film won 10 Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Film and Best Actress for villainess Maribel Verdú. Spain submitted it to the Academy Awards but it was not one of the five foreign film finalists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pablo Berger’s film utilizes simple tricks that would have been available to filmmakers in the 1920s, including frequent use of superimposed double images. The most effective of these is the shadowy skull that flashes over the skin of the apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it (using a syringe), while her intended victim basks in the crowd’s adulatory applause in the background, out of focus.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rooster cam; transvestite bullfighting dwarf; crying corpse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “I have this idea for a Snow White adaptation set among Spanish bullfighters in the 1920s, but how can I make it weird? I know! I’ll make it an expressionistic silent film, and make one of the dwarfs a transvestite and give the wicked stepmother a penchant for S&M!” Well done, Pablo Berger.


Original U.S. release trailer for Blancanieves

COMMENTS: As the early career of Guy Maddin reminds us, silent Continue reading 249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)

200. METROPOLIS (1927)

“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier… Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities.”–H.G. Wells

“Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. That which it recounts is trivial, overblown, pedantic and outdatedly romantic. But, if to the tale we prefer the “plasitco-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astonishing book of images it is possible to compose.”–Luis Buñuel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: The future city of Metropolis is starkly divided between two classes: the rulers who spend their days in pleasure gardens, and the workers who live underground and run the massive machines that supply the city with power. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the most powerful man in Metropolis, discovers the existence of the underground world when he becomes entranced by beautiful Maria, a woman who prophesies to the workers that a Mediator will come to unite the two classes. Joh is not happy with this development and he enlists the scientist Rotwang to kidnap Maria and create a robotic duplicate of her to discredit her with the workers; but the doctor, who harbors a personal grudge against Fredersen, sabotages the plan.

Still from Metropolis (1927)
BACKGROUND:

  • Metropolis cost 5 million reichmarks to produce (about $24 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). This would make it one of the most expensive movies of its era, and although its cost has often been exaggerated, it did almost send its studio into bankruptcy. The movie utilized thousands of extras: reports range between 25,000-37,000 people.
  • Adolph Hitler was a fan of Metropolis, despite having banned another of Fritz Lang’s films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for its anti-Nazi sentiments. Joseph Goebbels told Lang that he would be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage (the director’s mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism). Goebbels offered him a position as head of UFA, Germany’s national studio, which Lang declined.
  • Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay for Metropolis and followed up with a novelization of the story. She willingly joined the Nazi party in 1932. Lang and von Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang fled to France in 1934, and then went on to Hollywood in 1936.
  • In the early years of movies, the concept of film preservation had not yet been formed, and many movies were lost when the prints decayed or were deliberately destroyed. At 153 minutes, Lang’s original Metropolis cut was too long for many exhibitors of the time, and 30 minutes were deleted after the premier for international audiences. Portions of the original uncut prints of Metropolis did not survive, and it was long thought that a complete version of the film would never surface. In 2008, however, a nearly complete print containing an additional 25 minutes of footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Although of poor quality, the segments were incorporated into existing prints of Metropolis and the film was re-released to theaters (and later on home video) as “the Complete Metropolis.” A few minutes of footage are still believed to be forever lost, however.
  • Ranked #35 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest movies of all time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The robot encircled by electrified rings as it takes on the form of Maria is not only Metropolis‘ most memorable vision, it’s one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An allegory of steely skyscrapers and miserable sewers, Metropolis is a movie that reveals, and revels in, the unique power of silent film to create an experience that feels more like living through a myth than listening to a story. Divorced from dialogue, drained of color, it is the pure images that stick in our memory, like fragments of a dream. Metropolis is not the weirdest film on our List, but its influence is seen throughout fantastic cinema (the cityscapes of Brazil would not have the same shape without it, to name just one example). Metropolis is simply too big to ignore.


Trailer for the 2010 restoration of Metropolis

COMMENTS: There is hardly an ounce of reality in Metropolis, which Continue reading 200. METROPOLIS (1927)

CAPSULE: CHARLESTON PARADE (1927)

Sur un Air de Charleston

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Renoir

FEATURING: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins

PLOT: In 2028, an explorer from Africa in a futuristic flying sphere visits a devastated Paris, where a scantily-clad flapper with a pet gorilla teaches him how to do the native dance—the Charleston.

Still from Charleston Parade (1927)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a cute time-capsule oddity, but it’s also throwaway fluff—it lacks weird heft.

COMMENTS: Jean Renoir was an early cinema pioneer, and the son of famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Catherine Hessling was Renoir pere‘s last muse and model, and Renoir fils‘ first wife and leading lady. Jean’s cinema career would eventually result in conventional, realist stalwarts like The Grand Illusion (1935) and Rules of the Game (1937), but the short “Charleston Parade” shows him at a playful, experimental early stage. (Renoir did not make much money from his silent films, and actually sold his father’s paintings to finance them). “Charleston Parade” was made in three days on a lark. It was condemned in Puritanical America because of the amount of skin Hessling displays, along with her salacious dancing, and probably because of its racial and anti-colonial subtexts as well. Many of the director’s fans seem to think of this slice of Gallic zaniness as an embarrassment that Renoir would probably wish he could take back. I, on the other hand, wish more of the director’s movies were this unhinged. Every great director owes it to his fans, and himself, to make at least one weird movie.

The African explorer’s flying sphere (a nice effect for the time) lifts off from civilized Africa heading for the wilds of Europe. Cut to a ruined street in Paris where a flapper in short-shorts and a camisole tugs on a rope connected to an ape. Her legs are splayed lasciviously. The explorer lands on a pole. He is played by a black man dressed in a minstrel getup and made up to look as if he was wearing blackface.  After some slapstick mugging and bumping and grinding the flapper ties the explorer to a pole and begins a savage dance, shown in both fast and slow-motion. The explorer requests to use a telephone, which the flapper creates by drawing an outline on a wall in chalk. She dials up some angels (disembodied heads with wings attached, played by the crew, including Renoir himself). The rest of the film consists of the flapper teaching the explorer to dance, until she finally climbs into his sphere and flies back to civilized Africa (causing her pet ape to weep).

Though “Charleston Parade” is thoroughly wacky, the racial satire of the film gives it an added level of strangeness. The idea of a future where Africa is civilized and Europe is savage is at the same time progressive and condescending. A black actor in blackface was a first, for sure, although a more daring idea would have been to cast a black actress (e.g., Josephine Baker) in whiteface—but then Renoir couldn’t have used his wife as the star.

Despite being the work of a famous auteur, “Charleston Parade” is obscure and has rarely been anthologized. On DVD, it is only available on the eclectic 3-disc set “Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition,” where it is the shortest film alongside Whirlpool of Fate (1925), Nana (1926), The Little Match Girl (1933), La Marseillaise (1938), The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), and The Elusive Corporal (1962). There is no sound on the short embedded below (there isn’t on the DVD either; where’s the  when you need them?) I suggest playing something peppy in the background.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These images reveal a spirit of play and weird humor in Renoir that would later manifest itself in his kindred spirit antiheroes like Boudu. Charleston Parade is an oddity from Renoir, but it’s a compelling and enjoyable oddity.”–Ed Howard, Only the Cinema (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose suggestion was unfortunately lost. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WILD AND WEIRD (ALLOY ORCHESTRA SILENT FILM COMPILATION)

The Alloy Orchestra Plays Wild and Weird: Short Film Favorites with New Music

Must See

DIRECTED BY: D.W. Griffith, , , Segundo de Chomón,  F. Percy Smith, , Ernest Servaès, Ladislas Starevich, Winsor McKay, , Eddie Cline, Hans Richter

FEATURING: Jack Brawn, Paul Panzer, Ernest Servaès, Buster Keaton

PLOT: A compilation of twelve strange, fantastic, and experimental films from the dawn of cinema (spanning the years 1902 to 1926) with new scores for each composed by the Boston-based silent film ensemble “the Alloy Orchestra.”

Still from The Red Spectre (1907)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This presentation won’t make the List solely on formal grounds, because it’s a compilation. You could make a case for several of the individual shorts, however, on the basis of their historical significance, especially “A Trip to the Moon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” “Play House,” or “Filmstudie.”

COMMENTS: Hidden off in a corner of the Movie and Music Network‘s catalog, far away from the exploitation films in a quiet place only the cool kids know about, is an obscure little collection of classic cinema. For the most part the Alloy Orchestra’s selections in this compilation aren’t especially rare, at least to silent cinephiles, but wild and weird they certainly are. From trippy nickelodeon snippets to epic hallucinations, these films hail from a thrilling era when cinema was fresh and every new movie was an adventure in invention.

The Orchestra’s musical accompaniment is excellent and appropriate to the material. It’s mostly classical-ish, with a little bit of tasteful electronic ornamentation, and very rarely does it get avant-garde or dissonant enough to threaten the casual listener’s delicate ears. At times it’s electronic-Baroque, often it’s vibraphone and percussion heavy, with a welcome cameos by musical saws and theremins in some dream sequences. Unfortunately, the digitization used here captured some analog rumbling and distortion when the volume got too high, but in general the music is a pleasant accompaniment to the main attraction.

A brief rundown of each slice of weirdness: