Tag Archives: 1916

JUDEX (1916)

Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is , who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take , the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.

As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.

One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.

Still from Judex (1916)The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.

Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.

For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.

Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and  informative booklet by  historian Jan-Christopher Horak.

HELL’S HINGES (1916)

To many contemporary viewers the idea of a silent western is as bizarre as a silent musical or silent Shakespeare.  To counteract that, one could easily point to the popcorn pleasures of many a Tom Mix western, such as The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) or Just Tony (1922).  However, dipping back a mere ten years before Great K & A we find William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges (1916) to prove just how bizarre the silent western could get.

Hart was the direct opposite of Mix, yet both actors had an authentic western past.  Where Mix’s film were flashy, over the top, stunt-oriented, dime-store pulp western family fare, Hart offered up a gritty, dusty realism.  Yet, Hart’s “realism” was also mixed (often uncomfortably) with a heavy-laden, dated pathos that could compete with Charlie Chaplin at his soggiest (Limelight).

“Hell’s Hinges” is, perhaps, the quintessential example of  one of these uncomfortably strange William S. Hart hybrids mixing sentimentality with violence.  Both qualities are presented with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles wrapped in a tear-drenched handkerchief.

Hart , who co-directed with Charles Swickard, plays Blaze Tracey, the meanest hombre in the town of Hell’s Hinges, a rowdy town similar to Chaplin’s “Easy Street.”  The titles amusingly describe Hell’s Hinges as a “gun-fighting, man-killing, devil’s den of iniquity.”   Hart’s Blaze lords over Hell’s Hinges, much like Eric Campbell lorded over Easy Street.   Blaze has vowed that neither law nor religion shall ever come to Hell’s Hinges.  Enter, on cue, Reverend Robert (Jack Standing) and his pure as the driven snow sister, Faith (Clara Williams), who have been assigned to pastor over the local church.  Hart’s partner in crime, the beautifully named Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), informs Blaze that the new preacher has arrived.  Blaze departs the saloon to “welcome” the new intruder.”
Still from Hell's Hinges (1916)
Greeting the town, Rev. Robert beams a big smile (that smile must have been excruciatingly difficult, and painful, to maintain), but the good reverend clearly becomes  nervous as he discovers what he and Faith are up against.

Blaze is ready, willing and able to deliver an old west comeuppance to the whippersnapper preacher—that is, until he spots Faith in her Sunday bonnet.  Suddenly, upon seeing this lovely maiden, Continue reading HELL’S HINGES (1916)

ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)

Hidden deep in the recesses of early cinema lies a rarely seen, obscure gem that might be described as something resembling a Max Beckman Moving Picture.

he_did_and_he_didntRoscoe Arbuckle’s 1916 He Did and He Didn’t is a humorous, expressionistic nightmare which not only calls to mind the texture and atmosphere of Max Beckman expressionist paintings, but also, in heroine Mabel Normand, evokes Edvard Munch as well.

Arbuckle had been shifting away from the frantic style of the Mack Sennett factory towards more character driven comedy, and had taken over writing and directing his own films and making features long before Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd followed suit.

He Did and He Didn’t uniquely stands out even among the later Arbuckle films, which is saying quite a bit as Arbuckle was innovative both as a performer and director.  His perfectionism was well known and he might very well have earned the crown for king of multiple takes, although the gracefulness he displayed on both sides of the camera never even remotely hints at such perfectionist standards.

Arbuckle has been widely credited for influencing such artists as Charlie Chaplin,  Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy and Curly Howard.  His distinct on-screen persona was normally that of a country bumpkin and ladies man.

Naturally, every great screen personality needs an equally distinct nemesis.  Chaplin had Eric Campbell, Langdon had Vernon Dent, Arbuckle had his Al St. John.  The two appeared together in numerous films and, later, Arbuckle directed St. John in Curses (1925) and Bridge Wives (1932).  Lanky, bad teeth, bad hair and bad clothes, St. John was Arbuckle’s perfect country bumpkin foil in The Waiter’s Ball (1916), Coney Island (1917) and the recently restored Love (1919), in which Arbuckle donned drag, as he frequently did (Good Night Nurse, an imaginative nightmare fantasy with Keaton, St. John and Arbuckle Continue reading ROSCOE ARBUCKLE’S “HE DID AND HE DIDN’T” (1916)