Tag Archives: 1920

366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920) is not as broadly known today as its German Expressionist peers, Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), despite having been a considerable influence on ‘s Frankenstein (1931). The reasons are apparent. Wegener’s later propaganda films for the Nazis certainly hurt the reputation of both director and film. And the Golem itself, with his oversized fright wig, looks more comically surreal than horrific; it was undeniably surpassed by Frankenstein.

Still, The Golem deserves to be better known. It was Wegener’s third “Golem” film1 based on the story by Gustav Meyrink, itself based on Jewish folklore. Wegener stars, co-wrote (with Henrik Galeen), and co-directed (here with Carl Boese) each of them. The cinematography by and set design by Hans Poelzig2 and his assistant considerably enhance its stunning visuals.

Still from The Golem (1920)The Golem opens in a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) foretelling disaster for the Jewish community. Shortly after that bit of soothsaying, the Kaiser (Otto Gebuhr) orders the Jews banned. Loew creates a stone figure, the Golem, to protect his people, investing life into it through the demon Astaroth. The scene is impressively shot, with the rabbi encircling the Golem with fire (influenced by the “Magic Fire” of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure”), climaxing with a smoky demonic face issuing forth a scroll. Taking the now-animated Golem to the court of the Kaiser, Loew impresses when his creation saves the assembly from a falling roof in a epically staged scene that must have made quite an impression to 1920 audiences. It certainly impresses (or, rather frightens) the Kaiser enough to get the deportation order reversed. Astaroth possesses the Golem shortly afterwards, however, and like  the monster in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” the Golem runs amok, destroying all in its path. It even turns on his creator, setting fire to Loew’s home and carting off his daughter, Miriam (played by Wegener’s wife, Lyda Salmanova). The scenes of the monster rampaging through the city, with its angular sets and idiosyncratic cinematography, is a testament to the work of both Poelzig and Freund. Anyone who has seen Frankenstein will immediately recognize much of its source. As accomplished as Wegener is as a writer and director, he is even better as an actor, giving an expressive, animated performance and eliciting empathy with his eyes.

The film ends with a group of blonde Aryan girls saving the day, which may be one of the reasons the film wasn’t destroyed by the Continue reading THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

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).

WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

Wallace Worsley made five films with silent movie icon . Lamentably, two of those, Voices of the City (1921) and The Blind Bargain (1922), are lost. The Ace of Hearts (1921) survives, but their most famous collaborations remain The Penalty (1920) and the epic Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  It is for these two films Worsley, an otherwise undistinguished commission director, will be remembered, if at all.  The Penalty was Chaney’s first starring role, and the film justifiably made him a major star.

The plot of The Penalty is beautifully absurd, operatic, and addictive.  An injured young boy has been unnecessarily mutilated by a young Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary).  A seasoned colleague arrives and tells Dr. Ferris that amputating the boy’s legs was not at all necessary, but the veteran promises to remain silent about the malpractice.  The bed-ridden boy hears the conversation and tells his parents what has transpired.  However, the boy’s revelation is dismissed as delirium cause by a contusion.

Twenty seven years later, the boy has become Frisco’s criminal master-mind, nicknamed the Blizzard.  Chaney’s performance as the Blizzard is a tour-de-force that was achieved through a painful pulleys, belts, leather stumps, and a harness which strapped his legs behind him.  Because of the extreme contortion and discomfort to the actor, Chaney’s scenes were filmed in short takes.  His performance is amazing.  He swings, pulls, and climbs with such robust, Tex Avery-like vigor that the illusion is feverishly complete.  Only Douglas Fairbanks could exude as much screen energy, but while Fairbanks grinned his way through elaborate stunts, Chaney invited you to see him sweat and even laugh with him through his pain.

Still from The Penalty (1920)The Blizzard runs a complex syndicate which local law enforcement cannot penetrate.  Desperate, officials send an undercover agent, Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) into Chaney’s lair.  The criminal is abusive, misogynist, seedy, and initially lacking in sympathy.  There is a dark, latent sexual undercurrent between the Blizzard and Rose.  Only music calms the Blizzard, and Rose serves as his feet, pushing the pedals of his piano while he plays.

The Blizzard is part Ahab and part Dr. Mabuse, plotting an elaborate (and far-fetched) revenge against the entire city (which involves utilizing the straw man communist menace.  The fifties was not the first Red Scare era, and Worsley’s earlier Ace of Hearts projected a similar paranoia).  Continue reading WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

TOD BROWNING’S OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean.  Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.  Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike.  Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment.  The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting  is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation.  Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious  imagery and themes.  In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin.  In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology.  Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Poster for Outside the LawHere, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life.  Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way.  Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty.  Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s  naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete.  He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite.  As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition).  It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.  Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped.  Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.

Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable.  Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930.  The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.  While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is.  Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.