Tag Archives: 1922

157. NOSFERATU (1922)

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror

“It is commonplace to say that silent films are more ‘dreamlike,’ but what does that mean? In ‘Nosferatu,’ it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away.”–Roger Ebert

Must See

DIRECTED BY: F.W. Murnau

FEATURING: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach

PLOT: A young clerk named Hutter leaves his wife Ellen to travel to Transylvania with a deed for one Count Orlock to sign so he can purchase a house in Viborg. Orlock, however, is nosferatu, a vampire, and Hutter find himself a prisoner in the Count’s castle as Orlock ships himself to the German port in a coffin. When Orlock arrives the town is shut down for fear of plague, and the vampire takes an interest in Ellen…

Still from Nosferatu (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • F.W. Murnau’s first seven films, made between 1919 and 1921, are all considered lost. Among them was an adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Nosferatu was his tenth movie.
  • Albin Grau, Nosferatu‘s co-producer, financier and production designer, was an occultist and a German rival of . His production company Prana intended to produce films promoting occultist beliefs, but the company went bankrupt after Nosferatu.
  • Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” barely disguised by changing the names and moving the action from London to Germany. The Stoker estate successfully sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement after release, and the film was ordered to be destroyed (fortunately, many prints survived).
  • Ranked #21 on Empire Magazine’s List of Best Films of World Cinema.
  • ‘s 2000 film Shadow of a Vampire is about the making of Nosferatu, and plays on the notion that the actor Max Schreck might really have been a vampire (an idea fleshed out from a tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by the writer Ado Kyrou in his book “Surrealism in Cinema”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it be but Max Schreck, the rat-faced herald of plague and pestilence and the screen’s most bestial bloodsucker? The scene where he rises unnaturally, stiff as a plank, from his coffin in the ship’s hold still presses the primal panic button.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The experimental use of negative images, sped up film stock, primitive stop motion photography, and the play of shadows to suggest a diabolical world coexisting with our mundane sunlit world creates an uncanny, nightmarish universe. The once new and startling techniques Murnau employs quickly became commonplace, but after nearly a century of disuse they have again become novel through their very archaism.


Trailer for a 2013 re-release of Nosferatu

COMMENTS: At the dawn of cinema, horror movies weren’t diversions meant to give teenage boys an excuse to put a comforting arm around their Continue reading 157. NOSFERATU (1922)

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).

CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

* This is the first in a two-part series.

Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy  with him, among others.

Although Chaplin’s first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a first for Hollywood.

Most critics and film historians consider the First National films a notch below the work Chaplin did for Mutual. In the First national shorts, Chaplin’s level of inspiration often noticeably wanes, so the general consensus is, for once, correct. Still, even lesser Chaplin is worthwhile (well, until we get to the late Chaplin features).

A Dog’s Life (1918) was Chaplin’s first short for First National. It was also the first movie to make a million dollars, more than justifying its considerable budget. Chaplin is in full Tramp mode here. Although an immensely popular film, and containing elements which Chaplin would develop more fully in The Kid, A Dog’s Life is an uneven effort.

Dawn brings only another day of misery in poverty. The Tramp ingeniously tires to steal a hotdog, but policeman Tom Wilson shows up to soil the spoils (Wilson would appear as the same character in The Kid).

Still from A Dog's Life (1918)In flight, the Tramp saves a mongrel, Scraps, from a scrape with a pack of dogs. Scraps, like the Kid (and, the Gamin later still) is a reflection of sorts of the Tramp, creating an identifying bond between the two.

The Tramp is a scrapper himself, fighting desperately for employment, but to no avail, alas. Dog and man enter The Green Lantern bar to find a mother and wife figure in Edna, who, as an amusingly awkward torch singer, has the locals in buckets of tears. (Literally. This scene also includes Henry Bergman in mighty uncomfortable drag).

Edna’s Big Boss Man threatens her with: “flirt or you’re fired! Give them a wink and smile!” Poor Edna’s just no good at flirting. “Do you have something in your eye?” asks the Tramp. Now Edna’s out of a job.

Lo and behold, some local bank robbers have buried some money, which Scraps has located. It looks like Paradise has been found, but not before at least one more scrap (which involves a surreal rendezvous with the crooks in a booth).

An over-written, bucolic finale rings phony. Ambiguity pointing to a release from the hell of poverty would have worked considerably better.

Shoulder Arms (1918) finds Chaplin again in social commentary mode, which was a gutsy move considering that the star was under intense Continue reading CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)


It all began with the legendary Tom Mix, the yardstick by which all B-Western stars are measured.

Born in 1880, Mix had worked with the Texas Rangers, had been a bartender, a sheriff, and a champion rodeo rider in his Wild West Show. Hollywood had a bona fide true blue western legend.  After becoming THE cowboy movie star at the age of 30, the extremely prolific Mix worked and played equally hard, developing a love for fast cars, fast women (married five times) , and reckless spending. Most of his 20’s westerns were adapted from Zane Grey novels and were high quality entertainment for the masses.   Mix often wrote, produced and directed in addition to acting.  He was the polar opposite to William S. Hart’s dusty realism.  Mix combined humor, increased action which featured his own stunt work, a star horse named Tony, flashy showmanship and enthusiastic energy in his films.   When his stardom naturally began to dim in the 1930’s, mainly due to age, he toured with his beloved Tom Mix Circus before an untimely high speed auto accident and a flying metal suitcase to the back of the head on an Arizona highway put an end to all the Circus in 1940, but not to the legend.   For ten years after his death, the Tom Mix Radio Show continued on with immense popularity.   Tom Mix comic books were also extremely popular for several decades, as was the touring Tom Mix festival which finally ran down (but not entirely out) in the mid 90’s.  Since most of his films are silent, few today have even seen a Tom Mix film, and his reputation by far exceeds the actual films.  Here are two Mixs from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun collection.

Just Tony (1922)Just Tony begins, aptly enough, with a trailer.  “Hit the Trail!  The Gun Ranger is out to clean up the town!  Bob Steel, two-gun deputy whose twitching fingers itch for fights!  Outlaws Rustlers Cowboys Posses and Bob Steel as the Gun Ranger!  A Republic Release.”  This trailer promises white hat cow dude Steel kicking black hat bad guy butt, a mix of masked bandits, pencil-thin mustached villains and a pretty girl exclaiming “Oh, Dan!”

Tom has his eyes on the beautiful black wild stallion, Tony, that he wants to tame, but first things first as he has Continue reading JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)