“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra
DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa
FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa
PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.
A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam; asylum masquerade
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.
Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)
Historians, film buffs, and Disney fanatics all cite Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the first animated feature. While it is the first animated feature as we Americans tend to think of animation, actually that “first” honor goes to a little known, innovative oddity from eleven years earlier. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926) is a labor of love from the pioneering female German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch.
What makes Achmed still unique 88 years later is animation entirely composed of cutout silhouettes. The result was one of the silent era’s most enchanting and captivating films. It is also a lucid reminder that the medium of film was at its most innovative in its infancy, before the rules were set and the mediums defined.
Reiniger lucked into a patron for her artistic efforts: Louis Hagen supplied her with enough film stock and financing to proceed with her project. Using scissors and black construction paper as her primary tools, Reiniger spent three years meticulously working in an attic on Achmed with a small crew that included her husband/cinematographer, Koch.
Influenced in part by Georges Méliès and Arabian Nights, Reiniger created a world of sensuous, exquisitely detailed beauty. The film has an almost surprisingly coherent and linear narrative, given that Reiniger was embraced by the European avant-garde. Unfortunately, the director had difficulty booking Achmed, and with the exception of Dr. Doolittle And His Animals (1928), the rest of her career was relegated to short films. There was work on a third feature, to be based on Maurice Ravel’s enchanting opera, “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”; unfortunately, rights to the music could not be secured and the film was abandoned. The Adventures Of Prince Achmed is the only one of Reiniger’s films to date that has seen a home video release. Some of her shorts occasionally appear on television, but often in truncated versions. One such example is Doolittle, which has aired with added (and intrusive) voice over narration, coupled with woefully inadequate projection speeds. Fortunately, YouTube has been more respectful. The Star of Bethlehem (1921), Cinderella (1922), The Adventuresof Prince Achmed, Papageno (from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”) (1935), The Magic Horse (1953), and Jack and The Beanstalk (1955) along with a short documentary of her work can all be found there. The documentary shows her storyboarding techniques and the almost rapid-fired speed at which she crafted her baroque figures.
There is a noticeable gap of activity in Reiniger’s filmography from 1938 to the early 1950s. With the rise of Fascism, Reiniger and Koch struggled to flee Germany. Although not Jewish, politically they leaned left, which marked them as subversives. Jean Renoir was among those who aided the couple, but they lived in abject poverty until finally being able to settle in England in 1949. Despite the initial financial failure of Achmed, Reiniger and Koch were respected in film circles and were able to be relatively prolific.
Achmed is of its time in its portrayal of the good guys as completely good, bad guys as completely bad, and the pretty girl as in need of saving (Reiniger’s later films frequently had biblical, Victorian, fairy tale, and operatic themes). Still, it’s put over so beautifully, even the most hardened cynics will hardly care. The color tinting renders the film a phantasmagoric smorgasbord of gemstones. Achmed is awash in emeralds, sapphires, rubies, garnets, aquamarines, amethyst, topaz, citrine, tanzanite, and fire opal.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed weaves interrelated narratives involving our protagonist, his princess sister, their Caliph father, an erotic heroine (who Achmed voyeuristically spies on while she is bathing), a flying horse, a malevolent shape shifting African magician, the Witch of the Fiery Mountain, dancing harlequins, sphinxes, terrifying demons, Aladdin, and the genie of the magic lamp. Locales include an exotic island, a majestic palace, Peru, and China.
Reiniger was master of her medium and an innovator. Every step through her unique world is an enchanting one.
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Louise Brooks defied all odds in becoming the defining cult figure in early cinema, despite the fact that her brief stardom was as an American actress in European films. Although Brooks lacked initial recognition, she was far more contemporary and provocative than established stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was the female superstar of the silent era. She was huge box office, married the swashbuckling matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks (theirs was the first Hollywood celebrity wedding) and together they built their famous mansion PickFair. Astutely, Pickford learned the business of filmmaking: editing, cinematography, lighting and production. She was the first woman to form her own production company and, later, with Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she built the mega studio United Artists. She was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While politicos were battling over woman’s right to vote, Pickford’s voice was such an influential one that the Academy awarded her what was perhaps an undeserved Oscar for her first talking performance in the wretched Coquette (1929). Pickford and Fairbanks were Hollywood Royalty, wining and dining the famous, from Albert Einstein to H.G. Welles. Alas, royalty has its price. Coquette flopped at the box office. With the advent of sound the public wanted new faces, and because of their “royalty” status, Pickford and Fairbanks were seen as the old establishment. Although Pickford had an exceptionally fine voice, her career, along with that of her husband’s, came to an end. Still, even in reclusive retirement, Mary Pickford was treated as a pioneering queen of Hollywood, receiving numerous accolades and tributes while the outsider Louise Brooks went through winters of extreme poverty. Today, Mary Pickford is virtually forgotten and Brooks is remembered. There are plenty of reasons for this.
Pickford’s virginal child persona dates her. The bulk of her films are heart-on-sleeve rudimentary melodramas, soaked in so much religiosity that they make saccharine contemporary fare like “7th Heaven” or “Highway to Heaven” look like cutting edge dramas. Pickford herself doubted the value of her films after she retired, and left instructions for her work to be destroyed. Thankfully, this wish was not carried out (although her films were kept out of circulation until the DVD age). Despite the Victorian halo, Pickford’s screen persona is a curiously bewitching one, due to its archaic, ethereal nature coupled with an irresistibly delicate feistiness. Her mastery of comedy and drama in the pantomime form, her finger on the pulse of Americana, and her thematic sympathy for the less affluent adds to her appeal.
Sparrows (1926) was Pickford’s last role in her child persona. It’s also her most compelling film. The religiosity is there, but it is so audacious as to be startling. Amazingly, William Beaudine directed. Beaudine later became known as “One-Shot Beaudine” because of his penchant for shooting single takes in poverty row programmers. Although he was one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, with over 400 films to his credit, the bulk of these were “penny dreadfuls.” For all the sympathy fans have for Bela Lugosi suffering under an amateur Ed Wood, poor Bela was not a stranger to slumming it in One-Shot films like Ape Man (1943-Lugosi’s most embarrassing project), Ghosts on the Loose (1943), and Voodoo Man (1944).
Beaudine’s presence makes Sparrows all the more surprising. Pickford and Beaudine had worked together previously in Little Annie Roonie (1925), which was an unremarkable box office hit (it had returned Pickford to her irascible waif persona after several failed attempts to play an adult). Sparrows was produced by Pickford, photographed by her favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher, and written by C. Gardner Sullivan (Hell’s Hinges, Tumbleweed, Sadie Thompson, All Quiet On the Western Front), all of which may explain the film’s being an exception to the general Beaudine rule. However, Sparrows would be Pickford and Beaudine’s final collaboration. The star vowed never to work with Beaudine again after his supposed bad treatment of the children in the cast. Beaudine vehemently denied Pickford’s allegations, claiming she fabricated them for the sake of publicity. Beaudine’s defense is backed by others’ recollections. More than likely, Pickford and Beaudine clashed over artistic control. Art Director Harry Oliver created the stylish swamp, which was merely a few acres on a backlot. Alligators, with wired jaws, were brought in for “dramatic effect.”
In this Dickensian Gothic melodrama, Pickford plays Molly, the oldest of a group of orphans being used for slave labor on a potato farm. Despite being about twenty years too old for the part (!), Pickford pulls it off with plucky perfection. The potato farm is actually a baby farm, with Molly as the self-appointed mother of the brood. Every melodrama needs a good villain. Sparrows has a superb one in Gustav von Seyffertitz as the aptly named hunchbacked baby thief, Grimes. Seyffertitz was a favorite silent era villain and his portrayal here is saturated in mire. When his racket is threatened with exposure, Grimes has no qualms about “chucking them babies in the swamp.” News of Grimes’ plan reaches Molly. A chilling, breath-taking chase scene follows, which probably influenced Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Molly leads her charges through the bayou, facing gators and quicksand. There is an early casualty amongst the children and none other than Jesus Christ Himself appears to escort the poor lad’s corpse into heaven!
Sparrows is a model of art direction. Every detail counts. It was hailed as a masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch (who called it one of the eight wonders of the world) and Chaplin (who typically hated Pickford’s films). The late (and much-missed) film historian William K. Everson loudly sang its praises. Everson was rarely off, and he wasn’t here either.
For 1920s audiences, The Strong Man (1926) showed the quintessential appeal of Harry Langdon‘s idiosyncratic child-man persona. It is easy to see why. Langdon was radically different than the hyperkinetic antics associated with high profile silent clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Today, he is considered the “Forgotten Clown.” This is partially because Langdon died prior to 1950’s revival of interest in silent comedians. Another reason is his later ventures into blacker arenas: Long Pants (1927) and Three’s a Crowd (1927) which made (and still make) audiences uncomfortable. Still, Langdon’s risky choices were defensible. With sound around the corner, his stardom would most certainly have been short-lived anyway.
Frank Capra, in his directorial debut, invests his signature stylized charm onto Strong Man. It begins with cannon fire.Paul (Langdon) is a soldier on the WWI war front. Needless to say, he is an atypical soldier. He can’t even knock over a tin can with a machine gun. But, put a slingshot in his hand and he can make the big guy cry (yes, David and Goliath references abound). He gets letters from his penpal, Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner), who swears love to her long distance Belgian soldier.
After the war, Paul is employed by the German Strong Man, Zandow the Great (Arthur Thalasso). As they enter several American cities, Paul looks for the elusive “Mary Brown.” He thinks he has found her in a gold digging pickpocket (Gertrude Astory). This “Mary Brown” is actually “Lily of Broadway.” When she tries to retrieve a stolen wad of cash, stashed in Paul’s jacket pocket, it foreshadows several Stan Laurel scenes to come in which a child-man resists being undressed by an aggressive female.
When Paul finds the real Mary Brown, he discovers she is a blind, saintly preacher’s daughter in a modern day Dodge City. Paul is no Errol Flynn version of Wyatt Earp. Instead, he dons the Strong Man persona and entertains the rowdy crowd.
Meanwhile, Mary’s pappy is playing the part of Joshua and soon, the walls of Jericho come a tumbling down, the movie ending just as it began: in cannon fire. The Strong Man is an episodic film with a second half loaded with saccharine. The real climax of the film is in the interaction between Paul and Lily.
Capra clearly preferred the Langdon persona to be innocent. Langdon’s child man was the only one of the major silent clowns who actually sported face powder. That, combined with chipmunk cheeks, sleepy eyes emerging from the face of a pear, ill-fitting clothes, and a toddler’s gait supported Capra’s vision of the character. It was putting that character in an awkward, pre-code erotic situation, however, that gave impetus to the film. In this vignette, director and actor work together beautifully. An endless staircase, an imagined rape, and a shocking eyeful of a nude model sends Paul exit, stage left.
After this, the film often succumbs to a children’s book version of Biblical storytelling. Still, we do see the Capra touch in its genesis. Likewise, we witness the flowering of Langdon’s big risk. Buster Keaton took a similar risk with a film; not quite as edgy, but his loss was almost as dramatic, resulting in his contract being sold to MGM. MGM, seeing the “failure” of The General (1926), denied Keaton future creative control.
Of course, time declared Keaton the victor. Langdon also, seems to have exerted considerable influence, especially for someone still tagged with that underground, “forgotten” moniker.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian Harry Langdon‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.
A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”
“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”
Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (Joan Crawford). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”
“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”
Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count.
Harry gets and loses a job working for a celebrity cross-country walker. Lo and behold, Burton Shoes is currently sponsoring a cross-country race. If Harry met Betty becomes when Harry met Betty. Hmmm. Billboard girl picture of girl looks like girl on bench. Oh my, let me look see under your hat, Betty. Oh my. Oh my. Same girl. Oh my.
Langdon was, and remains, an acquired taste. The subtextual idea of a Pee Wee Herman/Stan Laurel hybrid lusting after the future Mommie Dearest is the equivalent of nails meet chalkboard for suburbanites, soccer moms, and Curly Howard fans: reason enough for kudos.
Harry enters the race, hoping for the $25,000 grand prize, and putting Ma’s wedding ring on Betty’s finger. His trusty scissors come in handy: Harry’s hotel room is plastered with cutouts of billboard Betty. Harry sleeps with a billboard Betty, much to the chagrin of his competitor, his former boss.
Naturally, there’s trouble along the way, including a few days hard labor for poaching blueberries.
While influences of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton abound in some of the set-piece vignettes, most importantly Langdon perfects his set-apart persona. Langdon’s wide-eyed innocence, sleepy smile, and surreal pathos probably had a longer lasting latent influence than most of the silent clowns. Stan Laurel, Jacques Tati, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Paul Ruebens are among those indebted to Langdon’s screen persona.
The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.
Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).
The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).
Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.
The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.
Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.
The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment, by Irving Thalberg.
Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels. In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays “dead-eyed” Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel. Joe’s business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas: the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient. Joe’s relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.
Apparently, Joe’s wife is long dead. The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall). Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar. Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money to undergo plastic surgery and retire. Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation. Fr. James warns Joe that waiting two years is too long. Joe’s insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.