Tag Archives: 1927

REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.

Approaching ‘s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.

That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.

The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.

Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.

Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features The Strong Man and Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.

Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis, and the surprise is not that the two artists would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra-directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged, and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly, static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

Still from Three's a Crowd (1927)The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost Continue reading REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

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: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: /(version prepared by Giorgio Moroder)

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

PLOT: Freder, son of the man who rules Metropolis, discovers the plight of the subterranean workers who make the city run when he falls in love with a proletarian female preacher; his new lover is replaced by a robotic imposter who intends to lead the workers to ruin.

Still from Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a powerful candidate for the List, but Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis isn’t.  Kino’s 2010 “Complete Metropolis” restoration is now the definitive version of the film; Moroder’s re-imagining, with its synth-pop soundtrack and vocal intrusions by 1980s rock acts like Loverboy, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benetar, is a curiosity.

COMMENTS:  Set in a massive, mostly underground city that’s equal parts Futurist dreamscape and Babylonian pleasure garden, Metropolis is an unqualified, iconic Expressionist masterpiece, and if you want to turn down the sound and watch it while listening to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga mp3s, that’s not going to destroy its visual splendor.  Whatever questionable choices “Flashdance… What a Feeling!” composer Giorgio Moroder may have made with the proto-techno soundtrack that he added to this restoration (more on that score later), this Metropolis looks like it’s been struck from a pristine print, and it’s as feverishly hallucinatory as any other version.  The decision to tint most of the scenes works wonderfully (and may even have reflected Lang’s original wishes; tinting was not at all uncommon in 1927).  The colorization is tasteful and intelligent, with scenes on the surface bathed in radiant sepia, while the underground sequences utilize shadowy shades of steel blue and grey.  This process retains the film’s monochromatic scale, simply shifting the palette towards the blue or the amber spectrum.  Moroder added additional color effects for a few scenes; some of the equipment in mad scientist Rotwang’s laboratory glows with electricity, and when he transforms his robot into the image of Maria, the automaton’s eyes shine with an inhuman, metallic blue glint.  Because some segments of Metropolis were lost, Moroder also Continue reading CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)

PAUL LENI’S CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

In 1927 Universal Studios chose their new emigree star director Paul Leni to turn John Willard’s hit stage play, The Cat and the Canary, into a work of German Expressionist art.  Carl Laemmle was clearly envious of the types of films being produced in Europe and Leni had proven himself with the critical success of Waxworks (1924).

The Cat and the Canary is a compact (not a shot is wasted) standout in the “old dark house” genre.  Who needs dialogue when the visual story telling is so richly expressed? Leni’s style certainly was a profound influence on both the Universal films to follow, and on in particular, whose Old Dark House (1932) virtually lifted Leni’s shots of shrouded corridors and expansive, ominous windows.  Whale may have learned how to frame a composition by absorbing Leni.  Leni’s lighting, camera angles and set design mirror the emotional state of the actors to remarkably vivid effect.

Cyrus West is likened to the canary (think Tweety Bird) and his greedy relatives are the circling cats (think Sylvester), hungering for his fortune.  So incensed is the dying Cyrus that he dictates that his will be read twenty years after his death.  When it comes to money, relatives can wait.  They all show up on the twentieth anniversary of Cyrus’ passing.

Still from The Cat and the Canary (1927)To contemporary viewers, the relatives are a gang of archetypes: the bitchy, greedy matriarch Aunt Susan (Flora Finch), the sexy cousin Cecily (Gertrude Astor), the Harold Lloyd-like Paul (Creighton Hale), a seemingly insane, red-herring psychiatrist (Lucien Littlefield), death-warmed-over in the form of Mr. Crosby (Tully Marshall), and the virginal Annabel (Laura La Plante, who Whale later used in 1929’s Show Boat).  The gang is ushered in to the reading by a mysterious, somber servant named Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox).  The actors are a hoot, one and all, and superbly directed. Of course, there is a romance, but it is subtle and, in a rare example of silent cinema, not embarrassing to watch.

Dead bodies emerging from hidden panels, disappearing bodies, a lycanthropic hand snatching diamonds from the virgin’s neck, a cowering geek hiding under the bed and taking a peek at Cecily’s legs, a conniving aunt, and a villain (with a fake eye and saber tooth) who seems the role model for every Scooby Doo cartoon ever made all add up to something we have seen copied to death (pun intended) countless times since.  Leni’s imaginative style, however, takes precedence here.  Leni even has a good time playing with an intertitle (the film impressively keeps intertitles to a bare minimum).  The “Gosh, what a spooky house!” text shakes and shimmers as if it too is scared from being stuck in such a scary place!

The Cat and The Canary is played for laughs and it’s not surprising that Hollywood re-made it twice, first starring Bob Hope and  in 1939 and, again in 1978 (the latter had an interesting all-star, if eccentric, cast directed by cult nasty fave Radly Metzger).  Both remakes are pleasant enough diversions, but Willard’s play becomes something unique and influential only in the hands of this German Expressionist artist. Leni’s original is finally getting its due and is part of Kino’s valuable American Silent Horror Collection (buy).

TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

London After Midnight (1927) lobby cardSometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in.  MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious  habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original.  For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer.  MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era.  Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd.  The Unknown is the ebony carousel of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.  This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be.  That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).

“There is a story they tell in old Madrid.  The story, they say is true.”  So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.”  Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).

Illusions abound.  Alonzo  is actually a double-thumbed killer on the lam.  With the aid of a straight jacket and midget assistant Cojo (John George, who worked with Browning in Outside the Law [1920]), Alonzo feigns his handicap and performs the facade of one mutilated.

In addition evading the law and securing employment, Alonzo’s act of the armless wonder benefits him greatly.  Nanon has a hysterical, obsessive repulsion to the very touch of a man’s arms.   She calls on the Almighty to take away the accursed hands of all men.  Nanon vents histrionic, sexual anxiety to Alonzo every time Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) puts his vile hands upon her.  Alonzo, ever the performer, simulates expressed sympathy, although his affection for Nanon is the one thing about Alonzo that is genuine.

Still from The Unknown (1927)Alonzo, secretly venting enmity, advises Malabar on how to win Nanon.  It is, of course, intentional ill-advice which will eventually karmically rebound and become genuine ill-advice for Alonzo. Malabar’s arms are muscled and strong, compared to Alonzo’s armless torso, or compared to Alonzo’s deformed, hidden double thumb—the very same double thumb which he used to strangle the ringmaster of Browning’s perverse milieu: Nanon’s sadistic Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)