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Silent Cinema

Silents Please: The Merry Widow (1925)

Mae Murray is the Merry Widow

The Merry Widow (Warner Archive)

Erich von Stroheim was the auteur of unapologetic decadence in the silent era and he fills this old world fantasy, an adaptation of a popular operetta, with fairy-tale European kingdoms, arrogant royals and aristocrats and lives of uninhibited attitudes of entitlement that allow—nay, encourage—the most wanton behavior in its princes. That includes the devil-may-care Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert), “the world champion of indoor sports,” in words of his cousin the Crown Prince (Roy D’Arcy), a nasty, weaselly Prussian twit with a perpetual grin held in place so long it has settled into a rictus grimace of sadistic delight.

These competitive cousins vie for the affections, or at least the physical pleasures, of gorgeous American showgirl Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) who arrives in their kingdom with The Manhattan Follies, a travelling show apparently doing the provincial circuit of Old Heidelberg and points beyond. Murray, a silent movie superstar long forgotten to an era represented by only a few icons to even most film buffs, is a spicy dash of American spunk in this world of high manner and base impulses, a mix of urban worldliness, romantic innocence and American practicality, with a snap of sass reminiscent of Ginger Rogers. When she notices the ravenous attentions of the wolfish European officers whooping it up as she adjusts her stocking (if this film is anything to go by,  the tease of ankles and calves are the most arousing zone of female anatomy for this crowd), her response is wonderful: a flash of embarrassment quickly replaced by exasperation and resignation to the nature of man-boys the world over.

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Silents Please: Laila (1929)

Laila (Flicker Alley)

The films made at end of the silent era are a reminder of what was lost in the transition to sound. On the one hand is a mode of visual storytelling that elevated even the most generic films and, at its best, was grace incarnate, directed with stylistic invention and dramatic ingenuity, filled with communication by suggestion and gesture and metaphor. On the other is a production mode that allowed tremendous scope in location shooting and dramatic action. Simply put, you could take the camera anywhere you could haul the actors and equipment.

Harald Schwenzen and Mona Mårtenson meet

Admittedly, there isn’t much stylistic invention or cinematic elegance to Laila (1929), last great Norwegian epic of the silent era, but there is an elemental power from the film’s location shooting in the mountains of Norway. This is a film that could not be made in the sound era for a number of years due to the technical demands of the recording and synchronized sound equipment.

Laila is built on a culture of frontier prejudice covered up by a veneer of politeness and a show of tolerance that, while understood in Norway, is rather vague for American viewers. It’s set in a vague pre-industrial past, a frontier era that, at least to my eyes, evokes the American western era on the cusp when the towns provided anchors in culture shifting from nomadic lives to settled homes. In this case the Sami, or the Lapp nomads, are considered savages, treated respectfully but in no way considered equal by the civilized humanity of the Norwegians, the “daro” constantly mentioned in the intertitles. Imagine the white settlers and the tribal native Americans in a wintry American west without the wars, living in a state of peace if not exactly equality. That understanding (which the film frames rather gingerly) is essential to the film if only to establish the “impossibility” of romance between the Norwegian storekeeper Anders (Harald Schwenzen) and the beautiful Lapp girl Laila (Mona Mårtenson), raised by the richest landowner in the Lapp lands. “No Norwegian marries a Lapp girl,” one townswoman explains, but of course we know Laila’s true parentage in the dramatic rescues and turns of fate that toss her into the loving care of the great Lapp landowner Aslag Laagje (Peter Malberg) and his rugged hunter and devoted guardian to Laila, Jåmpa (Tryggve Larssen), a bear of a man with a tender heart.

All of that is laid out in the first act of Laila, which is (on the one hand) a narratively simplistic and stylistically old-fashioned adaptation of what is apparently a major Norwegian novel, and (on the other) a brawny, muscular piece of dramatic filmmaking. The film opens with a young mother taking her infant daughter to be baptized only to cross a pack ravenous wolves who have come down from the mountains to feed on the reindeer herds. She whips her steed, a reindeer, into a race for their lives. It’s a chase on the D.W. Griffith tradition, complete with pounding cross-cutting driving the pace, but the physicality of the ordeal as she and her bundled infant are tossed by the terrain in her desperate flight is palpable as a experience in this dramatic mountain terrain. This is a hard world and a magnificent landscape and director George Schnéevoigt, a former cinematographer who shot Carl Th. Dreyer’s early films (from Leaves From Satan’s Book to Master of the House), shoots it with a grandeur that captures both its danger and its beauty.

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Silents Please! The Ten Commandments 1923

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.

DeMille's original biblical epic

But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.

DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”

There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.

But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.

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‘Sunrise,’ sunset

'Sunrise': George O'Brien, Margaret Livingston

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is many people’s idea of the greatest film ever made, but set that aside for the moment.

The movie was produced toward the end of the silent era, when films hadn’t yet begun to talk, but after synchronized soundtracks had arrived and major productions were being released with recorded musical scores and sometimes incidental sound effects. Such is the case with Sunrise. It’s a silent movie – no spoken dialogue (apart from a few seconds of raw urban clamor) – but it’s also a movie with an integrated soundtrack. That’s how it was in 1927 and that’s how it should be forevermore.

Tonight and Friday, Jan. 13-14, Sunrise will be shown at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., at 8 p.m. There will be live musical accompaniment by Lori Goldston on cello and Greg Campbell on percussion and French horn. Goldston and Campbell may be swell musicians and they may revere Sunrise. Still, such a presentation shouldn’t happen, because it compromises the integrity of the film Murnau made.

Sunrise isn’t uniquely vulnerable to interference by latterday presenters. Music has been slapped on a lot of silent films with scant regard for anything beyond providing some noise for audiences to listen to. It’s even been done to some sound movies, especially early talkies, which often had no music score beyond what played behind the opening and closing credits. The assumption seems to be that modern audiences will become restive without more or less nonstop audio palpation.

Sometimes the gall of latterday presenters presuming to “update” films in accord with contemporary tastes is astounding. When Ted Turner was adding film to his media empire in the 1980s, he anointed Gone With the Wind the flagship movie of his enterprise and even adopted the architecture of the Tara plantation for his headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. So GWTW was something Turner apparently revered. And he spent a lot of money restoring it to its 1939 grandeur. However, in the course of that restoration, he eyed the orange sunsets that are among the hallmarks of the David O. Selznick production. Ted Turner decided that present-day audiences would find them garish. So he instructed the lab to tone them down to a decorous rosiness.

But hey, he loves that movie. -RTJ

Oh the Joy! Joy! Joy! of Guy Maddin plus Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess – DVDs of the Week

The Quintessential Guy Maddin! 5 Films From The Heart Of Winnipeg (Zeitgeist)

Canadian maverick Guy Maddin makes films like no one else: surreal studies in repression and sexual hysteria with the textures of silent cinema and the scuffed-up surfaces of neglected cinematic ephemera unearthed. In the 22 years since first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), he continued to make his films his way: Obscure, lush, and antiquarian, made on tiny budgets and released to tiny audiences. Zeitgeist has been there from the beginning, releasing five his ten features in theaters and on DVD (accompanied by many of the short films he made between features). There’s nothing new on this set (not even new masters of the old films; the old discs are simply repackaged) but it does offer a quick and efficient way of collecting a big chunk of Maddin’s filmography, and an excuse to roll back through his career.

Making movies at the Heart of the World

Witness his sophomore feature Archangel (1990), a surreal silent movie melodrama of love, war, and amnesia for the sound era: an absurdist silent WWI epic that never was. Set in WWI Russia by way of claustrophobic sets transformed into Maddin’s dreamland imagery, this story of a one-legged soldier (Maddin regular Kyle McCulloch) caught in a romantic triangle between his lovesick landlady and a married nurse (Kathy Marykuca) who resembles his dead lover is less a parody of silent cinema than a loving crackpot tribute. Shot in often soft focus B&W, artificially aged to look like a survivor of yesteryear, and filled with absurd imagery (bunny rabbits leap into the trench in the midst of battle) and unfathomable twists, this is a farce with a tragic dimension and a singular vision that defies categorization and description.

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Metropolis Reconstructed and Vengeance Dissected – DVDs of the Week

The Complete Metropolis (Kino)

Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.

With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.

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Fantômas: Eccentricities of Cinema’s First Supervillain – DVDs of the Week

Fanômas: The Complete Saga (Kino)

Fantomas: the image that gripped Paris!

There may be no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertaining surreal filmmaking in the years 1913 and 1914 than the five wicked short features of Louis Feuillade’s serialized adaptations of the pulp adventures of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, films that captured the imaginations of filmgoers of the time and inspired the crime and adventure serials of the next decade, including Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films.

Thief, assassin, escape artist and master of disguises, Fantômas (played with calm, stylish command by Rene Navarre) is the cinema’s first supervillain, an anti-hero who is very much the center of attention in this mad masterpiece of secret identities, violent conspiracies and cliffhanger twists. The character of this pulp mastermind was established in blitzkrieg of pulp adventures cranked out by the authors at the rate of one a month for 32 months between 1911 and 1913. That, according to film historian David Kalat, has a lot to do with the incoherence of the plotting. The rest is a matter of Feuillade’s breakneck pace of filmmaking: he made these five feature-length (some just barely) films in a single year, in which he also turned out almost fifty short films (most of them with his popular child star Bout-de-Zan). I don’t think there was anyone more prolific than Feuillade in the early teens, and this while also serving as the artistic director of Gaumont.

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Silents Please: Shadows, Silence and Sternberg

3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.

Sternberg Before Sound (and Dietrich)

But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.

These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.

Underworld (1927), his third feature, has been called both the original gangster film and the proto-gangster film. And while it doesn’t look or play much like the films that blasted through the throes of the early sound era—Bull Weed (George Bancroft), the (anti-)hero of this piece, is no gangleader but a solo artist pulling heists with nothing but brazen confidence—this atmospheric classic certainly created some of the conventions and even images that were taken up in the sound era. Bull Weed staring up at the neon sign “The City Is Yours” and the gangland ball in the middle of the film, with thugs in tuxedos and streamers coating the floor, are echoed in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), which was also scripted by Ben Hecht (Sternberg rewrote Hecht’s story to the point that Hecht disavowed the script… until it won an Oscar). That’s where it really anticipates the classic gangster story: the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society.

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SFSFF 2010: Metropolis Restored and the Restoration (Re)Considered

I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.

Robot and Rotwang
Robot and Rotwang

Fernando Martí­n Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and in better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.

And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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SFSFF 2010: The Iron Horse

iron-horse-posterThe San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).

I won’t launch into a big preview—that’s been ably done by Michael Hawley at The Evening Class, Hell on Frisco Bay and Anne Hockens on SIFFBlog (with links to short previews of the individual films by David Jeffers), while Michael Guillen anticipates the restored Metropolis and reprints an essay on the restoration by Bret Wood on The Evening Class. I’ll be dedicating my coverage to reviews and ruminations, starting with The Iron Horse, which launched the festival on its new Thursday opening night.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

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Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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Murnau in Germany – DVDs for the Week (Pt 2)

The Box Set
Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set

DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.

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