Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.
The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.
Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…
Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)
William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.
Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).
Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.
Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.
Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.
The Blue Angel (Kino) – American director Josef von Sternberg went to Germany to direct Emil Jannings in his transition from silent to sound cinema and returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.
It’s a perfect pairing in this case: the repressed petty provincial schoolteacher Rath, so obsessed by appearance and authority, and the happy-go-lucky showgirl Lola-Lola more concerned with his pleasure and freedom. With such a strong tale (adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel “Professor Unrat”) behind Sternberg’s layered visual style, it becomes his most dramatically driven sound film, and his most tragic. (The story of a man’s ego destroyed by his social descent also echoes an earlier Jannings classic: F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.) The luscious spray of nets and scrims and artful clutter is on gorgeous display in the nightclub scenes, which are simultaneously cheap and exotic, tawdry, and enticing: A marvelous, messy contrast to the neat regimentation of Rath’s everyday life.
The UFA/Paramount co-production was shot simultaneously in German and English versions, but the English version (shot for the American market) is shorter and clumsier, with the two stars performing in a language that they are clearly not fluent in. Kino’s earlier DVD release features both versions but the Blu-ray includes only the longer, original German-language, newly restored from archival 35mm film elements by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, with optional English subtitles. It does not port over any of the supplements from the previous DVD release.
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.
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.