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Richard Arlen

Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

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).

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?

“Are we not men?” That question is at the heart of the 1932 Island of Lost Souls (Criterion), the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and (for all the changes from the novel) still the defining one. It’s also been the hardest to see. Though it was released on VHS and on laserdisc, it rarely showed on TV or cable and its arrival on DVD comes decades after the classic horrors of the thirties — Frankenstein, Dracula, Freaks, The Mummy, The Black Cat and so on — have been released. As a result it’s more known about than seen, more often a footnote in conversations about the early days of horror, when in fact it’s one of the most transgressive films of its era.

Charles Laughton enters the film as Dr. Moreau in the white linen suit of a plantation owner or a southern slaver. Once he cracks his ever-present whip to send the “natives” scurrying in fear, the resemblance is sealed, but that’s just the beginning of his brutal identity.

“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he boasts, but he’s more a demon in the devil’s workshop transforming beasts into human-like creatures. Whether they are men is an open question, but they certainly aspire to manhood in their creation of community and adherence to laws. Whether Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who seems to enjoy the pain he inflicts, has sacrificed his humanity is more to the point.

Arrogant and unfeeling, he’s the proto Dr. Mengele, the master-race scientist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls “The House of Pain.” (In the era before DNA and genetic engineering, his operations are all grafts and transplants.) “This time I’ll burn out all the animal in her,” he swears as his prized project Lota (Kathleen Burke) reverts back to her feline roots. It’s as much a threat as it is a statement of purpose, a promise of terrible pain that evokes torture and hellfire. And as he plots to pair off Panther Woman Lota to his castaway guest (Richard Arlen) to procreate, he’s essentially experimenting with bestiality. No wonder this was banned in Britain for decades.

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