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Silent Cinema

Out of the Past: Hearts of the World

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Let’s face it. No matter how much homage we pay (and rightly) to D.W. Griffith as the father of narrative cinema, no matter how many ‘sublime’s and ‘magnificent’s we garnish our appreciations with, The Master made his share of films that, as watched movies, are bummers. The film scholar and the diehard film freak want to see them all, and should. The film programmer has other criteria besides his own curiosity to bear in mind, though. If he wants to bust out of the official-classics repertory of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm but has seen (and probably has had opportunity to see) nothing else, he proceeds at his and his audience’s peril. The colossal miscalculation of a Dream Street or the choppy turgidity of an America may be the reward for his commendable adventurousness. Now, just incidentally, True Heart Susie and Abraham Lincoln are two titles I’d add to any must-see/must-show list of Griffiths; and having just seen Hearts of the World I’m eager to recommend it as well.

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SFSFF 2012: ‘The Mark of Zorro’ and the Birth of the Swashbuckler

One of the beauties of the SFSFF program is its balance of rarities and classics. I cherish the discoveries (or rediscoveries) that every festival brings, but just as valuable is the opportunity to revisit a well-known classic for a fresh experience under the most ideal conditions: big screen, live music, excellent print, and appreciative audience. I’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo, a couple of times, but never has it come alive for me as it did in the Sunday morning screening with Dennis James accompanying with a muscular organ score on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

While Fairbanks is remembered as the great swashbuckling action hero of the silent era, inspiring stars from Errol Flynn to Jean Dujardin in The Artist (Fairbanks is the acknowledged model for the fiction silent star of the movie), The Mark of Zorro was his first adventure movie. Before that, he was the all-American hero of contemporary comedies, the charismatic everyman who turns can-do hero with dashing feats of heroism performed with comic flair. The genius of The Mark of Zorro is dropping the Fairbanks persona into a costume adventure. His Robin Hood of Old California is an action hero defined by jaunty energy, acrobatic physicality, a zest for life, and sheer pleasure of performance. And that was all new to the movies thanks to Douglas Fairbanks, who took his career in an entirely new direction and changed the course of cinema with it.

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Preview: San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2012

17th Annual SF Silent Film Festival will be my fourth go round at what is generally considered the top film festival dedicated exclusively to the art of silent cinema in the United States.

Compared to the glories of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, the largest silent film festival in the world, and Il Ritrovato, the magnificent celebration of classic cinema in Bologna every years, SFSFF may seem modest at 15 features films and a couple of programs of short films over four nights and three full days. But from the opening night screening of Wings (1927), the very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, on Thursday, July 12 through closing night film The Cameraman (1928) with Buster Keaton, the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco comes alive with (mostly) glorious 35mm film prints preserved and restored by archives from around the world, with live scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists around at each screening.

Buster Keaton in ‘The Cameraman’

I’ve seen many of the films before, though few of them on the big screen with live accompaniment, I’ve long wanted to see a few others, and there are few that are new to me (and I hope will be revelations). Philip Kaufman, the “guest festival director” this year, will present one of those: The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, a 1928 German drama from director Hanns Schwarz starring Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer, on Friday, July 13. Earlier on Friday is a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of a Pharaoh (1922) with Emil Jannings, the director’s final lavish German production before he left for Hollywood, considered lost for many years. It shows in a newly restored DCP print, one of the few digital presentations of the festival.

It’s a marvelous mix of landmark films with the greatest stars of the golden age, like Pandora’s Box (1926) with Louise Brooks and the original The Mark of Zorro (1920), the first swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks ever made, and rarities like The Overcoat (1926) from Russia and the original screen version of Stella Dallas (1925) from director Henry King, a giant of the silent, and actor Ronald Colman.

Here are some notes on some of the films I have seen before, and I hope to follow up with reports on the discoveries I make over the weekend.

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MOD Movies: Silent Hollywood

Show People (Warner Archive), from 1927, is one of the greatest of Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. It is a marvelous showcase for the talents of Marion Davies and in some ways it is the story of its star. Davies was a natural comedienne, full of warmth and sparkle and energy and sweetness, but William Randolph Hearst (her boyfriend) didn’t think comedy was dignified enough for his woman and wanted to build her up as a dramatic star.

In Show People, Davies plays Peggy Pepper, is naïve Southern girl trained in hoary stage melodrama and brought to Hollywood by a father who wants to make her a star. With her bright eyes and big smile and unassuming determination, Davies makes Peggy a delight, completely out of her element in the professional studio system but plucky enough to get over her humiliation and become a natural in the “low” comedy of slapstick while dreaming of the serious drama put out by the likes of High Art Studios, which indeed comes calling.

King Vidor rarely dipped his toes into comedy but this was his second film with Davies and he brings out the best in her and in the film, which spoofs the culture of Hollywood celebrity while celebrating the act of moviemaking. He slights neither aspect, and while his recreation of the slapstick film unit (a Keystone Kops-like team) is clearly a fiction, there is surely more authenticity to the moviemaking apparatus than we see in more contemporary films about filmmaking. And to fans of old Hollywood, the film also features some of the superstars of the era playing themselves in playful cameos, including Charles Chaplin (out of makeup), Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Mae Murray, Louella Parsons, Norma Talmadge, Lew Cody, Elinor Glyn, and King Vidor himself. He’s a better director than actor and he brings a light, deft touch to this bouncy comedy. The disc features an archival synchronized score with sound effects, and the mono soundtrack is low fidelity and in some sequences quite distorted. It preserves the original release version, but more audio work needs to be done.

Show People is one of the most famous of the Hollywood silent movie self-portraits. One far less well know but almost as accomplished and just as interesting is Souls For Sale (Warner Archive), a 1923 feature that was lost for years and rescued in the last decade.

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Notes on Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on FilmsSelf-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.

To my mind, there is no story restoration story as glorious as that of Kevin Brownlow’s personal mission to reconstruct the glories of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a masterpiece on a scale almost without comparison. He began the project as a teenager, after he sampled a taste of its grandeur in a digest version prepared for 9.5mm home movie projectors, and sixty years later it’s hard to say if he’s done.

I wrote briefly about his odyssey for Parallax View here, but for the full story, you can’t do better than his 1983 book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film” (out of print but still fairly easy to find; his updated 2008 edition is much more elusive), which both an illuminating memoir of film history and an often critical look at the sometimes competitive and self-defensive culture of cinematheques and film preservation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The definitive version we have today was completed in 2000. It has played only handful of times since then, due to a number of factors, not the least being the expense and technical demands of mounting a screening. According to Brownlow, it screened only four times before its American premiere in Oakland, where four shows played to rapt audiences over two weekends in March and April of 2012. That’s only eight showings of a film that has been called by some the greatest silent film every made. Whether or not you agree with that claim, the screenings I attended (I’ve seen three of the eight screenings) were an experience like no other: magnificent presentation, painstakingly exacting projection, live orchestra booming a dramatic score compiled, arranged, and conducted by Carl Davis.

Sunrise may the most perfect and poetic of silent films, or you might nominate The Docks of New York or The General or even Gance’s own La Roue as greater, richer, more profound films, but Napoleon has a scope and a sprawl and an ambition that is unmatched. The density of Gance’s ideas, the frisson of his images and experiments in cinematic expression, and the complicated perspectives on the legacy of Napoleon have a weight that is undeniable. And watching the full 5 ½ Napoleon with a live orchestra in a magnificent theater elevates the film to a cinematic experience without parallel, and that experience electrifies the storytelling and imagery.

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Restoring the Lost ‘Metropolis’

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on FilmsSelf-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.

Film historian, critic, and film collector Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years tracking down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost “Metropolis.”

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is 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. After its premiere in Berlin, UFA (which produced the film) cut it down for general release, and it was often cut further for export (the American release was cut by more than a third). But there rumors that an uncut print that had found its way to Argentina, thanks to an ambitious distributor who saw the film in its first run in Berlin, and Peña had heard stories of a private print in the possession of a Buenos Aries film critic and historian, a 16mm reduction of a 35mm print imported before any of the cuts had been made (Peña tells the entire fascinating story here). He spent decades trying to follow the leads to a public archive, where he was met with bureaucratic wall.

In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, he finally found it print. They 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 that has since screened around the world in digital prints and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino — 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. Not only did it contribute footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, it provided an visual invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.

The Murnau Institute first embarked on a major restoration about a decade ago with the materials they had on hand and it revealed just how much footage — including significant sequences and entire subplots — was missing. Title cards sketched out subplots lost when the film was edited down by UFA (against the wishes of Lang), in particular the stories of The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who in previous editions is sent by Joh Frederson on a clandestine mission and then all but disappears; Joh Frederson’s assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), who is fired by Frederson and taken in by Freder; and the worker 11811, who Freder relieves from the exhausting duty of working the hands of the clock-like device. and his adventures in the world above ground where he becomes intoxicated on the decadence. Those stories, suggested in the earlier reconstruction, are played out here, and there are further additions, from an additional action scene in the escape from the flooding underwater city to shots trimmed from within scenes. The restoration of even these brief shots fills out the rhythmic qualities of Lang’s editing and adds detail to the montage, and in a few significant scenes it adds to the scope and intricacy of the drama.

Continue reading at MSN Hitlist

MOD Movies: Tod Browning and Lon Chaney – Partners in Madness and Obsession

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on FilmsSelf-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.

While most participants so far have chosen to focus on Hitchcock, I have chosen to wrote about topics close to my heart: silent film and the preservation and restoration of films of the silent era.

Director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney made ten features together between 1919 and 1929. Of those films, London After Midnight (1927) is lost (a “photo reconstruction” was created by Rick Schmidlin in 2002) and remains one of the holy grails of film hunters, but seven of the other nine are currently available in good to superb home video editions. Given the state of silent film preservation (experts figure that 90% of all silent movies are lost), that’s an impressive number, probably due more to the star power of Chaney than anything else.

Harry Earles, Victor McLaglen, Lon Chaney in 'The Unholy Three'

Given the state of home video sales, however, it is astounding that so many are available on DVD, and that is in large part thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, the pioneering manufacture-on-deman?d line from Warner Home Video. The Unholy Three (1925) was released in 2010 and three more collaborations have just been made available: The Black Bird (1926), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929), their final collaboration before Chaney’s death in 1930, at the age of 44, before he was able to take the lead in Browning’s upcoming production of Dracula.

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his dedication to elaborate make-up effects, but what made his creations so compelling was his complete physical transformation (the Hunchback and the Phantom of the Opera required very painful prosthetics), finding ways to externalize the inner torments and conflicted drives of his heroes, villains, and victims.

The prolific Chaney consistently brought a weird edge to most all of his roles, but only Tod Browning, a director with a taste for obsessive and tormented characters, encouraged him to reach for truly wild and twisted incarnations. They were one of the defining director / actor teams of twenties, united in their love of tragic, exotic, often grotesque characters, and the way they reveled in the extremes and the contradictions of the exaggerated figures.

In The Black Bird, Chaney splits that conflicted characterization into two separate personae: the Limehouse crook Dan Tate and the crippled preacher Bishop, the “secret identity” that Dan wears in the daytime that blossoms into a split personality. Is Bishop’s benevolence just a pose, or a repressed part of his personality that only comes out when he takes on the elaborate physical handicap? It’s not just a matter of Chaney going all out for the physical performance, mind you, it’s the way the character of Dan Tate himself is so committed to his alter ego that it becomes as real as he is.

Vengeance, another consistent emotional engine for both Browning and Chaney, drives West of Zanzibar (1928), which is as wickedly twisted as anything Browning has made. Chaney is Phroso, a vaudeville magician cuckolded by his beautiful wife and stage assistant, and crippled when her lover Crane (Lionel Barrymore) pushes him over a balcony. Chaney transforms Phroso into a wretched figure, so consumed with hate and revenge that he spends 18 years preparing his plan in the jungles of the Congo, living as a self-made god among the cannibals while having Crane’s illegitimate daughter raised in a Zanzibar brothel. Just which of these two men, Crane (now an ivory trader in the Congo) or Phroso (king of his corner of hell), is the worst villain is a fair question at this stage of the film.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ – The Complete Masterpiece Debuts in America


Albert Dieudonne is Napoleon

On Sunday, October 20, 2001, on the final day of the 20th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the greatest, grandest silent film festival in the known universe), I boarded a vintage steam engine with a few hundred other silent movie-loving patrons, traveled from Sacile to Udine, filed into the Udine Opera House, took my nearly-front row seat (the Camerata Labacensis, Ljubljana, a 35-or-so-piece orchestra, was practically under my feet) and was, for the next 5 ½ hours (divided up by two intermissions and a dinner break), entranced by Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon. It was the most transporting, invigorating, exiting cinematic experience of my life to date. Mr. Brownlow did not lie when he stepped on to the stage and made his introduction: “If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

His introduction ironically but endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoleon premiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was sound but Napoleon, the most expensive film made in France to that time, remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema. Like Birth Of A Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come, Napoleon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.

On Saturday, March 24, 2012, Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon makes its long-awaited American premiere in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre, presented by Brownlow and accompanied by a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who conducts his score. There are only four shows of this all-day event: March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, and there are no further American screenings planned. If you love the cinema and have any opportunity to see one of these shows, by all means make every effort to do so. Yes, it is an event. It is also a transporting cinematic experience like no other.

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Abel Gance Before ‘Napoleon’: ‘J’Accuse’ and ‘La Roue’

In advance of the American premiere of the fully restored edition of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon in Oakland on March 24, Turner Classic Movies presents two of the auteur’s earlier films: J’Accuse (1919), which appropriates the cry leveled by Emile Zola during the Dreyfus affair to decry the horrors of World War I, and La Roue (1923). These films—the sole silent films from the director currently available to American audiences (both are also available on DVD from Flicker Alley)—make clear that there was no director like Abel Gance in the silent era. One of the great technical innovators and visual artists of his time, Gance was a master conductor of the cinematic form. He transformed dramatic stories into emotional symphonies, and these two films are among the most stirring of the era.

J'Accuse

Abel Gance began shooting J’Accuse, his harrowing anti-war drama, while the trench warfare of World War I was still grinding up soldiers on both sides of the battle. Such sentiments were certainly not encouraged by a government straining to support the war effort, but the time was ripe when it finally came months after it ended. France was devastated and the film is appropriately devastating, all but announcing its intentions in the opening titles, spelled out in the fallen bodies of soldiers dropping the ground as if in death. The story itself begins as a love triangle melodrama of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by war and transforms into a veritable love story between two men, comrades in arms brought together by battle and the mutual love of the same woman, but this is no romanticized portrait of courage and comradeship forged under fire.

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New on Blu-ray: Hitchcock, Huston and the First Oscar Winner

Hitchcock / Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (MGM)

Hindsight is 20/20, but teaming of British perfectionist director Alfred Hitchcock and American iconoclast producer David O. Selznick was doomed to conflict. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood with an exclusive contract, was a director in all but name. He micromanaged his pictures down to the shot, rewriting scripts, reshooting scenes, relentlessly tinkering well into post-production. Hitchcock plotted and planned his films in detailed storyboards from the outset. He had no use for Selznick’s interference or his barrage of memos, but he needed the entry to America and relished the generous budgets and access to technology. Their partnership makes a simultaneous case for film as a collaborator’s artform, and as the domain of the auteur. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

Welcome to Manderlay

The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless. It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, Hitch’s only film to win a Best Picture Oscar winner, and the award went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

The tensions (and I mean creative, not psychological tensions) are far more fraught in Spellbound (1945), an ambitious psychological thriller inspired by Selznick’s adventures in psychoanalysis and mystery as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning. Gregory Peck is the tortured doctor with a repressed secret that psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman helps him unearth, with the help of dream therapy. The push-me, pull-you relationship can be seen in Hitch’s attempts to visualize heady concepts in bizarre dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dali) while the dialogue drags it all back to literalness. With commentary, two featurettes, a radio play adaptation and an archival audio interview with Hitch among the supplements.

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Blu-ray: John Barrymore is ‘Sherlock Holmes’

John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes was not the first screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and certainly not the definitive. This production, directed by Albert Parker as a mix of dime novel adventure and pulp crime thriller, is ostensibly based on Doyle’s stories but more directly on the play by William Gillette, a stage actor who made a career playing Holmes. It offers an origin story to the detective and his battle with criminal mastermind Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that begins at college, where Holmes’ friend and fellow student Watson (Roland Young) introduces him to a mystery that leads Holmes into the criminal empire of Moriarty. Jump ahead a few years and Holmes is now the brilliant (and publicly modest) detective of 221 Baker Street, dedicated to dismantling Moriarty’s underworld web and still carrying a torch for a beautiful young woman (Carol Dempster) he met once in his college days.

John Barrymore's Holmes versus Gustav von Seyffertitz's Prof. Moriarty

That young woman is Alice Faulkner and her plight — she’s held prisoner by Moriarty, who is after letters in her possession that he can use to blackmail a Crown Prince — brings Holmes’ battle with Moriarty to a head. That’s the simplified version of the story, which is overly convoluted and tangled and, for a Holmes mystery, often quite sloppy. Or is simply that Holmes is so smitten with Alice that he’s not thinking clearly when he leaves her in the clutches of her captors, convinced she’ll be safe for the time being? Not the most logical of deductions, to this untrained mind.

The confused motivations and complications are simply discarded when the film shifts from mystery to elaborate battle of wits between Moriarty, determined to finally kill the meddling detective, and Holmes, who plots to end Moriarty’s reign of terror. It’s also one of the wordiest silent films I’ve ever seen, filled with pages of intertitles explicating the overly convoluted plot and providing Holmes’ commentary of clues, deductions and schemes.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

DVD: ‘Landmarks of Early Soviet Film’

The title of Flicker Alley’s box set Landmarks of Early Soviet Film: A Four-Disc DVD Collection Of 8 Groundbreaking Films may sound like dry lesson plan in film history on the surface. There are a lot of viewers, even lovers of movie classics, who consider watching any silent film not by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton as the film history equivalent of eating your vegetables — good for you but hardly fun — and place the often stridently propagandistic features of early Soviet cinema high on that list. Perhaps the most valuable revelation of this collection is the diversity of filmmaking, from dynamic dramas to witty comedies to striking documentaries, even among those committed to the aesthetic of montage. The concept that meaning comes not simply from the shot but in the way shots are juxtaposed was more than a guiding for many of the filmmakers, it was the filmmaking equivalent of revolutionary credentials, but the application and purpose was different for each filmmaker.

The set features work by the three most famous Soviet proponents of montage: Sergei Eisenstein, who essays on principles of editing were reflected in such films as Battleship Potemkin and October; Dziga Vertov, who apprenticed in political newsreels before graduating to features and soaring to Man With a Movie Camera; and Lev Kuleshov, who coined the term ‘montage’ and first explored the possibilities in experiments and early films his student workshop. These three directors popularized primacy of editing in both practice and theory. Just as illuminating, however, is the inclusion of filmmakers with different ideas and approaches to montage and to filmmaking in general. Montage is not just one thing, as these films illustrate. It encompasses ideas and arguments, emotions and excitement, suspense and tension, dramatic effect, revelation and humor: the perfect cut as punchline delivery. It was also a short-lived aesthetic in Soviet cinema. “Formalism” was condemned as a bourgeois concept and montage directors fell out of favor. This collection celebrates a brief period of cinematic experimentation.

Porfiriy Podobed as the flag-waving Mr. West

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the debut feature from Lev Kuleshov, is a political cartoon of a Soviet satire that knowingly spoofs American stereotypes of “Bolshevik revolutionaries” through the comically surreal odyssey of the gullible Mr. West (Porfiri Podobed, dressed to evoke a middle-aged Harold Lloyd), an American politician on a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union. Arriving with star-spangled socks and a head full of the most sinister stereotypes of the barbarous state of the communist peoples, he’s kidnapped by a gang of con artists who deliver his worst Bolshevik nightmare, complete with a staged “trial” the plays out likes a piece of anti-Bolshevik theater by way of a German Expressionist horror, as a preamble to prying him from his money. While Kuleshov and crew (including future filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin, who collaborated on the script) present the communist caricatures with a knowing wink to its Soviet audience, its equally absurd American clichés — such as West’s cowboy sidekick (played by future director Boris Barnet) arriving in Moscow in chaps and cowboy hat, shooting up the streets like a drunken cowhand and lassoing a car like it was a runaway horse — are played for culture clash comedy: the crazy hayseed in the big city. By the end, of course, our wide-eyed Mr. West is introduced to the true face of communism and the glories of the Soviet ideal, but along the way Kuleshov creates a breakneck mix of chase film, cliffhanger adventure and slapstick comedy with cartoonish twists. It’s American popular entertainment refracted through a Soviet lens. It’s also very funny, highly inventive and quite knowing in its appropriation of cinema clichés.

More on By the Law, The House on Trubnaya Square, Old and New, Salt for Svanetia and others at Turner Classic Movies.

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Phantom Carriage’

Whoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive Death’s carriage for the next year, collecting the souls that pass on and carrying them to the afterlife.

This bit of folklore is the narrative conceit on which The Phantom Carriage rests. It opens as a supernatural tale — part ghost story and part religious fable — but soon reveals itself as a tragedy.

“Send for David Holm,” asks the dying Edit (Astrid Holm, looking saintly in her suffering), a devoted and dedicated Salvation Army sister with consumption. She’s surrounded and worried over by everyone but David (Victor Sjöström), a shameless drunkard who refuses to attend her and remains (ominously and fittingly) in a graveyard to swap stories to his carousing buddies. He drinks to George (Tore Svennberg), the swell of a crook who made David what he is today and the man who told him of the legend of Death’s driver. Both will visit David before the night is over, taking him on a kind of ride through his past, a spin on A Christmas Carol with George as his Jacob Marley and David as a wretch of a Scrooge. His legacy is measured in the misery he caused and the lives he destroyed and he’s forced to watch the cruelty of his life on the eve of his death.

Directed by and starring Victor Sjöström, the father of Swedish cinema, from the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is one of the masterpieces of Swedish cinema and its reputation is well deserved. Where most of the great Swedish classics of the era were sweeping sagas set in the rugged landscape of grand outdoors (such as Gosta Berling’s Saga and Sjöström’s own The Outlaw and his Wife), The Phantom Carriage is an intimate work created in the controlled environment of the studio. Where the sagas were visually muscular and set against vast natural landscapes, this is delicately-crafted, carefully lit and composed and performed with an understated intensity, in particular Sjöström himself as the reprobate David. The once responsible family man changes into a reckless ne’er do well who corrupts his young brother and terrorizes his wife and children and then slips even slips into complete misanthropy as a bitter and vengeful drifter searching every small town to find his runaway wife. When Sister Edit, the idealistic young officer in the Salvation Army posted to a small rural town, determines to redeem David when he comes looking for a bed, he responds with contempt and cruelty. Sjöström’s restrained performance makes David all the more terrifying. His brooding manner and sneering looks communicate quiet disdain and a vicious misanthropic streak (a consumptive, he freely coughs in the faces of the healthy “to finish them off quicker”) until he loses himself in drink, when his anger spills out into violence.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

DVD: ‘The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom’

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t known for its sense of humor. Which is not say that it’s completely unknown; the 1925 comedy short Chess Fever is an often cartoonishly inventive parody of the chess madness that swept Russia in its day and the cheeky humor and tongue-in-satire of the 1926 adventure serial Miss Mend is a delight by anyone’s standards. But silent Russian comedies are harder to find than, say, rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories.

Yuliya Solntseva as the Cigarette Girl

For that reason alone, the 1924 The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom stands out, a lightweight, fun-loving romantic comedy set on the bustling streets of Moscow where three suitors vie for the attentions of lovely Zina, the cigarette girl of the title (played but Yuliya Solntseva, most famous for playing Aelita in the 1924 science fiction lark Aelita: Queen of Mars). The accountant Mutyushin (Igor Ilyinsky, also from Aelita), looking very much the nervous scholar in his trim mustache and cluttered office, buys a pack from her everyday in Mosselprom Square, even though he doesn’t smoke (his collection is a shrine to his love for her). Movie cameraman Latugin (Nikolai Tsereteli), young and handsome and charming, is immediately smitten when he spots her while scouting locations and invites her to audition for a new movie. American Oliver MacBride (M. Tsybulsky), a fat cat capitalist on a business trip in Moscow, falls for her while visiting the set. The story meanders through a somewhat arbitrary plot that sends Zina bouncing between the suitors while Mutyushin provides most of the comic relief as he weaves between his infatuation with Zina and his halfhearted romance with a fellow accountant, who assumes that the elaborate love letters he leaves half-written on his desk are destined for her.

Along with the romantic confusion and slapstick comedy (some of it quite accomplished, some of it merely energetically executed) is a snapshot of the urban bustle and modern life of contemporary Moscow, circa 1924. Director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, who began as a cinematographer and continued to shoot his own films (no wonder he favors the cameraman in this romantic quadrangle), takes the camera to the streets, just as the company within the film does. And he has fun with the moviemaking story that runs through the film, from simple scenes of his characters shooting a film on the streets of Moscow, keeping crowds back and the curious from wandering into their shots while Latugin’s infatuation distracts him from the work at hand, to watching the raw footage of the American-backed travelogue “Everyday Life in Moscow” which the lovesick cameraman has transformed into a moving photo album of Zina, whose presence obscures the landmarks he’s supposed to be shooting.

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