Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

DVD: ‘The Circle’

“Man may select a wife – but he should be careful whose wife he selects.”

The Circle, based on the 1921 play by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by Frank Borzage in 1925, is a fascinating and ultimately moving film that defies expectations. It slips between high melodrama and drawing room comedy, with jabs of social satire and romantic tragedy along the way, before upending all expectations to deliver characters that defy convenient definition.

The film opens on a very young Joan Crawford as young beauty Lady Catherine, who leaves her amiable but dull millionaire husband Lord Clive Chaney (along with their young son) to follow her heart and run off with her lover Hugh, who happens to Clive’s best friend. Borzage plays it as a grandly romantic moment of both passionate risk (for Catherine, leaving everything to follow her heart) and devastating abandonment (Clive, betrayed by the people he loved most, holds tight to his son, oblivious to it all).

Jump ahead thirty years and the story seems poised to repeat itself, with the vivacious Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) married to Clive’s son Arnold (Creighton Hale), who has grown into the cliché of the spoiled, prissy, socially awkward scion of wealth, and planning to run off with handsome “good friend” Teddy (Malcolm McGregor), a smug permanent houseguest and suspicious opportunist. Complicating things is the presence of the Clive (Alec B. Francis), now aged into a gentle, doting patriarch watching the youngsters with a knowing smile and a quiet authority. “I had a friend like that,” he confides to Elizabeth. “… Hughie.” But before she does anything rash, she has arranged for Lady Catherine (now known as Kitty and played by Eugenie Besserer) to visit Arnold for the first time since running off.

The high melodrama of the prologue slips into a satirical portraits playing out their roles on a romantic farce. Clive wanders in like a doddering old man in hunting gear waving his shotgun around, which is hardly the welcome they were preparing for the return of his runaway bride. Arnold has the look of a sneering, petty European prince villain in a Lubitsch or von Stroheim continental sex comedy, dressed in with a monocle and trim Prussian mustache, and, after much anticipation, Kitty arrives as a blowsy, loud dowager dragging Hughie (George Fawcett) behind her, the once dashing figure now a sour, carping curmudgeon.

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Posted in: Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

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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