Category Archives: silent film

Piccadilly, a silent, one of Anna May Wong’s best

Atmospheric and dark, directed by E. A. DuPont

Anna May WongDirector E. A. DuPont’s silent films are hard to find now, except for three important films about performers: Variete, Piccadilly, and Moulin Rouge.  Each is fun to watch, and each is historically important for different reasons.  While DuPont may be one of the German emigre directors who we’ve mostly forgotten, his films are well worth a look. Variete, the best of the three, features the great Emil Jannings and some inventive technical maneuvers.  (This film was marketed in the States as Jealousy, and in England as Vaudeville, though its most recent edition uses the German title of Variete.) Piccadilly is one of the best films of the exquisitely beautiful Anna May Wong, who is astonishing in one of her earliest roles.  And Moulin Rouge — well, it’s the earliest version we have of the story.

piccadilly bar pair

A bit about DuPont

Before getting to Piccadilly, a little background about director DuPont.  Aside from his three special films about performers, he apparently wasn’t a remarkable director and had a difficult time finding employment.  In Germany where he began his career at UFA, his films are all impossible to find except in a few archives.  In his later career, he was mostly relegated to B pictures.  This didn’t make much sense to me, given how great these three films are, until I read that DuPont was “extremely temperamental and preferred to work after midnight,” which ran up costs and pleased no one.(1)  His sound films were apparently pretty bad anyway, so his skills didn’t transfer well beyond the silent.  For his piccadilly mirrorperformer films, he drew upon what he learned when managing a large vaudeville theater in Mannheim, and he would have stayed in live theater if he hadn’t been drawn back to films for money.  Each film demonstrates an insider’s perspective, which is in part what makes them so historically interesting.

Anna May Wong and Piccadilly

When Anna May Wong made Piccadilly in 1929, she was already a popular actress, havingpiccadilly anna in office appeared in more than thirty films. Only two of these were starring roles: Toll of the Sea in 1924 and the German film Song in 1928. Nevertheless, when she was filming Piccadilly, she was mobbed by Londoners, some of whom “tinted their faces ivory with ochre color to get ‘the Wong complexion,'” according to biographer Graham Hodges. Coolie coats became the rage in the Piccadilly neighborhood where filming took place.  Her charm and beauty allowed her to transcend the usual real-life role forced upon the few Chinese in England — that of laundry worker or servant — and her sweet temperament and grace in interviews also prevented people from perceiving her as the stereotype of an evil Asian seductress.  That the film industry wouldn’t allow her to transcend these roles in most of her movies is a shame.

piccadilly anna hosePiccadilly for the most part avoids the stereotypes.  It is an entertaining film that is especially noteworthy because of Wong’s beautiful performance.  Even though we aren’t allowed to see far into her character, she is riveting.  She is the featured performer; everything revolves around her.  Had she not been Asian, and thus held back by the film industry, she would almost certainly have been a major star.  In Piccadilly her character, Shosho, is a smart and talented young woman from the poor Limehouse district. The plot, as it is, hinges on her as an object of desire for a male producer and club owner who decides to replace his long-time girlfriend and aging star (Gilda Gray) with the alluring, mysterious dancer who works in the kitchen. Shosho seems a bit bemused and befuddled at her good fortune, though she’s more than willing to take advantage of her situation.  That Shosho is truly more talented than the woman she replaces makes it all seem justified somehow, and quite realistic. (Gilda Gray’s main claim to fame as an actress was her ability to do the shimmy.  While biographies credit her with “inventing” the shimmy, this is sheer crap; the piccadilly anna may wongshimmy was a black dance long before Gilda got ahold of it.  Anyway, Gilda does some good pouting in this film.)  The manager who falls for Shosho isn’t portrayed as a predator; he seems to feel some genuine guilt and tries for a time to be fair to both women.  But, you know, we’re talking about Anna May Wong; how can he deny his love?  Besides, his name is Valentine Wilmot (he’s played in an appealing, humorous way by Jameson Thomas).  There are even some touching moments with him, as when he secretly draws a little sketch of her when he’s interviewing her for a position, and, later, when he takes her hand.

piccadilly bar copAt a point in the film (and it’s a little murky), Shosho suddenly becomes ambitious and is willing to cruelly crush the rejected actress.  This comes out of the blue and is a false note heading to a silly plot confrontation that wraps up the picture all too tidily.  It’s only at this point that the character of Shosho leans toward the usual stereotype of Asian manipulator, though not much is made of it and it doesn’t change Shosho’s basic appeal.  Like Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong can transcend any cliche thrown at her.

The plot in Piccadilly doesn’t mean much, anyway; this film, like the other DuPont films, is all about atmosphere, technique, and small realistic touches.  My favorite scenes in Piccadilly are those set in the kitchen and in the Limehouse district. When we first see Shosho, it is in the kitchen, where the camera focuses, one by one, on the faces of the workers as they watch her dance on a table.  Shosho hasn’t even appeared in the film at this point; it is a slow build, and her dance, piccadilly bar faceswhen we see it, is fascinating. It’s a simple dance, just a kind of gyration, but there’s something mesmerizing about it.  Sensual, but not just that; more hypnotic.  I can’t imagine any other actress pulling this off the way Anna May Wong does; it is so odd and unique to her.  Shosho is spotted dancing by the manager, too, who has come to find out why the dishes are dirty.  (Trivia: the restaurant patron who complains about the state of the dishes is a young Charles Laughton in his first feature film.)  Later that night, the manager seeks her out and follows her up a flight of stairs and the screen goes black, with the implication that they sleep together; not long after, she is the new featured dancer.  She’s a dancer that already knows her own mind, insisting upon wearing a specific elaborate costume; she calls the shots over both the manager and a man she lives with, Jim.

piccadilly cafeIt’s unclear whether Jim is a lover or just a kind of odd, putzy fellow in love with her; at any rate, he is not happy about the manager’s intrusions. He is a peculiar comic relief character at times; other times, he is just silent and sullen. She confides in Jim, and he supports her, but we don’t understand them.  All in all, he is part of the mystery of Shosho’s Limehouse world, the Oriental sphere.  Jim and Shosho herself are never fully explained to us; we don’t know their histories or their motives or even their actual relationship. Yet their Limehouse/Chinatown is depicted in such a realistic, dark way that it doesn’t come off as cliched as many depictions of Asian neighborhoods.  The Asians in Limehouse are not so much elevated and evil and mystical as they are just getting by, making money through gambling and liquor and small shops, and sleeping in cramped rooms, like any other poor people.  There is a kind of equality in the way DuPont depicts the residents in Limehouse, who, though mostly Asian, include a motley set of races and ethnicities who mingle together in clubs, piccadilly bar dancersrestaurants, and on the streets.  DuPont gives us close-ups of faces that remind me in some ways of Depression-era photographs in the States.  The people aren’t pathetic; they’re just hanging around, smoking, reading the paper, dancing, trying to have a good time.  “You see, this is our Piccadilly,” Shosho tells her manager/lover, as the camera once again pans from one face to another.  A woman slips bills into her stocking.  Drunken dancers are distorted in a mirror.

The film is always most interesting when it leaves the high-class nightclub where piccadilly shopShosho works and enters the underworld.  Late in the movie the problems of interracial relationships are directly commented upon when Shosho and the manager go drinking at a lower rent club.  He takes her hand as they watch the happy people dancing.  Then another woman, a white woman, enters the club and starts happily dancing with a black man in a top hat.  They’re ordered apart by a manager who tells them this isn’t allowed; “are you blind, or wot?”  The woman talks back and she’s heckled by many; we don’t hear what’s being said, but it’s clear enough. If the woman doesn’t leave, she will be attacked.  Shosho turns away and hides her head and she and her lover leave as quickly as possible, with it now clear that there is no way they can ever be together.  This is not because they are incompatible; it is entirely because of the danger created by the racist social restrictions.

piccadilly bar hoseAlthough this film was made in England, it has the dark, German sensibility that is reflected in many Weimar films and art.  There’s an edginess, a sense of decadence, and an acceptance of every character. There is no moral lesson.  It has a tough urban feel to it, almost a lack of sympathy or even interest in the internal workings of the characters.  They are subsumed by their environment, by Piccadilly itself, which ultimately does not accept them.

A lovely print of this is available through the British Film Institute on DVD.  It’s a region 2 disc, but it’s worth owning a region-free DVD player to see it and many other quality BFI releases.  I hope they, or some other good company like Kino or Criterion, release some of the other early Anna May Wong films, especially her two German films from the same era.  She has fans; I believe there would be an audience.

piccadilly couple

piccadilly comic relief

(1) Warren, Patricia.  British Film Studios: An Illustrated History.  London: Batsford, 2001.

(2) Hodges, Graham Russell Gao.  Anna May Wong. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

 

 

 

When Joan Crawford was a flapper

Flapper-Our_Dancing_Daughters_1928_I had no idea until recently that Joan Crawford was anyone but that scary, dark haired, angry woman that looked a little like my mother.  I had no idea that there was this other Joan, a bubbly, silly, manic flapper who liked to dance the night away.  I guess I never thought of her as young; I just thought of her as a rather unlikeable cliche.  (Although I did always love her in Mildred Pierce.)  I really hadn’t had much opportunity to see the earliest Crawford films; I knew nothing about “pre-code” until a few years ago, when I discovered silent films and realized than those early films were more far sophisticated that the our dancing daughters anita pagesanitized movies I’d watched on late night TV growing up, pre-cable.  I had no idea how risqué, experimental, fun, and downright surreal they could be.  If only I’d known that many films from many countries from 1910 to 1935 were essentially banned from mainstream viewing for years, straight through and past the supposedly rules-bending sixties themselves (an era that broke no rules that hadn’t been broken back in the 1910s).  Only now are some of these old movies fairly easy to find, restored, with deleted scenes included.  When I tell Anita Page Our Dancing Daughterspeople all of this, most of them don’t believe me.  Maybe we just like to believe that our own era is the most cutting edge, and that history is always a positive progression.

All I can say is that no woman today is wilder than Joan Crawford (and a lot of other women) were in the 1920’s.  Even now, we tend to see the flapper as a quick anomaly — we see the hair and the clothes and think “instant liberation.”  In fact, women were already testing sexual and role boundaries by the early 1910’s, so the flapper hardly came out of the blue.  They just had an easier time wearing short dresses and short hair in public.  Joan Crawford didn’t even invent the flapper image, as a few people have maintained.  It started before her and before Zelda Fitzgerald.  Anita Loos chopped her hair off for one of the earliest bobs in 1916, when she was doing publicity interviews for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.  (And boy did Anita look cute.)  But Crawford certainly rode the flapper wave, and she helped to popularize the trend when the film Our Dancing Daughters became a national success and was shown in places like Omaha.our daughters joan sexy

I don’t think Joan alone made Our Dancing Daughters popular; the movie did, though, make her a success.  Our Dancing Daughters centers a trio of feisty flappers, and is filmed showing plenty of leg and plenty of lip.   It’s quite a good little movie that explores, in a mostly lighthearted way, what women can and can’t get by with, and what they have to do to stand up for themselves.  Joan is the center of the story — she plays an unstoppable girl named Diana who dances her feet off and wears cute fringy dresses and has a heart of gold.  But I think Anita Page as her rival is really terrific, too, and provides some of the movie’s best drama.  Even beyond the movie’s heroines, I’m sure that the whole milieu of drinking, dancing, men, fashion, more drinking, flirting, straight-talking — all of it must have held great appeal to young audiences.  And it has just enough sentiment to especially appeal to young women of a certain age who want a good romance to be moony over. The script (written by three women) and direction (by Harry Beaumont) are plain good and allow the movie to transcend others of its kind.Joan Crawford Our Dancing Daughters

Joan Crawford is so unlike herself in this movie.  Or maybe she was most like herself before the Hollywood machine got ahold of her.  I’ve read that Joan was really a redhead, and her hair in this is light and short and really represents a rebellious liveliness.  Her eyes are downright manic at times, as if she has much to prove and has to prove it fast.  She seems witty, quick, funny.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was a great actress, but that doesn’t really matter.  She seems to be having a great time.  I’ve seen her in her other silent films, and she generally plays a low-key, romantic partner to a likable male star our daughters joan crazy(like Billy Haines).  She’s cute in these, but not remarkable and not even traditionally pretty.  She does have a great body, which we see a surprising amount of at times.  But she seems a bit toothy, a bit starey-eyed, a bit odd.  Awkward, really, compared to some of the more glamorous actresses of the period.  It’s sad, the way this gets cleaned up as the thirties go on, as they make Joan cool, glam, then colder and colder, as if she grows more distant as time passes.  In the sequel to Our Dancing Daughters, Our Modern Maidens, her character is known as “Billie,” which was actually what Joan was called before becoming an film actress.  (Apparently Fairbanks Sr. called her this, too, for years.)  Billie is a slang-y, boyish name, a spirited name.  Within a few years, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but staid cold Joan.  It’s hard for me to really understand how and why this happened, since Our Dancing Daughters was a huge hit.  Biographers refer to her desire to insinuate herself in the Fairbanks/Pickford circle when she started seeing Joan Crawford Our Dancing DaughtersFairbanks Jr.; they refer to the influence of Mayer at MGM.  They talk about Crawford’s own desire to fit in and to be taken seriously.  It almost seems that she decides to become another person.  Although I know many people would disagree with me, I really hate to see the glamorization that happens to actors and Our Dancing Daughters Crawford Paige Sebastianactresses as the thirties progresses.  I could care less about the gowns. I’m partial to realism and the open sense of fun that’s in the earliest films.  I like the idea that the Joan in these silent films really is a vivacious, sincere, sweet-but-daring sort, and that she captures the spirit of many young women of the day.

Our Dancing Daughters stands up over time because it really isn’t glamorous and overly stylized, but is in fact rather complex, with the girls winning and losing as they fight for independence. My favorite part of the film, in fact, involves not Joan but Anita Page, who delivers a great tirade as she stands drunkenly teetering at the top of a staircase.  She yells down to a group of our dancing daughters anita pagewasherwomen cleaning on their knees below: “Women!  Women working!  Hey — why are you working?  Haven’t you any daughters?  Pretty daughters?  Pretty daughters — doll ’em up — a rich man wants his money’s worth!”  So the decadent clothes, the drinking, the spangly parties and the search for wealthy suitors ultimately backfires in a dramatic fashion.  Page is so full of false hysterical hilarity in this scene that it is downright disturbing.  Flapper tragedy may seem a cliche to us now, but this was filmed right in the midst of it all.

By the time the second sequel appears in 1930, a talkie called Our Blushing Brides, that original energy is completely gone and it’s all become a boring formula.  Joan Crawford herself even noted that when Our Dancing Daughters became a success, she became much more self-conscious, as if she were watching herself, analyzing herself.  I think filmmaking itself goes through the same process as the thirties go on.

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Our Dancing Daughters intertitle

 

Silent Naruse – geishas in desperate straits

In the U.S. we call racy, daring “women’s films” of the 1920’s and early 1930’s pre-code, referring to the dampening effect of the morality code instituted by the Hays’ office.  To my surprise, I’ve found that other countries had their own version of the honest little melodramas and comedies that dealt with women’s issues, and that these grapple with equally risky themes.  I was even more apart from you geishas2 surprised to find that some of these are Japanese, which made me confront my own assumptions about what Japanese women’s lives were like eighty years ago, and, especially, what could be dealt with in films of the period.  (Actually, I have been struck over and over again with just how socially daring and progressive that art was then, and how far we have regressed.  But that’s for another essay.)

mikio_naruseFor now, I’ll talk about the silent films of Mikio Naruse.  Throughout his career, Naruse’s films focused on the travails of working class women, and, often, on geishas.  These are not high-end geishas — they work in bars and men’s clubs, and only a few play musical instruments — and it’s strongly implied that they are prostitutes.  This isn’t a prettified geisha world, and there is actually a contrast between their natural beauty at home with their children and the more artificial painted beauty that adopt in the workplace.  In both of the silent geisha films I watched — Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Apart From You (1933) — the women are ashamed of their work.  And the work is strictly something they have to do for money to support their streetwithoutend geisha wifefamilies.  In every Naruse film I saw, there was a weak or struggling man who forced the woman to become a working girl.  That these films were directed and written by a young man in his twenties was really quite remarkable to me, as the focus is primarily on the women and is completely on the women’s side.  Naruse is never judgmental, and in fact is quite the opposite.  He puts the blame on the men and, sometimes, on a family matriarch.  In a less direct way, the blame is also placed on society, in particular a rigid class structure that forces people into roles and perpetuates poverty.  This, too, parallels concerns that come up in American pre-codes that often would probably be considered “socialist” if made today.  The world was in the grips of the Depression in the early 30’s — it wasn’t just us in the States.  The themes of jstreetwithoutend couplemountainoblessness and poverty ran through all four of the Naruse silents that I watched.

Mikio Naruse himself grew up poor; both of his parents died when he was young.  He began working in film as a prop manager while a teenager and directed his first film at 25.  One biographical account claimed that his father left the family for a geisha.  If that’s so, he certainly had sympathy for the geisha.

Just as with Tatsuo SaitoAmerican pre-codes, Naruse’s films were specifically created for and marketed to young working women who would often bring friends and family to the theater with them. The basic plot devices are familiar to anyone who has watched a D. W. Griffith melodrama or a contemporary romance on Lifetime: The husband-boyfriend is weak or a jerk; someone (child or protagonist) is hit by a car or gets a hideous disease and may or may not live; someone needs money for an operation (or medicine); someone is threatened by a boss or by a customer; men can’t get jobs and may turn to crime or alcohol; girls have a good laugh at the expense of guys — and women are more comfortable with one another; mothers-in-laws are bitches; girls will do a lot to help/protect their younger siblings and/or children; women will sacrifice their own lives for others.  While I would be bored silly with such hackneyed plots if that was all there was, I was completely pulled into the Naruse films.  The reason for this is not just in the fascinating differences in culture and time period.  It’s that the films are just so beautiful and apart from you boy 2compassionate and are filled with many small, touching moments that have little to do with the broader storyline.  They are wordless glimpses that tell us volumes about a character’s mental state or situation.  They are not dramatic, but are more rueful and reflective, which felt to me to be emotionally realistic.  Some of my favorite of these came in the film Every-Night Dreams, the most successful of the four “working girl” silents I watched.  In one, the geisha Omitsu, played by the funny-faced Sumiko Kurishima, must pin up her hair in preparation for going out on the job.  She stands in front of the mirror, resigned to her fate, while the act of pinning her hair is in itself gracious and lovely.  Another moment comes when her husband Mizuhara, who can’t find work, must discuss his situation in front of his wife’s pretty friend; he is embarrassed, and turns away, then looks up quickly and apart from you hairlaughs just a little.  Mizuhara has other touching scenes, especially when he plays baseball with his young son, or when he realizes his son has fixed a hole in his shoe by using a card and chewing gum (a motif that comes up in other Naruse films).  Actor Tatsuo Saito does a wonderful job of showing the fellow’s shame as he attempts to look for work and always fails, yet meets his defeats with melancholy good humor.  (Tatsuo Saito appears in many films by Naruse, Ozu, and Shimizu, among many flunky work hard kidsothers; he is a familiar, good-humored, downtrodden dad.)  The landlady has her own quiet moments, too, as she tries to help Omitsu leave her geisha life; she is played by Choko Iida, who was in four of the Naruse silents and whose face is instantly recognizable.  Here she is worried and thoughtful as she quietly observes the struggles of this young family, and she provides calm in the center of what looks to be growing trouble.

Naruse is not a straightforward director.  He has an odd style flourishes that I found sometimes jarring.  Sometimes he’ll do a distant shot of a character and then very quickly streetwithoutend actress mirror 2flow into a close-up.  He will also quick cut from one character’s face to another, bam bam bam, to make a point about a conflict.  It’s quite strange, especially in this kind of film, which generally has a more naturalistic, realistic style.  I got used to it after awhile, and certainly give him credit for having a signature, but I did at times find it intrusive, even while I was thinking, well, yes, that’s pretty cool.

In all of these films Naruse would step back to give us a full, detailed look at the cultural apart teahouse 2.jpgsurroundings.  This, too, separates his work from standard family melodrama.  Apart From You, Naruse’s other silent geisha film that is still in print, shows in some detail the actual activities at a risque “teahouse.”  While Omitsu in Every-Night Dreams worked in a seaside bar, these geishas and their patrons looks and behave in what we Westerners see as more traditional geisha fashion.  The teahouse has tea and food, and geisha musicians, and “games.”  The women entertain the men in small compartments by talking with them, sharing food and especially liquor — the sex is implied in a few scenes, as when a young Harry Potter-ish-looking guy sets his coin purse of bills beside Kikue’s leg, sticks his tongue out, waggles his  eyebrows, etc. (The scene is actually a bit creepy, though the kid is clearly painted as harmless.  Another man does a sinister dance.)  In another subplot, an older geisha who is supporting a resentful teenaged son has a long-time patron who wants to dump her for a younger one; he clearly is helping to support her. apart from you jerkThe teahouse is not remotely classy; the women share camaraderie there, but are clearly hungry (one girl fantasizes that she’s eating a bowl of rice) and/or depressed, and the manager is shown smoking and counting money.  The male patrons are for the most part portrayed as lecherous buffoons.  Kikue, our protagonist, is financially forced to work as a geisha as a way of keeping her younger sister out of the profession; her father is a drunk.  The older geisha works to support her hateful son.

Two other silent Naruse films I watched featured young women who were not geishas, but who were still forced to work in blue collar jobs and suffered the contempt of others because of it.  Street Without End I particularly liked for its contrast between working class people in Tokyo andstreetwithoutend smile the more traditional, snobby, rules-bound rich.  Though it was full of the standard “pre-code”-type cliches (I kept thinking of early Joan Crawford movies where the tough chick is picked on by her boyfriend/husband’s family), it was well worth watching.  I liked getting a look at the waitresses, artists, and movie-makers of early 1930’s Tokyo; they gave the movie a real energy.  I especially like Naruse when he goes outside his sentimental plot structures to show us the details of how people lived.  The behind the scenes look at early filmmaking (following a subplot involving Sugiko’s friends) was a particular kick, and I wish there had been more of it.  I apart dancing jerk 3did, though, find it interesting that when the heroine Sugiko “marries up” she moves from Western-style outfits into the more traditional clothing — very geisha-like.  I could only see this as a commentary that marrying for class mobility is a kind of prostitution.  Naruse simply gave no nods to tradition in any of the films I watched, and indeed implied that tradition was repressive for all concerned. Those who fought to retain traditional ways were in fact rather horrible.

Through all of the Naruse movies, I felt that I gained a real sense of Japan in that time period.  The impression — which is quite streetwithoutend bridge factorymodern, fast paced, industrial and tough — was actually very different from other Japanese films I’ve seen.  They lack the contemplative, kindly, dignified sensibility of the silent Ozu films, which also often explore modern family life.  Naruse takes a more distant, setting-oriented stance, making the films less intimate than Ozu’s, but in some ways more interesting in terms of the social backdrop.  The settings in Naruse included both apart husband seathe very urban (Tokyo) and the small town seafront. Every-Night Dreams has many long shots of docks, ships, the sea, as well as factories and vacant lots.  It felt quite hardscrabble.  The sailors in the bars looked every bit like real sailors.  The docks looked like a lonely place for a geisha to smoke a cigarette.  A kid looked isolated sitting on top of a large concrete pipe; the same kind of pipe appears among flowers in the only silent Naruse comedy, Flunky, Work Hard.  In contrast, the film Street without End showed crowded, busy, sign-strewn Tokyo streets in great detail and in a lingering way.  People are busy doing things (running, fighting, bustling around, throwing things, even robbing people), while behind them cars, trains, and buses threaten and take people away.  (Every Naruse I watched included someone being hit by a car or train — a hokey device, but also a nod to the suddenly overwhelming presence of vehicles.)  Naruse’s Tokyo felt quite contemporary, actually, like Scorcese showing the streets of New York.  The environment of streetwithoutend moviethe films imparted a realistic, almost documentary sensibility.

(I ought to slip in that Naruse’s first short film, Flunky, Work Hard, was the only film of his that was a family comedy with a male protagonist.  It reminded me of an early Ozu film, except actually funnier.  The shlubby insurance agent who’ll do anything to sell a policy was goofy and endearing.  Being Naruse, it has its melodramatic twist, but the emotion remains true.  It made me wonder why his studio so consistently directed him toward women-oriented films.)

streetwithoutend narusestreetwithoutend women on street

Despite the melodrama and plot devices of the Naruse films, I found myself drawn in, even hooked. Perhaps because I’m female, I’m not willing to dismiss them as women’s films, which they actually were.  Films aimed toward working women, whether made in Japan or America, shouldn’t be rejected, ignored, or demeaned because of that.  I like seeing these nice, upbeat, struggling apart from you  manwomanwomen sorting out their roles, working out their place between old and new society. The focus on women allowed directors of the period to indulge in emotional content and close character development that they might otherwise have had to avoid.  (Gangster films were other big thing in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  In fact, Ozu did some gangster films and they just aren’t up to his other work.)  At least in these films the women aren’t just passive sidepieces or nagging shrews.  And I also sympathized with some of Naruse’s male characters who are trying and usually failing to make money.  Sure, there’s a soap opera quality to his films at times (as there are in many American “women’s films” of the era), but that’s just plot.  Every existing silent film of Naruse’s has moments that are genuinely touching, funny, weird, and sad.  The films are also beautifully shot.  I’m going to seek out as much Naruse as I can find.every night dreams baseball

The Naruse films I watched are all included in Criterion’s terrific box set Silent Naruse as part of their Eclipse Series.  What would we do without Criterion to restore and distribute great foreign films?

apart from you flowers

 

 

 

Earth – the weirdly compelling silent classic

dovzhenko earth fruitLast night I watched Earth, a Russian silent film that appears on many lists of the all time greatest movies.  When I read that this film, by the Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko, was about the Russian Revolution, I envisioned a film full of action and Russian humor.  Earth is not that.  Earth is, though, strangely fascinating;  I haven’t seen anything remotely like it before.  It’s like a slowly unfolding, beautiful dream with lingering closeups of faces, bodies, machinery, wheat in many stages of use, fruit, horses, cows, and, yet again, faces.  Horses and cows square off.  Horses race away.  Couples stare at the sky.

dovzhenko earth horsesThe storyline is almost like a joke; at first, I was reminded of that early SNL skit, Bad Playhouse, with Ackroyd’s Leonard Pith-Garnell.  Earth displays a ponderous seriousness about, of all things, the arrival of a tractor in rural Russia. I laughed for about a minute and then found myself sucked in to the point where I was unwilling to stop staring long enough to reach for a glass.  What the hell is this? I kept wondering. Why?  What does it mean?  And the film kept defying my attempts to categorize or historicize it.  It became for me an almost hypnotic series of images, even while I would comprehend that I was seeing Russian peasants, Russian farmers, the onset of the industrial revolution, the ways that the Communists used machinery to draw in workers and to propagandize their work, the reasons that peasants might embrace the revolution and its sweeping change, and the violent reaction of the dovhenko earth skylandowners.  What I felt was a vague sense of joy and doom.  As I watched I kept thinking, you poor guys — you Russians of 1930 — you don’t know what you’re in for.  You don’t yet know that Stalin’s purges are going to kick you in the ass.  You don’t know that the loss of your hands-on, rural life will ultimately devastate you.

earth dovzhenko boys in graveyardI’m uncertain about what the director felt about the situation.  The very long, lingering shots of wheat, trees, and fruit — and of those who harvest — might be read as a celebration of the simple rural way of life before the coming of mass machinery.  On the other hand, the film’s cheering of the mighty tractor seems awfully sincere.  The film seems to tell us that both are simultaneously true.  It defies linear, logical interpretation.earth dovzhenko dancer

The allegory of the revolution — the war between the landowning farmers and the workers — was clear to me, yet I didn’t entirely understand it.  Maybe a Westerner in our own time really can’t.  As I watched, though, it was enough to see the images and to wonder where it would all lead.  And at a point, the film develops an absorbing story; there actually is something of a plot, and it is a symbolic one that resonates far more deeply than the simple tale of an idealistic young man killed by his wealthy rival who wants to keep his farm.  I did find it helpful to watch the film more than once; situations that seemed confusing or obscure on first viewing became much clearer, and the dovzhenko earth man and bullsexperience for me became more emotionally moving.

The film’s nature imagery is especially striking, and I felt a personal attachment to it.  I grew up in a rural area, and Dovzhenko perfectly captures the quietness and the slow movement of that.  The juxtaposition of people and animals in a number of montages clearly demonstrates that we are the same.  I very much liked these.  The animals and the humans sense and react to one another, and the humans sometimes inflict a startling cruelty upon them to which the animals seem resigned.  The humans are no less cruel to one another.  Dovzhenko grew up in the rural Ukraine, among the very kinds of illiterate peasants that he depicts, and this lends the picture a lyrical honesty.  He isn’t  judging.  Life is hard and simple.  I felt that I was seeing through his eyes, much as if I were reading a poem.

It is because of its incredible artfulness that the film is still watched today; were it a standard Soviet dovzhenko earth girl with fruit 2propaganda film, we would hardly care.  I was surprised to find that in its day, Earth was controversial, viewed by the government as subversive.  Then, the very art that we so appreciate led to suspicion.  The instances of small rebellions (as with a father who laughs at the younger men’s obsessions with “the party”) got the director in some trouble; he was denounced by the “Kremllin poet” and felt forced to leave the country.  The film’s beauty and its quirky bits (as when a group of men pee into a tractor to put water in the radiator, and some glimpses of full female nudity) were enough to get the film censored.  That these small subversions in what seemed to me to be a strongly Communistic film — a film that denounces religion and embraces technology and the people’s unity — could create controversy shows just how doctrinaire the government had become.  (Not that films weren’t also censored in the States.)  Again, I was reminded that things would only get worse with the growing repression of Stalin’s regime and World War II.  I felt sad for both those thrilled that a tractor would lessen their work and break the hold of the feudal landholding system and for the landowner who tries to literally bury his head in the sand.  Both sides would meet with tragedy, though the director didn’t know this yet.  None of “the people” would win, yet the fruit would return with the season.

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Westfront 1918 – the German side of war as told by G.W. Pabst

westfront 1918 1Westfront 1918 is a thoroughly grim but generous film about German soldiers and the women left behind.  The director is the great Austrian G.W. Pabst, never known for his upbeat perspectives.  Westfront 1918 reminded me of his easier-to-find film The Joyless Street in its view of women under the stress of war’s deprivations.  Westfront 1918, though, is much more invested in the fate of a particular group of soldiers who have little choice in their lives.   Although the characters are mostly German, this group of men could be interchangeable with types found in any number of American/British/French war films of the period.  The lesson of these films tends to be that the trench soldiers are innocently trapped in something they can’t change; the evil lies with commanders or, more broadly, with the vague forces that created the war in the first place.  Pabst doesn’t conjecture; he keeps his lens squared strictly on the victims.

The film has a number of unusual storylines.  Or, well, perhaps it isn’t the stories that are so westfront 1918 2unusual, but the particularly stark and uncompromising ways they are examined.  There are several striking, even unforgettable, scenes.   One comes early in the film when a group of soldiers is trapped underground in a collapsed trench while above them, their troop is being shelled in “friendly” fire.  This scene is intensely claustrophobic, yet highlights a moment of strength and bravery that is not melodramatic, but necessary — a big brute balances on his head the few boards that keep all the dirt from caving in and smothering them.  Another comes later in the kind of scene that Pabst is so good at — the depiction of the fallen woman and how she meets her fate.  This section has some gripping moments involving the cheated-upon husband, played by Pabst regular Gustav Diessl.  There’s also the story of “the kid” (or “the student”), a sweet and brave sort who wants to marry his French sweetheart.  Speaking of that sweetheart, there are some fairly overt sexual westfront 1918references that swirl around her; she is always surrounded by these German soldiers who have encamped in her house, and she seems pretty happy about it.  The film opens with a drunken scene of soldiers groping her — in a friendly way, of course, and she doesn’t mind — that we probably wouldn’t see in a film today.  Yet it somehow feels realistic in the context of the film, and the men have a protective attitude toward her and toward her lover, “the kid.”yvette 2

The dire circumstances surrounding war are brought in directly, but in a way that didn’t feel to me  too heavy-handed.  They fit the storyline.  There is a quick but pointed reference to the consequences of fleeing the service (“we’ve found a deserter; you’d better oil up your guns.”).  There are many touching, sad examples of the food shortage in Germany; the home situation is so grim, in fact, that the soldiers would prefer to fight rather than to stay there.  Going home on leave brings more grief than respite.  There is no refuge.  I admire this about Pabst.  He just does not quit.  He gives the viewer no pleasant out and little humor.   His film The Joyless Street is similar in this regard — women and men will do anything when food is involved, with the men using the women’s starvation as a means of leveraging power over them.  Anyone who doesn’t understand the situation in Germany during and after the first world war, and why that led to the rise of the Nazis, would do well to watch these films.  While The Joyless Street had Garbo around to pretty up and class up the town, there’s none of that in Westfront 1918.  There is not a hint of glamour.  Even the French girl lives in poverty.

soldiers westfront 1918 2What makes this all tolerable is the warmth of the soldiers toward one another.  There is a kind of matter-of-fact camaraderie and understated love.  Nobody gives speeches about it.  It’s shown primarily through the visual interactions between the characters — the way they help one another and work together — and through little jokes they make and songs they sing.  If there is redemption, it is in these small moments of humanity.

yvette westfront 1918Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, well after the war, but with the economic conditions still in place.  The film was resented by both the right and the left — by the right, for its clearly negative views about war — by the left for its unwillingness to delve into the political conditions that caused it.  Some viewers found Westfront 1918  too graphic in its violence, although this isn’t a problem for us now, since almost fifteen minutes were cut by the censors.  The random way that the men come under fire — the constant sense of doom — and the fact that this could come from either side of the battlefield is shown again and again.  It put me on edge for much of the movie.westfront 1918

While this is an early sound film, and the sound is used effectively, the cinematography, pacing, and the emphasis on “showing” over dialogue demonstrated that Pabst didn’t sacrifice his usual techniques and way of seeing for the new medium.  The singing, joking, and whistling in the trenches were natural and effective.  The only time the sound got in the way was in an extended stage show that appears in the middle of the film — and while it’s a rather creepy stage show, given that there is a clown involved, and while the sound slides nicely into the following juxtaposing scene, it is still an awfully long demonstration of “here’s what we can do with music!”.  But for the most part, sound is used well and doesn’t sound messy, muffled, or awkward.breadline westfront 1918 3

This was a striking and disturbing movie.  I’d love to see a good version of it.  I have no idea why it is so hard to find.  I found a DVD copy with English subtitles on Amazon, but it is a bad print and clearly was just duplicated by some guy off of some old video.  That the film was great enough to transcend its fading and bad duplication says much in itself.  If someone would take the time to clean this up and put it out in a good edition, I’m sure it would be viewed as often as All Quiet on the Western Front.  It is at least as good.  With the interest in Pabst’s work (and many critics list it as among his top five films), and the general interest people have in war films, it’s perplexing to me that this hasn’t been resurrected.  Too bad Pabst didn’t just toss Garbo in and have her stand beside the trench.  Then we’d get a good print.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Valentino in World War I

4horsemen deathThe ambitious anti-war film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mainly known now as the springboard for the career of Rudolph Valentino and the impetus for the tango craze in the U.S.  While Valentino is certainly nice to watch, the film is far more complex than a single role, and deserves to be more widely viewed and reconsidered.  It’s the masterwork of Irish director Rex Ingram, once one of the most popular directors of the silent era.  Four Horsemen, in fact, was one of the hits of 1921 — which is a bit surprising, considering that it was made immediately after the end of World War I, is completely anti-war, and in fact doesn’t choose a side. The point of the film is that all are brothers, and the war had no winners.  Pretty radical thinking, really, by a UK filmmaker when you consider how many Allies died and that the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and Aussies made up much of the front lines. But World War I seemed to inspire this type of questioning among artists, and the number of books and films that were against the war is surprising.  (It reminds me of the number of anti-war films and memoirs that appeared post-Vietnam.)  Ingram was only twenty-nine and fresh out of service with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps.  Four Horsemen pulled no punches in its anti-war perspective, and still brought in audiences who were impressed by the film’s epic scope and our favorite Latin heartthrob.rudy as soldier

The film, based upon a Spanish novel, unfolds like a parable.  A Spanish rancher with beautiful daughters has several grandsons.  One is a beloved and spoiled rogue, with a French father, played by Valentino; the others have a German father, and they are not nearly so lovable.  They abide by rules and spend time studying, while Valentino lives the sensuous life (being more like his grandfather).  Thus each character stands for a European type, and the stage is set.  Though types, this actually comes across realistically; the acting is quite good, and the contrasts between the various characters are interesting, and neither side is presented as being right.  (Strangely, the character actor Alan Hale is excellent as the German father, and I even forgot that he was the father of the Gilligan’s chum The Skipper.)  Valentino is actually one of the weakest performers, but he can get by with it because of his beauty, his dancing, and his youth — which is all that the part really asks of him.  And he looks beautifully sad as the movie goes on.4horsemen valentino

After the doting grandfather’s death, the families split, with one going to France and the other back to Germany.  When the war begins, the sons are, of course, on opposing sides.  It’s that simple.  What makes the film strange and even disturbing is the visual way the story is told.  Much is made of portents which are told through the Book of Revelations by a mysterious prophet (who appears to be a kind of Jewish mystic crossed with a Bolshevik; it’s a bit unclear).  While my print of the film was pretty bad — and probably no better exists — this scene of the prediction is still disturbing (to me, anyway).  I can only imagine how striking and strange it must have seemed to audiences of the period.  There is a kind of poetic, hushed quality to this scene, which is punctuated by the soldiers gathering on the streets below and a woman who leaps to her death from a balcony.  4horsemen prophet at tableAs young Julio is told this story he begins to realize that the war will not only get in the way of his success as a tango dancer, but might be a good deal scarier.  It’s the end of his innocence, which represents the death of a kind of happy innocence held by nearly everyone then.  It’s hard to imagine, really, that this world war really was the first; it was supposed to be short — a few months.  No one imagined years of trench warfare that would kill most of the young men of Europe.  No one really imagined a reality of fighter planes, gas, and machine guns — mechanized destruction that we take for granted now.  If immediately after this war, films are referring to the apocalypse — well, seems a sensible reaction.

4 horsemen soldiersIn its actual war scenes, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse only hints at the actual carnage.  Gance’s J’Accuse, for one, is a far more graphic depiction, and was filmed at roughly the same time.  While Ingram’s war scenes are described in reviews of the day as being highly realistic and epic, I found them difficult to make out — dark, hazy, smoky.  I don’t know if this means that there were scenes missing from my print, or the print is in such a sorry state of fade that it’s hard to see.  At any rate, director Rex Ingram was apparently careful to keep every detail accurate, and was advised by military men from both the English and German sides concerning uniforms and traditions.  The war scenes also involved many extras (72 “principle players”) and cost $80,000 to make. (It again wasn’t as realistic as J’Accuse, which was filmed on a French battlefield during the war; Four Horseman‘s France was Griffith Park.)  Some of the best war depictions occur not during fighting, but in two key scenes.  In one, a uniformed Julio is met in a small town by his father, and we find out how he is faring now that he is a soldier and not an artist (very well, thank you).  The way Julio is standing on the road with the other soldiers is actually a direct reflection of still photographs of soldiers taken in France, and is very realistic. 4horsemen drag show4 horsemen germansAnother involves Julio’s family castle in Marne being overrun by a group of German soldiers (among them Wallace Beery), who proceed to swill beer, almost molest the women, and have a little drag show.  It’s decadent, elaborate, and fun to watch.  It’s actually good to know that not all Germans spend their time studying and plotting the overthrow of Europe.

Another element of the story involves Julio’s romance with a somewhat older married woman, Marguerite, played by Alice Terry.  This is all pretty standard melodramatic silent movie fare, albeit with Marguerite eventually becoming a Red Cross nurse.  There is a jilted husband and a scandal; the husband is blinded in the war, and Marguerite has to make a choice.  Terry is very pretty in this role, and allows for a bit of simmer between her and Rudy, but it’s not really all that important to the story.  It does allow for one spooky scene, which I will not spoil.4horsemen alice terry 2

For all of its gloominess, this film made a million dollars, becoming the sixth most successful silent film ever made.  Though it was feared that audiences would not be ready to watch anything about the war, they seemed eager to try to come to terms with it through this often beautiful and sad parable.4horsemen soldier

 

4horsemen crosses

A war comedy? – the 1926 version of What Price Glory

gloryI’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there.  I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings.  Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie.  That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman).  And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let downsoldier dog what price glory

What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun.  Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers.  I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive.  It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good.  McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women.  McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.  war is fun what price glorywar is still fun

The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war.  That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film.  This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments.  The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare.  (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was).  The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both.  There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet.  And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving.  blue war what price gloryVictor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it.  HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger.  Even the cinematography becomes more interesting.  The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play.  But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.

dolores what price gloryI kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers.  (And I think these were cliches even back then.)  The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming.  Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film.  It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels.  It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play.  Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play.  It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.

Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value.  The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then.  And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message.  That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.

This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).

This is Victor McLaughlin's tattoo of "Sapho" -- a pretty good joke, really.

This is Victor McLaughlin’s tattoo of “Sapho” — a pretty good joke, really.

 

 

 

J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

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Judex – Feuillade’s caped crusader

judex caveI found myself taken in by the 1916 twelve-part French serial, Judex, created by Louis Feuillade (who also directed the serials Les Vampires and Fantomas.)

The whimsical saga of a caped avenger out to punish an evil banker and right assorted wrongs is enjoyable for its story and fascinating in a number of other ways. I have to admit that I got a lot of twisted joy at seeing a scamming capitalist banker locked up in a room, where he is observed squirming via Judex’s secret viewing screen. These claustrophobic scenes are almost paranoia-inducing, and I felt guilty taking so much pleasure in it. But the banker, after all, was so evil that he ripped off an old man and then ran him over with his car. And that’s just the beginning. — Actually, all the bad guys (including one especially bad woman) in the film are scheming, diabolical, mostly without conscience, and persistent.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

So it is completely necessary that we have Judex and his brother sidekick to lay down some punishment. Judex – rather like Batman – is a brooding, mysterious sort who hides in a secret underground technologically-equipped den and wears a very dapper cape. Unlike the man of the bat, he doesn’t have a dark side. He is, except when suffering from love, cheerful as he balances wrongs. He is so cheerful, in fact, that I’m always aware that director Feuillade is having fun. Judex is full of jokes. The actors play to the camera, sometimes looking directly at it and practically winking. judex diana with gun Never do I feel any real tension or fear, as you might expect in a long serial that wants to bring the audience back to watch the drama unfold. I’m not terribly worried about whether Jacqueline, the banker’s daughter who gives away her father’s ill-gotten gains, is rescued. I’m more enjoying the antics of her kidnappers, particularly the mastermind played by Musidora (who also played Irma Vep in one of Feuillade’s other serials, Les Vampires). Musidora is clearly having a blast being bad, as her character lights up cigarettes and laughs at Judex’s attempts to stop her. Judex may need to save the banker’s daughter, but Musidora’s kidnapping nanny needs no assistance from anyone. If she needs a little hand on occasion, she can always use one of the male saps at her disposal.
Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora and Rene Creste, who plays Judex, play perfectly matched enemies as they both win their days with style. Yet even their ultimate fine looks don’t keep them from always falling into the director’s jokes, as when the kidnappers are chased by Judex’s enormous pack of goofy dogs (an assortment of hound dogs, poodles, and terriers).

The film is often beautifully shot, which is something that takes it beyond the standard serial of the day, or even most films of the day. I’ve watched a lot of short films and serials and they usually appear to have been done quickly and cheaply. If this is the case with Judex, it doesn’t look it. (And given the director’s prodigious output of 700 mostly short movies, Judex couldn’t have been dwelt upon too long.) Shot by shot, the scenes are complex, detailed, and often set in unusual locations. judex seine It’s fascinating just to look at the backgrounds — in fact, the settings, the costumes, even the use of animals and birds are at least as interesting, if not more so, than the story and the acting. While the serial seems like a lark, great care was taken in the details and in providing a certain peculiar atmosphere. The banker’s prison room is not the only claustrophobic space in which a character is trapped. Nearly all of the rooms are traps of a sort, and the only freedom seems to come in the out of doors, whether this be two wayward children hitching a ride on the back of a car in Paris, or a pack of dogs racing through a grove of trees.judex dogs

Judex has what we might now consider a Communistic conscience. Made in 1914, films about the need to wrest control from robber barons and bankers were actually pretty common — or at least a good many of them are available now on DVD. D.W. Griffith built his early career around them. Judex hardly apologizes for the way that the rich are punished and those who give their wealth away are absolved. The banker’s daughter does not exactly receive an instant reward for giving her wealth to charity — she gives away her child to be raised by foster parents so she has time to work; she does it because it is the right thing to do. It’s hard to imagine such a notion appearing in any movie today. Then, in the pre-Soviet era, more European and American artists felt free to consider socialism as a reasonable alternative to the incredible abuses of capitalism (remember, this is before government safety nets), and there was a willing audience for movies that advocated sharing the wealth. Feuillade’s serials Les Vampires and Fantomas have similarly subversive elements and the same touches of surreal humor.

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade himself was the son of a wine merchant; after getting his degree, he served four years in the French army, worked as a journalist, and in 1905 began writing scripts, then directing, for Gaumont Films in Paris.
Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont was one of the leading studios in the 1910’s, experimenting with rudimentary sound (recording to disc, then played back in sync with the film) and colorization (hand painting areas of the frame or tinting certain scenes to elicit a mood). By 1909, Feuillade had already developed his mystical, dreamlike style with its fascinations with codes, letters, mysteries, and the occult.

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

He often used the same actors in his films, having a stable that included Musidora, Rene Poyen (who plays The Licorice Kid), Marcel Levesque, and many others.
Musidora

Musidora

The most interesting characters in the movie (far eclipsing Judex himself) are The Licorice Kid and Diane Monti, the scheming “adventuress” with a “gang.” The Licorice Kid is a moppet street urchin who smokes cigarettes and works for small change (but does not beg). Chaplain uses a similar (but more innocent) kid in The Kid, five years later. Rene Poyen, who plays the Licorice Kid, is a scene stealing ham, but is fun to watch, and he mostly saves us from sentimentality in his scenes with “Little Jean,” the curly-haired, kissy-face son of the always imperiled Josephine. There are some completely casual takes of the Kid stealing rides, smoking, making wisecracks, and lounging around in general adult manner while often saving the day.judex licorice smoking The other scene stealer is Musidora, who plays Diana Monti, the evil governess. Diana Monti (and Musidora, I think) is such an intelligent, observant, wily, smart ass character. While the banker’s daughter is constantly being kidnapped, Diana Monti has endless schemes for kidnapping. Musidora doesn’t play Diana as an over-the-top witchy evil stepmother type; Diana is actually believable, an attractive-but-not-unusually-so woman who can out-think all of the men around her, those bumbling weak idiots. Diana doesn’t use the men just to use them (like a vamp), but uses them to help her execute her grand schemes, which the men fall into mostly out of greed, not out of infatuation. (This isn’t to say that Diana/Musidora doesn’t “work it” by brushing a man’s chin with her hand or leaning over him as if she is oh-so-interested. In fact, she will often do this and then roll her eyes as soon as the fellow is looking away — she does this so subtly and quickly that it feels completely natural; she always lets us know that Diana Monti is never a fool for love.)judex musidora eyeroll
Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Feuillade doesn’t costume Musidora in outlandish or even sexy garb. There’s no fake glamour here. She looks great in black. But she also looks great in white and in a polka-dot tie. Her beauty comes less in her face and body than in her expressions, which are generally snide, impatient, laughing at the act she’s putting on, thoughtful, and happy when coming up with her next scheme. This is a very advanced female character for the period. Mary Pickford had pluck and smarts, but she also wore little girl braids. Lillian Gish had exquisite beauty, but wasn’t allowed to really show off her mind. Even Louise Brooks often had to go through some kind of degradation. Musidora, daughter of feminists, has and keeps the upper hand. I give Feuillade a great deal of credit for never trying to put her in her place.
The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

I’ve read that Judex was wildly popular in its time, but was dismissed by some of the critics then and later for being a popular serial, a casual entertainment. This seems to me quite unfair. Although it’s a serial in twelve parts, it’s superior to most serials I’ve watched from the period and later. (Hate me movie fans, but it’s much better than nearly all serial Westerns and Sherlock Holmes episodes.) It’s stylish, it’s funny, it’s classy, and for some reason even the story suckered me in. Yes, who is Judex, damn it? Why does he hate bankers? (Resolved on disc 2.) Why does he insist on falling in love with the banker’s daughter? What will Musidora try next to get the fortune and is it at all possible that the banker will never escape? Will Musidora’s boy toys survive? Will Judex unleash his pack of dogs again? — The plot is just fun enough, and silly enough, and everyone is on the joke, for me to want to keep watching on to the next episode, just like that guilty pleasure of watching Shameless on Netflix one episode after another. And so Louis Feuillade solves the mystery of the one hundred year time differential by making it not matter at all.

Judex is available, beautifully restored, on a two CD set from Flicker Alley.

Judex's brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

Judex’s brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

judex musidora in car
The banker's daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

The banker’s daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

judex musidora undress
Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Theda Bara, the vamp


Theda Bara, the original female vampire or “vamp,” manslayer extraordinaire — well, I finally watched the only movie of hers on Netflix, A Fool There Was, from 1915. (Only a few of her films still exist.) For a brief time in Hollywood there was a run of vamp movies, with the star of that moment being Theda Bara. I found this pretty bad movie to be fascinating in the way it depicts women and in what I found to be a hilarious performance by Theda. She is just the ultimate in evil woman camp. The video clip I’ve inserted (which I didn’t make) shows some great scenes from that film combined with some nice shots of Theda in various costumes.

As a quick critique, the movie is sheer post-Victorian melodrama, with women divided between the perfect, forgiving, somewhat frumpy wife with an adorable angelic blond headed child who always says her prayers (and believe me, in this movie they were so boring!) and the eternally watchable, fun, blackhaired woman playing poker and then lounging on a chaise Theda Bara. She and the script are absolutely over the top, even by early film standards. She causes one man to blow his brains out on the boat that she has taken in order to lure a diplomat away from his mission and into her clutches. Of course, she then leads said wealthy politician to drink and dissipation, and he eventually goes mad. And she laughs — hahaha! She traps them with a flower, then throws the flower on their graves. Theda throws in some interesting nuances, too, that make the character almost (well, not quite) believable — she owns it. The woman is cranky. She’s demanding. She’s bored. She has nothing to do but trap men and lure them to their doom. Even then, she looks annoyed about the whole thing. This makes her more than just a slink-around vampire.

This movie is a hoot. Yet I think at the time it was probably seen as a straight up cautionary tale. — It’s worth watching just to see Theda roll her eyes at the silliness of it all and wear some really cool costumes.