Veering briefly off my World’s Fair posts, I had to mention that I’m on a silent film kick. I’d say that I’m watching them for research, but that’s really only how it began. I genuinely like them. And for many reasons, but to boil it down simply, it’s because they (obviously) rely on images and a few (usually) written cards to tell the story. And most of the time, the story does not hold to any single plot line, but veers about. There seemed to be fewer expectations then that a story follow a particular structure–and here we think we’re the ones who are so experimental. They did it before and they often did it more inventively.
Most early “classic” films we’ve seen are scripted sound films. By the time most of these hit the screen, the censors were already clamping down. So most people think of early films (and their eras) as sentimental and sweet, comparatively unsexual, with little violence. But really there was a time when far more was done–before movies became a huge commodity. For a time, when nobody was cashing in, risks could be taken.
Anyway, I’m going to post here a clip from a 1920 German movie by Ernst Lubitsch (who later went on to direct some funny, sad sound comedies in English). This is The Wildcat, starring Pola Negri. Pola, as seen in this clip, had some men-whipping abilities, and she later went on to play mysterious sighing characters. In this movie, she’s funny. She was apparently in real life the ultimate drama queen who slept with as many men as possible; the most well known stories revolve around Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. The humor is the movie is incredibly goofball, poking fun at the men who become completely dominated by the women. It’s a *snicker, snicker* kind of humor, and there’s something kind of perverse and, well, Germanic about it. The “whipping the elf guys” scene is particularly off the wall, especially since the guys have skulls on their snow hats. What? I suggest just skipping around in the clip if you get bored; the pacing of these movies is slower than we’re accustomed to.
To me, the oddest thing about this film is how nearly every shot is surrounded by a decorative cutout. I’ve seen other silent movies using this effect, but this one uses it to an unusual extent. I actually got a little bored with the effect after awhile, but I think it’s cool that they were trying to do something different with the camera. And not to get to analytical, but Pola’s character here is very similar to Mountain Girl in DW Griffith’s film Intolerance, completed four years prior to this one. And Mary Pickford sometimes played this type, though she had more of an obvious heart o’ gold. I’m a sucker for these sexy wild woman characters from the mountains.
Pola’s career basically ended with the invention of sound film (such was also the fate of the great German actor Emil Jannings–we Americans just didn’t like those accents, especially in the World War eras) and because of her own melodramatic tendencies — she just wasn’t in style anymore. I’ve read that even though Pola ran with royalty, she died of a brain tumor in San Antonio. Pola slunk away into the desert.