Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)

Pretty nice piece of surrealism. It starts out pretty much identically to the way Nosferatu starts out, with the stranger entering an inn and practically begging for a ride to the title character’s dark and foreboding mansion, with nary a soul willing to take the job. Afterwards, when we come to the house itself, it is a clear precursor to “Citizen Kane’s” Xanadu – an impossibly expansive, impossibly dark and foreboding, impossibly empty main hall, in which Usher and his dying wife are practically swallowed. The editing of the film is fascinating and like poetry committed to screen, as the narration is intercut with the ocean or wild animals or the darkest recesses of the House itself. We see many shots of the wind blowing through the house, or the House practically coming to life, as Usher clearly slips more and more into madness as his wife falls more and more towards death. By the time the Fall comes, it’s not just of the House itself, but of the figurative “House of Usher”, as its lord is reduced to bobbing his head back and forth with a surreal smile on his face, as if expecting the spooky events that are transpiring to transpire exactly as they are. It’s pretty clear that something awfully weird is going on in this House…or perhaps nothing at all, and the mere feeling of weirdness is just a projection of the madness of Roderick Usher, and if that’s the case, Epstein did an admirable job of delving the viewer headlong into the mind of a madman.


The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)

Much of it was parlor politics, rightful heir, inheritance bullshit I couldn’t be bothered to care about, but my god Conrad Veidt was amazing. Sure his performance is aided by a prosthetic, much like Lon Chaney’s performance in The Penalty, but even then, you consider the way he had to emote solely with his eyes as his mouth was stuck in that haunting uber-smile, and he passed with flying colors. This film is awash with swashbuckling melodrama, especially towards the end when Homo the dog comes to the rescue, but there’s something awfully moving and relatable about the plight that Veidt’s Gwynplaine has been put in. Granted, the job market for men with severe facial deformities probably wasn’t very expansive in the 17th century, so performing as a sideshow attraction was the only way to go, and the show proprietor Ursus, though pretty much exploiting the poor man is kind and like a father to both Gwynplaine and his beloved, the blind Dea, and the common folk laugh at Gwynplaine but almost in a loving, entertained sort of way, but it’s still sad that a very real romance between the smiling freak and the blind girl can only be seen through the prism of a comical side show. The way Veidt and Mary Philbin share a tender moment, only to be interrupted by laughter from the unknowing crowd, and how Veidt crudely uses his hands to try to cover his ever-smiling mouth while his eyes convey more sadness than I may have ever seen before in a film performance, is just as, if not even more melodramatic yet unfathomably moving than the way Lillian Gish uses her fingers to force a smile on to her despaired face in Broken Blossoms. There’s also plenty of weird stuff going on, with the Duchess forced to marry Gwynplaine to retain her fortune – upset with the prospect of being made to look a fool, but also clearly intrigued and even sexually titillated by the deformed man in a disturbing scene that must have been very edgy and questionable in 1928. That scene, and the just as bizarre scene where Gwynplaine, decked out in regal, lordly attire, is introduced to the royal court, are the ones in which this film transcends the quasi-horror, common melodrama to come before and afterwards in the story, and the way Conrad Veidt’s eyes express unfathomable embarrassment, fear, and despair behind that eternal smile make this performance, and this film, into something special.


The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, et al, 1925)

The young opera starlet, Mary Philbin’s Christine’s, agonizingly slow creep-up to and unmasking of Lon Chaney’s Phantom is arguably one of the most famous moments in all of silent film and horror film, and rightly so when you lay your eyes on that grotesque mouth, bulging, glassy eyes, and noseless face, all thanks to a makeup job that was the creation of Chaney himself.  It is one of those indispensable moments in cinema history, and apparently director Rupert Julian, et al knew as they were filming “The Phantom of the Opera” that this one moment would live forever…or at the very least they were trying their absolute hardest to make it into something special with an endless lead-up to the big moment.  The plot is already thin enough, as the deformed Phantom, living in the dank caverns beneath the Paris Opera House, falls for the young singer Christine from afar and manipulates the goings-on of the Opera to further her career and to possess her for his own deranged self, but miraculously that plot is made even thinner when you consider that practically ever moment of the first portion of the film is devoted to people talking about the Phantom…what he looks like, where he lives, how batshit crazy he is. “His eyes are ghastly beads in which there is no light – like holes in a grinning skull!”, one man says.  “His face is like leprous parchment, yellow skin strung tight over protruding bones!”  “His nose – there is no nose!”  And on and on – so much of the beginning of the film is just…this.  Just dancers and stagehands and well-to-dos going about their everyday lives within the Opera House, and apparently the entirety of their everyday lives involves telling each other ghost stories about the Phantom and chasing each other around.  It’s like a more bizarre version of that long stretch of “The Red Shoes” that simply shows the dancers and what-not going about their daily routine, only in that film they actually danced, and here they just fuck around and worry about the Phantom.  Sure there’re some wonderful images, like the Phantom’s silhouette as he lures Christine towards that mirror, but these are mostly either overused or just thrown in there.  On the whole, this film has spurts of visual brilliance, but is just very, very uneven.

It’s so incredibly shallow and without depth and purely there to build up the mystery of the Phantom, to make you want to see this hideous face that’s being described for you in infinite, lurid detail (when you have Christine, long after the Phantom lures her into his underground kingdom, exclaim “You…You are the Phantom!” in one of cinema’s greatest no-shit moments, abandon all hope of depth and subtlety, ye who enter here).  It’s rather tasteless and damn near shameless…but for once, the actual visual scare lives up to the hype.  I’d seen Chaney’s famously done-up face millions of time out of context before, so the shock value unfortunately wasn’t there, but regardless, it’s still a damned ugly, scary face.  “Feast your eyes!”, the Phantom says, “Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” (there’re a lot of exclamation points in the title cards, in case you haven’t noticed).  Well, we pretty much already have in how much the face we’re now seeing has been described to us, so you don’t need to tell us twice.

The entire purpose of the film to this point has been to make our mouth water in anticipation of seeing this face, and now that we have, it’s no surprise that the film basically comes crashing down afterwards.  Sure there’s some cool stuff to be had, like the primitive use of colors during the big ball to showcase the Phantom’s red costume, and the underground, watery maze that the Phantom calls home is imm ense and detailed and paved the way for many cinematic dungeons to come, but otherwise it’s just Christine begging her doofus boy-toy Raoul to protect her, the Phantom looking on with mad envy, and lots of underground chase scenes.  It’s all dull as hell once the chief purpose of slowly revealing the Phantom is done with and the shock value of the Phantom’s appearance wears off, but despite that, the power of Chaney’s mannerism-driven performance rarely wanes.  Was there ever another actor more willing to go through every pain and mutilation imaginable to deliver a great performance?  What Chaney did to his legs in “The Penalty,” he does to his face in “The Phantom of the Opera.”  It’s all histrionics, but there’s something undeniably powerful when he madly proclaims his obsessed love for Christine while trapping Raoul in a flooding chamber right beneath, and then sees a crazed mob coming towards his safe haven as he maniacally points towards and taunts them and cackles away, as he either considers himself invincible, welcomes his grisly fate, or a little bit of both.  And dare I say it, there’s a tiny bit of profundity in the performances of Chaney and Mary Philbin, that look of ravenous curiosity on Philbin’s face as she moves her fingers closer and closer to that mask, followed by a look of histrionic yet powerful terror right up there with the likes of Lillian Gish.  But ultimately, this is all about one moment, one noseless and scrunched-up face – a superficial novelty of a film solely meant to titillate and scare, and in a later decade maybe, just maybe, would’ve found the time to actually focus on the sexual and psychological tension and implications that this seemingly simple story seems rife for, but in this early era of cinematic experimentation, at least it got something right.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)


is scary as hell

The rest is not

Maybe it’s unfair of me to compare this very early, very silent version of Robert Louis Steven’s story to Rouben Mamoulian’s rather brilliant version made eleven years later, that version having the advantage of sound, bitterly realistic performances (I maintain that that film’s one of the all-time great horror films not because you’re afraid of what you see, but because you’re afraid for Miriam Hopkins), and Fredric March’s dual performance – brilliantly understated and suave one moment, brilliantly maniacal and imp-like the next.  Robertson’s version is obviously much different, relying on expressionism, faces, and image alone, and for me it just didn’t really work, no matter which direction it tried to go in.  When it tries to be lofty and philosophy/story/dialogue-driven, it spirals into a mindnumbing series of title cards in which Jekyll explains his views on man’s inherent good and evil and the secrets of the cosmos – I was quite shocked at how reliant this film was on title cards and the written word (and extremely long-winded and overly-heady word, I might add) when you’d think that silent films should be reliant on faces and images.

And on the flipside, when this film abandons that over-reliance on words and goes for images, it’s little more than those characters that Jekyll’s spurned – his woman, his colleagues – looking at the floor all forlorned that their friend is either missing or acting strangely, and this gets old really quickly (although the innovation of changing the camera’s filter color to simulate light vs. darkness was rather nifty and cool in this film).  When it isn’t that, you’ve got John Barrymore – at least give the man an A for effort in playing the duel role as separately and distinctly as the silent medium would allow him to, but while Fredric March’s transformation into Mr. Hyde 11 years later would be as smooth as silk, Barrymore just drinks his Jesus Juice, clutches his throat and starts twitching and careening around his laboratory like he’s Joe Cocker – every single time he transforms.  And then whenever he’s Hyde, he pretty much just puts his hands up, fingers bent quasi-Judo quasi-Nosferatu style, and looks into the camera with this expression…

I suppose I was severely spoiled having seen the far-superior Mamoulian version first, but even if I hadn’t, I still probably would’ve been bored by the sheer repetition of Robertson’s version.  Despite an ending involving a certain ring that’s actually quite poignant, this never-shifting pattern of first a textbook’s worth of title cards explaining every nook and cranny of the complexities of the duality of man, and then the supporting cast looking sad while John Barrymore mugs for the camera like he’s at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade makes a mere 75 minute film feel like an eternity.  I suppose Barrymore’s makeup is actually quite good and certainly would’ve given 1920 audiences a good fright, and his mannerisms are what you’d expect from silent-era horror, but as Rouben Mamoulian and the impossibly suave, funny, and terrifying performance of Fredric March would prove 11 years later, the best of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde was yet to come.


Six Films by Buster Keaton from 1920

The Garage (Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, 1920)

Funny, but too much of just slipping and falling on oil and water and other wet stuff.


One Week (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

That house is probably the most developed and fully-realized character I’ve seen in any silent film. Hell, in any film.


The Saphead (Herbert Blaché, Winchell Smith, 1920)

Buster was essentially the greatest stuntman who ever lived, not only because of his remarkable physical prowess but because he could actually hold his own as an actor. But when he’s charged with pretty much just acting and leaving behind his biggest talent, it’s like making a color commentator do play-by-play: he’s still in the sportscaster’s booth where he’s always been in his element, but simply by sliding into the next seat he’s doing something he just normally hasn’t been paid to do, and it shows. And it shows here. Buster could certainly hold his own as an actor, but eh, not that well, especially when it’s all he does in a given film. There’s a good stunt or two here, but otherwise this was just a bore, with stuffy old men worrying about their stocks, an odd villain who turns from sympathetic loser into Snidely Whiplash at the snap of a finger, and Buster acting like a clueless retard in love who saves the day by accident. Too much backroom stock dealings and maneuverings (to the point that it’s almost more of a drama than a comedy for a moment or two…), not enough Buster, so he’s just a buffoonish clown who’s pushed to the side much of the time instead of a protagonist you can root for. This isn’t a disaster, but his first feature-length film leaves plenty to be desired.


Convict 13 (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Who does he think he is, a Jedi?


The Scarecrow (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Charlie Chaplin found his ideal athletic/agile counterpart in The Kid with young Jackie Coogan. Buster Keaton found his in The Scarecrow with that dog. And I’m patenting all that mechanical string-powered shit in his house


Neighbors (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Beats U-Haul.


Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)

Wonderful.  Comparing Harold Lloyd to Chaplin and Keaton is inevitable on my part, considering any critic or reviewer, or anyone period, who mentions Harold Lloyd, the other star of ‘20s slapstick cinema, feel obligated to compare him to his more famous counterparts.  Problem is, I’ve only seen one Keaton, “The General,” but from what I can surmise, Keaton’s shtick was his ability as an incredible athlete to manipulate his surroundings and everything in them, making a mess of things as smoothly and fluidly as possible, while Chaplin’s Tramp is all about odd mannerisms and being that lovable buffoon – a graceful clod, the finesse to Keaton’s strength.  Lloyd is both of these things, and he’s neither.  He certainly doesn’t stand out appearance-wise like Chaplin, instead taking on something resembling Keaton’s everyman persona, nor is he the impressive acrobat and athlete that Keaton is, despite certainly being physically able.  He’s just a normal-looking, suit-wearing, bespectacled and fairly handsome man who gets into insane situations.  If you saw him in the street, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash; you’d think he was just some businessman or something, which is probably where some of his charm comes from, that you can identify with this guy, feel like the extraordinary circumstances he gets in can actually happen since it’s happening to such a normal-looking guy, rather than with the outlandish-looking but more choreographed and physically-impressive Tramp.  If Keaton manipulated his environment, then Lloyd certainly gets manipulated BY his environment, which comes front and center in “Safety Last!” 

You know what kind of material you’re in for from the very first scene featuring a wonderful sight gag involving what appears to be prison bars and a hangman’s noose.  And the poor Boy, played by Lloyd, can’t catch a break as a country boy trying to get by as a lowly salesman at a department store in the big city, all while trying to fool his girl into thinking that he’s a bigwig.  He has to run the gauntlet of packed trolleys and heavy traffic and fire hydrants to get to work, lest he be late for the very first time, has to fend off a vicious mob of old ladies at the sales counter, pretends to be the store’s general manager when his girl shows up, with the real general manager within eye shot, and finally endures the film’s famous set piece, as he concocts a $1,000 publicity scheme in which his friend will scale a stories-high building, but through bizarre reasons only possible in the world of silent slapstick, must scale the edifice himself.  Through it all, Lloyd does almost nothing to stand out or distinguish himself as an athlete or physical artist – he just does his thing, lets all the bizarre goings-on around him come to him, so dare I say, Lloyd is the closest thing to a subtle slapstick star.  Sure he’s more than able physically – he has to be to climb that building (and whether or not any effects or stuntmen were used to simulate the Boy climbing to the top of that building, it was damn convincing), but he doesn’t show off either.  Those bumbling, in-way-over-his-head facial expressions, and the way he’s able to simulate difficulty with each step up that building, all while as an actor having to concentrate on not falling and putting on what amounts to a scripted physical performance while hanging on to a vertical wall, is really a lot more amazing than it appears in the final product when you think about it.  This whole movie, and especially the climb up that building, is an incredible feat of having things happen when they’re supposed to happen, and having Lloyd react when kids throw peanuts onto him, pigeons make a nest out of his hair, his friend struggles to pull him up via a rope with a ledge in the way, he gets an earful from various office workers and inhabitants of the building, has a mouse crawl up his pant let, and comes to rest with the top of his head mere centimeters from a spinning weathervane.  The ease with which this is all executed is nothing short of amazing.  Sure, you could argue that Lloyd doesn’t possess the raw physical prowess of Chaplin and Keaton, but then again, he kind of does, by making it look so easy and effortless that you barely take notice or ooh or ahh when he dizzily stumbles on the ledge of a tall building or situates himself between a moving trolley and a moving car, or wades his way through reams of wrapping paper to fight off shoppers. 

An artist like Chaplin used his body and physical gifts perfectly, but in a film like “Safety Last!”, this unassuming, good-looking guy with the sweet smile who seems like he actually has to break a sweat and work hard to do these things, combines with his surroundings to give us an ideal ‘normal man in extraordinary circumstances’ story.  If this was somewhat lacking in straight-up laughs, at least compared to the best of Chaplin (and rest assured, I certainly laughed plenty), at least admire “Safety Last!” as a marvel of complicated scripted events and physicality, especially for the normal-looking guy who has to pull it off, and with all the difficulties you’d expect the real world to throw at a real guy (with the exaggerated slapstick touch, of course).  You’ll believe that a man can climb a building.


The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924)

This movie lives and dies by Emil Jannings’s face.  Sure, “The Last Laugh” has moments galore of suspense, atmosphere, and perfection of staging, angles, and lighting that made F.W. Murnau the wizard that he was, but no image sticks out more than the fat, whiskered face of Jannings’s old hotel porter-turned-washroom attendant.  Watch in those opening scenes, the man’s immense pride at doing nothing more than helping old ladies to their cab – he’s no more than a servant, but that overly-elaborate uniform is his own personal badge of greatness.  Never mind that he’s now too old to lift a trunk off the top of a car and, winded, has to take a break in the lobby (something the prick of a hotel manager makes note of), look at that beaming red face (yeah it’s in black and white, but never mind that – this is a jolly, pudgy, red-cheeked face, I tell ya) and you feel his pride and his contentedness.  Never mind that he’s no more than a hotel porter, because that uniform is practically the thing of gods in his neighborhood.  As he walks down the street, helping a little boy who’s tripped and strutting his stuff, chest puffed out, with that face of the utmost (almost comical) seriousness, and how everyone around him looks at him in awe, he’s practically the mayor of this little side street, all because of a steady job and a pretty uniform.  Just as with “Sunrise,” “The Last Laugh” hangs its hat on exaggerated, expressionistic emotions, a staple of silent cinema, and it works – the way the girl beams that smile, for instance, as she writes the words with frosting on the cake, the porter looking on like a hungry, scheming little kid and practically licking his lips.  And with the highest of the high, there’s also the lowest of the low, as the porter loses his beloved job in favor of a younger and stronger man.  Suddenly that beaming, jolly, bearded face becomes shocked, dismayed, forlorn, and just about frozen into place as he gets the news of his demotion and can only sit there, practically comatose (his attempt to lift a heavy trunk to prove his boss wrong, and the after-effects, is over-the-top and extremely exaggerated, but heartbreaking).  It’s a massively full gamut of emotion, and Jannings’s face sells it all – scrunched up and beaming one moment, drooping and staring blankly ahead the next.

Of course, Murnau is just as responsible for making “The Last Laugh” as atmospheric and bursting with emotion as Jannings is.  Just look no further than the night after the porter loses his job – as he wanders the dark halls of the hotel in search of his precious uniform, that place that was grand and marvelous a mere few minutes before in the film is now maze-like, dark, and imposing, much like Count Orlok’s castle in “Nosferatu”.  As the porter sneaks his way through those hallways (in perhaps the first major tracking shot in all of cinema), a tiny light suddenly creeps closer and closer to the camera, increasing in size until we see that it’s the flashlight of the night man doing his patrols.  But even then, that man looks like a goblin or something (again, shades of Count Orlok), with that one tiny light in that dark hallway – this once-magnificent setting according to the porter is now terrifying, and Jannings’ slumping and slinking along where not long before he was marching along chest-out makes us feel his trepidation and fear that much more.  Or the night he gets shitfaced and deals with the hangover the next day, the camera all blurry and shaky from his point of view.  It’s something we’ve seen millions of times since, but I’d bet at least a buck that Murnau though of it first, and it’s so simple it’s absolutely brilliant – as is the montage of sneering, judgmental faces looking down upon the porter when his neighbors – the same neighbors who revered him until this point – discover his nasty secret of being forced to become a dreaded washroom attendant.  Hell, Fritz Lang used montages of eyes and faces just as intimidating in “Metropolis” and “M”, but this time around the victim of that scorn has our utmost pity – and all he did was commit the crime of getting old and losing his right to wear a fancy uniform.  Jannings’s porter goes through quite the epic journey in “The Last Laugh,” and he barely travels a few city blocks – it’s all about his ability to emote any kind of emotion on the dime, and about Murnau’s ability to turn a neighbor from a friend to a tyrant, or to turn a grand hotel hallway into a haunted house, or to turn a bright city street and skyline into an expressionistic nightmare, where a building practically falls on the poor mouse of a porter, from one scene to the next.  For a prime example of silent expressionism, the shifts in emotion and mood here are mighty impressive.

“The Last Laugh” might be most famous for, excluding one exception, having no title cards to illuminate dialogue or what-not – this is all about faces and mannerisms and images, words are irrelevant.   The movie does drag a little in the middle, which I suppose is inevitable when you’re relying completely on over-the-top, expressionistic images with barely a single spoken or written word to be found, but still, Murnau’s artistry and Jannings’s performance basicaly make the need for title cards irrelevant,   but the one that we do see is a fascinating one, as it gives way to the rather infamous ending to the film.  By telling us that the writer felt pity for the porter and felt the need to give him a happy ending, Murnau and his writer, Carl Mayer, basically admit how sorry they are to tack on an ending that doesn’t fit and was really just for marketing purposes, and they’re right.  Sure we pity the porter and what’s become of him, and want things to work out, but don’t you at least want the guy to earn it, make it feel genuine?  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the movie having a happy ending (even though the final image before the infamous title card is iconic, and haunting, and to end the movie with that image would have been incredibly brave, and poignant), but that happy ‘ending’ drags, and drags, and drags, and drags.  We get it, our man does indeed get the last laugh after all that hardship, no need to make that last laugh feel like it’s as long as half the film’s running length, and redundant at that.  Still, though, a good movie is about the journey, not the destination, and the porter does undergo a hell of a journey from riches (at least emotional riches) to rags, to unexpected riches again, with loved ones and the city itself changing face to correlate with those changes on the fly.  “The Last Laugh” might not be the atmospheric masterpiece that “Nosferatu” is, or the emotional masterpiece that “Sunrise” is, but it’s still Murnau nearly at the top of his game, at least when the executives aren’t fucking with his product, and even then, that expressive-as-hell face of Emil Jannings does enough by itself to tell a million separate stories.


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)


Nothing like attempted murder to give the ol’ marriage a jump start, eh?

But apparently in the expressionistic world of F.W. Murnau, that’s the case, because that thought of murder turned the lowest of the low to the highest of the high for a humble farm couple.  What emotion, what sheer joy, what carefree euphoria the Man and the Wife experience on their excursion!  This movie is everything that was right about expressionism in silent film.  When the Man and the Woman from the City plan the Wife’s murder, and then the Man tries to go through with it, his clunky movements, hunched over, practically turn him into Frankenstein’s monster – but the look on his poor wife’s face evokes sheer terror – no words need describe it, it just is.  The wife running from her husband in fear, hiding her face like a puppy, she’s like a traumatized little girl – all the more reason for us to pity and fear for her.  And their reconciliation, every embrace, every moment they spend in a big and scary and unfamiliar metropolis, observing a wedding, chasing a pig, visiting the barber, a passionate kiss before the photographer’s camera – these two stick out like a sore thumb in the bustling city, but their innocence and happiness, not long after sheer terror, affected me like few other on-screen relationships ever have.  This is how body language and facial expression trump dialogue to deliver the purest of emotions, despite over-the-top expressionism.  Yeah, “Sunrise” has all the technical innovations the historians tell you about, from the moving camera to the graphic match cuts to using tricks and effects to have a ghostly visage of the vicious Woman from the City embrace an hunched-over and emotionally-neutered Man, but frankly I didn’t even notice the technical qualities.  All that mattered to me was the performances, how disgusted the Man is when the Woman from the City – the snake of Eden – tempts him with thoughts of murder, how in the beginning Man and Wife and their baby inhabit the same room, but can’t even muster the strength to look at each other, and how they reconcile and are all of a sudden inseparable and couldn’t be more passionate for each other and excited about their new surroundings.  “Sunrise” is suspenseful, endearing, funny (the Venus De Milo visual gag is hysterical), tragic, and above all, life-affirming.  This could’ve been a simple story of how the big bad city (through the insipid Woman) can be the undoing of innocence and pure love (through the Man and Wife and their rural sensibilities), but it’s deeper than that – look no further than how much god damn fun the couple has in that supposedly big, bad city after all.  As sappy as it sounds, love conquers all, and these two people become unconditionally entwined as one entity – “A Song of Two Humans” becomes a song of one.

And is this not, like, the greatest, most atmospheric and evocative, entrance in all of cinema? (1st minute of clip):


The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921)

chaplin_the_kid“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.”

Boy, is that the understatement of the century.  That disclaimer of sorts is seen just following the opening credits of “The Kid,” Chaplin’s first feature-length film (if you can call 50 minutes feature-length…), and it describes some of his most famous movies like “City Lights” and “Modern Times”, and this is certainly no exception.  The “smile” (the laughs, really) are there as they always are in a Chaplin film, with the Tramp as his usual awkward, lovable self: clumsy yet incredibly graceful thanks to Chaplin’s talent as a physical artist, initially conceited only to learn a valuable lesson in compassion, that wonderfully goofy facial expression, the eternal feet-sideways shuffle, and so on and so forth.

Even so, despite being such a short movie, there are some very weird and awkward pacing problems, as if the rope holding the narrative together is frayed at the edges.  So many of the set pieces are wonderful, like the Tramp’s run-in with an amorous housewife and her jealous cop husband, the Tramp and Kid’s break a window-fix a window scheme, and the Tramp’s angelic dream…but that dream seems like a short film that was on its own that was included here to pad the already-miniscule run-time.  Other narrative-based scenes here and there, like the plights of the Kid’s mother and the man I’m assuming is her love interest but who we never see after that opening scene, also feel just stuck in there, as if from a different movie.  Small complaint, though, because Chaplin is Chaplin at his best and just about dominates the proceedings.  And this was made in 1921 for god’s sake, and was his first feature-length film, so pacing issues might as well be swept under the rug.  Miniscule complaint 🙂 .

I’m not gonna go on and on about Chaplin and his acting prowess, though.  It’s been covered ad nauseum by every critic and basic film lover who’s ever lived, even by me in my reviews of Modern Times and The Great Dictator.  Rest assured, though, young Chaplin here is indeed vintage Chaplin and vintage Tramp, so if you’ve seen one moving image of the Tramp you know what to expect here.  I won’t go on about it because shockingly, Chaplin isn’t my main focus in a Chaplin movie.  It’s young Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid.

Could this be the greatest supporting performance of all-time?  That’s saying a hell of a lot, and I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of films from each decade, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a supporting performance quite like this one, that so perfectly supports the main performance.  And Jackie Coogan was barely over five years old when he filmed “The Kid.”  His Kid, abandoned and entrusted to the care of the woefully underprepared Tramp, is the Tramp’s perfect parallel and his perfect foil.  Just as the Kid mirrors the Tramp’s gymnastic-like mannerisms, this outcast child is made for this iconic outcast character, and indeed this very young actor was made for Chaplin, the soon-to-be legend of cinema.

I was amazed at how effortless young Coogan’s acting seemed.  The scene of the Kid and Tramp’s window-breaking scene, for instance: the Kid throws rocks at windows and runs away, only to have the Tramp, disguised as a window repairman, just happen to stroll by just in time for the resident to plead for his services.  The Kid, with that ever-hopeful and all-knowing gleam in his eye, tongue sticking out to one side, twirls his arm and heaves the stone, reaches into his pocket for another, and reaches back to throw…only to have his arm hit the chest of a cop, standing behind him without his knowing.  In classic slapstick fashion, Coogan’s arm just floats there, as he gives off facial expressions at first signifying concentration, then ‘what the hell’s that?’, and finally ‘uh-oh.’  He tries to act natural, folds his arms, kicks the air, and finally points the cop towards something that’s not there and runs off.  Now, you’ve probably seen a sequence like this in every other slapstick movie ever made, but this is 1921, years before any of those movies came along, and this is a 5 year old kid doing all this.  And it’s a 5 year old kid who shows unfathomable composure and confidence doing funny-acting that we’d take for granted in any other situation.  Boy, how many times did this kid have his arm burned with cigarette butts to get him to do what he does on-screen 😆 ?

Coogan’s acting chops are like a comedic veteran a la the Three Stooges or even his co-star Chaplin, but the keyword for me is effortless: namely, how effortless he induces both laughs and tears both physically and facially, especially in conjunction with Chaplin alongside him.  In their shitty apartment, for instance, the Kid keeps the Tramp in line, futzing with the gas meter to get his quarter back, waking up the Tramp for breakfast, and then works in complete conjunction with the Tramp in their little scheme: always as expressive, and always as acrobatic as Chaplin.  Later, Coogan commands screen-time of his own has he gets in a fight with a local bully – again, just as physically expressive as Chaplin but on a smaller scale, even squirming and clawing at the air like the most expressive 5 year old you’ve ever seen when the Tramp hold him in mid-air for fear of himself having to fight the bully’s monstrous older brother.  I know I’ve said ad nauseam by now that Coogan’s acting is effortless, but I have no other way of describing it.  He just makes child-like physical expressiveness and tugging at the heartstrings so easy, like he’s having the time of his life, not even having to think about looking good on-screen.  I would say that it’s just him acting natural, but surely nobody, not even a happy-go-lucky little kid, acts that expressive and, well, Chaplin-esque (the only verb I could think of 😛 ) in real life, right?  If it wasn’t for Coogan’s very famous co-star and his legendary reputation, I’d be amazed that a little kid like this could make such movie-like, exaggerated mannerisms seem so natural and true-to-life.  But put together with the master of that, it feels right at home.

I’ve already said that “The Kid” may very well have the best supporting performance of all-time.  How about the best climax, too?  And that scene about 35 minutes in, when the men from the orphanage try to take away the sick Kid and the Tramp desperately tries to get him back, is where the “tear” portion of that opening disclaimer comes in.  It’s interesting I criticized the movie for some awkward pacing, because it’s the awkward pacing of the final 15 or so minutes that make the climax as powerful as it is.  There’s still about 15 minutes of screen time following the climax involving the now-homeless Tramp and Kid, the mother, and the Tramp’s dream, but it all might as well have been an incoherent whirl to me following the emotional onslaught of that famous scene.  I knew about it going in and assumed it was at the end of the film, but seeing that it wasn’t at the end surprised me.  It’s filmmaking at its finest, and nothing following it could meet up to the sheer emotion, the laughs and tears of it.  I revisited the scene many times after I finished the movie and almost broke it down shot-by-shot to get to the bottom of why it is so representative of the best that the art of cinema has to offer.  Sure, Chaplin as director tugs the melodramatic heartstrings to the nth degree with the exaggerated villainy of the orphanage man, the terror of the Kid, and the desperation of the Tramp, not to mention setting it all to his own score based on Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.  It’s melodramatic, but it works because of the very essence of silent cinema, where exaggeration is necessary to convey the deepest of emotions and bring out the deepest of emotions in the audience.  Chaplin knew this and was the master of this, which is why the Tramp is one of the great enduring movie characters of all-time: he’s a silly clown, but you care deeply for him during his plights, especially when that plight involves a now-helpless surrogate son.  Slapstick physical comedy becomes slapstic-esque physicality that’s all too serious as the Tramp wrestles with these men and the Kid hits them over the head with a rolling pin.  As in his finest films, Chaplin transitions from pure comedy to pure heartbreak with the snap of a finger.

I said that Chaplin was the master of the essence of silent cinema, and for one key moment I was incredibly glad that “The Kid” was a silent film.  With the Kid now in the paddy-wagon about to be taken away, he looks out, reaching out his arms, letting out a scream in pleading for the Tramp to help him.  There’s that old horror adage that the most frightening things are what you don’t see, and in this case the most heartbreaking scream from a child is one you don’t hear.  You only see the Kid crying out, leaving you to imagine the most blood-curdling, tragic scream to end all tragic screams.  If Jackie Coogan made innocent hijinks look so effortless, then he makes mind-numbing despair look like an absolute breeze.  It’s a face I won’t forget for a long, long time.  

You have to marvel at how Chaplin directs the whole scene, as it cuts back and forth between the terrified Kid outside and the restrained Tramp back in the apartment: both wide-eyed, near tears, and with that same look of terror at the prospect of losing one another.  They’re in separate locations, but with the cutting between the two, the Kid might as well be crying, throwing up his arms, and pleading for the Tramp as if face-to-face, and the Tramp’s face shows you that he hears those pleas.  That editing, the acting, and the swell of the music as despair becomes a chase across rooftops, which eventually becomes triumph, all make for a climax that’s both tragic and celebratory, and ultimately draining.  It rivals the final scene of “City Lights” as the most tearjerking that Chaplin ever made, and there was so much more to it than simply the acting of the two leads (which was outstanding to begin with).  Pacing flaws be damned, to me “The Kid”‘s greatness comes from that great supporting performance and that great scene.  When they’re put together, it shows you how Charlie Chaplin wasn’t merely one of cinema’s great actors, but easily one of its great directors, and quite simply one of the great artists of the twentieth century.


Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

A razor slicing a woman’s eyeball in half.  A cross-dresser riding a bike and falling over.  Ants crawling out of a human hand, with a similar hand (perhaps the same one?) falling out of a box onto the street.  I man pulling two pianos, complete with priests and dead cows, after being rejected by a woman he was feeling up.  Those same two people later frollicking on the beach, only to turn into statues.

All images that couldn’t be more random, and I must admit, many of which I had known about beforehand in reading about the movie.  For that reason, some of Un Chien Andalou’s “charm” (if that’s at all the right word, which it probably isn’t), was lost on me, but that was inevitable.  To describe this short film is in fact simply to describe scenes and images like those, and for that reason I was more than prepared to judge it as simply a random collection of strange, dream-like images with no coherency between them.  I was more than prepared to simply call such a thing the obvious precursor to the more surreal films of David Lynch (namely Eraserhead and Inland Empire), admire it for its technical innovations, and leave it at that.

No sir.

All those things I said – the dream elements, the Lynchian factor, the technical innovations, are all there.  What I wasn’t anticipating, though, is that I would actually find myself attracted to such a strange piece of film and like it quite a bit, while I have pretty much nothing but loathing and contempt for good Mr. Lynch’s descendants of this, Eraserhead and Inland Empire.  I think that’s because Lynch’s films were utterly chaotic with bizarre images just there for the sake of being bizarre, which pretty much cancels out some impressive performances that ultimately feel as superfluous as the images.  Un Chien Andalou, on the other hand, has no dialogue, no distinct identities to speak of in its “characters”, and certainly no easy story to follow, and yet, I felt like I could identify with these mystery people and connect them somehow.  And it’s that which really, I think, makes Un Chien Andalou truly dreamlike: rather than just a series of random crap a la Lynch, it’s random crap that has some kind of intangible connection that’s far from defined outright, but rather a link so faint that you can basically put any interpretation on it that you want.  The last dream I had that I can even faintly remember, for instance, involved a swimming pool in a Benihana restaurant, jumping off of a skyscraper-sized dinner table, and the death of political pundit James Carville: all incredibly random and bizarre things, but all somehow connected in a kind of narrative-type chain that I certainly can’t remember, but definitely know was there, and it’s that type of pseudo-logic that ties dreams into reality and vice-versa, and Buñuel captured that nearly perfectly I thought.

Of course, I’m not going to say that “this means this” or “that means that” or “in the grand scheme of things the whole film is a metaphor for…” because that would be downright insulting to Buñuel and the sensory experience he’s created.  I could so easily say that the ants coming out of the hand or the dead cows and the priests on the dragged pianos represent one’s excess baggage and inner demons, but I won’t.  I could so easily say that the man shooting himself (quite literally…at least I think they were the same person) and the subsequent landing in a grassy meadow could represent his sense of guilt and his redemption, but I won’t.  I could say that the man simultaneously groping the woman’s clothed breasts and naked rear-end and the cross-dressing man on the bike are all part of a short film that is simply intended as an explosion of sexual confusion and excess in a sexually-deprived world, but I won’t.  I could so easily say that the slicing of the eye…well, I’m not even gonna touch that one 😛 .  The point is that it’s impossible to understand what Buñuel was going for, and even if he was going for anything at all other than to show random crap as a means of exercising his artistic prowess.  And speaking of artistic prowess, there’s certainly enough of that in the film to rightly label it as one of the staples of expressionistic film, and film in general.  So many editing techniques that we take for granted seem new here, like the graphic match cut of the eye slicing with a cloud “slicing” the moon, or intercutting of the cross-dressing bike rider’s fall intercut with the woman looking out the window.  Such images might have nothing (or in fact everything) to do with each other, and yet our brain tells us to put them together, so that we assume the eye is the moon, or more simply, the woman is actually seeing the bike rider fall.  It’s that intercutting that made Un Chien Andalou so innovative: editing random images together in a way that our brain automatically tells us to interpret it in such a way as to make it logical, much like Kuleshov’s old experiment with the face and the images, so that we interpret them in any subconscious way we will.

A film like Un Chien Andalou is certainly not perfect, being made so early in the age of cinema and so obviously an experiment in style that’s been tweaked (sometimes perfected, sometimes merely imitated) for decades.  It’s a film rife for interpretation (and god knows I’ve already started to put my own interpretation on it), but like a dream, it goes deep into the subconscious, where you know the things you see and experience, when put together, mean something, but damned if you’ll be able to figure out what that innermost something (fears, desires, or what have you) might possibly be.