The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Cocoanuts (1929)

the cocoanuts 3.png

“Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales?” ~ Kay Francis, Chico, and Groucho.

The Marx Brothers were modern comedians. Out of Groucho Marx alone, there are numerous comics spawned and basking in his incomparable shadow. When certain jokes come out you can all but tip your hat to him. But also Chico and Harpo had their own personas and they worked with each other to simultaneously set up different bits and turn those bits into pandemonium that have overtaken the world with laughter over and over again.

And that’s not over one film or with one studio but over a whole host of projects. For all I know, Harpo Marx went through life mute (I Love Lucy cameos don’t tell me any different) and Chico really did use that accent of his. Even Groucho who was arguably the most visible thanks to You Bet Your Life, What’s My Line, and memorable Dick Cavett interviews, though he lost the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, still maintained much the same witty image his entire life.

Playing purely the numbers game most comedy teams are duos. Think of most of the great ones. But the Marx Brothers had three and even four when Zeppo was around. They were all family. So when this well-oiled mechanism of chaos is released it really does a number on people. They were known for overwhelming producers in real life with their antics and they do precisely the same thing to each individual audience member who watches them onscreen — at least the ones who don’t mind being railroaded a little. That is their lasting impact.

The fact Cocoanuts was their first film and from the 1920s makes more an impression on my mind. Because talking pictures hadn’t been around for all that long. Sure, some of their gags could have been retroactively transferred to the silent cinema but in many ways, the talkies suited them just fine. After all, they were a vaudeville act and The Cocoanuts was a success on the stage before it was a film. Even during filming, they were already at work on their latest production Animal Crackers (which would again become a film the following year).

Where does that leave us? Looking at The Cocoanuts today, it definitely is stagey because well, it came from a stage play. Furthermore, it’s a rather odd combination having Irving Berlin and The Marx Brothers names attached to the film. Given the main attraction, there’s probably too much singing anyways although the overhead shots soon accredited to Busby Berkeley are quite prominent here.

If we turn our attention to the opening moment, Groucho is on the staircase of the Hotel de Cocoanut giving his restless bellboys some wise words full of crap about money. Meanwhile, a seductive woman (Kay Francis) and her suitor look to steal the priceless necklace of one of the few vacationers (Margaret Dumont) and pin the crime on someone else for their own nefarious purposes. This might not be a criticism you hear often but there’s too much plot and not enough Marx Brothers.

cocoanuts 2.png

Let’s cut right to the best gags. There’s the adjoining room & slamming door gag which provides one of the most pointed moments where the boys are all working seamlessly together to promote chaos on celluloid.

Groucho and Chico have one of their bits over a map and linguistic disconnect that Groucho riddles with his puns and Chico then decimates with his miscomprehension of English vernacular (Most famously Viaduct becomes Why a duck?). Watch it if you don’t understand what that means. In Marx Brothers terms it’s probably poetry in motion.

There’s an auction, termed a big swindle by Groucho but even with Chico’s involvement in the chicanery, for some unknowable reason, they don’t seem to be making any money. Finally, Groucho and Harpo play Tic Tac Toe on a man’s chest and act boorish at a dinner party before running off for the plot’s real finale. Let’s face it. The picture ended right when they left the stage.

The improv and dynamic nature of the Brothers given their vaudeville roots makes me realize just how much their shows would have been blessed by repeated performances and the heat of the moment. Though we can’t have that luxury at least we have this film to remember those hoodlums who elevated the art form of anarchy and wisecracking to new heights.

3.5/5 Stars

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail_1929_Poster.jpgIn one sense Blackmail proves to be a landmark in simple film history terms but it’s also a surprisingly frank picture that Hitchcock injects with his flourishing technical skills. It’s of the utmost importance to cinema itself because it literally stands at the crossroads of silent and talking pictures and holds the distinction of being one of Britain’s first talkies.

So close did it ride the lines, in fact, that two versions were released. It was initially supposed to be a full-fledged silent until it was requested that Hitchcock update the production to follow the tides of the times.

Far from being hampered by the transition, Hitch takes everything in stride and delivers a story that is pure cinema. It means simply that the film functions as a visual narrative. Still partially silent, yet using dialogue, and utilizing all the tools at his disposal to develop the greatest impact to reach his audience.

The story is simple really, about a young woman named Alice (Anny Ondra, future wife of German boxing icon Max Schmeling) who’s having a bit of a rough time with her boyfriend who’s on the police force. Still, she’s trying to make it work but another man has taken her fancy. He’s an artist and he uses the excuse of showing her his work as a pretense to get her up in his room. We all have an inclination of what might happen next. She’s taken advantage of and Alice has no recourse but to defend herself.

A conniving low-level conman is looking for an easy bit of blackmail and the policeman goes to great lengths to protect his girl but she herself is struggling with her guilt with what happened. Her nerves cannot take the constant strain because she was never meant for such circumstances. She’s hardly a bad person. In fact, she has no reason to feel remorse because, in the film’s candid portrayal of the artist’s less than honorable intentions, it’s easy to sympathize with Alice.

What makes the picture extraordinarily refreshing is that Hitch never relies too heavily on dialogue although it was the newest technology. He seems to already have an intuitive sense of how it can be used in cadence with the moving image. He can still make a film that for sequences is much like a silent picture and far from detracting from the story he is developing it further. It only serves to bring out more of the story whether it be the atmosphere or certain amounts of character development.

The local gossip chattering on and on about the murder and how she would never use a knife no matter the provocation but we are also privy to the young woman’s reaction shots as the word “knife” reverberates through her consciousness. Even in that moment, the dialogue underlines her inherent guilt and the further moral dilemma she has been put in.

Hitchcock’s already resorting to using memorable locales, in this case, The British Museum to make his chase sequences pop with character. You might say this is even an obvious precursor to Vertigo (1958) with a chase sequence that takes off across the rooftops of the museum.

But the ending comes with a bit of fateful luck that’s simultaneously darkly comic in quintessential Hitchcock fashion. It’s the perfect punctuation on a film that spun on an unfortunate split second altercation and it just as easily fell back on track with another such moment of good fortune. It’s the director’s way of teasing his audience in a sense and he’s very good at it — mingling murder with wit.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog (1927)

The_Lodger_1927_Poster.jpgWhat’s striking about Alfred Hitchcock is the sheer breadth of his work and how his career managed to take him in so many directions as he continued to evolve and experiment with his craft from silent pictures, to talkies, then Hollywood, and all the way into the modern blockbuster age. And yet the very expansiveness of his oeuvre begs the question, where to begin with it all? Certainly, his lineup of masterpieces in the 1950s are a must.

But of his early silent pictures, The Lodger is the film that Hitchcock himself noted was really the beginning of his filmography as we know it and within its frames, there are some telling signs of an artist coming to grips with his craft.

His subject matter here is a bit of a Jack the Ripper-type tale set in London. A rash of murders has overtaken the town as coincidentally a new tenant with suspicious tendencies moves into the room of a local family. Their daughter does her best to make him feel welcome but her macho boyfriend, a member of the local police force, is skeptical of the competition. Especially since circumstance seems to point to the lodger’s guilt. So in this central conflict, we have a bit of the innocent man motif that Hitch would scrutinize and continue to tweak again and again.

Hitchcock already shows an immense aptitude for visual experimentation, utilizing his mise en scene in fascinating ways.  He makes great use of staircases whether he only shows a man’s hand as it slides along the banister or he sets up crucial moments along the expanses of the stairwell, characters slowly descending toward us being representative of innumerable tension.

We also unwittingly have one of Hitch’s first documented cameos and his assistant director on the picture is none other than his soon-to-be wife and lifelong collaborator, Alma Reville. That connection alone makes this production crucial to Hitchcock’s future career.

It’s easy to make the assertion that Hitchcock remained in the most basic sense a silent filmmaker his entire career and if we can count F.W. Murnau as one of his major influences from his time in Germany, you have that same sense of visuals over dialogue or even title cards. Some of his greatest scenes are in fact nearly silent. The crop dusting chase in North by Northwest (1959) or Norman Bates discarding the evidence in Psycho (1960) both spring to mind.

Though the parameters set up by the studio and expectations of his audience meant his leading man could not be found to be guilty, Hitch still manages to make the scenario as interesting as he possibly could — even if the degree of moral ambiguity wasn’t quite to his liking.

Consequently, in many ways, The Lodger also manages to be one of Hitchcock’s most tenderly romantic films. Because while his pictures have romance and passion they are more often than not subverted by the macabre, sensuality, or that notable dry wit. But here, the love story seems generally sincere.

Because there are tinges of true heartbreak here and the circumstances that bring the two lovers together are imbued with emotional consequence. Even the intricacies of a flashback and genuine interactions between two people who exude a certain chemistry make up for any overly theatrical moments courtesy of the tenderhearted heartthrob Ivor Novello.

But as he generally had a knack for doing Hitchcock also knows how to squeeze the most out of his ending sequences with the most satisfying spectacle. In this case, although the police have exonerated their suspect, the mob is after him and he flees them only to get caught on the iron works of a fence, his handcuffs leaving him dangling, vulnerable to the onslaught of humanity. He hangs there pitifully, at their mercy, a near Christ-like figure.

Perhaps the outcome was not quite what he wanted but the burgeoning master still manages a true Hitchcockian ending worthy of remembrance alongside some of his more championed pictures.

3.5/5 Stars

 

7th Heaven (1927)

Seventh_Heaven_19277th Heaven is one of those films that revels in classical storytelling where the drama is rich and deep; the score hits all the crescendos and fills them in with the sweetest of notes that are both beautiful and moving. The love scenes are rapturous in a way that makes us hold romance in a higher esteem than we did previously and the horrors of war abhorrently brutalize the world like never before. These are the kind of themes as old as storytelling itself.

Director Frank Borzage would play with these same themes time and time again. I say this with every film of his but it’s so inevitably true. There’s no denying it in any frame within his work. It’s just there and yet in Seventh Heaven, he delivers bar none his greatest, most extraordinary outcome of his entire career that must only be seen to be believed.

There has never been such an angelic, more serene and innocent face than Janet Gaynor’s or at least you’d be hard-pressed to find one. I became acquainted with here in F.W. Murnau’s masterful parable of love, Sunrise (1927), but here she is equally demure, reflecting all the many qualities of the most ingenuous of beings.

In this particular scenario, her life is horrible lived out in utter poverty in France and what’s worse, she is abused and whipped by her tyrannical sister. For a silent film, it feels fairly graphic and there’s little restraint in showing the sister’s uninhibited rage.

But Diane does find herself a savior or rather he finds her. His name is Chico a sewer worker who is promoted to being a street cleaner. Despite his lowly beginnings, his aspirations are high, constantly geared towards the stars, and he really is a strapping even remarkable fellow, if not simply for the fact that he believes in himself.  Though his most telling trait is his anger toward the Bon Dieu — The Good Lord — or in our common terms God. As he sees it, he gave the Almighty a chance and look what it got him. Absolutely zilch. That’s why he’s an atheist. God owes him 10 francs.

However, in an individual moment of integrity, he speaks up on Diane’s behalf, taking some of her burden upon himself and claiming to be her husband. The act of charity is not lost on her. She’s grateful but now he’s in a bind. If the detectives call on him and find him unmarried, it’s the hoosegow for him. But being the generally sympathetic spirit that she is, Diane follows him back to his home and agrees to stand-in as his wife for a time. He, in turn, is grateful.

Soon he shares a little bit of his rooftop heaven with her along with some faux-marital bliss where they begin to truly enjoy each other’s company. In this mutually beneficial relationship, they find more than mere altruism. It’s in these interludes where true romance begins to bud between them.

It’s in this heaven above the chaos of the world where they begin to fall in love — it’s a reverie that picks them up and carries them away on clouds of peace, comfort, and contentment. Never before have we seen Diane so at ease and never before have we seen Chico so overjoyed.

But once more war tears apart the hearts of those in love. It’s most overtly reflected in the two scores that battle for supremacy. The passionate love theme playing over their embraces full of kisses and then the shrill call-to-arms playing down on the streets as men march off to battle. It’s the melodious juxtaposed with the harsh. That which is mellifluous clashing with these markers of chaos. Chico is finally called into battle but he is not going to leave his love without making a promise even if it’s in words alone.

Marriage once more is cast in this spiritual light ordained by God and some people would agree that it most certainly is but Borzage seems to take it nearly a step further in that it becomes its own religion — once more this rapturous experience to be undertaken as a form of worship. It’s accentuated by the fact that every day without fail at precisely 11 o’clock they both talk to each other, communing together, rather like a prayer, managing to keep them together wherever they might be from the trenches to the munition factory. Their universal union remains forever intact.

The war sequences are utter chaos for the sheer mass of humanity that is mobilized with dust whirling around, cars zooming down the road, and guns pointed in all directions. It’s a fairly impressive showing of cinematic tumult. But the film’s ending is a sheer miracle of bright-eyed brilliance — a moment of resurrection that’s so powerful — only felt in a few other films so evocatively. Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) being one of the few examples that comes to mind although presently more titles elude me.

Seventh Heaven ends on yet another spiritual note much as it began. In these final moments, the epiphany is not only a miraculous apotheosis of sorts but the stirring realization that in this narrative the Bon Dieu was always working dynamically in Chico’s life — just not in the ways that he was expecting. Every time he questioned God’s Will he was met with some sort of answer. One could bring into question if this is, in fact, a “Christian” film but it brings in a multitude of religious themes and readily positions itself as another impassioned depiction of love of the highest order as revealed by Frank Borzage.

4.5/5 Stars

It (1927)

It 1.png

“IT is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With ‘It’ you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. ‘It’ can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” ~ Elinor Glyn 

I was always under the impression that the It Girl was a concept that came out of this movie but little did I realize it was literally built into the very construct of the storyline. But that deserves a bit of elaboration.

There are really three figures of note in It (1927). We meet the bumbling playboy Monty first as he ushers in his buddy’s first day of managing a department store with some good luck flowers. He bums around for a moment before happening upon an article by columnist Elinor Glyn and immediately he is taken with this idea of “IT.” He tells his friend that they need to find girls with that very same quality.

It’s a rather staid and antiquated concept when you actually consider its implications. Men ogling women trying to pinpoint this elusive quality or trait that seems far more based on physical features and outward appearance than anything else. And all the pretty maids all lined up in a row welcome the attention from the two well-to-do bachelors. Though it’s important to note “It” can apply to men as well.

Still, perhaps regrettably the term has remained prevalent to label women and still maybe it’s morphed for the better into the calling card of anyone who has ever burst onto the center stage and become the next big thing. However, you could argue that said person becomes a bit of a commodity or a fad for the media.

Still, Clara Bow in her own right was indubitably an icon and it went beyond a gimmick or a plot device. In many peoples’ eyes, especially in hindsight, she represents the free-spirit and joy of The Roaring Twenties as one of the foremost sex symbols of that generation.

You get that sense of the eponymous “It” that goes beyond her so-called sex appeal. It’s that genuine winning charm when she peeks in on her friend’s baby and begins cracking him up with a barrage of funny faces. “It” is when she’s snipping away at her dress to get ready for a night of fine dining at the Ritz because that one dress is all she has to work with. It’s frowning when she’s trying to order off an elegant international dinner menu. Yes, it’s even playfully sliding up onto the bosses desk or posing on a yacht to try and win her man back.

But we also cheer for her because she cares about those who are down and out and maintains a certain level of moral restraint. In other words, she has boundaries and standards set up. She’s not about to let a man just have his way on the first date. She’s a take-charge kind of gal but also a proponent of traditional values. Women in the home and taking care of children. Though she shares some of the striking features of Louise Brooks, the makeup of their characters are very different — not to mention their hairstyles.

This silent romantic comedy like so many others in the storied tradition is made of moments of miscommunication. But Betty (Bow) is not about to let miscommunication get in her way. A pair of colliding boats leaves a soaking wet Clara Bow just waiting to be rescued right after she saves her fellow castaway. Not even the long-held blonde versus brunette conundrum can get in the way. In the end, there’s nothing quite so romantic as clinging to an anchor soaking wet with the love of your life.

Though not the same type of comedy, It (1927) is a rom-com that has some similar set pieces to Harold Lloyd’s pictures. Namely the fact that its protagonist is a sales clerk like Safety Last! and there’s an excursion to Coney Island rather like Speedy. By today’s standards, IT might seem like a mere trifle but there’s no denying the unquestionable impact of Clara Bow and the influence she still holds on our cultural lexicon even today.

3.5/5 Stars

The Circus (1928)

Chalincircus2b.jpgCharlie Chaplin always puts his Tramp in very simple situations that also happen to reap marvelous results both in the realms of humor and heartfelt drama. He follows up The Kid and The Gold Rush with the next iteration in the Little Man’s adventures which find him unwittingly joining the circus.

Initially, he gets caught up with a pickpocket and policemen which provides him an opportunity to go flying through funhouses with halls of mirrors and the like, the perfect fodder for a string of his best gags. Most notably giving an impeccable imitation of a mechanical man to fool the police. But his last sprint to get away from the clutches of the law takes him to the center stage where he becomes a welcomed bit of life to a rather droll piece of entertainment after he bursts onto the scene as a fugitive from justice, crashing into the stands. An unenthused audience is instantly crippled with laughter by every one of his accidental foibles. If only they had seen what he had been up to previously.

His accidental knack as a real-life clown gets him a gig in the main ring of the circus under the tyrannical showrunner (Al Ernest Garcia) who’s constantly bossing around his workers and abusing his meek daughter Merna who is also a part of the act as a tutu-wearing barebacked rider. This is where the film comes to its main storyline with Chaplin looking to do a few unassuming deeds for this girl in her horrible predicament while he himself begins to train as a show clown. But he proves to be terribly unfunny when he tries to be and it looks like he’ll back out on the street.

The major discovery is that he’s only funny unconsciously and so the opportunistic Ring Master looks to channel his innate comedy by hiring him on as a mere stagehand who nevertheless becomes the show’s main attraction. When the Tramp finally figures out what a sensation he is things are better–life is bright and cheery. But when a new man comes into the picture, a handsome tightrope walker, the vagabond’s demeanor begins to sour.  Still, he willingly gives up his own little bit of happiness for the girl whom he still truthfully adores.

Though the ending has a touch of the bittersweet, Chaplin does a masterful job of drawing up a straightforward yet rivetingly poetic tale involving his greatest incarnation. The Tramp has us fully involved in his story because he really is a marvel. Even when we’re not in stitches, it’s difficult not to smile at his very image.

In front of the camera, in many ways, it feels like business as usual. The story has euphoric moments of energy and charm underlined by dips into the dejectedness of lost love and destitution. This was always the rhythm of Chaplin’s work, But outside of his on-camera perfectionism, Chaplin’s world was thrown into turmoil to put it lightly.

He had a recent run-in with the IRS, acrimonious divorce proceedings from his co-star in The Gold Rush Lita Grey, along with the death of his mother, and a vicious fire throwing yet another wrench into the film’s production schedule. All told, it was delayed about 8 months in production purgatory, his hair grayed even more and he suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown.

Still, the final product perfectly personifies the humor that Chaplin always tried to capture rather like lightning in a jar. It’s those moments of organic, unconscious humor that can be found in a simple action. What makes The Tramp such a hilarious character is the very fact that he never for an instant seems to actually be trying to be funny.

Certainly, he’s light-hearted and mischievous but there’s a general import to his demeanor. He takes himself seriously, tips his hat, and tries to hold himself to a certain respectability. But despite his best efforts he can’t help but let out little hiccups and belches of chaos. He gives someone who deserves it a swift kick in the behind, scrambles every which way to evade a bucking donkey or gets trapped in a cage with lions and tigers, oh my! He vies for the affection of a girl the best way he knows how topping the competition on the tightrope and simultaneously tries to please each boss he has to the best of his abilities. They are very human responses even if he does it in a way uniquely attributed to him.

It’s the serious being made silly — the tragedy that is imbued with a silver lining — that is what The Circus gets to the heart and soul of. Because this hardly feels like a happy ending but the Tramp has done his good deed and walks away from center stage ready for a new adventure. As it turned out, we’d find him in the big city a few years later and he proved to never lose his sensibility for helping the burdened and downtrodden–namely a blind girl.

That is yet another reason to love that little man. His heart is large. Others give out of their abundance, but he gives out of his poverty, often offering everything he has–all he has to live on–and he does it happily so. Especially if it’s a pretty girl.

4.5/5 Stars

The Kid (1921)

The Kid 1“A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear…”

In his earliest works The Tramp made a name mostly for his antics but here Chaplin shows an innate understanding of pathos which would become his main calling card throughout his illustrious career because it was never just about the jokes. Surely, the Tramp is a gloriously funny character time and time again but that would mean nothing without his tender heart and soul. The qualities that in one sense make him “a tramp” but also allow him to win over the masses because there are very few figures who have ever been so endearing. If anything The Kid shows that The Tramp could also make a sympathetic father.

Edna Purviance is cast as a Hester Prynne type heroine except she gives up her child, an ignominious reminder of her transgressions, only to regret the decision later on. Because she has fortune smile upon her and with her destitution gone all she can think of is the child who she left behind — the child she lost. It leads her to spend many of her waking hours in charity paying visits to the poorest of the town, unwittingly bringing her in contact with the very son she is looking for.

Except he has grown up in the stead of the lowly Tramp who found him discarded by a rubbish pile. Though he’s at a bit of a loss of what to do with a small infant initially, he uses his general ingenuity and natural affections to take on the paternal role. Jackie Coogan is the boy, and the cutest, pluckiest kid you’ve ever seen with a floppy mop of hair often kept in check by an equally floppy cap. And it’s fitting that he would be the most prominent child stars before Shirley Temple or Jackie Cooper and all the rest because his adopted father was the patriarch of Hollywood.

There’s an inherent chemistry that just simply works between Chaplin and Coogan as they sit around their humble flat together eating pancakes or traipsing around town shattering/repairing window panes. Some of the street scenes especially share striking similarities to Chaplin’s Easy Street as he must face off against the town thug and authoritarian policemen while his son battles it out with a pint-sized bully. Both throw wickedly hilarious haymakers.

Strikingly, in this narrative, Chaplin leaves behind the more simplistic themes of his earlier shorts to go for more lofty territory and it pays heavy dividends. There’s also an indisputable spiritual undertone to the film that becomes evident through numerous allusions. First, with the women and making her into a sort of scandalized martyr. Going so far as to intercut her tragedy with an image of Christ carrying his cross up to Golgotha to give his life for all humanity. It’s certainly hyperbole but also an astute piece of storytelling. Because no matter your religious belief, there’s no doubt this parallel casts our heroine in a sympathetic light as well as Chaplin’s rather overt choice of placing her in front of a stain glass window giving her a makeshift halo.

In the film’s waning moments, the heavenly dreamscape of harps, angels, and yes even a few demons fill up the Tramp’s head and give Chaplin yet another creative avenue as his visions take him into a world rife with whimsical antics that signal a change. Whether or not the new heaven and earth are realistic is nominally beside the point because they suggest the joys that are ahead for the Tramp and his adopted child.

Fittingly he’s reunited with his son in the residence of the woman who welcomes them both in.The lost get found, the downtrodden get lifted up, and all can be redeemed. A fluffy conclusion, perhaps, but an enjoyable one nonetheless from one of the seminal masters of storytelling. You can make the argument that there were greater directors than Chaplin but he truly was second to none not only as an actor but in building a universal connection with his audience. A connection that still manages to reach out to us earnestly nearly a century later.

4.5/5 Stars

Pandora’s Box (1929)

pandoras_box_filmThe Greek gods created a woman – Pandora. She was beautiful and charming and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box, and all evil was loosed upon us.

It’s often extraordinary the international platform that silent films afforded their stars. Pandora’s Box is one of the now lauded pinnacles of Weimar cinema and yet its main starlet — its acclaimed cover girl — was an American. With her bob hairstyle and vivacious sensuality, Lousie Brooks became synonymous with the Lulu character she portrayed in this film. It was this persona that caused her to rival other noteworthy contemporaries including Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

Except she differed in that Hollywood was not her first choice. Hollywood was not what made her a star. In fact, she shied away from that route, instead opting for other avenues altogether. That’s how she wound up partnering with director G.W. Pabst in not only Pandora’s Box but another classic, Diary of a Lost Girl. Then when she had enough she retired from the trade allowing her legacy to be championed by film aficionados years later.

The film in itself is really a bit of a parable taking inspiration from Greek mythology and sectioned off into Acts like a stage play. Pandora’s Box, is of course, the titular object that released all the evils into the world leaving only hope behind. The parallels are planted early on as Lulu lives life with a flirtatious vitality but that’s precisely what leaves a wake of destruction in her path. She woos every man who comes her way, a dancer and performer for all who will lend an eye. As of right now, she is the mistress of a well-to-do businessman named Schlon but he realizes that he needs to protect his image.

He plans to marry another woman but Lulu finds a way to unwittingly needle her way back into his life forcing his hand and ultimately winning him over again. But the conquests that come her way never last and she truly is a destructive temptress — a landmark femme fatale — she cannot help but flaunt her sexuality. She’s energetic, pernicious, meretricious.

The turning point of the film comes at Lulu’s trial sequence for the deed that she unwittingly perpetrated. The prosecutor stands over her wagging his finger as she’s veiled in somber shades of black. Her journey could end there but instead, she is granted another reprieve and escapes with two companions to London.

Not being bogged down by Production Codes of any kind, Pandora’s Box plays with some surprisingly frank themes most obvious of those being Lulu’s overt sexuality as well as adultery, prostitution, scandal, and so many other taboos. However, what makes the film quake with emotion is the very fact that Lulu is hardly an evil individual. Misled, immoral, and destructive yes, but it’s easy to feel sorry for her. Hers is the ultimate tragic narrative because while she assuredly ruins other people, she’s only injuring herself even more so. She dredges up so much hurt and elicits so much violence. All her attempts at love are only met with brutality.

Through it all, we follow faithfully even though we know from the outset it’s all for naught. And that’s a credit to Louise Brooks’s portrayal because there’s no doubt that she has that special something that makes you turn an eye and look. Her performance runs the gamut of emotions so uninhibited, lively, and free. There’s a universal vim and vigor to her that still feels fresh to this day in an otherwise archaic mode of filmmaking.

The amazing thing is that she probably could have been a bigger star than she actually was. She never really realized the potential that she had like a Dietrich or a Garbo but that’s not what she wanted. Still, the notability came her way anyways. Sadly, real life and the cinematic seem closer than you might expect. Her life was hardly as tragic as a film but you wonder if she ever found love chasing after men as she did.

4.5/5 Stars

October: 10 Days that Shook the World (1928)

Octyabr_posterIt’s curious that the first image October conjures up is a biblical nightmare from the book of Daniel. In that instance, the Babylonian king is frightened in his dream by a giant statue that comes tumbling to the ground. Of course, in that context, it had a lot of the same connotations, that his kingdom would come crashing to the ground with a resounding thud.

Obviously, there is an overarching narrative which holds importance, but Eisenstein always was a filmmaker of emotion elicited through moving images. So if I’m to be completely honest, the exact particulars of October don’t altogether interest me that much. Certainly, the Russian Revolution is an interesting and cataclysmic moment in 2oth century world history. However, all its crevices and nuances could just as easily be found in a textbook or piece of historical literature.

October is engaging visually, as not only a piece of historical documentation, but of propaganda, and artistic expression through a highly visual medium. Sergei Eisenstein is one of the forefathers of editing and even to this day how he decided to cut his films is fascinating. Part of this is his complete and utter break with the classical Hollywood style of editing that most of us have been born and bred on. Eisenstein is in complete juxtaposition with these normal sensibilities, and that gives his work a perplexing quality that carries a great deal of weight in its own right.

There are scurrying people, smiling faces strung together with montage and quick cutting. It’s grand chaos that is stirring even as it’s, at the same time, rather frightening to behold. The images are bursting forth with fervent energy and vigor for a cause still very much on the rise across the contemporary landscape.

The sheer mass of the mayhem is mind-boggling rather like Metropolis. Its frames are inhabited by seas of people, forests of guns, earthquake of feet hitting the pavement, constantly reverberating and repeating at different intervals. The grizzled yet ecstatic faces of the common man lend credence to Einsenstein’s unifying message waving the banner of the Communist nation.The palace being overrun by hoards is difficult to discount as is the spliced together images of varying religions. These are only a few of the eclectic pieces of the train that make up October. It is a document of a time and place that just happened to be St. Peterburg Moscow on October 27th, 1917. The clocks at the denouement suggest that it had a universal impact on the entire world. If the Cold War is any indication, then Eisenstein might be right.

4/5 Stars