The Crowd (1928)

220px-Crowd-1928-PosterThe Crowd is a true piece of urban Americana, setting the standard when it comes to your average everyday American. King Vidor’s film lacks big-name star power and plays on a universal story similar to Murnau’s Sunrise. Our protagonist is Johnny Sims, who was fittingly born on the 4th of July. He’s the quintessential stand-in for anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. He faces the death of his father at an early age and grows up getting lost in the masses of New York. With wall to wall skyscrapers towering above and a hopping city life, it’s easy to disappear.

This film is not Metropolis, but it is about a metropolis with the same behemoth sets swimming over the top with extras. In fact, at his job, Johnny looks like the original C.C. Baxter from The Apartment. He’s a cog in the giant mass of humanity, a little stop in the ever-churning conveyor belt.  Like Baxter, Sims becomes smitten with Mary, a lovely girl he meets on a double date with his joking colleague Bert. A lively night at a carnival and going through the tunnel of love cements their relationship. Soon they are married and heading off to the perfect honeymoon destination: Niagara Falls. This is where the love story is at its peak, riding on a wave of euphoria since these two are loved and in love. They feel indestructible, and there’s no one in the world that they would rather be with.

But as per usual, life happens to get in the way of love. Johnny isn’t too fond of Mary’s brothers and her mother, and the feelings are mutual. They just don’t see eye to eye, and they are skeptical of his prospects as a breadwinner. Matters are made worse during a tiff where Mary threatens to leave, and Sims does little to object. Their house is slowly falling apart, although they keep it together momentarily since she announces her pregnancy. That is the thin thread that binds them together.

Following their baby boy, comes a little girl, and finally, the raise that Johnny has been hoping for, but it’s not much. Things continue to be difficult as Johnny still waits for his ship to come in. His wife is annoyed with him and the meager prospects ahead. We are reminded that it’s not the big things but often the little ones that cause the most damage. Like little biting remarks that cut to the quick. And yet somehow, Johnny and Mary hang onto their romance.

In one scene she gazes down from the windowsill at him on the street below and they make up after a row. It’s rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, reflecting that they still care about each other. But matters are not helped by the fact that Johnny seems pretty useless. On a beach holiday Mary struggles to get everything right, and despite her best efforts, it all turns out wrong.

Only a few years before Johnny laughed out loud at a man forced to humiliate himself carrying signs masquerading as a clown. How embarrassing! And yet a desperate Johnny winds up with a similar lot. It doesn’t help that personal tragedy strikes his family where they are most vulnerable. In its day it was actually considered obscene (for featuring a toilet), and it was far from a success due to a downbeat ending. This is a Pre-Depression world, and yet life is still far from easy.  And that allows The Crowd to stand the test of time fairly resiliently because it’s still possible to relate with its patriotism, its tragedy, and its resolute optimism.

4.5/5 Stars

Nosferatu (1922)

The hand of F.W. nosferatu1Murnau is less noticeable in this early classic of his, but Nosferatu still works seamlessly as a piece of drama and horror. In fact, it by now has become somewhat of a horror classic and the archetype when it comes to vampire movies, taking a lot of inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think one of the things that makes Nosferatu so gripping is the fact that it mixes the plausible with the supernatural making for this weirdly rewarding ride. Is it scary? No, not in the modern sense of the word.

But it’s a story steeped in Myth. There is mention of the Black Death, supernatural creatures, and a being that “suckles himself on the hellish elixir of their blood.” What wonderful imagery that develops a genuine awe in this devilish being. And yet in the same instance, we’re getting scientific explanations of venus fly traps and tentacled polyps acting as symbols certainly but also tying us back to the real world. These forces of nature are real, backed by science, and make a vampire just a little more conceivable.

Running through Nosferatu is a love story, and much like Sunrise, although Nosferatu is a “symphony of horror,” there is also a bit of a love song underlying the vampire tale. It lends this story some heart, because these characters, like our protagonist Hutter, actually have something to live for.

Nosferatu most certainly is a symphony, and along with the expressionistic images, it uses title cards as well as excerpts from ship logs, books, and letters to tell the story. One such inter-title card from Count Orlock reads: Your wife has a lovely neck. Hutter has little idea what he means (or pretends not to), but we know, making it a rather funny but unnerving comment. There’s something about knowing what is undoubtedly going to happen and being powerless to stop it. For instance, when someone acknowledges they have two mosquitoes bites quite close together that spells trouble to the audience, but we can only watch and wait.

nosferatu2Because when Hutter first goes to offer Count Orlock a house we know it is bad news, to begin with, but it takes a long time for anything to actually happen. Orlock moves into the abandoned mansion across from Hutter and his wife, and that’s when the danger strikes close to home. There’s a madman in the hospital diverting attention, and Hutter winds up incapacitated so he is incapable of coming to the aid of his love. She is left vulnerable and the vampire has already proven what havoc he can wreak with the crew on a ship. Aside from Max Schreck’s frightening facade complete with pointy ears, bulging eyes, and menacing figures, the vampire literally appears and disappears into thin air. There is a haunting aura built around him because he is something supernatural, something that we cannot understand except through myth. I found myself getting tense waiting for something that I was not sure about. That was the exciting part. It’s not a blood and guts, monsters jumping out of closets, kind of horror. It’s not ridden with cliches either because it was the one creating its own mystique.

It’s hard to believe how much popular culture has been derivative from Stoker’s Dracula, much like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, amidst all the vast works of Dracula and vampires, Nosferatu stands out. It represents the visual aesthetic of German Expression wonderfully, and it casts a long shadow. It’s hard not to, at the very least, admire its artistry and be taken aback by its legacy. In the realm of silent films, Nosferatu is a must, pure and simple. It doesn’t rely on bloodcurdling shrieks and screams, but the images begin to invade our consciousness. One seems fleeting and the other sticks with us.

4.5/5 Stars

The Last Laugh (1924)

lastlaugh1Without sound, silent films become almost a completely visual medium and there was no one more visually-minded than German director F.W. Murnau. Aside from the opening title card and a message to begin the epilogue, he stays away from that kind of aid to tell his story and instead relies wholly on the image. His film does, however, boast a vibrant score, so that fills the void in the absence of dialogue.

Emil Jannings, the rotund, mustachioed leading man, stars as the veteran hotel porter, who is demoted to bathroom attendant due to his age and frailties. And it’s true that he always seems bent over and perpetually weary, but it only gets worse when he loses his esteemed position as the symbol of The Atlantic Hotel. Before he stood beaming ear to ear in his prim and pressed uniform that reflected his status. Then, he winds up towel in hand, resigned to stay hidden away in the bathroom. Now everyone could care less about him. It’s a tragic trajectory that this story takes.

The film opens at the lavish hotel which feels very similar to the grand hotel, and this along with the man’s apartment building are the main locations that Murnau works with. And he does set up his scenes so interestingly, whether it’s around a revolving door in the hotel or the staircase in the apartment. He’s constantly giving us a perspective of things with wonderfully textured, layered shots exemplified sublimely in such moments as Jannings superhuman feat carrying the large chest. Murnau gives it a wonderfully dreamy, ethereal quality, the way he clouds the frame. He also uses his actors in dynamic ways to fill the space in front of us. It hardly ever feels static or boring for that matter, because there’s almost always something of interest to be looking at.

lastlaugh2This is a very heart-wrenching film, because, in a sense, at its core, it’s about aging gracefully and trying to navigate that season of life. Because, the reality is that, each one of us will grow old. Our bodies won’t be able to function like they used to. Our feet will grow weaker. Our eyes will become tired more easily. We can completely understand this man’s plight. He has pride and the shame of acknowledging his demotion is too much for him to bear. He tries to hide it, from the wife and from the neighbors, but, of course, they find out. His family is ashamed and his neighbors belittle him with glee. The saddest thing is this doorman is not a bad fellow, as illustrated by how he comforted a little girl who was being made fun of. He’s a good man, and he deserves better than this and yet life very often is not just. The gossips and the connivers seem to get ahead. The beatitude, the first shall be last, hardly ever seems to be true. In fact, the film pauses with the following title card:

“Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

There is a major shift in tone as the doorman is left a huge sum of money rather unexpectedly, and he spends the days now eating heartily and generously tipping all his former colleagues at the hotel. It almost feels like a completely different story, and it’s the ending that we want as an audience. Except still lurking in the back of our minds is that this is very rarely reality. But there is some satisfaction that at least in this case Emil Jannings had The Last Laugh.

This film is literally a piece of film history that has thankfully been reconstructed for our viewing pleasure and I’m thoroughly glad it was. I’ve only seen Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is magnificent. However, after watching this earlier work it made me realize I need to examine more of his filmography, including Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), City Girl (1930), and Tabu (1931).

4.5/5 Stars

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Directed by F.W. Murnau, this silent film follows the lives of a man and his wife. A woman from the city meets the man and suggests that he drown his wife and sell his farm so they can be together. Then, the man takes his innocent wife out on the lake with evil intentions. He is about to go through with it, but ultimately cannot. The wife flees and they take a trolley to the city. The man asks for her forgiveness, and they walk through the city finally reconciled.

Over the day they get their picture taken, go in a barber shop, and have fun at an amusement park. They travel back home by boat and then a massive storm hits. The man searches for his wife to no avail, and then he encounters the exuberant city woman. In his anger, he begins to choke her, but his wife is still alive! He rushes to her bedside and they kiss. This film is wonderfully complex and artistic for a film without any talking. Unlike Chaplin or Keaton this is a great dramatic silent film that does not utilize slapstick comedy, and yet it still finds ways to be funny.

I had forgotten just how funny this film is in parts, and it nicely complements the very memorable love story. Visually this film is extraordinary with its multitude of landscape and city scenes that often overlap and are superimposed on one another. In this aspect, it reminds me of the experimental visuals of Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.

However, this film is very atmospheric and more emotion-filled than the other film. Furthermore, despite the lack of real dialogue, it is almost a misnomer to call this movie “silent.” It most certainly features sound, which often dominates certain sequences and also adds a great deal of feeling to the romance and cityscape. Sometimes it is the chime of bells, the honking of horns, intense background music, or just lively street chatter.

Despite the general story of redemptive love that dominates Sunrise, there are also some charming asides during the visit to the city. Each and every stop has a surprise, whether it is a suitor in the barbershop, the couple posing for the camera, the slipping of a strap on a lady’s dress, or a drunken pig on the loose at the carnival. Ultimately, the film reverts back to this song of two humans, and the temptation of the city and that type of woman loses its luster in comparison to nature’s sunrise and the innocent wife. It is a wonderful allegory and Murnau skillfully develops the cinematic space in unconventional and interesting ways.

5/5 Stars