Go West (1925): Keaton & His Cow

320px-Keaton_Go_West_1925“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley

I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.

Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.

A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.

So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.

The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.

I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.

The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.

She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.

He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.

Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.

The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.

It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.

I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.

In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.

Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.

4/5 Stars

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928): Buster Keaton The Human Tumbleweed

steamboat bill jr.

Whatever your thoughts on silent movies, be it based on misinformation, overt loathing, or verging on utter veneration, one has to admit there’s something to the simplicity of these films. And by simplicity, I’m referring to the construction of their stories. They rarely seem to get bogged down by detail. In fact, one could argue they’re at their best on this relatively basic plane. If you’re skeptical, you can call them tropes, maybe archetypes. Regardless, they tap into something universal, even primal.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a prime case study for what I’m considering. It’s a riverboat tale setting up a conflict between two families overlaid by a Romeo & Juliet romance and spiced up all together by its secret weapon and the main attraction: Buster Keaton.

The shoddy but well-loved Stonewall Jackson is another relic of the Confederacy, not unlike Keaton’s prized train in The General. In this case, it’s run by a grizzled veteran of the waters who is about to be pushed out by steep competition. His rival, too, is symbolic as the industrial-era magnate taking over the waterways to go with his hotels and other ancillary attractions. There’s also nothing subtle about his name: King.

The next development is about as absurd as you can get. The steamboat’s captain gets word his son is arriving from boarding school to assist him. He hasn’t seen the lad since infancy and expects a big strapping fellow — not unlike himself. Set up by a prolonged “white carnation gag” full of misidentification, he winds up with timid, squat Buster Keaton to call son. This shrinking schoolboy is a far cry from what he hoped for, and he’s a bit begrudging.

Their ensuing trip to a hat store not only records the contemporary culture’s affinity for a different brand of headwear but also manages to sneak in a nod to Keaton’s ubiquitous pork pie. He slips it off quickly as if afraid someone might recognize him and cause him to break character.

The paces to follow are not surprising. His beautiful and vivacious school chum is the daughter of King. They hold a puppy-like love for one another even as their fathers continue to feud. Just to make ourselves clear, none of this matters all that much.

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The secret to Keaton is his innate understanding of the visual gag that could make his brand of comedy funny and, as a result, his stoic everyman too. Stretched out on a plank between two boats — trying to cloak himself in darkness — there’s a shot of King’s boat, and we know they will be lurching forward as they tug at the ropes. He’s going to end up in the drink.

But of course, that doesn’t happen. At least not immediately — his weight perfectly balanced so he juts out on the board like a cantilever, seemingly oblivious of how close he came. So unaware in fact, he tumbles in seconds later. It plays with our perceptions in the most fundamental ways. With irony at his disposal, he milks the laugh and makes it something more compelling and lasting, even to the point of its foregone conclusion.

Later, he raids the rival riverboat in pursuit of his love as his father’s own pride and joy is subsequently decommissioned. His feud with King is exacerbated, and he gets slammed with time in the clink for defying the law.

All these beats are again mundane. They don’t tell us much nor surprise our expectations. Fortuitously, inclement weather comes and Keaton is once more provided a whirling dervish of natural disasters to carry him away in the throes of comedy. Again, this all continues functioning in spite of the story.

Because I’ve dealt with typhoons before first hand — umbrellas upturned in an instant — but this is ridiculous. It defies logic, mass, and normal feats of human ingenuity, but those are the riches of the moviemaking industry and Keaton’s comedy, as facades of entire buildings topple around the human tumbleweed.

He’s whisked away on hovering beds, which might as well be a transplanted flying carpet from Arabian Nights, leading into one of his most iconic and death-defying setups. Again, the visual has primacy, and it works on principles as old as time. We crave security. We fear harm and dismemberment. In all his pluckiness, Keaton takes them on and somehow prevails.

There are a couple moments where it’s like he’s literally suspended in air, fighting against the wind to stand upright, until he’s forced to split the difference. Also, true to form, he uses what feels like a few vaudevillian sleights of hand, supplied by curtains, trapped doors, and a nack for all things physical.

What I admire about Keaton is how he manages to do things that still take the breath away even if only for an instant. He is a bit of a magician and yet he lets us in on the tricks, and he lets the audience take part in them with him — to think we know more than him — and then he proceeds to still pull one over on us.

Even if his character is unwitting, somehow his body and he, as an entity, always seem to know just the right step or movement; it’s just idiosyncratic enough to work in the scenario so he comes out on the other side all in one piece.

When he finally takes command of the ship hopping to and fro, scurrying there, yanking this cord here, it feels like Buster Keaton at the height of his powers, and it shows how this scrawny little guy could be so resourceful on his feet.

Mind you, it’s not just a matter of our story’s hero coming into his own, but it’s a practical expression of the actor’s own prowess — he is an unswerving force of nature packed into what might seem to be a slight frame. He really and truly is a marvel. Because “The Great (Wet) Stone Face” transcends Steamboat Bill Jr. In fact, he is Steamboat Bill Jr. The movie as well as the man.

4.5/5 Stars

Our Dancing Daughters (1928): Joan Crawford Ascending

Our Dancing Daughters is an inflection point of silent film for the very fact it stands out for setting Joan Crawford up to be in incandescent star for generations to come. She calls upon her flapper talents and bouncy effervescence fully embodying the jazz age through the character of “Dangerous” Diana Medford.

Between glitzy wardrobing and the Charleston, she exerts herself as a first-rate girl about town. Because she, like everyone else of her age demographic, is out to have a good time, dance with boys, and partake of everything else youth affords. Although it is still a silent, the added benefit of a synchronized soundtrack imbues the party scenes with life to go along with Crawford’s infectious hoofing as the balloons fall all around them. 

Di’s doting friend Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) is having her own romantic tribulations, based on the searing baggage of a past love affair, now impinging on her present. Meanwhile, her greatest rival, Ann (Anita Page), a conniving opportunistic with a mother cut out of the same cloth, continues to jockey for the most advantageous romantic partner. Page is an unholy riot giving the part her all as the duplicitous gold digger who turns into a raucous and rebellious drunk. She more than holds her own as a foil and the film’s primary villain.

This is great, but we still have to contend with all the various trysts and dalliances taking place; what do they matter? All the talk of merrymaking and marrying rich gets kind of monotonous. The picture’s premise feels quite flat and it may be an added effect of antiquity.

Another complaint is how so many of the male co-stars blend together aside from John Mack Brown. They’re a generally innocuous bunch of ne’er do wells. Why are we supposed to be drawn to any of them? However, even as other elements feel staid and pat to go with the passage of time — the ending included — Crawford still manages to draw the eye. 

This prevailing curiosity feels genuine and not simply an academic appreciation from a historical distance. She engages when the movie doesn’t always manage to do so. It’s not merely about looks or fashion. These are only cursory traits. But can we all agree that those great big expressive of hers were made to be in movies?

Thank heavens we have Joan Crawford and her heroine to bolster Our Dancing Daughters. It begins with garnering a certain reputation. The charm drips off of her, or better yet, it flies, landing like pixie dust on all her beaus and the audiences out in the theater seats. Crawford as a persona is coming to the fore and becoming fully apparent. She might not be the proverbial Clara Bow “It Girl,” but there’s a similar infectious magnetism even sensuality to her, bursting off the screen.

Thus, when she catches the eye of a Mr. Blaine (Brown), an eligible, very rich, young bachelor, people take note; they snicker. Diana the Dangerous is at work. But for all her reputation, Di is really a very sympathetic, vulnerable girl. It’s like Hollywood (or maybe the entire country) had not yet been burdened with the cynical inclinations of the Great Depression.

They have yet to see utter destitution or debauchery a la Baby Face or Red-Headed Woman. In 1928, women in the movies still dream of the right man, they marry for love, and the heroic ones are bound to get their hearts broken. This is so crucial to Diana. She’s hardly as superficial as we would assume.

She falls more and more for Ben only for him to make a major faux pas by going for Annikins and her false showing of pious propriety. She’s anything but. Whereas Di’s totally out there and inherently honest. And what does it get her? Heartbreak. Because Crawford has youthful good intentions, open to being wounded, and she’s more than susceptible to it.

She begins her career on this surprisingly sympathetic note, heartbroken by a man, and forced to come to terms with it. But she plays it sincerely, where all the frivolity evaporates when it really matters, and when it begins to hurt the most. This is the key to the movie. It starts to mean something. We realize why we are watching. 

As her sceen life merged with her personal legacy, I’m not sure I always considered or ever imagined Joan Crawford to be a terribly sympathetic figure. She was larger-than-life, yes, but I rarely felt connected with her. At this early juncture in her career, she more than proved her mettle as a “good girl,” and when it’s done well, there’s nothing wrong with being good. In a world that’s unfair and harsh, it gives us stories fraught with genuine weight. There would still be time enough for Joan to grow scales. She was a resilient one to be sure. She had to be.

3.5/5 Stars

The Unknown (1927): Silent Cinema Out on The Big Top

As someone always trying to steep myself in more and more silent cinema, I still have much to contend with when it comes to the careers of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. However, from everything I can gather, The Unknown is a wonderful melding of their talents, Browning drawing on his penchant for the outcasts of humanity and his own past on the carnival circuit.

Meanwhile, though he would die in 1930, up until that point, Chaney really was a standout in the fledgling movie industry for how he approached the acting profession. He was the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because he went against the prevailing current — the desire to promote an image — and he succeeded by promoting many. He was the era’s beloved chameleon. The Unknown is little different.

It’s a story of old Madrid. The tale is set in a gypsy circus and involves an armless knife thrower (Chaney) and the love of his life: his boss’s daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford). At first, it seems like an immediate oxymoron. Sure enough, we see Alonzo the Armless doing his art with the dexterity of his feet. It’s the marvel of the movies watching it play out in front of us as the ringmaster’s daughter plays his daring assistant.

But once the crowds are gone and after hours we come to understand some of the other dynamics behind the Big Top. Nanon is a young woman with an almost obsessive fear of men. She trembles when the male performers in the company try to lay their hands on her. She’s left with this lingering fear and an aversion to their very touch.

It goes beyond a mere sense of harassment, verging on an elemental level at the very core of her being. It becomes the film’s primary metaphor and sadly this metaphor maintains its relevance almost a full century later. In one summative line, she cries out: “Men. The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands of all of them.” Her distaste is stated quite plainly.  

That’s part of the reason she has a special place in her heart for Alonzo, being vulnerable and kind to him because, with his physical disability, he cannot take advantage of her.

Chaney does so much to make the reality of his character’s disability supremely evident. There’s actually some sense of the suspension of disbelief. It’s a habit of movie magic and the subsequently projected illusions, we want to see how they do it.

Is it possible to see true signs of Lon Chaney’s able body? And yet The Unknown shocks us by stripping away everything. Behind closed doors, he loses his normal attire and gains a pair of arms because you see, he’s not actually armless. 

It’s not just part of his act. He’s pulling it over on everyone in the troupe aside from his closest confidante Cojo (John George). He discloses to him, There’s is nothing I will not do to own her!” Because he too secretly has his sights on Nanon, wanting to have her for his own through this act of sophistry. 

Like the best silent cinema, The Unknown feels so emphatically poetic, where the characters represent more than themselves. They shed the mere realms of reality to speak to something far more, at times, both terrifying and tender. Suddenly, the movie morphs, building into a wicked tale of irony. I wouldn’t think of divulging all of it here, although such sordid things like murder, amputation, and blackmail abound.

Also, be prepared for the finale. The world is literally being ripped apart at the seams, and it becomes the film’s gloriously chaotic crescendo back out on the circus Big Top. The carnival strong man, Malabar the Mighty ( Norman Kerry), Nanon’s suitor, looks to show off his feats of strength; they are rapturously in love. Joan Crawford snaps a whip from the platform up above as she rallies the horses galloping on their giant treadmills. Alonzo looks on poised for revenge against his romantic rival. 

It conjures up indelible images of performed chaos leaving a starling impression even after all these years. If nothing else, it proves silent cinema is far from rote, often brimming with all sorts of memorable even perverse bits of storytelling. The Unknown’s overall impact is not to be taken lightly. 

Viewers would do well to seek it out if only as an act of appreciation of Browning, Chaney, or Crawford. The picture, in its current form, is missing some of its original exposition, but what a fantastic relic it is. However, it’s far from a museum piece. It feels fiercely alive even after all these years. I did take some issue with the cut I’ve seen if only because of the typically off-putting soundtrack that feels too modern and incongruous to make me truly appreciate what is on-screen. 

But the title cards have a pleasant lyricism to them accentuating the story’s dramatic situation so we can fully appreciate its implications. Likewise, Joan Crawford, as a recognizable entity, isn’t fully flourished into her full-bodied image of stardom even as glimpses of her emerging persona flash upon the screen. However, it’s absolutely a testament to why Lon Chaney was a revered talent of the silent generation right up until the end of his life. 

4/5 Stars

The Cheat (1915) and The Story of Sessue Hayakawa

405px-The_Cheat_FilmPoster.jpegEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

The cinema landscape was still in its utter infancy in 1915. Thus, beyond the monumental impact of D.W. Griffith, The Cheat is another subsequent landmark production for a couple of the talents it helped align.

There would be no Cecil B. DeMille without The Cheat. It was his coming-out party with the viewing public, slating him as a craftsman of delicious dramas gorging themselves on all sorts of sensual themes and pleasures. It meant bang-bang box office receipts and kept DeMille inexorably at the top of Hollywood for years to come.

Sessue Hayakawa must also receive a nod not only as a groundbreaking pioneer in an industry that still doesn’t boast too many Asian performers but also as one of the most important stars of his day. Period.

Simply comparing his style of acting with many of his peers during the silent era bears telling results. In an age, of not only discrimination and stereotypes but also extensive overacting for the camera, his parts are almost reserved in comparison. No doubt this understatement derived from the Japanese attempt to strive for the so-called absence of doing or “muga,” when it came to performances.

Because the teleplay on its own is fairly rudimentary. A well-off wife (Fannie Ward) is pouting because her husband (Jack Dean) won’t give her the funds for a new dress. He needs his investments to pay dividends first.

In being so impatient, she resolves to leverage the red cross funds she’s been entrusted with by her woman’s group  — $10,000 of assets — and hands it over to an acquaintance who promises a sure thing in return. Of course, no one needs to be told it doesn’t bode well and as a result, the wife is out $10,000. She’s willing to turn anywhere, even her regular companion the suave foreigner Prince Haka Arakau (Tori in the original release).

Although gentlemanly and innocent enough at first, the lascivious prince looks to press his advantage, agreeing to give her the money — with strings attached. Extramarital drama and blackmail ensue with the tyrant putting his literal stamp on her as a sign of ownership. It’s actually quite perturbing, especially in a modern world finally looking to cast light on the sexual predation of women.

Beyond this caveat, The Cheat no doubt accentuated contemporary fears of the Yellow Peril as much as it titillated with the handsomeness of its foreign star. So while it’s playing into the long-accepted narrative including diatribes against immigration, it’s also taking advantage of the situation for pure entertainment value. There’s little discounting the purpose.

There’s a shooting that the husband admits to and a subsequent court trial full of sordid scandal-worthy confessions. The problems are ultimately amended and a happy ending found, making for an abrupt denouement meant to satisfy the masses. Given the customary, even archetypal trails the story takes, it feels much more rewarding to consider The Cheat most specifically from its place as a crucial historical time capsule outside the realm of mere plot.

Accordingly, Sessue Hayakawa was such a lucrative star during the early 20th century, it’s almost ludicrous to consider. He was making millions of dollars a year as one of the highest-paid actors of the age to rival the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or even Charlie Chaplin!

The fact that he is barely known in this day and age is a shame though it makes some sense given the cultural climate then and now. He became a screen idol in an age wrought with racial discrimination. His place as a box office smash was based mostly on his foreign allure and attractiveness as a forbidden lover. He was the toast of the town with white audiences as a fantasy character though he was rarely ever allowed to break out of the mold created for him in films like The Cheat.

We are presented with this perplexing dichotomy of this world-renowned actor who feels like an outlier in a tradition that normally emasculated Asian characters, and yet there’s still problematic perpetuations in Hayakawa’s own characterizations. It’s a two-sided issue that, regardless, is nothing short of intriguing given how early in the nascent stages of film he became a star. Dig into his history even a little bit and you are met with a continually fascinating career. For one, he entered acting on a near fluke.

After arriving in Chicago to study to become a lawyer, he was waiting for a tanker to take him back to Japan from California only to bow out and take up with a local theater. He subsequently caught the acting bug. One of the crucial figures in his early breakout was fellow countrywoman and future wife (anti-miscegenation laws forbid cross-cultural marriages), Tsuru Aoki.

Eventually, Hayakawa would emigrate back to Japan in the 1920s and slogged through WWII in occupied France of all places. After the war years, he experienced a resurgence and came to be known to a new generation of audiences for the likes of Tokyo Joe, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Hell to Eternity. For this body of work, he deserves an audience, even today, because there’s no discounting the crucial part he played, not simply in Asian representation, but in the very fabric of Hollywood history itself.

3.5/5 Stars

I Was Born But… (1932)

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What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 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, which 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 her 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