Movie Reviews - 1920s posts

Wednesday March 15, 2023

Movie Review: Chicago (1927)


To the obvious question: How does it differ from the musical?

For one, Velma Kelly (Julia Faye) is barely in it—maybe five minutes. She calls Roxie “Peroxide” and the two get into a catfight until the female jailkeeper finally pulls them apart with a good line: “This is a decent jail—you can’t act here the way you do at home!” And that’s pretty much it for Velma. No second act. No “All That Jazz” or “Nowadays.” 

Meanwhile, Amos Hart (Victor Varconi), Mr. Cellophane, might have a bigger part than Roxie herself. He’s the film’s sad-eyed moral authority.

But I’d say the biggest difference is this: We never really root for Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver). She’s just too awful.

Last year’s hat
Why? Why do we root for Roxie in the longrunning Broadway musical, and in the 2002 best picture winner, but not here? 

“Chicago” is based on a real incident—the murder of Harry Kalstedt by Beulah Annan in 1924. They were lovers, he was leaving her, so Beulah shot him in the back and then listened to a phonograph record, “Hula Lou,” for several hours before phoning her hapless husband, Albert, and crying burglar/rape. With the help of a high-priced lawyer, paid for by Amos, and a yellow press touting her as the most beautiful murderess in America, she was acquitted. Immediately afterwards, she dumped Amos and married another guy. A few years later, age 28, she died of tuberculosis.

In 1926, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the trial for The Chicago Tribune, turned the story into a play, “Chicago,” and Beulah became Roxie Hart. Much of Watkins' drama played out as in life. She got away with it, she wasn’t sorry, justice didn’t prevail. 

This 1927 silent film toes that line except she’s made to pay a little.

It opens on the Harts’ bedroom with its separate beds. I’m curious if this was a Production Code thing—fairly toothless in the 1920s—or a comment on their hapless marriage. Either way, Amos rises, looks lovingly at Roxie, then notices the underwear and high heels strewn on the floor. He gives a loving “Oh, you” look before picking things up. In the kitchen, he sees all the dirty dishes in the sink, shakes his head (it’s less “Oh, you” now), but still rolls up his sleeves. Then he serves Roxie breakfast in bed before going off to work.

Roxie can't stand him.

In real life, the man was a mechanic; here he runs a tobacco shop. One customer, an Al Capone-looking mug named Rodney Casley (the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, our future Friar Tuck), says he’s going to give his girl “the air”—i.e., dump her—and hey, he just happens to have the same kind of garter-with-a-bell-attached that Roxie wears. Does Casley know he’s talking to the man he’s cuckolding? I didn’t get that sense. It’s just happenstance. Either way, Casley visits Roxie, they fight over her spendthrift ways, he’s about to leave her, blam blam. And the player piano plays on.

When she calls Amos home, he recognizes his former customer, and, despite her line about a burglar/would-be rapist, begins to suspect her of both infidelity and murder. At the same time, he’s still willing to take the fall. When the law comes, he says he did it. Except the DA is suspicious, gets them in separate rooms, and he tells Roxie her husband pinned the blame on her. She runs into the next room and berates him: “You swore you’d stick!” A second later, she realizes she’s been had. “You couldn’t even trust the man who loves you,” sad-faced Amos tells her.

How scared is Roxie at this point? Not as scared as Renee Zellwegger would be in 2002. Mostly, she's just excited seeing her name in headlines.

Amos: Do you realize that you just killed a man? Are you even sorry?
Roxie: You’re just sore ‘cause I’m getting all the publicity!

Much of the middle of the movie is taken up by Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson): How to get him, how to pay for him, his efforts to keep Roxie in line. He has a good early line when she tries to bullshit him: “I’m not your husband—I’m your lawyer!” But he costs 5,000 smackers. In advance. So Amos: 1) empties his savings; 2) takes a loan on his life insurance; 3) pawns his valuables. That’s $2,500. Flynn refuses it. “Installments?” he says. “You must think you’re buying a Ford!” So Amos turns to crime. He smears grease on his face and robs ... Billy Flynn. 

At trial, Flynn dresses up Roxie as an innocent and keeps reminding her to droop. Amos kills it on the stand:

DA: [brandishing negligee] Do you consider this proper attire for a married woman receiving a man visitor?
Amos: [after long pause] I consider as proof that his call was unexpected and unwelcome!

The jury takes four hours to acquit her. She’s free … and famous! Ah, but then the comeuppance. Almost immediately “Two-Gun Rosie” starts shooting up a different courtroom and all the attention goes to her. When Roxie complains, a reporter tells her, “Sister, you’re yesterday’s news and that’s deader than last year’s hat!”

Life sure moved fast 100 years ago.

Oh right, the subplot.

Two mugs show up looking for the money Amos stole from Flynn and accidentally knock over the potted plant where the rest of it—$2,500—has been stashed. But a nice maid, Katie (Virginia Bradford), to whom Amos had shown kindness, finds it and hides it. When they try to shake down Amos, wondering where his Ingersoll watch is—though what this proves I don’t know—she comes to the rescue, pretending her Ingersoll (which she got with coupons he provided) is his. And the men leave scratching their heads.

So there’s karma in this version. Amos’ good deed with the maid saves him. And Roxie’s wicked ways with everyone doom her. She winds up in the rain, where the headlines about her—the thing she cares most about in the world—are literally washed away into a storm drain. 

I’d like to read the original play someday. The mass-media age was just beginning, but fame was already this huge lure, and there were plenty of moths. The play nails that—that fear that you don’t exist unless you exist in the public sphere. You could almost draw a straight line between Roxie and the various influencers and Kardashians today. 

Anyway, to the question I asked at the top: Why do we root for Roxie in the musical but not here?

It’s partly when the stories were crafted. In the musical, created in aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, you’re either on the make (Roxie, etc.) or being made (Amos), and who wouldn’t rather be the former? It was the age of antiheroes. Life’s a great gag, baby, get everything out of it you can. Plus the deck is already stacked against women. Men? They had it coming. I think that’s part of it. 

There’s also proximity to the original awful crime. The further away we are from it, the more we can fictionalize it, the less it matters.

But I think the biggest reason may be this: The 1975 musical and 2002 film were written by men (Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb; Bill Condon), while the 1926 play and the 1927 movie were written by women (Watkins; Lenore J. Coffee). And women know how awful women can be. Why, given a chance, they could be almost as bad as men.

Posted at 12:51 PM on Wednesday March 15, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Thursday February 23, 2023

Movie Review: It (1927)


I got to see this on the big screen, with my wife Patricia and our friend Becky, surrounded by girls dressed as flappers. It was Silent Movie Monday at the Paramount in Seattle, and, despite the weather (nasty) and the pandemic (ongoing), the place was fairly packed. I pointed out one woman looking great in a rounded 1920s brimless hat. “What do you call those?” I asked Patricia. “Cloche,” she said. “They should bring those back,” I said.

Patricia went with me reluctantly. She’ll watch old movies but tends to draw the line at silents. But she enjoyed “It” and loved Clara Bow.

These days it’s more of a famous phrase than a famous movie—some people even mistakenly call the movie “The It Girl”—but what’s interesting is how the phrase became famous.

Reid first
In a sense, the true “It” Girl was Elinor Glyn, a matriarchal Brit and racy novelist of the day, who came to Hollywood in 1919, age 55, already famous or infamous for writing about female sexuality, and made deals to write articles for Hearst publications and screenplays for Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount.

In a 1935 Sunday Sun article on Glyn, they say she first used the term in the early 1920s for Wallace Reid, a silent movie heartthrob.

Glyn: You’re wonderful to look at. Besides, you have IT.
Reid: It? What?
Glyn: That’s the word. Don’t you see that it expresses everything? Either you have IT or you haven’t IT.
Reid: And I have, eh?

She then critiques his hair and shoes, which I love. Even the man who gave birth to IT needs fixing.

I think the term caught on because of its simplicity and vagueness, but that didn’t stop Glynn from constantly trying to define it—or at least hold off the very popular notion that it just meant sex appeal. A losing battle. Here’s IMDb’s current synopsis of the movie:

A salesgirl with plenty of “it” (sex appeal) pursues a handsome playboy.

Quick critique: Yes, she’s a salesgirl, yes, she has plenty of “it,” but “pursues” is iffy and “playboy” is totally off. If anything Cyrus T. Waltham (Antonio Moreno) is a wonk. He owns and runs the department store where Betty Lou (Bow) is a salesgirl. He’s almost always at his desk.

As for what “It” means, the movie keeps giving it a go. We get two intertitles that say about the same thing: IT is a quality which “draws all others with its magnetic force” or “attracts others of the opposite sex.” It should be “unselfconscious,” and “can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” Then it’s defined in a Cosmopolitan magazine article by Glyn that another characters reads. And then Glyn herself shows up to hold forth in a grand manner.

Cyrus: Madame Glyn, we've been talking about your latest story. Just what is this “IT”?
Madame Glyn: Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. … If you have “IT,” you will win the girl you love.

Got it. Or IT. Or...

As with all love stories, the point is to keep the lovers apart for an extended period. So how do they do it here? The two are never hot for each other at the same time.

  • Betty Lou likes Cyrus but he doesn’t notice her.
  • Once he does, they go to Coney Island. But when he kisses her, she slaps him and calls him “one of those Minute Men. … The minute you meet a girl you think you can kiss her!”
  • Before he can apologize, we get that silent movie trope of welfare ladies trying to take babies away from poor mothers—in this case, Betty Lou’s friend, Molly (Priscilla Bonner). Betty Lou stands up to them, then lies about the baby, saying it’s hers. This gets back to Cyrus, who thinks she’s an unwed mother, and he shunts her to the side.
  • When she finds out why she’s shunted to the side, she gets angry. She decides she’s going to get him to propose so she can laugh in his face. Helluva leap. But she makes it happen when she finagles a spot on a weeklong party aboard his yacht.

In the final reel, after a dump in the drink, they both like each other at the same time and we get our happy ending.

Super duper
Watching, I kept remembering Chico Marx flirting with a manicurist in 1931’s “Monkey Business.” “You’ve got IT,” he tells her. When she begins to thank him, he adds, “And you can keep it.”

Bow is great in this. I think the worst scenes are when she tries to convey “It” and gets a little self-conscious; the best scenes are when she’s just feisty. Anyway, it made her a star. Moreno as Cyrus is also good, less self-conscious than Bow but about 20 pounds from peak IT.

William Austin plays “Monty” Montgomery, Cyrus’ friend, who first alerts Cyrus to Glyn’s Cosmo article. He’s comic relief—pursuing Betty Lou but losing out. He also seems either terribly British or terribly gay. There’s a great early scene where he looks himself over in the mirror and declares, “Old fruit, you’ve got IT.” Yes, you do, Old fruit. Fun fact: Austin would wind up as the first cinematic Alfred in the 1943 movie serial “Batman.” In fact, he’s the reason Alfred is thin. Before, the character was fairly portly, but the comic wanted to correspond to the film so they put him on a diet. It’s one of Austin’s last roles. He stopped making movies in 1947, lived until 1975.

Another fun fact: The reporter who breaks the Betty Lou vs. the welfare ladies story is pre-stardom Gary Cooper. He would define IT for the next two decades but isn't even part of the IT discussion here. It’s his last uncredited role.

Posted at 02:35 PM on Thursday February 23, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 01, 2023

Movie Review: The Cheat (1915)

It's just like me to start the new year with a review of a not-exactly new movie. I think I've reviewed only four movies older than this one. 


I know something about the history of movies, but it was only within the last five or 10 years that I learned about Sessue Hayakawa—and it stunned me. “Wait, there was a Japanese actor who became a matinee idol in Hollywood ... in the 1910s? So we’re not that racist? Or weren’t for a moment? Or something?” It upends so much. It raises so many questions.

“The Cheat” is the movie that did it. That’s nuts in its own way.

It’s nuts because in the film Hayakawa not only sexually assaults the leading lady and nominal star, Fannie Ward, but literally brands her. He burns his Japanese crest into her upper back as a way of saying, “I own you.”

It’s also not nuts since Hayakawa was like a modern movie star. He's not only handsome, there’s a stillness to him, and a subtlety to his acting. Everyone else thrashes and emotes in the manner of silent films, while he watches and broods. He seems to know, even at this early stage of film, that less is more.

Cheat what exactly?
The story is not much. Edith Hardy (Ward) is a spoiled society girl who spends more than her stockbroker husband, Richard Hardy (Jack Dean, Ward’s real-life husband), makes. How spoiled is she? Rather than pay the servants, she buys a new dress for the big Red Cross Ball—raising money for Belgians in WWI—for which she’s treasurer. Then she steals that money for stock market speculation. Her husband is working on a big deal, but one of his colleagues tells her, “D&O? Nah, he should buy United Copper,” and she trusts that guy over her husband. 

And she loses it all. Now she imagines the scandalous headlines.

Where’s Hayakawa in all of this? He plays Hishuru Tori, a rich Japanese ivory merchant (or in the 1918 rerelease, Haka Arakau, a Burmese ivory merchant), who has loaned his mansion for the big ball. He actually opens the movie—we see him quietly burning his crest into dolls—but for the first half of the movie he’s a genteel, well-groomed figure in the background, taking Edith here and there. It’s only when he overhears Edith’s plight that his eyes narrow in sinister fashion, and he offers the money.

The version I saw, streaming on Amazon Prime, was the 1918 rerelease—he’s Arakau—and it’s vague about the deal being struck. Before he signs the check, he says “Do you agree?” And we’re all like “Agree to what?” One assumes sex but it’s never stated. Whatever it is, she agrees. “Tomorrow,” he tells her. The next day, though, hubby’s deal comes through, and now they’re rich, rich, so she asks hubby for the $10k. Bridge debt, she claims. He’s remarkably calm about it, merely wagging his finger: Oh, you naughty girl, you. But when she tries to pay back Arakau, he refuses to accept.

I would’ve thought the title referred to Edith stealing Red Cross funds, but this is the chapter called “The Cheat,” so you get the feeling it’s because she tried to get out of whatever she agreed to with Arakau. Later in the film, for example, when she begs Arakau to drop the charges against her husband, he tells her: “You cannot cheat me twice.” So this is obviously the first time. In a way, the movie takes his side. She's the cheat. When he goes in for a kiss, she fights him off. Then he tells his servants to lock the doors behind them. When she says she’ll kill herself, he gives her a knife. She does that silent-movie thing: staring at the object in slow horror. 

Was the decision to brand her planned or impulsive? Feels like the latter. Earlier, he was branding a doll, then they struggled, and there she was on the table, like the doll, and the branding iron was hot. She may have recoiled from the knife, but after being branded with a hot iron, she grabs a nearby gun and uses it. She wings him and flees. Police are called. Now, of course, hubby shows up, figures everything out, and rescues his wife by taking the blame.

At the trial, everyone lies on the stand. Arakau fingers Richard Hardy, as does Arakau’s servant, and Hardy’s defense is that he was simply trying to disarm Arakau when the gun went off. Throughout, Edith wrings her hands. When the verdict comes back, “Guilty!,” she thrashes around, her hair comes undone, and she cries out, “I shot Arakau—and this is my defense!” and reveals Arakau’s brand on her upper back. Which is when the jury spectators turn into a lynch mob. But the judge protects Arakau, declares the verdict set aside (is that a thing?), and the Hardys walk through a gauntlet to cheers.

It's a little odd. She still stole Red Cross funds. He still lied on the stand. I don’t know if I’d be cheering them. But endings have to be made.

Rafu Shimpo
But this is how Hayakawa became a huge star, and, as a result, Japan, and Japanese-Americans, celebrated.

Kidding. They didn’t like the rare Japanese star being a sexual predator. From Wiki:

In particular, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, Rafu Shimpo, waged a campaign against the film and heavily criticized Hayakawa’s appearance. …  Robert Birchard, author of the book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, surmised that the character's nationality was changed to Burmese because there were “not enough Burmese in the country to raise a credible protest.”

That’s right, DeMille directed this—one of 14 films he directed in 1915 for Jesse Lasky’s Studio, which became, a year later, Famous Players‑Lasky Corporation, which eventually became Paramount Pictures. It’s an early silent film but some shots stand out—like this surprisingly empathetic one after Arakau is shot.

Hayakawa went on to stardom, formed his own production company, and then … I don’t know what happened, to be honest. He suddenly stopped making movies in Hollywood in 1924. He went to New York, Japan, Paris. He made “Daughter of the Dragon” with Anna May Wong in 1932. He didn’t really return to Hollywood until Humphrey Bogart sought him out for a role in “Tokyo Joe” in 1949. The 1950s weren’t bad for him. He starred in a two-part Japanese version of “Les Misérables” in 1950, starred in several other Japanese productions, had a role in “House of Bamboo,” a big Cinemascope epic set in Japan, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Col. Saito in “Bridge on the River Kwai.” 

“The Cheat,” meanwhile, kept getting remade with different sexual predators. After Valentino’s rise, for example, Famous Players-Lasky redid it in 1923 with Jack Holt playing a turbanned East-Indian prince lusting after Pola Negri. In 1931, it was the haughty Tallulah Bankhead’s turn to get it at the hands of a white Japanophile. And in 1937 the French got into the act with “Forfaiture.” There, the villain is a Chinese prince named Hu-Long. Who plays him? Sessue Hayakawa.

Posted at 09:07 AM on Sunday January 01, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 05, 2022

Movie Review: Beggars of Life (1928)


This is a beautiful little silent film with great performances from the three leads, particularly Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, as well as an iconic tomboy-hobo look from Louise Brooks.

It’s based on a 1925 stage play, “Outside Looking In,” by Maxwell Anderson, which was based on the 1924 hobo memoir “Beggars of Life” by Jim Tully. Not sure why Anderson changed the title but I’m glad someone at Paramount changed it back. “Outside Looking In” kind of just floats, doesn’t it? A lot of vowels hanging around without sticking to anything. “Beggars of Life” plants its feet.

I watched it because it’s one of my Cagney-adjacent movies. There are a lot of odd little connections:

  • The play “Outside Looking In” was James Cagney’s big theatrical breakthrough. He probably became what he became—or he had a chance to become what he became—because of this play.
  • When it moved to Hollywood, they made it without any of its theatrical stars, none of whom had arrived yet. The lead, Charles Bickford, wouldn’t show up until 1929, Cagney until 1930.
  • Even so, the director of “Beggars,” William Wellman, is the guy who made a movie star out of Cagney. He convinced Darryl Zanuck to switch roles and give Cagney the lead in 1931's “The Public Enemy.”  
  • Two years after that, Wellman directed “Wild Boys on the Road,” another hobos-riding-the-rails movie, with the lead played by Frankie Darro, who had played the young Cagney in “Public Enemy” (until the role-switch, basically).
  • Apparently Wellman was so impressed with Louise Brooks in “Beggars” that he wanted her for “Public Enemy,” but she bowed out and the role went to Jean Harlow. But in “Wild Boys,” there’s a Brooks-like role—a girl attempting to pass in newsboy cap and jacket—and she’s played by Dorothy Coonan. Who, within a year, became Dorothy Coonan Wellman. She and Wellman remained married until his death in 1875.

Don’t know what to make of all those coincidences.

The rest of the world
Jim (Richard Arlen, playing the theatrical Cagney role), is a hobo who shows up at a farmhouse, peers through the screen door, and sees a man seated before a meal. He smacks his lips and asks if he can have some. The guy doesn’t respond, because, yeah, he’s dead, and the girl who did it, Nancy (Louise Brooks), is hiding out on the second floor. It was her stepfather, he was sexually abusing her, etc.

But no one’s going to believe her so they take to the road, she wearing a newsboy cap and jacket to pass as a boy (right). They should split up—she’s wanted for murder, after all, and the cops somehow know he’s traveling with her—but they both wind up heading west. The first half-hour is a kind of Chaplinish picaresque. They ride rails, share sandwiches, dig a hole in a haystack to sleep. There, he puts his legs over hers and you see fear in her eyes. “To keep you warm,” he says, and she relaxes.

The rest of the world isn’t so nice. One night, they stumble upon a hobo camp but they’re told to get lost—until Oklahoma Red (Beery) shows up with a barrel of liquor over his shoulder. He’s a big, big-hearted man who lets everyone have a drink. Unfortunately, when Nancy bends over for a cup, a guy named Arkansas Snake realizes she’s a girl and it gets creepy fast. “Hey girlie,” he says, and all but descends. Except then someone brings out the WANTED poster and none of them want to be around someone who might draw the cops. Red disagrees, there’s a fight, the cops descend anyway. Then they all hop the next rail to the next town.

Turns out this is a frying pan/fire moment. Up to this point, Oklahoma Red has seemed brassy and fun; now a darker side emerges. To the girl he says, “C’mon, baby, don’t be so exclusive.” To Jim he says, “Why do you think I let her ride with us? My name ain’t Santa Claus!” To everyone he proclaims, “When I ride with a gang, it’s my gang! And if there’s a gal in the gang, she’s my gal!”

He sets up a kangaroo court to convict Jim of the crime of not being a true hobo—basically to get rid of him. Smart, but the girl is smarter. After Jim is sentenced to be thrown from the train, she claims the right to pick her own guardian—and it’s not Jim. It’s Arkansas Snake. So she pits the two biggest men against each other. Red wins that battle but Jim winds up with the gun, and anyway “A bunch of dicks is searching the train!” Here it gets action-y. At one point, Red detaches their car from the rest of train, then it’s out-of-control, then he finally stops it and everyone can hop out.

Our heroes wind up hanging in a shack with a Black man, Black Mose (Blue Washington), who’s carrying a white cripple. We first noticed Mose on the train. He stuck out there because he seemed like a real person, not the usual stereotype of the day. A little background on the actor: Blue Washington is a former Negro Leagues player who went on to have a long if mostly uncredited career in Hollywood. He was in some big movies, including “King Kong” and “Gone with the Wind,” but playing the types of roles you’d expect. Even his credited roles were problematic: Sambo, Hambone, and four different versions of Mose, short for Uncle Mose, which—I didn’t know this—was the male counterpart to the Mammy/Aunt Jemima figure. Washington is also the father of Kenny Washington, who 1) went to UCLA with Jackie Robinson, and is 2) the Jackie Robinson of professional football, breaking the NFL’s color barrier in 1946. During a three-year career as a running back with the Rams, he averaged 6.1 yards a carry.

Here, sadly, “not the usual stereotype of the day” doesn’t last. At one point, Mose is seen comically plucking a chicken. And he’s the last person to realize that his charge, the crippled guy, is dead.

At this point, our heroes are on the lam from both the cops and Oklahoma Red, and it’s the latter who finally catches up with them. He tells the girl that she’s doing nothing but endangering Jim, and she admits this. But when he decks Jim, takes his gun, and demands she go with him, she responds that she’d rather be hung. And here it gets interesting. Red looks both confused and amused. He scratches his jaw. “I’ve heard about it but I’ve never seen it before. … It must be love!” he says via intertitles. And then this additional thought: “I knew there was something wrong with you two.”

God, that’s good, and Beery’s amazing. Add him to the list of actors, like Cagney, who can play bad men that you actually like. For half the film he’s a would-be rapist but he still wins us over. In the end, he risks his life for them. He gives his life for them. His foot slips and they get away. But it’s Oklahoma Red we think about in the end.

Like the clouds
If you’re wondering about the title, it comes from something Jim says in the early going:

Ain’t it funny when you think of the millions of people in warm houses and feather beds, and us just driftin’ around like the clouds? But I guess it’s about even when you boil it down. Even them people in feather beds ain’t satisfied—we’re all beggars of life. 

Here’s the oddity: That speech isn’t in the book “Beggars of Life.” The closest we get to the title phrase is when Tully says in the early going, “Everything seemed to pass through my mind—I was not a beggar at the gates of life—I would return to St. Marys a rich man.” So either Benjamin Glazer, who adapted the memoir for the screen, came up with it, or it was in Maxwell Anderson’s play. But if it was in Anderson’s play, that means Anderson invented a justification for the title without using it as the title. Plus he gets no screen credit here. Paramount claims it was adapting Tully, not Tully/Anderson.

To which … yeah, I doubt it. The memoir is loose and episodic. There’s a kangaroo court but it’s in a prison not a railroad car. There’s an Oklahoma Red but he doesn’t show up until Chapter 21 and only sticks around for three of the book’s 31 chapters. There’s a girl who kills her molesting father but Tully doesn’t meet her on the road; he remembers her from his hometown, St. Marys, where he met her in the red light district. Yet all these elements magically came together in the movie the same way they came together in Anderson’s play? 

From what I can glean from reviews back then, the play began in the hobo camp, and we get the stories of Jim/Little Red and Nancy by and by. Apparently Jim met Nancy on the road, too, post-murder—which makes way more sense. It makes you realize what a fantastic coincidence the movie opens with: Jim just happening upon a house mere minutes after a murder has been committed. But I’d say the movie’s most dated scene is near the end when Nancy dresses up in girlish attire—bonnet and dress—for Jim. He, and the film, think she’s lovely, but to modern eyes she looks ridiculous: like a dress-up doll. I actually laughed out loud. Her hobo-tomboy outfit is much more contemporary. Not to mention cool.

But these are minor matters. Wellman filmed this thing beautifully and touchingly. I’d love to see it on a big screen someday.


  • The play was a theatrical breakthrough for James Cagney, and the movie version of it, without Cagney, was produced and directed by Bill Wellman, who would give Cagney his movie breakthrough three years later.

  • On the road and on the lam. One of Wellman's beautiful shots.

  • Apparently Wellman was impressed by the many stunts Brooks was willing to do.

  • It's a 1928 movie. Two years later, this would be a lifestyle.

  • Just before the leg incident.

  • They meet a lot of scoundrels, including Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who kicks them off his truck.

  • Black Mose, played by Blue Washington, a former Negro Leagues player whose son would become the Jackie Robinson of professional football. 

  • Half the film is Jim protecting the girl from rape, basically.

  • Including from Oklahoma Red, played brilliantly by Wallace Beery. 

  • Trying to figure out an angle or calculate the meaning of love.

  • The laugh-out-loud incident. The jacket and newsboy cap are way more modern.

  • The villain we think about, and care about, in the end. *FIN*
Posted at 07:05 AM on Saturday November 05, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Saturday October 22, 2022

Movie Review: Outside the Law (1920)


Tod Browning’s “Outside the Law” starts convoluted, becomes interminable, then does what movies do best: wraps up with gunfire. 

It both honors Chinese culture (Confucianism) and doesn’t (yellowface). It’s got an early dual role for Lon Chaney and one of the first screen appearances by Anna May Wong, but it’s mostly a vehicle for a little-remembered actress, Priscilla Dean, who was a star during silents but didn’t handle the jump to talkies well—though I can’t find out why. Did she sound like a truck driver? Did she lisp? Maybe she aged out? She’s 24 here but looks about 40. 

Good with the glower
It opens with a book, “The Sayings of Confucius,” and this plot device: a Chinese wise man in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren), is helping reform notorious gangster “Silent” Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter, Molly, aka “Silky Moll” (Dean), by using Confucianism. Right, that old gag.

A rival gangster, “Black Mike” Sylva, aka “Blackie” (Chaney), doesn’t see this as the opportunity it is—to take over his territory without a fight. Instead, like an idiot, he decides to set up Madden in convoluted fashion: He starts a gun battle, kills a cop, plants the offending weapon, and has his stooge, Humpy (John George, a successful little-person actor of the era), point it out to the cops and say he saw Madden hide it there. An intertitle lets us know the results:

Lack of evidence saved Madden a life term — Yet, “because he was there,” he must serve eight months — and the prophecy of “Black Mike” came true.

Wait, the only evidence against him is Humpy’s say-so? Who was the guy that told Madden to head toward the shooting? And is part of Black Mike’s gang? Silent Madden needed a better lawyer.

Anyway, now Black Mike can take over Madden’s territory. Done and done.

Nope, not yet. Now Blackie plots a jewel heist with Molly and “Dapper” Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman), but the real plot is to betray Molly—to have the cops catch her with the jewels. Why? Apparently Black Mike just doesn’t like this family. He's the anti-Corleone: It’s not business, it's personal.

Except Dapper Bill betrays Blackie. He lets Molly in on the plot, and together they steal the jewels from the safe in the mansion and make their getaway together. Why does Dapper Bill—who’s not that dapper—do this? He loves her. There’s just not much onscreen heat. We hardly see them embrace, and Molly glowers a lot. It’s like they skipped the fun stuff and went right to “married for 20 years.”

Molly uses that glower to good effect during the interminable middle of the movie, when the two are hiding out in an apartment on Knob [sic] Hill. She’s trying to play it cool but he’s champing at the bit. He wants out.

But guess what he does to amuse himself? No, not that. He helps the boy across the hallway (Stanley Goethals) build a kite—as mobstsers are wont to do. He really really really loves this kid, who has a Dutch boy haircut and an overly cute way of talking via intertitles: “Oo don’t love me like him do, does oo?” (No, kid, she doesn’t.) The kid so warms his heart that Dapper Bill wants to become a dad, too. This leads to more scowls from Molly, of course, until finally Bill can’t take it anymore. He goes for a walk around Nob Hill, damnit.

Two things happen as a result. 

One, he’s spotted by Humpy, who, yes, seems to be everywhere.

And two, the fucking kid comes over again, this time with puppies, and hangs around despite Molly’s scowl. At one point, he finds Molly’s gun between the chair cushions and points it at her. She grabs it and yells and he cries. (At this point I’m like: Where are this kid’s parents?) Then he demands to be hugged. Then he hugs Molly. And that’s the thing that finally turns her frown upside-down. She melts. And when Bill returns from his walk, she says, yes, she’s ready to have kids, too. Done and done.

Except, whoops, that's right, they're jewel thieves. What to do with the jewels? She wants to keep them as their nest egg, he wants to give them back so they don’t spend their lives looking over their shoulders. He also seems to think if they just give them back they won’t be charged. So obviously not a law school grad.

What finally convinces the scowling Molly to see it Bill’s way? Sitting in her chair, brooding, she notices the shadow of a cross along the floor of their living room. Turns out it’s what’s left of the tattered kite, which is stuck to something outside their building. But that’s what does it. The shadow of the cross. Done and done. 

Actually, we have a half hour left of this 75-minute movie. I didn’t lie when I said it was interminable.

Humpy spotted Bill, remember, so when the two go to leave the apartment, with a blast of quite-effective music, they find Black Mike hanging in the hallway.

Bill tries the triple-cross, saying he was just waiting to find out where Molly hid the jewels so he could bring them back to Black Mike. At this point it gets a little confusing, partly because there's missing and damaged footage. Suffice to say, Bill and Molly get away with the jewels and return to Chang Low’s place. And guess who’s there? “Silent” Madden, who’s out after eight months with bitterness in his heart. He wants the jewels as a kind of payment, Chang Low says no, Blackie and his men show up outside, and we get a big gun battle.

In the end, Blackie and most of his men die, and Chang Low convinces the cops not to prosecute. The chief: “You’ve won, Chang Low — you’ve got the right dope. Keep up the good work.” 

So obviously not a law school grad.

Cagney connects
A few things of interest to gangster movie fans—or maybe just James Cagney movie fans. Humpy seems a forerunner to Snitz Edwards’ Miller from “The Public Enemy”: height-challenged, loyal to the gangster we don’t like, third-reel snitch of the protagonists’ hideout.

Then there’s the “Public Enemy” publicity photos of Cagney that look a lot like Chaney here.

And finally, this intertitle card from Blackie:

Chaney is good here—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Chaney and not been impressed—but it’s an unnecessarily dual role. Besides Black Mike, he plays Ah Wing, Chang Low’s servant. Still trying to sort out the yellowface thing. It seemed to lean toward leading men and heroic portrayals. If they were comic relief, sure, give it to the real Chinese guy. It also feels like Asian women were more often cast as Asian women. Anna May Wong’s career was stunted, but she actually had one.

Priscilla Dean, meanwhile, made her last movie in 1932, “Klondike,” fifth-billed to Thelma Todd and Lyle Talbot, then she got out of Dodge. She died in 1987 in Leonia, New Jersey. I know people who lived there then. They never heard of her.


  • OUTSIDE THE LAW: The movie opens with a book—and Confucius, that ol' troublemaker.

  • I like the exteriors of Chinatown. I assume this is the real thing and not the Universal Studios backlot. The film shot in both places.

  • Chaney as Black Mike. Always impressive. 

  • And in his dual and unnecessary role as Ah Wing. And did they really have to gunk up his teeth so much? C'mon.

  • I love this silent film convention when introducing characters, nudging us, “Hey, by the way, this is the star.”

  • And here she is, a matronly 24.

  • During the jewel heist. 

  • And displaying her trademark scowl. She looks like this for half the film. 

  • I like the gender-role reversal. His paternal instinct is huge, her maternal instinct is nonexistent.

  • Until it isn't.

  • A brief, uncredited scene with future star Anna May Wong. She was 15.

  • Blackie's gang plots the final gun battle. 

  • Most of the final battle takes place in this apothecary shop. Can you imagine what Jackie Chan could've done with this?  

  • Leaving Leonia. *FIN*
Posted at 09:03 AM on Saturday October 22, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday October 05, 2022

Movie Review: The Tong Man (1919)


They never say why Louie Toy doesn’t just pay off the Bo Sing Tong, do they? He’s an opium smuggler, they’re the Chinese mafia, why not just pay the tribute? Doesn’t he know what will happen? It doesn’t seem like a power move, either. He’s not machinating. And he doesn’t cry poverty. So what is he doing? I guess furthering the plot? I guess creating the plot?

“The Tong Man” is basically Romeo and Juliet in Chinatown if Romeo were a hatchet man and Montague lusted after Juliet. It’s a 50-minute feature that mixes gangster elements with old-timey melodrama. Tropes I’ve only seen in cartoons or satires are displayed here straight-faced. My favorite: When the leader of the Bo Sing Tong, Ming Tai (Marc B. Robbins), first sees Sen Chee (Helen Jerome Eddy), the beautiful daughter of Louie Toy, he smiles villainously and literally rubs his hands together.

There’s yellowface, of course, but with a difference. The romantic lead, Luk Chan, is played by silent film icon Sessue Hayakawa, and the film is made by his production company, Haworth Pictures. So among the leads, the two Anglo actors I mentioned above are the only examples of true yellowface. For the other main characters: Toyo Fujita plays Louie Toy, and future director Yutaka Abe is Lucero—“a Lascar sailor” and helpmate to the romantic couple. Plus Hayakawa.

So is this a kind of yellowface? They’re all Japanese actors playing Chinese characters. I know it’s 1919, but, given Hayakawa, etc., you’d think a story about the Chinese in Chinatown would include some Chinese actors.

Slow boat
The plot: The Tong gang decides to kill Louie Toy for the aforementioned nonpayment, the joss is consulted, lots are chosen, and Luk Chan, a “highbinder” and the most feared hatchet-man in the Tong gang, gets the assignment. Unfortunately, he’s in love with Toy’s daughter. So even though he has ample opportunity, and even though he himself will be killed if he doesn’t go through with it, he can’t kill Toy.

At this point, I assumed we would get machinations from Ming Tai. I assumed he would go to Louie Toy and say, “Hey, Chan is going to kill you, watch out,” so Toy would kill Chan instead and go to prison for the crime, leaving the girl unguarded. Instead, Ming Tai is fairly upfront. He tells Toy that the Tong will let him live but he has to give up his daughter. Toy looks shocked (the actor often looks shocked) but agrees, then locks the distraught girl in her room. There, she decides to use the poison incense girls apparently kept lying around back then. Lucero overhears, gets Luk, and the two men save her; then they escape (from both the Tong and the cops) over the rooftops of Chinatown.

The next day, Louie Toy says he’s had a change of heart about giving his daughter away. Ming Tai isn’t exactly understanding: He kills Toy and blames it on Chan. Then he and his men kidnap the girl—bag over the head and everything. Back in his lair, he fans her awake so he can sexually assault her. Watching from above, Chan crashes through the skylight (a nice stunt), battles the Tong gang, and delivers a hatchet to the face of one assassin (a nice, early special-effect). Then they escape.

The couple winds up hiding in the (metaphoric and literal) belly of the beast. In the Bo Sing Tong headquarters, which—I think—is part of Ming Tai’s gambling and ‘hop’ joint, there’s one of those paper-mache dragons you see at Chinese festivals. That's where they go. But when Ming Tai shows up to pray to the joss, Chan thinks it’s Lucero returning with news and reveals himself. Ming Tai is taking aim when he himself is shot in the back by Lucero. (Seriously, Lucero does almost everything in this thing.)

After that, they get on a slow boat to China—with Lucero. We see the lovers in silhouette against the moon. They embrace. The End.

Tong in Hong Kong?
I know, but I like all the historical tidbits. Silent films were still in that phase, for example, when they would include the stars’ names on the intertitles.

Marc Robbins, who plays Ming Tai, gets this treatment, too, though he hardly seems like a star. But at least his yellowface make-up is better than Helen Jerome Eddy’s. She hardly looks Chinese. I kept thinking, I don’t know, dowdier sister of Olivia de Havilland.

The whole “Tong” thing is fascinating. It was written up a lot during the period—in newspapers and in fiction. Ditto hatchet men. Edgar G. Robinson would play one 13 years later. Did Hollywood ever attempt a more serious film on this topic—the Tong Wars from the turn of the century? Has Hong Kong ever tried it?

The director is William Worthington, an actor who took up directing (1915-25) before returning to acting for the last 15 years of his life. The movie is based on a 1912 novel, “The Dragon’s Daughter,” by Clyde Westover, which is still available on Kindle. A 1922 article describes Westover as a “short story writer, author of odes, dramatiser, script builder, playwright, jingler, novelizer, official greeter and secretary of the [San Francisco Press] Club." A survivor, in other words.

Posted at 08:33 AM on Wednesday October 05, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday September 14, 2022

Movie Review: Alibi (1929)


The crime at the center of the film—for which the titular alibi becomes necessary—involves a warehouse fur heist gone wrong, leading to the death of a passing cop.

Yes, it’s the same crime Tom Powers and company would commit in “The Public Enemy” two years later (and parodied two years after that in “Little Giant”). So did Bright and Glasmon lift the idea from screenwriters Roland West and C. Gardner Sullivan, who were adapting the 1927 stage play “Nightstick”? Or were warehouse fur robberies a big deal in the 1920s?

“Alibi” is one of the first gangster films of the sound era, so most of the actors speak in that odd, slow, dreamlike cadence of early talkies rather than the snappy patter of a Cagney or Robinson. But we get some great shots from director Roland West: the shadow of the detective outside the door while Soft Malone (Elmer Ballard) is being grilled; Billy Morgan (Regis Toomey in his film debut) drunkenly reaching for booze; the rooftop escape of Chick Williams (Chester Morris, nominated for an Oscar). 

Most unexpected? A pretty good mid-movie reveal.

Cops just don’t understand
It begins the way “The Big House” (also starring Morris) began a year later: with the robotic clomping of the feet of marching prisoners. One is singled out. He’s shown a piece of paper with his prison ID on it, “No. 1065,” and it morphs into his name, “Chick Williams.” When we next see him, he’s wearing a suit, rather than his prison grays, and shaking the guard’s hand on the way out. Nice bit.

Then we’re a nightclub run by Buck Bachman (Harry Stubbs), with the dancing girls and singers of the era. Chick is there with his girl, Joan (Eleanor Griffith), at a table with Buck and his wise-cracking moll Daisy (Mae Busch), and they’re talking about the bum rap Chick got. A drunk stumbles over. It’s Billy Morgan, boy stockbroker. He’s got an eye for Joan and engages in some shenanigans to get her address. Buck calls him harmless. We wonder.

For the first half, it feels like a wronged-man movie. Chick is courting Joan, the daughter of Sgt. Paul Manning (Purnell Pratt), but the old man hates Chick, whom he calls a jailbird, and wants Joan to marry Det. Tommy Glennon (Pat O’Malley). But Joan doesn't want to marry a cop. Some of her thoughts feel on the matter feel surprisingly contemporary:

Tommy: Now what’s the matter with policemen?
Joan: They’re man hunters. They’re cruel and merciless—always hounding some poor devil and sending him to jail. They think themselves great heroes.
Tommy: Well, we’ve got to uphold the law.
Joan: Law! Is third-degreeing—bull-dogging people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit—is that law?
Tommy: No, but... Oh, I don’t understand.
Joan: Of course you don’t. You’re a policeman.

Much of the film bears her out, too. When Dad finds out Chick and Joan got married, he literally locks up his daughter like she’s in a fairy tale. Then he tries to railroad Chick into jail again by pinning the fur heist/cop killing on him with zero evidence. When his own daughter provides the alibi—that they were at the National Theater that night—Dad sends Tommy to see if it was theoretically possible for Chick to have committed the crime. And it was! The show has an intermission between 9:55 and 10:05, and the cop was killed at 10 PM—just five minute away.

Which is when they start sweating witnesses, specifically Soft Malone, who was seen driving away from the scene of the crime. How do they sweat him? They threaten to kill him. Here’s Tommy:

You ever know what happened to Gimpy Jackson after he shot a cop? He just disappeared.

A few minutes later, he gets more specific: 

How’d you like to be buried next to Gimpy Jackson, Soft?

Holy crap. At this point, I’m thinking: Well, the movie was independently produced, by West, and distributed by United Artists, and it was pre-code, so cops didn’t have to be heroes. Even so, it felt revelatory: The cops are the bad guys! 

All that strongarming works, too: Soft gives up a name, and it’s Chick’s. So Dad got what he wanted. And now they’re going after him. 

Which is when we get our second reveal. 

The first reveal is that Billy Morgan, the drunk broker who finagles Joan’s address, is in fact an undercover cop, Danny McGann. The second reveal is that our poor put-upon hero is in fact a cold-blooded cop killer. Dad was right: Chick actually runs the gang; Buck is a flunky. When Chick discovers that Soft Malone has been pinched, he looks for a respectable citizen who might “verify” that Chick phoned him at 10 PM from the National Theater on the night of the killing. Guess who he chooses? Billy Morgan, boy broker. 

All of that is kind of fun. Everything is the opposite of what it seemed in the first half:

  • Put-upon hero is ruthless killer
  • Drunk lech is hero cop
  • Soft-voiced cop is tough hero
  • Outspoken woman is absolute idiot

Yes, that means the movie's hero, Tommy, also threatened to kill a witness in cold blood. But I guess you can’t have everything.

What cowards these criminals be
My favorite character is Daisy. She’s a smart cookie who’s stuck with Buck, a dull lump, and she gets off some of the best lines. After everything goes awry, he tells her to pack a suitcase, she balks, and he pushes her head-first into a door. (Makes a grapefruit-to-the-face seem loving.) Shortly thereafter, Chick arrives, sees Joan on the phone (unknowingly alerting the cops to their whereabouts), and starts yelling at Buck.

Chick: What do you mean letting her use that phone? I oughta break your neck.
Daisy: Oh please. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

As revolutionary as the movie seems early on, with Joan’s diatribe against coppers, it winds up at the other, more predictable extreme, with Tommy not only catching Chick but taunting him into proving what a coward he is. That said, Chick’s death is handled well. He escapes to the rooftop, jumps to another building, barely makes it, then loses his balance and falls silently to his death. I flashed on Roth’s death in Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.”

It’s not a bad little movie, totally undeserving of its current 5.7 IMDb rating. Don’t think Morris deserved his Oscar nom, but I guess the mid-movie switcheroo impressed early Academy voters. Set design is crazy fun: those art-deco doors of early talkies, along with almost Dali-esque wallpaper.

Director Roland West is probably best known today for being a suspect in the 1935 death of Thelma Todd, his one-time lover and business partner (of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café), whose body was found in West’s garage in a still-running Packard convertible. He directed several good Lon Chaney movies in the silent era, and obviously made the transition to talkies well enough, so I’m not sure what happened to him. His last film, as director or producer, was “Corsair” in 1931, starring Chester Morris and Thelma Todd. He also has several ur-superhero connections. His 1926 silent film, “The Bat,” was part of the inspiration for Batman, while West later married Lola Lane, one of the Lane sisters (“Four Daughters,” “Four Wives”), whose name, yes, helped inspire Jerry Siegel’s Daily Planet reporter.

West died in 1952, age 65. In his obit, “Alibi” is called “one of the greatest hits in motion picture history.” It wasn't, then or now, but it's better than 5.7.


  • A publicity shot depicting the movie's main conflict: boyfriend vs. daddyo. In the first half, Dad locks up his daughter and threatens a witness with a gun. Guess what? Father knows best.

  • Just some minor witness intimidation. 

  •  West was still employing various silent-film-era visual effects that felt amost avant-garde. 

  • Like this. The guy behind the door is never explained. 

  • It's either Salvador Dali's rec room or an early go at the Partridge Family bus design.

  • Regis Toomey in his film debut, reaching for the bottle. He doesn't know his cover has already been blown.

  • Chick making his getaway.

  • And just before the fall.

  • As it must to all men. *FIN*
Posted at 07:15 AM on Wednesday September 14, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 06, 2021

Movie Review: Underworld (1927)

Brook looking Jean Gabin-ish, Semon in the staircase, Bancroft and Brent. They're about to see that the city is theirs.


First, the firsts.

“Underworld” is one of the first films directed by Josef von Sternberg as well as one of the first great gangster pictures. It’s the first credit for legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht as well as the first film to win an Academy Award for best original story. Both films vying for the award that year—this and “The Last Command”—were directed by Sternberg, who received zero nominations, and got bupkis from the Academy for his career.

All of which gets into the tricky Hollywood problem of credit. In his book, “Who the Devil Made It,” Peter Bogdanovich recounts a university screening of “Underworld” and “The Last Command,” with Sternberg present, and the man wasn’t exactly quiet on the topic: 

During the credits of both movies he called out that several people listed on the screen—especially the writers—had nothing whatever to do with the film; their names were there only because the studio paid them regularly and had to put their names somewhere.

Let’s get into the gangster stuff.

Bank notes
“Underworld” feels like the movie that subsequent gangster movies either riffed off of or ripped off. It’s about a boisterous, childlike gangster, “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from A.B.C. Investment Co. that feels like a secret message to him: “The City is Yours.” Five years later, Howard Hughes’ “Scarface,” also written by Hecht, features a boisterous, childlike gangster, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from Cook's Tours that feels like a secret message to him: “The World Is Yours.”

Near the end of the film, on death row, Bull commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. Eleven years later, in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), on death row, commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. (“Angels” also features Bancroft in a smaller role.)

In the real world, “Underworld” prefigured the difficulties gangster flicks would run into with censors. The British Board of Film Censors rejected the movie twice until extensive cuts were made to limit the lead character’s likeability and the film was retitled to something more properly scolding: “Paying the Penalty.” Overall, “Underworld” prefigures all gangster movies by portraying gangsterism as a world unto itself, where the real trouble is less the law than rival gangsters.

It opens with a literal (albeit silent) bang. As a drunk is weaving along in the night, an explosion goes off at a nearby bank and a second later “Bull” Weed emerges with the dough. Since the drunk recognizes him, Weed knocks him out and takes him along. I like the way, back at the hideout, almost in one swift movement, Bancroft is able to toss the man onto a bed while kicking the door closed with his foot. That’s some big-man grace. Even better is this exchange, after Bull realizes the man is an alcoholic and knocks the booze out of his hands:

Bull: That’s what makes bums and squealers!
Man [standing shakily but with dignity]: I may be a bum but I am no squealer. I might say, sir, that I am a Rolls Royce for silence.

So Bull not only gets him a job at the Dreamland Café but a nickname: Rolls Royce. He’s played by Clive Brook, who’s got a bit of a Jean Gabin thing going, particularly when he’s down and out, with a cig clenched in his mouth. 

The oddity of Bull is he has no crew: just a moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and an associate, Slippy Lewis (silent comedian Larry Semon), who’s more comic relief than tough guy. At Dreamland, he spins his hat in the air like a frisbee and it returns to him like a boomerang; then he puts 5¢ into a kind of vending machine that dispenses flower water for his handkerchief. (Did anyone else know these things existed?) Meanwhile, across the café, rival tough guy “Buck” Mulligan, neither stately nor plump, has about five guys hanging on his every word. Unlike Bull, he’s a nasty, cramped man who sees slights everywhere. Feathers doesn’t acknowledge him so he tries to impress her by humiliating Rolls Royce. He tosses a $10 bill into a filthy spittoon and says go fetch. When Rolls retains his dignity, Buck knocks him down. When Bull intervenes, their rivalry begins.

That basically sets up the rest of our movie. As Bull and Buck try to outmaneuver each other, a cleaned-up Rolls and Feathers fall for each other; but neither wants to betray Bull, the man who rescued them both. The centerpiece of the film is an annual gangsters ball, “The underworld’s armistice—when, until dawn, rival gangsters bury the hatchet and park the machine-gun.“ There’s a “moll of the ball” contest, where votes are bought, proudly and in the open, and which Feathers wins. Rolls is initially reluctant to go, feeling too attracted to Feathers, but Bull tells him, with his usual bonhomie, “Everybody with a police record will be there!” But it’s at the ball that he first gets an inkling of their attraction for one another, and he turns angry and jealous; then he gets drunk and passes out, giving Buck, amid the mounds of leftover ticker-tape, the opportunity to attack Feathers in a back room. I assumed it would be up to Rolls to save the day but I assumed wrong. Instead, Buck’s moll rouses Bull, who not only saves Feathers but follows Buck back to his flower shop and guns him down in front of the “Rest in Peace” floral arrangement Buck was saving for Bull. Nice touch.

I also assumed Rolls, who had once been a lawyer, would now come to Bull’s rescue in the courtroom. Wrong again. Instead, not only is Bull found guilty of killing Buck but he’s sentenced to die for it. I’m like “Really? A gangster tried to rape his girl and he killed him in self-defense—and no one could lessen the sentence?” It’s moments like that when you get what the British censors objected to. Justice system doesn't look too justice-y.

Like Cagney in “Angels,” Bull is taking his death sentence with a “Them’s the breaks” shrug until everyone starts talking up what an item Feathers and Rolls have become. They’re not, or at least they take every step forward reluctantly and suffused with guilt. They also try to spring Bull. The plot is convoluted and fails quickly, but Bull assumes it was never put into action, and he becomes so enraged at the betrayal that he breaks free. At his hideout, he confronts Feathers, who denies all; then he fends off the police, who—in another touch the British censors probably didn’t like—turn the apartment building into a shooting gallery. Alerted late, Rolls risks his life to get through the police line to give Bull the keys to a secret passageway that could lead to safety. (Wait, secret passage? In an apartment building? This would only work if they were in the basement, which, based on where the police guns are aimed, they’re not.) Seeing the sacrifice Rolls made for him, Bull makes one for them. He lets them use the secret passageway and then gives himself up. A cop mentions he went through a lot for just another hour. “There was something I had to find out,” Bull responds. “And that hour was worth more to me than my whole life.”

Grace notes
Silent movies can be a slog, and there were moments when this one dragged—the mopiness of the couple, gazing into the middle distance—but mostly I was mesmerized. It’s beautifully framed and photographed, and makes great use of shadows. Sternberg made his name with the early arthouse film “The Salvation Hunters,” and the artistry is there in this commercial project. There’s a great sequence at the hideout after Bull has escaped prison. Alone, he hears someone in the hall outside, and Sternberg shows us the shadow of an official-looking man skulking along. Bull listens at the door, peers through the keyhole, then throws it open to see ... nobody. Just a bottle of fresh milk left by the milkman, along with a small, interested kitten. He brings both inside while he sits in a chair and thinks. Becoming aware of the kitten again, he absent-mindedly sticks his thick finger into the bottle and lets the kitten lick off the milk.

There are so many grace notes like that, nice, unnecessary touches, like Feathers’ feather slowly floating down into the Dreamland Café and to the attention of Rolls Royce. (Sternberg to Bogdanovich: “I even had feathers sewn into her underwear.”) I also love the reminders—like with the milkman—of the disappeared life we used to live. Did we really use so much ticker-tape? I still can’t get over that flower-water vending machine. Was that really a thing? When did it come in and when did it go out?

Like so much that’s innovative and artistic, the suits didn’t know what to make of “Underworld,” and Paramount was initially reluctant to release it, then just put it in one theater in New York, where they assumed it would get no notice and drop from sight. Instead, it became a huge hit, helped make the careers of everyone involved, and helped make the gangster genre.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Tuesday April 06, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Saturday January 09, 2021

Movie Review: The Black Bird (1926)


Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and this film is a kind of primer on that. He has a dual role and we get to watch his character physically transform from an able-bodied man to one crippled by childhood disease. It's stunning. Ironically, the one thing that doesn’t change much is his face. His saintly character never looks saintly enough. He looks like the same bastard both ways. 

When I began the film it seemed an earlier version of “San Francisco”—crook on one side, saint on the other, music hall in between—but instead of boyhood friends, they’re brothers, twins, who live in the Limehouse District in the East End of London at an unspecified time. It feels 19th century. The Bishop (Chaney) runs a mission and is beloved by all. He’s also crippled, with a gnarled right hand, an arm held at a 90-degree angle, and a useless, dangling leg, who gets around by means of crutches. His brother, Dan Tate, or the Black Bird (also Chaney), is a despised thief.

As the movie opens the cops have come calling about a recent crime, but the Bishop says no, Dan was there all night, and goes upstairs to get him. That’s when we discover the Bishop is the Black Bird. Dan simply contorts his body into the Bishop’s shape.

Then the movie forgets about the Bishop for half its length.

Da Bishop
Instead, we follow Dan, usually at a rundown music hall, with its cheap liquor and crappy acts, along with groundlings drinking the former and hooting the latter. The one act everyone seems to love is a bizarro puppet show put on by Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée, née Jeanne de la Fontein). It’s a regular puppet show but her actual (large) head is on one of the puppets, while one puppet can elongate its neck to extreme degrees.

This is one of the moments that remind us that Tod Browning, famed for the 1932 movie “Freaks,” directed “The Black Bird.” Another is the movie’s opening: a series of close-ups of the tough, grotesque faces that populate the Limehouse District.

A Browning moment. 

Of course Dan falls for Fifi. So does another thief, “West End Bertie” (Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s first husband), who, with his top hat and prince nez, is slumming with his society friends at the music hall. The next half hour is each man trying to outdo the other for her hand. As for what Fifi thinks? She likes the necklace on one of the society friends, so Bertie steals it for her, but, amid negotiations, loses it to Dan. Not that it matters. She’s scared of Dan—Chaney has that great glowering presence throughout—and winds up engaged to Bertie.

Except who do they ask to marry them? The Bishop, who is secretly his rival. Seems a stretch, but sure. And it sets up the rest of the movie. First, to Fifi, the Bishop outs Bertie as a jewel thief, but Bertie owns up. He also promises to return all the jewels he stole. Ah, but the necklace Fifi liked? Dan anonymously returns it to the cops, fingering Bertie, and when they show up at his place, Dan shoots a cop from the shadows and everyone blames Bertie. Now he’s truly on the lam and the Bishop offers to hide him. And this is where the Bishop/Dan becomes like Iago in his machinations. After three days, the Bishop lets slip that Fifi has been going around town with Dan (she's not); and to Fifi he lets slip that Bertie plans to leave town that night without her (he's not). Then he puts them in the same room and lets them peck at each other.

The finale is interesting. Someone “peaches” to the cops that it was Dan who shot the Scotland Yarder; and while Dan hurriedly tries to change back to the Bishop, the door to his room is flung open, he’s knocked on his back, and actually becomes the painful cripple he’d long pretended to be. 

The original plan was to have him become a better person as a result. Instead, he simply dies, and the down-and-outers gather around his bedside and praise him: “God will be good to you, Bishop … cause you were good to us.”

It's not a bad movie—although apparently at the box office it did poorly for a Chaney flick. Browning did the story, with dialogue from Waldemar Young, who had a long career in the silents and then went on to write screenplays for such acclaimed talkies as “Island of Lost Souls.” I like one bit in particular here. A flower lady, wearing the same type of hat Audrey Hepburn would wear in “My Fair Lady,” tries to sell her wares to the necklace-clad society lady, but the woman mostly ignores her while holding a handkerchief to her nose. So, while leaning across the table, the flower lady purposely steps on her toes. The woman yelps.

Society dame: I wish you’d put your feet where they belong.
Flower lady: If I did, you wouldn’t sit down for a month!

The best part is the dawning realization of the insult by one of the swells, who, after a beat, roars his head back with laughter.

Things I learned: Chink was an already epithet back then. A white girl shows up at the music hall with a Chinese man (Willie Fung), which enrages Dan. He scares the man way and roars at the girl: “Want me to tell your dad you’re drinking with a chink?” before literally putting his boot to her backside. Not sure how we’re supposed to feel about that scene—or how audiences were at the time. 

None of the principles survived long. Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage in 1930 (age 47), Adorée of tuberculosis in 1933 (age 35) and Moore of an alcohol-induced heart attack in 1939 (age 54). It’s as if even silent stars couldn’t last long in the sound era.

Posted at 08:50 AM on Saturday January 09, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Thursday July 25, 2019

Movie Review: Where East Is East (1929)


It’s a love story, and our young lovers, Toyo Haynes and Bobby Bailey (Lupe Velez and Lloyd Hughes), are together at the start. Meaning something will drive a wedge between them during the course of the movie. But what?

Initially, it’s the girl’s father, Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney), a man who makes a living, and a good one, trapping wild animals in Indo-China for circuses, zoos, etc. He has the scars to prove it—not to mention the nickname. He objects to the union because he wants his daughter to be happy—that’s all he’s lived for—and he’s not sure Bobby is the man for the job. “I’m not trustin’ your happiness to any young whipper-snapper like that!” he tells Toyo via intertitles. Dropped g’s and all.

Then a tiger gets loose and Bobby protects Toyo. The father does most of the work restoring order but he appreciates Bobby’s bravery and the two men shake hands. Problem solved.

Except we’re 10 minutes in. So what comes between the lovers for the rest of the movie?

The girl's mother.

Ah. Same reason?

No. She wants Bobby for herself.



中文 101
Was this a regular thing back then? A wanton Chinese woman hypnotically seducing innocent western men? It's directed by Tod Browning, and parts reminded me of von Sternberg’s “Blue Angel”: the man reduced and in torment because of the awful woman and her wiles. She’s the nightmare from which he can’t wake up.

Something tells me Bobby would’ve been in trouble anyway. Shortly after the tiger attack, a pudgy Chinese woman flirts with him, until Toyo, who I suppose is supposed to be half Chinese (Velez herself is Mexican), tells her off via Chinese intertitles:

Was this a regular thing back then? UntranslatedChinese intertitles? Was it an early attempt to get into the Chinese market or just an attempt at verisimilitude—letting us know that these two people were saying things that Bobby, for example, didn't understand? If so, why not translate for the mostly western audience?

Here's my attempt anyway: For the above, I knew the first four characters (“You women are...”) but not the last two. Turns out it’s mo-gui: “devils.” 

Bobby is passive during all this and it gets worse on a trip he takes with Tiger to deliver animals to Bobby’s father. On board the ship, a lounging woman in slinky outfit, known as Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), spies him, pushes a ball his way. He picks it up, sees the small boy to whom it belongs, comes over. But then he trips over the boy. Sign of stumbles to come. 

At this point, via two more Chinese intertitles, we get this dialogue between the mother of the boy and Mme. de Sylva:

For these, I needed some help from my Chinese teacher. I didn’t know 隻 was the traditional form of the measure word for animals, for example. And in the reply, I didn’t know 莫 is a colloquial form of 别, meaning “don’t,” while 出聲, chu sheng, is “to utter sounds.” Basically the above is this:

Mother: This stupid child is like a pig.
Mme. de Sylva: You, don’t say anything.

That took me half a day. You‘re welcome. 

Afterwards, Bobby spends more time with Mme. de Sylva, then introduces her to Tiger, who scowls angrily while she eyes him coolly. They obviously know each other, but when Tiger stomps off Bobby doesn’t go after him to find out how; he simply apologizes for Tiger’s behavior. Then we get more bad dialogue as the boat sails quietly on into the sleepy evening.

He: This is all like a poem of Kipling’s.
She: [Sidelong glance] My East will by our East. You will love it ... I promise.

Then they kiss. Now he’s hooked. Tiger has to literally knock him out and take him ashore to explain what he should have explained immediately: that Mme. de Sylva is ... Toyo’s mother. That wakes Bobby up. Both men agree to return home to Vien-Tiane, Laos, and never speak of it again.

Except guess who’s waiting for them? And even though Mom left her when she was young, Toyo’s super happy and literally hopping all over the place at the prospect. So what can Dad do? As for Bobby, he’s still hooked. Almost hypnotized. You know those Dragon Ladies.

We continue in this fashion: Mom seductive, Bobby tormented, Tiger angry, Toyo oblivious. A caged gorilla—who hates Mme. de Sylva because she used to torture him—is introduced in the second act, and it doesn’t take Chekhov to figure out what will happen in the third. That’s how Mom finally gets it. Cue close-up and silent scream. Tiger, who released the gorilla, is injured, perhaps fatally, in the assault, but he’s there in a makeshift wheelchair for the wedding, after which Toyo and Bobby limp off into what can only be a marriage of mutual recriminations or long sad silences.

Bobby: How could you have let your mother stay?
Toyo: How could you have wanted to fuck her!?! 

In the end, Dad was right: He shouldn’t have trusted Toyo’s happiness to that whipper-snapper.

Who’s who
Chaney is great here. He exudes power and emotion while reigning it in. One understands why he was such a respected silent film actor. It’s a shame he only had another year to live before dying of throat cancer at age 47. This is his third-to-last film.

Lloyd Hughes? He made the transition to sound well enough, but stopped making movies in 1939. Not sure why.

The actresses, famous in their time, might be better known today for the men in their lives. Estelle Taylor married thrice, the second time to Jack Dempsey when he was still heavyweight champion of the world. Valdez married just once—to Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller—but was linked to such a Who’s Who of masculinity as to make Taylor look like a piker: Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a Texan character actor who looked like a bigger, stronger George W. Bush), Erich Maria Remarque, and boxers Jack Johnson and, hey, Jack Dempsey again. Why not? If she had a type, it wasn’t exactly Bobby Bailey. She was also apparently volatile and abusive. Cooper supposedly lost 45 pounds in nervous exhaustion during their relationship. She supposedly fired a pistol at him when he was trying to leave. Interestingly, Taylor was one of the last people to see Velez alive. In 1944, amid another volatile relationship, she committed suicide.

Of course, what none of these actors are, in this tale of Chinese seduction, is Chinese. That's truly where Hollywood is Hollywood.  

Posted at 07:33 AM on Thursday July 25, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Thursday June 06, 2019

Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


Here’s something I never knew until the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival: the Phantom of the Opera’s real name is Erik. With a k. And the name keeps coming up in the 1925 movie: in title cards, on a file card, in letters to Christina:

You’d think someone would’ve told me this at some point. Or that I would’ve figured it out on my own. Is it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, for example? In any of the songs?

Is really Erik
With a kaaayyyy

I guess I didn’t really know the story, either, but it’s basically another of the deformed man/beautiful woman pieces. Think of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as hazy antecedent and Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” as direct descendant.

There are also elements of the Joker: the madman who’s somehow super organized. 

So has anyone read the novel? Apparently what the ’25 version gives short shrift to is how long Phantom/Erik (Lon Chaney) has been tutoring his love, Christine (Mary Philbin). In the movie, every time he took credit for her talents I was like, “Bit presumptuous, dude.” But in the book that’s what happens. He makes her. Like Frankenstein. Or Eliza Doolittle.

In 19th-century Paris, two men buy the Paris Opera, while the sellers give each other sly looks. After the deal is made, they confess to the whole ghost/phantom problem, which is an odd move: “Hey, here’s how we snookered you!” Our new guys dismiss the rumors out of hand, but investigate a supposed phantom who sits in a regular balcony seat. At first they see him ... and then they don’t! So was this the Phantom/Erik? Did he have season tickets? 

There are various backstage—or below stage—antics involving rumors of the Phantom, a stagehand who’s seen him (“a living skeleton”), and long shadows cast. The Phantom also sends threatening notices demanding casting changes. Specifically he wants Christine to star as Marguerite in “Faust” rather than the prima donna, Mme. Carlotta (Mary Fabian). And he gets his wish! Carlotta falls sick. Did the Phantom cause this? And could I do something similar with the Seattle Mariners? Send messages to management? Start So-and-So at short ... or else!

Meanwhile, Christine’s beau, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), hears that he’s being superseded and confronts her about it. She admits she’s being tutored by someone she calls “the Spirit of Music,” and that nothing can stop her career now, but when he suggests she’s being duped she storms off. Later, outside her dressing room, he hears the Phantom talking to her: “Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!” She's OK with that; she calls him “Master.” Kind of kinky. When she leaves, the Vicomte bursts in, but of course the room is empty. 

Here’s a question the movie doesn’t really answer: Why did the Phantom choose Christine? Because he was enamored of her looks, her talent, or both? If it’s looks, wasn’t she a bit young when they started? And how did he become such an expert music tutor? I know: “self educated musician.” But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher. Particularly if you’re, you know, insane.

Anyway, Christine’s debut goes well, but Carlotta returns to the role against the Phantom’s wishes, so for the next performance a giant chandelier crashes onto the audience. This is when the masked Phantom finally appears before Christine, and, in a kind of nightmare sequence, leads her slowly down the stone steps as she cowers in fright. What happened to all the “Master” talk? Hey, I thought you were into this!

There’s a labyrinth beneath the opera house, I believe she rides a horse for a time, and then he rows her via gondola across an underground river to his hideout. He wants to marry her, or something, says she can come and go as she pleases, but he makes one demand: that she never remove his mask. So of course that’s exactly what she does.

Apparently Chaney, who was already legendary in 1925, and only lived until 1930, did his own makeup. Even 100 years later it’s good. Spooky. One can only imagine what 1925 audiences thought.

So what’s her punishment for Eve-like doing the one thing she wasn’t supposed to? Erik says he’s going to make her a prisoner forever. But then he immediately lets her go back to the surface to say her goodbyes. Does she flee Paris? France? Does she go to the cops? None of the above. She attends a masked ball at the opera house, where she tells Raoul all; but the Phantom is there, too, spying, along with another mysterious, menacing figure in a fez, who turns out to be a cop, Ledoux. He's long been on the trail of the Phantom—a madman who escaped from Devil’s Island.

Another question: Was he a madman before Devil’s Island or was he tortured into it? And was his skeletal visage the result of the torture or was he born that way?

The big third act involves the Phantom kidnapping Christine off the stage, Ledoux and Raoul in pursuit but falling into one trap after another, and a mob with torches descending in the basement labyrinth of the opera house. There’s a chase through the streets of Paris, and the Phantom, grinning all the while, almost gets away but is caught near the Seine. I love the bit where he threatens the crowd with an explosive device in his hand, but then reveals the hand to be empty. I like how he does this—triumphantly—even though it means his doom. He’s beaten by the mob and tossed into the Seine. That’s it. Bye, Erik.

Stage 28
So what to make of this story? Why does it endure? How is it romantic? 

To me, two things are still great about this ’25 version: Chaney, who apparently hated the director, and the sets. Here’s Wiki on the latter:

Because it would have to support thousands of extras, the set became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For this reason it was not dismantled until 2014. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot still contained portions of the opera house set, and was the world's oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie at the time of its demolition. It was used in hundreds of movies and television series.

One wonders which movies and TV series. One wants a book on the subject: “Stage 28.”

I got to see “Phantom” at SIFF, on the big screen, with a live soundtrack by Austin indie band The Invincible Czars. Made for a good Saturday afternoon.

Someone get back to me on the romantic question.

Posted at 06:24 PM on Thursday June 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Friday January 04, 2019

Movie Review: The Perils of Pauline (1914)


Well, “spoilers.” If you haven’t seen it yet, that’s kind of on you.

I doubt many people who are alive have seen the original “Perils of Pauline,“ but most everyone knows the title. It’s part of the culture. It was a huge hit that propelled the career of Pearl White and made serials a staple for decades. And it introduced us to the term “cliffhanger,” even though the serial doesn’t have traditional cliffhangers. Chapters don’t end with Pauline yelling, “Help! Help help!”; they end happily for the heroine, with the villain thinking “Curses, foiled again!” But Pauline hung from a cliff in one episode, and the name stuck. 

Perils of Pauline 1914 movie reviewIt’s been remade several times—in 1933 and 1967—but I think I was introduced to the concept via the 1969 Saturday morning cartoon show “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop,” whose plot, unbeknownst to me, was taken directly from the 1914 original: Pauline’s legal guardian keeps trying to kill her so he can get her money. You know: the usual kids fare.  

Pauline also remains oblivious, not to mention incurious, as to who is trying to kill her. She’s a bit of a dim bulb. That’s one of the annoying things about Pauline.

Actually, there are many annoying things about Pauline. 

Tom and Daisy
I mention “the 1914 original” but that’s not quite correct. When “Pauline” was released in the U.S., it was 20 chapters long. A shortened nine-chapter version then made its way through Europe in 1916. That’s the one I watched because it’s the only one that still exists. Imagine that. Europe suffered two world wars but managed to hold onto someone else's movie history; we, uninvaded, lets ours slip through our grasp. World wars are nothing next to a disposable culture. 

The plot is simple. Harry (Crane Wilbur), the son of a rich man, wants to marry his father’s ward, Pauline (Pearl White), but she begs off, wishing first for “a life of adventure.” So the rich man, Sanford Marvin (Edward José), promises her an inheritance, then puts his secretary, Koerner (Paul Panzer, who looks a bit like Rod Blagojevich), in charge of it. When she and Harry marry, she‘ll get the dough. Or he will. 

Of course, Koerner—who was originally called Raymond Owen but became Germanic in France during WWI—isn’t who he appears to be. From the title card:

“Koerner, a man with a tainted past, has wormed his way into a position of confidence as Mr. Marvin’s secretary.”

I love the insinuation: His past is tainted so he’s automatically untrustworthy in the present. And he hasn’t done a good job as secretary; he’s wormed his way in. Was he already thinking nefarious deeds? Initially, he just seems like a guy doing his job. But then an old comrade, the evil Hicks (Francis Carlyle), shows up and blackmails him. Then the old man dies, Koerner gets bupkis except trustee of Pauline’s estate, so Hicks more or less whispers in his ear: “If you can manage to dispose of her, you’ll gain control of all her property.”

Hicks sets everything in motion, but, oddly, he’s not around for long. Each chapter begins with a new plot to kill Pauline but increasingly it’s only Koerner doing the plotting. And in the end, only Koerner finds his just desserts. Hicks? I don’t recall seeing him after the third chapter.

So what exactly are the perils of Pauline? She’s...

  • trapped in a runaway balloon  
  • bound and gagged in a burning house
  • bound and gagged in a flooding basement
  • kidnapped by bandits, then Indians, then made to undergo “the race of the Great Stone of Death”
  • left alone on a boat with a bomb on it
  • adrift on a boat used as Gunnery target practice

She also enters a motor race and a steeplechase, tries to fly in an airplane, and helps rescue a submarine from foreign sabotage.

Perils of Pauline 1914 movie reviewThere’s great irony throughout. The “life of adventure” she wants is mostly created by Koerner in his various plots to kill her. Of the above, she only initiates the motor race, the steeplechase, and the trip out West. Otherwise, she’s just hanging around the mansion, waiting. For what? Mostly to not marry Harry. I get the feeling she doesn’t really like him.

Yet it’s mostly Harry to the rescue. He discovers the bomb on the boat and the snake in the flower basket. He rescues her from the burning house by riding up on a white horse (there’s that trope), and lassos her out of the way of a big boulder rolling downhill toward her (there’s that trope). After she manages to halt the runaway balloon by dropping anchor and then scaling down onto a rock cliff, Harry climbs up to meet her. She responds, “I’m dizzy, Harry. You’ll have to carry me down!”

Wait, I thought you wanted a life of adventure.

Both of them are kind of awful. With the plane, he delays her arrival on the airfield, which prevents her from flying with famed aviator Wilson Smith. Instead only he is killed—in a plane sabotaged by Koerner. No one blinks an eye. Neither she nor Harry wonder about all the attempts on her life. They’re like Tom and Daisy in “Gatsby”: careless people who smash up things and then retreat back into their money and vast carelessness.

It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out, either: all evidence points to Koerner. He’s got motive—the money—and he’s the one forever suggesting these life-threatening escapades. In Chapter 5, “A Watery Doom,” a band of gypsies (yes) dressed as firemen (sure) tie a bound-and-gagged Pauline and Harry in a cellar, which is then flooded by a nearby river. They report back to Koerner: “All is over!” Does Koerner play it tight to the vest? Not exactly. He celebrates by arrogantly firing the butler: “I am the master here now and I no longer require your services!” So, when Harry and Pauline turn up alive, why didn’t the butler say anything? “You know Koerner fired me while you were gone. He said he was the master here. He seemed to think you were both dead.” Instead, oblivious to the end.

Make that oblivious past the end. In the final chapter, on Harry’s yacht, Pauline points to a motorboat and says, “Harry, I should like to go all alone for a short cruise.” She does but Koerner puts a hole in the boat. When she realizes she’s sinking, she bites her fist, then rows to the target practice boat. When she realizes it’s being shelled, she puts a note in the collar of her faithful dog (there’s that trope), who swims to the gunnery. Pauline is saved! Which is when Koerner finally gets his comeuppance. By Pauline? By Harry? Nope. Just some guy. He saw the sabotage, fights Koerner and tosses him in the water. We see Koerner clinging to a log; then he’s underwater and his hands are clawing the air (there’s that trope). Then the end. 

That’s right; They never find out. Instead, Pauline just agrees to marry Harry, and the two live obviously ever after.

Tune in tomorrow
There’s a lot of racism, of course, Indians and gypsies and probably worse which didn’t make the French cut (see slideshow). In the Indian camp, at one point, Pauline is declared a “fair goddess,” which results in happy dancing and kowtowing. “Our deviner has predicted your coming,” a warrior tells her. “You are the white girl who was to spring forth from the ground to lead the warriors of our tribe to victory.” So there’s that trope. 

I like the oddities that resulted from—I imagine—translating title cards from English to French back to English: a reference to Pauline’s “immoral” strength, for example. The balloon ride at Palisades Amusement Park is said to cost $500. That would be more than $12K today. Francs, right?

In his book, “Classics of the Silent Screen,” Joe Franklin says ”The Perils of Pauline“ is the film ”that put serials on the map.“ They‘re still on the map—just hidden. They were replaced by television in the 1950s, then rebooted as single features with A-production values by nostalgic directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1970s. That’s what ”Star Wars“ was, and ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“ Our long national rollercoaster ride began here.


  • A lot of future movie tropes can be seen in ”The Perils of Pauline.“ Example: The heroic man on the horse, and the woman saying, ”They went thataway!" But the biggest trope of all was the damsel in distress. 

  •  As here, from gypsies.

  • And here, from Indians. 

  • Much of the serial is dress-up: Pauline as Indian and race car driver; as aviatrix and scuba diver. 

  • Translating from English to French and then back to English led to some good, garbled title cards. 

  • I guess there is a kind of strength in immorality. 

  • Even when they get it right it's wrong.

  • Some of the racist stereotypes didn't make the French cut. But the French did like the Indians and gypsies.

  • Particularly the gypsies. 

  • Particularly. 

  • Here's our villain. Initially named Owen, he was renamed Koerner in France during WWI, and bears a passing resemblance to disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. 

  • He gets his.  

  • While Harry gets his: Pauline, rescued again, is finally ready to marry.

  • Obliviously ever after. *FIN*
Posted at 08:00 AM on Friday January 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Saturday June 18, 2016

Movie Review: The General (1926)


Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?

I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.

The General Buster KeatonBut the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.

But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”

I know. Don’t extrapolate.

Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.

Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.

Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.  

A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”

And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:

It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.

Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.

I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.

Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.

But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?

Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me. 

Posted at 09:22 AM on Saturday June 18, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday March 01, 2016

Movie Review: The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)

Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in Lime Kiln Club Field Day 

Williams and Grey get ready for their close-up.

Last Monday, at the Paramount in Seattle, as part of “Silent Movie Mondays,” I saw a movie few people have ever seen.

It's called “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” and no worries if you haven't heard of it. It was produced by the Biograph Company in 1913, and starred Bert Williams, a West Indian vaudeville performer who is considered the first black star (headlining shows on Broadway, for example, at a time of the KKK and lynchings in the South), but it was never released. And it would‘ve disappeared completely if, in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art hadn’t bought 900 cans of film that the bankrupt Biograph company was planning to destroy. “Lime Kiln” was among those reels; MOMA didn't know what it had until recently. 

And why do we care? Because it's the first feature-length film with a mostly African-American cast. Williams is in blackface but no one else is. And as fraught as the concept of blackface is, within the confines of the film it feels like another comic mask—like Chaplin's moustache or Keaton's stone face. In the film, it doesn't feel racially derogatory. He's our clown, as Chaplin was. Indeed, one of the startling aspects of the film is how typically “silent film” it is. How long before we got another cinematic portrait of the African-American community that was this positive? Or this neutral? I'm guessing decades.

The plot is fairly simple. Williams is one of three men trying to court a girl, played by the super-stylish Odessa Warren Grey, and things begin to turn in his favor when he inadvertently drops a jug of gin down a well, tainting the water. He then labels the well “Gin Spring” and sells it, or something, and comes into cash. Then he escorts Ms. Grey through the fair, onto the rides (including an early 20th century Merry-Go-Round with brass ring), and to the big dance, where, I believe, he's revealed as a charlatan. No matter. He still gets the girl. The movie ends at her gate with a big kiss. Multiple versions of a big kiss, actually. Spike Lee would be proud. 

If I sound shaky on some of the details it's because no title cards were ever created for the film, and no script was found. The curators at MOMA, including Ron Magliozzi who toured with the film, went so far as to hire lip readers to figure out what was being spoken. Most it was unhelpful ad-libbing. (After the screening, I asked Magliozzi what was being said, and he mentioned that in some scenes, such as when the rivals all show up at Ms. Grey's gate, they‘re actually swearing: “What the fuck are you doing here!” etc. Makes one wonder how R-rated silent films might actually be. Surely a good future project for someone.)

Even without the title cards, though, you pretty much know what’s going on. Indeed, their lack probably helps the film, since we do get title cards in the Bert Williams short, “Natural Born Gambler,” which precedes “Lime Kiln,” and they‘re rendered in the usual, minstrel-y fashion of the time: “de debbil” for “the devil.” To me, the title cards are more problematic than the blackface, which in some ways emphasizes Williams humanity rather than detracting from it. So it’s probably a net positive that “Lime Kiln” doesn't have the cards. It allows the story to be the story. 

The most commented-upon aspect of the film is the cakewalk at the big dance. It feels like the first episode of “Soul Train” ever recorded:

After our screening, there was a discussion, moderated by Seattle Theater Group's marketing director Vivian Williams, and featuring Magliozzi; Teddie Gibson, who composed a score for the film and played on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ; and Dr. Louis Chude-Sokei, a UW professor who's written a book about Williams, “The Last ‘Darky,’”  which I would love to read someday when I don't have a stack of books to get through. I‘ve sat through a lot of these Q&As, and they’re usually death, but this one was great. It had history, disagreement, discussion, insight. I wanted it to keep going. 

So why was the film never released? Magliozzi suggests that once “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, and became a huge hit, and the KKK reformed and everything, it didn't seem like a good idea. But that would mean they kept it in the can for two years? Did they do that with silent films? I'm guessing there's a different answer—one we'll probably never know.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Tuesday March 01, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 02, 2014

Movie Review: Headin' Home (1920)


Did Bernard Malamud ever see this film? He was born in 1914, the movie came out in 1920, so it’s possible. Maybe it made an impression. Maybe it lodged in his unconscious.

I initially assumed that “Headin’ Home“ was made in the flush after Babe Ruth’s 54-homerun season that made him a national sensation, but it was actually made after the 1919 season, when he first set the single-season record with 29 homeruns.That was enough of a big deal to make the film.Babe Ruth: Headin' Home Then he doubled his big deal to 54 homers as the film was released on Sept. 19, 1920. OK, he was actually stuck on 49 that day. The New York Times even talked about a slump the “Mauling Monarch” (a Ruth nickname I’d never heard before) was going through, and opined that Babe’s 50th  “is still in the incubator, and it looks as if it wouldn’t be hatched for a while yet.” Four days to be exact. He hit 50 and 51 on Sept. 24.

In the movie, Ruth plays “Babe,” a misunderstood but well-meaning country bumpkin from the small town of Haverlock. He lives with his mother, or “maw” (Margaret Seddon), his foster-sister Pigtails (Frances Victory, her only film), and their dog Herman. Simon Tobin (James A. Marcus), a banker, owns most everything in town, and he’s got a daughter, Mildred (Ruth Taylor), who’s pretty, and there’s a dog catcher and a local baseball team. The dog catcher is always after Herman and shakes his fist when he doesn’t catch him; the local baseball team is managed by the local barber, who’s Italian, eats garlic, argues with his wife, and doesn’t let Babe play. Instead, he and Simon hire a ringer, Harry Knight (William Sheer, his last film), who turns out to be both a rival for Mildred’s affections and a crook. He’s embezzling money from Tobin’s bank.

In the big game, Babe winds up playing for the visiting town, Highland (shades of the Highlanders, the Yankees’ original name), and in the 9th inning of a 14-14 tie, hits a towering homerun that breaks the window of a church five blocks away. Hero at last! Well, not quite. For this, the town almost lynches him. Then he winds up in New York and becomes a star, so they forgive everything. He marries Mildred after rescuing her from the clutches of Harry Knight, who winds up selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium. Haw haw on him. The End.

Two things are immediately interesting about “Headin’ Home.” The first is the title cards. Written by future Hearst journalist and humor columnist Arthur “Bugs” Baer, they are both archly homespun (dropped g’s, colloquialisms) and filled with sophisticated puns. It’s said, for example, that Ruth “made the Nation of Leagues forget the League of Nations,” while Haverlock is “a little egg and hamlet in the sticks.” Other examples:


  • SLIDESHOW: I like the phony attribution to Darwin. Not sure if the unspoken joke is ”brain“ or something a little more risque for 1920. 

  • An example of the small-town colloqualisms. 

  • The puns. They get out of hand. I can't even decipher this one. Anyone?

  • A good line. Initially I thought these attributions were Haverlock residents but Ricca Allen was a film star at the time.

  • A week after the movie was released, several White Sox players confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series and the White Sox would never be the same.

More interesting, though, is whether “Headin’ Home” influenced the greatest fictional baseball story of all time, “The Natural,” published in 1952.

The first time we see Babe, he’s chopping down a tree. He spends half the movie whittling this tree into a bat, which he uses in the big game to hit his five-block homerun. He doesn’t call it Wonderboy, but right before he hits it, he looks over at Mildred in the stands. She doesn’t stand but she’s definitely urging him on. She’s the lady in white.

Again, who knows if Malamud even saw this thing (and if you know, let me know), but it’s interesting to contemplate. Maybe boys creating bats out of trees were already part of the early, Bunyanesque mythos of baseball that Malamud simply tapped into.

Ruth was hardly the first baseball player to star in a movie—Ty Cobb and Christy Matthewson had starred in some shorts: “Somewhere in Georgia” (1917) and “Matty’s Decision” (1914), respectively—but he was probably the first baseball player to star in a feature-length movie. “Headin’ Home” is five reels and 73 minutes long. Too long, to be honest. It wanders, it ignores Ruth’s rise in baseball, it makes villains of characters only to make victims of them (Si’s son, chiefly, whom Ruth rescues from a “vamp” in the final reel). It got good notices, even in The New York Times, but today it’s mostly interesting as a historical document. But in that it’s pretty interesting.

You know who’s interesting? Babe Ruth. He’s probably the best actor in the movie. You might even call him a natural.


  • SLIDESHOW: The movie starts with all the fans in their straw hats filing into Yankee Stadium to see the Babe. And here he is. So young! And he was: probably 25 when this was filmed, with—believe it or not—only 49 career homers. That year he would add 54 more. Then he was off and running. 

  • Paul Bunyanesque, no? 

  • For the first half of the movie he carries this bat everywhere, whittling it into shape. Shades of ”The Natural.“

  • His history was a bit fudged, of course. He's portrayed as a big sweet boy from a small town, with a sister named Pigtails and a dog named Herman. 

  • Plus a ma. Called ”maw.“ Ruth's own mother died when he was 12. Five years earlier, unable to handle her son, she put him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys: part orphanage, part reform school. He learned baseball there. 

  • The big game. Ruth has gone over to the other side, Highland, as he went over to the other side in real life: the Highlanders.  

  • Look at his physique. Look at that waistline. This is why it was wrong to get John Goodman to play a young Babe.  

  • The lady in white. 

  • Babe and Wonderboy. 

  • Afterwards, Knight attacks Mildred, but ...

  • Babe comes to the rescue. Not through the window but through the door. 

  • Among the final shots: Babe in his element at the Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium, ”the House that Ruth Built," would debut three years later. *FIN*
Posted at 06:04 AM on Saturday August 02, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  
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