The O’Canada Blogathon: BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY (1919)

This post is part of the O’Canada Blogathon hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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In the far northwoods, in a small cabin there lived Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) and her father (Roy Laidlaw).  They are quite happy there living the simple life, alongside the many and varied types of wildlife that Dolores has tamed and made friends of.  Into this idyllic life comes a naturalist, one Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman, who is part author part government inspector.  He is traveling the woods looking for inspiration for his next book and soon becomes the houseguest of Dolores and her father.  During his time there he and Dolores fall in love and their days are spent blissfully together.

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After some time Burke decides to take his leave and continue on his journey toward Ottawa.  In order to make sure that her love will return to her, Dolores steals his manuscript out of his pack before he departs.  At that moment a dangerous criminal is making his way through the underbrush.  Rydal (Wellington Playter) is the master of a trading vessel wanted for murder and he is traveling with his accomplice (Charles B. Murphy).  While Rydal sits by the fire he is confronted by a Canadian Mountie who places him under arrest.  But as they are heading back to the post, Rydal’s accomplice ambushes them and kills the mountie.  The two head off with Rydal now dressed as a mountie.  They soon happen upon Dolores who is taking a bath in the nearby pool along with her friend bear.

Rydal is taken with the young beauty and decides that he wants to see more of her.  Much more.  So he pretends to be a wounded mountie and seeks shelter with Dolores and her father.  While Dolores is hesitant, her father welcomes the two men with open arms and they spend the night.  The next morning, emboldened by his dreams overnight, Rydal decides to make his move while her father is away gathering wood.  With his accomplice blocking the door, Rydal attacks Dolores and soon her screams bring her father rushing back.  In the ensuing struggle Rydal’s accomplice is killed by Dolores’ father and Rydal, playing the part of the mountie, arrests him declaring that he will take him back to the post for trial.  Meanwhile, Burke has realized that his manuscript has gone missing and is returning to Dolores’ home in order to retrieve it.  He arrives to find a dead man in the doorway and the house empty.  Following the path he sees Dolores, who watches in horror as Rydal throws her father over a cliff.  She dives in after him and Burke dives in after her.  The two of them pull Dolores’ father’s lifeless body from the water as Rydal makes his escape.

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One year later, Burke and Dolores are married and now living in an apartment in the city.  Burke is working on his writing and Dolores is pining for the fjords, or at least her little cabin in the woods with her animal friends.  A telegram arrives from the Department of the Interior telling Burke that arrangements have been made for them both to sail to Halifax on the Flying Moon, a trading vessel that will take them up towards Baffin Island and into the Arctic.  After several days onboard Dolores and Burke are curious as they have not yet seen their captain.  When they do see him, Dolores wishes that they hadn’t.  The captain is none other than Rydal and he has not forgotten Dolores or his designs on her.

With an estimated budget of $67,000 BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY became one of Canda’s first major motion pictures and it was the most successful silent Canadian film.  The film was directed by David Hartford and produced by Nell Shipman and her husband, Ernest Shipman.  Nell Shipman had created Shipman Curwood Producing Company in 1918 in order to make BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY, which would end up being the only film the company produced.  The screenplay was based on a story written by James Oliver Curwood entitled Wapi, The Walrus, and was adapted by Nell Shipman herself.  This adaptation caused some issues with Curwood, who took exception to the fact that Nell took facets of Wapi and molded them into the character of Dolores.  She created a heroine who took on men and won, saved her love, and generally kicked bottom.  Curwood was mad because this character was portrayed by a dog in his story.

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Well, sorry to Mr. Curwood but if BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY was about a dog then I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half so much.  In fact the main reason this film is so successful is Nell Shipman and her portrayal of Dolores.  The men try but they come up pretty one dimensional.  Burke is pretty vanilla as far as romantic heroes go and Rydal is a  slightly over the top melodramatic baddie.  But Dolores is fantastic!  Nell Shipman is lovely but not in a traditionally beautiful way and her body is real and natural.  She is a fit and athtletic woman and it shows.  She also loved nature and animals which is something that really comes through with her animal co-stars.  Nell Shipman does a fantastic job of bringing an empowered and intelligent heroine of her own making to life.

This is by no means a perfect film.  Along with the previously mentioned less than impressive male characters, there are also some instances of “brown-face” and some less than sensitive ethnic portrayals.  But Nell Shipman is fantastic and the Canadian wilderness is on grand display here making BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY an example of early Canadian cinema well worth seeing.  So if you are intrigued here is the film, restored beautifully by Library and Archives Canada.  Of note there is no musical score accompanying this film but it is gorgeous version with lovely color tinting.

 

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The Backstage Blogathon: SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

This post is part of The Backstage Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out all the other posts here and here!

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Two new arrivals have come to Hollywood.  They are young Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) and her father, Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson), and they have come to make Peggy a star!  They make their way to the casting office in the hopes of landing a big role for Peggy thanks to, or perhaps in spite of, her acting abilities.  But things don’t go as well as they hoped and father and daughter are soon scraping by on soup and saltines in the movie lot cafeteria.  It is here that they meet Billy Boone (William Haines), a fairly successful comedic actor who works turning out slapstick flicks quickly and cheaply.

Billy is a bit brash and takes the southerners by surprise, but soon reveals himself to be a kind and helpful friend to have on the movie lot.  Peggy is initially standoffish but quickly warms up when Billy, who has taken a shine to the movie novice, promises to help her break into movies.  Peggy wants to be a great dramatic actress, so when she shows up the next morning she is ready to bring forth all the emotions needed.  Unfortunately, the only emotion Peggy needs is shock because Billy hasn’t told her that she will be making her big acting debut taking a deluge of seltzer water to the face.  At first, Peggy is horrified and refuses to go on.  But after taking some time to talk to Billy, and remembering that Gloria Swanson got her start in comedy, she decides to take it on the chin and dive into comedy.  Soon she and Billy are quite the successful comedy duo and romance is blooming offscreen as well.  But soon the big studios come sniffing around and they want Peggy…only Peggy.  Billy encourages her to take a chance on her career and follow her dream.  Somewhat reluctantly, Peggy takes her leave from comedy and heads off to the big leagues of drama.  Before too long Peggy has gained a giant ego, an insufferable attitude, and a new leading man.

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Marion Davies used her life as inspiration for SHOW PEOPLE.  In real like Marion Davies was a dramatic actress who longed to be in comedy.  In addition to her own life, Marion Davies also borrowed from the early career of Gloria Swanson and the book/play/film MERTON OF THE MOVIES.  Peggy is portrayed as somewhat of a simple country girl, a bit prissy, who dreams of making a big impact in the world of drama before being helped by a worldly comedic stunt actor a la Merton.  Peggy also starts off in the world of slapstick before moving on the period dramas with extravagant costumes and sets a la Gloria Swanson.  For her part, Marion Davies made SHOW PEOPLE in spite of the objections of William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst and Davies were in a long-term relationship during which Hearst used his considerable influence to control the direction of Davies’ career.  There are rumors that her frequent appearance in historical costume dramas came about because Hearst liked to see his lover in fancy ballgowns.  Whether or not this is true, Davies wanted to make comedy and specifically this comedy and she didn’t let anything stand in her way.  Hearst felt that slapstick was beneath her and would ruin her reputation but Davies went ahead anyway.  Of note, the seltzer water was supposed to be a pie in the original script but Hearst insisted on the change.

This is my first experience with Marion Davies and now I am eager to see more.  I am used to silent comedies being more physically based, but this is one of the most witty comedies that I have seen for a long time.  Davies makes some fantastic facial expressions that not only make you laugh just because they are funny, but also because there are subtle ribs at other stars of the silent eras.  If you are an avid silent film fan or historian of the silent era there are easter eggs galore for you to find.  But more than that, I was surprised to see what a fabulous actress Marion Davies is as a whole.  She not only is a skilled and witty comedienne, capable of physical comedy as well as verbal gags, but she is also able to convey emotions with an honesty and realism that was amazing to watch.  The fact that she stood up to the man she loved and did what she wanted to make her career what she desired it to be only makes her more fantastic.

William Haines was a big surprise to me.  I wasn’t sure what to think of him at first, as he started with his Sennet-esque impression.  He was funny to be sure but Marion was funnier, at least to me.  But when the quiet moments came, the loving moments between Billy and Peggy, the moments when real emotion was needed, William Haines truly shined.  Billy looks at Peggy with true adoration and genuine affection which William Haines does to perfection.  His over the top comedy and his brash attitude at the beginning melt away to reveal this kind and thoughtful man underneath.  It is because of his emotional honesty combined with Marion Davies’ that SHOW PEOPLE has impact where is does instead of being “just a comedy”.

SHOW PEOPLE is a great look at the Hollywood of the silent era.  Not only is the story a tribute to the history of the industry, but there are silent stars a-plenty to spot in this film.  Some of those making cameos are Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies (no, that is not a typo), John Gilbert, Elinor Glyn, Louella Parsons, and Norma Talmadge.  And that isn’t even all of them!  If you know everything or nothing about the silent film industry you can enjoy SHOW PEOPLE.  And you never know, you might just learn something too.  I know I did!


 

Both Marion Davies and William Haines recently had episodes dedicated to them on the You Must Remember This podcast.  Marion’s episode is here and William’s is here.  Highly recommended listening to anyone who wants to know more about these talented performers.

Thoughts On My Month of Silents and Other Things; An October Wrap-Up

The month of October has come to an end and with it so has my month-long viewing of silent movies. Overall, I have to say that I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this month. As I said, going in I had a very limited experience with silent films. My main exposure had come from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  I had never seen silent dramas or even other comedies.  I knew the names of people like Lillian Gish and Louise Brooks but I had never seen them on film.  And I have to admit that I probably was suffering under the delusion of several common myths about silent films.  Well, this month changed all that for me.  Here is some of what I learned.

Frame Rate and Silent Films – Going in I had no idea that many silent films were shown at incorrect, or sound film, frame rates.  This means that the reason people in silent films used to look jumpy and twitchy was because the film was being played at too high a rate of speed.  It would be like watching a movie on fast forward the whole time.

Women in Silent Films – Women were kind of awesome during the time of silent films.  Not only were they directors, writers, and editors, they were also actors playing roles that allowed them to be smart, strong, and funny.  Of course you still can find examples of the weepy damsel in distress but I was pleasantly surprised just how many of these films allowed women to be just as tough as the men.

Colleen Moore and Lon Chaney – No this is not Hollywood’s newest power couple.  This was my first time seeing either of these actors in any film and I was hooked!  Colleen Moore is a fabulous comedienne and from the brief bit that I have read, a smart and capable lady in her own life.  When people think of dark haired silent film actresses with a bob most will think of Louise Brooks but I will think of Colleen Moore and her dance in ELLA CINDERS.  As for Lon Chaney…man oh, man.  I am STILL not recovered from watching THE PENALTY.  That man is amazing.

Silent Films and Your Brain – This is something that I realized over the course of the month and I feel like it is important.  Silent films require your brain.  They require your attention.  We’ve all done it, started watching a movie on TCM or on a DVD and then done something else.  We’ve checked our phones, our email, our Facebook or Twitter.  We’ve gone into the kitchen to get a snack or check on dinner.  All the while we are keeping half an ear out for the dialogue of the film we are “watching” in order to keep tabs on what is going on.  But with silent films you can’t do that, if you aren’t paying attention you miss dialogue and plot.  You miss the film.  And it was an adjustment at first, the urge to check stuff is hard to resist, but after a time I found that not only was I able to pay attention without wandering off but it was also nice to do so.  These days we are given so many options for input that we often split our attention twenty times or more without realizing it, and often to our deficit.  Watching silent films was a respite from that and it felt nice to finally block everything else out and just watch the movie.  It is a habit that I am going to strive to carry over into my daily life.

Sherlock Holmes and TwitterFlicker Alley recently organized a live tweet during the TCM premiere of the 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette.  Not only was the film enjoyable but the experience of watching a newly discovered silent film with a community of classic film lovers was even better.  I hope that Flicker Alley and TCM collaborate again in the future!

My month of silent films was really enjoyable and I can say that I think I have become a silent film junkie.  I’m almost sad to leave the world of strictly silents.  But never fear!  I will now be making a point to watch more silent films, along with my talkies, so you will see more posts on the blog for sure!

Other Things of Interest – I have just started reading Swanson on Swanson written by (you guessed it) Gloria Swanson.  I am only about a chapter and a half in but really enjoying it so far.  I am looking forward to learning more about Gloria Swanson as when I think of her now my first thought is SUNSET BOULEVARD.  My Dad sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal about why we keep physical copies of media in the age of the cloud.  This was an interesting read to me as I am the sort of person who will read an article online or watch a movie on my iPad, but still prefer print books and DVDs (and Blu Rays).  Also, if you are looking for an introduction to silent films, Fritzi of Movies Silently is running a series of articles providing just that.

Favorite Film Discovery of the Month – This was tough but I would have to say THE PENALTY with Lon Chaney.  While I saw a lot of great films this month this is the one that has stuck with me the longest.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when the film started but by the time my husband came and found me at the halfway point I was totally hooked.  I think my exact words to him were, “This film is CRAZY!  You have to see it!”.


That was my month of October!  How was yours?  Any new discoveries?  

The Universal Blogathon: OH, DOCTOR! (1925)

This post is part of the Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

Wrapping up my month of silents comes a quirky and thoroughly entertaining comedy from Universal starring Reginald Denny and Mary Astor!

Rufus Billop (Reginald Denny) was born with a thermometer in his mouth and a bottle of medication in his hand.  That is to say that dear old Rufus was a wee bit frail when he was born, so much so that he had to spend some time in an incubator when he was an infant, and though he survived the experience left him a hopeless hypochondriac.  Matters weren’t helped much by the fact that pretty much everyone in his family fed his delusions, all except for his Aunt Beulah (Lucille Ward).  Rufus has now grown up into a man dominated by his neurosis and is stuck living with Aunt Beulah because he has outlived every other member of his family.  For her part, Aunt Beulah is under the impression that all Rufus needs is some red meat and a visit from a twelve foot tall lady osteopath.

Rufus prefers the company of other, more conventional doctors.  He is visited by one such doctor, Doctor Seaver (Clarence Geldart), who realizes at once that Rufus is far healthier than he thinks he is.  Dr. Seaver becomes much more interested when he hears about Rufus’ financial prospects.  Although Rufus has no money of his own at present, he stands to inherit $750,000 as long as he stays alive for the next three years.  While Rufus is certain that he will be dead long before that ever happens, Dr. Seaver convinces him to take out a loan against his inheritance so that he can spend the money to have his final months spent in the comfort that any dying man might wish.  As luck would have it, Dr. Seaver also knows just the fellows who would be willing to take on this deal!

Mr. Clinch, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Peck (Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts) are willing to loan Rufus $100,000 in exchange for the rights to his inheritance.  After an extensive medical examination Rufus is declared an absolutely healthy hypochondriac and therefore a completely risk-free investment.  Rufus is touched that these men are willing to help make him comfortable in what he is sure are his final days.  After receiving the money, Rufus sets about creating an oasis of hypochondriacal desires, complete with his own personal nurse.  When Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck go to visit him they find Rufus apparently at death’s door having been ushered closer to there by his nurse, Death Watch Mary (Martha Mattox).  In a panic that their meal ticket might be punched too early, the three men rush off to Dr. Seaver who prescribes a change of scenery for Rufus.

The change of scenery comes in the form of a new nurse named Dolores (Mary Astor).  Dolores is not only young and pretty, but she also believes in sunshine, fresh air, and not paying Rufus any mind.  Rufus does indeed sit up and take notice of Dolores and decides to take a good hard look at himself.  What he sees is not impressive and Rufus is determined to make himself into a new man.  He will become a man who, to quote his pretty young maid (Helen Lynch), is “not afraid of nothing!”

Rufus’ new life begins with pork chops.  From there it is a short leap to new clothes, a new car, a new driver, and some snappy dance moves.  Of course Rufus begins to take things too far and does things like crashing a motorcycle, driving his car on the wrong side of a racetrack during a race, and begins reading up on deep sea diving, aviation, and steeplejack tricks.  This new found lust for life is shortening the collective lives of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  If Rufus gets himself killed they won’t get their money!  The only person he listens to is Dolores, whom he has taken a particular fancy to, so the three men go off to enlist her help.  Dolores however has caught on to their scheme and has been coming up with one of her own to save Rufus from himself, as well as Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.

Reginal Denny is one of those actors who I know from sight but not by name.  But I know him like this…

Not like this…

So imagine my surprise when I realized that the man who I knew from MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE was the same man crashing a motorcycle in OH, DOCTOR!  Denny was an Englishman and a WWI veteran of the Royal Flying Corps who made a name for himself in silent film by playing the “All-American” guy in comedy films.  I have to say that I found his brand of humor quite refreshing.  While the comedy stylings of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin can sometimes be a little out there when it comes to gag set ups, OH, DOCTOR! features comedy based on real life situations.  Rufus is goofy and quirky certainly but he is goofy and quirky in the realm of reality.  As a nurse I can’t tell you how many of these moments reminded me of patients, and family members, that I had encountered over the years.  I loved the parts when Dolores is practically, and sometimes literally, rolling her eyes at Rufus.  I could completely sympathize.

I was first introduced to Mary Astor via THE PALM BEACH STORY.  Seeing her run circles around Rudy Vallee, Joel McCrea, and “Toto” made me sit up and take notice of this dynamic woman.  I had no idea that she had a career in silent film prior to watching this film and let me say she is just as “sit up and take notice” as ever, which is even more impressive given the fact that she was only eighteen when this film was made. As an aside, can I ask why teenagers in classic/silent films are always twenty times more sophisticated than I ever was at that age?

Anyway, Dolores is fantastic.  Her moments with Rufus when she is first dealing with his neurosis are hysterical, especially to any healthcare professionals who will know exactly where she is coming from.  Not only that but she is also a genuinely smart person.  Sure she likes Rufus and dresses up in a pretty dress to impress him, but she also very quickly gets a read on his situation and figures out a way to deal with it.  No running off to Rufus for help, no soppy weeping for mercy at the feet of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  Dolores, like Rufus and his comedy, feels very rooted in reality and it makes her an even more enjoyable character as a result.

I was classify OH, DOCTOR! as a charming comedy.  It is different than most silent era comedies but is just as funny.  It also has a wealth of great character actors who are all serving up their A-games.  This was one of those films where I enjoyed the supporting cast just as much as the main characters.  The only sour note in the film would have to be the racially sterotyped intertitles given to the Chinese gardener, Chang (George Kuwa).  While this was typical of the time, although it was rare that an Asian character would be played by an Asian actor, it is still a bit jarring in practice.  Luckily it is only a few instances and not enough to ruin what is otherwise a really fun film that is deserving of a good deal more attention.  Don’t worry, I won’t make any jokes about it being just what the doctor ordered.  Even though it is.


Fritz of Movies Silently is the one who introduced this film to me through her great review which can be found here.

Gems From Grapevine: ELLA CINDERS (1926)

I first heard the name of Colleen Moore during the most recent TCM Film Festival.  All over Twitter and the classic film blogosphere were rave reviews of a film called WHY BE GOOD? and the lead actress, Colleen Moore.  While I do have a copy of WHY BE GOOD?, one which I am sorry to say that I haven’t watched yet, my first exposure to Colleen Moore’s talents has come from another film called ELLA CINDERS.  Why how do you do, Miss Moore?  I’m a big fan.

ELLA CINDERS is a retelling of the age old tale of Cinderella but which a bit more pep.  Ella (Colleen Moore) is the unfortunate stepdaughter of Ma Cinders (Vera Lewis), who has apparently talked two husbands to death.  From the first husband she received two pills in the form of her daughters.  Prissy Pill (Emily Gerdes) is the eldest followed by Lotta Pill (Doris Baker) both daughters of Mr. Pill, Ma Cinder’s first victim.  Ella spends her days running about the house, washing furnaces and dishes, making food, and running a rolling pin up and down Ma Cinder’s back.  The only bright spot in her life is her friendship with the hunky ice man, Waite Lifter (Lloyd Hughes), who is the only one to treat her with any kindness or consideration.

Life seems as if it will continue on much the same until the news comes that a beauty contest is being held.  The winner will receive an all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood to break into movies and become a big star.  Naturally, Lotta and her family believe that she is the natural choice for such a prize.  Ella wants to enter the contest too but her chances of winning seem unlikely as Lotta has a manual on acting to study and she does not.  Luckily, Lotta is a heavy sleeper and Ella has nimble fingers.  Her stolen prize safely in her arms, Ella runs off to her room to do some late night studying.  She spends the next few days working overtime and babysitting the neighbor’s kids in order to get the extra money needed to have her headshots taken by a professional photographer.

The day dawns that Ella is due to have her picture taken.  She arrives in a flurry of excitement all ready to blow the judges away with her practiced posing, but there is one small problem.  There is a fly in the studio and it seems to have taken a shine to Ella.  She tries her best to remain composed and smile like the starlet she hopes to be but to no avail.  The photographer snaps away and then sends Ella on with promises that he will give her photographs to the judges.

A ball is being held to announce the winner of the beauty contest and everyone is going except Ella.  She sadly sits at home until Waite arrives and convinces her that she deserves to go just as much as everyone.  Ella agrees and takes one of her stepsister’s dresses to wear.  At the ball Lotta has lined up with rest of the entrants, or the losers as she thinks of them, and is presenting herself to the judges.  Ella and Waite show up with Ella too nervous to get in line.  Some clever moves by Waite get Ella to the head of the queue and she is soon in front of the judges.  Oddly though the judges all burst into laughter when looking at her photograph.  When she takes a closer look, Ella is horrified to see that the photographer has submitted a picture of her with the fly!  Needless to say it is not a beauty shot.  Ma Cinders and her daughters descend on Ella and the judges, demanding to know just what she thinks she is doing her, and in the chaos Ella runs off leaving her shoe behind.

Will Ella make to Hollywood?  Will Lotta spoil everything?  Does Waite Lifter ever tell Ella how he feels?  Can a simple housefly get his big break?

Based on the comic strip of the same name, which was written by Bill Consulman and drawn by Charles Plumb, Ella Cinders as a character was in the public eye from 1925 until 1961.  The strip and character were so popular that they managed to secure a film adaptation one year after they first appeared making ELLA CINDERS one of the very first film adaptations of a comic.  Directed by Alfred E. Green and produced by Colleen Moore’s then husband John McCormick, ELLA CINDERS is a delightful movie. In fact I would call it stinking adorable. It also happens to be completely funny and irreverent to boot.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most in ELLA CINDERS was how pretty much everyone in the film just goes 100% and hams it up with gleeful abandon.  With the possible exception of Lloyd Hughes, who is very nice to look at but perhaps a wee bit stiffer than his co-stars, everyone jumps in with both feet to characters that are not deep and nuanced but extremely funny and entertaining.  There are some great cameos most notably from Harry Langdon.  I had never seen Harry Langdon before but after this small taste I want to see more!  With a dour expression reminiscent of Buster Keaton (and we all know how I love Buster Keaton), Harry Langdon is hilarious as the very confused comic whose movie set Ella crashes.  He and Colleen Moore riff off each other and the result is one of the funniest scenes in the film.  Also keep an eye out for director Alfred E Green playing…a film director!

Let’s take a minute here and talk Colleen Moore.  Having just seen a Louise Brooks film it seems only fitting to give Colleen Moore some credit for popularizing the bob.  Starting her career in 1917 with THE BAD BOY, Colleen Moore’s career continued to grow and her popularity increase.  She was one of the most fashionable stars of the 1920s and at the height of her career was earning $12,500 a week.  She is also one of the most charming, wittiest, and physically able female comediennes I have seen.  Without Colleen Moore this film would not be as wonderful as it is.  She takes what would usually be a simple Cinderella retelling and turns it into an utterly charming and funny story.  Her portrayal of Ella is funny, timid, resilient, clever, and adorable.  Colleen Moore and Harry Langdon are in the running to be my favorite silent film comedian discoveries this month and ELLA CINDERS is definitely my favorite comedy of October!

I will leave you with some Colleen Moore to enjoy.


Want to read more about ELLA CINDERS?  You can find some more fabulous blog posts here and here!

Cinema From Kino: DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929)

Recently Kino Lorber released a new Blu-Ray of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL and since it happened to be during my month of silents, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to take my first foray into Louise Brooks.

Based on the novel Tagebuch einer Verlorenen written by Margarete Böhme and published in 1905, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was the second pairing of Louise Brooks and her PANDORA’S BOX director Georg Wilhelm Pabst.

Thymian Henning (Louise Brooks) is the daughter of pharmacist Robert Henning (Josef Rovenský).  Unfortunately, Thymian’s father is a serial housekeeper impregnator.  Apparently dear old Dad likes nothing more than to take his housekeepers for all they are worth and then throw them out on the street when they become pregnant.  The latest victim of Dad’s loving ways is Elisabeth, who is begging Robert to reconsider when Thymian comes in.  She is all ready for her confirmation day party and is stunned when she discovers that Elisabeth is leaving.  While she questions her father as to why this is all happening, Elisabeth runs from the building. Thymian takes after her but is too late to catch her but is just in time to run into the creepy assistant pharmacist, Meinert (Fritz Rasp).  Meinert, like his boss, has some less than savory hobbies which include photographs of naked women.  He also has a weakness for virginal young girls and Thymian just so happens to fit the bill perfectly.  Meinert is interrupted in his lecherous musings by the arrival of the rest of the party guests, including the younger Count Osdorff (André Roanne) who gives Thymian a necklace to celebrate.

The party kicks off and everyone is having a fine time until there is a knock at the door.  Several man have come bearing a litter with a body.  Pulling back the blanket, Thymian reveals the face of Elisabeth who has thrown herself into the river and drowned.  She runs back inside to find her father cozying up to the newest housekeeper, Meta (Franziska Kinz).  Thymian faints and is put to bed by her aunt with a glass of wine and a plate of food.  Stunned, Thymian is restless and unable to sleep.  Coming down to the pharmacy she confides in Meinert that she feels so alone.  Meinert promises to stand by her and to tell her the truth of why Elisabeth killed herself.  Thymian swoons again and is carried off to her bed by Meinert, who then proceeds to take advantage of her.

Nine months later Thymian gives birth to a baby girl.  Robert and the rest of the family have no idea who the father is until Meta produces Thymian’s diary, which she had received as a confirmation gift.  Meinert gladly acknowledges that he is the baby’s father but has no desire to marry Thymian, especially since the pharmacy is in such terrible debt.  For her part, Thymian refuses to marry him as she does not love him.  Stymied by this, the family now must decide what is to be done with Thymian and her baby.  The child is given to a local midwife and Thymian is sent to a reform school.  This school for wayward girls is run by a tyrannical woman (Valeska Gert) and her nine foot tall, bald assistant (Andrews Engelmann).

Thymian is miserable at the reform school.  Her days are spent in strict routine complete with bizarre exercises, tasteless soup, and dull, gray uniforms.  She has only one friend, a girl named Erika (Edith Meinhard), and her diary to confide in.  She sends word to the young Count Osdorff, begging him to talk to her father on her behalf.  Unfortunately, her father has now married Meta and is expecting a child.  He has no interest in the daughter he sent away.  For his part, Count Osdorff has just been disowned by his uncle (the older Count Osdorff) and set adrift in the world without a penny, his uncle having been discouraged by his nephew’s lack of industry.

Osdorff the younger comes to visit Thymian and tells her that her father is not coming to help but that he has a plan.  He tells her to meet him outside that night and they will escape together.  Thymian manages to escape thanks in part to Erika and the other girls, who literally hold down the matron and her assistant while beating them in time to a gong, and she and Erika run off into the night with Osdorff.  Erika tells Thymian that she has just the place where they can go but Thymian wants to go and find her lost child.  Erika gives her the address of the brothel she works at and tells her to meet her there.  While Erika and Osdorff go off, Thymian makes her way back to the midwife she had left her child with so many months ago.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was filmed in the golden era of the Weimar Republic in Germany, in the final years before the Nazi party took power.  During the period of hyperinflation in the years before many German intellectuals had spoken out, condemning the extravagant capitalism they witnessed and demanding a cultural revolution.  As a result, German literature, film, music, and art entered into a period of creativity.  Cabaret and jazz become popular, young women dressed in a modern and “Americanized” fashion, and Josephine Baker was called an “erotic goddess”.  Into this world came Louise Brooks and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL.

Not everyone was happy with the cultural changes they saw, with many conservatives fearing that Germany was betraying her traditional values and becoming too American especially being influenced by American cinema and fashion.  While DIARY OF A LOST GIRL was originally written as a supposed autobiography of a former prostitute, the film takes a different bent and seems to be commenting on the culture of the time as well as the obvious sexual issues.  Erika and the women of the brothel are dressed in modern clothes, have modern furniture and decor, listen to modern music, and wear their hair like the flappers they see in America.  By contrast, the inhabitants of the reform school seem to be a call back to the days before the Republic.  All dressed the same with slicked back hair, no makeup, all moving in time to the beat of the drum as they go about their daily tasks and exercises.  But in their private moments the girls let loose with cigarettes and card games, finally able to literally let their hair down.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL is a story about sex.  Let’s be honest about that.  It starts with Thymian’s father and his housekeeper problem.  Then there is Meinert and his photographs.  It is heavily implied that the inhabitants of the reformatory school have several sexual issues of their own, including the possibility of voyeurism and sadomasochism.  For me, when watching this film I was struck by how the many adults of the film react with fear and disgust at Thymian’s newly discovered sexuality.  I understand that at the time when the book was written and the film was made things were different, but are they really that different now?  Thymian is looked at as dirty and unclean after having been taken advantage of my Meinert, who is only given a sideways glance for his part in the proceedings.  Thymian’s father is all too happy to judge his daughter for her behavior but how is he any better?  Oddly enough, the only times that anyone is kind or friendly to Thymian it is when she is surrounded by other women.  The women in the reform school and the women in the brothel actually surround each other with support and kindness, rather than cutting each other down.  The so-called proper women, married women, women like Meta, are the ones who are often the cruelest to Thymian and the other lost girls.  Why is this?  Why is it acceptable for Meta to sleep with her boss simply because she marries him?  Why is it only acceptable for a woman to use her sexuality when it is in a way that benefits a man or the role society has created for her?  Why is it not the same for a man?  These are not new questions unfortunately but they are still important ones.

DIARY OF A LOST GIRL seems to be a film that is straddling two worlds but in unsure which one is the better of the two.  On the one side there is the world of the acceptable societal mores, the roles that women are meant to fill, the world of the reform school with its order and discipline, the world before the Weimar Republic.  On the other side there is the world of Erika, the brothel, the freedom of the young people, the world of jazz and cabaret, the modern world.  Which one is better?  At the end of the day it is the reactions of the people around her that shape Thymian’s world but it is her reactions to what happens around her that shape who she is and keep her from being truly lost.

Cinema from Kino: THE PENALTY (1920)

Lon Chaney, you guys.  Lon.  Chaney.  I mean…I just…WOW.  THE PENALTY from Kino Lorber is my first experience with The Man of a Thousand Faces and I am ready for my fan girl kit.

Spoiler Warning Ahoy!  In order to have a discussion about this film I will be talking about some major plot points but not the ending.  It goes without saying, spoilers ahead!

A young and relatively inexperienced new surgeon by the name of Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), has just completed his first big operation.  Unfortunately, he has not done as well as he would have liked.  His patient, a young boy who had been run over, was suffering from badly injured legs and a contusion to the back of his head. Ferris has hastily amputated both of his legs.  When his more seasoned colleague arrives, Ferris learns that he has made a terrible mistake and never should have cut off the boy’s legs.  The two doctors are discussing what they should do when the boy’s parents come in.  They rush to comfort their son while the doctors inform them that the boy’s legs had to go in order to save his life.  At this moment their patient speaks up, unbeknownst to the doctors he was awake and overheard their entire conversation.  He knows perfectly well that he did not need to lose his legs.  The doctors tell the parents that the child is hallucinating because of the ether and prepare to move on with their lives.

Twenty-seven years later and the boy has grown into a man, a terrible man driven by anger and a thirst for revenge.  Blizzard (Lon Chaney) is the kingpin of the underworld and he rules with an iron fist.  He has sent out one of his junkie underlings to a dance hall where a prostitute is stealing a drunken man’s wallet.  When she rounds the corner the junkie grabs her, a brief look of terror and recognition crosses her face before the knife pierces her side.  She falls, hanging limply from the balcony as the patrons below scream in horror before taking off after the assailant.  The junkie manages to elude his captors and finds his way back to Blizzard where he receives drugs in payment for his services.

The Secret Service is concerned with Blizzard and his criminal operations, but they are even more concerned lately as all Blizzard’s dancing girls have been recalled and are hard at work day and night making straw hats.  The only girls who escape the work room are the ones who are used as Blizzard’s mistresses and pedal pushers.  Blizzard is a man of contrasts and has a passion for the piano.  He plays the keys while the women work the pedals for as long as they please him with both their pedal work and other things.  The head of the Secret Service, Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), has decided to send an agent into Blizzard’s workshop to discover the truth of what he is planning.  His most daring agent is Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) and she has agreed to undertake this dangerous mission.  When warned that this job will be the most dangerous one yet, one that might actually lead to her death, Rose replies that it is just another day in the office.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ferris is still practicing medicine.  He now has a younger colleague named Dr. Wilmot Allen and a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams).  Wilmot is in love with Barbara but frustrated because she has decided to pursue her career as an artist rather than settle down immediately and marry him.  When he comes to visit her at her studio one day, he starts the conversation that they must have three times a week.  Barbara doesn’t want to marry him until she feels that she has finally done something worthwhile and valuable.  In fact her latest sculpture is going to be entitled “Satan After The Fall” and she hopes it will be a great success, just as soon as she finds models who look like the devil.  She places an advertisement in the paper that literally says “If you look like the devil come to this address”.

Blizzard sees that his chance to take revenge has finally arrived and he presents himself to Barbara.  Barbara, though initially shocked at Blizzard’s appearance, welcomes him into her studio.  Her boy assistant, named Bubbles, warns her that the man sitting before her is one of the most dangerous people in the city.  She dismisses his concerns and begins sculpting.

While Blizzard is away the mice will play.  Rose has become quite a fixture in Blizzard’s factory.  She not only works with the girls but Blizzard has taken her on as his newest mistress as her musical experience makes her a pedal pusher extraordinaire.  When Blizzard is off modeling for Barbara, Rose takes to exploring Blizzard’s private rooms in the hopes of discovering what he is planning.  One day she finds a secret passage in the fireplace and climbing down discovers an armory with guns and straw hats at the ready, and a fully functional operating room.

Blizzard returns from his latest modeling session and finds a hairpin in his office.  Blizzard is no fool and knows that someone has been snooping, and the only woman with access to these rooms is…  “Rose?  Can you come in here?”  Rose enters with trepidation and Blizzard commands her to come and pedal for him while he plays “a death song”.  As the music builds he tells her that they are playing a song to murder by but then the music takes him and when the song is over, Rose is still alive and Blizzard’s anger is spent.  He could never have played that way without her help.  He lets her live and return to work but now with a watchful eye ever on her.  Rose’s cover is blown and all her messages back to the home office are being intercepted.  But something has changed and Rose is having thoughts she never had before.

One evening Blizzard decides to let his second in command in on his master plan.  He intends to take over the city with straw hatted anarchists.  On a chosen date and time an explosion will rock the area and act as the signal for the chaos to begin.  While his men murder and pillage, Blizzard will be taking his personal revenge.

THE PENALTY took me completely by surprise.  I started watching with no idea what to expect and found myself sucked in and loving every dark, twisted moment.  This is due mostly to the magnetic performance of Lon Chaney.  I had heard that Lon Chaney was a master of makeup, seeming to disappear inside the various characters he portrayed.  There was a joke that went around during his career.  “Don’t step on that cockroach!”, people would say, “It might be Lon Chaney!”  Well, I believe it.  Let’s just take a moment and recognize that the man portrays a double amputee.  This is before the time of green screen and CGI, mind you.  As I watched the first scene I figured that Lon Chaney, who was standing facing the camera, was wearing the braces up to his knees but had his legs sticking out behind him but hidden from the camera.  Then he turned around.  WHERE WERE HIS LEGS?!  Chaney famously wore the leg braces by putting his knees into the bottom cups and then tying his legs up behind him.  It was so painful that he could only tolerate it for ten minutes at a time and even suffered permanent muscle damage as a result.  Chaney then bulked up his frame to hide the extra bulge (which you cannot see at all) of his legs and when he was done the illusion was so convincing that the original film was released with a clip showing Lon Chaney walking on his own two legs.  This clip has since been lost.

Not only is Chaney stunning in his use of makeup and effects, he is stunning in his acting.  All the makeup in the world wouldn’t matter if the actor couldn’t use it to affect the audience and Chaney more than delivers.  Blizzard is utterly terrifying and twisted, we feel the danger and unpredictability radiating off of him.  But Chaney manages to keep it just short of cartoonish, allowing there to be an emotional core to Blizzard’s evil.  There is a method to his madness and while we recoil from Blizzard and his evil deeds, we are still drawn to him.  In the scene when Blizzard makes Rose play “a song to murder by” we see the entire range of emotions played out in Chaney’s features.  At the beginning we know, with complete certainty, that Rose is dead and that Blizzard is going to kill her with his own hands.  As the song progresses Blizzard relaxes and we can see the music taking over and soothing his anger.  In the end, Blizzard has lost his angry passion and we see what is left.  Hurt, exhaustion, and resignation.  Chaney does all of this with his face and all in the span of a few minutes.  The final few scenes also offer Chaney a chance to dazzle.  There is a moment where something happens to Blizzard that alters him completely and Chaney’s entire face changes.  He still looks like Blizzard but somehow he doesn’t.  He has changed without changing at all.

THE PENALTY  released by Kino Lorber comes with the options of two different scores if you buy the Blu-Ray.  The DVD, which is the copy that I own, only offers one and it is not the sort of score you are used to.  A modern scoring complete with synthesizers, techno beats, and some orchestration, this musical accompaniment for THE PENALTY is quite controversial.  Many people dislike it.  I liked it, I liked it a lot.  At first I had to get used to it, having gone in expecting the usual piano and violin music, but as the movie progressed I felt that the score was perfectly suited to the story that was being told.

To me the purpose of musical accompaniment for silent films is to enhance the story.  The music helps to give the audience more emotional reference for the images that they are seeing on the screen.  Like a soundtrack for a talkie, the scoring of a silent film helps to enrich the story being portrayed.  THE PENALTY is a dark, twisted, and weird movie.  It needs a dark, twisted, and weird score.  The usual piano and violin music would add a sense of melodrama to the proceedings.  It would diminish the sense of menace and unease, causing Blizzard to be considered more of an over the top villain that audiences might be tempted to laugh at rather than fear.

A great musical score creates a mood and helps audiences become more affected by a film then they might otherwise be.  This scoring of  THE PENALTY does just that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a good, traditional silent film accompaniment when the story suits it.  But there are times when a modern musical accompaniment can be just as good, if not better.  When these films were being made there were no computers to create different effects, sounds, and scores.  There was only a woman or a man at a piano, sometimes a violin and a few more instruments.  Today there are more options and no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of all the tools accessible to us in order to create a score that enhances the final product in a way that was not possible a hundred years ago.  Traditional scoring is important and should be preserved, but modern scoring is just as valid and should not be discounted simply because it is new.  Besides who’s to say that if the film makers of the silent films had modern tools at their disposal, they wouldn’t have used them?

THE PENALTY is a film that gets under your skin.  Days go by and I am still thinking about it, hearing the score in my head.  I am now a devoted Lon Chaney fan and cannot wait to see more of his work.  I think Fritzi of Movies Silently said it best.  When it comes to Chaney’s films, “you watch them and love them and feel a little sick about it”.

Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: THE WIND (1928)

THE WIND is one of those films that I am always meaning to watch but somehow never do.  I see previews for it or spot an upcoming showing on TCM and make a mental note to watch it…and then I don’t.  So when The Essentials was showing THE WIND earlier this month I made sure to DVR it and then WATCH it!

Spoiler Warning!  This will be an overview of the film and while the ending will NOT be revealed some major plot points will be.  If you don’t want to know stop reading and go watch THE WIND, then come back and read!

A young woman, recently impoverished, makes her way by train west from Virginia to meet her cousin.  The young woman, named Letty (Lillian Gish), is traveling to live in Sweet Water with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle).  While onboard the train she meets a charming cattle rancher called Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) who tells her tales of women being driven mad by the constant and wild winds in the area.  Letty pretends to be unfazed by Roddy’s strange way of flirting but the battering gusts and clouds of dust just outside her window make it difficult to completely ignore his words.  Once the train arrives in Sweet Water, Letty is met by two men claiming to have been sent my Beverly to retrieve her.  The younger man is named Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) while the older is called Sourdough (William Orlamond), and they are Beverly’s nearest neighbors living about fifteen miles outside of Sweet Water.  Put off by the less than refined manners of these two men, Letty turns back to Roddy who assures her that he will return soon to check in on her.

As the trio sets out the two men fight like schoolboys over who will sit next to the pretty newcomer.  Letty, as a Southern belle, is less than enthused by this and she is becoming more and more disturbed by the wind.  Lars assures her that this wind is nothing compared to a “norther” which can tear men apart and send wild horses into a frenzy.  Not surprisingly, this does not help Letty’s nerves and neither does the appearance of Sweet Water Ranch.  Her cousin Beverly is thrilled to see her and welcome her into the little shack he calls home.  His wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) on the other hand is less than pleased, especially when she notices the particular shine Beverly takes to the pretty young thing.  Cora spends her days caring for the children and doing much of the work around the ranch as Beverly is not in the best of health.  During dinner the men continue to fawn over Letty, much to Cora’s dismay, and Letty continues to be unnerved by the wind.

Frontier life is nothing like Letty has ever experienced before and she is not well prepared for it. She tries her hand at ironing for the family and develops her first set of blisters.  Cora is not sympathetic as she is too busy gutting a cow in the living room.  Cora can hardly contain her hurt and anger as she watches her own children and husband flock to Letty with open arms, while ignoring or rejecting her altogether.  Some time later the town holds a dance and while Cora is busy caring for the entire town’s children, Letty is having a grand time as the belle of the ball.  She slips away from Lige and Sourdough, who are continuing their adolescent pursuit of her, when she spots a familiar face.  Roddy has returned as promised and he sweeps Letty onto the dance floor.

Lige and Sourdough meanwhile, have found Cora and have each declared to her their intentions to ask Letty to marry them.  Unsurprisingly Cora is all for this plan.  Roddy is wooing Letty, declaring that he came back just for her, when the warning comes that a tornado has been spotted.  Roddy and Letty take shelter below with Cora, the children, and other members of the town, while Lige and Sourdough stay above to brace the doors and windows.  Pressed together, Roddy tells Letty that she must come away with him because he loves her.  Letty hesitates and Roddy advises her to think it over as he will be in town until the next day.  At this point the threat of the tornado has passed and the party continues on.  Roddy takes his leave, and this is the moment that Sourdough and Lige decide to pop the question to Letty.  Unfortunately for them both, Letty cannot believe that they are serious and just laughs at them.  Besides, Letty has the love of a cultured man like Roddy so why would she ever marry a rough person like Lige or Sourdough?  When she shares the joke with Cora, she learns that Cora doesn’t see it as funny.  She warns Letty that she had better decide which man she will marry because she is no longer welcome at Sweet Water.  She knows that something is going on between Letty and Beverly, and she will not let her destroy their family.  Beverly overhears this and tries to come to his cousin’s defense but is brought down by a racking cough.  Cora rushes to her husband’s side and as the two embrace, Letty decides that she must fend for herself.  She tells Cora not to worry, she knows where she can go.

Unfortunately, Roddy is not quite the stand up guy she thought he was.  Turns out he actually has a wife so he won’t be marrying Letty any time soon, but if she would like to become is mistress…  Letty leaves in disgust and is now forced to tell Cora that her plans have fallen through,  Cora stops short of just leaving Letty in town but does tell her that since she has two men who want to marry her, she had better pick one and quick as she will not be spending one more night at Sweet Water Ranch.

Letty and Lige are quickly married and return to his bachelor home, which he happens to share with Sourdough.  The place is quite a mess and the wind blows great piles of dust into the home.  Lige tries to make Letty feel welcome by offering her a cup of coffee, which she secretively disposes of in the wash basin, and the two share some awkward conversation and even more awkward first kisses as man and wife.  Lige leaves to give Letty some privacy and as soon as she is alone, Letty’s demeanor crumbles and her nerves leave her.  The wind is driving her up the wall and she is terrified at the prospect of a wedding night with a man she doesn’t love.  Lige is pacing in the next room, unsure of how to react to his new wife’s strange and distant behavior.  He finally can take no more and returns to Letty, this time trying more forcefully to stir the desires of his new wife.  This pushes Letty too far and she tells Lige that while she didn’t want to at first, she now hates him.  Lige realizes that Letty did not marry him to be his wife, to work with him, live with him, and love him, but that she married him simply because she had no where else to go.  Lige promises Letty that he will never touch her again and as soon as he has enough money saved he will send her away from the wind, the ranch, and from him.

Lige and Letty live their lives in quiet separation.  Lige has changed and his formerly boyish advances are replaced by a quiet and stoic man, who cares for Letty as well as any husband ever could while never attempting to make any advances on her.  Faced with this new treatment from Lige, Letty begins to soften in her earlier aloofness and starts to see Lige with in a new light.  Having been scorned by Roddy, she is touched by a man who treats her with honesty and respect, and one who honors his word.

Speaking of Roddy…  One day while Letty waits for Lige to return from one of his mustang round ups, the other men come to the home.  They have found an injured man and while Letty is at first fearful that it is Lige who has been hurt, her fear turns to horror when she discovers that it is in fact, Roddy who will now be staying with her and Lige while he recovers.  Roddy spends his recovery time begging Letty to come back to Virginia with him, once again playing on her fears of the wind.  During one such session, Lige returns just as Roddy appears to be making a move on Letty.  Letty is so relieved that she runs to her husband and throws her arms around him.  Lige is surprised by this affection but does not return it.  He tells Roddy that all the men are gathering to take part in a mustang roundup and that includes formerly injured ones.  Roddy heads out as does Lige, but Letty stops him and begs him not to go.  Lige tells her he has to, as this is the only way he can get enough money to send Letty away.  Then, perhaps emboldened by her display earlier, he takes his chance and kisses her as he has not done since that fateful night.  This time Letty does not push him away and as Lige rides off into the wind Letty runs out onto the porch yelling him name, but he does not hear her.

Letty returns to the house where she is tormented by thoughts of Roddy, Lige, and the wind.  The entire house begins to shake and her terror grows.  Little does she know that Roddy has turned back and is heading right for her with plans of his own.

When you mention THE WIND most people will have some thoughts about the ending.  Now, I am not going to get into the discussion about whether or not the frequently related story that there was an original “sad” ending is true or not.  If you want to read some of the different arguments and theories regarding this view I will include some links below, just in case you want to learn more.  What I would like to talk about is whether or not the ending to THE WIND could still be considered a positive and almost feminist one.

Without revealing the major plot points of the ending, I would say that the ending as it stands now not only makes sense in terms of the story that has been created up to that point, but it also is an ending that is quite powerful for the character of Letty.  Up until the end Letty has mostly been driven by her circumstances.  She has come to Sweet Water because she has no money, she  leaves the ranch and her cousin because Cora wants her out, she marries Lige because she has no where else to go, she becomes involved with Roddy because he is offering to save her from the frontier life.  She constantly fears being left alone with the wind and the dust.  But at the very end she begins to do things not because she is afraid or has no choice, but because she wants to.  She takes matters into her own hands at last and finally conquers her fear of the world around her.  For his part Lige does a remarkable thing and simply accepts Letty’s actions and thoughts without questioning them or her.  He never accuses her, or disbelieves her, never treats her like a child who doesn’t know her own mind.  He accepts her as a woman and an adult who has done what she did for the right reasons.  In this way, I think that this ending can be looked on as a very powerful one for Letty.  Maybe there is a predisposition to discount the ending of THE WIND as too Hollywood or happy to be worthwhile, but I would tend to disagree.  If the ending is true to the story being told and the characters created then it is just as valid an ending as an artistically virtuous one.

This is my first time seeing Lillian Gish and I was, forgive the pun, blown away.  The things that she could do with just her eyes are remarkable.  She can subtly shift her expressions in ways that portray about twenty-five different emotions in the span of two minutes.  In her hands Letty becomes a spoiled southern belle, an anxious young woman trying to adjust to a harder life, a woman frightened and alone in the world, and a new wife married to a man she neither knows nor loves in such a way as to allow the audience to feel everything she feels and sympathize with her.  She also does all this in just the first thirty minutes of the movie.  Needless to say I will be on the lookout for more Lillian Gish.

Her co-star Lars Hanson also deserves a mention because without his portrayal of Lige, THE WIND would not have the emotional impact that it does.  In order for Letty’s emotional distress and eventual decisions to have any meaning there has to be a reason or an anchor for us to root for her to survive.  Lige starts the film as a goofy and big-hearted country boy but after being rejected by Letty, the woman he had hoped would love him and stand by him in the rough landscape as a wife, he transforms into a quiet and stoic man.  We never feel like Lige stops caring for Letty but rather he respects her enough to stay away from her, something he believes she wants, and work to get her away from Sweet Water and back to where she feels she belongs. He never treats her unkindly and we get to see Lige for the man he truly is, just as Letty does.

The other supporting characters are also well done, with special credit due to Beverly and Cora.  Beverly could have easily been a throw away character, almost a plot device, but in his few short scenes we see a man who is weaker than he wants to be in every way.  Cora could have become a one-dimensional shrewish wife but Dorothy Cummings shows Cora as a woman who has had to become harder and stronger than she wanted to be simply in response to her situation.  We get the sense that at one point she was like Letty, young and delicate, but her marriage to a man of weak constitution (in every sense of the word) has changed her and turned her into the “man of the house”.  When Letty threatens that by stealing the affection of her husband and children, can any of us really blame her for wanting to remove that threat?


If you would like to read more about THE WIND you can find a great write-up here.  If you would like to read about some different theories regarding the “sad” ending you can read them here and here.

Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920)

The story of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is not a new one to movie-goers.  Among classic film fans there are at least four different versions to choose from.  Frederic March is notable for his pre-code take on the tale while Spencer Tracy starred with a young Ingrid Bergman in the post-code one.  In 1920 two silent versions of the film were made but this version, starring John Barrymore in the role that would push him over into star status, is thought to be the superior of the two.

Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore) is a young and successful London physician.  He spends most of his time treating the poor of London in his free clinic, while the rest of his day is spent in his laboratory experimenting much to the chagrin of his more conservative friend, Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane).  He is also a bit of a goody-two shoes, at least according to some of the older physicians.  The lead tempter is Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who also happens to be the father of Jekyll’s sweetheart, Millicent (Martha Mansfield).  One evening over dinner, Sir George expresses his dismay over Jekyll’s purity.  “No man can be so good!” he proclaims but his cronies and Dr. Lanyon assure him that with Jekyll what you see is what you get.

Jekyll enters the dinner at this point, after taking a moment to tenderly greet Millicent, and is met with derision from Sir George.  “You are so good and perfect but aren’t you neglecting your other needs?” he asks.  Jekyll is shocked at this speech and what it implies but like a bachelor party gone wrong the men drag Jekyll off to a dance hall to help him “experience” the parts of life they believe he is missing.  Once there the men are treated to the sight of exotic Italian dancer, Gina (Nita Naldi).  Sir George invites Gina over to their little group for some “quality time” with Jekyll who is initially drawn to Gina but remembers himself just in time.

Some days later Jekyll is still conflicted over the events of the dinner party and wonders aloud to Dr. Lanyon if it wouldn’t be possible for science to devise a way to separate the baser instincts of men from their more noble souls, thus leaving their immortal souls untouched while allowing temptation to have its way with their desires.  Dr. Lanyon is, of course, horrified at this notion and advises Jekyll to forget the idea ever occurred to him.  But of course Jekyll can’t and it isn’t long before he has come up with a potion that will do exactly what he desired.  Jekyll takes the potion one night and is immediately transformed into Mr. Hyde, a man with no soul and unbridled desire.  At this early stage however, Jekyll still has enough control over Mr. Hyde to immediately return to his laboratory and take the serum that will return him to his normal state.  He then tells his servant that his friend, Mr. Hyde will be coming to visit and is to be allowed free reign over the house and laboratory.

Mr. Hyde needs a lair and soon rents a room in the seedier part of London.  Once this base is established he makes a beeline to the dance hall and Gina.  He claims her as his own and takes her back to his room.  After using and abusing her for a time, Mr. Hyde throws her out having taken from her all that he desired, including a ring that holds a dose of poison.  Gina is shattered by her relationship with Hyde and returns to the darkness a much different woman.  Jekyll meanwhile has since become engaged to Millicent but has begun to realize that his darker side is growing more and more powerful.  He is afraid that Millicent may be exposed to his depravity and realizes that he has begun to lose his control over Mr. Hyde.  How long will it be before Dr. Jekyll is powerless to stop Mr. Hyde from committing a terrible crime?

Shown on TCM Silent Sundays as part of their celebration of the macabre, I can definitely say that this film creeped me out at moments.  Several shots of Mr. Hyde leering at the camera as he  moves closer and closer definitely gave me the heebie-jeebies.  There is one moment that I highly recommend that you do not watch with the lights off.  Dr. Jekyll sleeps fitfully as Mr. Hyde in the form of a giant spider climbs onto the bed and disappears inside him.  Super creepy.  The score also gave the film some terrific tension and unease, with the musical accompaniment sometimes discordant and sometimes abruptly stopping and starting again.

John Barrymore really goes to town here.  While I would say that some of the other characters are rather one-dimensional, Sir George is a bit too lecherous and Dr. Lanyon a bit too proper for example, Barrymore goes to town and I think the characters are better for it.  Some have called his performance “broad” and I would agree that there are some really big bite marks in the scenery, I would also argue that this is what makes the whole film work.  DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a story of the two extremes of man.  Hyde is the manifestation of pure temptation without any restraint, evil without any soul.  As such, Jekyll must be the model of restraint and control, purity on the edge of piety.  In other words, this is not a story for subtleties.  Yes there are a few laugh worth moments of over the top reactions, the first time he drinks the potion for example, but these just serve to make the movie more fun.  And for all his over the top behavior, Barrymore also has moments of true restraint and remarkable nuance.  In one scene he is transformed back into Jekyll and Barrymore does a wonderful job of portraying relief at being back to normal followed by horror as he remembers what his counterpart has done.  It is also worth noting that the initial transformation of Jekyll into Hyde was done with no makeup or effects.  That was all Barrymore contorting his face and affecting his posture.  If that isn’t impressive then I don’t know what is.

There are many Jekyll and Hyde tales available to the classic film fan but I would say that this one should be on the list of “Must See”.  At a time when so many films are reliant on makeup and special effects to convey characters and plot, it is truly enjoyable to see what happens when a film relies on actor’s skill and story instead.


If you would like an in-depth look at this film, here is another review from Movies Silently.

Films From Flicker Alley: THE WISHING RING; AN IDYLL OF OLD ENGLAND (1914)

When I was recommended THE WISHING RING for my month of silents I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The story sounded fairly simple, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl gets ring she thinks grants wishes…wait what?

In a small and sleepy village some good old college boys are having a good old college drinking party.  The neighbors are less than thrilled by this and naturally the local constabulary is called in.  The young lads scatter but leave behind one of their number.  Giles (Chester Barnett) wakes up in a jail cell to the sweet sounds of mocking from his fellow students.  When he is called before the college board he finds that his night of partying has cost him dearly and he is now expelled.  It would be expected that this would go over as well as a lead balloon with his father and that would be correct, except that things are made even worse by the fact that Giles had just sent his father a letter telling him how great things were going at college.  Dad is less than thrilled by Giles’ lackadaisical attitude and throws him out of the house under strict conditions not to return until he can earn half a crown on his own.  This might not seem too terrible until we realize that Giles’ father is the Earl of Bateson (Alec B. Francis) which means that Giles was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, in his hand, and in his pocket, and has probably never had to do anything on his own.

Giles heads to the home of a family friend who is getting ready to leave on a trip.  Luckily for Giles the gardener of the home has just been fired, over a small matter of some missing roses, and he is hired on the spot.  Giles is tasked with caring for the gardens and protecting the roses which have been getting stolen every day.  It isn’t long before Giles spies the rose thief in action and goes out to confront her.  Sally (Vivian Parsons) is the daughter of the local parson who has been stealing roses in an effort to decorate the church’s altar.  Giles softens upon seeing this humble reason and even shares his lunch with Sally.  The two chat and bond while enjoying some bread, jams, and grapes.  Sally however believes Giles to be a common gardener and Giles does not correct her for fear of ruining their new friendship.

The next day Giles calls at Sally’s humble cottage and brings with him various foods for Sally and her father to enjoy.  For her part, Sally shares with Giles some of her “delicious” dandelion tea which Giles drinks with gusto.  One evening Giles and Sally go walking together and stumble upon a gypsy camp.  While there Sally buys a small ring that is said to be able to grant wishes.  When Giles overhears Sally wishing to kiss her true love he quickly, and secretively, fulfills the wish and gets a brilliant idea.  Using the ring as cover, Giles begins doing wonderful and generous things for Sally such as buying her a new dress and shoes to go to a party at his employer’s house.  It is at this part that Sally and her father figure out Giles’ true identity and Sally becomes determined to repair the relationship between Giles and the Earl.

I have to say that for a film with such a short run time, fifty-four minutes to be exact, I was surprised how much happens!  You might think that this recap spoils most of the story but I would say that I have talked about only 30-40% of what happens.  The story is completely charming and engaging, and the film never feels trite.  It is a very sweet story that is also photographed beautifully.  I loved the opening and closing moments especially but there are so many lovely images to behold.

The characters in THE WISHING RING are some of the most endearing and human that I have seen in a long time.  Giles starts the film as a spoiled rich boy and slowly becomes a generous self-sufficient man.  He also is quite funny and it was really great to have a film where the bratty rich kid wasn’t intolerable before turning insufferable.  The Earl was a great character as well with some really funny moments, especially when it comes to his gout.  But by far my favorite character was Sally.

Sally could have easily become such a one-dimensional character, the sweet girl next door with the heart of gold, and pure as the driven snow.  But how boring would that be?  Instead Sally is a sweet and happy girl with some flaws.  She sings terribly, makes horrible tea, is a bit impulsive and naive, and does not always have a good sense of boundaries.  She feels like a real person rather than just a character.  I also loved that when she finds out who Giles really is her first reaction is not to go off in a huff and give him the cold shoulder for hiding the truth from her, but rather to help Giles reconcile with his father because she loves him and wants him to be happy.  I will lay it out there right now that I absolutely hate when a girl finds out something the boy she likes has been hiding from her and proceeds to storm off and give him the silent treatment.  Thankfully this does not happen in THE WISHING RING.  So much of Sally’s charm and wit is thanks to Vivian Martin, an actress I had never heard of before this film.  It seems that she didn’t do many more silent films which is a shame, but I am so happy that I got to see her in this!

Overall I really enjoyed THE WISHING RING and would recommend it as a great example of a charming and well done romantic comedy.  It is included on a new collection from Flicker Alley and is beautifully restored with a great score to boot.  Going from a lost film, to being discovered by none other than Kevin Brownlow and subsequently restored, THE WISHING RING is a film that deserves a wider audience and greater renown…if only to watch Sally steal Giles’ grapes.

If you would like to read another review of The Wishing Ring allow me to suggestion this highly excellent and well-researched one by Movies Silently!