January 1920 in Film

Welcome to the ’20s! With a new decade upon us, there’s a ton of films that will be turning 100 this year. And with Photoplay archives present from this period, I thought it was a good time to check out contemporary reviews of 1920 films. And so, every month this year I’ll be looking at what Photoplay thought of some notable films from that month. In addition, some other notable films that didn’t get reviews will be noted.

January was a big month, with some top stars releasing films, including one of the highest grossing films of the year. Let’s take a look at what the reviews were for some of these. When possible, I’ve noted the preservation status of the films.

The Copperhead

(Director: Charles Maigne Starring: Lionel Barrymore, William P. Carleton, Francis Joyner)

Survival Status: On DVD!

An adaptation of a popular Broadway play of the same name, Lionel Barrymore and then wife Doris starred both the play and film version. Barrymore stars as a farmer who is asked by Abraham Lincoln to join a group of Copperheads during the Civil War. Photoplay was a big fan, going out of their way to say the film could be one of the best all year.

“’The Copperhead’ may safely be listed with the big pictures of the year. It is a better story on the screen, in that it is a more complete and more consistent story, than it was on the stage . . . The cast is excellent. Barrymore’s performance is a perfect bit of characterization, both in his portrayal of the young and the old hero. Mrs. Barrymore (Doris Rankin) is beautifully earnest as the misunderstanding wife.”

Pollyanna

(Director: Paul Powell Starring: Mary Pickford, Wharton James, Katherine Griffith)

Survival Status: On DVD!

Mary Pickford’s first film for United Artists, this adaptation of Pollyanna proved to be a smash hit. Pickford, who was also the film’s producer, plays an orphaned girl who brings a splash of optimism to a less than happy town. Sources list the films box office at over a $1 million ($14 million today). Photoplay loved the film as well.

“It is sweet, but not drippy. It tells an interesting story without recourse to conventional drama. The cross aunt (Katherine Griffith) to whom Pollyanna, the orphan, is assigned, is neither a brutal shrew nor an animated New England conscience . . . It requires a director with taste, a star with intelligence, to obtain these results. Working together harmoniously, such combination will prove the saviors of the screen.”

The Garage

(Director: Roscoe Arbuckle Starring: Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton)

Survival Status: On DVD!

The Garage is notable as the final Arbuckle/Keaton short, all the others predating 1920. The Photoplay writer makes it known he does not like slapstick very much, but he does still like this one quite a bit.

“’The Garage’ is superior slapstick stuff because someone connected with the creation of it has had the courage to use his wits as well as his Rabelasian instincts. Good farce has as rightful a place on the screen as it has on the stage . . . This first Arbuckle sample is at least a heartening promise. I hope sincerely that all the would-be farce directors see it.”

The Cup of Fury

(Director: T. Hayes Hunter Starring: Helene Chadwick, Rockliffe Fellows, Frank Leigh)

Based on a novel, The Cup of Fury concerns the daughter of German spies who faces challenges and suspicions upon moving to America. Photoplay found it to be a little unremarkable.

“The picture, though sanely adapted from Mr. Hughes’ novel of the same title, is frankly conventional in both plot and action and is a little like an echo of a dying past . . . would have been a sensational picture if it could have been conceived, written and produced when we were hot on the trail of German spies . . . Now we get a belated thrill or two, but feel, some way, that just as the picture arrives at the most interesting point of its development, which concerns the effect of the I.W.W. and it’s bolshevistic allies will have on peace times, it flickers and goes out.”

The Luck of the Irish

(Director: Allan Dwan Starring: James Kirkwood Sr., Anna U. Nilsson, Harry Northrup)

Adapted from a book, this film boasts James Kirkwood Sr. as its star. The actor turned director was a frequent collaborator with Mary Pickford. According to Photoplay, he was lured out of retirement for this stellar film.

“It is a first class adventure story made from Harold McGrath’s novel, and it hops over the world with interesting suddenness of a particularly active flea . . . His rescue work is quite the most active, and the most thrilling of any recently seen and if ever a hero earned a heroine, James Kirkwood is entitle to the embraces of Anna Q. Nilsson in this picture. Kirkwood is a likable hero, and the radiation of his smile is as expansively effective as ever.”

Other notable films released in January 1920

  • Within Our Gates: This Oscar Micheaux film is powerful, and the earliest surviving African American feature film. It is a stark picture of racism at the time, and reports are that it often faced numerous cuts prior to being shown.
  • Santanas (Satan): the second directorial effort of F.W. Murnau, featuring Conrad Veidt. Split into three parts, it is now lost with only a brief fragment extant.
  • The Monastery of Sendomir: A Swedish film by Victor Sjöström.
  • Bleak House: A British production of the Charles Dickens’ novel. Constance Collier, who would later have a career in Hollywood, stars.

Somnambulists, Preachers and Reporters: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2019

It’s that time of the year (well, what’s left of it anyway). Since this is a classic film blog and since I don’t see many new releases anyway, I always compile a list of my favorite films that I saw for the first time each year. This year’s list includes a lot of films that are classics I should have seen a long time ago. But hey, at least they’ve been seen now.

Another note about this list: in 2019 I saw a lot more classic films in theaters, and three of the first time viewings on this list were seen that way. In addition to those, I saw several other classics on the big screen. If there’s screenings of classic films in your area, make sure to go see them. It’s still a special way to experience these movies, and you’re probably supporting a good small theater in the process.

Without further ado, here’s the list. As always, it’s presented in chronological order.

Hell’s Hinges (1916)

This was reviewed in more depth in my previous post covering my favorite films of the 1910s. Hell’s Hinges was my first William S. Hart experience, in part because it was so highly reviewed on the preeminent site Movies Silently. Needless to say, it exceeded all my expectations. A western that is both nasty, action-packed and emotional, this is a great introduction to one of the era’s biggest stars.

Judex (1916-1917)

An in-depth review can also be found in the best of the 1910s post. Despite being a fan of silent era serials, Judex had eluded me for a long time. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard, perhaps even better. For more than just a crime story or a superhero story, it combines tons of drama, emotion and comedy along with the typical serial elements. Set aside the five hours you need to watch this.

The Dream Lady (1918)

This is the final film that also appears in my best of the 1910s list. The Dream Lady is pure fun comedy with a wonderful lead in Carmel Myers. It’s also progressive for any time, and features some great gender-bending comedy. A refreshing, fun movie I can’t recommend enough.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

I was able to see this around Halloween in theaters, which was quite the way to finally experience it for the first time. It is a flat out creepy and unsettling film, the unconventional nature of things putting you even more on edge. In addition to just being great horror, it’s a masterpiece to look at, the expressionistic style popping out all over the screen. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about to turn a hundred years old. If you’re somehow crazy like me and hadn’t seen it yet, the hundredth anniversary is the perfect time.

The Invisible Man (1933)

During October, I ran through a lot of the classic Universal monster movies I hadn’t yet seen, with this being the biggest. And boy, was I ever impressed. It’s hard to pull off a horror film that can be either funny or scary when it needs to be, but this does it extraordinarily well. And it’s all accomplished through using the plot perfectly. Of course there will be amusing and creepy aspects to what Claude Rains is doing, and we get to see all of it. Rains himself knows how to do both parts of it, all without being able to see his face.

And as a technical achievement, the film is jaw dropping too. Some of the best effects ever can be found here, done seamlessly with practical effects. It all looks and feels very real and creepy, adding to just how great the film is.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To create a wild screwball comedy is one thing. But a screwball comedy that makes fun of the Nazis during the war? Now that’s something special. The genius of Ernst Lubitsch is on full display, and there’s a deep and wonderful cast that has Carole Lombard and Jack Benny at the top. The frenetic pacing never lets up, and neither do the laughs. It’s not every day that you laugh at a line like “So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?”

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I know, I don’t know how I’d never seen this either. On the bright side, I saw it twice this year, so I’m making up for lost time. My first viewing was in theaters on my birthday, which made it quite the treat. It goes without saying that this is an excellent for both the Christmas season and any other time. All of the songs are excellent, and it’s pulled together by another cast with a deep bench. Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie stands out as a unique (and slightly odd) child character, and Mary Astor has many of her own nice, quiet moments.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Talk about a film ahead of it’s time. Kirk Douglas is a ruthless reporter who exploits a man trapped in a cave, using dirty and dangerous tricks to turn it into a media circus that will jumpstart his career. It doesn’t just become a media circus, but a whole tourist trap and industry. There is a lot going on here about the darkness of human nature, told in a stark, cynical manner. An under-appreciated gem from Billy Wilder.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

My first time viewing of this was also in theaters. While not classified as a horror film, there’s few things more unsettling than Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Mitchum’s intense, unrelenting terror left me on edge the entire time. Equally unnerving his the power he so easily holds over so many, making you just want to scream at the screen and shake the townsfolk awake. Shelley Winters gives a remarkable performance as well, and I’d knew about what Lillian Gish’s role was like long before ever watching.

It is a shame that Charles Laughton never directed again, as he does some remarkable things here, particularly with light and darkness. The scene in which Gish and Mitchum both sing while sits in her rocking chair and he waits outside his bone chilling and an unforgettable visual.

Cabaret (1972)

Given my love of musicals, it is absurd that it took so long to see Cabaret. The musical numbers are, of course, stunning. But that’s not even the most powerful stuff of the film. The romance at the center between Liza Minnelli and Michael York is brilliantly played as a slow motion bad idea. It is clear from the word go that things will not work out in the end, but they forge ahead anyway. During all that, the Nazi party gaining powers sneaks up on you in the background. It emerges when you least expect it, especially the gut punch of a credit sequence. This works so well not only as a musical, but a grim piece of history.

My Favorite Films of the 1910s

The end of a decade is upon us, which means there’s no shortage of best of ’10s lists out there. Even I am getting in on it now, with my favorite films of the ’10s. The 1910s, that is. This is the perfect opportunity to look back at films that are now over a hundred years old, and possibly the most underappreciated decade in film history. It is chock full of films that were innovative then and now, a decade where very every genre grew and matured throughout. Whatever you’re into, the decade produced it in spades. A couple of notes before diving into the list:

-There’s still a lot I need to see from the decade. If there’s a film you love that isn’t on here, I may not have seen it yet. Tell me about it! I’d love to watch it.

-No, The Birth of a Nation is not on the list. Next question.

And with that, onto the list.

10. The Devil’s Needle (1916)

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of a drug scare film, which is what The Devil’s Needle is. It is a far cry from the Reefer Madness’ of the world. The end result isn’t cheesy or laughable at all, but rather a dark and grim tale of addiction. Norma Talmadge stars as the casual drug user who gets Tully Marshall hooked on the stuff, not knowing the downward spiral that will befall him. And boy, does it ever.

Talmadge is great force of charisma and personality, with her character covering a lot of ground and emotions as things go down the tubes. As for Marshall, he goes all out into the madness territory. It never goes too far into an area of silly. Thanks to both the performance and the claustrophobic space, he just comes across as a legitimate scary mess. This is a far more unsettling view of addiction than Hollywood often delivers.

9. A Girl’s Folly (1917)

A Girl’s Folly is the earliest feature film I’ve seen that is about filmmaking and Hollywood itself. Doris Kenyon has the lead, and longs for an escape from her ordinary life. Luckily for her, a movie shoot is coming nearby. Of course, things don’t turn out to be quite as glamorous as she expects. There’s some sharp writing from Frances Marion throughout and amusing shots about the reality and superficiality of filmmaking. One title card informs the audience that actors often don’t even know the plot of the film. This is a fun and breezy look at movies, with Kenyon as enjoyable lead. This should be of interest to anyone who wants to see from the other side of the camera.

8. One A.M. (1916)

This is not likely to be the first Chaplin film most would mention from this decade (that’s probably The Immigrant). For my money, One AM is the most memorable. There’s no purer example of Chaplin’s comedic chops as this film, because that’s the only thing present. This is a literal one man show. Chaplin gets dropped off in a cab, and from that moment on, is the only person on screen. What follows is a drunk Chaplin fighting everyday objects in his home, and it is remarkable.

Individually, some of these gags are not all that groundbreaking. This is far from the only film to feature a comedian battling a flight of stairs. But the overall package is perfect simplicity. Chaplin fights and struggles with every conceivable object in the home, and it just works in that overall framework. It’s a perfect snapshot of how sharp he was at his physical peak, just firing off one gag after another. Chaplin has plenty of films that are essential viewing, and this is one to go to for pure, unadulterated slapstick.

7. The Cheat (1915)

The Cheat is not necessarily an easy watch. It’s most shocking moments of violence and brutality are bound to make anyone squirm. That is part of the package here, though, one that is a visually striking experience. Fannie Ward stars as a woman who loses a great sum of money and seeks help from Sessue Hayakawa. Rebuffing his advances leads to him branding her, with further violence and struggling advancing from there. He survives her counterattack, and soon there is a trial for attempted murder.

Cecil B. DeMille creates very stark visuals through limited lighting. A few key moments are told through silhouette and shadow—when Ward’s husband sees Hayakawa has been injured, it’s through a dramatic silhouette and reveal of blood. Hayakawa gives the most memorable performance of the bunch, an eerie calm and coolness no matter what is happening in the film. It’s unsavory at times, but that is the point. And it is a remarkable visual experience.

6. Blind Husbands (1919)

The directorial debut of Erich von Stroheim, this is a fine example of a simple story told well. Stroheim stars as a lieutenant who has his sights set on a neglected wife. He plays it completely to the hilt, the most shameless sleazy player you’ll ever see. And while he may be the biggest slimeball to walk the earth, it’s filled with beautiful imagery throughout.

And just when you think you know where it’s going, things do get more complicated during the climax. For starters, throw the husband and the lieutenant up on the top of the mountain. More twists get thrown in from there, making for a wild and action packed finale. This is quite the directorial debut and a testament to the all around abilities of Stroheim.

5. I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This Ernst Lubitsch comedy isn’t the only film on the list to feature gender-bending, but this one may be the most surprising.

Ossi Oswalda stars as a young woman who likes drinking, smoking and playing cards, much to the dismay of those around her. She decides to go out as a man so she can do whatever she wants. As expected, there’s a lot of good comedy as she adjusts to her new identity.

What’s not expected is that she gets drunk with her totally oblivious male guardian. By the end of the night, the two tuxedo clad men are kissing in the back of a car. The guardian later tells her not to mention their rendezvous. Even a hundred years later, it’s still a moment that surprises.

Aside from that memorable moment, there’s a lot of other good things to enjoy here too. Oswalda, a major German star at the time, oozes personality and charm. It’s practically a one woman show thanks to her endless energy, and it’s very fun to watch. With her charisma and a plot that could make Wheeler and Woolsey blush, this is a must watch.

4. Suspense (1913)

If you’re trying to track down the real first proto-slasher, look no further than right here. The period was ripe with home invasion films, but this is far and away the best of the bunch. Lois Weber (who also wrote and directed the film) is stalked by a home invader while her husband attempts to race home to save her. What follows is a white knuckle short suspense ride. The attacker first appears in the window, with things quickly ramping up from there. One shot is particularly creepy, and it’s amazing that it hasn’t been replicated more: a quick cut between his sneering face looking up and Weber looking down at him from the window.

There’s plenty of other unique shots too: a triple split screen of Weber talking to her husband on the phone while the stalker cuts the wires, a POV shot through a keyhole. Lois Weber is one of the first women filmmakers, and this is one of many films that shows she is a pioneer among all directors stylistically. Suspense is all killer no filler, a short thrill ride.

3. Hell’s Hinges (1916)

Hell’s Hinges is one of those films where the entire town is a living, breathing character. In this case, it’s more like snarling. It is a total degenerate town, filled with vicious lowdown characters. When a pastor and his sister arrive in town, it’s the job of Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart) to run them out of town. But Tracy has change of heart after meeting the sister, and soon he’s at odds with the town over his newfound attitude.

It almost sounds too melodramatic on paper, but Hart sells it in a completely convincing and compelling fashion. One minute he’s cracking jokes about the pastor’s arrival, and the next he’s staring at them with genuine interest and concern. His face tells the whole story, and it’s very emotional and compelling. But don’t worry, he’s still someone you do not want to mess with, as the film’s climax shows. The apocalyptic finale features the town in chaos as it goes up in flames. Hart calmly walking away as the whole thing burns down is one of the coolest visuals you’ll ever see. For as forceful as the emotion and messaging of the film is, equally forceful is Hart’s personality. He’s both wonderfully sincere and dangerous all at once.

And for all those reasons, it’s a truly powerful film experience. It’s a perfect example of the power of silent westerns, and why Hart is a pioneer of the genre and was one of the biggest stars of the era.

2. The Dream Lady (1918)

What a delightful little film. The Dream Lady features one of the most likable and fun protagonists you’ll ever see. She just wants to live in cottage where she can explore her wishes and make other people’s dreams come true. There’s a great early scene where Rosamond (Carmel Myers) creates a shock by announcing she can buy and live in her own home if she chooses to. From there, it gets all the more surprising and progressive.

The best moments of the film involve the gender bending storyline. One of Rosamond’s first client’s is Sidney, a woman who wishes to dress up as a man so she can more fully enjoy her vacation without the pressures of being a woman. This leads to some amazing moments where Sidney’s male companion wants to know if she “doesn’t like women” and Sidney and Rosamond sharing a kiss with screwball comedy implications.

This is just pure, smart and funny stuff and still modern after 101 years.

1. Judex (1916-1917)

Film serials, whether silent or talkie, don’t have a great reputation as high quality entertainment. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, though. My feelings are probably in line with a 1910s audience: they’re just good, lighthearted entertainment. Some serial directors went well beyond that, with Louis Feuillade chiefly among them. Two of his other serials, Les Vampires and Fantômas, are readily available and well worth watching. But Judex is his most complete work, compelling mystery and suspense combined with heart, emotion, humor and sentimentality.

Right off the bat, it’s not a typical serial. Our main focus is not a mysterious villain, but the caped crusader known as Judex. He’s seeking vengeance against a corrupt banker Favaraux (for reasons that become clear later) while also fending off another villain with a dastardly plan of her own.

Yes, there’s two separate villains, which says a lot about the film’s complexity. It has a massive cast, with entire families playing a role in the proceedings. The style and structure remind me more of a great novel: it’s full of subplots and trips down paths with secondary characters, including a portion in the past to provide an origin story. Every character is fleshed out too, and they all get a turn in the spotlight. There’s moments for comedy and sweetness in some of the subplots.

The film is also atypical because it doesn’t rely on cliffhangers the way many American serials did. It does not always end on someone’s life in danger, or on a lingering suspenseful question. The cliffhanger is often an emotional one. One of the most emotional moments of the film, the end of chapter 11, is two characters overcome with emotion. The revelation that led to this has already occurred. We’re hooked on the next chapter because of our emotional attachment in the moments that follow.

Thanks in part to having a long run time, Judex is one of the more complete pieces of film you’ll ever see. Characters battle with their own morality and motives, sometimes switching sides or struggling if they should change course. It’s about much more than Judex’s revenge, for he is also in love with the very daughter of the man he’s after. This weaves a very complex web, and it is worth every minute. Set aside five hours for this. You won’t regret it.

The Origins of Horror Comedy Films

Happy October! This month means it’s time for plenty of horror film viewing and content. Along with all the usual horror films out there, there’s also a wealth of horror comedy content. From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Shaun of the Dead, the two have always mixed well. Familiar tropes are played upon for comedy, genres are parodied. The two often make a perfect match, and that’s not even counting the horror films that provide unintentional comedy. But what are the origins for this genre mashup?

1932’s The Old Dark House may be the most highly regarded early example. Directed by a top horror man of his day, James Wale, the film works as both a horror film and a dark comedy. But also interesting is that it manages to parody the old dark house style of horror film, with the tropes of that type of film already well established by 1932. Even this film wasn’t the first to do that.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) features a standard old dark house plot, where a family must spend the night in a haunted mansion in order to get an inheritance. Based on a black comedy play, the humor remained in this film version. The play would serve as the basis for three more direct adaptations in the 30s, and The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930) seems to have taken some inspiration from the idea as well.

In fact, comedy horror films adapted from stage plays was quite common around this time. The Gorilla, another old dark house play, premiered on Broadway in 1925. Film adaptations were made in 1927, 1930 and 1939. The 1930 version featured Walter Pidgeon. The film is lost, so the world may never get to see Mr. Gruffydd stalked by a man in a gorilla suit again. The Monster (1925) and The Bat (1926) were also adaptations of black comedy plays. 1925 also featured an early direct parody, the Stan Laurel vehicle Dr. Pryckle and Mr. Pryde.

It’s hard to say for sure, but the earliest feature length horror comedy might be The Ghost Breaker. The question is which version of the film was the first comedy. The play was adapted in 1914 and 1922, both of which are now lost. The 1922 version was definitely made as a comedy and marketed as such. The 1914 version is much sparser in the area of information. Most sources list it is as a drama. And seeing as it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starred HB Warner, it probably wouldn’t have been a barrel of laughs even if they tried.

But what is the actual first example of horror comedy? Like so many other things, the answer may lie with Georges Méliès. Many of his earliest “trick” films, along with the work of others around the time, could certainly be considered a mix of horror and comedy. As far back as The Bewitched Inn (1897) and A Midnight Episode (1899), Méliès used elements of the supernatural to create comedic effects in his films. And he wasn’t the only one either. The Haunted House (1899) and The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1900) are works by other directors that also fall along the same lines. So where did this mashup and horror of comedy begin? It shouldn’t be a surprise that this also goes right back to the beginning of film itself.

Mad Doctors, Trolleys and Funerals: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2018

Another year has come and gone, which means it’s time for all of the best-ofs lists to come out. And as always, none of the films I saw this year were new releases. But if you want to know what some great films from 1928 are, this list has you covered. These are the ten best films I saw for the first time in 2018, in chronological order. It’s a strange, eclectic mix that probably wouldn’t go too great together as a big marathon. I’m not here to judge if you want to mix Harold Lloyd and Dario Argento, though. 

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Speedy (1928)

Everyone knows that they’re getting with a Harold Lloyd comedy, but this one is even better than most. The plot setup provides a great opportunity for the classic Lloyd big finale: his girlfriend’s family runs the last horse-drawn trolley in the city, and it will be put out of business by the railroad company if it doesn’t run in 24 hours. This, of course, leads way to a wild and crazy ending that is remarkable to watch. But even before Lloyd’s harried final trolley ride, things are a delight.

The rest of the film provides a great look into 1920s New York. Lloyd begins the film working as a soda jerk, a fun scene. Later, he weaves his way through city streets as a cab driver that drives around the real Babe Ruth. Ruth leads to a taste of more baseball footage before the film’s final scenes send the viewer all over the streets of New York.

Not only does it have the best of Lloyd’s comedy, but it is just a wonderful look into the past as well. Lloyd’s final silent film is one of his finest.

Beggars of Life (1928)

1928 was a remarkable year for cinema, and Beggars of Life is right at the top of the best. Louise Brooks’ performance as a woman on the run is one for the ages. Along the way, she’s joined on her journey by another vagabond (Richard Arlen). Their path is soon altered by the unpredictable Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery).

Beery gets top billing and gives a great performance, but it is the emotional journey of Brooks that leaves the greatest impression. In some ways, it’s a simple emotional journey. But visually, it’s a lot more than that. The train hopping scenes provide several stark visuals, and the climax is edge of your seat (or mountainside, as the case is here) stuff.

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Mad Love (1935)

Mad Love, the American film debut of Peter Lorre, could not be a better concoction of weird and creepy. One can’t help but wonder how much weirder it could have been if it had come in under the precode wire. Even in this state, it’s a bizarre little film that leaves a mark. Lorre plays a doctor so in love with a lovely actress (Francis Drake) that he even has a wax figure of her put in his home. But when her husband (Colin Clive) needs miracle surgery, he sees an opening to win her love–even if it means doing crazy things.

Lorre’s descent into madness is made all the more frightening by how realistic it is. It often seems like he has no control over his actions. That being said, the film’s height of creepiness comes when he hatches a scheme to don a particularly eerie costume. In a career full of unsettling performances, this is one of his weirdest.

The suspense is ratcheted up through the audience’s knowledge. We know the things he’s done long before the hapless victims. The film has some out of place twists and turns thanks to a Ted Healy comedy subplot, but it works in a kind of strange fashion. Well, everything in this film works in a strange fashion. 

Katharina, die Letzte (Catherine the Last) (1937)

This romantic comedy out of Hungary seems to be all but lost to the ages, which is a shame. Hans Holt stars as a man desperate to get near the woman he loves, following her father shutting him out. He decides the best way to get his foot in the door is feigning love for the family’s maid, Katharina (Franciska Gaal). Heavy on heart and sentiment, this a gem that will make you wish for more of this remarkable cast.

The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940)

This is not a film for everyone, and your mileage with it depends on how appealing the concept sounds: a parody of stuffy Victorian melodramas. The audience for this film probably dwindles more every year, but it is very good at what it sets out to do. The film boasts a great cast (Billy Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Margaret Hamilton, Anita Louise) is helmed by veteran silent comedy director Edward F. Cline. 

The plot centers around a family potentially losing their home, but the plot hardly matters. If the idea of a veteran group of actors playing melodrama broadly to the point of absurdity appeals, this is a film for you.

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The Innocents (1961)

At their best, an old dark house film can be just about the scariest type of horror film. The Innocents is one of the finest of the type, a white-knuckle haunted house thriller. And it accomplishes all that without a hint of cheap jump scares or overused conventions. The film provides all the tension it needs through atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. 

It’s best not to say any more about the events that unfold, as this is a film where it’s better to go in blind. What is no spoiler is that Deborah Kerr gives the perfect performance, along with the unnerving children she is in charge of (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). See this one with the lights out and go along for the ride. 

Bye Bye Braverman (1968)

Coming of age films are a particular kind of an emotional experience. Endless numbers of films showing children facing the precipice of adulthood have been made. Bye Bye Braverman, meanwhile, is a coming of age film of a much rarer variety: facing old age and death. Wrapped up in a package of a smart New York comedy, there’s a lot more going on than just clever fast-paced dialogue.

The plot is as simple as can be: when one of their friends dies, four buddies take a trip together to attend his funeral. This ordeal is handled exactly the way it’s gone on forever in daily life. None of them want to talk about what happened, and if they have to, they just wave it off as no big deal. All the while, they’re struggling with their own mortality and see premonitions about what their own end might look like. The film is never heavy-handed with the emotion or sentiment, but it does hit hard at just the right moments.

The ensemble cast of George Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke and Jack Warden have stupendous chemistry. You can feel that this motley crew of friends has had conversations like this forever. They are funny and clever throughout, and are helped by memorable small parts from Alan King and Jessica Walter. 

It’s also a fascinating time capsule of New York. Sidney Lumet overwhelms the viewer with a stream of 60s New York streets and locations. It’s just an extra part of the experience, and one that provides a great window into the past.  Bye Bye Braverman is, on the surface, just a smart little film. But it’s the kind of film that leaves a deeper impression than you would ever expect.

Deep Red (1975)

Suspiria may be Dario Argento’s greatest work, but Deep Red isn’t too far behind. It has all the jaw-dropping visuals and colors you’d come to expect, with everything else being the icing on the cake. And in this case, the plot is an intriguing murder mystery. The mystery would be intriguing enough when done by anyone else, but when put together under the artful hand of Argento, it’s a real delight for the senses.
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

A psychological thriller that’s ripe with style and originality, Eyes of Laura Mars is a film that delivers an exceptional overall package. Faye Dunaway plays a fashion photographer who begins seeing premonitions of murders about to happen. This is a cool enough concept for a thriller, but it’s the style of the film that makes it so good. The film doesn’t skimp on the fashion part of the story, providing a cool and slick look at the fashion world at the time. The premonitions are just as slick and are quite eerie. This is one of those films that sounds kind of fun on paper, and then provides so much more in execution.

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Curtains (1983)
Reviewed here earlier this yearCurtains has all the feel of a 70s proto-slasher, despite coming much later. It has all that you can hope from the genre: actors that make you care about their fate, an unsettling atmosphere, and some scary moments. This is one of the better under-the-radar slashers out there.

Some October Slasher Recommendations

October is upon us, and there’s plenty of horror films to watch. Maybe you’re going to be gorging yourself on Universal monster movies, or maybe you’re prepared to be letdown by whatever new horror movies are coming to theaters this month. If slashers are more your bag, there’s always an embarrassment of riches–and the mileage can really vary. For every Halloween or Black Christmas, there’s ten more Memorial Valley Massacres and other shoddy slashers. But there are many legitimately good slashers that need more of a audience. Here’s a few suggestions to spice up your October viewing habits.

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Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

The other films on this list are kind of fun. They’re what you expect from a slasher: sometimes a little creepy, but often all in good campy fun too. Alice, Sweet Alice is not like that at all. It’s one of those rare slashers that makes you squirm, a very serious and dark affair that leaves the viewer on edge. How dark is it? Well, a child is murdered early on, with another child as the main suspect. A leering, sickening neighbor plays a role in the film that’s a little uncomfortable. The killer’s mask is one of the creepier you’re ever likely to see. And to top it all off, there’s ominous religious overtones that lend another level of the unsettling to the film.

All of that makes Alice, Sweet Alice more than the usual slasher fare. It’s several things all at once: a slasher with a whodunnit mystery, while also providing biting commentary on religion. It has the feel of a grittier American version of a giallo film in tone and imagery. This one may not be the most fun, but it is one of the more compelling and uncomfortable slashers.

The Prowler (1981)

The Prowler has all the trappings of a certain kind of slasher. Namely, it’s one of those films where the killer is around because it is the anniversary of a previous event. But this one sets the stage in a much more interesting way. The film opens with newsreel footage relating to World War II, followed by a Dear John letter and more 1940s setting footage. These little extra touches make it a bit more engrossing.

The bulk of the film is standard fare, above average from the usual stuff. The killer wears a very cool military outfit, and most of the scenes feel genuinely claustrophobic. For fans of such things, Tom Savini supplies some good gore. There’s even some good seasoned actors who get limited screen time, Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. The Prowler shows that even the most tired concepts can be polished to be good, suspenseful and entertaining.

Graduation Day (1981)

Clearly no day at all is safe from a slasher film. It’s a miracle Arbor Day Massacre was never made. Graduation Day is better than the gimmicky name implies, though. This one has a revenge plot too. In this case, revenge is sought after the death of a member of the school’s track team. No member of the track team is safe as the body count grows.

Graduation Day presents the best of all worlds. It has both its creepy moments and wacky fun moments too. There’s songs that are prime slices of 80s cheese, and plenty of other fun moments as well. The film’s biggest strong suit is weird frenetic editing. It adds a great deal of tension and originality to it. This is the best kind of fun slasher: some good kills, a little bit of tension, and all the goofiness you could want.

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Curtains (1983)

Curtains sounds typical enough on paper: six actresses show up at a cabin, vying for a part. Soon enough, they start getting killed. The film is anything but typical, though. Moving at a slower and more deliberate pace than one might expect from an 80s slasher, Curtains is an effective slow burn. It relies less on gore and schlock and more on atmosphere and some pretty good acting. Samantha Eggar and John Vernon add a little bit of weight to the affair.

And when it’s time for things to get weird, it gets really weird. The film is best known for two things: the creepy old lady mask and the ice skating scene. It is certainly a scene that earns high marks on the originality and creepiness scale. On top of that, this is a mystery slasher that provides a satisfying conclusion and twist. Curtains breaks enough norms that it feels like more of an early slasher, one before a cliched formula was down.

Six Degrees of Trash Cinema Separation

There are some actors who appear in everything. Take Franklin Pangborn for instance. My personal theory is that he appeared in every movie made between 1930 and 1949. Okay, so the facts might not bear that out totally, but it’s not very far off. It’s not an uncommon thing with character actors in classic films. Throw a dart at a TCM schedule and you’re likely to land on something featuring SZ Sakall or Sig Ruman. Those are the easy ones to understand and explain, these six degrees of separation in classic film. Some of the instances are a little stranger. And that’s when a solid actor shows up in every piece of trash ever made.

There is no finer example of this than Cameron Mitchell. Throughout his career, he appeared in such huge films as How to Marry a Millionaire, Carousel and the hit TV series The High Chaparral. He then went on to appear in front of every working camera from the 70s through the 90s. Yes, Mitchell appears in such luminous roles as Dr. Cadaver (Jack-O) and Butt Cutt Cakes (The Klansman). It’s far too much to list all of his shlock appearances, but he sure did find a home in the land of horror films with good but misleading titles: Demon Cop, Mutant War, Night Train to Terror and Blood Link, just to name a few. He even appeared in a genuine porn film and whatever the hell this is:


With as many appearances in a Blockbuster store as Linnea Quigley, Cameron Mitchell is clearly the Kevin Bacon of trash cinema. But of course there are other notable contenders. John Saxon probably walks around in a cop uniform just in case someone needs him for a part at a moment’s notice. He’s been in some prime horror (Black Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street films) and some less than stellar ones (Zombie Death House, Blood Salvage). In more recent years he’s landed some SyFy original movies like War Wolves. If you need a stern man to add gravitas to your grizzly bear zombie film, John Saxon is still your guy.

Joe Don Baker, for all his MST3K infamy, does have many respectable films to his credit. He’s also got a plethora of shoddy cheese on his résumé, such classics as Wacko, Joysticks and Leonard Part 6. He also played Joseph McCarthy in a TV movie about Roy Cohn (played by James Woods), which sounds scarier than any of his other movies. Baker is the guy you hire for the cop part when John Saxon is tied up with Wolf Hunter 7: The Real Final Chapter.

Even old prominent horror legends can fall into the same kind of trash. Boris Karloff kept his forays into Z grade horror, but Bela Lugosi is in countless low budget horror films. He needed the work and gave it his all, no matter what the film. It didn’t matter if he was a half ape in Ape Man or playing alongside a Jerry Lewis imitator in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Lugosi still gave it the full treatment.

And as bizarre as it to see good actors in so much schlock, it actually shows make these films more fun. You need a Cameron Mitchell putting his faith in Blast Hardcheese during Space Mutiny. Comedy needs a good straight man, and sometimes trash does too. We salute you, actors who will jump into any tepid pool of celluloid sewage. Thank you for your service.

The Growing Pains of Early Talkies

The time was March 1928. The Jazz Singer was still a huge hit and money maker for Warner Brothers across the country. The studio decided to take a risky move and pull the film while it was still raking in the viewers. Why? They were ready to release their second talking picture, Tenderloin. And this one was more ambitious, with four full scenes of dialogue. Warner Brothers rolled the dice and unleashed their newer spiffier talkie.

The speed at which Tenderloin and other talkies were released is a breakneck pace. And with each of these films, the growing pains and early issues are apparent. And yet, many quick adjustments were made as well. Let’s take a look at what some of these very first talkies brought to the table, as seen in film magazines of the day.

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Unsurprisingly, Warner Brothers had another financial hit with Tenderloin. Audiences came out in droves, but how much they all enjoyed the film is a bit of a different story. The film’s legacy now is that it elicited some of the reactions famously seen in Singin’ in the Rain: audiences laughing at poor quality. Depending on the source, audiences either laughed at Dolores Costello’s lisp or the film’s melodramatic dialogue.

What is known for sure is that the studio felt compelled to recut the film, removing two of the four dialogue. Film Daily had major problems with the second talking scene, stating that while the words may appear good in writing, they “failed to register when spoken.” They went as far as to say the scene so derailed the film that the film “lost its audience” the rest of the way.

In the wake of this fact, Film Daily offered some pertinent advice and opinion for the future:

Producers will flounder until they learn what to do with this un-catalogued element. These portions of the “Tenderloin” dialogue which missed did so no because the idea or the reproduction were poor. The synchronization was excellent, but the conception bad. The invocation suffered because of the utter banality of the words put into the mouths of the characters.

The Warners are rightfully entitled to credit for taking a bold step in an uncharted direction. Exhibitors and others should bear in mind that there exists no precedent for this type of undertaking. The result, of necessity, will be spotty until experience points the way out of the maze of mediocrity.

These words sum up a lot of the problems that these early talkies faced. Tenderloin showed something that would become very clear: serious dialogue and drama were the most difficult things to get right at this time. Light musicals and comedy shorts (usually based on Vaudeville routines) were much safer bets. Warner in particular released endless comedy and musical shorts that were generally popular and of good quality.

But not all musicals faired quite so well. Universal’s first full talkie, Melody of Love, was by all accounts, a disastrous effort. Photoplay even found the music and singing terrible. Their final thoughts pulled no punches: “This horrible example should be a museum piece, valuable because it shows how not to make a talkie.”

Fox and Fox-Movietone also found good success producing comedies, including several Peter Benchley shorts. They also similarly released a flop of a drama, Napoleon’s BarberPhotoplay found this film both technically poor (“the characters, as usual, seem to speak from their vest pockets”) and an overall awful film (“there is but one real consolation–it is only a two reel picture”).

 

While all this was going on, Warner’s constant efforts to make more talkies was paying off. With each new film, more issues were getting ironed out and the quality was increasing. Their third partial talkie Glorious Betty had some technical issues, but Film Daily sung the praises of advancement: “the latest Warner effort marks a rather important something in the advancement of pictures. It offered proof that the use of sound to augment dramatic and entertainment values is no mistake when used properly.” With many attempts at talking in dramas failing, this may have been the first successful use of a talkie drama.

Their next follow up was The Lion and the Mouse, which upped the ante to half talking. Their first full talkie, The Lights of New York, was released in July 1928. While some critics panned it for being crude or lowbrow, Warner had yet another cash how on their hands, making $1 million off the $23,000 production.

Critical acclaim for talkies also came around in due time. Paramount found one of the first critical darlings with the release of The Letter in April of 1929. Photoplay sung the praises of lead actress Jeanne Eageles, calling her work “the first high pressure emotional performance of the all-talkies . . . The Letter is a real landmark in the progress of the microphone drama.”

And considering the first talkie had been released not even two years earlier, that is some amazing progress.

Nuns, Communists and Witches: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2017

Another year has ended, and with that comes the deluge of end of year lists. It’s time for me to do my own, my favorite films I saw for the first time this year. As usual, some of these were reviewed earlier in the year here, but many haven’t been. This year, the list heavily on the comedy side, but there’s plenty of variety in time period. They are presented in chronological order.

A Woman in Grey (1920)

Actually a film serial, A Woman in Grey was reviewed in full here. Considered one of the last adult American serials, it is a smart mystery that keeps the audience hooked. For anyone curious, it’s the perfect first serial to try. Expertly filmed in real Pennsylvania mansions, it’s just as good looking as it is compelling and mysterious. 


Zaza (1923)

The full review of Zaza from earlier this year can be found here. It’s a great introduction to the talent of Gloria Swanson in her prime. She gives an amazing wild performance, playing all the comedy to the hilt. A fight scene between her and Mary Thurman is a highlight that won’t be forgotten by any who see it.

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)

For classic film fans, this an especially fun Laurel and Hardy romp. The duo show up at the reading of a will, hoping to con the family into thinking Stan is the heir to a Laurel family fortune. But the dead man has been murdered and they are forced to stay at the house with the family until the killer is found.

What follows is a great sendup of the old dark house films. It has every element you need: the unsettling butler, creepy portraits, family members disappearing one by one. It plays like a more over-the-top version of The Cat and the Canary, with all the parody elements in overdrive. There’s a great chase sequence involving a bat, giving Laurel and Hardy a chance to put their original stamp on the proceedings. The ending in which the murderer and method are revealed is both a good satisfying twist and funny too. That is no small feat.

The Ghost Camera (1933)

This is a fun little mystery that shares a similar jumping off point as Blow-Up, except with an actual solution and no pretension (thank goodness). A man finds a camera and discovers that one of the pictures appears to depict a murder. From there, he must attempt to track down a woman found in the photos. Complications ensue and the mystery continues to deepen.

At just over an hour long, it’s a quick but satisfying mystery. There’s plenty of good British humor throughout, and all the twists and little mysteries pay off in a satisfying manner.

Service with a Smile (1934)

For fans of early Technicolor, this short is a must see. The loose “plot” centers around comedian Leon Errol creating a bizarre and comically over the top gas station. It’s all a backdrop for elaborate musical numbers with eye popping color. Whether it’s a fleet of dancers in bright green dresses or a number at a golf course, the color is bright and remarkable. Also looking gorgeous in color are the number of cars seen throughout. A rare look at vintage cars in vibrant color can’t be passed up.

The musical numbers are strong themselves, with the song “What You Gonna Do Now?” being particularly catchy. Errol’s cheesy jokes have some charm too. This overall package makes it one of the most entertaining and notable shorts of the period.

Climbing High (1938)

Climbing High is familiar territory for fans of screwball comedies. A wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) is supposed to marry a socialite (Margaret Vyner), but falls in love with someone without the social status (Jessie Matthews). Every bit of wackiness is to be found, from pies being thrown to wind machines knocking people around. The film does get credit for originality: it may be the only film where someone holds someone hostage until they sing opera.

What makes the film really stand out is Jessie Matthews. Perfectly at home with some fast silly comedy, she carries every scene with equal parts charm and befuddlement. And yes, she somehow makes singing opera with a madman funny. Matthews alone makes this above average fare that’s worth seeing.  

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another comedy duo horror movie on this list? Sure, why not. Somehow I’d gone all this time without seeing this classic mix of comedy and horror. It certainly lived up to the legendary hype. Abbott and Costello do exactly what you’d expect and do it well, but it’s the performances of the horror icons that stand out. Bela Lugosi especially is great playing it straight, and Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange play their parts well.

With all these stars (as well as Lenore Aubert playing the doctor) acting as if they’re in a classic Universal monster film, it’s all quite the perfect fun tribute to them. Horror and comedy have rarely mixed better, and it satisfies all you want from a Universal horror and classic comedy film.


The Trouble with Angels (1966)

The Trouble with Angels, simply put, is some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie. The story of two high school girls at a convent supplies plenty of good cheer and good fun. There’s hijinks to be had, resulting in plenty of light fun. The cast is stellar: Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, Mary Wickes, June Harding and Gypsy Rose Lee all play their parts well. A fun coming of age tale, you’ll be left in a better mood seeing this.

Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty’s epic chronicle of John Reed, Louise Bryant and the rise of communism is an unforgettable ride. It’s not just a biopic of a couple people. It’s an immersive chronicle into an important period of American and Russian history. Numerous notable historical figures play into the story, the roles performed by an all star cast (Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few).

Helping with the realism is the numerous appearances of real witnesses to the characters. They appear throughout in interviews, speaking directly about the real Reed and Bryant. In some cases, songs they sing end up as the soundtrack music to some scenes. This makes the rest of the film with the actors all the more real and raw. Reds feels like you’re in every part of that real scene, and you come away having learned a lot.

The Love Witch (2016)

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only modern film on the list has a decidedly retro feel. A tongue-in-cheek tale of a witch putting men under her spell, it’s worth seeing if only for now good the film looks. Shot in the style of the 60s or 70s, the film features gorgeous color and cinematography throughout. Luckily, it’s just as fun as it is visually pleasing. Fans of old horror should appreciate the modern retro feel.

A Tale of Two American Silent Serials

We’ve talked a lot about silent film serials on here this year, but we haven’t actually reviewed any so far. Finding silent serials, especially American ones, is no small feat nowadays. Plenty of famous serials exist in incomplete form. At best, those only give a little glimpse of what they were like. Foreign serials, considered the best of all, are more often extant: DVD releases of Fantomas, Les Vampires and House of Mystery are available. 

But what about the American serials? An important part of film history at the time, they deserve a compete and critical look. And so, we will take a look at two American silent serials that do exist in complete form. In some ways, these are the ideal two to look at, as they represent two different eras of serials. One, A Woman in Grey, is sometimes referenced as the last of the adult serials. With elaborate complex mysteries, it’s very much in line with the critically popular serials of the previous years. The other, The Mysterious Airman, represents the shift to more action based serials, something that continued into the sound era. 

A Woman in Grey (1920)

 If you’re looking for a good mystery, A Woman in Grey delivers in spades. It’s a well layered mysterious tale with a lot going on. A man inherits a house of a deceased relative, empty since her murder. A mysterious woman in grey called Ruth Pope (Arline Pretty) takes an interest in the home, while everyone takes an interest in her true identity. Both the murderess and the witness who put her in jail have a mark on their left hand, the hand Pope always keeps covered. Is she the murderer or the long lost witness? There’s also a fortune to be found in the home, one that can only be accessed by combining two codes. Pope has one, and the equally mysterious J. Havilland Hunter (Fred C. Jones) has the other. Frequent battles for the second code ensue.

Within those two major plot points, there’s several additional subplots and developments: romance, jealousy, more mysterious identities, surprising twists. While there are a ton of moving parts, it’s never hard to follow and stays mostly within believable realms. Part of what makes it so easy to swallow is that the mystery is grounded in only a few very real possibilities. From very early on, the audience knows there are only two real possibilities for Ruth Pope’s identity. That amount of information creates a unique type of suspense. There’s just enough info to make very educated guesses, while also being confident that the film won’t pull a dumb twist out of left field. 

That’s not to say the serial doesn’t have its problems. It did not need to be 15 chapters, for one. Cutting a couple out would eliminate some repetitive moments and cut out the film’s only weak subplot. But it still generally moves and works very well.

The entire serial is well directed and looks great, made even more impressive that this was an independent production–the company never even made another film. Filmed on location in Scranton, PA, all of the real location shots add to the film. There’s very few set pieces to be found. Real mansions were used, as were real scenes out of outdoor Scranton.

For a taste of what American serials were like at their peak, you can’t go wrong with A Woman in Grey. It’s got the right smarts and thrills to keep an audience hooked.


The Mysterious Airman (1928)

Unlike the previous serial, The Mysterious Airman is notable for who made it: the Weiss Brothers. From the early 20s and well into the 30s, the Weiss Brothers churned out dozens of serials. Many of these were of the western and jungle variety. And by the 30s especially, the were pretty cheap and not that good. But The Mysterious Airman is none of that. It’s just fun, action packed chapters.

The plot all centers around some airplane Macguffins. An inventor comes up with new technology for one airline company only. This prompts plenty of tension from rival companies, as well as from a masked Pilot X who will shoot planes down if he has to. It’s all very silly, especially when it gets down to the specific unrealistic details. That just means it’s not a high brow deep story, but it is a lot of fun.

The fun really comes in from the action. Each of the ten chapters is all about daring airplane feats, and every episode delivers. The flying scenes look fantastic, surprisingly slick given what must have been a limited budget. Once these action scenes are going on, it doesn’t much matter that the story isn’t about much that important. It’s just an action packed great ride at those points.

At only ten chapters, The Mysterious Airman is the perfect length for such a light, breezy tale. There is still some plot intrigue, as the serial does a good job of building up who Pilot X will be. But mostly, you’ll just be happy to come along for another wacky and wild chapter. While the conventional wisdom of these latter serials is that they’re of lesser intellect quality, The Mysterious Airman is still plenty enjoyable while being action based. The “adult” serials may have ended, but both these serials are great in their own ways.