June 1920 in Film

We missed out on May, but there’s still time to get in June in under the wire. This month doesn’t feature a ton of films with big name stars. The Photoplay reviews do touch on some interesting subjects, though: animation, title cards and lavish premieres. There’s a bit to learn here from all that. I know I learned that a 1920 film premiere sounds pretty great. Let’s take a look at some films that turned 100 this month.

The Mollycoddle

(Director: Victor Fleming Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, Ruth Renick)

Survival Status: Extant

With this director and stars, The Mollycoddle is certainly one of the biggest films released this month. But first things first: what is a mollycoddle? I didn’t know either, but Merriam-Webster says it’s a dated term meaning “a pampered or effeminate man or boy.” Strange title aside, Photoplay was a big fan of the film, including some apparent animated effects.

“The Mollycoddle has those characteristic touches of comedy that always distinguish a Fairbanks picture–the hero’s experiences as a coal passer, his escape through a fish house . . . It boasts a bit of originality in introducing a Bray cartoon effect in the elucidation of the plot . . .It has the best landslide effect, coupled with the best rough and tumble scraps with Doug and Wallace Beery mixing it up ad lib, that our experience of the screen recalls. Discounting all the tricks of the camera, whatever that man Beery is paid he earns.

Let’s Be Fashionable

(Director: Lloyd Ingraham Starring: Douglas MacLean, Doris May, Wade Boteler)

Survival Status: Lost

This film, a Thomas H. Ince production for Paramount, is notable for what the review mentions. It specifically points out the quality of the intertitles, an under-appreciated aspect of silent film. Title cards, at their best, can make a comedy even better with some well placed jokes. The quality of them matters a lot.

“Luther Reed has made his funniest scenario from a story supplied by Mildred Considine. Reed’s subtitles are sure-fire; they scintillate. You’re with the newly-wedded Langdons from the first to last, thanks to him. Douglas McLean is again a younger and handsomer William Collier–only more so. Doris May in pajamas is the Month’s Best Optical Moment. Anyy crabbed critic who can sit through this without laughing right out, must be either blind of insensible. As the exhibitor’s report will say ‘you can’t go wrong–don’t miss it.'”

Below the Surface

(Director: Irvin Willat Starring: Hobard Bosworth, Grace Darmond, Lloyd Hughes)

Survival Status: On DVD!

Another Thomas Ince production, this got some lukewarm remarks from Photoplay. Their bone to pick is mostly with Lloyd Hughes, who was relatively early in his career. They weren’t quite right in that assumption–Hughes would go on to a long career spanning all the way through 1939.

“It starts out with all the force of that first Ince epic of the sea–this time showing a submarine-full of men enduring slow death and suffocation until Hobart Bosworth as the diver Martin Flint risks his life to save them . . . But Ince seems to have erred in judgement in selecting Lloyd Hughes for prospective stardom; Hughes strives valiantly, but registers insincerity and a weak chin.

Madonnas and Men

(Director: B.A. Rolfe Starring: Anders Randolf, Edmund Lowe, Gustav von Seyffertitz)

Survival Status: Unknown

There is not a ton that is notable about this film, except that Photoplay devotes a lot of copy to it. Well, they mostly devote that time to ruminating on how this is one of those film that relies on spectacle but no strong plot. The little description of the plot does not sound very coherent, but they spend a lot of time discussing the premiere.

“There are so many ‘big’ scenes shown on the screen these days that without a convincing story back of them they have little value . . . Everything that money could buy has been been brought to make ‘Madonnas and Men’ a sensation. Its private showing in New York, preliminary to its release, was perfect in its arrangements. A large theater was engaged, a numerous orchestra played the incidental score, there was a treadmill chariot race to intensify the atmospheric appeal, a reception committee to receive the invited guests, and embossed programs to acquaint them with the parties responsible for the production.”

Silent Films on TCM: May

Sunday, May 3rd

12:15am Body and Soul (1925) This week’s silent Sunday Sunday Night choice is a notable one. This is one of the surviving films by pioneering African American director Oscar Micheaux. It’s also the film debut of Paul Robeson.

Wednesday, May 6

8:00pm The Dragon Painter (1919) The first of two silent films on this night, it’s part of TCM’s feature on Asian Americans in Hollywood. It was produced by and stars Sessue Hayakawa, who first came to prominence in the United States in The Cheat.

9:00pm Piccadilly (1929) The second silent feature of the night stars Anna May Wong, the first major Chinese American film star. Piccadilly is actually a British release and not an American one, though. By this point in her career, Wong had left Hollywood after being typecast and losing Asian character parts to non-Asian actors. This would be her final silent film.

Sunday, May 10

12:30am Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) The second Silent Sunday feature is one almost everyone is familiar with, even if you haven’t seen it. This film features the famous gag where the house falls on Buster Keaton, but there’s much more than that to this. Check it out for one one of Keaton’s best features.

Saturday, May 16

8:00pm The General (1927) Buster Keaton gets another turn as part of The Essentials. It’s followed by Peter Bogdanovich’s 2018 documentary about Keaton, which is also worth watching.

Sunday, May 17

12:00am Shoes (1916) The third Silent Sunday feature is a great opportunity to see one of film’s great early directors, Lois Weber. She pioneered such techniques as the split screen and is one of the most prolific directors of all time.

Sunday, May 24

12:30am Wings (1927) Another one of the essentials, this is notable as the first Best Picture winner. It’s a great achievement of action and special effects, along with a stellar cast.

Sunday, May 31

12:00am He Who Gets Slapped (1924) The final Silent Sunday feature of the month is yet another classic. Lon Chaney gives an unforgettable performance as the scientist who turns into a battered circus clown.

April 1920 in Film

We’re back again looking at the films that turned 100 years old this month. With the exception of one big name, it doesn’t seem at first glance to be that big of a month. That’s only the case because of the poor survival rate of these films. Some of the films listed feature actresses that had long and active careers, but are just not known nowadays. Check out the list below for some bigger names from the past, as well as another film panned by Photoplay.

The Toll Gate

(Director: Lambert Hillyer Starring: William S. Hart, Anna Q. Nilsson, Joseph Singleton)

Survival Status: On DVD!

One of four films William S. Hart released in 1920, this one saw him starring alongside Swedish actress Anna Q. Nilsson. Although born in Sweden, Nilsson only made one film in her home country. Beginning in films in 1911, by the late teens she had regular leading roles. Her career continued into the 1950s, mostly in uncredited roles in later years. She will be most remembered in later years as one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard. Photoplay had high praise for the film.

“‘The Toll Gate’ is the most interesting Western I have seen this month, because, granting its melodramatic premise, it is the most plausible, the most intelligently directed and the best acted of the melodramas I have seen . . . It is the sort of a story that convinces an audience that it has been repaid for its visit to the theater.”

Down on the Farm

(Director: Erle C. Kenton Starring: Louis Fazenda, Harry Gribbon, Bert Roach)

Surival Status: Extant

Maybe there were some big stars releasing films this month. After all, this was the first feature film to star Teddy the Dog. One of Mack Sennett’s star dogs, he’s the title character of the Gloria Swanson short Teddy at the Throttle. The film boasts quite the supporting human cast as well, including Marie Prevost, Ben Turpin and Sybil Seely. Photoplay liked it, but thought it couldn’t carry on for the full runtime.

“Teddy, in his first long Sennett, comes close to stealing all five reels of it . . . All the old tricks and no new ones are employed, so that there are many chuckles but few laughs. It starts off gloriously; you think that at last Mr. Sennett is going to show ’em. But he can’t–or doesn’t–keep it up. Our idea after see is that Mack has a lot of stunts all nicely catalogued; his directors–for he is only a supervisor now–are permitted to select so many for each two-reeler, and so many more for this five. There must be some good ones left, but we should like to see them.”

Polly of the Storm Country

(Director: Arthur Rosson Starring: Mildred Harris, Emory Johnson, Charlotte Burton)

Survival Status: Lost

Mildred Harris enjoyed quite a long career, beginning first as a child star and extending into the 1940s. Her first roles were for L. Frank Baum’s Oz Film Manufacturing company. by the end of the 1910s, she’d moved on to adult starring roles. She continued steady work throughout the 20s and into the sound era, mostly in supporting roles as years went by. At the time this film was released, she was billed as Mildred Harris Chaplin. Her marriage to Charles Chaplin would end before the year was out. Photoplay was not a fan of the well worn plot of this film.

“Again ‘gladness’ triumphs over all in the end. Again the poor and illiterate heroine of the curls and Pollyanna spirit marries the rich and cultivated young hero. This story is supposed to be a slice right out of Ithaca, New York life. But you can count on it that the Ithaca Commercial Club will not try to tie up an advertising campaign to it. Neither will Cornell University. As Pollyop, the squatter’s ‘glad’ girl, Mildred Harris Chaplin is effective with the sun shining through her hair.”

The Stolen Kiss

(Director: Kenneth Webb Starring: Constance Binney, Rod La Rocque, George Backus)

Survival Status: Extant

This film’s star, Constance Binney, is not much known nowadays. She did have an active career in the 1910s and 1920s, including both on Broadway and on screen. She appeared currently on stage and screen, including in the film adaptation of one her Broadway shows, 39 East. Her most notable film role might be starring alongside John Barrymore in The Test of Honor. As for this particular film, Photoplay liked her but nothing else.

“Any sympathetic person, having seen this, would go home and have a good long cry. The picture isn’t so bad; it’s just the feeling that’s bound to come over one of the appalling waste of talent and beauty on such lukewarm stuff. If Constance Binney isn’t pretty and capable, who in–filmdom is, and why don’t they ever let her illustrate? So much charm going to waste in so much dull direction and draggy scenario is a real crime.”

The Shadow of Rosalie Byrnes

(Director: George Archainbaud Starring: Elaine Hammerstein, Edward Langford, Anita Booth)

Survival Status: Unknown

And finally, another film that isn’t of any particular note, except for the fact that Photoplay hated it. There’s a charm to these short reviews that blast a mediocre film. In this case, they have some questions about the twin plot used.

“In movie stories of twin sisters, why is one sister good and the other one bad? Why does the good sister have to suffer for the misdoings of the bad one? Why do producers consider one dual role picture a necessary in the screen career of any actress? Answer these questions and we shall tell why ‘The Shadow of Rosalie Byrnes’ came to be. Elaine Hammerstein, who always suggest common sense and a good disposition, does her best with unconvincing material.”

My 2020 TCMFF Picks

Things are a little different this year. The TCM Film Festival has been forced to go online, which is understandable despite how disappointing it is. For me, it’s a bit of a rough one. After years of missing out, this was to be my first time attending. Rest assured, I’ll be ready to take it all in next year. Until then, TCM has done a fabulous job creating an “at home” edition of the festival with a killer lineup. Here’s my picks to check out, broken down by specific interest areas.

If You’re Looking for a Musical . . .

TCMFF is bringing some all time classic musicals we’ve all seen, but definitely need to see again. The Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (Thursday, 8pm EST) kicks off the whole event. One of my favorite comfort films of all, Singin’ in the Rain (Sunday, 6pm EST) is a must watch any time it’s on. There’s also some more obscure selections to check out.

There’s a helping of three Vitaphone shorts airing (Saturday, 10:30am) that are well worth a look. These early sound subjects are not just a treat for the first looks at sound in film. They’re also really fun and breezy musical numbers. There’s entire releases of these Vitaphone subjects, so check out some more if it whets your appetite.

If You’re Looking for a Horror Film . . .

There’s not a ton of horror films airing for TCMFF, but the ones that are are quite the classics. The Creature from the Black Lagoon hits at midnight on Friday, and remains a great monster movie with a heart. If you’re like me, you might even be rooting more for the creature than the humans. After all, its just trying to live a peaceful life until things get interrupted.

If you want your horror to be a little more insane, Mad Love (Saturday, 8am EST) fits the bill. This is one of my favorite Peter Lorre performances, a bizarre masterwork that can’t be forgotten. If you haven’t seen this maniac showing from him, the less said the better. Let’s just say that he’s a wonderful mad doctor, and that the film goes in many a dark place.

If You’re Looking for a Pre-Code . . .

There’s many good selections to choose from here. Double Harness (Saturday, 9:15am EST) is a new-to-me film, but I’ve heard about the ruckus it caused at a previous TCMFF event. And it has Ann Harding and William Powell, so that makes it even more can’t miss. I can, however firmly vouch for Red-Headed Woman (Sunday, 2pm EST). This is some real precode raunchiness and scandal, helmed by a legendary Jean Harlow performance. This is a heaping helping of precode fun.

If You’re Looking for a Silent Film . . .

The opening night is capped off with Metropolis (Thursday, 11pm EST). This classic remains just as visually stunning and gorgeous no matter how many times it’s seen. For a bit of change in tone, TCMFF is also airing Safety Last! (Saturday, 1:15pm EST). This film boasts Harold Lloyd’s most famous moment, the hanging from the clock tower. It is indeed one of his finest finishes, and the whole film is just a joy. Lloyd’s films never fail to make me smile, and this is him working at the height of his power.

Fun Silent Films to Watch Online Now

If you happen to be reading this in April of 2020, you’re well aware that things are not exactly great right now. And while we’re all holed up in our homes right now, fun distractions and escapes are needed. Movies, as always, are a great avenue for that. With that in mind, I wanted to take a moment to recommend five fun silent films that are available on Youtube right now. These are all fun, amusing and cute. There’s nary a The Man Who Laughs to be found here (although you probably should watch that sometime too). The only criteria is that films are fun and that the copy has a good score attached to it, as your mileage may vary on any random copy. Just click the title of each to check out the films. Hopefully any or all of these can put a smile on your face.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

This is far from the first nor the last comedy/horror old dark house film. In fact, there are several adaptations of of the play this film is based on. But the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary is one of the best of the genre. It’s a film you can slip into comfortably, since the plot and type is a very well known one. But to handle the old haunted house story in a way that is both creepy and funny is quite the feat. Director Paul Leni creates a great atmosphere and has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve. The always enjoyable Laura La Plante leads a stellar cast as well. For fans of horror who want a little wink along with the suspense, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925)

It’s pretty obvious what this is parodying. Stan Laurel does a fabulous job in this send up of the classic story. His look as Mr. Pryde is a copy of John Barrymore’s famous performance five years earlier. Laurel spends his time as Pryde pulling mischievous minor pranks on people. He creeps around like he’s Nosferatu, all to steal a kid’s ice cream cone. It’s a totally hammy, silly performance that is fun to watch. Pete the Dog even gets a turn at being “mad” in cute gag.

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

If you’ve never seen the force of nature that is Ossi Oswalda, this is the perfect introduction. A hugely popular German actress, she frequently worked with Ernst Lubitsch, including on this film. She stars as a woman who is tired of being chastised for doing things that are considered unladylike: drinking, smoking and playing cards. So she decides to hit the town as a man to enjoy things that way. All sorts of hijinks follow, with Oswalda hitting all the right notes of comedy and charm. Lubitsch also dives right into some unexpected situations: Oswalda gets very friendly with her male caretaker, who thinks he’s kissing a man. There’s good value here just in how groundbreaking those aspects are. But more than anything else, Ossi Oswalda is just a ton of fun.

Lonesome (1928)

This is actually a partial talkie, with a couple of sound scenes added in. Lonesome is a joy on two fronts: both as a sweet romantic tale, and as an escape to the lifestyle of the 1920s. It’s the most simple story of all. Two people meet and fall in love, enjoying life in the big city together. The visuals are so much fun. We get to see them on a packed beach, hitting rides at the amusement park. The amusement park is an especially great treat, as it even features some gorgeous early Technicolor. This time capsule would make the film worthwhile alone. When combined with the romance story (which involves them losing each other, of course), Lonesome is one of the greatest delights in all of film.

The Strong Man (1926)

Harry Langdon is most usually named as fourth in the “big four” of silent comedy, but I’d say he’s still underrated and not given enough credit. Langdon’s films are different and sweet. With his persona of a childlike and naive sweetheart, his films feature much less slapstick and more situational comedy. If you’ve never seen his work, The Strong Man is a great introduction. Directed by Frank Capra, the film follows Langdon as he seeks to find the penpal he fell in love with during the war. Along the way he gets caught up with the mischievous Gertrude Astor, which leads to the best extended comedy of the film. When he finally does meet his love, it’s an incredibly sweet and emotional scene. More than just a funny movie, The Strong Man shows what unique character aspects Harry Langdon brought to the table.

March 1920 in Film

Welcome back to another look at 100 years ago in film. We missed out on February, we’re jumping back in at the end of March. There are a lot of interesting films that came out in this month, including what would be one of the most talked about films of the year. Others include a film that generated a bit of controversy just because of its title, and more releases by some major names. Excerpts from the original Photoplay reviews are included, to give a taste of what some critics thought at the time.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(Director: John S. Robertson Starring: John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield)

Survival Status: On DVD!

Although numerous adaptions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book had been made even by 1920, this one still stands out as one of the most notable. Of particular note is John Barrymore’s commanding performance, heralded by most critics at the time. And reports from the time indicate it was a huge success at the box office. Photoplay’s lengthy remarks on the film state that it may not be for everyone, as many reportedly found Barrymore’s performance too horrific, especially for children. The reviewer praises his performance, but knocks it down a few points, as they “do not care for horrors.” There are some interesting remarks about how popular the film is.

“It will easily become the most talked of picture of the time. A door and two windows were broken by the first crowds that tried to see it on its first showing in New York. It may tour the country to the tune of similar crashes. Unquestionably it has lifted young Mr. Barrymore to the leadership of his contemporaries of he screen, as his ‘Richard III’ had put him in the forefront of the advancing actors. The curiosity to see it will be great. But as to its continuing popularity I have my doubts.”

Haunted Spooks

(Director: Alfred J. Goulding, Hal Roach Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Wallace Howe)

Survival Status: On DVD!

This Harold Lloyd two-reeler is perhaps most notable for what happened behind the scenes. It’s alleged that it was during the shooting of Haunted Spooks that Lloyd sustained the accident that caused him to lose two fingers. This didn’t actually occur during shooting, though, but rather during a publicity photoshoot. It took several months before shooting resumed, and the incident was not widely known to the public. Photoplay was a big fan of Lloyd and the film.

“A good man of you people seem to think Harold Lloyd is just a naturally funny young man who walks out on a stage and does a lot of tricks. See his latest exposition and admit you’re wrong. Lloyd has done it again, this time a little more ingeniously than ever before . . . Mildred Davis is just as nice as Bebe ever was; she is increasingly deft and correspondingly charming.”

April Folly

(Director: Robert Z. Leonard Starring: Marion Davies, Madeline Marshall, Hattie Delario)

Survival Status: on Blu-Ray/DVD!

Also produced by Marion Davies, this is frame story where the writer (Davies) tells a wild, romantic story casting herself and the publisher she is in love with (Conway Tearle) as heroes. Cosmopolitan Productions even turned the plot structure in a promotional device: a prize for creating a story similar to that of the movie. Sounds like a cheap way to get a script idea if you ask me. Photoplay didn’t give too high of praise of it. The rest of the review goes on to describe how attractive Davies is, not included.

“As soon as the action of ‘April Folly’ began to shift from Canada to South Africa, we knew that Cynthia Stockley wast he author of the story. However, you need not expect another ‘Poppy.’ Marion Davies’ newest picture is merely the usual comedy-melodrama. The new picture is one of those ‘story-within-a-story’ affairs. Miss Davies is a magazine writer who makes herself the heroine of a great diamond robbery mystery.”

The Virgin of Stamboul

(Director: Tod Browning Starring: Priscilla Dean, Wheeler Oakman, Wallace Beery)

Survival Status: Extant

Hailed as $500,00 big budget production in advertising, The Virgin of Stamboul does indeed boast an all-star cast and a big name director as well. Priscilla Dean and Wallace Beery stand out as big names, but Wheeler Oakman (who was married to Dean at the time) was a prolific character actor as well. Photoplay loved Priscilla Dean, although they were a little wishy washy on how much they liked the film as a whole.

“They say, at Universal, this is the greatest picture they have ever had. We might be disposed to say something sarcastic if our minds were not a little dizzy every time we beheld that human tornado, that young dynamo, Priscilla Dean . . . Miss Dean is a healthy Californian who somehow conveys that she knows more about the Orient than a Cook’s Tourist could tell you. She is a luscious, yet frank, baffling yet human actress, with a smile that insures the industry to more new eras than any mechanical intervention . . . H.H. Van Loan’s story is not in the least new, or sensational, or human. To Browning’s direction is good, but never extraordinary. You are left with a feeling that it should all have come to something—that Wheeler Oakman, a good actor, should have stood out more definitely, that Priscilla was just as corking in those crook melodramas, that Wallace Berry as a sheik is still a darn good pursuer of the innocent.”

A Manhattan Knight

(Director: George Beranger Starring: George Walsh, Virginia Hammond, William H. Budd)

Survival Status: Lost

Finally, this mystery film isn’t all that notable, except for the fact that Photoplay really hated it. Plot details are sparse and the film is believed to be lost. But let’s just enjoy this lambasting review.

“This George Walsh feature must have wandered far and wide from the original plot, written by Gelett Burgess. For the story is about as active as the star. And the star is so active that he makes you think of nothing so much as a squirrel in a cage.”

Other notable films released this month:

Sex: A film that got plenty of mileage out of its unique title, Sex is actually a highly moralistic tale that warns of the dangers of infidelity and the wild life of actors. Both the title and content led to some areas having issues with the film, but it was a box office draw for the same reasons.

Kohlhisesels Tochter: a German comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Emil Jannings.

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.