Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent film review: Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t “get into” watching silent films. I understand—I really do. Silent film has its own language. As with reading poetry or watching an opera, one has to first crack the code. Some films require less code-breaking than others, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. is a case in point.

Silent comedy can sometimes be easier for the silent film beginner to appreciate than some dour drama. What’s perhaps most fascinating isn’t seeing how much has changed, but seeing what hasn’t. While some will laugh more than others at the antics in Sherlock, Jr., I defy anyone to avoid laughing at all. And when you do—that’s an almost 100 year-old joke that’s cracking you up, which is pretty amazing.

Buster Keaton daydreaming on the job in Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock, Jr. isn’t just a good intro to silent film comedy: it’s a good intro to Buster Keaton. Keaton was 24 when he starred in and directed the film for his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions. The film takes full advantage of Keaton’s physical comedy agility—honed from childhood when he took pratfalls as part of a family vaudeville act—but manages to transcend broad humor. It’s funny, yes, but you’ll find it’s something more.

Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about becoming a detective. When a romantic rival sets him up to take the fall for a stolen watch, he sets out to catch the real thief, aided by tips in his amateur sleuthing book—but he fails spectacularly. In a sort of reverse of Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton falls asleep in the projection room and dreams himself into the film on the screen. We see him leave his body and enter the film as a suave, top-hatted gentleman detective who, in the film-within-a-film, cracks the case and gets the girl. 

His skills as a projectionist are about equal to his skills as a detective.

The storyline allows for lots of comedy sequences, and it’s almost astounding how many big ones are packed into this film. Keaton is balanced on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that the driver had fallen off, as the bike propels him across the countryside for a ridiculously long time. The sequence is as funny as it is breathtaking—a triumph of stunt work.

Perhaps the most famous comedy sequence in Sherlock, Jr. comes when Keaton tails his suspect, literally following behind him as he goes about his business. Trying to evade detection, Keaton ends up on top of a moving train car (Oh, Buster!) and is then doused by a reservoir. Keaton famously did his own stunts (Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence), and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. In fact, Keaton broke his neck performing the water tower stunt, and didn’t discover it until much later, when he complained to his doctor of a headache. 

Water tower sequence during which Keaton broke his neck:

A lesser-mentioned comedy sequence that deserves mention is a billiard game played by Keaton (as the gentleman detective) and his suspect. The eight-ball has been filled with an explosive in an effort to take out the detective, yet he manages, in a series of increasingly ridiculous shots, to avoid hitting it completely. At one point, Keaton lets the minor characters get the laughs, as the butler describes the inept shots. As the film is silent, it’s interesting how well the shots can be visualized with a few hand gestures. The unseen shots are even funnier than the ones we see.

Yes, the film is funny, and that can’t be overstated, but as I said, the film is something more, which is almost something you have to see for yourself. Keaton’s fantasizing of himself on the screen speaks to the way in which we watch films ourselves, dreaming of ourselves in the roles. When he awakes, he finds that his girl has made everything right, and all is well with the world, yet we see Keaton sneak peeks at the playboy on the screen for tips on how to woo her. There’s an obvious blending of the unreal and the real, as his fantasy affects reality. 

Keaton literally gets into the film he's screening.

Kathryn McGuire is perhaps best known for playing the girl in the film (she’s literally credited as “The Girl”). She started as a Mack Sennett comedienne and later made some cowboy flicks before retiring from film in 1933. Keep an eye out for the girl’s father: he’s played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, and head of the family of vaudevillians in which he grew up and honed his great physical comedy skills.

The Kino DVD (which is also the version streaming on Netflix) features a jazzy score by the Club Foot Orchestra that manages to seem both modern and timeless. Of course, if you get the chance to see Sherlock, Jr. in an actual theater that shows film, don’t miss the chance. You might just find yourself, like the title character, transported right into the movie.

Sherlock, Jr., full film on YouTube. (Good quality. Does not have the CFO score, though it is scored.)

Full film on Netflix (with account).

Buy Sherlock, Jr. at Amazon. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lost Film Photo: Theda Bara in Carmen (1915)

Theda Bara as the gypsy seductress in 1915's Carmen.

Though she was one of film's biggest stars—only Chaplin and Pickford were paid more at the height of her fame—the majority of Theda Bara's body of work in silent film went up in flames. Among her lost films is Carmen, based on the perennially popular Bizet opera, which has been filmed more than 70 times. While Bara's version was among the first film versions, in the same year, DeMille released his version, and Chaplin made a spoof version (Burlesque on Carmen, featuring Darn Hosiery as the love interest, rather than Don Jose). While the other two survive, Theda Bara's Carmen only exists in the form of random studio stills like this one.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants (1905)

If you think media manipulation is a recent development in the film industry, have I got a story for you. It involves a pair of crafty filmmakers, some made-up news stories, and best of all: a man with no pants.

Filmmaker Willy Mullens, sans pants.

1905 was a year when film was really gaining steam. The first nickelodeons opened for business, Variety began weekly publication, and the invention of mercury lamps allowed filmmakers to shoot indoors without the need for sunlight. In short, there was a lot of money to be made in the biz, and a lot of people ready to make it—and not just in the States.

Dutch brothers Willy and Albert Mullens came from a theatrical family. Their father Albertus was co-founder of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Cagliostro-Théâtre, which advertised  "mysterious and pseudo-scientific spectacles.” Their mother Christina continued running the company after their father’s death, and Willy Mullens himself was a carnival performer, working in The Hague as a human cannonball. He was supposedly fired after being knocked out by a kangaroo, though English-language sources on the incident are hard to come by. (Any Dutch speakers? Look into this kangaroo business!)

It was soon afterward that she took Willy and Albert to Paris, where they saw the films of the Lumière brothers—an event that changed the course of their lives. They purchased several of the Lumière films, formed a traveling cinema under the name Alberts Frères, and began showing them in the Netherlands in 1899. Ultimately, they began shooting their own films, becoming one of the first film production companies in the country.

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach is typical of the type of practical joke comedies the brothers liked to film, but this one would prove to be their most successful, and is now one of the oldest surviving Dutch films in existence. The story is simple: a man napping in a beach chair gets swept out to sea, then removes his pants to wade back to shore. When a policeman spots him, he flees in panic, with a jeering crowd of onlookers following behind.

Willy both starred in and directed the film (with Albert working the camera) after the actor they hired was forbidden by his fiancée to play the role. She was not keen on having her future husband appear pantsless on camera, so the younger brother went without his trousers, instead.

What happened next was a blessing in disguise for the filmmaking brothers. On July 25th, 1905 the Zandvoortsche Courant ran a story about the entire event—the napping in a beach chair, the pantlessness—as if the events in the film had occurred in real life, and had just happened to be caught on film. Other newspapers picked up the story and decried the moral degeneration at the beach resort.

The brothers ran with the chance to capitalize on the moral outrage, advertising that the truth would be shown in the movie theater. To further attract those who were appalled about the leg nudity, they displayed the film with the alternate title Tragic Scene of a French Gentleman at the Zandvoort Beach, perpetuating the idea that the film was documentary in nature. Thus, the film was shown alternately as either a comedic farce or a tragedy about decaying values, depending on the audience.

The free publicity provided the film with sell-out crowds, with long lines of people waiting all day to get in. Because the brothers used locals as extras, many lined up just for the chance to spot themselves (or their friends) on camera. Don’t forget that film was still new to most viewers, and critical responses spoke highly of the cinematography itself, one writer saying that “the waves rolling in from the sea alone would be worthwhile seeing.”

It's worth seeing now, if not for the view of the sea (we're jaded now), for the close-up look at ordinary people in 1905. The extras include men, women, and children in their ordinary dress, many of them obviously mugging for the camera and even waving. There's also a neat look at a bathing machine, a long-gone eccentricity of a more prudish time.

In 2007, The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach was selected as one of the sixteen canonical Dutch films by the Netherlands Film Festival, making the film one of the earliest examples of the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Lost First Film Version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1908)

One of the things that pains me most when it comes to lost horror films is the loss of so many firsts. Gone, possibly forever, are the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, the first depiction of Stoker’s Dracula, the first film werewolf, the first mummy—and the list goes on and on. And what makes the loss even more of a tragedy is when there are not even surviving posters or photographs for the production. It’s almost as if the film never existed at all.

That’s the case with the first film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its loss is especially  ironic, considering that theater is, by its nature, an ephemeral medium, and yet we have more artifacts around from the first stage version of the story than we do for the first movie. 

Cabinet card of Richard Mansfield in his dual stage role. 
Advertising poster for a stage production, 1880s.

Handbill for Mansfield at the Lyceum.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel had become a hit when it was transferred to stage by English actor Richard Mansfield. His transformation into the gruesome Mr. Hyde was thought so convincing that some theater-goers deemed it a little too convincing. At least one spooked audience member wrote to the police in 1888, suggesting that Mansfield might be Jack the Ripper. No one took the idea seriously, but the show closed early anyhow. “There is quite enough to make us shudder out of doors,” wrote one reporter.

Mansfield took his performance on the road, and he continued to play the dual role to great acclaim until his death in 1907. While Mansfield’s performance may have been the most famous stage version, it was by no means the only one: stage versions of Stevenson’s novel were being performed by companies all over the world. One of the better-known productions around the time of Mansfield’s death was that of the Thomas R. Sullivan Company, who had been touring with the show since 1897, with a script by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish.

It was this company that Colonel William Selig, of the Polyscope Film Company, saw perform Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in Chicago, and he was taken with the idea of recreating the show on film. Selig used the theatrical company cast in what would become the first filmed version of the famous story, condensing its four acts into a one-reeler. Otis Turner, who would go on to direct the first silent film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, directed.

Selig's Chicago studio, before moving west.
Hobart Bosworth, film's first Jekyll, on a 1916 cigarette card.
Bosworth in a stage costume, around 1900.

Being signed by Selig was a life-changer for Hobart Bosworth, the stage actor playing Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart. His stage career was pretty much at an end, as tuberculosis was robbing him of his voice, though he was still in good physical condition. Silent film turned out to be the perfect medium for him, and he went on to star in dozens of films, taking rest breaks to keep his tuberculosis in remission. (He lived to be 76.) Co-star Betty Harte also caught the film bug. After signing on to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, she went to make 107 more silent films in her career.

While the stage play was drastically condensed, the film left the most dramatic elements intact. Like just about every adaptation of the novel, it veered from Stevenson’s story—which doesn’t reveal that Jekyll & Hyde are the same man until the end. The film, like the stage plays, revealed the truth right away, allowing Bosworth to writhe and contort himself into the horrible Hyde. In subsequent scenes, Hyde attacked a girl named Alice, then murdered her father. The film concluded with Hyde, fearing the gallows, taking a poison that ends the life of both identities.

An interesting aspect of the film as described by those who saw it was that it began and ended with the raising of a stage curtain. Though filmed, it was made clear to the audience that they would be watching an adaptation of the famous play. Critics enjoyed it, and one said of Bosworth’s performance that “the change is displayed with a dramatic ability almost beyond comprehension.” (Bosworth was lucky that, unlike Mansfield, he wasn’t rumored to be a serial killer.)

Out of the hundreds of films made by Selig Polyscope, only a handful survive. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is not one of them. Just as there were dozens of stage productions of the story, though, more film versions soon followed. In fact, Jekyll & Hyde is one of the most filmed novels, ever. Over the next few years, it would be filmed about a dozen times (including a lost version by F.W. Murnau). The total  number of film versions today is closer to 125.

The oldest surviving version is a 1912 Thanhouser film directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze. Not the first Jekyll & Hyde by a long shot, but at least we have it.

You can also placate yourself with the transformation scene from a lot of people’s favorite version: the 1931 Mamoulian-directed Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde with Frederic Marsh.

Is this 1908 film in your secret vault? And if not, do you have a favorite version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Absinthe (1914): A Lost Film on the Terrors of Addiction

From Reefer Madness’ famous defenestration to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s PCP freakout in Death Drug, poor-souls-under-the-influence films are more often a source of hilarity than horror. These types of scenes, though, were meant to scare the daylights out of the masses—and scare them straight. 

Absinthe was among the first films of its kind, depicting the horrific hallucinations and criminal repercussions of addiction to the alcoholic liquid nicknamed “the green fairy.” Released in January of 1914, the film's scare tactics may have worked. Absinthe was banned in August of the same year in France (it had already been banned in the States in 1912).

Ads from Moving Picture World.

It didn't seem to matter to the public that the tales of absinthe's psychoactive properties were false (it's no more hallucinatory than any alcoholic beverage). Temperance societies (and winemakers, who didn't like the competition) circulated stories of the evils of absinthe, claiming it led to insanity and violent crime. 

They ran with the story of Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer who murdered his family after consuming absinthe, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had been drinking wine and liquor all day, topped off with a mere two ounces of absinthe. It was an alcohol-fueled rage that led to the murder, and not an absinthe-induced hallucination, but the stories persisted. 

French anti-absinthe poster.

A 1906 petition calling for the ban of absinthe outlined its perceived evils and echoed the beliefs of much of the public:

"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."

It was into this climate that the Independent Moving Pictures Co. (now under the umbrella of Universal) released Absinthe. From what we can glean from newspapers and film magazines, the four-reel film centers on a French artist, Jean Dumas, who is introduced to absinthe by his mistress (he is French, after all). Dumas becomes addicted to the drink, and becomes a full-on absinthe fiend, joining an Apache gang and committing robberies to fuel his need. He strangles his own wife to death in the course of one of the robberies, and ultimately ends up as a ruin, mocked even by dirty street urchins.

Still of Baggot in a hallucination scene. (Illustrated Films Monthly)

Production still from Absinthe.

King Baggot played the absinthe fiend, and he was at the height of his career. Said to be the first individually-publicized leading man, Baggot was fresh from his stint in the Brenon-helmed 1913 film of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde when he was cast as the lead in Absinthe, which Herbert Brenon wrote as well as directed. Leah Baird was cast as his wife. Baird began her film career playing opposite Jean, the Vitagraph Dog (a subject for a future post, perhaps?) and ultimately turned to screenwriting, but in 1914, she was a well-liked leading lady.

Baird and Baggot on collectible stamps.

Brenon hauled the whole cast to Paris in a bid for authenticity, and Baggot was said to have spent his time among the lowlifes and absinthe addicts to study their habits. The result was a film that the audiences of the time took as absolute truth—just short of a documentary in its depiction of the evils of absinthe. 

Absinthe received rave reviews, and was so successful that it was revived again in 1916, and newspaper ads show that it continued to play in some theaters for at least two more years. 

While Absinthe is lost (there are no known reels in existence), its legacy lingers in the form of shows and films that sensationalize whatever is deemed to be the cause of violence and social ills—and not just drugs and alcohol, but video games, the Internet, or fast food. There's always something to blame.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: The Missing Silent Version of a Twain Classic

This is the third and final article reprinted from Book Dirt. Look for new content beginning this Thursday. Please consider subscribing and/or following on Facebook (see sidebar) to help launch this new blog effort.


Like Frankenstein and Misery, the 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was inspired by a dream of the author’s. Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit with Louisiana writer George Washington Cable, who gave him a copy of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The two authors, both of whom were known for writing in dialects, made a joke of the archaic language and began speaking in it, calling each other “Sir Mark” and “Sir George.” Around this time, Twain’s notebooks make reference to a dream about being a knight, and all the inconveniences it caused. 
Posters for the lost 1921 film version of A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The first film adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was released by Fox in 1921, and it made use of the dream device. While the original novel’s action begins with Hank Morgan waking up in Medieval Camelot after he’s hit on the head with a crowbar, the silent film version takes a more meta approach. The titular Yankee, renamed Martin Cavendish for the film, has been reading Twain’s novel when he ends up struck by the spear of a suit of armor. He ends up dreaming of the book’s setting, just as Twain dreamed of Le Morte d-Arthur. The film’s credits list an actor as playing the part of Mark Twain, but as only three reels of the film survive (2, 4, and 7 are at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it’s uncertain what purpose he served.
A postcard for the film gives a glimpse of the motorcycle-riding knights. (Click to view larger.)

Still pictures, reviews, and the viewable parts of the film give us some idea of what the movie is like. Perhaps the most intriguing --and amusing-- aspect of the silent film version of the story is that it’s updated to the 1920s. The main character of the original book impresses the people of the Middle Ages with things like gunpowder and a lightning rod, while Martin Cavendish introduces them to the Jazz Age. Movie stills in a French photo-novelization of the film depict armored knights with hip-flasks of bootleg booze riding around on motorcycles. The Photoplay review suggests that the film was full of contemporary slang, not to mention references to Tin Lizzies and the Volstead Act.
Harry Myers with Chaplin in City Lights.

Harry Myers starred in the lead role, and was no doubt suited to the comedic aspects of the film. Ten years later, he’d be Chaplin’s co-star in City Lights, as the drunken millionaire who spends a night on the town with the Tramp. The romantic lead was Pauline Starke, who worked her way up from being an extra in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Starke starred in a another partially-lost film based on a famous book, 1924’s Dante’s Inferno, in which she and other actresses appeared fully nude. (Before the Hays Code of 1930, film producers pushed all limits. Unfortunately for anyone with prurient or even academic interests, a low percentage of the racier films have survived.)
Pauline Starke in a promo pose, and on the cover of a movie mag in 1927.

Wikipedia suggests that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first time travel film, but I’d have to disagree. Because the story takes place in a dream, no one has actually traveled in time. Even if you allow that the events in the film are time travel, then you’d have to agree that the supernaturally-inspired trips to the past in A Christmas Carol are as well, and that story had at least six film adaptations prior to 1921.

Unless you can get the MoMA to arrange a screening for you of the existing three reels, the silent version of Connecticut Yankee will probably elude you. We’ll have to make do with film posters and reports from those who either saw the film in the ‘20s or have seen the extant reels. Ironically, though Mark Twain died eleven years before the film was made, we have existing footage of Twain himself, shot by Thomas Edison at the author’s home in Connecticut. The fact that a movie is gone despite being made years later (and widely distributed and shown across the world) shows the astounding randomness of film survival. If I could time travel, perhaps I’d spend my time in the past ensuring that old films were archived safely. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Lost Film Version of the Monkey's Paw (1933)

The second of three lost film articles to originally appear at Book Dirt. Brand new content will begin appearing next week, so be sure and subscribe.

W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” is undeniably a horror classic. It’s a staple of anthologies, and almost anyone with even the vaguest interest in horror has encountered some version of it. The Monkees borrowed it for an episode, Alfred Hitchcock filmed it fairly faithfully, The Simpsons spoofed it, and Stephen King built on its theme in gruesome ways for Pet Sematary.

Oddly enough, Jacobs was known mostly as a writer of humorous stories. Many of them even appeared in The Idler, the British magazine co-edited by Jerome K. Jerome (and discussed a little more in this recent forgotten book post). “The Monkey’s Paw” first appeared in a collection called The Lady of the Barge, and the cover alone is evidence that the stories are more sweet than scary. It’s this one horror tale that has proven to be Jacobs’ legacy, though. 

"The Monkey's Paw" first appeared in a 1902 collection.

Some have noted that there’s never been a really successful film version of the story, but it’s quite possible that the lost 1933 version may have been one of the best. The first talkie version of “The Monkey’s Paw” (it was also filmed in 1915 and  1923), the movie was made at a time when horror films were starting to really gain steam. Filmed during David O. Selznick’s short production stint with RKO, it was directed by Wesley Ruggles, himself on an upswing from directing Cimmaron, the first western to win Best Picture.

The story as written is only a few pages long, so it’s no wonder that so many filmed versions are short features. The 1933 film expanded on the story, adding extra characters (and some sex appeal along the way), and giving some background on the origins of the enchanted paw with a prequel set in India. 


Lobby cards for The 1933 Monkey's Paw, the first sound version.

The cast included C. Aubrey Smith as Sgt. Major Morris, the man who brings the paw to the White family. Smith was a British ex-pat who made a career out of playing distinguished gentleman roles in Hollywood -- a quick look at his parts on IMDB reveals a slew of character names preceded by “Colonel” and “Sir.” He was a ringleader of sorts to a group of British film actors working in America that were sometimes referred to as the Hollywood Raj.

Ivan F. Smith and Louise Clark played the Whites, and their son Herbert was played by Bramwell Fletcher. Classic horror buffs know Fletcher from his small but memorable role in 1932’s The Mummy as the Egyptologist who completely goes to pieces. (Check out the clip; it’s one hell of a crack-up.) 

The movie’s eye candy came in the form of sultry Nina Quartero (and what a form it was). Quartero was often cast with her looks in mind, playing torchy Latin dancers and bar girls, plus a slew of “other woman” roles. She was often the foil to the nicer, blonder lead actresses. While her role in The Monkey’s Paw was likely a small one, the film posters make the most of her assets. No doubt her raven hair and naked shoulders were deemed more of a box-office draw than Louise Carter’s matronly bun and apron. 

Nina Quartero in a publicity still (top), and in an added prequel scene in The Monkey's Paw.

What makes the lost film seem most exciting, though, is an actual review from a viewer. It’s not a critic’s take, or one of the many hoax reviews of lost films that unfortunately turn up all over the place (a subject for another post), but an IMDB post from an elderly user who saw the movie in 1933, at the age of nine, and was plenty spooked.
“It was so scary that the memory has stuck with me for some 71 years,” he says. “It seems that it was always raining, with lightning and thunder, and people coming in wet and cold, and that most of the action took place at night -- a real film noir!”

Most compelling, perhaps, is the description of the monkey’s paw itself, which no doubt made a big impression on a child:

“White nervously held the paw in his hand and spoke the wish for money. At that instant, naturally, there was a blinding flash of lightning close by with an immediate crash of thunder! The dead hand of the monkey contracted into a fist momentarily, then returned to its curved-fingers relaxed position. I saw this clearly on the screen, but I'm not sure the characters in the movie saw it.”

While you can’t watch the 1933 Monkey’s Paw (not even a trailer exists), you can watch some of the other versions, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s TV adaptation, as well as some more modern retellings.

Or, you can go back to the source with the links below.

Free at Project Gutenberg (Lady of the Barge collection)
Free at Amazon (collection)