A continuation of my run-down of some of the most famous silents.
The Sheik (1921) I almost wish this were a lost film too, because it’s usually the only silent film most outsiders have seen, and the campy hokey overacting and simplistic plot (not to mention the ridiculous eye-bulging) lead people to believe they’re all like this. Technically not a very good movie, but you can’t appreciate it as a really fun movie if you’re not familiar with the genre overall. I can’t believe I’d recommend seeing the sequel first, which isn’t Academy Award material either, yet is a very good movie, with a much more complex plot and MUCH better acting from everyone.
I would normally consider it bad form to read or watch the sequel first, but in this case I would; it’s entirely its own story, not really a continuation of the story in the original. (And in the sequel, unless you’re blind or REALLY naïve, there is zero doubt that Ahmed, Jr. does rape Yasmin; we obviously can’t see the actual rape, but we do see the prelude and aftermath, which leave us in no doubt of what’s about to happen and what just did happen.)
It’s based on a trashy bestseller from 1919, crawling with racism, violence against women, little more than a big long rape and kidnapping fantasy (which seems to have been the genre of the author, herself a woman!), about how a “new” liberated woman who’s grown up feeling herself the equal to men has to have her proud, free spirits broken and crushed, taught a lesson in servility, and forced to come to heel by a man whom she eventually falls in love with after he physically overpowers her.
The film actually softens a lot of what happens in the book; the film appears rather open-ended over whether or not Diana is raped by her captor. We see some intertitles that might suggest it happened, but we also see no scenes of manhandling like later occur when she’s kidnapped by Omair. We know Ahmed was preparing to rape her when he was told to go out to round up horses who’d gotten loose in a sandstorm, but when he comes back to the tent to pick up where he left off, he sees her knelt over the bed crying. Instead of bulging his eyes out yet again, his face floods with sympathy and he calls in a slave girl to comfort her, basically leaving her alone.
You can’t underestimate what a watershed event this film was; up till this point, the heroes in films were clean-cut all-American men, not dark-featured foreigners. Never before had it been okay for a woman to return the embraces of a dark-skinned lover onscreen. People began to realise women had sexual fantasies too, and not just directed towards the boring clean-cut all-American boys they’d been fed for years.
People also were beginning to change their perception of women’s sexuality; prior to this time in history, most people believed women who enjoyed sex, let alone initiated it, were disturbed deranged perverts and deviants. It wasn’t yet to the point where women could have as free a reign on their sexual fantasies as we do today, but in this era, this was a really hot fantasy. This is why it’s called a rape fantasy; in a fantasy you’re in total control of the event, not like if you were really being raped. Do we really think, due to how he’s portrayed, that Ahmed will really hurt Diana? The only sex women could safely fantasise about was rape; certainly they couldn’t have affairs or premarital sex without getting into trouble. If it were forced on them, it wouldn’t be looked upon as wrong and deviant to fantasise about.
Women fainted in the aisles over this film, even though most men hated it (jealous their women would fall for a dark-featured dark-skinned foreigner who was sensitive and romantic in addition to strong and manly). They too longed for a dark handsome stranger to come riding in on a white horse and pull her onto his steed, kidnapping her, taking her back to his tent, his heart and soul driven wild with desire for her, so much so he’d do anything to have her as his own. Nothing like this had ever been shown in films before, as campy and hokey as it might look to the average modern-day viewer.
The director George Melford was an ass though and wanted a popular film instead of highbrow entertainment; he also basically egged people on to overacting, combined with exaggerated makeup. And besides, the bulging eyes have also been attributed to nearsightedness and myopia; if someone with myopia refuses to wear glasses, of course you’ll see a look of strange-looking squints and eye-bulges.
Nosferatu (1922) Widely considered to be the original Vampyre movie; even though I personally feel it’s a little overrated and not nearly as scary as I’d been led to believe, if you’ve seen it, you just know Max Schreck IS Dracula, the ultimate Vampyre, no matter he isn’t seen doing too much vamping.
It takes place during the 19th century, in Germany; Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the greatest directors of all time and really created a spooky eerie mood, no matter how it doesn’t seem very scary by modern sensibilities. Count Orlock is a creepy-looking mysterious fellow who goes around biting people on the neck and controlling people’s minds, as well as smuggling himself and a bunch of earth-filled coffins onto a ship so he can bring the Plague to town.
But, to be honest, all this eerie foreboding promise and the creepy mood build up to a whimpering, rather anticlimactic end instead of ending with something really scary and terrifying, ending with a real bang. And I know that back in 1922, filming technology wasn’t yet advanced enough to shoot scenes in the dark, but that means that this Vampyre spends an awful lot of time wandering about in broad daylight!
Nanook of the North (1922) This is an allegedly documentary film about an Eskimo named Nanook and his family. (I’m well aware of the fact that Eskimo is now considered an offensive term and that they prefer to be called Native Alaskans or Inuits, but I’m so used to using the word Eskimo from my frequent childhood trips to the Eskimo exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; it’s like an older person still saying Indian, Negro, or mankind even though s/he knows the language has moved on in spite of his or her personal lifelong habit.) It’s a really great film, but I don’t view it in the same way upon finding out it was a hoax, that Nanook had indeed had prior contact and familiarity with Westerners and their way of life.
Safety Last! (1923) He’s not as well-known by many people today as Chaplin or Keaton, but Harold Lloyd was considered the third major comedian. He looked like a proper dignified British schoolmaster or professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses. This is the one where he’s hanging from the hands of a clock on the side of a building directly above traffic. Even more stunning about this stunt is the fact that Harold only had three fingers on his right hand, having had his thumb and forefinger amputated in 1919 when he used what he thought was a prop bomb to light a cigarette. The bomb exploded in his hand, nearly killing him. After a long stay in hospital, he was able to resume making comedies, and had even more success than before. [And that made him a fellow sinistral, even if he had to switch because of an accident instead of being born that way! I love seeing him writing and doing stuff with his left hand in his films, knowing this was the era when many people shamed and bullied southpaws out of their natural inclinations.]
The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin’s most famous film and the one he most wanted to be remembered for, though in my opinion a little bit overrated. It was reissued in 1942 with the title cards deleted and Charlie narrating everything; that really takes away from what was really funny and sweet about it. Can you imagine having a full-on narration of a film like Steamboat Bill, Jr. explaining everything that’s going on? The beauty and genius of silent comedy is that it didn’t need to be narrated or explained to be funny. The narrated version also is shorter than the silent version, and changes the ending sequence a bit, ending with Georgia and the Tramp walking up the ladder to the deck of the ship from sterrage as opposed to Georgia and the Tramp kissing.
Even though I don’t personally find it the funniest of his films, it does have numerous funny bits, and of course the usual expected sentimentality. It’s also to be noted that Charlie’s most famous segment in this film, the Dance of the Rolls, wasn’t invented in this film. Roscoe Arbuckle had done a Dance of the Rolls in his 1917 film The Rough House, and Charlie liked it so much he decided to use it himself eight years later.