Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, Books, Hermann Hesse

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part II: Plot summary)

On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.

Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.

Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.

Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.

Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.

While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.

One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.

The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.

A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.

In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”

During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.

The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.

Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.

It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.

Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”

In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”

The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.

Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.

During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.

And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, Dante, Divine Comedy, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A quartet of antique horror films

For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.

Posted in 1900s, Books, Historical fiction

Wishing for a dream birthday present

Winona's Pony Cart (Deep Valley, #3) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Though this book features the characters of the Betsy-Tacy series and is set in the same fictional small town of Deep Valley, Minnesota, it’s not actually part of the series. Winona’s Pony Cart is one of three spin-offs, and the only one written for children instead of young adults.

Like almost all the other characters, Winona Root too is based on a real person. However, the child Winona and the teenage Winona are based on two different girls. This book is the only time we see her younger Doppelgänger besides Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

Winona's Pony Cart [Betsy-Tacy] by Lovelace, Maud Hart , Hardcover Brand New 9780060288754 | eBay

It’s autumn 1900, and third grade Winona is about to turn eight (making her one of the youngest kids in her class). Though her family are at least upper-middle-class, if not outright wealthy, she nevertheless lacks one longed-for possession: a pony.

When the book opens, Winona is being made to sit on a wall outside her house as punishment for sitting on a birdbath and getting her clothes all wet while pretending to ride a pony. Mrs. Root has very rigid, stereotypical ideas about how girls are supposed to act, and can’t get it through her head that Winona’s more tomboy than frou-frou girly-girl.

Winona's Pony Cart **First Edition by Lovelace, Maud Hart: Fine Hard Cover (1953) First printing Stated., Not Signed | Barbara Mader - Children's Books

Through the entire book, Mrs. Root unsuccessfully tries to make Winona over in her own image, and that of Winona’s older sisters Bessie and Myra. She also refuses to listen when Winona asks if she can invite more people to her own birthday party, and doesn’t want some of these other kids to come.

Mrs. Root decides there should only be fifteen guests, and chooses for Winona who’ll be there. She invites children from Winona’s Sunday school and her friends’ children, not Winona’s real friends. One of these unwanted guests is an annoying Little Lord Fauntleroy no one likes.

Not once does she consult Winona about the guest list, and claims it’s impossible to invite anyone else, since Mr. Root only had fifteen invitations made, and there are only sixteen party hats, horns, and place settings. God forbid Winona get a say in her own party!

Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart: Two Deep Valley Books - Kindle edition by Lovelace, Maud Hart. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Winona goes ahead and invites all her real friends by word of mouth, without saying anything about this to her family. Thus, it’s a most unwelcome surprise when all these unplanned guests start streaming in the afternoon of the party. A crisis is averted when one of Winona’s friends from Little Syria brings a baklawa cake, thus ensuring everyone can have a slice of some kind of cake.

Mr. and Mrs. Root have been mentioning a surprise, and Winona thinks she’s going to get a pony. After all, she’s been begging for a pony a lot recently, and she tends to get what she wants eventually (esp. if she throws a tantrum). She never knew the crushing disappointment I did of never getting a rocking horse or a beautiful redhaired baby doll I named Apricot, since my parents hadn’t that kind of money.

It seems as though Winona’s wish has come true, but there’s an unexpected twist.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, Books, Historical fiction

Senior year, Edwardian-style

Betsy and Joe (Betsy-Tacy, #8) by Maud Hart Lovelace

While it seems safe to say at this point that I’ll probably never join the small but committed group of stans for the Betsy-Tacy series, these books and characters have slowly but surely grown on me. One doesn’t have to be a diehard fan or the target audience to genuinely like a series. I just regard it in a different way.

The book opens in summer 1909, as Betsy’s family are on their annual holiday by Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota). Betsy is very excited to get a letter from her longtime crush Joe Willard, who entrusts her with the secret that he’s covering a big land-swindle trial for The Courier News in Wells County, North Dakota.

Joe also invites her to regularly correspond with him, an offer she happily accepts.

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe (9780061794728): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Betsy’s older sister Julia is away in Europe, and constantly sending letters home about her exciting adventures in places like London, Paris, Naples, the Azores, and Amsterdam. After summer ends, she’s due to spend a year in Berlin studying opera.

Though Julia is warmly accepted by a host family, her trunk doesn’t immediately arrive. Everyone keeps carrying on about how awful it is that she hasn’t any proper, new clothes to wear to important events or to impress people, as though there are zero department stores in Berlin or it’s impossible for anyone to lend her clothes.

Betsy and Joe (A Betsy-Tacy High School Story) by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy, now a senior, once again has only a paltry four classes—physics, German (she dropped Latin), civics, and Shakespeare. I truly can’t wrap my brain around a high school even 100+ years ago only offering 4-5 classes to each grade! And to only require two years of math and science (with no trig, chemistry, or biology), and not have gym or electives like art, music, and creative writing!

I wish these books spent more time on Betsy’s academic life instead of being so heavily focused on her social life. E.g., how and why did she choose the classes she did? What kind of homework, papers, and tests did she have? If her parents think it’s so great she’s studying America’s then-unofficial second language her senior year, since so many people in town speak it, why didn’t they have that conversation when she started high school and steer her towards German instead of Latin from the jump? Did Betsy consider studying French? Does the school even offer French, or any of the other courses basic to 99.999% of all high schools?

I also wish there were more details about just what exactly Betsy is writing all these years. We’re told she’s writing novels and submitting stories to magazines, but we know little to nothing about any of these ventures. Only the fourth book explored her writing in any depth, and then her social life eclipsed her writing.

Senior year seems to start off promisingly, with Joe finally visiting the house and going on some dates with Betsy, but a love triangle soon emerges with Tony Markham, whom Betsy had an unrequited crush on in ninth grade. Now that Tony finally has feelings for her, she no longer likes him in that way. Betsy sees him more as a brother.

Because tradition of that era dictated a girl had to accept the first guy to ask her to a dance or other event, Betsy is roped into going out with Tony many times. She doesn’t have the heart to say she’s not interested, and Joe’s work commitments preclude him from asking first on most occasions. Joe also doesn’t let her explain the situation, assumes the worst, and immediately finds another girl to escort.

There’s a pointless subplot about a hot new boy in school, Maddox, joining the football team and becoming an object of ridicule on account of barely participating to protect his handsome face. After he’s publicly mocked in front of the whole school during a pep rally, he lets himself get battered during the last game of the season. I’m so glad modern football helmets protect the face!

Football team in the 1910s

It was jaw-dropping to see Betsy and Tib several times lamenting how Tacy will probably be an old maid because she still shows no interest in dating and boys at the ripe old age of seventeen. Tell me again how Betsy is such an unsung feminist icon of girls’ fiction?

And right on command, shortly after Tacy’s 18th birthday, we meet her future husband, who works with Betsy’s dad and is 27 years old. Mr. Kerr steals a photo of Tacy from Betsy’s photo album and announces he’s going to marry Tacy, no matter how long it takes. He also later sends several bouquets.

GROOMER!

Why would a well-adjusted adult man be interested in a high school girl who has absolutely no experience with men? Betsy’s dad even laughingly says Tacy had better watch out, since Mr. Kerr has a way of always getting what he wants!

Creepy, Wrong, Immature and Pathetic: Older Men Chasing After Much Younger Women – Christian Pundit

Anyway, Betsy grows more mature as the year wears on, and realises she has to be honest with Tony. If she makes it clear once and for all romance is off the table, she just might finally win her dream man.