Fritz Lang’s screenwriting début

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The great Fritz Lang’s very first screenplay was for director and producer Joe May’s Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death), released 31 August 1917. They collaborated again on 1920’s Das Wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and 1921’s The Indian Tomb. All of these films featured the same leading lady, May’s wife Mia (née Hermine Pfleger), from whose stage name he took his own.

The Austrian-born Joe May, né Joseph Otto Mandel, was one of the pioneers of German cinema. He got started at Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin, and later formed his own production company, Stuart Webbs-Film. His film career was briefly interrupted by WWI service.

By the time he collaborated with Lang, he’d founded another production company, May-Film. Sadly, his daughter Eva committed suicide in 1924, aged only 22.

In 1933, he and his wife escaped to the U.S., and he established himself as a B-movie director.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the only widely-available version of this film is cut down to 39 minutes (out of 80 minutes total), so I won’t be able to provide a complete review based entirely on my own impressions. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks with the full synopses I’ve read, and drawing on the knowledge that Lang revisited the premise in 1921’s Der Müde Tod.

Not only is the publicly-available version so truncated, but it also has no intertitles. It’s very hard to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

The film received glowing reviews, particularly in regards to Mia May and Georg John (Death)’s acting. Lang’s screenplay was also highly praised.

Sadly, Georg John was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in autumn 1941, and died there on 18 November, aged 62.

During rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, Hilde Warren, a famous stage actor, gets involved in a conversation about Death. She tells her director Wengraf she doesn’t understand how anyone could lead her to Death before her time.

Wengraf is in love with Hilde, but she rejects all his attempts at wooing her. She’s not going to give up a successful career to get married and have kids.

Death appears and tries to tempt her, but Hilde refuses.

Hilde eventually marries Hector Roger, an elegant but wanted criminal. She has no idea what kind of double life he’s leading. When the cops try to arrest him, he shoots at them, and is killed in the resulting skirmish.

Shortly afterwards, Hilde discovers she’s pregnant. Death appears for a second time, but once again, she withstands temptation.

As her son Egon grows up, he’s pulled to the dark side like his father. Meanwhile, Wengraf is still in love with Hilde, but he gives her an impossible condition for marriage—abandon her child.

Death appears a third time, but Hilde once again refuses.

Egon gets more and more out of control, in spite of Hilde trying to reform him. She blames herself for his criminal lifestyle.

The next time Egon begs for money, after almost ruining her financially, Hilde stands her ground, orders him to get out, and threatens him with a revolver. She fights back when Egon attacks her, with shocking results.

When Death appears again, will she finally accept his offer?

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Wings at 90, Part I (General overview)

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Released 12 August 1927 and starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen, Wings was long thought to be a lost film. In 1992, a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris, and the process of restoration began.

In 1917, Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) are rivals for the attention of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston, Harold Lloyd’s longtime leading lady), a visitor from the city. This would-be love triangle is complicated by the fact that Mary Preston (Clara), the girl next door, is in love with Jack.

As it so often goes in these kinds of stories, Jack is most woefully unaware of this. After Mary helps him build a car, which they name The Shooting Star, she tells him someone who sees a shooting star can kiss the girl he loves. Jack thinks that’s a splendid idea, and drives off to visit Sylvia.

When the U.S. joins the war, Jack and David enlist in the Air Service. Jack, due to a misunderstanding, takes the signed picture in a locket Sylvia intended to give David. Sylvia later reassures David he has her heart, whereas Jack only has her picture.

Mary too gives Jack a picture in parting. She doesn’t get a goodbye kiss or declaration of love, but Jack does promise she can use The Shooting Star while he’s gone.

While David (who’s from the richest family in town) is saying goodbye to his parents, his mother gives him his old, tiny teddybear as a good luck charm.

Though Jack has always dreamt of flying, all the pre-combat training takes place on the ground. During basic training, he grows to hate David more and more, but they eventually become best friends.

Meanwhile, Mary responds to a call for Women’s Motor Corps volunteers.

Jack’s romantic dream of flying soon turns into ugly, stark reality when he gets into combat. Both he and David have their limits put to the test against Count von Kellermann’s enemy squadron.

The battle scenes, which go from the air to the trenches on the ground, are very well-done. In 1927, WWI was only nine years in the past, and still vivid and raw in everyone’s memories.

During all this intense fighting, Mary arrives on the front lines with her ambulance.

The influenza pandemic strikes while Jack and David are stationed in Mervale, and Mary’s ambulance becomes a regular presence, tending to both the wounded and ill.

War continues in spite of the flu pandemic, and Mary has to take cover under her ambulance during a bombing raid. After Jack and David help to rescue Mervale, someone points out Jack’s plane to Mary. Like his car, it’s also named The Shooting Star.

In recognition of their bravery, Jack and David (now lieutenants) are honoured by France as aces.

Following the Intermission, we see Jack and David on leave in Paris, having a merry time carousing. Mary is also in Paris, and thrilled to learn Jack is there. However, she quickly learns all furloughs have been cancelled to get ready for “The Big Push,” and goes to find Jack.

Jack, who’s gotten rip-roaring drunk, doesn’t recognise her. He just continues pouring more alcohol down his throat, leaving Mary feeling very defeated.

A Frenchwoman in a powder room comes to Mary’s rescue, helping to give her a makeover meant to catch Jack’s eye.

Mary’s sexy new look finally gains Jack’s attention, but he’s still drunk off his gourd. When they’re alone, he keeps hallucinating bubbles and finally passes out. Even worse, she discovers the locket with Sylvia’s picture.

Worst of all, two military cops walk in as Mary’s changing back into her uniform and order her sent home.

Jack defends Mary’s reputation when one of their fellow flyers insinuates she has loose morals, like all hometown girls who go to the big city. David asks if he’s in love with her, but Jack says he loves Sylvia. Jack didn’t confess earlier because he didn’t want to wreck their friendship.

Jack proves it by showing David the locket with her picture, but when the picture falls out upside-down, David rips it up so Jack won’t see the inscription. Of course, Jack goes ballistic.

The fight is broken up by an order to get back into combat. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

I highly recommend this film. It’s definitely 5 stars.

Vintage soldier photos with a twist

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Due to my move and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, I’ll once again only be posting on Sunday and Monday of this week. To mark Memorial Day, here are some vintage photos of soldiers you may not have seen before.

A U.S. Army medic in WWII takes some time to help civilian children.

A U.S. Army medic (45th Infantry Division) and a captured Wehrmacht medic work together on a wounded Wehrmacht soldier, Anzio, Italy, 6 February 1944

U.S. Army medic treating a wounded Waffen SS soldier, 1944

1 July 1944, U.S. Army medics helping a wounded dog found in the rubble of Carentan, France

Some medics (like my character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov of the Canadian Army) were trained as vets instead of people doctors, so why shouldn’t some human doctors sometimes switch their focus too?

1944, medics’ station

1943, wounded soldiers being evacuated sans ambulance

A Wehrmacht soldier with a soft spot for kittens

A cat hissing at a Wehrmacht soldier

A little boy saying goodbye to his father during WWII

WWI medics helping a wounded dog

He was caught and relieved of his post shortly afterwards, his ultimate fate unknown. It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall really existed in my own lifetime and that there used to be two Germanys, since there’s been one unified Germany for 75% of my life so far!

Intolerance at 100, Part II (Behind the Scenes)

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Though many people hold Intolerance as one of the finest films of the silent era, and one of the earliest art films, it wasn’t so popular when it was originally released. It bombed so badly, D.W. Griffith’s production corporation faced bankruptcy.

However, contrary to urban legend, the film’s distributor, Triangle Film Corporation, didn’t go bankrupt because of it. Their 1918 bankruptcy was caused by Harry Aiken’s embezzlement.

It cost around $2.5 million to produce this film, $47 million in 2016 figures, making it the most expensive film produced to date. About a third of that was for the Babylonian story. Since most of the costs came out of Griffith’s own pockets, this played a huge role in his financial ruin.

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Initially, only the modern story (called The Mother and the Law) was planned. Then Griffith decided to include three parallel stories. The original director’s cut was about eight hours long.

In process of editing it down to a relatively reasonable length, the Judean and French stories suffered the most. I’d really like to see that original super-long version for comparison, since those two stories are so undeveloped in the final cut.

In 1919, Griffith released The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon (the most richly-developed, compelling stories) as standalones, with some new scenes which are quite different from the 1916 release. It’s too bad he didn’t do the same with the other two stories, so we could see how they looked before all that cutting.

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Intolerance has a huge cast full of stars, much like the original 1925 Ben-Hur. Sadly, most of these actors are completely unheard-of among modern audiences, people like Bobby Harron (who phenomenally plays The Boy), Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Walter Long (always such a wonderful villain, and playing The Musketeer), Constance Talmadge (as both The Mountain Girl and Princess Marguerite of Valois, in her first major roles), and character actor Tully Marshall (as High Priest of Bel-Marduk).

Griffith’s sentimentalism is on full display with a lot of the character names—The Boy, The Dear One, The Rhapsode, The Mountain Girl, The Musketeer, The Friendless One, The Kindly Heart, Brown Eyes, and The Princess Beloved.

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Over the years, Intolerance has built a much greater reputation, and served as an influence on many filmmakers, particularly European and Soviet. In 1923, Buster Keaton parodied it as Three Ages.

Intolerance at 100, Part I (General overview)

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Released 5 September 1916, D.W. Griffith’s 3.5-hour Intolerance was created to counter all the criticism he’d weathered for The Birth of a Nation the previous year. However, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t make it as some nitrate apology letter. The themes and title were intended as a response to critics he felt had been intolerant of him.

This was my 838th silent (out of 1,125 seen to date), and, speaking as someone steeped in silent cinema, this isn’t exactly a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent, or even one of the first 25 or 50. It’s the kind of film you really need a solid grounding in silent cinema to understand, let alone want to sit down and watch.

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This very ambitious film takes the form of four different stories, all woven together by a common theme of intolerance. The stories are intercut more and more frequently as the overall story progresses, to show their commonalities and parallels. Each story has its own color tint.

First, and perhaps most famously, is the story of the fall of Babylon. Next up on the timeline is the story of Jesus, starting with his first miracle at Cana. The third story relates the events surrounding the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. Last is a contemporary story.

Between each shift, The Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocks a cradle, symbolizing the passage of time. I’m surprised she wasn’t given a meatier role, since she was Griffith’s favorite leading lady.

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Though it comes last in the overall timeline, we open with the modern story. Miss Mary Jenkins, a wealthy spinster, needs more money to finance her various charities. Her greedy, profits-driven brother cuts her a check, but it soon becomes clear that’s not enough. In response, he institutes a 10% pay cut for his workers, who start a strike. This strike is put down most brutally.

Many former employees move to the big city for new jobs, The Boy and The Dear One’s father among them. Suffering in poverty, The Boy turns to crime out of desperation.

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The Boy and The Dear One meet and begin dating. Since it was a huge scandal for a woman to be caught alone with an unrelated man, they quickly marry. When the Boy tries to quit crime, his boss, The Musketeer, frames him as a thief, and he goes to prison.

And then:

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What a vile pack of old biddies with nothing better to do than to meddle in strangers’ lives!

After The Boy’s release, The Dear One turns to The Musketeer for help in getting her baby back. The Musketeer has an ulterior motive, and tries to rape her. In the ensuing fight, The Musketeer’s girlfriend shoots him and escapes.

The cops come to the tenement, and judge The Boy guilty through circumstantial evidence. Keep in mind, this was before Miranda Rights! The Boy is arrested, sent back to prison, and condemned to the gallows. Can he be saved in time?

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I think it’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with at least the basics of the life of Jesus. This section begins with his first miracle by the wedding at Cana (turning water into wine), then goes through some of the other Biblical events, ending with the Crucifixion.

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Third to be introduced is the French story, which shows the bad blood between Catholics and Huguenots in the time of Charles IX. This story really suffers from cast bloat. So many characters are introduced so quickly, it’s hard to remember who’s whom!

Though the Jesus story is the shortest of the four, it’s actually the French story which feels the most undeveloped. Huge chunks of time also transpire between each segment. When the massacre begins, it’s hard to feel gut-wrenching anguish, since we didn’t get to know these characters at all. This story is just kind of there.

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Finally, we get to the decadent Babylonian story. There are rival factions at work, as well as a storyline about the “incorrigible” Mountain Girl getting punished by being sent to the marriage market so a “good husband” can “tame” her. Belshazzar saves her, but she later gets in trouble again by fighting against Belshazzar’s rival.

Then King Cyrus of Persia moves in with his army, and the fall of Babylon commences.

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Overall, I liked this film a lot better the second time around. It does have weaknesses, and its style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a very important part of film history.