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 Judaism, Movies, Religion

Judaism according to Hollywood and Netflix

Ever since I reclaimed my spiritual birthright as a teenager, I’ve been very annoyed (to say the least!) at how Jewish characters and Judaism are depicted on the vast majority of TV shows and films. Historically, it’s pretty rare for a film not about the Shoah to depict the religious side of Judaism as The Jazz Singer (seen above) does. While the film clearly champions a secular identity over a religious one, it doesn’t denigrate religiosity as 100% incompatible with modern life either.

Jewish subjects on film in the silent era frequently played on ugly antisemitic stereotypes, but there were occasional positive depictions, such as Hungry Hearts (1922), based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives; a few early D.W. Griffith shorts; and the German Golem trilogy (of which only the last installment is known to survive in full).

Unfortunately, many Jewish characters are played by non-Jews, and 99.9% of the time they’re Ashkenazic (of Central and Eastern European descent) and therefore white-presenting. This feeds harmful stereotypes and disgusting slanders, like claiming we just Magically appeared out of thin air in 18th century Poland and later immigrated en masse to the Middle East as part of a white supremacist, colonialist project.

No acknowledgment at all of how we’re an ethnoreligious tribe indigenous to Israel, with a continual presence tracing back thousands of years! Nor do these Ashkenazocentric portrayals depict the full rainbow of Jewish peoplehood. Eighty percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrachim, from North Africa and the Middle East. And even white-skinned Ashkenazim aren’t ethnically European.

There are also Sephardim, of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians, Romaniotes (Greeks), Ethiopians (who completely disprove the racist lie that all Jews are white!), Persians, Indians, and so many other Diaspora communities.

It’s not as though there are barely any Jewish actors, the way it’s difficult to find real disabled people to play disabled roles. But more often than not, a Jewish character is played by yet another Gentile actor.

Fictional Jewish families are also almost always intermarried, secular, and assimilated, unless the film is about the Shoah. Then it’s okay, because most of them will be dead by the end anyway. There’s a reason Dara Horn titled her 2021 essay collection People Love Dead Jews.

Nowhere in the majority of Hollywood and Netflix productions do we find a warm, accurate, nuanced, sensitive depiction of Jewish life. People are either secular and assimilated or cartoonishly stereotyped members of an ultra-Orthodox enclave, from which some poor oppressed woman is desperate to escape so she can achieve liberation with bikinis, high heels, crotch-high skirts, and lots of casual sex.

Never mind the fact that many women have made the conscious, educated choice to leave the secular world for Orthodoxy! I’ve known so many Orthodox women, and they’re not at all oppressed, unhappy, or abused. There are legit criticisms of the more extreme corners of the Orthodox world, but even the fanatics who do things like throw rocks at men and women praying together at the Western Wall are NOT representative of the majority of people in those communities.

If there is an Orthodox character in a non-Shoah story, odds are s/he’s portrayed as an out of touch bigot who needs to learn a lesson and become dutifully secular and assimilated, or accept intermarriage as the modern American way. The world Jewish population still hasn’t recovered from the Shoah, due in huge part to intermarriage and assimilation!

And speaking of intermarriage, the real-life statistic is only about 33%, NOT the constantly bandied about 52% figure. There were significant flaws in the data collection of that survey. But according to Hollywood, it’s 99%! There’s also the storyline that makes me cringe every time, “Ooh, I’m getting married, I have to convert!” Cue a quicky, insincere conversion and Judaism never being mentioned again in any serious way.

The obligatory Chanukah episode falsely portrays this holiday as a Jewish Christmas, though it’s a minor holiday and only rose to prominence as a way for people to demonstrate they were just as American as their neighbors in postwar suburbia. There might be an episode with a Pesach Seder or mention of the High Holidays, but never will you find holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, or Purim, let alone fast days like Tisha B’Av.

Compare the nonsense of Hollywood and Netflix to Israeli shows and films like Shtisel and Srugim, where the full range of Jewish life is depicted honestly instead of being reduced to cheap stereotypes and offensive slander.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

From gutter to glitter and back again

Released 9 January 1931, Little Caesar was the first of the classic gangster films made famous and popular by Warner Brothers. While there certainly had been more than a few prior films featuring gangsters, it was only in 1931 that the modern gangster film as we know it took shape. Now, for the first time, real violence was depicted onscreen, and gangsters were protagonists instead of antagonists or side characters who had to be brought down.

Depression audiences keenly related to these anti-heroes who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and had to work hard for everything they got (even if most people in the audience didn’t climb out of the working-class world through crime!). In the blink of an eye, gangster anti-heroes also lost everything they were so proud of and worked so long and hard to achieve.

And since the über-restrictive Hays Code only came into play in 1933, these earliest gangster films were at liberty to show a great deal of violence and gritty realities.

Little Caesar was based on a crime novel of the same name, written by American novelist W.R. Burnett in 1929. This was his very first novel, and was such a runaway success he was invited to Hollywood as a screenwriter. Most of his books were converted into screenplays, and feature characters who are above all else deeply human, regardless of their walk of life. Hardened gangsters and criminals can show a softer side or even attempt to give up their wicked ways, while cops, judges, and guardians of so-called virtue can be evil, cruel, and two-faced.

And of course, Little Caesar also launched the film career of my second-favorite male actor of the sound era, Edward G. Robinson. Though he began appearing in films in 1916, it was only in 1929 that he began doing it regularly. (He began his acting career in the Yiddish Theatre District of New York in 1913, and débuted on Broadway in 1915.) Sadly, due to the institutionalized antisemitism of the era, he had to use a Gentile-sounding stage name in lieu of his birth name, Emanuel Goldenberg.

Astonishingly, Clark Gable was seriously considered for either the lead role or the second-leading role. While he certainly played his share of tough guys, I can’t see him as Rico at all! Edward G. Robinson was the absolute perfect choice for the title character. Seeing anyone else attempting that role would just feel wrong, similar to how The Wizard of Oz would be a completely different film had Shirley Temple been Dorothy.

Because Edward G. Robinson had already played several gangster characters, both onstage and in films, and since he’d proved his chops in a number of films throughout 1930, Warner Brothers asked him to take the lead role. After Little Caesar shot him to superstardom, he signed a longterm contract with the studio.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Rico) and his buddy Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) hold up a gas station at night and promptly beat it to a diner, where they read in the newspaper about Diamond Pete Montana, a big shot in the underworld. Hearing about Pete’s success makes Rico burn with jealousy and resentment, so much so he decides to move to a bigger town and start making waves for himself. Joe meanwhile wants to return to his dancing career, and only sees crime as a temporary quick fix for money.

Towards that end, they relocate east to Chicago and start working at the Palermo nightclub, which is but a front for mob activities. Though Joe joins the gang along with Rico, he spends more time working as a dancer and predictably falls in instalove with his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Olga feels the gun in his pocket while they’re kissing, and isn’t exactly pleased about it. Joe asks her to pretend she didn’t see it, and tells her not to worry, that it’s just a little good luck charm. He’s very hesitant to leave his life of crime for Olga, as much as he likes her, since no one gets away with desertion and betrayal.

Out of fear of what the gang might do to him otherwise, Joe agrees to take part in a holdup at the Bronze Peacock club during a New Year’s Eve party. He’s very shaken up when he returns to Olga’s room and confesses what happened. However, he insists he didn’t do the shooting, and reiterates that it’s impossible to leave his gang.

Rico demands a much bigger cut than boss Sam Vettori promised him, and is soon raking in riches beyond his wildest dreams. He’s particularly delighted to be honored at a swanky dinner, at which he receives a fancy pocketwatch (stolen from a shop last night). One of the people honoring him is Diamond Pete Montana, who’s now lower in the pecking order than Rico.

Absent from this banquet is Joe, who hasn’t come around in a long time.

Joe overhears a rival gang planning a hit on Rico, and phones his gang to warn them. They’re unable to find Rico until after he’s been shot, but the bullet only grazes his arm. Rico is touched to learn about how Joe tried to save him.

Rico’s next move is to take over his gang’s entire territory and convince rival boss Arnold Lorch to leave town alive before he leaves it in a pine box. His power, prestige, and wealth continue increasing. Before long, he controls the entire North Side and is living in a grand mansion.

Rico invites Joe to his new digs and asks him to be second-in-command of the North Side. It’s too big for Rico to control all by himself. Joe immediately refuses, which earns Rico’s wrath. If Joe doesn’t give up Olga and return to the gang, there will be terrible consequences.

Joe slips out while Rico is on the phone, and rushes to warn Olga. The situation becomes even worse when Olga calls the cops instead of discreetly leaving town together like Joe begged her to do.

Now the stage is set for one final showdown between Rico, Joe, Rico’s gang, and the law.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part III (Reception and legacy)

The Four Horsemen was premièred to great acclaim in New York on 6 March 1921, and became one of the very first films to earn over a million dollars. During its long initial run, it earned $4,500,000 in the U.S. alone. So very successful and popular was it, the film was rereleased on 2 October 1926.

Its Canadian première came in April 1921, and it was released in Japan, Australia, and throughout Europe during 1922 and 1923. Adjusted for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of the silent era, with a grand total of $9,183,673 ($142,602,432 in 2021).

However, there was one corner of the international market which wasn’t exactly enthusiastic—Germany. The von Hartrotts are depicted in a rather stereotypical way, and the German soldiers who occupy Marcelo’s castle in Villeblanche are absolute beasts who help themselves to anything they want and rough up anyone standing in their way. In this immediate period after World War I, when anti-German sentiments and memories still ran high, they were consistently depicted in a negative light in films.

Gone were the days when German was America’s unofficial second language and people proudly bore German surnames. Many street names and business names were changed as well, and people of German descent were viewed with hostility and suspicion.

Some U.S. censorship boards also demanded ridiculous changes, as described in an October 1922 issue of Photoplay. Pennsylvania censors removed the references to Julio’s birth and the intertitle “It’s a boy!” Also altered was the nature of Julio and Marguerite’s relationship. The entire dynamic of their forbidden love was radically changed, with Marguerite and Étienne Laurier being merely engaged instead of in an arranged marriage where only one person (Laurier) has feelings of love.

“Foolish Censors” is a really good article. The author totally calls out modern-day Puritans who believe “every American is a half-wit” and needs constant protecting from the tiniest little hint of anything that’s not rainbows, flowers, puppies, and kittens. Among other ridiculous examples he cites, a Chicago censorship board wouldn’t let a husband pull the curtains down in his own home, an Ohio censor thought Treasure Island taught piracy to children, and Pennsylvania censors found the word “ornery” offensive.

But overall, rave reviews poured in all across the board. Picture-Play called the film an artistic triumph, and praised the actors. So acclaimed was the film, screenwriter June Mathis became one of the most powerful and respected women in Hollywood, second only to Mary Pickford. Many modern people don’t realize how many powerful women there were in Hollywood during the silent era, both behind and in front of the camera.

June was so in demand thanks to this success, she wrote films for Famous Players-Lasky and Goldwyn Pictures as well as Metro. These included several of Rudy’s future films. June always made sure he got the best roles and was taken care of very well.

The Four Horsemen made Rudy an overnight superstar, but Metro sadly refused to raise his piddly $350 a week salary.  Even extras and bit players on their lot made more money than that. Metro also didn’t use Rudy’s talents to the best possible extent, and immediately cast him in the B-picture Uncharted Seas (his only lost stardom-era film).

Rudy wisely moved to Famous Players-Lasky after that, where he got much better work.

Director Rex Ingram (on the left) also became a huge star because of the film’s success, but he egotistically felt that was all down to his own work behind the camera and had nothing to do with Rudy’s brilliant acting. He soon grew to resent Rudy’s new superstar status, and only made one more film with him, The Conquering Power.

Most of the rest of his films starred his wife Alice Terry as the leading lady, and newfound star Ramón Novarro as the leading man. Rex heavily promoted Ramón as the new Rudy, though they were both equally awesome.

It just so happens that Ramón appeared as an extra in The Four Horsemen.

There was a garbage remake in 1962, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Glenn Ford as Julio, Ingrid Thulin as Marguerite, Charles Boyer as Marcelo, Paul Henreid as Étienne Laurier, and Yvette Mimieux as Chichí. The setting was changed to WWII, which completely alters the story. Not only that, the circumstances of patriarch Madariaga’s death are different, and Julio joins the French Resistance and smuggles messages in magazines instead of becoming a soldier to prove his bravery and maturity. Chichí is also arrested and tortured, when she’s never in any danger in either the book or original film.

And did I mention how ridiculous it is for a 46-year-old and 36-year-old to play a couple in their twenties?

I can’t say enough wonderful things about the original screen adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s fine novel, and highly urge everyone to both see the film and read the book.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1916 novel Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis was a huge bestseller all around the world. In 1918, it was translated into English, and the next year became the bestselling book in the U.S. Despite its huge popularity, however, most film studios found it too sweeping and ambitious to adapt to the silver screen.

All that changed when screenwriter June Mathis became the head of Metro’s scenario department. Because she was so deeply immersed in Spiritualism, mysticism, and the paranormal, and believed in the Book of Revelations, she was determined to write a strong, compelling screenplay for this ambitious book.

Metro liked her script very much, so much so they let her choose both the director and the actor to play main character Julio Desnoyers. For director, she selected Rex Ingram, who also was very mystical-minded and fascinated by the macabre and bizarre. For her actor, she chose Rudolph Valentino, whose brief role as cabaret parasite Clarence Morgan in Clara Kimball Young’s Eyes of Youth (1919) had very much impressed her.

Rudy had been appearing in films since 1914, and in 1918 graduated to playing leading and secondary roles in B-movies like A Society SensationAll Night, and The Married Virgin. However, the powers that be were quite leery of casting this relative unknown as the star of a major picture. Rudy also had a distinctly Latin look and terracotta skin, which wasn’t exactly common or popular among leading men.

June insisted so strongly that Rudy was the one and only perfect actor for the role, the other studio executives finally relented. After she and Rex Ingram watched the rushes, they were even more impressed, and decided to expand Julio’s role so Rudy’s talents could shine to the fullest extent. One way they did this was including dancing scenes, most memorably that tango near the beginning. There’s no tangoing in the novel.

June lovingly mentored Rudy every step of the way and pushed him to succeed when no one else believed in him. For the rest of his life, apart from a brief period of estrangement which was later happily patched up, she was a very dear friend and served as a surrogate mother.

However, since Rudy was still an unknown quantity, Metro only paid him $350 a week, far less than the other actors. Rudy was also forced to buy his own costumes, which cost thousands of dollars. A costume factory on the studio lot was provided for the actors.

Alice Terry, soon-to-be-wife of Rex Ingram, was cast as Julio’s married lover Marguerite Laurier. (Underneath the trademark curly blonde wig she wore in all her films, she was truly a brunette.) She and Rudy spoke French to one another during their scenes, to add to the authenticity and impress skilled lip-readers. Since Rudy’s mother was French, he was fluent in the language.

June paid novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez $20,000 ($277,948 in 2021) and 10% of gross earnings for film rights. It cost $80,000 ($1,111,792 in 2021) to make the film over six months, and 12,500 actors were used. Seventy-two of these actors were listed as principals (back in the days when everyone understood what an ensemble cast is and that not all stories need to revolve around just one protagonist or two protagonists).

So much time, love, money, and effort went into making The Four Horsemen, an elaborate program was created for distribution. Filmgoers could read all about the actors, the story, the filming process, the critical reviews, the people behind the camera, and so much more. The program even helpfully provided an explanation of the word apocalypse.

Feel free to right-click and download any or all of the pages of the program! Unlike certain other people sharing public domain vintage images, I don’t put my own freaking watermark or URL on them and pretend I have rights to them. The community of history-lovers, in all its wide range of fields, is greatly enhanced by the free distribution of valuable newspaper scans, ads, photographs, and the like.