Posted in 1910s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 100th birthday, Broken Blossoms!

Broken Blossoms, released 13 May 1919, was based on British writer Thomas Burke’s 1916 story “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. All the stories are set in and around London’s Chinatown in the Limehouse district, in the East End. A second story from the collection, “Beryl and the Croucher,” was turned into a film in 1949, No Way Back.

In contrast to many of D.W. Griffith’s other films of the 1910s, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale production instead of a grand, sweeping, lengthy epic with a huge ensemble cast. It tells a heartrending, intimate story of marked visual contrasts.

The première at NYC’s George M. Cohan Theatre, during the D.W. Griffith Repertory Season, featured moon lanterns, flowers, and gorgeous brocaded Chinese draperies.

Critics and laypeople alike loved it, to the tune of $700,000 ($10,412,843 today). However, many were deeply disturbed by the depiction of child abuse, some so much they left the theatre to vomit. Griffith himself took several months to edit it, so disturbed and depressed was he by the subject matter.

In 1996, Broken Blossoms was chosen for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. The film is widely regarded as one of Griffith’s finest, and one of the great treasures of film history.

Owing to the strict anti-miscegenation laws of the time, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were unable to have any love scenes. Even when both actors were white in real life, they were legally barred from kissing onscreen if their characters were in an interracial relationship.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) sets out from China with a pure heart and soul full of love and idealism, little realising what ugliness and cruelty await him. He “holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo–Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.”

Prior to his departure, Cheng interferes in a fight between foreign sailors, trying to tell them not to do unto others what is hateful to themselves (a maxim found across almost all religions). His message of peace and love is received with violence and mockery, but that makes him even more determined to spread the word.

London’s notoriously seedy, impoverished East End is a shocking wakeup call to this gentle-hearted, sensitive Buddhist missionary. A few years after his arrival, he’s nothing but another poor shopkeeper, and his “youthful dreams come to wreck agains the sordid realities of life.” To try to cope with the ugly real world, Cheng smokes opium and gambles.

Meanwhile, boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is raising his daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish) as a single dad. Battling, “a gorilla of the jungles of East London,” is violent outside the ring too, and an alcoholic. It really speaks to how desperate Lucy’s mother must’ve been to relinquish her to Battling.

Battling’s manager rightly complains about his drinking and womanizing, but Battling keeps his anger in check for the sake of his career. He saves the release of his rage for Lucy, his personal punching-bag, who’s too passive and weak to stand up for herself or escape.

Lucy is warned by both her married friends and prostitute friends not to follow in their footsteps, since their lives have been nothing but sorrow and misery since starting down those respective paths.

Cheng has been admiring Lucy from afar for awhile, struck by her fragile, haunted beauty amidst the muck and mire of Limehouse.

Battling’s manager finds him womanizing at a bar, and the ensuing lecture sends Battling into a rage. At home, he unleashes his rage upon Lucy with a whip.

Severely wounded and half-conscious, Lucy escapes after her father departs for training across the Thames, and collapses on the floor of Cheng’s shop. Cheng shows her the first gentleness she’s ever known when he cleans her wounds.

Cheng carries Lucy upstairs to his flat and tenderly nurses her back to health, beautifully decorating the room as befits a princess. He also gives her gorgeous clothes and renames her White Blossom.

Troubled waters start brewing when one of Battling’s friends comes to Cheng’s shop. While Cheng is out getting change, he hears an odd noise from upstairs and goes to investigate, finding Lucy asleep in bed.

Battling is horrified to learn Lucy is living with a Chinese man, and races home to get his revenge after the big fight. The concluding scenes are some of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable of cinematic history.

Posted in 1910s

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

To mark the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I, here are a sampling of newspaper headlines broadcasting the glorious news. Sadly, the last veteran passed away in 2012, and the last combat vet passed in 2011.

But as we so painfully know, freedom is never free. My Belarusian characters the Zyuganovs are taught by their father to always bring Martagon lilies to the graves of their five brothers who were killed during the Russian Civil War, since lilies represent peace. If everyone leaves peaceful flowers on the graves of war dead, there might never be another war, nor would any serviceperson be killed in the prime of life again.

Posted in 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Celebrating lost horror of 1919

Released November 1919, British film The Beetle was based on Richard Marsh’s 1897 novel of the same name. Upon its release, it outsold contemporary, similarly-themed competitor Dracula. The story is told by four narrators and concerns an Ancient Egyptian god seeking revenge upon a British Member of Parliament.

It initially was released as a serial under the title The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, from 13 March–19 June 1897. It came out in volume form from September to October the same year, with the title it became famous for, The Beetle: A Mystery.

Many believe this book was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, which also features an Ancient Egyptian theme.

This first film adaptation stars Maudie Dunham, Fred Morgan, and Hebden Foster. It was produced by Jack W. Smith and directed by Alexander Butler. Sadly, the film appears to be lost, though many films presumed lost for decades have turned up in the unlikeliest of places.

Contemporary reviews described it as an Ancient Egyptian High Priestess of Isis (Leal Douglas) turning herself into a beetle to get revenge on MP Paul Lessingham (Foster). This is no ordinary transformation, since she can appear as a woman or man in addition to a beetle. Lessingham turns to his romantic rival for help in defeating this creature.

One reviewer described it as mediocre and more unintentionally hilarious than spine-chilling or dramatic, though the special effects were highly praised. The production was also called to task for its supposed carelessness.

The Haunted Bedroom, released 25 May 1919, is also lost. Its alternate title was The Ghost of Whispering Oaks.

According to contemporary reviewers, New York reporter Betsy Thorne (Enid Bennett, wife of director Fred Niblo) travels to a Southern U.S. depot to investigate a mysterious disappearance. At the depot, she overhears a detective and sheriff saying all reporters are barred from the house and grounds at the centre of the mystery.

Betsy runs across a Richmond maid sent to the house and scares her into agreeing to an identity switch. At the house, Betsy discovers some incredible goings-on, and is terrified by a ghostly figure rising from an organ in the chapel her first night.

Everyone comes running at her screams as she runs away, and the missing man’s sister forbids her from returning to the chapel. The next night, she’s locked in her room during a thunderstorm, and sees the ghostly figure again while escaping through a window. This time, the figure’s in the family graveyard.

Betsy finds an old African-American gentleman who agrees to help her. (Given the era, I wouldn’t be shocked if he were an overly spooked caricature instead of a fully-rounded person who just happens to be a little frightened.) The duo begins investigating the house, starting with the organ.

They discover keys which enable a secret door in the organ to open, revealing a secret passageway to the family tomb. Hiding in there are two crooks whom Betsy discovers were trying to extort a young man accused of the crime.

Posted in 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A collection of eerie tales

Released 5 November 1919, Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales) is an anthology film consisting of five creepy stories—The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat, The Suicide Club, and Der Spuk (The Spectre).

The Black Cat is based on an 1843 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, with parallels to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Both are about murderers who cover up their crimes and eventually are driven mad by guilt.

The Suicide Club is based on an 1878 three-story collection by Robert Louis Stevenson, also of the same name. They’re about a macabre club which is investigated by Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his buddy Colonel Geraldine. The club’s president is criminally-inclined.

The horror starts in a rare bookshop when three people (Conrad Veidt, Reinhold Schünzel, and Anita Berber) step out of paintings to read horror stories. They periodically appear in wraparound segments and play the leads in all five stories.

Their first story, The Apparition, begins with a woman who confides to a friend (Veidt) that her husband (Schünzel) has lost his mind. She rightly divorced him after he tried to strangle her, but now he follows her everywhere. She begs for protection against this madman.

They begin an affair and check into separate rooms of a hotel, where her ex comes looking for her but is turned away due to no vacancies.  That night, her lover totally freaks out when he finds her room empty.

He tries to set his mind at ease with the thought that it was the wrong room, and in the morning asks to be announced in Room 117. Once again he fills with horror when no one is there. Even worse, her name isn’t in the hotel register, and the receptionist claims he arrived alone.

The horror only increases from there.

In The Hand, things start innocently enough at a party, but soon it’s revealed there are two suitors (Veidt and Schünzel) competing for the same lady.

As so often happens with suitors who can’t gracefully accept no for an answer, the rejected one kills his rival. Before long, he’s tortured by ghostly visions of his victim’s hand.

Things go from bad to worse during a séance.

In The Black Cat, a drunk (Schünzel) becomes more and more out of control, culminating in the murder of his wife. Not realising the screams were heard outside, he drags her body into the cellar and walls her up.

Next day, the man who overheard the murder (Veidt) visits, and the drunk claims his wife is out of town. Soon everyone in town is saying the drunk murdered her.

The witness takes his suspicions to the authorities, who come to search the house. Nothing seems outwardly suspicious till cracks start appearing in the cellar wall.

The witness axes an opening, and out jumps the wife’s loyal black cat. The writing’s on the wall regarding his guilt!

In The Suicide Club, a detective (Schünzel) investigates a seemingly empty house and discovers people inside. When he confronts them, he’s told it’s “just” a suicide club.

The members don’t take very well to the stranger in their midst, esp. not after he refuses to join their club. They want to kill him, but the lone woman pleads for clemency.

Her brother (Veidt) tells him he’s part of a club where one can never leave, and takes him to a card game behind a wall inscribed with the famous words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Whoever draws the spade dies that night.

Der Spuk is set in the 17th or 18th century, in the home of a well-to-do baron (Veidt). All the lines in this story are delivered via poems.

Trouble begins when an injured knight (Schünzel) is brought in to spend the night. The baroness, feeling neglected by her husband, immediately begins flirting with him.

Far from being angry to discover this cuckoldry in the making, the baron encourages her to have an affair. But since this is a horror story, their romance is disrupted by mysteriously moving objects and deathly figures.

When this final story concludes, the bookshop’s owner comes in with police and finds his store empty. The three readers have returned to their paintings.

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

A twofer of D.W. Griffith horror

Though many associate director D.W. Griffith with extremely long, preachy, over the top epics, he has quite a multifaceted body of work, particularly before he began making the features he’s best remembered for today. During his five years at Biograph Studios, he directed hundreds of shorts with very diverse subjects.

The Sealed Room, released 2 September 1909, was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” and Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 story “La Grande Bretèche.” The latter story takes its name from a manor. A bretèche, or brattice, is a little balcony with machicolations (openings where stones and hot liquids could be poured on invaders).

The King (Arthur V. Johnson) throws a party, and afterwards brings his mistress (Marion Leonard) into a dovecote through a secret entrance. Later he becomes suspicious of her fidelity, suspicions which prove correct.

She’s chutzpahdik enough to bring her lover (Henry B. Walthall) into the dovecote. It’s only a matter of time till the King opens the curtains and spies the unthinkable.

The lovers don’t realise they were seen, and continue merrily cavorting as the King’s men seal the entrance. When his mistress goes to let her lover out, they discover they’re trapped. Panic and terror erupt as the King taunts them on the other side.

Released 24 March 1914, The Avenging Conscience was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his final complete poem, “Annabel Lee” (1849). The latter concerns a love so strong it creepily continues beyond Annabel Lee’s death. Every night, the narrator sleeps beside her seaside tomb.

Throughout the film, there are quotes from the two literary inspirations.

An unnamed young man (Henry B. Walthall) is raised by his indulgent uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) after losing his mother in infancy. When he grows up, he throws himself into establishing a successful career. However, his single-minded focus is derailed when he falls in love with Annabel (Blanche Sweet), much to his uncle’s outrage.

As Griffith was so wont to do with establishing his ingénues as sweet and sympathetic, Annabel too is shown cooing over a baby animal, a puppy she rescues from behind a wire barrier.

The young man initially stands firm in his commitment to Annabel, no matter how opposed his uncle is to the match, but later gives in. He and Annabel agree to never see one another again.

There’s a subplot of a romance between a maid (Mae Marsh) and grocery boy (Bobby Harron). Their carefree, unopposed romance stands in stark contrast to the thwarted one of Annabel and the protagonist. Unlike the latter couple, they come from the same social class, and neither has high expectations of conducting oneself a certain way.

The maid and grocer go on to marry, have a baby girl, and create a happy home, while Annabel’s life is very lonely and melancholic, and our protagonist has financial success but not personal happiness.

Annabel continues suffering without her love, while the protagonist becomes consumed by images of death and creepy-crawlies stalking their prey. He decides his uncle, the source of all his personal anguish, must die.

Though he had the perfect chance to take out his uncle during a nap in the office, he chickens out. When his uncle awakes, he asks for money. If his uncle gives it to him, he’ll go away.

His uncle refuses, and a fight breaks out. The protagonist ends up strangling his uncle, little realising he was secretly seen through the window.

Full of terror when the witness (George Seigmann) begins knocking at the door and shouting, the protagonist covers his uncle with a coat. He steps outside and tries to play it cool, but it’s no use. To buy the witness’s silence, he promises to pay him well when his inheritance comes due.

The protagonist hides his uncle’s body in the fireplace wall, replacing each brick very carefully so no human eye can detect anything.

Questions arise about what happened to his uncle, but no one suspects the protagonist, who receives his full inheritance. Annabel soon comes to visit to pay her sympathies, and it seems like the beginning of a rekindled romance until the ghostly visions start.

Annabel is afraid he’s more than just mentally deranged, and leaves.

Sleep provides no respite, as the haunting visions continue. He hies it to a sanitarium in hope of gaining relief from these hallucinations, and returns home believing he’s cured. But his greatest horrors are only just beginning.