A mad doctor’s bargain

Released 3 December 1922, A Blind Bargain is one of approximately 100 of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s lost films, out of the 157 he made. While the vast majority of his lost films are from his pre-stardom years (1912–19), many of his stardom-era films are lost as well.

Many of Lon’s films, and other silents and early sound films, were destroyed in a horrific fire on 13 May 1967. Nitrate is highly flammable, and stands no chance when it comes in contact with flames. An electrical fire in MGM’s Vault #7 destroyed hundreds of films that day.

This is why film preservation is so most vitally important, as is always backing up our work. There should always be at least two copies of something, and storage conditions should never be careless. It’s easier to put a nitrate film onto safety stock, or back up a file, than it is to restore a damaged product or rewrite entire sections.

A Blind Bargain was based on British writer Barry Pain’s 1897 novel The Octave of Claudius. From the synopses I’ve read of both, it seems like the film stayed fairly close to the book’s basic storyline. One change from the novel was that Dr. Lamb’s nurse and butler became two of his macabre human experiments. The film also seems to have done away with the soap opera-esque storylines of many secondary characters.

Unsuccessful writer Robert Sandell (Raymond McKee), hurting over his mother’s poor health and his lack of publishing success, attacks and tries to rob theatregoer Dr. Arthur Lamb (Lon). Instead of having him arrested, Dr. Lamb takes Robert to his New York home and asks him to tell his story.

Dr. Lamb, a mad scientist, agrees to give Robert’s mother an operation on one condition—Robert must submit himself for experiments at the end of eight days (hence the word “octave” in the source novel’s title). Robert agrees, since he’ll do anything to save his mother.

Robert and his mother move into Dr. Lamb’s home, where they’re closely watched by Dr. and Mrs. Lamb. Also watching Robert is a hunchback (Lon in a dual role) who’s the result of one of Dr. Lamb’s experiments. So anxious is Dr. Lamb to experiment on Robert, he butters him up by giving him large amounts of cash enabling him to live high off the hog and impress all the people who wrote him off.

Dr. Lamb also arranges for Robert’s book to be published through Wytcherly, who runs a publishing company. Predictably, Robert falls in instalove with Wytcherly’s daughter Angela.

Mrs. Lamb, who’s been driven crazy by her husband’s experiments, and the hunchback warn Robert about Dr. Lamb’s true intentions. They also show him a strange underground vault containing an operating room and a tunnel of cages. Held prisoner in the cages are victims of Dr. Lamb’s experiments.

In addition to creating the hunchback and the people in the cages, Dr. Lamb’s experiments also killed his infant child.

With one day left to go, Robert tries to buy his way out of the bargain with his newfound publishing royalties. Dr. Lamb, terrified Robert will escape, drags him into the underground vault and ties him to the operating table.

His evil plans are foiled when Mrs. Lamb rescues Robert and the hunchback releases a cage door which brings Dr. Lamb to a most horrible end at the hands of an ape-man (Wallace Beery). This ape-man is yet another of Dr. Lamb’s monstrous experiments.

Robert returns home as a successful author, with Angela waiting for him by their wedding ceremony.

The film met with a standing ovation after its première by NYC’s Capitol Theater. Critics praised the film highly, particularly Lon’s dual role.

The film was beautifully tinted and toned in colors including straw amber, night amber, blue tint, blue tone, flesh tint, light lavender, and green tint. There was also a sequence colored with the Handschiegl process, featuring multicolored bubbles at a party.

In 1925, Raymond McKee (Robert) played a hunchback in Free to Love (which co-stars Clara Bow). This character was directly influenced by A Blind Bargain.

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A triple dose of antique horror

Welcome back to my yearly October series on classic horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries! This year, I’m starting off with three Georges Méliès films from 1897, and will also be fêting The Unknown (1927), The Mummy (1932), Häxan (1922), The Lodger (1927), Freaks (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Phantom (1922), Vampyr (1932), Hilde Warren und der Tod (1917), the lost Lon Chaney, Sr., films London After Midnight (1927) and A Blind Bargain (1922), and Nosferatu (1922).

Let’s get started!

Le Château Hanté was released as The Devil’s Castle in the U.S., and The Haunted Castle in the U.K. In spite of its British title, it’s not one and the same as the world’s first horror film, the 1896 Méliès film I featured last year.

Two men enter a castle, one dressed in red and the other in brown. The man in brown offers his friend a seat which moves away. When the man in red goes to fetch the chair, it turns into a ghost, a skeleton, and a knight in armor. When it disappears, the man is confronted by Satan, and his escape route is blocked by a ghost.

This film was Méliès’s first collaboration with Elisabeth Thuillier, who ran an all-women’s film coloring lab in Paris. They worked together till 1912, when he left filmmaking. This is also the second Méliès film featuring Satan.

The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge Ensorcelée) features Méliès as a traveller who can’t get any rest in his hotel room, as he’s beset by obstacle after obstacle in his quest to change into pyjamas and crawl into bed. His clothes and the furniture all vanish, fly up to the ceiling, or move around the room. His candle also explodes. He finally gives up and leaves.

This is the first known Méliès film to feature inanimate objects coming to life, something he did many times in his films. The theme is very similar to 1896’s A Terrible Night (which I discussed last year), and would be used again (with considerable expansion) in 1903’s The Inn Where No Man Rests.

The special effects were achieved through substitution splice, wherein the camera would stop as something was added, changed, or removed. Méliès used this technique many times. The inanimate objects were animated with wires, and the exploding candle used pyrotechnics.

Sadly, Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (alternately titled The Devil’s Laboratory, The Cabinet of Mephistopheles, and Laboratory of Mephistopheles) is lost. Only about 200 of his 520 films are known to survive.

Out of anger and frustration at his financial ruin and fall into obscurity, Méliès burnt many of his negatives. In 1917, the French Army occupied his office and melted down many others for celluloid (boot heels) and silver (ammo). The rest were lost due to the all-too-familiar deterioration of nitrate.

As suggested by the title, the story was inspired by Faust, and is believed to be the very first film adaptation of this timeless story. It’s also believed to be Méliès’s very first literary adaptation.

The synopsis says Mephistopheles cavorts about in various disguises before revealing his true self. Along the way, he does magic tricks, presumably objects appearing, disappearing, and moving around. I’d also assume Méliès plays Mephistopheles.

A twofer of antique horror

If you celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a lovely holiday!

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The Haunted Curiosity Shop, released in the U.K. in 1901, is now 115 years old. This great-granddaddy of horror was directed by Walter R. Booth, a pioneer of British cinema. Just like his French counterpart Georges Méliès, he too was a magician before turning to filmmaking. He worked with Robert W. Paul and Charles Urban, also pioneers of British cinema.

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Booth mostly did trick films (i.e., featuring special effects), and pioneered the usage of hand-drawing techniques which enabled animation. Indeed, he directed Britain’s very first animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).

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At just shy of two minutes, the film is very simple. An old man who runs a curiosity shop is beguiled by all manner of spooky tricks and apparitions, including a floating skull; a magically and gradually materializing girl who transmogrifies into an old woman and back again; a mummy; a skeleton; and a giant head growing ever larger.

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The Merry Frolics of Satan, released in France as Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The 400 Tricks of the Devil), came out in 1906, and is now 110 years old. The film was directed by none other than the legendary Georges Méliès, who also stars as Mephistopheles.

The film, described by Méliès as a grande pièce fantastique in 35 scenes, is a contemporary, comedic adaptation of the Faust legend. It draws upon a stage play, Les Quatre Cents Coups du Diable, which débuted 23 December 1905 by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

That 1905 play was in turn based upon Les Pilules du Diable, which premièred 16 February 1839 by the Théâtre National de Cirque-Olympique in Paris. Both of these plays were féeries, a uniquely French theatrical genre with fantasy plots, lavish scenery, incredible visuals, and mechanical stage effects.

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William Crackford, an English inventor and engineer, is in his workshop when he gets visited by a messenger who breaks the news that Alcofrisbas, a famous alchemist, wants to sell him a very powerful talisman. Intrigued, Crackford and his servant John travel to Alcofrisbas’s lab, where a lot of magical tricks transpire.

Crackford and John say they’re planning a high-speed trip around the world, and Alcofrisbas guarantees his help. Seven assistants march out, and help him with making a lot of magical pills. When a pill is thrown onto the ground, any wish will be granted.

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Crackford is so excited by these pills, he doesn’t read the fine print on the contract he signs, and thus has no idea he’s sold his soul to the Devil. After Crackford and John depart, Alcofrisbas transforms back into his true identity: Mephistopheles. The assistants are the Seven Deadly Sins.

When Crackford comes home, he doesn’t waste a moment in commencing his preparations for the journey, and shows off the pills to his wife and daughters. He produces a trunk out of which two servants climb. This trunk becomes a Matryoshka doll, with more and more trunks and servants, until finally the trunks turn into a miniature train.

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The train, loaded with Crackford’s family and luggage, begins its journey, and is met with ridicule instead of fanfare. A little accident on a bridge threatens to derail the entire journey, but Crackford won’t be deterred, and continues on with John.

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They stop by an inn, at which a disguised Mephistopheles is the proprietor. More magic tricks and sorcery commence, until finally Crackford and John run out and make their escape with a strange horse and buggy. Mephistopheles follows them in a car, and there’s another accident with a live volcano.

The carriage continues its journey through outer space, until a thunderstorm sends the travellers plummeting earthward, right into a dining room. Crackford is about to finally have some dinner when Mephistopheles arrives, demanding Crackford fulfill the contract’s terms.

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Sorry this soundtrack isn’t entirely appropriate (annoying background laughter and sound effects), but this was the only video I could find with any musical accompaniment. This also lacks the voice-over narration which was part of many Méliès films and took the place of intertitles.

Happy 100th birthday, Homunculus!

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Homunculus, a six-part horror series released from June 1916–January 1917, is a film many silent cinephiles have heard about (particularly with such a memorable title), but which few have actually gotten a chance to see. For many years, it remained exclusively the domain of film history books and pictures, apart from a shoddy-quality print of Part Four.

The print I saw recently is the print most silent cinephiles have seen, a cut-down Italian version which became available several years ago.

Everything changed on 17 August 2014, when a meticulously-restored (albeit work-in-progress), near-complete print of all six parts premièred by the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn.

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Stefan Droßler, director of Filmmuseum München, undertook the most gargantuan task of restoring and reassembling the entire series. Russia’s Gosfilmofond gave him the footage after a lot of negotiating.

There were 27 reels, in quite good condition, from all six parts, but they weren’t exactly in their proper order. In process of copying the footage onto safety stock, everything had been cut and mixed up, and the filmstrips were only sorted by their original tints.

All the intertitles had also been removed, replaced by single frames with the first three words of each missing intertitle scratched on.

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Since no censorship records with the original intertitles had survived, Hr. Droßler had to make entirely new titles. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn those censorship records were destroyed in a bombing raid during WWII, since that’s how a lot of old German and Prussian military records were destroyed.

Hr. Droßler reassembled six hours’ worth of footage and created intertitles with the help of every last speck of material he could find from other archives, photographs, and programs. After the Bonn première and a second showing in München on 4 September 2014, the restoration continued.

In November 2015, MoMA showed the latest version of the restoration.

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The film which premièred by the Bonn film festival ran 196 minutes, at a speed of 25 frames per second. Back in 1916, the average projection speed was about 16–20 FPS, though it varied from 12–22 until it was standardized to 24 FPS in 1926.

The reassembled film is based upon the 1920 reissue, which had summarized all six parts into but three. Thus, there’s probably still material missing from the 1916 original footage. According to those who’ve seen the restoration, it doesn’t feel fragmentary.

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A lot of important horror film motifs come from this granddaddy of horror cinema, like the hunchbacked assistant, the mad scientist’s exuberance upon bringing his creature to life, and the brooding, dark, caped figure. However, since it came out in 1916 Germany, it was only seen in occupied or neutral European countries.

The 1920 reissue didn’t have a much wider reach, since all things German were very unpopular. Many U.S. theatres, for example, refused to play Dr. Caligari that same year, and there were protests and angry letters to newspapers when some theatres did carry it.

At any rate, it did have an undeniable influence upon horror cinema. Not many Americans had the chance to see it, but they were influenced by horror films made by people who had seen it, particularly all the great German Expressionist horror films. It’s a chain reaction, cultural osmosis.

On to the actual film itself!

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The installments are as follows:

The Birth of the Homunculus
The Mysterious Book
The Tragic Love Story of the Homunculus
The Revenge of Homunculus
The Annihilation of Humankind
The End of the Homunculus

Popular Danish actor Olaf Fønss played the title role, and got the highest salary in German film history up till that point. Shooting began in May 1916, and Part One premièred 22 June by Berlin’s Marble House theatre. Parts Two through Five ran over the rest of 1916, and Part Six released January 1917. Each installment was divided into four acts.

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Profs. Ortmann and Hansen are in competition to artificially create human life. The first to succeed is Hansen, with help from his hunchbacked assistant Rodin. Their creation is a baby boy, though historically, a Homunculus referred to a miniature, fully-formed human.

Tragically, Ortmann and his wife lose their newborn baby boy at only a few days old, and Ortmann immediately bring over the Homunculus. After the switch is made, Hansen believes his experiment failed.

Ortmann raises Homunculus as his own son, Richard. The boy grows up normally, but for one major issue: he doesn’t have the ability to love.

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At age 25, Homunculus discovers the truth about his creation, and swears revenge on Hansen, his heart burning with hatred. In spite of his inability to love, he courts and marries Hansen’s daughter Margarete. After their marriage, he lets Hansen in on the secret.

Hansen is horrified, and orders Margarete to leave Homunculus. Margarete, however, loves Homunculus, and saves him when Hansen tries to poison him.

In Part Two, Homunculus befriends a stray dog in North Africa, turns his wrath on Rodin, and miraculously heals a king. The queen and advisors are very suspicious of Homunculus, and once they present evidence of his artificial origins, the king orders him seized. Homunculus escapes the angry mob and vows to kill the next person he meets.

In a scene very reminiscent of The Golem, Homunculus encounters two small children, and he changes his track (at least temporarily).

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Since I’ve only seen a condensed version, I can’t recap the entire thing accurately, but I can say there’s a lot of chaos, destruction, and drama. I can’t wait to see it onscreen or on DVD!

The Weary Death

If you celebrate Sukkot, may you have a wonderful holiday!

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This week, it’s all about classic German horror films of the silent era. I’ll be covering Der Müde TodFaust, and Homunculus. Next week, I’ll showcase two short antique films (from 1901 and 1906), The Haunted Castle, and Dracula (which I found rather overrated). This year’s horror series will close with Frankenstein.

The common English name of Der Müde Tod is Destiny, though it was originally released as Behind the Wall. The German title, however, truly translates as The Weary Death.

Released 6 October 1921, this film originally bombed in its native Germany. Many critics felt it wasn’t German enough. Internationally, it was much more successful. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., purchased the U.S. rights so he could delay the American release while copying some of the special effects for his 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad.

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We’re introduced to an unnamed young couple travelling in a carriage, and then the scene shifts to the Golden Unicorn Inn, where several important townspeople are heatedly discussing a strange newcomer. This oddball has waged a campaign to be allowed to purchase an annex by the graveyard, and finally succeeded with enough gold. He claims he wants to build a garden there, though his plot of land is soon surrounded by a wall with no windows or doors.

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The young couple runs into the stranger by the inn, where he shares their table. One of the barmaids insists they drink from the bridal cup, which turns into a terrifying vision of an hourglass. The young lady is so shaken-up, she runs away.

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When she returns, her fiancé has disappeared. She’s told he left with the mysterious stranger, and tries to track them down. By the foreboding wall near the graveyard, she sees a parade of phantoms passing through the wall, her fiancé among them. This sight so unrattles her, she faints.

The pharmacist finds her and takes her in until she comes back to herself. In the pharmacist’s home, she sees a book (which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the Bible) open to the Song of Solomon. She’s very inspired by the line “For love is as strong as Death,” and drinks a potion that opens up a door to a staircase leading to the stranger’s lair.

The room is full of candles, each one representing a life’s progress from birth to death.

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She begs him to restore her lover’s life to her, and he says it was just her fiancé’s time to go. He had no control over it, and had to do his job. Harvesting all these souls is so wearying, not at all a job he enjoys or does with gusto. Each soul is like a candle, and once it burns out, there’s no reprieve.

After enough begging and pleading, Death agrees to give her three chances, represented by three candles. Each candle is a life she can save. If she saves even one of the three young lovers, Death will give her back her fiancé. But once each candle burns out, there can be no do-over.

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The Story of the First Light is set in Persia; the Story of the Second Light is set in Renaissance Venice; and the Story of the Third Light is set in Ancient China. Though these are all historical settings, they’re more the realm of historical fantasy than straight historical. Of the three stories, I most enjoyed the Chinese one. It has so much charm, innocence, and sweetness, together with my longtime interest in Chinese history.

In each of the three stories, the young lovers are played by the same couple as in the establishing German frame story, Lil Dagover (who played Jane in Dr. Caligari) and Walter Janssen. In each story, however, it’s the young lady who plays the starring role.

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Though she fails to save any of the three lives, Death takes pity on her, and gives her one final chance to prove herself. If, within one hour, she can bring him the soul of anyone who only has a short time left in the world, he’ll take that life in exchange for her lover’s and restore life to the young man.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say it’s a very powerful final reel, with an unforgettable, very emotional ending.

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