Surrealism on film

Released 6 June 1929 at Studio des Ursulines, Paris. Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) was the first film of Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The script was written by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, though seeing as it’s surrealistic, there’s not much of a traditional plot. It’s based on surrealistic dreams of the creators, and purposely excluded anything which might have a logical meaning or symbolism.

The opening scene of a woman’s eye getting cut out with a razor is one of the most famous in film history. Over the years, various sources have claimed this was truly the eye of a donkey, pig, sheep, or other animal, but Buñuel himself said it was a calf. He bleached the skin and used intense lighting to give the impression of a human’s face and eye.

We then skip ahead eight years, to lots of free-associated, surrealistic images—a severed human hand, ants swarming over another hand (which makes me far more squeamish than the famous opening scene), bicycling, armpit hair turning into a sea urchin, an androgynous woman being hit by a car, attempted rape, and grand pianos with dead donkeys, pumpkins, the Ten Commandments, and two priests.

The next scenes are set around three in the morning and sixteen years earlier, with even more surrealistic imagery—a martini shaker representing a doorbell, a nun’s habit, books turning into pistols which then shoot someone, a naked woman who vanishes into thin air, a death’s-head moth, a beach.

The final scene is in the spring, also at the beach. Like I said, not much of a conventional plot!

Warning: NOT for the squeamish!

The film was shot over ten days in March 1928. Attendees of the première included Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Le Corbusier, Georges Auric, Christian Bérard, and André Breton’s entire Surrealist group. Buñuel was stunned the film was received so positively, while Dalí was disappointed by the audience’s reaction. Un Chien Andalou was intended to shock and insult people, which didn’t happen.

Buñuel and Dalí were the first filmmakers officially invited into André Breton’s Surrealist movement.

Two of the film’s big fans were wealthy art patron couple Viscount Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who commissioned a sound sequel called La Bête Andalouse (An Andalusian Beast) with a budget of a million francs. This second film, one of France’s first talkies, premièred 29 November 1930 under the title L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold).

The sequel created public outrage among right-wing groups in France and Spain, and was soon banned by the Prefecture of Police in Paris. There were some private screenings over the years, but it didn’t legally return to the public till 1979.

Sadly, both of the leading actors, Simone Mareuil and Pierre Batcheff, later took their own lives.

During David Bowie’s 1976 tour, Un Chien Andalou was shown in its entirety before each show in lieu of an opening act.

Over the last 90 years, Un Chien Andalou has received many accolades and been cited as highly influential in other artforms, like music videos and low-budget indie films. Though as important as this film is, I personally would recommend something with a more conventional plot if you’re interested in silent avant-garde films!

Max Linder and Harold Lockwood

The first part of this post is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) (16 December 1883–31 October 1925) was born in Cavernes, France, to winemakers Jean and Suzanne. He always loved the theatre, and enrolled in the Conservatoire Bordeaux in 1899. Before long, he was winning awards for his acting.

From 1901–04, he was a contract player with Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts. He also acted for the Parisian theatre Ambigu-Comique. The stage surname Linder was randomly chosen in 1904, after a walk in Bordeaux brought him to a Linder’s shoe store.

In 1905, Max began acting in Pathé films, usually in supporting roles. He made a film almost every day. By 1910, he’d created his very recognisable screen character, a dapper dandy with a silk top hat and a moustache, who always gets mixed up in wild misadventures.

Max’s films were hugely popular, and he became the world’s first recognisable screen character, in this era when most comedians had screen personas instead of just playing funny people in funny situations. He starred in hundreds of films during the 1910s.

Like many other early comedians, he also did all his own stunts and came up with a lot of his own material. In 1910 alone, he made one short a week. The French adored Max and looked forward to his weekly adventures.

When ill health and a near-fatal roller-skating accident in 1911 took Max out of commission, his fans waited patiently for his return. To explain his absence, he appeared in the documentary Max Dans Sa Famille.

By 1914, he was famous worldwide, and kept getting more popular. During 1912–13, he toured Spain, Germany, and St. Petersburg. His million-franc Pathé contract was for one film a week, 150 films over three years. Life seemed great for Max.

Troubles began when he fell victim to mustard gas during WWI. This took him out of the service after mere months. He returned home extremely ill, and didn’t return to acting till 1916.

Chicago’s Essanay Studios offered him a $5,000 a week contract in the wake of their big star Charlie Chaplin’s departure, but Max was only able to make three of the planned dozen films. He went to an L.A. sanitarium before going home to France. Max recovered from pleurisy by Lake Geneva.

Max returned to film in 1919, and his fans were delighted to have him back. At the end of that year, he returned to Hollywood, where he made features including Be My Wife, The Three Must-Get-Theres, and, most famous of all, Seven Years Bad Luck.

Unfortunately, Max’s health began acting up again, and he returned to Europe. In 1921, he proposed to 16-year-old Hélène Peters (sometimes called Ninette). Her mother rightly refused to let her marry someone 22 years older, and Max caused a scandal by taking Hélène to Monte Carlo.

On 23 August 1923, Max and Hélène married.

On 23 February 1924, when Hélène was five months pregnant, she and Max attempted suicide, but were revived. Their daughter Maud was born on 27 June.

Max’s luck seemed to be improving, as his next film, King of the Circus, won much acclaim. Sadly, his mental and physical health continued deteriorating, and Hélène filed for divorce.

On Halloween 1925, he and Hélène died in a suicide pact or murder-suicide. Maud (who passed away 25 October 2017) was raised by her grandparents, and did a great deal to restore her father’s films and reignite public interest in him.

Harold Lockwood (12 April 1887–19 October 1918), a hugely popular matinée idol born in Brooklyn, is one of those silent stars whose work we can’t appraise accurately. Though he made over 100 films, only about five are known to survive. Most of what we have to go on are vintage film reviews.

Harold was raised in Newark, and became an exporter after graduation. He wasn’t very happy with this career choice, and turned to vaudeville acting. In 1910, he entered film, and worked for four studios.

During WWI, Harold and May Allison co-starred in over 23 films and became one of the most popular screen couples of the era. In real life, Harold was married to Alma Jones, by whom he had a son, Harold, Jr., who later became an actor himself.

Sadly, Harold was one of the 50–100 million victims of the 1918–19 flu pandemic, which mostly killed young, healthy people. He was only 31.

The Fall of the House of Usher times two

1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.

Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.

The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.

Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.

When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.

The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.

Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.

Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.

The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.

The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.

In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.

Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.

Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.

In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.

Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.

Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.

Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.

Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.

Then the night storm hits.

Quadruple antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! As always, I’m kicking off with master Georges Méliès. Sadly, his one 1898 horror film, The Cave of the Demons, is lost, so I’ll have to start with 1903.

I know the soundtrack isn’t the most appropriate, but I wanted to show an HD version

The Monster (Le Monstre) released 30 June 1903, and tells the story of an Egyptian prince who wants to resurrect his wife. A priest (Méliès) produces her skeleton from the coffin and prays over her. The skeleton then starts dancing, and the priest wraps her in cloth.

This shrouded creation shrinks, grows, and stretches, until finally turning back into the dead wife. The priest picks her up, then throws the shroud at the prince. Out falls the skeleton, and the prince runs after the priest.

The Monster is an inversion of Méliès’s 1896 trick film The Vanishing Lady, in which a magician’s assistant turns into a skeleton and back again. This was an era in which Egytomania was very much in vogue.

The Infernal Cauldron (Le Chaudron Infernal) is set in the Renaissance, and depicts Satan throwing three people into a cauldron. Each time, flames rise up. Satan’s assistant quells the flames, and the victims’ ghosts rise into the air. The ghosts then burst into dancing flames, and Satan leaps into his own cauldron.

Starting in 1903, Méliès began producing two negatives of each of his films, for domestic and foreign release, to stop the rampant piracy of his films. Towards this purpose, he built a special camera simultaneously using two reels of film and two lenses.

In the early 21st century, researchers discovered this two-lens system was an unintentional stereo film camera. Thus, 3D versions of Méliès’s films could be created by combining the two prints. In 2010, The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi were screened in 3D at Cinémathèque Française, and in 2011, those two films plus The Mysterious Retort (1906) were screened in 3D at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Oracle of Delphi (L’Oracle de Delphes) is also set in Ancient Egypt. A priest brings a fancy box into a temple and locks the doors. After he leaves, a thief breaks in and steals the box, only to be caught by a strange bearded figure who appears out of thin air.

The bearded man rescues the box and turns the two Sphinxes by the doors into women. They attack the thief, whose head turns into a donkey’s head. After this, they return to statues, the bearded man disappears, and the thief is left stunned.

The Damnation of Faust (Faust aux Enfers), released December 1903, was Méliès’s third film adaptation of this famous story, and wouldn’t be his last. He made one more direct adaptation in 1904, and two other films, in 1906 and 1912, inspired by Faust’s story. The 1903 version was supposedly directly inspired by Hector Berlioz’s 1845 musical La Damnation de Faust.

The film starts with Faust’s descent into Hell with Mephistopheles (Méliès). When they arrive at the Devil’s Hall, Mephistopheles commands goddesses forth from the ground to perform a ballet. Then the dancers vanish, shortly replaced by a cascade of water with maids floating in the air.

Next appears a seven-headed Hydra, which frightens both Faust and Mephistopheles. In turn, this beast is replaced by dancing demons. When they also disappear, Mephistopheles wraps Faust in his cloak, and both disappear into the ground. They arrive in a grotto of fire and flames, and Faust is hurled into a furnace as demons dance.

Mephistopheles rises above the crowd in the form of a bat at the end.

The dancing masked demons’ costumes were reused from an earlier 1903 Méliès film, The Infernal Cake Walk. Like many of his other films, this too makes wonderful use of special effects like substitution splices, dissolves, pyrotechnics, and superimpositions on black backgrounds.

The power of eyes and a face

Released 21 April 1928 in director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s native Denmark, and 25 October 1928 in France, the country where it was filmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc is rightly, widely considered among the greatest of all silent films, and one of the greatest films period. It represents silent cinema at its pinnacle, shortly before the advent of talkies and their creaky recording technology made such films impossible to produce for quite some time.

At first glance, it might seem a film mostly built around closeups of faces won’t tell a very compelling, moving story, but that makes it the emotional powerhouse it is. I’m always so emotionally impacted. It’s a raw, stark level of emotion not found in many other films, with all the extras cut out. Eyes and faces tell most of the story.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actor who’d only appeared in one prior film, in 1917. This was her second and final film role. Afterwards, she returned to the stage.

Société Générale des Films invited Carl Theodor Dreyer to make a film in France following the success of his Master of the House in his native Denmark. The subject would be either Joan, Catherine de Medici, or Marie Antoinette. Dreyer claimed it was chosen by drawing matches.

He spent over 18 months researching Joan, who became a saint in 1920, and has long been one of France’s greatest national heroes. Dreyer based the script on the transcripts of Joan’s stacked trial and execution.

On 30 May 1431, Joan is subject to kangaroo court, headed by clergy who are no men of God. No matter how much she’s tortured or mocked, she refuses to recant her belief that she’s been sent on a mission by God to liberate France from the English.

The authorities are horrified she claims to be religious, in a state of grace, sent by God, etc., when she’s “just” a young, illiterate woman, acting without the orders of the Church, wearing clothes considered to be masculine instead of a dress or skirt, not acting meek and submissive. (Don’t get me started on people posthumously transing Joan because she wore pants and didn’t perform stereotypical femininity!)

Joan doesn’t fall for a fake letter from King Charles VII, telling her to trust its bearer, nor does she crack when shown the torture chamber. She faints, but doesn’t falter.

Joan panics when threatened with burning at the stake, and lets a priest guide her hand in a signature on a false confession. The judge then condemns her to a life sentence, and her head is shaved. Joan realises she’s disobeyed God, and demands the judges come back.

Joan recants that confession, and accepts the death penalty. All the while, her faith never wavers.

The film’s French release was held up because many nationalists were horrified Dreyer was neither French nor Catholic, and a rumour Lillian Gish had been cast as Joan. The film was eventually censored, which outraged Dreyer. The Archbishop of Paris demanded more cuts and changes.

Critics loved it, but it was a box office flop. Dreyer’s contract was cancelled, and he accused Société Générale des Films of mutilating his work to avoid offending Catholics. He sued them for breach of contract, and was unable to make another film till autumn 1931.

The film was banned in England, for its portrayal of English soldiers mocking and tormenting Joan.

A fire at Berlin’s UFA Studios on 6 December 1928 destroyed the master negative, and for decades, only versions of Dreyer’s patched-together second version were available. Then, in 1981, an original cut was discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dikemark Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near Oslo.

There were no records of the film being sent to Oslo, but film historians think the hospital director, who was a published historian, may have asked for a special copy.

This film is truly an emotional tour de force, all accomplished without any speech, or even a lot of full-body acting. Joan’s eyes and face are the story. There’s a reason she’s so beloved by the French people.

P.S.: Any comments posthumously transing Joan and distorting history to fit a TRA narrative will be deleted. Joan never claimed to be anything but a woman!