Posted in 1890s, 1900s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A quintuple shot of antique horror

Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

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!

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, Movies, Silent film

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.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

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.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Religion, Silent film

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!