Happy 100th birthday to The Whispering Chorus!

Released 28 March 1918, The Whispering Chorus earned director Cecil B. DeMille yet another feather in his cap. His illustrious career was in full swing, and he was very soon to emerge as the most successful director in the U.S. In spite of his autocratic directorial style, he went from strength to strength, and made so many unknowns into huge stars.

While The Whispering Chorus doesn’t seem to be one of DeMille’s best-known silents (as compared to, e.g., The King of Kings or the original Ten Commandments), it’s one of my favorites I’ve seen to date. It’s packed with such emotional and dramatic intensity.

John Tremble (Raymond Hatton), second assistant cashier of the Clumley Contracting Company, is studiously bent over his work when he has a vision of a stranger on his shoulder, telling him he works too hard just to make a rich man richer.

John tries to ignore it, but the stranger then moves to his other shoulder, saying nothing he does is appreciated anyway. He’s still unswayed, declaring good work is always appreciated in the end.

We then move to John’s home and meet his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams). After this, we’re introduced to “Fighting” George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), “a far-seeing young legislator who heads a commission with extraordinary powers to investigate the muddy waters of the state’s politics.”

We meet John and Jane again on Christmas Eve. Though their $25 a week keeps the wolf from the door, they can’t afford luxuries like a car or theatre tickets. Slowly, the acid of discontent eats into John’s heart. He’s worried about being able to pay all the bills, and says even the boys in the office notice how shabby his clothes have gotten.

Jane stalks out after his tirade, and his mother says she’s ashamed of him. Jane has voluntarily adopted shabby clothes, even giving up a cheap dress she wanted to pay for the older Mrs. Tremble’s doctor bill.

John asks how much the dress cost, and goes to find Jane. He vows to buy it for her.

A friend finds John looking at the $20 dress in a shop window, and tells him not to be a fool. A few games at Jimsy’s will earn him enough money to not only buy Jane a new dress, but to buy himself a new overcoat as well.

John steps into the store, but quickly changes his mind and leaves to gamble. He finally stumbles home in the middle of the night, and has no Christmas present to give Jane. He claims the dress was sold, but we’ve seen a shot of it still in the window.

Jane understands the truth when she sees a Jackpot token on the hall floor.

Back at work, the whispering image returns to John, and tells him his boss has more than he can use. John should take what he needs.

He’s torn between what Jane would think of a thief, and how badly he needs the money. The whispering chorus wins out, and he pockets $1,000 and falsifies the books.

All seems well at home with this unexpected windfall, until John’s boss arrives with a newspaper announcing their company is suspected of graft. Coggeswell will be coming to inspect the books.

While John’s whispering chorus begs him to make things right and not risk going to jail, his boss tries to strike a deal with the meddling legislator.

Jane, who’s been planning to go to the theatre, receives a note from John, saying he has to go away on business for a few days. John escapes on a rowboat and begins a new life in a shack by the river.

While fishing, John sees a dead body in the water. He’s initially terrified, but the whispering chorus tells him if he were that man, all his worries would be over.

Thus begins an increasingly desperate, complicated double life full of dramatic, emotional twists and turns.

Will John be able to escape the call of the all-powerful whispering chorus and reclaim his real life, or is it too late to undo the snowballing damage?

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Laughing with a broken heart

Released 14 April 1928, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is one of several circus-themed films of Lon Chaney, Sr. Unlike HE Who Gets Slapped or The Unknown, however, this isn’t one of the ones where he starts out as a sympathetic character and then goes totally psycho. The only thing this clown is driven mad by is an inappropriate passion he knows he can’t act on.

Tito Beppi (Lon) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) are travelling Italian clowns whose lives change when Tito finds a little girl tied up by the river. He rescues her and begs Simon to adopt her, but Simon is adamant women bring bad luck.

Tito’s heart is stolen immediately, and he names her Simonetta to sweeten the deal. She becomes part of their family.

When Simonetta (Loretta Young) grows up, she joins the act. Tito suggests she needs a rose in her hair, and she goes in search of it. While she’s climbing a wire fence, she snags her stockings and cuts her legs.

A handsome young count, Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), comes across her in his rose garden, and invites her into his home to tend to her wounded legs. He’s clearly smitten, though his fiancée Lucretia is very displeased at the peasant in her midst. While he’s dealing with Lucretia, Simonetta escapes through the window.

Simon announces he’s leaving the act if Simonetta is joining it, still insisting women bring bad luck. When Simonetta returns, made up in her new costume, with her new hairstyle, Tito realizes in shock she’s become a woman. His body language makes his other feelings obvious, and he demands Simonetta call Simon back. He needs that buffer.

Three years later, Luigi is in a shrink’s office, seeking help for his uncontrollable laughter. The doctor tells him the cause is his life of excess and always being unsatisfied. He suggests Luigi’s trouble might disappear if he sincerely falls in love with the right type of woman.

Tito then enters the office, and Luigi laughs hysterically. A nurse escorts him out to the balcony.

The doctor thinks Tito may be suffering from some kind of suppression, perhaps unrequited love. He says Tito will be cured when his hopelessness is gone, and urges him to waste no time in winning the lady.

Tito, knowing this is an inappropriate passion, dissolves into tears and tells the doctor he can never tell her. It’s not right. The doctor then suggests diversion, to make him laugh.

He takes Tito to the balcony and shows him a poster advertising Flik’s current show. The doctor says he’s making all Rome laugh, and will make Tito laugh too. Tito says that’s impossible, since he is Flik.

Luigi apologizes to Tito for laughing, and assures him it wasn’t intentional. He laughs uncontrollably, just as Tito cries uncontrollably. They soon realize they can help one another with their respective problems.

Luigi and Tito become great friends, little realizing how Simonetta helps them both.

Luigi has a string of pearls delivered to Simonetta’s dressing room, but she refuses them. She doesn’t want to be a rich man’s plaything or kept woman. Her life is with Tito.

Simon realizes Tito has feelings for Simonetta, and after he sees the pearls and Luigi’s calling card, realizes Luigi loves her too. He knows Luigi stopped laughing and Tito stopped crying because of the same woman.

Simon says men like Luigi don’t marry tightrope-walkers, and wouldn’t give Simonetta pearls for nothing. Tito is furious at this insult to her character.

When Luigi comes by, Tito lashes out at him too, saying his friendship was a farce, and that he’s trying to buy Simonetta with his filthy pearls. Simonetta’s not the type of woman he can buy.

Luigi diffuses the situation when he turns his calling card around and shows Tito his handwritten note. Those were his mother’s pearls, and he wants them to be his wife’s.

Tito tells Luigi he won’t stand in his way if he loves Simonetta. Luigi must ask her first, and if Simonetta agrees to be his, she’ll never know of Tito’s love.

Several tragic complications spring up after this.

LCL is based on a 1923–24 Broadway play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, starring Lionel Barrymore and his second wife, Irene Fenwick. In turn, the play was based on Fausto Maria Martini’s 1919 story Ridi, Pagliaccio.

MGM held up film production for several years, because Lon had already played a clown in 1924, and the expectation that Lionel Barrymore would want to reprise his role.

This was Loretta Young’s first major film. She was only 13 when production started. Director Herbert Brenon was often quite harsh and mean to her, but changed his attitude every time Lon was there. Lon picked up on this, and made sure to always be there when Loretta was. She spoke very effusively about how much his kindness, guidance, and protection meant to her.

The trope of a man falling for his foster daughter or sister has so much potential to be creepy, but Tito knows how inappropriate these feelings are. Not only did he raise Simonetta, but he’s an old man. He doesn’t want to spoil her happiness and youth with his sadness and old age.

Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Eisenstein was chosen to direct one of the two films commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution thanks to the worldwide success of the amazing Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) in 1925–26. Early Bolshevik leader Nikolay Ilyich Podvolskiy gave him the commission.

As with BP, Eisenstein chose to work with mostly untrained actors. He selected people who resembled the historical figures they portrayed. Vasiliy Nikolayevich Nikandrov, who plays Lenin, had his head shaved to create the bald spot.

Sadly, due to the changing political climate, Eisenstein was forced to remove people who’d fallen out of favor. After the film’s release, he was forced to release an “updated” version without Trotskiy.

The climactic storming of the Winter Palace wasn’t based upon the 1917 event, but rather a 1920 re-enactment on its third anniversary. This planned mass spectacle involved hundreds of actors, dancers, circus performers, and assistants, as well as several thousand extras. Also present were armoured cars and tanks.

This re-enactment was viewed by 100,000, and was a grand theatrical production starting with the February Revolution and ending with the success of the October Revolution.

Due to the lack of photographic and print documentation of the original storming, the film’s depiction has come to be viewed as legit historical evidence of what actually happened.

Eisenstein wanted composed Edmund Meisel, who’d written a soundtrack for BP, to write a score for October too. The powers that be thought the resulting soundtrack too avant-garde, and ordered another in its place.

In 1966, Dmitriy Dmitriyevich Shostakovich wrote a new soundtrack, which later became a symphonic poem in his Opus 131 (C minor).

In 2011, after a five-year German–Russian collaboration, Meisel’s original soundtrack for the shortened version was restored. The gaps in the full version now feature music by German composer Bernd Tevez.

Overall, October didn’t do nearly so critically and commercially well as BP. The film was accused of being stilted and artificial, too experimental, overloaded with symbolism and allegory, spending too much time on Kerenskiy, and having poor acting.

Futurist poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovskiy, one of the earliest viewers, thought Nikandrov’s portrayal of Lenin was disgusting, superficial, and substanceless, like watching a statue instead of a real person.

Eisenstein’s montages came in for official disapproval. Authorities thought October unintelligible to the masses. Neither for the first nor last time, Eisenstein’s so-called formalism was attacked. The abovementioned editing-out of Trotskiy was also ordered after Stalin came to power and made him an enemy of the people.

Today, October is much more highly-regarded, both as entertainment and a piece of art. In 1928, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, who made the other film commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, commented, “How I should like to make such a powerful failure.”

Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 20 January 1928 in the USSR and 2 November in the U.S., renowned director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr: Desyat Dney, Kotorye Potryasli Mir) was commissioned by the Soviet government to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was co-directed by Eisenstein’s longtime collaborator Grigoriy Vasiliyevich Aleksandrov (né Mormonenko).

The government also commissioned director Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga) for the occasion. That was released 27 December 1927.

The film opens with the tearing down of a statue of Tsar Aleksandr III in February 1917. We then see a priest blessing the Provisional Government, and a sampling of ordinary citizens.

The Provisional Government, led by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerenskiy, vows to continue honoring the commitments Tsar Nicholas II made to the Allied Powers. The war still rages, and the proletariat are still starving and exploited.

On 3 April, new hope arrives when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Comrade Lenin) arrives at Finland Station, home from exile.  After being greeted by cheering crowds, he praises the revolutionary workers and soldiers who overthrew the monarchy, and vows no support for the Provisional Government.

In July, the Petrograd Committee of Bolsheviks constantly argues for and against an uprising. The people are restless, but are told the Party will lead them when the time comes, and asked to show restraint.

Protestors march on Nevskiy Prospekt, by the corner of Sadovaya Square, to the editorial office of so-called reactionary newspaper The Evening Times. The army fires on them, and mass panic reigns. In response, Kerenskiy orders the bridges raised, to cut the proletarian districts off from the city centre.

The victors laughingly throw copies of newspaper Pravda into the river. They also laugh when the 1st Machinegun Regiment calls for solidarity with the workers.

On 6 July, the Provisional Government orders Lenin’s arrest. Though underground, he directs the 6th Party Congress in absentia and orders an armed uprising.

Kerenskiy is shown in the Winter Palace and depicted as a future Tsar Aleksandr IV or Napoléon. Gen. Kornilov is also depicted as Napoléon. Obviously zero attempt at subtlety or unbiased historicity there!

Prisoners are freed, and the arsenal is in the hands of the people. Petrograd workers take over to defend their city. By Smolniy, Cossacks prepare to fight the Bolsheviks, but immediately change their tune when shown a leaflet promising bread and land. They begin joyously dancing.

Gen. Kornilov is arrested, and banners go up urging the proletariat to learn to use their rifles. On 10 October, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks again debates an armed uprising. Trotskiy wants a postponement, but Lenin feels vacillating means losing.

Everyone approves Lenin’s proposal, both Bolshevik leaders and common people. Preparations are made for the uprising, and Lenin goes to Smolniy on 24 October. On 25 October, he takes charge. The moderate, sensible Mensheviks are left without a horse in the game.

The bridges are raised again, and the proletarian districts cut off from the centre, as the cruiser Aurora sails in. Now the bridges are in the workers’ hands. The Minister of War is quite displeased to learn the Cossacks are saddling their mounts in preparation to advance the Bolshevik cause.

Kerenskiy escapes in a car with Americans, while the Cadets march to the aide of the deposed Provisional Government. The Women’s Death Battalion unwinds on Tsar Nicholas II’s pool table.

Delegates of the Second Congress of Soviets assemble, and the Provisional Government drafts an appeal to the people, saying they’re the only lawful government in Russia. The Mensheviks open the Congress by reiterating this, but the people feel otherwise.

The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries wisely say the Bolsheviks will be the country’s ruination, which doesn’t exactly go over well. The Bolsheviks carry the day. Later on, the women of the Death Battalion surrender, and the 12th Army joins the Bolsheviks.

Now the stage is set for the cruel, horrifying storming of the Winter Palace, an act which destroyed and plundered countless, priceless, historical treasures and artifacts.

While this film is obviously Bolshevik propaganda, instead of a more historically nuanced view of what really happened, this is a very important piece of film history. It’s full of Eisenstein’s trademark montages, and shows his overall genius as a director.

The film also shows how a desperate, impossible situation led to the drowning out of moderate voices and a mob takeover. It’s happened so many times in history, yet people never learn their lesson.

The Crowd at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Director King Vidor got the idea for The Crowd after his wild success with The Big Parade (1925). He wanted a truly innovative film, in terms of acting and story as well as cinematography. Much of the camera work was influenced by the legendary director F.W. Murnau in particular and German Expressionism in general.

Thanks to his previous success, Vidor got the green light for this ambitious, experimental project from MGM’s wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg. Unsurprisingly, the infamous Louis B. Mayer hated it and held up release for nearly a year.

MGM insisted upon seven alternate endings, which were previewed in small towns. The film originally was released with two endings, the one Vidor intended and a scene of the Sims family around the Christmas tree after John gets a job with an ad agency.

Each theatre could choose which ending it wanted to show, but according to Vidor, most opted against the Christmas-themed ending.

Vidor wanted to avoid casting big names, to add authenticity to this story of everyday people. For the role of John, he chose James Murray. Contrary to popular misconception, Murray had had prior starring roles, and wasn’t an unknown extra who got a big break.

Sadly, Murray’s alcoholism wreaked havoc on his promising acting career. In 1934, Vidor found him panhandling, and offered him the lead role in Our Daily Bread (a sequel to The Crowd) if he could lose weight, clean up his appearance, and stop drinking.

Reportedly, Murray turned down this generous offer by saying, “Just because I stop you on the street and try to borrow a buck you think you can tell me what to do. As far as I am concerned, you know what you can do with your lousy part.”

On 11 July 1936, Murray fell from the North River pier and drownt, aged only 35.

The role of Mary was played by Vidor’s second wife, Eleanor Boardman, who was under contract to MGM. Though she was much more popular and well-known than Murray, she wasn’t a gigantic star like Mary Pickford either.

She had a much happier life than Murray, and lived to the ripe old age of 93.

The Crowd enjoyed modest critical and financial success during its original theatrical run. Some critics, like the venerable Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, loved it, while others found it boring, drab, and too long. In spite of the mixed reviews, the film earned twice its production costs.

Today, the film is rightly recognized as one of the greatest of both the silent era and overall film history. In 1989, it was among the first 25 films chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In 1981, famed film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill restored the film, and prolific film soundtrack composer Carl Davis created a new score for it. Though it was released on VHS in the late Eighties, and then on laser disc, it’s inexplicably not on DVD yet.

Warner Brothers holds copyright to MGM’s silents, and has famously not only refused to release The Crowd, but also has ripped it off many free streaming sites. They also famously haven’t released The Wind (1928) either, and only cracked and released The Big Parade in 2013.

With any luck, this amazing film will finally have a proper DVD release and restoration soon. How does garbage like Year Zero get rushed right onto DVD, while classics of the cinematic canon gather dust?