Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Reports on the audience reception by the début of Metropolis are mixed. Some sources say the audience applauded the most impression scenes (including a film critic), while other sources claim muted applause was commingled with boos and hisses. Critical reception was also mixed, with some critics praising the technical merits while panning the actual story. H.G. Wells wrote a New York Times review ripping it apart.

One of the film’s fans was Joseph Goebbels. Many other Nazis also loved it, which possibly led to director Fritz Lang later expressing negative opinions about it. It’s debatable how much of this is urban legend vs. historical fact, but the story goes that Goebbels, in 1933, offered Lang the most prestigious position as head of production at UFA, Universum Film AG.

Lang claimed he left Germany that very evening, though he really left four months later, and made several visits home after moving to France. Whatever the truth, it’s a good thing he left, since his mother was born Jewish, which made him “half-Jewish” under Nazi racial laws in spite of his Catholic faith. The great scientist Niels Bohr was in the same boat in Denmark, and was among the people smuggled to Sweden.

The 153-minute film was drastically shortened for the U.S. and U.K. audience, with different title cards and some changed names. All references to Freder’s deceased mother Hel were also removed, since her name was too close to the word Hell. I wonder if they knew about the Old Norse mythological figure Hel (infamous trickster Loki’s daughter), who presides over an underworld location of the same name.

With the references to Hel gone, mad scientist Rotwang’s original impetus for creating his robot was gone. While it’s not a huge plot point, it’s pretty important as backstory and motivation.

The English-language cut ran 115 minutes, the product of playwright Channing Pollock. A 115-minute version also was distributed in Germany later in 1927. In 1936, a further shortened version came out in Germany, only 91 minutes. (See more on run times and projection speeds.)

In the decades since, Metropolis has come to have a much greater reputation, and can now be seen at a length much closer to the original. (More about that in Part IV.) It routinely ranks highly on those incessant “best-of” lists, both for the silent era and for all time.

The film has been referenced in popular culture many times over the years. Notable homages include:

C-3PO of Star Wars was directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robot.

Madonna’s classic 1989 music video for “Express Yourself” has numerous depictions of scenes from the film. It also features an epigraph almost identical to the film’s, “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

Queen’s 1984 music video for “Radio Ga Ga” features several scenes from the film.

Whitney Houston’s 1992 music video for “Queen of the Night” also features several film clips. The costume she wore also was modelled after the robot.

Isn’t it amazing how the cards can fall? Some films, books, artworks, and albums are totally panned or get a mixed, lukewarm initial reception, yet go on to become very revered classics, while many things which were wildly popular quickly date. Metropolis has that special something which has enabled it to remain popular and revered over many generations.

Metropolis at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Metropolis is based on a 1925 novel of the same name, written by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou for the express purposes of being adapted for the screen. Lang and von Harbou also wrote the screenplay. The story shows influences from H.G. Wells, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mary Shelley, as well as the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Before the book existed, though, the story was set in motion by Lang’s very first trip to New York City in October 1924. He was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the lights. Ultimately, the set designs were a beautiful mix of German Expressionism, Art Déco, and New York City architecture. Reportedly, Art Déco got a huge boost of popularity from the film.

Filming began 22 May 1925, with a budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Lang cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge as mad scientist Rotwang (marking their fourth film together); established screen and stage actor Alfred Abel as Joh Frederson; and unknowns Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder.

Lang was quite the demanding director, much like Chaplin, and frequently made his actors do numerous re-takes. A simple scene could take as long as two days to be deemed just right. Fröhlich could barely stand up by the time Lang was finally happy with all the film he’d shot. For the flood scene, Lang also made Helm and 500 poor Berlin kids work in a pool of water at a low temperature.

Filming finally wrapped on 30 October 1926.

The original soundtrack was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who’d also scored Lang’s two 1924 Nibelungen films. He drew inspiration from Wagner and Strauss, melding classical elements with mild modernism. Other elements included hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and “La Marseillaise.” During filming, Huppertz often played his score on the piano to inspire and guide the actors.

The score was meant for a large orchestra to perform. Side note: If you have the opportunity to see a silent with live orchestral accompaniment, go for it! I saw some Laurel and Hardy shorts by MASS MoCA with live musicians in I believe 2007, and I also saw the original Ten Commandments with live music in November 2015, at a local church which has been kind enough to loan their beautiful building for several film screenings.

Metropolis features a number of ambitious special effects, most famously the Schüfftan process. This involves using a special mirror to give the illusion of actors being on huge, realistic sets which are actually miniatures. The technique was used again in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929).

During the adaptation from book to screenplay, and again during the numerous edits on the way to the finished product, a number of changes were made. Most of the references to magic and occultism were left on the cutting-room floor, as were the moral motivations for certain actions by the main characters.

Also abandoned was an ending where Freder flies to the stars. Since good writers can find inspiration even from junked plot elements and scenes, this ending became the basis for Lang’s final silent, 1929’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

All that intense, hard work ultimately paid off. Initial reception was mixed, but the film has more than gone on to prove its incredibleness.

Metropolis at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 10 January 1927 at the Ufa–Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin, Metropolis is not only one of the greatest silent films ever, but one of the greatest films ever as well. This was also the very first silent I ever saw, at least that I was consciously aware of. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see it at the local indie theatre, at one of their 35-cent matinées. I believe that was the first time I got to see the 148-minute 2010 restoration.

In the year 2026, Joh Frederson presides over the huge, futuristic city of Metropolis. The few haves live in high-rise towers, while the many have-nots toil away in dangerous underground factories. Joh’s pretty son Freder is an idle playboy when the film opens, but all that changes when he falls in instalove with Maria.

Maria has brought the workers’ children aboveground to see how the idle rich live, but this field trip isn’t long-lived. Frederson and his stooges make them leave, but Freder is determined to see Maria again. He goes below ground in search of Maria, and stumbles upon one of the machine rooms. Freder is horrified when the Moloch machine explodes, killing and injuring several workers.

Freder rushes to tell his father about what happened, very shaken. Frederson is upset to learn that not only was Freder prowling around underground, but also that he didn’t learn of this accident from his assistant Josaphat. The foreman of the Heart Machine, Grof, also shows Freder secret maps which were found on two dead laborers. Frederson fires Josaphat for his incompetence.

Freder resolves to do all he can to help the exploited proletariat, after seeing his father cares less about their living and working conditions. These living human souls are just impersonal cogs on a machine to Frederson, expendable commodities.

Frederson gives orders for Freder to be closely watched, but Freder goes back underground. Freder is horrified to see a worker named Georgy struggling and finally collapsing by the paternoster machine (i.e., the giant clock). Georgy pleads that someone must stay by the machine at all times, and Freder kindly volunteers to take his place. They switch clothes, and Georgy gets into Freder’s car.

Frederson goes to visit the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who starred in many of director Fritz Lang’s films, both silents and talkies). Years ago, Rotwang was in love with Hel, who left him for Frederson. Sadly, she died giving birth to Freder. All these years, Rotwang has been obsessed with Hel.

Rotwang is trying to create a robot to take the place of human workers, since it never makes a mistake or gets tired. He sacrificed his own hand towards the creation of this robot.

Rotwang tells Frederson the maps depict a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and they go to spy on the workers. Freder is also by this meeting, having been invited under the false impression he’s Georgy. Freder almost didn’t make it to the end of his 10-hour shift, and indeed collapsed at the end, right before the next worker took his place.

By the meeting, Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, imparts some spiritual teachings, and promises a mediator will come to save them. Frederson demands Rotwang make the robot in Maria’s likeness, so it can spread discord among the workers.

Rotwang kidnaps Maria, and uses her to bring his robot to life. By the time Freder finds Rotwang, the robot has been animated and gone to Frederson. Freder is shocked to find his father with the woman he believes is his sweetheart, and goes a bit mad. He passes out, and the robot goes to do Rotwang and Frederson’s bidding.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, it’s an incredible, powerful, intense, dramatic, emotional journey. The film meant even more to me after my political awakening at age fifteen, but I’ll discuss that more in a later installment.

It’s hard to put into words just how awesome and incredible this film is. Your cinematic education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen Metropolis!

The original It Girl

Released 19 February 1927, with its grand première on 14 January, It is Clara Bow’s best-known film (with Wings in second place). The story is based upon an eponymous novella by spicy writer Elinor Glyn, who was hugely popular in the 1920s. Though her books are pretty tame by modern standards, they were really hot stuff in her era.

It is such a fun, cute, charming film, perfectly showcasing why Clara had “It” and what a good actor she was. Like many other films from a bygone era, it’s also a microcosm of society as it was. Clara grew up very poor, which enabled her to play working-class characters very believably. Her class origins were such a big influence on her, as was her traumatic, dysfunctional childhood.

Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno, né Antonio Garrido Monteagudo) has just become manager of Waltham’s department store. On his first day in his new office, Cyrus’s awesome office boy Monty (character actor William Austin) is reading Elinor Glyn’s “It” in Cosmopolitan (back when the magazine had a much different nature than it does today).

Monty looks in the mirror and proclaims he’s got “It,” then concludes Cyrus doesn’t have “It.” (I agree!) After this, Monty goes into the store to inspect all the “lady employees,” and declares none of them have “It” either. Everything changes, however, when he sets eyes on feisty shopgirl Betty Lou Spence.

Betty falls in instalove with Cyrus, and dismisses her mocking co-workers. At the end of the day, Monty catches up to her outside and offers her a ride home. Betty agrees, but only if he rides her “car,” the two-story bus pulling up.

The bus drops Betty off on the poor side of town. By her front stoop, Monty asks if she’d like to dine, and Betty says she’ll dine by the Ritz. Monty promises to bring his car by at eight. Though Betty doesn’t have formal evening wear, she and her roommate Molly transform her working dress into a fancy evening gown. They also use some other props to gussy her up even more.

Molly’s doctor has forbidden her from returning to work for at least a month due to some unnamed sickness. (I wonder if it were postpartum depression before the condition had a name.) This is a very difficult situation because the landlady and a friend of hers are trying to take Molly’s baby away.

By the Ritz, Betty demands a table in the middle of the action instead of a private booth. She sees Cyrus dining with his boring long-time girlfriend, Adela van Norman, and her mother. When Monty tells Betty whom Adela is, Betty determines to prove herself as the better woman.

During dinner, who else should show up but Elinor Glyn herself, just as the characters are discussing “It”!

Later, Betty gets Cyrus’s attention in the hall, and he’s quite taken with her. She bets he won’t recognize her next time he sees her.

Sure enough, next day at work, Betty schemes to get called into Cyrus’s office, and he’s blown away when he realizes whom she is. At first, Betty doesn’t want to claim her wager for winning the bet, but when Adela calls, she changes her tune. Betty asks Cyrus to take her on a date to Coney Island.

I love seeing Coney Island as it was in old films. All those rides, booths, and eateries now live only in memory.

The plot thickens when the landlady and her friend try to take Molly’s baby. She opens the window and screams into the street for help, and Betty rushes up. Betty pretends it’s her baby, thus making her an unwed mother. She’s got a job, unlike Molly. During this scene, a newspaper reporter (a very young Gary Cooper) is taking notes for a story. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

This isn’t great cinematic art, but it’s awfully fun, and it’s a great vehicle for being introduced to Clara Bow. William Austin as Monty is also awesome. He has far more personality than Cyrus, and is more sympathetic! The film is also packed with fun intertitles.

A beautiful Bildungsroman on film


Released 22 January 1927, The Kid Brother was the great Harold Lloyd’s penultimate silent, and possibly my favorite of his films after only his silent swan song Speedy (1928). It’s got heart, soul, warmth, emotion, comedic timing, character development, story development, ingenious gags, everything. It’s also a beautiful film equivalent of a Bildungsroman, a growing-up story.

It’s based on the excellent Tol’able David (1921), starring the handsome Richard Barthelmess, and also a remake of Hal Roach’s The White Sheep (1924), starring the rather forgettable Glenn Tryon.


Harold’s father, Sheriff Jim Hickory, and his two big brothers Leo and Olin have made their name famous throughout the county, but they’ve always figured Harold of no accord. Though he was 33 at the time of filming, he has a suitably boyish look that makes him believable as a kid brother. He’s also not nearly as tall and strapping as the other three.

The Hickorys’ longtime enemies are the Hoopers. Son Hank in particular has hated Harold since Harold sold him a dozen doorknobs as eggs in the dark. Harold uses this feud to his advantage when there’s a mishap with the laundry line.


While Harold is alternately running away from Hank and retrieving laundry, he meets Mary Powers. Mary’s dad recently died, leaving her with a travelling medicine show. She’s not happy about having to continue the business, but the show must go on.

Mary believes Harold is one of the important Hickorys, and he doesn’t enlighten her. He likes feeling important, since he’s not treated like anyone special at home.

Mary is played by Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady since 1923. She always brings out the best in him. Bittersweetly, this was their final film together.


Harold and Mary make a date to go to the opening of a new dam, and when Harold gets home, his father and brothers begin discussing this dam. They leave Harold out of their discussion, but they let him sign the document.

Harold tries to go to their meeting about the dam, but he’s left at home, since that meeting’s no place for boys.


With the house to himself, he dresses up in his father’s sheriff outfit, and when he steps outside, he’s mistaken for the real sheriff by the medicine show quacks. He’s compelled into signing a document permitting the show to appear in town.

Interestingly, Harold writes right-handed both of the times he writes in this film. Though he lost the first two fingers on his right hand in 1919 and had to learn left-handedness, he also was able to write right-handed. Now that’s talent, not only learning a different handedness, but also learning how to write with a hand that only has three fingers!


Harold’s dad is quite upset to learn the medicine show is playing, and that Harold impersonated him. Instead of punishing Harold outright, his dad sends him down to break it up, “[s]eeing as you seem to be taking over the duties as sheriff.”

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Things go from bad to worse, as Harold is made into the show’s entertainment and eventually handcuffed to a swinging bar. His dad and brothers come by as he’s trying to free himself, and Harold ends up setting the whole show on fire. In the mêlée that follows, he gets locked into a wicker hamper.

Mary eventually frees him, and since there’s a rainstorm, Harold takes her to his house for shelter. Her new guardians later show up to take her home, seeing as it’s not decent for her to stay in a house without womenfolk.


As Harold and Mary are on their way to the dam celebration next morning, they discover the money to build the dam has been stolen. Harold’s father is accused, and rightly comes to the conclusion it must’ve been the medicine show goons. Detained as a suspect, he sends his older sons to search. Mary is also held as a suspect.

Harold is tossed into a rowboat and pushed out to sea when he tries to defend Mary. He winds up by a boat called The Black Ghost, and the medicine show monkey tosses down incriminating evidence. Now it’s up to Harold to get on that boat, find the money, bring the villains to justice, and clear his father’s name. If he can do so, he’ll finally prove his worth as a real Hickory.