Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part III (Reception and legacy)

The Four Horsemen was premièred to great acclaim in New York on 6 March 1921, and became one of the very first films to earn over a million dollars. During its long initial run, it earned $4,500,000 in the U.S. alone. So very successful and popular was it, the film was rereleased on 2 October 1926.

Its Canadian première came in April 1921, and it was released in Japan, Australia, and throughout Europe during 1922 and 1923. Adjusted for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of the silent era, with a grand total of $9,183,673 ($142,602,432 in 2021).

However, there was one corner of the international market which wasn’t exactly enthusiastic—Germany. The von Hartrotts are depicted in a rather stereotypical way, and the German soldiers who occupy Marcelo’s castle in Villeblanche are absolute beasts who help themselves to anything they want and rough up anyone standing in their way. In this immediate period after World War I, when anti-German sentiments and memories still ran high, they were consistently depicted in a negative light in films.

Gone were the days when German was America’s unofficial second language and people proudly bore German surnames. Many street names and business names were changed as well, and people of German descent were viewed with hostility and suspicion.

Some U.S. censorship boards also demanded ridiculous changes, as described in an October 1922 issue of Photoplay. Pennsylvania censors removed the references to Julio’s birth and the intertitle “It’s a boy!” Also altered was the nature of Julio and Marguerite’s relationship. The entire dynamic of their forbidden love was radically changed, with Marguerite and Étienne Laurier being merely engaged instead of in an arranged marriage where only one person (Laurier) has feelings of love.

“Foolish Censors” is a really good article. The author totally calls out modern-day Puritans who believe “every American is a half-wit” and needs constant protecting from the tiniest little hint of anything that’s not rainbows, flowers, puppies, and kittens. Among other ridiculous examples he cites, a Chicago censorship board wouldn’t let a husband pull the curtains down in his own home, an Ohio censor thought Treasure Island taught piracy to children, and Pennsylvania censors found the word “ornery” offensive.

But overall, rave reviews poured in all across the board. Picture-Play called the film an artistic triumph, and praised the actors. So acclaimed was the film, screenwriter June Mathis became one of the most powerful and respected women in Hollywood, second only to Mary Pickford. Many modern people don’t realize how many powerful women there were in Hollywood during the silent era, both behind and in front of the camera.

June was so in demand thanks to this success, she wrote films for Famous Players-Lasky and Goldwyn Pictures as well as Metro. These included several of Rudy’s future films. June always made sure he got the best roles and was taken care of very well.

The Four Horsemen made Rudy an overnight superstar, but Metro sadly refused to raise his piddly $350 a week salary.  Even extras and bit players on their lot made more money than that. Metro also didn’t use Rudy’s talents to the best possible extent, and immediately cast him in the B-picture Uncharted Seas (his only lost stardom-era film).

Rudy wisely moved to Famous Players-Lasky after that, where he got much better work.

Director Rex Ingram (on the left) also became a huge star because of the film’s success, but he egotistically felt that was all down to his own work behind the camera and had nothing to do with Rudy’s brilliant acting. He soon grew to resent Rudy’s new superstar status, and only made one more film with him, The Conquering Power.

Most of the rest of his films starred his wife Alice Terry as the leading lady, and newfound star Ramón Novarro as the leading man. Rex heavily promoted Ramón as the new Rudy, though they were both equally awesome.

It just so happens that Ramón appeared as an extra in The Four Horsemen.

There was a garbage remake in 1962, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Glenn Ford as Julio, Ingrid Thulin as Marguerite, Charles Boyer as Marcelo, Paul Henreid as Étienne Laurier, and Yvette Mimieux as Chichí. The setting was changed to WWII, which completely alters the story. Not only that, the circumstances of patriarch Madariaga’s death are different, and Julio joins the French Resistance and smuggles messages in magazines instead of becoming a soldier to prove his bravery and maturity. Chichí is also arrested and tortured, when she’s never in any danger in either the book or original film.

And did I mention how ridiculous it is for a 46-year-old and 36-year-old to play a couple in their twenties?

I can’t say enough wonderful things about the original screen adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s fine novel, and highly urge everyone to both see the film and read the book.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1916 novel Los Cuatro Jinetes del Apocalipsis was a huge bestseller all around the world. In 1918, it was translated into English, and the next year became the bestselling book in the U.S. Despite its huge popularity, however, most film studios found it too sweeping and ambitious to adapt to the silver screen.

All that changed when screenwriter June Mathis became the head of Metro’s scenario department. Because she was so deeply immersed in Spiritualism, mysticism, and the paranormal, and believed in the Book of Revelations, she was determined to write a strong, compelling screenplay for this ambitious book.

Metro liked her script very much, so much so they let her choose both the director and the actor to play main character Julio Desnoyers. For director, she selected Rex Ingram, who also was very mystical-minded and fascinated by the macabre and bizarre. For her actor, she chose Rudolph Valentino, whose brief role as cabaret parasite Clarence Morgan in Clara Kimball Young’s Eyes of Youth (1919) had very much impressed her.

Rudy had been appearing in films since 1914, and in 1918 graduated to playing leading and secondary roles in B-movies like A Society SensationAll Night, and The Married Virgin. However, the powers that be were quite leery of casting this relative unknown as the star of a major picture. Rudy also had a distinctly Latin look and terracotta skin, which wasn’t exactly common or popular among leading men.

June insisted so strongly that Rudy was the one and only perfect actor for the role, the other studio executives finally relented. After she and Rex Ingram watched the rushes, they were even more impressed, and decided to expand Julio’s role so Rudy’s talents could shine to the fullest extent. One way they did this was including dancing scenes, most memorably that tango near the beginning. There’s no tangoing in the novel.

June lovingly mentored Rudy every step of the way and pushed him to succeed when no one else believed in him. For the rest of his life, apart from a brief period of estrangement which was later happily patched up, she was a very dear friend and served as a surrogate mother.

However, since Rudy was still an unknown quantity, Metro only paid him $350 a week, far less than the other actors. Rudy was also forced to buy his own costumes, which cost thousands of dollars. A costume factory on the studio lot was provided for the actors.

Alice Terry, soon-to-be-wife of Rex Ingram, was cast as Julio’s married lover Marguerite Laurier. (Underneath the trademark curly blonde wig she wore in all her films, she was truly a brunette.) She and Rudy spoke French to one another during their scenes, to add to the authenticity and impress skilled lip-readers. Since Rudy’s mother was French, he was fluent in the language.

June paid novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez $20,000 ($277,948 in 2021) and 10% of gross earnings for film rights. It cost $80,000 ($1,111,792 in 2021) to make the film over six months, and 12,500 actors were used. Seventy-two of these actors were listed as principals (back in the days when everyone understood what an ensemble cast is and that not all stories need to revolve around just one protagonist or two protagonists).

So much time, love, money, and effort went into making The Four Horsemen, an elaborate program was created for distribution. Filmgoers could read all about the actors, the story, the filming process, the critical reviews, the people behind the camera, and so much more. The program even helpfully provided an explanation of the word apocalypse.

Feel free to right-click and download any or all of the pages of the program! Unlike certain other people sharing public domain vintage images, I don’t put my own freaking watermark or URL on them and pretend I have rights to them. The community of history-lovers, in all its wide range of fields, is greatly enhanced by the free distribution of valuable newspaper scans, ads, photographs, and the like.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at 100, Part I (General overview)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released 6 March 1921, was based on the 1916 international bestseller of the same name by Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. It remains one of the finest, most accurate book to screen adaptations I’m aware of. Reading the book made me love and appreciate the film even more, since I knew about things left unsaid, or left out entirely, on the screen.

This was also the film which shot Rudy Valentino to superstardom after several years of playing secondary roles and a few leading roles in minor films. Screenwriter June Mathis, who insisted on casting him and lovingly mentored him every step of the way, also became a huge sensation because of this film.

Madariaga (The Centaur) (Pomeroy Cannon) immigrates to Argentina from Spain, and after years of toil and poverty becomes a rich man with vast lands. He’s very capricious and despotic, and his workers both love and fear him. Many bear an uncanny resemblance to him.

Madariaga also has two legitimate children, Luisa (Bridgetta Clark) and Elena (Mabel Van Buren). Marcelo Desnoyers (Josef Swickard), Luisa’s husband, manages the gigantic estate. Elena, the younger daughter, has a German husband, Karl von Hartrott (Alan Hale, Sr.). Madariaga hates Karl and didn’t approve of the marriage.

After seven years of childlessness, Luisa and Marcelo are finally blessed with a child, Julio, whom Madariaga makes his heir. This greatly displeases Elena and Karl, who hoped their three sons would inherit Madariaga’s millions.

Twenty years pass, and Julio is now a regular at dancehalls, dive bars, and clubs in the seedy Boca quarter of Buenos Aires. The elderly Madariaga, desperately clinging to his youth, accompanies him. The vain illusion of youth and relevance can’t last forever, though. After the weakened Madariaga falls out of his chair, he admits he’s too old to go out anymore, and begins staying home with Julio’s little sister Chichí (Virginia Warwick). He then proceeds to lead Chichí into “wild ways” as well by teaching her how to tango.

Not long afterwards, Madariaga is found dead by his horse, a whip still in his hand. The reading of the will stuns Julio, who always believed he’d inherit everything. Instead the money is split between Elena and Luisa. Julio’s adorable pet money comforts him in this moment of sadness.

Karl announces he’s going to dispose of his share and return to Germany, where he can resume his rightful position and give his sons the advantage of culture and education. Marcelo urges him not to do this, since Madariaga always preached that one’s true home is where one raises a family and makes a fortune. Karl shoots back that one’s first duty is to one’s native land, where one’s children can “grow up in allegiance with the advantages of super-culture.” (All three of Karl’s sons are in their twenties!)

Luisa thinks he’s right, and asks Marcelo why they shouldn’t return to his own native country. In Paris, Chichí could find a good husband, and Julio could study art.

Marcelo has been keeping a secret for years, that he left France to avoid military conscription. However, he decides to take a chance, and says one always risks one’s happiness when leaving home for another land.

A few years pass, and the Desnoyers family isn’t doing so well. Marcelo constantly goes to auctions and returns with unnecessary furniture for a castle in Villeblanche, a pursuit which threatens to bankrupt him. Meanwhile, the von Hartrotts are doing splendidly for themselves in Germany.

Marcelo tries to butter up Chichí and Luisa with jewelry and accessories from the latest auction, but they’re not having any of it. Chichí calls him out as a miser, and says Julio couldn’t continue his art studies if their mother didn’t give him money. Marcelo then fires back by saying there’s no studying going on in Montmartre, since Julio only cares about tango teas, debauchery, and women. Painting is but a pretext for these hedonistic activities.

While Julio is painting, his secretary Argensola (Bowditch Turner) bothers him with bills that must be paid at once. If Julio doesn’t pay, his father will be contacted. Argensola suggests his mother might provide the money, since she’d give Julio her last cent.

Marcelo has two new friends, Senator Lacour (Mark Fenton) and Étienne Laurier (John St. Polis), to whom he shows his latest auction treasure, a golden bathtub. Also visiting is Sen. Lacour’s young son René (Derek Ghent), who’s greatly taken with Chichí. Both he and Chichí are too bashful to admit their true feelings.

When the older men leave, Julio broaches the subject of money with his mother, who says Marcelo forbade her to give him any more money. She decided to obey after seeing the naked women in his studio, but doesn’t object too much. In place of money, she gives Julio some of her jewelry, saying Marcelo will never miss it.

Then Laurier’s pretty, much-younger wife Marguerite (Alice Terry) arrives, and she and Julio have an instant connection. Marguerite says she’s seen him dancing many times at the Tango Palace, and Julio invites her to dance with him sometime.

They begin an affair, and Julio neglects all his other dance students. So many people see them together and begin talking, they’re compelled to move their affair to Julio’s studio. In the middle of all this, war breaks out and begins creeping ever closer to France.

Laurier gets word of their liaison, and demands Marcelo take him to Julio’s studio. Julio hides Marguerite behind a curtain, but other evidence of her presence is soon discovered. Laurier challenges Julio to a duel, but when Marcelo begs to avoid scandal, Laurier decides to send Marguerite to her mother and arrange a divorce.

Argensola has made friends with an intense, mysterious stranger (Nigel de Brulier) who lives upstairs and resembles Rasputin. Shortly after war finally reaches France and everyone begins enlisting, Julio arrives at the studio early and meets this stranger.

The stranger says the outbreak of war is a prophecy’s fulfillment, and that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to be unleashed upon the world. He shows Julio and Argensola a rare book with Albrecht Dürer woodcuts illustrating the Book of Revelations. His explanations are intercut with dramatizations.

Marguerite becomes a war nurse, and her brother, Laurier, and René Lacour all enlist. René is put into the auxiliary, despite his desire to go to the front. He and Chichí are still too shy to admit their romantic feelings!

Marcelo receives a travel passport to go to his castle in Villeblanche, and sends his wife and daughter to safety in Biarritz.

And then the insistent, deadly hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen gallop ever closer, as the full horrors of war are unleashed upon France. No one’s life will ever be the same after so much devastation and trauma.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

When avoiding bad luck creates even worse luck

Though Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) made hundreds of films between 1905–1925 and was the original screen comedian, he’s sadly not nearly as well-known today as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Roscoe Arbuckle. Even the overrated, creepy Harry Langdon seems to be more popular.

Like too many silent stars, Max also suffers from the misfortune of lost films. More than a few survive, but many others are lost. Thankfully, his daughter Maud (1924–2017) did a lot to resurrect his legacy and preserve his films.

Seven Years Bad Luck, released 6 February 1921, is not only one of Max’s best-known films, but is also widely considered one of his very finest among his surviving body of work.

Max gets absolutely schnockered at his bachelor party, and is so drunk he doesn’t even realize he’s in his own house when he comes home. In the morning, he awakens with a terrible hangover. But that isn’t the least of his troubles. Max woke up at the noise of a mirror breaking, caused by his amorous valet and maid.

John, the valet, immediately calls for a new mirror to be delivered to Max’s house, and lies to his employer that the noise was nothing but Mary, the maid, dropping a napkin. While Max is still in his room, John gets the chef, who very much resembles Max, to dress up as their employer and pretend to be him on the other side of the now-empty mirror frame.

The ruse works very well at first, as the chef exactly copies Max’s every single movement. However, Max eventually realizes there’s another person on the other side. When he leaves the room, the deliveryman arrives with the new mirror.

Max returns and throws a shoe at the mirror, thinking his chef is still standing there. Alas, the new mirror immediately breaks, and Max is horrorstruck. Being very superstitious, he believes he’s been dealt seven years of bad luck.

Max decides to call for his horse instead of taking his car to visit his fiancée Betty (Alta Allen), then imagines himself getting into a terrible accident and decides to just walk there. This proves even more dangerous than either driving or riding a horse, and Max barely makes it there in one piece.

While waiting for Betty, Max asks her supposed psychic maid to read his palm. She says she sees a dog threatening his happiness, and Max promptly grabs Betty’s cute little fluffy white dog Frizotto and sticks him in a vase.

Max tries to prevent Betty from seeing this, but she discovers it sooner rather than later, and is so outraged she calls off their engagement.

Betty’s mother phones Max and says Betty changed her mind and wants him to come back, then tells Betty she ought to give Max a second chance and not behave too rashly over something so silly. This attempted reconciliation ends in another breakup when Betty walks in on Max jamming on the piano to a jazz record as the maid dances. Betty is horrified by such “scandalous” behavior.

Max asks his best friend to pay a call on Betty and try to get her to relent in her cruel edict, little realizing his supposed buddy has designs on Betty. His friend, who isn’t named, lies to Betty that Max decided to marry an ex. Betty then asks how she might get revenge, and the friend suggests she marry him.

Before Max can find out about this shocking new development, he steps into a fight between two strangers on the street and ends up robbed of his wallet. Max had been planning to take a train trip, but now has no money to pay for it, and must find a way to sneak aboard.

The comic situations only escalate from there, as Max continues to court bad luck in his attempted pursuit of avoiding it.

Will Max ever defeat his string of bad luck and reconcile with Betty?