Posted in 1910s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 100th birthday, Broken Blossoms!

Broken Blossoms, released 13 May 1919, was based on British writer Thomas Burke’s 1916 story “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. All the stories are set in and around London’s Chinatown in the Limehouse district, in the East End. A second story from the collection, “Beryl and the Croucher,” was turned into a film in 1949, No Way Back.

In contrast to many of D.W. Griffith’s other films of the 1910s, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale production instead of a grand, sweeping, lengthy epic with a huge ensemble cast. It tells a heartrending, intimate story of marked visual contrasts.

The première at NYC’s George M. Cohan Theatre, during the D.W. Griffith Repertory Season, featured moon lanterns, flowers, and gorgeous brocaded Chinese draperies.

Critics and laypeople alike loved it, to the tune of $700,000 ($10,412,843 today). However, many were deeply disturbed by the depiction of child abuse, some so much they left the theatre to vomit. Griffith himself took several months to edit it, so disturbed and depressed was he by the subject matter.

In 1996, Broken Blossoms was chosen for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. The film is widely regarded as one of Griffith’s finest, and one of the great treasures of film history.

Owing to the strict anti-miscegenation laws of the time, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were unable to have any love scenes. Even when both actors were white in real life, they were legally barred from kissing onscreen if their characters were in an interracial relationship.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) sets out from China with a pure heart and soul full of love and idealism, little realising what ugliness and cruelty await him. He “holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo–Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.”

Prior to his departure, Cheng interferes in a fight between foreign sailors, trying to tell them not to do unto others what is hateful to themselves (a maxim found across almost all religions). His message of peace and love is received with violence and mockery, but that makes him even more determined to spread the word.

London’s notoriously seedy, impoverished East End is a shocking wakeup call to this gentle-hearted, sensitive Buddhist missionary. A few years after his arrival, he’s nothing but another poor shopkeeper, and his “youthful dreams come to wreck agains the sordid realities of life.” To try to cope with the ugly real world, Cheng smokes opium and gambles.

Meanwhile, boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is raising his daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish) as a single dad. Battling, “a gorilla of the jungles of East London,” is violent outside the ring too, and an alcoholic. It really speaks to how desperate Lucy’s mother must’ve been to relinquish her to Battling.

Battling’s manager rightly complains about his drinking and womanizing, but Battling keeps his anger in check for the sake of his career. He saves the release of his rage for Lucy, his personal punching-bag, who’s too passive and weak to stand up for herself or escape.

Lucy is warned by both her married friends and prostitute friends not to follow in their footsteps, since their lives have been nothing but sorrow and misery since starting down those respective paths.

Cheng has been admiring Lucy from afar for awhile, struck by her fragile, haunted beauty amidst the muck and mire of Limehouse.

Battling’s manager finds him womanizing at a bar, and the ensuing lecture sends Battling into a rage. At home, he unleashes his rage upon Lucy with a whip.

Severely wounded and half-conscious, Lucy escapes after her father departs for training across the Thames, and collapses on the floor of Cheng’s shop. Cheng shows her the first gentleness she’s ever known when he cleans her wounds.

Cheng carries Lucy upstairs to his flat and tenderly nurses her back to health, beautifully decorating the room as befits a princess. He also gives her gorgeous clothes and renames her White Blossom.

Troubled waters start brewing when one of Battling’s friends comes to Cheng’s shop. While Cheng is out getting change, he hears an odd noise from upstairs and goes to investigate, finding Lucy asleep in bed.

Battling is horrified to learn Lucy is living with a Chinese man, and races home to get his revenge after the big fight. The concluding scenes are some of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable of cinematic history.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A horror story of illusion and magic tricks

Premièring November 1929 at NYC’s Little Carnegie Theatre, The Last Performancce was Conrad Veidt’s final Hollywood film until WWII. Due to his heavy accent and lack of fluency in English, he had to return to his native Germany. Soon after the Nazis rose to power, he escaped to England with his Jewish wife.

Like many other films of the late silent era, this one too had a hybrid version with sound effects, talking sequences, and a soundtrack.  Today, only the silent version (with Danish intertitles) survives. Very embarrassingly, one of the English translations renders “you’re” as “your.” Nails on a chalkboard! Where was the proofreader!

Magician Erik the Great (Veidt) falls in love with his assistant Julie Fergeron (Mary Philbin), who’s on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday. Julie is stunned to find a love letter backstage, which includes a marriage proposal. (In real life, Conrad was 36 and Mary was 27, though Conrad is made up to look MUCH older.)

Erik is looking forward to an upcoming tour of America, Julie’s birthday, and his wedding, but the happy mood crashes when he discovers a thief, Mark Royce (Fred MacKaye), in his hotel suite. Erik gives him the choice of going with the cops or joining the magic act. Since Mark was “only” helping himself to Erik’s food instead of purloining material possessions, Erik is somewhat sympathetic to him.

At Julie’s insistence, Erik invites Mark to join the act as Buffo’s assistant. Buffo Black (Leslie Fenton) is Erik’s apprentice. Very predictably, Julie and Erik fall in instalove.

Also rather predictably, Buffo has feelings for Julie. He can’t believe Julie and Erik are soon to marry, and thinks Erik is a fool for believing Julie actually loves him. (Since the first two-thirds of the film speed by without much of any character development, it is hard to see why Julie agreed to marry Erik, even reluctantly.)

At Julie’s eighteenth birthday party, Buffo discovers Julie and Mark in an amorous situation and arranges for Erik to catch them in the act. Erik is understandably heartbroken, but puts on a false front of cordiality by announcing Julie and Mark’s engagement in front of all their guests at the banquet.

But if Julie and Mark believe Erik’s graceful reaction to being cuckolded, they’ve soon got another think coming. Erik has macabre revenge in mind, and he’s bound and determined to pin the blame on someone else.

The Last Performance received mixed reviews. Some felt it were over-directed and overacted, with lacklustre camera work, while others praised Veidt’s wonderful acting, the great imagination of director Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejös), Mary Philbin’s charm, great photographic effects, and the narrative development.

The last third of the film has incredible pacing and dramatic tension, which I wish were the case for the preceding two-thirds. I would’ve liked more development of the characters and their respective relationships instead of rushing through them till that pivotal moment when Erik discovers the betrayal. An extra half-hour or so would’ve strengthened the story.

But as always, Conrad’s acting is incredible. He had such an expressive face and eyes, able to say so much without saying a word.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Heartbreaking, horrifying hilarity

Released 9 November 1924, He Who Gets Slapped was the very first film produced completely by newly-founded company MGM, and the first to feature their mascot Leo the Lion. The MGM lion in those years was named Slats. Unlike his successors, Slats just looked around inside the logo instead of roaring.

He Who Gets Slapped is based on Russian writer Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev’s 1914 play Tot, Kto Poluchayet Poshchyochiny. Andreyev was quite popular in the Anglophone world from about 1914–29, based on his stories’ similarity to those of Edgar Allan Poe.

In 2017, the film was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. It was a big moneymaker for MGM, earning $349,000 ($5,240,286 today).

Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney), a struggling scientist, was lifted out of poverty when Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) took interest in him and invited him into his home. Beaumont’s years of toil pay off when the Academy invites him to present his theories on the origins of humanity.

When the big day comes, the Baron stabs Beaumont in the back by presenting Beaumont’s theories as though they were his own research. When confronted, the Baron pretends Beaumont is insane, a starving student he took pity on. Beaumont’s humiliation reaches its apex when the Baron slaps him and the entire Academy breaks into laughter.

Back at home, Beaumont discovers his wife Marie and the Baron are having an affair. Awash in anguish, Beaumont gives up his scientific ambitions and decides to reinvent himself as a clown, HE Who Gets Slapped.

Also in the circus are bareback riders Bezano (John Gilbert) and Consuelo Mancini (Norma Shearer). Predictably, Bezano falls in instalove with Conseulo when her dad, an old count down on his luck (Tully Marshall), presents her as a new employee.

The addition of well-bred aristocrat Consuelo to the circus reminds HE of all he left behind, and soon he too is in love with her. Consuelo also has a third suitor, a rich friend of her father’s.

Who should attend the circus one night but the Baron! On this night, HE gets more laughs than ever, but the Baron’s presence rattles him so much he refuses to play dead like usual at the end of his act.

HE always gets slapped around by other clowns until he’s “dead,” followed by a clown ripping off a heart patch to reveal a little stuffed heart, dropping it in a hole in the ground, and burying it. Then comes the mock funeral.

The Baron comes backstage after the show and is smitten with Consuelo, so much so he insists on coming home with her and her dad. Meanwhile, he doesn’t recognise HE, and informs him he hates clowns.

Count Mancini isn’t impressed with the Baron’s attempt to win Consuelo with jewels, and goes to set the record straight. In his absence, Consuelo slips out on a date with Bezano.

Count Mancini informs the Baron Consuelo can only accept jewels from her husband, which enrages the Baron. He won’t hear of marrying someone who works for a circus.

Even after the Baron relents and agrees to marry her, Count Mancini still isn’t satisfied. He insists the Baron make formal request for her hand.

While these negotiations are going on, Consuelo and Bezano profess their love and plan to marry that afternoon.

Next time HE sees Consuelo, his sadness gets her attention, and she says he’d be happier if he were in love. HE reads her palm and says her dad is scheming to sell her to that beastly Baron, and only HE can save her. HE confesses his love and says he’s worshipped her since they met.

Consuelo responds with laughter and gently slaps him, saying she thought he were serious for a moment. HE heartbrokenly goes with it, knowing Consuelo will never love him.

Count Mancini and the Baron then enter, saying Consuelo will marry the Baron that night after the performance.

Backstage, HE confronts Count Mancini and berates him for selling his daughter, something no true father would do. After he’s thrown out of the room, he sees a lion in a cage and starts putting a macabre plan together.

Will HE succeed in getting the last laugh on his nemesis and saving Consuelo, and if so, at what price?

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Horrifying history in wax comes to life

Premièring 6 October 1924 in Vienna and 13 November 1924 in Berlin, anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was director Paul Leni’s final feature film in his native Germany (though he continued working as an art director there till 1926). His directing career began anew in Hollywood with The Cat and the Canary.

A nameless poet (William Dieterle) responds to an ad seeking an imaginative publicity writer for a waxworks exhibit. The proprietor (John Gottowt), who works with his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), asks the poet if he can write startling stories about three figures—Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy, whose Russian epithet does NOT mean “Terrible”), and Spring-Heeled Jack (a terrifying figure in Victorian folklore).

The poet writes himself into al-Rashid’s story as pie-baker Assad, and Eva becomes his wife Maimune. Trouble starts when a blanket of smoke from the pie oven causes al-Rashid (Emil Jannings) to lose a game of chess.

The Grand Vizier is dispatched to find the guilty party and kill him, but loses sight of his mission when he sees the beautiful Maimune. Upon his return to the palace, the Grand Vizier suggests al-Rashid take her for himself.

That night, al-Rashid mingles among his subjects incognito, in search of this great beauty. Outside the house, al-Rashid overhears an argument between the couple, culminating in Assad’s promise to prove his manhood by stealing al-Rashid’s wishing ring before dawn.

While Assad is away on this foolish, dangerous mission, al-Rashid enters the house and makes sure the door locks behind him. Maimune is terrified to see this intruder, even after he tells her he’s the Caliph.

Al-Rashid returns to the palace after putting the moves on Maimune, and is in a deep sleep when Assad slips into his bedroom and cuts off his arm. As we learnt in the opening segment, al-Rashid’s wax figure is missing an arm, and the poet wants to write a story explaining how that came to be.

But, as so often happens in horror and fantasy, not everything is always as it seems to be.

The poet then begins writing a story about Tsar Ivan IV (Conrad Veidt) stealing into the Kreml with his astrologer to gloat over his poisoned victims’ deaths. He particularly enjoys watching the last sand in the hourglass run out for each new victim.

Ivan’s astrologer warns him the poison-maker might write his name on the next hourglass. Given how increasingly paranoid Ivan was during the latter portion of his reign, one can predict his reaction!

The poison-maker has pity on one of the victims, and instead does exactly as the astrologer predicted.

Next day, a nobleman visits to remind Ivan he promised to attend his (the nobleman’s) daughter’s wedding. Ever-paranoid, Ivan changes places with the nobleman and arrives at the wedding as the driver.

Far from being a happy, joyful occasion, this wedding turns into a nonstop parade of horrors, esp. for the couple (Dieterle and Belajeff). One of the accurate translations of Ivan’s epithet, Grozniy, is Dreadsome, and he indeed lives up to it here.

The poet falls asleep while writing the final story (by far the shortest) about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), and dreams his wax figure comes to life to stalk him and Eva through the fairgrounds. Just as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, our sense of reality is put to the test.

A fourth story was in the original script, about Rinaldo Rinaldini (to be played by Dieterle). Though this story was cut for budgetary reasons, Rinaldi still appears with the other wax figures. Rinaldini is an elegant robber captain in Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 novel of the same name.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

No one can escape the hands of Orlac!

Released 6 May 1924 in Austria, The Hands of Orlac (Orlac’s Hände) was based on French writer Maurice Renard’s 1920 fantasy-horror novel Les Mains d’Orlac, part of a subgenre now termed body horror. As its name suggests, body horror involves violations of the body through mutilation, disease, extreme violence, mutation, unnatural movements, etc.

Germany approved the film for release on 24 September 1924, for adults only. In January 1925, Saxony’s Ministry of the Interior filed a censorship petition which was rightly rejected as ridiculous.

The Hands of Orlac didn’t reach the U.S. till 1928.

The film was directly remade in 1935 and 1960, in addition to inspiring many other films and TV shows.

The film opens with Paul Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina, née Aleksandra Tsvikevich) reading a letter where he promises he’ll be home soon. In an obvious bit of foreshadowing, Orlac proclaims how he can’t wait to run his hands through her hair and over her body again.

We then meet Orlac (Conrad Veidt), a successful concert pianist who’s concluding a tour. Disaster strikes when his train home gets into a very serious accident. Though Orlac is among the survivors pulled from the wreckage, he suffers a fractured skull and the loss of his precious hands.

Yvonne begs the surgeon, Dr. Serral (Hans Homma), to save her husband’s hands, which are more valuable to him than his life. Towards this end, Dr. Serral transplants the hands of a recently executed criminal.

Orlac suspects something funny is up even before the bulky bandages come off, and the funny feeling continues after he sees “his” hands again. When Orlac awakes from a horrific nightmare, he finds a note in his lap admitting the terrible truth.

He goes to confront Dr. Serral, who confirms this disturbing information.

Orlac vows to never let these criminal hands touch another person, a resolve which is put to the test when he returns home to his loving wife. He can barely even bring himself to touch his beloved piano.

Orlac is even more horrified when he learns more about Vasseur, the criminal whose hands he now bears, since Vasseur’s guilt was conclusively established by fingerprints all over everything.

It gets worse when Orlac finds a knife in his house identical to the one Vasseur used. He’s now convinced these hands have given him a propensity to violence, though that’s never been in his nature.

A phantom force compels Orlac towards the knife he hid in the piano, and Yvonne catches him stabbing at the air in the middle of the night. Orlac orders her to stay away from him, and she retreats in fear.

Orlac’s next move is to try cutting his hands off, but he regains his senses. He then gets into trouble with the maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri), who just feuded with her lover. Orlac puts his hands on her head, and she says they feel like the hands of a killer.

Orlac goes to confront Dr. Serral, begging him to remove the cursed hands, but Dr. Serral tries to tell him the body is ruled by one’s head and heart, not the hands.

Meanwhile, creditors are hassling Yvonne. Since Orlac refuses to play the piano with criminal hands, there’s no money coming in. Yvonne begs for a month, but they only give her till tomorrow. She wants to go to her rich father-in-law for help, but Regine says he’s an awful person who hates their family.

Just as Regine predicted, Orlac, Sr. refuses to help.

Regine says Orlac must go to his dad to beg. Though this greatly upsets Yvonne, she knows there’s no choice.

When Orlac arrives at his dad’s house, the greatest horrors of all begin unfolding.

Real-life horror: Fritz Strassny, né Straßni (Orlac’s dad), who was Jewish, was dismissed from Austria’s venerable Burgtheater in 1938. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered two and a half weeks later.

Conrad Veidt, who was strongly anti-Nazi, escaped to England with his Jewish wife just ahead of a Gestapo death squad’s arrival at their house in 1933.