Celebrating lost and rare silent horror

Three of the films I had on my list for October turned out to be lost, and another is only available at the George Eastman House. It’s always frustrating to review a lost, archive-only, or incomplete film, since I can only go by what other people have said about it. I can’t provide my own opinions or plot summary.

The Bells, released 15 September 1918, was a very popular story in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s based on a play of the same name, by Leopold Davis Lewis. In turn, that play was based on 1867’s Le Juif Polonais (The Polish Jew), by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian (who co-wrote almost all their novels, stories, and plays as Erckmann-Chatrian). After Sir Henry Irving made the lead role of Mathias famous in 1871, every actor wanted to play him. Sir Henry played the role until the night before his death in 1905.

The story is set over 24 and 26 December 1833, in Alsace (a border area between France and Germany). Fifteen years before, on the night of Christmas Eve 1818, burgomaster Mathias robbed and horrifically murdered a Jewish seed merchant, Koveski, to pay off his mortgage.

Gradually, Mathias has gone insane with guilt, and begins hallucinating Koveski’s ghost. He also hears Koveski’s phantom sleigh bells. Mathias later dreams he’s on trial for the murder, confesses, and is hanged. When he wakes up, he tries to pull the phantom noose off, and dies of a heart attack.

In the film version, Mathias’s conscience begins torturing him with renewed vigour when he counts out the gold coins for his daughter Annette’s dowry. She’s engaged to Christian, the captain of the local gendarmes.

After a hypnotist wedding guest, Gari, puts the town fool under his spell, Mathias runs upstairs, falls asleep, and dreams of his trial. Gari wrings the confession from him, and he wakes hysterical. Mathias runs downstairs and dies in his wife’s arms.

The film was remade in 1926 with Lionel Barrymore, and again in 1931.

Sorry about the annoying watermark on this public domain image, but this was the best one I could find to illustrate the subject.

Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne (Alraune, the Hangman’s Daughter, Named Red Hanna), released December 1918, is not to be confused with the Hungarian film of the same name from the same year. It was released as Sacrifice in the U.S.

Alraune is a sci-fi horror story very loosely based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’s 1911 novel of the same name. The only similarity is the use of a mandrake root to save a dying child.

A mad doctor (are there any other types in horror films?!) uses a dead man’s sperm to impregnate a prostitute. This child grows up to turn against her creator.

This film can be viewed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

The Last Moment, released 15 February 1928, was directed by Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejős), who fled Hungary in 1923 to escape the White Terror and Horthy régime. It was made on a budget of $13,000.

Like F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Schatten, this story too is told without any intertitles. It had a German Expressionistic style, and, unusually for the time, featured double- and triple-exposures.

Charlie Chaplin absolutely loved it, and after a private screening, arranged for United Artists to theatrically release it.

Director Paul Fejos

An unnamed man decides to drown himself in a lake. Before that final, irreversible step, he flashes back on pivotal moments of his life and the incidents which led up to his suicide—his unhappy childhood; his decision to leave home and stow away on an ocean freighter; his failed attempts to break into acting; his two drama-filled marriages.

The film ends as he walks towards the lake and wades in deeper and deeper, till he’s no longer visible from shore.

Though While Paris Sleeps released 21 January 1923, it was actually filmed in 1920. It stars two of my favouritest actors, Lon Chaney, Sr., and John Gilbert, and was based on Leslie Beresford’s novel The Glory of Love.

Henri Santados (Lon) is a sculptor in unrequited love with his model, Bebe Lavarche. He becomes extremely jealous when Bebe falls in love with rich American Dennis O’Keefe (Jack). Henri joins forces with Father Marionette, a wax museum owner, to get rid of Dennis.

Dennis’s father also disapproves of the relationship, and convinces him to leave Bebe, who asks for a goodbye at Mardi Gras. When Dennis comes to pick her up, Henri tricks her into a compromising position and makes Dennis think she’s cheating.

Dennis leaves heartbroken, and is kidnapped by Father Marionette. He’s tortured in the wax museum. When Father Marionette calls Henri with a report, Bebe hears Dennis over the phone. One of Dennis’s friends rescues him and rushes him to hospital, where his father consents to the marriage.