Monday, September 26, 2016

Four Sons (USA, 1928)

This film follows the same production and plot values of films like, The Big Parade (USA, 1925), among others. WW1 is shown irrespective of politics, focused on the impact of war in the lives of ordinary citizens, who for the first time in life have the deal with events completely beyond their control changing their future forever.
Without falling into melodrama, this film has a smooth, pleasant pace, quite familiar to modern-day audiences.  The fluid camera movement makes it looks like we are following those characters in real life. The film is so moving because it deals with facts with which most people can identify themselves quite easily, like the importance of having a harmonious family. 
Fox studios had recently hired prestigious German director F.W. Murnau. His influence can be observed in some scenes, for example, in the village, mobilized camera and mailman which is like the doorman in The Last Laugh (Germany, 1924).
The setting is Germany in the beginning of XX century and a widowed mother raising her four adult sons. The view of German lifestyle at that film is somehow stereotyped, as we can see even by the clothes of the village dwellers.  The Bavarian wearing their typical clothes everywhere all the time.
Then the war started. At first, the bothers are shown going to war in a rather romanticized way, as brave men who were fighting for the country and ideals and they left in a rather optimistic mood, saying they would be back in three months. At least, that was the atmosphere before the real horrors or death and suffering began. Three of those brothers fight for Germany, but the one of brothers had immigrated to the United States, being on the opposite side of his three other brothers. 
At first, the brother who immigrate to the USA had a calm life together with the family he formed there, after all the United States was neutral at first. But time passed and two of the brothers were unfortunately killed in action, which brought a huge grief to the mother. In addition to it, the life of the mother and her surviving son worsened terribly when they started being bullied by government authorities and things became hell after it was found out that her another surviving son is in America.
Finally, the last surviving brother in German soil is called to go to the army. At that point, the horrors of war were already undeniable. 
The mother eventually found her happiness again, after much struggle, when she managed to reunite in the United States with her surviving son, daughter in law and grandson. Things were not easy to her when she arrived, she was scared and sore, but after the entire family gathered together the wounds started to heal. Of course that to reach this happy end it was required a plenty of coincidences that we could only see in films. 
At the end we realize that it does not matter in which side of the war people are involved, the suffering and hardship affects everyone, family ties struggle and trauma is huge even in people who did not go to the front directly. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cleopatra (USA,1912)

Actress Helen Gardner started her career in the legitimate stage on early XX century and she had been making films for some years before being in Cleopatra (her career in cinema seems to have begun around 1910 in Vitagraph studios) and she was one of first American actresses to have her own production company. Although the studio did not last many years, it was a real pioneer landmark. Gardner also had the distinction of being one of very first “vamps” of Hollywood, even before Theda Bara (which would soon surface, after the hit in a Fool There Was, produced in 1915) and Louise Glaum. Although virtually forgotten, even compared with the other aforementioned vamps, Gardner has her own place in history of cinema.
One of first feature-length films of Hollywood, we can observe that this film had aged not too long after it was launched in 1912. The acting was mostly stagy (specially by actress Helen Gardner, in the main role of Cleopatra, who gestured wildly throughout the film), with broad gestures and exaggerated drama, typical of plays up to early XX century. The so-called naturalistic acting (embodied by actresses Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, etc) would soon become the norm in cinema and the stage melodrama would soon become outdated. The use of camera was also rather static, which helps to give the audiences the feeling of a stage play.  
The sceneries are also typical of the stage and the film had a plenty of intertitles. Although the ill-fated love story of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony was already known in literature and arts in general before the invention of the cinema, it is still not very clear how much known those characters were in popular culture. Historical accuracy fails in some points of the film, both in characterization of landscapes and in the reproduction of details of the story. For instance, the landscape represented in this film does not look very much like a sight we would expect to see in an Ancient semi-desertic place. And in a scene even a poodle (yes, a poodle dog) could be spotted for some seconds, although it does seem such dogs have ever been common either in Rome or Egypt. But the audience must not pay too much attention to those points. Sure, it does give some involuntary humor to a film that it is supposed to be dramatic, but epic films of this magnitude were not still a commonplace in early cinema, so there was not a standard of production values to be followed. That would soon come in Hollywood with D.W. Griffith, though. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hangman's House (USA, 1928)

This film, despite its overt melodrama acting, also has some gothic elements, especially in the scenery, which is a type of thing that could be found in films by Ingmar Bergman decades later. The way the main characters express love and grief is through a stationary, stagy acting that was already out of fashion at late silent era. 
An army man (Citizen Hogan), who was actually an Irish patriot serving in Algeria, asks for a leave of absence so he can return home in Ireland because he had to kill a man despite the fact he was wanted by the law there due to his patriot activities. The reasons of Hogan’s return were not disclosed at the beginning of the film and would only be known a while later.
In Ireland, a hangman is about to pass away and is having huge crisis of conscience due to the people he sent to death. The flames on the fireplace of his living room can be taken as a symbolism of his life that was about to be over. 
His daughter loved a man dearly (Dermot McDermot) and he wanted to marry her. However, her father preferred that she married John D’arcy, a man of dishonest character, but with money and good social position. She detested D’arcy but eventually married him out of respect for her father’s wish. Dermot was devastated when he heard the sad news. Her father died a short time after the marriage. D’arcy started to drink and being completely nasty with his wife and she openly avoided him.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man showed up in town. It was the same army man showed in the beginning of the film and he was looking for John D’arcy.  They both had clearly met before, and whenever D’arcy put his eyes on that man he seemed to be really afraid and uneasy. In fact, D’arcy had already been married with the army man’s sister, but D’arcy had left his sister and she died right afterwards. This is why Citizen Hogan wanted revenge. 
D’arcy showed more and more signals of mental instability as time passed. Eventually, Citizen Hogan finally managed to confront D’arcy at his own house and it is suggested a duel. A fire started at the mansion and it attracts the attention of the entire neighborhood. Dermot McDermot and Citizen Hogan managed to leave the place on time, but D’arcy got trapped and is killed in the fire.
Hogan returned to the desert right afterwards, after having created a good friendship with Dermot. And both Demont and the hangman’s daughter could finally become together without anyone else’s interference, as she was now a widow.
The psychological profile, as well as reasons behind their attitudes could have been a bit deeper in this film. But this film has a good camera use, good sceneries and acting and a gloomy atmosphere that built up suspense well. The mansion and furniture had some interesting gothic touches, which is not something common to be seen in a dramatic film. Although not a particularly innovative film, it is convincing and well-acted. And it is also noteworthy for having shown John Wayne in his first recognizable role in films. As a uncreadited extra, he was a spectator in the horse racing who was so excited with the race that he ended up hitting the fence in front of him. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Just Pals (USA, 1920)

With naturalistic acting of children, similar to what the audiences would see years later in Our Gang films, this film deals with the theme of friendship that crosses social statuses and social rules. Behind the Western scenery there is a rather universal plot. The tender relationship between a boy and an adult man would also be brilliantly shown in another famous film, launched by Charlie Chaplin on the following year, The Kid (USA, 1921).
A recurrent character is classic westerns is of the rude cowboy with a heart of gold and strong sense of ethics and loyalty despite the lack of a formal education and such character is also shown in this film. A kid who was not liked by the adults of his place because he was considered too indisciplined. A man (Bim), who was as marginalized at the town as the boy, develop a solid friendship after Bim defended the boy of being beaten up. At first, they were just colleagues who got along well regardless of the difference of age. Time passes, the mutual affection between them develop until it becomes a virtually fatherly connection, especially after the boy risked his life in a moving train so he could get a uniform, as Bim would only be offered a job as a porter if he had a uniform. So, the boy tried to get a uniform to Bim.
Their mutual bonds of affection have deeply positive effects on both Bim and boy. Bim managed to persuade the boy to attend the school and Bim realized he had to be more responsible and find a job so he could provide for the boy. But the boy got injured after falling off the train in an attempt to get the uniform. Bim got desolated and took the boy the house of the city’s doctor. The doctor and his wife tried to separate Bim from the boy by saying to Bim that he should cut off contact with the boy and afterwards by telling to the boy that Bim had abandoned him. 
A dishonest accountant persuaded the town’s elementary school teacher to deliver him the school’s fund to compensate a loss he had while making business and claimed he would return her the money as soon as the school needed it. The school suddenly needed the funds, the teacher asked the accountant to return the money, but he did not do it. In desperation and afraid of having her reputation misjudged, the teacher attempted suicide by drowning herself in the local river, but she survived. Bim took the blame of the money deviation to protect the teacher’s reputation. He did it out of love, as it had been previously shown in the film that he loved her, but he was embarrassed of saying it to her, as he was the bum of the town and not socially respected.
A gang of robbers threatened to rob the city, Bim tried to stop the criminals from doing so but he was misjudged as a member of the gang by the town’s sheriff. There was an attempted lynching of Bim and chaos happened. He is about to be hanged on a tree by furious dwellers of the city, but the boy appeared on the scene and told the adults that the man who really planned to robbery of the town was inside of the school. While the lynching was taking place, the crooked accountant showed up at the school and demanded the teacher to hide him and that he was running away from the city and the teacher had to go with him.  
The boy’s plead took the desired effect. Bim is released and the furious mob enters the school in time to find the accountant fighting with the teacher. The accountant tried to run away, but he is caught by the police and the money of the school’s fund was with him. The teacher was very touched by the sacrifice Bim made for her sake and both him and the boy became the heroes of the town. Bim was almost separated from the boy again when a man arrived in town saying he was the boy’s father, but it turned out his son was actually another kid.
After a while, after enjoying respectability for a while, both Bim and the boy arrive at the school, in socially accepted clothing and looking a bit awkward. It is clear from the beginning that Bim wanted to ask the teacher if she would date him and she apparently gladly accepted it. And the film ended happily, with Bim keeping the boy, both of them leading straight lives, and Bim also had the girl he had always loved.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Show People (USA, 1928)

Hollywood making fun of itself, already a magical place at late 1920s, full of stars and lively parties, this film even included the cameos of real Hollywood stars as themselves, like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. This film also shows the traps of fame and pride and how fast things could change to the best or the worst. A delicious comedy, with impeccable comedy timing, showing that MGM was not only good with dramas and epic movies, but also with comedies.
Marion Davies became infamous by her long-term relationship with millionaire William Randolph Hearst and by the negative impact It had over her career. But, in reality, Davies had an innate talent as a comedian and in the few films where she could show such talents she never disappointed the audiences. Ironically, the film shows the dichotomy between drama x comedy and that some people thought that dramatic films and plays were superior to comedies, specially slapstick comedies.  The irony is that it was exactly the opinion Hearst had about Davies career, which would be unworthy of her dignity to act in comedies, and Hearst’s interference in her films did more harm than good to Davies in the long run.
A colonel from Georgia takes his young daughter (Peggy Pepper) to Hollywood in the hopes of showing the studios she is a good actress. Peggy gets immediately enchanted with Hollywood and upon her arrival she bumps into John Gilbert on the street. Yes, the man himself, already a mega star and famous all over the world. She seemed to be a rather naïve girl, not used with the bright lights of the big city and unaware of how competitive things were in Hollywood but she would soon realize it.
Peggy is befriended by a guy (Billy Boone) who helped her get into films in a small studio by acting in slapstick comedies. At first, Peggy was not happy with that because she expected to be into high-class dramatic films rather than in custard pie, physical comedies. But it turned out that her comedic talents were acknowledged and the audiences really liked Peggy’s films.
After a while, Peggy is “discovered” by a bigger studio, where she could act in the high-class dramas she had always dreamed about making.  At first, she hesitated to leave Billy behind, but, as time passed, she was induced by her new leading man to acquire a completely new personality and hanged out with new friends, ignoring Billy.  Meanwhile, Billy was still struggling in the same way he did before. Billy even tried to see Peggy, but she did not care very much. As her career progressed, she even pretended she did not know Billy.
Eventually, Peggy became so full of herself that her behavior even started interfering with her work in films, especially because she started to act like a royalty member rather than an actress who owed obedience to her bosses and had responsibilities to handle. And Billy would not let Peggy forgetting him easily, especially after knowing she was about to marry her new leading man. He tried to make Peggy come to her senses, but there was a fight involving a custard pie. The clash eventually had a good result and Peggy started to see things in a more reasonable way. She cancelled her convenience marriage and recommended Billy for a role in one of her films and, even more importantly, she was finally grateful for everything Billy had done for her in the old days. Then, they both realized their old good connection and love flourished between Peggy and Billy again. 

Atlantis (Denmark, 1913)

A typical 1910s melodrama, with provides some of greatest imageries of early cinema and reveals the high quality of Danish films of the decade, including the special effects. Denmark had a quite vibrant production of films prior to WW1, and the most famous actors of this generation were Asta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander (By the way, both of them were NOT part of the cast of this film). 
It is impossible not to compare the plot of this film with the infamous sinking of the Titanic in the previous year. Although the film is slow-paced, the plot has a plenty of action all along. Showing the calm days of Danish aristocracy prior to WW1, the acting is very stagy, even stationary compared with the naturalistic acting that had started been adopted by Hollywood, this film also has a touch of modernity. It shows Angèle, the wife of Dr. Friedrich Kammacher, a scientist (a bacteriologist), suffering from mental disease. All those scientific matters being still new and highly researched back to 1910s, an echo of XIX century progressist ideas that had science in high esteem. We can also see by the professions of main characters and scenery that the film is portraying lives of members upper classes.
Dr. Kammacher had the disappointment of having his research papers rejected by the academy and when Angéle is finally brought to a mental hospital, her husband kissed his children goodbye and decided to go on a journey in other to recover. When he arrived in Berlin he met a erotic dancer called Ingigerd, and got immediately fascinated by her. After hearing she was going to the United States, he left his past life behind and followed her on board the ocean liner “Atlantis”. Things were going fine until it happened a shipwreck. A drifting lifeboat with the people who survived the tragedy was rescued and they were taken aboard another ship. Ingigerd was one of survivors. They all eventually managed to arrive in New York and this part of film included some very beautiful takes of New York, which provides a lovely glimpse of how the landscape of the city looked like back to the 1910s.
Dr. Friedrich Kammacher also survived the shipwreck and was welcomed by his friends in NYC and he got together with Ingigerd there. However, time passes and their relationship has problems, mostly because  Dr. Friedrich Kammacher is annoyed by Ingigerd’s artistic career and her personality, and they become estranged. Disheartened and suffering from depression since the shipwreck happened, he goes to a distant cabin in the mountains. Perhaps, considering nowadays’ medicine, Dr. Kammacher might even had post traumatic syndrome due to the shock of the tragic event. Dr. Kammacher got very ill while in the cabin after knowing his wife had passed away, but he is taken care of and cured. He has an affair with Miss Burns, who even promised Dr. Friedrich Kammacher to be a good mother for his children, and they both return to Denmark in order to reunite with Kammacher’s family and start a new life.
Although many people consider the shipwreck scenes the highlight of the film, this is not really fair. Atlantis has some of most beautiful imagery shown in a silent film, the elegant wardrobe of the cast is also a noteworthy aspect, together with the scenery.  The landscape scenes are breathtaking and the using of coloring was brief, but very proper. It is also interesting to see the mix of modernity in the approached subjects (science, medicine, arts) and an acting that would soon become old fashioned. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Wedding March (USA, 1928)

Eric von Stroheim does earn his reputation as a director. Despite the lavish production of his films, the narrative is quite often fluid and smooth, without tiring the audiences. Even the background music gives an impression to the audiences that they are indulging in a ballet dancing, where the characters are always portrayed with all their human faults, but with a pinch of sarcasm and humor too.
At the same time, he deals with love in a romantic way, but not forgetting about realism. Another noteworthy point of Stroheim’s films is that they always look modern, no matter if the setting is in a distant era. This is probably because the audiences can still relate to the feelings portrayed on screen and also due to beautiful wardrobe and scenery, that are still a feast for the eyes and stood up the test of time very well.
As an Austrian, Stroheim wanted to show the end of nobility days and of gentleman values in Vienna, all of those things coming to a brutal end with the beginning of WW1.
The setting of this film is Vienna, 1914 in the eve of WW1. Stroheim also takes part in this film as an actor, where he plays the role of Nikki, a noble man in financial crisis due to his spendthrift and the solution for him to recover financial power is marrying a rich woman for her money. He is willing to do so, but things change a little after the Corpus Christi procession, an important religious and military celebration. The nobleman meets a girl (Mitzi) in the middle of the crowd and it was love at first sight, even though the woman had a quite obnoxious fiancé, a butcher called Schani.
Unfortunately, there is an accident with Mitzi and the nobleman visits her at the hospital.  Later, they meet again in the restaurant where she works as a harpist. Love flourishes, but Schani is threatening towards Nikki all along, which scares Mitzi and, in exchange for Nikki’s safety, she ends up leaving him and the two lovers move on to their previous love commitments, Nikki marries a rich woman and Mitzi and Schani remain committed.
After the two lovers having enjoyed bliss and fulfillment through true love, their happiness is disrupted by social obligations, a situation quite similar to the disruption of happiness in dear old Austria before the horrors of WW1 reached the country. An entire lifestyle was lost forever, but the memory of the happy days would remain forever in the hearts of those who lived it.