Silent Essentials: The Man Who Laughs

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This is the last week of my spotlight on silent film essentials. I know, I’m sad too. But silent cinema will continue to be discussed here in one way or another. And the last film I’m writing about for this spotlight is one of the best. It’s The Man Who Laughs from 1928. Based on a novel by Victor Hugo and starring Conrad Veidt (the man who would later go on to be known for playing Maj. Strasser in Casablanca), it’s one of the best films of the silent era. Its main character also went on to inspire a comic book villain. More on that later. Let’s cut right to the chase and get you up to speed on the plot.

In England in 1690, the nobleman Lord Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt) returns from his exile to see his young son. The peer is captured by the cruel King James II (Sam De Grasse) and before being killed, he is informed that his beloved son had been sold to the gypsies Comanchicos that carved a permanent grin on his face. The Cormanchicos abandon the boy in the cold snowing winter, and while looking for shelter, he finds a baby hold in the arms of her dead mother. He brings the baby with him and they are welcomed by the philosopher Ursus (Cesare Gravina),who finds that the baby is blind and raises them. Years later, Gwynplaine becomes a successful clown, and together with the blind Dea (Mary Philbin), they present plays for common people. Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) and Dea are in love for each other, but he refuses to marry her because of his ridiculous appearance. When the evil jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) discloses the origin of Gwynplaine, he plots a means to be rewarded by the Queen (Josephine Crowell), jeopardizing the love of Gwynplaine and Dea. –IMDB

People familiar with Victor Hugo may notice the recurring theme of a character who is an outsider because of his physical ugliness. That was at the heart of his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also like Hunchback, The Man Who Laughs is about a character who survives with the help of strangers taking them in after being abandoned. So that’s the story. Now let’s talk about why this is a silent essential.

The Man Who Laughs is an essential because it’s one of the great examples of German expressionist film making. The film’s star, Conrad Veidt, was no stranger to German expressionism. He also starred in the silent expressionist horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Expressionism is a visual style that will be familiar to students of film noir: Dutch angle shots, venetian blind lighting, low ceilings, great visual use of shadows, etc. Noir came about in part because of film artists fleeing Nazi Germany and bring the style with them. That look works for something like The Man Who Laughs. On the surface is a period melodrama. But as it progresses it takes on the tone of a horror film. But I don’t want to turn this into a film noir history lesson. For that, see me after class.

This film is also a silent essential because of its star. Conrad Veidt appeared in over 100 films. But we lost him far too soon. As Roger Ebert notes in his Great Movies essay:

Veidt’s performance is far more than a stunt. Best known to modern audiences for his performance as the erect, unsmiling Maj. Strasser in “Casablanca,” he appeared in more than 100 films, including the German silent landmark “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He was one of a group of German refugees who might have made a great impact on Hollywood, had they lived. He was dead of a heart attack at 50, a year after “Casablanca.” Leni died at 44, a year after the release of “The Man Who Laughs,” and F.W. Murnau, director of “Nosferatu” and “Sunrise,” was dead in 1931, at 43.

Veidt wore a makeup device that distended his mouth while supplying grotesque teeth. It was horribly uncomfortable, making it even harder for him to project emotions only with his eyes. And yet there are scenes where we sense love, fear, pity and lust.

Like Lon Chaney’s performance in The Phantom of the Opera a few years earlier, Veidt’s performance was for more than an excuse to show off the work of the makeup department. His facial expressions tell a whole story on their own. This is what actors had to do in the days before sound and snappy dialogue. When you see The Man Who Laughs and then watch Casablanca, you realize what a loss it was that Conrad Veidt died so young. He was one of the most versatile actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

And now, let me tell you about that comic book connection I mentioned earlier. Conrad Veidt’s terrifying look inspired a Batman villain.

Gwynplaine’s fixed grin and disturbing clown-like appearance was a key inspiration for comic book talents writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson in creating Batman’s greatest enemy, The Joker.–IMDB

Yes, a silent film from the 20s inspired arguable Batman’s greatest nemesis. The silent era’s influence goes well beyond movies. So there’s a fun piece of trivia to impress your friends with next trivia night.

The Man Who Laughs works as period melodrama, horror, and is one of the finest examples of the German expressionist visual style. It’s also a great showcase for the talent of Conrad Veidt, who many people know today only as the head Nazi in Casablanca (a part which he played with equal skill). It’s another silent essential I hope you’ll take the time to see.

That’s it for my spotlight on silent essentials. See you in June!

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Silent Essentials: The Phantom of the Opera

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It’s week three of my spotlight on essential silent films. I’ve talked about the science fiction classic Metropolis, the comedy classic The General, and this week I’m bringing you my take on a silent horror classic. My pick this week is The Phantom of the Opera. Now, this is the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, not the musical version or one of the other countless remakes of the classic tale. While I did greatly enjoy the musical version when I saw it in New York City a few years ago, the silent version remains the gold standard.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux. It’s about a disfigured genius, forbidden romance, and haunted opera house.

The phantom of the title is a disfigured former composer who haunts the Paris Opera House. Several people have seen him. Sitting atop the opera house stage he sees and falls in love with the young understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who is standing in for the company’s principal, Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). The masked phantom lures Christine into the subterranean world below Paris where he lives and professes his love. When she unmasks him, she is horrified by his grotesque appearance and begs for him to let her go. The phantom agrees. But there’s a catch. She must stay away from her lover, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Terrified, Christine turns to Raoul for protection. The outraged phantom, whom the police have determined is an insane criminal and an escapee from Devil’s Island, kidnaps Christine off the stage during a performance of Faust. Assisted by Ledoux of the secret police (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Raoul proceeds to enter the phantom’s underground lair to rescue her.–IMDB

The Phantom of the Opera is a great gothic love story. It’s no surprise that it has endured since it was first published in 1909. It’s part horror, mystery, and romance. All of those elements work well together in the book and in the classic film version from 1925.

There are many reasons I consider this silent film an essential. First there’s the magnificent performance of Lon Chaney as the phantom. Dubbed the man of 1,000 faces, Chaney was the original film chameleon. He was able to play anything he was asked to. In The Phantom of the Opera he delivers one of the greatest performances of the silent film era. He makes us scared of the masked phantom but also feel empathy for his predicament. The phantom is one of the classic horror film outsiders, along with the monster in Frankenstein. Chaney’s performance works not just because of his terrifying makeup, but because of Chaney’s ability to tell a whole story with his body language. Nowhere is that more evident than in the classic unmasking scene. His face equally coneys pain and his disfigurement being revealed and anger at the situation. Not many actors can do that all at once. Chaney was a genius. And here’s a fun little tidbit about him showing off his phantom makeup for the first time

According to Charles Van Enger, the film’s cameraman, he himself had a very strong reaction as Lon Chaney’s unsuspecting “guinea pig”. Chaney had summoned Van Enger to his dressing room, but without telling him why. When he got there and was standing about a foot behind the actor, Chaney suddenly spun around in full Phantom makeup! “I almost wet my pants. I fell back over a stool and landed flat on my back!” Chaney laughed so hard and Van Enger, who by then was “mad as hell” yelled, “Are you NUTS?” Unable to clearly talk with his fake teeth in, he spit them out: “Never mind Charlie, you already told me what I wanted to know.”–IMDB

Another reason The Phantom of the Opera is an essential is the incredible production design. As a viewer we really feel like we are in a haunted opera house. Credit Ben Carre for the production design and art directors Charles D. Hall and Elmer Sheeley. This is one of the most moody and atmospheric films ever made. Fun fact: par of the opera house still stands to this day.

Inside Sound Stage 28, part of the opera house still stands to the side where it was filmed some eight decades ago, making it the oldest standing interior film set in the world. Though it remains impressive, time has taken its toll and it is very rarely used. Urban legends claim the set remains because when workers have attempted to take it down in the past there have been fatal accidents, said to be caused by the ghost of Lon Chaney.–IMDB
 Talk about life imitating art!
I also want to mention Mary Philbin’s performance as a reason to see it. While Lon Chaney gets most of the film’s praise, Philbin deserves credit too. She’s very convincing as the doomed leading lady. Like Chaney, she tells the whole store with her physicality. Her terror in the unmasking scene is one of the things that completely sells the movie. Her contribution to the film cannot be overstated.
The Phantom of the Opera has been told in countless movie and stage version through the years. But, for my money, the best version of the classic tale is the silent film version from 1925. I hope you’ll take the time to check it out. It’s a great way to start your love of silent cinema.

Silent Essentials: The General

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This week my month-long look at essential silent films continues. This time around I’m spotlighting a film by the legendary Buster Keaton. My pick is his 1926 comedy masterpiece The General. It contains some truly spectacular stunts, includes the most expensive shot of the silent movie era. It was a critical and commercial failure on its initial release. But over the years it has become rightfully regarded as a classic.

The General is set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Keaton’s character (Johnnie Gray) wants to enlist in the army. But the Confederacy thinks he’s more valuable as a train engineer. This not only frustrates Johnnie, but it puts a wedge between him and his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack). She thinks he’s a coward. Things get even worse for Johnnie. The General, his beloved engine, is stolen by Union spies and heads for Union lines. Making things worse is the fact that Annabelle is on board. Johnnie then sets out two save his two loves.

It’s worth noting that The General was based on true events. Here’s a little background:

Based on a true incident during the Civil War. In April 1862 Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army’s supply chain. At the town of Big Shanty, GA, (now known as Kennesaw, Georgia) the raiders stole a locomotive known as “The General.” They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of “The General,” pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called “The Yonah,” which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called “The Texas,” which pursued “The General” for 51 miles–in reverse. During the chase Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders. Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold all eight men). The rest of the raiders were traded in a prisoner exchange. In 1863 the survivors of the mission were awarded the first Medals of Honor (Andrews and the raiders who had been hanged later received the medal posthumously). Although this film is a comedy, the incident was later filmed by Walt Disney as a drama, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), with Fess Parker–a Southerner, born in Texas–as Andrews.–IMDB

One reason this is a silent essential is because of the groundbreaking stunts. Keaton, like his silent era counterpart Harold Lloyd, was known for doing daring stunts. There’s a scene where Keaton rides on the front of the train (pictured at the top of this post). There’s a *spoiler alert!* legendary train crash at the end. According to Internet Movie Database, a crash dummy was used as the engineer in that scene. But it looked so realistic that the townspeople who had come to watch screamed in terror. Here’s another fun tidbit about the film from Internet Movie Database:

When the Texas goes over the burning bridge and plummets into the river, the looks of shock on the faces of the Union officers were real, because the actors who played them were not told what was going to happen to that train.–IMDB

We take crashes and explosions for granted now because we live in the era of CGI and Industrial Light and Magic. But before you could pull up special effects on a computer, you had to do it yourself and hope you didn’t get hurt. Keaton was a mad genius who put everything into his films and often put his life on the line to achieve a visual gag. The General is a great example. It’s no surprise that it was Keaton’s favorite film of his own.

If you’re looking for an introduction to the genius of Buster Keaton, The General is a great place to start. It has great comic bits in addition to the jaw-dropping silent era action. It’s one of my favorite silent films. I could watch it again and again. I hope you’ll take time to give it a look or introduce a friend to it.

Silent Essentials: Metropolis

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Every month on this blog I try to spotlight something different about classic/essential films. This month I will be highlighting essential silent films. If I had a dime for every person I’ve met who has never seen a silent film, I could have retired ten years ago. It’s really sad how many people won’t even give a film a chance because it’s in black and white or requires them to do some reading while they watch it because of title cards or subtitles. So this month I’m giving people a starting point to explore the stunning world of silent cinema. The first film I’ll be writing about is the first silent film I ever saw: Metropolis. Released in 1927 and directed by Fritz Lang, it’s a silent film that paved the way for films such as Blade Runner and Dark City.

The plot of Metropolis is pretty straight forward.

In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.–IMDB

Lang uses this simply plot as a vehicle to discuss things such as workers rights and class structure. If the plot sounds familiar, a Star Trek episode called The Cloud Minders had similar themes. But that’s not surprising. Many science fiction films drew inspiration from Lang’s landmark film. But I digress. In Metropolis, the working class prophet is named Maria. She is part of an underground work of workers who run the machinery that keeps the city of Metropolis going. Maria wants to bring the people in power in the upper world together with the workers. Well, as you can imagine, the powers that be are not to keen on the idea of a worker revolt. So they create a robot version of Maria to espouse their propaganda in order to maintain the status quo. I leave the plot twists for you to discover. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for first time viewers.

Now, let’s talk about the look of Metropolis. For a film made in 1927 the production design and artwork are absolutely stunning! It’s one of many reasons the film is an enduring classic so many decades later. Whether it’s the look of the factory, the underground world of the workers, or the skyscrapers in the city, this is one of the most incredible films just to look at. Here’s a little background on how they got some of those impressive shots of the futuristic city.

The establishing shots of the city – with cars, planes and elevated trains moving about – were shot using stop-motion photography. The cars were modeled on the newest taxicabs driving the streets of Berlin. It took months to build the city model and several days to film the few short sequences. Then the lab ruined the first shots. The backgrounds in the shot had been dimly lit to create a greater sense of depth, but the head of the lab, who developed the film himself, decided that was a mistake and lightened the backgrounds, thereby destroying the sense of forced perspective.–IMDB

Aside from the story and the striking look of the film, the print of the film has a complicated history.

For decades, all that survived of “Metropolis” were an incomplete original negative and copies of shortened, re-edited release prints; over a quarter of the film was believed lost. However, in July 2008 Germany’s ‘ZEITmagazin’ reported the discovery at the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken by film historian and collector Fernando Martín Peña of a 16mm dupe negative copy of the original full-length 35mm export print, which had been sent to Argentina in 1928. Examining the reels in Buenos Aires, cinema experts realised that they contained almost all of the missing sequences (around 25 minutes-worth of footage, predominantly those involving the Thin Man who spies on Freder, and worker 11811 heading to and from Yoshiwara). Additionally, in October 2008 it was announced that another (hopefully) early copy in the obsolete 9.5mm format had been held in the University of Chile’s film library, intentionally mislabelled to avoid destruction during 1973’s military coup. It is as yet unknown if this holds any further viewable footage. After almost 80 years, the film is now practically complete, barring sections such as Joh Fredersen’s fight with Rotwang.–IMDB

I was fortunate to see the restored version of Metropolis at Ebert Fest in 2011, complete with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. It was the opening film of the festival. If you get a chance to see it on a big screen, do it! Side note: in 1984 there was an attempt to restore the film by Giorgio Moroder. The visuals were tinted, special effects added, and there was a new soundtrack featuring Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar, among others. It’s an interesting experiment worth seeing once. I saw it one time just to experience the pure oddity of it. Not sure I would ever seek it out again.

So many films owe a debt to Metropolis. The looks of Blade Runner and Dark City clearly drew some inspiration from it. The robot version of Maria inspired the look of C-3PO in Star Wars. The list goes on. Fritz Lang has one of the most impressive bodies of work of any director. Whether he’s directing science fiction (Metropolis), film noir (Scarlet Street), or crime films (Dr. Mabuse trilogy), he always makes films worth watching. Metropolis is one of his many cinematic masterpieces. It’s a great starting point to get you into silent cinema.