Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Clash of the Titans

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As June draws to a close, it’s time for my last piece on the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. The last film I’ve chosen was remade in 2010, but pales to the original. While the update has more modern effects and some good actors, it doesn’t have the charm or imagination of the 1981 version.

Like Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans deal with Greek gods and mythical beasts. This time instead of Jason and Hercules going on a quest, we get Perseus.

Perseus (Harry Hamlin), the son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), solves a difficult riddle. In doing so, he  wins the hand of the Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) in marriage. Trouble arises when Calibos (Neil McCarthy), the princess’s former love, and his mother, the Goddess Thetis  (Maggie Smith) enter the picture. In order for the dreaded Kraken not be released, Andromeda has to be sacrificed and Perseus searches for the Medusa. Only Medusa’s head can stop the Kraken.–IMDB

Yes, Clash of the Titans is the film that brought us the great line, “release the Kraken!” Now, let’s talk about Ray Harryhausen’s effects in this film. It was the last film he worked on and the first where he had assistants. Despite this film being the end of his career,Harryhausen still managed to deliver the goods. The design of the Kraken sea monster is particularly impressive. While the design doesn’t have the fluid motion of, say, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Kraken feels very real in the flesh tones and the stop motion is pretty convincing.

My favorite Harryhausen creation in Clash of the Titans though is the design of Medussa. The snake hair, the glowing green eyes, the reptilian body…it’s quite striking visually. The image of her *spoiler alert!* severed head, is one you will not soon forget. It’s really amazing how Ray Harryhausen brought Medusa to life exactly the way I pictured her from my studies of Greek mythology.

The last special effect I want to mention are the giant scorpions. The blood that drips from Medusa’s head creates the scorpions, because of course. Now, these are some pretty convincing giant scorpions, They make the ones in The Black Scorpion from 1957 look quite benign. A can of raid will not save you from these arachnids. The scorpions in Clash of the Titans have a design and movement to them that reminded me of some of the creature design in The Lost World from 1925. The battle that Perseus has with them is quite thrilling. Granted, it’s not the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, but that’s setting the bar pretty high.

Clash of the Titans was a good film for Ray Harryhausen to go out on. His unique visual touch is still there. There are also some top-notch actors, including Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier. As far as popcorn movies go, it’s a pretty good one.

That’s it for Ray Harryhausen month. I hope you enjoyed the look back at the career of the special effects pioneer. Before there was ILM, there was Ray Harryhausen.

Summer Movie Blogathon: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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I interrupt my usual blog entries to bring you my entry for the Blog of Darned Summer Movie Blogathon. I chose to write about a film in the category of summer blockbusters. And the film I have chosen is (drum roll please…) Raiders of the Lost Ark! A throwback to Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, it’s simply one of the most fun films ever made. But it’s more than just a fun action picture.

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One of the things that sets Raiders of the Lost Ark apart from the mindless, CGI-filled monstrosities you see in theaters these days is its craftsmanship. This was a movie made by people who loved movies. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, already a household name for directing Jaws (the original summer blockbuster) and produced by George Lucas who took us a rollicking adventure through space in Star Wars. Both men knew how to direct thrilling and smart action pictures. Their combined creative forces made for one of the most exciting films to come out of the 80s.

The story, for those who have inexplicably not seen it, follows the adventures of archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he has adventures (and in some cases misadventures) pursuing archaeological artifacts. The film opens in a South American jungle in the 30s. Indiana Jones is after a golden idol hidden in a temple. To retrieve it he must outwit dangerous pursuers and deadly booby traps. It is in this opening sequence where my fascination with movies began. After Indy retrieves the idol, the temple starts to collapse on itself and even more booby traps are unleashed. One of them is a giant boulder. When I saw Raiders for the first time, that scene blew my mind. I wore out countless copies of the film on VHS (sorry mom and dad!) trying to see the trickery of how the filmmakers did it. But the scene in the idol’s temple was just a warmup for a film that was gone to have wall to wall amazing stunts, witty writing, and introduce us to one of the great movie heroes.

Indiana Jones is eventually tasked by the government to go after the Ark of the Covenant. They want Indy to get it before the Nazis do. Part of the reason he’s asked is that he studied under Professor Ravenwood at the University of Chicago. Ravenwood acquired a headpiece to the Staff of Ra. It’s a medallion that, put on a staff of the proper height, will reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. To get it, Indiana Jones has to go back to an old flame. That would be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

The two of them parted ways on less than amicable terms. But they are brought back together to get the Ark. After Nazis try to get the medallion from Marion and her bar in Nepal is destroyed. From there, Marion accompanies Indy to Cairo. There Indiana Jones finds the location of the Ark after setting the Staff of Ra in the right place at the right time in the map room. This leads the archaeologist to the Well of the Souls. You probably remember that scene as the one where Indiana Jones famously says, “snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant. But getting it back to the United States isn’t so easy. He’s thwarted by his adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman), an archaeologist who has been hired by the Nazis. Belloq seals Indiana Jones and Marion in the Well of the Souls. Eventually they escape and go to get the Ark back from Belloq and the Nazis. Along the way Indy has to fight a Nazi pilot, get involved in an epic truck chase, ride a Nazi submarine, and then on an island the Ark is opened at…well, I don’t want to give away the great surprise in that scene.

Okay, so that’s the story. But what is it that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark such a great popcorn movie? The action and stunt work is top-notch. There’s the iconic boulder scene in the opening act. But there’s also the shootout in the bar when Indy saves Marion from the Nazis. Then Indy and Marion are chased again through an Egyptian open market. It is here where another iconic Indiana Jones scene takes place. Jones runs into a gifted swordsman. There was originally supposed to be an epic sword fight between Indy and the swordsman. But sadly, Harrison Ford became ill the day it was supposed to be filmed.

The famous scene in which Indy shoots a marauding and flamboyant swordsman was not in the original script. Harrison Ford was supposed to use his whip to get the sword out of his attacker’s hands, but the food poisoning he and the rest of the crew had gotten made him too sick to perform the stunt. After several unsuccessful tries, Ford suggested “shooting the sucker.” Steven Spielberg immediately took up the idea and the scene was successfully filmed.–IMDB

The look on Harrison Ford’s face as he takes the swordsman out is absolutely priceless.

And then there’s that great truck chase. Just when you think the movie can’t be anymore exciting, it does. The elaborate sequence took eight weeks to film. And it contained an homage to a classic western. As Internet Movie Database notes:

When Indy is dragged under and then out behind a moving truck, it’s a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s similar famous stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). In fact, it was a stunt that stuntman Terry Leonard had tried to pull off the year before, and failed to do so, on The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981). He was thrilled at the chance of having another shot at it, but only agreed to do it if his friend & colleague Glenn Randall Jr. was driving.–IMDB

Don’t you love it when one classic pays tribute to another?

But, as I said earlier, Raiders is great not just because of its thrilling action. It works because of the chemistry of its lead actors. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen play perfectly off one another. Ford is an absolutely believable action hero and Allen is wonderfully spunky. Marion is the one of the few women ballsy enough to go toe to toe with Indiana Jones. Not many people would go right up to Indy and punch him in the face. And the supporting cast is equally wonderful. There’s Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody, Indy’s boss. You may remember him from A Room With A View. Also along on the quest for the Ark is digger Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). He has one of my favorite lines. At the Well of the Souls, upon seeing the snakes he says, “asps. Very dangerous. You go first.” Finally, there’s Paul Freeman’s Belloq. A hero is only as good as his villain. And as far as villain’s go, Belloq is a pretty good one. He’s what Indy would be like had he gone over to the dark side. That makes them great rivals.

In addition to the talented cast, Raiders is a blast because it has some wonderful writing. The story was written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and the screenplay was written by Lawrence Kasdan. Among Kasdan’s credits? The Empire Strikes Back. No wonder the dialogue in Raiders was so fun to listen to.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is well-crafted. A lot of the credit for that goes to two people: director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. There are some absolutely beautiful shots in this film. The closeup of Indiana Jones’ face covered in shadow as he leaves Marion’s bar, a wide shot of Indy’s silhouette against the desert landscape during sunset as Indy and his crew are digging for the Ark…the list goes on, While many action pictures get lost in special effects and technology, Raiders excels as a rollicking old-fashioned action picture in the proud tradition of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The film was designed to be an homage to Saturday matinée serials. And it succeeds magnificently on that level. This is a great edge of your seat action film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also benefited from the contribution of composer John Williams. He not only created one of the great heroes themes, he also gave us some great  action music. Pay close attention to the way he uses the brass section to created 40s-style chords to signal the arrival of the Nazis. There’s also the great mystical music that’s the theme of the Ark, used to great effect in the Map Room scene and the scene where the Ark is opened at the end. Then there’s the smoldering love theme for Indy and Marion, as well as all the great action music. My favorite of the action tracks is the music during the truck chase scene.

Raiders has an energy level that you rarely see in any action film. The filmmakers had fun making it and it comes through on the screen. It’s no surprise that over 30 years since its release that it’s as popular as ever. Indiana Jones is on practically every list of great movie heroes. And while the sequels were fun in their own right, the original is still the gold standard. The ads were right. Adventure does have a name. It’s Indiana Jones.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

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Greetings, readers! This week I continue my look at special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. For week three I’ll be writing about The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It’s another rollicking adventure movie enhanced by Harryhausen’s special effects wizardry.

To cut straight to the chase, here’s a rundown of the plot. It involves magic, a map. and mystical creatures. It’s the stuff that Saturday matinée serials are made of.

Sinbad (John Phillip Law) and his crew intercept a homunculus carrying a golden tablet. Koura (Tom Baker), the creator of the homunculus and practitioner of evil magic, wants the tablet back and pursues Sinbad. Meanwhile Sinbad meets the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) who has another part of the interlocking golden map, and they mount a quest across the seas to solve the riddle of the map, accompanied by a slave girl (Caroline Munro) with a mysterious tattoo of an eye on her palm. They encounter strange beasts, tempests, and the dark interference of Koura along the way.–IMDB

There are some great Harryhausen effects as always. There’s a sequence of a griffin fighting a one-eyed centaur. Although that sequence was originally supposed to look very different. As Internet Movie Database notes,

The Griffin, which fights the One-Eyed Centaur, was originally going to be a Neanderthal man, according to Ray Harryhausen’s early concept art for the project (illustrated in charcoal pencil). The “Neanderthal man” concept would later be realized into the Troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).–IMDB

So at least Harryhausen got to film what he originally wanted in another Sinbad movie.

My favorite Harryhausen sequence in the movie is the fight between Sinbad, his men, and the six-armed goddess Kali. Kali has a sword in each arm. That’s not something you see every day.

Eat your heart out Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn! It’s one of the great sword fight scenes in classic cinema. And this sequence was an homage to a film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to work in movies.

Harryhausen paid tribute to one of his inspirations, The Thief of Bagdad (1940), with this film. Both had the same composer, and Kali’s dance copies many moves of the six-armed robot in the 1940 film. The Hindu-style temple in the 1940 film is echoed in the Hindu-style carvings of Lemuria, and the look of the Lemurians is based on the 1940 film as well; there are other echoes and influences to be seen by those familiar with both films.–IMDB

It’s great when artists pay tribute to their own inspirations.

It should also be noted that there was a special effects sequence that was supposed to feature snakes. But it was cut.

A “Valley of the Vipers” sequence was devised by Ray Harryhausen. This would have featured both real snakes and giant animated snakes. However, this sequence was unused, as producer Charles H. Schneer was afraid of snakes (and argued that the scene would upset pregnant women).–IMDB
To quote Indiana Jones, “snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Although I’m terrified of snakes too, I would love to have seen what Harryhausen did with that concept.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is not my favorite Harryhausen film. That would be Jason and the Argonauts. But it does tell a fun story and have some great action sequences. My favorite is the duel with Kali. Ray Harryhausen worked on two other Sinbad movies: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Both are work a look. One final note, the score for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was done by Miklos Rozsa. It’s one of the most overlooked scores of his impressive career.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

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It’s week two of my spotlight on special effects legend Ray Harryhausen. Last week I discussed his work on Jason and the Argonauts, including the iconic skeleton fight sequence. This week we go from Greek gods and monsters to aliens. Yes, this week I’m spotlighting Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). The 1950s brought us many great science fiction b-movies. This was one of them.

Alien invasion movies generally involve aliens who want to make friends with us (E.T.) or aliens that want to wipe out the human race (War of the Worlds). Earth vs. the Flying Saucers falls into the latter category. Rockets sent up to explore the possibility of future space flights suddenly disappear. The answer? Aliens.

Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) heads up Operation Skyhook, which is tasked with sending rockets into the upper atmosphere to probe suitability for future space flights. Unfortunately, all the rockets somehow disappear. While investigating this strange occurrence, Russell and his new wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are abducted by a flying saucer. The aliens demand to meet with certain people in order to negotiate. It turns out to be a ruse. The Martians only want to kill them. The invasion has begun and if Russell and Carol can’t find a way to stop these creatures by getting past their defenses, it may be the end of the human race.–IMDB

The aliens don’t really want us to take them to our leader. They just want to kill us all. The cultural exchange program of Close Encounters this is not. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the special effects for 1956 are pretty good. While Ray Harryhausen considered it his least favorite film, his work here is definitely worthy of study.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is notable for being the last film to use one style of animation. As Internet Movie Database notes:

This was the last movie in which Ray Harryhausen used stop-motion to create collapsing buildings. He said it was too much work.–IMDB

That’s kind of a shame because Harryhausen was so good at it. But thankfully he was so inventive that he kept leaving his mark on modern movies. Anyone that’s seen Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks! and goes back to watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers will see similarities, especially in the way the look of the UFOs and the general plot. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, while a b-movie, influenced a whole generation of science fiction films.

While the plot of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is formulaic, the special effects work is not. First, there’s the design of the aliens. Most science fiction films today show aliens as looking very human. In this film, they have metal suits and weird helmets. When the helmets come off, their faces have this creepy mangled, melted look. The creatures look nothing like us and they do not come in peace. The design adds to the paranoid feel of the film.

The other noteworthy effects are the UFOs, especially at the end when they crash into government buildings in Washington, D.C. at the end. While the scenes may look a little cheesy to us today in the age of ILM, they were impressive for the time. There’s an impressive sequence of a flying saucer attacking a jet. I learned from Internet Movie Database that it was based on footage of an airshow crash.

But, as I mentioned, the real stars of this film are the scenes at the end of the attack on Washington, D.C. The UFO’s go after the U.S. Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument…basically every essential D.C. landmark. The model work is more detailed than you might expect for 1956. The buildings are obviously models, but when they get struck by the flying saucers, there’s a realism that you don’t expect in special effects of that time. That’s why Ray Harryhausen continues to be so highly regarded. His effects could overcome even the most predictable plot lines. Watching his imagination at work is something to behold.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers isn’t the best film Ray Harryhausen worked on. But it’s a fun b-movie, and he’s a major reason why. The creepy look of the aliens and his stop motion UFO attack sequences make it a good popcorn movie. Other films have had bigger budgets and more advanced effects, but not nearly as much imagination.

Ray Harryhausen Spotlight: Jason and the Argonauts

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Another means another spotlight on this film. For the month of June I will be highlighting the work of Ray Harryhausen. Today we take for granted that you can just make special effects happen with computers. Now, that isn’t to say special effects artists today don’t work hard and doing it with computers doesn’t require a lot of skill in its own way. But before there was Industrial Light & Magic, there was Ray Harryhausen. He was basically a one man band who relied largely on imagination to make film special effects. And, as you’ll see this month, he created some pretty impressive effects without the aid of modern technology.

The first Harryhausen film I will be discussing is Jason and the Argonauts. It’s a thrilling adventure film from 1963 puts the classic Greek poem Jason and the Golden Fleece on the big screen. For those that haven’t read the poem or maybe haven’t seen the film in a while, here’s a brief overview:

Jason (Todd Armstrong) has been prophesied to take the throne of Thessaly. When he saves Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) from drowning, but does not recognize him as the man who had earlier killed his father, Pelias tells Jason to travel to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece. Jason follows his advice and assembles a sailing crew of the finest men in Greece, including Hercules (Nigel Green). They are under the protection of Hera (Honor Blackman), queen of the gods. Along the way they battle harpies, a giant bronze Talos, a hydra, and an animated skeleton army.–IMDB

Jason and the Argonauts is an old-fashioned red-blooded adventure movie. It’s one of the most fun film viewing experiences I’ve ever had. The film is skillfully directed by Don Chaffey and features a wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann. Now, let’s talk about Ray Harryhausen’s great effects work on this film.

Ray Harryhausen considered Jason and the Argonauts his best film. It’s not hard to see why. The film contains my favorite Harryhausen effects sequence: the skeleton army fight. It’s towards the ends of the film, but is more than worth the wait. And here’s a bit of mind-blowing trivia about that scene.

It took Ray Harryhausen four months to produce the skeleton scene, a massive amount of time for a scene which lasts, at the most, three minutes.–IMDB

In the dark ages before computers, special effects was very long and tedious work. But Harryhausen’s four months of worked paid off magnificently. It’s one of the most thrilling scenes in classic film history. Ray Harryhausen filmed the sequence, as he did all of sequences, in stop motion. Stop motion is a filming technique in which successive positions of objects (such as clay models) are photographed to produce the appearance of movement. So for a three-minute fight scene, imagine how many different positions the skeletons models had to be filmed in to get the movement to look exactly the way the filmmakers wanted? And I want to throw in this but of trivia because it’s a nice touch that Ray Harryhausen added.

The skeletons’ shields are adorned with designs of other Ray Harryhausen creatures, including an octopus and the head of the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).–IMDB

It’s a great nod to other films he worked on. For a film made in 1963, the stop motion looks seamless. The skeletons look like they’re genuinely fighting Jason and his crew. The scene must be seen to be fully appreciated.

But the skeleton fight isn’t the only reason to see Jason and the Argonauts. Another great Harryhausen effects sequence involves Talos, a giant statue coming to life. Imagine the biggest bronze statue in a museum coming to life and wreaking havoc, and you get an idea of what to expect from the scene.

Pretty neat, huh? Jason and his ragtag crew also battle a hydra (a multi-headed snake) and harpies (flying creatures that look part human and part bat). All of them look incredible and make this a truly thrilling adventure film.

Ray Harryhausen could make Greek mythology come to life just as well as aliens (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), atomic age monsters (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), and prehistoric creatures (One Million Years B.C.). His imagination was a gift to classic film and paved the way for ILM and great special effects artists of the modern era, like Stan Winston. I look forward to sharing his work with you this month.

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!

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.