Orphans of the Storm (1921)- D.W. Griffith

 ★★★★★

 

Everything has a beginning, and film is no different. Yes, it is true that film was “invented” by many, over a course of a few years, but the invention of filmmaking (at least in the sense of the word today) can be attributed to D.W. Orphans of the Storm (1921)Griffith and his innovative, pioneering ways. Any opportunity to see one of Griffith’s 500 plus full length or short films is probably time well spent, but there are five films; five masterful works of art that should be sought out and seen, quite simply because they are (possibly) five of the best 10 or 15  films of the silent era. These films are “Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (1916), “Broken Blossoms” (1919), “Way Down East” (1921), and his final masterpiece, “Orphans of the Storm” (1921).

Based on the 1874 French play “Les Deux Orphalines” by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugene Cormon, “Orphans of the Storm” is a melodrama surrounding two adopted sisters, just before and during the French Revolution. In the opening minutes we see a duchess who is forced to give up her baby daughter (Louise), and the child is left in the snow-covered steps of Notre Dame with a handful of money and a note begging for someone to take care of her. Orphans of the Storm (1921)Moments later, a man without enough money to feed himself or his wife, brings his own infant daughter (Henriette) to the same steps, in hopes of finding someone else to feed and care for her. At the sight of Louise, the man is overcome by the severity of his actions and he takes both children home with him.

Jumping forward, Louise (Dorothy Gish) and Henriette (Lillian Gish) have grown up to be loving sisters, who want nothing more than to be together. Both parents are dead, and Louise has been left blind by an illness. Together they travel to Paris to see if they can have her eyesight restored, but as soon as they arrive, Henriette is kidnapped by a lustful aristocrat, leaving Louise to wander the streets aimlessly.

The remainder of this epic is split into two stories of the sisters trying to find each other, once again all in the midst of the impending French Revolution. Orphans of the Storm (1921)Henriette gets involved romantically with a good-natured aristocrat (Joseph Schildkraut), and Louise finds herself imprisoned by a street beggar (the great, frightening, and sadly forgotten Lucille La Verne), who uses her blindness as a way to gain sympathy from rich aristocrats passing by.

There are times during the first half of this epic that things seem to be moving slowly. That’s a mistake, however, it just seems that way. It’s all setting the stage for the second half that almost has too much drama to be contained on the screen. Griffith’s great films are so elaborate- so large that one can’t help but be wowed by how much he was able to do. He knew how he wanted everything to look, and impossible was not a word in his vision. Orphans of the Storm (1921)“Orphans of the Storm”, although not as large as “Intolerance”, is an enormous undertaking, with extensive sets and costumes at every turn.

Both Dorothy and Lillian Gish give amazingly poetic and intense performances. There is enough drama and pain in their eyes to fill two movies. They pour everything into their characters, making acting the highlight in a picture full of highlights. Any time you see either Lillian or Dorothy in a Griffith film, you can be sure to be effected in a way you won’t soon forget. There is a reason that their performances are still applauded almost one hundred years later, and if you don’t understand the reason, just give “Orphans of the Storm” a chance to prove it to you.

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Master of the House (1925)-Carl Theodor Dreyer

★★★★

 

“Master of the House” (1925), also known as “Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife” or “Du skal aere din husru,” is a silent, satirical family comedy written and directed by the great Carl Theodor Dreyer. Master of the House (1925)It is a unique film partially because it is unlike the films for which Dreyer is famous for creating, but also because the story is so ahead of its time as it illustrates the difficulties of running a household and raising a family, significantly before the roles of women in the home were an issue, especially in films.

The plot follows the Frandsen family, mostly centered around the selfish, ruthless, disagreeable father, Viktor (Johannes Meyer). He is never satisfied with the way his house is run and the way his children behave. His hard-working wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), does everything she can (and in some cases more than she should) to try to keep Viktor happy… to no avail. He berates and chastises her at every turn, and he treats his three children as if they are more like servants then members of his family.Master of the House (1925) Everyone tip-toes around him, except of course, for his childhood nursemaid, Nana (Mathilde Nielsen). She is disappointed with the way he has turned out and isn’t afraid to put him in his place.

After a confrontation between Viktor and Ida, Nana suggests to Ida that she go stay with her mother and seek some medical attention for her deteriorated condition. Nana stays and begins running the household, but not in the way Ida had, and certainly not in the way Viktor would prefer. What is at first a shock to Viktor, quickly becomes a life-lesson that he is not soon to forget.

If you have ever been fortunate enough to see a Carl Theodor Dreyer picture, the plot of “Master of the House” might seem a bit uncharacteristic, and truthfully, it is. The Master of the House (1925)Typically his movies dealt with heavy, difficult, and intense subject matter such as in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), “Vampyr” (1932), and “Mikael” (1924). Although different, it is not a disappointment, as Dreyer’s ability to tell a serious story with a comedic twist drives the picture forward with a relatable humanity. It also happens to be rather touching, too.

Over the course of time, many “important” directors tend to be remembered for a certain type of film, and Dreyer is no exception. The greatest thing about “Master of the House” is that it shows a different side to a man who is a bit of a mystery himself. His other movies have been so strong, sad or frightening, but here he has shown a softer, more tender, and funnier side that is not only appreciated, but  oddly comforting to those who find themselves overwhelmed by the rest of his films.

Pandora’s Box (1929) aka Die Buchse der Pandora- Georg Wilhelm Pabst

 ★★★★★

 

“Pandora’s Box” (1929) is a German silent film from director G. W. Pabst. The film is credited as being based on “the variation on the theme of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu“, with a screenplay written by Ladislaus Vajda. The story revolves around a dancer/prostitute named Lulu (LouisePandora's Box (1929) Brooks). Filled with an overwhelming sexual prowess, Lulu seems to entice men (and women for that matter) to obey her every whim, just by smiling at them. (Alright, sometimes she uses more than just her smile.) Her latest conquest is the well respect newspaperman, Dr. Ludwig Schon (Fritz Kortner); that is, until Schon decides to give up his fun with Lulu, and marry a “respectable” girl (Daisy D’ora).

Lulu is not so easily cast aside, and sets to making things better for herself, while keeping a leash on Schon at the same time. As she continues, Lulu can’t help but attract attention at every turn. All of Lulu’s friends become entranced by her charms, including, but not limited to, Schon’s son, Alwa (Francis Lederer), her longtime friend, Quast (Krafft-Raschig), her lesbian lover, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), and even Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Although she provides each with a momentary satisfaction, Lulu Pandora's Box (1929)also serves as an inspiration for fear, deceit, greed and murder. The title of the film comes from a prosecutor during a courtroom scene, who compares Lulu to Pandora of Greek mythology because she seems to release evil upon the innocent of the world.

Typically I am not a huge fan of melodrama, but in the case of “Pandora’s Box”, I can’t help but be swept away by the film’s beauty. Separated into eight acts, the film builds slowly, gaining more and more interest into the different characters as their various desires (and urges) come into light. G.W. Pabst, along with cinematographer Gunther Krampf, have created a masterfully crafted piece of beauty.

The film, however, is most interesting because of Lulu, or more specifically Louise Brooks’ performance of Lulu. In the opening two acts, it is easy to laugh her off as just another Pandora's Box (1929)“destructive woman”, as we have seen commonly throughout film history. As the acts continue, however, it is harder to judge those who have fallen under Lulu’s spell, because like all these misguided humans, we too have become entranced by her beauty and charm, and would also be willing to put ourselves in harms way; if only she were to ask.

In 1929, it was difficult for many to accept the idea of an American actress in the role of Lulu, which was considered to be a “German” role. It has even been said that Marlene Dietrich was sitting in G.W. Pabst’s office, trying to sign a contract when a telegram arrived stating that Brooks would take the role. His choice ended up being the right one, as “Pandora’s Box” can attribute most of its success and historical remembrances to Brooks’ performance. She was only 23 at the time of this films release, but her talents far exceeded Pandora's Box (1929)her age or previous experiences. Brooks seemed to bring her own personal experiences to the role, and she obviously poured all of herself into this character. In a career that didn’t last as long as it should have, “Pandora’s Box” will always be remembered, even if only because of her.

“Pandora’s Box” has been released on DVD through The Criterion Collection, as well as being available for viewing through Hulu. My one complaint while watching the film is also one that is easy to remedy. The musical track felt awful, and couldn’t have been more frustrating to listen to throughout the film. The DVD includes four different musical tracks, and I wish Hulu would have allowed me thePandora's Box (1929) other three options, as the track they choose filled me with the desire to join a marching band. Needless to say, I turned my volume down for this one.

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)

 ★★★★★

 

Less is more. Especially when it comes to the 1928 film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc). It is a film with no sound, no music, no extravagant sets, no make-up and no expensive costumes, but if any one of these aspects were added to the film it would take away from the minimalist masterpiece that Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer has created.The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)

The film opens when Joan (Maria Falconetti) is a prisoner of the English, and she is going to trial for her belief that she has been sent by God to drive the English out of France. It begins with her trial and imprisonment, and Joan is seen being bullied into admitting that she is in fact a liar. Some of the priests support her claim and believe she is a saint, but they are grossly outnumbered. When the priests are unable to convince her to say she is lying, they attempt to trick her into believing her King wants her to say she made everything up. Finally in desperation, they try to scare her with different types of physical and psychological torture.

For a movie based on the life of someone who had already been dead for 500 years, the production of The Passion Of Joan The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)Of Arc was extremely intense. The Roman Catholic Church had canonized her in 1920, and before the film was released it suffered greatly at the hands of French government censors, as well as the Archbishop of Paris who felt the film portrayed characters unfairly. Many thought that a non-French director could not properly portray this story, and like so many visionary directors that would come later, his original version was taken out of his control and heavily edited as a result. In 1928, a lab fire destroyed the negative to Dryer’s original cut, and then in 1929, another fire destroyed the later cut made with the Archbishop’s approval. In 1933, a version of the film was pieced together with several scenesThe Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) missing entirely, and significant changes made throughout. It ran at 61 minutes in length and Dreyer disliked it immensely, saying that its release was in “bad taste”. Carl Dreyer died in 1968, believing that his original film had been lost forever.

In 1981, an employee of a mental institution in Norway found some old film canisters in a janitor’s closet marked: The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. They were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute, where they sat for three more years before being examined. Much to the surprise and delight of the world, the canisters contained a copy of Dryer’s original cut, and his cinematic masterpiece was restored for the world.

Today, there is no arguing the greatness of this film. Dreyer used everything at his disposal to make The Passion Of Joan Of Arc feel authentic and natural, and he succeeded admirably. He used no make-up on the actors, and filmed most of the The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)movie in close-up’s, exposing all of the actors’ facial features and imperfections. He also filmed in sequence, in order to maintain the proper emotions of the characters as the story unfolded.

Dreyer was considered a hard director to work with, especially on actress Maria Falconetti. She was a stage actress who had previously been in only one film. After her experiences making The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, she would remain on the stage for the rest of her career. Her performance has gone down in history as one of the all time greatest, and for good reason. It is powerful, emotional and completely raw. She does more than act like Joan; she has truly become her. The pain and suffering she seems to be enduring is highly overwhelming, and her compelling portrayal is something that will stay embedded in any viewer’s mind.

Time has served The Passion Of Joan Of Arc extremely well. In 1952, it appeared on Sight & Sounds list of the Greatest Films Of World Cinema, and since then has appeared on several (if not all) of the other “best movie” lists. Many differentThe Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) musical scores have been written to accompany the film over the years, but in my opinion the best way to enjoy what has been created is to watch it completely silent, in order to become engrossed by what Maria Falconetti and Carl Dreyer have created together. Many filmmakers have tried to make movies about Joan Of Arc, but it is only this film that has truly been able to capture her story and bring it to life in such a realistic manner.

Lonesome (1929): A Rediscovered Treasure

★★★★★

&

My Hall Of Fame

 

So often you will here the term “hidden gem” when someone is talking about a movie they have seen, but how often does that phrase actually apply? Very few movies today have actually been forgotten or don’t have some kind of underground following. If you are looking for the next “hidden Lonesomegem”, you needn’t look any further than the 1928 romantic film, Lonesome. It is about as rare a film as you can find.

Set in New York, the movie tells the story of two people lost in the chaos of life in the big city. Mary (Barbara Kent) lives in a small hotel room where her entire life revolves around the mundane tasks such as sleeping, eating and working as a telephone operator. Jim (Glenn Tryon) also lives in a hotel, and although he is decidedly less organized about his life, he still is focused on the same seeminglyLonesome unimportant tasks, such as his work at a factory as a press operator.

Today is a different day for these two because everyone is released from work early for a 4th of July celebration. As all the other workers leave their jobs, they are all paired up with their respective partners, but Mary and Jim are alone and they both end up back in their hotel rooms with nothing to do. Their lives are sad because they both yearn for someone with whom they have a common bond.

They both get the idea to head to the beach, and along the way finally get their first glimpse of each other. There is an obvious attraction, and they spend the afternoon falling in love. In the evening they become separated and must try to find each other again among the Lonesomeendless crowds that surround them.

Simply put, Lonesome is a brilliant film. It has everything that a great romance should have. It was made during the akward transition into talking pictures, so there are a couple of scenes with dialogue that feel out of place. However, the rest of the movie moves along nicely, with great camera movement and amazing technical aspects, that resemble many of the great filmmakers of the day.

Paul Mejos is not a commonly known director, but it won’t be long before his movies and directorial talents become more popularLonesome around the world. Born in Hungary in 1897, he knew from a young age that he wanted to direct on the stage. After much hesitation from his family, they came to the agreement that after he finished school, he would be allowed to pursue the career of his choice. In 1921, he received his M.D. from the Royal Hungarian Medical University of Budapest. At last, at the age of 24, he could begin directing.

After many moves and many jobs, Mejos ended up in Hollywood, in 1926. He made his directorial debut with an independent picture, The Last Moment (1928). When Charlie Chaplin saw the film he distributed it through United Artist, and in a wide release it got outstanding reviews. It was considered revolutionary, but unfortunately it is now considered to be a “lost film”.  Lonesome was the movie that Mejos made next, and itself is an amazing Lonesomeaccomplishment in filmmaking.

By 1931, Mejos had made a couple of other American movies, but had decided he was done making films the “Hollywood” way. He moved back to Europe and made movies there. Before long, he was filming what are essentially documentaries all over the world. He worked extensively in Madagascar and then in Peru, where he personally discovered 18 “lost” Inca cities. If that wasn’t enough, he moved back to the United States where he spent the remainder of his life being at the top of the field of anthropology.

Although Mejos spent his life in various fields, as time continues and his surviving films become more widely known, he is going to be remembered for his ingenuity and revolutionary filmmaking. Thanks to the beautiful restoration by the Criterion Collection, Lonesome is now available to anyone, and as most of us are seeing this movie for the first time, it is going toLonesome start getting the recognition that it deserves. It won’t be long before Lonesome begins appearing on some of the “must see” lists that create so much discussion today.

Along with Lonesome, the Criterion edition includes Paul Mejos’s The Last Performance (1929) and Broadway (1929). I look forward to enjoying these films as well.

Strike (1925): Sergei Eisenstein’s Directorial Debut

★★★★

 

“The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.” –Vladimir Lenin

My life has taught me almost nothing about life in a Russian factory in 1903. Luckily, I have Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike to make up for my ignorance. A factory of workers, under the horrible treatment of its owners, is lead to an uprising. Instead of main characters, the “workers” are our hero, while the “owners” are the villains. The workers have grown tired of the Strikemistreatment and unfairness of the owners, and after a deceitful event that involves the death of a worker, a strike begins. The owners disregard the demands of the workers, and the community of workers begin to endure the hardships of life without any work and little food. The film climaxes with the owners sending in military troops to exterminate the workers.

Strike was meant to be the first installment in a series of films entitled “Towards Dictatorship”, about the rise of Marxist-Leninist rule. Unfortunately for Eisenstein, as well as us, he never finished the series.

This was the first full-length movie of Eisenstein’s career, and although it was not as brilliant as his next movie, Battleship Potemkin, it is a tour de force of cinematic delights. Eisenstein’s unique filming style on Strike was revolutionary itself and has influenced many directors since its release, whether they realize it or not. Eisenstein moves the camera with an almost effortless ease, that captures shot after shot of Strikebeautiful photography. Some directors have the ability to see beauty all around them, and Eisenstein found a way to make a dilapidated work environment look magnificent.

Something that did surprise me was the editing of the movie. The entire movie was edited masterfully, but during the climatic annihilation scene the editing deserves special recognition. While the soldiers are killing the innocent workers, Eisenstein intercuts footage of cattle being slaughtered. As much as it is violent, I have always thought that the extremely similar intercutting at the end of Apocalypse Now was a brilliant visual metaphor for the events in the movie, and now I know where the idea originated. Eisenstein was just 50 years ahead. Of course after watching Strike, there are many aspects where Eisenstein was ahead of his contemporaries.

StrikeWithout question, Strike is a magnificent movie that captures a moment in history differently from other movies in the 1920’s. Although Eisenstein’s release of Battleship Potemkin just eight months later would garner him more attention and recognition, Strike is still a dominating directorial debut that should not be overlooked.

This is my second post in a series of three for the “Speechless Blogathon” hosted by Eternity Of Dream.  For more from this blogathon, you can read my post on D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.

 

Broken Blossoms (1919)

★★★★★

 

This post is part of “The Speechless Blogathon” hosted by Eternity Of Dream. The idea behind the blogathon is for me to watch a silent movie that I had never seen before. There was no limit on how many I could watch, so I decide to do one each of the three days of the blogathon. For day number one I watched Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man And The Girl (1919), directed by the great D.W. Griffith.

“Put a smile on yer face, can’t yer?”

Broken Blossoms is the story of Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) who leaves China to “share Buddha” with the rest of Broken Blossomsthe world. He arrives in London where he becomes disheartened by the brutality of the world.

Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) is the daughter of a boxer called, “Battling Burrows” (Donald Crisp). He is both physically and mentally abusive toward his daughter, who seems so small in comparison to him. He treats her like a maid, as well as an unloved pet. She is merely there to entertain him and keep their small shack in order.

One night after “Battling Burrows” has beaten her more than normal, she wanders the streets until our two discarded outcasts come together. Cheng Huan takes Lucy to his home to try to save her from her own life, and the father that searches for her.

“Don’t do it, Daddy! You’ll hit me once too often, and then they’ll hang yer.”

Based on the short story, “The Chink And The Child” by Thomas Burke, Broken Blossoms was unlike other movies thatBoken Blossoms D.W. Griffith had made. He had become the most successful filmmaker in history, between Birth Of A Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  Both were enormous films that are considered some of the most grandiose movies ever made.  Broken Blossoms was an interesting choice as a follow-up to Intolerance because rather than enormous sets and mostly location shooting, Broken Blossoms was a character driven movie in a controlled studio environment.

After watching this movie, it is obvious that Griffith was a master at filmmaking, no matter what kind of picture he picked. His portrayal of the streets of London has an unpleasantness that other movies couldn’t duplicate. The authenticity of the drug use as well as the drunkards throughout the movie are subjects that would disappear when the production code came into place. Griffith was able to use these devices to exhibit the dilapidated area where the characters were trapped. It always seems dark and cold, with the only sunlight of the movie showing on Lucy and her flowers.

Broken BlossomsAlthough his other movies are spectacular, I found Broken Blossoms to be one of the most moving movies I have ever seen. Lillian Gish’s performance should always be remembered as one of the greatest single film performances ever.  She seemed so young and childlike, and as she wandered the streets helplessly I found myself wanting to help her myself.

The scenes where she was being abused were painful to watch. Griffith himself said while editing, “I can’t look at the damn thing; it depresses me so.” It’s not often that a director can be repulsed by his own work. And it still is difficult to watch almost 100 years later.

For more great silent movie reviews, check-out “The Speechless Blogathon” at Eternity Of Dream.