Better late than never, here’s the last post of Gangster Month! And the best film was saved for last, she declared. I always enjoy doing these theme months, and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
The sophisticated, moodily-lit crime drama Underworld (1927) is recognized by many as the “official” launching point of the gangster genre. But even if you removed it from that context, it would easily be considered a masterpiece all on its own. Funnily enough, director Josef von Sternberg himself would’ve probably appreciated it that way. “When I made Underworld I was not a gangster, nor did I know anything about gangsters,” he stated in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. “I do not value the fetish for authenticity. I have no regard for it. On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself.”
But while Von Sternberg may have crafted his film first and foremost as a compelling story, that story melds perfectly with the dark setting of Roaring Twenties gangster culture–dark in both a figurative and literal sense. The opening title card establishes the mood: “A great city in the dead of night…streets lonely…moon clouded…buildings as empty as the cave dwellings of a forgotten age.” Many of Underworld‘s scenes take place at night, often hours after regular folks would’ve gone to bed. This alone helps the viewer sense the subversive nature of the criminal world.
In film history books the year 1915 practically goes hand-in-hand with The Birth of the Nation—not surprising, considering its mega-blockbuster status. But it was also a banner year for many amazingly sophisticated, ground-breaking films, from scandalous dramas like The Cheat to period pieces like The Coward to realistic crime films like Regeneration. The latter was famed director Raoul Walsh’s first feature-length film, and today it’s also considered the first feature-length gangster film. It has those touches of sentiment so common at the time, but also has a surprisingly unflinching portrayal of the grittier side of city life. Somehow, it makes me think of an Edwardian Valentine’s Day postcard plucked gingerly out of a mud puddle.
Now that the dust has been starting to settle on the news about the 2022 Sight & Sound film poll–the once-a-decade event ranking the top 100 greatest films of all time, with particular focus on the top 10–I thought I’d share some thoughts. Because the newest list is–how to put it–a doozy.
Just in case you’ve heard of Sight & Sound (spelled with either “&” or “and”) but haven’t looked into it much, it’s a prestigious monthly film magazine that’s been published by the British Film Institute since the 1930s. In 1952 they decided to poll critics and directors about what ten films they considered the all-time greats–Battleship Potemkin (1925) nabbed the top spot. It was decided that the poll would be held every ten years to gauge the tastes of the critical consensus and to see how appreciation of great cinema might evolve. The once-a-decade nature of the poll and its knowledgeable voter base made it, in the words of Roger Ebert, “…The most respected of the countless polls of great movies–the only one most serious movie people take seriously.” (I’d keep that quote in mind for the rest of this article.)
Many of you have seen it, a lot of you probably love it, and I think it’s safe to say that some of you find it…unsettling. Oh yes, it’s one of the most viral bits of Edwardian film footage in existence–the split-reel oddity Le Cochon Danseur (1907) that many of us simply know as The Dancing Pig.
First bursting into the Internet in the 2000s, it’s become a go-to all-purpose “check out this creepy old film” film. YouTube alone has dozens (and dozens) of copies of it, and GIFs of it float about generously on social media. There are memes. There’s fan art. There’s even Creepypastas. But aside from all this 21st century hullabaloo, it’s also been a film festival mainstay since the ’80s, when the late, great historian David Shepard had a copy of it struck from an original negative.
I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
We’re all familiar with the Lumière brothers’ 50-second early film The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station (1895), which shows exactly what it says it does. Of all the early films screened for fascinated audiences back in the 1890s, Arrival of the Train has become the most legendary. For as we’ve all heard, when people saw that train on the screen steaming into the station for the first time–looking like it was about to roll right off the screen before vanishing outside the frame–the experience was so new and unexpected that they panicked, even fleeing the theater.
It’s easy to see why everyone loves this story. We can’t help smiling at those naïve early filmgoers, frightened to death of a simple moving image, in an age when three-hour action blockbusters are the order of the day and toddlers know how to watch movies on iPads. Just imagine if those delicate Victorians saw something like Aquaman or Mad Max: Fury Road!
Ah, but here’s some food for thought: What if the story of Arrival of the Train was actually more myth than fact? Could its legendary status actually be…just that, a legend?
In the annals of “Whodunnit?” spooky old house movies, the awesome The Cat and the Canary (1927) ranks pretty high. But how about The Bat (1926)? It’s not quite a masterpiece of murder mystery films, but it does its job well, has some quasi-Expressionist cinematography and features one of my favorite comediennes (and she livens up the reels quite a bit). And yes, it features a mysterious “bat man” quite a few years before the Batman. Hmm, could this murder mystery be more influential than we realize…?
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring event, the Hidden Classics Blogathon! Silent-ology is proud to take part alongside so many excellent film blogs, and on such a good topic, too. Please follow the link above to read my fellow writers’ contributions! And don’t forget to leave comments–we bloggers love comments like Keystone Kops loved pratfalls.
When I say “Cecil B. DeMille,” you probably picture Biblical films with men in robes giving solemn speeches and loads of colorful spectacle. Would you be surprised to know that in the 1910s most audiences heard “DeMille” and probably pictured ballgowns and romantic triangles?
He may be known for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) today, but from the late 1910s to the early 1920s DeMille was associated with fluffy “society” comedy-dramas. Yes, the same man that Kevin Brownlow described thusly: “Commanding absolute loyalty from his staff, he directed as though chosen by God for this one task.” These dramas tended to have the aforementioned lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum) and exquisitely-tailored tuxes. Scenery might include raucous parties or impractically huge sunken baths. DeMille delighted in adding various “rich people” toys like fancy Victrolas or plush couches with hidden bars in the armrests. Gloria Swanson couldn’t just walk over and answer the phone–she would have to be sitting at a pretty carved wooden desk and take the phone out of a little cupboard on top.
While many of these trinket-cluttered fantasies were considered superficial even back then, they’ve aged into delightfulness today. The “edgy” fashions seem charmingly bizarre, and characters contend with various social annoyances that are sometimes endearingly quaint. There’s usually more of that universal human nature than meets the eye, too, even if it was livened up by an inexplicable Babylonian fantasy sequence or two. I wholeheartedly champion every frame of these films, from scenes of Bebe Daniels perfuming her lips or Wallace Reid destroying a drawing room in righteous anger right down to the last shot of a checkered, bead-bedecked bathing suit. At least, I think that was a bathing suit. Or was it a negligee…?
It’s a tough call, but my favorite early DeMille is probably Why Change Your Wife? (1920), one of my go-to silents for those nights when I just need to kick back with some cheesy popcorn and relax. Starring a young Gloria Swanson, the squeaky-clean matinee idol Thomas Meighan, and a flirty Bebe Daniels, its tale of marital distress is handled with plenty of light, cheeky humor (especially in the title cards).
Swanson plays the prudish Beth, who nags her husband Robert about becoming more cultured and “improving his mind.” Robert himself (played by Meighan) can’t understand why Beth insists on dressing so frumpily and longs for her to be a carefree “sweetheart” again. Hoping to add some pizazz to their relationship, he goes to a fancy lingerie store to buy her a new negligee. There he meets Sally, the store’s va-va-voom lingerie model, who recognizes him as an old acquaintance she once had a crush on.
When Robert’s present of a tissue-thin, elaborately-beaded negligee (complete with a headdress!) is rejected by the horrified Beth, he decides to secretly go on a date with the fun-loving Sally. Sally is all too happy to pursue him, leading to matters going too far and Robert having regrets. Unfortunately for him, Beth finds out about the affair and divorce quickly follows. But matters don’t end there–Beth overhears gossip about her failed marriage, insinuating that her prudishness and frumpy clothes were the problem. Incensed, she decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what people want to see, then by golly she’d get a new wardrobe and show them all! And perhaps she can win Robert back in the process…
Parts of the plot haven’t aged quite like a fine wine, but I bid you to consider that the remainder of the film involves lots of “extreme” fashion, an unfortunate slip on a banana peel, a catfight, and a deeply serious artiste in the world’s most ridiculous male bathing suit. In other words, it’s a film I’d say has far more plusses than minuses, my friends.
Adolph Zukor once said, “DeMille didn’t make pictures for himself, or for critics, he made them for the public. He chose stories if he thought the public might like them. He was a showman to his smallest finger.” Indeed, DeMille’s films of this period were sometimes criticized as superficial, or just plain silly. But he released hit after hit, filling his dramas with scandalous intrigues and sunken bathtubs to his heart’s content.
I have to say, at the end of a tough day there’s certain old films that always hit the spot. Keaton films. Chaplin shorts. Anything by Keystone. And Why Change Your Wife? is on that list. Great performers, great costumes, drama, humor, escapism, and plenty of cheese–those late Edwardian DeMilles had a bit of it all.
And perhaps I’ll end with this generous observation by David O. Selznick: “You cannot judge DeMille by regular standards…As a commercial film maker, he made a great contribution to our industry.”
By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.