Saturday, August 20, 2016

Golden is Silents (or, How to START Watching Those Movies Where They Walk Fast)

"Is that one of those movies where they walk fast?"  

Yes, I'd actually heard a fellow film-buff say he'd heard that from one millennial girl who wasn't...that familiar with the essential silent films of the 20's.  He was lucky--When I was growing up, the 70's fascination with, quote, "Old Hollywood" genuinely seemed to believe that every single picture made before 1939 had the Keystone Kops and pie fights in them.  (You're probably thinking of the same Brady Bunch episode too, right now.)

Silent films pretty much disappeared between the TV of the late 50's and the film-preservation of the 80's, with only a brief renaissance in the 70's when Charlie Chaplin showed he was still alive to pick up his Oscar.  But now that we live in a world where they're all available and we choose what to watch, the fault's now on US if we've never heard of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or FW Murnau.  Even without the above stereotypes, it's hard to get into a movie where you don't hear the dialogue to keep yourself from tuning out, and need enough attention span to follow the visual pantomime--It's not so much that, as Norma Desmond said, "they had faces back then", but as Singin' in the Rain's Cathy Selden said, "all they did was make faces".  But those faces could be drama as well as comedy.
I'm just trying to offer a Starter Kit of five watchable, accessible and basic-knowledge titles for those folks wondering where to even start the discussion.  This is not the least bit meant to be a "Best" list or "Favorite" list of standout silent classics--It's a list of training wheels for one's bike, and a Summer-reading list for those who haven't picked up a book until now.  It's a sound-friendly list for first-timers wondering where to first put their toes into the water, and find out it's not as cold as it looks.

- The Gold Rush (1940 sound version, Criterion) 

When Japan first showed silent movies, the intercards were never translated, so theaters came up with the idea of hiring a benshi--A host actor who stood onstage next to the movie, to dramatically read the dialogue and descriptions, but was also "storyteller" to offer his own dramatic narration throughout the entire movie.  ("And so our heroes clashed...Who would be victorious?")
When Charlie Chaplin grudgingly moved the Little Tramp to sound with 1940's "The Great Dictator", and could now add music and sound effects to his previous features, he wasn't sure whether Modern Times and City Lights' "romances in pantomime" would still play.  As 1925's "The Gold Rush" came back to theaters, Chaplin came up with the idea of being his own benshi:  Chaplin, with humorously "epic" tone in his high British clip, reads the dialogue and cards to fit the action, even when Klondike gold-mining starvation forces "the Little Fellow" into desperate straits--

It was the only silent to feature Chaplin's narration, and may not be as iconic as his music-and-sound-effects-added "Modern Times", but it's a perfect introduction.  In the days of silent theaters, the one thing more annoying than cellphones today was audience members who read the cards out loud for fun, or for the benefit of their kids.  It's still the most fun part of watching silent movies at home, especially with your own kids, but here, at least, we have Sir Charles to save us the trouble.

- Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis (Kino, 1984 dub)

There are many (many, many) Metropolis restorations available, but be careful to ask for Giorgio's by name--
Film preservation was barely a word in '84, and silent films even less...And when distributors had to market a re-release of what was then the most "complete" cut of Fritz Lang's 1927 German-expressionist sci-fi social allegory, composer Moroder--who had co-produced the restoration as a labor of love--came up with one clever marketing idea for How to Explain Silent Movies to the uninitiated:  If German expressionist silents were wildly visual, stylized, and dialogue-free stories with music...why, they're JUST LIKE MTV!  And those were magic words to studios' ears in 1984.  In fact, it becomes a pretty darn convincing argument, when Moroder uses an ethereal Pat Benatar to cover Metropolis's subplot of rich-elite Romeo meeting working-class social-reformer Juliet in a future class-divided megalopolis:

Yes, 80's music.  With Pat Benatar.  It also happens to work brilliantly...Quit giggling and get over it.  One scene set in a rich "decadent" nightclub originally featured decadent-20's music in the orchestral 1927 score; Moroder, who knows such things better than anyone should, instead adds his synth-disco beat to the scene that turns the nightclub into the darkest sin-pits of Studio 54, and throws a Freddie Mercury song into the mix.
There are more professional restorations of Metropolis in its purer form out there--Kino also has the crystal-clear two-hour restoration, and the new "Ultimate" two-and-a-half-hour cut with extra grainy newly discovered footage--on the condition that if you watch those, you'll still have to put up with the darn movie.  There's nothing that ruins a classic like an extended Director's Cut with too much personal director baggage, and Lang did not have Subtlety on his agenda when he wanted his Weimar epic to take on the labor unions, class wars and growing moral-upheaval of his 20's-Berlin day.  He's entitled to, but I'll sympathize with the contemporary first-time cold-viewer who says "We DON'T CARE!...Show more of the cool robot!"  As one critic put it, there's the version of Metropolis that's "good for you", and then there's the one you actually enjoy.
This version had to work with what was then the most "complete" existing 90-minute version of the truncated cut that existed since the US premiere, that chopped out most of Lang's soapboxing to focus on the plot, and the pop music heightens the art-deco-fairytale of what the story used to be--In the climax where the poor enslaved boiler-machine workers are led to revolt and smash the city, Lang originally had the music parody them with a storm-the-Bastille march as a silly delusions-of-grandeur labor strike.  Moroder instead brings the full orchestra and a wordless angry-crowd rabble onto the soundtrack as workers storm the elevators up to the city, and the result looks like All Chaos has been let loose.  A more effective image for our Trump-fearing times.

- The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Cohen Collection edition)

Any discussion of fantasy-film history is always going to start with Douglas Fairbanks's then-astounding Arabian epic, for its idea of using, gasp, special effects in a silent movie...And most will probably avoid it because of that, because there's just a general fear of watching anything Historic.  Even if today's audiences might spot wires holding up the flying carpet, or suspect that winged horses are made to fly with double-exposures, the more basic the effects, the more we recognize how "real" it is that this is all happening somewhere on a wildly designed soundstage, and in 1924, that was no mean feat.  Green-screen and CGI have just become Too Easy.
What singles out the Cohen Collection Blu-ray issue from any number of public-domain others is that their edition takes its print from the 1975 British restoration where Carl Davis, the reigning god of pretty much all silent-restoration scores, composed his original orchestral score "from themes by Rimsky-Korsakov".  
And you know darn well which themes--As pops-classical pieces go, RK's "Scheherezade" always did sound like a Great Movie Soundtrack from some great silent Arabian Nights epic, and you wonder why the heck someone simply didn't turn it into one before...It was always just part of the story:

It was William Cameron Menzies' boldest visual design for fantasy movies up to that time (outside of anything coming out of Germany) and his stylized too-gigantic-to-be-real palaces, city and treasure caverns were a confessed influence on Disney's animators in designing their animated "Aladdin".  And in the famous opening scene, where Fairbanks as the swashbuckling Thief bounces over jars and onto rooftops and canopies to grab a day's lunch and duck the city guards, we dare you--defy you--not to start singing "One jump, ahead of the bread line..."  Except that Davis's music is already too good to miss.

- It (1927, Kino)

[Currently OOP, but available on YouTube]
At some point, any conversation about silent movies is also going to try and make fun of Clara Bow as "the gal your great-grandpa had a crush on"--Even the name conjures up flappers in pearls or big bathing suits.
But it wasn't just voting that was changing women's roles in the Jazz Age; the search for thrills was sparking the first hints of a sexual revolution, and even stars who weren't "forbidden" sexpots like Louise Brooks or Theda Bara could throw good clean hints about wanting a little fun with the new times.  Clara Bow was Paramount's more clean-cut mainstream A-list star, but what made her the star was an energetic presence that still has contemporary appeal.

For one thing, Bow is cute.  Look at those eyes--Those WERE the inspiration for Betty Boop, and you know it.  But unlike Betty's pop-kitsch, Clara lives up to the title of the story:  The "It" of the 20's, as defined by scandalous authors of the time, was the now modern idea that just the natural confident chemistry of an "indefinable something" could make a girl sexy and attractive even without piling on the glamour.  In other times, we'd make the same claim about Meg Ryan, or Audrey Hepburn, or Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl.  
And if that was It, the "It Girl" had it--Clara's comic timing absolutely takes hold of the screen and strikes a blow for the regular middle-class girl, as a smart-thinking shopgirl tries to land her handsome boss, ends up on the wrong side of social do-gooders when she has to mind another girl's baby, and makes the most of the Misunderstandings That Ensue:

Bow's character seems smart, independent and self-possessed enough to have come just as easily from a sound comedy of the 40's or a rom-com of the 80's, which makes you wonder how different the girls your great-grandpa did have a crush on really were from our own time.  If girls in the 20's didn't have "It", you probably wouldn't be here.

- Seven Chances (1925, Kino)

Every silent comic inspired at least one great cartoon character--There's a lot of Chaplin's well-meaning Tramp in the Pink Panther, and everyone in the 30's called Mickey Mouse "a little optimistic Harold Lloyd".  And Buster Keaton lived in the same universe as Wile E. Coyote.
Nothing was small in Keaton's surreal world, and no good plan went unpunished without epic catastrophe.   Most silent comics might be chased down the street by one character.  Buster would routinely be chased by two hundred.
Any more iconic Keaton image could be featured on the list--the house that almost falls on top of Buster in "Steamboat Bill, Jr.", or why not to sit on a locomotive wheel from "The General"--but I'll pick a personal choice here:  In the days when silent comedies were the stuff excerpted on cheap kids' TV, with either wacky or straight narration, I remember my first introduction to Buster's kamikaze slapstick was "Chances"'s ending chase, as his character has seven days to marry and inherit a fortune, puts an ad in the paper for a bride, and finds he's suddenly become a lot more...popular:

Yes:  Cliffs and boulders.  All that's missing are the crates of Acme Dynamite.

There's five for a list, and that's good enough for a week or two of viewing.  There are plenty of other First-Time Essentials for the silent-viewer-in-training that could flesh out a ten-list, like why Harold Lloyd was hanging off that building by his fingertips from "Safety Last!", or Hitchcock's first take at suspense in "The Lodger", or the rest of stylized German expressionism from the wild fantasy of FW Murnau's "Faust" to the comic satire of "The Last Laugh".  Maybe I'll get to those later, but my job here's done for the week.
Even just in silent comedy, there's nothing wrong with walking fast or running from large crowds--Benny Hill discovered that early on.  But the technical lack of sound wasn't an artistic lack of genre, there were romances, horror, history and drama enough to take any viewer by surprise no matter what jokes he's bringing with him to fight back.  
All it just takes is that first hesitant spoonful--Although, unlike medicine, you probably shouldn't close your eyes to take it.

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