Tag Archives: silent era films

Metropolis

Science fiction drama film “Metropolis” (1927) of the silent era directed by Fritz Lang and starring Gustav Frolich, Brigitte Helm among others.

Too lengthy a film at two and half hours, the print was a restored one, but there were few areas where the print was not done properly. Its basically a fight between man and machine, a mad scientist, whose love went awry, sought destruction of the industrialist who married his love, created a robot, installed a face of Maria (Brigitte Helm) and made it do things.

The special effects were spectacular for a 1927 production, camera work and set design, picturisation etc. were all done beautifully. It must have cost a lot of money to make this film in view of the extensive set design used, the number of characters in the movie and the visual effects. The story is the weak point. Brigitte Helm in the double role has done a superb role in the film. Other than her and the special effects, nothing much to recommend except for its historic value as a big budget spectacular science fiction of that era.

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Nosferatu

Deadly German horror film of the silent era “Nosferatu” (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck, Gustav Von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder among others.

Its kind of a cult movie, because it is indirectly based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Apparently there were some copyright issues, so the names and everything else was changed, but its inspired by Dracula.

Its probably the first of its kind vampire movie in the history of cinema. Thomas Hutter (Gustav Von Wangenheim) is working with a real estate agent Knock and he brings in a proposal for sale of a house opposite his i.e. Hutter’s at a substantial amount, for which the commission also could be good. Hutter agrees to meet the prospective buyer and close the deal.

The prospective buyer is Count Orlok (Max Schreck) who is staying in some dark castle far away. Hutter clinches the deal but strange things start happening. Orlok apparently is the vampire who sucks the blood of humans by clinching their neck. He chances upon a photograph of Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroder).

Wikipedia mentions that the movie is an example of German Expressionism in the mould of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” but i did not find much of that in evidence there. The music is very baroque in style. The print is quite old and that is apparently because of the dispute with Stoker’s heirs, the movie was banned and only a few prints were available for viewing.

It does have its moments of horror especially when Orlok rises up with his long pointed finger nails, his deadly pallor, his frightening eyes, the creepiness when a swarm of rats is shown coming out. Good use of light and shadow accentuates the horror part. Its a cult classic.

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The Haunted House

Buster Keaton’s 1922 silent comedy “The Haunted House” starring himself, Virginia Fox among others .

A laugh a minute gag this film shows Buster stuck literally with glue in his hands at his bank. He being the teller has it all over himself and on the customers as well.

Meanwhile robbers are planning to rob the bank and use a haunted house as their getaway plan. Buster lands in the haunted house and a drama troupe also ends up there explicably to add to the laugh riot.

There is no story to the movie, no human element, no female interest unlike other Buster Keaton movies. This must be one of his least favorite movies.

Nevertheless a good watch for the laugh riot.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Deadly psycho horror German movie “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) directed by Robert Wiene and starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover among others.

Considered as a legend especially in the German expressionist cinema, which is basically films which focus on “themes as bizarre madness or obsession, particularly through the use of visual distortion” (wikipedia). The film has an unusual visual style in the sense that the roads and houses etc. are all “twisted with sharp pointed forms oblique and curving lines, structures and landscape that lean and twist in unusual angles and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets” (wikipedia). The set design and art direction of the movie is simply outstanding.

Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) wants permission from a rude town clerk to have his stall in the town fair. He is basically presenting a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who has slept continuously day and night and will give predictions. Alan (Hans Heinz V. Twardoswki) and Francis (Freidrich Feher) are vying for the attention of Jane (Lil Dagover) and Alan wants to know from Cesare how long he will live. He is shocked with the answer “upto next dawn”.

In the night Alan is murdered and a string of murders take place. Francis is distraught and starts investigating with Jane’s father. Jane also goes and visits Dr. Caligari in his cabin. That night Cesare comes to kill Jane but strangely he abducts her instead. Upon the villagers raising a cry, he drops her. Dr. Caligari escapes from his cabin. Francis follows him and finds that he is the mental asylum director obsessed with an ancient story of an Italian monk who uses his somnambulist to commit murders.

There is an interesting twist in the end of the story. It is a cult classic and probably the most famous Expressionist cinema. It broke new grounds in that era. Its probably the first ever psycho horror movie, the first noir movie. Production values for a 1920 movie are pretty good. The print that i saw on youtube is probably a remastered one and they might have added music to the movie later on, which is again quite good.

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The Butcher Boy

Rip roaring silent comedy film “The Butcher Boy” (1917) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Alice Lake among others.

Fatty (Roscoe Arbuckle) is a butcher boy in a store in love with the owner’s daughter Amanda (Alice Lake). Slim is his rival also wanting her hand. Uproarious scenes at the store and when a customer (Buster Keaton) comes in for molasses, mayhem occurs.

Amanda’s father packs her off to a all female boarding school. Fatty disguises as a girl and comes to meet her and enrols in the same school. Slim also has the same idea.

Split second timing, comic gags all aplenty in this wonderful movie. Some of the comic scenes made in 1917 are relevant today also. Brilliant movie to watch. Its first time i am discovering Fatty Arbuckle talents. He is simply marvelous.

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Sherlock Jr.

Rip roaring silent comedy “Sherlock Jr.”(1924) directed by Buster Keaton and starring himself and Kathryn McGuire in the leading roles.

Buster is a movie projectionist while dreaming to be a detective also. He is in love with a girl Kathryn McGuire but has no money to buy presents for her. He buys $1.00 worth of gifts and presents to the girl as $4.00. Buster has a rival who is unscrupulous and wont to cheat and steal in order to win the girl. He steals the girl’s father watch, pawns it and buys more expensive gift for the girl.

The girl’s father finds that his watch is missing. The thief slips his pawn ticket into Buster’s coat pocket and upon finding the same, he is banished from the girl’s house.

While playing a movie, he starts dreaming that he is an accomplished detective and foils the crime involving theft of pearl necklace from the girl’s house. Meanwhile, the girl is also kidnapped by the thief. Buster spoils the thief’s party and wins the heart of the girl, that is in the dream.

Meanwhile on coming out of the dream, Buster finds Kathryn at his work place with apologies for treating him as a criminal. There are plenty of uproarious gags in the movie all beautifully filmed with timing perfection. Buster is dead pan comedian unlike Charlie Chaplin whose facial expressions are legendary.

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Seventh Heaven

What a beautiful romantic movie, this one “Seventh Heaven” (1927) directed by Frank Borzage and starring Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor among others.

Chico (Charles Farrell) is a sewer cleaner under the streets of Paris and yearns to be a street sweeper where he can be on the streets rather than under it. By pluck or say what, he gets a job as a street sweeper. Diana (Janet Gaynor) is a prostitute staying with her wicked sister. Both of them get the news that their long lost uncle and aunt are back in the city and ready to take them back. The aunt likes Diana but the uncle wants to know whether they are clean. When Diana says no, both uncle and aunt go back without their offer.

The sister becomes furious with Diana and starts whipping her in public. Upon which Chico seeing the commotion strong arms the sister and rescues Diana. When the police comes on a parade, Chico says that Diana is her wife in order to save her from detention. Diana then offers to stay in his house until the police comes and checks and goes away.

That happens but by then both Chico and Diana are in love with each other. War is called and Chico has to go away to fight in the war. The war lasts for four years during which time both Chico and Diana yearn for each other.

Judith Gaynor has performed her role as Diana magnificently for which she won the Oscars for Best Actress. Charles Farrell has also done a superb role. The direction is very good for a 1927 silent movie. The Director Frank Borzage also got the Best Direction award.

But the beauty of the movie is Judith Gaynor. She has put her whole heart and soul into the movie and despite being a silent movie one feel the power of her acting.

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Underworld

A 1927 gangster film in silent era “Underworld” starring George Bancroft, Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, Helen Lynch and Fred Kohler, directed by Josef von Sternberg. Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is a notorious gangster robbing banks and a terror in the region. Once while robbing a bank, Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) catches him leaving the bank with the loot, but Royce is totally inebriated. In order to prevent any witness, Bull Weed takes him along and feeling pity on him rehabilitates him by giving him money.

Bull Weed has a girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent) who falls for the rehabilitated Royce. Meanwhile another rival gangster Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) has a thing going against Bull Weed. There is an annual gangsters’ ball at which Buck Mulligan threatens to molest Feathers despite his girl friend Meg (Helen Lynch) protesting against it. In the shoot out that ensues Buck Mulligan is killed for which Bull Weed is caught and sentenced to hang until death.

As the hanging day approaches Feathers and Royce plan to get Bull Weed out of the prison using the hearse. A major shoot out ensues after Bull Weed escapes resulting in a resounding climax.

George Bancroft as the cruel, murderous, jealous gangster has done a wonderful role as has Clive Brook as the restrained friend of his. The girls Evelyn Brent and Helen Lynch (in her brief cameo role) steal the show with their beauty and determined acting.

This one for the connoisseur.

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His Trust

A 1911 silent era film “His Trust” and its sequel “His Trust Fulfilled” directed by D.W. Griffith. Wilfred Lucas (George) is a black worker in his master’s employ who is a soldier for the Confederate Army. The master is called upon to war, leaving his family of wife and kid in George’s care. Soldier dies in battle leaving only his sword. Enemy soldiers then come upon their house to ransack it and set it on fire. George takes great risk to go inside blazing flames to rescue the kid and the master’s sword. George then takes them to his small ramshackle house taking care of their every needs, until one fine day the lady dies, leaving the kid infant. George then plows all his savings so that the little girl gets a foster home, goes to school, and marries off to an aristrocrat in Britain.

They have managed to restore the print of this film from the Library of Congress paper prints. Its a short movie set in two parts, fully silent. The production quality is rudimentary what you expect in 1911 but its a landmark movie of that era.

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The Goat

Rip roaring Buster Keaton comedy The Goat made in 1921. Silent comedy featuring Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox among others. Buster is walking by a grille window where inside the notorious gangster “Dead Shot Dan” picture is being taken by the police photographer. Dan maneuvers so that Buster’s picture is taken instead of Dan as Wanted Dead or Alive. What follows is one rip roaring comic scene after another. Buster’s timing is fantastic almost like that of Charlie Chaplin. In fact he is just another Chaplin without the Chaplinisque mime. Buster enters into a fracas involving a woman with a dog and a bystander haranguing her. Buster manages to beat him down. In the meanwhile the police chief is looking for him and following him everywhere.

Buster Keaton is brilliant his production values for a 1920 movie is quite exemplary. Worth watching any time.

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A Burlesque on Carmen

A Burlesque on Carmen (1915) a kind of a parody on Carmen, the play which was popular in those times. I have never seen this Charlie Chaplin before, so it came as a surprise. Chaplin and his favorite lady Edna Purviance in this short comedy. Carmen (Edna Purviance) is deployed as a seductress to woe Darn Hosiery (Chaplin) an honest police officer but one who falls prey to Carmen’s beauty and forgets about policing. As usual Chaplin’s comedy and his timing are exceptional. Nobody can come near him in that department. His famous back leg kick is very much in action in this movie. Edna looks beautiful in this short movie. Good movie to watch out for in case you have missed it.

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One Week

Brilliant 1920 comedy movie starring Buster Keaton & Sybil Seely. For a movie made in 1920 it is absolutely brilliant even by today’s standards. Buster Keaton has newly married the beautiful looking Sybil Seely and his uncle gives him a plot of land, in which he has construct his own house for which he has given him the wood as well. The challenge is to place the wood by numbers to get it right. But one dejected suitor of Sybil puts all the numbers wrong resulting in a lopsided house. There are lot of comic capers involving the house or ladders in which Buster excels. There is lot of Chaplinesque about him, minus the facial expressions of Chaplin. Then apparently he has constructed his house on a wrong plot no. 66 whereas it should have been at 99. They have to move the house across the railroad, but it gets stuck in the middle of the tracks. Whenever both Sybil and Buster appear on the screen together, it is pure magic. For a movie made in 1920, it is simply outstanding. This is rip-roaring comedy.

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Salt for Svanetia

Extraordinary documentary film made in 1930 by Russian director Mikhail Kolotozov about the extraordinary life of Ushgul people in Svanetia somewhere in the mountainous region of Georgia in erstwhile Soviet Union. It is a silent film but description is given in English. The music is the film is apt, but i don’t know if the music is original or was added later on. The film documents the hard times that the Ushguls had in carrying on with their lives especially as the village is encircled by mountains with nary a path or road to take them to other villages. So everything was made and sold within the village itself. But the village had an unique problem, they did not have any salt in the village with the result, the villagers were suffering and so were the cattle. Pregnancy is cursed in the village because there is nowhere to go to deliver the baby, and babies die soon after their birth. The camera work and cinematography is exceptional, especially if you consider this film was made in 1930 when filmmaking techniques were rudimentary. Some of the camera work was too good – both close up shots and long shots were quite beautiful. In that sense it is a very revolutionary documentary film.

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A Trip to the Moon

First ever science fiction movie in the history of cinema, A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902 by Georges Melies. Its a legendary movie in that sense. Its a short movie of 12.50 mins and silent movie. 5 astronomers (not astronauts) are chosen to a trip to the moon. They make a bullet like console in which to travel to the moon.

Note they are all going in their coats and hats and wigs and each one carrying an umbrella!! On the way to the moon, the moon smiles at them, as if welcoming them!! They reach the moon and wave to the earth.

They feel tired after the long trip from the earth to the moon, so all of them lie down there on the lunar floor and go to sleep!! In the absence of dialogue, unable to fathom the movie clearly, but a lot of stars appear there on the horizon, curious at these people. Then some other lady comes in a vehicle and starts showering snow on the humans, waking them up!!

Then they go into a cavern!! in which exotic plants and mushroom grow taller than humans.

They are then attacked by some aliens and captured alive and taken to the king of aliens. One of the astronomers frees himself from the ropes and goes and picks up the king of the aliens and throws him on the ground. Aliens go into puff of air upon being thrown on the ground.

Astronomers then escape back to their bullet capsule and one guy is seen hanging by the thread and one alien manages to land himself on the capsule back.

Astronomers return back to the earth to a tumultuous welcome.

The captured alien is made to dance on the streets with the humans. Its a path breaking movie in many respects, the first science fiction movie.

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The General

Buster Keaton and his rip roaring comedy in The General (1926) one of the finest silent era comedy films of all time. Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer and loves his engine and his lady love Annabelle (Marion Mack). When war breaks out, time comes to enlist for the Confederates, but he is rejected and his lady love also rejects him without an uniform. In the meanwhile, the Confederates are infiltrated by some spies who steal his train and make off with the supplies. Off goes Johnny after the train and some delightful comic scenes follows. Annabelle is meanwhile kept as captive by the Union soldiers and then Johnny has to rescue her, so some more delectable comic scenes. Buster Keaton’s comic timings were superb in the movie somewhat reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin. Fight ensues between Union and Confederate soldiers much to the relief and joy of the Confederates. Brilliant movie to watch especially for Buster Keaton. The direction and camera work were quite superb for that era, especially shots of the moving trains and the wilderness. Who knew a silent movie would prove to be so powerfully comic. Brilliant. 

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