A few French filmmakers in the early twenties utilized rapid-fire editing montage techniques that would later be taken up by Russian filmmakers, most notably Sergei Eisenstein. The earliest example I’ve yet to see is Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado(1921). Abel Gance’s La roue (1923) took the technique even further. Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’enfants, which was begun in 1923 but not released until 1925 due to a conflict with a distribution company, also opens with a visually arresting montage sequence before settling, like the other films mentioned, into a more conventional storytelling style. The story is about a young boy who has a difficult time adjusting to to his father’s remarriage after the death of his mother. His father and new stepmother are insensitive to the boy’s profound and unresolved grief. His resentment grows when he is moved to a shabby back room in the house while his new sister is given a nicely decorated room. He breaks down crying when he sees his stepmother wearing his mother’s brooch and spitefully destroys one of his mother’s old dresses when the stepmother decides she’ll make new dresses for her daughter with the material. Eventually the boy’s resentment leads to near-tragic consequences. The film is beautifully photographed in the Swiss Alps and its realism and naturalistic acting, especially by Jean Forest, who played the boy, make the film feel more modern than other films from the era. The DVD is one of a set of three from Image Entertainment featuring outstanding restorations of films by Jacques Feyder and includes an exquisite newly commissioned score which complements the story and atmosphere perfectly.
Akira Kurosawa: “The first film that really impressed me was La roue.”
Jean Cocteau: “There is the cinema before and after La roue as there is painting before and after Picasso.”
French director Abel Gance is probably best known for his epic 1927 film Napoleon. After the international success of his 1919 anti-war film J’accuse, Gance was considered one of the finest and most innovative directors in France and possibly in the world. With the financial backing of the Pathé studio he embarked on La roue (The Wheel), which took three years to complete and in its original form ran for seven and a half to nine hours (sources disagree). During the production Gance was deeply affected by the fact that his companion Ida Danis was dying of tuberculosis and his friend and lead actor in the film, Séverin-Mars, was also severely ill. Both died shortly after shooting completed. Like Erich von Stroheim, Gance insisted on authenticity which meant sets were built on location; railroad yards for the first half of the film and on Mount Blanc in the French Alps for the second half though the decision to shoot in the Alps has been attributed to Ida’s need for alpine air.
The film is notable for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques, especially the use of of rapid montage which was studied and implemented by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin et al at the Moscow Academy. It appears that Gance was the first filmmaker to utilize this technique in order to represent an extreme state of mind or build tension though the opening Marcel L’Herbier’s 1921 film El Dorado makes similar use of rapid cutting but not to the same degree. The story, however, is a rather maudlin melodrama about a widower railroad engineer, Sisif, who rescues a little girl from a train wreck and finding she has no parents, adopts her as his own. Flash forward fifteen years and the little girl, Norma (played by English actress Ivy Close), is a stunning beauty with whom everyone is in love with including Sisif and his son Elie, who thinks Norma is his sister. Even the four and a half hour version available on the Flicker Alley DVD is a bit of an ordeal to sit through and seems repetitious at times so it’s difficult to imagine how Gance managed to stretch the story into a film almost twice that length in the original cut.
The Mayflower Photoplay Company was a small independent production company that produced twelve films, including Unseen Forces, in the three years of its existence from 1919 – 1922. It employed a few directors who would go on to bigger and better things such as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and the director of Unseen Forces, Sidney Franklin. The story is based on the novel Athalie by Robert W. Chambers, whose collection of short stories The King in Yellow is considered by some to be one of the most important works of American supernatural fiction. Unseen Forces is the story of Miriam, a woman born with psychic abilities which enable her to see the future, the past, and the spirit bodies of those who have passed on. Her father owns a tavern near New York where wealthy businessmen come to stay for vacations. One of the businessmen, Robert Brunton, brings his young son, Clyde, to the tavern one summer where he forms a bond with Miriam. The next time they meet they have grown up and they fall in love but due to a misunderstanding, Clyde gets the impression that Miriam is in love with someone else so he leaves on an expedition to Africa in order to forget her. Upon returning he enters into a loveless marriage with a social climber. In the meantime, after her father’s death, Miriam moves to New York City to begin using her abilities to help others though it takes a toll on her health. By coincidence she meets Clyde again and her psychic powers reveal a connection between Clyde’s wife and a man who has been making unwelcome advances towards Miriam. Despite the supernatural element, the story is basically a romance, the genre that Chambers turned to when his supernatural tales ceased to generate sufficient income. Miriam was played by Sylvia Breamer, an Australian stage actress who retired at the beginning of the sound era at the age of 33. Conrad Nagel, who played Clyde, enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, appearing in The Divorcee (1930), and All That Heaven Allows (1955) among many other films.
Gipsy Anne (Norwegian title: Fante-Anne) is a landmark in Norwegian cinema because it was the first Norwegian film to utilize a professional Norwegian cast and crew. Previously, Norwegian films had been made by Danish and Swedish filmmakers and professional Norwegian stage actors had been prohibited from working in films by theatre companies. It was also the directorial debut of Rasmus Breistein who is considered the most important Norwegian director from the silent era.
Breistein also wrote the screenplay, his first, which is based on a story by Norwegian writer Kristofer Janson. The story concerns an orphan girl, Anne, who grows up on a farm where she is taken in after the death of her transient mother when she was still a baby. When she grows up a love triangle forms with her stepbrother, Haldor, and Jon, the farmhand who found her when she was an infant. Haldor proposes to Anne but his mother objects due to Anne’s being a girl of “unknown origin” which makes for a compelling drama with performances that are surprisingly naturalistic considering the era. The ending, however, is a bit too pat and seems uncharacteristic for Scandinavian cinema. Anne as a woman is played by Norwegian actress Asta Nielsen who is not the internationally famous Danish actress who shared the same name.
The film features beautiful Norwegian landscapes and carefully composed, painterly scenes. The camera work is years ahead of most films made in 1920. A series of romantic melodramas utilizing natural landscapes ensued, mostly directed by Breistein, which came to typify Norwegian silent cinema. The new restoration by the Norwegian Film Institute available on Blu-Ray is immaculate and the orchestral score composed for this edition enhances the film immensely.
Considered a landmark in Japanese cinema, Rojô no reikion or Souls on the Road, as it is referred to in English, is based on Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths (which was also adapted by Akira Kurosawa in his 1957 film Donzoko) and Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. It is a combination of three stories: a failed violinist with his wife and daughter returning on foot from Tokyo to their village, two ex-convicts also traveling to the same village, and a young rich girl of the village who falls in love with the servant of the violinist’s father. Director Minoru Murata seems to have been influenced by D.W. Griffith’s cross cutting technique as the narrative jumps quickly from story to story. He also makes frequent use of flashback sequences and scenes that depict what a character is imagining. The main focus is on the violinist and his father’s refusal to forgive him for leaving home which is perhaps drawn out a little too long. In the end the three stories converge, one of them ending in tragedy and the other two more happily. Murata, who plays the young girl’s love interest in the film, would direct 36 films in his career. He died in 1937, age 43.
From the late ‘teens to the mid-twenties, Cecil B. DeMille specialized in films that focused on marriage and issues such as infidelity and divorce. Films like Don’t Change Your Husband(1919) and Why Change Your Wife?(1920) fall into DeMille’s marital drama category and have been restored and released on DVD most likely due to the presence of Gloria Swanson in both films. Forbidden Fruit has yet to have an official DVD release. It stars Agnes Ayres who is best known for playing Rudolph Valentino’s love interest in The Sheik(1921). Forbidden Fruit is essentially a remake of The Golden Chance (1915), an earlier film by DeMille and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, in which a woman of modest circumstances and unhappily married is given an opportunity to escape both her impoverishment and despicable husband. The parallels to the Cinderella story are made explicit with some elaborate fantasy sequences. The opulent sets and costumes were certainly part of DeMille’s attempt to appeal to women, his target audience for these films. The somewhat frothy narrative culminates in a rather effective dramatic climax. As of October, 2015, Forbidden Fruit is available to view on YouTube. It’s an excellent print with an impressive score performed by a string quartet and piano. Someone must have taken the trouble to commission the score and acquire the print from the Library of Congress or George Eastman House but so far I’ve been unable to ascertain who. If you’re interested in the film I would suggest watching it soon because there’s no telling how long it will remain on YouTube.
Mary Pickford was one of Hollywood’s first international superstars. In 1919 she founded the independent film production company United Artists along with then husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith. This gave her complete control over every aspect of her own films. Little Lord Fauntleroy is remarkable for its production values. The quality of the sets, costumes, locations, and cinematography bespeak of an MGM production during their heyday though that era came about long after this film was made. Also notable are the special effects. Pickford plays a dual role here as Cedric Errol, a young boy, and as Cedric’s mother, “Dearest”. There are several scenes in which these characters appear together which all had to be done with double exposures but the results are seamless and will have you wondering how it could be done before the age of digital compositing. Pickford is convincing and endearing as “Dearest” but not so much as Cedric. A child actor would’ve been more appropriate for the role but Pickford’s public may have been disappointed by a Mary Pickford film that didn’t feature her as the main star. Pickford was well known for playing child characters such as in Pollyanna (1920) but this is her only attempt at playing a boy as far as I know. The story, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is the sentimental type of family fare that you find in a lot of Disney films. The restored print used for the Milestone DVD looks excellent and includes a lovely, though at times generic and overwrought, orchestral score. Due to the simplistic nature of the narrative I can’t really recommend this film to anyone other than children, Pickford fans, and silent film buffs interested in state of the art filmmaking from the early twenties.
Charlie Chaplin on many occasions called it the best film he’d ever seen and Bergman, upon whom the film had a strong impact and which he would reference several times in his own films, called it an absolute masterpiece in cinematic history. It is not a horror story as the title might suggest but more like a Swedish version of “A Christmas Carol.” The film has been called a temperance sermon and it certainly has a moral message. Yet, like “A Christmas Carol,” the story is so entertaining that it doesn’t seem preachy. The acting is an naturalistic as it gets for a silent film. The Criterion DVD includes commentary by a film historian, an interview with Bergman concerning the film and his working relationship with its director/star, Victor Sjostrom, and another short feature by a film scholar showing parallels between the film and Bergman’s films. No other silent film I’ve seen to date has had such a powerful emotional impact on me but much of that impact is due to Matti Bye’s excellent score which Criterion wisely chose as the default score. The other score by KTL is just idiotic. It’s as though someone told them to make music for a horror film so they created 90 minutes of monotonous eerie sounds which only occasionally corresponds to the mood of the narrative.