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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #4: He Who Gets Slapped, 1924

From a classic western last week to a circus thriller/romance/tragedy, a bit of whiplash. But this film represents several film history milestones and I was thrilled to watch it for the first time.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Director: Victor Sjöström (as Victor Seastrom)
Writer: Victor Sjöström & Carey Wilson (based on the play He, the One Who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev)
Cinematographer: Milton Moore
Producer: Louis B. Mayer for MGM
Starring: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marc McDermott, Ruth King, Tully Marshall 

Why I chose it
Because of the name? I had heard of this film; it hadn't registered strongly for me as a 'must-see' film yet I remembered the name. When it appeared, during my research, on a list of acclaimed 1924 films, I added it to my shortlist; my Twitter followers voted it to the top.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Poor Parisian scientist Paul Beaumont (Chaney) lives on the generosity of his patron, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), unaware Regnard has designs on both Beaumont's scientific breakthrough and his wife Marie (Ruth King). He loses both to this embodiment of evil, and is further disgraced when both, separately, slap him across the face to put him in his place. When done in front of an audience of academics, they break into hysterical laughter. Fast forward a few years, and Paul has become the star clown of a circus act in which a posse of identically-dressed clowns slap him repeatedly until he tumbles around the circus ring to the delight of audiences. His circus moniker? You guessed it: 'He Who Gets Slapped', 'HE' for short. HE meets young circus horse-acrobat Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and becomes infatuated with her. She, however, has fallen in love with her handsome partner Bezano (John Gilbert). The Baron reappears when Consuelo's opportunist father bribes him into proposing marriage to Consuelo. These developments are discovered by HE, who is determined to have his revenge on his old enemy, and save Consuelo in the process.

Production Background and 1924 in Film History
This film emerged as the first production of newly formed MGM, with Louis B. Mayer at the helm. Mayer had concluded his deal with Samuel Goldwyn earlier in the year, and hired Swedish director Victor Sjöström to direct. Already an acclaimed director in Sweden, Sjöström used expressionistic visuals to illustrate his cinematic morality tales such as his wonderful The Phantom Carriage (1921), which I saw for the first time a few months ago. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert were not the 'stars above the title' yet in 1924. Lon Chaney was the star, and already had over 100 film credits to his name. Also appearing in the film was a live lion! The lion was not credited, but his appearance coincided with the first appearance of "Leo" the MGM Lion in the opening credits. I noticed that in those credits, this version of Leo did not open his mouth once.

Some other notable film-related events in 1924*:
  • Theaters started screening double features for the first time.
  • Prolific silent-era producer/director Thomas Ince died in what was rumored to be murder or accidental homicide aboard the pleasure boat of William Randolph Hearst, by Hearst, or Charlie Chaplin, or ??. It seems that the modern view is that despite some melodramatic antics on the boat, Ince likely succumbed to long-standing coronary disease.
  • Erich von Stroheim (featured in the first of my blog series, here) released his epic masterpiece Greed based on the novel McTeague.
  • C.B.C. Film Sales Company changed its name to Columbia Pictures Corporation.
*Thanks to

My Random Observations 
  • Ah, silent film - how I'd missed you before I started this blog project! 
  • Like last week, the visuals in this film are breathtaking, but for different reasons. Instead of panoramic vistas, we have expressionistic lighting, symbolic flourishes, and creative dissolves.
  • Lon Chaney. There aren't enough superlatives to describe his talent and performance here. While I loved him in Phantom of the Opera (1925), I didn't really appreciate the range of his pantomime abilities, including his mastery of his body as well as his face. I especially loved seeing him as rather normal-looking scientist Paul Beaumont before his transformation to "HE" the clown. He believably embodied the love and passion for discovery that the best scientists have. (He also looked a bit like Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur!)
  • Along those lines, I struggle to accept that Marie, Paul's wife, throws him over for the clearly slimy Baron. I mean, money is great and all, but for me having a nerdy scientist husband on the cusp of fame is the far better choice.
  • I find the fact that Paul/HE falls for Consuelo to be a sign of how much he's damaged psychologically. While she is lovely and kind, obviously NOT right for him even if she weren't in love with Benzano. The pity and sorrow we feel for him are more intense than if he saw himself as a big-brother or father-figure to Consuelo.
Poor Paul Beaumont (Chaney, center) doesn't know
that he's about to be betrayed by these two.

That look! Beaumont listens to the Baron 
taking credit for his invention - the start of his

Academics laughing at the first 'slap'

Symbolic scene of a clown spinning a globe

More clowns enter the earths' orbit

And then the earth dissolves into a circus ring

Romance at the circus: Bezano (Gilbert)
and Consuelo (Shearer)

Kind Consuelo pins a fabric heart on HE's 
Clown costume, much to his delight.

Fabulous shot of clowns laughing at HE's antics

Two slimy opportunists (Marshall & McDermott)
plan their next scheme.

Some small questions the film asks us.

This lion is ready for his close-up.

Lighting on a hand (the Baron's) reaching to unlock an 
off-limits cabinet enhances the treachery of the moment.

Where to Watch
Check it out on YouTube here.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #3: The Covered Wagon, 1923

I knew sooner or later a Western would pop up onto my list and I would not be able to resist it. Well, it's already happened on Week 3 of my quest to watch a new film every week from successive years.

The Covered Wagon (1923)
Director: James Cruze
Writer: Jack Cunningham, adapted from a novel by Emerson Hough
Cinematographer: Karl Brown
Producer: Jesse Lasky for Paramount Pictures
Starring: J.Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson, Alan Hale, Ernest Torrence

Why I chose it
Essentially, I couldn't resist a Western, and I had read (The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins) that it was an early masterpiece.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In 1948, two groups of would-be settlers of the Oregon territory unite their wagon trains in Kansas City to make the trek westward through harsh terrain and hostile Indian lands. Young Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson), while engaged to the shifty opportunist Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), becomes intrigued by the mysterious but heroic leader of the other group, Will Banion (J.Warren Kerrigan).  Banion is cast out of the combined group when it's revealed he was tried and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army for stealing cattle. Yet before that, he manages to use his wits and experience to get the group out of a few challenging moments, like crossing the Platte River. Once the majority of the travelers reach their destination, the three protagonists must confront their differences.

Production Background and 1923 in Film History
According to his son, producer Jesse Lasky was drawn to the story because his grandfather arrived in California in a wagon train; he wanted to "lift the western from a low-budget potboiler film into an epic," as quoted in Kevin Brownlow's 1980 documentary miniseries “Hollywood." And he arranged for the film to be shot in Utah. Director James Cruze grew up in Utah as a Mormon and observed wagons pass his family ranch. In the design, great pains were taken toward realism, including commandeering local old Conestoga heirloom wagons and hiring hundreds of Plains Native Americans hired to play their ancestors. The film cost $800,000 but made $4 million at the box office, a huge hit. It greatly influenced John Ford and ushered in a wave of epic and romantic Westerns that lasted well into the sound era.

Some other notable film-related events in 1923*:
  • Comedian Harold Lloyd wowed audiences with his best-remembered film Safety Last.
  • Star Wallace Reid died of an overdose after dealing with a years-long addiction to painkillers.
  • The iconic 'Hollywoodland' sign, later shorted to 'Hollywood', was built by a real estate developer in the hills above the burgeoning film town.
  • Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. was established, and would soon become a pioneer in developing sound films.
    *Thanks to
My Random Observations 
  • The real stars of this film are the natural beauty of the Utah landscape and the stunning cinematography by Karl Brown. I stopped the film several times just to admire the work. 
  • Despite expert pacing, the story itself made me yawn. And despite looking good and acquitting themselves well, leads Kerrigan and Wilson could not overcome the unidimensional nature of their characters.
  • As in many films, the supporting actors pretty much stole the picture. One of my favorites, Alan Hale, was the villain here -- one day I want to see him play the romantic lead in something, as he was endowed with charisma. (Not sure that's possible). Ernest Torrence as the sidekick Jackson disappeared into his goofy character, the hayseed type he often played in silent cinema (I remember him fondly as Steamboat Bill Sr. to Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr.) I was impressed to read he was a highly educated man and once an operatic baritone.
  • I bit my nails whenever I saw animals in danger here, partly because I knew animal welfare standards in films were years away. And there were hundreds of horses and cattle and bison in peril here. Lois Wilson said in an interview that two horses drowned during filming of the scene crossing the Platte River, and she was so upset she couldn't continue her scenes for a day or two.
  • Overall, recommended. If you're a fan of the Western, you need to see this one; clearly a major early achievement in the genre.

'Boy with Banjo' sets the mood of the picture.

Sweet, domestic Molly (Lois Wilson)

Molly charmed by Will fixing a doll for a little girl.

Ernest Torrence (r) is the king of goofy expressions
Poor Alan Hale, the villain in this one.

The scenery and breathtaking, realistic cinematography are the real stars here:

Read More
Some interesting film memorabilia and history of the making of the film, and information about the cast and crew can be found here

Where to watch

It's currently on YouTube, here, although this version does not have musical accompaniment, and as part of a compilation video of 1923 films. Kino Lorber released the film on Blu-Ray in 2018.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #2: Foolish Wives, 1922

This week we move to 1922 - still solidly in the silent era, but moving toward the time when silent film reached its creative and artistic peak. Foolish Wives demonstrates what can be done with the medium when a master is in charge. 
Foolish Wives (1922)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Writer: Erich von Stroheim; Titles by Marian Ainslee and Walter Anthony
Cinematographer: William Daniels and Ben Reynolds
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited) for Universal Film Mfg. Company
Starring: Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont, Rudolph Christians, Mae Busch, Maude George

Why I chose it
This film was recommended by a close film friend, and then it won the most votes from a poll I put on Twitter. The other options in the poll were Oliver Twist, Robin Hood, and Manslaughter. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In the principality of Monaco, shortly after the end of the Great War, a trio of scam artists posing as cousins and members of the Russian aristocracy live a lavish lifestyle in a chateau by the sea. The trio, "Princesses" Olga and Vera Petchnikoff and "Count" Captain Sergius Karamzin have just received an order of forged bills when they learn of the imminent arrival of new American ambassador Hughes and his wife in Monte Carlo. Seeing this as an opportunity to extend their influence and grab more cash, the Count begins the long con, arranging an introduction to the couple and then using his faux aristocratic charms on the somewhat bored Mrs. Hughes over a few days, enjoying boating, gambling, and preying on the disadvantaged in the process. The Count, not content with his current lovers, which includes his mournful, continually rebuffed maid, and probably, too, his "cousins", has his eye on the daughter of the forger. She exhibits a disability that causes her to act like a child and take to her bed with frequent headaches. Ultimately, his dalliances result in drastic revenge actions by the end of the film.

Production Background and 1922 in Film History:  Unlike Ernst Lubitsch, the director of the film I watched last week, Austrian Erich von Stroheim had already immigrated to the U.S. before his film career started. von Stroheim, like many of the characters he portrayed, extravagantly approached film-making. He was apparently inspired by D.W. Griffith, for whom he served as an assistant on the massive and ambitious Intolerance (1916). In Foolish Wives, von Stroheim created enormous sets to rival the actual Monte Carlo, and like most films he directed, he went over time and budget and ignored his bosses' pleas to rein in production. Originally six hours long, the film was subjected to drastic studio cuts until only a 130-minute version remained for commercial distribution. The version available today, as restored by the American Film Institute, runs 183 minutes.

Some other notable film-related events in 1922*:
  • The first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North, was produced.
  • Rin Tin Tin became a star.
  • William Desmond Taylor, film director, was shot and killed in a domestic incident that became a scandal for the industry. While suspects abound, the killer has not been definitely identified.
  • One of the earliest and oft-copied horror films, Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) was released.
  • Buster Keaton was in his most creative period; he released 6 short films in 1922, including a favorite of mine, Cops.
    *Thanks to
My Random Observations 
  • I loved this film, and was entranced throughout. Even having been cut down from 6 hours to its current form, it's a coherent whole with compellingly drawn characters. 
  • The film is rich with themes: European vs. American culture, crime and punishment, the meaning of marriage, mistaken or misunderstood identities, innocence vs. worldliness, rich vs. poor. 
  • Von Stroheim was a gifted cinematic storyteller. While he employed huge sets and made use of external locations with hundreds of extras, he really impressed me with small details of character, enabled by powerful close-ups and medium shots. For example, through a small series of scenes we learn that a doorman at the main hotel is not lacking manners when he doesn't pick up items that Mrs. Hughes dropped, rather he is missing his hands from a wartime injury. This both adds interest to the milieu of the film and portrays Mrs. Hughes' initial obliviousness and later her kind heart.
  • This film is an early example of what can happen when a key actor dies in mid-production. In this, Rudolph Christians as Mr. Hughes died unexpectedly with a number of scenes yet to film. Von Stroheim employed a stand-in (Robert Edeson) who mainly was seen from behind in a couple of scenes that remain in the version we have today. However, Edeson was easy to spot, partly because of his notably lighter hair, and short clips of Christians were edited in the scenes to make up for his absence. I was reminded of Saratoga, Jean Harlow's last film, in which some scenes were completed, and obviously, by Mary Dees as Harlow's character. Or Gladiator, where CGI and clever editing enabled Oliver Reed to complete his remaining scenes posthumously. In any of these cases the situation would have been difficult for the cast and crew, and awkward for past and current audiences.
  • Was von Stroheim always best when dressed in military garb? I'm reminded of his excellent turn as the hospitable German captain in La Grande Illusion.
  • I would have liked more scenes with the Princesses Olga and Vera, and their backstories. Perhaps that was some of what never made it into the final film.
  • I'm now curious about von Stroheim's previous film, Blind Husbands (1919) It seems to have a similar plot. Is it as compelling?
In this frontal shot, it looks like Karamzin (von Stroheim)
is aiming his gun at us. This is his introductory scene.

Karamzin is intrigued by the developmentally-
delayed daughter (Malvina Polo) of an accomplice.

Impressive replica of Monte Carlo.

A bit of self-referential humor: the book Mrs. Hughes
is reading when she meets Karamzin.

Karamzin attempts to comfort Mrs. Hughes (DuPont)
in a temporary shelter after getting caught
 in a destructive rainstorm.

Mr. and Mrs. Hughes (Christians and DuPont)
relaxing after her ordeal being stuck
all night with Karamzin in a rainstorm.

Occasionally Karamzin frequents the rough areas
of Monte Carlo, and has to cover his nose from
the stench of the sewer. This location
will return at a key plot moment.

Mrs. Hughes becomes aware of this military
guest's (Harrison Ford) disability.

Just so you can't forget this is Monte Carlo,
Karamzin and Mrs. Hughesat a gambling table.

In this shot we see the stand-in for actor Rudolph
Christians, Robert Edeson, with back to us. 

The Maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller) plotting. 

Maruschka attempts to convince Karamzin
of her heartbreak.

Read More
Stroheim (biography by Arthur Lennig, 2000)

Where to watch

It's currently on YouTube, here, and Kanopy, and is available on DVD.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #1: The Wildcat, 1921

This post marks the first in a weekly blog series that I intend to keep up throughout the year: I'm going to watch one film per week from successive years, starting 100 years ago. Stay tuned here for upcoming posts as I make my way through the remainder of the last silent film decade, the 1920s, all the way through to 1970. The only hard selection criterion is that it must be a film I've not seen before. This way, I'll have added significantly to my appreciation for film history. I'll be posting on Twitter, @bbandmoviegal, with updates and requests for input to my next's weeks choice. Follow along using the hashtag #50YearsofFilmin50Weeks, and wish me luck!

The Wildcat/Die Bergkatze 1921*

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Hanns Kräly and Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: Pola Negri, Victor Janson, Paul Heidemann

Why I chose it
I had just watched a celebrated pre-code film by Lubitsch, Design for Living (1932), and I was curious to watch more of his work, especially that from his pre-Hollywood period in Germany. And The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) was the only film he directed in 1921. Additionally, I'd never seen famed Polish silent film actress Pola Negri perform. Like Lubitsch, Negri had also come to Hollywood in the silent era, and I knew that she had had affairs with both Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. I was eager to get a sense of who she was in front of the camera.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In an unnamed historical kingdom, a group of bandits capture a key military officer who had been banished to a nearby outpost because of his womanizing ways. The Lieutenant becomes enamored of Rischka, the wild, but pure, young woman who entices victims for the group. Ultimately, she lets him escape, but his superiors back at Headquarters wish to punish the bandits; they fail in this mission, but Rischka infiltrates the quarters of the Kommandant. A series of romantic entanglements ensue, with the Lieutenant torn between the Kommandant's conventional daughter and his lust for Rischka. For herself, Rischka would have to give up her own young man for a life of nice dresses. What will she do?

Historical Context
Before Lubitsch came to Hollywood and directed such classics as Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, and The Shop Around the Corner, he had worked in German cinema for around 15 years. He was known for his sex comedies and historical epics, a few of which starred Negri. Both Lubitsch and Negri were lured to Hollywood just a year after this film was made.

My Random Observations

  • The film was shot in Bavaria, and the outdoor scenes look authentic, with knee-deep snow and frosty breath visible from the actors who did not seem to be dressed warmly enough -- I shivered along with them!
  • In a very physical performance, Pola Negri was indeed 'wild'-she gallivanted around the screen, threw snowballs, and even pitched furniture out a window. She seemed to relish looking decidedly less than glamorous; of course, later in the film, we see her looking more conventionally beautiful as she tries to conform to 'society' such as it is.
  • Clearly, this film is a farce, with greatly stylized, surreal, internal sets, and costumes that make the men appear more like toy soldiers than real ones (a commentary on the German military). There is quite a wild dream sequence near the end.
  • The visuals are striking, especially the choice of all kinds of oddly-shaped 'frame masks' that pop-up throughout. Lubitsch isn't content with basic squares, circles or irises. See screenshots below for a couple of examples. Apparently Lubitsch was poking fun at D.W. Griffith's filming techniques.
  • I didn't love the film, but I was impressed by it for its audacity and enjoyed Negri's performance. At about 90 minutes run time it seemed about 30 minutes too long. 
  • But isn't it amazing that we can watch a film made 100 years ago?


Rischka's first view of Lieutenant Alexis

Rischka (Pola Negri) makes a play for her prey

Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) in an odd frame

The would-be lovers face off

Those expressions!

In her dream sequence, Rischka dances with the
Lieutenant while an orchestra of snowpeople (polar
bears?) plays for them.
Read More
The Wellington Film Society posted an informative essay here.
Fellow CMBA blogger and silent film aficionado Movies Silently reviewed the film here
TCM's write up is here, with more background on Negri and Lubitsch's collaborations.

Where to watch
It's currently on YouTube, here, and has been released on DVD.