Search This Blog

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #8: Underground, 1928

Underground, 1928

My first--and mostly likely NOT last--British film of the series is a visual feast and emotional ride on the Tube.

Director: Anthony Asquith
Writers: Anthony Asquith
Cinematographer: Stanley Rodwell
Produced by British Instructional Films
Starring: Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, Norah Baring

Why I chose it
When a good film friend recommended this one and offered to loan me her copy, I jumped at the chance to include my first British film in this series. I had considered watching one of Hitchcock's silents, or the lauded Lillian Gish vehicle, The Wind, but Underground rose to the top. I was especially curious to see Brian Aherne in a silent film, and also Norah Baring, who I had only seen in Hitchcock's early talkie Murder!

The following gifs are shared by permission of my friend Vânia from

Lovers above ground.

Brian Aherne is the film's protagonist.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Bill (Aherne) is a porter/attendant in the London Underground who immediately becomes smitten with retail salesgirl Nell (Landi) when he notices her on a long escalator at an Underground station during the morning commute. In the same setting, though, she also meets and charms Bert (McLaglen), an electrician who works for the transit system. Bert pursues Nell aggressively, but the only problem is Bert is loved by his neighbor, the sweet Kate (Baring), who runs her own dressmaking shop. This love quadrangle heats up in multiple ways, with jealous rages and dirty tricks, until tragedy strikes. The film culminates in an incredible chase scene.

Production Background and 1928 in Film History
Anthony Asquith, the son of a UK Prime Minister, studied filmmaking in the U.S. before he began as a director in his native England. He was only 26 years old when he made Underground, his second feature. I loved this quote from Asquith: "In England when you make a movie, even the weather is against you. In Hollywood, the weatherman gets a shooting schedule from all the major studios and then figures out where he can fit in a little rain without upsetting MGM too much." Asquith later developed a reputation for directing theatrical dramas like Pygmalion and The Winslow Boy.

Anthony Asquith (

Underground is notable for its stunning visuals, of course, thanks to cinematographer Stanley Rodwell, but perhaps even more for the location settings: the London Underground scenes were filmed in and around the Waterloo Station, and the power station scenes were filmed in the Lots Power Station, now defunct. The film was little seen after its release, and I couldn't find details of its release in the U.S. although it must have screened in NYC at least, as it was reviewed by Mordaunt Hall in the NY Times. In 2009 the film received a restoration by the British Film Institute, and was burned to DVD. It was released to UK cinemas again in 2013 to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the Underground subway system. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1928*:

  • After their success with The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers releases their first 'all-talking' film, The Terror.
  • RKO Productions, evolving originally from the Mutual Film Corporation (1912), was created in the merger of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Film Booking Office (FBO) and Keith-Albee-Orpheum.
  • The animated character soon to be dubbed "Mickey Mouse" made his debut in the Disney short film Plane Crazy.
  • Charlie Chaplin released The Circus, the fourth feature-length film he directed.
*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • If anyone wanted to argue that silent film is a lesser art, this film would be among those I would show them. The masters of this art created a new medium of storytelling through moving black and white images that is worth discovering nearly 100 years later. In this film, Asquith delighted in contrasting scenes of dark and light, 'underground' and above ground', and he juxtaposed the beauty of his protagonists (Aherne and Landi, and McLaglen and Baring to a lesser extent) with the ugliness and idiosyncratic visages of random people around them. The camera was as active as the actors, taking along audience members as we journeyed along the tracks and streets.
  • Based on the amount of shadows and canted angles, it is hard not to recognize the impact of German expressionism. There were some obvious symbolic shots that some viewers may find 'over the top', but I absolutely loved them. See some of them in my screenshots below.
  • It was fun to see Elissa Landi and Norah Baring again, two actresses that I'd only seen in a total of three films to date: After the Thin Man and The Count of Monte Cristo for Ms. Landi, and Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! for Ms. Baring.
  • I had no idea prolific character actor Victor McLaglen had an acting brother; it turns out that he had four! Cyril McLaglen was his younger brother and didn't resemble his more famous brother much in my opinion, yet his rugged face was tremendously expressive, moving from bashful to menacing within moments.
  • I can't wait to see more of Brian Aherne. A native Brit, he made many films in Hollywood in the early talkie era when he was at his most handsome, leading-man phase (although his career lasted into the 1960s). It won't be long before I pick out of few of these to watch (What Every Woman Knows, The Constant Nymph and The Fountain all look interesting).

We're on the train as it approaches the station platform
teeming with passengers.

Bert (McLaglen) eyes Nell (Landi) as they sit side
by side riding the Underground.

Superimposition of images telegraphs tragedy ahead
as Kate (Baring) confronts Bert.

Bert's hair and face in shadows enhance our fear of 
him in a crucial scene.

We see the back of Kate as she approaches
the ominous Lots Power Station as dark clouds hover.

Nell hides while observing Bert.

Kate pretends to have a fainting spell to distract Bill.

The local barmaid isn't missing a thing.

Bert flicks a piece of lint off Bill's shoulder in a parallel
act of Bill's from earlier in the film. 

A shadow covers Kate's eyes as she looks out her 
window to watch Bert approach.

The initial intimacy between Bill and Nell is
caught only as a shadow.

First close-up of handsome Bill (Aherne)

At the film's end we pull away from the largely vacant platform.

Where to Watch
I expect this can be found by subscribing to the BFI streaming channel, but it doesn't appear to be accessible anywhere else online. Otherwise, there is the DVD release from the BFI on Kino Lorber.

Further Reading
The British publication The Guardian published an article on the 2013 re-release of the restored film in cinemas here.
Fellow blogger Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings posted a review of the Kino DVD release of the film. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #7: 7th Heaven, 1927

 "Chico.....Diane.... HEAVEN!" 

7th Heaven, 1927

Director: Frank Borzage
Writers: Based on a play by Austin Strong, and adapted by Benjamin Glazer.
Cinematographers: Ernest Palmer, Joseph Valentine
Producer: William Fox and Sol M. Wurtzel for the Fox Film Corporation.
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Albert Gran

Why I chose it
I had read a bit about the film years ago, and so I was already inclined toward it even before I realized it would be my second film in a row with 'heaven' in the title! I was also curious to see more of Frank Borzage's work, having loved Moonrise on first viewing a few weeks ago.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Chico is a sewer-worker in pre-WWI Paris, and Diane is a young woman forced into prostitution by her older, abusive, sister Nana. During a particularly abusive episode, Diane is knocked out on the street and nearby Chico defends her to keep her out of jail when the police, having arrested her sister on prostitution charges, come around looking for Diane. He offers to put Diane up in his 7th floor flat until police detectives are convinced that she is his 'wife.' This ruse works, but the two eventually fall in love, having grown accustomed to their new life of fighting poverty together. The couple trade their wedding vows right before Chico is called off to fight in the Great War.

Production Background and 1927 in Film History
In the prolific film year of 1927, 7th Heaven is perhaps best known today for its strong showing at the very first Oscars. The Motion Picture Academy had just formed that year, and in 1929 inaugurated the annual awards ceremony we celebrate today. In that first ceremony, films from both 1927 and 1928 were honored, and 7th Heaven took away three: Best Director for Frank Borzage, Best Actress for Janet Gaynor (the award also recognized her work in Sunrise and Street Angel), and best adapted screenplay for Benjamin Glazer. The film was also one of three nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to Wings. The third one nominated was The Racket

Some other notable film-related events in 1927*:

  • Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer to great acclaim, and the success of the film effectively sounded the death knell of the silent era.
  • But the silent era was still reaching new heights as an art form, with films like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Abel Gance's Napoleon, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis now considered among the best films, silent or otherwise, ever made.
  • The Hays Office released the first version of The Motion Picture Production Code, which dictated what could and could not be shown in a film. 
*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Director Borzage was known as a master of romanticism, and I can see why. He makes us feel pity for his downtrodden protagonists, but also joy at how they bring 'heaven' to each other's lives. It's tremendously sentimental, but the opposite of maudlin. He also effectively uses humor to add dimensionality to these characters...for example, the scene in which Diane is trying to cut Chico's hair.
  • The version of the film I watched incorporated a musical score by pianist/composer Keith Taylor. I detected variations of several tunes from Puccini's beloved opera La Boheme, including "Che Gelida Manina" and "Quando me'n vo" -- completely apt, considering its story of poor lovers living in a Parisian garret apartment. Interestingly, the film was one of the first to be released with a recorded musical soundtrack.
  • Charles Farrell was one handsome dude, little-remembered today, despite a long career in the entertainment business. This film was the first to pair him with Janet Gaynor, and the two were such a compelling couple, that they were cast opposite one another several more times. Apparently the two had a relationship off-screen as well, but Farrell was too much of a party-animal for Gaynor (!).
  • While the title '7th Heaven' may primarily invoke the 7th floor apartment of the lovers where their own personal 'heaven' is revealed, and the ecstacy of their own first love, to me, the opening of Chico's heart to God or at least the power of the supernatural, is evoked here as well. At the outset of the film he complains that God has never answered his prayers but later he uses religious medals to symbolize his union to Diane. The touching of those medals open up a supernatural wavelength such that the lovers could "communicate" when separated during the war.

Diane in fear of her abusive sister.

Happy-go-lucky Chico contemplates a future above the sewers
while Diane lies near the gutter behind him.

Diane and Chico rise a series of staircases on the 
way to their 'seventh floor heaven.'

Chico is unsure of what Diane is doing to his hair.

On the front, Chico takes time out to 'visit'
with Diane at their 11:00 AM meeting time.

Comic relief comes from a taxi driver (Albert Gran)
 and his ill-fated car 'Eloise'.

Diane and Chico negotiating the terms of 
their relationship.

Where to Watch
Once again, YouTube comes through. The print is not particularly good, and I hope to get the DVD someday. 

Further Reading
A bit more production background on the film and its stars can be found in this essay for the National Film Preservation Board.
For a detailed exploration of Borzage as a person, and director, go here

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #6: For Heaven's Sake, 1926

"Fellers, if this guy can preach like he can hit, it's gonna be a tough season for Satan."

For Heaven's Sake (1926)

Director: Sam Taylor
Writers: Ted Wild, John Grey, and Clyde Bruckman
Cinematographers: Walter Lundin
Producer: Harold Lloyd (uncredited) for the Harold Lloyd Company; distributed by Paramount
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Noah Young

Why I chose it
Two reasons, really. The first is that I had sadly neglected Harold Lloyd's films when I developed a strong interest in silent comedy and watched every extant film from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Second, during a somewhat stressful week, a comedy appealed more strongly than it ordinarily might.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
J. Harold Manners (Harold Lloyd) is a wealthy, spoiled, but eternally optimistic young man from "Uptown" of a large city, who accidentally makes a grant to establish a Mission in the rough "Downtown" neighborhood. In trying to get his name off the Mission's marquee, he begins to soften when his heartstrings are tugged by the Mission founder's charming, pious young daughter, Hope (Jobyna Ralston). Trying to make a good impression, Harold is pressed to get a gang of pool hall toughs into the Mission, leading them on a zigzag chase through the streets with this ulterior motive. Sequestered in the Mission, the gang fends off the attention of the beat cops, who are out to apprehend some petty thieves. Later, a series of further misadventures threatens to derail his wedding to Hope, catalyzed by Harold's snooty uptown friends' efforts to prevent him from marrying below his station.

Production Background and 1926 in Film History
Nebraska-born Harold Lloyd made over 200 films in his career, from the second decade of the 20th century to about the mid 1930s. As bankable box-office, Lloyd used his business acumen, understanding of the medium, and his own comic charisma to consistently build his audience. Like his contemporaries Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd eventually founded his own company and wielded creative control over nearly all aspects of film production. For Heaven's Sake came after two of his most famous films, The Freshman, and Safety Last; but apparently Lloyd didn't like the film, at least partly because he had to rework the script from a version deemed too expensive to film. Yet it was highly successful, becoming the 12th highest grossing film of the silent era, beating out any of Lloyd's other films. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1926*:

  • The first surviving feature-length animated film was released (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) in Germany.
  • Future star John Wayne made his debut feature film appearance as an uncredited football player in the college comedy-drama, Brown of Harvard (1926).
  • Screen sensation Rudolph Valentino died at the young age of 31, sparking hysteria among his legions of fans. 
  • Major studios were ramping up efforts to produce commercially viable sound films, such as the Warner Bros. Vitaphone technology and Fox's Movietone technology.
  • Buster Keaton released The General
My Random Observations
  • Perhaps Lloyd wasn't crazy about the film, and the gags were reworked from earlier films or inspired by Chaplin or Keaton, but minute for minute I had a heck of a ride with it - I don't think my broad smile ever left my face during the 58-minute running time.
  • Apparently the original film script had Lloyd playing his usual "boy-next-door" type. The change was in the film's favor, in my opinion; I loved Lloyd playing this rather clueless millionaire - he cut a dashing figure, and his costumes and posing just added to the laughs.
  • I find Jobyna Ralston a delightful, charming actress and the perfect partner for Lloyd, even though I've only seen her in this one and in The Freshman. I know Lloyd married another of his leading ladies, Mildred Davis, who was also wonderful, but Ralston stands out for me. 
  • Did police routinely have shoot-outs on busy streets with motorists riding in open-top vehicles?? This early scene was funny for its absurdity, but I was reminded of scenes in many early films, both comedies and dramas, in which cops didn't think twice about pulling out guns on streets crowded with bystanders and fire multiple times at escaping suspects from quite a distance. Did this really happen in the first half of the 20th century? I need to research police practices a bit.
  • The physical gags and use of crowds of extras reminded me of some of Buster Keaton's best work (like his short Cops). All very well done and no trick shots.
  • So many of the bit players and likely extras cast as the toughs and vagabonds were so well-costumed and made up, adding to the verisimilitude of the production. (See images below).
  • Speaking of bit players, here's a shout-out to Steve 'Broken-Nose' Murphy (1876-1953), who I recognized from his roles in some of Chaplin's and Keaton's films. If Central Casting was called to produce a rough-looking dude with a smashed-in nose, Murphy was your guy!


Money flows like water for our uptown hero.

He wrecked his white car, so he'll write a check for a new one.

Harold asking Brother Paul (Paul Weigel), Mission founder,
what he's gotten himself into.

Cherubic Hope (Jobyna Ralston)

It doesn't seem like a good idea for a cop, or anyone else,
to fire a gun from an open top moving vehicle on a busy street.

"Roughneck" Noah Young is Harold's chief antagonist, 
and is king of the angry pantomime!

The hilarious crowd chase scenes stack one on top of another.

I love these bit players reluctantly sharing a hymn book to 
avoid exposure to the cops.

Even the head beat cop joins in the singing.

Harold struggles to get a group of drunks onboard a streetcar.

Where to Watch
Once again, YouTube comes through. This was a nice quality print with the Robert Israel score, which was also featured on the DVD from New Line Cinema.

Further Reading: Fellow blogger friend Laura G. also loved this film. Read her review here.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #5: Little Annie Rooney, 1925

Led by a feisty tween, youngsters of many different ethnicities band together in the Bowery to entertain themselves and hold the adults accountable when they act on the razor's edge of the law, sometimes crossing over with devastating consequences.

Writers: Mary Pickford (as Catherine Hennessey), adapted by Hope Loring and Louis Lighton
Cinematographers: Hal Mohr, Charles Rosher
Producer: Mary Pickford (uncredited) for the Mary Pickford Company; distributed by United Artists

Why I chose it
Would you believe I'd never seen a Mary Pickford silent? So when I was looking through options for 1925 and learned that this film registered #10 in box office, I decided to rectify this before my options run out due to the advent of sound films.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Little Annie (Pickford) lives with her widowed father, the beat cop (Walter James), and her brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) in a working-class immigrant neighborhood in NYC in the early 20th century. Rarely away from the mischievous antics of the neighborhood boys, she delights in the gentlemanly attitudes and special friendship offered by Joe Kelley (William Haines), who isn't quite trusted by Dad. When adult jealousies get out of control, a tragedy touches Annie's life, and Joe is unfairly accused of murder. Determined to exonerate him, Annie is willing to put her life on the line.

Production Background and 1925 in Film History
"America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford's star was at its apex during 1925. She was the most celebrated movie actress on the planet, was married to equally-celebrated Douglas Fairbanks, and wielded considerable power as producer and film executive. Ms. Pickford's acting career faced a crossroads: she had made her reputation playing spunky young girls, and in 1925 she was well into young-womanhood. She still owned a cherubic face and small stature, so when a couple years earlier her attempts at playing more mature characters backfired at the box office, she went in search of a new project to reclaim her territory. The popular Irish ballad 'Little Annie Rooney' inspired her to write a story arc that would connect and inspire her loyal fans. At this, she delivered.

Some other notable film-related events in 1925*:
  • Another huge star of the era, and United Artists partner Charlie Chaplin, became the first actor to appear on the cover of Time. (He had just released The Gold Rush.
  • The Central Casting Corporation was set up to select and employ extras for all the major studios.
  • The great Russian war film Battleship Potemkin was released, known today for its innovative editing techniques.
  • The biblical epic, Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ, was brought to screen to great acclaim, second only to The Big Parade in box office that year.

My random observations

  • On Mary Pickford: yes, it was obvious she wasn't a girl anymore, but she made it possible to suspend disbelief on this point, especially during the early part of the film when her physical acting skills - running around, throwing punches, play-acting, etc., were called upon. As the plot took a more serious turn, and her character encountered more adult situations, her acting changed. It seemed that it would be hard to distinguish her here vs. her playing a naive young woman in a different film. I need to see more of her films to judge that.
  • The film sets were pretty realistic, and I thought I was watching a film set on location in and around the Bowery and the Lower East Side of NYC. It turns out that the Mary Pickford Company had gone to great lengths to create the set to deliver just that sense of realism.

  • I loved the mixing of the Irish, Chinese, Greek, African-American, and Jewish families here. Yes, there were some stereotypes trotted out (the Chinese laundry, the forbidding of pork and "fighting" on the Sabbath for the Jewish characters), but in general, all were treated with affection and largely as equal partners in life in the Bowery, in an all-for-one and one-for-all kind of way. I found that aspect refreshing.

  • 'Annie's' teenage brother was played by Gordon Griffith, who was the first-ever screen Tarzan as a boy (Tarzan of the Apes, 1918). His acting career petered out after the mid-1930s, but he went on to producing roles at various studios.

  • In order to enjoy the film, you'll have to endure an overlong opening scene of gangs of children fighting and throwing things at each other. While it no doubt required quite a bit of choreographing and sure-handed direction, it will try your patience. Stick it out.
  • In case you are wondering about the song 'Little Annie Rooney', here it is! It's sung by the perspective of Annie's "sweetheart" Joe, who is also the name of Annie's crush in the movie.

Screenshots (most credited to
Establishing shot.

William Haines as Joe Kelley, blamed for a 
crime he did not commit.

Gordon Griffith as young Tim Rooney, Annie's brother

Mary Pickford blew me away with her projection of pathos.

A comic scene when Annie helps Tim with his wardrobe before a date.

Annie and the kids on the block.

Where to watch:
It's on YouTube here, and a recent restoration by the Academy Film Archive from a nitrate print originally in Ms. Pickford's collection has been published on a Flicker Alley DVD.

Further reading
Check out fellow CMBA blogger Fritzi's review here.
TCM gives many interesting production details, including a visit to the set by Rudolph Valentino, on their site here.