Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blockbusters of 1925: The Lost World & Ben-Hur (with bonus 1907 version)

I dropped this question on Twitter two or three months ago, but as my count of real followers is in the dozens (if that), I got no response, but I'm still curious: How many silent movies do folks in other cities get to see on the big screen in a month? This particular week was anomalous, with at least five on tap (these two and three of "The Hitchcock Nine"), but there's generally one or two in a given month. I suspect the units would be inverted in many other cities - how many months between silents - which means I'm very lucky as a Person Who Likes Silent Movies.

It's a coincidence in this case, as three separate series converged: The Stomp Boston! giant monster movies at the Brattle, the Somerville's monthly visits from Jeff Rapsis, and the HFA's "Complete Alfred Hitchcock" summer. I'll get to the Hitchcock stuff later in the week (maybe even tomorrow, depending on how much time I have for writing on the bus), but the other two were both entertaining shows in their own way.

Andrew Alden Ensemble

I saw the Alan Alden Ensemble last fall, when the Brattle had them accompany Nosferatu, and I have to admit - they're not exactly my favorites for performing along with a silent movie. Especially early on, it seemed like they were deliberately trying to subvert silent-film music tropes, playing something a little more aggressive than usual while the movie was still doing set-up. It rubbed me the wrong way at first, although I either got used to it or the initially jarring stuff paid off later, as I certainly wasn't noticing how the music wasn't quite right by the finale.

The movie itself seemed to be one of the shorter cuts, as I think we were out of the theater by within an hour and a half even with delays and introductions. Maybe that's why some of the love-triangle-related stuff seems relatively abrupt - I can certainly see the mushy stuff getting cut over the years even while the action stayed in.

I didn't get the traditional shot of Jeff Rapsis's back as he prepared for the movie, but I did catch this as I was walking into the theater:

For some reason, I'd always assumed that the Somerville Theatre's booth was set up for 16mm, but projectionist David Kornfeld and company set this up behind the main auditorium to screen the 1907 version of "Ben Hur". According to Dave's humorous introduction, there are pretty much no 35mm prints left of anything produced by Kalem Company, which produced this version of the story to great enough success that the novel's copyright holders came after them, hitting them with a lawsuit that eventually made it to the Supreme Court and ended with Kalem having to pay $25,000 - which, a hundred years ago, was a tremendous amount of money. He then proceeded to spend some time reminding us how D.W Griffith established a lot of modern cinematic grammar after this movie was made, assuring us that laughing at the primitive nature of what we were about to see was A-OK.

And, yeah, we laughed - although I think most of us held out until the chariot race, as the thing was mostly just perplexing up to that point, when even us computer science majors could see that this was not an effective way to make a movie.

Jeff introduced the movie as Dave scrambled upstairs to get to the other projector, and there was two and a half hours of movie coming - and then more silents later in the week...

The Lost World (1925)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston!, digital w/ live accompaniment)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's second-most famous creation turned a hundred last year without a whole lot of fanfare; Professor George Challenger didn't have the sheer number of great (or even good) stories that Sherlock Holmes did. That first one, though, is a classic adventure story, and the silent 1925 adaptation brings the fun to the screen so well that it has remained the definitive version ever since. Heck, it would arguably be almost seventy years until the next great dinosaur movie.

Not that any reasonable person in London believes Challenger's stories about dinosaurs on a plateau in South America. But Challenger (Wallace Beery) can work people up, and soon has a party put together for a rescue mission: Famed sportsman Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), reporter Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes), skeptical scientist Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), and Paula White (Bessie Love), the daughter of the missing explorer whose diary is leading them to the so-called Lost World.

In some ways, the big effects-driven action/adventure movie hasn't really changed all that much in the past century - screenwriter Marion Fairfax and "dramatic director" Harry O. Hoyt save the expensive stuff that sold tickets for the second half of the movie while spending the first half getting everyone to the scene, filling time with humor that involves a trained monkey while building a love triangle between Roxton, Paula, and Ed. It's pleasant enough, and actually does pay off during the climax, although in the shorter cuts of the movie, things do seem to jump around a bit (like far too many silents, The Lost World was frequently cut and had prints destroyed, and we're fortunate that it's been reconstructed as much as it has). Ed seems to forget his fiancee (Alma Bennett) fairly quickly, for instance.

The party does get to South America and the mysterious plateau, though, and the dinosaurs created by Willis O'Brien don't disappoint. O'Brien spent his career building stop-motion dinos, most famously for this movie and King Kong, researching them to be as accurate as possible for the time and painstakingly shooting them one frame at a time. The results must have been like nothing else the audiences of 1925 had ever seen - this kind of animation then mostly being the province of gimmicky shorts rather than part of a dramatic feature - and is still fun to watch today: The dinosaurs move naturally and fight fiercely, even if they don't interact with the cast directly very often. It's exciting both in the jungle and in the inevitable final London sequence, which has got to be among the first great bits of event-movie landmark destruction.

The human cast acquits themselves well, too. Wallace Beery dives right into Challenger's broad, loud, disagreeable nature; the audience can't actually hear his shouting, but I'll bet accompanists feel compelled to pound their keyboards even harder when he's talking. Lloyd Hughes makes for a stumbling but earnest viewpoint character, and Bessie Love does well to not make Paula seem fickle as they grow closer. Lewis Stone, whose Roxton declares his affection early on, does something reasonably rare in silents by underplaying the sense of betrayal his character must feel, so that the question of whether he'll end up noble or villainous stays up in the air.

That's about as close to sophisticated as the movie gets, and that's fine - it's more or less inventing its genre. For such an early example, it figures out what works pretty well, and is fun to watch as much more than a history lesson.

(Previously at EFC)

Ben Hur (1907)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 16mm w/ live accompaniment)

This 15-minute silent version really should not be one's first encounter with Ben-Hur. That's not so much because it's from the very first years of the twentieth century, when filmmakers hadn't really figured out how to make a movie beyond "point the camera and capture what happens", or because it's not exactly great execution by those standards. No, the simple fact is that it was made in 1907, when its entire audience could be assumed to have either read Lew Wallace's novel or seen an adaptation performed on stage, and this short doesn't seek to tell the story so much as illustrate it. The intertitles don't present dialogue or impart information so much as announce which thing that a moviegoer might have been eager to see realized comes next.

So, if you're like me and don't know the story already, the thing is kind of incomprehensible, at least until after seeing one of the later iterations. It's still kind of amusing from the "look at how they used to do this!" perspective, and in a way rather educational: The "injury of the Roman official" scene is an object lesson in how close-ups and cutting can be more effective than a wide shot at times (I didn't know where to look until after things had already happened), while the chariot race demonstrates the importance of following action rather than letting it pass.

It's rough to watch, but for an audience that loved the source material, it was exciting - and as someone who has come out of superhero movies like "yes! that's what I've wanted to see for twenty years!", I can't fault them for that - which made it successful enough at the box office to get the copyright owners' lawyers involved. Today it's mostly interesting for its place in history and as an example of early cinema, but that's at least worth something.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm w/ live accompaniment)

Though the later version starring Charlton Heston is the most well-known adaptation of Lew Wallace's hugely popular nineteenth-century novel Ben-Hur, the ones that came before it were big deals as well: A 1907 short triggered a lawsuit establishing that copyrighted works could not be adapted without compensation, while this 1925 film was colossal for its time: The most expensive movie made during the silent period at a cost of almost four million dollars, epic in length at two and a half hours long, and featuring sequences in 2-strip Technicolor, it was a bold way for the newly-consolidated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio to announce its presence, and remains an entertaining extravaganza.

The story would have been familiar to all seeing it at the time: Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro), the prince of a wealthy Jewish family in Jerusalem in the time of Christ, is reunited with a Roman friend, Messala (Francis X. Bushman) who has returned as a soldier, only to discover that Messala is not quite the open-minded cosmopolitan as the Hur family - Judah's mother (Claire McDowell) would free their slave retainer Simonides (Nigel de Brulier) if the law allowed, and lets him keep his status secret from his daughter Esther (May McAvoy). When the new governor is injured while passing the Hurs' house, Messala imprisons Judah's mother and sister (Kathleen Key) and sentences him to work as a galley slave - although his actions during a pirate attack will set Judah on a different path, leading him to clash again with Messala in Antioch.

It's a grand, sweeping story that spans the ancient world from Jerusalem to Rome and back, given a little extra gravitas by how it intersects with the stories from the New Testament, from the Nativity to the crucifixion. The filmmakers tread somewhat carefully here, keeping Jesus mostly relegated to the side of the screen - at most, a hand will reach out to gesture or heal. It's a rather self-conscious convention at times, although seldom to the point where it elicits giggles. Still, it's respectful and low-key enough that him being used as a deux ex machina once or twice doesn't come off as silly and the message of peace - even though the Israelites want a warrior-king - comes through.

For all that the Biblical elements dominate part of the movie, much of it is a rip-roaring adventure as the title character falls from wealth to slavery and rises back up, seeking both his lost family and liberty for his people. There are two tremendous action sequences in the movie, and while the pirate attack is occasionally somewhat chaotic, it's big and fairly easy to follow despite having a huge number of people running around, also moving the story forward. The centerpiece, though, is the chariot race, still thrilling the better part of a century later in large part because director Fred Nilbo and company never lose sight of how the way Judah and Messala race reflects their characters - Ben-Hur is determined but never maniacal, while the Roman comes off as greedy and underhanded. It's great action storytelling - you can follow the positions of the racers throughout, feel the speed through how the charioteers must take wide corners, see the danger of an entanglement between teams.

Those great moments elevate what is sometimes a thoroughly average story, one which is frequently driven by coincidence and decisions that could use a little more explanation. Still, the directness is at times refreshing - we don't get Judah seduced by the wealth and fame he has in Rome and then reminded of his heritage, for example, and while there could be an ongoing subplot with Judah's sister Tirzah and their mother, there's not, just occasional reminders that they're still around, if not doing so hot. It may seem strange to describe a 143-minute movie from a time when the average runtime was much shorter than now as both efficient and simple, but Niblo and company keep things moving along.

The cast gets the job done, too. Don't be fooled by the number of then-unknowns listed on IMDB as guards (Clark Gable & Gary Cooper) and slave-girls (Carole Lombard & Myrna Loy), or the mountain of stars who stood in the stands during the chariot race (Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, and the Barrymores are just a start); the main cast is rather more modest from the perspective of 2013: Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman are capable enough, not quite so prone to the broad gesticulating that some of their co-stars go in for. Not bad as beefcake, either, which is good, as both tend to have shorter hemlines than most of their female co-stars - well, aside from Carmel Myers, who doesn't quite make a tiny costume on a good body translate into an irresistible seductress with her performance. May McAvoy does a fairly nice job as Esther, though, giving the part often labeled as "The Girl" some strength as well as charm.

Granted, the entire cast is giving performances and acting out a script that is very much of its time, and its sometimes hard to not be a little dismissive of what was a huge movie to one's great-great-grandparents. They still nail down a lot of the basics here, and every once in a while, a bit of spectacle like the chariot race or bright Technicolor when one has grown used to simple tinting, still manages to impress.

(Previousl at EFC)

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