Thursday, July 17, 2014

Silent Sunday: Three Ages, Orphans of the Storm, Intolerance

This didn't quite end up being the seven hours of silent film in one day that I initially reckoned on it being - though many sites listed Orphans of the Storm as being almost three hours long, the Somerville's print clocked in at something like two and a quarter, though I have no idea how much (if any) of that was a matter of different cuts or frame rates. Theater manager Ian Judge mentioned that they were pressed for time beforehand, as the film started at two and they had a 4:45 screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes scheduled for the auditorium, but there turned out to be a fair amount of room, even with accompanist Jeff Rapsis taking a moment to read a review of Orphans from the time of its release that used some really sensational metaphors.

It was somewhat instructive to see three silents with different presentations and pedigrees almost back to back, though. All looked pretty good, but it was kind of interesting to note that the DCP presentation of the restored Intolerance, while the clearest and most stable, looked kind of off. I hate saying that in an unquantifiable way, especially if it might just be a matter of my eyes/brain not being used to seeing this sort of movie this way and confusing "unfamiliar" with "poor". I wouldn't be surprised if silents, with their often deep blacks, suffered a little more from that particular digital projection problem area than later movies. I also wonder a bit about the tinted sequences - I imagine that the restoration worked with the original black-and-white footage and then applied a filter program to make those scenes blue or green or yellow as necessary, but it seemed a little brighter than usual. That had a blue-tinted scene really looking blue, as opposed to like night.

Orphans of the Storm, meanwhile, was a black-and-white print from the early 1970s that had not been tinted, and while it looked fantastic (a great exhibit for how these movies look better on B&W stock than color), we were warned that certain scenes, like when Louise is alone and panicked near the river, would look odd because some shots were shot at night while others were shot in the day and intended to be tinted blue, but weren't.

The music was the other big difference. I'm made the point of how seeing silents in a theater can be different every time because you get a different soundtrack, but this really drove it home. Jeff was great, as always, working "La Marsaillaise" into the score for French Revolution-set Orphans of the Storm fairly often and just generally doing a great job of tracking how D.W. Griffith brought a surprisingly light touch to a heavy story for two plus hours. It's an endurance test. It's the other two movies that had included scores that made me think a bit, though. Three Ages had a somewhat weak soundtrack to my ears, a kind of tinny, plinky piano sound that reflected what was happening on screen rather than helping to build or emphasize, while Intolerance had a new orchestral score by Carl Davis (along with some sound effects, which always seems kind of weird in silents to me, because if we can hear that sound exactly, why not voices?); it gave the movie some oomph. Given I felt when I came out of these movies - a little underwhelmed despite frequently being amused in the case of Three Ages and impressed even if I had occasionally been impatient for Intolerance - I wonder how much the scores managed to set the mood.

So, anyway, that's six and a half hours (give or take) of silents in one day, which is a lot. I appreciate both the Brattle and the Somerville getting their silent programming in before I left for Montreal, but I was joking for days before and after about how they might want to check with each other a little more often, because you've got to think there's a fairly limited audience for long D.W. Griffith epics in the first place, and scheduling two at the same time has to cut into it!

Three Ages

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2014 at the Brattle Theatre (Silent Movies Special Engagement, 35mm)

Three Ages was hardly the first parody movie - the practice of doing a quick takeoff was so common in early cinema that Thomas Edison's employees may have spoofed Frankenstein mere days after making it, for all we know - but it's noteworthy, a feature by one of the great silent comedians that not only has fun with a great movie but makes it his own. Buster Keaton may not quite be Mel Brooks at his peak here, but he's still a guy who knows his way around a joke.

His inspiration here is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, although his parallel stories are much simpler. In each, a beauty (Margaret Leahy) is courted by a suitor (Wallace Beery) who appeals to her parents (Joe Roberts & Lillian Lawrence) and The Other Guy (Keaton) who loves her true but can't catch a break. And while the specific trials in all the time periods - the stone age, the Roman Empire, and present-day 1923 - may be different, the basics of the story are the same.

This basic premise sort of winds up a stumbling block as well, because it means there's no escaping that Keaton and his compatriots are repeatedly telling the audience the same joke three times in a row. That's kind of rough when the joke already has whiskers on it, like Buster trying to make his beloved jealous by cozying up to another girl who is not in on the gag, but even the better parts suffer for the repetition: Keaton, co-director Eddie Cline, and writers Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell, and Jean Havez are not trying to subvert expectations as they cycle between ages, and what probably seemed very clever for a comedy 90 years ago doesn't quite get the same reaction now. Also not aging particularly well (and probably not that great in 1923, either) - how all three of Margaret Leahy's characters come off as somewhere between fickle and indifferent to which man wins her, even if all three do start to show some fondness for the Keaton characters later on.

Of course, it's not like the Buster Keaton section of an evening at the movies was ever about nuanced storytelling or great acting - though Keaton, Leahy, and company are fine - it was about gags. While there are pratfalls aplenty, there aren't a whole lot of the really elaborate bits that Keaton is best known for. There's also a steady stream of jokes based on how modern activities translate to other times, most pretty good. It did make me curious just how long the "cavemen dragging women off by the hair" meme has been with us, as this movie not only uses but makes some fun of it.

Though Three Ages doesn't quite have the scale of some of Keaton's other movies, it's actually a pretty solidly constructed hour. I don't know whether the Roman sets were built for this picture or standing from another, but they look nice, and while the caveman costumes and props are goofy, they never feel cheap. Heck, I was actually fairly impressed by the (presumably) stop-motion dinosaur Buster rides at one point, and a lion puppet is impressive both for how it gives the initial impression of being real and for how well its operators work it for comedy.

This wound up being Buster Keaton's first feature, and he built it so that it could be pulled apart into three shorts if it flopped or the gimmick didn't work. That caution hurts it a bit (and indicates how formulaic some of these shorts could be), but more jokes work than don't, and Keaton finding his feet is still pretty good.

Full review at EFC (dead link)

Orphans of the Storm

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2014 at Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm)

Filmmakers sometimes make weird decisions. Some are objectively odd but basically harmless, such as casting real-life sisters in a movie whose plot involves one of their sibling characters being adopted. Folks probably wouldn't do that today, but it works out rather well for Orphans of the Storm, a gem of the silent era.

The siblings in question are Henriette Giraud (Lillian Gish) and her sister Louise (Dorothy Gish); about twenty years ago the newborn Louise was placed on the steps of Notre Dame cathedral to save her high-born but unwed mother scandal, and while Henriette's poor father was about to do the same thing for different reasons, he not only could not go through with it, but returned home with two babies. Though Louise's mother left money for whoever found her daughter, their lives are still potentially tragic - the fever that took Girauds mère et père left Louise blind, and just as they arrive in Paris to seek a cure, Henriette is kidnapped by a smitten aristocrat. She is rescued by the far nicer Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), but by the time they return to the carriage station, Louise is gone, with a family of con artists looking to put her to work panhandling. And, as if things were not dire enough, it is the eve of the Revolution!

Griffith isn't going to stop there, of course - he's relating a melodrama, so there's a whopper of a coincidence to tie things together and a string of dramatic cliffhangers. He inserts Revolutionary figures like Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) and Georges Danton (Monte Blue) into the narrative to give it greater scale, and does a fair amount of rabble-rousing, whether against long-deceased French aristocrats - this atrocity, a caption declares, is true! - or by having the introductory text draw a direct parallel to his day's "anarchists and Bolsheviks". Griffith was not a very subtle man, and both the action and the titles bellow. It's not surprising that a key portion of the climax hinges on the oratory of Danton (declared "the Abraham Lincoln of France" in one intertitle) despite this being a silent picture; Griffith loved this sort of thunder.

Taking that into account, it may come as something of a shock to hear that Orphans of the Storm is not always, or even mostly, a particularly heavy movie. Griffith may absolutely have points he wants to make, but he also sons to entertain his audience, and does so by grounding it in both the enjoyably light romance between Henriette and le Chevalier and the unshakable sisterly affection of Henriette and Louise. Today, it is more common for the cynical and downcast things to ground the cheerful ones, but no matter how guileless the orphans may seem while other characters are similarly good for no particular reason compared to others' selfishness there is something propulsive to how human goodness is presented as just as powerful a force as those opposed to it.

Plus, it allows Lillian Gish to at least seem to be having a little fun in the midst of all that's going on. There's a plucky determination to Henriette that is often overstated but which works here; it becomes a baseline we can easily see her returning to even after scenes of distress. The movie puts lines in her mouth that could make the character something of a joke, but that doesn't happen even if she is emoting enough to make her point in a silent movie. It's the basis of an enjoyable chemistry with Joseph Schildkraut, who captures the Chevalier's decency and make him funny in odd situations without paying the fool. He and Gish (and Griffith et al) do enough with held glances, little smiles, and implied witticisms to convey romance better than any chest-beating. And while I may have a little laugh at Lillian and Dorothy Gish playing adopted sisters, it does communicate their connection to the audience immediately, and while Dorothy was generally not known for playing the tragic heroine the way her sister was - the pair are cast somewhat against type (and Lillian's original suggestion) here - she suffers nobly here, with far less ham than one might expect for the period.

(Modern-day audiences may cringe at how Louise is often described as "helpless" and needing to be assisted "like a child", though, no matter how unaccommodating 1789 may have been to the sightless.)

Griffith keeps things moving at a good clip, at least in the version screened at the Somerville Theatre (an untinted print that ran closer to two hours than the nearly-three generally listed). It's a nice balance between keeping the story focused and giving the director room to play with bigger issues, although the end does seem a little stretched at points, with Danton's heroic oratory seeking to take much longer than what it would stave off, and not quite as exciting as a similar scene in Griffith's Intolerance. That film looms over this one a bit, though some of the scenes of the Revolution or the jail for "fallen women" are impressive spectacle, and the whole thing looks great.

In fact, though I saw Intolerance later that day (and, yes, that is a lot of silent cinema at once!), I preferred this. Griffith had a point to make here as he often did, but he certainly made an entertaining movie this time around. Almost a hundred years later, filmmakers often stumble making stories that use history as a backdrop, but this early example does an excellent job of not diminishing either side of the coin.

Full review at EFC (dead link)


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2014 at the Brattle Theatre (Silent Movies Special Engagement, DCP)

D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, these days, is most often brought up as a defense for his having directed The Birth of a Nation, and while it will always be linked with that movie - Griffith made it partially in reaction to the reputation he gained for Birth, after all - it's an essential piece of movie history on its own. Few movies today can match the sort of ambition he showed 98 years ago, even if the act of inventing much of modern cinema language means there is still a bit of refinement to be done.

Four stories from different periods are interwoven, each an illustration of how prejudice and intolerance interferes with love and happiness. In the present, "The Dear One" (Mae Marsh) spends her days caring for her factory-worker father until the work of priggish reformers sends both her and The Boy (Robert Harron) to the city, where potential corruption, redemption, and tragedy await. In another place and time, Huguenot girl Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Catholic Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette) intend to marry, unaware that Catherine de Medicis (Josephine Crowell) is preparing a purge and that she has also caught the eye of a mercenary (Allan Sears). The ancient city of Babylon is the setting for a story about a feisty Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) who falls for Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), unaware that the high priest of Bel (Tully Marshall), furious over the increased worship of the goddess Ishtar, intends to betray the city to an invading warlord. And in the time of Christ (Howard Gaye), the Pharisees do not just look down upon others, but expect others to look up to them.

Griffith's ambition with Intolerance was staggering for 1916 - the movie is king-sized, especially for the silent era, at roughly three hours (depending on which cut you see), and the idea of telling multiple stories in parallel, only related via theme, was all but unheard-of. Those themes themselves, meanwhile, were broad and impassioned, an earnest and heartfelt lecture on how prejudice have been harmful forces throughout human history. It might, arguably, be a bit of a stronger argument coming off of Birth of a Nation if there were any black characters of note in the film, but it's certainly difficult to argue with Griffith's intensity in making the argument. And he's not content for the film's components simple half-stories solely dedicated to making a point; he could probably have built two or three decent movies out of the various pieces without too much padding.

That scale doesn't come very close to being Intolerance's undoing, but Griffith does overreach a bit. The emphasis is very clearly on the twentieth-century and Babylonian stories, with the other two serving as reflections. Indeed, there's barely a story to the Biblical segments - what starts out focused on the Pharisees sort of becomes a way to use incidents from the Gospels to comment on The Dear One's tale, which itself takes a fairly long time to get to the point. The French story isn't quite so sparse, but it is secondary enough that it can be difficult to recall where it was going when Griffith returns there after some time away. It's not enough for the audience to get impatient while watching the movie, at least until the lights come up for an intermission when a viewer is perhaps ready for it to be winding up after a thrilling, climactic-seeming battle sequence. There's at least another hour of this?

Yes, there certainly is, but that's no hardship, in part because Griffith and company edit the heck out of the last act). The kind of cross-cutting between different locations and sets of characters that Griffith does here was almost (if not completely) unprecedented in 1916 - the next time you see an action movie jumping between two big operations happening simultaneously, remember that it has its roots in the Dear One and the Mountain Girl both frantically racing to prevent a calamity here - and he does it just about as well as anybody has in the century since. This is also a grand, opulently-produced film, most noticeably in the Babylonian scenes where the filmmakers seem to have built an entire ancient city, but the rest are nothing to sneeze at. And while Griffith is preaching about the need for love and tolerance, he does that in part by displaying the violence that their absence brings with sometimes shocking frankness, from battles in Babylon that are much bloodier than those of the typical silent to the horrific aftermath of the massacre of of the Huguenots. It's not all blood and decapitations, though; his skill is on display in not making the happy sensuality of the worshipers of Ishtar seem exploitative, how the factory owner's massive, empty office suggests wastefulness at the top while the workers suffer that remains current today, or how he casually presents a more human Jesus than is often the case without disrespect.

There also aren't a great many holes in his large cast. Constance Talmadge (credited as Georgia Pearce) is quite the firecracker as the Mountain Girl, committing totally to a woman whose tomboyishness never gets muted and whose flaws aren't much smoothed over. She'd be easy to overdo, but Talmadge keeps the audience's favor throughout. Mae Marsh is a different sort of leading lady in the twentieth century segments, exaggerating everything about the Dear One just enough to make her story seem grander, really selling how the events take a toll on her. Marsh has the best supporting cast of the picture, with Robert Harron as "The Boy", Miriam Cooper as "The Friendless One", and Walter Long as "The Musketeer of the Slums" (with those characters having as great a collection of silent movie non-names as you will ever see). The French story may be somewhat forgettable, but Josephine Crowell's Catherine de Medicis captures the mannerisms, arrogance, and fear of the religious bigot as well as anybody ever has, even without her voice being part of the occasion. Lillian Gish also shows up in a recurring cameo that adds a bit of emphasis but doesn't actually allow her to do anything interesting.

Like a lot of works that innovate, Intolerance fades a bit now that the things that were done here first have become relatively common. The flip side is that as an early work, it can just go for things in a way that later movies can't - the Pharisees thanking God for making them better than everyone else is perfect in how direct and on-the-nose it is. So while there are things Griffith does in this movie that would certainly be refined later, it's still got the vital energy of innovation, and that makes it highly watchable, even almost a century later.

Full review at EFC (dead link)

No comments: