Thursday, March 16, 2023

Silents, Please: Annie Laurie and Cinderella (1914)

A couple of these ago, accompanist Jeff Raising mentioned that some hard-to-find silent or other wound up being so good that there ought to be a Kickstarter to get it on disc. I don't think it was this one, which recently went live, but I backed it anyway, amused that the transfer being used was almost certainly struck from the same print that played the Somerville (though not quite as much of an odd connection as wondering if AGFA used the same print for Thrilling Bloody Sword that ran at the Coolidge 20 years ago, also typed a the only one in existence).

I mention this because both of these films could probably use a campaign as well - both are safely in the public domain, the Library of Congress has prints worth a transfer, and they're fun, on top of apparently not being available at all. Protectionist David Kornfeld did mention that a friend of his was working on the Technicolor section at the end, so maybe something is already in the works.

The 1914 version of Cinderella was a special kind of trip itself, as the source for this print was an archive in the Netherlands, which meant all the inequities were in Dutch. Surprisingly, this is not the first time I've had to fend for myself with something in that language at the Somerville (one of those years that the Sci-Fi Festival took place in the middle of a blizzard, things got weird), and it was an amusing demonstration of just how much you can get out of a decently-made movie without the words, especially if the story is familiar

We wound up a bit rushed, because Cocaine Bear had the screen right after, and I kind of how some folks stayed around. Anyway, if you're someone who crowdfunds silent movie Blus, Annie Laurie is worth checking out.

Annie Laurie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 Match 2023 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm with accompaniment)

There's something rather amusing about a silent movie whose opening titles boast of it being based upon a well-known song: First, it's a silent film, so including it is tricky (I don't know if Jeff made it part of the soundtrack, or if the lyrics with which the title character is serenaded at one point would have had audiences in 1927 singing along); second, well, it's been almost a century and "Annie Laurie" is not something the average person would be expected to know. That makes this film an odd sort of test as to whether something can exist beyond its intended context, and it does: It's a fun historical drama on its own merits.

As it opens, the MacDonald and Campbell clans have been feuding for decades; the former are Highlanders in the rugged mountains while the latter live more comfortably on the ground, with ties to London. When a MacDonald is killed, they decide to raid the Campbells with the chieftain's son Ian (Norman Kerry) and his brother Alistair (Joseph Striker) leading the way. The Campbell chieftain (Brandon Hurst) is holding a party at the time, hosting Sir Robert Laurie (David Torrence) and his daughter Annie (Lillian Gish); daughter Enid Campbell (Patricia Avery) is Annie's best friend and son Donald (Creighton Hale) has designs on marrying her, though Annie isn't quite so enamored. Enid is kidnapped in the raid, but apparently falls for Alistair, and Robert's later attempts to broker peace have the Campbells scheming to crush the MacDonalds once and for all, but also introduces Annie to Ian, as the latter escorts her to visit Enid.

Does the whirlwind, offscreen courtship between Enid and Alistair that results in an awful quick pregnancy kind of sink to high heaven? Yeah, absolutely, but you kind of have to roll with it and a number of other plot devices that keep the story rolling on to its next destination without having to to compromise who any of these characters are at their core throughout. The writers (all or mostly women, it should be noted) are better than many about not having Annie or Enid swoon for their partners due to them being such masterful creeps, and nobody really comes across as particularly dumb. Folks are what they are, including being prideful enough to court disaster. This isn't about subversion or irony.

Mostly, it's about Lillian Gish being 75% doe-eyed ingenue and 25% very smart and sensible - at least here, she's very much from the same mold that would latter cast the likes of Amanda Seyfried and Anya Taylor-Joy - and surrounded by appealing beefcake, with Norman Kerry sporting bare-chested looks over his kilt and a swashbuckler's mustache while Creighton Hale's Donald does a nice job of leveling up from obnoxious to nasty without being a real sneering cliché.

It's a nice-looking movie, too; MGM appears to have spent a little money on it and the crew does a fine job of making settings that really aren't that expansive feel like they have some grandeur to them. Director John S. Robertson handles the action well, too - even if it's not bloody like a modern take on the same story would be, he's got a knack for cranking up the intensity when the swords come out and making what could seem like a low-key action climax (Annie scaling a cliff to light a signal fire) impressively tense.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two-strip Technicolor epilogue doesn't kick in until after that big set-piece; some actual red fire might have popped. Of course, this isn't really an action/adventure at its heart so much as a romantic historical drama, and a good one. Hopefully somebody is working on making it more available, now that it's in the public domain and that can be done without getting a studio involved.

Cinderella (1914)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 Match 2023 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm with accompaniment)

This is not the oldest "Cinderella" film - Georges Méliès did two, and there were several other shorts - but at 52 minutes, this was the one closest to what we'd think of as a feature, rather than something rushing through the story in less than one reel. It's got some room to do a little more than just hit all the familiar beats and move on, although there's a fair amount of that.

It would be another generation or two before Disney's version, which would become the de facto standard, but it's interesting to see how, before that, this adaptation is pretty darn grimy at times: Real mice and rats, with Cinderella quite casual about having traps full of them, instead of something cutesy, even though there is some rudimentary stop-motion going on at times, and the fact that the stepsisters and stepmother aren't looking that prosperous makes their treating her as a servant potentially more cruel, like they just need someone beneath them. There are steps to be run up and down, but the "palace" and ballroom are modest. It was mostly down to practical considerations, I imagine, but the scale works for it.

Mary Pickford makes a likable-enough Cinderella, giving her enough energy that this character needing to be impossibly decent much of the time works well enough. Prince Charming is played by her real-life husband Owen Moore, and they play off each other fairly well. There's playfulness in the fairies and other magical beings.

I can't say whether the intertitles and dialog was any good - for whatever reason, the print that the Library of Congress has is in Dutch - but it really doesn't need to be. It's Cinderella, you know the drill, and Pickford is a good enough choice for the role that it works.

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