100 Years of… Sherlock Jr.

The projectionist reads a book on how to be a detective

Buster Keaton’s masterpiece Sherlock Jr. wasn’t that successful when it debuted in 1924. Audiences didn’t laugh that much. Critics also didn’t think it was that hilarious – “far and away about the most laughter lacking picture that “Dead Pan” Buster has turned out in a long, long while,” said Variety. Even Buster Keaton seemed rueful about it when later interviewed – “alright but not one of the big ones”. There is something in those verdicts. It isn’t a massively funny film but there is so much conceptual and theoretical brilliance on display here that it doesn’t matter. Variety’s review also reckoned Sherlock Jr. wasn’t a patch on Harold Lloyd. But Keaton here is … Read more

100 Years of… The Thief of Bagdad

The princess and the thief

Douglas Fairbanks was the Tom Cruise of a century ago and in 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad, Fairbanks’s favourite of his own films, you get to see him at his very best, in the peak of physical condition, in a film that’s one remarkable action set piece after another. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s silent, in black and white and set out in old Bagdad, where an Arabian Nights story unfolds concerning Ahmed (Fairbanks), a common street thief caught up in the machinations over who will wed the country’s fair princess (Julanne Johnston). Many would scale those walls, not least Ahmed, though he understands he has only a snowball’s chance in hell against … Read more

100 Years of… Coeur Fidèle

Gina Manès as Marie

The first thing to say about Coeur Fidèle (aka The Faithful Heart) is how brilliantly good the image is on this 100-year-old movie. I watched the Eureka Masters of Cinema version and it’s excellent. It’s important that it’s good because this is a highly visual movie. It certainly won’t win awards for storytelling. Wikipedia says it was written in a day, to which the response is surely “you don’t say”. Marie is an orphan girl who skivvies at the bar of her foster parents. She is in love with Jean, a local docker, but is being courted by Petit Paul, a brutish drunkard. After her adoptive parents give her to Paul, Jean and … Read more

100 Years of… The Phantom Carriage

The phantom carriage materialises

The Phantom Carriage is something of a phantom movie. Loved by Ingmar Bergman, who rewatched it every year and claimed it inspired him to get into film-making, it was also adored by Charlie Chaplin, who called it the best film ever made. Stanley Kubrick was also a fan, and lifted one of his most iconic sequences – Jack Nicholson axing through a door in The Shining – directly from it. But how many people have actually seen this classic? Bergman, Chaplin, Kubrick, this is clearly a film with “bottom” but it also has plenty going on up top. In short, it’s a Dickensian tale of a man who has lived a life as an … Read more

100 Years of… Warning Shadows

Ruth Weyher as the "Woman"

The remarkable Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination) is often lumped together with other German movies of the 1920s as expressionist but it’s only tangentially an expressionist movie. It’s too strange to fit in that box, too individualistic. As silent movies go it’s strange too. Once it’s done its introductions – the characters’ names materialise as the actors appear on stage in front of a white screen which will take on significance later – there are no intertitles, not one. The American born but Germany-raised director/writer Arthur Robison does it all with images and his actors, no further explanation necessary. The story is weird as well – like a sexed-up fairy tale – … Read more

100 Years of… Our Hospitality

Wille and Virginia

1923 is the year when Buster Keaton’s run of classic feature-length comedies gets out of the blocks with Our Hospitality, which signals its intention to be different even in its opening credits, which linger on the screen far longer than those of most films of the era. Here, they say, is something to be savoured. The story is William Shakespeare via rural 19th-century America via the mind of Buster Keaton, a re-working of Romeo and Juliet crossed with the Hatfield and McCoys feud, with Buster playing Willie McKay, a guy who falls in love with a young woman he meets on the train journey back to his Appalachian homeland where he’s inherited a … Read more

100 Years of… Salomé

Salomé dances for Herod

Salomé, a notorious enterprise for the Russian-born, now-forgotten Hollywood great Alla Nazimova, its star, co-writer, co-director and producer, is the film that ruined her financially and brought an end to her time as a Hollywood player. It needs to be bad to justify the damage it caused to such a glittering career. It is. The original story is from the Bible, as retold by Oscar Wilde, then retold again by adapter Nazimova and co-writer Natacha Rambova (Rudolph Valentino’s wife and possibly Nazimova’s lover). But in spite of the reworkings it’s still the story we all know, of the young and beautiful Salomé demanding that Herod bring her the head of John the Baptist. … Read more

100 Years of… The Ten Commandments

Moses with the tablets of stone

Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, so good he made it twice. This is the original 1923 version, which came about after DeMille held a public competition asking for suggestions as to what he should make next, maximum shock and awe being the big idea. The winning entry started with the line “You cannot break the Ten Commandments – they will break you,” and that was that as far as De Mille was concerned, a theme and a challenge all in one. He shot some of it in two-strip Technicolor, while the rest of it was tinted, as was common at the time. That’s all gone now; restorations come in a standard black and white. … Read more

100 Years of… Safety Last!

Harold hangs from the clock

Here’s an image so iconic that it’s recognised by people who have no idea what film it’s from, or who the geezer hanging off the clock is. Wikipedia calls it one of the most famous images from the silent-film era but it’s surely more than that – this is one of the most famous images from any era, in any medium, and ranks alongside the Mona Lisa or the mask of Tutankhamoun, right? Maybe I’m hyperventilating a bit there, but to change tack slightly, the added brilliance of this remarkable image is that it perfectly sums up in one frame what Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd’s 1923 masterpiece, is all about – hanging on for grim … Read more

100 Years of… The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Esmeralda is carried to safety by Quasimodo

Mention The Hunchback of Notre Dame to someone and the response is often a shuffling crouch, accompanied by a moaning “the bells… the bells”, in vague homage to Charles Laughton. Here’s where Laughton got it all from, 1923’s Hunchback, starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the mostly deaf, half-blind unfortunate who falls for a gypsy dancer called Esmeralda, as does nearly every other man in the film. What’s notable watching this version for the first time is how Esmeralda-centric it is. This is her story, not Quasimodo’s. The title of Victor Hugo’s original novel was Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), and it’s tempting to imagine the title nods towards Esmeralda – she … Read more