100 Years of… Grandma’s Boy

Sonny in shrunken suit being laughed at

A prime slice of Harold Lloyd, Grandma’s Boy isn’t as famous as Safety Last! (the one where he dangles from a clock), but it is just as good as an example of his skills.

Like the other two members of the Big Three of silent funnymen, Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, often found himself tangling with men much manlier than himself. But whereas Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface had a steely puckishness and an aggressive intelligence, Lloyd’s “Glasses” character (as he called the guy in the specs) did not. He was generally speaking more the have-a-go Ordinary Joe. In Grandma’s Boy, “Glasses” is also a weakling and a coward, a Mummy’s Boy squared, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The film is important for helping to popularise the feature-length comedy. Chaplin’s last film as a hired hand, 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, was the first, but comedy shorts had continued to reign supreme in the interim and longer comedies didn’t really take off until the 1920s, when The Kid (Chaplin), The Saphead (Keaton) and Grandma’s House broke through.

It’s ironic, then, that Grandma’s House started life as a short, about a cowardly and weak soldier (no prizes) and his adventures in the American Civil War. That short forms a central part of the film, where it becomes a reminiscence by the grandmother of Sonny (Lloyd) about the exploits of his grandfather and how a magical talisman gave Sonny’s ancestor the courage he naturally lacked. All this related to Sonny by his grandma because he’s been found wanting in all the manly departments. Not only has he failed to get the girl (Mildred Davis, who later became Lloyd’s wife), but he’s been bullied (thrown down a well!) by his rival in love (Charles Stevenson) and has also balked at evicting a violent hobo (Dick Sutherland) from grandma’s garden.

Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd
But will he get the girl?

As feature-length films go, it’s short at just one hour long, but there are a number of elements you still see in Hollywood comedies today, like the montage backstory opening sequence following Sonny (wearing glasses even as a toddler) trying and failing to exhibit any of the right stuff growing up. There’s a forerunner of the ironic/comic voiceover (intertitle cards, in fact, but these do jokes!). Plus the sort of sight gags you might associate later on with Adam Sandler, hapless, hopeless Sonny getting his finger stuck in a knick knack he’s nervously playing with while attempting to court His Girl (as Davis is billed). Or the sequence when His Girl’s kittens becoming overly interested in Sonny’s shoes, on account of grandma (a spry 77-year-old Anna Townsend, who also turned up in Safety Last!) having accidentally polished them with goose grease. Simpler times.

(Slight digression but Sandler’s comedy The Waterboy got sued by Harold Lloyd’s grand-daughter, who reckoned it was too close to Lloyd’s 1925 hit The Freshman. She lost the case, but someone else clearly saw the Sandler/Lloyd read-across.)

Lloyd is not as inventive as Chaplin or Keaton, but he does have a few things they don’t have – he’s less “back of the room” in his performing style, and he’s more emotionally nuanced. His eternal-optimist persona and regular-guy clothes (he’s a dapper 1920s fellow) also set him apart.

Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd didn’t generally speaking write or direct his own films, though he did, crucially, own the company that made them and was much more actively involved in the creative side of things than the credits suggest. He also knew how to surround himself with good people. A case in point is his cinematographer here, Walter Lundin, who isn’t much of a name when it comes to the greats of the craft but gives Grandma’s Boy a picturesque look here and there that was uncommon at the time. In most films of this era, just getting something in the can was the main concern.

Is Grandma’s Boy still funny? It has its inspired moments and Lloyd’s athleticism is something to watch, even though pratfalls are used a bit too often and there is even the odd instance of a joke that’s used once and then used again not long afterwards. Something neither Chaplin nor Keaton would ever have done.

Enjoyable certainly, admirable definitely… but laugh-out-loud funny? Not as such.

Grandma’s Boy (as part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection) – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… When Knighthood Was in Flower

Forrest Stanley and Marion Davies in a clinch

When Knighthood Was in Flower answers the question posed by Citizen Kane – just how much of a chump was media magnate William Randolph Hearst over actress Marion Davies? Here is how much – a massive movie conceived on the grandest scale, produced by a company Hearst set up expressly to make Davies a star, with her name above the title, opening credits making great claims to the film’s historical accuracy, an opening scene with a grand entrance by Davies’s character in a royal barge, exteriors shot in Windsor, UK, even though much of the rest of the film was shot in New York and Connecticut, followed by an advertising campaign on the most gigantic of scales, backed up with all the critical fire-power that a newspaper magnate could muster, which was quite a bit. Hearst even had two pieces of music commissioned for the movie’s premiere, including The Marion Davies March.

Citizen Kane didn’t lampoon the relationship between Hearst and Davies directly, but its portrayal of an ageing media magnate infatuated with a talentless starlet was widely considered to be a reference to Hearst and Davies (something Orson Welles increasingly came to regret, but that’s another story). The two had been an item since 1918, when she was 21 and he 58, and When Knighthood Was in Flower was Hearst’s latest attempt to push Davies to the pinnacle of movie stardom.

Two things: it worked. By 1924 Davies was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Second, the movie: it’s good. Not excellent – it goes on a bit and could lose 20 minutes – but it is fine all-round entertainment offering something for everyone. Romance, intrigue, action, comedy, a race against time, tears and joy, massive, lavish sets, crowds of extras. All in all it’s high-calibre popcorn for 1922.

Like many other Hearst/Davies endeavours, it’s a historical drama, this time set in the 16th century at the court of Henry VIII and following Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor (not to be confused with his daughter, a later Mary Tudor) and her search for true love. In dynastic fashion she’s to be married off to one of Europe’s available royals, though the thoroughly modern Mary has other ideas – she’s espied sturdy guardsman Charles Brandon at a jousting tourney and is smitten.

William Powell as Francis
William Powell as Francis

The many twists and turns of the elaborate plot involve Henry (Lyn Harding) trying to get his sister (Davies) to obey his command, while Mary imploringly, beseechingly, coquettishly tries to persuade/charm the king into letting her marry Brandon. When that doesn’t work and she is forcibly married off to the doddery French king, Louis XII (a nice comedy turn by William Norris), she extracts a promise from her brother – for her second marriage she can choose whomsoever she pleases as a husband. It is a whomsoever kind of film.

Being silent, there is a fair bit of theatrical, back-of-hand-to-forehead acting going on, but Marion Davies only occasionally goes there. For the most part she puts in a subtle performance ahead of her time. She’s likeable, charming, forceful when necessary – we’re on this Mary’s side (the same can’t be said for her supposed true love, Brandon, a weedy presence in the form of Forrest Stanley).

For ease, the bad guys in this have facial hair. Brutish Henry VIII and the conniving Duke of Buckingham (Pedro de Cordoba) in England, while over in France a young William Powell (later the star of The Thin Man series) plays Louis’s heir, Francis, a prince in a hurry to bed Mary, married or not, willing or not. He’s a standout, clearly operating with much more understanding that cinema and theatre are two very different areas of operation.

In spite of the fact that director Robert G Vignola is using the static camera of the era, this is a film with plenty of pace, thanks in part to its brisk editing, its regular changes of set and the careful blocking work that Vignola has done with his actors. Ben Model’s work at the organ helps too, his soundtrack keeping the interest up without dipping into cliche.

The restoration, done in 2017, is good. Clearly this is an old movie, but it’s clean, the image is stable and flicker free, the odd scratch reminds us of its age, and the restoration has re-imposed the colour tinting of the original (it fades over time) and restores the hand-tinting in the final scenes, when a horse-chase sequence at night is enhanced by torches that flame yellow as the hooves thunder silently by.

Would Davies have been a big star without the help of Citizen Hearst? Who knows? It was a bit of a free-for-all still in those days. But she has what it takes and is in every scene of the movie and even gets a swordfighting scene disguised as a man. She’s versatile, and that’s exactly what When Knighthood Was in Flower needs.

When Knighthood Was in Flower – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… The Toll of the Sea

Lotus Flower finds the half drowned sailor

There are two good ancillary reasons for watching The Toll of the Sea, on top of the fact that it’s a touching, almost heartbreaking drama of a sort it’s almost impossible to imagine being made today.

The first is that it stars Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese American star, here only 17 years old in a role that puts her to the test in terms of subtle emoting, and finds her sailing through unscathed.

The second is that it’s the oldest existing Technicolor movie left on the planet. There was an older one, The Gulf Between, made in 1917, but that went up in flames and is now permanently lost. It was made in Technicolor’s Process 1, which required a special camera to project the film. The Toll of the Sea was made with Process 2, a process the Technicolor company knew would be a stopgap, and which they replaced in 1928 with… drum roll… Process 3, followed closely by Process 4 in 1934, which delivered the sort of rich, vibrant Technicolor which (with a couple of tweaks) would be the gold standard for 50 years – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Apocalypse Now and beyond.

But back to Anna May Wong and Process 2, a green/red (ie no blue) two-colour Technicolor which split the image with a prism and shot each frame twice, with different filtration. The developed print was then sandwiched together, and would run through a normal projector, though with a terrible tendency to buckle and “cup”.

The Toll of the Sea was also thought lost until this version turned up in the 1980s. It’s the filmic restoration from that time that we can watch now. No one has, as yet, for all its historical venerability, given this ancient celluloid document a thorough digital going over, but what we have isn’t bad at all and is very watchable, fairly clean, and not too disfigured by scratches or the sort of flashing that’s common in old movies.

With a shift of location, it’s in essence the Madame Butterfly story retold from a Chinese viewpoint. Wong plays Lotus Flower, a pretty young Chinese woman who finds an American sailor half dead in the sea one day and revives him, whereupon they fall instantly in love. He promises her the earth, though neat cutaways to scenes between Allen (Kenneth Harlan) and his fellow Americans in a local bar reveal that Allen isn’t prepared to defend his sweetheart when they tease him about how “different” she is. Trouble is obviously brewing.

Mother and son
Mother and son (it’s a girl, actually)

This is the meat of the story – his utterly craven, pathetic, weakling’s attitude to her and her devotion to him, or the idea of him, even after he’s gone back to America and found a white woman of his own to marry (again).

Two scenes are particularly emotional, and work as they are meant to all these decades later. In one, Lotus Flower dresses herself up in what she thinks of as the latest American fashion, ready to be taken with Allen to the USA. She’s as wrong about that as she is about the dated outift she’s wearing. In the second, even more affecting, scene Allen returns years later, with new wife Elsie (Beatrice Bentley) and introduces Lotus Flower to her. This is lump in the throat stuff, made even more unbearable when the small child of Allen and Lotus Flower bustles into the scene and his mother pretends he’s the child of the neighbouring Americans, so as to spare the feelings of the blameless Elsie.

For a silent film it’s all done in an exquisitely subtle way, the interaction between the two actresses, Wong and Bentley, particularly. The scenes between mother Lotus Flower and her son, Allen Jr (actually played by a girl, Priscilla Moran, billed as “Baby Moran” to hide the subterfuge) are also lovely to watch. The kid has chops.

The Madame Butterfly story dictates that the heartbroken Oriental will kill herself after being abandoned. We’re spared that here because the last two reels of the film have disappeared. To help plug the gap the 1980s restorers instead took an old two-colour Technicolor camera and shot some footage of the sun dipping down into the Pacific Ocean at the end of the day, along with a couple of intertitle cards using text from Frances Marion’s original treatment.

Director Chester Franklin shoots it in static tableaux, no camera movement, and makes the most of the process’s red/green bias with scenes shot in the leafy outdoors and in gardens full of red flowers.

There is a curio aspect to this film, undeniably, and aspects of it are obviously antique. And yet it works. A woman committing suicide over a man. An American male behaving like an absolute shit and abandoning a woman because she’s a foreigner. So much stoic suffering by Lotus Flower. You’d never see anything like this today. Which is another very good reason for watching these century-old movies.

The Toll of the Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… Foolish Wives

The Count and Princess Vera

When Foolish Wives debuted in 1922, its writer/director/star Erich von Stroheim was at the peak of his popularity, having exploited anti-German sentiment during the First World War by playing a despicable Hun doing despicable things in a series of films.

“The man you love to hate,” was his moniker, one gained in 1918 in the film The Heart of Humanity, where he plays a ruthless German officer who throws a baby out of the window so he can better get on with raping a Red Cross nurse. That’ll do it.

Foolish Wives works the same seam, though, the war over and the Russian revolution grabbing more headlines, von Stroheim is now playing a despicable Russian, a conman living in high style in Monte Carlo with his two cousins. They’re probably not really his cousins, in the same way that Count Sergius Karamzin of the 3rd Hussars (von Stroheim) is probably not a count, or a soldier and may not even be Russian.

The role mirrored von Stroheim’s own life story, to an extent. The son of a Viennese hatter, Erich Oswald Stroheim migrated to America in 1909, ennobling himself en route with the “von” and arriving in Ellis Island as Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall.

Von Stroheim worked his way to Hollywood as a travelling salesman. Whereas the count and his cousins in Foolish Wives are unwilling to get their hands dirty doing anything approaching honest toil. Instead they operate as as a trio of grifters who live on counterfeit money, which periodically needs laundering. Hence the usefulness of any new arrivals in the relatively closed society of Monte Carlo.

Possibly living on the immoral earnings of the two pretty “princesses”, Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch), the count is also a terrible lecher who lusts after anything in a skirt. Early on he even makes a move on the simpleton daughter, Marietta (Malvina Polo), of the man who prints his counterfeit money. Just to rub in what a low move this is, she’s presented as a grown woman who goes everywhere with a rag doll.

Enter American Andrew J Hughes (Rudolph Christians), the US envoy to Monaco, accompanied by wife Helen (Miss DuPont). Prompted by one of the princesses the count goes to work, donning his white dress uniform to impress this naive but wealthy woman, hoping to separate her from her money and her virtue.

Cinema lobby advertisement for Foolish Wives

That is the entire plot of the film – he chases, she runs – through one massive setup after another. At one point the count and Helen are in danger of drowning in a river swollen by a gigantic storm, at another of being incinerated in a raging fire, but on the count goes, eyes on stalks, tongue lolling (I’m exaggerating, but von Stroheim certainly licks his lips a fair deal).

The more we learn about the count the less we like him. In one of his rare scenes away from Helen, he has an exchange with his servant, Maruschka, and it turns out that he’s not only slept with her but also promised to marry her. Later, responding to her distraught entreaties, the cad swindles her out of her life savings.

The scenes between the count and Maruschka still pack a punch even now – they are this film’s “baby out of the window” element – and von Stroheim’s approach is particularly telling. For a silent film he keeps the acting remarkably low key, realistic, driven by a more psychological impulse. We’re being invited in rather than performed at. It’s von Stroheim’s style throughout and his cameras match his actors – they’re non-declamatory, straightforward, untricksy. Noticeably, von Stroheim lets the edit suite do a lot of the storytelling. That’s also incredibly advanced for the time.

Von Stroheim’s mania for realism had its downside. The studio couldn’t understand why real caviar and real champagne were necessary to construct a make-believe, or why every single military uniform had to be exactly right, and why the wealthier characters had to be wearing silk underwear bought in from Paris. When asked why this was necessary, von Stroheim reportedly said, “Because my actors will know the difference, I will know the difference, and the camera will know the difference.”

For this and other reasons, including the vast cost of reconstructing Monte Carlo on a film set, a film that should have cost $250K wound up costing over a million. It got so expensive, in fact, that the studio started to turn the cost overrun to its advantage, advertising it as “the first million dollar movie”. Even so, when it came to the edit, Universal wasn’t so merciful. Though he’d finished shooting and had started in on assembling the film, von Stroheim was removed from the production by the 21-year-old Irving Thalberg, Universal’s new general manager, known as “the boy wonder”. The original 384 minute cut was junked and instead Thalberg’s team of editors got the film down to 117 minutes. Though it was wildly successful, Foolish Wives’ budget overruns and its auteur’s prickly temperament marked von Stroheim’s card. Working for MGM, von Stroheim came back two years later with Greed, an eight/nine hour masterwork which suffered the same fate, and also at the hands of Thalberg, who by then had switched studios, unfortunately for von Stroheim.

It’s von Stroheim’s dedication to realism – the acting, the insane detail, the unfussy camera – that marks the film out, plus his fascination with the darker side of humanity and his willingness to play a character without any redeeming features whatsover. Caution: monster at work, in front of and behind the camera.

I watched the Kino version, which is fine for a 100-year-old movie. The image strobes and its contrast veers wildly between too harsh and too milky, and there are artefacts, damage and scratches all over the place, but it’s still good to watch, largely because of the massiveness of von Stroheim’s reach. There is apparently a 4K restoration somewhere, at least partly funded by MoMA (will Criterion release it for home use?). It’s got to be worth a look if you can track it down.

Foolish Wives – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… The Loves of Pharaoh

Makeda and Pharaoh

Why this film from 1922 is called The Loves of Pharaoh in English is a bit of a mystery. It’s Das Weib des Pharao – Pharaoh’s Woman (or Wife) – in German and in every other language it was translated into (per the IMDb), the lady in question has been faithfully rendered as wife/woman/love singular.

In fact the film was also much messed about with when it first debuted. In Russia Pharaoh was more of a tyrant, in the US there was more of a happy ending, whereas in its native Germany audiences got to see more or less what the director Ernst Lubitsch and writers Norbert Falk and Hanns Kräly had wanted them to see – the story of the ruler of Egypt utterly undone by love. The Italians upped the love angle even more, apparently.

It is one of those “big” pictures Gloria Swanson was referencing in Sunset Blvd., a massive epic, in fact, designed to show Hollywood that Lubitsch could deliver the sort of spectacular dramatic production that DW Griffith and his ilk were specialising in – huge sets, exotic locations, impressive sets, lavish costumes, a cast of thousands.

And yet at its heart there’s a small story: Pharaoh (Emil Jannings) falling for the Greek slave Theonis (Dagny Servaes), in spite of the fact that he’s meant to be taking the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Samlak (Paul Wegener), as his bride, to cement a treaty that will ensure both countries’ safety and prosperity. Sadly for Pharaoh, Theonis, an undoubted beauty, only has eyes for the dashing Ramphis, whose father, Sotis, is the architect/engineer working on the pharaoh’s treasury, scene of much worker unrest – art perhaps imitating the unstable political situation in Weimar Germany at the time – and around which Falk and Kräly try to spin more story than wants to be spun.

Jannings is particularly good as the Pharaoh – imperious in his pomp, desolate once struck by love (Jannings would later play the professor similarly undone by love, in the shape of Marlene Dietrich, in The Blue Angel) – and Servaes is also plausible as a woman who’d turn the head of a man/god. Other roles are more problematic. Let’s just leave to one side the fact that Ethiopians Samlak and his daughter Makeda (Lyda Salmonova) and their retinue are played by white Europeans in blackface and fuzzy-wuzzy hairpieces (terrible), it’s their overblown acting that’s difficult to take. As Ramphis, Harry Liedtke isn’t half as dashing as Theonis’s burning loins are meant to suggest, and another terrible wig (a Louise Brooks bob, give or take) doesn’t help. He’s a wooden romantic lead.

Makeda and the high priest
Makeda and a disapproving high priest

Side roles – high priests, viziers, grand courtiers etc – save the day a bit, the likes of Friedrich Kühne and Paul Biensfeldt pulling the sort of faces that snooty high priests and courtiers have pulled all the way down the decades and continue to pull in grand historical epics to this day.

It’s a film of two halves, one half working a lot better than the other. There’s the personal stuff, indoors, where Lubitsch’s use of lighting – often in big pools – helps highlight the inner turmoil of the pharaoh (who it’s easy to feel for, even though he’s also a tyrant). And then there’s the outdoors stuff. The film “worked” in the sense that it got Lubitsch (and Jannings) a ticket to Hollywood, but it has to be said that overall it isn’t prime Lubitsch. His celebrated “touch” – a gift for telling psychological moments – is evident early on but doesn’t get much of a look-in once the fighting between Pharaoh’s army and the Ethiopians gets underway. And Lubitsch also isn’t much of an action director. There are a lot of people coming and going, armies clashing, chariots flying hither and yon, but it’s not particularly well choreographed and is, sad to say, all a bit of a senseless melee, in spite of the spectacle’s vastness and impressiveness in terms of sheer numbers.

Long thought lost, this Alpha-Omega version took five years to assemble and finally debuted in 2011. There’s an explanation before the film gets going, detailing how various parts of the film were found in Russia, Germany, Italy and New York, and that this “complete” version is still missing about a fifth of its running length – stills and intertitle cards plug the gaps, pretty well. As to the quality of the 2K restoration, it varies from the superb to the slightly soft, depending, I’m supposing, on whether it’s Russian, American, German or Italian original footage we’re watching.

Huge and ambitious, the most expensive German film ever made to date also featured big music by Eduard Künneke, who uses the full range of the orchestra to ring the emotional changes. It’s expressive and impressive and it’s there on the Alpha-Omega assemblage, which is available through their site and nowhere else. It’s not particularly cheap, be warned, but then this was a massive job of reconstruction.

You can buy the restored film here

© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… Robin Hood

Lady Marian and Robin Hood

Accept no substitute. This is the original Robin Hood, or Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (as the registered title insists), the one that Errol Flynn’s 1938 version modelled itself on, the one that gets all the Merry Men, Maid Marian, good King Richard and bad King John, Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham into forms so recognisable that even at 100 years old, it’s instantly obvious who is who.

This wasn’t the first screen outing for the mythical character, in fact there had already been five before (if we include 1919’s My Lady Robin Hood), so Robin Hood as a movie character was at least fairly well known, though of course there had been plays, ballads and stories going back to medieval times. Doubtless it helped that at a time when the USA was emphasising its European roots, Robin Hood was English, white and Christian.

Robin Hood was the third of Fairbanks’s costume epics, and though both The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers had been big successes, no one would fund the making of this enormously costly film. So Fairbanks financed it with his own money (breaking the number one rule of Hollywood), then went away to leave Lloyd Wright (son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) to design the sets.

The story goes that Fairbanks was so intimidated by what he saw when he came back that he briefly cancelled the film. An over-reaction he was prevailed on to rethink by director Allan Dwan. Fairbanks’s reaction is understandable. The sets are the star of the film and are magnificence itself, particularly the massive medieval castle where much of the action takes place, and throw Fairbanks into the shade.

As to storyline, it’s pretty trad, apart from the fact that Robin Hood himself doesn’t appear for the first hour and a quarter. Instead, in “origin story” style, we learn about the Earl of Huntingdon – how he goes off to the Crusades with good King Richard, leaving the comely Lady Marian (Enid Bennett) behind under the watchful eye of the Earl’s squire (who later becomes Little John), how bad Prince John starts to wreak havoc on the land with torture and unfair taxation, how the Earl engineers his release from the King’s service and returns to save the land, by becoming Robin Hood and gathering his Merry outlaws. And how King Richard eventually returns triumphant to resume his rightful rule.

The impressive set
The set recreating medieval England

No scares there, then. You can’t say quite the same for the acting, which is “big”. The sets demand it, in a way, and silent movie stars did tend to be big – none bigger than Fairbanks (“it’s the pictures that got small” etc etc), who is all head thrown back, balled fists on hips, leaping about with his trademark physicality in remarkable displays of fitness, especially once he sheds Huntingdon’s chainmail and dons the familiar Robin Hood costume. Fairbanks, at 39, looks a touch old to be playing Robin Hood (or maybe Errol Flynn, aged 30 in 1938, is casting a backward shadow), but it’s generally a good cast. Wallace Beery plays a… yes, beery, laddish King Richard, a man of natural authority with strength and a voice to match. Enid Bennett is a waiflike, pre-Raphaelite Lady Marian, Alan Hale is great as the squire/Little John (so great, in fact, that he’d play the same role in the 1938 version), Sam de Grasse a lowering, glowering King John and Paul Dickey almost trumps them all as the properly sinister Sir Guy of Gisbourne, nemesis of Huntingdon, luster after Marian, aide to the wicked Prince John, a bad hat all round.

Allan Dwan’s film-making is precise and carefully controlled. The closer he brings his camera, the less he requires his actors to do. There’s a very nice scene where Robin (still Huntingdon at this point) woos Marian before setting off on the Crusade, all done in tiny gestures and with the sort of subtlety Fairbanks isn’t noted for. With the camera further back we get the standard-issue screen idol – look out for the fantasic bit where Robin slides down a huge tapestry/curtain, a stunt so good Jackie Chan would repurpose it in Police Story, one of his best films, where it was fantastic all over again.

Truth be told, the film is a bit long and a trim would improve it. Fewer scenes of general carousing or Merry Men jigging about excitedly in Sherwood Forest would make for a tauter drama all round.

As to the version I watched, Kino Lorber, it’s not bad, flickers a bit here and there and really should, by now, have been restored. There is no Blu-ray version. The sets alone are crying out for it. The Kino Lorber soundtrack comes across as a cost-cutting exercise. The music itself is fine, it’s the use of a synth to approximate (badly) an orchestra which doesn’t particularly work.

Perhaps, if a big restoration is ever done, it’ll get the treatment too.

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100 Years of… The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Alice Terry and Rudolph Valentino

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was the first of five films Rudolph Valentino made in 1921 and though it’s the film that made him a star he’s not the star of the film, which is an ensemble piece. The star is the film itself, an epic so complete and fine-tuned that it’s a reference point today whenever producers and directors are aiming to tell tender human stories against a background of raging conflict.

It’s a big film too – two and a half hours long, which isn’t gargantuan compared to, say, Birth of a Nation (three and a quarter hours) or Greed (originally four and a half hours) – but surprises people who think that silent movies are all Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy length. Big in length and in sweep, it straddles continents and generations to tell the story of a Spanish rancher who makes his fortune in Argentina and marries his daughters off – one to the Frenchman Desnoyers (Josef Swickard), the other to the German Von Hartrott (Alan Hale). They in turn reproduce and move back to Europe just in time for their children to come of age and become embroiled in the First World War, on opposing sides.

1921 was only three years after the end of the First World War and this film is clearly on the side of the Desnoyers, a cultured family, rather than the Von Hartrotts, an absurdly Teutonic and ramrod Prussian lot. Even so, the Desnoyers are not without their foibles. The father of the clan is a vain man given to hoarding, the son Julio (played by Valentino) is a libertine who frequents the tango bars, hangs out with scantily clad women and is running through the family wealth with a playboy lifestyle that’s indulged by his mother and tolerated by his sister.

In the sort of plot development Steve Bannon would doubtless applaud, war arrives and purifies all of them, forcing the Desnoyers to appraise themselves and to realise there’s more to life than vanity, that the appeals of country must sometimes be heard, and that obeying them will make those who respond nobler and better human beings.

Conflict is always in the offing in this film, director Rex Ingram, one of the big five or six creative talents at work in Hollywood at the time, foreshadowing unpleasantness to come with incidental spats happening off in the wings – a cockatoo defends its perch against a pet monkey, a cat takes a swipe at a dog, a cyclist and a pedestrian come to blows. The film is brilliantly constructed in fact. Lit by John Seitz, working up to full legendary status here, it’s edited by Grant Whytock to take in Ingram’s many changes of mood – even at moments of high seriousness there’s often a moment of low comedy to keep the entertainment factor high (that monkey again).

A massive cemetery for the fallen in war
A grieving Desnoyers family

It’s a bit heavy on the intertitle cards, admittedly, but then Ingram is trying to get a lot in, in terms of plot, people and places. Once the action has moved to Europe we’re either in Paris or down on the Marne at the Desnoyers’ glorious chateau, with the men marching to war or out on the battlefield. The story dives off in different directions – Julio’s dalliance with a married woman (Alice Terry, with whom director Ingram was in fact dallying), her stiff older husband (John St Polis), Julio’s louche manservant and the Rasputin-like Serbian who lives upstairs, the sister, the mother. Ingram choregraphs each scene as if it were a dance piece, the actors moving beautifully into position and, most unusually, not overdoing the silent movie theatricality (back of hand to head, insane glower, swoon etc).

Ingram was initially a sculptor and had no interest in the biz end of showbiz. Indeed when the talkies came in, he couldn’t be bothered refitting the studio in the south of France where he’d set up shop and instead gave up making films altogether. That’s where he met the young Michael Powell, who says he learned a lot about the use of fantasy from Ingram. There isn’t a massive amount of it here, though in grand apocalyptic style the Four Horsemen from the Bible’s Book of Revelations – Conflict, War, Pestilence and Death – are all introduced individually in a fantasy sequence that must have been knuckle-whitening originally.

In the restoration I watched (the one you’ll catch on TCM most likely), Carl Davis provides the score. It doesn’t catch all of Ingram’s darting digressions of mood but it is a superbly big, score, with a Shostakovich-like sweep and roar.

As to Valentino, this is the film that made him a star and it’s in the scenes with women – dancing in the tango bar, painting naked models in his studio, romancing the married Mme Laurier – that you can see why he caused a stir. Keep an eye on his clothes. Apart from the obvious costumes provided for him, like the gaucho outfit, he rest he had made specially and paid for them himself. Though he’s a bit of a tailor’s dummy, they are, like the film, impeccably well made.

Will no one make a 4K restoration of this superb film? I’m writing this at the end of its centenary year, so the answer, for the moment at least, would appear to be “no”.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

John Le Carré Movie Adaptations Ranked, 2021

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

There is a lot of John Le Carré out there. The author wrote prodigiously, starting while he was still working as a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and only really stopped when he died, in December 2020. There are nine novels featuring his most famous creation, the retired master spy George Smiley, and another 17 or so (depending on how you count) other novels, plus short stories, essays, memoirs, articles written for newspapers (denouncing the war in Iraq, for instance) and screenplays (always adaptations of his own novels).

But there’s no getting round it, if you want a John Le Carré experience, the movies are probably the worst way to get one. The books are by far the best, because they give Le Carré space to lay out his worldview and spin his intricate webs. For the same reason – space – the TV miniseries also works well, with 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, probably unbeatable as the definitive screen Le Carré, though there’s also a lot to be said for 2016’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston. After TV, the audio versions are the way to go, particularly the BBC’s excellent The Complete Smiley, featuring Simon Russell Beale as a very Alec Guinness-tinged George Smiley.

And after all that, the film versions. Le Carré is all about intricate plotting and texture, and the two-hours-ish running times of most big- or small-screen movies simply isn’t enough for the magic to exert itself. However, some pull it off, others don’t.

For the purposes of this rundown I’m including all the standalone Le Carrés, whether made for cinema or TV. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the exceptional to the diabolical.

I’ve watched them all (bar one) and here’s how I rank them, from worst to best, and why.

The End of the Line

A BBC standalone Le Carré made in 1970 as part of the Armchair Theatre TV strand. The Germans would remake it three years later as Endstation – both are two-handers about a clergyman and an older gent sharing a train carriage on a journey from Edinburgh to London. Both men are spies but neither is saying so. Ian Holm and Robert Harris take the leads in the British version, Hans Schweikart and Peter Striebeck in the German one. I’ve seen neither, so won’t comment.

The Little Drummer Girl

Like Florence Pugh, decades later in the TV adaptation, Diane Keaton was undone in 1984 by a confusing story about an actress being recruited by the Israeli secret service to undermine the Palestinian cause she so vehemently champions. How? Why? It’s probably best not to ask. Le Carré has tied himself in knots trying (and failing) to work his Cold War modus operandi into a new theatre of operations, the Middle East. It’s nicely, unfussily directed, by George Roy Hill, and there’s a chance to see a relatively restrained Klaus Kinski do his thing, as an Israeli version of George Smiley.

A Murder of Quality

George Smiley moonlights as a private detective in a straightforward 1991 TV movie whodunit that looks as if it’s made for Sunday evening audiences in need of reassurance. A young Christian Bale joins troupers like Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland and Billie Whitelaw and though it’s a bland and unsurprising Le Carré, Denholm Elliott does manage to cut through as Smiley – lighter and fruitier than Alec Guinness’s, in a tale that all comes down to the fine distinctions between various castes of hidebound Brits.

The Looking Glass War

Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins turn up in this 1970 Le Carré adaptation but it’s the relatively obscure Christopher Jones who’s the star, as the handsome sailor recruited to go behind the Iron Curtain to winkle out secrets. Jones is fine, even though his long-haired, Warren Beatty-esque character is patently absurd, a sign that the film is playing to the countercultural youth of the day, a decision which kills any chance of the film being a success.

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré’s stories are often about the dull plod of everyday spying. A film’s problem is to render that on the screen and yet keep some excitement there. Director Anton Corbijn drenches his 2014 Le Carré outing with stylistic flourishes similar to the ones he brought to The American – this is a very cool film – and he has a cast of spectacular international dimension (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe). But in the same way that Le Carré’s novels often struggled in the post 9/11 world, Corbijn struggles here in his attempt to inject a spark into a film that is in most other respects brilliant.

The Tailor of Panama

A real mix of the fine and the not so much in this 2001 adaptation of Le Carré’s excursion into Graham Greene territory – a central America full of sweaty generals and downmarket spies. Pierce Brosnan – between 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day – shows there’s more than one spy in his acting arsenal, and the rest of the cast is genuinely interesting and includes Geoffrey Rush, the largely superfluous Jamie Lee Curtis and playwright Harold Pinter (in a rare screen role). As for Brendan Gleeson as a Panamanian freedom fighter – not his finest hour.

Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor
Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

Blameless prof Ewan McGregor and lawyer wife Naomie Harris get caught up in the money-laundering machinations of Russian oligarch Stellan Skarsgård in Marrakech in a textbook “Le Carré on the big screen” movie. It looks great, it’s sexy enough and the cast (including the excellent Damian Lewis) is great. With McGregor once rumoured as “the next James Bond” and with Harris (the current Miss Moneypenny) in the cast, it’s clearly aiming for a bit of 007 lustre. But there just isn’t enough air in there to let Le Carré’s textures interweave and so the full weight of the betrayal/loyalty theme is never quite felt.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What played out over nearly 400 pages in print and nearly five hours on the TV suffers from being condensed to the point where the intricacies of what is surely John Le Carré’s most finely plotted story start to get lost. Still, there’s always Tomas Alfredson’s direction to admire, and the sheer 1970s look of the 2011 movie is probably unsurpassed – reel-to-reel tape recorders, nicotine-coloured ceilings, the full analogue world. Tom Hardy’s 21st-century speech patterns are a problem, but it’s a dependable cast – John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Russia House

For this doubter, both Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are surprisingly effective in this 1990 adaptation whose USP was that it was shot in Moscow as Gorbachev’s Glasnost made it possible for lickspittle running dogs of capitalism to film there for the first time in decades. Connery is a tweedy, boozy publisher recruited by the British secret service, Pfeiffer the Russian he’s targeting. It packs a lot in, and director Fred Schepisi sometimes forgets that he’s making a spy thriller. But it’s a looker, in every sense.

The Constant Gardener

This 2005 adaptation of Le Carré’s “Big Pharma” novel still bears all the hallmarks of his spying oeuvre – duplicity, grinding bureaucracy, the personal cost of loyalty to an idea – and features a methodical, very Le Carré character at its centre. Ralph Fiennes plays the plodding diplomat kicked into life by the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in an Africa where Aids and corporate colonialism stalk the continent.

The Deadly Affair

Paramount owned the name George Smiley and so James Mason goes by Charles Dobbs in this excellent 1967 adaptation of Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. It’s directed at pace by Sidney Lumet, is photographed in appropriately stygian gloom by the great Freddie Young and its superb cast includes Simone Signoret, Harriet Anderson, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The first and the best of the Le Carré adaptations, largely because it sticks closely to what Le Carré was all about – compromised people in compromised situations. Richard Burton’s performance – as a drunk and broken man given another chance at redemption by playing a “defecting” spy sowing misinformation in East Berlin – is a great one, and of a piece with director Martin Ritt’s film making spying look about as unglamorous as it could get.

Almost all the screen Le Carré adaptations can be found on this Amazon page

Highly recommended: The Complete George Smiley radio dramas – also at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Three Musketeers

The musketeers and D'Artagnan join swords

You’d have thought that the silent The Three Musketeers from 1921 would be the first film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel but it wasn’t. Depending on how you count these things it was around the seventh or eighth film version since 1903. It wasn’t even the first of 1921. That honour went to a French serial shot in 14 episodes, Les Trois Mousketaires.

But this one, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr, eclipses all the forerunners and most of the successors, largely thanks to the presence of Fairbanks, cusping 40 when he made this but leaping around and larger than life from the moment he hits the screen.

This happens once Niblo has got all his intrigues and plotting in place – the king (Adolphe Menjou) and Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier) playing chess, the Queen (Mary MacLaren) being surreptitiously passed a billet doux by Lady Constance (Marguerite de la Motte) on behalf of the libertine the Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding), an exchange noticed by Richelieu’s accomplice Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr), and which Richelieu intends to use to his advantage. The Queen isn’t interested in Buckingham but who cares about the truth when you’re trying to get a scandal going?

A historical aside. Buckingham really did get about. The English noble known as “the handsomest-bodied man in all England” at one point became Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the court of King James I, a role he too incredibly literally, according to court gossip.

But back to the French court of Louis XIII, where it’s obvious why the Dumas adventure has been adapted so many times. The characters – Louis, Richelieu and Milady in particular – are big, the story is very well known already (handy for a silent film) and the questions it asks about the ruling elite aren’t too troubling. If things have gone wrong it’s not because of the man at the top but instead is the work of some sibilant adviser pouring oil in his ear.

Richelieu is the pivot on which it all turns, in other words, as he is in all the adaptations that follow, and Nigel de Brulier is so good in the role he’d play it another three times – erect, slim-hipped, too courtly, too fastidious and with a tendency to stroke things malevolently, he’s the archetypal Bond villain from top to toe.

D’Artagnan gets one of the most laughable introductions in film history, Douglas Fairbanks sitting on the floor in D’Artagnan’s father’s house as if her were a limber teenager, when in fact he’s nudging 40 and already jowly. In fact Fairbanks’s attempt to hide his incipient double chin throughout is one reason why we remember him in a particular pose – face forward to camera, chin lifted high as if in a defiant “hah!”.

D’Artagnan now introduced, off he heads to Paris, having adventures along the way – all of them familiar from all the other Musketeer films – challenging everyone he meets to a duel, in essence, until he arrives in the capital and winds up doing the same with each of the Musketeers in turn, not realising they are the king’s finest swordsmen. All of which flip-flops when D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces after the Cardinal’s men arrive at the duelling ground where they were about to face off. “Four against three?” shouts one of the outnumbered Musketeers towards the Cardinal’s men. “Four against four!” D’Artagnan corrects, in a bit of dialogue that makes it intact into nearly every version.

The cast with Mary Pickford
The cast with Mary Pickford (bottom second from right)

It’s all done at breakneck speed, and Fairbanks is remarkable throughout. It’s in this first “D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces” scene that Fairbanks pulls off his famous one-handed vaulting spring. Though just watching him doing anything – like running up a vast flight of stairs – is to watch a very fit man in action.

Though the image is softish on the 95th anniversary edition I watched, and Niblo isn’t much of a director for close-ups – so much of this film is in long and semi-long shot – we are never in a moment’s doubt as to what’s going on. It helps that intertitles pop up regularly (too regularly for some) to fill us in on the latest plot turn.

The actors respond in kind. These are big, “back of the gallery” performances, declamatory, static, barely a nuance (though notice the king fingering his sword nervously at one point, Menjou managing one of the rare bits of proper film acting in the entire production).

It all, eventually, hinges on a piece of jewellery given to the Queen by the King. If she doesn’t wear it at a court ball it will be a sign that she has given it to Buckingham (she hasn’t, but that’s court intrigue for you) and D’Artagnan and the Musketeers need to race to England, rescue the jewellery and race back to Paris in time to save the day. England is a long way from Paris, and though the pace is breathless, the film slows right down here, as one scene of horses pounding along the highway gives way to another.

There have been plenty of Three Musketeers films since, the most famous being the Gene Kelly 1948 version (no need for Kelly to borrow Fairbanks’s pantomime physicality because he’d already done that), and the Dick Lester 1974 version. Less auspiciously there are the 1993 Bratpack one with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland and the 2011 one with Logan Lerman, but all are united in sticking absolutely rigidly to the Dumas story and to the atmosphere of this 1921 version. Knockabout comedy, knockabout action, knockabout intrigue, romance and swordplay. It’s exactly the same tone of deadly earnestness with a wink and technical virtuosity with a shrug that the Mission: Impossible films are still pulling off today. Talking of which, Tom Cruise for D’Artagnan?

The Three Musketeers – Watch or buy the 95th anniversary edition at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Sheikh

Rudolph Valentino as the Sheikh

Rudolph Valentino had two big films in 1921. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by far the biggest grossing film of the year, was the one that made him a star. But The Sheikh was even more important. It made Valentino so famous that we still talk of him today, long after the auras of fellow stars like Norma Talmadge and Wallace Reid have faded.

The Four Horsemen gave Valentino the “Latin lover” tag but The Sheikh made it stick, something that Valentino – striving to have a varied career – struggled against before bowing to the inevitable in 1926 with Son of the Sheikh. In an intense but short time at the top, that was his last film. Though he didn’t know it at the time Valentino would die six weeks after it opened from an infection after an operation that should have been routine. He was 31.

Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella, Valentino’s career blazed bright but short, his untimely death only polishing his now eternally young image. A gay icon (a “pink powder puff” according to one newspaper article at the time), a big hunk of masculinity, the Great Lover, hair brilliantined down – Vaselino, they called him – big, expressive eyes deliberately flashing to suggest high emotion, the ambiguous star.

1921 was a busy year, with five Valentino films in cinemas. As well as The Sheikh and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (a tale of love against the background of the First World War), he made Uncharted Seas (a B movie contractual obligation), The Conquering Power (a romantic drama based on Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet) and Camille (a torrid romance co-starring the equally exotic Alla Nazimova).

But, to The Sheikh, in those days pronounced Sheek rather than Shake – as evidence, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (which eventually became Paramount) held a Sheikh Week in November 1921 to celebrate the success of the film and its star.

Trading on Valentino’s “exotic” (foreign) looks, the film plays an is he/isn’t he game with the persona of the sheikh, and of Valentino. Not – is he going to get the girl?, or is he gay?, but is he or isn’t he one of us?

Sheikh Ahmen Ben Hassan (Valentino) is a cultured ruler “upon whose shoulders have fallen the heritage of leadership” and as we meet him he’s making a pronouncement on arranged versus romantic marriages – “When love is more desired than riches, it is the will of Allah”, says the enlightened Hassan, which has already put him on the side of “us”.

The sheikh and Lady Diana
Seduction, desert style

To test this suggestion, enter Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), flapper, libertine, 1920s gadabout, who infiltrates the Arabs-only casino where the sheikh is ensconced, their eyes already having sparked as he made his grand entrance on his way to the forbidden innner sanctum. Is she romantically interested in him, or is she just put out at being socially one-upped by an Arab? A bit of both.

Lady Diana is soon discovered, more flashing of looks between the two, which the sheikh follows up the next day by kidnapping Lady Diana while she’s out riding in the desert – alone, the fool.

Taking her to his desert HQ, the sheikh keeps her as his prisoner, not raping her (as per the original novel by Edith Maude Hull) but hoping by a series of commands and/or entreaties to win her heart.

And, really, that’s it, a gigantic will he/won’t she, with Adolphe Menjou arriving later in the proceedings, as a civilised old friend of the sheikh, to upbraid him for “stealing a white woman.” And just in case the “clash of civilisations” idea hadn’t got enough traction, a properly sinister Arab, Omair, later arrives to abduct the Lady (again), prompting the sheikh to ride to her rescue.

In narrative terms there’s little here to frighten the horses and even though a century has passed, there’s a lot that’s familiar. Everyone in the cast is introduced via an on screen credit and a posed shot to camera, the sort of thing US TV was still doing in the 1980s – “guest starring Martin Balsam”, pivots, flashes capped teeth kind of thing. And the plot beats, in particular the big “cavalry to the rescue” and “mano a mano duke-out” finale are still common currency.

As to the acting, Valentino is more nuanced than you might expect, though he is given to opening his eyes super-wide like an Indian deity, but then a lot of silent stars did. Well, they couldn’t raise their voices. Ayres is very good as the haughty English aristo riding for a fall and was in fact a big star… for as long as she was sleeping with the studio boss.

Menjou would be famous for much longer than either Valentino (dead) or Ayres (discarded), going on to turn up in films as different as A Star Is Born (1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in 1957, still the same ramrod physique and moustache. Walter Long, who plays Omair the bandit, also had a long career, most notably as the heavy in various Laurel and Hardy films.

What’s most striking about the film, about many films from this era in fact, is just how lavish it is. The production design is brilliant and it’s obvious that Hollywood was awash with money. The cinematography too is remarkably crisp, bright, detail rich – I watched a Kino Lorber restoration and though there are a few blurry moments, by and large it’s excellent.

Wait for the end, and the shock reveal about the true nature of Valentino’s sheikh, a bit of racialised plotting designed to reassure but now looking at the very least hideously parochial. By which I mean out and out racist. But, hey, that’s Hollywood!

The Sheikh and Son of the Sheikh – in a restored double bill box set, available to buy at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021