The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

swashathon-2-robin-hood

Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Could there be a more enchanting silent adventure than The Thief of Bagdad? – A film which is enormously pleasurable, fun, captivating and relaxing to watch. Even at the lengthy running time there was never a dull moment and in my opinion is far superior to the 1940 version. The film has a dream like state, one which I’m happy to see go on and on. This is a rare film which I feel you can pop into at any point and watch from there.

The Thief of Bagdad has a straightforward message which is literally spelled out in the stars at both the beginning and end of the film; “Happiness must be earned”. The film also opens with a verse from The Koran; “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three World!”. The remainder of the film however portrays the religion of Islam in a non-proselytizing manner. The film isn’t afraid to show the extent of slavery in the Islamic world of the time, likewise the thief himself isn’t big into faith and even dismisses Allah as a myth in a Mosque right in front of worshipers. What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the Imam (Charles Belcher) prevents the worshipers from attacking the thief after the makes his comments. Islam is touted as the so called “Religion of Peace” and this is at least symbolised in this scene. The Thief’s distaste of religion doesn’t last though as he later asks the Imam to be his catalyst in his transformation (“Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it”). Anyone who grew up associating Bagdad with bombs and terrorism, seeing a movie which refers to Bagdad (or Baghdad as other sources spell it) as “dream city of the ancient east” is surreal to see. What happened to this dream city? Did such a place ever really exist or is it just fictional fantasy?

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the silent era and that money sure went to good use. William Cameron Menzies’ huge, D.W. Griffith like sets are a marvel to behold in their grandiosity and opulence. There’s so much going in many shots with people moving in the background and doing their own thing. Like other silent epics The Thief of Bagdad is a movie of predominantly long shots which offer a voyeuristic like insight into this fantasy world. Not to mention many shots like a 2D platformer video game, so feel free to hold a controller while watching the movie and pretend to play away.

Julanne Johnston’s role as the Princess is very limited as she isn’t given a huge amount to do. However the real stand out female performance is Anna May Wong at the Mongolian slave girl, a real toxic sexual siren. She acts as an insider for the villain of the film, the Mongolian Prince in helping him take over the city. Although considering she is a slave at the hands of a foreign power and the Mongolian Princes’ seizing of the city could ensure her freedom, I can empathise with her character. She is last seen telling the Mongolian Prince to escape with the Princess on the flying carpet all while one of her fellow slaves sees her doing this; the viewer is left to decide what happens to her character. The Mongolian Prince himself does not have much to his personality other than being overtly evil but is delightfully evil all the same while giving off the Fu Manchu vibes.

Like Errol Flynn who would come after him, on screen Douglas Fairbanks projects a real lust for life. He is a marvel to watch with his athletic prowess, feline grace as well as his ability to give the middle finger to the laws of gravity and physics; and nice pecks too. Like some of the great silent comics, he also displays lateral thinking skills. Just looks at the scene in which he creates a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg and a donkey in order that he can get up to a balcony and steal some food. If his later films are anything to go by, Raoul Walsh was a great director of action. The Thief of Bagdad is a movie full of glorious action set pieces full of those oh so glorious “how’s he going to get out of this?” moments.

The fantasy element of The Thief of Bagdad really kicks in during the final hour. The special effects on display are not of the delightfully fake kind but are actually very convincing. The creature in the Valley on the Monsters or that creature in the sea are definitely something to be feared, or the Enchanted Tree – very eerie stuff. The movie’s two big money shots on the other hand do not disappoint. The first being the shot of the thief flying away on the winged horse, one of those cinematic images that always stay with you. The second of these being the first instance in which we see the flying carpet in action. You’ll believe a man can fly…on a carpet.

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Our Hospitality (1923)

Deliverance

All of Buster Keaton’s silent films had a beauty and a grace to them, but Our Hospitality exemplifies this best. A mini epic, full of beautiful, lush scenery and landscape shots; visually speaking, I consider this to be Keaton’s best film. Take the film’s finale as an example, as Keaton walks along the edge of a cliff with huge forest backdrops stretching as far as the eye can see or the equally as impressive sequence in which an entire dam is blown up. But the sequence which best showcases this idealised look at 1830’s America is the supreme majesty of the steam locomotive sequence; a predecessor to what would come in The General. This is one of the greatest sequences Keaton ever captured on film, with the music score on the Thames Silent’s version giving it (as well as the film as a whole), an even greater sense of awe. Filming as well the construction of such large scale props must have been no easy feat. It’s a sequence which is beautiful, funny and thrilling at the same time, filled with so many inventive sight gags. When Keaton’s top hat doesn’t fit on his head in the locomotive carriage, he puts on his iconic pork pie hat; that’s more like it! It’s a bumpy unstable ride to say the least, and even has a dog chasing it throughout for that extra bit of amusement

The set up of Our Hospitality is the type of melodrama which was rife during the silent period (and what Keaton himself parodied in his short The Frozen North). One family has a feud with another which lasts from one generation to the next, and nobody remembers what caused the feud to begin with (“Men of one family grew up killing men of another for no other reason expect their fathers had done so”). Ah simple but effective naivety; why can’t we all just get along?

Keaton’s birth place is not stated during the film, but it’s clearly located in Appalachia, prior to his character being sent to New York for a better upbringing; Keaton the sophisticated New Yorker vs. hillbilly red necks. Yep, we have a movie here ripe with hillbilly stereotypes. On top of tapping into the Appalachian cultural stereotype of feuding families, there are plenty of guns stored in the Canfield house, but when they’re not allowed to use them due to their comical dedication to be hospitable, they just ask the townspeople to borrow a gun. Likewise in another scene Keaton sees a husband abusing his wife, steps in and throws the husband aside, yet the wife starts attacking Keaton himself. Keaton then runs away, followed by the husband ordering the wife back into the house. Ah the glorious lack of political correctness.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

That’s Entertainment!

What is about Singin’ in the Rain that even the film elite hold it in such high regard and has even appeared on a previous Sight & Sound poll as one of the ten greatest films of all time, ranking among traditional highbrow films? Singin’ in the Rain is not just a great musical but also a film with a great story. It is not as harsh a critique on Hollywood as Sunset Boulevard but who would have still believed the content of fan magazines to be genuine after this film. Singin’ in the Rain has a cynical side as it pulls apart the Hollywood myth; beginning with Don Lockwood’s back-story as to how he rose to fame, which the movie comically shows us is full of crap. “Dignity, always dignity” but not if you want to make it to the top but at the end of the day  Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for movie lovers which celebrates Hollywood as much as it makes fun of it.

The film is set in 1927 albeit a very colourful 1927. In 1952 Technicolor films were in their final years of production and would soon become a thing of the past. The movie is a tribute to MGM producer and songwriter Arthur Freed – head of the MGM Freed unit – the producers of some of the greatest film musicals of all time. Although the days of the studio system where coming to an end in the early 1950’s as films from different studios started becoming homogenous and not containing unique aesthetics to each studio, the MGM musical still remained its own unique beast that on other studio could replicate. Likewise, the film studio in Singin’ in the Rain is a fictional studio and not MGM itself, I guess that would have been too much of a self-endorsement.

The soundtrack itself has entered the pop culture lexicon for good reason. I’ve had no shortage of listening to my CD soundtrack; glorious corn and camp topped with beautiful orchestrations, all of which never leaves your head and contributing to making Singin’ in the Rain one of the go to anti-depressant films. Few other songs can lift my mood more than Moses Supposes or the film’s title number: could there be a greater expression of joy? After all, it is in the title; he is singing in the rain; turning the dreary rain into carefree joy, finding joy in despair. As for Make ‘em Laugh, even though it is a plagiarism of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from The Pirate (1948), I considering Make ‘em Laugh is a superior rendition. There is also that disorienting fashion parade sequence which could be removed and have no effect on the plot but I do love me some 50’s fluff. But they do save the best for last in the form of the Broadway Melody Ballet. A number of MGM musicals had a lengthy ballet sequence, and to say they out did themselves here would be an understatement as Gene Kelly dressed as Harold Lloyd with the go getter attitude of the 1920’s celebrates a simple notion, “gotta dance!”. The visually asserting array of bright colours and impressionistic backgrounds is aided by Cyd Charisse; what a talent, what a figure!

Singin’ in the Rain presents a light hearted and comical look at what actors and studios went through during the transition to sound. Few other scenes in cinema are as entertaining as Lina Lomant’s failure to understand sound recording technology. This scene not only showcases the problems with the technology in its early days by picking up unwanted sounds (complete also with the classic angry movie director) but it perfectly captures the relatable frustration that comes with filmmaking. I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than out-of-sync sound. Likewise, the star’s difficulty in adapting to talkies and being laughed at by audiences parallel the legend of audiences being in howls of laughter as actor John Gilbert’s attempts to deliver dialogue on screen. Jean Hagan playing the dumb broad Lina Loment does a comedy act similar to Judy Holiday but in my view better than Holiday ever did. Donald O’Connor on the other hand surely isn’t human with his vaudeville style act his facial and body movements and ability to walk up walls. Just name me a film with a more astounding display of talent. Here’s to you Singin’ In the Rain, I bow humbly to your cinematic and musical perfection.

Three Ages (1923)

History of the World, Part I

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Three Ages is one of the earliest spoof movies, a feature length parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, cutting between three different historical periods in which in men set about obtaining the love of a woman. The Stone Age portions of the film are a fantasy stone age in which people wear fur, carry clubs and man and dinosaur live side by side and there is even a sequence with a stop motion dinosaur; I wish I could see more of it. Three Ages long precedes The Flintstones with its use of anachronisms; with clever stone age equivalents of modern days things such as the turtle operated ‘wee-gee board’. Likewise just like in a D.W. Griffith film, the Rome featured in Three Ages actually looks vast and expansive while featuring the most amusing chariot race ever complete with sleds and huskies. It’s moments like these which give Three Ages a sense of cuteness and innocence to it.

The role of a caveman is perfect for Wallace Beery, Keaton’s more manly opponent. Many of Keaton’s films show him with a feminine side and this is particular true with the stone age portions of Three Ages, not just with his rivalry with Wallace Beery but also in a scene in the stone age in which he is overpowered by a woman bigger and stronger than him whom the audience is led to believe is a man to begin with. Yet the prevalence of gender bending is taken a step further in one of the modern age portions of the film in which the wife of a household whom is dressed like a man has the final say on who marries her daughter. Do girls like bad boys or nice sensitive guys? Buster Keaton films would have you believe the latter. Margaret Leahy is Keaton’s leading lady in Three Ages, an actress came to Hollywood because of a beauty competition and supposedly couldn’t act. The filmmakers appear to work their way around this as her performance largely consists of just mildly reacting to things.

Unlike Keaton’s other silent films, Three Ages has a larger emphasis on non slapstick gags and not as much stunt work. The film still has one major def defying stunt sequence in which he failed to make a leap between two buildings; however this happy accident resulted in a pure classic Keaton stunt sequence as he effortlessly descends several stories through a building. Likewise the finale of stopping a wedding at the last minute is such a cliché but Keaton manages to put an unexpected spin on it. It would be easy for a film like Three Ages to be cynical and pessimistic but like Keaton’s other work it’s optimistic in the end.  The three Keatons go through much hardship and pain but through much perseverance they get the girl in the end.

Woman In the Moon [Frau im Mond] (1929)

Destination Moon

I first heard of Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) as a child reading about it in the Newsround Book of Space. In a section of the book about science fiction movies the film was mentioned accompanied by a photograph of the film. This picture always intrigued and stuck with me – three people and their rocket on the moon; very retro futuristic looking. I finally saw it many years later and was not disappointed.

Woman In the Moon really does deserve the title of a unique film, the movies feels like 50’s science fiction movie, yet was released in 1929. The design of the rocket has that retro futuristic, egg shaped 1950’s look while the painted moon backdrops look as if they could be in a 50’s space fantasy film. Likewise actress Gerda Maurus has a very futuristic, metallic looking hairstyle. Science Fiction wouldn’t become a staple genre in cinema for another 21 years and Fritz Lang himself was to create a sci-fi movie in the 1950’s, which unfortunately never came to be. The movie also mixes together other time periods. Portions of the movie feel reminiscent of a Jules Verne story with that 19th century sci-fi aesthetic such as the apartment of Professor Mannfeldt with its vintage 19th century furniture, chairs and telescope.

Woman In the moon combines genres with a mix of espionage, melodrama, comic book sci-fi and even a helping of comedy thrown into the mix. Other moments feel like a documentary with scenes of scientists and diagrams explaining things; I love that stuff. Woman in the Moon was the first time ever (film or otherwise) in which space travel was depicted through the use of a multistage liquid fuel rocket; 40 years before man first landed on the moon. Considering this it’s a shock that this movie isn’t more widely known, especially in compassion to Lang’s previous sci-fi epic Metropolis. Even later Nazi rocket science (and eventual American rocket scientist) Wernher Von Braun acted as an advisor for the film.

The film has its Cartoony moments such as the ever cliché image of close minded bearded scientists laughing and the insane or seemingly insane person is the one who is right but the message is clear, as Professor Mannfeldt angrily puts it “The progress of the world will not fail due to learned ignoramuses lacking in fantasy whose brains work in inverse proportion to their calcification”. The movie’s villain on the other hand is obviously modelled after everyone’s least favourite evil dictator Adolf Hitler; he doesn’t have a moustache but has the same parted hairstyle. Lang hated the Nazis before it was cool or before they even came to power.

The only major downside of Woman In the Moon is the run time at 2 hours and 50 minutes which I felt could have been be cut down. At the 26 minutes in until 50 minute mark was a section of the film which really tried my patience with its painfully slow setting up in real time but it’s largely smooth sailing after that.

The rocket launch is something to behold with the impressive miniatures and the very gradual build up. The rocket interior is in tune with a space fantasy even with its design taking the absence of gravity in space and G-force taken into account. The actors do an effective job of conveying G-force and not coming off as laughable. When on the moon the astronauts do not wear space suits, are able to breathe on the moon and did I mention there is also gold on the moon. I assume the filmmakers intentionally created a film which combined scientific accuracy and fantasy to create a film which has a great sense of adventure. The child stowaway on the rocket represents the schoolboy adventurer in us. The moon as seen here is a fantasy land full of mountains and caverns. Plus I love and I do mean LOVE the film’s ending. Such an uplifting moment after we’re led to believe the opposite but doesn’t come off as contrived.

There are some subtitle issues on the Masters on Cinema Blu-ray release with white English text overlaying white German text.

“For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.”

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Silent Perfection

I’m not a silent film aficionado, I’m more of a tourist when it comes to this era of filmmaking. Sherlock Jr. is the only silent film I’ve ever awarded a perfect five star rating and I doubt I will ever come across another silent movie as fun, thrilling, inventive or as mind blowing as Sherlock Jr.; in my view Buster Keaton’s crowning achievement. Most of Keaton’s silent output is great but even by his impeccable standards Sherlock Jr. goes beyond the call of duty. It’s more surreal and avant-garde than his other work with Keaton plays a wannabe detective who gets to go into the cinema screen and live out his fantasy as a great detective. Like an audience member watching a movie, Keaton’s character gets to escape the real world and be what you can’t be in real life. Sherlock Jr. captures the magic of cinema like few other films have and at an economic length of only 44 minutes it’s a film you can pop on any time.

The special effects on display here blow my mind every time. Just how did he do that stuff? Part of me doesn’t want to know in order to keep the mystery alive. Perhaps a special effect isn’t so special if you look at it and can and immediately know who they did it. CGI can take a backseat! These are true special effects. Keaton’s trademark of physical humor and stunt work is on full display here with the film’s climatic case sequence being nothing short of astounding. It is my second favourite high speed pursuit in a movie after the final car chase in The Blues Brothers. The gags and stunts in this film never cease to amaze me and always take me by surprise no matter how times I watch the film. I also must give props to the fantastic jazzy, noir like score of the Thames Silent’s print of the film, and is it just me or is that James Bond music at exactly 39 minutes and 56 seconds in?

You know all the cliché terms people throw around in movie reviews: “timeless”, “classic”, “ahead of its time”. If there was ever a movie which completely deserved them then this is it.

The High Sign (1921)

Keaton Komedy Klassic

The ‘High Sign’ has to be my favourite Buster Keaton short and it just so happens to be the first independent film Keaton produced, giving birth to his iconic unnamed character. However Keaton himself was disappointed with the film and didn’t release it until the following year instead making “One Week” his first solo short. I question why though as I feel the premise of The ‘High Sign’ is one of Keaton’s most inspired and possibly even worthy of being used as a set up for a feature. It’s true what they say, the artist is often wrong about their own work.

The opening prologue of The High Sign states “Our hero came from Nowhere- he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”; and considering his superhuman stunts he’s like an alien who just landed on Earth. This opening prologue reminds me of a statement Roger Ebert made in his review of The General; “[Keaton] seems like a modern visitor to the world of silent clowns”

The ‘High Sign’ packs in so much humor and gags into its 20 minutes such as his set up with the dog, meat and string (it’s hard to explain); it’s like something Mr Bean would come up with. The short also features the earliest example I’ve seen in film of a recurring gag with the high sign itself, a secret signal between gangsters. Keaton even messes with the audience’s expectation for comic effect by having himself walk past a banana peel on the ground only to not slip on it. Likewise the short’s finale is a real “How did they do that?” sequence. The house with its traps and secret hatches is an astounding piece of set design and when all the rooms appear on screen at once which Keaton jumping between them, it reminds me of a 2D video game. I was laughing, in awe and even shocked (when the gangster’s neck is closed on the door) all at once. There is even a customer at one point who has quite a resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again; the genius of Buster Keaton will never cease to amaze me.