Friday, May 25, 2012

Back From The Beach ... And Poll Results

Back from a week at the beach where I had limited internet access, nice weather and a good book to read—a recipe for blogging disaster. I don't feel the least bit guilty.

I see that while I was gone, Erich von Stroheim's Greed was your choice for best picture of 1924, narrowly edging Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.. I'll keep that in mind when my unofficial picks one day become official.

Douglas Fairbanks' swashbuckling classic The Thief of Bagdad finished third, F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh fourth, and Keaton's The Navigator tied with "other" for fifth. Actually, "I have not seen any movie made in 1924" came in third, but we'll skip over that.

While we're here, how about another poll—What is your choice for the best movie of 1925? Arguably, the best year in silent movie history. Your choices, in alphabetical order:

Battleship Potemkin

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

The Big Parade

The Freshman

The Gold Rush

Lady Windermere's Fan

The Lost World

The Merry Widow

The Phantom of the Opera

Seven Chances

I Have Not Seen Any Movies From 1925

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blog Or Blog Not. There Is No Try

Don't you just hate it when people tell you they've been too busy to blog? I don't, of course, because I love everybody and if I have one specialty, it's listening attentively with an (apparently) sympathetic look on my face, a skill even more valuable in the long run, I have found, than a fluent familiarity with the rules of appellate litigation.

But I do have many irons in the fire, some of which are related to blogging: an essay about Cecil B. DeMille, with sidebar essays about silent character actor Theodore Roberts and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson; a review of The Testament of Judith Barton, a retelling of Vertigo from the Kim Novak character's point of view, authorized by the Hitchcock estate (read KC's review here); a big project unrelated to the movies that I need to get into shape by Thursday evening; Washington Nationals baseball; a pending visit to Katie-Bar-The-Door's beloved family; a pending visit from my beloved family. Etc. Not to mention that my literary agent asked me to dig up a copy of one of my old novels—one I have not so much as laid eyes on in six years—so she can submit it to some new editors.


With luck, the Cecil B. DeMille essay will be up tomorrow. But in the meantime, why not amuse yourself with a new poll: Which of these silent movies would be your choice for best picture of 1924? Your choices: Greed, The Last Laugh, The Navigator, Sherlock, Jr., The Thief of Bagdad, "other" and "I have not seen any movie made in 1924."

I've got my money on the latter.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Silent Oscars: January 1—July 31, 1927 (Unofficial)

The first year of the Academy Awards covered films released between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928. Thus the oddly truncated Silent Oscar award season for 1927.

Plenty of good movies to choose from, though.

By the way, the Lon Chaney movie, The Unknown, is relatively unknown (hardy har har), but is actually a better showcase of his acting than The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera. Not to mention it's the most macabre version of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" ever. Directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks), it's must-see movie watching.

Just make sure you've tamped your lunch down tightly ahead of time.

Picture: Metropolis (prod. Erich Pommer)

Actor: Lon Chaney (The Unknown)

Actress: Clara Bow (It)

Director: Fritz Lang (Metropolis)

Supporting Actor: Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Metropolis)

Supporting Actress: Brigitte Helm (Metropolis)

Screenplay: Thea von Harbou, from her novel (Metropolis)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1926 (Unofficial)

Roger Ebert recently picked Buster Keaton's The General as the best silent movie ever made. City Lights notwithstanding, I agree.

As for why it shows up here in 1926, despite its 1927 American release, it premiered overseas in '26, and with Fritz Lang's Metropolis on the horizon, that's good enough for me.

Picture: The General (prod. Buster Keaton and Joseph M. Schenck)

Actor: Charley Chase (Mighty Like A Moose) and Harry Langdon (The Strong Man) (tie)

Actress: Greta Garbo (Flesh And The Devil)

Director: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (The General)

Supporting Actor: Sam De Grasse (The Black Pirate)

Supporting Actress: Phyllis Haver (What Price Glory)

Screenplay: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (screenplay); Al Boasberg and Charles Henry Smith (adaptation) (The General)

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1925 (Unofficial)

A great year for silent movies—The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, The Big Parade, The Phantom of the Opera, Seven Chances, The Freshman, Ben-Hur, The Lost World, Don Q Son of Zorro, Lady Windemere's Fan, The Merry Widow ... the list goes on.

Picture: The Gold Rush (prod. Charles Chaplin)

Actor: John Gilbert (The Merry Widow and The Big Parade)

Actress: Irene Rich (Lady Windermere's Fan)

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein (Strike and Battleship Potemkin)

Supporting Actor: Francis X. Bushman (Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ)

Supporting Actress: May McAvoy (Lady Windermere's Fan and Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ)

Screenplay: Charles Chaplin (The Gold Rush)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1924 (Unofficial)

Okay, so this one requires more than a little explanation. I think the consensus pick for best picture would be Erich von Stroheim's Greed, with Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. running a close second. And maybe I'll come around to that viewpoint by the time I actually write these essays. But for now I'm going with the Douglas Fairbanks's swashbuckling masterpiece The Thief of Bagdad as the best movie of the year.

Greed is a very good movie in its present form—ten reels of film about a dimwitted dentist, his gold-obsessed wife and a meddling friend who wants revenge for a wrong that only a self-entitled monster would think he was done—but I think its reputation as the best movie of 1924 rests as much on what's not on the screen as what's on it: as you likely know, Stroheim's first cut of the movie was nine hours long and film critics have lamented its loss as the number one tragedy in movie history.

Well, maybe.

I've read Stroheim's original screenplay—all 300 single-spaced pages of it—and it's either as wonderfully subtle as a season's worth of Mad Men episodes or as wordy and punishing as a nine hour silent movie threatens to be. Maybe both. I've given it the award for best screenplay, but without seeing how the actors performed their parts, how Stroheim set up his camera shots, and how the editor paced the story, I have no way of knowing how good it actually was. And neither does anybody else, not really.

As for Sherlock Jr., I'd call it the perfect summation of everything that Georges Méliès ever wanted to do on film, a collection of the most inventive trick camera shots of the entire silent era, all staged and performed by Keaton, edited together seamlessly into a very funny little comedy. If I were to treat Sherlock Jr. and Keaton's other 1924 film, The Navigator, together as a single body of work, I'd give the pair the award for best picture. But while I've done that in the past with short one- and two-reel films, I'm not inclined to do so with feature films.

Keaton wins a well deserved award for best direction, though.

Which leaves The Thief of Bagdad. I've written about it before, saying, "With the graceful and athletic Douglas Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer." I stand by that. If you're only going to see one Douglas Fairbanks movie in your life, see this one.

I don't expect you to agree, but then half the fun of an award is giving people an opportunity to complain you got it wrong. So have at it: tell me I'm wrong.

Picture: The Thief Of Bagdad (prod. Douglas Fairbanks)

Actor: Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh)

Actress: Marie Prevost (The Marriage Circle)

Director: Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr.)

Supporting Actor: Conrad Veidt (Waxworks)

Supporting Actress: Zasu Pitts (Greed)

Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim, from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris (Greed)

Special Awards: Buster Keaton (Sherlock, Jr.) (Film Editing); William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Bagdad) (Art Direction-Set Decoration)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1923 (Unofficial)

Along with Méliès's rocket hitting the moon in the eye and Chaplin as the Tramp, Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock is one of the most iconic images of the silent era. And the movie it comes from, Safety Last!, is quintessential Lloyd—the nebbishy nice guy with the glasses who winds up performing some truly outrageous and inventive physical stunts, all for love.

I'm going with Lloyd for best actor.

My choice for best picture is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You've probably heard of it—stars a fellow named Lon Chaney in one of his most famous roles.

Finally, according to Alternate Oscar guru Danny Peary, I'm entitled to one tie in the actor category and one in the actress. I'm using my actress tie here, to recognize Colleen Moore and Norma Talmadge with what are essentially career achievement awards. Only one reel of Flaming Youth survives, but it was a trendsetter—much more than anything Louise Brooks would later do, Colleen Moore with this role established the "flapper look" in the minds of the public—and along with those films of Moore's that do survive, I think she's one of the top actresses of the silent era. As for Norma Talmadge, she was to the silent era what Bette Davis was to the Golden Age. Her best available movie is the 1926 comedy Kiki, but Within the Law is actually more typical.

Picture: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (prod. Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg)

Actor: Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!)

Actress: Colleen Moore (Flaming Youth) and Norma Talmadge (Within The Law) (tie)

Director: Abel Gance (La Roue)

Supporting Actor: Adolphe Menjou (A Woman Of Paris)

Supporting Actress: Gladys Brockwell (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)

Screenplay: Perley Poore Sheehan (adaptation) and Edward T. Lowe Jr. (scenario), from the novel by Victor Hugo (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)