Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Three Movies From 1925

1925 was the high point, in terms of spiritedness, of the silent era. Of course there would still be further development and notable achievement, artistically, in the form up through the end of the decade; but by then the end of the silent period was obviously at hand, and while the self-consciousness of this inevitability does not diminish the quality of these later works, it imposes an air of artificiality and constraint on them that is missing from the efforts of 1925, which are not yet afflicted by this consciousness.

The Phantom of the Opera 

One of the most legendary silents, famous for the performance of Lon Chaney as the title character, fresh off of his similarly dominating portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I have not yet been seen), the previous year. People love this story, and a sense of Drama pulses through one at the mere contemplation of the title and the outline of the plot. So I was fired up to see it, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed, though I believe in this instance the fault is probably my own. I don't feel like the print I saw was very good--it was sepia-tinted and was neither sharp nor striking to me. I found my mind wandering a lot, to the point of frequently losing the track of the intertitles and the flow of the story, so that I needed to backtrack to the beginning of a scene, at which my brain would immediately drift off again. Perhaps I was too tired during the particular stretch of days that I took on this movie. Perhaps I am simply too stupid to watch it, though I don't think the basic story is overwhelmingly difficult to follow. I have frequently maintained that it is not reasonable or desirable to expect that one will click with everything even that is good, at least on the initial run, and I think something of that kind happened here. I would be attentive at the beginnings of scenes, in anticipation of some promising development, and then for whatever reason it would not go off with me. I accept that some grand things probably escaped me. What is to be done? I will have to come back to it some other time.

The Freshman

Harold Lloyd comedy, the first of his movies that I have seen. Even though it is enshrined indisputably as a classic, I had to watch it on Youtube because I could not procure a copy of it in any physical form for less than $20 or so. I love it. It has great energy, and while most of the jokes are ridiculous on the surface and to the faculty of higher thought, they are hammered through so relentlessly and elaborately that they extract a feeling of delight in spite of one's modern defenses. Hollywood, being after all not devoid of people who approach things from the artistic mindset, figured out early on that what is really significant--the essence, if you will--about 'college' as far as the general public, even some of the more intelligent levels of it, are concerned, is not professional credentialing, STEM training and research, debates over the Canon, or finding innovative ways to put the whole experience online so as to save a few bucks, but football, parties, and girls. The Freshman goes light on the academics--indeed it leaves them out altogether--and organizes itself around these other often absurd but nonetheless highly formative experiences. And then who, who is a kindred spirit to the likes of us, at least, does not love the image of the 20s that survives in artifacts like this? Such beautiful clothes and rooms and an outdoor physical environment that to contemporary eyes is attractive, manageable and not an overwhelming mess, parties and other activities that look as if they may actually have been fun. At some point in our history the emphasis on having 'fun' seems to have given way in more instances to that of being cooler or smarter or otherwise more dominant than other people in social settings, though perhaps this is not true within true peer groups.

Jobyna Ralston, who in mainly remembered now for frequently appearing as the love interest in Harold Lloyd movies, was pretty beautiful in this. So much so, in fact, that the plot contrivance that Harold requires the whole movie to figure out that she is the one who likes him and that he should be with should be ludicrous, but she is so sweet, so unneurotic, so unconniving, so apparently unnoticed in her ridiculous beauty, that I appreciate the effort and doggedness to create such an unreal but highly satisfying sentiment.

Stella Dallas (silent version)

This was included in the extras for the DVD of the more famous 1937 version starring Barbara Stanwyck. It had no accompanying music, so it was a truly silent hour plus long movie. Ronald Colman, who later transitioned successfully to talkies, appearing in A Tale of Two Cities (1935) among other noteworthy roles, was the big star in this version. Stella was played by the more obscure Belle Bennett, who at the beginning of the movie was more appealing and wholesome than Barbara Stanwyck but in the inimitable old Hollywood style quickly metamorphosed into every man's (or at least cutie-pie lover's) worst nightmare. It was directed by Henry King, who would keep working into the 60s and who has turned up a couple of times in my dabbles in film history (The Gunfighter and Carousel, both from the 50s). I wish I did not take so long to get around to filing these reports, because while I remember that I liked the movie, and liked it about equally with the 1937 version, I no longer remember, what, if anything, was substantially different about the two versions, which have now kind of blended together in my mind. Some of the aspects, such as the squalid Ed Munn character and the extremity of Stella's lower class habits and mindset, stand out more from the sound version, but that may be because they can be emphasized more fully and directly with the aid of sound, especially to the more unsubtle viewer.

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