Film Review: The Idle Class (1921)

Also known as: Vanity Fair (alternate title)
Release Date: September 25th, 1921
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Music by: Johnnie von Haines (1969), Charles Chaplin (original)
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Henry Bergman, Mack Swain

Charles Chaplin Productions, First National, 32 Minutes

Review:

“I will occupy other rooms until you stop drinking.” – Edna, Neglected Wife

I had never seen this short by Charlie Chaplin until now. He has so many films and seeing them all is a big feat. Well, seeing the ones that have survived and not been lost to time.

I had no idea that this had a bunch of golf gags in it, which was really amusing and cool to see done in the Chaplin style.

There are a lot of gags and stunts that are incredible to watch, especially today when most of these stunts would be achieved by using CGI or green screens. This almost plays like a 1920s Caddyshack. Granted, there isn’t a gopher. But come to think of it, Chaplin versus the famous gopher would have been comedy gold.

Anyway, the biggest narrative focus in this film isn’t golf itself but about Chaplin’s Tramp character crossing paths with the richer class. This isn’t a new shtick for him, as the Tramp often times finds himself in these situations but with Chaplin, it’s the gags that make the movie and this one doesn’t disappoint.

The Idle Class isn’t a classic like City Lights but it is a strong and effective outing for Chaplin that only served to keep propelling his career forward.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Chaplin pictures during his run with First National: A Dog’s LifeShoulder ArmsSunnysideThe KidPay DayThe Pilgrim, etc.

Film Review: A Straightforward Boy (1929)

Also known as: Tokkan kozô (original Japanese title)
Release Date: November 24th, 1929
Directed by: Yasujirô Ozu
Written by: Tadao Ikeda, Chuji Nozu
Based on: The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry
Cast: Tatsuo Saitô, Tomio Aoki, Takeshi Sakamoto

Shochiku Kinema (Kamata), Asakusa Teikokukan, 14 Minutes (extant fragments), 38 Minutes (original length)

Review:

Yasujirô Ozu was one of the most prolific film directors in Japan for his time. He started by making comedy shorts in the silent era. He would later go on to make more technically savvy films once he started directing “talkies”. This is one of his earlier films, however.

A Straightforward Boy was once a 38 minute picture. A lot of it has gone missing or been damaged and the print that has been reconstructed and digitally archived is only 14 minutes. However, one can still get the gist and spirit of the story in the 14 minutes that survived to give us the cut of the film that exists now.

When I was researching this, I saw that one reviewer on IMDb referred to this as the Japanese Dennis the Menace. That’s really not a stretch, as the story follows a boy that is kidnapped and ends up being such a handful that the kidnappers return him, only to have the tables then turned again, as the kid continues to terrorize the main kidnapper’s lackey.

This isn’t an exceptional film but it is really cool seeing Japanese culture come to life in the pre-WWII era. If you like Japanese humor, you’ll probably be amused by this, especially the physical humor, as it couldn’t rely on sound. It’s not quite slapstick but it is very physical and entertaining.

Tomio Aoki, the boy who plays Tetsubo, the menace, did a really fine job. The comedic timing of Tatsuo Saitô and Takeshi Sakamoto enhanced Aoki’s performance as their reactions to him were great.

This is absolutely something that fans of Ozu’s work should check out. At least, I always enjoy checking out the early works of top filmmakers, especially when they are still experimenting with style and narrative; it helps you see how they evolved and sometimes gives their later work deeper meaning and substance. For the layman, this is probably not too exciting and there isn’t a lot to walk away with, other than it being a quick short about a funny prankster kid.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Any other early Ozu film.

Film Review: Häxan (1922)

Also known as: Heksen (Danish), The Witches, Witchcraft Through the Ages (English)
Release Date: September 18th, 1922 (Sweden)
Directed by: Benjamin Christensen
Written by: Benjamin Christensen
Music by: Matti Bye (2006 restored version), Launy Grøndahl, Daniel Humair (1968 version), Ludwig van Beethoven (1922 score), Barði Jóhannsson (2006 score), Emil Reesen (1941 version), Art Zoyd (1997 version)
Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt, Astrid Holm, Maren Pedersen
Narrated by: William S. Burroughs (1968 English version)

Svensk Filmindustri, Skandias Filmbyrå , 104 Minutes (Swedish Film Institute print), 74 Minutes (1968 version)

Review:

“Poor little hysterical witch! In the middle ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” – Title Card

Häxan is a film I saw some clips of, as a kid, and was immediately mesmerized by. I didn’t see the full version of the film until the high quality 2006 remaster came out on DVD. Most recently, I checked out the shorter 1968 English language version with the narration by William S. Burroughs.

Both versions of the film are generally the same, except that the English language version has spoken dialogue and a shorter running time due to the exclusion of some of the title cards. The 2006 remaster is superior though, if you want to see the most authentic version of the film. Plus, the music in the 1968 version is bizarre and actually distracts from the tone.

Comparing this to what was out in 1922 really puts into perspective how terrifying this film must have been. The scariest thing at the time was Nosferatu and even though it effectively builds suspense and dread, Häxan throws demons and evil in your face at just about every turn. In fact, the Satanic ceremonies in this film are still better constructed than those in almost every other film throughout history. The amount of demons in this picture is astounding and just about every evil character has its own unique look.

Häxan is really in your face though, so maybe its approach was initially shocking and audiences got somewhat desensitized as the film ran on. Regardless, the costumes, sets and overall visual composition of the film is superb and unlike anything I’ve seen from this era or really, anything after this era. There are some good devil worshiping films with ceremonies and the appearance of a “devil” but this is like a nonstop Satanic orgy playing out on screen.

In a lot of ways, the film is like an over the top PSA to deter people from getting involved with witchcraft. It is to Satan what Reefer Madness was to marijuana use. Granted, this is a much better film in every way. But I imagine that the film probably had an effect opposite of what was probably intended. It plays as the most effective and coolest “Come join Satan!” propaganda that could ever be created.

Apart from the costumes themselves, the makeup and special effects were impressive and uncanny for 1922. The scene with the witches flying over the town is especially breathtaking.

While this isn’t remembered at quite the same level as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it deserves to be in the same conversations film aficionados and historians have had about horror pictures from that era.

Film Review: Nosferatu (1922)

Also known as: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, lit. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Germany)
Release Date: March 4th, 1922 (Germany)
Directed by: F. W. Murnau
Written by: Henrik Galeen
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Hans Erdmann
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Ruth Landshoff, Wolfgang Heinz

Prana Film, Film Arts Guild, 94 Minutes

nosferatuReview:

F. W. Murnau was one of the greatest directors of his day and not just in Germany. Several of his pictures were huge successes but none are probably as widely known internationally as Nosferatu.

Coming out during the height of German Expressionist film movement and the silent film era, Nosferatu could very well be the most famous silent picture ever made. It is definitely the biggest horror film of its time and seems to have the biggest lasting impact.

Similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which predates it by two years, Nosferatu utilized the surreal and dream-like German style. While Caligari is the more surreal of the two, Nosferatu is quite a bit grittier and scarier, overall. While fitting the German Expressionist style, Nosferatu feels more realistic, as it is less stylized than its predecessor. Where Caligari felt like a case of vertigo, Nosferatu delved into the surreal but not in a sense where it feels like a horrific acid trip.

Nosferatu is actually the Dracula story by Bram Stoker. It made some alterations to the characters and some of the events but if you are familiar with the literary version of Dracula, it is quite obvious that this is an adaptation of that iconic novel. The reason that this wasn’t just made to be a direct adaptation of Dracula is due to the filmmakers not being able to secure the rights to the book. Therefore, they changed some things. But this wasn’t without consequence, as the studio had to declare bankruptcy in an effort to dodge a copyright infringement lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s widow. Nosferatu ended up being the only film produced by Prana Film because of this.

Max Schreck, who plays Count Orlok, is one of the best known vampires to ever grace a movie screen. His recognition is well-deserved. He was eerie, sinister and unlike the literary Dracula, he didn’t fit in with society. Schreck was feral and more like a wild animal that couldn’t control his urges. He created some of the most well-known scenes in the silent era and in the long history of horror cinema. To this day, those scenes are still really effective. Schreck’s Count Orlok is one of the greatest interpretations of the Dracula character and one of the greatest horror performances ever filmed. His legacy has transcended film even, as his likeness has been used in several mediums: other films, literature and video games just to name a few. Heck, he even appears in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

Nosferatu was and still is a highly influential work of art. It has inspired countless directors across the globe, Count Orlok is still one of the most iconic monsters in movie history and scenes from the film are still widely used in other bodies of work.

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Also known as: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany)
Release Date: February 26th, 1920 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Music by: Giuseppe Becce
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski

Decla-Bioscop, 74 Minutes

das-cabinet-des-dr-caligariReview:

Few movies can illicit as many feelings and emotions without the use of sound as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While I love many films of the silent era, especially the German Expressionist pictures of that time, none of them quite capture my attention and imagination in the way that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has.

The film came out between the two World Wars, wedged between the loss and destruction of the Great War and the rise of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest and precarious eras in European history. The film reflects the state of life in that time and it exists as an allegory to the war-like authority of the state and the abuse of the common man, manipulated by a greater power into committing heinous acts that serve the sinister master.

Was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari somewhat prophetic? Scholars have debated that for decades. In fact, there are several books and a documentary about it.

As a film, outside of its apparent political influence, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a superior work of art. It is meticulous in its design and execution. It is one of the most haunting and well-acted silent films ever made.

The real standout of the film is the talent of Conrad Veidt, who played the hypnotically controlled somnambulist killer Cesare. His motion, his facial expressions and his aura of dread makes him one of the greatest horror characters in the history of cinema. In the silent era, he is only really rivaled by Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) in 1922’s Nosferatu and Lon Chaney in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Werner Krauss also created a very effective and scary presence as the title character, Dr. Caligari. He was large and brooding and carried a strong sense of authority with him, especially when the reality of his character is revealed in a great twist ending.

Lil Dagover was beautiful and almost angelic as the apple of everyone’s eye. She had a grace and frailty that made her feel like a sole delicate flower on the verge of getting torn apart in the oncoming storm.

Apart from the acting, the set design was also marvelous. The surreal German Expressionist vibe takes over the film and makes it feel like a nightmare sequence, which is the intention. It is effective while creating a contemporary dark fantasy setting that many filmmakers have tried to emulate for generations with none of them coming close to the magic of this film’s set design and cinematography.

There are many great motion pictures from the silent film era. None of them, however, match the storytelling, aesthetic and overall quality of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is also a great silent classic that many consider the best of the best, it still falls behind Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plus, this film also benefits from being its own unique story where Murnau’s masterpiece is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.