Film Review: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Release Date: November 27th, 1920 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Fred Niblo
Written by: Johnston McCulley, Eugene Miller, Douglas Fairbanks
Based on: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Music by: Mortimer Wilson
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim, Milton Berle (uncredited)

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, 90 Minutes (1970 cut), 107 Minutes (DVD cut), 97 Minutes (Academy Archive Print)

Review:

“We never let business interfere with drinking!” – Undetermined Role

My mother used to love this film a lot and I saw it multiple times, as a kid, because of that. Granted, her favorite Zorro film was the one with Tyrone Power but it was my mum’s love of Zorro movies and swashbuckling in general that made me appreciate these whimsical adventure movies too.

I wanted to go way back and revisit this one, though, as it actually set the stage for what Zorro would evolve into over the years. This generated the tone and style for the franchise from a visual standpoint and with this picture, specifically, you can see how this character and his world inspired the main character and world of the Batman comic book series.

Douglas Fairbanks, working with the original Zorro creator, made a pretty action packed, energetic and jovial motion picture, especially for its time, as this is a silent picture and had to rely more on the physical performances and athleticism of its cast.

This has a good, straightforward story and it created a template that wasn’t just reused in the dozens of Zorro films, serials and television shows that followed but also in other intellectual properties.

The Mark of Zorro is quite fantastic for its era. While it isn’t my favorite version of Zorro, it made it possible for those other versions to exist, as well as so many pulp heroes and stories from Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom and countless others.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Zorro pictures and film serials, as well as other Douglas Fairbanks movies.

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Release Date: January 7th, 1925 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney (uncredited), Ernst Laemmle (uncredited), Edward Sedgwick (uncredited)
Written by: all uncredited: Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace
Based on: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Music by: Gustav Hinrichs
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Mary Philbin

Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes, 101 Minutes (original cut), 92 Minutes (1995 cut), 107 Minutes (DVD cut), 106 Minutes (Ontario cut), 95 Minutes (1929 re-release)

Review:

“If I am the Phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I shall be saved, it will be because your love redeems me.” – The Phantom

This is one of the best films under the Universal Monsters banner even if fans of those classic monster movies don’t consider it a part of that oeuvre. However, it was made by Universal and helped kick off the fantastic horror output of the studio.

The Phantom of the Opera would be remade and reimagined a few decades later with Claude Rains and that’s the version most closely associated with Universal’s other monster flicks but without this silent era classic and the stellar performance by Lon Chaney Sr., the studio may have never gotten there.

Plus, this is the superior version of the story and honestly, it’s still the best Phantom of the Opera movie ever made. Again, I have to give credit to Chaney. Without him, this wouldn’t have been nearly the same picture.

Chaney is a master of silent era horror and a lot of that has to do with how he crafted his own monster makeup mixed with his physical performance, as he didn’t have sound and dialogue to rely on. Chaney is able to convey great emotion, even if his face is greatly obscured or disfigured.

Additionally, the tone of this picture is perfect and the world the Phantom lives in feels alive but stuffed with a brooding, haunting atmosphere.

For its time, this is well shot with good cinematography, impressive effects and sets that had to have been a real challenge to craft. The scenes where the water level changes show the level of care that went into producing this movie.

The opulent settings of the opera house and the world above the sewers exists in stark contrast with one another but it makes this such a visual feast that its hard not to be mesmerized by the picture’s imagery.

Overall, this is a damn good motion picture and one of Chaney’s best, if not the best. It’s the strong foundation that the Universal Monsters franchise was built on top of. Honestly, this is the Iron Man of its day.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other silent horror films, specifically those starring Lon Chaney Sr.

Film Review: Destiny (1921)

Also known as: Der müde Tod (original German title), The Weary Death (literal English title), Between Worlds, Between Two Worlds, Beyond the Wall (alternative titles)
Release Date: October 6th, 1921 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Decla-Bioscop AG, 97 Minutes, 105 Minutes (extended), 94 Minutes (2016 restoration)

Review:

“You dread, awful cactus, you!” – Judge Maedchen

Destiny is a really intriguing motion picture. It’s also the earliest Fritz Lang movie that I’ve seen and that guy is hands down, one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, who made masterpieces from the silent era in Germany to his film-noir work in America, a few decades later.

I don’t put this on the same level as his masterpieces like MetropolisM, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat but it’s still a superb picture for its time and it shows a guy that worked within the very expressive and surreal German Expressionist style but also had a more realistic grittiness than what was the norm.

Destiny is a story about a loving couple. They pickup a hitchhiker who is actually Death. Shortly after that, Death purchases some land nearby and builds a gigantic, ominous wall near the town’s cemetery. When the couple meets him again, in a local tavern, the man disappears. The woman, later sobbing in front of the mysterious wall is confronted by a group of ghosts that walk towards her and then disappear into the wall behind her. Putting two-and-two together, the woman confronts Death, begging for the return of her lover and thus, finds herself on a strange journey where she hopes that her love can conquer Death itself.

If the setup doesn’t sell you on the film, I don’t know what will.

However, the acting is superb and Lil Dagover, this film’s star, shines much brighter in this than she did in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the previous year.

Additionally, Fritz Lang already showed that he possessed a great eye and an even greater understanding of mise-en-scène. It was his early work in films like this that led to his incredible style being instrumental in the look of the film-noir pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting, the use of shadows and having a genuine understanding of contrast and how to properly exploit it on celluloid, Lang was a legitimate master.

Although, I have to give credit to his cinematographers, as well. In this film, he worked with three: Fritz Arno Wagner, Erich Nitzschmann and Hermann Saalfrank.

Wagner should be better known than he is in modern times, as the guy would move on from this movie to work on films like Nosferatu, Lang’s M (one of the best looking films ever made), Spies and well over 100 other visually stunning pictures.

This is a film where everything went right. It pulls you in, looks phenomenal and you feel for these characters. I won’t spoil the ending but it is pretty emotional after going on this journey and seeing this woman risk her own mortality to save the man she loves.

For those strangely complaining that movies don’t have strong female heroes, maybe you should start your search back in 1921.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other early Fritz Lang films, as well as other silent movies from the German Expressionist era.

Film Review: The Hands of Orlac (1924)

Also known as: Orlacs Hände (original German title)
Release Date: September 24th, 1924 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Ludwig Nertz (play), Maurice Renard (book)
Music by: Pierre Oser
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas

Pan Films, Berolina Film GmbH, 92 Minutes, 113 Minutes (restored), 105 Minutes (2013 cut)

Review:

As big of a fan of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as I am, I actually hadn’t seen any of his other films until now.

I’ve known of this one for quite some time but I never came across it until it started streaming on The Criterion Channel, recently. Being that it was only on there for a limited time, I had to check it out. Plus, it starred the legendary Conrad Veidt and all of his silent films showcase his great talent for acting in that very expressive style.

Like Caligari this film utilizes the visual style of the German Expressionist movement. It features a high contrast chiaroscuro aesthetic while also having a visually surreal quality. Everything feels dark and dreamlike and for Wiene, you can see a more refined style than what he showed just four years earlier with Caligari.

Honestly, this feels like a more mature and plausible film. It’s less fantastical, more gritty and it taps into the psyche a bit deeper, providing a sense of dread and horror that eclipses that more popular and widely known Wiene picture.

The story is about a pianist who loses his hands. So he’s given hands that could’ve possibly belonged to a killer. While he doesn’t get back his ability to play music, weird things start to happen that have the man believing that the hands are taking over his body and causing him to kill. There are some twists to the plot and there’s a big reveal scene at the end but even though this is a very old film, I didn’t find it to be predictable and it had a satisfying ending.

I don’t think that this film could’ve been as good, though, without Conrad Veidt in the starring role. He gives us some of his best work, as you really start to buy into his worst thoughts about himself while feeling for the guy, as he could possibly be an innocent victim, possessed by evil hands.

While I don’t like this as much as Caligari, it feels like it utilized the knowledge Wiene gained while working on that film, as well as his others that predate this one.

Additionally, it also features one of the best Veidt performances I’ve ever seen. 

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other silent era horror films, especially those with the German Expressionist style.

Film Review: The Blacksmith (1922)

Release Date: July 21st, 1922
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Written by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Cast: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox

First National Pictures, 25 Minutes

Review:

The IMDb description of this film is, “Buster Keaton shoes horses and repairs cars, with mixed results.”

That pretty much sums the whole thing up.

However, this is Buster Keaton and the gags and physical humor are great, even if this is still pretty early into his career where he was pumping out silent short films left and right.

While I don’t enjoy this one as much as One Week or Cops, it still showcases the man’s great talent and how he could make magic with just about any prop or situation.

This is only 25 minutes but a lot happens and Keaton doesn’t really stop moving, except to fill in a few narrative points between the physical scenes. But even then, he finds a way to put his physical energy to use.

In the end, I’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film I haven’t enjoyed and The Blacksmith is no different.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films of the silent era, as well as the movies of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

Film Review: Cops (1922)

Release Date: March 11th, 1922
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Steve Murphy

Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 18 Minutes

Review:

“I won’t marry you until you become a big business man.” – Mayor’s Daughter

Cops is a Buster Keaton movie I hadn’t seen until now. Like a lot of his pictures, you can actually find a good copy of it on YouTube for free.

Overall, this was energetic and fun but I probably wouldn’t put this near his upper echelon of stuff, even his shorts. I enjoyed One Week a lot more and found it to be pretty damn hilarious from top to bottom.

Cops does have some good gags and sequences but it’s a lot more grounded than Keaton’s best work, which often times gets surreal and over the top (in a good way).

This also feels like a much smaller picture than many of his others, even One Week, which was mostly filmed in a large dirt covered area near train tracks. The only thing in this that felt somewhat grandiose was the finale that saw Keaton running away from what looked like a hundred or more cops.

This was definitely charming in that typical Buster Keaton sort of way but everything, other than the closing minutes, felt pretty subdued and light.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.

Film Review: One Week (1920)

Release Date: August 29th, 1920
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 25 Minutes (TCM print), 19 Minutes (1995 Film Preservation print)

Review:

“Now look at the darned thing!” – The Bride

One Week is a fairly early movie in Buster Keaton’s career but I wanted to revisit it, as it is one of my favorites.

It’s actually the first film where he is the star and it also has Sybil Seely playing his wife. She would be featured in other early Keaton films.

As a kid, this was one of my top Keaton films because it’s just really damn good and the physical comedy here is just on another level. Plus, it’s a short film, so it used to pop up on TV early in the morning quite a bit.

The story revolves around two newlyweds that are gifted a “build-it-yourself” portable house. Keaton, as the Groom, does his damnedest at trying to build their new home but he’s terrible at it, which leads to a great series of gags and still, some of the comedian’s best.

Looking at it through a modern lens, it’s impressive for the time. I’m not sure how they were able to pull off some sequences and there are really big things that happen in this that exceed the scope of a typical movie for the time.

For instance, there is a bit where the entire home is spinning as people tumble in and out of it. There is then the big finale, which sees the house get decimated by a real life train. I’m guessing it wasn’t hard to get permits back then.

At the end of the day, this isn’t Keaton’s best film but it is a good example of how far ahead of the competition he was in his first starring role.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.

Film Review: The General (1926)

Also known as: The Engine Driver (original script title)
Release Date: December 25th, 1926 (El Paso premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Written by: Al Boasberg, Clyde Buckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Based on: The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
Music by: William P. Perry (1926), Carl Davis (1987), Robert Israel (1995), Baudime Jam (1999), Joe Hisaishi (2004), Timothy Brock (2005), Angelin Fonda (2017)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions, United Artists, 67 Minutes, 80 Minutes (1982 cut), 83 Minutes (1962 cut), 75 Minutes (2003 alternate cut)

Review:

“[to the recruiter who rejects him] If you lose this war, don’t blame me.” – Johnnie Gray

While I’ve reviewed several Charlie Chaplin films, as well as a few Harold Lloyd ones, I’m surprised that I haven’t reviewed any Buster Keaton pictures yet. Granted, I haven’t watched any in awhile but I’ve been itching to revisit The General, as I hadn’t seen it since my film studies class in high school, over two decades ago.

What I like about Keaton’s movies, especially this one, is the high emphasis on plot. He is a physical, slapstick comedian and he employs the style in his performances but he still makes a well plotted film that doesn’t mostly rely on his gags and his stunts.

The General is a great example of this and it is a true cinematic classic of its time.

What really stands out, at least to me, is the scope of the film. It feels large and epic when compared to other motion pictures that are similar. Silent comedies were typically filmed indoors and outside sets usually didn’t have a lot of scale. The General takes advantage of the environments it’s filmed in, especially during the iconic locomotive chase scenes.

Additionally, it has amazing cinematography with stellar shot framing, lighting and use of natural environmental texture, weather and color tinting.

It has a well structured, layered plot, which moves briskly and doesn’t get too hung up on staying in one place for too long or overdoing a gag.

I also really like the plot. It sees Keaton’s Johnnie Gray, a locomotive operator, get rejected by the love of his life because he won’t join the military and fight in the Civil War. As time goes on, she is taken hostage by Union raiders who steal his train. Propelled by the undying love in his heart for his woman and his train, Johnnie takes to the rails to hunt down the enemy and get his loves back.

The story then expands into different directions but it stays pretty focused on moving forward and it employs a level of character development that wasn’t common in 1920s pictures.

Keaton and Chaplin are often times compared and you have people that are either in one camp or the other. Despite similarities in their physical comedy, I think that their films are very different. I think that The General showcases their differences pretty well.

Also, unlike Chaplin’s films from the ’20s, this feels like a true blockbuster movie of its age.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films.

Film Review: The Mechanical Man (1921)

Also known as: L’uomo meccanico (original Italian title)
Release Date: November, 1921 (Italy)
Directed by: André Deed
Cast: André Deed, Giulia Costa, Gabriel Moreau, Mathilde Lambert

Milano Film, 80 Minutes, 26 Minutes (surviving footage)

Review:

Most of this movie has been lost to the sands of time.

26 minutes have survived and instead of fan made trailers or clips, I put a video featuring all the remaining footage at the bottom of this review.

What gives this film a unique place in motion picture history is that it was one of the very first science fiction movies from Italy and it was the first film in the world to feature a battle between robots.

The entire film was considered lost for decades but some reels of the Portugese version were found. These were eventually combined into the 26 minute cut that can be seen today.

This film’s director (and lead actor) had experience in slapstick comedy, so he brought that into this picture. Now his skills aren’t quite on the level of the greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton but he still brought a certain energy to the production.

The story revolves around a scientist who has made a remote control robot. This robot, as would become a sci-fi trope, possessed superhuman strength and speed. Some criminals end up killing the scientist in an effort to steal his robot making secrets. They are caught but eventually, the gang leader gets out and kidnaps the scientist’s niece, forcing her to give up the blueprints. The robot is then used for crime and even commits murder. However, the scientist’s brother creates a second robot to face off with the now evil one. The big robot battle takes place in an opera house.

While the film isn’t superb, I like it a lot because of the premise, which was pretty far ahead of its time. Also, the special effects for 1921 are top notch. For this era, this really is a blockbuster.

Nowadays, this movie is in the public domain. So you can easily find it online (see the video below) or find cheap copies of it on DVD.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other silent films like 1922’s The Headless Horseman, 1910’s Frankenstein and 1918’s The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.

Film Review: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

Also known as: The Lodger (shortened title)
Release Date: January, 1927 (London premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Eliot Stannard
Based on: The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Cast: Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June Tripp, Malcolm Keen, Ivor Novello

Gainsborough Pictures, Carlyle Blackwell Productions, 74 Minutes (National Film Archive print), 90 Minutes (TCM print), 67 Minutes (video version), 98 Minutes (Ontario version), 92 Minutes (2012 theatrical version), 90 Minutes (2012 restoration)

Review:

“Tall he was – and his face all wrapped up.” – Female Eyewitness

Being a big Hitchcock fanboy, I thought I really owed it to myself to go back and look at his really early work. So, with this, I went back to the silent era. This was also made before he made his way to Hollywood and became the premiere director of his time.

The Lodger is a dark and dreary film but it does have its lighthearted moments too. Hitchcock, even as early as 1927, was able to create a good balance between an intense thriller vibe and humor. This skill allowed him to lighten the tension, at the right moments, and he could do that like no other director from his era. And, in fact, seeing it used so well here, shows me that he was ahead of his time in how he constructed the narrative of his thrillers.

Another thing that was ahead of its time or, at least, much more advanced than the industry standard, was how Hitchcock did the title cards in his film. Many of them were animated and had a life and vibrancy that was unseen. He also used really interesting colors with them, which provided a bit more tonal context. You couldn’t watch this compared to what was common at the time and accuse this film of lacking energy.

Also, Hitchcock did a lot of interesting shots of people in close ups, reacting to things. While that’s not uncommon for the 1920s, he did it in a more avant-garde way.

Ultimately, this film really felt like Hitchcock was experimenting with a lot of techniques and style but it works really well here.

The story deals with a serial killer. He is only described as being tall and having a scarf around the lower half of his face. Not too long after that, a mysterious man moves into a room in the neighborhood and he fits the description of the killer, who is still at large.

I don’t want to spoil anything beyond that but this almost has a plot that feels noir in its style. But then a lot of Hitchcock films had noir qualities and tropes.

For 1927, this is a really solid motion picture. It was a very effective thriller that had me engaged from start to finish. It has an atmosphere that envelops you.

What The Lodger really showed me, however, is that Hitchcock was a pretty capable director from the get go and a true auteur.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other very early films by Hitchcock.