Film Review: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

Release Date: October 14th, 1888 (UK)
Directed by: Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince
Cast: Annie Hartley, Adolphe Le Prince, Joseph Whitley, Sarah Whitley

Whitley Partners, Original length 4.33 seconds, 52 frames at 12fps

Review:

How do you review something that is less than five seconds long? Let alone something completely devoid of plot? Well, you can’t.

The reason I am talking about this film though is due to its historical significance.

It is the oldest surviving film, at least that anyone knows about. Maybe there are some other experimental pieces buried in a European cellar somewhere but who’s to say?

Now some people may say that 1877’s Sallie Gardner at a Gallop is the first “motion picture” but it wasn’t shot with a single camera, it was shot with multiple cameras with each photo frame being used like a flip book or animation.

Louis Le Prince, this film’s director, was a French artist and inventor and this short clip was a test of his newly invented motion picture camera. While his invention and this film are significant, Le Prince didn’t have a direct influence on what would become the motion picture industry.

Le Prince also made a few other short film clips but two years after this experiment, he vanished… literally. No one knows what happened to him but it’s suspected that he committed suicide due to impending bankruptcy.

Some have thought that this film may be cursed. Because in addition to Le Prince’s disappearance, Sarah Whitley, one of the people in the scene, died ten days after filming. Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, was also shot to death. However, that happened a few years after he testified in court in defense of his fahter’s inventions against Thomas Edison. But some people like to connect all of this to the film clip like it’s some 1880s Poltergeist.

Anyway, the clip is pretty basic and straightforward, as you can see for yourself below. It’s not really reviewable but it is worth shedding some light on for its place in early motion picture history.

Rating: NR/10
Pairs well with: other very early and experimental 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.

Film Review: London After Midnight – Reconstructed Version (1927/2002)

Also known as: Der Vampyr (Austria), The Hypnotist (UK)
Release Date: December 3rd, 1927
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Waldemar Young, Joseph W. Farnham
Based on: The Hypnotist by Tod Browning
Cast: Lon Chaney Sr., Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, Henry B. Walthall, Polly Moran, Edna Tichenor, Claude King

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 65 Minutes, 47 Minutes (reconstructed version) 

Review:

There probably aren’t many people alive who have seen London After Midnight, as the only surviving print of this 1927 film went up in flames during the 1965 MGM vault fire.

The version of this film that I watched was a reconstruction, which originally aired on Turner Classic Movies back in 2002. So this is a review of that and not the actual finished movie itself. So the final rating below doesn’t reflect the actual film, as I haven’t seen it.

That being said, the reconstruction was done as best as it could be with the material that was available. They worked off of the script and used production stills to represent the scenes.

While this doesn’t have the life of a moving picture and doesn’t really capture the full performance of the legendary Lon Chaney Sr., the stills do a good job of painting the right kind of picture and showing you the tone within the film.

I wasn’t crazy about the film’s score but it does feel accurate to the scores of the time when this originally came out. It just sounds a bit generic, overall.

If you are a Chaney fan, you should give this a watch because it’s as close as one can get to experiencing this film, which was considered to be one of Chaney’s greatest performances.

Hopefully, one day, another print will resurface but being that it’s been lost for 53 years, that may be very unlikely.

Recently, some footage was found but it was just scenes clipped for a trailer. Still, maybe an updated reconstruction with that footage will be edited together in the future.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other Lon Chaney Sr. horror pictures of the 1920s.

Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

Also known as: The Masses (working title)
Release Date: February 5th, 1936 (Rivoli Theatre, New York City premiere)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Music by: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[from the Telescreen in the restroom to the factory worker] Hey! Quit stalling, get back to work! Go on!” – President of the Electro Steel Corp.

I’m going to start this by saying that Modern Times is one of my two favorite Charlie Chaplin films. The other is City Lights and it’s hard to put one of these over the other. But this may have a bit of an edge, as I think the factory worker sequences are Chaplin’s best.

This film covers a lot of ground, narratively speaking, for something that’s less than 90 minutes. But in the time that this came out, it’s much longer than most of the Chaplin films before it.

It starts with the Tramp character working in a factory, as the film rolls on, we see him start to break down and eventually go a bit crazy. He’s institutionalized, gets cured and then hits the streets trying to rebuild his life. Along the way, he meets Paulette Goodard’s Ellen, a bit of a troublemaker but her shenanigans are because she’s trying to feed her hungry siblings.

A romance develops and the chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard is pretty natural but maybe we were seeing them actually fall in love, as the two were married for a few years after this picture.

Chaplin really does give one of his best performances here and the stunts were some of the most creative and impressive. While it seems to be going for more of a straight comedy route with the gags than trying to wow us with Chaplin’s resilient physicality, it doesn’t feel like that stuff is lacking. And his routines here are still impressive.

For instance, the balcony roller skating scene is more nerve wracking than physically impressive. But stuff like this isn’t less effective or more effective than Chaplin’s more physical slapstick. I guess that he proved that he didn’t need to beat himself up to still get audiences to love him. Plus, by 1936, that stuff may have been taking a real toll on his body.

Modern Times is a sweet movie that features one of the most beloved film characters of all-time. What’s not to love? This is one of Chaplin’s greatest films and for good reason.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Chaplin’s greatest works: City LightsThe Great Dictator and A King In New York.

Film Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Also known as: Körkarlen (original Swedish title), The Phantom Chariot, The Stroke of Midnight, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness (alternate English titles)
Release Date: January 1st, 1921 (Sweden)
Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Written by: Victor Sjöström
Based on: Körkarlen by Selma Lagerlöf
Music by: Mattie Bye (1998 restoration)
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg

AB Svensk Filmindustri, 104 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t fret over those poor souls now, Sister Edit. You’ve done enough for them.” – Maria

I love silent era horror films, especially German Expressionist films. While this isn’t German, the Swedes created something that feels right at home alongside films like NosferatuThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Golem.

Körkarlen or The Phantom Carriage, as it’s called in English, has a real cinematic magic to it. It also isn’t quite horror, even though it features the embodiment of Death. Mostly, it is just dark and creepy. It’s also enchanting and mesmerizing.

What works most for this film is the atmosphere. It’s gloomy but it’s comforting in a strange way. The special effects are really good for the time and they hold up quite well for a picture as old as this.

I love the look of Death and his carriage and the symbolism that is littered throughout the film in regards to mortality and life.

The story is similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but without it being a Christmas story. It follows a man, as he travels through his past with Death at his side.

If you like silent era horror pictures, then you’ll probably love this. It’s a dark fairytale that wraps you up in its magic and doesn’t let go until the 104 minute carriage ride is over.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: a lot of the German Expressionist horror of the time and I actually watched this back to back with 1932’s Vampyr, which flowed nicely with it.

Film Review: The Unknown (1927)

Also known as: Alonzo the Armless (working title)
Release Date: June 3rd, 1927 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young
Cast: Lon Chaney Sr., Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 63 Minutes, 49 Minutes (BFI print), 49 Minutes (alternate cut)

Review:

“You are right, Alonzo… brute strength does not mean everything to all women. Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me… to paw over me. I have grown so that I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.” – Nanon

Lon Chaney Sr. was really the first iconic horror actor. Some others dabbled in the genre and were in multiple films but none made the impact that Chaney did at the time. He was the original King of Terror.

Even though he often time played facially disfigured characters, he would also modify his body to fit the role. In this film, his face was normal but he worked with his arms bound in a corset for most of the picture, as his character was believed to be armless.

Now there is a twist where you find out that he indeed has his arms but he goes on to get them chopped off for the love of a girl.

The story is dark and twisted and it’s very evil and very primal. It is still hauntingly effective and has aged just about as well as a silent film can.

Chaney plays Alonzo, a circus performer that uses his feet to do a myriad of tricks. The reason for the ruse is because he is wanted for a murder but all that is known about the suspect is that he has a double thumb. To hide this deformity, Alonzo goes through life with his arms bound tightly under his clothing.

He falls in love with Nanon, however, and she has an issue with men’s hands touching her. She feels safe around Alonzo because he has no hands to grab her. After a kiss, Alonzo decides to have his arms removed so that Nanon doesn’t find out his dark secret. Plus, she witnessed a man with a double thumb murder her father.

However, after spending weeks recovering, Alonzo returns to discover that Nanon has overcome her fear and is marrying the circus strongman.

The story is insane but it’s damn good and entertaining. It fits a lot into the short running time.

Also, Nanon is played by a very young Joan Crawford, well before she became a superstar.

The film is well shot and the tone is perfect. This is one of the best Chaney movies and Tod Browning utilized the actor’s talents well. The film builds suspense at the right pace and the big finale is a satisfactory payoff.

I love this movie and it really should be considered a silent horror classic. While it’s not as well known as it should be, it’s pretty exceptional and a spectacular production for its era.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other collaborations between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney Sr.