Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lights! Camera! FIRE!...Plus, A Mistress, A Soul, & A Potion...

(Buster Keaton, with camera)
Recently, I developed an interest in films from the silent era.  It began with a Louise Brooks movie I happened upon while looking through the streaming selections Netflix has to offer.  "Diary of a Lost Girl" was the catalyst film for my new fixation, followed closely by the most current restoration of "Metropolis".  Both are great, and I highly recommend them.  (If you want to see more on those, I have a couple of posts in the 'Silent Film' section under 'Labels' in the right hand side-bar.)

(Mary Pickford, with camera ~
c. 1916)
Surprisingly, the film quality of both is quite good.  Metropolis does have some obvious worn sections that were added after the only known original print was discovered in Argentina.  A few sections of the newly discovered original could not be restored due to extreme decomposition.  That made me wonder just how many of the old films from the late 1800's to early 1900's still exist in a viewable form?  I was shocked to find that the estimation is that less than 20% of films produced during that time have survived.

I was moved to learn more about the actual film stock used in those days. Over the years I have heard a word used when talking about film.  That word is "celluloid".  In a way, I think it is used as more of a slang term for film these days since actual celluloid hasn't been used in many years.  Also called "nitrate" film, it was cellulose nitrate based, and highly flammable.  Projection rooms were required to be flame proof, so asbestos was used in wall coverings.  Talk about a double-whammy for projectionists, and I doubt they were issued hazard pay, either.  Hot projector bulbs were a major threat.  The slower the film speed, the greater the risk of it catching on fire.
(Decomposing nitrate film reels)
In 1948, the introduction of a safer product (cellulose triacetate) by Eastman-Kodak, quickly replaced the more flammable film.  By 1950, the nitrate based stock was discontinued.

One site I visited said that a burning reel of nitrate film could be submerged in water, and not get extinguished. Over time cellulose nitrate decomposes, giving off nitric acid which adds to its rate of decomposition.  It eventually turns into a highly flammable powder or a gooey substance.  Needless to say, this makes it extremely difficult for restorers.  Having to 'handle the stock with kid gloves', is an understatement.  I wouldn't be surprised if some restorers need to wear Haz-mat suits.

(Keystone Cops)
Another cause of film degradation is film speed.  There was a loose standard of 16 fps (frames-per-second), and camera men insisted they stuck to that speed, but most films would end up being shot at a faster rate.  Truth be told, most films were shot from 12 to 26 fps.  That's quite a wide window.  Most theater owners didn't pay much attention to film speed, even though all films were accompanied by a cue sheet that might give speed change instruction for certain points in a film. Depending on how popular a movie was, theater owners would want a film to be shown in a shorter time frame, so they could get more butts in the seats. Most silent films weren't shown at the intended shooting speed, so the action would seem rather manic (something I think many people today associate with silent films).  However, there were times a faster pace was used on purpose, comedies mostly (ex: Keystone Cops).

(Slapstick scenes are prime examples of the faster film speeds, these being intentional.)

The cue sheets were also a guide for music cues.  Early theaters played film music live, and most had a piano.  Some of the bigger theaters had organs, and others had orchestras.  The cue sheets would indicate special moods or events in the film that required specific types of music.  Music was either purely improvisational, or repertory.  (The first score composed specifically for a film wasn't until, 1915's, "Birth of a Nation".)  Music selections used could also dictate film speed.

All contributing reasons as to why so many silent films are gone, never to be seen again.  How sad.  Even the best copies we have now aren't perfect.  At one time they were all much cleaner and clearer.  I'm just happy to be able to see the ones I can.  There is something very special about them.  Something that modern movies could never capture, and I hope no one ever tries.   

What follows are three more films I have added to my 'watched' list.  All classic, and all recommended.

I was really looking forward to seeing "Pandora's Box" (1929), a film that Louise Brooks is most known for.  Like "Diary of a Lost Girl", it was directed by Austrian, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, and filmed in Germany.  Apparently, the film wasn't really well received, taking some time to gain some speed.  It would eventually gain Brooks fame.

("Lulu" ~ Louise Brooks)
"Pandora's Box" is a heavy drama, and I think it really showed what acting chops Brookes' had.  In the film, Brooks plays 'Lulu', the mistress of Dr. Ludwig Schon (Fritz Kortner). Schon is a wealthy, and respected newspaper publisher.  The film opens with her being visited by a man she describes as her "first patron", Schigolch (Carl Goetz).  Schon arrives, and breaks the news that he is going to be marrying another young woman, Charlotte von Zarnikow (Daisy D'Ora). An argument ensues, Lulu trying to get him to change his mind.  Schon finding Schigolch hiding out on the terrace doesn't help.  Enraged, Schon leaves.
(Alwa confesses his love to Lulu)
As you can see, it's drama from the start.  We meet Lulu's best friend, Alwa (Francis Lederer), who also happens to be Schon's son, and who is secretly in love with Lulu.  In an attempt to focus her attention elsewhere, Schon gets Alwa to cast Lulu in the musical revue he is putting together.  All seems well until Schon shows up with his fiance on opening night.  Needless to say, Lulu has a fit, and refuses to go on.  Schon tries to talk some sense into her, and she throws a tantrum.  While the two of them are in a loving embrace, Charlotte walks in and the marriage is off.  Schon resigns himself to marrying Lulu.

(A struggle...)
In the remainder of the movie there is plenty of scandal, and nefarious goings on.  Black mail, gambling, prostitution, and a self loathing 'Jack-the-Ripper' type is lurking in the shadows.  A gun, a struggle, and a murder.  Believe me, you won't have time to get bored with this one.  There's plenty of tragedy to go around.  Brooks plays the "innocent" shady lady perfectly.  One moment she's charming and adorable, the next she's manipulating.  Brooks is stunning, and Lederer as Alwa is a nice bit of eye candy.  "Pandora's Box" is a must see for all lovers of film.    

"Pandora's Box" is not one of Netflix's streamers.  I had to wait patiently until it arrived in the mail.  However, the second film of my watched trio is currently streaming on Netflix.  It's based on a well known tale of good and evil, "Faust".

(The archangel & Mephisto)
This is not only a must see for film lovers, those of the artistic mind should definitely see this one.  Very stylized in many respects, Mephisto's garb being one of the most stylized elements. "Faust" (1926), was directed by F. W. Murnau, and filmed in Germany.

As I mentioned, many people know this tale. An Arch-angel and Mephisto (a demon) enter into a bet with one another.  If Mephisto can completely corrupt a devout/righteous man's soul, the Devil will have dominion over Earth.

(Faust (Gosta Ekman), and some villagers)
Faust is an alchemist.  The Devil rains a plague down on the village where he lives, and the villagers cry for help.  Faust prays for the sickness and death to stop, but to no avail.  Feeling hopeless, he strikes a 24-hour long bargain with the Devil during which he will have immense power and the services of Mephisto, but as soon as the sand runs from the hourglass the Devil's pact will end.  Faust uses his new power to help the suffering villagers, but they soon shun him because he can't look upon crosses.

("Mephisto" ~ Emil Jannings, young "Faust",
and "Gretchen" ~ Camilla Horn )
The Devil tempts Faust again, offering him his youth back, as well as earthly pleasures that include his own kingdom. The price?  Faust's soul. The new life loses it's charm, and young Faust returns to his home.  There he falls in love with the beautiful and innocent, Gretchen.

In the remainder of the story there is debauchery, love, and murder.  The ending is bittersweet, but the basic message is 'love trumps all'.  If you are not familiar with the tale of "Faust", I recommend you check this film version out.  If you do know the tale of "Faust", but haven't seen this movie...see it.

The third film is based on the extremely well know Robert Louis Stevenson story, 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'. 

This particular story has seen many film versions, all with slight tweaks to the over all plot line.  In this version, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920), Jekyll believes everyone has two sides or personalities.  A kind man by nature, he ends up creating a potion that splits his personalities into his good and evil halves.  
(John Barrymore...quite the transformation, huh?)
Jekyll  is portrayed by a member of the Barrymore family acting dynasty, John (Drew Barrymore's grandfather).  Not only is Barrymore extremely good looking, his ability to contort himself into the evil and hideous Jekyll is truly amazing.  In some of the background I read I learned that the beginning section of the first transformation of Hyde into Jekyll was done sans make-up.  Impressive, indeed.

If you have seen more than one of the productions of this story line over the years, and decide to gloss over this as just another Jekyll and Hyde movie, DON'T.  I can safely say that this is the main Jekyll and Hyde film that has really creeped me out.  Barrymore is brilliant.

I'm ending this post with a couple of clips I found on YouTube of a rare interview with Louise Brooks.  

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