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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 22/3/2012)
It remains to be see what impact the Oscar success of Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist will have on movie viewing habits. One can but hope, however, that Hollywood resists the temptation to produce a slew of silent pastiches in the hope of cashing in on what will almost certainly be a brief vogue for non-talkies. But it would be nice to think that the odd enterprising DVD label will release some of the hundreds of forgotten gems that were produced between 1895 and 1930, when flickering shadows were enjoyed by audiences around the world without benefit of dialogue. As one might expect, French and American distributors have a decent track record when it comes to making silents available for home entertainment. Let's hope some of their British counterparts rise to the challenge soon.
It's dismaying, for example, how few films by the `father of narrative film' are on disc in the UK. Erich von Stroheim claimed that DW Griffith put `beauty and poetry into a cheap and tawdry sort of entertainment'. But Griffith was always a refiner and extender of existing techniques rather than an innovator and the conventions of Victorian art, literature and melodrama always counted for more than cinema in his storytelling style. Consequently, sentimentality, pretentiousness and political naiveté permeate much of Griffith's work.
Yet few contemporaries could have attempted to produce a film of such scope and significance as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and it remains among the most ambitious pictures ever produced. Centring on the Stoneman and Cameron families, which hail respectively from the North and the Old South, it reveals how entire communities were torn apart by the American Civil War and then reunited by romance and the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction. However, this landmark picture exposed more of Griffith's weaknesses than his strengths and its intellectual poverty has continued to haunt it since its contentious release over 90 years ago.
Adapted from two Civil War novels by the negrophobic Thomas Dixon Jr, The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots, the film was constructed from 1544 individual shots into a laudably coherent series of imposing tableaux. But while the authenticity of battle sequences inspired by Matthew Brady's celebrated photography prompted President Woodrow Wilson to opine that the action was tantamount to `history written in lightening', the picture's racist rhetoric was condemned by many viewers (not least for the fact that its success helped rejuvenate the moribund Ku Klux Klan), who lamented the presentation of the `good' blacks as Uncle Toms as much as they did the degenerate depiction of the villains.
Yet opponents proved to be very much in the minority, as this monumental epic earned greater profits in proportion to its cost ($100,000) than any film in history. By 1931, it had taken $18 million and by 1946 (the last date for which accurate records exist) it had been seen by over 200 million worldwide. It's not surprising, therefore, that some consider The Birth of a Nation to be the source of the more pernicious myths that have since sustained America's self-image.
Griffith was completing The Birth of a Nation when he started work on `The Mother and the Law', which would form the modern segment of his remarkable 1916 experiment, Intolerance. Capitalising on the 1914 Ludlow massacre, it was intended as an indictment of commercial exploitation and the hypocritical philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller.
However, the furore caused by his Civil War epic lured Griffith into an attempt to surpass his achievement and the recent success of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at New York's Metropolitan Opera inspired him to add the events of 1572 to his design. But it was only when he was accused of racial bigotry towards the end of 1915 that Griffith's wounded sense of righteousness prompted the inclusion of the Babylonian and biblical storylines to demonstrate how truth had been crushed by intemperance and injustice throughout history.
Costing $386,000 and originally released in four identifying tints, Intolerance was as accomplished as it was ambitious. Drawing on every technique at his disposal, Griffith brought a new scope and scale to cinema, particularly through his lavish recreation of Babylon in 539BC. But it was the film's structure that proved its triumph and its undoing.
Soviet montagists like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin applauded the collision of images that Griffith achieved, as he arranged shots by metre and perspective to produce parallel sequences of unheralded rhetorical power and rhythmic precision. But, while they were able to appreciate the majesty of set-pieces like Belshazzar's feast and the modern romance between the Dear One (Mae Marsh) and the Boy (Robert Harron), audiences lacked the sophistication to comprehend these juxtapositions and the film's commercial failure saddled Griffith with monumental debts.
Critical opinion of Intolerance's worth has been divided for nearly a century, with Griffith variously being hailed as a visionary and a Victorian middlebrow with a predilection for kitsch and old-fashioned morality. But the French director René Clair pretty much had it right when he declared: `It combines extraordinary lyric passages, realism, and psychological detail, with nonsense, vulgarity, and painful sentimentality.' Yet, whatever its glories and flaws, it remains a landmark in filmic art and entertainment.
Several claims have also been made on behalf of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) - few of which can actually be sustained. Even the credits are disputed, with nigh on every key contributor keen to aggrandise their role in what has long been acclaimed a watershed production. What can't be gainsaid is that the screenplay was written by Czech poet Hans Janowitz and Austrian artist, Carl Mayer, who drew on a murder case and a mutual suspicion of psychiatric assessment to concoct the tale of a fairground barker who misuses his hypnotic powers to compel a mournful cipher into doing his evil bidding.
That arch fabulist, Fritz Lang, who was briefly assigned to direct the film, insisted that he had worked extensively on the script and devised its controversial coda, in which it transpires Caligari is far from the deranged director of a lunatic asylum living out a sinister fantasy, but a benevolent philanthropist striving to save our hero from his own dangerous imaginings. Lang's dishonesty is matched only by Janowitz's disingenuity. Postwar he tried to disassociate himself from the framing device after it assumed an unwelcome political significance.
The recently discovered copy of the original shooting script, which includes a variation on the bookend idea, also disproves Janowitz's contention that the film's remarkable visual appearance had been devised by the writers. Having failed to persuade Czech artist Alfred Kubin to design the stylised decor, Robert Wiene hired Deck's own Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann, who turned to the paintings of Edvard Munch and the Expressionist stage designs of pioneering impresario Max Reinhardt for the inspiration for their cramped, crooked town of Holstenwall.
On a more pragmatic level, an electricity shortage meant it was more efficient to paint in the lighting effects than waste precious power. Similarly, Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt (who played Caligari and his sidekick Cesare) were both Reinhardt alumni and were able to fashion their own grotesque make-up and exaggerated gestures. By no means the first German horror film to make an international impact (Paul Wegener's The Student Of Prague and The Golem did that), Caligari has always been credited with inspiring an Expressionist boom in German film-making, thanks to its angular painted sets, mannered performances and psychologically daring themes.
But, in fact, it was a stylistic one-off - or at least it is now, as Hans Kobe's feature, Torgus (1921), and other slavishly Expressionist homages which no longer exist. Other films of the period certainly included examples of Expressionist design, but the physical aspect of Wiene's experiment remained unique. Consequently, it's even pushing it to state that any of the other schauerfilme (`shadow films') made in Germany in the 1920s were Expressionist in the truest sense. Certainly pictures like Warning Shadows (1923), Waxworks (1924) and Metropolis (1927) reflected the troubled national psyche, but they drew on the popular artistic strategy of stimmung (`atmosphere'), which owed more to the gothic.
Similarly, the suggestion that the film preconditioned the German people for the acceptance of Nazi rule is also hard to justify. In From Caligari To Hitler, his seminal study of cinema's influence on the dark Teutonic soul, theorist Siegfried Kracauer argued that Caligari was a bogus Messiah whose outward displays of strength merely masked tyranny, while Cesare the victim, hypnotised into doing his evil bidding, stood for the mesmerised German people who were complicit in Nazi atrocities.
Read in 1948, with the guilt of World War II still haunting the newly divided populace, such scapegoating might have seemed persuasive. But now, it's as fanciful as it is understandable. Defeat and despair hang heavily over Caligari, but surely the collapse of an empire, the suppression of a militarist tradition, the failure of a socialist revolution and the penury of a Depression had a more profound influence on the advent of Nazism than Friedrich Feher raving about proto-zombies.
Most damningly, 80 years after its release provoked heated analytical debate, Caligari has even lost its critical kudos and is now considered more a curio than a bold advance towards a new horizon of cinema art. So if it didn't really achieve any of the things it's famous for, why has this contrived, distorted, stilted film retained such an intense fascination? Forget the fact it heralded in an era of studio perfectionism in 1920s Germany or inspired an unprecedented decade of avant-garde experimentation around Europe.
This is one of the genre's masterpieces because, rather than providing visceral shocks, it plays games with the mind - the seat of all fear. The eccentric imagery, the creepy acting, the dark deeds and the ambiguous ending all create a lingering sense of unease. And that's what horror should do. However, the lesson wasn't entirely learnt by Dane Benjamin Christensen in producing Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages), even though it has much in common with Wiene's masterpiece. Both films adopted a novel dramaturgical, structural and visual approach to material that was considered shocking in its day. Yet, while each exerted a considerable influence over the nascent horror genre, neither Caligari's stylised sets and painted backdrops nor Häxan's blend of lecture and reconstruction were directly imitated by their contemporaries.
However, thanks to Kracauer, Caligari has been hailed as a turning point in the silent era, which not only launched the German Expressionist boom of the 1920s, but also predetermined the national psyche for the rise of Nazism. Häxan, on the other hand, has been excluded from most histories of world cinema, as its combination of documentary, exploitation, burlesque and morality tale has rendered it an uncategorisable curio. It's high time, therefore, that this audacious picture was recognised as more than just a generic landmark.
Born in Viborg, Denmark on 28 September 1879, Benjamin Christensen abandoned his medical studies to become an opera singer in 1902. However, a nervous condition of the throat dashed his ambitions after a single performance of Mozart's Don Juan and he spent five years trying to establish himself as a dramatic actor before becoming an agent for a champagne company. In 1912, Christensen began acting for the silent screen and, the following year, made his debut as writer-actor-director with The Mysterious X (1913), a brooding melodrama that was ranked among the finest films of the year.
While travelling across Europe to promote this first feature, Christensen was introduced to Malleus Maleficarum der Hexenhammer, a 1487 witch-hunting handbook that had been compiled by the Dominican monks and notorious Inquisitors James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. It was claimed that this volume had been responsible for condemning eight million victims over the course of three centuries (although this figure has since been revised to between 40-50,000) and Christensen became fascinated by the nature of witchcraft and its persecution. Thus, having completed his second feature, Blind Justice (1915), he announced plans for a trilogy on superstition that would comprise The Witch, The Woman Saint and Spirits.
He began consulting period tomes like Ulrich Molitor's De Iamilis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and Francisco-María Guazzo's Compendium maleficarum (1608), as well as such modern studies as Jules Michelet's La Sorcière (1862), Paul Lecroix's Moeurs, usages et costumes au moyen age et a l'époque de la renaissance (1872), Paul Régnard's Les maladies épidemiques de l'ésprit (1887) and Gaston Maspero's Historique ancienne des peuples de l'Orient classique (1895). He also came to hold great store by the lectures of the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), who claimed that the actions of supposedly possessed witches were simply a form of hysteria.
However, his research proved expensive and he had already sold his antique furniture before Charles Magnusson of Svensk Filmindustri agreed to refurbish Christensen's studio at Taffelbays Allé and pledge a budget of between 1.5 and 2 million kroner, which made The Witch (aka Heksen, which became better known by its Swedish title, Häxan) the most expensive silent ever produced in Scandinavia. Shooting lasted almost a year, with cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne and art director Richard Louw working wonders to recreate the atmosphere of medieval Germany - most notably during the celebrated `flight to Bloksbjerg' sequence, for which Louw constructed a miniature town on a giant turntable and Ankerstjerne devised a prototype optical printer to achieve the multiple superimpositions.
The cast included such fine actors as Clara Pontoppidon, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt and Alice O'Fredericks, while Christensen himself played the Devil. However, they were all upstaged by 78 year-old Maren Pedersen, a former nurse whom Christensen discovered selling violets outside the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
But it wasn't Pedersen's performance as Maria the Weaver or Christensen's contention that `the belief in evil spirits, sorcery and witchcraft is the result of naive notions about the mystery of the universe' that exercised the critics. They were more perturbed by the film's discussion of cannibalism, blasphemy, torture, deformity and mutilation, not to mention its images of fornication, urination and masturbation. These elements delighted the Surrealists, who championed the picture in the face of a demonstration by 8,000 Parisian women in 1926. But most reviewers dismissed Christensen's intellectual pretension in declaring the film to be a moralising masquerade in the tradition of De Mille and Von Stroheim. Even Variety conceded that `Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.'
Yet Häxan proved a minor success in Germany and led to Christensen directing His Mysterious Adventure (1923) and The Woman Who Did (1925) for UFA, as well as taking the title role in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Mikaël (1924). Swedish director Victor Sjöström also showed it to Louis B. Mayer, who declared Christensen to be either a madman or a genius on signing him to direct The Devil's Circus (1926) and Mockery (1927) for MGM. He moved to First National to make The Hawk's Nest, The Haunted House (both 1928), Seven Footprints to Satan and House of Horror (both 1929). But his career stalled with the coming of sound and his fortunes only revived with the Danish problem pictures Children of Divorce (1939), The Child (1940) and Come Home With Me (1941).
Häxan, meanwhile, was thought to have been lost. But the print used for the Stockholm premiere was discovered preserved in glycerine and it was revived with a new introduction by Christensen and a dubbed score by Emil Reesen in March 1941. As Denmark was then under Nazi occupation, the film took on a new political resonance, as the informants who operated in medieval times had their counterparts in the quislings who co-operated with the Gestapo. Indeed, its subversive reputation was further enhanced in 1967, when British avant-gardist Antony Balch, Beat novelist William S. Burroughs and French jazz musician Daniel Humair collaborated on a 76-minute version entitled Witchcraft Through the Ages.
But, shamefully, Häxan has spent much of the last 30 years in the twilight zone between arthouse and grindhouse, with the French avant-garde rock band, Art Zoyd, appending a new score for the 1996 revival and the makers of The Blair Witch Project (1999) naming their production company, Haxan Films, in its honour. As for Christensen, his directorial career never recovered from the failure of The Lady With the Light-Coloured Gloves (1942) and he devoted himself to running a Copenhagen cinema before his death on 2 April 1959.
The Expressionist style had a considerable influence upon the young Alfred Hitchcock, who made the most of its disconcerting shadowy style in The Lodger (1927), which turned on the crimes of The Avenger, a serial killer who only murders blondes on Tuesdays. Subtitled `A Story of the London Fog', this wonderfully evocative and melodramatic thriller was adapted from a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. But, for all its British bustle and the allusions to Jack the Ripper, Hitchcock's first commercial success had more in common with a UFA than a Gainsborough production.
Having recently returned from making The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle (both 1926) in Munich, Hitch was keen to put into practice the techniques he had picked up while watching F.W. Murnau directing The Last Laugh (1924). The equation of the blacked-out windows of the van in the opening sequence with the vigilant eyes of the citizens and the voyeuristic gaze of the audience was typical of the Germanic influence, as was the dissolve through the ceiling to show lodger Ivor Novello pacing above inquisitorial landlady Marie Ault and her daughter June. But, in fact, the brooding shadows and canted angles owed more to Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) and Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) than Murnau's psychological realism.
Whatever its source, producer Michael Balcon was acutely disturbed by this foreign stylisation and the Freudian suggestions that the suspect might be either homosexual or incestuously involved with his sister. So, he commissioned Soviet-influenced critic Ivor Montagu to take the curse off Hitchcock's amorality. In addition to cutting down the number of captions from around 400 to 80 (and recasting them in a Gothic-Deco hybrid), Montagu also suggested some retakes, most notably for the climactic chase sequence. However, he agreed with the decision to ignore the book's guilty verdict and retain the air of ambiguous innocence that Hitchcock had concocted on being told that his preening matinee idol was not going to be allowed to play a killer.
Widely hailed as the finest British picture to date, this was Hitchcock's first study of a wronged man being judged by a hypocritical society. Moreover, it also contained his debut cameo appearance. But it was still very much the work of a hugely promising and highly ciné-literate beginner and the same could also be said of Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929).
Nevertheless, Asquith was more than capable of the visual sophistication that British silent cinema was supposed to lack. Told in flashback from manicurist Nora Baring's terrifying discovery that jilted barber Uno Henning has tracked her down to her remote farmhouse after escaping from prison, this rattling melodrama is also a veritable textbook of tropes borrowed from the Soviet montagists and the German Expressionists. However, few contemporary directors (especially those making only their second solo feature) were so prepared to mix gliding tracking shots, complex montage sequences, symbolic colour tints and (now lost) sound passages to such dazzling effect in relating a tale that seemed plucked from the pages of a penny dreadful.
This is the original When Harry Met Sally..., as they are the names of the characters played by Baring and Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, the barbershop customer with whom she flirts under the nose of the derangedly jealous Henning. But, while the ménage is capably played by the experienced leads, it's Asquith's inspired collaborations with cinematographers Stanley Rodwell and Axel Lindblom and his own precision cutting that make this so compelling. The sequences at the cinema (which include amusing references to Harold Lloyd and the coming of the talkies) and the moment at which Henning sees the farmer's engagement ring on his beloved's finger being as masterly as Asquith's suspenseful deployment of light and shadow in the bookending denouement.
While British directors were happy to brandish their foreign influences, Hollywood was developing a genre that would remain defiantly American until the Germans, Italians and Spanish began producing sauerkraut, spaghetti and paella variations in the 1960s. The press book for John Ford's seminal silent Western, The Iron Horse (1924), made great play of statistics. Ten thousand Texas steers, 2800 horses, 1300 buffalo, 3000 railway workers, 1000 Chinese labourers and 800 Pawnee, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians were involved in its making and the numbers now stack up again as Eureka's dual disc special edition includes both the original 150-minute version and the 133-minute British edit of the 31 year-old's fifty-third directorial outing.
Despite an intertitle claiming this `pictorial history of the building of the first American transcontinental railroad' to be `accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere', this is as fanciful a recreation as DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation had been nine years earlier. Cinema had come a long way in the intervening period, but the concept of political correctness had not and Ford's depiction of the diverse ethnic groups laying and endangering the tracks is as unenlightened in this paean to post-Civil War reunification as Griffith's epochal treatise on reconstruction had been in its attitude to African-Americans. However, with Ford and cinematographer George Schneiderman making evocative use of the majestic wilderness, this answer to James Cruze's Manifest Destiny masterpiece The Covered Wagon (1923) is every bit as epic.
The storyline is pure melodrama, but none the worse for that, as Ford leavens Pony Express rider George O'Brien's bid to avenge his father's murder and help childhood sweetheart Madge Bellamy's father fulfil Abraham Lincoln's ambition to link the Central and Union Pacific railroads with plenty of raucous humour and action sequences that were notable for their audacious stuntwork.
Despite the acclaim of contemporary critics, Ford only rarely returned to the genre before he changed it forever with Stagecoach (1939). However, O'Brien's principled man of action anticipates the characters later played in Ford Westerns by John Wayne and Henry Fonda, while J. Farrell MacDonald's Irish corporal is a clear kinsman of the roguish supports taken by Victor McLaglen. Moreover, this distinctive mix of macho patriotism and rugged poetry confirmed Ford's mastery of location shooting and established the brand of sentimental mythologising that eventually became his trademark.
The Californian studios didn't operate in glorious isolation, however. Indeed, Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed the Parufamet Agreement with the UFA company in Berlin to ensure the free exchange of ideas and talent and one of the most significant by-products of this rather misfiring alliance was FW Murnau's Sunrise (1927). Planned in Germany and filmed in Hollywood, this adaptation of Herman Sudermann's A Trip to Tilsit (subtitled A Song of Two Humans) is a remarkable combination of European art and American craft and it remains one of the untainted glories of screen silence.
Given total control by the studio, Murnau built a romanticised rural retreat and a temptation-riddled metropolis on the Fox lot to control every patch of seductive moonlight and dizzying impression of urban unfamiliarity. Charles Rosher and Karl Struss thoroughly merited their Oscars for the lustrous visuals (the first achieved with panchromatic stock) and symbolic shifts of mood. Janet Gaynor's award-winning performance is also a masterclass in silent mime, as she passes from bliss to betrayal, forgiveness to fear, in trying to come to terms with husband George O'Brien's infidelity with city vamp Margaret Livingston. It's compelling melodrama, but less cinematically significant than Murnau's earlier classic, The Last Laugh, whose unavailablility in this country is nothing less than scandalous.
The dearth of GW Pabst titles is also disappointing. But at least the Second Sight edition of Pandora's Box (1929) allows audiences to see the iconic Louise Brooks at the peak of her powers, as Lulu, who flees Berlin after standing trial for the murder of husband Fritz Kortner and arrives in London with his son Fritz Lederer and lesbian countess Alice Roberts, only to descend into prostitution and, on Christmas Eve, encounter Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).
Brooks very nearly didn't land her most iconic role, as she only learned of Pabst's interest in her as Paramount was terminating her contract. He had seen her in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port (1928), but had received no reply to repeated requests to star her in his adaptation of anti-bourgeois dramatist Frank Wedekind's plays, Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1902). Indeed, Pabst was on the point of casting Marlene Dietrich (whom he considered incapable of achieving Lulu's guilesss innocence) when Brooks arrived in Berlin.
With her bobbed hair and effortless sensuality, Brooks dominated the action and so shocked the Weimar censors with her amoral antics that not only were several captions rewritten - to suggest that Kortner was an adoptive father instead of a lover and that Roberts was a confidante not a lesbian vamp - but the ending was also changed, so that Brooks was spared the Ripper's blade and was redeemed by the Salvation Army.
But for all its erotic insinuation and dramatic intensity, this is also a laudable technical achievement. Pabst deftly tailored the visual style to suit the narrative content, which was given additional diegetic and metaphorical significance by Joseph R. Fliesler's subtle cutting on movement. Thus, the Berlin sequences recall the studio realism that Pabst had devised for The Joyless Street (1925), while the vibrant cabaret performance (which superbly conveyed the thrill of backstage tension) drew on the Impressionist techniques then current in French cinema. Finally, the scenes in the floating casino and on the forbidding London streets recalled the Expressionism that cinematographer Gunther Krampf had generated on F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), while also anticipating Josef von Sternberg's habit of using shadow, smoke and décor to enclose space, in order to suggest how Brooks's fate was gradually closing in on her.
However, the film was accorded a mixed critical reception and Pabst was accused of betraying both Wedekind's prose and his own socio-political convictions by producing such a melodramatic potboiler. But its reputation has since been restored, thanks to Brooks's bestselling memoirs and Catherine Gaborit's painstaking reconstruction.
For most people, however, silence is synonymous with slapstick and we close this survey with four features by two of the finest clowns ever to grace the silver screen.
In 1922, after eight years of playing his baggy trousered tramp, Charlie Chaplin declared his vagabond days were over. He embarked upon A Woman of Paris (1923) with the aim of becoming a great artist. But that lachrymose melodrama was a critical and commercial flop and Chaplin was forced to swallow his pretensions and throw himself into a knockabout comeback, The Gold Rush (1925), which, ironically, was to prove his mastery of screen poetry.
Initial inspiration for this movie came from two sources: a series of stereoscopic slides, belonging to Douglas Fairbanks, depicting an 1898 Klondike stampede and a graphic account of the infamous Donner expedition, which had ultimately succumbed to cannibalism. Yet there are countless autobiographical references throughout the film (Chaplin's schizophrenic mother, for example, had been a dancing girl), while others relate to his experience in music-hall (including the opening pursuit by a bear, which hailed from traditional English panto).
But there were also significant cinematic influences. In particular, Chaplin was impressed by the comedy of thrills Harold Lloyd had patented while hanging from the hands of a tower clock in Safety Last (1923). So he devised the shack teetering on the precipice edge, which dipped further towards oblivion each time the Little Fellow or fellow prospector, Big Jim McKay, made a sudden movement. If anything, this is more comedy of suspense than heartstopping thrills, as the building see-saws so often that its fate becomes less important than how long Chaplin can sustain the gag and keep it funny.
The illusion was slightly marred, however, by the fact that Chaplin relied on models rather than stunts to achieve his effect. But it had a more obviously human touch than Lloyd's brash daredevilry, as Chaplin initially thinks the lurching is down to his hangover.
With its location naturalism, Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924) also left an impression, as Chaplin took his company into the Sierra Nevada to shoot snowscapes. Some 500 hobos were hired to give the trek a sense of scale. But only a handful of location shots found their way into the finished film.
As with many of Chaplin's later films, the comedy is unashamedly worldly. The primary themes are cruelty, avarice, madness and the vagaries of fate, so it's inevitable that the Tramp should seem less frivolous than before. Indeed, he appeared to be openly inviting our pity where once he'd have encouraged us to laugh. Yet, when one considers the circumstances under which the film was made, it's a wonder there's any humour here at all.
The part of Georgia, the dance-hall girl who steals the Tramp's heart, was originally conceived for Lita Grey. However, the teenage protégé had to be replaced after Chaplin got her pregnant and she insisted on marriage. It's easy to detect resentment, therefore, in the picture's attitude to the character now played by Georgia Hale.
In the 1942 reissue (to which Chaplin made several adroit alterations and appended a score and a commentary), it's implied Georgia has genuine feelings for the Little Fellow. But this is a bitterly ironic happy ending, as there's no guarantee that the gold-digger who toyed with Chaplin's affections in a bid to enrage a scornful beau has changed one iota.
Although the film predates the Depression, Chaplin never forgot the misery of poverty and frequently used it as a basis for comedy. Melancholy pervades the movie. Yet it also contains some of the best-known set-pieces of Chaplin's whole career. Nearly all of them revolve around hunger.
Most famously, the Tramp boils his boot only to lose the topside to the aptly named Big Jim, leaving him to feast on the laces and the hobnails. The succulence he suggests at each mouthful is pure pantomimic pathos. Yet, the episode proved less enjoyable for Mack Swain, as Chaplin insisted on so many takes that the laxative qualities of the liquorice leather had a devastating effect.
Days later, the still-ravenous Jirr hallucinates that his companion is a giant chicken and chases him around the shack - with Chaplin meticulously miming each barnyard jerk. This scene also includes one of the film's few all-out slapstick moments, as Charlie and Jim jostle for the gun and the axe. Another was a reworking of an incident in A Dog's Life (1918), when Charlie uses a rope to hold up his trousers, only to discover it's attached to a moggy-chasing mutt who hurtles him to the floor. Finally, while waiting patiently for his New Year party guests, Charlie imagines passing an idyllic evening with his beloved, for whom he performs the "dance of the rolls" - with his head bobbing ingratiatingly behind two fork legs with their little bread shoes.
Directing in partnership with John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton replaced the Hatfields and the McCoys with the Canfields and the McKays in Our Hospitality (1923), his second feature as an independent artist which provides a rousing satire of the clan feud that scandalised the Old South in the early 19th century.
Raised by his Aunt Mary (Kitty Bradbury) after the death of his parents, Willie McKay (Keaton) reaches his majority and goes to inspect his ancestral inheritance. However, en route from New York to Rockville, he falls for Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), who is unaware of his true identity and invites him to dinner. Having discovered that his stately pile is nothing but a crumbling shack, Willie gratefully accepts, But Virginia's father and brothers recognise the interloper immediately and reluctantly agree to abide by the rules of Dixie hospitality that he is safe as long as he is under their roof, but fair game the moment he ventures outside. Next morning, Willie slips away in women's clothing in a bid to catch a train back east. But siblings Clayton (Ralph Bushman) and Lee (Craig Ward) pitch him into the river and it's only after Willie plucks his beloved from a waterfall in an acrobatic act of derring-do that old hostilities can finally be forgotten.
Playing opposite his soon-to-be sister-in-law (as Keaton married screen icon, Norma Talmadge) and jousting for the last time with stalwart comic foil Joe Roberts (who died shortly after the picture wrapped), Keaton not only demonstrates his stone-faced genius for deadpan slapstick, but also his remarkable pantomimic agility and growing confidence as both a gag writer and director. Insisting on exact replicas of the Stephenson's Rocket train and the Gentleman's Hobby-Horse bicycle, Keaton achieved a period authenticity that is only matched by the precision of the physical comedy and the stuntwork.
He would surpass himself four years later, however, with The General, which saw him remain in the Deep South for the story of Confederate rail engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton), who is jilted by the sweetheart who thinks he is a coward, but more than proves his worth when he commandeers The Texas to rescue Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), when his own locomotive, The General, is stolen by Union spies.
Keaton once declared that `comedy is a serious business' and the point is more than well made in this extraordinary silent. Keaton's deadpan expression was partly intended to convey his characters' phlegmatic response to capricious fate, but it was also designed to avoid distracting viewers from the gags occurring elsewhere on the screen. However, Keaton's personality remained a key part of his comedy, as his spirit shone through his expressive eyes. Consequently, his performance in this Civil War adventure, based on William Pittenger's memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase, is as subtle as anything achieved by Emil Jannings or Greta Garbo.
Once again Keaton plays his favoured role of a decent citizen who is wrongly branded a failure but bounces back to triumph over adversity and misjudgement. Indeed, Johnnie Gray's odyssey is firmly at the centre of this rousing blend of slapstick, thrills and romance. But, as ever, Keaton relies heavily on a giant prop to bring out his resilience and resourcefulness. But, while The General virtually becomes the physical manifestation of Gray's all-action approach to life, Keaton even occasionally reduces Annabelle to the status of comic object, as Johnnie tries to master his predicament. That said, she is one of the feistier silent heroines and Gray certainly couldn't have won the day without her.
As the majority of the comedy stems from character and situation, Keaton kept his camera in a state of almost perpetual motion, as the engine hurtles down the track before plunging off a bridge into the river below (a $42,000 shot that ranked among the most expensive of the silent era). But he timed each gag to perfection, so that nothing was overplayed or extended, and it was this directorial efficiency that gave the film an elegance to match its pace and precision.
Sadly, contemporary critics and audiences failed to appreciate these eight reels of genius and Keaton's confidence was still teetering from the box-office setback when Talkies arrived. But, while Keaton tried to reinvent himself as a sound comic, Chaplin defiantly stuck to mumming with City Lights (1931), in which the Little Tramp dissuades drunken millionaire Harry Myers from committing suicide and sets out to raise the funds he receives as a reward for an operation to restore the sight of blind flowergirl Virginia Cherrill.
Charles Chaplin began shooting this exquisite love story in 1928. Convinced that sound was a passing fad, he determined to stick with the pantomimic style that had made him cinema's first superstar. However, the continued success of the Talkies persuaded him to close the picture down and consider whether he should let The Tramp speak. Resuming in silence, Chaplin was further hindered by the Wall Street Crash, which made the risk of bucking a commercial trend seem all the more precarious. Yet, his courage was fully vindicated when this precision blend of slapstick and sentiment was proclaimed his masterpiece.
The symbolism of the movie's moral message was hardly subtle. When he's blind drunk, the millionaire treats the Little Fellow like a bosom buddy, but the moment he's sober, he denies all knowledge of him. These temporary lapses in prejudicial distinction contrast with the girl's total acceptance, as her blindness forces her to base her judgements on personality not appearance. Indeed, it's her innate goodness that prompts the charitable act which ultimately enables her to recognise her benefactor through touch.
Yet, while he implies this happy ending, Chaplin leaves us wondering whether The Tramp is actually going to settle down and embrace bourgeois society. He had already exploited this ambiguity in The Gold Rush and The Circus (1928) and would resort to it again in his last `silent', Modern Times (1936), as though he was hedging his bets about if or when the character would return. However, some critics have suggested that the finale's chastity relates to the Little Fellow's Messianic aspect, as he undergoes variations on baptism, denial, miracle-working and persecution in the course of his unrivalled display of selflessness.
Such attempts at interpretation shouldn't, however, obscure the fact that this is a frequently hilarious comedy, with the boxing sequences and the elevator gag ranking amongst Chaplin's most inspired pieces of clowning.