The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

Madame Beudet is smiling. She is smiling, even laughing, at her own daydreams about what might befall her husband, whom she does not love. He, hearing her laughter, pulls his own favourite practical joke, putting an empty gun to his head and squeezing the trigger.

This is one of the key scenes in The Smiling Madame Beudet (French: La souriante Madame Beudet), a strong and very well-made silent drama, which qualifies for my own top ten or fifteen list of silent movies.

Germaine Dermoz in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Madame Beudet is smiling, perhaps, as a way of dealing with the misery of her life. The film is a brilliant and finely nuanced portrait of a woman, but those who claim that it was the first truly feministic film should take a look at the ten years older Ingeborg Holm.

The Internet Archive copy I link to here has both French and German intertitles, as well as English subtitles, so it is essentially trilingual – one of the advantages of silent cinema. In case you know either French or German and would like to be rid of the subtitles, a copy of comparable quality but without subtitles is also downloadable.

The Smiling Madame Beudet was based on a play, the original French text of which is also available at the Internet Archive.

This film is best enjoyed for its exquisite imagery and visual language. Director Germaine Dulac makes use of many impressionistic techniques, providing both effect and subtlety.

Alexandre Arquillière in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

The Smiling Madame Beudet
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Year: 1923
Running time: 38 min
Language: French/German (English subtitles)
Director: Germaine Dulac
Stars: Germaine Dermoz
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (666×482)
Soundtrack: Good; orchestral music matching the film’s mood
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (227 M)

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
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Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

Strike (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, Strike (known as Stachka or Стачка in Russian), showed that the legendary director had already at that time formed most of those ideals that were to follow him through much of his career. And while it may not be as refined as some of his later works, it is just as powerful, poetic and artistic. Strike deserves to be seen for reasons beyond historical curiosity.

Workers in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike tells the story of a pre-revolution strike at a factory (apparently based on true events) and its voilent resolution. We get to follow the workers as their dissatisfaction with the poor and greedy management explodes into action, when one worker hangs himself because he has been falsely accused of theft. The workers unite in their demands for better conditions, but the managers plot to either force them back to work, or get rid of them once and for all.

One of the things that is typical about Strike, and that sets it appart from the Hollywood norm of story-telling that we are used to, is that there is no main character. Focus is always on the group, and even when individuals do emerge out of the formless mass of strikers (constantly running around from one place to another), they are not proactive in the way that you would expect your standard Hollywood protagonist to be. Rather, they react to things that happen around them, and they act together with the group. You could perhaps call them catalysts, sparking the fire in others to act in concert. This theme of cooperation permeates the film to the extent that one could probably write a book about it.

Another of Eisenstein’s identifying traits is the way he uses metaphor in his images. Some would perhaps say that he is too obvious when he interfoliates cuts with animals and with humans, thereby giving the humans animal characteristics. But to me, this is enormously powerful. Even more so, since this technique is practically never used in Western film, neither contemporary nor modern.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and emotional ending. As the military move in on horseback and massacre the strikers, Eisenstein interleaves cuts of cattle being slaughtered, and of laughing capitalists, fat and lazy. Regardless of whether you agree with the underlying ideology, this is truly effective and artistic film.

Revolutionary leader in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music and some sound effects
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (685 M)

The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believes in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

The Pawn Shop (1916)

October is Short Film Month, and today we celebrate one of the most important short film creators ever, Charlie Chaplin. A good many of his shorts are available at the Internet Archive, and today’s pick is one of the best, The Pawn Shop (more commonly written togeter as The Pawnshop, but the version at the Internet Archive has the word split), which premiered exactly one hundred years and eight days ago.

Charles Chaplin and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

Chaplin had an amazing career in the movies. He began making film in 1914, and in that year alone acted in about 35 films, 20 of which he directed. The following year, he was down to 14 titles, almost all of which he directed. By 1916, production had gone down to 9, and he directed everything himself. Quite frankly, his first attempts were not always very funny, at least not a hundred years later, but already by 1916, every single one of his films ranged from hilarious or astonishing. Diminishing volume and increasing quality continued to go hand in hand, and when he made his masterpiece The Kid (1921), he was down to only two films that year.

Nothing needs to be said about the plot of The Pawn Shop. It is not very important, anyway. What matters are all the amazing stunts and gags.

The version I mainly link to from this post is a completely silent version, with no soundtrack. Another version with a good soundtrack exists at the Archive, but both the resolution and technical quality of that copy are really poor, so I recommend that you try the soundless one.

This film is best enjoyed as a brilliant and still very funny film, but it can also be seen together with some other Chaplin films from various years and production companies, as an illustration of how fast he developed, both as an actor and a director. I would recommend spending some time at the Internet Archive, searching out a handful of samples from each year during the 1910s. It is a highly rewarding experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment.

Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

The Pawnshop
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Year: 1916
Running time: 25 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (569×430, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (214 M)