Tol’able David (1921)

I have long since lost count of the number of great films I would never have seen if it was not for the Internet Archive. Yet another in the long line is Tol’able David, a coming of age story with biblical motifs. It is set in West Virginia (in a fictional village, I believe), presumably some time in the 19th Century, although I have not been able to pinpoint the date or even decade.

Gladys Hulette and Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David (1921)

Young David (a nice lad, but just “tol’able”, since he is not yet a man) grows up in a loving and pious family. They are tenant farmers, and they have a very good relationship with the neighbours, the Hatburns. David’s relationship is especially good with young Esther Hatburn. However, the happiness is about to be shattered. I do not want to spoil all the details of the evil that will befall David and his family, because I think the film benefits from watching it without knowing too much of the plot.

What I will say is that it is rare to find a film from the early 1920s that is so mature in its storytelling. Even though the ending is very Hollywoodesque, our hero’s road is uncommonly thorny, as his faith, love and courage are tested. This story is told to us by a number of really talented actors. Sure, they overact in typical silent style, but that is to be expected. They also show that they can be really subtle with their acting at times, as we feel their pain, joy, hate and love through the distance of time. Even though the age of nearly a hundred years can be felt, the film still has so many strengths that it is more than just watchable.

The Internet Archive copy of Tol’able David, unfortunately, does not feature a soundtrack. This is a film that I feel would benefit tremendously from a good score, but even as it stands, it is a very fine specimen from a time when the art of cinematography was undergoing tremendous development.

A few words deserve to be said about directory Henry King. When King directed Tol’able David, he had already been directing films for a few years, and he was to continue doing so for over 40 more years! At the Internet Archive, you can for instance find Lloyd’s of London (1936) and Hell Harbor (1930). While King may not have been a great artistic genius, he was definitely both talented and skillful. Tol’able David must have been one of his greatest achievements.

This film is best enjoyed because it is a classic that truly deserves to be remembered and cherished. If you like silent film, you are going to love this one for its drama and fine character portraits.

Walter P. Lewis, Ernest Torrence and Ralph Yearsley in Tol'able David (1921)

Tol’able David
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Henry King
Stars: Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those literary classics that have been filmed on a number of different occasions, infamously including an animated Disney version, proving that Disney can make light family entertainment out of practically anything.

Out of the several Hunchback adaptations I have seen, two emerge as superior: the 1923 version with Lon Chaney and the 1939 version with Charles Laughton. The former appears to be the only version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that is available at the Internet Archive.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

To cast the legendary Lon Chaney as the Hunchback was, of course, the best possible choice at the time. Chaney had already made several spectacular and impressive roles, for example The Penalty (1920), but The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears to have been the role that propelled him to the status of stardom, and thus on to future legendary roles.

Unfortunately, I am less impressed with Ruth Miller as Esmeralda. So far I have never seen an actress that quite captured the youth and spirit of Esmeralda from the novel. Miller gives it her best, and that is adequate, but something is lacking. She is at least nearly the right age for the role (Esmeralda is 16 in the novel; Miller was only a couple of years older when the film was made), unlike several others; the worst example possibly being Salma Hayek who was over 30 when she portrayed Esmeralda. I am still waiting for the actress that can bring the combination of youth, naiveté, kind-heartedness and strength to the character.

In addition to Chaney’s performance, there are several good reasons for watching this film. For one thing, it is perhaps one of the most truthful adaptations of the original novel (except for the inevitable happy Hollywood ending). The sets and costumes of mediaeval Paris are stunningly majestic and beautiful. Whether historically true or not, I am not competent to say, but they certainly help to set the mood.

This film is best enjoyed if, like me, you are both a fan of Lon Chaney and of Victor Hugo’s wonderful novel. The combination of the two makes for a near-perfect film and a true classic.

Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller as Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Huncback of Notre Dame
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 57 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music well edited to fit the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)

Les Vampires (1915–16)

I have previously written about a number of serials. Looking at those earlier reviews, one might easily get the impression that serials were mostly a sound film phenomenon. Ah, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It has proven difficult to find reliable facts about silent serials, but the first ones seem to have appeared as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. By 1915, production was in full swing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and before the era came to an end around 1930, hundreds of silent serials had been made. I am guessing that many are incomplete or lost today, but many others survive, and the best are quite up to the standards of the so-called “Golden Age” serials of the 1930s and 1940s. They were not yet as clichéd and predictable as the later serials usually were, and quite often they created the elements that were later to become cliché.

Édouard Mathé in Les Vampires (1915)

The French serial Les Vampires (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) is often considered to be among the best of those early ones, and indeed some claim that it is one of the best serials of all time. It tells the story of how newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande tries to thwart a group of criminals who terrorize Paris. In spite of the title, Les Vampires has nothing to do with any vampires. It was simply the name that this gang of criminals used for themselves.

The plot, meandering in various directions, is a bit too complex to summarize here, but it is impossible to review this serial and not mention the character Irma Vep (note the anagram), who makes her first appearance in Episode 3. Vep is a close associate to the leader of The Vampires. She is totally unscrupulous and a master of disguise, and for the rest of the serial, she remains the main antagonist. Irma Vep has certainly been one of the strongest cultural footprints of Les Vampires. She remains a popular character and icon among silent movie fans.

According to Wikipedia, Les Vampires was made “quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” Well, that shows, and the plot seems pretty random and incoherent at times. I know that some people have a problem with that, but I do not find that it detracts from my enjoyment. There is so much to like about this serial that some small rough spots are easily overlooked. Besides, modern Hollywood scripts are not always too coherent either.

This serial is best enjoyed because of the huge influence it has had on later crime cinema. Among the film makers said to be strongly inspired by it are such giants as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. There are good reasons why this particular serial became so influential. Watch it and find out for yourself!

A Vampire thief in Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Year: 1915–16
Running time: 6 h 40 min
Language: English
Director: Louis Feuillade
Stars: Édouard Mathé, Musidora
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Eight men, one woman. They have formed a secret society, the aim of which is to better mankind by murdering those who deserve to die. They have gathered on this day to decide if a certain person will die, and if so, who is to perform the deed. Such is the beginning of The Ace of Hearts. The title indicates the fateful card that is used to randomly choose the murderer.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

But love is about to complicate our plot. Two members are rivals for the love of the only woman, Lilith, but she loves neither back. She only has feelings for the Cause. Ah, but what will happen when one of the two is chosen to commit a murder for that Cause? Can she separate her feelings for the man and the ideal? This plot may seem a bit corny, but works really well togehter with the excellent actors and the nice photography.

Around this time, film cameras slowly started to move around; to pan, to track, to zoom. The camera in The Ace of Hearts, however, is always completely static. But that is not entirely a problem, because when the limits of the set are known, the director and cameraman can use the set as if it was a painting, carefully composing each detail to balance the whole picture. Akira Kurosawa was to use similar techniques a lot in many of his best films, decades later, and Wallace Worsley does it here, almost to perfection. Watch, for example, The Man Who Deserves to Die striding slowly from the restaurant entrance to the dining hall’s vault. Splendid!

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, then this may or may not be a film to your taste. This is the only film I have seen where Chaney does not in any way use heavy makeup or prosthetics for enhancing his role and performance. Chaney is good enough an actor that he is excellent even without this, but if your fancy are his many amazing horror masks, then this film may disappoint you.

Like any silent film, I am sure this one would have been even better with a good soundtrack. However, thanks to the film’s poetic imaging and slow but deliberate tempo, I did not find the lack of sound disturbing. The mere visuals keep tension up by themselves. If silence makes you nervous, a version with an acceptable organ score is also available, but unfortunately it has lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed as a conceptual sequel to The Penalty from the year before. The Ace of Hearts had the same director, the same star (Chaney), and was based on a novel by the same author, Gouverneur Morris. And even though the films are set in very different surroundings, they share the delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.

Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy and John Bowers in The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts
Download link
Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

There can be no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential directors of all time. Many also hold that he was one of the greatest. His true greatness is most obvious in his many classic Hollywood productions from the 40s through the early 60s. (He also made a handful of films in the late 60s and 70s, but those are not among his best efforts). Before Hollywood, however, Hitchcock had already been directing films for 15 years! Those films, almost half of his total production, are often overlooked, in some cases for good reasons.

Among those rarely seen early films is his very first attempt as a director (except one short and one unfinished film, both lost), The Pleasure Garden. Considering Hitchcock’s enormous influence, this is a film that should have a significant historic value, in spite of any cinematographic shortcomings.

Carmelita Geraghty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The plot is pretty standard fare for silents of the time. Jill has come to London to seek her fortune as a dancer. She meets Patsy, who works at a theatre called The Pleasure Garden. Patsy helps her get a job and lets her stay at her appartment, but later, when Jill has become a star, she will not return Patsy’s favours. The plot is complicated by two men. Hugh is Jill’s fiancé and Levet is attracted to Patsy. However, there is also an attraction between Patsy and Hugh.

The copy at the Internet Archive is apparently some 15-20 minutes shorter than the original film (which has been restored in recent years). I have not seen the longer version, but I suspect that a longer film allows for some more depth to a story that in the present form is a bit hard to follow at times.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. Sure, you can see some interesting scenes that suggest the great things that were to come (especially in the beginning), but Hitchcock at this point is no better than several other contemporary directors, and the script is not really good enough to maintain interest all the way to the end.

Miles Mander, John Stuart and Virginia Valli in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The Pleasure Garden
Download link
Year: 1925
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Virginia Valli
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×386)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; organ music partly adapted to the images
Best file format: Ogg Video (255 M)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is arguably one of the most popular, or at least well-known, pieces of literary fiction ever written. The original story is available at the Internet Archive (link above; and you can also get it in Esperanto), and there are of course lots of other texts related to it, and also a number of film adaptations.

Far from the first, but the first that became a hit and a classic, was the famous 1920 adaptation Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde.

John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Most film adaptations, this one included, are actually not based directly on Stevenson’s story, but on a stage play that premiered in 1887, only a year after the story’s first publication. The play took several liberties with the original, adding and deleting characters and subplots.

There is one problem in particular with adapting the original story. The story builds on the suspense of not knowing that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same, but today every school child knows this even before they have ever read the story. Therefore, the adaptation must rest on other dramatic effects, such as the physical transformations, or the cruelty of Mr. Hyde. The stage play took care of all this, and added a bit of romance as well, which is the reason why it has remained the basis for Hollywood’s treatments of the story.

The copy I link to does not have a soundtrack. Other versions at the Archive do, but none of them is really very good, and they are all of inferior image quality. Therefore, I prefer this one.

This film is best enjoyed for Barrymore’s exceptional performance. Sure, some of Hyde’s vices feel a bit aged by toda’s standards; as Victorian as the original story itself. But even so, Barrymore works perfectly in the dual role, both as the smooth and elegant gentleman and as the degraded brute.

John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: John S. Robertson
Stars: John Barrymore
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (705 M)