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)

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
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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)

Körkarlen (1921)

If you have been reading my posts about Ingeborg Holm (1913), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918) and Klostret i Sendomir (1920), then you know that I, along with many others, consider Victor Sjöström to be one of the greatest directors of the 1910s and early 1920s. Perhaps the peak of his creative period came with Körkarlen, best known in English as The Phantom Carriage.

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen is a many-layered story about alcoholism, poverty, death and humiliation, but also about love, faith and atonement. It often balances on a thing edge between realism and sentimentality, and mostly manages to stay clear of any excesses in either direction.

The story is based on a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel prize winner), and closely follows the original. At the core of the story, we find the Salvation Army sister Edit. She has been trying to save David from his sinful life in alcholism, but David has no wish to repent. That is when Death’s coachman (who drives around to collect the souls of the dead) steps in, and when David appears to die after a drunken brawl on New Year’s Eve, the coachman takes David on a journey through time and space to make him see the wrongs of his life.

The score of this version must be characterized as ambient. It is very mood-setting, but sometimes it seems to miss the mood a bit. On the whole, it works well, but I am sure better scores exist.

This film is best enjoyed as a true classic and an excellent example of Swedish film making around 1920. If anyone sees parallels with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is no coincidence (compare Scrooge (1951)). Lagerlöf said herself that the story was inspired by Dickens, though this is far more than just a cheap imitation. Körkarlen deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits.

Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Today it is ecaxtly one hundred years since World War I broke out. This tragic conflict, one of the most terrible in human history, has been depicted on the silver screen many times. One of the first great films (perhaps the first) to emphasize this tragic aspect was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the film that catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom.

Many people still think that Rudolph Valentino was a great actor. To me, it seems that his greatest talent was to look like he is about to burst into tears any minute. Even when he smiles. Well, even I have to admit that he was good at using small details in his facial expression and body language. Be that as it may, many of his films are wonderful; well-produced, epic and still today captivating. The Four Horsemen … is one of his best.

Bowditch Turner, Nigel De Brulier and Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Actually, the War does not begin until about halfway through the movie, and even though it is an imporatant backdrop to the later part of the film, this is a film about people and ideas, less about the war as such. It begins with a wealthy Argentine patriarch and his two sons-in-law. One French and one German. The film is clearly anti-German (at a time when the Nazi party had barely been established, the Germans in the film enbrace many ideas that would later come to be associated with Nazi ideology), and consequently, the French son-in-law and his son are favoured.

After the death of the patriarch, each part of the family moves back to Europe. We now follow the French son, Julio (Valentino) and his life in Paris as a playboy artist and dancer, constantly broke and falling in love with a married woman, thus causing a scandal. But just as things appear to go his way, war erupts and turns everything upside down.

This film is best enjoyed if you like Rudolph Valentino’s acting and good looks (he is said to be a favourite with the gay community), but if you are like me and feel some scepticism, it is still a great movie, well worth the more than two hours watching.

Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
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Year: 1921
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Director: Rex Ingram
Stars: Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry and Josef Swickard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly adapted to the images
Sound Quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.0 G)

The Nut (1921)

When one talks about film comedies of the 1920s, there are mainly three big names to consider: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Had history taken a side step, however, a fourth name could have outshone them all: Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks had already become the leading Hollywood comedian, and in fact the leading actor of any kind, in the late 1910s. Come the new decade, he was at a critical junction. His spectacular 1920 success The Mark of Zorro had been an experiment with a new kind of romantic adventure film, and needed to be followed up. During 1921, Fairbanks was to release two new films. The first was a traditional comedy, The Nut.

Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in The Nut (1921)

Fairbanks plays an inventor who is in love with a beautiful woman. He tries to impress her by holding parties in benefit of her charity mission for homeless children, but things go all wrong and he even lands himself in jail before he can try to set things right.

Had The Nut been more tightly written and directed, it would perhaps have been the success normally associated with the Fairbanks name. Had that been the case, who knows but that the ever business-minded Fairbanks might have decided to take up the race with the great comedians. But even though The Nut is both fun and inventive, it was no match for the competition. The same year, Chaplin released The Kid, Keaton was perfecting his genius with films such as The Boat, and Lloyd developed his thrill comedies with Never Weaken. Given such competition, The Nut is simply not good enough. Instead, it appears to have been Fairbanks’ last silent comedy, as he chose to pioneer the romantic adventure genre instead.

This film is best enjoyed for its playfulness, such as the use of a parrot with a word balloon (a very rare device, indeed, in silents), the crazy morning routine inventions, or the corny litter which carries itself. In addition, it is said that Charlie Chaplin makes a cameo appearance (Chaplin and Fairbanks had been among the co-founders of United Artists two years previously). I missed him, but if you catch him I would appreciate a comment about where he appears.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Nut (1921)

The Nut
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Theodore Reed
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (604 M)

The Kid (1921)

Earlier this year, I noted that it was 100 years since Charlie Chaplin started his acting career. At that point, he was almost 25 years old, which also makes this the 125th year since his birth. His birthday is on Wednesday, April 16, and should properly be celebrated with a classic Chaplin film. Why not one of his best, such as The Kid.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

Up to the point of making The Kid, Chaplin’s films had all been short slapsticks. Usually only a single reel, and never more than about 40 minutes in length. His output had initially been enormous (about 20 films as a director in 1914; almost double that as an actor), but the number of new annual releases had decreased as quality had increased. But even though his films became better and better, they were still fairly simple in terms of plot. Chaplin did deal with social themes in many early films but, comparatively speaking, there was not much depth in them.

But Chaplin was not satisfied with making pure slapstick any more. The Kid took over a year to produce (partly because it was delayed by Chaplin’s divorce from his first wife), and became his first full-length feature. It was a great success, and still remains one of Chaplin’s most loved films. I personally hold it as my favourite Chaplin.

The story is not very complex on the surface. Chaplin, as his tradmark tramp character, finds an abandoned baby. Though he is reluctant to take on the role as father, circumstances force him to keep the child and bring it up as his own. From this basic story, Chaplin weaves his magic. There are many little subplots and a good deal of Chaplin’s well-paced slapstick humour. There is also an abundance of warmth and compassion, yet it never becomes pathetic.

In this post I mainly link to the original and complete version of the film. At the Internet Archive there is also an edited version with high resolution and a good soundtrack, though cut down by about a quarter of an hour. Unfortunately, I suspect that this other version is under copyright.

This film is best enjoyed for the excellent interaction between Chaplin and Jackie Coogan as the kid. Through the film, Coogan became the first celebrated child actor, and it is easy to see why.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

The Kid
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound Quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)