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)

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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)

Our Hospitality (1923)

I happened to notice that it was almost a year ago that I last made a post about Buster Keaton. Too long, of course, so time to write a bit about Our Hospitality.

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923)

When Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) inherits his father’s old house, he travels from New York to the American South to take possession, only to find himself caught up in the middle of an old family feud. Naturally, he falls in love with the rival family’s daughter. This could have been a drama or a tragedy, but when Keaton is at large things get mixed and messed up plenty, especially when the daughter unknowningly invites him into their home, where her father’s and brothers’ gentlemen hospitality will not let them touch the last in the line of their hated rivals.

Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature film after Three Ages, and is sometimes mentioned as his first masterpiece. At any rate, it was the film in which he first perfected his unique story-telling formula, combining solid plots with meticulously planned slapstick choreography. This kind of movie would later culminate with The General (1926), a film with which Our Hospitality shares many themes.

Funny piece of trivia: Baby Willie McKay, in the beginning of the film, is played by Buster Keaton, Jr., Buster’s own baby son.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for some good laughs. Like most of Keaton’s 1920s comedies, this one still holds up very well indeed. The final scene is totally unforgettable.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge in Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Directors: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; piano music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (958 M)

Three Ages (1923)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith was so upset about the charges of racism in that picture that he decided to make a new film about intolerance. The result, aptly named Intolerance (1916), is a majestic epic in its own right and almost as classic and famous as The Birth of a Nation. Like many other great classics, it is at the Internet Archive, free for anyone to download. No strings attached, not even any ads. Oh, someone has to pay for the server space and so on, but let us ignore that for the moment.

So there is such a thing as a free lunch. And yet, sometimes it comes at a price. The price you have to pay is that you get to see a lousy version of this timeless classic. The problems attached to it are not uncommon for IA offerings: The copy it was ditigized from is in bad shape and incomplete; there is no tinting; the resolution is quite low; and to top it off, there is no soundtrack. No, if you want to see a good film, I recommend that you find a good DVD edition and purchase it. Or download something else from the IA.

Three Ages, for instance. Intolerance was a financial fiasco, yet seven years after its release, it was still famous (or notorious) enough that Buster Keaton saw the value in making a parody of it.

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Unlike modern movie parodies, such as the Scary Movie series, Three Ages does not depend on familiarity with the original for full enjoyment. Essentially, it only borrows the form, but then Keaton tells his own story, without feeling that he has to mimick the predecessor.

Intolerance suffers from tendencies to be overloaded, confusing and hard to follow as it skips around between stories, sometimes without very clear connections. Three Ages, if anything, suffers from the opposite. It is almost too tidy and obvious, leaving very little for the audience to think about. Then again, this is comedy, not meant to be taken too seriously or to evoke any feelings beyond happiness and well-being. Fair enough. Take it for what it is.

For Three Ages does make you feel well. While far from Keaton’s best, it is yet a very neat little comedy, and extremely well-produced. And even though it lacks the epic grandeur of Intolerance, it is nevertheless majestic in its own right, with several impressive sets. And unlike the older film, this one can boast a number of brilliant Keaton stunts, for instance Buster riding in a car that falls to pieces (see above) or pole-vaulting from horse-back (see below). That alone makes it worth seeing.

This film is best enjoyed if you are already a Buster Keaton fan. If you are new to Keaton, it would be better to start with, for example, his masterpiece The General (1926).

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (992 M)