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)

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)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

D. W. Griffith seems a very peculiar character in retrospect. Already an experienced director, he went ahead in 1915 and created one of the greatest classics in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. Though a great financial success, it was justly criticized for racism and falsifying history. So the next year, he made Intolerance, allegedly in response to his critics of the former film. This was another majestic classic, but as for the response over the previous film, it falls flat.

So Griffith could have gone down in history as a racist film maker, but then in 1919, he made yet another of his greatest classics, Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl. Here we find a direct and unequivocal statement against racism and intolerance. Hard to tell what Griffith really thought on the subject; the films are his legacy and still deserve to be watched.

Richard Barthelness and Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms tells the story of poor Lucy, whose father is a brutish and alcoholic boxer. He beats her for any poor excuse and forces her to do all the menial tasks in the household. But then she meets a young Chinese. He is also lonesome and disheartened, and they find that they are soulmates, able to lift each other to happiness neither thought possible. Fortune cannot hold forever, of course, though I will not reveal the ending here.

Lilian Gish, one of Griffith’s favourite actors, plays Lucy. Gish is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest actresses of the silent era. Well, I am not entirely convinced, but she certainly makes a fine portrait in this particular film. In a time when overacting was the norm, Gish did it more than most. She had a pronounced flair for acting miserable, distressed or frightened, and in this film she has little reason to do anything else. In particular, there is a famous scene where she hides in a closet, while her raving father breaks down the door with an axe. This was the kind of scene where Gish absolutely excelled.

Artisitically, Griffith was perhaps at his peak here. He had a few great films ahead of him, but by the mid 1920s, it became steadily clearer that the man who once revolutionized film making had failed to stay ahead of the pack. Hence, you will find that in some ways the film has not aged well. Even so, its classic status cannot be denied.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for tragedy. This is not a feel-good movie.

Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
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Year: 1919
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (493 M)