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WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby myrnaloyisdope » January 30th, 2010, 2:45 pm

I've been working through the Silentera.com list of great silents. I finished the top 100 recently, and now working my way through the rest. Here's what I've watched in the past couple days:

Street Angel (1928) - I just received the Borzage BFI DVDs, and they are a nice alternative to the Borzage/Murnau box. This one is a lovely late era silent that reminded me very much of Murnau and Sunrise, with the sweeping camera movements and the faux-realistic set design. Janet Gaynor gives a great performance, and is quite sexy too...I'd never really thought of her as babe before, but there were some really alluring moments for her in this. The story is a bit flimsy, as a lot of the the grief that is caused for Charles Farrell's character could have been avoided if Gaynor would have just been honest. But then you wouldn't have the marvellous ending sequence. Really strong stuff, and pending a re-watching of Seventh Heaven, I must say this is the best Borzage I've seen.

La Boheme (1926) - Finally got around to this one. I'm a big King Vidor fan, but for whatever reason I haven't yet caught up on all of his silent work. I'm not familiar with the source material, so perhaps someone can comment on how big a creep Rodolphe is. I generally like John Gilbert, but found him to be really unsympathetic in this one. Is Rodolphe supposed to be unlikable? Anyway the film is quite good thanks to King Vidor's strong direction and a wonderful performance by Lillian Gish. Is there any actress of the era who used her body better than Gish. She is astonishing at conveying emotion with those saucer like eyes and her frail little body. It seems as though she is putting everything she has into every moment she is on screen. Just wonderful stuff, particularly her escape sequence where she is hanging for dear life of the back of carriages and wagons. It's a shame that Renee Adoree didn't get more to do though.

Lady of the Night (1925) - I'm indifferent to Norma Shearer for the most part, but I enjoyed this one well enough. Shearer plays a dual role as a well-off daughter of a judge, and the poor daughter of a convict (who was imprisoned by the judge). One is the picture of virtue, and the other well not so much. I thought Shearer did a find job, although the poorer version is infinitely more interesting as she struggles to make something of herself and win the man she loves. Of course complications ensue when it turns out the man she loves is in love the other Norma Shearer. Not an especially great picture, but well made, and the print is in lovely shape.

Don't Change Your Husband (1918) - I find early De Mille films to be wildly inconsistent ranging from astonishing (The Cheat) to terrible (The Squaw Man). I wasn't expecting much, but ending up really enjoying this one. I hadn't seen any early Gloria Swanson silents, so it was interesting to see her in the picture that really made her. It's easy to see the appeal even if she doesn't get much to do, De Mille just loads her up in fancy clothes and films her. Fortunately she has the charisma to make her stand out. Here she plays Leila Porter, the wife of successful but disinterested banker and onion-eater James Denby Porter (Elliott Dexter). Feeling neglected by her husband, Leila leaves him for the charming Schuyler Van Sutphen(!) (Lew Cody), only to discover that her former husband's onion breath is far less of a problem than havng an unfaithful and incompetent roustabout for a husband. James undergoes a transformation, including giving up his beloved onions, and determines to win Leila back. It all makes for a fun and occasionally astute exploration of marital woes. Its strength is that it maintains its light touch rather than endeavoring towards heavy-handedness, and at 80 minutes it breezes by.

Male and Female (1919) - After the high of Don't Change Your Husband I was looking forward to this one. Boy was I disappointed. It's mostly silly garbage masquerading as a serious message picture. Gloria Swanson and her rich family plus servants take off on a voyage of the southern seas only to end up shipwrecked. Thomas Meighan is the butler for the family and he ends up taking charge and becoming head of the household. It's remarkable that such a wealthy family could be comprised entirely of useless people. Even the father, Theodore Roberts is little more than a buffoon. The film aspires to be message picture about equality of class, but all that gets lost in patronizing silliness...but it never ridiculous enough to be fun (ala Samson & Delilah) Plus the film just takes forever. Give me small De Mille any day of the weak.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) - Weird, Weird, Weird. Directed by Lev Kuleshov (one of the early montage theorists, heavly influenced Eisenstein), this is a bizarre parody of Americans and their perception of the Soviet Union. Mr. West (Porfiri Pordobed) an American and his cowboy pal, Djeddy (director Boris Barnet) arrive in the U.S.S.R. filled with images of barbaric bolsheviks, and so a gang of crooks decides to give it to 'em. All sorts of craziness ensues, with lots of brawls, kidnapping, extortion, and propaganda. Fascinating stuff, although the print I watched was in French (I'm rudimentary), so I think I missed out on some things. I'm not sure I'd describe as good so much as interesting.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby feaito » January 30th, 2010, 3:12 pm

Great reviews Justin. Thanks for sharing your views on these films with us. I did not know there was a BFI DVD Borzage Collection. Could you tell us more about it?

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby myrnaloyisdope » January 30th, 2010, 3:58 pm

There are 2 Borzage BFI discs - one has Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, and the other has Lucky Star, Liliom and the restoration of The River.They also come with very informative booklets featuring multiple essays. I believe all of the transfers are the same used in the Fox boxset. I was happy to get these considering the cost of the Fox set, as well as the general crumminess of most of the Borzage talkies I'd seen from the set (plus I didn't want to get my 4th copy of Sunrise).
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby MichiganJ » January 30th, 2010, 5:12 pm

myrnaloyisdope wrote:Anyway the film is quite good thanks to King Vidor's strong direction and a wonderful performance by Lillian Gish. Is there any actress of the era who used her body better than Gish.

As much as I love Lillian Gish, I think her sister, Dorothy is an even better actress. I recently saw her in the period drama Nell Gwenn, and Dorothy could handle the drama every bit as well as her sister. But Dorothy could also do comedy, in a very modern and generally understated way. For as great as Lillian is in many of the Griffith's and especially in the Sjöström films, she wasn't very good at comedy.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby myrnaloyisdope » January 30th, 2010, 5:41 pm

Hmm, interesting, I've only seen Dorothy Gish in Gretchen the Greenhorn and Orphans of the Storm. I thought she was good in both, but don't recall her being standout. I'll have to check out some of her other work.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby MichiganJ » January 30th, 2010, 6:12 pm

While I really like Orphans, I think the better pairing for Lillian and Dorothy is Hearts of the World. Dorothy gets to show off some of her comedic talents (some at Lillian's expense), and Lillian gets to do the dramatics she does so well.

I liked Gretchen quite a lot, considering it was pretty much a programmer. I thought Dorothy was fairly natural in her performance, especially considering the year it was made (1916). There's no "fluttery hands" theatrics that pepper many of Lillian's earlier performances (which, I'm sure, were at Griffith's behest.)

I'm not trying to belittle Lillian's stellar acting chops in any way. Just saying that she was quite good at the heavy drama, but I can't recall even one humorous scene she's in. Pickford, was another who could do both comedy and drama equally well. Just saying'.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby feaito » January 30th, 2010, 6:23 pm

myrnaloyisdope wrote:There are 2 Borzage BFI discs - one has Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, and the other has Lucky Star, Liliom and the restoration of The River.They also come with very informative booklets featuring multiple essays. I believe all of the transfers are the same used in the Fox boxset. I was happy to get these considering the cost of the Fox set, as well as the general crumminess of most of the Borzage talkies I'd seen from the set (plus I didn't want to get my 4th copy of Sunrise).


Thanks Justin. Besides the packaging of the Murnau-Borzage Set is -sadly- very lousy, especially considering its importance and cost.

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby drednm » January 30th, 2010, 11:33 pm

Watched this weekend A Romance of Happy Valley, a 1919 film starring Robert Harron and Lillian Gish. Nice pastoral film from Griffith with a plot twist at the end. Carol Dempster's first small acting part (she had done extra work) although she does not get billing. Also watched The Italian Straw Hat, a very charming film from 1928 from Rene Clair. I was not familiar with any of the actors.

As for Nell Gwynne, I have a darkish copy of this. Dorothy Gish is quite good here, and this is usally ranked as her best solo (sans Lillian) silent film. I'm reading Richard Schickel's biography of DW Griffith, and Dorothy is sort of shunted aside into a series of B comedies directed by Elmer Clifton and others while DW builds up Lillian in his major films. And while he used Dorothy in major films like Hearts of the World and Orphans of the Storm he considered her a lesser talent. I think what happened was that Dorothy was not the DW type since he liked dainty blondy types. As Schickel states, DW, for all his genius, had real blind spots when it came to talent that did not fit his "types."

While Dorothy never quite had the reputation Lillian deservedly attained, she still had a long and successful acting career that included something like 140 films from 1912-1963. She made her talkie debut in 1930 in something called Wolves with Charles Laughton in UK (she was 32) and didn't return until 1944 for the charming Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby feaito » January 31st, 2010, 8:39 am

I've only seen Dorothy Gish in "Orphans of the Storm" (1922). I'd like to see more of her films to see why Kevin says she's a better actress than Lillian, whom I consider the supreme talent of the Silent Era and of the greatest actresses of all time (top 5).

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby charliechaplinfan » January 31st, 2010, 9:29 am

Justin I couldn't agree with you more about the two DeMille films you saw, the one I was looking forward to the most was Male and Female so I saved that until I'd watched Don't Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife and The Affairs of Anatol, I preferred tham all to Male and Female. Gloria has an amazing screen presence.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby drednm » January 31st, 2010, 10:35 am

My simple pantheon has always been that Gloria Swanson was the greatest star of the silent era, Mary Pickford was the most popular actress, and that Lillian Gish was the great actress. All three are incredible talents; indeed, the silent era was rich with talent. Among my favorites are many: Marion Davies, Norma Talmadge, Bessie Love, Betty Compson, Dorothy Gish, Constance Talmadge, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Blanche Sweet, Joan Crawford, Alice White, Mae Marsh, Pola Negri, Bebe Daniels, Greta Garbo, Laura LaPlante, Mary Astor, Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler, etc.

But as for Gish. I just found this amazing quote from John Barrymore in the DW Griffith biography I'm reading. Barrymore had seen Way Down East twice and wrote to Griffith: "her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life." He compared Gish to Duse and Bernhardt "for her sheer technical brilliancy and great emotional projection, done with almost uncanny simplicity and sincerity."

Barrymore had never even met Gish.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby MichiganJ » January 31st, 2010, 10:46 am

feaito wrote:I've only seen Dorothy Gish in "Orphans of the Storm" (1922). I'd like to see more of her films to see why Kevin says she's a better actress than Lillian, whom I consider the supreme talent of the Silent Era and of the greatest actresses of all time (top 5).

The silents Lillian did after leaving Griffith, particularly the Sjöström's and Vidor's La Boheme certainly prove that she was one of silent film's greatest dramatic actors. While I still really appreciate Griffith, the more silents I see, the more I recognize his limitations. It's interesting that most of his films feature strong women, but throughout many of the films, the women, including Gish, had to deal with the dove-kissing and at least some over-emoting.

In the few films I've seen with Dorothy, including the Griffith's, she just seems more natural in her performance. She's quick with a smile--which seems always spontaneous and genuine, and she exudes a certain spunk, that's hard to define.

I'd like to see more of Dorothy's films, too. Nell Gwynne far exceeded my expectations and is probably in my top--oh, let's say 20 silent films. Gretchen the Greenhorn is a fun, brisk programmer, with, as I mentioned, a remarkably restrained performance by Dorothy. (There's a terrific sequence where she's kissed for the first time. She scolds the her beau, waits until he leaves, and then allows for that warm smile to cross her face.) In Hearts of the World she really gets to play the counter-point to Lillian's dramatics, and does so very well. (While not considered one of his best, Hearts is one of my favorite Griffith films). In Orphans of the Storm, Dorothy is good, but is asked to play blind and does resort to some of the Griffith mannerisms. Still, love the film. Dorothy and Lillian are paired again in Romola, but the print I have is abysmal, and from what I can make of the film, the movie isn't that great.

For the record, in the talkies, Lillian did go on to be one of our great character actors (as much as I hate that term), and I did forget her comedic turn in the Alan Alda film, Sweet Liberty. After seeing the AFI Tribute, and how funny she was, it's a shame she didn't get to show that side of her talent a bit more.
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby feaito » January 31st, 2010, 1:56 pm

Thanks for your valuable insight Kevin.

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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby myrnaloyisdope » January 31st, 2010, 4:50 pm

I watched Maurice Elvey's Hindle Wakes last night and was very impressed. Just a brilliant film. It manages to really capture the hopes and dreams of the working class as well as films like Lonesome and The Crowd. In some ways it feels even more authentic than those films due to its British origins and itsremoval from a Hollywood context. A wonderfully evocative film with a compelling storyline and very stylish direction. Oh and that score, one of the finest I've ever heard. What a revelation, I may even like it more than Elvey's The Life Story of David Lloyd George. I find it remarkable that Elvey could manage to feel so at home doing a massive epic and an intimate picture. Elvey is one of the great unsung talents.

Anyone caught any of his other silents? I know he did a bunch of talkies, mostly "quota-quickies", but how could someone of such mastery ended up in virtual obscurity?
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Re: WHAT SILENTS & PRE-CODES HAVE YOU SEEN LATELY?

Postby Ann Harding » February 1st, 2010, 4:43 am

myrnaloyisdope wrote:Anyone caught any of his other silents? I know he did a bunch of talkies, mostly "quota-quickies", but how could someone of such mastery ended up in virtual obscurity?

The only other Elvey I have seen was The Sign of Four (1923), a pretty good Conan Doyle adaptation. It contains a superb chase on speed boats on the Thames. He also made a SciFi silent called High Treason (1929) which is supposed to be pretty good with some terrorists blowing up a tunnel under the ocean. It has been restored by the BFI and had several showings in London. Let's hope it will make it to DVD at some point.


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