Category Archives: Silent Cinema

Metropolis

Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Erich Pommer
Written by Thea von Harbou
Fritz Lang (uncredited)
Starring Alfred Abel
Brigitte Helm
Gustav Fröhlich
Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Music by Gottfried Huppertz (original version)
Cinematography Karl Freund, Günther Rittau &Walter Ruttmann
Distributed by UFA (Germany)
Paramount Pictures (US)
Release date 10 January 1927 (Germany) [1]
6 March 1927 (US)
Running time 153 minutes/24 frame/s
(German premiere cut)
114 minutes/25 frame/s
(1927 US cut version)
Country Germany
Language Silent film
German intertitles

Metropolis is a film that features some incredible visuals. The art-deco inspired backgrounds look very stunning as well. As for the content of the film itself, well I am not so sure. A lot of the time I wasn’t exactly sure of what was going on, and a lot of the characters seemed to be really quite stupid, especially Joh Frederson the industrialist/dictator. I did enjoy some of the facia; expressions shown by the actress Brigitte Helm when she was the Machine Man, intent on causing chaos and destrucion and the scenes of her dancing as well. One thing that helps make these sort of scenes look amusing is the fact that silent films run at a different speed to talkies, so the action goes a little faster


Modern Times

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by Charlie Chaplin
Written by Charlie Chaplin & Paulette Goddard (uncredited)
Starring Charlie Chaplin
Paulette Goddard
Henry Bergman
Stanley Sandford
Chester Conklin
Music by Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography Ira H. Morgan & Roland Totheroh
Editing by Williard Nico
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) February 5, 1936
Running time 87 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Modern Times was Chaplin’s final ‘silent’ film. Although it does feature some sounds and voices and even a (nonsensical) song from the little Tramp it is essentially a silent film. It is also a very brilliant film and is very funny. A Lot of the comedy has to do with the mechanisation of the modern world, and there is the iconic scene where Charlie goes through the giant cogs of the machine, but the funniest stuff has to do with the element of hunger and food. The scene where Charlie eats his lunch with the aid of the eating machine at the start of the film is funny, as is the scene where the Tramp has to feed his co-worker who has become trapped in the machine thanks to Charlie.

I also think that Paulette Goddard is very good in the film as the Gamin (whatever that is), as well as being very beautiful. I especially liked her feisty performance.

The film is perhaps Chaplin’s most critically acclaimed film and whilst I do enjoy it a lot I probably like City Lights and The Circus a little bit more.


The Immigrant

Directed by Charles Chaplin & Edward Brewer (technical director)
Produced by John Jasper
Written by Charles Chaplin (scenario), Vincent Bryan (scenario) & Maverick Terrell (scenario)
Starring Charles Chaplin
Edna Purviance
Eric Campbell
Cinematography Roland H. Totheroh & George C. Zalibra
Editing by Charles Chaplin
Distributed by Mutual Film Corporation
Release date(s) June 17, 1917
Running time 20 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

By 1917 Charlie Chaplin had starred in several successful short comedies, yet it was this film that shot him to superstardom. It features a tale of a poor immigrant who travels to America to seek his fortune through the boundless opportunity provided in the land of the free.

Charlie was still refining his art so this film feels a lot like the typical silent slapstick film of the early part of last century. The Tramp character had started to develop into a character, more than just a gag. Chaplin started to use emotion and pathos in his comedies at this time which helped to distinguish them from their contemporaries.

This short may not be as great as The Kid, City Lights, The Goldrush or Modern Times but it is funny and shows Chaplin just as he was before he became his most creative.


The General

Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Produced by Joseph Schenck & Buster Keaton
Written by William Pittenger (memoir)
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Uncredited: Charles Henry Smith & Paul Girard Smith
Starring Buster Keaton & Marion Mack
Music by Carl Davis (1987)
Robert Israel (1995)
Joe Hisaishi (2004)
Cinematography Bert Haines & Devereaux Jennings
Editing by Buster Keaton & Sherman Kell (both uncredited)
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) February 5, 1927
Running time 75 minutes (times vary with different versions)
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

The General is regarded as Buster Keaton’s greatest masterpiece. In my opinion it is indeed a fine piece of film making that seems to be more of an action or adventure film than a comedy.

The movie is based on true historical events from the American Civil War. It involves the theft of the train The General, by the Union Army and how the group who stole it, Anderson’s Raiders, were pursued by one determined Southerner named Johnnie Gray. The film is very exciting and some of the cinematography is brilliant, considering that the film was made in 1927 and there are a few amusing bits, but nothing really laugh out loud funny. The final chase between the Union train The Texas and The General from back to the south is particularly exciting, as is the blowing up of the Rock River Bridge.

The film is more of an action/adventure film than a comedy. Although it was a critical and box office failure on its release, it is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. I enjoyed the film but more as a historical artefact than as a piece of entertainment. It has moments of excitement and drama but it isn’t really a comedy film.

* 29 years later Disney made their film The Great Locomotive Chase which was also based on these events but from the point of view of the Unionist who stole The General rather than the South.


The Kid

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by Charlie Chaplin
Written by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin
Edna Purviance
Jackie Coogan
Henry Bergman
Lita Grey
Music by Charlie Chaplin (composed 1971)
Distributed by First National / Warner Home Video
Release date(s) January 21, 1921
Running time 68 min.
Country USA
Language Silent film
English intertitles

This is a very short film, at just over 50 minutes in length, but it is very sweet. The comedy in the film feels a little dated, like typical slapstick of the kind that everyone else at the time was doing, yet the thing that makes Chaplin unique here is not the pratfalls that he takes, but the empathy that he evokes from the viewer. This was the first film to ever combine humour with melodrama.

It is the melodrama that sets this film apart from its contemporaries. It is schmaltzy, that’s for sure, but these scenes are some of the most famous in film history, especially the moving scene after the orphanage takes the Kid from the Tramp and after a struggle the two are reunited. The look of relief and tears on the faces of Charlie and 5 year old Jackie Coogan as they hug each other in that scene is priceless and very moving.

Chaplin would go on to make many more brilliant films after The Kid that combined, namely The Gold Rush, City Light and Modern Times, but this is the film that started it all. Chaplin’s first great movie.

* Yes, The Kid, Jackie Coogan, did go on to play Uncle Fester in the Addams Family 40 years later.


The Gold Rush

gold3Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by Charlie Chaplin
Written by Charlie Chaplin
Starring
Charlie Chaplin
Georgia Hale
Mack Swain
Tom Murray
Henry Bergman
Malcolm Waite
Music by Charlie Chaplin,
Carli Elinor, Max Terr &
James L. Fields
Cinematography Roland Totheroh
Editing by Charlie Chaplin
Distributed by United Artists
Release date June 26, 1925
Running time Taken at 24 frame/s: Original cut 96 min.
Cut version 82 min.1942 reissue 82 min.
Country United States
Language English

Today I decided to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which is perhaps his most referenced film that features some of his (and cinemas) most well-known scenes. Whilst the film has undoubtedly dated quite a bit since it was first released in 1925, it still contains many giggles for the viewer. This is of course the film that features the famed scenes of Chaplin eating the old boot, the dancing bread rolls (which was parodied by Grandpa Simpson) and the cabin balancing perilously on the edge of a cliff while the tramp and Big Jim try to scramble out before it topples over.

I found this film to be quite amusing and interesting, but there weren’t as many ‘laugh out loud’ moments as I had when I watched The Circus, which was released three years after The Gold Rush. Perhaps the reason for that was because even though I had never seen the Gold Rush, I had seen all the above mentioned famous scenes and had some familiarity with the film. (Much like Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr.) I felt I knew the film before I had even seen it. The film did not have the sentimentality or warmth of 1931s City Lights either.

All this is not to say that The Gold Rush The Gold Rushis a bad film, it is actually very good, as it keeps the viewer’s interest right through to the end. The version I saw was the 1942 re-release with Chaplin’s added music and narration, which made me wonder how the film could have functioned at all as a silent movie. I found that the narration enhanced my enjoyment of the film greatly, as Chaplin seemed to have a poetic way with words, however I would not like to see this sort of thing added to all silent films.


City Lights

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by Charlie Chaplin (uncredited)
Written by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin
Virginia Cherrill
Florence Lee
Harry Myers
Music by Charles Chaplin
Cinematography Rollie Totheroh, Gordon Pollock & Mark Marklatt (uncredited)
Editing by Charlie Chaplin (uncredited)
Distributed by United Artists
Release date January 30, 1931 (US)
Running time 87 minutes
Country United States
Language English (original title cards)

By 1931 everyone in the movie industry had given up on making silent films and were now making talkies. Everyone that is except for Charlie Chaplin. Sound came to film in 1927 with Al Jolson‘s The Jazz Singer, but Chaplin continued to shun talkies until 1940 when he made The Great Dictator. In that intervening 13 years he made three of the greatest comedies of all time. I have already watched The Circus, which I thought was very funny. Both of his 1930s films, City Lights and Modern Times are masterpieces.

City Lights is a romantic comedy from 1931. At times it seems to be more like a melodrama than a comedy, as it does feature a huge helping of Chaplin’s famed sentimentality, but at other times there is some great and very funny slapstick moments that can still make the viewer laugh out loud. The scenes with the Tramp‘s ‘friend’, the drunken millionaire whom Charlie saves from committing suicide are particularly funny as is the boxing match. W.C. Fields once said that he thought Chaplin was more a ballet dancer than a comedian, albeit the best ballet dancer he ever saw. This comedic ballet is on view here in the boxing match scene which seems very cartoonish. In fact it seems that both Walt Disney (Mickey’s Mechanical Man) and Chuck Jones (Rabbit Punch) both were influenced by this scene when they made their boxing cartoons as the influence are plain to see in these cartoons.

The main plot of the film revolves around the Tramp’s relationship with a blind girl who he is smitten with, and how he goes about raising money for her to have an operation which will restore her sight. This of course puts Charlie in a bind, the girl thinks that he is a well-to-do gentleman and if she regains her sight she will see him for who he really is. This leads to the finale of the film which features perhaps the greatest and most recognisable closing shot in all film history. It is here that we realise that love is blind to prejudice and poverty and that kindness and charity will win out in the end.

City Lights is a great film that I really recommend everyone to see at least once in their lifetime. It is beautiful and shows that sometimes talking is unneccessary when it comes to telling a great, funny story.


The Circus

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Produced by
Charlie Chaplin
Written by
Charlie Chaplin
Starring
Charlie Chaplin
Al Ernest Garcia
Merna Kennedy
Henry Bergman
Music by
Günter Kochan (1969)
Distributed by
United Artists
Release date(s)
January 6, 1928
Running time
70 min
Country
United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus is one of his most underrated films. It is not as renowned as some of his other masterpieces such as The Gold Rush, City Lights or Modern Times, which is a shame as it is a very funny film. There were actually a few scenes which made me ‘laugh out loud’, whilst it is very easy to see the influence that this film and Chaplin has had on every other film comedian since 1928.

One thing that I appreciated was that I was easily able to empathise with the Tramp in his jealousy and his unrequited love for the girl, who naturally, only has eyes for the dashing young tightrope walker. Charlie agrees to walk the tightrope himself after the tightrope walker doesn’t turn up to perform, so he can prove his love for the girl even if it kills him. This is a very funny scene and something many guys, including myself, can empathise with. We’ve all done something stupid or dangerous just to get a girl to notice us! Seeing the Tramp up on the wire with monkeys climbing all over him is just hilarious, even now, 82 years after the films first release.

One thing I like about this film is that Chaplin is not trying to make a grand statement or a great melodrama like his other films. It is not overly sentimental like a lot of his later films either. The film is not a dusty old relic or nostalgic look at how things used to be like Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., it is still very funny as it deals with something that is still relatable today, unrequited love. I know that many people such as Woody Allen see Chaplin as being over-rated but The Circus shows why he is the best of the silent movie comedians. Unlike his other films there is no giant serving of sentimentality or pathos, just lots of laughs and funny gags.


Steamboat Bill Jr.

Directed by Charles Reisner
Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Carl Harbaugh & Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Starring Buster Keaton
Cinematography Bert Haines & Devereaux Jennings
Editing by Sherman Kell
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) 12 May 1928 (US)
Running time 71 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film with English intertitles

I watched Steamboat Bill Jr. this morning on a DVD that I borrowed from the local public library. The reason why I chose to borrow this DVD was because of its star and how important his contributions to silent cinema are considered to be. Before talkies took over Keaton was considered to be the second most important film comedian after Charlie Chaplin, but unlike with the Chaplin films that I have watched I did not laugh much with Steamboat Bill Jr.

I wondered to myself why I did not laugh at Steamboat Bill Jr. To me there was really not much of a plot to the film as it was just one gag after another. Many of the gags felt quite familiar which is probably because they have been stolen and used by many comedians throughout the history of cinema. Keaton also uses a lot of stunts in the film but again they too look very familiar. Perhaps this could be because many of them have been reused by others several times since? Maybe I would have been more excited about the film back in 1928 when all these gags and stunts were still fresh?

I think that there is also a problem with Keaton’s persona in the film too. I know that he was known as old ‘stoneface’ due to the never changing expression on his face, despite everything that he had to face, but here it seems to be more than a hinderance than a help when it comes to getting laughs. It is very hard to make an emotional connection to Keaton as he goes through all of these difficulties that he has to face during the film. Contrast this with Chaplin who was the king of pathos and knew just how how to make audiences cry as well as laugh.

An example of what I mean can be seen in the climax of the film in which a violent wind storm lashes the town where Keaton has been staying. Buildings fall down around him and there are some incredible (for 1928) special effects and stunts, but you don’t feel any suspense or empathy for Keaton. The stunts don’t even really have much of a comic element to them, they just happen.

I’m not saying that Steamboat Bill Jr. was a horrible film. I did not turn the disc off until the movie was finished. It’s just that it is more entertaining today as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 than as a movie that will have you laughing your ass off.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a horrible film by any means. I think it’s just that the comedy has not aged all that well over the last 70+ years. I think that the best way to enjoy Steamboat Bill Jr. is to treat it as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 and look for an insight into what made cinema goers laugh back then. Maybe this was the wrong Keaton film for me to watch though as it was not really well received upon release in 1928. It didn’t do too greatly at the box office either. I do have another couple of Keaton films that I intend to watch, including The General, which is considered to be Keaton’s greatest film.


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