Phew, a tough choice this year – which is partly why it’s taken me so long to get round to it.
Someone said I should pick more esoteric films than I have been, since everyone’s familiar with Chaplin, Lloyd etc – but having covered those two I can hardly let Keaton off the hook – perhaps the most daring and durable of the three.
Old Stone Face, arguably, has worn a little better that Chaplin to modern audiences as his films are less sentimental. He said the audience had to decide whether to care for his character. He wouldn’t ask for their sympathy in the narrative.
Here, Keaton plays a young small-town movie projectionist – so poor he has to depend upon finding lost dollar bills among the litter he sweeps out from the cinema after the show. He doesn’t have much luck though as the customers come back looking for the lost cash, and he’s honest enough to give it back to them – once they’ve accurately described it for him.
Keaton gets thrown out of his girlfriend’s house after a slimy rival frames him for stealing her father’s watch. Suspicious of the rival, and inspired by his book on how to be a detective, he follows him – but the rival traps him in a railway goods truck. At this point we see one of the most remarkable moments in all of silent film, but no-one was aware of it till years later.
As the train pulls away, he gets out through the roof hatch and grabs the chain of the railside water tank, inadvertently turning on the spout and bringing a torrent of water down on his head. He falls to the tracks, and gets up again in time for a handcart to pass under the gushing water, soaking its occupants, who spot Buster as the one responsible and chase him into the distance.
The action was all impeccably staged and appears on film exactly as planned, except that Buster seriously underestimated the power of the water coming from the spout, and instead of merely dropping the ten feet or so to the tracks he is slammed to the ground, invisible under the gushing torrent until a few seconds later when, unperturbed, he gets up to run away from the handcart guys.
What no-one knew at the time was that the impact had broken his neck. A lifetime of punishing falls and stunts – ever since being thrown around the vaudeville stage by his father as a three year old – meant that he was made of such tough stuff that he didn’t find out about it until an x-ray revealed the knitted bone years later.
Back at the cinema, he falls asleep and dreams that his girlfriend and the rival are in the film, playing more glamorous versions of themselves. He run into the cinema and up onto the screen, but once up there the scene keeps changing around him, and in a sequence of painstakingly calculated cuts he find himself in one location after another – a rocky hillside, a jungle, a busy road, – with barely time to avoid the hazards of one environment before it cuts around him to the next. It all looks spontaneous, and Buster acts it out as one flowing scene, but it must have taken weeks to plan and film.
The rest of the film is of the standard boy-girl-misunderstanding-chase-resolution variety that had now become the standard movie comedy feature plot, but it’s pacy and inventive, and engaging thoughout. Unlike the previous year’s “Three Ages”, Buster has now got the hang of structuring a film around plot and character rather than gags, the essential element in a comedy feature as opposed to a short.
Also from 1924: Harold Lloyd’s GIRL SHY. I really wanted to review this one – I watched it specially for the first time last week and was on the edge of my seat. Harold plays a would-be author, hopelessly shy and crippled with a stutter, who hopes to publish a book on how to be successful with women, despite his total lack of experience. On his way to the city to hand the manuscript to a publisher, he falls in love with a rich girl, and depends on the book being published to get the money he needs to marry her. However he’s laughed out of the publisher’s office, and painfully breaks it off with the girl by pretending he never really cared. Heartbroken, she accepts a proposal a man who has been pursuing her for some time – a tall rake with a pencil moustache, much like the rival in “Sherlock Junior”. In the final act, it’s the morning of her wedding and Harold learns, in quick succession, that the man is an adulterer, and that the publisher has decided to release his book – as a comedy – and has sent him a substantial advance. The film concludes with a marathon chase scene as Harold commandeers cars, horses and tramcars in a mad rush to stop his girl from marrying the wrong man – silent action comedy at its absolute best.
Every bit as notable – Douglas Fairbanks in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. No spring chicken at nearly 40, Fairbanks’ gymnastics in this spectacular 150-minute epic are sufficiently larger-than-life to compete with the enormous, magical sets. Fairbanks plays a vagabond thief who spurns the work ethic preached to him in a mosque he accidentally stumbles into – via a magic rope and a window, naturally – until he falls in love with the princess and has to compete with three undesirable princes to win her hand. Cue a series of picture-book adventures featuring dragons, caves of fire, mermaids and flying horses. The moral – hard to miss as it is is literally written in the stars both at the beginning and the end of the film – is that ‘happiness must be earned’.
The BFI blu-ray features an orchestral soundtrack by Carl Davis – an arrangement of music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. The acting is interestingly stylised – broad and theatrical, as in the days before D W Griffith. Sojin Kamiyama is particularly effective as the scheming Mongol prince – he acts in an odd, two-dimensional fashion as if consciously imitating the puppets of Chinese shadow-plays. Anna May Wong plays his spy, under (very little) cover as a servant in the Princess’s palace.
The BFI has two notable archive documentaries from this year out on Blu Ray, both with transporting, subdued music specially composed by Simon Fisher Turner – THE EPIC OF EVEREST, a record of the Mallory/Irvine expedition, and Herbert Ponting’s THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE, a late edit of his 1912 film of Scott’s tragic polar expedition.
The Everest film is interesting not only for the footage of the climbers on Everest – rather sweetly kitted out as if they were hiking from Interlaken for the day – but for its record of life in the Himalayan villages en route. “The Great White Silence” is more than anything a wildlife film – an aspect that be would far more novel and fascinating to contemporary audiences than it is to us, spoilt as we are by Attenborough and co. What little there is of the polar expedition is a precious record, and the sequence of Scott’s party acting out the routine of having supper in their tent and bedding down for the night reveals the human faces of the legendary explorers and the rapport between them. If you can lip-read you can probably even make out the odd snatch of conversation.