1927: Wings

Probably the greatest war film of the silent age.
Two city boys from well-off families, Jack and David, fall in love with the same girl. When the USA joins WW1, they both enlist in the Air Corps and become fighter pilots. They become best friends and put their rivalry on the back burner. Meanwhile Jack’s lifelong friend and neighbour Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with him, but still just thinks of her as the kid next door, and she’s determined to change that.
The plot is standard melodrama – the theme of the young man shifting his affections from the wrong girl to the right one has featured in most of the non-comedy films I’ve watched from the 1920s. What raises this film above that standard pattern is the the way things pan out between the two young pilots during their combat missions. As a French officer remarks at one point, ‘C’est la guerre’ – but it does highlight the cruelty of war more effectively than most films, so have a hanky ready.
The battle scenes, both on the ground and in the air, also raise the bar significantly. The dogfight scenes look totally authentic and are actually filmed in the air, with cameras attached to the planes. The trench warfare manages to be simultaneously epic and human in scale. Throughout, the camera is kept mobile and used inventively – especially so in the cafe scene at the Folies Bergere, in which it tracks over the top of several tables, passing between couples who are kissing, drinking, arguing – a virtuoso piece of cinematography. We’re really reaching the peak of silent cinema here, in the very year that its death knell was sounded by ‘The Jazz Singer’… particularly unfortunate for the two leads, Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers. Rogers has a packed filmography for the last few years of the silent age but his career fades away sharply as soon as sound comes in. Perhaps like many actors his voice didn’t match the public’s expectations. Clara Bow, perky and charming here, also dropped off the screen on account of her Noo Yawk twang. It certainly wouldn’t have gone with her rich-girl character in this film.
For the first time, though we see a familiar face from the sound era – Gary Cooper as a young, but already battle-weary, pilot.

Also from 1927:

THE JAZZ SINGER: Now we’re talking… not very much, though. For a film of such standing in the history of cinema, this is actually quite an undistinguished little melodrama, though worth a look just to witness the first faltering steps of sound cinema. About 80 percent of the film is silent, and our first look at a sound sequence is of young Jakie Rabinowitz singing in a jazz club, and shortly afterwards we see his stern, disapproving father singing a ritual in the synagogue. It’s clear from the lack of background noise and the poor synchronisation that the film has been matched to a recording made separately. Later, though, we get the real thing when Al Jolson, as the now grown-up Jakie, sings a couple of numbers. Having watched so many silent movies recently,  I got some idea of the impact his exuberant rendition of ‘Toot-toot-tootsie’ must have had.
Most dated scene: Jolson in his dressing room, torn between staying at the theatre for his Broadway debut and leaving to sing at the synagogue in the place of his dying father. He talks about the pride and traditions of his ‘race’ while dressing up as a caricature of someone else’s, without a shred of irony, unless I missed it.

SUNRISE: F. W. Murnau’s first American film is often listed among the greatest ever made. On the face of it it’s a fairly simple melodrama but it’s executed with total virtuosity, and has a universal quality. The settings could be Europe or America and have qualities of both. The cars and fashions tell us it’s the 1920s, but some vague, dreamlike version of it. Murnau pushes the craft of silent film-making, using spilt-screen and double-exposure like a paintbrush, to such a degree that you wonder if he felt the pressure of sound nipping at his heels: In just two or three years it would be impossible to make a film like this.

METROPOLIS: One of those films, like Napoleon, that has taken decades to put back to something like its original form after having just a few initial screenings, followed by lots of heavy cutting by distributors. The latest version, with most of the gaps now filled by a very poor 16mm print found in an archive in Argentina, finally gives the film the coherent plot and character motivation that was missing from earlier versions. Far and away the most spectacular science fiction film made up to that time, and for a long time afterwards. Still a contender for the greatest, even if the operatic acting style has gone out of fashion.

COLLEGE: Buster plays an academic student whose disdain for athleticism at his high school graduation speech alienates his girlfriend. Once at college he takes up sport to impress her but only ends up annoying the athletes into the bargain, until of course it all works out.
Not quite vintage Keaton, and it didn’t help that my copy was very poor. The plot struggles to fill the running time and there’s little innovation in the comedy. It does however have one of the best endings, which shows us, in a brief montage of the Buster and his girl’s later life, what ‘happily-ever-after’ really means.

THE KID BROTHER: Harold Lloyd, perhaps because he relied more on a team of writers than did Keaton, is still at the top of his game here, even if the plot is much the same as usual. Here, he plays the youngest brother to two tough lumberjacks and their father, the sheriff. When the father is wrongly accused of stealing it falls to Harold to recover the true thief and the money before the lynch mob gets their way. Best of many great scenes is the crane shot where Harold, having just fallen for the girl he meets in the woods, climbs ever higher up a tree to catch another glimpse and call after her as she walks away.

THE LODGER: Hitchcock’s first proper ‘Hitchcock’ film need make no apologies for being an early work or a silent one. It’s atmospheric and compelling and done with great technique. Sadly I was put off buying the blu-ray of this because of negative reviews about the new score by Nitin Sawhney: it’s got a pop song in the middle of it – the perfect thing to bump you out of the film.
I stuck with the version I have as part of a box set – a good restored print but with no soundtrack at all. I put “The Orchestral Tubular Bells” on the record player and that worked well enough.

NAPOLEON: Abel Gance’s six hour epic was intended to be the first in six films about the Little Corporal’s life, but the first one turned out to be such a monumental and expensive task that further films would have been impossible even if sound hadn’t thrown all the cards in the air.
Although seldom seen, this has become something of a legendary film on account of its history. Appearing just before the birth of sound, it took the art of cinematography to a whole new level with its innovative use of camera movement, rapid editing, and triptych scenes in which three adjacent screens were used to show either a panoramic view of a single scene, or three scenes simultaneously. Unfortunately it failed to make the impact it deserved. Recut several times, by different people and for different markets, the edits that were most widely seen were evidently profoundly inferior to the original. Much if it has been missing for most of its history and has been painstakingly reassembled for over 50 years by film historian Kevin Brownlow. A restored version was screened in 1980 with a live orchestral accompaniment by Carl Davis and in New York with one by Carmine Coppolla. Remarkably Abel Gance was still alive to witness the rapturous reception at both events.
Unfortunately the two music scores have led to rights issues which resulted in screenings being restricted to those with live orchestra, which of course has kept showings to a bare minimum, but that now appears to be resolved with a cinema run and DVD release in the UK planned for late this year, as well as a new French restoration due to appear in 2017.
I haven’t yet seen the film – until now opportunities have been few and far between – but my ticket for the next screening with live orchestra, in November, was booked nine months in advance.

 

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