The Circus

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I just loved Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. I’d never heard of this film, but recently saw that The Criterion Collection had just released it on DVD. In this 1928 film, The woebegone Tramp mistakenly gets caught up in a police chase for inadvertently taking a man’s wallet. The crazy chase that ensues leads to the Tramp bringing down the house as an accidental clown act at a circus.

This circus is run by a nasty, hothead Rimgmaster who continually abuses his lovely, innocent step-daughter. The Tramp soon falls for her and tries to be her savior, but she soon falls for a dapper tightrope walker.

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Throughout the film we’re treated to marvelous scenes including a chase through a house of mirrors, accidental clown acts that have the audience laughing in the aisles, a scary standoff with a lion and a death-defying tightrope scene.

According to the commentary Chaplin didn’t like this film much because it was made at a time when his life was at a low point. His wife was divorcing him for his affair with the female lead, his mother was terribly sick. a storm destroyed most of his set and the tabloids where having a heyday gossiping about Chaplin’s personal life.

Nonetheless, The Circus is hilarious and often poignant. It entertains from start to finish. I’d say it deserves a place beside any of Chaplin’s classics from Modern Times, City Lights or any of his other more popular films.

The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

The Kid Brother

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I’ve added a new film to my collection of absolute favorites. It’s The Kid Brother (1927) by Harold Lloyd, which Criterion collection has just released on a 2-DVD set with plenty of extras like expert commentary and interviews of Lloyd and Lloyd’s granddaughter.

Poor Harold Hickory. His big brothers, and they are big, outshine him at home. His father the sheriff views Harold as too young and weak to participate in town meetings or fight for good when the community needs strong men. Harold reveres his father and these slights hit him hard. No one sees how ingenious, loyal and hard working young Harold is.

When a group of charlatans arrive in town, the same day as Harold’s dad is entrusted with the town’s money to pay for a new dam (so quite a sum), Harold gets duped into letting them put on a medicine show. Dad never would sign off on such a deal, but the Kid Brother was fooled. Harold soon realizes his error and what a disaster it will be.

Catastrophes come one after another and the gags are inspired. I laughed out loud and was amazed at the film’s charm. In one minute, you get more humor than in 5 minutes in any other comedy.

Not only is the film placed with comedy, there’s also romance. Jobyna Ralson, who starred in The Freshman, appears as an orphan girl, who’s linked to the medicine show conmen and she soon captures the hearts of Harold and his brothers. Their meeting and relationship is sure to make you smile.

The Kid Brother qualifies as a must-see film for all ages. I enjoyed watching with the commentary on to get all the background on Lloyd and the making of this four star classic. This is an amazing mood-lifter.

 

That Night’s Wife

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Who agrees that the father’s acting too much?

Directed by Ozu, That Night’s Wife is one of his early silent films. The film quality is often blotchy, which was distracting at times and the it does seem that Ozu is figuring out his craft, so this isn’t a “must-see” film.

The story is about a man who’s pursued by the police for a robbery, which we don’t see. The man evades the police and gets home to his family, which consists of his wife and his young daughter, who’s critically ill and may not make it. They live in a small, squalid apartment, which for some reason has several old movie posters with English and Russian titles leaning against their walls. I suppose this was a homage to Ozu’s idols, but I’m not sure.

Clad in a kimono, the wife talks with the girl’s doctor. If Michiko, the daughter, makes it through the night, she’ll be fine. The devoted father does get home and gives his wife the money for Michiko’s medicine. The wife figures out that the money’s stolen and there’s some disagreement about that. However, the dispute’s not resolved as a police officer comes to the door. The husband hides, but is found. The night wears on as they all watch sleeping Michiko hoping she lives. The cop is sympathetic to the family but also has to do his duty.

The film was quite melodramatic and by 1930, I’d have thought any director would seek more subtlety, but no.  All in all, there were some surprises, but this was done before Ozu hit his stride. While the wife takes some surprising action, I’m still not sure why this movie is entitled This Night’s Wife.

The Freshman

freshman_01The more I see Harold Lloyd, the more I love him and his films. In The Freshman Lloyd plays an young man also named Harold who saves up enough money to go to college. Once on campus, Harold’s main concern is getting popular by following the tricks he saw in a movie.

Instead of being the big man on campus he’s soon the butt of everyone’s jokes. His peers love putting him in awkward positions and taking advantage of him. He never catches a break as he inadvertently insults the dean, takes the dean’s car from the train station and makes wrong step after wrong step. The gags at the student assembly, the dance and the football field are priceless.

Jobyna Ralston plays the sweet love interest Peggy perfectly. Harold meets Peggy on a train and then it turns out that she’s the daughter of his landlady. Yes, it’s coincidental, but it’s a small town and she’s the one sincere woman in a sea of fakes.

I watched a Criterion Collection disc with the commentary, which I find adds to my appreciation of any silent film. I seem to need some talk.

A masterful comedy, The Freshmen is a film I can see watching again and again.

Dragnet Girl

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

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Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.

Speedy

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Harold Lloyd’s 1927 film Speedy is a comic delight. Speedy is hero’s name. Lloyd’s Harold “Speedy” Swift is in love but can’t hold a job for more than a few days so his sweetheart’s grandfather, her guardian, won’t let them marry. We see him lose a couple more jobs through no fault of his own.   His fanatical love of baseball cost him his soda jerk job and luck just wasn’t on his side when he tried to drive a taxi with Babe Ruth as his first and only customer.

Despite his poor job record, Speedy takes his girl to Coney Island, where a slew of mishaps continue.

His sweetheart’s grandfather owns the last horse-drawn car (i.e. a tram driven by a horse when cars and buses have taken over the streets). A railroad tycoon wants to buy him out to replace the old horse-drawn conveyance with his railroad line. After reading about the railroad deal in the paper, Speedy changes grandpa’s requested amount from $10,000 to $70,000, which the big shot who’s come to negotiate with grandpa outright refuses.

Thus the railroad man plots to prevent grandpa from completing his route. If he misses a day, the railroad can take over the route without paying grandpa anything so the shrewd tycoon hires a bunch of thugs to stop grandpa. Speedy happens to overhear the plan and volunteers to take over as the driver. Since Speedy’s batted 0% as far as his jobs go things look bad.

The film is full of sight and physical gags that amaze. How did they do these stunts? Considering how they sometimes used real streets and had to orchestrate massive, chaotic scenes with hordes of extras and animals, it’s incredible and still entertains.

Passing Fancy

Kahichi and son Tomio

Kahichi and son Tomio

Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) takes us into the shitamachi, i.e. tenement neighborhood of Tokyo where factory worker Kihachi, a widower, lives with his young son, Tomio. The film opens with Kihachi watching a storyteller with his neighbors. The scene with Kihachi battling a fly are comedic. After the show, Kihachi meets Harue, a young, pretty woman who’s just last her job and has no where to go.

Not only is Kihachi moved, he’s smitten. His young neighbor Jiro kids Kihachi urging him not to get his hopes up. A lazy, uneducated jokester, Kihachi’s amusing, but you know he’ll never get ahead. Moreover, you know he’ll never get the girl. His hopes die hard. He’s unaware of Harue’s soft spot for Jiro, who rebuffs her advances. Still her continued love for Jiro means she’s never going to fall for Kihachi.

Tomio’s a good student and impudent son. His classmates taunt him and in turn, Tomio puts down his father for his illiteracy and lazy ways. The argument escalates, but Kihachi realizes his son’s situation and gives a lot of money to spend as he wishes. He hopes the windfall will alleviate the pains of their poverty however briefly. But Tomio, who’s about 9 or 10, gorges himself on sweets, which results in a critical illness. With Tomio in the hospital Kihachi, Jiro, Harue and another neighbor are brought together.

It's never explained why Tomio's got the eye patch

It’s never explained why Tomio’s got the eye patch

The silent film moves slowly by modern standards, but is full of touching scenes that will reward patient viewers. Ozu’s characters are engaging. I particularly liked that the boy was sometimes the model son, who has to make his drunken father get up for work, sometimes a victim and sometimes a brat. It isn’t often that children are so multi-dimensional in film.

Here’s an essay on the film on Criterion Collection.

Modern times

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I loved Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Paulette Goddard. A year ago, I wouldn’t have bothered to watch, but I’ve gotten intrigued, if not hooked on silent films from the Criterion Collection.

Released in 1936, in a time when the Marx Bros. and W.C. Field’s films were full of jokes and dialog, Modern Times isn’t completely silent. A distant boss speaks in broadcasts to alienated factory workers and Chaplin himself sings. Still there’s no dialog and remarks are conveyed with cards. That seems risky for a studio in the 1930s. I hadn’t realized there was such an overlap between silent films and talkies.

As some experts have pointed out, the film is more like a series of short films (2 reelers) rather than a story with one arc. We see Chaplin as his famous Tramp for the last time he’ll play that character. He gets a job in a factory and in scenes that are similar to À Nous la Liberté ecomically exposes the system as dehumanizing as the Tramp gets caught in the gears of the machinery. In another scene the Tramp tests out an eating machine with disastrous effects. (Since workers have taken to grabbing lunch at their desk there’s little need for this machine.) Inadvertently, the tramp gets arrested and mixed up in labor disputes. The cops’ violence against the workers shows us how times were back then. It’s a part of history rarely taught.

Along the way the Tramp meets a “gamine” played by Goddard, who’s stunning and joyful, yet ever bit an outsider. I can’t think of an actress today who could play this role. The gamine has two siblings, who’re rounded up by the police and put into an orphanage, she barely escapes their clutches. There’s a sweetness and affinity between the Tramp and the Gamine, the only two who are on each other’s wave.

The Criterion Collection DVD’s contain lots of extras: a home movie made on a boat during the shooting of the film trailers, commentary and a separate film commentary with more background on the making of Modern Times. Watching that I saw how dapper the gray haired actor was without his Tramp suit. While I expected a certain élan from Chaplain in his real life, I also expected dark hair. Nope he was gray and distinguished in real life.

All in all, it’s a delightful thoughtful film. hard to imagine that Chaplin still entertains.

Tokyo Chorus

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In 1931 Ozu made Tokyo Chorus, a silent movie about a salary man who promises his son a bicycle when he gets his bonus. From the early school scenes we see the hero has a problem with authority and can be a troublemaker.

Anticipating the father’s bonus all is sunny at home. However, the hero speaks up for an older colleague who was unjustly fired and winds up losing his job at an insurance agency. He doesn’t know how to break this to his family, life is changing and hard times lie ahead. (Remember the downside to life long employment is it’s awfully hard to find a job as a mid-level professional. There are no openings.) He tries to satisfy his son with a scooter, but it doesn’t satisfy. The other kids have bikes and the son, who gets very bratty in a very realistic way, won’t accept anything less.

The film shows the man trying to find work, but without luck. Then his daughter gets ill and has to go to the hospital. It’s sad when we see how he had to pay the hospital bill. Throughout the film his wife is long suffering. She’s a serious woman who’s married a man who often can’t control himself. At times he unwittingly humiliates her, but she never gets angry. She seems to understand that won’t help and believe that endurance is the key to survival.

The film is well paced and kept my interest. It’s further evidence that silent films can say more than many talkies. Often the characters speak, but we don’t get cards saying what was said. That’s okay because we can infer the dialog and in that way the film is universal. The actors, particularly the hero, who’s played by  Okada, Tokihiko is very likable and expressive. According to imdv.com, he died a couple years after making this film. It’s a shame because he could have had a long career.