Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan 1926As a young child, Don Juan (John Barrymore) is warned of one thing by his father — take all the love he can get from women, but be careful to not give them your love in return. Don Juan’s father Don Jose (also John Barrymore) knows a thing or two about being spurned by women, first when he finds out his wife is cheating on him, then he’s killed by a woman who stabs him. Don Juan takes his father’s advice to heart and after graduating college, he lives in Italy and establishes quite the reputation with women. At the time, Italy was being ruled by the Borgia family and Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor) has heard all about him. She personally invites Don Juan to a party she’s throwing and he goes, knowing what happens to people who defy the Borgias.

At the party, Don Juan is quite unimpressed with Lucrezia, but is instantly enamored with Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor). Adriana is the kind of woman who makes him forget about all those warnings his father had given him about women. Lucrezia becomes extremely jealous and tries to get her to marry Count Donati (Montagu Love) and plots to kill her father. But then Don Juan get in the way of her scheme and officially wins Adriana’s affections. But Lucrezia isn’t willing to give up so easily and continues to threaten Adriana into marrying Donati. Even knowing how dangerous it can be to cross the Borgia family, Don Juan still refuses to marry Lucrezia and stops Adriana’s wedding. Lucrezia tries to have Don Juan locked up and put to death, but he stops at nothing to marry the woman he loves.

Although it doesn’t feature any spoken dialogue, Don Juan is significant for being the first commercially released feature film with a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects on Vitaphone. Don Juan was definitely meant to be a big prestige picture for Warner Brothers. Not only did it utilize the new Vitaphone technology, it starred John Barrymore, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, and featured a lot of lavish sets and costumes, plus some exciting action scenes. It even does a good job of using first-person camera perspective in some shots. Warner Brothers clearly pulled out all the stops and it definitely shows. Although the story drags a little bit, it’s generally a very entertaining movie and an excellent action role for the great John Barrymore. It’s not hard to see how this one was a huge hit when it was released and it remains very likable today. (Also, don’t forget to keep an eye out for Myrna Loy in a small role!)

Back Stage (1919)

Back Stage 1919

Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle both play stagehands at a vaudeville house. Their jobs typically involve things like pasting up new posters, helping with the sets, and assisting the performers as necessary. The performers they encounter can be a very colorful, temperamental bunch of people and when a strongman (Charles A. Post) comes to perform, he’s no exception. The strongman has a very…shall we say demanding personality. His assistant is a lovely woman (Molly Malone) and when the stagehands see him being mean to her, they decide to teach him a lesson by sabotaging his equipment.

Furious, the strongman refuses to go on and so do all of the other performers. With a theater full of people waiting to see a show, the stagehands decide to put on the performers’ costumes and do the show themselves. Of course, the show is a complete disaster, but the stagehands try to carry on the best they can. Things get even worse when the strongman appears in the balcony with a gun and starts firing it. But Buster comes to the rescue and stops the shooting while the other stagehands help put a stop to the madness.

Back Stage is far from being one of the best movies Buster Keaton ever made, but it’s still a lot of fun, good for some laughs, and it’s a good example of what a good team Keaton and Abruckle were. One of the most noteworthy things about it is that is has some jokes that Keaton would go on to re-use to in other films to great success, particularly the very famous joke where the front of a house falls and the person standing in front of it survives because they were standing where the window was. It’s not the kind of movie I’d go out of my way for, but if you’re a big Keaton fan, it’s worth seeing if only for being a movie where you get to see early versions of such famous jokes.

Greed (1924)

Greed 1924As a young man, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works as a miner and doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His mother would love for him to have a better life, so when a traveling dentist comes to town, she begs him to take McTegue along as an apprentice. The dentist agrees and before long, McTeague has his own dentistry office in San Francisco. He’s not rich, but getting by and he has a good friend in Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and he wants to marry her. But when she suddenly needs some dental work done one day, it would prove to be a fateful day for all involved.

Marcus brings Trina to see McTeague and while they wait, she decides to buy a lottery ticket, not really expecting to win. When McTeague meets Trina, he falls in love with her and Marcus tries to be supportive and gives him his blessing to start courting her. It’s hard for Marcus to put his feelings aside and it gets even more difficult when they decide to get married. As difficult as that is, it gets worse when Trina finds out her lottery ticket was a winner and she’s won $5,000. Marcus becomes extremely resentful toward McTeague for not only taking Trina away from him, but for taking that money away from him, too.

$5,000 is a life-altering amount of money (the movie is set around the turn of the last century) and it could do a lot to help a newlywed couple get started in life together. McTeague wants to get a small house so they can stop living in a small apartment in a boarding house, but Trina refuses to spend any of the money. She insists on doing everything as cheaply as humanly possible, even if it means living on days old meat and living in an apartment one of their neighbors was murdered in, so she can squirrel away more money that she never intends to spend. Trina’s penny pinching ways cause a lot of tension between her and McTeague and things only get worse when Marcus spitefully rats McTeague out for practicing dentistry without a license. The couple has to sell virtually all of their possessions and McTeague struggles to find more work. Trina refuses to even let him have a few cents for car fare for him to go look for work on a rainy day.

Eventually, McTeague leaves town to work as a fisherman and takes $450 Trina had saved in addition to her winnings since they’ve been married. Trina is left behind absolutely furious and when she has to have some of her fingers amputated, she’s forced to become a school janitor for extra money, still unwilling to spend any of her $5,000. She even withdraws  the money from the bank so McTeague can’t get to it and sleeps on it at night. When McTeague returns from his fishing excursion, he finds Trina and asks her for a little money so he can get something to eat, but she refuses. The next day, McTeague confronts Trina again, but this time he kills her in a fit of rage and takes her $5,000.

Since McTeague is now a wanted criminal, he has no other choice to leave town, so he does and gets back into the mining game. But it isn’t long before begins to worry the authorities are after him. He takes a few supplies and heads into Death Valley on his own with cops following not far behind. Among the authorities is Marcus, who would love nothing more than to see McTeague brought to justice.

Greed is a movie that certainly has a level of notoriety in film history. Director Erich Von Stroheim infamously spent two years filming 85 hours worth of footage for this movie. Filming the scenes in Death Valley alone took two months and Von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed was an astonishing 42 reels long (approximately 8 hours, but could be longer depending on the speed it was projected at.) Von Stroheim only screened his original cut once for about a dozen people before Irving Thalberg insisted it be cut down to a more manageable length. Von Stroheim cut it down to 24 reels and wanted it released as two separate movies, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Thalberg had it cut down to 10 reels. For years, Greed only existed in an extremely truncated form. The hours of footage that were part of Von Sternberg’s original cut are believed to be lost, but the movie has been restored to a 4-hour long version using still photos to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Now rightfully celebrated as being one of the finest films to be produced during the silent era, Greed was greeted to less enthusiasm after its original release. The restored version does a good job of giving us a better idea of what Von Stroheim’s original vision was. The length alone is something that will deter a lot of people from watching it and I know some people aren’t big fans of using still photos in place of lost footage, but it’s really the kind of movie every self-respecting silent film fan should watch at least once. Admittedly, I don’t have the most patience for 3+ hour long movies, but I love Greed. Since it’s been a few years since I last saw it in its entirety, I re-watched it again before writing this post and I’d almost forgotten how good it is. It may be slow paced, but it’s a very compelling look at the power greed can have over people. I know I would be absolutely thrilled if that lost footage ever turned up somewhere.

The Magician (1926)

The Magician 1926

Margaret Chauncey (Alice Terry) is a sculptor who is seriously injured when part of a sculpture she’s working on breaks off and falls on her. Since her spine is injured, the surgery necessary to treat her is very sensitive. Luckily, Doctor Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) is the one who performs the operation on Margaret and he’s well-known for being one of the best surgeons around. As he performs the operation on Margaret, the procedure is observed by several medical students, including Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), who has an interest in hypnotism and magic, in addition to medicine. Haddo is on the search for finding a way to create human life.

Margaret’s operation is a big success and Arthur and Margaret fall in love afterward. It isn’t long before they’re engaged. Meanwhile, Haddo uncovers the secret to creating life in a book and it requires a maiden’s blood. Haddo decides that Margaret is the one whose blood he wants to use to conduct his experiments with. He tries following Margaret and Arthur around, trying to get close to her. Even though she doesn’t like him at all, he uses hypnotism to put her under his spell. One day, he comes to see her at home and makes it seem like a statue has come to life. He asks her to come see him the following morning and even though she doesn’t want to go, she isn’t able to stop herself from going.

Just before Margaret and Arthur are to be married, Haddo uses his control over her to force her to marry him instead. He and Margaret’s uncle know she would not go with him on her own, so Arthur tracks them down in Monte Carlo, where Margaret is now quite the gambler under Haddo’s control. She gets in touch with Arthur to let him know she’s not there on her own accord and he helps her escape. But just when they think she is safe, Margaret suddenly disappears one day. Haddo has tracked her down and kidnaps her so he can continue with his experiments.

I wouldn’t call The Magician one of my favorite movies, but it’s another movie I’m surprised I don’t hear mentioned very often. Rex Ingram’s direction is great and John F. Seitz’s cinematography is fantastic. The scene where Haddo makes it appear as if Margaret’s statue has come to life is particularly effective, thanks to both Ingram’s direction and Seitz’s cinematography. Story-wise, The Magician is something of a cross between Frankenstein and I’m going to say The Barbarian, just because it’s the first movie that comes to mind for me when I think of movies about a man going to horrifying lengths to control a woman. Fortunately, The Magician isn’t offensive like The Barbarian and is actually a pretty good movie that deserves to get more credit for being a great example of silent horror. If you see this one on TCM, be sure to set your DVR for it because it’s absolutely worth seeing at least once.

Street Angel (1928)

Street Angel 1928When Angela’s (Janet Gaynor) mother is gravely ill and needs medicine, she becomes desperate to do anything to get the money she needs. She tries prostitution, but when she doesn’t succeed with that, she steals the money. She’s arrested and sentenced to spend time in a workhouse, but she escapes to her home to see her mother, but her mother has died. With no money and nowhere else to go, she hides from the law by joining a traveling circus.

Despite everything she’s been through, Angela is content with her life in the circus. Although she isn’t specifically out to find love, she ends up falling in love with a street painter named Gino (Charles Farrell). While she can’t forget her past, he sees her for who she really is. But when she falls and breaks her ankle, she has to give up performing in the circus so she and Gino go back to her hometown of Naples. She hasn’t told him about her past and it’s not easy being back home. Gino continues to paint and although he’s improving as a painter, they struggle to get by until he get hired to paint a mural for a church. She’s also afraid of her secret past being  revealed.

Gino really wants to marry Angela, but then her worst fears come true when a police officer recognizes her and she has to serve her one-year sentence in the workhouse. The officer gives her an hour to say goodbye to Gino, but she still won’t tell him what’s going on so she simply disappears from his life. Without Angela around, Gino is completely lost in life. His once promising painting career has gone downhill and he’s fired from painting the mural. When Angela is released, she’s once again, completely alone and penniless. With no other choice, she heads down to the wharf with the other prostitutes. It just so happens that Gino is down by the wharf looking for a woman to paint.

Street Angel is one of three movies that earned Janet Gaynor the honor of being the first actress to win a Best Actress Academy Award, the other two movies being Sunrise and 7th Heaven. Both Gaynor and Charles Farrell deliver great performances, they had great, very natural chemistry together. Gaynor in particular had the perfect amount of vulnerability that the role needed.

In both Street Angel and 7th Heaven, Gaynor was directed by Frank Borzage, who does an exceptional job with Street Angel. For a movie full of mundane settings, Borzage found ways to work in some extremely dramatic shots and beautiful cinematography. Thanks to him, not only is the movie’s story beautiful, it looks just as beautiful, too, and Janet Gaynor’s performance was the icing on the cake.

The Circle (1925)

The Circle 1925When Arnold Cheney (Creighton Hale) was just a baby, his mother Lady Catherine (Joan Crawford as the young Catherine, Eugenie Besserer as older Catherine) leaves her husband Lord Clive (Derek Glynne as young Clive, Alec B. Francis as older Clive) to run off and elope with his friend Hugh (Frank Braidwood as young Hugh, George Fawcett as older Hugh). When Catherine leaves, she leaves baby Arnold at home to be raised by Clive.

30 years pass and Arnold hasn’t seen his mother since. Naturally, Arnold and Clive have a lot of resentment toward Catherine and Hugh. Arnold is now married to a woman named Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) and they live together in the big family estate, enjoying all the privileges that come with wealth. But Elizabeth is in love with Edward Lutton (Malcolm Mc Gregor) and is considering leaving Arnold for him. Since she knows the situation she’s in sounds somewhat familiar, she decides to invite Catherine and Hugh over so she can see what their relationship is like now.

Arnold is very anxious about this meeting and when they arrive, things are awkward at first. But when Elizabeth sees Catherine and Hugh having a sentimental moment together, she thinks leaving her husband would be the best move. But when Arnold finds out about it, he isn’t about to give up on his marriage so easily.

For some reason, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for The Circle, but I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected to. Frank Borzage directed it and did a fine job. The story has a very healthy balance of humor and drama. It’s the kind of story that might have become cheesy and cliched in less capable hands, but it worked out very well. The cast is excellent and I really enjoyed the cinematography and sets. This is the kind of movie I don’t hear mentioned too often, but it’s a real gem.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Diary of  a Lost Girl 1929

On the day of her confirmation, Thymian (Lousie Brooks) is given a diary as a gift. It was also the day her life started a downward slide. She’s the daughter of a pharmacist who can never resist having affairs with the family’s housekeepers. When the latest one, Barbara, is pregnant, she’s sent away, but Thymian doesn’t know why. Barbara later commits suicide and when her body is brought back to their home, Thymian is understandably upset. That night, her father’s business partner Meinert (Fritz Rasp) comes to console her, then rapes her, which results in Thymian having a child out of wedlock. She never admits who the father is, so her family reads her diary to learn the truth. They want her to marry Meinert, but she refuses, so they take her child away from her and send her to reform school.

Life in the reform school is brutal and Thymian desperately wants to get out. She gets in touch with a friend, Count Orsdoff (Andre Roanne), who has also fallen on hard times. He had been supported by a wealthy uncle, but was cut off when he fails to succeed at any subject in school. She tries to get him to talk her father into getting her out, but he’s just married Meta (Franziska Kinz), the family’s new housekeeper, and doesn’t want Thymian around. Instead, Orsdoff helps Thymian and her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard) escape.

The first thing Thymian wants to do is see her child, but finds out the baby has died. With no one to take care of her and no job skills, she and Erika become prostitutes. One night, her father, Meta, and Meinert see her in a nightclub in the city and are shocked to see what’s become of her. But shortly afterward, Thymian’s father passes away, leaving her as sole heir. She stands to inherit a lot of money since Meinert is buying her father’s share of the pharmacy and she plans to use her money to start a new life. She even plans to marry Orsdoff so she can have a new identity and help Ordoff start a new life. But when she sees that Meta and her two young children have been left with no money and no place to go, she decides to give them the money because she doesn’t want the children to wind up like her.

Since Ordoff now isn’t able to start over in life, he kills himself. Ordoff’s uncle feels terribly guilty for disowning him and decides to make up for it by taking care of Thymian and helping her start over. She earns a more respectable place in society and people start trying to get her involved in charities — including the reform school she was once imprisoned in.

Diary of a Lost Girl really ought to have been titled Diary of a Lost Girl: Men are Terrible. Everything bad that happens to poor Thymian is the result of being forced to be around terrible men like her father, Meinert, and the super creepy warden at the reform school. This movie is definitely not short on melodrama and Louise Brooks gives a wonderful performance in it. She’s absolutely radiant and lights up a screen like few other stars ever could. Brooks greatly benefits from G.W. Pabst’s direction; they were such a great actress/director pair, like Dietrich and Von Sternberg or de Mille and Gloria Swanson. If you liked Pandora’s Box, you’ll probably also like Diary of a Lost Girl. Between Brooks’s performance and Pabst’s direction, Diary of a Lost Girl remains entertaining and compelling and stands apart from being ordinary melodrama.