Sunday, December 25, 2016

Season of Silents: A Christmas Carol (1910)

I'm revisiting a well traveled story today and watching a short version of A Christmas Carol from A Christmas Past DVD. The Internet Movie Database lists 25 different versions of this tale on film, and this is the second version listed, the first one being from 1908. This was filmed at Thomas Edison studios and since it is short, the action is condensed down to important scenes, with a basic knowledge of the story to carry it along. This short is presented with a score by Al Kryszak, relying heavily on violins that, to these ears, have an unpleasant, discordant sound. Perhaps it was an attempt to match the unpleasant character of Scrooge. Scrooge is played by Marc McDermott, who was a prolific actor from 1909 to 1928, and appeared in He Who Gets Slapped and Flesh and the Devil.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Season of Silents: A Trap for Santa (1909)

A Trap for Santa is a short film by D.W. Griffith, who's well known for developing many film techniques that are used today. I have not seen any of his feature length films, which may be unusual for a silent film enthusiast, but I have taken a different path to silent film. This is one of several short films of his I've seen, most of which have been thought-provoking films that involve social issues. This short film can be found on A Christmas Past, a collection of Christmas silent movies, which gives an interesting look at Christmases in the early 1900s. Al Kryszak is responsible for the original score, using violins, viola, cello, piano, harp, and a handbell choir. At times it is pleasant and other times discordant. I don't find that it always fits the action onscreen, but it's got a holiday vibe.

Before we even see the family we are informed that there is no work for the father (Henry B. Walthall), and that misery and want are the family's lot. The mother certainly looks miserable while their little waif of a daughter appears to be gnawing on a chunk of bread.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Season of Silents: The Unknown (1927)

I am kicking things off with a Lon Chaney movie I've been wanting to see for awhile, The Unknown. It can be found on The Lon Chaney Collection from TCM Archives.

If you are still on the fence about whether silent films will interest you, then a Lon Chaney flick is a good place to start. Phantom of the Opera is a film that appeals to many people and is one that you may want to see first. That was all I knew of Lon Chaney for a long while until I saw He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three and The Penalty, and truly developed an appreciation for his fine work. I confess that I have not yet seen the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is another highly praised film of his, and on my list of films to acquire.

This movie is one of ten that Chaney did with Tod Browning, the director known for Dracula and Freaks. Tod Browning worked at one time in the circus, which is the setting for quite a few of his movies, including this one. Chaney's first movie with Browning as director was The Wicked Darling, which I hope to watch soon.

This movie also has Joan Crawford in an early role before her flapper films, and she reportedly said that she learned more about acting from seeing Lon Chaney at work than from anyone else. They work very well together.

The musical score was composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra. It's serviceable and plays well to the action on screen. Quite a few people enjoy their scores, but I am not a big fan. I find them completely competent, it's just that I prefer a more traditional sounding score that's more in keeping with what may have been presented at the time the movie was released.

The picture quality is pretty fair, though there are some scenes that look as though we're seeing them through a burlap sack, and quite a few lines and debris are running through much of the film. I didn't find that it hampered my enjoyment of the film or obscured the action on screen too much. Most of the time I didn't notice these imperfections as I was too busy looking at Chaney's face.

"Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!"

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What's to Like About Silent Films

As I delve into a Season of Silents, I thought I might take a moment to state that I am not expert on silent films, I have only my experience to share. Here are some things I have learned from watching silent movies.

Silent films have varying picture quality.

There was a time when my only exposure to silent film did not go far beyond Nosferatu and Phantom of the Opera. At that time, the silents I saw were in pretty bad shape, the actors looked ghastly, their makeup stood out in a ghoulish way, the movies were played at the wrong speed or were heavily edited, making the films pretty hard to watch. Restoration efforts in the present day have significantly altered the offerings of quite a few silent films today, allowing us to see them as they were originally intended to be seen, often with tints and proper musical score or synchronized sound. It's often difficult to fathom that such pristine prints depict action from 100 years ago or more.

Silent films have well known actors and directors from the sound era.

My experience watching many pre-code movies led me to begin exploring the silent era. In watching many films of favorite actors and directors, I found myself drawn to silent films where they also played a part. Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Neil Hamilton, Joan Crawford, John & Lionel Barrymore, and Marie Dressler were some of the actors that drew me in.

Not all silent movies are slapstick comedies.

When many people think of silent movies, they picture Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops going on wild chases, but many genres are represented in silent film besides comedies, including westerns, drama, romance, mystery, documentary and horror. Silent films are also pre-code films, and include subjects of prostitution, adultery, drug abuse, and crime. Silent films can be thought provoking and timeless, with topics that remain relevant in the present day.

A good musical score is essential.

The score of a silent film is crucial to the enjoyment of the film. I believe it's a matter of personal preference what composers and orchestras you will enjoy, as I've read reviews from some folks who adore an orchestral score that absolutely grated on me. I am a purist and always prefer to hear a reproduction of the original score when available, but usually this is not the case, and there are certain composers I appreciate more than others.

Not all home video offerings are created equal.

I have found Flicker Alley and Criterion to offer the best releases of films with good picture quality and orchestral scores. Kino Lorber is also consistent in releasing a good quality product, though often the best available prints are not without defects. Warner Archive tends to provide fair quality prints. Grapevine is not always the finest quality but still a step above Alpha Video. I purchase from Alpha Video only if I really want to see a film and there are no other options available.

What's in store for the Season of Silents?

While I have more than enough silent films to watch every day during the Winter, I won't try to fool myself into thinking I can watch and write about one every day. My ambitious goal is to try and watch and write about three each week, but my minimum expectation is to post about at least one every weekend. I have many films I haven't seen in awhile that I'd like to revisit and many new films I have not yet seen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Merrie Melodies Short: The CooCoo Nut Grove (1936)

Directed by Friz Freleng
Music by Carl Stalling
Original Release Date: November 28, 1936
Voices by Verna Deane, Bernice Hansen, Peter Lind Hayes, Tedd Pierce, The Rhythmettes, Wini Shaw, Danny Webb

Before the Merrie Melodies short, Hollywood Steps Out, there was the CooCoo Nut Grove, which featured caricatures of celebrities of the 1930s and was based on the famed Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood. It is a delight to classic movie fans, but likely a mystery to everyone else. I saw this short as an extra on The Petrified Forest DVD from TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection, but it can also be found on the single disc release or on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 3. It opens with a view of the club, and a close up of the sign reveals that it is illuminated by fireflies.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Season of Horror Wrap Up

When I began this ambitious adventure back in September, I truly had high hopes to be able to get through most of my collection of horror movies, but it feels like I barely scratched the surface, leaving room for Season of Horror II next year. Although I wasn't able to keep up with watching a movie a night and insanely trying to blog in real time, it was fun to try.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Season of Horror: Phantasm (1979)

I have missed my Saturday night Creature Features fest the past two weeks. Last week I was taken out by what felt like a weaponized virus, and last night was busy celebrating holiday festivities with friends. As the Season of Horror draws to a close this week, I cannot wrap it up without revisiting this frightening film.

Phantasm is another horror movie that frightened me when I was younger, and I haven't seen it for quite a number of years, so I'm looking forward to seeing this one again. I recently received the newly released 4K restoration on Blu-Ray and I must say, it's gorgeous.

"The funeral is about to begin, sir!"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Season of Horror: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

The days are getting shorter and it's another wonderful Saturday night made for horror. I initially intended to make this a TV time portal night and watch Burn, Witch, Burn, as Bob Wilkins was showing this on Creature Features this night back in 1966, but I really wanted to see this film I recently acquired, Let's Scare Jessica to Death. It's a film I had heard of, but never seen, and comes recommended by Brother John, who usually does not steer me wrong. Of course, he did also recommend The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Here's a word from Bob Wilkins before we begin.

A woman is in a boat on a lake, who informs us through narration that she can't believe what happened, but has to. We see a hearse traveling on the road while somber piano music plays as the title is shown. The hearse stops at a cemetery and a woman jumps out of the back saying she'll take a minute. Two guys wait by the side of the hearse and one remarks that the farm will be great for her.

"Nightmares or dreams. Madness or sanity. I don't know which is which."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Season of Horror: The Omen (1976)

I think I should get a job watching movies. Let me know if you're interested in hiring me. Oh well. It was worth a try. I've been applying my writing talents to grade reports lately, which takes an inordinate amount of time and has left me devoid of energy and vocabulary. It has also left little time for the luxury of movie viewing. I am limping back into action tonight and it seemed fitting to revisit The Omen. It's been about 30 years since I've seen this 40 year old movie, and it's always fun to watch something that I haven't seen since I was an impressionable young lass to compare how differently I perceive it now.