Classic movie fans are often met with apathy at best and outright hostility at worst when they share their enthusiasm for the films of yesteryear. They kvetch, and rightly so, that their friends and family do not even bother to watch a classic film before dismissing them as boring or weird.
Not to dismiss your troubles but, honey, you ain’t seen nothing. Silent movie fans know that even classic movie devotees can be rude about or dismissive of pre-1930 cinema. Silents are snickered at as a sort of live-action Dudley Do-Right starring Norma Desmond and sprinkled liberally with a dose of Singin’ in the Rain-inspired scorn.
And since a majority of silent movie fans are dedicated to silent comedy rather than drama, silent drama enthusiasts are really in a pickle. When people talk about introducing someone to silent film, comedy is almost invariably listed as the prescription. It’s not a bad prescription by any means but it’s not the only option. Alas, silent drama is often treated like that embarrassing cousin you always try to pretend you aren’t related to.
As a result, those of us who enjoy a good silent drama need to think fast. We need a film with style, flair, oomph… We need to make a statement. In short, we need something French. And this is where Judex comes in. (Naturally, I am referring to the 1916 Louis Feuillade-directed original, not the 1963 Georges Franju remake.)
Getting someone to watch a silent film is hard enough. But a silent, foreign serial? Are we asking too much? Not at all! If you can get someone to agree to try silent drama with an open mind, Judex is just the thing to make an impact. Here are a few reasons why:
It’s familiar territory
Judex is the story of a corrupt banker who ruins lives for both fun and profit. Then he begins receiving threatening letters from someone calling themselves Judex. Our nasty banker is beyond the reach of the law but Judex plans to take the law into his own hands.
Judex has been preparing for years. He has used some of his personal fortune to construct a secret underground lair equipped with the latest technology (circa 1916) and a few science fiction devices too. He has a band of operatives who do his bidding. He wears a dramatic, swirling cape. He broods intensely.
Yes, my dears, Judex can be considered an early superhero of the Batman school. Considering how popular superhero movies are these days, this makes Judex a good entry point for newcomers.
It’s unfamiliar territory
Superhero with a secret lair? That we know. But Judex also gives us a glimpse of an unfamiliar world. This is France of 1916, complete with horse-drawn carriages and carts, corsets for the ladies and messages delivered by pigeon. (The subject of war is carefully avoided as this was meant to be escapist fare.) It’s fascinating to see.
The main villain of the picture is Diana Monti, a stylish Parisian Apache with a taste for daggers. Anyone expecting her to be a pushover because she is a woman is gravely mistaken; she gives Judex a run for his money on more than one occasion. She also rocks some (for the time) skimpy swimwear.
Finally, our hero has some surprises. Unlike Batman (and many, many, many other superheroes), Judex’s family is alive and actively aiding him in his quest for justice. Or is it revenge? And tell me you don’t love the idea of our hero delivering his warning to the villains via poodle.
Kids and dogs
Adding to these unexpected elements, we have a strong dose of cute. The dogs we know about; Judex keeps a pack of them on hand for tracking and delivering messages. The kids are little Jean, the sweet grandson of the wicked banker, and the Licorice Kid, a street-smart urchin.
Plenty of people like classic child actors but I find their antics to be over-rehearsed, which is why the kids of Judex are so delightful. They’re just kids. They run around and have a good time doing kid stuff. It’s a little exaggerated for comedic effect but not overly so. For example, the Licorice Kid tries to smoke cigarettes he picks up on the sidewalk, much to everyone’s horror.
The dogs and kids lighten the mood and prevent Judex from becoming too broody. And they are cute as anything. What’s not to love?
It’s a serial done right
I love cliffhanger serials but even I have to admit that there are times when they insult their audience’s intelligence. “The hero’s car has careened off a cliff! Will he survive? Be with us next week for Death, Death and More Death!” The thing is, we all know he opened the car door and rolled to safety before the car went off that cliff. We’ve seen this a hundred times, filmmakers, you are not fooling anyone.
Judex is a little different. Its cliffhangers are not of the “Will Judex survive this very high fall?” variety. Rather, the audience stays because they are invested in the story and characters. We want to know how this thing ends and how the heroes will manage to untangle the mess they have made. You see, the ostensibly heroic characters are just as responsible for their predicaments as the villains. Ladies and gentlemen, we have complexity!
In today’s world, movies and television shows are studied and dissected before they are given the green light. Which demographic groups will enjoy it? What changes should be made to appeal to them? Movies and TV shows are expensive and it’s understandable that studios would want to minimize their risk but this does result in a bit of staleness.
Louis Feuillade’s serials were popular but they also were full of quirkiness, eccentricity and the kind of narrative freedom that only comes from writing by the seat of one’s pants. Feuillade made up a lot of stuff as he went along but he maintains a consistent narrative. This is a difficult thing to pull off and the story of Judex manages it.
Focus groups and demographic surveys aren’t going away but Judex reminds viewers of a time when you really could decide to make a mainstream movie and just wing it.
Silent movie fans will always have an uphill battle when it comes to naysayers. The popular image of scratchy prints and damsels in distress has been steadily pounded into our heads for eight decades and counting. But when you do find someone who’s willing to put their preconceived notions aside for just a little while Judex is just the silent film to showcase everything that was wonderful about the era.
Availability: Judex was released on DVD by Flicker Alley with an absolutely gorgeous orchestral score by Robert Israel. The music is another reason why this film is such a great ambassador for the silent era. It’s dramatic, beautiful and just a little cheeky.