Fun Size Review: Little Annie Rooney (1925)

Mary Pickford: Tenement kid, daughter of an Irish cop. William Haines: Big brother of her arch-rival and a would-be gangster. Mary loves William. He thinks she’s a kid. However, when he is framed for the murder of Mary’s father, she is the only one who can save him. Haines and Pickford are cute as proverbial bugs (could they be anything else?) but the thin plot does not use them to their full potential.

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Fun Size Review: The Love Flower (1920)

D.W. Griffith offers adventure, romance, exotic climes, a leering camera and Carol Dempster to the viewing public. The viewing public says: “Thanks but no thanks.” Carol is a zany teen determined to save her father from a murder charge in this kitchen sink (as in everything but) caper. Oh, Dad’s guilty, Carol just doesn’t want him arrested. Unlikable characters, an inexperienced leading lady and far too little Richard Barthelmess doom this picture. Dempster is good at the stunts. Acting, not so much.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: Oh, Doctor! by Harry Leon Wilson

Harry Leon Wilson is not a household name nowadays but back in the ‘teens and twenties he was a popular novelist and many of his books were adapted into movies. His books often featured prissy, emotionally immature heroes who were saved from their plights by spunky young ladies. (You can read my review of Wilson’s most famous novel, Merton of the Movies, here.) Oh, Doctor! was adapted in 1925 by Universal. The film starred Reginald Denny and Mary Astor.

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Fun Size Review: Captain January (1924)

Hobart Bosworth plays an old lighthouse keeper who has adopted the castaway, Baby Peggy. Local do-gooders are annoyed at his unorthodox parenting but he and little Peggy love one another. However, what will happen when Peggy’s real family comes to claim her? Sweet but never simpering. Heart-warming but never trite. This is family entertainment that the grown-ups can enjoy too. Highly recommended.

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Silent movie review process

I have had a few fellow bloggers ask some technical questions of me so I thought it would be fun to do a post all about my movie review method, such as it is.

Film selection

Are the films that I review new to me or not? About 25% of the time they are. The rest of the time, they are films that I have seen before and filed away as to-be-reviewed. There are a few films that I have seen but do not plan to review for various reasons. However, generally speaking, if I watch it, I will eventually review it.

I always re-watch a film before I write a review. Memories are slippery things and there are always nuances and details that I had forgotten.

I am most likely to review American films of the silent feature period (1915-1929) but I like to step out of my comfort zone for variety. I try to balance my reviews between the famous and the lesser-known.

Note-taking

I usually take notes as I watch (or re-watch) the movie I am reviewing. Silent films take a lot of concentration, though, so most of my notes are 3-5 word reminders to bring out a particular element or to research a topic. For example, while I was reviewing The Bells, my notes were something like this:

Exact shot in Caligari

Research mesmerist role in play

Blood on snow, understated

And so forth.

Research

If the film is based on a novel or play, I like to read the original source material, if it is available. One huge advantage is that most of the books that inspired silent films are in the public domain and are easy to access. Reading the original material gives me insight on what the scenario author was thinking and why they made the decisions that they did. I find that what they leave out is just as interesting as what they keep in. Plus, I have an excuse to read!

I also try to track down information on the making of the film. My best sources for this are autobiographies and interviews. I also look through my collection of scholarly works to see if film historians have insight on how the film was made. I try not to read other reviews of the film until after I have written mine because I don’t want to color my views.

Screen captures

I use WinDVD to capture sample images from films. I consider screen captures to be essential when reviewing silent movies. Silent cinema was such a visual medium and the pictures help the reader enjoy some of the beauties that these films have to offer. Naturally, these images are for the purpose of criticism and commentary.

I also use WinDVD to capture my GIFs and then I edit them in Photoshop. I try to find little moments that really capture the flavor of the film I am reviewing.

Read it out loud

This trick is often overlooked but incredibly valuable. I like to read whatever I write out loud. It helps me to get rid of awkward sentences and typos. It also helps me catch repeated words. Do I still make mistakes? Of course! But reading out loud helps me catch the major ones before I hit the “Publish” button.

Let it rest

I like to let my reviews rest for at least a week before I publish them. I am one of those people who does best with time to sort out thoughts and opinions. The extra rest time allows me to consider my review and to look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes what seemed like a clever quip was actually a little mean. Sometimes a theme from the film that was not obvious at first becomes clear. Whatever the reason, I think that my reviews benefit from the resting period.

I generally have one month of posts written ahead of time. However, if a sudden whim overtakes me, I revise my schedule to accommodate it.

Lost Film Files #14: Gang War (1928)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Jack Pickford (little brother of Mary) stars with Olive Borden in this gangster film, his final motion picture appearance. With the success of Underworld, all things gangland were popular and profitable. The demand for the genre would, of course, only increase with the coming of sound and the introduction of Cagney, Robinson and Raft, among others.

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Announcement of New Feature: After the Silents

I am very excited to announce a new feature for the site: After the Silents.

What is it? It will involve brief reviews covering sound movies that feature silent era performers and directors.

I got the idea for this feature in two parts. First, I noticed as I was doing research using sites like IMDB and Wikipedia that one phrase kept cropping up: “One of the few silent era performers to make it into talkies.” I read the phrase in dozens of articles in a row! Now anyone familiar with silent movies and early talkies knows that lots of silent era performers made the jump, albeit sometimes with diminished prestige. This “one of the few” talk may seem like a small issue but it bugged me all the same.

The second part of the idea came when Joey over at The Last Drive In asked me to join her William Castle Blogathon. William Castle, of course, made no silent films but I noticed that he had made quite a few films with actors who had been active in the silents.

Eureka! Why not talk a bit about films that featured former silent actors?

Here are my goals for this new feature:

  • Introduce readers to a silent actor whose sound work has been forgotten
  • Reacquaint readers with a famous sound-era actor whose silent work has been forgotten
  • Help viewers dive into the silents. I think it is much easier for newer viewers of silents to enjoy them if they see one of their favorite sound-era performers.

I plan to keep reviews short and, after a brief review of the overall film, focus on the work of the former silent stars and director. I intend to review films that are either representative of the performer’s sound career or are the most famous sound films that they acted in.

My first after the silents review? Here’s hint:

Actually, this gives the whole game away but enjoy anyway! I will be posting it soon.

Oh, and if you blog, do be sure to sign up for that William Castle blogathon!

Fun Size Review: Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Gloria Swanson has a problem. Her husband, Thomas Meighan, has purchased her a negligee! The degenerate! And he listens to fox trot music, if you please! Thomas is soon driven into the waiting arms of Bebe Daniels. Realizing her mistake, Gloria dons designer duds in a bid to win him back. Cecil B. DeMille’s best marital comedy, it is spunky and fast-paced. Excellent performances by all the leads make the film memorable. Worth seeing for Bebe and Gloria’s costumes alone.

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The Bells (1926) A Silent Movie Review

Lionel Barrymore is Mathias, a kindly Alsatian innkeeper who is being crushed by debt. Unable to deny his friends loans or his loving daughter small luxuries, Mathias is on the edge of destitution. When a rich man stops briefly at the inn (with a fortune in gold on his person), Mathias drunkenly robs and murders him. All his problems are solved. Except for that little thing called a conscience…
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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Keystone Kid by Coy Watson, Jr.

If you are a fan of classic films, you have probably seen one of the Watsons in a movie. Mother, father and all nine children were involved in the motion picture industry from the moment it came to California. Coy Watson Jr. was the oldest of the Watson siblings and he made his acting debut in a Keystone comedy at the tender age of nine months! His siblings were (in birth order) Vivian, Gloria, Louise, Harry, Billy, Delmar, Garry and Bobs. Between them, the children appeared in over 1,000 films!

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It takes more muscles to frown… The Bells Animated GIF

You know when you are going along minding your own business, thinking of cake or butterflies or something, and someone tells you this: It takes more muscles to frown than to smile. This annoys me. I’m sorry but I don’t like my emotions and facial expressions dictated by strangers. And, secondly, I was not frowning. Just thinking about cake or butterflies or something.

I think I will adopt Boris Karloff’s approach. This is from The Bells, in which he plays a combination mesmerist-private detective. Small part but marvelously creepy.

Read my review here.

Availability: Released on DVD.

Unboxing the Silents: French Masterworks | Russian Emigres in Paris 1923-1928

This is an overview of the box set itself. I will be reviewing the films in the set individually at a later date.

What is it?: A box set of five film created by talented Russians who fled the revolution and settled in France. It features three films that star Ivan Mosjoukine, who was enormously popular in Europe and whose French work has never before been widely available to US audiences. (Mosjoukine’s first and only American film, Surrender, was not really the best showcase for his talents.)

Who released it? Flicker Alley

The Films:

Le Brasier Ardent (The Burning Crucible), 1923

Kean, 1923

Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Mathias Pascal), 1925

Gribiche, 1925

Les Nouveaux Messieurs, 1928

Packaging: The discs are held in a plastic multi-disc case inside a cardboard slipcover. The set also includes a 28-page color booklet detailing the films and featuring vintage stills and marketing materials. I should note that the discs were loose in their case when they arrived but they were not scratched.

Navigation: Each disc has a simple, easy-to-navigate menu. Nothing fancy (thank goodness!) just functionality.

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Music: Each film is scored by a different accompanist. The Burning Crucible by Neil Brand, Kean by Robert Israel, The Late Mathias Pascal by Timothy Brock, Gribiche by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and The New Gentlemen by Antonio Coppola.

french masterworks (2)

french masterworks (1)

Notes: The films are presented with original French intertitles and optional English subtitles.

This box set contains films that have been on the wishlists of movie buffs for some time. I am looking forward to reviewing them.

Availability: Currently available on DVD.

Fun Size Review: That Certain Thing (1928)

Frank Capra’s first film of many for Columbia Pictures and his trademark optimism-amongst-poverty is already in place. Viola Dana is a tenement beauty determined to marry money. Ralph Graves is a rich wastrel who meets Viola, falls for her and marries her the same night. Everything would be fine except that Ralph’s father disinherits him and Viola is back at square one. What to do? Start a business, of course! Capra’s offering delights with charming script and a brisk pace and the leads are engaging.

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Lost Film Files #13: Me, Gangster (1928) directed by Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh. You may know him as the director of gangster classics White Heat, The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra. What you may not know is that Walsh’s career had been linked with crime pictures since the very beginning. He directed Regeneration, considered by many to be the first true gangster feature, in 1915. He had only been directing pictures for three years at that point.

Me, Gangster was released during the sound transition and was offered with a synchronized score. The reviews were quite positive. It was based on a book by Charles Francis Coe and it presented itself as the diary of a gangster. The intertitles were even hand-written. I am not usually a fan of diary picture since the narration is often intrusive but I think that the silent format would make this narrative device work quite well.

Leading man Don Terry would find fame in cliffhanger serials, most famously Don Winslow of the Navy. Pre-stardom Carole Lombard has a supporting part as Blonde Rosie.

Photoplay loved the picture:

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Here is a picture as sentimental, as melodramatic, as pointedly moral as any picture ever made, yet it is completely absorbing. Raoul Walsh has the knack, possessed by Griffith in his heyday, of making the characters of a sticky story pulse with life.

The picture is outstanding for another and a more important reason. It brings a new player, a very fine, very compelling actor to the screen, one Don Terry, a young college man discovered by the author of the piece, Charles Francis Coe, in the Montmartre Cafe. Terry’s performance stands out as one of the unusual and moving gestures of the cinema. He is not handsome, he is definitely a type, yet there is a rugged charm about him that gives him a niche higher than your sleek haired, amorous puppets.

The story is related in a novel form. It is “The Diary of Me, Gangster” and the subtitles are shown in handwriting, written in the first person. It is the boy’s story, of course, yet there are splendid performances given by June Collyer, who makes the most of a weak role; by Anders Randolf and by Gustav von Seyffertitz. It is an injustice to relate the plot, since it is an ordinary one of the son of a wardheeler who finds that crime doesn’t pay. Such trite phrases as “the straight and narrow path,” “going straight,” etc., are plentiful. But it is the absorbing interest of the prison scenes, the fascinating development of the situations and the absolutely perfect characterization of Terry that make it a splendid contribution to the art of the cinema. It may not touch your heart, except in one prison scene, but it will hold you spellbound.

The New York Times was also lavish in its praise:

Raoul Walsh, producer of the film version of “What Price Glory,” directed “Me, Gangster.” His scenes move compellingly and naturally, but toward the end there are pardonable periods of gun-play and general excitement. It is, however, a chronicle that stresses the futility of a lawless existence and Mr. Walsh points out the desperate chances the gangster takes and stresses that there is precious little honor among thieves.

Motion Picture News was less excited about the film, though it admitted that is was powerful:

me-gangster-raoul-walsh-1928 (2)

Carrying a decorative title which fairly shouts its meaning:, this crook drama gets under way with realistic touches and maintains them through a series of punchy scenes to the very finish. The idea is built up from a sort of diary exploiting the criminal life of a convict from his first days of crookedness until he seeks and finds redemption through the aid of a girl who believes in him.

Not so new, is it ? But it is forcefully presented and sticks to its pattern without trespassing over into sentimental pastures, aside from the necessary romantic interest. The hero is a bad chip of a bad old block and after a series of shady crimes he wins an election to prison. But the girl who loves him exercises her charm and understanding. And the youth’s redemption is effected.

The piece is strongest in its atmosphere, the scenes comprising prison shots, police court sequences, and some tenement tidbits. The story is well told, punctuated with adequate incident and acted competently enough even if the players are not always convincing.

This movie sounds like a pip to me. Plus, you know, Carole Lombard! Check those attics, basements, etc.