By all rights, the original (yes, original) 1925 Ben-Hur should have been a disaster but it somehow managed to survive and thrive despite budget woes, fascists, and fired directors, screenwriters and producers.
Religion. Politics. Chariot races. Pirates. Ben-Hur the novel has all the ingredients to make a great film. The 1959 version is the most famous but the 1925 film is the one that got it right. Big, beautiful and an epic’s epic, what’s not to love?
Continue reading “Ben-Hur (1925) A Silent Film Review”
Ah! What would we ever have done without dueling? (Answer: Have a more civilized society, for one thing.) More to the point, what would movies do without dueling? From Errol Flynn to Darth Vader, the movie duel is a longstanding tradition. In Scaramouche, Ramon Novarro plays a master swordsman who is merrily slicing his way through the French National Assembly. Well, I suppose it beats political ads.
And since this is a silent film and silent films tended to be a whole lot darker than the talkies, Mr. Novarro shows no mercy. The gizzard it is! As opposed to the old “defeat the villain, refuse to kill him, villain tries to stab hero in back, hero slays/maims him and then it’s self-defense and we keep our PG-13″ methodology that has taken over modern movies. His real target is Lewis Stone (Lewis Stone?) and the big honkin’ duel is not what he hopes but that is another story. (You can read my review of the movie here.)
(If you have not quite fallen for Ramon Novarro yet, do give Scaramouche a try. It’s one of his very best performances and really shows off his acting skills and charisma.)
Availability: Warner Archive has released a very nice print of the film accompanied by a suitably rousing orchestral score.
The Red Lily is dark, lurid and depressing. It also is an incredible showcase for the talents of Enid Bennett, a silent leading lady who is often forgotten. Unfortunately, her two most famous roles (in The Sea Hawk and Robin Hood) were damsel parts and did not really give her much to do.
The Red Lily, though? Wow. She transforms herself from a naive country girl to a streetsmart Apache with great skill. I know most people will see this for her leading man, Ramon Novarro. I love me some Ramon Novarro, I really do, but give Miss Bennett a look. She walks away with the picture.
Availability: Released to DVD by Warner Archive with a score that, I am not kidding, is one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Check out the preview clip below:
Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett– both best remembered for their unabashedly heroic roles– take a dip into some very dark waters with this Parisian drama. It’s all about an innocent young couple who are separated and slip into lives of crime, degradation, depression and hatred. If it sounds depressing, it is. However, it is also skillfully made (the gloom and decay are gloriously shot and the lighting is splendid) and Bennett’s acting is a revelation.
(You can read my full-length review here.)
[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Novarro scorns Bennett but repents when she gets shot saving him from the police. He allows himself to be arrested and sent to prison, she goes to a convent to recover and both reunite later to begin a new life together.[/toggler]
If it were a dessert it would be:
Bitter Orange Creme Brulee. Not for kids and not exactly sweet but certainly worth your time.
Availability: Released to DVD by Warner Archive with a score that, I am not kidding, is one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
Here’s my second-ever silent movie trivia card with an intriguing tidbit from the 1922 swashbuckling adventure, The Prisoner of Zenda. If the title sounds familiar, it is because it has been famously filmed several times since. The 1922 version is interesting in that it was the film that made a star of young Ramon Novarro, who was still being billed with his real surname of Samaniego. (You can read my full-length review of the movie here, I also cover the 1938 and 1952 versions.)
I am a pretty big Novarro fan and he is the single best reason to check out the film. He is quite delightful in one of his rare villain roles, the dashing and wicked Rupert of Hentzau.
Availability: Warner Archive has released a good black and white print of the film.
Note: While Novarro’s height and his complexion were brought up as concerns (director Rex Ingram saw Rupert as a blond viking type), his youth was the final obstacle between himself and the role that would catapult him to fame.
Rex Ingram and company show us the French Revolution in style! Ramon Novarro (in his best-ever performance) is a vengeful lawyer turned actor turned swordsman turned revolutionary. Busy fellow, yes? Lewis Stone is his wily aristocratic opponent. Witty and with atmosphere to spare, one of the finest action epics of the silent era and certainly the most beautiful.
If it were a dessert it would be:
Mille Crepe Cake. Dozens of small, perfect details add up to an epic whole.
Read my full-length review here.
Buckles get swashed in a lavish manner. Lewis Stone plays an Englishman who must take his look-alike cousin’s place in order to save the throne, etc. etc. Ramon Novarro steals the show as a deranged dandy. Has fine passages but also has some incredibly boring stretches. Lavish direction from Rex Ingram and some first-rate performances make this one worth seeing,
If it were a dessert it would be:
Devonshire Splits. Old-fashioned, polite, attractive and ever so slightly dull. Still pretty enjoyable, though.
Read my full-length review here.
Enid Bennett and Ramon Novarro play a pair of young lovers who just want to get married. When they are separated in Paris, each begins a slide toward degradation and depravity. Will the unfortunate pair find one another again or are they too damaged to rekindle their love? Heavy stuff.
The Arab (1924)
Status: No print existed in American archives until Gosfilmofond (the state film fund of Russia) presented a digital copy to the Library of Congress in 2010.
In the early to mid-1920’s Hollywood was mad to find the next Valentino and the next Sheik. On the surface, The Arab looks like just another attempt to cash in on Valentino’s signature role. Filmed on location in Tunisia (at a time when California doubled for everywhere from India to Alsace), it starred Ramon Novarro (widely considered a rival for Valentino’s Latin Lover crown) and was directed by Rex Ingram, who had helped catapult Valentino to stardom. However, the truth of this film is considerably more complex.
The production was breathlessly followed by fan magazines. Ingram and Novarro were hot commodities after the success of Scaramouche and the novelty of going on location was enough to keep reporters flocking to the set. However, once the film was released, results were mixed.
Photoplay found the whole thing a bit dull:
This latest — and possibly final — directorial effort of Rex Ingram has a fascinating background, the very Sahara itself, but the story limps. The action revolves around a missionary and his daughter, with a young native on the sentimental horizon. In this it is suggestive of “Where the Pavement Ends.” But there the comparison ends.
This mission is a pawn in the hands of the wily Moslems. They plan to send away the government troops, let the desert tribesmen wipe out the Christians and politely disclaim all responsibility. But the dashing dragoman, Jamil, son of a desert chieftain, prevents the tragedy. There is an indefinite ending, with the girl returning to America but promising to come back. All this may sound like a story of considerable action. “The Arab,” however, is turgid. There are few romantic scenes and the sentiment is meager. The Moslem attack is worked up without creating any real suspense. But there is more than a measure of picturesqueness in the role of the dragoman, Jamil, who has politely lied his way in and out of Christianity four times. And there is a distinct pictorial appeal to Mr. Ingram’s production.
Mr. Ingram seems to have fallen down most in his plot development but he has performed something of a miracle with his native players. They seem excellent actors, indeed. There are some finely atmospheric scenes of the East, notably in the Algerian dance halls and in the streets of the Oulad Niles.
Ramon Novarro is the Jamil and the role seems to us to be better played than anything this young actor has yet done. Alice Terry is the missionary’s daughter and Alexandresco, a vivid Russian actress, makes her film debut in the colorful role of an Oulad Nile.
Variety, on the other hand, lavished the film with praise:
This is the finest sheik film of them all. The Arab is a compliment to the screen, a verification of the sterling repute of director Rex Ingram.
As a sheik Ramon Novarro is the acme. Surrounded as he is by genuine men of the desert – for the scenes were shot in Algiers and the mobs are all natives in their natural environments he seems as bona fide as the Arabs themselves.
So, is The Arab a fascinating film or lovely-but-dull? Here’s hoping that we are able to see for ourselves soon!
Featuring the famous opening line, “he was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” Scaramouche is the tale of Andre-Louis, a young lawyer (Ramon Novarro) who seeks to revenge the murder of his best friend at the hands a heartless aristocrat (Lewis Stone). To further his ends, Andre-Louis becomes an actor, a fencing master and, finally, an architect of the French Revolution.
Continue reading “Scaramouche (1923) A Silent Film Review”
Danton cannot help giving Ramon Novarro a few fighting tips. The aristocrats are out the kill the revolutionaries in duels. What they don’t know is that Novarro has been working as a swordmaster for the past year.
Rudolf (Lewis Stone) is an Englishman on holiday in the unstable European kingdom of Ruritania. It turns out that he is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-crowned king (also Lewis Stone). This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must take his place to save the kingdom. A young Ramon Novarro has a star-making turn as the theatrical (and homicidal) Rupert of Hentzau.
He’s a sheik. She wears chic clothes. He lives in a tent. She lives in a manor. He fights enemy tribes. She fights hat hair. Getting a date with her is out of the question.
Backup plan: Abduction. Obviously.