My Top 5:
- The Wind
- The Docks of New York
- Street Angel
Note: There is only a top 5 for this year. There were more than enough adapted screenplays to have a Top 10 if the quality of the scripts had merited it. They do not. And there wouldn’t even have been 5 if I hadn’t seen L’Argent last week.
- The Patriot
Sort-of Oscar Nominees:
- In Old Arizona
- The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
- Sal of Singapore
- The Valiant
- A Woman of Affairs
- Wonder of Women
Explanation: If you thought the first year of the Academy Awards left a confusing history and records trail, it has nothing on this one. First of all, according to the Academy “There were no announcements of nominations, no certificates of nomination or honorable mention, and only the winners were revealed during the awards banquet on April 3, 1930. Though not official nominations, the additional names in each category, according to in-house records, were under consideration by the various boards of judges.” So, technically there aren’t any Oscar nominees for 1928-29, only winners. Second, the Academy had done away with the different writing categories – from the categories of Adaptation, Original Story and Title Writing, they had gone to just Writing Achievement, which meant all films competed in the same category, whether original or adapted (though the only original ones “nominated” were Our Dancing Daughters, The Leatherneck and The Cop); the Academy would continue with just one category for the 3rd Academy Awards. Third, like in the first year, there seems to be confusion between names and films. In the first year, there were several films that used to be listed in several reference books (most notably Inside Oscar) as Oscar nominees, when it was only a specific writer who was nominated, with no specific film. Here, those same sources list certain films, with their writers, but apparently don’t include all of them. So, Inside Oscar lists the “nominations” (and more on that in the full year post) for In Old Arizona, The Valiant and Wonder of Women. But, it doesn’t list The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (written by Hans Kraly, who won the Oscar for The Patriot), Sal of Singapore, Skyscraper (written by Elliot Clawson, writer of The Leatherneck) or A Woman of Affairs (written by Bess Meredyth, who also wrote Wonder of Women). I don’t know how they did end up with both films written by Tom Barry (In Old Arizona and The Valiant). So, there you have it. There are 7 other nominees that were adapted. Sort-of. Of those 7, I have seen three – these days it is extremely difficult to find Sal of Singapore, Skyscraper, The Valiant or Wonder of Women. Of the other three, A Woman of Affairs (based on the novel The Green Hat) is the best, a mid-range ***, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (based on the play by Frederick Lonsdale) is a very low-level *** film, almost a **.5 film and In Old Arizona, which was “nominated” for Best Picture and won Best Actor (based on the story “The Caballero’s Way” by O. Henry) is a **.5 film and doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings (as evidenced by its big drop when I did the Best Picture project – you can read more about it here).
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens)
I have already written a review of Nosferatu, here. But here are some key things to remember: 1 – it is one of the greatest Horror films ever made, ranking up with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho, The Exorcist, Jaws and King Kong; 2 – it is one of the best concrete examples of what a talented director F.W. Murnau was and how much film lost when he died so young; 3 – it is, with considerable irony, the best film version of what might very well be the most filmed novel of all-time; and 4 – it is proof positive, along with the films listed above that compete for the best Horror film of all-time, that the key to a great Horror is not an attempt to suddenly scare you, but to create a mood and atmosphere of terror and horror such that anything can scare you.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
I have written even more about Dracula than I have about Nosferatu, and you can read it here. I ranked it among the Top 100 Novels of All-Time, the only horror novel to be ranked so high. And this much to be read, not just in the novel itself. The link above on the title is to the novel itself. But, if you are more interested in the novel (like I am), you might also like The Norton Critical Edition, which comes complete with a number of scholarly articles and a history of the text. And of course, if you want to get even more in-depth, you can try the Annotated Edition, whether the original edition by Leonard Woolf (which can be found used) or the New Annotated Dracula, another great Norton publication.
Much has been changed from the original source novel, as I pointed out in my review, because Murnau wasn’t legally using it. But think about how much we owe to his adaptation – not only a film like Herzog’s Nosferatu, which went to this film as its source rather than the original Stoker novel, but also a film like The Horror of Dracula, the wonderful Hammer film which is much more an adaptation of this film than it is of the original novel.
Directed by F.W. Murnau. Screenplay by Henrik Galeen. The source is uncredited, of course, because Murnau didn’t have the rights to it.
In each of my Year in Film posts, I listed those films on the Top 1000 at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They. They use a complicated methodology to put together a list of the 1000 greatest films of all-time as chosen from various critics list through the years. I have seen all 1000 of their films. But they also have a starting list – a list of almost 8000 films. While I haven’t seen every film on that full list (partially because it’s not possible – there are several lost films on the list), I am trying to pick up films from their list that I haven’t seen before doing these individual years – picking up films I might have missed among the 8500+ I have seen. And there have already been some gems – I found The Love of Jeanne Ney in a different manner, but I would have found it through them, and I found L’Argent (both films also star Brigitte Helm, whose work in Metropolis I have been a fan of for well over 20 years).
L’Argent is a film that transcends the end of the Silent Era, a film that has the same kind of stylistic brilliance as the late Silent films, with beautiful camera movements, stylized Silent acting (which delivers with every movement) and a good flow that works with the intertitles and is not held up by early sound dialogue. But, it also has some sound – in fact, the utilization of sound from the crowd at the beginning of the film might be the finest use of sound in the first couple of years of integrated sound on film.
It’s a timely story – one of two rival banks that use the stock market to boost themselves up or tear the other one down (filmed and released a year before the crash of the stock market that would eventually lead the entire world into the Great Depression). The main one, an amoral huckster named Saccard who is determined to build himself back up after nearly being ruined by his rival, is played with fantastic aplomb by Pierre Alcover. He’s determined to use the pilot Hamelin as part of a scheme to get back on top and kick off his rival (played by Alfred Abel with the same cold calculating manner that was such a vital essence of his performance in Metropolis), and if he can manage to get his paws on Hamelin’s beautiful young wife while he’s out of the picture, so much the better. But he hasn’t counted on Baroness Sandorf. She’s a scheming sort, a former lover of Saccard, who is spying on him for his rival and pushes Hamelin’s wife to fight back. Helm, who was so great in the double role in Metropolis and so different from either role in Ney, is here again in a quite different role – making use of her sensuality, but also her brain and is determined that she will come out on top.
All of this is perfectly directed by Marcel L’Herbier, who never loses sight of what he is doing. He moves the camera with deft skill, keeps the plot moving and never allows it to get confusing. And at the end, when all is lost for Saccard and he is sitting alone in his prison cell, he still provides a brief glimpse of hope for him, and a reminder that we have actually been rooting for the wrong side all this time, because we can’t help but be fascinated with Saccard, with his audacity and his schemes. This is a masterpiece, one of the best French films in the period before Jean Renoir would come along and rewrite all the rules.
L’Argent by Emile Zola (1891)
This was the 18th in Zola’s long-running series of Rougon-Macquart novels. I actually delayed the post a day so I could read the book. However, it turns out that both copies at my work were in French. As are most copies that are readily available. It is still in print in English, but is not readily available. I have read other books in the series and have been impressed with Zola, with his writing, with his naturalistic look at the world. At some point I hope to get a chance to read this, and to finish the entire series.
Not having read the book, mostly what I can say it what is well known – that L’Herbier decided to update the book from the late 1860′s, when it took place (heading into the Franco-Prussian War) to the present day. As a result, when Hamelin heads off, he is an airplane pilot and his movements are being followed on radio. Apparently the decision to update the work caused some controversy, but it works so well, and in fact would be even more timely than L’Herbier knew at the time, as the stock market would collapse the next year because of similar kinds of actions as those depicted in the novel and film. Also, the final shot of the film seems to imply a certain kind of capitulation that immorality might indeed end up winning in the long run, something that was not present in the original Zola novel.
Directed by Marcel L’Herbier. Screenplay by Arthur Bernède. Adaptation by Marcel L’Herbier.
So, for the third time in a row we have a film in which a key part of the plot depends on the machinations of multiple men to get in Lilian Gish’s underpants. But, there are a few things that make The Wind different than The Birth of a Nation and The Scarlet Letter (well, other than that it’s not horribly racist and not based on one of the most boring, over-rated novels in American literature). First of all, instead of two different men who want to have Gish for their own, we actually have three different men who want her. Also, this time it makes much more sense for these men to want her – she’s just about the only available woman in this dry, desolate part of western Texas. And third, Gish provides a different kind of presence this time; Gish was the best actress of the Silent Era, giving solid and sometimes great performances time after time in D.W. Griffith’s films, and was a very good Hester in The Scarlet Letter, but in The Wind she shows that those were all just practice runs for the role of her career.
Gish plays Letty, a young woman from Virginia whose parents have died, so she has come out to live with her cousin in the desolation of the Texas wilderness. But she hasn’t counted on three things – 1 – the lustful stirrings in Whit Roddy, who meets Letty on the train going west and immediately decides that he is interested in her, though in ways different than she things; 2 – that her cousin’s wife will be immediately seized with envy over the new arrival and her husband’s interest and the need to get this new, young woman out of her house and 3 – the horrible wind, the wind that stirs up the dust and will drive Letty out of her mind.
Though it is the first part that is directly brought up in the early moments and the third part that will become the overriding problem, things really begin with the second part. Letty’s cousin can’t keep her at his house to tutor his children as planned – his wife just can not take the other woman, the one the children like and that he husband is so interested in (they had been raised as brother and sister). So, Letty is forced to find a husband and get her own house. She’s got three choices. There is Roddy, who she seems to at least have an interest in, but it turns out that he actually just wants her for a mistress, as he is married already. There is Sourdough, who is nice and harmless, but also much older. Then there is Lige, who at least is younger and seems to really love her. So she agrees to marry Lige and goes off with him. But that can’t stop the wind, the wind that Roddy had warned her about on the train, the wind that is driving her out of her mind.
And that is where the brilliance of Gish’s performance really comes into play. She is very believable as the young virgin who is out of her league out her in the dry chaparral. But it is her descent into madness, partially because she doesn’t love her new husband, partially because Roddy won’t actually leave her alone in spite of her marriage, but mostly because of that ever-present wind. Things will come to a violent end, and one which we, the viewers, are actually forced to ask ourselves what actually happened. Do we, as Letty, believe that she imagined it all?
This film, one of the last directed by the great Victor Sjöström, only works because it is silent. It’s not that dialogue would mar the film, but that the wind, that ever-present menace, seems to work so much better when we are forced to imagine what Letty is hearing, rather than being able to hear the actual sound of it. And that is where Gish is so brilliant, so tortured by the wind itself. This is a great film, proof yet again that Sjöström was a very good director who stepped out of the chair much too soon (he would continue to act and of course, is most well-known these days for being the star of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries). It has magnificent cinematography, out there in the dust and the wind and a strong script that gives us characters we can believe in. But make no mistake about it – it is Gish’s performance that is the real draw of the film.
The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough (1925)
Scarborough’s book is very good. You understand every character in the book and can find some measure of sympathy for them, no matter what their actions may be. She presents a perfect description of the desolate land that young Letty has found herself in and we never once question her descent into madness. These days it is fairly neglected, but it still in print from The University of Texas Press as a good depiction of Texas during this time period.
It might say something about the endurance of the film and that the novel isn’t all that well-known, that 85 years after the film was made, the only version in print of the novel is one with a still of Lilian Gish on its cover. My guess is that most people who will look for the book these days are those who are fans of the film. So I wonder what they would make of the differences between the book and the film. The key one, of course, is that the film provides an actual happy ending – a reuniting with Lige and the notion that Letty’s murder has been an act of her imagination. The book never gives you that kind of out – there is no question in the book that she truly has descended into madness, but not a madness of illusions. Rather, she is driven mad by the wind and seeks her death out in the wind at the end of the book. But that’s not the only change. In the film, Roddy is constantly around, trying to win over Letty as his mistress. But in the book, though Letty still thinks of Roddy, after that initial trip on the train, she doesn’t seem him again until after she is married. There is never any talk of him being married and though he does try to have his way with her, it is different than in the book. In fact, the key thing that the filmmaking trio of Sjöström, Marion and Gish do (the same trio responsible for The Scarlet Letter) is make the film less about her descent into pure madness from the wind, but also a descent into madness partially as a response to sexuality – the question of sexuality, of Letty being a mistress, of her rejecting Lige and not wanting to be physically close to him – those are things in the film, not in the book. And while the book may be very good (and it is), it is these decisions that help make the film great.
Directed by Victor Sjöström (as Victor Seastrom). Scenario by Frances Marion.
This is what The Criterion Collection is for. In 2010, Criterion put out a box set called 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. Included were Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York. This, I believe, was the first time on DVD for any of them. And they were done with pristine transfers, looking far better than they ever had on video. Underworld and The Last Command had both received attention over the years because of winning Oscars in the first year of the Academy Awards (Original Story and Actor, respectively), but Docks, released in a much weaker year, had been ignored at the Oscars and consequently had often not gotten as much attention over the years.
Well, Docks might not be as great a film as The Last Command, but it’s a better film than Underworld, and easily one of the top 10 films of 1928-29. It’s a gritty film, about the working class (and not so-much working class) members of society existing down at the edges of the city, a sailor who is just in for the night before heading out on another ship (though sailor’s not really the right word to connotate what he does – he is a coal shoveler in the boiler room) and a woman, down on her luck, who throws herself in the water to end it all. They find each other through circumstance and then find more within each other, especially when they see the other options – like the bitterly unhappy couple they interact with through the night.
Much has been written of the collaboration between von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, of all the films they made together and how good they were, and while Dietrich was always good, von Sternberg’s direction wasn’t as sharp and the films weren’t as interesting as they three films he made just before the advent of sound. They are gritty and bleak and unrelenting (there is a sort-of happy ending tacked on to the end of this film, which actually works better than most people want to admit, but that doesn’t make up for the bleakness that has preceded it all the way to the last minute), but they have a directorial vision, they have solid acting, they have first-rate cinematography and they still hold up after over 80 years.
“The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders
Argh. It’s really easy to discover that The Docks of New York is based on the short story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders. It’s not so easy to find anything about the story itself. After pages and pages of Google, after looking through all sorts of books by Saunders on Worldcat, I was unable to determine – 1 – when the story was actually published and 2 – where it was published, if at all (lots of films are made from unpublished materials). So, I can’t say anything about the original story.
Of course, I can’t possibly know what is different between the story and the film. It is my suspicion that the story doesn’t have anything that might qualify as a happy ending, but that is only supposition.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Story and Screenplay by Jules Furthman. Titles by Julian Johnson.
One of the great DVD box sets of the last decade was Murnau Borzage and Fox, a 12 movie set that released a whole slew of films that had never been released on DVD, and included a Best Picture winner, all three of the films for which Janet Gaynor won Best Actress in 1928 and Borzage’s second Best Director winning film, Bad Girl. This, of course, was one of the three films that Gaynor won that initial Oscar for. So, why is it here in the 1928-29 among my Best Adapted Screenplay nominees? Well, as mentioned above, the Academy didn’t quite have their shit together in the early years. Street Angel had been one of the three films for which Gaynor won that initial Best Actress Oscar, but the next year it was one of the unofficial nominees for Best Cinematography and Best Interior Decoration. Since it was included in both years and since she already had two films in 1928, I decided to include it here instead.
Now, what about the film itself? Well, it was better than I remembered it as being, as the first time I was so focused on the Gaynor performance, I clearly didn’t pay enough attention to the film as a whole, which is very good. Frank Borzage directed films all the way into the late 50′s. And he would never again come anywhere close in quality to the three films that he made with Janet Gaynor from 1927-29. They all had solid enough scripts, but they all had great performances from Gaynor, a magnificent talent who didn’t make nearly enough films. And they all had very good (or even great) direction from Borzage, clearly influenced by the presence of Murnau at Fox, with German expressionism creeping into the sets and the cinematography.
In this film, Gaynor is desperate to get medicine for her mother, but when her mother dies, ends up running away with a travelling carnival. There she meets a painter, played by Charles Farrell (who would actually star opposite Gaynor in 12 films overall, including all 3 of the Borzage films). They fall in love, but the police come knocking and end up taking her away. With silent melodrama working at its hardest, Farrell doesn’t know why she’s gone, she doesn’t really deserve to be taken away, and in the end, their love will manage to find a way to conquer all. But the script itself is okay, while it’s the other aspects of the film – the direction, the technical achievements, and of course, Gaynor, that are really the main reason to watch (Farrell was decent enough in all of these films, but not really worth noting).
The Lady Cristilinda by Monckton Hoffe (1922)
There seems to have been at least some confusion here. The IMDb listed this film as based on a novel called Cristilinda, unaware, apparently of either the correct title or that it was a play and not a novel. The play itself, when originally on Broadway, starred future film stars Fay Bainter and Leslie Howard. The play focused much more on what happens later, after they meet – how the painter paints a portrait of his lover that is later sold and assumed to be a 12th Century masterpiece by the church that ends up owning it.
While the plot point about the painting and its origins would play into the plot of the film, it only comes in to the later part of the plot – the main focus of well over half the film is how they first meet and fall in love (with some influences, it would seem, from the previous collaboration between all three – 7th Heaven). The film definitely expands considerably the romance at the core of the film – clearly wanting to get in more of a film audience than a Broadway audience, and the film provides a happy ending that the original play does not.
Directed by Frank Borzage. Written by Marion Orth. Adaptation by Philip Klein and Henry Robert Symonds. Titles by H.H. Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker.
I have already written about The Patriot here. I didn’t review it, of course, because I haven’t seen it, because it’s the most sought-after of all the lost films.
The Patriot by Ashley Dukes, Der Patriot by Alfred Neumann and “Paul I” by Dmitri Merezhovsky
I can’t really write much more on the sources than I can on the film. I haven’t had a chance to read either play (interestingly enough, I have seen some things that suggest that Neumann actually wrote a novel and that Dukes adapted it as a play, though many places say it was a play that Dukes adapted into English – it may have been a novel first, then a play). As for the original short story by Merezhovsky, I have been unable to track down a copy of it.
The film was originally silent, though it later had some dialogue added to it, after it was finished. Certainly, in that case, it looks like it was like many plays at the time – condensed in that many of the lines from the play were cut rather than have massive amounts of intertitles. But without a copy of the film to see, it’s hard to know precisely how close it follows the play.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Adaptation by Hans Kraly. Titles by Julian Johnson.
Other Noteworthy Adaptations:
- October - Though it has great direction (from Sergei Eisenstein), editing and cinematography, the screenplay of this film is the weakness. It is ostensibly based on 10 Days That Shook the World by John Reed, but it focuses much more on the events rather than the politics of the Russian Revolution. Reed’s book is so unfilmable that when Warren Beatty made his film about Reed in 1981, he wrote an original script rather than attempt to adapt the book.
- The Fall of the House of Usher - Like October, this French film from Jean Epstein is very well directed, with great sets, but also like October, the script is really beside the point.
- Aelita: Queen of Mars - Even more than the previous two films, the script is the weakness here. It is based on a novel from Alexei Tolstoy and functions as both an early science-fiction film and Russian propaganda. A very good film with incredible sets, but not much of a script.
- Pandora’s Box - The script is definitely the weak point here, and what keeps it from rising above *** for me. The focus here, again, is the direction (from G.W. Pabst) and from star Louise Brooks.
- The Letter - Based on Maugham’s play (based on his own story), this is the first film version of what would later be a great Bette Davis / William Wyler film in 1940. It is notable for Jeanne Eagels performance, which earned her the first posthumous Oscar nomination, but the film itself is considerably weaker than the later version.
- The Iron Mask - The Douglas Fairbanks version of the classic Dumas novel is enjoyable, but not all that great and a far cry from his Three Musketeers.
- Alibi - Only notable as an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, from the play Nightstick.
- Coquette - A terrible film, adapted from the play. It was brought to the screen by Mary Pickford expressly to try to win her the Oscar in the second year of the awards. She did win, but the film is quite bad.