One of the beautiful and haunting images from Sunrise.  Nothing to do with the script, but great to look at.

One of the beautiful and haunting images from Sunrise. Nothing to do with the script, but great to look at.

My Top 10:

  1. Sunrise
  2. 7th Heaven
  3. The Man Who Laughs
  4. The Love of Jeanne Ney
  5. The Cat and the Canary
  6. Tartuffe
  7. Sadie Thompson
  8. The Lodger
  9. Laugh Clown Laugh
  10. The Scarlet Letter

Oscar Nominees  (Best Adaptation):

  • 7th Heaven
  • Glorious Betsy
  • The Jazz Singer

Oscar Nominee  (Best Title Writing):

  • The Private Life of Helen of Troy

Oscar Note:  This first year of the Academy Awards is a bit confusing on the writing front.  There were three categories: Best Original Story (which clearly isn’t relevant to this post), Best Adaptation (nominees listed above) and Best Title Writing.  Now, older Oscar sources will list several films nominated for this category.  But apparently, later research determined that there Joseph Farnham won the Oscar and George Marion, Jr. was nominated, but neither were cited for any particular film, no matter what older books might say.  The only actual film cited for the category is The Private Life of Helen of Troy (which was adapted, so is mentioned here).

There will be other issues with the writing categories in upcoming years.  I will deal with each one as it arises.  And once we start getting to writing awards from other awards groups or critics societies, I will start mentioning those as well, but that won’t start until 1947.

Note:  There is going to be some trickiness for the next several years because of source material.  Many of the films in this year and through the 30’s and 40’s are based on plays rather than novels.  That makes it much harder to track down source material – a lot of the plays are out-of-print and many were never printed in the first place, at least in a commercially available printing.  Which means I won’t have as much to say about the source material for a lot of these films.  But I’ll do the best I can.

sunrise movie poster 4Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

The Film:

I already reviewed Sunrise here, for the Best Picture project.  But I feel I should also mention something more.  Every time I watch this film, I admire it more and more.  This time it did what I didn’t think was possible – nudged Metropolis out of its spot in Best Picture and Best Director that it has held for close to 20 years.  Which means, I guess, that Sunrise is now my #1 film of the Silent Era.

The Source:

“A Trip to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann.

I have never had a chance to read the original story by Sudermann.

The Adaptation:

In The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930, Scott Eyman writes: “Murnau and Carl Mayer began to write the script and outline the production of his first American film in Berlin, shaping the material to their own ends.  The film that was eventually called Sunrise was an adaptation of Hermann Sudermann’s A Trip to Tilsit.  In Sudermann’s original, the third leg of the romantic triangle is merely a new maid at the farm, but, in keeping with Murnau’s pantheistic bent, she was changed to make her an urban intruder in the idyllic country environment.  Throughout, the city was to be treated as a strange, alien environment capable of both destruction and redemption.  It was the city that would supply the woman that threatened the happy marriage, and it would be the city, massive, intimidatingly bizarre, that would provide a healing balm to the wounded relationship.  Murnau and Mayer used points from Sudermann’s story as islands, set pieces – the seduction, the woman’s suggestion that the man murder his wife, the boat trip and the amusement park – and constructed new narrative incidents as bridges.” (p 82).  It’s interesting that this should be the case (and I see no reason to doubt Eyman’s idea), because City Girl, which I will write about in 1929-30, takes the opposite approach.  The city wears people down, but it is the girl from the city who is more brutalized by the people in the country.  Eyman also mentions that some of the things in the script never made it on the screen and that Murnau improvised many shots that hadn’t been in the script (and thus likely not in the original story) like the barber sequence and the peasant dance.

The Credits:

Directed by F.W. Murnau.  Scenario by Carl Meyer.  From an original theme by Hermann Sudermann.  Titles by Katherine Hilliker and H.H. Caldwell.

seventh_heaven7th Heaven

The Film:

I already reviewed 7th Heaven here, for the Best Picture project.  It’s a great film, anchored by a magnificent performance from Janet Gaynor, with amazing shots moving up the staircase to the apartment.

The Source:

7th Heaven by Austin Strong  (1922)

The original play only has three acts, and only covers three days – the first day that Diane and Chico meet, four days later in their apartment, and then four years later, after Chico comes back to her from the dead of the war.  The opening act is effective, as is the second one.  But the third one feels much too rushed, and then Diane gives up and then suddenly there is Chico alive, with just a few lines left before the play ends.  It seems like it could be effective somewhat on stage, but not nearly to the extent that the film is.

The Adaptation:

Things happen much quicker in the film than they do in the play.  That’s not just a function of having intertitles rather than spoken dialogue.  The screenplay focuses much more on the relationship between Diane and Chico right from the start.  They meet less than 15 minutes into the film and by 30 minutes in they are already agreeing they are married – something that doesn’t happen until the end of Act I, almost half-way through the play.  But the bigger thing is how much things are opened up.  In the play, we jump from their apartment, only a few days after they have met, to after she thinks he is dead and the war is about to end.  Here, we get to see more of their relationship, more of the war.  And of course, because it is a film, and because we have been able to actually see the apartment, “Heaven”, that they occupy, we have those masterful shots up the stairway, especially the one at the finale.  In the play, she is succumbing to the charms of another man when suddenly we are all surprised to find Chico alive.  But in the film, it is a much more desperate race against time, as we know he is racing against time but he doesn’t.  It is one of the best examples of taking a play and transforming it properly into a film in the Silent Era.

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Borzage.  Screenplay by Benjamin Glazer.  Titles by H.H. Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker.  Uncredited writing work by Bernard Vorhaus.

the-man-who-laughs-movie-poster-1928-1020143238The Man Who Laughs

The Film:

Here it is, the single biggest cultural impact made by any silent film and one of the biggest cultural impacts made by any film ever.  Why, you say?  How many people have ever even seen this film? (2359 voting members of the IMDb apparently.)  Well, you can find this information from many sources, but I will quote E. Nelson Bridwell from the Introduction to Batman: From the Thirties to the Seventies: “The Joker!  Or all the villains The Batman has ever faced, this is the greatest.  He is the perfect blend of clownish humor and malevolent evil.  I have heard Bill Finger tell just how the character came to be created.  It seems Bill got a call from Bob Kane.  He had an idea for a villain Bill could use in the comics.  He was a clownish-looking man, but a killer.  However, when Bill saw Bob’s sketch, he decided it looked too clownish.  He happened to have a movie edition of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, with stills from the 1928 film starring Conrad Veidt.  The story concerns Gwynplaine, an English nobleman stolen as an infant and turned into a carnival freak by having a perpetual laugh carved on his face.  The makeup used by Veidt was perfect, and this inspired the Joker’s countenance.”  (You can find that edition here.  They don’t come cheap.)

But it’s all fun to talk about the accidental cultural impact that the film has made.  What about the film itself?  How good is it?  Well, better than I remembered it to be, actually.  I had it ranked as a lower level ***.5 film and at #7 for the year.  It has gone up to #4 and has made it into the **** films, a well-directed, well-acted film, with good production values all around.

It is the story of a young man, who is scarred permanently in response to his father’s perceived insult to the king.  Having been abandoned in a snowstorm and rescuing a baby girl from death, he grows up in a carnival sideshow, but he is actually the heir to a title.  He makes his living with his freakish look, loving the girl he saved as a child, but trying to think of her more as a sister, especially since he feels he is unfit for her, with his horrible scars (which she can not see, having been blinded by their experience in the snow as children).  If there’s one weakness in the film it is with Mary Philbin, who plays Dea, the, sister and love interest for Gwynplaine.  Philbin’s main goal is to provide a lovely face, and to love blindly and that’s pretty much all she’s able to muster (she had a similar role in Phantom of the Opera, except there she was turned off by the deformity that here she can not see).  But she is more than made up for by Conrad Veidt, who had been so perfect as the somnambulist in Caligari and as Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (also for director Paul Leni, before they both came to America).  And there is also Olga Baclanova as the woman who now lives in the land that rightfully belongs to Gwynplaine.  She is fully willing to use sex as a weapon and she is both fascinated and repelled by this scarred man who stands between her and security.  She is both beautiful and entrancing and bedeviling all at once.

And let’s not forget about the look of the film.  You could argue that the film doesn’t really look like late 17th Century England, but it really isn’t supposed to be as such.  This is German expressionism married to a story and the look of the film is right for the film, the feel of horror creeping over you (even in the early shots, where the makeup is done so very well on the boy who plays the younger Gwynplaine).  The makeup is done well, the costumes are very good, the sets always provide the right kind of eeriness.  This is basically the forgotten brilliant Universal Horror film, partially because it’s not really a Horror film (the same with Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, below), and partially because it’s easy to overlook a film that comes in between the great Lon Chaney films that started it all and the Golden Age of Horror that seemed to emerge suddenly out of nothingness with the release of Dracula.  But this is one film that shouldn’t be forgotten.  It of course won’t be, but that’s something different.  Let’s remember this film for how good it really is.

manwholaughsbookThe Source:

L’Homme qui rit by Victor Hugo  (1869)

Oh, this book.  Several months ago I took it out of the library to read and couldn’t get into it at all.  But when I started this project, I grabbed it again, figuring that since I had just re-watched the film for the first time in years, it would be easier to get into the book.  I was wrong.

One thing I have always said about Les Misérables, is that it is the one book I recommend to people that they read abridged.  It is a great story, but Hugo meanders so, so, so much that it gets very hard to read.  I have read it twice and both times I enjoyed the story and really struggled through the 50 and 60 page digressions.  But, I have also read his Notre Dame de Paris twice and both times I really enjoyed it – I found it worked much better for what he was trying to do and he made the city and the cathedral the focal points of the novel.  But this is much more like Les Mis, only worse.  I am certain there are those who will say the problem is just me.  But look at how many times Les Mis and Notre Dame have been printed and then look at how often this is printed.  I don’t think it’s just me.  There’s an interesting story in there somewhere, struggling to get out, but the novel just becomes impenetrable.

The Adaptation:

Thankfully, the writers managed to find that story and help it out.  It perhaps says enough that this 110 minutes movie took a 730 page book (in the edition I have tried to read twice) and didn’t seem to lose a minute of the story.  They cut through all of the unnecessary Hugo prose and found the characters and found the story at the core of it and brought it to life.  Yes, there are some changes – in the film, we know the story from the outset, while in the book you learn it in pieces later when the characters learn it, and most notably, the ending is drastically changed.  There is a happy ending in the film, whereas in the book, Dea dies on the boat (rather unexpectedly and without much of an explanation) and Gwynplaine then commits suicide to join her in death.  But overall, the film does a great job of taking an overlong, overwritten book and turning it into a first-rate film.

The Credits:

Directed by Paul Leni.  Adaptation and continuity by J. Grubb Alexander.  Titles by Walter Anthony.  Uncredited writing by May McLean, Marion Ward and Charles E. Whittaker.

loveofjeanneneyThe Love of Jeanne Ney

The Film:

As recently as a couple of weeks ago I am not certain I had ever even heard of this film.  I saw it as I was preparing for this series and scrolling through Netflix, looking at every film they have from before 1930 that I hadn’t yet rated.  And I saw the director and I saw that it starred Brigitte Helm, the actress who gave such a magnificent performance in Metropolis.  And Tufts had a copy of it, so I brought it home.  And I was stunned at how good it was and how somehow I had been missing it all of this time.

This film deals with the Soviet revolution in Russia, it deals with a murder, it deals with a love story, and yet, in some parts it is almost pure comedy.  That is manages to balance all of these and with considerable cinematic effects, is due to the masterful direction of Georg Wilhelm Pabst, known today mainly as the director of Pandora’s Box.  The film never feels overwrought in spite of the melodrama, it never feels confusing in spite of all that is going on, it never feels propagandistic in spite of some of the intentions of the original novel and it never feels like too much of an art film in spite of the stylistic flourishes that Pabst throws into it.

The plot is anything but straight forward.  Jeanne returns home to Paris after her father is killed during the Russian Revolution.  Also on the way to Paris are Andreas, her lover, and Khalibiev, an oily man who helped set up her father’s death and wants Jeanne and money and pretty much anything he can get.  Jeanne is taken in by her uncle, a rather lecherous detective who is more than happy to throw her out on the street but wants to make his blind daughter happy (played very well by Helm in a role very different from either of her roles in Metropolis).  Part of the fun here is watching the ongoing actions in the uncle’s agency, including the (rather amusing) discovery of a lost diamond.  Aside from Helm, there are very good performances from Adolf E. Licho as the uncle and Sig Arno as the uncle’s main sidekick (Arno would later come to Hollywood, leaving the Nazis and have a long fruitful career).  Things get more complicated when Andreas arrives and there is another murder and confusion over who might have done it and what will happen with Jeanne, but I don’t want to give too much away.

I was stunned at how well made the film was.  The two leads do a solid enough job, but it’s really all about the editing style (the way things are cut when the two lovers first see each other in Paris is magnificent), the way Pabst frames his shots and the variety of character actors always lurking in the background (Fritz Rasp, who plays Khalibiev just seems so magnificently off it’s hard to put into words).  It’s a reminder that not all the great German directors came to America – some of them stayed in Germany as well.

The Source:

The Love of Jeanne Ney by Ilja Ehrenberg  (1924)

There is some irony here.  Ilja Ehrenberg was a Soviet writer and poet, and, many would say, propagandist.  During World War II he advocated strongly for the death of German soldiers who had invaded the Soviet Union.  And after the war, he was one of the authors of the famous Black Book, which was one of the first books to detail the atrocities of the Holocaust.  And here, in the days before the Nazis, we have a German director making a film of his novel which works both well as a film and well as propaganda (a director who would actually return to Germany before the war and stay through the war, making two films there).  Trying to research him I came across a rather disgusting white supremacy website that attacked him as their favorite kind of target – a Communist and a Jew.

I haven’t actually read the original novel because I hadn’t planned to read it (because I had never heard of it a couple of weeks ago) and didn’t have time to get a copy of it, but from the story and from what I can tell, the novel deals much more with life under the new Soviet regime than the film does, which deals much more with the love and murder stories.

The Adaptation:

Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know how close the film keeps to the book.  But as I say, I’m guessing the book comes across as more slanted in favor of the Soviets than the film does.

The Credits:

Directed by George Wilhelm Pabst.  Written by Rudolf Leonhardt and Ladislaus Vajda.

The Cat and the Canary

The Film:

The Cat and the Canary is so many things all at once.  It is a comedy, at times almost like a Keystone Kops comedy (complete with cops roaring in at top speed and chasing a milk wagon) with all sorts of zaniness going on.  It is a mystery, a drawing room style puzzler as to what is going on and who is behind it all.  And, directed by Paul Leni, influenced by the German expressionism that directors like Leni and Murnau were importing to Hollywood, it has some of the hallmarks of a good solid horror film, complete with disfigured hands coming out the darkness and reaching around someone’s neck.  But most of all, it’s just really good fun.

I’ve just started a new series where I review films I saw a lot as a kid.  One of the movies I will certainly get to at some point is Clue, a silly little film that’s a whole bundle of fun because of all the good characters created from such a solid group of actors.  Well, this is almost like the Silent Era’s version of Clue, though with a much more talented director, it is several levels of quality above Clue.  But watching this again, I was struck by how much must have come from the various versions of The Cat and the Canary when they set out to make Clue.  We have a surprise death, a house full of people who don’t trust each other and who all could be the killer and a mystery that doesn’t come out until the very end (or ends, if we’re talking about Clue).  It is perhaps the best mark of this film that the play has been filmed three other times and all three films focused on different things – the 1930 version, The Cat Creeps, emphasized the horror, the 1939 version with Bob Hope went with the comedy (obviously) while the 1979 British version was more about the mystery.  But this version does the best of covering all three, and does it all quite succinctly.  You could say that’s because it doesn’t have dialogue, but this film seems to have more intertitles that are specific lines of dialogue than almost any silent film I can remember.

And all of it works so well because of the direction from Paul Leni, from the sets he chose to work with, emphasizing that expressionism (just like he would in The Man Who Laughs) and from the atmosphere he creates.  Leni had been a good director in Germany and he came to the States and was a very good director and then suddenly he was dead in 1929 at the age of 44, a loss that would be considered much bigger were it not for Murnau’s untimely death just a couple of years later.

The Source:

The Cat and the Canary by John Willard  (1922)

Sadly, this is going to be a recurring problem all the way through into the 40’s, but I have never read the play.  So much of what was good in Hollywood during this era came from plays and I just haven’t read a lot of them.

The Adaptation:

Clearly I don’t know how much of the play was changed.  One main thing, of course, is that this was still the Silent Era, so there wasn’t any spoken dialogue.  But, as I mentioned above, this film seems to use more lines of dialogue as intertitles than any other silent film that I can think of.  And yet, for all of that, the film still moves quite well.

The Credits:

Directed by Paul Leni.  Adapted by Robert F. Hill and Albert A. Cohn.  Scenario by Alfred A. Cohn.  Titles by Walter Anthony.  Story Supervision by Edward J. Montagne.

Tartuffe posterTartuffe  (Herr Tartüff)

The Film:

Though made before Faust and released in Germany nine months before it, this film didn’t make it to America until seven months after Faust debuted here, and was in time to be eligible for the first Oscars, though it wasn’t nominated for any of them (certainly this could have been added to the two films that Emil Jannings won the initial Best Actor award for).  It often gets overlooked because it comes after the initial success of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, but before Faust and Murnau’s departure for America and the artistic triumph of Sunrise.  There is also the problem that while this is a very good film those are all magnificent films, among the best of the Silent Era (if Sunrise isn’t the best of the Silent Era).  So it really gets lost in the shuffle.

But it’s good enough not to be lost in the shuffle.  It takes a play that was already old hat by this time (over 250 years old to be precise) and finds a way to make it a bit new and interesting again.  Rather than just simply film the play, Murnau is more interesting.  Instead, we have the story of a young actor, whose grandson is on the verge of disinheriting him.  Realizing that his grandfather’s housekeeper is simply after the fortune, he presents, in disguise, a film for his grandfather, a dramatization of the play.  This film within a film provides a story and moral for the grandfather and things turn out well in the end.

This is almost a little side project for Murnau – the same way that later directors like Steven Soderbergh or Kenneth Branagh would make little, more personal films, in between much bigger projects.  It makes good use of Jannings in between two key roles as the doorman in The Last Laugh and Mephistopheles in Faust (and before they both would leave for America following the conclusion of making Faust).  It is well-made, smart and funny, and yet never really seems like a fully realized film (it also quite short).  So it gets over-looked, but it is another very good film in what was too short of a career for the great director.

tartuffe-moliere-paperback-cover-artThe Source:

Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur by Molière  (1664)

This is one of Molière’s great satires.  It was so shocking that it was immediately banned.  My Modern Library copy seems to say it all: “The first three acts were performed at the Court of Versailles in 1664: the conjoined action of all religious factions – from Jesuits to Jansenists – suppressed it.  Its first public performance was in 1667 and again it was suppressed after a single night.  Finally, it regained the stage in 1669, and held it . . . The movement, upon Molière’s death, to deny him Christian burial is a good index to the immense bitterness which this quiet play induced.”  It is a great play, a short satire (it is five acts, but it moves quickly), the story of a man who deceives those around him, who harbors deep immorality, cloaked in the guise of religious piety.

The Adaptation:

The first thing I am going to point out is that same thing that everyone points out: that Murnau’s first big change is to actually have the Molière play be a film within a film rather than the actual action of the film.  It is being used by the grandson, as said above, to try and get the message through to his grandfather.  Of course, that gives Murnau some leeway of how much of the actual play he would put in the film.  And for that, he really didn’t actually include all that much of it.  The original play has 12 characters and involves a number of attempts by the family to convince Orgon that his guest Tartuffe, whom he idolizes, is not the man he thinks he is.  This includes a son and a daughter (and in a mother for Orgon, who is as taken in as he is).  But the film simply condenses all of the action, cutting everything down to three characters and eliminating some of the more extreme actions that Tartuffe takes towards the end of the play, but also the suddenness of his downfall, rather allowing it to come with earlier actions (and discovered by the husband, prompted by the wife, rather than simply having a policeman arrest him).

The Credits:

Directed by F.W. Murnau.  Manuscript by Carl Mayer.

sadiethompsonSadie Thompson

The Film:

Gloria Swanson was the creative impetus for Sadie Thompson, wanting to get a success under her belt.  Her first independently produced film, The Love of Sunya, had flopped.  But she also wanted creative control and she chose the play Rain, based on the short story by Somerset Maugham.  Her first struggle was getting it by the censors, a film about a prostitute, stopping in Pago pago, and forced by the zealous Reverend Davidson to be placed on the next boat to San Francisco, where she will be thrown in jail, with Davidson eventually trying (or possibly succeeding) to rape her and then killing himself afterwards.  And even after she managed to get approval to make the film, she still had to get it made, encountering problems with pushback from Hollywood and just getting a cameraman to complete the film.

But all of it, when put together, is quite a film.  Raoul Walsh was a good director at times and he made a lot of interesting films, the best of which, like this and High Sierra and White Heat, allowed great actors to do what they did best.  Swanson, here and in Sunset Blvd, managed to at the same time, project an aura of complete confidence and audacity combined with a quiet, almost desperate vulnerability.

It was a good move of Swanson to retitle the film, whether it was forced upon her or not.  The original story, “Rain”, focuses much more on Davidson, as seen through the eyes of the doctor who is also forced into staying on the island with them while waiting for their next boat to be cleared for them to continue their journey.  It is the doctor’s viewpoint of Davidson, and his eventual realization of the dead man’s actions which drove him to suicide that colors our perceptions.  But here, it is Sadie who is the focus, and that’s the right move.  Though Davidson is very well played by Lionel Barrymore (in a role that works much better as a silent role – though we lose out on a great speech in the book, as I note below, his pious pontifications work better as intertitles than they do as actual speechs in later film versions of the story like Rain and Miss Sadie Thompson, both of which are also inferior films because neither Joan Crawford nor Rita Hayworth can come close to matching the emotions wrought in the eyes of Swanson in every one of her scenes – she was right when she said they had faces then), it is Swanson’s performance that is the key to the film.  She was nominated for Best Actress in this, the initial year of the Oscars, and though she rightly lost to the amazing Janet Gaynor, she absolutely deserved to be nominated.

Maugham.Stories.1960.bigThe Source:

“Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham, adapted as a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph.

The notion for the story came to Maugham on a boat, where there was a Miss Thompson.  He wrote a description of her in his journal and later that sentence made its way verbatim into the story as the first description of the unhappy prostitute, sidetracked in Pago Pago while waiting to move on.  It is one of Maugham’s better stories, showing the world around him to be entirely corrupt.  It convincingly portrays both Thompson and the fanatically pious hypocrite Davidson (how appropriate for this and Tartuffe to be from the same year).  There is a great speech, that we only get a single title of, where Davidson talks about how he has to teach the natives exactly what sin is so they can realize the magnitude of what they have been doing to their souls.

The Adaptation:

There are definitely some changes, though because I haven’t read the play, I assume they were probably made for the play and not just for the film.  In the story, all of Sadie’s actions are described from outside the scene and we don’t actually witness much of what she is doing, though that would make for a boring film.  The bigger change is the addition of the character of Sergeant O’Hara, providing a key acting role for director Raoul Walsh (one of his last before losing his eye), even to the point where he’s right there on the cover with Sadie.  The doctor, who is the main character in the actual story, figures in a much smaller role here as a result.  We also don’t have any gap before Davidson knows about Sadie – in the book he has to go interrupt a party before he realizes what her profession is, whereas here, he’s headed for the governor right off the boat.  The film gives a happier ending, with her going off with O’Hara and changes the death scene – a much less grisly end for Davidson, who ends up drowned rather than his throat slit.

The Credits:

Directed and adapted by Raoul Walsh.  Titles by C. Gardner Sullivan.  The credits do not mention the play.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Film:

The Lodger would pave the way for much of Alfred Hitchcock’s career as a director.  Look at what he would become known for later on, and you can see it all here.  There is the master of suspense, finding suspense throughout the film.  There is the question of an innocent man, being hunted for something he hasn’t done (and yet, with this one, we linger much longer with the thought that perhaps he isn’t innocent).  There is even what would later become the obligatory cameo from the director himself (begun with this film because the actor who was supposed to play the role didn’t show up).

And yet, this, in some ways, is much different than what would soon come from him.  This is a very good film and one that shows Hitchcock’s talent for creating mood and atmosphere, creating an aura of suspense.  But it is far from a masterpiece – only the first real glimmering of talent.  Seven years later, Hitchcock would make his first great film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, using much of what he had first showed in this film.  And yet, in between, what was there?  There were a couple of films that showed some promise, Blackmail and Murder, both of them suspenseful and both of them good.  But much of his other work was entirely forgettable.

This is a very good film, as I have said, a story of a Jack the Ripper type killer, with a mysterious lodger who may be the killer, or may be just someone who is interested in the killer.  The suspense begins right from the start, with a body being fished out of the Thames and the suspense continues through, with a romance budding between the lodger and his landlord’s daughter (with the daughter also in a romance with a local policeman who is hunting the killer).  But, watching it this time, I was struck by this notion: if Hitchcock’s career hadn’t gone anywhere would we look at this as the first showing of talent, or just another suspense film from a director who didn’t do much?  And I wondered, watching it this time and lowering it just a bit from the evaluation I had of it previously, if we don’t all over-rate it just a little because it is the first really good work from Hitchcock and because it is so much better than all his other pre-1934 films.

lodgerbookThe Source:

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes  (1913), adapted as a play by Lowndes titled Who is He?

As noted above, The Lodger paves the way for much of Hitchcock’s later career.  That includes the source material itself.  I, at one point, had this notion that any great film that was adapted from a novel must be worth reading in the original source.  Hitchcock films helped to cure me of that.  What Hitchcock proved is that pulp material, sub-par writing combined with a quick pace and maybe some interesting dialogue (though the better dialogue usually came from a scriptwriter rather than the source material) made for a better film than first-class literary material.  Only two of his films really come from literary material that is a step up – Rebecca and Sabotage (and Sabotage didn’t make for as good of a film as the ones made from pulp).  The Lodger is no exception to any of this.  The novel is very readable, moves very quickly and adheres to plot and dialogue with not a whole lot of time spared for characterization.  In short, it was perfect material for the man who would later be dubbed the Master of Suspense.

The Adaptation:

The big change from the novel to the film isn’t one that Hitchcock wanted to make.  The novel has an ending that is intended to be much more ambiguous.  But, as Hitchcock has noted, once Ivor Novello was cast, Hitchcock wasn’t allowed that option.  He had to make it clear that this wasn’t the killer.  So, he gave it a suspenseful ending and kept things going all the way to the end, and in the end, though forced to make it clear that Novello wasn’t the killer, he didn’t bother to show the actual killer.  Other than that, the novel paved the way straight to the screen, with titles making use of what little dialogue was needed to help convey the key points of the plot and the mood set by Hitchcock’s direction.

The Credits:

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Scenario by Elliot Stannard.  Uncredited writing by Hitchcock.  The credits do not mention the play.

p_laugh_clown_laughLaugh Clown Laugh

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film here, noting it as my Overlooked film of 1927-28.

The Source:

Laugh Clown Laugh  (1923), a play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing – adapted from the story “Ridi, pagliaccio” by Faurto Martini

I haven’t read the play.  I was going to read the story, but I can only seem to find it in Italian.

The Adaptation:

Though clearly I haven’t read the play, I have the feeling that they followed it pretty closely.  There certainly isn’t anything in the film that screams out that it wouldn’t have been in the original play.  There was a happy ending that was shot (which is now, thankfully, lost) at the studio’s insistance, so I believe that the more tragic ending is what the original play had.

The Credits:

Directed by Herbert Brenon.  Written by Elizabeth Meehan.  Titles by Joseph Farnham.  The titles by Farnham may have been an Oscar nominee.  Farnham won the only Oscar ever given for Title Writing, in this initial year of the Oscars (the category was made redundant by the advent of sound).  According to older Oscar sources (like Inside Oscar), Farnham won for Telling the World, a Sam Wood film that is now lost.  And those sources also list Farnham as having been nominated for Laugh Clown Laugh.  But current Academy records say “The award was not associated with any specific film title.”  So who knows where the old information came from.

the-scarlet-letter-movie-poster-1926-1020380320The Scarlet Letter

The Film:

In the first Adapted Screenplay post, in my review of Birth of a Nation, I quoted the Mythical Monkey on how the plot hinges on two different men and their attempts to get into Lilian Gish’s underpants, and how that doesn’t really work that well because of how Gish played the role, and because of Gish’s acting personality in general.  So, what a refreshing change it is and a mark of Gish’s talent that she is able to pull off so well the role of Hester Prynne, someone whose sexual sin is the key point in the film.  If we don’t believe that Hester would sleep with the man, then nothing else in the story will work.  And rest assured (though it is surprising), that Gish is actually up to the role.

As I note below, the film moves away from the original novel by presenting us the story from the beginning, and tracking the arc of her love affair rather than simply inserting us into the story after her child has been born and she is held up as a sinner.  This allows us to see how their affair unfolds, how pity moves into love, or at least lust, and how things move forward from there.  Gish actually provides a little spark of sensuality and playfulness to her role, something that wasn’t needed in many of her early performances in Griffith films, but which she finds here, in the direction from Sjöström.  And perhaps his direction is the key difference, for she is able to find even more of it in her next role, the best performance she would ever give, as the tormented woman in The Wind.  Aside from Gish, we also have the rather hypnotic performance of Henry B. Walthall as her long-lost husband.  Walthall had been one of the men after her in Birth, but he is better here, in a performance that seems like it was copied from all the things written about the Mad Monk, Rasputin.

This film, in the latter days of the Silent Era, shows what can work best about the whole era.  How well would any of these performances have worked in a sound film?  Lars Hanson, who was playing Dimmesdale, is actually speaking in Swedish.  Gish and Hanson have lines that would seem overly melodramatic if they were actually forced to speak them but work well enough as intertitles.  And Walthall doesn’t ever have to speak, but rather project a presence.

Hawthorne.Scar8Guill.intro.bigThe Source:

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne  (1850)

I became rather well-known in my 19th Century Lit class, my Junior year of college.  We had to write a paper on one of the books we had read in class and then read a critical article, discuss the critical approach and how well it works.  I asked if I could write about the new film that had just come out with Demi Moore.  The new film was being excoriated by critics for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that they had tacked on a happy ending to a story that everyone knew ended tragically (well, tragically depending on your point-of-view, I suppose).  I mentioned that this was a critical approach, even if it was a piss-poor one, and that they must have had reasons for the approach (based on interviews) and so could I write on that?  I was told yes.  So I wrote a paper comparing the novel and the film.  When our papers came back and I had a 93.  My friend Chris had a 92.  And since our professor had mentioned there were only two A’s on the papers, that meant I had received the highest grade in the class.  What many students knew, but my professor did not, was that I had neither read the book nor seen the film.  I had been able to listen to enough conversation in class and grasp enough from reviews of the film to write the paper, and write it well enough that it earned an A, without doing any of the actual work.

Well, I have read the book now.  I may not have wished I had read it, may never be a fan of Hawthorne, but at least I have read it, so there is no bullshit in this piece.  Well, unless you disagree with my notion that the novel is boring, that Hawthorne’s prose is turgid and mind-numbing and that while there may be an interesting character at the heart of it in Hester Prynne, the moralizing and righteousness gets too much to bear long before the end.

The Adaptation:

For a film that runs only 97 minutes, it is interesting that it takes over a third of that to actually get to the starting point of the novel – Hester receiving her scarlet A.  Rather than start with the beginning of the novel and allow the tale to unfold from there, writer Frances Marion decided to go with a more straightforward narrative approach, showing a Hester who runs free before the Reverend takes pity on her and a love affair begins (an affair, it must be said, the Reverend is unaware is adultery when it begins).  The child, Pearl, the actual proof of the adultery, doesn’t appear until after the 35 minute mark.  It makes for an interesting choice though – instead of waiting to find out who the father of the child is, we know long before the child is even born who the father is going to be.  It also means that instead of seeing a strong and defiant Hester right from the start, we get a different look at her character, one that shows her as a person before it shows her as one who refuses to cow before the crowd.  And the film, unlike the wretched 1995 version (yes, by now I have seen it, and good lord I wish I hadn’t), this one has the courage of its convictions and actually has the proper ending.  Or at least, it has Hawthorne’s ending, and it’s as proper as it can be for this story.

The Credits:

Directed by Victor Sjöström (as Victor Seastrom).  Adapted, scenario and titles by Frances Marion.  According to The Speed of Sound, Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell worked on the titles at one point, but asked (and received) to have their names taken off because of what they perceived as “bad grammar” that was “open to misconstruction” in the titles used in the film.

The Award Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10:

the-jazz-singer-movie-poster-1927-1020170572The Jazz Singer

The Film:

The Jazz Singer is an important film, a milestone in the history of film.  That does not make it a great film.  It was made ineligible for Best Production in that first year of the Oscars, but do we really think it would have been nominated?  (Well, possibly – it’s better than The Racket, which was nominated).  But this film is more important for what it did than for the film itself.  It is a decent enough musical, the story of a young singer who doesn’t want to be a cantor like his parents want (and like generations have been before him).  Al Jolson was never that great of an actor and they wisely didn’t try to have him do too much sound acting.  He sings and his singing is fine.  But in the more dramatic scenes, he just doesn’t really cut it.  And of course, these days it’s awkward to watch, with the blackface and the outdated method of acting and performing.  But it will always be an important moment in film.  It’s too bad it’s not better and more worth remembering for what it is.

The Source:

The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson (1925) – adapted from his story “The Day of Atonement” (1922)

There isn’t anything particularly special about the original short story, although the magazine it first appeared in proclaims “So Sound and Dramatic Is this Tale That a Manager Plans to Make a Play of It.”  Well, that was certainly true, although it took a few more years before the play actually came to be, turning a story that was only a few pages into something long enough for the stage (don’t believe what you read about Raphaelson on Wikipedia – if he supposedly did the play in a weekend after the story was published, explain the line above the story I just quoted from its original magazine publication, when the play wasn’t produced until 1925 – and Raphaelson himself said in the program for the film that he wrote the play three years before, which means he was writing the play in 1924).  There wasn’t much to be done for turning the play into the film – they could use the original musical scenes without any problems and almost all of the dialogue simply became titles.  The advent of sound meant that film versions of plays no longer were going to be so drastically shorter than they were before – you could actually have dialogue (or songs) instead of just a title that would sum up key lines.

The Adaptation:

And all of that said above makes it odder that this would be an initial nominee for the initial Best Adaptation category.

The Credits:

Directed by Alan Crosland.  Adaptation by Alfred A. Cohn.  Titles by Jack Jarmuth.

220px-Glorious_Betsy_1928_posterGlorious Betsy

The Film:

Because Glorious Betsy survives in various archives, but has never been released in any sort of format viewable outside those archives, I have never been able to see it.  This is the first of luckily only a handful of films nominated in this category which I have never seen (and which we’ll be done with by the next year).  But what Arne Anderson, a passionate fan of silent films who has seen far more silent films than I ever possibly could, says about the film is “There is no reason to see this quite boring adaptation of the play of the same name if you are not a Dolores Costello fan.”

The Source:

Glorious Betsy by Rida Johnson Young  (1908)

I have never read the play by Young.  But I have seen a later adaptation of the play calling Hearts Divided, directed by Frank Borzage, and it doesn’t fill me with inspiration.

The Adaptation:

Of course, because I have never seen the film, I can’t really comment on the adaptation.  They don’t seem to have done much more than film the play, with a bit of opening it up.

The Credits:

Directed by Alan Crosland.  Written by Anthony Coldeway.  Titles by Jack Jarmuth.

helenThe Private Life of Helen of Troy

The Film:

Well, it’s actually more difficult to see any of The Private Life of Helen of Troy than it is to see any of Glorious Betsy.  There is about a half hour of it still available at the BFI Archive.  And that’s it.  So, we have the only film actually nominated for Title Writing (the other two nominations were for specific writers and don’t have specific films attached to them, in spite of what you may read in Inside Oscar) and it’s pretty much impossible to ever see it.

The Source:

The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine  (1925) and the play The Road to Rome by Robert E. Sherwood  (1927)

I have never read either of these two books.  And, since I can’t ever see the film, I’m not real inclined to go seek out either work.

The Adaptation:

I am, however, a bit confused as to how the film can be based on Sherwood’s play.  Sherwood’s play specifically deals with Hannibal at the gates of Rome while Hannibal never appears in the film (which makes sense since there was almost a millenium between the Trojan War and Hannibal).  But, the play is a comedy, dealing with Hannibal’s love for a woman as to the reason that he doesn’t sack Rome.  So, my thinking is that perhaps the concept (and perhaps even some lines) from the Sherwood play got lifted and moved to the Trojan War (since this is supposed to be a comedy).  That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

The Credits:

Directed by Alexander Korda.  Written for the screen and produced by Carey Wilson.  Titles by Gerald C. Duffy.  The IMDb lists the titles as being by Casey Robinson, though it was Duffy that was nominated for the Oscar.

Other Noteworthy Adaptations:

  • The Hands of Orlac  –   a very good German horror film more notable for the direction than the script
  • The Racket  –  notable only in that it was a Best Picture nominee and was lost for a long time