An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases
The Valentino Collection (The Young Rajah, Moran of the Lady Letty, Stolen Moments, Society Sensation) (1918-1922)
This two-disc set, another crown jewel in Flicker Alley’s growing catalog, contains four rare films from the star’s career and an astonishing amount of fact and ephemera in its other features. Relentlessly nostalgic and often obsessive about its subject, the collection envelops the viewer in a kind of sensual melancholy. No lover of silent film dare be without it, and for fans of Valentino, the release must be like Disneyland to a five-year-old. Yet its content reaches beyond the star himself into the strange and often tragic zeitgeist of old Hollywood.
The four feature films are neatly divided between Valentino’s pre-stardom period and those made after his breakthrough role in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse(1921).
The Young Rajah (1922), is a lost film, but Flicker Alley has managed to find elements for at least the last third of it, with production stills and explanatory text standing in for the rest. Amazingly, it all works, in spite of the found footage being in crummy shape. The story — about a child Rajah being deposed in India, then spirited away to grow up in America (and go to Harvard!) — is nonsensical, exotic hokum. As always, an impossible love presents itself, which interestingly involves the heroine overcoming an inherent racism. Valentino is truly otherworldly here, especially in the fanciful (and erotic) Rajah get-ups designed by his wife Natacha Rambova, who copped ideas from the oriental costume design of Nijinsky’s 1915 star turn in the ballet Scheherazade.
In contrast to Rajah, Moran of the Lady Letty (above), also 1922, is quite extant. This film followed The Sheik (1921), from which Valentino’s sometimes feminized appearance had given a Chicago Tribune reporter an opportunity to make light of the actor’s virility, i.e., his sexuality. In filmland, tongues began to wag, upsetting the star and worrying the studio, and commentators see Moran as a corrective to a damaged image. Thus the film’s story, from a Frank Norris novel, becomes a study in gender bias. Rudy, as Ramon Laredo, begins as a rich, effete youth — much like the one parodied by Buster Keaton in The Navigator (1924) — who, as luck would have it, gets kidnapped by some dockside ruffians to forcibly serve as a mate on a smuggling ship. The burly deckhands call him “pansy” and “Lillee of the Vallee,” but Ramon can use his fists and gains the confidence of the villainous captain. A disaster at sea brings a young woman on board, the title character Moran (Dorothy Dalton), who has worked as a man on her father’s ship, the moribund Lady Letty. In the adventures and love scenes that follow, the rather butch Moran must find her womanhood (by the end, she’s exchanged her sailor’s duds for a dress), just as Ramon learns to stand sturdily with feet apart and, while picking off Mexican desperados with a rifle, let his white shirt open to reveal a tanned expanse of manly chest.
Stolen Moments (1920) is fun to watch because it features Valentino as a lady killer who somewhat casually tries to get into the knickers of a virtuous poetry-lover, Vera Blaine, played by opera star Marguerite Namara. Trying to follow Geraldine Ferrar’s steps into the movies, Namara is strictly lousy, whereas Valentino, oozing slime all over her, is natural and convincing. Early in his career the actor’s dark brand of handsome often landed him supporting roles as villains like this, but Stolen Moments Was the last film before he catapulted into stardom with Horsemen.
The earliest film included, Society Sensation (1918), is a charming reversal on the Cinderella theme in which the heroine (a winsome and pretty Carmel Myers) will accept the love of wealthy playboy Richard Bradley (Valentino) only if, instead of the duchess he mistakes her for, he knows her as the working-class girl she really is.
Flicker Alley has chosen its musical accompaniments with characteristic care. John Mirsalis’ solo piano score for Young Rajah, very touching in its lyrical moments, brings forth a fetching oriental pastiche for the story’s exotic side. Two fabulous players, Robert Israel (piano) and Vit Muzik (violin), underscore Moran with great empathy for the images on the screen. Elsewhere, Bob Mitchell performs wonders on a well-recorded pipe organ.
Apart from the films, the other features on these discs are too numerous to fully list here, but I can mention some favorites. There’s an extensive interactive tour of Valentino’s Falcon Lair estate, with vintage photos of the interior, coupled with a “home movie” video tour of the residence before it was torn down in 2005. A vintage audio interview with the “original” Lady in Black, Ditra Flamé, is one of several features that deal with Rudy’s death at 31 in 1926 and the frenzied outpouring of grief that came with it. In the same context, I was much affected by a set of three 1926 recordings of pop songs lamenting Valentino’s passing, especially Vernon Dalhart’s tearful rendition of “There’s a New Star in Heaven Tonight.” Indeed — take a look at these discs, and you’ll see it’s still shining.
USA/B&W, tinted /1918-1922/Fullscreen/228 min. Issued by Flicker Alley, 2007. Available now.
She (Irving Pichel and Lansing C. Holden, 1935)
Colorization rears its joyless face on Kino’s otherwise superb release of Merian C. Cooper’s 1935 production of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure tale, She. The two-disc set contains both a colorized version and the black-and-white original, but with the latter in such wonderful shape, well, no harm done.
Naively, perhaps, I thought the colorization process was largely discredited in our enlightened DVD era. But of all people, the 87-year old special effects maestro, Ray Harryhausen, appears to be enthusiastically endorsing a return of colorization to the video marketplace. On disc 2 of Kino’s set, in a shamelessly promotional interview for the colorizing firm Legend Films, Harryhausen claims that “young people won’t look at a film without color.” The fact is — whatever hopes Harryhausen et al. harbor — the demographic for a video of a film like this has never been and never will be “young people”; it’s for melancholy old film buffs like me.
For this old buff, the black-and-white original of She is the only one to watch. Kino claims original elements for the film’s transfer, and it does indeed look that good. Although She is hopelessly dated — even the Spielberg/Lucas Indiana Jones series, which put an arch spin on Haggard’s brand of adventure yarn, is old stuff now — it often rises above its own inherent silliness, infected as it is with producer Cooper’s unique enthusiasm for the “distant, dangerous, and difficult.”
The story begins swiftly as good-looking but empty-headed everyman Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) joins forces with British scientist Holly (Nigel Bruce) to retrace Vincey’s ancestor’s steps back to a mythic land that harbors the secret of immortality. Haggard places his forgotten valley in the depths of Africa; Cooper shifts it all to Antarctica, where a smoldering, ageless dominatrix, known only as She Who Must Be Obeyed, guards over the “flame of life” and awaits the return, from death itself, of Leo’s 15th-century ancestor, her vanquished lover John Vincey.
Cooper’s production has Leo and Holly, on their way to She’s lair, acquire two extra passengers. One, a fawn-like child-woman, Tanya (Helen Mack), is the abused daughter of the brutish trader who, out of sheer piss and vinegar, leads Vincey and Holly to the rim of the world. When her father dies, fortunately in the first act, Tanya emerges plucky as all get out and lends considerable spice to the drama.
Upon arriving in the land of She, Tanya sheds her bulky arctic outerwear and dons a reject from She’s closet, an outfit whose top is a kind of cross-your-heart affair that lifts and separates Mack’s prominent breasts to lovely effect. Once Vincey lays eyes on the newly aligned upper frontal superstructure, Tanya, a child-woman no longer, is a true threat to the lovesick She, who plans to bathe Leo in the flame of life, render him immortal, and forever tell him what to do.
Mack is fun to watch, and the stately Helen Gahagan, as She, is actually quite good. When Mack tells her that she’s going to fight for Leo, Gahagan, a beauty in her own right, seems to age on the spot. But as they argue over the fate of charmless Randolph Scott, I wanted to tell the two gals: don’t waste your energy.
The eternally avuncular Nigel Bruce is a good foil to Scott’s vacuity, but the real star of this film is its production design (featuring out-of-control Deco sets) and most especially the musical underscore by Max Steiner. Steiner’s music takes center stage in an extended set piece, the Ceremony of the Flame, in which exotically masked dancers perform an eccentric dance to the composer’s modernist rhythms. Here Steiner has upped the ante considerably on the bump and grind of the natives’ dance in Kong — both John Morgan (in his interesting interview on disc 2) and Harryhausen liken the scene’s music to Rite of Spring. I’d call it baby Stravinsky, but in any case this is exciting, high-end film music.
The special features include the aforementioned interviews with Harryhausen and composer John Morgan, plus an interview with the curator of Merian C. Cooper’s papers at Brigham Young University, John V. D’Arc. There are excerpts from two earlier film adaptations of She, from 1911 and 1922, and Harryhausen and Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz share the commentary on the feature.
USA/1935/B&W and colorized/Fullscreen/102 min. Issued by Kino, 2007. Available now.
True Heart Susie, the Story of a Plain Girl (Griffith, 1919) and Hoodoo Ann(Lloyd Ingraham, 1916)
Anyone dismissive of D. W. Griffith because of the racism in Birth of a Nation or the disingenuousness of its apologia, Intolerance, should check out 1919’s True Heart Susie. Made at the height of his powers and free of overweening Big Statements (other than “plain girls make better wives”), this film reminds me that the best parts of Birthare its domestic scenes and that the most winning story in Intolerance is the “modern” one, with Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron as young lovers. Griffith honed his skill at intimate drama in his early Biograph films, many of which, like True Heart Susie, take place in small-town, rural America.
True Heart Susie opens with a spelling bee in a one-room schoolhouse. When gangly William (Robert Harron) fumbles his chance at spelling “anonymous,” Susie (Lilian Gish), the mere slip of a girl standing next to him, rattles it off without a hitch. The moment is a sly foreshadowing from Griffith, who also wrote the screenplay: Susie changes the course of the life of her childhood sweetheart, William, by acting selflessly and, most importantly, anonymously. To help pay the restless boy’s way through college, Susie sells her prized cow (and some chickens). Never saying a word about her actions, she knows how to spell “faithful” and “loyal,” whereas poor William must remain clueless and unhappy until he learns to spell “S-u-s-i-e.”
In the early scenes, twenty-somethings Harron and Gish are both convincing as goofy teenagers, but Gish, with pigtails and countrified hat, squeezes your heart as the dopey-eyed, lovesick Susie, who assumes she’s got her future with William all mapped out — much to her later chagrin.
Gish plays Susie as a tight little bundle of virginal goodness. An eccentric, inward (yet soulful) girl, Susie is forever stranded on the fringes of social gatherings and friendship (even William can’t bring himself to kiss her). Sometimes to an effect reminiscent of Keaton’s, the actress keeps Susie’s posture rigid, her movements stiff, and her face impassive. Within this stillness Susie’s eyes dart about incessantly like barn swallows.
Finally spying William embracing and pledging marriage to a dark, man-eating sylph named Bettina (Clarine Seymour), Susie’s emotional house of cards comes clattering down and the actress gets her big close-up. When Gish, her face benumbed with shock, runs her little finger distractedly along her lower lip, she could be playing Ophelia on the threshold of madness — it’s almost a bit of classical acting. But then Susie’s features crumple into the messiness of humiliation and grief. Somehow Gish allows us to hear, without benefit of a soundtrack, the quiet rasp of Susie’s sobs. No scene I can think of better displays the voyeurism of cinema. Gish makes us feel we shouldn’t be seeing this.
Susie and William belong to a world of tree-arched lanes, rose bowers, and open fields hazy with dust under a summer’s nostalgic sun. Griffith’s lensman, Billy Bitzer gives us his best here, his landscape shots capturing a breadth of air and diffused light. If he saw this movie, Thomas Wolfe probably cried. In the final shot, the two lovers, children again, walk under the tall trees, heading home. Such tenderness! Griffith is redeemed.
USA/1919/B&W, tinted/1.33:1/87 minutes.
As a bonus, Image has included the 1916 comedy Hoodoo Ann. Although the filmmaking may not be in Griffith’s league (he did write the story), the movie has Mae Marsh, and that’s quite enough, thank you.
At 22, Marsh plays the jinxed orphan Ann, who is providentially adopted by a lonely aging couple. Showered with affection, Ann blossoms into young womanhood and falls in love with the boy next door (the redoubtable Robert Harron) only to find her bad luck has returned with near slapstick results. The laughs are mild, but it’s Marsh’s show all the way, and what a pleasure it is seeing this actress get an opportunity to display so much of her radiant charm, which here she combines with an adorable ditziness.
Image presents both films in a state of remarkable preservation, with Hoodoo Ann Boasting a transfer from a positive made from the camera negative. Rodney Sauer compiled and arranged delicate, lyrical scores for both films. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies True Heart Susie; a solo Sauer at the piano does the honors for Hoodoo Ann.
USA/1916/B&W/1.33:1/64 minutes. Both films issued on one disc by Image Entertainment, 2007. Available now.
The Call of Cthulhu (Andrew Leman, 2005)
The guys and gals of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society are not the saturnine pale-faced types you’d expect from their shingle but actually quite a fun bunch, hale and hearty. Once you check out their web site, you find the Society’s purpose is far from any musty Lovecraft scholarship; instead its membership is devoted to planning and executing “a Lovecraftian live-action role-playing game of their own devising, known as Cthulhu Lives!” As much as this kind of activity would be anathema to the reclusive impulses of yours truly, I recognize its social role-playing excitement has led to a unique — and successful — creative experiment: making feature films, with very little money, from the stories of their master, H. P. Lovecraft.
In 2005, the HPLHS released their 47-minute, black-and-white, silent film of Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1925). Just as “Cthulhu” has exactly two vowels and is a challenge to pronounce, Call of Cthulhu is not unusual in the Lovecraft oeuvre in its sullen resistance to being made into a movie.
The heavily atmospheric short story is curiously rather plot deprived, yet nevertheless consists of several narratives within a narrative that peel away from each other like the layers of an onion, all generated from a locked box full of papers and news clippings gathered by a certain Professor George Angell of Brown University. Discovered, post-mortem, by his grand-nephew, these remnants of research lead the narrator on a search to bring their implied meanings together to form a terrifying whole, the Cthulhian truth of which can send the human brain into delirium, psychosis, and even death.
Lovecraft’s recurring Cthulhu Mythos is a godless, cosmic construct of chaos that’s not only antediluvian but ante humans, animals, plants and the good old Earth altogether. Its creatures, the Great Old Ones, were denizens of outer space who came to the planet and went off into dream-filled sleep long before we feckless human beings had a chance to form our fragile illusions of order and meaning in the face of inchoate nature. To sustain civilization, a massive system of denial is absolutely necessary. On this last point, Lovecraft will get no argument from me.
The climax of story and film has a sea captain land his sailors at an unknown island and actually confront a live Old One, the ancient, monstrous Cthulhu, as It awakens from eons of slumber. Some sailors instantly die of fright just looking at this thing, which has figments of squid tentacles and bat wings, but Lovecraft, importantly, keeps his description vague. A key ingredient of the terror, rendered in overwritten prose, is overpowering loathsomeness: “It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of the poison city of madness.”1
The best sequences of HPLHS’ film occur before this climax, but you can’t fault them for trying to feature Cthulhu in the flesh. Up against the Great Old One, the actors’ faces project unmitigated fear — Noah Wagner as Captain Collins is especially good at awed, terrified wonder — but we’re missing the loathsomeness of the proceedings, and Cthulhu Itself might better be portrayed as a shadowy suggestion, although the stop-action animated model supplied here, its tentacles shakily a-wriggle, is affectionately close to what you might get in 1925, when O’Brien’s The Lost World Appeared.
The techniques and look of a mid-’20s film are exactly what Sean Branney and director Leman have gone after, but, although it could’ve smacked of a novelty gimmick, the filmmakers needed this framing device. To capture any of Lovecraft’s mood or style, you don’t need Sandra Dee2 or a talkative script, you need stylistic distance. When the artist Henry Wilcox (Chad Fifer) dreams of “cyclopean cities,” with their “abnormal geometry,” the set design goes trapezoidal and Caligarian. This kind of antiquated Expressionism would end up a howler in a color, sound film. The Call of Cthulhu uses the feel and look of silent films as a conjectured equivalent to the “latent horror” that Lovecraft wished to inspire with prose.
Quite accurately, the actors, nearly all of them male, are done up with over-emphatic makeup — de rigeur for silent film — and the effect of eyeliner and powder is not silly at all. Instead the characters appear haunted by Lovecraft’s pervasive sense of lonely, inescapable doom. The anguished narrator (very well played by Matt Foyer) looks like he’s going to have a heart attack any second.
The entire film is an example of shoestring-budgeted filmmaking that demands creative troubleshooting, which is forthrightly detailed in a making-of feature on the disc. One of the most effective settings, a fetid swamp in which New Orleans police round up a bunch of Cthulhu cultists, was cunningly fashioned from banal materials in a manner that reminded me of haunted houses I constructed in the basements of my childhood. The primal joy of playacting in an imagined world made of cardboard and scotch tape seems fundamental to HPHLS’ endeavor.
The pacing of the film is well judged, but what really counts as its agent of suspense is the music score, written by four composers — Troy Sterling Nies, Ben Holbrook, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Chad Fifer. Their efforts here are richly evocative, and I hope to hear more of their work in the next HPLHS release, The Whisperer in Darkness, coming in 2008. This time the feature is in full Mythoscope sound, with dialog and all, and, judging by the trailer posted on the HPHLS site, elegantly photographed in black-and-white.
Note: The film is not to be confused with Dan Gildark’s Cthulhu (2007), a feature-length indie that leading Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi has called “possibly the best Lovecraft adaptation yet.”
USA/2005/B&W/Full frame/47 minutes. Issued by The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, 2007.
El Bruto (Buñuel, 1952)
Luis Buñuel’s superb noir features Katy Jurado as the bad girl who pulls the hero down to his doom. Jurado — one of the great beauties of the 20th century — played the erotically charged Helen Ramirez in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, also released in 1952. Besides having such a high quotient of sensuality, Katy Jurado was also a fine actress, but, despite being a major star in her native Mexico, she never made it big in the United States, where her last role of note was as marshal Slim Pickens’ pistol-packin’ wife in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Apparently, for American moviegoers in ’50s America, she was too south-of-the-border to even play dangerous, overripe sirens in tight-fitting dresses, into which Jurado might’ve poured her voluptuous geometry. So much the worse for America.
In El Bruto, she’s Paloma, the young, unsatisfied wife of the much older Don Andrés (Andrés Soler), who cages her downstairs to run his butcher shop all day while he’s off managing his properties. Buñuel frames his story of lust, deceit, and murder with the plight of some poor tenants in a Mexico City slum who are beholden to landlord Don Andrés for having a roof over their heads. When Andrés announces eviction proceedings against them, they simply refuse to leave their apartments, having organized and acknowledged the upright Carmelo Gonzalez (Roberto Meyer) as their leader. As in Los Olvidados (1950) and other of his Mexican films, Buñuel leads with a social consciousness; here, it’s deftly enfolded into lurid melodrama.
Listening to Don Andrés whine about his uncooperative tenants, the bored Paloma suggests he hire a goon to strong-arm the situation, and Andrés gets right to it, contracting a boy from the neighborhood, Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz), whose nickname as a wall of dimwitted muscle is El Bruto. Shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice(1946), the scruffy beefcake quits his job at the slaughterhouse and moves into a room next to the butcher shop where sparks begin to fly immediately between Paloma and El Bruto.
The sex is great for both of them until The Brute meets the virginal daughter of agitator Gonzalez, whom the big guy, following orders from Andrés, has murdered just days before. From here, the charge is set for revenge, violence, and a final irony. The girl, Meche (Rosa Arenas), still a child really, begins to draw out the better angels of El Bruto’s nature as the galoot falls deeply in love with her. But then, Paloma — who, in an American film, would’ve been played by Joan Crawford — walks in the door, and evil disposes of evil.
The director fills his tale, which he co-wrote, with many Buñuelian touches and bitter flourishes of black humor. In an early scene, Paloma demonstrates to Andrés how easy it should be to dispose of these troublesome poor people: she takes scissors in hand and snips off the heads of the potted flowers she’s tending. Images of butchering, knives, and meat fill the background of the sinister landlord, his wife, and his goon. At the end of the film, we leave the treacherous Paloma staring balefully into the eyes of a rooster (a symbol of betrayal?). Just as in an American noir, there are deep shadows against the bricks and across the streets, but Buñuel, with great subtlety, inserts an additional reverb of the superstitious, mystical Catholicism buried deep in the Mexican ethos.
The disc, from Cinemateca, although presented with scratches and dirt intact, is very watchable, with deep blacks and lots of detail — at times, the image is quite good. There are no extras, at least not on my screener copy.
Mexico/1952/83 minutes/B&W/Fullscreen, Spanish with English subtitles. DVD issued by Cinemateca, distributed by Facets, 2007. Available now.