Silent film

Cultural Critique, Silent Film Style

These five silent films reveal details about life in America, Germany and France between one colossal war and another.

As more silent films are restored to dazzling clarity through the wonders of digital technology, more people are watching them today than at any time since the talkies came in. They’re realizing two things: 1. Silent movies are a great art form unto themselves that envelop you in their spell, and 2. they give us a valuable window into their historical moment.

In other words, they may be “dated”, but not in a bad way. They are poignant time capsules of attitudes, hopes, fears and dreams from an era of not so long ago. These five films, now on Blu-ray, reveal details about life in America, Germany and France between one colossal war and another. Oh yeah, they’re also funny, exciting and entertaining.

The Kid (1921)

What: The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) discovers an abandoned baby boy and raises him for five years without legal authority. They engage in dubious shenanigans, include window-breaking and streetfighting, until the tyke (Jackie Coogan) is wrested away by authorities for an orphanage amid much crying and struggling. Will the long-lost mother (Edna Purviance) rediscover her child? Along the way, the Tramp has a fanciful dream of an angel-winged heaven going sour. Running less than an hour, this masterpiece still works seamlessly and fires on all emotional cylinders.

Wherefore: Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in this film and later wrote music for what wasn’t only his first feature but the longest feature starring a clown from slapstick shorts. As the saying goes, they thought it couldn’t be done. Its tremendous success cemented his reputation as the most beloved star in the world and proved a formula of mixing laughs with shameless tear-stained sentiment.

This 4K digital restoration, completed in 2015, looks eye-poppingly sharp. It’s Chaplin’s 1972 re-release, which drops three scenes (included as a bonus) and adds his score. This Criterion edition adds commentary, interviews, a home-made short with Chaplin and Coogan, and an insightful demonstration of the art of undercranking.

Speedy (1928)

What: Speedy is the nickname of Harold (Harold Lloyd), who never gets depressed just because his baseball mania keeps him from holding a job. Speedy also describes the pace of New York in the Roaring ’20s, with its subways and skyscrapers and millions of citizens on the go. The last horse-drawn trolley car seems out of step, and a rail company uses violent trickery to cheat Harold’s girlfriend’s dad out of his license. Harold organizes the melting-pot neighborhood to save the day and shows how fast the trolley can move in the big chase. Babe Ruth makes a hilarious cameo.

Wherefore: By 1928, Harold Lloyd was the biggest comedy star and producer of his own films. The hook for Speedy is that it was shot in New York with real gawking bystanders, primarily at Coney Island (a major sequence) and Greenwich Village before wrapping up on a huge street set in Los Angeles.

This 4K digital restoration is perfection, allowing us to read street signs and pick up details like Lloyd giving himself the finger in a distorted mirror. There’s agreeable commentary, a look at the film’s locales, a bonus short, home movies narrated by Lloyd’s granddaughter, and a wealth of Babe Ruth newsreels.

Spies (1928)

What: After Metropolis proved a financial disappointment for Germany’s UFA Studios, Fritz Lang regrouped by returning to his popular thrillers, this time with a generic title to imply the ultimate spy film. Lang had a knack for defining genres in this way, as witness his later Hollywood film Cloak and Dagger. In Spies, he even uses the “bad guy” actor (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) from his Dr. Mabuse films as another criminal genius and master of disguise.

Matinee idol Willi Fritsch plays the iconic pretty-boy hero, actually a master spy known only by a number: 326. Equally blonde and glamorous Gerda Maurer makes her film debut as the bad spy who, upon meeting 326, instantly loses her heart and switches sides. This time audiences showed up even though the epic runs two and a half hours, or the length of a modern James Bond film.

Wherefore: The plot makes not the slightest sense nor the slightest difference. The film is about three things: 1. constant movement and reversal in the tradition of Louis Feuillade’s French serials, combined with Lang’s sense of vast and sinister forces controlling the characters; 2. the notion that a bank president in a wheelchair is actually a diabolical (Communist?) criminal mastermind, which tells you something of how the inflationary Weimar Germany regarded bankers in particular and capitalists in general; and 3. above all, its own sense of lavish melodrama, in which every posture is writ as large as the sets.

This 2013 restoration, approximating the German theatrical version as closely as possible, looks very fine, and a lengthy making-of covers the main points of production and history.

Woman in the Moon (1929)

What: Having revived his box-office credibility, Fritz Lang and screenwriter-wife Thea von Harbou returned to science fiction with an even longer and more visually impressive epic. The gist of Woman in the Moon is that its heroine (Gerda Maurer again) is engaged to the wrong guy, and the titular trip makes the scales fall from her eyes. Willi Fritsch is the bruised and lovelorn hero. They travel to the moon in their proper attire (ties and cardigans) and find air and gold.

Despite these fancies and absurd personal crises, this was the first serious rocket drama, anticipating Destination Moon and the Apollo program.

Wherefore: The first hour is wasted on the romantic triangle and industrial espionage from more villainous capitalists before the second act finally gives the countdown (a device invented by Lang) and launching of history’s first multi-stage rocket. That was conceived by scientific consultant Hermann Oberth with practical aide from 18-year-old Wernher von Braun, whose rocket program would soon become a military secret, leading to the film’s banning by the Nazi government.

This print is full of scratches and debris, but the 2K scanning gives the image detail, depth and texture that allows us to ignore the damage. A short making-of discusses the science involved.

L’Inhumaine (1924)

What: Director Marcel L’Herbier was a major and now sinfully neglected pioneer of art cinema, and this is among his masterpieces. The titular “inhuman woman” (opera star Georgette Leblanc, who co-produced) is a modern singer and intellectual diva who cares zip about the men who hit on her, including a magnate, a revolutionary and a Hindu prince. When a young scientist (artist Jacque Catelain, impossibly pretty and doe-eyed) rushes to commit suicide over her, it’s not the banal come-on about taming a proud woman that at first it seems. It turns into a symbolic sci-fi fable about the union of the artistic and scientific in which the woman retains her integrity while finding humanity, all amid many disorienting, delirious, experimental effects.

Wherefore: This movie’s amazing designs are the work of four prominent figures (Alberto Cavalcanti, Claude Autant-Lara, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Fernand Léger) with elements from more artists. Some of the original screenings were apparently as contentious as the riotous performance depicted in one scene, and which recalls the scandal of The Rite of Spring. Having seen this film in Paris 25 years ago, I can attest that it’s overwhelming in a theatre.

This 2015 renewal, scanned at 4K with restored color tints, is jaw-dropping — as though shot yesterday. The only notable absence is Darius Milhaud’s lost 1924 score; instead we have two new scores more “expressive” than appropriate. There’s a short making-of and a piece about one of the scores.