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Tag Archives: 1920s

Seven Footprints to Satan (1928): F(r)iends of Lucifer S.

A. Merritt, Seven Footprints to Satan (Avon, 1928)
[originally posted 12Apr2000]

photo credit: Fantastic Fiction

You have to say one thing for the twenties, their book covers were outrageous.

Merritt was a million-seller back when being a million-seller meant something. Think of him as a depression-era Stephen King. The parallel’s not all that odd; Seven Footprints was one of the first books optioned for film before it actually came out (the film came out in 1929, starred Creighton Hale as Kirkham and Thelma Todd as Eve, and is probably best remembered for featuring, in a very very small role, Loretta Young).
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The Complete Metropolis (1927): You Breathe in the Fumes I Taste When We Kiss

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)


photo credit:

I usually make fun of things like “now with 25 minutes of lost footage!”, but trust me, it makes a huge difference.

What is there to say about the magical Metropolis that has not already been said? Not a damn thing, most likely, which is going to do something very rare: shut me up. I’m just going to point you to everything from Roger Ebert’s Great Films entry on the 2010 restoration, which adds almost half an hour of footage long believed to be lost (it was found in Buenos Aires in 2008; it had been cut from the original by German censors, who found it objectionable—not terribly surprising in interbellum Germany), or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2002 review from the Chicago Reader or Thomas Elsaesser’s book-length deconstruction of the film and for my part, I’m going to simply implore you to watch the silly thing, in its full, restored glory, and if you are at all a fan of fantasy, science fiction, or horror film, marvel at how incredibly influential this movie has been—you will recognize the source of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of things you’ve seen in movies since then.

photo credit:

Is there anything I can say about this picture that would make it more awesome? NO.

Note when I say “restored” that I don’t mean the new footage is as pristine as it was in 1927. Far from it—the footage recovered in Argentina was not handled all that well (in fact, there was over an hour cut from the film; half of it was not salvageable from the Argentinian print, and what happens in those bits is supplied to us via intertitles), and the difference between the bits included here from the 2001 remaster, which look very good indeed, and the bits from the 2010 restoration is palpable. And it doesn’t matter one bloody bit, ghosts of hairs and scratches on the celluloid and dust motes abound and it’s still riveting stuff, the kind of movie you can watch in the 2010s and still understand that when people went to the movies in the 1920s, some of them thought they were seeing actual honest-to-filmstock magic happening. And perhaps they were. One of the all-time greats. **** ½


Official trailer for the 2010 restoration.

The Manxman (1929): Oh, for the Love of Andry Onna…

The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)

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This is most likely the last time Alfred Hitchcock’s name was smaller than the lead actor’s on a movie poster…

I watched three Alfred Hitchcock movies I’d never seen before this week. One of them is considered among his best films; The Lady Vanishes appears on over half the critical thousand-best lists I have collected over the years. The other two, Young and Innocent and The Manxman, appear on none. These would seem to be considered relatively minor films as far as Hitchcock’s output is concerned. So it may be somewhat sacrilegious for me to say this, but I liked The Manxman, Hitchcock’s final silent film, just as much as The Lady Vanishes.

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Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929): Hollywood’s Most Popular Mystery for Thirty Years, Now Unknown

Seven Keys to Baldpate (Reginald Barker, 1929)

[note: review originally published 1Dec2008]

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(Actually, considering this was the fourth version of the novel filmed since 1916, that tagline does have some validity.)

It is a measure of the overwhelming popularity of Earl Derr Biggers’ brilliant novel Seven Keys to Baldpate that this 1929 adaptation was the fourth time the novel had been made into a movie. It is similarly a measure of the overwhelming fickleness of the media-consuming public that the final of the seven (amusingly) adaptations was released in 1947, after which both the novel and, soon after, the films, faded into obscurity. That’s a crime. Both the novel and this adaptation, widely considered the most successful of the bunch, hold up quite well.

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Come on shake your body, baby, do that conga
I know you can’t control yourself any longer…

Biggers’ novel, adapted into a stage play at the beginning of the century by George M. Cohan (yes, that George M. Cohan), starts off with a bet between William Magee (Cimarron‘s Richard Dix, at the very beginning of his tenure as the biggest star in the RKO stable), a writer trying to finish a novel, and his agent, who furnishes him with “the only key to Baldpate”, a secluded off-season hotel his family owns, to give him peace and quiet. The wager: that Magee can finish his novel in twenty-four hours. As the title will tell you, however, Magee’s is far from the only key to Baldpate, and he soon discovers that the rest of the people trickling in are looking for something much larger. $200,000 worth of larger, in fact.

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“Well, you see, officer, I’m writing a novel…”

Things get out of hand quickly, and it doesn’t help that Magee meets a lovely lass (The Lion and the Lamb‘s Miriam Seegar) who takes his mind off writing easily as much as the festivities do.

It’s a wonderful novel, it’s a wonderful adaptation, and Barker (The Great Divide), a top-class director of silents, obviously made the leap to talkies well. Not quite as impossible to find as it used to be, and worth seeking out. *** ½

[2013 update: Earl Derr Biggers’ original novel is available free at Project Gutenberg, as well as the other usual suspects. I have a hardback edition I refuse to open because it’s so fragile, so I am currently rejoicing. As I write this, it only has seventy downloads at Gutenberg. Do me proud and double that number by next week!]

They call this a “preview clip”.

The Thirteenth Chair (1929): Tod Browning Discovers Some New Folks…

The Thirteenth Chair (Tod Browning, 1929)

[note: review originally published 12Feb2011]


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“An ALL-TALKING picture!” Who knew eighty years later we’d be begging them to shut up most of the time?

I seem to be going through a Tod Browning phase. I reviewed Mark of the Vampire last year and Outside the Law last month. Wasn’t terribly thrilled with either, and The Thirteenth Chair, a remake (the original made in 1919 by Leonce Perret) of an adaptation of a stage play by Bayard Veiller, cleaves to that whole “we should adapt stage plays by making them look as much like stage plays as possible” vibe. Interesting in the hands of someone like Peter Greenaway, who knows how to exploit that. Not so Browning, who used it more as an excuse to not do too much with the camera.


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Most of these faces would become very famous a few years later, all under Browning’s direction.

The basic idea: Ned Wales (John Davidson)’ pal has been killed, and he wants to find out who the murderer was by holding a séance with a well-known local medium, Madame Rosalie (White Heat‘s Margaret Wycherly), in order to get the answer straight from him. The detective on the case, Delzante (Bela Lugosi), is convinced he’s nuts, but is willing to let him go through with it, since it gets all the suspects in one place. Things get complicated quick, however, when it’s discovered that the medium is connected to someone close to the deceased (telling you who would give the game away). And thus, the medium herself must also turn amateur detective in order to try and clear her friend’s name.

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“Come now, dear. You know you don’t want your lasagne recipe to… die… with you.”


It’s interesting that three of the principals here would work with Browning again at the high points of their careers. The female lead, Leila Hyams, would return for Freaks; John Davidson would pop back up in Miracles for Sale; and, of course, Bela Lugosi would achieve worldwide fame in Dracula. Once Browning found his footing, he was capable of getting the best out of actors. Not so here, as most of the performances are lackluster (Lugosi, especially, is indistinguishable from the wallpaper most of the time); Hyams is the sole exception, playing her bubbly effervescence here with the same determination she turned to ruthless plotting three years later in Freaks. Given competent-at-best direction and lackluster action, one must turn to the plot for sustenance, and that, at least, is nicely done; if the credits are to be believed, Veiller’s original script was used almost in toto, with a bit of “dialogue continuity” from Elliott Clawson, one of the top men at the time; he was nominated for four(!) writing Oscars in 1930, all for separate films: The Cop, The Leatherneck, Sal of Singapore, and Skyscraper. Amusingly, all four lost to Frances Marion, who took home the award for The Big House. The Thirteenth Chair would be Clawson’s Hollywood swan song; he never worked in film again, retiring due to what was called in 1942 “a long illness” when he passed away. The Thirteenth Chair is not the most fitting of epitaphs, but at least it didn’t lose to Frances Marion. *** 


Outta luck–so you get a trailer for the 1937 version starring Dame May Whitty.

It (1927): The Birth of a Nation

It (Clarence Badger, 1927)


photo credit: Rolling Blackout Pictures

The first It Girl.

The term “It Girl” has become a cultural artifact; you say it now and pretty much everyone in America knows what you’re talking about. However, Clarence Badger’s 1927 silent film It, which coined the term, has faded into obscurity. I got a chance to watch it recently and, to be kind, I understand why. Which is not to say it’s a bad film in any way, but it’s quite generic.

The plot is simple as can be: Betty Lou (the ravishing Clara Bow), the “It Girl” of the title, sets her sights on Cyrus Waltham (The Searchers‘ Antonio Moreno), the handsome, rich son of the owner of the department store where she works. Yep, that’s it, no pun intended; she spends an hour and twelve minutes trying to get her man. (And since it’s a comedy, you know how that’s gonna turn out, right?) Needless to say, if you’re a Clara Bow fan, it’s worth watching because you get to see her do her thing. And while I’m more of a Lillian Gish guy, you gotta admit, Clara Bow is hands down one of the sexiest women ever to appear on film. This isn’t seventy-two minutes you’re going to regret spending—though you’ll probably have forgotten pretty much everything about it except Ms. Bow after a couple of weeks. ***


Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy!

Torrent (1926): Introducing American Audiences to a New Star

Torrent (Monta Bell, 1926)

[note: review originally published 6Feb2010]

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You wouldn’t download a car…
You wouldn’t download a bear…
You wouldn’t download Greta Garbo…
(oops, wrong kind of torrent)

My sister-in-law, who is still quite young, was in the room for bits and pieces of Torrent while I was watching it, and is stymied at my ability to pay attention to silent movies. It never occurred to me to rebut this way while we were watching the movie, but after an hour or so of reflection, it became obvious to me; Torrent, Greta Garbo’s first film in America, is a straight Brokeback Mountain. I’m not sure whether playing it that way would have helped or hurt my cause, but once the idea was in my head, it all made perfect sense; just cast Garbo as Jake Gyllenhaal (and, honestly, Gyllenhaal, at least in the days of Donnie Darko, was just as beautiful as Torrent-era Garbo) and Ricardo Cortez as Heath Ledger, transplant them from Wyoming to Spain, stretch the post-climax (pardon the pun) action out much longer, and you have Torrent, made eighty years before and just as heartfelt.

photo credit: Wikipedia

“This love scene is so exciting we’re both actually sleeping through it.”

The film (directed by producer Monta Bell, though released without a directorial credit) casts Garbo as Leonora, a poor young girl who’s in love with Rafael (Cortez, who would go on to play Sam Spade in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon), the son of the town mayor. Rafael’s shrewish mother Bernarda (Martha Mattox, who died far too young and is now best remembered for a movie for which she got no credit—The Bitter Tea of General Yen) disapproves of the classless Leonora, but can’t really do much about it until it is discovered the two have spent the night together (whether they were talking or fucking is left to the viewer to decide). Rafael, who’s being groomed to take over the mayorship himself, can’t have that sort of stain on his reputation, so Bernarda arms the populace and drives Leonora and her father out of town. Well, they say, living well is the best revenge. Leonora goes to Paris and becomes a celebrated opera singer. She does eventually get back to her hometown, only to discover Rafael is now the mayor, and has married another woman. This is the first adult encounter between the two of them, but it is not the last; this is what I mean when I say the denouement is more drawn out here than it is in Brokeback Mountain.

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You can tell Garbo is rich when she gets back to town. Her hairstyle becomes ridiculous.

Torrent is now remembered for being Greta Garbo’s first American film, and honestly, there’s not a great deal more to remember it for; Garbo bats her eyelashes fetchingly, and Cortez is quite dapper, but there’s not a great deal of chemistry between them save in one scene (the obvious one). You can never quite believe that these two are pining for one another as the years pass. There’s a very good supporting cast, though, featuring wonderful turns from Mack Swain, Lillian Leighton, and especially Lucien Littlefield, whom I’ve always thought should have been a much bigger star than he ever was. Everyone involved here would go on to much greater fame (including Vicente Blasco Ibanez, who wrote the novel on which this movie is based; he also wrote the novel upon which Garbo’s second film, The Temptress, was based, and that is the movie that really kicked her American career off). Still, there was a point when even the Guinness Book of World Records, departing from the usual empirical standards, listed Garbo as the world’s most beautiful woman; given that she made only thirty-two films, can you afford to pass one up? I think Nicole Kidman makes that many per year. ***

Not a trailer, just a scene.