Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
A Notorious Affair (1930)
Dove and Fwancis
It's a credit to silent screen star Billie Dove that she actually manages to keep Kay Francis from walking away with this movie. It's a great role for Kay, as the lecherous Countess Balakireff, with some killer dialogue ("I never noticed you had pale blue eyes before. I hate pale blue eyes").
Dove, as heiress Patricia Hanley, elopes with starving violinist Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone), throwing away her family, fortune and fiancé in the process. Gherardi promptly begins an affair with the predatory Balakireff, as well as achieving fame and what is apparently a load of cash. When Balakireff throws over Gherardi, he suffers a nervous breakdown and is tended to by Dr. Alan Pomeroy, (Kenneth Thomson) Mrs. Gherardi's former fiancé.
Rathbone tries hard -- in fact, it's amazing that he remained so trim with the amount of scenery he was chewing. But Dove and Francis steal the movie from him effortlessly. It's the lovely Dove, with her luminous eyes, and the ravishing Francis that raise this film above the typical precode programmer.
Special credit goes to Thomson, who comes off as a complete loser in the opening scenes, only to return in the latter part of the film as a credible potential love interest. Also noteworthy is the gown Francis wears in the Christmas Carol scene, with a neckline that plunges to her waist.
The plot here is thin, but the team of Dove and Francis make it an interesting diversion.
The Star Witness (1931)
You'll be rooting for the mobsters
Aside from a few good moments of fairly raw violence, this painful film is most notable for making 68 minutes seem like two hours.
It starts with an interminably long intro where the Leeds family is introduced, including two insufferable tykes and their adult brother and sister, completely clichéd Pa and Ma, and incredibly annoying Grandpa (played by Charles "Chic" Sales). While sitting down to dinner the family is disturbed by the sounds of gunfire, and rushes to the window in time to see two men gunned down by mobsters in the street. The mobsters flee through the family's house, leaving them as witnesses to the crime.
The rest of the movie consists of Walter Huston as the crusading DA occasionally interrupting long anti-crime speeches to make half hearted attempts at trying to protect the family from the mob. It all winds up in a predictable manner.
Good points about the movie include a couple of decent shootouts and a truly nasty beating, Nat Pendleton as one of the mobsters, and the gorgeous Sue Blane in a small role as the Leeds daughter.
If you want to watch Huston play his early trademark crusading lawman, try 1932's "Beast of the City." Avoid this one if at all possible.
Lee Tracy and a bit of skin
I can sum up in six words the reasons to see this movie: Lee Tracy, Lee Tracy, and Lee Tracy. He's in top form in this combination of melodrama and crime film. Unfortunately, despite some clever dialog, the plot of this pre-code is almost painful.
Molly Louvain (Ann Dvorak) is being pursued by hustler Nicky Grant(Leslie Fenton) and bellboy Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell), but she's preparing to marry a rich man who will take her away from a life as a cigar clerk. After being dumped by her rich boyfriend, she takes off with Grant.
Fast forward three years, and Louvain has had the rich boyfriend's baby, and Grant has gone from being a traveling salesman to a small time crook.
After a policeman is murdered, Molly finds herself hiding from the law. Complications ensue, none of which are really resolved in the end.
Dvorak wasn't much of an actress. She does the best she can with the script, which can't decide if she's a hard-boiled vamp or an innocent victim, sometimes changing direction within a scene. It's difficult to generate a lot of sympathy for Molly, since whenever she's faced with a decision, she automatically makes the worst one possible. Her best scene is one where she briefly flashes her assets while changing clothes, which may explain why her career hit the skids after the Production Code.
Fenton, Dvorak's real-life husband, is good in the role of sleazy crook Nicky Grant, the kind of role at which he excelled. Richard Cromwell's stilted, wooden delivery always drives me insane, and here is no exception.
But it's Tracy, as the journalist who is falling for Molly even as he tries to get the story of her capture, who is really the reason to see this film. He keeps the film watchable and entertaining, even through the train wreck of a script.
Safety Last! (1923)
Lloyd's signature work
In his time, Harold Lloyd was as popular as Chaplin, and far more popular than Buster Keaton. With his round glasses and sweet face, he was considered the boy next door of comedy. Critical reappraisal over the years has rightly elevated Keaton above Lloyd, and "Safety Last" is a prime example of the reason why.
Lloyd had an understanding of gags, and the physical prowess to pull them off, but his character, despite his innocent look, was opportunistic and lacking the moral weight of Chaplin or Keaton.
In "Safety Last," Lloyd plays a young man who is leaving for the big city to make it big; his girlfriend, played by his wife Mildred Davis, has told him that she expects him to become successful. Upon arrival, he writes daily letters home telling her of his big business deals. In the meantime, he is ducking the landlady (the scene where he and his roommate hide from her was great) and slaving as a lowly department store clerk. The gags in the store, where he hides his late arrival from his boss and deals with a mob of ladies attempting to buy fabric, are actually the funniest part of the film.
Eventually his girlfriend shows up in town unnannounced, and he is forced to play the part of the big shot while hiding his lowly position from her. In an attempt to get the money he needs to buy a house, he ends up climbing a 12 story building, dealing with pigeons, police and gunfire along the way.
There are some very funny moments in the film, but Lloyd's lack of a moral center keep it from achieving true greatness. In one scene, he slips a dollar into a trash can as a bribe to an office boy to play along with his big-shot deception; a second later, he steals it back. It's a funny gag, but compare it to Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," where he not only returns a lost dollar but ends up giving away his own money to a second woman looking for a lost bill. Keaton manages to be funny and create sympathy for his character simultaneously.
This lack of sympathy works against Lloyd in the film's climax, when he makes his climb up the building. What should be breathtakingly suspenseful, with the gags serving as a tension-breaker, comes off as merely mechanical. Because there has been no connection with the audience, the possibility of him falling almost seems like a just reward for his lying and opportunism. When Keaton finds himself in danger, as in the spectacular waterfall scene in "Our Hospitality," his basic decency adds moral weight to the suspense that's totally lacking from Lloyd's work.
In all, while Lloyd manages to be funny and entertaining, it's impossible to love him. He has a real understanding of pulling off a gag, but almost none of making a movie work.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Chaney outshines everyone.
Chaney is best known today for two roles: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and Erik in "The Phantom of the Opera." The pair contrast the human response to physical deformity. While Quasimodo searches for kindness and acts to protect his home and loved ones, Erik shuns humanity and in his hatred and isolation becomes truly evil.
Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) is the understudy at the Paris Opera house, an ancient structure built over a network of torture chambers and interconnecting cellars. Rumors abound of a ghost or phantom who stalks the halls, and even rents his own box for the performances. With the help of this mysterious stranger, Daae becomes the lead diva.
Daae, apparently fine with her benefactor's use of extortion and mass murder to help her career, dumps her boyfriend Raoul (Norman Kerry) and follows the masked Phantom into the bowels of the opera house. She is, however, sensitive enough to collapse in a faint at the discovery that her benefactor is the legendary Phantom, and at his profession of love for her.
Awakening, she discovers herself in a lavish bedroom he has prepared for her, with her name engraved on a hand mirror. But upon snatching off the Phantom's mask, she realizes that he isn't Prince Charming after all, but hideously deformed, with a skull-like face.
The Phantom returns her to the opera, telling her that she must never see Raoul again. Upon reflection, however, Christine decides that looks and sanity are more important to her in a lover than she originally thought, and makes plans to meet Raoul at the annual masked ball. Raoul, neither particularly brave or smart, suggests that the two of them hightail it out of town. Christine, not one to run before her chance at the big time, suggests that they flee after the following evening's performance. Erik, of course, is listening in.
At that point Erik drops his nice-guy facade, hangs a stagehand who discovers his trap door, kidnaps Christine and flees into the cellars. He is hotly pursued by Raoul and a Secret Police inspector, who are followed by Raoul's brother, who is followed by angry mob led by the murdered stagehand's brother.
Erik, meanwhile, is trying to convince Christine of his capacity to reform ("No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred -- for you shall bring me love!"). Alas, his plans to become a good husband are interrupted by the need to bump off a few of his pursuers, using elaborate boody traps and alarms throughout the dungeons.
The final minute of the movie is perhaps the best, with Erik's final gesture proving that his mental ability far outweighs that of anyone else in the film. He goes out in style, leaving the dim-witted Raoul and his amoral girlfriend to live happily ever after.
The two best things are Chaney's over-the-top performance as Erik and the spectacular sets. Chaney had a way of making any other actors in a film appear flat and lifeless, and this is no exception. The elaborate set of the opera house and the gothic appearance of the dungeons are still impressive, and the tinting and two-strip technicolor in the Bal Masque sequence look great.
"Phantom" is rousing horror/adventure, while "Hunchback" was a touching allegorical film. The latter is better and more serious, but "Phantom" is still some of the most fun it's possible to have before a movie screen.
The Plastic Age (1925)
The Dangers of Sex
You can't go wrong with Clara Bow, but if you're expecting a movie on the order of her later work prepare to be disappointed. I was entertained by this film, but some of the moments that made me laugh were probably not intentionally funny.
Donald Keith plays Hugh Carver, a high school athletic star who is going off to college. Before he leaves home, his mother (Mary Alden) tells his father (Henry Walthall, best known as the Little Colonel in "Birth of a Nation), to discuss with him "the things he should know." As his father explains sex to him, Hugh looks bewildered and shocked.
Upon arriving at Prescott College, Hugh initially learns that higher education consists of harmless hijinks. His roomie, Carl Peters, is quite the ladies man and party animal. Hugh dismisses talk of such things, saying "my athletics are fun enough for me."
We all know that can't last, and sure enough, while invading a womens house during his freshman hazing, Hugh meets Cynthia Day (Bow), the "real hotsy-totsy." Hugh ends up dancing with Bow, who is not so much dancing as having sex with her clothes on.
That's the start on Hugh's road to ruin, as he returns to his dorm and is apparently so inflamed by hormones that he decides to take up smoking. So much for being a big track star. Sure enough, he loses his first race, estranging him from his father.
Hugh doesn't care. He's deep into the party scene by this time, dating Bow mostly. This causes a fight between Hugh and Carl, destroying their relationship. Eventually Bow breaks up with Hugh, not wanting to completely destroy his innocence.
This puts him back on the right track, and he makes it to his senior year where the movie resolves itself predictably.
"The Plastic Age" comes on a 2 film DVD with "The Show-Off," another silent comedy that has Louise Brooks in a backup role. Bow and Brooks were destined for better things, but the DVD offers an interesting glimpse at the early work of two women who, along with Colleeen Moore, defined the flapper era. The two actresses were very different; Bow's style was barely contained animal sexuality, while Brooks was more elegant and graceful.
Silent fans will enjoy these second-tier movies, but to see the actresses at their peak, Bow's "Wings" or "It" and Brook's "Diary of a Lost Girl" are far better films.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
A Fairy Tale
The main characters in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" are for the most part flat, one-dimensional representations of forces and emotions. I was reminded of old English morality plays, such as "Everyman, " where the roles are representations of a single human emotion or spirit. They are as devoid of actual personality as Prince Charming or Goldilocks, and within the story structure, serve the same function.
Phoebus represents order, Clopin the beggar stands for chaos, Jehan and his brother Dom Claude are respectively the forces of evil and of good. Esmerelda represents desire; neither Phoebus nor Jehan needs a reason to want her, her mere existence is enough. This is not oversight but inherent to the story. One should no more expect them to be fully realized than one should expect complex psychology from the Three Little Pigs. The characters are incapable of growth; rather they blindly fulfill their allegorical natures.
Standing in bas-relief to the rest of the characters is Quasimodo the monster. Misshapen and deformed, he is the only character capable of personal growth and change, and represents the full range of human emotion and action. Over the course of the film, as he grows to know pain and betrayal, joy and love, loyalty and faith, the hunchback represents all of mankind; in fact, the monster is the only real human in the story.
The movie opens with Quasimodo perching on the cathedral mocking the revelers below, both despising and envying their joy and normality. He does not hate, however. He wants to be part of the human pageant, rather than cast alone. He longs for human contact, even in the person of the despicable Jehan, who uses and betrays him in an attempt to kidnap Esmerelda. The ill-fated crime ends with Quasimodo chained and whipped in the town square. As he begs for someone to aid in slaking his thirst, he is brought water by Esmerelda herself, and learns the meaning of loyalty and true kindness.
Quasimodo's actions always stem from a sense of self. When he rescues Esmerelda from hanging by the King's agents, he is not casting his lot with chaos, but protecting kindess and beauty. When he attacks the rioting peasants in the movie's climax, he is not showing respect for order, but protecting his home. He alone among the characters is a fully realized human, showing anger, jealousy, kindness, faith and love.
Lon Chaney may not have been the finest actor of all time, but I can't name a better one. With a gesture or an expression (even hidden under pounds of appliances and makeup), he could convey worlds of meaning. The silent film medium did nothing to lessen his talent; dialog was superfluous to his ability. Here he gives one of his best performances, imbuing Quasimodo with the most divine and monstrous of all possible characteristics: that of humanity.
Still a good one
"Wings" is not one of the best silent movies ever made, but it's still a thoroughly enjoyable picture. Actually, it's two movies in one.
One is a film about WWI and the combat pilots who fought in it. The scenes of the dogfights are still thrilling, and the land combat scenes bring home the nasty, brutish, hand to hand fighting that made it the most horrible of modern wars. Perhaps because of the lack of modern special effects, the war scenes have a documentary look that's very powerful (in fact, some actual war footage was used in the movie, according to some sources).
Sadly, the war scenes are wrapped in a plot that was hackneyed even by 1927 standards. It's a formula buddy picture, with Richard Arless and Charles Rogers in love with the same woman, who inexplicably is not the delightful, sexy and vivacious Clara Bow. Instead they both love Jobyna Ralston, who displays almost no personality during her brief screen time (perhaps to convey that she was tailor-made for the mostly wooden Arless).
In any event, the plot reinforces stereotypes of silent movie melodrama, especially in the ludicrous nightclub scene. Rogers overacts drunkenness in a way that's almost painful to watch. Combined with the downright silly plot developments going on in this piece of the film, the only redeeming feature is a bit of brief nudity from Bow.
For all its faults, "Wings" remains an entertaining movie. The aerial scenes, which are plentiful, have likely not been matched even today. Bow shows her starpower to full effect, and the pace of the movie helps make up for some of the cliched plot. It may not be a great movie, but it's not boring.
"Wings" should be required viewing for silent film fans, war movie buffs and Oscar completists. The plot may be laughable, but the power and spectacle of the war scenes remain as powerful as ever.
Two years after "It" came out the silent picture would be a thing of the past. Still, the most striking thing about this movie, after the always beautiful Clara Bow, is how modern it looks. On the Kino DVD the picture is sharp and clear, with excellent contrast. It looks as good as black and white can.
The story itself is fluff. The It of the title, which translates roughly as sex appeal, is irrelevant to the plot. Salesgirl Betty Lou Spence (Bow) falls in love with owner of big department store Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno). She chases him, he chases her, misunderstanding separates them. Even though the plot is light, it fulfills its modest goals well, largely due to Bow's energy. William Austin, as Moreno's friend Monty, is also a high point. In one key scene he also shows himself to be a far more caring and sensitive person than Cyrus, and probably a better choice for Betty's affections. Sadly, that's not how this kind of movie works.
The camera work is pretty sophisticated for the time. The scenes of Betty and Cyrus's date at the beach, with quick cuts as the two laugh, play and fall in love, are now a cliche, although one that's still used. The use of panning, different angles during scenes and plenty of close-ups keep the movie moving, without the long shots before a stationary camera that characterized many indoor scenes during the silent era. Were it not for the lack of sound and the title cards, one could easily think this movie was made as late as the start of WWII.
"It" is not an important movie in the development of cinema, either in terms of technique or theme. Instead, it's an entertaining romantic comedy, largely due to Bow's electrifying screen presence and Austin's satisfying performance. Clara Bow was a huge star, who defined the female sex symbol during the 20s. Even today it's hard to imagine anyone watching her and being able to deny that she does indeed have It.
This has a lot of promise
The ad campaign Fox ran made this show seem like a TV version of 'American Pie." The truth is much better; in fact, this has the potential to be a truly great show. Produced by Judd Apatow, creator of the much-missed "Freaks and Geeks," Undeclared has many of the same elements that made F&G so loved.
Funny, painful and sweet at the same time, Undeclared will bring back memories of what young adulthood truly is like. Jay Baruchel plays freshman Steven Karp with just the right mixture of burgeoning self-confidence and massive insecurity. The opening scene, where he celebrates his newfound adulthood by tearing his X-Files poster in half, then immediately becoming overwhelmed by remorse, is a classic.
A premiere does not a show make, but this has a lot of promise. Especially for those of who continue to mourn F&G, Undeclared show offers something we haven't seen since the former show's demise: an intelligent, emotionally true portrait of youth.
Damien: Omen II (1978)
It's impossible to spoil this one.
Spoilers? Can't be done. Damien the AntiChrist boy hits puberty. People he doesn't like die. The movie ends. There are no plot twists to give away: the whole thing is as formulaic as an infomercial, and not nearly as entertaining. This is one of those bad movies that couldn't even be made into a decent episode of MST3K.
You gotta feel for William Holden, who made this just two years after the career comeback of a lifetime in "Network." He's too much of a professional not to try, but he has nothing to try with.
All of the factors that made the The Omen work are missing here, especially the cinematography, which is flat and unappealing. Save yourself the rental fee and catch a "Golden Girls" marathon on cable instead: it will be three times as interesting as this muddled mess.
The Omen (1976)
Flawed but watchable
One of the best of the Satanic subgenre of horror films. Made in 1976, the movie dates well for the most part, with few of the horrendous fashion mistakes that make so many 70s films unintentionally campy. It has all the trademarks of the genre: a pseudo-Gregorian chant score and lots of Catholic mysticism (why aren't the Southern Baptists or the Presbyterians ever the only thing standing between humanity and Satan? Maybe it's because they don't have the black clothes or suitably lavish places of worship).
Still, the movie suffers from serious flaws that keep it from being entirely successful.
What works is a nicely turned performance from Gregory Peck as the "father" of the child Damien, who turns out to be the embodiment of the antichrist. Following a few mysterious deaths and some warnings from a frankly creepy Catholic priest, he becomes aware that his five year old child may be more than he appears.
Billie Whitelaw also seems creditably spooky as the nanny in the service of satan.The sets and cinematography are nice, although the soundtrack leaves much to be desired.
What doesn't work is a phoned-in performance from Lee Remick, who in all fairness has absolutely nothing to do in this movie. She's missing all of the coquettishness that made her so attractive in her best work, and even in the early part of the movie acts like she'd rather be anywhere else.
[Minor spoilers here.] The script, extensively rewritten by director Richard Donner, was probably improved over the original, however, there are some gaping plot holes that manage to rob the film of its believability. The chain of evidence that leads Peck to believe that his child may be the antichrist is particularly tenuous, considering the implications: it's hard to imagine anyone leaping to the conclusions that he does. In another example, when Peck is in Italy following the clues given him by the creepy priest, he gets the news by phone that his wife has died, however, rather than hop the next plane back to London, he jets off for Jeruslaem.
Flaws aside, The Omen may not be a classic, but it's a watchable, and depending on your ability to believe in Biblical prophecies, pretty scary film.