1923

Alice’s Wonderland (1923, Walt Disney)

Depending on the process director Disney used to marry live action with animation, Alice’s Wonderland is either mediocre or just plain bad. If it’s the latter, Disney has no concept of perspective or, you know, shadows.

The first three minutes are awesome. A little kid (Virginia Davis, in an awful performance–it’s probably Disney’s fault) visits an animation studio and is amazed at how the cartoon characters come alive on the animators’ panels. Disney’s conception of the studio is something technology still hasn’t produced (and probably never will). It’s spellbinding.

Then it becomes about Davis and gets bad. All the little cartoon animals love her and applaud her lame, poorly directed dance. The technical wonders of the first few minutes become lame and cheap tricks, a couple of shocking incompetence.

The animation’s mostly lame with occasional exceptions. Unfortunately, a couple great gags can’t make up for all of Alice‘s failings.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed and produced by Walt Disney; directors of photography, Rudolf Ising and Ub Iwerks; animated by Hugh Harman, Ising, Iwerks and Carman Maxwell; released by Margaret J. Winkler.


Film is Rhythm (1923, Hans Richter)

Film is Rhythm isn’t immediately impressive. Director Richter moves some white rectangles across the black screen. Then, gradually (but at a quick pace–Film is only three minutes), he starts doing more movements with these rectangles and squares.

By the time he was zooming them in and out, I realized it was either exceptional animation or a lot of work. Many of the objects have texture, which raises the question of how he made them zoom. Well, how he made so many objects in the same shot zoom in and out. Did he somehow superimpose or is Film just really good animation?

At the end of the film, Richter seems to realize he’s got the viewer and just keeps amping it up with inverses and so on. Film then becomes about the process and Richter loses any sense of “rhythm” he had going for him.

It’s magnificent if too detached.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Hans Richter.


The Return to Reason (1923, Man Ray)

The Return to Reason doesn’t so much study movement as exhibit experiments in movement. Whether they’re photographic tricks or recognizable objects–or unrecognizable ones until you watch carefully–director Ray isn’t putting them together to solve a puzzle.

Unless, of course, the titular Reason is the nude woman at the end and then Ray would just be painfully witty.

Still, Reason only runs about two minutes and Ray can’t top the ferris wheel shot thirty seconds into it. Only the lights of the ferris wheel are in focus and they loop endlessly through the darkness. It’s an exceptionally stunning sequence and, watching it, I wondered if or how he could top it for the finish.

The nude woman doesn’t do it. I really hope he wasn’t trying to top it with her.

Reason provides a decent viewing, has those fantastic lights, but it’s not deep. Ray keeps it intentionally shallow.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Edited, produced and directed by Man Ray.


No Noise (1923, Robert F. McGowan)

In some ways, No Noise has it all. Kids getting high off laughing gas, then enjoying a little electrocution, there’s some cross-dressing… it seems like there’s even more. The threat of Farina being operated on by the Our Gang kids. Actually, Farina’s practically in drag too. I guess boys and girls closes weren’t particularly distinct in the twenties. When Mickey Daniels shows up wearing Mary Kornman’s dress, the other boys don’t even bat an eye.

The short is weak at the start and finish, but relatively strong in the middle. McGowan composes some good shots during the gang’s initial trip to the hospital (to visit Mickey and eat ice cream). It all falls apart at the end with these endless “haunted hospital” gags. The sets look terrible in that sequence.

And the weak open is all Daniels’s fault. An annoying twerp isn’t a good protagonist.

Noise is benignly dreadful.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan; screenplay by Hal Roach; titles by H.M. Walker; produced by Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Andy Samuel (Andy), Ernest Morrison (Sunshine Sammy), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Jack Davis (Jack), Joe Cobb (Joe), Mickey Daniels (Mickey), Mary Kornman (Mary) and Beth Darlington (Mickey’s nurse).


Dogs of War (1923, Robert F. McGowan)

Dogs of War features some of Robert F. McGowan’s finest directorial work. Sure, he’s aping World War I movies–specifically trench warfare and no man’s land, which seem highly inappropriate subjects for comedy–but it’s incredibly well-directed. A lot of his setups are shockingly good.

The “war” aspect of Dogs only lasts about nine minutes before the short moves into its better setting–a movie studio. The Our Gang kids crash the studio when the girl (the real girl, Mary Kornman, not Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins, who’s gender-bending this time) gets a bit part.

The movie studio antics are amusing without ever getting particularly funny. The gang–no one stands out, not even Farina–is endearing though and Dogs passes the time nicely.

The Harold Lloyd cameo doesn’t hurt.

After the incredibly uncomfortable and off-putting opening, Dogs turns out to be a rather pleasant outing for the gang.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan; written by Hal Roach; titles by H.M. Walker; director of photography, Harry W. Gerstad; edited by Thomas J. Crizer; produced by Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Joe Cobb (Joe), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Mickey Daniels (Mickey), Jack Davis (Jack), Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Ernest Morrison (Sunshine Sammy), Mary Kornman (Mary), Dick Gilbert (Studio guard) and William Gillespie (Director).


La roue (1923, Abel Gance)

Gance is very ambitious with La roue, only not so much technically. Even the second half of the film, which opens up considerably (the first half takes place in a train yard, mostly on one set, while the second half moves the action to a idyllic mountaintop), Gance is far more concerned his protagonist’s internal struggles.

During the first half of the film, the protagonist—played by Séverin-Mars—has come to the realization he has improper feelings for his adoptive daughter (she doesn’t know she’s adopted, however). It rips the family apart, driving the daughter (played by Ivy Close) into a loveless marriage and leaves her brother (also unaware she’s adopted) in ruins. Gance plays pretty loose with the logic at times—he cut about three hours for the public release, so who knows—as the brother (Gabriel de Gravone) also has improper feelings, he just doesn’t know they’re technically “okay.” It’s all pretty creepy, actually, but very well done.

During the second half, Séverin-Mars’s problems become more physical, which leads to the the move to the mountaintop. There Gance really gets to show off. Before, he had some great editing, but in the second half, he also has some amazing shots. The film eventually has a bunch of out of place Christian allegory, but it eventually ebbs.

Fine acting from Séverin-Mars and de Gravone. Close’s good in an underdeveloped role. Georges Térof is great as Séverin-Mars’s sidekick.

It’s often quite brilliant, but a little hollow.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Abel Gance; directors of photography, Gaston Brun, Marc Bujard, Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Duverger; edited by Marguerite Beaugé and Gance; produced by Gance and Charles Pathé; released by Pathé.

Starring Séverin-Mars (Sisif), Ivy Close (Norma), Gabriel de Gravone (Elie), Pierre Magnier (Jacques de Hersan), Max Maxudian (Le minéralogiste Kalatikascopoulos), Georges Térof (Machefer) and Gil Clary (Dalilah).


Oranges and Lemons (1923, George Jeske)

Jeske isn’t much of a director, which I feel weird saying as Oranges and Lemons has a really masterfully done sequence. Jeske holds the shot as Stan Laurel keeps confusing Eddie Baker, who’s pursuing him. It’s brilliant stuff, as Laurel is a great physical comedian.

The directing problems come immediately following, when Laurel enters a warehouse and Jeske never does a proper establishing shot. It might be a budgetary constraint, but it really hurts the short. Except, of course, Laurel is there to make it work.

And Oranges does succeed. It doesn’t have a story–Laurel’s a lazy employee at a poorly run orchard. It follows his morning through a couple assignments (though lazy, he is industrious–Laurel doesn’t pass a single task without attempting it). He gets in trouble with his boss, chaos ensues.

The short succeeds specifically due to Laurel’s presence. It’s impossible to imagine Oranges without him.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by George Jeske; director of photography, Frank Young; produced by Hal Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Stan Laurel (Sunkist), Katherine Grant (Little Valencia) and Eddie Baker (Orange Blossom).


It’s a Gift (1923, Hugh Fay)

It’s a Gift has such a great plot, it’s impossible it’s going to succeed. There’s a gasoline crisis so the losing oil companies decide to get rid of petroleum all together and instead use a synthetic.

The oil barons approach ‘Snub’ Pollard, an inventor.

The inventions are Gift‘s primary appeal. There are all sorts of contraptions to make regular life (waking, breakfast, dressing) easier. But the space is also conserved by items suiting dual purpose. Part of the pleasure is discovering those purposes.

Because, otherwise, Gift has little to recommend it. Director Fay handles the eventual manic action quite well, but leading man Pollard is lifeless. He’s not convincing as an absent-minded professor.

The script’s lazy and contrived, though there is one scene where Pollard almost gets someone drowned before running off. It’s easily the most exciting scene.

Gift is short, which helps a little. But not much.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Hugh Fay; produced by Hal Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring ‘Snub’ Pollard (Inventor Pollard), Marie Mosquini (The Girl), William Gillespie (Weller Pump, oil executive), Wallace Howe (Customer) and Mark Jones (Swindler).


Back Stage (1923, Robert F. McGowan)

Back Stage opens with a vaudeville owner, played by William Gillespie, coming to town. Once the show’s presence is established, the narrative moves to the gang. They’ve turned a car into a donkey-powered double decker bus. It’s an extremely complex contraption. It doesn’t seem likely a bunch of kids could have constructed it, but the mechanics are interesting to watch in action.

Following that lengthy sequence, the gang ends up at the show. Some of the gang are put to work, the others just disrupt from the audience. Here, the steady jokes flow, even on the title cards. There are a couple excellent ones.

The show belongs to Farina, who doesn’t just disrupt… he demolishes. Gillespie watches in confusion–and the audience in delight–as Farina improves the acts by undermining the adults.

I can’t forget… there’s also an adorable monkey.

It’s a charming, if overlong, Our Gang short.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan; written and produced by Hal Roach, titles by H.M. Walker; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Andy Samuel (Andy), Ernest Morrison (Ernie), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Jack Davis (Jack), Joe Cobb (Joe), Mickey Daniels (Mickey) and William Gillespie (Vaudeville Leader).


Safety Last! (1923, Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

Film used to be a visual medium. It’s an audio/visual now and getting more and more audio–Dolby Digital and DTS has convinced folks they need five speakers plus the discreet (while Woody Allen still shoots mono). Film has become stage-less theater (without the pretension of theater), but it wasn’t always that way….

I’ve never seen a Harold Lloyd film before and my silent comedies are limited mostly to Buster. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a silent Chaplin, just a couple talkies he didn’t talk in. Keaton cannot be surpassed in his quality or his influence, but Safety Last! is just a lot of fun. Silent films use different storytelling techniques than sound pictures do (regardless of the awkward-“intended to be silent” talkies of the late 1920s, the change was immediate–their awkwardness was something else entirely). Without telling the audience the character sold the phonograph, without intimating it with dialogue, the film is left to suggest to us that the phonograph has been sold. Sure, there’s the full explanation with a pawn stub, but that’s either for the stragglers or, more likely, to introduce the concept of money into the scene. Money’s one of those concepts that needs to be enumerated.

Silent comedy and silent drama are also completely different (silent comedy quickly establishes its characters while drama can just go on and on, making a comedy a safer bet for someone just seeing a silent film–not everything that survived is necessarily good). Safety Last! is able to introduce a major character in the last act. It’s just a drunk, but he’s in it the act more than the romantic interest. We rarely see that–I’ve got Sea of Love on the brain since I just rented it and really want to watch it and I remember reading Price’s screenplay collection and he said he wanted to introduce the murderer in the last act and the love interest in the middle of the film and the studio gave him a really funny look. But, even in comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, not even mentioning dramas, big characters did not appear in late in the film. Characters whose presence is felt throughout the film (ranging from The Senator Was Indiscreet to Seven) is a different situation, of course.

As for Lloyd, he’s impossible to dislike, a perfect Everyman. His physical comedy is not as athletic as Keaton’s, of course (is that possible?), but it’s superb. The film ends with his attempt to scale a 12-story building and it’s the first time I got worried about someone surviving since I saw Superman as a kid.

Lloyd is well-known to film buffs–customers at the video store I worked at, back when there were smart people seeing movies (the late 1990s), used to ask about his films. Someone had seen it on TV or something, when he or she was a kid, and now he or she has kids… Lloyd’s the most accessible silent comedian and it’s great that “someday soon” his films will be available on DVD. Until then, check your TCM listings, as they frequently have mini-Lloyd marathons.

….oh, that’s a little scary. Movielens had my star rating dead-on….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; written by Hal Roach, Taylor and Tim Whelan, titles by H.M. Walker; director of photography, Walter Lundin; edited by Thomas J. Crizer; produced by Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Harold Lloyd (The Boy), Mildred Davis (The Girl), Bill Strother (The Pal), Noah Young (The Law) and Westcott Clarke (The Floorwalker).


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