1921

Hard Luck (1921, Edward F. Kline and Buster Keaton)

Hard Luck starts as a… failed suicide attempt comedy. Nothing morbid, just absurd and slapstick. And a little dumb. Star, director, and writer Keaton always has dangerous ideas for ending his life, but never particularly good ones. There’s a lot of physical humor from Keaton during this section; situational physical comedy. Most of it is smaller scale, behavior gags. Keaton’s got some amazing stunts in the short, but they’re for little things the narrative requires to keep the situational comedy going. The way he jumps out of the way and whatnot. Hard Luck is micro-physical comedy. At least for the average Keaton. Rare grandiosity. Usually, Keaton and co-writer and co-director Cline keep it pared down. The first act has a lot of Keaton interacting with other actors, a lot with other actors reacting to him.

Keaton’s great at the little comedy moves. He’s charming and sympathetic while still seeming a bit dumb.

And then when he’s not actively trying to kill himself, he stills gets into quite a bit of trouble, leading to a somewhat different feel for the gags. They do get bigger, but with Keaton and Cline very subtly pacing them out. They percolate then explode.

Virginia Fox plays the society girl who catches Keaton’s eye before going on to catch the eye of outlaw Joe Roberts. Roberts’s pursuit of Fox is downright terrifying; Roberts comes into the short late and has no character motivation other than to attack Fox (his men are busy robbing her friends in the other room). Keaton’s showdown with Roberts is smaller scale gags again, but a (literal) explosion by the end.

Besides the solo slapstick and measured physical gags, there are also many involving animals (great and small). Hard Luck is full of big laughs, little laughs, big smiles, little smiles. Despite the dark opening, it’s pleasant once it gets going. Keaton and Cline are meticulous in their direction and assured in the film’s production. The short isn’t pompous or anything and it never self-aggrandizes, but if it wanted to do either, it could easily get away with it. Because Hard Luck is hilarious.

Keaton’s also very willing to embrace the absurd. It helps remind at the beginning we’re not watching a suicidal young man, rather Keaton in a slapstick comedy about a suicidal young man. The narrative distance feels instinctive, with Keaton and Cline staying relatively close but also skewed enough they can get away with Keaton’s plight being for laughs. It does, of course, help they’ve got so much great stuff in store for the rest of the short. Its energy can’t afford to fizzle.

And it doesn’t, not even at the very end, when Hard Luck takes a few breaths before delivering its final punchline.

Keaton’s great, Fox’s fine, Roberts’s hilarious (but still dangerous). There’s not much character for Fox or Roberts, but it doesn’t matter—Hard Luck doesn’t leverage everything off Keaton (but could). He delivers lots on his own, but even more as he fits into the somewhat rigid framework of the story. The short is brimming with energy and potential.

It’s a great success.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), and Joe Roberts (Lizard Lip Luke).


Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House (1921, Winsor McCay)

The Flying House does a lot in its eleven minute runtime. First and maybe foremost–it’s questionable given where the film ends up–it’s a successful, ambitious format change for the Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip. Adapted by its creator, McCay–who’s got his twenty-five year-old son, Robert, animating–Flying House is a cartoon version of the strip. It’s a complete success in that regard.

But it’s also how McCay tells a story in a silent cartoon. The characters, a husband and wife who have to convert the house to a flying version to escape a greedy landlord, talk to one another in word balloons. The husband doesn’t say much. The wife has these hilarious one-liners. She’s nagging, but passive aggressively and condescendingly. And the husband deserves it to some degree. He doesn’t have the best plan.

The word balloon thing? It’s phenomenal. It’s jaw-droppingly effective. There’s the expectation of intertitles in a silent film so having those intertitles on screen with the action (or at least the illusion of action)… it starts Flying House out on a serious level. It’s an ambitious film. McCay (and McCay) always excel. Even before the big, “here, look at this scientifically accurate” space thing to show off the potential for animation in education.

The way the figures move–whether people or flying houses or planets–is another of the film’s magical parts. Between movements, objects are completely still. But while moving, they’re graceful, with an enthusiastic pace. Culminating in the space sequence, which is ballet.

Fantastic direction, fantastic animation. The Flying House is perfect.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Winsor McCay; animated by Robert Winsor McCay.


The Blot (1921, Lois Weber)

The Blot has a lot of plot. Lot of plot. Director Weber fills the film with characters and subplots–unfortunately, not many of the supporting cast get credited so I’ll just have to compliment based on their characters.

The main plot is about rich college kid Louis Calhern who discovers–because he has the hots for his professor’s daughter–white collar jobs sometimes means less than working class wages. The professor, top-billed but mostly absent Philip Hubbard, has a blue blood wife who married down. The wife, played by Margaret McWade–she’s awesome–spends her days fretting over the household accounts, daughter Claire Windsor, and the rolling in dough neighbors. The neighbor husband is an uneducated salesman.

Weber gets in a lot about class and a lot about privilege. One of the most effecting scenes is when Calhern can’t eat his country club dinner because he’s just found out sometimes Windsor doesn’t have enough to eat. Oh, and she’s sick. Weber cuts back and forth between Calhern and the drama at Windsor’s house. McWade is fed up with the poverty and has to do something about it. It’s a somewhat difficult sequence because Weber keeps pushing the line where she can get to with The Blot without lecturing. The film’s got a message–pay people, whether it be the college professor, the library clerk, or the minister–and Weber’s got to sell it through her actors. If they can’t make it believable–Calhern becoming progressive, McWade’s desperation–it’s not going to work.

Luckily, the actors and Weber make it happen. Calhern is fine, but he’s something of an enigma. He’s the lead–though he occasionally relinquishes to McWade for a scene or two–but the viewer’s perception of him is through the Windsor and her family. He’s just this weird rich kid who goofs off in the dad’s classes.

McWade is in the opposite position. Weber lays her bare for the viewer over and over again–from her first scene–and McWade’s phenomenal. By the end of the movie, whenever she’s got to do a scene with Windsor, McWade just overshadows her. It’s not intentional because McWade’s not doing anything, it’s a combination of Windsor basically vogueing through all her scenes and the script’s been far better to McWade than Windsor. Windsor sits out a lot of the second act sick in bed.

Some really good performances from the uncredited supporting cast. The mom next door who hates the professor’s family for being stuck up and being cruel to them. The minister is all right. He’s just there to help Calhern on his path to being a white savior. But Weber makes it work, because the love quadrangle is really strangely handled. None of the suitors interact over Windsor. They just stew (or don’t stew) and fidget. It’s awesome.

Weber does it run a little long, especially in the first half. The shots just run on and on–Blot has sparse intertitles; Weber instead lets the actors’ energy carry the plot forward. But she lets it go long even when taking into account someone getting back from the can. It’s not the scenes, they’re decently paced, it’s the shots themselves. They drag.

Except that awesome dinner sequence; then the cuts are way too fast.

Great performance from McWade, decent one from Calhern, decent enough one from Windsor. And all those great supporting actors whose names are lost to history. The Blot is excellent silent melodrama.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lois Weber; written by Marion Orth and Weber; directors of photography, Philip R. Du Bois and Gordon Jennings; released by F.B. Warren Corporation.

Starring Louis Calhern (The Professor’s Pupil – Phil West), Claire Windsor (The Professor’s Daughter – Amelia Griggs), Margaret McWade (The Professor’s Wife – Mrs. Griggs), Marie Walcamp (The Other Girl – Juanita Claredon), and Philip Hubbard (The Professor – Andrew Theodore Griggs).


The Sheik (1921, George Melford)

The uncredited editor of The Sheik had a thankless task–during the first act, director Melford is packing in so much expository information all the cuts to introduce new information. The Sheik’s silent, the editing of the first act is always important in a silent film. There needs to be a certain pace, there needs to be a certain amount of information conveyed. Especially in a film like The Sheik, which opens with a lot of characters and then winnows them down. And the uncredited editor doesn’t do well with this expository first act. But, the editor does do well in the second and third acts of the film, when there’s finally visual action.

The Sheik isn’t any great shakes of a film. Lead Rudolph Valentino has more charm in this one than he does acting proficiency. And some of that charm is just from Valentino pulling off the outlandish costumes. He’s an Arabian sheik, educated in Paris, who comes across an English lady (a far less charming Agnes Ayres) and decides to kidnap her. It’s not all in harmless fun, of course, but the danger question gets answered pretty quick.

Why do I feel like I’m writing a synopsis of a romance novel and trying to make it sound just a little smarter than a romance novel. The Sheik isn’t very smart, it’s not very stupid, it’s not very anything. Maybe it’s the scope of the picture; it does start with some grandiose scale–Brits on vacation in the Middle East–but then it shrinks down to Valentino and Ayres hanging out in Valentino’s enormous tent palace. These sequences get boring, though they do give Ayres her best scenes in the film. Melford doesn’t know how to direct her in the first act and she’s a helpless damsel in the third act, which is really dumb because she’s already shown herself not to be helpless. But you cut it some slack because, why not?

The Sheik is likable without being amiable, which is something of an accomplishment. Good supporting turns from Adolphe Menjou and Walter Long.

Gorgeous title cards (also uncredited).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Melford; screenplay by Monte M. Katterjohn, based on the novel by Edith Maude Hull; director of photography, William Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Rudolph Valentino (Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (Lady Diana Mayo), Adolphe Menjou (Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert), Frank Butler (Sir Aubrey Mayo), Charles Brinley (Mustapha Ali), Lucien Littlefield (Gaston) and Walter Long (Omair).


The Haunted House (1921, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The Haunted House has some excellent gags. There’s a lot of set gags in the finale, when bank clerk Keaton ends up in the–well, the haunted house. His coworker–a delightfully evil Joe Roberts–is actually a counterfeiter who uses the haunted house to print money; the haunted bit is just a cover. Lots of great comedic set pieces, including the collapsing stairs.

Earlier, there’s even a nice bit with Keaton doing lower key physical comedy when he can’t get dollar bills off his hands (there was an incident with some glue). The Haunted House is a smooth experience, with lots of pay-off, at least in terms of the gags.

Keaton and co-director Cline are somewhat limited in their ambitions for House. The gags are good, but lengthy. There’s nowhere near enough story. House is funny stuff and extremely well executed, but it finishes up somewhat underweight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; produced by Joseph M. Schenck; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (Bank Clerk), Virginia Fox (Bank President’s Daughter) and Joe Roberts (Bank Cashier).


The Kid (1921, Charles Chaplin), the director’s cut

Some time after the halfway point in The Kid, it becomes clear the film isn’t going to end badly for its leads. Charlie Chaplin is the tramp, Jackie Coogan is his ward (a tramp in training). Chaplin, as a director, is fairly restrictive. Most of the action takes place on a few streets, primarily outside their apartment. Coogan breaks windows, Chaplin fixes them. They cook for each other. It’s adorable, if only because Coogan’s really cute and Chaplin’s very sincere in his performance as the unlikely caregiver.

But there’s not much depth to the relationship. Chaplin knows how to get an effective scene–he looks into the camera, sad, Coogan screams for him–but none of the scenes come off as honest. There’s an artifice to them. The Kid is pleasant enough to watch as the artifice is competent and the performances sincere, but Chaplin–as director–gets a lot more mileage out of scenes where he loses track of Coogan than ones with him.

With the notable exception of a rooftop chase sequence (Chaplin’s on the rooftop, Coogan’s in a car).

But when Chaplin’s unknowingly flirting with the local beat cop’s wife or trying to get out of a fight with the neighborhood bully? Those moments have a lot more creative energy.

Maybe it never really feels like Coogan’s part of the gag. Sometimes he is the gag.

And the ending is way too nice; following a Heaven-set dream sequence, it’s narratively awkward.

But The Kid is all right. Enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written, edited, produced and directed by Charles Chaplin; director of photography, Roland Totheroh; music by Chaplin; released by First National Pictures.

Starring Edna Purviance (The Woman), Jackie Coogan (The Child) and Charles Chaplin (A Tramp).


The ‘High Sign’ (1921, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The ‘High Sign’ starts innocuously enough. Leading man Buster Keaton is out of work and answers a want ad to be a clerk at a shooting range. Maybe the tone of the short can be determined from Keaton stealing a cop’s gun to practice, because things don’t stay innocuous for long.

In addition to the range–which affords directors Keaton and Cline two different sequences (one with Keaton acting, one with Keaton reacting)–there’s eventually an elaborate home invasion sequence, with Keaton fighting off the bad guys to protect Bartine Burkett and her father.

Of course, the bad guys hired Keaton to assassinate the father. It’s a lot of brisk storytelling.

There are a handful of lovely cinematic flourishes, but mostly it’s just a good slapstick outing for Keaton. He’s got a wonderful nemesis in the giant Ingram B. Pickett.

Small or (relatively) large, all Keaton and Cline’s gags work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lesley.

Starring Buster Keaton (Our Hero), Bartine Burkett (Miss Nickelnurser) and Ingram B. Pickett (Tiny Tim).


The Man with the Twisted Lip (1921, Maurice Elvey)

The Man with the Twisted Lip is not a particularly exciting narrative to begin with, but director Elvey does keep the story moving at a decent pace. He paces most of Lip like a play, albeit one with flashbacks. Elvey cannot, however, make it interesting.

Some of the problem is the adherence to the source material. Most of the short is told in flashback, which cuts down on the narrative’s urgency–especially since Ellie Norwood’s Sherlock Holmes keeps important details from Hubert Willis’s Watson and Watson is the viewer’s entry into the short.

Norwood mostly stands around doing little. Willis sits around doing less. As the main characters in the case, both Robert Vallis and Paulette del Baze are good.

Elvey inexplicably gives away the mystery’s solution with a showcase of movie special effects magic in the first few minutes.

It’s not much good, but Lip does move. A little.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maurice Elvey; screenplay by William J. Elliot, based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Germain Burger; released by Stoll Picture Productions.

Starring Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), Hubert Willis (Dr. John Watson), Robert Vallis (Neville St. Clair), Paulette del Baze (Mrs. Nellie St. Clair) and Mme. d’Esterre (Mrs. Hudson).


The Dying Detective (1921, Maurice Elvey)

Given the terrible attempts at humor and Eille Norwood’s histrionic performance as Sherlock Holmes, one might think The Dying Detective is a farcical adaptation.

Unfortunately, I doubt director Elvey gets farce as he doesn’t get pacing or filmic storytelling. Almost every shot in Detective goes on too long. He’s not just holding the shot until interest wanes, he’s holding it five or ten seconds are interest has completely vanished. He does it with establishing shots too; Elvey’s composition is so confusing, one can easily forget what he or she is waiting to see.

Screenwriter William J. Elliot feels the need to include a painfully long sequence of red herrings at the end, with Holmes and the villain trying to upstage each other. It probably drags Detective out another five minutes, like there was a length requirement.

Cecil Humphreys gives the only good performance as the villain. Otherwise, Detective‘s the pits.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maurice Elvey; screenplay by William J. Elliot, based on a story by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Germain Burger; released by Stoll Picture Productions.

Starring Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), Hubert Willis (Dr. John Watson), Cecil Humphreys (Culverton Smith), Joseph R. Tozer (His Servant) and Mme. d’Esterre (Mrs. Hudson).


Now or Never (1921, Fred C. Newmeyer and Hal Roach)

Now or Never takes a long time to get to the basic comedic plot–Harold Lloyd is stuck taking care of a little kid on a train ride. The kid, played by Anna Mae Bilson, is absolutely adorable and a perfect foil for Lloyd. She’s his costar, not romantic interest Mildred Davis, which is somewhat unfortunate.

The film takes a kitchen sink approach, with Lloyd not just speeding in a car, but also hopping a train before getting onboard Never‘s principal train. About fifteen minutes could easily come off the front, since it doesn’t feature Lloyd and Bilson together.

Roach and Newmeyer’s direction, even of the pointless parts, is excellent and Lloyd’s good, which makes Never painless (if still overlong). The finale, when Lloyd’s on top of the train–an inevitability for train movies–is fantastic. The stunt work is mesmerizing.

It’s cute and very likable, but fairly shallow overall.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Hal Roach; written by Sam Taylor; 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) and Anna Mae Bilson (The Lonesome Little Child).


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