Friday, September 29, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Hands Up!' (1926)

Hands Up!

Dir: Clarence D. Badger

Scr: Monte Brice, Lloyd Corrigan

Pho: H. Kinley Martin

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Jan. 14, 1926

70 min.

There was a lot more to silent comedy than Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (thank goodness we are beginning to forget about poor Harry Langdon), though we are never exposed to it, much less educated about it. For every comic superstar of the period there was a multitude of lesser lights, each of some appeal in their own way.

First of all, I must direct you to the superlative explanatoryessay on this film by Steve Massa, on the National Film Registry website. (It rightly credits the writing of Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns as being responsible for reviving interest in him.) It covers the backgrounds of most of the principals involved in Hands Up!, and provides many new facts about the life of its lead player, Raymond Griffith.

An aspiring comic film performer, Griffith’s early lack of success was due to his lack of a comic persona. Quickly, he moved behind the camera and gained a reputation as a solid gagman. Finally, in 1922 he devised a comic character utterly unlike that of the sad, sentimental heroes of most comic features – Chaplin the winsome Tramp, Keaton the stolid buffoon, Lloyd the eager beaver.

Griffith styled himself as a calm, debonair, and quiet man about town – complete with white tie and tails, opera cape, top hat, and cane. His character was intelligent, and much faster on the draw than those around him. He is seldom surprised and never shamed, moving gracefully from one trajectory to another, as fortune whiplashes him, with effortless grace. In a world of crazy people, Griffith is the grown-up in the room.

This film, one of his few surviving creations, takes place in the same period as Buster Keaton’s The General, the Civil War. (Released the same year, Griffith’s film did surprisingly better business than Keaton.) Griffith is Jack, a Confederate spy whose mission is to thwart the shipment of Yankee gold from Nevada to President Lincoln.

Even in the wildest of wild wests, Griffith is at gentlemanly ease. Slapstick events may transpire, but Griffith is nonplussed. He never mugs for the camera – that would be far too unseemly. Instead, he relentlessly underplays his reactions, letting the jokes do the work. He befuddles a squad of men sent out to shoot him as a spy. He mistakes an Indian attack for that of a bee. He foils the plans of the tribe by shooting craps with its chief (played by the versatile Noble Johnson), and ends up teaching them the Charleston.

He deftly juggles the affections of two sisters while struggling with his Union counterpart (Montagu Love). His efforts backfire. His attempt to blow up the gold mine just reveals a bigger vein. He can’t get the wagon full of gold out onto the road. Eventually, he gets the horses out but nothing else. And so on.

Throughout, Griffith retains his sense of calm equanimity. In defeat, he is graceful. And he comes up with an unexpected solution to his dilemma of loving two women at the same time.

Griffith starred in 10 features. Unfortunately, he had a damaged voice that rendered him incapable of working in sound film. His last role was as the poignant, nonspeaking soldier who dies in a shell hole in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). After this, he turned his assured hand to producing, crafting a number of winning films. Now, we only have fragments of an output to mark his fascinating, short-lived silent comedy career.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Mighty Like a Moose.




Sunday, September 24, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Ella Cinders'


Ella Cinders

Dir: Alfred E. Green

Scr: Frank Griffin and Mervyn LeRoy, story; George Marion Jr., titles

Pho: Arthus Martinelli

Ed: Robert Kern

Premiere: June 6, 1926

75 min.

Ella Cinders was a syndicated cartoon that was launched in 1925. It began as a modernized version of the story of Cinderella, but later expanded into the continuing adventures of its title character.

Ella’s look could easily have been taken from Colleen Moore, who was already a movie star when the cartoon debuted. It is singularly appropriate then that Moore portrays Ella in this screen adventure. Pert, coy, with large expressive eyes and a banged, bobbed hairdo, Moore was a renowned incarnation of the flapper, the good-time girl of the period.

The film was produced by Moore’s husband, John McCormick, and released by First National Pictures. Ella is the put-upon domestic slave of her evil step-family, the Pills. When word of a contest comes to town, promising a trip to Hollywood and a film role for a lucky winner, Ella determines to enter. She submits her photo, unwittingly one with her eyes crossed. Surprisingly, the judging committee selects her as the winner due to her comic facility. She goes to Hollywood, but finds that the contest was a sham. She is determined to literally break into the studio, and after a few misadventures, she finds herself with a career in show business. In the meantime, it turns out that her iceman boyfriend back home is actually a rich young football hero; he seeks her out and weds her.

Moore’s winsome charm and spunky attitude drive the film. She shines as the symbol of a more carefree time.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Hands Up!.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Black Pirate'


The Black Pirate

Dir: Albert Parker

Scr: Jack Cunningham

Pho: Henry Sharp, Arthur Bell, George Cave

Ed: Bret Hampton, William Nolan

Premiere: March 8, 1926

94 min.

Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) was the first king of Hollywood. Starting out as a light comedian, he made a name for himself with his short but peppy, fast-moving dramedies, spiked with daring stunts. Eventually, he hit upon the perfect formula for him to celebrate his values of energy and optimism. Swashbuckling epics, starting with The Mark of Zorro in 1920 (see my review here) and including The Thief of Bagdad (see my review here), were his claim to fame.

The Black Pirate originated, supposedly, from a conversation Fairbanks had with a young Jackie Coogan, who expressed his affection for Howard Pyle’s 1921 Book of Pirates. Leafing through the book, Fairbanks was captivated by the illustrations and insisted on creating a pirate project himself. He supplied the film’s story, using the pseudonym of “Elton Thomas” (his middle names).

The film is shaped around the persona of its star, and is composed of all the standards elements of a Fairbanks action/adventure – stirring fight sequences, lavish detail and miniature work, a bit of (chaste) romance, a soupcon of comedy, and just the documentation of the kinetic energy generated by the whirlwind Fairbanks.

Additionally, the film had the distinction of being the first successful color feature film. It seems that Technicolor had been developed to the extent of being cost-effective. It was still crude, recording only reds and greens in a “two-strip” format. Lacking the blues and yellows of the spectrum, the result is a vaguely colored-in, dusky, burnished, Old Masterish kind of look that was surely impressive 100 years ago.

The story is a classic one. A young man (Fairbanks) and his dying father are stranded by pirates. The son swears revenge. Neatly, he comes upon the pirates and fights their chief, killing him and winning the crew’s allegiance. He cows his naysayers by next capturing a ship single-handled, with he does with grace and aplomb.

When a woman is discovered on the attacked ship, our hero adroitly keeps the others from molesting her as he fights for time and a chance to free her. Unfortunately, his plan is discovered and he is forced to walk the plank! Beyond this I will not go, but gentle viewer, feel sure that by film’s fade-out, justice and virtue triumph.

Actor/director Donald Crisp was slated to direct this film, but is supposed to have been in conflict early on with Fairbanks and taken off the directing job. If there was a conflict, it must have resolved itself, as here Crisp plays the prominent role of the hero’s one-armed sidekick MacTavish. Visible here too, in the last frames of the film, are Fairbanks’ real-life wife, Mary Pickford, dressed up like actress Billie Dove to take the closing smooch from her husband. Such were the mores of Hollywood at the time.

The Black Pirate is really the last of Fairbanks’s great swashbucklers. He would take a much more adult tone in his 1927 The Gaucho, and after that the talkies came along. Fairbanks was no longer young, and his brand of brash, go-go, idealistic Americanism was going out of style. He would die in 1939, at the young age of 56.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Ella Cinders.