Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pohjalaisia / The Bothnians (Finland, 1925)

A rural melodrama that stood well the test of time. Indeed, the impact it causes nowadays is even bigger than in the past. This film having been made already at a time when Hollywood was at the height of its art in the silent era, reflecting transformations brought by urbanization and progress, this film remains a valuable witness of a way of life gone long ago.
Having been able to build up an unique cultural patrimony, Finland has always had a very characteristic way of life, not being so much similar to its Scandinavian neighbors. Having been part of Russia until late 1910s, back to 1925, they have been an independent country for less than 10 years. Nevertheless, despite their close cultural and political contact with Russia, they got to retain their own culture. As in neighbor countries, most people lived in the countryside and peasants had their own values and beliefs. Regardless of peaceful place, there were a plenty of political conflicts and people had their share of problems.
The film portrays the conflicts of free peasants and Russian rulers. The wounds of their recent Civil War were still very recent and political conflicts and resolution of traumas among country population were still an issue back to 1920s. Russian authorities were also displayed as disrupting the tranquil, honorable and free way of life of Finnish peasants, representing the voice of oppression over those good people, who would not allow their honor to be stained so easily.
Nevertheless, despite all suffering brought by the authorities, we can see the fields, forest and nature represent spaces where the freedom of people could not be taken by anyone. They were spaces were people could feel happy without fear, being directly connected with God, with their values, honor. The interaction with nature as a whole was perfect, almost sacred. This can be reflected even in the beautiful and strong religions ethics of people and in the solidarity among themselves. This is a somehow idealized portrait, even though it's not entirely distant from reality. Just a way to paint reality with a more beautiful paint, but a realistic one somehow.
Somehow we can remember of the "good country people" being so many times portrayed in American life and literature, but with a very important difference. The peasant and rural way of life was already changing little by little in main American cities back to 1920s, while it was much more untouched in Scandinavia at the same decade. Thus, this film, rather than being a reconstruction of a country life that was starting to face, was in fact a witness of how people actually lived. This is something that brings a realism to this film that is impossible to be ignored. The nostalgia it inspires is something that only increases the high emotional impact of the film in the audience.
However, the audience must pay attention to one thing that might be one of weakest points of the film: There are many characters, all of them are important to the development of the story. It's important to pay attention to their names and in some of their personality traits, otherwise it becomes difficult to keep track of the plot.
For non Scandinavian audiences, not only the time references are different, but also cultural references are quite different from what they are used to, which sometimes gives the impression that people are watching a "folkloric" movie.
But, once again, what makes a film like that so special? After all, back to the silent era, in many countries the majority of population lived in the countryside and rural areas. Consequently, rural values were still nationally and culturally valid, opposite to urban values that were considered alien and even somehow wicked. An example this thought can be seen even in the more-urbanized United States in its film Sunrisea song of two humans, directed by F. W. Murnau, which was made in 1927 at the very end of American silent era.
It has been said that urbanization has begun relatively late in Finland in comparison with most Central European countries. So, the production of films emphasizing rural values, considered legitimate among most of population members, was also a way of praising their own national values and at the same time discussing themes that many people would feel related because it was part of their daily lives. We must also not forget that manual work was still very much present in the lives of people in the entire silent era compared with subsequent decades.
Although it is a melodrama in all senses, acting is not very stagy and it is even subtle and natural at some moments, despite some other moments of acting that resemble the stage. However, the performances have a natural effect in the overall, specially in comparison with some films made in Denmark and Russia back to 1910s, which had a much more stagy acting.
All in all, this film stood well the test of time and its appeal just gets bigger. It is a must see, specially when compared with Hollywood films of the same era. Both Scandinavian and American silents are very good and it is very fun to compare them both and see their similarities and differences.

Further reading and materials:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Romance of Happy Valley (A) - D.W. Griffith - 1919

Wolf Blood - Bruce M. Mitchell, George Chesebro - 1925

Greatest Question (The) - D.W. Griffith - 1919

Sex (Expiation) - Fred Niblo - 1920

His Enemy's Friend - Ford Beebe, Leo Maloney - 1922

Desert Rider - Robert N. Bradbury - 1923

Hearts of the World - D.W. Griffith - 1918

Black Gold - Forrest Sheldon - 1924

Torrent - Monta Bell - 1926

Civilization - Reginald Barker, Thomas H. Ince, Raymond B. West - 1916

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prospector (The) - Arthur Mackley - 1912

South of Santa Fe - Clifford Smith - 1919

Steel-Shod Evidence - Ford Beebe, Leo Maloney - 1923

Golden Trail (The) - William Bertram - 1925

Getting Mary Married - Allan Dwan - 1919

Each to His Kind - Edward LeSaint - 1917

Down to the Sea in Ships - Elmer Clifton - 1922

Ashes of Vengeance - Frank Lloyd - 1923

Another Man's Boots - William James Craft - 1922

Ace of Clubs (The) - J.P. McGowan - 1926

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It's a Gift (USA, 1923)

This is one of the most creative silent short comedies by Hal Roach studios and one of most famous films by Australian comedian Harry “Snub” Pollard (1889 – 1962).
An eccentric inventor, creatively named Pollard, lives in a house filled with his eccentric inventions. It is interesting to see that this film was made the year after Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (USA,1922), which also depicted a house full of gadgets. Was Keaton’s film an inspiration for this one? This is something that isn’t known.
But this film features something that wasn't in Keaton's film. While The Electric House focused on electricity, this film focuses on oil. A group of oil executives is trying to find a substitute for gasoline that is fireproof and non-explosive. It is very interesting to see that the challenge of finding alternative power sources has gone on longer than most people would imagine. There was an attempt to find a suitable gasoline substitute, but unfortunately the final result was an explosion. After that, the oil executives got to know that inventor Pollard had invented it and contact him without delay in order to schedule a demonstration. 

Hal Roach’s short comedies were surely among the ones with funniest intertitles and this one does not disappoint the audience in this regard. After claiming that “Edison works twenty hours -sleeps four. Pollard’s hours are longer –sleeps twenty-four”. Yes, the comparison was made with famous American inventor Thomas Edison, who was still alive at that time.
We see Snub sleeping and his bedroom is full of hanging wires, almost as if his bed was placed in the middle of a spider web. There are all sorts of gadgets in his bedroom, including a machine to clean his feet with a feather and a razor, and a device to make his breakfast. There was even a real chicken laying eggs in a special place, so the eggs would fall directly in the pan and a toy cow that would provide him milk directly on a cup. Pollard even found a way to receive his correspondence directly in bed. 

After a round of very creative invention-related gags, Pollard opens a letter where he is informed that the president of Onion Oil Co. would like Pollard to demonstrate his gasoline substitute.
After his blanket becomes a curtain and his bed becomes a fireplace, which are quite interesting gags to be seen, Pollard gets himself cleaned, get his hat among the flowers on the table and an intertitle mentions he has “en invention for every occasion”, which is something we cannot really deny. However, we must be aware to the fact that this same intertitle warns the audience that his inventions do not always work, which is something we will see with our own eyes right afterwards. Then we see something that resembles a car in a the shape of a pencil, but much smaller than the usual size of a car, leaving a garbage can that also serves as a garage. We will soon understand how it works. 

Pollard gets a huge magnet from inside the car and sits down. When a car passes by, he uses the magnet. The magnet is attracted to a passing car, pulling Pollard's car behind it in one of the most iconic scenes in this Australian comedian's career. Sometimes the magnet harms the car which is pulling Pollard's car along, which is an obvious drawback to his invention and causes him some problems with the owners of other cars. Some extra objects on the street are also accidentally pulled. This is exactly what happens when a garbage can where a police officer was sitting ends up being unintentionally pulled, which causes a chase that worthy of being shown in a 1910s slapstick comedy by Keystone Studios. But the cop has no chance to get Pollard; after all, he was chasing a car on foot and the chase is disturbed when the garbage can comes loose and the policeman trips over it and falls. The cop gets to stand up and run again but he is finished for good after falling in a culvert hole in the middle of the street after Pollard's magnet had just pulled off the lid.

When Pollard drives by a lake he notices something unusual and approaches people to see what is happening. He realizes a guy is drowning and offers his waterproof shoes to save the guy. Yes, he had waterproof shoes inside of his car. After all, he could need them at any moment. Lol! We can also see that the car is small but it is possible to tuck many things inside of it. Unfortunately Pollard has to run away after realizing his invention was a flop and it wouldn’t really help rescuing the drowning man.
Pollard finally meets the oil executives and he claims his invention will solve their problem, so the invention is tested in some cars. They can move successfully at first, but after several minutes they explode so powerfully that the explosion impacts some nearby buildings. The damage is huge. 

Once more our dear inventor has to escape in his peculiar car while being chased by a motorcycle. Will Pollard be able to run away? Of course he will. All he has to do to avoid his pursuer is push a button inside his car and fly away. This time his invention works and the film ends with Pollard flying away towards safety. What a creative film and what a creative end!

Further reading and materials:
1. Forgotten Funnymen - Snub Pollard and Bobby Vernon

2. Some DVDs of films by Harry “Snub” Pollard

4. If you feel like comparing this film with The Electric House (USA, 1922) you can watch this cute Buster Keaton film for free in site:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fatty Joins the Force (USA,1913)

American comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887 – 1933) started in films at Keystone studios in 1913. We can see he was already a skilled and mature comedian in his first year in films. Although he sometimes played the role of a grown-up baby who could not control his impulses, his roles and gags would only become more sophisticated and ellaborate as time passed, and the audience always laughed and rooted for his character. His potential was already evident at the very beginning of his screen career, as we can see in this cute little film. 

Fatty is in a park with his sweetheart. A cop passes them by and sits besides a woman and his little daugther on a bench. While her mother talks to the policeman, the girl goes to play too close to the park’s lake. She slips and falls in the lake. Fatty and his sweetheat see everything. Fatty’s sweetheat makes him jump in the lake to save the girl, although he is afraid of doing so. In fact, Fatty ends up falling in the lake accidentally. Anyway, it does not matter what made him fall in the lake, as he actually saved the girl from drowning in the long run and, as an intertitle says: “It turns out to be the police commissioner’s child”. The girl is brought back to her family and Fatty is acknowledged as the hero who saved her. Being now a respected and admired man, he is invited to become a policeman and “the whole force does him honor”.

Fatty has his own uniform and it is time to go to the streets and perform his duty. However, he soon finds out things will not be as easy as he thought they would be. He is talking to his sweetheart when he sees some boys figthing. He tries to stop it, but one of the boys ended up accidentaly punching him and runs away immediately afterwards, leaving a virtually unconscious Fatty behind. Fatty is helped by his sweetheart and they both sit on a bench. Then, a group of boys start teasing Fatty by throwing stuff on him. He runs after the boys, but falls on the ground, and consequently falling behind and getting dirty. His sweetheart comes back home and Fatty decides to have a bath in the lake, leaving his cop uniform on the ground while he swims. But the worst is about to happen: The boys see him in the lake, find his clothes and decide to leave them somewhere else. After a while, his uniform is found by another guy, who takes it straight to the police station. The police officers recognize the uniform as being Fatty’s and assume he drowned. 

Meanwhile, Fatty finds himself half naked and all alone. His situation worsens when two women see him and report to the cops they had seen a “wild man”, which make the cops chase Fatty. While the chase takes place, his sweetheat is leading a search in the lake with the purpose of finding Fatty or at least a clue to his whereabouts. Fatty tries to hide in vain and is caught and arrested by the cops. Fatty’s fellow policemen mourn his death. When the cops arrive in the police station bringing Fatty with them, it becomes obvious that Fatty is immediately recognized, even though he is dressed with rags. The other cops are not happy to see him again and throw Fatty in prison, probably because they thought he staged his own death on purpose.


The film finishes with Fatty crying in his cell. His experience as a policeman did not really leave good memories. We tend to feel sympathetic for Fatty; after all he was working in a job to which he had no previous formal training and ended up being a victim of unfavorable circumstances, rather than being a corrupt schemer. It is impossible not to compare the end of this film with the consequences of Virginia Rappe scandal that would engulf Fatty Arbuckle’s life in 1921. Therefore, this end is probably more disturbing and ironic now than it was for 1910s audiences. 

Further reading and materials: 

2. Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A One Night Stand (USA, 1915)

This is exactly what modern-day audiences would expect from a silent comedy: Broad and fast gestures, fake mustaches, people running and much more.
Starring Chester Conklin and Mae Busch, the film gives us a very interesting historic glimpse on how a dramatic production worked back in the 1910ies, whether on and off stage.

The manager of a theater production is not satisfied with some of his employees, who cannot focus on their jobs, keep on doing “a few home town tricks” and acting silly. The show is about to begin and the theater group are preparing everything to the upcoming play, or as an intertitle says: “Limbering up for the coming show”. Rather than working, the stagehands are playing some kind of game with a ball and they are caught playing by the manager. 

The misfits have the potential to ruin the whole production, so it is important to make them behave themselves properly. Anyway, despite all the problems, the play starts but things will not run smoothly for a long time. The actors will have problems with the scenery caused by the same incompetent stagehands, specially the one who picked up a fight while he was holding the scenery. Thus, what was supposed to be a beautiful melodrama production involuntarily becomes a slapstick in itself. Confusion arises off stage and many things are thrown, including bricks. Gags are quite funny.

The plot of some silent comedy shorts seem to be hard to understand for nowadays’ standards and there is a reason for that. Rather than being fixed to a script, the comedians had much room for improvisation grounded only in an overall idea of the story. What does it exactly mean? By its own nature, screen comedy moves faster than drama and this is even more evident when it comes to slapstick. However, this is not the only point to be considered.
In one-or two-reel slapstick comedies there is not a strict commitment to carefully-related situations. Unusual facts are a commonplace, most of them completely detached from reality and it can be seen even in the appearance of some characters that did not have any resemblance to real people at the time. Coincidences may happen and facts are not a usual result of previous ones. Logic and probability are forgotten. Characterization is not a priority and gags have more prominence.
As director Al Christie (1881-1951) said in his book The Elements of Situation Comedy:[1] “In a one reel subject it is almost impossible to develop details of personal inclinations and habits, yet even in a subject of this sort it is possible to analyze each character and keep each character withincertain bounds”. As there is no time for deeper characterization, the film usually shows the predominate traits of the characters, both the physical and emotional. Thus, in some slapstick films we can see “the romantic girl”, “the fat man”, “the jealous wife, “the coward soldier” and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless.
As such sort of comedies, with frantic pace and lots of physical movement, finished being produced with the advent of talkies due to limitation of movements that the use of microphones and heavier equipment imposed, those films are not usually familiar to modern day audiences. Anyway, they continue to be funny and serve as a valuable historic witness to an era.

Further reading and materials:
2. Mack Sennett Classics, Volume 2: One Night Stand / Cursed By His Beauty / Fatty's Tintype Tangle / Plumber / Star Boarder (Silent)

[1] The Elements of Situation Comedy, Al E. Christie, University of California Libraries (January 1, 1920)