Monday, September 26, 2016

Four Sons (USA, 1928)

This film follows the same production and plot values of films like, The Big Parade (USA, 1925), among others. WW1 is shown irrespective of politics, focused on the impact of war in the lives of ordinary citizens, who for the first time in life have the deal with events completely beyond their control changing their future forever.
Without falling into melodrama, this film has a smooth, pleasant pace, quite familiar to modern-day audiences.  The fluid camera movement makes it looks like we are following those characters in real life. The film is so moving because it deals with facts with which most people can identify themselves quite easily, like the importance of having a harmonious family. 
Fox studios had recently hired prestigious German director F.W. Murnau. His influence can be observed in some scenes, for example, in the village, mobilized camera and mailman which is like the doorman in The Last Laugh (Germany, 1924).
The setting is Germany in the beginning of XX century and a widowed mother raising her four adult sons. The view of German lifestyle at that film is somehow stereotyped, as we can see even by the clothes of the village dwellers.  The Bavarian wearing their typical clothes everywhere all the time.
Then the war started. At first, the bothers are shown going to war in a rather romanticized way, as brave men who were fighting for the country and ideals and they left in a rather optimistic mood, saying they would be back in three months. At least, that was the atmosphere before the real horrors or death and suffering began. Three of those brothers fight for Germany, but the one of brothers had immigrated to the United States, being on the opposite side of his three other brothers. 
At first, the brother who immigrate to the USA had a calm life together with the family he formed there, after all the United States was neutral at first. But time passed and two of the brothers were unfortunately killed in action, which brought a huge grief to the mother. In addition to it, the life of the mother and her surviving son worsened terribly when they started being bullied by government authorities and things became hell after it was found out that her another surviving son is in America.
Finally, the last surviving brother in German soil is called to go to the army. At that point, the horrors of war were already undeniable. 
The mother eventually found her happiness again, after much struggle, when she managed to reunite in the United States with her surviving son, daughter in law and grandson. Things were not easy to her when she arrived, she was scared and sore, but after the entire family gathered together the wounds started to heal. Of course that to reach this happy end it was required a plenty of coincidences that we could only see in films. 
At the end we realize that it does not matter in which side of the war people are involved, the suffering and hardship affects everyone, family ties struggle and trauma is huge even in people who did not go to the front directly. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cleopatra (USA,1912)

Actress Helen Gardner started her career in the legitimate stage on early XX century and she had been making films for some years before being in Cleopatra (her career in cinema seems to have begun around 1910 in Vitagraph studios) and she was one of first American actresses to have her own production company. Although the studio did not last many years, it was a real pioneer landmark. Gardner also had the distinction of being one of very first “vamps” of Hollywood, even before Theda Bara (which would soon surface, after the hit in a Fool There Was, produced in 1915) and Louise Glaum. Although virtually forgotten, even compared with the other aforementioned vamps, Gardner has her own place in history of cinema.
One of first feature-length films of Hollywood, we can observe that this film had aged not too long after it was launched in 1912. The acting was mostly stagy (specially by actress Helen Gardner, in the main role of Cleopatra, who gestured wildly throughout the film), with broad gestures and exaggerated drama, typical of plays up to early XX century. The so-called naturalistic acting (embodied by actresses Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, etc) would soon become the norm in cinema and the stage melodrama would soon become outdated. The use of camera was also rather static, which helps to give the audiences the feeling of a stage play.  
The sceneries are also typical of the stage and the film had a plenty of intertitles. Although the ill-fated love story of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony was already known in literature and arts in general before the invention of the cinema, it is still not very clear how much known those characters were in popular culture. Historical accuracy fails in some points of the film, both in characterization of landscapes and in the reproduction of details of the story. For instance, the landscape represented in this film does not look very much like a sight we would expect to see in an Ancient semi-desertic place. And in a scene even a poodle (yes, a poodle dog) could be spotted for some seconds, although it does seem such dogs have ever been common either in Rome or Egypt. But the audience must not pay too much attention to those points. Sure, it does give some involuntary humor to a film that it is supposed to be dramatic, but epic films of this magnitude were not still a commonplace in early cinema, so there was not a standard of production values to be followed. That would soon come in Hollywood with D.W. Griffith, though. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hangman's House (USA, 1928)

This film, despite its overt melodrama acting, also has some gothic elements, especially in the scenery, which is a type of thing that could be found in films by Ingmar Bergman decades later. The way the main characters express love and grief is through a stationary, stagy acting that was already out of fashion at late silent era. 
An army man (Citizen Hogan), who was actually an Irish patriot serving in Algeria, asks for a leave of absence so he can return home in Ireland because he had to kill a man despite the fact he was wanted by the law there due to his patriot activities. The reasons of Hogan’s return were not disclosed at the beginning of the film and would only be known a while later.
In Ireland, a hangman is about to pass away and is having huge crisis of conscience due to the people he sent to death. The flames on the fireplace of his living room can be taken as a symbolism of his life that was about to be over. 
His daughter loved a man dearly (Dermot McDermot) and he wanted to marry her. However, her father preferred that she married John D’arcy, a man of dishonest character, but with money and good social position. She detested D’arcy but eventually married him out of respect for her father’s wish. Dermot was devastated when he heard the sad news. Her father died a short time after the marriage. D’arcy started to drink and being completely nasty with his wife and she openly avoided him.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man showed up in town. It was the same army man showed in the beginning of the film and he was looking for John D’arcy.  They both had clearly met before, and whenever D’arcy put his eyes on that man he seemed to be really afraid and uneasy. In fact, D’arcy had already been married with the army man’s sister, but D’arcy had left his sister and she died right afterwards. This is why Citizen Hogan wanted revenge. 
D’arcy showed more and more signals of mental instability as time passed. Eventually, Citizen Hogan finally managed to confront D’arcy at his own house and it is suggested a duel. A fire started at the mansion and it attracts the attention of the entire neighborhood. Dermot McDermot and Citizen Hogan managed to leave the place on time, but D’arcy got trapped and is killed in the fire.
Hogan returned to the desert right afterwards, after having created a good friendship with Dermot. And both Demont and the hangman’s daughter could finally become together without anyone else’s interference, as she was now a widow.
The psychological profile, as well as reasons behind their attitudes could have been a bit deeper in this film. But this film has a good camera use, good sceneries and acting and a gloomy atmosphere that built up suspense well. The mansion and furniture had some interesting gothic touches, which is not something common to be seen in a dramatic film. Although not a particularly innovative film, it is convincing and well-acted. And it is also noteworthy for having shown John Wayne in his first recognizable role in films. As a uncreadited extra, he was a spectator in the horse racing who was so excited with the race that he ended up hitting the fence in front of him.