(On Cable TV, April 2018) According to my notes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the oldest movie I’ve ever watched to date. While I wonder at the idea of a movie that has travelled in time nearly a hundred years to be watched today, I’m also tempted to put Science Fiction fan beanie on my head to point out that, of course, a genre film is more durable and memorable than then-contemporary drama. Genre is fun, genre is interesting and genre, all things considered, travels pretty well through time. The basic Jekyll/Hyde story, after all, is a pumped-up illustration of the duality within all of us, torn between our basest instincts and our better natures. Here we have John Barrymore (grandfather to Drew Barrymore, if you want another link between then and now) playing both lead roles: an upstanding citizen who, thanks to scientific experiments and hilariously ill-advised nudging by his future father-in-law, sees his inner beast unchained and free to act badly. One aspect of watching a 1920 film trying to tackle debauchery is the curiously tame nature of the excesses (ooh, an ankle) and yet the film does manage to make its point come across clearly. The hideous transformation of Jekyll into Hyde is well handled through prosthetics and makeup, and the rest of the film is decent enough. I’m not that charmed by the entire film—as with other silent movies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems to last forever, exhibits only a rudimentary understanding of modern cinematographic grammar and is simply too foreign to be watched transparently when the title cards brutally remind you that there’s an entire audio dimension missing. Still, I’m still impressed that this nearly hundred-year-old artifact can still be watched and make us care about the story it has to tell.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) The thirties were a decade when Hollywood perfected the grammar and sales pitch of cinema, with Grand Hotel earning a minor place in history for two innovations: on an artistic level, pioneering the use of a 360-degree lobby set that allowed the camera to be pointed in any direction, and commercially for bringing together as many movie stars as the (comparatively large) budget would allow. It netted Grand Hotel a Best Picture Oscar back in 1933, but today the result has visibly aged. While the script still holds some interest by bringing together a bunch of vignettes that sometimes interact, much of the film is shot as a theatre piece, the lobby sequences being an exception that highlight the more traditional nature of the rest of the film. As far as star power is concerned, modern viewers can still enjoy the presences of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford as well as Lionel and John Barrymore—even as reminders of why they were or became superstars. While the Berlin setting of the film may strike some as odd considering Hollywood’s insularity and the whole World War II unpleasantness a few years later, it’s worth noting that at the time, Hollywood was filled with German expats, that Berlin was a world-class city and the best-selling source novel spoke for itself. Also: this was the depression, and a bit of gentle European exoticism couldn’t hurt the movie-watching masses. Grand Hotel will forever live on as a Best Picture winner, and as a representative of the Hollywood machine as it was revving up in the early thirties, it’s a master class in itself.