(YouTube Streaming, November 2019) As much as it won’t please its fans, silent cinema is often an ordeal to watch: if you’re not interested in the history of cinema, there’s not a lot in there to like other than a few comedies. So it is that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a struggle to watch. Let’s not deny its importance: It was a box-office hit in 1923, it was a large-scale production that clearly warranted much of Universal Studio’s confidence, it featured Lon Chaney and it’s considered by some as the start of the Universal Horror line-up. But if you’re looking for straight-up entertainment, well, there’s the 1939 version with sound and Charles Laughton to watch. Even then, the silent version is not that unbearable—as mentioned, a lot of effort has been made in bringing this version to the screen (recreating Paris in Los Angeles with thousands of extras), and you can at least appreciate that kind of craftsmanship. It’s historically important, at least, and you can chart the evolution of the Victor Hugo novel into its later, much streamlined adaptations by using this as an early data point. If you can get into the mindset of silent movies, this one is significantly more interesting than average by virtue of production means and horror-adjacent moments. But this should not be anyone’s introduction to silent film—so keep The Hunchback of Notre Dame in reserve for after you’ve built up your tolerance to the slow pacing and title cards.
(On Cable TV, September 2019) Now this is a curio on several levels. Keep in mind that The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was made at a time when sound cinema was just getting started: It was still considered a novelty, and it’s fair to say that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with it exactly. A natural idea was to transpose a Broadway revue on-screen: let’s just have the stars walk in, do a bit of music, dance or comedy, record everything and string them along in a plotless experience. Why not? Such a thing would be strikingly inappropriate for the theatrical experience today now that televised variety shows and streaming options can bring the best of the world to our screens at any time, but back in 1929 it wasn’t just a good idea—the result was seriously considered for the first Academy Awards. Of course, there’s quite a cliff from concept to execution: what survives of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 ninety years later is very rough on a technical level: the top of the image seems cut off, the special effects are laughable, the muddy image is of low quality, low contrast and poor sound quality. The dance choreography has little of the polish that we’d see from Busby Berkeley even a few years later. But that it has survived at all is amazing—many movies of that time never made it to this day. It’s quite an experience to see what were, at the time, the studio’s biggest stars—while we still remember Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton (very funny in a small part), and the Laurel and Hardy duo, many of the other people on-screen have faded away in obscurity, known only to early-cinema aficionados. There are a few highlights: Jack Benny’s emceeing routines have their moments. There are a few funny comic routines (including one featuring Lon Chaney). Of the good musical numbers, one number featuring Queen’s Guards dancers is rather good. There’s an early version of “Singin’ in the Rain” (later quoted in the That’s Entertainment! series). Perhaps more strikingly, three very primitive colour sequences mark, I think, the first use of colour I’ve seen in a Hollywood film and it does add an extra dimension in the film. There’s something to be said about the value of such a document travelling through the ages, now available for endless digital copies. In many ways, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a primitive form of time travel—what if you were sitting in the middle of the front row at the time’s hottest theatrical entertainment show?
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Contemporary viewers may decry the violence, vulgarity and provocativeness of today’s cinema, but the truth is that the frontier between moviemaking and sensational freak-show has never been all that clear, even during the first decades of the medium. In The Unknown, for instance, we can recognize the huckster’s instinct to show audiences something they may never admit they crave. Consider this: Lon Chaney stars as a circus attraction: a man without arms, who can throw knives and shoot a rifle with his feet. Except that he does have arms, tightly bound behind him: his characteristic double-thumb would easily identify him as a wanted criminal. Working at the circus is a good way to fly under the watch of police authorities … that is, until he falls for another circus worker (played by Joan Crawford) who cannot bear a man’s touch yet is desired by another man. More murder and terrible ironies abound in the rest of the picture. The story is simplistic, with much of the ending telegraphed well in advance, but there is one unnerving plot development midway through, and even the expected twists and turns help in making this an essential silent melodrama. Yes, The Unknown is lurid … but audiences then and now willingly paid to see this stuff.