Kidnapped (1917)

2018 #159
Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

Kidnapped DVD

The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

“Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

Swashes being buckled

Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from

Conquest Program No.9

2018 #158a-d
30 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

Conquest Program No.9 advertisement

We all know the cinema experience of today: 20 minutes of TV adverts that we’d fast-forward at home but have no say in on the big screen, followed by 10 minutes of movie trailers that we’ve already watched on YouTube, and, finally, the film we’ve paid to see. But back in the day the theatrical programme was less unedifying, with short films of various stripes preceding the headline film (hence the term “feature film”, obv.)

For her DVD release of the 1917 feature Kidnapped (more about that in my review here), Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently was able to source the four short films that were bundled with it as part of “Conquest Program No.9”. The Conquest Programs were the idea of distributor George Kleine and created by Thomas Edison’s film company. Eleven were created in all, each one bundling together a feature film and a mix of shorts to create a complete bill of wholesome entertainment. By specifically recreating Program No.9, the Kidnapped DVD doesn’t just offer an approximation of what a night at the movies in 1917 might’ve been a bit like, but rather a genuine was-definitely-shown-in-theatres programme from the time.

Friends, Romans and Leo

The programme opens with a twelve-minute comedy short, Friends, Romans and Leo, directed by Alan Crosland, who also helmed Kidnapped, and featuring several of the feature’s leading players too. It’s a bit of Roman farcing about, concerning an “emperor” who’s so in debt he lets the moneylender marry his daughter rather than call in the mortgage on his garage. I’m sure that’s exactly how Roman politics worked. Then, an unwanted and useless servant is cast into the gladiatorial ring to face the hulking Brutal Brutus, and also Leo, a man in a lion costume… er, I mean: Leo, a lion. This bit, at least, has some amusing pratfalling. It’s not big (it’s a short film, after all), it’s not clever (characters speak in a mix of Olde Worlde English (“thou hast been good to me”) and modern slang (“that’s a twenty-karat rock, girlie!”)), and it’s not particularly amusing to today’s eyes either, although the second half is at least diverting enough. Certainly, a grown man titting about in a lion suit has its own kind of charm.

Up next is a seven-minute “fairy tale in silhouette”, Little Red Riding Hood. I’d assumed it was going to be some kind of puppet animation job, but no, it’s live-action shot in silhouette, presumably for a kind of stylistic, picture-book-ish look. This means we’re treated to another man in an animal costume — the wolf, of course — but this outfit is less good than Leo’s, something even the silhouetted visuals can’t hide. The short rattles through the traditional story with no significant variations, which feels a little quaint viewed from the vantage point of over a century later. That said, it does include this immortal line: “It must be grandmama for it is her cap, but how very strange this bad cold makes her look!” Because people can always be identified by their caps, and colds make you look like a wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood

Talking of quaint, that clearly wasn’t a concept alien to 1917 audiences, as the third short implies. Titled Quaint Provincetown, it’s a seven-minute travelogue about a quiet little seaside town and its almost throwback way of life (even for 1917!) A series of lifestyle scenes rather than a narrative documentary, it’s a fascinating window into the past, which arguably makes it the most interesting of these films for the modern viewer. That said, how much of it was captured actuality and how much was staged, who knows — for example, at one point we watch a couple of boys have a fight in the street while their friends egg them on, which you feel the filmmakers can’t’ve just happened upon. Still, kids, eh? I guess some things never change.

Finally, Microscopic Pond Life is a four-minute look at… well, what it says on the tin. This is, broadly speaking, stuff we’re nowadays familiar with from a young age thanks to science lessons and whatnot, but I imagine it must’ve been quite incredible to see these minuscule organisms in action for the first time. You’re not going to learn a lot of detailed scientific information from a 100-year-old short like this, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of the tiniest of lifeforms.

Microscopic Pond Life

Viewed today, this selection of short films is, at worst, an insight into a time long gone — one of the nearest experiences we’re likely to get to time travel. At best, the films themselves retain some inherent interest and entertainment value. As Fritzi puts it in her booklet accompanying the DVD, “the ninth Conquest program is not filled with hidden masterpieces, just good solid programmers that would have entertained the average American audience in 1917.” Very true, and fair enough.

3 out of 5

Read my review of Conquest Program No.9’s feature film, Kidnapped, here.
The DVD is now available to purchase from

The Battle of the Somme (1916)

2014 #71
Producer: William F. Jury* | 74 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | UK / silent (English)

The Battle of the Somme DVDArguably the most famous clash of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme lasted four-and-a-half months from July to November 1916 and, with over a million men wounded or killed, is “one of the bloodiest battles in human history.” As the BBC’s History website puts it, although it was “intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter”. Not that you’d guess it from this contemporary documentary, which is essentially a propaganda piece produced by the British government.

Centred around 1st July 1916, the day of the first British assault on the German trenches, the film mostly covers the build-up and aftermath of the initial fighting — despite the title, there’s very little footage of combat. There’s probably two reasons for that: one, the footage of the battle wasn’t very good and so, infamously, was staged (aka faked) later; and two, the battle was a bloodbath, making it a somewhat inappropriate spectacle to show to the general public, especially when it was their friends and relations being slaughtered on “the worst day in the history of the British Army” (they suffered around 60,000 casualties on that first day alone). Not that we’re spared the sight of dead bodies elsewhere in the film, but the moment of death itself is another matter.

The faked footage of men going ‘over the top’ has dogged the film’s reputation to a degree. As Roger Smither, the keeper of the Imperial War Museum’s film & photograph archives, notes in the booklet accompanying their DVD release, “despite a common perception that The Battle of the Somme is ‘full of fakes’, the staged ‘over the top’ scene is in fact a significant anomaly in a film that is otherwise characterised by nothing worse in the way of fabrication than the kind of ‘photo-opportunity’ arrangement that remains a continuing part of television news and photo-journalism to this day.” It’s also one that lasts only a few minutes, if that; a tiny fraction of the entire film.

War, grim, red warThe British press certainly believed they were seeing “the real thing at last” (the Manchester Guardian), feeling it showed “war, grim, red war; the real thing” (the Daily Sketch). The British public agreed, flocking to see the movie en masse: twenty million admissions were sold in the first six weeks of release. At the time, the battle still raged (the film debuted on 10th August 1916) — as Smithers notes, “to its original audience, the film was not history but a despatch from the front”. It is such an historical document now, but at the time it wasn’t even recent-history — it was produced as newsreel, a record of current events, designed to make people at home feel connected to the everyday lives of their family, friends and countrymen serving on the frontline.

It can still serve that role today, to an extent. From much of how World War One is presented in modern fiction, documentary and education, you’d be forgiven for thinking troops were shipped directly into trenches, went over the top and died or, if one of the few lucky enough to survive, then went directly to hospital/home/back to the trench. The Battle of the Somme puts lie to that from the start: we begin with preparations for the battle, lines and lines of troops marching or standing around waiting for something to do, in normal-looking fields and towns, far removed from the cramped, muddy, horrid trenches of our imagination. Smiling faces follow the camera, running around to remain in shot, lifting tarps uninvited to helpfully show off stacks of ammunition. It’s all very jolly.

SteampunkEqually striking is the scale of the operation. You know it was a monumental effort, but actually seeing so many men… You never see that scope in dramas because they don’t have the budget for all those extras, I guess, but here the crowds of soldiers just waiting around are remarkably large. And crikey, the heavy artillery! Even though you know these were real weapons, today they look more like some fantastical steampunk creation, so covered are they in rivets, and so damn huge.

Signs of disruption to the happy masses creep in, though: it’s surprising how scruffy the uniforms are — not when the soldiers are at rest, but while performing duties like reloading guns. Hats are at odd angles, some are jacketless — just a general lack of the smartness you’d expect to see in an official documentary about the military. Later, we see a gaggle of smiling and laughing faces as men attach special barbed wire cutters to the end of their rifles. Hindsight lets us know few of those men would’ve got close enough to need them.

But there’s no hindsight here; no mention of the incompetent strategy and the severe loss of life it led to. If anything, it makes even the post-battle front look not-so-bad. We see some of the wounded, but they’re either walking or seem to be enjoying a nice stretcher ride, the intertitles informing us we’re seeing “how quickly the wounded are attended to”. Even the captured enemy look just as chipper as the British soldiers escorting them. When we do see action, any British attack is successful and described with words like “glorious”, while any German counterattack is “one of five unsuccessful” ones. It’s brazenly propagandistic. Towards the end we’re shown — and I quote the intertitle accurately — “some of the booty”! (That being artillery, etc, salvaged from the captured German lines.) The closing section opens with shots of devastation wrought on the landscape by British shellfire, accompanied (in the 1916 musical medley) with triumphant music. The tone is shocking.

Lots of waiting...Speaking of the music, the Imperial War Museum DVD release offers up a choice of two scores: a newly-commissioned (in 2008) one by film composer Laura Rossi, and a recreation of the kind of music that would have accompanied the film in 1916. The film’s producer and distributor, William F. Jury, was also the editor of trade paper The Bioscope, and had columnist J Morton Hutcheson draw up a list of suitable pieces to be performed alongside screenings, which was published days before the film’s release. To quote Dr Toby Haggith (the Imperial War Museum’s film programmer), again in the DVD booklet**, “for this reason, it may be fair to describe this medley as the ‘official score’ for the film. Although cinemas were not obliged to use these recommendations, we know that it was used in at least seven of the cinemas where the Somme film was screened and there is other evidence that it was widely adopted. However, the point is not that the Morton Hutcheson medley was used on every occasion The Battle of the Somme was shown, but that it is the kind of selection that was typical for this film”.

Rossi found the “medley was much more positive and light-hearted than I imagined… I think it’s interesting to hear the medley and see how it was watched in 1916… but I think someone watching the film today would watch in a totally different way, as we can now look back in hindsight, and we have a pre-conceived idea of what the war was like”. This is partly why I chose to view the film with the 1916 soundtrack: to get an idea for how the film was originally perceived, rather than the laden retrospective view. Rossi avoided listening to other scores when composing her own, preferring to respond to just the film itself. Admirable, and probably the ‘right’ way to do it; but it also brings all that associated baggage of “this was a terrible thing”, whereas the original film, produced as propaganda-newsreel, is going for more “this is hard but honourable”. The 1916 music selection is indeed quite jovial on the whole, though marginally more somber when the occasion calls. The (very small) sampling I listened to of Rossi’s score was more ominous, rumbling, haunting and haunted — much more in tune with our modern understanding, I’m sure.

These ones are just resting...Haggith summarises many of Hutcheson’s choices as “motivated wholly by the needs of propaganda… jaunty, martial and unashamedly heroic. Given the nature of the scenes recorded and the bloody history of this phase of the battle, the selection of such upbeat music seems deeply inappropriate.” However, other selections “reflect Hutcheson’s personal response to scenes that he found distressing on a universal level, and which led him to warn musicians that ‘they must realise the seriousness and awfulness of the scenes’… These contradictions suggest that Hutcheson had difficulty selecting music for the film because he was torn by the contrasting images and messages it conveyed. In this way the medley highlights the tension at the heart of the film.” Musician Stephen Horne, who leads the 1916 medley recreation, agrees that the film is torn “between a sense of propagandist duty and a desire to honour the reality that had not evaded the camera’s gaze.” It’s true that, however positive the final movie wants to be, it can’t completely escape reality. At one point it cuts abruptly from a jauntily-scored scene of men happily receiving post to “German dead on the field of battle”. A deliberate juxtaposition of happiness with the fate that awaits them with near inevitability? Seems a bit radical for a propaganda piece…

As a whole, The Battle of the Somme offers little atmosphere or sense of narrative; just the presentation of a series of broadly-chronological tableaux that the cameramen captured. Even the intertitles only describe what exactly the following shots will be showing us, almost like an onscreen footnote or picture caption. This is formative documentary making, and that apparent simplicity only adds to its veracity: because it seems so determinedly unstaged, we believe it must be real.

Lessons to learnBut it can’t avoid drawing parallels: the film ends almost as it began, with artillery being moved up for the next assault and men marching to the front, waving merrily as they go. History repeats — probably not the lesson a propaganda film wants to impart, but one it can’t quite escape. And one that, even a hundred years later, we can’t quite learn.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon, which you can read more about from hosts Silent-ology and Movies Silently.

In that spirit, you might be interested in my reviews of certified-classic Lawrence of Arabia and Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war diatribe Paths of Glory; or, for World War One in modern film, my pieces on the very good Canadian melodrama Passchendaele, and Steven Spielberg’s exceptional, epic adaptation of War Horse. Plus, if you want to really push the definition of “films about the First World War”, there’s always Sucker Punch.

* There’s no credited director. As well as producer Jury, the full credits include cameraman and editor Geoffrey H. Malins, cameraman J.B. McDowell, and editor Charles Urban. ^

** Believe it or not, I’ve avoided quoting too heavily from the Imperial War Museum’s DVD booklet in this review. It’s filled with insights, into not only the film but also its different musical scores and the in-depth restoration process, that make it an enlightening read for anyone interested. ^

Die Austernprinzessin (1919)

aka The Oyster Princess / My Lady Margarine

2010 #6
Ernst Lubitsch | 61 mins | DVD | PG

Die AusternprinzessinDie Austernprinzessin seems to be one of, if not the, most respected and/or beloved of Lubitsch’s early films. It makes They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s Doubling the Canon list, something no other film in this box set has managed (nor, I should clarify, are any on the main list); it’s the only one to make IMDb’s top films of the 1910s; and it has some Proper critical backing too (more on that later). But personally, it’s my least favourite Lubitsch so far.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad — far from it. Set in America, it’s packed with displays of ostentatious wealth: the titular ‘princess’ (played by Lubitsch muse Ossi Oswalda), actually the daughter of an oyster-selling businessman, lives in a huge palace of a home; the family has hundreds of servants to do everything, to a ridiculous degree; and there’s a pervasive “must have more” culture splashed across it. This isn’t praised though, as you might expect from a contemporaneous US film (or most US films, really), but is instead a satire/pisstake. It must have been particularly effective/galling in a Germany heading into severe post-war Depression.

To support his theme, Lubitsch stages numerous epic set pieces on gigantic sets: Ossi’s bath, where a stream of maids carry her to and fro, wash and dry her; a huge cast of choreographed waiters, kitchen staff and guests at the wedding dinner; a mad foxtrot sequence that follows it; or the ladies’ boxing match, where for the third time in as many films Lubitsch shows a gaggle of women fighting over a man. The foxtrot sequence seems the most praised of these, though I wasn’t sold — other sequences here are better staged with greater comic impact. The supple, enthusiastic band leader was quite entertaining though.

Occasionally, however, one feels the size of these sequences may have distracted the director from the task of making his film funny. Not that it isn’t or that these aren’t — Lubitsch still exploits almost every chance for a gag — but there’s sometimes the suspicion that the logistics of staging such big sequences, and so many of them, have derailed him from the primary goal. By extension, the story often feels like a series of sketches (even more so than the previous two films), with several — Ossi’s instruction in how to bathe a baby, for example — seeming wholly extraneous and not always hitting home as well as one might’ve liked.

Similarly (though, it may just be my imagination), Oswalda’s skill gets a little lost among all the hullabaloo. She rarely has a chance to display the comedic and romantic charm she showed so beautifully in Ich möchte kein Mann sein and Die Puppe, although a couple of scenes allow her to let loose. She’s part of the ensemble much of the time, little more than a prop at others (the bath sequence, for example). Obviously, the film doesn’t have to focus on her, and the rest of the cast entertain — in particular a heavily made-up Victor Janson as the consistently bored oyster entrepreneur — but having seen her abilities so well displayed in the preceding films, they feel slightly underused here.

But, as I say, maybe I imagined it; and perhaps I’m holding Die Austernprinzessin to unfeasibly high standards, buoyed by the success of the previous films and the aforementioned critical standing? I haven’t even mentioned all the plus-points, like some excellent individual gags — a drive-in wedding! — and a great score on this edition (sadly uncredited, as far as I can see).

Speaking of this particular release, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky again pens the essay that accompanies the film, ending it with quite a nice analogy about food and restaurants and stuff — I won’t spoil it for those yet to read it. In fact, the main reason I even mention it is to cite that Sight & Sound review I mentioned, which asserts that Vishnevetsky’s essays “seem designed merely to show off his range — very pseud’s corner”. Not a point I’d necessarily disagree with, but it does feel a little rich coming from Sight & Sound, the magazine that (for one handy example culled from the same issue) can produce a list of the 30 “most significant” films of the last decade in which I’ve not even heard of half the selections.

And the reviewer also calls Die Austernprinzessin Lubitsch’s “earliest masterpiece”, which obviously I’m going to disagree with. I’ll stick to playing with dolls, thanks.

4 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.

Silent Week – #1: Lubitsch in Berlin

The idea behind Silent Week is simple: the films are silent, the blog is anything but.

Oh, that sounds like a cheesy marketing line that ITV would use (not that ITV would ever go anywhere near a silent film). Sorry. But still, the idea runs more or less thusly: I watch a silent film one day, I post a review of it the next (well, that was the idea…) That doesn’t necessarily mean seven films, but enough to justify it being a Week rather than, I dunno, a Weekend. However, as it’s turned out (at least for this inaugural entry), I watched (almost) all the films last week and intend to post all the reviews this week.

Why silent films? Because I’ve noticed I own quite a few that I haven’t seen. I could probably do the same thing with anime, or film noir, or Asian action movies, or any number of other such genres/categories, but silents attracted my attention for now.

The initial idea (that again…) had been to start with a random selection of the silents I own, but then I got the new Masters of Cinema Lubitsch in Berlin set a week in advance of its release (which, incidentally, is tomorrow) — I always love it when that happens, especially as it inspires me to actually watch stuff right away. And this set has seven films — what could be more perfect for a Silent Week? (OK, one film immediately breaks the rules by not being silent, but as it’s a documentary about silents I rule it eligible.)

As if to cement this more themed approach, as I listed the silents I own they began to fall into categories — Hitchcock, Chaplin, Murnau & Lang, plus the Feuillade serials Fantômas and Les Vampires. I could muddle these up into more random weeks, or go chronologically across them all, but why bother? As I’ve got through Lubitsch in Berlin OK (well, almost) I’ll try again sometime soon with another of these themes, and continue that way… until I run out and have a grab bag of remaining titles (currently: 4½).

I hasten to point out (he says, in paragraph six) that I’m no expert on silent cinema — these are all first-views, as per the rest of the blog, and informed by little more than that (the exception being DVDs with booklets, where there may be a bit more info at my disposal). Despite the lack of any specialism, it’s thanks primarily to a series of era-spanning degree modules with a filmic bent that I’ve found myself with enough of an interest in the silent era to accumulate a variety of films over the past few years… I just haven’t watched most of them, clearly.

But let’s bring things back on point: six films directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and one documentary about them. I begin today with reviews of the first two featured in the set:

2010 #4
Ich möchte kein Mann sein
aka I Wouldn’t Like to Be a Man
1918 | Ernst Lubitsch | 45 mins | DVD | PG

“Ossi Oswalda is obviously a skilled comedic actress, convincing as both a petulant tomboy and a boyish gent, capable of both drunken stumbling and coy giggling, by turns delightfully rebellious, sweetly put-upon and succinctly joyous. She’s even believable as a man (albeit a boyish one).”

4 out of 5

2010 #5
Die Puppe
aka The Doll
1919 | Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG

“It’s a constant array of delights, and nothing outstays its welcome; every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.”

5 out of 5

Coming up: Die Austernprinzessin (aka The Oyster Princess), Sumurun (aka One Arabian Night), Anna Boleyn (aka Deception), Die Bergkatze (aka The Wildcat), and Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood.

Die Puppe (1919)

aka The Doll

2010 #5
Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG

Die PuppeFrom the very start, Die Puppe sets out its stall (literally) as being something a bit special. The first sequence sees director Ernst Lubitsch himself unpack and assemble a doll’s house set and two dolls, which then become life-size and the dolls — now humans — the first characters we meet. It’s a neat framing device, a joke in itself, and some kind of early commentary on the role of a director.

From this point on, Die Puppe is a riot. Yes, some of it is distinctly old fashioned — an early chase scene, for example, sees Lancelot pursued by 40 desperate women, his mother, his uncle and the latter’s servant, back and forth and round in circles in a cartoonish fashion — and yet, even leaving aside allowances for it being 91 years old, there’s something wholly amiable about even these now-familiar proceedings.

And that’s just some of it, because Lubitsch doesn’t pass up any chance for a gag. Take the scene where Hilarius, the doll’s inventor, returns to his workshop to fetch the doll, who at that moment is actually his daughter in disguise. The point of the scene is conveyed — Hilarius accepts the deception. Except he also decides she needs more paint on her lips, which he dutifully applies. Or the pantomime horses that pull a carriage… but rather than ignore them, Lubitsch has the driver have to re-apply one’s tail. And so on. This constant expression of humour, working at every level from intellectual wit down to slapstick tomfoolery, means that even if one element has been done to death in the past near-century, there’ll be several other moments or scenes to compensate.

Even more so than in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, one could easily fill a whole review listing the great bits. Like when Lancelot is initially presented with an array of dolls, like a bizarre early-20th-century brothel with Autons for whores. Or the vulturous relatives, dividing up items while the Baron lies on his deathbed, and having the gall to accuse him of bad planning when they can’t decide who should have a vase that’s promptly broken. Or the broadly satirical monks with their ‘meagre’ meals, unwillingness to share, and incessant greed. And, in the vein of things-you-might-not-expect-from-this-era, there’s a great gag about an instruction manual. It’s a constant array of delights, and, also as in Ich möchte…, nothing outstays its welcome — every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.

Lubitsch’s playfulness extends to the medium itself. He uses camera masks and wipes to focus on specific areas, breaking free of the 4:3 box to create different compositions, revealing parts of the frame on a delay, illustrating dream sequences, and more. There are ‘special effects’ that one could only achieve with a camera, like Hilarius’ hair changing colour, the balloon-flying sequence, a ghostly dream, and so on. And the irrepressibly cheeky young apprentice, played brilliantly by Gerhard Ritterband, routinely breaks the fourth wall to air his grievances to the audience.

And I haven’t even mentioned Ossi Oswalda, who gives another good comic turn as both the titular doll and her real-life inspiration. In his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summarises her appeal (some of it, at any rate) so well that I may as well just quote from it: “Her comedy isn’t just funny to watch — it’s inviting, like a friend who cracks a joke and then asks you to tell one too. She begs a like-minded idiocy from the audience.” It is, I think, a point that’s even more applicable to Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it stands well enough here.

Talking of this specific edition, I understand that Bernard Wrigley’s new score has come under fire from some sources (namely, Sight & Sound, though I’ve yet to read that review myself). Maybe their reviewer has a genuine complaint, but I thought that Wrigley’s score was for the most part perfectly lovely. It’s only flaw is that it often falls silent for a few uncomfortable seconds, reminding the viewer that ‘silent films’ should be anything but. Still, this is as minor a complaint as it sounds.

The Lubitsch in Berlin box set was a complete blind buy for me (as this series of reviews will attest), but these first two films alone easily justify it. Die Puppe, in particular, is simply outstanding.

5 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918)

aka I Wouldn’t Like to Be a Man

2010 #4
Ernst Lubitsch | 45 mins | DVD | PG

Die PuppeIch möchte kein Mann sein is the kind of silent film that might surprise some among a wider film-viewing audience, both in terms of the attitudes prevalent in what is occasionally assumed to be a highly prim era, and, even accepting that it really wasn’t, the things people were prepared to put on film then — the latter due to, I think, the perception of older films as wilfully innocent (a view no doubt influenced by the effect the Hays Code would later have on American movies).

But it’s anything but innocent: young ladies drinking, gambling and smoking, thinly veiled sex references, and multiple passionate — albeit drunken — kisses between two chaps. OK, so one of them’s a women in disguise, but when the truth is revealed at the end and the boy and girl (or, rather, man and girl) get together, one wonders if it’s such a perfect match after all… That it’s all played for laughs may be the key to making it permissible, and it is relentlessly comic. In a brisk 45-minute running time, Lubitsch allows nothing to outstay its welcome. Each little sketch within the narrative moves by as fast as it might today — in all likelihood faster, as the modern penchant seems to be to drag sketches out as long as possible, or at least until it’s stopped being funny. Twice over. This brevity may also be surprising to the uninitiated, refuting the assumption that overacting and labouring the point for an audience less accustomed to the shorthand of film were the order of the day.

Many memorable moments are produced throughout: the hypocritical early criticisms by Ossi’s uncle and governess; the men outside her window, rubbing their stomachs with ‘hunger’ in a shot framed from the waist down, not to mention the way they wave their canes around; similarly, the tailors stretching their tape measures as long as possible to impress our heroine; being squished on the train; the marauding horde of single women; the ‘gay’ kisses… Rarer is the sequence that doesn’t impress or linger in the memory.

Much of this is thanks to the film’s star, Ossi Oswalda. She’s obviously a skilled comedic actress, convincing as both a petulant tomboy and a boyish gent, capable of both drunken stumbling and coy giggling, by turns delightfully rebellious, sweetly put-upon and succinctly joyous. She’s even believable as a man (albeit a boyish one). It’s the kind of performance that’s infectious and makes you want to seek out more of her films (luckily, Lubitsch in Berlin contains two further examples). The rest of the cast fare well around her, particularly Margarete Kupfer as Ossi’s alternately stern and swooning governess.

Unfortunately, I can’t even attempt to put this in the context of the rest of Lubitsch’s work — shamefully, I’d barely heard of him prior to Masters of Cinema’s new set, never mind seen any of his films. MoC’s brand-new essays prove invaluable for me in this respect — immediately, this film’s, provided by Criterion’s Anna Thorngate, provides context of what the perception of Lubitsch’s Berlin work (vs his Hollywood work) is, and how Ich möchte kein Mann sein (amongst others) show this perception to be false — there is, in fact, a direct stylistic line between this and his better-known American films. Maybe when I see them I’ll spot it.

But, really, such knowledge and comparisons are entirely ancillary to one’s enjoyment of Ich möchte kein Mann sein. It’s all round a lot of fun, as well as no doubt offering some points of satire/debate about the differences between the sexes for those interested. Perhaps more pertinently, I can also see it serving as a good introduction to silent film: short, fast and funny, it has the potential to create converts.

4 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)

aka Fantômas: À l’ombre de la guillotine

2007 #111
Louis Feuillade | 54 mins | DVD | PG

FantomasThe first of the silent Fantômas films (I reviewed the second previously).

It’s interestingly structured: there’s no ‘origin story’ for Fantômas, he just is an infamous master criminal, who’s introduced in what would undoubtedly be a pre-titles sequence today, before the story switches to follow Inspector Juve and his quest to solve the disappearance of Lord Beltham… which of course leads back to Fantômas. Its pulp fiction roots shine through in the entertaining plot that’s just far-fetched enough.

As I said before, it’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing it’s unmissable.

4 out of 5

Traffic in Souls (1913)

2007 #106
George Loane Tucker | 88 mins | VHS

Traffic in SoulsSilent movie (Universal’s first feature-length release) about white slavery in America. You don’t expect that from a 1913 film, eh?

Of course, the issue is handled in a suitable way for the period: why the women are kidnapped is never alluded to (in reality it was for prostitution) and all the Bad Men are brought to justice.

It’s not all bad: in a surprising move for the time, the main villain is an apparently-respectable society gentleman who publicly campaigns against white slavery; by a similar token, the kidnappers are made up of women as well as men.

The first half zips along an intricate multi-stranded narrative covering several groups of unrelated characters, but as they come together it begins to slow: what seems to be the climax takes half the film to play out its immediately-obvious events. It sadly ruins something that was initially rather promising.

2 out of 5

Fantômas: Juve Versus Fantômas (1913)

aka Juve contre Fantômas

2007 #105
Louis Feuillade | 62 mins | DVD | PG

Juve Versus FantomasSecond instalment of the early French film serial, adapted from a long-running series of pulp novels.

Fantômas is a criminal adept at disguise and avoiding capture by police inspector Juve. It’s full of crazy schemes and action set pieces, which means it’s actually a great deal of fun, relatively fast-paced and densely plotted, exciting and deliberately amusing (though, as with anything this old, there are things to point and laugh at if you’re so inclined). It also looks stunning for its age, with a stable and crisp picture, which incidentally makes great use of colour tinting (for example, turning from blue to yellow when someone switches on a light).

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested in early cinema this is one of the most entertaining examples I’ve seen. As you may have guessed, we were shown this as part of my degree; off the back of it I’ve ordered the DVD of the full serial.

4 out of 5

I never got round to watching the rest of Fantômas, though I’ve been meaning to ever since… (story of my life.)