Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I have a question – what is this thing on my head? (still from kinpoisk.ru)

The Bay Area’s economy may suck, but it can still be an amazing place to be if you love films (and can afford the occasional pricey event). 2015 was my first year back, after an absence of about 15 years—really, I find it’s best not to count any more. What I’m trying to tell you is that on Halloween, I had the privilege not only of watching Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, but of watching it in Grace Cathedral Church, with live organ accompaniment.

The Cathedral is an attraction in itself, and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to see the 90-year-old gothic classic. It was heartening to see both showings had sold out.

The film has a complicated history, including a frosty reception upon its first (and second release). But even if the film weren’t importantly historically, with one of the first moments of moving technicolor (rather than hand-tinted film), it allows us to watch Chaney in all his sympathetic, oddball glory.

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven. The screen was all the way at the back.

Phantom might have been the greatest vehicle for him, even if it’s not his best movie. It is, of course, an opportunity to shock us with the makeup he designed for the deformed Phantom. But, like a Ginsu-knife commercial, we also get so much more. Best of all is Chaney’s interpretation of the deranged villain.

Like all great villains, the Phantom has a well-honed sense of theatricality. However deranged he may be, the Phantom, like Chaney, is a sly master of spectacle. He doesn’t just live underneath an Opera House—he is constantly performing. It’s an understandable obsession for someone who is so ugly he has to hide from society. And he’s certainly better at it than poor Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), the hopelessly uninteresting Faust understudy whom he tutors. But Chaney’s Phantom is like Ridley Scott’s alien (admittedly, with less drool), we catch only hints, glimpses of the menace—the swish of a cape here, a gloved hand there, a shadow—until the big reveal.

umasking 1925Hollywood lore tells us that Mary Philbin (playing Christine Daaé) didn’t see Chaney in full Phantom glory until they were filming the reveal scene, the better to terrify her on camera. Rumor has it that patrons at the film’s premiere fainted when Christine tears off the Phantom’s mask. Chaney famously did his own makeup here, as elsewhere, and, Hollywood gossip aside, it is both grotesque and astounding. Early in the film, theater worker Buquet, cradling a prop head because why not, describes the Phantom to a rapt audience of skittish Opera ballerinas. His eyes are “ghastly beads in which there is no light.” His skin is a “leprous parchment—yellow skin stretched over protruding bones.” And no nose. Chaney wore a “contoured wire appliance to flare and pull back his nose,” a “contraption which would sometimes cause Chaney to ‘bleed like hell,’” according to cameraman Charles Van Enger (The Monster Show, David J. Skal)—and which made his face look uncannily like a skull.

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The Uncle Sam poster came first, in case you were wondering.

What’s so unexpectedly delightful about this Phantom is his demented glee at his own flourishes. When the Opera managers don’t let Christine play the part of Marguerite as the Phantom has instructed them to do, he sends them a note: “Behold, she [the other Marguerite] is singing to bring down the chandelier!” And then, of course, the chandelier comes crashing down on the audience. (Which, oddly, doesn’t seem to hurt their box office, if later crowds are any indication.) You can practically hear him cackling. When the Phantom presents Christine with the ultimatum to marry him or he will kill her lover, Raoul of the fabulous moustaches, he wags his finger at her, as though she’s being mischievous.

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This is what demented glee looks like.

The Phantom has the lyrical pomposity of the best villains, rearranging his syntax for effect: No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred, for you shall bring me love. So romantic.

Arguably the best performance the Phantom gives is at the very, very end of the film, when an enraged mob chases him to the Seine. I won’t tell you what he does, but I like to think that Chaney came up with this last bit of Phantom magic himself.

And, as if that high-class, yet goofy, villainy weren’t enough, the Phantom lives in the bowels of an Opera House, surrounded by an underground lake. And his lair, five cellars below the stage, puts the Opera’s set decorators to shame. All the Opera House gets is a narrow trap door and that really, really big chandelier—which doesn’t even make it through the film. Meanwhile, the Phantom’s man cave boasts an advance alarm system to detect unwelcome visitors, a coffin for his bed and a one-person boat-bed for the woman he loves, an organ, a trapdoor, a secret exit, a torture chamber with its own trapdoor, and a grasshopper figure rigged to a cellar-full of explosives. All the cool kids have one of those.

Not to be missed is the elaborate torture—not of the hapless Christine, no, of her dashing mustache, I mean, boyfriend, and a detective. The two men are nearly roasted to death, a scene during which at least one of them disrobes more than you’d expect, and then nearly drowned. And then everybody is nearly blown up.

The Bal Masque scene is the only surviving sequence using the early Technicolor system. It’s fantastic, as you can see here:

bal masque phantom

But this is only the prelude to what’s probably my favorite image of the film, the Phantom spying on Christine and Mr. Moustaches on the rooftop of the Opera. The cellar-dwelling villain—a red stain on the now black and white scene—balances on a statue above the lovers, and above Paris. And while the two straight arrows simper at each other, the Phantom curses Christine’s betrayal, his red cape billowing out as though it were part of the statuary.

Just one more tidbit. Why, you ask, are the two men on this lobby card (a detective and the mustachioed boyfriend), holding their arms aloft as if they’re in math class and they have to pee?lobby card arms

Well, let me first assure you that it is a matter of life and death. Really. The detective said so. Apparently, the Phantom has become known for silently lowering a noose around the necks of any persons so foolish as to go snooping in the cellars. Clearly, holding your arm up is the way to fend off an unwanted noose. Good tip.

It used to be that you could only see iffy prints of The Phantom paired with some truly godawful music—sometimes it’s not even pretending to be a score; it’s just the same piece of music being played over and over and over again, in absolutely no relation whatsoever to what’s happening on the screen. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Kino has a recently digitally-restored Blu-ray version, as does Image Entertainment. The Image DVD has the Alloy Orchestra’s score and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s. (It also has the 1925 version of the film and two 1929 reissues.)

If you have never seen a silent film on a screen with live accompaniment, you’ve almost certainly not read this far, but if you’re still with me and you haven’t, do yourself a favor and find one you can get to. Lots of places (museums, summer festivals) now screen silents with live accompaniment around holidays or as special events. It will change the way you see silent film. (Sorta like reading Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne—or Shakespeare—and realizing that musty old literature isn’t musty at all and people were wickedly funny all the way back then, and still worth reading now, whenever now happens to be.)

phantom at the organ

Lon Chaney–bendier than you realized.

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, Part 2: The House on Trubnaya (1928)

a-casa-da-praca-trubnaia_t47274_png_290x478_upscale_q90Thanks to Movies, Silently and Flicker Alley for hosting the Blogathon!

Despite what Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) might have lead you to believe, Bolshevism did not destroy the Russian sense of humor. Although the “message” of The House on Trubnaya (1928) (aka The House on Trubnaya Square aka The House on Trubnaya Street) is, predictably, that the Soviet state is just super, the film does not throw its hands up in the air, in classic Russian fatalism. The House on Trubnaya is a hoot. Yes, you read that right, Soviet comedy is not an oxymoron.

Trubnaya takes on the country-girl-in-the-city trope. Rather than following the well-worn path in which the naive girl is taken advantage of by some unscrupulous city slicker and, “falling” pregnant, is forced to return home, where, of course, no one will have anything to do with her, however, Trubnaya sets it up and then has the naive country girl triumph, all thanks to the glorious Soviet system. Luckily, Trubnaya’s director, Boris Barnet, has a much subtler touch than that summary suggests. The story is genuinely funny, the only character we hate is the actual villain, and Barnet and his cinematographer, Yevgeni Alekseyev, have a lot of fun with the camera. Trubnaya puts a lot of the Kino-Eye-Constructivist-montage techniques to much lighter effect than I’ve seen in the canonical Soviet films, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s breathtaking Man with a Movie Camera.

The film opens on a lyrical set of images—a Moscow empty but for a few street sweepers. The city “looks in the mirror and begins to wash up,” the inter titles tell us. The next shot is a serene reflection of buildings in water on the street, broken the next moment by sweeper’s broom. Everything here is linked to everything else—it’s a political theory but also an aesthetic. Our focus shifts to the Trubnaya apartments and the film’s best set: a cut-away of the stairwell in a communal apartment building. It’s a great introduction to the characters’ world and the humor Barnet creates here sets the tone for the film.

trubnayaWe watch the stairwell come to life along with the rest of the city: neighbors shaking out rugs and curtains, chopping wood (yes, in the stairwell), tossing out garbage, shooing cats, and all manner of morning rituals. The beginning of the film doesn’t have much dialog, which allows us to better appreciate the images, the way they’re connected, and what they tell us about these people. The rhythmic movements of the morning rituals are a language of their own. The sequence reminded me a bit of a much more salacious one in the French film Delicatessen (1991), which moves from room to room in an apartment building, as everyone’s movements, no matter what they’re doing, fall into the rhythm of a very squeaky mattress being used by two tenants. During this sequence in Trubnaya, as the camera moves fluidly up and down, we gather that this communal space isn’t being used all that communally. We are introduced to the three tenants in particular, Fenia, the building organizer, and we later learn, a union organizer, Golikov, a hairdresser, and a driver, Semyon, who turns out to be from the same village as Parasha, the film’s country-girl heroine.

The film moves out into the streets again as we follow Semyon to work. Parasha is wandering, a bit lost, along the streets. Like all good peasant girls, she has brought with her a beloved duck in a basket. Distracted by some dolls in a shop window, she fails to notice the duck waddle off. A classic silent film chase ensues as Parasha tries to recover her duck. The two are finally reunited on the tracks of a tram, which we saw so many of in the opening shots. Naturally, there is a tram bearing down on them, and there is a wonderful montage of Parasha and duck, tram, the tram-driver’s foot, the growing crowd. Just as we expect her to be smooshed or saved, the film “stops,” and the inter titles point out that we don’t know how the duck got to Moscow. We rewind to the moment Parasha (or Paranya, depending on the translation) is getting on the train from the boonies to the big city. Unfortunately, at just the same moment, her uncle is getting off a train arriving in the village. We hurtle back to the “present” and watch the tram driver stop just short of turning them into duck-and-Parasha paté. As the crowd circles around her, Semyon discovers he knows this peculiar girl, crouching in the road, hugging a duck. He takes her back to Trubnaya.

HOUSE ON TRUBNAYA

There, Parasha is hired by Golikov as a housemaid/drudge. Golikov is played with a weasely air of general disapproval by Vladimir Fogel, early proof that villains are usually more fun to watch. The rest of the movie is really a struggle between Golikov’s version of the world, in which he treats Parasha a slave rather than an employee, and Parasha’s expanding and much sweeter version of the world. Fortunately, Parasha has Fenia, the domestic workers’ union, and, ultimately, of course, the glorious Soviet state on her side.

Later in the film, Barnet borrows a (hilarious) scene from the second book of Don Quixote,** in which our hero(ine) watches a performance of the Storming of the Bastille at the Workers’ Theater. The odious Golikov has been drafted at the last minute, standing in for an actor too drunk to play the French army general. Watching the “general” thrashing a revolutionary on stage, Parasha is overcome with an understandable desire to protect the underdog and leaps up to intercede. She storms the stage, knocking the general on his can, and…the crowd goes wild.

parasha

Vera Maretskaya as Parasha

This is one excellent example among many of how Barnet caters to the need for Soviet propaganda on the one hand, while on the other hand, lampoons excessive patriotic fervor. And he does it through a character who, like the knight from La Mancha, remains sympathetic. It’s quite a balancing act and a great pleasure to watch.

You can watch The House on Trubnaya with a Fandor subscription (or with their two-week free trial). There are also versions available for free on YouTube.

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Director Boris Barnet

For more Russia in Classic Film Blogathon posts on comedy, check out the following:

Two (!) posts about the short Chess Fever (1925), starring Vladimir Fogel, at Once Upon a Screen and The Moon in Gemini.

and another two posts about Miss Mend, a serial co-directed by Boris Barnet (and set in America!), one at Big V Riot Squad and Mildred’s Fatburgers.

For more Trubnaya reading:

An argument that Barnet’s film belongs on a list of “best ever” silents on BFI’s site.

The House on Trubnaya @ Fandor and an accompanying essay on Russian Silent Film

Interesting historical context on the film at Cinetext.

 

 

** “Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practised in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste. Master Pedro kept shouting, “Hold hard! Senor Don Quixote! can’t you see they’re not real Moors you’re knocking down and killing and destroying, but only little pasteboard figures! Look—sinner that I am!—how you’re wrecking and ruining all that I’m worth!” But in spite of this, Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.”

Read the whole chapter (or better yet, the whole book—Book I first!), including Gustave Doré’s illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.

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Before

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Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

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You will never get my fabulous headgear! Never! (Yuliya Solnetseva as Aelita)

Well, it’s some kind of thing.

As a portrait of the early Soviet state, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is fascinating. As a film, less so. What makes it interesting is probably also what makes it not a great film. It’s the propaganda. In America, the closest thing to “state propaganda” was probably the moralizing epilogue which would occasionally be tacked on to pre-code films starting in the next five years or so—as though that would wipe an audience’s mind clean of the previous 60 – 80 minutes of extramarital sex, near or total nudity, and crime without punishment enjoyed by the film’s characters.

Naturally, all of what looks like fun in Aelita turns out to be capitalist evil—nice clothes, drinking, parties, edible food, even the cool Constructivist couture worn by Martians. Because Aelita is set in 1921, and the Communists will shortly be in control of what will become the Soviet Republic, most of the film is at pains to distinguish between good Communists and bad Russians. Our hero, and I use that word loosely, is newlywed Engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli). When a mysterious radio signal is heard all over the world, Los’s dreams of going to Mars kick into high gear. In a typical American film, the guy (it’s always a guy) with crazy dreams inevitably has the moral high ground, and his crazy dreams show humanity the way forward. In Soviet Russia (sorry, couldn’t resist), this is, of course, backwards. Individuals with dreams hold society back and lead to all sorts of immoral capitalist shenanigans (in this film, anyway).

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If the main characters were more interesting, they’d probably be on this poster.

Los engineers for the fledgling Soviet state, while his wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), works in what the translated titles refer to as an evacuation center for refugees from the war and demobbed soldiers arriving in Moscow. Yet Anta Odeli Uta, the radio signal heard ’round the world, calls to Los like a siren. As he works feverishly on plans for a spaceship, good Communist things go sideways.

guards

The Robocop overlords are coming.

Life in Moscow is becoming more communal by the hour, and soon evacuated bad Russians Erlikh (Pavel Pol) and his wife are sent to move in with Los and Natasha. Los is unreasonably jealous of Erlikh, a clandestine black marketeer, who flatters Natasha. Without the example of her upstanding husband, frequently away for work, Natasha weakens and goes to a clandestine party with Erlikh. Suddenly, there is a scene in which everyone is dressed fabulously, their stylish clothes revealed as they strip off their shabby but voluminous outerwear. Natasha removes her prehistoric Uggs (which look they’re made out of cardboard) to reveal some excellent, slinky pumps. Before she is utterly lost to depravity, however, she remembers what pathetic bits of cloth the evacuees often have in place of shoes. Overcome by guilt, she hurries from this den of iniquity, where people are drinking alcohol and eating good food and generally enjoying themselves, back to her dingy, overcrowded apartment and what I assume is a lot of cabbage. Unfortunately, Natasha has missed her husband, who has left on yet another business trip, further estranging the two. When he finishes his six-month gig in outer-wherever, the government sends him a thank-you note. Returning home, he finds his wife talking to Erlikh. It is obvious to Los that they are sleeping together. So our hero shoots her and buggers off to build himself a spaceship. (Don’t forget, he’s the good Russian.)

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Having abandoned his new wife on Earth, Gusev finds the only happy Martian, Ihoskha (the impish Aleksandra Peregonets), and serenades her with his accordion. I think the movie we all want to see is the one this still should have come from.

You might well be wondering, at this point, what the hell happened to Mars, which is, you know, in the title. There are few sequences on Mars, sadly, but they are something—wonderful visions of a Constructivist dystopia with cool names like the Tower of Radiant Energy. The clothes are, well, you can see the pictures. Unfortunately, although the fashion-forward Aelita may be a queen, she is not the ruler, as Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the ruler, likes to remind her. People on Mars are very frowny, if the two of them are anything to go by. Behind Tuskub’s back, she convinces Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the civilization’s Guardian of Energy, to show her other worlds using his new gadget. When she spies the handsome Los, early on in the film, meeting Natasha, and sees them kiss, she turns to the hapless Gor and vamps, “Touch my lips with yours, like humans do, on Earth!” Apparently, there’s no kissing on Mars. But that’s only fair, because Martians are evil (if stylish) capitalists. They send a third of their workers into cold storage.

aelita-queen-of-mars-1924-001-00n-5vi-faceless-martiansLos finally makes it to Mars, along with good Russian soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) in drag (it’s a long story) and a detective who means to find Natasha’s murderer. The representative of law and order is presented to us as a laughable fellow whose dedication to holding someone accountable for a murder is obviously absurd. When this three-ring circus lands on Mars, what could happen but a bolshevik revolution, fueled by the stout-hearted Gusev. Los romances Aelita and the three of them free the workers, but at the last moment, Aelita betrays them. She tells the guards, in outfits clearly inspired by the 1987 version of Robocop, to open fire on the “insurgents.” The insurgents all look like they have televisions on their heads, by the way, as though they had wandered off the set of a Devo video. “Devo” is actually a pretty good description of the Martian aesthetic, created by art director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky and costume designer Alexandra Exter. (The blog Teleport City has a great post on Aelita with lots of detail about its context and history, including the book it’s adapted from and who Exter was.)

I don’t want to ruin the whole plot for you, which, in any case would take a lot longer, and you’d get bored. But, I doubt I’m ruining anything when I tell you that our fine hero comes to his senses, and sees that, without the wife he murdered, “the only joy for [him] was the realization that he, too, could take part in the great work of building the new Russia.” All’s well that ends well, eh? That mysterious radio signal, Anta, Odeli, Uta, is finally revealed to be a capitalist plot—a publicity ploy created by a tire company, Anta Odeli Uta. All crazy dreams of exploring the universe have been patriotically squashed, and the film ends as Los burns his notes, stares heroically into the middle distance, and tells Natasha (yeah, turns out she’s not completely dead—maybe she was just mostly dead), “Enough of dreaming. A different, real kind of work is awaiting all of us!”

Hooray.

Aelita: Queen of Mars is disappointing if you’re looking for the first sci-fi film, as it is sometimes called. But it is absolutely worth a look if you’re interested in Russian/Soviet history, and the Martian sequences, particularly the uprising, are pretty fabulous. Watching the failed Martian revolution (to be fair, I bet it’s hard to pull off a revolution when you’ve just been released from a freezer), it’s easy to be reminded of the much greater Metropolis, which Fritz Lang will finish three years after Aelita is released. They’d make a great double-bill.

The Internet has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that all the best things about Aelita take place on Mars. And so, you’ll be hard pressed to find images of Los or Natasha, though they are the film’s central characters. What you will find are scads of images of the scowling Martians in their proto-Devo Constructivist gear. Enjoy.

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This post is part of the awesome Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by maven of all things silent, Movies, Silently. There are some fantastic posts about both famous Soviet/Russian films and the less-famous. Enjoy!

What is ‘IT’?

Inspired by the oracular Self-Styled Siren (can sirens be oracles?) and her post on MOMA’s 10th Edition of the “To Save and Protect” screenings, I watched Clara Bow’s classic It (dir. Clarence Badger, 1927) for, I’m ashamed to say, the first time. Bow has been hopelessly neglected, not just by me, until fairly recently. Said neglect is generally attributed to some seriously bad, indeed, abusive (and largely untrue) press about her personal life towards what became the end of her film career. You can read a spirited account of that here (also linked on the Siren’s page). Anyhoo. The film is a fantastic example of the work women were doing in Hollywood before it became such an old boys’ club. It is based on a story by “Madame” Elinor Glyn, as she’s credited here, with a screenplay co-written by Hope Loring (1894 – 1959), a writer with 63 credits to her name, and Louis. D. Lighton. Glyn wrote novels and stories and adapted them for the screen—and she is an uncredited co-producer of It, according IMDb. (She’s also played by the lush Joanna Lumley in the delightful The Cat’s Meow [Bogdanovich, 2001].)

Unsurprisingly, given the period, the plot teeters towards Pretty Woman, and mid-way through, our heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), is accosted by some snotty “Welfare” ladies trying to take a toddler away from his mother and into dubious-sounding “temporary” custody. Yet the film also portrays a real friendship between women whose relationship to each other isn’t mediated or determined by a man. And the romance is finally settled with the leads, sopping wet, dangling off the anchor of a yacht. This is after Betty has rescued a drowning society woman, passing her off to her erstwhile beau, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), saying, “Take your girlfriend. I had to knock her cold—but maybe it’ll do her good.” Yes, she punches a drowning woman in the face and then saves her life. So one can’t really complain.

One of the film’s surprises for me was William Austin, a man with 89 acting credits, whom I didn’t recognize—though I should have, as he’s in The Gay Divorcee (dir. Mark Sandrich, 1934). I’d like to attribute my lapse to the fact that I spent a lot of the film distracted by how much he looked like John Waters’ gay twin.Austin, at least in this film, looks uncannily like Waters. Austin’s Monty is tall and lanky and sports a pencil moustache that’s gotten an attitude. Because of the eyeliner he’s wearing (noticeably more than Moreno, by the by), our attention is drawn to his eyes. Now, based on what I’ve seen of (and my warm fuzzies for) John Waters, he is nothing like Austin in his physicality or his character here. Whereas Waters is always composed and his affect is delightfully dry, Austin’s Monty is a bit preening and silly, a bit cowardly, and a bit googly-eyed. He can’t even be trusted to steer a boat like the manly Cyrus. So when I say Austin’s Monty is like Waters’s gay twin, I mean some kind of early film version of “gay,” not gay.

Austin’s character in the film is straight, natch, but he is given a variety of tics (though certainly not all of the contemporary ones) that suggest a stereotype of gay men in film during the 20s and 30s. Monty, Cyrus’s best friend, is the first to pursue Betty. He gets the plot rolling (and some exposition covered) when he picks up a stray copy of Cosmopolitan in Cyrus’s office and tells us what “It” is. (Cyrus Waltham runs a department store, so presumably he can be forgiven for having a copy of Cosmo…but not actually looking at it.) It’s surely no coincidence that it’s Monty who introduces us and Cyrus to the characteristic of “It,” as laid out by Madame Glyn:

“‘IT’ is that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible. … Mothers spoil boys with ‘IT’—women never refuse them favors!”

Later, Glyn will glide in to the dining room of the Ritz and offer another definition:

“Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.” This is less sexy as definitions go, but emphasizes Betty’s own self-confidence and obvious warmth.

Monty is also a touch narcissistic—upon discovering this new thing called “It,” he assesses himself in a mirror, determining that he is full of “it.” (Was this an insult in 1927?) We are meant to likeMonty, I should hasten to add. He’s not Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon—but then this is a comedy, so “gay” here is played for laughs, rather than as a social threat. Monty is a sympathetic character, even if he looks a bit too…aristocratic to be a red-blooded American male. (He frequently refers to Cyrus as “old man.”) Monty is meant to be something of a playboy but doesn’t get anywhere with Betty—they could not look more wrong for each other—and in fact we never see him in the company of another woman. Ultimately, even the movie doesn’t seem to take his candidacy seriously. But he is perhaps film’s first gay best friend, helping to reconcile Cyrus and Betty at the end of the film.

Playing Cyrus Waltham, Moreno, a traditionally movie-star-handsome fellow, barely manages to look up from his business (or take his eyes off the men he’s talking to, if I remember correctly). In fact, it is Monty who notices the magnetic Betty first. Although Betty does repeatedly fling herself into Cyrus’s path, it isn’t her feminine wiles that make him fall in love with her—it’s that he finally looks up and sees her. That’s all it takes. All she had to do was get him to look at her. And her looks merely precede the fun they have together. A lot of physical fun, at an actual Funhouse. It’s okay, though, because there’s no sex. Clearly. Just because they’re flopping all over each other on bumpy slides and something called the “Social Mixer” [32:36] doesn’t imply… Okay, yes, it does. The sequence not only doubles for come combination of sexual attraction/intimacy, it also neatly visualizes their class differences and foreshadows the bumps in their relationship. But, for the moment, a good time is had by all, including the audience. Though it does seem a shame men were expected to wear such fancy suits to a Funhouse at the beach.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAF2g5X-P4c&w=480&h=360]

Despite Clara’s sexuality, within the first ten minutes of the film, we watch Betty play with her friend’s baby and learn that she is putting up the single mother who can’t go back to work until she is no longer sick. (And let’s face it, she probably wouldn’t have a job to go back to by then, anyway.) So, although Betty is full of “It,” she also acts to help others, consequences be damned. Her passion isn’t only sexual. She’s a good person, too, her potentially dangerous magnetism diluted by a mothering instinct.

This is reminiscent of Pretty Woman—and, as others have pointed out, is certainly a version of the “Cinderella” story. Perhaps more interestingly, it is also a riff on the “fallen woman,” since Cyrus incorrectly believes Betty’s had a child out of wedlock. She catches her man—the handsome Prince (her boss)—simply by presenting herself to him. The couple is briefly separated by a class-related misunderstanding. Cyrus is even willing to overlook “what [she’s] been,” though, thankfully, he doesn’t have to. This is a comedy, after all.

I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve seen a few silents. What makes It so watchable for me is Clara Bow’s naturalness, particularly as a silent film actress. However true it is that by 1927 silent acting was less melodramatic than, say, at the height of Méliès’s popularity, Bow’s expressions are striking for their subtlety, rather being recognizable as mere symbols of human emotion.

When Cyrus loses a bet that he wouldn’t recognize her, Betty watches it dawn on him that he does know her, and she tries not to smile [29:50]. Trying not to make a facial expression in a silent film seems like a particular achievement in nuance in a medium where facial expressions were originally exaggerated to convey plot as well as emotion. Likewise, when Cyrus believes she has an illegitimate child she’s failed to mention but Betty doesn’t yet know this, Bow’s expressiveness is remarkable. She attempts to get Cyrus to engage with her, sliding on to his desk in a way that goes from sex kitten to the comfortable casualness of a best friend. As a whole, the scene highlights Bow’s impressive emotional range, careening, as silents often did, from one extreme to another, here, from surprised joy to inconsolable despair.

Interesting tidbit: William Austin (the Gryphon) and Gary Cooper (White Knight) are in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland (with some guy named Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle).

Best Lines:

Betty: “I’ll take the snap out of your garters!” 

Monty: “Old boy, I’m so low I could get on a ladder and walk under a dachshund!”