1926: Part 1

Exit Smiling. Directed by Sam Taylor. Beatrice Lillie, who is probably best known as Mrs. Meers in the Julie Andrews musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), proved herself to be an extremely adept young actress in this, her only silent film. Watching this film made me think once more about all the reasons why I disliked the new hit “silent film” The Artist, not the least of which is because of its complete lack of subtlety and pathos. As great as Lillie’s comic moments are, what I was even more impressed by were the alternating bits of sweetness and sadness. Her affection for Jack Pickford’s character – he’s another favorite of mine, by the way – is genuine. Besides her obvious acting ability, Lillie was also quite good-looking, resembling a more interesting version of a more popular Canadian film actress at the time, Norma Shearer (whom I’ve never been crazy about).

Flesh and the Devil. Directed by Clarence Brown. This, Greta Garbo’s third American film to be released, is a highly-charged drama brimming with eroticism. Garbo clearly worked very well with her leading man, John Gilbert, who was the bigger star at the time. Co-starring is fellow Swedish import Lars Hanson, another favorite of mine. The film’s depiction of the friendship between Gilbert and Hanson has been read into as having gay subtext; I don’t know if that’s true to the characters in the original novel (The Undying Past by Hermann Sudermann), but it certainly creates an intriguing discussion. Rounding out the leads is Barbara Kent, who lived an extraordinarily long life and passed away in October 2011 at the age of 103. Clarence Brown, who also worked with Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928), Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930), Inspiration (1931) and Conquest (1937), directs Flesh with skill. The exquisite cinematography by William H. Daniels (Garbo’s preferred cameraman) lends sultry, Expressionist-influenced shadowing to the proceedings.

For Heaven’s Sake. Directed by Sam Taylor. This is one of Lloyd’s best silents. It’s a charming romantic comedy about an uptown (millionaire) playboy falling in love with a downtown girl who works in a mission. The girl in question is played by co-starring Jobyna Ralston, who was also the girl in the Lloyd films Why Worry? (1923), Girl Shy (1924), Hot Water (1924), The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927). Noah Young, another Lloyd regular, appears as a character called “the roughneck.” If I recall correctly, Young starts out being a slightly antagonistic figure but eventually sees the error of his ways and becomes pals with Lloyd. The film clocks in at a brief 58 minutes but is filled with Lloyd’s usual great humor and sweet moments of romance. If you’re a fan of Leonard Maltin’s film reviews and/or hold his opinion in high regard, I believe he gave For Heaven’s Sake a perfect four stars.

The General. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Famously regarded as one of Keaton’s enduring masterpieces, The General has secured its place in film history: it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989 – the first year of its existence – alongside classics like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Based on actual events discussed in an 1863 book by William Pittenger, this comedy set during the Civil War was co-directed and co-written by Keaton. His physical presence, which is always a crucial component of his humor, is showcased in Keaton’s daring attempts to retrieve The General, a locomotive stolen by Union spies. The leading lady, Marion Mack, did not have much of a career (she only made a handful of films), but provided a charming companion for Keaton. Also, as is often the case in Keaton’s films, his father, Joe, makes an appearance; this time he’s a Union general.

The Scarlet Letter. Directed by Victor Sjöström. This adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel makes the story – which I found extremely boring when I tried to read it for my 12th grade English class – much more alluring. There is real, palpable lust in this version; I shudder to think what the 1995 version with Gary Oldman (good actor) and Demi Moore (bad actor) is like. The cinematography by Hendrik Sartov, an unsung talent of the silent era, lights Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson beautifully. Director Sjöström, whose name was often Americanized as “Victor Seastrom,” was a Swedish director whose Hollywood oeuvre also included He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert; the famously lost The Divine Woman (1928) with Garbo and Hanson; the classic The Wind (1928), again starring Gish and Hanson; also A Lady to Love (1930), an adaptation of the Sidney Howard play They Knew What They Wanted, starring Vilma Bánky and Edward G. Robinson. Sjöström is perhaps most famous for starring in the Ingmar Bergman drama Wild Strawberries (1957), which I have long wanted to see.

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