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Schultz reviews: 'The Circus,' 'The Mark of Zorro' and 'The Phantom of the Opera'

Schultz reviews: 'The Circus,' 'The Mark of Zorro' and 'The Phantom of the Opera'

Carl Schultz

Silent movies get a bad rap.

The only experience most people have with the grand silent pictures of the early part of the 20th century is through old comedies projected at the wrong speed:  The flickering, unnaturally rapid movements of characters we see in silent pictures on television is naturally comical, the inevitable result of film originally shot by a hand-cranked camera galloping through the bale of a modern movie projector at the motor-driven 28 frames-per-second speed mandated for sound pictures.

Much like ballet or opera, silent pictures contain unique qualities that other forms of entertainment do not.  Since silent movies contain no spoken dialogue, they’re international, transcend borders and even oceans, and can be easily understood by audiences regardless of language.  Often the photography is better, with deep focus cinematography of a quality unknown today.  And as a result of a clear vision of a scene’s background, usually the production design is richer, and more extensive--an art of its own.

In fact, the technology which led to modern talking pictures was possible since almost the very beginning, long before the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 caused a sensation and resulted in the end of the silents.  Sound-on-film pictures were already being released by 1924, when inventor Lee DeForest marketed some 200 PhonoFilm cartoons and short subjects to theaters, but DeForest’s films were considered a gimmick, a novelty.  Movie audiences of the time actually preferred the security of silent pictures.  Talking pictures required a performer as dynamic as Broadway star Al Jolson to genuinely sell sound to the nation’s moviegoing public.

The film historian Kevin Brownlow once wrote that with the medium of motion pictures, we have the first opportunity in the human experience to decant actual time--to see how people moved, and dressed, and interacted with each other during different eras and different centuries.  

Here’s a sampling of silent pictures you might find worth a look.  All are easily available online, free of charge.  More than movies, more than stories, motion pictures like these are living history.

“The Circus”   Distributed by United Artists, 70 Minutes, Released January 06, 1928, Not Rated:

It’s been said that every modern movie has one of seven basic plotlines...and all seven of them originate in the twelve “perfect” movies made by the great silent film comic Charlie Chaplin during his two years with the Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917.  

But if you’ve ever laughed at a Bugs Bunny cartoon and found yourself wondering how the animators at Warner Bros.’ famed Termite Terrace ever came up with such ingenious gags, look no further than “The Circus,” Chaplin’s 1928 picture for United Artists, his last great film from the silent era.  While the pathos and melancholy of “The Gold Rush” from 1925 and “City Lights” from 1931 usually result in the films being acclaimed as the comic’s twin masterpieces, “The Circus” returns the great silent clown to his comedy roots, and results in his most consistently funny picture since leaving Mack Sennett’s Keystone laugh factory in 1914.

In “The Circus,” Chaplin’s familiar character the Little Tramp is on the run from police, who mistake him for a notorious pickpocket.  While making a narrow escape from the law, the Tramp inadvertently stumbles into the center ring of a traveling circus.  Surprisingly, his antics are a hit with the audience.  Charlie’s hired on the spot by the circus manager, and eventually becomes the show’s star attraction.  The problem:  He’s only funny through his natural clumsiness and bad luck--when he attempts to deliberately generate laughter, his routines fall flat.

Ironically, “The Circus” was produced during an especially turbulent time in Chaplin’s life.  The comic was in the middle of a scandalous divorce, under siege by the IRS, and mourning the death of his emotionally troubled mother...and all were being breathlessly reported in the nation’s newspapers.  The film was also beset with technical delays, including a studio fire which required that the elaborate sets be rebuilt from scratch.  For those reasons, film scholars wonder if the film isn’t Charlie Chaplin’s most intensely personal work--a rumination on his public image, and his relationship with his audience.  

Among the highlights of this genuinely delightful little picture:  Charlie eluding the police by impersonating a mechanical figure in a life-sized clockwork, the Tramp accidentally locking himself in a lion’s cage and attracting the interest of the curious lion, and the picture’s finale, with Charlie finding himself walking the circus tightrope without a net...while being bedevilled by a barrelful of playful monkeys.

“The Circus” was an enormous worldwide hit for Chaplin, and played in movie theaters for years.  At the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, the picture was nominated for four awards, with Chaplin earning one “for writing, acting, directing, and producing ‘The Circus.’”  Charlie characteristically skipped the ceremony, and in fact never attended an Academy Award presentation until 1972, when he returned to the United States from European exile to accept an honorary award “for the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art form of the century.”  When Charlie appeared onstage, he received a ten-minute standing ovation, the longest in Academy Award history.

“The Circus” is not rated by the MPAA, but is wonderful viewing for the entire family.  The picture is available for streaming on YouTube.

“The Mark of Zorro”   Distributed by United Artists, 90 Minutes, Released November 27 1920, Not Rated: 

There’s a scene in the 1920 silent screen version of “The Mark of Zorro” in which the picture’s villain Captain Juan Ramon, the henchman of the corrupt and despotic Governor Alvarado, is menacing heroine Lolita Pulido with nefarious intent...specifically, an act which ninety-nine years before the genesis of the #MeToo movement was referred to as “a fate worse than death.”  A title card displays Ramon’s line of dialogue,“The daughter of a man so out of favor with the governor should be more...friendly to the governor’s friend.”  And you know what that means.

Just in the nick of time, as the corrupt captain approaches the terrified woman, Zorro arrives, literally dropping into the scene from the ceiling overhead to stand between the predator and his victim.  Zorro swiftly engages Captain Ramon in a swordfight over the honor of the fair maiden.  And after an outrageously spectacular duel with their razor-sharp rapiers, our masked hero prevails over the evil captain.  The triumphant Zorro holds a sword to the vanquished man’s throat, and gestures toward the cowering Lolita.  

We see Zorro’s lips move, and presume the black-cloaked hero is pronouncing sentence on the man, perhaps detailing the slow and agonizing method of his execution.  The audience waits with breathless anticipation for the title card to appear, to learn the captain’s fate.  And when Zorro’s pronouncement is revealed a moment later, the intertitle contains only one word:  “Apologize!”

Once upon a time, Douglas Fairbanks was the undisputed King of Hollywood, the star of a succession of enormously popular action adventure movies which showcased his considerable athletic abilities.  Many of his pictures were elaborate costume dramas which eventually became known as “swashbucklers”--films such as “The Three Musketeers” in 1921, “Robin Hood” in 1922, and “The Thief of Baghdad” in 1924.

The genius of the Fairbanks adaptations of the literary classics is that despite their elaborate sets and extensive casts of characters, the pictures contain a vivid, childlike simplicity, a naivety reminiscent of adolescence.  The Fairbanks productions depict images suggestive of a certain innocence--images which might be imagined by a child reading the stories for the first time...or having them read aloud  at bedtime by a loving parent.  In Fairbanks’ version of “The Three Musketeers,” for example, our heroes Athos, Porthos, and Aramis sleep at night in one enormous bed, which has an elaborately carved headboard bearing the legend, “Un Pour Tous Et Tous Pour Un” (One For All, And All For One).

Produced at a time when the character of Zorro had just been introduced in author Johnston McCulley’s novel (serialized in the pulp fiction magazine All-Story Weekly) and set in early 19th century California during the days of Mexican rule, “The Mark of Zorro” depicts the adventures of Senor Zorro.  The alter ego of the wealthy, cultured and educated Don Diego Vega, Zorro rides at night, cloaked in a black cape and cowl, to defend the lives rights of poor farmers and peasants against crime, subjugation, and the corruption of their government’s leaders.

Possibly the best of Fairbanks’ swashbucklers, “The Mark of Zorro” moves like the wind at a sleek 90 minutes, has no slow or tedious passages...and incidentally contains all the hallmarks of the superhero tradition of modern times:  The cape, the cowl, the secret identity, the underground lair, and the flashy transportation are all on display here, particularly impressive since the picture was filmed a full eighteen years before the first comic book appearance of Batman in 1938.  And the title character’s delightfully spectacular stuntwork in the picture, mostly performed by Fairbanks himself, is a show unto itself.  

Cleaned up by film preservationists, restored to its original vivid appearance, and including several sequences tinted in primary colors to enhance the scenes’ intended moods, “The Mark of Zorro” is appropriate for viewing by the entire family, and is easily available for streaming on YouTube.

“The Phantom of the Opera”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 107 Minutes (Original Version, 93 Minutes (1930 Sound Reissue), Released November 25 1925, Not Rated:

Movie fans who believe Universal Pictures’ legendary cycle of classic horror movies began in 1931 with the release of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” are advised to take a look at “The Phantom of the Opera” from 1925, the first motion picture adaptation of French writer Gaston Leroux’ 1910 novel Le Fantome de l’Opera.  While Universal was releasing pictures tinged with the supernatural almost since the studio’s beginnings in 1912, the studio’s production of horror movies really began to swing into high gear with the success of the 1925 movie.

Thanks to the long-running London and Broadway musical adapted from the novel and movie, the elemental plot of “The Phantom of the Opera” is already familiar to most people in western civilization:  A mad, disfigured composer seeks love from a gifted young opera soprano, and attempts to earn it by kidnapping and transporting her to his vast subterranean lair beneath the Paris Opera for a sort of compulsive musical tutoring.  

And thanks to a vivid and empathic performance by the legendary silent screen star Lon Chaney in the title role of 1925 film, “The Phantom of the Opera” has achieved a near-mythological status among connoisseurs of horror pictures...which is even more of a reason to wish it were a better picture.

Lon Chaney was born in 1883 to parents who were both hearing-impaired, and the pantomime required of silent film acting was an elemental part of the actor’s life from his childhood forward.  An intensely private man who told close friends, “Between films, there is no Lon Chaney,” the celebrated actor took enormous pride in his craft, and created unique makeups for most film roles which often rendered him unrecognizable from movie to movie--hence the nickname “the Man of a Thousand Faces.”  Unfairly classified as a horror star, Lon Chaney actually was a prolific character actor, among the highest-paid motion picture performers of the 1920s.

Chaney is customarily brilliant in “The Phantom of the Opera,” with his iconic--and horrific--makeup still holding up nearly a full century after the film’s November 1925 premiere (Chaney’s physical appearance in the role was a closely guarded secret, with his image excluded from the studio’s advertisements for the picture).  While most horror fans are able to recognize the actor’s actual features through even his most elaborate disguises in other films, his performance as the Phantom is the solitary role into which the actor seems to vanish without a trace.  The infamous unmasking scene, which occurs at about 45 minutes into the picture, still packs a wallop today.

The rest of the picture...eh, not so much.  There are long sequences of non-Phantom exposition, too much of the romantic subplot between Mary Philbin’s Christine and Norman Kerry’s Raoul, and a smattering of unwelcome comic relief courtesy of actor Snitz Edwards (he also plays the innkeeper in “The Mark of Zorro”).  For these reasons, the re-edited and truncated 93-minute 1930 version of the picture, with synchronized sound effects and a re-recorded music score, are recommended for viewers unaccustomed to the intricacies of silent melodrama.  Most prints of either version of the film contain the 17 minutes of startling two-tone Technicolor photography during selected sequences.

But it’s the brilliant and terrifying performance of the great Lon Chaney in the title role that makes “The Phantom of the Opera” worthwhile and keeps horror fans coming back again and again nearly a full century later.  The picture is not rated by the MPAA, but is PG in nature.  Both the original 117-minute release and the 93-minute reissue version of the picture are easily available for streaming on YouTube.

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