Posts Tagged ‘1920′s’

Last week I revisited an old classic, The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) starring Bette Davis, and out of curiosity followed it up the next day with a screening of the lesser-known 1929 version of the same story, directed by Jean de Limur and starring the embattled Jeanne Eagels. While the earlier film is clearly the inferior work, contrasting it with the more-famous version exposes peculiarities of the time in which it was made, and is instructive about both the transition to talking-pictures as well as the production code that was written 1930 and not enforced until 1934.

Jeanne Eagels in “The Letter” (1929)

Based on a stage play by M. Somerset Maugham, both versions of The Letter were released in years following landmark dates in film history. 1928 saw the transition from silent film to talking picture production in all of the major Hollywood studios (The Jazz Singer had been released in October, 1927), and 1939 has been lauded as the height of the Hollywood studio system and the apogee of its artistry. Stylistically and structurally, each film is representative of the production methods of its era.

The dramatic structure of the 1929 version of The Letter is linear, and, to be honest, not very interesting. The film begins with Leslie (Eagels) being left alone for the evening by her husband, and sending a letter summoning her lover, Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall). By the time she murders Geoffrey we know the nature of her relationships with both her husband and her lover, and fully understand her motives. As she tries to wiggle her way through her legal proceedings her deceptions are easily identified by the audience, and there is a sense of neither suspense nor of surprise as her lies are gradually uncovered by her lawyer and her husband.

In this way, the 1929 film is structured much like a silent film, which, in telling its story in a visual manner, would usually follow a linear progression so that the audience would clearly understand the situations and motivations of the characters. Silent films did not have the luxury of explaining plot development to the audience with a few lines of spoken dialogue. This is not to say that silent films were incapable of developing psychologically complex narratives, because they certainly were, but it remains a fact that silent films were much better at melodrama than mystery. This film is played as pure melodrama.

While the dramatic structure betrays the fact that the screenplay was crafted by writers, principally Monta Bell and Garrett Fort, who had learned their craft in the silent era, stylistically the film bears no resemblance to silent film production. Like many early talkies the drama unfolds in long static shots of dialogue. There is very little cutting within scenes, and the lighting remains rather flat throughout the film. The acting, too, is highly histrionic, and reflective of early 20th century stage technique (dare I say 19th century melodrama?). There is very little subtlety to the performances, and the production is, overall, not cinematic.

A fine example is the scene early in the film in which Leslie confronts Geoffrey about their relationship. The majority of the scene is a single shot, with Leslie facing the camera, and Geoffrey in profile. They play the entire scene without moving about the room, with Eagels emoting and overacting as if she were on stage in a large theater and afraid those seated in the second balcony might miss something (certainly, the stilted dialogue doesn’t help). The scene ends with her shooting Geoffrey, and her actions are so exaggerated as to be comical. It is as though she needs to be sure that the audience sees her firing the gun several times, not trusting that they would hear the reports of the pistol. Very theatrical, but not very cinematic or convincing.

The 1929 version of The Letter exposes all that was lost when Hollywood ceased silent film production in favor of talking pictures. The 1940 version, made at a time of streamlined commercially-viable yet artistically-valid studio filmmaking, reclaims the silent film technique that had been lost (or abandoned) in 1929, while using dialogue to create a more riveting and engrossing drama. To be sure, this film is also played to melodramatic effect, but uses dialogue to create a more complex drama, and is structured more like a mystery.

Bette Davis in “The Letter” (1940)

The opening sequence of the 1940 film rivals anything produced by Hollywood in the late silent era. A series of tracking shots establishes a humid and sleepy night on a rubber plantation. The uneasy quiet is disturbed by the sound of gunshots, and the camera cuts to Leslie (Bette Davis), shooting Geoffrey, and following him down the front steps of her bungalow firing shot after shot. While the use of sound, without dialogue, is very important to this scene, it is a visually-intense and purely cinematic experience. In the manner of late-silent-era Hollywood studio production, it economically establishes the setting and launches us into the drama without the ponderous exposition of the first film version. Although the remainder of the narrative, up to but not including the final scene, is driven largely by dialogue, the 1940 film remains true to its roots in silent-era production through its use of dramatic lighting and visual motifs.

The 1940 film is also structurally different from the 1929 version. The film begins with the murder of Geoffrey, and through dialogue we learn Leslie’s version of events. Like the other characters in the film the audience does not know the depth of her deceit, and learns it only gradually. Unlike the 1929 version, in which we see Leslie writing the letter that summons her lover, it is fully one-third of the way through the 1940 film that we learn of the letter’s existence, and that Leslie’s relationship with Geoffrey was not as she had admitted. In addition to its structure as a mystery, the narrative uses dialogue to further explore Leslie’s deceptive nature by developing her relationship not only with her husband (Herbert Marshall, who had played Geoffrey in the 1929 version) but with her defense attorney and friend Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Bette Davis’s Leslie engages Joyce in behavior that would lead to his disbarment should it be discovered. In short, while the 1940 version of The Letter was able to use dialogue to develop story and character in a way silent films could not, and in a way that early talkies had not figured out, it also used cinematic techniques developed during the silent era to develop atmosphere and enhance the drama.

Another notable difference between the 1929 and 1940 versions of The Letter is the ending. Made a year before the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (or the Hays code) was written, the earlier version of the film did not have to pass moral judgement on Leslie. Screenwriters and directors were comparatively free to tell their stories without worrying about the values they were promoting. As such, the 1929 version ends with Leslie’s stinging admission that “with all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed.”

In 1940, however, Hollywood was adhering to an established code of morality, and would not permit the narrative to end with Leslie’s acquittal and later admission to her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Having committed adultery, murder, and perjury, and engaged in other morally abhorrent behavior, she had to pay for her sins. And so the 1940 version of The Letter ends as it begins, with a visually-striking final sequence which borrows its technique from the silent era. Bette Davis, willfully walks out into a moonlit night where she is murdered by her lover’s wife.

Both films are available on DVD.

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Napoleon (1927)

Abel Gance is best remembered today for his 1927 film Napoleon, with its innovative camerawork, aggressive editing style, and the celebrated triptych that concludes the final reel. However, the historical and political aspects of the film are rarely discussed. Just as many admirers of D. W. Griffith excuse the racial overtones of The Birth of a Nation (1915) by simply stating that the film is racist and mentioning that Griffith’s father fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War, admirers of Gance often dismiss the perceived fascist discourse in Napoleon and heap praise on Gance and his experiments. In effect, we tend to depoliticize both of these filmmakers, when we should hold them both to the same standard that we hold Leni Riefenstahl, who can never escape from the historical and political context of her best films no matter how much she may have insisted that they were not political in any way. If we never fully confront the racist or fascist elements of a film, we never need to apologize for admiring a racist or fascist film purely on its artistic merits. Dismissing the political aspects of Napoleon as fascist, and thereby labeling Gance as pro-fascist, is misleading at best. While Gance certainly admired Napoleon for his role in the French Revolution and its immediate aftermath, it is not clear what his final judgement might have been.

Any attempt to decode Gance’s view of Napoleon from the film text must keep in mind that the full text is not available to us. The version that exists is still up to three hours shorter than the film that Gance completed in 1927. Furthermore, the film was intended as the first of six installments (eight according to some sources) on Napoleon’s life, the other five of which were never produced. Bearing in mind that we can only see part of one of the six planned installments of Napoleon vu par Abel Gance (the film’s actual title according to the opening credits), we cannot be sure what Gance’s final judgement of his hero might have been.

Does the existing film end with a triumphant Napoleon standing atop a mountain, envisioning a continental-, if not world-dominance for France and the ideals of the revolution? Absolutely. Does Napoleon appear to be particularly single-minded and individualistic in achieving his goals? Yes. Does his victory come without caveats and potentially preemptive warnings? No.

On his way to launch the First Italian Campaign (1796-97), the episode that provides the film’s climax, Napoleon stops by the Convention to absorb the atmosphere of the French Revolution. In the empty chamber he is confronted by the ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat and Saint-Just. Robespierre and Danton challenge Napoleon to spread the ideals of the Revolution:

We have realized that the Revolution cannon prosper without a strong authority. Will you be its leader?


If the Revolution does not spread beyond our frontiers, it will die at home. Will you lead it into Europe?

Naturally, Napoleon’s response to both questions is a resounding “YES!” However, Saint-Just follows-up this exchange with a warning:

On the word of Saint-Just. If you one day forget that you are the heir of the Revolution, we shall turn ferociously against you. Will you remember?

Napoleon nods. Imperceptibly.

The extent to which Napoleon heeds Saint-Just’s warning is not immediately clear. We will have to wait to see what happens. It is important to note, however, that Gance himself plays the role of Saint-Just in the film. It is the director himself, the self-professed Napoleon admirer and filmic biographer who is issuing this warning to the film’s hero: Don’t let us down.

Abel Gance as Saint-Just.

Perhaps Gance’s view of his hero, had he completed all six films, would have taken its cues from Napoleon’s contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven, was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, and titled his Symphony No. 3 “Bonaparte.” When Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven, disgusted that Napoleon had indeed forgotten that he was the heir to the Revolution and its ideals, renamed the symphony “Eroica” for its premiere in 1805. (Beethoven did not choose the title “Emperor” for his 1809-1811 Piano Concerto, No. 5.) Unfortunately Gance’s 1936 film Un Grand Amor de Beethoven completely depoliticizes the composer’s life, and offers no clues on how he viewed Beethoven’s feelings on Napoleon.

It is difficult to say whether Gance intended to warn us that Napoleon would, as Beethoven saw it, trample on the civil and political rights of the citizens. Saint-Just’s warning in the Convention is followed by the ghost of Marat, who asks Napoleon what his plans are. He responds:

The liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers…THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC”

Was Gance being ironic? It is difficult to gauge the tone in printed inter titles, but the use of capital letters invites interpretation, and certainly anybody who knows what comes next would have difficulty taking Napoleon at his word. His values proved to be anything but (small “r”) republican.

Yet none of this leads us to a deeper understanding of Gance’s own political leanings, and the issue of whether the film was intended as proto-fascist propaganda remains unresolved. We must not forget that Gance made this film at a time when many Europeans, recovering from the destruction and trying to make order of the chaos that the Great War had left in its wake (themes effectively explored by Gance in his 1919 film J’accuse) were turning their eyes towards alternative forms of government. Among them were communism, which was popular in France, and fascism. Mussolini had risen to power in Italy in 1922, and one need only to look at what happened in Germany in the ensuing years to see how this would play out. And indeed, Gance would later express admiration not just for Mussolini but also for Philippe Pétain, who transformed the Third French Republic into the authoritarian French State, and was later sentenced to death (commuted by De Gaulle to life in prison) for his treasonous collaboration with the Nazis.

It is clear that Gance had a certain admiration for some of the fascist leaders of his lifetime, and a fevered passion for Napoleon. However, clues do exist in his 1927 epic to suggest that he may have been more critical of his subject than seems immediately apparent (and I have not even addressed the episodes involving Violine and Gance’s original plans for that character). Surely, we can enjoy this film for all of its filmic splendor, but we should not minimize the importance of its political content.

Resources and additional reading:

  • King, Norman, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle (British Film Institute, 1984).
  • Brownlow, Kevin, Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).

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Released in 2011, The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) and Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese) are not films that I am likely to write about on this blog. My tendency is to choose films that we can use to study the past, and I prefer to write about films whose stories take place at the time of their release. Certainly there have been, and will be exceptions to this, but the goal of this blog is to look at the past through the lens (forgive the pun) of the films that were made at a particular time, as films tend to tell us more about the social, economic and political climate of the time they were made than they do about the time they depict (ergo, a 1938 film, telling a 1938 story, is fodder for discussing the issues of 1938). But this is precisely why I am writing about The Artist and Hugo. Not only do they evoke and pay homage to films of an era that is of interest to me, they effectively comment upon our (2011) ways of absorbing and interacting with media.

I very much appreciated Maureen Dowd’s analysis of The Artist and its popularity. Her December 6, 2011 New York Times column, “Silence Is Golden”, suggested that the film is a refuge from our world of constantly chattering media devices. She avoided the temptation to also see the film as an (effective) attempt at recreating the cinema of the years just before the Great Depression, and as a return to the halcyon days before economic collapse; (woe to the characters in the film who will soon experience what we are now experiencing, and on a much greater scale). Still, it is an inescapable fact that much of the film’s appeal rests in its ability to transcend time, and to tell its story with the seemingly simple cinematic techniques of 1927. (Please note my use of the word “seemingly” in the preceding sentence – it is substantially more difficult to tell a psychologically complex story without the use of sound.)

Due to economic necessity, Michel Hazanavicius certainly used the tools in his digital toolbox to create many of the visuals, but he gives the impression that The Artist is a film that could have been made late in the silent era. Martin Scorsese, however, takes a very different approach. While Hugo romanticizes the filmmaking pioneers and techniques of early cinema (pre-1908), the film clearly is not made with the techniques of the time. Instead, Scorsese pulls out all the stops and uses every toy available to the 2011 filmmaker. Hugo is very self-conscious about its use of digital imaging and processing for the re-creation of a romanticized 1930′s Paris, even using 3D to literally beat the audience over the head with this fact. One cannot mistake this for a 1930 film. And yet for all of the digital bravado, Scorsese takes the opportunity to resurrect Georges Méliès, cinema’s preeminent trick-film pioneer, and to revel in the visual effects he created with little more than stop-motion and multiple-exposure in his photographic toolbox. Hugo is a technical showcase that glorifies the filmmakers who created worlds of wonders with primitive technology, and whose achievements lay mostly with their innovation.

I have often commented that one of the problems with digital filmmaking is that the magic is gone. While 21st-century filmmakers can and do create incredible images and cinematic sequences we no longer wonder how they did it. We know. They ran it through a computer. And yet so many movies are content to use the special effects as their main selling point, and fail to develop their characters and situations in a satisfying way. Both The Artist and Hugo pull the past into the present, and show us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Their popularity attest to that as well.

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Thought to be a lost film, Breaking Home Ties was recently restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, and had its US re-premiere at the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival. While the film successfully portrays a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in a positive and sympathetic light, it does not do so without reinforcing some of the negative stereotypes and concerns that many Americans had about the immigrant population.


Produced by Siegmund Lubin’s Betzwood Motion Picture Studios in Philadelphia, Breaking Home Ties was a response to the rising anti-semitism promoted by the Henry Ford-sponsored Dearborn Independent and the revival of the KKK, and was released 18 months after passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. Responding to increasing concerns about immigrants and the effect they were having on American society, the act, which was also known as the Emergency Quota Act, restricted immigration from Europe. As a result of the legislation, the number of immigrants to the United States fell from 805,228 in 1920 to 309,556 in 1921-22.

Breaking Home Ties is the story of David, a young Russian man who flees to America when he believes (mistakenly, it turns out) that he has murdered his best friend in a jealous rage. He works hard and becomes a successful lawyer, while his family, not knowing his whereabouts, also move to New York City and quickly fall into poverty. Through a series of Dickensian coincidences, David is reunited with his parents and the friend he believed he had murdered, and they all live happily ever after.

The filmmakers clearly intended to portray David as a smart and hard-working individual who would be an asset to American society. As a lawyer he takes on cases defending the down-trodden, and contributes generously to charitable causes. However, he is constantly haunted by the fact that he, himself, is a fugitive from justice, and struggles with his own guilt. Although the film ends with David learning that he did not murder his friend, the view that many immigrants are criminals who were forced to leave their home countries is not only acknowledged, it is not effectively countered.

The portrayal of David’s parents is even more problematic, and could be viewed as fodder for anti-immigrant activists, which would run counter to the intentions of the filmmakers. Firmly rooted in the middle class in St. Petersburg, the family comes to America and quickly falls into poverty. They are shown having difficulty adapting to life in New York, both socially and economically, and falling into illness. David’s father, who does not understand English, causes a traffic accident by steering his pushcart the wrong way on a one-way street, and his mother and adopted sister become increasingly frail and unable to help support themselves. David’s parents eventually become residents at a newly-formed Hebrew Home for the Aged, which is supported by private donations. Although they will be reunited with their son who is able to provide for them, David’s parents were destitute, and became dependent upon social services. In the parlance of the time they were charity cases, and an economic burden.

Breaking Home Ties has much to recommend it, and it is an effective drama that elicits empathy for David and his family. However, it does not avoid reminding its audience of some of the perceived problems with immigration, and reinforces some of the stereotypes that led to the passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921.

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