There’s a lot to look forward to this week—and there are two, yes, two! silent films included. One is the famous Nosferatu, which I’m sure most of you have heard of; the other, though lesser known, is, in my opinion, a real hidden and unusual gem of a film, The White Sister. We begin with a war that tore America apart, and end with a war that tore a nation and monarchy apart. Shall we take a peek at the schedule?
Friendly Persuasion ’56
It always makes me happy to hear Friendly Persuasion is going to air. Another of those films I caught by accident and ended up liking, I in fact was deeply charmed by this rather unusual Gary Cooper vehicle, in which he’s the head of a family of Quakers in the months leading up to the War Between The States. The internal struggle between religiously-inspired pacifism and the call of country is especially difficult for Cooper’s son, played by Anthony Perkins, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film.
Friendly Persuasion is a little unusual for this sort of film, in that it’s understated, flowing along like a brook, a tale of daily life into which the war interferes. Of course, if anyone can pull this sort of film dealing with such a topic off well, it’s director William Wyler. As you’d expect, he injects plenty of warm humour into the film, from a few entertaining marital spats to Cooper’s perpetually and embarrassingly lazy horse always getting him into the meeting-house parking area late. Marjorie Main is cast as a local widow, so right there you know there’s going to be fun! Dorothy McGuire also stars in a real sweetheart of a film I think many of you will truly enjoy.
Also worth watching Saturday: The Harder They Fall ’56, 10:30PM
Midnight Sunday, because TCM wants us to stay up way too late & then have bad dreams
Ohhhhh yes. The original, and some say still the best, film version of Stoker’s Dracula (a book I heartily recommend—it’s superb). This is no hackneyed, crass, pathetic, or self-servingly puerile retelling of Stoker’s engrossing tale: it is true to the spirit of Stoker’s monster, though with enough of its own personality that Nosferatu still stands above its descendants as the best of the Dracula-inspired stories.
One of cinema’s most horrifying and grotesque vampires (rightly so), the unblinking Count Orlok—this is not the urbane, even alluring vampire of Lugosi, Lee, or, for that matter, Stoker himself—leaves his castle for a city, lured by his lust for the wife of the real estate agent sent to help him buy a town house. Though her husband, having learned from his uncomfortably too-close acquaintance with Orlok, tries to protect her, she learns that the vampire can be destroyed if a virtuous woman distracts him so he does not realize sunrise nears, and she has every intention of sacrificing herself in an attempt to put an end to Orlok’s evil.
Though Nosferatu is regularly called a “loose” adaptation of Dracula, and may have given birth to the “Dracula can’t survive sunlight” myth, it holds closer to Stoker’s masterpiece and to the spirit o that book than any film or TV version of the classic than I know of. Also, as many have said, Nosferatu does not terrify or scare so much as it haunts; to my mind, that’s the way to make a horror film, to make one that clings to the imagination, leaving us thinking. I think the director, F.W. Murnau (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) is in part responsible for this; he seemed to have a way of reaching into our minds with unforgettable stories and characters, however simple.
Nosferatu has a rather remarkable history; one of the most influential films ever made, the script was so close to Stoker’s novel that the widow of the Dracula author sued for copyright infringement. After she won the suit, every single print of the film was ordered destroyed—burned—but happily for us, five (that we know of) have managed to survive, including one original French print from 1922. In 1994, film scholars took all of the remaining prints and restored the film to the best of their ability, though I’m not sure if that’s the version TCM will be showing or not.
There is, as you might imagine, much legend surrounding Nosferatu, the film and its actors (mostly Max Schreck, really), almost as much as there is surrounding vampires (and we can leave out the Twilight-esque silliness that I suspect Stoker would be disgusted by). One could spend hours (*cough*) reading up on it, on people’s interpretations of it, of the acting and on-location filming in the Carpathian mountains, of its miraculous survival after Mrs. Stoker’s lawsuit. That said, the best I’ve read about it is this from ClassicHorror, and TCM has a good one as well. There’s a good fansite, too (at any rate, it appears to be fans). I hope you tune in, or DVR for later viewing—this is truly an essential film! I’ve not seen it in some time, and am much looking forward to it.
The White Sister ’23
The second silent I’ve chosen for the week, but also one very much worth seeing. It’s also our second film for the week that I saw by accident and was so enthralled by I had to sit down and see the whole thing.
Lillian Gish stars as an Italian prince’s daughter, one deeply in young with a soldier (Ronald Colman), whose squadron is reportedly massacred in Algeria. Her father dies, her sister robs her of her inheritance, and already devastated by the death of her beloved, after emerging from her understandable state of shock, she decides to take the veil and become a nun. Yet just as she is about to take her final vows, her beloved returns to her—and she must decide whether she shall continue with the church or return to the man she loved, lost, and saw returned to her.
Just as she is faced with this decision, Mount Vesuvius, beneath which she happens to live, erupts.
Now, that may sound corny and twee, but I assure you—it is not. The White Sister will draw you in, and you’ll find yourself sitting there yearning to know what happens to this couple. The performances of Gish and Colman in particular, as expected, are incredible and painfully real; I could not pull myself away from the television.
Gish was quite privileged while working on The White Sister; I don’t know whether the Catholic church contacted the studio offering help or if the studio requested it, but
En route to Naples, the filmmakers met Monsignor (soon to be Cardinal) Giovanni Bonzano, who arranged for the Catholic Church to advise the crew on how to properly present Angela’s taking of the veil. Gish remembered, “Officials of the Church advised on every religious scene, to ensure its authenticity, and arranged for me to visit more than 30 cloistered orders before I decided on the one that we would use for The White Sister – the Order of Lourdes.”
In her autobiography, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Gish describes her preparation for the role. “I learned from the nuns how to walk and move in the heavy habit, and how to use my hands…I was given the privilege of seeing before dawn several ceremonies of the taking of the veil, the marriage to the Church.”
Gish remembers that it was this component that “particularly appealed to me about the story…It had never been re-created on stage or screen. Then, as now, it was not easy to find new material. I decided that the story would make an interesting film.” Gish remembers being warned that the public would not pay to see the sort of spectacle they could watch for free at the local church. She was undeterred, “I’ll tour it in a tent if I have to.”
According to Gish, it took 25 straight hours – from one morning to the next – to shoot the “marriage to the Church” sequence. “Then I was allowed two-and-a-half hours’ rest before working again until 11:00 that night.”
Pretty incredible, particularly when we think about how secretive and private such aspects of the church are. I can tell you that the scenes are beautifully done, and this is, overall, a truly beautiful film: the story, the camera work, the performances, the odd respect on behalf of Hollywood for faith of any sort (though this is the 1920s). I know, I know, two silent films in one week—but they are both very much worth it.
Nightmare Alley ’47
Matinee idol Tyrone Power is cast rather against type in this film noir repeatedly described as “brutal” and “hard”; a con man on the make, he seduces the secret of fake mind-reader Joan Blondell’s act out of her after a slip he makes results in the death of her husband. The knowledge gained, he dumps her in favour of a younger woman (but of course), and the pair race off to Chicago, where there are well-lined pockets to lighten. In the Windy City, Power then seeks the help of a psychoanalyst so he may gain even more lucre. As the WaPo’s Michael Dirda wrote in 2010, “‘Nightmare Alley‘ portrays 1930s America as a sleazy, run-down carnival, where everyone is either on the make, a born sucker or trapped in a real or psychological cage. Nearly all its major characters are emotionally damaged or physically deformed. Except for one, each is also pitiable — there, but for the grace of God, go you or I.” (via)
Ugly and cold, yes—but that’s something ripe for a superb film noir, and apparently, this is one of the finest. Somehow I’ve never seen it, but I’m certainly eager to now!
Also worth watching Tuesday: Robert Taylor & George Murphy are two of 13 US soldiers holding a bridge against the Japanese in Bataan, ’43, 8:30AM
Marie Antoinette ’38
3AM Wednesday (early Thursday morning, really)
An early film retelling of the doomed queen’s story, 1938’s Marie Antoinette was based at least in part upon Stefan Zweig’s biography of the Austrian-born woman who would become a touchpoint for revolution. Of course, as always, Hollywood couldn’t resist tinkering with the truth, but the sets and especially the cast make it well-worth watching. Indeed, star Norma Shearer received an Oscar nomination for her role as the Queen; Tyrone Power stars as Count Axel de Fersen, with whom Marie Antoinette supposedly had an affair (I’ve read a few biographies and am not sold on the idea myself).
Shearer, especially, is a marvel in the film, and exquisitely beautiful—this despite, or perhaps in spite of, the fact that she was still mourning the death of her beloved & talented husband, Irving Thalberg, who had long wanted to see Shearer play Marie Antoinette, and had in fact put the wheels for the project in motion—it was the last project he ever touched. Shearer floated the idea of retiring from film after losing her husband, but MGM (cruelly, in my opinion) strong-armed her into performing in order to settle Thalberg’s will, then fought furiously when Shearer’s attorneys demanded Thalberg’s share of the profits be given to Shearer and her children. Mayer did everything he could to sabotage the film—talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The lavish Marie Antoinette was successful—it grossed three million dollars, more than any of MGM’s previous releases. It is also a beautiful film, despite the director’s penchant for only doing two takes of every scene. It’s dramatic, license is taken with the facts, but this is one of the grandest films to come out of Hollywood, and during the Golden Age at that. DVR it!
Also worth watching Wednesday: Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight ’44, 7:30AM; a good time is had by (almost) all in The Harvey Girls ’46, starring Judy Garland, Marjorie Main, Ray Bolger, and a gorgeous Angela Lansbury (your star today), 9:30AM; Kind Lady ’51 with Ethel Barrymore, Lansbury, and Keenan Wynn, 1PM; The Manchurian Candidate ’62, 5:45PM; Tyrone Power fights tyranny in The Mask Of Zorro ’40, 11:45PM, and Power then sets out aboard ship to put the kibosh on pirates in swashbuckler The Black Swan ’41 at 1:30AM.