FILM SEPTEMBER 2, 2011
It was asserted by the present critic, when The Gold Rush appeared last August, that the comedy of the moving pictures had come to be dominated by the school of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the exploitation of comic tricks or gags. And I prophesied that Chaplin, with his finer comedy and his less spectacular farce, would not be able to hold his popularity against it. What has happened is precisely the reverse of what I predicted. The Gold Rush has had a great success; and, so far from playing Chaplin off the screen, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have taken to imitating him. What is striking in their new films is the reduction of the number of gags and the attempt to fill their place with straight drama. Lloyd and Keaton have tried to follow Chaplin’s example by allowing their comic characters to become genuine human beings; they have gone in for wistfulness and pathos. In Lloyd’s case, the effect of this attempt is not particularly happy. Lloyd has never been a very good actor; he has been a dummy for comic devices. And we are not much moved by the scene in The Freshman in which he learns at last that he has been the butt of his fellow students, instead of, as he has believed, their hero; nor when he enters the big game at the last moment and wins it with a miraculous touchdown. But Buster Keaton is an able pantomimist; his morose and sensitive face commands a certain sympathy. We are, therefore, not absolutely unresponsive to his new comedy, Go West. Here he appears as a friendless boy on a western ranch who conceives an attachment for a cow: he has taken a stone out of the cow’s foot and the cow has, in turn, defended him against the onrush of an angry bull, after the manner of Androcles and the Lion. When she is finally sent off to the slaughter-house, he opens the cars and sets loose the whole herd. We see a danger, however, that, if the movie comedians continue in their present policy of pursuing tears instead of laughs, they may, not excluding Chaplin, merely succeed in becoming maudlin. Buster Keaton’s dumb solemnity was perhaps more touching in his frankly comic films than in this attempt at a sentimental one.
Stella Dallas and The Tower of Lies are two long and pretentious films of very similar character and quality. They are both rather serious attempts at the realistic presentation of the tragedies of simple lives; and neither is a real success. It is apparently more difficult for the moving pictures to be convincing with themes of this kind than with almost anything else. And the only way, aside from melodrama, in which we can be held by a story of country life like The Tower of Lies, is by being made to believe absolutely in the reality of its people. An admixture of movie theatricality is here particularly conspicuous and particularly distasteful. None the less, it is perhaps unfair to blame all the defects of The Tower of Lies either on Victor Seastrom, who has obviously brought great intelligence and care to the direction, or on Lon Chaney, whose prodigious virtuosity cannot quite save him in a role in which he seems miscast. The writer has never read the novel of Selma Lagerlöf—The Emperor of Portugallia—upon which The Tower of Lies is based, but he remembers encountering elsewhere in her writings the same mixture of poetic realism with sentimental melodrama that one finds here; and he confesses to having suffered a similar malaise. Stella Dallas has, however, not even the advantage of a Selma Lagerlöf to build upon. Though it includes some respectable elements, it is essentially a trashy moving picture based on a trashy story. I found it difficult to believe in the reality of the characters, with the exception perhaps of the young girl, played by Lois Moran, and the situations seem to me impossible. Stella Dallas, for all its touches of honest observation, is essentially an elaborate piece of hokum.
An organization called the International Film Arts Guild has been founded for the purpose of reviving meritorious old films. They plan for the present to exhibit a different film every Sunday, afternoon and evening, in the George M. Cohan Theatre and, if the enterprise proves successful, to take a permanent theatre and show a repertoire throughout the week. Their first picture was Deception, a German film directed by Ernst Lubitsch. This curious and rather interesting production, made soon after the War, deals with the wives of Henry the Eighth and appears to have been inspired by a strong anti-English animus. Henry the Eighth, well done by Emil Jannings, is presented as a burly beef-eating Englishman, boorish, domineering, wilful, unscrupulous, treacherous and cruel. It is a savage treatment of an historical subject of a kind unconventional for the movies and perhaps such as could only have been arrived at by the imagination of one country applied to the history of another. At one point, the atrocious Henry is seen to tear up a scrap of paper.