The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


Silents Are Fun

I was recently talking to a much, much younger work colleague about a movie I saw that I thought he would be interested in.  As I was describing it, he interrupted me and asked if it were in black and white. When I told him it was, he told me to forget it. He just couldn’t possibly watch it. It really threw me. A movie is a movie, I thought. Eventually,  I realized that there are certain art forms that present hurdles to those who are not familiar with them.  Opera is impenetrable to the uninitiated, a point I understand intellectually, but as a 40 year veteran of operamania, it just doesn’t resonate with me emotionally.  It has been so long for me since the conventions of opera and their attendant weirdnesses were new to me, that I find it hard to remember how it was (perhaps) difficult on first exposure.

This made me think of silent films.  Even people who consider themselves cinephiles often have a blind spot for silent. Having been devoted to film even longer than I have been devoted to opera, I get the conventions of silent films that might seem inscrutable or even ludicrous to the uninitiated.  The broader acting styles, the intertitles and the general ancientness of the whole genre require getting used to.  I also realize that the silent films that most people are exposed to are the silents  that are ‘important’,  the ones that are ‘good for you’.  For example, in any film appreciation class, people are forced to watch The Battleship Potemkin or at least the famous Odessa Steps scene.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the silent Soviet stuff. But it is interesting and not necessarily fun, as are most of the silents that people are exposed to.  The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birth of A Nation, Vampyr are all sublime in their own ways, but they aren’t fun, per se.

Realizing this, I decided to draw up a list of five silent films that are guaranteed pleasures to watch and would be a good entrée into a deeper appreciation of the genre:

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

1. Show People (1928) dir. King Vidor.   This delightful comedy tells the story of rich girl from the sticks who has designs on being a great dramatic film actress with the support of her loving but equally clueless father. The beauty of the film is the triumph of comedy, as our heroine realizes what her true forte is.  The film stars Marion Davies, a very talented comic actor who is nowadays unfortunately identified with the very untalented Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane. Davies was Hearst’s mistress much as Alexander was Kane’s, but the similarity ends there.  Davies knew what she was doing. She excelled in light comedy and this film is a good sampling her talents. Plus, for the film buff there are lots of inside jokes about the Hollywood figures of the time.

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

2. Foolish Wives (1922) dir. Erich Von Stroheim.  What lamenters of the silent era lament most is the pinnacle of storytelling art that movies achieved before sound.  Once sounds began, the whole production seemed to be concerned about the placement of the microphone above everything, making a very static art form out of one that was thrilling fluid and visually sophisticated just a few years previously.  It took talkies a few years to catch up.  Foolish Wives represents silent filmmaking at its peak.  The director and star was the mad genius Erich Von Stroheim (see my previous post on his work). Watching this film has all the joys of reading a rich, complex and slightly perverse novel.  Stroheim pushed the limits in set design (building an exact replica of the casino at Monte Carlo on the back lot), story telling and naturalistic acting. It would be years before Hollywood would see a production of this caliber again.  The characters are nuanced, the humor is adult, the relationships are titillating.  Plus it has a terrific story.

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

3. My Best Girl (1927) dir. Sam Taylor.  During the silent era, no actress was more beloved or more powerful than Mary Pickford.  An extraordinarily shrewd business person as well as a magnetic screen presence, Pickford first specialized in heart-wrenching films about put-upon waifs and eventually graduated to adult comedy roles, of which this is among the best. Mary works in a department store with a charming young man who, unbeknownst to her is the boss’s son (the gorgeous Buddy Rodgers, soon to be Mr. Pickford) trying to learn the business from the ground up.  Her family is delightfully dysfunctional and she is trying to hold everything together.  Heaven will protect the working girl!  The perfect light touch of this film might betray the influence of the great Lubitsch.  It is a delight from start to finish.

one week

4. One Week (1920) dir. Buster Keaton.  Comedy is always a good way to ease into a new art form, and the films of Buster Keaton are a sublime way to ease into silent films. The jaw-dropping ingenuity of his visuals are enough to convert anyone. In this short, Keaton and his new bride try to build themselves a do-it-yourself house from a kit, but things gets complicated as his old rival appears intent on making sure nothing goes smoothly for the young couple.


5. Un Chien Andalou (1929) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.  Nothing before or since has been like this surreal masterpiece. While at the Magritte exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, I realized that one of the things that makes the surrealists so appealing is that, in addition to being really creepy, they are howlingly funny.  It’s all here.  The slit eye, the priests tied to dead donkeys, peripatetic armpit hair, everything that makes the surreal the surreal. Twenty-one minutes of controlled insanity to a rollicking tango and Wagner score.

P.S.  It premiered on my birthday (well  not on my actually birthday but a few decades before.)

So watch these five films and let me know what you think.  Then you’ll be ready for the Soviets, I promise.


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Human Condition  (Masaki Kobayashi)
  2. The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
  3. Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo)
  4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  5. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman)
  6. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
  7. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar Wai)
  8. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
  9. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
  10. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka)


1. The Human Condition has been on my radar ever since I was a kid and saw it mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘longest movie’. I think nowadays it would be considered more of a mini-series since it consists of three separate two-part films. When considered in that light the prospect of watching six 90 minute films is less daunting than watching one 540 minute one.  Politically, the film is powerful.  It is astounding that Japan produced a film that is so self-indicting regarding the abuses of its fascistic military in Manchuria during World War II. There is certainly nothing comparable from Germany after the war or at all!.  The Human Condition is certainly ambitious and powerful with amazing set pieces, but the length does give rise to longeurs as well.   Watching it I felt like I was watching one of those epic American All-Star movies like The Longest Day. In fact, two of the hugest Japanese actors of the time, Chishu Ryu and Hideko Takamine, appear in cameos late in the film much in the way Red Buttons appeared in The Longest Day.  Wonder if there was some influence there.  The Longest Day came out after The Human Condition but that sort of thing was very popular at the time – consider Around the World in Eighty Days.  I have become an admirer of Kobayashi, especially for Kwaidan and Samurai Rebellion.  And Tatsuya Nakadai sure is dreamy.

2. If you haven’t read my Scene Analysis of the penultimate scene of The Long Day Closes, please do.  I hope it will inspire you to watch the whole magnificent creation.

3. I had forgotten how hilarious Nothing Sacred is and what an absolute mess The Big Sleep is. I love them both.

4. To paraphrase Enobarbus from Antony and Cleopatra, there are films which cloy the appetites they feed, but In The Mood For Love makes hungry, where most it satisfies’. I want to be watching it, always.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons is yet another beautiful cinematic experience I owe to reading Donald Richie’s One Hundred Years of Japanese Film.  The director Sadao Yamanaka died very young as a soldier in Manchuria, which makes this film and The Human Condition neat bookends to my current list. As others have noted, it is also a nice companion piece to Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths, based on Dostoevsky.  We’ll never know what the world lost with Yamanaka dying so young, but if this film is any indication, it lost a lot.






Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Yellow Ribbon……….

In the late 1590s, William Shakespeare wrote a series of plays that portray England at the turn of the 15th Century. Richard II, Henry IV parts one & two and Henry V present a world of astonishing scope and detail. The intrigues that end up with the deposition of Richard II and the ascension of Henry IV are portrayed in Richard II,  the only dramatic work of Shakespeare entirely in poetry.  This play functions as a kind of prelude for the huge tapestry of the two Henry IV plays.  In these two works, Shakespeare portrays the entire range of English life.  The court life of Henry IV, who is constantly besieged by rebellion from all over the country by ambitious rivals questioning his claim to the throne, is presented in contrast to the bawdy denizens of the Boar’s Head Inn, Cheapside, where the Prince of Wales is slumming while the country is convulsed in civil wars. Here Sir John Falstaff, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, presides over a vivid group of the lowest of English society.

It is in the remarkable depiction of both high and low characters that the plays achieve their epic feel.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the more Shakespeare details his individual portraits, the wider his canvas becomes. By the time we reach the coronation of Henry V with its devastating repudiation of his earlier, wilder days as embodied by Falstaff, we feel we have been presented with an entire world.

 Henry V rejects Sir John Falstaff

When thinking of film, the one director whose achievement can be termed Shakespearean would be John Ford.  There is so much that these supreme artists have in common.  Both understand the importance of contrasting comedy and tragedy and both can work in either or both genres.  This comic and possibly offensive ‘Look’ sequence in The Searchers relieves the high tragic propulsiveness of the plot.  It is not essential, but it relieves the tension and fleshes out a lighter side of Ethan Edwards, the character in Ford’s oeuvre that most achieves a Lear-like titanic stature

The world of John Ford is filled with the kind of character detail that we see nowhere else but in Shakespeare.  Great care will be lavished on a scene that won’t necessarily further the plot, but will be essential to creating the world being depicted.  Wyatt Earp will get a haircut, the young cadets will go picnicking in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Philadelphia Thursday will try to make her father’s new home in Fort Apache as home-like as possible with objects donated by the other ladies at the fort. This last scene is inconsequential as far as the big picture is concerned, but it affords Ford the chance to show a nascent, decent society developing at what was then thought of as the outer limit of society (although I am sure there are a lot of Native American nations which would balk at this description).

Philadephia Thursday makes a home for her father

I would posit that the three Cavalry films of John Ford occupy the same place in his output as the Henriad does in Shakespeare’s.  In both cases the artists were at the height of their powers. Shakespeare was soon to write his four great tragedies, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Ford was soon to direct his masterpiece The Searchers.

Ford’s Cavalry trilogy is made up of three very loosely connected films. They do not share a continuous plot.  They do not have the same locale. They do not share the same characters although certain names like Tyree and Quincannon appear over and over, sometime played by the same actor, sometimes not. What links these three films is that they tell the stories of various cavalry units at the edges of what was deemed ‘civilization’.  Fort Apache (1947) takes place shortly after Custer’s Last Stand and is a meditation on the foolishness and actual danger of the reckless pursuit of glory. I have written before about She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) in an article comparing it to Malick’s Tree of Life.  In the guise of depicting the last few days prior to the retirement of Nathan Brittles, Yellow Ribbon movingly shows the passage of time and how a new generation inevitably replaces the older. Rio Grande is the working out of a pretty complicated domestic situation involving Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne and their son.  The boy has just graduated from West Point and has been assigned to the outpost under the command of his estranged father, estranged because he burned down his Southern mother’s plantation as part of Sherman’s March To The Sea.  The domestic difficulties become a metaphor for a nation trying to figure out how to be a nation again after the trauma of the Civil War.

When watched together you get as wide a panorama of post-Civil War America as the Shakespeare plays give you of England.  In both works high tragedy is mixed with bawdy low comedy (in both cases usually involving drink).

At the end of the Shakespeare cycle, we know that the world we have just lived in will come to an abrupt end because the warrior savior King Henry V will die young, leaving the kingdom to fall into chaos, giving rise to the devastation of The War Of The Roses.  At the end of each of the films in the Cavalry Trilogy, we have a sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, the end of the exhilarating days of the pioneer. Now it is time for dull civilization to take root and erase the memories of the larger than life characters we have been spending time with.

Do yourself a favor and watch these three films.  Do yourself another favor and read as much Shakespeare as you can.

john ford shakespeare