Tuesday, April 12, 2016

7 Days in May | Holmes, Hood, and the Headless Horseman

Nosferatu (1922)

I've seen this so many times, but watching it again, I noticed a couple of story problems. How does Orlok get control of Knock? And Professor Bulwer, the Van Helsing character, has no purpose in the movie. He doesn't even directly interact with any other characters until the very last scene and even then it's only to observe what the real characters are doing.

But the style of Nosferatu is so strong, and Orlok is so utterly horrifying (thanks both to Max Schreck's performance and the way director FW Murnau shot him), that nothing else matters. It's not only the best adaptation of Dracula, it's the best vampire movie ever.

The Paleface (1922)

This lesser Buster Keaton short is full of racial stereotypes and hard to watch. They can't all be winners.

Cops (1922)

I love Buster Keaton's usual brand of slapstick, but the action in this short becomes more absurd than I like. It's also mean-spirited in that a lot of the comedy happens at the expense of innocent people. And finally, the plot that sets up Keaton's being chased by an entire police force is shakier than what I'm used to from him. It's still very funny in places, because Keaton, but not one I'll come back to a lot.

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

This is more like it. Due to a language barrier with a judge, Buster Keaton accidentally gets married into a rough family. As expected though, he stoically and resourcefully holds his own. I especially love the dinner table scene where he can't get a bite of his own food for having to constantly pass dishes up and down the table to the others. I've been there, pal.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Sort of "Scandal in Bohemia" meets Young Sherlock Holmes, only Holmes and Watson meet in college. It also plays up Holmes' feelings for Irene Adler (renamed Alice Faulkner, but it's following the "Scandal" plot) to a level that's unbelievable for Holmes fans. And it not only inserts Moriarty into the tale; it makes him the reason for Holmes' becoming a detective in the first place. So, lots of liberties taken here.

It's not a strong mystery either and Holmes says things like, "It's easier to know so-and-so is guilty than to explain how I know it." In other words, it barely feels like Sherlock Holmes. John Barrymore is handsome in the role, but I wish he was in a more faithful adaptation. Enjoyable; just not essential.

The Blacksmith (1922)

A really strong short with Buster Keaton as a blacksmith. I can't tell if he's a partner or an apprentice in the business, but he works with another smith who's played by ubiquitous Keaton co-star/nemesis, Joe Roberts. The two are adversaries, but when Roberts' character finally takes his abuse too far and goes to jail, Keaton takes over the whole business. The gags mostly involve Keaton's destroying everything he touches, but they're all funny and I particularly like the bit where he fits a horse for new shoes.

The Frozen North (1922)

This is apparently a parody of William S Hart melodramas, but I've only seen one Hart movie, so I didn't get the joke. It's strange seeing Buster Keaton play a thieving, murderous villain, but not as strange as the plot, which was hard for me to follow. Some of the gags got chuckles from me, but this is low on my ranking of Keaton films.

The Electric House (1922)

When Buster Keaton is mistaken for an electrical engineer and hired to wire a new home for electricity, I thought the gags would involve his incompetence to do the job (especially since I watched this back-to-back with The Blacksmith). Surprisingly, he does a great job and fills the house with awesome gadgets, including an escalator and a train system to deliver food from the kitchen to the dining room table. The jokes come from Keaton's being the wrong person to operate the house as he demonstrates it to the owners, but once he leaves, that's going to be a cool place to live.

Robin Hood (1922)

It's an origin story, so Robin Hood as we know him doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. But thanks to the charming Douglas Fairbanks and some great humor, even the Hoodless half is a lot of fun. Once the movie enters familiar territory, it gets even better with lavish sets and Fairbanks proving why he's the king of the swashbucklers. Highly recommended. I may even like this one better than Errol Flynn's (which I like a lot).

Day Dreams (1922)

Cute, but slight short film in which Buster Keaton writes letters to his sweetheart back home to report on his progress in building the fortune he needs to marry her. He'll tell her that he's "cleaning up on Wall Street" and she'll daydream about his being a stock tycoon, but of course he's actually a street sweeper. This kind of thing repeats a few times until he finally comes home to reveal his failure and face the consequences. It's a depressing scenario, but the individual gags are still very funny.

The Headless Horseman (1922)

Pretty faithful, silent adaptation of the Washington Irving story. Will Rogers isn't quite as lanky an Ichabod Crane as I like, but he's fine. And the Headless Horseman effects are surprisingly great.

It pads itself out though with extra subplots. There's one about the mother of one of Ichabod's students and how she wants to drive Ichabod out of town because he's not Dutch. And another has Brom Bones try to get rid of Ichabod by making the town believe that the schoolteacher is practicing witchcraft. It's interesting enough stuff, but not necessary, especially when I'm anxious to get to the ghost at the end.

I also don't care for how the movie robs the story of what ambiguity it has about Ichabod's fate. I mean, I think Irving's tale is pretty clear about what happens to Ichabod, but it leaves room for different opinions. This movie picks a side and shows it outright, acknowledging the other point of view, but basically mocking it as nonsense.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

This is my first time reading this, but I've seen the movie many many times. I enjoyed unfilmed scenes like Nearly Headless Nick's party and the additional tension around everyone's thinking that Harry is the Heir. I also hadn't picked up from the film that Dumbledore wasn't the headmaster during Tom Riddle's day. And the Chamber of Secrets sequence flows a lot better without the long chase.

Like in the first book, Harry's successes rely more on coincidence than I'd like, but all-in-all it's a fun book and I'm looking forward to Azkaban.

Oyster War by Ben Towle

While I love sea adventure stories, very few of them are fully satisfying to me. The Unsinkable Walker Bean is one of those, and now Oyster War is another. It combines Ben Towle's knack for well-researched, detailed historical fiction with exciting action, captivating characters, humor, and lots of imagination. And the book is packaged handsomely in an oversized, hardcover album with thick paper, so it's as pleasurable to hold as it is to read.

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