Monday, May 09, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1926

The Black Pirate (1926)

Douglas Fairbanks plays a nobleman who pretends to be a pirate in order to take down the buccaneers responsible for his father's death. There's a love story too of course when they capture a ship with a princess aboard. And naturally our hero comes into conflict with the previous leader of the pirate gang, who also has an interest in the princess.

A lot of the elements are predictable, but there are complications to keep it interesting. And that's in addition to the amazingly athletic swashbuckling that Fairbanks is so excellent at. My print doesn't have a real score, but just some generic orchestral music, so that's my only complaint. One of the first pirate movies is also one of the best.

The Bat (1926)

I'm really fond of the 1959 version starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, so I wanted to see this one adapting the same play. Now I need to see the Price one again to compare, because I think I may actually like this one even better. The plot's basically the same - a killer called The Bat terrorizes a bunch of people in a mansion that may have a lot of money hidden in it somewhere - but the '26 version surprised me with how gorgeous it is. The sets are huge and extravagant, the shots are dark and stylish, and the Bat's costume is amazing: basically a trench-coated man who wears an elaborate bat mask with huge, fur-covered ears and a working mouth.

My only issue with the film was the soundtrack on the print I watched. I rented it from Amazon where the score is relentlessly dull trance music that kept putting me to sleep. It's atmospheric, but doesn't go well with the movie's many comedic moments. I was captivated by the story and the look of the film, so I persevered, but finally muted the sound and listened to some Sisters of Mercy while I watched. It still didn't fit perfectly, but at least it wasn't boring.

It’s the Old Army Game (1926)

So that's me smitten with Louise Brooks then.

I wanted to check out some Brooks movies and started with this one because it's the earliest that I have access to. I'm also familiar enough with WC Fields to know that I generally like him, so that made it a safe introduction, too.

There's a loose plot about Fields' character getting involved with a land scheme (the movie's title refers to con games), but mostly it's a series of unrelated gags that go on longer than they should. Like when Fields takes his family out for a picnic and has it on the lawn of some rich guy's house. The running joke about the animosity between Fields and his young nephew is especially tiring. The actor playing the nephew was 11, but the character sleeps in a crib and rides in a baby carriage part of the time, so I don't know how old he's supposed to be.

The frustrations are all worth it whenever Brooks shows up though. She's beautiful and charming and absolutely captivating every time she's on screen. Looking forward to seeing some of her other films.

Battling Butler (1926)

A really early version of the tropey romantic comedy formula where a misunderstanding or lie snowballs and threatens to break up our couple if the secret gets out. And rather than having a grown-up conversation about it, the lead character perpetuates the lie, breaking the other person's heart and requiring a big gesture to set things right.

Because it's Buster Keaton, it still works for me, but it relies more on the situation for laughs than on Keaton's physicality. In fact, Keaton's playing a wimp, so his athleticism is intentionally de-emphasized.

The General (1926)

This one's probably the first Buster Keaton movie I ever saw. It's a great introduction because it's essentially a feature-length chase scene. (I've heard it compared to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is kind of appropriate.) There's some introductory stuff to set the stakes, but even that's very funny and once we get to the train chases, it's just gag after gag after gag. And they all work.

A potential drawback for modern viewers is that Keaton's playing a loyal Confederate in the Civil War. The movie isn't overtly political and the reasons for the war are never mentioned, but The General makes a strange companion piece to The Keeping Room, which also depicts the Union Army as the bad guys. I certainly don't want that to be the only - or even primary - way we talk about the Civil War, but I do think it's valuable and necessary to remember that there were multiple perspectives on that conflict.

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