Monday, May 23, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1928

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

One of my favorite Buster Keaton films (Top Three with The Navigator and The General). The hat shopping bit is great and has a perfect payoff. I've also become a fan of Ernest Torrence, who plays Keaton's father. He and Keaton are perfect against each other, which reminds me of another great scene when Keaton tries to smuggle escape tools in a loaf of bread to his jailed dad. Also, Marion Byron is super cute as Keaton's girlfriend.

A Girl in Every Port (1928)

I was looking forward to seeing a Howard Hawks film starring Louise Brooks, but A Girl in Every Port is disappointing. It's the ultimate Bros Before Hos movie with a couple of womanizing bullies who fight and philander their way around the world. Brooks plays an equally awful woman who almost comes between them. I like that she's in the movie - and that so is Robert Armstrong, who went on to play Carl Denham in 1933's King Kong - but I wish that I liked either of their characters.

The Farmer's Wife (1928)

I blind-bought this a while ago because Early Hitchcock, knowing that it's not his usual genre, but curious anyway. Realizing that I remembered almost nothing about it, I watched it again and was reminded why it hasn't stuck with me.

The farmer of the title is a stupid, arrogant man who decides that enough time has passed since the death of his wife that he should remarry. He's not in love with anyone; it's just time. So he goes about it methodically, making a list of prospects and then proposing to them one by one. He rightly observes that none of these prospects have other prospects of their own, but the conclusion he draws from that is that any of them should realize how lucky they are to receive his proposal. Which he pretty much tells them as he's proposing. To his shock, they all turn him down. They give various reasons, but the fact that he's an ass is an unspoken one. His confidence begins to dwindle, rejection by rejection.

All the while, there's a wonderful woman in his household whom he doesn't consider even though her perfection is loudly obvious to the viewer. What's going to happen next is predictable every step of the way, except for two things.

One is that the film occasionally meanders from its plot to share cute sequences with some of the other characters, whether it's the farmer's servants or one of his prospects. These are generally enjoyable, but they did have me looking at the time to see how long the movie was spending on them.

The other surprise is better though, and that's how sweet the conclusion actually is. What happens may be telegraphed like crazy, but once the movie gets there, I'm genuinely happy to see the couple realize their feelings for each other. That has a lot to do with Lillian Hall-Davis' lovable performance as Minta - I wanted so much for her to be happy - but also something to do with the farmer's finding enough humility that he's no longer insufferable. In real life, I'm sure he goes back to being a jerk once he regains his self-respect, but in the final moments of the movie, I'm rooting for the new couple.

Easy Virtue (1928)

Another early Hitchcock outside the genre he became so well known for. Easy Virtue is an effective, but depressing story about the power of gossip, speculation, and the court of public opinion. Those things all make me cranky enough that I can't say that I enjoyed the film, but it's as relevant as ever and of course wonderfully directed.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Conrad Veidt's disturbing grin in The Man Who Laughs was the visual inspiration for The Joker, so that - plus liking Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca - is what drew me to watch it. Then I was reminded that Mary Philbin (The Phantom of the Opera) is in it and that it's based on a Victor Hugo story and I was even more excited.

It's an amazing film that uses horror-movie tricks to tell a story that isn't horror at all. It combines elements of the German Expressionism in Caligari and Nosferatu with the lavish productions of movies like Phantom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The tone of the movie is similar to Hunchback (also based on a Hugo novel, of course), which isn't a horror movie either, but I think of it as one thanks to Lon Chaney's awesome makeup. Same goes with The Man Who Laughs and Veidt's smile.

Like Hunchback, it's the story of a disfigured man who loves a beautiful woman. Unlike Quasimodo though, Veidt's Gwynplaine has a hope that his love may be returned. In fact, blind Dea (Philbin) openly loves him; he just has a hard time accepting it. On top of the romance are layered political complications since some powerful people have figured out that Gwynplaine is unknowingly the son of a nobleman. Brandon Hurst is delightfully sinister as a Machiavellian opportunist who uses his knowledge of Gwynplaine to win favor from the Queen, and Olga Baclanova is crazy seductive as the noblewoman who now possesses Gwynplaine's estate.

It's a captivating story with characters I loved. Another for the list of silent films that make great introductions to the format for someone who hasn't given them a try.

Beggars of Life (1928)

I watched a murky, pixelated version of this on YouTube, but still enjoyed it. I love rooting for Louise Brooks' characters, which is something that I can't always do. Beggars is exciting, sad, scary, and heart-warming. Heavier on the sad than I like, but worthwhile.

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