“Poor print.” That was all I had to say after attending a screening of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was dreadfully disappointed. It felt like walking through an exhibition of Expressionist art in which all the paintings were covered in plastic, the lights dimmed, and the space brightened only by an occasional flash of a camera. I pretty much had the same impression when, preparing for a trip to Prague, I tried to take in Der Golem by exposing myself to the horrors of a cheap copy I had dug out of a bargain bin at a third-rate department store. You might as well experience these films on the radio, where the visuals are as clear and bold as you can make them, provided your mental camera is both creative and focused enough to take pictures that are worth keeping.
Tonight, BBC Radio 3 attempted no less with “Caligari,” a radio adaptation of Robert Wiene’s seminal horror film, one of the few classics of the cinema to rank among the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database. In the exposition, poet/playwright Amanda Dalton slyly comments on the challenges of such a project. “Caligari” opens with the sound of a board (an advertisement for the fair, a title card for the film, a piece of scenery) being painted and hammered into position. The question this gesture begs is whether the brush and the hammer are being passed on to us. Are we the artist, the audience, or the subject? Can we choose? Must we?
A “strangely arresting” film that succeeds in giving “pictorial interpretation to a madman’s vision,” one early commentator (Carlyle Ellis) said of Caligari. Such a statement drives home that Caligari is itself an exercise in translation: a bringing to light and darkness the workings of a crooked, crazy mind in crooked, crazy images. Rather than a translation, then, Dalton’s “Caligari” (available online until 2 November 2008) should be performing nothing more—and nothing less—than a transplant, a projection of a madman’s vision onto the screen of our own mental theater, sound or otherwise.
By installing a narrator at the changing scene, “Caligari” insists on translating and interpreting, at times so facetiously as to undermine any sense of terror. Irritation, perhaps, but not anxiety. More clamorous and voluble than radio needs to be, Dalton’s frantic, play, whose light-heartedness is weighed down by anachronistic cliches like “over my dead body,” is, for all its irreverence, an unsatisfactorily literal transliteration. Too many voices shouting down our imagination, “Caligari” reviews familiar images it does not permit our mind’s eye to see, let alone re-envision or remake. A running commentary on the original on a familiarity with which it depends, “Caligari” plays itself out as a series of aural footnotes.
Last Friday, during an ostensible lecture on German film prior to a screening of Germany’s latest cinematic export, Die Welle (2008), I once again caught glimpses of Wiene’s seminal work; but its images were taken out of a context that the dull, rambling talk could not create. I had a similar attitude toward Dalton’s adaptations. A few bars of the German national anthem, as it was once sung (that is, including the first stanza, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”), can hardly suffice in assisting us to adopt a Weimar Republican mindset; nor can mentions of an “intricate design” recreate an expressionistic set. And while a babble of tongues may make a failed democratic system audible, “Caligari” is little more than a poor substitute for the experience of either art or history.
Meanwhile, I am sure that the jack-o’-lantern I carved today (and display above) would look better on the air or in anyone’s mind, especially now that Montague, our terrier, has already begun to disfigure it. Is he adopting traits you may have decided to attribute to me?
Tickled by Canary Feather’s account of being an accompanist for silent movies, I was in the mood for another non-talkie. The term may be unhappy in its connotation of lack, yet seems preferable to “silent movie,” considering that, prior to the late 1920, the sound for motion pictures was supplied by those playing the piano or the organ; even sound effects artists and entire orchestras were not unheard. Having had my fill of non-talkie comedy of late, I chose a melodrama likely to wear out the most resourceful and nimble-fingered of pianists: The Master Mystery a 1919 thriller underscored by Stuart Oderman, whom I have often heard and seen playing the piano to movies screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Intolerance, Grandma’s Boy, and Caligari—Lillian Gish biographer Stuart Oderman has articulated them all.
In the case of The Master Mystery, the pianist must have been relieved that his accompaniment was being recorded, rather than performed live. However fragmentary, the film still runs an epic 238 minutes. With an attention span shortened by broadband and a clock ticking down the last minutes of the day, I was resolved to take in this thriller as it was conceived; that is, as a weekly chapter play.
From the first instalment, I expected little more than an exposition, an introduction of the main characters, and the obligatory cliffhanger. After all, The Master Mystery stars the famed escape artist Harry Houdini (previously encountered on a boat about to go over Niagara Falls).
Now, I pride myself in not readily throwing in the remote control; but The Master Mystery, with its secret identities, its corridors and hidden caves stalked by an pre-RUR automaton, and its cases of Madagascar Madness—proved too complex to master at that late hour. The opening title card should have been ample warning. The “Foreword” reads:
International Patents, Inc., is a firm whose vast fortune has been made by inducing inventors to trust the marketing of inventions to their care and after obtaining sole rights—they suppress the manufacture of these inventions—much to the financial gain of the owners of already existing patents.
However intriguing, this is hardly the most effective way of opening a chapter play. We have not yet been introduced to any of the characters, but are confronted instead with a corporation and with legalities not quite the stuff of melodramatic action. Equally frustrating is the introduction of characters by indirection, that is, as a name on a title card not referring to the character shown. The secretary of businessman Peter Brent, for instance, is identified as being “secretly in the service of Balcom,” before we are shown the latter.
My own shortcomings aside, was it writerly ineptitude that caused me to get lost in the muddle? Was it owing to the fragmentary state of the surviving print, segments of which have been “rearranged” to create the “illusion of completeness”? Or was it, perhaps, all part of a shrewd design? I was determined to fill in the blanks with whatever notes I could find. Notes? How about an entire book!
In May 1919, Masters of Mystery was published as a novelization co-written by Arthur B. Reeve, one of the scenarists credited as the “authors” of the serial. Yes, viewers lost in the maze from which only Houdini could extricate himself, were promised a key to it all in the form of a published book, replete with stills from the film. I wonder just how many resorted to a purchase in hopes of mastering this Mystery?
Here is how the opening title card is translated into some semblance of a narrative:
“I will see Mr. Brent,” insisted the new-comer, as he pushed past the butler. “Mr. Brent!” he cried, advancing with a wild light in his eyes. “I’m tired of excuses. I want justice regarding that water-motor of mine.” He paused, then added, shaking his finger threateningly, “Put it on the market—or I will call in the Department of Justice!”
Brent scowled again. For years he had been amassing a fortune by a process that was scarcely within the law. For, when inventions threaten to render useless already existing patents, necessitating the scrapping of millions of dollars’ worth of machinery, vested interests must be protected.
Thus, Brent and his partner, Herbert Balcom, had evolved a simple method of protecting corporations against troublesome inventors and inventions. They had formed their own corporation, International Patents, Incorporated.
Their method was effective—though desperate. It was to suppress the inventor and his labor. They bought the sole rights from the inventor, promising him glittering royalties. The joker was that the invention was suppressed. None were ever manufactured. Hence there were no royalties and the corporations went on undisturbed while Brent and Balcom collected huge retainers for the protection they afforded them.
Thus Brent Rock had come to be hated by scores of inventors defrauded in this unequal conflict with big business.
While the perfunctory prose suggests that the book is not always better than the movie, I was at least caught up with the story and prepared to follow Houdini as he gets in and out of scrapes to a score by Stuart Oderman . . . next week.
The Oxford English Dictionary devotes an astonishing number of pages to the definition and history of the word “old.” Thus far, I have not been entered as an example. To be sure, whether or not something or someone is “old” depends largely on the age and attitude of the beholder; but it also depends on the history and evolution of what is being beheld and judged. Based on the history of film alone, one can safely describe Vitagraph’s “Oliver Twist” as “old” without incurring many objections as to the subjectiveness of the chosen adjective. After all, “Oliver Twist” was released back in 1909. At the time, some of the first readers of Dickens’s serial novel still numbered among the living. They might have looked upon those images in motion as a novel approach to an old favorite, while we, who have come to realize that technology dates faster than art, look at it as a creaky and inadequate translation.
The thought of film as a bridge between us and the early Victorian age is awe-inspiring; not that extant constructions rising above that gap are particularly trustworthy, considering the cardboard sets and threadbare production values of films like “Oliver Twist.” Directed by Englishman J. Stuart Blackton, it is all but nine minutes long; and as such, it is more or less a synopsis of the novel.
Indeed, it is rather less. Here we have the richly descriptive words of Dickens, a master of penning indelible if none-too-intricately sketched word-portraits, translated into the moving images that are, to this date, the competitors of moving English. Intertitles are sparse, an economy of words that turns the spectacle into a set of tableaux in the service of a moral whose statement even a sentimentalist like Dickens might well reject as rather too obvious and prosaic.
Owing to the film industry’s raiding of the Dickens canon, the author’s original illustrator, Cruikshank, appears to have run away with the show. In film, now and then, the word is largely an adjunct to the image, reversing the precedent set by the illustrated novel, itself the product of modern printing technology. Without any close-ups and a style of emoting that makes Lana Turner’s acting look like the epitome of realism, “Oliver Twist,” unlike Dickens’s Oliver Twist, can no longer engross us as anything but a curio to be marveled at and studied. Unless, of course, one thinks of those sitting in the auditorium back then, finding their books to be projected onto a screen in the most peculiar form of translation, with authors and actors alike removed from the scene.
What a comfort it might have been to pick up the novel anew and give it life in one’s own breath, to learn that Oliver’s story was the story of modern, industrial society in which even the living things of our imaginings are reduced to commodities. Nancy is literature, I kept thinking, and the thieving Bill Sikes is film. It will require a screening of Frank Lloyd’s 1922 version, starring Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan, to adjust this image; I am very much looking forward to the latter, being that our friend, the aforementioned silent film composer and (radio) dramatist Neil Brand, showed me his studio as he was in the process of scoring the film. Both versions, along with a lantern show of “Gabriel Grub” (from an episode in Pickwick Papers), are included in the collection Dickens Before Sound, compiled and preserved by the British Film Institute. At the sight of this feast in small doses, nutritiously dubious as some may be, I can hardly refrain from echoing Oliver’s familiar plea for “more.”
Generally, we don’t regard our movie comings and goings as once-in-a-lifetime events, no matter how extraordinary the experience. In fact, we are inclined to opt for a rerun if a film manages to make us wax hyperbolic in our enthusiasm for it. To be sure, not many moving images have this force; nowadays, they are so readily reproduced, so instantly retrieved, that many of us won’t even bother to sit down for them, knowing that they can be had whenever we are ready for them. We miss out on so much precisely because we are comforted to the point of indifference by the thought that we do not have to miss anything at all. When I write “we,” I do number myself among those who are at-our-fingertipsy with technology. Last weekend’s screening of The Life Story of David Lloyd George at the Fflics film festival here in Wales was a reminder that films can indeed be rare; that they are fragile and subject to forces, natural and otherwise, that cause them to vanish from view.
The Life Story of David Lloyd George was produced in 1918; directed by the prolific but less-than-acclaimed British director Maurice Elvey. Now, I do not quite share the view that the hugely prolific Elvey was a hack. His talkie The Phantom Fiend (1932), with Hitchcock’s Lodger Ivor Novello may not be a cinematic masterpiece; but for all its technical flaws it nearly as experimental as Hitchcock’s version of the old Jack the Ripper thriller. Aside from Novello’s piano playing, Elvey makes great and at times reflexively sly use of the telephone, as he readies the silent version for sound. More accomplished still is Elvey’s second version of Hindle Wakes (1927), a bleak working class melodrama I mentioned here previously.
Like Hindle Wakes, Life Story was partially shot on location in Wales; but in the latter film, the scenery is no mere backdrop for romance, of which the documentarian if propagandist Life Story is almost entirely devoid (notwithstanding the sentimental scenes involving Lloyd George’s relationship with his daughter, portrayed by Hitchcock’s partner Alma Reville). It is the soil in which flourished the career of a British Prime Minister (pictured), the reformer they called the “Welsh Wizard.”
Elvey begins his biography of Lloyd George very nearly ab ovo by presenting us with a shot of his birth certificate. Life Story strives to be historically accurate, but is unapologetically propagandist in its portrayal of the Prime Minister’s accomplishments during the days of the Great War, near the conclusion of which the film was produced. The final image is of Lloyd George (portrayed by Norman Page) looking at his audience, insisting that there must not be another war.
His audience? That, of course, is the crux, the tragedy, and the mystery of Elvey’s D. W. Griffithean epic: it was never publicly screened during the Prime Minister’s lifetime, never referred to by those involved in its making, and discovered not until the mid-1990s, at the home of Lloyd George’s grandson. As film historian Kevin Brownlow remarked in his introduction of the film at the Fflics festival, it is equally astonishing and deplorable that no documentary has as yet been attempted to investigate the film’s disappearance and the silence surrounding it for nearly eight decades.
The Life Story of David Lloyd George is soon being released on DVD, another rarity to become widely available and largely ignored; but it was the bravura performance of silent film composer Neil Brand, whose dramatic underscoring of the cinematographically not always compelling 152-minute biopic made for a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience.
Well, what does it suggest? My silence, I mean. Is it a sign of indifference or an exercise in difference? Does it bespeak failure or betoken activity elsewhere? Does it spell death, metaphoric or otherwise? Mind you, I have merely extended my customary weekend retreat from the blogosphere for a single day; and, such is the nature or curse of keeping a public journal—of being nobody to anyone—it may have gone virtually unnoticed. My absence, after all, is no more eloquent than your silence. It requires your presence to come into being.
The house is quiet once more. It resounds with absence. After a weekend of entertaining and sight-seeing, of silent film (with our house guest, Neil Brand, accompanying Buster Keaton’s Cops and The General at the local university’s Arts Center) and talks about radio drama in the still of a summer garden halfway up in the Welsh hills, I alone remained behind.
It is quiet, but never quite silent. There is the storm, rain lashing against the pane of the window, winds strong enough to make the walls of my room shiver. There were the shouts of “goal” on the television earlier today, as even I could not keep myself from having a peek at the World Cup goings-on. There were a few phone calls. There was a moment of reflection on the career of director Vincent The Damned Don’t Cry Sherman, who died last Sunday at the age of 99. And then there was my own voice, reading aloud the lines I have been writing. Yes, I have been writing.
As announced, I have begun anew to write a play. I decided upon a ghost story, a story of absence and presence—the very presence of absence. After looking at various scraps, jotted down ideas for radio plays, I kept in mind what I hinted at in my recent remarks about sound effects. I have used a problem in sound as the starting point for aural play. I won’t relate here and now just what the play is about, lest it should not come about after all if thus prematurely released. It will have to suffice that it features a disembodied voice, imagined sounds, and an improbable architecture. Echoes of that tower I mentioned previously.
In all this, the play is hardly experimental. It is a rather plain story; but one that insist on being told on the air, rather than any other medium. It aims at conveying a mood, at casting suspicion on the speakers, a shadow of doubt cast by the sounds and silence they make. Yes, they “make silence.” Too often we think of silence as being nothing, even though we insist on it being golden by virtue of its rarity. It is glorified as much as it is dreaded. It is a malevolent deity that renders us speechless by holding its tongue.
Now, in old-time radio, silence was anathema. It was not deemed golden enough to fill time on the air, time set aside to fill the coffers of the sponsors. It was dreaded, all right; but tunes and talk and sound effects trickery were let loose upon it to assure its sound defeat. As Charles Addams suggests in the above visualization of the shrieks, shots, and thuds—the sound and the fury—of 1940s radio thrillers, silence was rarely called upon to make that difference, to speak of promises or signal impending doom. It was talked to death and yet survived in my favorite chapter of Carlton E. Morse’s “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” a noisy serial thriller that confronted a soldier of fortune with a silent and invisible adversary (which I discussed here at length)). If a speaker confronts an uncertain someone without getting a response, does the silence mean the certain absence of the addressee? Or is it a mark of the listener’s defiance? The anarchy of the unseen unheard!
I am hoping to create such uncertainties in my play—a mystery that depends to some degree on the listener’s picking up of a prominently dangled clew. If it goes unnoticed, the revelation might yield a moment of surprise; if it is perceived by the audience before the character in the play catches on, there may come into being a prolonged thrill of suspense. Radio is the very medium for such turns of the screw.
Well, it can be cruel. It can be tempting and frustrating. It may be doing something for you—but it can also be your undoing. And just when you think you’ve caught up with and mastered it, it dashes off and kicks the dust of your futile endeavours straight into your bloodshot eyes. Technology, I mean—the vamp that demands constant revamping. As a blogger and tyro podcaster, I am not sure whether I reproduce myself by means of technology or whether I am myself the product of technology. These perhaps overly binary reflections were brought on, at least, by an encounter with Elbot (whose wit, I learned today, is inspired in part by an episode of the old-time radio thriller anthology Quiet Please). Apparently, even a supposedly outmoded medium like radio can continue to be regenerative. A consummate tease, radio enjoys being turned on by receptive minds.
Rather counting on that garrulous generatrix was Theda Bara, cinema’s original vamp, who, on this day, 8 June, in 1936, was media savvy enough to grab a microphone and announced to the world (or some western region of it) that she was back in business. Oh, but how that business had changed since the queen of silent melodrama last tempted audiences, anno 1926.
In Hollywood, a ten-year hiatus is a one-way ticket to oblivion. And when your metier is quite dead, a comeback is just about out of the question. Bara was nonetheless asking for a return engagement. She could count on an audience of millions—the “public” she was in hopes of recapturing—when she stepped inside the Lux Radio Theatre for a chat with motion picture director W. S. Van Dyke. “Woody” Van Dyke admitted to having “admired” Bara “from afar when she was doing such magnificent spectacles as Cleopatra” and he was “just an extra.” Considering that Van Dyke had the voice of a gruff senior, that must have sounded a lifetime ago even then.
Reminiscing about that role, Bara talked of the challenges of silent moviemaking. Yes, Hollywood entertainment had “developed amazingly” since Cleopatra was released in 1917; but film is an actor’s medium, and dedicated performers like herself could do and did much to turn nickelodeon thrills into cinematic art. Preparing for that role, Bara claimed to have worked for months with a curator of Egyptology at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Now that silent movies were treated like the ancient history she once studied, it may have been too late to excavate her own career.
Her bold announcement that she was “going to do some motion picture work” was followed by a more tentative explanation: “I am considering an offer now, running through scripts and ideas. Oh, I just hope everyone will be as happy about another Theda Bara picture as I am. The public has been very good to me in the past.” The public—good, bad or indifferent—never heard her emote on the screen thereafter.
Ms. Bara, as you may hear in my next podcast, had a charming voice, quite capable of delivering lines of sophisticated comedy. She would have done well on the air, even as the lines in her face might have argued against her reappearance in sizeable movie roles. Perhaps, producers were not willing to see the vamp in any other way. When confronted by the narrow minds of big business, dazzling technology has the tendency to turn into a mute siren. She isn’t tamed, mind you. She is just not turned on by the calculating kind.