A Christmas Carol (1938): A Classic Christmas Film For All

An article I wrote two years ago that I feel is worth sharing again during the festive season. I hope you enjoy it!

Silver Screen Classics

by Paul Batters

Christmas is one of these. I’ve always looked on Christmas as a good time, a kind, charitable, forgiving, pleasant time. It’s the only time when people open their hearts freely. The only time when men and women seem to realize that all human beings are really members of the same family. And that being members of the same family, they owe each other some measure of warmth and solace‘. Fred (Barry MacKay)

The festive season is one which offers a wonderful array of classic film to enjoy. It has become a staple (at least in our household) to enjoy these films again, as they not only revive the spirit of Christmas but allow us to re-think the year that has passed, give us the chance to reflect on the future and count our blessings in the meantime. Certainly, 2020 has been a year where we…

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Murder: The Ultimate Crime In Film Noir

by Paul Batters

‘How could I know that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’  Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) Double Indemnity (1944)

In any society, murder is the most horrendous crime. It is a betrayal of trust, goes against the concept of a safe and secure society and steals the greatest gift that any human has – life itself. As a result, society demands justice when murder is perpetrated and indeed, even vengeance for such a transgression. In a modern, ordered and civilised world, that justice is processed through a legal system. In film noir, murder is a normal part of its dark and twisted world. In film noir, business partnerships aren’t dissolved by being bought out or through a legal process. Lovers or spouses don’t break up or get sent a ‘Dear John’ letter. People cheated out of money don’t get a visit from the police or face a civil suit. Those who have transgressed in any way are not dealt with in the usual ways. In the world of film noir, all are dealt with using a .38.

In the pantheon of film noir, murder is an ever-present trope because it is the ultimate crime. The characters who walk the streets of the film noir universe know it is present and even expect it to come their way. Having written previously on Death As Redemption In Film Noir, there are those who even welcome murder as a reprieve from the pains and sufferings of the world, or in particular as justice for their own indiscretions and crimes. The aptly named The Killers (1946) is a perfect example of the ever-presence of murder as a trope in film noir. Murder is the key tool used by professional hitmen, with their initial target Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster), the key target. Interestingly, Anderson, after becoming aware that two professional hitmen are seeking him out, makes no attempt to escape or dodge his fate. He accepts what is going to come and acknowledges that his death is a form of redemption, and that murder is par for the course of a life of crime.

To describe murder in film noir as an occupational hazard, sounds like an understatement as well as a cliché. Yet it is not only an occupational hazard but a tool of the trade for the gangsters, hoodlums and killers that stalk the streets, occupy the cheap bars and hide in shadowy alleys in the world of film noir. The quintessential heist film and a sterling film which exemplifies this is John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Focused on a diamond robbery put together by ‘Doc’ Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), violence is an integral part of the preparation for the heist. Doc recognises that the need for a hoodlum willing to commit violence is as integral as a reliable wheelman and a top-notch safe cracker. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is the man they need and whilst not a killer, he is a man that will use violence where necessary. Complications with the heist and a double-cross from the heist’s financial backer, corrupt lawyer, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), sees that violence become a necessity. Whilst not strictly cold-blooded murder, Dix shoots and kills Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) during the double-cross. It is a situation where the threat of murder is part of the business bargaining and an underlying reality to the dealings in the criminal world.

The same threat of menace and danger which pre-empts murder and death is as present for those working the legal side of the fence. This is especially evident in Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947). The threat of murder is forever present as two U.S Treasury agents go undercover to infiltrate and bring down a counterfeit gang. In one particularly brutal scene, Moxy disposes of one of the gangsters by cooking him alive in a steam-room. It certainly gives new meaning to turning up the heat. With its brilliant use of deep black and stark lighting, the oppressive sense of violence is heightened and the sense of panic and terror likewise in the moments before death. To protect their business interests, murder is a powerful tool and one which in the world of film noir could be visited upon anyone. Likewise, the private detective, the knight in dented armour, is also more than aware that murder is a reality in his or her world. They certainly spend a great deal of their time investigating it and likewise avoiding it. The ‘gumshoe’ or ‘shamus’ walks a difficult line; they seek truth and justice yet are not part of the police. At times, they drift into illegalities and do not have the legal protections that are afforded the authorities. Indeed, they often annoy and irritate the authorities who see them as obstacles. As evident in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944), the dangers of murder are always around the corner. To avoid it, they work by their wits and experience.

But murder in film noir is not merely an occupational hazard, it becomes a way of solving problems and removing obstacles. In John Stahl’s brilliant Leave Her To Heaven (1945), writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) marries socialite Ellen (Gene Tierney). Her obsessive and jealous nature is at first passed off by Richard as simply a love that is too strong. However, Ellen looks for ways in which she can isolate Richard from anyone she sees as a threat, including his family. In one of the most horrific scenes on film, Ellen encourages Richard’s younger, crippled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) to swim deeper into the nearby lake, as she follows him in a rowboat. She watches as he struggles and lets him drown as he begs for help. Passed off as an accident, Ellen initially seems to have gotten away with murder and she has managed to remove what she deems to be an obstacle in her path to have all of Danny’s love and devotion. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Henry J. Stephenson (Burt Lancaster) arranges the murder of his wife Leona (Barbara Stanwyck) to pay off his debts to gangsters. Stephenson sees murder as the only way to solving his problems and getting out of the mess that he has created. Likewise, in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) sees murder as the only way to extricate himself and ‘get off the trolley car’, from the mess he has gotten himself into; ironically after himself committing murder for femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). He will finally realise that Phyllis intends to use murder to get rid of him as well. After all, he is not only a liability to her but he is no longer of any use to her.

Which brings us to the femme fatale, perhaps one of the most recognised characters in film noir. We’ve already had a brief look at two and it’s already noted that murder is a modus operandi for the femme fatale. Either they are murderers themselves or entice and seduce others to commit murder for them; whatever the reason. Two of the finest examples of the femme fatale are present in two films that this writer feels are two of the best example of film noir, particularly from the 1940s: Double Indemnity (1944) and Out Of The Past (1947). In Double Indemnity, the aforementioned Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a cold and despicable femme fatale. As Walter Neff discovers, Phyllis uses murder in numerous ways, either enticing others (like himself) to kill or to commit murder herself. In Out Of The Past (1947), Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) is likewise a cold and despicable woman, who betrays the men in her life. Murder is also an MO for Kathie, and she has no problem using murder to get her way, let alone throwing someone under the bus to save her skin. In. both cases, the fatal mistake that men make is that they fall in love (or lust, to be more cynical). Neff is dazzled at first sight and through a fatalist lens declares that he knew he would fall further for her. Indeed, Neff will suggest that he never knew ‘that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle’. The beauty, warmth and scent of the Spanish-style Dietrichson home on the outside hides the moribund, dusty and mundane interior. Phyllis, likewise, is beautiful on the outside but dead with corruption on the inside. Likewise, Jeff (Robert Mitchum) falls in love with Kathie and can understand why Whit (Kirk Douglas) does as well, even forgiving her double-crossing: ‘And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand’. It is the perfect line to describe the allure of the femme fatale, and how she can secure a man to commit murder for her.

As part of the audience, we all shake our heads in disbelief that these people would think that murder would get them out of trouble.  It’s easy to ask the question – what makes them think they will get away with it? Yet the answer is clear. They all think they can buck the system and that they will not get caught. No-one, including the audience after leaving the theatre (or in this new brave world, turning off the wide-screen smart TV) can say that they have not fantasised about beating the system, breaking a mundane and boring life or ached to fulfil a desire that we know we cannot fulfil. The difference of course is that in the real world, the audience (mostly) is driven by values, morals, ethics, laws, fears etc to keep the law and steer the course of ‘normal’, mundane lives. In film noir, the audience seems characters make an ‘existential choice’, as Robert Porfirio suggests where the mundane is rejected for authenticity and that means freedom embodied in ‘sex, money, power and the promise of adventure’. However, as the characters in film noir discover, the attainment of these things stepping into the darkness and that often means murder. After all, in the world of film noir, murder and death are the norms.

This article is a proud entry into the CMBA Fall 2022 Blogathon – Movies Are Murder. Please visit to read some fantastic articles from great writers on classic film. Please remember to like, share and leave your comments – it’s important to respect, honour and support the work!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Old Dark House (1932): A Classic Of Golden Age Horror

by Paul Batters

“Have some gin. It’s my only weakness.”– Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger)

A howling storm, the terror of the night and a decrepit and eerie mansion hiding in the shadows, with who knows what inside its ancient walls. Such is the stuff of nightmares, dark fairy tales and one of the silver screen’s most fascinating films from the classic horror cycle of the early 1930s. Based on J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel ‘Benighted’,  The Old Dark House, directed by the legendary James Whales in 1932, remains a fascinating and interesting film, not only because it’s a ‘classic horror’ film but particularly due to its eccentricities, dark humour and very talented and exceptional cast. 

Whilst not exactly ‘lost’, The Old Dark House would disappear for some years and be somewhat forgotten, with other films from the Universal canon of classic horror given greater attention and accolades. The film had mixed reviews upon its initial release and Universal saw no advantage in pushing it further. Indeed, the copyright would lapse with William Castle initiating a remake. Like other lost films, particularly in the horror genre, The Old Dark House did find itself elevated to near-legendary status as a lost classic and sought after by aficionados and cinephiles. The proliferation of monster magazines, the rediscovery of classic film on television in the 1950s and 1960s and the interest in Karloff himself certainly helped to raise interest. However, it took the work of James Whale protégé, Curtis Harrington, to rediscover the negative and have it printed. As a result, this gothic horror classic flickered on the screen once more. 

However, The Old Dark House is also an eccentricity from start to finish. It is a film where Whale’s unconventional sense of humour prevails (and this has been discussed at length ad nauseum). Yet it is worth nothing that it does not meet the expectations of a run-of-the-mill ‘horror film’. It traverses a range of themes and ideas, which one would not normally associate with horror. The audience discovers this from the opening scenes with a wild storm occurring in the Welsh hills. Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife, Margaret (Gloria Stuart) argue over the direction they are supposed to be taking as they drive through the howling darkness. In the back seat, seemingly unperturbed is the suave and debonair Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) whose humour and lack of concern seems to bother Margaret particularly. Behind Penderel’s quips, wit and relaxed demeanour, however, is a cynical ‘forgotten man’ from that ‘lost generation’ who returned from World War One. Whilst Penderel verbally parries and fences playfully with his friends, his disillusionment and cynicism is often revealed, at times by his own admission. Douglas is quite apt at giving layers to Penderel and such disillusionment would have been quite understood and familiar to audiences of the day – perhaps all too familiar with the ‘forgotten man’. Penderel is correct in describing himself as the ‘man with the twisted smile’. 

Of course, the story shifts into the bizarre when the storm-soaked threesome seek shelter in the Femm house. The large, looming house in the shadows of the storm seems gruesome enough but they are greeted at the door by a scarred and spine-chilling face, who turns out to be the butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff). The slow reveal of Morgan’s face is chilling and is suggestive of what is to come. The leering, brutish and grunting Morgan is strange enough until the travellers are greeted by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) whose skittish nervousness is coupled with a strange fondness for his ‘guests’. Far stranger is Horace’s God-fearing and salty sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), whose piercing cries of ‘they can’t have beds’ firmly suggests her attitude towards these interlopers. 

That our shelter-seeking travellers are in a strange and conflicted house becomes evident. The audience discovers early that the house is one deeply entrenched with religious fervour on the one hand and atheism on the other. Horace is terrified that the storm will wash away the house and his fears are mocked and condemned by Rebecca for his disbelief in God and blasphemies. Rebecca evidently is unafraid as the house is ‘built on rock’ and she has her unaffected faith in God. Rebecca is not an old and slightly deaf woman – she’s also a religious fanatic who is unhinged and holds great power.  When Horace orders Morgan to attend to the fire, he defers to Rebecca who gives him a quiet nod. Later when Horace mocks Rebecca’s giving thanks ‘to her gods’ before dinner, she silences him and he meekly sits with bowed head. Indeed, Horace himself introduces Rebecca as the head of the house. This God-fearing woman seems assured in her strength, exhibiting a silent power in the household. 

However, Rebecca’s religious fervour is underpinned by a complexity of layers. Rebecca’s frustration and deep running envies are revealed when she tells of her beautiful yet ‘godless’ sister who was chased by men and revelled in sin. Twisted and distorted images of Rebecca leave the audience even more uncomfortable yet they also reveal that the other side of Rebecca’s disapproval is a deeply hidden obsession.  As Margaret strips off her wet clothes, Rebecca comments on her ‘fine stuff’ which will ‘rot too, in time’. There is a bitterness that Rebecca’s own long-repressed sexuality has also been long dead and re-defined by condemning those who enjoy sex. Margaret’s slim, white body re-awakens Rebecca’s own desires, and provides fuel for her religious fanaticism and frustrations at the same time.

Yet this repression is evident in a house gone rotten with madness and it finds expression in bizarre and indeed criminal ways. Morgan’s intentions for Margaret are quite clear which later emerge when he is ‘quite drunk’. His attempts to rape her are only thwarted, firstly by the intervention of her husband and finally by the tragedy unfolding in the film’s climax. The Femm household is one barely held together and seems to be constantly at odds with itself.  Yet as Rebecca and later the feeble Sir Roderic Femm (played interestingly by ‘John Dudgeon’ aka Elspeth Dudgeon) declare, the house was one previously charged with sex and activity. It will also be Sir John who reveals that there is another Femm in the household who is the maddest and most dangerous of all, so much so that they need to lock him up which is why the Femms keep Morgan. The introduction of the eldest son, Saul (Brember Wills) will eventually shift the story into something more terrifying, as all we wants to do is destroy and kill. Saul, too, will use biblical allusions and his very name speaks volumes about his character as well.

Class, status and the challenges to both thematically emerge in the film; all of which are looked at in great depth in Priestley’s book. The Femm household itself is from landed gentry but one fallen into decrepit near-collapse – perhaps a symbol of the old world of landowners and nobility finally seeing its demise. In its place has emerged a new, modern world born out of the industrial revolution and run by a new, ambitious business class. The loud, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) has bought his title, yet does not (nor cannot) hide his origins nor his bitterness towards the upper class who still look down their noses at him. He cannot hide his thick Yorkshire accent nor does he have the manners and upbringing to match his bought title. Likewise Gladys (Lillian Bond) is a chorus girl, who as Sir William’s ‘companion’ is obviously with him for survival not for love. Horace Femm sniffs at the irony of her comments on taste and Rebecca Femm casts an equally dismal eye on Gladys. Yet she is honest and without airs, which Penderel admires and which will eventually see him fall for her. The middle-class Wavertons are also in this mix, which in total makes for a film with great focus on character. 

All are caught in this strange and dismal house with far darker secrets existing upstairs;  so dark that Horace does not want to venture upstairs. He finds all manner of excuses to avoid getting a lamp when the lights go out. He ends up locking himself in his room, leaving all the guests to their own fate. Even Rebecca fears what is upstairs, which is why they keep Morgan there as protection. Yet Morgan becomes as much a danger when he gets drunk and therefore out of control – and Rebecca cannot control him in his drunken state. Like her brother Horace, Rebecca locks herself in her room, after the warning she gives to the women goes unheeded. Without any of the Femms present and Morgan drunk and out of control, the house has become a dangerous place. Morgan will go even further and unlock the door at the top of the last flight of stairs, releasing the eldest brother, Saul. Saul’s arrival in the plot arrives after a slow build up of tension and from this point the suspense starts to take hold and the secrets of the old, dark house are revealed. 

As previously mentioned, The Old Dark House is an odd film for a ‘horror film’. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, with a wild storm, a strange household steeped in madness and a chilling figure in the shape of Morgan. One feels the slow-burn while watching the first half of the film, and even amused at the dinner scene, where the audience experiences more of the aforementioned eccentricities of Whale’s humour. Indeed, the after dinner gathering around the fireplace allows the audience to discover more about the characters as well. As Kevin Maher points out, it feels like a drawing room farce. But despite all this, there are still plenty of frights for the guests in the benighted household and even some fairly shocking violence such as Phillips Waverton’s use of a lamp to stop Morgan assaulting his wife. The film drifts into the bizarre with the strange meeting with the terribly old Sir John in his bed and of course the climax of the film which sees Saul let loose on the guests. 

The film is well-shot and Arthur Edeson’s camera work helps create the spooky atmosphere. The clever use of light and shadow, as well as distorted images and strange cross-cutting induces the fear and confusion of being in such a strange house. It’s not strictly a ‘haunted old house’ story but there are one or two stylistic throwbacks to Universal’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) such as the long corridor with open windows and billowing curtains or even the plot device of a lunatic let loose in the house. The use of diegetic sound such as the howling wind, the thunder and the rain is also effective in adding to the spooky atmosphere. The casting works and the contrast between the Femms and their guests is quite marked. Whale’s choice for a near-full British cast is interesting and according to Gloria Stuart saw some preferential treatment from Whale towards the British expats. Stuart stated that Whale always provided tea and crumpets for morning and afternoon tea but only the British cast was invited. Stuart and Melvyn Douglas were left to themselves but it did mean a friendship was born out of their isolation. 

Karloff’s casting came soon after his legendary and career-breaking role as It is well-known that Whale was cold towards Karloff and this was evident on the set of The Old Dark House  according to Stuart who reported Whale calling him an ‘old truck-driver’. Karloff, of course, was always kind and courteous and gave his best in his strange role as the silent, lumbering butler. Karloff’s particularly emotional moment after the climax is particularly poignant, if not in complete contrast to the rest of his performance. It uncannily harkens to Ilya Repin’s 1851 painting of Ivan The Terrible And His Son with great effect. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian feels that the film is delivered with tremendous gusto and theatrical dash, and this review couldn’t agree more.
Despite an unevenness in the story, The Old Dark House is still worth watching and works as a chiller. It has suffered from some poor prints but the digital clean-up finally offers a superior opportunity to enjoy the film. There are quite a number of ‘old dark house’ films out there from the minor and Poverty Row studios which seek to mimic what happens in Whale’s film but they remain distant and forgettable in comparison.  The Old Dark House remains worthy of the canon of film from the 1931 – 1935  golden age of classic horror. It has none of the supernatural elements that are present in Dracula, Frankenstein or The Mummy. Nor does it have the shape-shifting characteristics of The Invisible Man or Dr. Jekyll And Mr Hyde. However, it combines Gothic tropes with the eccentricity, humour and originality of James Whale, as well as a beautifully shot film with performances from a top notch cast. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and you’ll find yourself caught in the same predicament as the wary travellers stuck with a family of mad people in an old, dark house on a wild, stormy night.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Classic Horror Films We Know and Love – Sharing The Experience

by Paul Batters

It’s mid-October and we’re hopefully all enjoying classic horror film month, revisiting old favourites and discovering new ones. The call-out went for writers, bloggers and classic film fans to share their experience of the first classic horror film that they remember seeing. I can’t thank enough those who have taken part and I hope you will find their entries to be interesting and inspiring.

I will keep adding to this post , so you may want to resvisit to see the updated article.

So grab a coffee (or something stronger if you prefer) and enjoy the classic horror films that we know and love.

Theresa Brown – blogger at Cinemaven’s Essay On The Couch and TCM Ambassador

Link: The Mummy…has Vertigo?

Theresa went the extra mile and wrote a fascinating article on The Mummy (1932) but with a brilliant twist. Far be it for me to reveal more, so please visit Theresa’s page to read her work!

Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

The Medusa Touch (1978)

When it comes to classic horror films I’m a 1970s kid at heart. Give me The Medusa Touch (1978) over any new horror film any day. Not only was it one of the first horror films I’ve ever seen and lovef but it is at times the most unintentionally amusing…

This film was one of many movies in the seventies which centered on the supernatural. It has a powerful performance from Richard Burton in the lead and I would argue a role he was born for.

 It tells the story of John Morlar, a man haunted by his deadly gift for telekinesis. It also stars Lee Remick as a psychiatrist who aims to help him… As Morlar reminiscences about those people he’s killed including his parents, his nanny and more… and with more chilling scenes seen as he shows this psychiatrist his deadly talents…

There are treats for all Burton fans with both monologues and flowery speeches from Burton These are delivered in the way only he can so if you want to see Burton in a seventies horror, throw Exorcist II The Heretic (1977) to the side, and watch his moving performance…

Sean Batman, author of Sons Of The Shire and the upcoming Retro Ray

Psycho (1960)

In the dimly lit one-bedroom apartment, I am white-knuckled, clutching at a recently knit crochet blanket. I have in moments considered pulling it over my eyes, especially as the knife plummets down again and again into a woman in the shower. But strangely, in those same moments, I cannot tear my eyes away. And that is the power of the film playing on the small television… 

This was a ritual of sorts. My parents would drop my younger sister and me with my Grandmother, who was by far the greatest babysitter I ever had. Nan would feed us lollies and ice-cream and then she would put on Bill Collins and we would watch a classic film. Tonight’s screening was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I was nine years old. Having watched the Universal Monster movies and some Hammer Horror films, I felt certain that anything black and white would be easy viewing. I was wrong. The slow-burn narrative, the ominous soundtrack, the old house on the hill and Nan’s frequent whispers about Hitchcock’s cinematography were life-changing. I’d never seen a film like it and only years later, watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, would I feel the same sense of dread. 

Still to this day, my memories of the apartment, doused in shadows and light, the unnerving plot twist – Norman Bates – both Mother and Son, smirking, knowing he will stay with me forever. 

Jeffrey Jiraffe Simons – On Twitter @math4humans

Alien (1979)

My parents divorced when I was very young. My mom met my stepfather when I was 8. They went on a weekend getaway, so all the kids were given to family or neighbors for the weekend. My neighbor worked at the local drive-in and she sat me in the cab of her truck parked next to the concession stand and said, “Lock the doors, come get me if you have any problem”.

The movie? Alien. I was barely 10. Talk about trauma lol but here is what I remember vividly.

I was both horrified and paralyzed with fear, but utterly fascinated and engrossed with the plot, the tension, and the characters. Great introduction to my lifelong love of the horror genre and I didn’t leave that truck once. I was almost literally glued to my seat.

Robert Short – Writer & contributor to the Warner Bros – First National Pictures 1923 – 1960 FB Page

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE BEST KIND – My Initial Experience with Horror: Dracula (1931)

“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”

With the passing of so many years, more than fifty in fact, it has become more and more difficult for me to recall precisely when my love and adoration of classic films in general, and classic horror films in particular, sprang forth; my fascination with the cinema of yesteryear must have grown silently and subtly within me.  While I had undoubtedly watched my beloved “old movies” whenever I began watching television, by the age of twelve my love for them had certainly become a conscious element in my life.

I initially gained familiarity with the classic Universal horror films through reading about them; during the late 1960’s, such movies as Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman were relegated, at least in my viewing area in southern Ontario, to that venerable, and now long-gone, institution, the television late show, which I was not permitted to watch.  I certainly recall the envy I felt in Grade 8 towards my school friends who were allowed to stay up and enjoy them.

My “maiden opportunity”, as it were, to actually watch one of these longed-for classic treasures finally manifested on a summer afternoon in 1969, during my school vacation between Grade 8 and Grade 9; an afternoon television showing of Dracula became my raisin d’être.  From the musical strains of Swan Lake, underscoring the opening credits to the final title card reading “The End” I was transfixed; whereas an objective viewing of the film may bring forth observations of the artificiality of the dialogue and the overall staginess of the production, I was, on the contrary, absorbed and transfixed by the overall story, the eerie, otherworldly atmosphere, the sinister presence of Bela Lugosi.  As our current wondrous technology, which can restore a ninety-year-old film to its original shimmering lustre, did not exist in my youth, old movies broadcast on television in the 1960’s showed their age, and to a thirteen-year-old any person or object thirty or more years old truly seemed ancient; sourced at that time from cheap, inferior 16mm print-downs prepared in rental packages for television airings, the  films of this vintage contained their share of visual flaws, missing frames, and audio hiss.  Yet, rather than serving as a detraction, these blemishes only enhanced my viewing experience of Dracula; the scratches, faded segments, and audio drop-outs appeared appropriate, given the age of the movie.  The joy of watching  my first classic horror feature simply transcended all physical imperfections.           

My entry – Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1973)

Whilst the Universal horror films always had my attention and imagination through childhood, it was a Hammer film that I remember as my earliest experience with horror. Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1974) was also the last of the Hammer Frankenstein series, with the late Peter Cushing (unwell at the time) reprising the Baron for the last time as well.

As with many childhood experiences, this was one which my parents would not have allowed under normal circumstances. However, an aunt was babysitting so my parents could attend a wedding and I enjoyed the luxury of staying up late to see the film. I can still remember being horrified and aghast at the large jar of eyes (with one actually moving in the jar!). Peter Cushing’s Baron was cold and controlling and his manner exuded confidence and authority. However, I still remember the terror of seeing the ape-like and hulking monster that never left me. The contrast of this horrific aberation holding a violin escaped me at the time yet still affected me; likewise the mute girl Sarah who I felt terribly afraid for.

That night (and many more after) I was certain that the monster was coming down the hallway for me. I could sense that it was there ready to lunge at me. It took a lot of convincing from my mother that there was nothing there. I’m also pretty sure that my mother had an argument with my aunt for letting me watch it. To my aunt’s credit, as well as my grandmother and my mother, I would actually enjoy many more late night films as a child – which is why I’m here now, in a love affair with classic film that will never come to an end.

Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell is not a masterpiece but it’s a better film than the title suggests. It’s Hammer in all its colourful Gothic gore. And I will always have a place for it in my memories, as that first horror film that scared the heck out of me.

Amanda Schulze – Creative Writer @aschulze2001

My first classic horror film was The Blob (1958). It was on during the day – I was around 10 years old – and I sat on the floor inches from the TV screen and watched the gooey slime swallow everything in its path. My favorite part was when the blob squeezed through the air vents in the theater. Though it wasn’t fast, it kept getting bigger and nothing was able to stop it. I loved it!

Rebecca Deniston – Writer and blogger at Taking Up Room

I have never been a huge fan of horror, although it’s been kinda growing on me lately (Anyone else like “The Conjuring” series?). Slashers still aren’t my thing, though. Anyway, back in high school and junior high I wouldn’t watch horror films at all, probably because I didn’t want to repeat the experience I had with “The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb,” a TV movie which left me curled up on the couch, afraid to move but unable to look away. When I saw “Dracula” at the video store as a high school sophomore, though, curiosity got the better of me. My mom has never been a fan of horror, either, but she humored me because she had seen it on TV as a high-schooler in the nineteen-fifties. When we watched the film that night, it was a revelation. I didn’t feel scared so much as drawn in and curious, led along by Bela Lugosi, a man who created what we think of today as vampires. I didn’t know at the time how groundbreaking his portrayal really was; all I could think about was this character with the halting delivery, the elegant bearing and the hypnotic, piercing eyes. While it didn’t make me a horror fan, it changed my view of the genre completely, and on occasion I’m still drawn to visit with Mr. Lugosi in his iconic role.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Classic Horror Films We Know And Love: A Celebration Of Classic Horror Month

by Paul Batters

October brings a favourite time for film fans – it is Classic Horror Month. That means cinephiles and film fans watch a range of horror films (the good and the terrible), scary television and of course read those chilling tales – all which send shivers down spines and allow the imagination to run wild.

I ran something similar two years ago and thought I would try again. It’s not a strict blogathon and so asking for a short answer to the question below. It’s also a chance to honour the many great bloggers and writers out there by asking the following:

In 150 – 200 words, what was the first classic horror film that you can remember seeing?

It could be that first horror film that left a lasting impression, rather than the very first one you remember seeing. The good news is that there are no limitations to write about as there are so many to choose from. Keeping a short word limit should hopefully make it an easier task as well.

The aim is to have everyone’s entries for the mid weekend of October. That also gives a full two weeks to write. It also means a fun lead-up to Halloween where we can all be inspired by fellow writers and bloggers.

Please include the following in your entry:

  • your name and the name of your blog/website/social media page or Twitter handle
  • the name of your film and your 150-200 words

You can send your entry to me in the following ways:

  • send direct to me via the blog
  • email to silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com
  • send to my Twitter account: Paul Batters@PaulBee71

If you’re looking for ideas or wondering what an entry should look like, please click on the following link to see entries from the last time I ran this in 2020: The Classic Horror Films We Love – A Collection Of Favourites

Hope you will take part and share your memories of those chillers, thrillers and blood-spillers that still leave the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. Please don’t forget to share this – it’s an invitation for everyone.

Thank you and enjoy Classic Horror Month!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2022 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon – It’s A Wrap

Here are the entries for the 2022 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon! A huge thank you to those who contributed. There’s some wonderful reading to enjoy and some great insights into films you may have seen or perhaps yet to enjoy.

There aren’t many entries but please enjoy them!

Ulysses (1954)Films From Beyond The Barrier

The Trial (1962)The Stop Button

Carrie (1952) – Moon In Gemini

War Of The Worlds Taking Up Room

King’s Row (1942) – Silver Screen Classics

The Cinematic Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Critica Retro

The Day Of The Locust (1975) – Cinematic Catharsis

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2022 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

It’s been a long time (perhaps too long) since I’ve been here. It can be difficult to stay motivated and for those writers who keep going, I take my hat off to you. To find the spark to get back on track writing about classic film, I am very pleased and excited to announce my third hosting of the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon. I hope you will be interested in taking part or at least read the entries.

Classic novels and plays have provided cinema with some of the greatest stories of all time. They are part of the fabric of culture and have been powerful in helping us to understand ourselves. Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have mined the richness of classic tales for the silver screen. Some of our most beloved films have been based on the works of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, to name a few. Indeed, many classic novels have been produced on the silver screen many times. 

So, the main focus of the blogathon is to celebrate, examine, critique and review those films that have been based on classic literature! 

As already mentioned, the concept of ‘classic literature’ reflects what has been traditionally considered by scholars as those books and plays which have had a considerable impact on the development of literature. They have set the standards for and established certain genres and have given us some of the most recognised stories and characters.  Of course, there are modern classics of literature as well and these should also be considered. So this blogathon aims to keep the focus within those boundaries – but of course that leaves everyone plenty of options!

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.

2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.

3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all periods will be happily accepted. 

4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.

5. The blogathon will take place between September 23rd and 25th, 2022. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts.  

6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

 – please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover

 – or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover. 

– contact me through Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulBee71

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Looking forward to seeing you in September!

The Bustles And Bonnets Costume Blogathon: It’s A Wrap!

The first Bustles And Bonnets Costume Blogathon has come to an end and there are some fantastic articles to read. It’s been an honour to co-host with one of my favourite film bloggers, Gabriela, at Pale Writer, who came up the idea and kindly asked me to co-host. Thank you so much, Gabriela!

For a complete list of all the entries, click on the link – Bustles And Bonnets Costume Blogathon – and it will take you to a list of great articles. There are still some on the way, so please check in later to see them.

A huge thank you to all the wonderful bloggers who took part. I’m looking forward to sitting down to relax and read all the great entries. I know Gabriela will be doing the same.

Please remember to like and share the work of these great bloggers, as a great deal of time and effort has gone into their writing.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Bustles And Bonnets Costume Blogathon Is Here!

The wonderful Gabriela at Pale Writer and myself are thrilled to see the start of this weekend’s Bustles And Bonnets Costume Blogathon. The anticipation has been building and already some amazing entries have come through. Both Gabriela and I will post the entries and we hope you find them interesting, entertaining and that they draw you to see those films; either for the first time or a re-visit with a whole new perspective.

If by chance, you’re a latecomer and would like to take part, please don’t be shy! Let either Gabriela or myself know and we will add you in. You can do so by by either commenting on this post, Gabriela’s post or leaving a reply on my contact page, or contacting me on twitter Paul@PaulBee71 or Gabriela at @noir_or_never . Please include the name of your blog and a link to it, as we don’t really want to act as amateur sleuths and hunt for you! Please tag Gabriela or myself on twitter when you share your entry on there, so we can retweet it.

Likewise, if your entry is a little late, again don’t let that deter you and just let us know – we can always add you in later. We understand how busy life can be!

Here’s our list of participants again and over the next two days the links for all entries will be updated here for you.

List of Participants

Pale Writer: Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Silver Screen Classics: Marie Antoinette (1938)

Taking Up RoomLights Of Old Broadway (1925)

Realweegiemidget ReviewsMrs Soffel (1984)

Whimsically ClassicThe Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Silver ScreeningsThe Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Fletch TalksExcalibur (1981)

Cinematic Scribblings: Howard’s End (1992)

Charity’s Place: Jane Eyre (2006)Nightmare Alley (2021) and Last Night in Soho (2021) (TBC)

Brittany BThe Toy Wife (1938)

The Stop ButtonThe Desert of the Tartars (1976)

18 CinemalaneCyrano de Bergerac (1950)

The Classic Movie Muse: Jupiter’s Darling (1955)

Cinemaven: Belle (2013)

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Announcing The Bustles and Bonnets: Costume Blogathon

It’s an absolute pleasure to announce the first Bustles And Bonnets: Costume Blogathon. I am proud to be co-hosting with the wonderful Gabriela from Pale Writer, who originated this fascinating idea for a blogathon that celebrates the costume drama and the sumptuous design that accompanies great stories. Of course, the use of costume is more than just dress and design; it establishes context, delivers deeper thematic concerns and enhances character. For these reasons and more, Gabriela and I sincerely hope that you will join in and contribute.

Here are the rules for the Blogathon:

1. There have been hundreds of costume films and television series made. Because of this, we will be allowing NO duplicates, and only three posts per participant. Please only submit new work, as we won’t be accepting any posts written previously.

2. You can write about any kind of Costume film you like. Whether it be a comedy, drama or musical. However, the film must be set any time from Before the Current Era to the 1960s. So films that are set in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s or 2020s do not count. It is a costume film Blogathon after all!

3. This blogathon is dedicated to costume films and we want to celebrate them, so let’s please keep things nice and not write anything derogatory or defamatory about these types of films.

4. The Blogathon is being held from the 19th to the 20th of March, 2022. Please submit your entries either before or by those dates. If you find that you need a little extension, please let either Gabriela or myself know.

5. Please take one of the banners and put it somewhere on your site to promote the blogathon. We’d also very much appreciate it if you included one of the banners in your post for the blogathon.

6. And most importantly, please let us know what you would like to write about for the blogathon, by either commenting on this post, Gabriela’s post or leaving a reply on my contact page, or contacting me on twitter Paul@PaulBee71 or Gabriela at @noir_or_never or Please include the name of your blog and a link to it, as we don’t really want to act as amateur sleuths and hunt for you! Please tag Gabriela or myself on twitter when you share your entry on there, so we can retweet it .

List of Participants

Pale Writer: Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Silver Screen Classics: Marie Antoinette (1938)

Taking Up Room: Lights Of Old Broadway (1925)

Realweegiemidget Reviews: Mrs Stoffel (1984)

Whimsically Classic: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Silver Screenings: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

Fletch Talks: Excalibur (1981)

Cinematic Scribblings: Howard’s End (1992)

Charity’s Place: Jane Eyre (2006), Nightmare Alley (2021) and Last Night in Soho (2021) (TBC)

Brittany B: The Toy Wife (1938)

The Stop Button: The Desert of the Tartars (1976)

18 Cinemalane: Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

The Classic Movie Muse: Jupiter’s Darling (1955)

Cinemaven: Belle (2013)

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938): A Review

by Paul Batters

There are some films which we watch many times over. The excitement as the studio logo emerges on the screen and the opening titles begin to roll is palpable. The fact that we know what the plot twists are, how the characters will fare and what the ending will be is besides the point. Indeed, knowing that certain moments are coming gets us excited, nervous, afraid or angered – it’s all part of the journey that we’ve experienced and get to enjoy again. There’s every chance that we’ll discover something new along the way as well. After all, film is a powerful emotional experience. In some cases, there are films which are simply a joy to watch for the ‘umpteenth time’. For me, it’s one of the greatest films of the classic era; The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938).

The Warner Bros. masterpiece is a testimony to why the studio system worked and brings together all the best elements of what is termed the classic era of film-making. It’s spectacular in its’ grandeur and the audience takes a roller-coaster ride into adventure, romance and some of the greatest actions scenes ever put to the screen. The tale of the former Saxon lord turned rogue outlaw under Norman rule goes back hundreds of years and of course the 1938 version was not the first and was not the last. But there’s no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that it is the best.

Prior to Warner Bros. wanting to remake the film, the 1922 version with Douglas Fairbanks Snr was considered the quintessential version. It seemed impossible that anyone could usurp Fairbanks as Robin Hood, who in the public mind was the embodiment of the legendary literary character. Interestingly, Fairbanks had thought ahead and wanted to assure this would be the case, copywriting his script and the key concepts behind the character. As David Bret points out, Fairbanks was so determined to be original that he ignored much of the traditional ballads, allowing the scriptwriters Norman Reilly Raine, Seton Miller and Rowland Leigh plenty of material to work with and avoid copyright problems. As a result, the legendary tales from the original ballads are brought to life and remain the best shown on film. The screenplay is tight and the dialogue perfect for the action. No scene is wasted.

It’s impossible to imagine James Cagney in the role; yet he was slated for the role and arguably would have remained so if he had not walked out on his contract. As much as this reviewer is a fan of Cagney, it is fair to say this would have been disastrous casting. In fairness to Warner Bros. there were constant headaches and dramas caused by the newly cast star but without Errol Flynn, the picture would not have been the massive hit that it would become. There would be other problems on the film as well. Director Michael Curtiz replaced William Keighley who was removed from the film for several possible reasons). The relationship between Curtiz and Flynn was complex and difficult. Yet they collaborated on 12 films. Curtiz was undoubtedly the top director at Warners and knew his business, and it is evident in the tight pacing of the film.

At the time of the film’s release, Warner Bros. poured serious money into production (eventually pushing past the $2 million mark), with the vision of a film that would surpass anything that Hollywood had ever seen. They wanted everyone to know it and even the famous logo is redesigned as a hallmark to the milestone status of the film. Hal B. Wallis’ production unit would end up crafting a masterpiece that still stands as a template for masterpiece film-making. As Roger Ebert stated, ‘it is a triumph of the studio system’.

The casting is superb and again shows how the studio system had perfected the art of using its wide talent base. As a result, it doesn’t just sit on the shoulders of its stars which means every scene has a richness of its own, even if Errol Flynn isn’t in it. And when Flynn is present, each player compliments the other through their performances. If Errol Flynn has become the popular incarnation of Robin Hood, look at the rest of the cast. Olivia de Havilland is wonderful as Maid Marian and the band of Merrie Men; Little John (Alan Hale), Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) are merry. Claude Rains is a perfect Prince John and the ever-dependable Basil Rathbone shines as Robin’s nemesis, Sir Guy of Gisborne.


The huge budget is evident in the lush settings, beautiful costumes and of course, the action, drama and romance is heightened by the rousing and beautiful score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. For me, it is this amazing technical achievement and use of brilliant Technicolor which is impressive. Whilst colour had been available for some time, the three-strip process meant deep saturation achieved through complex lighting and very expensive cameras. Cinematographers Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio certainly knew their business and would have utilised the Technicolor experts who knew how to combine colour, contrast it and achieve the best results on film. The depth, warmth and beautiful palate of colour is breath-taking. Have a look at the archery tournament; it’s a stunning example of how the key elements all come together:

Of course, it is about Robin Hood and Errol Flynn was never better. It speaks volumes for the intuition of Hal B.Wallis to cast Flynn when Cagney walked out of the studio. Watching Flynn on screen as the legendary outlaw is watching a masterclass of natural acting. There’s an infectious energy that emanates from Flynn and he combines the devil-may-care attitude and sense of justice of the literary character with an overwhelming sense of fun, adventure and excitement. Flynn is Robin Hood. Make no mistake though, Flynn brings a beautiful range of emotion in channelling the outlaw. Note his casual contempt for Prince John at the banquet, as well as the wit and fearlessness he shows as he struts into the lion’s den. He laughs in the face of danger whilst fighting for his friends and the oppressed people of England with deathly seriousness. His love for Maid Marian is as gentle as he is strong whilst admiration for her spirit. And when he fights with sword in hand, the action is outstanding:

What stands tall with The Adventures Of Robin Hood is that it is the perfect balance of action, adventure and drama with the moral standpoint of our hero. These men are not just a band of men on a lark, carousing and causing problems for their Norman lords. The struggle is very real, made evident when Robin shows Marian the suffering of the Saxons and the montage sequence showing the brutality and cruelty meted out. Robin shows no fear in telling Prince John to his face that he plans rebellion but that his hatred is for oppression not the Normans. Underlying the film is the essence of the legend itself; the importance of fighting against tyranny and protecting those unable to defend themselves in that fight. Is this a lesson that has ever become redundant?

Time Out made the following comment in its assessment of the film:

‘One of the few great adventure movies that you can pretend you are treating the kids to when you are really treating yourself’.

It’s how I have felt about The Adventures Of Robin Hood since I first saw it as a child and it remains an absolute treat, no matter how many times I have watched it. It will always remain so for me and I hope I get the chance to treat my grandchildren someday while treating myself again.

This article is a proud submission for For The Umpteenth Time Blogathon hosted by Therese Brown at CineMaven’s Essays On The Couch. Please visit there to read all the other great articles for this blogathon.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

A Patch Of Blue (1965): Overcoming Adversity And Despair

As we remember the great Sidney Poitier, I thought it worthwhile re-blogging this article on A Patch Of Blue. There are other films starring the great actor – some of far greater importance, depth and nuance – but Poitier’s performance in A Patch Of Blue exhibits his range, emotional content and delivery that illustrates his professionalism as well as his great talent.

Thank you Sidney Poitier for your wonderful presence not only on film but in life, and the richness you gave us all with your beautiful presence.

Silver Screen Classics

by Paul Batters

patch-1280Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.

Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker…

View original post 1,802 more words

Louis Calhern: The Consummate Character Actor

by Paul Batters

Audiences usually honour and fawn over a film’s major stars, which is understandable, particularly during the golden years of the studio system. Production was shaped around those stars with direction, camera angles and lighting shaped around what best accentuated the talents (or limits) of the film’s star or stars. Even the right director often needed to be picked. 

Most importantly, the supporting cast must be superb. They will lift the tone of a film and the work of the director, and of course assist the performances of the film’s stars. What they bring to the screen can often go un-noticed but it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the work of great supporting actors and actresses. Without them, a film is incomplete.

For these reasons and more, Louis Calhern must be recognised as one of the finest actors of the classic period. What made him special was his adaptability as well as his gifts of presence, subtlety and voice. The tall and urbane actor could use a glance or small hand gesture to convey more than anticipated and add further meaning to a particular scene. The Brooklyn-born Calhern is perhaps best known for his later work post-WW2 but there is a fair body of work from the silent era onwards, as well as the stage. 

This article will look at a cross-section of his finest performances on the silver screen.

Ambassador Trentino – Duck Soup (1933)

Comedy is a tough gig. Playing straight in a comedy is arguably tougher and when you’re working with the likes of the Marx Brothers, you need to be really good. Calhern plays Trentino, the Ambassador of Sylvania who has designs on Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). However, his real goal is to make war with Freedonia and take the country over himself. This madcap satire sees Calhern work smoothly as he is tormented at first by Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), who he has hired as spies. The scene in his office is hilarious and he weaves between the antics of Chico and Harpo, giving them room to enact their anarchy. Likewise, his timing is perfect when he’s up against Groucho as the Freedonian leader, who delivers his legendary rapid-fire quips and insults with aplomb. What makes Calhern’s performance memorable is his physicality in the delivery of faux shock to Groucho’s insults and how it adds to the impact of the interactions. The Marx Brothers are always going to own any area they are standing in but like the indomitable Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern gets what needs to be done and does so with the talent and reaction of a true artist.

Captain Paul Prescott – Notorious (1946)

Hitchcock’s superb masterpiece is rightfully remembered for the perfect pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. However, it’s easy to overlook the importance of Calhern as Cary Grant’s secret service boss. Again, Calhern provides the role with a suave and controlled presence befitting a man who has had long experience in espionage. The delicate air of confidence is a fine counter to the tension of the job at hand and what Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) are dealing with. Elegant and distinguished, Prescott is a man whose wide experience shows during the planning scenes. He has confidence in his abilities as well as the job at hand. There are moments which show that he too can be surprised but still maintains control. Despite the professional and measured control that Prescott displays, Calhern still uses brilliant subtlety to convey his concerns and understanding for Devlin and Alicia. Watch the scene at the Bureau where Alicia reveals that Sebastian (Claude Rains) wants to marry her. Devlin can barely contain himself and with a slight glance, Prescott shows he more than understands what the implications are. In the midst of it all, Calhern provides the ballast which keeps everything from tipping over.  It’s a testimony to his skill.

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes – The Magnificent Yankee (1950)

It would be a starring role for Calhern, which saw him deliver on film what he had already done on the stage. The famous and respected Supreme Court Justice is played with Calhern’s usual poise but also with a touching humanity. The film is not a strict biopic and the film is relatively ‘safe’ as well as not particularly remarkable in terms of what it shows about Holmes’ life. But Calhern shows the scope of what he could do and whilst not doing particularly well at the box office, it was appreciated by the critics with Calhern’s performance garnering him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. For one whose reputation was one of a highly skilled supporting actor, this accolade was quite an accomplishment. 

Alonzo D. Emmerich – The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

As the slippery, crooked lawyer, Calhern gave his greatest performance in a role that has few if any redeeming features. Emmerich is a thoroughly unsympathetic character, keeping a much younger girl, Angela (Marilyn Monroe) in an apartment for his pleasure while his unwell wife stays in bed at home hoping for his attentions. He double-crosses those around him and his cowardice disgusts Dix (Sterling Hayden). Calhern delivers Emmerich as a weak and morally corrupt man, with the façade of propriety. But as his plans unravel and the heist goes wrong, his desperation takes over. As the law finally catches up with him, he resigns himself to his fate. Here, Calhern is superb as the pressures of trying to get out from under are cast aside. As he writes a final note to his wife, there is a moment where Emmerich actually feels something for his wife, but it’s not enough to salvage anything. In one facial expression, Calhern wears the complexity of emotions on a mask of resignation right before he takes his own life. Calhern plays a man who may be corrupt, immoral and crooked but he is playing a man whose flaws and weaknesses have consumed him, and he does so with absolute brilliance. He also delivers one of the greatest lines in film noir: ‘Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour’. 

Special Mentions

Julius Caesar (1953) is today best remembered for Marlon Brando playing Mark Antony. The cast was also impressive with the likes of Sir John Gielgud, James Mason, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. Despite the title, the original play (which is faithfully represented in the film) focuses on the interplay and dilemma faced by Brutus, along with Cassius and Mark Antony. Yet Calhern deserves to be praised for his turn as the Roman dictator and uses his presence well to deliver a credible lesson in how power can be abused.

The Blackboard Jungle (1956) still maintains a raw energy and was controversial on its’ release. As the deeply cynical Jim Murdock, Calhern delivers a teacher who has lost not only his energy but filled it with contempt for the education system. Long lost is the belief that he can make a difference and he scoffs at the attempts of Dadier (Glenn Ford) to do so. Watch Calhern’s response to Ford’s attack on his cynicism. There’s no anger or resentful reprimand and his measured and calm reply suggests he’s heard it all before delivering a ‘get him’ gesture that says everything. Yet even he will later change and encourage Dadier, realising that he was wrong.

Louis Calhern was the consummate professional, able to use his wonderful skills across an array of interesting and varied roles. Other wonderful films he appeared in include Blonde Crazy (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, 20,000 Years In Sing Sing (1932) with Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, The Count Of Monte Cristo (1934) with Robert Donat and Executive Suite (1954) with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. He even did a musical in Annie Get Your Gun (1950) as Buffalo Bill. Undoubtedly, you will have seen him in many more films.

Louis Calhern was not a star but he was the consummate character actor on whose shoulders stars relied on. His magnetism and professionalism are more than evident every time he appears on the screen and his presence made every film he appeared in a better film. For these reasons, Louis Calhern deserves to be honoured.

This article is an entry into the 10th Annual Oh! What A Character Blogathon that has been kindly hosted by Outspoken And Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club and Once Upon A Screen. Please visit to see all the other entries and take time to see their fantastic blogs as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Duck Soup (1933): Classic Cinema’s Great Political Satire

by Paul Batters

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.” Groucho Marx

Of all the films that the Marx Brothers made, Duck Soup is the one that usually ends up at the top of the list as their best. True, it often competes with A Night At The Opera (1935) which took MGM genius Irving Thalberg’s approach to shape a clear storyline with less gags, more music to become a huge hit. Running at 68 minutes, Duck Soup took Marxist anarchism with all its acerbic humour and poured it on thick. Resplendent with fast dialogue, double entendres, absurdism and visual gags, Duck Soup remains their greatest comedy, whilst delivering a powerful knock-out punch to the absurdities of how governments rule and the nature of war. Groucho biographer Stanley Kanfer raises an excellent point that despite script co-writer Harry Ruby’s claim that what the brothers did was strictly entertainment, ‘the result far outran the intent’. 

In 2015, Craig Brown in The Guardian made the excellent assessment:

‘Duck Soup has been praised for its understanding of paranoia in international diplomacy and of the economics of warfare. It is full of gags about the futility of war and its financial advantages’.

It is a film that does all this and more. 

As the opening credits roll, the first visual gag of ducks swimming in a large boiling cauldron is more than a nod to the nonsensical title of the film. Indeed, the inter-war years saw a world which was very much a boiling cauldron; one where the Depression had hit the world, democracy and capitalism were in crisis and fascism had emerged as a real danger to the world. Whether or not this may not have been the intent of director Leo McCarey, it does introduce us to an imaginary nation aptly named ‘Freedonia’ that appears to be in political chaos. The immediate absurdity emerges where the government, relying on the financial support of wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), asks for more money. She acquiesces on one condition – that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be made the leader of all Freedonia. The ensuing musical number with its pomposity and ‘Hail, Hail, Freedonia’ anthem meets the anti-climax of Firefly not only turning up late after sliding down a fire-pole into the proceedings but asking if someone is expected before standing in line to salute their approach.

What follows is perhaps one of the best and funniest interactions on the silver screen between Groucho and the long-suffering but brilliant Dumont. The brutal putdowns come thick and fast from Firefly as Mrs. Teasdale tries desperately to keep things on keel. Groucho breaks the fourth wall in a way that only he can, reminding us of the absurdity of it all:

Firefly jigs and dances, as he delivers his plans to all on how he will rule through song. It is a clever musical number, which again lampoons the concept of freedom, stifled by the rules and regulations put in places by government. But even more so, it reveals the deep power of the state over the individual and how the those who intend to abuse power and authority, do so under the guise of freedom. In the current world, this has become an even more confusing and difficult reality to comprehend.

The darker undertone is introduced with the intrigues of Trentino, the Ambassador of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), whose schemes include using Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies to find the dirt on Firefly, marrying Teasdale to control Freedonia and using the gorgeous Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres) to seduce Firefly and bring him into disrepute. Firefly will see through it all, beating out Trentino for Teasdale’s affections (while still insulting her) and hiring Chicolini as his Secretary Of War. All the while the gags come thick and fast while revealing a deeper more cynical truth; despite a world which declares law and order, chaos seems to rule instead. Much like the dictatorships that were present in the world at that time. 

Nothing is sacred in the Marxist world. Even with Freedonia in trouble, an emergency cabinet meeting sees Firefly playing a game of jacks and arguing with his cabinet members over procedure, how to handle industrial relations and taxes. Later when war is declared, Firefly still lets fly with the absurdities telling Trentino to ‘go, and never darken my towels again!’ Additionally, the slide into war is peppered with insults but again satirises the language of diplomacy and the oft-announced claims of peace made by nations planning for war. The parallel to what was happening in Europe needs no explanation.

The scenes with Chicolini and Pinky trying to steal the war-plans from Teasdale’s home are some of the most hilarious in the film. They are also testimony to director Leo McCarey’s eventual winning over the brothers regarding his view of comedy; it works best visually. As Kanfer points out, sight gags abound in the film and Harpo was particularly drawn to it. The sneaking into the house to steal the plans is an example of this or Harpo’s using blowtorch to light a cigar. A special treat during these scenes is to see Chico and Harpo impersonating Groucho, whilst maintaining their characters. It harkens to a famous story where during stage performances for A Day At The Races, the brothers interchanged their personas with the audience unaware of the changes. Of course, the old mirror scene gag is cleverly worked in with Harpo and Groucho adding their own Marxist flavour. 

Courtroom procedures likewise are lampooned with plenty of puns and nonsense. Firefly flits between ardent prosecutor and defender of the hapless Chicolini, who innocently sees the whole proceedings as one huge joke. It leaves Firefly with the only fitting assessment of Chicolini.

FIREFLY: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot’.

The musical number announcing and celebrating the declaration of war is also a send-up of the propaganda and jingoism that had aided and abetted the destruction and horror the world had seen only 15 years earlier. Again, there is a darkness to this musical number, in context of not only the previous war but the one to come in only six years’ time. Lyrics such as ‘All God’s chillum got guns’ is an explicit ridicule of the evoking of God during war by opposing nations. Complete with banjos, minstrel singing and southern anthems, the reminder of how war can divide nations as well as destroy them is more than clear. 

The final war scenes never let up with the rapid-fire dialogue, whilst leaving nothing that cannot be ridiculed and lampooned. The various military uniforms worn range from contemporary uniforms to those worn during the Revolutionary Wars and the Civil War. Even Davy Crockett’s raccoon hat has its moment when things gets desperate a la The Alamo. The message is very clear – all war is at best absurd. The recruitment drive is ridiculed, as Harpo with sandwich board sporting ‘Join The Army And See The Navy’ walks through the battlefields. Firefly tells his general when it is reported that the men are dying life flies to ‘run out get some trenches’ as he hands him some money to buy some. The dark irony of friendly fire is derided, as Firefly uses a machine gun on his own men, followed by the farce of awarding himself the Firefly Medal, again reflecting the habit of dictators covering their chests with all manner of medals. Even a call sent out for reinforcements is sent ‘collect’. The final moment sees poor Margaret Dumont suffer further indignities, as the end credits roll for the final reel. 

There are some memorable scenes that are wonderful examples of Marx Brothers mania. Chicolini and Pinky’s interactions with poor Edgar Kennedy are both hilarious and frustrating. Kennedy, of course, was famous for his ability to shape the ‘slow burn’ and worked with everyone from Chaplin to Laurel And Hardy and was an original Keystone Kop to boot. He turns up later in the film in the risqué scene when Harpo does his turn as Paul Revere. Spying on a half-dressed woman about to have a bath, Harpo discovers that the woman is Kennedy’s wife and hides in the filled bath-tub only to find himself in there with Kennedy. Louis Calhern plays it perfectly straight as the Ambassador and villain and Dumont is outstanding as always.

One must feel for Zeppo whose place as a Marx brother on the screen becomes superfluous. Whilst solid playing straight man to Groucho, he knew that it was time to move on and so it was the last time he would appear on screen with his brothers. But we needn’t feel too bad, as soon afterwards Zeppo would find success as a Hollywood agent. 

Contrary to the oft-repeated claim, the film was not exactly a total flop. True, there was some criticism from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. It did not do so well in the small towns and mid-West and was perhaps too cerebral for the masses looking for escapism from the Depression. Yet as Simon Louvish points out in ‘Monkey Business: The Lives And Legends Of The Marx. Brothers’, Duck Soup grossed nearly as much as Horse Feathers (1932) and was Paramount’s fifth highest earner for 1933. Variety initially gave it a positive review as well. Yet the immediate memory of the film after initially doing well was not a fond one. Stefan Kanfer makes the point that the Depression saw people looking for something to hold them together against the cruelty of what they were going through. The cynicism of Duck Soup just may have been too much and with Americans in an ‘isolationist mood…a satire of Balkan despots was too esoteric for their tastes’.

It was not a film which exactly placed the Marx Brothers on the scrap-heap and the ending of the Brothers’ contract with Paramount was very much a mutual agreement. But for the Brothers, it meant a complete re-assessment of who they were, where they were at and what direction they would go in. As Marxist history shows, it was Chico who found the way forward through Irving Thalberg and MGM. Interestingly, Groucho would later state that he enjoyed working with McCarey and would claim he was ‘the only great director we ever worked with’. 

Perhaps this is what makes Duck Soup so beloved and usually at the top of the list for Marx Brothers fans. Once they went to MGM, fans would never again see the wild brilliance which first made them stars. In some ways, Duck Soup is the swan song of that legendary approach to comedy and the final testimony to that brilliance. As wonderful as A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races (1937) are, the comedy of the Marx Brothers is more tempered and refined. Duck Soup would see a revival in the 1960s, in big part thanks to Groucho’s stardom on television, as well as its anti-establishment comedy finding a new home amongst university students and the growing movement that was challenging the conventions of society. Indeed, the irreverence, anarchism and inherent deflating of pomposity and entitlement that underpinned the Marx Brothers, would endear them to new generations.

Duck Soup works because it’s funny. And I’d like to believe it will continue to be so for future generations. 

This article is an entry into the Laughter Is The Best Medicine Blogathon run by the CMBA. Click on the link to see other fantastic entries on classic comedy.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966): Hammer Horror In Full Colour

As it’s classic horror month, here’s an older article submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. It was fun to write and of course the film is fun to watch.

Silver Screen Classics

by Paul Batters

Dracula-Prince-of-Darkness-featuredDuring the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of…

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The dark brilliance of Val Lewton: RKO’s Other Genius

Recently during the lockdown here in Australia, I’ve been re-watching the brilliant films of Val Lewton. There’s so much more I could add to this article written in 2016 but thought it was worth re-blogging at any rate, in honour of this underrated cinematic genius.

Silver Screen Classics

8638692_f1024‘There is no beauty here, only death and decay’ – Paul Holland ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943)

So another Halloween has passed by, where people not only decided what to wear at parties (or when trick-or-treating) or what party to go to but also what horror films to watch. TV horror marathons ensued, playing everything from classic Universal to 50s sci-fi to slasher films. It’s always an interesting time from the point of view of film fans, as we get to share with others our favourite classic (and not-so-classic!) horror films. It’s always interesting to read must-see lists and top ten lists of all kinds. At times, we even discover something new – perhaps a gem from the past that we overlooked or a little-known film that finally gets some notice.

I’ve been looking at a number of lists, posts and articles on Halloween horror viewing across a range…

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The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Last Of The Classic Gangster Films

In honour of James Cagney’s birthday, here’s a reblog of an old article I wrote on The Roaring Twenties (1939) – the last of the classic gangster films.

Silver Screen Classics

the-roaring-twenties-1939“Cheating yes, cheating if you get caught. But you don’t get caught if you take care of the right people, and this is big business. Very big business.” James Cagney The Roaring Twenties (1939)

by Paul Batters

Previously on Silver Screen Classics, I focused on William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931); one of the trio of films that would institute the hallmarks of the classic gangster film. What would make the canonical three interesting was that they were made and released during the Prohibition Era with gangsters such as Al Capone very much in the news. It was also the time of the Great Depression where questions about democracy and capitalism were being asked. And of course, in Hollywood it was the Pre-Code era, where film was reaching into areas that would soon be shut down and not make an explicit appearance for many years later.

I wanted to…

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Day Three: The 2021 Swashbucklathon Wraps Up

It’s the last day of the 2021 Swashbucklathon and that means the blogathon celebrating swashbucklers on film comes to an end. Our final entries are below for your enjoyment!

A huge and heartfelt thank you to all contributors. I hope that you enjoyed the blogathon and if people are interested I’ll run it again next year. If you missed the first two days, you can have a look through the following links:

Day One

Day Two

So without further ado…

Captain Blood (1935)Stars And Letters

The Man In The Iron Mask (1939)18 Cinema Lane

The Sea Hawk (1940)Movie Rob

Peter Pan (1924)Taking Up Room

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal (1966) Old Books and Movies

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Day Two: The 2021 Swashbucklathon Is Here

Hello classic film fans. Here is Day Two of 2021 Swashbucklathon. It is a touch late but in the meantime, allow me to offer a huge thank you to the contributors and their amazing efforts

Here are some more great entries from our wonderful bloggers. Please don’t forget to like and leave comments on their blogs; it means a great deal to writers to have their work supported and appreciated. Sharing their work on your own social media is also very appreciated!

The Sea Hawk (1940)Whimsically Classic

The Crimson Pirate (1952)Movie Rob

Scaramouche (1952)Move Rob

Solomon Kane (2021)Blogferatu

The Mark Of Zorro (1940)Moon In Gemini

Day Three is on its way and hopefully some last minute entries as well. Thanks everyone!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A TALE OF ROMANCE AND DERRING-DO (With Synchronized Music and Sound Effects): A Study of Don Juan (1926)

by Robert Short, special guest writer.

Promotional Poster for Don Juan

DON JUAN (1926) Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland, Estelle Taylor, Montagu Love, Helene Costello, Gibson Gowland, Willard Louis. Screenplay by Bess Meredyth. Intertitles by Walter Anthony and Maude Fulton (both uncredited). Silent with Vitaphone musical score and sound effects.

General Abstract: Having settled in Rome after attending the University of Pisa, devil-may-care playboy Don Juan de Marana (John Barrymore) runs afoul of the tyrannical Borgia family, despotic Cesare (Warner Oland), powerful Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor), and the Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). Juan has his way with, and is pursued by, many women; it is, however, for Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor), the one he could not have, that Juan suffers the wrath of Cesare for ignoring Lucrezia and killing Count Donati in a duel.

Literary Origins

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think”
– from Canto III, Don Juan, by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS

Conventional wisdom, and a notification in the October 1926 issue of Photoplay magazine, have indicated that Lord Byron’s epic poem served as the underlying literary source for Bess Meredyth’s original screenplay to the 1926 swashbuckler Don Juan.  While Byron’s massive satiric chef-d’oeuvre, begun in 1819 and still unfinished at the time of Byron’s death in 1824, might certainly have played a significant role  in the development of Meredyth’s script, there was in reality a myriad of sources from which Meredyth might have drawn her ideas; the opening credits of the film simply stated “Inspired by the Legend.”      

Fictional libertine Don Juan, sometimes known as Don Giovanni, the consummate roué who devoted his life to seducing women, has in fact been a staple character in literature and drama for many centuries.  The first written version of the Don Juan story, the circa 1630 Spanish play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, translated as The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, by Tirso de Molina, portrayed as Don Juan as an evil seducer owing to his ability to manipulate language and disguise his appearance, a decidedly demonic attribute; subsequent versions of the tale included Molière‘s 1665 drama Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre, Italian playwright Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni’s Don Giovanni Tenorio, written in 1735 José Zorrilla‘s 1844 play Don Juan Tenorio (1844), still performed throughout the Spanish-speaking world on November 2, All Souls Day.  Wolfgang Mozart’s highly-praised 1787 opera Don Giovanni later inspired works by Alexander PushkinSøren KierkegaardGeorge Bernard Shaw, Albert Camus, and German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann.  

Although Lord Byron’s lyric narrative has undoubtedly become the most famous presentation of Don Juan in English literatiure, the promiscuous rake was initially introduced to the English-speaking world in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 drama The LibertineDon Juans Ende, a play derived from an unfinished 1844 retelling of the tale by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, influenced Richard Strauss‘s 1889 orchestral tone poem Don Juan.  While Meredyth might have depended more heavily on one literary root over others, or perhaps disregarded all of them, she certainly had a treasure trove of literature and drama from which to create a scripted depiction of the great Renaissance lover.

Title Card from Don Juan (1926)

A Brief History of Vitaphone

“Vitaphone will bring to the audiences in every corner of the world the the music of the greatest symphony orchestras and vocal entertainment of the most popular stars of the operatic, vaudeville and theatrical field.”
– Harry Warner

Undoubtedly the most important and far-reaching cinematic technical innovation of the 1920’s was the introduction of sound; August 6th, 1926, the debut of Warner Bros.’ lavish swashbuckler Don Juan, along with numerous film shorts, proved a pivotal date with the introduction of Vitaphone, a new sound-on-disc process.

Sound itself was not new to motion pictures.  The combination of moving images and sound had begun with Thomas A. Edison; as far back as 1894. in the Kinetoscope parlours, customers could, by means of stethoscope-like ear-tubes, hear scratchy, poorly synchronized sound as they watched some fleeting, flickering images.   Early sound-on-disc systems included the Chronophone, patented in 1902 by Leon Gaumont, and the Vivaphone, developed and marketed by the British firm Hepworth Film Manufacturing  Company circa 1913.  Using Photokinema, another sound-on-disc method, legendary director D. W. Griffith, in a filmed prologue to his 1921 feature Dream Street, stepped out in front of a curtain to talk to the audience about the motion picture.  On April 15, 1923, in New York City, American inventor Lee De Forest, a pioneer in sound films, premiered eighteen short films produced with Phonofilm, a primitive sound-on-film system.

None of these motion picture sound experiments achieved sustained success;  it was a sound-on-disc synchronization procedure developed by technicians and engineers at Western Electric, working in conjunction with Bell Telephone Laboratories, that caught the interest and attention of Sam Warner in 1925.  Harry Warner, at the urging of his brother Sam, agreed to use this method for musical accompaniment to Don Juan.  Christened Vitaphone by the Warner brothers, this system recorded the soundtrack on a 16-inch, 3,343-revolution-per-minute wax disc that played from the centre outward; this sound-on-disc method ultimately became the only disc process both widely used and commercially successful.  The marriage of Warners and Vitaphone took place on April 26, 1925 with the signing of a contract; the consummation of the relationship, so-to-speak, climaxed a little over fifteen months later with the August 6, 1926 premiere of Don Juan, the first silent film embellished with sound effects and a full background musical score courtesy of Vitaphone.

The Vitaphone sound-on-disc system would subsequently enjoy only a brief period as the main recoring technology for Warner Bros. and First National Pictures, a studio in which Warners held controlling interest. While the sound quality of the phonographic discs produced a richer audio quality than the emerging optical sound, or sound-on-film, processes, the discs were prey to synchronization issues, could not be directly edited, which limited the ability to make alterations in a film after its initial release, and suffered from general wear and tear, degrading after numerous screenings of a film, requiring disc replacements. By 1929, such major studios as Paramount Pictures and M-G-M had abandoned the sound-on-disc system in favour of optical sound for their productions; RKO, which began its film operation in 1929, used only optical sound. However, for a time these studios did continue to reproduce a number of soundtracks on phonographic discs for theatres not equipped for broadcasting optical sound; consequently some soundtracks of otherwise incomplete or lost motion pictures, such as the full roadshow version of RKO’s Rio Rita, and M-G-M’s The Rogue Song, have survived. Among the first twenty-five inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame upon its establishment in 2004, the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process was discontinued by 1930 in favour of Movietone optical sound, although Warner Bros. retained the Vitaphone trademark for a number of years for its live action and animated short subjects.

The voice of Vitaphone: a 16-inch disc being lined up with its synchronization mark

The Cinematic “Don Juan”

“‘I made it for money.’” – Response by John Barrymore to an interviewer’s comment “‘I thought you made Don Juan for satire'”

 “In ‘Don Juan’ there are moments when I look like a male impersonation of Lilyan Tashman.” – John Barrymore

Originally intended as John Barrymore’s first film under his new Warner Bros. contract, Don Juan was postponed in favour of The Sea Beast, the first screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; although he had starred in the 1924 version of Beau Brummel, Barrymore apparently disdained costume films.  Quoted as saying “sweet-scented Don Juans affect movie audiences like a rough crossing of the English channel”. Barrymore agreed to the film, provided that a cinematic representation  of Moby Dick, evidently one of his favourite novels, take precedence. As expressed by Barrymore:

“It [Moby Dick] appeals to me and always has. It has an especial appeal to me now, for in the last few years, both on the stage and screen, I have played so many scented, be puffed, bewigged and ringletted characters- princes and kings and the like that I revel in the rough and almost demoniacal character such as Captain Ahab”

The Sea Beast was a very loose variation of the Melville classic. Its script also written by Beth Meredyth, The Sea Beast imposed a great deal of licence on Melville’s narrative; Ahab competed with his half-brother Derek, an invented non-Melville character, for the love of Esther, a minister’s daughter; Ahab’s motivation to return to sea was not to pursue the white whale, but rather to try to forget that Esther loved another, and, in true Hollywood fashion, a happy ending was created in place of Melville’s original tragic conclusion. Literary liberties aside, The Sea Beast appeared to have appeased Barrymore; immediately following Don Juan Barrymore undertook more “pansy parts” , as he referred to them, in the 1927 motion pictures When A Man Loves, the third film to include a Vitaphone soundtrack of background music and sound effects, and The Beloved Rogue.


Its production starting on October 18, 1925, Don Juan contained the requisite elements of a swashbuckler spectacle with its inclusion of the hero’s scaling of stone walls, leaping off balconies, swinging on vines with rapier and poignard at the ready, breasting the Tiber River, and duelling enemies; in addition, the film offered the mandatory damsel-in-distress in the personage of Mary Astor as Adriana della Varnese. Astor, with whom Barrymore had been romantically involved when the two were performing several years earlier in Beau Brummel, was not Barrymore’s choice for the role; Barrymore preferred Dolores Costello, his newest paramour who would in 1928 become his third wife. As Astor had already been signed to the part, Warner Bros. was loathe to risk a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

Unlike contemporary actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Barrymore was not generally known for athletic prowess and an ebullient screen personality; Fairbanks had forged his career on such cinematic costume adventures as 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Baghdad from 1924, and The Black Pirate, released the same year as Don Juan, whereas Barrymore had initially found his fame on stage, most recently as a Shakespearean actor, and through a very divergent variety of film roles. Nonetheless the October 1926 edition of Photoplay exclaimed:

“Hey Mr. Fairbanks, come home quick! John Barrymore is stealing your stuff. He climbs balconies, he rides horses, he fights duels and he makes hot, hot love. Here is a young feller who is determined to live down his dark past as a Shakespearean actor.”

While in all probability posing no serious competition to any Fairbanks feature as a film of action, Don Juan did surpass Fairbanks’ motion pictures in the element of romance. Certainly a Fairbanks film included an actress, such as beautiful Billie Dove in The Black Pirate, as a leading lady or love interest; the focus, however, in a Fairbanks vehicle centred on the actor’s acrobatic gymnastics, while Don Juan surpassed the swashbuckling component in favour of romance, containing between 127 and 191 kisses, depending on the reference source, bestowed by Barrymore upon a number of actresses, including Astor, Estelle Taylor, Myrna Loy, and others. Submitting himself daily for hours in the make-up and costume departments to transform the forty-three-year-old actor to a more youthful-looking, handsome Don Juan, including the dying of his grey-streaked hair to a shade of blonde, Barrymore seemed a perfect choice for the role of the Great Lover; his own reputation as a philanderer preceded him. While his performance was not met with unrestrained praise, with some critics describing the acting as “the worst they had ever witnessed”, Barrymore’s grace and elegance of bearing, and his steamy, for the era, love-making, captivated audiences. It is now somewhat difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to assess the acting style prevalent in the era of the silent film; without the benefit of spoken dialogue performances may appear florid, exaggerated, or overwrought in their quest for expression.

Warner Bros. most expensive film to date, produced on a reported budget of $546,000 , Don Juan was adorned with lavish period sets and the more fluid and creative camerawork evident in the motion pictures of the late 1920’s. No longer in its infancy, the silent cinema had artistically developed beyond the mere capturing of moving images; ironically the advent of sound would initially return the early “talkies” to a more stagnant state. While some sources have criticized Meredyth’s screenplay for the introduction and consequent abandonment of a number of characters, chiefly Adriana’s father and Don Juan’s sidekick Petrillo, and the historic licence taken with Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, such objections may be viewed as petty in nature; many motion picture scenarios, both before and since, have followed a similar pattern as the narrative progresses. Any shortcomings in the screenplay notwithstanding, and marketed with such hyperbolic taglines as “The greatest adventure picture ever produced” and “It Thrilled the World!”, the latter catchphrase admittedly more in reference to Vitaphone than the film itself, Don Juan found favour with movie audience, earning a purported $1,693,000 in worldwide rentals.

Double-page advertisement for Don Juan in The Film Daily, September 1, 1926

The addition of the Vitaphone soundtrack, with its orchestral score played by the New York Philharmonic, distinguished Don Juan immeasurably, an aspect possibly more evident when compared to the all-silent version prepared for theatres not equipped for sound reproduction; while enjoyable and entertaining, the film alone was not markedly or especially superior to other contemporary features, either those in the swashbuckling genre or otherwise. Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate, presented in early two-strip Technicolor, made up for a thin plot with its action and technical polish; other 1926 offerings, such as Beau Geste and Old Ironsides, with its use of Magnascope, an early wide-screen process, provided similar adventure, sweep, and spectacle. Ultimately Don Juan was what it set out to be, no more and no less, namely a showcase for Barrymore, who was, at times, photographed in his famous profile and clothed in progressively tighter costumes; acting with “an abandon that will arouse the disapproval of the School of Eyebrow Lifters” the actor added another memorable, if melodramatic, character to his ever imposing curriculum vitae.

Legacy and Conclusion

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” – first words of screen dialogue spoken by Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer

Its programme supplemented with eight short features that demonstrated the wonders of Vitaphone, including the Honorable Will Hayes, President of the Motion Picture Producers of America, directly addressing the audience, the New York Philharmonic playing the overture to Tannhäuser, and coloratura soprano Marian Talley singing Caro Nome from the Giuseppi Verdi opera Rigoletto, the world premiere of Don Juan was held on August 6, 1926 at the Warner Theatre in New York City, having been previewed two days earlier on an invitation basis; for the princely cost of $25 per ticket, first-night audiences were witness to an enormous milestone in the history of cinema.  Interestingly, the audience responded to the arrival of this landmark innovation generally “warmly rather than wildly”.

In an opposite response, the press greeted Vitaphone with a more unbridled enthusiasm; in his review in The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall proclaimed:

“The natural reproduction of voices, the tonal qualities of musical instruments and the timing of the sound to the movements of the lips of singers and the actions of musicians was almost uncanny”.

Hall’s review effusively continued:                                                

“The future of this new contrivance is boundless [. . .] the vitaphone [italics mine] will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer’s acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments. Operatic favorites will be able to be seen and heard, and the genius of singers and musicians who have passed will still live”.

Photoplay echoed Hall’s thoughts, declaring in its October 1926 issue:

 “The executives of Warner Brothers, the Bell Telephone Company and the Western Electric Company believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] will revolutionize the presentation of motion pictures.  It will bring famous singers and orchestras to the smallest theaters.  [. . .]  Perhaps, back in their minds, these experts believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] eventually will make possible a genuine talking picture.  However, no definite plans have been made along this line.  So far they are confining their activities to an invention which bids fair to transform the exhibition of pictures.”

Albeit unknowingly at the time, the latter thoughts in the Photoplay article were very prophetic; on October 6, 1927, fourteen months after the premiere of Don Juan, Warner Bros. elevated Vitaphone to a new level with its release of The Jazz Singer.  Although still often considered the first talking film, The Jazz Singer was in reality essentially a silent film with a synchronized Vitaphone soundtrack; it did, however, contain several scenes with recorded songs and dialogue, not a great deal of spoken content overall, but sufficient to change forever cinema development.  Safely finding its standing in cinema history, The Jazz Singer has rather unfairly overshadowed the historical importance of Don Juan.  In the interim months between the debuts of the two films, Warner Bros. had released six more silent features with a Vitaphonesoundtrack, rendering the technology still enjoyable but less wondrous; the importance of Don Juan has over time been relegated to the back burner.  As time has passed, The Jazz Singer has continued to enjoy its reputation as a cinematic milestone; Don Juan has been diminished to a pebble in the course of motion picture evolution.        

LITERARY SOURCES

Eyman, Scott, The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1997)

Hirschhorn, Clive, The Warner Bros. Story (Hong Kong:  Mandarin Publishers Limited, 1982)

Kobler, John, Damned in Paradise:  The Life of John Barrymore (New York:  Atheneum Books, 1977) 

The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, with an Introductory Memoir by Sir Leslie Stephen (New York:  The MacMillan Company, 1907), 1048 

Sperling, Cass Warner; Millner, Cork; with Warner, Jack Jr., Hollywood Be Thy Name:  The Warner Brothers Story (California:  Prima Publishing, 1994), 96   

Thomson, David, Warner Bros:  The Making of an American Movie Studio (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2017)

OTHER SOURCES

“$25 Premiere for New Film”, Variety, Volume LXXXIII, No. 10, June 23, 1926

“Bringing Sound to The Screen”, Photoplay, Volume XXX, No. 5, October 1926

Don Juan (1926).  [DVD]  Directed by Alan Crosland.  USA:  Warner Archives

“Don Juan (1926 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Don_Juan_(1926_film)&oldid=1020175162  (accessed June 9, 2021) 

‘“Don Juan,’ Vitaphone, Pre-Opening August 4”, Variety, Volume LXXXIV, No. 2, July 28, 1926

Hall, Mordaunt, “Vitaphone Stirs as Talking Movie; New Device Synchronizing Sound with Action Impresses with Its Realistic Effects.  Noted Musicians Heard Provides Orchestral Accompaniment to Photoplay ‘Don Juan,’ with John Barrymore”, The New York Times, August 7, 1926, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1926/08/07/archives/vitaphone-stirs-as-talking-movie-new-device-synchronizing-sound.html

https://ok.ru/video/1303436069376

http://www.silentera.com/info/technology/synchSound/vivaphone.html

St. Johns, Adela Rogers, “Hollywood Can’t Exist – But It Does”, Photoplay, Volume XXXI, No. 1, December 1926

The Film Daily, Volume XXXVII, No. 53, September 1, 1926

“The Shadow Stage”, Photoplay, Volume XXX, No. 5, October 1926

Variety, Volume LXXX, No. 8, October 7, 1925

“Vitaphone,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vitaphone&oldid=1019309453 (accessed June 9, 2021) 

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Robert Short as a guest writer for the 2021 Swashbucklathon.