To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

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Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

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The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

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Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

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Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

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There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

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But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

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 Tragedy of Lost Art – Silent Film and Finding The Forgotten

by Paul Batters

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Recently an article from The Silent Film Quarterly was shared by on a social media forum by film critic Steven Finkelstein. My interest was piqued not only because I respect Steven’s views and critiquing but by the article’s attention-seeking title which was looking to pick a fight. The title of this article alone ‘No More Tears Over Lost Films’ (penned by Charles Epting) had me choking on my coffee, as my sensibilities flooded with disbelief.

Disbelief turned to spluttering rage after reading the first paragraph and the writer’s response to his own question. To paraphrase, Epting’s premise is that the loss of 90% of films made before 1929 (according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) is nothing to get upset about and that we’re not missing out on anything. To throw fuel on the fire, Epting claimed that the figures highlighting this loss are ‘essentially meaningless’ and that the ‘missing films’ are not significant.

Trying to maintain my composure, I decided to look into Epting’s arguments for why we shouldn’t care that 90% of pre-1929 films are missing and/or permanently gone.

Firstly, Epting makes the claim that for every masterpiece a la Metropolis or Wings, there are ‘countless low-budget, forgettable films’ e.g. His Neighbour’s Pants which if found would not expand our appreciation or understanding of classic cinema in any way or form. Perhaps. He furthers his argument with a fairly facetious comment that ‘by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush’. To attack the incredibly valuable work of Scorsese in trying to save and/or restore lost silent film alone is quite a laughable and reprehensible observation to make. It’s also stunning that someone can make a comment that a film that is lost and unseen has no merit. The most obvious response is ‘how do you know?’ If they have not been seen, how can they be judged as having ‘no merit’?

Additionally, Epting’s draws a long bow of correlation between Wings and His Neighbour’s Pants, in terms of their cinematic and cultural value. No-one would suggest equal artistic merit (despite never having seen the latter!) between the two but why choose such films to compare? Gloria Swanson’s Beyond The Rocks might be a better comparison in terms of time period and production quality. It was a film whose initial loss greatly saddened Swanson and its’ eventual discovery, restoration and screening should surely be celebrated. Similarly, the additional footage found and re-edited into Metropolis is cause for celebration as we have the closest version to date, which reflects the original release. By Epting’s assessment, these shouldn’t matter.

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He continues to ‘argue the point with prose’ by declaring that ‘studios were under no obligation to preserve the nitrate stock for posterity’s sake’. Nonsense. Of course they were and it is to the shame of those studios and to the lament of the filmmakers and their audiences that those films were not preserved. Studios like Paramount were inept in their neglect and derelict in their duty to leave their stock to rot. How many of Clara Bow’s films were lost to this negligence? To the credit of MGM, they invested in the protection of their stock, although the tragic fire of 1967 saw the famed studio lose much of its’ celebrated titles. I wonder Epting’s response to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria would have prompted? Or in the context of this article the Fox Studio vault fire of 1937?

Epting uses some bizarre logic to make his argue his case; even attempting to use ‘data’ as his ace up the sleeve. He states that of the 23 films that received nominations at the 1st Academy Awards in 1928, nearly three-quarters have survived, which he states is ‘not a bad percentage’. Personally, I find it appalling that anyone would base the value of lost or surviving films on numbers alone. But he doesn’t care to dwell on this and then declares that we have 98.7% of Chaplin’s silent films. (I guess this is better than 98.6%…) Incredibly, he argues that the figure is much higher if we consider the number of surviving reels rather than titles. This is perhaps the most absurd use of data I’ve encountered and is akin to comparing numbers of chapters to number of book titles.

The use of data as evidence for his arguments continues to leave convoluted points in place. Some of cinema’s greatest directors, Griffith, Murnau, deMille and Von Stroheim have much of their work intact yet all have varying ‘percentages’ of lost films as well. True, their reputations and legacy remain remarkable and intact regardless of whether those films are found or not. But that is beside the point. Those lost films need to be found, restored and viewed because it’s the work of the aforementioned directors. As fans of classic film, the audience’s experience of those great filmmakers can only be enhanced and we can always learn more about a director and the context of his or her time from their work. To suggest otherwise is laughable at best.

At any rate, rattling some of the best-known directors of the period makes not an argument. What undiscovered works from lesser known directors or artists remain hidden or lost?

The same argument is used regarding the great Lon Chaney Snr and the most frequently discussed lost film, London After Midnight (1927). I have previously written about this film and have stated that the film may disappoint for a number of factors. But I would never suggest that a print of the film would not be valuable to classic film fans. Yes there is no shortage of Chaney films to view and discuss. Does that mean that adding another would not be worth it? According to Epting, the loss of The Miracle Man (1919) is meaningless because we have enough of Chaney’s work anyway. To use an earlier argument of his using ‘data’, what existing footage there is of The Miracle Man is enough at any rate. Being Chaney’s breakout performance and judging by the footage that does exist, it’s not hard to imagine that the film would have been a masterpiece and if found, will prove an exciting discovery. Again, it is hard to accept Epting’s arguments. Imagine suggesting that discovering a lost play by Aeschylus or a previously unknown artwork by Van Gogh is not worth worrying about because we already have existing works by these artists. 

By contrast, two of the silent era’s biggest stars have a vast amount of their work lost and/or missing. Both defined their time and are important in cinema history, particularly in the portrayal and development of archetypes. The first is the original vamp, Theda Bara, who was perhaps the biggest star of the 1910s and certainly one of the first, if not the first sex symbol. We have hardly any of work to view or critique, and regardless of whether they are dated or, to paraphrase Epting, not worth seeking or saving, Bara’s films would certainly be important to cinema history. One of her most celebrated films, from which prints often turn up in film books, is the long-lost Cleopatra (1917). Its’ discovery would be an exciting one and should not prompt disdain from Mr. Epting. The same could be said for Madame Du Barry (1917) or Salome (1918). The loss of such films are a tragedy to our understanding of cinema and its’ early development.

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The second star is the aforementioned Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl, whose story is one of sadness and tragedy despite the charm and naturalness she brought to the screen. Bow ushered in a new era in the 1920s, which eclipsed the previous sex symbol characteristics employed by Bara and reflected the post-WW1 period for young women in a way no one else did on the silver screen. She was the quintessential flapper of the 1920s. Yet almost half her films are lost, which Paramount with willful negligence let deteriorate in their vaults. To re-discover her films and be able to see them again would be a boon to classic film fans.

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Using the reviews and audience responses of the days are not necessarily helpful either. There are numerous films that were poorly received upon their release. Yet time and re-assessment have changed our views and those films have been seen in a new light. In contrast, films that were well received upon release have not always aged well and have even been forgotten in some cases – even Academy Award winners (Cimarron a case in point). At one point, Epting seems to contradict himself by claiming that box office figures during the silent era are notoriously difficult to corroborate and perhaps should not be used as a guide for what is a successful film. Yet he later claims that ‘box office flops’ which are less likely to exist are not a great loss. At any rate, do we simply judge the value of a film by its’ box office receipts?

In fairness to Epting, he tries to employ the positive notion that we should celebrate what silent film does exist and enjoy it. But to denigrate the desire to find and/or preserve silent films that are lost or need restoration is not the stuff of cinephiles. It is most disconcerting when comments such as the following, are made by Epting: Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?

Really?

Lastly, suggesting that what survives is special because the rest has perished becomes a dangerous premise to go by. Indeed, the destruction of past works becomes the drive not only to protect what we have but also becomes the inspiration to appreciate, archive and protect all works and find better and more lasting ways to preserve them. Our appreciation of classic film will not only be enhanced by appreciating what we do have but by continuing to seek out lost treasures and preserving what we do find. Knowledge and understanding does not grow and is not nurtured through limitations but by continually seeking and looking at what the possibilities are.

Thankfully there are many involved in the search and preservation of classic films and undoubtedly they will not be overly perturbed by the sentiments of Mr. Epting. Susan King, who writes on classic film in the Los Angeles Times is one writer I regularly notice who keeps me abreast of new discoveries and the future for film restoration and discovery looks bright, if luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continue their efforts.

And yes, I would like to see His Neighbour’s Pants if Mr. Scorsese manages to restore it.

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.

London After Midnight (1927): The Movie and The Myth

by Paul Batters

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Around mid-February this year, a rumour did the rounds on social media and film-sites that a certain lost classic film had indeed been found. Or to be more correct, the headline was click-bait and the generally short article which followed was a rumour about a rumour that a certain lost classic film had been found. Nothing substantiated and the same oft-repeated story that is recycled every so often spoke about a print in Spain (or was it Cuba?) or a private collector in possession of a print who just before releasing it, decides against it and thus the story leaves a haze of smoke (excuse the poor joke) before we all move on.

There are a number of lost films which gather the excitement of film fans and in some cases the excitement is warranted. A good example is the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is considered almost fully restored after a damaged print of Lang’s complete film was found in an Argentinian museum. But versions of the film had been around previously and it was not a totally lost film. A film like Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 epic Greed has become legendary for its’ missing footage which reportedly runs into hours and the final MGM cut was not in line with von Stroheim’s vision. Again, rumours of missing footage surface from time to time – all proving false. There are countless other films, particularly from the silent era, which are considered lost and perhaps, sadly, always will be.

So when the rumour arose earlier this year that Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) had emerged, the ardour of fans was cautioned by the usual disappointment that follows. Like Greed and a number of other lost films, London After Midnight has been dubbed the ‘holy Grail’ of lost films – a term almost clichéd, as I have the distinct feeling that if it is ever discovered, the initial excitement of film fans will soon become muted.

London After Midnight was destroyed, along with hundreds of other films, in the MGM vault fire of 1967. Ironically, MGM was perhaps the only studio that worked to preserve its’ films, using contemporary technology to protect the original nitrates as well as convert them to safer film. Many of the other studios tragically allowed their film stock to crumble and even disposed of them. At any rate, London After Midnight was only one film among many that were destroyed.

This article will not endeavour to outline the plot in detail and nor review the ‘restoration’, which is a 45 minute collection of stills and promotional images. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps more correctly defined as a thriller/mystery, going by contemporary reviews. Lon Chaney Snr plays Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, who is investigating a death that five years earlier had been designated a suicide. The house in which the victim died has new tenants who are spooked by two eerie and frightening figures, having the appearance of a vampire and his undead companion, Luna (Edna Tichenor). But as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the spooky goings-on are all part of an elaborate plan to uncover the truth behind the death and the ‘vampire’ is actually Inspector Burke in disguise and Luna is an actress from the theatre. In the end, hypnosis is used to discover the killer by inducing him to re-enact the crime.

If you’re confused by the storyline, you’re not alone and some film historians are even more confused as to why the film is so highly sought after. Yet the news that London After Midnight was lost saw its’ legendary status take root in the imagination of film historians and movie buffs.

So why has it received such legendary status?

The film’s destruction occurred at a time when there had been a resurgence of interest in classic films, with quite a number of films being shown on television for the first time in years. Additionally, classic horror films had regained their popularity, assisted in great part by fanzines and popular monster movie magazines such as ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. The great Lon Chaney Snr was in some ways a star all over again and his ability to play a variety of roles was certainly a point of interest; in this case particularly featuring Chaney in a dual role.

The incredibly striking images of Chaney as a vampire which appeared in such magazines, naturally stirred horror films fans to want to see the legendary Chaney in that very film. Indeed, the make-up used by Chaney is haunting and creepy, and certainly matches his efforts from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The rows of sharp teeth, fixed in a permanent smile of death coupled with a pair of dead, drooping eyes staring at the audience, still evokes emotions of dread, terror and repulsion. Stooping and leering at Edna Tichenor in beaver hat, evening dress and bat-winged cape all still remain powerful images for horror film fans and even moreso because they are all we have due to the status of the film as lost.

Along with horror film magazines, the many horror film books also published over the years by authors such as Alan Frank have also discussed the film, further adding to its’ legendary status. With Chaney’s deserved reputation as a legend of film, and his place in horror film history assured, his only film role as a vampire would certainly be fascinating both to horror film buffs and students of classic film. After all, it would be one of the first films after Nosferatu (1922) to depict a vampire in such an explicitly terrifying way (notwithstanding the fact that Chaney is playing someone disguised as a vampire).

Furthermore, those who saw the film upon its’ release have all passed on and any contemporary accounts of the film are left to the reviews from critics. But negative criticisms have tended to be drowned out or muted as the generation that made those critiques and/or originally viewed the film are long since dead. All that is left is the legend and the myth. Added to this is the fact that the generations holding a torch for the film grew up believing in the legend and have thus carried those impressions into the present.

And of course, the primary reason for seeing it would be the star of the film – Lon Chaney Snr. By the time the film was made, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and indeed a name known the world over. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that his stardom was due to his abilities with make-up in creating startling characters. On the contrary, the pathos and emotion of the characters Chaney portrayed on the screen transcended make-up and his screen presence is as potent today as it was during the silent era.

So why would the film disappoint?

By all reports, London After Midnight was a decent earner for MGM in 1927 but it was not a tearaway success and critics at the time were not particularly kind to the film. Soister and Nicolella in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (2012) point out that critics saw the story lines as ‘nonsensical’ and Variety did not rate the film highly, calling Chaney ‘just fair’ in the role, adding that it was ‘not much of a drawing card’. The New York Times was lukewarm in its’ appraisal, also calling the storyline ‘incoherent’ and it didn’t seem impressed by Chaney’s ‘uncanny disguise’.

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Film historians such as William K. Everson have shown greater control and offered critical discussion when discussing the film and make the point that it’s reputation had been blown all out of proportion, particularly by horror film publications geared towards mass consumption by the kiddie and teen markets. As a result, London After Midnight is a film that is perhaps more enigmatic than it deserves to be, if we go by contemporary critics. Our own childhood memories of films are sometimes turned sour upon viewing them as adults and the magic seems to have departed. A viewing of London After Midnight could very well have a similar effect.

Additionally, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) because of their prosaic endings, as pointed out by Olaf Brill in Expressionism in the Cinema. American audiences at the time would simply not accept supernatural films, in the same way that European audiences did. Whilst much is made about Browning’s ‘cheat ending’, in context audiences at the time may not have been so disappointed. When comparing to the Browning remake of 1935’s Mark Of The Vampire with Bela Lugosi, audiences had made that jump into accepting the supernatural primarily because of the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s –and ironically it was Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula which started it all. It makes sense that a 1935 audience would have felt ‘cheated’ but what does that mean for today’s audience viewing London After Midnight, after decades of conditioning to accept otherwise and then some?

The existing and remaining stills are certainly thrilling and capture our imagination and it is only natural that we want to see more. But what are we seeing? Are we imposing our own predisposed notions upon those stills, fuelled by our long-held desire to see a lost classic? They are images that promise much but can they deliver?

Perhaps most damning of all, according to Jon Mirsalis, is the claim from Everson and fellow film historian David Bradley that they viewed the film in the early 1950s and it was inferior to its’ 1935 remake Mark Of The Vampire. Mirsalis also adds that:

‘the eerie Cedric Gibbons-Arnold Gillespie sets, and Chaney’s stunning vampire make-up, make for intriguing still photographs, but these scenes account for only a small portion of the film, the rest of the footage being devoted to Polly Moran’s comic relief, and talkie passages between detective Chaney and Walthall…’

Such a claim does not inspire confidence!

As much as other classic film fans, I would still be thrilled and terribly excited to see a re-discovered London After Midnight. The prospect of seeing those famous stills come to life after decades of being captivated by them would be too enticing to ignore. But I fear that if it is re-discovered, for all the brilliance of Lon Chaney Snr, it will not be the classic that we are anticipating.

 

This article is a part of the 2018 Lon Chaney Snr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/05/05/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-one/ and Silver Screenings – https://silverscreenings.org/2018/05/06/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-two/. Please click on the links for other great articles on the legendary Lon Chaney Snr. 

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.

Donald Crisp: One Of Hollywood’s Great Character Actors

by Paul Batters

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Cinema is an art form, which, unlike most other art forms, is a team effort. The need for a range of skills and talents does contradict, with the upmost of respect, the belief of the great Frank Capra that a film should be the vision of one man – the director. The work behind and around the camera is tantamount to the success of the performances before it. The magic that we see on the screen is amplified by the work of others.

Audiences tend to focus on the performances of the stars in major roles, which is understandable. However, the purpose of this article is to look at the character actor – the actor or actress who allows for and creates the space for a major star to extend their performance. At times, their work is that good that it goes un-noticed or it can even steal a scene. For all the brilliance of Bogart in Casablanca (1942), it was certainly assisted by the likes of Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and Sidney Greenstreet. As fantastic as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in Double Indemnity (1944), Edward G Robinson arguably steals the show when he is on the screen.

For my money, perhaps one of Hollywood’s most prolific and important supporting actors was the magnificent Donald Crisp.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a biography but offer a reflection on one of classic Hollywood’s most familiar faces.

British-born Donald Crisp’s career spanned an incredible 55 years, with an amazing array of roles on the screen and an equally amazing involvement and perhaps more important role behind the scenes (not only for his time as a director of approximately 25 films). His first role was in a short called The French Maid (1908) during the earliest years of the American film industry, with his final screen appearance in Spencer’s Mountain (1963) as Grandpa Zebulon Spencer. (The film incidentally would later be developed into the 1970s family drama The Waltons).

Let’s look at some of his important, ground-breaking roles.

The Birth Of A Nation (1915) – Ulysses S Grant

Crisp cut his teeth on an array of roles in silent shorts, including the ground-breaking gangster film The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) but it was his fortuitous meeting with D.W Griffith that saw his career in film expand. He worked with Griffith in a number of productions with perhaps his first most notable role as General Ulysses S Grant. Whilst not a major role, Crisp was portraying a significant historical figure and even the publicity shot reveals a great actor’s calibre to stand in the role. Indeed, Melvyn Stokes points out in his book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ (2007) that Crisp as Grant seems to step out of the pages of history.

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Broken Blossoms (1919) – ‘Battling’ Burrows

Another D.W Griffith classic, Broken Blossoms is a love story between Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) and Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) whose father is a brutal prizefighter. Set in London’s’ Limehouse district, the story of interracial love was certainly highly controversial for its’ day. Crisp brings a cruelty and sadism to the role, taking pleasure in beating his daughter. His identity and sense of self is limited to the physicality of his fists but there is more to Crisp’s portrayal than a one-dimensional character. As Ed Gonzalez illustrates in his 2003 review in Slant Magazine, ‘Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a monster, but Griffith understands the man’s frustrated desire to lash out against something (here, his own daughter) in the face of economic and masculine defeat’. Needless to say, Crisp channels this interpretation quite well and elicits from the audience incredible depths of shock and horror at depths of viciousness of his character.

The Black Pirate (1926) – MacTavish

Perhaps one of Fairbanks’ greatest films, it was also one of the best produced and an early two-tone Technicolor classic which featured all the hallmarks of the swashbuckler adventure. As the one armed pirate, Crisp also brings some humor, again a staple element of the swashbuckler classic seen in countless such films to follow. The film holds up well and arguably far better than many of Fairbank’s other films, ably assisted by Donald Crisp as the pirate with a heart of gold. Watch the ending to see MacTavish’s response to the happy ending. Interestingly there is some dispute over Crisp’s apparent removal as director of The Black Pirate.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) – Burkitt

A powerful historical drama with outstanding performances from Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Its’ historical accuracy does and should come under heavy scrutiny but never should the work of the supporting cast. Donald Crisp plays Burkitt, a tough English sailor who develops a burning hatred for Bligh and is tempted to mutiny along with a handful of fellow mistreated comrades. The turning point for Christian’s final push into mutiny comes with his witnessing of Burkitt beaten and in shackles. Gable’s inability to maintain composure is made even more believable when coupled with Crisp’s channeling of the dehumanized sailor. As usual, Crisp gives everything to the small but important role in the development of the story.

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How Green Was My Valley (1941) – Gwilym Morgan

Undoubtedly his most famous role and the one that most associate with Donald Crisp, Ford’s classic is a masterpiece and a superb example of storytelling on film. Crisp as the Morgan family patriarch is one that moves the heart and stirs the spirit. His performance of a stern yet kind and loving father is impossible to ignore and it would win for Crisp the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. To quote Peter J Patrick from Cinema Sight in 2016, ‘Long established as one of the screen’s most reliable character actors, his performance here transcends them all. The voiceover relating to his character can also be applied to the actor and his long held position as one of Hollywood’s greatest: “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.” Thanks to the magic of the movies, it’s evergreen’.

For a more detailed thematic review of How Green Was My Valley (1941), go to: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/john-fords-how-green-was-my-valley-a-thematic-review/ 

Lassie Come Home (1943) – Sam Carraclough

MGM capitalized on Crisp’s Oscar winning father role for their Technicolor hit starring Roddy McDowell, as well as reuniting the two again in the father/son relationship. Crisp’s performance, as the father dealing with difficult times, was called ‘four-square’ by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Lassie Comes Home could be easy given over to a saccharine overdose, if not for the fabulous cast and directorial efforts of Fred Wilcox. However, Crisp is not one to recycle former work but builds on familiar tropes with a seasoned turn as the father trying to raise his family out of poverty. He would play the role again in two sequels.

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The Valley Of Decision (1945) – William Scott Snr

Crisp would again play the father role but one of a very different nature to what he had played in How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and National Velvet. As the steel baron whose powerful hold on his family becomes challenged, Crisp gave a commanding performance as the father who opposes the relationship between his son Paul (Gregory Peck) and the Irish house maid Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson), whose father had been crippled in the Scott mill. The complexities and social issues that arise concerning families, class and relationships, as well as the plight of workers in the 19th century. As Cliff Aliperti’s 2011 review for Immortal Ephemera points out, Crisp’s gift to the film comes with the ‘tender moment with Garson after discovering just how she feels about his son, and immediately thereafter, the uncomfortable moment where Duryea convinces him that they need to call upon the strikebreakers’. It is often those moments by a character actor that offer depth to the layers of a powerful film.

The Man From Laramie (1955) – Alec Waggoman

For a short period of time, Crisp retired from films but returned in 1954’s Prince Valiant. Thankfully he did so for his turn as the formidable and cunning landowner in opposition to Will Lockhart (Jimmy Stewart) is a winner. The Shakespearean overtures (think King Lear) become obvious but are well crafted into a classic Western. Crisp is hard-nosed as the cattle baron, who has survived and thrived because he has been ruthless with those who have crossed him. The film exhibits Crisp’s versatility, as well as the character’s ability to shape his way through the film around the work of his fellow cast-mates, while assisting them in shaping their roles for the screen.

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Looking at only a handful of roles does not do justice to honor the incredible body of work in which Donald Crisp was engaged. Crisp proved the go-to actor for some of Hollywood’s A-films for the major studios, working with many legendary actors and actresses. Admittedly, and unbeknownst to many at the time, he was a Hollywood power broker who through his membership of the Bank Of America arranged financing for many films, including those he worked in. However, the focus here is not his financial pull but the work he gifted the films he appeared in.

If there are doubts regarding his genuine talent, attributing his appearances to his financing abilities, one only need see Crisp on the screen. His clear and expressive voice combined with a versatile physicality makes for a potent character actor. Crisp used his voice superbly, evoking a range of emotion and reaching audiences with a familiarity borne of experience and understanding. Crisp’s work is incredibly far-reaching and chances are audiences have seen him in many of their favourite films. Yes, there is truth in his being typecast – father roles abounded after How Green Was My Valley,  right up to one of his final films for Disney’s Pollyanna (1960). His silent film days saw him play tough guys and villains and finally judges, police officers, doctors, sea captains, ministers, clergymen and military men, through the 1930s and early 1940s. 

And therein lies the talent of Donald Crisp – his adaptability, his transformation into character and understanding of his own dimensions as an actor.

From the subtleties of small but important parts to key supporting roles, Donald Crisp is one of Hollywood’s memorable faces, who was both a pioneer and a long serving performer.

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.