As I wrote in my original post on The Great Unseen, I decided to begin this project with the silent films on the list. As such, I have now watched Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906), Safety Last! (1923), Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925), and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). As a point of comparison, I also watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925) for the first time and rewatched two Buster Keaton films, Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). And, while browsing the library shelves for some of these classics, I realized they had a copy of the restored Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915–1916), which I’ve never seen in its entirety. So, as you can see, this project has mushroomed somewhat. (Like no one could see that coming.) Still, I wanted to report on my efforts and thoughts to date.
To begin at the beginning—literally—I first want to talk a bit about Alice Guy-Blaché (1873–1968). From my study of the French film industry at NYU, I vaguely knew of Alice Guy as an early production head at Gaumont. How lacking my education was—she was a total filmmaking trailblazer! I’m actually mad now that the film classes I took didn’t cover her as they did Auguste and Louis Lumière or Georges Méliès. Not only was she the industry’s first female director, there is an argument to be made that she is the first director of narrative cinema period, having likely filmed La Fée au choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy), a one-minute film where a young woman appears to deliver newborn babies from the heads of cabbages, in April 1896 (i.e., a month or two before Georges Méliès made his first fiction film).
Alice Guy began her career as a secretary to inventor/industrialist Léon Gaumont, but quickly turned to producing and directing after seeing an early private demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ film technology. From 1897 to 1907, when she married Herbert Blaché, she was Gaumont’s head of production and probably the world’s only female film director. In addition to being incredibly prolific, she also experimented extensively: first with special effects in films like La Fée aux choux, then with color, hand tinting films such as Les Fredaines de Pierrette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900) and Le Tango (The Tango) (1905), and, finally, sound synchronization. Additionally, after moving to the United States with her husband and founding Solax Films in New Jersey in 1910, she directed the first film to feature an all African American cast (A Fool and His Money, 1912). Seriously, this woman’s name should be tattooed on every contemporary filmmaker’s forehead. Unfortunately, she lost both her husband and film production to Hollywood and, after directing her last film in 1920, divorcing her husband, and filing for bankruptcy, she moved back to France and was unable to continue to make a living working as a filmmaker. C’est la vie I guess.
But why was her history lost? Well, for starters, when Gaumont published the history of his company, one she had been instrumental in developing, he did not mention her. At all. Quelle surprise—men really are the worst. Over the years (she lived to age 94!), Guy-Blaché tried to correct for this absence from recorded film history, but it was a difficult task since most of her films were believed to be lost. Luckily, that was not the case, and about 350 of the over 1000 films she directed survive, including 22 feature-length films. I was able to borrow a DVD of a collection of her early films from the library and many are available on You Tube. I highly recommend checking them out. A very cool early film that experiments with movement is Danse serpentine de Mme Bob Walter (1897). If you want to see hand-tinting in action, watch Les Fredaines de Pierrette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900). Both films are under two minutes long.
And now, on to the show!
Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906) is one of Alice Guy-Blaché’s best-known early works. Only seven minutes long, the film is a satirical look at daily life in a society where the roles of men and women have been inverted: men play hard to get and take care of the children while woman smoke and drink and boss them around. My favorite part is early on, where a woman is smoking with her feet up while one man irons and another sews. Good times. Never fear though—SPOILER ALERT!—the patriarchy comes through in the end. This film would have been much better with intertitles, but still, it is rather extraordinary for 1906. You can watch it here.
Les Vampires (1915–1916) is a ten-part serial thriller about a gang of French criminals. Though not as popular upon its release as Louis Feuillade’s earlier Fantômas series, it has since become his most popular work, especially since it was restored in the late 90s and finally appeared on DVD in the United States about five years ago. I’ve been meaning to watch it for some time, especially since watching Irma Vep (1996) by Olivier Assayas a couple of years ago. However, since the complete film is almost seven hours long, so far I have only watched the first episode (“The Severed Head”). But that episode reminded me greatly of early Hitchcock and the “old dark house” movies I loved last October, so I’m looking forward to the rest. [Side note: Louis Feuillade is the person who took over as the Gaumont studio head when Alice Guy-Blaché left.]
Safety Last! (1923) is one of those films where everyone has probably seen at least one scene—the scene pictured above—where Harold Lloyd is hanging from the giant clock face. Despite appearances, and what I thought going into this project, this is not just simple physical comedy. In fact, Safety Last! probably has a more developed plot than most silents and the comedy set pieces work organically within the larger whole. I quite enjoyed it. A word of caution however: Although not as sexist as I feared given the basic storyline (a young man moves to the city to earn enough money to marry his true love back home), there are some cringe-inducing moments of racial and ethnic stereotyping. There are also times where my fear of heights was severely tested. Lloyd’s stunt work here is breathtaking.
Since Lloyd is often portrayed as the third wheel on a silent comedy tricycle alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I wanted to rewatch some Chaplin and Keaton movies to see what I thought of them in comparison. As Keaton was one of the directors I studied in the one film course I took in college, I’ve seen most of his best films. [Side note: The class was called “Five Directors,” although it was really just three solo directors—Buster Keaton, Robert Bresson, and Alan Rudolph—along with The Archers, aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. An odd collection, to say the least.] For this project, I decided to rewatch the two films that are on the Sight & Sound Top 250 List, namely, Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). For Chaplin, I decided to watch two films I hadn’t yet seen, his first feature, The Kid (1921), and The Gold Rush (1925), which I mistakenly thought was about the California Gold Rush but in fact depicts the Klondike Gold Rush. Still, it did feature a bear, so I can pretend it took place in my adopted home state.
After watching all of these movies in quick succession, I feel like it is rather unfair to compare them. They are so very different in terms of style and intent. Suffice it to say that all of these films are excellent and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. I definitely still prefer Keaton to Chaplin, along I didn’t think The General quite lived up to my memory of it. Part of that may be the fact that it is somewhat hard to relate to a Confederate hero these days (though it too had a bear, so props for that). On the other hand, Sherlock Jr. remains a masterpiece of storytelling and meta commentary on filmmaking. And, with a running time of approximately 45 minutes, you really have no excuse not to watch this one.
Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein was the real surprise of this list. I expected to absolutely hate it; however, not only was it far better than I thought it would be, but it was far more relevant than I expected. The story told is deceptively simple—a dramatized version of an actual mutiny that took place in 1905 aboard a Russian battleship—but is really a more broad depiction of the dangers of authoritarianism and capitalist exploitation and the need for workers to unite against oppression. Word, Sergei.
Battleship Potemkin is another classic where most people have seen at least one scene, namely the baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps (famously referenced in The Untouchables); however, that was far from the most memorable image for me in that sequence. What most sticks in my mind is the repetition of the marching boots of the soldiers and the woman being shot in the face. Chilling. Other interesting visuals include the double exposure showing sailors hanging from the masts and the final confrontation of ships. [Side note: Apparently the Potemkin Stairs, as they are now generally referred to, were designed to be an optical illusion whereby a person looking down the stairs sees only the landings, and not the steps, but a person looking up sees only steps, and no landings. Cool, huh?]
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is a film that shows up on so many “best of” lists—and rose from #9 to #5 on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 250—that it is really a wonder I hadn’t seen it yet. Of course, until this month I hadn’t seen #3 (Tokyo Story) on that list either so perhaps I haven’t really been trying. In any case, Sunrise had never really seemed particularly interesting to me, and even once it started I got bored and turned it off almost immediately. Luckily I tried again because this time I got through the first few minutes and realized that the movie takes an incredible turn and, hot damn, did I like this movie. Yes, it’s not the most female friendly, and I hate that the man suffers no real consequences for his actions, and, sure, the city sequence tangent goes on a bit too long and there are crazy tonal shifts, but I just don’t care. None of this should work but it somehow does. And with gorgeous visuals to boot. What Murnau is able to convey in terms of dramatic narrative, and with so few intertitles, is truly astonishing. And that’s before taking into account the drunken pig and brilliant O. Henry ending. Between this and Nosferatu, which I experienced for the first time last October during my horror series, I clearly need to watch more Murnau.
In summary, miracles do happen, people. I really liked all of these selections.
Tune in next time when I take on unseen classics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In the meantime, if you are undertaking my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you’ve watched so far in the comments below.
The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906)
Safety Last! (1923)
Броненосец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin) (1925)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Other Classic Silents
La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Patch Fairy) (1896)
Les Vampires (1915–1916)
The Kid (1921)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Gold Rush (1925)
The General (1927)