Unseen Cinema 2: The Mechanized Eye
TCM's Unseen Cinema 2 showcase features such intriguing works as the optical pop art spirals in Marcel Duchamp's Anémic cinema (1926); a surrealistic parody made in high school by Orson Welles The Hearts of Age (1934); an early expressionistic spy film by Charles Vidor, The Bridge (1929); stunning views of the Eiffel Tower shot by Edison cameramen for Paris Exposition Films (1900); and Legacy of A Hollywood Extra (1928-29), a selection of extremely rare, silent montage experiments produced by Slavko Vorkapich for now lost feature films.
The fifteen films on the Unseen Cinema playlist called "The Devil's Plaything" represent an American brand of surrealism, the artistic movement that celebrates the irrational, illogical, and unreasonable by delving into the realm of dreams, deliriums, and hallucinations. Many of the filmmakers were clearly inspired by European cinema, including the early camera-trick movies of the French pioneer Georges Méliès, such as The House of the Devil (1896) and A Trip to the Moon (1902), and Robert Wiene's classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920), a masterpiece of the German Expressionist movement. But the visual dynamism of these movies, most of them silent and all made outside the Hollywood system, has a distinctly American flair.
Jack and the Beanstalk, made in 1902 by Edwin S. Porter, retells a familiar fairy-tale. Cinema's roots in vaudeville entertainment are plainly visible in elements like the dancing quadruped at the beginning (enacted by two humans in a cow costume) and the theatrical scenery throughout the film; but only a movie could serve up the motion-picture trick effects that energize every scene, from a semi-animated egg to characters who emerge from nothing and disappear as magically as they arrived. The camera doesn't move, as it would in Porter's western The Great Train Robbery a year later, but the director uses elegant lap dissolves to move the sequences along at a lively clip, and moments of projected film-within-the-film anticipate his more famous experiments along that line in The Great Train Robbery and Life of an American Fireman (1903).
Porter directed the marvelously titled Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in 1906, apparently inspired by the French fantasy Rêve à la lune, made by Gaston Velle and Ferdinand Zecca in 1905. But its immediate source was a popular comic strip by the legendary cartoonist Winsor McCay, who became a filmmaker himself a few years later and created his own variations on the theme of a man who eats too much Welsh rarebit (a concoction of toast and cheese) and passes an extremely uncomfortable night. The first scene finds our undisciplined hero downing so much grog and rarebit that no more will go down his gullet, then stumbling from the restaurant to the street, where he grabs a lamppost for support as the city swirls up, down, and around, vividly evoked by Porter's whirling, tilting camera and dizzying superimpositions. When the man makes it home and collapses into bed, things get even crazier - his shoes walk away, his furniture leaps about, and finally his bed takes him on a vertiginous ride high above the city's rooftops, ending with the dreamer spinning on a weathervane and finally plummeting through his bedroom ceiling. Awaking from his nightmare, he still has the shivers, and surely vows he'll never touch rarebit again. Viewers might share that resolution.
The Thieving Hand, made by J. Stuart Blackton in 1908, is a fantasy about a one-armed beggar who does a good turn for a rich man and receives an artificial arm as a reward - a prosthesis that turns out to have a life of its own, picking pockets and robbing a pawnbroker when the recipient tries to hock it. The trick shots are skillfully done, but the anti-Semitic stereotype represented by the pawnbroker is most unwelcome.
The Impossible Convicts was directed by D.W. Griffith's brilliant cinematographer, G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, in 1906. The story is a trifle about prisoners trying a jailbreak, and the movie's main gimmick - parts of it were printed with the frames in reverse order - is mild fun, allowing crazy feats like people jumping backwards and rolling upstairs.
Welsh rarebit returns in the "Food-Induced Nightmare" sequence from Victor Fleming's comedy When the Clouds Roll By, a 1919 production starring Douglas Fairbanks as Daniel Boone Brown, an ordinary man who falls victim to a mad psychologist's sinister experiment. Encouraged by his butler, who's in cahoots with the bad scientist, Daniel gobbles rarebit, lobster, mince pie, and other such foods in the middle of the night, believing the butler's assurance that this is good exercise for the stomach. The unfortunate eater then has a horrible night, with morsels literally dancing in his stomach and chasing him so relentlessly that he runs up a wall and across a ceiling in an effort to get away. Slow motion, superimposition, and other trickery enliven the movie, some of which is said to be recycled from Joseph Henabery's comedy His Majesty the American, another 1919 film produced by Douglas Fairbanks Productions and released by United Artists.
Adapted from a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, the James Cruze comedy Beggar on Horseback premiered in 1925. In the "Dream Fantasy Wedding" sequence, the poor young composer played by Edward Everett Horton has a horrible vision of what his future might be like if he marries a wealthy woman for her money so he can finish his symphony; the wedding musicians are human-sized frogs, the bridal bouquet is a cluster of dollar signs, and the honeymoon train has his mother-in-law's scowling face on the front of the locomotive. It's a nightmare for sure.
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, codirected by Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey, from 1927, when movie extras were both used and abused in the studios. The ill-starred hero is Jules Raucourt, who trades his name for a number - symbolizing the dehumanizing nature of the motion-picture industry - and encounters enough "No Casting Today" notices to dampen his spirits and shorten his life. In the end he goes to heaven and reaps a belated reward for his effort to make good in the merciless entertainment world. Fueled by expressionistic lighting and the dazzling montage that was Vorkapich's specialty, the film purportedly had a budget of $97, boosting its production values by ingenious deployment of miniature sets and mirrors. It was photographed by the brilliant Gregg Toland, who went on to do legendary camerawork for such renowned films as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
The Love of Zero, a 1928 tragicomedy directed by Florey and "staged" by the great art director William Cameron Menzies, is another heir to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's also another low-budget beauty, announcing in the opening titles that its total cost was $200. Centering on Zero's successful courtship of Beatrix - he serenades her with a trombone - and the unhappiness that ensues when she's taken from him by an aristocrat. The film is a highly stylized romantic melodrama that pushes its conventions to the point of parody.
Another of Poe's most popular tales, The Telltale Heart, is the basis for Charles F. Klein's 1928 movie of that title, which follows the original plot - a lunatic murders an old man and is tormented by the corpse's beating heart - while adding touches of its own, such as having police officers speak in unison and examine the killer's eyes for guilt with a huge magnifying glass. The sets are direct knockoffs of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the best moments are panic sequences with rapid-fire editing and eye-boggling superimpositions.
James Sibley Watson's dourly amusing Tomato Is Another Day is a 1930 talkie made as a critique of talkies, satirizing the way images and words can needlessly duplicate each other in synch-sound movies. It's a radically minimalist comedy about a passionless love triangle, and Watson didn't much like it, nor did the audience when it had its original one-night run. It's quite interesting as a surrealist exercise, though, with visual and verbal puns punctuating performances so deadpan that they're barely performances at all.
Orson Welles was only 20 when he and co-director William Vance made The Hearts of Age in 1934. Nonlinear and largely nonsensical, it's a sardonic meditation on themes of mortality and love, intended as part of a theatrical production rather than a standalone movie. Welles plays a sort of devil figure in extravagant makeup - several characters are in blackface, which would have been less offensive in the 1930s than it is today - and it's interesting to see his penchant for extreme camera angles even in his debut film.
The towering American artist Joseph Cornell is best known for the assemblages he made from found objects meticulously arranged in small boxes. He also created many films, extending his collage aesthetic into cinema by editing found footage (or material expressly shot for him) into allusive montages fraught with resonant moods and atmospheres. "The Enigmatic Cinema of Joseph Cornell: Part 1" contains three of them. The aptly titled Unreal News Reels, made in the 1920s and 1930s, scrambles material from B comedies into antic and unpredictable new structures. The Children's Jury: New Newsreel, dating from around 1938, displays ready-made surrealist material such as an underwater wedding ceremony, and Thimble Theatre, completed by the great avant-garde filmmaker Lawrence Jordan and comprising footage shot between the 1930s and 1970s, shows a series of unexpected sights, including a man and kangaroo sparring in slow motion. Cornell didn't consider himself a surrealist, but his best films are American surrealism at its finest.
Jack and the Beanstalk Director: Edwin S. Porter
With: Thomas White (Jack)
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend Director: Edwin S. Porter
Screenplay: Winsor McKay
With: Jack P. Brawn (the rarebit fiend)
The Thieving Hand Director: J. Stuart Blackton
With: Paul Panzer (man with artificial arm)
The Impossible Convicts Director: G.W. Bitzer
Food-Induced Nightmare - Excerpt from When the Clouds Roll By Director: Victor Fleming
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Cinematographers: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Art Direction: Edward M. Langley
With: Douglas Fairbanks (Daniel Boone Brown), Albert MacQuarrie (Hobson), Herbert Grimwood (Dr. Ulrich Metz)
Dream Fantasy Wedding - Excerpt from Beggar on Horseback Director: James Cruze
Screenplay: Walter Woods
Cinematographer: Karl Brown
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
With: Edward Everett Horton (Neil McRae), Gertrude Short (Gladys Cady), Ethel Wales (Mrs. Cady), Erwin Connelly (Mr. Cady)
The Fall of the House of Usher: A Film Version of Poe's Story Directors: Melville Webber and J.S. Watson, Jr.
Cinematographers: Melville Webber, J.S. Watson, Jr.
Art Direction: Melville Webber, J.S. Watson, Jr.
Music: Alec Wilder
With: Herbert Stern (Roderick Usher), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline Usher), Melville Webber (A Traveler)
The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra Directors: Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey
Producer: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey
With: Raucort (9413), Voya (The Star)
The Love of Zero Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich
Cinematographer: Edward Fitzgerald
Art Direction: Wm. Cameron Menzies
With: Joseph Mari (Zero), Tamara Shavrona (Beatrix), Anielka Elter (The Woman)
The Telltale Heart Director: Charles F. Klein
Producer: Maurice Barber
Screenplay: Charles F. Klein
Cinematographer: Leo Shamroy
With: Otto Matiesen (The insane), Herford (The old man), de Fuerberg (Detective), Darvas (Detective)
Tomato Is Another Day Director: James Sibley Watson
The Hearts of Age Director: William Vance, Orson Welles
Producer: William Vance
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Cinematographer: William Vance
With: Orson Welles (Death), Virginia Nicholson (Old woman, Keystone Cop), Paul Edgerton (bell ringer)
Unreal News Reels - Excerpt Director: Joseph Cornell, Kodak Cinegraph
The Children's Jury: New Newsreel Director: Joseph Cornell
Film Editing: Joseph Cornell
Thimble Theatre Director: Joseph Cornell; completed by Lawrence Jordan
by David Sterritt