The Haunted Bedroom (1913)

‘My father is still obdurate.

A young couple wants to get married, but a lack of money undoes their plans. The young woman’s brother wins enough money gambling to resolve the issue but dies before he can hand it over. After death, his ghost keeps a watch over the hidden treasure…

This 17-minute silent short subject from the Edison Studios, erroneously reported by some sources as running only 10 or 11 minutes, has nothing more to offer than a little historical value today. The original film may also have run a little longer as the resolution feels incomplete.

Jean Germaine (Jack Strong) and Lizette Rouget (Mabel Trunnelle) want to get married, but the difference in their social standing proves to be a severe obstacle. Jean’s father (Harry Linson) demands that Trunnelle produce a dowry worth 10,000 francs before he agrees to the match. The lovers are distraught, and Strong cannot move his father. Trunnelle vows to save up the money somehow, but a year later, she has only a fifth of the total required.

Her brother Paul (Augustus Phillips) offers to use her savings as a stake in a card game and win the entire amount. A session at the gambling den run by proprietor Carlton King is a success, but the other players aren’t happy with the outcome and waylay Phillips on his way home. He hides the money and a note of explanation in a room at the Inn of the Four Pigeons. However, he dies of his wounds moments later, remaining as a ghost to guard the stash.

There are few interesting aspects to this little ghost story from the early days of cinema, although depicting a supernatural presence as something other than comic or vengeful is unusual. There’s also a welcome absence of the usual objects moving around the room, a tiresome trope of the ‘haunted tavern’ scenario. However, the filmmaking technique is rudimentary at best. The screen may not display the entire set as if it were a stage play, but camera is locked down, presenting a fixed medium shot for each scene. There is no cutting or edits, save from one sequence to the next, and the ghost’s appearances are achieved through unambitious double exposures.

The story also trots out some of the usual clichés, with Trunnelle as the martyred heroine, descending into poverty after losing her savings, and Strong suddenly conspicuously absent. The only surprise is that Phillips doesn’t lose his shirt gambling and that the activity is presented as a legitimate way to make money. Instead, the ‘moral lesson’ would seem to be that ‘honesty is the best policy.’ The inn’s owner (Harry B. Eytinge) and his porter (Harry Beaumont) remain oblivious to the presence of the treasure trove, and Phillips’ ghost discourages any curious guests. However, the spirit takes a liking to a traveller from London, Richard Huntingdon (Herbert Prior) and guides him to the money. Prior is tempted to take the cash but goes to see Trunnelle instead.

The film lacks an end title card and is possibly missing additional footage that would have reinforced the moral. After all, our heroine is suffering because of Strong’s inability to stand up to his father. She’s also suffering alone. The obvious story progression here is that she falls for her saviour, Prior, whose moral courage in giving up the money stands in marked contrast to her lover’s weakness. However, what remains of the film ends abruptly and without a neat romantic resolution for Trunnelle either way. That does seem odd, given the year of production.

The lack of technical credits means that the director’s identity is unrecorded but could have been Prior. Born in England, he began his screen career as an actor for the Edison Company in 1907 and eventually racked up over 300 credits before his last film in 1934, although many of these were shorts rather than full-length features. In the same year as this project, he also has writing credits on five other pictures and directed ‘The Golden Wedding’ (1913). Before and afterwards, he is recorded only in acting roles. He and Trunelle were stage veterans and married in real life by the time they began to star in pictures, often appearing together. Before the arrival of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, they were movieland’s premier ‘power couple’. Trunelle returned to the stage after her movie career ended in 1923 and outlived her husband by over a quarter of a century, passing on in 1981 at the age of 101.

Businessman Thomas Edison founded the world’s film production studio in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1893, although he had no creative involvement with its output. Its earliest efforts were screened in the amusement arcade owned by the Holland Brothers in New York the following year and consisted of ‘actualities’, short subjects with titles such as ‘Barber Shop’, ‘Blacksmith Scene’, ‘Sioux Ghost Dance’, ‘Cock Fight’, and ‘Fun in a Chinese Laundry’. However, the switch to story-based film was swift, and the studio broke new ground with ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), an important milestone in the development of narrative cinema. Although much of its subsequent output is viewed now as pedestrian and uninspired, it did include the first movie depiction of ‘Frankenstein’ (1910). Two years earlier, Edison had led a consortium of the major studios in an attempt to exclude independent producers from the industry, but this was found to be in breach of anti-trust legislation and was dissolved in 1915. Coupled with the loss of overseas markets during the First World War, this convinced Edison that his time in the movie world was over, and he sold the business in 1918, bringing the studio to an end.

There’s little compelling about this effort, but those interested in film history might want to seek it out.

Baron Munchausen’s Dream/Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchhausen/Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen (1911)

After overindulging in food and wine with friends, the famous Baron Münchhausen is plagued by vivid nightmares…

An 11-minute trick film from French pioneer Georges Méliès. The marriage of his flair for bizarre and magical imagery with the tales of the notorious fantasist would seem to be the perfect fit. However, it was an opportunity largely squandered.

A night in for legendary storyteller Baron Münchhausen means good wine, good food and good company. Unfortunately, he gets too much of all three and can barely stand when the party’s over. Two servants manage to manhandle him to his bed, which lays beneath a large wall mirror. As the Baron sleeps, he begins to dream.

At first, he imagines a pleasant scene, with two couples dancing to a smiling fiddler, but the scene quickly changes to the inside of an Egyptian temple where he is violently attacked. Another switch finds him back in pleasant surroundings, but the women he admires suddenly transform into demons with animal heads and then soldiers who poke him with halberds. After that, the visions keep coming, each more terrible than the last.

By 1911, Parisian Méliès had been a highly successful filmmaker for about 15 years, getting in on the art form at its very genesis. After witnessing a demonstration of the Cinematograph developed by the Lumière brothers, Méliès built his own camera and began showing film as an accompaniment to his stage act as an illusionist. Quickly realising the new medium’s potential, he began exhibiting short ‘trick’ films that utilised early effect techniques, such as multiple exposures and stop motion substitution. These were highly popular, and the next few years saw Méliès building on his success, even opening a branch of his film company in the United States. However, by 1911, the party was almost over.

Moving pictures had caught the public’s imagination in a way few could have predicted. Still, it was necessary to maintain that early sense of wonder for the industry to survive and grow. Méliès’ flamboyant visions had appealed at first, but audience taste quickly evolved beyond mere spectacle and demanded more substance; in other words, story and drama. Although Méliès eventually attempted to embrace narrative to some extent with films like ‘The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle’ (1912), it was too late. Financial problems and unfortunate business decisions forced him into bankruptcy in early 1914.

This film serves as a perfect demonstration of the issues that brought an end to Méliès’ career. Leaving aside its merits when viewed today, contemporary audiences must have found it disappointing. The adoption of Münchhausen as the main character might even have been regarded as false advertising. After all, the German nobleman was famous as a teller of tall tales and extravagant fantasies, so it would have been reasonable to expect some kind of a story. Instead, Méliès provides his usual cavalcade of monsters and demons trotted out via his familiar modus operandi. The protagonist might be any old man, and the story is so thin as to be almost non-existent. It might have been a tried and tested formula, but to the increasingly sophisticated audience of 1911, it probably looked like a worn-out bag of old tricks. In fact, some sources suggest that the film may not have even made it to theatres at all.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have merit, of course. Over the years, Méliès refined his technique so that the substitution effects and dissolves appear smoother, and there’s plenty of evidence of that here. Using a mirror to frame the action is a neat idea, too, with two actors parroting each other’s moments to establish its presence. The interactions between the old Baron and his fantastic visitors have a more significant impact as a consequence. There are also some fine examples of the Méliès imagination at work. The girl with tentacles in the spider’s web is a particularly striking image, and the dragon puppet from ‘The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal’ (1906) makes a welcome reappearance. The Frenchman was apparently a great fan of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s stories of the blowhard Baron, but whether it was this that prompted the use of the character or whether more commercial considerations were involved is unrecorded. It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike some of Méliès’s best work, the majority of the film plays out on a single set, which perhaps betrays his increasing financial problems at the time.

It’s a surprise to many to find out that Baron Münchhausen was actually a real German aristocrat, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. After serving in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–39, he became notorious in high society for his exaggerated reminiscences and tall tales of his military exploits. Fictionalised stories of his adventures began to appear in German magazines and were collected into a book called ‘Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia’. First published in England in 1785, it was a hit all over Europe and translated into several languages, including a German edition which added new material by Gottfried August Bürger. The ridiculous nature of the stories, including a trip to the moon and riding on a cannonball, upset the real-life Baron, who threatened libel action. It appears this never came to fruition but may explain why original author Rudolf Erich Raspe never acknowledged the work as his own.

Some memorable images but an almost complete absence of story leave this as merely a monument to the visual imagination and filmmaking technique of one of the great film pioneers.

Andalusian Superstition/Superstition andalouse (1912)

After preventing her boyfriend from giving alms to a gypsy woman, a young girl daydreams about the beggar’s revenge.

Unusual ten-minute silent short from writer-director Segundo de Chomón that combines melodrama with a touch of surreal horror. Details of cast and crew have been lost to time, but this French-Spanish production has survived mostly intact.

Juanita is serving at an outdoor cafe when her boyfriend Pablo stops by for a drink. She goes over to his table to bring him a glass of wine when a gypsy woman enters the establishment, begging for alms. Pablo is about to oblige with a coin from his purse, but Juantina intervenes to stop him. There’s an argument, and the woman is thrown out. When Pablo leaves almost immediately afterwards, Juanita daydreams about how the woman might retaliate and steal her man.

In her dream, the gypsy arranges for Pablo to be waylaid on the road and kidnapped. Alerted by the cafe owner, the authorities chase the three ruffians responsible through a wood and across a river. Using the smoke from a fire, the gang eludes the forces of law and order and leaves Pablo in their strange, underground hideout to await the coming of the gypsy woman. While there, he stumbles across monstrous evidence of witchcraft and sorcery.

This short film is of interest to a modern audience in several ways. On the debit side is the negative depiction of the Romani people and their culture, casting them in the usual manner as thieves and black-hearted scoundrels who practice the dark arts, as well as more conventional forms of villainy. It’s a tiresome and lazy stereotype, of course, but it was very prevalent in early 20th Century Europe and still exists today.

Leaving that unpleasantness aside, the technical aspects of the film impress. Director Chomón was an early rival of the famous filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès. However, where Méliès often struggled to integrate narrative storytelling with his fantastical visions, Chomón demonstrates a greater ability to balance those two elements here. The story is presented realistically for the most part, even if most of the action takes place in Juanita’s dream. Assisting the grounded feel, most of the film was shot on location, with even the cafe being outside, which was a departure from the usual studio-bound work favoured by both directors.

It’s not until near the climactic scenes that events take a decidedly surreal path. This change occurs when Pablo is left alone in the hideout, which does resemble the kind of interior set that Méliès favoured. Our hero begins to root through the cupboards, presumably looking for something to aid his escape, when he comes across some large jars. A couple of these contain bizarre creatures, brought to life by de Chomón’s expertise in animation. These are obvious precursors to the ‘little surprises’ of Dr Praetorious in James Whale’s fantastic ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). However, Chomón’s creations are anything but comic, being definite nightmare fuel instead.

It’s also pleasing to see how film grammar and techniques were developing. For the most part, the camera still views the action at a distance, but Chomón varies his shots in several sequences rather than keeping the filming position fixed as if he were presenting a stage play. There’s a remarkable moment when the camera moves in on Juanita’s face as she goes into her daydream and zooms out when the vision is over. It’s bizarrely reminiscent of that famous shot in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975) when police chief Roy Schieder realises the shark is in the water off the beach, although not nearly as sophisticated or accomplished, of course.

Perhaps the most striking element, however, is the colours. It’s generally accepted that the film was hand-tinted frame by frame, but it’s such a fine job that an audience could be forgiven for assuming it was shot on an early, primitive colour film stock. English language intertitles have been added to the available print at some point in history (to which we owe the character names), and, apparently, one of these at the start of the film identifies the colouring technique used as ‘Pathécolor ó Cinemacoloris’ although this card was missing from the version reviewed here.

Segundo de Chomón was born in Aragon in northeastern Spain in 1871 as Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz. His entry into the French film industry followed his marriage to actress Julienne Mathieu. She was regularly working for the Société Pathé Frères film company, later simply known as Pathé. Chomón began working for them as a distributor, sometimes of his own Spanish productions. Recognises his talent, Charles Pathé began promoting Chomón as a rival to Méliès, and the director and his wife collaborated on the creation of more than 150 short films between 1907 and 1912, including ‘Legend of A Ghost/La légende du fantôme (1908). At the end of this period, Chomón went to work in Italy, most notably providing the impressive SFX for Giovanni Pastrone’s ‘Cabiria’ (1914). He began working increasingly in cinematography and visual effects over the next few years, contributing to such notable projects as Abel Gance’s classic ‘Napoleon’ (1927) and Guido Brignone’s ‘Maciste in Hell’ (1925). He passed away suddenly in 1929.

If you can forgive the racial stereotyping, this is an interesting example of the evolution of early cinema.

Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911)

‘Esmeralda and her pet goat dance in the atrium of Our Lady to earn a living.’

A gypsy dancer catches the eye of the archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral. He is consumed by jealousy when he discovers that she loves Captain Phoebus, who commands the city guard, and orders his servant Quasimodo to kidnap her. However, the deaf bellringer is caught in the act…

Ambitious, 36-minute version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel from French film company Pathé Frères and director Albert Capellani. The screenplay by Michel Carré is a close adaptation and results in one of the most faithful adaptations of the source material.

Gypsy girl Esmeralda (Stacia Napierkowska) is a popular dancer in the streets of Paris. One of her performances in the square outside Notre Dame Cathedral is witnessed by archdeacon Claude Frollo (Claude Garry), who is immediately smitten. However, shortly afterwards, she encounters the city guard and its handsome Phoebus de Châteaupers (René Alexandre). The attraction is instant, and the two begin a romance.

Unfortunately for the lovers, churchman Garry discovers their relationship, and his lust turns to jealousy and obsession. He orders his deaf servant Quasimodo (Henry Krauss) to snatch the girl, but the bellringer is caught and sentenced to public humiliation in the pillory. Moved by his suffering, Napierkowska offers him water. Garry is still determined to have the girl, though, and is prepared to commit murder to further his aims.

The classic tale of the hunchback and his love for a gypsy dancer had already reached the French screen in the form of ‘Esmeralda’ (1905), co-directed by pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. However, some doubt has been cast on her involvement, and the film is apparently lost. As a result, Capellani’s take is the earliest surviving adaptation, and, given the year of production, it’s pleasing to get such a fully-realised film with the story told at such length. Obviously, some elements from the novel have been dropped, such as Emeralda’s marriage to the poet Pierre Gringore. This character, based on a real-life 16th Century writer of the same name, doesn’t appear at all, and there are no scenes with the beggars and their Court of Miracles.

Instead, the narrative boils down to the core interactions of the four protagonists. Unfortunately, it’s hard for an audience to get too invested in them as Capellani shoots everything in a medium-long shot, as was the fashion of the times. Occasionally, his camera ventures a little closer, but there’s still an inevitable distance between the audience and the drama. However, what is remarkable is that it exhibits a very conscious step away from the more fantastical extravagances of pioneers like Georges Méliès. Capellani’s story is set in the ‘real world’, and its drama has consequences for its characters, rather than being primarily a showcase for spectacular set design and early visual effects. It’s part of a definite move toward a more narrative-based cinema.

The distant camerawork does make it difficult to get a good look at the makeup on Krauss, though, which is a pity. Fortunately, the actor does a fine job conveying the character’s physical abnormalities with his bodily movement alone. Modern viewers unfamiliar with the book, however, may find it surprising that he is offscreen for long periods and that much of the drama is focused on the priest and the object of his obsession. Performances in general may appear overstated to modern eyes, but that was the convention of the time and Napierkowska brings a pleasing energy to her lively role, particularly in the early dance sequences.

It has been reported that the scenes outside the cathedral were shot at the actual location. However, it seems more than likely that this was merely an invention for publicity purposes. Hugo’s novel was placed on the Catholic Church’s ‘Index of Forbidden Books’ three years after its publication in 1831. The reason given was that it was ‘too sensual, libidinous, and lascivious’, although it seems likely that its portrayal of a senior church official driven to murder by lust for a woman may have also been a contributing factor! It remained on the list until 1959, so it seems unlikely that ecclesiastical authorities would have been receptive to any request that Capellani may have made for a filming permit.

Unfortunately, any merits the film possesses have been thoroughly eclipsed by the other productions of the tale that followed over the next 30 years. Lon Chaney’s star-making turn as ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) remains the definitive silent version, eclipsed only in quality by the big budget 1939 RKO extravaganza starring a spellbinding Charles Laughton. Many other adaptations have followed for both big screen and small, with the role of Quasimodo tackled by actors as diverse as Anthony Quinn (1956), Warren Clarke (1976), Anthony Hopkins (1982) and Many Patinkin (1997). A Netflix remake with Idris Elba to produce and star was announced in 2018, but a lack of further news suggests that it may have been cancelled.

Napierkowska was born in 1891 to a Polish father and French mother, beginning her career as a dancer at the Folies Bergère. 1908 saw her debut in films, and she hit the big time four years later in a series of shorts opposite famous comedian Max Linder, beginning with ‘Max Sets the Fashion/Max lance la mode (1912). A year later, her attempted relocation to the United States ended with an arrest in New York after authorities condemned a dance performance as ‘indecent’. She returned to Europe, and more film roles followed, including a notable appearance in Louis Feuillade’s ground-breaking serial ‘Les vampires’ (1915). Director Jacques Feyder was thrilled to cast her as Antinea in ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921), only to discover later that his Queen of Atlantis had gained at least 30 pounds since he had last seen her. Hopeful that she would burn off the calories during location shooting in Algeria, the opposite happened due to the rich food available at the local hotel.

It’s surprising to find a feature of this vintage that embraces storytelling at such length, and the results are efficient enough, but it’s no forgotten classic.

Rose o’Salem Town (1910)

‘The Puritan brushed off by the girl is furious and swears to take revenge.’

A young girl living in Salem attracts the romantic attentions of both a frontiersman and one of the village elders. When she rejects the latter, he attempts to force her to accept him by accusing her of witchcraft…

After some success with macabre subjects such as ‘The Sealed Room’ (1909), legendary film pioneer D.W. Griffith turned his attention to the Salem witch trials, which took place in 1692 and 93. The resulting 13-minute short feature has points of interest on several fronts.

Rose (Dorothy West) is a young woman whose affinity for nature has earned her the nickname ‘The Sea Child’ in her hometown of Salem. Living alone with her elderly mother (Clara T Bracy), she spends most of her time down by the water, where she catches the eye of heroic trapper (Henry B Walthall). Unfortunately, West is also on the radar of one of the town’s leading citizens, a Puritan bible-thumper, played by George Nichols. His attentions are somewhat less welcome, and when she turns him down, he swears revenge.

As Walthall continues his pursuit of West, Nichols targets her mother, catching her in the act of collecting herbs she requires to treat one of the town’s children. He accuses her of witchcraft; a charge expanded to include West. The two women are tried, convicted and sentenced to burn at the stake. Walthall attempts to enlist the help of a Native American tribe he has befriended by the elderly chief (W. Chrystie Miller) turns him down.

The real-life Salem witch trials were a testament to religious hysteria and injustice when private grudges were settled under cover of righteous fervour. Fourteen women and five men were executed by hanging on that occasion. The film begins with a title card stating: ‘Reliable authority states that nine million human lives were sacrificed through the zeal of fanatical reformers during the Christian epoch.’ It’s a bold opening and confirmation that filmmakers weren’t afraid to tackle serious subjects even at such an early date in cinema history.

Emmett C Hall’s script doesn’t pull any punches, either. It stops short of elevating West’s character to sainthood or the like, but there’s no doubt that she’s done nothing to deserve the evil machinations of Nichols and the Puritan judges who defend her. Reportedly, the cast and crew travelled to some of the actual locations of the original trials, and some of the exterior sequences were shot there.

This amount of location work makes for a very different experience from studio-bound pieces like Griffith’s ‘The Sealed Room’ (1909). There are far more interior set-ups on offer, although the camera stays at a respectful distance to photograph the entire ‘stage’ and never moves. However, the quick cutting between these scenes with West and location work with Walthall demonstrates one of the early stages of the evolution of cinematic language. The audience is asked to follow two developing story threads simultaneously; West’s troubles and Walthall’s attempts to persuade the Native American tribe he has befriended to mount a rescue attempt. It makes for a far fresher, more dynamic narrative.

Of course, Griffith gets a lot of flack, and rightly so, for the racist attitudes prevalent in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1914), but this earlier film is quite different in that regard. Likely inspired by Hawk-eye and Chingachgook in James Fennimore Cooper’s classic novel ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, trapper Walthall’s relationship with a young warrior (Guy Hedlund) leads to a war party riding to West’s rescue at the finale. There is no context to suggest the two have a long term friendship, but the clasp of hands before the fadeout confirms mutual respect at the very least. Given Griffith’s later work, it’s an interesting element and perhaps demonstrates that attitudes weren’t quite as clear-cut as some modern-day commentators find it convenient to assume.

It’s also possible to put a feminist spin on the film. Here we have two women, apparently living without a man and probably supported by the mother’s skill as a healer. Men dictate their respective fates, and neither have any freedom of action save West resisting Nichol’s advances. It’s the one positive action that either takes, and this results in her being condemned to death. Their independent way of life and self-expression is not to be tolerated. Even after Walthall offers her a new life away from the constraints of civilisation, a modern audience will likely be aware that she doesn’t really have a choice.

There are no supernatural elements to enable definitive classification as an early horror film, but Griffith’s short film has the subject matter to warrant consideration. Although not depicting the actual trials, this would seem to be the first cinematic endeavour to examine the incident. The performances are also surprisingly naturalistic, considering the era, will West particularly effective and restrained. Her career began in 1908, and she retired in 1916, by which time she had racked up over 100 credits. Of course, these were all short films, but it’s still an impressive tally, considering that she was also active in radio and the theatre. She toured Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, helping to entertain the American Army of Occupation.

An interesting piece of film history.

Queen of Spades/Pikovaya dama (1910)

A young soldier obsessed with cards is determined to obtain a fabulous gambling secret from an old Countess. A supernatural visitation provides the knowledge that he seeks, but it comes at a heavy price…

The first of at least nine silent versions of Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s celebrated short story comes from fellow countryman Pyotr Chardynin. Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had already adapted the tale into a successful opera, which had premiered to great acclaim in 1890, and was a profound influence on this early film version.

Handsome young German (Pavel Biryukov) is a member of the regiment of Engineers and a constant presence at the gaming tables with his fellow officers. However, he never plays, fascinated by the game but unwilling to risk his money. One day in the park, his friend Eletskii (Andrey Gromov) identifies an old woman passing by as the Countess (Antonina Pozharskaya), who is promenading with her granddaughter, Liza (Aleksandra Goncharova). It’s rumoured that the ageing lady knows the ‘secret of the three cards’ and when to play them. Apparently, this is a foolproof method for success at the tables and a surefire guarantee of great fortune.

Gromov is madly in love with Goncharova, but she rejects his suit with a cold formality. Afterwards, Biryukov finds her alone in her grandmother’s drawing-room and makes his own advances. Outraged by this invasion of her privacy, she demands that he leave, but the young soldier puts a gun to his head and threatens suicide. She implores him to stop and, convinced of his passion, instantly falls in love him. Later, she gives him a key to her room while other women and soldiers dance at a formal party. Of course, instead of keeping their romantic assignation, he uses it to access the Countess’ chamber and demand the secret of the cards.

Pushkin’s story is considered a classic of 19th Century Russian literature and is an obvious subject for adaptation into a short film. It’s a straightforward tale of greed and just deserts set in an era and circumstances that had become unfamiliar and very novel by the time that cinema arrived as a storytelling medium. Unfortunately, it’s painfully clear that writer-director Chardynin didn’t possess the resources to convey this setting in any meaningful or effective way. The film’s only exterior work is the opening scene, the subsequent action being restricted to cramped interiors, most likely a redressed single set.

These limitations are there for all to see in the ball sequence, which demands some scale and an elaborate setting. Instead, Chardynin realises it with a dozen actors crowded into his small space. A line of young women hops up and down in the foreground, presumably in an effort to distract the audience but merely providing some unintentional laughter. Yes, it’s supposed to be a courtly, formal dance but, to modern eyes, it looks more than a little ridiculous.

In another scene, one of the principals throws themselves from a bridge. Unfortunately, this translates to the actor walking between a railing and an unconvincing painted backdrop of the city, ducking their head out of sight. These shortcomings are only emphasised by a complete absence of any cinematic technique. This is nothing more than a theatrical performance put on film; the camera never moves, stuck in the one position that provides a view of the entire stage. The only edits are between scenes and for the occasional intertitle.

Chardynin based his screenplay on Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of the original story, which changes the status of the character of Liza from the Countess’ ward to her granddaughter and gives her friends and attendants. This is understandable as a device for an opera, where there’s a need to open things out and provide spectacle, but not necessary for a film, where small, intimate moments can be easily conveyed. In his story, Pushkin portrays the character’s loneliness and isolation despite her life of privilege with a neat economy not always associated with Russian authors. Her betrayal by the soldier (named ‘Herman’ in all other versions) is the tale’s emotional core. Ditching this element weakens her character considerably and leaves the audience with nowhere to invest its sympathies. It has to be acknowledged that fifteen minutes is a very brief runtime, but it would have been a relatively simple matter to revert to the original work in this respect.

Pushkin’s story was to prove a magnet to silent filmmakers and has also been adapted many times over the succeeding decades of talking pictures. Chardynin’s film must also share its one notable achievement as the first version with a German production from Deutsche Bioscop GmbH that came out the same year. Given that this was the studio that went on to produce Paul Wegener’s ‘The Student of Prague/Der Student von Prag’ (1913), and his first appearance as ‘Der Golem’ (1914), it would be very interesting to view that version. However, not only is the film lost, but so are the credits, so it’s not even known who was involved with the project.

Arguably, the version likely to be familiar to most moviegoers is Thorold Dickinson’s handsome, post-war British take ‘The Queen of Spades’ (1949), starring Anton Wallbrook and Edith Evans. However, a different silent version from Russia, ‘The Queen of Spades/Pikovaya dama’ (1916), is also celebrated for its high production values and the artistry of director Yakov Protazanov. Further Soviet versions followed in 1960 and 1982. There were also numerous adaptations for American television in the 1950s and 1960s, where the piece appeared on several anthology shows such as ‘General Motors Presents’, ‘Playdate’ and ‘Conrad Nagel Theater’. The most notable is ‘The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre’ episode, which stars screen legend Basil Rathbone and Margarey Wycherley.

Silent film enthusiasts may want to track this one down, but it has few points of interest.

Frankenstein (1910)

‘I shall create into life the most perfect human being that the world has yet known.’

Two years after leaving for college, scientist Frankenstein is ready to embark on his daring experiment to create life. Although he is successful, his creation has the appearance of a monster. The academic flees, returning to his home town where he plans to marry his fiancée Elizabeth. However, the creature is not far behind…

The first cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, this 12-minute silent picture was produced by the Thomas Edison Company in New York. Director J Searle Dawley also wrote the screenplay, which is presented on a small number of sets with a minimal cast, but still manages to make its’ mark over a century later.

Academic Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) departs from home to travel to college, leaving his intended bride Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). Two years pass before the night when he is finally ready to conduct his ambitious experiment: the creation of life. The intention is to create beauty and perfection, but the results are far from it. Phillips is repelled by the monster (Charles Ogle) when it enters his bedchamber and escapes the city to return home. He tries to bury his memories and marry Fuller, but Ogle’s creature is not so easily dismissed.

Obviously, the film’s place in the history of horror, and cinema itself, is impossible to deny. It’s the first baby steps of a genuine cultural phenomenon that has encompassed hundreds of movies, television shows, stage adaptations, comic books, further literary adaptations and appearances in every conceivable corner and medium of the entertainment world. The themes and incidents of the story have also been the inspiration and basis of more rip-offs, homages and knowing references than perhaps any other character in literary history. The mad or misguided scientist was born with Frankenstein.

That’s a heavy legacy for any first film to shoulder, especially one of a vintage of more than 100 years. The surprise is that it holds up so well within that limitation. Credit here must go to writer-director Dawley, particularly for his screenplay. Boiling down a novel of almost 75,000 words into just 12 minutes of screentime is no laughing matter, but he sensibly distils the action into three swift acts: the setup, the creation and rejection of the creature and the wrap-up at Frankenstein’s home. It’s an elementary summary of the tale, but it’s not as if Dawley had much wiggle room, given the short runtime. More significantly, he does come up with a couple of nice, creative touches which are pretty original.

The most immediately striking element of Dawley’s film is the creation sequence. Rather than having the creature assembled from various spare parts looted from local boneyards, this monster is grown inside a cauldron. During the process, the creature rapidly takes on muscle, bulk and form, added during frequent cutaways to the watching Phillips. This is very different from the usual approach where the scientist endows the life force into an inanimate body via various fizzing electrical devices or a convenient lightning storm. The approach may have been due to the limitations of what Dawley had to work with, but it’s undeniably a little gruesome and quite effective if you make allowances. It also serves as a vague precursor to the kind of body horror that is a staple of the genre today.

The other interesting spin on the material is foreshadowed by one of the intertitles before the creation sequence, which states: ‘Instead of a perfect being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.’ This statement suggests a much closer link between man and monster than the mere application of electric current. Publicity material issued at the time presented a very literal reading of the following events. These culminate when Ogle literally vanishes into thin air because ‘The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears’. To modern eyes, this suggests that the monster represents his creator’s twisted psyche, that it’s birthed and sustained by his unhealthy obsession with forbidden knowledge. After all, one of the film’s final shots has the creature only visible in a mirror as his creator’s reflection. There is nothing shown of any scientific method because Frankenstein is literally ‘playing god’, creating a man in his own image, which proves to be far from divine. He is trespassing on the Lord’s domain, but, unlike the ‘hero’ of Shelley’s novel, he faces no real consequences for his hubris.

Of course, Dawley’s film has all the limitations of cinema produced in its era. The acting is over-demonstrative for the most part, and the camera remains fixed in one place in a single shot for each scene. However, Ogle does attempt to infuse his creature with some pathos, and his clutching hands do recall the pathetic gestures employed by Boris Karloff in his iconic portrayal. Also, it’s tempting to believe that ‘mirror shot’ may have inspired German writer-director Paul Wegener’s landmark horror entry ‘The Student of Prague/Der Student von Prag’ (1913), produced just a couple of years later. After all, the creature’s status as the scientist’s doppelganger or Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll is heavily implied.

The film was thought lost for many decades, but a print was preserved by a Wisconsin film collector. Although acquired in the 1950s, it was only 20 years later when he realised its extreme rarity and the film was restored and preserved for all time. Generally, the output of the Edison Studios is not highly regarded, but Dawley was a prolific director, making more than 200 short films for the company before this Shelley adaptation. He did try to convince Edison to produce more extended subjects, but the famous inventor dismissed the suggestion, believing that audiences would not have the inclination to watch or the attention span required. Frustrated with that lack of vision, Dawley spent time with Adolf Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, where he directed further literary adaptations such as ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1913) and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1918). One of the founding members of the Motion Picture Directors Association, he directed his last feature in 1923 before becoming involved with the emerging technology used in sound films. In later life, he worked on the Arizona Republican newspaper, writing a regular column called ‘Sweet Arts of Sweethearts’, which covered the ‘courtship, betrothal and wedding customs’ of various cultures around the world.

Essential viewing for those interested in the history of film horror.

Faust (1910)

‘The old Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles and receives in exchange youth and pleasure.’

An old scientist and academic contemplates suicide but is interrupted by the devil who tempts him with a diabolical pact…

An eighteen-minute silent version of the German legend of Faust, which was a highly popular subject for early filmmakers. There were at least ten earlier versions, four by French pioneer Georges Méliès alone, and another three were released in the same year as this production. This take comes from Italy, courtesy of director Enrico Guazzoni and is closely based on the famous play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Exasperated by the failure of his scientific and mystical experiments, the elderly Faust (Alfredo Bracci) contemplates suicide. However, before he can drain the fatal cocktail that he’s prepared, the glass vanishes from his hand. This trickery is the work of Mephistopheles (Ugo Bazzini), who proposes a wager. He will show Bracci all the pleasures that the world has to offer, and he will only have to relinquish his soul if he experiences a moment that he wishes will last forever. Bracci takes the bet and is immediately transformed into a handsome young man. Naturally, the first stop on the itinerary is the local tavern for a pint or two, but the academic is unimpressed with the drunken antics of the regulars.

Changing tack, Bazzini shows him a beautiful woman in his magic mirror. This is Marguerite (Fernanda Negri Pouget), and, unsurprisingly, one look at her and his brain cells flee his head and make tracks in a southerly direction. Bazzini engineers a meeting between the two prospective lovebirds, but the lady in question is not interested. However, a gift of jewellery is enough to get her pulses racing, and the two disappear inside her house after he woos her in the garden. No sooner are they offscreen, however, then in walks Valentin (Giuseppe Gambardella), who is determined to defend his sister’s honour.

Given the film’s short running time, this is inevitably a simplified version of Goethe’s original work. That was published in two parts, separated by 24 years, the second appearing around a year after the author’s death. Only ‘Part One’ is frequently adapted, as it’s the part of the tale that covers the ‘deal’ and the temptations that Faust faces on Earth. Part Two finds him in a more ethereal realm where he encounters fairies, mythological creatures and marries Helen of Troy! Some familiarity with Geothe’s play is helpful when watching this screen version as the intertitles are few and not very informative. In particular, the details of the deal aren’t specified, which makes the tavern sequence a bit puzzling, as well as the fact that the audience is likely to wonder why Mephistopheles doesn’t simply grant Faust’s every wish.

Sadly, the film is nothing special. Guazzoni and his team don’t have the visual flair of someone like Georges Méliès, and the style is as pedestrian as the settings, which add nothing to the story, despite some decent production value. The SFX are of the simple ‘jump cut’ variety that the Frenchman pioneered and are not smoothly delivered. This lack of imagination and creativity is apparent throughout, with only the final scene of Negri Pouget in prison providing any halfway memorable visual imagery. The camera shoots the entire set exclusively, leaving the cast with the opportunity to do little more than gesticulate wildly in the middle distance. In the play, Marguerite drowns the child she bears due to her liaison with Faust, which would have offered Negri Pouget more of an acting opportunity. However, it’s hardly surprising that the film chose not to deal with infanticide.

Of those involved in the production, director Guazzoni went on to have the most notable subsequent film career. Perhaps the best-known example of his work was his epic version of author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s ‘Quo Vadis?’ (1913). Its success was followed by similar Roman dramas such as ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (1913), ‘Julius Caesar’ (1915), ‘The Sack of Rome’ (1920) and ‘Messalina’ (1924). He survived the coming of sound and delivered films regularly during the 1930s. His output decreased after Italy entered the Second World War, and his last film hit theatres in 1944, a year after their surrender. Details on the films he made during this period are not extensive, but it appears they were historical dramas and adventure stories with no overt political content.

‘Faust’ has remained a popular property over the century since Guazzoni’s film, although the most celebrated version is rightly F W Murnau’s incredible ‘Faust’ (1926). Deals with the devil, both actual and metaphorical, are such a ubiquitous literary and cinematic conceit as to verge on cliché, but there have still been some highly satisfying examples. Although not successful on its initial release, William Dieterle’s ‘All That Money Can Buy/The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is now regarded as a Hollywood classic.

What may surprise many is that the character is thought to be based on a real person, Johann Georg Faust. He was a magician and alchemist who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Documentation has verified his existence, and it seems his frequent claims of miraculous and supernatural powers often led to conflict with local authorities during his travels. He allegedly died in an explosion resulting from one of his alchemical experiments, and his life had become the subject of cheap, sensational literature by the end of the 16th Century. These ‘chapbooks’ inspired English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’, which was likely first performed in the early 1590s and launched Faust on his way to cultural immortality.

A film that should only concern hardcore fans of silent horror cinema.

Victory (1919)

‘Speaking of signs, a woman who powders her nose is not entirely without hope.’

The son of a famous writer has lived in self-imposed exile on a tiny island in the Dutch East Indies for two years. Making a final trip to the nearby island of Soerbaja to complete cutting his last ties to civilisation, he meets a girl playing in the orchestra at the local hotel…

Romantic drama based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad that features Lon Chaney in another villainous supporting role. Despite his breakout performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), the soon-to-be horror icon was still working his way up the ladder to leading roles but, once again, steals the show from the more established names in the cast.

Axel Heyst (Jack Holt) has spent the last two years in isolation, his head filled with the writings of his later father. Heyst Sr maintained that a man could only find true happiness in complete solitude. Holt has taken this to heart, his only companion in all-time being a houseboy (because I guess all that housework might interfere with his lofty contemplations, and you need someone to throw the cat off the verandah from time to time.) To complete his final removal from the society of humankind, Holt travels to the main island nearby, where he is the subject of gossip fueled by belligerent hotel owner Schomberg (Wallace Beery).

Beery’s establishment boasts some unusual entertainment in the tropics; an all-girl orchestra under the direction of the creepy Zangiacomo (William Bailey) and his wife (Ruth Renick). Holt sees Renick mistreating first violin Alma (Seena Owen) and soon learns that both Beery and Bailey are trying to force their attentions on her. Simply wanting to help, he spirits her away to his island, leaving a frustrated Beery incensed and out for revenge. When a trio of obvious crooks take rooms at the hotel, Beery convinces them that Holt has a fortune hidden on his island, and they determine to obtain it by any means necessary.

This 1919 film was the first attempt to turn one of Joseph Conrad’s literary works into a motion picture, and it turned out to be the only example that the author lived to see. As the filmmakers took great liberties with the source material, his opinion would have been interesting, but it seems unrecorded. The plot is greatly simplified. In the novel, Heyst does not live in complete isolation; by the time he meets Alma, he has already gone into a coal company business with a down on his luck sailor named Captain Morrison, who eventually dies, along with their enterprise. This part of the story is entirely omitted by screenwriter Jules Furthman, here credited as Stephen Fox. However, given the film’s brief running time and the inevitable focus on the story’s more commercial aspects, it’s understandable. The other significant change revolves around the resolution of events, which is one of the more extreme examples of the ‘Hollywood ending’ that I can recall, being as far removed from the novel’s conclusion as could be imagined.

The film’s director was Maurice Tourneur, who had once been an assistant to world-famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. He certainly displays a refined visual sensibility with his framing and shot selection, even if his camera sometimes lacks mobility. What he does bring to the story is a crisp, economical pace and his cast refrain from the usual histrionics that can mar silent productions when viewed today. Tourneur was a vocal opponent of screen acting techniques that used overblown theatrical gestures with the result that his pictures have aged far better than some of his contemporaries. He also makes good use of the locations.

However, it’s Chaney’s performance that takes centre stage, even though it’s ostensively a supporting role. Of course, it’s easy to single out a ‘star in waiting’ with the benefit of hindsight, but he commands the screen when he appears, his ruthless strongarm Ricardo easily dwarfing the impact of fellow stooge Pedro (Bull Montana) and their boss, Mr Jones (Ben Deely). Chaney’s occasional acting excesses are held firmly in check by Tourneur, and we get a sly, vicious thug who enjoys his work too much and stalks through the drama like some kind of ape or giant insect. Chaney suggests violence as much with his body language and slow, creeping smile as with his actions. Despite giving the orders and his memorable blonde hair and tiny sunglasses combo, it’s evident that Deely’s only in charge of the gang as long as Chaney finds it convenient. Given that this type of villain had become Chaney’s stock in trade at this point, it’s a testament to his acting skill and commitment that he is still looking for new wrinkles in such as character and, what’s more, finding them.

Tourneur enjoyed a long career in the film business, reaching the commercial pinnacle of his Hollywood career with ‘Aloma of the South Seas’ (1926), the top-grossing film of that year. By the time the industry had switched to sound production, though, he had returned to Europe, a move perhaps prompted by his association with disastrous MGM money pit ‘The Mysterious Island’ (1929). His son, Jacques, also found success in Tinseltown as a director. His big hits included ‘Cat People’ (1942), ‘Out of the Past’ (1947), ‘The Flame and the Arrow’ (1950) and ‘Night of the Demon’ (1957). He worked with stars like Gregory Peck, Hedy Lemarr, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Ray Milland and Dana Andrews.

It may not be very faithful to Conrad’s novel, but this is a brisk, pleasing drama with a standout performance by an actor on his way to stardom.

False Faces/The False Faces (1919)

‘What is life? A prelude – perhaps an overture to death.’

During World War One, a reformed jewel thief enlists in the German Secret Service, intending to work as a double agent. His main objective is to take revenge on the officer who murdered his sister and nephew in Belgium and prevent the enemy’s acquisition of a vital secret document…

Silent spy thriller featuring the ‘Further Career and Adventures of the Lone Wolf’, gentleman thief and adventurer. It’s also one of the last pre-stardom films of horror icon Lon Chaney. Ironically, the film’s title does not refer to him or his role but the myriad identities employed by Henry B Walthall’s hero. Somewhat ironic for the soon-to-be ‘Man of a Thousand Faces.’

Opening during a barrage on the Western Front, Walthall’s Michael Lanyard (aka ‘The Lone Wolf’) makes the dangerous trip from the German lines to the opposing trenches. He has vital information about the war effort, mainly concerning the activities of his arch-enemy, Karl Eckstrom (Chaney). It seems the once uniformed soldier is now a big wheel in the espionage game and is planning to hijack a secret document being transported by an unknown courier to America on the cruise liner, SS Assyrian. Once onboard, Walthall encounters Mary Anderson (Cecilia Brooke), a woman apparently travelling alone. However, she seems to have struck up something more than a friendship with wounded veteran Lt Thackeray (Thornton Edwards). Chaney and confederates are also aboard, with a U-Boat lurking beneath the waves on the starboard bow.

Once Chaney has obtained the document, the sub opens fire and sinks the ship, the villains having escaped beforehand. Walthall clings to the U-boat after Chaney throws him overboard and becomes a passenger once he identifies himself with his German secret service designation. To his surprise, he finds that the craft is also on its way to America, heading for a secret base off the coast of New England. Meanwhile, Brooke has reached New York after surviving the sinking, and Chaney is also in town, preparing to deliver the stolen document to his spymaster.

Rock ’em, sock ’em espionage thriller that packs an awful lot of incident into its’ 98-minute running time (not 70 minutes as extensively quoted). It starts impressively with a darkened battlefield lit only by the flashes of shellfire and sweeping searchlights but comes to an abrupt halt when Walthall tells his tale to the French Officer. Beyond establishing his old persona as a famous jewel thief and his history with Chaney’s character, it has little effect on the events that follow, and it’s quite a lengthy dose of exposition so early in the film.

Things pick up when the action switches to the cruise liner and the document that is the object of everyone’s desire. This is a typical McGuffin, given that its contents aren’t even revealed at the end of the film; it’s just something to drive the action. The predictable romantic sparks fly between Walthall and Brooke, of course, and Chaney does his trademark heavy, accompanying villainous acts with a typical sneer. There’s nothing new for him here, but he did get to employ his skills with the makeup box, just not on himself, transforming actress Jane Daly into the ghost of a drowned woman who appears in the drunken visions of the U-Boat captain.

Although the work with the submarine is well-realised by co-writer and director Irvin Willat, all this action somehow fails to add up to anything of great consequence. It’s a predictable, workmanlike story, but it lacks creativity, although the script does dictate a clever fate for Chaney before the fadeout. The second act scenes on the ocean are the highlight, which unfortunately leaves the New York climax feeling like a bit of a letdown.

The character of ‘The Lone Wolf’ was created by American writer Louis Joseph Vance who starred him in a novel of the same name in 1914. A film adaptation followed three years later, and Willat’s film was based on Vance’s second book. The series ran for half a dozen novels more before the author’s death in 1933, and, by then, he was a fixture on the big screen, usually played by Bert Lytell. However, his most popular incarnation was in the person of suave American actor Warren William who starred in a series of 9 films for Columbia Pictures from 1939 to 1943. Gerald MohScarletover the role for three more features afterwards, before a transfer to the small screen in the 1950s, saw Louis Hayward star in 39 half-hour episodes as the gentleman thief.

After beginning his acting career on the New York stage in 1901, Walthall entered the movie business eight years later. He made his debut in ‘A Convict’s Sacrifice’ (1909), directed by D W Griffith. Third-billing in the director’s notorious ‘The Birth of A Nation’ (1915) made Walthall a star, and further success followed in ‘The Plastic Age’ (1925) and ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1926) with Lillian Gish. Moving into character roles when talking pictures arrived, he made memorable appearances in John Ford’s ‘Judge Priest’ (1934) and opposite Ronald Colman in ‘A Tale of Two Cities (1935). He also reprised his role as Roger Chillingworth in the 1934 version of ‘The Scerlet Letter’, this time with Colleen Moore. He died of an intestinal complaint in 1936.

Another small step on the road to stardom for Lon Chaney, and a decent, fast-paced spy drama, although it fails to add up to anything of significant consequence.