Sunday, September 20, 2009

House of Silent Scream: Let's get ready to robot rumble!

What do you do with something like Alpha Video?

Alpha Video deals mostly in the z-grade public domain detritus of early film. They repackage wrecked prints of (often justifiably) obscure flicks, slap on some evocative cover art, and then clog the bargain bins of America's DVD retailers with the results. I have yet to see a silent flick from Alpha that wasn't transferred from some highly damaged print and matched with painfully modern and cheesy music. Furthermore, their marketing borders on the deceitful. I've been stung more than once by an AV copywriter who decided to pitch a melodrama as a horror or suspense film. They also have the annoying tendency make literally true, but somewhat misleading claims about, say, their films. If, for example, Bela Lugosi makes a cameo, you can be sure he'll get top billing on the cover.

That said, Alpha's often the only source for some of the more obscure silent era flicks. So little of the silent era is still with us. The unstable nature of the film medium, lackluster preservation standards, and popular disinterest means that, aside from a truly tiny percentage of films, most of film's earliest works are lost forever. Consequently, when we talk about the development of film, or a particular genre within film, we tend to make the record the fact and ignore all those data points we know existed, but are no longer present to us. The problem is that what we know is miniscule compared to what we don't. Of all the silent films ever made, experts estimate that only about 10% or 15% are still around. For horror fans, this includes the first two werewolf flicks (The Werewolf, 1913; The Wolf Man, 1924), the earliest adaptation of Dorian Gray, an adaptation of Balzac's trapped-alive tale La Grande Breteche, the first adaptation of Fantomas, another Golem film, a handful of haunted house flicks, and (most famously) Lon Chaney's London After Midnight. And that's just taking into account flicks we know we've lost. The unknown unknowns could include all manner of revelations.

The end result of this legacy of loss is a distorted sense of the roots of the art. We think, for example, that silent horror and fantasy consists of a handful of George Méliès films and, later, Nosferatu and Caligari.

In so much as any added glimpse of the era - especially films outside of those three or four flicks consistently revered by modern horror community - gives us a fuller picture of the past, it is something to be grateful for.

Ultimately, while I wish Alpha had better prints, I'm thankful they've got prints at all.

That includes the chopped up remains of The Mechanical Man, a French 1921 sci-fi action comedy directed by early auteur André Deed. MM is both a treat and a disappointment. Originally an 80+ minute flick, all that remains are a scant 17 minutes. This means that what remains is largely incomprehensible, even with a cheater title card up front that lets you know what the plot is. The upshot is that the titular robot is one of the earliest robots on film (beating Metropolis's Maria out the gate by a few years) and it features what's most likely the first robot vs. robot battle scene.

The story of The Mechanical Man is now only comprehensible through secondary sources. The plot involves an evil criminal mastermind (one of many female kingpins in silent cinema, it was a surprisingly common trope) who uses her gang to steal the plans for a giant mechanical remote control man. She takes her metal monster on a rampage at a opera house only to run into a second mechanical man, this one built to thwart her plans. Along the way there's a jailbreak, a murder, a faked death, and a gypsy. Though, with so much footage missing, it is no longer clear how all those elements fit in. Visually, the interest in The Mechanical Man (or what's left of it) is pretty much in the title character, the intriguing lead villainess, and a few well-performed stunts. It lacks a strong visual style and there's no evidence that, even in its entirety, it would rank up there with better known silent genre works.

Still, as a early example of sci-fi filmmaking, it merits attention. What I recommend is skipping to chapter 5 and just checking out the robot. Here's some action shots.

This chopped up flick is a sadly appropriate monument to tragic career of Deed. Though now largely forgotten, Deed's was briefly a major name in the French film industry. A comedic stage performer, Deed's got into the film biz in 1901, when the industry was just leaving its larval stage. He first gained fame as an actor, appearing in nearly 160 films. By 1905, he was an internationally famous actor. He jumped behind the director's chair in 1909, eventually helming 38 flicks. The last of these film was The Mechanical Man, which he also wrote. In 1915, his fame as a star waned and he started spending more time behind the camera. His last major role was in 1928. He had some small bits in flicks into the 1930s, but mostly he was washed up. He died broke and is now a footnote in French film history.


cattleworks said...

That was cool. As always, I'm glad you chose to focus on silent films as a "genre" to celebrate annually.

By coincidence, I met a couple friends last week and finally saw their two, precocious boys in person. The typical geniuses with contemporary technology, the kids (ages 10 and 8) also write and draw their own comics and make some movies. The youngest boy is currently fascinated by silent movies and recently had his mom by a copy of THE BAT, which apparently was a major source of inspiration for Bob Kane.

CRwM said...

CW! Long time no see.

I settled on the whole silent thingy because it I figured it would one of the few areas of horror that would be full of new discoveries for me and most of my readers. Expanding it to include non-horror has, I think, improved it. I wonder how long we can keep it up though. There's still plenty of stuff to review, but in a couple of years I think we're going to be seeing some repeats.

That's neat about the wonderkid. I'll have to find The Bat for the next incarnation of this thing.

I was having this bar conversation with a friend last night in which I proposed, perhaps with too little evidence or concern for reality, that computers have, for the first time since radio, made it so kids could now produce a passable likeness of the media their surrounded by. Radio, television, film - they were really one-way sort of things. But with computers, kids can finally "get under the hood" of what they consume. I wonder what the long term result will be.