FILM INTERNATIONAL 54: Late Hollywood Silent Film Melodrama

In May 2006 I experienced my own upheaval, my own bardo of calamity. It was the result of being fired from a full-time teaching position I held at a Catholic college preparatory high school. In short: the new principal, an energetic Texan, having only learned of my being gay, ordered that I leave the school. Without further explanation, I was immediately escorted to my jeep by the vice-principal and the football coach (they were taking no chances), along with six years’ worth of books and material from my classroom that I had hurriedly thrown into boxes.

Guest editor Jeffrey Crouse ties together the personal, the political and the film historical in his presentation of an issue dedicated to the silent film melodrama of late 1920s Hollywood.

‘Cocoon of fire’: awakening to love in Murnau’s Sunrise

Thoreau’s Walden is mainly a song for one human, the proud isolato, Thoreau himself. Murnau’s Sunrise is conceived as a song for two, and thus in its full, slightly unwieldy title [Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans] attempts to gather together the time that is dawn, the song that arises when one finds a wakeful, natural rhythm with the emerging day, and the love between humans that accords with the kindred fulfilments of revived light and harmony. Love in broad daylight is metaphorically a condition of two harkening to a common melody, and singing it together well. The phrase ‘a song of two humans’ embraces naïve simplicity as a fitting state of mind for this film’s imaginative gamble.

George Toles on F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic.

Three versions of Stella Dallas

Let us begin with beginnings. Remember that Edward Said wrote a lovely book on that topic, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1974), setting out how beginnings do count. It struck me as interesting that Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel (1923), Henry King’s silent film adaptation of it (1925) and King Vidor’s sound version (1937), while all kept the same title, Stella Dallas, did not all start the same way, featuring the same character.

Diane Stevenson on a novel and its two screen adaptations.

Gods and nobodies: the extra, the October Jubilee, and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command

In The Last Command, no Lenin doppelgänger is required, as the script leaves him out entirely. Instead, in a brief scene depicting a gathering of revolutionaries sitting around a table plotting, there appears a man with thick, tempestuously wavy hair and a devilishly pointed, downward-jutting goatee who gives off strong, unmistakable intimations of Trotsky. Crucially, however, the film refuses to positively identify the man, to give him a name: ‘A group of obscure people meet to decide the fate of Russia’, reads the vague, minimal intertitle that prefaces the scene. With the lead actor of the revolution out of the picture, the film reduces the main supporting actor to the status of an unknown, in perfect keeping with its strategy of reversing and confusing star and extra.

Jonah Corne compares Soviet and Hollywood depictions of the October Revolution through the lense of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command.

‘Why not realize your world?’ Philosopher/film scholar William Rothman interviewed by Jeffrey Crouse

Are films inanimate objects? Are they objects at all? We don’t experience films as objects, any more than we experience dreams that way. To be sure, a reel of film or a DVD is an object. So is a human skull or perhaps even a brain. But we’re not objects, or if we are, we’re subjects as well. It may seem a mystery that films can express moods, feelings, thoughts. How it can be that we’re both objects and subjects – how we can have, how we can be, both bodies and minds – isn’t that a greater mystery?’

Guest editor Jeffrey Crouse talks to William Rothman about the philosophy of Stanley Cavell, ‘Emersonian perfectionism’, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and much more.



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