Gentle Reader, I’m a strong believer in being Culturally Literate. There are so many films I’ve just never gotten around to seeing over the years – things that influenced the entire industry and reflected the manners and mores of many generations. Part art, part education, part pure entertainment – what are the foundations of film? As you may have guessed, educating myself about these things is clearly on The List. Being such a vast project, I’ve split the Task up into several parts. In today’s post, we’re exploring the Silent Film era. My requirements for a film are loose, but I wanted to make sure that every film included was available on Netflix, in case you wanted to watch along, Gentle Reader.
The Task: Familiarize Myself With Classic Film
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Part One of the film is the entirety of the Civil War, shot in realtime. We’re supposed to feel sympathetic for the plucky underdog South, but, um, no. Things culminate in the assasination of Lincoln, the South’s “Best Friend.”
Part Two opens with this, surprisingly:
While the whole film is pretty racist, things escalated to the point in Part Two where I couldn’t bear to continue watching. I didn’t make it to the iconic scene that’s always thrown around when The Birth of a Nation comes up.
The Klu Klux Klan are portrayed in a positive light, and it made me sick. Nope. Why don’t we switch to a charming comedy, instead?
The Doll (1919)
“The Baron of Chanterelle does not want his lineage to die out. He therefore invites all the maidens of the village to gather in the square so that his nephew, his sole heir, may find a suitable wife for himself.” Sounds like a solid plan, except that the Nephew doesn’t want to marry! He runs off to hide in a monastery, fleeing from a flock of frauleins.
The Uncle offers a
ransom dowry, and the monks persuade The Nephew to marry a robot-doll-thing instead, because they need the cash. He goes to the dollmaker at once
– and the dollmaker has JUST finished a doll built in the likeness of his daughter, because of course he has. The dollmaker’s apprentice just gets fresh with everyone. He’s, like, 12 or 19 or something, and is clearly the best character in the film.
It comes to pass that the girl passing as a living doll is a real girl, because she’s afraid of a mouse? That happens. And since they already got married, The Nephew’s stuck with a wife and The Uncle can die happy. Everyone wins! Except the girl. And the dollmaker. And the apprentice. HOORAY!
I Don’t Want To Be A Man (1918)
There’s a girl who likes to smoke, drink, and have boys sing her songs – who doesn’t like all that? When her uncle goes away, her governess is forced to call in a new guardian to force her to behave like a proper young lady. He’s a dick to her, and he leaves. Tellingly, at that point, she throws herself on the bed, and wonders “Why wasn’t I born a boy?” Then evening clothes happen, and she discovers that gender can be performative.
She gets nasty looks from passersby because she forgets that men tip their hats to ladies; she is roundly abused for forgetting to give up her seat on a train. Later, at a ball, she’s mocked for not knowing how to lead while dancing, and runs into predictable rest-room trouble.
She runs into her Guardian, and bonds of friendship are forged quickly with liquor; the boys are now fast friends. Drunk now, they kiss. Three times.
And then a romantic carriage ride?
Shit, are they even pulling a Mulan? At this point in the film – with dual bathroom scenes, gender performance confusion – I honestly want Our Hero to be newly transitioning and trying to figure things out. It feels like it.
Back home, The Guardian ends up walking in on Our Hero, who is trying to dress as a girl again because Reasons, Our Hero confesses that they were the same person all along. The Guardian reacts in this way:
which is refreshing, because he’s upset that he made out with his pupil whose behaviour he’s trying to mold, rather than the gender of the person he made out with last night. But Our Hero declares that she “[Doesn’t] Want to be a man!” because in 1918, two men only get to make out when they’re drunk in a carriage after a ball, and therefore, she gives up men’s clothes and they presumably live happily ever after. And the Governess takes up smoking.
I know, I’ve been meaning to watch it for years – I’d just never gotten around to it. We open with the Proletariat marching in serried ranks in a hellish underground factory-world, and then a beautiful Eden that’s literally in the clouds. One of the city’s priveliged sons chases a woman who breaks into what may as well be a country club with an orphanage’s worth of ragamuffins from the under-city, and it’s love at first sight.
Well, our poor lovelorn bourgeois descends into the hellish landscape where the morlocks dwell in search of his poor lost maiden. He realizes with horror the price of his princely existence, and eventually – after some back-and-forth with his father, who runs the city – runs away to live and work with, um, the workers. Once integrated into the lower classes, he discovers that the fraulein he fell in love with is a sort of priestess of hope, and preaches that the bosses need compassion towards their employees. Which is a start, I guess.
Meanwhile, the Hero’s father visits his old romantic rival, who has taken his wife’s dead body and used it to build a robot.
The Father – who, might I remind you, is basically God-Emperor of Metropolis – tells the mad scientist to steal the young woman’s face (who is his son’s romantic interest) and put it on the Machine-Man (who is the robot made from his dead wife) and use the thing to discredit her teachings, thus pacifying the peasantry and turning them against her. Um. So he captures the girl and does some science, and the Machine Man now looks like Maria. Follow?
He then makes the Machine Man do terrible things like dance while wearing very little.
Whipped into a frenzy by rhinestone-encrusted breasts, the workers riot, and the upper class throws a cocktail party. Also the undercity starts flooding, because that’s how you control an entire population that you’re dependent on. The son is almost drowned, is reunited with his love, and then shakes hands with his father, indicating that the city’s class troubles are over. THE END.
The Verdict: This was a lot of fun, so far, and I’m enjoying most of the films I’ve seen so far. The next set of films I’m exploring are from The Golden Age of Hollywood, so if you’ve got some recommendations, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below!