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Silent Movie Turns Spotlight on Griffith, Pickford, Chaney

August 26, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Silent Movie's sixth annual Film Festival, a real treasure trove, continues nightly at 8 through Saturday with organ accompaniment by Stan Kann and Bob Mitchell. Tonight's double feature is a pair of D.W. Griffith 1919 rarities, "The Greatest Question" and "Scarlet Days."

The first is an all-stops-out Victorian melodrama transformed by the sheer force of Griffith and his cast's passion and eloquence. Lillian Gish plays a demure waif who feels compelled by her doting but hard-up adoptive rural family to go to work for a truly evil couple. "The Greatest Question" is at once a cliffhanger--will Lillian be rescued in time?--and an affirmation of the transcendent power of spiritual belief.

"Scarlet Days" is choked by far too much plot and is of primary interest as Griffith's only feature-length western. It too is heavily melodramatic, as proper Bostonian young lady (Carol Dempster, lovely and effective) travels to Northern California mining country in 1875 to meet the mother (Eugenie Besserer, also Gish's adoptive mother in "Question") she never knew. She has no idea that her mother is a blowzy dance hall singer--read "prostitute"--just blamed for the death of another woman. "Question" is richly visual, as one would expect of Griffith, but "Scarlet Days" surprisingly is not.

A third Griffith work, "Drums of Love" (1928), a superb romantic tragedy with Shakespearean overtones and a reworking of the legend of Francesca da Rimini, closes the festival Saturday.

Mary Philbin plays a royal duke's luminously beautiful daughter who dutifully agrees to marry his greatest enemy, a nobleman (a humpbacked Lionel Barrymore), so as to end their bloody struggle for control over Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. The trouble is that Barrymore has a handsome younger brother (Don Alvarado).

Griffith was always adept at expressing a tormented conflict between between love and honor, and he treats it with beauty and exceptional understatement. "Drums" is being presented with its original ending.

As Gloria Swanson did with last week's "Tonight or Never" (1931), Mary Pickford turned to a David Belasco Broadway success with "Kiki" (1931) to ease her way into sound, only to wind up in a hopelessly talky filmed play. "Tonight or Never" has its moments, but "Kiki" is a disaster.

In an attempt to break away from her eternal girl-child image (yet remain as pure as Pollyanna), Pickford plays a klutzy, shrill French chorus girl who falls for the Broadway producer (strapping Reginald Denny) who's intent on firing her. But Sam Taylor, who directed and adapted "The Taming of the Shrew" (1929) for Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks' ill-received talkie debut, allows America's sweetheart, who might have been an adorable Kiki, to go way, way over the top. Its one number--there should have been more--was choreographed by Busby Berkeley. And see if you can spot Betty Grable. "Kiki" screens Wednesday with two 1915 Pickford films, "Madame Butterfly" and "Rags."

Friday brings a Lon Chaney double feature, with Tod Browning's amusing, perverse underworld saga "The Unholy Three" (1925)--which was composed of Chaney as a sideshow ventriloquist, strong man Victor McLaglen and diminutive Harry Earle--and Wallace Worsley's "The Penalty" (1920).

The first is one of the better-known films of Chaney, who remade it as a far inferior talkie five years later. There is a raw, primitive power to "The Penalty," which makes it even more electrifying than "The Phantom of the Opera," which after all is horror at its most romantic. It's as compelling as it is unsettling to watch Chaney jamming himself into a leather contraption to play a legless criminal. He is bent upon avenging himself against the doctor who amputated his legs above the knees when he was a child and, thereby, against all of society.

Also screening are two other notable films, Cecil B. DeMille's 1919 "Joan the Woman" (Tuesday), with Geraldine Farrar and regarded as one of DeMille's finest, and the 1927 "Annie Laurie" (Thursday), starring Gish. Information: (213) 653-2389.

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