I continue my journey tonight first with The Golem which is described as "a 1920 silent horror set in 16th century Prague" and centers around the eponymous creature made from clay and brought to life by a rabbi looking to protect his people from prosecution. Let me start by saying that I did not enjoy this movie at all. At first, I blamed my modern sensibilities and refined taste for horror which would find a 100 year-old horror film pretty bland. But seeing as I rather enjoyed both Dr. Caligari as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, however tepid their brand of horror was, I decided to dig deeper and, unsurprisingly, I found a poorly written film that just wasn't scary.
At just over an hour long, the first half of the film focuses on Rabbi Loew's rush to bring Golem to life as he believe the Golem will protect his people, who live in a ghetto of Prague and are being forced out by the Holy Roman Emperor. Being "horror," I immediately began to wonder how this would all go wrong and whether the rabbi had plans to use Golem to commit mass murders (too much?). Instead, the rabbi puts on a show for the emperor and his court, uses some kind of parlor trick to make the ceiling collapse (at least that's how I read that scene), and then commands Golem to hold up the ceiling and save them all, which Golem, faithful house servant that he is (apparently), does so. As gratitude for saving his life, the Emperor overturns his earlier decree and spares Rabbi Loew's people (gee, thanks).
While this is all happening, an equally befuddling subplot involving the blooming forbidden romance between Knight Florian, an arrogant knight sent by the Emperor to deliver said decree from earlier, and Miriam, Rabbi Loew's daughter, begins to unfold. This seemingly mundane occurrence ends up being a plot device. When Rabbi Loew returns home with Golem, he declares that their work is done and attempts to remove the amulet that powers Golem. Golem shows resistance and attempts to stop the rabbi from robbing him of his life force. Later, however, Rabbi Loew's assistant, Famulus, who is in love with Miriam, uncovers the young woman's tryst with Florian. Jealous, Famulus returns the magic amulet to Golem and instructs him to kill Florian. What follows is a bizarre sequence of events with wonky choreography and strange decision making by the characters, and finally it ends with Golem killing Florian by throwing him off the roof, setting the rabbi's home on fire, and dragging an unconscious Miriam away by her hair. Why any of this happens, I cannot say. Why is Golem following Famulus' orders? Why is he showing sudden a sudden and rather perverted interest in Miriam? How did Famulus escape the burning building? Why did Florian hide on the roof rather than just leave the home? Was he hoping to not be spotted by the locals or by Rabbi Loew himself? It's all very confusing and I can't really explain any of it.
Anyway, the movie ends with Rabbi Loew casting a spell that calms Golem's rage (???) and Golem just drops Miriam... No, seriously. He just lets go of her hair and walks away. This is followed by what I think is supposed to be a reconciliation between Miriam and Famulus and they are inexplicably showing some mild affection towards one another. All is forgiven, I guess? As for Golem, he comes across a group of children playing and one of them, unafraid by his appearance, manages to pull out the amulet and disable him. The last shot of the film is Golem's body being carried back into Rabbi Loew's cellar.
It should be noted that I saw a "remastered" version of the film, featuring badly dubbed dialogue, horribly superimposed coloration, and an "updated soundtrack" featuring music that often resembled rock or heavy metal. The lack of title cards not only cut the film short by a several minutes, but it also made for very awkward editing shots and the colorization added absolutely nothing to the experience, in my opinion. However, it was the poor quality dubbed voice lines that made this a very difficult film to digest. There was some overlapping that didn't sound at all natural, some of the voices were difficult to discern from one another at times making it difficult to tell who was speaking, and there were moments of genuinely horrible acting behind some of the lines. I'll update my view of the movie if I can find an original version and enjoy it in all it's silent movie splendor.
Speaking of silent movie splendor, few silent movie stars bring such joy to one's heart as the masterful Charlie Chaplin. The Kid was written by, directed by, produced by, and starring Chaplin. In 1971, Chaplin would also edit the film and reissue it as well as compose a new score for it. If you didn't know, The Kid centers around a child abandoned by his mother only to be reluctantly adopted by Charlie Chaplin's famous Tramp character. The kid, named John by the Tramp, becomes his adoptive father's sidekick and companion. The film is known for mixing comedy with drama, living up to it's opening title card that reads very simply, "A picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear." I did, indeed, smile and cry watching this film. A huge hit upon its release and the second highest grossing film of 1921, The Kid is flawless and considered one of the best films of the silent movie era. And it's easy to see why; the first 15 minutes alone are a masterpiece in visual story-telling and Chaplin's directorial touch is evident throughout.
At the very beginning of the film, The Woman character, John's mother, abandons her newborn inside the car of a wealthy family and is later seen sitting on a park bench, seemingly mulling over her decision. It's remarkable to see how a simple bite of the bottom lip could indicate a character's turmoil over a difficult decision only for the same character to have a change of heart minutes later and attempt to undo her choice, clearly mouthing the words "my baby, my baby" as she runs back to find her son. And such brilliant acting can only come from Chaplin, the director, who, as Chaplin the actor, understands how human emotion and thoughts can be conveyed with the simplest of actions and the fewest words.
Chaplin was (is?) also a master of physical comedy; I got my first laugh of the film when the Tramp looks up at the buildings between which he discovers the abandoned infant, non-verbally and hilariously wondering if the child was thrown out into the alley in the same way the garbage that was dumped on him was just a few seconds prior. He tries to "return" the infant to a nearby woman pushing a perambulator only to get yelled at and then almost accidentally taking away the wrong infant.
I could go on and on about the wonderful acting by both Chaplin and his young co-star, Jackie Coogan (who I was delighted to learn would go on to portray Uncle Fester in The Addams Family in his later years), but it's too much to put in a single post. I have to admit to cheating with The Kid; when I put together my list of 250 films from the last 100 years, I really tried to choose films I either have never seen before or I hardly remember. The Kid falls in the former rather than the latter, but I'm a sucker for a good Chaplin rump. Can you blame a girl?
Next time, I'll be delving into the 1921 Swedish flick The Phantom Carriage, known for its special affects and it's at the time innovative narrative structures. I'll also be watching, for the first time ever, Nosferatu, another German Expressionist horror flick a la Dr. Caligari and The Golem. See you then!
To jump to a specific film's post, just click on the title below!