Friday, August 28, 2009


 The first time I heard Judith Evelyn speak in a motion picture--she was the drunken Eloise Crandall who goes over the railing in Joseph Pevney's delirious Female on the Beach (1955)--I was mildly disoriented. Ms. Evelyn seared her way into my adolescent consciousness as the deaf-mute ticket seller whose husband (Phillip Coolidge) frightens her to death in William Castle's audacious The Tingler (1959). The couple operate a revival house specializing in silent cinema, and, as Coolidge terrorizes her in a memorably surreal sequence, Ms. Evelyn emotes like a silent film actress who has escaped from the screen in the pair's downtown theatre (where, later, the titular creature, liberated by acid-dropping coroner Vincent Price, will make serious mischief). For this viewer, Ms. Evelyn embodies the essence of silent movie melodramatics, and listening to her voice in other pictures--she was often cast as an Agnes Moorehead surrogate--always rings a bit artificial. For her every moment in The Tingler, she is silent cinema, propelling Castle's film beyond its pre-Cronenbergian body politics and backwards into the great world, now lost to us, of soundless mysteries.

James Card (1915-2000) was fortunate enough to experience these seminal shadow plays firsthand. As he remembers in the preface to his remarkable memoir, Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994 [319 pages]; reissued by University of Minnesota Press, 1999 [336 pages]), "When dialogue arrived and the silent film almost vanished, some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie." The epic theatres of Card's Ohio youth, where moviegoers "dressed to watch Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo as they would to attend a concert of the Cleveland Orchestra," offer a striking contrast to today's shoebox cinemas and their backwards-baseball-capped spectators. Theatres were magical palaces, as opposed to places to gab, text, and tweet mindlessly while high school projectionists screen computer-generated images through projectors deliberately dimmed to lower electricity costs. Concession stands were unheard of in Card's youth, while showtimes were so obscure that audiences "did not know what had gone on before the moment of being seated" by white-gloved ushers. The atmosphere was one of ritual anticipation, and the author set out to possess the sacred images unfolding on the silver screen. In 1921, our cinephile, who admits his "own hell would be to have a projector and all the films [in the world] but no one around to see them with me," acquired a hand-cranked Keystone Moviegraph whose thirty-five-millimeter reels held a mere twenty-five feet. Several years later Card's erector-set ingenuity allowed him to progress to thousand-foot reels, and he was soon swapping items with his fellow fanatics. Providentially, a friend's city court judge father treated the Shaker Heights lads to material censored by the Buckeye State's morality guardians. (In an amusing sidenote, Card reveals that Jesus' intertitle in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 King of Kings, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," was stricken from Illinois screenings because censors had forbidden the word "sin.") The excised material offered the author his first glimpse of "greasy man" Erich von Stroheim, the magnificent scoundrel and self-mythologizer whom Card considers a wildly overrated talent, and certainly a better actor than auteur. Soon Card was reading Kirk Bond's New York Times essay, "Lament for the Cinema Dead," which introduced him to Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The author became obsessed with finding this film, a compulsion "that changed my life and shaped what would ultimately become a kind of career."

Card began renting movies for his Theatre Guild, screening such masterpieces as Fritz Lang's 1924 Siegfried (the Knopf edition incorrectly dates this picture to 1922) in a high school auditorium. (Lang's film constitutes the first half of Die Nebulungen, but Card offers no word on whether he programmed its same-year companion piece, Kriemhild's Revenge.) The author finally tracked down a nitrate print of the elusive Caligari in 1933, screening it for "my family and a few of their dispproving friends"--as well as the projectionist, who hated the film. Card attended Western Reserve University, then ventured on a scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, where he gorged on Teutonic cinema. His procurement of a nine-point-five-millimeter Caligari exhausted his college funds. After a "somewhat misguided" attempt at filmmaking, Card journeyed to Danzig to document the beginnings of the Big One, running afoul of the Gestapo in the process. He made it back to America, directing a New Deal documentary, then wound up as "buck-ass [Army] private" at Astoria Studio, pulling KP with the likes of George Cukor.

By war's end Card's collection had grown by leaps and bounds. After hiring on with Kodak, he boldly used his treasures as "bait" to finagle a position as assistant to the curator at Eastman House. Card scaled the ladder to become assistant director, and was soon a driving force in American film preservation, particularly when contrasted to Iris Barry, the Museum of Modern Art's first conservator, a crusty English critic primarily interested in British cinema. "Imagine," Card urges us, "a film archive headed by...John Simon, saving only those films considered worthy by its curator!" It would be a nightmare, unquestionably, and Barry's standards were especially severe, because the studios' bottom line was ownership, not preservation. Nitrate negatives would either disintegrate or cause spectacular blazes. While producers maintained positive prints for the purposes of remakes, the "tiniest whiff of decomposition" was enough to doom the negatives, thus ensuring the loss of thousands of films. A "no" from Barry was a death sentence for "unworthy" titles. Fortunately for posterity, Card--like his French counterpart, Henri Langlois--cast a wider net.

Card was especially entranced by Herbert Brenon's 1924 version of Peter Pan, and one of the book's highlights is his decades-long quest for a copy. Card was introduced through an old soldier friend to Chum Morris, recording man for the Eastman Philharmonic. Morris had stumbled across a cache of lost treasures in the Eastman Theatre's student organists' screening room. Musicians had practiced with these prints, learning to play in time to the unspooling images. Peter Pan was only one among many movies stored in this forgotten section of the theatre; others included John S. Robertson's 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Morris showed to Card's "almost unendurable joy." The author convinced Morris that, if they didn't act to duplicate these rare pictures, they would be forever lost once safety experts learned of their existence and sent the reels to their oblivion in silver reclamation tanks. (Nitrate from X-ray film had been blamed for a 1929 Cleveland Clinic fire which killed over a hundred patients, though Card believes that poison war gas was being developed at the clinic and was the true culprit.) The men's scheme, which Card rationalizes as a combination of cultists' obsession and post-war liberation fervor ("For the allies," he writes, "the term 'liberation' came to be extended beyond a purely political sense") was derailed when Philharmonic conductor Guy Fraser Harrision remembered the Eastman cache, and one of its jewels, Henry Kolker's 1921 Disraeli, was resurrected for the theatre's silver anniversary.

Card traces the origins of film preservation to Boleslav Matuzewski, royal court cinematographer to Tsar Nicholas II, an early subject of the Lumiere Brothers and "the world's most highly placed movie buff of the nineteenth century." Matuzewski documented everything from the Russian royal family to surgeries at the imperial hospitals, and in 1898 he published an exceedingly rare book, La Photographie Animee, describing his work and arguing for the historical and educational value of film. He and the Czar attempted to establish, in the City of Light, an international cinema archive chain, but endowments for this then-relatively-new art never materialized, and Matuzewski's archive fared poorly during the Bolshevik Revolution.

The critic Burns Manthe also called, in 1921, for a cinema archive, but such as existed at the time contained specialized films held by the major military powers, in order to review battles and armaments. Finally, in the 1930's, Britain, France, and Germany combined their collections to form the FIAF (Federation Internationale des Archives de Film), and MoMA installed the merciless Ms. Barry. Card observes that, due to her cultural unfamiliarity with the country, Barry cared little for American pictures, and cites as an example her dismissal of Edward Venturini's The Headless Horseman (1922) as "difficult to view without boredom." The author admonishes her obliviousness to the film's employment of a Negro youth to rescue Ichabod Crane (Will Rogers) from a potentially lethal tarring-and-feathering (a scene, incidentally, nowhere to be found in Washington Irving), arguing that, for the time, "such noncaricatured use of a black character is without parallel in American movies." "For many years," Card notes disdainfully, "the British enjoyed castigating Americans for their cultural mistreatment of blacks--through the years before the wholesale immigration of Indians to the British Isles." He also takes to task American Marxists who considered any Soviet film, "however stupid, [to be] a splendid example of 'the people's art.'"

Indeed, the author has plenty to say, little of it positive, about the business of film studies. Card challenges former music critic Siegfried Kracauer's thesis in From Caligari to Hitler (1947) that the bulk of German cinematic masterworks "harbor the sinister principle of National Socialism," and points out that Kracauer's most "ominous examples" were actually created by Jews. Herr Kracauer's low command of English, Card submits, "was just sufficiently obscure to make his points ambiguous enough to delight the pipe-smoking elbow-patch English professors of our universities. After all, ambiguity is their way of life." Semiology, Card insists, is even worse, leading him to wonder if its practitioners are "prisoners of inferiority...hid[ing] themselves in the jungles of jargon, where they are protected from the awful responsibility of lucidity."

Card further notes that the crowds who attended silent films came not for the directors, but for the stars, and Seductive Cinema is rife with his reminiscences of such actresses as Joan Crawford and Ms. Swanson. He is, however, gentlemanly discreet regarding his relationship with Louise Brooks, the G.W. Pabst siren whose reputation Card resurrected in the Fifties. (He also restored and popularized their dismembered 1927 classic Pandora's Box.) Recalling his first encounter with Crawford, Card confesses that he didn't recognize "the short, freckle-faced girl who answered the door" of her home. Swanson he met at a department store luncheon for the actress, who was promoting her Forever Young dress line, and Card "had just sense enough not to tell her I'd been watching her in films ever since I was a little boy."

The author examines the world of "Vanished Vamps," from Alice Hollister and Theda Bara to Negri and the bewitching Garbo. But women were not the only stars. Card evaluates the work of John Barrymore, wondering if the Great Profile's maddeningly erratic performances were the result of either "despair over [his] failing powers, or a deep doubt of the ultimate merit of what he had accomplished in his most serious efforts." (Barrymore's real passion was not acting, but illustration.) Card scrutinizes the oeuvre of DeMille and Josef von Sternberg, highlighting DeMille's obscure 1915 classic, The Cheat, and devotes several amusing pages to such irregular talents as Stroheim ("the realism touted in his films is nonexistent") and D.W. Griffith. He scolds scholars whose celebration of these artists is "so utterly irrational as to be comparable only to religious fanaticism."

Of course, any discussion of Griffith will inevitably involve The Birth of a Nation (1915). "A dedicated woman seeking to improve the social climate in Rochester" requested from Eastman House a series on bigotry for a combined black and Jewish audience. Card gave it to her with both barrels, programming Griffith's adaptation of Thomas Dixon's notorious novel and play The Clansman (the film's original title), and incensing this mistress of uplift. "'When I came in here tonight,'" she told Card "in a voice trembling with emotion," "'I was an enemy of all censorship and felt that I would be ready to put my life on the line against any threat to freedom of speech or expression.' Her voice suddenly grew strong, and she almost shouted: 'But that film should never be shown anywhere to anyone!!'" Card recounts a visit he received by black community leaders, who informed him of the NAACP's staunch opposition to Birth's public exhibition, which he had scheduled for the Dryden Theatre Film Society. The delegation's leader told Card "that if I persisted in the plan to show the film, the chances were very good that I might not survive the protests of their more activist groups." Card defied their bullying, and the movie was screened without mischief. Griffith's epic was banned for a time in the author's home state, and MoMA was so intimidated by the picture's controversy that it withdrew Birth from circulation, but fortunately the film has not become extinct like too many other silents.

Seductive Cinema is an exquisite appreciation of a glorious art that Card considers a "seance." The necromancy of pre-sound imagery endures, even if silent films will never attract more than a small audience. It is enough for those of us who remain core followers to communicate with the spirits of the Bijou. I've been privileged to attend several of these seances through the years, beginning with the late Lee Erwin's marvelous accompaniments, on a Robert Morgan pipe organ, to the exploits of Ms. Swanson and Rudolph Valentino at my city's downtown revival house. Every October this theatre screens Rupert Julian's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera, and every year I watch the images unreel to the virtuosity of a live keyboardist. I open myself to seduction, to "that delightful state that," in Card's words, "can come very close to one's private definition of love." His, surely, was one of the world's great romances, and Seductive Cinema is a compelling, and deeply moving, billet-doux.