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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Movie Crash Course: The Smiling Madame Beudet

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A few entries ago we had the 1001 Movie List’s first film from an African-American director; this short French surrealist work is the list’s the first film from a female director.  And there ain’t much smiling in this, I’ll tell you what.

After a brief intro hinting darkly at “the lurking passions” in small provincial towns, we meet Madame Beudet, the unhappy wife of a fabric merchant.  While he’s at work, she entertains herself by playing piano and reading romantic poetry; Monsieur Beudet, meanwhile, is an ugly, boorish social climber who loves making fun of how snooty she is. One of his favorite “jokes”, the film points out, is to take his pistol and pretend to shoot himself in the head, telling the missus “look at what you’re making me do!….ha ha!”


He does this “joke” twice on the night of our story – first, to protest her turning him down for a night at the opera. He’s just scored three tickets to Faust and wants to take her out; but she’d rather stay home. After miming his suicide – and cracking himself up – he calls his business partner instead, whose wife is more than happy to oblige and show off her fancy dress. Monsier Beudet teases his wife with the mock suicide again while their guests are there, but then reassures them he’s teasing – the gun’s not even loaded, he shows them, since he keeps the gun in one desk drawer and the bullets in a different one entirely.  What could go wrong? After one last dig at his wife, the trio leave.  A few minutes later, the maid comes to shyly ask for the evening off so she can visit her fiance. Madame Beudet agrees; and spends the next several minutes daydreaming about young love, and imagining herself caught up in romantic bliss – only to think again of her piggish husband’s antics. She is alone in the house and she is miserable. She is alone in the house…in the same room as her husband’s gun.  And she gets an idea….

Now, I’m going to stop here.  Because I think you know exactly what her idea is, and I think you have a guess as to how her idea plays out.  Because I had the same idea.  But not so fast.

Because yes, she does indeed load the gun, expecting him to clown around with it the following day at some point the way he always does goddammit, well this time we’ll give him something to joke about…But the next day, as he’s leaving for work, she suddenly chickens out. She’ll be charged! She’ll go to prison!  She paces in their bedroom, waiting for him to leave for work so she can run to his study and unload the gun.  When the front door slams, she runs to the stairs – only to see it’s her husband’s business partner, come by in search of something her husband brought home.  They disappear into his study, leaving Madame Beudet frantically stranded while they search.


Monsieur Beudet can’t resist complaining about his wife to his business partner as they search, finally snatching one of her dolls off the mantel and frustratedly throttling it to the point that its head falls off. As he stares at the doll’s head in his hand, Monsieur Beudet’s partner chides him that he should be gentler because “women are fragile, like dolls”. Monsieur Beudet is cowed for a few minutes, gingerly tucking the doll away so it can be repaired – and stays at home to simmer down. But then after reviewing the family checkbook, he demands to see his wife.


Madame Beudet, who’s been cowering upstairs all this time, nervously joins him in the study, nervously watching him rant about the house expenses. And sure enough, he reaches for the gun, joking that maybe he should just kill himself.  “But wait,” he says at the last minute, to his wife’s horror.  “Maybe I should shoot you instead!”  And with the gun pointed at a frantic Madame Beudet – he pulls the trigger!

….I’m going to stop here again and say that you think you know where this is going.  But you don’t.

He pulls the trigger; she screams and ducks aside, the bullet shattering a vase. Monsieur Beudet is understandably shocked. He looks at the gun, and figures out that she loaded it. She regards him fearfully.

And then…Monsieur Beudet proceeds to be entirely wrong about her motivation. He thinks that her plan was not for him to shoot himself – but to shoot her. He grabs her up in a smothering hug.  “How could I have lived without you?” he blubbers, as Madame Beudet, face falling over how he still doesn’t get it, sits stonily depressed.

The end!

The film bills itself as a “surrealist” work, but it’s more so an experimental, stream-of-consciousness film; throughout much of Madame Beudet’s night alone, we are treated to tableaux depicting the images in her head, like a brief thought about the maid’s fiance hitting on her while she’s asking for the night off.


Or the tennis star from the magazine she’s reading jumping out of the picture, clobbering her husband and dragging him off.

Even her books of poetry are no help – after reading a passage about two lovers passing time in a room with grand canopied beds and soft deep couches surrounded by exotic flowers, Madame Beudet helplessly thinks about her own boring double bed, the easy chair with the lumpy pillows and the modest bouquet she’s been fussing with all evening.

Filmmaker Germaine Dulac lived a bit more happily then our film’s heroine; she began as a journalist before turning to filmmaking.  She reportedly got into a life-altering discussion about The Artistic Nature of Film with our old friend D. W. Griffith, which she distilled into an essay about film criticism called Chez D. W. Griffith, during which she argued that film should strive to be an art form independent of any inflences from painting or literature. Her works got professively more experimental following Smiling Madame Beudetbut did not enjoy the same popularity; still, her career spanned an impressive 20 years.


Movie Crash Course: The Phantom Carriage

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Okay, this wasn’t perfect. But – it was strangely affecting.

This Swedish film from 1921 was a sort of combo of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Instead of a Christmas setting, the story takes place on New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town.  A young social worker, Sister Edit, is dying of consumption and begs her colleagues to seek out a man named David Holm – she insists she needs to talk to him before she dies.  David Holm, meanwhile, is hanging out in the graveyard, splitting a bottle of hooch with a pair of buddies; he tells them a “ghost story” he heard from a friend, Georges, about how the person who dies at the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive a spectral carriage for the following year, collecting the souls of the newly-dead and bringing them to their final destination.


One of Edit’s colleagues finds the group shortly thereafter, and tries to persuade David to come with him.  Nothing doing – David angrly chases him off.  His friends are shocked at his reluctance and try to persuade him to visit Sister Edit after all – she’s on her deathbed, they insist, he has to – but David still refuses.  They argue, eventually coming to blows – and one of the other men finally takes a swing at David with a log, hitting him in the head and killing him, just as the clock strikes midnight. They run off – but soon along comes the ghostly carriage, ready to put David to work.  And who else should be driving – but Georges.


It’s especially fitting, Georges says, that David should replace him – since Georges blames himself for leading David into a drunkard’s life to begin with. David – still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s, well, dead – doesn’t follow. So Georges leads David, and us, on an extended flashback into David’s past.


David was once happily married, and had a younger brother who was doting uncle to David’s two little girls. But Georges lead the brothers into drink, and both ended up in prison – David for public lewdness, and his brother for manslaughter.  When David got out of prison, he found an empty house – his wife Anna had taken the two girls and split.  Vowing revenge, David hit the road – and kept hitting the bottle.

Georges reminds David that one year prior, David had stumbled into a flophouse – which just so happened to be run by Sister Edit. Moved by pity, she stayed up all night mending his coat, uttering a prayer at the stroke of midnight that David have a happy year.  When David woke and saw the mended coat, he asked to meet the person who fixed it – and then with Sister Edit looking on, he ripped off all the patches, just to mess with her, before leaving.

But Sister Edit just became more determined to save him, and began making surprise visits to the saloon to talk sense into him. She even manages to track down David’s wife, and talks her into taking him back. But David – by now also sick with consumption – does nothing to reform his ways, and his wife is soon sick as well.


Georges wraps up his flashback with a recommendation that they visit Sister Edit after all, since she was looking for him.  When they reach her beside, Sister Edit is near enough to death to see Georges – but begs him to spare her for a few minutes, so she can talk to David. But David is floored when he hears her say that it’s because she wants to apologize. She thinks that bringing David and Anna together again only made things worse for them both. Touched by her kindness, David regretfully reveals himself and kisses her hand; Edit, touched by his forgiveness, finally dies.  Georges ushers David out when she does, though, telling him with a glance up that “others will come for her for where she’s going”.


Instead, David is surprised to see that they’re headed towards his own house – where he sees Anna mournfully studying the two sleeping girls.  She then fetches a vial of poison out of her handbag, and starts brewing some tea, desparingly planning to kill them all in a murder-suicide.  David begs Georges to do something; he can’t, he says, but realizes that maybe David is now in a place to be able to.  “Spirit, return to your prison,” he intones – sending David’s ghost back into his body, just in time for him to wake up, run home, and prevent Anna from carrying through her plan. He tearfully makes her an apology, promising to reform, and intones the prayer George has taught him earlier in the film – “May my soul not be reaped until it has reached full maturity.”

The structure of the flashback was actually a little clumsy at first – instead of opening with David, we spend a lengthy time in Sister Edit’s sickroom, setting things up there, so it was a little jarring to change gear and realize David was the star of the show.  But once Georges’ ghost shows up in the carriage I’d gotten things sorted out well enough.  There’s also a couple of extended sequences of the Phantom Carriage collecting various souls which were probably put in just for color; they looked cool, especially the one with the carriage riding over the ocean to collect a drowning victim, but didn’t really add to the story.

From a cinematic history perspective, though, I think this may have been the first instance of the trope where you show “soul leaving a body” with a double-exposure of the “body” lying still on the ground, and a see-through “soul” getting up and moving away from it. This was actually the most complicated bit for the filmmakers – they used hand-cranked cameras, so when they filmed each sequence, the cameramen had to try to match the speeds exactly so both exposures would be even.

The Phantom Carriage is said to be one of Ingmar Bergen’s favorites; he first saw it at the age of 15 and made a habit of seeing it once a year ever after.  His own depiction of Death in The Seventh Seal also owed something to Georges’ cloak and scythe in the film.

Movie Crash Course: Orphans Of The Storm

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After a couple of restrained films, the old D. W. Griffith is back – this time with double the Gish!


Orphans Of The Storm is an epic melodrama set at the onset of the French Revolution, with Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy as adoptive sisters, Henriette and Louise, lasses from the French country who have innocently come to Paris in search of a cure for Louise’s blindness.  But almost immediately after their arrival, they are separated when Henriette is kidnapped by a lascivious marquis, leaving vulnerable Louise alone to fall into the clutches of a Fagin-esque family of beggars.


The film follows the two sisters’ separate paths throughout.  Henriette has an overall easier time of it – she is quickly rescued from the marquis’ clutches after he drags her to a party, clearly expecting some erotic hijinks, but a young nobleman there fights him for her honor and spirits her away, footing the bill for her room at a boarding house so she can search for Louise. By coincidence, it’s the same boarding house where the French revolutionary Danton lives (Griffith’s title card helpfully describes Danton as “The French Abraham Lincoln” at one point).  Danton is taken by her beauty, but Henriette really wins his gratitude for her kindness; she discovers the unconscious and wounded Danton in the hallway shortly after he has escaped an attack from Royalist soldiers, and she takes him in and tends to him, hiding him from police.  It’s the young chevalier who’s really captured Henriette’s heart, however, and she gleefully accepts his proposal – but only after she has found her sister.


Meanwhile poor Louise is being forced to beg on the streets; however, all the money goes to Mother Frouchard, the matriarch of a panhandling family. She keeps Louise in a root cellar in the basement, giving all the family’s earnings to one of her two sons while the other meekly pines after Louise.

The chevalier’s mother pays Henriette a visit, hoping to dissuade her from “Marrying up”. However, the Countess then learns that Louise was an orphan – a baby Henriette’s father found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame, with only a little locket in her possession.  And what are the chances – that baby was the Countesses’ own daughter, who had been cruelly ripped from her own arms!

And in an even bigger coincidence – at that very moment, Mother Frouchard has sent Louise to wander the streets, singing as she begs, and to Henriette’s great surprise, Louise passes right under her window!  She joyously cries out to Louise and starts running out to her – only to be stopped by a team of Royalist soldiers, come to arrest her for helping Danton.  But – by even bigger coincidence – Henriette is thrown into the Bastille, and is liberated the next day!  Only – she is captured yet again by French revolutionaries after her and the chevalier!

Lillian Gish definitely has more to do; Henriette’s story has the most twists and turns, concluding in a hair-raising rescue from the guillotine. Dorothy, meanwhile, only has to contend with the pathos of being trapped in a cellar until Mother Frouchard’s milquetoast son stands up to her and takes off, Louise in tow. He is at her side thenceforth, in the gallery at Henriette’s trial, comforting her after she tenderly bids Henriette farewell at the guillotine, and looking on joyously at the end when the newly-cured Louise meets her birth mother.  …Only to have Henriette then steal the thunder by introducing her to her beau, the Chevalier.

I realize I don’t sound very impressed.  This wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt…formulaic, with some familiar D. W. Griffith tropes – an overly-preachy introduction, lots of soft-focus beauty shots of Lillian Gish, last-minute rescues and escapes, and a happy ending at all costs (I have just now realized that at the end, Henriette and Louise were cavorting through the Countess’ pleasure gardens – but since it was during the Revolution, why was the Countess still there?).


I was amused to see a flash of the excessive, grandiose Griffith in a scene set in Versailles; when the King makes his entrance, Griffith has the camera set high in a corner, revealing a vast room full of extra there to welcome him, and can’t resist a quick pan across the artwork at the ceiling to show off its opulence.


The sequence at the marquis’ party also has several random shots of the opulence – shots of groaning boards and banquet tables and women cavorting in fountains of wine, contrasted with shots of hungry peasants crowding around the gates smelling the food and title cards tut-tutting over the waste.


Another lengthy sequence looks like a comic relief bit at first blush; after her release from the Bastille, Henriette tries to find her way back to the boarding house, but the revolutionaries are in “riot mode”, which in this case translates to wild conga dancing and women lasciviously winking at the camera.  It’s amusing – especially when the chevalier’s valet gets caught up in things and is ridden like a horsey by one peasant – but it’s kind of out of place.  That is, until you remember that Griffith was using the whole story to preach about the dangers of Bolshevism.  The old order was corrupt, by all means – but the peasants weren’t immediately getting around to responsible democratic government yet and putting the past behind them. Naughty peasants!

This was Griffith’s last big picture, and his last one with Lillian Gish.  Reviews were mixed, with critics welcoming the old splendor back but pointing out that the plot twists were getting kind of tired.  Griffith’s films after this all seem to have been a series of flops, and he faded back into producing for a while.  In 1946, he paid a spontaneous visit to the set of the film Duel In The Sun, starring his old muse Lillian Gish; she was uneasy with him watching her work, and he hid behind scenery during a few scenes for her sake before leaving.  He died just a couple years later.


This, then, is the last of Griffith’s films to make the list of Films To Watch Before You Die, and so we bid D. W. Griffith a lavishly-shot, controversially-scripted, be-Gished farewell.

Movie Crash Course: Way Down East

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(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)


Well, hello Mr. Griffith, we meet again.  You too, Mr. Barthelmess (and nice to see you out of yellowface, unlike with your last role).

Griffith chose another play for this outing, adapting a work from the 1890s. Lillian Gish is Anna Moore, a naive country girl from New England sent to visit wealthy relatives in the city, to charm them into a loan of money for her and her mother. But instead she catches the eye of Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a slimy playa who cons her into a mock wedding in an effort to get her into bed.


But after a short while, when Anna reveals she is pregnant, Sanderson confesses the truth and abandons her.  Heartbroken, Anna returns to the country, first back to her mother’s arms, then to a boarding house where she delivers the baby with the assistance of a sympathetic doctor; her landlady, meanwhile, is fearful of scandal from harboring an unwed mother.  When Anna’s baby dies of a fever, the landlady throws her out as well.


Anna wanders the country, bereft, knocking on doors and looking for work. She ultimately finds her way to the tiny town of Bartlett, and the farm of elderly Squire Bartlett, introduced to us as a “stern Puritan” who initially turns her away for fear that she is a “loose woman”.  Fortunately, Mrs. Bartlett is somewhat kinder and talks him into taking her in, introducing Anna to her son David (Richard Barthelmess, whom we last saw in Broken Blossoms) – oh, and she should meet their neighbor, Lennox Sanderson, who will be eating dinner with them tonight!  During their uneasy reunion, Sanderson tries to convince Anna to leave – but she refuses, agreeing only to keep silent about their history.

There’s a cozy start to the second half of the story, as we meet some of the town’s “characters” – the bumbling police chief, the town gossip, and a scatterbrained lepidopterist in Coke-bottle eyeglasses everyone calls “The Professor”.


The Professor soon turns sweet on Squire Bartlett’s niece Kate, who’s come on an extended visit; the Bartletts, though, have been encouraging her as a match for David.  For her part, Kate is more interested in Sanderson.  And as for David, he soon falls for Anna, tenderly confessing his feelings during a walk around the mill pond; but Anna, ashamed of her past, refuses him.


And she refuses again that winter, when David proposes to her. But his love inspires a bit of hope in her, and she timidly asks the Squire if – hypothetically – he would have found a way to forgive her if she really had been the loose woman he thought she’d been when they first met.  Never, he thunders – “When the law’s broke, it’s broke, ain’t it? A wrong’s a wrong and nothin’ can make it right.”  And sure enough, when the town gossip discovers Anna’s secret and tells the Squire, he hurries home and orders Anna – who is at that moment settling down to serve dinner to the whole family and to Lennox Sanderson – that she is to pack her things and leave that instant.


David comes to her defense, but Anna tells him it’s true.  However – she’s got a few more things to say.

“You found out so much! Why didn’t you find out the whole truth? That I was an ignorant girl betrayed through a mock marriage. This man Sanderson – an honored guest at your table – why don’t you find out what HIS life has been? For HE is the man who betrayed me!”

An incensed David attacks Sanderson at this news, and while the rest of the family is distracted breaking up the fight, Anna slips out, fleeing into a blizzard.  But David soon notices her gone and gives chase, tracking her through the storm to where she has wandered out to the river and trapped herself on an ice floe drifting downstream. David pursues her, leaping from floe to floe, reaching Anna in time to carry her to shore before she drifts over a waterfall. (Whew!) Things rush towards a happy ending, with an apology from the Squire, Sanderson eating crow, and a triple wedding – David to Anna, Kate to The Professor, and the town gossip to another local yokel.

Way Down East is comparatively simple storywise.  But adding the ice floe rescue – something not in the play – made this Griffith’s most expensive film yet.  The scene was certainly the trickiest to shoot – they filmed on location in Vermont in the dead of winter, where the ice proved so thick that they had to use dynamite to break off a floe for Gish to lie on.  Griffith also had to keep a small fire going underneath the camera because it kept freezing.


Gish was the real trooper – she had the idea to lie on the floe with her hair and one hand hanging into the icy water. But the frostbite left her with a partially impaired hand for the rest of her life.


For my part, though….I could actually have done without the ice scene (sorry, Lillian). David has more than proved his loyalty by that point in the film, and Anna’s forceful denouncement of Sanderson is enough to convince the Squire that he’s misjudged her.  Similarly, some of the local-color portraits of the townspeople feel unnecessary; the Constable is introduced early on to gossip about a robbery at the local post office, and then pretty much disappears for the rest of the film.  The Professor is also obviously introduced solely to be a consolation prize for Kate.  Actor Creighton Hale makes the most of it, however, especially during a “country dance” scene where his Professor is hilariously inept.

Audiences of the time ate it all up, rendering this the fourth-highest grossing film of the silent period.