March 31, 2015
Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreak True Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelay The Marriage Circle (1924).
This past December Flicker Alley began an IndieGogo campaign to raise $5,000 for their MOD program, ending up with $7,510. In their initial push, they explained the reasons behind their turn to on-demand DVD: “The unfortunate reality of our current home-video market…necessitates a high initial investment for the mass production of each individual title. These upfront costs mean that Flicker Alley can only afford to mass produce a limited selection of films each year. Meanwhile, more and more previously-published gems of cinema history are currently unavailable.” Take a film like Griffith’s True Heart Susie. It has been released on DVD before, but is now out-of-print. With its market already diminished,along with the fact it’s a lesser known Griffith title, it would be difficult to release at the minimum numbers required for regular manufacturing of authored discs. But it deserves to be available, for it contains a Lillian Gish performance of sublime tension. She is an innocent country girl playing at being an innocent country girl, believing it to be the clearest path to a stable, comfortable life. But when she notices her presumed fiance eyeing a worldly perfumed woman from Chicago, you can see her crumble and reconstruct herself before your eyes, under the impassive close-ups lensed by DP Billy Bitzer.
It is a performance of impeccable control, the supreme model for what Griffith was attempting when he said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” As James Naremore wrote in Acting in the Cinema, Gish employs “a variety of acting styles, creating a complex emotional tone within Griffith’s otherwise simple story. Thus, although Susie may be a ‘true heart’, her identity…is created out of disparate, sometimes contradictory, moments, all held together by a name, a narrative, and a gift for mimicry.” Naremore uses one reaction shot as an example, occurring in the blink of an eye in an early schoolroom scene. There is a spelling bee, and Susie and her boyfriend William (Robert Harron) are competing. Susie looks girlish and oblivious, her head cocked to her right, mouth pursed open in a pose of oblivious boredom (i.e. cute). Then William is asked to spell “Anonymous”, and struggles. In a shot-reverse shot from the teacher back to Susie and William, her expression changes radically. Now her head is held straight, her lips pursed thin, and eyes cocked skeptically at William. In another cut that knowing, condescending gaze is again replaced by cutesy posing. But it is a tell. Susie is constructing herself according to William’s concept of womanhood, letting the mask slip only when he’s otherwise occupied. Tom Gunning has described Gish’s “soliloquy of facial expressions” in moments of disappointment – when William turns out to be less than she had hoped, and when her sturdily built concept of femininity (plainness > perfumed; country > city) is challenged from within and without. Griffith and Bitzer were credited with popularizing the close-up, but it would have been forgotten if not for the gradations of feeling that Lillian Gish could convey with the flutter of an eyelid.
“My desire was to create a story that would reflect life as it is lived by thousands of married couples — just everyday people you meet all around us.” Though it still sounds like him, you are no longer in Griffith country, but with the cosmopolitan Ernst Lubitsch as he discusses The Marriage Circle, his hit comedy from 1924, the second film made in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s conception of “everyday people” differs just a tad from Griffith’s. Instead of rural farm life we get bankers and doctors and their garden parties. Though he operates in a different class milieu, Lubitsch was after similar things as Griffith – he wanted to slow things down and emphasize the presence of his actors. It’s instructive to compare the rather stately pace of The Marriage Circle to the manic machinations of his Berlin comedies like The Doll or The Oyster Princess. Scott Eyman wrote that, “Before, the audience could only see Lubitsch’s characters move; beginning with The Marriage Circle, we can see them think.”
In December of 1923 Ernst Lubitsch viewed Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and detected something new. He said it was, “a great step forward…It did not, like many plays I see, insult my intelligence. So often in pictures one is not allowed to think by the director. But — ah! — in A Woman of Paris we had a picture that, as you Americans say, left something to the imagination.” The major action in The Marriage Circle occurs behind closed doors, under the sheets, and between the ears of the characters. It is a minuet of marital dysfunction following two couples: the already miserable Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) and his wandering eyed wife Mizzi (Marie Prevost), and the initially lovey-dovey duo of Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his devoted spouse Charlotte (Florence Vidor). Their situations are sketched in shorthand by the objects that surround them. One of the first shots is a close-up of the hole in Josef’s sock, his big toe wriggling free. One of the next is an empty drawer filled with collars but no shirts. Nothing quite fits together in the Stock household, a mishmash of parts they bitterly try to match together. The Braun home is one of harmony, with Charlotte playing Grieg’s “I Love You, Dear” on the piano while each spouse’s wardrobe is elegantly, meticulously arranged. Then there is a chance meeting of Mizzi and Franz in a hansom cab, and both couples are enmeshed in a circle of affairs, pseudo-affairs and jealousies that unravel both marriage bonds for good.
The model for every Lubitsch comedy to come after, emotions give themselves away despite the characters’ best efforts to conceal them. There are masquerades, impostors, and impossible coincidences. The world conspires against the Braun’s love – until it doesn’t. Their affection is charged through gestures and objects – in the destiny of a straw hat, the impulsive arrangement of a seating chart, and the refusal to believe in a stolen kiss. Their love is a beautiful delusion, so the Brauns choose to believe what they must to keep it going – and they will be the happier for it.