La Petite merchande d’allumettes (1928) Review

La Petite merchande d’allumettes (1928) Director: Jean Renoir


“The Little Match Girl” is a short and dreamy Renoir film. It is a somber little story with blurry scenes showcasing a cold window pane, and an intense yet bittersweet dream sequence/chase-scene on horseback with the figure of death in the clouds.

This story is based on a Hans Christian Anderson short story. It tells of a poor girl who wanders the streets of Paris selling matches on a freezing night (New Years Eve). She gazes longingly into shop windows (one scene is particularly memorable as the camera blurs for the audience while she struggles to see the figures inside). She also attempts to befriend men on the street, like a policeman. Eventually, she huddles into a corner, as she does not want the shame of returning to her family’s shack without having sold anything, and she falls asleep, dreaming a surreal dream of a toy store in which the mannequins and toys come alive. The embodiment of death appears in her dream-store and they fly into the sky in a remarkable special effects-ridden, chase scene. In the end, she envisions a plant that arises, contrasted with her frigid body lying in the snow on the street. She dies and her corpse is inspected by passers-by.

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This film lasts about 30 minutes, and apparently the daughter of James Joyce played a brief, minor role in the film. Renoir was married to the lead, Catherine Hessling, however they divorced shortly after this film was completed. Hessling starred in most of Renoir’s nine silent films.

Robin Hood (1922) Review

Robin Hood (1922) Director: Allan Dwan


Errol Flynn will always be the pinnacle of Robin Hood in my mind, however Douglas Fairbanks gives a fun, acrobatic take on the character in 1922’s Robin Hood. First, a bit of trivia about the film: the title was actually copyrighted in 1922 as “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood” in order to market the production in conjunction with the popularity with the “King of Hollywood.” The film was actually one of the most expensive of the 1920s with a budget estimated to be as much as $1,000,000. It was the first movie to premier at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood with an admission fee was $5 per person an expensive price when it opened on October 18, 1922 –it was not shown in any other Los Angeles theatre during that year. Robin Hood runs over 2 hours long –quite a lengthy run-time for a silent era blockbuster.

With towering castles and sweeping vistas of forests and pageantry –Robin Hood is something to behold. Many of the sets for the film were constructed at Pickfair, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s legendary estate in Los Angeles. Some of the sets were even designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself.

At the outset of the film, a title reminds the audience that the past is but a mixture of history and mythology. A great jousting tournament begins, with spectacular scenery and quick cuts to build the tension. The Earl of Huntingdon (Fairbanks) defeats the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, despite his best efforts to cheat and tie himself to his horse. Huntingdon wins a kiss from the Lady Marian Fitzwater. Huntingdon joins King Richard on crusade in the Holy Land, while the evil Prince John usurps the English throne, at the behest of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Evil acts of torture are performed against the people of England (we see shocking and gruesome scenes of people being hanged by their necks). Lady Marian sends a note to Huntingdon, and upon learning of the news, Huntingdon attempts to return home to England to fight Prince John but he is caught by King Richard’s men and assumed to be a deserter so he is imprisoned. He eventually escapes from prison only to return to England to find all his comrades turned into outcasts, and the Lady Marian has apparently died. He assumes the name of Robin Hood in the second half of the film, defender of the poor, forming his merry band of Friar Tuck, Little John, and others as they upset Prince John and the High Sheriff of Nottingham’s plans at every turn. In the end, he defeats Guy in a dramatic scene and he climbs the tower to rescue Lady Marian, who has not been killed but merely imprisoned. Then King Richard arrives and Huntingdon marries Lady Marian. To a modern audience, the second half of the film will be the most familiar narrative.

Interestingly enough, this was not the first Robin Hood film, there were several earlier silent films, including one shot in the woods of Fort Lee, New Jersey, but this installment certainly stands a cut above the rest until the arrival Errol Flynn’s wonderful technicolor performance in 1938. This film was produced by Fairbanks through his own company, and distributed by United Artists, his joint partnership with Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith. Robin Hood has been called Fairbanks’s most important film and in this respect I have to agree.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) Review

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World) (1920) Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese


A visually arresting example of early German Expressionism, The Golem offers a twisted glimpse into an old European-Jewish ghetto where the fearsome golem creature wreaks havoc. I was immediately struck by the towering set designs which loom like paintings throughout the film. However, other German Expressionist films stand out as much stronger to me, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922). Indeed the film’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, was also the cinematographer of two other classic Expressionist films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

The Golem is an adaptation of a 1915 novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer best known for The Golem. Interestingly enough co-director, Paul Wegener, stars as the golem creature in the film, and this was his third of three films made about the golem (the other two being 1915’s The Golem, and 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Both films have now been lost but at the time of its release, the 1920 film was actually considered a prequel to the earlier 1915 film also entitled The Golem.

Many of the stylized and disorienting sets featured in The Golem left the strongest impression on me, and the zig-zagging architecture has often drawn comparisons to other early German expressionist classics. The Golem also invites comparison to Frankenstein (1931), for obvious reasons. The story borrows themes from medieval Jewish folklore, taking place in a Prague Jewish ghetto. The emperor of Rome has decreed that all Jews must leave the city, so a leading Rabbi uses an ancient dark magic (Asteroth, known in mythology as the prince of hell) to animate the golem stone in order to protect and defend the Jews. However, once awakened the golem predictably runs amok killing people and destroying the Jewish ghetto until his mysterious, magical amulet is finally removed in the end.

Who is the mystical Jewish rabbi in the film? The answer is Rabbi Loew, a cabalist scholar (1513-1609) who is said to be the inspiration, at least in part, for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), and he has appeared in the writings of both Elie Wiesel and Michael Chabon. A statue of Rabbi Loew also stands near where the Jewish ghetto once existed in Prague. The local Jewish community refers to Rabbi Loew as the “exalted one.”

The golem creature has appeared in many mythical stories, most notably in Tolkien where he is simply referred to as “gollum,” a gray and sorry creature who is transformed into his ugly state by his greed. In contrast in the 1920 film, the golem is tall, stoic, and almost lifeless. Apparently, Wegener’s inspiration for the film comes from an Edgar Alan Poe short story, “William Wilson” – a story about a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. Indeed, the film carries the duality of existence as one of its themes, for example the cold-hearted golem is, in many ways, an extension of the violent alter ego of Rabbi Loew.

The Short Films of the Edison Studio

I recently watched some of the early surviving fragments of Thomas Edison’s moving pictures. Below are some reflections I decided to jot down thanks to the magic of the digital age wherein we can freely view these relics of early cinema anytime.

On the Short Films of the Edison Studio

Blacksmithing Scene (1893) Director: W.K.L. Dickson
The aptly-named “blacksmithing scene” is a short clip which is significant solely for being the first publicly screened Kinetograph motion picture in history. It was initiallly screened in May of 1893. The short clip features a stationary camera recording three blacksmiths hammering on an anvil, then pausing for a moment to share a drink of beer, before continuing.


The footage for the “blacksmithing scene” has survived in much better condition than other early Dickson experimental films like the “Newark Athlete” featuring a young boy juggling (shot in 1891). It is worth noting that these early clips of moving images primarily consisted of ordinary people doing things, rather than lavish, expensive recreations. Nevertheless, the setting for these clips was entirely staged, a theme which will only continue to develop throughout the history of movie-making. The “blacksmithing scene” was exclusively shot at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey.

Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-1895) Director: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson

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This early experimental film combined with synchronized sound was recorded at Thomas Edison’s studio in West Orange, New Jersey, which was popularly called the “Black Maria.” It was a test of Edison’s “Kinetophone” project. The wax recording of the sound (as seen in the film) was believed to have been lost for many years until it turned up in 1964 as a broken cylinder in Edison’s National Historic Site. The disk was called the “Violin by WKL Dickson with Kineto.” In 1998, the wax cylinder was repaired and re-recorded in New York. It was the first time the film and sound were matched since Edison and Dickson originally put the two together over 115 years prior.

Vaguely in the background the audience can hear someone (perhaps Edison or Dickson) saying “Are the rest of you ready? Go ahead.” The film lasts a few seconds and shows a man (Dickson) playing a violin as it is being translated into a wax recording while two other men dance beside him. Another man appears in the background before the footage terminates.

There is no evidence that Edison or his team featured this film in any kind of public display, however there is reason to believe they produced many other joint “Kinetophone” films, yet sadly this is the only short film of this kind that has survived. The song being played on the violin is from an 1877 Robert Planquette opera called “The Chimes of Normandy.” The film lasts about 17 seconds while the wax cylinder contains about 23 seconds of total sound. Tragically there have been some latter-day more sophisticated interpreters who claim all manner of ‘homoerotic’ interpretations of this film because it shows the two men dancing together, though I must say I think this brand of revisionism is a stretch.

It is impossible to properly evaluate a film of such technological importance to the history of cinema, but I think it is important to note that synchronized sound was a key objective of early film-making. What does this tell us about the ultimate goal of the cinematic art?

Other early clips of this sort included a recording of a long-time Edison employee named Fred Ott inhaling his snuff and promptly sneezing; or a recording of Annie Oakley shooting at glass balls (Edison was friends with Buffalo Bill and his traveling roadshow which featured Annie Oakley); and of course the famous clip entitled “The Kiss” which features the first onscreen romantic kiss between May Irwin and John Rice, both of whom were Broadway vaudevillians portraying the final scene from a popular show called “The Widow Jones.”