Tag Archives: silent film

Challenge Week 48: Aelita: Queen of Mars

A silent Soviet science fiction flick? Sign me up for that! Actually, I’ve heard of Aelita before, but only in passing and I obviously didn’t go out of my way to find it. Definitely the kind of film I’ve been glad to see pop up on this challenge.

That said, it’s kind of like The Phantom Carriage a few weeks ago with regards to horror – it has a reputation for its science fiction elements (one of the earliest feature films to have any elements of sci-fi, even beating Metropolis out of the gate), but though they’re stunning and incredibly designed, they actually make up a fairly small proportion of the movie. Although you wouldn’t know this by looking at Google Images, as literally all the screencaps are from the Mars sections of the films.

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Mostly it’s concerned with a bunch of Russian folks, various levels of civil servants, mostly. Los is an engineer obsessed with a strange transmission that he thinks may have come from Mars – the sci fi elements come from his imagination as he imagines Aelita and various other Martians watching earth through a giant telescope (and eventually, Aelita falling in love with him). He also becomes very jealous when he thinks his wife Natasha is flirting with another man, a petit bourgeousie thief, and their estrangement is the real pivot of the film. There’s also a plot with a wanna-be detective trying to find the thief and some impersonation and mistaken identity, but Los and Natasha are the emotional anchor.

Eventually, the earth and Mars storylines cross (or seem to, spoilers), and the Russians lead a revolt on Mars, because the elite Martians use a slave labor force that they put in cold storage when they don’t need them. The uprising seems like it could’ve been an influence on Metropolis in form, but it’s also very specifically Soviet, with a soldier character explaining the hammer and sickle in very propagandistic terms.

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It’s a very interesting film, due to historical elements like that which place it at a specific point of time in Soviet cinema, and also the influences it seems to have had on world cinema. That said, it suffers from an uninvolving earthbound plot, and a lot of characters who were difficult (for me) to keep straight and remember their part in the plot. I watched it over two days, with lots of rewindings to remind myself who everyone was and what they were doing. So I’m glad I watched it and I found elements to appreciate, but it didn’t really grab or move me outside of historical curiosity.

Stats and stuff…

1924, USSR
directed by Yakov Protazanov, written by Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Otsep
starring Yuliya Solntseva, Nikolai Tsereteli, Igor Ilyinsky, Nikolai Batalov

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Aelita: Queen of Mars entered my chart:

Aelita: Queen of Mars > Courage of Lassie
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Twin Warriors
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Manhattan Murder Mystery
Aelita: Queen of Mars > Barbarian Sound Studio
Aelita: Queen of Mars > Splendor in the Grass
Aelita: Queen of Mars > Spider-Man 2
Aelita: Queen of Mars > Knick Knack
Aelita: Queen of Mars > Babes in Arms
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Badlands
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Midnight
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Maytime
Aelita: Queen of Mars < Bunny Lake is Missing

Final #1414 out of 3732 (62%)

It is now my #1 Yakov Protazanov film, my #35 Fantasy Adventure, my #60 Silent Film, and my #6 film of 1924.

Aelita, Queen of Mars was recommended by Travis McClain, a friend from the Flickcharters group on Facebook.

A few more screenshots…

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Classic Horror: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

A few weeks ago, I saw the silent horror/thriller film The Bat (see capsule review on Row Three, or soon here in my monthly recap) and liked it, but didn’t feel like it quite lived up to its potential, falling prey to some poor pacing. Then I saw The Cat and the Canary, and there’s a reason why this film is often name-checked as the “old dark house” movie to beat. It’s pretty similar to The Bat (made a year later, but both based on existing stage plays in a popular genre at the time), but it’s pretty much delightful from start to finish, with no lulls and consistently evocative art direction and photography.

In the prologue, an old man on his deathbed writes some complicated instructions to accompany his will and testament, which isn’t to be opened and read until twenty years after his death. He and his relatives don’t get along so well, you see – they all think he’s crazy and have been hovering over him, waiting for him to die so they could inherit his fortune (like cats hovering over a canary). Twenty years after his death, his family reconvene at his long-deserted mansion – crotchety aunts and glamorous nieces, sweet cousins and earnest nephews. (I have no idea how they’re actually related, but the adjectives are accurate.)

When the will is unsealed, the sweet Annabelle West is the one who gets the inheritance, but only if she’s deemed sane – if not, the fortune will go to another whose name is in a sealed envelope. But wait! Someone broke into the house earlier and peeked in the envelope, and as the family lawyer warns Annabelle, whoever’s name is in the envelope has a reason to want her out of the way. (The logic on some of this is suspect, to be sure, but it’s all delivered with such sincerity and gusto that it’s hard to want to nitpick it.) Soon after, the lawyer disappears, the other relatives are trying to catch Annabelle acting crazy and thus forfeiting the inheritance, and whoever read the name in the envelope is apparently swooping in and confusing/scaring the hell out of everyone.

A lot of this is played for comedy, and most of it works, as it swaps quickly between characters, all of whom are types, to be sure, but well-played and endearing ones. There are a lot of creepy moments, many involving a grotesque hand reaching out to grab an unsuspecting victim, and often with really nice throwbacks to Expressionism, including some very cool title card layouts. Though you suspect that the person instigating all the ruckus is one of the people we’ve already met, the film actually leaves the question open for a long while, thanks to the intrusion of a man who says he’s a guard from a nearby asylum looking for an escaped mental patient that he thinks entered the mansion. With that threat PLUS the potential treachery of the post-Annabelle inheritor PLUS the glowering of the genuinely creepy maid PLUS the general wish on the part of everyone that Annabelle would be insane and lose her rights, there’s a lot of distrust to go around. And it’s extremely fun to watch, with a few quite suspenseful (I won’t quite say scary) moments.

I’ve been a little disheartened most of the month that I haven’t come across any films I outright LOVED this October. Figures that when I do, it’s a silent film. The tone and style here captures a lot of the exuberance that I’ve come to love about silent film in general, plus it has lovely cinematography that in some scenes puts it almost up there with Sunrise and Metropolis. I’ll certainly be back to this one next October.

Director: Paul Leni
Adaptation: Robert F. Hill & Alfred A. Cohn
Titles: Walter Anthony
Based on the play by: John Willard
Producer: Paul Kohner
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Editing: Martin G. Cohn
Starring: Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmond Carew, Martha Mattox, George Siegmann, Lucien Littlefield

Charlie Chaplin in One A.M.

The Cinefamily rep cinema has been doing a Chaplin series for the past couple of months (all the features and a bunch of silent shorts), and they capped it off last night with Modern Times – but first they played probably my all-time favorite Chaplin short, One A.M. Chaplin is closely associated with the Little Tramp character he played in pretty much all of his features from The Kid through The Great Dictator, but he also had another character in his shorts – a more dapper man-about-town wearing a suit that actually fit. That’s who he plays in One A.M., which is a one-character piece of Charlie, very drunk from a night out, trying to get into up to bed. It’s a fantastic exploration of how much physical comedy you can get out of essentially one person and two rooms. And it’s a lot.

Split up into two parts because of YouTube’s length limitations.