To Be a Philosopher …

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.—Henry David Thoreau

Silents, Golden and Not So Golden

Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe in John Ford’s Upstream (1927)

Silent movies are not for everyone. Because of the times in which most of them were produced, the results can be off-putting because of hokiness or a tendency toward melodrama. This week at Cinecon, I have seen silents that were great, some that were merely interesting, and some that were just plain bad.

The best of the lot was John Ford’s backstage drama, Upstream (1927), a film which was thought to have been lost. In 2009, however, a print was discovered by the New Zealand Film Archive. Although many scenes were spoiled by rotting of the nitrate stock, enough came through to make this one of Ford’s best silents, better even than the more famous The Iron Horse (1924).

The story was about a down at heels Shakespearean actor named Eric Brasingham (Foxe), who is courting Gertie Ryan (Nash), the partner of vaudeville knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers). He gets his chance for the big time because a London theater is willing to take a chance on him because the Brasinghams are a famous acting family (even though Eric himself is a nonentity). His fellow denizens in a theatrical New York boardinghouse give him a big send-off, but he leaves Gertie in the lurch.

In London, he manages to succeed. He becomes conceited and supercilious, and omits writing to Gertie. She, tired of waiting, marries the knife-thrower. Then, suddenly, Brasingham descends on the boardinghouse as a publicity stunt and finds his reception is not what he had hoped.

Director John Ford does here what he specialized in: Characters who are well developed and interesting. Even the vaudevillian song-and-dance Callahan Brothers are unforgettable, as is the  “star boarder,” played by actual Broadway star Raymond Hitchcock. Even though the theatrical subject matter is not typical Ford—better known for his Westerns and Irish films—the director is at home regardless what he does. And certain stylistic touches link it with films as different as the Hamlet scene in My Darling Clementine (1946), in which Grant Withers is one of the Clanton boys.

More typical of the silents I saw was the excellent The Goose Woman (1925), directed by Clarence Brown and starring Louise Dresser. Graphically, it was a gorgeous film, but the melodramatic plot comes across as risible today: A famed Italian opera star has to make a choice between having a child and continuing to sing at La Scala. She has a child, and her voice goes kaput. What kind of illness is this? Was the baby delivered via the vocal chords? In any case, the singer becomes a goose woman on a farm and a full time lush, until she must make a Sophie’s Choice type of decision regarding her son, who is accused of murder.