‘Midnight Madness’ movie lacks both ‘midnight’ & ‘madness’
Screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Midnight Madness has a very curious title: there is no “midnight” or “madness” to be found in the film. The story’s original name, The Lion Trap, from a play by Daniel Nathan Rubin, would have been a much more appropriate title.
Norma (Jacqueline Logan, best known as Mary Magdalene in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings) lives in a squalid apartment behind a shooting gallery, with her good-for-nothing father (James Bradbury). She goes to work each day as a secretary at a Diamond Broker Company, looking forward to romantic trysts with her boss, Childers (Walter McGrail). Norma takes the relationship seriously, but Childers is a schemer. When wealthy client Richard Bream (Clive Brook, best known for the Best Picture Academy Award winner Cavalcade) shows a romantic interest in Norma, Childers convinces her to marry him and take advantage of his fortune by revealing the location of Bream’s diamond mine in Africa.
Bream is smitten with the working-class girl and proposes marriage, even after he overhears her admitting she is only after his money. However, Bream plans a counter scheme. After they are married, he takes Norma in a steerage-class steamer to Africa, and in a rickety old jeep to a shack in the jungle known for its ferocious lion attacks. In her despair, Norma wires Childers to come and save her.
Predictably, Norma repels Bream’s romantic advances and recoils against the squalid conditions that are just as bad as her former tenement life. When Childers arrives with a drunken overseer, the drama crescendos with Bream getting tied to a chair and the appearance of a very hungry lion.
What happens next, I shall not reveal. I’ll only recall that Norma was raised behind a rifle range!
‘Midnight Madness’ movie: Hour-long ‘bit of fluff’
Midnight Madness was a bit of fluff, clocking in at 61 minutes. It contained some good performances and kept my attention, but the story needed more detail between scenes. The action happens much too quickly, when it needed to take its time to unfold.
The screening of Midnight Madness was accompanied by a short series of “orphan films,” which I quite enjoyed. “Travelogues of Italy” gave a charming glimpse into sites such as the Etruscan Gate and St. Peter’s Square – some of which in stenciled color. Also quite interesting was a funny 1928 clip of “Josephine Baker Visits Volendam.” Baker dances in wooden clogs, and tries to joke around with the locals, always clowning before the camera.
Note: Midnight Madness was produced by Cecil B. DeMille’s short-lived independent company DeMille Pictures Corporation. Jetta Goudal was initially slated to star in the role that eventually went to Jacqueline Logan.
Midnight Madness (1928). Dir.: F. Harmon Weight. Scr.: Richard N. Lee, with titles by Edwin Justus Mayer; from Daniel Nathan Rubin’s play The Lion Trap. Cast: Clive Brook, Jacqueline Logan, James Bradbury, Walter McGrail, Oscar Smith, Vadim Uraneff, Louis Natheaux, Virginia Sale.
Gender roles & social hypocrisy in silent era effort ‘Girl in Tails’
Poor Katja Kock (Magda Holm)! She spends most of her time serving others: sewing and mending for her brother (Erik Zetterström), humoring her grouchy father (Nils Aréhn), and tutoring Count Ludwig (Einar Axelsson) in his studies.
Her brother gets all the attention and all the new clothes, while Katja has to be content to look like a scrubwoman in her ragged old dresses. When the Count passes his exams – thanks to Katja – he plans a summer party. Katja’s father refuses to buy her any new clothes for the occasion, so she breaks all social conventions by showing up wearing her brother’s formal attire. Then the fun begins.
Karin Swanström’s Girl in Tails / Flickan i frack, adapted by Hjalmar Bergman and Ivar Johansson from Bergman’s novel, was screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Adding to this comedy of societal hypocrisy is the Count’s snooty aristocratic family who are shocked by the appearance of a woman dressed as a man. Katja smokes a cigar and even goes so far as to dance with another woman! The matriarch of the family, the Widow Hyltenius (played by director Swanström), is so horrified that she slaps Katja’s face.
But by now Katja and the Count have fallen in love. He takes her to his country estate where she eventually works as a maid until she apologizes to Widow Hyltenius and the matter is settled.
‘Girl in Tails’: A film with an ‘anachronistic social consciousness’
For me, the impact of Girl in Tails lay in its anachronistic social consciousness. The theme of how much people used to care about what high society thought of them serves as a striking contrast to today’s culture. I also enjoyed the subtlety of the comedy. Girl in Tails’ humor came out in the witty dialogue, instead of relying on physical slapstick.
There are many fine moments in this droll comedy: At the party, as Katja is being labeled “indecent” for her male attire, the camera pans to a high-society lady with her plunging neckline to illustrate the double standard. Also, the school’s headmaster (Georg Blomstedt) is an irascible old coot who talks to himself out loud so everyone can hear his insults. And adding to the sexual confusion, the Count is snuggling with Katja when they arrive at his estate, eliciting more raised eyebrows by his family.
As a plus, Girl in Tails’ scenic photography at the lakeside, courtesy of cinematographer Ragnar Westfelt, is sharp and framed beautifully, while the film’s musical accompaniment was performed by the always fabulous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. In one sequence, they were playing the same instruments as those seen on screen, thus perfectly blending the two mediums. This is what makes a “silent” film such an incredible sensory experience.
Girl in Tails / Flickan i frack (1926). Dir.: Karin Swanström. Scr.: Hjalmar Bergman and Ivar Johansson, from Bergman’s novel. Cast: Magda Holm, Erik Zetterström, Nils Aréhn, Einar Axelsson, Karin Swanström, Georg Blomstedt, Carina May, Lotten Olsson, Anna-Lisa Baude, Gösta Gustafson.
Note: Sometimes, Flickan i frack‘s English-language title Girl in Tails gains an initial article, being referred to as The Girl in Tails.
‘Song of the Fishermen’: First Chinese movie to win international award depicts social inequalities in China during the Great Depression
The story of Cai Chusheng’s 1934 drama Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu, screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, begins in a small coastal village in China, where twins are born to an impoverished fisherman’s wife (Xue Qiyun). In the next scene, the father has apparently died at sea, leaving the wife not only to raise her own children, Little Cat (Wang Renmei) and Little Monkey (Han Langen) but also to become nursemaid to the wealthy Fishing King’s son (Luo Peng).
Although the children grow up together and become amiable friends, a stratified class system keeps them apart, and tragedy ensues. When the mother of the twins grows old and blind, and is no longer employed by the rich family, her children strike out on their own in the big city, Shanghai. Work is scarce and standing in line all day hoping for a job proves futile. Little Monkey resorts to acting as a street entertainer, which only results in more unfortunate circumstances; eventually, the siblings are forced to become field hands. The children later return home and try to console their sick mother in their poverty.
‘Song of the Fishermen’ missing big chunks of the narrative?
In Song of the Fishermen, writer-director Cai Chusheng details poverty and China’s class system convincingly, but big chunks of the narrative seem to be missing from the film. Scenes jump very fast with little continuity to tell the story, as I found myself filling in the blanks with my own imagination. Not helping matters was that the print was a bit washed out.
Overall, what I found most impressive in Song of the Fishermen was Han Langen’s performance as one of the twins. He had a face made for tragedy/comedy – extremely expressive and full of pathos. Also of note, Song of the Fishermen reportedly became the first Chinese movie to win an (unspecified) award at an international film festival: the 1935 Moscow Film Festival.
Song of the Fishermen / Yu Guang Qu (1934). Dir./Scr.: Cai Chusheng. Cast: Wang Renmei, Han Langen, Luo Peng, Yuan Congmei, Xue Qiyun.
Sneeze face & cheese mites + techno Charles Chaplin: ‘Amazing Tales from the Archives
“A New Look at an Old Sneeze” nearly bordered on redundancy. Fred Ott’s sneeze, officially known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1894 and is one of the oldest surviving “motion pictures.” The approximately one-minute short film illustrates a man – Thomas Edison’s assistant Fred Ott – in the throes of sneezing. While historically a cinematic event and notable as the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the United States, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze never does quite illustrate the potential of what film can do. The thrust of the presentation was the recent discovery of additional frames of film stock in which Mr. Ott’s natural body function can be seen multiple times. Personally, I prefer the version with fewer frames.
“The Birds and the Bees,” on the other hand, did demonstrate the potential of motion pictures, as the presentation showed how early pioneers took cinema to a new level unseen before. F. Martin Duncan’s The Cheese Mites (1903), for instance, pointed the way for future scientific discoveries of what is invisible to the naked eye. Other filmmakers, such as Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, and J.C. Bee-Mason, likewise led the way for future wildlife photography, filming animals in their natural habitat. The stencil-colored birds in flight and time-lapse photography of flower buds blooming beautifully illustrated what was to come with this new medium.
And finally, “Chaplin’s Use of Technology” took a rare look at how this early master of comedy worked as an independent filmmaker. I especially liked the short film of Charles Chaplin arriving at his studio, exchanging pleasantries with his staff, and kissing his butler on the forehead.
Now a final word about the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival: From my own experience, this year’s event was planned and organized much more efficiently than some of the previous festivals. The starting times were met with greater precision and the talk before the shows was kept to a minimum. Good job!
Images of Clive Brook and Jacqueline Logan in Midnight Madness movie, Einar Axelsson and Magda Holm in The Girl in Tails, landmark Chinese film Song of the Fishermen, and Fred Ott’s “sneeze face” in the short film Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze: San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.