The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

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The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

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One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?

The Squall (1929)

Because She’s Homeless, She’s Homeless

As Hollywood was making its transition from silent pictures to talkies, 1929 is left as a year full of oddities and curios. The Squall is a 100% talking picture and is one of the more watchable talkies from 1929. While watching The Squall or any other talkie from 1929 one must take into account the movie was presumably filmed with a camera in a soundproof box. It’s evident the actors in The Squall have been heavily coached by diction experts and instructed to say their line as clearly and enunciated as possible – a scenario which anyone who has watched Singin’ In the Rain will be familiar with. Likewise, none of the actors turn their heads when speaking to avoid going off-mike nor at any point do any of the cast simultaneously walk and talk.

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So while none of the performances in The Squall bar one certain screen siren are anything to write home about, the production values are surprisingly very high. The Squall was directed by famed Hungarian-British producer and director Alexander Korda. I can only speculate if the director’s heritage is the reason why the film takes place in Hungary whereas the play the film is based on is set in Granada, Spain. The sets and costumes are very detailed in this upper, middle-class Hungarian farm from what I assume is around the turn of the century. Complete with grand windmills, herds of animals, farm equipment and some nice miniature work, the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere. Just as significant in an unusual move for films right up until the early 1930s, is the use of a music score throughout the entire picture, suitably a heightened and melodramatic one to accommodate the sound effects of blustering storms.

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However, the real reason to watch The Squall and the film’s saving grace is the one and only Myrna Loy in the overacting triumph of her long and varied career as the scruffy, barefooted gypsy girl Nubi. The gloriously, melodramatic performance sees this seductress manipulate three men in the same household as she tears the once idyllic Lajos family apart. Particularly pathetic is the son Paul (Carroll Nye), an utter simp who buys jewellery for Nubi from money he stole from his parents. I can watch Myrna Loy in just about anything thus I can easily buy into the destructive charm of Nubi as she over emotes in broken English and always referring to herself in the third person – even in one early scene as Nubi proclaims “no more!”, it appears as if Myrna Loy is trying to hold back her laughter. The contrast to the vampish Myrna Loy is the purity and innocence of a wide-eyed Loretta Young as Irma, a mere 16 years old at the time.

It should come as no surprise for a film as melodramatic at The Squall to play big with its use of symbolism and metaphor. The film’s opening shot features a Christian cross overlooking the farm and during a dinner the family has near the film’s beginning, the grandfather states that squalls are the work of God that he “gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky”. Nubi, of whom arrives at the family home during the midst of a storm, takes advantage of the Christian principle of sheltering the poor and homeless only to wreak havoc – an evil spirit if there ever was one.

Spite Marriage (1929)

Buster’s Last Gleaming

1929 would see Buster Keaton’s last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face – creativity that one would never be seen again.

Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn’t hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton’s creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster’s character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry – why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton’s other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.

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The playhouse at the centre of the film’s first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words “Bosco Stock Company”.

Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film’s first half from Elmer’s poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film’s most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll – I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film’s synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.

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The film’s second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It’s clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film’s silent era to a close.

Woman In the Moon [Frau im Mond] (1929)

Destination Moon

I first heard of Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) as a child reading about it in the Newsround Book of Space. In a section of the book about science fiction movies, the film was mentioned accompanied by a photograph of the film. This picture always intrigued and stuck with me – three people and their rocket on the moon; very retro-futuristic looking. I finally saw it many years later and was not disappointed.

Woman In the Moon really does deserve the title of a unique film, the movies feels like 50’s science fiction movie, yet was released in 1929. The design of the rocket has that retro-futuristic, egg-shaped 1950’s look while the painted moon backdrops look as if they could be in a 50’s space fantasy film. Likewise actress Gerda Maurus has a very futuristic, metallic looking hairstyle. Science Fiction wouldn’t become a staple genre in cinema for another 21 years and Fritz Lang himself was to create a sci-fi movie in the 1950’s, which unfortunately never came to be. The movie also mixes together other time periods. Portions of the movie feel reminiscent of a Jules Verne story with that 19th century sci-fi aesthetic such as the apartment of Professor Mannfeldt with its vintage 19th century furniture, chairs and telescope.

Woman In the moon combines genres with a mix of espionage, melodrama, comic book sci-fi and even a helping of comedy thrown into the mix. Other moments feel like a documentary with scenes of scientists and diagrams explaining things; I love that stuff. Woman in the Moon was the first time ever (film or otherwise) in which space travel was depicted through the use of a multistage liquid fuel rocket; 40 years before man first landed on the moon. Considering this it’s a shock that this movie isn’t more widely known, especially in compassion to Lang’s previous sci-fi epic Metropolis. Even later Nazi rocket science (and eventual American rocket scientist) Wernher Von Braun acted as an advisor for the film.

The film has its Cartoony moments such as the ever cliché image of close-minded bearded scientists laughing and the insane or seemingly insane person is the one who is right but the message is clear, as Professor Mannfeldt angrily puts it “The progress of the world will not fail due to learned ignoramuses lacking in fantasy whose brains work in inverse proportion to their calcification”. The movie’s villain, on the other hand, is obviously modeled after everyone’s least favourite evil dictator Adolf Hitler; he doesn’t have a mustache but has the same parted hairstyle. Lang hated the Nazis before it was cool or before they even came to power.

The only major downside of Woman In the Moon is the run time at 2 hours and 50 minutes which I felt could have been cut down. At the 26 minutes in until 50 minute mark was a section of the film which really tried my patience with its painfully slow setting up in real time but it’s largely smooth sailing after that.

The rocket launch is something to behold with the impressive miniatures and the very gradual build up. The rocket interior is in tune with a space fantasy even with its design taking the absence of gravity in space and G-force taken into account. The actors do an effective job of conveying G-force and not coming off as laughable. When on the moon the astronauts do not wear space suits, are able to breathe on the moon and did I mention there is also gold on the moon. I assume the filmmakers intentionally created a film which combined scientific accuracy and fantasy to create a film which has a great sense of adventure. The child stowaway on the rocket represents the schoolboy adventurer in us. The moon as seen here is a fantasy land full of mountains and caverns. Plus I love and I do mean LOVE the film’s ending. Such an uplifting moment after we’re led to believe the opposite but doesn’t come off as contrived.

There are some subtitle issues on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release with white English text overlaying white German text.

“For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.”