This page will hold a variety of film reviews (and summaries), from the early silents of LB to the latest ones I can find, (perhaps even 1953's Main Street to Broadway!).  I'll illustrate them as I can with still from the films--hope you enjoy!

The Burglar’s Dilemma, 1912 *contains spoilers!*

Starring Lionel Barrymore, Henry B. Walthall, and Robert Harron as the titular burglar, this short melodrama, directed by DW Griffith and written by Barrymore, was released December 16, 1912.  Only fifteen minutes long, it packs a lot into that time and is the earliest known illustration of Lionel Barrymore’s screenwriting (or “scenario” writing as they called it then) ability.  He would be credited with writing this, The Tender-Hearted Boy, The Vengeance of Galora, and Life’s Whirlpool (for sister Ethel).

To the film! It opens in dramatic style, with over the top titles informing us “manipulation of the third degree” will be represented, and then introducing the Householder (LB) and his Weakling Brother (HBW), sitting in a nicely appointed library/den, both smoking and reading. 

Our Householder is a burly, smiling, genial type, much larger physically and much more outgoing than his Brother, who looks uncertain, a little suspicious, and more than a little irritated at his brother’s popularity with three coquettes who come in to toast to the Householder’s birthday. They kiss the Householder, increasing the Weakling Brother’s jealousy at the older brother’s popularity. 
Can you find the two Gishes here?
The Weakling Brother sits apart from the celebration in the next room as the women and assorted friends toast the Householder.  The Weakling is shown in the den angrily muttering to himself, while the Householder says farewell to his friends and reenters, unaware of little brother’s frustration. The Householder tries to buck up his brother, but the Weakling is having none of it.
At this point, the butler leaves, (this film has indoor and outdoor shots and settings, beautifully lensed by Bitzer) and we are introduced to the young Burglar in his hideaway, Bobby Harron, who is under the thumb of a more experienced crook (Harry Carey).  He wants to leave his life as a burglar, but is angrily bullied by the older crook into continuing.  Harron is excellent as the Burglar, here and throughout the film. You can sense his desire to go straight and his distress at being caught up in the life of crime.
Harry Carey as Older Crook
 We cut back to the brothers, the Weakling being teased by his amused big brother for being a drinking lightweight. He then asks the Householder for money, and while the Householder gives him some, they still argue. In the still below, you see the amused attitude LB's character has toward his drunk, puny brother. It's surprising he hands the Weakling any money--and that the Weakling demands more in his drunken state.

The Householder is significantly taller and larger than the Weakling, whom he tries to get to calm down, but in a fit, the drunk Weakling shoves his brother down and the Householder lies still, flat on his back on the floor, having hit his head and been knocked out.

The Weakling panics, desperately shaking the Householder and yelling at him to wake up. Walthall does an excellent job as the confused, drunk Weakling, who sneaks guiltily out of the room, turning off the light.  He is only able to see a way out when he finds the Burglar sneaking in (the Weakling hides behind a curtain, I kid you not). From outside, the Burglar has been hoisted into the living room by the older crook and he tries to collect what he can, entering the darkened den where the Householder lies unconscious.  

The Weakling locks the door to the den with the Burglar inside, planning to set up the Burglar.  His face is alight with relief, and he runs out into a very bright day to call a police officer into the house.

Meanwhile, the Burglar is searching the library with a flashlight, not noticing the unconscious man until it’s too late. He shakes the man briefly, then checks his pockets like a good thief. But he is nervous and scared, and then, of course, he leaps up to escape only to find the door locked. He turns on the lights, but the Weakling with two officers comes in, and the door is unlocked to reveal, yes, The Burglar’s Dilemma.

The Weakling fakes a good drunken concern, while the Burglar tries to explain what he found.  Enter two detectives, who ask for an ambulance to be called and start interrogating the Burglar roughly.  The Weakling, nervously trembling, watches askance the investigation, which shows the Burglar to be carrying several tools of his trade.  Harron is wonderful in what could have been an overacted part--you do truly feel for the terrified young man.
Alfred Paget and John T. Dillon interrogate Harron
They force him back into the den to be confronted with what they think is his deed, the “dead” body of the Householder—and they REALLY get him up close. A good deal of time is spent being sure the men don’t step ON the unconscious man!

Finally the medical folk arrive and start to tend to the Householder, while the Burglar is terrified even more by the rough police detectives.  Harron's Burglar hardly knows what to say--his Dilemma is getting out of hand, and of course the police think he "killed" a man!

Harron is smaller than almost all the people in the film and his vulnerability and weakness are well-presented. There’s shades of good cop-bad cop here too.  Walthall’s Weakling fidgets, grins, paces, almost always in the background of the interrogation, hoping he’ll get away with “murder”.

THEN! Enters the Householder! He’s been revived and he recalls what happened—you can see it in his eyes. He tells the story of being knocked out by a bearded man much taller than the Burglar, almost never taking his eyes off his scared Weakling brother. The Burglar thanks the Householder for saving his neck, and the police and criminal and ambulance crew depart, leaving the Householder alone with his frightened brother.

HBW does a good job being abashed, afraid, embarrassed--and surprised his brother doesn't implicate him. The nervous energy coming off him as he waits out the Burglar's interrogation is hugely apparent: the pacing, the fidgety way he tries to both observe and not be caught observing is brilliant, as well as the myriad of faces and body movements he uses to show the shock he's experienced when his brother returns from "the dead". LB is good at this point as the uneasy, unsteady brother, whom we expect to be greatly upset.  I frankly thought the Weakling was going to get booted down the stairs, out the window, or worse. The Householder's features don't really break from a tired, dazed, suspicious look until the police and Burglar leave, and both brothers reenter the den. Once there, we see the Householder pause only briefly before a smile breaks on his face and he assures his brother everything is fine.

"He generously forgives”, reads the title card, and shakes the hand of his Weakling kin, who is all smiles now he knows he won’t get his butt handed to him by the burly Householder. Relief is written in big block letters on his face.  Cue cigarette lighting time for LB and relieved laughter from HBW.

In many of the scenes, but especially here and in the beginning, the contrast between LB's frame and HBW's much smaller frame is used well to contrast the characters--it's easy to see, even with no sound, why the gregarious, open, big Householder is more popular than his squirrely brother with fidgety tics and frail body. There endeth THAT lesson.

BUT—we see once more the Burglar (it is his Dilemma, after all), who has been freed from the control of the older crook, walking on the streets. He is accosted by the older crook again, but two policemen come to his aid and the former-Burglar thanks them with a smile and walks off to be a good, productive citizen.
All of that in fifteen minutes!  I admired the ability to maintain suspense while the Burglar was dragged to and fro in interrogation and the underplaying of Barrymore in a part that could have been full of annoying "hail fellow well met" swagger.  Indeed, the semi-pity you see on LB's face now and then is remarkable--he uses his face and hands very well here, especially when trying to communicate with his uncommunicative brother. Walthall's face shifting from terror at the idea he's killed his brother to sly relief as he locks the Burglar in the den is a thing to behold, too.  

Harron perhaps has the least to do, but he is convincing and was probably a bit sore after the filming, the way he's manhandled.  It's intriguing that possibly the least aggressive of the three male leads is the biggest, Barrymore's Householder.  Harron and Walthall have very physical parts, while Barrymore gets to lie down for about 3/4 of the film.  While he is awake, he does mingle and party briefly with the ladies and a few male friends, so he makes the most of his time, but once he's knocked out in the fall after the Weakling pushes him, he's out.  Things happen around him until he walks back in after being revived, and his appearance is quite unlike his prior look--he seems dazed, but also a little mean, a little upset (as you might imagine).  While he does not look as physically imposing as the first scenes, he is clearly larger than the Weakling, and there is a vague threat looming.

It's a fast story but well paced, and the cutting is great--the scenes inside the den, the living room, the crook's hideout, and the outdoor scenes are handled beautifully. It's not confusing, and it flows well back and forth, outside to inside and Burglar to Weakling.  And there are even two Gishes in it to wish Barrymore's Householder a happy birthday!  Beautifully shot, well-edited, very well-acted, The Burglar's Dilemma packs more than you might imagine into fifteen silent minutes, uninterrupted except by the most essential of title cards. Highly recommended!

Broken Lullaby (AKA The Man I Killed), 1932 *contains spoilers*

With French title
After 1931, Lionel Barrymore was top of his film career, having won the fourth Best Actor Academy Award for his 1931 performance as Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul. That he rose to this kind of prominence in film at the age of 53 surprised everyone except him, claimed his brother. While it has often been claimed by people who have not seen the film (I presume) that his still-record 14-minute long final scene in the courtroom won him the Oscar, a serious viewing casts that into the darkness. In any case, he was thrust into a wide variety of roles after that, from Guilty Hands to Arsene Lupin to Grand Hotel and this film, a celebrated one about the impact of the First World War on the families and combatants left alive at the end of it. It is relatively well-known, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, but was off the market for a very, very long time. Now it is on Universal's Vault list and is a worthy addition to it. The Vault DVD is how I first saw the film.

The film opens with a striking scene of peace, aged men with swords and medals gloomily listening to a priest speak of victory to come. In a trice, preceded by a brief and confusing moment when we first meet Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes), we are shock-cut to a life and death struggle in a trench, and we learn that German soldier and musician Walter Holderlin has been killed by French soldier (and musician) Paul.  Paul in the present is confessing that he "killed a man" to a priest in France. In the flashback of Paul's memory of killing Walter, Walter begs Paul's help in signing his last letter home to Elsa, but dies, his bloody hand covering Paul's. Paul is shocked by the death he caused and indeed next we see him he's intent on meeting the Holderlins to confess and somehow receive atonement.

It's clear from the early parts of the film that Germany is still reeling from the effects of the war, and the microcosm of the town, the somewhat pathetic need to feel "normal" again, is represented well. Dr Holderlin's large house/office is modest inside, and the doctor has clearly been at his practice a long while. He keeps a picture of Walter on his desk and gazes at it frequently, occasionally visiting the boy's upstairs room to "sit with him".

When we first see Dr Holderlin, fixing up a boy's wound, we hear him explain to the boy that another German lad calling him "a Frenchman" is indeed cause to hit him--and then stops himself, telling the boy to save his anger for a "real" Frenchman. It's clear the doctor harbors a deep hate for the men and the country which caused his son's death at a young age.

Dr Holderlin is a role quite unlike the others of Lionel Barrymore's 1931-32 filmography, one of the earliest of Mr. B's talkies to cast him as quite older than he was (and as much older-looking than he was then, too).  Kringelein, of 1932's Grand Hotel, comes close to the early part of this film in Barrymore playing a somewhat defeated character, but the doctor is more reserved, pained, and grieved by his life. He is the aged (probably by grief as well) doctor in a small German town circa 1920, whose life revolves around bandaging up wounds, lunching with friends, and mourning his son Walter, killed in the trenches not long before the war's end. He and his equally-grieved wife (played by Louise Carter) share their home with their son's fiancee, Elsa (Nancy Carroll).

There is an annoyingly buoyant and self-serving Herr Schultz, well played by Lucien Littlefield, who traipses in to ask Dr. Holderlin basically for Elsa's hand. You see in Barrymore's eyes the barely concealed contempt for this little fussy man in his office, and he leaves. Elsa comes in to tell Schultz emphatically she has no intention of marrying him, in spite of his wealth, etc. He serves again and again in the film as a barometer of how much people want to leave the war in the past and feel life has gone on, but really aren't able to.

From here the film starts to fly along, as Paul makes it to Germany and the Holderlins' home. He has been seen by Elsa, however, putting flowers on Walter's grave, and she misreads his intentions.  She breaks into a curious smile after being told by a gravedigger that Paul has visited the grave more than once, and rushes home.
Before she can get home, Paul finds Dr. Holderlin in his home office, and the doctor is kindly until he realizes Paul is French. When Paul says "you must listen to me!", a sneer creeps into Barrymore's voice and onto his face and he says "Oh, victorious France!" is telling Germany what to do once more. Holderlin's voice and face as well as body tense with a rage he is suppressing by great effort as the doctor shoves Walter's picture in Paul's face and yells at him to leave. Paul collapses in tears and Holderlin is caught unaware. At this point, Elsa comes in and the film revolves hereafter around the misunderstanding of who Paul is and how much he will end up hurting (or not) the Holderlins, who come to love him as a son.
There is a great deal of calm, controlled body language and voice control on the part of Barrymore, who invests Holderlin with alternate grief, rage, exhaustion, joy, and anger. He is furious at Paul, and you see his hands and body tense, the hands in particular showing his emotions--where before in the film they were loosely hanging at his sides, here they are active, strong, tense.  He looks as if in spite of his age, he could do violence to the scared boy in front of him.  He endows Holderlin with a range of emotions as the film progresses, and it's interesting to watch him shift the doctor from a gray, sad, defeated man to one gradually pulling himself out of a well of hate and loss. Paul's arrival will bring a measure of joy(!) back to Holderlin and his family.

When the doctor visits a tavern to meet friends who think he is hosting a French spy, he goes from outgoing, friendly, even happy, to disgusted and angry, as well as grieving his loss and those of most of the men at the table. He blasts them for their inability to forgive, as he once felt, explaining that Elsa and his wife like Paul, and "I love 'im". He stands and explains how ridiculous it is, he has come to understand, that German fathers who cheered when sending their sons to war to die can still harbor hate, as the grieving French must also feel. After all, he tells them, "we sent our sons" to kill and be killed, as the fathers of the French soldiers did. Both, he implies, we wrong and misled by the energies of competing powers.

It's an outstanding moment, well-scripted, and Mr. B's full vocal skills are used, as well as his hands. He pulls himself up to his full 5'10" and blasts away. A soldier looking on, who has lost a leg, rises to shake Holderlin's hand as the doctor makes to leave in anger. He tells the young man "I cheered" when Walter went off to war.  The bitter, deep nature of his loss is evident, as is his understanding of the "horror of war, the pity war distills" (to quote Wilfred Owen).

In the end, there is a somewhat bizarre but interesting conclusion.**SPOILER ALERT!** Elsa discovers Paul was Walter's killer, and while she is deeply hurt, she has come to love him as well. He is not intent on staying, as he feels his presence is offensive to many in town, but he is also in love with Elsa. She prevents him from confessing to the Holderlins, saying it would kill them both, as they have come to love him. Instead, she tells him the way he can atone is by staying there and being the son they lost, and he does.  Nancy Carroll does a fine job here and throughout as Elsa, which could have been a dull and thankless role.

The final scene is a tender one, though perhaps a little too unlikely, in which Paul plays Walter's violin which Holderlin has tenderly kept up, and Elsa then joins in on the piano. The doctor looks around in a kind of bliss, astonished, then he and his wife lean back and close their eyes to listen to music fill the house again. At least peace has returned to this one house in this one German town.

Overall this is a fine film of moments--most of them due to Lubitsch's skill with action and fine small bits, and Lionel Barrymore.  I recall reading how he observed people for roles requiring him to play old, beaten men. The loose hands, the stooping, the voice most often thin and tired at first, Barrymore transforms Holderlin gradually into a man who has to relearn how to forgive and reach out in compassion. As the film goes on, we see him straighten up, show flashes of humor and smile, tease his wife and Elsa as well as Paul a little, and "come back to life". Now, had Paul actually confessed, I think Mr. B would have done a remarkable job of falling apart as well.

Phillips Holmes is uneven as Paul, and it's a hard role. He is decent in scenes of desperation at times, but he's not up to the extended emotional scenes.  I kept wishing Ronald Colman had done it, but he would have been much too old. Nancy Carroll is fine, as is Louise Carter.  Zasu Pitts has a small role as the housekeeper, but she gets in one or two juicy scenes in the town.  The film is well-shot and edited, and you can feel the anti-war sentiment as a theme rather than as a battering ram.  It deserves its somewhat-cult status, even with a few weak spots of acting and a not-totally convincing end.

The film was released in January of 1932, so he had filmed it in 1931, and to think of Mr. B balancing Stephen Ashe, Andreeff in the Yellow Ticket, and Shubin in Mata Hari all in the same shooting year is astonishing.  In 1932, his films were Broken Lullaby, Arsene Lupin, Grand Hotel, The Washington Masquerade, and Rasputin and the Empress. DAMN. IMPRESSIVE. 

No comments:

Post a Comment