Archive for Fred Niblo

The Sunday Intertitle: Sex Crushed to Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , on January 24, 2016 by dcairns



“Art titles” from SEX, the sensation of 1920, with Louise Glaum as a showgirl seducing a wealthy New York stooge away from his wife. Nothing and no one is sexy in this film, despite the existence of many a sultry flapper in that era — it’s all terribly moralistic, and the Ince company’s idea of a wild party looks much like a toddler’s birthday bash only conducted by adults at 4 a.m.

Fred Niblo directs — his BEN-HUR was *much* sexier.


A helpful historical note at the start informs us that the film was generally received favourably by censors except in Pennsylvania where the title was forcibly changed to SEX CRUSHED TO EARTH, which I guess was considered purer because less appealing. They might equally have gone with SEX FOLDED UP AND WEDGED UNDER A TABLE LEG or SEX WITH GRAVY STAINS ALL DOWN ITS FRONT.

The other weird, kind of good, thing about this movie is that the main title has its own establishing shot — we see a painting of a Broadway theatre at night, with illuminated sign yelling SEX in light bulbs, and then a dissolve takes us into a closer view which serves as the opening credits. Possibly a first?

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The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns


Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.


The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.


The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: A Tale of the Christ

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 5, 2015 by dcairns


Sadly, Manuel de Oliveira, the oldest film director in captivity, died this week aged 106, possibly from surprise. (I apologise for the levity, but for the whole weekend, God is dead, so we can do what we like until the resurrrection.) I know virtually nothing of MdO’s work so I was prompted, belatedly, to run one of his films, and selected the very odd MON CAS (1986), in which a short play by José Régio is filmed — quite literally filmed happening on a stage — four times. The first version is more or less conventional, using long takes and mostly long shots to allow the actors to be as theatrical as they like; the second is in b&w and presented at double speed, evoking a silent movie — as sound, Oliveira allows some text by Beckett to bleed through an ambient projector whirr; then we get the same action again but dubbed, so that backwards gobbledygook emerges from the characters’ mouths, as if they were trapped in David Lynch’s Black Lodge; then we get a new text, a “straight” version of The Book of Job, performed against a backdrop simultaneously suggestive of the Puttin’ on the Ritz number from BROADWAY MELODY and an Italian post-apocalyptic fantasy painted by Fernand Leger.


As I say, very odd. The whole thing is very impressive, particularly the staging, which manages to pretend that no film-making is going on at all, while slowly evolving its own version of cinematic language.

My ulterior motive was to get a biblical intertitle out of it for today’s post, but Oliveria stages his “silent” sequence without titles. A shame, because the twenties design displayed in sets and costumes is lovely.

So I turn to BEN-HUR, A TALE OF THE CHRIST to sing us out. Take it away, Fred Niblo!


The phantom camel is baffling, but nice. Happy Easter!