With e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Philip C. Carli, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 9 Oct 2014
Philip C. Carli (GCM catalog and website): "Plot: Mathias, an innkeeper in an Alsatian village, seeking to ingratiate himself with locals who may elect him as burgomaster, falls in debt to Jerome Frantz, who hopes to seize the inn when Mathias defaults on his debts. Frantz also has his eye on Mathias’ daughter Annette, and offers Mathias the option of cancelling the debt in exchange for permission to marry her. Mathias angrily refuses, and is already in a precarious state when the village holds its annual fair. There he witnesses a mesmerist, who, as a part of a conjuring act, hypnotizes bystanders while claiming that he has the power to force people to disclose their innermost secrets. A fairground fortune-teller, beginning to read his palm, recoils in horror at what she foresees. With the December snows, the inn is visited by Baruch Koweski, an itinerant Polish Jewish merchant. Mathias realizes that Koweski has a money belt full of gold coins. When Koweski leaves in his sleigh – sleigh bells jingling – Mathias follows him, murders him, and burns his body in a lime-kiln. Mathias, now rich and explaining his wealth as an inheritance, becomes burgomaster, and appears to secure his position by betrothing Annette to Christian, the local gendarme. Later, the mesmerist arrives at the inn in company with Jethro Koweski, who announces himself as Koweski’s brother and seeks to apprehend his killer. Mathias, taking Annette’s dowry from the hoard of gold coins, is visited by an apparition of Koweski and imagines that he hears the bells on Koweski’s sleigh. The wedding of Annette and Christian is celebrated. Exhausted from the festivities and nursing his guilt, Mathias falls into a deep dream in which he is on trial for murder, with Frantz as the prosecuting judge. When Mathias denies guilt, Frantz summons the mesmerist, who compels Mathias to re-enact his crime. Sentenced to death in his dream, Mathias seeks forgiveness but suffers a fatal heart attack."
"American director James Young, freeing himself from the constrictions and closed-in darkness of a stage drama that held the international stage from the 1870s into the beginning of the 20th century, has devised a narrative that, unlike the original, actually dramatizes the backstories of the characters who peopled the earlier play and, in the traditional manner of those who bring a stage piece to the screen, “opened out” the setting and action to include a village, a fair, and an on-screen murder."
"Lionel Barrymore, in the central role of Mathias, follows British stage legend Henry Irving (1838-1905) in a part that grew out of the Victorians’ increasing investigation into neuroscience and a consequent public awareness of the human unconscious. Gradually, it was admitted that individuals possessed a secret inner life often at odds, but controlling and interfering, with their outer selves. A side effect of the reports of Anton Mesmer’s hypnotic cures and Jean-Martin Charcot’s psychiatric treatment of hospital patients was from the 1870s observable in the theatres of Europe and America. Dramatic authors, whose stage melodramas had formerly clearly differentiated between heroes and villains, were encouraged by accounts of mental slippages and fractures in identity to fuse the two antithetical roles into a single character: the hero-villain, a character whose inner self erupts and threatens personal stability and whose consuming guilt for hidden crimes cannot be appeased or adequately expiated."
"Barrymore’s interpretation is in the tradition of Irving as a hero-villain – outwardly charming, attractive, powerful, and effective. However, inwardly – and revealed only to appalled audiences – he was a transgressor of moral and social boundaries, secretly devoured and debilitated by festering guilt, in short, a criminal and sociopath. An external cue, a real or imagined jingle of sleigh bells, for instance, triggers a response from the unconscious, overpowering rational behaviour and inducing hallucinations and hideous dreams."
"Six years earlier, in the character of Milt Shanks in the film version of Augustus Thomas’ The Copperhead (1920), reprising a role he had performed to acclaim on Broadway, Barrymore showed both the inner torture and mental fortitude of the silent sufferer, who in this case is erroneously labeled a traitor. This film, now rarely seen, matches the depth of the stage drama and shows Lionel Barrymore at his intellectual and emotional best. Again, in The Bells, Barrymore takes up a similar role, here requiring deviousness, cunning, a calculating intellect, stress-displacing stage business, and occasional jocular just-one-of-the-boys glad-handing. He performs desperation and guilt and unmastered fear in response to terrifying hallucinations. Notably, his scene counting the Jew’s money, an act which drenches his hands in imagined blood, reveals the mind of a murderer who has borne and disguised months of silent corrosive inner torment."
"James Young takes the narrative’s beginning to a village, not snowbound, but in full leaf, and introduces and makes specific the causes of Mathias’ financial peril: an inn where free drink is given to buy votes and a mill where milled flour serves the same purpose. Whereas the Leopold Lewis-Henry Irving stage text offers a Mathias who is secure and universally beloved, Young adds the character of Frantz, a constant local antagonist uncomfortably present at all events, who will feature as prosecutor in the final dream episode but who, earlier, seeks both possession of the inn and Mathias’ daughter Annette. The village fair sequence is added to make what was formerly just the memory of a fairground charlatan into a menacing presence, dangerous because, much like the gratuitous fortune-teller, he has already read Mathias’ potential murderous criminality."
"In partial compensation for this narrative cul-de-sac, Boris Karloff as the mesmerist reveals more menace and danger in his slow rictus smile than Gustav von Seyffertitz as Frantz offers in his numerous scowls, grimaces, and thin-lipped contempt. Young also makes visible the actual visit of Baruch Koweski, the heavy money belt, and the murder itself. All play to cinema’s ability to widen focus and escape the confining stage set."
"Unfortunately, Young misses a trick when Mathias is installed as burgomaster. Hitherto, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, Mathias has instinctively shied away from a looped rope dangling from a beam in his stable. Now, as the mayoral chain of office is placed about his neck, it is merely the reward for years of effective bribery. Young fails to see that the chain of office also foreshadows the hangman’s noose, and allows the moment to pass unremarked. Further, on the evidence of many snowy American winters, sleigh bells were actually a part of a horse’s harness, never held by the sleigh’s driver and never jingled separately, the equivalent of an auto horn to warn of a sleigh’s approach. Here, Young turns harness bells into a hand-prop that he displays in the superimposed visions which harass Mathias. A film audience in 1926 would have known better."
"In all, the film is a mixed blessing. Young has traded the compression, overpowering darkness, and black emotional palette of the stage Bells for the spectacle of jolly rural life with ingénues on hay wagons, a mounted posse of Alsatian cops, Christmas festivities, and a sinister village fair, but has also achieved a tale of excessive ambition, crime, and debilitating guilt, repentance, and unpurged sorrow."
"The stage play of The Bells (1871), in which Henry Irving first realized the role of Mathias in an English-language production, was altogether a different drama. In an era when four-act melodramas were the norm, The Bells required no more than two tense acts. Its plot was similar – but not identical – to the film’s. All that had happened in that Alsatian inn before Mathias began hallucinating the sound of sleigh-bells was explained in exposition, and the stage drama focused upon the last 48 hours of Mathias’ life. In consequence, the play was dark, austere, oppressive, compact, and effectively a one-man show."
"Other actors were on stage, but the play was Irving’s, and with this drama Irving rose to national prominence. It was the brevity of this claustrophobic drama and the weight of the past on the immediate present, as well as Mathias’ welling guilt and his frantic efforts to conceal his criminal past and suppress his rising fear, that give the play its undeniable power."
"The stage history of the text is somewhat complicated. Originally a drama, Le Juif polonais, by the collaborators Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian and performed at the Théâtre Cluny in Paris in 1869, the play was pirated by a shorthand writer in the audience who copied every word. Three separate translations quickly found their way to London. One of these English translations reached the hands of the alcoholic journalist Leopold Lewis, who brought the script to Irving at London’s Lyceum Theatre, where Lewis and Irving set about adapting it for a British audience and to exploit Irving’s developing acting skills."
"Irving, on his final American tour, performed in The Bells in New York in 1899-1900. Lionel, 21 years old at the time, is likely to have seen Irving in repertory in at least one of his favoured roles: Mathias, Robespierre, and Shylock. So, too, must some or all of the Barrymores caught Irving’s performances. It is interesting to speculate whether Lionel was influenced at all by seeing Irving as Mathias. A further Barrymore link is that Ethel, briefly in England, toured with Irving in 1897, playing Annette in The Bells. Well before his death in 1905, Irving had sold the play publisher Samuel French a deliberately altered version of his script, changing dialogue and reversing stage directions so that other actors could not copy his productions. His own version was later toured by his son, H. B. Irving, in a “replica production”, and still later passed, by personal gift, into the possession of other English actors. This measure ensured that Irving’s version became a legend."
"The Bells was filmed on at least four occasions before this version: in Australia (1911), with Arthur Styan as Mathias, followed by two American screen versions, with George Siegmann (1913) and Frank Keenan (1918), and in Britain (1923) with Russell Thorndike. Further versions followed on sound film and on television, including an early British talkie with Donald Calthrop, a 1931 French film of the original source, Le Juif polonais, starring Harry Baur, and a 1950s BBC television production with Bransby Williams, an actor whose music hall turn had included impersonations of Henry Irving. David Mayer"
"Isaac E. Chadwick (1884-1952) founded Chadwick Pictures Corporation in 1924 with the idea of rising above the majority of independent Hollywood studios and becoming at least a “minor major” turning out high-quality features on modest but not picayune budgets. Notable stars who made films at Chadwick – who were perhaps “between engagements” at the majors, but did good work for the company – included Pauline Frederick, Theda Bara (her last film), Betty Blythe, Betty Compson, George Walsh (after his Ben-Hur debacle), and Lionel Barrymore. Chadwick took trouble to make its films look good, renting out space at Universal and using their standing sets, and employed directors who, if not upper-tier, were good craftsmen, like James Young, Robert F. Hill, Wilfred Noy, B. Reeves Eason, and William James Craft. At first Chadwick was successful and its films were well-received and reviewed, but there was a fatal flaw: I.E. Chadwick’s main business partner was Larry Semon, fresh from being fired at Vitagraph for riotous overexpenditure. Semon’s features – including his infamous 1925 The Wizard of Oz, for which the L. Frank Baum estate was paid an enormous sum for rights – drained Chadwick’s limited capital and did poorly at the box-office. Semon’s return to shorts wasn’t enough to save the company, which ceased production in 1928." Philip C. Carli
AA: A tragedy of murder and an avenging conscience, with touches of horror.
An effective and compact drama has been stylized into the direction of a fairy-tale and a horror story. The characters are drawn strongly, without too much subtle nuance, but the ensemble playing is effective.
This film is relevant from the Jewish angle. It is an inspired idea to have the same actor play the murdered Jewish merchant Jethro and his brother Baruch, both noted by their greeting "peace be with you".
The imagery. After Mathias has strangled Jethro he keeps seeing hallucinations of a noose and hearing hallucinations of the bells of Jethro's horse carriage. The love story of Mathias's daughter with a dashing officer is brought to a happy end, but the wedding bells blend in Mathias's mind with the murdered Jethro's horse carriage bells, and he descends into a final madness and suicide.
Lionel Barrymore and Gustav von Seyffertitz ham it up as the antagonists Mathias and Jerome. It seems to irk Jerome endlessly that Mathias manages to pay his debt.
The most unforgettable performance is undoubtledly that of Boris Karloff as the mesmerist. He is already at his best here, completely modern. He is the scariest figure in the tale, not because he is evil but because he sees through the lies of everybody.
A good print.