Saturday, June 11, 2016

#233: The Bells (James Young, 1926)

The Bells is a visually impressive quality entertainment with a few great scenes and performances and an enjoyable story and setting. It isn't a neglected classic, but it's really good and a fine example of the visual confidence and sensuality found in the late silents before that awkward period of transition to sound (roughly 1929-1932) when things got rough and clunky again.
Based on a play by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann and its successful stage adaptation by Leopold Lewis, The Bells is similar to Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" in that a good person does something terrible to get out of a jam and is then hit by severe pangs of conscience brought on by a particular sound. In this case, our sinner is also visited by the ghost of the aggrieved party.
Mathias (Lionel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew) and his wife Catharine (Caroline Frances Cooke) own a popular tavern and adjoining mill in a small Austrian village and should be doing great. Much to Catharine's chagrin, Mathias, while a kindhearted soul, is a pretty godawful businessman. He lets the townspeople pay for their food, drinks, and mill supplies on credit, and the townspeople take tremendous advantage of this kindness. Making things even worse, Mathias refuses to collect on any of this credit because he is running for burgomaster and thinks it will hurt his chances. He is heavily in debt to a bitter old creep named Jerome Frantz (the incredibly named Gustav von Seyffertitz) who will assume the tavern and mill if Mathias doesn't pay up by the agreed-upon date. Frantz offers to forgive the debt only if Mathias gives him his daughter's hand in marriage, which Mathias honorably refuses.
On a snowy Christmas night shortly before the debt is due, a Jewish man from Poland named Koweski (E. Alyn Warren) stops at the tavern for a drink and a bit of relief from the snow before trudging back out again. Mathias and Koweski bond over a bottle of fine booze until Mathias discovers the other man is wealthy and traveling with a pouch full of gold. In a moment of drunken desperation, Mathias grabs an ax and follows Koweski when the Polish man leaves. Mathias murders him, steals his gold, and disposes of the body in his mill's lime kiln. Koweski clutches some bells as he is killed, and the sound continues to haunt Mathias after he's used the gold to clear his debts. Though it's just a plot point, an Austrian Christian murdering a Polish Jew can't help but take on a greater resonance considering what would follow in the real world a decade later. This is made even more chilling by the emphasis the movie places on fortune telling and hypnotism.
What follows is not surprising, and the storyline was already well-trod ground in 1926, but director James Young tells it with visual beauty, style, and a quick pace. The film has a graceful elegance in its movement and a warm, polished-wood visual style that drew me in to the story of a close family running a small business in a European village. The only real misstep is its abrupt, too-pat ending that wraps things up too neatly and too quickly without exploring any substantial consequences.
The cast is mostly excellent, with Barrymore playing Mathias in a realist minor key without the grand gestures and melodrama that sometimes signifies silent film acting. Lola Todd as Annette, the daughter of Mathias and Catharine, is a subtly charismatic mixture of the girl next door and silent film star glamour, and the great Boris Karloff plays The Mesmerist, a role I haven't even talked about to avoid excellent surprises. I'll just say his costume is something to behold, and he is clearly having a lot of fun in the part.
Director James Young transitioned to the movie business after working in vaudeville and on Broadway. He acted in 60 silent films and directed 93 but got out of the business when sound films took over, though he would live until 1948. I haven't seen any of his other films, and he's not generally known as one of the greats, but The Bells is an excellent bit of entertainment.

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