Sunday, July 28, 2013

THE BELLS (1926)

And this one was a drag.  It's not that THE BELLS is all that bad, it's just that it's so unexceptional and incorporates so many things we've already seen that it's hard not to view it as well-traveled ground.  Let's mark the appeal elements with #hashtags to be 2.0.

Dateline Alsatia, 1868.  Lionel Barrymore plays Mathias, a barkeep and flour factory magnate with a very awful grasp of economics.  He allows his "customers" to take whatever they want on credit, provided that they support his bid to become burgomaster of the town.  

#Comedy-alcoholics (cf. WOLF BLOOD) sell their political loyalty for rotgut because they're too fat to eat more bread or go to any circuses.  Corpulent alcoholic deadbeats were sort of the Adam Sandlers and Emmett (circuses) Kellys of this era.  

Mathias is a debtor himself, owing the king of jerkoffs Jerome Frantz (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a whole bunch of francs.  So his wife Catharine shrews him to death just because he hands out free drinks like Halloween candy.  "We need money to buy food and medicine!"  What a bitch, right?  Later, we discover the weakness that she shares with all women of her era, a love for headgear that makes her look like a caravan gypsy.

Her daughter also has hat fever, only she prefers to look like a sailor/French maid with long curtainlike ears.  Despite this, she is the apple of multiple eyes, namely Jerome Frantz and newly-arrived gendarme Christian.

Don't let the girls have all the hat fun, Boris Karloff!  He shows up as a traveling mesmerist/#magician (cf. THE MAGICIAN, THE LAST PERFORMANCE).  

This all occurs at the #town-fair (cf. CALIGARI).  Admittedly, this is a pretty impressive fair.  There are no rides, but the bad-trip costumes are specially designed to mortify children.  

Not a lot of plot yet, but we are being smothered by the tons of characters the film is dumping on us.  THE BELLS doesn't exactly aim for subtlety, as Jerome is just a bastard because he's a bastard.  And he is hardcore into frowning in case that wasn't apparent.

Finally, the plot picks up a bit and this becomes more than a movie about Keynesian marriage and plump drunks.  A Polish Jew travels through town and immediately gets "Ewww, Jew!" stares from the local winos.  Mathias is nice to him, so much so that the Jew reveals that he has scads of Jew gold stashed in his belt.  I cannot believe that Eric Cartman was right about this!

You can guess the rest, I'm sure.  THE BELLS is Macbeth, only with burgomastership instead of a kingdom at stake, and with the heavy-set instead of Banquo and Malcolm.  And with headwraps that look like fly wings or Bullwinkle ears.

It proceeds sedately through its plot, taking few chances and seldom offering plum dialogue or unleashed shocks.  It barely qualifies as a horror film, as the only supernatural elements here are Karloff's mesmerist and the guilt-driven ghost who pops up to chat up Mathias.  

Competent, mediocre, excruciating.  These are the right reactions to THE BELLS.  One wishes for more ambition, even if it leads to failure.  It would certainly be better than the safe, clunky nature of the film as it stands, and might give us more lines like this:

I suspect that the director just wanted to make a film about jaunty hats and had to include the thriller stuff because of studio demands.  None more jaunty.

RATING: 5/10

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) 
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
10. A Page of Madness (1926)

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