Sunday 10 March 2013

Dr Nicholson and the Blue Diamond (1913)

I've found the silent films I've been watching for this project wonderfully diverse and refreshing, but it's quite pleasing to find one that matches the silent movie pastiches and parodies I've either seen or have been involved with.  In short, 'Dr. Nicholson og den blaa Diamant' is a melodrama, though it may not entirely realise it, and has a slimy and obviously evil villain facing off against handsome wealthy people, and somebody wears a top hat.

The premise is something along these lines.  Through one of those quirks of law that I hope only occur in fiction, Alice Kensington, an heiress, is obliged to marry before she can claim her inheritance, which is to be substantial.  She's an intelligent and independent sort, and decides to enter into a mock marriage (which is presumably a real marriage sans consummation) for one month, so as to gain her inheritance without being lumbered with a husband she doesn't want or love.  She places an advert in the paper requesting a temporary husband, as you do.

People still dressed so in 1913

Dr. Nicholson, an unashamedly villainous cad who dwells in a den, spending all day smoking a hookah and operating his electronic door (pretty swish in 1913) has a cunning plan.  He hires a down-on-his-luck duke to be the faux-husband, and intends to use him to steal the priceless Blue Diamond which I like to think might be the Blue Water Diamond from 'The Last Remake of Beau Geste' (1977), or perhaps blue is just the most exciting colour for these things, even in monochrome.

Toward the climax, Dr Nicholson climbs on top of a fast-moving train, and for an exciting moment I believed I was about to see my favourite cliche, the train-top fist-fight, born.  Alas, having gotten on top of the carriage, he postures for a while, then jumps off into a river when the train goes over a bridge.  Wonderfully, this was filmed with no more trickery than telling the lead actor to actually get on the train and then jump off.  They did these things properly back then.

Dr. Nicholson in his evil lair.  He's the one with the gun.

This being 1913 - which when you think about it is a long time ago - the plot comes to us fairly slowly, taking an hour to tell a story that might have been told in half the time had the film been made a decade later.  Nonetheless, it's fairly sensational, full of incident and high drama, though I couldn't quite call it unpredictable.

The biggest surprise, watching this film, is the absence of dialogue intertitles.  I'd always assumed that these were invented about the same time as the silent film, and that the absence of recorded sound made slides of who-said-what, the movie equivalent of speech-bubbles, inevitable.  They're wholly absent here, and the only real intertitles are used to introduce new scenes, as they were in 1903's 'Le Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ'.  This film uses a rather ingenious replacement for dialogue: every time a character needs to say something to another character, they write to them and we see the letter.  So, rather than talk one to another, characters make a point of leaving, and then a letter arrives from them once they're no longer in the location of their recipient, and the audience gets to read long paragraphs of cursive handwriting about who's doing what, and why.  At least in the English-language print that I watched, all the characters seem to write with identical handwriting.  Handwriting so classy as to be a bit too fancy to read with any comfort.

Thankfully the letters are on screen for ages.

After all this, I'm inclined to venture the dialogue intertitle as my favourite innovation in the development of cinema.  More useful to the telling of the story than audio or colour, and more charming too.  The typefaces have been a delight, wherever I've seen them: a typically soviet-looking font for 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), tidy serifs for Swedish films, and gothic script for the dark German folk-tales.  I wonder how much of the association of certain typefaces with different nations and their cultures hails from the silent film era.  Until I see more early Danish films with proper intertitles, I shall assume that Dansk is properly spoken in elegant and highly italicised penmanship, and carries over long distances.

Anyway, you can quite lawfully watch the film here, and it's quite interesting to do so to get an idea what people were capable of filming a complete century ago.  It seems bizarre, somehow, that the movies can have been going on for as long as that, but, as I've learnt, cinema was already very advanced by this point, and was already pretty complex and ambitious a full decade earlier.  If I ever get to the end of my hundred years project I'm sure I'll go mining into the 1900s and 1890s to try to grasp how films really got started - but I'm keen not to make an unwieldy project any bigger than it is at present.

P.S. My thanks to JillBob for poining me towards this film, and also for recommending 'Brick' (2005), and 'Goodbye Lenin!' (2003), all of which I've been glad to see.

P.P.S. Thursday will bring a post about 'Häxan' (1922), a rather exciting Swedish/Danish documentary about witchcraft through the ages.  I'll try not to spend too long examining its intertitles.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say I enjoyed the relative lack of intertitles. I watched Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman (1917) not long after and found it increasingly hard to follow who was saying what it whom in the dialogue heavy cards. On the other hand, one of the best things about The Return of Draw Egan (1916) were the illustrative place and plot intertitles . I seem to remember reading that Dr Nicholson and similar films were popular in countries such as Russia, so maybe the were intentionally kept dialogue/intettitle light as they were intended for an international market. I don't know if literacy levels of target audiences were also a consideration.

    My favourite things about this film were the bits you weren't supposed to notice. The fact that Dr Nicholson has to remember to open and close his door every time with an awkwardly placed switch, for example. Or the man on the back of a cart clearly waiting for (and nearly mistiming) his cue. My favourite bit is about half way through when Nicholson emerges from a chimmney carrying a lamp. In an early and underwhelming special effect, the lamp's spotlight moves around the room until Nicholson concludes his nefarious business. He then turns the lamp off for no good reason (presumably the real spotlight has limited movement) but, to preserve the realism (?!), gropes with his hand as he leaves the scene, as if the room really is pitch dark. I'm not sure why I like that bit so much. I think it's because it seems like it makes sense, but the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. I also like that Dr Nicholsons's actions make almost no sense at any point (but are easily explained away with an early example of the "crazed drug addict" trope). Oh and the multicoloured dancing scene towards the end was a very pleasant surprise and I enjoyed the costumes and make up throughout.

    I do enjoy your posts and generally mean to comment more, but never get around to it. Glad you enjoyed my suggestions!