Review by Doug Gibson
"Down From the Attic: Rare Thrillers From the Silent Era through the 1950s" is a new offering from McFarland (www.mcfarlandpub.com, 800-253-2187). It's a follow up to a book I have not read, "Up From the Vault." Twenty-four films are analyzed in essays, and they are pretty comprehensive, with detailed synopsis and tons of facts told in a breezy, yet scholarly manner; there's even the occasional snarky comment.
Of the authors, I have heard of John Soister, who wrote some excellent pieces for now defunct Cult Movies Magazine. The films are suitably obscure and a diverse lot. There's a lost silent "Charlie Chan" serial, "The House Without a Key," in which actually you learn that Chan wasn't even a major character. That leads to a very interesting section on the evolution of Chan as the key character of"Chan mysteries" and the progression of actors who portrayed Chan. The reader learns that the less important Chan was, the more likely the detective was to be played by an Asian!
It's also cool to learn a bit about Spencer Bennett, the serial director. He's a name that carried for several more decades. My son and I, who enjoy the serials of the 30s to the early 50s, have watched a lot of his later work.
Another strength is that it provides glimpses into the lives of some pretty colorful, "minor" characters of the film industry. Bud Pollard, whose film(s) "The Horror" and "John the Drunkard," which was a revised version of "The Horror," which only played in Japan, are discussed. Pollard was a minor character who mostly hung around New Jersey making films. He seems to have dipped the tips of his fingers into various, often sullied pots of showbiz. He made comedy shorts for a Harold Lloyd-ish discovery, dabbled in faux smut films of the silent era, traveled to Europe in a failed films venture, made the rounds of ethnic and race films, Italian, Jewish and African-American.
Going further, he made an early bizarre sound version of "Alice in Wonderland" (watch it below), groomed a young girl for stardom who committed suicide, made an anti-war film that were popular in the early years of the Great Depression but also made a patriotic war film once World War II started.
He eventually settled into directing ultra-low budget programmers, many for African-American audiences. Even his death was unique; he died in a Culver City, Calif., listening to a low comic who promised that the next joke would kill him. It did, as he suffered heart attack.
Pollard reminds one of a Broadway Danny Rose gone to seed and his life story I'd wager would make a fun biography or movie.
I'm rambling a bit; as mentioned, there are two dozen films explored in depth. They include "Der Tunnel," a silent, and "Transatlantic Tunnel," a talkie. Both were adaptations of a popular melodrama that imagined a train traveling under the Atlantic. There's another chapter exploring some pacifist melodramas, "High Treason" (1929) and "Men Must Fight," a 1933 film that allows war a positive rally at the end.
The films sound extremely interesting, but that's a secret to Down From the Attic": the authors make you want to see the films. This can be frustrating as some of the films are quite obscure, the type that are restored and then shipped off to the very occasional film festival.
But some can be seen via YouTube. Ever wonder how El Brendel became a star? The authors discuss the musical science fiction film from 1930, "Just Imagine."
Another is "Return of the Terror," an Edgar Wallace adaptation from First National that made usual good guy star Lyle Talbot the heavy. I can't find this one for free on the Net. But there's John Barrymore playing Sherlock Holmes in a 1922 silent. That film is discussed in entertaining fashion.
There's a fascinating chapter on a film called "Forgotten Faces," (1928) a silent that has a criminal as the hero, protecting his daughter from the exploitation of her mother. It's based on the story, "A Whiff of the Heliotrope," and involves the hero using his murder -- at the hands of his panicky wife -- as a means to provide a safe future for his daughter.
A chapter on silent adaptations of "The Monkey's Paw" and "Sweeney Todd" note film makers' interests in providing these grisly tales with happier "it's only a dream endings. It's an interesting discussion. The films distributors still had the option of retaining the grisly ending and the authors recount critical opinions, pro and con, of the happy or grisly endings.
The aforementioned "Death Takes a Holiday" is analyzed. I love this film, particularly Fredric March's performance I first heard of it as a child, included in a book, maybe titled "Classic Horror Films," and I had to see it. What a great concept: Death taking a vacation. (By the way, as the authors note, the film is available as an extra in a 1998 DVD release of "Meet Joe Black). The authors correctly note the strong camera work that portrays death in his spectral form compared to his life-like "vacation" form.
I'm going to mention one more film, a 1951 Czech "anti-capitalist" opus, 144 minutes in two parts, called "The Baker's Emperor, The Emperor's Baker." This movie sounds so deliciously bizarre. It involves a lazy emperor who starves his kingdom to fulfill his collection hobbies. There's actually a Golem in this film that the emperor managed to obtain. He throws his baker in prison for feeding the hungry. Later, the baker gets out and with a beard looks like a younger version of the emperor (I forgot to mention that charlatan magicians are trying to make the emperor younger.) Throw in the Golem and a palace coup attempt and this is a film I'll be checking for late Sunday night foreign film showings on TCM. Here's a link to an expensive DVD of the film.
It's a McFarland book, so it is expensive, but $39.99 is worth the cost for serious film fans who are always searching to learn more about the genre. "Down From the Attic" will increase your knowledge of film history; that's a guarantee. (And even though it's not one of the 24 in this book, catch that goofy Pollard film below).