Contents of Issue #6 Contents of Issue #6 [Welcome] [Features] [In Focus] [Reviews] [Info]

They Had Faces Then

video review by
Gary Johnson

[click on photos
for larger versions]

Go to
Web site


"… still wonderful, isn't it? And no dialog. We didn't need dialog. We had faces."
--Norma Desmond to Joe Gillis
in Sunset Boulevard.

"They Had Faces Then," a new set of videos from Kino, vividly illustrates Norma Desmond's argument. Few people would argue that any of the movies in this collection belong on a list of the best movies ever made, but all the movies are remarkably entertaining. Cobra gives us Rudolph Valentino as a suave womanizer who meets his match in his boss' wife. The Show Off is ostensibly a Ford Sterling comedy vehicle, but Louise Brooks (in only a supporting role as the plucky next-door neighbor) steals virtually every scene that she's in. Tol'able David gives us Richard Barthelmess in an old-fashioned piece of Americana set in the rural Appalachian mountains. And The Toll Gate gives us W.S. Hart as a good-hearted badman whose run from the law is interrupted when he meets a beautiful (widowed?) farmer's wife.

With the exception of The Show Off, these films were designed as star vehicles--movies that focused on the faces of their stars: the smooth cheeks and flaring nostrils of Valentino, the earnest eyes of Barthelmess, and the long, craggy visage of W.S. Hart. While The Show Off was not designed as a star vehicle for Louise Brooks, she nonetheless overpowers the movie with her vivacious eyes and remarkable sensuality. These movies provide testament to the power of silent cinema to transfix our attention upon the faces of the stars. Thanks to Kino, these movies are now available once again, digitally re-mastered from the original 35mm materials and revitalized with new musical scores.

"I try to behave, but it doesn't run in the family," says Count Rodrigo Torriani (Rudolph Valentino). The Count is a well-known woman's man. His head always turns when a beautiful lady walks by. He can't help himself. "Women fascinate me--as that cobra does it's victim," he says. At first impulse, you might think Valentino is the "cobra" from the title. But instead he's the "victim" at the mercy of the cobra's gaze. And that's an interesting switch from the usual approach of Valentino's movies --such as The Shiek and The Eagle--where Valentino is the aggressor. In Cobra, Valentino might be on the make, but he is constantly at the mercy of the women he meets. Usually, the women are predatory, intending to bilk him of thousands of dollars. To avoid one such woman, he flees to America. He tries to behave himself in New York, but then he meets Elise Van Zile (Nita Naldi). She marries Rodrigo's boss, and then she turns her attention to seducing Rodrigo himself: "I dare you to kiss me…and then let me go," she says. As the movie paints a surprisingly salacious portrait of Elise, even indicating that she has been sleeping with a wide variety of men other than her husband, Rodrigo begins to envision her as the "cobra."

The Show Off
The Show Off stars Ford Sterling, one of the great comedians of the silent era. He played in dozens of Mack Sennett comedies, often as a mustache-twirling baddie. Here, he plays a blow hard named Aubrey Piper who boasts to everyone within earshot just how important he is. Actually, he's nothing more than a simple $30-a-week clerk in a business office. The family of his fiancee considers him a "wind bag." They wince when he shows up at their door. But his girlfriend (Lois Wilson) loves him. Against her family's wishes, they marry. Louise Brooks stars as the next-door neighbor, and she steals nearly every scene she's in. Rarely has any actress seemed so full of life. Her lithe figure resembles an energetic colt. In particular, after Aubrey wrecks his car, Brooks does a great pantomime of his wreck. The Show Off is noteworthy just for her appearance alone. However, the movie is also a good comedy, featuring Ford Sterling is what may well have been the best performance of his career.

The Toll Gate
The Toll Gate gives us W.S. Hart in one of his archetypal roles, as a good badman named Black Deering. Deering is the leader of a band of thieves called "The Raiders." He believes they should break up and go their separate ways: "We're worth about $5,000 a head and they ain't particular about how we're brought in… I don't figure to lead you into nothin' I can't lead you out of. I say we've made our last haul," he says. But another member of the gang argues for one last train holdup. Against Deering's wishes the gang votes unanimously (except for Deering's lone dissenting vote) to go along with the holdup plan, but of course, the plans go awry, virtually everyone is killed, and Deering is on the lam--with two posses on his trail. W.S. Hart was one of the great stars of the silent screen, and The Toll Gate shows why. Part of his allure was his ambiguous morality. At one point in The Toll Gate, Deering tries to go straight and get a job as a ranch hand. But the rancher won't hire him. With no alternatives, Deering must return to crime or starve. But he's soon on the lam again. In one of the movie's best sequences, Hart befriends a widowed farmer's wife--"A woman who has known no good man," the titles tell us. When the posses close in on him, he tries to trick them by forcing the woman to pretend they are husband and wife. But the posses are on to his plan. They eavesdrop on Deering and the woman, waiting for them to go to bed together--as proof that they are really husband and wife. But Deering won't go that far, so he gives himself up. Hart made his audience care and identify with his characters by creating a soft-hearted persona with a moral code of honor. He could simultaneously be chivalrous and villainous, a rare combination. Thanks to his real-life experience on cattle drives, Hart brought a strong sense of realism to his movies. His movie's didn't look like back lot creations; they brought documentary realism to Hollywood's version of the Old West.

This video tape also features a Mack Sennett parody of W.S. Hart, His Bitter Pill, starring Mack Swain.

Tol'able David
Tol'able David gives us Richard Barthelmess in one of his most famous roles, as an Appalachian youth just itchin' to become a man. "You won't be a man for a spell yet, David. But you're tol'able…just tol'able," his mother says. When a trio of escaped convicts invades the serene town of Greenstream, his brother is soon crippled and his father dies from a heart attack. The sheriff won't arrest the villains because court doesn't hold session in the county for three months yet. Therefore, the family's future rests in David's hands. He must provide food for the table by driving a hack and delivering the mail. Meanwhile, the villainous mountain men have taken over a house on his route--the home of David's girlfriend! "They'd mow you down like a clump of daisies," she warns David. But eventually David must take action. Sure, this sounds like a corny piece of Americana, but the movie becomes compelling, thanks to the earnest but subtle performance of Barthelmess and the excellent, detailed direction of Henry King. Director/screenwriter Henry King recreated the mountain life of his youth in this movie. He grew up in the mountains of Virginia, and he brought his knowledge of rural communities to Tol'able David. However, King's camera draws much of its strength simply from Barthelmess' face, from the joy in his face as he frolics in a pond with his dog and the disappointment when the adults exclude him from their activities.

The movie is followed by a rare interview with Henry King where he talks about the making of Tol'able David. Particularly interesting is the segment where he talks about how they improvised some of the scenes, such as the scene where one of the villains (played by Ernest Torrence) thinks about smashing a cat that's lying in the sun. King explains that the villain doesn't really want to kill the cat, but the idea of seeing a crushed cat strikes the villain as humorous. This morbid attraction to violence comes through clearly in the movie and makes the character all the more terrifying--and realistic.

"They Had Faces Then" is a new video set from Kino On Video. These videos include Cobra (1923), The Toll Gate (1920), The Show Off (1926), and Tol'able David (1921). All the movies have been digitally re-mastered from original 35mm materials and include new musical scores. Suggested retail price: $24.95 for each video. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino Web site:

Top Welcome Features In Focus Reviews Info