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Recently Watched Silents

147 posts in this topic

The Squaw Man (1914) - The directing debut of Cecil B. DeMille and the first feature-length movie made in Los Angeles. A British former soldier named James (Dustin Farnum) is blamed when a lot of money is embezzled from the military widows and orphans fund. It was actually James's cousin Henry (Monroe Salisbury), but James gets the blame and goes on the run to the US, while Henry inherits an ancestral title and becomes nobility. James ends up in Wyoming, where he buys a ranch, falls for native girl Nat-U-Rich (Lillian St. Cyr), and runs into trouble with local bad guy Cash Hawkins (William Elmer). Also featuring Winifred Kingston, Baby Carmen De Rue, Joseph Singleton, Raymond Hatton, and Hal Roach.

 

This is as creaky as one would expect, with primitive filming techniques (most scenes are framed like a stage play, and are usually one continuous shot), and wild pantomime acting. Farnum and St. Cyr are a bit thicker in the middle than most screen stars. My favorite moments include one scene where someone falls off the side of a mountain (a bad dummy is used to humorous effect) and the people who rush to help him do so by rubbing his hands; a scene in which our hero is overcome by the poisonous gases of the "Death Hole"; and a scene where a small child is placed on a horse, given a pistol, and then urged to shoot, which the kid does, seemingly into the back of the horse's head (thank goodness for blanks).   6/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) - First feature length comedy, based on the stage hit and brought to the screen by Mack Sennett. Tillie (Marie Dressler, in her debut) is homely farm girl who stands to inherit a lot of money from her millionaire uncle. This fact is learned by a slick Stranger (Charlie Chaplin) who proceeds to woo Tillie to get to her money. The Stranger's Girlfriend (Mabel Normand) is too jealous not to get involved, complicating matters. Also featuring Mack Swain, Charles Bennett, Chester Conklin, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Charles Murray, Slim Summerville, Al St. John, and the Keystone Kops.

 

There are a lot of pratfalls, and a lot of shin kicking, but Sennett's sense of cinematic rhythm and camera placement help this rise above the typical slapstick fare of the time. Chaplin's a lot of fun in a non-Tramp role, playing a sleaze to perfection. Dressler goes big, and steals most of her scenes with her more seasoned co-stars. I like how everyone takes a curtain bow at the end.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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Harakiri (1919) - Early Fritz Lang, here adapting Madame Butterfly. The German performers playing Japanese don't put much into the ethnic change, simply adopting appropriate costumes. A couple of leads wear terrible, ill-fitting bald caps. Lil Dagover, as the female lead, is good.   5/10

 

Source: Kino DVD.

 

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The Golem (1920) - German horror/fantasy set in Prague. The Rabbi Low uses cabbalistic magic to create the Golem, a being made of clay and brought to life using a sacred, secret word. The creation is played by Paul Wegener, who also directed. The movie has great sets and camera work, and a few moments of genuine dread, such as when a demon is summoned in order the ascertain the secret word needed to bring the Golem to life. This story has been viewed as anti-Semitic by some, and it's hard to dismiss the time and place when the movie was made, but the artistry involved is admirable.   7/10

 

Source: Kino DVD.

 

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The Penalty (1920) - Classic bizarre Lon Chaney crime drama. After his legs are wrongfully amputated while still a child, Blizzard (Chaney) grows up bitter and filled with rage, becoming a top crime boss of the city. His elaborate plan for revenge against the world is a secret, though, so police send an undercover agent (Ethel Grey Terry) to try and learn the details. Blizzard also falls for a beautiful sculptress (Doris Pawn) who uses Blizzard's countenance for her statue of Satan! Also featuring James Mason (not that one), Milton Ross, and Claire Adams.

 

Chaney painfully tied his legs up and walked around on his knees to produce the effect of him being an amputee. This movie helped cement his reputation as one of the best actors in the business. I thought it was very lively, entertaining and unpredictable. The strange score used for the broadcast added to the sense of unease, but I imagine it won't be to all tastes. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source:  TCM.

 

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The Wandering Shadow (1920) - Silly German melodrama from director Fritz Lang. Irmgard (Mia May) heads into the Alps to do some soul-searching. She's followed by a man (Hans Marr) claiming to be her husband, although she says that her husband is dead. She's also pursued by her husband's cousin Wil (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who just happened to be on the same train headed for the Alps as Irmgard. How everyone got to this point is revealed in the film's second half, as is the identity of the mysterious, lonely shepherd living on the mountain. 

 

The Alpine scenery is nice, and there are a couple of nice cinematographic shots, but the story is ludicrous, and the film drags, despite only being slightly over an hour. It was odd seeing Klein-Rogge in a sympathetic role, shortly before gaining fame as the screen's great super-villain, Dr. Mabuse.   6/10

 

Source: Kino DVD.

 

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Destiny (1921) - German fantasy portmanteau film written and directed by Fritz Lang. The movie is comprised of four tales of doomed romance, one set in a German village, one in Arabian Nights-style Middle East, one in Renaissance Venice, and the last in China. Many of the same performers return, with Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen as the doomed lovers in each story. Other cast members include Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetze, Karl Huszar, and Paul Biensteldt.

 

The first story, in which Death himself (a suitably imposing Goetze) takes human form and builds a mysterious walled dominion next to the town cemetery, was probably my favorite of the lot. The last tale, set in China, features an old wizard with a flying carpet and a few other magic tricks. Some of the segments have Expressionistic designs, while others don't. The sets and costumes are very good, and Dagover is excellent.   7/10

 

Source: Kino Blu-Ray

 

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Ducks & Drakes (1921) - Lightweight romantic comedy that works on the strength of the performers' charm. Mischievous young lady Teddy Simpson (Bebe Daniels) likes to spend money and act wild with her friends. She also has a game where she randomly dials phone numbers, and if a man answers, she flirts mercilessly with them. All of this, despite being engaged to Rob Winslow (Jack Holt). When Rob's had enough of Teddy's ways, he devises a plan to set her straight once and for all. Also featuring Mayme Kelso, Edward Martindel, W.E. Lawrence, and Wade Boteler.

 

This is minor fluff, but it's amusing, and well executed. Daniels is very good, and one can see how this helped establish her as a grown star after years of juvenile and teen roles. Holt, best known for Westerns, does a good job in city slicker's clothes. This was restored with the efforts of one of our message board regulars, and I can't thank him enough.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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Four Around the Woman (1921) - One more German Fritz Lang movie, this time a drama about jealousy and infidelity. Florence (Carola Toelle) is married to Harry Yquem (Ludwig Hartau), a wealthy "broker" with ties to the post-war underworld. He becomes convinced that his wife has had or is having an affair. Also featuring Hermann Bottcher, Lilli Lohrer, Anton Edthofer, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

 

There are a lot of characters to keep up with, some of whom are played by the same person, and others who switch back and forth with disguises, so things can get a bit confusing if you're not paying strict attention. The criminal underworld is well depicted, and hints at future Lang masterpieces like the Mabuse films, or M. I would only recommend this for Lang completeists, though     6/10

 

Source: Kino DVD

 

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Oliver Twist (1922) - Frank Lloyd directed this showcase for young superstar Jackie Coogan, who plays the title orphan in this Charles Dickens adaptation. The oft-told tale follows the young lad from the orphanage/workhouse to his time working for pickpocket king the Artful Dodger (Edouard Trebaol) and crime boss Fagin (Lon Chaney). They all live in fear of tough-guy Bill Sikes (George Siegmann) and his dog. Also featuring James Marcus, Lewis Sargent, Joan Standing, Carl Stockdale, Taylor Graves, Lionel Belmore, and Gladys Brockwell.

 

By the far the shortest version of the story that I've seen, I can't say that I missed the excised fat from the later versions. Chaney doesn't get as much screen time as one would wish, but he still does his best with what he has. Coogan is an adorable kid, and doesn't have to do much to win over the audience.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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Three Ages (1923) - Buster Keaton stars in and directed (along with Eddie Cline) this triptych look at love through the ages. We see the same performers in 3 eras, the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age. The young Hero (Keaton) is smitten with the Girl (Margaret Leahy) but has a rival in the Villain (Wallace Beery). Also featuring Joe Roberts, Lillian Lawrence, and Horace Morgan.

 

The Stone Age segment features a bit of stop-motion dinosaur action, while the Roman Age segment features some animal cruelty that drains the laughs from the proceedings (a live cat is tied to the end of a long pole and dangled in front of dogs to entice them to run). The Modern Age has some good stunt work.   7/10

 

Source: Kino DVD. Extras on the disc include an Alka-Seltzer commercial with Keaton, a segment from Candid Camera also featuring Keaton, and an excerpt from DW Griffith's 1912 short Man's Genesis that provided the inspiration for the Stone Age segment of the feature.

 

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The White Sister (1923) - High-drama romance from director Henry King. Lillian Gish stars as Angela Chiaromonte, a lovely young Italian girl who is devoted to her wealthy father (Charles Lane). Angela's jealous sister Marchesa (Gail Kane) not only resents the close relationship Angela has with their father, but also the attention Angela gets from the handsome Giovanni Severini (Ronald Colman). When tragedy strikes, Angela is brought low, but finds strength in her love for Giovanni, with whom she plans to get married. But Giovanni gets a military commission that sends him to Africa, where he's reportedly killed. The despondent Angela decides to become a nun, a White Sister, and to serve God and the Church. But when Giovanni returns, whom will Angela choose, her beloved or the Almighty? And why does the nearby Mount Vesuvius keep rumbling?

 

This is classic tearjerking romance. Gish excelled at playing saintly women in distress, and she gets to go all out here, with one stand-out histrionic scene. Colman looks young and dashing, and the sets are sumptuous. The last act disaster-movie scenes are well-handled, too. This was remade a decade later with Helen Hayes and Clark Gable in the leads.  7/10

 

Source:  TCM

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Chess Fever (1925) - Amusing short film from the Soviet Union and director Vsevolod Pudovkin. A young man (Vladimir Fogel) is obsessed with chess, as is everyone else in the city, it seems, much to the consternation of the hero's girlfriend (Anna Zemtsova). Featuring an appearance by real-life chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca.

 

The chess motif is carried over into the costumes and sets, with the chess board squares reappearing time and again. The editing is excellent, and the basic scenarios funny, particularly a bit with a lot of kittens. This showed more humor in its brief 28 minutes than in all of the other Soviet-era films that I've seen combined.   7/10

 

Source:  Kino DVD

 

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Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) - Ethnographic documentary look at the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of Eastern Turkey/Western Iran. Starting out in what is now Ankara, Turkey, the tribe and its livestock make a treacherous journey through desert, rocky terrain, raging rivers, and across snow-capped mountains to reach grazing land for the season. Co-directors Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison became the first westerners to ever make the journey with the tribe, acquiring some amazing footage. I was particularly impressed with the river crossing sequence, where they used inflated goat skins as flotation devices, and the perilous climb up the mountain, their zig-zag trail an amazing sight from a distance. Cooper and Schoedsack, of King Kong fame, met making this film for the American Explorers Club, which they then sold to Paramount Pictures. A true landmark in the genre. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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Little Annie Rooney (1925) - Schmaltzy comedy-drama written by and starring Mary Pickford, with direction by William Beaudine. Pickford plays the title role, a young girl who runs with a gang of innocently delinquent kids in the Bowery area. Her older brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) runs with the older boys who are little more than gangsters. Annie's beloved pa (Walter James) is a beat cop who is liked and respected by the multi-ethnic immigrant community. When tragedy strikes, and Little Annie is devastated, things look like they may take an even darker turn in response. Also featuring William Haines, Carlo Schipa, Hugh Fay, Spec O'Donnell, and Vola Vale.

 

Pickford was 33 when she filmed this, still playing a juvenile. Her short stature, combined with larger sets and tall co-stars, help sell her casting. Pickford is very charming, as are many of the kids in her gang. Schipa was also good as the hot-tempered Tony. I enjoyed seeing the camaraderie between the disparate racial and immigrant population, among them Irish, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Chinese and black. Showing this kind of unity is especially touching in today's increased tribalism, nationalism, and anti-immigrant sentiment.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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The Monster (1925) - Early "Old Dark House" comedy-horror-thriller from director Roland West. After noted citizen Luke Watson goes missing following a mysterious car crash, his plucky daughter Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) and two of Watson's clerks (Hallam Cooley and Johnny Arthur) decide to investigate at the scary mental hospital nearby. They find the devilish Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney) who plans on using living human subjects in his surgical experiments. Our heroes bumble and stumble their way around the hospital's many corridors and secret rooms in hopes of escape. Also featuring Charles Sellon, Walter James, Frank Austin, Edward McWade, and Knute Erickson as Daffy Dan.

 

Johnny Arthur, a longtime character actor in the years after this, is amusing as the meek clerk who is also a would-be detective. Chaney gets to act with less makeup than usual, and he also gets to ham it up with glee. Olmstead also makes for a fetching heroine. If you've seen many of the "Old Dark House" types of films that came after this, you won't really find anything too unexpected here, but I found it enjoyable despite its familiarity.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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The Vanishing American (1925) - From Paramount Pictures and director George B. Seitz comes this adaptation of Zane Grey's novel. After a lengthy prologue (that's worth the price of admission alone) that details the history of humankind in America, particularly those of the Southwest US, the plot settles in: a devious Indian Affairs agent (Noah Beery Sr.) tries every trick in the book to rip off the Natives on the nearby reservation. He's often thwarted by the stoic Nophaie (Richard Dix), a noble warrior. Nophaie is secretly in love with white schoolteacher Marion (Lois Wilson), but fears that she has her heart set on square-jawed cavalry man Earl Ramsdale (Malcolm McGregor). Also featuring Shannon Day, Charles Crockett, Bert Woodruff, Bernard Siegel, Guy Oliver as Kit Carson, and Nocki as the Indian Boy.

 

The history and culture portrayed may be dubious, but I admire any attempt at this time to show Native Americans in a positive light. And how many Westerns turn into WWI movies, too? The real star in this one is the scenery, including Monument Valley. Gary Cooper is supposedly an extra in this, but I didn't notice him. This is mainly hokum, but it's enjoyable hokum.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) - From German animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger comes this fantasy adventure that's also the oldest surviving animated feature film. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, the story concerns an evil magician that manages to send our title hero to a faraway land where he meets and falls in a love with Pari Banu, a beautiful captive of the Wak Wak demons. Achmed must help her escape the demons' grasp, and he'll need the help of young Aladdin and his magical lamp, as well as that of the Witch.

 

The animation style is a blend of silhouette cut-outs and moving backgrounds, all tinted various colors. It's very unique looking and quite fascinating. Despite the manner of production, the characters are fully realized, and following the story is easily done. This is one of the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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The Perils of Pauline (1914) - Iconic, trend-setting serial starring Pearl White as the title damsel in distress. Pauline inherits a fortune when her kindly guardian dies, but as she's not quite old enough to take charge of it, it is left in the stewardship of Koerner (Paul Panzer), her guardian's personal secretary. Koerner desperately wants the money all to himself, so he begins formulating more and more elaborate plans to have Pauline killed so that he can have it all. Pauline's fiance Harry (Crane Wilbur) keeps a close watch over Pauline, often rescuing her in the nick of time.

 

This was the 9-chapter version, as the original 20-chapter version is believed lost. Nine chapters were enough, though, as the scenarios included cowboys & Indians (chapter 2), pirate treasure (chapter 3), auto racing (chapter 4), gypsies pretending to be firemen (chapter 5), airplanes (chapter 6), spies and a submarine (chapter 7), more gypsies, this time with snakes (chapter 8), and more boats (chapter 9). Needless to say, this is fairly ludicrous, but it's fun in a cartoonish way. The quality of the print I watched was hit-or-miss, but it is 103 years old. This is one of the 101 Action Movies to See Before You Die. It was quickly followed by The Hazards of Helen, also starring White. 7/10

 

Source: YouTube (in 9 parts, natch)

 

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Regeneration (1915) - Prototypical gangster movie from director Raoul Walsh, and produced by William Fox for his fledgling Fox Films. Owen Conway (the wonderfully named Rockliffe Fellowes) has grown up an orphan on the rough and tumble NYC streets. He's risen to become the head of his own gang of hoodlums. His life seems to be on a downward spiral towards prison or death, until he meets society girl turned charity worker Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson). But will her wholesome charms be enough to redeem the sordid life that Owen has chosen? Also featuring William Sheer, James A. Marcus, Maggie Weston, and Carl Harbaugh.

 

This is primitive stuff, but Walsh, making his feature directing debut, throws in a few interesting process shots and well-edited scenes. Owen's gang resembles the street hoods of West Side Story more than the nattily-attired mobsters of the next wave of gang pictures. Still, this is of historical value, for the story, the interesting cast (comprised partially of real prostitutes, homeless people, and street thugs), and for the period look at NYC. This is one of the 101 Gangster Movies to See Before You Die.   7/10

 

Source: YouTube

 

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The Battle of the Somme (1916) - aka Kitchener's Great Army in the Battle of the Somme, this British documentary covers the WWI battle of the title, and is an early example of propaganda. Most of the footage shows British troops from various divisions preparing for war, gathering ammunition and deploying heavy guns. Some time is spent showing the medical section working on wounded soldiers, as well as the treatment of German prisoners, and even a few moments of battlefield casualties. Historically, this film is priceless, a glimpse at the Great War while it was still in full swing, and a treasure trove for history buffs and military enthusiasts. This was released one month into the battle, which would continue for another 3 months. Although rather arbitrarily divided into 5 chapters, there's no narrative, per say, and will be of little interest to most viewers. However, it is one of the 101 War Movies to See Before You Die.   7/10

 

Source: YouTube

 

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A Trip to Mars (1918) - Danish science fiction that established an oft-imitated premise. Avanti Planeteros (Gunnar Tolnaes) is a soldier returned home after the war. His astronomer father (Nicolai Neiiendam) convinces him that the future is in the stars, so Avanti teams with Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher), who is betrothed to Avanti's sister Corona (Zanny Petersen), to build a spaceship capable of reaching Mars. They construct something that looks like a small, metal blimp with bi-plane wings, and along with a crew of about 8 other guys, they set off for Mars. Once there, they discover an idyllic paradise of robe-wearing, God-loving vegetarians. And of course a Martian woman (Lilly Jacobson) who immediately falls in love with Avanti. Also featuring Frederik Jacobsen as Professor Dubius.

 

This had to have been silly stuff even in 1918. After the end of WWI I'm sure that most Europeans were looking for a peaceful new way of life as far from war and misery as possible. The Martians aren't aliens as much as idealized humans, looking a bit like Ancient Greeks but with Egyptian ankhs on all of their clothing (Ancient Aliens?!?). The acting is hammy, the effects as primitive as one would imagine, and the story both juvenile and overlong. However, this is an important foundational step in the genre, which is why it's one of the 101 Sci-Fi Movies to See Before You Die.   6/10

 

Source: YouTube

 

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The Great White Silence (1924) - British documentary detailing the ill-fated Antarctic exploration journey of Capt. Robert Scott, circa 1910. Filmmaker Herbert Ponting journeyed with the icebreaker ship from New Zealand south to Antarctica. He filmed the men aboard ship and the attendant hardships, as well as the ship in action tearing through the ice. Once on land, Ponting films the men as they prepare to head for the South Pole, as well as footage of the local fauna, such as seals and penguins. Ponting did not journey with Scott and his party for the Polar attempt, which is good considering how things turned out. The footage is amazing, especially when one considers the technology of the time, and Ponting's editing and titlecard writing help form a true narrative arc. This is one of the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. Recommended.   8/10

 

Source: archive.org

 

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The Eagle (1925) - Uneven, although still entertaining, mix of masked-hero action and romantic comedy from director Clarence Brown and based on a novel by Pushkin. Young Lt. Vladimir Doubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino) of the Russian Army is forced to go on the run after spurning the romantic advances of the Czarina (Louise Dresser). Once back in his home village, Doubrovsky learns that local baron Kyrilla (James Marcus) has been cheating the people out of their land, money and possessions, including Doubrovsky's own father, who died of despair at his losses. Doubrovsky vows revenge, and so adopts the guise of the Black Eagle, a Zorro-like masked bandit-hero who, along with his band of cohorts, makes life miserable for Kyrilla. However, when Kyrilla's beautiful daughter Mascha (Vilma Banky) comes home from abroad, Doubrovsky is smitten, and so he impersonates her new personal tutor to infiltrate Kyrilla's estate and to woo Mascha. Also featuring Albert Conti, George Nichols, Carrie Clark Ward, Gary Cooper as a masked extra, and Gustav von Seyffertitz.

 

Valentino is good here, although I wish there had been more action scenes with him as the Black Eagle. Dresser is fun as the lascivious Czarina. William Cameron Menzies provided the gorgeous production design, and director Brown dazzles with a "how'd they do that?" tracking shot over a sumptuous banquet table. My only real complaint would be that the movie can't seem to decide what it wants to be, and therefore sells both efforts a bit short. This was only my second Valentino film (after 1922's Blood and Sand), and it would prove to be his next-to-last film. It was a big hit for him after a run of disappointments, and signaled a big comeback which would be cut short after one more film and his death at age 31 in 1926. This is one of the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die.  7/10

 

Source: YouTube

 

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Don Juan (1926) - John Barrymore stars in this swashbuckling romance as the title lover, a Spaniard in  16th century Italy who comes into conflict with the Borgias. Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor) wants Don Juan all to herself, but he dislikes the Borgias and all that they stand for. This irritates Lucrezia's brother Cesare (Warner Oland) who would rather see Don Juan dead. Don Juan also falls for the charms of the saintly Adriana (Mary Astor), but she is promised to the Borgia ally Count Donati (Montagu Love). This all leads to clandestine nighttime rendezvouses, betrayal and misunderstanding, and a really good swordfight. Also featuring Myrna Loy, Jane Winton, John Roche, Hedda Hopper, Willard Louis, Nigel De Brulier, Josef Swickard, and Gustav von Seyffertitz as Neri the Sorcerer. 

 

This was reportedly the most expensive film made by Warner Brothers up to this time, and it shows in the elaborate sets and highly detailed costume work. Director Alan Crosland keeps things moving along nicely, and there's an agreeable blend of comedy, intrigue, action and romance. I was impressed by Taylor as Lucrezia Borgia, expressing her work well without histrionics. Loy is devious and gorgeous as Lucrezia's lady in waiting. This movie used a special sound design that had theaters play a vinyl recording that contained the score as well as a few sound effects.   7/10

 

Source: TCM

 

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