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Monday, January 11, 2021

Bells Are Ringing ...


A Melodrama With Longest Legs

Would you go to a play or watch a movie based on this premise?: Tavern keeper “Mathias,” popular to point of being the next Burgomaster, is otherwise strapped, likely to lose all to a pitiless creditor. Arrival of a stranger wearing a belt filled with gold indicates a way out. Mathias will kill him, have the fortune, and put his life to rights. What he doesn’t reckon with is an avenging conscience, visions, voices, the eternal sounding of bells that heralded his visitor before Mathias slew him. The forty-year curse is lifted only when Mathias himself dies. The Bells had been written by a pair of Frenchmen in 1867, was translated to English in 1871, this for a play wherein Henry Irving took the lead. The Bells is credited by many as the first modern horror drama done on stage. A woman was said to have fainted when The Bells had its debut, so intense was the story and Irving’s performance. Others played Mathias, but he owned the part, at least on stage. Irving would do The Bells on-off for the rest of his life (d. 1905), frequently at the Lyceum Theatre (London) managed by the actor and associate Bram Stoker, plus touring the US. I ponder The Bells for how aspects of it influenced movies to come, not only in terms of performance, but stage craft, technique, that would be absorbed by thrill chillers ahead.

Great actors were often called “immortal,” at least while alive and working. Henry Irving, eventually Sir Henry Irving, was one of these, but wise enough to realize that to be immortal was to stay around and be active. Irving and peers had not the medium of film to really live forever. A longest they’d last was till a last of the live audience breathed his/her last, for at such point, there would be no one left who ever saw Irving act. Chum Edwin Booth said it best: “An actor is a sculptor who carves in snow.” Booth died in 1893, so never reckoned on movies. The man who eventually played him however, Richard Burton (in Prince of Players), would become immortal. There are miles of him at You Tube … talking, performing … as though he didn't leave at all in 1984. We can’t know how accomplished Henry Irving or Edwin Booth might be by modern standards, but can evaluate a Burton, a Huntz Hall, or Hugh Herbert, to heart’s content. So what happens when we land in Heaven and are greeted by “immortal” Henry Irving? Excuse me, sir, I’m sort of looking around for Huntz Hall. Let’s never forget how magic permanence of movies really is.

Vintage Program for The Bells. Note a Farce Irving Adds To Relieve Intensity of the Drama

Henry Irving was one who shaded so-called “villains” he essayed, adding texture untypical of older-style melodrama he had come up in. Bad men by way of Irving focused on a human factor beyond deepest black as were deeds committed by those less thoughtful in their playing. He could take an under-developed character and ennoble it, the better where raw material of his vehicle was rawest. Edward Wagenknecht wrote that Irving was at his greatest in “tawdriest” plays, as these “set him freer to create on his own.” Those who saw Henry Irving on stage noted a “personal aura … an atmosphere that is not quite of this world.” Still, Irving’s art was a calculated one. He chose not to turn himself into the character he was portraying, but to turn the character into himself, less to feel emotions he expressed than to make sure the audience felt them. Irving was determined never to let his own identity be entirely submerged, whatever the role he took. Melodrama as it had been known was being eased out of the better houses however, the 1890’s trend toward “realism” as practiced by impresarios like David Belasco and writers along progressive line of Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw (“The play of situation is being pushed to the wall by the play of ideas,” said modernist author James A. Herne).

Irving had before all this been recognized for subtlety he brought to roles simple on the surface, no better instance of depth explored than The Bells. “He took these puppets and spiritualized them,” said Jules Claretie, a French director at the vanguard of “modern” plays. Stock characters in Irving’s hands, said Claretie, became Shakespeare. Enriching the murderer that was Mathias in The Bells, which he played over 800 times, made Irving a precursor to fiends and monstrosities we came to sympathize with in films. Had Irving arrived later, or Lon Chaney earlier, would they have appreciated how much they had in common? Here is a story that may be apocryphal, though I would like to think it’s true: Henry Irving was headed home from opening night of The Bells with his wife, whom he by that time could scarcely abide. Reflecting on his performance, ray-of-sunshine Florence asked, “Are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this for the rest of your life?” Irving bade the cabbie stop, got out, walked into the night, and never saw or spoke to his wife again.

Plays in Irving’s day were music-scored, sometimes elaborately. We think of Classic Era music fitted to actors and happenings on screen, “Mickey Mousing” as critics sometimes complained. What Irving, and many of his contemporaries did, was fit acting to music played live; nineteenth-century historian Frank Rahill said “melodramatic acting was acting to music,” while observer at the time Gordon Craig called Irving’s performance “a song and dance … He wiped up the floor with his role(s) and danced like the devil.” Audiences were swept up by the music and actors’ response to it. This was something movies could not duplicate, whatever the accompany supplied by picture palaces with their outsized orchestras, or rich scores that came once films embraced sound. Performers, and music, had become, and would remain, separate recitals, no matter the skill with which talented composers and technology wedded them. Closest movies came to supplying music comfort and inspiration to actors was “mood” themes played on-set by small ensembles, or a single accompanist as actors emoted, but this was privilege had only by silent artists, to be yanked away once talkies arrived. Imagine how it was missed. I understand why so many players simply quit.

A remark made by Doug Fairbanks is worth recounting. Obliged to add chat to The Iron Mask in 1929, he stood on a sound stage as the mood ensemble was dismissed and microphones were hung, saying quietly to a companion, “The magic of movies ends here.” Past melodrama of the stage era, and specifically melodrama like The Bells, had thrived on enhancement supplied by a theatre’s orchestra, the more so because actors could be stimulated and inspired by the accompany. Witnesses tell of huge ovations a Henry Irving would receive upon his entrance, applause cued by the force of music. This however would be another casualty of the modernist movement. Entrepreneur David Belasco took credit for the removal of scoring for plays: “I came to believe that an orchestra, however delightful in its music, produced a discordant note in the theatre … therefore I decided to do away with my orchestra altogether.” He would henceforth signal the raising of curtains with “subdued and beautifully modulated chimes.” Belasco claimed that fully half of New York theatres, “where legitimate dramas are acted,” followed his lead. This was during the mid-teens, Sir Henry Irving having gone to his reward in 1905. Did intensity of The Bells shorten Irving's stay? Many said yes. Doctors forbade him to continue as Mathias, but he scorned all entreaties … until it was too late. Finally, at a point where he had to be lifted from a seated position to take his bow, so exhausting had performances become, Irving ordered settings and costumes to be warehoused, “I’ve sent The Bells away,” he said. “I shall never play it again.” The next night, he died.

The Bells
continued tolling, the play a sure thing for any size venues that could duplicate its austere setting, one of those melodramas  everybody came to know, even ones that never saw the play could recite the set-up. Movies were a cinch to adapt The Bells, coming to it often. Four silent versions emerged, each but one now lost. Highest profile goes to 1926 and Lionel Barrymore as Mathias, biographers suggesting he did The Bells just for money, a wife, or “bitch” as sister Ethel referred to her, free spending every dollar LB earned. Years later William K. Everson darkly noted that The Bells “was made in an off-peak period when (Barrymore) was on drugs, and showing it.” Maybe he needed a toot to soothe knowing how everyone would compare him to Henry Irving, memory of the latter reasonably fresh, at least among older-timers. What made ’26 Bells ring for modern viewing was support turn by Boris Karloff as a mesmerist who applies sinister technique to wrest a murder confession from Mathias. It’s Karloff being full-bore Karloff way ahead of achieving stardom in the genre, tricked out here like Caligari, as in just like Caligari, as neat a steal as one movie could seize from another. Looking-back Karloff said Barrymore helped him much with make-up, did sketches (LB an accomplished artist) to lay ground for distinctive look the future horror-man achieved. Karloff would hence maintain that Lionel was a most talented of any Barrymore, never forgetting kindnesses done him during struggle years (Chaney another whose memory BK cherished, again for taking time to lend counsel). I bet Karloff played various parts in The Bells over repertory nights amidst Canadian wilds where skill was learned, The Bells one of those plays every beginner came upon, or acted in, eventually.

(1926) Bells was an independent “Chadwick” production, sold on States Rights basis, which meant returns, to be had, had to be got up front. Doing business this way meant nearly always getting ripped off, especially where you had designs on a percentage of receipts, an always fact-of-life in distribution … Jim and Sam got a same stern lesson when they began in the 50’s. Chadwick wouldn’t last, but made earnest effort with The Bells, as handsome as whatever majors tendered at the time. Happy outcome was The Bells staying among us in good prints. There are You Tube renditions, and a quality DVD (from Image) is available. Did I dream that monster magazines once offered it in 8mm? Anyway, there was, for me, Bells awareness from early age, and why not, its horror content there for the looking, special effects to depict ghost visions that bedevil Mathias, a perk H. Irving would have relished (though I wonder what very accomplished stage craft by the late nineteenth century might have yielded … perhaps phantoms creepier than what movies could deliver?). Drugs or not, Barrymore acquits well. We know he’s doomed from striking the fatal blow, ours to witness his sleigh ride to perdition. Yes, this concept does engage, burden of guilt changing no more than human nature itself. I sat wondering how one might feel having done a heinous act many years before, living in torment since. But hold --- that torment part, always applied in movies, doesn’t necessarily go in real life. Lack of conscience, or ability to suppress a conscience, might make even murder but a pebble in shoes. Written, or unwritten, law of filmmaking kept much of reality apart from movies, consequence for crime always a sure thing in final reels. If only life were as pat as that.


Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting afterlife for the film:

Light Is Calling (35mm, 8 min, 2004)

A meditation on random collisions.

A deteriorated print from "The Bells" (1926) was optically printed and edited to Michael Gordon's composition.

Film by Bill Morrison
Music by Michael Gordon

11:29 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Well, if this isn't one of your top ten pieces, I don't know what. Makes me want to dig out the time machine back to Henry Irving's time to see what the fuss was about.

As for scoring stage dramas... The most recent Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" used its original music cues. My daughter said they were quite effective.

"The Bells" was one of the first silent I saw on the PBS series hosted by Orson Wells. It was also the first time I was aware of tints and tones from those movies. I seem to remember a close-up of Karloff tinted green. Spooky stuff.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE BELLS was one of the first silent films I bought in 8mm in my teens. I believe it was advertised in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, that bible to whom so many owe so much.

Of course far more are interested in this film because Boris Karloff is in it than because it stars Lionel Barrymore.

That is true of all the films Karloff and Bela Lugosi appeared in. They may have been billed below others (and often were) but those others are today largely forgotten while Karloff and Lugosi life eternal.

Fine film well served in this xlnt post.

1:28 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Excellent post.

It should be remembered that most biographers of Stoker (Skal, figure Irving to be the template for Dracula! From all accounts, he was a talent in the grand tradition -- full of voice, theatrical flourishes and ... panache. I wish we had more actors like that around today.

Another interesting bit of Irving-ana: it is to him, largely, that our current sympathy for Shylock comes. Irving played Merchant in a very stripped-down version, with a slow curtain-to-the-end at Shylock's final speech. I would give my eye teeth to have seen that, as it is an almost impossible part to play today.

I've never seen The Bells, but, thanks to this, that will be remedied this week.

3:08 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A simple and still popular device is a painted scrim, which is almost certainly what "The Bells" used onstage. With a change of lighting it becomes transparent to reveal a scene behind it, effectively enabling a stage play to include hallucinations, flashbacks and dissolves before film existed. It doesn't play as magic but as a nifty reveal.

Pepper's Ghost is a famous illusion that puts a ghost onstage, but requires a stage-sized sheet of glass precisely positioned. One place you can see it is Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, during the ballroom scene. A variation is used to make a girl dissolve into an ape in sideshow acts. I'm guessing there were other variations used to produce ghosts on an affordable scale for stage plays -- in a window or a picture frame, for example. But even there, a partial scrim might do the job as well -- or better, because audiences are not pulled out of the play by the magic. I once saw a handsome local production of "Frankenstein" blessed with outstanding onstage effects. One of them backfired, as a scene of the monster slowly preparing to kill a victim had the audience on the edge of their seats. The actual murder was a brilliantly executed effect. It met with stunned laughs and applause, rather than the intended horror.

6:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers THE BELLS and Lionel Barrymore:


Nice piece on THE BELLS, it was indeed available in both 8mm and 16mm prints from Entertainment Films and Griggs Moviedrome (I have an excellent Griggs 16mm reduced from a lovely 35mm nitrate), but it was never shown on Paul Killiam's THE SILENT YEARS but was, in fact run on the earlier NET show THE TOY THAT GREW UP. I remember that broadcast well, and the organ score for it that had jingling bells tolling on it whenever they appeared,it became a wanted print to add to my collection immediately after the telecast, though it took me a few years after to pick one up.

Yes, 1926 was not Lionel Barrymore's most stellar career year, two state's righters and a turn in an All-Star comedy for Hal Roach (where he might have run into Boris Karloff again doing his bit part in THE NICKELHOPPER with Mabel Normand around the same time), but it was a short-term lull, he returned to the majors almost immediately and soon became permanent resident at MGM for the rest of his life, Barrymore's always kept working, no matter how bad the substance abuse or health issues were, and they always gave good value and work whatever their condition.


8:26 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Sounds like this film is not dissimilar from the silent THE BLACK CAT.

I've been coming to this site for years now, and it seems to me that this guy knows his stuff.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've found Charles Dickens to be as good a lens as any through which to contemplate the theater of the 19th Century; for "an overview of the theatrical life of Mr Charles Dickens, his Theatrical Friends and his Theatrical Characters" see:

5:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer on Bram Stoker and Henry Irving:

This is a fascinating glimpse of Henry Irving and the Victorian theater, as the best year of Greenbriar Picture Shows has apparently only preceded a still better year.

In “Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula,” David J. Skall suggests that Stoker obtained his inspiration for Dracula from his association with Henry Irving. Stoker was the manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theater and intensely devoted to him, but less so than Irving was devoted to himself. Irving was a self-absorbed and profoundly manipulative man who enjoyed cultivating rivalries. In staying in his favor, Stoker had to constantly stroke and court his employer. A reserved man, Stoker internalized the fear and animosity Irving inspired in him, thus finding a basis for his fictional counterpart. The description of Dracula—the long, gaunt face, high-bridged nose, thin lips, thick eyebrows, and hair thinning at the temples, is the same description he used for Irving in his journals and other writing.

Irving revived “The Bells” late in his career after suffering a serious knee injury and then pleurisy and pneumonia while on an American tour. If you wonder why he would submit to such a physically taxing role when his health was compromised, it was because he needed the money. Despite Stoker's competent care of Irving's finances, he was sidelined for a new favorite, Irving’s dramatist son, Laurence Irving. The “Peter the Great” of the younger Irving and his translations of Sardou’s “Robespierre” and “Dante” provided his father with suitably dominant roles, but they were hideously expensive to mount and failed to find an audience. As such, they drained the elder Irving's finances as surely as a vampire would the blood of his victim.

Interestingly, a stage adaptation of “Dracula” would have been perfect for Irving and made for a popular and lucrative entertainment. The stage craft used in “The Bells” would have resulted in a thrilling and atmospheric production. Stoker himself hoped that Irving would consider doing this. A week before the book was published, however, a live reading of it was held at the Lyceum to protect its copyright as a play. Afterwards, Stoker asked Irving what he thought of it. Irving dismissed it with one word, “Dreadful.” Possibly he found the resemblance of the title character to himself less than flattering.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Tommy G. said...

Irving's emotional intelligence wasn't on par with his talent as a thespian. He left Stoker nothing in his will.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Richard.....thanks for the reminder of THE TOY THAT GREW UP....saw it often on the Detroit area PBS affiliate, but had to watch it alone,as none of my contemporaries had ANY curiosity about silents and I had no elderly relatives near to share it with....certainly recall ELLA CINDERS and IIRC,LADY WINDEMERES FAN amongst the few I saw, before it disappeared from the schedule.... like to keep Eversons CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN handy while watching....

11:45 AM  

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