At the peak of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, Cinema made its grand entrance and stunned all. Although cinema itself was yet shades of grey, it was in contrast with the gory grey-ness of the Industrial Age. It showed the potential of expression and story-telling, and no wonder this potential was experimented with and exploited from the very beginning.
The first “moving images” were invented in France but America, more precisely Hollywood became the centre for Cinema and its glamour, producing legends from the very beginning. The Barrymore Legacy in Hollywood is a long and enduring one, establishing strong roots at the very dawn of Cinema. Lionel Barrymore’s legacy is one such. It was perhaps expected that those with a strong presence in the theatre were to be drawn to this new audio-visual medium called Cinema. And Barrymore, whose parents were prominent stage actors on Broadway and elsewhere, followed their footsteps first on the stage and then to Cinema.
Although there are many movies worth exploring, I would like to explore Lionel Barrymore’s silent era movie, The Bells.
Mathias is an ambitious man who owns several businesses. Despite this he has to ask for a loan from his neighbour, Frantz. This is because Mathias intends to become a Burgomaster, (a word for Mayor, possibly drawn from the word “burrough” for a town). This ambition makes Mathias give credit to many people who come asking. His wife, Catharine is worried about the loan and keeps nagging him. Franz also does not make it very easy for Mathias and taunts him often, and ultimately proposes marriage with Mathias’ daughter. Mathias is not eager about the alliance due to various factors. This worry leads to Mathias ultimately murdering a man. (It should be noted that Barrymore already had the peeved expression that became his trademark in the movies.)
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells
Hear the loud alarum bells-- Brazen bells! What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! In the startled ear of night How they scream out their affright! Too much horrified to speak, They can only shriek, shriek, Out of tune, In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire, In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire
The beginning of the movie informs us that The Bells was adapted from a stage play. But if the movie posters are to be believed it is inspired by a poem by master story teller and horror expert, Edgar Allen Poe. Although till that point Christmas poems were about merriment and jolly Poe’s poem is about The movie uses the recurring theme of “bells” from Poe’s poem as the motif for the haunting. A “jangling discordant accusation” as the movie puts it. Similar to the poem, the movie also proceeds from the silver bells of Christmas to the golden bells of a wedding whilst carrying the strain of its third stanza throughout the later half of the movie. The movie ends with the Iron Bell of law and public shame.
It is aftermath of the murder that the movie examines. Mathias’ state of mind is Macbethan. Shakespeare’s villains might have had their soliloquies to express their turmoil to their audience but in a silent era movie, the weapon an actor has is his face and Barrymore brings alive the haunting.
Mathias’ worry is less about getting caught, it is about dealing with his conscience. Ultimately, Mathias becomes a Burgomaster but his secret murder haunts him. Mathias who looks like a rational man is terrified to look into the eyes of the fortune teller, not for the belief in fortune telling but for the fear of what his countenance might betray. (Side Note: Boris Karloff’s piercing stare can make any person see evil in themselves that they did not know existed within them. :)) He suffers from constant guilt, hallucinating about the man he murdered, and the sound of the bells he carried.
The Christmas Theme
The Bells is one of the many Christmas-themed movies that Barrymore did. It is during the Christmas Eve that the fateful murder occurs. The bearded man Mathias murders comes in a carriage, wears a belt made of jingle bells and bears gold coins on him, much like Santa. But the Santa here is a Polish Jew. What Mathias kills is perhaps is the Christmas spirit.
Compare this with other Christmas movies such as Barrymore’s movies, where the arrival of the Christmas spirit changes things for good. Even Scrooge’s miserly heart in the Christmas Carol is offered a second chance. But no such luck for Mathias, he must suffer. The director clearly takes a moral stand here without any moral ambiguity. Although Mathias suffers in the purgatory hell of his mind, in the end he is not granted redemption, or a second chance of any sort, as after the mental torture he is punished by the law.
The greatest suffering is the one that cannot be put in words. Silent Era cinema turned what was a setback of not having sound into a potential for exploring this human factor. The value for subtlety that is the essence of all great cinema can be attributed to the Silent Era and those who laid its foundation.