"Directed by Monta Bell ..."
The Roxie Theater daringly presents three days of films this weekend by the obscure late silent/early sound director Monta Bell. Bell entered films as an assistant to Charlie Chaplin and then for a decade directed a series of sardonically inflected melodramas and light comedies, serving MGM as sort of an Erich von Stroheim Lite. Evidently one of the livelier directors at that stodgy studio, Bell was enough of a company man to be trusted with vehicles for such big stars as Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, and enough of a subversive to direct the amazing Downstairs (1932; screening Saturday, Oct. 19, at 4:20 and 7:45 p.m.), a sort of pre-code Teorema centering on a ruthlessly raunchy chauffeur (Gilbert, breaking types) who seduces, in one way or another, various families. (Downstairs is the one talkie of the six films playing this weekend; Leatrice Joy Gilbert, John's daughter, will appear Saturday.)
But Gilbert, stereotyped as a Great Lover of the silent screen, had already broken type in Bell's excellent Man, Woman and Sin (1927; Saturday, Oct. 19, at 2:30, 6, and 9:30 p.m. with Downstairs). Gilbert widens his eyes and stiffens his gait as a naive cub reporter with a heavy crush on his publisher's mistress. Late in the film we find him hiding in a haunted house, shrieking and clinging to Mother; no "Great Lover" emoting here. Legendary stage star Jeanne Eagles, meanwhile, takes complete command of the screen as the mistress, bemusedly incredulous at the gauche Gilbert and suitably full-throttled in the climactic last reel, which Bell films dynamically in a riot of off-angle, deep-focus, and extreme close-up shots.
Bell also shows a flair for imaginative filmmaking in 1927's After Midnight (Friday, Oct. 18, at 6:15 and 9:30 p.m.), as an aspiring cabby's big talk fills the screen with a fleet of the autos he'll someday own. There's a theme here; Bell evinces a lively interest in the class struggles of the upward-bound in movie after movie. In this, one good and one not-so-good sister find different and equally empty ways to earn $1,000 in U.S. bonds. As the good sister, Shearer is a remarkably classy and aristocratic cigarette girl, while chorine Gwen Lee is at once irritating, amusing, and sad as the not-so. (Shearer and Lee are also teamed in Upstage, the second feature Friday [8 p.m.], while Shearer appears in two roles in Lady of the Night, showing Sunday, Oct. 20 [4:30 and 7:45 p.m.]. Shearer's granddaughter will be present on both Friday and Sunday.)
Nineteen twenty-six's The Torrent (also on Sunday, 2:45, 6, and 9 p.m.) is rather less interesting than the silent Gilbert and Shearer films, souvenirs as they are of lost American dreams. It's a trite melo set in a backlot Spain, surrounding an impossibly young and fresh Greta Garbo with gesticulating character actors and the Viennese-born "Latin lover" Ricardo Cortez, an actor with all the sincerity of a Roberto Alomar apology. Cortez's innate bogusness is actually used well here, however, and Bell navigates the claptrap smoothly enough. Garbo fans will particularly enjoy seeing her try on various personas: The world-weary character she will immortalize takes shape right before your eyes.
"Directed by Monta Bell ..." runs Friday through Sunday at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St.; call 863-1087.
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