This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – The Bells (1926)
By the time James Young took the helm to direct his version of The Bells in 1926, the popular Victorian melodrama, originally translated by Leopold Davis Lewis, had already been adapted to the screen several times before. In the nineteenth century it was one of the greatest successes of British stage legend Henry Irving, and here it is the turn of Lionel Barrymore, himself a noted actor, to bring the lead role to the American screen. The elder brother of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s John Barrymore, Lionel was the first of the acting family to enter film in 1909.
Barrymore is convincing as Mathias, an innkeeper drowning in debt who hopes to be elected the town’s burgomaster. On one snowy Christmas day a Polish Jew arrives at his inn with a belt pouch filled with gold. Mathias tracks the Jew in the snow and kills him with an axe, using the gold to relieve his debts and his standing in the community. However, a Mesmerist at the village fair claims to be able to make criminals confess their crimes, and his seemingly knowing smiles to Mathias begin to drive the new burgomaster insane with guilt. He hears phantom bells, like those of the Jew’s sleigh, ringing a “discordant, jangling accusation.”
Much of the film’s direction is fairly rudimentary, though there are some notable scenes, gory for the time, and uses of symbolism, such as the images of nooses appearing in ordinary objects or Mathias believing his hands are covered in blood as he counts the gold pieces. The ghost of the Jew haunts the innkeeper, and at one point an unhinged Mathias plays cards with him to win the money he stole fair and square. Likewise, an impressive dream sequence draws upon German Expressionist influence to show the extent of Mathias’s guilt.
However, despite this being Barrymore’s vehicle, viewers today will watch the film for the role of the Mesmerist, played effectively by the great Boris Karloff five years before being transformed into the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Karloff, born William Henry Pratt in 1887 London, had already been in films for a decade before appearing in The Bells, and would not reach his true breakthrough until his celebrated portrayal of Mary Shelley’s creature. He would embody the hulking monster twice more, stopping when he feared that the character would be relegated to farce, which it eventually did. Despite being able to branch out from horror and have a long, successful career (children in Western culture know his voice from 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!), Karloff was never resentful for being so inseparably attached to the genre. His success after struggling as an actor for so long made him appreciate all the praise and attention that the movie-macabre could offer him. He would play in numerous horror classics over the following decades, sometimes with Bela Lugosi, including The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Body Snatcher (1945), The Raven (1963), and the eerily timely and still effective Targets (1968), where Karloff plays a character modeled after himself, as an aging horror film icon. He died the following year. Though he was famous on screen for playing sinister characters, Karloff was famous in real life for his gentle nature and generosity. He has since been rightly celebrated by the horror community, including being the only person to be featured on two U.S. postal stamps, as Frankenstein’s monster and as the Mummy in their tribute to the Universal Monsters.
The Bells is a competent film with some memorable performances, though it doesn’t particularly stand out amid many of the other offerings of the decade. Barrymore helped to sketch the look of Karloff’s Mesmerist, and appears to have taken obvious inspiration from Werner Krauss’s Dr. Caligari. Despite some fine acting and notable sequences, the abruptly moralizing ending is ultimately unsatisfying to a modern viewer, however, Steve Haberman notes that “like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story’s insistence on a moral reckoning for its transgressing protagonist insured in popularity in the Puritanical early American cinema.”
Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.