Generous mill and tavern owner Mathias (Lionel Barrymore) is both politically ambitious and deeply in debt. His dreams of becoming town Burgomaster are endangered when Frantz (Gustav von Seyffertitz) threatens to call in his loan. A type of salvation arrives when a wealthy man stops off at his tavern one Christmas Eve.
THE BELLS (1926) is based on the play `Le Juif Polonaise' by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann. `Le Juif' was translated to `The Bells' and was a popular English play in its time, from the early 1870s on. It was probably familiar to audiences in 1926, the year the movie THE BELLS was released. You can find texts of the English version fairly easily on the internet; an engaging exercise for those interested in how plays are adapted for the screen. The biggest difference between play and screenplay concerns time and character. The movie compresses both and has, in my opinion, a better product to show for it. In both the stage play and the movie Mathias murders the wealthy stranger and is haunted by the crime, haunted by the sound of the bells on the Polish Jew's sleigh. In the play the crime occurred fifteen years in the past and Mathias is a vaguely sinister character. In the movie the crime happens in the present, and Mathias is a deeply sympathetic character. His troubles are a result not of greed, but of his generosity. There's a ghost of the slain man in the movie that's not in the stage play. The ghost and the bells appear in double-exposed sequences, one of which, Mathias playing cards with the ghost, is a pretty amazing technical achievement.
Lionel Barrymore is brilliant as the merchant slowly going mad after committing a crime quite beyond his character. It's a subtle performance that relies a lot on changes in facial expression, a performance that would be lost in the vast spaces of a theater, a performance that could only work on the intimate screen. Although he gets equal billing with Barrymore on the dvd cover, Boris Karloff plays the relatively small role of the Mesmerist. In the play the Mesmerist doesn't appear until the last scene, a dream sequence that signals that the consuming guilt Mathias carries is soon to destroy him. In the movie the Mesmerist is part of a traveling circus that is in town when the murder occurs. Karloff is buried beneath round glasses, high collars and a stovepipe hat, looking every inch the Dr. Caligari character he's obviously modeled on.
THE BELLS is going to work best for those comfortable with silent movies. The story unfolds at a different pace than modern movies. The card game with the ghost, for instance, will probably look kind of hokey until you realize the timing and skill needed to pull it off. Some of the conventions of silent movies - tinting indoor scenes green or brown, outdoor scenes blue, etc., take some getting used to, as do the more physical acting styles. The print is in good to very good condition, although there are some instances where it's obvious that a few feet of film have been removed. Less understandable are the few occasions when the image subtly goes in and out of focus. Overall, I thought THE BELLS was a grand treat.
Also included on the disk is René Clair's THE CRAZY RAY (1925), a short surrealistic romp about a Paris asleep. THE CRAZY RAY could easily be an episode of the Twilight Zone. Night watchman on Eiffel Tower and planeload of people discover themselves in a Paris where all the people are frozen - it occurring at exactly 3:25 a.m. Of course it's all the doings of a wacky scientist. This is one of Clair's first movies, and it should be noted that it's not the 54 minute French version but instead the 18 minute US release. The film is in good shape, some wear but watchable without distractions. Whoever edited the movie down to 18 minutes did a good job of it. They retained the gist of the story and characters without any noticeable gaps. Somehow I think the 54 minute version might drag a bit.