Friday, April 16, 2021


It's been a month or so since I last recommended a silent movie, and I've got a couple sitting on the DVR. So I went ahead and watched The Phantom Carriage recently, available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, to write up a post on it here.

Victor Sjöström directed and starred, but the movie starts off with a young woman named Edit (Astrid Holm). She's a Salvation Army member on her deathbed, being attended to by a couple of her fellow nurses, on New Year's Eve. She wants them to go get David Holm (that's Sjöström) for her because, well, you'll learn that later in the movie. The other women are horrified because, as we'll soon see, David isn't the best person out there.

In fact, he's spending New Year's Eve drinking in a graveyard with a couple of friends. He remembers his old friend Georges, who died a year ago, and tells his other friends about Georges and his superstition about death. To wit, the Grim Reaper comes and collects the souls of the dead, using a horse-drawn carriage with a driver. The thing is, the driver is the last person who died in the old year, who has to drive the carriage for a year as some sort of penance.

And wouldn't you know it, but David and his friends get in some sort of argument that results in one of the friends hitting David over the head with a liquor bottle, knocking him to the ground, apparently quite dead. So the titular phantom carriage shows up, with Death deciding to show David just how badly he's screwed up not only his life, but the lives of all those around him. First is David's brother. David's own drinking got him into some sort of detention, but as in The Days of Wine and Roses, David introduces his own brother to the drink, with the results being even worse for the brother.

Also, while Davi was in detention, his wife (Hilda Borgström) up and left him, taking the two kids and not leaving any forwarding address for the obvious reasons. David vows to find her, and shows up at a Salvation Army flophouse for drunks and homeless men, becoming the first person to spend the night there. Edit is there, and mends David's coat for him, breathing in the germs that are going to give her tuberculosis and kill her, even though they haven't come close to killing David yet. David is such an ingrate that he tears up the mending that Edit did, saying that he liked the coat the way it was.

It goes on like this, with David eventually finding his wife when she shows up to admit to the Salvation Army workers that she's the cause of so much grief in everybody's life. David basically plans to make certain that his wife never leaves him, even resorting to force if necessary. Edit, for her part, is still hoping that David will come to see her since she thought her ministering to him would help him turn his life around. Obviously, it didn't.

The Phantom Carriage is a pretty darn good story, even if you could compare it to something like A Christmas Carol Sjöstron's camerawork is quite good, with a lot of use of double exposures to represent the fact that Georges and David are dead, and can't necessarily be seen by everybody else. I don't think the acting was nearly as histrionic as in some other silent films. In any case, The Phantom Carriage is absolutely worth tracking down and watching.

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