Mathias, an Alsatian innkeeper, murders a rich Pole staying at his inn But Mathias' conscience will not let him rest, and the murdered man's spirit drives the innkeeper nearly mad. The victim's brother calls for an inquest and brings with him a sideshow mesmerist supposedly able to read minds. Mathias, as burgomaster, is called upon to conduct the inquest, but under the intuitive eye of the mesmerist cannot resist torment of his own conscience. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Immediate inspiration for the Sept. 1926 film seems to have been the April 1926 New York stage adaptation (one of many). On Broadway that April, director Rollo Lloyd also acted the lead role of Mathias (played by Lionel Barrymore's in the film) and Edward Loeffler played the mesmerist (Boris Karloff in the film). J.M. Kerrigan (later seen in a number of John Ford films) on Broadway '26 played Father Walter. See more »
Although more than one promoter has been quick to exploit the idea that THE BELLS was inspired by the 1848 Edgar Allen Poe poem of the same name, nothing could be further from the truth. Originally created in 1867 as LE JUIF POLONAIS by the incredibly prolific French dramatists Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrain, it was translated, adapted, and re-titled THE BELLS by English playwright Leopold Lewis. Actor Henry Irving's 1871 performance as Mathais was a sensation on the English stage, and in consequence the play was widely performed in the Victorian era.
As the 20th Century began, the stage version of THE BELLS was still so well-remembered that it was adapted to the silent screen at least six times. Little, if any, information is available about these adaptations--with a single exception: the 1926 film starring Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), brother of stars John and Ethel Barrymore and a noted artist in his own right.
Modern audiences will likely find the story clunky and obvious, but in 1926 it, like the original stage version, was considered a great shocker. Mathais (Barrymore) is an inn-keeper who is in debt to the sinister Gustav von Seyffertitz (Jerome Frantz), who seeks to leverage Mathais' inability to pay into a marriage with Mathais' daughter Annette (Lola Todd.) In order to pay off the debt and secure his bid for the position of burgomeister, Maithas kills and robs a wealthy merchant who stops at the inn on Christmas--and is thereafter tormented by his own guilt and most particularly by the sound of bells, which recall the sleigh bells his victim held when killed.
Today the film is best known for Boris Karloff, who appears in the small but distinctly creepy role of "The Mesmerist;" even so, it is really Lionel Barrymore who endows the thing with interest. Acting styles of the early silent era tended to be very broad, and THE BELLS OFFERS scope for a great deal of scenery chewing, but Barrymore is comparatively restrained in his approach and the entire cast follows suit. In this sense, the film is quite watchable. At the same time, however, the story has been reworked so many times that even here it feels excessively old fashioned and slightly tired.
The print offered here is hardly pristine, but it is very good, and the score is also very well done. The DVD presents a short 1922 French film fantasy, THE CRAZY RAY, which is mildly entertaining as well. But for all the history and celebrated names involved, THE BELLS is a competent film rather than a good or great one, and its appeal will be largely confined to hardcore silent movie fans. Recommended to them.
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