How Did You Get Into Silent Films?

It’s been a cool, grey, rainy couple of days up here in Minnesota, so I’m in an introspective mood and decided to write a “get to know me better” kind of post. Feel free to share your own stories!

When folks ask me how I got so enamored with silent films (apparently this isn’t common…?) I usually have a ready answer–because I’ve thought the question over myself. It’s been interesting to ponder: how did I get so obsessed with century-old movies? Why am I more compelled to study them than more recent films like ’50s musicals or ’30s comedies? Is it just because those are so alarmingly recent? (Okay, fine–comparatively recent.)

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See, to me, this came out yesterday.

Now that I think of it, there were several stepping stones that lead to this love of super old movies.  Continue reading

Before the Nickelodeon: The Era of Travelling Moving Picture Shows

After conducting my official “pull names written on slips of paper out of my cloche-style hat” drawing for the copy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ’19 program, I’m happy to announce that the winner is:

jimmoore2017

Congrats, Jim! If you don’t hear from me first, you can contact me through the form on the About Silent-ology page. Once I have a mailing address I should be able to send it to you in the next few days. And now, my latest post (a version of this article has appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column):

We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful 1920s movie palaces complete with columns, statues and enormous lit-up marquees. And their ancestor, the nickelodeon, is fairly well known too–those small, crowded little theaters that charged a nickel to see the latest show. But before the late 1900’s heyday of the nickelodeon and even before the existence of Hollywood itself, many people first saw films at travelling motion picture shows.

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A Vitascope projector show at an existing theater.

These seem to have popped up in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. Descended from magic lantern shows, they were also similar to the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors to showcase their newly-patented cameras and projectors to genteel audiences. But the wonder of the moving picture couldn’t be contained in those staid lecture halls for long. To many enterprising men in the Victorian era (mainly gents were interested in this line of work), the novelty of cinema presented a unique and interesting way to make a living. Continue reading

My Recap Of The 2019 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (And A Giveaway!)

It was almost too good to be true–a whole year flew by, and the festival was here again! After a busy day of travelling I made it to the Castro neighborhood on May 1 with time to spare (I highly recommend a kebab place just down the street from the theater. It gave me new life). Walking into the theater was like revisiting an old (and grand-looking) friend. And I couldn’t have been more ready for:

Opening Night Showing, Wednesday, May 1

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Farewell To Fay McKenzie And A Film Fest Update

In my recent review of The Alice Howell Collection I mentioned that the 101-year-old actress Fay McKenzie, who appeared as a baby in Distilled Love (1920), got to enjoy a special screening of the short thanks to historian Stan Taffel and relative Bryan Cooper. Isn’t that just the best? Well, the news broke recently that Fay passed away peacefully in her sleep on April 16, just two weeks after I posted my review. Amazingly, she had been in films on and off throughout her whole life, starting with infant/child roles in silent films starring such luminaries as Colleen Moore, and eventually becoming known as Gene Autry’s leading lady in the 1940s.

Image result for fay mckenzie gene autry Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In honor of Good Friday, and also as a tribute to the great Notre Dame cathedral that suffered such a tragic fire last Monday, I’m reposting this piece on one of the finest artistic achievements of the silent era. This powerful film has extra significance during Holy Week, and is also a remarkable tribute to one of the greatest saints of France.

Silent-ology

Making most lists of the top ten greatest films ever made is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). And indeed, you suspect a spot had always been reserved for it. A critic from as far back as 1929 was moved to declare, “It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams.”

Passion of Joan of Arc

Those unacquainted with The Passion might not be prepared for it. It doesn’t lead you from plot point to plot point, but throws you into an experience. It’s intensely, harshly realistic, but within a mildly expressionistic setting. We’re meant to contemplate Joan’s ordeal, linked thematically with the most widely contemplated ordeal in history. A critic I admire said it best: “I know of movies more theologically profound or more pious, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ.”

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Thoughts On: “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912)

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 spring blogathon, Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. A warm welcome to any new readers–feel free to have a look around Silent-ology!

The first intertitle of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) starts with four words: “New York’s Other Side.” Director D.W. Griffith wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but these words were ushering in the new genre of the “crime drama”–as well as its offspring, the gangster picture and film noir.

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The 18-minute Biograph short wasn’t the first to depict crime, of course (a number of early films did, such as A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police, 1905), but it’s the best and earliest surviving prototype of a gangster film. All the familiar notes are there: the introduction to the “dark underbelly” of a city, the charismatic crime leaders, the tough dames, and the crowded, rundown neighborhoods. The hardboiled gang members slinking through deserted alleyways and Lillian Gish’s character giving Elmer Booth a disdainful slap all have their echoes in film noir. Continue reading

So, About Buster And Charlie’s “Limelight” Scene…

Even casual classic comedy fans are familiar with the most famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet Limelight (1951), where he’s teamed with Buster Keaton onscreen for the first and only time. Playing old comedy partners reuniting for a comeback performance, they do a bit of charming, music hall-style slapstick that ends with Chaplin’s character Calvero succumbing to a fatal injury.

Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

And they also gave us this gallery-worthy still.

Ever since they filmed those scenes in the early ’50s, rumors have been flying that the arrogant Charlie Chaplin, witnessing humble genius Buster brilliantly churning out gag after gag far funnier than anything Chaplin ever dreamed of, jealously chopped it all out of the film. No one upstages the world’s most famous comedian, by gum! So what’s left are but hollow glimpses of Buster’s mastery, so cruelly squashed by the man who…well, personally hired him to play a role in his deeply personal film.

Nobly enduring the squashing of his brilliance.

Okay, guys, let’s all be honest here–you’ve haven’t actually watched the entire Limelight, have you? No, you just watched the 8-minute clip of Buster and Charlie on YouTube a few times and called it a day. Okay, fine, four of you have seen Limelight, but the rest of you–come now! At least give Chaplin’s thoughtful film a chance (he wrote a 100,000 word novel about his characters just to prepare for the actual filming. No kidding).

Why am I making this assumption? Because once you’ve seen Limelight, the idea that Buster’s character should’ve taken the spotlight in the “comeback” scene makes no sense. Absolutely no sense at all, my friends.  Continue reading

DVD Review: “The Alice Howell Collection”

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Do you love exploring silent comedy? How about getting to know obscure silent performers? If your answer to both questions is “Heck yes!” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you’ll probably be excited about the latest DVD set by Ben Model’s Undercrank ProductionsThe Alice Howell Collection. 

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Thoughts On: “The Son of the Sheik” (1926)

This is the final day and final post of Sheik Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Roaring Twenties sheik culture, and thank you kindly for stopping by! And I’m looking forward to what posts the spring and summer will bring (hint: a trip’s on the way!).

In 1926, Rudolph Valentino’s stardom was at its height. At the young age of 31, the Italian screen idol’s name was known around the world, there were several box office successes under his arm, and women adored him so passionately that public appearances often ended with his hat being stolen and buttons torn from his coat. Today, we look at portraits of this near-mythical figure dressed to tailored perfection with the light shining off his patent-leather hair, and wonder what thoughts were behind that meditative gaze. Perhaps he would surprise us–a few months before appearing in what would be his final film, The Son of the Sheik, Valentino spoke frankly about his romantic image: “The whole thing is false and artificial. You can’t go on and on with it…One appears to be what others desire, not what one is in reality.”

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Be that as it may, in The Son of the Sheik Valentino proved that he could, indeed, “go on and on with it,” at least for one last time. Five years after appearing in his iconic role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (1921), he agreed to appear in the film’s sequel–despite his dislike of being pigeonholed as a “sheik.” Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro films had brought sequels into vogue, and the fans, naturally, had been clamoring for more desert romances. And perhaps Valentino also agreed to the film since this time he could show his range–even having a dual role. Continue reading

“Curses! Sheiks Now Cawn’t Dance At Noon!”–And Other Flaming Youth-Related Clippings

While researching this month’s theme, I found a number of interesting or amusing newspaper clippings about “sheiks” that didn’t quite fit into my articles (or would’ve made them too long).

Sheiks treat em rough Buffalo Courier NY Feb 18 '23

Or too weird. (Buffalo Courier, February 18, 1923.)

But since I like to share my joy, here’s a small collection covering various aspects of 1920s sheik culture. You might find these insights mighty similar to the public’s thoughts on flappers, too.

The use of “sheik” and “sheba” to describe hep teens seems to have grown in popularity  very rapidly after the release of The Sheik in 1921 (as you know), and became a staple of contemporary slang until the early ’30s. Here’s an example from 1924–oh, those traffic-endangering young spooners! Continue reading