Today the sad news broke that Diana Serra Cary, also known to the world as “Baby Peggy,” has passed away at age 101. In a sense, this marks the end of an era. She was our last living link to the silents films that we all love so well. The final page has been turned; the final chapter has ended.
Cary was just a toddler when her parents got her a film contract. Noticing what an obedient child she was, director Fred Fishbach thought she’d work well in a studio. After successful appearances in shorts alongside the canine star Brownie, Cary was given her own film series and eventually starred in light comedy features. She would act alongside luminaries like Clara Bow and be photographed with the likes of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
So you think you have a decent understanding of Soviet cinema. Clever uses of montage? Check. Operatic storytelling? Check. Propaganda? Check. Maybe a tragic ending? Check. Those shots of people with alarmingly big smiles, usually because a tractor’s on the way to the collective farm or something? Double check!
Then along comes a film like The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) (maybe the long title parodies dime novels?) and turns many of those stereotypes on their heads.
…Or does it?
With his dome-like forehead and shock of wild hair that looked like the aftermath of a bad experience with an exposed wire, it’s easy to mistake Sergei Eisenstein for a stereotypical mad scientist. Somehow, though, “film director” seems equally fitting–and “intellectual” goes without saying. And if you think about it, “scientist” isn’t too far off the mark either. His experiments weren’t with with tubes and liquids, of course, but scissors and strips of nitrate film–his exciting world of the editing room.
Much like the way his revolutionary films surprised audiences, reading about Eisenstein’s life can be an eye-opener. It’s easy to come away from the “The Father of Montage’s” dense prose and feel that he was more of a shadowy Historical Figure than a human being. But his serious, studious side was only one part of the complex montage that made up Sergei Eisenstein. Continue reading
Think back to the last time you were at a movie theater, sitting through all the previews. We’re all familiar with the style of those previews: montages introduce the main characters, show pieces of action, throw in snippets of dialogue, and everything’s set to music. For action films, there’s usually a fast-paced guns-a-blazing montage towards the end. You may not realize it, but every time you see these kinds of montages you’re glimpsing Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Post #1 of Soviet Silents Month is here! I hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating (and rather intense) area of film history!
Few things summarize our idea of Soviet silent films better than the opening of the 1968 restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). As a projector (audibly) sputters to life, through a swirl of artificial snow a bold white “1905” looms on the screen. Snow continues to swirl around a series of black and white illustrations of the 1905 Russian Revolution, showing masses of the working class squaring off against soldiers in wintery city squares. The music is bombastic–deeply dramatic. The screen fades to black. And then it’s filled with a rather wordy quote by–who else?–Vladimir Lenin.
You’re no doubt assuming I’m going to say that there’s more to Soviet silent films than government-approved propaganda–including 1968 imitations of government-approved propaganda. There were delicate dramas and rollicking comedies made in Russia just like everywhere else, it’s true. However, they were always released with a catch. For from the early 1920s onward every film in the USSR was squeezed through the sieve of government censorship, including American imports (which were wildly popular). Analysis of Soviet film must forever dance between admiration of the finest examples of its artistry, and recognition that much of that artistry was in service of communist propaganda–often willingly.
And thus the history of Russia’s bold, futuristic, cutting-edge early cinema is a fascinating one, and well worth consideration. Few other nations would seize on a new form of expression as doggedly as the Soviet government. And few filmmakers would reach such heights of artistic achievement within such increasingly rigid confines, causing such a global superstar as Douglas Fairbanks to declare in 1926: “The finest pictures I have seen in my life were made in Russia. They are far in advance of the rest of the world.” Continue reading
As I finish up post #1 for Soviet Silents Month (I wanted to publish it yesterday but I’m not satisfied with it yet), I of course had to share that today’s Silent-ology’s SIXTH birthday!
Good lord, that’s over half a decade. That’s getting us closer to a decade, my friends. And this is all thanks to your support and mutual love of this fascinating, game changing era of film. A project like Silent-ology isn’t undertaken lightly–to call it “time-consuming” is a understatement–and knowing you guys appreciate what I write makes me feel…well, like a dancing Louise Brooks!
So now, let’s review how Silent-ology did in the past 365 days! Continue reading
Silent-ology is pleased to present this exclusive interview with the prolific silent comedy historian Steve Massa, author of the new Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. We talk about why a book on Roscoe’s films was overdue, about his considerable directorial skills, about his wonderful friendship with Buster and Al St. John, and just how many hours he would put into filming a single difficult gag…and more!
I must say, after the impressively hefty Slapstick Divas volume I was surprised (and delighted) to see another sizable book from you so soon! How long has Rediscovering Roscoe been in the works?
I have to say that I was a bit surprised too at how hefty Rediscovering Roscoe turned out to be. It was originally planned to be a smaller format book, like Lame Brains and Lunatics and Divas, but it grew too large. I got very lucky finding material and I wanted each film entry to be as thorough as possible. Every one would have credits, cast, working title, contemporary reviews, and archive sources, in addition to a commentary on surviving films and as much as I could find on missing ones. I have to admit that I “borrowed” the format of the book from Rob Stone’s excellent Laurel or Hardy, one of my favorite film books. Continue reading
Back when I first got into silent comedy, it wasn’t long before I became a fan of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. I’d heard his name all my life thanks to the infamous 1921 scandal (you’ve probably heard he was acquitted), but he always seemed like more of a shadowy figure than a real man, a sort of “character” from that misty, quasi-mythical era of “Classic Films.” Thanks mainly to the wonderful DVD set of Arbuckle comedies by CineMuseum–I plug them because I love them!–I discovered that this “Fatty” was not only a very real individual, but genuinely funny, very funny. And like all fans in the know, I only call him “Roscoe.”
So I was thrilled to hear that comedy historian Steve Massa, author of Slapstick Divas and Lame Brains and Lunatics, has a brand new book about this great comedian’s career: Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. (Don’t you love that cover?) If there’s anything I enjoy as much as watching silent comedies, it’s reading about silent comedies–and studying the colorful, hardworking personalities behind them. Continue reading
Alrighty! It’s time for the answers to Silent-ology’s first AMA, which a number of you kindly responded too. Many thanks!
I must say, you guys asked some really great questions–and a couple doozies! 😀 Which is grand–doozies are encouraged here. Without further ado:
What are your top 3 films by decade, going back to the beginning of cinema? (Yes, I’m including the 1880s.)
By “top” films, I’m guessing you’re asking what my personal favorites are from each decade–heck, that’s what I’m going with! (Man, just choosing three of my faves was hard. My poor brain.) Continue reading