The famed genre of the 1930s gangster film left a strong mark on pop culture. Much like the western, it’s a uniquely American genre that’s entwined with both actual history and mythologizing. We all know its tropes: the shootouts, the booze smuggling, the style, the slang. And we know its classics: Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
But, like practically every trope in cinema, it all had its roots in the silent era, starting with simple police chase films, popular crime serials, short Biograph dramas, and eventually resulting in genre-defining works like Underworld (1927).
This February, Silent-ology will be taking a look at the earliest days of the gangster genre, from its vague origins in general “crime films” to its confident emergence at the beginning of the Great Depression. We’ll be looking at a few key films and personalities, and try to understand just where all the slang and natty suits came from.
I’ll be covering Silent-ology’s 9th (!) anniversary on February 2nd and then the series will begin. Please tune in as often as you like throughout the next month to see what’s new!
The early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. The lengthy Qing dynasty was overthrown during the 1911 Revolution, and it was replaced by the more democratic Republic of China. Class struggles ran deep and traditional attitudes were starting to clash with more modern mindsets. As the country opened more and more to the west, great metropolises like Shanghai bustled with foreign-controlled industries.
Film was popular in China as early as 1897, when Lumière and Edison films were first shown in the major cities. Early Chinese studios sprang up quickly, flourishing the most during a brief boycott on foreign films in the 1920s. But in general they faced tough competition from films imported from Europe and especially from Hollywood, which were wildly popular (as indeed they were everywhere in the world). But Chinese cinema did cultivate some gems, and one of the very brightest was the fragile star Ruan Lingyu.
If you enjoy visiting this blog, and also like keeping up with at least some movie news, maybe you were wondering if I would review Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. It’s set during the silent era and all, and isn’t that my wheelhouse? And isn’t it true that silent era-themed films don’t come along every day?
The thought “Maybe I’ll sort of consider possibly checking it out at some point, maybe” briefly crossed my mind, yes. But the misgivings were strong. The trailer didn’t make it look that great, having that extremely self-conscious “This ain’t your great-grandmother’s 1920s!” vibe and all. Doing a takedown of the historical anachronisms would be something, I guess, but did I really want to sit through 3 and a half hours of that? (What’s odd is that many of the clichés Chazelle claimed he was avoiding were historically inaccurate to begin with, so…why not move in a historically accurate version for a change? It would blow people’s minds–just saying!)
Then I found out about the elephant poop, spraying right at the camera, no joke. And the vomit. And the urinating. And more vomit. And mountains of cocaine for some reason (there were some morphine addicts in the silent era but usually because of doctors’ prescriptions). And just the sheer, ugly, dirty maliciousness of it all.
Were you waiting for it? At last, I’m making the official announcement that our great Busterthon is returning for a ninth–ninth!–time! Almost a decade of our annual Buster celebration, folks. Isn’t that amazing?
When we read about history, it’s easy to forget how often various worlds would collide. For example, Harold Lloyd’s Speedy and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc came out the same year, and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford once had Albert Einstein over for dinner (Chaplin was invited too, and Pickford remembered him and Doug listening to the famed professor in awed “befuddlement”). And an artist like, say, the iconic Salvador Dalí would have grown up with silent comedies, and would’ve had his favorite comedians like everyone else.
It’s fairly common knowledge among classic comedy fans that Dalí was a Marx Brothers fan–or rather, fanatic. Once he gifted Harpo a custom-made harp with barbed wire strings, covered with spoons (as historian Joe Adamson humorously explained, Harpo “didn’t drop spoons, he dropped knives, that’s why Dalí used spoons”). He also presented the Marx Brothers with a screenplay called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, basically a living series of his paintings but with Marx Brothers. (They somewhat respectfully declined.) But not everyone knows that Dalí was a Buster Keaton fan, too.
A Happy New Year’s Eve to all my readers! Along with popping champagne and eating crab legs that were on sale at your local grocery store, it’s time for the annual tradition of reviewing silent film-related news from the past year.
As always, while I try to make this a pretty detailed list, keep in that it’s not exhaustive. Feel free to leave a comment with any 2022-related silent film news you’d like to share (and any obvious stories I missed!). 2022 items only, please. Let’s get to it!
Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all my readers! I enjoyed writing this post a few years back and thought I’d send it around again. Somehow, the winsome Gish sisters go very well with Christmas, don’t they? Have a grand weekend!
MERRYCHRISTMAS, my friends! I sincerely hope you’re all having a fine holiday season, no matter where you may be.
You might notice that while Silent-ology goes all out on spooky film-viewing in October, it’s a bit quieter around Christmas. That’s because: A) Back in the silent era, Christmas wasn’t the commercialized extravaganza it is today–there really aren’t a ton of Christmasy silents to choose from, and B) December is a very busy month! So I tend to be more sparing in my Yuletide-themed posts, although I make sure to decorate Silent-ology appropriately.
Hold on, I’ll just put up a few more ornaments.
So! With that said, here’s a bit of festive Christmas reminiscing from Lillian Gish’s autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, where she occasionally looked back on holidays from her childhood. At times life…
Now that the dust has been starting to settle on the news about the 2022 Sight & Sound film poll–the once-a-decade event ranking the top 100 greatest films of all time, with particular focus on the top 10–I thought I’d share some thoughts. Because the newest list is–how to put it–a doozy.
Just in case you’ve heard of Sight & Sound (spelled with either “&” or “and”) but haven’t looked into it much, it’s a prestigious monthly film magazine that’s been published by the British Film Institute since the 1930s. In 1952 they decided to poll critics and directors about what ten films they considered the all-time greats–Battleship Potemkin (1925) nabbed the top spot. It was decided that the poll would be held every ten years to gauge the tastes of the critical consensus and to see how appreciation of great cinema might evolve. The once-a-decade nature of the poll and its knowledgeable voter base made it, in the words of Roger Ebert, “…The most respected of the countless polls of great movies–the only one most serious movie people take seriously.” (I’d keep that quote in mind for the rest of this article.)
There are many legendary behind-the-scenes tales from early cinema, an era of dangerous stunts performed with the faintest shrugs at safety measures, and of stubborn trekking to remote location shoots where risk of frostbite–or heatstroke–or severe storms–was de rigueur. Authenticity was king, to the point of mania. Von Stroheim famously insisted on filming a pivotal scene from Greed (1924) in Death Valley, when temps soared to 120. Buster Keaton nearly drowned in a swift-moving river while shooting a sequence for Our Hospitality (1923). And the stories behind the difficult shoot of Ben-Hur (1925) could fill a whole article by themselves.
Nell Shipman’s adventures filming in the Canadian wilderness are a lesser-known but equally fascinating saga from early film history. A native of British Columbia, Shipman was a theater actress who was also passionate about animal welfare. She married Ernest Shipman when she was 18 (they would have a son named Barry), and they would move to Hollywood where Nell would write scripts and act for companies like Selig and Vitagraph. Having an adventurous spirit, Nell wanted to star in wintery adventure-themed films set in the “great white North” of the Canadian wilderness. Accordingly, Ernest set up the Canadian Photoplays Ltd. company in 1919 and they would trek to remote areas of Alberta to work on Nell’s film Back to God’s Country (1919)–notable today for being Canada’s biggest silent box office hit.
There’s a movie industry-related trend that’s been growing in recent years, and it’s become…alarmingly pervasive. While its causes aren’t hard to discern, all things considered it’s still somewhat baffling.
Let’s take a look at two recent examples. Ponder, if you will, the following headline: