In any artistic field–Impressionist painting, modern architecture, ballet, indie folk rock, you name it–there are always a few names more memorable than the rest, and the field of silent filmmaking is no exception. We all recognize the big names like Gance, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Griffith, and so on. But the list of who we personally find most memorable is probably pretty eclectic–my own includes folks like Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Bowers, and Karlheinz Martin (long story). To that list I’m happy to add the name of Ladislas Starevich–or Władysław Starewicz, Ladislav Starevich, Ladislaw Starewitch, or any of his other varied spellings (pick your favorite).
In photos, the somber-looking Starevich seems like he’d be home in a lab coat working on mysterious chemical experiments. You wouldn’t suspect that in reality, he created an imaginative body of work showcasing some of the most whimsical–even slightly macabre–visions in early film. An artist ahead of his time, once you’ve seen his work you won’t soon forget it.
What is the world’s oldest animated film? Or rather, knowing film history–what’s the world’s oldest surviving animated film? Many sources will point to the cartoon Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or “trick film” The Enchanted Drawing (1900), which used stop motion to make a cartoon face change expressions. But chances are you might’ve stumbled across a few sources making the case for an obscure short called Matches: An Appeal–said to have been produced in 1899.
It’s a pretty cute little film, too. Via the magic of stop motion, two small figures made of matchsticks work together to write an “appeal” asking the public to donate money to send matches to needy soldiers. To be precise, they write: “For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside. N.B. Our soldiers need them.” The stop motion is surprisingly sophisticated for its early date–perhaps a little too sophisticated.
Time to fall down a research rabbit hole! Always one of my favorite hobbies. Continue reading
“Princess Nicotine”! Doesn’t that sound like a relic of old-timey kids’ entertainment that appears woefully inappropriate to modern audiences. Fortunately, the landmark early short Princes Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909) only slightly fits that description. (By the way, I wasn’t sure at first which fairy in the film was Princess Nicotine, but apparently, the older fairy is the Princess. The More You Know!)
This strange but charming showcase for early “trick effects” was made by J. Stuart Blackton, also the brains behind animation milestones like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and The Haunted House (1907). In a breezy five minutes we’re shown a bachelor relaxing at home, filling his pipe before growing sleepy and setting it down as he dozes off. As he snoozes, two fairies hop out of a cigar box and decide to play a prank on him. He awakens, discovers the prank, and a mischievous tit for tat ensues. (And yes, that approximately 12-year-old actress is smoking a cigarette in that one scene.) Continue reading
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.
Need a little pick-me-up after a long, hard day? Looking for some good old-fashioned slapstick nonsense that’s blissfully short? Have a particular craving for, say, a 1900s French comedy short that your friends (and possibly you) have never heard of?
Well that’s easy enough–The Policemen’s Little Run (1907) it is!
A version of this article originally appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on silent films. It was an eye-opening one to research–hope you enjoy!
Much like we still do today, silent era audiences flocked to big budget spectacles, as well as thrillers, witty comedies and other crowd pleasers (well, maybe “witty comedies” are a rarity nowadays). If you found a list of the top box office attractions in the 1910s and 1920s, a lot of titles will be pretty familiar: Ben-Hur, Intolerance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robin Hood. What is allegedly the biggest hit of the entire era, The Big Parade, might ring a bell too.
But there are other titles in those “top grossing” lists that have fallen into obscurity. Some of them might surprise you–who ever said that subtly-acted, bittersweet dramas can’t attract masses of viewers? With that in mind, here’s a look at eight of those forgotten “moneymakers”! Continue reading
UPDATE 7/18/19: And the winner of the Charley Bowers Blu-ray set is….
Congratulations David! We will be in touch. I hope you enjoy these Charley Bowers shorts as much as I do! And thank you to all who entered–this was a popular giveaway!
Calling all silent comedy fans!! Flicker Alley has a very exciting new release: a Blu-ray set of 17 shorts by the one and only Charley Bowers! And when I say “one and only,” I’m not just using a cliché–obscure comedian Bowers was truly one of the silent era’s most, err, creative individuals. Not familiar with this highly unique genius? (Admittedly, most people on the planet are not. Sadly.) Allow me to give you a brief introduction:
A former cartoonist, Bowers became the head animator for the 1910s Mutt and Jeff cartoon series before becoming fascinated with stop motion animation. In the mid-1920s he created a series of comedy shorts starring himself as a vaguely Keatonesque character with a love of crazy inventions. These shorts were basically showcases for his “Bowers process,” as he grandly dubbed his stop motion animation skills. In the trades they were advertised as “Whirlwind Comedies.” Continue reading
Couldn’t resist sharing this pretty cover image from this historic entertainment newspaper. Have an excellent Fourth of July, my U.S. readers! And may everyone have a fine summer weekend!
Whilst perusing old issues of Photoplay magazine, this little article caught my silent comedy-loving eye: “The Five Funniest Things In The World.” “Funniest Things” meaning “the top 5 gags guaranteed to make folks laugh.” Being written at the late date of 1918–and that is late, considering how fast screen comedy evolved–I knew it probably wouldn’t list banana peel gags or pie throwing. (I’d like to go back in time, stand in a room full of Edwardian film critics, say “CUSTARD PIE” and watch all the eyes roll.)
Hmm, so what were considered the funniest gags ever, from the viewpoint of our worldly-wise Photoplay writer Homer Croy?
Well, for starters, pie throwing.