We silent fans all know a certain type of person. This is that person who, when you share your deep and abiding love of movies made before the Great Depression, chortles incredulously. When he realizes you’re being serious, he tries to feign interest in your quaint obsession with cobbled-together Victorian melodramas (as he assumes) and nods obligingly as you try to find words to describe the wonder and excitement of that pioneering era. (This is always when regular ol’ words fail you, too.)
You probably know more than one of these people. Okay, quite a few of these people. Alright, just about everyone you come into contact with during your daily life.
What to do, then, when you’re aching to share your passion for movies that most uninitiated friends and family dismiss with an eyeroll?
Initiate them, of course! (After all, it’s for their own good–no one should be condemned to go through life with DOOM Syndrome.)
Depending on the tastes of those closest to you, it can be hard to pinpoint which film will hook them into the wonders of pre-talkie films. One person might find a dramatic story the most interesting (see: Biograph shorts), the other only perks up if you plunk them in front of an action movie (see: Wings), another might favor a good flapper flick (see: Why Be Good?). But if there’s any hard and fast rule that I live by, it’s 100% this: Always, Always Start With Comedy.
The best of silent comedy remains amazingly timeless, able to appeal to anyone of any age who’s willing to give them a try. Someone who realizes that a 90-year-old film can make them laugh will be much more open to exploring what else the olden days have to offer. And in my opinion, a perfect silent comedy Gateway Film is Buster Keaton’s short beauty The Scarecrow (1920).
This was the third film that Keaton released after taking over Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique film company (although it was the fourth one he made if you count The High Sign, which was shelved and not released until later). It’s a take-off of rural “mellerdramas” that were big in Victorian days and often spoofed during the Edwardian era (numerous Keystone comedies come to mind).
The premise is simple: Keaton and his co-star “Big Joe” Roberts are two farm hands vying for the affections of the farmer’s beautiful daughter (Sybil Seely). Rural hijinks ensue, involving hay, cream pies, “rabid” dogs and cornfields. Everything culminates in a delightfully edited chase scene that ends with a splash. It’s a full twenty minutes of pure, unpretentious, fast-moving charm.
When I’ve showed this short to people, they are usually a little distracted by its age at first. This film is crammed with old-timey details, such as the furnishings of the humble “one room house” and the sight of Buster with a cloth wrapped around his head to help a toothache. (Which all totally adds to the fun if you ask me.)
It all seems cute enough at first, but then comes the scene that reels them in. Let’s call it the Buster Keaton Conversion Scene, if you will. The farmhands, in their tiny house that’s starting to reveal a clever amount of space-savings gadgets, sit down and have a Rube Goldbergian breakfast. And it’s a classic bit of silent comedy.
Salt, pepper, and condiments dangle on strings just above the table, and a system of pulleys transports butter across the table and a bottle of cream in and out of the cooler. Buster and Big Joe’s “passing” of sugar and salt is delicately choreographed down to the second, the shots being long enough to make you marvel at the rehearsals they must’ve entailed. (I wonder if music was being played on the set to help with the timing.)
A 1920 audience would’ve recognized this scene as a satire of “modern conveniences” in the still-fresh industrial era. Today it remains an unforgettable set piece that’s even more impressive in this age of “oh, just CGI it.” Everyone I show this scene to–even if they’d been squirming a little bit earlier–becomes mesmerized for those glorious minutes.
And beyond this pivotal scene, there’s plenty in The Scarecrow to keep your audience hooked. The rest of the house reveals a plethora of labor-savings gadgets, usually in the last places you’d except. Gags centering around a little pit bull terrier (named Luke) turn into a slapstick chase complete with acrobatics. The supporting actors (including Seely and Buster’s dad Joe) are clearly having fun with their roles. The energy doesn’t lag. It’s the opposite experience that most of the Great Uninitiated would associate with a film that’s almost 100 years old.
So I heartily recommend showing The Scarecrow to those who would dare wrinkle their noses in disgust at the thought of watching a black and white movie. I can almost guarantee that they’ll experience a change of heart.
If you, too, have been trying to get people interested in silents, which films do you like to start with? Do you have any tried-and-trues? Any success stories? Even any non-success stories? Comment away!
This post is especially for the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” ‘thon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. If you, too, desire to combat the dreadful illness of DOOM Syndrome, head over to their sites and check out all the great tips in the other entries. Godspeed, fellow old movie lovers!