There’s Hope Out There, Silent Film Fans!

So recently I stumbled across a fun story making the rounds on social media, and thought I’d take a minute to share it myself. Because it’s a perfect antidote for those moments when the world seems to be an endless sea of folks who think that Jurassic Park is an old movie.

Image result for disgusted face

I feel you, Sam.

The story was published on May 9 of this year on, and the headline alone is a thing of beauty and a joy forever: “The story of the Nebraska fourth-graders who became obsessed with silent cinema”. That’s almost enough right there, but let’s go on:

As Heartland Community High School’s class of 2017 graduates Sunday in Henderson, Nebraska, they’ll be joined by two special guests, each keeping a promise eight years in the making.

The guests are Brian Selznick, award-winning author/illustrator of “Wonderstruck” and “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” and Suzanne Lloyd, the granddaughter of Nebraska-born silent film star Harold Lloyd.

Dang! I’m feeling jealous here. So how did Selznick and Lloyd come to be at a high school graduation ceremony in a little Nebraska town?

How did Selznick (who lives in New York) and Lloyd (Los Angeles) come to be at a high school graduation ceremony in a tiny town of 1,000 in the middle of Nebraska? Well, that’s kind of a funny story. One that involves a silent film festival and a whole lot of letters to Johnny Depp.

This sounds like a normal weekend at my house.

It all started during the 2008-09 school year, in the fourth-grade classroom of Suzanne Ratzlaff.

The class had become enthralled with Selznick’s 2007 book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” (later adapted into the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese movie “Hugo”). The book, set in 1931, includes a moment in which Hugo talks about seeing the Harold Lloyd film “Safety Last!” and the next pages show the film’s most iconic image: Lloyd hanging from the clock hand.

“We saw the pages and figured out that it was a famous Nebraskan,” said Ratzlaff. “Harold Lloyd was born in Burchard, Nebraska, and, oh my gosh, after that our whole year was basically all Harold Lloyd. Every time we could do anything connected with Nebraska studies, we hooked in with Harold.”

CALLED IT. I totally called this. I can’t think of any better teaching tool for history classes than getting to actually see the history on film. Teachers, take notice! And tell other teachers.

But it went far beyond that. Here’s a sentence that’s never been written before: The fourth-grade class had silent-film fever.

Heh, that doesn’t sound strange. To me, anyways.

Okay, okay…

Ratzlaff and the students obtained a grant from the Nebraska Arts Council to hold a festival of Lloyd movies at Aurora’s 12th Street Cinema and a drive-in screening at York College. On Lloyd’s 116th birthday, several students went to his birthplace, dressed in the actor’s trademark round glasses and boater hat. Somewhere along the way, the students started writing letters to Johnny Depp.

You see, the fourth-graders thought there should be a Harold Lloyd biopic, and they thought Depp should play him. They wrote letters asking the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star to consider it. 

Bless their hearts.  Hmm, did anyone ever tell those kids about Benny & Joon? It’s related…!

…Depp never replied, but the class was also writing letters to Brian Selznick and Suzanne Lloyd, both of whom did write back.

The letters were “incredibly sweet and charming,” Selznick said. “I was especially touched because when I was making the book, I had no way of knowing if the book was going to be successful. It’s about things that children are usually not interested in. Like, you know, silent movies.”

Only because no one thinks to expose them to the joy of silent movies, my good sir, but I digress.

But in their ongoing correspondence, these children assured him that they were interested. “Turns out,” Selznick said with a laugh, “if you read the right book, you can fall in love with anything.”

Ah yes, anything–even movies older than Jurassic Park!…Forgive me.

In one letter to Selznick, a student posed a very important P.S. She asked Selznick if he would speak at their high school graduation — eight years from then.

Another student asked Suzanne Lloyd if she would be their guest in 2017.

Selznick and Lloyd agreed.

*standing ovation for the students*

The students held Selznick and Lloyd to their promises for the next eight years.

“We all plainly begged in our letters for both of them to come hang out,” said Ethan Hall, 18, one of the silent-film-loving fourth-graders. “It wasn’t very subtle.”


But it was effective.

Every year, from fourth grade to senior year, the students wrote letters to the author, reminding him that they were excited for his 2017 visit. 

Now that’s what I call working hard to achieve your dreams!

“And here we are,” Selznick said. “I’m so excited to come to Nebraska this weekend. I’m really nervous. I don’t want to disappoint the kids. But mostly I’m just looking forward to meeting everyone who I’ve known all these years.”

A lot has happened to Selznick over the last eight years. He saw tremendous success from “Hugo Cabret” and the subsequent film. He also wrote his first screenplay…

Like his friend Suzanne Lloyd, Selznick comes from Hollywood royalty. Though his relation is a bit more distant. His grandfather was a cousin to David O. Selznick, producer of the original “King Kong” and “Gone with the Wind.”

Geez, I didn’t know that. Lucky duck.

“I always loved seeing my last name at the beginning of these great movies,” Selznick said. “I always felt connected, even though he’s from the Hollywood movie-making side of the Selznicks, and I’m from the New Jersey dry-cleaning side of the Selznicks.”

Nonetheless, the connection played a part in his love of cinema, which led him to make a beloved book about movies, a book that sparked a most unexpected and enduring obsession for more than a dozen fourth-graders in Henderson, Nebraska.

Here’s a picture of the class back in 2009 after attending a screening of Safety Last!, all decked out in Harold Lloyd gear. Does this make your heart grow three sizes, or what?

Fourth-graders’ love of a book led to silent-film fever, 8-year correspondence

I hope this story brightened your day, folks–now go share it with some teachers!!

16 thoughts on “There’s Hope Out There, Silent Film Fans!

  1. Not only did my heart grow 3 sizes but my summer homeschool just planned itself! Hugo Cabret, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Benny & Joon! Thank you for spreading the good cheer!

  2. What a wonderful story! I was 16 when I first saw a silent film and was instantly hooked. It’s never too early or too late 😉

  3. I’m reading this in 2021, and like you I find the story incredibly inspiring. I shared a link to your article last night. I think most of the readers will agree with me.

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