Happy New Year’s Eve, my friends–and how. As I look back on the year that has been 2020, I can’t help recalling what I wrote for 2019’s “Year in Review” post: “I, for one, welcome the impending return of the Twenties. Let’s make ’em Roaring!”
Errr, I’m not detecting any roaring, are you? And we’re definitely not partying like a 1928 Joan Crawford movie, which was also one of my predictions for 2020. At least, not partying yet.
Anyways, it’s time for my hopefully helpful annual review of silent film-related news. It was a lighter news year than most, it seems, probably because so many projects and festivals were either cancelled or postponed, but I hope you find this roundup interesting nonetheless! Also, me spending extra time outdoors this year + having crappy or intermittent Internet for months = more news sneaking past me, so please, feel free to chime in with any significant info I might have missed.
DISCOVERIES AND RESTORATIONS
The last reel of Semon’s 6 reel feature Stop, Look and Listen (1926) was found in Japan by Toshihiko Sasayama of Waseda University, and identified by film historian Junk Iio. This comedy was filmed after Semon’s (in)famous The Wizard of OZ (1925) and it also included Oliver Hardy and Dorothy Dwan in the cast. (Thanks to historian Steve Massa for sharing this news!)
Chicago Film Archives announced that a complete 35mm print of the 5-reel feature The First Degree (1923) has been found. A rural drama starring Frank Mayo, it was directed by Edward Sedwick who had also directed Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928).
The National Film Preservation Foundation announced that 34 institutions would be given grants to preserve 47 “orphan” films (films abandoned by the owners or caretakers). The group includes several silents, such as the Texas oil boom melodrama Flowing Gold (1924) with Anna Q. Nilsson and Milton Sills, His Last Race (1923) starring stunt horseback rider Rex “Snowy” Baker and his horse Boomerang, Payroll Pirates (1920) starring the stuntwoman Helen Gibson, the short comedy When Betty Bets (1917) featuring Broadway actress Marie Cahill, and the earliest surviving student film The Maid of McMillan (1916).
RESTING IN PEACE
On February 24, Diana Serra Carey, the last remaining silent film star, passed away at age 101. Known to 1920s audiences as “Baby Peggy,” she was one of the era’s biggest and most talented child stars. Prodded into an acting career by her parents when she was only a toddler, Cary first appeared in shorts opposite Brownie the Wonder Dog and then got her own film series. Soon she had worked her way to being starred in comedy features. Money issues and her father’s disputes about her contract affected her career in the mid-1920s, and her last film was in 1938. She would distance herself from her child star image, marry twice, and eventually work as a writer and historian. Growing more at peace with her childhood, she would write books about early childhood stars and advocate for fairer treatment of child actors. She would pass away quietly at her home in Gustine, California, and was much mourned by the silent film community.
Don Marion Davis, a former child actor who was billed as John Henry Jr., passed away December 10 at age 103. Born in Hollywood, he was one of the last surviving actors from the silent era and had been discovered by Mack Sennett himself. He appeared in Sennett classics like Down On The Farm (1920) opposite audience favorites like Louise Fazenda and animal stars like Teddy the dog. He acted until 1925, eventually joined the military and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in public administration. Still active in his old age, he reportedly went on daily bike rides while he was pushing 100 years old.
NEW DVD/BLU-RAY RELEASES
Grapevine Video‘s release list this year included an upgraded version of the crime serial A Woman in Grey (1919), the WWI spy film On Dangerous Ground (1917), the Marion Davies feature Getting Mary Married (1919), the Kickstarter project The Son of Tarzan (1920), Dinty (1920) with Colleen Moore and Anna May Wong in supporting roles–and others.
Tommy Jose Stathes announced the latest set in his series of silent cartoon DVDs: “Cartoon Roots: Otto Messmer’s Feline Follies,” highlighting the work of Pat Sullivan Studios and its famed Felix the Cat shorts. The set also includes a couple shorts with an animated Charlie Chaplin. DVDs will be shipping in January.
Undercrank Productions offered another fine crowd-funded release, The Douglas MacLean Collection, and also a Blu-ray of the Marion Davies feature When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922). They also held a crowdfunding event for an upcoming set of the silent comedies of Edward Everett Horton.
Masters of Cinema released new restorations of The Man Who Laughs (1928) and the Keaton classics Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Go West (1925), and College (1927)–all great news for UK silent era fans.
Kino released a number of new projects. Silent fans can now purchase the two-disc set the Reginald Denny Collection, with films like Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) and What Happened to Jones? (1926), and a 4k restoration of Lon Chaney’s Outside the Law (1920). A new 4k restoration of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) is also available as is John Ford’s Straight Shooting (1917). Several shined-up German silents are offered on DVD and Blu-ray: the German Expressionist milestone The Golem (1920), the experimental Pabst film The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Murnau’s drama Tartuffe (1925), and The Great Leap (1927) starring Leni Riefenstahl.
Historian Ed Lorusso had another successful Kickstarter for a set of two Marie Doro films, Lost and Won and Castles For Two (both 1917). Grapevine will be offering the set for sale on their site sometime in the near future.
Thanhouser Company Film Preservation announced a new 3-DVD set of 19 Thanhouser films. The short films were made from 1911-and 1915 and feature original scores by Ben Model, Nathan Avaklan and Stephen Horne.
Flicker Alley released Waxworks (1924), the episodic German Expressionist drama by Paul Leni, on Blu-ray. It also released the dark drama City Without Jews (1924), based on a novel about a fictional city of Utopia that decides to eject all its Jewish residents. The complete print was only discovered in 2015.
CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Kops, the first-ever book devoted exclusively to the famous comic police force, was released from BearManor Media. A collection on essays on every aspect of the Kops compiled and edited by Lon and Debra Davis, it was a collaborative effort by historians and contributors included Brent Walker, Paul E. Gierucki, Sam Gill, and–me!
Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema by Barbara Tepa Lupack, a scholarly new book on the overlooked directors Ted and Leo Wharton, is now available. It explores the brothers’ impact on film serials and examines the history of the genre as a whole.
The Cineteca di Bologna published Charlie Chaplin‘s The Freak: The Story of an Unfinished Film containing the full screenplay of Chaplin’s final project, which he had been working on before his death in 1977. The book also includes rare materials like notes, drawings, photos, and stills from film rehearsals. Initially published in Italian, it should be available in other languages in the near future.
Directed By William Beaudine: An Overview by James L. Neibaur was released by BearManor Media. Covering the career of the underappreciated director of classics like Sparrows (1926), Neibaur makes the case that Beaudine was a more efficient and skilled director than many give him credit for, and was influential in the realm of silents, talkies, and television.
NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY UPDATE
A few more silents were added to the National Film Registry this year:
The Battle of the Century (1927),
Kid Auto Races At Venice (1914),
and With Car and Camera Around the World (1929).
In March countries began imposing unprecedented lockdowns to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, closing countless theaters and cancelling film festivals (among countless other things). Many venues and entertainers coped by offering online shows, festivals, Zoom watch parties, and the like throughout 2020. To cite just a few examples: The Niles Film Museum in California moved both their Charlie Chaplin Days and Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival events online (both contributed to by yours truly!), the Cinémathèque Française regularly uploaded rare films onto their site for free (temporary) viewing, and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival moved their prestigious annual event online thanks to the collaboration of archives worldwide. While nothing can replace the magic of in-person experiences, silent film fans have been very appreciative of all these efforts.
Also in March, Sothebys put a collection of dozens of rare promotional stills from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari up for auction. The 55 stills sold for $35,000 after ten bids.
In mid-March historians Ben Model and Steve Massa started a Silent Comedy Watch Party, streaming free on YouTube for anyone interested, and have been going strong every Sunday afternoon since then. Each episode offers 2-3 shorts (many quite rare) starring both well-known comedians like Buster Keaton and obscure names like Alice Howell, all accompanied live by Model. I recommend it highly!
In June, historian John Bengtson lead a campaign to have an alleyway in Hollywood turned into a historic landmark, a tribute to the fact that scenes from the iconic comedies The Kid (1921), Cops (1922) and Safety Last! (1923) were all shot there. As of this date, over 150 Google reviews have been left about the “Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley” by silent comedy enthusiasts in hopes of raising awareness. (You, too, can be a contributor!)
In sadder news, in August it was announced that the Hollywood & Highland shopping center, known for its life-sized replica of the Babylonian gate and elephants from Intolerance(1916), would start remodelling next year. The reason for taking down the elephants is supposedly to try and attract more native Angelenos to a sleeker shopping destination, but silent fans are certainly justified in feeling disappointed and…skeptical (I absolutely am, that center being one of my favorite things in Hollywood).
In brighter news, in November CineMuseum collaborated with a number of comedy historians to put out the e-magazine Comique–The Classic Comedy Magazine–available to download for free! This beautifully-made issue is a treasure trove of articles and photos on all things comedy and was even contributed to by yours truly. This is the first of hopefully many future issues.
The sleek new Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, New Jersey has completed construction. Its planned Fall 2020 grand opening, naturally, was postponed until 2021. The new center, constructed in honor of the early American film studios that once made Fort Lee their headquarters, will feature a 260-seat theater and hopes to have its own annual film festivals.
As of December 31 2020, countless movie theaters have been closed for months, and it’s probably no exaggeration to say that this has been the most devastating blow to the theater industry since it began in Victorian times. I know that I can’t wait for film festivals to spring back to life again and will be attending movie theaters as soon as they’re allowed to reopen. If there’s anything I’m confident that we’ve learned this year, it’s that life is a lot more than just sitting on your couch, no matter how many streaming services you have.
So that’s my roundup! Again, feel free to comment with any news I might’ve missed. Fingers crossed I’ll be writing more film festival recaps in the coming year! Best wishes to all as we bravely enter 2021.