About Lea S.

I am obsessed with silent films (it's Buster Keaton's fault, I swear) and write about them here: https://silentology.wordpress.com/

Stuck In A “Toxic” Present–What Today’s Hollywood Can Learn From Mary Pickford

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:

“James Cameron Isn’t Worried About Avatar Trolls: ‘They See The Movie Again And Shut The F–– Up’ – Exclusive.” 

Ah yes, that headline just flows, doesn’t it? I guess it got your attention, at any rate. (Or did it? F bombs are getting so passe nowadays.) Here’s a relevant portion from the article, with the language cleaned up because standards are nice on a lil’ blog like mine:

Speaking to Empire in the upcoming world-exclusive Avatar: The Way Of Water issue, Cameron hit back at the criticisms people tend to lobby at the first film. “The trolls will have it that nobody gives a s— and they can’t remember the characters’ names or one d— thing that happened in the movie,” he says. “Then they see the movie again and go, ‘Oh, okay, excuse me, let me just shut the f— up right now.’ So I’m not worried about that.”

Pardon me, I just read that F bomb and had to stifle a yawn. Anyways, let’s read on. Note what both Cameron (a famously temperamental guy to begin with) and the article writer are doggedly focusing on:

The original Avatar clocked in at 160 minutes in its theatrical version, while The Way Of Water is currently coming in at around three hours. “I don’t want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch [television] for eight hours,” he says. “I can almost write this part of the review. ‘The agonizingly long three-hour movie…’ It’s like, give me a f—— break. I’ve watched my kids sit and do five one-hour episodes in a row. Here’s the big social paradigm shift that has to happen: it’s okay to get up and go pee.” Who’s going to argue against a filmmaker with this much form in turning three-hour epics into record-breaking box office behemoths?

Well, I will–but I’m not going argue against three-hour epics (although there’s a big difference between sitting in a theater and being able to pause a TV show at home and go do the dishes or something. I mean, you leave the theater briefly, you’re still gonna miss a scene. Also, you can’t always get as comfy as you can on your couch. Anyways.). I am raising an eyebrow over the combative tone towards criticisms that haven’t even happened yet, especially since it’s aimed at people who, you know, are supposedly going to pay to see your upcoming movie. Which is the whole point of it existing, yes?

…It’s not like there’s a lot riding on this film, or anything.

Here’s the other example, pertaining to a show that I don’t particularly like (it could’ve been way more fun), but that’s not my point. Ponder again the dominant concerns of these particular show writers:

She-Hulk Writers Predicted MCU Show’s Toxic Fan Reactions 3 Years Ago.”

Did they now!

Screen Rant had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with [show writer Jessica] Gao to discuss She-Hulk: Attorney at Law season 1. She revealed that she was proud of the show’s meta jokes about toxic fandom being the overall villain of the series, because she and the writing staff were able to “troll the trolls.” She revealed that they were able to be so accurate with their criticism of trolls, even though they were writing the series three years ago, because they are “just that predictable and boring.”

Oh lawdy–there’s no better way to let someone know they’re bugging you than to declare you find them “just so predictable,” (so you’ve been thinking about them!) while also admitting you started fretting over their reactions years–years–in advance.

YEARS.

“We started writing the show three years ago; that’s how long ago this all was. The fact that we were able to very accurately, every single time, predict exactly what the toxic reaction was going to be is sad but also goes to show how tired and unoriginal these guys are. Three years ago, I could tell you what you were going to say because you’re just that predictable and boring. But the little troll that lives inside of me was utterly delighted that we were able to troll the trolls.”

One wonders why they wouldn’t just focus on writing a decent, fun show rather than bending into pretzels to try and outsmart “the trolls,” as they’re described. (As far as the supposed cleverness of this troll-outsmarting, you could always check out the series yourself, but I’m guessing you won’t exactly be blown away.)

Firstly, there are the effects…

Now, it’s true that both of these articles are specifically choosing to focus on a certain antagonistic relationship between these folks and the fans they’re supposed to be serving. But they’re just two examples of a dishearteningly pervasive trend to not just “clap back” at the “toxic fandom”–to whom you owe your career–but to even brag about doing so.

There’s plenty of troublemakers online, of course, but many of these fans aren’t even “trolls,” the most over-used word on today’s Internet. Back in the day, “trolls” were widely known as Internet pranksters and proudly antagonistic types who liked to jump into conversations with mean/inappropriate comments and ruin everyone’s good time. Now people seem to associate “troll” with “literally anyone who disagrees with me.” Even when the disagreement is actually perfectly legitimate criticism, which is how much of it looks to me. (Three hours is really long, and this enjoyer of Marvel thinks She-Hulk isn’t their most glowing work.)

If I were a pessimistic type, I might even start to suspect that trying to “own” the “toxic fandom” is becoming a dark new way to drum up publicity, considering how many new releases have been jumping on that bandwagon. Why, it’s also a way to deflect from weak writing! 

“Win!!”

Now, I am but a curious observer of the modern-day movie industry, who can only compare and contrast its decisions with overall observations of human nature. But as a movie fan and especially as a lover of film history, three thoughts spring to mind:

  1. There’s such a thing as being Perpetually Online–to the point of tunnel vision. To the point where you’re not only limiting your own creativity, but making your work perpetually linked to the online squabbles of the 2020s. In other words, your work is going to be remembered for being dated, and not in the charming “oh look, that silent comedian actually stepped on a banana peel!” sort of way. 
  2. Some folks in the industry seem to be forgetting that no one’s obliged to like or even to watch every film and series that gets released. If audiences do enjoy their work, that’s an opportunity for gratitude, especially if they’ve been entrusted with a franchise with a built-in fanbase. They don’t like it? Address criticisms sincerely, or take some notes and try again. Humility and professionalism is important.
  3. Look to the past for examples of that kind of humility and professionalism–the people who paved the way for today’s movie careers. The great directors and stars of the silent era had to deal with a lot of public scrutiny too (on an easier-to-digest scale, admittedly), but if they could see the type of snarkiness and disdain for fans leaking from some corners of Hollywood today I bet they’d be shocked.

If you want a perfect example of humility and professionalism, look no further than Mary Pickford, a name that never comes up often enough. She was the first global female superstar, a consummate actress and director, and an immensely powerful person in the silent film industry–who never forgot that the public came first and foremost. She would even refer to the public as “my friends.”

Here’s a Pickford quote from 1917, merely describing how she made her screen characters come to life. You can feel the respect in her words:

Study human beings constantly you must, in order to do good film work. I find myself studying the policeman on the corner, even the street cleaners. You cannot work effectively into a picture where you are surrounded by all sorts of people unless you comprehend them. It is, after all is said and done, a case of living for your work, and making that work as human as possible.

It’s almost hard to describe how beloved Pickford was back in the day, and what an “everywoman” she was to countless people. Much of her success can be certainly attributed to her deep respect and affection for her audience, which influenced every aspect of making her films. Here’s a quote from her in 1928:

People have asked why audiences have loved me, and I can only say that it must be because I love them. I always have…I went on stage before I was five, but long before that I can remember praying to God to make people love me…Love seeks response to love. Nothing is more pathetic than half a love affair.

Now, even America’s Sweetheart wasn’t immune to negative fan reactions, especially when she tried to grow beyond the “little girl” characters she was often associated with. When she finally bobbed her famous golden curls in 1928, there was a very public outcry–even though she was now in her thirties and couldn’t reasonably be expected to play young girls forever. Following this, and especially once talkies took over with their different style of filmmaking, her career began to peter out. 

Now, was Pickford bitter about this? Did she try to “clap back” at those unreasonable fans? Quite the contrary. In later interviews, after decades of observing Hollywood’s evolution and seeing her beloved silent era become a relic of the past, Pickford displayed the same love for the public she always had. In a prescient quote from an interview with Kevin Brownlow for his book The Parade’s Gone By, she recalled:

What do people go to the theater for? An emotional exercise. And no preachment. I don’t believe in taking advantage of someone who comes to the theater by teaching him a lesson. He can go to church, he can read the newspapers. But when people go to a motion picture they want to be entertained. It is not my prerogative as an actress to teach them anything. They will teach me. And that’s how it should be, because I am a servant of the public. I have never forgotten that.

Now, being subjected to barrages of online criticism is a downer, and I would never pretend that it wouldn’t take a toll on someone–especially if they already have the stressful task of working on the latest film in a very, very popular franchise. But there’s a difference between receiving criticism and openly inviting criticism in hopes of getting to “clap back.” And there’s something mindboggling about deliberately causing rifts among fans when you have such a rare opportunity to work on a beloved franchise. The scale of that kind of behavior is truly unprecedented.

The excitement of the past doesn’t have to be past.

Not everyone in Hollywood today is like that, and hopefully this is a trend that will soon start a merciful downturn. But to that end, more folks in “the industry” might find more peace and satisfaction to simply put down their phones, focus on writing good stories (The Mandalorian was sure incredible, just saying) and ask themselves occasionally, “What Would Mary Pickford Do?”

Sources for the Pickford quotes:

Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: Harry N. Adams, Incorporated, 1999.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Book Review: “Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation” By Rob Stone

Sometimes a silent film book comes along that you never knew you needed, about silent era performers you hadn’t looked at too closely, and somehow, that book clocks in at a mighty 480 pages of historical info, trivia, and rare photos. And, it has a fantastic cover. (The designer is the talented Marlene Weisman, who also did covers for Slapstick Divas and various Undercrank Productions releases.)

Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation by film archivist and historian Rob Stone is just such a book, and it’s not only a mighty trove of information but certainly a labor of love, first taking shape during the research process for Stone’s 1996 book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. (Ollie was in quite a few of the Pokes and Jabbs films, and starred in Vim’s “Plump and Runt” comedies.) Historian Steve Massa points out in the forward of Pokes & Jabbs that this research was begun in the pre-Media History Digital Library days, when–gasp!–you had to travel to archives around the country to find surviving copies of trade magazines. This is a fact that you’ll quickly learn to appreciate once you take in the hundreds–and I do mean hundreds–of film stats, synopses, and contemporary reviews packed into this book. 

Continue reading

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About “London After Midnight” (Practically)

The time has come! On this October the 31st, as the leaves are fluttering off the trees and a chill fills the air, it’s time to examine a film that would be a Halloween classic if it wasn’t so thoroughly and completely lost. Ah yes, the one and only…the famously misplaced…drumroll please…

…London After Midnight (1927).

Hey, that looks like my Halloween banner!

By the way, have you ever thought about what a great title that is? London After Midnight–the spooky scenes practically write themselves! No wonder it’s lodged itself in our imaginations.

Continue reading

A Century Of “Nosferatu” (1922)

As you sit down to sometime this weekend to enjoy the great German Expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (just a hunch, but something tells me you will!), keep in mind that 2022 has a special significance: it’s the 100th anniversary of this milestone piece of cinema!

Its “birthday” of sorts is technically March 4, 1922, when the studio Prana-Film hosted its grand premiere at the Marmorsaal (“marble hall”) of the Berlin Zoological Garden. It was released in German theaters on March 15, and then slowly made its way around the Netherlands, France, Estonia, a few other European countries…and that’s about it, until it was finally released in the U.K. in 1928 and the U.S. in 1929.

Continue reading

Tod Browning, The Edgar Allan Poe Of Cinema

If you’d never seen a photo of Tod Browning and I showed you a couple portraits of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he was an average 1920s Joe, maybe someone who worked as an accountant or a store manager. Would you have ever guessed he was one of the legends of horror film whose name was practically synonymous with “grotesque”? That the gothic Dracula (1931) and the shocking Freaks (1932) were concocted by this somber man, who probably looked fifty ever since he was 25?

Yet a legend of horror he was, and given his attraction to mysterious themes it might be fitting that his conventional appearance was also bit of a head-scratcher. Lest you think his early life was equally conventional, his background was actually one of the most colorful in the business–indeed, the kind that he’d often give to characters in his own films. In Browning’s case, art was very much drawn from life.

Continue reading

The Unsettling Charm Of “Le Cochon Danseur” (“The Dancing Pig”) 1907

Many of you have seen it, a lot of you probably love it, and I think it’s safe to say that some of you find it…unsettling. Oh yes, it’s one of the most viral bits of Edwardian film footage in existence–the split-reel oddity Le Cochon Danseur (1907) that many of us simply know as The Dancing Pig.

First bursting into the Internet in the 2000s, it’s become a go-to all-purpose “check out this creepy old film” film. YouTube alone has dozens (and dozens) of copies of it, and GIFs of it float about generously on social media. There are memes. There’s fan art. There’s even Creepypastas. But aside from all this 21st century hullabaloo, it’s also been a film festival mainstay since the ’80s, when the late, great historian David Shepard had a copy of it struck from an original negative.

Continue reading

Thoughts On: Keaton’s “The Haunted House” (1921)

Happy Buster Keaton’s Birthday!! In his honor I’m reposting this piece I wrote on one of his classic shorts. It also makes me nostalgic since I headed to my first Damfino convention shortly after writing it. Ah, memories!

Silent-ology

Not only was yesterday Buster’s birthday, but this weekend I’ll be heading to Muskegon, Michigan for the official Damfino convention! This will be my very first time at this event (I’m giving a presentation too, so wish me luck!). Thus, it only seemed fitting to start out this Halloween month with one of Buster’s more well-known shorts.

There seemed to be certain plots and tropes that all silent comedians tried out in turn. Everyone did food preparation gags, everyone went to the beach, everyone (everyone) from Harry Langdon to Chaplin himself showed up as a white-clad street cleaner at some point. In 1921, it was Buster Keaton’s turn to try his hand at the familiar gag-rich setting of The Spooky Haunted House.

View original post 650 more words

Many Thanks, Film Bloggers!

Aaaaand the second Silent Movie Day Blogathon is a wrap! To all the talented bloggers who took the time to participate, a very hearty:

We had a fine variety of posts this year on topics ranging from 1922 box office hits to Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, and I know I’m still going through them all myself! Many thanks as well to the many readers took the time to stop by and read the posts–and are still stopping by, might I add.

Will it be back next year, becoming an annual tradition much like our Buster blogathon? Hmm…it’s always a possibility!