Very few names in the theater are as legendary as that of Sarah Bernhardt, nicknamed “The Divine Sarah” by her legions of admirers. Born in 1844 to a high-powered French courtesan, she first started acting while in boarding school and continued to pursue acting on the advice of family friend Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny–the half brother of Emperor Napoleon III (quite a contact!).
Her rise to fame was swift and suitably dramatic for an actress who loved romanticism and grand gestures. Studies at the Paris Conservatory lead to joining the Comédie Française, which she left for less prestigious theaters after butting heads with another actress. While continuing to make a name for herself she befriended great writers, screenwriters and aristocrats, taking some as her lovers. At age 20 she gave birth to her only child, Maurice, rumored to be the son of Belgian Prince Henri de Ligne.
Hello everyone! Much like back when I first published this piece, it’s been a bit quiet here on Silent-ology. That’s because my wonderful, cheerful, incomparable grandmother (who I had mentioned in this post) passed away recently. So I took a bit of a break, and decided this piece was certainly worth a reblog. I often attribute my love of old movies to my mom, who watched almost nothing else when I was growing up. But who introduced my mom to those old movies to begin with? My grandma! So you might say that, ultimately, Silent-ology might not exist without her long ago influence. Thank you, thank you Grandma, and I’ll always miss you.
If it seemed a bit quiet on Silent-ology lately, it’s because my beloved Grandpa passed away last week on Independence Day. He was 91 and had, without a doubt, enjoyed a “life well-lived.” He leaves behind his wonderful wife of nearly 70 years, a dozen children, dozens of grandchildren and great-grand children, and even one great-great-grandchild.
And of course, he leaves behind countless memories for all of us to share with each other during each holiday gathering, BBQ or impromptu get-together. And for me, a few of those memories involve bringing over Buster Keaton shorts to watch with him and Grandma.
There’s a number of silent comedy shorts that are lauded as mini-masterpieces today, shorts like The Immigrant (1917), One Week) (1920), and Cops (1922). The rhythm of the editing, the succinct storylines, the interplay between talented comedians–they’re not only a joy to watch but a joy to study as well. Uniquely creative in an already unique era of a film, the great silent comedies can “unfold like music,” as Roger Ebert once said of Buster Keaton’s work.
Aaaaand then there’s all the other silent comedies. The decidedly run-of-the-mill comedies. The rushed, low budget, frenetic comedies, churned out like sausages, as the old studio saying went. And the…err…kind of dumb silent comedies. All were legion, my friends. Legion.
Y’know, there’s nothing like spending an evening watching the gems of silent comedy and taking in each sparkling minute until you’re refreshing in mind and spirit. But sometimes…just sometimes…you’ve just spent a loooong winter taking advantage of the loooong evenings with lots of cinematic gem-viewing, and now it’s getting warm, and you’ve been working hard all day, and your mind and spirit is tired, and you just wanna watch something silly. Sometimes, you just need dumb, and that’s okay. Dumb can be good. Enter something like By The Sad Sea Waves (1917), which is named after a song, because it’s set at a beach and WHY NOT.
Hello everyone, and happy spring! This is an extra special post I’m putting up today, because it’s in memory of a very special gal: Patricia Nolan-Hall, aka Caftan Woman to you fellow film bloggers (and readers!).
When the news broke back in March that Patricia had passed away, we knew the classic film blogasphere had lost one of its best and most enthusiastic talents. Patricia was a delightful writer with a vast knowledge of cinema and she was an equally delightful member of the community. If you were hosting a blogathon, Caftan Woman was sure to sign up–and comment on every single blogathon entry! How she found the time I’ll never know, but she clearly had a passion for film that just had to be shared.
It took some thought to pick my blogathon topic, because Patricia loved such a wide variety of films. So I figured: in honor of someone so knowledgeable who was so generous to her fellow bloggers, why not list some of the most prolific silent film stars in Hollywood? I’m talking about the hardworking people who managed to show up in dozens–no, hundreds of films, and who were basically the backbone of Hollywoodland. Some are well known, others obscure. And maybe we can try to guess just who had the longest filmography of all.
I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
A favorite film of mine to revisit every Lent, especially on this particular holy day, Good Friday, is this late 1920s masterpiece. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on it again this year. It’s a film so powerful that it can be difficult to describe, but back in 2017 I gave it my best shot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I truly hope this piques your interest!
Making most lists of the top ten greatest films ever made is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). And indeed, you suspect a spot had always been reserved for it. A critic from as far back as 1929 was moved to declare, “It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams.”
When it comes to finding crowd-pleasing silent films, you can’t go wrong with Marion Davies features. It’s pretty well known that her earlier features, financed by lover William Randolph Hearst, tended to be costume pictures that attracted more interest a century ago than today. But her charming mid- to late-Twenties films have aged beautifully. Blending light comedy, romance, a bit of tasteful slapstick and even satire, they still have universal appeal.
One of these crowd-pleasers is a film I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of–Beverly of Graustark (1926). If we had to choose a film to mark the divide between Davies’s more sedate early features and her later comedies, it would probably be Beverly. And it’s a reminder that even obscure 1920s features can prove how darn good silent Hollywood could be.
It was late last year when I first heard the welcome news that a new Buster Keaton biography was on the way. And not only that, but it was going to be a very long, detailed, and thoroughly professional biography by James Curtis, author of acclaimed books such as Spencer Tracey: A Biography and William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. It was going to be An Event, you might say, the first truly major biography on Buster in years. And, it would be ready to go in February 2022, sooner than I expected!
And now, having carefully waded my way through its 800 pages (yes, this is a substantial tome!) I can say that Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life was not only worth waiting for, but it’s the kind of book that Buster fans needed–indeed that anyone interested in film history needed.
The last two days have flown by (I’m still working my way through all your pieces) and the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon is officially a wrap! So to all the participants, I wanted to say a heartfelt…
…from Buster and from Silent-ology, too! (And from Alice Mann–hey, she’s been enjoying the posts too. 😉 ) And many thanks to all you fine readers who took the time to stop by, I hope you’ve had fun reading through all the posts and maybe you discovered some thoughtful new blogs to follow, too!
This is my own entry for the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. I hope you enjoy!
When Buster Keaton went through the transition from silents to talkies, as all fans know it wasn’t smooth–he was talked into giving up his studio and moving to the fancy megastudio MGM, and basically had to adapt to being treated as an actor, not a filmmaker. His personal battles behind the scenes with alcoholism and his failing marriage are also well known to fans, and it’s safe to say that all of the above can…color our opinions of his MGM films (to put it mildly). Of the nine features Buster starred in from 1928-1933, the seven talkies in particular are often dismissed as inept embarrassments for someone who made so many silent classics.
So I guess this is my segue into saying: I’m now going to give mini reviews of all his MGMs!
To be clear, I’m going to examine some of the differences between the MGMs and his independent films but I’m also going to try to review them more objectively. Too often we Buster fans seek out the MGMs just to scrutinize every frame for evidence of inferiority to his silent pictures, gawking at the sad beatdown of our creative genius and basically wallowing in whatever misery we feel we can detect onscreen–not really watching them just as movies. This mindset’s hard to escape, it’s true, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the MGMs for what they were–popular films that were pretty similar to other popular films from the time.