The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!
–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show, Conestoga Magazine, 1907.
Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.
Not too long ago my fellow blogger Crystal, who runs the fine site In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, contacted me with an idea: How about we cohost a blogathon in honor of Silent Movie Day? Well well well, that sure sounds right up my alley.
“Wait, ‘Silent Movie Day’? Is that a real thing>” you ask. Why yes, it certainly IS a real thing! Just this past January, Chad Hunter, executive director of Video Trust and director of the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society, archivist Brandee B. Cox of the Academy Film Archive, and archivist Steven K. Hill of the UCLA Film & Television Archive all put their heads together and decided to create a National Silent Movie Day. Described simply as “a day to celebrate and enjoy silent movies,” it will be held on September 29. And it won’t be celebrated just this year, but every year! As its founders wrote:
Anyone can participate! Ask your local cinema to show a silent picture with live music; watch a silent movie on a streaming platform or on disc; write a blog or an article for your local newspaper; read a book about your favorite silent movie star; or create a podcast. Use your imagination and post on your social media on September 29 to show how you celebrate the day. This is our moment as silent movie fans, academics, programmers, and newcomers to share our mutual love and appreciation for this unique period in motion picture history. It is also an opportunity to rally around surviving silent pictures that are still in need of preservation.
So in honor of this brand-new rival of Easter and Christmas, Crystal and I are hosting a one-day Silent Movie Day Blogathon–and all bloggers are invited!
One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”
99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”
You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.
Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson–whose name is basically synonymous with “glamour”–had an endearingly humble start in the 1910s as a star in Mack Sennett shorts. The petite actress was paired with the equally petite Bobby Vernon in a number of successful films like The Danger Girl (1917) and Teddy at the Throttle (also 1917)–and yes, they sometimes shared top billing with Teddy the Sennett Dog.
Pretty different territory from the tuxes-and-ballgowns dramas Gloria later made with Cecil B. DeMille! Yes, as you’ve no doubt heard, the actress that would one day earn millions and pose in furs and jewels got her start as a frolicking Bathing Beauty in slapstick films, running around the beach in various striped, ruffly, puffy (or all of the above) bathing suits. Oh, Hollywood history–the gift that keeps on giving.
Ah, but is that bit of Hollywood history really accurate? Gloria herself would always insist that she was never actually a Sennett Bathing Beauty–and stuck to her story like glue, too. (I believe the phrase “vehemently denied” has also been tossed around.) She once said, somewhat dramatically: “I was never a Sennett bathing beauty. Those glossies that sometimes turn up were pulicity stills that I unfortunately made as a favor when I had a free hour. And I’ve paid for it all of my life.”
To all my U.S. readers enjoying what I hope is a well-deserved, relaxing holiday–Happy 4th of July! And may all my readers have a fine summer weekend, preferably near a lake or seashore of some sort (says this writer from a state accurately nicknamed “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” 🙂 ). Cheers!
If you love film history, you’ve probably heard that the dapper French comedian Max Linder is credited as being the first “name on all the posters” screen star. No less a celebrity than Charlie Chaplin would refer to Linder as “the professor.” But aside from that, many folks’ exposure to Linder is likely confined to viewing a couple short comedies, seeing a few portraits and stills, and hearing that the man’s life ended in some kind of tragedy.
Surprisingly for such a seminal figure, Linder’s been the subject of very few books…but that’s starting to change. Recently released from BearManor Media, Lisa Stein Haven’s The Rise & Fall of Max Linder is helping to fill a noticeable gap in silent comedy fans’ book collections.
Well hello there, patient readers! Having recently gone through the endless job of packing everything I owned, the stress-filled excitement of moving it to a new place, and enduring the equally endless job of UNpacking everything I owned, I’m back in the Silent-ology saddle! Since starting this blog 8 years ago, I really haven’t taken a break longer than a couple weeks or so, so having a breather was probably overdue. But now my brain is starting to itch again, wondering why I haven’t been musing over obscure Essanay shorts or the merits of brilliantined hair. So may regular postings resume!!
As a token of my appreciation for how nice y’all are to keep dropping by, here is a genuinely fascinating 1930 article from the French magazine Pour Vous. A Damfino (can’t recall who, sadly–if it was you, let me know!) found it on the fine site La Belle Equipe, which had originally shared it in 2016 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Buster’s passing. The fullest of credit goes to La Belle for making it available–and for clipping the images, too. Thank you, thank you! Merci!
As you can see, it is part of a series published in the fall of 1930. The other pieces are fun too but mostly recount Buster’s familiar life story. This particular piece, however, caught my eye. It seems to be relying on previous interviews with Buster and the Talmadge sisters taken in Santa Monica, along with the author’s glowing impressions of Buster and his appeal. Despite being published in 1930, there’s nothing to indicate that Buster was no longer an independent filmmaker at this point.
The English translation is Google’s doing, which created some…odd turns of phrase, so please note that I did touch up a sentence or two. You’ll see that the style of the piece as a whole is quite gushingly poetic–the French adored them some Buster. You can read the original French or see Google’s original translation here. Enjoy!
Memories Of Buster Keaton (part 5) by John D. Williamson
In what condition does Buster attend the presentation of his films?
PUBLISHED IN POUR VOUS ON SEPTEMBER 11, 1930
What more will I tell you about BusterKeaton’s career? Specific facts? You know them. Since Buster Keaton rose to fame, you’ve seen all of his movies. These films of such a sure comic character were great events in our hero’s life. He lived for them. He thought about them all day. He dreamed about them at night.
Nathalie Talmadge told me that when he prepares a film, Buster sleeps only a light sleep cut off by confusedly whispered words, gasps and grunts. Sometimes he gets up, goes out into his garden, whistles a step, comes back to bed, gets up, drinks a whiskey and soda, and wanders around the house all night chasing the comic idea, the invincible “gag” that is missing in his film. When he has found it, whatever the hour, Buster wakes the whole household, turns on all the phonographs and performs in front of the whole family the “gag” or the scene he has been looking for. It is not by boasting. Rarely was a man less marked by the histrionic’s faults than this simple man endowed with all the virtues of childhood. Showing his latest find–is it not the gesture of a child who ignores intellectual selfishness and wants everyone to share in its joys? It is the poetic side of this character that I would like to put before your eyes.
Buster still thinks he is on the verge of entering a fairytale world. He is on the same level as the fairies. When spotting the most mundane office door, he always wonders if it will not give him access to a world entirely different from ours. At any time of day or night, he is ready to find adventure and the unknown. If he had not lived in the world of theater and cinema, which allows every escape into the imagination, without a doubt he would have been one of those heroic daredevils who, in the columns of newspapers, share the best spots with criminals and earthquakes. He always has some chimera in mind. Traveling to the center of the earth, exploring the moon by plane or shell, and communicating with Mars are his hobbies.
Self-taught, he forged a culture more scientific than literary, but curious, abundant and varied. Were you the most competent specialist in the matter, you could not teach him anything about Vaucanson’s automata and the dozen cosmogonies that men have invented to explain the inexplicable birth of worlds. He certainly ignores the achievements of Tamerlan and the quarter pound of Rabelais, but he does know the latest hypotheses on the constitution of the material and knows by heart the names of all the champions of boxing, swimming, tennis, baseball, and high jump.
A man of today, as you can see, with a culture that is too clearly scientific but who knows how to supply it with an impetus, a freshness of imagination which our contemporaries so often lack. Add to that a strong penchant for philosophical readings (Schopenhauer, Aristotle, David Hume), and you will have a fairly complete and in no way flattered intellectual portrait of the “clown” Joseph Francis Keaton.
Do not imagine from this description that our Buster is a sort of powdery scholar who deigns, from time to time, to come out of his folio to put on the livery of the comic and earn his living, with the thought in the back of his mind that he is prostituting his dignity. Nothing is further from him. I showed him playing alone, at daybreak, on the beach in Santa Monica, with shells, which represent actors; I told you about his nocturnal nervousness when he was preparing a film.
All this should give you an idea of the seriousness with which he considers his art. And all this is nothing. You have to have seen Buster Keaton after he showed one of his new films to understand his passion for cinema.
Twenty-four hours in advance, he is sick with anguish. He doesn’t eat anymore. He withdraws from his wife and children and talks about abandoning the studios forever if his film is not successful. He is already making plans, decides to invest his fortune in this or that business, offers Natalie a trip to China, etc. The time for the presentation finally arrives. Buster goes to the small room next to the studio where the finished films are shown, shakes hands with his friends as if he is leaving them forever, and sits down in the armchair reserved for him as if it was an electric chair.
During the projection, he does not breathe a word. Upon leaving, he escapes congratulations, runs away, disappears. But then, he goes to see his friends one by one. He begs them to tell him the truth, however “appalling” it may be to him. He does not want to believe them when they tell him that he has never done anything better and is not reassured until after the film has been shown in public. The total support of the spectators, the praises of the critics give him calm and sleep. It was then that he began to worry about his next film.
That is Buster Keaton. If, with these few notes, I did not know how to make you love him, do not doubt it is because I am the most proud fool who has ever walked this earth. In this terrible scenario, all I would have to do is apologize to you and advise you to go see my friend in one of his many incarnations. If my little papers had brought just one more spectator to Buster Keaton, I would consider myself satisfied.
John D. Williamson
A gem, yes? The description of Buster being so deeply, passionately invested in his films–and so nervous about them being good!–really rings true to me. Might that, perhaps, explain Buster’s shelving of The High Sign? He must’ve felt so much pressure behind his first solo release, especially on the heels of working with the world-famous Arbuckle. No doubt he felt that it had to be perfect, and when the idea for One Week came along–well, you can understand why he put the first film aside.
Bonus content! If you’re curious about that Santa Monica beach reference, here’s the relevant excerpt from part 4, published September 4 1930:
“The next morning, at daybreak, I went down to the beach. There was no one there yet. However the front cabin of Keaton, a bathrobe was lying. I looked towards the sea. Far away, a black dot was moving slowly. He was approaching the shore. Soon I could recognize the daring morning swimmer. It was BusterKeaton . I could observe him without being seen. So I did not move. BusterKeaton got back on his feet, snorted, dried himself off, and soon began a little job that seemed extremely mysterious to me. On a small rectangle of sand carefully flattened and strictly delimited by pebbles, he had arranged seashells which he was looking at with a deeply absorbed air. Every now and then he would move one and fall back into his deep meditation.
“I approached without making a sound. I was able to get close to Buster without his noticing my presence. Suddenly, impatiently, muttering a curse, he dispersed with a punch the mysterious assembly of shells. He stood up and found himself face to face with me.
“‘What the devil were you doing there?’ I asked him.
“‘I was working on my next film,’ he replied. ‘There is a scene that I can’t quite see. See, you understand, see how I see you there. This is why I use these little shells which represent actors in this rectangle of sand which represents the “set” of the studio. This is how I work on all my films, with shells, pieces of paper, coins…‘ A man who gets up so early and work so hard could not fail.”
These snippets of Buster are like puzzle pieces, each one revealing a bit more of who he was and how he thought about things. Although as Eleanor Keaton said, we may never fully “know” Buster–but we fans just can’t help giving it a try.
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring event, the Hidden Classics Blogathon! Silent-ology is proud to take part alongside so many excellent film blogs, and on such a good topic, too. Please follow the link above to read my fellow writers’ contributions! And don’t forget to leave comments–we bloggers love comments like Keystone Kops loved pratfalls.
When I say “Cecil B. DeMille,” you probably picture Biblical films with men in robes giving solemn speeches and loads of colorful spectacle. Would you be surprised to know that in the 1910s most audiences heard “DeMille” and probably pictured ballgowns and romantic triangles?
He may be known for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) today, but from the late 1910s to the early 1920s DeMille was associated with fluffy “society” comedy-dramas. Yes, the same man that Kevin Brownlow described thusly: “Commanding absolute loyalty from his staff, he directed as though chosen by God for this one task.” These dramas tended to have the aforementioned lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum) and exquisitely-tailored tuxes. Scenery might include raucous parties or impractically huge sunken baths. DeMille delighted in adding various “rich people” toys like fancy Victrolas or plush couches with hidden bars in the armrests. Gloria Swanson couldn’t just walk over and answer the phone–she would have to be sitting at a pretty carved wooden desk and take the phone out of a little cupboard on top.
While many of these trinket-cluttered fantasies were considered superficial even back then, they’ve aged into delightfulness today. The “edgy” fashions seem charmingly bizarre, and characters contend with various social annoyances that are sometimes endearingly quaint. There’s usually more of that universal human nature than meets the eye, too, even if it was livened up by an inexplicable Babylonian fantasy sequence or two. I wholeheartedly champion every frame of these films, from scenes of Bebe Daniels perfuming her lips or Wallace Reid destroying a drawing room in righteous anger right down to the last shot of a checkered, bead-bedecked bathing suit. At least, I think that was a bathing suit. Or was it a negligee…?
It’s a tough call, but my favorite early DeMille is probably Why Change Your Wife? (1920), one of my go-to silents for those nights when I just need to kick back with some cheesy popcorn and relax. Starring a young Gloria Swanson, the squeaky-clean matinee idol Thomas Meighan, and a flirty Bebe Daniels, its tale of marital distress is handled with plenty of light, cheeky humor (especially in the title cards).
Swanson plays the prudish Beth, who nags her husband Robert about becoming more cultured and “improving his mind.” Robert himself (played by Meighan) can’t understand why Beth insists on dressing so frumpily and longs for her to be a carefree “sweetheart” again. Hoping to add some pizazz to their relationship, he goes to a fancy lingerie store to buy her a new negligee. There he meets Sally, the store’s va-va-voom lingerie model, who recognizes him as an old acquaintance she once had a crush on.
When Robert’s present of a tissue-thin, elaborately-beaded negligee (complete with a headdress!) is rejected by the horrified Beth, he decides to secretly go on a date with the fun-loving Sally. Sally is all too happy to pursue him, leading to matters going too far and Robert having regrets. Unfortunately for him, Beth finds out about the affair and divorce quickly follows. But matters don’t end there–Beth overhears gossip about her failed marriage, insinuating that her prudishness and frumpy clothes were the problem. Incensed, she decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what people want to see, then by golly she’d get a new wardrobe and show them all! And perhaps she can win Robert back in the process…
Parts of the plot haven’t aged quite like a fine wine, but I bid you to consider that the remainder of the film involves lots of “extreme” fashion, an unfortunate slip on a banana peel, a catfight, and a deeply serious artiste in the world’s most ridiculous male bathing suit. In other words, it’s a film I’d say has far more plusses than minuses, my friends.
Adolph Zukor once said, “DeMille didn’t make pictures for himself, or for critics, he made them for the public. He chose stories if he thought the public might like them. He was a showman to his smallest finger.” Indeed, DeMille’s films of this period were sometimes criticized as superficial, or just plain silly. But he released hit after hit, filling his dramas with scandalous intrigues and sunken bathtubs to his heart’s content.
I have to say, at the end of a tough day there’s certain old films that always hit the spot. Keaton films. Chaplin shorts. Anything by Keystone. And Why Change Your Wife? is on that list. Great performers, great costumes, drama, humor, escapism, and plenty of cheese–those late Edwardian DeMilles had a bit of it all.
And perhaps I’ll end with this generous observation by David O. Selznick: “You cannot judge DeMille by regular standards…As a commercial film maker, he made a great contribution to our industry.”
Howdy everyone! It’s been longer than usual since my last post, but for happy reasons–I’m moving soon, and thus any spare time has been devoted to sorting/cleaning/preliminary packing. So you might say that a sabbatical was in order. I’ll admit that the rest of this spring might have to be lighter on posts too, but a new theme month’s in the works for this summer and a possible blogger event is coming this September. So keep Silent-ology on your “pop in now and then” list, my friends!
One of the best-loved films from the 1920s is certainly Buster Keaton’s masterwork The General (1926). Fans are very familiar with the stories behind it–how it was filmed up in sleepy little Cottage Grove, Oregon, how the risky train stunts were pulled off, how the famous train crash into the river was orchestrated, and so on.
While researching an upcoming column on The General for Classic Movie Hub (a slight plug, but it is relevant), I had the happy opportunity to look through some behind-the-scenes photos. I knew a bunch were in circulation, but the more I searched the more kept popping up. There were even a few I swear I hadn’t seen before, chilling on Pinterest as if they were just any other photos or something. Many were on my friend Sara Zittel’s board–credit where credit is due!
So I thought we’d look at a few of them today, to get a fuller picture of what it was like to film The General back in that summer of 1926. It was a much more public event than we might realize!