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.
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.
UPDATE: Day 2 of the blogathon has begun! Be sure to check out any new posts, more are trickling in!
And just like that, our annual Busterthon is back–for year eight!!
And I’m proud to say that we have a great turnout this year and a wide range of topics–participants always do an amazing job, and this year’s no exception. So find your coziest chair, make a pot of your favorite tea, and please enjoy!
Bloggers: Please send me the link to your post whenever it’s ready today or tomorrow. (Many thanks if you already have!) I’ll be updating periodically throughout the blogathon. Don’t forget that I’ll be holding a drawing for all participants, the winner receiving a copy of the fabulous new James Curtis biography Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. The drawing is scheduled for March 16.
Readers: Drop by often to see the latest posts–and don’t forget that we bloggers adore comments!
Wondering what the previous ‘thons were like? Here are the links to the First,Second, Third,Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Annual Buster Blogathons–whew! Just in case you were hoping to find something to read about Buster…!
to everyone who participated in our Silent Movie Day blogathon!
And I know lots of people will still reading through them in the next few days, too–plenty of folks have been stopping by and that’s pretty darn exciting!
I wanted to alert everyone that some exciting things have been happening this Silent Movie Day–a commemorative plaque for the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley was dedicated yesterday, thanks to the efforts of historian John Bengtson and all the fans who donated to his campaign. Isn’t it beautiful? I can’t wait to see it in person!
Also, Hollywood FINALLY has a proper film museum, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which officially opened today. It only took a few decades, but it’s finally here, folks! Historian Mary Mallory talks about this longtime work in the making in her new post here.
And one final thing, on a more sober note. I just heard that Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlogII, who contributed to our blogathon, has passed away. I’ve known Steve through Facebook for quite a few years, we shared a love of old movies and especially our great comedians. He was always very supportive of my silent film blogging and I could always count on him to be the first to sign up for a blogathon! He and his jokes and his many well-written classic movie posts will be greatly missed. Please check out his site here, and maybe bookmark it to visit now and then–I’m sure he’d appreciate it:
“National Silent Movie Day is an annual celebration of silent movies, a vastly misunderstood and neglected cinematic art form. We believe that silent motion pictures are a vital, beautiful, and often powerful part of film history, and we are united in the goal to advocate for their presentation and preservation.”
Couldn’t agree more! So let’s get to it.
Bloggers: Please send us the link to your post whenever it’s ready today–if you signed up with me, send me the link, if you signed up with Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, send it to her. Our rosters will be updated periodically throughout the blogathon.
Readers: Please drop by often today to check out the latest posts–and don’t forget that we bloggers live for comments!
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!
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.”
Because Roscoe and Al always supported their good friend Buster–and I’m sure they appreciate these blogathons too!
Well my friends, another successful blogathon has come to a close! We had a beautifully curated selection of posts this year, and I extend both an official high five and a hearty THANK YOU to each of you fine bloggers who participated! Your time and efforts are so appreciated.
High fives go out to all the readers who stopped by, too! And if you’re new here, feel free to visit again–I cover everything about the silent era from soup to nuts!
According to hallowed tradition, I held my Very Official Cloche Hat Drawing for this year’s blogathon participants. This year the prize is the essential book Buster Keaton: Interviews, a must for any Buster fan’s personal library. (I praise it from personal experience!)
Here’s the hat waiting patiently for me to draw a name:
And that name is:
Congratulations, Once Upon A Screen, we’ll be in touch! If you see this post before hearing from me, feel free to contact me on my “About Silent-ology” page so we can email each other.
And that’s a wrap! See you at next year’s ‘thon, folks–year 8!
This is my own post for the Seventh Buster Keaton Blogathon. Enjoy, and please check out all the other wonderful posts, too!
When you love a performer from classic Hollywood, it’s not uncommon to make little “pilgrimages” to the places where they used to live and work: studios, filming locations, former homes, gravesites, and, of course, their hometowns. Seeing where your favorite star grew up can give you insight into what shaped them and their future career. And, of course, it’s just plain fun–some towns are tourist destinations simply by for being the hometown of a beloved performer.
But what of a performer like Buster Keaton? Since he was the child of travelling medicine show performers, his birthplace was a matter of happenstance. Joe and Myra Keaton were travelling through the tiny town of Piqua, Kansas (today its population hovers a little above 100) when Buster arrived. Their stay was necessarily short, so while tiny Piqua had the honor of being Buster’s birthplace it would be a stretch to call it his hometown. (Fun fact: in the 1960s Buster and his wife Eleanor did stop there briefly while they were on his State Fair tour!)
But despite an upbringing spent travelling from theater to theater, there was a spot on earth that Buster considered his true hometown: Muskegon, Michigan. A mid-sized town with the vast waters of Lake Michigan along one side and sparkling Lake Muskegon along another, the Keatons chose it for their summer home in the 1900s. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. In his biography on Buster, written not long before Buster passed away, Rudi Blesh wrote: “Those long-ago summers must have been, in a special way, one of the wonders of his life. Whenever he speaks of them he seems to be turning on the lights of a faraway stage.”
Well well–it’s a little under two weeks until the Buster Keaton Blogathon returns for a seventh year in a row!
If you’re a participant, know that I’m really looking forward to seeing your posts! Every year our blogathon has such an excellent selection of thoughtful writing and really stellar research. I know year 7 will be awesome as well.
If you haven’t signed up and are interested in joining, go right ahead! I’ll even accept new participants on the days of the blogathon, because why not. The more the merrier!
Important update: Every year I hold a little drawing for blogathon participants. This year I’ve decided to give away a copy of Kino’s lovely DVD of Our Hospitality (1923), one of Buster’s classic features. Don’t you love that cover?
12 days to go, everyone–happy blogging!!
Silent-ology | Buster’s childhood summers In Muskegon, Michigan