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!
The silent era boasted an incredible number of stars, from sweet ingenue types to “grotesque” comedians to dashing heroes. But not all stars were fashionable flappers or svelte sheiks–some were more on the…hairy side. Or even came on four legs. Yes, I’m talking about the animal stars–could you tell?–and there was a virtual zoo of them back in the day.
A couple stories circulating in the media recently had levels of ridiculousness so high (admittedly an easy bar to reach nowadays) that they inspired me to explore a topic near and dear to my heart: how silent films can help us understand history. Better. Much better, since it helps to, you know, see history, at least from the 1880s onwards. And I want to show how a deeper understanding of history isn’t just some neat perk to help add more trivia nuggets to your noggin, but something that can have huge real-word ramifications–especially today.
Now, I like discussing overall societal trends in this blog in a generalized fashion, but I usually avoid specific news stories. Partly because the blog doesn’t need to get super dated (my blog topic’s already dated, thank yew very much), and mainly because I really don’t feel like bringing the soul-sucking, fang-dripping, grinning, oozing specter of politics into my teensy corner of the blogosphere. That denizen of the Hellmouth can stay in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, okay–and besides, it’s infesting everything enough as it is. So while the following two stories are easy to discuss in a polarizing political fashion, they’re also very much related to general societal trends. I’ll allow it!
First up: the viral Cracker Barrel infographic-of-sorts–my apologies for the smattering of uncouth vernacular therein:
Can you believe Christmas is right around the corner? Somehow, time is still humming along. I’ve been keeping busy lately with cookie baking, making Christmas-y crafts, and of course getting a few Christmas cards sent out in time.
Which reminds me (great segue, eh?) did you know that back in the day actors used to place little Christmas greetings in the trade magazines? I’m guessing these were placed by publicity folks and meant as little “thank yous” to exhibitors, distributors and other people in the industry for a prosperous year–nothing wrong with fostering a little goodwill. They might be as simple as the words “Yuletide Greetings” along with the actor’s name, but some included a portrait or a small holiday-themed illustration. What’s also interesting is how most of these “cards” were placed in the December 24th-25th issues, or published around New Year’s. (The early 20th century U.S. didn’t generally have the weeks-long Christmas hype of today.)
I think these little greetings are pretty endearing, so let’s check out some examples! Here’s what a typical bunch looked like (you can click to see larger images, or right-click to bring them up in their own tab):
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: It has come to our attention that many in the classic film community–of which the silent film community is a small yet passionate subset–have been somewhat misinformed about a particular character trope of the early 20th century.
Namely, that upon viewing certain 1920s films with the promise of having “vampires” in their plots, the said movie watching experiences don’t appear to reveal any bloodsucking, cape-wearing, pasty-faced monsters from the grave.
This prompts various IMDb reviews to say: “So there’s definitely no vampires in this movie…” or, “The gal in this film was a piece of work, but definitely not a vampire.”
I may have mentioned my great love for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I try my darnest to attend every year (I also try my darnest to see every single showing–last year I finally succeeded!). Probably mentioned it once or twice…or fifty times. (They deserve frequent shoutouts!)
One of the many bonuses of this grand festival is their annual “Amazing Tales From the Archives” presentation, which is always free to attend and always full of interesting info on the exciting projects archivists are working on. The 2019 festival had one presentation that charmed my socks off: about Léon Beaulieu’s teeny tiny cinema flipbooks he manufactured for his unique 1890s “pocket cinematograph.”
Here’s something a little different–a magazine interview with that famed authoress of Three Weeks, that chooser of “It” girls, that grand dame of romance herself–Elinor Glyn! I wrote a piece on Glyn and her famed novel awhile back, and it’s been one of my favorite “Personalities” articles ever since.
There was a time when Glyn was considered the expert in the “moonlight and magnolias” type of love–and happily marketed herself as such. She had hair dyed “Titian red,” was rumored to travel with a tiger skin rug, and apparently coached Valentino in his romantic scenes. If you aren’t too familiar with this romance novelist-turned-screenwriter, Gloria Swanson’s fantastic description pretty much says it all:
She took over Hollywood. She went everywhere and passed her fearsome verdicts on everything. “This is glamorous,” she would say. “This is hideous,” she would say, as she baby-stepped through this or that dining room or garden party. People moved aside for her as if she were a sorceress on fire or a giant sting ray.
Haven’t done one of these posts in awhile! It’s time to poke through the ol’ antique fan magazines and see what they’ve been hiding for 90-100 years. Today, let’s focus on those artsy illustrations!
These charmers are from a two-page spread in the November 1923 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, called “Cut-Out Caricatures.” Well whaddaya know, this minimalist style just happens to be all the rage today:
So that’s Nita Naldi, Buster, Richard Barthelmess, Norma Talmadge, Mary, and Doug, respectively. Let’s not forget Bull Montana, because I almost did:
A version of this post was originally written for my Classic Movie Hub column Silents are Golden. Hope you enjoy!!
When Rudolph Valentino became a 1920s superstar thanks to the megahits The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Sheik (1921), he basically changed the definition of “matinee idol” forever. Unlike many popular actors at the time, who tended to be steady, “regular guy” types, the young Italian often played characters with a dangerous edge and definite air of sensuality. Even today, it’s not hard to see why women became obsessed with him.
“Yuck”–said no woman ever.
Which might make you wonder: before Valentino, which leading actors were considered major heartthrobs? After all, when we list handsome silent film actors today, 1920s personalities like John Gilbert or Ramon Novarro will spring to mind–but who were the “hotties” of the Edwardian era?
MERRYCHRISTMAS, my friends! I sincerely hope you’re all having a fine holiday season, no matter where you may be.
You might notice that while Silent-ology goes all out on spooky film-viewing in October, it’s a bit quieter around Christmas. That’s because: A) Back in the silent era, Christmas wasn’t the commercialized extravaganza it is today–there really aren’t a ton of Christmasy silents to choose from, and B) December is a very busy month! So I tend to be more sparing in my Yuletide-themed posts, although I make sure to decorate Silent-ology appropriately.
Hold on, I’ll just put up a few more ornaments.
So! With that said, here’s a bit of festive Christmas reminiscing from Lillian Gish’s autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, where she occasionally looked back on holidays from her childhood. At times life was hard for Lillian, her sister Dorothy and their mother, especially since their father abandoned them when the girls were young. However, they did have fond memories of holidays past. Continue reading →