Before the Nickelodeon: The Era of Travelling Moving Picture Shows

After conducting my official “pull names written on slips of paper out of my cloche-style hat” drawing for the copy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ’19 program, I’m happy to announce that the winner is:

jimmoore2017

Congrats, Jim! If you don’t hear from me first, you can contact me through the form on the About Silent-ology page. Once I have a mailing address I should be able to send it to you in the next few days. And now, my latest post (a version of this article has appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column):

We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful 1920s movie palaces complete with columns, statues and enormous lit-up marquees. And their ancestor, the nickelodeon, is fairly well known too–those small, crowded little theaters that charged a nickel to see the latest show. But before the late 1900’s heyday of the nickelodeon and even before the existence of Hollywood itself, many people first saw films at travelling motion picture shows.

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A Vitascope projector show at an existing theater.

These seem to have popped up in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. Descended from magic lantern shows, they were also similar to the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors to showcase their newly-patented cameras and projectors to genteel audiences. But the wonder of the moving picture couldn’t be contained in those staid lecture halls for long. To many enterprising men in the Victorian era (mainly gents were interested in this line of work), the novelty of cinema presented a unique and interesting way to make a living. Continue reading

Homme Fatales And Hair Grease: The Phenomenon Of The 1920s “Sheik”

Post #1 of Sheik Month is here! Hope you enjoy!

We’re all familiar with stereotypical 1920s flapper–the fun-loving, trendy young woman who loved Jazz, dancing, and all things “modern.” But arm in arm with the flapper was the 1920s sheik, their male counterpart. There’s plenty of discussion about flappers nowadays, but there’s comparatively little discussion about sheiks, and the sort of factors that lead to their place in pop culture.

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One of John Held Jr’s popular cartoons.

But “sheik culture” is an important piece of the Jazz Age puzzle. Its advent spurred numerous discussions about movie romance, masculinity and female desire. And its impact on American cinema was tremendous–in fact, you could easily categorize screen romance as B.V. (Before Valentino) and A.V. (After Valentino). Continue reading

The Thoroughly Lost Art Of The Title Card

A version of this article was originally written for Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on–you guessed it–silent films. Hope you enjoy!

When you think of jobs that have gone the way of the dodo, certain ones spring to mind right away: chimney sweeps. Switchboard operators. Bowling alley pinsetters. Organ grinders’ monkeys. Almost every flea circus ringmaster. Well, just imagine what it was like to have a career as a title card artist or title card writer in the late 1920s when talkies were coming in–it must’ve been pretty intense.

It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called–today we often call them “intertitles”) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled artform.

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Forbidden Fruit (1921)

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The Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day

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At the precise moment this post is going live, it is 11 a.m. in Belgium and France. This marks 100 years to the minute since World War I’s official ceasefire took effect at 11 a.m., November 11, 1918. After years of constant gunshots and shellfire, the final shots rang out in the same place they began–in Mons, Belgium. The last soldier to fall was American private Henry Gunther, who was killed by automatic fire in the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, France, at 10:59 a.m.

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Soldiers celebrating the end of fighting.

Millions had died from 1914 to 1918–far too many for our minds to comprehend, try though we might. And millions more died when the Spanish flu epidemic swept across the globe in 1918. But on that first Armistice Day, everyone allowed themselves to rejoice–to rejoice in the bloody struggle’s end, and perhaps to rejoice in life itself, fleeting as it was. Continue reading

From Pie Throwing To Polished Farce: How Silent Comedy Evolved In Under Two Decades

Say the phrase “silent comedy,” and instantly a host of clichés come to mind–pratfalls, silly mustaches, banana peels, wacky acting, and of course, pie throwing. (Although the latter wasn’t as common as we think).

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50% of silent comedy pies were in this film (maybe).

Of course, there’s more to the huge world of silent comedy than those clichés (not that we don’t love them). From the one-reel farces of Max Linder to the light comedies of John Bunny and Flora Finch to the epic scale of The General, a wide variety of films fit under the “laughmaker” label, and this is partly because there were distinct trends in comedy that evolved just as quickly as cinema did itself. Continue reading

The Great Chaplin-Pickford-Fairbanks Liberty Loan Tour Of ’18

On this day back in 1918, Bapaume, France was retaken by the British forces and the Second Battle of Noyon ended.

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You’ve watched clips of girls screaming at the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, and you’ve seen footage of the vast crowds at the original Woodstock. Maybe you’ve sighed, “Those were the days of true rockstars–man, that must’ve been exciting!” (Or maybe you sighed because you remember that time and wouldn’t mind reliving it). But that spirit of rockstardom was around earlier than the 1960s, or even the ’50s–many decades earlier, in fact. For if you ask me, few events would ever rock harder than the Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin United States tour for the benefit of the third Liberty Loan drive of 1918. Bear with me.

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Planning the Liberty Loan “route.”

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Silent Cinema And The Lasting Impact of World War I

This is the first post of WWI in Film Month, commemorating the Great War’s centenary.

On this day back in 1918, the Battle of Soissons in France ended with the Allies retaking Soissons, and Japan landed troops at Vladivostok, Russia.

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When the year 1914 dawned, few imagined it would be the game changer of the 20th century. Certainly the world had been rapidly evolving for some time, right before peoples’ eyes–transportation and communication had been accelerating, economies had been booming and entwining with other economies, and industrialization had been taking place on a huge scale. There was relative peace, most of the recent wars being smaller-scale conflicts. One such war was the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the first war filmed by a movie camera (wielded by the adventurous Frederic Villiers).

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A street in an Ohio city circa 1914.

For there had also been a rise in new art forms, most significantly, the language of cinema. Youth in 1914 were part of the first generation to grow up with moving pictures, and millions of those same youth would fight in the first major war to ever be captured extensively by moving picture cameras. Continue reading

The History (And Mythology) Of 1920s Flapper Culture

The first post of Flapper Month is here! Hope you enjoy!

Bobbed hair! Short skirts! Jazz! The Charleston! All I have to say is those few words, and right away your brain is lighting up and thinking, “Flappers!” It’s been so many decades since the Twenties that they’re almost here again, but to this day, perhaps no other cultural figure (of sorts) from the 20th century is as universally well-known–and well-liked–as the Jazz Age flapper.

Flappers dancing the Charleston on the edge, New York City, ca. 1920s

How could you not like gals who dance the Charleston on building edges?

We all know at least a smidge of 1920s history–a smidge which tends to be, shall we say, a bit vague. It’s usually trotted out like this: For many years the world was a sad glum place full of sad glum Victorians, who were compelled by an unseen force to wear starchy suits and uncomfortable corsets, and who frowned upon all things fun. Then, at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 1920, jazz music came trumpeting down from the sky, long locks of hair plopped to the ground to reveal newly-fashionable bobs, the bottom few inches of all women’s skirts just flew right off, and everyone loosened up their morals and ran off to the nearest bar to drink highballs.

I include a handy scientific illustration:

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What, you feel like a few details are missing? So do I. While it would take a heck of a lot of research to come to a truly thorough understanding of the era, let’s try to sort through the stereotypes and figure out why the world seemed to change so quickly from the horse-and-buggy days to the era of the Tin Lizzie. Continue reading

“Make Next Halloween Sane!” How 1920s Theater Owners Helped Curb Kids’ Vandalism

Now here’s an interesting peek into the history of this ghoulish time of the year. We take it for granted that “Halloween” = kids dressing up in costumes and going trick or treating. But for kids back during the silent era, Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you like old-timey spellings as much as I do) had far more emphasis on the “trick” than the “treat.”

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As well as the “terrifying.”

Trick-or-treating, descended from the “guising” tradition from Scotland and Ireland, didn’t become common until the 1930s. Before that, kids would still dress in costumes, but usually for Hallowe’en parties. And…mischief making.

This mischief often involved harmless pranks like soaping shop windows or more annoying feats like toppling people’s outhouses or opening gates to let out farmers’ cows. But some “goblins” took advantage of the night to vandalize peoples’ property, sometimes causing serious damage. Continue reading