The famed genre of the 1930s gangster film left a strong mark on pop culture. Much like the western, it’s a uniquely American genre that’s entwined with both actual history and mythologizing. We all know its tropes: the shootouts, the booze smuggling, the style, the slang. And we know its classics: Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
But, like practically every trope in cinema, it all had its roots in the silent era, starting with simple police chase films, popular crime serials, short Biograph dramas, and eventually resulting in genre-defining works like Underworld (1927).
This February, Silent-ology will be taking a look at the earliest days of the gangster genre, from its vague origins in general “crime films” to its confident emergence at the beginning of the Great Depression. We’ll be looking at a few key films and personalities, and try to understand just where all the slang and natty suits came from.
I’ll be covering Silent-ology’s 9th (!) anniversary on February 2nd and then the series will begin. Please tune in as often as you like throughout the next month to see what’s new!
Many of you have seen it, a lot of you probably love it, and I think it’s safe to say that some of you find it…unsettling. Oh yes, it’s one of the most viral bits of Edwardian film footage in existence–the split-reel oddity Le Cochon Danseur (1907) that many of us simply know as The Dancing Pig.
First bursting into the Internet in the 2000s, it’s become a go-to all-purpose “check out this creepy old film” film. YouTube alone has dozens (and dozens) of copies of it, and GIFs of it float about generously on social media. There are memes. There’s fan art. There’s even Creepypastas. But aside from all this 21st century hullabaloo, it’s also been a film festival mainstay since the ’80s, when the late, great historian David Shepard had a copy of it struck from an original negative.
A version of this article was first published on Classic Movie Hub–I hope you enjoy it!
We’re all at least somewhat familiar with nickelodeons, the tiny 1900s-era theaters where patrons paid a nickel to take in a few films. And we all know that these quaint little storefronts evolved into the familiar neighborhood theaters and big city “movie palaces.” But not everyone knows exactly what nickelodeon-era motion pictures were like–aside from the usual Georges Méliès films, little clips of ladies dancing, and famous early works like The Great Train Robbery (1903).
So if you could travel over a century back in time and pop into the nearest nickelodeon, what films were you likely to see? The subjects were as endless back then as they are on YouTube today–everything from travelogues to comedies to military films to, yes, films of funny animals.
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:
Good heavens, it’s been awhile since I published a new post. The reason? It’s a little boring, actually–I had two articles for Elsewhere due on the exact same day, so the research/writing for that ate up all my time. But the good news is, during that research/writing process I found a little gem from a 1926 Motion Picture Classic that you guys might get a kick out of. It’s an article called “Them Were the Happy Days,” described as “The first of a series of articles about the pioneer days of the motion picture–before it became a highly specialized industry.”
Now, keep in mind, these are reminisces about films that were made a little over a decade prior (the author keeps mentioning “1910,” but his stories seem to come from about 1910-1915). It’s like us reminiscing about the dear, old, long-forgotten days of The Dark Knight and Gran Torino.Continue reading →
A version of this post was originally written for my Classic Movie Hub column Silents are Golden. Hope you find it an interesting weekend read!
Today Hollywood, California is one of the most famous places in the world. The thriving axis of moviemaking, for decades it’s drawn countless dreamers hoping to make it in “the industry.” Real estate up in its hills is bought and sold for millions. And, of course, it attracts perpetual hordes of tourists strolling its Walk of Fame or hoping for glimpses of celebrities in Beverly Hills.
But there was a time when this same bustling neighborhood of Los Angeles was a sleepy little stretch of hilly farmland ten miles east from the city, accessible only by a gravel road and populated by a few hundred people. Little did the residents of this quiet community know what vast changes were in store–especially once those “movies” came to town (as they would nickname early filmmakers, not knowing “movies” referred to films).
Post #1 of Soviet Silents Month is here! I hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating (and rather intense) area of film history!
Few things summarize our idea of Soviet silent films better than the opening of the 1968 restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). As a projector (audibly) sputters to life, through a swirl of artificial snow a bold white “1905” looms on the screen. Snow continues to swirl around a series of black and white illustrations of the 1905 Russian Revolution, showing masses of the working class squaring off against soldiers in wintery city squares. The music is bombastic–deeply dramatic. The screen fades to black. And then it’s filled with a rather wordy quote by–who else?–Vladimir Lenin.
A dramatic poster for Mother (1926).
You’re no doubt assuming I’m going to say that there’s more to Soviet silent films than government-approved propaganda–including 1968 imitations of government-approved propaganda. There were delicate dramas and rollicking comedies made in Russia just like everywhere else, it’s true. However, they were always released with a catch. For from the early 1920s onward every film in the USSR was squeezed through the sieve of government censorship, including American imports (which were wildly popular). Analysis of Soviet film must forever dance between admiration of the finest examples of its artistry, and recognition that much of that artistry was in service of communist propaganda–often willingly.
From October (1927)
And thus the history of Russia’s bold, futuristic, cutting-edge early cinema is a fascinating one, and well worth consideration. Few other nations would seize on a new form of expression as doggedly as the Soviet government. And few filmmakers would reach such heights of artistic achievement within such increasingly rigid confines, causing such a global superstar as Douglas Fairbanks to declare in 1926: “The finest pictures I have seen in my life were made in Russia. They are far in advance of the rest of the world.” Continue reading →
In October, the cinephile’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of German Expressionism. Accordingly, I thought we’d discuss an intriguing topic–those “bookend” scenes (otherwise known as a “frame story”) from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
If you haven’t seen Caligari, be forewarned now that this post discusses spoilers–nay, it depends on spoilers. So if you haven’t gotten around to watching one of the most important films of the 20th century, well…ya oughta! Continue reading →
In his day, British music hall veteran Billie Ritchie was a popular film comedian with a mighty suspicious resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Today, he might be best known as the hi-larious answer to a trivia question: Which obscure silent film comedian was kicked to death by an ostrich? Why, poor Billie of course! (Or maybe it was several ostriches–or maybe they bit him–the trivia question varies.)
This was taken years before the supposed attack, btw. Pictures and the Picturegoer, July 10 1915.
But maybe, like me, you’re wondering precisely how an ostrich-related injury could lead to someone’s death–a full two years after the fact, mind you. (Didn’t know about that time frame? Yup, it’s true.) And maybe you’re suspicious that the details about the ostriches vary so much–was the unfortunate Billie kicked or mauled by the savage birds? And how many birds were there? One or more than one? Since this is obviously is one of the most debated questions of the modern age, let us examine it more closely. Continue reading →
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.