“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

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Georges Méliès And The Féerie

There is much to love about Georges Méliès. He was a technical wizard, a delightful performer, and an artist whose gorgeous work can still inspire awe.  And charmingly, he was a man who believed in dreams. He captured many of them on the screen, one painted set at a time, and today they serve as reminders of an era more open to wonder.

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Méliès’s films have a knack for taking us out of our comfort zones in the most enchanting way possible. They’re so old-timey to our eyes that they could almost come from a different planet. At times, we have to remind ourselves to stop holding them at arm’s length.

But to filmgoers in Méliès’s own time, the filmmaker’s work was not only exceptional but also familiar. In fact, he was drawing upon a long history of theatrical enchantment–specifically, the French theater genre of the féerie. Continue reading

7 Silent Christmas Movies (From The Horse-And-Buggy Era)

Do you collect vintage Christmas decorations? Love singing vintage Christmas songs? Maybe even enjoy trying out vintage holiday recipes? Then how about taking the next step and trying out some very vintage Christmas films?

Exposure to forbidding vintage Santas is well worth the price.

I’m not talking about the familiar holiday staples like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life or the hallowed classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians–I’m talking about the very earliest Christmas films ever made, pre-dating our more commercialized era. Heck, they pre-date the widespread use of electricity. The discovery of penicillin. Even the Coca-Cola Santa ClausThese are holiday movies over a century old, from the literal horse and buggy era, and they are charming peeks into a long-gone world. Let’s start with: Continue reading

In Defense Of “The Big Four” Of Silent Comedy

There’s an old quote you may have heard, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “…In this world, nothing can said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to amend that: “…In this world, nothing can said to be certain, except death, taxes, and fans of silent comedy debating about the ranking of the Big Four.” (Or the “Big Three,” for the multitudes of you who haven’t made Harry Langdon an integral part of your lives yet.)

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There’s a reason Harry’s wiping away a tear.

General film enthusiasts take the informal-yet-widespread ranking of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as the all-time best silent comedians for granted (and more would include Harry if they would actually watch Harry, harumph), but for some time now the tide has been changing among silent comedy fans. It’s not uncommon to find arguments in favor of less emphasis on “The Big Four,” of adding or replacing a comedian or two, or even of ditching the ranking all together. Those in favor of the latter say there were lots of popular comedians back in the silent era, and furthermore, these unjustly overlooked folks could be just as funny as Lloyd or Keaton. Thus, the ranking is unfair and not even historically accurate. Right? Continue reading

Vamps! Your Great-Grandfather’s Femme Fatales

Today, let us extend a suitably theatrical nod toward the “vamp.” That wicked temptress of yesteryear, pale-skinned, alluringly dressed, leading respectable gentlemen to their doom. And don’t forget the copious amounts of kohl eyeliner, which made them appear like the Victorian-themed dream of a goth kid who fell asleep still clutching his dog-eared Edgar Allan Poe book.

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Whence came the vamp? Short for “vampire,” the word meant a female seductress with an almost supernatural ability to drain male victims not of their blood, but of their…life force. Or something like that. Ask someone from the 1910s to name a vampire, and they were just as likely to say “Theda Bara” as “Count Dracula.” If not more so. Continue reading

What Are The World’s Oldest Horror Movies?

Can you imagine a world without horror movies? Their tropes are so familiar–monsters with bloody fangs, screaming teens, and tired old jump scares–that it’s hard to imagine pop culture without them. Thanks to Halloween turning autumn into an extended celebration of all things spooky, in many ways the horror genre is part of life’s memories.

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As well as being Tim Burton’s reason for life.

But while there were macabre films in the silent era, people wouldn’t start using the term “horror” until Universal started releasing its famous monsters in the early 1930s. Before that, spooky films used to be lumped in under the banner of “mysterious” or “mystery pictures.” In the 1900s, at least. The “mystery” distinction might’ve mattered more to exhibitors than the audiences at your basic moving picture show, who probably just felt that some of the (very) short films in the program were more eerily entertaining than others.

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Or simply more pants-wettingly terrifying than others.

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Tiny Pennants, Satin Pillow Tops, And Other Early Movie Merchandise

Movie merchandise! Not only does it come in everything from smartphone cases to pajama pants, but in many cases it nets the studios more money than the films themselves. Global sales of Star Wars merchandise, for example, are tens of billions of dollars higher than the overall grosses of the films. (The Star Wars geek in me does not mind.)

While some licensing was done early on (Mickey Mouse comes to mind), the bloated merchandise juggernauts we’re familiar with weren’t really a “thing” until Star Wars: A New Hope. It kicked off the craze for action figures, lunch boxes, t-shirts, and so on to the point where Kenner had to issue IOUs for action figures in 1977. And Hollywood has never looked back.

“But weren’t Charlie Chaplin dolls a big thing back in the silent era?” you ask. While merchandising of popular characters and actors wasn’t done on the tremendous scale that it is today, there were various “novelties” that fans could collect in the ’10s and ’20s–often for only a few cents apiece. Continue reading

Learning To Love The Keystone Film Company

Greetings and welcome to…KEYSTONE MONTH!! (There are simply not enough exclamation points.) Let’s get this extended tribute to the comedy company started with some background and historic context (two of my favorite things!). 

Contents: Continue reading