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

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 be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to amend that: “…In this world, nothing can be 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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