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!
There are many legendary behind-the-scenes tales from early cinema, an era of dangerous stunts performed with the faintest shrugs at safety measures, and of stubborn trekking to remote location shoots where risk of frostbite–or heatstroke–or severe storms–was de rigueur. Authenticity was king, to the point of mania. Von Stroheim famously insisted on filming a pivotal scene from Greed (1924) in Death Valley, when temps soared to 120. Buster Keaton nearly drowned in a swift-moving river while shooting a sequence for Our Hospitality (1923). And the stories behind the difficult shoot of Ben-Hur (1925) could fill a whole article by themselves.
Nell Shipman’s adventures filming in the Canadian wilderness are a lesser-known but equally fascinating saga from early film history. A native of British Columbia, Shipman was a theater actress who was also passionate about animal welfare. She married Ernest Shipman when she was 18 (they would have a son named Barry), and they would move to Hollywood where Nell would write scripts and act for companies like Selig and Vitagraph. Having an adventurous spirit, Nell wanted to star in wintery adventure-themed films set in the “great white North” of the Canadian wilderness. Accordingly, Ernest set up the Canadian Photoplays Ltd. company in 1919 and they would trek to remote areas of Alberta to work on Nell’s film Back to God’s Country (1919)–notable today for being Canada’s biggest silent box office hit.
If you’d never seen a photo of Tod Browning and I showed you a couple portraits of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he was an average 1920s Joe, maybe someone who worked as an accountant or a store manager. Would you have ever guessed he was one of the legends of horror film whose name was practically synonymous with “grotesque”? That the gothic Dracula (1931) and the shocking Freaks (1932) were concocted by this somber man, who probably looked fifty ever since he was 25?
Yet a legend of horror he was, and given his attraction to mysterious themes it might be fitting that his conventional appearance was also bit of a head-scratcher. Lest you think his early life was equally conventional, his background was actually one of the most colorful in the business–indeed, the kind that he’d often give to characters in his own films. In Browning’s case, art was very much drawn from life.
Very few names in the theater are as legendary as that of Sarah Bernhardt, nicknamed “The Divine Sarah” by her legions of admirers. Born in 1844 to a high-powered French courtesan, she first started acting while in boarding school and continued to pursue acting on the advice of family friend Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny–the half brother of Emperor Napoleon III (quite a contact!).
Her rise to fame was swift and suitably dramatic for an actress who loved romanticism and grand gestures. Studies at the Paris Conservatory lead to joining the Comédie Française, which she left for less prestigious theaters after butting heads with another actress. While continuing to make a name for herself she befriended great writers, screenwriters and aristocrats, taking some as her lovers. At age 20 she gave birth to her only child, Maurice, rumored to be the son of Belgian Prince Henri de Ligne.
Today marks 100 years since the news broke about the infamous Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Even if you’ve never seen an Arbuckle film (or aren’t too sure what the comedian even looked like), you’ve probably heard about his “wild Labor Day party” that took place in a San Francisco hotel back in 1921. While the exact sequence of events is rather mysterious to this day, actress Virginia Rappe became ill at the party and passed away a few days later. An autopsy determined the death was due to a ruptured bladder and the resulting infection. Arbuckle, who apparently had been alone with her when she first became ill, was accused of having assaulted her in some way that lead to her death. Several sensational trials later he was acquitted, but his career would never be the same. Nor, you could argue, would Hollywood.
I’ll be going into more detail about this case in a later post, so for now, here’s some trivia about the scandal. It just might contradict what you’ve often heard! My main source is Greg Merritt’s thoroughly-researched Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood. He did a fine job digging into the details of the case, and while it’s a bit melodramatic in spots and his theory on what actually happened in room 1219 isn’t super persuasive to me, it’s head and shoulders above other books on the scandal (like The Day the Laughter Stopped, which is basically a novel).
Largely forgotten today, the boyish Charles Ray was once a bright Hollywoodland light. The most prominent actor to specialize in gosh-and-golly “hick” characters–with much-lauded touches of subtlety and pathos–Ray helped make the rural melodrama a much-loved genre of its own. And he may also have been influential in ways we wouldn’t guess today.
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.
While I’d originally hoped to put out two more posts, this is going to be the last one for Forgotten Comedians Month 2–it needed a bit more care. I hope you enjoyed following along! It was fun to have a “round two” of this theme month, so maybe it could become a recurring series…? I’d be down, just sayin’!
If you’ve been lurking around Silent-ology for awhile, you might’ve found my little bio for an apparently random bit player named Joe Bordeaux (sometimes spelled “Bordeau”). Why did I decide to write about this obscure person? Well, there’s a story involved. And a quasi-drinking game, of my own invention. I’ll explain.
Pictured in cop garb on the far left: our subject.
Have you ever had an actor who grew on you? Someone you really didn’t care for at first, but who finally won you over? For me, it was a comedian you may or may not have heard of: Al St. John, nephew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and a key player at the legendary Keystone Film Company.
Why didn’t I care for him? Well…
Let’s just say he was a little much. But only at first! …Let’s take a look. Continue reading →
Happy weekend everyone! In honor of Forgotten Comedians Month 2, I’m resharing this post from a few years back. I sure had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have fun reading it too!
Welcome, my friends, to the very first induction ceremony for our prestigious new Silent Comedy Mustache Hall of Fame! Some of the names of the following gentlemen may be familiar to you, while others have been obscured by the mists of time. But all have been judged worthy for one of the highest honors in all of screen comedy history: the eternal enshrinement of their contributions to pop culture within these sacred walls. I would like to thank the architect, Leopold Plumtree, for this magnificent structure, the first building of its kind to be shaped like a handlebar mustache.
In the modern mind, film comedies of the early 20th century are associated with three dominant tropes: cream pies, banana peels, and fake mustaches. While the first two cliches were not as ubiquitous as society may believe, there certainly was a rich crop of crepe mustaches glorifying movie screens across the globe. For bearing the finest of these enrichments of celluloid mirth, we are pleased to honor the following inductees: Continue reading →