Thoughts On: “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912)

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 spring blogathon, Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. A warm welcome to any new readers–feel free to have a look around Silent-ology!

The first intertitle of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) starts with four words: “New York’s Other Side.” Director D.W. Griffith wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but these words were ushering in the new genre of the “crime drama”–as well as its offspring, the gangster picture and film noir.

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The 18-minute Biograph short wasn’t the first to depict crime, of course (a number of early films did, such as A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police, 1905), but it’s the best and earliest surviving prototype of a gangster film. All the familiar notes are there: the introduction to the “dark underbelly” of a city, the charismatic crime leaders, the tough dames, and the crowded, rundown neighborhoods. The hardboiled gang members slinking through deserted alleyways and Lillian Gish’s character giving Elmer Booth a disdainful slap all have their echoes in film noir. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Son of the Sheik” (1926)

This is the final day and final post of Sheik Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Roaring Twenties sheik culture, and thank you kindly for stopping by! And I’m looking forward to what posts the spring and summer will bring (hint: a trip’s on the way!).

In 1926, Rudolph Valentino’s stardom was at its height. At the young age of 31, the Italian screen idol’s name was known around the world, there were several box office successes under his arm, and women adored him so passionately that public appearances often ended with his hat being stolen and buttons torn from his coat. Today, we look at portraits of this near-mythical figure dressed to tailored perfection with the light shining off his patent-leather hair, and wonder what thoughts were behind that meditative gaze. Perhaps he would surprise us–a few months before appearing in what would be his final film, The Son of the Sheik, Valentino spoke frankly about his romantic image: “The whole thing is false and artificial. You can’t go on and on with it…One appears to be what others desire, not what one is in reality.”

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Be that as it may, in The Son of the Sheik Valentino proved that he could, indeed, “go on and on with it,” at least for one last time. Five years after appearing in his iconic role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (1921), he agreed to appear in the film’s sequel–despite his dislike of being pigeonholed as a “sheik.” Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro films had brought sequels into vogue, and the fans, naturally, had been clamoring for more desert romances. And perhaps Valentino also agreed to the film since this time he could show his range–even having a dual role. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Sheik” (1921)

Throwback time! This post was originally written for the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon hosted by Movies Silently a few years back.  I’m dusting it off for you since you can’t have a Sheik Month without The Sheik itself. (Plus, this article was really fun to write.) Hope you get a kick out of it!

When I was but a wee silent film newbie, I discovered there were far more old films available on YouTube and Netflix than I’d thought. Innumerable classics of early master filmmakers, such as Intolerance, Greed, Battleship Potemkin and The Last Laugh were all awaiting me, holding within their hallowed reels the potential to unlock within my brain a renewed appreciation for film artistry, and the ability to view early 20th century history through fresh eyes. So what did I do first?

Why, sit myself down with a bag of cheesy popcorn and watch The Sheik, of course!!

“Yesssssssssss.”

Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Chaplin” (1992)

With the biopic Stan and Ollie now in theaters (although not playing anywhere near me, sadly) I thought I’d take a look at one of the more well-known silent star biopics, Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin. Most old movie fans seem to love it. As for me? Well, read on!

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Biopics are a dicey genre. How do you, say, capture a legendary talent from a century ago and showcase him to modern audiences, especially if many of them (likely) haven’t seen one of his films? Naturally, an overview of his entire career is a lot to ask–after all, there were tons of personal and professional events packed into those decades, and it would be tough to do justice to all of them.

Well, Richard Attenborough saw your reservations, and decided to raise you a busy tour throughout the entire life of Charlie Chaplin, ups and downs and all. And if you ask classic film fans about this biopic today, most seem to think it’s the best–why, it has great performances! Moving moments! It’s a fascinating, touching experience! It’s the bee’s knees to most folks, is what I’ve gathered.

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As you’re suspecting, I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm towards the 2 1/2 hour film, nor do I exactly understand why so many fans accept it so uncritically. There’s plenty I do like about it, but too much of it is bothersome to be a definitive look at the great comedian’s story–in my humble opinion. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018)

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
–From “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon

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After four years of the extended commemoration, we’ve reached the very tail end of World War I’s centennial (not counting 2019’s recognition of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles–don’t worry, WWI buffs, I haven’t forgotten). So it’s fitting that in these final days of 2018, the new war documentary They Shall Not Grow Old should be in theaters (limited numbers of screenings and all).

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

What’s also fitting, in my opinion, is that Peter Jackson is at its helm. He’s proved in the past that with care and preparation he can churn out stunning works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which has a practically transcendent effect on me to this day–by the way, that Hobbit trilogy doesn’t exist). They Shall Not Grow Old is an excellent addition to his filmography, and is certainly a milestone within the genre of war documentaries. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Peter Pan” (1924)

Since the Christmasy month of December seems like a fine time to watch fairytale films, here’s a look at the first film adaptation of one of our most beloved children’s stories. (And speaking of the holiday season, did you know that J.M. Barrie’s original play was meant to be performed during Christmas time? And did you know the earliest official Peter Pan merchandise was a set of Christmas crackers authorized by Barrie in 1906?)

I’ve always had a soft spot for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan tales. Like countless others I grew up with the 1953 Disney film (and practically memorized it), but I first encountered Barrie’s writing in an excerpt from his novel The Little White Bird. This excerpt was part of a lushly-illustrated anthology of children’s literature that my grandparents kept around when I was little. They always knew that at some point–usually during the dinner parties they used to host–I would trot over to the bookshelf, pull out the book, and pore over all those pictures as the adults chatted over their pre-dinner drinks.

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In time, of course, when I was old enough to read “chapter books” (do you remember when your elementary school friends began bragging that they could read “chapter books”?), I started pouring over the actual stories, too. The Little White Bird excerpt came with an introduction that has fixed itself in a corner of my imagination ever since I first read it: “Many of us know about [Peter]…through stage plays, motion pictures, and television. But there is an earlier Peter, a somewhat different Peter Pan…” Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Soldier Man” (1926)

To say that the gentle, baby-faced, cartoon-character-come-to-life Harry Langdon is not an obvious pick for a World War I-themed film might seem like a huge understatement. But funnily enough, there was something about the sight of Langdon’s innocent clown blundering through shell-pitted battlegrounds that worked. Was it the contrast, which was so stark that it became funny? Did the “Little Elf’s” bewilderment echo the disillusionment many folks had felt during those stressful war years?

Harry soldier man crouching

In any case, Langdon would use WWI gags a bit more often than most clowns, in the short All Night Long (1924), the feature The Strong Man (1926), and the three-reeler Soldier Man (1926). Soldier Man in particular seems to get overlooked, which is a shame–many of the scenes and gags are certainly what I would call “classic Harry.” Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Big Parade” (1925)

This is the last post of WWI in Film Month. Many thanks to all who’ve been following along the last few weeks! This subject could easily fill years of blog posts all by itself. September we’ll be back to “normal,” but I know I’ll continue studying about World War I in the years to come. It was the game changer of the 20th century, without a doubt.

On this day back in 1918, the Battle of the Scarpe ended, and Bailleul, France was retaken by the British. Armistice Day was only two and a half months away.

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By 1925, the Great War had been over for seven years. No one back then dreamed it would one day be the “first” World War. Millions of people had mourned their dead, and countless wounds both literal and figurative had been slowly healing. But the scars were deep and permanent, even as the world moved on to the prosperity and gaiety of the 1920s.

By 1925 the frenzy of the 1910s anti-Hun propaganda was a strange, fading memory (although its effects on German Americans were long lasting). With the battles long over and the cities and villages of Europe slowly repairing themselves, people were able to step back and look at the Great War with more objective eyes. Director King Vidor was one of those people, and the result was his magnificent drama The Big Parade.

His timing turned out to be perfect, for The Big Parade would be one of the biggest hits of the entire silent era, its box office gross second only to The Birth of a NationContinue reading

Thoughts On: “Hearts of the World” (1918)

This is a repost of the piece I wrote for the WWI in Classic Film blogathon, which I cohosted with Movies Silently a few years back.  (Hopefully I caught any 4-year-old typos!) I’m still pleased with it, although Current Me probably would’ve added more info on how many battle scenes Griffith had to stage, since feature-worthy combat footage was very difficult to get. FYI, I’ve since discovered that there is indeed a better print of Hearts of the World out there, although for whatever reason it’s not available on DVD (yet!). 

On this day back in 1918, the Second Battle of Noyon began, one of the many battles of the Hundred Days Offensive (which would ultimately end the war). 

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By 1917, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. Europe was reeling from the ever-increasing death tolls and relentless destruction of cities, villages, and farmlands in France and Belgium. The scale of the war, involving all the nations with the most economic power at the time, truly deserved the phrase “unlike anything the world had ever seen.”

The U.S. had managed to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which was starting the leave the more battered European nations at their wits’ end. At some point in the winter of 1916 and 1917, the British War Office Cinematograph Committee decided to contact the one person who they felt could change the minds and emotions of the American people…none other than D.W. Griffith, who had recently completed Intolerance. Propaganda films were common at the time, and the Committee reasoned that Griffith, King of Filmmakers, would be certain to turn out an excellent propaganda film that would inspire Americans to finally join in to help defeat Germany.

Image result for hearts of the world lillian gish Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Shoulder Arms” (1918)

On this day back in 1918, the French cruiser Dupetit-Thouars was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and the Second Battle of the Marne ended.

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When Chaplin decided in the spring of 1918 that the setting for his next comedy would be the trenches of the Great War, many of his friends and coworkers were concerned. How could anyone insert slapstick routines into such a brutal conflict? How could that possibly be done in good taste?

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As it turns out, they needn’t have worried. The idea was, after all, in the capable hands of Charlie Chaplin itself. The resulting Shoulder Arms (1918) turned out to be both a great success in its time and a classic comedy for us today. Continue reading