I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
We’re all familiar with the Lumière brothers’ 50-second early film The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station (1895), which shows exactly what it says it does. Of all the early films screened for fascinated audiences back in the 1890s, Arrival of the Train has become the most legendary. For as we’ve all heard, when people saw that train on the screen steaming into the station for the first time–looking like it was about to roll right off the screen before vanishing outside the frame–the experience was so new and unexpected that they panicked, even fleeing the theater.
It’s easy to see why everyone loves this story. We can’t help smiling at those naïve early filmgoers, frightened to death of a simple moving image, in an age when three-hour action blockbusters are the order of the day and toddlers know how to watch movies on iPads. Just imagine if those delicate Victorians saw something like Aquaman or Mad Max: Fury Road!
Ah, but here’s some food for thought: What if the story of Arrival of the Train was actually more myth than fact? Could its legendary status actually be…just that, a legend?
In the annals of “Whodunnit?” spooky old house movies, the awesome The Cat and the Canary (1927) ranks pretty high. But how about The Bat (1926)? It’s not quite a masterpiece of murder mystery films, but it does its job well, has some quasi-Expressionist cinematography and features one of my favorite comediennes (and she livens up the reels quite a bit). And yes, it features a mysterious “bat man” quite a few years before the Batman. Hmm, could this murder mystery be more influential than we realize…?
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring event, the Hidden Classics Blogathon! Silent-ology is proud to take part alongside so many excellent film blogs, and on such a good topic, too. Please follow the link above to read my fellow writers’ contributions! And don’t forget to leave comments–we bloggers love comments like Keystone Kops loved pratfalls.
When I say “Cecil B. DeMille,” you probably picture Biblical films with men in robes giving solemn speeches and loads of colorful spectacle. Would you be surprised to know that in the 1910s most audiences heard “DeMille” and probably pictured ballgowns and romantic triangles?
He may be known for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) today, but from the late 1910s to the early 1920s DeMille was associated with fluffy “society” comedy-dramas. Yes, the same man that Kevin Brownlow described thusly: “Commanding absolute loyalty from his staff, he directed as though chosen by God for this one task.” These dramas tended to have the aforementioned lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum) and exquisitely-tailored tuxes. Scenery might include raucous parties or impractically huge sunken baths. DeMille delighted in adding various “rich people” toys like fancy Victrolas or plush couches with hidden bars in the armrests. Gloria Swanson couldn’t just walk over and answer the phone–she would have to be sitting at a pretty carved wooden desk and take the phone out of a little cupboard on top.
While many of these trinket-cluttered fantasies were considered superficial even back then, they’ve aged into delightfulness today. The “edgy” fashions seem charmingly bizarre, and characters contend with various social annoyances that are sometimes endearingly quaint. There’s usually more of that universal human nature than meets the eye, too, even if it was livened up by an inexplicable Babylonian fantasy sequence or two. I wholeheartedly champion every frame of these films, from scenes of Bebe Daniels perfuming her lips or Wallace Reid destroying a drawing room in righteous anger right down to the last shot of a checkered, bead-bedecked bathing suit. At least, I think that was a bathing suit. Or was it a negligee…?
It’s a tough call, but my favorite early DeMille is probably Why Change Your Wife? (1920), one of my go-to silents for those nights when I just need to kick back with some cheesy popcorn and relax. Starring a young Gloria Swanson, the squeaky-clean matinee idol Thomas Meighan, and a flirty Bebe Daniels, its tale of marital distress is handled with plenty of light, cheeky humor (especially in the title cards).
Swanson plays the prudish Beth, who nags her husband Robert about becoming more cultured and “improving his mind.” Robert himself (played by Meighan) can’t understand why Beth insists on dressing so frumpily and longs for her to be a carefree “sweetheart” again. Hoping to add some pizazz to their relationship, he goes to a fancy lingerie store to buy her a new negligee. There he meets Sally, the store’s va-va-voom lingerie model, who recognizes him as an old acquaintance she once had a crush on.
When Robert’s present of a tissue-thin, elaborately-beaded negligee (complete with a headdress!) is rejected by the horrified Beth, he decides to secretly go on a date with the fun-loving Sally. Sally is all too happy to pursue him, leading to matters going too far and Robert having regrets. Unfortunately for him, Beth finds out about the affair and divorce quickly follows. But matters don’t end there–Beth overhears gossip about her failed marriage, insinuating that her prudishness and frumpy clothes were the problem. Incensed, she decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what people want to see, then by golly she’d get a new wardrobe and show them all! And perhaps she can win Robert back in the process…
Parts of the plot haven’t aged quite like a fine wine, but I bid you to consider that the remainder of the film involves lots of “extreme” fashion, an unfortunate slip on a banana peel, a catfight, and a deeply serious artiste in the world’s most ridiculous male bathing suit. In other words, it’s a film I’d say has far more plusses than minuses, my friends.
Adolph Zukor once said, “DeMille didn’t make pictures for himself, or for critics, he made them for the public. He chose stories if he thought the public might like them. He was a showman to his smallest finger.” Indeed, DeMille’s films of this period were sometimes criticized as superficial, or just plain silly. But he released hit after hit, filling his dramas with scandalous intrigues and sunken bathtubs to his heart’s content.
I have to say, at the end of a tough day there’s certain old films that always hit the spot. Keaton films. Chaplin shorts. Anything by Keystone. And Why Change Your Wife? is on that list. Great performers, great costumes, drama, humor, escapism, and plenty of cheese–those late Edwardian DeMilles had a bit of it all.
And perhaps I’ll end with this generous observation by David O. Selznick: “You cannot judge DeMille by regular standards…As a commercial film maker, he made a great contribution to our industry.”
By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.
Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!
So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.
Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!
So here’s a post I couldn’t quite fit into my Soviet Silents Month schedule. The idea was there, but the time? Not quite there. (I could’ve used a few extra, err, years for that month’s research.) But I decided to dust the idea off and post it now, because after watching these films I need to know that others have experienced them, too. I need that kinship. That camaraderie. I’m not trying to say that watching these shorts brings on a creeping sense of Kafkaesque dread, but I’m sure not denying it, either.
If you’re in need of a major distraction, look no further than these curious examples of silent Soviet animation–because you’ll find it impossible to look away. But a word of caution: if it’s bedtime and you’ve just eaten something weird, believe me, these will not help the nightmares. Consider yourself forewarned. Also, just wanted to say right away: I am sorry. Continue reading →
This is the final post for Soviet Silents Month. The research wasn’t easy, but it was a fascinating and important era to explore. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
It opens with vistas of ripening wheat fields, rippling in the wind of the Ukrainian steppe. Fertile seeds from fertile soil–there’s a long history behind the familiar sight. It cuts to a medium shot of a young woman standing beside a sunflower, with the sky providing a natural background. Both are also connected to the fertile soil. Seeds, fields, sun, harvest, life–those few shots elevate their humble subjects into symbols of the most natural, the most beautiful order of things.
Thus begins Earth (1930), perhaps the most poetic of the Soviet silents, frequently placed on “Greatest Films” lists. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) it was made to glorify collective farms, finishing shooting shortly before Stalin’s deadly policies of forced collectivization went into effect. Yet there is depth in the operatic Earth that seems to transcend its subject–at least according to many interpretations.
Think back to the last time you were at a movie theater, sitting through all the previews. We’re all familiar with the style of those previews: montages introduce the main characters, show pieces of action, throw in snippets of dialogue, and everything’s set to music. For action films, there’s usually a fast-paced guns-a-blazing montage towards the end. You may not realize it, but every time you see these kinds of montages you’re glimpsing Battleship Potemkin (1925).