Did Billie Ritchie Really Die From An Ostrich Attack?

In his day, British music hall veteran Billie Ritchie was a popular film comedian with a mighty suspicious resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Today, he might be best known as the hi-larious answer to a trivia question: Which obscure silent film comedian was kicked to death by an ostrich? Why, poor Billie of course!  (Or maybe it was several ostriches–or maybe they bit him–the trivia question varies.)

Billie Ritchie ostriche pics picgoer July 10 '15

This was taken years before the supposed attack, btw. Pictures and the Picturegoer, July 10 1915.

But maybe, like me, you’re wondering precisely how an ostrich-related injury could lead to someone’s death–a full two years after the fact, mind you. (Didn’t know about that time frame? Yup, it’s true.) And maybe you’re suspicious that the details about the ostriches vary so much–was the unfortunate Billie kicked or mauled by the savage birds? And how many birds were there? One or more than one? Since this is obviously is one of the most debated questions of the modern age, let us examine it more closely. Continue reading

Is “Matches: An Appeal” The Oldest Surviving Animated Film?

What is the world’s oldest animated film? Or rather, knowing film history–what’s the world’s oldest surviving animated film? Many sources will point to the cartoon Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or “trick film” The Enchanted Drawing (1900), which used stop motion to make a cartoon face change expressions. But chances are you might’ve stumbled across a few sources making the case for an obscure short called Matches: An Appeal–said to have been produced in 1899. 

Image result for matches an appeal 1899

It’s a pretty cute little film, too. Via the magic of stop motion, two small figures made of matchsticks work together to write an “appeal” asking the public to donate money to send matches to needy soldiers. To be precise, they write: “For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside. N.B. Our soldiers need them.” The stop motion is surprisingly sophisticated for its early date–perhaps a little too sophisticated.

Time to fall down a research rabbit hole! Always one of my favorite hobbies. Continue reading

“One Turn One Picture”–Stop Motion Animation In The Silent Era

Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.

Image result for 1910s stop motion willis o'brien

Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.

Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.

Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Policemen’s Little Run” (1907)

Need a little pick-me-up after a long, hard day? Looking for some good old-fashioned slapstick nonsense that’s blissfully short? Have a particular craving for, say, a 1900s French comedy short that your friends (and possibly you) have never heard of?

Well that’s easy enough–The Policemen’s Little Run (1907) it is!

screenshot PolicemensRun 1

Seen here in blurrymotion.

Continue reading

8 Forgotten Hit Films Of The Silent Era

A version of this article originally appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on silent films. It was an eye-opening one to research–hope you enjoy!

Much like we still do today, silent era audiences flocked to big budget spectacles, as well as thrillers, witty comedies and other crowd pleasers (well, maybe “witty comedies” are a rarity nowadays). If you found a list of the top box office attractions in the 1910s and 1920s, a lot of titles will be pretty familiar: Ben-Hur, Intolerance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Robin Hood. What is allegedly the biggest hit of the entire era, The Big Parade, might ring a bell too. 

Image result for the birth of a nation

As might this movie.

But there are other titles in those “top grossing” lists that have fallen into obscurity. Some of them might surprise you–who ever said that subtly-acted, bittersweet dramas can’t attract masses of viewers? With that in mind, here’s a look at eight of those forgotten “moneymakers”!  Continue reading

“Faites entrer les Allemands”–Commemorating The 100th Anniversary of The Treaty Of Versailles

Poppy banner

Since we’ve been following the Great War’s centennial pretty closely here on Silent-ology (click here to read last year’s WWI in Film Month posts), I wanted to make sure today was given some attention. June 28, 2019, marks 100 years since the Treaty of Versailles, the first and most significant of the peace treaties that officially ended World War I. While Armistice Day famously declared a ceasefire, these treaties put an official end to the actual “state of war.”

Image result for treaty of versailles

The crowded Hall of Mirrors during the Treaty’s signing.

Continue reading

Who Is Douglas MacLean (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

Okay, in this context “everybody” means “a decent selection of the silent film community.” And if you’re part of that decent selection, you might’ve already heard: Undercrank Productions is bringing two Douglas MacLean features to DVD!! With the help of fine fans like yourself, of course.

Douglas MacLean in One a Minute (1921)

I’m sensing a lot of you are thinking: “Wait, who?” An understandable question. In an age when someone like Harry Langdon is deemed obscure, Douglas MacLean is practically obsolete. But that’s exactly why two of his surviving features should find new audiences. Like the work of other obscure figures such as Alice Howell and Marcel Perez, it shines a new light into some of the hidden nooks and crannies of early cinema. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In honor of Good Friday, and also as a tribute to the great Notre Dame cathedral that suffered such a tragic fire last Monday, I’m reposting this piece on one of the finest artistic achievements of the silent era. This powerful film has extra significance during Holy Week, and is also a remarkable tribute to one of the greatest saints of France.

Silent-ology

Making most lists of the top ten greatest films ever made is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). And indeed, you suspect a spot had always been reserved for it. A critic from as far back as 1929 was moved to declare, “It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams.”

Passion of Joan of Arc

Those unacquainted with The Passion might not be prepared for it. It doesn’t lead you from plot point to plot point, but throws you into an experience. It’s intensely, harshly realistic, but within a mildly expressionistic setting. We’re meant to contemplate Joan’s ordeal, linked thematically with the most widely contemplated ordeal in history. A critic I admire said it best: “I know of movies more theologically profound or more pious, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ.”

View original post 1,015 more words

So, About Buster And Charlie’s “Limelight” Scene…

Even casual classic comedy fans are familiar with the most famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet Limelight (1951), where he’s teamed with Buster Keaton onscreen for the first and only time. Playing old comedy partners reuniting for a comeback performance, they do a bit of charming, music hall-style slapstick that ends with Chaplin’s character Calvero succumbing to a fatal injury.

Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

And they also gave us this gallery-worthy still.

Ever since they filmed those scenes in the early ’50s, rumors have been flying that the arrogant Charlie Chaplin, witnessing humble genius Buster brilliantly churning out gag after gag far funnier than anything Chaplin ever dreamed of, jealously chopped it all out of the film. No one upstages the world’s most famous comedian, by gum! So what’s left are but hollow glimpses of Buster’s mastery, so cruelly squashed by the man who…well, personally hired him to play a role in his deeply personal film.

Nobly enduring the squashing of his brilliance.

Okay, guys, let’s all be honest here–you’ve haven’t actually watched the entire Limelight, have you? No, you just watched the 8-minute clip of Buster and Charlie on YouTube a few times and called it a day. Okay, fine, four of you have seen Limelight, but the rest of you–come now! At least give Chaplin’s thoughtful film a chance (he wrote a 100,000 word novel about his characters just to prepare for the actual filming. No kidding).

Why am I making this assumption? Because once you’ve seen Limelight, the idea that Buster’s character should’ve taken the spotlight in the “comeback” scene makes no sense. Absolutely no sense at all, my friends.  Continue reading