Hello everyone! Much like back when I first published this piece, it’s been a bit quiet here on Silent-ology. That’s because my wonderful, cheerful, incomparable grandmother (who I had mentioned in this post) passed away recently. So I took a bit of a break, and decided this piece was certainly worth a reblog. I often attribute my love of old movies to my mom, who watched almost nothing else when I was growing up. But who introduced my mom to those old movies to begin with? My grandma! So you might say that, ultimately, Silent-ology might not exist without her long ago influence. Thank you, thank you Grandma, and I’ll always miss you.
If it seemed a bit quiet on Silent-ology lately, it’s because my beloved Grandpa passed away last week on Independence Day. He was 91 and had, without a doubt, enjoyed a “life well-lived.” He leaves behind his wonderful wife of nearly 70 years, a dozen children, dozens of grandchildren and great-grand children, and even one great-great-grandchild.
And of course, he leaves behind countless memories for all of us to share with each other during each holiday gathering, BBQ or impromptu get-together. And for me, a few of those memories involve bringing over Buster Keaton shorts to watch with him and Grandma.
There’s a number of silent comedy shorts that are lauded as mini-masterpieces today, shorts like The Immigrant (1917), One Week) (1920), and Cops (1922). The rhythm of the editing, the succinct storylines, the interplay between talented comedians–they’re not only a joy to watch but a joy to study as well. Uniquely creative in an already unique era of a film, the great silent comedies can “unfold like music,” as Roger Ebert once said of Buster Keaton’s work.
Aaaaand then there’s all the other silent comedies. The decidedly run-of-the-mill comedies. The rushed, low budget, frenetic comedies, churned out like sausages, as the old studio saying went. And the…err…kind of dumb silent comedies. All were legion, my friends. Legion.
Y’know, there’s nothing like spending an evening watching the gems of silent comedy and taking in each sparkling minute until you’re refreshing in mind and spirit. But sometimes…just sometimes…you’ve just spent a loooong winter taking advantage of the loooong evenings with lots of cinematic gem-viewing, and now it’s getting warm, and you’ve been working hard all day, and your mind and spirit is tired, and you just wanna watch something silly. Sometimes, you just need dumb, and that’s okay. Dumb can be good. Enter something like By The Sad Sea Waves (1917), which is named after a song, because it’s set at a beach and WHY NOT.
A favorite film of mine to revisit every Lent, especially on this particular holy day, Good Friday, is this late 1920s masterpiece. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on it again this year. It’s a film so powerful that it can be difficult to describe, but back in 2017 I gave it my best shot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I truly hope this piques your interest!
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.”
The last two days have flown by (I’m still working my way through all your pieces) and the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon is officially a wrap! So to all the participants, I wanted to say a heartfelt…
…from Buster and from Silent-ology, too! (And from Alice Mann–hey, she’s been enjoying the posts too. 😉 ) And many thanks to all you fine readers who took the time to stop by, I hope you’ve had fun reading through all the posts and maybe you discovered some thoughtful new blogs to follow, too!
Only seven days to go, everyone, until the great annual Busterthon returns for the 8th year in a row!!
I’m excited to see all your posts, everyone! (And I’m, ahem, still working on my own…!) The official roster is below–and if you’re a Keaton-loving blogger who’s just hearing about all this, you’re still welcome to join! The more the merrier, I say.
As the last post for REALLY Old Films Month, here’s an encore of a piece I originally wrote for Melies Month back in 2017. It seems fitting to end this exploration of early cinema with one of its biggest–and most charming–milestones!
You knew this one was coming! This is the final post for Méliès Month–I hope you enjoyed this extended tribute to one of the essential pioneers of the cinema!
Upward mount then! clearer, milder,
Robed in splendour far more bright!
Though my heart with grief throbs wilder,
Fraught with rapture is the night!
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “To the Rising Full Moon,” 1828
For thousands of years mankind has gazed at the moon. Deities have been associated with it. We’ve written about it in poems and books, mentioned it in songs and plays, and painted and sculpted its likeness.
So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the earliest milestones of a brand-new artform should feature the elusive moon that’s so haunted our imaginations–a craggy, blinking, papier mache variety with seriously wicked eyebrows, that is.
If I had a time machine and a list of events I’d like to witness, the 1900 Paris Exposition just might be in the top ten. (Or at least the top 25..there’s a lot of things I’d like to see!) If you haven’t heard of it, it was…well…just look at this:
As I took in the wonders of that fabulous Art Nouveau architecture–dressed in a lovely Parisian summer frock and my best hat, of course–I’d hightail it straight to the Festival Hall. For this is where the Lumières had an exhibit demonstrating moving pictures. On a 70-foot wide screen suspended in that vast, beautiful hall. Yes, a screen of that size in the year 1900! For whatever reason, this momentous occasion has practically been forgotten by history–you’re lucky to even find a picture of it.
“The man who would have predicted…that an event of the prior month would be reproduced before the eyes of a multitude in pictures that moved like life, and that lightning would move them and light them, would have been avoided as a lunatic or hanged as a wizard.”
–The Brooklyn Eye, 1897.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) is exactly the sort of old film you might glance at briefly before moving on to something more exciting, like a charming Méliès picture or one of the eye-catching Serpentine Dance films. It’s footage of a boxing match, after all. They’re boxing, they’re wearing tights, gents in bowler hats are watching–what more do you need to know?
But as anyone who enjoys studying old films knows (the older the better if you ask me), even the simplest “actualities” or the crudest comic shorts have more history to them than meets the eye. Corbett-Fitzsimmons is both an interesting window into a time when society was starting to experience big changes and, in the minds of viewers at the time, a clear example of the miraculous nature of film.
The surviving 3-second snippet of Dickson Greeting (1891) shows a slim, neatly dressed young man with a mustache. He’s in the midst of bowing politely to the camera, about to pass a straw hat from one hand to the other. We barely have time to register his image before the clip ends. But brief as it is, we still get a hint of this young man’s self-assurance.
The young man is William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (he often shortened it to “W.K.L. Dickson”), and he wasn’t merely the subject of a very early, quasi-experimental film. He’s one of the most significant pioneers of the cinema. Let me be even more clear: he’s one of cinema’s giants, an enthusiastic innovator who helped shape the movies as we still know them today. And we know this not so much from his own recorded words, which became obscure over the years, but because research in recent decades revealed just what an important figure he was.
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?