A couple stories circulating in the media recently had levels of ridiculousness so high (admittedly an easy bar to reach nowadays) that they inspired me to explore a topic near and dear to my heart: how silent films can help us understand history. Better. Much better, since it helps to, you know, see history, at least from the 1880s onwards. And I want to show how a deeper understanding of history isn’t just some neat perk to help add more trivia nuggets to your noggin, but something that can have huge real-word ramifications–especially today.
Now, I like discussing overall societal trends in this blog in a generalized fashion, but I usually avoid specific news stories. Partly because the blog doesn’t need to get super dated (my blog topic’s already dated, thank yew very much), and mainly because I really don’t feel like bringing the soul-sucking, fang-dripping, grinning, oozing specter of politics into my teensy corner of the blogosphere. That denizen of the Hellmouth can stay in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, okay–and besides, it’s infesting everything enough as it is. So while the following two stories are easy to discuss in a polarizing political fashion, they’re also very much related to general societal trends. I’ll allow it!
First up: the viral Cracker Barrel infographic-of-sorts–my apologies for the smattering of uncouth vernacular therein:
Judy Canova, Minnie Pearl, Louise Fazenda, Gale Henry, Mabel Normand, Lucille Ball in those I Love Lucy episodes where she blacks out teeth and wears hillbilly clothes–all of these talented ladies had fun bringing “country bumpkin” characters to the screen. Some did it part time (like Mabel) while others turned their rube characters into a full time career (like Minnie).
And those pigtails, funny hats and gingham dresses have hollered “bumpkin” to us ever since. But how often do you hear about their direct ancestor, Sis Hopkins? This great-grandmother of movie hillbillies was the creation of comedy pioneer Rose Melville. Her Sis was a very familiar character to audiences, debuting in the 1890s and appearing regularly in theaters across America for two straight decades.
Post #1 of Soviet Silents Month is here! I hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating (and rather intense) area of film history!
Few things summarize our idea of Soviet silent films better than the opening of the 1968 restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). As a projector (audibly) sputters to life, through a swirl of artificial snow a bold white “1905” looms on the screen. Snow continues to swirl around a series of black and white illustrations of the 1905 Russian Revolution, showing masses of the working class squaring off against soldiers in wintery city squares. The music is bombastic–deeply dramatic. The screen fades to black. And then it’s filled with a rather wordy quote by–who else?–Vladimir Lenin.
A dramatic poster for Mother (1926).
You’re no doubt assuming I’m going to say that there’s more to Soviet silent films than government-approved propaganda–including 1968 imitations of government-approved propaganda. There were delicate dramas and rollicking comedies made in Russia just like everywhere else, it’s true. However, they were always released with a catch. For from the early 1920s onward every film in the USSR was squeezed through the sieve of government censorship, including American imports (which were wildly popular). Analysis of Soviet film must forever dance between admiration of the finest examples of its artistry, and recognition that much of that artistry was in service of communist propaganda–often willingly.
From October (1927)
And thus the history of Russia’s bold, futuristic, cutting-edge early cinema is a fascinating one, and well worth consideration. Few other nations would seize on a new form of expression as doggedly as the Soviet government. And few filmmakers would reach such heights of artistic achievement within such increasingly rigid confines, causing such a global superstar as Douglas Fairbanks to declare in 1926: “The finest pictures I have seen in my life were made in Russia. They are far in advance of the rest of the world.” Continue reading →
In the annals of old-timey horror–and don’t get me started on those 19th century ventriloquist dolls–some of the weirdest and most gleefully grotesque imagery of all can be found in our oldest silents. One example that leaps to mind is Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House, a six-minute film from 1907 that you’ll doubtless recognize from this still:
Ah yes, that one–with the hairy, paint-streaked demon with admirably bushy eyebrows. Also known as The Witch House, La Maison Ensorcelée, or The House of Ghosts, this frolicsome–hold on, is it called The Haunted Hotel too? Oh, that’s a different 1907 film–that’s not de Chomón’s too, is it? And wait, is The House of Ghosts actually an entirely different film from 1906? What’s going on?? Continue reading →
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.
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.
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!
ANOTHER EDIT 6/14/19: My new laptop finally arrived! Stay tuned. 😉
EDIT 6/7/19: Due to my laptop deciding to conk out all the sudden, I won’t have a new post out this week. Which is sad, because it was on a film I really love–but at least you can still look forward to it! ~
Happy summer, all! (It sure took its sweet time coming, didn’t it?) Every once in awhile–and it’s been awhile–I put out a “welcome tour” post for new Silent-ology readers. Because I know what it’s like to visit a new blog and feel like you’ve walked into a coffee shop where everyone understands the complicated drink orders except you.
“So a small is a ‘Mini,’ a medium is a ‘Not So Petite,’ and a large is a…’Get Wired’? But why??!“
So let’s get to it! Silent-ology (which turned five a few months ago!) is my personal “dig” through silent film history. Every detail of this unique era fascinates me, so if you don’t see a topic or an actor covered, they probably will be in the future! I have theme months a couple times a year (the latest was Sheik Month) and host an annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Taking a look at my “About” page is a nice little intro to the site. And then, of course, there’s the My Articles page (and don’t forget the Search box!).
Want a few suggestions? If you’re just getting into silent films, you might like: Continue reading →
After conducting my official “pull names written on slips of paper out of my cloche-style hat” drawing for the copy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ’19 program, I’m happy to announce that the winner is:
Congrats, Jim! If you don’t hear from me first, you can contact me through the form on the About Silent-ology page. Once I have a mailing address I should be able to send it to you in the next few days. And now, my latest post (a version of this article has appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column):
We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful 1920s movie palaces complete with columns, statues and enormous lit-up marquees. And their ancestor, the nickelodeon, is fairly well known too–those small, crowded little theaters that charged a nickel to see the latest show. But before the late 1900’s heyday of the nickelodeon and even before the existence of Hollywood itself, many people first saw films at travelling motion picture shows.
A Vitascope projector show at an existing theater.
These seem to have popped up in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. Descended from magic lantern shows, they were also similar to the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors to showcase their newly-patented cameras and projectors to genteel audiences. But the wonder of the moving picture couldn’t be contained in those staid lecture halls for long. To many enterprising men in the Victorian era (mainly gents were interested in this line of work), the novelty of cinema presented a unique and interesting way to make a living.Continue reading →
A version of this article was originally written for Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on–you guessed it–silent films. Hope you enjoy!
When you think of jobs that have gone the way of the dodo, certain ones spring to mind right away: chimney sweeps. Switchboard operators. Bowling alley pinsetters. Organ grinders’ monkeys. Almostevery flea circus ringmaster. Well, just imagine what it was like to have a career as a title card artist or title card writer in the late 1920s when talkies were coming in–it must’ve been pretty intense.
It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called–today we often call them “intertitles”) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled artform.