“The Biograph Girl”–The Career Of Early Star Florence Lawrence

For a long time the world knew her as “The Biograph Girl.” Family and friends knew her as “Flo.” And in time, fans would know her by her full, rhyming name, “Florence Lawrence.” And today we also tend to add this phrase–“The First Movie Star.”

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Contrary to popular lore she wasn’t technically the first movie star, but she certainly was one of the earliest. Continue reading

Forever Debonair: The Enduring Work Of Comedy Pioneer Max Linder

At first glance, he appears to be an actor from society dramas. He had perfectly creased trousers, well-shined shoes, a coat and tie, white gloves, and, most impressively of all, a high silk top hat brushed to a fine sheen. But then there’s those big, practically bulging eyes–eyes that could only belong to a comedian.

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These are the eyes of Max Linder, a film comedy pioneer that paved the way for all the great comedians of the silent era and beyond. If there’s a comedy routine you like, chances are Linder got there first. While he isn’t as well-known today as folks like Buster Keaton or Mabel Normand, Linder shares their aura of timelessness. All he needs is to be introduced to new audiences–for who today in this era of steampunk and all things vintage can resist comedies starring a dapper Edwardian gentleman with a tidy mustache and a top hat? Continue reading

7 Silent Christmas Movies (From The Horse-And-Buggy Era)

Do you collect vintage Christmas decorations? Love singing vintage Christmas songs? Maybe even enjoy trying out vintage holiday recipes? Then how about taking the next step and trying out some very vintage Christmas films?

Exposure to forbidding vintage Santas is well worth the price.

I’m not talking about the familiar holiday staples like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life or the hallowed classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians–I’m talking about the very earliest Christmas films ever made, pre-dating our more commercialized era. Heck, they pre-date the widespread use of electricity. The discovery of penicillin. Even the Coca-Cola Santa ClausThese are holiday movies over a century old, from the literal horse and buggy era, and they are charming peeks into a long-gone world. Let’s start with: Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Intolerance”

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In our minds, we picture Intolerance differently than most films. Say the title, and we usually don’t see the faces of the Dear One or Brown Eyes or run shots from the four storylines through our minds. We picture the photo of the massive hall of Babylon. We see the sharp-edged archways, the curves and ridges of the immense pillars, the  white elephants with their peculiarly defined muscles and curving trunks. We also see the masses of tiny people on the floor of the hall, clustering around the feet of the elephants, and lining the top of the archways. There is an awed sensation when you think of this dense image. Perhaps there is also a sense of remoteness.

But recall the actual scene itself, how the camera slowly, smoothly moves forward, closer and closer until we can clearly see the people, see the details of their clothes, and can see their faces in their matte makeup.

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How I Learned To Love “Intolerance” (And So Can You!)

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It’s massive, it’s epic, it’s stuffed with stars and just about drips with drama. It was one of the biggest spectacles the world had ever seen, and its scale is still awe-inspiring. It fired the imaginations of directors and left audiences reeling. And it’s…somewhat liked by silent film fans today. Somewhat.

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“It’s so long.

Okay, I’ll admit that this weak enthusiasm is understandable. Intolerance is kind of the equivalent of Norma Desmond’s Isotta-Fraschini automobile–in its day it was the last word in decadence, but decades later it seemed like a cumbersome and overly-ornate relic. Intolerance demands your full attention to not only one but four storylines, often with multiple characters with different actions and motivations. It’s uneven. It tackles Serious Subjects like war and injustice toward the working man. And yes, it’s very long. Continue reading

The Mighty “Intolerance” Turns 100 Today

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D.W. Griffith’s massive, dramatic, beautiful 1916 epic Intolerance, to this day one of the most ambitious film projects ever devised, is a century old today. On September 5, 1916 its world premiere was held at the Liberty Theater in New York. This is arguably one of the biggest milestones in cinematic history. It’s partyin’ time.

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As demonstrated.

In 1958 Buster Keaton (who parodied the film in The Three Ages) reminisced: “Griffith’s Intolerance was] terrific…It’s a beautiful production. That was somethin’ to watch then. You weren’t used to seein’ big spectaculars like that.”

I’ll be devoting some posts to this cinematic masterpiece later this month, so until then, have a celebratory banner.

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‘Tis an historic day!!

Obscure Films: “Hearts and Flowers” (1919)

This is the final post for Forgotten Comedians Month. This past August was successful indeed–the heartiest of thanks to everyone who’s been following along these last few weeks! I’m sure Charlie Murray, Gale Henry, Musty Suffer, Charley Bowers, Louise Fazenda, and all the other forgotten folk appreciate it. (Oh, and Pimple. We mustn’t forget Pimple.) September’s looking mighty interesting, since in a matter of days a certain important film will be turning 100…

Are you in the mood for a short comedy?  Would you like to watch something that’s off the beaten track? Do you have a hankering to see pompous orchestra leaders, ladies in men’s clothing, bathing beauties playing ball, and flower girls rolling down hills? If so, Hearts and Flowers (1919) may be the short for you!

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Film Fun, 1919.

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Living Cartoons: 5 Silent “Grotesque” Comedians

We’re kicking off Forgotten Comedians month with a look at one of most memorable aspects of silent comedy–those wacky human oddities who made people laugh just by showing up onscreen.

They could’ve walked right out of the funny papers. They came in every conceivable shape and size: short and stubby, alarmingly tall, skinny as beanpoles or round as beach balls. They wore every kind of mismatched clothing: floppy shoes, enormous pants, tight coats, moth-eaten hats, and out of date dresses. If you touched their makeup, you’d probably leave a dent. Sometimes called “grotesque comedians” (an old-time term), these were people who specialized not just in acting funny, but in looking funny.

As Ben Turpin so richly demonstrates.

A few of the names might be familiar to you: Ford Sterling, Larry Semon, Al St. John. But come on, guys, they’re too easy. Let’s really dive into the nooks and crannies of ’10s and ’20s comedy. Who were some of the most outlandish and “out there” characters ever to inspire a cartoonist’s envy?  I invite you all to get acquainted with a few of the largely-forgotten names among the finest silent “grotesques”! Continue reading

Tiny Pennants, Satin Pillow Tops, And Other Early Movie Merchandise

Movie merchandise! Not only does it come in everything from smartphone cases to pajama pants, but in many cases it nets the studios more money than the films themselves. Global sales of Star Wars merchandise, for example, are tens of billions of dollars higher than the overall grosses of the films. (The Star Wars geek in me does not mind.)

While some licensing was done early on (Mickey Mouse comes to mind), the bloated merchandise juggernauts we’re familiar with weren’t really a “thing” until Star Wars: A New Hope. It kicked off the craze for action figures, lunch boxes, t-shirts, and so on to the point where Kenner had to issue IOUs for action figures in 1977. And Hollywood has never looked back.

“But weren’t Charlie Chaplin dolls a big thing back in the silent era?” you ask. While merchandising of popular characters and actors wasn’t done on the tremendous scale that it is today, there were various “novelties” that fans could collect in the ’10s and ’20s–often for only a few cents apiece. Continue reading

Segundo De Chomon–The Man You Think Is Melies

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival today there is a showing dedicated to early hand-colored films, several of which were done by the brilliant–and very Méliès-ish–Segundo de Chomón. Let’s take a brief look at this obscure director!

So you’re browsing the Interwebs and you stumble across a short film that’s clearly from the dawn of the 20th century. It has that stationary camera facing a set that’s basically a theater stage, people in quaint outfits, fairyland imagery, hand-applied coloring, and those special effects that involve sudden edits and puffs of smoke. Yes, you know exactly what this film is–it is most definitely a work by the ever-imaginative moving picture pioneer, Georges Méliès! ‘Tis himself!

But maybe take another look at that film, because there’s a good chance that it’s actually by Segundo de Chomón.

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“Wha…?”

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