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.)
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 →
If you were going to pick just one silent era stop motion short to watch–just one!–I’d happily recommend an early work by Ladislas Starevich: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Yes, you’re reading that right–from 1912! Because despite being over a century old, it showcases a timeless skill, serves as an excellent introduction to silent era stop motion, and is pretty funny, if you ask me. Plus, depending on how well you know your classic comedies, the story just might be familiar…!
The Cameraman’s Revenge was part of a series of Ladislas Starevich shorts starring insects–and, by the way, he made the puppets using actual dead insects. He’d gotten the idea while trying to film a stag beetle fight (he was an avid insect collector and reportedly worked for a natural history museum). After some failed tests with live beetles–hot studio lights didn’t put them in fightin’ moods–he decided to recreate the fight with stop motion. The method was macabre, but ingenious: he took dead stag beetles apart and preserved their shells, then pieced them back together with wire and bits of sealing wax. The finished product was, err, a flexible, all-natural, upcycled organic puppet (rebranded for any trendy types who happen to be reading).
In any artistic field–Impressionist painting, modern architecture, ballet, indie folk rock, you name it–there are always a few names more memorable than the rest, and the field of silent filmmaking is no exception. We all recognize the big names like Gance, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Griffith, and so on. But the list of who we personally find most memorable is probably pretty eclectic–my own includes folks like Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Bowers, and Karlheinz Martin (long story). To that list I’m happy to add the name of Ladislas Starevich–or Władysław Starewicz, Ladislav Starevich, Ladislaw Starewitch, or any of his other varied spellings (pick your favorite).
In photos, the somber-looking Starevich seems like he’d be home in a lab coat working on mysterious chemical experiments. You wouldn’t suspect that in reality, he created an imaginative body of work showcasing some of the most whimsical–even slightly macabre–visions in early film. An artist ahead of his time, once you’ve seen his work you won’t soon forget it.
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.
Whilst perusing old issues of Photoplay magazine, this little article caught my silent comedy-loving eye: “The Five Funniest Things In The World.” “Funniest Things” meaning “the top 5 gags guaranteed to make folks laugh.” Being written at the late date of 1918–and that is late, considering how fast screen comedy evolved–I knew it probably wouldn’t list banana peel gags or pie throwing. (I’d like to go back in time, stand in a room full of Edwardian film critics, say “CUSTARD PIE” and watch all the eyes roll.)
Hmm, so what were considered the funniest gags ever, from the viewpoint of our worldly-wise Photoplay writer Homer Croy?
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.”
The crowded Hall of Mirrors during the Treaty’s signing.
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 →
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 spring blogathon, Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. A warm welcome to any new readers–feel free to have a look around Silent-ology!
The first intertitle of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) starts with four words: “New York’s Other Side.” Director D.W. Griffith wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but these words were ushering in the new genre of the “crime drama”–as well as its offspring, the gangster picture and film noir.
The 18-minute Biograph short wasn’t the first to depict crime, of course (a number of early films did, such as A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police, 1905), but it’s the best and earliest surviving prototype of a gangster film. All the familiar notes are there: the introduction to the “dark underbelly” of a city, the charismatic crime leaders, the tough dames, and the crowded, rundown neighborhoods. The hardboiled gang members slinking through deserted alleyways and Lillian Gish’s character giving Elmer Booth a disdainful slap all have their echoes in film noir. Continue reading →
This is my own post for the Fifth Annual Busterthon–I hope you enjoy!
Let us consider Norma and Constance Talmadge. They were two of the brightest stars of the silent era, the role models of countless gals and the crushes of countless young men. And today, they are–you’ve guessed it–practically forgotten. While they’re starting to be recognized as important figures in cinema history, their films are rarely screened and seldom discussed. But there’s one big reason they’re still remembered: their connection to a certain beloved comedian–Buster Keaton.
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.