Not too long ago my fellow blogger Crystal, who runs the fine site In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, contacted me with an idea: How about we cohost a blogathon in honor of Silent Movie Day? Well well well, that sure sounds right up my alley.
“Wait, ‘Silent Movie Day’? Is that a real thing>” you ask. Why yes, it certainly IS a real thing! Just this past January, Chad Hunter, executive director of Video Trust and director of the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society, archivist Brandee B. Cox of the Academy Film Archive, and archivist Steven K. Hill of the UCLA Film & Television Archive all put their heads together and decided to create a National Silent Movie Day. Described simply as “a day to celebrate and enjoy silent movies,” it will be held on September 29. And it won’t be celebrated just this year, but every year! As its founders wrote:
Anyone can participate! Ask your local cinema to show a silent picture with live music; watch a silent movie on a streaming platform or on disc; write a blog or an article for your local newspaper; read a book about your favorite silent movie star; or create a podcast. Use your imagination and post on your social media on September 29 to show how you celebrate the day. This is our moment as silent movie fans, academics, programmers, and newcomers to share our mutual love and appreciation for this unique period in motion picture history. It is also an opportunity to rally around surviving silent pictures that are still in need of preservation.
So in honor of this brand-new rival of Easter and Christmas, Crystal and I are hosting a one-day Silent Movie Day Blogathon–and all bloggers are invited!
One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”
99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”
You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.
If you love film history, you’ve probably heard that the dapper French comedian Max Linder is credited as being the first “name on all the posters” screen star. No less a celebrity than Charlie Chaplin would refer to Linder as “the professor.” But aside from that, many folks’ exposure to Linder is likely confined to viewing a couple short comedies, seeing a few portraits and stills, and hearing that the man’s life ended in some kind of tragedy.
Surprisingly for such a seminal figure, Linder’s been the subject of very few books…but that’s starting to change. Recently released from BearManor Media, Lisa Stein Haven’s The Rise & Fall of Max Linder is helping to fill a noticeable gap in silent comedy fans’ book collections.
There seems to be a common stereotype, fondly believed by too many people to count, that women in “the olden days” weren’t allowed to do…much of anything, really. That while not being squeezed into rib-cracking Victorian corsets (even when it wasn’t even the Victorian era, apparently) and dressed in twenty layers of clothing, they were basically confined to fainting couches or forced to stitch samplers. Why they weren’t just stuck in closets and taken out once in awhile to make sure they didn’t loosen those corsets is beyond me.
Based on my various attempts to comment on corset-related or otherwise women-in-olden-days-related threads on social media (said attempts being obviously authoritative and scientific), any sort of mild pushback on this black-and-white view is…surprisingly unwelcome. Of course women had a rougher time back in the day–of course they had less freedom and fewer options outside of marriage, as is patently obvious to anyone who takes a look at history. But *she puts forth meekly* that doesn’t mean it was abnormal for women to, you know, do things. Like ride horses, or play sports, or get jobs, or even own stores or patent inventions. Yes, even with corsets on. By the way, normal corsets weren’t that–
“What!” folks reply, shocked to the cores over such unwelcome and offensive information. “Are you trying to say women weren’t repressed? Because theywere.” *Drops mic they carry around for just such occasions*
“Of course I’m not saying that–just that your idea of a ‘typical’ meek, seen-and-not-heard early 20th century woman is a little off the mark.” And here’s where I could’ve added: “Have you heard, for instance, of stuntwoman Helen Gibson?”
Can you believe Christmas is right around the corner? Somehow, time is still humming along. I’ve been keeping busy lately with cookie baking, making Christmas-y crafts, and of course getting a few Christmas cards sent out in time.
Which reminds me (great segue, eh?) did you know that back in the day actors used to place little Christmas greetings in the trade magazines? I’m guessing these were placed by publicity folks and meant as little “thank yous” to exhibitors, distributors and other people in the industry for a prosperous year–nothing wrong with fostering a little goodwill. They might be as simple as the words “Yuletide Greetings” along with the actor’s name, but some included a portrait or a small holiday-themed illustration. What’s also interesting is how most of these “cards” were placed in the December 24th-25th issues, or published around New Year’s. (The early 20th century U.S. didn’t generally have the weeks-long Christmas hype of today.)
I think these little greetings are pretty endearing, so let’s check out some examples! Here’s what a typical bunch looked like (you can click to see larger images, or right-click to bring them up in their own tab):
Sometime ago, I saw this still on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s site (a site I have lauded in the past) for a film that was being restored:
A Sennett short–from the late 1910s, probably my favorite period of of the silent era–loaded with goofy slapstick–AND it starred Louise Fazenda! I waited with bated breath for it to become available.
I had bated breath for a pretty long time, but my lack of oxygen was worth it because The Village Chestnut is now freely available on the NFPF site! And it’s a beaut, too, one of those scratchy-but-clear prints that does silent fans’ hearts good. And it’s probably one of the best showcases for Louise’s slapstick skills I’ve seen yet–not every actress was willing to fall in mud puddles or do tough, dizzying pratfalls quite the way she did. Continue reading →
Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!
So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.
Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!
In 1914, horror wasn’t a recognized movie genre. Yes, there were films with macabre elements (like those strange, ancient special effects excursions by de Chomon and Melies), and you had your usual dark mysteries and thrillers (often in serial form). But the idea of being an enthusiast of “horror films” wouldn’t enter the public lexicon for quite a few years.
So in order to find the ancestors of Frankenstein, (1931) and The Haunting (1963), we have to weigh our options. The 1910 Frankenstein certainly counts, yes? And something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) does, obviously. What about the serial Les Vampires (1915), with that one famous still? Or something off the beaten track, like Charley Bowers’s surreal short There It is (1926) or Max Linder’s Au Secours! (1924)?
One film that’s an obvious candidate is The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914), D.W. Griffith’s Poe-infused drama containing visions of leaping demons and fake skeletons. I know I prefer watching it around Halloween.
Nosferatu (1922) fans such as myself (and, hopefully, yourself) are highly aware of its iconic status, its gothic cinematography, and its limitless ways to inspire today’s filmmakers. It may not be as jump-out-of-your-seat scary as some later horror films, but we highly appreciate how it broke ground and managed to create a beautifully haunting atmosphere.
Oh, and we’re also well aware of this guy:
This acquired taste in human form is Gustav von Wangenheim, the source of a few unintentional chuckles in the early scenes of the movie. But maybe that’s a little harsh. As I wrote in my Nosferatu review, Gustav’s babyface and habit of laughing just a little too long actually make his later scenes with Count Orlok pretty effective–if a character that happy-go-lucky starts getting scared, it must be for a good reason.
In fact, his acting left enough of an impression that I decided to take a closer look at this young actor. How did he come to star in Nosferatu, and what happened to him thereafter?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: It has come to our attention that many in the classic film community–of which the silent film community is a small yet passionate subset–have been somewhat misinformed about a particular character trope of the early 20th century.
Namely, that upon viewing certain 1920s films with the promise of having “vampires” in their plots, the said movie watching experiences don’t appear to reveal any bloodsucking, cape-wearing, pasty-faced monsters from the grave.
This prompts various IMDb reviews to say: “So there’s definitely no vampires in this movie…” or, “The gal in this film was a piece of work, but definitely not a vampire.”