“Art Into Life”–The Radical History Of Soviet Silent Cinema

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.

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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.

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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

Obscure Films: “A Bear Affair” (1915)

Picture a fast-paced silent film scene where one character chases another with a gun blazing. Bullets fly, characters panic, and the editing is fast and furious Picturing something from a Western? Maybe even a Roaring Twenties gangster shootout?

Nope, just a typical scene from a 1910s Keystone comedy, where people fire guns like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and bullets do less damage than gnat bites. This particular scene’s from a short known only by the most hardcore silent comedy aficionados, A Bear Affair (1915). Oh, and the actor brandishing the gun? That would be the actress Louise Fazenda, one of the toughest and most good-natured slapstick comediennes of the silent era.

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Obscure Films: “The Coward” (1915)

“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”

We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.

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Did Billie Ritchie Really Die From An Ostrich Attack?

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.)

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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

Thoughts On: “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

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…!

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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).

Note the teeny 1910s-style camera!!

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Animated Insects And Animal Tales–The Art Of Ladislas Starevich

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).

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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.

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“One Turn One Picture”–Stop Motion Animation In The Silent Era

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.

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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.

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Fan Magazine Fun: “The Five Funniest Things In The World”

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?

Well, for starters, pie throwing.

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Well okay, then.

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“Faites entrer les Allemands”–Commemorating The 100th Anniversary of The Treaty Of Versailles

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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.”

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The crowded Hall of Mirrors during the Treaty’s signing.

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Welcome, New Readers!

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.

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“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