Book Review: “Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation” By Rob Stone

Sometimes a silent film book comes along that you never knew you needed, about silent era performers you hadn’t looked at too closely, and somehow, that book clocks in at a mighty 480 pages of historical info, trivia, and rare photos. And, it has a fantastic cover. (The designer is the talented Marlene Weisman, who also did covers for Slapstick Divas and various Undercrank Productions releases.)

Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation by film archivist and historian Rob Stone is just such a book, and it’s not only a mighty trove of information but certainly a labor of love, first taking shape during the research process for Stone’s 1996 book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. (Ollie was in quite a few of the Pokes and Jabbs films, and starred in Vim’s “Plump and Runt” comedies.) Historian Steve Massa points out in the forward of Pokes & Jabbs that this research was begun in the pre-Media History Digital Library days, when–gasp!–you had to travel to archives around the country to find surviving copies of trade magazines. This is a fact that you’ll quickly learn to appreciate once you take in the hundreds–and I do mean hundreds–of film stats, synopses, and contemporary reviews packed into this book. 

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“My Eccentric Roommate”–Stan Laurel’s Early Memories Of Charlie Chaplin

Goodness, is it really July already? Why does the lovely month of June always fly by like it was shot out of a cannon?! Anyways, let’s kick of July with this amusing reminisce from the great Stan Laurel, recalling a time back in the early 1910s when his music hall troupe “Fred Karno’s Army” toured the U.S. What other famed comedian was also in that exact same troupe? Charlie Chaplin!

Image credit of the cheery troupe: CharlieChaplin.com.

This essay is from a 1982 book called The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, compiled by Peter Haines, which I used for a post once before. This is a collection of essays and interviews by Chaplin’s friends, fellow actors, and other contemporaries, reprinted from hard-to-find publications that ranged from the 1910s-1970s. If you love Charlie, it’s well worth seeking out. Parts of this essay are probably familiar, being pretty widely quoted, but there’s other parts that might be new to you–especially a funny story at the end that sounds like something from a slightly lowbrow 1910s comedy!

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Happy Thanksgiving My Friends!

I thought you’d enjoy this festive one-page spread from 1910, featuring farmers’ daughters posing with their Thanksgiving bounty and kids “gathering pumpkin pie in the rough.” The sentiment at the top is pretty relevant right now, well over a hundred years later, don’t you think?

As always, I’m thankful for each and every one of you, Silent-ology readers! Have a lovely day and a fine holiday weekend!

1910 Happy Thanksgiving Turkey Pulling Pumpkin Cart of Food Clapsaddle  Postcard | eBay

Lost Fragments Of Theda Bara’s “Salome” Found!

HOLD EVERYTHING–how have I not mentioned this yet?! Recently it was announced that fragments of Theda Bara’s Salome (1918)–one of her most lamented lost films after Cleopatrahave been found! That’s right, there’s new footage of the legendary Theda Bara to enjoy, and from one of her lavish costume dramas, too!

Theda Bara in Lost Film Salomé (1918) | FROM THE BYGONE

Theda, early sex symbol and current silent era icon, appeared in around 40 films but only a few of them survive. Many of her biggest hits have vanished and are represented only by tantalizing stills of the actress in elaborate beaded costumes and fancy headdresses. And one of the most intriguing hits is the William Fox production Salome (1918). I won’t make you wait–here’s the footage below. The clips are brief and have Spanish intertitles, and they capture some wonderful Theda moments:

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Book Review: “King Of The Movies: Francis X. Bushman” By Lon And Debra Davis

King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman

While working the book CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Kops (slight plug there, hee hee), editor Lon Davis kindly asked me: had I ever read he and his wife Debra’s book King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman? When I said I hadn’t, he offered to send me a copy. Of course I accepted–who wouldn’t want to learn more about Edwardian heartthrob Frankie X?

Francis X. Bushman Photograph by Kay Shackleton

And I can now say, without bias or exaggeration, that King of the Movies is one of the most engaging, readable biographies of a screen star that I’ve come across, possibly supplanting my former favorites Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara and The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Or at least standing shoulder to shoulder with them. I mean, they’re pretty darn awesome too.

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Thoughts On: “Fatty And Mabel’s Simple Life” (1915)

One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.

Right up my alley–and maybe yours, too!

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Charles Ray, America’s Country Boy

Largely forgotten today, the boyish Charles Ray was once a bright Hollywoodland light. The most prominent actor to specialize in gosh-and-golly “hick” characters–with much-lauded touches of subtlety and pathos–Ray helped make the rural melodrama a much-loved genre of its own. And he may also have been influential in ways we wouldn’t guess today.

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“Home Folks” And The Picture Shows–Rural America During The Dawn Of Cinema

The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!

–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show,
Conestoga Magazine, 1907.

Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.

Rural Life in the Late 19th Century | Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900  | U.S. History Primary Source Timeline | Classroom Materials at the Library  of Congress | Library of Congress
Image credit: loc.gov
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ANNOUNCEMENT: The Silent Movie Day Blogathon!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silent-movie-day-1-finished.jpg

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.

Beautiful Lady on Wicker Chair Reading Letter. Pre-1920. “I loved reading,  and had a great desire of attaining knowledge; but w… | History articles,  Wicker, Vintage
“Why yes, I do believe I’d be on board.”

“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.

There’s even a logo!

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!

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How To Tell If Your Relative Was REALLY A Keystone Kop

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?”

Hmmmm.

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.

Like, from this still. (Technically this 1914 short, In the Clutches of a Gang, is a bit late in the game for them to be “original” Kops.)

But how many of these claims were true, and not merely hearsay? Thanks to my timely experience delving into all things Keystone Kop, I’ve rounded up some handy tips to help figure out if granddad had, in fact, been part of Sennett’s farcical police force.

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