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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 →