The typical leading man of silent films was a strong, dependable, clean-cut type, with names like Harold Lockwood or Earle Williams. By the 1920s Rudolph Valentino’s popularity had initiated a craze for “exotic” Latin lovers. But modern moviegoers might be surprised to learn there was another matinee idol even earlier than Valentino who seemed “exotic” to white audiences: the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a major star of the 1910s.
Hayakawa’s early life was tinged by drama. He was born Kintaro Hayakawa on June 10, 1886 in the city of Minamiboso in Chiba, Japan. He had a wealthy family, his father being the provincial governor and his mother having aristocratic roots. At age eighteen Hayakawa attempted to join the Japanese naval academy in Etajima, planning on becoming an officer to fulfill his parents’ wishes. When he was rejected due to hearing problems (he had ruptured an eardrum while diving), he attempted to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by repeatedly stabbing himself in the abdomen. Fortunately, his father discovered him in time and he managed to make a recovery.
Recently I spottedthis well-illustrated 1917 articlefrom Motion Picture called “Something New in Pictures.” The “Something New” was a short Vitagraph film called The Yellow Girl (no, it’s not about what you think it is), and the image below was the first of a series of large stills showing off an unusual production design. I love the stripes and checks you see in the louder Edwardian fashions and regular readers know I’m also fascinated by German Expressionism, so a novelty film hovering in the intriguing zone between “edgy style” and “avant-garde” grabbed my attention right away.
In film history books the year 1915 practically goes hand-in-hand with The Birth of the Nation—not surprising, considering its mega-blockbuster status. But it was also a banner year for many amazingly sophisticated, ground-breaking films, from scandalous dramas like The Cheat to period pieces like The Coward to realistic crime films like Regeneration. The latter was famed director Raoul Walsh’s first feature-length film, and today it’s also considered the first feature-length gangster film. It has those touches of sentiment so common at the time, but also has a surprisingly unflinching portrayal of the grittier side of city life. Somehow, it makes me think of an Edwardian Valentine’s Day postcard plucked gingerly out of a mud puddle.
Actors living during the dividing line of “before” and “after” the emergence of cinema were given a unique gift. Unlike the generations of actors just before them, their performances could be enjoyed years, if not decades, after their deaths–provided their films survived, of course.
While many of these silent film actors have fallen into obscurity, there’s a few who had the good luck to end up in iconic films. One such actor was Elmer Booth, whose tragic early death left us with a comparatively brief filmography, but at least one performance that prophesied dozens of gangster films to come.
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 Divasand 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.
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!
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!
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!
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 Cleopatra—have 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, 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:
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, those book are 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.