I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
A favorite film of mine to revisit every Lent, especially on this particular holy day, Good Friday, is this late 1920s masterpiece. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on it again this year. It’s a film so powerful that it can be difficult to describe, but back in 2017 I gave it my best shot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I truly hope this piques your interest!
Making most lists of the top ten greatest films ever made is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). And indeed, you suspect a spot had always been reserved for it. A critic from as far back as 1929 was moved to declare, “It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams.”
When it comes to finding crowd-pleasing silent films, you can’t go wrong with Marion Davies features. It’s pretty well known that her earlier features, financed by lover William Randolph Hearst, tended to be costume pictures that attracted more interest a century ago than today. But her charming mid- to late-Twenties films have aged beautifully. Blending light comedy, romance, a bit of tasteful slapstick and even satire, they still have universal appeal.
One of these crowd-pleasers is a film I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of–Beverly of Graustark (1926). If we had to choose a film to mark the divide between Davies’s more sedate early features and her later comedies, it would probably be Beverly. And it’s a reminder that even obscure 1920s features can prove how darn good silent Hollywood could be.
2022 marks the centenary of a very specific social phenomenon–1920s flapper culture. That’s right, I’m saying “centenary,” because I propose that 1922 should be formally recognized as the “Birth Year of the Flapper.” I’ve spent, err, too much time exploring this fascinating era of the early 20th century (especially when I did Flapper Month here on Silent-ology a few years ago), and after awhile I started noticing a trend. While flapper culture had been brewing and evolving for quite some time, 1922 is truly the year when the quintessential bobbed-hair flapper burst into the public consciousness. Did she ever!
Two examples of what I mean: here’s the results you get when you search for “flapper flappers” (both words at the same time) in the years 1910-1929 on the Media History Digital Library:
And if you do the same search on Chronicling America, if you narrow the search results down to a single year at a time, you will see:
1919: 12 results 1920: 22 1921: 36 1922: 533 (!)
I dunno, that’s looking pretty clear cut to me!
(If you’re curious, on Chronicling America 1923 = 67 results, and 1924 = 64. After 1922, flappers seemed to be an accepted part of life–or maybe the public was tired of talking about them so much.)
If the combination of “Edward Everett Horton” and “silent comedies” just made you do a double take like, well, Edward Everett Horton, I don’t blame you. A very familiar “fussy gentleman” type in ’30s and ’40s films, and also known for working in television, Horton isn’t someone we associate with “silent clown.” Yet a silent clown he was for a short series in the late 1920s, and it’s only recently that his two-reel comedies have been hauled out of archives and restored. And, all eight of them are available on Undercrank Productions‘ new DVD collection!
Hold everything–there’s a silent film version of Dostoevsky’s riveting classic Crime and Punishment that is German Expressionist, is very faithful to the text, has Russian actors, and was directed by the same guy responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Is this the recipe for a perfect forgotten classic?!
If you’re a regular reader you might recall that my review forGenuine (1920), another German Expressionist film by Robert Wiene, began pretty much the same way. Now, in Genuine‘s case rosy expectations were, uh, not met (really not met). But in the case of the overlooked Raskolnikov (1923)? Circulating prints have their drawbacks, but from what I can (sort of) see it’s a pretty darn good adaptation. It could well be a minor classic of the German Expressionist era–but funnily enough, not really because of its German Expressionist sets.
It’s one of the most famous scandals in Hollywood history: the 1921 “Arbuckle scandal” revolving around actress Virginia Rappe, who became ill under mysterious circumstances at Roscoe Arbuckle’s Labor Day party in a San Francisco hotel and died a few days later. Arbuckle, one of the most beloved comedians in the world at the time, was accused of her murder, resulting in three sensational trials and mountains of hysterical press coverage. He was eventually acquitted, but the scandal has forever tinged both his name and the name of Rappe. Most people today have at least a faint idea of the scandal–usually the ugliest rumors, unfortunately. And it’s definitely fascinated generations of film history fans, who’ve debated every detail of the case ever since.
And I should know, because I’m one of those film history fans. Admittedly I don’t find the sordid details fun to read about, especially since Arbuckle’s one of my favorite comedians. And there’s something…inherently impractical about wanting a blow-by-blow timeline of the Labor Day party. Sure, we can piece together a pretty detailed picture from witness testimonies, but think back to the last party you’ve been to. Can you remember exactly what time you got there, who attended, when each person arrived and left? Can you remember exact conversations? What certain people were eating or how many drinks each person had? Heck, I have a hard time remembering exactly how my day went yesterday. And this is a party that happened an entire century ago. Need I add that we’ll never know precisely what happened in room 1219 (where Rappe first became ill)? The only two people in the world who truly knew were Arbuckle and Rappe, and we only have Arbuckle’s side of the story–no doubt heavily influenced by his attorneys.
Having said all that, it was still a very historically significant case, and worth looking into if only because the reputations of Arbuckle and Rappe have been dragged through the soggiest, most putrid of mud. I also wanted to share a theory that’s been brewing in my mind that might help explain some of Arbuckle’s behavior.
We’ve largely forgotten how popular the “rural” genre was in early film, especially in the mid- to late-1910s. Since so many silents are lost and all, it’s safe to assume that for every charming classic like Tol’able David (1921) or The Greatest Question (1919) there are several rural-themed films that have vanished. One such lost film was called The Old Oaken Bucket (1921), and after reading descriptions I decided that there’s no way you could make a film that sentimental today. At least, not without a lot of struggle…!
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!