When we read about history, it’s easy to forget how often various worlds would collide. For example, Harold Lloyd’s Speedy and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc came out the same year, and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford once had Albert Einstein over for dinner (Chaplin was invited too, and Pickford remembered him and Doug listening to the famed professor in awed “befuddlement”). And an artist like, say, the iconic Salvador Dalí would have grown up with silent comedies, and would’ve had his favorite comedians like everyone else.
It’s fairly common knowledge among classic comedy fans that Dalí was a Marx Brothers fan–or rather, fanatic. Once he gifted Harpo a custom-made harp with barbed wire strings, covered with spoons (as historian Joe Adamson humorously explained, Harpo “didn’t drop spoons, he dropped knives, that’s why Dalí used spoons”). He also presented the Marx Brothers with a screenplay called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, basically a living series of his paintings but with Marx Brothers. (They somewhat respectfully declined.) But not everyone knows that Dalí was a Buster Keaton fan, too.
As you sit down to sometime this weekend to enjoy the great German Expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (just ahunch, but something tells me you will!), keep in mind that 2022 has a special significance: it’s the 100th anniversary of this milestone piece of cinema!
Its “birthday” of sorts is technically March 4, 1922, when the studio Prana-Film hosted its grand premiere at the Marmorsaal (“marble hall”) of the Berlin Zoological Garden. It was released in German theaters on March 15, and then slowly made its way around the Netherlands, France, Estonia, a few other European countries…and that’s about it, until it was finally released in the U.K. in 1928 and the U.S. in 1929.
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…!