While combing through an online copy of a 1920s magazine just for amateur movie makers (it’s called, in case you’re curious, Amateur Movie Makers) I stumbled across a name that seemed familiar: “Norman McLeod”. Hmm, why did that ring a bell?
He was mentioned in an article on “art titles” (title cards with illustrations) which referred to “the famous skeleton cartoons” which “were made familiar by the clever pen of Norman McLeod, who has illustrated Christie Comedy titles for a number of years.” (You might be picturing Silly Symphony-style skeletons, but they were actually stick figures.) Having seen a few of the Christie Comedies, I had a little “ah-ha!” moment of now knowing who was behind those funny cartoons.
In honor of this here Turkey Day, I’ve decided to craft a small collection of photos showcasing a hot 1920s autumn trend: pictures of silent stars posing with turkeys. Apparently, no November issue of a movie magazine was complete without at least one of these.
Here, for instance, is Anna Q. Nilsson posing with a studio’s best stuffed turkey. Some of you might remember Nilsson’s cameo in Sunset Boulevard:
For decades, silent star Marion Davies was known mainly for two things: for being the mistress of uber-powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and for supposedly being the inspiration for the untalented Susan Alexander in CitizenKane. Well, the latter isn’t true–Susan was based on the wife of a different uber-powerful magnate (as Orson Welles himself finally revealed). And as for the former, while Marion was certainly part of a faithful “arrangement” with Hearst right up until his death, it didn’t define her. A look at her films proves that she was a warm, hardworking, immensely talented woman who likely had the charisma to make a name for herself in Hollywood without Hearst’s help. (I’d say she was mighty lucky to have him on her team, but she was already working on her acting career before he swooped in with 5-gallon buckets of money.)
Man, I couldn’t help cringing while writing the title of this post–because from that alone, this film sounds so cool. This is a vampire tale? From the year 1920? And it’s a German Expressionist film, you say? By Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you say?! This must be a forgotten gem!! An obscure work of genius, just begging to be rediscovered by eager new audiences and then extolled as one of the unsung masterpieces of early experimental cinema!!
HOLY FREAKIN’ HARRY LANGDON, LOOK AT THAT ART DESIGN!!
Well, I’m here to confirm that it’s………..not. It’s just not. It’s not any of those things. Well, okay, it is a German Expressionist film from 1920 directed by Robert Wiene, but a cinematic masterpiece? Oh good heavens, no. Continue reading →
“I only fell in love once with a movie actor. It was Conrad Veidt. His magnetism and his personality got me. His voice and gestures fascinated me. I hated him, feared him, loved him. When he died it seemed to me that a vital part of my imagination died too, and my world of dreams was bare.”
Quoted from one of the documents compiled in British Cinemas and Their Audiences by J.P. Mayer.
He had a lean, chiseled face that could’ve belonged to a regal nobleman, a sickly poet, or a sinister villain. His blue eyes could burn with the fury of a madman, or grow wide and distant as if trying to forget terrible secrets. But they could become warm and friendly too, especially if you were chatting with this tall, distinguished man about his greatest passion: dramatic acting. “I must have the dramatic, the ecstatic,” he told an interviewer in 1928, “something with great mental force.”
Known today for such horror classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (nicknamed “Connie”) came from a quiet and sensible background. Continue reading →
Not only was yesterday Buster’s birthday, but this weekend I’ll be heading to Muskegon, Michigan for the official Damfino convention! This will be my very first time at this event (I’m giving a presentation too, so wish me luck!). Thus, it only seemed fitting to start out this Halloween month with one of Buster’s more well-known shorts.
There seemed to be certain plots and tropes that all silent comedians tried out in turn. Everyone did food preparation gags, everyone went to the beach, everyone (everyone) from Harry Langdon to Chaplin himself showed up as a white-clad street cleaner at some point. In 1921, it was Buster Keaton’s turn to try his hand at the familiar gag-rich setting of The Spooky Haunted House.
While far too many films of Jazz Age star Marion Davies are lost or unavailable, happily a few gems still survive. In my opinion the shiniest gem is probably Show People (1928), an affectionate satire of the movies that’s the very definition of a “crowd pleaser”.
Fans of film history–rejoice! For in the Year of our Lord two thousand and seventeen, the library of essential early film books like The Parade’s Gone By and Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory has been expanded by Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy by film historian Steve Massa. It’s been my most anticipated book of the year, and as you can already tell, I was not disappointed.
It’s during these warm days of summer, when the humid, greenery-scented air brings back nostalgic memories, that I find myself turning to Tol’able David (1921). A masterpiece of Americana, it’s also arguably one of the great masterpieces of the cinema. It’s also one of my absolute favorite silent movies.
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.”
Those unacquainted with The Passion might not be prepared for it. It doesn’t lead you from plot point to plot point, but throws you into an experience. It’s intensely, harshly realistic, but within a mildly expressionistic setting. We’re meant to contemplate Joan’s ordeal, linked thematically with the most widely contemplated ordeal in history. A critic I admire said it best: “I know of movies more theologically profound or more pious, but none more evocative of what it means to share the sufferings of Christ.” Continue reading →