The famed genre of the 1930s gangster film left a strong mark on pop culture. Much like the western, it’s a uniquely American genre that’s entwined with both actual history and mythologizing. We all know its tropes: the shootouts, the booze smuggling, the style, the slang. And we know its classics: Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
But, like practically every trope in cinema, it all had its roots in the silent era, starting with simple police chase films, popular crime serials, short Biograph dramas, and eventually resulting in genre-defining works like Underworld (1927).
This February, Silent-ology will be taking a look at the earliest days of the gangster genre, from its vague origins in general “crime films” to its confident emergence at the beginning of the Great Depression. We’ll be looking at a few key films and personalities, and try to understand just where all the slang and natty suits came from.
I’ll be covering Silent-ology’s 9th (!) anniversary on February 2nd and then the series will begin. Please tune in as often as you like throughout the next month to see what’s new!
This is my own entry for the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. I hope you enjoy!
When Buster Keaton went through the transition from silents to talkies, as all fans know it wasn’t smooth–he was talked into giving up his studio and moving to the fancy megastudio MGM, and basically had to adapt to being treated as an actor, not a filmmaker. His personal battles behind the scenes with alcoholism and his failing marriage are also well known to fans, and it’s safe to say that all of the above can…color our opinions of his MGM films (to put it mildly). Of the nine features Buster starred in from 1928-1933, the seven talkies in particular are often dismissed as inept embarrassments for someone who made so many silent classics.
So I guess this is my segue into saying: I’m now going to give mini reviews of all his MGMs!
To be clear, I’m going to examine some of the differences between the MGMs and his independent films but I’m also going to try to review them more objectively. Too often we Buster fans seek out the MGMs just to scrutinize every frame for evidence of inferiority to his silent pictures, gawking at the sad beatdown of our creative genius and basically wallowing in whatever misery we feel we can detect onscreen–not really watching them just as movies. This mindset’s hard to escape, it’s true, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the MGMs for what they were–popular films that were pretty similar to other popular films from the time.
The weather is appropriately damp and dreary here in the upper Midwest, and we’re only a few days away from Halloween. So gather ’round, folks, it’s ghost story time!
The following was courtesy of actress Nancy Carroll, whose screen stardom began in the late 1920s and who was at peak popularity by the time this Screenland article was published (in 1932).
Carroll had been born in New York City to Irish parents, and their ghost stories from the “Old Country” were the basis of this charmingly spooky interview. Also note the game Carroll talks about at the end, which is still pretty popular today!
And Now For Halloween! The Ghost Walks With Nancy Carroll Listen to some real Irish folk-tales of the spooky season By Ruth Tildesley
How would you like to go to a Hallowe’en party held in a haunted castle in Ireland?
Looking for some rare old films to watch? Other than Archive.org or YouTube–if you don’t mind wading through an ocean of fuzzy public domain copies and painful soundtracks–I can’t think of a better place to go than the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. It has a free online library of freshly-preserved films, everything from 1910s cartoons to 1940s documentaries. And I recently discovered that the site was also hiding a marvelous surprise–for me, anyways!
On their “Treasures from the American Film Archives” screening room page they the link for a 14-minute film called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939). The caption caught my eye: “Preserved by Minnesota Historical Society.” I, a native Minnesotan, thought: “Hold on! Cologne? Wait, was this filmed in that Cologne?”
Cologne, Minnesota, you see, is a little town only a short drive from where I grew up. You zip past cornfields and soybean fields and cow pastures for awhile, cross a highway, and there it is, with an old railroad line running through it and a pretty little lake along one side. I still live pretty close by, and last year I even considered buying a house there! And lo and behold there it was, the star of a pre-WWII amateur film. How could I not check that out?
Well hello there, patient readers! Having recently gone through the endless job of packing everything I owned, the stress-filled excitement of moving it to a new place, and enduring the equally endless job of UNpacking everything I owned, I’m back in the Silent-ology saddle! Since starting this blog 8 years ago, I really haven’t taken a break longer than a couple weeks or so, so having a breather was probably overdue. But now my brain is starting to itch again, wondering why I haven’t been musing over obscure Essanay shorts or the merits of brilliantined hair. So may regular postings resume!!
As a token of my appreciation for how nice y’all are to keep dropping by, here is a genuinely fascinating 1930 article from the French magazine Pour Vous. A Damfino (can’t recall who, sadly–if it was you, let me know!) found it on the fine site La Belle Equipe, which had originally shared it in 2016 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Buster’s passing. The fullest of credit goes to La Belle for making it available–and for clipping the images, too. Thank you, thank you! Merci!
As you can see, it is part of a series published in the fall of 1930. The other pieces are fun too but mostly recount Buster’s familiar life story. This particular piece, however, caught my eye. It seems to be relying on previous interviews with Buster and the Talmadge sisters taken in Santa Monica, along with the author’s glowing impressions of Buster and his appeal. Despite being published in 1930, there’s nothing to indicate that Buster was no longer an independent filmmaker at this point.
The English translation is Google’s doing, which created some…odd turns of phrase, so please note that I did touch up a sentence or two. You’ll see that the style of the piece as a whole is quite gushingly poetic–the French adored them some Buster. You can read the original French or see Google’s original translation here. Enjoy!
Memories Of Buster Keaton (part 5) by John D. Williamson
In what condition does Buster attend the presentation of his films?
PUBLISHED IN POUR VOUS ON SEPTEMBER 11, 1930
What more will I tell you about BusterKeaton’s career? Specific facts? You know them. Since Buster Keaton rose to fame, you’ve seen all of his movies. These films of such a sure comic character were great events in our hero’s life. He lived for them. He thought about them all day. He dreamed about them at night.
Nathalie Talmadge told me that when he prepares a film, Buster sleeps only a light sleep cut off by confusedly whispered words, gasps and grunts. Sometimes he gets up, goes out into his garden, whistles a step, comes back to bed, gets up, drinks a whiskey and soda, and wanders around the house all night chasing the comic idea, the invincible “gag” that is missing in his film. When he has found it, whatever the hour, Buster wakes the whole household, turns on all the phonographs and performs in front of the whole family the “gag” or the scene he has been looking for. It is not by boasting. Rarely was a man less marked by the histrionic’s faults than this simple man endowed with all the virtues of childhood. Showing his latest find–is it not the gesture of a child who ignores intellectual selfishness and wants everyone to share in its joys? It is the poetic side of this character that I would like to put before your eyes.
Buster still thinks he is on the verge of entering a fairytale world. He is on the same level as the fairies. When spotting the most mundane office door, he always wonders if it will not give him access to a world entirely different from ours. At any time of day or night, he is ready to find adventure and the unknown. If he had not lived in the world of theater and cinema, which allows every escape into the imagination, without a doubt he would have been one of those heroic daredevils who, in the columns of newspapers, share the best spots with criminals and earthquakes. He always has some chimera in mind. Traveling to the center of the earth, exploring the moon by plane or shell, and communicating with Mars are his hobbies.
Self-taught, he forged a culture more scientific than literary, but curious, abundant and varied. Were you the most competent specialist in the matter, you could not teach him anything about Vaucanson’s automata and the dozen cosmogonies that men have invented to explain the inexplicable birth of worlds. He certainly ignores the achievements of Tamerlan and the quarter pound of Rabelais, but he does know the latest hypotheses on the constitution of the material and knows by heart the names of all the champions of boxing, swimming, tennis, baseball, and high jump.
A man of today, as you can see, with a culture that is too clearly scientific but who knows how to supply it with an impetus, a freshness of imagination which our contemporaries so often lack. Add to that a strong penchant for philosophical readings (Schopenhauer, Aristotle, David Hume), and you will have a fairly complete and in no way flattered intellectual portrait of the “clown” Joseph Francis Keaton.
Do not imagine from this description that our Buster is a sort of powdery scholar who deigns, from time to time, to come out of his folio to put on the livery of the comic and earn his living, with the thought in the back of his mind that he is prostituting his dignity. Nothing is further from him. I showed him playing alone, at daybreak, on the beach in Santa Monica, with shells, which represent actors; I told you about his nocturnal nervousness when he was preparing a film.
All this should give you an idea of the seriousness with which he considers his art. And all this is nothing. You have to have seen Buster Keaton after he showed one of his new films to understand his passion for cinema.
Twenty-four hours in advance, he is sick with anguish. He doesn’t eat anymore. He withdraws from his wife and children and talks about abandoning the studios forever if his film is not successful. He is already making plans, decides to invest his fortune in this or that business, offers Natalie a trip to China, etc. The time for the presentation finally arrives. Buster goes to the small room next to the studio where the finished films are shown, shakes hands with his friends as if he is leaving them forever, and sits down in the armchair reserved for him as if it was an electric chair.
During the projection, he does not breathe a word. Upon leaving, he escapes congratulations, runs away, disappears. But then, he goes to see his friends one by one. He begs them to tell him the truth, however “appalling” it may be to him. He does not want to believe them when they tell him that he has never done anything better and is not reassured until after the film has been shown in public. The total support of the spectators, the praises of the critics give him calm and sleep. It was then that he began to worry about his next film.
That is Buster Keaton. If, with these few notes, I did not know how to make you love him, do not doubt it is because I am the most proud fool who has ever walked this earth. In this terrible scenario, all I would have to do is apologize to you and advise you to go see my friend in one of his many incarnations. If my little papers had brought just one more spectator to Buster Keaton, I would consider myself satisfied.
John D. Williamson
A gem, yes? The description of Buster being so deeply, passionately invested in his films–and so nervous about them being good!–really rings true to me. Might that, perhaps, explain Buster’s shelving of The High Sign? He must’ve felt so much pressure behind his first solo release, especially on the heels of working with the world-famous Arbuckle. No doubt he felt that it had to be perfect, and when the idea for One Week came along–well, you can understand why he put the first film aside.
Bonus content! If you’re curious about that Santa Monica beach reference, here’s the relevant excerpt from part 4, published September 4 1930:
“The next morning, at daybreak, I went down to the beach. There was no one there yet. However the front cabin of Keaton, a bathrobe was lying. I looked towards the sea. Far away, a black dot was moving slowly. He was approaching the shore. Soon I could recognize the daring morning swimmer. It was BusterKeaton . I could observe him without being seen. So I did not move. BusterKeaton got back on his feet, snorted, dried himself off, and soon began a little job that seemed extremely mysterious to me. On a small rectangle of sand carefully flattened and strictly delimited by pebbles, he had arranged seashells which he was looking at with a deeply absorbed air. Every now and then he would move one and fall back into his deep meditation.
“I approached without making a sound. I was able to get close to Buster without his noticing my presence. Suddenly, impatiently, muttering a curse, he dispersed with a punch the mysterious assembly of shells. He stood up and found himself face to face with me.
“‘What the devil were you doing there?’ I asked him.
“‘I was working on my next film,’ he replied. ‘There is a scene that I can’t quite see. See, you understand, see how I see you there. This is why I use these little shells which represent actors in this rectangle of sand which represents the “set” of the studio. This is how I work on all my films, with shells, pieces of paper, coins…‘ A man who gets up so early and work so hard could not fail.”
These snippets of Buster are like puzzle pieces, each one revealing a bit more of who he was and how he thought about things. Although as Eleanor Keaton said, we may never fully “know” Buster–but we fans just can’t help giving it a try.
While I’d originally hoped to put out two more posts, this is going to be the last one for Forgotten Comedians Month 2–it needed a bit more care. I hope you enjoyed following along! It was fun to have a “round two” of this theme month, so maybe it could become a recurring series…? I’d be down, just sayin’!
If you’ve been lurking around Silent-ology for awhile, you might’ve found my little bio for an apparently random bit player named Joe Bordeaux (sometimes spelled “Bordeau”). Why did I decide to write about this obscure person? Well, there’s a story involved. And a quasi-drinking game, of my own invention. I’ll explain.
Pictured in cop garb on the far left: our subject.
This is my own entry for the Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Hope you enjoy!
Ah, Buster’s talkies–few topics cause greater discussion among Keaton fans. We all agree that his own silent films are veritable masterpieces, but the talkies he was starred in? Let’s just say that opinions vary.
But while Buster’s MGM talkies are widely analyzed, his 1930s comedy shorts get less attention. Or, more likely, they’re written off as merely “inferior” to his solo work and that’s about it. While I can’t really disagree, I do think there’s some gems among the Educationals. And you really can’t put a price on getting several extra hours’ worth of Keaton performances–and in sound! Continue reading →
This is the final post for Soviet Silents Month. The research wasn’t easy, but it was a fascinating and important era to explore. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!
It opens with vistas of ripening wheat fields, rippling in the wind of the Ukrainian steppe. Fertile seeds from fertile soil–there’s a long history behind the familiar sight. It cuts to a medium shot of a young woman standing beside a sunflower, with the sky providing a natural background. Both are also connected to the fertile soil. Seeds, fields, sun, harvest, life–those few shots elevate their humble subjects into symbols of the most natural, the most beautiful order of things.
Thus begins Earth (1930), perhaps the most poetic of the Soviet silents, frequently placed on “Greatest Films” lists. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) it was made to glorify collective farms, finishing shooting shortly before Stalin’s deadly policies of forced collectivization went into effect. Yet there is depth in the operatic Earth that seems to transcend its subject–at least according to many interpretations.
If someone asked me about my thoughts on the existence of a Higher Power, I might ponder upon different answers, arguments I would hope to elucidate with all the finesse of an old-school British professor sitting in a leather wingback chair next to a crackling fireplace (as they do). I say “might ponder.” Because what I instinctively wanna blurt out is: “Heck yes a Higher Power’s gotta exist, because He made sure I never saw The Mascot when I was a kid!!”
“Mommy, peees, turn it doff!”
In the past, I’ve mentioned that there’s certain, shall we say, unique silents that would’ve terrified me back when I was a kid–especially ones with papier-mache goblins or weird stop-motion sequences. The Panicky Picnic (1909)? Ew. Ah! La Barbe (1906)? No thank you. Don’t even bring up Le cochon danseur (1907)–it just stopped making cameos in my nightmares. So now I must announce that Ladislas Starevich’s The Mascot (Fétiche Mascotte, 1933), which I saw for the first time recently, is currently #1 on my “Do Not Show To Sensitive Children” list. Did I mention its alternate title is The Devil’s Ball?
While exploring Starevich’s work for Silent Stop Motion Month I became fascinated by this peculiar short, a distinctively European work showcasing some of the era’s most brilliant stop motion animation and some of its creepiest imagery. Apparently it’s already freaked out a generation of ’80s children, thanks to being shown with other cheaply-acquired shorts on late-night British TV. Now it dwells on YouTube, to unsettle all unsuspecting animation fans who doth click on it (and oodles of indie rock bands who use clips for their music videos–like flies to honey, my friends). Since The Mascot is practically a silent film and was made by a silent era master, I say we take a look at it.
Nowadays there’s a lot of hubbub about actresses in modern comedies, with plenty of well-meaning people proclaiming that the existence of Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig proves that, at last, folks are figuring out that ladies can be funny too! It only took 130 years, y’all! No one has ever, ever noticed this before, and no, I’ve never heard of Mabel Normand or seen I Love Lucy, why do you ask?
“…Oh. But that was, like, in black and white.”
But, as the introduction to James L. Neibaur’s latest book The Hal Roach Shorts of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly points out, the funny ladies of film have been with us far longer than that–since the darn dawn of cinema, I would add. A few perfect examples from the Golden Age of Comedy are Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Patsy Kelly, who starred together in a number of shorts in the 1930s (Todd and Pitts were a comedy team for a few years; when Pitts left the Roach studio in 1933 Patsy Kelly took over her half of the team). While there are a couple biographies of ZaSu available and several about Thelma (due to her tragic death in 1935), Neibaur’s book is the first to examine the short comedies of these frequently overlooked comediennes. Continue reading →