Celebrating The Fourth With “The Spirit of ’76” (1905)

Happy Independence Day, U.S. readers! Before heading to the BBQ, park, parade or lake (here in Minnesota no Fourth is complete without heading to one of our 10,000 lakes), how about taking in a teeny patriotic short courtesy of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company? Accompanied by Ben Model, no less! Back in 1905 it would’ve been played in a Mutoscope machine–silently– and here it is today, playing on our phones and laptops at a moment’s notice:

So teeny–so patriotic! And familiar, no? Ben wrote about this short (which was made available courtesy of the Library of Congress’s Paper Print Collection) on his blog a few years ago. He wrote that while he usually doesn’t use familiar songs while accompanying silent films, in this case, “the songs ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind’–heard here–are practically synonymous with the image of these three musicians.” (Here’s the link to his post: https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/spirit-of-76/.)

The iconic image of these musicians came from the 1876 painting The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald Willard. It was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and chromolithographs of it became very popular. Eventually it was even taken on tour.

The elderly patriot in the middle was apparently modeled after Willard’s father, and was also inspired by his grandfather, who had been a part of the Revolution. So there’s some layers to it, you might say.

And of course it’s been parodied ever since. There’s literally so many examples that your head could explode, but here’s a Mickey Mouse comic book cover:

The Simpsons, because of course they did this at some point:

And here’s a particularly random one: photographer John Swope, Henry Fonda and James Stewart dressed as the Marx Brothers dressed as the Willard musicians. This was dreamed up for a “Spirit of ’76” themed birthday party Marion Davies threw for William Randolph Hearst in 1937. Alrighty then!

So Happy Fourth readers, have a fine day and make some of your own patriotic memories!

What Are The World’s Oldest Horror Movies?

Can you imagine a world without horror movies? Their tropes are so familiar–monsters with bloody fangs, screaming teens, tired old jump scares–that it’s hard to imagine pop culture without them. Thanks to Halloween turning autumn into an extended celebration of all things spooky, in many ways the horror genre is part of life’s memories.

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As well as being Tim Burton’s reason for life.

But while there were macabre films in the silent era, people wouldn’t start using the term “horror” until Universal started releasing its famous monsters in the early 1930s. Before that, spooky films used to be lumped in under the banner of “mysterious” or “mystery pictures.” In the 1900s, at least. The “mystery” distinction might’ve mattered more to exhibitors than the audiences at your basic moving picture show, who probably just felt that some of the (very) short films in the program were more eerily entertaining than others.

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Or simply more pants-wettingly terrifying than others.

Continue reading

5 (Very) Early Pickford Films

“The Biograph Girl”! The title once belonged to Florence Lawrence, the first film actor to be recognized by name. But when Lawrence left the Biograph fold in 1909, the title passed on to a new ingenue: young former theater actress Mary Pickford.

Mary in 1911. (From marypickford.org.)

Pickford’s Biographs can get overlooked, but they are wildly important to her career. Not only did D.W. Griffith’s tutelage help her learn the ropes of film acting very quickly–so quickly that the strong-willed actress soon began to insist on her own ideas for interesting performances–but during her time at 11 East 14th Street she fell in love with the movies. Continue reading

The Extraordinary Talent of Robert “Bobby” Harron

I am pleased to present this article on the life and career of the very underappreciated Bobby Harron, an actor of rare talent who left his mark on some of the greatest films of the silent era–and the film industry in general. It’s a long one, so I’ve added a list of contents for your convenience! 

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Early Life
The Beginnings of a Career
Developing as an Actor
Major Roles
An Established Leading Man
The Close of a Promising Career
“The Boy Whom Everyone Liked”

Introduction

One of the earliest and most overlooked film stars is Robert “Bobby” Harron. The slender, unassuming young man acted in dozens of films, including the largest milestones of all time: The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).

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And yet, perhaps because of the attention given to Griffith’s actresses, Bobby is constantly, and consistently, overlooked. It’s common to see articles merely mention him as a costar to Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish before delving into the details of the women’s performances. Gish and Marsh were some of the finest actresses of the silent era, to say nothing of other talented Griffith players like Miriam Cooper or Blanche Sweet. But Bobby was a massively talented actor in his own right. Take a moment to turn your concentration from Gish or Marsh to the dark-haired Irish lad just to their side, and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing. Continue reading

Obscure Film Recommendation: “The Female of the Species”

In addition to my “Thoughts On…” series I was also occasionally put the spotlight on an obscure silent film that I think is interesting (for varying reasons).  This can be a film that is, obviously, hardly watched, or maybe it floats around but never gets discussed, or perhaps the casual silent fan just doesn’t know it exists.  Enjoy!

If you’re a fan of early film history, you’ve probably gotten into at least a few of the D.W. Griffith-directed shorts by the American Biograph Company.  These one- to three-reel “Biograph shorts” from the early 1910s (which can also be handily referred to as “bite-sized gems of filmmaking genius”) prove how rapidly filmmaking matured.  The New York Hat, The Musketeers of Pig Alley and The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch are among the most famous and talked-about of the bunch. Continue reading