Bert Williams: Vaudeville Superstar

If you have even a passing interest in learning about vaudeville–that hugely influential form of entertainment that today’s pop culture wouldn’t be the same without–and indeed want to acquaint yourself with early stage shows in general, there’s one name in particular that you should know: Bert Williams.

Bert_Williams_blackface

Oh yes, I can sense you raising your eyebrows right now–Williams (who himself was black) is in that cringeworthy blackface makeup, white gloves and all. This was how he appeared on the stage, and how audiences recognized him. But this man was much more than a dated makeup–this was a performer who transcended a stock character appearance by his sheer talent and charisma, and became one of the most successful performers of his time. A performer so beloved, that after his sudden death in 1922 from pneumonia over 5,000 fans filed past his casket.  Continue reading

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The Villains of D.W. Griffith Films

It’s pretty common knowledge that director D.W. Griffith, one of the Biggest of all the Big Names of the silent era, was a huge influence on fellow filmmakers. Not only in the technical skills department (contrary to popular myth, he didn’t invent closeups, crosscutting, etc., but he did utilize them wonderfully well), but also in regards to storytelling and popular movie tropes–such as character archetypes.

Pure hearted heroes, damsels in distress, coldhearted landlords, strict fathers, brash young sons, gentle mothers, heroic soldiers, faithful servants, cowardly soldiers, noble American Indians, ruthless gangsters–you name ’em, out of the 500 (!) or so films Griffith directed from the 1900s to the early 1930s, he included ’em all.

Directing Henry B. Walthall in Death’s Marathon (1913).

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! 

Robert Harron haunting

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).

Bobby Harron full smiling

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