Actors living during the dividing line of “before” and “after” the emergence of cinema were given a unique gift. Unlike the generations of actors just before them, their performances could be enjoyed years, if not decades, after their deaths–provided their films survived, of course.
While many of these silent film actors have fallen into obscurity, there’s a few who had the good luck to end up in iconic films. One such actor was Elmer Booth, whose tragic early death left us with a comparatively brief filmography, but at least one performance that prophesied dozens of gangster films to come.
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The first intertitle of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) starts with four words: “New York’s Other Side.” Director D.W. Griffith wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but these words were ushering in the new genre of the “crime drama”–as well as its offspring, the gangster picture and film noir.
The 18-minute Biograph short wasn’t the first to depict crime, of course (a number of early films did, such as A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police, 1905), but it’s the best and earliest surviving prototype of a gangster film. All the familiar notes are there: the introduction to the “dark underbelly” of a city, the charismatic crime leaders, the tough dames, and the crowded, rundown neighborhoods. The images of hardboiled gang members slinking through deserted alleyways and Lillian Gish’s character giving Elmer Booth a disdainful slap all have their echoes in film noir. Continue reading →