Obscure Films: “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

In 1914, horror wasn’t a recognized movie genre. Yes, there were films with macabre elements (like those strange, ancient special effects excursions by de Chomon and Melies), and you had your usual dark mysteries and thrillers (often in serial form). But the idea of being an enthusiast of “horror films” wouldn’t enter the public lexicon for quite a few years.

So in order to find the ancestors of Frankenstein, (1931) and The Haunting (1963), we have to weigh our options. The 1910 Frankenstein certainly counts, yes? And something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) does, obviously. What about the serial Les Vampires (1915), with that one famous still? Or something off the beaten track, like Charley Bowers’s surreal short There It is (1926) or Max Linder’s Au Secours! (1924)?

One film that’s an obvious candidate is The Avenging Conscience, or Thou Shalt Not Kill (1914), D.W. Griffith’s Poe-infused drama containing visions of leaping demons and fake skeletons. I know I prefer watching it around Halloween.

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Thoughts On: “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912)

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 spring blogathon, Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. A warm welcome to any new readers–feel free to have a look around Silent-ology!

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.

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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 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

Thoughts On: “Hearts of the World” (1918)

This is a repost of the piece I wrote for the WWI in Classic Film blogathon, which I cohosted with Movies Silently a few years back.  (Hopefully I caught any 4-year-old typos!) I’m still pleased with it, although Current Me probably would’ve added more info on how many battle scenes Griffith had to stage, since feature-worthy combat footage was very difficult to get. FYI, I’ve since discovered that there is indeed a better print of Hearts of the World out there, although for whatever reason it’s not available on DVD (yet!). 

On this day back in 1918, the Second Battle of Noyon began, one of the many battles of the Hundred Days Offensive (which would ultimately end the war). 

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By 1917, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. Europe was reeling from the ever-increasing death tolls and relentless destruction of cities, villages, and farmlands in France and Belgium. The scale of the war, involving all the nations with the most economic power at the time, truly deserved the phrase “unlike anything the world had ever seen.”

The U.S. had managed to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which was starting the leave the more battered European nations at their wits’ end. At some point in the winter of 1916 and 1917, the British War Office Cinematograph Committee decided to contact the one person who they felt could change the minds and emotions of the American people…none other than D.W. Griffith, who had recently completed Intolerance. Propaganda films were common at the time, and the Committee reasoned that Griffith, King of Filmmakers, would be certain to turn out an excellent propaganda film that would inspire Americans to finally join in to help defeat Germany.

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Thoughts On: “Intolerance”

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In our minds, we picture Intolerance differently than most films. Say the title, and we usually don’t see the faces of the Dear One or Brown Eyes or run shots from the four storylines through our minds. We picture the photo of the massive hall of Babylon. We see the sharp-edged archways, the curves and ridges of the immense pillars, the  white elephants with their peculiarly defined muscles and curving trunks. We also see the masses of tiny people on the floor of the hall, clustering around the feet of the elephants, and lining the top of the archways. There is an awed sensation when you think of this dense image. Perhaps there is also a sense of remoteness.

But recall the actual scene itself, how the camera slowly, smoothly moves forward, closer and closer until we can clearly see the people, see the details of their clothes, and can see their faces in their matte makeup.

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How I Learned To Love “Intolerance” (And So Can You!)

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It’s massive, it’s epic, it’s stuffed with stars and just about drips with drama. It was one of the biggest spectacles the world had ever seen, and its scale is still awe-inspiring. It fired the imaginations of directors and left audiences reeling. And it’s…somewhat liked by silent film fans today. Somewhat.

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“It’s so long.

Okay, I’ll admit that this weak enthusiasm is understandable. Intolerance is kind of the equivalent of Norma Desmond’s Isotta-Fraschini automobile–in its day it was the last word in decadence, but decades later it seemed like a cumbersome and overly-ornate relic. Intolerance demands your full attention to not only one but four storylines, often with multiple characters with different actions and motivations. It’s uneven. It tackles Serious Subjects like war and injustice toward the working man. And yes, it’s very long. Continue reading

The Mighty “Intolerance” Turns 100 Today

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D.W. Griffith’s massive, dramatic, beautiful 1916 epic Intolerance, to this day one of the most ambitious film projects ever devised, is a century old today. On September 5, 1916 its world premiere was held at the Liberty Theater in New York. This is arguably one of the biggest milestones in cinematic history. It’s partyin’ time.

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As demonstrated.

In 1958 Buster Keaton (who parodied the film in The Three Ages) reminisced: “Griffith’s Intolerance was] terrific…It’s a beautiful production. That was somethin’ to watch then. You weren’t used to seein’ big spectaculars like that.”

I’ll be devoting some posts to this cinematic masterpiece later this month, so until then, have a celebratory banner.

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‘Tis an historic day!!

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).

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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

Thoughts On: “The Birth of a Nation”

Since this article turned out to be longer than I expected, I’ve organized it with a handy-dandy table of contents:

Intro
Modern Critiques of the Film
History and, Yes, Context
Epic Filmmaking
1915 Audiences and The Birth
Final Thoughts

Birth of a Nation famous charge pose

Slowly but surely, 2015 is beginning to draw to a close. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, and for people interested in film history, it’s been a year with a certain significance. And no, I’m not talking about the new Star Wars movie (not this time, that is). Continue reading

Mack Sennett, King of Comedy

Today, August 3, is the 103rd anniversary of when Keystone was officially incorporated on paper. Let’s celebrate by examining the life of the laugh company’s founder, Mack Sennett!

[Edit: I’m proud to say that this is also my 100th post!  Woo-hoo!!]

Of all the bona fide legends of the silent film era–which include Eric von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith, George Méliès, Abel Gance, et al.–one of the most important  is comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. Most people recognize his name, but the man himself is a bit elusive. What’s the story behind this person whose studio produced over a 1,000 films back in the early days of Hollywood?

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