Obscure Films: “The Home Maker” (1925)

And now that my new laptop is up and running, we’re finally back in business! I’ll try and get some extra posts out this month, too. ūüôā

Some of the silent era’s finest gems weren’t big epics or artsy Expressionist dramas, but smaller, quieter pictures, set in modest parlors, humble tenements, and kitchens where a full tea kettle was always sitting on the stove. Intimate melodramas like True Heart Susie (1919) or Master of the House (1925) gently examined the most relatable and engrossing stories of all: the triumphs and travails of “regular folks.”

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And people loved those kinds of films back then, too. While largely forgotten today, Over the Hill (1920) and Tol’able David (1921)–melodramas with intimate storytelling and salt-of-the-earth characters–were two big hits of the era. Actors like Charles Ray made careers out of “gosh and golly” personas, and after filming his mighty epics D.W. Griffith was happy to turn his attention to “little” pictures like A Romance of Happy Valley¬†(1919) and¬†The Greatest Question (1919). Many of these dramas that survive can still captivate us. After all, as spoiled as we may be by high-quality CGI, brilliant colors and swooping camera movements, we still can’t resist a plain good story. Continue reading

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: “The Son of the Sheik” (1926)

This is the final day and final post of Sheik Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Roaring Twenties sheik culture, and thank you kindly for stopping by! And I’m looking forward to what posts the spring and summer will bring (hint: a trip’s on the way!).

In 1926, Rudolph Valentino’s stardom was at its height. At the young age of 31, the Italian screen idol’s name was known around the world, there were several box office successes under his arm, and women adored him so passionately that public appearances often ended with his hat being stolen and buttons torn from his coat. Today, we look at portraits of this near-mythical figure dressed to tailored perfection with the light shining off his patent-leather hair, and wonder what thoughts were behind that meditative gaze. Perhaps he would surprise us–a few months before appearing in what would be his final film,¬†The Son of the Sheik, Valentino¬†spoke frankly about his romantic image: “The whole thing is false and artificial. You can’t go on and on with it…One appears to be what others desire, not what one is in reality.”

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Be that as it may, in¬†The Son of the Sheik Valentino proved that he could, indeed, “go on and on with it,” at least for one last time. Five years after appearing in his iconic role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in¬†The Sheik¬†(1921), he agreed to appear in the film’s sequel–despite his dislike of being pigeonholed as a “sheik.” Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro films had brought sequels into vogue, and the fans, naturally, had been clamoring for more desert romances. And perhaps Valentino also agreed to the film since this time he could show his range–even having a dual role. Continue reading

Ramon Novarro, “Latin Lover” Of The Silent Screen

During the heyday of Rudolph Valentino, studios scrambled to find their own versions of a “sheik”–that passionate, menacing “exotic” lover women’s hearts were fluttering over (who also guaranteed plenty of box office gold). Actors from the steady Milton Sills to dashing Antonio Moreno were considered worthy rivals, but perhaps the worthiest one of all was the talented, gentlemanly Ramon Novarro.

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Rudolph Valentino–The Man Behind The Image

“The woman from fourteen to ninety loved him, because he made romance come riding home to her dreams. He was not the individual she craved, he was the symbol of what she craved.” —From a letter to¬†Photoplay, January 1927

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What does it mean to be an icon? In the case of film actors, we assume this means their image has instant recognition. Across the world, people belonging to every culture and race will recognize Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin. Their very names have symbolism–“Chaplin” calls to mind laughter and old-time slapstick, while “Marilyn Monroe” stands for glamour and sensuality with a touch of vulnerability. (Interestingly, many people I’ve encountered who mention admiring Marilyn have never seen one of her films.)

So let us consider “Rudolph Valentino.” Of all the screen icons, his legacy is perhaps the most obscured by mythology, fantasy and cult status. The mere mention of his name–and how fortunate he was to adopt the elegant “Valentino”–recalls the kind of old Hollywood romance involving soft lighting, perfectly tailored suits, glimmering jewels and long, thrilling kisses. It calls to mind the stories of sobbing, fainting fans at his funeral bier–for he died young, as everyone remembers.

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But how many people today know what Rudolph Valentino looked like? How many have watched one of his films, or even a single clip? Who was the living, breathing human being behind the romantic name–the romantic dream? Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Sheik” (1921)

Throwback time! This post was originally written for the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon hosted by¬†Movies Silently¬†a few years back.¬† I’m dusting it off for you since you can’t have a Sheik Month without¬†The Sheik¬†itself. (Plus, this article was¬†really¬†fun to write.) Hope you get a kick out of it!

When I was but a wee silent film newbie, I discovered there were far more old films available on YouTube and Netflix than I’d thought. Innumerable classics of early master filmmakers, such as Intolerance,¬†Greed, Battleship Potemkin¬†and The Last Laugh¬†were all awaiting me, holding within their hallowed reels the potential to unlock within my brain a renewed appreciation for film artistry, and the ability to view early 20th century history through fresh eyes. So what did I do first?

Why, sit myself down with a bag of cheesy popcorn and watch The Sheik, of course!!

“Yesssssssssss.”

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Lost Films: “The Miracle Man” (1919)

It was called spellbinding, striking, “one of the greatest of pictures.” It received ecstatic reviews by critics and transfixed audiences across the nation. It was the great drama The Miracle Man¬†(1919), which not only ended up earning many times its modest budget, but made stars out of its three leads: Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, and of course, the legendary Lon Chaney.

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Naturally, like many other fascinating-sounding silents from the 1910s,¬†The Miracle Man¬†is lost. But in this case, fate has provided us with a rare silver lining. Thanks to compilation film¬†The House That Shadows Built¬†(1931), made in honor of Paramount studio’s 20th year,¬†a couple minutes of footage have survived–including its most famous scene, where Chaney’s character pretends to experience a miraculous healing. Imagine if we had even one minute of¬†London After Midnight! Continue reading

Lost Films: “Private Peat” (1918)

On this day back in 1918, day two of the Second Battle of the Somme was raging.  Albert, France was recaptured by the British.

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This is a tale that begins in the strangest and most humble of locations–a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill store. Wait, let me be more specific–it was a bin of odds and ends in a Goodwill¬†outlet¬†store. (Yes, that is a thing. You can buy clothes by the pound!)

That bin was where my brother (who runs across the darnedest things in that store) scrounged up a copy of a very old, dark green book: Private Peat, written by Harold R. Peat and published in 1917. While a little worn on the ends of the spine, it was in otherwise great shape, the yellowed pages clean and with a little crispness in them yet.

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He showed it to me when I dropped by for a visit, and after reading a few paragraphs I was intrigued. Harold Reginald Peat was a Canadian who had been a private in WWI, and Private Peat¬†was his detailed account of his wartime experiences and his thoughts on the war itself. The writing was engaging, witty and had plenty of little details about serving “over there” that only an actual soldier could know. So I just had to borrow it, and just had to read it from cover to cover.

After doing a little research I discovered¬†Private Peat¬†was not only a very popular book in its day, but it was also made into a movie with the same name–starring Peat himself! (Only in the silent era, folks.) While it’s sadly lost, thankfully some stills and info still remain.

Harold R Peat

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Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s Finest Character Actor

Per a reader’s request, here is a piece on one of the greatest and most respected silent film legends–Lon Chaney. As you read this, I am currently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–and yes, I’ll be recapping every moment of it!

There was a popular, widespread joke back in the 1920s–“Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” A joke which, of course, referred to his remarkable use of makeup and acting skills to create bizarre characters who stick in the popular imagination. Indeed, Chaney was one of the rare actors who was so skilled that he became a legend in his own time, graced with the title “The Man of a Thousand Faces”–a title which is linked with his name to this very day.

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