“A 180 Pound Diamond”–The Bright Life And Tragic Death Of Wallace Reid

It’s an unfortunate fact that many stars are known mainly for a scandal or unfortunate demise. A lifetime of triumph and failure, hard work and reward, love and struggle–all are scoured away the second topics like “mysterious death” or “addiction” enter the picture. The individual involved dwindles down to a name, a “character” from long-ago times.

A prime example is Wallace Reid, major leading man of the 1910s and early 1920s. As a performer, he’s known mainly to silent film buffs. As a name, he has the sad distinction of being the first major Hollywood star to die of a drug addiction. “Drug addiction”–what a sledgehammer of a phrase. Decades of scandals have unfortunately accustomed us to scandals in Hollywood, but back in the early ’20s Reid’s death truly shocked the world.

Sunset Gun: The Roaring Road to Ruin: Wallace Reid

But before we cover the tragic aspect of his life–and it was truly a tragedy–let’s get to know “Wally,” the well-liked Renaissance man whose good looks are at home in any decade. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Earth” (1930)

This is the final post for Soviet Silents Month. The research wasn’t easy, but it was a fascinating and important era to explore. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!

It opens with vistas of ripening wheat fields, rippling in the wind of the Ukrainian steppe. Fertile seeds from fertile soil–there’s a long history behind the familiar sight. It cuts to a medium shot of a young woman standing beside a sunflower, the sky providing a natural background. Both are also connected to the fertile soil. Seeds, fields, sun, harvest, life–those few shots elevate their humble subjects into symbols of the most natural, the most beautiful order of things. 

Image result for dovzhenko earth

Thus begins Earth (1930), perhaps the most poetic of the Soviet silents, frequently placed on “Greatest Films” lists. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) it was made to glorify collective farms, finishing shooting shortly before Stalin’s deadly policies of forced collectivization went into effect. Yet there is depth in the operatic Earth that seems to transcend its subject–at least according to many interpretations. 

screenshot Earth 3 cows Continue reading

Obscure Films: “Old And New” (1929)

Because of Diana Serra Cary’s passing, I delayed this post for a couple days. My piece on this strange and fascinating film could’ve been twice as long–I hope you find it enlightening!

Now we are able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms. Now, dekulakization is being carried out by the masses of poor and middle peasants themselves, who are putting complete collectivization into practice…Consequently it is now ridiculous and foolish to discourse at length on dekulakization. When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair.

–Stalin’s speech on agrarian policy, December 27, 1929.

…On some occasions, the exemplary organization of local work, even on a small scale, turns out to be more efficient for the State than a large number of State institutions under centralized control.

–Lenin quote from the opening titles of Old and New

Marfa Lapkina in Staroye i novoye (1929)

To many people, the phrase “collective farm” has little meaning. It’s a dry-sounding term, something you might find in wordy papers on yesteryear’s agricultural practices. And that’s partly true. However, few other phrases from the 20th century have such an incomprehensible weight of dramatic, tragic, and deadly history behind them. To say that the two words “collective farm” represents one of the biggest disasters of the last 100 years is putting it in mild terms.

When Eisenstein began work on the often-overlooked The General Line, later called Old and New (The Old and the New, technically) he was ostensibly doing his duty as a loyal Soviet director. One of the great plans of the communist Soviet government (its “general line,”) was to restructure the very foundation of the USSR: its agriculture. Old and New’s propaganda on this weighty topic would perhaps be the most blatant of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a pity he didn’t have a crystal ball. Continue reading

“Stark Love” (1927) And The Very Brief Career Of Helen Mundy

While browsing through old film magazines online (how often have I said that), an unusual photo caught my eye–a young woman with intense eyes, peasant-like clothing and long, unkempt hair. Oh, and she was gripping an ax.

Image result for helen mundy stark love"

Happily the full version is online.

Not something you see in those polished magazines every day! I had to find out the story behind it, and what turned up was one of those “rags to riches” types of Hollywood tales–with a unique twist. Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Coward” (1915)

“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”

We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.

The Coward screeshot 1 Continue reading

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. 🙂

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.”

Home Maker lobby 1

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.

Image result for the musketeers of pig alley

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.”

Image result for the son of the sheik 1926 duel role

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.

Image result for ramon novarro Continue reading

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

Image result for rudolph valentino portrait

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.

Image result for rudolph valentino portrait

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