I’ve sometimes thought that if Lillian Gish hadn’t become an actress, she would’ve made an excellent Catholic nun. That’s a sincere observation–Ms. Gish, a highly-disciplined woman of innate dignity and fine character, seemed like a good match for a contemplative life. But come to think of it, she did come pretty close when she starred in the 1923 drama The White Sister.
This was Gish’s first film after her long tenure under D.W. Griffith. They had parted on friendly terms after completing Orphans of the Storm (1922), with Griffith admitting he couldn’t pay her a high enough salary and encouraging her to strike out on her own. Fellow former Griffith actor Richard Barthelmess and talented director Henry King had started working for the new independent company Inspiration Pictures and had just made the Americana masterpiece Tol’able David (1921). Gish decided to join them, and after some thought decided the 1909 novel The White Sister would make a fine melodramatic film.
HOLD EVERYTHING–how have I not mentioned this yet?! Recently it was announced that fragments of Theda Bara’s Salome (1918)–one of her most lamented lost films after Cleopatra—have been found! That’s right, there’s new footage of the legendary Theda Bara to enjoy, and from one of her lavish costume dramas, too!
Theda, early sex symbol and current silent era icon, appeared in around 40 films but only a few of them survive. Many of her biggest hits have vanished and are represented only by tantalizing stills of the actress in elaborate beaded costumes and fancy headdresses. And one of the most intriguing hits is the William Fox production Salome (1918). I won’t make you wait–here’s the footage below. The clips are brief and have Spanish intertitles, and they capture some wonderful Theda moments:
Hold everything–there’s a silent film version of Dostoevsky’s riveting classic Crime and Punishment that is German Expressionist, is very faithful to the text, has Russian actors, and was directed by the same guy responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Is this the recipe for a perfect forgotten classic?!
If you’re a regular reader you might recall that my review forGenuine (1920), another German Expressionist film by Robert Wiene, began pretty much the same way. Now, in Genuine‘s case rosy expectations were, uh, not met (really not met). But in the case of the overlooked Raskolnikov (1923)? Circulating prints have their drawbacks, but from what I can (sort of) see it’s a pretty darn good adaptation. It could well be a minor classic of the German Expressionist era–but funnily enough, not really because of its German Expressionist sets.
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring event, the Hidden Classics Blogathon! Silent-ology is proud to take part alongside so many excellent film blogs, and on such a good topic, too. Please follow the link above to read my fellow writers’ contributions! And don’t forget to leave comments–we bloggers love comments like Keystone Kops loved pratfalls.
When I say “Cecil B. DeMille,” you probably picture Biblical films with men in robes giving solemn speeches and loads of colorful spectacle. Would you be surprised to know that in the 1910s most audiences heard “DeMille” and probably pictured ballgowns and romantic triangles?
He may be known for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) today, but from the late 1910s to the early 1920s DeMille was associated with fluffy “society” comedy-dramas. Yes, the same man that Kevin Brownlow described thusly: “Commanding absolute loyalty from his staff, he directed as though chosen by God for this one task.” These dramas tended to have the aforementioned lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum) and exquisitely-tailored tuxes. Scenery might include raucous parties or impractically huge sunken baths. DeMille delighted in adding various “rich people” toys like fancy Victrolas or plush couches with hidden bars in the armrests. Gloria Swanson couldn’t just walk over and answer the phone–she would have to be sitting at a pretty carved wooden desk and take the phone out of a little cupboard on top.
While many of these trinket-cluttered fantasies were considered superficial even back then, they’ve aged into delightfulness today. The “edgy” fashions seem charmingly bizarre, and characters contend with various social annoyances that are sometimes endearingly quaint. There’s usually more of that universal human nature than meets the eye, too, even if it was livened up by an inexplicable Babylonian fantasy sequence or two. I wholeheartedly champion every frame of these films, from scenes of Bebe Daniels perfuming her lips or Wallace Reid destroying a drawing room in righteous anger right down to the last shot of a checkered, bead-bedecked bathing suit. At least, I think that was a bathing suit. Or was it a negligee…?
It’s a tough call, but my favorite early DeMille is probably Why Change Your Wife? (1920), one of my go-to silents for those nights when I just need to kick back with some cheesy popcorn and relax. Starring a young Gloria Swanson, the squeaky-clean matinee idol Thomas Meighan, and a flirty Bebe Daniels, its tale of marital distress is handled with plenty of light, cheeky humor (especially in the title cards).
Swanson plays the prudish Beth, who nags her husband Robert about becoming more cultured and “improving his mind.” Robert himself (played by Meighan) can’t understand why Beth insists on dressing so frumpily and longs for her to be a carefree “sweetheart” again. Hoping to add some pizazz to their relationship, he goes to a fancy lingerie store to buy her a new negligee. There he meets Sally, the store’s va-va-voom lingerie model, who recognizes him as an old acquaintance she once had a crush on.
When Robert’s present of a tissue-thin, elaborately-beaded negligee (complete with a headdress!) is rejected by the horrified Beth, he decides to secretly go on a date with the fun-loving Sally. Sally is all too happy to pursue him, leading to matters going too far and Robert having regrets. Unfortunately for him, Beth finds out about the affair and divorce quickly follows. But matters don’t end there–Beth overhears gossip about her failed marriage, insinuating that her prudishness and frumpy clothes were the problem. Incensed, she decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what people want to see, then by golly she’d get a new wardrobe and show them all! And perhaps she can win Robert back in the process…
Parts of the plot haven’t aged quite like a fine wine, but I bid you to consider that the remainder of the film involves lots of “extreme” fashion, an unfortunate slip on a banana peel, a catfight, and a deeply serious artiste in the world’s most ridiculous male bathing suit. In other words, it’s a film I’d say has far more plusses than minuses, my friends.
Adolph Zukor once said, “DeMille didn’t make pictures for himself, or for critics, he made them for the public. He chose stories if he thought the public might like them. He was a showman to his smallest finger.” Indeed, DeMille’s films of this period were sometimes criticized as superficial, or just plain silly. But he released hit after hit, filling his dramas with scandalous intrigues and sunken bathtubs to his heart’s content.
I have to say, at the end of a tough day there’s certain old films that always hit the spot. Keaton films. Chaplin shorts. Anything by Keystone. And Why Change Your Wife? is on that list. Great performers, great costumes, drama, humor, escapism, and plenty of cheese–those late Edwardian DeMilles had a bit of it all.
And perhaps I’ll end with this generous observation by David O. Selznick: “You cannot judge DeMille by regular standards…As a commercial film maker, he made a great contribution to our industry.”
By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?
Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.
Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.
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.
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 →
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, with 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.
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.
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
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 →
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.
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 →
“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.