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Watching Silent Films


Chaplin, eating his shoe

I have recently become interested in silent movies, though it took some doing. It is the unintentional and un-directed work of a lifetime. I used to watch quite a few as a small child, mostly Charlie Chaplin shorts that my Dad would bring home from the library. I was so young, I couldn’t even read and I would have to nudge my brother and sister every time there was an intertitle to remind them to read it to me. Fortunately, it is not necessary to read to be able to appreciate Charlie Chaplin. My one, enduring memory is of Chaplin trying to eat his shoe. I was also very taken with his walk and would imitate it every chance I had.

The other silent film I saw as a child was The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film so racist that even I, an unaware child, could pick it up. It was my first introduction to how movies reflect their time and it was also the first movie that taught me that just because something is so in a movie, does not mean it is right or true or just.

Through the years, I have tried fitfully to reacquaint myself with silent movies. There was Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 Robin Hood, which felt long and had very 1920s’ costumes with a slight medieval flavor; there was Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), which put me to sleep with its uninspiring organ accompaniment (and I’ve never fallen asleep during a movie before, so it must have been the organ music). There were a few Chaplin films: The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), silents he made after the silent era had ended that were funny, but had a point behind them and didn’t quite do anything for me.

Two movies…well, three…actually, four, finally hooked me and made me a silent film fan.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): I read about Buster Keaton and the kind of physical comedy he did and about the wall that falls on him with the open window that falls over his head. I read about how he did all his own stunts and that a wall really did fall and how they measured it exactly so that his head would go through the window frame. There was something rather exciting about watching him do all his own stunts – no CGI – with his trademark deadpan face. I’d never heard of him before, but I enjoyed what I saw and have since become a big fan.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Then I saw Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Directed by F.W. Murnau, a German director known for his expressionist films, he came to American and made this movie in 1928, at the very end of silent movie making. I was awestruck by how beautiful and dynamic it was. The camera was mobile (unlike early talkies), the lighting and shots were exquisite, the acting was supreme, it actually had its own score instead of organ accompaniment (they figured out how to add scores to films in 1926) and it was very moving.

But although I saw these two silent films and liked them, I wasn’t quite sure how to go further into silent films. I didn’t know much about silent movie actors or genres. What proved truly helpful was to take stars I liked from the 1930s and go backwards and see them when they started, in the silent era. I am a big Mary Astor fan and I had just seen the movie Midnight (1939), which was also my first John Barrymore. I read that Astor and Barrymore made several silent movies together. One was Beau Brummel, a film that I absolutely loved and also served to introduce Barrymore to me when he was in his acting prime. The other movie was with Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), which is considered one of the first horror films and one I found quite riveting to watch as Barrymore played each role.

One of the things that really helps make a silent movie come alive is the music, which unfortunately can be a bit hit or miss. It can be a contemporary score, piano, organ, or even the original score.  Sometimes, the music is just slapped on and doesn’t fit the action. I once tried watching an inferior version of the 1925 Lost World and the perky, tacked on classical music that had no reference to what was actually occurring onscreen drove me nuts. When the music is good, however, it really makes a movie stand out. Beau Brummel had a beautiful score. It is a contemporary score and achingly lovely. There apparently have been many composers who have stepped up to provide compositions for these silent films and I wonder if it offers them more interest than composing for a talky film; silent movie scores can be more like a tone poem, more in the forefront rather than in the background.

I think one of the real keys to enjoying silent films is finding the actors and genres that you like, as opposed to feeling obligated to watch the best ones. After all, we don’t do that when movies come out in theaters. We watch what we want, not what the critics say are the finest, most artistic films. It’s supposed to be fun to watch a silent film, not educational.

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

But silent films are not like talkies. They convey emotions differently, visually, through their face and body language, through the music and cinematography. I’ve definitely seen hammy and melodramatic acting (but then, I’ve seen that in today’s films, so that doesn’t count), but there is a heightened emotion and expression that is almost poetic in silent films, that is beautiful and exciting to see…or funny.

Fritzi Kramer, on her site, Movies Silently, argues that silent movies are somewhere in between books and talkies and that many people who like silent movies are also readers. I have seen nothing to contradict it, though I would argue that there is a silent movie for everyone’s taste, if they could find it: horror, romance, kitsch, melodrama, jazz age, crime, gangsters, adventure, mystery, fantasy, historical, comedy, westerns…anything.

For more information on the silent era, I would definitely check out Movies Silently (here). There are movie reviews, fun GIFs, articles about the silent era, videos debunking silent era myths, book reviews, mini bios of actors. It’s a wonderful and well written resource. And for fun, check out her video called “Dear Movies Silently, Why do so many silent movies have women tied to railroad tracks?” where she debunks this particularly persistent silent movie myth.

Or for an introduction to silent movies, try her article called “About Silent Movies #1: Silent Movies? You Like Silent Movies?”

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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Silent Films


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Beau Brummel (1924): Sentimentality in the Movies

_B2H7bQ_mk_KGrHqIOKiIE_THWFYoEBMhPel_Sh__3I cried and cried and cried. It was embarrassing. I didn’t look at my sister, but I could feel that she was crying, too. When the movie ended, we looked at each other to see how the other was affected. She had tears streaming down her face and I had tears streaming down my face. We laughed, smiled and finished our cry.

I never used to be a particularly sentimental person, but after our mother passed away some years ago, we turned into the most sentimental, sappy, mushy, cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat people you can imagine. And it is always the sappy movies that affects us the most. We never know kind of movie or book is going to touch us, I’m sometimes surprised: a movie might have tons of people die, but I won’t be affected, and then I’ll watching something else and turn into a basket case.

We’re not mushy about love stories and romance – we’re mushy about loss, death, and human suffering and loneliness. Beau Brummel – a silent movie made in 1924 – is about all of those things; a tragic romance. And since most movies don’t make me cry, I always feel any movie that does is worth looking at.

67astorsmithbeaubrummelI got Beau Brummel because I wanted to see Mary Astor and John Barrymore when they were younger…and Mary Astor is very young. Most remembered for her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the 1941 The Maltese Falcon and for her mother roles at MGM in movies like Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, she got her start in silent pictures in the early nineteen-twenties when she was fourteen. Her breakthrough role was Beau Brummel. John Barrymore had seen a picture of her in a magazine and requested her for his leading lady. He said he was attracted by the caption, which read “On the brink of womanhood.” She was only seventeen and he was forty-two, but they had a passionate affair during the making of the film, and it shows (which doesn’t always occur – I’ve seen many off-screen couples with zero onscreen chemistry).

John Barrymore began as a stage actor – known for his Hamlet – and did several movies, but made his first cinematic impact in 1920 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a surprisingly effective horror/drama. I’d heard people mention his profile a lot, it was practically a joke, but I had only seen in him Midnight (1939 and also with Mary Astor), when he was older and physically suffering the effects of alcoholism. But I now know what they mean. It is a lovely profile. He is more handsome from the side than face forward and he looks years younger.

beau-brummel_19147_1257Beau Brummel is a historical person and the movie follows his life, though with an added love interest. The movie begins when the wealthy daughter of people in trade, Lady Margery (Astor) is about to marry up in the world. However, her real love is Lieutenant Brummel. They meet just before the wedding, trading impossibly lovely profiles, and in despair they part. He vows to get revenge on society, the kind of society that would force her to marry where she does not love because he is the son of a tailor. HIs revenge is a little unusual, however, which is to crash into society, become an accepted member of society and be the beau ideal of how society should look, dress, talk, act…and he succeeds. He becomes the companion of the Prince of Wales (who would become George IV) and makes quite a few enemies in the process.

The story spirals tragically from here (though it starts out pretty tragic). He manages to offend the prince, among other people, and must go into exile in France. There is another tragic parting between him and Lady Margery. This time, she asks him take to her with him, but he refuses, presumably for the same reason he didn’t run off with her in the beginning…his lack of fortune.

Annex%20-%20Barrymore,%20John%20(Beau%20Brummel)_NRFPT_02He lives in abject poverty and ages badly and the only person who has stood by him is his devoted servant, Mortimer. When the Prince of Wales (now the king) arrives in France with a huge entourage – that includes Lady Margery – he watches, a broken man, as the procession goes by. Lady Margery later visits him, telling him that her husband has died and asks him to marry her. Once again he refuses. This times it’s because he’s broken, he no longer has the heart to be with her, he’s so beaten down by life that he feels he has nothing to give anymore and there is another one of those tear-inducing partings. It’s truly painful.

More years pass and one can only imagine the loneliness and unhappiness that these people have experienced. He is now old, mad and in a debtor’s prison. His servant, Mortimer comes to visit and Brummel does not initially recognize him. When he does, it is a moment so poignant and pathetic that I dissolved into tears right there and never stopped until some time after the movie ended. In her own home, Lady Margery dies and her spirit, young once again, sits up and steps out of her body and into Brummel’s cell. As Mortimer watches in terrible sadness as Brummel hallucinates, Brummel finally dies. His spirit, also his young and idealized self, rises from his body and joins Lady Margery.

It sounds sappy. I think my dad found it melodramatic because he left one-third of the way through, but truthfully, it is a very moving film. It’s like opera – grand and glorious and beautiful with powerful emotions expressed lyrically. It’s a lyrical movie. You can’t approach it like you would a contemporary film just as you cannot expect an opera to be like a contemporary musical. I like opera, so there’s obviously a little melodramatic streak in me. When I mentioned how sad Beau Brummel was, most people said, “I guess you won’t want to watch that again,” but truthfully, I would. I loved it! It’s truly a timeless romance – timeless for the characters and timeless for us.

th1LVSKCA2There is a wonderful artice on the Nitrate Diva, called “Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial.” It is a excellent look at the movie and how superficial things (like clothes and physical beauty and even movies) cannot always be separated from the deeper, spiritual things of life. There is also a bit about John Barrymore, what a dandy is, as well as an appreciation of Mary Astor, along with the story of her real life romance with Barrymore. It is a beautifully written article that goes a long way to showing why this movie has such an emotion impact. She writes of that ending when their spirits are united, looking as they did when they were both young:

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.”

th0RTUPBJIIt’s achingly beautiful, with a modern score that’ll have you in tears just listening to it. Most silent movies did not have a score written for them so when the DVDs are released they have to provide music and the one for Beau Brummel is particularly good.

I don’t know why, but sentimentality often gets a bad rap or is considered unsophisticated. Sound of Music is often labeled sugary and sentimental and excessively positive for being a musical made in the ’60s (as if the fact that it was made in the ’60s is the problem). Beau Brummel is likewise sentimental, though less happy. Mary Poppins is called sentimental. Stella Dallas, with Barbara Stanwyck, made me cry and is blatantly melodramatic and moving. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which wasn’t especially amazing, still had me crying hard at the end. Movies most likely to elicit an emotional response are these kinds of movies. I’ve talked to other people and they tell me it’s the same with them. It’s often the cheesy stuff that is most poignant. Somehow, these films touch on something fundamental within us, something in our souls, something universal.

Of course, one can’t live in a highly emotional state all the time, however cathartic it might be to cry sometimes. So my sister and I decided the next day to watch something unrelentingly upbeat and happy in Meet Me in St. Louis. Another sentimental movie, but happily so and it left us singing.


Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Movies


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