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Beginning Silent Films

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Buster Keaton behind bars (except it’s really just a gate and not jail, as he initially leads you to believe)

I’m somewhat nervous about writing a beginner’s guide to silent films because I am still so new to silent films and because my own path to silent film fandom was somewhat unorthodox. I have not seen many great classic silent films. However, I do believe that silent films are far more accessible than is generally supposed. Last month I showed my thirteen year old cousin two Buster Keaton shorts and he loved them and wants to see more. Sometimes, I think the trick is simply finding the genre or actor that appeals to you, rather than trying to watch the ones that are considered the best or most definitive.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding silent films and in this post I would like to outline a few thoughts, as well as make a few recommendations for some good films to start with.

Some Silent Film Thoughts

Silent films are watched in a slightly different way than talkies. My sister likes to knit, cross stitch or crochet while watching movies, but she has discovered that it is harder to do so with silent films. You can more easily get away with looking up and down with talkies because a significant amount of information is conveyed through the spoken word, but in silent films you have to be watching the entire time. Blink and you might miss something significant. If my mind ever wonders or I look away, I will sometimes realize that I lost the thread of the action. As I’ve quoted before, biographer Scott Eyman (he’s written some excellent biographies on Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, as well as some others) says that silent movies affect our minds differently, putting us in almost a hypnotic state.

One thing I had to learn was that intertitles do not actually take the place of dialogue. They are there mostly to convey information or context that we cannot otherwise infer, but the bulk of communication is done visually, through facial expressions, gestures, mime and context. In Eileen Whitfield’s biography of Mary Pickford, she argued that silent films are just as easily compared to ballet as talkie films.

The music is also extremely important in silent films. A good score can vastly improve one’s enjoyment of a film, even a mediocre film. There are a lot of silent films available on youtube, but with only a few exceptions, most of them have wildly inappropriate music or often no music at all. I’ve found the most success with companies like Kino and Milestone, which always release films that are in pretty good shape and have been given a new score. Robert Israel, Carl Davis, and Jon C. Mirsalis are three composers whose names pop up most often (at least in the films I’ve seen so far). Music varies from organ, solo piano to full orchestra. I must confess that organ – though traditional – is not my favorite. I once fell asleep to an organ accompaniment to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers. Sometimes, organ accompaniment can be all-too soothing.

John_Barrymore_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_Motion_Picture_Classic_1920Some Silent Film Suggestions

I must confess that this list of suggested silent films is largely reflective of my own tastes in films in general, because they are the films that I have so far sought out, though I am hoping to broaden myself.

D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts – from 1908 to around 1913, D.W. Griffith worked at the Biograph Studios making short films, which means mostly one and two reel films. Kino released a wonderful collection called Biograph Shorts and they are a fascinating window into a time before feature films (which got going in America in 1914 with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man). So many future stars are in evidence: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore. It was particularly fascinating to see a young Lionel Barrymore playing roles ranging from romantic lead to scruffy gold prospector. Griffith’s shorts range all over the place: romances, social drama, thrillers, historical drama, adaptations of poems and literature. It is here that he practiced those techniques that he would later be famous for, like the close-up and the exciting cross cutting used to create tension and a sense of motion (most famously at the end of Birth of a Nation).

Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – it’s hard to go wrong with silent comedy. Many critics consider silent films to be particularly suited to comedy with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the finest practitioners of the art. Charlie Chaplin was The Little Tramp, who also combined pathos and a social conscience (pathos being a word routinely applied to him) to his comedy. Buster Keaton was called The Great Stone Face because of his impassive expression no matter what mayhem was going on around him and he brought a highly acrobatic, daredevil and inventive wit to his comedy. Harold Lloyd, on the other hand, was the American every man who usually got into trouble while trying to win the girl or win respect. All their work is full of delights, but to begin I recommend Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Buster Keaton’s The General and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman or The Kid Brother.

Chang and The Lost World – if you are a fan of King Kong, then you can’t go wrong with Chang and The Lost WorldThe Lost World is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World and features dinosaurs, created with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien, the same man who would apply this technique to the creation of King Kong. Chang is more of a fictional documentary created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack – creators, directors and producers of King Kong. They spent time in Siam (Thailand) where they constructed a drama, that feels more like a documentary, about a family living in the jungle and dealing with tigers, monkeys and an elephant stampede. The footage of the animals, especially the tigers and elephants, is thrilling and it does give a good sense of how people lived.

Douglas Fairbanks and Swashbucklers  – do you like Errol Flynn and swashbucklers (or Rafael Sabatini novels)? Than try Douglas Fairbanks (the original swashbuckler) and his The Mark of Zorro, a delightful, exciting and highly athletic romp of a costume adventure. Also fun are the adaptations of several Sabatini novels – Scaramouche (1923, with Ramon Novarro) and The Sea Hawk (1924, with Milton Sills). Both films are far closer to the novels than their later remakes with Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger. It’s not exactly a swashbuckler, but the 1925 Ben-Hur (also with Ramon Novarro) is also excellent and stands up just as well as the 1959 version (the chariot race is awe-inspiring).

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterGerman Expressionism – German cinema was extremely inventive during the silent era and the film that started it all was the 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. When I first saw it, I think the music put me off (it was highly discordant), but the Kino edition that I saw offered multiple scores and next time I am going to choose music that is less stressful to listen to. Other examples of German expressionism include most anything directed by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, though one of his loveliest films is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a tender romance which he made while in Hollywood that also demonstrates how sophisticated silent movie was.

Lon Chaney – Lon Chaney was The Man With a Thousand Faces. He did The Phantom of the OperaThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown (with a very young Joan Crawford), and the crime drama The Penalty. Unrequited love, crime, physical deformity, beauty, redemption, revenge, longing and goodness are often his themes.

Josef von Sternberg – before he made his films with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous silent films. My favorite is The Last Command, with Emil Janning and William Powell. It takes place both in Hollywood and Russia during the 1917 Revolution. It’s not terribly accurate regarding the revolution, but the emotional and visual beauty is stunning.

Another way to get into silent movies is to take some favorite actors from the talkies and look for them in silent films. Greta Garbo, John Barrymore (my favorite of his films are Beau Brummel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford all appeared in silent films. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, William Wellman, Tod Browning (of Dracula fame) and even Alfred Hitchcock made many excellent silent films.

Where to See Silent Films

Silent films are admittedly much hard to get hold of than talkies. Most of the ones that I have seen have come either from the library or Classicflix, which has a far better selection of silent films than Netflix. All the DVDs I have seen are also available from Amazon, though some are rather expensive.

There are even many silent films available on sites like youtube, though often the quality of the film is poor and the music is either missing or doesn’t match. There are, however, a few decent quality silent films to be found there.

Buster Keaton’s silent short: “The Scarecrow”.

MV5BMTY3MTkyMTc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UY1200_CR122,0,630,1200_AL_A gothic thriller (influenced by German Expressionism) with strong echos of Charles Dicken’s Nicholas NickelbySparrows is one of Mary Pickford’s best films. Along with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Clara Bow personified the flapper in the late 1920s and her most famous film was It. This copy on youtube has a score by Carl Davis.

Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, made their debut in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short “An Unseen Enemy.” The video quality is a little shaky, but the music is not bad.

In Grandma’s Boy, Harold Lloyd is a coward whose grandmother shows him that he has courage and can win the girl and defeat the murderous tramp who is terrorizing the community.

 

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2016 in Movies

 

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Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

poorlittlerichgirlI’ve been continuing my quest to see more Mary Pickford films. The second film I’ve seen is Poor Little Rich Girl, the first film where she played a child (as opposed to an adolescent) throughout the entire story. It was extremely profitable when it was released in 1917 and established the persona that Mary Pickford would be best remembered for (though she played adults far more than she ever played children).

Daddy Long Legs made me think of Charles Dickens; Poor Little Rich Girl brought to mind Mary Poppins, without the nanny, or perhaps Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) is a child of ten, nearly eleven, who lives in a large house with her wealthy parents who never have any time for her. Her father (Charles Wellesley) is too busy making money on Wall Street and her mother (Madlaine Traverse) is too busy in society. Instead, Gwendolyn is left to the care of unsympathetic servants. Her governess (Marcia Harris) would not be out of place as Miss Minchin in The Little Princess or perhaps Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden. Meanwhile, the housemaid, Jane (Gladys Fairbanks), clearly sees Gwendolyn as just a nuisance who makes her life more difficult.

There is not exactly a story in this film. Gwendolyn tries to get her parents attention and is lonely. The friendly plumber (Frank McGlynn) and the organ grinder are kind to her, but the servants soon put a stop to that. Gwendolyn’s mother has a friend over with a daughter, who is a stuck-up brat, inevitably sparking a fight with Gwendolyn causing the other girl to sit on her ice cream and then tosses all her clothes out the window rather than let her wear any of them

For punishment, her father comes up with the idea of putting her in boy’s clothes (his mother, he says, put him in his sister’s dress when he had misbehaved). This backfires, however, when Gwendolyn quickly gets over her grief  and sees possibilities in her attire, managing to get into a mud fight with some local boys. But still her parents ignore her, especially when her father’s financial standing is threatened and he considers suicide. It takes a careless moment by Jane, who gives Gwendolyn too much sleeping medicine, which nearly kills her, to finally get her parents’ attention.

Gwendolyn with the plumber and the organ grinder

Gwendolyn with the plumber and the organ grinder

The dream sequence that Gwendolyn has while she hovers between life and death is rather interesting and striking. She incorporates everything she’s heard – that her governess is a snake in the grass, that her mother has a social bee in her bonnet, that Jane is two-faced – things she does not understand and converts it to visuals in her dream. Thus we literally see Jane with two-faces and the governess as a snake in the grass and so on. It’s like a storybook, but also a journey as she struggles to make sense of everything around her and make it back to life. Even the plumber comes along, as does the friendly doctor who saves her life. He acts as a kind of mentor throughout the process.

I grew up watching Mary Martin play Peter Pan, so the idea of a grown woman (Mary Pickford was twenty-five at the time of Poor Little Rich Girl) was not too foreign to me. There is a definite theatrical tradition dating back where grown women play children. Perhaps because they can command a greater emotional range as actors than what children can always provide? Greater charisma? But Mary Pickford sells it with 100% conviction. They cast actors who were fairly tall to make her look even shorter than she was (she was around 5 ft. tall). I’m not sure if they made the sets any larger than normal, though. She doesn’t truly look like a child, but that never seems to matter too much.

Is it a sentimental film? Asbolutely! But I rather enjoyed it. It is a very middle-class film. I mean not only because it was popular among the middle class, but though Gwendolyn’s parents are rich, I would hazard a guess that they are social climbers, they’re working their way up society. Hence his burning need to make money and her social bee in the bonnet and the complacently snide comments of society in regard to their efforts. Even the servants act as if they are too good to serve these people. It is actually only the working class people who are kind and have some fun in life.

Gwendolyn, her mother and father and the governess

Gwendolyn, her father and mother and the governess

The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, who I’ve read is known for making dignified and gorgeous films with sometimes slow or negligible plots. He and Mary Pickford clashed over Poor Little Rich Girl, with Pickford and her friend and screenwriter, Frances Marion, adding in bits of lively comedy, such as the mud fight, which ultimately seem very true to Mary Pickford’s persona. She always had spirit, not vulnerable, but indomitable. She would always fight back and keep on.

In 1917 cameras did not move much at all, which I didn’t initially notice because the film never looks static. There is a lot of cross cutting between scenes, between characters, people coming in and out of the set, unique shots (such as through a keyhole) that it never feels like we are just watching a play that has been filmed.

Before Poor Little Rich Girl was released, Mary Pickford and Frances Marion screened the film for the studio heads…who absolutely hated it and thought it would be an embarrassing disaster. Unable to prevent it from being released, however, Poor Little Rich Girl turned instead into a massive hit. From then on, audiences never seemed to love Mary Pickford so well as when she played children.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2016 in Movies

 

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My Introduction to Mary Pickford

downloadMy primary introduction to silent films has come through Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks and I thought it was about time I learned more about some silent female stars. Mary Pickford was not only a star, but possibly the first movie star. She is best remembered for playing child roles, but she more often  played adolescents and adults – often spunky, sweet, mischievous, intrepid, intense, fun-loving, sincere – she was called America’s Sweetheart.

The only book that I could find at the library, however, was Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend, which is not a biography. It does, however, cover a bit about her life, as well as her legacy and discusses nearly every film she made (though it summarizes her work at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios). It also contains some gorgeous pictures. Most of them were taken using still photography, a hugely laborious process that yielded stunning pictures that often employed lighting creatively.

Pickford started making movies in 1909 and retired in 1933 and the difference between a one reel, twelve minute short made with Griffith and her feature length films in the late twenties is extraordinary. Because she later produced her own films (she was a canny businesswoman) and hired her own people, she had a great deal of control over her films and they tended to be technologically at the forefront of the movie industry. She made several films where she played dual roles, which if the pictures are anything to go by, look as seamless as anything made today.

Pickford

playing a child of twelve

Brownlow is a big fan of Pickford and it was fun to get a sense of the breadth of her career. She certainly played more than children and the book made me extremely eager to see her films. I’ve often read that Daddy Long Legs (1919) is considered one of her best and has the advantage of showcasing Pickford as both a child and adult, so I took a chance and bought the DVD (it also had the advantage of being cheaper than some of her other films – quality silent films, alas, are rarely economical…several of her DVDs are going for over $100 and others have sold out).

I’d read the book by Jean Webster before and seen Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in the 1955 musical, so I was already familiar with the story. Jerusha (Judy) Abbott is found as a baby in a trash can and sent to an orphanage that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens’ novel. But when she grows up, a sympathetic trustee of the orphanage persuades a nameless benefactor to send Judy to college. Her benefactor’s conditions are that she remain unaware of his identity and write him once a month to update him on her progress. Seeing his shadow on the wall, Judy calls him her Daddy Long Legs.

At college, Judy proves remarkably popular, as the brother of one of her roommates and the uncle of the other both fall in love with her. Jimmie McBride (Marshall Neilan – who is also the director of the film) is an irresponsible young man who seems to get into a lot of trouble with his car. Jervis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) is nearly twice her age, very wealthy and for the first time in his life, deeply in love.

Pickford 3

playing a young woman

Of course, as it turns out, he is also her Daddy Long Legs, which could potentially be creepy, especially since he is able to use his authority as her benefactor to ensure that she does not go to Europe with Jimmie’s family, but spends the summer at a farm where he is able to drop by.

But Mahlon Hamilton does not play Jervis as an aggressive purser. He’s very sweet and highly conscious of the difference in their ages, which makes him respectful and non-pushy. It also helps that he only tries it once, is reminded of the age difference, and backs off.

Judy ends by becoming a successful author, as well as finding love. Thus Mary Pickford ages from irrepressible twelve year old to a responsible, but still young woman helping at the orphanage to a college girl just becoming aware of love, to a successful author…but her irrepressibility remains, despite growing more womanly before our eyes.

I have to admit to reservations about the idea of a 26 year old woman playing a child of twelve, but somehow she makes you believe the character. She comes across as largely unaffected and sincere and imbues the child with real feeling, doing it better than most child actors.

Pickford 2The film is somewhat disjointed. The first half could come straight out of Dickens, with a combination of humor and tragedy, evil orphanage matrons, kind trustees, sweet children dying, the ironic contrast of wealth and poverty, the enduring and even soaring human spirit in the midst of poverty. The second half of the film is an out-and-out romance, with a dash of the coming of age story, without a hint of irony (well, there are hints). And once again, somehow it all works. Perhaps it’s the presence of Mary Pickford.

The music is lovely, written by Maria Newman, chamber music that prominently features the violin and brought to mind Anne of Green Gables…though 1919 is a decade later than the original story by Lucy Maud Montgomery story, written in 1908. But that is partially what fascinated me about the film. It is actually reasonably close to the time period of  novels like Anne of Green Gables, Betsy-Tacy, Christy, A Little Princess, and it’s quite simply interesting to see what the world looked like, not as it was imagined in later films, but as contemporaries saw it.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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