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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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She (1935)

She_(1935)I can see how H. Rider Haggard’s novel She might be difficult to adapt to film; the book is half description of scenery and ruined civilizations and half conversation with the mysterious She. But that has not daunted filmmakers. Beginning in 1899 with Georges Méliès, there seems to have been nearly ten film adaptations, many from the silent era. But the most famous are the 1965 version by Hammer Film Productions with Ursula Andress (and Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee) and the 1935 version, produced by Merian C. Cooper (creator of King Kong).

Apparently there are actually four books that comprise the Ayesha Series (though I would not have the fortitude to read three more books featuring the supremely narcissistic and irritating Ayesha), but apparently Merian C. Cooper’s film version draws on elements from all four books, which explains why the movie is rather hit and miss about following the book (though admittedly most movies are rather hit and miss about following books).

Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) is the American nephew of scientist John Vincey (Samuel S. Hinds), who calls him to England to entrust him with a mission. John Vincey is dying, but he wants Leo to travel with his friend, Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce), to the Arctic (changed from Africa) to search for a flame that gives eternal life, which was supposedly found in the fifteen hundreds by their ancestor, who never returned (but his wife did).

Leo and Holly set out, managing to pick up a woman along the way (as heroes usually do). Tanya (Helen Mack) is the daughter of the man they hire to lead them, but when he dies, she carries on with them. She also falls rather seriously in love with Leo, but before their romance can progress, they arrive at the lost civilization of Kor. First they must make it through the cave, which is inhabited by cannibalistic natives (lead by Noble Johnson, who played the native chief in King Kong). Once through the cave, they arrive at a palace (Art Deco is how it is usually described) and meet She (Helen Gahagan), who is instantly convinced that Leo is her long lost reincarnated love (who was John Vincey from the fifteen hundreds, who she killed when he didn’t return her love). But Tanya does not let Leo go without a fight. And She’s minister, Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz), doesn’t seem exactly pleased that She has a new love interest, either.

Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce

Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce

The core plot of She is a pretty irresistible one that catches the imagination, hence all the film adaptations, not to mention the extreme popularity of the novel through the century, but this film never quite seems to go anywhere. Perhaps it’s because I’m comparing it with Merian C. Cooper’s earlier hit, King Kong. In She, there is none of that inevitable buildup to a thrilling finish. There is still a lot of talk. There is a ceremonial dance that looks like it’s choreographed by a Busby Berkeley wannabe (and looks like they raided props used for Egyptian, Japanese and Indian films), there is a small chase at the end, a few moments of peril. Mostly, it is She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed trying to convince Leo that he is her lover returned to her. He doesn’t seem convinced, but he is attracted by her promise of immortality.

Immortality is a change from the book, where the flame only gives long life. Another significant difference is the nature of She. In the book, all she has to do is show her face and men turn into her unwilling, stuttering lovesick slaves. No one can resist her beauty and it’s only by an apparent fluke that she dies. In the movie, it’s the reverse. She is supposed to be beautiful, but she never really has a chance. She’s desperate to win Leo’s love, but she cannot command it. All she has to offer him is immortality. Tanya, the spunky one, ultimately wins easily.

It’s quite fun to see Nigel Bruce in a relatively capable role as the scientist Holly. The dialogue is pretty stiff, which you can sometimes get away with if the action is exciting enough or sufficiently grand, but it stands out more in this film. Nigel Bruce seems to come out the best, though. He’s the least stiff and least theatrical of the bunch. Though I had to admire Tanya’s pluck.

Helen Gahagan, looking very much like the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - was Walt Disney inspired by She?

Helen Gahagan, looking very much like the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

She was the only movie Helen Gahagan made (who was married to Melvyn Douglas). She was a Broadway star who also sang some opera, but the lackluster success of She seems to have ended her career. She’s not bad at all in her role. She brings a good deal of desperation to the character – you feel for her because you know she’s going to lose (unlike in the book, where there was no reason for her to lose). But perhaps she made no more movies because she was more interested in politics. She entered politics in the 1940s, served as a senator for California and popularized the designation of “Tricky Dick” for Richard Nixon.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Son of Kong (1933)

download (1)The more I see King Kong the better it seems. Actually, the more I see any King Kong film of any kind, the better the original seems. It’s nearly a perfect movie, paced with a sense of perpetual forward momentum, with the stakes constantly raised until the final moment when Kong dies on top of the Empire State Building. There’s no dross, no meandering plot, the effects are impressive, Kong commands sympathy (the poor guy’s got a bad case of Galahad syndrome), I even like the lead actors as a foil for Kong. It didn’t initially look like much to me, but viewing subsequent remakes has illustrated just how special the original was.

In 1933, not a remake, but a sequel was hurriedly released the same year that King Kong was such an outstanding success. It’s called Son of Kong and is distinctly subpar, though entertaining enough for what it is. Neither Fay Wray nor Bruce Cabot reprise their roles, but the film does bring back Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn, Victor Wong as the ship’s cook, Charlie, and even Noble Johnson as the native chief, though his role is infinitesimal. The film also brings back director Ernest B. Shoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper (who originated the idea of Kong Kong and partnered with Shoedsack on many other films), composer Max Steiner, and stop motion animator Willis O’Brien.

The story opens three months after Kong’s epic demise in New York City with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) broke and besieged in his home by lawsuits, court summons and reporters. Captain Englehorn was with Denham in the original film and is concerned that he could lose his ship, the Venture, so he proposes that Denham and he slip out of New York and pick up work shipping cargo around the Orient.

Work is sparse for Denham and Englehorn and their crew is troublesome, led by the subtly named Red (Ed Brady). But when they stop at a port city called Dakang, they meet shifty Captain Helstrom (John Marston), the man who gave Denham the map that lead to Kong’s island. To convince Denham and Englehorn to take him along with them (he intentionally sank his ship and the authorities want him), he tells them that there is treasure on Kong’s island. Denham and Englehorn are apparently desperate enough believe him.

Helen Mack and Jack Armstrong cautiously approach Baby Kong

Helen Mack and Jack Armstrong cautiously approach Baby Kong

Also on Dakang is Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack), who’s father is a drunken former circus performer now touring his rather pathetic monkey show around unappreciative audiences in obscure locations. After he dies – as the result of an altercation with Helstrom – Denham is kind to her and she stows away aboard his ship.

Unfortunately, Helstrom has no intention of looking for treasure and instead provokes the crew to mutiny. Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, and Charlie are dropped off on Kong’s island and when Helstrom tries to take over as captain, he too is kicked off. The crew is evidently modelling their ship on communist principles and have no intention of having a captain at all (I wonder how that works out for them).

On the island, Denham expects a welcome from the natives for having removed Kong, but the chief (Noble Johnson) warns them to leave since they’ve caused enough trouble (their village was nearly wiped out by Kong in the previous film). So the group have to land on the more dangerous side of the island where the dinosaurs roam. And finally, after forty minutes in a sixty-nine minute film, we meet the son of Kong. He’s stuck in quick sand and Denham helps him get out (prompted by remorse over what he did to Kong and encouragement from the animal-loving Hilda). Baby Kong is grateful and fights a dinosaur and a giant bear for them (I don’t know what it is about the island, but in both King Kong and Son of Kong, the moment people arrive on the island wild animals start coming out of the woodwork to attack them; is this usual or is it just the presence of the humans that inspires these attacks?). They also find a little treasure. Oh, and the island sinks.

Part of what makes this film subpar is the meandering plot. Written by Ruth Rose (wife director Ernest B. Shoedsack and author of the original King Kong screenplay), there is none of the urgency or sense of forward momentum so well employed in the first film. Denham seems to just float around from one situation to another without a sense of going anywhere in particular. By the time we get to the island, everything goes by so fast that we don’t have time to properly enjoy it fully.

Baby Kong, not looking quite so cute here

Baby Kong, not looking quite so cute here

Another problem is baby Kong. He’s played for cuteness rather than awesomeness. We never fear him. I have to admit, he is very cute, but I miss the sense of awe that Kong commanded. I don’t recall baby Kong once thumping his chest after defeating a foe, though he does look at his fingers in perplexity when they are injured and looks coy when Denham and Hilda snuggle. The stop motion animation also looks a trifle rushed.

Denham, at least, is a consistent character from the original. He wasn’t an evil guy, so it makes sense he would feel remorse in the sequel. He was just, in the words of Captain Englehorn in the original, “enthusiastic.” Like a big kid who gets so excited about stuff he has to share it with everyone. He is remarkably generous. I was impressed at how casually he divides the treasure he finds equally with Englehorn and Charlie (the cook). Denham is a sadder, more subdued man now, but his showman instincts still come irrepressibly to the surface.

Helen Mack is a plucky, if underdeveloped, heroine as Hilda. She’s had a hard life, but is game for whatever comes her way and seems to know monkeys and animals well. One could imagine her doing rather well for herself if she were ever carried off by a giant ape. She would probably keep a cool head and try to establish a rapport.

The ending totally came out of the blue. There is a sudden earthquake and the island sinks. I felt bad for the natives, who have the worst luck in these films. Baby Kong rescues Denham and then drowns. It’s so abrupt, you’re left with the feeling of “Umm…okay.” Now that Denham befriended Kong’s son and Kong’s son rescues Denham, is everything squared now? At least Denham now has some money, though I’m not sure he could ever return to America.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2015 in Movies

 

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