Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where they wow you

Welcome to my new project! As I announced earlier this week, I am going to be curating a list of silent films designed to give newcomers as broad an experience as possible. I will be recommending two feature films and a couple of shorts every week. Follow my list and this time next year, you will have seen over a hundred silent films in every genre imaginable! Not bad for a newcomer, eh?

(If you want more of an intro to silent films in general, please check out my Silent Movies 101 series.)

This week, my goal is to wow you, bowl you over and leave you gobsmacked. I’m going to recommend two features and two shorts that turn popular notions of silent films on their head and I mean to make an impact!

I want you to be like this about silent film!
I want you to be like this about silent film!

I will also attempt to toss you over some newbie hurdles. That’s right, you will be seeing TWO non-slapstick pre-1915 silent films and a foreign one too!

As will always be the case, these films can be finished over the space of one weekend.

(I will be listing where these films can be seen on either DVD or via streaming from a reputable source. Please do not include YouTube links in the comments as I am unable to publish them for legal reasons.)

Evening One: Let’s get magical!

Our first evening will focus on enchantment, both literal and metaphorical. Silent films could be stunningly beautiful and charming in their whimsy and we are going to be enjoying two pictures that display these qualities in abundance. Both pictures were made in the New York/New Jersey area, which was where the American film industry got its start. (There were also studios in Colorado, Florida, Illinois and, of course, California.)

Short #1: Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)

Isn't she a bit young to smoke?
Isn’t she a bit young to smoke?

Thanks to the ubiquitousness of A Trip to the Moon and the movie Hugo (2011), Georges Melies’ lovely fantasy films are famous once again. But how would you like to see an American-style fantasy film? (Albeit one with a British director.) And this one is completely nuts in the bargain!

Directed by J. Stuart Blackton for Vitagraph (one of the major studios of the 1900s), it’s a deliciously weird little tale about fairies playing practical jokes with a man’s tobacco and pipe. The film runs about five minutes, which was on the short side of typical for movies of this time period.

Don't tick off fairies, they may start fires, the tiny pyromaniacs.
Don’t tick off fairies, they may start fires, the tiny pyromaniacs.

Why am I watching this? In order to enjoy the combination of trick photography and props that make this film work as a fantasy. Plus, you get to make the acquaintance of Blackton, who was quite the creative force in the 1900s. And, of course, we need to banish the notion that silent films were 100% melodrama.

Finally, there is a tendency for silent film newcomers to ignore pre-feature cinema (feature films took over the American film industry around 1914-1915) but there is much to see and enjoy!

Gladys Hulette climbs into a corncob pipe. As one does.
Gladys Hulette climbs into a corncob pipe. As one does.

Bonus: The younger fairy is played by Gladys Hulette. Remember her name as she will figure into this series again.

Availability: Princess Nicotine is available as part of the appropriately titled Wild and Weird set from Flicker Alley, which can also be rented via streaming. The film was also included in the now out of print box set Treasures from American Film Archives.

Feature #1: The Wishing Ring (1914)

wishing-ring-1914-curtain

Readers of this site know that I talk about this film a lot and with good reason: it’s cute, it’s fun, it’s beautiful and it’s snappy. The acting is charming and the cinematography is stunning.

This film was a product of Lewis J. Selznick’s studio (father of David O.) and was directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques), who made films of unmatched beauty throughout the silent era. What sets this picture apart from Tourneur’s other films is that it is not inflicted with a glacial pace.

The film is given the explanatory title An Idyll of Old England and it tells the tale of a runaway heir and the parson’s daughter who wins his heart. The heroine then attempts to reconcile her boyfriend with his father armed with an enchanted ring and her skills as a chess player. (Gotta love a plot that hinges on the heroine’s chess skills!) Chester Barnett and Vivian Martin are cute without simpering and did I mention the cinematography? I did? Well, look at it again!

Ooo!
Ooo!

Why am I watching this? To see the quality and technical proficiency of silent films of this period. You may have heard that The Birth of a Nation (1915) “invented the grammar of film” but it’s pretty clear that Tourneur had a firm grasp of film grammar in 1914 and he was not the only one by any means.

Second, it’s fun to see how natural and unmelodramatic the leads of this film are. You may have heard about silent film acting with flailing arms. Do you see an uptick in subtlety between 1909 and 1914?

Aww!
Aww!

Third, this is a truly beautiful film and nearly every frame could be printed and be used to decorate the finest of homes. While the camera work is not fancy, Tourneur’s composition and eye for delicate detail is to be appreciated.

(If you want more detail, you can read my review of The Wishing Ring here.)

Availability: The Wishing Ring is available on DVD with the documentary Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, New Jersey from Flicker Alley and as a solo offering from Reelclassicdvd.

Evening Two: A dark sting

We’re piloting into heavier territory this time but I think you are ready to handle it. We are going to introduce foreign fare into the mix (another hurdle that many new fans avoid) and then we are going to very dark places with Lon Chaney, Sr. While his Phantom of the Opera is iconic, we’re going to watch a more obscure selection, one that showcases his acting to perfection.

Short #2: Chess Fever (1925)

chess-fever-1925-image-20

We’re diving into the deep end of the pool! A Soviet film? For a beginner? Am I mad? Well, I am but I know what I’m doing.

Using footage from an actual chess championship, Chess Fever weaves the tale of a young man obsessed with the game. How obsessed? Well, he forgets to show up for his own wedding because he is playing a chess match. Against himself. His fiancee is understandably angry but finds herself alone in a chess-obsessed Moscow.

Trying to sneak in a quick game.
Trying to sneak in a quick game.

This clever short film packs a lot of smart observational humor into its short running time and anyone who has been on the outside of a fad looking in can relate to its story. Substitute video games or sports broadcasts for chess and this story could take place anytime, anywhere. Also, this film contains kittens. Lots and lots of kittens.

Why am I watching this? To conquer any fear of foreign films that might be present. Russian cinema is generally reckoned to be the most opaque but Russian comedies are actually charming and accessible with a unique, slightly gloomy wit. Plus, this film will give you an early intro to director Vsevolod Pudovkin and leading man Vladimir Fogel, both of whom will show up on this list again.

Real chess champion José Raúl Capablanca plays an unexpected role in the story.
Real chess champion José Raúl Capablanca plays an unexpected role in the story.

Most importantly, though, you’re watching this film because it’s fun and it cleverly merges the fantasy world of cinema with the real world a the chess championship. (This short has a slow start due to the chess match footage but quickly makes up for lost time. Stick with it!)

(If you want more details, you can read my review of Chess Fever here.)

Availability: Chess Fever has been released on DVD by Kino Lorber on their Three Soviet Classics disc and by Flicker Alley as a double feature with Bed and Sofa.

Feature #2: The Penalty (1920)

penalty-lon-chaney-silent-movie-a-death-song

We’re leaving things on a dark and twisted note with the introduction of Lon Chaney. The secret of Chaney’s success was not his makeup skills (which were formidable) but his intense acting. Makeup would be a mere gimmick without a talented performer behind the paint and putty. Chaney combined these two skills with twisted stories and the result was a potent brew that enchanted silent film audiences and continues to win over new fans.

One of Lon Chaney’s earliest Lon Chaney roles, The Penalty tells the tale of a criminal mastermind who lost his legs years before due to a young doctor’s incompetence. Chaney means to have revenge and also take over San Francisco with a band of anarchists. The plot is further complicated by Chaney’s attempts to woo his enemy’s daughter whilst simultaneously romancing an undercover government agent who has infiltrated his gang.

The painful harnesses.
The painful harnesses.

Chaney holds the admittedly zany plot together through sheer force of will. The harnesses he uses to disguise his legs are remarkably convincing but it is his acting that really puts the film over.

Why am I watching this? Lon Chaney’s macabre taste makes his films quite accessible to modern viewers, who are used to darker entertainment. The film also banishes the notion that silent films were naive little melodramas. The Penalty‘s San Francisco is a dangerous place, full of gangland murders, drug addicts and sleazy dives.

What a face!
What a face!

Newcomers who watch this film generally have to pick their jaw up from the floor by the time it finishes. It’s a twisted treat that neatly demonstrates the power of silent cinema.

(If you want more details, you can read my review here.)

Availability: The Penalty has been released on DVD and Bluray by Kino Lorber. The DVD has a controversial synth score (which I actually like but many people don’t) while the Bluray has a more traditional score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s selections. Come back next week for the next viewing list. I won’t reveal all but I will say that we are going to be meeting a very important figure in American silent film.

12 Replies to “Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where they wow you”

  1. The Penalty is the perfect tonic for folks who think all old movies were innocent affairs. I was actually shocked by how many films of the 1910s tackled contemporary social issues, from prostitution to drug addiction! People sensed the power movies had as commentators on such problems.

    Good choices and a noble goal indeed!

    1. Thank you! Yes, the 1910s were not just melodramas and thick makeup, despite what The Perils of Pauline and Merton of the Moves may have told us! Pre-Code fans and 1950s-1960s devotees seem to think they invented the social film. Not even close.

  2. The Penalty is a favorite of mine, and not just newcomers to silents should find their jaws on the floor as it is one of the most bizarre films ever made.

  3. The Unknown, Tell It to the Marines, and He Who Gets Slapped are also excellent Chaney films. Just avoid Nomads of the North; it’s great camp, but Chaney is not at his best advantage.

      1. Yeah, anything by James Oliver Curwood is bound to be dreadful. The idiot had the nerve to throw a tantrum when Nell Shipman had the nerve to adapt his story “Back to God’s Country” in a way that focuses on the heroine and not the dog. The dog.

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