Welcome back to my curated list of silent films selected with the newcomer in mind and designed to be viewed one weekend at a time. For the past few weeks, the lists have included films that are artistic, entertaining or cute. This week, we’re going in the dead opposite direction. We’re looking for the worst.
(You can read my complete list of curated selections here. If you want a more general guide to silent film, read my Silent Movies 101 posts here.)
In our zeal to defend silent cinema, it’s easy to go the other way and proclaim that ALL silent stars were wonderful, ALL silent films were art, etc. However, this is absolutely the wrong attitude. I am not advocating for silent films to be locked away in bullet-proof glass cases, I just want them to be treated like any other type of movie.
Every era has had its share of bad entertainment and the silent era is no exception. Let’s embrace that fact. Acknowledging the so-so and not-so-great will give us added appreciation for the best of the era.
Today, we’re going to be looking at two features and one short that illustrate exactly what can go wrong in a silent film. For the sake of your sanity, I have selected films that are amusingly bad. If you are feeling brave and wish to learn about bad silent movies that are just plain bad, I have listed my bottom five selections here.
Evening One: Whaaaaa!?!?!?!
I thought… I mean, did they really… Um, what was that?
Up ’til now, I have been trying to select silent films that have some artistic or historical merit. Well, forget that tonight! We’re going in for weird, inept and strangely entertaining films.
The Copper Beeches (1912)
I think this GIF says it all:
Oh good lord, is the acting in this movie bad! I mean, this is Curse You, Jack Dalton territory. Ostensibly an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, this film dispenses with the actual mystery. Instead of showing us Holmes’s investigation, it just shows us the crime and then Sherlock gets called in, there’s an almost immediate “What’s all this then?” scene and the villain is brought to justice.
But can we get back to the acting? I’ve never seen anything like it, not in any silent film I have seen from the 1910s. The characters employ this weird, swaying clockwork style of movement and gesture like they are trying to communicate with an unusually stupid Martian.
Now France is a particular teacher’s pet on this site but I am sorry to say that the French filmmakers failed spectacularly here. Fortunately, we do get some unintentional comedy so all is not lost. Here’s Holmes after he uncovers the dastardly murder plot of the bad guy:
Why am I watching this? This film contains the type of acting that people believe was used in ALL silent films. While this is absolutely false, it is good to remember that some productions were indeed awful. However, this film is the exception rather than the rule. We should not judge all silent film acting by this turkey any more than we would judge all modern films by the flaws of Battlefield Earth.
Hark and Beware! A Common Misconception: When researching my review, I ran into some critics who proclaimed that this acting was “typical” for 1912 and that it wasn’t until D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation (1915) that subtle acting was discovered. If you have been watching along, you know this is baloney because you’ve seen films from as early as 1905 and none of them have featured acting as broad and ridiculous as what is on display in The Copper Beeches. And, second, I’ve see Birth of a Nation. Subtle it ain’t.
(Things D.W. Griffith is also credited with inventing that he did not invent: The closeup, the gangster film, the feature film, cross-cutting, the epic, the blockbuster, the first film screened at the White House, the chase film, the suspense film, cinematic lighting, tinting, false eyelashes… I’m cutting it off here or we’ll be at this all day.)
Availability: Released on DVD.
The Soul of the Beast (1923)
Okay, I’m going to recount the plot of The Soul of the Beast and you need to stop me when you think I’m starting to make things up.
Madge Bellamy plays an abused circus girl who escapes with her elephant named Oscar into the Canadian wilderness. Oscar eats a haystack and the pair are mistaken for the antichrist. Then Madge meets a violinist with a clubfoot and a rabbit named Napoleon. She is subsequently captured by Noah Beery and enslaved by a bartender. The violinist is tricked into eat Napoleon and so he and Madge escape. Beery is about to attack them when Oscar, who now speaks in 1920s slang, arrives and saves the day.
What part did I make up? Trick question! None of it!
Why am I watching this? In order to see how absolutely nuts the plots of the silent era could get. Sometimes the nuttiness pays off (as we saw in The Penalty) but sometimes it’s just… bad. However, this film is entertainingly bad so it shouldn’t be too painful.
Availability: Released on DVD by Grapevine.
Evening Two: Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuh?!?!?!?!?
How much awful can you stuff into a single film? We are about to find out!
Heart of Wetona (1919)
Are you prepared? This is the holy grail of silent movie kitsch. It is, bar none, the single most accidentally hilarious silent film I have ever seen.
The story concerns Wetona (Norma Talmadge), the daughter of the chief of the Blackfoot. She’s chosen as the vestal virgin (?) of the tribe’s corn festival but then she’s like: “Um, about that…” Yep, it seems that Wetona has been no better than she ought but she won’t name the fella. She does, however, describe how he makes her feel:
And then poor Thomas Meighan wanders into the story, sees Wetona in distress and– knowing full well that her father is out to find her lover and fill him with lead– decides to HUG her. Naturally, we get a shotgun wedding.
The film is filled with clueless scenes, hilarious title cards and a slightly embarrassed Meighan trying to salvage his dignity.
Also, there is a cowboy with leopard chaps. You’re welcome.
This is probably not the most auspicious Your First Year of Silent Films debut for Norma Talmadge, one of the top stars of the silent era. Sorry, Norma. Thanks for taking one for the team.
Why am I watching this? Because you will laugh until your sides ache at this terminally clueless film! Just trust me on this: you will never have more fun with a DVD!
Heart of Wetona is a wonderfully entertaining bit of clueless nonsense. Do yourself a favor. Get a supply of ardent spirits (I recommend the Buck Jones cocktail. Yum!) and some like-minded friends and watch the heck out of this movie.
Availability: Released on DVD, only as a bargain disc, alas.
Extra Credit: The Silent Serial
You’re advanced enough now to start watching serials. Silent serials have a terrible reputation but, guess what, it’s all hot air. Shocking, I know. Should you wish to tackle the extra credit, you will watch two episodes of a serial after you finish Heart of Wetona. This serial is excellent, not one bit accidentally hilarious and so it will serve as a palate cleanser for next week.
You’re going to watch the first two episodes of Judex, a French crime serial about a caped crusader and his quest for vigilante justice. (The serial’s first episode is a prologue, so you will be watching the prologue and episode one.) It’s directed by Louis Feuillade, the king of French serials and it neatly combines suspense, adventure, humor and cute kids and animals.
As an added bonus, Judex features one of my all-time favorite silent film scores. It’s orchestral music from Robert Israel and it adds immeasurably to the experience.
Availability: Released on DVD by Flicker Alley.
That’s all for this week! Next week, we’re back to watching good films with some wildly creative silent movies.