Welcome to the very first theme month of 2017! This time around, we’re not going to be focusing on plots, performers, directors or nations of origin. Instead, we are going to be examining the use of unreality as visualized on the silent screen.
Silent films are sometimes described as surreal but we’re going further with that description. This month is going to focus on dreams, hallucinations and visions and how they are woven into the plots of many silent films.
I have some interesting films lined up from the early 1900s to the 1920s and I hope you will enjoy the selection. We’ll be kicking things off with a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of indulging in too much cheese toast.
In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here are some films I have already covered that involve the unconscious, subconscious and fantasizing mind. (Click on the film’s title to read my review.)
About 90% of this film is an elaborate fantasy sequence. The plot is infantile but the visuals are gorgeous thanks to Maurice Tourneur’s stunning cinematography.
One of the most famous dream sequences in cinematic history. Charlie Chaplin dreams of the perfect party with Georgia Hale as his guest. He entertains her with a couple of rolls and two forks. Yes, this is the one with the bread dance!
Cecil B. DeMille famous eccentricity dives off the deep end in this melodrama. Thomas Meighan plays the hero and he can’t stop fantasizing about Roman orgies. “You libertines! You’re just like the ancient Romans! Wearing something sheer and beaded…”
Mmm-hmm. Sure, Tommy.
Not to be confused with the Arbuckle-Keaton-St. John comedy short of the same name, this is an eccentric little picture from Reginald Denny. He plays a hypochondriac who falls for his nurse and who can blame him? She’s played by a very young Mary Astor. Denny dreams of dancing with Astor in a forest with an odd Greek mythology theme. Told you it’s eccentric. Highly recommended too.
DeMille’s fantasy sequences tie into the plot quite elegantly here. The closest thing to an art film in his resume, it tells the story of a bookkeeper who listens to the voices in his head and suffers the consequences. Dark, grim and downright gorgeous.
This film is particularly interesting because there are different way to read it and the number of fantasy sequences in the picture depend entirely on your interpretation. The complexity of the film is a major part of its continuing popularity.
(Oh, and I guess I should toss in my myth-busting of the fiction that The Wind‘s ending was altered by MGM. It wasn’t. The happy ending was always there. No, this isn’t a spoiler. TCM plays an intro in which Lillian Gish makes her claims about the “original” ending. This myth is the single biggest fantasy sequence in silent cinema.)
This is just a tiny sample of the fascinating ways silent cinema handled dream elements. Be sure to share your favorite films that contain this narrative element!