Theme Month! January 2017: Dreams, Visions & Hallucinations

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.)

The Blue Bird (1918)

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.

The Gold Rush (1925)

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!

Manslaughter (1922)

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.

Oh Doctor! (1925)

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.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

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.

The Wind (1928)

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.)

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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!

14 Replies to “Theme Month! January 2017: Dreams, Visions & Hallucinations”

  1. I love The Wind. It may in fact be my of my top 3 silent films. SPOILER ALERT. Happy endings are fun but unhappy endings are usually more powerful and memorable, and I tend to appreciate them. Having said that, I think the ending of The Wind fit very nicely, and was surprised that it was reshot, or so the story goes. But, if that story is false, why would Lillian herself perpetrate such a falsehood?

    1. It’s all about appropriateness. A tragic ending for its own sake shoehorned in is never going to be artistically satisfying.

      Regarding Gish, while she was a great actress, she had a passing acquaintance with the truth. One of the threads that runs through all her interviews is that she and Mr. Griffith were done dirty by the Hollywood establishment and The Wind fiction plays nicely into that. Plus, she liked to be known as an “art above all” actress and the fact that she compromised on the tragic ending before a single foot of film was shot does not fit that particular image. However, original scripts for The Wind survive and the ending was happy from the very first draft. Gish was a great actress and that sometimes turns people into great liars. She certainly would not be the first or the last.

      P.S. I should note that there is absolutely no question of Gish’s narrative being true. She is contradicted by every single document covering the original production. The idea that the tragic ending ever existed is absolutely false.

      P.P.S. Letters from Gish’s early career show that she was in the habit of sculpting the truth to fit her needs even at that early date. This was likely a survival tactic as the women of the Gish family were in a rather precarious social and financial position for much of Lillian’s childhood. The example I think of is Gish admitting she faked injury to get out of a stage contract so she could join the Griffith crew in California.

  2. I was ready to ask how you knew about the ending always being happy and then I read your above comment. It makes sense since, back in the day and MGM, always liked happy endings. I would love to see some of these films. Happy New Year!

  3. With Gish in mind, it occurs to me that you could easily do a theme month on silent film myths and not run out of material until … oh wait! … you’ve already devoted much of your site to that, and on a regular basis! Keep up the good work!

  4. I watched Oh Doctor (1925) for the first time today and loved it! So funny, I thought the dream sequence was hilarious! I love how when he imagines Mary Astor dancing in the forest, she is still wearing her nurse uniform, made me laugh so hard.

  5. I was once asked when “the first” dream sequence in film was. With all the usual disclaimers about identifying “the first” anything, I suggested that it could be “A Terrible Night” (1896) by Georges Melies. That’s a tricky one, because it’s hard to be certain whether the sleeper is dreaming or actually experiencing an attack by a giant insect (which could make it “the first” big bug movie). A couple years later, “The Astronomer’s Dream” (1898) is more explicit.
    There are a number of movies where someone is haunted by a memory of someone they killed and/or wronged, usually by means of double exposure. One of my favorites is “After Death” by Evgeni Bauer.
    And let’s not forget the heroin-hallucinations in Tully Marshall’s fireplace from “The Devil’s Needle!”

    1. Yes, it’s always hard when you go back that far. Of course, it helps to be absurdly specific: “This is the first known instance of a junkie hallucinating wood nymphs in his fireplace while under the influence of heroin.”

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