Well, this has been on my chest for a while. Welcome to my new series. I am going to be reviewing talking pictures that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.
Come to dinner at my place and I can show you my collection of shrunken heads… Wait, why are you dialing 911?
Oh, Rudy, poor Rudy! Valentino’s performance in The Sheik has not aged well. He himself hated the film. I like him as an actor, I really really do. But this is just too funny to resist!
Well, you can’t accuse silent films of being all romance and honey, right? William Boyd has just saved Elinor Fair from being shot (he was supposed to do the shooting). She asks him why he saved her. He is not too happy with the situation so his answer is a bit brusk.
I mean, here he was, minding his own business, starting the Russian Revolution and now he’s stuck with some Czarist dame. See, the problem is that she is just too good at moisturizing and exfoliating and her skin was too nice to put a bullet hole through. It strikes me that perhaps the other Czarists should have considered some mud packs and body butters. It would have saved a whole lot of them from being shot.
(This is from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1926 hit The Volga Boatman.)
Mary Pickford is a naive city girl who journeys out to the redwoods to live with her uncle. What she doesn’t know is that her uncle is dead and a bandit (Elliott Dexter) has borrowed his identity as cover for his stagecoach robberies. The pair form an uneasy alliance. Mary has nowhere else to go and Elliott doesn’t dare let her leave since she can blow his cover. That romance in the title? Well, with a city girl and a bandit sharing digs, what do you think will happen?
Continue reading “A Romance of the Redwoods (1917) A Silent Film Review”
This movie is sick. I’m just getting that out of the way now. Lon Chaney stars, Tod Browning directs. Could it be any other way? Lionel Barrymore steals Chaney’s wife and breaks his back. So Chaney drags himself off to Africa where he plans his revenge for eighteen years or so. It’s a sweaty, grimy and totally un-PC. Chaney is a deranged villain but he also gives one of his most heart-breaking performances. Seek out this twisted little gem if you have the stomach for it. If it were a dessert it would be:
A big part of Mary Pickford’s appeal was her way of taking realistic little moments from everyday life and turn them into amusing touches for her films. In this case, it’s the loose lock of hair that gets in the way just when you get your hands wet.
This is from A Romance of the Redwoods.
The Shine Girl (1916)
Status: Missing and presumed lost
This is a Pollyanna-esque tale of a little shoeshine girl who brightens the lives of all she meets. For the record, Mary Pickford and I feel exactly the same way about Pollyanna (she annoys us) but I rather like Gladys Hulette, who plays the title character in The Shine Girl. (Get it? Get it? Cuz she shines shoes and brightens lives? Get it? Get it?)
The story is about a shoeshine girl who wins the love of a Children’s Court judge.
Moving Picture World praised the picture but mentioned a few rough spots:
One of the interesting points about this production from the Thanhouser studios is that its scenario was written by Agnes C. Johnson, who is not only one of the youngest, but one of the few scenario writers exhibiting the spark of genius. Miss Johnson is but eighteen years old, and first attracted the notice of the writer through an artistic three-reel production entitled “The Window of Dreams.” While “The Shine Girl” could not be termed a powerful play, it represents an idea of great beauty. The character of the “shine” girl is of the positive, individual sort that is sometimes met with in the most unexpected places. Although this little girl’s vocation was that of a bootblack, she was not content with the mere shining of shoes. She was of a philosophic turn of mind, and believed among other things that sorrow had the same effect on people that show blacking had on shoes, it made them dark at first, but they polished up brighter after if had been rubbed on. She was also the very embodiment of the spirit of love as learned by her only pal Sally; and Sally, by the way, was a poor, sickly geranium, who consented to live only because the little “shine” girl carried her out of her dark corner into the sunshine whenever she ventured forth herself and considered it a privilege to clamber up fire escapes that Sally might drink in larger droughts of the life-giving elements.
This is an index to the nature of the “shine” girl, and early in life she found opportunities to shine human hearts as well as shoes. She also found her way, along with Sally, into the country where she believed the sun always shone through the kind heart of the Judge of the Children’s Court, whom she afterward rescues from committing a folly, and later marries.
Gladys Hulette has given a beautiful portrayal of the character of the “shine” girl , with A. Wayne playing opposite her as the judge. There are a few points at which the picture might be brushed into more professional shape, but here is no denying that the central idea has been clearly defined. Some off-shoots of the theme might have been strengthened in detail, and there may be a felling that the character of the Judge was not a well-balanced one and has been somewhat victimized in bringing about a dramatic climax. Nevertheless the production is distinctly human, clean and beautiful.
Agnes Christine Johnston was all of 20 when she wrote The Shine Girl. As predicted in the review, she did go on to great things. She wrote scenarios for beloved silent classics like Daddy Long Legs and Show People and enjoyed success in the talkies writing screenplays for the Andy Hardy series.
Wid’s Film and Film Folk also praised the concept but considered the film uneven:
Taken as a whole, I would say that this is a production which will be decidedly satisfying with any audience, highbrow or lowbrow. It is sufficiently artistic to please the discriminating, and surely it has a good audience appeal because of the central thought. This is not a wonderful production technically, because of a few little things which hold it down in the ‘good’ class instead of allowing it to soar to great height, but it surely is a splendid audience film. When it comes to box-office appeal, I doubt whether Miss Hulette can pull you much business, unless you go out and aggressively boost this as an artistic, human presentation of a truly big idea. You can possibly arouse a lot of interest in this by announcing that it deals with the juvenile court problem, for this is a question of general interest. If you wanted to start a discussion, you might say in your ads, ‘Is it any worse to steal a man’s wife than it is to steal a loaf of bread?
I am curious to see this “clean and human” film. I certainly would like to see Gladys Hulette in an early role.
Louis Wolheim is one of my favorite silent character actors and he is hilarious in Tempest. This is his reaction when he sees that his best friend (John Barrymore) has found love– at the most inconvenient time possible.
Love this eye roll!
Run in and do this, gestures and all! Extra points if you actually wear the kerchief. Even more if you put on a Russian accent. Unless you really are Russian. In which case, carry on.
(The White Army was the Czarist side in the Russian revolution. The Red Army was, of course, the Bolshevik side.)
Disclaimer: Obviously, this is me being goofy. If you actually run into Starbucks and do this, you are on your own. Don’t call me from the funny farm for help, is what I’m saying.
This is a scene from The Volga Boatman.
I have branched into television! Action show 24 reimagined as a 1927 serial.
I must ask for more indulgence than usual with this poster. It is highly unlikely that top-tier actors would consent to appear in a serial. This is make-believe so I hope you forgive me. Rugged Milton Sills is just so perfect for the part! The bad guys won’t stand a chance and, best of all, he can act!
I was overwhelmed by the success of my previous post on blogging. The kind words from my readers were really a treat! So, like any good Hollywood producer would do, I have decided to opt for a sequel.
These are mistakes I have made myself and have seen others make. I use WordPress and will be heavily referring to their tutorial section but I think most of these ideas can work for any blogging platform. Here goes nothing!
Not using tags and categories
Uncategorized. What does that tell you about a post? Nothing. Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, the hashtag (you know, #topic) has been helping people organize and comment on their content. That’s what the tags and categories in WordPress (or Labels on Google’s Blogger) do for you. Simply put, tags and categories make it easier for your readers to navigate your blog and read posts similar to the ones that they already enjoy.
What’s the difference between a Tag and a Category? Well, according to WordPress, a category is for the general topics of your blog, while a label is more specific. For example, if you run a craft blog and want to post an easy wool scarf pattern, you might use the Categories of Crafts and Knitting and use the Tags of Scarf, Easy, Wool and Knitting Pattern.
Don’t sweat too much about which is a tag and which is a category, just use a system that makes sense to you and that you think will make sense to everyone else. The main thing is that you not neglect your tags and categories.
Also, do not go crazy and overtag. This is a red flag to Google and it looks silly.
Not paying attention to site analytics
Site analytics are a powerful tool. They tell you how many visitors came to your site, how many pages they viewed and which ones. If you want to know what gets counted and what doesn’t, WordPress has a handy guide. Almost every blogging service offers some sort of stats.
Here are some things that you can do with your site stats:
You can measure how engaged your readers are. How? Well, if your blog got 100 visitors but only 102 page views, that means the readers are only reading one or two pages before leaving. If your stats consistently show this, it may be time to consider livening up your content or providing interesting links that will encourage your readers to stick around.
Find out what features are a hit with your readers. A store owner would be a fool not to check what items are selling and what items are gathering dust on the shelves. Your site stats will tell you which post has received the most hits. Should you be a slave to your stats? Of course not, but why not to follow up a particularly successful post?
Discover who is referring people to your site. Sometimes, you will have a new fan outside of your blogging ecosystem and you won’t even know it until they link back to you. Follow up on referrer links and see if you can make new friends.
Pinpoint your blog’s slow days. Some bloggers report that they have low traffic on a particular day (often Saturday). I enjoy a healthy readership in time zones that are 8-9 hours ahead of me and this seems to prevent me from having a Saturday slowdown. However, it is worth checking out. After all, there’s no point in posting big news on a low traffic day.
But! (This is important) Don’t drive yourself crazy by constantly checking your traffic. Sometimes, you will just have a slow day because that’s how the world works.
Leaving on the default banner for your template
Okay, this may seem pretty minor but let me put it this way: If you buy a pretty picture frame, do you leave the generic images inside?
The banner is the first thing people see when they visit your blog. Even if your visitors don’t notice that it is generic, that banner is taking up prime real estate and not doing anything for you. Wouldn’t it be better to have a banner that communicates what your site is all about?
You can make a banner with Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, GIMP or even MS Paint! You know, the freebie that comes with Windows. What if you don’t have these programs and do not wish to learn? Just search for “banner maker online” and you will find numerous websites that can generate a custom banner for you. Or you can bribe your sister’s kid to make you one. Some brownies or a frappucino should do the trick.
WordPress has a handy tutorial for this too (the header, not the kid bribing.
Ernst Lubitsch directs this fractured fairy tale concerning a coddled young man who wants to avoid marriage at all costs– and he is willing to purchase an elaborate mechanical doll to pose as his wife. Petite charmer Ossi Oswalda co-stars as both the doll and the live girl it was modeled after. When the doll is accidentally broken, Ossi must take its place at the wedding. I can’t possibly imagine anything going wrong with this scenario.
Continue reading “The Doll (1919) A Silent Film Review”
A lot of people have asked me where I watch my silent movies. Quite a few are from my personal DVD collection but I am a huge fan of streaming movies as well. In the world of subscription-based on-demand movie rentals, the three biggest players are probably Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix. However, any fan of a niche genre knows that the big boys are not necessarily the best place to look for more obscure treats.
Silent film fans, in particular, have to be wary of on-demand services. Between battered prints and so-so musical accompaniment, there is just so much that can go wrong with a silent viewing experience.
Fortunately, there are quite a few choices on the market and today I am going to review one of them. Here it is, a silent movie fan’s opinion of the on-demand movie service Fandor.
A quick note before I begin: I have a paid personal subscription to Fandor and all opinions are based on my experiences with that subscription. The long and the short is that I do not make any money from folks joining Fandor or Netflix or any other online rental service.
What is it?: Fandor specializes in films outside the mainstream. They have art house, foreign, classic B movies and, best of all, an enormous selection of silent films. Fandor licenses from silent powerhouses like Flicker Alley and Kino-Lorber, which means that the silent films they offer are the best available versions, not battered public domain prints.
Availability: Fandor is currently only available to users in the United States. The films may be viewed from a computer, Roku, iPad or iPhone. There is currently no Android app.
Price: Fandor currently costs $10 a month or $90 a year. There is a free two-week trial period available. You may also purchase a 3 day pass for $3.
What I like about it: Well, it has an unparalleled selection of silent films, first and foremost. It also features what is possibly the best browse function currently available (they call it Discover). Let me give you an example:
Let’s say you are in the mood for a crime film. You click the Crime genre. Then you get to choose the film by specific crime. Caper, murder, smuggling, courtroom, etc. You also get the choose the country of origin for the film and there are sliders that let you specify the year range of your search.
So here is what I got when I said I wanted a movie about murder made in Italy between 1950 and 1965.
Is that cool or what?
(You can also add film duration to the mix, if you like. Very useful when browsing for silent films as they can range from a few seconds to a few hours.)
The browse function is not quite as elaborate on the Roku but it still works quite well. I have not used the iPhone/iPad app, being firmly entrenched in the Android ecosystem.
What I don’t like about it: Even though I am overall pretty happy with Fandor, there are a few issues. First, the player seems to have trouble with the Chrome browser, causing an audio sync problem. As of this writing, Fandor is working on a test player to resolve the un-synced audio. Another issue is that when watching in a browser, the player will sometimes just lose your place in the film and start back at the beginning.
Another issue I have is that the player can enter full-screen mode but it does not shrink down. I like players that can shrink down to an itty bitty size so that I can watch in the corner while I am working on something else. This is a pretty specific use for the player so I am not complaining too much.
The verdict: I have had my subscription for a while now and am overall pleased as punch. There are minor issues but these are more than offset by the service’s advantages. If you are a silent movie fan and can only afford one online streaming service, Fandor is the one to get. The quality and selection are top notch and the wonderful Discover function is the icing on the cake.
Gangsters! Petty thieves! Blackmailers! Rum runners! The silent era was a hotbed of crime and if you think that the gangster movie was invented with the talkie, well, prepare to be enlightened!
This month, I will be reviewing silent movies with one thing in common, all of them are about some sort of crime.
In the meantime, here are just a few of my older crime-oriented reviews:
The Bells: Robbery and murder most foul!
Below the Surface: Con games!
Carmen: Banditry and more murder!
The Cradle of Courage: The gangs of ‘Frisco!
Little Annie Rooney: The gangs of New York!
Raffles: Gentlemanly robbery!
The Sheik: Abduction and abduction!
Review #1: Fraud and embezzlement!
In order to avoid marriage (but still claim a hefty dowry) a young man weds a life-size doll. Uproarious comedy from Ernst Lubitsch.
Review #2: Highway robbery and identity theft
Mary Pickford is a city girl who goes west only to discover that a bandit has stolen the identity of the relative she was to stay with.
Review #3: Safe-cracking
A bank robber leaves his life of crime behind after a stint at Sing Sing but the police are not inclined to believe him.
Review #4: Bootlegging
Bebe Daniels is a hypochondriac heiress who stumbles on a nest of ruthless bootleggers. I feel sorry for the bootleggers.
Note to villains: If you want get the hero out of the way by framing him, just make sure he doesn’t get the cell next to the crazy old guy who knows where to find a fabulous treasure. Cuz, you know, he may come back for revenge.
It has a pre-Great Lover John Gilbert and Estelle Taylor playing a good girl for once. It is a little rushed but overall a pretty dern good adaptation.
If it were a dessert it would be:
Butterscotch Banana Muffins. A little bit of added flavor but generally stays close to the classic.
Read my full-length review here.
What do you think of when you hear the name William Castle? Classic chillers? Clever marketing gimmicks? If you asked a movie-goer in the forties, though, they would have thought of mysteries.
In the forties, Castle was known as a B director who could get films done on-time and on-budget. His output varied during this decade but two series kept cropping up on his resume: The Whistler and The Crime Doctor. Both were low-budget films series involving amateur sleuths and both featured former silent leading men: Richard Dix and Warner Baxter, respectively.
Poor Dr. Caligari. He goes to all the trouble of finding a sleepwalker, figures out how to control him, sends him out to kill people– But nooooooo, the somnambulist changes his mind at the last second. I mean, Cesare had one job. One!
With the series, I answer some of the more common, interesting or odd search engine queries that send people to my site.
Note: Due to the nature of these queries, I am going to be spoiling the living daylights out of this movie.
Well, I did a test run for the feature and the positive response has convinced me to make it a regular addition to the site.
It’s baaack! Another modern movie re-imagined as a silent. This time, it’s The Princess Bride and it is taking a little trip back to 1928. If you have only seen Mary Astor and William Powell in the talkies, you may be interested to know that in the silents, she was often the dainty princess and he was often a sneering villain. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. did not try his hand at swashbuckling until 1937’s Prisoner of Zenda (Astor was in that one too) but I crave your indulgence because I think he is a perfect Westley.
Cecil B. DeMille was known to use… odd romantic gestures in his films. In this case, Elinor Fair is groovin’ to some boatman music supplied by William Boyd and her fiance, Victor Varconi, is jealous. So what does he do? Make his hands into earmuffs, of course. And she is fine with it. In fact, she thinks it’s pretty wonderful.
The Volga Boatman is stuffed with moments like this, which is why I love it so.
To honor the start of the William Castle Blogathon, I made this GIF from The Tingler. The titular nasty is loose in a silent movie theater that just happens to be playing Tol’able David, one of my favorite movies. This is the iconic scene in which the Tingler crawls in front of the projector. Brrr! Scary puppet!
You can read the roster of entries here and here. And be sure to look for mine on August 2. And you can read my review of Tol’able David here. The Tingler does overcrank it so that everything is a bit manic looking.
She is Mary Pickford, spunky orphan who is being sent to college by a mysterious benefactor. He is the mysterious philanthropist who reads Mary’s letters but never writes back. But just who is Daddy Long Legs? And why is he so interested in Mary’s romances?
About 73% of the fun in The Volga Boatman comes from the overblown intertitles. In this case, William Boyd (yes, that William Boyd) is leading a Bolshevik uprising (this was back when a Hollywood hero could lead a Bolshevik uprising) and he is calling on his followers to storm the castle. (Have fun with that!)
One thing that I learned from writing this blog is that a lot of people want to get into silent movies but have not been able to for various reasons. Some don’t know where to begin. Some are intimidated by how different silents are from sound films. Some had a bad experience in Film 101 and are understandably wary.
Of course, plenty of folks get into silent films with no trouble at all but I thought it would be fun to write an encouraging post to help the viewers who may need a few tips or recommendations to get started.
Tip #1: Remember that silent films were made for viewers just like you
Popular entertainment was, of course, made for the everyman. However, as time marches on, references become obscure, language shifts, tastes change. As a result, yesteryear’s pop culture is often claimed by today’s academia. Now I have no problem with scholarly work on the silent era, it’s wonderful stuff. But viewers should never lose sight of the fact that these films were meant for the masses. As such, they deal with basic human emotions like love, hate, greed, sorrow and joy.
True, a new viewer to older films may not get every single pop culture reference thrown their way but the basic humanity in silent films means that they are quite accessible to modern audiences. You don’t need to have a degree in film studies to enjoy them.
Tip #2: If at first you don’t succeed…
I have a confession: I didn’t like the first silent movie I saw. I don’t think I’m alone in this. You know what, though? It’s all right not to like a silent film. We modern viewers tend to lump silent movies into one genre but they were extremely varied in content and tone. Romance, comedy, horror, action… It’s all there. Plus, what we call the silent era lasted from 1895 (when the first motion picture was projected before a paying audience) to 1929 (when the last of the silent titles were released by major American studios). That’s 34 years of movies! So if you don’t like a silent movie, try one in a different genre or from a different decade.
Tip #3: Try to watch the highest quality version available
Many silent films are out of copyright, which means they are in the public domain. The downside of this is that there are some very low quality silent movie releases out there. (I wrote a whole article on finding the best available version) If you want to try silent movies for the first time, higher quality versions will give you a much better experience.
Tip #4: You like what you like, don’t let anyone tell you different!
Some silent fans, in their enthusiasm for their favorite star, can sometimes make newcomers doubt their own taste. How do they do this? By suggesting that a particular star or film or director is just not worth the time of a real silent film fan.
Meow! And, while we are at it, la-dee-da!
(If you have never run into this, just know that it exists.)
Am I saying that it is wrong to have a negative opinion about a performer or film? Of course not! My regular readers know that I can savage a turkey with the best of them and that there are certain performers I just cannot bring myself to appreciate. What I object to is attempting to make devotees of a particular artist feel like an inferior sort of silent fan. Not cool.
Plus, the rudeness often backfires. Take the great Chaplin vs. Keaton debate. I like Buster Keaton very much but after a run-in with some particularly venomous Chaplin bashers, it took me a few months to see Keaton films again. I just wasn’t in the mood.
(The Chaplin vs. Keaton thing is probably the most common battleground but the European Art vs. Hollywood Crowdpleaser can also be minefield and there is always the Latin Lover/Great Lover/My Swarthy Heartthrob is Better than Your Swarthy Heartthrob thing.)
Again, nothing wrong with healthy debate and differing opinions make things fun. However, there is no Grand Poobah of the Silents who decides which films and actors must be loved by “real” fans, which is the impression that comes across sometimes.
Popularity is not some kind of limited resource. Love for one actor or film does not mean that there is less love available for another.
If you like Keaton better than Chaplin, fine. If you like Chaplin better than Keaton, fine. If you don’t care for either one and prefer Mabel Normand, fine. If you love them all, fantastic! Enjoy the movies that appeal to you and don’t let anyone tell you different.
These films are titles that I like to show to newcomers to the silents. Some have been recommended by my wonderful readers and some I have discovered through trial and error. The list skews heavily toward comedies as these are generally the most successful gateway films.
I decided to limit this list to films that have only one official version available on home video. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera are amazing and popular films but the many, many, many available versions can be confusing to the newcomer.
I live in the U.S. and all copyright information and film availability applies to my neck of the woods only. Copyrights and availability vary from country to country. Also, I will only be covering streaming services with a confirmed track record of legal and legitimate business practices: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and Fandor.
City Lights (1931)
This was the first silent film that I loved.
Charlie Chaplin was the last major Hollywood holdout when sound came to the industry and I think City Lights proves that he was right to keep his silence a little longer.
Chaplin is, arguably, the most recognizable and iconic figure of the silent era. City Lights features that blend of comedy and pathos that was his trademark. It works as a Chaplin movie, it works as a silent movie, it works as a movie.
Safety Last! (1923)
That guy hanging from the clock. How many silent movie retrospectives feature the iconic image of Harold Lloyd holding on for dear life? I lost count.
On the practical side of things, Harold Lloyd comedies are fast-paced, breezy affairs. His screen persona was a cheery go-getter who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. As a comedian, Lloyd was second only to Chaplin in box office appeal.
The General (1926)
I am going to make one exception to my “Official Release Only” policy for this post: Buster Keaton.
Often considered Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, this is the story of a man and his true love: a locomotive named The General. Oh, and there’s a girl too… somewhere.
The Oyster Princess (1919)
If you think that German films are dour, heavy affairs, be prepared to be proven wrong in the most charming way possible! I recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s film The Oyster Princess because it is madcap, hilarious and you have probably never seen anything like it. The zany plot, witty intertitles and goofy characters all represent the very best in silent cinema.
Let’s step over into drama for this selection. F.W. Murnau’s 1927 drama was honored with a special Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production” and it certainly deserved it. It’s the story of a country husband and wife and one day spent in the city. The love story is beautiful, the setting is beautiful, the set design is beautiful.
I could go on but I think limiting the selections to five is a good way to keep things simple.
Have some beginner-friendly titles to suggest? Leave a comment!
Comedian Lupino Lane plays every last part in this comedy short. The plot? A tipsy, top-hatted fellow and a really horrible child manage to disrupt an evening at the music hall. The material is old but Lane manages to keep things fun.
Continue reading “Only Me (1929) A Silent Film Review”