Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from an actor whose sartorial flair matched his fame as a performer.
Fans of silent film quickly get used to some rather… singular responses when people find out that we enjoy that period of film. Everyone has a different experience, of course, but here are a couple of the more usual ones for me:
Nowadays, watching the biggest and latest movies legally in the comfort of our own home is as simple as waiting a few months (or less!) and then firing up the Roku or popping a disc into a player. It’s hard to remember a time when movies were the exclusive property of theaters.
Welcome to the fourth and final article on my series on silent movie research. Part one dealt with fibbing film stars, part two discussed the responsibilities of film historians, part three covered the problems caused by bloggers and the wiki culture. This time, we are going to be discussing something of a sticky topic: Using research or testimony that you know is questionable.
Why would anyone do that? Well, silent movies are not exactly a happening thing. With more obscure stars and films, imperfect sources may be all we have. It’s a question of using a fishy source gingerly or having no source at all. There is a time and a place for either option.
Step one: Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge
If you have any reason to doubt the veracity of your source, state this in your writing. Has your source made unfounded claims? Have they been caught in lies? You owe it to your readers to acknowledge this and state why you believe the source this time.
So far so good. But what about specific instances?
Wonderful, horrible fan magazines
Fan magazines were a mixture of gossip, fantasy, studio stunts and a few grains of truth. Sometimes you can learn a lot from what they don’t say. For example, if a star was on every page one month and then gone the next, there is a good chance that they were embroiled in scandal or dropped from their studio contract. The time of the drop gives you a clue for tracking down further information.
Fan magazine writers could be petty, sexist, racist and generally unpleasant and cruel. If you run into a really mean quote, you may do well to track down information on the writer. (Adela Rogers St. John has made my blacklist with her petty swipes.)
And fan magazines were not above holding grudges. For example, Photoplay reportedly took an intense dislike to Lillian Gish in the twenties because she politely refused to have her likeness engraved on Photoplay commemorative spoons. Yes, really. I imagine she reacted to the suggestion somewhat like this:
From that point on, Gish was labeled snobby, frumpy, sexless and her performances were ignored or played down. While there is no smoking gun (for example, a “get Gish” telegram) in the case, it definitely has the ring of truth to me.
Charles Affron recounts the episode in his biography Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. The book has lots of interesting details and mythbusting but the author seems to have taken a dislike to his subject. In this case, though, Affron is sympathetic to Miss Gish. Who wouldn’t be? “Take part in our tacky spoon peddling– or else.”
Unfortunately, for more obscure stars, the fan magazines are pretty much all we have. Just assume that they are least 75% baloney. When quoting a fan magazine for a more controversial claim that is not backed by any other source, it is probably best to briefly acknowledge the credibility issues.
Slips of the tongue
When dealing with a recorded interview, slips of the tongue are inevitable. With written reviews, memories can be hazy and there may be a few mix-ups. For example, you may wish to quote an actor who verbally mixes up Constance and Norma Talmadge. Everything else he says seems to check out, there was just that one slip of the tongue.
So, the original quote looks like this:
“It was such a pleasure working with Constance Talmadge. You really should see her in Kiki.”
There is a right way and a wrong way to handle it.
The wrong way:
“I was such a pleasure working with Norma Talmadge. You should really see her in Kiki.”
What’s wrong? Well, in this case, we corrected the original speaker’s quote but we did not tell the reader that we were doing so. This is highly misleading (even if well-intended) and is irresponsible writing. Whoopsy!
The right way:
“It was such a pleasure working with Constance Talmadge. You really should see her in Kiki.”
Note: It seems clear from context that Thomas Actor was referring to Norma Talmadge, Constance’s sister.
If you need to use the quote, do not correct it or change it in any way. You may add clarifying notes but anything more would not be the ticket. The same goes for paraphrasing.
If you only have one quote on the topic and there is an obvious slip of the tongue, you need to acknowledge it. It’s only fair. After all, not everyone may agree that it is a slip of the tongue. And, obviously, deciding whether or not something is a slip of the tongue is a judgement call on the part of the writer.
Judgment calls and lifting your fingers
In fact, writing about history of any kind is a series of judgement calls. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of looking at the big picture. Many movie myths can be debunked by something as simple as looking a movie release dates to see if they match the testimony given. It also helps to read history books about the era that are not related to film. Many times, myths and errors get repeated and accepted as fact because no one has ever bothered to lift a finger and do even a minimum amount of research.
For example, there is a common myth that Russian leading man Ivan Mosjoukine was invited to Hollywood as a Valentino replacement after the famous leading man’s sudden death. The story goes that studio heads saw an opportunity to inherit Valentino’s box office appeal and scoured far and wide for a new sheik. Supposedly, the search led Carl Laemmle to Mosjoukine’s work in France, which led to an invitation to Universal.
All it took to debunk the myth was a few hours of digging through back issues of trade journals to discover this was not the case at all.
This is dated August 14, 1926. Valentino died unexpectedly on August 23. Case rested.
(You can read the full, crazy account of my Mosjoukine mission in my review for Surrender, his lone Hollywood appearance.)
So, look for context. Many times, the answer that you need is just beneath the surface. Be the one who lifts a finger and corrects the historical record.
Well, that book is riddled with errors. Let’s use it as a source.
Here is a pop quiz for all you junior film historians. Let’s say you run into a book with juicy claims about a famous person. But, oh dear, it seems that it has some basic factual errors. Dates are wrong. Names are wrong. People are said to be places where they couldn’t possibly be (and photographs prove it). But the claims are so… juicy!
What do you do?
a) Use the claims as-is. No one will notice!
b) Quietly correct the factual errors but use the claims in your juicy article.
c) Do further research before using the juicy claims. If you do use the source, mention its credibility issues.
Obviously, C is the best choice but you would be amazed at how many folks take the A and B path. Obviously, I have a few issues with this.
For example, in researching my epic (she said modestly) debunking of the perfectly silly “Woodrow Wilson murdered Florence La Badie” myth, I read as much as I could find. For those of you who missed the drama, the claims are found in exactly one book: Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood by Charles Foster. The book gets birthdates wrong, misnames La Badie’s mother, quotes people who could not possibly have witnessed the events in question, gives only vague dates for newspaper articles (none of which seem to exist) and generally raises red flags all over the place.
The problem was that many of writers who repeated the affair/murder narrative chose option B. That is, they took the errors in the original source and corrected them (birthdates, names, etc.), did not mention that they had made corrections and unquestioningly recited everything else. Oh dear.
You see the problem? I hope so. It gives false credibility to the original source but does not question its allegations, which are pretty fishy. In short, it makes the “scandal” look a lot more believable than it really is. I dare say that many of these people meant well but the result is playing havoc with the historical record and causing confusion where there should be none.
That’s not a nice thing to do.
Again, I am not a huge fan of bashing fellow film bloggers but these murder claims are smearing a lot of very good people and they must surely cause distress to the descendants of the wrongly accused. Please think before you type! These people have families. How would you like to have your grandparents written about in this way?
(Mercifully, the rumor has not spread too far yet and Wikipedia is, as of the writing, actively deleting mentions of this nonsense from their Florence La Badie page.)
Look at yourself
Here come the questions that only you can answer. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write about this star, this director, this film? You don’t need a complicated reason. Maybe you just like them. But please be aware that liking a person’s work can color what information you choose to include or exclude.
(I think every single one of us has been guilty of this.)
Taking a balanced approach is difficult but worth your time and effort. Does this mean you can’t have opinions? Of course not! It just means that responsible writers acknowledge their likes and dislikes and realize how it can color their writing.
For example, the more I learn about D.W. Griffith and watch his films, the more I grow to detest the man and his feature work. Some silent film fans feel he is unfairly maligned and want to restore his reputation. I respectfully disagree. I want to tie cinder blocks to his reputation and toss it into the Mariana Trench. What does this mean? Well, it means that his fans are more likely to believe positive accounts of Griffith and I am more likely to believe negative accounts. Again, nothing wrong with having an opinion. Just know that it will make a difference with your baloney detectors.
Silent movie fans are a small but dedicated group. Because there are so few of us, it means that those who choose to write about the topic have an enormous responsibility. Yours may be the only voice discussing a particular star or film. Please, for the sake of the historical record, do your very best to get it right.
Welcome to part three of my series on silent movie research. Previously, we discussed movies stars and film historians. This time, we will be discussing bloggers and user-edited sites like IMDB and Wikipedia.
Yep, we’re part of the problem.
See, the great advantage of the internet is that anyone can start up a blog. The great disadvantage is that anyone can start up a blog. Add to that the well-known content and reliability issues with Wikipedia and the not-so-well-known reliability issues with IMDB and we have a mess of misinformation about silent and classic Hollywood. (IMDB is mostly comprised of user-generated content, just like Wikipedia. Really, truly.)
IMDB: Not so good if you’re dead
You see, if we read interviews or history books with an uncritical eye and then use dubious knowledge to add to sites like IMDB and Wikipedia, we can do enormous damage. Even worse is when someone jumps to a crazy conclusion and then spreads it all over the internet.
IMDB has been responsible for quite a few of these messes. Basically, they really only seem to vet birth and death dates (I had to produce a sworn affidavit from Elliott Dexter’s aunt before they corrected his date of birth. They had been off by nine years.)
See, living actors usually keep an eye on their IMDB profile (or should) and so there is a much lower chance of weird or nasty stuff gaining traction. Dead performers, especially obscure ones, are much more vulnerable to bad information being added. Please note that this information is not always malicious. Sometimes, people I assume to be overzealous descendants take it upon themselves to gild their grandma or grandpa’s IMDB profile. However, well intended or not, this still is spreading false information.
Would you like a cautionary tale? Let’s use the example of Jetta Goudal. A fiery and difficult performer, the pronunciation of her name has stymied some and so a helpful pronunciation key was introduced: ZHETT-ə. It means that the ZH is pronounced like the s in treasure and the last vowel is pronounced as an E as in red. Just say the car name with a softer J sound and you’re good. (This is per the Library of Congress, which is a pretty darn good source. They even provide a pronunciation key in plain English.)
I know, I know, you knew that already. Well, someone clearly did not. They apparently saw the ZH and, realizing that the letter combination is unusual, decided that it had two syllables. Someone then changed Miss Goudal’s IMDB profile to say that her name is pronounced ZAH-HETTA. Before you could say “d’oh!” the pronunciation spread across the interwebs. ZAH-HETTA? For zah-heaven’s sake!
(I changed the IMDB profile back, don’t worry.)
So, be extremely cautious of claims that are not backed up, especially if they seem shady. (Name a single language that pronounces the letter “J” as ZAH-HE with two syllables and I will eat my hat. The one with the giant bow on it.)
Check the sources and then check the sources of the sources
Sometimes, people cite sources that are unreliable or that do not actually back them up. If meant maliciously, they are fairly safe in doing this because not many people bother tracking them down. If meant innocently, it causes the same amount of damage. For more outrageous claims, fact checking is essential.
For example, I have run across some truly strange conspiracy theories claiming that Woodrow Wilson murdered Florence La Badie by having the brakes of her car tampered with. Wikipedia has edited La Badie’s page to remove all mention of the Wilson affair but it still cites Stardust and Shadows by Charles Foster, which is the primary source of this theory. This book does not have a bibliography, list of citations or other basic elements one would expect in a work of film history.
Basically, the accusations of murder are based on the facts (or “facts”). Fact! La Badie was said to be recovering but then died from her injuries. This is hardly surprising. Politicians and celebrities often refuse to disclose their health status and downplay serious injuries or illnesses. Plus, this was the pre-antibiotic era. Secondary infections were more to be feared than the initial injury. Fact! Mary Pickford did not wish to speak of the death of her friend. Again, no shock there. Fact! La Badie’s car was missing from the garage. But how do we know it was missing? Her family never reported the loss. Or perhaps the garage workers sold it for scrap. In any case, no sources are provided.
Much is made of the “mystery man” who was riding with La Badie and who was thrown (or jumped) from the car when the accident occurred. But I always understood that the man’s identity was no mystery. He was her fiancé, Daniel Carson Goodman. Keep in mind, the car almost certainly had no seatbelts. It would have been surprising if Goodman hadn’t been thrown. La Badie certainly was.
The smoking gun of the tale, though, is the testimony of James Baird, a reporter who was seventeen at the time of the accident but who only shared his recollections at the age of ninety-three. He claimed to see the cut brake lines but that his story was spiked.
That’s the evidence? A teenager (who was not an auto mechanic) thought he saw tampering on a vehicle? Who was annoyed that his big story was killed and then went on a research campaign to prove La Badie had Wilson’s secret love child? A campaign, by his reckoning, that lasted over a decade. Because he heard it from La Badie’s maid that she had a baby? After pestering her for weeks and weeks?
Just to remind everyone, we now have three levels of hearsay. Foster quoting Baird quoting an unnamed maid. The baby’s birth supposedly occurred in September of 1915 but, what’s this, here is a very unpregnant La Badie in a film released in late June of that year. Again, I must emphasize that no footnotes or endnotes are provided. That’s pretty gutsy if someone is implying that a nation’s president put out a hit on an actress. Constance Talmadge, for one, is horrified:
(I must also note that this theory is not so much as mentioned in the Wilson biographies that I have looked at. Wilson is, along with both Roosevelts, one of the most recognized, controversial and influential presidents of the first half of the twentieth century. Evidence of murder would be kind of a big deal.)
Until someone can come up with better sourcing than Stardust and Shadows, I am calling baloney on the whole thing. Especially since Foster also manages to get La Badie’s birth date wrong. Nope, nope. Not having it.
Update: I found this absolutely smashing takedown of Foster’s theory. Give it a read. Lots of details. It clarified a lot of details and I have amended the article to reflect these changes. Also, in light of the fact that this theory has gained some currency online (though, thankfully, not on IMDB or Wikipedia) I am working on an epic post aimed at ruthlessly debunking this nonsense.
For pity’s sake, open a book once in a while. Open two!
There are entirely too many blogs that write actor bios in the following manner: Read the Wikipedia entry! Read the IMDB entry! Google search for images! Write the bio! Done! Or, worse, the blogger relies on just one written source. It is a rare book that tells the whole story on anything.
Obviously, we all make mistakes and there are times when we all have failed to trace a source or relied on dubious material. I have certainly been guilty before and I shall doubtless be guilty again. However, there is a big difference between an occasional mistake (which we all commit) and irredeemably sloppy research practices. If a blog makes a clear habit of intellectual shoddiness, you would be better off getting your information elsewhere.
And don’t believe picture captions either.
We have had Hobart Bosworth mistaken for Paul Leni (for a while on Google’s bio capsule!)
Update: It seems that the confusion started because this photo is from The Chinese Parrot, which was directed by Paul Leni and featured Bosworth. Please people, read the whole caption! Bosworth is no more Paul Leni than Anna May Wong is.
We have had Bebe Daniels labeled as Mary Pickford. (Mary has sure grown! Those vitamins are doing wonders)
And here is another picture, purported to be Mary on her wedding day, which was listed as such by Getty Images. (They have since corrected the caption.) The photo was used in a Buzzfeed article on vintage weddings. Hoo boy. If you know who this actress is, please let me know.
Not even going to bother.
Then there are the bloggers who just do not care. For example, I ran across a gem in which the author admits that they did not actually watch the film that closely. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend it was Pandora’s Box. It was not Pandora’s Box. Circumstances have been changed to protect the woefully ignorant.) In fact, they put on the film and did other things as it played. Not having actually seen the film, however, did not stop them from having an opinion and that opinion is not positive and it was so boring and Louise Brooks has no personality and who, like, watches silent movies anyway. Ah. Okay. Got it.
Then, they complained about silent movies being silent. Yes, they were watching a mute bootleg copy of Pandora’s Box.
Hint for people who want to write about silent films for the first time: you might want to see an actual video release and not a pirated copy posted to the internet. Seeing a silent movie of shady pedigree and complaining about the lack of music just reveals that you have no idea what you are talking about. It would be like me watching a, shaky, faded bootleg copy of, say, The Dark Knight that was dubbed in a foreign language and declaring it is a terrible movie because I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
But let us move on to more pressing matters.
Lost or not?
We have unintentional misinformation and intellectual slovenliness. But what about the other kind? Intentional spread of misinformation. That happens? I’m afraid so.
There have been infamous cases of IMDB reviewers apparently pretending to have seen lost films and writing “reviews” of them. It has caused no end of headache, believe you me.
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, as he called himself, is probably the most famous of these lost film reviewers. A science fiction author and movie lover, MacIntyre killed himself by setting fire to his New York apartment in 2010.
At the time of his death, MacIntyre had already earned a reputation within the silent film community for reviewing lost films on IMDB and then coyly refusing to state specifics as to who held the prints. In the aftermath of his suicide, there was something of an edit war on Wikipedia, with the pro-MacIntyre forces claiming there was “no evidence” that his IMDB reviews were spurious. The fight was on.
I usually prefer to deal with abstract arguments rather than calling out authors and bloggers by name, especially when they are not alive to defend themselves. In this case, though, it is unavoidable. I have been dealing with the fallout of his reviews for quite some time and I know I am not alone. Readers keep asking for details on lost films that he claimed were not lost at all. While I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, I do feel that the record must be fixed.
I treat MacIntyre’s reviews with skepticism. I base this on my own experience viewing films that were released on DVD well after he reviewed them, in most cases after his death. MacIntyre has over 1,000 reviews posted on IMDB and not all are for lost films. Some are for newer movies, while others concern silent films that were known to survive but had not received home media release. This latter type is what I will be discussing. For the purpose of brevity, I will limit myself to two of them.
MacIntyre reviewed Reginald Denny’s 1925 vehicle Oh Doctor! but mangled the plot badly. He claimed that Denny’s character had made a deal with corrupt money lenders who then try to arrange for his death, in spite of being promised a generous payout if he lives out the year. MacIntyre is quick to jump on this plot hole. Actually, the central story relies on one joke: Denny becomes a daredevil and the money lenders are terrified he will die as he means to sign his future inheritance over to them. At no point do they try to kill him or get him to kill himself. Quite the opposite. This is the key to the film’s plot and I highly doubt that anyone who had really seen the picture would fail to remember this important fact. (It was released on DVD in 2011.)
Second, MacIntyre reviewed Edward S. Sloman’s melodrama, Surrender. This one is even more glaring as our reviewer claims that the heroine is strangled by her father in the end. While that was the climax of the stage play upon which the film was based, the movie was given a Hollywood happy ending and an egregious one at that. MacIntyre remembers details like how Mary Philbin’s irises looked in close-up and exactly what brand of romance novel the intertitles resembled. He also is rather specific on how frail the father looked to be strangling his daughter. So many details but he forgot that no strangulation actually took place? Hmm. Also odd is his focus on Mary Philbin but no mention of leading man Ivan Mosjoukine, who is featured prominently in every other legitimate review of the film. (It was released on DVD in 2012.)
Case rested. No more Miss Nice Blogger.
After examining the evidence for this pair of films, as well as several others, I feel it is highly probable that MacIntyre’s reviews were written by someone who had never seen the films in question but had cobbled together the reviews from contemporary accounts and advertisements. There are just too many unexplainable mistakes even for films viewed years before. Of course, it is impossible to prove a negative. My opinion is based on my personal viewing experiences.
Again, I would not get worked up about MacIntyre’s hobby if it did not cause so much damage. Newcomers to silent film are invariably confused when they see detailed reviews of films purported to be lost. Authors and researchers may repeat his errors. It has caused something of a headache for the rest of us.
So, basically, trust no one?
In conclusion, it is important to apply the same fact-finding questions to blogs that you do to history books and interview subjects. The most important questions to ask:
Does the blog’s author have an agenda? What is it? (Not all agendas are bad. If a blog’s agenda is to increase awareness of, say, Chinese cinema of the 1930s, I would call that a worthy cause.)
How does the blog’s author describe stars and directors? Does their choice of words give away a bias that may render their research unusable? (It’s okay to have an opinion, that’s the point of a blog, that’s what makes for good reading. However, if an author seems to be obsessed with proving that Mary Astor was a KGB spy and starts every review with “Mary Astor, noted KGB spy…” that is a red flag.)
How do they discuss authors whose work they disagree with? Do they explain their objections? Do they seem to enjoy creating drama or starting fights? Does the author claim to have information that “they” don’t want you to know about? (“They” being the all-powerful cabal of movie critics and film historians. Gotta watch out for them.)
Do they rely heavily on debunked claims or user-edited online content? Contrariwise, do they aim to debunk popular wisdom about the silent era but do not offer their sources? Is their evidence weak or based on wishful thinking? Do they present their theories as fact?
Using unsourced blogs, Wikipedia or IMDB as your research library is a recipe for disaster. Please, please, please, research before you hit the publish button.
In conclusion, you as a blogger have a decision to make. You can be a historian or you can be a Yenta. If you choose to be a Yenta, don’t whine if you are treated like one.
Welcome to part two of my series on silent movie research and the various pitfalls. Last time, we took a look at the movie stars. This time we are going to be talking about professionals who really should know better: film historians and professional biographers. People who get paid to get things right.
It’s one thing for the stars and directors to play fast and loose with the facts. When film historians blindly believe them, though, we are really in a pickle. You see, building theories around questionable narratives is a recipe for disaster. And some historians get me so riled up that… well, I am tempted to make use of my ukulele.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
First of all, here are just a few of the more common types of silent film books:
Conversations: Usually a collection of interviews with the subject. While some may have introductory remarks about their subjects, many do not. These are just raw reminisces. May or may not be edited for content, grammar or other concerns.
Biographies: Just that.
Biographical Collections: Sometimes, very little information is available about a silent film personality. Or, perhaps, they are not big enough stars to carry an entire book. Biographical collections contain mini-bios on numerous stars. Quite valuable.
Filmographies: My personal favorite! These books focus on the films of their subject and everything is filtered through that lens.
Histories: Less about people, more about events.
Pictorials: Light on words, heavy on pictures.
Get a life: Books that promise scandal and sizzling details. I hate these things with a passion because, given the choice between the truth and a juicy lie, these sort of books take the lie every single time. Silent fans are still doing damage control for Hollywood Babylon.
Obviously, the last type is unworthy of our notice. We will be focusing on respectable books, which can actually be more dangerous to the historical narrative.
So, you have a silent movie book and you want to know if it is a keeper.
Here are some important questions to ask as you read:
Does the author appear to hate their subject? Does the author appear to be blinded by love for their subject? (Either case makes for a slanted book.)
Does the author present new details but neglects to share their sources for these details? Were they granted or denied access to their subject’s papers? Were they granted or denied interviews with the subject’s close friends or family?
Does the author feel the need to constantly bring up a female subject’s weight? Are there other signs of sexism? Is there too much focus on alleged love affairs? Do the accounts of love affairs smack of wish fulfillment or fan fiction? Is the promise of salacious details prominently featured on the cover?
Does the author take quotes out of context? Do their sources actually back up what they say? It is shockingly common to look up a cited source and then discover that it either does not support the author at all or it seems to have been deliberately twisted to fit the narrative.
Who are the author’s sources? Are they reliable? For example, I am always deeply suspicious of books that unquestioningly quote choreographer Agnes de Mille on the subject of her Uncle Cecil. She is witty, clever, charming but we must also remember that her uncle fired her from one of his pictures when she was a young woman (they were simply too much alike) and it was a mortifying experience. That colors the narrative a bit.
Does the author impute motives without supporting evidence? What words does the author use to describe their subject? Do they shade their terminology to make their subject look better or worse? Do their choices of words affect the narrative?
For example, William S. Hart: Projecting the American West by Ronald L. Davis discusses Hart’s war with United Artists. The author describes Hart as “whining” about the mishandling of his final film, Tumbleweeds. That word is significant as it shows considerable antipathy on the part of the author toward his subject. A sympathetic figure will complain, be embittered, protest or even grumble. But whine? The word choice says more about the author’s attitude toward Mr. Hart than Mr. Hart himself. Pay attention to the wording.
And remember, blindly believing a first-hand account can lead to all sorts of trouble. Last time we talked about Eleanor Boardman’s almost-certainly fictional account of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and Mayer vowing revenge. (While donning the One Ring or building a Death Star, no doubt. So many historians like to cast Mayer as a melodramatic villain.) We have already shown that this account is suspect. But what if a historian based a theory on it? Too late. Some already have.
But now that the supposed catalyst for Mayer’s hostility toward Gilbert has evaporated, where does that leave the elaborate narrative of MGM exec’s grudge? It’s true that Mayer did not like Gilbert at all but the reasons were considerably more complex than this cartoonish narrative would suggest. Back to the drawing board. (Once again, I encourage everyone to read Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.)
Another objectionable attitude is the sense of entitlement that some historians have toward their subjects. They ask for an interview, are granted one and then expect their subject to spill their guts. The stars and directors have a right to share as much or as little as they choose. Would it be easier for future historians if their subjects told all? Of course. But the interviewers have no right to sneer or look down on people who refuse to kiss and tell. No one owes anyone else complete access to their life.
The author has enormous power over their narrative, never forget that. Anthony Slide’s book, Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses, is one example of this power, don’t let the bland title fool you. While Slide deserved props for tracking down and interviewing numerous forgotten stars, his asides are colored by his personal interactions. He spends considerable time praising minor starlet Mary Brian while aiming barbs Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Mary Philbin and other popular players.
Slide’s basic philosophy for the book seems to have been “if you can’t say anything nice, come right here and sit by me.” Gish and Philbin declined to do so and are deemed “irritating” and “dull” respectively. Dana told all but is still damned by faint praise. Her tears for her long-dead lover, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear, are labeled a “great performance”.
While there were some rare interviews and interesting details, I came out of the book feeling like I had just witnessed a cruel joke being played on a room full of senior citizens. Calling out performers on fibs is fine but it should be handled with tact. Unnecessary spite is never tasteful.
The problem with all of this is that once a book is in print, it is used as a source for other books, as well as online resources. This problem has cropped up with Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase. Without going into too much detail (there isn’t time) just let me say that Meade’s bizarre theories and suspect “facts” are still causing damage to Keaton’s reputation as her work is sourced by numerous other authors. I spent untold hours and thousands of words cleaning up the nonsense she spread about The Frozen North—and that represented just a few paragraphs from her book!
In conclusion, if a book sets off your warning bells, there’s probably a reason. If something seems fishy, try to track down the original sources and see if they are reliable and if they support the narrative. Sadly, a good number of books on the silent era and its stars simply cannot be trusted.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. History is jam-packed with examples of this truism. From George Washington to Phineas Gage, a whole lot of what we know about the past does not stand up to close scrutiny.
The silent era is particularly prone to these wild rumors, it seems. It stands to reason. Lack of mass communication, lost films, fan magazine exaggerations, fading memories, artistic temperaments… It would be amazing if there weren’t a few rumors and outright lies in the mix.
(Pictured above: My opinion of how some silent film historians look.)
Well, in this four-part series, I am going to be discussing how misinformation can spread from four sources: Silent era veterans, film historians, user-edited websites and blogs, and contemporary fan magazines. Today’s focus will be on the moguls, stars and directors whose memories may not be all that they seem.
I should state before beginning this that I am not a big follower of silent star’s personal lives. I know enough to write my reviews but as to who romanced who… Well, all I can say is that I do not really care so long as they didn’t scare the horses.
So this is me when the conversation gets… personal.
What they are saying: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret love child with Marilyn Monroe because she lied about her age and besides she had a time machine and…
What I hear: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret lovezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
And off I go to my happy place.
All of these rumors lead to the big question: Who can you trust? Well, surely the people who were there can be believed, right? Right? Oh, you poor innocent kid.
Before you jump to conclusions based on what a silent veteran tells a journalist or historian, stop and consider the evidence. Some questions to ask when an interviewed star, director or member of the crew makes an eyebrow-raising claim:
1. Is there any corroborating evidence? (Scripts, photos, train tickets…) Do other silent era figures have similar accounts?
2. Do they have anything to gain from their story? Are they saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear? Are they claiming credit for something important? Are they polishing their reputations or engaging in myth building? (Refer back to question 1)
3. Are they speaking about another silent era figure? Do they have a past with them? Do they have a reason to paint this person as a louse or a saint? Was there a divorce, a custody battle or a paternity suit? Were there nasty contract negotiations? Are they friends with their target’s ex?
4. Does the story mutate or get better with each passing interview? Does it match what they said earlier in life. (Remember that later interviews may be more accurate since the interviewee may have less to lose and fewer people to worry about offending.)
5. Have they been incorrect about other matters before? Are they known to fib or hold grudges?
It can be somewhat upsetting to realize that a very persuasive and heartfelt interview was all part of an act. It can be especially upsetting if it is a star you admire. However, I think viewing the star in question as a real human being actually makes them more interesting and admirable, not less. Looking at a star with an honest, open attitude is not an attack.
This is an attack:
One of the most infamous examples of this unreliability can be found with Lina Basquette, Sam Warner’s widow. Most silent movie fans know the story: Her acting career was in the dumps in the 1937 when she got a call from the Third Reich. It seemed that the fuehrer was a fan. So off she went to Germany where she found Hitler to be a bit grabby for her taste. She kicked him in his naughty bits, said her grandfather was Jewish anyway and fled.
Miss Basquette was by all accounts a perfectly charming interview subject. Feisty and fun to talk to and a natural storyteller. And the Hitler story was too good to pass up. So, it was printed and repeated and presented as the gospel truth. It had everything: A plucky American girl busting Hitler in a very tender spot, what’s not to love?
The problem is that there is zero corroborating evidence that this actually occurred. No ticket stubs from the journey, no letters to or from Germany, no UFA letterhead, no postcards from Munich, no diaries from the date in question, no friends or family who recall her trip, no passenger lists with her name. The first commercial transatlantic flight was made in 1938 so the alleged trip would been by ship following a long train journey from California to New York. That kind of trip would generate a nice stack of paperwork. None has surfaced. (Ship passenger lists are incredibly valuable. For example, they show us when Rudolph Valentino came to America.)
Further, Basquette’s half-sister, dancer and model Marge Champion, said that the first she heard of the story was in the 1970s, some forty years after the event in question. She further intimated that her sister had a way of playing fast and loose with the facts. Miss Basquette also claimed to have been a secret agent in South America, though she was never quite clear as to which side she was working for.
Kind of takes the wind out of the story, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it is impossible that it occurred, though I find it highly unlikely. What I am saying is that film writers need a small caveat before they repeat the tale. You know something like, “Miss Basquette stated that (insert Hitler narrative here). However, no supporting evidence has surfaced.”
(While some major news outlets recited the Hitler narrative in their obituaries, others chose to politely ignore it. A wise decision.)
The same goes for Eleanor Boardman’s recollection of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and the latter vowing revenge. Mayer is a very common bogeyman in these sort of tales. (His great-niece, Alicia Mayer, has an excellent blog called Hollywood Essays, which debunks many of the common myths.) While hardly a saint, he was not the devil that many of the stars make him out to be. The problem with Boardman’s account? Mayer had dealt in scrap metal before becoming a movie mogul. The guy was tough. And we are to believe that he was slugged by an employee and took it? (Scott Eyman thoroughly takes apart this rumor in his wonderful biography, Lion of Hollywood.) Boardman similarly stuck her foot in her mouth regarding Cecil B. DeMille and Julia Faye. I pretty much take all her interviews with a dose of healthy skepticism.
Please also be on the lookout for “dog whistle” antisemitism in tales of woe. Very common if you know what to look for. No, I will not be listing stereotypes here. Also, you would do well to memorize the common targets of odd rumors. Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Mabel Normand, the list goes on…
On a final note, be particularly wary of accounts that rely on conspiracies. Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Very true. Most conspiracy theories fall apart because said conspiracy relies too much on numerous people keeping their mouths shut. It may be easier to believe that a star’s career tanked because of a wicked scheme but the truth is usually far more complex.
It’s happened to the best of us: We purchase a shiny new silent film, start to watch it and only then discover that the release is bad, bad, bad. Maybe the thing was transferred at the wrong speed. Maybe the soundtrack is atrocious. Maybe some genius decided to re-tint the thing and now it looks like you are watching a movie that had a Jolly Rancher melted onto the print, we’re talking eyeball-searing.
Of course, you didn’t want a bad release but you are stuck with one. Perhaps the copy was too cheap to turn down or it is the only way the movie is released in your country. For whatever reason, you are stuck.
(If you want tips on minimizing this risk, check out my article on choosing silent movie versions.)
Sure, you can kvetch away but you still have a lemon on your hands. All is not lost! Here are some ways to make your folly at least bearable.
Foolish Assumption: I am assuming that the discs, tapes and digital versions of the silent films in question are legally yours and that these fixes will be for your personal use only. If you want to fix up a silent film release for redistribution, well, that is a whole other kettle of fish and not one I will be discussing at this time. If this is your goal, study up on the copyright laws of your country and be very careful.
Fix #1: The Wrong Speed
Silent movie cameras were almost always hand-cranked so speeds varied but they usually ran at a considerably lower frame rate than talkies. Sound movie cameras, on the other hand, were mechanically cranked and 24 frames per second is the standard speed. If you play a silent film at sound speeds, you will end up with a movie in fast-forward.
This is a problem you will likely run into most with cheapy budget editions of silent films. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do.
(You may also occasionally find a silent film that is transferred at a slow speed. The fix will work for this as well.)
Adjust the playback speed on your movie player
Some DVD and Blu-ray players have this function built in but I have had better success using player software on my desktop or laptop. I have listed links to instructions for some of the more popular players:
If your player is not listed, a quick search engine query should tell you whether it can adjust playback speed. There is no exact speed that will work 100% of the time. Eyeball your film until you find a speed that seems to be the most natural. If your player does not support this function, remember that the VLC player is free for legal download.
(Please note that I am just trying to send you in the right direction, I do not offer tech support.)
Of course, this solution will completely ruin the musical accompaniment. Then again, any company that would release a silent movie at sound speed is not likely to be too concerned about music. The film likely has a canned score anyway. No great loss.
And this leads us to…
Fix #2: The Wrong Music
(I think that the single most despised score would have to be the Michael Polher soundtrack for The Penalty. I know I am going to get grief for this but… it kinda grew on me.)
Most silent film veterans agree that music is half the experience and bad soundtrack is truly disastrous. The most common flaws are canned music that does not fit the action, a score lifted from a different film, a repetitive score or a score performed by, say, a goth metal band. (Yes, really.)
Never fear! Help is on the way!
Call in a professional
Sure, you can press your musical friends and family into service but silent film accompaniment is a very challenging skill. You can hire a professional to play for you live but that could get expensive.
The next best thing? Silent film accompanist Ben Model has set up a site that sells full silent movie scores. He has music for, just to name a few, The Love Light, Beyond the Rocks, The Cameraman and, yes, The Penalty. The scores for some Fatty Arbuckle shorts are offered for free download, should you care to sample the wares.
Mr. Model’s scores are matched to specific DVD releases. Other artists have released silent film scores but these are often recordings of live performances and not synced to any disc. Gothic cabaret pianist and singer Jill Tracy prepared a suitable creepy complete soundtrack for Nosferatu and the band Viola Dana has released selections from their excellent score for The General.
So you’re not a musician, don’t know any accompanists and Mr. Model has no score for your movie of choice. What to do now? This is where you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Dig through your music collection and look for something that will fit the film. Another movie’s soundtrack can work well if you mix it right.
Not a soundtrack collector? No money to become one? Musician Kevin McLeod offers soundrack music for download (using a Creative Commons attribution license) and is sure to have something that will work. The Free Music Archive is another good place to look, though the selection is eclectic and the rights and licenses on their material varies. Be sure to read the fine print.
I realize that you are doing what the budget companies do, cobbling together a score. But you are going to be using only music that you like and are likely to show more care than someone who just wants to release an old movie on the cheap. Anyway, it’s better than having Little Annie Rooney‘s dad die to the tune of Jingle Bells. Yes, that did happen.
Once again, this is assuming that your work is for your own personal use and not for redistribution.
One final note. Budget disc companies are unlikely to mend their ways but if you run into an inappropriate score from a larger company like Kino-Lorber, Image, Flicker Alley or The Criterion Collection, be sure to send a polite and specific email or letter detailing your concerns. These companies take silent films very seriously and your feedback may help them produce better discs down the road.
Fix #3: The Wrong Color
Most silent movies were not meant to be black and white. Elaborate tinting and toning made them both colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately, many copies of silent films do not have those colors. This can be especially problematic for movies that rely on color as a plot device, like turning a day-for-night shot a gorgeous blue.
Unfortunately, some film restoration can get… overzealous and we end up with tints and tones that are far, far too bright.
This fix is easier on a television set. Your settings menu should have a section that deal with saturation. You will likely want it somewhere in the 30-70% saturation range. Once again, eyeball things to see if it looks good to you.
Changing your computer’s color settings can be complicated and cause you problems. It is best to deal with the issue within the player software itself. Once again, here are the instructions for some of the more popular players.
WinDVD (does not support)
What if you have the opposite problem? Your silent movie was meant to have color tints but it is black and white. Now all the “night” scenes are ruined! What to do?
Well, this leads up to…
Fix #4: The Nuclear Option
What do I mean? I mean taking the thing to pieces and fixing it yourself.
Once again, I am assuming that this is for personal use only.
Video editing software will allow you to tint a film, slow it down, add a new score, everything. It is a heckuva lot of work but if the film is really important to you, it may be worth it.
I use Sony Vegas, mainly because it is what I am used to. (Not a fan of giving money to Sony but too lazy to learn a new program.) If you don’t have much spending money, Lightworks is quite popular, works for Windows, Linux and Mac (coming soon) and it is cheap. How cheap? Free. (And the Pro version is just $7.99/month as of this writing) I have not used it but I hear it is professional-grade with a fairly steep learning curve.
We silent film fans are a resourceful lot!
My damaged, fuzzy, decayed 8mm print…
I am sorry to say this but print damage, fading and blurriness are not really things that the amateur film fan can handle. Fixing these issues requires a professional-grade computer and some very specialized software and equipment. If you have any DIY fixes that use everyday software and tools, I would be glad to hear about them.
My favorite silent film releases done right!
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!
The number of lost films from the silent era is enough to make a film fan weep. If you have been reading my Lost Film Files series, you will see that the missing films are not just small, obscure productions. No, the missing films include works from top stars, directors and studios. These were big hits, some of them considered the best films of the year.
Some movies were lost through neglect and decay, others were purposely destroyed. Nitrate film is flammable and a great many films have been lost to fire.
Let’s consider a few questions that commonly crop up when discussing lost films.
How many silent films are lost?
The definitive answer is we don’t know. Some sources put the amount as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. If no archive or collector claims ownership of a film print, then we can assume that no copies of the film exist. However, archive catalogs are not perfect and not every private collector shares their treasures.
Further muddying the waters is the misinformation spread about silent films. Two movies with similar names can be confused. Historians may misremember a viewing experience. There have even been instances of IMDB reviewers allegedly pretending have seen lost films (using information culled from contemporary reviews) and of elaborate hoaxes claiming that long-lost films have been found.
Big name films are hard enough to find information about. Smaller, more obscure films can be well nigh impossible to track down. So, in short, it is quite possible that a “lost film” is actually in existence somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.
Here are some common questions that crop up around lost films.
What is nitrate film?
It’s a word that keeps getting thrown around whenever the subject of lost films is discussed. Nitrocellulose film was first produced by Kodak in 1889 and was used for movies until the early 50’s. What is it about nitrate film that makes it so significant?
It’s flammable: As you can see from the video above, nitrate film is extremely dangerous. Nitrate fires are responsible for many lost films and, in some tragic cases, lost lives. Fires were often caused by candles, matches, cigarettes and electrical shorts but nitrate film can also spontaneously combust.
It decays: Nitrate film is chemically unstable and, in extreme cases of decay, films can be reduced to dust.
It’s difficult to store: Theda Bara and Hobart Bosworth, among others, kept personal collections of their films. In both cases, incorrect storage conditions meant the irreplaceable collections were lost to decay.
Kodak has a very detailed article on nitrate film storage. A sample:
“Never store any nitrate base materials in sealed containers or without ventilation. Such dead storage simply increases the rate of decomposition. Pack the reels loosely in ventilated metal boxes or cabinets, and store them in a room apart from all other photographic materials. Do not let the storage area temperature exceed 21°C (70°F). If you achieve a lower temperature without increasing relative humidity above 45 percent, that s even better. Relative humidity below 40 percent retards decomposition even more, but makes the film more brittle.”
Why would studios purposely destroy their own films?
Seems strange, doesn’t it? The best way I can explain it is the story I hear again and again. I’m sure you’ve heard it too:
“I had a complete collection of (Superman comics/Original Star Wars action figures/Barbie dolls in their packaging/name your collectible) in the basement but my mom threw them away when I went to college. Do you know how much they would be worth now?”
The movie studios are mom. Nitrate film is flammable and expensive to store. Plus, a small amount of money could be made from recovering the silver out of film. Talkies were the wave of the future and surely no one would want to see those creaky old silents. Why not make room in the vaults and recycle the old stuff? Film preservationist Robert A. Harris stated that while nitrate decay was responsible for some lost films, “most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios.”
However, as Kevin Brownlow brings out in his introduction to the book Silent Movies, these same studios are more than willing to claim any and all copyrights and royalties on the very films they tried to destroy.
How are lost films rediscovered?
Quite a few lost films have been found, I am happy to say! I am just going to share four case studies that illustrate the different ways a film can be rediscovered.
Oh, that’s where they were
Sometimes archives have copies of films and either have not cataloged them, or have not shared their catalogs. In this case, ten American silent films were in the collection of Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive. The Russians graciously presented copies of the films to the Library of Congress.
In the case of archives, it is usually lack of budget, unintentional oversight or political climate that prevents their contents from being publicized. What about private collectors? I am speculating here but perhaps private collectors conceal their films in order to keep their treasures to themselves or to bask in the knowledge that they own the only copy of something. Or they may simply not be interested in cataloging their collections.
And maybe grandma just really needs to clean her attic and consult an expert before selling that old film can on eBay.
Eureka! Beyond the Rocks
For years, Beyond the Rocks was a tantalizing mystery to film fans. The one and only screen collaboration of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Sadly, it was missing and presumed lost.
When a private collector died and left his large collection to Nederlands Filmmuseum, the museum staff began to go through the films hoping to find lost Dutch movies. They stumbled on one reel of Beyond the Rocks but did not know what the had until they researched the name of the heroine.
This is the kind of story silent film fans daydream about. Getting a stack of nitrate and discovering those intriguing titles that had been out of reach for too long.
Piece by piece, The Sea Hawk
There was no eureka! moment for The Sea Hawk, just lots of hard work. The Library of Congress had a partial print of the film but pieces, including the justly famous battle scenes, were missing. The missing footage had to be tracked down (in Russia, the Czech Republic and from a private collector) and the entire film restored. TCM provided the money and UCLA provided the know-how. The result was absolutely worth it. However, think of how many fragmented films just waiting for the same treatment. This work does not come cheap and tough decisions have to be made.
The last few feet, Metropolis
Metropolis has been a bit lost since it was released. Oh, most of the film existed but not the director-approved version that Fritz Lang released in 1927, which was hacked down almost immediately after the movie premiered. There were restorations (which filled the gaps with stills and title cards) but that last bit of footage seemed to elude historians.
We owe a large debt of gratitude to Fernando Peña, who heard rumors that the missing footage was being held in Argentinian archives and did not give up until he found it.
Gloria Swanson’s film Sadie Thompson is also famously incomplete, missing its final reel. Here’s hoping that there is another intrepid historian on the verge of discovery.
The good news is that mass communication and revival of interest in pre-sound films has meant more attention toward film preservation. Some are even taking matters into their own hands.
For example, silent film accompanist Ben Model launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser for a project he is calling Accidentally Preserved. He raised funds to transfer and score 16mm prints of rare and presumed-lost silent films from his personal collection. He has made several films available on Youtube.
I especially love that this project focuses on rarer films that may never have gotten any attention otherwise.
So, the story of lost films is sad but there is a hint of a happy ending. Keep searching those vaults, buying those old film cans on eBay and using the power of the internet to share films that are lost and found.
Let’s talk a little bit about the terms that are bandied about silent film circles. This is just a brief overview, nothing too heavy. I will probably write some more in-depth articles later but I wanted to provide a handy glossary for readers who may be new to silent film viewing. Here are some important terms:
These are just generalizations used for easy reference. No two film historians seem to agree on what exact dates these eras began or ended. I like the dates used by the University of California Press’s History of the American Cinema series and they are the ones I borrow for my writing.
Early Cinema (Invention-1907)
There is debate over just what can be considered the first motion picture. (You may have noticed that film historians cannot agree on anything.) Here are the facts: The Lumiere brothers showed a projected film to a paying audience of more than one person in 1895. To me, that counts as the start of movies as we know them. This is open to debate but it works for the purposes of discussion.
Movies were seen as low-class entertainment. Nice girls did not go to movie theaters and respectable actors did not perform in these vulgar little pictures. Gracious! **fans self*** Most films ranged in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. They were often vignettes, news footage, dancing sequences, brief scenes from famous plays or books and even home movies. Later in the period, films got longer and the plots got more elaborate.
Check out Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema (they go up to 1915), if you want more information on this time period.
The Nickelodeon Era, or, the Pre-Feature Era (1907-1915):
You pay a nickel and you get to see a collection of short subjects, ranging from about 10 to 20 minutes each, in a cheap, chintzy theater. Movies were still not respectable but the ubiquitous nickel theaters were extremely popular. This is when the motion picture industry as we know it began to form and when movies started to migrate en masse to California from New York and New Jersey. Fan magazines were becoming popular and actors were starting to be credited. (They were not allowed screen credit early on because producers feared they would ask for more money.)
You could further divide this era into 1907-1912 for the true Nickelodeon era and 1913-14 for the early feature era but that’s getting a bit fussy for our purposes.
Silent Feature Film Era (1915-1928):
This is what most people think of when they say “silent era.” While feature-length films had been made prior to 1915, this was the year when they well and truly cornered the market. Movies were potentially respectable family entertainment, actors were idolized, movie theaters were palaces. It also marked the ascendancy of Hollywood in dominating the international market, as their international rivals had been disrupted by World War One.
Pre-Code Era (1930-1934):
The motion picture code was a list of what behaviors were unacceptable in a “decent” motion picture. When people use the term “Pre-Code” they are referring to movies made after the introduction of sound but before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced. In the silent era, film producers would have to present their films to various regional censor boards for individual approval and was this process ever a pain! Plus, several Hollywood scandals had prudes everywhere calling for federal censorship. Will Hays was invited into the movieland fold in 1922 to try to make sense of the mess, create guidelines for good on-screen behavior and to prevent wholesale censorship. You only need glance at a few 1920’s films to realize that he was unsuccessful in getting Hollywood to behave.
I know some have the warm fuzzies about the Code but you should know that it did not just cover sex and violence. Oh no. The Code was quite racist, sexist and any good it did was counterbalanced by a large dose of the bad. You can read the whole thing if you like.
An early way of watching movies. These coin-operated boxes allowed the viewer to see a few seconds of film. A later advance was the Kinetophone, which added music via earphones. These machines fell out of favor when it became clear that projected films were the future.
Warner Bros. famously used this sound system for its popular talking pictures. However, it was initially used to add music and sound effects to silent films. It was Sound-on-Disc, which meant that the sound was on separate records instead on on the film itself. Some silent movies still have their Vitaphone scores but many have been lost. The Vitaphone Project is dedicated to reuniting films with their discs. (Fox Studios used Movietone, early sound-on-film, for some of its silents.)
Orthochromatic vs. Panchromatic
Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty, earlier orthochromatic film made blues “blow out” and reds show up very dark. This meant that silent era performers had to employ heavy makeup (lest they look blotchy) and be careful of blue eyes (which could look white and dead).
Panchromatic began to replace orthochromatic film in the early ‘twenties.
Colors were painstakingly added frame by frame. Imprecise but beautiful.
A much more precise color process. Using stencils, film frames were individually colored. This process created the illusion of color film. Some of it is truly stunning.
Check out the glorious shades found in Cyrano de Bergerac.
Tinting and Toning:
Used to add mood to a film. Amber for daytime, rose for romance, blue for night, green for mystery and so-forth. A very popular process in the silent era. Tinting changed the “whites” while toning changed the “blacks” of the film.
Here is a small sample:
Technicolor only recorded red and green in the silent era. It was also incredibly expensive and hard to work with. A few high-budget silent films used color for the whole movie but most used color sequences lasting a few minutes.
Film Marketing Terms:
Movie lengths used to be referred to not in minutes but in reels. How many reels of film did the movie have? And how long was a reel? This is extremely general but a short film was usually one or two-reels long. A feature film was between five and eight, give or take. A reel (depending of projection speed) lasted about 11-15 minutes in the silent era. Again, give or take. Cameras and projectors were both hand-cranked, which meant there could be variation in the motion picture running time.
When sound pictures first became popular, many in the film industry were not sure if it was a fad or not. Besides, many theaters were not equipped for sound. As a result, movie studios hedged their bets. From 1927-1929, movies were sometimes shot silent and then had sound sequences added to improve to their box office appeal. Or a film may have been conceived as a part-talkie, a film that divided its time between sound and silent. Once it became obvious that sound was going to stay, the part-talkie was abandoned.
It can be one of the most confusing aspects of silent film fandom: You have decided to plunk down some hard-earned coin for a silent movie and you are faced with rows and rows of choices and prices– and all for the same film! Which should you buy? Sure, you can read the reviews one by one but I am going to share a few hints that will make you a smarter shopper.
Popular and famous titles like Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera or Orphans of the Storm may have dozens of releases available but generally they fall into three categories. (I am covering discs for this section and will move on to streaming next.)
High-Quality and Official Releases: These releases are the highest quality and often the most expensive. It is the only way to legally obtain films that have not yet entered the public domain. Even if the film is in the public domain, high-quality and official releases often obtain the best possible print for maximum enjoyment. These films are (usually) restored, feature custom scores and other special features. Look for the logo of a major film studio or companies like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Image Entertainment, or Milestone Films.
Public Domain Vendors: These are folks who obtain public domain silent movie prints and release them on DVD-R. The companies are run by fellow fans and while they cannot afford to restore the films, they often release rare titles that the big boys won’t touch. The most famous vendor is probably Grapevine Video, which releases some really rare stuff. Reel Classic DVD is another choice, though I have not dealt with them before. Sunrise Silents and Unknown Video were excellent but are, sadly, out of business.
Note: Warner Archive straddles these two levels. They release films onto DVD-R format with no frills or extras.
Bargain Bin Releases: Just what the name indicate. These are cheap discs (usually under $10) of public domain films and the quality is usually atrocious! Battered prints, inappropriate (or absent!) music, everything at the wrong speed… There really is no worse way to see a silent film. Very rarely (even a blind pig gets a truffle) there will be a worthy release but not often. Just remember, you get what you pay for. (These companies love their box sets. If you see a box with famous films and a price that seems a little too low, the quality is probably going to be pretty poor.)
There is one more type of vendor to consider, one that it not worth dealing with.
Pickup truck with motor running: There are fly-by-night operations that sell duped DVDs, recordings from TCM and other pirated or near-pirated goods. Generally it is a game of whack-a-mole between these sellers and the copyright holders. My philosophy is this: I buy legitimate copies so that I can support the folks unearthing and restoring silent movies. It’s just the right thing to do.
Leaving the Physical World behind…
Now let’s move on to the brave new world of streaming. There are a lot of different services and I won’t cover them all but here is a basic overview:
The big boys: Companies like Amazon and Netflix do offer to stream silent films. These are often a mixed bag of high-quality and bargain bin releases. To make matters worse, more than once the artwork of a high-quality release has been used for a bargain bin release. Disappointed does not begin to cover it.
The niche streamers: I like these. Companies that specialize in the old, rare and esoteric. Fandor (which I subscribe to and love) has partnered with Flicker Alley and Kino to stream some really gorgeous and rare stuff. Warner Archive Instant is a good concept (TCM on demand!) but as of this writing, they only offer six silent titles. Both services have free trials so I say try ’em both and see. Fandor is my pick for silents.
The freebies: These can be a great way to watch silent films without spending a dime. Plenty of films are in the public domain and are posted for all to enjoy. Archive.org features quite a few silent titles in the public domain for download and streaming. Youtube also has its share of silent films (though I would be careful about linking to them as some have pirated content).
I hope this saves you some headaches and guides you to the best possible viewing experience. Happy watching!
PS, I just realized how much I talk about copyrights and the public domain. I think this calls for an article…
It is commonly said that the phrase “silent movie” is a misnomer. To be properly appreciated, a silent movie needs appropriate musical accompaniment. But what is considered to be an “appropriate” type of music? No two silent film fans are going to quite agree on that but here are some basic guidelines.
So, what kind of silent movie fan are you? In my experience, they usually come in three varieties:
All right, you like silent movies. In fact, you love silent movies. The problem is that your movie nights are, to put it nicely, a rather solitary affair. Let’s face it, we’re in the minority.
“Can anyone take those movies seriously?”
“Did they even make movies back then?”
“How do you know what’s going on?”
Well, no one said being a silent film fan would be easy.