Think that flirtatious banter was invented in the sound era? You have much to learn, grasshopper. Silent movies skillfully employed title cards to create witty exchanges between the leads.
It’s okay, it’s just your imagination. That weird noise? It was the wind. Yeah, the wind. Or a cat. It’s always a cat. Wait a second, I don’t own a cat…. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!
Silent movie fans know that there were many, many more options than just a plain cloche in the silent era. (And, no, twenties people did not wear weird sequined headbands with cheesy feathers wherever they went.) The American silent era lasted from about 1895 (when films were first projected) to 1930 (when sound had well and truly taken over) and that represents a huge range of fashion possibilities.
Charlie Chaplin is the star but Edna Purviance is the real show-stopper in Burlesque on Carmen, a darling little spoof they made together at the Essanay studio. After Chaplin departed for greener pastures, the Essanay folks padded out the short with all sorts of nonsense (Chaplin sued) and it was only available in this bloated format for years.
…even if you have to stalk them and distract them from their dinosaur skeletons until they agree to date you.
Oh, all right. I lied. Sue me.
And by “impeccable” we mean shove the food in your face with both hands! Come on, you can’t make a silent movie on an empty stomach, can you?
Poor Richard Barthelmess! Stuck on a boat with an incredibly tedious policeman who (gasp!) doesn’t like the ukulele. Go on, Richard, thwack him. We promise not to tell.
“So as I was saying…. hello? Hello? That’s it…”
The home invasion robbery was one of the most popular suspense tropes of the nickelodeon era. It was cheap to stage and could really have audiences on pins and needles.
Look, when a classy lady is trying to improve her mind with a good book, you all just need to SHUT YOUR PIE HOLES!!!!
Think that hand kissing is just for knights and posh types? Think again! A well-timed bit of old-fashioned romance can be just the thing for silent movie ladies.
Okay, so this annoyingly peppy cub reporter muffs a big story. So clearly you need to throw the kid out on his bottom. Just remember who this kid’s father is, buster.
Half the fun of The Mark of Zorro is watching Douglas Fairbanks goof around with his secret identity. He may be the roughest, toughest, rootinest-tootinest masked avenger around but to most of his friends, Zorro is actually the foppish Don Diego.
Reginald Denny demonstrates that there is absolutely no wrong way to dance in a silent movie. Just put aside your shyness and cut a rug!
Squirrels. You can’t trust ’em. One minute they’re looking as cute as anything and the next thing you know, “CHOMP!” and look who has bubonic plague.
It is a known fact that silent movie moms are not to be trifled with. Heroes? You can get away with a bit. But mess with mom and you are skating on thin ice, as William S. Hart discovered in The Cradle of Courage.
“Mom, can you seriously not pull a gun on me? Sheesh!”
In this case, mom thinks that one son gunned down the other. Of course, Mr. Hart is innocent and killin’ mad and off to find the real killer, etc. etc. etc. But that’s another story. I find it very weird to see Hart without his cowboy gear but the film is actually pretty good, if a bit derivative.
Of course, all bets are off if the ladies in question are unwed or adulterous mothers who have recently given birth. In that case they wander onto ice floes, die of movie-itis, and so forth. Movie-itis is marked by no symptoms other than dying and looking incredibly beautiful while doing it. Other characters often remark that the victim has lost the will to live. Tragedy! A miracle cure, often true love’s kiss, sometimes occurs but usually doesn’t. It has been used since the beginning of movies and still crops up. Natalie Portman is a famous modern case in Revenge of the Sith.
Availability: The Cradle of Courage is available on DVD from Grapevine.
This is not what you want to see when you look out the window. Lon Chaney was the king of terrifying gazes. And, egad, it’s even worse when he smiles!
I have said if before and I will say it again: Chaney is justly praised for his makeup skills but it is his talent as an actor that really makes him frightening. He could be just as scary (or scarier) with no makeup at all.
(This GIF is from The Penalty, one of his best films. He plays a legless criminal mastermind determined to take over San Francisco. Straw hats are involved somehow. Just go with it. You can read my review here.)
The other fellow prone to sneaking in through windows was Conrad Veidt, called King of the Gooseflesh in Germany. Reportedly, his wife had an awful time hiring servants as they refused to work in a house owned by such a bloodthirsty monster. The great irony was that Veidt, for all his on-screen crimes, was supposed to be an absolute love in person.
(This GIF is, of course, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. You can read my review/technical breakdown here.)
Availability: Both films are available on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just got an utterly gorgeous restoration and re-release. Seriously, the picture is so clear you can count the threads of Cesare’s sweater. Get it for yourself or the film buff who has everything. It also comes on DVD, if you have not made the high-def jump yet. The Penalty‘s new restoration only came out on Blu-ray but the older DVD edition is still pretty nice. (I should note, though, that the DVD does feature a rather controversial modern score. The Blu-ray switched it out for a more traditional orchestral arrangement.)
Batman, Superman, Zorro and the other caped crusaders don’t know what they’re talking about. Capes are a terrible idea! They look amazing but they are liable to get you killed. (We learned this in The Incredibles but it never hurts to repeat good advice.) Here is comedian Lupino Lane demonstrating this fact.
Now let’s move onto another fabulous fashion look that is also a deathtrap: Trains on dresses. The look great but…
Nope, nope, nope.
This is from Lupino Lane’s late-silent era short Only Me, in which he plays every single part. It’s quite cute.
Availability: Only Me is available as part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia box set, which has been reissued in bargain format.
The Doll‘s premise is nuts. A man-child needs to marry in order to gain his inheritance. Since romancing a real live woman is just too much bother, he goes to a famous dollmaker and purchases a lifelike automaton to pose as his bride. The only problem? The doll was broken and the inventor’s daughter has taken her place. Our hapless hero soon figures this out when he tries to use her as a coat-rack. Shoulda married a real girl…
German comedienne Ossi Oswalda is an utter charmer as the saucy doll. If you have never seen Miss Oswalda in action, I strongly encourage you to seek out her work.
Availability: Kino has released a beautiful print on DVD and via streaming. Enjoy!
Tempest was one of many silent Hollywood romances set around the Russian Revolution. One of the most troubled productions of its day, the film had a revolving door for directors and leading ladies. The resulting film reveals none of the backstage chaos and is a blast to watch.
The main plot is the romance between John Barrymore and Camilla Horn but there is also a subplot which involves Barrymore being pursued by a Bolshevik recruiter (played by Boris De Fast, one of the few actual Russians in the cast and he bore a stunning resemblance to Alfred P. Neuman). Barrymore is contemptuous at first but a stint in solitary, compliments of an aristocrat, changes his tune.
Plus it gave him a chance to do a “I’m MAAAAAAAD!!!!!” scene. Oh how he loved his madman scenes.
Availability: Tempest has two high-quality editions available for purchase. The Kino edition has a 1970s era piano score by William P. Perry. I prefer the Image edition, which allows viewers to choose between the original orchestral Vitaphone score and a new piano score by Philip Carli. I love the Carli score (the Vitaphone music is a bit jaunty for modern ears) and it is the reason why I recommend the Image edition.
Before sound movies revealed that, that, that voice*, Ronald Colman was a steady, likable (if unremarkable) lead in romantic comedies and dramas. In Her Night of Romance, Mr. Colman gets a snoot full and ends up returning to the house (and more importantly, the bedroom of the house) that he sold to Constance Talmadge. Of course, Connie forgives all. Wouldn’t you?
*Ronald Colman’s voice has been described as crushed velvet (why crushed?), just plain velvet, honeyed velvet (sounds sticky), smooth as silk, mellifluous, and the list goes on.
(You can read my full-length review here.)
Availability: Her Night of Romance received a high-quality DVD release from Kino as a double feature with another Connie/Colman collaboration, Her Sister from Paris.
Cesare had one job: Kill Jane. But nooooo, he has to drag her off and carry her over hill and dale (or the painted approximation). It’s Dr. Caligari’s fault, really. Mind controlling a somnambulist is all fun and games until someone breaks his programming and goes rogue. (You can read my full-length review here.) Availability: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has just received a gorgeous restoration and is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. It shows you everything, right down to the gauge of the yarn of Cesare’s sweater. Don’t settle for anything else.
Douglas Fairbanks had a lot of fun with Zorro’s dual identity in The Mark of Zorro. No one believed that the sleepy Don Diego was really the fearless Zorro. Robert McKim’s villain certainly had no idea who he was dealing with until Don Diego carved Zorro’s trademark. Into his face. Yeah, movie heroes didn’t mess around in the silents.
Disclaimer: Don’t actually do this, you will be arrested.
(You can read my full-length review of the film here.)
Availability: The Mark of Zorro is widely available on DVD and via online streaming, including budget editions but remember that you get what you pay for. Kino sells it as a double feature with its sequel, Don Q Son of Zorro. I love the version included in the Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set from Flicker Alley. The print is pristine, the best available on the market by far, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score in first rate. The whole box is absolutely worth the investment. You get a beautiful Zorro print and a large selection of Fairbanks’ rare early work. Good stuff.
Ah! What would we ever have done without dueling? (Answer: Have a more civilized society, for one thing.) More to the point, what would movies do without dueling? From Errol Flynn to Darth Vader, the movie duel is a longstanding tradition. In Scaramouche, Ramon Novarro plays a master swordsman who is merrily slicing his way through the French National Assembly. Well, I suppose it beats political ads.
And since this is a silent film and silent films tended to be a whole lot darker than the talkies, Mr. Novarro shows no mercy. The gizzard it is! As opposed to the old “defeat the villain, refuse to kill him, villain tries to stab hero in back, hero slays/maims him and then it’s self-defense and we keep our PG-13″ methodology that has taken over modern movies. His real target is Lewis Stone (Lewis Stone?) and the big honkin’ duel is not what he hopes but that is another story. (You can read my review of the movie here.)
(If you have not quite fallen for Ramon Novarro yet, do give Scaramouche a try. It’s one of his very best performances and really shows off his acting skills and charisma.)
Availability: Warner Archive has released a very nice print of the film accompanied by a suitably rousing orchestral score.
Poor D.W. Griffith. A man of… singular predilections, he never quite figured out that audiences (and sometimes the actresses themselves) were not quite as fond of whirling, swirling, hippity-skippity heroines as he was. Case in point: The Love Flower. We are supposed to boo and hiss at the evil step-mother for ordering Carol Dempster to stop twitching. Instead, she gets a standing ovation.
Of course, the “heroine on a sugar high” thing was the least weird of Griffith’s fixations but that’s another story for another day.
Availability: You can see it on DVD, if you must.
Mr. Chaney was one of the most prolific and frightening villains in motion picture history. West of Zanzibar contains one of his most elaborate and warped vengeance schemes. The crime: Lionel Barrymore broke Chaney’s back and stole his wife. The revenge: Wait two decades, lay a trap that will conclude with torture and human sacrifice.
Seriously, just leave Chaney alone. It’s not worth it!
You can read my review here.
Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.
Thomas Meighan tries to spice up his marriage with Gloria Swanson. His methods? A little music, a little dancing, a new negligee and then… romance, right? Well, Gloria stops him right there. Music? To dance to? Must he be so physical? This is from Why Change Your Wife? Cecil B. DeMille’s best marital comedy.
You can read my review here.
(In fact, I did have someone complain about devil music in my presence. It was Pink Floyd. Really.)
Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.