Ever had an experience like this with a chiropractor or masseuse? Poor Reginald Denny is undergoing a disastrous treatment from an Amazonian osteopath in the silent comedy classic Oh, Doctor!
The Sea Wolf (1913)
Status: Missing and presumed lost
In 1913, Jack London was a white hot author in 1913. Only a few years removed from his three biggest successes (White Fang, The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf), it was natural that film-makers would want to adapt his rugged adventures to the screen. The stories were especially well-suited to the gritty, grimy, outdoorsy world of silent movie making. Because there was no sound equipment to consider, silent movies had freedom to film almost anywhere. The great outdoors were at their disposal.
At the same time, actor Hobart Bosworth was striking out with his own production company. A burly six-footer, Bosworth was born to act in Jack London stories. He had escaped a wicked step-mother, worked as a sailor, a whaler, a rancher, a wrestler, a boxer, a miner, a magician’s assistant…
(You know what? This guy was awesome!)
He bears a rather striking resemblance to Rutger Hauer and had a similar masculine bearing. In short, ideal to play Wolf Larsen. (Larsen was described as a perfect physical specimen in the Scandinavian mode.)
Anyway, Bosworth took to the stage where his blue eyes made him a sensation with the fair sex. He was also an extremely good actor, subtle and powerful. Tuberculosis robbed him of his health and his voice. Fortunately, he was able to join the fledgling motion picture industry in California, where the warmer weather ensured better health.
Bosworth’s production company obtained the rights to London’s novels and began production on The Sea Wolf but another production company, Balboa, attempted to make a film using the same source material. Jack London sued for copyright infringement. I mention this because the ads for the film seem a bit paranoid otherwise. You know, The One and Only Authorized Version kind of thing.
No praise can be too high for the settings and for the photography. The spirit of the ocean, which London conjures with such enviable ease, is on the screen and travels from the screen to the delighted audience. The attention to detail in all nautical matters, the characterization of the types of sailors, who sail in the London stories — and we all know they are true enough sailors and always mighty interesting — leave not the least thing to be desired. I think a word of acknowledgment is likewise due to the cameraman, whose task was a heavy burden. He has done well. The realism for which a London story affords such fine chances is not lacking. It is convincing no less than exciting. Take the accident. It has every appearance of being real, and the cheers the scenes brought forth from a rather critical audience were well deserved.
Far the most difficult part of the whole production was the rendering of the “Sea-Wolf.” Mr. Bosworth had the physique and the artistic size required by the part, though in the characterization he was not quite as strong as in the “straight” acting. He seemed in the early part of the story not quite certain of his ground, but as the action advanced to the great dramatic moments he electrified the audience by his masterly portrayals. He does not always succeed in expressing a mood, but a passion he can express according to Shakespeare. He found his footing at the first great dramatic moment and never lost it afterward. It was his acting which was chiefly responsible for the sharp revival of interest toward the end of the story just as the action was beginning to drag.
His support was fair. Viola Barry, the only woman in the story, is conscientious in her work. It would have been better if she had not emerged from the shipwreck with her makeup in a flourishing condition.
I think five reels would have been much better than seven. In saying this I realize very well that the adaptation for the screen may be allowed on a much more generous latitude than an adaptation for the conventional stage.
Indeed many of the incidents of the story, though they do not carry the action forward by the fraction of an inch, are entirely welcome to the motion picture audience. What could be more interesting than the rough but good-natured comedy of the sailor folk? The throwing overboard of the cook and “washing” him because of his contempt of sailors’ stomachs, the appearance of a man eating shark going in the direction of the unlucky cook and finally the capture of the monster are incidents that add not a little to the charm and the general effect of the story. Other scenes, however, were painfully superfluous. The lingering of the poet and the critic on Endeavor Island was altogether too long and the action in the last thousand feet could have been fully brought out in less than five hundred feet without the least danger of crowding. The trips to the boat and the final incidents on it might profitably have been cut even at the risk of cutting the story itself. These and other scenes that might be mentioned in different parts of the production have not enough humorous or spectacular value to allow them to detract from the central theme of the story.
The motion picture art is in a fair way to profit by further screen adaptations of the London stories. I predict that in his second venture Mr. Bosworth will touch perfection. He has the ability and he has the ambition which is justified and useful only as it is supported by ability. There was a lavish expenditure of money in the production, an item that counts for much when the money is expended judiciously, as it was in the present case. Every friend of the good motion picture will hail the present and the future work of Mr. Bosworth with sincere joy. We cannot have enough good, clean, thrilling pictures of adventures at sea and in strange lands.
Bosworth would remain with his production company until 1921’s The Sea Lion, a tale very much along the same lines as The Sea Wolf. He would continue playing fathers, mentors, and other kindly figures but he also included a fair dose of salty (and sometimes psychotic) seamen.
I have seen Bosworth in so many Sea Wolf-like parts that I would love to see him doing the real thing. Check the vaults, please!
John Barrymore romps through medieval Paris playing a character best described as Robin Hood + Hobo + Bugs Bunny. His pranks cause him to run afoul of the crown. Conrad Veidt (in his American debut!) plays the king as a superstitious, nose-picking goblin. Oh, this movie is fabulous! It’s a double ham dinner with all the trimmings. Takes a turn for the serious near the end (boo!) but is an utter delight until then. One of silent Hollywood’s stranger offerings. See it.
John Barrymore takes on the role of one of history’s great lovers. Raised to be a libertine, Don Juan romances his way across Europe until he ends up in Rome and runs into something completely different: a nice girl (Mary Astor). Unfortunately, she is promised in marriage to a Borgia. I think a little action is called for.
Continue reading “Don Juan (1926) A Silent Film Review”
Status: Print held in the MGM/UA archive. Was released on VHS by the defunct dealer Videobrary but is now unavailable.
Famed soprano Geraldine Farrar proves she doesn’t need her pipes to be an impressive Carmen. Wallace Reid, in an uncharacteristically dark role, expands his acting chops as the deranged Don Jose. Director Cecil B. DeMille’s take on the familiar story is sharp, sassy and lean. It looks great and is a blast to watch. Especially fun to show to people who think silent films are so sweet and innocent.
Amateur movie making was quite the thing by the mid-twenties. Here is another book that shows how it is done. Unlike the previously reviewed Amateur Movie Making, this book is less concerned with technique and more focused on story. It is a slim 130 pages in total.
Published in 1926, the book is still potentially under copyright. Copies are readily available online.
What is it?: A lightweight guide to making home movies, both of the traditional variety and scripted. The first 40 or so pages cover the basics of film-making, while the rest of the book is taken up with sample scenarios. A few pages are given to each important aspect of making movies: directing, buying equipment, makeup and editing.
Pictures: Few and far between, even for a slim volume. There are some diagrams and some images of real Hollywood sets. Other than that, this book is mostly text.
Dubious elements: I enjoyed reading the decidedly undiplomatic character descriptions for the scenarios. Here is one from An Ill Wind, described as a farce comedy:
Bud Jones, a fat gallant. This needs a nimble fat young man with a gift for lively comedy.
And how exactly is one expected to cast this part? Find a larger friend and ask if they want to play a fat but nimble gallant?
Favorite advice: The section on makeup pulls no punches.
Rouge can be used on the lips, but the lips cannot be altered in outline unless the actress is content to see herself ridiculous on the screen. (We are assuming that the male actor will not be guilty.) If the lips are rouged, the rouge must be well rubbed in and must follow the natural modeling of the actor’s lips.
Not bad advice nowadays, come to think of it.
Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) has some seriously weird ideas as to what constitutes a capital offense.
D.W. Griffith tackled the Gold Rush and experimented with close-ups in this tidy little drama. Mary Pickford is a shady lady living in a gold rush town. When she gets dumped by her duded-up suitor, Henry B. Walthall, she seeks comfort in the burly arms of Lionel Barrymore. But who will get the girl?
Continue reading “Friends (1912) A Silent Film Review”
Welcome to the theme for May 2013 here at Movies Silently. It’s time to celebrate the talented Brothers Barrymore.
Ciao! Tschüss! Adios! Buh-bye!
Hobart Bosworth is the strong silent type as a deep-sea diver. When he refuses to assist a gang of criminals in a con game, they send in one of their molls to seduce Bosworth’s impressionable son. Big mistake. On the surface it sounds like a classic revenge tale but it also has deeper themes of parental love and self-sacrifice. Bosworth dominates as the macho seaman with a heart of gold.
I love this old guy! He looks like something Aardman would animate. Three conspirators are discussing who they should hire to nurse their victim, a rich hypochondriac. Not just any nurse, a peach, a beauty! Someone to look forward to seeing every day. And one with shiny stockings.
Douglas Fairbanks is a thief but what he really wants is to marry a princess (Julanne Johnston) and so he sets off on a treasure hunt that will win her hand. But wouldn’t you know it, those dadblasted villains take over Bagdad and it’s up to our thief to take it back. Meltingly gorgeous to behold with stunning sets and splendid effects but the pace slows to a crawl after the first half-hour.
How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.
Our thief reforms, gets a few magical artifacts, saves the day and wins his princess.
If it were a dessert it would be:
Patience cake. Full of tasty ingredients but a little too elaborate for its own good.
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.
Status: Two reels (out of the original seven) exist in the UCLA Archives on 16mm. No other prints are currently known to exist.
Based on the popular Lone Wolf novels by Michael Lanyard, this was the third of five films in which the title character would be played by Bert Lytell. Other notable actors who tried their hand at the Lone Wolf were Henry B. Walthall, Jack Holt, Thomas Meighan and Melvyn Douglas. Many of the original novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded from your online archive of choice.
I’m not going to lie, I got interested in this film due to the fabulous ad campaign surrounding it. The fact that it co-stars Lois Wilson (one of the best and most underused actresses of the silent era) was the icing on the cake.
Reviews were positive. Motion Picture World wrote:
Those who like a real good mystery-crook melodrama — and most folks do — will not be disappointed in this offering from Columbia. Their previous picture along these lines, “The Lone Wolf Returns” made a decided hit with the fans, and this companion production should prove to be just as much of a winner. The story is another of Louis Joseph Vance’s — and that gentleman’s reputation speaks for itself. Edward H. Griffith, director, has done a neat piece of work, while that of the featured players, Bert Lytell and Lois Wilson, also ring true; in fact, the entire cast is particularly good.
The story opens aboard an ocean liner en route from Europe to America. Among the passengers are, the “Lone Wolf,” a supposed crook, two others of the underworld and a French mademoiselle. The latter, with true feminine disregard for any law which does not suit the occasion (editor’s note: I beg your pardon?!?! So men never disregard laws? I want to reach through the page and shake this creep!), is inclined to smuggle some family jewels in order to raise money for a brother charged with embezzlement. And so a clever game starts between the “Wolf” and the other crooks to gain possession of the jewels — which finally reach New York. In the City, further attempts are made by the gang to gain the necklace, and in the meantime romance develops between the girl and “The Lone Wolf.”
The New York Tribune singled out the actors for praise:
Lois Wilson looks extremely pretty, and she plays with her usual sincerity. Bert Lytell is the wisest choice we can think of for the Lone Wolf.
The genteel crime picture of the early twentieth century is a refreshing change of pace from serial-killer-of-the-week television shows and graphic police procedurals. Here’s hoping that Alias the Lone Wolf is in an attic, an archive, a private collection waiting to be rediscovered.
Virginia Lee Corbin is a Charleston-dancing, back-baring, perfume-splashing, lingerie-buying, hair-bobbing, baseball-playing Jazz baby. When she returns home to live with her stodgy sister and equally stodgy brother-in-law, she finds herself causing scandals everywhere she goes. At her heart, though, Virginia is an old-fashioned girl. But her sister has a few secrets (and boyfriends) of her own. Which sister was the wild one again? If you want a movie that captures the spirit of the Jazz Age, this is it.
When people say things like:
“I hate silent movies because I don’t like to read.”
“Why would you watch an old movie?”
“Black and white movies put me to sleep.”
“I watch old movies! Why, my favorite movie is from 1991!”
There is only one proper response!
This is from Don Juan (1926). Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.
Norma Talmadge plays a Chinese maiden (hoo boy) who falls for American diplomat Thomas Meighan. The romance ends in tragedy for Miss Talmadge but not before she gives birth to a daughter who grows up to also be Norma Talmadge. The daughter sets out to seek her father and love. Racially clueless, which garbles its feeble plea for racial tolerance. Not Norma’s best.
First, a huge “thank you” to everyone who took the time to vote in my poll. And now, the winners!
In a stunnning come-from-behind win, we have:
The Peasants are Revolting!
Yes, my readers are an adventurous lot. They want the thrills, the romance, the socioeconomic debates! Well, dear readers, you shall have all those things! Revolutions in America, France, Russia, Mexico… All captured in silent movie form. The theme for June shall be The Peasants are Revolting!
Here are the complete polling results:
- The Peasants are Revolting
- Double Vision
- Crime, Inc.
- Heir Loss
- In the Shorts!
- Famous for their voices
Double Vision led for most of the week but a flurry of Revolutionary votes sunk its chances for the win. Since it was so close, though, I have decided to make July Double Vision Month.
Here is my theme schedule:
May: Brothers Barrymore | celebrating the films of John and Lionel.
June: The Peasants are Revolting | revolution and the American silent film.
July: Double Vision | (and triple, and quadruple!) stars in multiple roles.
August: Crime, Inc. | Bootlegging! Murder! Double amputees who become criminal overlords and conspire to invade San Francisco! And some comedy.
September: ??? (I have something pretty fun planned but I want to surprise you!)
Status: Missing and presumed lost
The famous 1953 film starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe was the second film incarnation of the 1925 Anita Loos novel. Well, actually, it was adapted from a musical version that was based on the novel but let’s not split hairs. The plot of gold-digging was quite current for the 1920’s and the novel (again following a stage adaptation) was brought to the screen in early 1928.
The roles that would later go to Russell and Monroe were played by Alice White and Ruth Taylor. Sennett veterans Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling and Mack Swain have supporting roles. Holmes Herbert (who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite forgotten silent actors) is on hand as one of the rich targets for matrimony.
WHETHER or not you read Anita Loos’s laugh provoking “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” you are certain to go into ecstasies when you witness the picturization of the tale. It is sure to be one of the outstanding comedy screen successes of 1928. First, because it is a laugh compelling tale of a beautiful but far from dumb gold digger, who took men like Grant took Richmond. Only much faster! Her triumphant climb from a small Arkansas town to Little Rock, Hollywood, New York, and, finally, Paris, along a road that she left strewn with shattered hearts and swains from whom she had painlessly extracted jewels and gowns and the wherewith to make it possible for her to live and pursue her educational quest, is absorbingly pictured.
Second, because it will bring to you a new screen personality in Ruth Taylor as Lorelei Lee. You are going to love her. She was selected for the role after a nation-wide search and proves herself so capable an actress in this role that she has been placed under a long term contract by Paramount. The fat laugh lines are in the very capable hands of Alice White, the living embodiment of Dorothy.
Ford Sterling as the Chicago Button King will cause you to laugh until you cry, and Mack Swain will make you laugh some more. Holmes Herbert as the eligible millionaire bachelor gives a great performance. Chester Conklin and Trixie Friganza add to the gaiety. Mal St. Clair has turned out a delightfully handled production that keeps him in the forefront of directors. Atop of all this, the picture is titled by Anita Loos, an assurance of an evening of laughter.
Motion Picture News said:
It is good entertainment and stirs up some good humor.
Ruth Taylor, in spite of her success in the role, did not stay in motion pictures. She quit the movies to marry a millionaire.
Please check the basement, the attic, the safe deposit box, the estate sale of that crazy old guy down the street…
D.W. Griffith tried to break his slump by casting Mae Marsh and scrumptious Welsh heartthrob Ivor Novello in this tale of single motherhood and spiritual crisis. Minister-to-be Novello seduces and abandons orphan flapper Marsh, who must face the cruel world, etc. etc. Griffith has done all this before (and better) but his leads try their hardest and almost manage to put it over. Almost. A mixed bag.
How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.
Marsh and her baby wander into Novello’s neck of the woods, where he promptly realizes the error of his ways and he makes an honest woman of our heroine on her sickbed. Happy endings for all.
If it were a dessert it would be:
Cheesecake rice pudding. Variation on a very old theme. Tasty enough but hardly earth-shattering.
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Released on DVD.
This lady needs her own movie, that’s all there is to it.
Storm the Bastille, citizens!
There’s a pretty good chance that you have never heard of Harry Leon Wilson. He specialized in light comedic fiction with eccentric characters overwhelmed by everyday life in the early twentieth century. I really hate to make comparisons like this but I have to do it this time because it is the only way to describe Wilson’s style. He is an American P.G. Wodehouse.
Merton of the Movies was published in 1919. It was subsequently adapted into a play and then a film in 1924. The film is unfortunately lost. (Other Wilson books turned into silent movies include Ruggles of Red Gap and Oh, Doctor!)
My copy is a 1923 printing. You can find 1920s editions for fairly low prices. However, since it was published in 1919, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The version I found is illustrated with scenes from the play. It is also available as a free audio-book courtesy of Librivox.
What is it?: Merton Gill is a romantic young man who decides that the movies are the only place for him. Being a complete bumpkin, he stumbles around Hollywood and would probably have starved if he hadn’t run into Flips Montague, a comedienne and stuntwoman. Flips shows Merton the ropes and helps him secure a job in a film. Merton gives his all in a dramatic performance. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is so bad he is unintentionally making an uproarious comedy– and Flips is in on the conspiracy. Will his relationship with Flips survive once he finds out? And will he be able to get that dramatic acting gig that he dreams of? Read the book to see.
Favorite part: I loved the prissy hero who has no idea he is funny. How he views the heroine:
Merton Gill passed on. He confessed now to a reluctant admiration for the Montague girl. She could surely throw a knife. He must practise that himself sometime. He might have stayed to see more of this drama but he was afraid the girl would break out into more of her nonsense. He was aware that she swept him with her eyes as he turned away but he evaded her glance. She was not a person, he thought, that one ought to encourage.
And the marvelous slang that Flips (aka the Montague girl) employs. Here she is complaining about her role:
“Yes, one must suffer for one’s art. Here I got to be a baby-vamp when I’d rather be simple little Madelon, beloved by all in the village.”
But the best part of all is the fun that can be had by a silent film fan. The book is chock full of film references, naturally, and a knowledge of silent movies increases the reader’s enjoyment enormously. It is still a good book if you have never seen a silent movie but you will not get the full experience.
Least favorite part: Can’t think of one.
Merton of the Movies is fun, cheap and easy to get. What are you waiting for?
William Boyd and Louis Wolheim are frenemy POW’s who escape and make for warmer climes. They meet Arabian princess Mary Astor (um…) and decide to save her from an unsavory arranged marriage. Producer Howard Hughes hoarded this film in his vault, the villain. One of the best wartime bromance pictures of the silent era. Nice balance of action, comedy and romance. Worth seeking out.
How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.
Boyd and Astor ride off into the sunset in a carriage driven by Wolheim. A trio!
If it were a dessert it would be:
S’mores Brownies. Too much of a good thing is wonderful.
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Alas, not on DVD but it airs on TCM sometimes.
Douglas Fairbanks is a nice Kansan who, through a the odd combination of his mother’s prenatal Dumas reading and a cyclone ravaging town as he was born, is a little hyper. All right, a lot hyper. He is also chivalrous to the point of madness (Dumas again). Setting out to find adventure, he happens upon a true damsel in distress. Is this the mission he has been waiting for?
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…
Status: Print, held by the Academy Film Archive, was missing one reel. The missing final reel was located and the complete film has been shown at festivals but has not been made available to the general public. Hint hint.
It stars Hobart Bosworth, my absolute favorite old sea salt, and Richard Arlen, who provides the hubba-hubba.
From the descriptions available, it sounds like it has everything a viewer could want in a seafaring adventure: Shanghaied crew, mutiny, ruthless captain…
Bosworth is out to revenge himself on the nasty captain who framed him for murder and stole his wife and daughter. Arlen, naturally in love with said daughter, is ready to lend support. Sounds like some grade “A” tuppenny blood stuff!
Reviews were very positive for this nautical yarn.
Motion Picture News was quite enthusiastic:
A good old nerve-tingling title decorates this picture — the action of which lives up to its colorful moniker. The piece carries a wallop in the play of melodrama on the high seas. Before you are barely ready to say “Captain Kidd” it informs you that the clipper is a hell-ship the master of which has a habit of beating up his crews. As you can see, the story is a blood relative of Jack London’s “Sea Wolf,” though there are many marks of originality about it which sets it apart from the London opus.
The skipper has a “shanghai” complex. When a crew runs out on him after a punishing cruise he and his first mate (who registers an equally hard-boiled disposition) use strong-arm methods and shanghai enough sailors to run the ship. Of course, with such a background it is easy to guess that the motivation will concern a mutiny. It’s red-hot action which is served up here — and no mistake. The players entertain a deal of punishment from the brutal skipper before he is knocked for a row of anchors.
A love note punctuates the action to balance the hard moments — and Richard Arlen and Jacqueline Logan take care of it very romantically. But it is the melodrama which provides the real interest and suspense. Everything happens that could possibly happen during the voyage. So put it down as vigorous entertainment.
Photoplay liked the film but felt it was too brutal:
A real he-man picture and this is one time we feel the ladies will like to be excused. (Editor’s note: This lady will be staying, thank you very much.) A picture that is well- produced and directed; filled with splendid performances; but its story is one of mutiny, brutality, murder and a girl. Too gruesome for real enjoyment. Hobart Bosworth, Jacqueline Logan and Richard Arlen are in the cast, with Bosworth giving one of the finest performances of the month.
The New York Times liked what it saw:
Vivid characterizations give vitality to “The Blood Ship,” at the Roxy this week. It’s a story of mutiny, murder and men, with a lone girl among them.
The original 1922 novel by Norman Springer is in the public domain and may be downloaded from several sources. Until the film is released to the viewing public, that is about as close as we can get to it.
Featuring the famous opening line, “he was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” Scaramouche is the tale of Andre-Louis, a young lawyer (Ramon Novarro) who seeks to revenge the murder of his best friend at the hands a heartless aristocrat (Lewis Stone). To further his ends, Andre-Louis becomes an actor, a fencing master and, finally, an architect of the French Revolution.
Continue reading “Scaramouche (1923) A Silent Film Review”
Very (very, very, very, very) loosely based on the poem Anabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, this film tells the tale of a struggling author and his lady fair who are parted by circumstances. Tries to capture the spirit of Poe without all that, you know, death and stuff. Nothing offensive but not really exciting either. However, the scenery is wonderful.
How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.
They live happily ever after. Meh.
If it were a dessert it would be:
Blancmange. A bygone confection that still has appeal but seems bland when compared to the newer recipes.
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Released on DVD