Fun Size Review: Way Down East (1920)

Director D.W. Griffith took a creaky melodrama and… kept it creaky! Lillian Gish is used and tossed aside by a rich creep. She stumbles onto Richard Barthelmess’s farm, where the whole family embraces her with open arms. Then said rich creep shows up. Works surprisingly well thanks to great work from Gish and Barthelmess, as well as one of Griffth’s very best Races to the Rescue™… On  Ice! (On tour this winter!)

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In the Vaults #6: The Cossack Whip (1916)

Status: Complete reconstructed print held by the George Eastman House. There are also prints held by the Library of Congress and the National Archives of Canada.

I first heard of this film in Kevin Brownlow’s marvelous Behind the Mask of Innocence. It is one of the films of director John Collins, a talented artist whose early death from Spanish Influenza deprived the fledgling motion picture industry of one of its potential greats. Collins directed his wife, Viola Dana, in this anti-czarist film, a reasonably common genre at the time.

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Brownlow praised Collins for his rapid cross-cutting and sophisticated style. Star Viola Dana recalled the difficulty she had in handling the whip of the title. Tiny, delicate and just nineteen, Dana was universally praised for her performance. The popularity had a downside: she was mobbed by enthusiastic fans during a personal appearance promoting the film.

Moving Picture World provided this synopsis:

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A long line of prisoners winds over the snow-covered Russian steppes toward the train which is to carry the unfortunates to Siberia. A band of revolutionists, bent on freeing their brothers from the living death, attack the Cossack guard and in the excitement several prisoners escape. Turov, Prefect of Police, learns of the attack and orders the whole district raided that he may punish the perpetrators of the attack.

In their crude home live Sasha and his daughters, Darya and Katerina. Suddenly the still air is shattered with the blood-curdling yells of the raiding Cossacks. Little Darya is quickly hidden, hut Sasha and Katerina are led before Turov. The father is sent to Siberia. Soon afterward Katerina. robbed of life and honor, creeps back to the little settlement to die, carrying with her the Cossack knout with which she has been flogged.

Over her sister’s body, Darya swears revenge and keeps the Cossack’s whip as a reminder of her vow. Then follows a story of action and power, telling how Darya becomes the favorite dancer of the Imperial Ballet; how she brings the bloodthirsty Turov to her feet and finally accomplishes her revenge; how, at last, she listens to the pleadings of Sergius, a revolutionist and master of the ballet, and how the two of them make their way out of Russia and across the ocean to the great land of liberty and opportunity.

And the review from the same magazine was very positive:

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It is not often that a motion picture visually telling of Russian revolutionists and of oppression by the Russian police diverges from a rather tiresome sameness, but this Is done to a considerable extent in “The Cossack Whip,” a five-reel picture produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.. for release through K-E-S-E. Good entertainment is furnished by the five reels of this production, and the work of Viola Dana in the leading role is flawless. She plays the part of the youngest member of a Russian household, which is crashed by the police, with a finesse of understanding and sympathy. As the plot develops. Miss Dana’s screen characterization develops with it, but so gradually and so subtly does she change from a simple lass into a revengeful woman that the spectator is forced to feel for her.

The story has been superbly screened, and no little amount of credit is due Director John Collins. Many unusual and novel settings are seen in the film — especially the ballet scenes. Photographically, the production is excellent, and it is evident from a showing of the finished product that director and company worked in harmony.

The players appearing in support of Miss Dana make the story convincing. Richard Tucker pleases in the leading male role. Frank Farrington does commendable work as the superintendent of police, and Sally Crute makes a lovable Mme. Pojeska. Grace Williams, as the sister of the girl, and Bob Walker, as Alexis, both do good work.

Darya, the girl, keeps the scourge with which her sister has been flogged to death. She swears to avenge her sister and her father, and becomes a ballet dancer. She becomes famous in London and, returning to Russia, is entertained by the chief of police. By a clever ruse she gets him to put his hands in the handcuffs which held her sister. She flogs him with the whip used on her sister. The despot is killed by a brother-revolutionist.

Photoplay was happy:

A corking Russian story  evidently made some time ago by Edison, but released only a few weeks since. It has vigor, action, speed, suspense and fine heart interest. Viola Dana plays the chief role.

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John Collins has a high reputation among film scholars but most of his films are not made available to the general public. It is high time that we be given a peek at his work.

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Fun Size Review: Eve’s Leaves (1926)

Raised as a boy aboard ship, Leatrice Joy feels it is high time to get a fella. Armed with magazine relationship advice, she goes ashore and sets her cap at the first man she sees, William Boyd. He is annoyed by the over-eager Leatrice and rebuffs her. Leatrice shanghais him and soon he is beginning to think this kidnapping thing is not so bad. Boyd and Joy are a delight in this breezy adventure-comedy.

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The New York Hat (1912) A Silent Film Review

Pastor Lionel Barrymore receives a strange mission from a parishioner (the wife of the town miser) who has recently passed away: He is to take the money she has left and buy her daughter, Mary Pickford, little luxuries that she has been denied. The Pastor starts by buying Mary a pricey hat from New York. Little does he know that this kindness will start a frenzy of gossip.

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About Silent Movies: Lost and Found

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?”

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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

"The Arab" was one of the films found in Russia.
“The Arab” was one of the films found in Russia.

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.

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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

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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.

What now?

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.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Lillian Gish, Her Legend Her Life by Charles Affron

Lillian Gish was one of the staunchest defenders of silent films in general and D.W. Griffith in particular. Her interviews and recollections are woven into almost every book and documentary that covers the early American motion picture industry. However, she was a fiercely private person who carefully curated her public image. Charles Affron proposes to go where no biographer has gone before: to find the woman behind the legend.

At least that was the idea. For me, mixed results.

Availability: This book is currently in print and is available new and used.

What is it? An attempt to get under the skin of Lillian Gish. Affron uses Gish’s personal papers, as well as autobiographies of fellow actors, contemporary interviews, fan magazines, scholarly works and Gish’s films.

What works: There is no doubt that the book is well-researched. Affron is able to bring out nuances of Gish’s personality from forgotten information, redacted sections of letters and long-buried interviews.

For example, Lillian Gish was stuck playing a wire-flying fairy in a Belasco stage production in New York. Her sister, Dorothy, was in California making films. A stage accident resulting in Gish being dropped six feet and scaring her out of her wits. Considering what happened to the cast of Spiderman, I think that is understandable. Meanwhile, she had been offered a handsome salary to make motion pictures in California.

Let’s see, stay in New York to be lifted around on dangerous rigging for a bit part or go to California for more money and be able to join her beloved mother and sister… Hmm…

Gish wrote to her best friend with a description of the events:

“But as I am offered more money with the Biograph and the three of us can be together I think it is better for me to play sick here and go out there, now don’t you think so?”

Gish later redacted this part of the letter when it was published in a biographical series. I enjoyed this glimpse at a young Lillian Gish, more than a little sheepish at her subterfuge.

What doesn’t work: This is where things get a little sticky for me. I understand the desire to debunk the legends and self-aggrandization that, frankly, crop up around most major stars. However, Affron takes this to extremes. Every tiny misremebered detail, every exaggeration, every small inconstancy is dragged out and paraded. Should biographies be honest? Of course. Should biographers try their best to get to the truth? Naturally. Was Lillian Gish perfect? No, not at all. However, I felt that Affron’s approach was ham-fisted. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

At the start of chapter 8, Affron describes a car accident in which Dorothy Gish was struck by a car, dragged 40 feet and had to have one of her toes amputated. He then goes on (in the same paragraph) to debunk Lillian Gish’s claim that this accident prevented Dorothy from being in Birth of a Nation. And I was still thinking “Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe? Dorothy was dragged 40 feet and lost her toe?!” What was Lillian’s reaction to her little sister’s accident? What did their mother say? Who nursed her? No information? None at all? Just more debunking? Sheesh.

Let me be clear, I am all for setting the record straight in historical matters but this just seems a little mean.

I also noticed Affron’s tendency to accentuate negative comments about Gish and bury more positive words. For example, he quotes liberally from Miriam Cooper’s bitter autobiography, Dark Lady of the Silents, which I had recently read. All of Cooper’s negative words about Gish are quoted verbatim. Her positive recollections, on the other hand, are paraphrased and placed at the very end of the chapter. Is this the truth? Technically. Is it really very honest to the reader? I don’t think so.

Tanner Colby, biographer of the late John Belushi, had an interesting observation about Bob Woodward’s book on Belushi, Wired.

“I say it’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.”

I think that applies very well in this case.

Is this a bad book? Not really. Is it a fair book? Again, not really. I read it. It had some enjoyable passages. And Gish’s blind defense of D.W. Griffith’s obvious racism needed a bit of debunking. However, there is a mean-spiritedness to this biography that prevents it from being an entirely pleasant reading experience.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Films of Mary Pickford by Raymond Lee

Anytime you are dealing with an actor from the pre-feature era, a filmography book is essential. Assuming you are a fuddy-duddy who likes dead tree editions. Which I do. I like silent movies, for heaven’s sake!

Anyway, when short films were the rule, it was possible for a performer to star in dozens and dozens of films in a single year, thus the need for the filmography. Mary Pickford made her film debut in 1909 under the direction of D.W. Griffith. She starred in over 125 short films and over 50 features.

What is it?: While it is about the films of Mary Pickford, it is really more of a picture book than anything. I greatly enjoyed my copies of Conrad Veidt On Screen and The Films of William S. Hart (which listed detailed information about the filming conditions, budget, co-stars and provided anecdotes) and was hoping that this book would be the same. This book merely lists the director, cameraman and the main cast with no added details or historical tidbits.

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Pictures: This is what saves the book from being a total wash-out: the pictures! There are portraits, stills, behind-the -scenes shots. Every page has at least one beautiful photo. Also included are pictures of Pickford later in life, as late as 1961.

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Writing style: What little writing there is (a brief introduction) is warm and affectionate. The book was published in 1970 and the author had been a Pickford fan since his youth.

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The book is light on scholarship but heavy on photos. It is a feast for the eyes and worth getting if you can snag a cheap copy.

Lost Film Files #11: The Sea Wolf (1913)

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Moving Picture World praised Bosworth but felt the film was too long:sea wolf 1913 image (4)

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.

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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!

Fun Size Review: The Beloved Rogue (1927)

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.

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Fun Size Review: Carmen (1915)

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.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: How to make your own motion picture plays by Jack Bechdolt

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Fun Size Review: Below the Surface (1920)

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.

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Fun Size Review: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

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.

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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.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability:
Released on DVD and Blu-ray. Get the Cohen release, it has a wonderful orchestral score from Carl Davis. So, so good.

About Silent Movies: Kinetoscope, Vitaphone, Part-Talkie…. huh?

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:

Time Periods:

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.

Kinetoscope
Kinetoscope

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.

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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.

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Technology:

Kinetoscope:

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.

communal earbuds. Yay.
communal earbuds. Yay.

Vitaphone:

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.)

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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.

Hand-colored, Hand-tinted

Colors were painstakingly added frame by frame. Imprecise but beautiful.

Pathécolor:

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.

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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:

Two-color Technicolor:

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.

Ben-Hur (1925)
Ben-Hur (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Film Marketing Terms:

Reels:

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.

Talking Sequences/Part-Talkie:

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.

Lost Film Files #10: Alias the Lone Wolf (1927)

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Fun Size Review: Bare Knees (1928)

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.

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