Textbook Boy meets Girl. Fancy it ain’t but no romantic comedy has been sweeter than this one. Mary Pickford was never spunkier, Budder Rogers was never more adorable. An accomplished supporting cast rounds out this good-natured tale of a shop girl falling for the boss’s son. An ideal silent film for first-timers.
Welcome to another installment of Silents in Talkies. In this series, I review sound movies that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.
This time around, Alice Faye and Don Ameche play the leads in movieland’s love letter to itself, Hollywood Cavalcade.
One of the earliest blockbusters, this film is a legend in the history of cinema. But how does it hold up (no pun intended) for the modern viewer? The story involves the execution of a daring train robbery and the subsequent posse pursuit. Exciting stuff or a creaky relic?
How do you get a color movie? Shoot in color, silly! In the silent era, however, there were a lot more options for getting color on the screen. For the month of November, I am going to celebrate the colorful world of silent film.
Here were the most common methods used:
Tinting & Toning: The entire frame is given a particular hue. Simply put, tinting affects the “whites” while toning affects the “blacks” and both techniques could be combined.
Stencil Color: A stencil is cut for each color that is to be applied. This allows for greater precision and faster duplication. Pathecolor was a stencil process.
Color Film (Technicolor): Yes, it did predate the talkie revolution. However, it only recorded blends of red and green. I am not a huge fan of the eyeball-searing Technicolor of the 30’s-50’s so this early process appeals to me. The limited palette gives the images a gorgeous watercolor feel. While some movies were filmed entirely this way, it was more common for movies to employ color sequences lasting a few minutes.
I will be reviewing movies that make use of each and every one of these color methods!
Like most people in my age group, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. And like many others my age, I fell out of love with Star Wars around the years 1997-99, when the not-so-special editions and the prequels were being inflicted on us. Around the same time, I was starting to get into silent film. I had never really liked Cecil B. DeMille’s clunky sound epics but I decided to give his early silent work a chance.
For those of you who don’t know, Warner Archive is in the business of releasing older, obscure and cult films on DVD-R. What does this mean? Films that may not have been popular enough to enjoy a pressed DVD release can be purchased legally by the general public. Hurrah! And the silent films have the excellent musical scores that they deserve. Hurrah again!
Here are five films released on DVD-R that I consider essential viewing.
Marion Davies charms in this showbiz comedy. The art of moviemaking is well and truly spoofed.
Why is it essential? For the chance to see Davies show off those famous– but rarely seen– comedy chops. To enjoy the many, many, many superstar cameos.
West of Zanzibar
Lon Chaney and Tod Browning give us the creeps in this sick little jungle melodrama.
Why is it essential? Lon Chaney’s stunning performance. The sticky jungle atmosphere. For one more trip into the twisted (silent) mind of Tod Browning.
The Sea Hawk
Milton Sills drops the whole Elizabethan gentleman thing in favor of good old-fashioned Barbary piracy.
Why is it essential? The magnificent-yet-battered full-size ships. The grimy action. The manly-man adventure. (Contrast that to the plasticky sheen of 50’s and 60’s mega-epics.)
John Gilbert’s farewell to the silents is also a tidy little desert proto-noir. Diamond thieves vs a cunning hero.
Why is it essential? To see Gilbert as more than just a lover boy. For the suspenseful plot and psychological drama that ensues.
King Vidor directs this southern gothic suspense flick. Decaying homes, decaying minds. Oh, and Sennett funnyman Ford Sterling in a supporting role.
Why is it essential? To see a young Vidor work successfully with challenging material. For the dark premise and darker events.
(My selections seem to be on the gloomy end of the spectrum but I hope you enjoy!)
When I first saw the 2009 romantic comedy The Proposal, it struck me that it was made a few decades too late. (A woman boss with a male secretary? The lady proposing? And she is older? Oh, I shall surely faint at this daring! But she just wants to be romanced by her young man. Awww.)
This is exactly the reaction I get from people when they ask when what I blog about.
Sid Caesar is more than a little perturbed about the “surefire hit” Mel Brooks is pitching in Silent Movie. I can imagine this is pretty much how the budget negotiations for The Artist and Blancanieves went.
Astruggling director has a brilliant idea for a comeback picture: he will make a silent movie! And to ensure that his film will be a hit, he plans to cast the biggest stars in Hollywood. However, an evil corporation wants to take over his studio and intends to stop his movie before he can even start it. Mel Brooks provides his signature everything-but-the-kitchen-sink humor. Continue reading “Silent Movie (1976) Review”
Comedy king Mack Sennett produced some of the speediest, smashingest short films of the 1920’s. Here are some splendid crashes from Lizzies of the Field. And don’t forget, these are real drivers and real cars being smashed. Hats off to the brave stunt workers of silent film!
Pola Negri and Ernst Lubitsch team up once again in the deranged comedy that sends up romance, adventure and Hollywood. Pola is a bandit girl. Paul Heidemann is a ladykiller army officer. She captures him and steals his pants. He chases her all over a Dr. Suess-ian fortress. Oh, it’s a mad film. A little too mad, in fact. But Pola has never been more fun!
If it were a dessert it would be:
Trix Cereal Crunch Cake. Loud, zany and slightly psychedelic. May induce headaches on some days. On others, it may be just what the doctor ordered.
William Boyd and his films have been cropping up in my search queries lately so I figured I had enough material to write a whole post on the topic.
For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Boyd, he was the hero to a whole generation of children: Hopalong Cassidy! And I make no secret about my appreciation for his silent work.
Here are some of the queries I have received:
William Boyd in silent films? Early films of William Boyd?
Biography of William Stage Boyd
In which movies was the theme of the Volga boatmen used? Was William Boyd in The Volga Boatman?
Did William Boyd work exclusively for Paramount Pictures?
So, take out your cap guns and your black hats because we are going to be taking a look at William Boyd.
William Boyd in silent films? Early films of William Boyd?
Yes, William Boyd was indeed in silent films. In fact, you can catch glimpses of him in some early Cecil B. DeMille titles like Why Change Your Wife? and The Affairs of Anatol. He also had bit parts in some Rudolph Valentino vehicles such as Moran of the Lady Letty and The Young Rajah.
After spending much of his early career at Paramount, Boyd followed DeMille when the director jumped ship for his own production company. DeMille had taken a liking to Boyd and gave him his big break, a two-fisted minister in The Road to Yesterday. That was followed up by the biggest hit of Boyd’s silent career, The Volga Boatman.
Boyd continued to work for DeMille Pictures, starring in such nautical fare as Eve’s Leaves and The Yankee Clipper. He also starred in D.W. Griffith’s last silent, Lady of the Pavements. He successfully jumped over to sound and was Carole Lombard’s leading man in High Voltage, one of her early starring roles.
Biography of William “Stage” Boyd
The name William Boyd is and was quite common in the entertainment industry. William “Stage” Boyd took his middle name to emphasize his stage experience and to differentiate himself from the William Boyd who was making a name for himself as a leading man.
Not a lot of information is available about Stage Boyd. If he is mentioned at all, it is usually in relation to William “Hoppy” Boyd. Sorry to leave you empty-handed but there it is.
In which movies was the theme of the Volga boatmen used? Was William Boyd in The Volga Boatman?
The Song of the Volga Boatman has been used in dozens, maybe hundreds of films. Even if you don’t know it by name, you will recognize it immediately.
It is sometimes used to create Russian flavor but is more commonly used comically to accent a character toiling. One of my favorite uses of this song is in the opening credits of the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, where it used as part of a medley of patriotic American and Russian songs.
And yes, William Boyd was indeed the star of The Volga Boatman. It’s a silly DeMille spectacle but quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the only high-quality release it received in the USA was on VHS. (It was available as part of a bargain basement DeMille box set but that product has been pulled from the market.)
Did William Boyd work exclusively for Paramount Pictures?
No. While he spent a large part of his career at the studio, he also signed on with RKO, DeMille Pictures, and United Artists, among others.
Don’t you love it when kids get dramatic? This is from The Doll (1919).
I should note that the boy was played by Gerhard Ritterband, whom IMDB lists as having a 1904 birthdate. This would have made him 15 when The Doll was made. I should note, though, that it was not uncommon for actors to play fast and loose with their birthdates. Leading ladies and gentlemen shaved off years, underage actors added them on to avoid issues with child welfare societies. (For example, Buster Keaton wrote that his family employed this trick on occasion.)
I’m not saying that this was the case with Ritterband. He might have just been really tiny for his age.
Enid Bennett and Ramon Novarro play a pair of young lovers who just want to get married. When they are separated in Paris, each begins a slide toward degradation and depravity. Will the unfortunate pair find one another again or are they too damaged to rekindle their love? Heavy stuff.
Silent movies are so far removed from popular consciousness that it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin. Do you start with D.W. Griffith? Something European? Or one of those famous comedies? The obvious answer to to seek out the best by looking for a top 10 list.
The problem? I’m not a huge fan of these lists.
Not at all.
That’s probably odd because I am writing one but let me explain my reasons.
Top 10 lists are insanely popular online and there are quite a few top 10 silent movie lists. This is where I come in. Many of these lists are thoughtful and excellent. However, there are quite a few that are basically just the viewing assignment for Film History 101 and I have an issue with that.
First, a lot of the silent films ranked as “best” in generic film studies are practically guaranteed to put off newbies.
Second, it’s lazy. Dipping into the same pool of, say, 20 films for a top 10 list may be easy but it doesn’t really increase awareness of silent films.
Third, it’s just silly. Let me explain. If someone claimed to be a passionate reader who reads all the time, would you believe them if their list of favorite books perfectly matched their high school reading list? I think not. A true bookworm would certainly still love books from that list but they would have added other titles over the years that round out their taste. (Obviously, please disregard if you are still in high school.)
In short: Generic lists? Feh! I need to counteract this!
Here is my list. It may be a lot of things but it is not generic. These are films that I truly love and my taste tends to lean toward American-made crowd-pleasers. In general, I am trying to include films that are not only wonderful but also are wonderful in a way that could only be accomplished by a silent film. I also tried to choose only films that are either available on home video or are shown on TCM with some regularity.
Will you agree with this list? I hope not! Everyone has their own taste. I hope, though, that it will be an enjoyable read for silent film fans and an interesting to-watch list for newcomers.
I loved to sew when I was a kid. No sheet or tablecloth was safe! I was sure to snip it up and turn it into a costume for myself or my dolls. My mother was shockingly tolerant of this behavior. It could not have been easy to have a constant costume surplus and sheet shortage. (I still do a bit of costume sewing on the side, though I have not made anything in a while.) We were also indulged in our love of grasshoppers, lizards, fossils, trains, dinosaurs, books and DuckTales.
When you’re a kid, threading a needle can be a challenge. To avoid the dreaded chore, I would load the needle with as much thread as possible. Longer than my arm sometimes. Ah, those were the days!
Think of this story as Aladdin: Expanded Universe. The tale concerns all the usual Arabian Nights ingredients: princes, lamps, djinn, snakes, caves, enchanted birds… What makes it significant is the way it is presented: via the dainty silhouette figures created by Lotte Reiniger.
I am not a fan of summer but now that winter is here, I am immediately complaining about the cold. I have been saving this GIF for a rainy, miserable day like this. It’s from The Doll. The sniveling hero (I don’t mean that as an insult, he really does snivel) has fallen into a pond so he and his mother are doing their best to be sure he does not die from the cold.
The Wizard of Oz. A wonderful tale for children. It has everything a parent could wish for. Animal cruelty. Vomit. Sexual harassment. Racial stereotypes. What’s that? You think Oz shouldn’t have any of those things? Well, don’t tell Larry Semon, writer-director-producer-star of this version.
This film was requested by Tumblr user Nitrateglow, a silent film buff who was one of my first fans and the very first to respond to my reader request poll. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered one of the worst silent films ever made. Let’s see if it lives up to its reputation.
This film was requested by the folks at the Toronto Silent Film Festival. If you happen to be in the Toronto area on April 3-8, 2014… well, why not enjoy some excellent silent entertainment? By the way, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving full-length animated feature.
This film was requested by Comet Over Hollywood and Noir Dame. This is a dark tale of Parisian love gone sour. One star’s reputation has grown over the years (Ramon Novarro) while the other star is all but forgotten (Enid Bennett).
This comedy was requested by True Classics and Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. Popular director Mel Brooks decided to ressurrect the silent film in the 1970’s and hilarity ensues. Packed with cameos and sight gags.
This book covers movie villains from the silent era through the 1960’s. Best of all, it is written by William K. Everson, a respected film historian and one of the most assertive defenders of silent movies.
This 1964 book is an oversized hardcover (though paperback versions are available). It is completely out of print and the prices are all over the place. I paid $14 for my copy, purchased from a Cinecon vendor. The dust jacket is battered but the contents are in perfect shape. I have seen other copies priced as low as $2 and as high as $120.
I think you can probably get a pretty good copy if you aim for the $8-15 price range. I highly recommend seeking out hardcover as oversized paperbacks tend to pull themselves apart.
What is it?: A book dedicated to movie villains. Rather than organizing it by era or by star, Everson chose to sort it by villain type. So we have a chapter on Master Criminals, one for Psychos, another for Western Outlaws, etc. It is a clever way of sorting the information and makes it easy to read about the type of villain you are interested in.
Unlike many books of this type, the silent era villains are given equal attention. Everson even goes one better by explaining why some villains were more popular in sound and others reigned in silence.
My to-watch list is bursting at the seams thanks to this book!
Pictures: Tons of movie stills included, from both silent films and talkies. Each picture is carefully captioned with both the film title and the actors pictured.
Writing Style: Everson’s opinionated, persnickety prose is another selling point for this book. He takes occasional swipes at 1960’s whippersnappers and their aggressive, unladylike heroines. It’s grand fun to read, especially since his opinions are backed up by an enormous amount of film knowledge.
This book is perfect for reading or browsing. I consider it an essential title on any movie fan’s bookshelf.
One of the major miscalculations in The Volga Boatman was the “comedy” relief provided by Theodore Kosloff and Julia Faye. Casting one’s girlfriend as the romantic lead is bad enough but casting her as the film’s funny woman is a disaster.
That being said, I did crack up when Julia throws a tantrum because she can’t kill William Boyd.
First, I have to say that the response to the Chaney Blogathon has been overwhelming and I am delighted by both the quality and the quantity of participants. (You can read the complete roster here.)
To be honest, before the blogathon was announced, I was a little concerned that Junior would not get as much coverage as his father. What can I say? I have been happily playing in my silent film bubble. Well, I am thrilled to be proven wrong! Both Chaneys are getting a wonderful variety of submissions.
That being said, some excellent movies are still unclaimed. If you are still on the fence about joining in, maybe these titles will change your mind. Let’s start with Lon Chaney, Sr.
By the Sun’s Rays (1914)
This film is thought to be the earliest surviving film appearance of Lon Chaney. He’s the villain. Shocking, no? It’s only 11 minutes long, ideal if you are very busy.
Ace of Hearts (1921)
Anarchists, mad love and Leatrice Joy. What more could you want?
The Monster (1925) Claimed for the Blogathon!
Chaney is a mad scientist in this horror comedy. Quite a bit of fun, I must say.
The Wicked Darling (1919)
The very first collaboration between Chaney and Tod Browning!
* * *
And now for a few films from Lon Chaney, Jr. I would love to see some of his serial work and more of his westerns get covered.
Pillow of Death (1945)
Best title ever? I think so.
The Defiant Ones (1958) Claimed for the Blogathon!
Chaney has a small but important supporting role.
The Black Castle (1952)
How are things at the Old Dark Castle? Plus, we get Boris Karloff!
The Old Corral (1936)
Gene Autry sings but we are here for Lon!
I hope this has given you some ideas! Leave a comment or email me if you want to sign on.
You know that I love silent films. What you may not know, though, is that I have an enormous weakness for the BIG films of the sixties. Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, you know the kind. I also love those big, big comedies that seemed to star everyone in the entire world. The Great Race, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, etc.
Well, the concept behind this imaginary film is that one of those “starring everyone” adventure comedies was made in the silent era. An eccentric millionaire decided to finance a film and money was no object. The finest of everything, from stars to sets to Technicolor sequences. This millionaire wanted stars and the stars came, the biggest in the business. The whole thing was fourteen reels long and cost $3 to get in. It was the biggest film of the decade.
Here it is.
The Golden Challenge (1926)
Director: Raoul Walsh
The Plot: The richest man in the world, Jabez Watertoast, passes away without heirs. Instead, he has left an eccentric will: He has buried the majority of his fortune (in emeralds and gold) in a secret place and has left clues as to its location. Four copies of the clues have been sent to four different married couples, all in desperate need of money. These couples must use their resourcefulness to find the treasure. Watertoast wanted his money to go to a bootstrapping pair of go-getters and this race is his way of finding the most worthy recipient.
So, four letters are sent out with strict instructions that the participants tell no one (especially the press!) about their mission.
Dear sir and madam:
You have been selected as a possible recipient of the Watertoast emeralds. Your first instructions are included in this envelope. You will be given an allowance of $50.00 a week to cover your expenses but no more. If you tell anyone about this contest (especially the newspapers) you will be disqualified.
Now it’s time to meet our four couples.
Note: I created a GIF for every main character but if you have a slow internet connection, they may not animated properly. If a GIF seems to be frozen, simply click it and you should be able to see it move.
Ned and Amy Sheffield
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
The Sheffields were raised in an orphanage together. They grew up, got married and were able to buy the place with the proceeds from Ned’s wingwalking prize money and Amy’s secret gooseberry pie recipe. However, money is tight and an evil banker (who knows there is oil under the place) may take over if they don’t get enough cash to pay off their debts.
Prince Henri and Sylvia de Guise
Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson
Henri is the heir to the throne of Carolingia, which was impoverished by the Great War. Accompanied by his American wife, Sylvia, Henri hopes to raise enough money to strengthen his army so that his country will not fall to anarchists. A former manicurist to the rich and powerful, Sylvia plans to use her business contacts to try to help her husband.
Robert and Phoebe Merriweather
John Barrymore and Marion Davies
A pair of itinerant entertainers and semi-con artists, Robert and Phoebe are a comedy/illusion duo who pass themselves off as Russian refugees. However, when performing for a gangland audience, they made the dog of the boss’s moll disappear. The problem? It never reappeared. Running for their lives, they want enough money to start a new life far, far away from Chicago.
Erik and Velma Hardt
Conrad Veidt and Pola Negri
Erik and Velma were born into money but have long since spent it. However, they do have one advantage: Velma’s uncle was Jabez Watertoast’s lawyer and he means for his niece to win the money. Erik, meanwhile, is using his shadowy connections to try to trip up the competition. He was a spy during the war, you see, and has connections with the anarchist movement.
The four couples only have the first clue to work with. One clue leads to another and so forth as they race across the world at breakneck speed. On the way, they are met with numerous stars in cameos and character actors. But who will win the big prize?
My cameo ideas:
Clara Bow as one of the older, spunky orphans
Harry Langdon as the Merriweather’s hapless booking agent
Charlie Chaplin as himself, a helpful passerby in Paris
Dorothy Gish as a cab driver in Budapest
Nita Naldi as a tribal chieftainess
William S. Hart as a displaced cowboy in Morocco
Norma Talmadge as the scorekeeper for the treasure hunt
Richard Barthelmess as a country boy who gives the couples a lift in his old cart
Ben Turpin as a foreign legionnaire
Anna May Wong as the Hong Kong-based reporter who wants a scoop
The race will start in New York and then head to Arizona (a little tip of the hat to The Great Race there). From there, the race heads to London, Paris, Budapest, Moscow, Hong Kong and then all the way back to Morocco. The treasure is hidden in the desert and guarded by a fierce tribe of warriors.
And who wins the prize? I’m leaving that up to your imagination.