We’re in the last few days of 2015 and while we’re looking forward to the new year, let’s take some time to look back at some of the best movie-related discoveries of the past twelve months.
Favorite new silent discoveries
Sweet and Bitter Russia
I continued my love affair with Russian cinema this year, taking special care to review a selection of pre-Revolution films along with Soviet pictures. While the styles are very different, both Red and White cinema display a flair for comedy and a talent for tragedy. It’s addictive.
I was very glad to finally see the 1927 version of The Forty-First as it’s the sound remake is one of my favorite films. The doomed romance between a Bolshevik sniper and a czarist officer is a dark fairy tale tweaked for revolutionary tastes. Heady stuff.
But the Soviets were not all about tragedy and propaganda, as The Girl with the Hat Box proves. An absolutely delightful romantic comedy, it stars the much-maligned Anna Sten as a zany hatmaker who marries a penniless student so he can stay at her apartment. It’s accessible, witty and thoroughly Russian.
Before the Revolution, Russian comedies ventured into saucier territory with The House in Kolomna, in which Ivan Mosjoukine dresses as a woman in order to make time with his girlfriend, and Antosha Ruined by Corset, in which Anton Fertner must get rid of the titular undergarment before his wife returns from out of town. Both films play their comedy with a broad wink, letting the audience in on the joke.
I have always had a soft spot for French cinema and my affection for the national style only increased this year. First, The House of Mystery completely captivated me with its style, flair and adventure. It was one of many films created by Russian emigres who had fled their native land as the monarchy crumbled and set up shop in France. French and Russian national styles blended into something unique and wonderful; if you have not seen one of these Russo-French productions yet, The House of Mystery is a great place to start.
Pre-WWI French cinema was represented by two gloriously over-the-top selections: The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador and The Railway of Death. Kador is a mystery/melodrama that owns its crazy plot and manages to make something fresh out of a rather dusty set of tropes. Railway of Death is a western (?) shot in the French marshlands and it is insane. Like, what would happen if Wile E. Coyote actually killed people. Just see it.
This year, I also managed to see the earliest surviving Yiddish-language film, East and West, a delightful romantic comedy starring sassy stage legend Molly Picon. Then I stumbled over Saturday Night, a criminally underrated marital comedy from Cecil B. DeMille. The basic concept is to ask what happens after happily ever after. A heckuva lot, as it turns out. DeMille also produced a slew of films under his own studio banner and The Fighting Eagle is one of the swashbucklers designed to showcase Rod La Rocque. But it also includes a selection of intelligent and empowered women, good and bad. Swashbuckling with a side of feminism? Yes, please!
Finally, our friends at Aardman stuck to their guns and kept their star player silent in Shaun the Sheep, a family film that is actually for the entire family, grownups too. The stop-motion animation is as good as ever and the story blends humor and warmth into the best animated film of 2015. (Yes, I have seen Inside Out.) And all without dialogue!
Favorite talkies (reviewed on the site)
I also review talkies with a connection to the silent era and this year, I got to cover a few old favorites and new discoveries. Lawrence of Arabia is my all-time favorite movie and since director David Lean started out in the silents, it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the picture. Marlene Dietrich is my favorite classic talkie actress and I was able to slip in a review of Golden Earrings, a masterpiece of kitsch that everyone should see. The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming is one of the most quotable films ever made and I was glad to discover a silent era connection as well.
For new discoveries, I was delighted by Misbehaving Husbands, a low budget comedy starring Harry Langdon and directed by William Beaudine. Between them, these men are two of the most maligned figures in silent and classic cinema but Misbehaving Husbands is both charming and funny. Take that, haters!
Finally, I want to talk about the film I had the absolute most fun reviewing: Unconquered, a hot mess of a colonial picture from Cecil B. DeMille. The movie itself is a kitsch classic and the jokes practically wrote themselves. Gary Cooper stars as an army officer who just can’t seem to get a bill of sale for Paulette Goddard, an indentured servant. The wacky duo wander across the thirteen colonies delivering dialogue so wooden they could build a cabin with it. Boris Karloff plays a Seneca chief. Oh my.
Best Silent Era Recipes
As you probably know, I have been cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook with a few detours along the way. Here are the tastiest vintage recipes I prepared in 2015:
Anna May Wong’s Egg Foo Yung: Not at all traditional but these little omelet/pancake bits of deliciousness look, smell and taste absolutely delicious. The batter is easy to make and the whole thing can be whipped up in just a few minutes.
The Theda Bara Sandwich: This sandwich was inspired by the famous vamp and its pungent components result in a punchy sandwich that is just as tasty today as it was in 1916.
Carol Dempster’s French Peas with Butter: A simple recipe that is unexpectedly delicious, Dempster’s flavorful pea technique involves a low flame and lots and lots of butter. How could we go wrong with that?
Dorothy Sebastian’s Southern Gingerbread: Rich, dense and moist, this gingerbread is old-fashioned in the best possible sense. The recipe also yields a ton of the stuff, which makes it ideal for serving to company or at parties.
Pola Negri’s Banana Trifle: Negri’s trifle used blancmange as its custard and only ladyfingers as its cake. The result is a more sophisticated version of banana pudding that is not too sweet.
Sidney Drew’s Peanut Cookies: It was a good year for sweets, wasn’t it? Drew’s cookies are light and dainty and the recipe could easily be adapted to use just about any kind of nutmeat.
More recipes are in the pipeline so stay tuned!
Bonus: The book that started it all
Before getting into silent films, I was a medieval history buff. Even as a child I wasn’t interested in the doings of kings and queens as much as I was intrigued with the everyday life of average citizens. I was particularly interested in the clothing and food. I do a bit of reproduction sewing (though I haven’t done much lately) and enjoy cooking historical recipes. Think the silent era is saddled with a lot of ridiculous myths? That’s nothing compared to the topic of medieval food! “They used spice to cover the taste of spoiled meat!” and so forth.
Thanks to the magic of the inter-library loan, I was able to get my hands on Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks and I loved it! Its accessible writing makes it a joy to read and it really opened my eyes to the world of reproduction food. Of course, my silent star recipe experiments are not true reproductions (I am using modern techniques and ingredients willy-nilly) but I thought you would like to know the origin of the project.
And guess what? I would much rather eat a meal of authentic medieval food than some of that crazy slop Americans served from about 1920 to 1960.
Favorite overall purchase
Gaze upon it! Gaze upon it! Mwahahahaha! Ever since a silent movie friend clued me in to the existence of this book, I have been haunting eBay. My patience paid off, a French bookseller listed a copy, I leaped on it and now it is mine, mine, mine!
It’s a making-of tie-in book for the 1926 film Michael Strogoff written by its star, my beloved Ivan Mosjoukine and y’all know how I feel about him. It’s paperback so I imagine most of the copies must have disintegrated and then there is the little matter of the Second World War and the German occupation… The point is, you can’t just buy a copy at any corner newsstand. I have a growing collection of Michael Strogoff memorabilia (it’s my all-time favorite silent movie) and this book is definitely the crown jewel. I promised myself I would never get hooked on the memorabilia thing. Shows you what I know.
Those were some of my favorite things about 2015. Keep your eyes skinned because next we are going to be discussing the worst silent movie-related happenings of the year. See you then!
What were your favorite film discoveries of the year? (They don’t have to be silent!) Tell me in the comments!