Welcome back! This series is designed to create a to-watch list for silent film newcomers that can be viewed one weekend at a time. Last week, we were out to make an impact with bold choices. This week, it’s all about the glamour!
(If you want more of an intro to silent films in general, please check out my Silent Movies 101 series.)
By the nature of this topic, the selections this week will be a little bit less obscure but there is a method to my madness. We’re going to meet two power couples of the silent era. Nowadays, we have power couples with their portmanteau nicknames (Brangelina, Bennifer, etc.) but it’s hard to realize exactly how huge these film couples were. For many years, movies were THE universal entertainment. To be a top-tier movie star meant that you were famous and beloved in a good chunk of the world.
One power couple burnt out under the pressure of scandal, while the other maintained their standing through the entire silent era. Beverly Bayne and Francis X. Bushman shared the screen constantly while Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks limited their silent screen collaborations to war bond pleas and cameos. They did, however, have their very own portmanteau nickname or at least their house did: Pickfair. Their most famous collaboration (together with Charlie Chaplin) is their own studio, United Artists.
Why are we examining these couples so early in this series? It’s important to match faces and performances to famous names. If a new viewer hopes to absorb the spirit of the silent era, it is invaluable to see the top stars and try to understand what audiences of their day loved about them. Plus, these performers are some of my favorites. Enjoy!
(I will be listing where these films can be seen on either DVD or via streaming from a reputable source. Please do not include YouTube links in the comments as I am unable to publish them for legal reasons.)
Evening One: Doug
Douglas Fairbanks is remembered as the king of swashbucklers but the first five years of his career were spent in modern adventure-comedies designed to show off his impressive athletic skills. Early Fairbanks films had more in common Jackie Chan than Errol Flynn but one movie changed all that.
Feature #1: The Mark of Zorro (1920)
The very first full-length swashbuckler Fairbanks ever made and the first Zorro film, The Mark of Zorro is one heck of a good watch. It tells the tale of the dashing and bold Zorro, who fights oppression with a deadly sword and impressive acrobatic skills.
Fairbanks was known for his breezy humor on the screen and he uses Zorro’s secret identity, Don Diego to incorporate this expected element of his screen persona. Don Diego, upon learning that his sorta fiancee was attacked and insulted by the main villain:
Eat your heart out, Clark Kent! Of course, this is merely a ruse and Zorro himself exacts vengeance but only Fairbanks and the audience know that!
Fairbanks was noted for his stunts and these too are great fun to watch. You will particularly want to keep your eye out for the climactic race across town as Zorro uses wagons, windows and rooftops to evade his pursuers. Fairbanks is something to behold! He practically floats.
Why am I watching this? Fairbanks has to be seen moving to be appreciated and The Mark of Zorro is the lightest of his costume films. While his later pictures tended to be heavier and sometimes collapsed under the weight of the sets and costumes, his Zorro is gravity-defying treat.
The film also blends the 1910s Fairbanks (cheery, athletic, zany) with what would become his 1920s persona (swashbuckler! ha!) and the result is delightful.
If you have any interest in the Zorro character, you will also want to see his cinematic beginnings. A lot of what we consider to be the Zorro trademarks (half mask, whip, cutting Zs into people) were either invented or perfected in this film.
Availability: The Mark of Zorro has had high quality releases from Image and Kino Lorber. If you feel like spending a little extra, the restored version in Flicker Alley’s Fairbanks box set is gorgeous. (The rest of the set is excellent too.)
(You can read my full-length review of The Mark of Zorro here. I also cover the 1940 Tyrone Power remake.)
Evening Two: Mary
Mary Pickford’s modern reputation is a bit more muddled. People see pictures of her in a lace dress and assume she was a weird child impersonator who communicated in baby talk title cards. Actually, Pickford heroines were often bold, self-sufficient young women and Pickford herself was a brilliant businesswoman and movie producer. She was known as America’s Sweetheart and she kept the title through hard work and talent.
Before we dive into her film, though, let’s take a quick detour to talk about Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne.
Short: Under Royal Patronage (1914)
Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne topped movie star popularity contests throughout the 1910s but the passage of time has brought a lot of misinformation to their story. They did indeed marry one another but the scandal was not the marriage itself; it was the fact that Bushman had divorced his first wife and left his five children to be with Bayne. That doesn’t look good in any era.
However, because so many of their films are locked in vaults, the scandal is pretty much all that remains of Bushman and Bayne. We’re changing that!
Under Royal Patronage is a tale of disguises and mistaken identities. Bushman is a nice American guy who poses as a prince in order to help his buddy, the real prince, out of a pickle. Predictably, he falls for a princess (Bayne) and must deal with his deceptions.
The plot is pretty hoary but the patented Bayne/Bushman chemistry is on full display!
Why am I watching this? As you read about silent film, you will see the names of Bushman and Bayne crop up again and again. While some of Bushman’s later work is available, very few of the romantic collaborations that made them famous survive. This is your chance to appreciate screen legends in the roles that their audiences loved to see.
This film was released the same year as last week’s selection, The Wishing Ring. Do you see how quality varied between studios and productions?
Availability: I do not normally recommend Alpha releases (they have a habit of slicing out title cards and scene snippets) and the quality of this film is not the best but, to my knowledge, this is the only Bushman/Bayne film from their prime that has been released to the general public.
Feature #2: Daddy Long-Legs (1919)
As Mary Pickford’s popularity grew, she used her influence to demand more creative control over her films. Pickford knew exactly what she was doing, as is clear from the uptick in the quality of her vehicles.
Daddy Long Legs was based on a popular novel consisting of letters sent by a college girl to the mysterious benefactor who is paying her tuition. The film adds an origin story for the heroine and we see Mary Pickford take her character from a tween to a young woman. The film is interspersed with mischief, whimsy and fantasy elements.
In addition to meeting Pickford, you will also get to see Mashall Neilan, who directs and plays the second male lead in the film. Neilan and Pickford worked extremely well together and managed to create cute films that didn’t descend into treacle.
Why am I watching this? This film is a perfect showcase for Pickford’s talents as a comedian and a dramatic actress. You will be seeing her at her absolute best. The story is whimsical and accessible with just enough quirkiness to keep things fun.
This is an enjoyable way to see Pickford play a character as both a child and an adult and it’s also a chance to see her work with her favorite director.
Pickford is one of the most important figures of American silent film. You’ll be very happy to make her acquaintance.
Availability: Daddy Long Legs has been released on DVD by Milestone with a very nice chamber score by Maria Newman. (Oddly enough, this score is seen as controversial in some circles. Too modern, apparently. I rather like it.)
(You can read my review of Daddy Long Legs here. I also cover the icky Fred Astaire remake.)
I hope you enjoyed seeing two power couples of the silent era on the screen! Stay tuned for next week. We’re going to be heading back to a more obscure corner of silent cinema.