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. First, we were out to make an impact with bold choices and then we took a look at power couples of the silent era. This week, we’re going to step into the world of cackling villainy and heroes bold.
(If you want more of an intro to silent films in general, please check out my Silent Movies 101 series.)
The popular image of silent film is something like this:
Never mind that this was a tired cliche in the nineteenth century, let alone the twentieth. Never mind that such a scene has yet to be discovered in an extant silent studio drama. Nope, this is what silent films look like to many people and nothing you say can dissuade them.
(You can read my debunking of the myth here. Yes, it was used as a comedic device to spoof old Victorian melodrama. No, it was not in The Perils of Pauline. Yes, I’m sure. No, I will not entertain the notion that it must somehow be true because it is famous. No, I don’t want to see a still “proving” the cliche that is either from a comedy spoof or a shot of someone who happens to be beside train tracks.)
Okay, so the popular image of silent films is bunk but there is one tiny grain of truth. That grain? Melodrama.
Melodrama is defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.” (That sounds an awful lot like reality TV, doesn’t it?) There is a notion that ALL silent movies were melodramas. Silent era audiences did indeed enjoy melodrama but it was considerably more varied and polished than modern viewers may have been led to believe. It also was not the only cinematic choice. Silent film audiences had just as many genres to choose from as we do today and sometimes they chose melodrama. They loved spoofs of it too but that’s a story for another day.
This week, we’re facing down this myth and looking at real silent movie melodrama because, guess what, these movies are fun! And what’s more, silent moviemakers knew the difference between serious drama and melodrama so there will be some sly winks to the audience on occasion.
The films will be from three periods and three different countries. We’ll have a British film from the dawn of cinema, a French film from era of dramatic shorts and an American picture from the silent feature era.
Evening One: France and Great Britian
Our first melodramatic selections aren’t from Hollywood at all. France has always been famous for its cinema, silent and sound, but British silent film has a bit of a bad reputation. Let’s face it, some of this reputation is justified but don’t let it scare you away. British film pioneers deserve a great deal of credit for their contributions to the art.
Short #1: Rescued by Rover (1905)
Cecil Hepworth was one of the founders of the British film industry and this film was one of his biggest hits. One may even go so far as to name it one of the first blockbusters; the film was so popular that it had to be completely reshot when the negative wore out! Six minutes long and created on a budget of seven pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence, Rescued by Rover is the story of a cheerful pup who saves the baby of its family from a kidnapper. (This was almost forty years before Lassie, by the way.)
Like so many early films, Rescued by Rover has a homemade quality to it. Hepworth plays the father of the family and his wife, baby and dog (real name: Blair) all play themselves. Blair is particularly fun to watch as it is affectionate and incapable of holding its licker, distributing kisses to the other characters during the dramatic scenes.
Why am I watching this? While the story is the kind of melodrama that draws snickers from modern know-it-alls, the film is extremely sophisticated for its time in terms of lighting, editing and camera work. The story is clear and easy to follow and takes place in multiple locations. That may sound obvious but remember that the rules of motion picture reality were still being written. Rescued by Rover represented an important step forward in cinematic sophistication.
The film has that winning combination of innocence and innovation that makes early cinema so endearing and its historical importance makes it a must-see.
Availability: Rescued by Rover was released as part of The Movies Begin box set from Kino. It’s on the pricey side but so worth it. It is also included as an extra on the Grapevine disc The Return of Grey Wolf.
Short #2: The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912)
Now we’re heading into more sophisticated territory. The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador is directed by Léonce Perret, one of the powerhouses of pre-WWI French cinema. Clocking in at 45 minutes, the film is kind of between a short and a feature.
This is melodramatic villainy at its most sinister! Perret himself plays the villainous villain who conspires to murder his ward in order to keep control of her inheritance. He drugs his ward, shoots her fiance and leaves them near the Kador rocks, hoping that the tide will wash the bodies away. What follows is an eerie sequence. The ward awakens in a boat without oars in the middle of the ocean with her bleeding fiance beside her. The cinematography is stunning, like an Edward Gorey illustration come to life.
Why am I watching this? Perret instinctively understood that the power of melodrama was in pure emotion and striking imagery. While the events on the screen are breathless and sensational, his method of storytelling is calm and assured.
In short, Perret understood the genre in which he was working and this clear vision gives his film the intelligence that is missing from many other melodramatic offerings. He knows that the story is old but he invites the audience along for the ride. We all know what we are getting into and this frankness is very appealing.
The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador is an example of how powerful silent melodrama can be in the right hands. It’s imaginative and wildly entertaining, most certainly worth your time.
Availability: Released on DVD as part of Kino’s Gaumont Treasures set. Yet another wonderful release for your film collection. (And you wonder why I’m always broke!)
Evening Two: The United States
Now that we’ve had a bit of European entertainment, it’s time to head back to the American film industry. I am going to share a little secret with you, a wonderful melodrama that hardly anyone has ever heard of. It’s like you’re joining my secret society! We need uniforms and a secret handshake, stat!
Feature #1: Below the Surface (1920)
Hobart Bosworth is not exactly a household name but you’ve probably seen him without even realizing it. One of the first stars to join the California filmmaking scene, Bosworth went from leading man to character actor. He signed a contract to make Jack London adaptations in the early to mid-1910s and specialized in playing old sea dogs.
Below the Surface is a crackerjack melodrama about a father-son deep sea diving duo. There’s a sunken treasure in the area and a gang of ne’er-do-wells is determined to find it. The dive is far too dangerous and no one will do it, no matter how much money they are offered. And so a female member of the gang seduces Bosworth’s only son and gambles that he will do anything to please her. Needless to say, she didn’t count on Daddy Bosworth. He has a distinct Rutger Hauer vibe, don’t you think?
Why am I watching this? This is a first-rate American potboiler with all the trimmings. Top hats and railway tracks? Oh please. This is the good stuff, pure melodrama!
The film also shows off the technical prowess of the film industry of 1920. The underwater shots are stunning and there is a wonderfully eerie shot of corpses floating in an underwater shipwreck.
Availability: Released on DVD by Grapevine.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s selections. Next week, we’re going to be meeting another famous star and learn to love kitsch.