Generally speaking, I aim for about 1,000 to 2,000 words with most film reviews but there are times when I like to take things to the next level. Today, I’ll be sharing five reviews that involved hitting the books, busting some myths and generally going above and beyond.
Michael Strogoff (1926)
Burning Question: What’s Michael Stroganoff?
One of the best silent epics that nobody’s ever heard of, this 1926 French production borrowed the army of Latvia to replicate Russia. The adaptation of the original Jules Verne novel was so good that scenes were lifted wholesale for MGM’s The Cossacks (1928). I dig into the film to explain its history and appeal as a buried treasure of the silent era.
(The film does not yet have an official home video release.)
The Captive (1915)
Burning Question: Did Cecil B. DeMille order his extras to use live ammunition? Did someone really die on the set of this movie?
I unravel a semi-scholarly game of telephone to discover what really happened on that fateful day in 1915 when an on-set accident led to a fatality. The story of DeMille substituting live bullets for blanks has been repeated and repeated (including this ridiculous listicle and, no I did not give them permission to use the screenshot). I dig for the truth.
Available on DVD and Bluray from Olive Films.
Mabel at the Wheel (1914)
Burning Question: Was Mabel Normand really a rotten director who was put in her place by Charlie Chaplin?
The 1992 Chaplin biopic treats Mabel Normand like a talentless loser who dares to direct the great Chaplin and is put in her place. The source for this is Chaplin’s own autobiography but hardly anybody bothered to think about Normand’s side of the story. I don’t think it ever occurred to them that she HAD a side. Well, I take up the cause and mount a spirited defense.
Released on DVD as part of the Chaplin at Keystone box set.
The Forty-First (1927)
Burning Question: Why would a Soviet film be about Soviet things?
People writing about Soviet films are often just shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover that they reflect Russian attitudes and are quite un-American. This mid-century naivete has marred many a film review so I set out to explore a double bill of Russian woman sniper films with an open mind.
(No official home video release yet.)
Burning Question: HOW????
The deepest of all my deep dives, thousands and thousands of words covering the behind-the-scenes drama of the most epic epic film of the entire silent era. It took months to research but I’m pretty proud of it.
Released on DVD as an extra on the sound Ben-Hur disc.
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I had never read your review of The Captive, which is a nicely comprehensive one. Love the review and have always loved this film! Besides, who wouldn’t want to take a deep dive with lovely Annette Kellerman 😉
The Captive shooting death accounts always did sound somewhat dubious, as do accounts of other on-set gun tragedies. POV, passage of time, location during incident all factor in, of course. De Mille understood the risks of using live ammo and the myriad things that could go wrong, so I have a hard time thinking he wouldn’t order a blanks re-load. In those times that would mean wadding loads, not paper. People unfamiliar with actual use of firearms (come from a long line of hunters. Still target shoot.) have told me that there are “prop guns” and “real guns.” If a gun is going to be fired, it’s a REAL gun (not counting the science fiction/fantasy/CG flash variety.) “Prop guns” are simply to be held or seen (actually, most of them are real, too but checked off as unloaded). And wadded/crimped blanks can also kill or maim when fired at very close range- tragic history there as well, and a long one.
The Captive on-set gun death has all the markings of a horrible, profoundly regretted accident, one that never should have happened. Wish there had never been more of them, but there are many.
Thanks so much for the additional information! Yes, alas, far too many people have been killed or injured because somebody did not understand that “blanks” are not harmless. It really was a tragedy, a shame that it is sensationalized even today.
It’s worth it to add a link to this article because the more we can spread the word about dangerous blanks, the better:
I actually really disliked how the film Chaplin shows Mabel Normand and found it insulting. Chaplin was too much of a narcissist so he had to discredit Mabel. I went to your review of the Captive and I am not a fan of Blanche Sweet…the person. I have seen her in interviews and she truly rubs me the wrong way. I think she would be a person who, if she thinks she is right, the. Everyone be dammed and she would love to discredit someone whom she dislikes. Real ammo was used in many productions well into the sound era so using live ammo is not surprising but when it doesn’t need to be used, I can see DeMille not wanting it used because he is all about the budget…I mean practicality. He would have kept that image with him because, unless one is a psycho, the image would stay with you. Would he have kept the scene in( not showing the actual death) …of course! I think Sweet assumed the worst especially after seeing what remained.
Yes, I believe so as well. Sweet didn’t like DeMille and in any case, she didn’t personally witness the shooting. Anything she heard would have been secondhand at best.
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