Theme Month! June 2018: Silent Movies Go Out to Sea

Beware of icebergs, pirates and assorted marine life! Silent movies loved their maritime adventure and I am going to be sharing some particularly fascinating films this month.

My timing couldn’t be better as we’re having a bit of a heat wave. What better way to stay cool than to watch films containing nautical adventures and arctic exploration? I’ve tried to include a selection of films that were both mainstream Hollywood hits and more forgotten documentaries.

To whet (hee hee hee!) your appetite, here are some nautical films I have already reviewed.

The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

South (1919)

The Sea Lion (1924)

The Sea Hawk (1924)

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Black Pirate (1926)

Limite (1930)


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  1. Marie Roget

    Oh boy, the nautical theme month arrives! As I at long last live right near the ocean, have eagerly anticipating this MS theme month. An aside: we are flying to San Francisco for the SFSFF shortly and will be seeing, among many other offerings tonight and all this weekend, Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum at the Castro Theatre, live accompaniment by Steve Horne and Frank Bockius and an intro by Kevin Brownlow (!). Cannot wait, as it is a personal favorite. Talk about a flick that takes place in good part on the water…

    The San Francisco Festival closes with Keaton’s Battling Butler Sunday night, by the way, plus so many other great shorts and features throughout, so happy campers all around in these parts 😀

  2. Overseas Visitor

    Thanks for this post, which led me to read your old review of Potemkin. It convinced me that I must give a new try for the film.

    I think most of the super famous classics have reached their position for a good reason, but Potemkin has been one of the few exceptions. I should already know that a wrong version can kill any film, but somehow it had not been obvious for me that I had seen the wrong Potemkin.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yay! Yes, I generally do not have my mind completely changed by a restoration (for example, the previously missing Metropolis footage added to the story but didn’t completely win me over) but I absolutely did in this case.

      1. Overseas Visitor

        Metropolis is also on the short list of disappointing classics.

        Good music and the restoration of Nosferatu tuned down its campiness, which permitted me to get into the correct mood. Maybe it was a butterfly effect, but my mind was radically changed. Not all films are equally sensitive, but it’s easy to imagine that even a slight flaw in Sunrise could make it a Borzage film.

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Yes, I think music is the single biggest contributing factor for me. To bring things back to a nautical topic, I am not a huge fan of Rex Ingram but seeing Mare Nostrum with a thundering score absolutely put it over the top for me. A good accompaninist can prop up weak scenes and bring the showstoppers home.

        Have you seen Ben Model’s article on scoring Nosferatu? He writes about his technique for minimizing inadvertent onscreen humor with his score.

  3. Shari Polikoff

    I’d love to get your insights on ‘Down to the Sea in Ships.’ It’s a favorite of mine, not only because of adorable Clara Bow at the start of her career, but also because I live near New Bedford, and the area hasn’t changed all that much since the movie was filmed there.

  4. Marie Roget

    Overseas Visitor and MS:

    How very true re: great live accompaniment brings hidden richness to a silent film and patches the rough spots in the road, be it short or feature, documentary or drama/comedy.

    Our wonderful experience at the San Francisco Festival over this past weekend provided so many examples of the miracle of great live accompaniment, not the least of which were the Horne/Bockius music/sound effects for Mare Nostrum (I’ve seen this film in a theatre many times- these fellows were right up there with the best). The whispering effect during every Amphitrite-related scene was one I’ve never heard before anywhere- amazing!

    Each and every film this weekend had superb live accompaniment, provided in part by the Mont Alto Orchestra, marvelous individual pianists, flautists, percussionists etc. among them Donald Sosin, the Matti Bye Ensemble, the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble …the lengthy list goes on. A silent aficionado’s best, cherished dream of theatre-size screen, excellent restorations including restored tinting and color of all types, and top-drawer live music came true at the 2018 SFSFF. Bravo SFSFF- another excellent festival, in every way!!!

    1. Overseas Visitor

      I’m a bit jealous to someone who has such opportunities. For me, good live performance is a distant dream. Instead, my interest in the silent era owes much to our digital technology which permits me to have a good orchestra at home. To repeat my experiences with Nosferatu, the James Bernard score on BFI Bluray is far better than the live church organ score that spoiled my first experience with Nosferatu (together with bad image quality). Some scores would probably be better as live experience, for example one of my dreams that probably will never come true is to see Napoleon with live Carl Davis score. I don’t think symphonic level music like Eroica can work as well with standard home equipment. However, I usually prefer to have at least chamber orchestra instead of a tinkling piano, and therefore home is in practice the best place for my silent pleasures.

      May I suggest that Fritzi could write more often on music? You seem to know so much about everything, for example that link to Ben Model’s article was very interesting. As a non-expert, I wonder, for example, what kind of music the original audiences usually experienced? For example, Brownlow’s excellent Hollywood documentary series explains how the orchestra’s could have 100 players, and soon they tell how popular Hollywood films were all over the world, even like in the middle of Africa. This must give a wrong impression; that time most of the people still lived in the countryside, and it’s hard to believe that typical audiences had big orchestra’s.

      We can never get back the original image quality, but we are lucky in the sense that we can probably experience silent films with better music than the original audiences. Even in the case that an original Movietone score exists, I strongly prefer newly played music with better sound quality.

      1. Fritzi Kramer

        If you want to read more about music, I definitely suggest also checking out David L. Gill’s writing.

        I agree, Vitaphone and Movietone scores are usually my least favorite option. I think their initial appeal, though, was that people who did live in the countryside had access to those fancy big city orchestra scores. Early publications talk about the accompanist at this theater or that being superior to the one across town so it definitely made a difference.

        The one type of accompaniment that I think requires live listening is a proper pipe organ score. It’s basically early surround sound and home video can’t capture the rumble and vibration of the real thing.

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