Not everything can be sunshine and gumdrops and not every silent film I saw was a delight. Such is life. But then again, we can have some fun poking these bombs with sticks so, yay?
The Great Divide (1915)
I am torn about this one because it’s an incredibly rare film but it’s also an incredibly bad film. (Mary Moore, above, is its sole saving grace.) The plot is one of those “you always kidnap the one you love” things with House Peters inexplicably doing an impression of a kangaroo. I remain baffled.
In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914)
This Tom Mix western imperils its hero with impunity but the only person with a scrap of common sense is Native American actress Red Wing’s character. I wonder if she got tired of saving the day?
Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)
Buster Keaton was a William S. Hart fan but noted that the actor “turned ham” after a while. This movie is likely what Keaton meant with Hart emoting and practically bursting into tears at the thought of Mother and Apple Pie.
The Children in the House (1916)
This crime melodrama is slightly bonkers with the leading man telling the story of his romantic woes… to the children of his lost love. Still, it’s always amusing to see Eugene Pallette cast as a ladykiller.
The worst news of the year has nothing to do with silent movies I didn’t like. After all, they may delight somebody else so who am I to make definitive statements? No, the worst news came in the form of two articles that seem to be from opposite ends of the political spectrum but have the same message:
Lost silent movies aren’t really worth preserving or seeking out.
Now, both articles are pretty obviously attempts at trolling but considering that there were two of them a few months apart, I think we need to discuss this matter a little. (And, no, I will not be linking to them.)
The first article argues that since we have the works of D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim, the rest of the lost films can’t be worth much. Also, the studios had every right to burn silent films as they were their property.
The second article is a more confused jumble and claims that everything decays anyway so what’s the point of preservation and anyway, don’t archives use fossil fuel? Blah, blah, blah, films with plots are for commoners.
Now, what struck me about both of these articles is that their messages, once you trim away all the window dressing, are the same: “If I have what I want, the rest of you can pound sand.” Always a charming sentiment.
My philosophy regarding lost, recovered and endangered silent film is pretty simple: Save everything, screen everything. Is this always possible given the limited resources of archives? No, it is not. However, it is a worthy goal and hardly less realistic than “Stop looking for lost films!” or “Turn off the Library of Congress’s electricity!”
Further, I have no right to tell people what they can and cannot watch. My reviews are my opinions and I certainly would never suggest that my taste is the bar that a film must clear in order to be saved.
I know, I know, “but they’re asking questions and making people think!” Considering the peril that most silent films are still in, these cutesy “intellectual” arguments are the equivalent of doctors and nurses arguing over the hospital budget and philosophizing that everyone dies anyway while a patient is flatlining beside them. Why would I wish to engage with such silliness on any kind of serious level?
There was some attempt to reframe this argument as Academics vs. Movie-Struck Fans who only want, like, MGM musicals or something (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but, unfortunately, I do not fit this little oversimplification. I advocate for the release of ALL films, not just major productions, and I put my money where my mouth is by actually working to release these films to the general public. In any case, the idea that academics cannot also be fans strikes me as incredibly ignorant. In fact, some of the most joyful movie fans I know have a few extra letters behind their names and good for them.
In conclusion, silent films are an endangered species and they are starting to build momentum again as entertainment. That means some childish contrarian takes but such nonsense deserves to be scoffed at. And, fortunately, silent film fans from every walk of life are on hand to do just that.
The Good News
There is good news in all this. Fortunately, the notion that lost films are inevitable or unimportant is not shared by the majority of silent film fans I have had the privilege of communicating with. In fact, the recovery of a lost film is a cause for celebration and rightly so.
Further, more and more rare material is being made available to the general public. While access issues continue to be a hassle (especially for fans outside the United States) there is a real interest in releasing quality silent films.
Please keep spreading the word about silent films, wherever you live. You are part of the solution and your enthusiasm is always appreciated.
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