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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Using their logic, it follows that there’s no point in restoring the Sistine Chapel since we already have the sculpture of David (In fact, why not just paint over it with a lovely coat of lime green?). Assuming that the one article was online, doesn’t the author realize that putting stuff on the Web uses fossil fuels?
Right? I mean, this is heading directly into nihilism and if I wanted to spend time with an annoying nihilist, I would replay Final Fantasy VI, thank you very much.
Oh, don’t even get me started on the hypocrisy because the article was published by the WaPo, which is owned by Amazon, which is ONE OF THE BIGGEST SELLERS OF SERVER SPACE. But this is a case where someone didn’t want pesky facts to get in the way of their wonderful argument.
i have made an early 2019 resolution to *buy* more silent film dvds and not just watch on youtube precisely because i want to put my own money where my mouth is with regards to film preservation. saying it`s only worth preserving the griffiths and lubitschs et al is like saying that you only support free speech when you agree with it lol
That’s a great resolution and it illustrates why the loss of FilmStruck and Fandor are so tragic: they provided people with limited disposable income a way to support classic and indie film without breaking the bank. FilmStruck featured material from indies like Tommy Stathes in addition to the Criterion material.
How safe are films on DVDs and Blurays? When that technology becomes old and players are no longer sold, will it be legal to break copy protections etc. to get that information out. Will some nerd save our discs?
I also prefer to buy, also because I want to support restoration of the most important films. The preservation of all films is important, but it’s unrealistic to expect that all material can be thoroughly restored.
There’s one important exception. One of my favourites is True Heart Susie, which I have on DVD with in principle well made orchestral score. But then there’s a Youtube version with a minimalistic masterpiece score that perfectly fits to the minimalistic film. I have no idea who played or composed that score, but it must not ever disappear! I wish I could buy that on DVD.
I would argue that physical media always has a certain level of security. Dedicated nerds are keeping projectors, 35mm, 16mm, 28mm, 9.5mm, from the silent era going. Geeks always find a way.
What really galls me is the ‘But those actors are all dead’ argument as justification for ignoring classic films (silent or sound). Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Beethoven are dead, too, but nobody has consigned their works to the junk heap.
Yes, a little respect for our pioneers, please!
I’m currently interning in a library for a work-study. One of my tasks is to scan their gargantuan financial records, then shred the physical papers. The records go back to the library’s founding in 1926. While I can certainly get behind scanning and shredding the innumerable bank statements, I’m coming across other items that I think should be archived. There’s a handwritten letter from 1965 by a woman wanting to make a very generous monetary gift-maybe I’m sentimental, but that letter ought to be saved. I can’t scan it, because the paper is very thin and will be destroyed in the machine. I’m trying to convince the library’s accountants to save it and others like it.
Sorry for the rambling, but I just think archives are so important. I’ve heard it said that a real history nerd still mourns the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. I know I do.
Oh, I sympathize completely. There are so many little pieces of history that seem like nothing at the time but are endlessly fascinating to future historians.
In connection with the letter, I found board meeting notes. They discussed the woman’s gift, and also had a brief discussion about whether or not to buy one of those new-fangled Xerox machines 😂
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool William S. Hart fan, but Blue Blazes Rawden…well, it does try your patience a bit. Stage-style over-emoting (as in playing to the very back row) dies hard, or comes out at inopportune times, take you pick 😉
Couldn’t agree with Shari Polikoff more: Without silent films, Shakespeare, and Mendelssohn I might as well pack it in!
Yeah, I love Hart too and I was so disappointed. Keaton hit the nail on the head.
Old Things Nerds unite!
I’m glad you brought up Tom Mix. I’ve been on a bit of a Mix kick lately since I got a set of the Alpha DVD’s for Christmas. Whether you like the films themselves or not (I’m kinda hit or miss on them), the best thing about them is his seeming inability to take himself too seriously, which is a rare thing for a western star. Sometimes I watch his shorts and start to think ‘wait a minute, I thought this guy was supposed to be the hero.’
Yes, there was a very definite shift in tone for old Tom. Not sure I know enough to pinpoint it or to say if it was gradual or sudden but it was there.
“Yes, there was a very definite shift in tone for old Tom. Not sure I know enough to pinpoint it or to say if it was gradual or sudden but it was there.”
It’s hard to say, because so many of Mix’s films are lost. They went up in the same Fox vault fires that consumed most of Theda Bara’s output.
“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.”
According to Paul Rotha’s “The Film Til Now” (1930), the only good American films were made by Griffith, Von Stroheim and Chaplin. The rest was lowbrow junk. Sadly, this was one of the few film histories available for decades, and Rotha’s opinions shaped perceptions about what was valuable and worth preserving.
In this very thick book, Rotha devoted one sentence each to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. There’s no mention of Harry Langdon or Laurel and Hardy. That’s amazing today.
The ridiculous part is that these articles were written by very young people who were born well after the revivals of Keaton, Lloyd and others.
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