Upside-down Chinese Characters, De Luxe Stowaways and Other Movie Mistakes That Annoyed Viewers 100 Years Ago

I think it’s pretty clear by now that silent movie audiences were smart, sharp and perceptive and they were more than willing to call baloney or complain about mistakes that they spotted in the movies. Photoplay regularly published their observations in a dedicated column and here are the selections from June of 1919.

As always, my notes will be in italics.

It’s Greek to Us.

In Norma Talmadge’s “The Forbidden City” — two notes of Chinese character were shown. That was all right but when they were seen to be flashed on upside down — that was too much for a person born in China ! Also who ever heard of a Chinese worshiping Buddha? Some mistake!

A Chinese-born American. East Orange. N. J.

I am not a hugger but want to reach back in time and hug this observant, anonymous viewer in New Jersey! Too often, errors in silent films are put down to “nobody noticed or cared back then” but our friend the letter writer clearly proves this to be utter bunk. You can read my review of The Forbidden City here but I was so struck by the errors when I saw them that I made GIFs! I have found my silent era soulmate.

Something seems off in “The Forbidden City”

Perhaps He Could Still Smell

In “The Honor System,” Miriam Cooper brings some flowers to Milton Sills who has been blinded during his term of imprisonment. Fancy bringing flowers to a blind man! It must be interesting indeed to listen to a bunch of flowers.

In the same picture, Milton manages to send a wireless to Japan. The receiving station there is in a beautiful little bamboo cottage. Looks very nice and pretty, but let me tell you that the wireless station even in Japan is in an ordinary brick and mortar building and not in a nice pretty little bamboo tea-house.

K.O., Jr., Christiana, Norway

Photoplay’s header gives us a hint here. Blind people can smell and touch and they know a friendly gesture when they receive it. There’s more to flowers than just their appearance. I think this complaint is off-base but the second, that all Japanese buildings would be portrayed as old-timey bamboo affairs, demonstrates Hollywood’s sloppy research and general disinterest in bringing the real flavors of foreign culture to the screen.

I visited one of the locations where The Honor System was shot, if you’re interested. Alas, the film itself is lost.

That Would Be Inhuman !

In “Hands Up” with Ruth Roland our hero and his cowpunchers dress like ’48 and Ruth, like 1918. Why the mixture of 1848 and 191 8? Every time Ruth gets into trouble which is often, our hero is right there with a dozen cowpunchers the ranch house. If they be cowpunchers why don’t they punch cows now and then?

W. B. Elm, Portland, Ore.

Well, W. B. Elm makes a good point. There were lots of films that had this title but this serial was a breakout role for Roland despite her fashions and lack of punched cattle. (Reader, I lol’d.)

Stowaway De Luxe

In “The Man Hunter.” William Farnum became a stowaway on the ship which carried the villain. Discovered, he was put to work polishing the rails, it looked like; and finally encountered the villain in the ship’s salon! I’ve crossed several times and I didn’t know they permitted the workmen to mingle with the first-class passengers.

Betty Evans, Chicago, Ill.

Alas, we cannot say whether or not Betty was onto something as the film is missing and presumed lost.

Woodman — Spare That Tree!

In “The Heart of Humanity” one of the widow’s sons is shown cutting a tree, using the dull side of the axe.

F. E. L., Dallas

Having seen and reviewed the picture, I believe it. The heroine is also a deranged squirrel and sock fancier. By the way, the header is a reference to the poem by George Pope Morris.

Falsifying False Faces

Having just seen Henry Walthall in “False Faces” I would like to ask:

Since when do they carry life preservers on the boat deck and not in the cabin?

Since when does an officer go into the crow’s nest, and if he does see a sub, why not use the phone to the bridge instead of the megaphone?

Why does a ship of that size run with lights blazing in the war zone and portholes uncovered?

Why does the. submarine come straight up to pick up Lone Wolf? They always come up under headway by use of the horizontal rudders.

What kind of submarine uses a large wooden wheel to steer with?

How does the helmsman steer without compass or binnacle?

How does — but that’s enough for now.

A. W. 0. L., Boston

I have answers to exactly zero of AWOL’s questions. The good news, though, is that The False Faces survives.


  1. petey

    “The heroine is also a deranged squirrel and sock fancier.”

    the heroine is a demented rodent who likes socks?

  2. Shari Polikoff

    I did look up your Honor System site tour of Yuma Prison. I had a similar ‘This creepy-looking place would make a great movie location’ reaction while touring the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda several years ago, and within a few months, the facility was used for filming of Peter Benchley’s ‘The Deep.’

    As an aside, I’ve read some of the contemporary reviews from Motion Picture World, Variety, and other publications which are all we have to go on to learn about the many lost films, and it’s interesting how quite a few of them contain what we would now call ‘spoilers’ – with no spoiler alerts!

  3. Marie Roget

    The False Faces call out by A.W.O.L. could have been done by any local ex-Navy/Coast Guard man or woman around here, and we’ve got plenty of them. Sailing/fishing with those folks is a real education in all things nautical.

    I can answer one question courtesy of my Uncle John, who was a career Navy man: Why does a ship of that size run with lights blazing in the war zone and portholes uncovered? Only a damn fool commander would risk that since you can be spotted and blasted out of the water. Stealth is key.
    All A.W.O.L.’s questions really are rhetorical, of course 😉

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, AWOL certainly seems to be working from a place of knowledge and I imagine there were quite a few newly-discharged Navy veterans who were ready to share their knowledge at the theater.

  4. Gijs

    I don’t get the remark about Buddhism. Literally millions of Chinese are Buddhists, including the parents of a friend of mine…

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