Short of the Month: Frankenstein (1910)

So much of our modern conception of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is tied up with James Whale’s famous 1931 adaptation that it’s insane to think there was ever a time when this classic story was not associated with neck bolts or Boris Karloff’s grim visage. But there were plenty of adaptations before the advent of talkies– stage versions, burlesques, and of course silent films.

The 1910 Frankenstein starring Charles Ogle as the Creature is the first ever film version of the book. It’s a loose adaptation to say the least– unlike the novel, there are no extended philosophical conversations nor is the ending tragic. Eschewing Shelley’s ruminations on life and death, this movie goes for a more psychological take on the Creature, suggesting he is born from the evil within his creator and can only be destroyed by Frankenstein sorting his ego out– a sort of Jekyll and Hyde theme, if you will. Shot in three days at the Edison Studios, this 12-minute film is more an impression of Frankenstein than anything, but it’s still worth watching– and for more than mere historical interest.

To be sure, the storytelling is very much of the usual one-reeler variety: the novel is simplified down to “man creates monster, monster runs amuck, monster is stopped by the power of love or something.” The acting is extremely broad– Augustus Philips as Frankenstein gets to be a bit much, even by the standards of the nickelodeon era– and the staging is mostly nothing you wouldn’t be able to do in a theater, though there are two cinematic flourishes.

The first is the creation of the Creature. The book keeps the details of Frankenstein’s methods vague, so adaptors have free reign to do as they please. Here, Frankenstein mixes ingredients in a tub then bakes them to life. To depict the birth, the filmmakers fashioned a dummy of the Creature, burned it, then reversed the footage in the finished film, making it look like the Creature has emerged from hell itself. A primitive special effect, but still a touch eerie.

The second interesting flourish involves the use of a mirror. Frankenstein greets his beloved Elizabeth and we see her entrance not directly, but through a mirror positioned to the right of the screen. The mirror is mainly present so the Creature (breaking into the house to demand his creator make him a mate) can see his ugliness in a dramatic moment, but it’s awesome how the director saw fit to use the mirror in additional ways.

However, what I like best about this film is Charles Ogle’s Creature, who’s become iconic in his own right among silent film buffs. He has a “Quasimodo joins a hair metal band vibe” that’s so unique, especially since in the wake of the Whale film, most versions cannot escape the influence of Jack Pierce’s famous make-up. It’s great to see a take completely independent of neck bolts and gaunt cheekbones.

Interestingly, in its day the 1910 Frankenstein created a bit of controversy. Though the filmmakers tried their best to downplay the more gruesome elements of the novel, moral watchdogs still voiced concerns that the movie was too much. The reviewer for The Motion Picture World even suggested that depictions of violence and death, while acceptable in the realm of literature, were too much presented on a movie screen.

I have to imagine the amount of smelling salts he’d need if he saw the horror movies coming out today!

Sources:

https://frankensteinia.blogspot.com/2010/03/repost-first-frankenstein-of-movies.html

Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1922

A year has passed since my last breakdown of the top-grossers of 1921. It’s only natural to follow it up with the hits of 1922!

This is part of the Second Annual Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

NOTE: Properly determining box office for movies made one hundred years ago is a tough feat, pretty much impossible to determine with total accuracy. Like last year, I based my list off the one on Wikipedia—however, something weird happened this time. When Knighthood Was in Flower disappeared from the list in the middle of my writing process. I could not find a reason why this was so beyond someone questioning whatever source was previously used to justify its placement there. I tried to find more precise numbers for its box office in other sources, but I came across little more than claims that the film was a big hit.

This left me with a bit of a conundrum. I try to be as historically accurate as I can with this stuff, even if this still involves a lot of conjecture. I had already done research on other aspects of the film’s production. I’ve decided to post that review separately in the future, as a kind of bonus.

#5 – SMILIN’ THROUGH

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: February 13, 1922

Box office (est.): 1 million

Summary: Years ago, John (Wyndham Standing) lost his beloved fiancee Moonyeen (Norma Talmadge) when she defended him from the fatal attack of a rival for her hand, Jeremiah (Harrison Ford– no, not the one you’re thinking of). Years later, John is a bitter old man, only comforted by the love of Moonyeen’s orphaned niece Kathleen (also Talmadge), who he has raised as his own. When she falls in love with Jeremiah’s son Ken (also Ford), John tries to break up the lovers, but Moonyeen’s spirit seeks to soften John’s heart from beyond the grave.

Has any major star ever well and truly dropped off the face of pop culture as sharply as Norma Talmadge? In the 1920s, she was arguably the most respected dramatic actress working in Hollywood, as well as a top fashion icon imitated by thousands of women across the country. Celebrated for her dark, expressive eyes and versatility, it’s astonishing how swiftly she fell from stardom into obscurity. When remembered at all, it tends to be through silly myths about the transition to sound (namely, the idea that a Brooklyn accent sank her career overnight) or in relation to her one-time brother-in-law Buster Keaton (and in that case, usually not in the most flattering light).

Talmadge’s films have had only a scant presence on home media, making her difficult to re-evaluate. Not everyone is impressed by what they see, especially considering how Talmadge’s films are often described as prototypes for the “women’s film” genre that became popular in the 1930s. Compared to “women’s film” actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Talmadge seems far more subdued, with a lot less fire.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger puts this sentiment across best:

“Norma Talmadge’s bad reviews were usually for her material, not for her. She was too professional simply to walk through even her worst roles, yet despite all the different eras and settings in her movies, it becomes apparent that her work is about genre. She has beauty and skill, but she is basically serving the plots of her films, dressing them up with her presence. Her movies are star vehicles, but their significance today lies outside her. She was the genre she inhabited– the woman’s picture. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it denies her the significant place in film history that her popularity would ordinarily have earned her. She cannot stand the test of time.”

I don’t know how much I agree with this sentiment. Talmadge’s screen persona is certainly less colorful than the likes of Crawford and Davis. However, I find myself fascinated by it. Talmadge’s characters exist at a crossroads between the Edwardian era and the Jazz Age. She isn’t a vamp or a flapper, and there’s a bit too much solemnity and world weariness in her to qualify as an ingenue. Her appeal seemed to lie in her ability to make the audience admire her characters, specifically their courage in the face of suffering, be it from an unjust prison sentence in Within the Law or from being forced to spend the night with a spurned former beau to save lives in The Woman Disputed. Journalist Adela Rogers St. John once said Talmadge should play Marie Antoinette and The Merchant of Venice‘s Portia, so that should give you a good idea of the types of parts people associated with her: noble, charming, troubled.

In her superstar heyday, Smilin’ Through was considered Talmadge’s signature film. Like a great many Talmadge vehicles, it was based on a hot stage property. Written in the wake of World War I, the play follows a bitter old man haunted by the death of his fiancée Moonyeen. Her ghost is always near him, but his rage prevents her from being able to make her presence known. The sentimental story touched the public deeply, making a film version inevitable.

Talmadge got the juicy dual role of the crinoline and corseted Moonyeen and the more modern Kathleen. She acquits herself well in both parts. I wouldn’t call this Talmadge’s best film, but the script allows her to indulge both melodramatic and comic moments, from a touching death scene to a humorous interlude in which she has to ditch an unwanted beau at a dance. If anything, one might accuse this film of being a one-woman show. The other actors are competent, but the only other performance that stands out is Harrison Ford as Moonyeen’s jilted lover. He has a desperate, compelling energy that stands in stark contrast to the other performers, but he appears all too briefly.

The movie itself is handsomely produced. The story touches on themes of death and love, and the ghost angle is handled well. I was reminded of the spiritualist themes in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the wake of the war, spiritualism came into vogue, with people hoping for a sign that their dead loved ones could still be reached beyond the grave. Smilin’ Through‘s appeal was no doubt indebted to this interest in the spirit world.

But the big attraction is still Talmadge. And while I don’t know if she will ever receive a proper, full-scale re-evaluation in the silent film community– let alone film history at large– Smilin’ Through is a good showcase for the expressive versatility Talmadge’s public so prized in her.

Sources:

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

“The Lady of the Vase” by Adlea Rogers St. John, Photoplay, August 1923, Vol. 24, Issue 3

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

#4 – GRANDMA’S BOY

Image source: Reelgood

Release date: September 3, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.1 million

Summary: A cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) is given a magic talisman by his grandmother (Anna Townsend), who claims it makes its owner invincible. When a criminal starts terrorizing the town, the boy puts the charm to use, but will it work as planned?

(Since Harold Lloyd is the star attraction of 3 and 4 on the list, I just decided to combine the two into one piece.)

#3 – DR. JACK

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: November 26, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.275 million

Summary: The insidious Dr. Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne) gets rich off a supposedly ill young heiress known as the Sick-Little-Well-Girl (Mildred Davis), shutting her away from sunshine, socialization, and anything remotely resembling fun. The commonsensical Dr. Jack (Harold Lloyd) is called in to give the girl’s desperate father a second opinion, but Saulsbourg will do anything to prevent his patient’s recovery.

For most Americans in the 1920s, Harold Lloyd was the reigning king of comedy. He made more films than Charlie Chaplin and his films tended to have more staying power at the box office than Buster Keaton’s. The great appeal was that Lloyd’s “Glasses character” was closer to earth than the down-on-his luck Tramp or Keaton’s restrained persona—Lloyd was the boy next door, the energetic go-getter out to snag the American Dream by the coat-tails.

In 1922, two Lloyd pictures were top draws at the box office: the first was Lloyd’s debut feature Grandma’s Boy and the second was Dr. Jack. What strikes me most watching these two movies back to back is how versatile Lloyd’s screen persona is. In Grandma’s Boy, he’s a cowardly young man who has to grow into heroism, while in Dr. Jack he’s a confident but static character who rescues a damsel-in-distress from a bad situation. And yet both are undeniably the Glasses character—resourceful and optimistic.

While neither film is as great as Lloyd’s third feature—the immortal Safety Last!—both are quick, charming treats. Lloyd keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and packs every scene with great business. Mildred Davis is the leading lady in both and I always thought it was a shame that she would shortly retire from the screen after marrying Lloyd. The two have sweet, natural chemistry—obviously a side effect of their real life involvement.

Of the two films, I prefer Dr. Jack, if only because it’s slightly less sentimental than Grandma’s Boy. It also has one of my favorite sequences in any Lloyd feature: Dr. Jack pretends to be a homicidal maniac (don’t ask) and terrorizes everyone in a dark house. It’s like something out of a Scooby Doo episode and it’s absolutely wonderful.

But then again, Grandma’s Boy has the scene where Lloyd confuses a box of moth balls with candy, and then he starts making the most reaction image-worthy expressions possible…

Oh damn, I can’t pick between them after all!

Sources:

The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-1923 by Robert E. Sherwood

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#2 – BLOOD AND SAND

Image source: Zekefilm

Release date: August 5, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.25-1.3 million

Summary: Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) rises from poverty to become a successful matador. He has everything, from fame to a loving wife (Lila Lee), but trouble comes in the form of Dona Sol (Nita Naldi), an aristocratic femme fatale out to make Gallardo her newest plaything. Consumed by a passion he can barely control, Gallardo finds everything he holds dear hanging in the balance.

Nineteen twenty-one had been Rudolph Valentino’s golden year. His stardom was established in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then made secure by The Sheik. Both were massive box office hits. What could he do to top such an iconic duo?

A more dramatic tour de force was in order. Embarrassed by the bodice ripping antics he’d been up to in The Sheik, Valentino returned to Ibanez for his next film, an adaptation of the 1909 novel Blood and Sand. The story of the rise and fall of a matador would allow Valentino to showcase a wider range. Juan starts the film as a wily youth and ends the film a chastened but sadder man. Seen as little more than a pretty boy, no doubt Valentino was eager to show the public his dramatic chops.

Production was frustrating for the newly minted star. Valentino wanted to shoot the movie on-location in Spain. Paramount figured a few costumes and props imported from Spain to a Hollywood backlot would be just as good (and far cheaper). Valentino wanted George Fitzmaurice in the director’s chair. Paramount claimed Fitzmaurice turned the offer down, then offered up Fred Niblo instead (Valentino would later learn from Fitzmaurice himself that the director was never even asked, much to the actor’s fury). Valentino learned real bullfighting moves, but the bulk of the scenes in the ring were cobbled from stock footage.

These setbacks irritated Valentino, but they weren’t enough to prevent the film from becoming the second-biggest hit of the year, as well as a critical darling. Some compared the film favorably to DW Griffith’s tear-jerker Broken Blossoms. The day of the film’s Rialto Theater premiere, patrons starting lining up before noon, eager to get a ticket. Mary Pickford was also a fan, saying she loved the picture enough to see it twice.

Blood and Sand is a hotblooded melodrama, the sort that won’t appeal to everyone, but for those of us who go for that sort of thing, it is a delight. The atmosphere is sensual and torrid, and Nita Naldi is a campy delight as the femme fatale (she literally bites Valentino in lust at one point). If I have any issue with the film, it’s that it gets a bit overly moralizing at times, something that’s more downplayed in the film’s 1940 remake.

However, I can’t fault this movie too much because it did give Valentino something he always desperately craved: the chance to exercise his dramatic skills. Juan is a fleshed-out character brought low by his own lust for life. The very quality that makes him such an appealing guy is also what makes him easy prey for Dona Sol. So while this isn’t close to my favorite Valentino vehicle, it is a great showcase for his talent, so often ignored in the glare of his tragic off-screen demise.

Sources:

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#1 – ROBIN HOOD

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: October 18, 1922

Box office (est.): 2.5 million

Summary: Brash and jolly King Richard (Wallace Beery) rushes to the Crusades, leaving his cruel-hearted brother Prince John (Sam De Grasse) in charge of England. John’s tyrannical grasp inspires Maid Marian (Enid Bennett) to reach out to the dashing Earl of Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks) for help. Unwilling to pull his king from his “Holy Crusade,” Huntingdon runs back to England and takes on the persona of Robin Hood, giving aid to the poor and hell to John’s regime.

Douglas Fairbanks racked up a great many hits in the 1920s, but arguably none were as loved as his 1922 Robin Hood. He’d already swashbuckled his way through The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, but Robin Hood would be produced on a scale that surpassed the both of them. Fairbanks had enormous sets constructed and collected a library of hundreds of reference materials related to Robin Hood and the Middle Ages. Immense labor and cost went into recreating medieval England, ensuring this would be Fairbanks’ biggest onscreen adventure to date. The effort paid off handsomely, with both the public and the critics won over by Fairbanks’ romantic yet brutal blockbuster.

Though Robin Hood was Douglas Fairbanks’ greatest financial smash, it has become the most maligned effort of his golden period. The most common complaint is that the movie takes too darn long to get to the actual Robin Hood segments—the first 70 minutes cover the hero’s life as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, where he meets and falls for Maid Marian despite his fear of women, earns the enmity of Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne due to his undivided loyalty to King Richard, and finds himself leaving the Crusades when he hears of how England is being oppressed by John. Having that contrarian streak in me that cannot be denied, I’m going to defend Fairbanks’ choice in delaying the appearance of the expected Robin Hood scenes.

This Robin Hood obviously cannot avoid comparisons with the later, more celebrated Errol Flynn film from 1938. That is a far leaner movie, having Robin Hood in Lincoln green the moment he first rides into the three-strip Technicolor frame. However—and to stave off the bringing out of the guillotine, none of this is meant as a insult to the 1938 version, which I consider a practically perfect movie—Fairbanks’ approach allows for a more epic and emotionally rich story. His Robin gets to come into his own as a hero, going from a callow youth to a man dedicated to “God, his king, and his lady.”

No one would deny the film is largely escapist, but there is a darkness to it too. Prince John’s tyranny is illustrated through some horrifying scenes, such as a man having his eyes burned out of his skull for daring to hunt in royal territory or a woman being whipped in front of her own child for refusing John’s “address.” At one point, Huntingdon believes Marian has died and his transformation into Robin Hood is prompted in part by grief. When he turns into Robin Hood, an intertitle describes his subsequent existence as “bitter but joyous.” There is always a dangerous edge to Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, a simmering rage that makes all the broad grinning and rabble rousing take on a slight air of the grotesque.

Don’t get the impression that this is a mud and blood vision of the Robin Hood story though—we’re still miles away from the bitter, revisionist taste of movies like 1978’s Robin and Marian or Ridley Scott’s 2010 version. This is a film where Robin skips around like a five-year-old on cocaine—though admittedly, few five-year-olds on cocaine could break a man’s back with their bare hands, as Robin does here. This is also a film where the Crusades and King Richard are presented as noble, which would likely make any historian cringe.

However, Fairbanks’ Robin Hood is not a documentary—it is pure cinematic mythology. It combines several different elements of the Robin Hood story that have emerged over the centuries, synthesizing them into a satisfying whole. Even the way its many long shots are composed and lit is reminiscent of 19th century paintings of medieval pageantry and scenes– no interest in gritty “realism” pervades the film in any sense. Watching it again, I was reminded a bit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, because both films do such wonderful work in evoking an otherworldly sense of legend, completely, thoroughly, and without any shred of irony or shame. And to be honest, in a cynical postmodern age, there’s something refreshing in that.

Sources:

Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance

The First King of Hollywood: The life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracy Goessel

Short of the Month: Blue Bottles (1928)

In recent years, the comediennes of the silent era have gotten more of their due. For too long, scholars operated under the assumptions of critics like Walter Kerr, who argued none of the funny ladies of this period ever became “truly important” and that these actresses couldn’t possibly be funny and pretty at the same time. Thank God this attitude is disappearing, especially as more silent films become available for viewing. Case in point: Blue Bottles, starring Elsa Lanchester.

The story of a hapless flapper caught up in the police raid of a criminal hideout, Blue Bottles was part of a series of shorts written by HG Wells—yes, THAT ONE—for Lanchester. It’s nothing like any Wells work I have ever read, replacing speculative fiction and social commentary with droll comedy. Lanchester’s character is not an exaggerated clown nor a pretty but passive damsel—rubber-limbed, she gets caught up in the shoot-out and essentially bumbles her way out of danger. It’s like she’s a character from a flapper comic strip that wandered into a gangster film. The funniest part of all might be the show of thanks she gets from the police department—there are no real gags exactly, but there’s a hilarious awkwardness from both Lanchester and the cops that’s hilarious to watch.

That being said, most of the more traditional gags are fun, the standout being when Lanchester blows a whistle, not realizing it’s meant to signal the police. What results is a montage of cops taking to the streets, quickly followed by stock footage of tanks, planes, and warships. I was reminded of a similar gag in Duck Soup.

One bit of fun trivia: the criminal taking shots at Lanchester from above is played by none other than Charles Laughton in an early movie role!

Short of the Month: An Elusive Diamond (1914)

An Elusive Diamond is a fine example of how exciting early movies could be. Released in 1914, it isn’t a groundbreaking masterpiece, but it is an antidote to the oft-repeated idea that movies didn’t become technically sophisticated until feature films started dominating the industry. This film moves at a good clip and interrupts its employment of the usual stagey blocking with close-ups that create a sense of cinematic intimacy.

The story is a simple Macguffin affair. A servant girl (Mignon Anderson) needs to deliver a $90,000 diamond to its owner, only she knows the butler of the house is on her trail and he wants the shiny stuff for himself. The girl concocts an elaborate scheme to ensure the diamond is not stolen: she hides it in a bar of soap while loudly telling her mistress that it’s going to be hidden in a jewel box stuffed into her big 1910s hairdo (all the while knowing the butler will be listening). En route to the niece, the girl is kidnapped by the would-be thieves, but far from being a fainting damsel, she outsmarts the lot of them.

Mignon Anderson is not a well-remembered name even among silent film buffs, but she does well for herself in this film. Her character is remarkably proactive, using her brains to save herself and the diamond. Thanhouser (the studio that produced this movie) promoted her as another Mary Pickford type (“I was supposed to look like Mary Pickford— I really didn’t,” she told historian Anthony Slide years later), innocent and spunky. For those who think Edwardian movie actresses were all delicate china dolls lashed to the train tracks, here Anderson does her own stunts, dropping twenty feet from an open window.

There’s not too much more to say: this is an entertaining little gem with so much packed into fifteen minutes. Give it a look!

Sources:

Silent Players by Anthony Slide

Short of the Month: The Frozen North (dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1922)

The Frozen North rarely appears on any Buster Keaton fan’s favorites list, yet it remains one of his most compelling short films. It’s a pitch black parody of Klondike melodramas and William S. Hart westerns, with a dash of Von Stroheim’s “the man you love to hate” for good measure. Keaton drops his usual persona to play a murdering, slimy villain– a very, very inept villain, but still a covetous murderer out to seduce another man’s wife.

Discussion of The Frozen North is often dominated by the context of the Roscoe Arbuckle manslaughter trials which dominated the papers in 1922. The usual story goes that William S. Hart insinuated Arbuckle was guilty in interviews with the press and that Keaton mercilessly mocked Hart’s onscreen persona as vengeance for the honor of his closest friend. In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton stated his aims were more benign. He claimed parody was his favorite form of comedy and that his kidding Hart came from a place of admiration.

William S. Hart, the “Good Bad Man.” Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Hart’s persona was often described as “the Good Bad Man,” essentially an anti-hero redeemed by the final reel. For example, in The Toll Gate, Hart is a cold-blooded outlaw out for revenge against the partner-in-crime that betrayed him. He’s so vengeful that he considers taking his rage out on the traitor’s innocent wife, but by the end, he redeems himself, nobly gives up his love interest, and rides off alone. This is a far cry from Keaton’s nasty character here, who has no redeeming qualities.

The great limitation of parody is that the audience needs to be in on the joke. When you’re not familiar with Bill Hart or the Klondike melodramas popular when Keaton was making the film, some of the gags seem odd or random. Luckily, The Frozen North possesses a dreamlike surrealism that slightly accommodates these limitations. The strangeness of a cowboy emerging from a subway in a frozen landscape has its own weird charm, regardless of the proper context.

The “it was all a dream” ending can be seen as a cop-out, though it offers an interesting prefiguration of the frame story of Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself into the movies. That film’s spoof qualities are more sophisticated than The Frozen North, with the characters in the “real” world taking on “reel” personas: the projectionist fashions himself after hyper-competent movie detectives and his love interest dresses like Mary Pickford. We can only assume the dreamer awaking in the theater at the close of The Frozen North is the usual hapless, porkpie hat-wearing version of Buster we’re used to seeing in Keaton’s more standard films, though what his dreaming about being a villain says about him is anyone’s guess.

You can easily get psychoanalytical– the usual placid Buster character dreams he is an aggressive amalgamation of William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, suggesting that the movies give us an outlet for our darker fantasies, the ones we suppress in order to seem “normal”… but I doubt this was Keaton’s intention. Given his bemused reaction to the academics who embraced his work in the 50s and 60s, it might be best to say he wanted to assure the audience that this short was only a nightmarish lark.

Sources:

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter by Gabriella Oldham

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton

Short of the Month: The Sinking of the Lusitania (dir. Winsor McCay, 1918)

Animation pioneer Winsor McCay was a man of many talents. Before 1920, McCay would work as an illustrator, comic book creator, political cartoonist, vaudevillian, and filmmaker. It is as a filmmaker that he is most remembered today, particularly for his 1915 short Gertie the Dinosaur. However, his ambitions went beyond what most thought possible for animation as an art form. Considering we still live in an era where the mainstream sees animation as little more than an electric babysitter, the scope of those ambitions remains impressive.

In 1915, McCay was enraged by the fate of the Lusitania, an English commercial liner torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Almost 1,200 people died in the disaster, including American civilians. The sinking would not catapult the US into the Great War, but it did establish angry feelings towards Imperial Germany and would be a major contributing factor when the country did enter the conflict in 1917. In the meantime, the event inspired McCay to create a harrowing work that would allow people to see the ship’s final moments.

The Sinking of the Lusitania is McCay’s masterpiece and representative of a road long untaken by the American animation industry at large. To this day, mainstream American animation is associated with two genres: fantasy (usually for children) or comedy (usually for children or frat boys). The Sinking of the Lusitania is neither. McCay set out to recreate the infamous sinking in an expressive but realistic style, essentially creating an animated documentary.

The film was a labor of love for McCay. He funded it himself and worked on it in his free time for a period of twenty-two months. While the film never made a profit for its creator, it was heavily admired by both audiences and animation professionals at the time.

Early cartoons tend to be pigeonholed as visually simplistic, but this is certainly not the case for The Sinking of the Lusitania. Here, the sheer amount of detail is staggering. Just look at the virtuosity of the shot in which the first torpedo speeds through the water, fish ducking out of its path—or look at the long shot of the sinking ship and the tiny figures of individual human beings jumping from the vessel. These are scenes that would have been either impossible or difficult to achieve in a live-action movie during that time.

Just compare this film to the 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle The Little American, which features a thinly disguised depiction of the Lusitania’s sinking. The animated film is far more chilling and dynamic.

The sinking scene starts at 16:40.

McCay never shies away from the horror of the sinking. The short’s most striking moments feature the victims of the attack trying to keep their heads above the waves, their miserable faces resembling skulls. Most heart-wrenching of all is the shot of a mother thrusting her baby above the water, desperately trying to ensure its survival before they are both pulled down.

Propaganda is perhaps the more appropriate descriptor for this film than documentary. Released during the war itself, The Sinking of the Lusitania brims with outrage against Imperial Germany, reflecting popular sentiment during this time. Anti-German feelings grew to a lethal fever pitch once the country entered the war in 1917, unfortunately extending even to German-American communities.  The “Huns” were depicted as freedom-hating, baby-killing monsters who needed to be stopped at all costs. The final intertitle is chilling in its echoing of this national fervor: “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

An ad for the film in The Moving Picture Weekly

In recent years, some elements of the film’s depiction of the sinking have been debunked. Most significantly, it was revealed in 1982 that the ship was carrying military ammunition. Of course, that does not make the loss of innocent life any less tragic. As animation historian John Canemaker observed, even if these facts had been known in 1915, they likely would not have had much impact on the emotions surging throughout the US at the time.

Removed from the fear-soaked, enraged environment in which it was conceived, The Sinking of the Lusitania remains compelling, its combination of gorgeous animation with raw emotions elevating it from mere historical curio to disturbing work of art. Canemaker once said the film’s dramatic power was not equaled in American animation for many years. I would have to agree.

Sources:

Winsor McCay by John Canemaker

Short of the Month: Le Duel D’ Hamlet (dir. Clement Maurice, 1900)

As always, please watch the short before proceeding to the article– an easy feat considering this one is under two minutes!

Easily the best-known nineteenth-century stage personality, Sarah Bernhardt’s contributions to film history are often overlooked. Famous Players Lasky—later to become Paramount Pictures—began its history with its distribution of The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, a 1912 feature adaptation of Bernhardt’s stage success of the same name. The Divine Sarah would appear in other features throughout the 1910s, but her most intriguing screen appearance was a short film depicting the climax of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As far as film historians can tell, Bernhardt was the screen’s first Hamlet. She had played the ill-fated Dane on-stage to great sensation in the 1890s. Rather than playing Hamlet as a mopey, lethargic sad-sack unable to make up his mind, Bernhardt chose to emphasize Hamlet’s intellectual strength and determination to see justice done on his own terms.

Beautiful Alfons Mucha poster for Bernhardt’s Hamlet. Image source: Wikipedia.

These two minutes are all we shall ever see of Bernhardt’s Hamlet and the glimpse is tantalizing. Though fifty-six years old, Bernhardt’s Hamlet is energetic and graceful, fencing with youthful relish. The scene is extremely abbreviated, showing Hamlet and Laertes’ fatal duel sans Gertrude and Claudius. The two fight, Hamlet is cut by the poison sword, Hamlet disarms Laertes, Hamlet takes up the poison sword, gets a hit in, and then swoons and dies, falling into the arms of a convenient group of soldiers who bear the body out of camera range. The focus is all on Bernhardt—Laertes doesn’t even get to die on camera.

Unfortunately, this short does not exist in its entirety. It was originally produced as an early talkie for exhibition at the famous Exposition Universelle in Paris, one of several sound experiments on public display. The footage was synchronized with a wax cylinder recording of the actors speaking, but the cylinder has been long lost. It’s such a shame since Bernhardt was known for her rich voice. (If you’re curious about said voice, recordings of her from the turn of the century are available in online archives, such as this emotional speech from Phedre.) It just goes to show that the history of sound movies long predates The Jazz Singer.

Sources:

American Cinema of the 1910s, edited by Charlie Keil and Ben Singer

The divine Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

https://www.victorian-cinema.net/bernhardt

The Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

It’s finally here!!

Like any geek, I am protective of my favorite artists, particularly when it comes to the way they are portrayed in fiction. Biopics and historical novels that get these favorites wrong in the worst possible ways make my skin crawl. For example, seeing the multi-talented Mabel Normand portrayed as a shrewish hack in the 1992 Chaplin film makes me want to smash the DVD to atoms.

Ugh! This movie might merit its own post from me one day. Image source: https://haphazardstuff.com/chaplin-1992-a-review/

Of course, Buster Keaton ranks highest among my favorite creative people. He’s my favorite filmmaker, bar none, and a major inspiration to me both as an artist and a human being. He was flawed like anyone, but he was also persevering, loyal, and unpretentious.

If you’re a Keaton fan, don’t even try watching this thing. Image source: https://film.nu/filmer/the-buster-keaton-story/10197395.film

This makes certain portrayals of Keaton in fiction frustrating. Let’s take that oh-so charming load of slop The Buster Keaton Story as an example.  It stuffs Keaton’s life into a predictable 1950s biopic framework: a talented star on the rise is undone by a personal vice. All the focus goes to Keaton’s drinking problem and post-sound career slump. We have no idea what distinguished him as a man or as a comedian, let alone as a cinematic master. As far as this movie is concerned, he was a professional alcoholic who did pratfalls on camera now and then.

That’s why I wanted to highlight two excellent Keaton-centric novels for this blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy Lord and Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. On the surface, these books are wildly different: one’s a vampire thriller for adults, the other is a gentle graphic novel for children. But both present Buster Keaton as a nuanced personality without making him a Genius-Saint or a Pagliacci.

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

It’s 1927 and Buster Keaton is having it rough. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge is crumbling, his latest movie The General is not performing as expected, the studio system is starting to swallow up independent creators like himself– oh, and he’s being stalked by two fans. Fans who happen to be vampires.

Vida and Lee Anne decide to make Keaton their latest “pet,” threatening the lives of his loved ones to keep him under their control. However, Keaton starts to enjoy the sensually-charged escape vampire bites give him and he’s particularly drawn to the mysterious, soulful Vida. Unfortunately, Lee Anne is a jealous sociopath and the vampire underworld is not pleased about two of their own threatening undead anonymity by hooking such an illustrious snack.

I admit I am not the biggest vampire aficionado. I’ve read Dracula a few times and love George Romero’s revisionist Martin, but that’s about as far as my love for the blood-sucking undead goes. Wolfe’s book has not converted me into a vampire lover, but it is a good read, especially for Keaton fans.

What stands out most is Wolfe’s historical research. She knows Keaton inside out and even weaves her knowledge of his family history into the vampire narrative. She thoroughly nails the Roaring Twenties down too, from the social attitudes to the slang.

I also loved the little nods to other vampire stories. The most obvious is the book’s epistolary framework, evoking the articles, journals, and transcriptions that make up Stoker’s Dracula. The main meat of the book takes the form of journal entries narrated from Buster’s perspective, but these are bookended by emails between the discoverer of this “vampire diary” and individuals seeking to contest or accept the validity of the document. While this never ties into the overall narrative in any deep way, it is amusing.

Wolfe’s crowning achievement is her characterization of Buster himself. Narrated in first person, you can practically hear that deep, gravelly voice in your head. Buster is funny, self-deprecating, creative, and reserved. He is loyal to his family and friends, even if his relationships with his father and his wife are strained. He loves his work, even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience or the critics.

Best of all, Keaton is allowed to be flawed. In my decade-plus time as a Buster fan, I have noticed a tendency in fandom to present Keaton as a guileless victim in every area of his life. Everything that ever went wrong for him is either blamed on the Talmadges, Joe Keaton, Joe Schneck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever. Keaton is basically made into a Holy Fool undone by an unfeeling Hollywood. Wolfe credits Keaton with more agency than that. While he is initially blackmailed into being vampire chow, Keaton comes to see his interactions with the vampires as an escape not unlike being drunk. Just as in real life, Keaton is the partial author of his own unhappiness, but he is also a man concerned with doing right by his loved ones. His inner conflict on the matter is wonderful.

The original characters are no slouch either. Vida and Lee Anne are a striking duo. What’s great about them is how they are without a doubt menacing, but sympathetic and nuanced enough to avoid being simplistic monsters. I was particularly stunned by Lee Anne, who is quite evil (her manner of speaking and gleeful sadism brought to mind Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series), but made extra compelling by her almost poignant love of Hollywood fluff.

There are a few caveats some readers might have with the novel, but they stem from the vampire genre more than anything. Firstly, there’s some violence, with decapitations and bad run-ins with sunlight– which is to be expected when the bloodsucking undead are involved. Secondly, there are sex scenes, some of them graphic. Once again, your mileage may vary, though you can skip them without missing key story information if you so wish.

All in all, I would definitely recommend The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton. There is just so much to love, from the well-realized setting to appearances from other stars of the period. Even if you’re not big into vampires, Keaton’s characterization and the fast-moving thriller plot will keep you riveted.

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

Young Henry thinks he lives a painfully ordinary life in turn-of-the-century Muskegon, Michigan. His life is shaken up when the vaudevillians come to town for the summer. During this time, Henry makes the acquaintance of the child-comedian Buster Keaton. Buster is athletic, creative, and able to make people laugh with ease. Being a big star in a vaudeville act, Buster has everything Henry desires, but Buster is more interested in baseball and pranks than discussing his stage career.  Can this friendship survive a case of mutual envy?

It’s difficult for most books to strike a balance between entertainment and education, especially when writing for children. Reading Bluffton, it’s clear that Matt Phelan wants to introduce the colorful world of vaudeville to young readers without turning the narrative into a dry history lesson. Phelan does this successfully, weaving the historical lessons into a touching narrative about learning to appreciate ordinary life.

Unlike The Vampire Diary, Buster is not the protagonist. That would be Henry, who like the rest of us is an outsider looking in at the crazy world of vaudeville. As a character, Henry is more than just a starstruck fish-out-of-water or a self-insert for the reader. In his small-town ordinariness, he’s a foil for Buster. Buster is famous and on the move constantly, which seems like a dream come true for a kid living in a quiet town. But for Buster, the celebrity’s life is a little overrated.

Keaton takes pride in his abilities and loves the roar of the crowd, but he knows Henry is lucky to not have to bear the adult burdens he must prematurely. It’s easy to forget he shouldered a great many responsibilities at such a tender age and that he was essentially the family breadwinner (a role Keaton retained throughout his life). The story also hints at Joe Keaton’s alcoholism, which as any fan knows, only became worse as Buster grew into adolescence.

Everyone in town but Henry catches on to the less glamorous elements of Buster’s life. Eventually, Henry begins to notice how much is actually going on around him and that his little town is not as boring as he believed. His neighbors have their own talents, such as music and painting, that they practice without the need to become famous or wealthy. Life does not need an audience or 24/7 excitement to be meaningful.

This message is a universal one, but it’s especially relevant in our FOMO-ridden age of social media. Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to think they’re all failures if they haven’t made an impact before age 25. (Not a prodigy? Not a millionaire? And you’re at the advanced age of 26?? You must be worthless!) Books like this make you wonder if Keaton actually did ever look out into the crowd and envy them in turn, at least once in a while.

Overall, this is a fine book. Kids who love history will enjoy it and anyone of any vintage can enjoy the gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Buster fans will love the imaginative peek into Keaton’s childhood summers.

As I was in the process of editing this post, it was announced that there’s going to be a new Buster Keaton biopic. Unfortunately, it’s based on the infamous Marion Meade biography, known for making… um, bizarre claims (like Keaton being illiterate) and further pushing the notion of Buster Keaton as a sad clown. I don’t want to make any judgements, though given my experience with Hollywood biopics in general, I’m not optimistic. There is a tendency to turn people into caricatures of who they really were for the sake of D-R-A-M-A, even though more often than not, the messy reality of a person’s life is more compelling.

That’s why these two books are such great reads from the perspective of a Keaton fan. Here we have no perfect angel in slapshoes, no sad clown. Both books acknowledge that real life is more complicated than our retrospective simplifications, allowing Keaton’s humanity to shine through. I would absolutely recommend them to you.

This post is for the Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the marvelous Silentology! Check out this link for more Buster-y goodness!

Sources:

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

https://www.busterkeaton.org/myths

http://www.outofthepastblog.com/2013/07/interview-with-matt-phelan.html

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

I haven’t read a biography in a while, so I treated myself to Eve Golden’s book on silent screen legend John Gilbert. Being a silent film devotee, I’ve seen several Gilbert movies (would highly recommend The Big Parade and Flesh and the Devil), though I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan. I knew the rough outline of his life and the many, many conspiracy theories inspired by his swift, Norman Maine-like fall from the top of the industry with the coming of sound.

The picture Golden paints of Gilbert is intriguing. He was charming, generous, and lively, but also troubled, insecure, and often his own worst enemy. He fell in and out of love quickly, going through wives and lovers in rapid succession. He resented his mother for not showing him maternal love while being hands-off with his own children. He tended to badmouth the lucrative movies he was in to the press, much the chagrin of his home studio MGM. His drinking killed him before he had the chance to see his fortieth birthday.

Regardless, Golden thoroughly examines why he was such a beloved star at the time. Gilbert made for a swashbuckling, charismatic screen presence, and he was game enough to play unsympathetic roles when the opportunity came. His ambitions extended to directing and writing, though he had little opportunity to pursue the former and lacked the discipline to succeed with the latter. I was surprised to learn he was an avid reader, his personal library stocked with classics and nonfiction (Golden compares him to the similarly ill-fated sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in this regard). Though unsentimental about his flaws, Golden never makes Gilbert out to be pathetic nor does she adopt a judgmental attitude. She presents him as he was, and this very human portrait gives his biography the ring of tragedy.

For a long time, Gilbert’s eclipse was attributed to a falsetto voice. It’s an ironic idea and a tidy, simplistic explanation, which is probably why it’s stuck to Gilbert’s reputation for so long. I’ve come across people who have never touched a silent film in their lives who will still repeat the story of “that silent film star who had a high speaking voice.” However, it’s not the truth nor is it as interesting as what appears to have been the real cause of his decline.

Firstly, there was the cultural shift of the late 1920s. People often go with the “all silent film stars had no idea how to deliver lines AND they all sounded like Lina Lamont” myth, but in truth, the Depression, an influx of younger talent into Hollywood, and changing tastes had more to do with the fall of many a former screen favorite than their ability to speak lines into a microphone. Gilbert was no exception—he was a Great Screen Lover of the sort that was quickly falling out of fashion with the onset of the hard-edged 1930s. His voice, while shaky in early efforts, was perfectly fine by 1932 (see him in the underrated Downstairs if you don’t believe me). Unfortunately, by then the public lost all interest in him.

Golden pushes the case that Gilbert was talented enough to reinvent himself as a character actor in the 1930s since he yearned to go beyond the matinee idol phase of his career. However, Gilbert’s hardcore drinking, poor health, and unreliable behavior put off many studios. Throughout that whole section, I was sad thinking about what might have been, particularly a possible collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in Desire that was destroyed by a heart attack. While Gilbert insisted it was only severe indigestion, the incident frightened the suits into dropping Gilbert from the project.

Of course, Golden does not let the studios entirely off the hook either. She does not indulge ideas like Louis B. Mayer purposely sabotaging Gilbert’s career in the sound booth and effectively debunks the infamous “fistfight” story, but she does show that MGM had no incentive to nurture Gilbert during the rocky transition to sound nor did they bother to supply him with quality scripts. He was taking in a high salary at a time when the Depression was hitting movie studios hard, which prevented him from getting a high-profile leading lady that might have drawn in additional audiences. It’s a sad affair—even if Gilbert was the partial author of his own ruin, outside circumstances were certainly at play as well.

I did have one problem with the book. A major pet peeve of mine is when biographers feel the need to play movie critic. Golden offers her opinions of several films and stars, which jibbed too much with the scholarly tone the book was going for—and also felt unneeded. When I read a biography of a movie star or filmmaker, I don’t mind some interpretations on murkier parts of a person’s life (such as Golden’s modest speculations regarding Greta Garbo’s feelings toward Gilbert), but I don’t care to read any commentary on the quality of their work. It just feels like a waste of time and it’s not why I picked up the book in the first place.

I’ve come across some reviews that claimed this book offers little new information than Dark Star, a Gilbert biography written by one of his daughters in the 1980s. I haven’t read Dark Star, so I cannot comment there (yet), but as someone only casually interested in Gilbert, Golden’s book made me want to rewatch a lot of the man’s films and gave me a greater appreciation for what he was able to achieve during his all too brief tenure as Hollywood’s top romantic lead. It’s not among the top tier movie star biographies, but it is a good, balanced one I would recommend to the curious.

Short of the Month: Suspense (dir. Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, 1913)

For the first entry in my new Short of the Month series, I’m going to gush over what might be my favorite short film of the 1910s: Suspense, directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley.

If you’ve never seen Suspense, then I recommend watching the short in question before reading on. You can watch the short below:

This taut home invasion thriller is a gem of early cinema. The plot’s basic DNA– a woman left alone in her home is menaced by an outside force– would be shared by many movies to follow, from Sorry, Wrong Number to Panic Room. Running only ten minutes, Suspense keeps its story simple: a housewife and her child are threatened by a malicious tramp in their isolated house, the phone line cut and help far away. Can they be rescued in time?

Though thoroughly cinematic, Suspense was inspired by the theater. The chief influence is a grim 1902 French play titled At the Telephone, which was performed at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris and at the Garrick Theatre in New York. Unlike the later works that would be inspired by it, the original story ends on a dark note as the husband hears his frightened wife and child being murdered by intruders over the telephone.

The Lonely Villa (1909)
The Lonely Villa was one of the screen’s earliest home invasion movies. Like Suspense, it features a woman and her children menaced by criminals, and the telephone plays a major role in the narrative. Image source: Virtual History.

Though little known today, At the Telephone was quite the influential thriller. In its day, it was adapted into a 1904 French film. The story also inspired Griffith’s 1909 The Lonely Villa, which concludes with a just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue by the victim’s husband. Suspense is another variation on this story, but its cinematography and energy elevate it above its predecessors as a work of cinema.

If you seriously think all early films were theatrical and static affairs, Suspense will shock you to your core with its dynamic camera angles and groundbreaking use of split screen. These artistic choices are more than trendy stylistic flourishes or empty attempts at standing out. They serve the story and the movie’s raison d’etre: thrusting the audience into a state of dread and anxiety.

Take the early scene in which the maid, driven crazy by the isolation of the remote house, exits the front door. Instead of opting for a static frontal shot much the way such a moment would be viewed on a stage, Weber and Smalley place the camera at a high angle, gazing down at the maid from the top of the porch. The high angle strikes an ominous note, an almost God’s eye perspective.

The early moments also create a sense of voyeurism and privacy being invaded. Before leaving her bitter resignation letter, the maid peeks through a keyhole to watch the guileless wife interacting with her baby. Later, the tramp gazes in on the domestic scene through a window. As with later home invasion films, the security of the domestic space is compromised by criminal onlookers. The wife and her child are like goldfish in a bowl being eyed by a hungry cat.

The split screen in particular is used so well. Suspense was not the first to use the technique, but it might have been the first to split the screen three ways. Watching the film again, I was reminded of the vogue for complicated split screens in 1960s crime movies like The Boston Strangler and The Thomas Crown Affair. Those films use split screens to create suspense or to evoke the complexities of a criminal plot.

The split screen bank robbery in The Thomas Crown Affair. Image source: The Passing Tramp.

Suspense uses the device in the same vein as those movies in which we see at once the victim in her home, her husband far away at work, and the intruder as he finds the house key under the mat.

While Suspense lacks the overt violence audiences expect from home invasion movies today, the tramp is still a chilling character. His vacant expressions evoke the impassivity of wild animals and he is the one character in the short to not receive a single dialogue intertitle. It’s interesting how his exact intentions regarding the wife are never laid out. Does he just want to kill her or does he have more sinister intentions as well? That the film never tells us makes his entry into the bedroom all the more disturbing.

Image of Lois Weber on a movie card. Image source: Wikipedia.

While DW Griffith is often marked as the nickelodeon era’s Master of Suspense with his races to the rescues and cross-cutting, Weber and Smalley go to show how Griffith was hardly the only pioneer in town. I dare to say they even out-Griffithed Griffith with this one! Suspense is a great introduction to early cinematic dramas: short enough to not tax a modern viewer uninitiated to the slower pace of older movies and still intense enough to quicken the pulse.

Sources:

An English translation of At the Telephone by Andre De Lorde

https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/at-the-telephone–theres-many-a-slip-5620