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

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.

As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.

Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.

Warner with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source: normashearer.com

Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.

Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”

From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.

Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.

Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.

It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

Happy birthday, Carol Dempster!

Image source: Wikipedia.

Today marks the 120th birthday of Carol Dempster, best remembered as DW Griffith’s leading lady of choice throughout the 1920s. While only known to silent movie buffs today, she starred alongside luminaries such as WC Fields, Richard Barthelmess, and both Barrymore brothers during her heyday. Her legacy is a controversial one, though in recent decades, she’s gained more defenders– or at the very least, more people who are willing to examine her brief career in a more nuanced light.

Minnesota-born and California-bred, Dempster’s background was in dance. She was remarkable enough to be singled out by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Dennis during a school program. She would later boast in an interview that, “I was the youngest pupil to graduate in her first class.”

The Denishawn Dancers in 1915. A teenage Carol Dempster is the fourth dancer from the left. Image source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Her connection with St. Dennis is what brought her to the attention of DW Griffith. St. Dennis staged the dancing scenes in the Babylonian segment of Intolerance and Dempster was included among this company. Griffith was impressed with what he saw of her and would recruit her for small parts in rural dramas such as A Romance of Happy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, and True Heart Susie.

By 1919, she had her first major role for Griffith in the bizarre western Scarlet Days where she played the convent-schooled daughter of a saloon hostess. Called “Lady Fair ” in the title cards, Dempster’s character is the usual Griffith waif: delicate, respectable, and naive. She almost made her leading debut earlier: Griffith considered giving her the role of the abused Lucy Barrows in Broken Blossoms when Lillian Gish came down with the Spanish Flu, but Gish fought to retain the part.

Dempster being menaced in One Exciting Night. Image source: Wikipedia.

With the dawn of the 1920s, Dempster would become a Griffith mainstay as well as his lover. The filmmaker became obsessed with her, which baffled just about everyone else. Many professionals in the industry found Dempster unremarkable on a good day. Journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns called her mediocre, Colleen Moore thought her talentless, and cinematographer Karl Brown found her professionally “inept” and personally “over proper.” Critics Anthony Slide and Richard Schickel essentially paint her as a full-time impersonator of the earlier, greater Griffith leading ladies.

That last description is not without accuracy. Dempster often essayed the same kinds of roles that made Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh stars in the 1910s, sometimes even using the same mannerisms and tics, only to much lesser effect. Rarely was she outright bad in these parts, but they never played to her strengths as a performer, which tended more towards the athletic, practical type than the ethereal girl-children Griffith favored.

Dempster in an ad for America, where she played a Gish-style ingenue. Image source: Wikipedia.

Reaction to Dempster was mixed from the very beginning. In the first half of her career, she was usually accused of being a copycat. Many resented her displacing Lillian Gish, who made her final collaboration with Griffith in 1921. Both fans and critics stoked this notion of a Gish-Dempster rivalry.

A fan burns both Dempster and Griffith at once in this 1923 issue of Picture-Play Magazine.

However, Dempster did have her champions. While she never procured a huge following, there were movie goers who made their appreciation of her known in fan magazines. The running trend in these positive notices is that Dempster was unconventional in both appearance and screen presence.

A kind fan letter from a 1926 issue of Photoplay.

Towards the end of her career, the critics also grew kinder to her work. Miracle of miracles, they were sometimes even enthusiastic—the Moving Picture World review of Isn’t Life Wonderful singles out Dempster’s lead performance as “one of the finest performances ever seen on the screen” and her turn in the now-lost That Royle Girl won her raves from Photoplay, where the reviewer claimed she was among “any ten best list of players.”

Dempster as a flapper in That Royle Girl. Image source: IMDB.

The Sorrows of Satan, a 1926 melodrama in which she acted alongside Adolphe Menjou and Ricardo Cortez, proved to be her swan song. Many critics past and present have felt this movie represents her best work: Morduant Hall thought the part displayed more of her untapped acting talent than in any of her films to date and later on, Anthony Slide (by no means a Dempster fan) felt her turn in Sorrows was the first to actually show she had any talent at all.

However, Dempster retired from movies after the film’s premiere. With both her professional and romantic relationships with Griffith ended, she married a banker and lived the rest of her life away from the Hollywood scene, entertaining friends and supporting the arts. In 1928, she told Photoplay that she wanted to pursue singing, but nothing came of that. She died in 1991 at the age of 89, but her legacy lives on in critical debate and sparring matches on classic movie message boards.

Dempster would co-star with WC Fields in two movies. The still above is from the only one that survives, Sally of the Sawdust. Image source: The Loudest Voice.

My initial interest in Dempster came from how much irritation she tends to generate among silent movie buffs. The long-standing narrative is that she was a stone around Griffith’s neck, hastening his artistic decline. This narrative puts a lot of blame on Dempster and ignores that the writing quality of several of these later projects was not up to the same standards as Griffith’s earlier work (not even Gish was going to save the nightmarish mess that is Dream Street— I don’t think anyone could have!). As with any widely accepted theory, I had to see for myself if Dempster actually was the acting talent abyss some claim.

My conclusion? She wasn’t that terrible. Clumsy when trying to be winsome and innocent, sure, but I never shudder when she’s on-screen even if I can also see why she never became the mega-star Griffith wanted her to be. I think Dempster suffered most from Griffith’s Pygmalion tendencies. He wanted her to be another Gish, but her angular looks, athletic body, and “no-nonsensical” manner (to borrow Schickel’s description) were more suitable for flappers and everyday women than dainty ingenues. Unfortunately, Griffith wasn’t that interested in those kinds of roles for her and Griffith was the only filmmaker she wanted to work with.

Lobby card for Isn’t Life Wonderful. Image source: Wikipedia.

Dempster is served far better by movies like Isn’t Life Wonderful, where her character is a cautious optimist trying to make sure her loved ones don’t starve to death. Here, her unconventional looks strengthen the illusion that we are watching an ordinary person, not just a movie star impersonating one. Dempster’s best scene, where she stands in a butcher shop line, watching in suspense as the prices inflate before she’s even able to step a foot into the door, is fully put over by the fleeting expressions of hope and dawning horror on her face. Her swimming scenes in The Love Flower also show a side to her that Griffith rarely took advantage of, making one wonder if it was a declining Griffith not doing Dempster’s career much good rather than it being the other way around.

Whatever any critic or fellow film professional has had to say about Dempster, good or bad, she seems to have been indifferent. Once her movie career was over, she rarely reminisced about her brief tenure as a leading lady (according to her associate John McGee, many of Dempster’s friends had no idea she was ever an actress) nor did she ever shoot back at those who had nasty things to say about her. She famously insisted she was blessed with a real-life “happy ending.” What more could any of us ask for than that?

Image source: Photoplay.

Sources:

DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel

The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee

The Griffith Actresses by Anthony Slide

“I Don’t Care If I Make Another Picture” by Ruth Biery, Photoplay, August 1928, Vol. 34, Issue 3

“Remembering DW Griffith” by Alanna Nash, Take One, September-October 1973, Vol. 4, Issue 7

Silent Star by Colleen Moore

Up From the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s by John T. Soister

The WC Fields Films by James Neibaur

Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1921

This post is part of the Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Today is National Silent Movie Day, a great chance to celebrate early film history! Check out the roster on their blogs to indulge in more silent movie themed goodness!

For this blogathon, I originally considered covering a single film; however, I wanted to do something a bit different from my usual reviews. I got to thinking about box office and what audiences were eating up one-hundred years ago.

The top-grossers of 1921 are largely escapist in nature: an idyllic Victorian past, the glittering mansions of high society, the burning sands of an Arabian desert. And yet, these big hits also contain elements of the zeitgeist, such as the lingering aftershock of World War One and the changing roles of women in society. By this time, Hollywood was also taking its place as the moviemaking center of the world, entering its decades-spanning classic period.

Fun stuff. Let’s get to it!

NOTE: I based my top-grossing films list on the data collected for the “1921 in film” Wikipedia article; however, not being one to take Wikipedia at its word, I went and did my own research, looking up box office numbers in a variety of silent film history books and such. The farther back in time you go, the harder it is to get EXACT box office numbers for any movie, so keep in mind that this list is probably more approximate than exact. I’ve concluded each section with a list of references in case you want to know where I pulled the information from.

#7 – LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

Release date: September 15, 1921
Box office (est.): 900,000 – 1.1 million

Summary: Young Cedric Errol and his mother “Dearest” live a content existence in 1880s New York City. One day, they receive a message  from Cedric’s estranged English grandfather: Cedric is to inherit the family title and must come to England to be trained for the aristocratic life. While Dearest is despised by her father-in-law as a suspected gold digger, Cedric’s precociousness is able to penetrate into the old man’s cold heart.

Doesn’t the very title Little Lord Fauntleroy put you on edge? It’s a triumvirate of words destined to make your teeth rot with Victorian sentimentality! A bit unfairly, I’d say—the book is cleverer than you’d expect with its themes of class conflict and culture shock. The ringlet-laden Fauntleroy (called Cedric Errol in the novel) might be precocious and pure, but his character is presented with a disarming humor that makes the book go down easily.

Of course, Victorian readers took less issue with sentimentality and pure-hearted child heroes than subsequent generations. According to the Polly Horvath introduction to the novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy was the Harry Potter of its era, popular on stage as well as on the page (fun bit of trivia: Buster Keaton got to don the curls when he was a child—he claimed to have enlivened his performances with “accidental” pratfalls). By the early 1920s, it attracted the attention of Mary Pickford, undoubtedly one of the most powerful individuals in Hollywood. Already associated with the child roles that continue to define her screen legacy to this day, “Little Mary” seemed an obvious choice to headline a movie production, even though she was pushing thirty.

No one seems to agree whether or not she fits the part. In 1921, the performance earned nothing but raves from critics and the public. Later in life, Pickford regretted doing it, even going as far as to say no woman should ever essay a male role for realism’s sake. Her stepson Douglas Fairbanks Jr. felt it was her best role, while biographer Eileen Whitfield was unimpressed. Me? If you can buy Betty Bronson or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, then suspending enough disbelief to accept Pickford as a young boy is no biggie. She also has the benefit of forced perspective and camera trickery to complete the illusion that she’s much smaller than the adult characters, including herself as Dearest, Cedric’s long-suffering mother.

As in Stella Maris, one gets the sense that the Cedric-Dearest dual role allowed Pickford to partially break free from the demands of her public, who loved seeing her play children. Pickford could successfully play a great variety of characters and often played young women in her 1910s work, but she was at heart an astute businesswoman with a deep desire to please her public and so she would continue to take on child roles well into the 1920s.

But what about the film itself? Of the 1921 top-grossers, I confess I enjoyed this one the least even though it is a charming enough piece of work. Pickford is good in both roles. The sets are big and lavish. The direction is competent. The book is faithfully adapted, the only additions being some slapstick business and a more action-packed climax (Cedric gets into a round of fisticuffs with the kid imposter out to seize his title). Pickford biographer Scott Eyman claims one can see the influence of Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks all over the film. Just as Fairbanks became more enamored of grand historical settings and spectacle in his own work, Pickford inserted that same grand scale into her own productions.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is an ideal example of a star vehicle, taking a hot property and tailoring it to the popular persona of its lead player. However, I find it mid-tier Pickford, a bit too stately to be as engaging as her other popular films like Little Annie Rooney or The Poor Little Rich Girl.

Sources:

Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman

Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield

Polly Havroth’s foreword for Little Lord Fauntleroy (2004 Simon and Schuester edition)

#6 – ORPHANS OF THE STORM

Release date: December 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1 million

Summary:

In eighteenth-century France, adopted sisters Henriette and Louise (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) are drawn to Paris in the wake of a plague that has left the latter blinded. They hope to find a famous oculist—instead, Henriette is kidnapped by a lecherous aristocrat and the abandoned Louise is taken in by a family of beggar-thieves headed by the ruthless Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne). After Henriette is rescued by the dashing Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), she makes it her mission to find her sister in the thick of the bustling, dangerous city. If only there wasn’t a revolution brewing…

DW Griffith was always one to go big. The mammoth Intolerance grew from a single contemporary domestic story and the rural stage melodrama of Way Down East became a veritable epic under Griffith’s direction. When presented with the long-running theatrical chestnut The Two Orphans for his next project, Griffith had lost none of his preference for a large canvas.

The original play is set in pre-revolutionary France, following the titular orphans as they are torn apart by malicious outside forces. Griffith’s treatment moves the action to the beginnings of the French Revolution, throwing the likes of Georges Danton, Louis XVI, and Maximilien Robespierre into the mix. The orphaned sisters are prey to overwhelming historical forces, giving the story a more epic scope than originally intended. Retitled Orphans of the Storm, the movie also marks the end of an era for Griffith: depending on your perspective, it’s either his final great movie or the beginning of a creative slump.

Whatever one thinks, the film did mark the beginning of Griffith’s box office descent. The movie made quite a sum and proved popular with the critics, but the production was so expensive that it took a long time for Griffith to profit off it. At the very least, every penny is on the screen, from the recreations of eighteenth-century Paris to the massive crowd scenes. The costuming isn’t always faithful (as the delightful Frock Flicks blog puts it, many of the outfits are “The Great Gatsby Goes 18th Century”), but it’s never anything less than stunning.

Most would concede with William K. Everson that Orphans is more representative of “Griffith the Artist-Showman” than “Griffith the Artist-Innovator.” The revolutionary vigor that animates earlier Griffith epics isn’t present this time around and would come in only fits and starts throughout his 1920s work—but does that really matter? Here we have Griffith at the top of his game, mixing melodrama and suspense into a delicious concoction.

But even there, some would disagree. In his biography of Griffith, Richard Schickel argues the movie isn’t a true epic because it does not have a traditionally heroic lead character who engages with historical forces. Both the sisters and Henriette’s love interest are caught up in the revolution and ultimately need to be rescued by Danton, therefore the movie is dramatically unbalanced, granting more agency to a historical cameo than its leading figures. I initially agreed with Schickel’s assessment, even though I enjoy the movie far more than he does. However, perusing comments from Griffith scholar William Drew and The Hollywood Epic author Foster Hirsch made me reconsider my opinion.

Schickel’s problem is that he believes epic heroes are only like Beowulf or King Arthur, people who go out, fight, and shape history themselves. Because he takes that for granted, he calls Griffith’s epic a failure. However, both Drew and Hirrsch argue this is not the only model for an epic hero. They mark Henriette as a heroine in her own right, elevated not by heroic deeds but by heroic suffering—endurance in the face of her antagonists, which range from the selfish ancien regime to the overzealous revolutionaries.

Throughout history, most people are not grand movers and shakers. They are caught up in the “storms” of revolutions and epidemics and wars and witch hunts and other disasters, things which disrupt their modest lives. Henriette is no leader, warrior, or general, but she is a likeable individual we root for, someone who just wants a peaceful life with her loved ones. She cannot change the storm or even avoid it—she must endure it and survive.

Much has been made of Griffith’s bizarre attempts to link his film to then-contemporary problems. He compares the revolutionaries to bolshevists and then calls Danton “the Abraham Lincoln of France” in what might be the movie’s most baffling intertitle. As in Intolerance, Griffith isn’t so much interested in the exact details of history (even though historical research was very much part of his pre-production) as he is in expressing great moral themes with distant times as a backdrop. Just like in the earlier epic, all of humanity’s problems come down to people being unable to embrace Love and cast out Hatred.

And that brings us back to the original accusation that Orphans is just treading old ground. Orphans may not be Griffith’s masterpiece, but I’m with Lea Stans of Silentology on one point: we probably would rate it much better if it were earlier in the Griffith canon or maybe if a younger, greener director had helmed the production. As entertainment, it’s still stunning work, perhaps more accessible to silent film newbies than Griffith’s more critically-acclaimed epics. As for me, I’ve grown to like it the more I watch it.

Sources:

DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel

“DW Griffith’s ‘Orphans of the Storm’” by William M. Drew

Frock Flicks review – http://www.frockflicks.com/18th-century-quest-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/

The Hollywood Epic by Foster Hirsch

Lea Stans’ review of Orphanshttps://silentology.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/thoughts-on-orphans-of-the-storm-1921/

William K. Everson’s program notes – https://wke.hosting.nyu.edu/wke/notes/huff/huff_580523.htm

#5 – THE AFFAIRS OF ANATOL

Release date: September 21, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.1 million

Summary:

Young, attractive, and wealthy married couple Vivian (Gloria Swanson) and Anatol De Witt Spencer (Wallace Reid) would appear to have everything, but their marriage is bordering troubled water. Vivian is obsessed with good clothes and a good time, while the fiercely romantic Anatol longs to indulge in heroic fantasy. He spies a potential damsel-in-distress in every woman he meets, first with the gold-digging flapper Emilie (Wanda Hawley) and then with Annie, a suicidal farmer’s wife (Agnes Ayres). Alienating his wife with his naïve “experiments,” Anatol comes close to losing her forever when he starts wondering if she’s gone onto greener pastures with one of his close friends (Elliott Dexter). Will both suspicions and an attempt at a fling with the notorious “Satan Synne” (Bebe Daniels) put an end to their marriage?

The movies—particularly Hollywood movies—have never been shy about indulging in lifestyle porn. Think of those beautifully gowned screwball socialites sipping martinis in Art Deco mansions or James Bond traveling through exotic locations in his smart suits. Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps the first filmmaker to really put lifestyle porn out there as a serious selling point, clothing his leading ladies in the latest fashions and placing his immaculately groomed sophisticate characters on ornate sets.

It’s easy to dismiss these movies as pointless fluff. Contemporary critics certainly did, saving particular ire for The Affairs of Anatol, a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 play. Sidestepping the censors, DeMille cleaned up the titular hero’s behavior and lightened the play’s cynical tone. He apparently had no qualms doing so, not holding his source material in high regard and only filming the story at the request of Famous-Players head Jesse Lasky.

Schnitzler is hardly a household name nowadays. Most movie buffs only know him as the author of Dream Story, the source material for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with which Affairs shares some key points. Both are about an affluent couple dissatisfied with their marriages, and both plots are episodic. One cannot help but see a kinship between Anatol’s jealousy-inspired attempt at adultery and the sexual insecurity which fuels Bill Harford’s surreal odyssey through 1990s New York. The DeMille movie lacks Kubrick’s cynicism and surrealism overall—Kubrick was less interested in the luxurious lifestyle of his anti-hero, whereas DeMille stresses it, to the point where the story almost seems swallowed by the fancy bathrooms, cars, and headgear.

But there is a great deal of intelligence and feeling beneath the glossy opulence. DeMille biographer Scott Eyman has gone to bat for the film, calling it an astute portrait of postwar ideas regarding women and consumerism. Swanson’s character represents the “new wife,” if you will: someone who is just as much a playmate as a helpmate within marriage. Traditionally, married women dedicated themselves to hearth and home; the new wife is allowed to enjoy herself, buying attractive clothes and going out to parties, without being demonized.

The relationship between Anatol and Vivian is most strained by a mismatch of expectations. Anatol’s romanticism is old-fashioned: he longs for a helpless damsel to rescue, the total opposite of his feisty modern-minded wife. The “damsels” in question only turn out to be opportunists: Emilie just wants jewelry and Annie needs to replenish the money she accidentally took from her community’s church funds. Ironically, when Anatol goes for a blatant femme fatale, the deliciously named “Satan Synne,” her wickedness turns out to be a pretense: she sells herself to support her husband, a war veteran still suffering from lingering injuries. Anatol’s “virginal innocent in peril” fantasy is punctured again and again by reality since he can never understand nor predict what’s going on with any of these women.

Actually, even the opportunistic women have softer sides: Emilie seems fond of her original sugar daddy, even accepting a marriage proposal from him once she’s done with Anatol, and the preacher’s wife wants to do right by her husband. In a story that could easily go into “good versus bad woman” territory, all of the women are rather complicated, never evil and sometimes even well-intentioned. When Anatol returns to Vivian and declines to really find out if she has been unfaithful to him, it’s a touching moment of trust and respect. The De Witt Spencers are able to resume their marriage on equal footing and free of illusions.

I have to go with Eyman: Affairs might glisten, but the gold isn’t only on the surface. Unlike some of DeMille’s other hit films, there’s a beating heart beneath the lifestyle porn. In a way, this is Hollywood entertainment at its best: simultaneously vicarious fantasy and emotionally involving.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

#4 – THE SHEIK

Release date: November 20, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million

Summary:

Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is a “madcap” English aristocrat who insists marriage is captivity, rejecting suitors and venturing out into Middle Eastern deserts without a chaperone. Unfortunately for her, her blonde beauty attracts the attention of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino). Carried away by hormones, Ahmed kidnaps Diana and holds her captive in his tent, hoping to make a conquest of her. But the proud Diana won’t budge, even when she starts developing feelings for her wily kidnapper. Will these crazy kids ever find love?

The Sheik was pretty much a guaranteed profit. The 1919 novel of the same name was a smash, titillating and scandalizing its massive readership in equal measure with its tale of a macho, glowering sheik kidnapping and ravishing a “liberated” modern Englishwoman. The question was how would Hollywood manage to adapt it without provoking the snip of censor shears.

I’m reminded of the ad campaign for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita. Posters beckoned with the question, “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” When the movie was finally released, critic Bowsley Crowther answered, “They didn’t.” The same applies to the movie version of The Sheik. The explicit (for the time) sex was all but cut from the script, keeping it extremely vague as to whether or not the central relationship involves any kind of hanky-panky. The domineering titular character (a charmer who says things like, “We teach our women obedience with the whip” or “Better me than my men”) is made into a rather affable fellow whose looks of lust are famously reaction-image worthy. No one on the set seems to have taken the project seriously: director George Melford went for a more theatrical style, staging scenes and directing the actors accordingly.

No one flocked to The Sheik because they wanted a masterpiece of cinema. As film historian Jeanine Basigner once said, they went to get “sexed up.” Women went crazy for Valentino, nostril flares and all. He represented the ultimate sadomasochistic fantasy, an uncompromising bad boy with no qualms taking what he wants. In an era where the sexual double standard was firmly in place, the Valentino phenomena fascinates—his image was clearly curated for a “female gaze.”

It can be easy to discredit Valentino as a performer. He’s often accused of being little more than a good-looking guy who knew how to pose attractively with a cigarette. However, as much as I enjoy making fun of this movie, I have to give Valentino his due—he’s honestly more at the mercy of the material and his director than anything. As Valentino lamented, “I was forced… to play this wild Arabian charmer as though he were an associate professor of the history of English literature at Oxford.” (I would say it’s more like Melford told Valentino to pretend he was a stoner with a rabid case of the munchies and that Ayres was a giant bag of potato chips, but I digress.) Regardless, a few scenes allow him to show off a more restrained acting style and easy grace, like the moment he takes pity on a weeping Diana and sends a servant to comfort her.

Even though Valentino was basically at least 50% the reason people bought their tickets, Paramount top-billed Agnes Ayres, who you might remember from The Affairs of Anatol. To put it bluntly, she was much better there. For a sharp-shootin’ daredevil madcap, Ayres’ Diana sure lacks fire. Combine that with her almost matronly looks and it can be hard to figure out just what’s driving Ahmed crazy about her. Maybe it’s because she held her own in that staring contest they had by the casino? I don’t know. As Howard the Duck once said, love is strange.

Love may be strange, but the box office results aren’t. Even if the critics complained that the book’s sexual frankness had been neutered, the audience didn’t care. A bowdlerized version of a bodice-ripper could still be shocking—in fact, the film was banned in Kansas City for being too smutty for local tastes.

Even if The Sheik is not the best silent film by a long shot, it’s goofy fun, a delight because of its unashamed silliness. And don’t congratulate us moderns for being more sophisticated—the Twilight movies were big hits and they often trend on Netflix. We still love hokum.

Sources:

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

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

#3 – THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Release date: August 28, 1921
Box office (est.): 1.5 million

Summary: In seventeenth-century France, young D’Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) seeks adventure as one of the king’s musketeers. Initial rejection does not deter him and he soon finds himself embroiled in court intrigue. The honor of the queen (Mary MacLaren) is at stake due to the machinations of the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier) and Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr). Allying himself with musketeers Athos (Leon Barry), Porthos (George Siegmann), and Aramis (Eugene Pallette), D’Artagnan must reclaim the queen’s diamond brooch from her lover before the king (Adolphe Menjou) discovers the affair.

The 1920s would mark a shift in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. Previously a star of light comedies, in 1920 he fulfilled his ambition to create a swashbuckling adventure in the form of The Mark of Zorro. The film was a success, so naturally a follow-up was in order. Fairbanks had long adored Alexandre Dumas’ adventure classic, The Three Musketeers. For whatever reason, Hollywood producers felt the general public had no use for costume dramas. Fairbanks didn’t care. He was emboldened by Zorro’s profits and embarked on a Dumas adaptation, exhibitors’ anxieties be damned. He imported several alumni from Zorro to his new project, including director Fred Niblo and leading lady Marguertie de la Motte as D’Artagnan’s love interest Constance.

Needless to say, the movie was a hit, its New York City premiere a thing of legend. Patrons lined the streets hoping for a seat and a glimpse of both Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The additional appearance of Charlie Chaplin only added more glamor to the event. Neither the two-dollar admission fee nor the dreaded “costume picture” label could keep the crowds away.

Though beloved in its day, this movie has gotten a tepid reputation over time. Silent film historian William K. Everson never failed to call it “turgid” whenever it was screened. It might also suffer from direct comparison with its 1929 sequel, The Iron Mask, which is a much slicker production. However, the lukewarm reputation baffles me—I find Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers one of his most satisfying movies. Like Zorro, it has a breeziness that keeps the grand historical elements from overwhelming the fun. Sure, it’s slow in places, but it moves along at a better pace than his more regarded costume movies like Robin Hood or The Thief of Bagdad, hitting a happy median between spectacle, story, and humor.

Fairbanks is also fantastic in his dream role, the high-spirited D’Artagnan. While it takes a while for him to appear on-screen, he is worth the wait. Some actors can handle being much older than the intended ages of their characters and Doug was so packed with joie de vivre himself that he is the ideal D’Artagnan. He so identified with the role that he kept the mustache he grew for it until the end of his life.

If I have any big problem with the movie, it’s that the other musketeers don’t leave much of an impact. George Siegmann and Eugene Palette are fantastic actors, and Leon Barry is no slouch in the part. However, they are denied any major developments, their individual personalities a bit sidelined in this adaptation. The same applies to Barbara La Marr, given precious little to do as Milady de Winter.

Luckily, the same cannot be said for the rest of the supporting cast. Adolphe Menjou is great as the frivolous but jealous Louis XIII, Mary MacLaren generates a great deal of sympathy for her adulterous Queen Anne, and Marguerite De La Motte is sweetly likeable as Constance (even if they take some of the bite out of her relationship with D’Artagnan by making her an unmarried ingenue rather than a married woman). But it is Nigel De Brulier who most stands out. His Richelieu is cold-blooded and intelligent yet not without a wry sense of humor. He is so fantastic in the part that he would return to the role three more times in The Iron Mask, the 1935 talkie version of The Three Musketeers, and the 1939 James Whale adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask.

Overall, Fairbanks’ Three Musketeers avoids any pretense, which might be why some audiences avoided costume pictures. The film never tries to be “good for you” since it is wholly uninterested in actual history or Grand Weighty Themes. It’s a classic adventure story and a perfect vehicle for its star.

Sources:

United artists: the company that built the stars by Tino Balio

The First King of Hollywood by Tracy Goessel

#2 – THE KID

Release date: January 21, 1921 (premiere), February 6, 1921 (general release)
Box office (est.): 2.5 million

Summary:

When an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) abandons her child, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) reluctantly adopts the little tyke. Five years later, he and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) make a hand-to-mouth living repairing windows (after the Kid busts them first, of course), but outside forces threaten their bond. The boy’s mother, now a wealthy stage star, yearns for her lost child and the local social workers feel the Tramp is not a suitable father. Will the father-son pair be split up?

The Kid is representative of the biggest leap forward in Chaplin’s art by the early 1920s. Chaplin’s shorts had been dabbling with dramatic stakes for a while, most boldly in A Dog’s Life from 1918, but The Kid goes into pure tear jerker territory with its sentimental story of a tramp and an orphaned child almost torn apart by society’s meddling. The story definitely hit a chord with worldwide audiences (according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, by 1924, only the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Colombia had not screened the film). It sealed Chaplin’s reputation as one of the great geniuses of cinema and made Jackie Coogan a top-tier child star.

Chaplin never had a better screen partner than Jackie Coogan nor perhaps an actor as ideally suited to his direction. His directorial style was more about getting the other actors to mimic his conception of their roles than to let them loose with their own interpretations, and it seems he never found a better mimic than Coogan, who could replicate Chaplin’s movements down to the least detail. Something in Coogan struck Chaplin to the heart: he argued Coogan’s character embodied all the orphans created by the Great War, but it might be more apt to say he saw something of his child self in the little guy.

Along with Limelight, The Kid is Chaplin’s most autobiographical work. Most know the project was sparked by the loss of Chaplin’s first child, but one can also see echoes of his mother, the tragic Hannah Chaplin, in Edna Purviance’s unwed mother (though there is, admittedly, some poignant wish fulfillment in her fate as a successful actress—Hannah wanted to be a stage star but mental illness and a lack of support would interfere). The threatened workhouse sentence for the boy calls back to Chaplin’s own miserable childhood stint there. Even little details, like the attic apartment where the tramp and the kid live, is a reference to Chaplin’s living situation at 3 Pownall Terrace, where he slept under a slanted ceiling and hit his head when getting out of bed every morning.

The autobiographical elements are filtered through Dickensian whimsy and sentiment. The poverty and the child of the slums who does not know his true identity could have come right out of Oliver Twist. Still, there’s a fairy tale timelessness to the film’s setting: the setting is a blend of the Victorian world of Chaplin’s childhood and the sensibility of early 20th century America. This is a story that could conceivably take place anytime and anywhere, which might be why it has held up so well.

The Kid might not be Chaplin’s funniest movie, though it does have some earthy gags that scandalized critics at the time (particularly the potty humor—one can only imagine how they’d react to the abundant fart jokes in modern comedies). The bittersweet elements are more potent here than even in City Lights—the threat of separation and subsequent loneliness suffuses the film. Even the ending is ambiguous: mother and child may have reunited, but is there a place for the tramp in that equation? Overall, the film certainly lives up to the description in the opening title cards: “A picture with a laugh—and perhaps a tear.”

Sources:

Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson

#1 – THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Release date: March 6, 1921
Box office (est.): 4.5 million

Summary:

In pre-war Argentina, powerful landowner Madriaga openly favors his French-descended grandson, the libertine Julio Desonyers (Rudolph Valentino) over the offspring of his German son-in-law. When Madriaga dies, halving his wealth between his two daughters, Julio’s family returns to France and his cousins go back to Germany. Julio spends time teaching socialites the tango and pursuing an affair with the unhappily married Marguerite (Alice Terry), but rumors of encroaching war begin to disrupt his fancy-free lifestyle.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s success is a classic underdog story. No one expected it to be the hit of the year when it debuted in 1921. While it was based on a blockbuster of a novel, conventional Hollywood wisdom dictated that the public was burned out on anything to do with the Great War. Not only that, but the movie didn’t even have guaranteed star power behind it—the hero was played by some Italian bit player with a name a mile long and the leading lady was hardly in the same league as a Norma Talmadge. And yet, this movie proved to be not only the biggest money-earner of 1921, but one of the most successful movies of the entire silent era and a true zeitgeist hit.

What made Four Horsemen such a success? At the time of release, critics compared it to The Birth of a Nation, only more modern in both style and subject matter. It was definitely sexier than Griffith’s movie, what with Valentino’s tango or the ardent way he handles his leading lady (in one decidedly pre-code moment, he actually cups her breast). Pictorially, Four Horsemen is gorgeous: director Rex Ingram was heavily influenced by painting and sculpture, and these instincts leaked into his compositions and lighting.

However, none of this is satisfactory in answering the question what made this blockbuster such a hit? Later Ingram films move more quickly and feature even more stunning imagery. Later Valentino films are sexier and more exciting. Later WWI movies are more nuanced in their treatment of the war. And yet few left as much of a cultural impact. Certainly, none made as much money.

The best answer I can muster is that Four Horsemen was made at the perfect time: the public was far away enough from the war to be willing to engage with it on-screen again and society was just shifting to the faster, looser Roaring Twenties, making Four Horsemen a natural step in the evolution of the Hollywood Epic, picking up where the more Edwardian Birth left off.

If a movie must have an “auteur,” then Four Horsemen has two: June Mathis and Rex Ingram. Ingram brought his artist’s eye to the film and Mathis was the executive producer in all but name. She played up the original story’s spiritual bent (the bearded mystic Tcherkoff gets more of a Christlike presence here) and made the decision to cast Valentino in the lead after being impressed by his brief but memorable role as a heartless gigolo in the 1919 Clara Kimball Young melodrama The Eyes of Youth.

You can’t discuss Four Horsemen without mentioning Valentino. His turn as Julio is often considered the best performance of his short career, the most dramatic and least encumbered by Hollywoodisms. Comparing his performance here to his coked-up antics in The Sheik is a revelation for those who think he was just a pretty face sans acting skills. Hell, comparing it to his performance in Eyes of Youth is interesting—there, his character is marked by bold sensuality and danger, traditional signs of 1910s Hollywood villainy. Julio shares these qualities, but he’s a diamond-in-the-rough. By the 1920s, the dangerous lover was a far more popular fantasy, outplacing the clean-cut screen heroes of the previous decade.

Julio’s introduction might be the most perfect example of a star-making moment I can name. Author KM Weiland often talks of what she calls “the characteristic moment,” a scene which introduces the protagonist in a strong, immediate way, showing the audience why we should bother investing in them emotionally. The tango scene is a perfect characteristic moment. We get the sense that Julio is a handsome libertine, a bit selfish and entitled but loyal enough to those he loves (he ditches his newly-won conquest when she mocks his aged grandfather). That he’s so likeable is a quality I attest to Valentino’s innate charisma—in the book, Julio comes off as far more callow and childish before his eventual redemption.

Being a war story, this redemption naturally comes via military service. Though the story takes place during WWI, Four Horsemen is quite unlike later treatments of that conflict. When WWI is brought up at all, people tend to see it as a tragic waste of life. Unlike its sequel, there are no definite “good guys” or “bad guys.” But perhaps that was still too new a viewpoint in 1921, because Four Horsemen paints the war in definite good versus evil terms: the French are noble and good, the Germans are goose-stepping authoritarians who must be stopped.

Even within the Madriaga family, the Germans are pure evil, presented with no moral greyness. When Julio comes face-to-face with a German cousin on the battlefield, the moment is no equivalent to that heartbreaking scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul recognizes the humanity of the enemy in the French soldier he killed—the Germans are never allowed humanity, not even the slightest, which is why I have always been puzzled by Four Horsemen’s anti-war reputation.

I am not, however, puzzled by its popularity with audiences of the time. It feels in some ways like the Ultimate Hollywood Epic, big in the same way Ben-Hur and Gone with the Wind and hell, even the Infinity Stone saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are big. There’s family drama, forbidden love, attractive heroes and heroines, sweeping battles, world-shattering events, everything people still love about blockbuster movies. That it was so in tune with the zeitgeist also made it lightning in a bottle, as evidenced by the lesser reception to the film’s 1962 remake. The old adage once more proves true: you can only get lightning in a bottle once.

Sources:

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

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton

Whimsy and suspense in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (warning – spoilers for 98 year old movie)

It’s intriguing how during the 1920s, Buster Keaton’s features tended to be seen as less dramatic than Chaplin’s. I recall one critic of the period claiming Keaton (and Harold Lloyd) “openly tickle” the audience while only Chaplin was interested in providing an emotional experience.

That sentiment is total nonsense when you think about Our Hospitality. Only Keaton’s second feature film, it represents a major evolution in his storytelling. Three Ages was episodic, essentially three shorts strung together. In contrast, Our Hospitality is a fully developed narrative with dramatic stakes that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock movie.

Strangely, it makes me think of Chaplin’s The Kid—not in terms of tone, as the two movies are nothing alike, but in terms of the way it blends comedy with other genres. The Kid features heavy melodrama that induces more tears than laughter for me. Our Hospitality keeps me on the edge of my seat from the sheer suspense.

This mood comes on strong from the first scene. For those who think Keaton is only a “tickler,” this opening can be shocking, since there is no humor in it at all, not even a twinkle of irony. During a stormy night, two men locked in a generations-spanning feud shoot one another dead. Their families grieve both their lost loved ones and the sad fact that these killings will only extend the vengeance into perpetuity.

Keaton’s plucky, modest persona isn’t a relief from the tension. It makes the audience fear more for his life when he’s cornered by the physically imposing, revenge-obsessed Canfield family. The feud is no laughing matter and the movie makes it clear that Buster isn’t going to be able to walk off a bullet in this storyverse. If he gets shot, he’s dead. Movie over.

It’s amazing how the movie juggles so many tones. It’s got humor and suspense, which as we’ve seen in other films often do go hand in hand, but there is also a gentle whimsy augmenting these elements. The prolonged train scene offers more than gags about how quaint and rural America used to be before mass industrialization—it also provides the sense that the refined Willie McKay is moving to unfamiliar territory where his guilelessness will be a liability.

In the end, love wins the day. Willie outwits his would-be killers (attacking them back seems to be only a last resort judging by that last gag), rescues the girl, and makes peace with the Canfields. In a great many stories, the hero has to beat up, kill, or even just humiliate the villain. I’m not saying that’s an unacceptable approach, but it is always refreshing to see a story where reconciliation is the answer. That might be why I go back to Our Hospitality so often. Its gentleness is all the more appealing in a landscape where so many film “comedies” rely on vulgarity and mean-spiritedness to entertain the audience.