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.

“Thrill to the same idol who made your mothers’ hearts flutter wildly” – Revivals of the sheik movies in the 1930s

William Drew’s The Last Silent Picture Show really is a treasure of a book. Way too many people get their film history from (admittedly delightful) movies like Singin’ in the Rain, where it’s made to look like the talkie revolution occurred overnight. Most might even assume the American moviegoing public was content to let their silent favorites rot by 1930.

The actual history is far more complicated. In truth, silent films would sometimes get revived for Depression-era audiences, even after all theaters converted to sound. (Not to mention, silent films would still be produced in some Asian and European countries until the mid-1930s.)

Silent comedies were usually revived and given some level of respect– after all, you were supposed to laugh at them. Silent dramas were not so fortunate, at best treated as nostalgia items and at worst openly mocked as outmoded camp. However, there is an interesting case of silent drama revival I just have to share from Drew’s book.

“Show it– and machine guns wouldn’t keep the people away.”

It might surprise some that the two Rudolph Valentino sheik movies were revived throughout the 1930s. The popularity of the original Edith Hull novel and the 1921 movie adaptation had sparked a craze for desert romance in the 1920s, inspiring fashion trends and slang words like “sheik” and “sheba.”

By the time the talkies arrived, this fad mostly died out, though there were a few humorous treatments of the “sheik” theme, such as 1937’s The Sheik Steps Out with Ramon Novarro, a low-budget affair that converted the Hull novel from a racy melodrama to a screwball comedy and replaced the trembling Lady Diana with a wisecracking American heiress.

When Depression-era exhibitors put The Sheik on the bill, it was usually a bid for nostalgia. These showings did draw patrons, though The Sheik was mostly mocked as a “typical” silent film, what with Valentino’s bug-eyed antics and Agnes Ayres’ imitation of a fainting goat. Apparently forgetting that critics in the 1920s had the same issues with the film, it was held up as yet another example of how unquestionably, absolutely superior sound films were in terms of realism (for what that’s worth).

The hell with realism– realism would deny me fantastic reaction images like this!

Not everyone reacted this way, of course: Valentino still had a devoted cult fanbase and they did not appreciate snickers from fellow audience members or the accompaniment playing “The Sheik of Araby” to camp up the screening.

While The Sheik might have been enjoyed as a guilty and nostalgic pleasure (not unlike the reaction some have to Twilight these days), The Son of the Sheik was another matter. When a Washington DC theater revived that one in 1938, people rushed for seats.

Yes, you read that right! The “sophisticated” 1930s audience lined around the block to see a silent movie to the point where hundreds of patrons had to be turned away at the box office.  Inspired by this success, over five hundred theaters across the United States would revive Son and always to the same bewildered reaction that an “old movie” could be good. Not so bad it’s good, but genuinely well-made, entertaining, and holding its own against current releases. Even skeptical youngsters who had been kids when Valentino died were entranced.

A surprise success (all over again).

What won over an audience of people hostile to silent films? Comments from both critics and ordinary film-goers emphasized the film’s blend of hot-blooded drama and self-aware humor as the main ingredient for its continued appeal. Unlike the first movie, the sequel is aware it’s dealing in hokum. The actors are all in on the joke while still preserving the sense that vital things are at stake for the characters, a magnificent achievement.

And then there was the silver image of Valentino in his prime. Girls and women too young to have experienced Valentino mania thought he was just as appealing as Hollywood heartthrobs of the day. And of course, those who had loved him long ago felt that fangirlish fervor all over again. As one patron explained, “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him– I still love him.”

If there’s something to be gleaned from this anecdote, it’s that many people– even in the thick of the Golden Age of Hollywood– have turned their noses up at anything older than them or just perceived as “old” in general. This isn’t unique to millennials or Gen Z. Even during the silent era, audiences mocked the stage melodramas of their grandparents’ time.

Everyone thinks themselves more sophisticated then the storytellers who came before them, that their tastes are less “cringey” than the audiences of yesteryear. Sad, but seemingly inevitable. However, there are plenty of treasures from the past in every medium, waiting to be appreciated for those willing to take a chance on anything not made in the past five minutes.

On that note, read Drew’s book! It really is fascinating and filled with other interesting stories like this. In a way, silent films are given more love and attention now than they were immediately after sound arrived.

“Father and son” – Steamboat Bill Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 1928)

annex-keaton-buster-steamboat-bill-jr-_nrfpt_03

Steamboat Bill Jr. is Buster Keaton’s final independent film, though not necessarily the last one in which he had creative control. His first work with MGM, The Cameraman, could be said to hold that title, so when you watch Steamboat Bill Jr. there is not the same sense of the bittersweet you may get when watching Keaton’s final 1928 masterpiece. However, there is something grand about Steamboat Bill Jr., not just in its dazzling final hurricane sequence, tight sense of plotting and structure, or Buster’s increasingly creative pratfalls, but in the emotional heart of the story, young Willie Canfield’s efforts to simultaneously please his father Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrance) and be with his college girlfriend, Kitty (Marion Byron)— a hard task, considering her father and his are rivals in the river boat transportation business.

It is true that Keaton’s films often show his characters more comfortable with props and animals than other people; this is perhaps the largest reason why his characters feel otherworldly, as though he hailed from another dimension altogether and were perplexed by ordinary human interaction. Perhaps more than any of Keaton’s previous films, Steamboat Bill Jr. has Keaton interacting with other characters constantly, and they are some of the most interesting supporting characters in his oeuvre.

Keaton’s feature characters don’t often have families. With the exceptions of the aunt in Our Hospitality who warns him of the feud, the parents in Battling Butler who push him to “rough it” in the wilderness in order to become less dependent on luxury, and the doting mother in College (played by 1910s comedienne Florence Turner, no less!), most Keaton protagonists are loners looking for a place to call home or at least someone to share home with (often a love interest, sometimes a cow). Yet in Steamboat Bill Jr. unlike any other Keaton movie, the protagonist’s family is a source of conflict. In Keaton’s short work, Torrance may have been purely the heavy with his scowling face and towering build, but here that function is complicated: he is the bullying heavy, but he is also Willie’s perplexed father. Willie’s petite frame, stylish clothes, and enthusiastic ukulele-playing have the burly Bill fearing his son may be a wimp at best or a touch “purple under the collar” at worst. And while Willie’s relationship with Kitty may dispel the latter anxiety, his prime desire is to make Willie more of what he thinks a man ought to be. Being a son who wants to please the father he’s never known, Willie agrees to go along with it.

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Irritated with his son’s college boy aesthetic, Bill Sr. takes Willie to the hat shop to try on a series of comically oversized hats. Of course, the scene is funny, what with the silly headwear and Buster’s attempts to look as dignified as possible in them, but the scene is hardly frivolous or throwaway. It serves an important narrative function: the main conflict of the film is father versus son, or perhaps more specifically, the father wanting to fashion his son into his own image. Yet the moment Bill Sr. is satisfied with a hat and the two Canfields leave the shop, the headwear is blown off of Willie’s head the moment they leave the shop. Already, we are shown through the visuals that Bill’s mission is a doomed one; Willie cannot be changed and, as we come to learn later, should not be.

And yet despite Bill’s distaste for his son being who he is, he is not presented as a terrible person or black-hatted villain. Indeed, Bill is protective of his son, knocking out any sailor who attempts to bully or beat up on Willie. And once his violent temper lands him in prison, he gains a newfound respect for his effete son’s resourcefulness in the hilarious and celebrated tools-in-bread sequence. Like Annabelle Lee in The General who so wanted Johnnie Gray to be a soldier, Bill Sr. discovers that there was nothing wrong with his son after all, he never needed to change himself to prove heroic. (Throughout the picture, Keaton and Torrance have such wonderful chemistry in general; it’s too bad they never shared the screen again. It could have livened up some of the dreadful projects MGM had in store for Keaton in the early 1930s.)

In the end, Willie more than proves himself, as Keaton’s heroes often do. Yes, he may not be physically intimidating or as willing to pick a fight, but he does manage to possess bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness when he rescues Kitty and Bill from drowning. Willie is also forgiving. Both Bill and Kitty want Willie’s complete, unwavering loyalty to one or the other of them; both become angry when he fails to split ties with either of them. Rejected by both, Willie has no reason to stay in Mississippi, yet he sees his father in distress and stays to help him. After rescuing his father and his girl, all three reconcile and are allowed to live happily ever after.

Keaton’s last two truly Keaton-esque features, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman, allow his protagonist to be more vulnerable in a way, put into situations where we see more of his emotional side in regards to human interactions. Not that he is cold or machine-like in his earlier features as some silent film aficionados have claimed: for me, his hurt and humiliation during the early scenes of The General, where Annabelle Lee rejects him, are moving— though Keaton does not keep you feeling sorry for his hero for long because dammit, we’ve got a train engine to save! But the intensified emotional qualities of these two films make them stand out, all culminating in that famously heartbreaking descent into the sand scene in The Cameraman. The father-son moments and romantic scenes in Steamboat Bill Jr. and much of The Cameraman are perfect illustrations of what film scholar Imogen Sara Smith means when she claims Keaton’s movie persona is like “Baked Alaska in reverse,” cool to the touch, warm at the center.

(Images courtesy of Doctor Macro)

See You in the Fall Blogathon: The motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)

This essay is for the See You in the Fall blogathon. Check out the roster for other posts celebrating our favorite moments in physical comedy. (Also forgive me for the lack of photos. WordPress is not co-operating today.

Sherlock Jr. was a monumental film in my earliest days of silent film geekdom. It was the film that solidified an admiration for silent cinema in general and converted me into a Buster Keaton fanatic overnight.

It’s hard to select a favorite scene. Buster jumping into the world of the screen and undergoing a series of editing shifts is rightly the most celebrated in the film and has been dissected countless times. The pool game is hilarious and creative (Hilariously creative? Creatively hilarious?). The moment where Buster seems to leap through his assistants stomach and disappear had me rewinding the film and still dazzles. But when push comes to shove, the motorcycle race to save Kathyrn MacGuire is the highlight of the movie for me.

The sequence starts off with Sherlock running down the street as he is pursued by one of his rival’s gang members. A mustachioed police officer on a motorcycle stops to question Sherlock as to what’s the matter, causing the pursuing goon to retreat; however, it turns out the officer is really Sherlock’s assistant Gillette in a not-so-convincing faux-stache (a cute in-joke referring to actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes onstage and in a 1916 film version long thought lost, only to be rediscovered last year). Sherlock hops onto the front of the bike and points Gillette in the direction of the place where the heroine is being held against her will.

Unfortunately for Sherlock, Gillette is tossed off the bike when they hit a pothole, leaving Sherlock balanced on the handlebars as the bike rushes driver-less through the streets. Unwitting of his predicament, Sherlock is taken at high speeds through the busy roads in town, through a bachelor party in the country, barely evading trains, trucks, trees, dynamite, and collapsing bridges. Either his guardian angel is working overtime or fate is being especially good to him until he crashes through the window of a shack and knocking one of the occupiers through the opposite window. Conveniently, the shack is where the heroine is being held and the victim of Buster’s dramatic entry is none other than one of the rival’s goons.

Keaton’s physicality is astounding. No doubt today, the scene would be shot with a CG double in the long shots or the actor in front of a green screen. Not in the silent era and certainly not under Keaton’s watch: he learned how to control the bike from the handlebars before shooting and shot the majority of the sequence on actual streets. There are a few moments of cinematic trickery, such as the bit with Buster evading a train being played backwards or the two trucks forming a bridge being a composite shot, but if you’re expecting rear projection or miniatures, you will not find them here.

The funniest moment comes when Sherlock realizes his situation, turning around only to find Gillette has been long gone. The bike jerks as though channeling the character’s shock. Then Sherlock looks straight into the camera with a look of indignation, as though we should have mentioned this mishap to him from beyond the fourth wall.

The magic of the scene comes from its illusion of spontaneity. While silent comedians did do a great deal of improvisation, there’s little chance that a sequence as intricate as the motorcycle chase had much room for that. That it feels so immediate, as though this were all unfolding in real time and operating on the good graces of Lady Luck, is a testament to Keaton and his creative team.

College (dir. James W. Horne, 1927)

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Out of Buster Keaton’s independent features, I would have to say Three Ages and College seem to tie as the least favorite for most fans. Not that anyone outright dislikes these films as far as I know, but many do feel they represent Keaton and his team at their least inspired. It’s believed that the financial disappointment of the comedy epic The General forced something a bit safer and more formulaic upon Keaton, further souring the behind the scenes story of this picture. But should College really be looked upon so harshly? After all, if the similarly low-key Battling Butler had the misfortune of being made after the high point of Keaton’s magnum opus rather than before, if the places were switched, would we view College as negatively as we do? Were the places switched, would it in fact be considered underrated in the extreme?

Keaton is Ronald, a nerdy high school graduate who happens to be dating Mary (Anne Cornwall), the most popular girl of the class. Having more intellectual smarts than common sense, Ronald gives a speech about the uselessness of athletics in front of his classmates—all of whom are either athletes or sports fans. Offended and embarrassed to be associated with him, Mary breaks up with Ronald, telling him she’ll return to him if he “changes [his] mind about athletics.”

Hardcore nerd Ronald may be, but Mary’s affections reign supreme in his world, so the freshman decides to follow her to the expensive Clayton University. Of course, the path to true love does not run smooth: being from a middle class background, Ronald is forced to work a series of odd jobs to pay his way through higher education; he’s the target of campus bully Harold (Harold Goodwin, who turned out to be one of Keaton’s lifelong pals off-screen) and love rival Harold; and his attempts to break into the campus sports scene result in one epic fail after the other.

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The film is largely episodic: Ronald attempts to either hold down a job or try out for one of the sports teams on-campus, fails, embarrasses himself in front of a sympathetic Mary and a snickering Harold, rinse, repeat. These vignettes range from highly entertaining to unpleasant. The restaurant sequence is universally considered the low point of the movie, with Buster appearing in blackface due to the establishment only wanting “colored help.” (Yes, this was another time where white audiences thought this way okay; that does not make it inoffensive). The parts where Ronald gets booed while giving his speech about “The Curse of Athletics” or hazed by his brawnier classmates always feel too nasty to be funny.

But what does work is fabulous. My favorite episodes in the film are the soda shop and track sequences. The soda shop is truly classic Keaton routine (one I’m surprised he never recycled for any of his later television or stage work), a great example of one character doing something with style and grace and then the main character emulating them but getting everything wrong. The soda jerk behind the counter does his work of making milkshakes with deftness and ease, catching ice cream scoops and sliding down glasses to customers with just the right amount of momentum. Ronald’s own performance of these duties is a delightful parody of physical grace, his own concoctions a wonderful mess.

The track and field scene isn’t especially groundbreaking, but it has two things going for it. The first is that it’s relatively inspired. Buster gets to jump about and torture himself in various amusing ways, my favorite being his attempt to pole vault which leaves him with his upper half stuck in the ground, his legs protruding from the dust like ungainly daisies. And the second reason? Well, it should really count against the believability of the story all things considered; we’re told Ronald is this physically-challenged nerd, made to think that under those sweaters and baggy tops he has the physique of Steve Urkel, yet the moment he changes into those track clothes we see a lean, muscular man. The only in-universe explanations I can come up with are that either Ronald got those muscles from heavy text books or being bitten by a radioactive spider during a field trip. The illusion of the nerd is broken, but—my goodness, Keaton looks so good in those clothes! No complaints here!

Psst, Buster--- your gorgeous physique is showing!

Psst, Buster— your gorgeous physique is showing!

College is often compared to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though it might be more accurate to view it as part of one of the most popular film genre of 1920s Hollywood, the campus comedy. Comic performers such as Marion Davies and William Haines also starred in college comedies of their own during the decade. While The Freshman and College are of a similar genre and involve a rather geeky fellow going into the world of sports, the similarities end there, mainly because Lloyd and Keaton’s characters do not share the same motives for doing what they do. Lloyd wants to be the most popular man on campus and goes out of his way to impress his classmates by imitating a character in a movie and then trying out for the football team once he realizes he’s become a laughingstock. Keaton could not care less about the rest of the campus: he just wants to win the heart of one girl by conforming to what she finds desirable.

Spoiler warning—if you do not want, then skip the next three paragraphs!

Much has been made of the strange ending. Traditionally, such a lightweight, gag-based picture would end with Ronald and Mary walking out of the church hand-in-hand, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Instead, College keeps going forward: we cut to scenes of parenthood, old age, and then death. If that wasn’t dark enough, the tone here is quite cynical. When the two are married, they seem to be fully in love, almost fused together in one another’s arms. But after? The scene of the couple with their children does not show a close family unit: the kids play in the background as their parents sit next to one another, not holding hands or even making eye contact, but absorbed in separate activities, oblivious to each other and the kids. Then we see the Ronald and Mary as an old married couple: seated side by side, there is a sense of hostility between them with Ronald disagreeably saying something to his wife while she stares into space.

When we get to the final image of the two gravestones, it is not a symbol of two soulmates together in death: there seems to be something sadder at play, a sense that Ronald wasted his potential and his life by bothering to win the day, that perhaps pursuing athletics did “curse” him after all! It’s almost the opposite of The General, where Keaton’s character saves the day and finds happiness by being who he is: an engineer, not a soldier (well, not until the end, but still—we never see Ronald use his own God-given brains to do much in College the way Johnnie Gray uses his skills as an engineer).

Of course, I’m sure Keaton didn’t intend any deep thinking to be read into this ending. I’m sure the more psychoanalytical film-goer will think this is some commentary on Keaton’s own marriage at the time, which disintegrated more with every year and ended in a nasty divorce in 1932, but I’m reluctant to go that far. Maybe he just wanted to kid the typical Hollywood ending? Or maybe he was expressing his own dissatisfaction with the film? It feels almost satiric, but if that is the case, then it does not gel with the rest of the film, which stays fast to the conventions of its genre without once poking fun at the genre itself.

Nevertheless, College is not nearly as big of a dud as some claim it to be. Yes, it’s not inventive as Keaton’s more inspired work, but even a minor Keaton film such as this has its own kind of low-key charms that make it pleasant viewing. Minor Keaton is still Keaton after all, and that can never be 100 percent bad.

Wild Orchids (dir. Sidney Franklin, 1929)

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Be warned: this review features spoilers.

Wild Orchids is never going to be listed as one of the finest films of the silent era, but for those who adore uninhibited kitsch, then this Garbo vehicle is perfect. Unashamedly melodramatic with its tried and true melodramatic love triangle stock plot set in an orientalist never-never land, it is great campy fun.

Rather than a temptress out to seduce and destroy men or a free-spirited modern woman punished by society, Garbo plays Lillie Sterling, a wealthy young woman married to a much older man. John Sterling (played by the always solid Lewis Stone) is a nice enough fellow, though he is neglectful of his wife. Of course, this being a Hollywood film, the penalty for ignoring your attractive, much younger wife, and thus leaving her romantically and sexually unsatisfied, is for the script to introduce a roguish rival. Cue Prince De Gace (Nils Asther), whom Garbo first encounters in the hallway of a ship en course to the Indonesian island of Java, where John plans on doing business. Lillie is not terribly impressed upon their first meeting as De Gace is mercilessly beating one of his servants. Realizing how awkward this is, he smiles and nods, attempting to put on the charm, but Lillie makes sure to pass on by. It’s not the best first impression, but if there’s one concept foreign to De Gace, it’s giving up on a promising conquest.

The prince befriends John, offering to house him and Lillie in his own palace and further tempting his new pal with a tiger-hunting trip. When alone with Lillie, De Gace tries to break down her resistance toward him—by manhandling and forcing kisses upon her, of course! Lillie tells her husband she’s uncomfortable around him, but John dismisses her uneasiness as mild xenophobia. He trusts the prince completely, allowing him to be alone with his wife constantly. Of course, Lillie can only handle so much titillation and as time wears on, it’s getting harder and harder to resist the prince’s advances…

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Wild Orchids is pure, unfiltered classic era MGM in terms of content and visuals. The MGM style was one of glossy, pearly black-and-white, beautiful stars in soft focus, and the highest of production values. We have our well-dressed and attractive stars in exotic palaces. We have Garbo slinking about in a (by 1929 standards) revealing dancer’s outfit. We have Asther brimming with sex appeal and passion. We have a ferocious tiger figuring into the climax. All the nine yards, that’s the MGM way.

The majority of the plot (written by John Colton, most known for penning the play Rain, which had been filmed as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson the year before) is the stuff of 1920s orientalist fantasy, following the idea of the east as a place where sensuality is allowed to run free of all western social convention. This was a common trope of 1920s cinema, most famously exemplified in that delightfully inept classic of kitsch, The Sheik where we have a western woman whose sexual frigidity is broken down by a lusty man of the east (or in that case, a white dude masquerading as a man of the east). As you can expect of a Hollywood product of the 1920s dealing with any kind of non-western culture, Wild Orchids is content to fetishize the Javanese. It’s not as bad as the Sheik films in that area, but it’s still more than a little problematic, of course.

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Wild Orchids gives Garbo a break from being the exotic seductress for once, transferring those duties to Asther. She’s a sexually frustrated “good woman,” her marital alienation rendering her vulnerable to the prince’s amorous advances. Being “good” she cannot pursue De Gace herself ; the heat between them can only manifest itself as a sexual cat and mouse game, with Lillie as the mouse. There’s a thick layer of sadomasochism in the Lillie/De Gace interactions: she dreams of him with that whip, writhing about in her sleep in an almost orgasmic manner, and finally submitting to him toward the end of the film, melting into his arms. Though Garbo is certainly the star and though she was usually presented as a sort of Other, here Lillie is meant to be a surrogate for the women in the audience, so-called decent women wishing to shake off responsibility and get some satisfaction.

Asther is one of those rare leading men able to match Garbo in charisma. One of the casualties of the cultural rift between the Jazz Age and the early years of the Great Depression, his career dwindled, though he was allowed to give a fine performance opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Here he’s an excellent antagonist, simultaneously charming and creepy.

Of course, in the end, Lillie only has room for one man in her heart and that’s good old John, though one does wonder what she sees in him. Though Stone imbues him with a great deal of likeability, he does ignore and disregard her to such a great degree that it borders on condescending. One detail which highlights the rift between them is their sleeping in separate beds (remember this is before the Hayes Code made married couples in the same bed a cinematic sin) and John’s surprised reaction to a double bed in the bedchamber given to Lillie courtesy of De Gace.

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The 100 minute runtime is a bit unjustified. The story screeches to a halt so the main trio can watch a Javanese dance in a scene almost reminiscent of the banquet in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t mind a break from the action for campy dancing, but did it have to be ten minutes long? All while adding nothing to the character dynamics or the story? It just makes the picture drag, which is a shame since the rest of the film has excellent pacing. Fifteen minutes off the runtime would have worked wonders. Being a late silent film, Wild Orchids also sports a Vitaphone soundtrack. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of them with their distracting sound effects and intrusive pop songs plastered over scenes where they don’t fit, but your mileage may vary.

Overall, if you love old-school kitsch as much as I do, then Wild Orchids is worth the overlong running time. Garbo fans will relish her presence. But as for anyone else, there’s little else to recommend it.