Archive for the Silent Film Category

Tomorrow: The Silent Clowns Presents the Greatest Silent Comedy Feature You’ve Never Seen

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017 at 2:30pm, at Lincoln Center Library, the Silent Clowns Film Series will present the hilarious Raymond Griffith feature Hands Up! (1926).

Griffith’s stock has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to screenings like this, and most aficionados today rank him as something like “the 5th or 6th genius of silent comedy”, somewhere just behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Of those I just mentioned Griffith has the most in common, I suppose, with Lloyd, in being less clown-like, more of a comic actor, although his character is very different from Lloyd’s. (For more on Griffith, read my full tribute).

At any rate, my provocative title presumes you’ve already seen every feature by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Hands Up! (1926) is close to them in quality. It is considered Griffith’s finest and best known film. It is a Civil War comedy told from the point of view of the South — released an entire year before Keaton’s The General.  Griffith plays a dashing Confederate spy on a mission to steal Yankee gold. Along the way, he constantly gets into fixes and coolly extricates himself from each one. Its most famous sequence has Griffith up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He gets himself out of the pickle by throwing dinner plates into the air at the crucial second, which his executioners are then obliged to shoot at, thinking they are clay pigeons.  The father of both of his love interests (he is equally in love with two sisters) is played by Mack Swain, in his first role after The Gold Rush.

Full details at the Silent Clowns web site. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Birth of a Movement

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Silent Film, Television with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles premiere of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1914), which like America itself, is epic in scale, unprecedented, innovative — and troubled by a perverse, pathological racism. As it is so emblematic, I return to the subject of this film periodically, as in these previous posts:

On the Complicated Legacy of The Birth of of a Nation 

The Premiere of a 101 year Old Bert Williams Feature

Embargo on Griffith 

The Dark Side of the Jazz Age 

Today there is something new to add to the dialogue. This past Monday, the PBS show Independent Lens premiered the new documentary Birth of a Movement, the story of how William Monroe Trotter, editor of an African American newspaper in Boston, helped launch a nationwide movement to get the film banned. It’s a perfect topic to talk about at the moment. Just as in Griffith’s time, when his film inspired a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the repercussions of hateful and irresponsible speech are all around us — including, unthinkably, a President who is endorsed by the Klan. Sometimes history not only repeats itself, it gets worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to study it. The film is streaming online at the PBS web site through March 8. Watch it here. 

Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

Where Roscoe Arbuckle Filmed His Brooklyn Vitaphone Shorts

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2017 by travsd

There’s no way the Travalanche readers won’t LOVE this article and the blog it comes from. Thanks John Bengtson!

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

(C) 2017 Google. Looking south, the recently demolished Vitaphone Studios (yellow outline) in relation to many of Roscoe’s filming sites. The landmark Vitagraph smokestack, for the moment still standing, appears at bottom due right of the “North” marker. (C) 2017 Google.

Starting at page 2 below, this multi-page post reveals more than two dozen Brooklyn movie locations filmed over 85 years ago. Click each image for a larger view.

The Silent Clowns - MoMA Arbuckle filming Hey Pop at 3rd Ave and 80th in Bay Ridge – see page 7 below.

The recently demolished Vitagraph (Vitaphone) Studio, once standing at E 14th between Chestnut and Locust in the Midwood community of Brooklyn, holds a giant place in cinema history. One of the earliest and most prolific studios, it was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1925, where it became instrumental in the widespread production of talking pictures.

ca The Chestnut Ave side of the studio – Brooklyn Public…

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Century of Slapstick #106: Charlie Chaplin in “Easy Street”:

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of one of Charlie Chaplin’s best known and best loved comedy shorts Easy Street (1917).

Easy Street was made and released at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual Period, which many modern fans regard as the acme of career, when he was at the height of his powers comically, but not yet too far down the road to pathos that he would begin in earnest around The Kid (1921). The plot is simple. Charlie plays a guy who’s so desperate for a job he becomes a policeman in a bad neighborhood, at a precinct just desperate enough to hire him. The slum is being terrorized by a thug played by Eric Campbell in probably his greatest screen role. He’s so scary that the entire neighborhood en masse won’t take him on. A crowd of literally 50 people cowers in his presence. Chaplin is the David to his Goliath, and he finally conquers him by gassing him with a lamp that he himself has bent down to show his strength. Later when he rebounds, Charlie gets the advantage again when he accidentally sits on a syringe full of cocaine and gets the strength to throw a stove on top of him out a window. In the end, Charlie gets the girl (Edna Purviance of course), the bully is reformed, and everyone goes to church on Sunday.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

A Muchness of Mabel’s Movies at Midnight

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd

Tonight at Midnight (Eastern) TCM will be screening several silent comedy shorts featuring the incomparable Mabel Normand:

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The Bangville Police (1913) 

The Bangville Police is the comedy short containing what is considered by many to be the first appearance of The Keystone Kops (others consider the first to have been  1912′ Hoffmeyer’s Legacy). To muddy the water some, the kops aren’t uniformed in this one, they’re an all-volunteer force in a rural community called Bangville, quite different from the urban Los Angeles settings we’re accustomed to seeing the Kops run amok in. (One wonders if it isn’t a riff on Essanay’s “Snakeville” series).

At any rate Fred Mace plays the head Kop in this one. Ford Sterling, who normally plays the Kops’ Chief is in it, but just as a regular officer. Other Kops in this film include Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann and Al St. John. Mack Sennett directed. Mabel Normand plays a young farm girl who thinks she hears robbers in the barn and calls the police in. After much brouhaha and fol-de-rol, the Kops arrive and break into the barn, only to find that all the commotion has been caused by — oh but wait! Why should I tell you? Watch for yourself!

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Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) 

Directed by Mack Sennett, starring Sennett, Normand, and Alice Davenport. It’s a great little film: mama’s boy Mack disses his girlfriend, the housemaid (Mabel) who runs off to the big city and becomes a star. The coolest part of this film is the scene in the theatre, giving us an invaluable glimpse at what attending the cinema was like in the days of nickelodeons.

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Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Directed by Sennett and co-starring Mabel and Charlie Chaplin In this film Chaplin plays a character somewhat unlike his more recognized Little Fellow. Here he is a middle class husband in a top hat. And Normand, not Chaplin, is still the above-the-title star at this early stage. There are several ironclad laws in the Keystone universe. One of them is, if you are in the park with your wife NEVER LEAVE HER ALONE ON A PARK BENCH. Mabel plays Charlie’s wife in this one, and the instant he steps away, masher Mack Swain shows up to harass her. When he gets back, Charlie doesn’t do much to punish the man. Later, Mabel brings home a dressmaker’s dummy for Charlie to practice punching on. That night, he comes home three sheets to the wind, mistakes the dummy for a prowler, and has a hilarious fight with it.

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Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Directed by and co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Normand. In the two years following Chaplin’s departure from Keystone (1915-1916) Arbuckle-Normand team-ups were Mack Sennett’s most formidable box office combination. The pair appeared in dozens of films together, most frequently as a domestic couple. It’s especially exciting and instructive to watch the ones towards the end of this period, when the confidence that comes with prolonged stardom informs their performances, and when Arbuckle’s skills as a director blossom. Shortly after this, Arbuckle went on to his own starring series for his own company Comique, and Normand went on to her own starring series of features for Sam Goldwyn. These 1916 Fatty-Mabel shorts are kind of like Beatles records from 1968 or 1969. You’re experiencing artists who are about to be big solo stars, but still interacting in a format they’re beginning to outgrow, in this case the ensemble comedy short. The product of that tension can be very rich.

The plot of Fatty and Mabel Adrfit is very simple. Sweethearts Fatty and Mabel get married and take their honeymoon at a seaside cottage, along with another of Arbuckle’s frequent Keystone co-stars, Luke the Dog. Unfortunately, Fatty’s rival for Mabel’s hand (played as usual by Al St. John) is not through fighting. He and his several henchmen put the little house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up the next day to find themselves far away from shore in a house full of water. The climactic scenes of this comedy are spectacular, on a scale we usually associate with Larry Semon or with Arbuckle’s protege Buster Keaton. Sennett rarely shelled out for such big budget extravagances, but at this stage he was trying to keep both co-stars happy so they wouldn’t “pull a Chaplin” by leaving him. (As we said, they both soon did anyway). How can Fatty and Mabel escape their dire predicament? Perhaps their heroic pooch will be of some help…

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He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

One of Arbuckle’s and Norman’s last movies for Sennett. Quite a good little movie — maybe even Arbuckle’s best film, as it has a bit of emotional depth to it, while still being funny. Fatty and Mabel are a rich married couple. He’s a doctor (although that part of the exposition doesn’t emerge very clearly). They live in a mansion with servants. It opens with them dressing for dinner and bickering.  The dinner guest is her childhood sweetheart (William Jefferson). Fatty is very jealous of their little endearments. Later he is called away to a housecall (a false alarm), then returns to confront his rival — and a pair of burglars led by Al St. John (who does a spectacular stunt on the chandelier). We can hardly believe our eyes when our heroes shoot each other…until it turns out to be a bad dream, spurred on by the lobster they had for dinner.

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Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) 

In this one, Fatty and Mabel are in rural mode, with Mabel as a farmer’s daughter and Fatty as the farmhand who loves her. Lots of fun at the expense of cows and calves is had during their flirtation. But there is trouble in this bucolic paradise. In parody of the old stage melodramas, Al St. John arrives as the son who holds the mortgage on the farm. The farmer (Josef Swickard) is behind in his payments. Mabel must marry St. John or the farm will be seized! Fatty and Mabel flee, pursued by St. John, the father and cops. The climax is most enjoyable. People fly through the air and fall down wells! And of course Fatty and Mabel succeed in their escape and get married.

The Water Nymph (1912) 

An early one starring Normand, Sennett, Sterling, et al.  In The Water Nymph Mabel basically reprises a role she first played for Sennett in her very first movie for him The Diving Girl (Biograph, 1911). Her scandalous appearance in her bathing suit made her something of a sensation, and she was known as “The Diving Girl” for some time after. The buzz helped put Sennett on the map, and epitomized the sort of outrageousness Keystone became known for. In time, he would develop an entire stable of Bathing Beauties.

Tonight’s Silents on TCM: Three with Wallace Beery

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

Tonight at Midnight (Eastern), TCM will be showing their usual Sunday Silents. Tonight’s line-up includes three early films starring Wallace Beery:

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The Keystone comedy Teddy at the Throttle (1917).

In addition to being highly funny in places, this film has multiple points of interest. Released at a time when Mack Sennett had lost his big stars (Chaplin, Normand and Arbuckle had all moved on) he was now looking to create others. From Chicago’s Essanay Studios he hired the husband-wife team of Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery, both shortly to be among the biggest stars in Hollywood, though not for Sennett. At Keystone, Sennett didn’t use the pair as a team. Sennett loved types. He employed Beery as a heavy, and he usually paired Swanson (who was tiny) with equally diminutive Bobby Vernon.

In Teddy at the Throttle Beery plays Swanson’s unscrupulous guardian and also the manager of Vernon’s inherited fortune. Bobby (who is about 5 feet tall) wants to marry Gloria (whom is also about 5 feet tall) but Beery has all these stratagems to derail their designs.  He throws his sister (May Emory) at Vernon so he can get his hands on the fortune. The funniest scene in the movie is one where Bobby is dancing with the large woman and she repeatedly throws the little fellow through the air.

Swanson catches on to the plot just as the villains kidnap Vernon. But now there is a typhoon outside. Their car is stuck in mud, then Swanson is tied to the railroad tracks. But who is this “TEDDY”, you wonder? Teddy is “Teddy the Wonder Dog” or “Keystone Teddy”, a large Great Dane who was one of Sennett’s biggest stars (in all senses) for a while. It is Teddy who rescues both Swanson and Vernon and catches Beery. The final shot is of Swanson and Vernon riding on a locomotive’s cow-catcher. This shot, and all the typhoon business, seem to pre-sage Keaton. 

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A Clever Dummy (1917), also by Keystone. In this one, Beery is joined by the (then) bigger stars Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin.  In this one, Ben Turpin plays a janitor who substitutes for an automaton on the vaudeville stage (Beery plays the theatre manager).

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The 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans, produced and directed by Maurice Tourneur, featuring Beery in the role of Magua.

For more on silent film see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, published by Bear Manor Media 

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