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Monday, July 14, 2008

Bleary-Eyed Movie Maven

"It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkies instead of the other way around." ~ Mary Pickford


That's it. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is over.


I sat for many hours in a darkened theatre with almost 2,000 other enthusiastic cineastes.

It was a weekend of plucky orphans and exotic princesses and Ojibway Indians and powerful caliphs and underdogs and heroes and lovers.

It's hard to know what to tell you about the festival, really. I mean, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to describe movies you haven't seen, because that won't relay the power and attraction that these movies have.

I guess one thing I can tell you is something that The Boy says: These movies are a perfect form of time travel.

They are, of course, because you can see in exquisite detail the life in the teens and Twenties, when this country was undergoing monumental changes in technology and social roles and mores. But to me, these films are not only a way-back machine, but also a timelessness machine. What I see in these films, apart from great acting, interesting cinematography and inventive stories, are that people still want and love and dream of the same things, today just as they did almost 100 years ago.

One thing that I also enjoy about this festival is the amount of education I receive about the movies I am about to watch. The festival brings in respected critics (Leonard Maltin is a regular) and film historians and archivists, who explain the historical significance of these movies and what they mean to us as well as audiences in the past. Often, the stories of how these films have literally been saved from assured deterioration and are painstakingly conserved so that they can go on to be enjoyed by future generations are almost as interesting as the movies themselves. So few of these films have actually survived (some reports are less than 10%--meaning over 90% of these films are lost forever), that the ones that can be shown are even more important than ever.

One of the tragedies of our modern entertainment industry is that it leaves no room for exposing most people to the films of times past. Seeing a silent (or any classic film, for that matter) on television is a very second-place alternative but one that often is the only alternative. When these treasured films are given the venue and the opportunity to be viewed on a big screen like they were intended to be, the life and substance of the stories, the vibrance of the acting, all of that springs to life.

Otherwise, these films suffer the fate of becoming museum pieces and quaint curiosities.


I'm going to recap a few films here, and I hope that someday you can see them too. Clips of these films on youtube are rare, as you might imagine, but I've found a few that you'll enjoy if you have a few minutes to watch.

One highlight of the festival was The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), by German animator Lotte Reiniger. This stunning and enchanting film took three years to complete, animated entirely by delicate paper silhouette figures. This film, a pastiche of stories from One Thousand and One Nights, is the oldest surviving animated feature film and Reiniger the first female animator.

The clip below is one of the highlights of the film, when Prince Achmed finds the exotic harem:

Harold Lloyd's amazing talent is experiencing a renaissance after many years of neglect. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he was one of the world's most popular and successful comedic actors.

I'll be honest and tell you that Lloyd is my favorite of the classic silent comedians. His films are fast, witty and expertly made. There's never a dull moment in a Harold Lloyd film and the one we saw, The Kid Brother, was accompanied by a live orchestra, the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra from Colorado.

The only clip I could find from this film is here, but it gives you a taste.


Whereas many American silents are imbued with a somewhat innocent manner, the German Expressionism movement during the height of the Weimar Republic created incomparably powerful and sophisticated movies.

The German adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel The Man Who Laughs, starring future Casablanca bad guy Conrad Veidt, was an ornate melodrama of love and pain and loss. The disfigured hero, his beautiful, yet blind, angelic love, the cruel villians that try to keep them apart...and the woman who obviously inspired Madonna's signature style.

(The entire film is actually available in sections on youtube, beginning here, but if you can rent the DVD...)


Lon Chaney Sr., the Man of 1000 Faces, was a terrifically talented actor. Raised by deaf-mute parents, he was perfectly destined to work in a medium where a voice was not a prerequisite. His face, so agile and so expressive, even without makeup, is fascinating to watch. Paired with an extremely young and very sexy Joan Crawford (not the Mildred Pierce variety you are thinking of) and directed by Tod Browning (now idolized as a cult director) in an atmosphere of circus creepiness...there is not a movie today that even comes close to The Unknown.


I know this is a lot of information that might only be of interest to a few of you, but if you even get to see one of these films (and be sure to let me know!), I'll be so happy to know a new appreciator is out there to help spread the word about these wonderful, artistic treasures.

An excellent introduction to many silent (and other classic films) and the impact they have on modern movies and directors today is the four-hour documentary film presented by Martin Scorsese and produced by the British Film Institute, called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is a DVD series I highly recommend for your film history education.


greg July 14, 2008 at 11:13 PM  

I am a big big big film and movie fanboy so this is like, a big dose of awesome.

If you have not seen Wall-E yet, I highly recommend it. Wall-E is a lineal descendant of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. So awesome.

But there's another aspect to the silent era-talkie era. Under the silent era actors were ruthlessly exploited. However when talkies came about, they hired stage actors such as Eddie Cantor (who'd been an Equity president) to act in talkies.

Equity actors, who were used to being treated like human beings, revolted at the BS the studios put out. In fact it was so bad Actors boycotted the Oscars for years until the Screen Actors Guild finally won recognition.

Why do I yap about this? Because the upcoming documentary "A cast of 1000's" coming out this summer was one of my big projects in 2005. Since then I've spent a lot of time researching actors and folks like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and the rest are not just awesome actors, they are also pioneers in getting artists treated like human beings.

L. F. Chaney July 15, 2008 at 2:14 AM  

So glad you enjoyed it.

julochka July 15, 2008 at 8:35 AM  

so great the quick lesson in silent film! i love them too, but don't get a chance to see them often. the danish film institute does put a couple on their roster every month, but i don't get there often enough. whenever i watch, i wish i had been coming of age in 1913...what a time that would have been.

and who knows? perhaps i was there...


Anonymous July 15, 2008 at 10:20 AM  

i can sense the passion in the words you used for the post... i am thankful that you shared. i've been visiting the library for my movie selection as of late... i will definetly take up your recommendations. silent films have always intrigued me but i've never actually seen one. your post has made me realize, i've definetly been missing out.

Red Shoes July 15, 2008 at 10:49 AM  

I'm not a movie maven at all, myself, but I so love your movie posts. When I go home let's have movie dates. I'll bring the popcorn.

Yoli July 15, 2008 at 12:10 PM  

I always wanted to name my son Achmed. My husband would not have it. Thank you for sharing this wealth of silent films. You are a very interesting young lady.

Relyn July 15, 2008 at 7:32 PM  

One of the things I love about your blog is that I always learn something new. Your generosity of knowledge always leaves me feeling slightly giddy with the new information and new discoveries. I've already added The Unknown to my Netflix queue.

I am working on a post about it right now, but I wanted to go ahead and tell you about The Inventions of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. You must read it tomorrow if you haven't already. It goes perfectly with this post and I am just delighted to think about how much I know you will enjoy it.

Christina July 15, 2008 at 9:38 PM  

You so have to get me up to speed on all these movies :) I am going to have to get a few on dvd to catch up.

tangobaby July 15, 2008 at 10:24 PM  

Boy, first off, let me just say that you guys are such great commenters. Gold stars for ALL of you...!

On that note:

Hi Greg,

I am so glad to have provided a big dose of awesome to you. I believe this is the first time I have ever been told I have done that, so I am very excited. I will try to provide such doses again!

However, I am going to have to agree to disagree with you about Wall-E. This is probably a subject that we'll have to discuss more in great detail at the Blackthorn Pub over a brewski, but let me be brief and say that I think movies like this are ruining people's ability to appreciate movies. I think the money spent on special effects and animation comes at the direct expense of quality scriptwriting and direction. (Not only that, when a movie is hyped to the heavens like this one, I know I will not like it. The movie NEVER lives up to the hoopla.)

As to the history of Hollywood and the evolution of the film industry, I have no special idolation of this business and I've done enough reading to know that the film industry has never been one to have any interest whatsoever in the care and treatment of its talent.

The studio system and HUAC and all the stuff surrounding the Hays Code...there's so much dirt in Hollywood that you have to just understand that the movies we enjoy never reflect the realities of how they were made.

You may have already read this book but The Whole Equation by David Thompson is a great primer on the subject of the business of Hollywood, and there's nothing pretty about it.

Okay, stepping off soapbox for now. The rest will have to wait!

Hi l.f.chaney,

I am honored that you've visited my blog! You are an exceptional talent.


Hi julochka,

Yes, I think for those of us who daydream in the past, these movies are also like home movies, too. Except we are only there in spirit. I'm still looking forward to seeing some Danish silents, now that you've put the bee in my bonnet. Perhaps you'll see one first and educate me?

Hi mrs. sarah ott,

I feel the way you do, when I discover yet another subject I know I will need to jump into and learn all about. There are not enough lifetimes to explore all the wonderful things this world can offer us...but hopefully we can experience as many as we can while we're here.

I'm working on a list of films to recommend for a good start, so check back for that. I'd love to hear your opinions on some of the movies you end up seeing.

Hi red shoes,

By the time I'm done with you, I will mold you into some sort of maven, not to worry. If you bring the popcorn, I'll get the Ben 'n Jerry's. That's how me and Ms. Wellspring usually work it.

Maybe we should watch The Commitments first, since you've just been in Dublin.

Hi Yoli,

Thank you for listening to my ramblings. Sometimes I think I'm the only person who thinks this stuff is cool, so I'm glad to know you're out there enjoying what I have to share.

I confess I had never thought of the name Achmed until I saw this film on Sunday, but if your son is a little prince to you, then it would be a good name for him, even as a nickname!

Hi Relyn,

I'm so glad I'm inspiring your NetFlix list, and as I mentioned above, I'm going to put together a list of movies for my virtual film festival.

One thing that's very important and helpful is to not watch these movies in a vacuum. The reason I provide links is so that hopefully you get a chance to read up on the movie you're going to see, because these movies are so much more enjoyable when you know a bit more about them. It's a rare event when we're watching a movie and don't have the laptop handy to look up something on wikipedia or imdb. Also, the books of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert (film essays, not reviews) are very helpful when delving into certain genres or actors. I also like the Mick LaSalle books about pre-Code actors and actresses, but I haven't started on that whole area yet.

I will definitely be on the lookout for your post and the book recommendation!


Hi christina,

Of course, keep an eye out for my crib sheet...I've got lots of ideas for all my peeps!