Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silent Films As They Were Intended

Well it’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but it’s been busy; I’m back on the “silent film” track again though, so here goes…

Back in October, I had a pretty cool first experience – I watched my first silent film on an actual movie screen. Two weekends in a row, actually, I spent at the Hollywood Theater watching a series of silent films. One weekend, they held a showing of a collection of silent films from 1914 to 1918, showing the evolution of early cinema. Then on Halloween, I saw the original screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney.

The first weekend was pretty exciting. During that first moment when the lights went out and the organist began playing the excitement was almost tangible in the air – well, at least for me it was! Aside from the young family, with a toddler, I was youngest person in the theater by about three decades, so maybe the novelty of it wasn’t shared by all, but I smiled in delight. The first film, from 1914, was sweet and cute, and basically not more than a play on film. All of the scenes were shot from a single camera, uncut with not so much as a flicker of movement from the camera. The following films journeyed through the early years of cinema, and the evolution of the cinematography was interesting indeed. It snuck up me, and by the time the final film was playing, I thought to myself “wait, when did these start looking like ‘real’ movies!” It is amazing what camera movement can do to the feel of a film. Not that the earlier films weren’t fun, but had they been longer than a single roll (about 14-15 minutes max), I think they would have had a little bit more difficulty holding the audience’s attention. You couldn’t, for example, shoot The Sheik in short, fixed camera scenes; a master piece like that requires sweeping shots and a cinematographer who uses the camera like an artist uses a paint brush. The other most noticeable change was the evolution of the “dialogue.” In early films, the text was inserted before each scene giving a description of what was to come, much like what you would get in a program at a ballet or opera. As the films evolved though, the text was changed to become the written dialogue one typically thinks of in a silent film. It is amazing how that simple little innovation can change the entire feel of a film and mesh so beautifully with the acting and energy of the film to create, true dialogue – not spoken, but for all intents and purposes just as powerful.

Then on Halloween, I went and saw the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, a 7 year jump in time from the previous weekend’s film collection. It was also fun. Lon Chaney was superb was the tortured protagonist, not quite villain not quite antihero. A friend went with me, who had never seen a silent film before, and though skeptical at first, when we left he admitted, it held his attention much better than many modern films and was “actually pretty good.” So if you are a fan of the classic French story, or if you want a story of love, sacrifice and human suffering, then check out the original (film version) of The Phantom of the Opera.

I think though that the greatest thing I learned from this experience was that any movie really is better on the big screen, as it was intended. It’s part of the experience of film viewing. Call it escapism, but if you are going to watch a movie, and truly appreciate it for the art that it is, you really need to see it on a big screen. Even when the film is a deteriorated from lack of proper preservation and the sound comes from a live organist rather than Dolby Digital, it’s still utterly fantastic! Let yourself get sucked, and enjoy the moment!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Jazz Singer (1927...first talkie)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Usually recognized as the “end of the silent era,” the film utilized Vitaphone technology and was the first full length film to include both sound and dialogue. With only about 350 words of dialogue, The Jazz Singer is still in essence a silent film; however, it marks a revolutionary change in cinema and to commemorate this important day I decided it was about time I watched this film.

First I did a little “historical research” and here is what I found…
Though many films in the silent era were accompanied by an organist playing in the theater, musical scores were first recorded specifically for films starting in 1908, when Camille Saint-Saens composed a musical score for the French film The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (keep in mind language was not a barrier in the silent era). The film was 18 minutes long and the music was played on a phonograph (you know...a really early record player... ummmm, it plays those things that look like big black CDs :) as the film was played. Then in 1923, the world of film was changed forever when Phonofilm was invented, a new celluloid that allowed film makers to record sound on the actual film strip. The technology spread and Vitaphone was a similar patent (and for a layman like me the only difference I get is the brand name!). The first film to utilize this new technology was Don Juan (1926) starring John Barrymore (that’s right Drew’s grandpa, the patriarch of the Barrymore acting dynasty). Don Juan, however, only featured music on its soundtrack. Enter – The Jazz Singer, and for the first time audiences everywhere heard Al Jolson, not only sing, but talk! Then in 1928 the film, The Lights of New York, was released with a full length sound track and the age of talkies had truly begun. Silent films stayed around for awhile; the final silent film that was considered “marketable” was in 1935, Legong: Dance of the Virgins. Though it was only released outside the US because of female nudity…which just goes to show, well...I’ll let you figure that one out. But even with the continued production of silent films, by the end of the 1920s, the silent age had ended and films were changed forever.

Now imagine for a minute, what it must have been like to sit in the audience when The Jazz Singer premiered. There is no way to really “get” what that moment was like, but let me tell you what it was like for me to watch it in 2009. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it may be the coolest thing I’ve seen in a movie. I have to be honest, the first few bits of sound that were on the film track, were all singing so I was starting to think “wait a minute, are they counting sung words as the ‘approximately 350’ words?” and then Al Jolson comes along and starts to sing. Between his first and second songs Jolson actually talks, and I literally giggled. It was the coolest thing ever. Realizing that that was the moment film changed, (and also because they kind of made the dialogue sneak up you) it was surprising and exciting, and though I’m sure that my delight over it was a fraction of what audiences experienced in 1927 – it was totally cool!

The film itself is pretty good too, and the plot is very apt for the film’s historical and technological significance. The story follows Jackie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) whose father is a fifth generation Cantor at their synagogue. Jackie’s father wants him to follow in his footsteps but Jackie wants to be a Jazz Singer and so the eternal struggle between change and tradition is used to transition film into the talking era. Could it be more apt! No, it’s perfect!

It was also interesting to note the change in appearance of the actors, primarily the actresses from early films in the silent era (for some reference watch: The Married Virgin (1918) or Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) both very fun). The female make-up is much more subdued by the end of the ‘20s. That dark lipped, stage make-up inspired look is gone, and you can see the beginnings of the 1930s starlet. Now that change was already showing up in other silent films from the late ‘20s (it’s more a product of the decade rather than due to change in celluloid technology), but you notice it here because the movie is ground-breaking and somehow heightens your awareness of all the other changes that are going on as well. Another interesting thing was in one of the spots of dialogue when Jackie is talking to his mother. Now Jolson does a great job talking with feeling and great enunciation; the actress playing his mother, however, is barely audible and one can see why some actors had difficulty and in some cases failed to make the transition to talkies…it truly is, in many ways, a completely different art form. Also, I feel I should let you know that at the end Jolson does appear in black-face, just to remind you (in case you forgot) that – yes, this movie was made in a different time!

Overall, it’s a great movie and very fun. For its historical significance alone, I would recommend it; but if you like silent films, you’ll also enjoy it as a film. It is a touching and powerful story about discovering the balance between finding yourself and staying in touch with your heritage. And that guy…he sure can sing that jazz music!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro (1920) staring Douglas Fairbanks is actually the only silent movie I have purchased; however, I did not watch more than 5 minutes of it until today. Let me explain. When I was in college, I saw it on VHS in one of those $5 movie bins. I was pretty excited about finding the original of The Mark of Zorro. The 1940 remake with Tyrone Power was, and is still, one of my favorite classic films, and I knew that Fairbanks was one of the first movie stars so watching the silent original seemed like a fun idea. Unfortunately, the VHS version had no musical score…proving that silent films were never intended to be truly silent! I couldn’t make it past the first scene with out the score. Think about it. The greatest movies always have the greatest musical scores. Music can make or break a movie. Last of the Mohicans, Glory, Schindler’s List, Henry V all great movies; all fantastic musical scores. They say, and I see no reason not to believe it, that people would pick their movie theaters in the silent era based on the organist playing the music. If you think about it, a terrible organist could ruin a movie. Imagine Jurassic Park, with a wrong note being played ever few measures. Let’s be honest, everyone would have been cheering on the T-Rex hoping to have an excuse to leave the theater an hour early! And so, about 10 years ago, when I purchased and attempted for the first time to watch the original The Mark of Zorro, I realized that music was saving movies long before movies even had sound! Go music!

Fortunately, the Netflix version does have a musical score, and so after almost a decade I finally finished watching the 1920 version. I have to be honest; I still like the 1940 version better. Other than every D.W. Griffith film I've ever tried to watch (I’m sorry but D.W. Griffith bugs me, in addition to the whole “bringing back the KKK” thing, his movies make me want to cry out “seriously, kill me now rather than make me watch this”...if you have to try that hard to make a movie “an epic” its not an epic!), the original Mark of Zorro is the first silent movie I kind of didn’t like. It did grow on me and by the end I could appreciate Fairbanks as the “swashbuckling” star that he was in his day, but also, in the end, Tyrone Power was a better Zorro. Power’s portrayal of the foppish Don Diego juxtaposed with the strong hero Zorro should be the prototype of a hero and his alter ego. You really get why no one can guess he is Zorro, and it makes his opposition to the oppressive and tyrannical authorities that much sweeter because he is basically messing with them the whole time. It’s not the Clark Kent/Superman idiocy (seriously the entire Daily Planet should have their sanity questioned for not figuring that one out!) Fairbanks’ Don Diego comes across not with the foppishness that creates an inside joke between the actor and the audience, but rather like a doddering fool. Also, his Zorro is a little too “silent film” campy. He certainly could sword fight, but in the first maybe 45 minutes, he’s also a little creepy. He grows into his “hero” status, the turning point being the scene when he saves Senorita Pulida from the unwanted advances of Captain Ramon, but the character development was too little too late, in my opinion. He was trying to do the same thing with this complex character that both Tyrone Power and eventually Antonio Banderas (in the “sort of” third incarnation of this movie) would successfully do, but in my opinion Fairbanks didn’t really pull it off.

When I sat down to write this, I tried to figure out if Fairbanks was really that bad, or if I was just being horribly biased, because childhood memories always taint our perspective, but here’s what I realized: Tyrone Power IS Zorro. Here’s my reasoning. When Antonio Banderas portrayed Zorro in The Mask of Zorro, his portrayal was good, but it was simply a re-do of Power’s version. Banderas is a talented actor who did a fantastic job as Zorro, don’t get me wrong, but as Zorro, he was simply recreating the perfection the Power had already fashioned some 60 years earlier. However, Power wasn’t the original Zorro; Fairbanks was. And yet, in the 1940 version Power wasn’t recreating what Fairbanks had already created; he was reimagining it, perfecting it. To remake a movie and be better than the guy before you, that’s the sign of acting perfection and that is why Tyrone Power is and always will be THE Zorro. It is also why, if you go to watch The Mark of Zorro, I say skip the silent film and grab the talkie!

The talkie is fantastic; the silent is “positively tepid” (if you watch the talkie, you’ll get why that is positively hilarious!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


First a weird anecdote:
This summer, before my silent movie addiction had fully kicked in, I ran into the gas station mini-mart to grab a bottle of water. As I’m standing in line, I notice that the man in front of me has Nosferatu tattooed on his shoulder. Now I hadn’t seen the movie, but the image is iconic enough that a classic movie junkie such as myself would be remise not to recognize it. It’s a good thing he was busy paying, because I am sure I was staring at his shoulder with the most perplexed look on my face; it boggled my mind! Why would someone want that macabre version of a vampire permanently affixed to their body? So ever since then, I’ve been a little more intrigued by the original movie and this whole blog thing has given me an excuse to watch it, so I did.

Now, Nosferatu (1922) is known for being terrifying in its time, the prototype for the vampire horror film. Yet vampires and horror films have evolved so much since the silent era that the film’s Count Orlok is almost unrecognizable as a vampire to the modern movie goer. Vampires now are overly romanticized and brooding heroes. Trust me I work in a children’s library; every tween and teen girl is in love with Edward Cullen (Twilight) and I have to be honest True Blood’s Bill Compton is pretty dreamy. The pre-Bela Lugosi vampire of Nosteratu, however, harkens the imagination back to the original “monster,” feared for it’s very unromantic thirst for blood. I must admit that, even with the lights out, it was not the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen – not by a long stretch. But then again, I wasn’t really expecting to be terrified; I recognized how desensitized we have become in this age of special effects, gore and Hitchcock inspired camera angles. However, I was hoping for at least some “creepiness,” and on that point Nosferatu certainly didn’t disappoint. Several of the scenes were startlingly creepy and though the film didn’t conjure nightmares, I definitely wouldn’t want to meet Count Orlok in a dark alley. He’s no Bill Compton! One also has to acknowledge that though in 2009 the film may not be overly terrifying, in 1922 it must have scared the day lights out of people. The elongated claw-like hands, the grotesque face and mouthful of fangs, and the bizarre posture of the vampire were enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck, and I’ve seen 30 Days of Night. I’m sure audiences accustomed to Chaplin, Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks got much more than they bargained for with this vampire…or should I say vampyre!

It’s different, it’s creepy, but if you like silent films and you can appreciate the artistry behind them, check out Nosferatu. I dare Wes Craven to try and scare us without words; I think we would find that F.W. Murnau, did about as fantastic a job as can be done.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Addendum to first posting...

Addendum: After doing some research on Valentino, it seems as though that whole, "he never could have done talkies because of his voice" myth is completely wrong. In fact he recorded two songs before his death, and though he didn't exactly have the best singing voice, one could extrapolate from the recordings that his voice would have been quite pleasant to listen to as far as speaking is concerned....

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Beyond the Rocks (1922)

Alright so now to talk about the film that prompted this whole blog! Last night before I started this blog, I was watching “Beyond the Rocks,” and half-way through I wanted more than anything to write about it. I hadn’t felt inspired to write anything in a really long time, so I paused it, ran to my laptop and started what would become the backbone of this posting. My excitement over the film was probably heightened by the fact that Martin Scorsese does a really great job introducing it at the beginning. He discusses its value as a piece of silent film history; it made me feel that same “ahhh” feeling I had the first time I saw “The Searchers” in a movie theater…but that’s for another time…

“Beyond the Rocks” is the only film that Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson co-star in, which was a big deal at the time, because studios usually only cast one big star in a film – something about too much star power on the screen – I don’t know; it’s crazy talk! The next crazy thing is that until 2006 the film was thought to be lost; how do you loose a movie that changed the way director’s cast their films? But then, the Netherland Film Museum found some lost footage and was able to restore almost the entire film. Bits of it are still very grainy, but it’s worth powering through and that’s really just two maybe three brief clips. The final crazy thing is that the movie basically bombed in its day (probably why it was lost); it was considered “a little unreal and hectic” (Photoplay Magazine). Unreal maybe, but how many Hollywood love stories are “real.” Yeah, lots of hookers end up with billionaires! And for that matter, I don’t think very many hookers on Sunset Blvd. probably look like Julia Roberts. And as for hectic? I didn’t think so. A friend just asked me whether or not these movies are “really good” or “esoterically good.” This one maybe could have that esoteric goodness about it, but hey this is a silent film blog, so it’s ok to be esoteric!

This film is only the second Gloria Swanson film I’ve seen. To be entirely honest, though I enjoyed “Don’t Change Your Husband,” that movie left me thinking, “I don’t quite get why she’s such a big deal.” However, “Beyond the Rocks” shows why she was a star. The initial “overacting ingĂ©nue” feeling of her character (Theodora) is quickly replaced, as the character grows-up, with a languid yet still demure character who can seemingly and without effort drape herself across the set and convey a range of very sincere and deep emotions. It’s that, every man wants her and every woman wants to know “how the heck does she pull that off” quality that makes a star luminescent on the screen. And she does it with such ease and an innocent coyness, I can’t even think of a modern star that could compare. I mean I could do without the nasty, has to be black not red, lipstick, but that’s silent movie make-up and she, well she’s a silent movie goddess. The pairing of Swanson and Valentino was inspired; and though the movie was not appreciated in it’s time, I for one am glad the Dutch saved it!

Aside from the obvious star appeal and fantastic acting on the parts of both the stars, it is also a great love story. Feels a little long in the middle; I wouldn’t recommend it as your first silent film, but it is good. The story line calls to one’s mind films like Dr. Zhivago or The Thorn birds; a love that is made in the heavens yet impossible because Fate has decided to play the role of a Greek god, reeking mischief on the lives and loves of us mere mortals. The most memorable moment of the film is about half-way through, when Hector (Valentino) enters the party at Beachleigh (somebody’s fancy 1920s mansion – oh yeah, the one thing all the critics could agree on was the “lavish” nature of the sets). Theodora turns and seeing him, their eyes lock. In that moment, Swanson’s expression captures the essence of why every girl dreams of a moment like this. The drama, of a love thought gone, and the overwhelming joy of it returning; all else falls away, the fellow revelers forgotten. It’s also a moment where the power of silent film acting shines so clearly. So much is said by their eyes, you don’t need words and as silent actors (superb ones at that) they convey a thousand emotions with one glance. It’s beautiful; it’s also the moment I ran and grabbed my laptop.
I don’t want to give away too much, but I shall end with this: in the end, love, as always, is the one thing that could defeat the mischief of the gods. Selflessness defies Fate, but will Psyche have her Eros? You’ll have to rent it and find out!

Next up: Nosferatu…enough love stories; I’m ready to be terrified!