We're in the Movies: Palace of Silents and Itinerant Filmmaking
US theatrical: 22 Jul 2014
1914, 1918, 1934, 1937, 1983, 2010
In a phenomenon that historians have called itinerant filmmaking, small companies made a living traveling to various towns and making films. They might advertise in the paper, or they might pitch the project to city councils or booster groups as a promotional idea. They got paid to shoot local amateurs in little stories around carefully chosen locations. The small crew, sometimes just a director and a cameraman, would shoot and edit the picture and then give the print (usually the only copy in existence) to whomever had commissioned it. Then they would move on to the next town.
One such example is The Lumberjack (1914), shot in Wausau, Wisconsin, by an itinerant company called Paragon. The “plot” follows a courting couple (played by a real-life married couple) who go on dates to various local sites. Some are reasonable ideas for a date, like the outing at a lake where people ride boats and walk on logs in the water. So many people crowd onto a bridge to watch the filming that its rails break and they fall into the drink, which is kept in the movie. Other ideas are a stretch romantically, such as a trip to a marble quarry. In fact, the film’s producer got killed in a quarry accident during the filming. (Sensibly, that was not kept in the movie. Then the couple gets married (cue a scene of many locals leaving the church in their Sunday best) and wave from a train for their honeymoon.
Stephen Schaller’s nostalgic, personable 1983 documentary about the making of this film is When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose. Schaller interviews citizens who remember the filming, including the last surviving woman who appeared in the cast. He finds the son of the star couple, who had the lone print. He interviews a woman who sometimes played piano at silent films, and she demonstrates how one must be attuned to what’s on screen (a lesson not learned by those who provided the new ragtime score to this print of The Lumberjack ). The disc presents this documentary as the feature attraction with The Lumberjack as a bonus, but to me it’s the other way around. There are also very brief local films of Tennessee mountain life, some from 1918 and some remarkable 16mm Kodachrome footage from the late 30s.
Another itinerant production on hand is The Kidnappers Foil, by Texas-based Melton Barker. He made the same film repeatedly in countless towns in at least 27 states, often revisiting a town later to film it again. This 1937 example from Corsicana, Texas, has been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an example of its type. The plot: a rich girl is kidnapped by two yahoos, and local kids wander through a park discussing how they’ll spend the reward. Then she’s found, leading to a party with several kids crooning pop tunes more or less hideously. The onscreen talent is naturally unprepossessing, but it’s a little odd that the image and sound are sometimes less than professional, considering somebody made his living shooting this project over and over. Maybe there were medicinal reasons why his eyes had trouble with the focus. Maybe it depended how late in the afternoon it was.
Another talkie is Huntingdon’s Hero (1934), shot in Pennsylvania by traveling showman Donald Newland (aka The Consolidated Film Producers of California). This is a relatively ambitious, crudely charming comedy with song interludes and product placement (a Chrysler), and you hear Newland’s directions at various points. The final sequence is weirdly meta-cinematic, as Newland pans across the audience in a theatre where this film would be broadcast the following week, so they should show up and sit in these seats to watch themselves watching themselves in these seats. Fascinating. I’d like to see a movie about a guy who did this for a living. Maybe it would be a bit like Paper Moon meets The Great Waldo Pepper, but perhaps I date myself with this wish.
The other documentary here is Iain Kennedy’s Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre of Los Angeles (2010). The interviewees recount the tale of the only movie theatre in America still devoted to regular showings of silent films. We follow the story from its founding on Fairfax Avenue in 1942 through a change in ownership, a sensational murder, and more recent turnovers and refashionings. Some people may scratch their heads, but anyone who loves silent cinema will be engaged by this loving glimpse at a fannish subculture that still reinvents itself as young people discover silents, sometimes in hip new musical contexts.
Silent movies never die, though some of them fade away. The people in and around them die, and that precious sense of evanescence suffuses this movie as much as the love and hope expressed by its participants, all touched by the fever. Flicker Alley does as much as anyone to promote this appreciation, and this lovingly assembled item is a small part.