Living and Dying for Silent Film

[29 July 2014]

By Thomas Britt

Above: Old movie film image from Shutterstock.com.


For today’s silent film enthusiasts, there’s no great fear that the form faces imminent extinction. Silent film has survived the emergence of sound pictures, subsequent disfavor within the industry and public, and intentional destruction and neglect of many titles now lost to history.

The migration of all movies onto the small screens of home video, television, and mobile devices has created convenient and immediate access to extant silent film, a sort of ubiquity beyond that which could have been imagined when silent film dominated theatrical exhibition a century ago. Home video companies such as Kino Lorber, the Criterion Collection, and Flicker Alley have been instrumental in meeting the changing methods of distributing silent film.

Flicker Alley’s latest release is a Blu-ray/DVD collection that concentrates attention on traditional/foundational means of experiencing silent film. We’re in the Movies: Palace of Silents & Itinerant Filmmaking, debuts home video versions of two documentaries, When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983) and Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles (2010), whose contrasting approaches to recounting silent film history foreground the dedication required to preserve that history and its artifacts.

When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983) is narrowly focused, using the story of a single, ostensibly unremarkable, short film from 1914 to illustrate various issues of silent film history and preservation. The film is The Lumberjack (1914), identified as “the oldest surviving film made in Wisconsin, and produced by a group of itinerant filmmakers.” There’s no doubting director Stephen Schaller’s affection for the film and those he interviews and encounters in plumbing its history. He appears on camera, alternately as interviewer, host, and discoverer/ preservationist/ restorer of the film. Yet his scattershot storytelling strategy prevents the viewer from sharing his close engagement with the subject matter.

Schaller does use headlines from the era (exactly 100 years ago at the time of this writing) to provide exposition for the production of The Lumberjack. Headlines from the Wausau Daily Record-Herald read “Wausau Shown in Moving Pictures” and “Motion Pictures Will be Taken of the City for Purpose of Advertising ... Pictures Will be Shown Throughout the Country in Large Towns and Cities”. One of the interviewees who had first-hand experience with the movie recalls, “I don’t think any of us felt that we really had to be actresses in it. We just thought we were going to advertise the town.” Yet another headline clearly frames the film as fiction: “Scenes Written for Wausau Films: Plot is Developed and the Cast is Being Arranged for the Local Pictures”.

A scene from The Lumberjack (1914)

A scene from The Lumberjack (1914)

In reviewing the various and sometimes conflicting ways in which The Lumberjack was pitched to Wausau, questions arise about the relationship between the history being relayed (that of a city being filmed decades ago) and the documentary being produced (that of the same city recalling that prior filming). One central question might be, did that first historical cinematic intervention have an effect on the citizens’ contemporary attitudes toward being filmed (by Schaller or others)?

Another natural area of inquiry would be to get the interviewees to identify how The Lumberjack and its legacy shaped their idea of what a movie is. Robert S. Hagge (son of stars Helen and Hans Hagge), who possesses a print of the film, recalls thinking the movie was dull. He says his preferred sort of film was one starring Western movie star Tom Mix.

But Schaller mostly sidesteps the opportunity to examine deeper associations between his subjects and the fluid/evolving definition of cinema throughout its frontiers, and instead attempts to create connections between the musical traditions of silent cinema, film preservation (or lack thereof), and the lumber industry. These links either seem too forced by the editor’s hand (cutting from logs that have been underwater for decades, to film that has been in a canister for decades) or nonexistent (the repeated and often unmotivated cuts back to an accompanist’s discussion of styles of silent film music).

The assembly edit-style structure also delays identifying information concerning the interviewees until the end credits, further contributing to the feeling that the filmmaker was too close to his material to better consider what the audience might want or need to know in order to better appreciate the context for the city and film.

Effective moments of the documentary include on-camera discoveries, such as the fact that Hagge’s print of The Lumberjack is tinted, as well as other active scenes like the demonstration of nitrate film being burned. The most engaging sections of the film are those in which the generation that was present for the filming (or at least alive during the filming) provides commentary while watching the print on a flatbed editor.

Hester and Ellen Jones observe and comment on the buildings, automobiles, pastimes and people that gave their town its identity. For these ladies, to watch The Lumberjack, even with its fictional plot line, is to simultaneously watch a home movie. Florence Gilbert Evans, who was born in 1891, identifies for Schaller the many members of the cast who have passed away. Her doing so intensifies the realization that she is the last surviving cast member and adds meaning to her unique presence in the both the film and documentary devoted to it.

Notwithstanding the structural flaws of When You Wore a Tulip…, the documentary has value in the tradition of what Alger Hiss called “Great Span” stories, defined by his son Tony in The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir as “a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more ... to keep unifying memories alive.”

Presently, the historical value of When You Wore a Tulip… has less to do with Schaller’s beloved The Lumberjack or even cinema itself. That is to say, the 2014 release of a 1983 documentary about a 1914 film, featuring the commentary of an eyewitness/participant born in 1891, is most significant for its power to preserve unifying memories across time.

The second documentary included in We’re in the Movies… also views silent film through the framework of passing generations. Though rather than examine a single film, Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles (2010) is organized around the history of a theater.  The scope of the documentary is larger than that of When You Wore a Tulip…. Whereas director Schaller is his own film’s obsessed character, hosting his journey to restore The Lumberjack, Palace of Silents… director Iain Kennedy arranges a cadre of silent-film enthusiasts comprising historians, writers, critics, projectionists, film lovers, film collectors, and filmmakers. The stakes of their tale are dramatic, their remembrances featuring characters that have lived and died for silent movies.

Kennedy and his editor(s) use these testimonies to create intriguing exposition for “the silent movie theatre in Los Angeles”, and the accompanying visual evidence concretizes period details. For example, we see a movie ticket that reads “Dorothy and John Hampton’s Shrine of the Old Time Silent Pictures”. It’s a phrase that summarizes the theater’s origins: In 1942, preservationist / collector John Hampton and his wife Dorothy created their shrine to silent film.

The timing of the theater’s opening is significant, as Hampton was supporting a form that was pronounced dead more than a decade earlier. Former projectionist David Slaughter, a key interviewee in the documentary, likens the theater to a museum, whose highest aim is to properly preserve and exhibit works of art that would otherwise be forgotten.

By most accounts, Hampton was a quiet and humble man, devoted to films, family, and not much else. The documentary’s characterization of Hampton suggests that such a yeoman was the ideal person for the mission of keeping silent film alive in a pre-home video era when few saw its importance. After all, one individual in the film notes that no less a silent film luminary than Mary Pickford considered destroying her own films, as she feared that sound films had rendered them old-fashioned.

Those who attended screenings during Hampton’s era recall the theater owner playing 78rpm records of ‘40s swing music to accompany the films. His manual operation of the record player ensured that no two shows were alike. His hands were also on the films, as he would acquire prints of films in the public domain and assemble the “best and most complete” versions, restoring films to ideal 16mm prints.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Hampton’s devotion to exhibition and restoration, he and Dorothy reached a point at which they could no longer operate the theater, and the photographs of the theater in decline play as a tragic bookend to the earlier memory of its construction. Kennedy uses this downward trajectory to intersect with another key moment of silent film history, which is the emergence of VHS and syndicated series of silent films.

Though the accessibility of silent films in the home would seem to be the deathblow for theatrical exhibition, the tenacity of those around this particular silent movie theater brought it back to life. And it is at this moment in the theater’s history that Kennedy’s documentary manages a transition of tone that seems unwieldy in theory but works brilliantly in the edited film.

The arrival of a character called Lawrence Austin, and his reopening of the theater in 1991, shifts Palace of Silents… from a nostalgic document about a humble family’s business to the seedy stuff of true crime. To reveal anything else about this new direction in tone/plot would spoil the story.

As a character, Austin (a dead ringer for Bill Nighy) is a marked contrast to Hampton. While Hampton didn’t see any need for adornment in his theater, Austin added color, art, and other decorations that befitted his personality and presentation. He brought in classic and contemporary accompanists and entered the cinema to make his introductions to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance”. He understood the popularity of comedies. Astonishingly, he continued to run Laurel and Hardy films during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Beyond the quirks of his character, stories of Austin’s approach to the business introduce questions about the ethics of film preservation. Perhaps fueled by his rivalries with other exhibitors, he would exercise questionable measures to acquire films. One interviewee alleges that he would rent prints from studios and use them to make his own unauthorized prints. While this is clearly a breach of the rental contract, some might say the end justifies the means. In other words, if the foremost goal of film preservation is to keep a film alive, then copying / borrowing / stealing from another source could be justified. Austin’s entrepreneurial aims, however, make his methods difficult to defend on grounds of pure preservation.

After Austin’s time at the silent movie theater came to an end, the building’s history of ill and good fortune continued through additional changes of ownership. Some members of the silent film viewing community were not welcoming to these next-generation proprietors and their innovations. One enthusiastic owner, musician Charlie Lustman, is interviewed about his time running the theater. His tenure included performing songs for the crowd and catering to the desire for popular (as opposed to obscure) silent film titles.

In response to those who resented his showmanship, he says, “This was a show, and they’re looking back at it like it’s some kind of artifact.” To review the theater’s current “Cinefamily” website and programming—low on silent film screenings and high on cult films and stand-up comedians—is to realize that Lustman’s approach was probably the closest the theater would get to judiciously balancing a bygone form with postmodern tastes.

Flicker Alley’s guided tour of a couple of pathways through silent film history is an extension of the work done by Schaller, Hampton, Austin, Lustman, and others not named here. As the home video market faces its own endpoint thanks to downloading, streaming, and other, more “convenient” forms of exhibition, each Blu-ray release dedicated to silent film history is a small victory of preservation. That Flicker Alley has collected these documentaries and packaged them with essays and related short films, provides additional context and improved quality for the memories being preserved and transmitted across time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/183727-were-in-the-movies-living-and-dying-for-silent-film/