Film

Enjoying Life Silently: Film History in Shadow and Light

You'll find more people watching silent films today than during any decade since the '20s, thanks to a busy restoration and preservation industry that thrives through festivals, revivals, the internet and home video.

I love silent movies. Silent film is a voluptuously expressive, entirely self-contained art form that's both of its time and often powerfully "resonant", as critics like to say. Mostly I just sink into the images, spellbound, viewing another world quite different from my own yet directly connecting with it. Luckily for me, I live in the next best era for enjoying silent cinema.


The silent era supposedly ended with that fad known as the talkies, or at least that's the rumor, though silent techniques are still employed in commercials and music videos. Be that as it is, you'll find more people watching silents today than during any decade since the '20s, thanks to a busy restoration and preservation industry that thrives through festivals, revivals, the internet and home video. Here I survey the recent output of several companies servicing this niche, and they aren't the only ones. It's truly a time of wonder when I can be swamped in gloriously scored silents that look better than ever.

Milestone's new double-DVD set, The Champion: A Story of America's First Film Town, showcases a documentary a little over half an hour long, then provides an avalanche of bonus features to feed my silent jones.

The documentary concerns Fort Lee, New Jersey, located on the shore across from Manhattan. During the 1910s, the New York-based movie studios shot outdoor films here, and it quickly became a center for independent film companies that were trying to avoid the Patent Trust with which Thomas Edison harassed all film producers for several years. Avoiding the Trust was among the reasons that many companies relocated to California, along with the weather and a few other issues, but Fort Lee was for several years the center of America's film production.

The film concentrates on one particular building purchased by Mark Dintenfuss for Champion Films in 1910. It was the town's first permanent studio, to be followed by many others, and this building remained standing until it was demolished in 2013. The documentary shows footage of this demolition and interviews members of the Fort Lee Film Commission, who produced this film to promote awareness of the area's history. Marc Perez directed the film as a straighforward collection of talking heads and old film clips narrated by critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

Among the other studios mentioned is Solax, destroyed by a fire. This studio is described as being owned and run by Alice Guy-Blaché, the world's first woman filmmaker and essentially the inventor of narrative cinema. It's noteworthy that the 1935 silent documentary included among the bonuses, Theodore Huff and Mark Borgatta's Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee, only ascribes Solax to her husband Herbert Blaché -- who's not even mentioned in The Champion. History's a funny invention.


Champion: A Story of America's First Film Town (Milestone)

The Champion is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Hanlon, who made the 1964 documentary Before Hollywood There was Fort Lee, N.J., available on DVD from Image with bonus films. The 1964 film is more concerned with showing film clips, while The Champion concentrates more on historical background. The same historian, Richard Koszarski, wrote liner notes for the Image DVD and wrote the book that inspired Milestone's release, for which he's an associate producer.

As I've indicated, the secret power behind Milestone's package is all the extras. Aside from the 1935 Ghost Town doc, Disc One offers five one-reelers shot at Fort Lee, all with new piano scores by Ben Model. Three were Champion productions while two were products of Champion's acquisition by Carl Laemmle's pioneering Universal Film Manufacturing Company, which used the studio for its Victor series devoted to early movie star Florence Lawrence.

Dintenfuss is assumed to have directed The Indian Land Grab (1910), one of a flourishing bucolic western sub-genre at this time known as "Indian romances". Many of these were made by James Young Deer and his wife Red Wing (also known as Lillian St. Cyr), the latter even starring in Cecil B. DeMille's early Hollywood production The Squaw Man (1914), but we'll be here all day if we start digressing.

Anyway, the "Indian romances" portray Indians, here in full war feathers at all times so we can tell they're Indians, as positive and noble people, often involved in interracial romance. We don't know who the actors are in this particular example, and it's just possible some of them might even be Indians. This film must have been blazing a trail, for Koszarski's liner notes observe that contemporary reviews found the interracial affair "offensive," whereas it was the central advertisement of The Squaw Man only a few years later.

The primary action here involves the Indian hero going to Washington D.C. to prevent his tribe's land being stolen by unscrupulous white politicians. He does this by posing and gesturing. One senator has thrown his daughter at the Indian as a ruse, leading the latter to kiss her in front of everyone and move his lips to "Now she's mine!" Then he leaves in a huff and the woman, ashamed at her part in the proceedings, falls in love for real and follows him with a letter from the President, presumably in Great White Father mode, which everyone assumes is worth the paper it's written on. Celebration ensues.

Probably directed by Ulysses Davis, the 1911 Daughter of Dixie belongs to the flood of Civil War melodramas made to mark or cash in on its 50th anniversary. While the Indian film employed an old-fashioned series of four-square unbroken shots, usually introduced by a title card explaining what's about to happen, the Civil War film has annexed D.W. Griffith's style of suspenseful cross-cutting between the escaping Union sweetheart and the Dixie girl who holds a Confederate troop, including her own brother, at bay with a long rifle in the drawing room. Everyone is all very noble and the final shot shows no hard feelings anywhere. Good thing nobody died.

While the Indian film was in excellent shape, this print is poor and jittery, though not so bad as the nearly incoherent Marked Cards (1913), one of the last Champion productions. Koszarski says it seems to derive from a bootlegged reissue. It's something about a woman made to marry a scoundrel to save her brother from prison and might be an example of a story invented on the fly.

The two Florence Lawrence pictures from 1912 show an attractive, spunky young woman who still projects the charisma that made her a star. She's paired in both films with Owen Moore, who was then Mary Pickford's husband and liking it less and less. Not Like Other Girls, directed by Lawrence's husband Harry Solter, has the girl tease the boy without mercy until she changes her mind and conforms to expectations in the wake of tragedy. Flo's Discipline finds her punishing a school of unruly boys and their master into submission.

A Grocery Clerk's Romance (1912) is Mack Sennett's first release through his new Keystone company to showcase his own sense of comedy. The one-reeler makes hay with a plot about an anarchist bomb, a not inappropriate metaphor for Sennett's sensibility on the cinema scene. The "hero" (Ford Sterling) spends the movie hitting on a married woman by scrubbing her laundry while the husband goes drinking and gets himself tied up with bombs, to the lothario's joy. Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra also provide joy, musically speaking.

Directed by Etienne Arnaud for the French Eclair company, the 1912 Robin Hood is the first film on its legendary subject. Beautifully tinted and toned, mostly in greens for its forest shots, it comes across as a handsomely mounted, somewhat ramshackle and barely coherent series of scenes, with much evidence that even its current 30-minute running time is missing material. Sauer and Mont Alto provide a lush, rousing score. The Fort Lee Film Commission restored this important item from a 16mm print that the original owner had previously tranferred from a decaying 35mm print before it fell apart. Most of the obvious deterioration is at the beginning.

Produced by Sam Goldwyn and directed by Harry Pollard, the one-hour 1918 feature The Danger Game is a fluidly directed "melodramatic comedy" that showcases a charming performance by Madge Kennedy as a young madcap named Clytie (for Clytemnestra?) who falls for a slick cad and tries to experience life so she can write about it. Her fatcat daddy spoils her by printing her debut novel while saying things like, "If you weren't so old, what a lot of good spanking would do you." Then she meets another slumming masquerader (Tom Moore, older brother of Owen) who takes her to a dive that, just a couple of years later, would be a speakeasy.

We know where the story's going, and it does so with verve and without outwearing its welcome. This is another beautifully tinted print, in fine shape and well scored by Donald Sosin. This film is probably the one that delivers the most satisfactory aesthetic pleasures and might have headlined its own release if it were famous enough.

The 1925 blockbuster The Lost World is very familiar to silent film fans and has floated around forever in prints running about an hour. Flicker Alley, in association with Lobster Films in France, has done a magnificent job in assembling all known elements, including an abridged Czech print discovered in the '90s, the standard one-hour American print made for 16mm personal sales, and -- surprise -- several reels discovered by a collector early in this century, into a 110-minute reconstruction that comes as close as possible to its original ten reels.

The full meticulous story of this restoration, supervised by the late David Shepard, is recounted in Serge Bromberg's liner notes and in Nicolas Ciccone's superbly informative commentary track. Ciccone even explains the technical differences between tinting (coloring the "white" portions of the image) and toning (the "black" portions).

What matters for the general viewer is that this thing looks beautiful. We can notice subtle differences in quality between various elements if we look for them, but most viewers will merely be enthralled by Arthur Conan Doyle's story of a South American plateau where dinosaurs battle in stop-motion glory, as enhanced by Robert Israel's score. With effects supervised by stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien, this film was the forerunner to his work on King Kong (1933), and it many ways it's a similar story.

Wallace Beery plays the domineering Professor Challenger, with Lewis Stone and Arthur Hoyt (brother of the film's director, Harry O. Hoyt) as his fellow fuddy-duddies along for the mission. Bessie Love and Lloyd Hughes provide bland romantic interest that doesn't waste too much time, while Bull Montana wears a very striking costume as a local apeman. The only annoying and mercifully minor element is the blackface performance by Jules Cowles as a useless appendage symbolized by his broken arm. Ciccone admits the embarrassing nature of this racism to modern viewers; he blames screenwriter Marion Fairfax for altering the character significantly from Conan Doyle's novel, which he discusses in depth along with scenes cut from the script and other scenes filmed but cut prior to release.

The festival of extras include effects outtakes; a 1917 short made by O'Brien for Thomas Edison that's basically a forerunner of The Flintstones using stop-motion cavemen; The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, the 1918 film by Herbert M. Dawley and O'Brien that's controversial over the degree of O'Brien's involvement in the stop-motion dinosaurs (the men had a falling out); and test footage from an unfinished O'Brien project called Creation (1930).

Joseph Depew and Helen Rowland in Timothy's Quest (1922) (IMDB)

In its admirable determination to make silent films available to anyone who wants to spend a buck, Flicker Alley has embarked on a program of made-on-demand discs, including some Blu-rays of otherwise impossible-to-find titles. One of these is a superb discovery called Timothy's Quest. This 1922 production is the only feature made by Dirigo Film Company, a regional outfit devoted to making films in Maine and based on Maine writers.

For this first and last effort, Dirigo employed two ringers. Popular author Kate Douglas Wiggin, a regional sentimentalist most famous for Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, contributed her own house for the filming of her story. The director was veteran pioneer Sidney Olcott, whose most famous extant film is the 1912 Kalem feature shot in Palestine, From the Manger to the Cross. His visual command is evident from the opening frames, which sets the scene with a bare stage indicating a messy slum alley, then abruptly superimposes the welter of human subjects who populate it with bustling life.

Whether composing for lighting effects, placing the camera on a wagon, or indulging subjective moments via in-camera tricks to reveal the characters' thoughts, he fashions a beautifully made film -- as we can fully appreciate, since this print is in great shape, with lovely tints and a score by Eric W. Cook and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Olcott, a former actor, is excellent with the actors. He extracts natural and winning performances from child stars Joseph Depew and Helen Roland, who play orphans, while the adults walk a delicate and credible line between comic caricatures and the pathos of pain buried under those facades. The implied backstory involves unwed pregnancy and death, along with repressed romantic feelings and pride, that give bite to what would otherwise seem easy sentiment. Instead, like the best sentiment, it ain't so easy, and this gives its directness an impact.

A Page of Madness / Kurutta ippêji (1926) (IMDB)

This picture is a remarkable discovery because I hadn't heard of it, whereas the on-demand Blu-ray of Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 Japanese film A Page of Madness is remarkable because I've seen the movie twice before, and it was always the same miserably faded print. This digital scan of a 16mm print, while very far from "like new", is still something of a revelation in that the director's avalanche of avant-garde visual techniques yields a clear, comprehensible image that whirls into a stew approaching his original, independent, determinedly "art"-based vision.

In the scenario by future Nobel-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, a man (Masao Inoue) works at a mental asylum because his wife is a patient, and he fears for the future of his marriageable daughter. The viewer can gather much of this from the striking mix of expressionism and visual trickery, which include funhouse mirrors and multiple superimpositions. The film leaves most of the "story" to the viewer's interpretation (which would have included the Japanese narrator's public performance, absent here) as the man may or may not be infected by his surroundings into his own descent into madness. A new score by the Alloy Orchestra proves up to the avant-garde nature of the imagery and visual rhythms.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), psychoanalysis, and a Japanese literary movement emphasizing the senses and emotions, as explained in a bonus segment of academics discussing the film. In the absence of the Japanese narrator, or benshi, we have a somewhat non-narrative, atmospheric film that begins with a dancing woman and ends with dreams about wearing masks and the repressed anger of the serving class and the man's despair. According to the historian in the bonus, we're missing a concluding scene that resolves one of the story's issues.

But that's not all! In a generous move, this feature is paired with another short experimental feature: Henwar Rodakiewicz's Portrait of a Young Man, shot from 1925 to 1931 with no particular plan except to explore the concepts of visual movement and repetition with various effects. The opening titles explain that it's a "portrait" in terms of what its maker likes: the sea, leaves, smoke, machinery, sunlight, the interplay of forms and rhythms. These floating, swirling, elemental visual textures, showing the most fundamental use of black and white in nearly abstract patterns, are scored impressionistically on piano by Judith Rosenberg. The film is structured in three "movements" to emphasize its nature as a visual symphony.

More Classics Go DigitalKino Lorber, the pioneer in putting silents on home video since the VHS era, continues to reissue some of their previous DVDs in the Blu-ray format with new extras.

Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923) Photo by Hulton Archive - © Image courtesy Getty Images (IMDB)

Zaza (1923), the first of eight collaborations between diva Gloria Swanson and director Allan Dwan, finds the glamorous Swanson combining the elegance of her recent sophisticated roles with the physical comedy of her stint with Mack Sennett for an appealing romantic melodrama. As Dwan historian Frederic Lombardi explains in a commentary, the original French play was a workhorse that had served many divas in France and the US, and there had been an opera and a previous silent film.

The whole point of the story had been that a showgirl forsakes her affair with a married man because she can't have him exclusively. She suffers nobly in renunciation, which incidentally satisfies middle-class morality after keeping the audience titillated. By updating the 19th Century tale for the jazz age, the filmmakers also modernize the morality to a certain extent. In a whirlwind of emotions, Zaza tranforms from an impetuous, cat-fighting, lower-class strumpet who makes a feathered and frilled spectacle of herself in swings and gazebos into a woman of maturity and nobility won't allow herself to wreck a family by becoming "the other woman".

Incidentally, it's good for her career as a serious artist as she moves from the music hall to the legitimate theatre as the timeline skips handily over the Great War, so there could be a message about borrowing conventional middle-class respectability vs. earning it oneself as well as a message about how the war changed everything. She's rewarded for her decisions over the course of time in a manner that's sensible and non-sensational and sent the audience out with a sigh and a satisfied tear.

Swanson handles the emotions and costumes with conviction, not to mention style, while Dwan's photographers and designers create a handsome and smooth production for Paramount. The new piano score by Jeff Rapsis uses the 1923 cue sheet, with its recurring motif of "Plaisir D'Amour" to denote the stages in Zaza's maturity.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen in Beggars of Life (1928)© 1928 Collection George Eastman House (IMDB)

Swanson didn't make the transition to talkies very well, and someone who made it even less well was Louise Brooks. William Wellman's Beggars of Life (1928), her best Hollywood film before she went to Germany and made two masterpieces for G.W. Pabst, casts her as a teenager who dresses up as a boy to mix among hobos and train-jumpers in a parallel world of poor fugitives known to author Jim Tully, who wrote the original book.

The film opens in a beautifully evocative fashion, as a tramp (Richard Arlen) enters a farmer's house to beg for food and discovers the man has just been killed by his orphaned ward/servant (Brooks), who offers a vivid flashback of defending herself from his advances. The story becomes something of a slice-of-life road movie about these drifters, and the girl's disguise is exposed by a master hobo called Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who makes all kinds of trouble before an unlikely heroic ending with the exciting destruction of a train.

Brooks scholar Thomas Gladysz provides a very informative commentary on this excellent restoration, and a looser, more personal commentary comes from the director's son, William Wellman Jr., who states that this was his father's favorite of his silent productions. That's saying something, since Wellman made Wings (1927). Both commenters observe that while Beggars of Life was well-reviewed, it didn't do very well, perhaps because it didn't match the tenor of a decade that was still roaring right before the Crash.

And that's not all

We've mentioned that Ben Model provided scores to some of the one-reelers on Milestone's DVD of The Champion. In addition, Model's own Undercrank Productions offers Kickstarter-funded DVDs on demand through Amazon, and two arrive in time for Halloween. The spookiest is the double feature of Whispering Shadows (1921), a one-hour feature paired with the 1917 short The Devil's Assistant.

The latter is, surprise, another classy production from Harry Pollard, who made the above-mentioned The Danger Game. It's highlighted by red-tinted hallucinations of a smoky hell in which sinners writhe on the ground and in the lake while a winged devil teases them. The real-life devil is the greedy doctor who peddles morphine and tries to lure the heroine into a fate worse than debt.

As for the main feature, Emile Chautard's Whispering Shadows is a bit of tommyrot in which the heroine (Lucy Cotton) receives frustratingly vague psychic vibes from her late parents in a manner almost too late to save her beau (Robert Barrat) from a convoluted embezzlement plot with a handsome villain (Philip Merivale). This edition comes from a Library of Congress print in a home-use 28mm format, while the short film was preserved from deteriorating 35mm nitrate print and is housed at USC's Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. Both films have new organ scores by Andrew E. Simpson, and these are effective in amping up the spooky moments.

Although none of the three films on Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces are horror movies or place special makeup demands on Chaney, this disc counts as a Halloween treat for his fans. All three movies are missing some reels, though Chaney's roles seem to be complete in each one, and the missing material is covered with title cards. Jon C. Mirsales has produced and scored these digital restorations of Universal Productions that were all directed by Joseph De Grasse and written by his wife Ida May Park, who was also a director.

Chaney plays a backwoods brute in A Mother's Atonement (1915), which provides a dual role for Cleo Madison as the brute's daughter and her own mother, both of whom escape the forest for the dangers of the big city. The two 1916 productions are vehicles for Dorothy Phillips. If My Country Should Call is a rather wet tale of a woman so afraid of having her husband and son killed in war that she sabotages her son's health; this was propaganda anticipating eventual US involvement in the Great War, and incorporating contemporary rumors of war with Mexico -- events mentioned in the Dawson City film we're about to get to, so hold that thought.

The last and strangest tale is The Place Beyond the Winds, in which Phillips' heroine begins as a backwoods girl so oppressed by her over-religious father that she creates her own pagan god (a cow skull) who allows her to sing and dance. There's a lot going on in a story that includes a local fugitive (played by De Grasse) who killed a man for seducing a woman back home, an "Indian half-breed" (Chaney) who lusts after the heroine and later has a change of heart, and various city slickers and country bumpkins. The rural scenes take up most of the surviving footage and are handled briskly and picturesquely.

Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917), one of the films from the Dawson City collection.(Kino Lorber)

Two of these three Chaneys come from the cache of films discovered in 1978 at the Yukon town of Dawson City, where they'd been buried and frozen, and that happens to be the topic of Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time. He collages a multitude of clips with onscreen titles to present the history of this town, founded during the Yukon gold rush of the late 1890s and displacing indigenous natives to do so.

It's a boom-and-bust story of consolidation and eventual stagnation that keeps circling back to the town's movie theatres, which were at the end of the distribution line. The films were stored because studios didn't want to pay return shipping, and hundreds of reels were eventually used to fill in a swimming pool, where they remained buried in permafrost for decades. The National Archive of Canada and the Library of Congress have restored 533 reels comprising 372 partially decomposed silent films, usually the only remnants of these titles.

Morrison uses clips from 124 of the rediscovered movies to comment on the town's history, including clips from newsreels to highlight stories of capitalism, labor and race relations in a broad American context. He also incorporates clips from elsewhere, such as Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush. Alex Sommers scores the films with a brooding modern ambience, himself contributing piano, mellotron, sampler, celeste, metallophone, bowed vibraphone, harp, guitar, sub bass, percussion and abstract vocals. We hear various other strings, gongs, and a four-voice female choir. The result is a meditation on silent cinema and time's passage that feels tuned in to today.

The sampled films include the aforementioned Chaney item If My Country Should Call, Thomas Edison's The Butler and the Maid (a 1912 decomposed fragment also available as a bonus), D.W. Griffith's Brutality (a 1912 segment, also included as a bonus, about a wife terrorized by a drunken brute of a husband), Tod Browning's The Exquisite Thief (a 1919 reel, also provided as a bonus, in which a glamorous woman robs a dinner party at gunpoint and gets in a car chase), and several titles we'd love to see: Maurice Tourneur's The Closed Road, A Girl's Folly and The Rail Rider (all from 1916), Ida May Park's Bread (1918), Allan Dwan's The Half-Breed (1916), Lois Weber's The Scandal Mongers (1915) and The Mysterious Mrs. M (1916), Alice Guy's The Pit and the Pendulum (1913), and Grace Cunard and Francis Ford co-directing and co-starring in The Purple Mask (1916).

So many silent films, so much frozen time, so little liquid time. It's a happy problem.

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