From Lois Weber to Louise Brooks: Eight Silent Film Sensations

Those of us who love silent cinema have much to rejoice about in this digital age, when both obscurities and celebrated classics arrive in new preservations and restorations, curated by scholars and fans who love the era.

Those of us who love silent cinema have much to rejoice about in this digital age, when both obscurities and celebrated classics arrive in new preservations and restorations, curated by scholars and fans who love the era. Here’s a fresh batch of treats for the silent cinephile.

The Dumb Girl of Portici (Dir. Lois Weber, 1916) / Milestone Films

These completely different features come from a busy year for Lois Weber, when she was one of the most famous, even notorious, of film directors, as well as one of the highest-paid.

The Dumb Girl of Portici is a lavish historical epic based on Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera. More to the point, it’s the only movie starring Anna Pavlova, the celebrated star of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and therefore just about our only filmed evidence of her talent, although a bonus disc of extras assembles the other remaining bits.

At 35, Pavlova plays Fenella, “the lightest-hearted slip of thistledown girlhood in the world”, and one with two rare afflictions. She’s mute without being deaf, and she can’t take two steps without pirouetting and throwing her hands above her head. This is what the audience was paying good money to see, and she does it gracefully. The opening and closing shots are specially designed to present the spectacle of her dancing against abstract backgrounds with superimposed effects, and one can well imagine how the rubes must have been dazzled by the sheer class of it.

Set in an Italian fishing village under the rule of decadent and tyrannical Spanish viceroys, the melodrama finds Fenella seduced and abandoned by the ruler’s oldest son (Douglas Gerrard). Although obviously suggestive rather than explicit, their sex scene feels surprisingly steamy for 1916, and the sudden closeup on Fenella as the man embraces her lower body is almost shockingly vivid.

This turn of events enrages her revolutionary brother (Rupert Julian, future director of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera), known for reading while standing in his skiff and making fiery speeches in the market. He foments a bloody uprising that leads to decapitated heads on pikes and all manner of unpleasantness, including pretty much the death of everyone.

A couple of scenes with court dancing are presented in straight proscenium style as though from a balcony, while other scenes feature dynamic stagings for a mobile camera. One exciting shot finds the camera panning to the right as the revolting peasants besiege several points of ingress until the camera pulls back as they flood into the room. A parallel shot in the same set unveils the new ruler’s “orgies of unspeakable character” (more dancing).

The Library of Congress restored this version from the British Film Institute’s 35mm nitrate print and the New York Public Library’s 16mm diacetate print. It’s tinted, but the thing’s noticeably worn, and this may hinder our full appreciation of the obviously spectacular artistry on exhibit. John Sweeney’s score is largely taken from Auber’s opera.

A second disc completes the picture with more of the Anna Pavlova Show. Edward Nakhimoff’s The Immortal Swan (1935) is a documentary produced by the late dancer’s husband, Victor D’Andre, that shows home movies of travel footage and some dances she staged privately for Douglas Fairbanks on the sets of The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Old silent footage of classical dance risks looking foolish or dated. This doesn’t. She smoothly embodies contradictions: delicacy and strength, the precise and the flowing. Her own creations of a poppy and a dragonfly are especially interesting. Her famous Swan Lake, which she originated, has a definite animal quality more vital than mere smoothness. We see more of these in a separate bonus, and there are also more newsreels and home movies.

Shoes (Dir. Lois Weber, 1916) / Milestone Films

The near-miraculous clarity of Shoes, with only some deterioration visible at the edges, brings us into the wonderful intimacy of a psychological, naturalistic drama centering on Eva (16-year-old Mary McLaren), a clerk in a five-and-dime store. She can’t afford to replace her worn-out shoes because her paycheck is drained by her tenement family consisting of a stout washerwoman mother, three younger sisters, and a lazy father who spends all day reading dime novels and whose dereliction is clearly to blame (in the movie’s logic) more than any social condition.We’re told from the opening epigraph, taken from a book by Jane Addams, that our heroine will eventually prostitute herself for new shoes, so it becomes a matter of careful observation of the steps, as it were, to this moral downfall. This essentially conservative tone of button-down tragedy never implies, as Mae West did in her early talkies, that there’s nothing wrong with a gal looking after herself. When a hat-check clerk said “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” Mae replied “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

From first shot to last, this is beautifully done. Weber’s eye for telling detail and character behavior can’t be bettered. She knows when to employ startling closeups, such as a traveling shot behind the worn boots on the rainy sidewalk, and when to indulge in symbolic superimpositions, most famously the giant allegorical hand with “poverty” written on it, which echoes a later shot of the masher’s hand gripping Eva’s shoulder. Also poignant is her imagination of alternate lives, one of which includes a boyfriend (played by Weber’s husband Phillips Smalley) who’d been glimpsed on the stairs in an early scene, a fellow roomer who has nothing to do with Eva. These tiny details add up to a one-hour visual symphony of great emotional impact.

Two more details are worth mentioning. In one of the many shots of Eva trudging home to her tenement, one late example suddenly features a young man leaning against the door and smirking, to no purpose aside from subtly reminding the viewer of male sexuality awaiting and crowding her. When she enters that final time, not only do we see broken windows emblematic of lost virginity, but there’s a prominent “For Rent” sign whose irony is almost too crushing.

Shelley Stamp offers a commentary track, and another track consists of an interview with a talkative McLaren. There are pieces on the Netherlands’ Film Museum’s restoration, with amazing before and after shots, and historian Richard Koszarski’s talk on Unshod Maiden (1932), a ten-minute comic cutdown of Shoes with witty commentary making fun of it. Ironically, this version is the reason certain shots have been saved, because the rest of the negative was destroyed. The Museum restored it by applying that short to two tinted nitrate prints in their own archive.

The Marcel Perez Collection, Vol. 2 / Undercrank Productions

Bless Kickstarter. Producer/composer Ben Model, working with the Library of Congress and Museum of Modern Art, used crowd-sourcing to fund this collection of eight slapstick comedies that have become available since Volume 1 to revive a forgotten slapstick comic with a long, fascinating career.

The Spanish-born Perez was a big-nosed fellow with a toothy grin, a cowlick, and a duck-like walk, and although very popular, his reputation has suffered by the fact that he worked under different names, including Tweedledum and Twede-Dan, and by the fact that almost nothing survives from a career of more than 200 films. Also, he has no consistent personality in the manner of Chaplin or Keaton. What he’s got is a sense of anarchic creativity in directing his own projects, which often take leave of physical reality for the surrealism so adored by, well, the Surrealists.

For example, when his heroine is ready to drown in water up to her neck, his hero’s solution is to drink all the water, and later vomit it to douse a fire. In the western parody Wild (1921), complete with absurd outlaws and Indians, he bites the barrel off a gun and catches bullets with his teeth. By comparison, Keaton is a hard-bitten realist. That said, two of these films milk the gag of flirting with a partially hidden woman who turns out to be black, something also seen in Keaton once or twice; thus can racial hang-ups become fodder for rude comedy.

Perez also has a consistent leading lady in the game, Dorothy Earle, his wife. Another consistent element is that Perez likes to produce visual effects by scratching animated lines onto the film to denote electrical shocks or other moments of pain, as in comic strips. That happens in virtually all of these films, which are sometimes incomplete and/or damaged.

The earliest is The Near-Sighted Cyclist (1907), one of his French hits, whose concept is summarized in the title and consists of a series of spectacular crashes into people and objects. Then we jump to his American period with three 1916 productions for Eagle Films. Oh! What a Day (1918) and Chickens in Turkey (1919) explain their surrealism by being dreams, which really isn’t a spoiler. The latter takes place in that fantasy standby, the Turkish harem.

The beginning of Pinched (1921) shows only the feet of its characters, a device Perez used in European films, including, according to Wikipedia, the 1914 Pedestrian Love. The collection concludes with a two-minute fragment of his last starring role before a leg amputation confined him to working behind the scenes.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (William Robert Daly, 1914) / Grapevine Video

Another Kickstarter-funded project is this Grapevine Blu-ray of the first feature-length version (about 54 minutes) of one of the most famous and hardy theatrical workhorses of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s thunderously bestselling abolitionist novel. Both book and stage versions were once so familiar and basic to American culture that the characters and incidents were essentially known to everyone, which made it ideal for filming in an era that didn’t want to explain too much in title cards.

Ironically yet interestingly, this is so far from the case today that the phrase “Uncle Tom” is commonly misapplied to the idea of a non-rebellious, apologetic black man who conspires in his own oppression. This doesn’t describe Stowe’s character, who not only helped slaves escape but famously refused to follow orders to whip another slave, declaring that the master may own his body, but his soul was his own. In the film, this scene is accompanied by harsh master Simon Legree saying “I hate a religious nigger, damn you!” It’s in the nature of Stowe’s masterful melodrama that its themes still carry a bite, even from the depths of the silent era.

This version, which has been drafted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, claims a place in film history as the first movie where an African-American actor (Sam Lucas) stars amid a white cast. Lucas emerged from the minstrel tradition to become one of the most famous and important black performers in America during his era. His life would make a fascinating biopic.

When Liza (Teresa Michelena) kisses her “mulatto” husband (Irving Cummings, later a director), I wonder if this is the screen’s first interracial kiss. IMDB informs me that Michelena, whose other credit is as an Indian woman the same year, was married to the actor who played her kindly master (Walter Hitchcock). She looks convincingly other than straight Caucasian, which no doubt explains her casting; is this a subject for further research?

As for the film’s aesthetic qualities, its outdoor locations and variety of shots, including a point of view from up in a tree, keep it watchable. The famous routine of Liza crossing the ice is presented nowhere nearly as spectacularly as the way D.W. Griffith stole the idea for Way Down East (1920), but there you are.

This feature is preceded by what’s evidently and miraculously the first of at least nine silent films of the story. This 1903 production, made by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison, is astonishingly long for the period, running almost 20 minutes here. It’s presented as highlights from a stage show, complete with theatrical backdrops and highly artificial river scene, and every one-shot scene labeled in advance to orient viewers who already know the story. As with the 1914 version, there are angelic superimpositions and double-exposures for the death scenes, and this seems in accordance with stage conventions of elevating the martyred characters to the heavens.

No characters or actions are explained, as it’s assumed the viewers are already familiar with them; this was a common strategy for the filming of classics at this time. Therefore, the modern viewer will be utterly lost and glean only the most general notion of events. As is also common, the acting is melodramatically gestural and barnstorm-ish, presented from an unmoving proscenium distance.

Various online sources, seemingly borrowing from each other, state that the black characters are played by white actors in blackface. If so, it’s surprisingly realistic. I must wonder aloud if, given the apparent absence of any information about the cast, including their names, this might be an early example of black and white actors sharing a film. If such should be the case, it deserves even more credit as a remarkable production — yet another topic for further research.

The third and final film on the disc is one of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies, Uncle Tom’s Uncle (1926). The stage show was so famous and familiar that it readily lent itself to lampoon with no need to put any scenes in context. For example, the convention of having Topsy dance is spoofed by having her do the Charleston, a gag that comments on the outdated nature of the property.

Even the convention of having a white actor in blackface is lampooned, as the boy who plays Tom gets comic mileage out of forgetting to black up. The larger story is how the production comes apart at the seams due to various mishaps before a jeering and food-throwing crowd, and some of these gags aren’t badly conceived. As is usual for this series, one or two actual black boys are part of the gang; one of them plays Topsy in drag. We must pause to wonder which is the greater milestone: the first cross-gendered Topsy or the first Topsy played by an African-American? This might be both.

Ducks and Drakes (Dr. Maurice Campbell, 1921) / Grapevine Video

Here’s a chance for silent buffs to renew our acquaintance with the vivacious and delightful comedienne Bebe Daniels, last spotted in Grapevine’s Blu-ray of Gregory La Cava’s Feel My Pulse (1928). In this film produced partly by herself (according to Wikipedia), Daniels plays a mischievous debutante fussed over by a bossy aunt (Mayme Kelso) and pressured by a boyfriend (Jack Holt) whom she declares just wants her to settle down and have babies. Her willful frivolity extends to abusing that modern consumer gadget, the telephone, by calling random numbers and flirting with the gentlemen who answer, since only gentlemen have phones. In fact, they all belong literally to the same club.

The over-arching message involves a conspiracy of several men to “teach her a lesson” and get her to settle down with the boyfriend; in other words, to tame her wayward ways. It’s a surprising plot of tricks and antics, and if it must settle for the conventional wrap-up, the viewer has enjoyed the radiant and plucky heroine who has forecast the flapper’s desire for fun. We may wonder what will happen when she learns how everyone has hornswoggled her.

The print is wonderfully sharp, with every detail and texture clear, and has a score by David Drazin. This is among several features Daniels made with important Broadway director-producer Maurice Campbell for Paramount’s Realart division. Most, alas, are lost, and this film makes you feel the misfortune of that.

The Covered Wagon (Dir. James Cruze, 1923) / Kino Classics

This massive hit is commonly considered the first epic western and one of its decade’s earliest epic films. Shot on real locations on an extravagant budget that included real old-time pioneer wagons driven by their pioneer-descendant owners, this bit of mythologizing about westward expansion established or solidified several genre clichés.

One pleasant feature that plays well today is that the many Indians are all played by authentic Native Americans recruited for the film by future western star Tim Holt. There are both friendly Indians, who are mistreated by the villain, and hostile Indians whose attitudes are explained in an early scene that takes their point of view about the dangers of white men’s expansion into their hunting territory, as they argue the politics of the situation among themselves. Although basically background figures, at no point are they mere savages or caricatures.

Speaking of caricatures, the commentary track explains that the family of legendary real-life scout Jim Bridger, as played by Tully Marshall, objected to his depiction as a hard drinker living with two squaws. The family tried to sue and took a settlement. The line between mythology, iconoclasm, and reality can certainly be tricky.

J. Warren Kerrigan plays upright hero Will Banion, surrounded by less conscience-stricken rough-hewn types like Bridger and the even more pragmatic Jackson (Ernest Torrance), not to mention the outright negative villain (Alan Hale) who covets the pioneer gal loved by Will. She’s played by Lois Wilson, whose presence links the film to Lois Weber’s Dumb Girl of Portici, in which she played a small role. This major star was prolific in the silent era, including the pro-Indian epic The Vanishing American (1925), and transitioned to talkies and TV soaps. Wilson also apparently directed at least a couple of silent shorts, being one of the handful of women silent directors.

Gaylord Carter’s Wurlitzer organ score is the one heard way back in the ’80s Paramount VHS release of this title, and it still works fine. Toby Roan’s commentary provides well-researched anecdotes on the production and its major contributors. The other extra is a battered print of The Pie-Covered Wagon (1932), a spoof belonging to the Baby Burlesks series with a very young Shirley Temple; these were basically Our Gang rivals that include similarly wince-worthy performances and stereotypes.

It’s the Old Army Game (Dir. Edward Sutherland, 1926) / Kino Classics

Restored to lovely 2K clarity from Library of Congress prints are two silent comedies from W.C. Fields: Running Wild and It’s the Old Army Game. Today, his reputation is inseparable from his distinctive voice, half wheedling lilt and half sleepy drawl, preferably engaged in euphonious circumlocutions. Except for that sound, these vehicles present his “family” persona as he’d be known in classic talkies, and we don’t notice the absent voice.

It’s the Old Army Game is a near-plotless assemblage of gags, and no worse for that. With an absurdly phony mustache that looks like he’s inhaling a spider, Fields plays a Florida druggist named, believe it or don’t, Elmer Prettywillie. Although unmarried, he’s surrounded by a hideous family, as would typically feature in later films. In this case, he’s blessed with an angry sister (Blanche Ring) and spoiled nephew (Mickey Bennett).

The film’s welcome ray of sunshine is provided by Louise Brooks as Elmer’s employee. She’s not his romantic interest, although they get along well, for she’s snagged by a city slicker (William Gaxton) who’s apparently peddling phony shares in real estate, while her aunt (Mary Foy) sets her cap for Elmer.

That’s quite enough to string together a fairly raucous series of scenes. Fields had employed some of these routines on stage and would recycle them with variations in later droll immortalities like It’s a Gift (1934) and the short The Pharmacist (1933). He even (silently) pronounces the line “Never give a sucker an even break”, the title of his 1941 classic.

Elmer’s interplay with a crying baby on the porch blends surrealism with the dashes of sadism that even today’s crude comedies wouldn’t try. And while Elmer is put upon by family and customers, Fields doesn’t neglect to expose Elmer and his low-class circle as literally trashy louts in the picnic scene. It’s an American comedy of no-manners that still stings.

Running Wild (Dir. Gregory La Cava, 1927) / Kino Classics

Running Wild does have a plot, albeit a devilishly simple one. Elmer Finch (note that Fields’ hero retains the same first name) has been an accountant in a novelty company for 20 years, receiving no grace from his superiors. Nor does he receive any at home from a second wife (Mary Shotwell) or hulking mean-minded stepson (Barnett Raskin). Even his pretty and sympathetic daughter (Mary Brian) points out that she can’t blame them since he does nothing to earn anyone’s respect.

Through a series of unlikely events, Elmer gets hypnotized by a stage magician (Edward Roseman, looking a little like Boris Karloff a few years ahead of time) and begins shouting “I’m a lion!” and running around town in boxing gloves. It turns out that everyone likes being dominated, including his boss and his wife. Thus, in another curiously American moral, violence solves everything and links the worlds of family, capitalist competition, and sporting entertainment.

Fields and his collaborators had the instinct to understand that Elmer should never even hint at striking his wife the way he does everyone else, as that wouldn’t have been funny, but the bullying stepson is another matter. This film has similarities with Fields’ 1935 movie Man on the Flying Trapeze, in which Brian again plays his daughter, but that’s very far from a direct remake and its view of marriage is more bitter and unregenerate.

While both of these silents have scenes with pretty tracking shots down the sidewalk, they’re mostly directed with unfussy professionalism by comedy veterans Eddie Sutherland and Gregory La Cava, respectively, whose approach is to stand back and give Fields plenty of room. They and he were sympatico and worked together more than once.

As indicated, the image on both Blu-rays looks terrific, and this is always crucial to helping us see a silent film’s properties on its own terms without having to make allowances for the scrim of wear and tear. The first film has an organ score by Ben Model, the second a piano score from Donald Sosin. Both films have commentaries by Fields historian James L. Niebaur. The first is the more informative, as he makes connections with later films; the second is more of an unnecessary play by play.