Posts Tagged ‘silent films’

Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

July 24, 2015

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

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Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

Friday at the Movies: How to Watch Silent Films

July 3, 2015

hollywood2 (2)(In anticipation of my next novel, which will go on sale in October, I plan on a series of posts about the silent movie industry and its profound meaning.  Well, forget the profound meaning–I just found the subject and the movies to be seriously fun!)

I don’t like silent movies.  They’re dumb and hard to understand and the film quality stinks and everybody moves too fast and wears too much makeup and they’re old . . .

Well, silent movies are old.  That’s true.  And that has a lot to do with why they’re hard to watch—at least until you get acquainted with them, and understand a few hard facts.

First, a lot of the film quality is bad.  The movies were produced on celluloid, an early plastic compound that was ridiculously flammable—the film would spontaneously combust if temperatures reached 150 degrees centigrade (which some projectors did).  That’s what happened to over half the silent movie film ever produced, due to poor storage or handling.  Of the film that remains, a lot of it is scratchy, warped, or overexposed–some scenes glare while others sulks into shadows and you can hardly make out what’s going on.  Some of that may have been the fault of early directors and techniques that were still in flux.  But a lot of it is just age.

Second, the speed at which many films are shown today is too fast.  Shooting speeds varied in the early days, generally from 18 to 22 frames per second (today it can be as high as 60 frames per second for high-rez).   Since the earliest cameras had to be cranked by hand, cameramen tried be consistent but there were slight variations in film speed that didn’t match the projection speed.  Even in their own day, the movies were apt to look jerky and hyper.  Sometimes, especially in early comedy like the Keystone Cops, the fast speed was deliberate.  But more often it was just because the projectionist didn’t know his business.  Today, action sequences that were supposed to be dramatic and exciting often look like the sight equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Finally, the soundtrack that’s often matched to silent films is just awful.  I watched a DVD of The Gold Rush, for example, that has a nauseating organ score all the way through.  After a while I noticed it was eating into my brain.  I had to either turn the sound off or turn the movie off (click here for a clip from The Gold Rush that’s more delightful).

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about the best of the silent films, especially if you watch a progression of them from around 1912 to 1921, when the industry made amazing strides.  During the twenties, the industry produced some of the greatest movies ever made (snooty film historians say so!)  The range of camera techniques opened up, goofy slapstick gave way to sophisticated sight gags, and facial expressions, even in the weepiest melodrama, can still make audiences cry.

From this . . .  (A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

From this . . .
(A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

After the first sound movie debuted in 1927, the silents were doomed, even though some of the best ones appeared in the very early thirties.  At first they were much better than the “talkies” for photography.  because early sound pictures required actors and cameras to huddle around a microphone.  The action was obviously limited.  Big sweeping views like battles and parades and crowd scenes were impossible, so for a while you could have either spectacle or sound, not both.  Of course, the technology improved so that now you get both.  But it may have been a good thing that movies weren’t hindered by sound technology at first—it freed up cameramen and directors to develop their visual range, including special effects that are pretty impressive even today.

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

So, how to watch?

  • Check your expectations.  The beginning of anything is going to look awkward and crude, and when you consider that The Great Train Robbery, one of the first motion pictures that told a story, was made in 1903, it’s pretty amazing that the industry was able to offer up three-hour spectacles like Intolerance only fourteen years later. Technicolor, wide-screen, high-rez, surround-sound, and CGI have all happened since, but it took 100 years!  Let’s just admire what some very talented people were able to accomplish in a very short time.
  • Try to get the best soundtrack you can.  When big-name directors and actors premiered big movies, they often commissioned an original score to be played along with it, by a live orchestra.  Of course, this was only possible in the prominent cities and theaters.  By the time these films reached smaller towns, the local keyboardist had to match the action to short piano pieces.  The musician might have a book of scores considered suitable for love scenes, sad scenes, dances, fights, funerals, etc.—meaning the piano or organ player was flipping through the book continually as the film rolled.  The silent comedies and dramas you can can get on DVD today usually have a piano or organ score.  These are bearable if they don’t go on to long.  But for a longer picture, try to find a full-orchestra score.  For example, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad is available with a classical soundtrack by Rimsky-Korsakov—or an organ.  Ditch the organ if you can.
  • Be patient with the film quality.  Even the best-preserved movie classic will probably be uneven in spots—blurry, shaky, or scratchy.  As mentioned earlier, at least half of the film produced during the silent era didn’t make it into the future because it wasn’t stored properly or it was simply lost.  So be grateful for what we’ve got.
  • The best tip is appreciation. Motion pictures were a brand new way of telling stories, for the first time in 200 years (if you count the development of the novel) or 2000-plus years (if you go back to poets like Homer).  Acting and the stage had been around for millennia, but film had totally different demands and possibilities.  Limits, too, especially during the silent era.  Those early directors had to figure out how to communicate as much as possible through action and expression alone, and they caught on fast.

I’m not a snooty film historian, but if you want to explore a bit of the development of the movies during the late teens and early twenties, here’s a list of titles you’ll be able to find on Netflix or Youtube (the asterisk indicates they’re mentioned in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends):

Tillie’s Punctured Romance* (Charlie Chaplin and Louise Dressler)

Coney Island* (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* (Mary Pickford)

Intolerance* (directed by D. W. Griffith, with a cast of thousands)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

The General (Buster Keaton)

The Mark of Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks)

Other Posts in this series:

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin