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May 2, 2015
David Kalat
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The Back of Joan Crawford’s Head

Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.

You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.

Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.

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KEYWORDS: Frank Capra, Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford, Screwball Comedy, Slapstick, Tramp Tramp Tramp
COMMENTS: 12
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Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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Harold Lloyd
March 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Harold Lloyd 101

On a recent business trip, I took my team out to dinner and had some fun telling them some of the absurdly implausible anecdotes from my peripatetic life (I was bit by a giraffe! Picasso’s lover bought my daughter a toy! I accidentally imprinted myself on a pair of doves and they followed me around for months! I was almost arrested by Homeland Security! I hung up on Hollywood mega-producer Roy Lee because I thought he was a telemarketer!) Eventually I got around to one of my favorite anecdotes:

After completing work on American Slapstick Volume 2, I wanted to donate the Harold Lloyd materials to the Harold Lloyd Trust. I called them up, explained what I had, and offered to give them the film elements and the digital transfers. The Trust representative thanked me, and said that someone would be by later that afternoon to pick them up.

Come again? I live in the Chicago suburbs—the Harold Lloyd Trust is based in Los Angeles. How were they gonna have someone swing by in a few hours of the same day I called them? Did Lloyd’s heirs operate some freaky black ops helicopters, ready to deploy anywhere at anytime? Actually, it turned out that one of Lloyd’s heirs happened to live nearby, and it was just a convenient coincidence.

My colleagues listened to this story and then hit me with a punchline I hadn’t been expecting: “Who’s Harold Lloyd?”

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KEYWORDS: Harold Lloyd
COMMENTS: 11
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December 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Slapstick While Black

Apologies: this week’s post is about racially insensitive jokes in silent comedy (Yes, Ben Martin, this one’s for you), and so I’ve got some unpleasant screen grabs, illustrating some gags most of us probably wish hadn’t been filmed, and then to make matters worse I’m going to speak clumsily and awkwardly about these things while analyzing jokes. None of which is really all that great an idea.

As recent history has tragically shown, we’ve got a lot of work do to repair race relations in America. But that’s not to say it’s on no one’s short list of priorities to pick at the scabs of ninety-year-old silent comedies.

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KEYWORDS:
COMMENTS: 19
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Missing Reels: A Novel of Silent Movie Love

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Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.

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The Perils of Colleen: Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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Elementary, My Dear . . . Well, You Know the Rest

gilletteopenLast week, the Cinematheque Francaise announced that it had uncovered a copy of Sherlock Holmes, which was ranked “among the Holy Grails of lost films,” according to restoration expert Robert Byrne, who is also on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Essanay Studios released Sherlock Holmes in 1916. In their soon-to-be-published Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, Michael Smith and Adam Selzer noted that the seven-reel film was the first feature-length version of Holmes’s exploits. It was also one of the last significant productions of Essanay’s Chicago-based studio before it closed its doors. But, the film’s real importance is its star, William Gillette, a prominent actor and playwright who was renowned on two continents during the first decades of the 20th century.

I have always been fascinated by forgotten stars—actors and entertainers who were beloved back in their day but who are now completely unknown. Sometimes, their careers lasted for decades; often they counted kings, queens, and presidents among their admirers. Yet, their talents go unsung to today’s audiences; their influences unrecognized. William Gillette was not only an acclaimed actor but also a playwright and stage manager whose fame rested on his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes on the stage. [...MORE]

Adventures of a Movie-Location Tourist in New Orleans

nolaopenerAhhh, New Orleans! Where else can outrageous people eat exotic food while downing powerful alcoholic drinks with catastrophic names. On a recent trip to NOLA, I was prepared for everything—the crowds of colorful revelers, the world’s most demented ghost stories, even the parents who dragged small children to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. But, what really surprised me—and, pleasantly so—was how much I learned about movie history during my brief vacation. Avid movie-goers know that a variety of contemporary films and television programs have been shot in New Orleans and Louisiana, including the third season of American Horror Story. But, Louisiana’s contributions to American film history go back to the earliest silent days.

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June 28, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Caligari Glen Ross (Expressionism is for Closers)

Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema.  It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet.  But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative.  Looks like it was shot yesterday.

And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up.  Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art.  Because (ahem) it’s not.

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 10
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