Posted by Susan Doll on March 19, 2012
The recent success of Hugo and The Artist has sparked interest in the silent era and film history in the press and among the public. This attention has already waned, but, in an era when silent film is completely off the radar of most movie-goers, entertainment reporters, and bloggers, the focus was nice while it lasted. As a film studies instructor, I have taken advantage of both films to help my students connect to silent film in a way previous classes could not. After spending a week grading midterm papers, I am proud of my students who wrote about the films with depth and feeling, analyzing everything from the differences between silent and sound-film acting to references to movies or historical figures to the filmmaking techniques used by the directors. I was gratified that students applied what they had learned about Georges Melies and his special effects to draw comparisons to the CGI-laden films of their generation, and I was touched by their passionate declarations that the pioneer should never be forgotten. Though some of my colleagues dismissed the Oscar-winning The Artist as a pleasant trifle, my students recognized the visual techniques director Michel Hazanavicius used to complement the actors’ performances and to compensate for the lack of spoken dialogue. I liked The Artist very much, but their observations and discoveries made me appreciate the film even more. Recognizing techniques, references, and ideas beyond the level of plot is like having the keys to unlock any film, and, once my students realize this, they are excited by the possibilities.
The prominence of Hugo and The Artist combined with my students’ clever critiques of both films reminded me of another movie set in the silent era that references historical events and real-life film legends. Directed by Blake Edwards, Sunset features Bruce Willis as cowboy star Tom Mix and James Garner as Wild West legend Wyatt Earp. In honor of both Bruce Willis and Wyatt Earp’s birthday, which is today, I thought it fitting to bring some attention to this film.
Posted by davidkalat on February 25, 2012
Last week we discussed the way in which the predominant critical attention focused on the “Big Three” of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd has distorted the history of silent comedy and unfairly marginalized the majority of screen comedians of the era—at least we did that in a theoretical sense. Not once in that blog did I ever actually mention one of those marginalized comedians by name, or explain what might make them interesting.
So this week we have a comedian who got his start on Karno’s stage, came to Hollywood to work for Mack Sennett, made the transition from short films to features, was one of Hollywood’s highest paid comedians, and left his mark in some of the most important and beloved classics of silent cinema. And did I mention his name was Chaplin?
Syd Chaplin, that is.
Posted by davidkalat on February 11, 2012
In the introduction to his essential new book The Funny Parts (McFarland, 2011), writer Anthony Balducci relates an anecdote about Bill Cosby appropriating and improving on a routine first performed by George Carlin, and the lasting personal enmity that resulted from this “theft.”
Balducci tells the story as a signpost for how attitudes about intellectual property in comedy have shifted over the last century or so. Among other things to admire about this book, this anecdote is an example of how Balducci shows an awareness and appreciation of modern comedy, and a refreshing willingness to discuss them in the same context as silent comedy–whereas too many scholars and writers steeped in silent-era movies tend to act as if popular culture ceased to exist in 1928.
The Funny Parts is an exhaustive—and at times exhausting—catalog of slapstick routines and bits —a history of the genre that doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, or by artist, but rather by joke.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 9, 2012
Marlene Dietrich in MOROCCO (1930)
Two of the most intriguing performances that were nominated for an Oscar this year can be found in ALBERT NOBBS (2011). In the film Glenn Close and Janet McTeer play women who decide to dress as men in order to find work in 19th century Dublin. I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet but while I was watching the trailer recently I started thinking about how many talented women have portrayed male characters in movies. I thought I’d share some information about some of the most compelling films featuring actresses in gender defying roles as well as actresses who just looked darn good in menswear but the list of names I compiled exceeded my expectations. What follows isn’t a complete list of films featuring cross-dressing actresses but I hope it’s a good jumping off point for anyone curious about the history of girls being boys in the movies.
Posted by davidkalat on January 28, 2012
Louis Feuillade was the Christopher Columbus of cinema—a pioneer explorer of newly uncovered lands, a touchstone to all who followed in his footsteps. Generations of filmmakers after him called him out as an inspiration: Fritz Lang, Georges Franju, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard… French film auteur Alain Resnais said simply, “He is one of my gods.”
Posted by davidkalat on January 21, 2012
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring competing claims on the creation of movies. The Lumière brothers hold a sizeable claim, for having pioneered the exhibition model that became the norm–and even if modern trends are moving back towards the Edison-style intimacy of one-movie-one-viewer, the bulk of film history belongs to the Lumière tradition. I’ve also given props to Louis LePrince for his role in innovating the technology by which movies are recorded, even if he doesn’t get the credit for that.
But if we talk about the creation of movies as being all about the technology of cinema, or the business models of exhibition and distribution, we leave out the heart of the matter–it is the content of movies that enthralls audiences and creates shared dreams. And if we want to talk about who pioneered what movies ought to be about, then it’s time to talk about George Méliès.
Posted by davidkalat on January 14, 2012
The inventor steps aboard the train, and loads the packing crates that contain his most wondrous device. It will revolutionize the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the very birth of the modern age. The inventor takes his seat—it will be a few hours from Leeds to Paris, his old homeland. Although the inventor has been living and working in England, he is French in his blood, and it is in France that he must tie up some last loose ends.
The competition has been fierce. He has not been alone in working on such a device. His is still embryonic and needs improvement—and the idiots at the patent office have fundamentally misunderstood his creation. Sorting out that mess will take time and tact, he thinks to himself. But he can content himself with the knowledge that he is first. He will be rich and famous. The future belongs to him.
But he never gets off the train.
Instead, it arrives in Paris without him, and he will never be seen again. The authorities will search high and low for clues, but the mystery will never be solved. And in the confusion following his disappearance, much of his equipment will also disappear. His legacy will go to others, with more money and power, and his name will fade from the history books altogether.
It is the kind of sensational tragedy that filmmakers like Louis Feuillade will make their names depicting. Pulp films for generations hereafter would find inventors, bankers, and other keepers of valuable prizes attacked on trains. Why, this will be the bread and butter of the nascent film industry in just a couple of decades. But not yet. We are only in 1890 at this point, five years before the first public screening of a motion picture show—the movies don’t yet really exist, and Feuillade is just a pimply teenager. What we have just seen is no fiction, because whatever it is that happened to Louis Le Prince actually happened. Ironically, his invention… well, it was the movies.
Posted by davidkalat on December 31, 2011
Yes that’s me in the picture above–it was taken back in 2004, back when I was a bottle blonde. I was standing in front of the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, posing awkwardly as my wife took a photo. There were no other tourists, just Parisians going about their business as usual. There were no vendors hawking Grand Café souvenirs. The place does not appear on the maps of typical destinations. Later in the day, Max (who was three at the time) got a coloring book of famous Parisian landmarks and French cultural icons (“Je colorie Paris!”); the Grand Café was not among them.
For me, though, it was the most important sightseeing spot in the whole city—not for what it is now, but for what happened here once upon a time.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 29, 2011
In one of those serendipitous quirks of scheduling, two homages to the silent film era are opening at the same time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3D extravaganza adapted from Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, uses the life and work of Georges Melies as the central mystery for its eponymous hero to uncover. Conceived for 3D, it uses the contemporary (and derided) version of movie magic to look backward at a magician who was famed for his own glorious special effects fakery.
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a labor of love that made to mimic a 1927 silent. It was shot without sound on Hollywood back lots, framed in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and was converted to B&W in post-production. Where Hugo posits Melies’s art as contemporary as the Hollywood blockbuster he is a character inside, The Artist embalms the object of its adoration.
Posted by davidkalat on October 8, 2011
One of the sad things about being a classic movie buff is the closed nature of so much of the experience. Fritz Lang ain’t gonna make any more movies, Alfred Hitchcock is all done and gone, Charlie Chaplin has left the building.
Now, every once in a while, some old once-lost fragment gets dug out of the archives and brought back to public consciousness. Fritz Lang may be dead but–almost ninety years after it was made–his METROPOLIS can be refurbished and given new dimensions. Alfred Hitchcock can’t make movies any more but the discovery of bits of THE WHITE SHADOW can be uncovered in New Zealand. Charlie Chaplin isn’t around to share it with us, but a previously unrecorded appearance by him in THE THIEF CATCHER can draw huge crowds of gawkers and journalists.
Still, there is no question that none of these experiences comes close to the thrill of the experiences that drew us in as fans in the first place. METROPOLIS isn’t new, it’s just longer. THE WHITE SHADOW will not slake a thirst created by REAR WINDOW. THE THIEF CATCHER is mildly amusing at best.
What if I were to tell you that there is a cache of movies that you have never seen before and most likely never even heard of, that can stand alongside the best of Buster Keaton’s work? A selection of short films and features that share none of that diminished expectations that dog his later work–we’re not talking PASSIONATE PLUMBER here, but entire treasure box full of movies to take their place with THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL JR.
I am not kidding.
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