Hyper Hypochondira: Feel My Pulse (1928)

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Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.

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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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Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN'S 'THE NEW JOB'

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN’S ‘THE NEW JOB’

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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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Valentino’s Starmaking Role in ‘The Sheik’

sheikcigaretteAs part of TCM’s series Silent Stars, Rudolph Valentino sets the small screen on fire tonight with his star-making performance in The Sheik (1921). Though Valentino had created a stir when he danced the Argentine tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was The Sheik that propelled him to superstardom. Over the next five years, Valentino would magnify his celebrity by taking on roles that exploited his sensual, exotic Latin Lover image and by exposing his colorful romantic life to the fanzines.

Valentino’s screen persona would be out of place in today’s Hollywood, where interchangeable young actors show off their buff bodies and blond highlights while tossing out snarky one-liners. Valentino’s slightly feminine face and smooth body are unusual physical traits for a leading man, while his nostril-flaring, eye-bulging acting are unfashionably melodramatic. Yet, despite his dated persona and acting style, there is much to appreciate in Valentino’s films. They are imaginative, highly romantic fantasies that evoke colorful, exotic places or eras that never really existed. And, Valentino was undeniably charismatic and energetic—a perfect combination for the silent screen. A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch Valentino on the big screen in The Eagle, the story of Russian soldier Vladimir Dubrovsky. The film opens with Dubrovsky on horseback dressed in full Russian regalia while inspecting his troops. His queen, Catherine the Great, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her advances, resulting in his banishment from the castle. Details such as Catherine the Great, a castle, soldiers on horseback, and Valentino in a cape and uniform suggested to me—and the rest of the audience—that the story takes place in the distant past. Imagine our surprise when Valentino drives away from the castle in a fancy 1920s automobile. The audience burst out laughing at the incongruity, but this type of mismatching of exotic styles and historic eras is typical of Valentino’s films, where Romance with a capital R trumps accuracy.

To set the stage for Valentino’s signature, career-making role, I offer ten facts about The Sheik, which airs at 8:00pm tonight.

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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]

Back to the Drawing Board

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)Next Monday, October 6, TCM presents an evening of early American animation, a must-see for cartoon fans of all ages. The line-up begins with the cartoons of Winsor McCay, followed by animation from two companies lost to the history books, the Bray Studio and the Van Beuren Studios. At 12:15 am, Lotte Reiniger’s unique Adventures of Prince Achmed airs, followed by the 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels and the Japanese feature Magic Boy. Chuck Jones’s beloved Phantom Tollbooth concludes the evening’s entertainment, which has been dubbed “Back to the Drawing Board” by TCM. Of the vast array of styles and stories represented in this selection of pre-classic animation, I am most excited to see the work of the Bray Studios and Prince Achmed by Reiniger (above).

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What, Harold Lloyd Worry?

haroldposterWhile Chaplin and Keaton remain the giants of silent comedy to modern-day movie lovers, Harold Lloyd was the most popular film comedian and the biggest box-office draw during the 1920s. His movies out-grossed Keaton’s comedies, and after Chaplin began to fret over his features, Lloyd out-produced the Little Tramp. In 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on Variety’s list of the top 20 wealthiest people in show business (see An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture by Richard Koszarski.) Having seen many of his feature films, including Safety Last, Speedy, Girl Shy, and The Freshman, I can understand his appeal. Youthful, optimistic, and persevering, Lloyd’s so-called “glass” or “glasses” character suited a decade in which Americans sought to better themselves economically, acquire consumer goods, and partake of the American Dream. Lloyd’s comic persona, who was always called Harold in his films, was not disenfranchised like Chaplin’s Little Tramp nor a misfit like Keaton’s Great Stone Face. Instead, he was akin to the hapless boy next door who worked hard to get ahead and win the hand of the girl. Even his costume was “normal” in that it was purchased off the rack and not an exaggerated ensemble from the costume department of Hal Roach’s studio.

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Gloria Swanson’s Adventures in the Parlor City of the Ohio Valley

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This past August, two new biographies about the silent era’s most glamorous star were published, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up by Trish Welsch and Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer and Jeanine Basinger. Both are profiled on the Books page of the TCM website. I breezed through both of them, looking for info on my favorite Swanson flick, Stage Struck.

If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Stage Struck doesn’t have the reputation of those romantic melodramas that Swanson made for Cecil B. De Mille—Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, etc.  Also, the film has never been released for home viewing, not even in the good ole bad VHS days. Years ago, I checked out a poor VHS copy from the public library in New Martinsville, West Virginia. The librarian recommended it because Stage Struck had been shot in New Martinsville in 1925. Local resident R. Bryan Wilson had tracked down a 16mm print and paid for a videotape copy for the library so that residents would have an opportunity to see it.

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