The Legend Was Never Fact

westopenerRecently, I showed Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to my film history class. Porter was known to base his flickers and one-reelers on the newspaper headlines of the day. As I explained that Porter likely got the idea for the film from the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance drifted through my mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But, during the heyday of the Wild West, fact was completely lost in the interweaving of history and myth.

The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. By that time, the Wild Bunch had disbanded and Butch and Sundance were lost in the wilds of Argentina. But, the gang’s 1899 robbery of a Union Pacific train was already legendary. Newspapers carried wood engravings based on photos of the railroad cars destroyed by dynamite, while papers circulated the first-person accounts of mail clerk Robert Lawson, who was inside one of the cars. In 1900, members of the gang robbed another Union Pacific train in Wyoming, blasting the safes with dynamite. At the end of 1901, gang member Kid Curry was arrested, though he escaped in 1903—all of which played out in the pages of the newspapers. The dynamite, hapless mail clerk, and train uncoupling depicted in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by the Wild Bunch’s exploits, which in turn were perpetuated through the film.




Reel Presidents: Searching for Lincoln

lincolnbilltedAs a follow-up to last week’s commentary on movie presidents, I intended to devote this week’s post to  Abraham Lincoln, wrapping up with a discussion of the recent cinematic odes to the 16thpresident, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. However, after sifting through sources and tracking down interesting asides, I discovered that there is way too much on Mr. Lincoln to fit into one post. Being such a movie-president enthusiast, especially when it comes to Lincoln, I just couldn’t bear to omit some of my favorite tantalizing tidbits, surprising suppositions, and ornery opinions. My two-part series on movie presidents has expanded into three parts. This week, I offer the unusual, the obscure, and the forgotten; next week, I will revisit the familiar, the celebrated, and the (in)famous.


Griffith and Gish Lost at Sea

As an unabashed fan of movie stars from all eras, I am enjoying TCM’s marvelous lineup for this year’s Summer Under the Stars. And, no screen actor could be more deserving of a day than Lillian Gish, who is spotlighted on Wednesday, August 15.  Gish , whose screen career began with An Unseen Enemy in 1912 and ended with The Whales of August in 1987, helped develop the art of screen acting while under the guidance of D.W. Griffith.  It is a testament to her talent that she acted steadily throughout the silent era, survived the coming of sound to become a character actress during the Golden Age, costarred in one the 1950s most revered films, The Night of the Hunter, and then continued to work after the upheavals of the Film School Generation. Her career ended in what is generally considered to be the early modern era—quite a run for someone known as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen.”

Three of the films scheduled for Wednesday—Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm—were directed by D.W. Griffith, who was Gish’s mentor, colleague, and close friend.  During their years together, Gish learned a great deal about filmmaking, and in 1919, he urged her to try her hand at directing. Griffith had just purchased the huge Henry Flagler mansion in Mamaroneck, New York, and was in the process of converting it into a movie studio.  He wanted to keep his stock company of faithful actors and crew members happily occupied while developing new talent. Gish opted to direct sister Dorothy in a lighthearted romance titled Remodeling Her Husband. Gish’s little comedy became the first feature shot at Mamaroneck, because Griffith was busy shooting The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower on location in Florida. In addition to directing, Gish was also put in charge of the final renovations for the studio.



Bruce Kawin is a widely published scholar, film historian, and poet. As Professor of English and Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he has influenced many careers. Some 25 years ago, Dayton Taylor, the producer of Habit (1995) and Wendigo (2001), got the idea for his three-dimensional imaging Timetrack® camera system while learning about Eadweard Muybridge in Kawin’s class. (In 1877 Muybridge captured continuous motion of a horse by setting up twenty-four cameras in a row along a racing track.) More recently, both Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine (2010) and Drew Goddard, director of Cabin in the Woods (2011), have cited him as an influence. In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I took my fair share of classes from Kawin and later did a stint as his T.A. and projectionist, and he played a pivotal role in my path toward cinema literacy. Kawin had a reputation among the students as being a demanding teacher. Kawin was not afraid to flunk people who did not show up or do the assigned work, thus he has had his fair share of detractors. Kawin’s encyclopedic knowledge and keen attention to detail could be daunting to students used to fudging their answers. In his class, if you spelled Gregg Toland’s name with only one “g,” or only knew him as the cinematographer of Citizen Kane (1941) without being able to link him to Mad Love (1935), your grade would suffer. For Kawin, history and connections are both important. It is also one of many reasons why serious lovers of the horror genre have reason to rejoice, because here now is a book that fuses Kawin’s keen intellect and attention to detail with his passion for monster movies. [...MORE]

Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 1

I am still “reeling” from attending last month’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. As  a film historian, I have been reflecting on the relationship between the past and present—not only the connections between classic and contemporary films but also the lingering echoes of the film industry’s mythic, glamorous past amongst today’s crass, noisy Hollywood.  As I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard the first evening, I felt that nothing was left of that enchanted Hollywood of the past that exists mostly in my imagination! The traffic was worse than rush hour in Chicago, festival attendees crowded the shops and restaurants, and, tourists with children clogged the sidewalks to take photos of their little darlings posing with “actors” costumed as movie characters and superheroes. It’s next to impossible to race past a group of people dressed like Transformers.

When I looked more closely, however, I did find Old Hollywood: It was integrated, intertwined, and infused with the present day, right under everyone’s noses. Uncovering it reinforced my belief that—for better or worse—the past is always part of the present, whether people see it or not. It also made the noise, clamor, and tackiness of modern-day Hollywood more tolerable. My thoughts have inspired a two-part post on the ghosts of old Hollywood that still linger among the noise and tourism. Today and next week, I will offer a few observations on this notion in addition to a little history and a bit of reflection.


The history of the history of silent comedy

We begin our story at the end.  The end of what, you ask?  The end of silent comedy.  It is March of 1949, twenty years after sound came to Hollywood and laid waste to the traditions of silent slapstick.  It is St. Patrick’s Day, and the California Country Club is playing host to an event called the Mack Sennett Alumni and Remember When Association.

The aging wrecks of once sprightly comedians have convened, decked out in ill-fitting finery that went out of fashion back in the days of Prohibition.  They are here to reminisce, to drink, to throw pies at each other.  Mack Sennett, one of the true pioneers responsible for creating Hollywood as we know it, has seen to it his friends don’t waste their efforts on something so ephemeral as mere fun.  He’s brought cameras—to record their shenanigans  for posterity.  This is how he built his empire—by letting funny people do what came naturally and let the cameras roll.

Keystone Kops a sagging


The Funny Parts

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.


Girls Will Be Boys

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.


The Human Splice

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.

Melies fat head


Louis LePrince Takes a Fall

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.


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