Personal, Silent Film

Appreciating Silent Films

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love me some Silent cinema. I’m very sad to have to say that it was not always thus though. I saw my very first Silent film in my mid teens, it was shown in a film class at college. That film was Metropolis.

Before seeing this I was already a huge fan of classic era films, but I had never had any interest in seeing the Silent films in which nobody speaks. When this film started playing,there I was, still stubbornly convinced that there was no way this was going to be for me. Then something happened that I can’t really describe. I just became fascinated by the images I was seeing on the screen. I was so impressed by the scale of the sets, with the overall look of the film, and with its unforgettable depiction of the future. Before I knew what was happening there I was actually enjoying a Silent film.

I have to say that while Metropolis has never become a favourite of mine, I do admire it a great deal, and I do enjoy it when I watch it. It will always have a special place in my heart for being the film that made me a fan of Silent cinema.

From that point on I started to watch more Silent films. Then I started to laugh at myself for having held off seeing these films for so long. Silent films are incredible. Remember that all the stunts in these were done for real (no CGI here thank you very much), all the special effects were done by hand, even the editing was done by hand.

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I also think that many of these films are like art brought to life. Due to a combination of beautiful costumes, colour tinting, uniquely designed title cards, lavish sets etc, these films become like moving paintings. They look so different to sound films.

When you see these films today and you know that what you see was all done by hand, it just blows you away. The stunning, jaw dropping visuals in these films are leaps and bounds beyond anything CGI gives us today. The directors and film crew working at this time were so innovative, and their fearlessness in exploring new and exciting ways of making films, or in creating film effects is admirable.

I also like the different acting style. Yes, when viewed by us today it looks theatrical and can be strange to get used to if you’re new to it; however the acting in these films is all about the actors conveying emotion, and in doing so making us feel their pain or joy. These actors do not need dialogue because they have the ability to convey to us what’s going on through expression alone.

Music is important in these films. You see despite there being no dialogue, these films are not actually totally silent. There is music playing throughout these films, and the scores are amazing, they capture the mood and atmosphere of the films and become almost like another character in them.  I would love to go to a silent screening that has a live orchestra accompanying the film. Has anyone ever attended one of these? What was it like?

New To Silent Cinema?

Have you yet to dip your toe into the ocean of Silent cinema? What are you waiting for? Please don’t be afraid of these films. Pick one to watch and give this different film style a chance. Don’t simply dismiss these films as being old,outdated, or weird when you have never actually watched one.

If you don’t try these films you will not only miss out on stunning visuals, powerful stories, and memorable characters, but also on some terrific actors. People like Lon Chaney Sr, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow and so many others. You’ll also miss out on directors like F.W Murnau, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, D.W Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille. 

Where To Begin?

So, you are going to watch your first Silent film. I would say pick something that is from your favourite genre. Don’t immediately try one of the very long feature films like Metropolis for example. You may get lucky as I did, and really enjoy your first Silent if it is a long feature, but on the other hand you may just get bored and will be more likely to continue avoiding these films, so maybe try something that appeals to your tastes before checking out other types of Silent films.

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A good place to start is to try a comedy short. If your going to do that I would heartily recommend the films of the legend that is Buster Keaton (seen on the DVD cover above). This comic genius made both comedy film shorts and feature films. He was the master of physical comedy, and had perfect timing. He also performed some of the most jaw dropping film stunts ever captured on film. If you like comedy you can’t go wrong with Buster’s work. Charles Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd’s films are also highly recommended to comedy fans.

If you are interested in seeing the famous stunning visuals, epic running time, or visual trickery of Silent films, then I these are just of the films that I would highly recommend that you see: The Phantom Carriage (1921), Battleship Potemkin (1925)The Thief Of Bagdad(1924), Orphans Of The Storm (1921),Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928), A Trip To The Moon (1902), The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927),The General (1926),Nosferatu(1922) and The Man With The Movie Camera (documentary, from 1929).

The following are three feature films that I love a great deal. I think they are all lovely films that are very easy to get into. I’d recommend them all as good starting places for people new to Silent cinema.

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1- Shooting Stars (1928) This British Silent is a behind the scenes look at filmmaking. It follows three actors, and is funny, suspenseful and very moving. I think this film was the first to show audiences what goes on behind the scenes and how shots are achieved. We see how the screen fiction is achieved and made believable. You can read my full review of this film here.

2The Artist (2011) This film has introduced a new generation to Silent films. It is a charming, funny, and very moving look at the fleeting nature of film stardom. This is a beautiful homage not only to the Silent era, but also to films such as A Star Is Born and Singin’ In The Rain.

3- It (1927) No killer clowns to be found here. This is an enchanting story about a shop girl who falls for her wealthy boss. This is the film that showed the world the star quality of the great Clara Bow. Clara is a great favourite of mine, and she is notable because her acting style still feels modern and very natural when viewed today.

I could go on and on about Silent cinema, but I don’t want to bore you all.  🙂  I hope that I have piqued your interest in these films if you have yet to check out Silent films. Let me know how you get on if you decide to check out Silent films for the first time.

If you are already a fan I would love to hear from you. How did you become a fan, what are your favourites? Did you put off seeing them for ages?(like me). I sometimes feel like an oddity because I’m 29 and don’t know anyone else my age who loves these wonderful films. Is there anyone else out there of a similar age who loves Silent films?

 

 

 

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Drama, Romance, Silent Film, War

Wings (1927)

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It’s been a while since I did a Silent film review. I’d like to talk about one of my favourites from this era. It is set during World War One, and it is one of the all time great war films. It is also one of the best big screen epics. The film is Wings.

I think it is pretty remarkable just how well Wings stands up when it is viewed today. 90 years after its original release, this film still remains a gripping and realistic depiction of war and of aerial combat. The film also manages to be a touching portrayal of friendship, and takes a look at the heartbreak of unrequited love.

The performances in this film really come across to me as being very natural. Arlen and Rogers are both equally excellent. I think they both do a very good job of conveying their characters transitions from wide eyed, eager, and very apprehensive newbies in the corps, to seasoned and traumatised veterans, all while still being at such a young age.

Bow delivers the real standout performance for me; she is effervescent and lumious one moment and then broken hearted and vulnerable the next. This is one of her best performances from the Silent era.

Henry B. Walthall and Julia Swayne Gordon are both very moving as David’s mum and dad. The scene where they say goodbye to him as he leaves for the war has me welling up. Henry plays the dad as doing that stiff upper lip thing, he won’t allow himself to break down or hug his son because if he did he’d never let him go. Julia makes the mother more emotional, but she still restrains her full emotions from showing.

This film was the first ever Best Picture Oscar winner (and until The Artist won in 2011, it was the only Silent film to win the award) and it’s not difficult to see why there was so much love for this one. WW1 would have been fresh in the minds of audiences watching this for the first time; they no doubt would have been able to really connect with the experiences of the lead trio, and have been able to relate to the characters wartime experiences. The film does a good job of capturing the horror of war, and also of the fact that death will come and claim anyone at any time.

The performances and characters keep my interest throughout, but it is hard to deny the real stars of this one are the aerial sequences. Real planes and hundreds of pilots feature in the film. The aerial sequences were shot on location at Kelly Field Air Force Annex, in San Antonio, Texas.

The aerial scenes really keep you on the edge of your seat and add a great deal of realism to the film. I think these sequences take you deeper into the experiences of Jack and David. These sequences also have a documentary look about them.

One of my reasons for loving Silent films so much is that I love how visually beautiful and unique so many of them look. I also have a real fondness for tinting in Silent films. Many Silent films were tinted in various different colours and there is some glorious screen tinting to be enjoyed in this one. I especially love the golden tint which features heavily throughout. I also think that the intertitle cards look very nice too.

Wings is a film that manages to be an intimate human drama, while also being set against an epic backdrop of global warfare.

In a small town in America life is idyllic. The youth are out enjoying life to the full. Best friends Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers)and David (Richard Arlen)compete for the affections of the beautiful and wealthy Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Jack is pretty slow (seriously, how on earth could he miss her signals!)to see that his neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with him. She shares his adventurous nature and is clearly the gal for him.  

America soon becomes embroiled in the First World War and Jack and David sign up to join the Air Corps. Headed overseas they are soon fighting against the Germans.  Mary also joins the fight, by signing up as a nurse/ambulance driver. Heartbreak, joy and a tragic twist of fate lie in store for our trio.

The film is notable for several reasons. Firstly of course there are all those spectacular aerial sequences. I like how we also see the pilots in the cockpit and that really makes us a part of the scene as we see the personal effect of these impressive air battles.

The film also features some very striking photography and camerawork. The way the camera zooms across the tables of a nightclub until we find Jack is very memorable. There is also the scene where Jack drinks champagne and we see the bubbles float up out of his glass. When he later gets quite drunk he sees giant bubbles everywhere.

The film also features a very young Gary Cooper in a small role. Coop makes quite an impression as Cadet White, an ill fated fellow pilot who meets Jack and David.

It Happened One Night fans should also keep an eye out for Roscoe Karns who appears here in a small role.

The film also features a famous kiss between Jack and David, many people see it as a gay moment. I can see why they might think that, but is not supposed to be seen as a romantic kiss though, it is simply deep affection and love between best friends. Remember the reason why the kiss is taking place also and see it in that context. I can see why this moment made quite an impact though, and nothing like that would be seen on screen again for decades after this. 

The film also contains a few scenes of nudity. There’s the scene in the examination room when the lads go to sign up with the airforce. Clara is also shown nude in the scene where Mary is caught getting undressed in the hotel.

My only issue with the film is its treatment of Mary. I wish we had been given a few scenes showing her experiences during the war in more detail. It wasn’t only David and Jack who were taking part in the war, she was too. I also hate the double standard of how she is punished when she is found in Jack’s hotel room.

My favourite scenes are the following. Mary helping Jack with his car. The plane crashing into the house which has rows of freshly dug war graves right next door to it. David and Jack meeting Cadet White, sharing his chocolate, getting to know him and then hearing tragic news about him. All the scenes featuring the patriotic Herman Schwimpf. David saying goodbye to his family. David and Jack looking through Cadet White’s personal belongings. Mary thinking she has hurt a soldier when she crashes her ambulance. Jack visting David’s parents. The older woman helping Mary choose a dress to wear when she is with Jack. Mary finding Jack in the nightclub, the look she gives the other woman he is with is priceless(if looks could kill, then that gal would be flat on the floor). All the scenes featuring the planes. I also love the intertitle saying the film is dedicated to the dead airman”To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated.”

This is a film that I never get tired of watching. It moves and impresses in equal measure. It is one of the very best films to be made during the Silent era. Any other fans of this one? If you’ve never seen it I highly recommend you buy the Masters Of Cinema Blu-Ray disc, the film looks stunning on that and there are some good extras too.

 

 

 

Musicals, Romance, Silent Film

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 1: Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

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Happy Friday, everyone! I picked this for two reasons: firstly given the endless rain we’re having here in my part of the UK, I think the title is very apt; secondly because this is one of the best films from Hollywood’s classic era. It is filled with endless fun, loveable characters and stunning costumes.

Hollywood, in the 1920’s,handsome screen legend Don Lockwood(Gene Kelly)is paired with the beautiful Lina Lamont(an Oscar robbed Jean Hagen). The pair are the film couple, and rumours are rife that they may be in love off screen. Don can’t stand Lina, but she encourages the rumours because she actually does have feelings for him.

When the studio heads decide to make a sound film following the success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, Lockwood and Lamont are once again paired together. There is one snag though, Lina has a very unpleasant voice and there is worry about how that will be received by audiences. Enter Kathy Seldon(the late Debbie Reynolds), a dancer and singer who catches the eye, and captures the heart of Don(much to Lina’s displeasure.) Kathy will dub Lina’s voice on screen, but when she does will never get credited for it, Kathy is happy to go along but Don doesn’t like her being used. The stage is set for arguments, tears, heartbreak and laughter.

This is a film to cheer you up and has a real sense of fun about it.Catchy songs, plenty of humour courtesy of Donald O’Connor, as Don’s best friend Cosmo and an unforgettable appearance by legendary dancer Cyd Charisse(she gets one of the best film entrances ever in a sexy dance with Kelly.) A young Rita Moreno can be spotted in a small supporting role.

Jean Hagen is superb as Lina. Although she is the films villain, I actually do feel sorry for her as she represents so many Silent stars whose careers ended when sound came into the movie business.  I think it is a real shame that Jean didn’t win an award for her performance here.

The Technicolor use is gorgeous and the costumes are beautiful. This will put a smile on your face, get you tapping your toes and singing along.

My favourite scenes are the following. The harassed director trying to get the perfect shot, but Lina’s microphone keeps cutting out. The Good Morning dance. The screening where the dialogue gets messed up and the actors voices switch. The finale and that unforgettable dance scene between Kelly and Charisse(what happened to that beautiful green outfit she has on?)

Makes you want to grab your brolly,find the nearest puddles and dance and sing.

Please leave your thoughts on this film below.

 

 

Silent Film

Shooting Stars (1928)

For my first ever blog post(so excited), I’d like to discuss this British Silent. I saw this for the first time last year, and I have to say that I was only sorry that I had never seen it sooner. Without a doubt, this is one of the best behind the scenes films ever made in my opinion. Funny, touching, dramatic, and also quite suspenseful.

This is one of the best films about making films that I’ve ever seen. There is a sense of realism about it and it has an almost documentary feel. You really feel like you are backstage with these people. I also find it fascinating watching how a silent film studio operated, and seeing what went on behind and off the camera.

It must have been interesting, and maybe even difficult viewing for Silent era audiences watching this one, as they were shown how the magic of film is achieved, and that co-stars may hate one another and yet seem the best of friends on screen. This film reveals to us that film is all about illusion and yet despite knowing it’s all illusion, audiences still believe and enjoy what they see up there on the big screen anyway. I would have loved to have been in the audience when this premiered.

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The opening romantic scene focusing on a woman in a blossom tree kissing a cowboy, highlights perfectly films ability to make us believe what we see on screen. What begins as a beautiful romantic scene descends into chaos when a dove bites the woman, she screams and the camera pulls back revealing she is actually an actress, the tree is a set, and that the scene we’ve just witnessed was for a film. We then pull back and are shown the soundstages of the studio, we see other actors, crewmembers walking around and other films being shot on adjacent stages.

The film starts off being very funny, and then it turns very dark and suspenseful. The ending is realistic and depressing, it shows that fame is fleeting and that once great stars can become yesterdays news.

Mae Feather(Annette Benson)and Julian Gordon(Brian Aherne)are married, and are two of the most famous British stars. Mae is a beautiful and self centred woman. Julian loves her despite her flaws. Mae begins an affair with comedy actor Andy Wilkes(Donald Calthrop). When Julian discovers the affair Mae becomes so enraged that she decides to kill Julian, her plan has unexpected and disastrous results.

Benson is superb as the actress who destroys her only chance of happiness for a moment of passion. Calthrop is marvellous playing two different characters, the Chaplin like comic character Wilkes is famous for, and as the elegant man ladies man who Wilkes is off screen.

Brian Aherne has the hardest role I think, he has to play Julian as being slightly dull, but also has to ensure he has our sympathy throughout the film I think he more than succeeds. An actress called Chili Bouchier (who I’m unfamiliar with) makes quite an impression as a glamorous co-star of Wilkes.

I would love to see all three of the films featured within the film. Wilkes comedy film in particular looks like it would be great fun.

Altman’s bouncy music fits so well with the film, and it is also very catchy.

The film title is later cleverly revealed to have two meanings.

My favourite scenes are the following. May and Julian walking onto Wilkes comedy film set and watching him perform. The beach sequence. The opening in the blossom tree. The ending. Julian watching the film at the cinema, and seeing the reaction of the boys behind him.

This has immense rewatch value, and is a must see for Silent fans. If you have never seen a Silent flick before, I think this would be a good one to start with. This film has something for everyone, and does such a good job of showing us how the magic of the big screen is achieved.