Blogathons, Silent Film, Tributes To Classic Stars

The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon: Day One

The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon has finally arrived! Over the next two days, 11 wonderful bloggers will be submitting their articles celebrating the life and career of Lon Chaney Sr.

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Lon is one of my favourite actors. I have long wanted to do something to celebrate his life and films, but I wasn’t really sure what I should do to celebrate his work.I eventually decided that a blogathon was the way to go. I was delighted when Ruth at Silver Screenings agreed to join me and co-host this Chaney blogathon. 

I will be your blogathon hostess for today. The lovely Ruth will be your blogathon hostess at her site tomorrow. Please submit your articles to us over the next two days. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on Lon and his films.

                                                                    

                                                            Day 1 Entries

Critica Retro does an excellent job of reconstructing the lost Lon Chaney film: The Miracle Man.

Taking Up Room shares her thoughts after watching her first ever Chaney film: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

Speakeasy reviews a Chaney horror film called The Monster.

Ruth gets to the heart of who Chaney is, with her review of the 2000 documentary: Man Of A Thousand Faces.

I take a look at Lon as a character actor and discuss his portrayal of disabled and disfigured characters

 

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Blogathons, Silent Film, Tributes To Classic Stars

The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon: The First Character Actor And His Portrayal Of Disabled And Disfigured Characters

Lon 3This is my entry for the blogathon being co-hosted by myself and Ruth at Silver Screenings. I have wanted to do something to honour the talents of Lon Chaney Sr for a while now. I was overjoyed when Ruth agreed to co-host this event with me to honour Lon. 

Lon Chaney Sr is one of my all time favourite actors. He was such an intense actor and his every move on the screen drew and kept your attention. Lon could also convey more to us with a single look than any line of dialogue could ever convey. I also strongly feel that his performances haven’t dated like some others from this era unfortunately have. His performances are very natural and are not theatrical. I consider Lon to have been the first real character actor to have appeared on film.

Lon always acted differently in each role and he played someone different each time he went before the camera. Lon seemed to take great pleasure in acting and in becoming the characters he was given to play. I actually consider him to be the greatest character actor there has ever been in films because he disappeared so completely into the characters he played.   

I often get a bit bored with some actors after a while because they always seem to just play variations of themselves on screen. With Lon however, each performance he gave was different, and in many of his films you can’t even recognise him. The ability to so convincingly disappear into a role is the mark of a good actor or actress in my opinion, if they can convince you of something and make you completely believe they are the characters they are playing then they’ve done a great job. Lon always convinced.

Lon Chaney Sr was known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces”. He gained this name because he didn’t merely act, he was so convincing in roles that it was as if he really did become the characters that he played on screen. He was also quite often buried beneath layers of extraordinary makeup (which he himself created and applied) but even when he wasn’t made up he remained one of those actors whose face never seemed the same from one role to another. He was also a very emotive actor and he really made audiences feel what his characters were going through on screen.

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Lon as Quasimodo. Screenshot by me.

I really love his makeup for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923). He did a terrific job of creating Quasimodo’s facial deformity. I especially love the swollen eye and the disfigurement on the lower lip.He also put himself (yet again)through great physical discomfort to play this role. It is a very physical role too, and he does lots of climbing and scenes where he is jumping and swinging off of things, he also captures Quasimodo’s physical effort and discomfort when walking. 

I also quite like his makeup in the film Shadows (1922). In this film he made himself up to be a Chinese man called Yen Sin. Now, I find such a casting decision to be very unfortunate (why not hire a real Chinese actor for the role?)but unlike Mickey Rooney’s absolutely atrocious portrayal of a Chinese man in Breakfast At Tiffany’s; Chaney’s portrayal actually comes across as being quite believable. He also does a terrific job through his body language of conveying this characters very humble nature. I also like the stoop and dragging walk that he gave to his character. Lon brought Yen Sin to life and didn’t play the man as a caricature.  

Lon was especially good at portraying characters who were disabled, disfigured or unlucky in love. He played these people in such an empathic way that he made us feel their pain, their desires, their rage, and also their very deep sadness. He could convey so much to us about them through facial expressions or a single glance. Although Lon also played many able bodied characters throughout his career, it is the disabled and disfigured characters he played that he is best remembered for by audiences today. He makes us connect with these characters, and he makes us feel for them and experience what they are going through.

I also admire him greatly for the tremendous effort that he went to in order to portray disabled and disfigured characters. Forget actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando going the extra mile for their roles, because they have nothing on what Lon put himself through when he took on a role!  

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Lon as Blizzard, a double amputee, in The Penalty. Screenshot by me.

For example, in The Penalty (1920) Lon had his legs lifted up behind his back in a special harness. He then inserted his knees into two leather stumps, this then created the effect of him being a double amputee with leg stumps. He taught himself to walk on his knees in a way that appeared natural during his scenes. This was extremely painful for him to endure during filming. I think the pain and discomfort certainly paid off though because it looks like he is a real amputee when you watch this film. 

The Penalty is also an interesting film because of Lon’s character, Blizzard. He is a man who has been left as a double amputee after a surgical mistake. Blizzard has become a powerful criminal and he is (quite understandably)a very bitter man and he dominates those around him. Blizzard is interestingly never presented as being someone left  helpless or dependent on others because of his disability though; he is instead shown as being very self-sufficient, strong, determined and he can even get violent with those who displease him. The film features one of Lon’s best ever performances in my opinion. 

Lon famously created and applied his own makeup for many of the characters he played. He had his own makeup kit which he carried around with him in a fold out leather case. With the help of his makeup, Lon could make himself look old, frail, scarred, rough, ugly or scary. His makeup coupled with the physical way he used his body in roles is what makes him unique as an actor I think. He alone decided how his characters should look and act and he got to create and apply that look. 

One of the most famous of all his makeup achievements was for the 1925 film The Phantom Of The Opera. In this film Lon plays the hideous masked phantom of the opera. The most famous scene in that film is the scene where the phantom is unmasked. He looks so scary that even the camera goes out of focus slightly when he is unmasked, it’s almost as though the camera is afraid of him too. He really did a remarkable job with the makeup I think.

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Lon as The Phantom. Screenshot by me.

I love his makeup for this character because he looks so gaunt and scary. His eyes are sunken and he looks in some ways like a skeleton. His nose is also extremely disfigured and stretched. It is a startling sight when you look at it. I like that he also plays the phantom as being very graceful and athletic physically. Lon makes for quite a commanding screen presence in this role. He is totally terrifying and his hideous makeup helps a great deal. I also like how Lon ensures that we both fear and pity the phantom at various points throughout the film because of how he plays the role.

Lon’s portrayal of the phantom also allows us to see how emotionally tortured this man is. Lon manages to convey to us just how angry and sad the phantom is because he can’t even show his own face in public. 

Lon Chaney Sr was born in Colorado, on April 1st, 1883. His birth name was Leonidas Frank Chaney. He was exposed to disability at an early age because his parents, Emma and Frank, were both deaf mutes. His parents had met and fallen in love at a deaf school that had been founded by Lon’s grandfather in 1874. That school was The Colorado Institute For Mutes. The school still exists today under its current name of The Colorado School For The Deaf And Blind.

Lon could hear and speak normally. He learnt from an early age how to speak to his parents using a combination of sign language, facial expressions and pantomime. These skills served him well later when he became an actor, as he really had the ability to get his characters emotions and intent across to his audience.  

I have no proof of this being the case, but I never the less firmly believe that Lon’s regular access to two disabled people ensured that he grew up to have a greater understanding of, and a great compassion for, people in real life who were disabled and disfigured. To him there was nothing odd or frightening about his parents disability, they were simply his parents who were two people who just happened to be deaf. I feel that in some way he felt he should do what he could to make disability more present in everyday life and to help make people see disabled people for who they are, instead of ignoring them or acting awkwardly around them. 

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Blizzard out and about in The Penalty. Screenshot by me.

When Lon portrayed disabled and disfigured people on screen he played them in a way that showed audiences that these people were just like everyone else. His films also show that the disabled and disfigured can work, create, fall in love, and most importantly can exist along with able bodied people. He also showed the incredible courage of these people in not hiding away. The people he played are often shown as trying their best to get on with their life as normal. Lon also showed us the unique abilities that some disabled people can have, such as using other limbs to compensate for the loss of hands for example, as seen in Lon’s performance as the armless Alonzo in The Unknown

It’s also important for us to remember that in the era that Lon played these characters, disability and disfigurement were very much seen as being taboo subjects for many people. Mentally ill and disabled people were often sadly shut away in homes and were put out of sight and mind. At this time there were also thousands of WW1 veterans returning home from the trenches; these men were suffering from terrible disfigurements and wounds and other people in society were quite shocked and frightened by how they looked.

Lon’s portrayals of the disfigured and disabled brought all these people and their issues right out into the open for everyone to see. I think that making films featuring characters living with these issues was something that was very daring and brave for Lon and the directors to do at the time.   

Another thing Lon Chaney Sr was able to do so brilliantly, was to be able to convey to us the desperate longing of a character who was unlucky in love. In The Unknown, Laugh Clown Laugh, Tell It To The Marines and He Who Gets Slapped, Lon is able to show us just how much these very different men love women who, for various reasons, they can’t have and how they all end up loving these women from afar.  Unrequited love is a difficult pain to bear. I think that Lon does a super job of conveying his characters longing for the love they so desire. Watch his face in these films because the longing and pain over love are written clearly all over his face. 

In 1926, Lon Chaney made a film called Tell It To The Marines. He called it his own personal favourite film from amongst those that he made. In recognition of his remarkable and totally convincing performance as a tough as nails Marine Sergeant, Lon would become the first actor to be made an honorary US Marine. I thought that was so lovely the first time I read about this as that is a great honour to be given indeed. His being awarded like that speaks volumes to me about how much his performance must have resonated with the men who served in the armed forces at the time.   

In The Unholy Three (1930), Lon appeared in what would sadly end up being his final screen role. This would also be his first and only sound film. At the time he made this film he was very ill, and he was diagnosed with the lung cancer which would sadly kill him just a few months later. In this film he also delivered not one but five excellent vocal performances. 

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Lon’s final scene in The Unholy Three. Screenshot by me.

Had Lon lived, then I think he would have done very well as an actor in sound films. I think he could have been quite good in the gangster films of the 1930’s. He had a tough and intense look that would have suited gangster films I think. His voice was very deep and strong and I can see no reason why he couldn’t have easily fit into sound roles. He also demonstrated in his final film that he had plenty of vocal talent as well as his physical acting skills. I’m sure that he would have also done well in radio productions.  

I find his final scene in The Unholy Three to be very moving. As Lon’s character says goodbye to some fellow characters, he is in a way saying goodbye to his film audience too. His final line in the goodbye scene is “That’s all there is to life. Just a little laugh, a little tear”. This line sums up his career to me. Throughout his career Lon made us cry, he made us laugh, and he also showed us what it was to be human (to experience joy, sorrow, pain, tragedy etc)and he made us feel his characters emotions right along with him. Lon showed us that everyone has feelings and that everyone will experience happy and sad times in life. In life you will laugh, you will cry and sometimes you may even do both at the same time. 

Lon is one of my favourite actors and he is someone who I dearly wish I could have met. I find him to be a fascinating individual and also a man who was well ahead of his time. I think he would be quite touched to see how his performances and makeup achievements are still admired and beloved today, over one hundred years after his death.  Thanks for all you achieved, Lon. Thanks also for giving disabled and disfigured characters a presence in cinema.   

What are your thoughts on Lon Chaney Sr?

Join myself and Ruth on the 5th and 6th May. Over these two days we will have more posts for you celebrating the life and career of Lon Chaney Sr.

 

 

 

Blogathons, Silent Film, Tributes To Classic Stars

Announcing The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon

Good morning to you all. Guess what? You are all invited to participate in yet another blogathon.  🙂 

This year would have been the 135th birthday of the actor Lon Chaney Sr. To mark Lon’s 135th anniversary, myself and Ruth of Silver Screenings are inviting you all to join us in celebrating Lon’s remarkable life and career.  

Lon 4We will be holding the blogathon on the 5th & 6th of May, 2018. 

If you would like to take part, you are free to write about any of Lon’s films. We will accept no more than two duplicates for his film titles though.

You can also write about his famous makeup (which he created himself). You could also write about your favourite Lon Chaney film characters. You could even write about his entire career if you would like to. 

If you have never seen a Lon Chaney Sr film before, then maybe you could use this blogathon as an opportunity to finally do so.

If you feel like writing more than one post for this blogathon you can do.

Lon Chaney was a man of many talents. Known as the man of a thousand faces, he was famous for pushing himself to physical extremes to play disabled characters. He was also famous for creating his own makeup to play disfigured characters. Chaney was quite a humble man off screen and he kept himself to himself when he wasn’t working.

Keeping himself quite private may well have helped him as an actor I think. As he didn’t go around publicising Lon Chaney the man, I think that may have helped audiences forget about the actor and helped them buy more into the characters he was playing up on the screen.

If you would like to take part in our blogathon just leave a comment with me or with Ruth. Let us know what you are going to write about, and also please leave us the name and url of your blog.  

Ruth will be hosting on the 6th, and I will be hosting on the 5th. Pick which day you want to post your entry on and leave the entry with whichever of us is hosting that day. It is more than ok for you to post your entry a few days early if you wish.

Check the participation list below to see who is writing about what. Please take one of the awesome banners that Ruth has designed. Put it up on your blog somewhere to help publicise the event. 

Have fun writing. Let’s all join together to celebrate the talents of Lon and his special approach to his work. 

 

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Participation List

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films: Lon as the first character actor, plus his portrayal of disabled and disfigured characters.

Silver Screenings  :Lon Chaney: The Man Of A Thousand Faces (2000 Documentary)

In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood : The Unknown & Ace Of Hearts 

Taking Up Room : The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Wide Screen World : Oliver Twist

An Ode To Dust : Chaney as the child of deaf parents

The Dream Book Blog :Outside The Law

Christina Wehner : He Who Gets Slapped

Silver Screen Classics : London After Midnight: The Holy Grail Of Silent Film

Caftan Woman : The Trap

Critica Retro  :The Miracle Man

Speakeasy : The Monster

 

 

 

 

 

Blogathons, Silent Film, Tributes To Classic Stars

The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon: Why I Love Buster

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Lea over at Silent-ology is hosting this blogathon all about Buster Keaton. Be sure to visit her site to read all the other entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself.  

When I saw that Lea was hosting this blogathon, I jumped at the chance to take part so that I could share my great love for this film legend. There are not enough words for me to use to be able to fully express my admiration and love for Buster.

Buster Keaton will have me laughing hysterically one moment. The next moment he will have me sitting on the edge of my seat in suspense and anticipation. He was a hugely talented man. I also think that he was someone who was equally at home both in front and behind the camera.

Whenever I am in need of something to prove that at one time dangerous and epic scenes were once filmed for real (hit the road CGI), then it is to Buster Keaton and his work that I turn. 

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Buster prepares to do the clothes line stunt in Neighbors. Screenshot by me.

I’ve been a fan of Buster for a few years now. I first became a fan of Buster’s due to his audacious stunt work. Long before I loved him because he made me laugh, he had me open mouthed in disbelief at what I had just witnessed him doing in terms of stunt work. He made his stunt work look effortless. He also risked real injury to create that stunt work for our viewing pleasure.

I think that anyone can end up creating a scene or sequence that will make people laugh. Very few though would be able to create something that has people laughing, gasping in shock, or has you on the edge of your seat in suspense. Buster’s sequences often leave you doing all three of those things at once!   

The risks that Buster took on screen are really what has led me to like him so much. He pushed himself to such great extremes on screen. He showed us just what extreme physical stunts could be captured on camera. He never faked the gag, or the risky stunt work that it took to achieve it.

Whether he is risking life and limb aboard a train, running from boulders, or jumping off of things, Buster is always right there at the centre of the action and danger. Seeing him in those situations makes me admire him as an actor and director. He also had the gift of making what he was doing look like it was happening in the moment and was totally natural and effortless for him.

I love what Buster does because he shows us that nothing can ever replace seeing something happen for real. Today films are so often filled to the brim with CGI, the effects usually look fake and I often find myself rolling my eyes when such effects appear on the screen. Buster showed us that nothing wows audiences more than seeing something spectacular done on screen for real. This still remains the case today one hundred years later. I feel that his work is timeless because it has a wow factor.

Where many Silent stars and films have sadly long since been forgotten about, Buster on the other hand retains a large amount of fame and influence today. His work commands the respect and admiration of audiences and filmmakers today. I think that is because of his stunt work and those incredible sequences he created for us to marvel at. He is proof that you just can’t beat doing something on screen for real.  

I also love Buster because he was a jack of all trades. He was a skilled actor, a natural comedian, a gifted director, and he was also one of the best stunt men around. He could do it all, and he had a vision for what he wanted to achieve on screen and he stuck right to it.

There are not many in the film business who were as talented as he was, or who could take on such different film roles with ease like he could.  Buster was a one of a kind and I think that is why he has become such a favourite of mine. He was multi talented and always knew how to entertain and impress his audience. He also knew that nothing impresses more than something being done for real. 

I think it’s a real shame that the talents of Charles Chaplin have so overshadowed Buster’s over the last century. Mention Silent era comedians, and I bet you anything that it is Chaplin who most people speak of. Chaplin quite rightly has been so praised and admired, but I think that Buster was every bit as skilled, funny and as worthy of praise as Chaplin was. I think he deserves to be spoken of alongside Chaplin equally. They were both comedy masters and both had such different ways of going about their job. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love Chaplin very much and I think highly of his work; I just strongly feel that Buster’s name and career deserves all the praise that Chaplin’s has received over the years. Chaplin is a name that is known even to people who have never seen a Silent film My wish is that the same can be said for Buster Keaton. I hope that more young people come to discover his films and see him for the timeless genius that he was.   

I think it’s fair to say that few people have been able to be as much of a success behind, and in front of the camera, as Buster was able to be. He really was one of the greatest filmmakers. He worked so hard, was a perfectionist, and I like that he came up with an idea and then went and found a way to make that a reality. 

Although he was not as famous on screen in his later years as he had once been, I sincerely hope that deep down inside somewhere Buster continued to know how much he was loved and respected by audiences. I think he would be very moved if he could read our discussions and see that he and his work remain so respected and loved a century later. 

Now, if you will all kindly excuse me, I have a date with Mr. Buster Keaton. There will be laughter, there will be adventure, and there will certainly be one awestruck film viewer. 

Thanks for the laughs. Thanks for the stunts. Thanks for all of those unforgettable images and scenes. Buster, you really were the best! 🙂  

If you have never seen a Buster Keaton film before I have to ask what are you waiting for? Seek his work out, and when you do, prepare to laugh and to be in awe. 

 

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 film I was already a huge fan of classic era films, but I had never had the slightest interest in seeing those strange 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, it is something 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 the 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. Why had I been so hesitant about checking these out sooner?

I think that Silent films are incredible. Remember that all the stunts in these were done for real, all the special effects were done by hand(no CGI here thank you), even the editing was all 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?

You are going to watch your first Silent film, but you don’t know which film to see first. 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 end up really enjoying your first Silent, even if it is a long feature, but on the other hand you may well end up getting bored and will be more likely to continue avoiding these films. So I’d say that you should 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 these films are ones that I would highly recommend that you watch: 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, and they are all 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 also a 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. Instead 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 by us 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?

 

 

 

Drama, Romance, Silent Film, War

Wings (1927)

 

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The camera puts us right in the middle of the air fight sequences. Screenshot by me.

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 of the big screen epics. The film is Wings.

I don’t know about anyone else, but 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 also of aerial combat. The film also manages to be a touching portrayal of friendship, and takes a look at the pain 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.

Clara 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 I think.

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.

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One of my favourite shots in the whole film. Screenshot by me.

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.

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The planes head into battle. Screenshot by me.

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.

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Jack and David. Screenshot by me.

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 and 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.

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Gary Cooper as Cadet White. Screenshot by me.

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.

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Clara Bow as Mary. Screenshot by me.

My only issue with the film is its treatment of Mary. I wish we had been given a few more 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 there too working as a nurse.

I wanted more of her story instead of her simply being the love interest. I also hate the double standard of how she is punished when she is found in Jack’s hotel room. compared to what happens to him. They were both breaking the rules, so they both should have disciplined equally!

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 Blu-Ray disc, the film looks stunning in that format and there are some good extras too.

 

 

 

Silent Film

Shooting Stars (1928)

 

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Mae prepares to film a scene of peril. Screenshot by me.

For my first ever blog post(so excited), I would like to discuss this British Silent film from 1928. 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! The film is funny, touching, dramatic, and it is 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 all of these people. I also find it fascinating watching how a Silent era film studio operated and seeing what went on behind and off the camera.

I also found the film to have a very modern feel. The performances were very natural, they certainly didn’t come across as being over the top and theatrical as can sometimes be the case with Silent film performances. I think this film would be good to use to introduce someone to Silent films. 

I think that it must have been both interesting and even difficult viewing for Silent era audiences to watch this film. This film destroys the illusion of film. In this we are shown how the magic of film is achieved, and we see that co-stars may hate one another and yet seem the best of friends on screen.

This film also reveals to us that film is all about illusion. Despite us knowing it’s all illusion, we still believe and enjoy what they see up there on the big screen anyway. We get so caught up in the story and images up on the big screen and forget about our own lives for a few hours.

I would have loved to have been in the audience when this premiered. I really wonder how people reacted to this one. Did it make them more interested in how films were made? Did things shown in this film spoil some peoples enjoyment of watching films from this point on?

The opening scene of the film is the perfect example of how the film makes us realise that all is not as we are led to believe. The film begins with a romantic scene focusing on a woman in a blossom tree kissing a cowboy. What begins as a beautiful romantic scene quickly descends into chaos when a bird in the scene bites the woman. Below are a few screenshots by me to show this sequence.

The woman screams and the camera pulls back revealing to us that she is actually an actress, that the tree is part of 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 and crewmembers walking around and we see 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 both realistic and depressing. The film shows us that fame is fleeting and that once great stars can easily become yesterdays news.

Mae Feather(Annette Benson)and Julian Gordon(Brian Aherne)are married, and they are two of the most famous British film stars. Mae is a beautiful and self centred woman. Julian loves her very much though despite her flaws. Mae begins an affair with the adored comedy actor, Andy Wilkes(Donald Calthrop), a man whose comic film act is like a mix of Chaplin and Keaton.  When Julian discovers their affair, Mae becomes so enraged that she decides to kill Julian, her plan ends up having unexpected and disastrous results. 

Benson is superb as the actress who destroys her only chance of happiness for a moment of passion. She is a very expressive actress and really lets us see how her character is feeling and thinking. 

                  A before and after shot of Wilkes in and out of his makeup.

               Screenshot by me.

Calthrop is marvellous playing two very different characters, the comic character Wilkes is famous for, and as the elegant man ladies man who Wilkes is in reality when he is off the 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) also makes quite an impression as a glamorous co-star of Wilkes’s.

I would also love to somehow be able to see all three of the films featured within this film. Wilkes’s comedy film in particular looks like it would be great fun. I love the intertitle cards used in the film where Julian’s character rescues Mae’s.

Altman’s bouncy music fits so well with the film, and I found it to also be very catchy. The film title is also later cleverly revealed to have two meanings.

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Julian and an audience enjoy a film he made. Screenshot by me.

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 noticing the  excited reaction of the boys behind him as they watch the film.

This has immense rewatch value, and it is a must see for Silent fans. This film has something in it for everyone to enjoy, and it does such a good job of showing us how the magic on the big screen is actually achieved.

If I were to pick one film to show to someone as an example of the power and magic of cinema, I think this would be it. The film makes us feel for the characters and get caught up in their lives and actions. The film also has something in it for every viewer to enjoy. It also reminds us what a strange and wonderful thing film can be.