Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Keaton Gets a Laugh in the Silents and the Talkies: Clips from "Spite Marriage" and "Speak Easily"

One of the notable things about Buster Keaton's career as an actor is that his deadpan expression and slapstic stunts translated successfully from silents to talkies, his acting career continuing well into the 1960s. Here are two clips showing how the same gag, "stone faced" Keaton and his drunk bride, is hilarious both in the silent 1929 version from Spite Marraige and in his later talking film Speak Easily (1932). Thanks to Sam Creely for turning me on to these amusing Buster Keaton clips, used to inform one of my favorite scenes in Barbarous Nights.

Buster Keaton and Dorothy Sebastian in Spite Marraige (1929):

Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd in Speak Easily (1932):

Fun fact for fellow Marx Brothers fans, I learned that many of Keaton's stunts in this film inspired gags he helped to develop for A Night at the Opera!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Silent Screens in the Late 30s and Beyond

In 1938, Edward Harrison’s New York Times article “Silence is Still Golden” argued that, “the silent film has never died” (209).[1] In fact, silent films were not only still widely released in foreign countries but also thriving in non-traditional US venues such as schools, churches, and living rooms. “Audiences of millions” still viewed silent films domestically, and silent comedies like Charlie Chaplin were especially popular in rental libraries catering to families with home projectors (209, 210). Silent comedies were also especially popular as hotel entertainment into the 1940s (218).

Silent screenings continued to be prevalent among small Manhattan theatres, and with the opening of a new Museum of Modern Art building in 1939 came the donation of a film library and the beginning of silent showings in its new theatre. Audiences were captivated by the nostalgia of silent era cinema; as Florence Fisher Parry exclaimed in her article praising the release of the “The Movies March On” (1939) in Pittsburgh, “let us have back some of our old beloveds, to laugh at, to weep over, to show us what innocents we were not so long ago!” (212).

In the late 30s, silent film revivals were launched across the country, from the Miami Playhouse showing cheap movies with witty piano accompaniment starting in 1939 to The Casino theatre in Pittsburgh where silents were shown daily during summer 1941 (210, 215).  MoMA’s Film Society revivals sparked others, such as the Washington DC Film Society's highly successful silent screenings in the late 1930s (218).

Even with millions of viewers in the late 30s, silent films were still only seen by a minority of Americans, in part due to Hollywood’s ability to disseminate “a conventional view of silent cinema as embodying a primitive, risible past” rather than being “an accomplished, mature art in its own right” (219). There was little incentive in Hollywood to continue to produce silent pictures, and even Charlie Chaplin who had been the “greatest, most unbending advocate of silents” released his first talking picture, The Great Dictator, in 1940 (220). When Hollywood began releasing vintage film for TV in the 1950s, the silents were ignored (220).

Funnily enough, the longest effort to show silent pictures was actually a Los Angeles theatre known as “The Movie.” Converted to a theatre by John and Dorothy Hampton in 1940, The Movie successfully screened silent films until 1980. The Hamptons made their own posters, played musical accompaniment on two phonographs, and showed silent pictures in a “dignified manner” that never played to the scornful or nostalgic sentiments associated with “the old time movie show” (223).

Not only was their theatre a “major enduring landmark” in Hollywood, with its popularity peaking after WWII, but it also served as testament to the unique power of silent film to capture the imaginations of audiences “almost exclusively through images and enacted by players utilizing to the fullest the language and gestures of facial expression to convey thought and emotion” (222, 225, 227). John Hampton observed that despite assumptions, youth tended to be more caught up in silents, and less likely to laugh at the wrong times when watching an old drama that might have been ridiculed in the late 20s and early 30s. He felt that silent film appeals “more to the emotions, less to the intellect,” making its message more universally accessible and enchanting than talking pictures (223). "The Movie" is truly a testament to the timelessness of silent film that still interests audiences today despite its marginalization in American culture after the 1920s. 

Learn more about early silent film revivals in the 1930s here.

Read more about how the shifting role of silent film in American culture in the 1930s helps us think about Buster Keaton's journey in Barbarous Nights here.

[1] Drew, William M. The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2010. Print.

Old Time Movies and Silent Revivals

“Old Time Movies” in the 20s

As early as 1920, the term “old time movies” was already in widespread usage to describe the “vintage shorts from the nickelodeon era” shown as pre-show attractions.[1] Juxtaposed with the latest features, “The Old Time Movie Show” showcased the technological progress of the film industry since the days of “primitive” filmmaking (xiv). In fact, early silent films, and with them film stars like Mary Pickford, once seen as serious dramas were deliberately presented as “a novelty act that encouraged audiences to laugh out loud at the dramatic shorts of the nickelodeon age” (xviii). Had audiences tastes really become that sophisticated, or had the rapid changes brought on by WWI made everything before seem remote? Whatever the reason, by time The Jazz Singer premiered in 1927 as the first feature-length “talkie,” film collectors feared the whole silent film era would become an “Old Time Movie Show” to the American Public, sparking silent film revivals, the beginning of major film archives like the Modern Museum of Art Film Society, and film history as a field.

Silent Picture Revivals in the Early 30s

In 1930, many silents were still in production, including Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) that he insisted remain silent, despite the fact that by 1931 83% of theatres in America were wired for sound (6, 67). City Lights incredible success was surprising to many, but not alone among the many successful attempts to revive silent pictures throughout the 1930s.

One of the first attempts to keep silent films relevant after the advent of talkies was to add sound effects and music to old silents. Hollywood even tried to add new footage with singing to old films, such as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera (37). Unfortunately the difference in projection speed made it difficult to synchronize the added sounds, and films were often cut down from the original (38). D. W. Griffith’s 1915, acclaimed Civil War Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation was re-released in the early 30s with significant alterations and added sound effects. Not only did the film receive great reviews and was incredibly popular, but this version continued to be in circulation for decades, even once its treatment of African-Americans was extremely controversial (40, 59). Several Charlie Chaplin films also received this treatment with marked success, however they did not lead to wider reissues of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd silent comedies with added music and sound effects (58).

Sound installation in theatres combined with the Great Depression had left theatre musicians that had once accompanied silent films with full-scale orchestras out of work across the country (64). In Pittsburgh, the company Cine-Music was launched in 1930 and with it a “magical” revival of “an era of exciting entertainment that had seemingly vanished forever with the triumph of sound film” (65). Unfortunately, the grand spectacle of a silent film underscored by a fifty-piece orchestra failed to attract an audience after its first run. By 1931 it seemed that “silents films as a regular featured attraction had largely retreated to the working-class milieu of the nickelodeon age in which narrative cinema was born” (67). In other words, silent films, it seemed, were no longer to be seen on the same grand, theatrical scale as they once had been but as pre-show attractions seen by modest audiences.

However, in the early 1930s silent films saw marked success in urban art houses. At the Little Fifth Street Avenue Playhouse in New York City, silent films were shown regularly among sound films, especially “foreign classics,” such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Passion of Joan of Arc (72). In Hollywood, the Filmarte Theatre became the last to show silents into the 1930s even after it was wired for sound. Silent foreign films and old classics featuring favorite stars were extremely popular, proving that “there are still thousands right in the talkie capital who now and then prefer their screen to be silent,” according to a 1930 newspaper article (73). Audiences regarded the films with humor and nostalgia, cracking up at the clothes of the previous decade (74).

In contrast to the sophisticated art houses that screened silents well into the 1930s, traveling tent shows continued to show silent pictures to small town America where theatres couldn’t afford talkie technology. Since silents, especially comedies, were cheap to purchase, traveling tent shows brought silent pictures to rural audiences throughout the Great Depression, their showings a “tonic” for the hardest hit (78, 79). These silent film showings stood in sharp contrast from the “picture palace glory” of silent cinema in its hey-day to its earliest roots as working-class entertainment (80). No longer at the center of American culture, silent films were pushed to the margins as urban art house or touring road show attractions in the 1930s (80).

Read more about silent film later into the 20th century here.

Learn more about how silent film contextualizes Barbarous Nights here.

[1] Drew, William M. The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2010. xiii. Print.

Silent Pictures in the 1930s and "Why This Play Now?"

Whether it’s Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard or The Artist we all know the story: silent film stars, and with them silent films, made obsolete by talking pictures, their voices or dramatic style incompatible with the new technological advancements of sound. Silent movies become a relic of the past, an archaic entertainment eclipsed by the technologically advanced “talkies” that dominated Hollywood by 1930.

If talking pictures ruled the screen in the 1930s, what happened to the silents? In his book The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s, William M. Drew argues that in fact, there never was a last silent picture show. On the contrary, Drew asserts that the transition in the 1920s from silents to talkies was not as rapid or as ubiquitous as Hollywood makes it out to be, and that silent films still captivated audiences into the 1930s and beyond, and not just as the object of ridicule or romanticized nostalgia.[1]

Ready to find out more about silents in the 1930s? These posts will give you more historical information about silent film after the rise of talkies from Drew's book:

Silent Film in the 30s and “Why This Play Now?”

Not only does understanding more about the marginalization of and notable attempts to revive silent films in the 1930s and beyond offer a rich historical context for our protagonist Buster Keaton in Barbarous Nights, with its setting in a 1930s of the past and of the future, but it also helps answer the question “why this play now?”

Captivated by both classic and contemporary movies about the struggle of silent film stars against the advancements of sound, modern audiences are familiar with the situation in which Buster Keaton finds himself in this play, even if the world he falls into is not a tangible one. Buster Keaton’s journey is made both more accessible and more poignant to a modern audience in part by its context within and relationship to an era of decline for silent pictures. If Buster Keaton is struggling to find what makes him human beneath his “mask” as a star of silent pictures, his journey becomes all the more challenging in a world where his celebrity identity doesn’t mean the same thing to the people he meets as it did where he came from. Keaton’s struggle to understand and express his inner self in the play is perhaps an echo of what he would have faced in 1930s Hollywood: a silent film celebrity forced to confront the man beneath his exterior identity as the world he knows is radically altered by sound.

And Buster Keaton isn’t the only one who is challenged to navigate his “performed” and inner self. Not only do the other characters in the play know his struggle, who we see grappling with expressing and reaching for their inner most desires, but we as audience members do too. We too find ourselves in circumstances where our notion of self is critically altered, where we must swallow our inner emotions to navigate through society, where we are afraid of what will happen if we express our greatest joys or deepest sorrows. We are also familiar with the ways in which technology changes our means of communication, our connections to others, and our understanding of who we are. Like a silent picture might, Barbarous Nights appeals so strongly to our emotions in part because what the characters experience in the play is so relatable.

[1] Drew, William M. The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2010. Print.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Other Stone Face: Abraham Lincoln in "Barbarous Nights"


In Barbarous Nights, Abraham Lincoln plays an important, though somewhat enigmatic, part in Buster Keaton’s journey to discover his humanity. As Keaton explains to the Maiden in scene two of the first shade after she wrenches off his mask, “My face is iconic. My face is as iconic as Lincoln’s face someone once told me.” Keaton strongly identifies with Abraham Lincoln, the other “great stone face” of American history.

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she describes Abraham Lincoln being photographed in 1863, a month after he gave his revered Gettysburg address:

“On Sunday, August 9, [John] Hay accompanied the president to Alexander Gardner’s photo studio at the corner of Seventh and D streets. The pictures taken that day do not reflect what Hay characterized as the president’s 'very good spirits.' Rigidly posed, with one hand on a book and the other at his waist, Lincoln was forced to endure the lengthy process of the photograph, which almost invariably produced a grim, unsmiling portrait. Subjects would be required to sit absolutely still while the photographer removed the cap from the lens to expose the picture. ‘Don’t move a muscle!’ the subject would be told, for the slightest twitch would blur the image. Moreover, since ‘contrived grinning in photographs had not yet become obligatory,’ many faces, like Lincoln’s, took on a melancholy cast.”[1]

While Lincoln’s “stone face” in photos from the era may be attributed in part to the technological limitations of the camera or cultural norms regarding smiling in pictures, whatever the reason for his serious expression, it is clear is that the images of Lincoln circulated amongst the public were not fully representative of the man known to his close colleagues, friends and family. Abraham Lincoln’s iconic “deep set gaze” that appears “steady and melancholy” in his photographs is not only a constructed image separated from his everyday self, a Presidential mask, if you will, worn for the public eye, but it is also readily apparent to anyone familiar with the arduous task of posing for a photograph (Goodwin 230).

Perhaps Lincoln and his public were more comfortable with the dual identity of the President than Buster Keaton seems to be with his own, struggling to navigate without his mask in a world where nobody seems to know who this star of silent pictures is. In this play, Lincoln not only helps a modern audience understand the level of fame Buster Keaton had achieved at the height of the silent film era, his face as iconic as Lincoln’s, but he also represents part of Keaton’s personal journey to uncover his identity beneath the “stone faced” celebrity persona. When Lincoln says to Buster, “It is impossible to see our humanity,” perhaps he is talking celebrity to celebrity, speaking of the iconic mask we recognize as “President Abraham Lincoln” and silent film star “Buster Keaton.”

Much thanks to Nathan Kinsman for his brilliant historical knowledge, thoughts, and assistance researching for this post.

[1] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005. 545. Print.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sailors of the Past and Today

If Barbarous Nights is set in the 1930s of the future and the past, what does that mean for the Sailor in the play? Here is some information I dug up about sailing in the early 20th century and in the 21st, as well as details about maritime law relevant to our play.

Sailors in Early 20th Century Great Britain
Historian Jeffrey Charles' website about the Motor Launch Patrol of the British Royal Navy around WWI offers an extensive look into the world of sailing in the early 20th century. One account of Naval Officer Robert Jones describes the activities of sailors in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, particularly the men who occupied “Movies” or Motor Launches, nicknamed for their speed. These sailors were employed in patrol units along the coast of the British Isles, in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and the White Sea. A day in the life of a sailor might include scouting, anti-submarine work, inshore mine sweeping, smokescreen-laying, and hydrophone (underwater microphone) monitoring. Some were served as wireless telegraphists and were responsible for communicating through Morse code, with radio signaling reaching widespread use in the 1930s. During World War I, Morse lamps, flags and radio were still important means of naval communication.[1]

In early 20th century Great Britain sailors were recruited extremely young: “boys” aged 15½ to 16¾ and “youths” ages 16¾ to 18 received months of naval training while still attending school part-time at special Training Establishments. Their education included “seamanship,” swimming, squad drill, gunnery and mechanics. Eventually, these young men advanced to their sea-training and joined the Second Fleet. Recruits had a choice of enrollment in the Advanced Class Courses (boat work and mechanical work), the Wireless Course, and the Signal Course. The Wireless and Signal Course “lads” were sent to sea as soon as possible to begin service.[2]

During World War I, not all British sailors remained at sea: in Germany internment camps were established as war broke out and many sailors, especially fisherman and merchant seamen, docked in German harbors at the time were sent to internment camps. While these men certainly endured a hard life, suffering from physical and mental illness with limited outside communication and nourishment, it seems it wasn’t all miserable: one account of a prisoner I discovered describes how he competed in athletic games inside the camp and was awarded a metal as the tug-of-war champion.[3]

Sailing Life Today
While technology has certainly changed things, perhaps for the better, about life in the navy since the early 20th century, it is clear that sailing remains a high-stress, isolating experience. In an online article published by the American Psychological Association about Naval Lt. Lisseth Calvio, a doctoral candidate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who is the first person to even finish their clerkship on board a deployed warship, Calvio describes experiencing “the constant strain the ship’s crew feels as they live and work in crowded conditions.” Calvio spent her days offering counseling and therapy to 5,000 sailors and officers on board, helping them cope with family issues, practice stress management techniques, and deal with issues like anger management, depression, anxiety, and conflicts with other men on board. While perhaps young men are a little older now when they enlist than they were in the 1910s and 20s, the article points out that many of these sailors are very young and experience significant stress leaving home for the first time to a totally new kind of life.

The article also gives a picture of the kinds of tasks performed by sailors in the Navy today. Calvio describes participating in daily exercise drills on deck. The article also describes the arduous physical labor done by the deck crews, who keep “the ship clean and running” with tasks like handling ropes at dock, bringing aboard fuel and provisions, launching and recovering amphibious landing craft, and fighting against rust.[4]

In an online Guardian interview with British sailing prodigy Emma Richards, she describes not only the extreme physical conditions while racing, including severe cold and very little sleep, but also fighting the loneliness with technology. Richards not only listens to CDs with recordings of friends and family or her favorite music, but she has a weekly phone call home when she catches up with her friends while they hang out at the pub on Friday night. While technology may afford some comfort to a sailor today, the close quarters and general isolation at sea is still palpable.[5]

One stress of sailing life I discovered in my research that is surprisingly relevant to Barbarous Nights is that many sailors struggle finding romantic companionship compatible with their nomadic lifestyle. Once again technology may be shifting that dynamic some today, as contemporary sailors can turn to an online dating site called LoveSail.com that helps connect sailing enthusiasts around the world. CNN published a sentimental article about a 52-year-old man who finally found his sailing sweetheart through LoveSail.com, experiencing a whirlwind romance ending in, what else, a honeymoon sailing tour. The director of LoveSail.com says that “people who sail tend to be extremely passionate about it” and that “it can be difficult for sailors because when they do find someone they often have to leave them.” The predicament faced by the Sailor and the Maiden in Barbarous Nights is then a familiar tale to anyone who spends their time at sea.[6]

Maritime Law: AWOL vs. Desertion (Based on the About.com US Military Guide)
While looking into what happens if a sailor deserts his ship for our play, I discovered that there is in fact a difference between someone who is Absent Without Leave and someone who is a deserter. In the Navy or Marine Corps, AWOL is actually referred to as an “Unauthorized Absence (UA)” with the punishment depending on the circumstances. In general, AWOL is when someone fails to show up when they are supposed to, whether its on purpose or not. The only real defense is if you are physically unable to get there, and even then it cannot be through misconduct or neglect. The difference between AWOL and desertion is that a deserter has the “intent to remain away permanently” or to shirk an “important duty,” like going on a hazardous mission or being deployed to combat.[7] The court-martial decides whether or not the duty that was avoided was important or hazardous, therefore determining the severity of the punishment. Basically, if a sailor is AWOL he or she means to return someday to “military control,” even if its years later. A deserter leaves for good.

Punishment for Desertion
In the case or desertion, it is highly unlikely that someone would receive the maximum punishment, being death. In most cases, the result is some form of discharge in Other Than Honorable Circumstances (OTHC). When a soldier or sailor is missing, the commanding officer decides how to proceed based on the circumstances. When a case of desertion goes to trial it is tried by the General Court-Martial, the most serious type there is.

The punishment for desertion varies in severity: if you desert and then later voluntarily return, you would most likely receive dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay, reduction to the lowest rank, and two years in prison. For deserting to avoid important duty, you might suffer the former but with five years in prison. The most severe punishment for desertion is death or another punishment as the court-martial sees fit, such as life in prison. This punishment is generally only given out during a time of war.[8]

Read more about Sailing Symbolism in Lorca's Poetry here.

[1] Charles, Jeffrey. “The Motor Launch Patrol in the Western Approaches and Irish Sea, 1917-1919.” The “Movies”: The Ships and Men of the Royal Navy Motor Launch Patrol 1914-1919. 2012. Web. http://www.motorlaunchpatrol.net/written_accounts/personal_accounts/personal_accounts/jones.php
[2] Taylor, Richard. “Details of Boys Training.” Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association. Web. http://www.nhcra-online.org/20c/seamanship15.html
[3] “Life in an Interment Camp.” Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association. Web. http://www.nhcra-online.org/20c/seamanship15.html
[4] Munsey, Christopher. “Psychology at Sea.” American Psychological Association gradPSYCH Magazine Online. 2008. Web. http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2008/11/sea.aspx
[5] Hall, Sarah. “Interview with British Sailor Emma Richards.” The Guardian. 2012. Web. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/oct/07/gender.uk1
[6] McKenzie, Sheena. “Lonely Sailors Search Online for Love on the High Seas.” CNN.com. 2012. Web.  http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/21/world/lovesail-sailors-online-dating
[7] Powers, Rod. “AWOL and Desertion.” About.com Guide. 2013. Web. http://usmilitary.about.com/od/justicelawlegislation/a/awoldesertion.htm
[8] Powers, Rod. “AWOL and Desertion—Maximum Possible Punishments.” About.com Guide. 2013. Web. http://usmilitary.about.com/od/justicelawlegislation/a/awol6.htm

New Material to the Barbous Blog Coming Soon!

After a technological battle for the ages, I have come out victorious and can once again post to the dramaturgical blog for Barbarous Nights! Thank you for your patience and understanding, and for perusing the material already archived here for Lorca devotees and the cast and production team of Barbarous Nights alike.

While much of what is written here is still as pertinent to the new production of Barbarous Nights as it was to the first, expect more material to come about sailors, silent film, masks and celebrities and more. Everything written here is meant to contextualize and inform Sam Creely's poetic play about Buster Keaton's adventure through a 1930s of the future and the past:

"Sam Creely takes to the 'ravishing' Invisible Dog (TimeOut NY) with a sharp and surreal play inspired in part by the love letters of Lorca and Dalí.  

"Buster Keaton falls out of his film and into a poetic world, a 1930s both future and past.  Grapefruit roll through the sand like tumbleweed.  The streets are filled with optical shops.  There, a rush of travelers -- a blind maiden struggling with the length of her dress, her nigh Victorian mother, a ridiculously attractive man peddling feathers -- float through Buster's nights like a dream as his sanity and the stoic stone face that made him famous start to crumble.

"Barbarous Nights will receive its New York premiere at The Invisible Dog this summer, July 5 - 13, 2013."

This description comes from the Barbarous Nights website. To learn more about the production, to buy tickets, or to donate, please visit http://barbarousnights.net/.