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.