Mute Spectacles

June 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

We know the filiation : movies share exhibition space with vaudeville (and chatauquas, visiting circuses and fairs, and so on)  in the early years of the 2oth century, and this is how they become popular.

Here’s another additional link : mute spectacles. This is what the Larousse entry about popular French theater of the 19th century (“Théâtre de Boulevard”) says about them :

Cependant, la naissance effective du théâtre de boulevard peut être datée du décret de Napoléon Ierconcernant les théâtres (8 juin 1806).

Mimes et pantomimes

L’empereur, qui méprisait la comédie et le drame, voulait ressusciter un grand théâtre tragique, d’inspiration héroïque et apologétique ; par ailleurs, le théâtre populaire lui semblait susceptible de devenir un instrument de subversion. Par ce décret, les théâtres principaux, la Comédie-Française et l’Opéra, sont consacrés à un art impérial officiel, tandis que les théâtres secondaires : Vaudeville, Variétés, Ambigu-Comique, Gaîté, etc., sont voués à des spectacles muets, c’est-à-dire à la pantomime, au ballet, aux numéros des acrobates et des jongleurs. Ce décret entraîna la désaffection des salles officielles, et de leurs ennuyeuses tragédies néoclassiques, par le grand public qui reflua rapidement vers le boulevard.

Après la chute de l’Empire, les spectacles muets continuent à avoir la faveur du public : on adapteHamlet en pantomime (1816) et Othello en ballet (1818). En 1817, les spectateurs des Funambules découvrent le mime Jean-Gaspard Baptiste Deburau, qui devient un célèbre Pierrot. Le mouvement prime encore la parole : Frédérick Lemaître lui-même, débutant en 1816, fait son entrée sur scène en marchant sur les mains.

Vers un théâtre des mots

À ce théâtre muet, gestuel et direct, succède, sous la seconde Restauration, un théâtre fondé sur le mot et les situations ; c’est, d’une part, le mélodrame, avec les pièces de Pixérécourt, de Caignez, de Ducange ; d’autre part, le vaudeville.

Mute spectacles were inherited all the way from Giovanni Servandoni’s 18th century spectacles of sets in movement to tell a story through décor only. Note how they survive in unofficial, secondary, underground dramatic formats in France’s early 19th century. Cinema piggybacks on existing popular, if unapproved, cultural forms: vaudeville, the melodrama, and mute shows. 

Heart o’ the Hills (1919) and other realistic romances

November 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve added one more VoodooPad project for you to browse and peruse. This one deals with the 1919 Kentucky film with Mary Pickford, Heart o’ the Hills, and it’s a bit wee more meaty than the still developping Fields Project already uploaded. (Notably, it features my first notes on a narrative process at work in Classical cinema that i’ve called, and I’m not particularly proud of the name either, re-fiction –theoretically, just an expansion on Rick Altman’s principle of co-presence of the melodramatic within the classical text (1)

Enjoy, and comment !


(1) That seminal study is in Rick ALTMAN, “Dickens, Griffith, and Film Theory Today.” in GAINES Jane, éd.: Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars. Durham, Duke University Press, 1992 9-48.

W. C. Fields, repeats, and VoodooPad

November 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’m in trying-out software mode these days. Voodoopad uses the simple power of wikis to link thoughts and bits of information and allows for a web-like growth of your reflections.

My first use is the W.C. Fields repeat project, which you can read about here. Note that this is a work in progress and will be updated as I have time to work on it…

Indeed you may find other web notes and thoughts in progress wiki-like under the “My web notes” page on this site. 

That same page has also links with updated info on film conferences, film festivals, and bits of information collected reading the web, all related to silent films…

Pordenone diary – day six

October 21, 2008 § 1 Comment

A few strange things happened at Pordenone this year in the programming: films about the first World War from Italy and Austria, shown at the same time in two different venues, Bardelys the Magnificent shown early morning, Laïla, just as magnificent, a 2 hours epic shown at 4 p.m. siesta time, and a Digibeta “documentary”, hardly better than your average DVD extra, shown in prime time at 8 pm with much fanfare. All in all, a strange day. 

Check out The Bioscope before you read this here post, because I too loved Bardelys, tongue-in-cheek, ironical, Bardelys, with Gilbert’s nose longer than you’ve ever seen it, and fight scenes where wit is more important than brute physicality (the soldiers’ lances turned into sliding ramps for Gilbert, the parachute…), as a visibly happy Serge Bromberg said in introduction to the film

Bardelys is magnificent again

Laïla, the 1929 Norwegian surprise, was also very, very good, as only silent films can be.

And Lady of the Pavements…Here my notes are a bit more organized, maybe reflecting how engrossed I must have been during the screening itself (Sosin ! Seaton !):

  • the last scene: she sings the Song of Songs (“where is the song of songs for me?”), thinks about Karl: one by one the customers in the low-life cabaret where she works are changed, in lap-dissolves, into Karl. All the men that is ! And as she sings, and as she sees only Karls everywhere, the real Karl appears – is he the real one, or a reflection of Joanna Seaton, the vocalist, as she sang the song ? Hard to tell.

(This is Lupe Vélez – not Joanna Seaton – but you’ll get the point)

  • The social issue is from another time, another planet. The melodramatic plot (will aristocratic Karl agree to marry a poor, lower class girl ?) is so ancient it is largely irrelevant.
  • The girl’s training to become a lady (how to talk, walk, eat, and dress), on the other hand, is used in the film as an occasion to unmask melodramatic stereotypes, as she is taught to conform to the image of a lady, but falls back, when training’s over, into her natural, easy-going self. Thus do silent films wink at their audience. She has that coarse gesture to put her dress back in place, she takes her shoes off because they are too tight, she scratches her back against the door post when her back’s itchy (!), she head-buts, Pickford-like, her seducing etiquette teacher. One second she’s a lady, the next she’s a pest. And for all we know, it all looks like we’re witnessing the very making of the scene and the camera’s just stopped.
  • But that’s all part of the Griffith head-fake: after her introduction to Karl, the melodramatic takes over and all symptoms of her former self and its pains at acting out the lady, all vanish entirely. She neither hits nor tickles, not anymore – she becomes, for all plot intents and purposes, the operetta character she was playing before.

In other words: another sign that Griffith is indeed irresolute (see my take on Drums of Love)

Next up: war on films (or was this tourism?), and more enchantment.

Pordenone – diary – Day One

October 13, 2008 § 2 Comments

As always, the Bioscope has been there before and Urbanora (hiya there!) should always be your first stop when silent-film sleuthing – but you could make this your second stop as I’ll try to post my Pordenone diary with other films the Bioscope has not reviewed (here’s to collaboration).

I’ll add this to his take on the first evening Special Event, Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows: with 88% of all shots visual shots, and only 9% (9%!) of all shots dialogue titles, and less than 1% (you read that right: 0.8%!!) of all shots exposition titles, this has got to be close to a Hollywood record for lowest reliance on intertitles. Small wonder everyone loved Pickford: there is time to see her, her eyes, her pouts, her wildest gestures. And sure, it’s a meller – except when there’s no plot at all and it’s only Mary interacting with children: feeding a kid, arbitrating a fight, pushing another with her head up the stairs, waiting for the night to end…

Had I but world enough  and time (huh, Marvell, is that you?), I’d go a little further. It’s a film that does the meller thing half-way, because it’s pulled in another direction by Mary’s playing a 12-year old: the thrill is not fully in the chase, it’s also in watching the spectacular achievement of this 30+ woman completely at ease, in her element, surrounded by kids one third her age. The fascination is less with the wired crocodiles (an amazing feat of restoration, that: after all this time, the image is so crisp and clear that the wires used to operate the gators’ mouths were clearly visible…) than with the show-woman.

Anabel Lane, Film Mercury, Aug. 1926:

After seeing the picture the writer feels the audiences have taken Sparrows too seriously; it should have been accepted in the same spirit as The Black Pirate. Sparrows might have opened with the subtitles: “Once Upon a Time There Lived” and ended with, “And they All Lived happy Ever After.”(…) Through the harrowing scenes of crossing the swamp she displayed comedy touches; not to relieve the situation but because she knew very few would be able to receive it earnestly.

Carl Sandburg, december 1926:

Yet, while this is melodrama it happens that once in a while the picture achieves fantasy. It’s a real world and it isn’t. Of course, such sweet, tough kiddoes and kiddees are not seen in actual life. And the ending scenes are not dragged too far. Yet it rises and holds one with elemental power of story telling and of character portrayal.

I’ll return to that later in that Pordenone diary: there’s a twinkle in the eye of American silent melodramas, a something that tells the audience this is all for a laugh and the thrill is in knowing it’s a thrill. A reflexive pleasure, so to speak.

And here’s another stat for you: 8 days of film viewing at Pordenone comes down to some 10h of sheer viewing time, on average, every day en route to a marathon 40 feature-length films in the week. That first day alone I spent 352 minutes watching that big, BIG screen. Ah, the happiness of it…

But to return. After the Pickford fest, those that stayed for more were treated to Running Wild, a 1927 Fields/La Cava that to me was the best W.C. Fields of the whole week (with, maybe, the exception of the soundThe Golf Specialist, which is a shorter skit anyway). 80 minutes of Fields trying, trying to impress everyone around him that he is a man. From the waking up to a gym routine (thanks to a chain-smoking instructor on the radio) with Strongfort on the wall, to the step-son wailing that his dad was a man, to the “I’m a lion!” zanniness, the theme is pretty obvious to pick up. Ah, for the day 

when me or Mary want to buy ourselves a new dress !

It’s a riot of a film and what works very well is the mirror structure: the last half of the film is a replay in reverse of the first half of the film. First half: he wakes up, gets humiliated by wife and Junior, goes to the office where more humiliation follows (he is turned down laughed down when asking for a raise), then goes to Mr. Johnson’s office to get his firm’s money back, and is quickly thrown out of there. Then he falls under hypnosis

I’m a lion ! (fist raised, reminds one of the Sister Suffragette routine in Disney’s Mary Poppins)

and retraces his steps, methodically: first Johnson where he gets his money back and signs the big contract, then his office where he insults all the big shots, then home where he straightens (“I’m a lion!”) his standing with wife and Junior (Junior’s beating, a classic of Fields humor, shakes the whole house). Home-office-Johnson-Johnson-office-home. It’s what gives the later scenes, for all their “obstreperous” character (not my word ! That’s Mordant Hall, New York Times, June 19, 1927), their punch. Retracing our steps, the final confrontation is expected, desired, and fulfilling:

It was satisfying (says Mordant Hall, but now I think I know why) to the spectators to observe Mr. Finch even up matters with his wife (his second marriage), first by breaking up a tea party and then by smashing the portrait of Mrs. Finch’s first husband.

There’s another point where I agree, after a good 81 years, with that crowd at the Paramount Theater, New York:

It was interesting to observe that the episode in “Running Wild” that afforded the most enjoyment one afternoon last week in the Paramount THeatre was not where Mr. Finch is perceived slamming people right and left, but during his simple act of trying to avoid the joinings in the pavement as he goes to work. This was an excellent thought, something really human, for after all there are many, many persons in this world who are superstitious, say what they will to the contrary.

It’s also an “excellent thought” because that tip-toeing at full walking speed on the pavement looked remarkably like dancing (thank you Gabriel Thibaudeau for the accompanying jazz beat at that point). But human it is – and so is the “slamming people right and left”, pace Mr. Hall. For, “say what they will to the contrary”, who wouldn’t want to be a lion for a day.

A pretty good day’s work, I’d call it. There was more of Fields slapping kids and people around, thankfully, to come in the festival — but that’s a tale for another day.

The Trey o’ Hearts (1914)

May 19, 2008 § 2 Comments

Per a 1914 serial from Universal, with Wilfred Lucas directing.

Although lost, this historical serial has been reconstructed in book form using the original novel and existing action photo stills as part of the Serial Squadron Lost Serial Photonovel re-creations.(this message appeared in 2005 on, but see comment for update!)

Couldn’t find a trace of the Serial Squadron edition (but see comment: a new edition should be out July 2009!), so I’m re-posting the stills included in the orginal, published 1914 from Grosset & Dunlap and available through Google Books…

melodrama’s very modern modernity

May 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

1914. Wow:

“Wait!” the latter admonished in a half-whisper. “Look there!” 
Barcus followed the direction of his gesture, and 
was transfixed by sight of a rocket appearing into 
the night-draped sky from a point invisible beyond 
the headland. The two consulted one another with 
startled and fearful eyes. 
As with one voice they murmured one word : “Judith!” (p. 103)

A little later (p. 131), Alan climbs up an unfinished skyscraper:

a colossal apartment structure, the gaunt iron skeleton rearing a web of steel stencilled against the shining sky. (…) The ladders were 
crazily constructed and none too securely poised, 
but at length he gained the gridiron of girders on 
a plane with the lighted window across the way, and 
crept along one of these, gingerly on his hands and 
knees, until he came to its end, and might, if he 
cared to, look down a hundred feet to the sidewalks. 

And still later (p. 159), Alan is picked up by a plane:

Out of the very sky dropped a hydroplane, cutting the water with a long graceful curve that brought it, almost at a standstill, directly to the head of the swimmer. and at the same time forced the police-boat to sheer wildly off in order to escape collision. 

And though the first transcontinental flight had been achieved a mere three years before, this does not seem to bother our Alan Law:

Promptly Alan called up the Aviation Fields at 
Hempstead Plains and got into communication with 
a gentleman answering to the surname of Coast, 
the same bird-man who had come to Alan’s rescue 
with his hydroplane. Their arrangements were 
quickly consummated, Coast agreeing to wait for 
Alan with his biplane in Van Cortlandt Park from 
midnight till daybreak, prepared if need be to undertake 
a trans-continental flight

(other takes on Trey o’ Hearts here or here or here)

The transformation of the melodrama…spectacle

May 18, 2008 § 1 Comment

How often have we seen this scene in films:

“They’ve made a torpedo-boat out of that tender ”
He sprang upon the rail, steadying himself with
a stay. “Ready?” he asked. “Look sharp!”
The two dived as one, and not until three hundred
feet or more separated them from the schooner did
either dare pause for a backward glance.
Then the impact of the launch against the Sea-
‘s side rang out across the waters, and with a
roar the launch blew up, spewing skyward a widespread
fan of flame. There followed a crackling
noise, and bright flames licked out all over the
schooner from stem to stern.

(Trey o’ Hearts, p. 66 — after a forest fire through Maine, two rapids, and life-defying moments galore. A second boat explosion is p. 114. A car crash p. 116. A car explodes p. 145. There’s a train crash on a trestle above some Western gully p. 184))

The transformation of the melodrama … metaphor

May 18, 2008 § 1 Comment

In opposition to what I wrote here, this:

Within the hour Rose Trine stood before her father
in that sombre room whose sinister colour-scheme
of crimson and black was the true livery of the
passion for vengeance that alone kept warm the
embers of his deathlike life.

the metaphorical use of colors that is pretty heavy-handed here, film melodramas (colors in Written on the Wind for instance) will do effortlessly.

(still from Trey o’ Hearts, p. 39)

the transformation of the melodramatic hero

May 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

The Troy o’ Hearts: a motion-picture melodrama, Joseph Louis Vance, 1914

Take this description:

He was a young man and had been personable.
Just now his face was crimson with congested blood
and streaked with sweat and grime; his lips were
cracked and swollen, his eyes haggard, his hands
bleeding. (. 31)

Note to Hollywood, c. 1914: how do you fit this into an entertaining, attractive formula ? It’s going to take some penetration of realistic styles before this purple-prose battering of the hero can find its equivalent on the not-so-forgiving film image. (It’s easy to uglyfy your hero by words; but on the screen?) And indeed, notice how the face is anything but “crimson”, “haggard” and the like:

Judith feels love for the man she was meant to kill

How long before serials would show “crimson” for what it is ?

The Red Ace, which began its run in February 1917, represents a milestone of sorts: it is the first serial, as far as I know, that began showing profuse amounts of blood during fight scenes. All previous serials were bloodless (although one does not notice the absence when watching them). The blood greatly intensified the graphic violence critics of sensational melodrama found so objectionable. (Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity, p. 217)











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