Keystone’s 100th

August 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Happy Anniversary, Keystone !

As reported by The Silent Treatment:

This August marks the 100th an- niversary of the founding of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Amer- ica’s first studio dedicated to the pro- duction of motion picture comedies. Keystone Studios, under the guid- ance of pioneering producer/director Mack Sennett, was the birthplace of the classic American slapstick com- edy. This historic studio was at one time home to early Hollywood lumi- naries such as Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, The Bathing Beau- ties, Marie Dressler, Ben Turpin, The Keystone Cops, Ford Sterling and countless others. Even Hollywood icon Charlie Chaplin, still the world’s most recognized actor, introduced his beloved Tramp character under the auspices of Keystone.

Yet of the 1000+ films of such good-humoured nonsense, only a mere hundreds survive, often in fragmentary condition, scattered all around the word. But do not despair: Turner Entertainment is working on a DVD/Blue Ray restoration of 100 Keystone to mark the studio’s 100th anniversary. Something (else!) to look forward to for Christmas.

“Not Wanted” — though more is wanted

June 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

h/t to the indispensable bioscope for pointing me to US silent film accompanist Ben Model’s YouTube channel. Ben Model has been posting short silent films with his own piano accompaniment for a while. The latest is 1-reel (the only reel surviving?) of a 1924 Billy West comedy, “Not Wanted”. This is after West’s early career as a Chaplin impersonator, though traces of Chaplin’s small-lost-figure appear in little jerks of the shoulders or other looks to the camera. Enjoy:

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…

W. C. and repeats

October 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

During last Pordenone festival, it became obvious fairly quickly that W.C. Fields had a habit of using the same gags in several films. We had the following instances:

  • the golf routine of The Golf Specialist (1930) had been already filmed in So’s Your Old Man (1926) (the Lescarboura prince being the plot motivation for the gun shot that downs the bird that ends the skit in 1926, as opposed to the cops in 1930).
  • the whisky and water gag, where Fields fill a huge glass with whisky, and then adds just a drop or two of water, appeared in Janice Meredith (1924), and then again in So’s Your Old Man (1926) — where it is expanded with the realization that it is not whisky but roach exterminator that he just drank, and the further gag that when given actual home-brewn whisky, he prefers the roach exterminator.

And with Fields’ background in stage stand-up variety comedy, there is no reason why the gags he had perfected on the stage before his film career should not be used in films. 

But I wasn’t quite prepared for the shock of You’re Telling Me! (1934), a complete remake of So’s Your Old man (1926), and a plodding remake at that. It is telling that although the film is correctly identified on as a remake of the Silent La Cava film, the trivia section still insists that the golf section is taken from the (sound) Golf Specialist. Time for film history to break from the industry’s practice of ignoring all film silents, to the point where remakes were made that do not even come close to the quality of the silent original (as in this case), and to recognize the continuity between 1927 and 1930.

A detailed study would be necessary to establish exactly how the 1934 version bombs where the 1926 version was jogging along at a clip pace. The early sound practice of motivating and explaining and justifying every plot element with some dialogue

as in when he makes it back to his town, and the women shun him like a social pariah. The sound version lets them comment audibly, and the gag becomes that much belaboured

, an unhappy delivery of lines from Fields himself who seems to suffer under the plot (where in the 1926 version he tries to guide the plot, but fails)

a good image of that would be the choice made to replace the fantastic poney he wants to offer his wife, in 1926, with an ostrich he barely can manage in 1934,

and you have the elements of a fiasco. In 1926, Bisbee had invented an unbreakable window-pane glass, the resistance of which he attempted to demonstrate by hurling bricks at cars parked in the street (under the delusion that one of those cars was his)–thereby promptly destroying several cars before high-tailing it.

Need I point out the childish delight of seeing such a childish thing to do as to hurl stones at windows ? See Bringing Up Baby with Ginger Rogers’ stone…or Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and its own stone-throwing incident

in case you missed it, this is the moment when Carole Dempster wants to throw a rock at a rich man’s house; her father, Fields himself, stops her, reproachful, and picks up a smaller stone for her to throw.

What do you think happen in 1934 ? Bisbee’s invented a flat-proof car tire

he does attempt to bring back the old childish flavor by rolling his tire home with a stick

but the demonstration consists in a more elaborate set-up: he uses a gun to shoot at the tires, just one car, and a police car to boot (which ties in too nicely with the plot).

(Fields also remade Sally of the Sawdust in Poppy (1936)…)

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 Boat (1921) – deconstructing the family

May 19, 2008 § 2 Comments

Buster builds a boat. In typical Keaton logic, the boat is too big and Buster needs to break the garage door to let it out.

too small !  

The logic is pure Keaton’s, of course: destroy your home for your pleasure boat.


The comment is also clearly social (or rather, anti-social), as the house crumbles in perfect bourgeois indifférence: as long as Father looks sternly on, and Mother is behind also looking as though nothing had happened, then appearances are OK and the family’s safe…

all set

(earlier, she had reacted to the catastrophic news that the garage had to be busted to clear the boat, with a perfect oh-this-man-will-never-change shrug

oh well

Part of the fun here is in the systematic destruction of the family to the point of non-existence (indeed this is fairly frequent in slapsticks: See the end of Along Came Auntie (1926), and the [[bourgeois couple busted]]). After the home, the family loses the car

gone is the car

but soon rallies round Father

the Dad

 In the boat, the family painting (a standard marine view that could be found in any bourgeois interior) is leaking. Dad’s repair skills are not quite up to code:

taking water

and Mother’s cooking is not quite what it should be

the Mom

But just when he’s through destroying the topoi of family life, he pieces it back together and, eventually, the holy family is together, praying:

Holy Family

or saying goodbye:

Good-Bye !

or walking away together:


…even though that reconstruction is the conclusion of a painstakingly ridiculous belief that they were all drowning together under Father’s enlightened guidance. 

(And then, as always, the perfect catastrophic logic of conspiring forces, and the loser’s poetic stance which Keaton does to perfection.

The loser’s poetic stance

May 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

Keaton, in The Boat (1921), does the loser as only he knows how: Loser loses boat

loser 1

not just once, but twice:

loser 2

and both times, stoically, resigned, poetically oblivious of the mass of natural forces that have conspired against him.

Space bloopers from Harold Lloyd

September 10, 2007 § Leave a comment

From Just Neighbors (1919). Anything wrong in this sequence ?

neighbors1.png neighbors2.png neighbors3.png neighbors4.png

In shot # 3, Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard exit left, but on shot #4 they re-enter the frame left (instead of right as classical editing would have it). What’s more, if you look at the background, they’re just going back to where they were (same house in the distance, same stairs) ! Only the frame has moved to the left slightly so it is not too obvious — a sign that space continuity is a requirement that Lloyd is aware of, even if he thinks he can get away with a cheap solution.And that bucolic, beautiful suburbian Eden, lightly populated, filled with unfenced grass plots ? How does it get transformed into this small, closed-in backyard surrounded by neighbors nearby ?


Even worse, how come the neighbor’s youngest gets to play at this crossroad unattended, and that this crossroad is supposed to be next to the house (still in that peaceful, unsettled suburbia that was shown first) ??

picture-12.png picture-14.png

And how come when her older brother comes along whistling, he’s walking along such an urban sidewalk ? picture-15.png

The answer is that the first environment fits a narrative idea and a social ideal: tired husbands get back home after a hard day’s work (narrative idea: peace and break from work; social ideal: peaceful suburbia under the California sun). The second, very settled environment fits the story line (neighbors fighting, too close to each other) and the gags (kid among cars). The requirements of a uniform space go only that far. There are many other requirements on the film and the story that need to be taken into account to allow for the best solution.And speaking of bloopers, here’s one last one. Notice that in California, cars going in opposite directions drive in the same lane:


(the car coming from the right is going to drive between the child and the camera)


(but then, so does the car coming from the left!) Why do cars, in California, always drive between a child seated in the middle of the road and the camera ? Because it makes more visual sense: there’s a fraction of suspense, as the car passes the child, that would not be there otherwise (did she get run over or not?). At least that’s the only sense I see: it’s visual, aesthetic sense — a value not enough recognized, I believe, in classical Hollywood, and often buried under considerations about realism and such.

A Night in Casablanca (1947)

February 20, 2007 § Leave a comment

Gary Giddins was right (Comedy, Film, Music and Books) when he described the Marx brothers as

grown-ups pretending to be children pretending to be grown-ups

The exhilaration of watching their crazed zaniness in action comes not just from the slapstick and the fun of well-timed gags, but also from the innate optimism. Nothing is impossible, and everything is fun: need to break out of jail ? fly an airplane ? manage a hotel ? find Nazi loot ? outsmart crooks ? The Marx brothers evolve in a world where no one seems to notice that they’re crazy, one of the foundation of their humor as Giddins also writes. But even when people do notice (the Nazi in this instance, or the captain of police), they can’t take them to task since the child-like aspect is obvious to all. And so, from illogical gag to logical absurdity the brothers hop around and restore good sense and human relationship against all the nasty down-to-earth grabbing war-mongering serious authorities, and restore hope against hope. They dare to dismiss the most dangerous of men with a side-step and with the force of a child dismissing rational arguments for the power of the imaginary world. And the beauty is that they win, in the end. Especially if winning means, as in here, finishing the film not with a celebration of the victory of good over nazi evil, even if that’s an underlying issue of course — but with a chase after the hapless girl who dreams of being kissed with the three brothers around…

putting words on the image

February 13, 2007 § 2 Comments

From Harold Lloyd’s Just Neighbors.
The only instance I’ve seen so far of anything at all written on a moving image in silent films is to indicate any noise, sound, usually of non-human origin,, and usually for comic purposes.
For instance in this sequence (where Bebe Daniels is, incidentally, doing a lot of looking at the director off-camera, who is probably directing her — on top of the usual slapstick look-at-the-audience routine)
picture-20.png picture-18.png picture-19.png picture-16.png

This sequence is what silent films traditionally do. Shot #3 is ridiculously short, just a flash on the screen, since there is no time between the two lines, and practically this is a case where the audience is engrossed in reading funny lines, rather than looking at images. There could be no image in between and it wouldn’t matter much, except that it’s a bit more comfortable anchoring the Bebe’s reply to her image of shock, however brief.
But then the parrot in the background joins the shouting match with:

Words flash on the screen. Rather than dialogue, this is a background sound which belongs materially to the image itself. The other solution would have been a close-up, an insert of the parrot “talking”, as with instruments, trumpets, horses’ hooves, and so on. But since the parrot needs to be shown talking and his word is also important, this is probably the most economical solution.

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