From Dreams to Dust: Oh, the Movies You Will Never See!

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I was once asked, while volunteering for a film review website, to list the “Top Ten Greatest Films of all Time.” Of course, a “great film” is subjective but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the task daunting: cinematographic motion pictures have been around since at least the late 1890s, leaving us with – what should be – an almost limitless scope of films to watch and choose from. 

I say “what should be”, because many Silent (an estimated 80-90%) and Pre-Code movies are now considered lost.

Most Silent films were made using cellulose nitrate film stock. Nitrate stock flares up quickly – a lit cigarette nearby is enough to set it off – and can even spontaneously combust if stored improperly. The film is so flammable that it burns even when immersed in water. In 1949, nitrate was replaced by acetate safety stock but by then innumerable silent movies had already burned to death – their filmmaker’s stories forever extinguished by flames.

And sometimes they were destroyed on purpose.

Studios, not believing that future audiences would have any interest in “old” movies, junked the films to free up vault space. Not all were set on fire though: several tons of Silent movies were dumped into the Yukon river while others were used as filler for swimming pools and ice rinks.  

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(The 1919 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring a pre-scandal Mary Miles Minter, is now considered lost)

North American society has always been “out with the old, in with the new”, but Hollywood in particular took an almost sadistic pleasure in denigrating Silent movies – essentially eating its first born. Take for example the popular musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a film which slanders the reputation of Silent movies as much as it celebrates the music of early talkies. In Singin’ in the Rain, Silent films are portrayed as ridiculously melodramatic period dramas. The film takes the same view as its female lead, the squeaky clean, all-American chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who, while exaggerating pantomime, sums up silent movie actors this way: They don’t talk, they don’t act – they just make a lot of dumb show.” She goes on to state that “real” acting means wonderful lines, speaking glorious words!”. But any creative writing instructor worth their salt will tell you that it’s better to “show” than “tell”. Kathy Selden has obviously never seen Lon Chaney’s heartbreaking performance as a depressed circus clown in the deliciously demented He Who Gets Slapped (1924) or John Gilbert’s anguished soldier in the glorious WW1 drama The Big Parade (1925). Clara Bow did not need sound when she defined the roaring twenties as a vivacious shop girl in the romantic comedy It (1927). Sometimes talk is just…noise.

So why did Hollywood desecrate its early work? Well, the dominance of sound on film coincided with the stock market crash of 1929 and talkies, in comparison to silent films, were damned expensive to produce. My guess is that Hollywood was trying to justify the expense.

When the amended Production Code “to govern the making of motion and talking pictures” took effect on July 1st, 1934, many talkies suffered a similar fate to their silent sisters, such as the popular Pre-Code sex comedy Convention City (1933). Convention City, which its star Joan Blondell called “the raunchiest thing there has ever been”, was condemned under the amended Code and its studio, Warner Brothers, ordered that all prints be destroyed.  Today, Convention City (1933) is considered the Holy Grail of Pre-Code films. 

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“We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” – Studio memo from Jack L. Warner to Convention City’s producer Hal Wallis. (The lovely Joan Blondell pictured). 

Still, many films – such as Paramount’s Clara Bow collection – were left to languish in locked vaults for decades; celluloid dreams disintegrating into dust.

So although I know that there are still plenty of great movies that I have yet to see, I sadly fear that there are many more that I will never see, such as Cleopatra (1917) a film which, thanks to the surviving still images of a wickedly wanton Theda Bara in the title role, has managed to achieve iconic status in spite of being considered lost.

It is heartening to remember though that films considered “lost” are sometimes “found”. For example, in 2015 a complete reel was discovered of The Battle of the Century (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s ultimate pie fight, after the original film had degenerated. In April 2017, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened the film (complete with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model and a real pie throwing!) at the Revue Cinema. I consider myself very lucky to have been in attendance (and doubly lucky not to have gotten hit by one of the pies!).

 

Check your attics and basements – you never know, you might just find a lost cinematic gem!

Written by Heather Babcock, 2020

Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.

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Do you remember where you were on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020?

I do. I was having lunch with a friend at George’s Chicken at Bloor & Bathurst. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know it wasn’t Covid-19. The overhead TV was on and I remember a newscaster reporting that the NBA had suspended its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus but I didn’t think that would affect me. After lunch, my friend and I parted ways and I hopped on the subway to shop for some vintage inspired seamed stockings at Damsels and then I headed to Brentwood Library to pick up a book and a few DVDs that I had placed on hold. I had no idea that by Saturday these simple pleasures – lunch with a friend, clothes shopping and visiting the public library – would be impossible. That day now feels like something out of a dream.

I was thinking about this as I recently watched Our Modern Maidens (1929).  The movie is a follow up – though not a sequel – to MGM’s smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the flapper film that turned the budding young starlet Joan Crawford into a bona fide superstar. In addition to the top-billed Crawford, both movies also feature Anita Page and Edward Nugent, but make no mistake: the real stars of these “mad youth/high society/jazz baby” films are the elaborate sets, glittering gowns, fancy cars and flapper bling. This is Art Deco porn at its most indulgent. Champagne parties (“lunch is poured!”); fireworks viewed from a yacht; sex in a Rolls-Royce; plenty of orchids, feathers and furs and – oh yeah – Joan Crawford dancing half naked in a speakeasy: Our Modern Maidens puts the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties.  The film was released on September 8th, 1929: six and a half weeks before Black Thursday and the start of the Great Depression. Talk about a party crash!

Continue reading “Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.”

The Parade’s Gone By (A Poem)

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The Parade’s Gone By

Miss Desmond, your boy was right:

The parade’s gone by,

I heard it’s moved online – 

A nice place to visit but 

I sure as hell don’t want to live

Where I can only touch

What I cannot feel. 

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” you cried,

But Norma, now that’s all we got:

Talking heads, ephemeral shadows

Locked behind a screen

And I can’t get a connection.

Yes Miss Desmond, the parade has indeed passed us by;

It’s been a week but I can still hear the stomping of the boots in my ears,

My hope waving good-bye to a tardy Santa Claus,

Collecting tinsel

I am forbidden to touch.

– Heather Babcock, March 2020

***

Note: This is not a political poem. I wrote this Sunday morning as a way to work through the anxiety and fear that I have been experiencing due to the Covid-19 shutdowns. I thought that Norma Desmond – the fictional silent film star from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a woman who is described by her younger lover as “waving to a parade that had long passed her by”- was a good symbol for the way that I am feeling right now. The difference is that Norma mourned the passing of silence while I miss the noise.

So very much. ❤

 

 

 

 

In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman

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“Surely not many a silver screen star can write, produce and slice her own nitrate. I take pride in my skills but without a distribution deal, these talents remain ‘in the can’, as we say – invisible, worthless. Tomorrow the studio heads will wave their magic wands of approval – or not. I believe we have good prospects if I can dodge the (creditors) by the fire escape one more day. (…) There are so many stories yet to be told and sold in our future. Tomorrow. Thank God, there is tomorrow.” – Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago, before Wall Street moved in and before the domination of the large studio system, women ruled Hollywood: in front of and behind the scenes, they wrote the stories, shot the scenes, managed production budgets and dreamed up the publicity scenarios that turned everyday shop girls into superstars. One of the most fearless of these early film pioneers was Nell Shipman, a Canadian born director, actress (who performed all of her own stunts!), producer, screenwriter, novelist and animal rights activist and trainer. I recently discovered Nell during a midnight screening of Back to God’s Country (1919), an action-adventure blockbuster that she both wrote and starred in. I was equal parts surprised, delighted and enchanted by Nell’s earthy sensuality (her infamous skinny-dipping scene is more joyful than salacious) and the feminist tone of the film (her character – a woman surviving in the harsh Canadian wilderness – is no damsel in distress but rather a defiant dame).  The thoughtful portrayal and gentle handling of the many animals in the film is also refreshing; at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them, Nell Shipman emphatically advocated for the humane treatment of animals in movies and spoke out against animal cruelty.

Continue reading “In Honour of International Women’s Day: Remembering Film Pioneer Nell Shipman”

Silents Please!: Silent Movies are Alive and Well in Toronto

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“Nobody watches silent movies anymore”.

I was a little taken aback when I read the above quote recently in an otherwise well-researched book about Pre-Code film. Nobody watches silent movies anymore? Tell that to the audiences who flocked to the Fox and the Revue Cinema this past weekend to watch two silent classics: It (1927) and The Hands of Orlac (1924).  In spite of the unusually mild February weather, both films played to a packed house.

Being a huge fan of Clara Bow, I was excited to see her on the big screen in the film that immortalized her as the original “IT Girl”: on Saturday, the Toronto Silent Film Festival screened It (1927) at the Fox theatre in the Beaches, with live music accompaniment by Tania Gill. Prior to the film, my beau and I checked out the merchandise table where I picked up some sassy Clara Bow buttons for a toonie each and he found a cool Marilyn Monroe biography for only one dollar! Regrets? I have a few: there was a Gloria Swanson DVD collection for $20.00 which I unwisely passed up (I figured I should keep my cash for groceries but really, when choosing between bread and Gloria, one should always choose Gloria!). I couldn’t resist asking my beau to snap a photo of me under the Fox’s vintage Candy Bar sign (pictured).

Continue reading “Silents Please!: Silent Movies are Alive and Well in Toronto”

Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers

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(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)

“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché

When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color.  In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast.  Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.

Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.

Continue reading “Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers”

Creepy Silent Movies You Need to See This Halloween

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By Heather Babcock

As I watch and explore silent pictures, a common theme emerges: Death. This is not surprising as many of these films were created in the years following WW1. An estimated 37 million lives were lost during what is considered one of the deadliest and bloodiest wars in history. Young men (some still teenagers) from rural areas and working class backgrounds saw enlistment as their one chance to travel and experience adventure – to “see the world” – sadly, many saw their dreams of exploration mutate into real life nightmares of unspeakable horror.

Death and destruction lurk within the shadows of movies made during this period. Feelings of loneliness, disappointment and alienation fuse with fear. What follows is a handful of silent horror films which offer a very different kind of escapism: watching these movies, you may feel as though the world has been upended – leaving you alone to drown in their vast, sempiternal skies. Continue reading “Creepy Silent Movies You Need to See This Halloween”

Riot Against the Machine: Review of Speedy (1928)

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By Heather Babcock, 2019

A few years ago I was waiting in line at my neighborhood independent dollar store; an elderly woman was in front of me and as the cashier (a young man in his twenties) was handing over her change, he wished her a good day. “I’m 85 years old,” the woman replied. “It’s never a good day for me, all my friends are dead.” The young man reached over and held out his hand to her. “Listen,” he said kindly, “I’m your friend. If you ever feel like you need a friend, just come down here and see me.”

I have thought about this interaction often, as I see more and more self-checkout machines taking the place of human beings. I think about how – when it comes to technology – it is not just about what we gain but also about what we lose, in this case the simple pleasure of human interaction. I thought about this again as I watched Speedy (1928), a Harold Lloyd silent comedy about a habitually unemployed young man named Speedy who makes it his mission to save New York City’s last horse-drawn trolley-car, owned and driven by his girlfriend’s grandfather, Pop.

The delightful comedy follows Speedy as he loses job after job. Pop explains the problem: “Speedy gets plenty of jobs – but he’ll never keep one while his mind is full of baseball.”  Indeed, Speedy’s only requirement of his employers is “that their store be within phoning distance of the Yankee stadium.” After his baseball-on-the-brains obsession causes him to be sacked from his job as a soda jerk, Speedy shrugs. “Aw Jane,” he says to his flapper girlfriend, played by the fetching Ann Christy, “Why worry about losing a job on a Saturday when we can go to Coney Island on Sunday? Besides you know I always get a job on Monday.”  This in turn leads to a dazzling extended sequence at Coney Island’s Luna Park. I’ve never visited Coney Island and have no idea what it’s like today but the fun park is featured prominently in plenty of 1920’s movies, notably Clara Bow’s It (1927) and Lonesome (1928) (the latter boasts one of the most beautiful early two-strip Technicolor scenes I have ever seen). Wearing heels and a swell dress, flapper Jane doesn’t care if you can see her underwear as she joins Speedy on the “Human Roulette Wheel”, the “Double Dip Slide” and the “Revolving Drum”, giving modern viewers a lesson in the fabulousness of 1920’s women’s undergarments.

Adding to Speedy’s time-capsule appeal is a hilarious cameo by Babe Ruth, whom the title card announces as “the idol of American boys – little and big.” Hailing a cab to take him to Yankee Stadium, the Babe has the misfortune of getting picked up by Speedy, in his latest stint as a cab driver. Beside himself with excitement, super fan Speedy gushes: “Even when you strike out, you miss ‘em close!” Sweating in the back seat as Speedy narrowly avoids crashing into oncoming traffic, the Babe replies “I don’t miss ‘em half as close as you do!”

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It isn’t all fun and games for Speedy though: upon finding out that a streetcar magnate is trying to railroad Pops into giving up his horse-drawn trolley tracks, Speedy organizes their blue collar friends and the film climaxes with a literal class war between the “little guys” and the evil streetcar corporation.

Watching Speedy through the lens of 2019 is interesting: the film was released in April of 1928 – just over a year and a half before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. You can almost hear the ticking of the clock: in just a few years, during the height of the Great Depression, Speedy’s carelessness towards employment would seem more ludicrous than charming. Yet even if Speedy might have seemed dated to Depression-era audiences, its central themes are completely in touch with today: like Speedy and Pop, many of us are feeling the anxiety associated with modern technology. With more and more human jobs being replaced by machines (“Office jobs are the next to go in the AI revolution”, the Financial Times recently predicted), a war between the robots and the humans is looking less like a Will Smith action movie and more like reality. Smart phones, Alexa, automated checkouts, self-driving cars: it’s amazing how blasé – and even gleeful – human beings are participating in their own extinction.

Yet Speedy shows that these anxieties surrounding technology have been around since at least the turn of the twentieth century.

In my novel Filthy Sugar (to be released in May 2020 with Inanna Publications), my protagonist Wanda’s daddy is a milkman who “doesn’t trust the automobile” so “when the other milkmen traded in their horses for trucks, Daddy doggedly held on to his beast; a gentle white and grey mare named Sadie”:

“Ya can’t trust anything that doesn’t need ya,” Daddy explained to me one day, as he filled Sadie’s feedbag with oats. “This girl needs me as much as I need her. Now what mess of steel and rubber is goin’ ta beat that?”

I think Speedy and Pops would agree with him.

Heather Babcock, 2019

Silent Film Review: Stage Struck (1925)

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Jennie Hagen, whose dreams were all of triumphs as an actress, and whose life was all long hours and poor pay in a cheap restaurant.” (Title card from Stage Struck)

 In the silent romantic comedy Stage Struck (1925), Gloria Swanson plays waitress Jennie Hagen, a sweet but kinda goofy young woman who lives in black & white but dreams in color – two-strip Technicolor to be exact. She’s hopelessly in love with Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray) the pancake chef in the sleazy diner wherein she toils.  Orme, who is as dimwitted as he is cocky, is obsessed with stage actresses so Jennie is determined to do whatever it takes to become a stage star herself in order to win his heart. A fateful encounter with the producer of a showboat promises Jennie a chance at the stardom she’s dreamed of – but maybe Orme doesn’t really think actresses are so swell after all.

Stage Struck (1925) is a black & white movie but its prologue and epilogue were filmed in two-strip Technicolor. If you’ve never seen two-strip Technicolor, thank your lucky eyes.  This is NOT the glorious Technicolor rainbow seen in later films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Two-strip Technicolor was all sickly pinks and greens; it is literally an eyesore. Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels, 1930) was one of the few stars who actually made early Technicolor look good. Likewise, Gloria Swanson’s beauty also escapes the format unscathed.  The opening sequence showcasing Jennie’s dreams of fame and stardom are a sumptuous showcase of diamonds, gowns and glamour (thanks to Swiss born costume designer René Hubert, a favorite of noted fashionista Swanson). Whatever the film format, Gloria Swanson was always ready for her close-up.

I’d only ever seen Gloria Swanson in dramatic roles in films such as Sadie Thompson (1928), Queen Kelly (1932) and, of course, Sunset Boulevard (1950) so I was surprised at how funny she is here: Swanson, whose plain gingham waitress uniform and apron only seem to emphasize her sophisticated beauty, literally juggles dirty dishes, hilariously flips pancakes – the flapjacks landing on her head (and down the front of an unsuspecting customer’s dress) instead of the plate –  and frequently falls on her ass, all with the fearless dexterity of Lucille Ball. Indeed, the glamorous Swanson got her start in slapstick – most notably at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Photoplay, in their 1925 review of Stage Struck, wrote that the film “makes Gloria Charlie Chaplin’s nearest rival. If Charlie is a genius, this picture makes Gloria a genius too.”

Like many films of its period, Stage Struck was clearly aimed at the “little shop girls”: young working class women who, after WW1, had left the domestic service sector behind, with its low wages, long hours and social isolation, in favor of jobs in the burgeoning urban department stores (shorter hours and more fun). Like Jennie, the movies were giving 20th century working class girls and women dreams and hopes – a promise of a way out.

It’s unfair to Gloria, but while watching Stage Struck, I couldn’t help but think of Clara Bow. Indeed, Stage Struck has many similarities with It, the movie that immortalized the red-haired, Brooklyn born Bow as the original “It Girl”: both films are from Paramount Pictures (and produced by Famous Players-Lasky corporation); both feature lovelorn, working class flappers; in Stage Struck, Jennie has a stuffed toy dog named Flea, in It, Bow’s Betty-Lou also still plays with stuffed toys; in It, Betty-Lou cuts up her work dress into a fashionable gown for a night out at the Ritz, in Stage Struck, Jennie (less successfully) takes the scissors to her kid boots and wide brimmed hat in an attempt to look like the modern showgirl of Orme’s dreams.  But It was released in January of 1927, over a year after Stage Struck’s November 1925 release. So can we say that Gloria Swanson started “It” but Clara Bow perfected “It”?

Stage Struck (1925) is a fun, frothy little movie and if you’ve never watched a silent film before, this would be an enjoyable introduction.

Note: Kino Lorber released Stage Struck (1925) on DVD in 2018, stunningly mastered from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman museum and featuring a great musical score composed and performed by Andrew Simpson.

Review written by Heather Babcock (2019)

 

 

 

 

Hitchcock’s 1927 Masterpiece “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”

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MURDER: WET FROM THE PRESS! MURDER: HOT OVER THE AERIAL!

Although it was director Alfred Hitchcock’s third movie, he considered The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) the first “Hitchcock film”. In this gorgeous nightmare of nail-biting suspense and luxurious cinematography, Hitch criticizes the media’s infatuation with beautiful blonde murder victims, all the while indulging his own obsession with them. “To-Night ‘Golden Curls,” is both the name of a Broadway show starring chorines in fluffy blonde wigs and what the Jack-the-Ripper inspired serial killer whispers to his fair-haired prey. The news of the nightly murders are spelled out in hot, glittering lights on electronic billboards as citizens clamor to buy the still wet newsprint.

Hitchcock gives his male lead Ivor Novello the Garbo treatment with softly lit close-ups; the lodger appears out of the fog, mouth bound by scarf, eyes kohl-rimmed and tortured. No blood here but plenty of style – and even a bathtub scene, this 1927 masterpiece foreshadowed the terrors to come from “The Master of Suspense”.

Heather Babcock, 2019