The Golden Age of Hollywood

The Immigrant, 1917. Starring Charlie Chaplin

The Immigrant, 1917. Starring Charlie Chaplin.

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The Man of a Thousand Faces: "Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney!"

“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity have within them the capacity for extreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.” (Lon Chaney)

“He someone who acted out our psyche. He somehow got inside the shadows inside our bodies. He was able to nail some of our secret fears and put them on the screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that is grotesque, that the world will turn away from you.” (Ray Bradbury)

Lon Chaney with his makeup kit

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Conservatism in Revolution: The Gish sisters in D. W. Griffith’s ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

This post is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. It is also my contribution to Eternity of Dream‘s Speechless Blogathon. A full day of Lillian Gish films will air on TCM on August 15. ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) airs at 7:45 am EST.

Lillian Gish (1893-1993) started her career at the age of 19 making films for famed director D.W. Griffith. She starred in his controversial film BIRTH OF A NATION in 1915. Griffith had even put Gish in charge of directing the 1920 film starring her sister Dorothy, REMODELING HER HUSBAND, though she preferred acting to directing. Gish and Griffith made several films together until their amicable parting. Gish referred to her former mentor as “Mr. Griffith” until she died. Gish continued to make movies well into the modern era, her final film being THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987) co-starring Bette Davis.

ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) is by far my favorite feature-length silent drama, featuring both Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Two peasant sisters grow up in pre-revolutionary France. After their parents die, Louise becomes blind and Henriette vows to care for her, and solemnly promises not to marry until Louise can see and approve her choice. The two travel to Paris to find a cure for Louise’s blindness, but Henriette is abducted by a nobleman who is infatuated by her innocent beauty. Louise is kidnapped by the cruel Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne), who forces her to beg on the street.

Henriette is rescued from disgrace by the noble Chevalier who promptly falls on love with her and proposes marriage. Henriette, remembering her promise to her sister, refuses him. As she continues to search for her lost blind sister, the revolution begins and both sisters are caught up in the midst of the strife ripping the country apart.

Both Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith were staunch Republicans. She was overjoyed to be invited to the White House to meet President Warren G. Harding after her saw ORPHANS OF THE STORM and a few years later she would meet Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while filming in Rome. She did not approve of American involvement in oversees conflicts, including WWII. In the 70s she became a strong supporter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

The Gish sisters with D.W. Griffith

Griffith wove his anti-revolutionary political views into ORPHANS OF THE STORM. He didn’t even try to be subtle about the message of the film. One of the first title cards of the film reads:

“The French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.”

Danton, the conscientious lawyer who attempts to bring peaceful democracy to France, is described as “The Abraham Lincoln of France.” Like Charles Dickens did for his Tale of Two Cities, Griffith studied Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution. The familiar scene in both Tale of Two Cities and ORPHANS OF THE STORM, in which a peasant child is run over by an aristocrat’s coach, is taken directly from Carlyle’s history.

As Lena points out on, Lillian Gish expressed an interesting blend of female characteristics presented in 1920s film heroines. On the one hand, she played weak and helpless waifs in her movies. On the other hand, she was an independent professional woman in real life. Gish was also a talented, versatile actress who worked hard to give her characters extra dimension. She and Dorothy give excellent performances in ORPHANS OF THE STORM. They are full of sweetness and kisses for each other. The film builds pathos and excitement because the audience is actually made to care for the sisters and their relationship, in addition to the romance of the story. I hope you enjoy your day of Lillian Gish movies today on TCM!


The Joys of Silent Film

According to The Telegraph, silent film rentals are up 40% since The Artist swept the board at the Oscars. I think we can safely say that this modern cinematic triumph has become the “gateway drug” of silent films. And about time, too!
Ever since I heard/saw professional silent film organist Clark Wilson accompany Buster Keaton in The General at my college’s auditorium I have been hooked on silent films. The organist would return every couple of years and I had the privilege of experiencing The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the big screen with live music. Not everybody is blessed with these magical opportunities. But everybody can enjoy silent movies.
At first, I found it difficult to enjoy a full-length silent movie on my computer. In a large auditorium with live music, the people in the audience feed off of the energy in that atmosphere. But when watching a film alone, it can be difficult to keep the adrenaline pumping. I have a few suggestions that may help newcomers to this medium get the most out of their experience:
1.) Watch silent movies with other people, your friends and family. Because there’s no spoken dialogue, you can talk during the movie. You can laugh at the graphics and clarify parts that may be confusing without disrupting the film.
Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp

2.) Try watching the shorter films first. Back in the day, a twenty-minute Chaplin film might precede the feature presentation at the movie house. There are a lot of Chaplin and Buster Keaton short films on YouTube. They are a lot easier to sit through than a two-hour epic.

3.) Start with comedies. We’re not used to the extreme melodrama of the silent era, but most of the humor translates pretty easily to a modern audience.
3.) After comedies, try horror. This genre has always been literally ‘in-credible’ so it’s can be fun laughing at the techniques used back in the day. It can also be fun playing along with it – scream  and gasp all you want to, even if you’re not really scared. It’s especially fun at a sleep-over!
Lon Chaney, Sr. as
The Phantom of the Opera

If you saw Hugo, you will have some idea about how silent films used to be made. In the early years of Hollywood, movies were very low-budget. Film companies turned out dozens of films each week! Keep this in mind when you are watching these films. They were made with virtually no technology, at least not of the variety we think of today. Their “graphics” were minimal. But it is astonishing what they were able to do with no money, no time, and no technology. When I was a kid, my friend and I would set up a camcorder in her basement and we would act out Aesop’s Fables. We used her mother’s old clothes as costumes and we stole her little sister’s toys for props. Sometimes, watching the early silent movies is like watching our homemade attempts at theatre. If you think of it in these terms, they’re amazing! Also keep in mind that many of those actors did their own stunts. Buster Keaton is the master in this field. It’s hard to believe what he put his body through to get a laugh! Lon Chaney, who did The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is called the “man of a thousand faces” because he could so completely transform himself with makeup. A lot of silent movie performers injured themselves because of the physical exertion they experienced making these films. Chaney used wires to make his eyes bug out in The Phantom of the Opera and he forced himself into a very painful harness for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lillian Gish permanently damaged the nerves in her wrist because her hand was siting in freezing cold water for hours while she sat on an iceberg for the filming of Way Down East.

If you are a bit lost when it comes to selecting silent films, here are some classic full-length silent pictures (in order of major performer):
Charlie Chaplin:
The Great Dictator (1940)
Modern Times (1936) – YouTube the “eating machine” scene
The Circus (1928)
The Gold Rush (1925) – YouTube the “table ballet” scene
The Kid (1921) – my personal favorite, lots of laughs but a few tears too
Shoulder Arms (1918) – not many people can make WWI funny, but Chaplin succeeds
Buster Keaton:
Our Hospitality (1923)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
Seven Chances (1925)
Go West (1925)
The General (1926) – personal favorite
College (1927)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – the year Katharine Hepburn graduated Bryn Mawr college
The Cameraman (1928)
Lon Chaney:
Oliver Twist (1921)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
D.W. Griffith (director):
The Birth of a Nation (1915) – controversial epic about KKK
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) – trying to clean up controversy after The Birth of a Nation
Orphans of the Storm (1921) – personal favorite – stars sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford – watch anything with a title that you’re familiar with. She did the first film versions of many classic stories. She and her husband Douglas Fairbanks were the first “Brangelina” of Hollywood.
I hope you enjoy your silent film experience! Please feel free to comment on your own favorite silent films and stars!