Sunday, March 19, 2017

Uncle Tom's Cabin - 1927

Wow! Where to begin. The 1927 silent version of Uncle's Tom Cabin, directed by Harry A Pollard, leaves one speechless. Speechless as to what it is and speechless as to what it could have been had the filmmakers sincerely wanted to have the same impact of the original novel. So what went wrong? Did they change the plot drastically from the book?

No. In fact the story itself is a very good adaptation from Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic anti-slavery tale. What about the casting of Uncle Tom himself? Brilliant. James B. Lowe becomes the slave, Uncle Tom. With his inner strength and quiet wisdom, his performance makes it close to impossible to picture any other actor doing that role any better.

Okay, the white characters? Perfect casting again. From George Siegmann's evil portrayal of slave owner Simon Legree to Virginia Grey's heartbreaking work as the dying girl, Eva, all of them nail their characters as they flawlessly transfer from book to screen.

What about the other black characters? Well...the extra's are perfect. Being 1927, it's safe to say none of them in real life had the luxuries of their white counterparts and all of them most likely had a parent or grandparent that was actually around during the Civil War. The poverty and pain they lived in shows in the eyes and faces of every black extra in that film, adding more power to the original content.

I guess that leaves just one thing. The black supporting characters. And these are major roles intricate to the plot. So why in the hell were white actors cast in black face? Didn't the filmmakers learn anything from Birth of a Nation. One could argue that because of the time period that Uncle Tom's Cabin was made, the producers felt that white audiences wouldn't attend a film with half the cast a different color, but that argument doesn't fly considering director King Vidor, just two years later got an Oscar nomination for directing the all black drama, Hallelujah.

Everything else about this adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin is spot on. Had the producers had the courage to make this film right, it would have been remembered as one of the true classics of the silent era, instead of what it is - a sad reminder of America's ugly past.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Charles Farrell 1900 - 1990

Even though he continued to work in talking pictures before ending his career as a television star, Charles Farrell is mainly remembered today for the three silent pictures he starred in with Janet Gaynor. Those three films, 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star, not only made him widely popular, but also serve as evidence to the romance, quality and power that silent movies still have today.

Janet Gaynor may have gained more notice come awards season, but Charles Farrell was every bit her equal when the two of them shared the screen. While she may have been more showy in her dramatics, he was clearly the lovable one with his rugged good looks and charisma that could out charm the best of the great lovers of the silent era.

His efforts in sound pictures and television, while quite acceptable, seemed to lack the spark of his early works. And you can't blame Janet Gaynor for that as the two of them made quite a few talkies together as well. It's the same problem so many of the silent actors had. A new medium had come to town and the old stars and formats seemed...well, old and dated. It's only looking back at the silent era, that as much as we wanted our favorites to succeed, only a handful would actually be more or at least as successful in the new medium of sound.

The fact that Charles Farrell continued to work in the business until he was a much older man means that he was one of the lucky ones. However, when watching his early silent work, it's clear where his career peaked, making him forever linked with the wonderful romantic movies that the silent era produced so well.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Constance Talmadge 1898 - 1973

She wasn't famous for her dramatic acting and compared to other actresses of the time, she wasn't the most attractive, but Constance Talmadge and the romantic comedies she starred in were a huge hit with the movie going audiences in the early days of motion pictures. While her male counter-parts in comedy were busy wowing their fans with intricate sight gags and impressive acrobatics, she was charming them with smart romantic stories full of screwball plot twists, mistaken identities, and most of all her adorable presence.

Sadly, most of the films of Constance Talmadge are among the 73% of silent movies considered lost forever, adding her and the wonderful romantic comedies she made to the long list of forgotten stars and films of the silent era. The handful of her films that remain prove to be fresh, funny and without a doubt shear proof of not only her comedic talent, but also another glimpse into the quality that prevailed back in the pioneer days of film.

Among the best of her surviving films is; Her Sister From Paris, where she plays the duel roles of an unhappy housewife and her identical twin sister, who happens to be a world-famous ballerina. Many actors have played duel roles before, but usually the characters look different, making it easier to play two different parts. In this film, Constance Talmadge has the challenge of playing two separate woman that look exactly the same. So when the characters in the film get mixed up on who's who, due to the talents of this wonderful actress, we, the audience are able to tell them apart, adding to the fun of the movie.

Like so many of her peers, the career of Constance Talmadge ended when the talking era began. However, unlike the others before her, she never made a talking picture, opting to leave show business altogether. She was offered a role on Broadway in the 1960's, turning it down saying, "Are you kidding? I couldn't act even when I was a movie star!" Obviously she hadn't seen one of her films for a while. Otherwise she would have realized just as anyone does when viewing her old movies of what a great comedic talent she was.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Peter Pan - 1924

My apologies to Mary Martin, but anyone that believes she was the best Peter Pan has never seen the original 1924 version with Betty Bronson. Find this film. It's out there. And I promise you will not only be captured by it's charm, but will become a true believer in Neverland and its inhabitants.

It's hard to fathom with these age-old tales that the original author, J.M. Barrie, was still alive when the first version of Peter Pan was made. Well he was. And he hand-picked a total unknown, Betty Bronson, for the title character. A choice that turned out to be not only wise, but artistically pleasing as well, for Bronson and the rest of this wonderful cast, which includes Ernest Torrance, Esther Ralston, Mary Brian, George Ali and Anna May Wong, prove without a doubt how delightful this fairy tale is.

The film sticks very closely to the original stage version, including some of the actual dialog from the play. But in a story this visual, it's the medium of film that truly has the upper hand in creating the illusions necessary. And it doesn't disappoint. With dozens of swimming Mermaids, a flying pirate ship and of course Tinkerbell, Peter Pan dazzles the child out of all of us. Adding to the cinematic visuals is the theatrical performance of George Ali. He specialized in playing animals on stage and in film, and his portrayals of both the family dog and the hand eating alligator is absolutely mesmerizing.

The original silent movie version of Peter Pan scores on so many levels and if you are only familiar with the various sound versions, you are truly missing out on a film going experience that has to be seen to be believed. This is no hype. It's one of the must see silents. You'll have no regrets.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lon Chaney 1883 - 1930

It was the films of Lon Chaney that transformed my interest in silent movies from casual observer to love at first sight. I had seen a handful of good silents, including Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, City Lights, but my full fledged obsession didn't begin until TCM ran a Chaney marathon that I impulsively DVR'd. Having seen his film, The Unknown, and really liking it, I decided to give this so-called "Man of a Thousand Faces" a chance. And I'm so grateful I did.

Lon Chaney was not ahead or before his time. In fact, as public figures go, he was right on time. Being raised by deaf parents and honing his craft on the stage, his talents in makeup and pantomime evolved alongside the ever growing picture show business. And in the early 1920's when Hollywood had finally learned how to do it right, Chaney was ready to fill the shoes of a much needed character actor that could carry a picture.

His ability to transform himself through his own makeup designs or body contortions is still amazing today. In this day and age of digital special effects, movie goers expect the state of art technology, but when you watch Lon Chaney you are actually watching Lon Chaney. And viewing his movies today makes me realize that he was one of the best actors of any generation.

Unlike his peers at the time as well as many of the actors of today, Lon Chaney shunned the spotlight, often turning away during newsreel shots revealing only the back of his head. Was this because he valued his privacy or did he just want to keep the illusion a mystery as to what he looked like and who he really was? Quite possibly a little of both, but just the fact that he remained scandal free during the most scandalous decade in Hollywood, says a lot about his character and dedication to his craft.

A lot of his films are considered lost today, but enough of them survive to prove what a special talent he had. The Phantom of the Opera seems to be his most recognized title, and although it is good, if you've never seen a Lon Chaney film, I don't recommend starting with that one. The reason is simple. He spends more than half of the film behind a mask, covering up one of Hollywood's most expressive faces.

Instead, start with The Penalty or He Who Gets Slapped, or The Blackbird or The Unholy Three or West of Zanzibar or The Unknown or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or his personal favorite, Tell it to the Marines, where he played a character that didn't hide behind makeup, disfigurement or disguises.

Lon Chaney died shortly after filming his first talking picture, a remake of The Unholy Three. And even though that film didn't live up to the silent version, his performance proved that he was ready for the new medium of sound. Where his career would have gone we will never know. I'm just grateful for the films of Lon Chaney that are still around. And if I could meet him today I would not only thank him for his work, but also for introducing me to the overlooked and underappreciated world of silent cinema.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Florence Lawrence 1890 - 1938

Florence Lawrence was one of the very first movie stars, yet the film going public didn't know her name. In the beginning years of cinema, the film credits only listed the studio that produced the film, so she became known as The Biograph Girl, as in Biograph Studios.

Audiences knew her face, but nothing more. This mystery seemed to make her even more in demand as she appeared in hundreds of films that ranged from Daniel Boone; or The Pioneer Days in America (in which she did her own stunts) to the popular Mr. and Mrs. Jones movies where she played Mrs. Jones.

By the time the studios caved into fan request to list the actors names in the credits, the career of Florence Lawrence had been surpassed by Mary Pickford and others in what history seems to remember as the first real stars of cinema. As the movies matured she went from uncredited major player to an uncredited extra that continued way into the sound era until her suicide in 1938. And not to pour salt on the wound, but she also invented the car signal, but never got the credit because she didn't patent it.

By today's standards, her acting talent was probably the equivalent of an average community theatre actor and even in her day, she was no Lillian Gish. However, the very first movie going public related to her and her on-camera image became widely popular even if her name didn't. Sadly, she never got the perks that come with fame, so it's better late than never to recognize the contributions that Florence Lawrence made to the early days of silent film.

This post originally appeared in my other blog. Check it out.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chicago - 1927

Many people don't realize that the hit musical, Chicago, actually first played on Broadway in 1975, but fell under the radar due to the musical sensation of the time - A Chorus Line. Fewer people realize that Chicago first hit the boards not as a musical, but as a play in 1926. And even fewer are aware that the first movie version of this popular Broadway fixture was actually a silent film. And a pretty good one at that.

Based on the real-life exploitive journalism of adulterous female murderers, Chicago is celluloid proof that sensationalism has been around for a long time. The credits list Frank Urson as the director, but there is enough evidence to show that none other than Cecil B. DeMille led the production team. However, due to the popularity of his previous film, the religious epic, King of Kings, DeMille left out his name to prevent any backlash from the movie going public who at that time may of been upset that he went from the teachings of Christ to the bed hopping murderer, Roxie Hart.

And speaking of Roxie Hart, Phyllis Haver steals the movie with her brassy portrayal of that trigger happy dame. She manages to walk the line between adorable victim to hated adulterous so well that we often aren't sure if we should root for or against her. Haver is not as well known today as other silent movie stars, but her performance in Chicago is evidence that she had the qualities of a major star.

Fans of the Oscar winning musical may be surprised that in the silent version, the hapless husband, Amos, has a much larger role and the other murderous female, Velma Kelly is reduced to only one scene. The rest is all there, though, the catfights, comradery and prison corruption, the sensational trial, unscrupulous press and fame hungry attorneys always reminding us that the truth should never get in the way of a good story.