Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

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I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

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Noah’s Ark (1928)

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Director:  Michael Curtiz
Starring: George O’Brien, Dolores Costello
Duration: 133 minutes
Availability: Released as burn-on-demand disc by Warner Archives (Region 1)

Noah’s Ark isn’t quite the biblical epic you might expect it to be, not least because most of it is set during World War I!  For the first hour or so this is a relatively straightforward war film.  However, following an explosion, a number of characters find themselves trapped underground, which is the cue for a religious minister to read to his captive audience the story of Noah’s Ark, which takes up much of the second half of the film.

In the World War I section, George O’Brien and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (we won’t ask how he got that nickname) play two friends, Travis and Al, who find themselves in a train wreck on the night that war is declared.  They rescue a young German girl and take shelter just over the French border.  When the news reaches them that war has been declared, they take a horse and cart and escape into the night before the authorities reach them.  The narrative takes a number of unlikely twists and turns, but suffice to say that Travis marries the girl, who persuades everyone that she is American as she happens to speak English perfectly (very convenient), but Travis is made to feel guilty by Al for not helping in the war effort when Al joins up.  The (relatively small) part of the film which tells the story of Noah’s Ark itself finds the same actors playing similar roles to those in the modern day story, thus helping the audience to draw parallels between the two narratives.

The film works much better in the modern day sequences.  The story here is more compelling because, unlike the biblical narrative, we don’t know how it is going to end.  It relies a great deal on coincidence, but we care enough about the characters that it really doesn’t matter, and we are happy to just sit back and go along for the ride.  That said, the biblical section contains some great set-pieces, most notably the terrifying flood itself, and the costumes are also noteworthy – or the lack of costume in the case of George O’Brien who, as usual, takes time to show off a body that most of us can ever dream of!

The sound sequences haven’t fared as well, but must have been a logical idea at the time, as Hollywood quickly moved from silent to sound film.   This was a prestigious production, and costly in more ways than one: it is said that three people lost their lives during the filming of the flood scenes, although this remains unverified and may well have just been a story concocted as publicity.  Eighty-eight years after it was made, it remains remarkably good entertainment, and a good example of a film that you quickly forget is silent.

Michael Curtiz, who directed the film, was the directing equivalent of a chameleon, and during his fifty-year career was willing and able to direct practically anything that was thrown at him.  He directed one of the great horror films of the 1930s, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and also one of the great adventure movies of all time, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn.  A few years later, he directed the classic romantic drama Casablanca, and in the 1950s turned his hand to musicals as different as White Christmas and King Creole, the latter starring Elvis Presley.

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Ten Favourite Films of the 1920s

Firstly, thank you for the kind comments that I’ve received on the 1910s selection.  Here we go with the 1920s batch.  It’s certainly more difficult to keep this one down to ten films, so I am going to say at the beginning that Wings, The Kid, Flesh and the Devil and Sunrise are on my list of favourite films from the 1920s – I’m sure they’re on everybody’s.  However, the intention is to include at least some of the lesser-known gems of the decades in question, and so I have omitted them from the following.

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THE OLD SWIMMIN’ HOLE (1921)

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Charles Ray was thirty when he played the teenaged boy in this quiet and charming rural drama from 1921.  Thankfully, this doesn’t detract from the film (although signs of his age might well be obscured by the decidedly dodgy print I have seen).  It’s very much in the mould of In Wrong, which I talked about in the 1910s post, but here we have the advantage of Laura La Plante in an early role.  There is no real plot to speak of, just a series of episodes in a boy’s life as he spends his summer relaxing at the swimming hole of the title.   Oddly, there are no intertitles either – so much for The Last Laugh being the first feature film to have that distinction!

CONDUCTOR 1492 (1923)

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Johnny Hines is one of the forgotten faces of silent comedy.  Some of this films seem somewhat derivative of other comedians, but he is always likeable and a pleasant way to spend an hour or so.  This film is notable because of the inventive sequence in which he is trying to jump the queue to the boarding house bathroom.   It’s the funniest sequence in any of the Hines films currently available, and is more than enough to reason to seek out this little gem.

BEN HUR (1925)

I confess that I hate the 1950s Ben Hur with a passion, but absolutely adore the Novarro version.  We read now that this was a really troubled production etc, but none of that is reflected on the screen.  Novarro makes for an extremely likeable hero (even if physically he may look wrong), and it’s all beautifully filmed and edited to make the narrative move along at a fair lick as well.   This is simply great entertainment.

THE PLASTIC AGE (1925)

It is probably quite a shock to anyone watching the film today just how little screen time Clara Bow gets in this lighthearted campus comedy.  Her regular co-star, Donald Keith, is definitely the intended star of this one, although Bow steals every scene she is in.  Her naturalistic style is beautiful to watch, and once she starts shedding tears, so do we.  The nominal plot is that Keith turns up at college, falls in love with Bow, but she feels she is a bad influence on him as she is very much a girl who likes to party.   There is strong support from Gilbert Roland and Henry B Walthall, and snappy direction by Wesley Ruggles.  Interestingly, Ruggles would take a number of elements from this film and use them in his series of short campus comedy films, The Collegians, over the next few years.   If you can track some of these down, they are also well worth a look.

THE BLUE EAGLE (1926)

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This is said to have been George O’Brien’s favourite film out of all those that he made, and what exists of it today shows it to be a great piece of entertainment.  O’Brien is in great form (and looks stunning – occasionally he even wears a shirt).   Someone has summed up the plot on IMDB as “two brawlin’ rivals take on a big drug dealer who has a James Bond-like lair complete with submarine”, and it’s pretty accurate.  John Ford directs the film with flair, and there is even the bonus of a pre-Sunrise pairing of O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.

BROWN OF HARVARD (1926)

I thought long and hard about including this film, not least as I have already included a campus comedy in my list of ten.  However, Brown of Harvard is a little different to most in that the hero of the film is so damned dislikable for the most part.  Williams Haines, in a career-defining role, plays the big-headed, often self-centred, Tom Brown of the title, and does so very well.  What sets the film apart most of all, however, is the supporting cast, which is superb.  It’s also a film that gave one of my own favourite actors, Jack Pickford, one of his last film roles, and it’s one of his best.  In fact, it’s the touching friendship he strikes up with Haines’s character that makes the film work and makes Haines remotely bearable.  Pickford’s final scenes in the film are devastating.

TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)

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It is almost criminal that this early Lewis Milestone film isn’t out there on DVD for all to enjoy.  It starts off as a First World War film before turning into a comedy adventure movie.  Louis Wolheim and William Boyd are absolutely superb as bickering buddies who love each other really, and who will seemingly do anything required of them to save Arabian princess Mary Astor.  This is a huge bundle of fun, and deserves to be much better known (and much more available) than it currently is.

THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The man who taught me silent film when I was doing my undergraduate degree (who will remain nameless as he probably frequents these groups) must have been a genius.  How to get a group of film students in their first semester tuned into the wonders of silent film?  Show them The Unknown.  How exactly can anyone watch it and not be totally transfixed for the next hour as the plot veers from mad to madder?  At the end you think it’s going to turn into a 1920s equivalent of torture porn (which thankfully it doesn’t…quite).  Lon Chaney is, of course, superb in what is now one of his most celebrated performances.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and do so.  Now.

NOAH’S ARK (1929)

A rather infamous film because of the stories of the death of three extras during the filming of the flood scenes, but also a rousing success for Michael Curtiz.  It’s an odd film in that it starts off as a war drama, then stops to tell us the story of Noah’s Ark, and then returns to finish off the war story.  It’s the war section where it works best, with great chemistry between George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (we won’t ask how he got the “big boy” nickname).   There is a great reliance on coincidence in the narrative but, providing you’re happy to just sit back and go with the flow, this is stirring stuff.

THE FOUR FEATHERS (1929)

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I admit that I didn’t really expect to enjoy this silent version of the oft-filmed tale but was proved wrong.   This was Paramount’s last silent film, and what a way to end the era.  Richard Arlen, who often seemed to be rather wooden in sound films, is in fine form here, and he is ably supported by William Powell, Clive Brook and Fay Wray.  There is also some rather fine wildlife footage here too, including a rather lengthy stampede of hippopotamus (what’s the plural of hippopotamus?!)