America keeps it’s mouth shut
Welcome back to another installment of the history of film via Jack Ellis via me. I am in no considerable way attempting to add to Ellis’ book, simply offer my own perspective and commentary on the films I’ve (most recently) watched. I’m far from ignorant on film history but perhaps farther still from writing my own history of cinema textbook. That’s the type of project that takes about a lifetime to finish. So lets keep it loose, keep it personal, and hopefully moderately entertaining for my millions of readers.
So as I eluded to in my previous post I was jumping around a bit. I started working on chapters 3 and 4 first. So well we have to take a step back and discuss chapter 2. You might say “Hey Dave why not start with Chapter 1?” Well good question and one that I attempted to answer in my previous post. The first chapter is the only one in the book that really takes a look at all that was happening in world cinema at the time (or at least France, the US, and Italy). I’ve seen the majority of films from the chapter already but for reasons I can’t really figure I haven’t really tackled the chapter with any degree of determination.
If Ellis can have one principle criticism it’s the fact that he writes from a Western and particularly US perspective. This is fine for someone in the US who believes our cinema is clearly the most important of any nation. Now I’m not one to hate on old glory and say that our cinema doesn’t kick the most ass of any nation on earth (I hope someone’s chanting U S A as they read this), but Ellis takes this cinematic patriotism almost to a fault. Considering the 4th edition of the book has 20 chapters, 8 of them are dedicated exclusively to American cinema and the first chapter makes it almost seem like a half. This edition also cut out chapters on French avant-garde cinema and Scandinavian silents so considering two more foreign chapters were removed only draws more attention to the US and this book’s considerable slant.
Well ladi-di-da Mr. Fancy Frenchman now that you’re done complaining, let’s talk about the US and in particular the first chapter dedicated exclusively to American cinema in the silent era.
Rise of the American Film 1914-1919
Even with two chapters removed Ellis still offers a good amount of print (percentage wise) to silent cinema. For nerds who love silent film like me this is a good thing. The fact that the US gets two full chapters alone in this era is great. However Ellis takes an extremely streamlined approach to discussing film history in the US. Typically the American chapters feature more films than any other, but Ellis keeps things lean for Chapter 2. Perhaps he recognizes the large amount of lost films from the period (or believed to be at the time) or perhaps he knows many potential college students will roll their eyes and be bored by those goofy films without words. Either way it makes tackling the chapter relatively easy . . .almost.
Now for people who didn’t forget everything they learned in history class you might recognize the time frame as the years encompassing World War I. The widespread theory which makes a great deal of sense since it happens to be true is that American cinema rose to international dominance in the years of the first world war largely because of their own neutrality for most of it. Makes sense since if countries in Europe were busy killing each other and using all their resources to achieving that objective, America was free not just to make movies, but they could show them overseas because they had very limited competition. Now other countries were still making movies at this time, but French movies couldn’t be shown in Germany, and German films weren’t being screened in England, etc. So American movies were able to get everywhere, and since everyone had settled out in Hollywood by this time, things seemed to be settling in nicely for the US.
What seemed like a three horse race at the beginning of the decade, with Italians looking to be the leaders, soon became just the US in sole possession of first, a position that they still continue to hold internationally today. So if ever you wonder why American films are so bloated over done and so popular everywhere, it’s roots lay in WWI. As a side note peanut butter and jelly were also a combination made popular in WWI, so end of diversion.
Ellis takes a somewhat simplistic view of American cinema which he divides into a couple of key players. First and most important is D. W. Griffith. His work was discussed a bit in chapter one but well lets face it he is easily the most important figure in cinema during the 1910s and certainly the most noteworthy in America. Several pages alone are dedicated to Birth of a Nation which earns the distinction of being America’s first extremely important film. Griffith followed this up with Intolerance which is also discussed, and the chapter actually ends with his 1919 masterpiece Broken Blossoms. Oftentimes the history of American cinema in the silent era is “D. W. Griffith did everything first the end”. If I was offering a cliff notes version of film history that would probably suffice, but there’s clearly more to it than that.
Next up is a bit of comedy. Mack Sennett is basically considered the father of American film comedy and his Keystone cops produced some of the most god awfully dated comedic films of all time. Still the groundwork of those films helped define American comedy for a long time to come, and Sennett followed the age old principle that violence = funny. From this comes Charlie Chaplin who made his screen debut in the Keystone film Making a Living. Chaplin went on to lend some credibility to the genre and quickly outgrew the severely limited style of Sennett with his bumbling cops. For fans of handlebar mustaches though, please consult Chaplin’s The Pawnshop and The Rink, the latter of which features a man seducing a bovine woman by twirling his handlebars (yes that happened).
The rest of the chapter touches on a few miscellaneous features. One is a Theda Bara picture called A Fool There Was, and the other is Thomas H. Ince’s Civilization the one damn film I can’t seem to find a copy of now. It exists on VHS and apparently Grapevine put out a DVD of it. Someday I’ll locate it but until then this chapter remains incomplete. For those who know my list fetishism in it’s extremity will know that I’ve probably lost sleep over not seeing Civilization and a certain part of my soul feels incomplete without it. As a side note this is the film that made Yasujiro Ozu want to become a filmmaker. There’s also the mention of a whopping one Cecile B. DeMille film from this period, his first film The Squaw Man. There is a huge oversight in this regard considering DeMille directed an astonishing 10 films alone in 1915. So my own addendum, see The Cheat. Ellis also seems to have left out “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford so well again this is concise.
Now for the films I’ve watched to complete this:
Making a Living (1914) - Mack Sennett
Chaplin’s debut feature is one that made Sennett scratch his head and consider himself a true failure. This is shortly before Chaplin established his little tramp persona that he would continue with for the next two decades. Basically Chaplin runs around trying to make a buck and failing miserably at it. Of course the trademark cops show up and feel free to groan when they do, but well everyone had to start somewhere and for historical reasons Chaplin’s cinematic debut still is worth watching.
A Fool There Was (1915) - Frank Powell
I’ve often heard of Theda Bara as the 20th Century’s first sex symbol, or the screens ultimate vamp. I have no idea what the hell a vamp is other than outdated teens slang from a billion years ago. My first thought, due to the heavy eye shadow and pale skin was that maybe she was a legit vampire, or played one in the films, but well apparently the word meant something different back then. Just as Clara Bow was the “It” Girl and along with Joan Crawford and Louise Brooks the definition of the flapper, Theda Bara wore the mantle of vamp forever. Her career as a relevant sex goddess was somewhat short lived and this film is probably the one best remembered. Watching it you may find it extremely hard to figure out why the hell anyone thought she was attractive at all, but again different era. The acting is the type that you see when people are making fun of silent film acting, big exaggerated gestures that make the performances in Caligari seem restrained. The entire film is available on Google Videos so feel free to check it out.
The Tramp (1915) - Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s definitive early short and the one that forever brought us arguably the most famous character in film history is The Tramp. Hard to even imagine Chaplin as a different character, something that’s made his later features good as they are somewhat forgettable by comparison. The story is somewhat typical of the films Chaplin would make for a long time, humor mixed with some pathos. After helping out a lady in distress he gets a job helping out around their farm, where he makes a comical blunder of things, then mistaking the lady’s excitement at her brother’s return for her lover, he takes his cue to exit. The familiar image of the tramp back on the road at the end is one that would return quite a bit for Chaplin, but for those interested in the evolution of the character need to see this. Would have been nice if the version I saw wasn’t a low grade Chinese bootleg.
The Pawnshop (1916) - Chaplin
I may have mentioned earlier that Chaplin was the star of this chapter, along with Griffith, and well I had already seen all the Griffith films. This might be Chaplin’s best short. In it he works at a Pawnshop, go figure and well as one would expect he turns the small storefront into one giant comic prop. The boss’s daughter gives him a degree of motivation and a much larger co-worker gives him some competition, as well as a setup for nearly all the gags. In it Chaplin proceeds to take apart an alarm clock piece by piece and then rejecting it, handing the scraps to the would be seller, he falls for a con artist who sells rings with an overly emotional plea, and inexplicably finds a way to save the day from a would-be robber (who of course has a huge handlebar mustache). It’s amazing to think how every one of the major silent comedians did their own stunts. In one unbroken shot Chaplin gets on top of a tall ladder, shakes back and forth while cleaning, and eventually topples over only to roll around and stand back up, something that would probably take 10 shots and a stunt double to do today. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The Rink (1916) - Chaplin
Ever want to see Chaplin’s little tramp wait tables and roller skate? Then you’re in luck. Essentially Chaplin donned some roller skates and decided that was enough of a gimmick to set this film apart. Now this has the aforementioned scene with the customer twirling his sweet stache to attract a rather overweight lady, but essentially Chaplin makes a horrible mess of being a waiter, serving people the wrong food, sometimes even serving them clothes, and eventually getting on some roller skates, dodging trouble and getting back at that always present big bully. At this point in his career though pretty much all of Chaplin’s films were golden.
Easy Street (1917) - Chaplin
See a pattern here? Easy Street has a bit of a street mob reeking havoc, mainly one extremely large and freakishly strong ringleader who makes mince meat out of cops. Chaplin’s tramp is given a job as a police officer and thrown into the proverbial lion’s den immediately. Noticing the police casualties he begins to panic but brains outweigh brawn here, after a time. Realizing that his lousy baton wouldn’t do anything, the big gorilla even bends a street lamp. Charlie thinks on his feet and puts the big louts head in the gas lamp where he knocks ’em out with the gas. He then has the time to woo a neighboring lady who gets kidnapped by the mob, and well lots of running around and comical violence commences. Chaplin fans will note that he was a one woman man, at a time that is, and Edna Purviance was the lady in nearly all of these films. Over 8 years she appeared in roughly 30 films with Chaplin, not a bad thing to put on a resume.
Teddy at the Throttle (1917) - Sennett
There are plenty of people who discover classic film and see a movie called Sunset Boulevard. They get an idea that Gloria Swanson was this huge over the top drag queen and then they look back to her silent film days and their opinion is somewhat reinforced, at least about her being a diva. Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly is a good indicator, and well anyone who worked with Cecil B. De Mille is always in danger of being over the top, clearly no filmmaker in Hollywood history can claim to be as pretentious for his time. Then you dig a little deeper and find that Swanson started out as a comedian, at that one time factory of stars, Keystone. Now if there’s anything Mack Sennett was it certainly wasn’t subtle, so perhaps her over the top training started immediately, but watching this film, which also features an early Wallace Beery performance as the villain is quite perplexing to notice just how young everyone was at one point in time. Rather than bumbling cops, the “star” of this one is actually a dog, and those looking at the novelty of dogs in silent films might just get a kick out of this pre-Lassie smart dog who saves the day.
Films of the Period
A Fool There Was (Frank Powell)
Judith of Bethulia (David Wark Griffith)
Making a Living (Mack Sennett)
The Squaw Man (Cecil B. De Mille)
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Sennett)
The Birth of a Nation (Griffith)
The Tramp (Charles Chaplin)
Civilization (Thomas H. Ince)
The Pawnshop (Chaplin)
The Rink (Chaplin)
Easy Street (Chaplin)
The Immigrant (Chaplin)
Teddy at the Throttle (Sennett)
Hearts of the World (Griffith)
Shoulder Arms (Chaplin)
Broken Blossoms (Griffith)