Monday, July 27, 2015

Lost Film Photo: Clara Bow in Ladies of the Mob

In Ladies of the Mob, Clara Bow proved she was more than just a sex symbol. The film is now lost.

Clara Bow wasn’t thrilled with her role in Wings, declaring that she was just “the whipped cream on top of the pie.” Not long after appearing in the first Academy Award-winning picture, though, she took on some much meatier roles. She starred in four films in 1928, all of which are lost, including Ladies of the Mob. Many who saw it claimed that it was her best performance as an actress. The darkish drama opens with Bow’s character, Yvonne, attending the execution of her gangster father, then turns into a romantic thriller as she tries to get the crook she loves to go straight. Some lovely stills and posters remain, but Bow’s supposed performance-of-a-lifetime remains frustratingly missing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mostly Lost: Crowdsourcing the Identification of Silent Films

Look closely at the logo for the Mostly Lost Festival, and you’ll notice something unusual about the movie theater it depicts: the audience is talking, pointing, and plugged in to a variety of computer devices. It’s a perfect depiction of what goes on at the annual film event, where the use of cellphones is not only allowed—it’s encouraged. If you talk, you’d better do it loudly enough for everyone to hear. In fact, you might be handed a microphone just to ensure that no one misses your commentary.

The movie is starting: please power up your devices.

What’s happening isn’t an affront to theater courtesy. It’s an effort to label and correctly archive silent and early sound films whose identities have been lost to time. When a film archive ends up with an unlabeled (or poorly labeled, or incorrectly labeled) cannister of film, putting a name to it is not always as simple as just watching it to see what it is. The film may be missing identifying parts, such as the credits. It might be a random reel from the middle of a film. It might only be a fragment of a film—a few minutes out of what was once a feature. Particularly old films from small studios in the early teens might not feature any easily recognizable performers. For these reasons and more, film archives often end up with films that are a complete mystery.

The Library of Congress came up with a way to help identify these unknown reels, by showing them to an audience of film scholars, other archivists, and early film fans, who gather at the library’s Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA once a year to lend a hand at the Mostly Lost Festival. This summer was the fourth time they’ve held the event, and after attending last year on a whim, I knew I had to go back (and I’ll likely be hanging around for as many years as they choose to do it).

Each day of the three-day event includes several film-identification sessions, held in the lovely, Art Deco-style theater at the Packard Campus. To keep things lively, the silent films are accompanied on piano by an alternating roster of pros—Ben Model, Andrew Simpson and Philip Carli —who provide a live improvised soundtrack for films that they are seeing for the first time. It’s not unusual for the pianists themselves to shout out possible identifications for the film as they play.

How things work at Mostly Lost. (Photo: Ben Model)

If it sounds like it would be annoying watching a film while folks are yelling all around you, you should know that it’s quite the opposite. It’s surprisingly entertaining to observe the level of knowledge some of the attendees have about the most obscure things. Steve Massa, a silent film expert and veritable treasure trove of obscure film knowledge, is quick to identify some of the most obscure faces ever seen on film, right down to the extras—including toddlers. His knowledge doesn’t stop with humans, and it’s not uncommon to hear Massa shout out the name of a dog, horse, or chimp that he recognizes (even giving the names of the parents of a chimp in one of the films). Those animal IDs are incredibly useful: name the monkey, and you’ve pinpointed the studio, which is a huge step toward naming the film.

Specialist film knowledge isn’t required, which is why audience members are encouraged to yell out anything they know, no matter how seemingly useless. Makes of cars can be helpful in determining the year of a film, and the same goes for ladies’ fashions. If you happen to know that gigantic ostrich-feather hats went out in the teens, you’d better speak up. Locations are important, too, and some films have been identified because someone recognized the historical view of their own hometown or a far-flung travel destination.Title cards or signs that are written in a foreign language are often translated on the fly by anyone familiar with the words. Once a few elements are figured out, it's a matter of connecting the dots by accessing references like the IMDB or historical newspaper and magazine archives. 

Looking for clues in old films. Perhaps the license plate number is one? (Photo: Glenn Andreiev)

But here’s the coolest thing about Mostly Lost: it works! Many of the films end up being identified, and some of them turn out to be films that were thought to be long lost. It’s no wonder other archives have started to contribute their own unidentified films to be screened at the festival. This year’s roster included, in addition to the LOC’s films, items from the George Eastman House, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, EYE Film Instituut Nederland in Amsterdam, Cinémathèque Française, Royal Belgian Filmarchive, Gosfilmofond, Wissenschaftliche Filmarchivarin in Berlin, Lobster Film Archive, and the Newsfilm Library at the University of South Carolina.

As if it’s not enough to get to view some exceptionally obscure films in such entertaining circumstances, Mostly Lost breaks things up with lectures on relevant topics, and each evening presents a film showing just for kicks (and by that I mean that you can just relax and watch it—we already know what it is). This year was particularly exciting, as the newly-found and newly-restored 1916 Sherlock Holmes was screened. Other evenings featured restored Chaplin shorts, a recently-preserved episode of King of the Kongo, and two Norma Talmadge features. Not exactly stuff you’ll see at your local cinema, at least not where I live.

Publicity still from Sherlock Holmes, rediscovered and restored by the Cinémathèque Française.

If you’re interested in helping to identify films, Rachel Parker of the LOC posts stills from the remaining unidentified films on Flickr. Visit the Nitrate Film Interest Group page to peruse them, and comment if you have any relevant information. Just like when you attend the festival, any information is helpful.

As for me, as I continue work on my book on lost horror films, I’m thrilled to be a part of something that aims to ensure that the legacy of silent film endures, and to connect with others who want the same.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent film review: Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t “get into” watching silent films. I understand—I really do. Silent film has its own language. As with reading poetry or watching an opera, one has to first crack the code. Some films require less code-breaking than others, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. is a case in point.

Silent comedy can sometimes be easier for the silent film beginner to appreciate than some dour drama. What’s perhaps most fascinating isn’t seeing how much has changed, but seeing what hasn’t. While some will laugh more than others at the antics in Sherlock, Jr., I defy anyone to avoid laughing at all. And when you do—that’s an almost 100 year-old joke that’s cracking you up, which is pretty amazing.

Buster Keaton daydreaming on the job in Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock, Jr. isn’t just a good intro to silent film comedy: it’s a good intro to Buster Keaton. Keaton was 24 when he starred in and directed the film for his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions. The film takes full advantage of Keaton’s physical comedy agility—honed from childhood when he took pratfalls as part of a family vaudeville act—but manages to transcend broad humor. It’s funny, yes, but you’ll find it’s something more.

Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about becoming a detective. When a romantic rival sets him up to take the fall for a stolen watch, he sets out to catch the real thief, aided by tips in his amateur sleuthing book—but he fails spectacularly. In a sort of reverse of Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton falls asleep in the projection room and dreams himself into the film on the screen. We see him leave his body and enter the film as a suave, top-hatted gentleman detective who, in the film-within-a-film, cracks the case and gets the girl. 

His skills as a projectionist are about equal to his skills as a detective.

The storyline allows for lots of comedy sequences, and it’s almost astounding how many big ones are packed into this film. Keaton is balanced on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that the driver had fallen off, as the bike propels him across the countryside for a ridiculously long time. The sequence is as funny as it is breathtaking—a triumph of stunt work.

Perhaps the most famous comedy sequence in Sherlock, Jr. comes when Keaton tails his suspect, literally following behind him as he goes about his business. Trying to evade detection, Keaton ends up on top of a moving train car (Oh, Buster!) and is then doused by a reservoir. Keaton famously did his own stunts (Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence), and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. In fact, Keaton broke his neck performing the water tower stunt, and didn’t discover it until much later, when he complained to his doctor of a headache. 

Water tower sequence during which Keaton broke his neck:

A lesser-mentioned comedy sequence that deserves mention is a billiard game played by Keaton (as the gentleman detective) and his suspect. The eight-ball has been filled with an explosive in an effort to take out the detective, yet he manages, in a series of increasingly ridiculous shots, to avoid hitting it completely. At one point, Keaton lets the minor characters get the laughs, as the butler describes the inept shots. As the film is silent, it’s interesting how well the shots can be visualized with a few hand gestures. The unseen shots are even funnier than the ones we see.

Yes, the film is funny, and that can’t be overstated, but as I said, the film is something more, which is almost something you have to see for yourself. Keaton’s fantasizing of himself on the screen speaks to the way in which we watch films ourselves, dreaming of ourselves in the roles. When he awakes, he finds that his girl has made everything right, and all is well with the world, yet we see Keaton sneak peeks at the playboy on the screen for tips on how to woo her. There’s an obvious blending of the unreal and the real, as his fantasy affects reality. 

Keaton literally gets into the film he's screening.

Kathryn McGuire is perhaps best known for playing the girl in the film (she’s literally credited as “The Girl”). She started as a Mack Sennett comedienne and later made some cowboy flicks before retiring from film in 1933. Keep an eye out for the girl’s father: he’s played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, and head of the family of vaudevillians in which he grew up and honed his great physical comedy skills.

The Kino DVD (which is also the version streaming on Netflix) features a jazzy score by the Club Foot Orchestra that manages to seem both modern and timeless. Of course, if you get the chance to see Sherlock, Jr. in an actual theater that shows film, don’t miss the chance. You might just find yourself, like the title character, transported right into the movie.

Sherlock, Jr., full film on YouTube. (Good quality. Does not have the CFO score, though it is scored.)

Full film on Netflix (with account).

Buy Sherlock, Jr. at Amazon. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lost Film Photo: Theda Bara in Carmen (1915)

Theda Bara as the gypsy seductress in 1915's Carmen.

Though she was one of film's biggest stars—only Chaplin and Pickford were paid more at the height of her fame—the majority of Theda Bara's body of work in silent film went up in flames. Among her lost films is Carmen, based on the perennially popular Bizet opera, which has been filmed more than 70 times. While Bara's version was among the first film versions, in the same year, DeMille released his version, and Chaplin made a spoof version (Burlesque on Carmen, featuring Darn Hosiery as the love interest, rather than Don Jose). While the other two survive, Theda Bara's Carmen only exists in the form of random studio stills like this one.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants (1905)

If you think media manipulation is a recent development in the film industry, have I got a story for you. It involves a pair of crafty filmmakers, some made-up news stories, and best of all: a man with no pants.

Filmmaker Willy Mullens, sans pants.

1905 was a year when film was really gaining steam. The first nickelodeons opened for business, Variety began weekly publication, and the invention of mercury lamps allowed filmmakers to shoot indoors without the need for sunlight. In short, there was a lot of money to be made in the biz, and a lot of people ready to make it—and not just in the States.

Dutch brothers Willy and Albert Mullens came from a theatrical family. Their father Albertus was co-founder of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Cagliostro-Théâtre, which advertised  "mysterious and pseudo-scientific spectacles.” Their mother Christina continued running the company after their father’s death, and Willy Mullens himself was a carnival performer, working in The Hague as a human cannonball. He was supposedly fired after being knocked out by a kangaroo, though English-language sources on the incident are hard to come by. (Any Dutch speakers? Look into this kangaroo business!)

It was soon afterward that she took Willy and Albert to Paris, where they saw the films of the Lumière brothers—an event that changed the course of their lives. They purchased several of the Lumière films, formed a traveling cinema under the name Alberts Frères, and began showing them in the Netherlands in 1899. Ultimately, they began shooting their own films, becoming one of the first film production companies in the country.

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach is typical of the type of practical joke comedies the brothers liked to film, but this one would prove to be their most successful, and is now one of the oldest surviving Dutch films in existence. The story is simple: a man napping in a beach chair gets swept out to sea, then removes his pants to wade back to shore. When a policeman spots him, he flees in panic, with a jeering crowd of onlookers following behind.

Willy both starred in and directed the film (with Albert working the camera) after the actor they hired was forbidden by his fiancée to play the role. She was not keen on having her future husband appear pantsless on camera, so the younger brother went without his trousers, instead.

What happened next was a blessing in disguise for the filmmaking brothers. On July 25th, 1905 the Zandvoortsche Courant ran a story about the entire event—the napping in a beach chair, the pantlessness—as if the events in the film had occurred in real life, and had just happened to be caught on film. Other newspapers picked up the story and decried the moral degeneration at the beach resort.

The brothers ran with the chance to capitalize on the moral outrage, advertising that the truth would be shown in the movie theater. To further attract those who were appalled about the leg nudity, they displayed the film with the alternate title Tragic Scene of a French Gentleman at the Zandvoort Beach, perpetuating the idea that the film was documentary in nature. Thus, the film was shown alternately as either a comedic farce or a tragedy about decaying values, depending on the audience.

The free publicity provided the film with sell-out crowds, with long lines of people waiting all day to get in. Because the brothers used locals as extras, many lined up just for the chance to spot themselves (or their friends) on camera. Don’t forget that film was still new to most viewers, and critical responses spoke highly of the cinematography itself, one writer saying that “the waves rolling in from the sea alone would be worthwhile seeing.”

It's worth seeing now, if not for the view of the sea (we're jaded now), for the close-up look at ordinary people in 1905. The extras include men, women, and children in their ordinary dress, many of them obviously mugging for the camera and even waving. There's also a neat look at a bathing machine, a long-gone eccentricity of a more prudish time.

In 2007, The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach was selected as one of the sixteen canonical Dutch films by the Netherlands Film Festival, making the film one of the earliest examples of the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Lost First Film Version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1908)

One of the things that pains me most when it comes to lost horror films is the loss of so many firsts. Gone, possibly forever, are the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, the first depiction of Stoker’s Dracula, the first film werewolf, the first mummy—and the list goes on and on. And what makes the loss even more of a tragedy is when there are not even surviving posters or photographs for the production. It’s almost as if the film never existed at all.

That’s the case with the first film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its loss is especially  ironic, considering that theater is, by its nature, an ephemeral medium, and yet we have more artifacts around from the first stage version of the story than we do for the first movie. 

Cabinet card of Richard Mansfield in his dual stage role. 
Advertising poster for a stage production, 1880s.

Handbill for Mansfield at the Lyceum.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel had become a hit when it was transferred to stage by English actor Richard Mansfield. His transformation into the gruesome Mr. Hyde was thought so convincing that some theater-goers deemed it a little too convincing. At least one spooked audience member wrote to the police in 1888, suggesting that Mansfield might be Jack the Ripper. No one took the idea seriously, but the show closed early anyhow. “There is quite enough to make us shudder out of doors,” wrote one reporter.

Mansfield took his performance on the road, and he continued to play the dual role to great acclaim until his death in 1907. While Mansfield’s performance may have been the most famous stage version, it was by no means the only one: stage versions of Stevenson’s novel were being performed by companies all over the world. One of the better-known productions around the time of Mansfield’s death was that of the Thomas R. Sullivan Company, who had been touring with the show since 1897, with a script by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish.

It was this company that Colonel William Selig, of the Polyscope Film Company, saw perform Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in Chicago, and he was taken with the idea of recreating the show on film. Selig used the theatrical company cast in what would become the first filmed version of the famous story, condensing its four acts into a one-reeler. Otis Turner, who would go on to direct the first silent film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, directed.

Selig's Chicago studio, before moving west.
Hobart Bosworth, film's first Jekyll, on a 1916 cigarette card.
Bosworth in a stage costume, around 1900.

Being signed by Selig was a life-changer for Hobart Bosworth, the stage actor playing Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart. His stage career was pretty much at an end, as tuberculosis was robbing him of his voice, though he was still in good physical condition. Silent film turned out to be the perfect medium for him, and he went on to star in dozens of films, taking rest breaks to keep his tuberculosis in remission. (He lived to be 76.) Co-star Betty Harte also caught the film bug. After signing on to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, she went to make 107 more silent films in her career.

While the stage play was drastically condensed, the film left the most dramatic elements intact. Like just about every adaptation of the novel, it veered from Stevenson’s story—which doesn’t reveal that Jekyll & Hyde are the same man until the end. The film, like the stage plays, revealed the truth right away, allowing Bosworth to writhe and contort himself into the horrible Hyde. In subsequent scenes, Hyde attacked a girl named Alice, then murdered her father. The film concluded with Hyde, fearing the gallows, taking a poison that ends the life of both identities.

An interesting aspect of the film as described by those who saw it was that it began and ended with the raising of a stage curtain. Though filmed, it was made clear to the audience that they would be watching an adaptation of the famous play. Critics enjoyed it, and one said of Bosworth’s performance that “the change is displayed with a dramatic ability almost beyond comprehension.” (Bosworth was lucky that, unlike Mansfield, he wasn’t rumored to be a serial killer.)

Out of the hundreds of films made by Selig Polyscope, only a handful survive. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is not one of them. Just as there were dozens of stage productions of the story, though, more film versions soon followed. In fact, Jekyll & Hyde is one of the most filmed novels, ever. Over the next few years, it would be filmed about a dozen times (including a lost version by F.W. Murnau). The total  number of film versions today is closer to 125.

The oldest surviving version is a 1912 Thanhouser film directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze. Not the first Jekyll & Hyde by a long shot, but at least we have it.

You can also placate yourself with the transformation scene from a lot of people’s favorite version: the 1931 Mamoulian-directed Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde with Frederic Marsh.

Is this 1908 film in your secret vault? And if not, do you have a favorite version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Absinthe (1914): A Lost Film on the Terrors of Addiction

From Reefer Madness’ famous defenestration to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s PCP freakout in Death Drug, poor-souls-under-the-influence films are more often a source of hilarity than horror. These types of scenes, though, were meant to scare the daylights out of the masses—and scare them straight. 

Absinthe was among the first films of its kind, depicting the horrific hallucinations and criminal repercussions of addiction to the alcoholic liquid nicknamed “the green fairy.” Released in January of 1914, the film's scare tactics may have worked. Absinthe was banned in August of the same year in France (it had already been banned in the States in 1912).

Ads from Moving Picture World.

It didn't seem to matter to the public that the tales of absinthe's psychoactive properties were false (it's no more hallucinatory than any alcoholic beverage). Temperance societies (and winemakers, who didn't like the competition) circulated stories of the evils of absinthe, claiming it led to insanity and violent crime. 

They ran with the story of Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer who murdered his family after consuming absinthe, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had been drinking wine and liquor all day, topped off with a mere two ounces of absinthe. It was an alcohol-fueled rage that led to the murder, and not an absinthe-induced hallucination, but the stories persisted. 

French anti-absinthe poster.

A 1906 petition calling for the ban of absinthe outlined its perceived evils and echoed the beliefs of much of the public:

"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."

It was into this climate that the Independent Moving Pictures Co. (now under the umbrella of Universal) released Absinthe. From what we can glean from newspapers and film magazines, the four-reel film centers on a French artist, Jean Dumas, who is introduced to absinthe by his mistress (he is French, after all). Dumas becomes addicted to the drink, and becomes a full-on absinthe fiend, joining an Apache gang and committing robberies to fuel his need. He strangles his own wife to death in the course of one of the robberies, and ultimately ends up as a ruin, mocked even by dirty street urchins.

Still of Baggot in a hallucination scene. (Illustrated Films Monthly)

Production still from Absinthe.  

King Baggot played the absinthe fiend, and he was at the height of his career. Said to be the first individually-publicized leading man, Baggot was fresh from his stint in the Brenon-helmed 1913 film of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde when he was cast as the lead in Absinthe, which Herbert Brenon wrote as well as directed. Leah Baird was cast as his wife. Baird began her film career playing opposite Jean, the Vitagraph Dog (a subject for a future post, perhaps?) and ultimately turned to screenwriting, but in 1914, she was a well-liked leading lady.

Baird and Baggot on collectible stamps.

Brenon hauled the whole cast to Paris in a bid for authenticity, and Baggot was said to have spent his time among the lowlifes and absinthe addicts to study their habits. The result was a film that the audiences of the time took as absolute truth—just short of a documentary in its depiction of the evils of absinthe. 

Absinthe received rave reviews, and was so successful that it was revived again in 1916, and newspaper ads show that it continued to play in some theaters for at least two more years. 

While Absinthe is lost (there are no known reels in existence), its legacy lingers in the form of shows and films that sensationalize whatever is deemed to be the cause of violence and social ills—and not just drugs and alcohol, but video games, the Internet, or fast food. There's always something to blame.