Friday, August 28, 2015

Lost Film Photo: Louise Brooks in Now We’re in the Air

Almost half of Louise Brooks’ silent films are lost—a fact that is often overlooked due to the existence of two of her strongest films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Among the lost films is Now We're in the Air, a 1927 comedy with Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton. Brooks made four films in 1927—including Rolled Stockings—none of which survive. What makes the loss of this one particularly hard to swallow is the fact that Brooks played two roles: twin sisters Grisette and Griselle. Raised apart in France and Germany, the sisters have different allegiances in the World War I flick. While reviews were tepid, most anyone would agree that the only thing better than Louse Brooks would be two of her.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Phyllis Gordon: The First Movie Werewolf

Lost films are fascinating by their very nature, and the fragments of stories that they’ve left behind are haunting. One of the reasons I’m drawn to lost horror films in particular is the loss of so many firsts: the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, for example, and film’s first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first film appearance of Dracula, the first Phantom of the Opera, and the first mummy film are also lost.

One of the early horror films whose loss I most lament is 1913’s The Werewolf, and not just because it was the first werewolf film ever made, but because the werewolf is a woman. Let that sink in for a moment: the first movie werewolf was a woman. It’s a fact that few people are aware of, thanks to the fact that the film has been lost for almost a hundred years (like the vast majority of silent films).

Gordon played ingenue roles in almost fifty silent-era films, most of which are lost, but you can still see her today in a small role as a housekeeper in Another Thin Man (1939). She’s fifty years old by then, and she may have seemed like housekeeper material to studio execs, but she was still quite the glamourpuss in real life, and the photograph of her walking her pet cheetah on a downtown London street often makes the rounds on the internet. Few who post it seem to know that the photograph is of Phyllis Gordon, and that she was once a silent movie actress. Even fewer know that she originated the character of the movie werewolf.

Phyllis Gordon walking her pet cheetah in 1939.

In 1913, she was 24 years old and at the height of her acting career when Bison Films cast her in The Werewolf. Gordon plays Watuma, a Native American woman who shapeshifts into a wolf to fight off invading white settlers in the two-reel movie. What we know about the film comes mainly from brief reviews and synopses in silent film magazines, such as this one from Universal Weekly:

“The play opens in pioneer days. Kee-On-Ee, an Indian maiden is married to Ezra Vance, a trail blazer. When her child is five years old, Kee-On-Ee is driven back to her tribe by Ezra’s brother, who scorns all squaws. Ezra is killed by an old enemy and Kee-On-Ee, thinking his failure to return to her to be indifference, brings up her child, Watuma, to hate all white men.

When the child is grown, Clifford and a party of prospectors appear. Kee-On-Ee, now a hag, sees her way to be revenged. She sends her daughter to Clifford’s camp and he is driven nigh mad by her beauty. Clifford finds her in the arms of a young Indian. She taunts him. Enraged beyond control, Clifford shoots the buck. He flees to the mission. Watuma leads the enraged Indians against the Friars. When one of them raises a cross, Watuma slowly dissolves into a slinking wolf.

A hundred years later, Clifford, now reincarnated in the form of Jack Ford, a miner, receives a visit from his sweetheart, Margaret. Hunting with her he comes upon a wolf which he is unable to shoot. The wolf dissolves into the woman of old, and there appears before his puzzled eyes the scene where he slew the Brave. The “Wolf-woman” would caress him, but he throws her off. She returns again as the wolf and kills his sweetheart. Clifford’s punishment for the deed of past life is made complete at the death of the one he loved.”

Phyllis Gordon as Watuma, the "wolf-woman" who seeks vengeance by shapeshifting into a wolf.

It would be almost twenty more years before a film featured a female monster that anyone still really remembers—The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s worth noting that Bison Films was a brand of Universal Studios, which means that Phyllis Gordon was not only the first film werewolf, but may technically have played the first Universal Monster.

What makes the loss of this film even more poignant to me is how much its existence, if it had stuck around, could have changed the very idea of film werewolves. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London established the rules of werewolf movies for decades to come, but how would those rules have been different if The Werewolf had stuck around? Would werewolves be thought of as female monsters? Would the long-established trope of male-as-monster and female-as-victim be inverted?

We might know the answers to these questions if Universal hadn’t destroyed its silent film collection in 1948. While many silent films were lost to fire, just as many were lost due to intentional destruction, as studios thought they were too worthless to store. Perhaps Watuma should have set her werewolf sights on thoughtless studio executives as well.

I’ll be expanding on the story of film’s first werewolf in my upcoming book on lost horror films, along with many other stories of long-lost films. Subscribe to Film Dirt (several options on the right), and/or follow on Facebook for more forgotten film stories.

This post was written as part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. You can read the rest of the entries by clicking the image below.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

That Time a Guy Mailed Himself in a Box to Try to Break Into Movies

One of the perks of film research is noticing stories in old newspapers and magazines that turn out to be more interesting than what I was looking up in the first place. That’s the case with Charles Loeb, who put one of my deadlines in jeopardy when I first saw him mentioned in a 1929 news article.

Loeb, it seems, shipped himself from Chicago all the way to Culver City, CA in a coffin-like wooden box. His goal: to pop out of the box at Pathé studios and win his way into a movie career. What could possibly go wrong?

From The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 6, 1929.

Newspaper accounts refer to Loeb as “a German comedian,” though I can’t find any mention of him prior to his stunt. Comedian or not, he certainly blew his punch line—ending up jailed and almost dead. His story was picked up by the Associated Press, so versions of it appeared in newspapers all over the country in June of 1929. The AP reported:

An unusual way to get past the guards of a motion picture studio for a chance to “break into the game” may cost Charles Loeb, German comedian, his life. The actor had himself expressed from Chicago in a coffin upon which appeared the label, “Statue—handle with care—value $500.”

Loeb went three days without water or food and today was in a critical condition.

A baggage attendant called police when he heard strange noises coming from the box. The coffin was opened and Loeb taken to the jail hospital. Inside the box a note addressed to the studio casting director was found. It said: “I’ve tried to see you again and again but your trusted guardians always barred my way. This little trip will demonstrate what I think of a chance to show my wares—give me a chance.”

Physicians said he would recover.

The United Press dug deeper into the story and filled in some details, including the information that Loeb was dressed to perform, wearing checkered trousers, a stiff collar, a derby hat, and soft-soled shoes. He had rouged his cheeks, and apparently rigged a makeup mirror and a flashlight so that he could make a last-minute check before what he thought would be his grand debut in front of the casting director.

Alas, he worried about his makeup more than food and water, and he drank what little water he’d brought by the end of the first day. He was severely dehydrated by the time he was found. Loeb may have considered it worth it, as director Charles Richards visited him in jail, and one newspaper account says he was promised a small part. It’s unlikely the promise, if it even happened, came to be fulfilled, and the visit was likely a publicity stunt on Richards’ own part. 

Loeb's coffin design gained him a mention in the "Inventions" section of Modern Mechanics magazine.

The last mention of Loeb appears in a Wisconsin newspaper a few years later, as a guest on a radio show. He’s referred to as “Charles Loeb, who shipped himself to Hollywood from Ohio in a trunk” rather than as a comedian or actor, so it’s pretty clear that the stunt was his only claim to fame, even after the passing of time.

It’s unknown what ultimately became of him, but I like to think he found a job in shipping.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Newsreel: Recent News in Silent Film and Lost Film

It’s strange to consider that there can be recent news about films that are sometimes one hundred years old, but there often is. With so many films lost, and so much of film history nearly forgotten, there’s a lot of information lying under the surface, just waiting to be illuminated. Now and then, something shines.

Here are a few recent news items of interest to silent film fans:

Marion Davies in The Cardboard Lover, recently found at a UK dump.

A UK couple found a pile of 16mm and 35mm films at the dump, including The Cardboard Lover-—only one heavily-damaged copy of which was known to exist prior to the find. The found films date back to as early as 1909, and will be loaned to the British Film Institute for proper preservation. The Daily Mail

As if it’s not bad enough that so many of F. W. Murnau’s films are lost, someone has stolen the director’s head. Grave robbers in Stahnsdorf, Germany pried open the metal coffin where Murnau has been resting in a family plot since 1931. Variety

In further Murnau news—and whether it’s good or bad news might be arguable—silent classic Nosferatu is getting another remake. Robert Eggers, who recently won the Sundance directing prize for Witch is writing and directing. Deadline

The plaster Sphinx from DeMille’s Ten Commandments was literally excavated from the dunes of Guadalupe, California last year, and its restoration is finally complete. The Sphinx is now on display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center  as part of an exhibit. LiveScience

While not breaking news, here are some recent articles and reviews related to early film, all of them worth some attention:

  • A lovely article about the hand-coloring of early film, going back to the 1890s. Nautilus
  • Video and article about the largely-forgotten Louis Le Prince, who beat both Edison and the Lumières to filmmaking, then mysteriously disappeared. CBS
  • A particularly nice list of the 100 best silent films, favoring films that are not merely influential or of historical interest. The result is a list of films that are highly watchable. Paste
  • A brief, but worthwhile, review of 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera, re-released and screening in UK theaters during August. The Guardian

Have you seen an item of interest in the news related to early film? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to the next newsreel.

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.