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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mickey Rooney

With the recent passing of Mickey Rooney, another piece of silent film history has left us.

Lillian Gish made her first film (with D.W. Griffith) in 1912, and her last in 1987. Rooney has broken this record, having spent approximately 88 years working in front of the camera. How many current stars will be able to say the same?

RIP, Mickey.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Discovery in Iowa

Yes, silent films are still turning up...

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Too Much Johnson

I was one of the lucky crowd at the first-ever public screening of Too Much Johnson, a silent film made by Orson Welles three years before he burst on the screen with Citizen Kane. This silent film was never finished, and the version we saw was a very rough cut by Welles.

We endured some very long speeches before the movie started, then a running commentary. Pordenone is famous for its silent-film festival, and it's almost too good to be true that this movie, long thought to have been lost, was found in Pordenone itself. Hence the speeches; everyone wanted to get in on the fame.

It was fascinating to see Joseph Cotten in the lead, with some truly hair-raising stunts during which he scrambles from one rooftop to another - in a now long-gone New York City. It was equally fascinating to see the home movie footage showing Welles himself, directing the film. The screening room was packed; I don't think there was an empty seat in the house, and several people were leaning against the back wall.

So what happens for the movie now? I don't know. I can only say that watching it was a rare experience.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A moment of silence...

Fujifilm has stopped making motion-picture film.

Yes, digital is easier. Yes, it has good definition. Yes - and this is VERY important - it's better for the environment.

It's still the passing of an era. The original motion-picture film was nitrate-based. Not only was it highly flammable, it decomposed easily and rapidly (one of the reasons why so many silents are gone).

Safety film took over in the early 1950s, and it deteriorates too, just not the way nitrate stock does. And now, one major producer no longer makes it. Me? I'd like to see it stay around.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Silent Winter

Yes, this is a late announcement, but I'm doing it anyway. San Francisco's Castro Theatre is showing silent films all day tomorrow (February 16).

The schedule:

10 a.m.: Snow White (starring Marguerite Clark)

12 p.m.: Buster Keaton short features

2:30 p.m.: The Thief of Bagdad (starring Douglas Fairbanks)

7:00 p.m.: My Best Girl (starring Mary Pickford)

9:00 p.m.: Faust (starring Emil Jannings)

Ticket prices:
$15 General / $13 Members / $5 Children under 12

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Timeline Films

Timeline Films is an American film production company that has made several documentaries about stars of the silent screen. Most of the documentaries concern women of that era - Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Olive Thomas - but a couple of men have found their way in; specifically, Cecil B. De Mille and Buddy Rogers.

The movies are well researched and narrated by various modern Hollywood stars, including Ted Danson, Jane Fonda, and Charlize Theron. The filmmakers have done silent film fans a great service with their documentaries, showing us rare footage of films that are now lost, such as a short bit of Theda Bara's Cleopatra (only one of her films survives in full), and clips of Olive Thomas, a name now known by only a few die-hard fans.

To purchase one of their excellent productions, click here.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

February 1, 1966

The day Buster Keaton died of cancer.

It's so ironic - Buster was the youngest of the "Big Three" (the others being Chaplin and Lloyd), yet he was the first to go. They died in reverse order of age: Buster, Harold, Charlie.

Buster will always be the king, in my opinion. Far more talented than Lloyd or Chaplin, more inventive, more creative. Engineer, dancer, stuntman, acrobat, filmmaker, comedian, actor.

He was well aware (unlike Chaplin) that the camera was another participant in films, and made full use of it. For Buster, the camera was just as important as anyone and everyone in front of it. He used his innate skill to make eleven exposures of himself on one strip of film (something the cameraman said was impossible) in The Playhouse. He put the camera underwater in The Navigator. He had an understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking that remains unparalleled.

And he could be sentimental without being maudlin, unlike Chaplin, who always begged the audience to feel sorry for his Little Tramp character. Lloyd was better at sentiment (as in Girl Shy), but Buster was the Everyman, the human Timex, who rolled with the punches and got the girl in the end.

Sherlock, Jr. was, and is, a true landmark of filmmaking; every single gag works perfectly. Buster even acted as stunt double for one of his costars, because he knew how to take a fall better than anyone in the business. Riding the handlebars of a motorcycle directly across the path of an oncoming train; hanging from a water tower and falling to the train tracks as the force of the water causes him to loosen his grip (he broke his neck doing that stunt, by the way); jumping "through" a person and the fence behind that person; playing an extremely complicated game of pool. Buster could do it all.

Here's to the greatest genius Hollywood will ever know.