"Wings," "The Birth of a Nation," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Gold Rush," "The Big Parade," "Son of the Sheik," "The Freshman," "Broken Blossoms," "Don Juan," "Metropolis," "The Crowd," . . . and the list goes on and on.
These are the films that all of the historians espouse as the "classics of the silent era." These are the films that have the privilege of being "restored" with wonderful new musical scores written for them. These are the films you can easily find on video in pristine prints. These are the films you read about in all of the books on the silent era. And these are the movies most of us were "weaned" on as we developed a love for and appreciation of the art of silent movie making.
However, thanks to the video revolution, more and more films from that era are cropping up through independent distributors who also have a love for the silent era. The prints may not always be pristine, and in most cases the musical accompaniment has been pieced together from public domain collections, but the films themselves are a joy!
Most of these films were referred to as the "programmers" of the teens and twenties, pretty much what we know as "B" pictures. Their average running time is in the 55-65 minute range, and the story lines are simple and oftentimes corny. However, for pure entertainment, they can't be beat, and they're waiting out there from distributors such as Grapevine and Videobrary to be discovered.
One of the most delightful of the lot is "Bare Knees" (Gotham Productions, 1928) with Virginia Lee Corbin. Corbin may not be familiar to many silent movies fans, but she was a child star beginning in the teens. By the time she made "Bare Knees" in 1928, she was a very "mature" 18 years old.
Although Colleen Moore and Clara Bow take the "flapper" honors in any history of the cinema you read, Virginia Lee Corbin is a flapper with the best of them in "Bare Knees." In this story, she first appears to be a wild, reckless young girl who is very wrapped up in the Jazz Age and having a good time. However, before the story is over, she shows she is more "level-headed" than her older sister who attempts to run away from her husband with another man.
"Battling Bunyan" (Associated Exhibitors Co., 1924) is another enjoyable and "cute" (I didn't say "great") film. Wesley Barry stars in this one as Aiken Bunyan (get it?) an auto mechanic's apprentice. One day "the champ" comes into the garage, flirts with Aiken's girlfriend and insults Aiken. Aiken is enticed into a boxing career as a way to get revenge and earn enough money to buy a partnership in the garage.
For such a lightweight (no pun intended) film, it contains a good portion of pathos and intense emotions, especially in the final, very well staged, battle between Aiken and the champ, which, by the way, does not take place in the ring.
Charles Ray's "The Busher" (Thomas Ince, 1919) is a pure slice of Americana, and anyone who enjoys D.W. Griffith's pastoral films will enjoy this one. Ray is Ben Harding, a small town baseball hero who is discovered by accident by a pro baseball team. He does well enough in the major leagues for awhile, but his success goes to his head and leads to his downfall. This film, too, tugs at the heartstrings, especially when he snubs his girlfriend at one of his ballgames in favor of a gold digger. His girlfriend has another suitor, too, who, of course, turns out to be the "bad guy" in the film. This film is particularly interesting because it has Colleen Moore in the role of the girlfriend and John Gilbert in the role of the other suitor, both well before their days of stardom.
There are at least three wonderful Reginald Denny films available on video. "Skinner's Dress Suit" (Universal, 1926) leads the list and is highly recommended. Although this is a comedy, don't expect shades of Chaplin, Lloyd or Keaton. Denny has his own style which is best described as a forerunner of the situation television comedies of the '50's and '60's.
In "Skinner's Dress Suit," he's just the average working guy trying to pay the bills. After being urged by his wife, Honey, he gets enough nerve to ask for a raise, but is turned down. However, he doesn't have enough nerve to tell Honey he didn't get the raise, and she goes on a spending spree that puts them head over heels in debt. Of course, it all works out in the end, but the couple's brush with "society" and attempts to "keep up with the Joneses" are delightful. Not to take anything away from Denny, but the spice that really adds the final touch to this film is the presence of Laura La Plante as Honey. It's as if she was made for the role.
"California Straight Ahead" (Universal-Jewel, 1925) is another highly recommended Denny film, and this one comes closer to slapstick comedy than any of the three.
In this film, Denny is Tom Hayden, son of a car manufacturer, who is about to marry Betty Brown, the daughter of a rival car manufacturer. All is well between the two families until a mentally unbalanced woman latches on to him as he arrives for the wedding. The bride, her family and Tom's family misunderstand, and all disown him.
Tom doesn't give up, though, and follows Betty and her family to California where they are going for the big car race. Of course, Tom is the best driver around, and ends up driving in the race for some high stakes - the hand of Betty in marriage.
Two sequences in this film are some of the best you'll see in silent comedy. The first is in the beginning when Tom is having a bachelor party in his camper trailer. The trailer comes loose from the car his servant is driving and careens down a mountainside eventually crashing. Tom ends up in the hospital and has to commandeer an ambulance to make it to the wedding in time. What he doesn't realize is that the mentally unbalance woman mentioned earlier is in the back of the ambulance.
In another sequence, Tom and his friends, as well as Betty and her family, are at an auto camp on the way to California. A big storm comes up, and all of the animals escape from the local circus. Of course they descend on the auto camp and wreak havoc as well as hilarity!
"The Cheerful Fraud" (Universal, 1926) is another pleasant comedy from Denny. In it, he is the English gentleman Sir Michael Fairlie. He poses as a male secretary to get into the Bytheway home where the girl he loves is a secretary. The first complications arise when a crook arrives at the home for the weekend claiming to be Sir MIchael Fairlie! Sir Michael (Denny) is also trying to help Mr. Bytheway get rid of a gold digger who is at the door demanding payment or she will give the Mrs. some letters Bytheway wrote to her. Gertrude Astor plays the part of the gold digger, and she does a superb job in the part.
Raymond McKee is a little known comic from the silent era, but "Campus Knights" (Chesterfield, 1924) is a delightful little film all about mix-ups in identity. McKee plays two parts in the film, that of straight-laced professor Ezra Hastings and his twin brother, Earl, a ladies' man who loves a party.
In the evenings, the girls at the college sneak out of their dorms and frequent the local Colony Inn where they can have a good time. They run into Earl there who proves to be very entertaining, but they think it is the professor leading a dual life. All of this causes poor Ezra quite a few problems as he tries to keep his job at the college. Shirley Palmer plays the student who, at first, tries to get the professor fired but ends up falling in love with him.
Glenn Tryon is a capable comedian whose brash, go-getter personality is charming rather than offensive, and "Hero for a Night" (Universal-Jewel, 1927) shows off his talents well.
Glenn plays Hiram, a taxi driver who is studying to be a famous aviator in the style of Charles Lindbergh. Patsy Ruth Miller is Mary, daughter of Sam Sloan of Sloan's Shaving Soap. Mr. Sloan, played by the inimitable Burr McIntosh, has come with his daughter to an island resort for his health; however, Jack, Mary's suitor, is trying to keep Sloan away from New York to partake of his fortunes. Hiram ends up saving the day by flying Sloan and his daughter (accidentally) across the ocean causing a sensation for Sloan's Soap.
"The Mad Whirl" (Universal, 1924) stars May McAvoy and Jack Mulhall, however, the real star of the show turns out to be the grizzly old George Fawcett as May's father.
In this morality tale, Cathleen is the daughter of a soda shop and store owner. Jack Herrington's family is wealthy, and he, as well as his parents, are caught up in the Jazz Age with only one thought - partying and having a good time. It takes falling in love with Cathleen to set him straight and the no-nonsense Mr. Gillis to set Jack's parents straight.
The film has some humorous moments and presents its morality lesson in a palatable manner. Jack Mulhall is fairly likeable, and May McAvoy plays a lovely and engaging Cathleen.
Bessie Love can be seen in two extremely charming photoplays. The "Matinee Idol" (Columbia Pictures, 1928) and "Rubber Tires" (Cecil B. DeMIlle Pictures, 1927).
In "The Matinee Idol," she is Ginger Bolivar, the feminine lead in a hokey, backwoods theatrical company which is led by her father. Johnnie Walker plays Don Wilson, the handsome Broadway matinee idol who happens upon the troupe in a small town and takes a liking to Ginger. Don gets a last minute part in the play as Harry Mann just to be near Ginger. Although intended to be a melodrama, Don's manager thinks the play is a laugh riot and hires the troupe to play on Broadway. However, the troupe doesn't know they are being hired for laughs.
Of course,when it all is found out, Don/Harry loses Ginger but wins her back again.
"The Matinee Idol" was directed by Frank Capra and has a nice mix of sentimentality and even some good old-fashioned slapstick - well worth seeing.
"Rubber Tires" has Bessie Love as the oldest daughter, Mary Ellen, in the Stacks family which is made up of her not-too-bright father, her mother and her little brother. They have a California home that is going to be sold for taxes, so they sell everything they have in New York, buy an old jalopy and strike out across country for the west coast. They meet up with Mary Ellen's old boyfriend, Bill (played with spunk by Harrison Ford), in Pennsylvania, and he decides to follow them and try to win Mary Ellen back. They also pick up another suitor along the way who gives Bill some competition.
However, the plot line that keeps the viewer on edge involves the old car Mary Ellen bought. It's the first car manufactured by the "Tourist" automobile company, and they are offering $10,000 for it. When the junk dealer who sold it to them realizes this, he takes off across country to track them down. They lose the car, get it back again, get robbed by highwaymen, almost lose the car when the brakes give out on a mountainside and endure a variety of other hardships along the way.
"Miss Bluebeard" (Paramount, 1925) with Bebe Daniels is another tale of mixed-up identities. Robert Frazer is the famous songwriter Larry Charters, and he is tired of all the attention he gets from women. His friend, Bob, played by Kenneth MacKenna, falls in love with the French actress Collette Girard and decides to impress her by saying he is Larry Charters. Of course, the real Larry falls in love with Collette when he sees her, but his old girlfriends keep showing up and complicating matters. Raymond Griffith adds some very nice comedy touches as Bertie Bird, Larry's friend.
Any film with Wallace Reid will create a certain amount of interest, but "The Roaring Road" (Paramount, 1919) has a good story and excellent racing scenes as well as Reid to attract the viewer.
The great Theodore Roberts plays J.D. Ward, owner of the Darco car company, who wants a Darco to win the big Santa Monica Road Race. His biggest competitor is Rexton Motors. Reid plays Toodles Walden. He is J.D.'s top salesman and wants to marry the daughter, Dorothy, played by Ann Little. Toodles gets into an argument with J.D. and quits his company. This ruins his chances of marrying Dorothy.
Of course, with a title like "The Roaring Road," there has to be plenty of car action, and there is. You would think the big Santa Monica race would be the climax of the film, but, no, that's just the halfway point. Things get more complicated as Toodles goes after the coveted Los Angeles to San Francisco run record, but he's up against a time limit. Setting the record also means winning Dorothy back, and the whole thing is gummed up when Toodles is thrown in jail! Reid and Roberts make delightful sparring partners.
Viola Dana and Ralph Graves make a very charming couple in "That Certain Thing," (Columbia Pictures, 1928) another Frank Capra film. Molly (Viola) dreams of marrying a millionaire, and she does . . . well, a millionaire's son, Andy B. Charles, Jr., played by Graves. The crotchety old A.B. Charles, Sr., is played ably by Burr McIntosh. When he learns of the socially unacceptable marriage, he disinherits his son.
Andy tries to make it with a construction crew, but he gets fired. From watching the men at lunch time, Molly gets an idea, and the two of them start the "Molly Box Lunch Company." As a matter of fact, the business is so successful, it becomes a threat to A.B.'s restaurant business. That puts Andy and Molly with the upper hand at the bargaining table.
Theatres in the days of silent movies rarely ran a picture more than two or three days, and they had to have a steady turnover of features to keep their patrons coming. Sadly, most of these films have passed into oblivion, but titles such as the ones above keep popping up on video. These are the films families couldn't wait to go see at the neighborhood theatre after supper because a new picture with their favorite star - Wallace Reid, Bessie Love, Viola Dana, Reginald Denny, Glenn Tryon, Bebe Daniels, Wesley Barry - was being shown. And although these little "programmers" may not be "STUPENDOUS!," "COLOSSAL!," or "BREATHTAKING!," they were and are delightful, charming, enjoyable, and just plain good entertainment.
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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