For the calendar year of 2021 I set out to watch one silent movie per month to broaden my viewing experience beyond Keaton, Lloyd and The Phantom of the Opera. I came away with a whole new appreciation of the early days of movie making, the production values, camera work, location shoots and even Garbo.
Here’s the first six I sat in on. Three of them thanks to TCM which goes out of it’s way to play silent films on a regular basis.
It (1927) tcm
Clara Bow was known as the “It” girl and she quickly captured my heart with those huge eyes and her spunky portrayal of a feisty gal working in a department store who dreams of being noticed by the bachelor/owner. Not knowing what to expect going in I found myself laughing it up with the on screen shenanigans in this 1920’s romcom. Again I loved how Miss Bow was a go getter and not a dainty female lead waiting to be swept off her feet. I was also reminded of how silent films were location shoots and done outdoors but once the early talkies came into being they were stage bound affairs. Then there was Gary Cooper’s brief appearance as a reporter prior to his becoming one of cinema’s all time greats. Lastly, Brando (my wiener dog) and I had a good chuckle at one of the dialogue cards ….. “I feel so low, old chap, that I could get on stilts and walk under a Dachshund.” Clara Bow proved a winner for the January edition of the Silent Film Project and one that’s easy to recommend.
Spring Fever (1927) tcm
Might this be the earliest golf movie ever made? I’ve no idea but golf is exactly what we get as a backdrop in this romcom starring William Haines and a young starlet on the rise, Joan Crawford. Perhaps you’ve hear of her. Haines plays the young guy working at a factory who is a whiz with a set of “spoons.” That’s golf clubs for the uninitiated. His boss who loves golf but struggles with his own game takes the young man with him to the country club, Oakmont, in Pennsylvania. So we have the young man with no money who falls for the beautiful Crawford. A young woman born into wealth. Let the romantic hijinks begin as the two fall in, out and in love over the course of the film. Then there’s the club championship that Haines will need to win to make good on the big stage. Easy to recommend for it’s entertainment value and also for the sports nostalgia involved.
For the record, Oakmont Country Club has hosted the U.S. Men’s Open 9 times going as far back as 1927 when Tommy Armour won. Other winners include Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and most recently Dustin Johnson in 2016.
For Heaven’s Sake (1926) Harold Lloyd Box Set on DVD
This represents one of the few films I’d yet to see starring Harold Lloyd. Lloyd is my first love when it comes to the silent comics. I’d eventually discover Keaton and Chaplin in the years ahead but Lloyd films played some station years ago when I was growing up and I fell in love with the funny man in specs. Here he’s a wealthy young man who through comical chance finds himself becoming the main benefactor for a minister looking to feed and house the destitute. Lloyd has no interest and intends to set things straight. That is until he meets the minister’s daughter, Miss Jobyna Ralston, a frequent costar of Harold’s. From here on out it’s that Lloyd timing that kept me in stitches and while I wouldn’t call it his best film it’s still worth one’s time.
The Extra Girl (1923) tcm
It’s Mabel Normand taking center stage in the title role. The film at a fast clip of 68 minutes plays out in two parts. The first half sees Mabel wanting nothing more than to follow her dreams to Hollywood. After all, her Mother and love interest, Ralph Graves, think she’d make for a terrific actress. She’ll just have to avoid marrying Vernon Dent who her Father has deemed a solid choice to take his daughter’s hand. Yes that’s the same Vernon Dent who went on to become the number one foil in so many classic Three Stooges Shorts.
The latter half of the film is played for plenty of gags with a tinge of action and drama tossed in. Hollywood isn’t all that easy to crack and poor Mabel finds herself assigned to the wardrobe department. There’s a great sequence where she has a chance to film her screen test and another involving her mistaking a real lion for the dog she had outfitted in a lion’s costume. Thankfully Graves has followed her to Hollywood to recapture her heart, save her and the family fortune from a thief and take her back home where they can raise a family and of course … “live happily ever after.” A fun effort from the Mack Sennett studio yet sadly Mabel’s second last film. Like so many silent era stars, she’d pass away in 1930 from a lengthy fight against tuberculosis just as talkies were upon us.
Battling Butler (1926) KINO VIDEO DVD
Actor/director Buster Keaton is at it again, never once cracking a smile. Well to do with a valet all his own, he takes a break from the high life and finds and falls for a mountain girl played by Sally O’Neill. Not much too look at, Sally’s brothers are not impressed with Buster. Easy fix. Valet, Snitz Edwards convinces the mountain clan that Buster (who just happens to share the same name as a professional champion prizefighter) is indeed the world champ.
Comedy hijinks follow when Buster decides to go along with the little white lie to win his beloved. What are the odds that the real champ comes to stay at the same location? Might Buster find himself in the ring and in the fight of his life before this one closes? Another fun filled effort from the days when Buster was one of the three Kings of silent comedy. Still is.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) KINO CLASSICS blu ray
The Great Profile, John Barrymore, starred in this early iconic horror film of the silent era. In this version of the Stevenson story the good Dr. John is a standup fellow helping the ailing poor and appears to be an all around do gooder. Waiting in the wings is lovely Martha Mansfield as the girl next door waiting to say “I do” at the altar.
All is fine in John’s life until he gets dragged to a local pub with naughty Nita Naldi dancing the hoochie coochie on stage. It’s a sexual awakening for John and if he’s going to sink into the depravity of whoring and boozing, (I believe that’s what may have been going on by this point when the cameras stopped rolling in the Barrymore home) he’ll need a potion to separate the good man from the wanton desires of the bad.
And along comes the famous footage of John’s on screen transformation into his alter ego, Mr. Hyde. You know the rest of the story.
To be continued ….