From foppish Bostonian to maritime Mississippian hero

Lea of Silent-ology is hosting her fourth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a yearly celebration of all things Buster. Click on the button for more information and a list of participants and their themes.

This year, I decided to do Steamboat Bill, Jr., my favoritest of Buster’s features.

Released 12 May 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster’s final film as an independent. Due to its financial failure, Buster had to stop making films for United Artists and move to MGM. He never enjoyed this much creative control ever again.

The title comes from “Steamboat Bill,” a popular Arthur Collins song from 1911. Collins was known as The King of Ragtime Singers. In turn, the film inspired Mickey Mouse’s début cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

In November, I’ll have a series in honor of Mickey’s 90th anniversary.

There’s a new steamship in Muddy Waters, King, owned by local bigwig J.J. King (Tom McGuire). The proud owner of the older steamship, Stonewall Jackson, is William Canfield (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence), nicknamed Steamboat Bill. Bill’s first and last mate is Tom Carter (Tom Lewis).

Everyone flocks to King, ignoring Stonewall Jackson. The arrogant King believes his floating palace will drive his rival’s junky ship out of business. Carter thinks it’s hopeless, but Bill swears he’ll run his boat even if he’s the only one on it.

Bill is thrilled when Carter gives him a telegram which arrived four days ago. He hasn’t seen Willie since he was a baby, and imagines Willie is now bigger than he is.

Shortly before Willie arrives, King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) also comes home from school.

Bill has a devil of a time finding Willie, since many men are wearing white carnations. There’s a bit of ethnic humor many people may now find dated, as two of the guys with white carnations are an African–American and a stereotypically bearded Jew.

Bill is far from thrilled when he realizes Willie is a short, slight, ukelele-playing fop with a pencil moustache and beret. He warns Carter, “If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!”

Bill insists upon a makeover for Willie, which starts with a trip to the barber to get the moustache shaved off. Who else should be in the chair across from Willie than Kitty, his sweetheart!

The next order of business is a hat shop, where Bill makes Willie try on a parade of hats to replace the beret. Willie is open to a new hat, but Bill doesn’t like any of the ones he does.

This part of the film reminds me a bit of Putting Pants on Philip (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s first official short as a team.

Bill then takes Willie to get working clothes for the boat. While Willie’s in the store, Bill steps on his ukelele.

From the jump, Willie proves himself to be hilariously inept at any and all boat-related tasks. He’s only interested in sneaking away to meet with Kitty.

King is just as displeased with Willie as Bill, and orders him off the boat unless he wants his neck wrung. As bemused as Bill is with his son, he dislikes his rival more, and realizes he and Willie have a common enemy.

A silver lining in Willie’s mismanagement of the boat is the resulting mayhem it wreaks upon King and his boat.

That night, Kitty sends Willie a message, asking him to meet her. Both fathers are adamantly opposed to their relationship, but Willie, determined to see Kitty, outsmarts Bill’s attempts to keep him on the boat.

In the morning, Bill gives Willie money and a ticket back to Boston. His day gets worse when he discovers Stonewall Jackson has been declared unsafe and condemned.

Bill gets into a fight with a newspaper salesman who agrees with the condemnation. After he throws a rock and breaks a window, a lot of people come running, and Bill is arrested.

Willie tries to smuggle him a loaf of bread with escape tools baked in, but the jailer discovers this scheme. A short-lived prison break follows, and then even more trouble begins, accompanied by a growing storm.

Regardless of all the obstacles, Willie remains determined to save the day and prove his worth.

Buster spent over $100,000 building the sets, and spent $25,000 more on the famous storm scene. The storm scene includes Buster’s most famous stunt, depicted above.

Had Buster not stood at exactly the right spot, he might’ve been killed or seriously injured. Buster named that as one of his greatest thrills.

In spite of the mixed reviews and box office failure, today the film is rightly regarded as a classic.

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Happy 100th birthday to Theda Bara’s Cleopatra!

Released 14 October 1917, Theda Bara’s Cleopatra is among the Holy Grail of lost films. In spite of what a huge star she was, we have almost nothing to judge her acting abilities by. On 9 July 1937, a heat wave, improper ventilation, the lack of a sprinkler system, and the highly flammable properties of nitrate all contributed to a major fire in a Fox Film Corporation vault.

More than 75% of Fox’s silents were destroyed, as well as over 2,000 Educational Pictures films (including Buster Keaton’s silents); the original negative of Way Down East; the negative of the controversial 1938 The Birth of a Baby; archives intended for MoMA’s film library; and films by studios including Serial Producing, Peck’s Bad Boy Corporation, Atherton Productions, and Principal Pictures.

Officials said “only old films” were lost, little realizing their importance. Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, Evelyn Nesbit, Tom Mix, and George Walsh suffered total or near-total losses.

This fire forced improvement in film storage and fire safety.

The 1917 Cleopatra was based upon H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel of the same name, told from the POV of Egyptian priest Harmachis, in the form of papyrus scrolls found in a tomb.

The film was also based upon Shakespeare’s famed play Antony and Cleopatra (1607) and Émile Moreau and Victorien Sardou’s play Cléopâtre (1890).

The film was one of the most expensive, lavish, elaborate Hollywood productions up till that time, costing $500,000 ($9.35 million today) and employing 2,000 people not including actors.

Like all other films of the time, Cleopatra too had to contend with censorship boards. The Hays Code didn’t exist yet, but films still had to pass censorship before going into release.

From 1897–1965, there were at least 100 U.S. cities with local censorship boards. There were also many state-wide censorship boards, all with the power to ban or edit films.

The scenes for which cuts were demanded by various city and state censorship boards sound tame by modern standards, though in 1917, Theda’s costumes were really racy stuff. Moviegoers also weren’t used to seeing so much exposed flesh, suggestive poses, or a couple getting so up-close and personal.

After the advent of the Hays Code, Cleopatra was declared too “obscene” for further screenings.

The plot summary has to be pieced together from vintage reviews. It’s so painful to read all these reviews of lost films. These people had no idea how lucky they were to be able to see films like Cleopatra, Flaming Youth, A Sainted Devil, London After Midnight, The Miracle Man, and Salomé.

Cleopatra reaches Caesar via a clever ruse, and he falls under her seductive spell. Their plan to rule the world is spoilt after Caesar falls from power.

High priest Pharon is sent to murder Cleopatra with a sacred dagger, as the religious authorities are disgusted with her behavior, and the fact that she’s a woman in power.

Pharon falls in love with her instead, and when she falls on hard times, he takes her to his ancestors’ tomb. Cleopatra steals the treasures from the mummies, and uses this to travel to Rome.

Antony falls for her too, and leaves his governing duties to go to Alexandria with her. Their wanton, hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted when he’s called back to Rome and married against his will to Octavia.

Antony still loves Cleopatra, and sends her a message to arm her ships and meet him by Actium. There, they battle the opposing forces and are overpowered.

When they flee to Alexandria, they’re captured by Octavius, and Antony dies in Cleopatra’s arms.

To save Cleopatra from a horrible dragging death behind Octavius’s chariot, Pharon (who still loves her) gives her a venomous snake. She brings the serpent to her breast and dies still a queen, her crown on her head and her scepter in her hand.

The film was enormously popular, in spite of all the censorship cuts. If only better care had been taken with film preservation. Theda’s own personal library of her films turned to dust in her vault, which was a great source of pain, shock, and disappointment.

Only fragments are known to survive, of such insignificant length I haven’t bothered including them on my list of silents seen.

Only six complete prints of Theda’s films are known to survive, none representing her best work—A Fool There Was (1915), The Stain (1914), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and Hal Roach shorts Madame Mystery and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (both 1926).

A documentary that is and isn’t

Nanook of the North, directed by Robert J. Flaherty and released 11 June 1922, has become just as famous for being an early documentary as it is for having several staged sequences. This was also one of the earliest silents I saw, before I began building my list in earnest and keeping track of everything.

Flaherty began working as a prospector and explorer in the Hudson Bay in 1910. He was eventually inspired to bring a camera on his third visit, in 1913. To learn how to work with film, he took a three-week cinematography course in Rochester.

From 1914–15, Flaherty shot hours worth of footage of Inuit life. In 1916, he’d accrued enough footage to start test screenings for a documentary, a project which was received very positively. Sadly, when he dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative, he lost 30,000 feet of film.

Undeterred, like all good creators should be after such a devastating, irreplaceable loss, Flaherty decided to start all over with new footage, and to focus on one Inuit family in particular. He realized the lost footage had been too much of a travelogue, and not enough of a human interest film.

Flaherty spent four years raising money, and was finally funded by Revillon Frères, a now defunct French fur and luxury goods company. The resulting film was shot near one of their trading posts at Inukjuak, Québec, from August 1920–August 1921.

Flaherty chose Allakariallak, a well-known hunter of the Itimivuit tribe, as his protagonist. This was a pragmatic choice, as Flaherty wanted full cooperation and collaboration with the Inuit people. After all, they were his film crew, and many were more skilled at using his camera than he himself was.

The storyline is simple but powerful. Nanook and his family, on Québec’s Ungava Peninsula, struggle to find food and shelter during a typical brutal winter. Many scenes are of Nanook hunting—fish, walrus, fox, seal.

As much as I love animals and would never go back to eating meat, I have to admit vegetarianism and veganism aren’t practical or realistic in regions like this. So much of a culture’s traditional diet is dependent upon geography. People in the Far North and Iceland eat much differently from people in Korea or India.

The film opens with Nanook and his family arriving at a Western trading post. Everyone climbs out of a clown car-like kayak, ending with a Husky puppy. Nanook has brought pelts from his numerous kills to trade for knives, beads, and candy.

One of the white traders at “the big igloo” shows Nanook a gramophone, and Nanook closely inspects both machine and record to try to figure out how the music is produced. Nanook also tries to bite the record.

This is meant to be a funny culture clash scene, though in reality, Allakariallak knew very well what a gramophone was.

Allakariallak also normally hunted with rifles, like most modern hunters, but Flaherty urged him to use harpoons in the film. The hunts themselves, however, were very much real, and Inuits hadn’t stopped hunting the traditional way and making traditional hunting weapons.

They also still made and wore traditional clothes, in spite of having begun to wear Western clothing by the Twenties. It’s not like Flaherty staged the entire thing, as some people believe.

Nyla and Cunayou, Nanook’s wives, were Flaherty’s common-law wives in real life. They didn’t have an intimate relationship with Allakariallak at all off-camera.

The building of the igloo also required some staging, but more for technical and pragmatic than dramatic purposes. Any igloo’s dome would’ve collapsed if it were large enough to accommodate a camera. It was also too dark to film anything by the time the igloo was finished.

Thus, the interior igloo scenes were filmed in a three-walled igloo, large enough to accommodate the camera, and with enough light to film interior shots in the dark.

This isn’t a film with a happy, sunny ending, or even a satisfying sense of resolution. We only see Nanook and his family have survived another day and found shelter in an abandoned igloo before dark, with their dogs shivering and covered in snow outside.

Only the strong survive in this tough, brutal climate. Every day is a matter of surviving till tomorrow, and finding enough food to fill everyone’s stomachs.

Though many scenes were staged, either entirely or for greater dramatic effect, Flaherty’s intention was to show the authentic details of the traditional Inuit way of life. Many Westerners had no familiarity with it in this era (and many still don’t).

The film was a huge international success, and typified what later came to be called salvage ethnography, recording the folklore and practices of endangered cultures and cultures losing their traditions to modernization.

The film has been referenced in popular culture countless times over the years, in regards to both the film itself and to the name Nanook.

A 2014 poll in the British film magazine Sight and Sound voted Nanook the seventh-best documentary of all time.

Limelight at 65, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though Chaplin had become enormously unpopular in the U.S. by 1952, Limelight was nevertheless filmed by Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. Calvero’s street was a Paramount set; the music hall scenes came from RKO; and some outdoor scenes used back-projected London images.

Chaplin spent over two years writing an unpublished, 100,000-word novel, Footlights, in which he created the story that became Limelight. This book includes biographies of Calvero and Terry before the actual story begins.

Footlights contains episodes from Chaplin’s own life, and his parents’ lives. There are a number of strong parallels between Calvero and Charles, Sr., while Terry was strongly based upon Hannah Chaplin and Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love.

There are shades of Dante’s love for Beatrice in Chaplin’s love for Hetty, since they only met five times, and most of their meetings didn’t last longer than twenty minutes. Those brief encounters were enough to leave a strong, long-lasting impact.

When Claire Bloom rehearsed, Chaplin often recalled his mother’s and Hetty’s gestures and clothes.

In spite of all these strong parallels, Chaplin maintained the story was based upon U.S. blackface clown Frank Tinney and Spanish clown Marceline, both of whom he’d worked with as a boy.

Chaplin wanted very much to accurately recreate the London of his childhood. Towards this end, he hired Ukrainian-born designer Eugène Lourié, who decorated an RKO-Pathé theatre to look like London’s grand Empire Theatre. Lourié also remodelled a Paramount set to look like a Victorian-era London street.

Chaplin surrounded himself with his nearest and dearest during filming. His three oldest children from his fourth and final marriage, Geraldine, Michael, and Josephine, play the street children in the opening scene, while his second son from his second marriage, Sydney, plays secondary male lead Neville.

Chaplin’s younger halfbrother, Wheeler Dryden, plays Terry’s doctor, and his wife Oona doubles for Claire Bloom in two brief shots. His oldest son, Charles, Jr., plays a clown.

Sydney is on the far left

Chaplin was very happy and energetic during filming, due to having so many loved ones nearby and because the story gave him a chance to waltz down memory lane. At the time, he believed Limelight would be his final film.

Chaplin gave the role of Calvero’s former partner to Buster Keaton after learning about the hard times Buster had gone through. Though the role was rather small, Chaplin insisted on giving it to Buster. This was the only time they performed together on film.

According to rumour, Chaplin cut Buster’s scenes out of jealously at his superior performance, not wanting to be upstaged. In reality, Chaplin heavily edited the scene of their duet to elevate Buster. He also gave Buster free reign to do what he wanted, despite his notoriously rigid directorial style.

Buster was thrilled to be in this film. Since losing his MGM contract and having his career sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, he’d been reduced to mostly bit parts. Chaplin gave him the chance to shine like he deserved, even if it were only a secondary role near the end.

Sydney, who didn’t believe the rumours about his father cutting Buster’s scenes, said even if that had happened, it wouldn’t have made any sense for a secondary character to suddenly appear and upstage the protagonist by his own climactic comeback.

Chaplin composed all his own scores, with help from arrangers. He was relieved to be reassured by ballet partners Melissa Hayden (née Mildred Herman) (who doubled for Claire Bloom in dance scenes) and André Eglevsky that his music for the ballet could be choreographed.

In 1972, Chaplin, Larry Russell, and Raymond Rasch belatedly got an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score. This was Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, as his previous two (1971 and 1928–29) were honorary. Chaplin was the only surviving awardee.

“Terry’s Theme” remains one of Chaplin’s most popular and belovèd compositions. As “Eternally,” with lyrics by Geoff Parsons and John Turner, it’s been covered multiple times.

Limelight was heavily boycotted in the U.S., and only made a million dollars. Outside of some East Coast cities, many theatres refused to play it. Chaplin was denied a re-entry visa to the U.S. while promoting the film in Britain.

In comparison, it was very successful in the rest of the world, and made seven million more dollars. Only in 1972 was it finally released properly in the U.S.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its 60th anniversary with a screening, reception, and film panel by the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Claire Bloom and co-star Norman Lloyd shared their memories in a conversation moderated by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

Today, the film is highly regarded as one of Chaplin’s greatest and most personal works.

Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.