Happy 115th birthday to The Great Train Robbery!

Side note: The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one of my two favoritest Cagney films I’ve seen to date, the other being the indescribably awesome White Heat (1949)

Legendary, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, released 1 December 1903, is perhaps his best-known film. Though there were no credits during this era, we know the stars included Broncho Billy Anderson (the first film Western star), who plays three roles; Justus D. Barnes (the outlaw who famously shoots at the screen); Alfred C. Abadie (the sheriff); and B-movie Western actor Tom London (the conductor).

Bandits hold up a railway telegraph worker, forcing him to stop a train and order the engineer to fill the coal car at a water tank. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.

The bandits board the train when it stops. Two of them enter a passenger car, kill a messenger, and dynamite open a box of valuables. The other two bandits kill a fireman and make the engineer stop the train and disconnect the locomotive.

The passengers are then forced off and searched for valuables. One brave soul tries to escape, but is killed.

The bandits make off with their booty, and come to a valley where their horses are waiting.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator comes to, and quickly passes out again. Then his young daughter arrives, prays over him, cuts his restraints, and throws water over him.

At a dancehall, locals mirthfully make an Eastern greenhorn dance as they fire at his feet. The merriment is interrupted when the operator bursts in to relay news of the robbery.

The menfolk waste no time in banding together and riding to the rescue. They catch the bandits, overtake them, and recover the loot.

The closing shot (which some theatres chose to play at the beginning) is one of the most iconic of cinematic history, right up there with the spaceship in the eye of the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last! (1923), and King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

The film was shot at the Edison studios in NYC; New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation; and along the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, in November 1903. Some prints feature hand-coloured frames (e.g., the outlaw’s green shirt in the final shot; the orange and pink vault explosion; clothes in the dancehall).

The Great Train Robbery had its début by NYC’s Huber’s Museum and Theatre, which is now an NYU dorm. It was then shown by eleven other city theatres. The film was a huge, immediate success, one of the very first blockbusters and Westerns.

Indeed, it was one of the most popular films of that era, until The Birth of a Nation came along twelve years later and smashed all records.

The budget was about $150, equal to $4,153, or £3,238, in 2017 money.

Just one year later, a remake with the same name came out, from Siegmund Lubin’s Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Piracy and unauthorised remakes were a huge problem in this era, since copyright protection for films was legally murky. Only in 1912 were films legally classified as protected works.

The Great Train Robbery has inspired many other Westerns over the years, as well as scenes in other films and TV shows. Director Edwin S. Porter also parodied his own film in 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, which featured an all-children’s cast.

This is truly one of those films everyone should see at least once.

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Hollywood sends up Hollywood

Released 20 November 1928, Show People is widely considered Marion Davies’s best film. It’s also notable for having about two dozen celebrity cameos, such as Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Karl Dane, Elinor Glyn, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Eleanor Boardman. Another thing it’s known for is being one of the greatest silents still not on DVD.

Marion Davies was a wonderfully talented actor, esp. in light comedies, despite the ugly, persistent myth she only got into films because of her powerful lover William Randolph Hearst. His mismanagement of her career hurt her, such as how he tried to force her into costume dramas instead of the light comedies she excelled so much at.

Peggy Pepper is driven to Hollywood from Georgia by her father, Col. Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper, to prove herself as a great actor. She’s overcome with shocked delight to realise she’s really arrived in Hollywood. Her first celebrity sighting is John Gilbert.

Col. Pepper drives her to a studio and asks to see the president of the company. He’s directed to the casting office, where he and Peggy are asked to produce photos. All they have are very old photos, so Peggy is asked to demonstrate various moods, such as anger, sorrow, and joy.

Peggy and her dad have just 40 cents, which only buys crackers in the dining hall. Billy Boone (William Haines), a slapstick actor, joins their table uninvited, and tells Col. Pepper his “Southern makeup looks very Indiana.”

Peggy is very insulted by his antics, still believing she’s about to become a great actor and is so much better than all these other people. She says her acting is “the talk of all Savannah,” and that she’s got several offers in Hollywood. Billy promises to help her to break in.

Billy gets her an audition at his Comet Studio, which Peggy believes produces dramatic pictures. Trouble starts immediately, as she first disrupts a filming in progress, and then walks across another set.

Peggy gives a serious, dramatic performance to show Billy’s boss how good she is, and is quite unpleasantly surprised to find herself in a slapstick film. She lashes out by throwing a pie in one of the actors’ faces, and rages about how her clothes were sprayed with seltzer.

Peggy laments she came there to do drama, and asks why Billy didn’t warn her. He tries to cheer her up by saying all the greats had to start somewhere, and that many of them began with comedies. Billy also says success means work, and urges her to think about the first big thrill she’ll get when she sees herself on the big screen.

The director liked Peggy’s performance so much, he insists she do another take, and signs her up to star in another slapstick picture. The theatregoers love her work, but she’s despondent. The film that starts after hers is John Gilbert’s Bardelys the Magnificent, the kind of “real” acting she insists she’s going to do someday.

One of Peggy’s new fans asks for her autograph afterwards. Only after he leaves does Billy reveal that was Charlie Chaplin. She also encounters the casting director for High Arts Studio, who asks for an audition.

Peggy is worried he only wants to see Billy, but Billy reassures her he won’t accept a deal unless the director wants Peggy too. The receptionist dashes his hopes by saying the director only wants Peggy.

Before she goes to her audition, Peggy tells Billy she won’t accept a deal unless he’s signed up too. However, the director doesn’t have anything for Billy, and says maybe next year there’ll be something.

Peggy is both glad and sad to leave Comet Studio and her new friends, esp. Billy. As badly as she wanted to break into “real” acting, she’ll miss everyone so much, and can’t bring the person responsible for her success.

Will Peggy achieve stardom like she’s always dreamt of, and what will become of her relationship with Billy?

Wind, wind, incessant wind

Released 23 November 1928, The Wind is widely considered one of the greatest of all silents. It’s also one of the silents most famously not on DVD, in spite of its incredible reputation. The Wind was based on Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name.

In the 1880s, Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) leaves Virginia for her (male) cousin Beverly’s Texas ranch, Sweet Water. On the train, she makes the acquaintance of cattle rancher Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love, who frequently played villains), who tries to scare her away from this land of neverending winds and isolation. Wirt claims the wind often drives people, esp. women, crazy.

Letty is met by Beverly’s closest neighbours, Lige Hightower (Swedish import Lars Hanson) and Sourdough, who live fifteen miles away. After a difficult journey full of wind and sandstorms, Letty finally arrives, and is joyously met by her cousin Beverly.

Beverly’s wife Cora isn’t very pleased to have a new addition to their household, and is even more displeased when her kids immediately warm to Letty.

Some time afterwards, at a party, Sourdough tells Cora he’s going to propose to Letty that night. Lige breaks in and says he’s going to do it. In response, Sourdough challenges him to shoot a wooden owl on the wall. Since they both shoot equally well, they decide to ask together.

An incoming cyclone forces everyone into a storm cellar, where Wirt professes his love and begs Letty to come away with him. When the party resumes, he tells her to think it over, and that he’ll be in town till tomorrow.

Lige and Sourdough get Letty alone and propose. She doesn’t think they’re serious, but Cora feels very differently. She demands Letty leave Beverly alone, in spite of the fact that they were raised by Letty’s mother as siblings.

With no money or home, Letty decides to marry Wirt, but there’s a catch—he’s already married, and wants her as his mistress. Cora drives her away and demands she marry one of the other two.

Letty chooses Lige, whom she feels absolutely no passion for. Under the influence of alcohol, Lige becomes more brutish and insistent. Letty says he’s made her hate him, when she didn’t want to hate him. Lige says he thought she married him because she loved him and wanted to be his full wife.

Lige promises he’ll never touch her again, and will try to earn enough money to send her back to Virginia.

Letty encounters a group of cattlemen on their way to a meeting, to see what can be done to save the people from starvation. She begs Lige to take her with him, since she’ll go insane alone with the wind.

When Letty is unable to control her horse in the intense windstorm, Lige has her get behind him on his horse. She later falls off, and Lige orders Sourdough to take her home.

Lige’s party returns with an injured Wirt. With nowhere else to go, he stays in Lige and Letty’s house.

Letty is terrified of being alone with him, and denies the wind has made her crazy. She pretends she likes it. Wirt tries to tempt her with descriptions of how lush and beautiful Virginia is this time of year, but Letty stands firm. So terrified of Wirt is she, she runs right into Lige’s arms for safety.

Lige conscripts Wirt into participating in a roundup of wild horses. This is Lige’s one big chance to get money to send Letty home to Virginia. Once again, Letty is left alone with the wind.

And then, in the thick of a fierce windstorm, Wirt returns alone.

The Wind was both panned and praised by critics, coming as it did during that difficult transitional period away from silents and towards fully sound pictures. It suffered a net loss of $87,000 in the U.S., though it fared much better in Europe. Today, the film is considered a classic.

Both Lillian Gish and director Victor Seastrom (né Sjöström) were quite displeased with the ending, though, contrary to popular myth, neither written nor filmed proof exists of an alternate ending that was replaced.

Lillian Gish was an absolutely incredible actor, one of the greatest of the silent era. She communicated so much emotion without saying a word.

Harold’s silent swan song

My favouritest of Harold Lloyd’s silent features, Speedy, was released 7 April 1928. It was Harold’s final silent, and is such a beautiful, poignant farewell to this era of his career. Harold alternated gag comedies with character comedies, and this is a gag comedy.

New York City is a city of speed, progress, fast-paced lives, but not so for Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who drives the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar. He lives with his granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy), who’s going steady with Harold “Speedy” Swift.

Railroad officials have been pestering Pop to sell them his streetcar, but he refuses to take their offer. Either he sells on his terms, for his price, or not at all.

We now learn Speedy has a new job, the latest in a long line of short-lived jobs. Each time, he insists this job will be successful. His jobs all have one thing in common—being within phoning distance of Yankee Stadium.

Speedy’s latest job is as a soda jerk, and he constantly phones for the latest score. Speedy has a very clever way of communicating this to his co-workers, who love the Yankees just as much as he does. Harold always had such ingenious gags, perhaps partly a result of having to learn how to navigate life with only eight fingers. He had to figure out ways to do things other people might never consider.

Speedy knows he’s out of this job too when there’s a mishap with flowers he’s supposed to deliver to the boss’s wife. Pop and Jane are rather upset, but he assures them he’ll quickly find a replacement job, just as he always does. Speedy also promises Jane they’ll go to Coney Island.

The vice-president of the railroad company comes to ask for Pop’s rock-bottom price. While he’s writing the figure, Speedy sees a newspaper story announcing a planned merger of streetcars, which can’t succeed unless small franchises are bought up. Speedy conveniently arranges for the card with Pop’s price to fall on the floor, and Speedy changes it from $10,000 to $70,000.

Harold writes with his left hand in this scene. Though he was able to write with his three-fingered right hand, it makes me happiest to see Harold doing things left-handed. That must’ve been a huge shot of pride for the lefties in the audience, in an era when a great majority of them were bullied and shamed out of their natural inclination.

Speedy and Jane then go to Coney Island. I absolutely love the footage of real Coney Island rides, all of which now exist only in memory. These people were so lucky to be able to go there and experience all these wonderful attractions, food stands, games, prizes, kiosks, and rides, and to have such cheap subway fare.

Before a curved mirror, Speedy gives himself the finger, possibly the first known instance of this on film.

After a day full of fun, and many misunderstandings with other amusement park-goers, Speedy and Jane head home with almost too much to carry, and a dog who wouldn’t leave them alone. They ride home in the back of a furniture truck, and play at it being their own home.

Speedy proposes, and Jane says she won’t think of it until Pop’s affairs are settled. Speedy promises to get a job in the morning, and to help Pop.

That next job is as a cabbie, which of course quickly descends into disaster and comedic misunderstandings. One of the gags involves a suitcase leaking a trail of liquid in front of a cop, which 1928 audiences understood meant he was violating Prohibition.

In this era, it was only 15 cents for the first quarter-mile, and five cents per each additional quarter-mile.

Speedy eventually gets the passenger of a lifetime—Babe Ruth. During the drive to Yankee Stadium, Speedy barely watches the road, so overcome with star fever. Babe barely arrives in one piece, but nevertheless invites Speedy to watch the game.

Who should be right in front of Speedy at the game but his boss! Also at the game is the cop who wrote him two tickets.

While hiding in a phonebooth, Speedy overhears the railroad bosses hatching a plan to drive Pop out of business. If the car doesn’t run at least once every 24 hours, he’ll have to give it up. Towards this end, they plan to start a fight to distract him, and steal the car during it.

At home, Speedy notices Pop is sick, and asks if he can drive the car for the next few days. Pop agrees.

Now it’s up to Speedy to figure out a way to save the day.

The Fall of the House of Usher times two

1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.

Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.

The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.

Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.

When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.

The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.

Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.

Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.

The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.

The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.

In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.

Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.

Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.

In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.

Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.

Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.

Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.

Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.

Then the night storm hits.