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.


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.

When life and art imitate one another

Premièring Halloween 1927, My Best Girl was the legendary Mary Pickford’s final silent, and her final film with her famous long, golden curls. With a budget of $483,103, it made $1,027,757 in the U.S. during its first theatrical run.

Another really special thing about this film is that she co-stars with her future third and final husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Real life and art imitate one another most powerfully, as the film captures two real people falling in love just as their characters do.

Maggie Johnson (Mary) is an overworked, underappreciated stock girl by Merrill Department Store No. 4. Her luck starts to turn around when a salesgirl co-worker takes a five-minute break and asks Maggie to cover for her. While Maggie is behind the counter, she meets cutiepie Joe Grant (Buddy).

Maggie tries to interest Joe in several humorous balloons, but the ruse of Joe being a customer is blown when the manager gives him his timecard and says he’ll be working in the stockroom with Maggie.

In the stockroom, Joe is very incompetent and clumsy. Maggie thinks he’s the dumbest stock boy ever, and steps up as his mentor.

Little does she know he’s actually the son of Robert E. Merrill, owner of the store, and engaged to a woman named Millicent. Joe is working undercover to prove he can get ahead without the benefit of his family name. His engagement to Millicent is being kept secret (to everyone) till he gets a promotion.

Several days later, some of Maggie’s co-workers tease her about having a crush on Joe. One of these salesgirls is Carole Lombard in an early, uncredited role. When they tell her he’s on his way, she gets on the back of a truck to ride home. To snare Joe’s attention away from the salesgirls he’s fraternizing with, Maggie tosses her lunchbox off the back of the moving truck.

Joe runs after it and gives it back to her, and then Maggie pushes a bundle off the truck. Joe also runs after this and retrieves it. Finally, Maggie tosses off her lunchbox again. This time, after Joe retrieves it and gives it back to her, he gets on the truck with her.

During the ride home, Maggie shows Joe a picture of her oddball family, and invites him to dinner. We then meet the rest of the Johnsons.

Mr. Johnson (prolific character actor Lucien Littlefield) is a hardworking but henpecked postal worker, elderly, in poor health. Mrs. Johnson comes across as an emotionally manipulative narcissist. She goes to funerals every single day, even for strangers, and constantly uses smelling salts.

Maggie’s sister Liz is a flapper who’s dating Nick Powell, a man her parents are adamantly opposed to. They insist he’s no good, and that he’ll only cause trouble for her.

Things aren’t going so swimmingly at home, so Maggie pretends Liz is rehearsing a part in a play. She and Joe stay on the veranda while Liz fights with her parents. When Nick arrives, Maggie pretends he’s an actor coming to rehearse. Maggie also pretends a cop looking for Nick is an actor wearing a costume.

Finally, Maggie says it’s not a good time and asks for a raincheck.

At work, Maggie and Joe’s romance continues to blossom. Though Joe has been promoted to being Maggie’s boss, he still eats lunch with her every day in the stockroom. One afternoon, after Joe gets a note from his parents about a dinner party at which his engagement to Millicent will be announced, Maggie gives him a watch for a birthday present.

That day after work, they window-shop in the rain and stop by an ice-cream counter. Joe offers to take her to a restaurant, but she’s afraid it’ll put him in the poorhouse. Joe then suggests they eat by the Merrills, knowing his parents will be away.

It takes a little convincing, but finally Maggie is coaxed inside. Joe gets his servants to pretend he’s just another store employee who regularly comes to eat by his boss.

With the mansion to themselves but for the servants and Joe’s Great Dane, Maggie and Joe pretend they’re Mr. and Mrs. Merrill. The fancy food is very strange to Maggie, who says she can cook Joe much better stuff.

When the Merrills and Millicent come in, Joe’s cover is blown, and Maggie feels tricked and humiliated. She runs outside, and bumps into her parents on the street. They insist she come to night court to bail out Liz.

Joe tracks Maggie to court, and gets arrested after a fight with Nick, who implies a rich boy like Joe would only be interested in a poor stock girl like Maggie for one thing.

The next day, Mr. Merrill says Joe is leaving for Honolulu till the scandal blows over, and that he bought ship tickets for Mr. and Mrs. Merrill. He tries to buy Maggie off with $10,000.

When Joe comes to the house, the situation becomes even more complicated.

Though I prefer Mary’s heavy dramas like Tess of the Storm Country and The Love Light, her lighter films are fun to watch. It’s also so precious to watch her and Buddy falling in love on camera. They weren’t able to marry till 1937, after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but their romance definitely came into bloom here.

I also love how Buddy was twelve years Mary’s junior! They were 23 and 35 while the film was being shot. Once you’ve fallen for a younger man, you’ll never go back.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.