Buster’s silent swan song

Lea of Silentology is hosting her fifth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a celebration of all things Buster (features, shorts, comedic art, news stories, the whole kitten caboodle). Click on the button above for links to this year’s entries.

My subject this year is Spite Marriage, Buster’s last silent and second MGM film, released 6 April 1929. Though Buster wanted this to be his first talkie, relying less on dialogue than sound effects, MGM only let him use a synchronized musical score and sound effects. (Buster hated the sound effects he ended up with.) Apart from that bit of studio interference, this was the final film Buster had any creative control over.

Elmer Gantry (Buster) is a dry cleaner hopelessly smitten with stage actor Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). Her pictures are plastered all over his wall at work, and Elmer has a front row seat at all her shows.

Unluckily for Elmer, Trilby’s dating her co-star Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), who in turn is cheating on her with Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams).

Elmer’s luck starts turning around when an undercover cop shows up looking for one of the actors. Since he’s seen the show (David Belasco’s Heart of Maryland) 35 times, he assures the actor he can take his place onstage. The guilty party then escapes through the window.

While Elmer puts on a false beard, Trilby confronts Lionel about his cheating ways, and brags she’s got a millionaire (Elmer) sending her flowers.

Naturally, nothing goes right from the moment Elmer begins getting into costume. Trilby’s manager Nussbaum is more and more horrorstruck at Elmer’s hilariously incompetent antics, and demands someone shoot him. The audience will think it’s part of the show.

The audience is in hysterics over Elmer’s performance. This serious Civil War drama has been transformed into a comedy.

Elmer falls into the orchestra pit as he flees from Nussbaum, then finds his way to another escape route with a window. He changes clothes and pulls off his beard just in time to fool Nussbaum and his associates.

Trilby is heartbroken when Ethyl tells her she and Lionel are announcing their engagement that night. When she runs across Elmer, she proposes to him, and declares they’ll marry that night.

After their unhappy, unconsummated wedding night, Elmer and Trilby go to speakeasy La Bohème, where Lionel and Ethyl have also gone. Trilby spends most of the night longingly looking at Lionel and drinking.

Full of alcohol, Trilby goes to confront Lionel and Ethyl, and has to be hauled back to her table. Elmer has to help her back into her shoes and wrap, and walk her out of the club, up the stairs, and back to their room.

The putting the drunken bride to bed scene is one of the film’s most famous. Buster reused this scene in a number of his later films and live shows, some of them with his third and final wife Eleanor.

In the morning, Nussbaum advises Trilby to leave this poor pants-presser for the sake of her public reputation. She agrees, and Elmer learns the news when he goes to deliver her a stuffed dog. Outside the hotel, Lionel tells him the real reason Trilby married him.

Elmer ends up in a taxi with gangster Scarzi, who’s on the run from the cops, and then on a boat with Scarzi and his gang. He escapes onto a private yacht, where he’s put to work as a member of the crew. As expected, he’s hilariously incompetent at this.

Who should also be on the yacht but Trilby and Lionel! Things go from bad to worse when Elmer accidentally worsens a fire in the engine room.

Everyone flees while Elmer puts out the fire. Everyone, that is, except Trilby, who passed out in the hall after Lionel abandoned her.

Things get even more complicated when the gangsters get on the yacht.

MGM’s hit film Show People, released November 1928, is referenced in a poster for fictional film Peggy Pepper Fires of Desire. Peggy Pepper is the name of Marion Davies’s character.

Buster loved the name Elmer, frequently giving it to both his characters and his dogs. In this film, Elmer Gantry comes from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel of the same name, about a conman.

The film was originally 90 minutes, and the opening scene of Elmer and Trilby on a bridle path is all that survives of a much longer scene of Elmer trying and failing to ride a horse.

The names Lionel, Ethyl, and Drew come from the famous siblings Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, and their mother Georgiana Drew.

Dorothy Sebastian (whom the unhappily married Buster was having an affair with) is much different than Buster’s previous leading ladies. Instead of serving as a passive prop, she takes an active, full role in the story and helps him with saving the day.

Though Spite Marriage isn’t always considered one of Buster’s best silents, I’ve always loved it, and highly recommend it.

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Celebrating 130 years of film

French inventor Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed and released on 14 October 1888, is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving film. Later that same month, he filmed Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Accordion Player. Though he did make an earlier film, 1887’s Man Walking Around a Corner, that was shot onto a glass plate instead of paper film.

Roundhay Garden Scene features Le Prince’s in-laws, Joseph Whitley (1817–12 January 1891) and Sarah Robinson Whitley (1816–24 October 1888), and Annie Hartley, a friend of Le Prince and his wife Elizabeth. Sadly, Sarah died ten days after the film was shot.

Though the Lumière Brothers usually get all the credit for inventing the movies as we know it, Le Prince had them beat by seven years. While Le Prince’s early films obviously didn’t lead to the commercial popularity of cinema, he was still making films well before 1895.

Sadly, he mysteriously disappeared from a train in France on 16 September 1890, and thus was unable to stage a planned public demonstration of his work in the U.S. His body and luggage were never found, and he was declared dead in 1897.

In 2003, a photo of an 1890 drowning victim resembling Le Prince surfaced (no pun intended) in Parisian police archives. Multiple theories about the reason for his disappearance vary—suicide to avoid impending bankruptcy; assassinated in a motion picture patent war; ordered to leave by his family because he was allegedly gay (though zero evidence exists of his supposed homosexuality); murdered by his brother in a dispute over their mother’s will.

In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe testified in a court case between Thomas Edison and the American Mutoscope Company. Edison named himself as the sole inventor of cinematography, and claimed he deserved royalties from his former employee William Kennedy Dickson’s rival company.

Adolphe wasn’t allowed to present his father’s two cameras as evidence, and the court ruled in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned.

In the same period of 1888–90, William Friese-Greene (who awesomely added his wife’s surname to his with a hyphen!) and Wordsworth Donisthorpe also invented early moving picture cameras, but Le Prince still beat them to the punch with successfully capturing moving images.

The surviving ten frames of Donisthorpe’s first successful film, 1890

In Leeds, England, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled by his former workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, which was also the BBC’s Leeds station till recently. It’s now part of the Leeds Beckett University Broadcasting Place complex. A second, blue plaque there celebrates his work further.

Copyright KGGucwa

In 2003, the University of Leeds Centre for Cinema, Photography, and Television was named after Le Prince, and in France, an appreciation society exists in Lyon. His life has been the subject of several books and documentaries, most recently 2015’s The First Film.

On 8 September 2016, The First Film had its U.S. début by the Morris-Jumel mansion in NYC, where Le Prince’s first public film screening would’ve taken place in 1890, had he not disappeared.

Who would’ve guessed a two-second film of people in a Leeds garden would lead to 130 years, and counting, of cinema?

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.

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.