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.


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 XII (Final thoughts)

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XI (So who did survive the transition successfully?)

In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this life 37 years ago today.

As discussed in Part X, very few actors’ careers were ended due to the coming of sound. There were many complex, complicated factors at play.

But just who made a longterm, successful transition from silents to talkies, for longer than a few years of coasting on earlier laurels?

1. People already trained in stage acting. This includes actors like John and Lionel Barrymore, whose background included vocal acting, not just pantomime. They knew how to use their voices,  and were familiar with memorizing lines.

Left to right: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, 1904

2. People who were just starting to become big names. In this group are actors like Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Barbara Kent. They’d become popular, but not for long enough to have become associated with the “old-fashioned” types of characters or way of making films.

3. Huge superstars who had a great deal of freedom to continue making pictures on their own terms. The foremost example of this kind of actor is Charlie Chaplin, who was his own boss and had the luxury of making silents till 1936. Harold Lloyd also continued regularly making films, though neither of them were as popular as they’d been in the silent era.

4. People who hadn’t yet graduated from extra and minor roles. These were actors like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Boris Karloff, and Clark Gable.

5. People who’d been around for awhile, but either hadn’t made much of a real impression yet, or hadn’t had their true potential revealed with the right kind of roles. This group includes actors like Myrna Loy, W.C. Fields, William Powell, Marlene Dietrich, and Fay Wray.

6. People whose talent and appeal was such it enabled them to have successful careers in both eras. These lucky people include Laurel and Hardy, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Rod La Rocque, Bebe Daniels, and Greta Garbo.

7. Foreign imports who couldn’t hack it in English-language films, but did just fine with speaking roles in their native languages after going home. This group would include Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt (who later successfully broke into British and U.S. films after mastering English), and Lars Hanson.