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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A simple story of a simple mouse

NOTE: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of a film review and historical background, and as such are consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).

Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).

Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.

Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind.  It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.

The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.

Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.

In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.

Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.

The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.

The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.

Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.

Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.

The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

When novelty matters more than quality

Released 6 July 1928, Lights of New York is the first true all-talking feature film. While there were some prior features with synchronized soundtracks, sound effects, and short dialogue sequences, never before had a feature been able to take advantage of the new sound-on-film technology for an entire film filled with all of the above. However, as with many other early talkies, explanatory intertitles are sprinkled throughout.

Bootleggers Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney) are very anxious to return to New York and get out of the little town they’ve been hiding out in. They’re running out of money, and want the opportunities which come with the big city.

They’re thrilled to discover their barber friend Gene (Eugene Palette) is going to New York tomorrow. Gene’s young friend Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), son of the hotelier (Mary Carr), is also eager to go to the big city. Though his mother is very reticent to loan him money and let him leave, she finally sends him off with her blessing. She makes him promise he won’t fail or lose the money.

After the four friends arrive in New York with $5,000 from Mrs. Morgan’s savings, Gene and Eddie start their barbershop, only to discover Jake and Dan are using it as a front for a speakeasy. Gene and Eddie are disgusted by this business, and decide to return home as soon as they break even and can repay Mrs. Morgan.

Kitty Morgan (Helene Costello), Eddie’s girlfriend, arrived in New York ahead of him to work in a nightclub, The Night Hawk. She’s very uncomfortable with her boss, Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), and wants to quit. Eddie reassures her there’s nothing to worry about with Hawk, since he’s got his own girlfriend. He also gives her a gun to protect herself.

Hawk, who controls Jake and Dan’s speakeasy, is very worried about his business being shut down after a bootlegging raid ends in a cop’s death, and orders Jake and Dan to find someone to take the fall for the crime. Predictably, they suggest Eddie.

After Jake and Dan refuse to do it themselves, Hawk says he’ll take care of setting up Eddie. He also warns them to get out of town.

Hawk calls Eddie to his office and says he just got a tip that he might be raided by feds. Until the situation blows over, Hawk asks Eddie to hide his supply of Old Century liquor. Eddie immediately, cordially agrees.

Between acts, Hawk strongly suggests Kitty dump that sap Eddie, and reminds her she owes her career to him. After Kitty leaves, Hawk’s girlfriend Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell) tells him to lay the hell off Kitty, and takes him to task for all his other odious actions.

Two detectives come to speak with Hawk about the cop’s murder, convinced he knows something. Hawk denies all knowledge, and the cops say until they solve the case, they’re closing every speakeasy. The search of his office turns up nothing, but the detectives press on for information.

Hawk tells them to come to the barbershop at 10:00, and he might show them something interesting. Kitty of course overhears this, and phones Eddie to warn him. Meanwhile, Hawk summons Jake and Dan to his office to discuss what they’re going to do.

And then everything starts hitting the fan.

Lights of New York had a budget of $23,000, and earned $1,252,000 ($18,248,988, or £14,407,576, in 2017). Originally, it was planned as a two-reeler, with a $12,000 budget. Warner Brothers hadn’t yet committed to an all-talking feature, but with bosses Jack and Harry Warner abroad, the crew gradually expanded the plot more and more.

Louis Halper, who’d been left in charge, wired Jack for the extra money. Jack wasn’t very pleased to learn four additional reels had been shot, and told director Bryan Foy to turn the film back into a two-reeler. Foy believed this initial refusal stemmed from the Warners’ plans to make their first all-talking feature more prestigious.

Foy screened the film for an exhibitor friend, who was so impressed he immediately offered to buy it for $25,000. In response, Jack and Harry asked their brother Albert to watch it.

Albert loved the film, which convinced Jack and Harry to release it.

Critics weren’t wild about the film. Disregarding the technological marvel of an all-sound feature, the acting, plot, direction, and production are pretty bad. As with many very early talkies, people flocked to see it not because it was quality cinema, but because it was an exciting novelty.

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.