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TCM goes silent


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What's with all the silent films? wanted to sit through the big parade last nite but was too tired. the music to that was colossal I must say. earlier today watched hell is for heroes and the enemy below on MOVIES!

 

 

MOVIES! oughta learn how to spell. It's Curt Jurgens, not Curd Jurgens. :angry:

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What's with all the silent films?

 

The average silent movie shown on TCM is usually more interesting in dramatic terms than the average Breen Code film from the late 30's, even given the overabundance of costume dramas featuring sheiks and noblemen.  There are relatively few sound movies prior to WW2 that can match up with The Crowd, Sunrise, Pandora's Box, The Penalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unholy Three,  It, the best comedies of Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton, and countless other classics of the genre.  I only wish that TCM would show more of these silent gems, even if I understand why they don't.

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What's with all the silent films?

 

The average silent movie shown on TCM is usually more interesting in dramatic terms than the average Breen Code film from the late 30's, even given the overabundance of costume dramas featuring sheiks and noblemen.  There are relatively few sound movies prior to WW2 that can match up with The Crowd, Sunrise, Pandora's Box, The Penalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unholy Three,  It, the best comedies of Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton, and countless other classics of the genre.  I only wish that TCM would show more of these silent gems, even if I understand why they don't.

 

Uh-huh, and evidently Andy, today it was so TCM show the very FIRST flick ever made where a German U-Boat commander DOESN'T say, "Machine gun the survivors!" ;)

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What's with all the silent films?

 

The average silent movie shown on TCM is usually more interesting in dramatic terms than the average Breen Code film from the late 30's, even given the overabundance of costume dramas featuring sheiks and noblemen.  There are relatively few sound movies prior to WW2 that can match up with The Crowd, Sunrise, Pandora's Box, The Penalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unholy Three,  It, the best comedies of Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton, and countless other classics of the genre.  I only wish that TCM would show more of these silent gems, even if I understand why they don't.

Well, to each his own. It (the film) is ONLY interesting because of the vivaciousness of Clara Bow.

 

The Chaney Hunchback I find to be a pretty slow moving affair. Yes, Chaney himself is impressive but I think that the 1939 Laughton version is incomparably superior filmmaking. Impressive as Chaney is, Laughton's performance as Quasimodo is the one that I find haunting.

 

It's been too long since I last saw The Penalty to really comment upon it but, as with all Chaney films, I think it's safe to say that he's the best thing about it. Having said that, I still think that all these films should be shown on TCM so that we still have the opportunity to appreciate the work of stars like Bow and Chaney, not to mention the three silent comedy kings you named. I just dont think that films like It or Chaney's Hunchback should be mistaken as great filmmaking.

 

Vidor's The Crowd, with its wonderful portrayals by James Murray and Eleanor Boardman, Murnau's mesmerizing Sunrise and Pabst's Pandora's Box, with its classic Louise Brooks portrayal of an enigmatic vamp, are great films, in my opinion, all ranking among the very best that the silent era has to offer.

 

For anyone being initiated into silents, I would think that the best introduction of that era would probably be through one of the three comedians you named, even if it was a Chaplin effort like City Lights or Modern Times done during the talkies. Fairbanks' Thief of Bagdad, with its grand sets, might also capture their attention, as well as the film's overall sense of awe in its Oriental fairy tale atmosphere. (I realize, Andy, that you undoubtedly don't care for that one but, again, I'm referring to a modern viewer who may respond to its exotic appeal).

 

What is the most famous silent film of all time? If it isn't Birth of a Nation, then I suspect it could be Chaney's serial-like Phantom of the Opera.

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What is the most famous silent film of all time? If it isn't Birth of a Nation, then I suspect it could be Chaney's serial-like Phantom of the Opera.

I'd suspect it's one of the comedies, since those have the iconic images. Think Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush or Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock hands in Safety Last.
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...but, as with all Chaney films, I think it's safe to say that he's the best thing about it.

 

I probably agree, but I often find the strange storylines of Chaney's films incredibly fascinating, also. There weren't many things that occurred after him that could be compared to the twisted situations and tortured characters of his films. Of course it was Lon Chaney's performances that really made these come into their full nightmarish (sur)reality. However, Lon Chaney's strange situations were often just frames for his characters. They are essentially one and the same thing. Nevertheless, I think they're enormous cinematic accomplishments. I can't think of many other instances of such morbidly disturbing, yet sympathetic characterizations attempted by actors, especially when taken to such dramatic extremes as his. Sometimes it seems like he's a genre unto himself, don't you think?

 

Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station (1958) paid marvelous homage to Chaney's films, and is an excellent film in and of itself. Though his characterization is very different than Chaney's the storyline is recognizably similar, and it really made me realize how there was never anything else like Lon Chaney. Not that I know of, anyway (except this movie, perhaps.)

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What is the most famous silent film of all time? If it isn't Birth of a Nation, then I suspect it could be Chaney's serial-like Phantom of the Opera.

 

The Big Parade was the most successful film of the 1920s but The Birth of a Nation made more money than anything else during the silent era. As for what's the most popular today, I would presume one of Chaplin's films.

 

Here's silentera.com's list of the top 100 silent films voted on by users - http://www.silentera.com/info/top100.html (Quite different from what my own top 10 would be but this does seem to reflect what you'd find throughout the internet.)

 

I'm a silent booster but I'd strongly disagree that the average silent film is better or more interesting than the average production code and late 30s film. The "average silent film" was something like Our Modern Maidens or The Boob - these absolutely aren't any better than the average programmer of 1937. I appreciate Lon Chaney the performer but I don't care for most of his films.  They're usually cinematically stodgy, dramatically often more so, and only get by on freak appeal (especially The Penalty; I think mostly only Tod Browning's films are successful on that count.) I like "It" a lot but it's a foundation that the 30s screwball films would expand on greatly (really, The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby have nothing on "It"? That's over the top.) I would call Pandora's Box a great film but only because of Louise Brook's extraordinarily photogenic appearance and performance. I feel it would fall apart completely if Brooks wasn't in it (the long chapter on the barge where Brooks has the least prominence drags the film way down.) Granted, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were monolithic, but the code-era/late 30s produced Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin, great icons in another form that only fully developed in the 30s (and, again, what about the great comedies produced by the likes of Lubitsch, Hawks, Cukor, etc.?)

 

And as for pure cinematic splendor, "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee, "I Only Have Eyes For You" from Dames, and Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 are all masterpieces, all production code, and all as good as anything cinema had produced up to that point.

 

I don't think the Production Code ruined anything. The late 30s could get as hot as the early 30s, often just in a more guarded and oblique way. Hell, there was even blatant sexuality - Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman were released in the code-era!

 

Speaking of Sternberg: Be sure to watch The Last Command next monday if you haven't seen it. One of the very best films in this series.

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I'm a silent booster but I'd strongly disagree that the average silent film is better or more interesting than the average production code and late 30s film. The "average silent film" was something like Our Modern Maidens or The Boob - these absolutely aren't any better than the average programmer of 1937. I appreciate Lon Chaney the performer but I don't care for most of his films.  They're usually cinematically stodgy, dramatically often more so, and only get by on freak appeal (especially The Penalty; I think mostly only Tod Browning's films are successful on that count.) I like "It" a lot but it's a foundation that the 30s screwball films would expand on greatly (really, The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby have nothing on "It"? That's over the top.) I would call Pandora's Box a great film but only because of Louise Brook's extraordinarily photogenic appearance and performance. I feel it would fall apart completely if Brooks wasn't in it (the long chapter on the barge where Brooks has the least prominence drags the film way down.) Granted, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were monolithic, but the code-era/late 30s produced Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin, great icons in another form that only fully developed in the 30s (and, again, what about the great comedies produced by the likes of Lubitsch, Hawks, Cukor, etc.?)

 

Jonas, you present a very good case, but the minute I looked at that list of  the Top 100 Silent Movies that you provided, the subjectivity of either of our judgments became instantly clear.  I'd easily put that list up against the top 100 films from the first 10 years of the Breen Code (1934-1943) for almost anything other than production values. 

 

There probably were more good or great films from that latter period that I can think of than there were from the silent era, but that's in great part because we've been exposed to so many more, primarily through TCM:  For every silent movie I've seen on TCM and elsewhere over the years, I've probably seen 10 from the first 10 Breen years. 

 

The subjectivity part comes from what you value in a movie, as well as what aspects of a film can turn you off.  The first 10 Breen years had some fine movies, but for the most part the "average" plot was so unoriginal and formulaic as to be almost cringeworthy.   Boy meets girl, cop meets gangster, gangster's brother meets gangster's girl, society girl meets poor man, and guess what?  No matter what happened before, in the last two minutes of the film the square shooting boy and the girl with the heart of gold get married.

 

And of course the point is that these prefabricated endings were no accident, as witnessed by this sublime "Thou Shalt Not" parody photograph by Whitey Schafer, illustrating the 10 Forbidden Sins:

 

whitey_schafer_thou_shalt_not.jpg?w=554&

 

Yes, there were great  screenwriters and actors in the early Breen years who could still produce lasting works while eliminating entire aspects of human nature and presenting everything in black / white moral terms, but the overall effect was deadening.  There were no movies like Pandora's Box in the Breen era, nor even grand epics like Greed or Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler.  In the place of them, we got fancy schlock like Gone With The Wind, with brilliant production values, two perfectly cast stars, a host of fine character actors, and history stood on its head.  Genuine melodrama began to fade from the scene, replaced by canned sentiment with endings that were as predictable as the next sunset.

 

Hey, you see what I mean by subjectivity? B)

 

But the cartoons I'll grant you.  For that genre, one might even make a case that the first 10 years of the Breen era represented the peak of artistry and genuine wit.   Exhibit A from 1936:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8FzGOOQNDY

 

Agree or disagree with the above, but I promise you I won't take any attacks personally.  It's really all just a matter of taste. :)

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Speaking of Sternberg: Be sure to watch The Last Command next monday if you haven't seen it. One of the very best films in this series.

The Last Command is a wonderful film, with a towering performance from Emil Jannings. Once again, he's a man of power who is degraded (a Jannings specialty, it appears).

 

This film and, perhaps even more so, Docks of New York, demonstrate Von Sternberg's extrardinary gift as a director before he met the soon-to-be-immortal Marlene.

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Yes, there were great  screenwriters and actors in the early Breen years who could still produce lasting works while eliminating entire aspects of human nature and presenting everything in black / white moral terms, but the overall effect was deadening.  There were no movies like Pandora's Box in the Breen era, nor even grand epics like Greed or Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler.  In the place of them, we got fancy schlock like Gone With The Wind, with brilliant production values, two perfectly cast stars, a host of fine character actors, and history stood on its head.  Genuine melodrama began to fade from the scene, replaced by canned sentiment with endings that were as predictable as the next sunset.

 

 

But I think you're greatly overestimating how much of the silent era was Greed vs. how much the late 30s was Gone With the Wind. Most Hollywood production from the 20s resembled what you're criticizing in the mid to late 30s; those "average plots" and "prefabricated endings" were also there in the 1920s in abundance, it really was the exact same thing. The early 30s, too, were mostly like that, even the most desperate WB films often had happy endings that you could argue don't quite jive with where the picture really should be going (I wouldn't though, it's always more complicated than that - a "Hollywood Ending" doesn't preclude truth, not in itself nor within the rest of the picture.) The original William Hays Code was very much enforced during the 1920s, perhaps not as much as the revived code would be in the 1930s, but it had the same effect. This past Tuesday's The Winning of Barabara Worth is an ancestor of the Gone With the Wind model - the glistening romantic leads, the semi-historical emphasis, etc. but with an immensely more black and white plot than Gone With the Wind (of which i'm not the greatest fan, but it bears more substance, ill-informed or not, than most people give it credit for and certainly more than this counterpart from the silent era.)  Barbara Worth, one of the last "A" Westerns before the genre went "B" in the early sound period, was the conventional epic of the period, not Greed (which was truly an anomaly.) The output of the day was, in dramatic style, structure, and tendency, fundamentally the same as what one would see in the production code era of the 1930s.

 

Also, there weren't really any films like Pandora's Box in America during the silent era either, nevermind during the revival of the Production Code...and it's also worth pointing out that European cinema then and now is quite different from what we're commonly told it is; Expressionism and Kammerspiel made up an extremely small part of German silent cinema, the majority of which attempted to match Hollywood in grandiosity and style, but we hear more about the big "E" stuff because it was different (Ernst Lubitsch gives us a better picture of what German cinema looked like in the 1910s and 20s than Robert Weine does.)

 

The silentera.com list: I've seen nearly all of that list, give or take a couple of films, and have seen vastly more that are not on it - a lot of great stuff, better than the selections on that list I believe, some obscure and some not so obscure, and torrents of the ordinary run of the mill silent films (TCM shows a lot of these - those MGM comedies with William Haines, The Boob, Our Modern Maidens, etc.) There are a lot of hard classics on that list but just as much I feel that there are many conventional classics, classic merely because that was what was revived for decades for whatever reason be it genre or star or whatever, that are as mundane or inessential as some of the "classics" that might be on a corresponding 1930s list.

 

You're right that we see more of the later sound films than we do the silents but those films are also delivered to us differently - because fewer silents exist today, and since these are considered even more niche and specialized than classic film in general, it's imperative that distributors get out the biggest names. It's a lot easier to see the good silent films than it is the average, everyday ones, whereas general classic film fans will easily be exposed to the whole range of good, bad, and ordinary, everyday stuff from the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc.

 

I'm not arguing that one era was better than the other, just that they're pretty much the same and that any newcomers to silent films better temper their expectations - if you dig, you're going to see vastly more West Points than you will The Docks of New York, just as a decade later you'll see vastly more Andy Hardy films than you will Only Angels Have Wings.

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I think you're greatly overestimating how much of the silent era was Greed vs. how much the late 30s was Gone With the Wind. Most Hollywood production from the 20s resembled what you're criticizing in the mid to late 30s; those "average plots" and "prefabricated endings" were also there in the 1920s in abundance, it really was the exact same thing.

 

I guess I should summarize my thoughts on the silent vs early Breen eras in three short sentences:

 

(Preface:  I include foreign films in the silent era, just as they do in that Top 100 silents list.)

 

1. In terms of quantity, there were more good movies in the latter era.

 

2. In terms of the top 100, I'd take those from the silent era in a blink.

 

(2a. If you switch the comparison to the silent era vs the entire 1930's, it becomes a much closer call, since (subjectivity alert) IMO the best sound films from 1930 through 1934 were much more interesting than the best films from 1940 through 1944.  Not that there weren't some terrific movies in the early 40's, one of which is playing as I write, but none of them were as raw or compelling as The Story of Temple Drake, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Red-Headed Woman----with an ending that gave the finger to pretty much every form of conventional morality---- or even a relatively mild movie like Baby Face.  Pope Breen pretty much put the kibosh on all such efforts.)

 

3. In terms of the "average" film, most of which I haven't seen for many reasons, it's probably a wash.  

 

To me the "average" film in any era is primarily valuable for the unintentional anthropological view it gives us on the mores and assumptions of the period in question.  Few "average" films give us much more than that, even though most of them are worth watching once just to make sure, and sometimes just to see some of our favorite actors and character actors.

 

You're right that we see more of the later sound films than we do the silents but those films are also delivered to us differently - because fewer silents exist today, and since these are considered even more niche and specialized than classic film in general, it's imperative that distributors get out the biggest names. It's a lot easier to see the good silent films than it is the average, everyday ones, whereas general classic film fans will easily be exposed to the whole range of good, bad, and ordinary, everyday stuff from the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc.

 

I'm not arguing that one era was better than the other, just that they're pretty much the same and that any newcomers to silent films better temper their expectations - if you dig, you're going to see vastly more West Points than you will The Docks of New York, just as a decade later you'll see vastly more Andy Hardy films than you will Only Angels Have Wings.

 

That's what I acknowledged earlier, and it's a valid point to say that it might skew my internal rankings.  It didn't take me long to figure out that the Rooneys and Hopes and Crosbys and the Skeltons and their ilk weren't my cup of tea, but even now I stumble across enough of them to remind me just how thoroughly bland and whitebread the "average" Breen code era movie was. Perhaps if TCM kept inundating us with silent swashbucklers and costume dramas at a similar rate, my preference for the silents over the Breens might be turned upside down, as I recoiled in horror from dozens of imitation Fairbanks and Valentinos. ;)

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The reason for all the silent films this month is that the programmers wanted to salute silent stars who don't always have enough extant or available films to warrant a Star of the Month salute. So it's a chance to spotlight stars like Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Constance Talmadge, etc  for their silent film careers. There are several TCM premieres among the crop of silent films this month.

 

Launching the salute to silent stars was the world TV premiere of Marion Davies' Enchantment (1921), a film unseen, outside of a few festivals, for more than 90 years.  

 

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The reason for all the silent films this month is that the programmers wanted to salute silent stars who don't always have enough extant or available films to warrant a Star of the Month salute. So it's a chance to spotlight stars like Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Constance Talmadge, etc  for their silent film careers. There are several TCM premieres among the crop of silent films this month.

 

Launching the salute to silent stars was the world TV premiere of Marion Davies' Enchantment (1921), a film unseen, outside of a few festivals, for more than 90 years.  

 

 

I hope TCM plans on showing Enchantment again soon. I didnt have enough room to record it this time around. :(

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I think a lot of people taped it......

 

I'll bet not NEARLY as many people anymore who might have DVD-ed it!

 

(...sorry drednm, couldn't resist...I too occasionally still refer to recording a program as "taping" it)

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