Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Some noticeable trends of films made in the first years of the XX century

The so-called silent era officially spanned from 1895 to 1927, even though those dates are still controversial, from the first films being shown by Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, etc. until the release of The Jazz Singer (USA, 1927), which is considered the first talkie. Let’s just not focus on other landmarks and use those dates to delimit the silent era.
Many people claim they cannot understand silent films properly. Nevertheless, films made at the end of silent era (after the main American studios like Universal, Fox, Paramount, etc were founded) are easier to understand, as narrative structures were already consolidated. Films like The Big Parade (USA, 1925), Ben Hur (USA, 1925), Wings (USA, 1927), Sunrise (USA, 1927), Metropolis (Germany, 1927) and so on and so forth, can be much more technologically advanced than we can expect. In other words, their stories are told according to standards that can be comparable with modern films.
However, when we see the films produced in first years of silent era, until around 1915, when D.W. Griffith revolutionized film making with the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915), we realize they are much more difficult to understand. It happens for some reasons, one of them is that it took a while until cinema got to develop its own “language” and “grammar,” so films were really connected to popular forms of culture, such as vaudeville, circus, magic, fair attractions, magic lantern, which were very popular ways people had fun in the end of XIX century, beginning of XX century. Such representations were opposed to more classic forms of art, such as literature and painting, theatre, etc.
Therefore, it really comes as no surprise that in those first years films were not shown in places where they were the only attraction, they shared the same space as other types of mass distraction, such as vaudevilles and burlesque shows. Mass media was advancing, so, for instance, newspapers had been much more common since XIX century already, news were spread more easily, novels were being read by more people and in many countries urbanization was advancing, which represented a small revolution in the typical peasant life. So, films were a result of all those changes brought about by industrialization and technology. In other words, a completely new world opened up for people and they felt deeply insecure at first.
Sensationalism also started being more widespread, especially because it did help sell more newspapers (some things don’t ever change, huh?). but it was not only that. The grotesque sensationalism was not only connected with economic exploitation, but it was also a way of people representing their feeling of vulnerability and insecurity in this new urban environment.
Thus, many references of early films can be seen in elements of popular culture like current jokes, news, songs, famous plays, novels, etc. So, the audience somehow already knew the plot. Some films that represent this trend are Uncle Tom’s Cabin (USA, 1903); Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (USA, 1905); The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (USA, 1905), etc.
Everyday life was shown in many short films since the first short films were shot by Lumière (for example:  Démolition d’un mur (1896), among others) and Edison. An aspect of private life that was particularly highlighted was public spaces, as in films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Romance of the Rail (1903). One might say those very early silents are hard to understand by nowadays’ standards, but we must keep in mind that cinema has evolved very fast, particularly in its first 3 decades.
Something that can be easily noticed in those films is that life at that time compared with the one we have nowadays clearly revolved around manual labor, both to men and women.
This can be easily noticed, in slapstick films in general, such as Mabel Normand’s films by Keystone Studios. She was a rather athletic actress, who did most of her own stunts, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood and already in 1910ies we can see a long list of daredevil stars who did so. At that time not even domestic duties were a piece of cake. Many women used entire days to simply wash their clothes, for example. We also may not forget that in countries like the United States, in the first years of cinema, especially until 1915, when feature films established themselves, most of the audience of those short films were laborers and immigrants, the ones who were more involved with that manual labor.
Those events were not only related to rural life and habits, but also to news and urban life. An example of technology being readily shown in films is that trains were commonplace throughout the silent era, from Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896) to standard Hollywood productions like The General (1926). After all, cinema itself was a result of fast industrialization that started in the Northern Hemisphere as of middle XIX century, so it is natural that it portrays the wonders of recent inventions.
Let’s take a look at one of Normand’s films and briefly analyze some factors. In the short film A Dash Through the Clouds (1912), Normand in the beginning of the film enters an airplane that is rather fragile for nowaday’s standards.
Those films were somehow important for women’s rights, especially because women were commonly depicted as brave and intelligent enough to be out of trouble due to their own ingenuity, rather than being rescued by a protective man. An example of this new type of heroine can be seen in the serial The Hazards of Helen, released between 1914 and 1917. Even though in other films women were still portrayed as fragile little creatures who fainted at every little difficulty, we can consider it good progress towards acknowledging women could be as skilled and strong as men. Evidence of that is the featured image of this article. Despite being usually shown as a Victorian beauty, a little girl, always kind and fragile, Actress Mary Pickford (1892-1979) in real life was a real pioneer and responsible for many aspects of film making and the first female superstar Hollywood ever produced. But that is another story.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Some Comments About the Silent Era

The so-called silent era officially spanned from 1895 to 1927, even though those dates are still controversial, from the first films being shown by Lumière brothers until the release of The Jazz Singer, which is considered the first talkie. Let’s just not focus on other landmarks and use those dates to delimit the silent era.
Many people claim they cannot understand silent films properly. I mean, films made at the end of silent era, after the main American studios like Universal, Fox, Paramount, etc were founded are easier to understand, as narrative structures were already consolidated. Films like The Big Parade (USA, 1925), Ben Hur (USA, 1925), Wings (USA, 1927), Sunrise (USA, 1927), Metropolis (Germany, 1927) and so on and so forth can be much more technologically advanced than we can expect. In other words, their stories are told according to standards that can be comparable with modern films.
However, when we see the films produced on first years of silent era, until around 1915, when D.W. Griffith revolutionized film making with the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915), we realize they are much more difficult to understand. It happens for some reasons, one of them is that it took a while until cinema got to develop its own “language” and “grammar”, so films were really connected to popular forms of culture, such as vaudeville, circus, magic, fair attractions, magic lantern, which were very popular ways people had fun in the end of XIX century, beginning of XX century. Such representations were opposed to more classic forms of art, such as literature and painting, theatre, etc.
Therefore, it really comes as no surprise that in those first years films were not shown in places where they were the only attraction, they shared the same space as other types of mass distraction, such as vaudevilles and burlesque shows. Mass media was advancing, so, for instance, newspapers had been much more common since XIX century already, news were spread more easily, novels were being read by more people and in many countries urbanization was advancing, which represented a small revolution in the typical peasant life. So, films were a result of all those changes brought about by industrialization and technology. In other words, a completely new world opened up for people and they felt deeply insecure at first.
Sensationalism also started being more widespread, specially because it did help selling more newspapers (Some things don’t ever change, huh?). But it was not only that. The grotesque sensationalism was not only connected with economic exploitation, but it was also a way of people representing their feeling of vulnerability and insecurity in this new urban environment. 
Thus, many references of early films can be seen in elements of popular culture like current jokes, news, songs, famous plays, novels, etc. So, the audience somehow already knew the plot. Some films that represent this trend are Uncle Tom’s Cabin (USA, 1903), Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (USA, 1905), The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (USA, 1905), etc. 
Everyday life was shown in many short films since the first short films were shot by Lumière (for example:  Démolition d'un mur (1896), among others) and Edison. An aspect of private life that was particularly highlighted were public spaces, as in films like Great Train Robbery (1903) and Romance of the Rail (1903). One might say those very early silents are hard to understand by nowadays' standards, but we must keep in mind that cinema has evolved very fast, particularly in their first 3 decades.
Something that can be easily noticed in those films is that life at that time compared with the one we have nowadays clearly revolved around manual labor, both to men and women.
This can be easily noticed, in slapstick films in general, such as Mabel Normand’s films by Keystone Studios. She was a rather athletic actress, who did most of her own stunts, which was not uncommon in early Hollywood and already in 1910ies we can see a long list of daredevil stars who did so. At that time not even domestic duties were a piece of cake. Many women used entire days to simply wash their clothes, for example. We also may not forget that in countries like the United States, in the first years of cinema, specially until 1915, when feature films established themselves, most of the audience of those short films were laborers and immigrants, the ones who were more involved with those manual labor.
Those events were not only related to rural life and habits, but also to news and urban life. An example of technology being readily shown in films is that trains were a commonplace throughout the silent era, from Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896) to standard Hollywood production, like The General (1926). After all, cinema itself was a result of fast industrialization that started in Northern Hemisphere as of middle XIX century, so it is natural it portrays the wonders of recent invents.
Let’s take a look at one of her films and briefly analyze some factors. In the short film A Dash Through the Clouds (1912) Mabel in the beginning of film enters an airplane that is rather fragile for nowaday’s standards.
Those films were somehow important for women’s rights, specially because women were commonly depicted as brave and intelligent enough to be out of trouble due to their own ingenuity, rather than being rescued by a protective man. Na example of this new type of heroine can be seen in the serial The Hazards of Helen released between 1914 and 1917. Even though in other films women were still portrayed as fragile little creatures who fainted at every little difficulty, we can consider it a good progress towards acknowledging women could be as skilled and strong as men. An evidence of that is the featured image of this article. Despite being usually shown as a Victorian beauty, a little girl, always kind and fragile, Mary Pickford in the real life was a real pioneer and was responsible for many aspects of film making and the first female super star Hollywood ever produced. But that is another story.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Parson's Widow (Sweden, 1920)

If not all that glitters is gold, not everything that looks ugly is really hideous.
The film starts with a invocation to nature and the bucolic life of the countryside of a Scandinavian spot. The countrymen wore those typical peasant clothes and lived in typical landscapes of forests, lots of spaces of untouched nature and rivers.
A new parson must be elected in a village in 17th century Norway. Sofren was applying for the vacant post after having struggled hardship for years. His sweetheart Mari had remained faithfully by his side and waited for him during his years of difficulties. Mari’s father will not allow Sofren to marry her until Sofren is truly a parson. Sofren’s two rivals to the post had the utmost faith that they would win based on their beautiful clothes and education they received in Copenhagen, which implied that those fellows had a more sophisticated background than Sofren’s. Anyway, the competition was fierce, specially because the education did not prevent Sofren’s opponents from being either too boring or too ridiculous and the congregation did not find their sermons particularly interesting.
The congregation had appointed five wise and trusted men to decide who would be chosen as the new parson and Sofren was chosen. But there was a problem, which was the fact that according to the laws of the parish, Sofren was supposed to get married to Dame Margerete, who was the widow of last parson and much older than him. And Dame Margerte insisted on her right to be married. To make things worse, Sofren had heard she might be a witch and it would be the fourth time that Dame Margerete was marrying in such circumstances. She was not marrying due to sentimental reasons, but merely because it was her only way to keep the house and managing it, as she felt she was too old to leave the household she got so attached to.
Sofren and Mari decided it would be better if he married the widow, so he could become parson and when the widow died he would marry Mari. Meanwhile, Mari would live with them pretending to be Sofren’s sister and help with the house tasks. Sofren also tried to be “the master of the house” and give the orders there, but unfortunately to him the widow made it really clear that he would not be in charge of the household matters.
Time passed, Dame Margerete had not died yet and Sofren did not have any close contact with Mari, specially because the widow (who was now Sofren’s wife) had both her eyes on his whereabouts.
But one day Mari unexpectedly had a domestic fall and seriously hurt her leg. More time passed and Sofren grew fond of Dame Margerete because she had taken care of Mari day and night with lots of care. Surprisingly, Dame Margerete implied she knew that Sofren and Mari were not siblings and she also told them that she lived in similar circumstances with her first husband before they both got married.
Finally, the widow passed away, Mari and Sofren eventually got to marry and the memory of Dame Margerete was fondly kept in their minds for a long time afterwards. A sentimental end to a film that is a mix of comedy, folklore (specially in the dancing scenes), romance and drama. A romanticized view of peasantry life. Good use of landscapes and photography in a subtle humor frame, different from the marks slapstick x situational comedies, which were so much used in Hollywood at that time. The jokes are not necessarily meant to make the audiences laugh but to highlight that people could be more sneaky than they looked like at first. The most funny moments were provided by Sofren and his wide range of reactions throughout the film (sadness, happiness, gratitude, despair, etc)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Water Nymph (USA,1912)

This early film by Keystone studios is more famous for its historical context than its rather simple plot and it is amazing how much history this split reel can have (A “split reel” was a film shorter than a one reeler, which means it lasted less than 11 minutes). It portrays a era when the leisure options of working class and middle class citizens were changing and it was still relatively new to go to the beach to swim. Bathing suits were also a new phenomena and still a bit frowned upon. So, seeing Mabel in a trampoline, jumping on the water in such relaxed way was something really groundbreaking because many women have just started to enjoy their free time this way.
Mack Sennett already directed and acted in comedies in his prior studio, Biograph, the same studio that gave D. W. Griffith to the world. But in Keystone studios, Sennett got to put his own style in the comedies, with characters making broad gestures, showing lives of working class citizens in a fast pace, lots of physical gags and risky stunts, without the melodrama touch of his films at Biograph studios.
Another interesting characteristic of the output of Keystone studios was making fun of well-established social institutions, specially authorities (the Keystone cops being the most famous example of it) and romantic relationships, like marriages, for instance. The latter would be even more deeply spoofed in situational comedies of 1920s of both Keystone studios and other ones.
Mack and Mabel were sweehearts, but Mabel had not met Mack’s parents yet. Thus, Mack had the idea of playing a trick on his flirtatious father by asking Mabel to vamp him (which would mean to seduce him in nowadays’ terms) while everyone was on the beach in a sunny day.
Nevertheless, one of intertitles implies that Mack’s father was not exactly a faithful husband (“Mack’s Papa, a faithful husband when locked in at home”) and he predictably got too carried away with Mabel until the moment Mack tells him she is his own girlfriend.
Another noteworthy thing are the dexterous stunts of Mabel Normand in the trampoline and how skilled she was as a swimmer. This film is a really precious witness of a society whose urbanization was happening really fast for the era’s standards and of the new world of entertainment and delight that was being opened to people beyond the borders of the countryside. Without mentioning that this film could have been the inspiration for the famous Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, that would be released by the studio some years later. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

For Better - But Worse (USA,1915)

A typical film by Keystone studio with misunderstandings, chases, the Keystone cops, flirting, a park and physical gags, but it is as hilarious nowadays as it was 100 years ago. Although the Keystone studios was active for 21 years (from 1912 to 1933) with a wide range of comedies, from one reelers to feature length films and from rough slapstick to situational comedies, this studio became more famous for its output in 1910ies, which usually included the aforementioned elements. 
The police chief had a beautiful daughter and one day, when he said good bye to her and went to work, we could see that in a nearby house a woman ordered her husband to walk their dog. We could see that the woman was rather bossy and that the husband was not exactly happy in his household. 
However, the daughter of the police chief had a sweetheart, who left her a note asking her to meet him in the park. The neighbor walked his dog in the park and got enchanted by the girl and, even though he was married, he tried to be too close to the girl. Her sweetheart arrived, saw that the unknown man was making advances towards his girlfriend and kicked the stranger out. 
However, the married neighbor did not give up and he hired some tough guys to help him kidnap the girl by putting her in a big bag and run away with her (the gag of kidnapping a girl by throwing her in a big bag would be subsequently repeated in other films by this studio, such as The Grab Bag Bride, shot in 1917, among others). For this purpose, the neighbor left a note in the girl’s house asking him to meet him in the park, pretending it was her boyfriend who left it there.
But the neighbor’s wife found out there was something wrong and went outside looking for her husband and the tough guys approached her, thinking she was the girl and ended up kidnapping the wife by mistake. The girl’s boyfriend saw the kidnapping and he thought it was his girlfriend who had been the victim and he called the police (in this case, the Keystone cops). The girl arrived at the place and, after witnessing all mess, she thought her boyfriend was in danger and a chase involving nearly all characters of the film started. 
There was the expected happy ending, with the Keystone cops catching the criminals and causing lots of destruction during the chase. The chase was noteworthy for having involved as many means of transportation as possible, which is a cool historical witness of the modernization of transport in the 1910s, when horses shared the outdoors space with cars and streetcars. 
When the chase was over, the married neighbor realized he had kidnapped his own wife by mistake and fainted because he knew there would be serious trouble to him both in and out of home. The girl and her boyfriend were happily reunited and her father to admit that her boyfriend was a brave young man and approve of their relationship.
This film may seem predictable for nowadays’ audiences, but its gags were full of action, innovative and funny for its era and still retain their charm, mostly for the competence of the comedians and the freshness of seeing all those physical gags being performed without stuntmen, grounded on the physical skills of the actors engaging in gags that still relied on improvisation and intuition. This created films with universal appeal, which could be understood by nearly everyone, regardless of culture and it explains why those films are still so funny nowadays. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Curtain Pole (USA,1909)

In addition to be a valuable historical witness of a era gone a long time ago, when cars were still rather new, hats were commonly worn by both men and women, etc this film is also famous for having placed together two people, who were then working for a studio which would become a integral part of history of cinema, D.W.Griffith, Mack Sennett and Biograph studios. Although they both started their cinematic careers in the same studio and were even friends in real life, their careers would turn completely different ways only some years later. 
One of few common points among both Griffith and Sennett is that both of them gave up acting in favor of directing, Griffith having remained a director throughout his career and Sennett having given up firstly acting, then directing during his first years with Keystone studios, to focus only on being a studio mogul, with he was until his studio was closed in 1933. 
It is definitively unusual to realize that Griffith directed a slapstick comedy with such simplistic plot, but we must have in mind that Griffith was still at the very beginning of his career as a director, after previously been a actor. His first directorial experience was in Biograph studios, after having briefly been a actor there. At this same studio, Mack Sennett began his career before founding the Keystone Studios in 1912. 
Sennett (who is barely recognizable due to a fake mustache and a disguise) is in a party in a upper class residence (the very opposite to sceneries of his subsequent comedies with Keystone studios, which usually portrayed the reality of working class citizens) and inadvertently breaks the curtain pole of the owner of the house. He volunteers to buy a new one, but ended up tripping and hitting everyone on the street with the pole on his way back to the house were he was, which caused Sennett to be chased by nearly everyone he upset. 
Against all odds, Sennett managed to return to the house, but the pole had already been replaced. The final scene shows him chewing the curtain pole out of frustration.
It is impossible not to see the similarity with 1910s films by Keystone studios, whose one of main characteristics were the fast-paced chases. Who could guess that a film with uneventful gags, broad gestures and no psychological deepening of characters could be a sample of history if cinema? Although not a particularly funny film, it is still very worthy of being watched by nowadays’ audiences. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (USA,1918)

Back to a time when flirting on the beach was not something common yet and women in bathing suits was a new phenomena. The style of girls on the beach had a close resemblance to the Bathing Beauties of Mack Sennett studios, which signals a spoofing of the rival studio by Larry Semon, of Vitagraph Studios. The style of this film is very different from usual films by Semon, which were usually very cartoom-like (Semon used to be a cartoonist in real life) and with expensive special effects. It is also uncommon to see a studio spoofing each other. 
In this film, we see a mix of usual 1910s gags, like people running and falling on water from a pier together with more uncommon gags, like the one where Semon flirted with a woman by holding her hand behind na unbrella and all that the audiences could see were shades of the hands, among other interesting stuff. The pace is also slower than those of traditional slapstick comedies, even when total chaos happened. 
It is also noteworthy to see that the initial gag of a guy hidden on the sand with a “monocle” was also used in other 1920s shorts, specially by comedian Billy Bevan, with quite funny effects. The gags were also innovative for its era, making the most of sunny beaches, beautiful girls and flirty guys. 
Another remarkable thing is the insensitive jokes on both black and chubby people, back to a era when being politically correct was not a habit. The gag towards the black woman and how offended Semon was upon realizing he was flirting with her and her answer in a intertitle with a clearly substandard English is even disturbing for nowadays’ standards. 
The plot itself is very simple and it revolved about Semon trying to impress the father of his sweetheart by staging a fake robbery, but unfortunately a real crime happened and he had to solve this problem. 
This cute, weird comedy provides lots of fun and it is the witness of the culture of a era when attending the beach to swim and getting a tan was slowly becoming more common and how it could still be daring for some people. A lifestyle that was gone a long time ago, but quite enjoyable anyway.