Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Over-Under, Part One: Michael Wilbon's Favorite Answer

At the Washington Nationals' home opener this year, way back on April 13, Mister Muleboy asked when my blog might leave the silent era and start covering sound pictures.

"Three months," cracked Katie-Bar-The-Door.

Pardon The Inter- ruption co-host Mike Wilbon would be thrilled: with the posting of my blog entry on Monday, "The Early Sound Era: An Introduction," it's going to be what gamblers and the crew of ESPN's PTI derisively refer to as a "push," what the rest of us call a tie. Katie, who has "over" in the pool, has shamelessly and self-interestedly urged me to delay the sound era for another week or two. No can do. Movies wait for no man. (Unless you've got, like, a pause button on the remote, but that's too complicated for me—damn all this 21st century technology.)

One of my in-laws asked me on a recent road trip what's been the biggest surprise so far about writing this blog. Aside from the fact that I'm writing a blog at all, it would have to be how much I've enjoyed watching silent movies. I'd seen some of the most famous ones, The General and City Lights, for example, but silent films had never really captured my fancy and I approached the first couple of years of Katie Awards with more of a sense of taking my castor oil than with a sense of excitement.

But some- where along the way, maybe when Katie suggested we take the metro down to the Kennedy Center to see The General, I discovered I really like silent movies. They have a style and rhythm wholly different from sound movies, they cause a different set of neurons to fire in my brain, like the difference in my reaction to jazz and rock n roll, say. Silent movies are not an inferior form of sound movies; they are a different medium altogether, and depending on what mood my taste buds are in, I now have a wider range of options than I did three months ago.

I've also discovered that because most silent movies are in the public domain, it's possible to watch many of them without spending a cent. A surprising number are available at the local public library, both on DVD and for electronic download direct to my computer. In Maryland, for example, all you need to watch a free double feature of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a computer, an internet connection and a library card—check with your own library system to see if they have a similar arrangement.

Turner Classic Movies is another great source for silent movies, showing one every Sunday night at midnight. It helps if you've been taping them off and on for fifteen years and piling them up in your basement as you promise yourself that you're going to watch them all "someday." I think I have all of Chaplin now, most of Mary Pickford's important work, and who knows what else.

And of course, there is YouTube,, the Internet Archive,, Hulu and, and no doubt others, all of which provide access to silent films. You might have to watch a brief advertisement or track down six or seven ten-minute segments, but you can really expand your knowledge of the Silent Era.

If you're wondering where to start, it was Buster Keaton that did it for Katie-Bar-The-Door. His silent work, particularly the work he produced through his own company, is uniformly excellent, not to mention very funny. If you're thinking about delving into silent movies and aren't sure you'll like it, Keaton would be my choice.

"Not Chaplin?" asked a pal at lunch the other day.

Well, yes, Chaplin, too. The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights—they're every bit as great as their billing as classic comedies promises. Remember, I picked Chaplin as the best actor of the Silent Era and I stand by it.

So after tomorrow's posting, that'll be pretty much it for silent movies. There are three more significant ones on the horizon, Pandora's Box, City Lights and Modern Times, but those were clearly silent aberrations in a marketplace that had opted decisively for sound.

I don't know about you, but I miss silent movies already.

Tomorrow: "The Over-Under, Part Two: Another Round Of Katies"

1 comment:

Douglas Fairbanks said...

I think I have [. . . ] most of Mary Pickford's important work

You WISH !

Hubba hubba