Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1916

First, the year's nominees and winners:

winner: Intolerance (prod. D.W Griffith)
nominees: The Chaplin Mutuals (prod. Charles Chaplin); Hell's Hinges (prod. Thomas H. Ince); Judex (prod. Société des Etablissements L. Gaumont)
Must-See Movies: Intolerance
Recommended Films: Behind The Screen; The Count; The Fireman; The Floorwalker; The Habit of Happiness; Hell's Hinges; Judex; The Matrimaniac; One A.M.; The Pawnshop; Police; The Rink; The Waiter's Ball
Of Interest: Civilization; Flirting With Fate; Hævnens nat a.k.a. Blind Justice; His Picture in the Papers; Hoodoo Ann; Joan the Woman; The Mystery of the Leaping Fish;
Reggie Mixes In; Snow White; The Social Secretary; Sold For Marriage; 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea; Where Are My Children?

winner: William S. Hart (Hell's Hinges)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals); Douglas Fairbanks (The Fine Arts Film Company Comedies); Tyrone Power, Sr. (Where Are My Children?)

winner: Mae Marsh (Hoodoo Ann and Intolerance)
nominees: Marguerite Clark (Snow White); Lillian Gish (Sold For Marriage); Norma Talmadge (Going Straight and The Social Secretary)

winner: D.W. Griffith (Intolerance)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals); Louis Feuillade (Judex)

winner: Eugene Pallette (The Children In The House and Going Straight)
nominees: George Fawcett (The Habit Of Happiness); Theodore Roberts (Joan The Woman); Fred Warren (The Matrimaniac)

winner: Constance Talmadge (Intolerance)
nominees: Dorothy G. Cumming (Snow White); Bessie Love (Reggie Mixes In); Musidora (Judex)

winner: Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, from a story by L. Payton and F. Hall (Where Are My Children?)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals); D.W. Griffith (scenario); Anita Loos (titles) (Intolerance)

SPECIAL AWARDS Eugene Gaudio, George M. Williamson and J. Ernest Williamson (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) (Cinematography); D.W. Griffith , James Smith and Rose Smith (Intolerance) (Film Editing); Walter L. Hall (Intolerance) (Art Direction-Set Design)

Coming to terms with D.W. Griffith is like coming to terms with life itself—you either demand perfection of everyone you meet and wind up alone, or you accept that everyone (including yourself) is deeply flawed and you enjoy what you can.

As I wrote in my essay about the films of 1915, Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is so profoundly offensive to a modern audience (and to an audience of 1915, for that matter) that it overshadows everything else the director accomplished, and some of my readers have admitted that they've given the entirety of Griffith's output a miss as a result. And while that's an understandable reaction—life is short and we'll never have time to do all we'd like, much less what we don't like—Griffith made at least two films, Broken Blossoms and my choice for the best picture of 1916, Intolerance, that are not only indispensable for a student of film history, but also are among the best, most entertaining movies of the silent era.

In case you know nothing about it, Intolerance weaves four separate story lines—the life of Christ, the fall of Babylon, the massacre of the Huguenots, and a modern-day story about the victims of a overreaching reform movement—into a three-plus hour spectacle that might be the most ambitious movie ever made. Accounts vary as to how much of his personal fortune Griffith poured into the production—some say as much as $2 million, the most for any film before Gone With The Wind—but there's no question that this was the most lavish production of the silent era.

Or to put it another way, to show the sack of Babylon, Griffith basically built a full-scale replica of the ancient city on a Hollywood backlot and then laid siege to it.

"Imagine," wrote Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy, "how audiences in [1916] must have reacted to the sight of walls and battlements four and five stories high, to courtyards set on three different levels and filled with hundreds of costumed extras, to visuals so expensive it's like they were filmed on and made out of gold."

The film opens with the story of a modern-day reform movement determined to improve the spiritual life of the working class if it kills them. Fueled by jealousy and financed by an autocratic mill owner, the reformers crush the life out of their would-be beneficiaries, particularly "the Dear One" (played so memorably by Mae Marsh), the embodiment of youthful joy and innocence. Only a crabbed, self-righteous hypocrite could find fault with someone so pure; that the reform movement's machinations lead to Dear One's fall is a testament to its destructive purposes.

To underscore the point, Griffith cuts to a scene from the life of Christ, that of a Pharisee praying in public so that others might better observe his piety. "Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men."

The film's third storyline focuses on the political intrigue in the court of King Charles IX that led to the massacre of Protestants in Paris in the late sixteenth century, while the fourth and final story, about the jealousy between rival religious factions that led to the sack of Babylon, rounds out Griffith's theme, a rousing condemnation of the humorless, meddling, Puritanical impulses that characterize so much of America's reformist zeal on both ends of the political spectrum. Watching it, I thought it was a pity that Griffith never directed a screen version of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry.

Structurally, Intolerance is as audacious as anything ever attempted on film—four simultaneous stories linked only by a common theme and the generally rising action—with the editing style growing more complex as the action in each story reaches its climax. The film's last half hour, with quick cross-cut shots between a marauding army, a racing car, a speeding train, the slaughter of the Huguenots and the crucifixion of Christ, has been described as a fugue, a concept borrowed from music where two or more voices entering successively and sung in either imitation or counterpoint to build on a common theme.

Griffith's visual fugue later inspired Sergei Eisenstein and other Russian directors to develop the montage—quick shots cut rapidly together to condense several events or a lengthy period of time into a single short sequence.

Questions have persisted almost from the beginning as to Griffith's motives in making Intolerance. For years, historians assumed Intolerance was his apology for the racism of The Birth of a Nation, but more recently, biographers have suggested Griffith was lashing out at those who were looking for an apology. Personally, after watching it in the context of the times, Intolerance looks like the act of a supremely self-confident artist determined to top both himself and his chief competition, Cecil B. DeMille and Thomas H. Ince, who that year directed ambitious historical epics of their own, Joan the Woman and Civilization, respectively.

Whatever his motivations, Griffith succeeded brilliantly.

Which is not to say that all four of Griffith's stories are created equal. Christ's life, for example, gets the least amount of screen time, presumably because Griffith assumed his audience knew the story so well, he needed only reference a particular well-know incident to underscore a point he wanted to make in one of the other story lines.

Too, the story of Protestant-Catholic infighting in sixteenth century France isn't all that interesting even if it does result in a satisfyingly bloody slaughter by the film's end. Without a central figure as compelling as the Dear One or Babylon's Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), the court intrigue becomes a bit opaque, delving too deeply into the minutiae of history without giving us someone lovable to root for.

But when it focuses on the modern and Babylo- nian stories, the film soars. It's telling that in the role of the Dear One, Griffith cast Mae Marsh from his stable of performers instead of his usual go-to girl, Lillian Gish. For truly tragic suffering—and for an ideal of Victorian womanhood that existed only in Griffith's head—no one was better than Gish. But Marsh, with her kewpie doll face, bow-tie mouth and round, startled eyes, was better suited for a role that required joy, passion and an almost childlike innocence. Along with her work in Judith of Bethulia, The Birth of a Nation and Hoodoo Ann, this represents Marsh at the peak of her career.

After Intolerance, Marsh left Griffith's studio for Samuel Goldwyn's where the pay was better—$2500 a week instead of $35—but to Marsh's chagrin, the roles weren't nearly as good. Her career went into a gradual decline and she wound up playing bit parts in sound pictures, mostly in John Ford films such as My Darling Clementine and The Quiet Man. Marsh made 198 films during her career, the last in 1964.

She was married to the same man for fifty years, had three children and passed away at the age of seventy-three.

The film's most unforgettable performance—and for me, the best in any film in 1916—came from Marsh's co-star, Constance Talmadge. In the Babylonian sequence of Intolerance, she plays "the Mountain Girl," a pretty, perky, petulant teenage beauty who finds herself fighting against a palace conspiracy that threatens to topple the kingdom. Wide-eyed and gangly-limbed, Talmadge is as hyperactive as a puppy amped up on kibble and amphetamines, windmilling her way across the screen, and you can't take your eyes off her. Neither could audiences in 1916 and she quickly became a star.

"[I]t's a mark of her skill," Eagan wrote, "that she stands out in a segment filled with orgies, sacrifices, semi-nudity, wild animals, and wholesale destruction."

Working primarily in comedies, Talmadge would excel throughout the silent era
—look for her in The Matrimaniac, the best of the dozen films Douglas Fairbanks made in 1916, a wild, stunt-filled romantic comedy that no doubt later served as a blueprint for the get-me-to-the-wedding-on-time story lines of Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and For Heaven's Sake—then retired with the advent of sound, famously telling her sister Norma, "Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us."

Among actors, William S. Hart gave the best performance of his career in the National Film Registry western, Hell's Hinges. The father of the taciturn Western hero—or more accurately, antihero—Hart came to movies late, at the age of forty-nine, but he quickly established himself as the first movie cowboy superstar. As different from his contemporary Tom Mix as John Wayne was from Roy Rogers, Hart preferred playing morally-ambiguous characters—violent men who find a measure of redemption—to the white-hatted good guys who came to dominate the genre.

Hart's close-set eyes glowered from a hollow, weather-beaten face that looked like it had been chiseled out of granite, a face "as rugged as the plains," wrote Jen at Silent Stanzas. Because he had been a real cowboy before he became an actor, there's an authenticity in the way he carried himself, with a rolling gait, simultaneously loose-limbed and stiff-legged, and you can see shades of Hart in the later work of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who no doubt saw his films.

Hell's Hinges tells the story of Blaze Tracy, a roughneck gunslinger in a roughneck western hamlet, who falls for a preacher's sister and winds up turning on his gang. It sounds like the makings of the hokiest sort of B-western, but thanks to Hart's quiet, intense performance, the drama plays out on an intimate scale, and even when he settles down, it's not without the sense that he knows his best days are behind him.

Audiences gradually tired of Hart, who retired in 1925 at the age of sixty, but mark Hell's Hinges down as the forerunner of such "serious" westerns as The Searchers, Bend of the River and the Man With No Name trilogy, and Hart himself as the first in a line of classic western heroes that includes Wayne, Cooper and Clint Eastwood.

In preparation for this essay, I tracked down and watched more than forty films, and saw a number of great movies and performances, but the most startling revelation of the year came in form of Eugene Pallette.

You remember Eugene Pallette, don't you? During Hollywood's Golden Age, he was one of that army of supporting actors whose name you might not recognize but whose face—in Pallette's case, a fat round face with wobbly jowls—you never forget. Coupled with his squat, round body and bullfrog voice, he's one of the most recognizable supporting actors of his era, and most of us remember him as the long-suffering father in My Man Godfrey, as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood and as the fat-bellied pol who can't get out of a phone booth in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

But it turns out Pallette was young once, and thin, too. With silent films concealing his trademark voice, Pallette wasn't limited to comic relief and starting in 1913, he appeared in over 130 silent films including such classics as Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation, The Three Musketeers and The Ten Commandments.

In 1916, he appeared in seven movies, but in giving him the award for best supporting actor, I chose two of them, Going Straight and The Children in the House, to give you a sense of his range.

In the former, where he plays a career criminal who threatens Norma Talmadge with her secret past, Pallette is the nastiest of thugs, guilty of attempted rape, murder, theft, blackmail, Faganism—you name it. His introduction is startling: a close up as he spits tobacco juice on the sidewalk, and not nice, clean movie spit either, but a flowing stream of foul, brown saliva that he must have been saving up between takes. You get a nice look at his eyes in that same scene, glowering and menacing under a Neanderthal brow.

Contrast that with The Children in the House where you first see him in a tuxedo, not handsome but elegant, a prototypical noir antihero adulterously involved with a beautiful dancer who ropes him into a bank robbery with her rapacious demands. Pallette once again shows a flair for naturalistic gestures—stifling a yawn, for example—but also demonstrates a mastery of the artificial ones that enabled him in film after film to sketch a character quickly. Watching him convey a man's entire life just by the way he enters a room, I was reminded again that while the Method gave us some of the best acting in movie history, we also lost something when actors abandoned studied artifice.

Finally, I want to mention Lois Weber, who wrote and directed one of the year's most controversial films—then and now—Where Are My Children? As you may know, Weber was the first American woman to find real success as a director, and I've briefly written about her before, here, where I also showed you what is probably the best work of her career, the short Suspense.

Perhaps because she began her career as a street-corner evangelist before becoming an actress then writer-director, Weber's feature films tended to tackle the social issues of the day and Where Are My Children? is no exception. This is the story of, as one reviewer put it, a "curiously infertile" woman whose husband is a crusading district attorney bent on prosecuting back alley abortion doctors—maybe you can see where this is going.

Weber's film advocates birth control as a means of avoiding abortion, which she abhors, positions which still manage to offend politically-active film fans of both the right and left. She also seems to support the notion that birth control is an effective means of combating poverty, which to some smacks of eugenics, which pretty much offends everybody.

Still, as Daniel Eagan wrote, "The film is remarkably forthright: it would take many decades before movies would be this open again about abortion. Weber didn't concentrate on salacious details, but on the human costs of betrayed relationships, something that many modern-day filmmakers still find uncomfortable."

Effectively marketing the controversy surrounding the film's subject matter, Where Are My Children? was a big hit for Carl Laemmle's Universal Studios. In 1993, the Library of Congress selected Where Are My Children? for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Weber continued to direct movies into the 1920s, but her style didn't adapt to changing tastes and her film company eventually failed. Following a divorce from her abusive husband, co-writer Phillips Smalley, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown and her career ground to a halt. Working mostly as an uncredited script doctor for Universal, Weber directed only one talkie and died penniless in 1939. She was sixty years old.


Page said...

After reading your essay on Birth of A Nation I was so impressed I didn't think you could possibly top it. Well you proved me wrong with this one.

What a treasure trove of information on a film while also controversial it also has a very firm place in cinema history.
This one was so chalk full of interesting info that I was sad to see the article end.
Your thoughtfulness and true passion for old film really does come through on these short essays.
Oh and I couldn't agree more with your description of Constance's performance in this film. Mesmerizing.

Page said...

Oh, I hope that you don't MM, that I featured it on my side bar! It's a must read.

Thomas Paine said...

But it turns out Pallette was young once, and thin, too.

Yeah -- me too!

It makes me like even more an actor who, thanks to My Man Godfrey, I will forever admire and adore.

Doesn't mean I'll watch his silent stuff, of course. . . .

Whaddya think I am, nuts?

Mythical Monkey said...

Wow, Page -- thanks! Very flattering. I have to say, I enjoyed writing this post. 1916 was a good year for movies.

Mythical Monkey said...

It makes me like even more an actor who, thanks to My Man Godfrey, I will forever admire and adore.

He was a real actor, and one of my favorites of those unsung guys who did such good work in so many movies.

Mythical Monkey said...

Whaddya think I am, nuts?

Knowing you as I have for twenty-four years, it's hard not to reach that conclusion ... but I'm willing to keep an open mind.

I kid.

theduckthief said...

Over forty movies? Where do you find the time or keep every movie straight? Copious notes?

That is dedication. 40 movies for one post. Wow.

Mythical Monkey said...

Where do you find the time or keep every movie straight? Copious notes?

I do take notes actually -- I have a notebook for when I watch them on my television and I just type them on my computer when I watch them up in my office.

As for finding the time, well, clearly I don't have a life. Although Katie-Bar-The-Door will often sit with me and work on a newsletter she edits -- she says silent movies are good to work in the same room with because it's all musical score and no dialogue.

Unless it's Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, in which case she tends to get distracted.

There were actually two movies on my 1916 list I didn't get to see -- Gretchen the Greenhorn and Fatty and Mabel Adrift. The former is part of a three-disc set that retails for around $90; the latter is part of a sold-out set that is going for over $300 on amazon. Too cost prohibitive.

Netflix is very helpful, plus And I coughed up for Civilization, Snow White and a bunch of Norma Talmadge and Douglas Fairbanks movies.

As for dedication, it's more like an obsession. Three years ago, I didn't give silent movies a second thought. Now it's a full-blown love affair.

I guess as long as Lillian Gish doesn't boil a bunny in my kitchen, it's okay.

theduckthief said...

I'm not familiar enough with Gish to get the bunny joke. I've only ever seen her in "Night of the Hunter". I'm glad you're into silent movies though. Now I have all sorts of recommendations thanks to you!

Mythical Monkey said...

I'm getting old -- in 1987, after Fatal Attraction came out, every man in America was terrified that Glenn Close would boil the family rabbit on their kitchen stove.

Which was, what, 24 years ago?

The Night of the Hunter, by the way, is one of the top three Lillian Gish movies of all time, along with Way Down East and The Wind.