Alexander Film Works

The Universal Pantechnicon…

In arts, Film and Related, Just Because... on April 13, 2013 at 10:53 pm

This post promises nothing… it’s going to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that; sort of like potluck soup, or hobo stew.

Jonathan Winters died this past week… He was an inspiration to many of the comic performers of today, such as Robin Williams (who acknowledged this perceived debt loudly and often).  He was an unpredictable performer, letting his prodigious imagination lead him on comic flights of fancy that left us all the richer for having heard them.

He was also a cousin (to what degree I’d have to figure out) of my wife’s mother’s family.  His name was Jonathan Harshman Winters, and my mother-in-law (rest her soul) was a Harshman.  Another coincidental thing, it seems.

On the subject of comedy…

I was revisiting the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill profile of Harold Lloyd on YouTube the other day, after I had reblogged the post from swingstatevoter on silent comedy.  Brownlow and Gill produced, to my mind, some of the best profiles of silent film personalities extant; Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By… was a textbook for my old history of silent film class, back in the mists of time.  I appreciated his bringing back to the fore the (up to that point) overlooked French director, Abel Gance, and his tour de force, 1927’s Napoleon.  Sometime in the 1980’s, if memory serves me, (and it didn’t… the first restoration by Brownlow was in 1979, I just found out) Francis Ford Coppola sponsored a series of viewings of the then-major restoration with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola.  There is a more complete restoration by Brownlow, with approximately thirty additional minutes of footage and the Polyvision (Gance’s predecessor of three-screen Cinerama) in full bloom, which was shown almost a year ago in Oakland, California.

Abel Gance’s Napoleon from SilentRobet on Vimeo.

This is the trailer.

Back to Harold Lloyd…

Lloyd’s character was the most “normal” of the three top comedians of the silents… Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” was a Victorian-era creation, full of pathos and bathos, trying to ensnare the audience in a struggle between the “little man” and the heartless, cruel well-to-do of society.  Keaton’s frozen-faced automaton was freed of the emotional baggage of the Chaplinesque view, the chilling whiff of nihilism wafting out from behind the slick mechanical façade of his gags, the unsmiling man against an uncaring universe.  Lloyd, on the third hand, was the smiling All-American Boy we thought typical of that time, bright enough, determined enough, but lacking something essential to win through to the final victory.

Lloyd was never a “comic”, doing jokes and gags for the sake of doing them, but had gag men spooling out things to do in the context of the story and the character.   (The parallel was drawn in the Brownlow/Gill profile to Bob Hope having a staff of gag writers providing him with jokes for his monologues; Lloyd’s gag men provided gag bits for the picture.)

Of the major silent film comedians, Harold Lloyd was the luckiest (or most foresighted, if you prefer); he bought real estate in Los Angeles when it was cheap, saved and invested his money wisely, and retired after 1947’s “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock”, also known as “Mad Wednesday”.  (The failure of the film at the box office probably hastened this decision.)He died in 1971, prosperous, away from the hurlyburly of  “the business”, and mostly forgotten by moviegoers of today.  Quite a change from Keaton’s death from cancer in 1966, Chaplin’s fading away in self-imposed exile in Switzerland in 1977, Harry Langdon’s death in 1944 (Langdon deserves an article to himself, and there are many out there), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who never really recovered from the scandal surrounding the death of bit player Virginia Rappé at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in 1921, three trials, and the inability of the public at the time to accept his acquittal by the third jury and his death in 1933, or the lesser lights of silent comedy, such as Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Raymond Griffith, Snub Pollard, Ben Turpin, or the ones who are nameless to us but still enjoyed when silents are played again.

[Whew!  LOONG paragraph!]

It seems a pity that, with the exception of 1976’s Silent Movie, from the fertile mind of Mel Brooks, and Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar™-winning The Artist, silent film is a curiosity from a time gone by.

It seems to me that dialogue, while helpful, is not a necessity for a movie.  Besides, I think it’s a good way to flex some creative muscles making a film without relying on dialogue.

I think I’m going to try that myself.

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