DVR Theater: Sssh! Silent Film Edition

In my guise as Professor Film Boy, I have to admit that one of my weak spots is the silent era. I’ve seen most of the major titles of the era, sure, but every now and then as I’m thumbing through one of the Kevin Brownlow histories or rewatching some old documentary on silents (like the excellent 13 part “Hollywood” series from Thames TV in 1980 and golly gee, it’s ALL ON YOUTUBE and I had NO idea, really I didn’t…..), I’ll come across some title or sets of titles I feel like I ought to go back and watch.

First up was the 1924 adventure The Sea Hawk, not to be confused with the other adventure film The Sea Hawk from 1940 with Errol Flynn basically playing Sir Francis Drake. The silent version, based on the Rafael Sabatini novel, is the story of Elizabethan era Brit hero-of-the-Armada-battle Oliver Tressilian and how he gets sold into galley slavery by his wicked half-brother to cover up a murder. Well, he escapes (of course), renounces Christianity because of the un-Christian cruelty of the Spanish towards their captives, and converts to Islam (I’m assuming his circumcision took place offscreen and then everyone ate rugelah or baklava or whatever) when joining the Moors, changing his name to Sakr-el-Bahr (The Sea Hawk) and becomes the scourge of Spanish Christian boats everywhere. And then… it’s time for some personal revenge, although as the story plays out, much like Sabatini’s other notable works (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) the issues of forgiveness and redemption loom large.

Fast moving & fun throughout, and with a rather interesting resolution – after all, how would a 1924 work out the religious issues raised by the character’s transformation? Funny… I kept thinking throughout the thing how no studio would touch this story now because of our current world situation, and in a way, that’s too bad. It depicts the good & bad and (importantly) honor of everyone.

Also a great choice by the director Frank Lloyd to use actual ships for most of the shipboard scenes & swashbuckling. They built scaled ships for the film and filmed the long/medium/crowd type stuff on ’em while cutting in close-ups and such shot on stage – for more realism, and it works. Watch enough of these things and you can tell the difference between actors on an actual boat moving in the water versus actors on a stage being tilted by stagehands with spray thrown around.

Milton Sills, a big silent era matinee idol, stars as Tressilian, and carries it off well. He’s great in the action scenes, and is believable in the emotive moments and close-ups. Sills, one of the founders of the Motion Picture Academy, successfully made the transition to sound but died suddenly of a heart attack in 1930 when he was only 48.

Nice supporting cast, too, featuring Wallace Beery as the pirate captain/comedy relief early in his career, before The Champ, or Min n Bill, and allegedly helping to beat Ted Healy to death after a barroom argument. Hooray for Hollywood!

This one is up there with the other great silent adventures to see – the silent Ben-Hur (similar galley slave escapes vibe, too), The Thief of Bagdad, The Iron Mask, The Mark of Zorro, etc.

A pair of silly comedies directed by King Vidor & starring Marion Davies round out the list. I’d never actually seen a Marion Davies movie before. I’d seen her played by Kirsten Dunst in Peter Bogdonavich’s rather good The Cat’s Meow, a movie that purports the old conspiracy theory that William Randolph Hearst mistakenly killed Thomas Ince while trying to kill Charlie Chaplin for supposedly horning in on Marion, and then used his power to cover the whole thing up. Hooray for Hollywood!

In Cat’s Meow, there’s a wonderful bit illustrating how Hearst, in financing & producing Davies’ films, insisted she be put into serious dramatic parts over and over again, despite Hollywood people who’d know better (like Chaplin) who insisted she’d be a brilliant comedienne. Comedy stars were looked down upon back in those film days, even if they made Chaplin-level money. So Hearst kept putting Davies into middling dramatic material and partially inspiring the Susan Alexander character in Citizen Kane many years later.

And watching a couple of old comedies Hearst DID allow, most likely due to Vidor’s stellar reputation as a director by this point in the late 20s, the Susan Alexander character really is an insult to Davies, one Welles later insisted was NOT a parallel, despite the other obvious ones between Kane/Hearst. Davies had some wonderful comic chops to be sure – in The Patsy, she plays the ditsy younger sister in love with the older sis’ boyfriend, while taking grief from mom (Marie Dressler, in her big career comeback role). Davies does some wonderful scatterbrain screwball comedy type material here, but really shines in one scene where she craves attention from a sleepy local gigolo and does wonderful impressions of silent actresses Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish. If something like SNL had existed back then, Davies as host or cast member would have done material exactly like it.

The other Vidor-directed entry, Show People, features Davies as the southern belle gone Hollywood to become a star – and in reflecting Davies’ reality, she becomes a star in slapstick comedies only to move upwards to drama & become a pretentious snob. Of course she reunites with her comedy star boyfriend in the end, it’s not really a spoiler to say so. He’s played by William Haines, a top 5 box office star in the late 20s who successfully made the transition to sound – but got fired by Louis B. Mayer and left acting forever when he refused to deny his homosexuality after a picking-up-a-sailor arrest and enter into a studio-arranged sham marriage. Hooray for Hollywood! Haines had a successful career as an interior decorator for decades after that, even working for the Reagans and the Bloomingdales among his other Hollywood connections and friends who remained loyal. Something tells me he didn’t redecorate Mayer’s house, unless he t-p’d it on Halloween.

Show People was interesting in the way it reflected a lot of the reality of Davies’ career. If there’d been a billionaire father figure hung like a rosebud calling the shots and forcing her to do drama, well… that’d sew it all up. Davies, again, is attention-grabbing and likeable on screen, and grows infectious the sillier she gets. It’s too bad she didn’t go the full-out comic route and try for the same sorts of roles in the ’30s that went to Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Blondell, she’d be right at home in ’em. But she really did love the big sugar daddy lug from everything she told her girlfriends, way more than Susan Alexander ever loved Charlie Kane.

Up next, another pair of noirs.


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