We’re in the Movies, Blu-ray + DVD (1983/2010/2014)
1. When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983)
2. Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles (2010)
Cast: Stephen Schaller, John & Dorothy Hampton, Lawrence Austin, John David Slaughter
Directors: Stephen Schaller, Ian Kennedy
Studio: Blackhawk Films Collection/ Cardoza Pictures/ Flicker Alley FA0036 – 2-disc Blu-ray & DVD edition (7/22/14)
Video: 1.33:1 (some silents slightly wider) & 1.77:1 for 16:9
Audio: English PCM stereo
Extras: The Lumberjack, Our Southern Mountaineers, In the Moonshine Country, Mountain Life, The Kidnapper’s Foil, Huntingdon’s Hero
Length: 217 minutes
Ratings: 1 – **, 2 – *****
The first of these two rather different documentaries is about the whole silent film scene in general and in particular about the itinerant filmmakers who traveled around the U.S. from the early years of the 20th century thru the 1930s, making short “local talent” films. Documentary filmmaker Stephen Schaller discovered a print of the oldest surviving film made in Wisconsin in 1914, in Wausau, by the Paragon Feature Film Company, and started on the project which resulted in this documentary. Such traveling filmmakers went from town to town, seeking to include as many locals as possible (some paid for the privilege) to appear in the films with simple plots. Directors often claimed all sorts of Hollywood and important film connections which were false. Many of the films were only four minutes long – the length of a 100-ft. roll of 16mm film – and it was the filmmakers’ job to get as many locals on the screen in it as possible. However, most of the films included here are longer, and some even have sound.
The one they shot in Wausau was titled The Lumberjack and in the extras of this disc you can see it in its entirety if you want to, along with five other films and excerpts, including two made in the 1930’s with sync sound. The ragtime music provided for The Lumberjack doesn’t seem to quite fit, and you may prefer to turn off the sound and watch it as a true silent movie. The Huntingdon title was made in 1934 in Huntingdon, PA and the Kidnapper film in 1937 in Corsicana, TX, using a local troupe of children in a story of child abduction and escape. Three short silent one-reelers document the lives of inhabitants of moonshine country. Some of the films are tinted, as was done at the time. The Lumberjack had an accidental on-set death of its cameraman when he was filming a scene at the local rock quarry. A piece of rock came off and struck him in the heart, killing him. It almost closed down the filming but it was decided to go ahead and finish the effort.
The interviews with some of the elderly townspeople involved in the film or who knew about it are mostly boring, but the former pianist for the local silent film theater is a kick with her memories and demonstrations of playing for the films. She makes the point that silent films really weren’t silent at all.
The second documentary is the story of the amazing Silent Movie Theater of Los Angeles, on Fairfax Avenue, which was built in 1942 and has operated off and on ever since (altho it was always closed on my trips to LA in the 1970s). It was built by a silent film collector and expert who obtained many of his films from the big studios when they all decided to trash nearly all their silent films (partly because of their dangerous nitrate film). He played various 78 rpm records on an acoustic phonograph during the films. He was so into the silents that he continued showings and struggled financially when only a half dozen people came for showings in the 150-seat theater. He spliced together the best portions of some films, to avoid damaged sections.
The little theater has struggled thru over 68 years and four sets of owners now. The current ones – a film group – get more income by renting the space to rock groups for concerts on some nights. Some personal tragedies ensued over the years, culminating even in the murder of the second owner, which is investigated and explained in the documentary. It has not been easy for this little theater to buck all the cinematic trends in America from a location smackdab in the center of American cinema. If you have never seen some of the classic silents mentioned in the documentary – such as Nosferatu, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, or Steamboat Bill, Jr. – you should rush out and rent videos of them ASAP.