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Silent Films’ Actresses in Berlin + Louise Brooks Turns 100

Janet Gaynor Sunrise George O’Brien
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in Sunrise, an early Academy Award winner directed by F. W. Murnau.

Berlin Film Festival: Women in Silent Films

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The Retrospective sidebar of the 2007 Berlin Film Festival (website) will feature thirty silent films, divided into four sections, depicting women’s roles in the 1910s and 1920s.

The “Working Girls” section will be populated by secretaries and salesgirls, among them Norma Talmadge in John Emerson’s comedy The Social Secretary (1916) and Clara Bow in Clarence Badger’s it-less It (1927).

“Flaming Youth” will include unconventional gals such as Ossi Oswalda, Germany’s own Mary Pickford, in Ernst Lubitsch’s gender-bending comedy Ich möchte kein Mann sein / I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918), and British superstars Alma Taylor and Chrissie White in Lewin Fitzhamon’s Tilly’s Party (1911).

The “Husbands and Wives” section will present the conflicts arising from women’s new modes of conduct, including those depicted in Abram Room’s Tretya Meshchanskaya / Bed and Sofa (1927), starring Lyudmila Semyonova, and in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s marital drama Du skal ære din hustru / Master of the House (1925), with Astrid Holm.

And finally, the “Fate and Passion” section places the New Woman in what sounds like a decidedly reactionary setting. I’m assuming that there will be no happy ending for Nina Chernova in Yevgeni Bauer’s Sumerki zenskoi dushi / Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913), for Italian diva Francesca Bertini in Gustavo Serena’s Assunta Spina (1915), or for the female lead in Mikio Naruse’s Yogoto no yume / Every Night Dreams (1933).

I’m not sure if the Berlinale will be screening King Baggot’s 1925 drama The Home Maker, though they should. Adapted by Mary O’Hara from Dorothy Canfield’s novel, The Home Maker follows a couple (Alice Joyce and Clive Brook) who exchange roles at home. The husband takes care of the house and children – and enjoys doing it – while the wife becomes a stylist. Problems inevitably ensue, but the ending is surprisingly fair.

The Retrospective films will be screened at the CinemaxX on Potsdamer Platz and at the Zeughauskino. Two publications will accompany the series: The book City Girls: Frauenbilder im Stummfilm (“Women’s Pictures in Silent Film”), with essays by Daniela Sannwald, Annette Brauerhoch, Heike-Melba Fendel, and Fabienne Liptay, and the journal FilmHeft 11, which offers contemporary reviews (in German and English), and detailed information on the Retrospective screenings.

Louise Brooks Turns 100

“She was a flapper in the 1920s, when Hollywood had hundreds of those pert girls. She made 15 silent movies in New York and Hollywood, none in the lead role [actually, Brooks was a leading lady in several films of the late 1920s]. She went to Europe and starred in three films, none of which made an impression at the time. When she returned to America, ready to make her mark in talking pictures, the movie industry blackballed her [she had refused to dub her dialogue in the 1929 silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case]. She was, she later recalled, invisible to the stars and moguls who had courted her a few years before. “It isn’t that people turn their heads not to speak to you — they don’t see you…. They look right at you and you don’t exist.” She made her last movie — a cheapo western with a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne — in 1938, and by 1946 she had to take a $40-a-week job as a sales girl at Saks Fifth Avenue.”

It’s about one hour and a half past midnight, California time, so this post is a little late, but above is a brief excerpt from Time magazine’s Richard Corliss article on Louise Brooks, who celebrated (from the Great Beyond) her 100th birthday yesterday, Nov. 14.

In his article, Corliss attempts to explain why the second-rate silent film star became a first-rate silent film icon. That’s easy: All Brooks needed was some excellent publicity (mostly thanks to the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois); lots of stunning film stills; a couple of performances in prestigious European productions; a gossipy book of recollections; and a severe case of groupthink disease.

In other words, If Langlois and assorted lofty film critics and scholars said (and many still say) that Brooks is greater than Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Marie Dressler put together, then, well, she must be, and we must all worship her. Of course, I’m fully aware that some people would have admired Brooks regardless of what anyone had to say, just like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Rudolph Valentino would have their fans today even if an early death hadn’t granted them iconic status. That said, if Langlois and his followers had promoted Janet Gaynor (also born in 1906) instead of Louise Brooks, the 7th Heaven star would be the one with a huge following, myriad birthday celebrations, and a lengthy Time article in 2006. (Read the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mick LaSalle‘s remarks on Louise Brooks.)

Now, it’s time for someone to rediscover Constance Talmadge, Norma Talmadge, Eleanor Boardman, Corinne Griffith, Alice Joyce, Laura La Plante, Billie Dove, and Renée Adorée, silent film actresses who – in my invariably humble opinion – were more attractive, more talented, and considerably more alluring that Brooks ever was.

Note: Brooks actually looks quite interesting – if unrecognizable from her bobbed-hair days – in the aforementioned 1938 “cheapo Western” Overland Stage Raiders, directed by George Sherman, and starring John Wayne, Ray Corrigan (a handsome, likable actor who should have been cast in Wayne’s Stagecoach role), and Max Terhune as the Three Mesquiteers of the New American West. Brooks has the leading lady role in this B-Western, though her long, jet-black hair, sharp features, and penciled eyebrows would have made her presence more appropriate to one of Universal’s horror films or to the films noirs of the following decade.

Louise Brooks Society website.

Wrapping up, here’s San Francisco Chronicle film critic and author (and Norma Shearer admirer) Mick LaSalle on both the term “actor” – as in “actor Julia Roberts” – and cult figure Louise Brooks.

But there are other silent actresses who are more beautiful, more interesting, more innovative and more talented, whose bodies of work are more distinguished, and yet they remain, mute and still, languishing in film cans through critical neglect and archival uninterest. Still, I give Brooks credit for one thing. While other actresses slept with producers to get a career, Brooks realized the significance of sleeping with film scholars in order to fix that career in the public consciousness. Producers forget, but scholars tend to be endlessly grateful.

The Beauty of ‘Sunrise’: Early Academy Award Winner

“Once picked in Cahiers du Cinema as ‘the most beautiful film in the world,’ Sunrise remains a virtual motherlode of expressive silent movie-making techniques. While the story is bone simple, its telling is anything but. With his gracefully floating camera, montages, dissolves and multiple-imaging, Murnau creates a world of suggestive visual poetry that exists somewhere between dramatic enactment and idealized fantasy.”

That’s Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Star, referring to F.W. Murnau’s melodrama Sunrise (a.k.a. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), made for Fox in 1927. In the film, female Human Janet Gaynor (wearing a godawful blond wig) plays the country girl whose beloved male Human (George O’Brien) is seduced by an Inhuman city vamp (Margaret Livingston).

Many find this tale of lust, love, sorrow, and ultimate redemption (the happy ending was insisted upon by the studio) one of the greatest films of all time. I’ve seen it three times, and – despite several good moments, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss’ poetic lenses, and Murnau’s camera virtuosity – I’ve never been able to warm up to either the characters or the storyline. Personally, if I were O’Brien, I’d definitely have dumped Janet Gaynor for sultry Margaret Livingston. (True, I wouldn’t have tried to strangle Gaynor, though I’d most likely have set her wig on fire.)

Janet Gaynor, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s and 1930s, could be quite appealing – Lucky Star and Street Angel come to mind – but I find her performance in Sunrise to be more than a little cloying. She and the usually likable George O’Brien are supposed to be archetypes, but they – and Livingston’s vamp – come across as one-dimensional stereotypes. Whenever that happens, the meanies usually have the upper hand, as stereotypical goodness tends to be insufferably dull.

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, Sunrise won three awards: Best Actress (Gaynor, who also won for Street Angel and 7th Heaven), Best Cinematography (unfortunately, the currently available restored print of Sunrise still looks like the dupe of a dupe of a dupe – the original nitrate print is apparently lost), and Unique and Artistic Picture. That was the only time the “Unique and Artistic Picture” award, basically a “best art-house film award,” was handed out. Sunrise reportedly won in that category because MGM head Louis B. Mayer, one of the Academy founding members, refused to allow his studio’s downbeat money-loser The Crowd to win. (Or so later said The Crowd director, King Vidor – whose film, in my opinion, should indeed have won.)

‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ Australia screening

Via Australia’s ABC: This evening – right now, in Australia, it would be “last night” – Canberra audiences watched a restored portion of what is reportedly the world’s first feature-length narrative film, the 1906 Australian production The Story of the Kelly Gang.

Shot on location outside Melbourne, Charles Tait’s* 60-minute “Bushranger” – the Australian Western – focuses on the deeds of iconic outlaw Ned Kelly (1855–1880).

Once thought completely lost, 18 minutes of The Story of the Kelly Gang have been pieced together by the National Film and Sound Archive, with the assistance of Dutch digital restoration experts.

“The sequences that came to us were fairly vague and flickery and milky in its [sic] quality and the digital enhancement of that image has made it live and sparkle,” said the archive’s senior curator Graham Shirley, adding that “frames that were damaged, individual frames that might have only had half an image, are now complete frames.”

According to Shirley, The Story of the Kelly Gang sparked the Bushranger genre and lengthier running times, thus laying the foundation for the local film industry.

For the Canberra screening, the traditional piano music score has been replaced by Endorphin’s electronic dance music.

In 2003, Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, and Naomi Watts starred in Ned Kelly. Greeted by mixed reviews, this socially and politically conscious version of Kelly’s life was directed by Gregor Jordan from a screenplay by John M. McDonagh, adapted from Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine.

* Others may have had a hand in the direction, including other members of the Tait family.

‘A Century Ago: The Films of 1906’

Press release: Beverly Hills, CA – With such box office hits as Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium and The Village Cut-Up, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor the year 1906 and its contributions to film history in “A Century Ago: The Films of 1906” on Wednesday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.

Revisiting the year that saw motion pictures dramatically expand their presence via storefront nickelodeons, the program will reflect a partial survey of turn-of-the-century international filmmaking with trick films, actualities, primitive dramas and gag films. It will be highlighted by one of the earliest known examples of frame-by-frame animation, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, by J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph; the surrealistic film Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on a Winsor McCay comic strip, from the Edison Studios; a hand-tinted print of Voyage autour d’une étoile, from the Pathé Studios in France; actuality footage of the San Francisco Earthquake; and newly restored fragments of The Story of the Kelly Gang from Australia.

The program will also feature such popular hits as In the Haunts of Rip Van Winkle, The Impossible Convicts (both Biograph), Motor Pirates, The ‘?’ Motorist and A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (all from British companies).

Most prints will be shown in 35mm and are drawn from the collections of the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, George Eastman House, the British Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Film and Sound Archive of the Australian Film Commission and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Michael Mortilla will provide live musical accompaniment.

Tickets to “A Century Ago: The Films of 1906” are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID, and may be purchased in advance, either by mail or in person. The Academy’s ticket office is located at its headquarters at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

The Linwood Dunn Theater is located at the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study at 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood. All seating is unreserved. Free parking is available behind the building through the entrance on Homewood Avenue. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

Update: This post, from the press release below, is basically a rehash of “A Century Ago: The Films of 1906” screening in Los Angeles. The difference is that in the one below, Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s director of educational programs and special projects, takes the flickers of 1906 to New York City. So, if you’re in area…

Press Release: New York, NY — The Black Hand, one of the earliest gangster films shot on the streets of New York City, will be among several popular films that will be presented in “A Century Ago: The Films of 1906” on Monday, December 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International in New York City.

Hosted by Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s director of educational programs and special projects, the “Monday Nights with Oscar®” program will conduct a partial survey of turn-of-the-20th-century international filmmaking with trick films, actualities, primitive dramas and gag films.

“A Century Ago” will be highlighted by aerial vistas of the city’s new architectural phenomenon in Skyscrapers, from the Biograph Company; the earliest known example of frame-by-frame animation, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, by J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph; the surrealistic film Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on a Winsor McCay comic strip, from the Edison Studios; a hand-tinted print of Voyage autour d’une étoile, from the Pathé Studios in France; actuality footage of the San Francisco Earthquake; and newly restored fragments of The Story of the Kelly Gang from Australia.

The program will also feature such popular hits as Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium, In the Haunts of Rip Van Winkle, The Impossible Convicts (all Biograph), Motor Pirates The ‘?’ Motorist and A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (all from British companies).

Michael Mortilla will provide live musical accompaniment.

Most prints will be shown in 35mm and are drawn from the collections of the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, George Eastman House, the British Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Film and Sound Archive of the Australian Film Commission and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The Academy Theater at Lighthouse International is located at 111 East 59th Street in New York City. Tickets for the screening are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID.

Tickets may be reserved by calling 1-888-778-7575. Depending on availability, tickets may be purchased the night of the screening. Doors open at 7 p.m.

In the Haunts of Rip Van Winkle and more 1906 films at the Empire State Railway Museum.

Screening of 1906 films at the British Film Institute.

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David M. -

By the way the Talmadge’s have no allure, that’s why they are forgotten.

David M. -

I agree with Paul Anderson 100 %.

Paul Anderson -

First of all, all of your opinions seem to be arbitrary without any thought explanation for them. Also, this lack of thoughtfullness seems to show a lack of real intelligence of any depth or scope.

Yes, there are people who follow the latest trends and will use a Time article (which I have never seen) to get on the latest bandwagon. That does not mean the subject of the article isn’t worth the attention. I don’t care if millions worship Louise or just a handfull appreciate her and the rest of the population never heard of her. That would change who she was–and usually such individuals are above the ability to be truly appreciated by people like yourself.

By the way, just why “should” Ray Corrigan have been cast in Stagecoach? This line seems typical of your review–a flip comment with no backup. Perhaps it is true, but I wouldn’t know it by your writing. I checked out Ray after your comment. Yeah, he’s “handsome” and likeable, in a totally uninteresting sort of way.

I’ll stick with John–and Louise.

By the way, Louise adored John–and there’s a rare photo of them dancing together at a party (perhaps the rap party for their film) and it is the only picture I know where Louise, as she is looking at him, looks vulnerable.

I think your writing, and obviously your tastes, is as shallow as the public you seem to disdain. The difference between them and you is that you have dillusions about your importance.

Andre -

James, thanks for writing.

I believe that Louise Brooks would have her fans today regardless of what Henri Langlois said — and what future critics aped. I just don’t believe they’d be as numerous or that she’d be featured in “Time” magazine in 2006.

Norma Talmadge has her fans, too, but most people don’t know — or care about — who she was and “Time” magazine wouldn’t waste one sentence on that 1920s superstar because no influential patron has bothered to “rediscover” Talmadge for modern audiences.

If that ever happens — say, Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Roger Ebert decide that Norma Talmadge is a Goddess — “Time,” “The New Yorker,” and “Newsweek” will be discussing Talmadge’s allure, sophistication, girlish sensuality, etc. etc., and in 2057 her tens (hundreds?) of thousands of loving fans will be getting drunk in commemoration of the actress’ 100th death anniversary.

Now, I totally agree with you. It’s a form of “cultural vandalism” to — at times quite literally — let old movies rot away in vaults. Universal, for instance, owns most of the pre-TV Paramount classics, but they don’t do anything with them. At least here in the U.S. there’s Turner Classic Movies, which shows loads of MGM, WB, and RKO oldies, plus some films — including non-Hollywood productions — they lease from other film libraries.

James -

Unlike you I don’t think Louise Brooks’ reputation is a product of some French film critics’ intellectual snobbery. I remember clearly seeing Pandora’s Box for the first time (sadly only on the TV) and how after 20 minutes of being bored by it, she gradually seduced me into this otherwise not particularly engaging film. Judgements like this are of course always subjective, but for me she simply oozed sensuality, without ever doing anything overt or obvious, and she simply had great screen charisma. I could quite easily put her up there with Garbo as a screen icon, even though her body of work is so small.

Everyone that has been fortunate enough to see enough film to know that it didn’t all start with Star Wars, has their particular favourites that they think are under-appreciated, (mine include Ben Hecht, Carole Lombard, & Ginger Rogers as a comedienne), and I guess it’s fine to argue the toss, but to me the bigger issue is the lack of value we put on these wonderful films. It’s as if we all thought literature started with Stephen King, and Shakespeare’s plays was no longer performed. There just simply should be more cinemas dedicated to showing old films. I was fortunate as I grew up when BBC 2 regularly showed old films, even things like a season of Jean Renoir lasting over many weeks, and lived in London when Steve Wooley was running the Scala cinema, and other London cimemas like the Electric had a very wide ranging repertoire. There was even a cinema club in the Mayfair Hotel devoted to just 1930’s Hollywood, the Starlight Cinema Club. It was wonderful but nothing like that exists now. It is all so neglected now. It is almost cultural vandalism.

James -

How could you forget Manzini?? She was way cool in “Cabiria”. “Cabiria” is a film that I find visually beautiful to look at but dramatically pretty dull. Manzini was one of the few performers who held my attention. Also Bartolomeo Pagano was rather likeable. Manzini was ravishingly beautiful and I got a kick out of her walking a pet leopard on a leash! Plus she has one of the coolest death scenes in movies.

Bertini was in movies for quite a long time. She made her first film around 1907, and made her last in the late 1970’s. A film career somewhat comperable to Lillian Gish’s here in America in terms of longevity. Actually I was mistaken, I *have* seen Bertini in other films. She’s in two of the films on Kino’s DVD of early silent Shakesphere films. Although she really doesn’t have any kind of standout screentime.

Andre -


With a name like Italia Almirante-Manzini, how could that actress *not* become a big star? I’ve seen “Cabiria,” but for the life of me I can’t remember any Italia in it. Gotta check it out again.

I’m quite sure Francesca Bertini has a small role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Novecento.” (I’m too lazy to look at the IMDb now.) I believe that one is available on DVD (or at least on video.) I’ll look for it, too.

And I have Yevgeny Bauer’s work on my Must See list. Thanks again for all the silent-film tips.

James -

I’ve only seen Bertini in “Assunta Spina”(1914) and Lyda Borelli in “Rapsodia Satanica”(1915). I haven’t seen any of the other major Italian actresses from the silent era except Italia Almirante-Manzini who was a pretty big star I believe. She was the vamp in “Cabiria”. Bertini is quite interesting in “The Last Diva” At about 94, she still seems to have been quite a sharp and commanding lady. Most of the documentary was filmed while Bertini was in an Italian archive watching a print of “Assunta Spina” There was something interesting about seeing the old Bertini watching the young Bertini on screen in a film made nearly seventy years before.

Yes, the Bauer set is very fascinating. Bauer’s “Zhizn za Zhizn”(1916) starring the haunting Vera Kholodnaya is on Milestone’s 10-VHS set of early Russian films. A fascinating and visually compelling film and an interesting actress. I really hope more of these early Russian films make it to DVD. Unfortunately the Milestone set isn’t on DVD. The most widely seen Russian silents are the experimental silents from the 20’s by Eisenstein. These early Russian films are *much* different. A much more conventional filmmaking structure, yet very unlike American films. And featuring an interesting roster of Russian stars.

Andre -

Thanks for the comment. I’ll have to look for that Bauer set. It sounds fascinating.

I’ve never seen Francesca Bertini in anything — I don’t think. Gotta look for that Kino DVD, too.

James -

“Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” is on the Image DVD of Bauer short films that came out three or four years ago. It’s a stunningly beautiful little film. Bauer has a gift for striking, surreal, and beautifully lit visual compositions. It was a pretty good film with an extraordinary use of mobile camerawork. Particularly when compared with many other films from 1913. The acting is somewhat stilted, but it’s an impressive film, although my two favorite films on the set were the two films starring Russian ballerina Vera Karalli.

“Assunta Spina” is likewise an impressive film with a fascinating performance from Francesca Bertini. Kino released this one with a 1982 documentury” The Last Diva” featuring a 94 year old Bertini talking about her career. She claimed that her film preceeded the Neo-Realist era of Italian Cinema. The documentary also showed clips of several of her now-forgotten contemporaries in Italian silent cinema such as Soave Gallone, Lyda Gys, Maria Jacobini, and Bertini’s biggest rival the otherworldly and visually compelling Lyda Borelli.

“The Social Secretary” is a terrific film and one of Talmadge’s best films from this early period of her career. Too bad they didn’t screen Within The Law, which is even better and a very fine performance from Talmadge.


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