Silent Sunday: A Momentary Change of Pace

sil1Okay, so usually “Silent Sunday” is a day where I just post a short introduction and then let the movie “speak” (even though there’s no actual speaking) for itself. It’s a nice bit, and a fitting theme, and honestly a nice way to get a day’s worth of content up with minimal effort. Unfortunately though, it’s also a bit constricting at times, so I’m working on ways to change that, but, for today, while I’m still figuring out just what I want to do with that, I thought we’d explore something a little different.

So, in that vein, I thought I’d do a little experiment to see what would come up when I put the phrase “How to watch silent film” into the search bar on YouTube.

I mean, let’s be honest, watching silent films is a completely different experience not only from watching today’s movies, but even from watching those from just a few years after the introduction of sound. How could it not be? Even discounting the earliest films when the sheer novelty of watching “moving pictures” in a theater was a source of wonder, since at that point film was a more purely (though definitely not exclusively, and that’s something we’ll explore much more at another time) visual medium, it evolved a language and acting style that was more expressive and more suited to that kind of story telling.

sil2Of course, this acting style is also a reflection of the fact that many of the earliest actors (and audiences, for that matter) were more accustomed to staged performances which encouraged broader performances that could reach the back of a large theater, and it took awhile for adjustments to be made for the more intimate portrayals that could be accomplished on film. This was something that even the early “talkies” were still often dealing with. One only has to look at Universal’s classic Dracula to see this effect. One of the most often-leveled criticisms of it by modern audiences is that it seems “stagey”, which should come as no surprise since it was adapted from a stage play and Bela Lugosi first honed his performance of the character in that play rather than coming to it fresh with the eyes of a film actor.

Anyway, I thought since we’re starting a new year, it might be a good time to take a fresh look at just how we watch these films. Thus, the search “How to watch silent films?” And, as I suppose you might expect, my search only really came up with a couple of real answers, I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a hot-button topic at the moment. So, I’ve also decided to include a couple of other items of interest on the topic.

Btw, understand that I’m not necessarily endorsing these videos, nor am I saying that any of these are the way that I would introduce a newcomer to the world of silent film. (We’ll get to that in a bit, possibly.) But there are a few pretty good takeaways here, and sometimes it’s good just to take a step back and take a fresh look at things. So here you go:

Throwback Thursday – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1990)

Between this blog and my previous one, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, I’ve been writing about movies for quite a while now. Because of that, there are a lot of posts that have simply gotten lost to the mists of time. So, I figured I’d use the idea of “Throwback Thursday” to spotlight some of those older posts, re-presenting them pretty much exactly as they first appeared except for updating links where necessary or possible, and doing just a bit of re-formatting to help them fit better into the style of this blog. Hope you enjoy these looks back. 

This post first ran here back in Dec 2013

Here’s The Earliest Known Appearance of Sherlock Holmes On Film – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)

As we approach the return of the world’s greatest detective in one of his latest incarnations – the BBC’s Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson – it seems perhaps appropriate to take a look at his earliest film appearance, 1900’s Sherlock Holmes Baffled.

shb2This 30 second short was originally produced for penny arcade machines known as Mutoscopes, which were patented by Herman Casler in 1894 and marketed by the American Mutoscope Company. This particular film was produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1900, though its copyright was not actually registered until 1903.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Mutoscope was atually developed as a competitor to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope.The device can be seen in the picture at the right. The idea was that the viewer would drop their coin into a slot on the machine which would then turn on an internal light and by turning a small crank and looking into the viewfinder, the viewer could watch the associated film. In a way, it’s perhaps a bit misleading to call this a film per se, since it was not designed to be projected on a screen and actually consisted of individual image frames printed onto flexible cards attached to a circular core which revolved with the turn of a user-operated hand crank, however, since it was originally shot on film at a frame rate of 30 frames per second, the designation still stands. (Perhaps in cases like this, the more accurate term would simply be “motion picture”.)

As far as the actual film itself, according to Wikipedia, the director and cinematographer of Sherlock Holmes Baffled was Arthur W. Marvin (May 1859 – 18 January 1911), a staff cameraman for Biograph. The identities of the actors portraying Holmes and his adversary are unknown, and the film was assumed to be lost for many years, until it was rediscovered in 1968 as a paper print in the Library of Congress by Michael Pointer, a historian of Sherlock Holmes films. Again, quoting Wikipedia

Because motion pictures were not covered by copyright laws until 1912, paper prints were submitted by studios wishing to register their works. These were made using light-sensitive paper of the same width and length as the film itself, and developed as though a still photograph. Both the Edison Company and the Biograph Company submitted entire motion pictures as paper prints, and it is in this form that most of them survive. The film has subsequently been transferred to 16 mm film in the Library of Congress collection.

shb1Obviously, due to its short running time, there is no actual development of either of the characters involved, and the film really seems to only exist for the purpose of showing early bits of camera trickery, especially the disappearance/reappearance of Holmes’ adversary. As far as the identification of the central character as Holmes, well, that basically comes from the film’s copyright title card and its marketing.

Nonetheless, the film does have a certain distinction in being the first identified film portrayal of the character and by extension, also the first detective film.

Anyway, here it is, the world’s first taste of Sherlock Holmes as a film character.

(BTW, I need to give a special shout out here to Fritzi over at Movies, Silently for initially bringing this wonderful short film to my attention. If you’re at all a fan of the silent film era you should definitely be checking out her terrific blog as she has an obvious love for the genre and is consistently posting a lot of great content there. So, thanks, Fritzi, for all you do.)